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.
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 would permit; the table, its advent preceded by a collection of mouth-watering aromas, slid noiselessly out of the pantry and clicked into place in front of him.
"Everything all right, Miss Claire?" a voice floated out after it from beyond. "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 of everything." She waved a hand over the photocell that closed the pantry door, and slid into place across from her brother, who already had a glass of fruit juice in one hand and was lifting platter covers with the other.
"Real eggs!" the boy was announcing. "Bacon. Wheat-bread toast." He looked again. "Hey, Sis, is this real cow-made butter?"
"Yes. Now go ahead and eat."
As though Ray needed encouragement, Chester Pelton thought, watching his son use a spoon—the biggest one available—to dump gobs of honey on his toast. While he was helping himself to bacon and eggs, he could hear Ray's full-mouthed exclamation: "This is real bee-comb honey, too!" That pleased him. The boy was a true Pelton; only needed one bite 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 learning the 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's model '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 look of disapproval, he swallowed hastily, then continued: "He's not the sort of company I want my son keeping."
"But, Senator," Ray protested. "He lives next door to us. Why, we can see Hartnett's aerial from the top of our landing stage!"
"That doesn't matter," he said, in a tone meant to indicate that the subject was not to be debated. "He's a Literate!"
"More eggs, Senator?" Claire asked, extending the platter and gesturing with the serving knife.
He chuckled inwardly. Claire always knew what to do when his temper started climbing to critical mass. He allowed her to load his plate again.
"And speaking of our landing stage, have you been up there, this morning, Ray?" he asked.
They both looked at him inquiringly.
"Delivered last evening, while you two were out," he explained. "New winter model Rolls-Cadipac." He felt a glow of paternal pleasure as Claire gave a yelp of delight and aimed a glancing kiss at the top of his bald head. Ray dropped his fork, slid from his seat, and bolted for the lift, even bacon, eggs, and real bee-comb honey forgotten.
With elaborate absent-mindedness, Chester Pelton reached for the switch to turn on the video screen over the pantry door.
"Oh-oh! Oh-oh!" Claire's slender hand went out to stop his own. "Not till 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 killing yourself."
"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 advertised for today, anyhow?" he fumed. "Doesn't he know I'm running for the Senate?"
"I doubt it," Claire said. "He may have heard of it, the way you've heard about an election in Pakistan or Abyssinia, or he just may not know there is such a thing as politics. I think he does know there's a world 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 a cigarette from the Readilit, puffing at it with the relish of the morning's first smoke. "All he knows is that we're holding our sale three days ahead of Macy & Gimbel's."
"Russ is a good businessman," Pelton said seriously. "I wish you'd take a little more interest in him, Claire."
"If you mean what I think you do, no thanks," Claire replied. "I suppose I'll get married, some day—most girls do—but it'll be to somebody who can hang his business up at the office before he comes home. Russ Latterman is so married to the store that if he married me too, it'd be bigamy. Ready for your coffee?" Without waiting for an answer, she filled his cup and ejected a lighted cigarette from the box for him, then snapped on the video screen.
It lit at once, and a nondescriptly handsome young man was grinning toothily out of it. He wore a white smock, halfway to his knees, and, over it, an old-fashioned Sam Browne belt which supported a bulky leather-covered tablet and a large stylus. On the strap which crossed his breast five or six little metal badges twinkled.
"... Why no other beer can compare with delicious, tangy, Cardon's Black Bottle. Won't you try it?" he pleaded. "Then you will see for yourself why millions of happy drinkers always Call For Cardon's. And now, 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 mixture of 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 left quarter-turn of the pickup camera, wore the same starchy white smock, the same Sam Browne belt glittering with the badges of the organizations and corporations for whom he was authorized to practice Literacy. The tablet on his belt, Pelton knew, was really a camouflaged holster for a small automatic, and the gold stylus was a gas-projector. The black-leather-jacketed bodyguards, of course, were discreetly out of range of the camera. Members of the Associated Fraternities of Literates weren't exactly loved by the non-reading public they claimed to serve. The sight of one of those starchy, perpetually-spotless, white smocks always affected Pelton like a red cape to a bull. He snorted in disdain. The raised eyebrow toward the announcer on the left, the quick, perennially boyish smile, followed by the levelly serious gaze into the camera—the whole act might have been 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't shush him; that was too close to his own attitude, at least in family-breakfast-table terminology.
"... First of all; for the country, and especially the Newer New York area, and by the way, it looks as though somebody thought somebody needed a little cooling off, but we'll come to that later. Here's the forecast: Today and tomorrow, the weather will continue fine; warm in the sun, chilly in the shadows. There won't be anything to keep you from the polls, tomorrow, except bird-hunting, or a last chance at a game of golf. This is the first time within this commentator's memory that the weather has definitely been in favor of the party out of power.
"On the world scene: You'll be glad to hear that the survivors of the wrecked strato-rocket have all been rescued from the top of Mount Everest, after a difficult and heroic effort by the Royal Nepalese Air Force.... The results of last week's election in Russia are being challenged by twelve of the fourteen parties represented on the ballot; the only parties not hurling accusations of fraud are the Democrats, who won, and the Christian Communists, who are about as influential in Russian politics as the Vegetarian-Anti-Vaccination Party is here.... The Central Diplomatic Council of the Reunited Nations has just announced, for the hundred and seventy-eighth time, that the Arab-Israel dispute has been finally, definitely and satisfactorily settled. This morning's reports from Baghdad and Tel Aviv only list four Arabs and six Israelis killed in border clashes in the past twenty-four hours, so maybe they're really getting things patched up, after all. During the same period, there were more fatalities in Newer New York as a result of clashes between the private troops of rival racket gangs, political parties and business houses.
"Which brings us to the local scene. On my way to the studio this morning, I stopped at City Hall, and found our genial Chief of Police Delaney, 'Irish' Delaney to most of us, hard at work with a portable disintegrator, getting rid of record disks and recording tapes of old and long-settled cases. He had a couple of amusing stories. For instance, a lone Independent-Conservative partisan broke up a Radical-Socialist mass meeting preparatory to a march to demonstrate in Double Times Square, by applying his pocket lighter to one of the heat-sensitive boxes in the building and activating the sprinkler system. By the time the Radicals had gotten into dry clothing, there was a, well, sort of, impromptu Conservative demonstration going on in Double Times Square, and one of the few things the local gendarmes won't stand for is an attempt to hold two rival political meetings in the same area.
"Curiously, while it was the Radicals who got soaked, it was the Conservatives who sneezed," Mongery went on, his face glowing with mischievous amusement. "It seems that while they were holding a monster rally at Hague Hall, in North Jersey Borough, some person or persons unknown got at the air-conditioning system with a tank of sneeze gas, which didn't exactly improve either the speaking style of Senator Grant Hamilton or the attentiveness of his audience. Needless to say, there is no police investigation of either incident. Election shenanigans, like college pranks, are fair play as long as they don't cause an outright holocaust. And that, I think, is as it should be," Mongery went on, more seriously. "Most of the horrors of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries were the result of taking politics too seriously."
Pelton snorted again. That was the Literate line, all right; treat politics as a joke and an election as a sporting event, let the Independent-Conservative grafters stay in power, and let the Literates run the country through them. Not, of course, that he disapproved of those boys in the Young Radical League who'd thought up that sneeze-gas trick.
"And now, what you've been waiting for," Mongery continued. "The final Trotter Poll's pre-election analysis." A novice Literate advanced, handing him a big loose-leaf book, which he opened with the reverence a 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 approximately thirty million, an Independent-Conservative vote of approximately ten and a half million, and a vote of about a million for what we call the Who-Gives-A-Damn Party, which, frankly, is the party of your commentator's choice. Very few sections differ widely from this average—there will be a much heavier Radical vote in the Pittsburgh area, and traditionally Conservative Philadelphia and the upper Hudson Valley 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," Ray said. "Maybe old Mongie isn't such a bad sort of twerp, after all."
"Considering that the Conservatives carried this state by a substantial 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 almost infallible Trotter Poll needs some explaining. For the most part, it is the result of the untiring efforts of one man, the dynamic new leader of the Radical-Socialists and their present candidate for the Consolidated States of North America Senate, Chester Pelton, who has transformed that once-moribund party into the vital force it is today. And this achievement has been due, very largely, to a single slogan which he had hammered into your ears: Put the Literates in their place; our servants, not our masters!" He brushed a hand deprecatingly over his white smock and fingered the badges on his belt.
"There has always been, on the part of the Illiterate public, some resentment against organized Literacy. In part, it has been due to the high fees charged for Literate services, and to what seems, to many, to be monopolistic practices. But behind that is a general attitude of anti-intellectualism which is our heritage from the disastrous wars of the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries. Chester Pelton has made himself the spokesman of this attitude. In his view, it was men who could read and write who hatched the diabolical political ideologies and designed the frightful nuclear weapons of that period. In his mind, Literacy is equated with 'Mein Kampf' and 'Das Kapital', with the A-bomb and the H-bomb, with concentration camps and blasted cities. From this position, of course, I beg politely to differ. Literate men also gave us the Magna Charta and the Declaration of Independence.
"Now, in spite of a lunatic fringe in the Consolidated Illiterates' Organization who want just that, Chester Pelton knows that we cannot abolish Literacy entirely. Even with modern audio-visual recording, need exists for some modicum of written recording, which can be rapidly scanned and selected from—indexing, cataloguing, tabulating data, et cetera—and for at least a few men and women who can form and interpret the written word. Mr. Pelton, himself, is the owner of a huge department store, employing over a thousand Illiterates; he must at all times have the services of at least fifty Literates."
"And pays through the nose for them, too!" Pelton growled. It was more than fifty; and Russ Latterman had been forced to get twenty extras sent in for the sale.
"Now, since we cannot renounce Literacy entirely, without sinking to fellahin barbarism, and here I definitely part company with Mr. Pelton, he fears the potential power of organized Literacy. In a word, he fears a future Literate Dictatorship."
"Future? What do you think we have now?" Pelton demanded.
"Nobody," Mongery said, as though replying to him, "is stupid enough, today, to want to be a dictator. That ended by the middle of the Twenty-first Century. Everybody knows what happened to Mussolini, and Hitler, and Stalin, and all their imitators. Why, it is as much the public fear of Big Government as the breakdown of civil power because of the administrative handicap of a shortage of Literate administrators that is responsible for the disgraceful lawlessness of the past hundred years. Thus, it speaks well for the public trust in Chester Pelton's known integrity and sincerity that so many of our people are willing to agree to his program for socialized Literacy. They feel that he can be trusted, and, violently as I disagree with him, I can only say that that trust is not misplaced.
"Of course, there is also the question, so often raised by Mr. Pelton, that under the Hamilton machine, the politics, and particularly the enforcement of the laws, in this state, are unbelievably corrupt, but I wonder—"
Mongery paused. "Just a moment; I see a flash bulletin being brought in." The novice Literate came to his side and gave him a slip of paper, at which he glanced. Then he laughed heartily.
"It seems that shortly after I began speaking, the local blue-ribbon grand jury issued a summons for Chief Delaney to appear before them, with all his records. Unfortunately, the summons could not be served; Chief Delaney had just boarded a strato-rocket from Tom Dewey Field for Buenos Aires." He cocked an eye at the audience. "I know Irish is going to have a nice time, down there in the springtime of the Southern Hemisphere. And, incidentally, the Argentine is one of the few major powers which never signed the World Extradition Convention of 2087." He raised his hand to his audience. "And now, until tomorrow at breakfast, sincerely yours for Cardon's Black Bottle, Elliot C. Mongery."
"Well, whattaya know; that guy was plugging for you!" Ray said. "And see how he managed to slide in that bit about corruption, right before his stooge handed him that bulletin?"
"I guess every Literate has his price," Chester Pelton said. "I wonder how much of my money that cost. I always wondered why Frank Cardon sponsored Mongery. Now I know. Mongery can be had."
"Uh, beg your pardon, Mr. Pelton," a voice from the hall broke in.
He turned. Olaf Olafsson, the 'copter driver, was standing at the entrance to the breakfast nook, a smudge of oil on his cheek and his straw-colored hair in disorder. "How do I go about startin' this new 'copter?"
"What?" Olaf had been his driver for ten years. He would have been less surprised had the ceiling fallen in. "You don't know how to start it?"
"No, sir. The controls is all different from on the summer model. Every time I try to raise it, it backs up; if I try to raise it much more, we won't have no wall left on the landing stage."
"Well, isn't there a book?"
"There ain't no pictures in it; nothing but print. It's a Literate book," Olaf said in disgust, as though at something obscene. "An' there ain't nothin' on the instrument board but letters."
"That's right," Ray agreed. "I saw the book; no pictures in it at all."
"Well, of all the quarter-witted stupidity! The confounded imbeciles at that agency—"
Pelton started to his feet. Claire unlocked the table and slid it out of his way. Ray, on a run, started for the lift and vanished.
"I think some confounded Literate at the Rolls-Cadipac agency did that," he fumed. "Thought it would be a joke to send me a Literate instruction book along with a 'copter with a Literate instrument board. Ah, I get it! So I'd have to call in a Literate to show me how to start my own 'copter, and by noon they'd be laughing about it in every bar from Pittsburgh to Plattsburg. Sneaky Literate trick!" They went to the lift, and found the door closed in their faces. "Oh, confound that boy!"
Claire pressed the button. Ray must have left the lift, for the operating light went on, and in a moment the door opened. He crowded into the lift, along with his daughter and Olaf.
On the landing stage, Ray was already in the 'copter, poking at buttons on the board.
"Look, Olaf!" he called. "They just shifted them around a little from the summer model. This one, where the prop-control used to be on the old model, is the one that backs it up on the ground. Here's the one that erects and extends the prop,"—he pushed it, and the prop snapped obediently into place—"and here's the one that controls the lift."
An ugly suspicion stabbed at Chester Pelton, bringing with it a feeling of frightened horror.
"How do you know?" he demanded.
Ray's eyes remained on the instrument board. He pushed another button, and the propeller began swinging in a lazy circle; he pressed down with his right foot, and the 'copter lifted a foot or so.
"What?" he asked. "Oh, Jimmy showed me how theirs works. Mr. Hartnett got one like it a week ago." He motioned to Olaf, setting the 'copter down again. "Come here; I'll show you."
The suspicion, and the horror passed in a wave of relief.
"You think you and Olaf, between you, can get that thing to school?" he asked.
"All right. You show Olaf how to run it. Olaf, as soon as you've dropped Ray at school, take that thing to the Rolls-Cadipac agency, and get a new one, with a proper instrument board, and a proper picture book of operating instructions. I'm going to call Sam Huschack up personally and give him royal hell about this. Sure you can handle it, now?"
He watched the 'copter rise to the two thousand foot local traffic level and turn in the direction of Mineola High School, fifty miles away. He was still looking anxiously after it as it dwindled to a tiny dot and vanished.
"They'll make it all right," Claire told him. "Olaf has a strong back, and Ray has a good head."
"It wasn't that that I was worried about." He turned and looked, half ashamed, at his daughter. "You know, for a minute, there, I thought ... I thought Ray could read!"
"Father!" She was so shocked that she forgot the nickname they had given him when he had announced his candidacy for Senate, in the spring. "You didn't!"
"I know; it's an awful thing to think, but—Well, the kids today do the craziest things. There's that Hartnett boy he runs around with; Tom Hartnett bought Literate training for him. And that fellow Prestonby; I don't trust him—"
"Prestonby?" Claire asked, puzzled.
"Oh, you know. The principal at school. You've met him."
Claire wrinkled her brow—just like her mother, when she was trying to remember something.
"Oh, yes. I met him at that P.T.A. meeting. He didn't impress me as being much like a teacher, but I suppose they think anything's good enough for us Illiterates."
* * * * *
Literate First Class Ralph N. Prestonby remained standing by the lectern, looking out over the crowded auditorium, still pleasantly surprised to estimate the day's attendance at something like ninety-seven per cent of enrollment. That was really good; why, it was only three per cent short of perfect! Maybe it was the new rule requiring a sound-recorded excuse for absence. Or it could have been his propaganda campaign about the benefits of education. Or, very easily, it could have been the result of sending Doug Yetsko and some of his boys around to talk to recalcitrant parents. It was good to see that that was having some effect beside an increase in the number of attempts on his life, or the flood of complaints to the Board of Education. Well, Lancedale had gotten Education merged with his Office of Communications, and Lancedale was back of him to the limit, so the complaints had died out on the empty air. And Doug Yetsko was his bodyguard, so most of the would-be assassins had died, also.
The "North American Anthem," which had replaced the "Star-Spangled Banner" after the United States-Canadian-Mexican merger, came to an end. The students and their white-smocked teachers, below, relaxed from attention; most of them sat down, while monitors and teachers in the rear were getting the students into the aisles and marching them off to study halls and classrooms and workshops. The orchestra struck up a lively march tune. He leaned his left elbow—Literates learned early, or did not live to learn, not to immobilize the right hand—on the lectern and watched the interminable business of getting the students marched out, yearning, as he always did at this time, for the privacy of his office, where he could smoke his pipe. Finally, they were all gone, and the orchestra had gathered up its instruments and filed out into the wings of the stage, and he looked up to the left and said, softly:
"All right, Doug; show's over."
With a soft thud, the big man dropped down from the guard's cubicle overhead, grinning cheerfully. He needed a shave—Yetsko always did, in the mornings—and in his leather Literates' guard uniform, he looked like some ogreish giant out of the mythology of the past.
"I was glad to have you up there with the Big Noise, this morning," Prestonby said. "What a mob! I'm still trying to figure out why we have such an attendance."
"Don't you get it, captain?" Yetsko was reaching up to lock the door of his cubicle; he seemed surprised at Prestonby's obtuseness. "Day before election; the little darlings' moms and pops don't want them out running around. We can look for another big crowd tomorrow, too."
Prestonby gave a snort of disgust. "Of course; how imbecilic can I really get? I didn't notice any of them falling down, so I suppose you didn't see anything out of line."
"Well, the hall monitors make them turn in their little playthings at the doors," Yetsko said, "but hall monitors can be gotten at, and some of the stuff they make in Manual Training, when nobody's watching them—"
Prestonby nodded. Just a week before, a crude but perfectly operative 17-mm shotgun had been discovered in the last stages of manufacture in the machine shop, and five out of six of the worn-out files would vanish, to be ground down into dirks. He often thought of the stories of his grandfather, who had been a major during the Occupation of Russia, after the Fourth World War. Those old-timers didn't know how easy they'd had it; they should have tried to run an Illiterate high school.
Yetsko was still grumbling slanders on the legitimacy of the student body. "One of those little angels shoots me, it's just a cute little prank, and we oughtn't to frown on the little darling when it's just trying to express its dear little personality, or we might give it complexes, or something," he falsettoed incongruously. "And if the little darling's mistake doesn't kill me outright and I shoot back, people talk about King Herod!" He used language about the Board of Education and the tax-paying public that was probably subversive within the meaning of the Loyalty Oath. "I wish I had a pair of 40-mm auto-cannons up there, instead of that sono gun."
"Each class is a little worse than the one before; in about five years, they'll be making H-bombs in the lab," Prestonby said. In the last week, a dozen pupils had been seriously cut or blackjacked in hall and locker-room fights. "Nice citizens of the future; nice future to look forward to growing old in."
"We won't," Yetsko comforted him. "We can't be lucky all the time; in about a year, they'll find both of us stuffed into a broom closet, when they start looking around to see what's making all the stink."
* * * * *
Prestonby took the thick-barreled gas pistol from the shelf under the lectern and shoved it into his hip pocket; Yetsko picked up a two-and-a-half foot length of rubber hose and tucked it under his left arm. Together, they went back through the wings and out into the hallway that led to the office. So a Twenty-second Century high school was a place where a teacher carried a pistol and a tear-gas projector and a sleep-gas gun, and had a bodyguard, and still walked in danger of his life from armed 'teen-age hooligans. It was meaningless to ask whose fault it was. There had been the World Wars, and the cold-war interbellum periods—rising birth rates, huge demands on the public treasury for armaments, with the public taxed to the saturation point, and no money left for the schools. There had been fantastic "Progressive" education experiments—even in the 'Fifties of the Twentieth Century, in the big cities, children were being pushed through grade school without having learned to read. And when there had been money available for education, school boards had insisted on spending it for audio-visual equipment, recordings, films, anything but textbooks. And there had been that lunatic theory that children should be taught to read by recognizing whole words instead of learning the alphabet. And more and more illiterates had been shoved out of the schools, into a world where radio and television and moving pictures were supplanting books and newspapers, and more and more children of illiterates had gone to school without any desire or incentive to learn to read. And finally, the illiterates had become Illiterates, and literacy had become Literacy.
And now, the Associated Fraternities of Literates had come to monopolize the ability to read and write, and a few men like William R. Lancedale, with a handful of followers like Ralph N. Prestonby, were trying—
The gleaming cleanliness of the corridor, as always, heartened Prestonby a little; it was a trophy of victory from his first two days at Mineola High School, three years ago. He remembered what they had looked like when he had first seen them.
"This school is a pig pen!" he had barked at the janitorial force. "And even if they are Illiterates, these children aren't pigs; they deserve decent surroundings. This school will be cleaned, immediately, from top to bottom, and it'll be kept that way."
The janitors, all political appointees, Independent-Conservative party-hacks, secure in their jobs, had laughed derisively. The building superintendent, without troubling to rise, had answered him:
"Young man, you don't want to get off on the wrong foot, here," he had said. "This here's the way this school's always been run, an' it's gonna take a lot more than you to change it."
The fellow's name, he recalled, was Kettner; Lancedale had given him a briefing which had included some particulars about him. He was an Independent-Conservative ward-committeeman. He had gotten his present job after being fired from his former position as mailman for listening to other peoples' mail with his pocket recorder-reproducer.
"Yetsko," he had said. "Kick this bum out on his face."
"You can't get away with—" Kettner had begun. Yetsko had yanked him out of his chair with one hand and started for the door with him.
"Just a moment, Yetsko," he had said.
Thinking that he was backing down, they had all begun grinning at him.
"Don't bother opening the door," he had said. "Just kick him out."
After the third kick, Kettner had gotten the door open, himself; the fourth kick sent him across the hall to the opposite wall. He pulled himself to his feet and limped away, never to return. The next morning, the school was spotless. It had stayed that way.
Beside him, Yetsko must also have returned mentally to the past.
"Looks better now than it did when we first saw it, captain," he said.
"Yes. It didn't take us as long to clean up this mess as it did to clean up that mutinous guards company in Pittsburgh. But when we cleaned that up, it stayed cleaned. This is like trying to bail out a boat with a pitchfork."
"Yeah. I wish we'dda stayed in Pittsburgh, captain. I wish we'd never seen this place!"
"So do I!" Prestonby agreed, heartily.
No, he didn't, either. If he'd never have come to Mineola High School, he'd never have found Claire Pelton.
* * * * *
Sitting down again at the breakfast table with her father, Claire levered another cigarette out of the Readilit and puffed at it with exaggeratedly bored slowness. She was still frightened. Ray shouldn't have done what he did, even if he had furnished a plausible explanation. The trouble with plausible explanations was having to make them. Sooner or later, you made too many, and then you made one that wasn't so plausible, and then all the others were remembered, and they all looked phony. And why had the Senator had to mention Ralph? Was he beginning to suspect the truth about that, too?
I hope not! she thought desperately. If he ever found out about that, it'd kill him. Just kill him, period!
Mrs. Harris must have turned off the video, after they had gone up to the landing stage. To cover her nervousness, she reached up and snapped it on again. The screen lit, and from it a young man with dark eyes under bushy black brows was shouting angrily:
"... Most obvious sort of conspiracy! If the Radical-Socialist Party leaders, or the Consolidated Illiterates' Organization Political Action Committee, need any further evidence of the character of their candidate and idolized leader, Chester Pelton, the treatment given to Pelton's candidacy by Literate First Class Elliot C. Mongery, this morning, ought to be sufficient to remove the scales from the eyes of the blindest of them. I won't state, in so many words, that Chester Pelton's sold out the Radical-Socialists and the Consolidated Illiterates' Organization to the Associated Fraternities of Literates, because, since no witness to any actual transfer of money can be found, such a statement would be libelous—provided Pelton had nerve enough to sue me."
"Why, you dirty misbegotten illegitimate—!" Pelton was on his feet. His hand went to his hip, and then, realizing that he was unarmed and, in any case, confronted only by an electronic image, he sat down again.
"Pelton's been yapping for socialized Literacy," the man on the screen continued. "I'm not going back to the old argument that any kind of socialization is only the thin edge of the wedge which will pry open the pit of horrors from which the world has climbed since the Fourth World War. If you don't realize that now, it's no use for me to repeat it again. But I will ask you, do you realize, for a moment, what a program of socialized Literacy would mean, apart from the implications of any kind of socialization? It would mean that inside of five years, the Literates would control the whole government. They control the courts, now—only a Literate can become a lawyer, and only a lawyer can become a judge. They control the armed forces—only a Literate can enter West Point or Fort MacKenzie or Chapultepec or White Sands or Annapolis. And, if Chester Pelton's socialization scheme goes into effect, there will be no branch of the government which will not be completely under the control of the Associated Fraternities of Literates!"
The screen went suddenly dark. Her father turned, to catch her with her hand still on the switch.
"Put it back on; I want to hear what that lying pimp of a Slade Gardner's saying about me!"
"Phooy; you'd have shot it out, yourself, if you'd had your gun on. I saw you reaching for it. Now be quiet, and take it easy," she ordered.
He reached toward the Readilit for a cigarette, then his hand stopped. His face was contorted with pain; he gave a gasp of suffocation.
Claire cried in dismay: "You're not going to have another of those attacks? Where are the nitrocaine bulbs?"
"Don't ... have any ... here. Some at the office, but—"
"I told you to get more," she accused.
"Oh, I don't need them, really." His voice was steadier, now; the spasm of pain had passed. He filled his coffee cup and sipped from it. "Turn on the video again, Claire. I want to hear what that Gardner's saying."
"I will not! Don't you have people at party headquarters monitoring this stuff? Well, then. Somebody'll prepare an answer, if he needs answering."
"I think he does. A lot of these dumbos'll hear that and believe it. I'll talk to Frank. He'll know what to do."
Frank again. She frowned.
"Look, Senator; you think Frank Cardon's your friend, but I don't trust him. I never could," she said. "I think he's utterly and entirely unscrupulous. Amoral, I believe, is the word. Like a savage, or a pirate, or one of the old-time Nazis or Communists."
"Oh, Claire!" her father protested. "Frank's in a tough business—you have no idea the lengths competition goes to in the beer business—and he's been in politics, and dealing with racketeers and labor unions, all his life. But he's a good sound Illiterate—family Illiterate for four generations, like ours—and I'd trust him with anything. You heard this fellow Mongery—I always have to pause to keep from calling him Mongrel—saying that I deserved the credit for pulling the Radicals out of the mud and getting the party back on the tracks. Well, I couldn't have begun to do it without Frank Cardon."
* * * * *
Frank Cardon stood on the sidewalk, looking approvingly into the window of O'Reilly's Tavern, in which his display crew had already set up the spread for the current week. On either side was a giant six-foot replica, in black glass, of the Cardon bottle, in the conventional shape accepted by an Illiterate public as containing beer, bearing the red Cardon label with its pictured bottle in a central white disk. Because of the heroic size of the bottles, the pictured bottle on the label bore a bottle bearing a label bearing a bottle bearing a bottle on a label.... He counted eight pictured bottles, down to the tiniest dot of black. There were four-foot bottles next to the six-foot bottles, and three-foot bottles next to them, and, in the middle background, a life-size tri-dimensional picture of an almost nude and incredibly pulchritudinous young lady smiling in invitation at the passing throng and extending a foaming bottle of Cardon's in her hand. Aside from the printed trademark-registry statements on the labels, there was not a printed word visible in the window.
He pushed through the swinging doors and looked down the long room, with the chairs still roosting sleepily on the tables, and made a quick count of the early drinkers, two thirds of them in white smocks and Sam Browne belts, obviously from Literates' Hall, across the street. Late drinkers, he corrected himself mentally; they'd be the night shift, having their drinks before going home.
"Good morning, Mr. Cardon," the bartender greeted him. "Still drinking your own?"
"Hasn't poisoned me yet," Cardon told him. "Or anybody else." He folded a C-bill accordion-wise and set it on edge on the bar. "Give everybody what they want."
"Drink up, gentlemen, and have one on Mr. Cardon," the bartender announced, then lowered his voice. "O'Reilly wants to see you. About—" He gave a barely perceptible nod in the direction of the building across the street.
"Yes; I want to see him, too." Cardon poured from the bottle in front of him, accepted the thanks of the house, and, when the bartender brought the fifteen-dollars-odd change from the dozen drinks, he pushed it back.
He drank slowly, looking around the room, then set down his empty glass and went back, past two doors which bore pictured half-doors revealing, respectively, masculine-trousered and feminine-stockinged ankles, and opened the unmarked office door beyond. The bartender, he knew, had pushed the signal button; the door was unlocked, and, inside, O'Reilly—baptismal name Luigi Orelli—was waiting.
"Chief wants to see you, right away," the saloon keeper said.
The brewer nodded. "All right. Keep me covered; don't know how long I'll be." He crossed the room and opened a corner-cupboard, stepping inside.
The corner cupboard, which was an elevator, took him to a tunnel below the street. Across the street, he entered another elevator, set the indicator for the tenth floor, and ascended. As the car rose, he could feel the personality of Frank Cardon, Illiterate brewer, drop from him, as though he were an actor returning from the stage to his dressing room.
The room into which he emerged was almost that. There was a long table, at which two white-smocked Literates drank coffee and went over some papers; a third Literate sprawled in a deep chair, resting; at a small table, four men in black shirts and leather breeches and field boots played poker, while a fifth, who had just entered and had not yet removed his leather helmet and jacket or his weapons belt, stood watching them.
Cardon went to a row of lockers along the wall, opened one, and took out a white smock, pulling it over his head and zipping it up to the throat. Then he buckled on a Sam Browne with its tablet holster and stylus gas projector. The Literate sprawling in the chair opened one eye.
"Hi, Frank. Feels good to have them on again, doesn't it?"
"Yes. Clean," Cardon replied. "It'll be just for half an hour, but—"
He passed through the door across from the elevator, went down a short hall, and spoke in greeting to the leather-jacketed storm trooper on guard outside the door at the other end.
"Mr. Cardon," the guard nodded. "Mr. Lancedale's expecting you."
"So I understand, Bert."
He opened the door and went through. William R. Lancedale rose from behind his desk and advanced to greet him with a quick handshake, guiding him to a chair beside the desk. As he did, he sniffed and raised an eyebrow.
"Beer this early, Frank?" he asked.
"Morning, noon, and night, chief," Cardon replied. "When you said this job was going to be dangerous, I didn't know you meant that it would lead straight to an alcoholic's grave."
"Let me get you a cup of coffee, and a cigar, then." The white-haired Literate executive resumed his seat, passing a hand back and forth slowly across the face of the commo, the diamond on his finger twinkling, and gave brief instructions. "And just relax, for a minute. You have a tough job, this time, Frank."
They were both silent as a novice Literate bustled in with coffee and individually-sealed cigars.
"At least, you're not one of these plain-living-and-right-thinking fanatics, like Wilton Joyner and Harvey Graves," Cardon said. "On top of everything else, that I could not take."
Lancedale's thin face broke into a smile, little wrinkles putting his mouth in parentheses. Cardon sampled the coffee, and then used a Sixteenth Century Italian stiletto from Lancedale's desk to perforate the end of his cigar.
"Much as I hate it, I'll have to get out of here as soon as I can," he said. "I don't know how long O'Reilly can keep me covered, down at the tavern—"
Lancedale nodded. "Well, how are things going, then?"
"First of all, the brewery," Cardon began.
Lancedale consigned the brewery to perdition. "That's just your cover; any money it makes is purely irrelevant. How about the election?"
"Pelton's in," Cardon said. "As nearly in as any candidate ever was before the polls opened. Three months ago, the Independents were as solid as Gibraltar used to be. Today, they look like Gibraltar after that H-bomb hit it. The only difference is, they don't know what hit them, yet."
"Hamilton's campaign manager does," Lancedale said. "Did you hear his telecast, this morning?"
Cardon shook his head. Lancedale handed over a little half-inch, thirty-minute, record disk.
"All you need is the first three or four minutes," he said. "The rest of it is repetition."
Cardon put the disk in his pocket recorder and set it for play-back, putting the plug in his ear. After a while, he shut it off and took out the ear plug.
"That's bad! What are we going to do about it?"
Lancedale shrugged. "What are you going to do?" he countered. "You're Pelton's campaign manager—Heaven pity him."
Cardon thought for a moment. "We'll play it for laughs," he decided. "Some of our semantics experts could make the joke of the year out of it by the time the polls open tomorrow. The Fraternities bribing their worst enemy to attack them, so that he can ruin their business; who's been listening to a tape of 'Alice in Wonderland' at Independent-Conservative headquarters?"
"That would work," Lancedale agreed. "And we can count on our friends Joyner and Graves to give you every possible assistance with their customary bull-in-a-china-shop tactics. I suppose you've seen these posters they've been plastering around: If you can read this, Chester Pelton is your sworn enemy! A vote for Pelton is a vote for your own enslavement!"
"Naturally. And have you seen the telecast we've been using—a view of it, with a semantically correct spoken paraphrase?"
Lancedale nodded. "And I've also noticed that those posters have been acquiring different obscene crayon-drawings, too. That's just typical of the short-range Joyner-Graves mentality. Why, they've made more votes for Pelton than he's made for himself. Is it any wonder we're convinced that people like that aren't to be trusted to formulate the future policy of the Fraternities?"
"Well ... they've proved themselves wrong. I wonder, though, if we can prove ourselves right, in the long run. There are times when this thing scares me, chief. If anything went wrong—"
"What, for instance?"
"Somebody could get to Pelton." Cardon made a stabbing gesture with the stiletto, which he still held. "Maybe you don't really know how hot this thing's gotten. What we had to cut out of Mongery's report, this morning—"
"Oh, I've been keeping in touch," Lancedale understated gently.
"Well then. If anything happened to Pelton, there wouldn't be a Literate left alive in this city twelve hours later. And I question whether or not Graves and Joyner know that."
"I think they do. If they don't, it's not because I've failed to point it out to them. Of course, there are the Independent-Conservative grafters; a lot of them are beginning to hear jail doors opening for them, and they're scared. But I think routine body-guarding ought to protect Pelton from them, or from any isolated fanatics."
"And there is also the matter of Pelton's daughter, and his son," Cardon said. "We know, and Graves and Joyner know, and I assume that Slade Gardner knows, that they can both read and write as well as any Literate in the Fraternities. Suppose that got out between now and the election?"
"And that could not only hurt Pelton, but it would expose the work we've been doing in the schools," Lancedale added. "And even inside the Fraternities, that would raise the devil. Joyner and Graves don't begin to realize how far we've gone with that. They could kick up a simply hideous row about it!"
"And if Pelton found out that his kids are Literates—Woooo!" Cardon grimaced. "Or what we've been doing to him. I hope I'm not around when that happens. I'm beginning to like the cantankerous old bugger."
"I was afraid of that," Lancedale said. "Well, don't let it interfere with what you have to do. Remember, Frank; the Plan has to come first, always."
He walked with O'Reilly to the street door, talking about tomorrow's election; after shaking hands with the saloon keeper, he crossed the sidewalk and stepped onto the beltway, moving across the strips until he came to the twenty m.p.h. strip. The tall office buildings of upper Yonkers Borough marched away as he stood on the strip, appreciatively puffing at Lancedale's cigar. The character of the street changed; the buildings grew lower, and the quiet and fashionable ground-floor shops and cafes gave place to bargain stores, their audio-advertisers whooping urgently about improbable prices and offerings, and garish, noisy, crowded bars and cafeterias blaring recorded popular music. There was quite a bit of political advertising in evidence—huge pictures of the two major senatorial candidates. He estimated that Chester Pelton's bald head and bulldog features appeared twice for every one of Grant Hamilton's white locks, old-fashioned spectacles and self-satisfied smirk.
Then he came to the building on which he had parked his 'copter, and left the beltway, entering and riding up to the landing stage on the helical escalator. There seemed to have been some trouble; about a dozen Independent-Conservative storm troopers, in their white robes and hoods, with the fiery-cross emblem on their breasts, were bunched together, most of them with their right hands inside their bosoms, while a similar group of Radical-Conservative storm troopers, with their black sombreros and little black masks, stood watching them and fingering the white-handled pistols they wore in pairs on their belts. Between the two groups were four city policemen, looking acutely unhappy.
The group in the Lone Ranger uniforms, he saw, were standing in front of a huge tri-dimensional animated portrait of Chester Pelton. As he watched, the pictured candidate raised a clenched fist, and Pelton's recorded and amplified voice thundered:
"Put the Literates in their place! Our servants, not our masters!"
He recognized the group leader of the Radical-Socialists—the masks were too small to be more than token disguises—and beckoned to him, at the same time walking toward his 'copter. The man in black with the white-handled pistols followed him, spurs jingling.
"Hello, Mr. Cardon," he said, joining him. "Nothing to it. We got a tip they were coming to sabotage Big Brother, over there. Take out our sound-recording, and put in one of their own, like they did over in Queens, last week. The town clowns got here in time to save everybody's face, so there wasn't any shooting. We're staying put till they go, though."
"Put the Literates in their place! Our servants, not our masters!" the huge tridianimate bellowed.
Over in Queens, the Independents had managed to get at a similar tridianimate, had taken out the record, and had put in one: I am a lying fraud! Vote for Grant Hamilton and liberty and sound government!
"Smart work, Goodkin," he approved. "Don't let any of your boys start the gunplay. The city cops are beginning to get wise to who's going to win the election, tomorrow, but don't antagonize them. But if any of those Ku Kluxers tries to pull a gun, don't waste time trying to wing him. Just hold on to that fiery something-or-other on his chest and let him have it, and let the coroner worry about him."
"Yeah. With pleasure," Goodkin replied. "You know, that nightshirt thing they wear is about the stupidest idea for a storm-troop uniform I ever saw. Natural target in a gunfight, and in a rough-and-tumble it gets them all tangled up. Ah, there go a couple of coppers to talk to them; that's what they've been waiting on. Now they can beat it without looking like they been run out by our gang."
Cardon nodded. "Tell your boys to stay around for a while; they may expect you to leave right after they do, and then they'll try to slip back. You did a good job; got here promptly. Be seeing you, Goodkin."
He climbed into his own 'copter and started the motor.
"Put the Literates in their place!" the tri-dimensional colossus roared triumphantly after the retreating Independents. "Our servants, not our masters!"
* * * * *
At eight thousand, he got the 'copter onto the lower Manhattan beam and relaxed. First of all, he'd have to do something about answering Slade Gardner's telecast propaganda. That stuff was dangerous. The answer ought to go on the air by noon, and should be stepped up through the afternoon. First as a straight news story; Elliot Mongery had fifteen minutes, beginning at 1215—no, that wouldn't do. Mongery's sponsor for that time was Atomflame Heaters, and Atomflame was a subsidiary of Canada Northwest Fissionables, and Canada Northwest was umbilicus-deep in that Kettle River lease graft that Pelton had sworn to get investigated as soon as he took office. Professional ethics wouldn't allow Mongery to say anything in Pelton's behalf on Atomflame's time. Well, there was Guthrie Parham, he came on at 1245, and his sponsor was all right. He'd call Parham and tell him what he wanted done.
The buzzer warned him that he was approaching the lower Manhattan beacon; he shifted to manual control, dropped down to the three-thousand-foot level, and set his selector beam for the signal from Pelton's Purchasers' Paradise. Down toward the tip of the island, in the section that had been rebuilt after that Stalin Mark XV guided missile had gotten through the counter-rocket defenses in 1987, he could see the quadrate cross of his goal, with public landing stages on each of the four arms, and the higher central block with its landing stage for freight and store personnel. Above the four public stages, helicopters swarmed like May flies—May flies which had mutated and invented ritual or military drill or choreography—coming in in four streams to the tips of the arms and rising vertically from the middle. There was about ten times the normal amount of traffic for this early in the morning. He wondered, briefly, then remembered, and cursed. That infernal sale!
Grudgingly, he respected Russell Latterman's smartness, and in consequence, the ability of Wilton Joyner and Harvey Graves in selecting a good agent to plant in Pelton's store. Latterman gave a plausible impersonation of the Illiterate businessman, loyal Prime Minister of Pelton's commercial empire, Generalissimo in the perpetual war against Macy & Gimbel's. From that viewpoint, the sale was excellent business—Latterman had gotten the jump on all the other department stores for the winter fashions and fall sports trade. He had also turned the store into a madhouse at the exact time when Chester Pelton needed to give all his attention to the election.
Pressing the button that put on his private recognition signal, he rose above the incoming customers and began to drop toward the private landing stage, circling to get a view of the other four stages. Maybe the sale could be turned to some advantage, at that. A free souvenir with each purchase, carrying a Pelton-for-Senator picture-message—
He broke off, peering down at the five-hundred-foot-square landing stage above the central block, then brought his 'copter swooping down rapidly. The white-clad figures he had seen swarming up the helical escalator were not wearing the Ku Klux robes of the Independent-Conservative storm troops, as he had first feared—they were in Literate smocks, and among them were the black leather jackets and futuristic helmets of their guards. They were led, he saw, by Stephen S. Bayne, the store's Chief Literate; with him were his assistant, Literate Third Class Roger B. Feinberg, and the novices carrying books and briefcases and cased typewriters, and the guards, and every Literate employed in the store. Four or five men in ordinarily vivid-colored business suits were obviously expostulating about something. As he landed and threw back the transparent canopy, he could hear a babel of voices, above which Feinberg was crying: "Unfair! Unfair! Unfair to Organized Literacy!"
He jumped out and hurried over.
* * * * *
"But you simply can't!" a white-haired man in blue-and-orange business clothes was protesting. "If you do, the Associated Fraternities'll be liable for losses we incur; you know that!"
Bayne, his thin face livid with anger—and also, Cardon noticed, with what looked like a couple of fresh bruises—ignored him. Feinberg broke off his chant of "Unfair! Unfair!" long enough to answer:
"A Literate First Class has been brutally assaulted by the Illiterate owner of this store. Literate service for this store is, accordingly, being discontinued, pending a decision by the Grand Council of the local Fraternity."
Cardon grabbed the blue-and-orange clad man and dragged him to one side.
"What happened, Hutschnecker?" he demanded.
"They're walking out on us," Hutschnecker told him, unnecessarily. "The boss had a fight with Bayne; knocked him down a couple of times. Bayne tried to pull his tablet gun, and I grabbed it away from him, and somebody else grabbed Pelton before he could pull his, and a couple of store cops got all the other Literates in the office covered. Then Bayne put on the general-address system and began calling out the Literates—"
"Yes, but why did Pelton beat Bayne up?"
"Bayne made a pass at Miss Claire. I wasn't there when it happened; she came into the office—"
Cardon felt his face tighten into a frown of perplexity. That wasn't like Literate First Class Stephen S. Bayne. He made quite a hobby of pinching salesgirls behind the counter which was one thing; the boss' daughter was quite another.
"Where's Latterman?" he asked, looking around.
"Down in the office, with the others, trying to help Mr. Pelton. He's had another of those heart attacks—"
Cardon swore and ran for the descending escalator, running down the rotating spiral to the executive floor and jumping off into the gawking mob of Illiterate clerks crowded in the open doors of Pelton's office. He hit and shoved and elbowed and cursed them out of the way, and burst into the big room beyond, and then, for a moment, he was almost sorry he had come.
Pelton was slumped in his big relaxer chair, his face pale and twisted in pain, his breath coming in feeble gasps. His daughter was beside him, her blond head bent over him; Russell Latterman was standing to one side, watching intently. For an instant, Cardon was reminded of a tomcat watching a promising mouse hole.
"Claire!" Cardon exploded, "give him a nitrocaine bulb. Why are you all just standing around?"
Claire turned. "There are none," she said, looking at him with desperate eyes. "The box is empty; he must have used them all."
He shot a quick glance at Latterman, catching the sales manager before he could erase a look of triumph from his face. Things began to add up. Latterman, of course, was the undercover man for Wilton Joyner and Harvey Graves and the rest of the Conservative faction at Literates' Hall, just as he, himself, was Lancedale's agent. Obsessed with immediate advantages and disadvantages, the Joyner-Graves faction wanted to secure the re-election of Grant Hamilton, and the way things had been going in the past two months, only Chester Pelton's death could accomplish that. Latterman had probably thrown out Pelton's nitrocaine capsules and then put Bayne up to insulting Pelton's daughter, knowing that a fit of rage would bring on another heart attack, which could be fatal without the medicine.
"Well, send for more!"
"The prescription's in the safe," she said faintly.
The office safe was locked, and only a Literate could open it. The double combination was neatly stenciled on the door, the numbers spelled out as words and the letters spelled in phonetic equivalents. All three of them—himself, Claire, and Russell Latterman—could read them. None of them dared admit it. Latterman was fairly licking his chops in anticipation. If Cardon opened the safe, Pelton's campaign manager stood convicted as a Literate. If Claire opened it, the gaggle of Illiterate clerks in the doorway would see, and speedily spread the news, that the daughter of the arch-foe of Literacy was herself able to read. Maybe Latterman hadn't really intended his employer to die. Maybe this was the situation he had really intended to contrive.
Chester Pelton couldn't be allowed to die. If Grant Hamilton were returned to the Senate, the long-range planning of William Lancedale would suffer a crushing setback, and the public reaction would be catastrophic. The Plan comes first, Lancedale had told him. He made his decision, and then saw that he hadn't needed to make it. Claire had straightened, left her father, crossed quickly to the safe, and was kneeling in front of it, her back stiff with determination, her fingers busy at the dials, her eyes going from them to the printed combination and back again. She swung open the door, skimmed through the papers inside, unerringly selected the prescription, and rose.
"Here, Russ; go get it filled at once," she ordered. "And hurry!"
Oh, no, you don't, Cardon thought. One chance is enough for you, Russ. He snatched the prescription from her and turned to Latterman.
"I'll get it," he told the sales manager. "You're needed for the sale; stay on the job here."
"But with the Literates walked out, we can't—"
Cardon blazed: "Do I have to teach you your business? Have a sample of each item set aside at the counter, and pile sales slips under it. And for unique items, just detach the tag and put it with the sales slip. Now get out of here, and get cracking with it!" He picked up the pistol that had been taken from Pelton when he had tried to draw it on Bayne, checking the chamber and setting the safety. "Know how to use this?" he asked Claire. "Then hang onto it, and stay close to your father. This wasn't any accident, it was a deliberate attempt on his life. I'll have a couple of store cops sent in here; see that they stay with you."
He gave her no chance to argue. Pushing Latterman ahead of him, he drove through the mob of clerks outside the door.
"... Course she can; didn't you see her open the safe?" he heard. "... Nobody but a Literate—" "Then she's a Literate, herself!"
A couple of centuries ago, they would have talked like that if it had been discovered that the girl were pregnant; a couple of centuries before that, they would have been equally horrified if she had been discovered to have been a Protestant, or a Catholic, or whatever the locally unpopular religion happened to be. By noon, this would be all over Penn-Jersey-York; coming on top of Slade Gardner's accusations—
* * * * *
He ran up the spiral escalator, stumbling and regaining his footing as he left it. Bayne and his striking Literates were all gone; he saw a sergeant of Pelton's store police and went toward him, taking his spare identity-badge from his pocket.
"Here," he said, handing it to the sergeant. "Get another officer, and go down to Pelton's office. Show it to Miss Pelton, and tell her I sent you. There's been an attempt on Chester Pelton's life; you're to stay with him. Use your own judgment, but don't let anybody, and that definitely includes Russell Latterman, get at him. If you see anything suspicious, shoot first and ask questions afterwards. What's your name, sergeant?"
"Coccozello, sir. Guido Coccozello."
"All right. There'll be a medic or a pharmacist—a Literate, anyhow—with medicine for Mr. Pelton. He'll ask for you, by name, and mention me. And there'll be another Literate, maybe; he'll know your name, and use mine. Hurry, now, sergeant."
He jumped into his 'copter, pulled forward the plexiglass canopy, and took off vertically to ten thousand feet, then, orienting himself, swooped downward toward a landing stage on the other side of the East River, cutting across traffic levels with an utter contempt for regulations.
The building on which he landed was one of the principal pharmacies; he spiraled down on the escalator to the main floor and went directly to the Literate in charge, noticing that he wore on his Sam Browne not only the badges of retail-merchandising, pharmacist and graduate chemist but also that of medic-in-training. Snatching a pad and pencil from a counter, he wrote hastily: Your private office, at once; urgent and important.
Looking at it, the Literate nodded in recognition of Cardon's Literacy.
"Over this way, sir," he said, guiding Cardon to his small cubicle office.
"Here." Cardon gave him the prescription. "Nitrocaine bulbs. They're for Chester Pelton; he's had a serious heart attack. He needs these with all speed. I don't suppose I need tell you how many kinds of hell will break loose if he dies now and the Fraternities are accused, as the Illiterates' Organization will be sure to, of having had him poisoned."
"Who are you?" the Literate asked, taking the prescription and glancing at it. "That,"—he gestured toward Cardon's silver-laced black Mexican jacket—"isn't exactly a white smock."
Cardon had his pocket recorder in his hand. He held it out, pressing a concealed stud; the stylus-and-tablet insignia glowed redly on it for a moment, then vanished. The uniformed Literate nodded.
"Fill this exactly; better do it yourself, to make sure, and take it over to Pelton's yourself. I see you have a medic-trainee's badge. Ask for Sergeant Coccozello, and tell him Frank Cardon sent you." The Literate, who had not recognized him before, opened his eyes at the name and whistled softly. "And fix up a sedative to keep him quiet for not less than four nor more than six hours. Let me use your visiphone for a while, if you please."
The man in the Literate smock nodded and hurried out. Cardon dialed William R. Lancedale's private number. When Lancedale's thin, intense face appeared on the screen, he reported swiftly.
"The way I estimate it," he finished, "Latterman put Bayne up to making a pass at the girl, after having thrown out Pelton's nitrocaine bulbs. Probably told the silly jerk that Claire was pining away with secret passion for him, or something. Maybe he wanted to kill Pelton; maybe he just wanted this to happen."
"I assume there's no chance of stopping a leak?"
Cardon laughed with mirthless harshness. "That, I take it, was rhetorical."
"Yes, of course." Lancedale's face assumed the blank expression that went with a pause for semantic re-integration. "Can you cover yourself for about an hour?"
"Certainly. 'Copter trouble. Visits to campaign headquarters. An appeal on Pelton's behalf for a new crew of Literates for the store—"
"Good enough. Come over. I think I can see a way to turn this to advantage. I'm going to call for an emergency session of the Grand Council this afternoon, and I'll want you sitting in on it; I want to talk to you about plans now." He considered for a moment. "There's too much of a crowd at O'Reilly's, now; come the church way."
Breaking the connection, Cardon dialed again. A girl's face, over a Literate Third Class smock, appeared in the screen; a lovely golden voice chimed at him:
"Mineola High School; good morning, sir."
"Good morning. Frank Cardon here. Let me talk, at once, to your principal, Literate First Class Prestonby."
* * * * *
Ralph Prestonby cleared his throat, slipped a master disk into the recording machine beside his desk, and pressed the start button.
"Dear Parent or Guardian," he began. "Your daughter, now a third-year student at this school, has reached the age of eligibility for the Domestic Science course entitled, 'How To Win and Hold a Husband.' Statistics show that girls who have completed this valuable course are sooner, longer, and happier married than those who have not enjoyed its advantages. We recommend it most highly.
"However, because of the delicate nature of some of the visual material used, your consent is required. You can attach such consent to this disk by running it for at least ten seconds after the sign-off and then switching from 'Play' to 'Transcribe.' Kindly include your full name, as well as your daughter's, and place your thumbprint on the opposite side of the disk. Very sincerely yours, Literate First Class Ralph C. Prestonby, Principal."
He put the master disk in an envelope, checked over a list of names and addresses of parents and girl students, and put that in also. He looked over the winter sports schedule, and signed and thumbprinted it. Then he loaded the recorder with his morning's mail, switched to "Play," and started it. As he listened, he blew smoke rings across the room and toyed with a dagger, made from a file, which had been thrown down the central light-well at him a few days before. The invention of the pocket recorder, which put a half-hour's conversation on a half-inch disk, had done more to slow down business and promote inane correspondence than anything since the earlier inventions of shorthand, typewriters and pretty stenographers. Finally, he cleared the machine, dumping the whole mess into a basket and carrying it out to his secretary.
"Miss Collins, take this infernal rubbish and have a couple of the girls divide it between them, play it off, and make a digest of it," he said. "And here. The sports schedule, and this parental-consent thing on the husband-trapping course. Have them taken care of."
"This stuff," Martha Collins said, poking at the pile of letter disks. "I suppose about half of it is threats, abuse and obscenities, and the other half is from long-winded bores with idiotic suggestions and ill-natured gripes. I'll use that old tag line, again—'hoping you appreciate our brevity as much as we enjoyed yours—'"
"Yes. That'll be all right." He looked at his watch. "I'm going to make a personal building-tour, instead of using the TV. The animals are sort of restless, today. The election; the infantile compulsion to take sides. If you need me for anything urgent, don't use oral call. Just flash my signal, red-blue-red-blue, on the hall and classroom screens. Oh, Doug!"
Yetsko, his length of rubber hose under his arm, ambled out of Prestonby's private office, stopping to stub out his cigarette. The action reminded Prestonby that he still had his pipe in his mouth; he knocked it out and pocketed it. Together, they went into the hall outside.
"Where to, first, captain?" Yetsko wanted to know.
"Cloak-and-Dagger Department, on the top floor. Then we'll drop down to the shops, and then up through Domestic Science and Business and General Arts."
"And back here. We hope," Yetsko finished.
* * * * *
They took a service elevator to the top floor, emerging into a stockroom piled with boxes and crates and cases of sound records and cans of film and stacks of picture cards, and all the other impedimenta of Illiterate education. Passing through it to the other end, Prestonby unlocked a door, and they went down a short hall, to where ten or fifteen boys and girls had just gotten off a helical escalator and were queued up at a door at the other end. There were two Literate guards in black leather, and a student-monitor, with his white belt and rubber truncheon, outside the door.
Prestonby swore under his breath. He'd hoped they'd miss this, but since they hadn't, there was nothing for it but to fall in at the tail of the queue. One by one, the boys and girls went up, spoke briefly to the guards and the student-monitor, and were passed through the door, Each time, one of the guards had to open it with a key. Finally, it was Prestonby's turn.
"B, D, F, H, J, L, N, P, R, T, V, X, Y," he recited to the guardians of the door.
"A, C, E, G, I, K, M, O, Q, S, U, W, Y," the monitor replied solemnly. "The inkwell is dry, and the book is dusty."
"But tomorrow, there will be writing and reading for all," Prestonby answered.
The guard with the key unlocked the door, and he and Yetsko went through, into an utterly silent sound-proofed room, and from it into an inner, noisy, room, where a recorded voice was chanting:
"Hat—huh-ah-tuh. H-a-t. Box—buh-oh-ksss. B-o-x. Gun—guh-uh-nnn. G-u-n. Girl—guh-ih-rrr-lll," while pictures were flashed on a screen at the front, and words appeared under them.
There were about twenty boys and girls, of the freshman-year age-bracket at desk-seats, facing the screen. They'd started learning the alphabet when school had opened in September; now they had gotten as far as combining letters into simple words. In another month, they'd be as far as diphthongs and would be initiated into the mysteries of silent letters. Maybe sooner than that; he was finding that children who had not been taught to read until their twelfth year learned much more rapidly than the primary grade children in the Literate schools.
What he was doing here wasn't exactly illegal. It wasn't even against the strict letter of Fraternity regulations. But it had to be done clandestinely. What he'd have liked to have done would have been to have given every boy and girl in English I the same instruction this selected group was getting, but that would have been out of the question. The public would never have stood for it; the police would have had to intervene to prevent a riotous mob of Illiterates from tearing the school down brick by brick, and even if that didn't happen, the ensuing uproar inside the Fraternity would have blown the roof off Literates' Hall. Even Lancedale couldn't have survived such an explosion, and the body of Literate First Class Ralph N. Prestonby would have been found in a vacant lot the next morning. Even many of Lancedale's supporters would have turned on him in anger at this sudden blow to the Fraternities' monopoly of the printed Word.
So it had to be kept secret, and since adolescents in possession of a secret are under constant temptation to hint mysteriously in the presence of outsiders, this hocus-pocus of ritual and password and countersign had to be resorted to. He'd been in conspiratorial work of other kinds, and knew that there was a sound psychological basis for most of what seemed, at first glance, to be mere melodramatic claptrap.
He and Yetsko passed on through a door across the room, into another sound-proofed room. The work of soundproofing and partitioning the old stockroom had been done in the last semester of his first year at Mineola High, by members of the graduating class of building-trades students, who had then gone their several ways convinced that they had been working on a set of music-class practice rooms. The Board of Education had never even found out about it. In this second room, a Literate teacher, one of the Lancedale faction, had a reading class of twenty-five or thirty. A girl was on her feet, with a book in her hand, reading from it:
"We are not sure of sorrow; And joy was never sure; Today will die tomorrow; Time stoops to no man's lure; And love, grown faint and fretful With lips but half regretful Sighs, and with eyes forgetful Weeps that no loves endure."
Then she handed the book—it was the only copy—to the boy sitting in front of her, and he rose to read the next verse. Prestonby, catching the teacher's eye, nodded and smiled. This was a third-year class, of course, but from h-a-t spells hat to Swinburne in three years was good work.
There were three other classes, a total of little over a hundred students. There was no trouble; they were there for one purpose only—to learn. He spoke with one of the teachers, whose class was busy with a written exercise; he talked for a while to another whose only duty at the moment was to answer questions and furnish help to a small class who were reading silently from a variety of smuggled-in volumes.
"Only a hundred and twenty, out of five thousand," Yetsko said to him, as they were dropping down in the elevator by which they had come. "Think you'll ever really get anything done with them?"
"I won't. Maybe they won't," he replied. "But the ones they'll teach will. They're just a cadre; it'll take fifty years before the effects are really felt. But some day—"
The shops—a good half of the school was trades-training—were noisy and busy. Here Prestonby kept his hand on his gas-projector, and Yetsko had his rubber hose ready, either to strike or to discard in favor of his pistol. The instructors were similarly on the alert and ready for trouble—he had seen penitentiaries where the guards took it easier. Carpentry and building trades. Machine shop. Welding. 'Copter and TV repair shops—he made a minor and relatively honest graft there, from the sale of rebuilt equipment. Even an atomic-equipment shop, though there was nothing in the place that would excite a Geiger more than the instructor's luminous-dial watch.
Domestic Science—Home Decorating, Home Handicrafts, Use of Home Appliances, Beautician School, Charm School. He and Yetsko sampled the products of the Cooking School, intended for the cafeteria, and found them edible if uninspired.
Business—classes in recording letters, using Illiterate business-machines, preparing Illiterate cards for same, filing recordings—always with the counsel, "When in doubt, consult a Literate."
General Arts—Spanish and French, from elaborate record players, the progeny of the old Twentieth Century Linguaphone. English, with recorded-speech composition, enunciation training, semantics, and what Prestonby called English Illiterature. The class he visited was drowsing through one of the less colorful sections of "Gone With The Wind." World History, with half the students frankly asleep through an audio-visual on the Feudal System, with planted hints on how nice a revival of same would be, and identifying the clergy of the Middle Ages with the Fraternities of Literates. American History, with the class wide awake, since Custer's Massacre was obviously only moments away.
"Wantta bet one of those little cherubs doesn't try to scalp another before the day's out?" Yetsko whispered.
Prestonby shook his head. "No bet. Remember that film on the Spanish Inquisition, that we had to discontinue?"
It was then that the light on the classroom screen, which had been flickering green and white, suddenly began flashing Prestonby's wanted-at-office signal.
* * * * *
Prestonby found Frank Cardon looking out of the screen in his private office. The round, ordinarily cheerful, face was serious, but the innocent blue eyes were as unreadable as ever. He was wearing one of the new Mexican charro-style jackets, black laced with silver.
"I can't see all your office, Ralph," he said as Prestonby approached. "Are you alone?"
"Doug Yetsko's all," Prestonby said, and, as Cardon hesitated, added: "Don't be silly, Frank; he's my bodyguard. What could I be in that he wouldn't know all about?"
Cardon nodded. "Well, we're in a jam up to here." A handwave conveyed the impression that the sea of troubles had risen to his chin. He spoke at some length, describing the fight between Chester Pelton and Stephen S. Bayne, the Literate strike at Pelton's Purchasers' Paradise, Pelton's heart attack, and the circumstances of Claire's opening the safe. "So you see," he finished. "Maybe Latterman tried to kill Pelton, maybe he just tried to do what he did. I can't take chances either way."
Prestonby thought furiously. "You say Claire's alone at the store with her father?"
"And a couple of store cops, sterling characters with the hearts of lions and the brains of goldfish," Cardon replied. "And Russ Latterman, and maybe four or five Conservative goons he's managed to infiltrate into the store."
Prestonby was still thinking, aloud, now. "Maybe they did mean to kill Pelton; in that case, they'll try again. Or maybe they only wanted to expose Claire's literacy. It's hard to say what else they'd try—maybe kidnap her, to truth-drug her and use her as a guest-artist on a Conservative telecast. I'm going over to the store, now."
"That's a good idea, Ralph. If you hadn't thought of it, I was going to suggest it. Land on the central stage, ask for Sergeant Coccozello of the store police, and give my name. Even aside from everything else, it'd be a good idea to have somebody there who can read and dares admit it, till a new crew of Literates can get there. You were speaking about the possibility of kidnaping; how about the boy? Ray?"
Prestonby nodded. "I'll have him come here to my office, and stay there till I get back; I'll have Yetsko stay with him." He turned to where the big man in black leather stood guard at the door. "Doug, go get Ray Pelton and bring him here. Check with Miss Collins for where he'd be, now." He turned back to the screen. "Anything else, Frank?"
"Isn't that enough?" the brewer-Literate demanded. "I'll call you at the store, after a while. 'Bye."
The screen darkened as Cardon broke the connection. Prestonby got to his feet, went to his desk, and picked up a pipe, digging out the ashes from the bowl with an ice pick that one of the teachers had taken from a sixteen-year-old would-be murderer. He checked his tablet gun, made sure that there was an extra loaded clip in the holster, and got two more spare clips from the arms locker. Then, to make sure, he called Pelton's store, talking for a while to the police sergeant Cardon had mentioned. By the time he was finished, the door opened and Yetsko ushered Ray Pelton in.
"What's happened?" the boy asked. "Doug told me that the Senator ... my father ... had another heart attack."
"Yes, Ray. I don't believe he's in any great danger. He's at the store, resting in his office." He went on to tell the boy what had happened, exactly and in full detail. He was only fifteen, but already he had completed the four-year reading course and he could think a great deal more logically than seventy per cent of the people who were legally entitled to vote. Ray listened seriously, and proved Prestonby's confidence justified by nodding.
"Frame-up," he said succinctly. "Stinks like a glue factory of a put-up job. Something's going to happen to Russ Latterman, one of these days."
"I think you'd better let Frank Cardon take care of him, Ray," Prestonby advised. "I think there are more angles to this than he told me. Now, I'm going over to the store. Somebody's got to stay with Claire. I want you to stay here, in this room. If anybody sends you any message supposed to be from me, just ignore it. It'll be a trap. If I want to get in touch with you, I'll call you, with vision-image."
"Mean somebody might try to kidnap me, or Claire, to force the Senator to withdraw, or something?" Ray asked, his eyes widening.
"You catch on quickly, Ray," Prestonby commended him. "Doug, you stay with Ray till I get back. Don't let him out of your sight for an instant. At noon, have Miss Collins get lunches for both of you sent up; if I'm not back by fifteen-hundred, take him to his home, and stay with him there."
* * * * *
For half an hour, Frank Cardon made a flying tour of Radical-Socialist borough headquarters. Even at the Manhattan headquarters, which he visited immediately after his talk with Prestonby, the news had already gotten out. The atmosphere of optimistic triumph which had undoubtedly followed Mongery's telecast and his report on the Trotter Poll, had evaporated. The Literate clerical help was gathered in a tight knot, obviously a little worried, and just as obviously enjoying the reaction. In smaller and constantly changing groups, the volunteers, the paid helpers, the dirt-squirters, the goon gangs, gathered, talking in worried or frightened or angry voices. When Cardon entered and was recognized, there was a concerted movement toward him. His two regular bodyguards, both on leave from the Literate storm troops, moved quickly to range themselves on either side of him. With a gesture, he halted the others.
"Hold it!" he called. "I know what you're worried about. I was there when it happened, and saw everything."
He paused, to let them assimilate that, and continued: "Now get this, all of you! Our boss, and—if he lives—our next senator, was the victim of a deliberate murder attempt, by Literate First Class Bayne, who threw out his supply of nitrocaine bulbs and then goaded him into a heart attack which, except for his daughter, would have been fatal. Claire Pelton deserves the deepest gratitude of every Radical-Socialist in the state. She's a smart girl, and she saved the life of her father and our leader.
"But—she is not a Literate!" he cried loudly. "All she did was something any of you could have done—something I've done, myself, so that I won't be locked out of my own safe and have to wait for a Literate to come and open, it for me. She simply kept her eye on the Literates who were opening the safe, and learned the combination from the positions to which they turned the dial. And you believe, on the strength of that, that she's a Literate? The next thing, you'll be believing that professional liar of a Slade Gardner. And you call yourselves politicians!" He fairly gargled obscenities.