The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

In a low voice he said to Kate, “I’d like to know who designed these farms. This isn’t junk cobbled together by refugees in panic. This is the sort of landscaping a misanthropic millionaire might crave but not afford! Seen anything as good anywhere else?”

She shook her head. “Not even at Protempore, much as I liked it. I guess maybe what the refugees originally botched up didn’t last. When it fell to bits they were calm enough to get it right on the second try.”

“But this is more than just right. This is magnificent. The town itself can’t possibly live up to the same standard. Are we in sight of it yet, by the way?”

Kate craned to look past the driver. Noticing, a middle-aged woman in blue seated on the opposite side of the car inquired, “You haven’t been to Precipice before?”

“Ah… No, we haven’t.”

“Thought I didn’t recognize you. Planning to stay, or just passing through?”

“Can people stay? I thought you had a population limit.”

“Oh, sure, but we’re two hundred under at the moment. And in spite of anything you may have heard”—a broad grin accompanied the remark—”we like to have company drop in. Tolerable company, that is. My name’s Polly, by the way.”

“I’m Kate, and—” Swiftly inserted: “I’m Alexander—Sandy! Say, I was just wondering who laid out these farms. I never saw buildings that fit so beautifully into a landscape.”

“Ah! Matter of fact, I was about to tell you, go see the man who does almost all our building. That’s Ted Horovitz. He’s the sheriff, too. You get off at Mean Free Path and walk south until you hit Root Mean Square and then just ask for Ted. If he’s not around, talk to the mayor—that’s Suzy Dellinger. Got that? Fine. Well, nice to have met you, hope to see you around, this is where I get off.” She headed for the door.

Involuntarily Kate said, “Mean Free Path? Root Mean Square? Is that some kind of joke?” There were four other passengers at this stage of the journey. All of them chuckled. The driver said over his shoulder, “Sure, the place is littered with jokes. Didn’t you know?”

“Kind of rarefied jokes, aren’t they?”

“I guess maybe. But they’re a monument to how Precipice got started. Of all the people who got drove south by the Bay Quake, the ones who came here were the luckiest. Ever hear mention of Claes College?” Kate exploded just as he began to say he hadn’t.

“You mean this was ‘Disasterville U.S.A.’?” She was half out of her seat with excitement, peering eagerly along the curved track toward the town that was now coming into view. Even at first glance, it promised that indeed it did maintain the standard set by the outlying farms; at any rate, there was none of the halfhearted disorganization found at the edge of so many modern communities, but a real sense of border: here, rural; there, urban. No, not after all a sharp division. A—a—An ancient phrase came to mind: dissolving view.

But there was no chance to sort out his confused initial impressions; Kate was saying urgently, “Sandy, you must have heard of Claes, surely… ? No? Oh, that’s terrible!” She dropped back into her seat and gave him a rapid-fire lecture.

“Claes College was founded about 1981 to revive the medieval sense of the name, a community of scholars sharing knowledge regardless of arbitrary boundaries between disciplines. It didn’t last; it faded away after only a few years. But the people involved left one important memorial. When the Bay Quake let go, they dropped everything and moved en masse to help with relief work, and someone hit on the idea of undertaking a study of the social forces at work in the post-catastrophe period so that if it ever happened again the worst tragedies could be avoided. The result was a series of monographs under the title ‘Disasterville U.S.A.’ I’m amazed you never heard of it.” She rounded on the driver. “Practically nobody has heard of it! I must have mentioned it a hundred times and always drawn a blank. But it’s not only important—it’s unique.”

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