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ISFDB.org Magazine Entry



IF WORLDS of SCIENCE FICTION, JANUARY 1953

Victory hinges not always on the mightiest sword,
but often on lowly subterfuge. Here is a classic
example, with the Western World as stooge
!

CHECK and CHECKMATE

By Walter Miller Jr.

JOHN SMITH XVI, new President of the Western Federation of Autonomous States, had made a number of campaign promises that nobody really expected him to fulfill, for after all, the campaign and the election were only ceremonies, and the President—who had no real name of his own—had been trained for the executive post since birth. He had been elected by a popular vote of 603,217,954 to 130, the dissenters casting their negative by announcing that, for the sake of national unity, they refused to participate in any civilized activities during the President's term, whereupon they were admitted (voluntarily) to the camp for conscientious objectors.

But now, two weeks after his inauguration, he seemed ready to make good the first and perhaps most difficult promise of the lot: to confer by televiewphone with Ivan Ivanovitch the Ninth, the Peoplesfriend and Vicar of the Asian Proletarian League. The President apparently meant to keep to himself the secret of his success in the difficult task of arranging the interview in spite of the lack of any diplomatic contact between the nations, in spite of the Hell Wall, and the interference stations which made even radio communication impossible between the two halves of the globe. Someone had suggested that John Smith XVI had floated a note to Ivan IX in a bottle, and the suggestion, though ludicrous, seemed not at all unlikely.

John XVI seemed quite pleased with himself as he sat with his staff of Primary Stand-ins in the study of his presidential palace. His face, of course, was invisible behind 'the golden mask of the official helmet, the mask of tragedy with its expression of pathos symbolizing the self-immolation of public service—as well as protecting the President's own personal visage from public view, and hence from assassination in unmasked private life, for not only was he publicly nameless, but also publicly faceless and publicly unknown as an individual. But despite the invisibility of his expression, his contentment became apparent by a certain briskness of gesticulation and a certain smugness in his voice as he spoke to the nine Stand-ins who were also bodyguards, council-members, and advisors to the chief executive.

"Think of it, men," he sighed happily in his smooth tenor, slightly muffled by the mask. "Communication with the East—after forty years of the Big Silence. A great moment in history, perhaps the greatest since the last peace-effort."

The nine men nodded dutifully. The President looked around at them and chuckled.

"'Peace-effort'," he echoed, spitting the words out distinctly as if they were a pair of phonetic specimens. "Do you remember what it used to be called—in the middle of the last century?"

A brief silence, then a Stand-in frowned thoughtfully. "Called it 'war', didn't they, John?"

"Precisely." The golden helmet nodded crisply. "'War'—and now 'peace-effort'. Our semantics has progressed. Our present 'security-probe' was once called 'lynch'. 'Social-security' once meant a limited insurance plan, not connoting euthanasia and sterilization for the ellie-moes. And that word 'elliemoe'— once eleemosynary—was once applied to institutions that took care of the handicapped."

He waited for the burst of laughter to subside. A Stand-in, still chuckling, spoke up.

"It's our institutions that have evolved, John."

"True enough," the President agreed. "But as they changed, most of them kept their own names. Like 'the Presidency'. It used to be rabble-chosen, as our ceremonies imply. Then the Qualifications Amendment that limited it to the psychologically fit. And then the Education Amendment prescribed other qualifying rules. And the Genetic Amendment, and the Selection Amendment, and finally the seclusion and depersonalization. Until it gradually got out of the rabble's hands, except symbolically." He paused. "Still, it's good to keep the old names. As long as the names don't change, the rabble is happy, and say, 'We have preserved the Pan-American way of life'."

"While the rabble is really impotent," added a Stand-in.

"Don't say that!" John Smith XVI snapped irritably, sitting quickly erect on the self-conforming couch. "And if you believe it, you're a fool." His voice went sardonic. "Why don't you try abolishing me and find out?"

"Sorry, John. I didn't mean—"

THE PRESIDENT stood up and paced slowly toward the window where he stood gazing between the breeze-stirred drapes at the sunswept city of Acapulco and at the breakers rolling toward the distant beach.

"No, my power is of the rabble," he confessed, "and I am their friend." He turned to look at them and laugh. "Should I build my power on men like you? Or the Secondary Stand-ins? Baa! For all your securities, you are still stooges. Of the rabble. Do you obey me because I control military force? Or because I control rabble? The latter I think. For despite precautions, military forces can be corrupted. Rabble cannot. They rule you through me, and I rule you through them. And I am their servant because I have to be. No tyrant can survive by oppression."

A gloomy hush followed his words. It was still fourteen minutes before time for the televiewphone contact with Ivan Ivanovitch IX. The President turned back to the "window". He stared "outside" until he grew tired of the view. He pressed a button on the wall. The window went black. He pressed another button, which brought another view: Pike's Peak at sunset. As the sky gathered gray twilight, he twisted a dial and ran the sun back up again.

The palace was built two hundred feet underground, and the study was a safe with walls of eight-inch steel. It lent a certain air of security.

The historic moment was approaching. The Stand-ins seemed nervous. What changes had occurred behind the Hell Wall, what new developments in science, what political mutations? Only rumors came from beyond the Wall, since the last big peace-effort which had ended in stalemate and total isolation. The intelligence service did the best that it could, but the picture was fuzzy and incomplete. There was still "communism", but the word's meaning had apparently changed. It was said that the third Ivan had been a crafty opportunist but also a wise man who, although he did nothing to abolish absolutism, effected a bloody reformation in which the hair-splitting Marxist dogmatics had been purged. He appointed the most pragmatic men he could find to succeed them, and set the whole continental regime on the road to a harsh but practical utilitarian civilization.

A slogan had leaked across the Wall recently: "There is no God but a Practical Man; there is no Law but a Best Solution," and it seemed to affirm that the third Ivan's influence had continued after his passing—although the slogan itself was a dogma. And it might mean something quite nonliteral to the people who spoke it. The rabble of the West were still stirred to deep emotion by a thing that began, "When in the course of human events—" and they saw nothing incongruous about Tertiary Stand-ins who quoted it in the name of the Federation's rule.

But the unknown factor that disturbed the President most was not the present Asian political or economic situation, but rather, the state of scientific development, particularly as it applied to military matters. The forty years of noncommunication had not been spent in military stasis, at least not for the West. Sixty percent of the federal budget was still being spent for defense. Powerful new weapons were still being developed, and old ones pronounced obsolete. The seventh John Smith had even conspired to have a conspiracy against himself in Argentina, with resulting civil war, so that the weapons could be tested under actual battle conditions—for the region had been overpopulated anyway. The results had been comforting—but John the Sixteenth wanted to know more about what the enemy was doing.

THE HELL WALL—which was really only a globe-encircling belt of booby-trapped land and ocean, guarded from both sides—had its political advantages, of course. The mysterious do...

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