The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“Hence—Hearing Aid. Which gave us a common purpose while we reconstructed, and then simply kept on snowballing.”

“Is that what made Precipice such a success compared to the other paid-avoidance towns?” Sandy demanded. “Offering a service that other people valued instead of just accepting charity and public money?”

Sweetwater nodded. “Or at any rate one of the things that helped. Common sense in using our few resources was the other. And here’s the central.” She ushered them into a surprisingly small room, where some dozen comfortable chairs were occupied by people wearing headphones. There was another dozen vacant. The place was as hushed as a cathedral; only the faintest buzz of sound escaped the headphones. Eyes turned, heads nodded, but otherwise there was no break in the concentration.

The newcomers’ attention was instantly riveted by the expression of dismay on the face of one listener, a pretty black woman in her thirties. Sweetwater advanced on her, looking a question, but she shook her head, shut her eyes, set her teeth.

“A bad one there,” Sweetwater murmured, returning to the visitors. “But so long as she thinks she can stand it…”

“Is the job a great strain?”

“Yes.” Sweetwater’s tone was like herself: thin and long-drawn-out. “When someone vents a lifetime of hate on you and then makes sure you hear the hideous guggle as he cuts his carotid with a kitchen knife—yes, it’s a strain. Once I had to listen while a crazy woman threw spoonfuls of vitriol at her baby, tied in a feeding chair. She wanted to get back at its father. The poor kid’s screams!”

“But was there nothing you could do?” Kate blurted.

“Yes. Listen. That’s the promise that we make. We’ve always kept it. It may not make a lonely hell less hellish, but it makes it a fraction less lonely.”

They pondered that a while. Then Kate inquired, “Are these the only people on duty?”

“Oh, no. This central is for people who can’t stand their tour at home—interruptions from small children mainly. But most of us prefer to work from home. Granted, the traffic’s light right now; you should see our load come Labor Day, the end of the peak vacation season, when people who hoped against hope the summer would improve their lives realize there really will be another winter.”

“How soon do you want to call on us?” Sandy asked.

“No hurry. And it doesn’t have to be both of you. I gather Kate can’t stay.”

But it was only the following night that she said suddenly, “I think I will.”


“Stay. Or rather, go away and come back as quickly as I can. Depending on a permit to move Bagheera.”

He started. “Do you really mean it?”

“Oh, yes. You plan to stay, don’t you?”

For a while he didn’t answer. At last he said, “Were you eavesdropping?”

“No, it’s nothing I’ve heard you or anybody else say. It—well, it’s the way you’ve acted today. All of a sudden you’re confident. I can literally scent it. I think maybe you’ve found the confidence to trust people.”

His voice shook a little. “I hope I have. Because if I can’t trust them… But I think I can, and I think you’re right to say I’ve finally learned how. Bless you, Kate. It was you who taught me. Wise woman!”

“Is this a safe place? The one from which you can’t be dragged back to Tarnover?”

“They promised me it would be.”

“Who did?”

“Ted, and Suzy, and Sweetwater. And Brynhilde.”


“It was like this…” They had been invited for dinner by Josh and Lorna. Josh loved to cook; now and then he took over at Fenelli’s for the hell of it, feeding fifty people in an evening. Tonight he’d settled for ten, but when the company was sitting around in the garden afterward other people wandered up, by ones and twos, and accepted a glass of wine or a mug of beer and eventually there was a full-sized party numbering at least forty.

For a long time he stood by himself in a dark corner. Then Ted Horovitz and Suzy came toward him, intending—he gathered—to join Sweetwater, who was just arriving on her own. Catching sight of him, Ted said, “Sandy, you settling in okay?” It was a moment of decision. He took that decision. He squared his shoulders and stepped from shadow.

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