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The Jagged Orbit
By John Brunner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Brunner Fact and Fiction Ltd.
All rights reserved.
So what shape was the world in this morning? Even flatter than yesterday. In every office of the Etchmark Undertower the air was at a comfortable 65° but there was sweat on the brow of Matthew Flamen the last of the spoolpigeons. By noon, a fifteen-minute show to be compiled, processed, taped, approved, amended and slotted into the transmitters, and at this late stage nothing ready bar the two minutes and forty seconds of advertising. Item after item from the list he had set to simmer overnight was being comped out as unusable, and his contract still had nine months to run.
It was the climax of a long-recurrent nightmare. The planet had closed up like a weary clam and he, a starving starfish, lacked the strength to pry it open again. Open? Pry open?
With a convulsive effort he managed it; his eyelids parted and there was blue sky bright above the one-way armored glass of his bedroom ceiling. He was alone in the room; he was alone in the house. He was profoundly glad of that. His heart was hammering on his ribs like a lunatic demanding to be let out of Bedlam and he was gasping for breath so violently he could never have framed a coherent sentence, not even a simple good morning. Though nobody could in reason be held responsible for the content of a dream, he felt horribly and unspeakably ashamed.
Piecemeal, he grappled together the dispersed fragments of his personality until he had enough control over his limbs to get up. Superficially noted long ago, categorized as a quotable quote because it touched so directly on his line of work, a dictum by Xavier Conroy drifted out of his subconscious: "Western culture is undergoing a process of transition from guilt-oriented, with a conscience, to shame-oriented, with a morbid fear of being found out." Lately the words had been festering in his brain, like the mark of a brand applied at too low a temperature to cauterize and sterilize the site of the burn.
He looked around with bleary eyes at the luxury, the comfort, the security of his home, and found the place repulsive. He stumbled into the bathroom and swallowed a trank from the dispenser. It took effect while he was emptying his bladder and the world seemed marginally less threatening. He was able to reassure himself that so far he was managing to keep going, he was still in business, he was as yet continuing to lever the lids off countless secrets intended to stay hidden....
Nonetheless, before thinking about showering and eating and the other minutiae of civilized existence, he exorcised the ghosts of nightmare by going to the comweb and punching a direct line to his office computers. Watched by the looped-tape cut of Celia playing over and over in its niche of honor, he sat naked in a clammy rotachair and struck head after head from the hydra of his apprehension. It was local-early yet—oh-seven-ten EST—but the small and shrunken planet nowadays existed in a zone of timelessness. The items he had set to simmer while he slept had come along nicely: some cooked enough to be used today, some exuding juices with a promising smell.
Gradually confidence returned to him. It was always a better medicine than tranks to realize that he was looking into the not three- but four-dimensional world deeper than almost anyone else. He forced himself to disregard the sniggering demon of doubt which kept quoting that remark of Conroy's and pointing out that if it were true sooner or later the whole western world would be conspiring to keep their shady actions from him. Ten, eight, even six years ago all the major networks had had their respective spoolpigeons; one by one they had faded away, some for making charges that could not be proved, others merely because they lost their audience, ceased to be able to irritate, provoke, excite.
Was it because the world no longer admired an honest man as much as one who contrived to get away with dishonesty? And how honest is the man who makes a living by unmasking those who haven't completely succeeded in covering up their deceit? As though the questions had been put to him by someone else, Flamen glanced around uneasily. But all he saw move was the picture of Celia, going through its endless cycle. He turned back to the comweb screen, and selected the first and biggest of the dozen-odd items he had assigned for overnight comping.
Yes, indeed, it was true that Marcantonio Gottschalk had been snubbed by the absence of Vyacheslav Gottschalk and a number of other high-level pollies from his eightieth birthday celebration. It was hardly news that yet another power-struggle was going on within the cartel, but up till now details of who was taking whose side had been efficiently suppressed.
Dare he risk a guesstimate as to which of the conventional protestations of illness—the Gottschalks were curiously conservative in a great many ways—had actually been lies? The computers warned him not to; the cartel was far too big to tackle without really solid data. And yet his heart yearned for something big. It wasn't so much that his contract still had nine months to run, as his dream had warned, but more that it had only nine months to run, and unless he gaffed somebody really spectacular before the end of the low-audience summer season he would be, one with Nineveh and Tyre. He put a hi-pri on the story and instructed his computers, not with any real hope, to have one more go at finding out whether he could buy a key-code for the Gottschalks' information bank at Iron Mountain.
Waiting for the evaluation, he moved on to other subjects. The mere idea of attacking the Gottschalks seemed to have restored him to complete normality, and he tabbed items old and new with assurance.
Lares & Penates Inc. is almost certainly what rumor claims: a college-educated front for Conjuh Man, exploiting the blank flight from rationality with the same enthusiasm as knee ignorance of it. Mark for maximum detail and use when the reading breaks eighty in favor; so far, only seventy-two. The refugees converging on Kuala Lumpur must be being culled according to a preset plan requiring reduction of their number by at least two-thirds and not as official releases would have it by division into loyalists and subversives. Reading eighty-eight in favor, hence usable today. But worth the risk of provoking an international incident? Who in the English-speaking world could give a damn about the fate of never mind how many people with brown skins speaking an alien language?
While he was still hesitating over whether to use the item or keep it in reserve, an interruption. Sixty-plus in favor of his being able to buy a code and unlock the Gottschalks' data bank at Iron Mountain. Estimated price between one and two million. That put it out of Flamen's orbit anyway—there wasn't enough cash in the informers' fund—but instantly his professional suspicions were alerted. On all the previous occasions he'd made that inquiry the computers had immediately rung up a no sale sign. Instinct told him the right question to ask next: are they planning to get along without that particular facility?
Meanwhile, continuing: something big brewing among the X Patriots. The routine reading carried him straight back to the Gottschalks and the superficial verdict that they were once more fomenting discontent among knee extremists to ensure good sales for their latest product among frightened blanks. But there was a secondary possibility only five points lower on the scale which caused him to finger his neat brown beard and frown.
A breakthrough in the matter of Morton Lenigo? Rational judgment decreed that that was nonsensical. No immigration computer would conceivably issue Lenigo a visa after what he'd done in British cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff. Nonetheless, for a reading which had been hovering in the middle forties for three years suddenly to jump into the high sixties was certainly a danger signal. And it would be a hell of a story if it turned into a story at all! He flagged it for intensive evaluation and reverted to the Gottschalks.
Yes, said his computers, the Gottschalks may very well be planning to dispense with Iron Mountain. They've been buying data-processing equipment in quantities too large to be explained away as tracking or range-finding systems.
Logical conclusion: if they were thinking of opting out of Iron Mountain the sale of one of their access codes would be an on-the-side fund-raising venture and they'd sit back and laugh like hyenas when the gullible purchaser found how he'd been cheated.
Sometimes I hate the Gottschalks, Flamen thought, not so much for what they are as for what they think other people are. Nobody likes being treated as a myopic idiot.
After some cogitation, he instructed his computers to look for three things: the site to which the Gottschalks were having all this equipment delivered, which would itself be illuminating; notice of any recent technical breakthrough which might lead to the marketing of a brand-new product; and every single clue, no matter how tenuous, regarding the current quarrel within the cartel. Since there was absolutely no hope of anything turned up by such a blanket order being comped and usable by show-time today, he flagged the subject for overnight holding and turned back to immediately exploitable material.
Rumor-trapping, like running after butterflies with a muslin net, was one of his chief professional talents, and that he was good at it was proved by his show having survived—mutilated, one had to concede, but the loss of a leg was better than being put in a shroud for cremation. Nonetheless this patent truth did not greatly reassure him as he looked over the final selection of seven items, with three held in reserve against the risk of something being comped out at network HQ. Before making any kind of a charge against anybody his contract obliged him to let Holocosmic's own computers review the background data, and sometimes they downgraded a reading past the limit fixed by the firm which insured them against losing libel suits. Recently about one item a week had been being rejected, far too many in Flamen's view; still, there were good reasons for suppressing the urge to complain.
It was a lean harvest today. At least, though, he now knew he was going to have a show. It was safe to spend the time needed to ingest some breakfast. But the food tasted of ashes as he forced it down.CHAPTER 2
Q. WHO WAS THAT SERPENT I SAW YOU WITH LAST NIGHT? A. THAT WAS NO SERPENT, THAT WAS MY CURRENT MISTRESS WHO HAPPENS TO BE A PYTHONESS
The mechanism of the flotabed was beginning to go home. It had been bought secondhand, and in any case even though it was a meter thirty wide it hadn't been designed for use as a double. So the first thing Lyla Clay was aware of on waking was that as usual she had remained rigid in her sleep to avoid the top left corner where the support was weakest, and by lying on her right arm had cut off its circulation. From elbow to fingertip it rang like a bell with the agony of returning sensation.
Annoyed, she opened her eyes to find a man she didn't know grinning at her. His lips were writhing in complete silence, but the implications of that did not at first strike her.
She was completely naked; however, she had no reason to be ashamed of her body, which was lean, youthful and evenly tanned, and the reflex left over from her somewhat old-fashioned childhood which impelled her to reach for a nonexistent blanket—the heater circuits of the bed, at least, were still working properly—ran foul of the stiffness of cramp. Anyhow, it wasn't the first time in her twenty years that she had woken up to find herself being admired by a man whose face and name were alike unknown to her.
Then the stranger dissolved in a shower of pink and purple snowflakes, and she remembered the vuset Dan and his friend Berry had trolleyed along the corridor from the elevator yesterday with so much sweating and cursing. They hadn't had a vuset in the apt before—only an ancient non-holographic TV which offered nothing more interesting than the three surviving 2-D satellite transmissions insisted on by the PCC. Since those were beamed primarily at India, Africa and Latin America, and she and Dan spoke neither Hindi, Swahili, nor more than a smattering of Spanish, they had seldom bothered to switch on unless they were orbiting. Then, it didn't matter that the programs were chiefly concerned with latrine-digging, fish-traps and the recognition of epidemic disease symptoms—in fact, as Dan had once pointed out, if they'd had a plot of land to dig latrines in, the information might have come in useful next time the toilets were blocked.
She looked around for Dan and found him on the other side of the bed. Rozar in hand, he was feeling for a spot on the wall where the magnetized leech on the end of the flex could pick up some power, rather like a mainliner hunting for a usable patch of skin. He located a section where the induction wire was still uncorroded, the rozar hummed into life, and he set about making good the defects in his beard. He was cursed with large round bald patches on both cheeks.
A couple of heartbeats later the vuset miraculously reverted to proper synchronization. Beaming and gesticulating, the man in the screen resumed his unheard diatribe.
Lyla sat up and cradled her stinging arm across her bosom, rubbing it with the tips of her opposite fingers. "Why don't you make a mark on the wall there so you don't have to feel around for it next time?" she said, not looking at Dan but allowing her eyes to rove distractedly over the contents of the room. In the Benares brassware tray before the Lar's shrine there was a sludgy pile of pseudorganics; clearly someone had remembered just in time to dump in it the books whose expiry date was approaching, and since she didn't recollect doing so it must have been Dan. There was a thread of dried red wine running down the wall from the corner of the table, which had been folded back without being wiped. The shelf which held their genuine twentieth-century seven-branched candlestick was covered in powdery ashes, because she had insisted on burning seven different types of agarbati in it all at once—her nose wrinkled at the memory.
In short, the place was a mess.
Dan paused in his task of applying, strand by strand, synthetic hair to the adhesive he had smeared on his cheeks. "You finally woke up, hm? I was just about to start shaking you. Don't you know what the time is?" He gestured towards his new acquisition, the vuset, as though it were a clock.
Lyla stared at him blankly.
"Don't you recognize Matthew Flamen? Hell, how many spoolpigeons are there left on three-vee? That's his noon slot, and it's better than halfway through. Listen!" He raised one bare leg and jabbed it towards the sound control on the low-built cabinet from which the centimeter-thick holographic screen jutted up like a sail from the hull of a yacht. Misjudging his balance, he sat down plump on the corner of the bed. The sudden load was too much for the worn mechanism, and Lyla found herself deposited on the baseboard to the accompaniment of a whine of escaping gas.
Flamen's ingratiating voice said, "In this world which is so often terrifying, aren't you envious of the security people feel when they've installed Guardian traps at their doors and windows? You can't buy better, and you'd be a fool to buy anything less good."
He vanished. A tall scowling kneeblank marched forward in his place, and before Lyla had had time to react—she was still not awake enough to have convinced herself that the three-dimensional full-color image was going to stay buried in the screen—spiked metal bands had clamped on him at neck-, waist- and knee-height. Blood began to ooze from the points where the cruel metal prongs had sunk in. He looked briefly bewildered, then slumped unconscious.
"Guardian!" sang an eldritch castrato voice. "Guardeeann!"
"I guess maybe we ought to invest in some of those," Dan said.
"What in the world do you think we're going to have left that's worth stealing if you go on like this?" Lyla demanded crossly. "Don't you realize you just broke the bed?" Jumping to her feet, she hit the off switch of the vuset Nothing happened.
"Forgot to tell you," Dan muttered. "The off switch doesn't work. That's why Berry gave it to us."
Excerpted from The Jagged Orbit by John Brunner. Copyright © 1969 Brunner Fact and Fiction Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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