Additionally, the newcomers were immediately involved. Pausing to chat to a big husky man repairing an electrical connector, they were casually requested to help him lever the covering flagstone back into place; on being introduced to one Eustace Fenelli, who ran a popular bar and restaurant, they found themselves carrying a vast pot of minestrone out of the delectably aromatic kitchen—”since you happen to be going that way!” Strolling toward the main square with Lorna Treves, and passing a house from which a white-faced man emerged at a run, overjoyed to find Lorna because—as he said—he’d just called and heard she wasn’t home, they wound up standing by with sterile dressings and a bowlful of blood while she delicately removed a huge splinter of glass from the leg of a screaming child.
“I never found this before,” Kate whispered later. “This sense that everybody is ready to help everybody else. I’d heard it was possible. But I thought it was obsolete.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “On top of that, there’s a sense that being helped doesn’t demean you. That’s what I like most.”
aturally, among the first places they asked to visit was the actual headquarters of Hearing Aid. With a warning that they might not find it particularly impressive, Brad Compton introduced them to the director, Sweetwater. Just Sweetwater. She was a tall, gaunt woman in her sixties, with long-faded traces on her face and arms of what, she commented, had once been elaborate medicine tattoos. She had believed herself to be a reincarnation of a great Shawnee chief, in touch with the spirit of the beyond, and had operated a clairvoyance and prediction business in Oakland.
“But”—with a wry smile—”not one of my spirits warned me about the quake. I had a son, and… Oh, it’s ancient history. But before I became a medium I’d been a switchboard operator, so I was one of the first people to volunteer to help with what developed into Hearing Aid. You know how it all started? No? Oh! Well, at all the places where the refugees were forced to settle, most of which were a lot less attractive than our own site—though you should have seen it the day we were stopped at gunpoint by the National Guard and told thus far, no further… Where was I? Oh, yes: of course everybody, once they’d calmed down, wanted to tell their friends and relatives they’d survived. So the Army spliced in some manual sound-only field telephone trucks, and people were allowed one call apiece not to last more than five minutes, or one other try if the first number didn’t answer. I saw people go right back to the end of the line time after time, because their second call had failed and they weren’t allowed a third immediately.” As she talked, she was leading Kate and Sandy away from the library—characteristically, the largest single building in Precipice—down a narrow alley they had not traversed.
“It was a terrible time,” Sweetwater went on. “But I’m not sorry to have lived through it… Then, of course, as soon as it was known that there was a phone service, people started jamming every circuit in and into California because they hadn’t heard from their friends or kinfolk, and kept at it all night and all day regardless of how many pleas were made over the TV to get off the phone so they wouldn’t hold up the rescue work. They had to cut some cities out of circuit altogether, I remember. Just withdraw the phone service completely.” She shook her head sorrowfully.
“In the end they had to rig facilities for incoming calls because people who got an answer instead of a circuit-overload signal tended not to come back and bother you until tomorrow. Like I say, I volunteered to run a board handling incoming traffic. At first I was kind of sharp with people. You know—brisk, brusque, whatever the hell. ‘You will be notified if your son/daughter/mother/father has survived but you’re holding up essential rescue work and how’d you like it if someone dear to you were dying right now because you’re using this circuit?’
“And then I made this peculiar discovery. A lot of the calls were from people not trying to trace friends and relatives at all. Just—I don’t know—wanting contact with the disaster, I guess. As though their last consolation was to know that other people were even worse off. So sometimes, especially at night, I let them talk. They were pretty good about it—just a few minutes’ catharsis and that was that. Round about this time the people from Claes came in, and they found the same thing among the refugees. People simply needing to talk. Not just the older folk, who’d lost fine homes and prized possessions, but the youngsters. They were worse. I recall one kid—well, nineteen, twenty, she must have been—who ought to have become a famous sculptor. She was so good, they’d fixed her a one-man show at a San Francisco gallery. And she had to cling to a tree and watch as the earth gobbled up everything she’d got ready, plus her home, her studio, the lot. She never carved another thing; she went insane. And there were others… They didn’t want counseling, they just wanted to tell people what their lives used to be like. The plans they had for an extension to the house; the way they meant to lay out the garden, only the house headed north and the garden went south; the trip around the world they were going to take next year—lives charted on a course the quake destroyed.” Pausing now before an unremarkable door, she glanced at them.