The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“I did something I probably last did when I was ten. I hit somebody.”

“Predictably, it was Kate.”

“Yes, of course. And…” He started to laugh, incongruously because tears were still bright on his cheeks. “And I found myself a second later sprawling in the dirt, with Brynhilde’s paw on my chest and that great-toothed jaw looming close and she was shaking her head and—I swear—going ‘tsk-tsk, naughty boy!’ I could wish she had been a trifle quicker. Because I’ve never seen Kate since.” The laughter failed. Misery overspread his face.

“Ah. Losing the house, then, affected you so deeply because it symbolized your relationship with Kate.”

“You don’t understand a fraction of the truth. Not a millionth of it. The whole scene, the whole framework, was composed of loss. Not just the house, even though it was the first place I’d been to where I felt I could grasp all the overtones of the word ‘home’—not just Kate, even though with her I’d also started to comprehend for the first time what one can imply by the word ‘love.’ No, there was more on top of that, something far closer to me. Loss of the control which had enabled me to change identities at will. That blew away on the wind the moment I realized I’d struck the last person in the world I could want to hurt.”

“Are you certain she would have kept that casual promise about returning from KC? Obtaining a permit to transport her pet mountain lion would have been incredibly difficult. What grounds did you have for believing that she was sincere?”

“Among other things, the fact that she had kept a promise made to that mountain lion. She’s not the sort to forget any promise. And by then I’d figured out why else she’d kept on enrolling for course after unrelated course at the same university. Basically it was to provide her with a sense of pattern. She wanted her world-picture to include a little of everything, viewed from the same spot with the same perspective. She’d have been prepared to continue for another decade if necessary.”

“But she met you, and living with you was an education in itself. I see. Well, I can accept the idea. Ten years at Tarnover, at three million per, should indeed have equipped you with data you could pass on.”

“I suspect your sense of humor is limited to irony. Do you ever laugh at a joke?”

“Seldom. I’ve heard virtually all of them before.”

“No doubt among the components of human personality you’re trying to analyze humor is on the list right next to grief.”

“Directly afterward. H follows G.” There was a pause.

“You know, this is the first time I’ve not been sure whether you’re bleating me.”

“Work it out for yourself.” Freeman rose and stretched. “It will occupy your mind until our next session.”

STRIKE ONE After hitting Kate…

That his world had been repainted in shades of bitterness was no defense. Some of these his new neighbors—his new friends—were old enough to have seen not one house but a whole city fall in nun.

Anyhow, what apology could he offer in a context where even dogs could distinguish force from violence? The tribers who thought it amusing to lob mortar shells at random into a peaceful community had been rounded up. Some were tooth-marked. But the bites had been precisely controlled. That arm had wielded a gun or knife; therefore those fingers had been obliged to open and let the weapon fall. That pair of legs had tried to carry the owner away; therefore that ankle had been nipped just hard enough to make him stumble. All for good reason.

His reason for hitting Kate was not good. They told him why, in quiet patient tones. Deaf to their arguments, he hurled back false justification mixed with insult, until at last they glanced at one another, shrugged and left him.

It was not cold, that night he spent sitting on a stump and staring at the shell of the house. But in his heart there was an arctic chill of such indescribable shame as he had not felt since he became an adult. In the end he simply walked away, not caring where.

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