The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner

“You overloaded a few years later, and after that you were obsessively worried about me, and when I grew up you still worried because I’m a nonconformist. And I’m plain too. So what? I’m bright and I bounce. I’m a credit to any mother. Ask Nick,” she added with a mischievous grin.

Freeman glanced around. “Nick? You recovered from your prejudice against the name, then—Old Nick, Saint Nicholas and the rest?”

“As well as being the patron saint of thieves, Saint Nicholas is credited with reviving three murdered children. It’s a fair human-type compromise.”

“You’ve changed,” Freeman said soberly. “In a lot of ways. And… and the result is kind of impressive.”

“I owe much of it to you. If I hadn’t been derailed from the course I’d followed all my life—You know, that’s what’s wrong with us on the public level. We fret about how to keep going the same old way when we should be casting around for another way that’s better. Our society is hurtling in free fall toward heaven knows where, and as a result we’ve developed collective osteochalcolysis of the personality.”

“The way to go faster is to slow down,” Kate said with conviction.

Freeman’s brow furrowed. “Yes, perhaps. But how do we choose this better direction?”

“We don’t have to. It’s programed.”

“How can that possibly be true?”

Rico Posta spoke up in a strained tone. “I didn’t believe it either, not at first. Now I have to. I’ve seen the evidence.” He took an angry swig of his drink. “Hell, here I am allegedly vice-president in charge of long-term corporate planning, and I didn’t know that G2S’s social-extrapolation programs automatically mouse into a bunch of federal studies from Crediton Hill! Isn’t that crazy? It was set up by my last-but-two predecessor, that system, and he left under a cloud and omitted to advise the poker who took over. Nick got to it with no trouble, and he’s taken me on a guided tour of a section of the net I didn’t know existed.” Pointing with a shaking hand, he concluded furiously: “On that goddamn veephone right over there! I feel sick, just sick. If a veep for G2S can’t find out what’s happening under his nose, what chance do ordinary people have?”

“I wish I’d been here,” Freeman said after a pause. “What do these Crediton Hill studies indicate?”

“Oh…” Posta took a deep breath. “More or less this: the cost of staying out front—economically, in terms of prestige, and so forth—has been to invoke the counterpart of the athlete’s ‘second wind,’ which burns up muscle tissue. You can’t keep that up forever. And what we’ve been burning is people who could have been useful, talented members of society if the pressure had been less intense. As it was, they turned to crime or suicide or went insane.”

Freeman said slowly, “I remember thinking that I could easily have taken to peddling dope. But I can’t see the world the way you do, can I? I owe to the people who recruited me for Weychopee the fact that I didn’t wind up in jail or an early grave.”

“Is our society on the right lines when one of its most gifted people can find no better career than crime unless literally millions per year of public money are lavished on him?” Nick waited for an answer to that question. None came.

Around them the party was in full swing. The coley dancers had the measure of the unit. Their numbers had trebled without causing more than an occasional screech, and their chord pattern had evolved into a full AABA chorus of thirty-two bars, still in the key of the original blues though one of the more adventurous girls was trying to modulate into the minor. Unfortunately someone else was trying to impose triple time. The effect was… interesting.

Watching the dance, Freeman said helplessly, “Oh, what difference does it make whether I agree or not? I gave you your U-group codes. I knew damn well that was like handing you an H-bomb, and I went right ahead. I only wish I could believe in what you’re doing. You sound like an economist—worse, like a nihilist, planning to bring the temple pillars down around our ears.”

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