The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

MOVING DAY, OVERCAST AND HOT Must MUST learn to control my temper even in face of an insult to humanity like—What the hell?

He emerged with a gasp from coma-like sleep. Last night he had lain awake for hours with Fluckner’s threat reverberating in memory, and ultimately resorted to a pill. It took a long time for an all-important fact to penetrate his muzzy mind.

The hum of the air compressor had stopped.

Rolling over, he checked the self-powered illuminated clock at the head of his bed. It showed 7:45 A.M. But the windows of his trailer were solidly dark, although by now the sun must be high in the sky, the forecast had been for more fine weather, and when it was stretched taut the plastic membrane of his roof was quite translucent.

Therefore the power had been cut off and the dome had collapsed. All twenty-two and a half tons of it.

Naked, feeling terribly vulnerable, he swung his feet out of bed and fumbled for the switch of the nearest lamp to confirm his deduction. The darkness was oppressive; worse, the air had grown foul already—no doubt from the deposit of dirt, grease and fetid moisture which while the dome was distended had formed an unnoticeable film but now had been condensed into a layer like the muck lining a sewer pipe.

The light duly failed to shine.

A strike? Hardly likely; those key workers who still had the leverage to close down the nation’s automated power system always waited for frost and snow before striking. An overload blackout? Scarcely more probable. There hadn’t been a summer overload since 1990. People had seemingly been cured of regarding power as free like air.

Admittedly, a whole new generation had grown up since 1990… including himself.

A reactor meltdown?

After last year’s triple-header of disasters, the Delphi boards currently showed much money riding on a lapse of two full years before the next such. Nonetheless he grabbed his one and only battery radio. By law an all-news monophonic station was still required to broadcast in each conurbation of a million or more people, so that the public could be warned of riots, tribal matches and disasters. The cells were low on power, but by placing the set close to his ear he determined that the duty newscaster was talking about record bets on today’s football fatalities. If there had been a meltdown, radiation warnings would have been pouring out nonstop.

So what in the world… ? Oh. Fluckner?

He felt a shiver crawl down his spine, and realized that he was gazing hungrily at the little blurred glow from his clock, as though this darkness were symbolic of the womb (echoes of Gaila and those like her, condemned to grow up not as human beings but as mules, offspring of a bastard mating between Freudian psychoanalysis and behaviorism), and that mysterious glimmer presaged his emergence into a strange new world.

Which, as he admitted to himself with a pang of disappointment, it obviously did.

At least, even though the air stank, it wasn’t overfull of CO2; he had no headache, just a hint of nausea. Somewhat reassured, he felt his way into the living zone, where against emergencies he kept a big battery lamp. Its cells were still powerful, being automatically recharged from the main supply. But when he clicked it on its yellowish gleam made everything around him menacing and unfamiliar. As he moved it, shadows scuttered on the polished metal walls, mimics of those that last night he had imagined offering cover to teeners bent on the work of Baron Samedi, Saint Nicholas or even Kali.

He splashed his face with what should have been ice water from the middle faucet over his washbasin. It didn’t help. The power had been off so long, the tank was tepid. Unrefreshed, he opened the trailer door and looked out. Under the graceful curve formed by the plastic as it slumped over the altar a distant glimmer of light suggested he might be able to escape unaided.

But it would be preferable to get his power back.

In his office the smelter was cold and the copper ingot lay ready for removal.

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Categories: John Brunner