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Null-ABC

Null-ABC
Title: Null-ABC
Release Date: 2006-05-08
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 25 March 2019
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Transcriber's note:
This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction, February and March, 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.

NULL-ABC

 

 

BY H. BEAM PIPER AND JOHN J. McGUIRE

 

There's some reaction these days that
holds scientists responsible for war. Take it one step further:
What happens if "book-learnin'" is held responsible ...?

 

Illustrated by van Dongen

 


Chester Pelton retracted his paunch as far as the breakfast seat wouldpermit; the table, its advent preceded by a collection ofmouth-watering aromas, slid noiselessly out of the pantry and clickedinto place in front of him.

"Everything all right, Miss Claire?" a voice floated out after it frombeyond. "Anything else you want?"

"Everything's just fine, Mrs. Harris," Claire replied. "I suppose Mr.Pelton'll want seconds, and Ray'll probably want thirds and fourths ofeverything." She waved a hand over the photocell that closed thepantry door, and slid into place across from her brother, who alreadyhad a glass of fruit juice in one hand and was lifting platter coverswith the other.

"Real eggs!" the boy was announcing. "Bacon. Wheat-bread toast." Helooked again. "Hey, Sis, is this real cow-made butter?"

"Yes. Now go ahead and eat."

As though Ray needed encouragement, Chester Pelton thought, watchinghis son use a spoon—the biggest one available—to dump gobs of honeyon his toast. While he was helping himself to bacon and eggs, he couldhear Ray's full-mouthed exclamation: "This is real bee-comb honey,too!" That pleased him. The boy was a true Pelton; only needed onebite to distinguish between real and synthetic food.

"Bet this breakfast didn't cost a dollar under five C," Ray continued,a little more audibly, between bites.

That was another Pelton trait; even at fifteen, the boy was learningthe value of money. Claire seemed to disapprove, however.

"Oh, Ray; try not to always think of what things cost," she reproved.

"If I had all she spends on natural food, I could have a this-season'smodel 'copter-bike, like Jimmy Hartnett," Ray continued.

Pelton frowned. "I don't want you running around with that boy, Ray,"he said, his mouth full of bacon and eggs. Under his daughter's lookof disapproval, he swallowed hastily, then continued: "He's not thesort of company I want my son keeping."

"But, Senator," Ray protested. "He lives next door to us. Why, we cansee Hartnett's aerial from the top of our landing stage!"

"That doesn't matter," he said, in a tone meant to indicate that thesubject was not to be debated. "He's a Literate!"

"More eggs, Senator?" Claire asked, extending the platter andgesturing with the serving knife.

He chuckled inwardly. Claire always knew what to do when his temperstarted climbing to critical mass. He allowed her to load his plateagain.

"And speaking of our landing stage, have you been up there, thismorning, Ray?" he asked.

They both looked at him inquiringly.

"Delivered last evening, while you two were out," he explained. "Newwinter model Rolls-Cadipac." He felt a glow of paternal pleasure asClaire gave a yelp of delight and aimed a glancing kiss at the top ofhis bald head. Ray dropped his fork, slid from his seat, and boltedfor the lift, even bacon, eggs, and real bee-comb honey forgotten.

With elaborate absent-mindedness, Chester Pelton reached for theswitch to turn on the video screen over the pantry door.

"Oh-oh! Oh-oh!" Claire's slender hand went out to stop his own. "Nottill coffee and cigarettes, Senator."

"It's almost oh-eight-fifteen; I want the newscast."

"Can't you just relax for a while? Honestly, Senator, you're killingyourself."

"Oh, rubbish! I've been working a little hard, but—"

"You've been working too hard. And today, with the sale at the store,and the last day of the campaign—"

"Why the devil did that idiot of a Latterman have the sale advertisedfor today, anyhow?" he fumed. "Doesn't he know I'm running for theSenate?"

"I doubt it," Claire said. "He may have heard of it, the way you'veheard about an election in Pakistan or Abyssinia, or he just may notknow there is such a thing as politics. I think he does know there's aworld outside the store, but he doesn't care much what goes on in it."She pushed her plate aside, poured a cup of coffee, and levered acigarette from the Readilit, puffing at it with the relish of themorning's first smoke. "All he knows is that we're holding our salethree days ahead of Macy & Gimbel's."

"Russ is a good businessman," Pelton said seriously. "I wish you'dtake a little more interest in him, Claire."

"If you mean what I think you do, no thanks," Claire replied. "Isuppose I'll get married, some day—most girls do—but it'll be tosomebody who can hang his business up at the office before he comeshome. Russ Latterman is so married to the store that if he married metoo, it'd be bigamy. Ready for your coffee?" Without waiting for ananswer, she filled his cup and ejected a lighted cigarette from thebox for him, then snapped on the video screen.

It lit at once, and a nondescriptly handsome young man was grinningtoothily out of it. He wore a white smock, halfway to his knees, and,over it, an old-fashioned Sam Browne belt which supported a bulkyleather-covered tablet and a large stylus. On the strap which crossedhis breast five or six little metal badges twinkled.

"... Why no other beer can compare with delicious, tangy, Cardon'sBlack Bottle. Won't you try it?" he pleaded. "Then you will see foryourself why millions of happy drinkers always Call For Cardon's. Andnow, that other favorite of millions, Literate First Class Elliot C.Mongery."

Pelton muttered: "Why Frank sponsors that blabbermouth of a Mongery—"

Ray, sliding back onto the bench, returned to his food.

"Jimmy's book had pictures," he complained, forking up another mixtureof eggs, bacon, toast and honey.

"Book?" Claire echoed. "Oh, the instructions for the 'copter?"

"Pipe down, both of you!" Pelton commanded. "The newscast—"

Literate First Class Elliot C. Mongery, revealed by a quick leftquarter-turn of the pickup camera, wore the same starchy white smock,the same Sam Browne belt glittering with the badges of theorganizations and corporations for whom he was authorized to practiceLiteracy. The tablet on his belt, Pelton knew, was really acamouflaged holster for a small automatic, and the gold stylus was agas-projector. The black-leather-jacketed bodyguards, of course, werediscreetly out of range of the camera. Members of the AssociatedFraternities of Literates weren't exactly loved by the non-readingpublic they claimed to serve. The sight of one of those starchy,perpetually-spotless, white smocks always affected Pelton like a redcape to a bull. He snorted in disdain. The raised eyebrow toward theannouncer on the left, the quick, perennially boyish smile, followedby the levelly serious gaze into the camera—the whole act might havebeen a film-transcription of Mongery's first appearance on the video,fifteen years ago. At least, it was off the same ear of corn.

"That big hunk of cheese," Ray commented. For once, Pelton didn'tshush him; that was too close to his own attitude, at least infamily-breakfast-table terminology.

"... First of all; for the country, and especially the Newer New Yorkarea, and by the way, it looks as though somebody thought somebodyneeded a little cooling off, but we'll come to that later. Here's theforecast: Today and tomorrow, the weather will continue fine; warm inthe sun, chilly in the shadows. There won't be anything to keep youfrom the polls, tomorrow, except bird-hunting, or a last chance at agame of golf. This is the first time within this commentator's memorythat the weather has definitely been in favor of the party out ofpower.

"On the world scene: You'll be glad to hear that the survivors of thewrecked strato-rocket have all been rescued from the top of MountEverest, after a difficult and heroic effort by the Royal Nepalese AirForce.... The results of last week's election in Russia are beingchallenged by twelve of the fourteen parties represented on theballot; the only parties not hurling accusations of fraud are theDemocrats, who won, and the Christian Communists, who are about asinfluential in Russian politics as the Vegetarian-Anti-VaccinationParty is here.... The Central Diplomatic Council of the ReunitedNations has just announced, for the hundred and seventy-eighth time,that the Arab-Israel dispute has been finally, definitely andsatisfactorily settled. This morning's reports from Baghdad and TelAviv only list four Arabs and six Israelis killed in border clashes inthe past twenty-four hours, so maybe they're really getting thingspatched up, after all. During the same period, there were morefatalities in Newer New York as a result of clashes between theprivate troops of rival racket gangs, political parties and businesshouses.

"Which brings us to the local scene. On my way to the studio thismorning, I stopped at City Hall, and found our genial Chief of PoliceDelaney, 'Irish' Delaney to most of us, hard at work with a portabledisintegrator, getting rid of record disks and recording tapes of oldand long-settled cases. He had a couple of amusing stories. Forinstance, a lone Independent-Conservative partisan broke up aRadical-Socialist mass meeting preparatory to a march to demonstratein Double Times Square, by applying his pocket lighter to one of theheat-sensitive boxes in the building and activating the sprinklersystem. By the time the Radicals had gotten into dry clothing, therewas a, well, sort of, impromptu Conservative demonstration going on inDouble Times Square, and one of the few things the local gendarmeswon't stand for is an attempt to hold two rival political meetings inthe same area.

"Curiously, while it was the Radicals who got soaked, it was theConservatives who sneezed," Mongery went on, his face glowing withmischievous amusement. "It seems that while they were holding amonster rally at Hague Hall, in North Jersey Borough, some person orpersons unknown got at the air-conditioning system with a tank ofsneeze gas, which didn't exactly improve either the speaking style ofSenator Grant Hamilton or the attentiveness of his audience. Needlessto say, there is no police investigation of either incident. Electionshenanigans, like college pranks, are fair play as long as they don'tcause an outright holocaust. And that, I think, is as it should be,"Mongery went on, more seriously. "Most of the horrors of the Twentiethand Twenty-first Centuries were the result of taking politics tooseriously."

Pelton snorted again. That was the Literate line, all right; treatpolitics as a joke and an election as a sporting event, let theIndependent-Conservative grafters stay in power, and let the Literatesrun the country through them. Not, of course, that he disapproved ofthose boys in the Young Radical League who'd thought up thatsneeze-gas trick.

"And now, what you've been waiting for," Mongery continued. "The finalTrotter Poll's pre-election analysis." A novice Literate advanced,handing him a big loose-leaf book, which he opened with the reverencea Literate always displayed toward the written word. "This," he said,"is going to surprise you. For the whole state of Penn-Jersey-York,the poll shows a probable Radical-Socialist vote of approximatelythirty million, an Independent-Conservative vote of approximately tenand a half million, and a vote of about a million for what we call theWho-Gives-A-Damn Party, which, frankly, is the party of yourcommentator's choice. Very few sections differ widely from thisaverage—there will be a much heavier Radical vote in the Pittsburgharea, and traditionally Conservative Philadelphia and the upper HudsonValley will give the Radicals a much smaller majority."

They all looked at one another, thunderstruck.

"If Mongery's admitting that, I'm in!" Pelton exclaimed.

"Yeah, we can start calling him Senator, now, and really mean it," Raysaid. "Maybe old Mongie isn't such a bad sort of twerp, after all."

"Considering that the Conservatives carried this state by asubstantial majority in the presidential election of two years ago,and by a huge majority in the previous presidential election of 2136,"Mongery, in the screen, continued, "this verdict of the almostinfallible Trotter Poll needs some explaining. For the most part, itis the result of the untiring efforts of one man, the dynamic newleader of the Radical-Socialists and their present candidate for theConsolidated States of North America Senate, Chester Pelton, who hastransformed that once-moribund party into the vital force it is today.And this achievement has been due, very largely, to a single sloganwhich he had hammered into your ears: Put the Literates in theirplace; our servants, not our masters!" He brushed a handdeprecatingly over his white smock and fingered the badges on hisbelt.

"There has always been, on the part of the Illiterate public, someresentment against organized Literacy. In part, it has been due to thehigh fees charged for Literate services, and

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