The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“Ah. You route a credit allotment—to avoid either tax or recriminations—into and out of a section of the net where nobody can follow it without special permission.”

“That’s it. When income-tax time rolls around, you always hear people mentioning it with an envious chuckle, because it’s part of modern folklore. That’s how politicians and hypercorp execs get away with a tenth of the tax you and I cough up. Well, this shivver I was listening to had vaulted half a million. And he was beside himself with horror. Not terror—he knew he couldn’t be caught—but horror. He said it was his first-ever lapse from rectitude, and if his wife hadn’t left him for a richer man he’d never have been tempted. Once having done it and found how easy it was, though… how could he ever trust anyone again?”

“But he was trusting Hearing Aid, wasn’t he?”

“Yes, and that’s one of the miracles performed by the service. While I was a minister I was resigned to having the croakers monitor the link to my confessional, even though what was said face-to-face in the actual booth was adequately private. And there was nothing to stop them noticing that a suspect had called on me, ambushing him as he left, and beating a repeat performance out of him. That type of dishonesty is at the root of our worst problem.”

“I didn’t know you acknowledged a ‘worst’—you seem to find new problems daily. But go on.”

“With pleasure. I’m sure that if I start to foam at the mouth there’s a machine standing by to wipe my chin… Oh, hell! It’s hypocritical hair-splitting that makes me boil! Theoretically any one of us has access to more information than ever in history, and any phone booth is a gate to it. But suppose you live next door to a poker who’s suddenly elected to the state congress, and six weeks later he’s had a hundred-thousand-dollar face-lift for his house. Try to find out how he came by the money; you get nowhere. Or try confirming that the company you work for is going to be sold and you’re apt to be tossed on the street with no job, three kids and a mortgage. Other people seem to have the information. What about the shivver in the next office who’s suddenly laughing when he used to mope? Has he borrowed to buy the firm’s stock, knowing he can sell for double and retire?”

“Are you quoting calls to Hearing Aid?”

“Yes, both are actual cases. I bend the rules because I know that if I don’t you’ll break me.”

“Are you claiming those are typical?”

“Sure they are. Out of all the calls taken, nearly half—I think they say forty-five percent—are from people who are afraid someone else knows data that they don’t and is gaining an unfair advantage by it. For all the claims one hears about the liberating impact of the data-net, the truth is that it’s wished on most of us a brand-new reason for paranoia.”

“Considering how short a time you spent at Precipice, your identification with it is amazing.”

“Not at all. It’s a phenomenon known as ‘falling in love’ and it happens with places as well as people.”

“Then your first lover’s tiff happened rather quickly, too.”

“Needle, needle! Jab away. I’d done something to make amends in advance. A small but genuine consolation, that-”

Freeman tensed. “So you were the one responsible!”

“For frustrating the latest official assault on Hearing Aid? Yes indeed. I’m proud of it. Apart from marking the first occasion when I used my talent on behalf of other people without being asked and without caring whether I was rewarded—which was a major breakthrough in itself—the job was a pure masterpiece. Working on it, I realized in my guts how an artist or an author can get high on the creative act. The poker who wrote Precipice’s original tapeworm was pretty good, but you could theoretically have killed it without shutting down the net—that is, at the cost of losing thirty or forty billion bits of data. Which I gather they were just about prepared to do when I showed up. But mine… Ho, no! That, I cross my heart, cannot be killed without dismantling the net.”

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