CLIFFHANGER They had to continue in a paid-avoidance zone. So, to supplement recollection, they bought a four-year-old tourist guide alleged to contain full details of all the post-quake settlements. Most rated four or even six pages of text, plus as many color pictures. Precipice was dismissed in half a page. On the fold-out map included with the booklet only one road—and that a poor one—was shown passing through it, from Quemadura in the south to Protempore thirty miles northwest, plus tracks for an electric railcar service whose schedule was described as irregular. The towns were graded according to what modern facilities could be found there; Precipice came bottom of the list. Among the things Precipicians didn’t like might be cited the data-net, veephones, surface vehicles not running on tracks, heavier-than-air craft (though they tolerated helium and hot-air dirigibles), modern merchandising methods and the federal government. This last could be deduced from the datum that they had compounded to pay a flat-rate tax per year instead of income tax, though the sum appeared absurdly high considering there was no industry bar handicrafts (not available to wholesalers).
“It sounds like some sort of Amish setup,” Kate commented, frowning over the brief entry in the guide.
“No, it can’t be. They won’t allow churches or other religious buildings.” He was gazing into nowhere, focusing on facts casually encountered long ago. “I borrowed some ideas from the paid-avoidance zones while I was a Utopia designer. I needed to figure a way of editing dogmatic religion into a community without the risk of breeding intolerance. I checked out several of these towns, and I distinctly remember ignoring Precipice because in any case I couldn’t spare the time to dig right down deep for more data. Almost nothing about the place, bar its location, was in store. Oh, yes: and a population limit of three thousand.”
“Huh? A legally imposed limit, you mean?” On his nod: “Imposed by whom—the citizens or the state government?”
“Compulsory birth control?”
“I don’t know. I told you: when I found how little I could ‘fish from the banks, I didn’t bother to pursue the matter.”
“Do they ride visitors out again on a rail?”
He gave a half-smile. “No, that’s one other fact I remember. It’s an open community, administered by some sort of town meeting, I think, and you may indeed go there to look it over or even to stay indefinitely. They just don’t care for advertising, and apparently they regard noising their existence abroad as the same thing in principle.”
“We go there, then,” Kate said decisively, slapping shut the booklet.
“My choice would be the opposite. To be trapped in a backwater… But tell me why.”
“Precisely because there’s so little information in the banks. It’s beyond belief that the government won’t have tried—probably tried extremely hard—to tie Precipice into the net at least to the same extent as Protempore and Lap-of-the-Gods. If the citizens are dogged enough to stand out against such pressure, they might sympathize with your plight the way I do.”
Appalled, he blurted out, “You mean you want me to march in and announce it?”
“Will you stop that?” Kate stamped her foot, eyes flashing. “Grow out of your megalomania, for pity’s sake! Quit thinking in terms of ‘Sandy Locke versus the world’ and start believing that there are other people dissatisfied with the state of things, anxious to set it right. You know”—a level, caustic glare—”I’m beginning to think you’ve never sought help from others for fear you might wind up being the one who does the helping. You always like to be in charge, don’t you? Particularly of yourself!”
He drew a deep breath and let it out very slowly, forcing his embryonic annoyance to go with it. He said at length, “I knew what they offered me under the guise of ‘wisdom’ at Tarnover wasn’t the genuine article. It was so totally wrong it’s taken me until now to realize I finally ran across it. Kate, you’re a wise person. The first one I ever met.”
“Don’t encourage me to think so. If I ever come to believe it, I shall fall flat on my face.”
OUBLIETTE By about then the lean black man from Tarnover was through with Ina Grierson and let her go home, stumbling with weariness. Before she fell asleep, however, she had to know one thing that Freeman had declined to tell her: What the hell was so earthmoving about Sandy Locke?
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