The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

The newcomer was good. He obtained a margin of twenty on the first triangulation and concentrated on preserving it. He did so for another six turns, growing more and more smug. But on the fifteenth turn his smugness vanished. He had tried another triangulation, and when the concealed points were entered there was nothing valid, and he had to post his own concealed list, and on the next turn found himself cut out of an entire corner worth ninety points. His face turned sour and he scowled at the score machine as though suspecting it of lying. Then he gathered his resources in an effort to regain the lost lead.

He failed. The game went to its bitter end and left him fourteen down. Whereupon he thrust his way through the bystanders—by now a couple of dozen strong—and stormed off, slamming fist into palm in impotent fury.

“I’ll be damned,” said the elderly man. “Well, well! Look—uh—Sandy, I didn’t make too good a showing against you, but believe it or not I’m the area secretary of the Fencing Association, and if you can use a light-pen and screen as well as you use a manual board… !” Beaming, he made an all-embracing gesture. “I take it you have club qualifications where you come from? If you intend to shift your residential commitment to Lap-of-the-Gods, I can predict who’ll win the winter championships. You and Morris together would make an unstoppable—”

“You mean that was Morris Fagin?” All around the group of onlookers there were puzzled reactions: this poker claims he didn’t know?

“Sandy,” Kate murmured in the nick of time, “it’s getting late. Even later for us than it is for these nice people.”

“I—uh… Yes, you’re right. Excuse us, friends; we came a long way today.” He rose, collecting the grimy unfamiliar bills which had accumulated on the corner of the table. It had been years since he handled this much of the generalized scrip known as paper money; at the church in Toledo it had been collected and counted automatically. For most people cash payments stopped at the number of dollar coins you would drop in a pocket without noticing their weight.

“I’m flattered,” he said to the elderly man. “But you’ll have to let me think about it. We may be only passing through. We have no plans to settle here.” He seized Kate’s arm and hurried her away, terribly aware of the sensation he had caused. He could hear his feat being recounted already along the mouth-to-mouth circuit.

As they were undressing he said miserably, “I sabotaged that one, didn’t I?” Admitting the blunder was novel to him. The experience was just as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be. But in memory echoed Kate’s description of the graduates from Tarnover: convinced they were incapable of error.

That’s not human. That’s mechanical. It’s machines whose view of the world is so circumscribed they go right on doing the only thing they can although it’s wrong.

“I’m afraid so.” Her tone was matter-of-fact, devoid of criticism. “Not that you could help it. But to be spotted by an area secretary of the Fencing Association and then to beat the incumbent West Coast champion—yes, that is apt to provoke comment. I’m sorry; I didn’t realize you hadn’t recognized Fagin.”

“You knew who he was?” In the middle of shedding his pants he stood ridiculous, one leg in and the other out. “So why the hell didn’t you warn me?”

“Do me a favor? Before you pick your first quarrel with me, get a little better acquainted. Then you can do it with justification.” He had been on the verge of anger. The inclination vanished. He completed undressing, as did she, and then took her in his arms.

“I like you very much as a person,” he said, and bestowed a grave kiss on her forehead. “I think I’m going to like you just as much as a woman.”

“I hope so,” she answered with equal formality. “We may have to go a lot of places together.” He drew back to full stretch, hands on her shoulders.

“Where next? What next?” As rare in his life as admitting mistakes was asking for advice. It too was disturbing. But it would have to become a habit if he was to stay afloat.

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