The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“How long are you going to wait before becoming famous?”

“Hmm! You are a perceptive shivver, aren’t you? But a fair question rates a fair answer. We expect half a century will be enough.”

“Are we going to survive that long?”

Horovitz shook his head heavily. “We don’t know. Does anybody?” The door swung wide. Natty Bumppo returned, giving Horovitz a nudge with his muzzle as he passed. Behind him came a tall stately black woman in a gaudy shirt and tight pants, arm in arm with a fat white man—heavily tanned—in shorts and sandals like the railcar driver.

Horovitz introduced them as Suzy Dellinger, the mayor, and Brad Compton; they were this year’s councilmen for the town. He gave a condensed but accurate version of his conversation with Kate and Sandy. The new arrivals listened intently. Having heard him out, Brad Compton made an extraordinary comment.

“Does Nat approve?”

“Seems to,” grunted Horovitz.

“Then I guess we found new tenants for the Thorgrim place. Suzy?” Glancing at the mayor.

“Sure, why not?” She turned to Kate and Sandy. “Welcome to Precipice! Now, from here you go back to the square, take the second alley on your right, and you’re on Drunkard’s Walk. Follow it to the intersection with Great Circle Course. The house on the near left of that corner is yours for as long as you care to stay.”

There was a moment of blank incredulity. Then Kate exclaimed, “Hold it! You’re going far too fast! I don’t know for certain what Sandy’s plans are, but I have to get back to KC in a few days’ time. You seem to have decided I’m a permanent settler.”

Sandy chimed in. “What’s more, on the basis of a dog’s opinion! Even if he is modded, I don’t see how—”

“Modded?” Horovitz broke in. “No, Nat’s not modified. I guess his however-many-great grandfather must have been tinkered with a bit, but he’s just the way he grew up. Best of his litter, admittedly.”

“You mean there are a lot of dogs like him around Precipice?” Kate demanded.

“A couple of hundred by now,” Mayor Dellinger replied. “Descendants of a pack that wandered into town in the summer of 2003. There was a young stud, and two fertile bitches each with four pups, and an old sterile bitch was leading them. She’d been neutered. Doc Squibbs—he’s our veterinarian—he’s always maintained they must have escaped from some research station and gone looking for a place where they’d be better treated. Which was here. They’re great with kids, they can almost literally talk, and if only they lived to a ripe old age there’d be nothing wrong with them at all. Trouble is, they last seven or eight years at most, and that’s not fair, is it, Nat?” She reached out to scratch Natty Bumppo behind the ears, and he gave one absent thump with his thick tail.

“But we got friends working on that, and we do our best to breed them for longevity.”

Another pause. Eventually Sandy said with determination, “Okay, so your dogs can work miracles. But handing us a house, without even asking what we intend to do while we’re here—” Brad Compton gave a hoot of laughter. He broke off in confusion.

“Forgive Brad,” Horovitz said. “But I thought we’d been over that. Did you miss my point? I told you, we offer a hundred times as many services as a medieval town the same size. You don’t just arrive, squat a house, and live on your federal avoidance grant forever and a day, amen. Now and then people try it. They become unhappy and disillusioned and drift away.”

“Well, sure. I mean, I realize you must have all kinds of work to offer us, but that’s not what I’m driving at. I want to know what the hell supports this community.”

The three Precipicians smiled at one another. Mayor Dellinger said, “Shall I tell them?”

“Sure, it’s a job for the mayor,” Compton answered.

“Okay.” She turned to face Kate and Sandy. “We run an operation with no capital, no shareholders and scarcely any plant. Yet we receive a donated income fifteen times as large as our collective avoidance grants.”

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