How Alpha Bet (and Won)

by Marc Luboff

It was a revolution carried out literally to the letter. A spectacular attack on the vernacular, a coup d'etat conducted right under our noses yet would remain forever in our ears, eyes and throats.

Let us assume that letters are like us. They enjoy being loved; they despise being forgotten. And yet, like us, many are forgotten, discarded. So neglected was one such character that before the uprising very few ever knew his name. Some called @ 'ampersat' (not to be confused with ampersand, which he commonly was), but mostly - from Spanish to French, Korean to Hungarian, Italian and even in the international language Esperanto - he was referred to simply as 'snail', a testimony to his misshapen appearance.

@ came to believe he had been cheated out of his birthright. Despite sharing the same roots as A (hence their visible similarities), he had been condemned to a life of obscurity while A had been treated like royalty since hieroglyphics went out of fashion. Whether it was as Alpha in Greek, Aleph in Hebrew or Arabic, or A in the alphabet, this upstart had continuously enjoyed prime placement while @ had never even been regarded as a mainstream character. True, he was somewhat deformed but so was Claudius and was he not one of Rome's finest emperors? It was time for Remous to strike first, for Esau to take back from Jacob what was rightly his.

There was, however, one crucial problem that first had to be overcome, a rule by which all characters were bound: there always needs to be at least one vowel. For reasons beyond the scope of this story, the sacrosanctity of that law was challenged by no-one - except, of course, by the populist demagogue Y who had built virtually his entire career by questioning others. "Why are the vowels the patricians of the character community? Why should they enjoy special privileges over the rest of us? Why are they so important that we cannot string sentences together without them?" He was tolerated only because it was understood that it was in Y's character to always ask "why?". It was as fundamental to his being as breathing was to the humans. And so an exception was made. Everyone else, however, had to go about their business in the traditional manner. If something was to be said or council needed to be called, a vowel had to be present. Without at least one @ was powerless but, fortunately for him (characters being like us), there is always someone whose weakness can be exploited.

E had no reason to feel cheated yet suddenly he did. He had always prided himself on being such an easy-going character, but it was time to stop that. Others were taking advantage of him. It was realization that came about after an innocent question by an obscure figure he barely knew.

"I have been told E that you are the most ubiquitous letter in the alphabet. Is this true?"

"It is", E replied proudly.

"Even more so than A?" the hunchback had asked.


"Then tell me E, why do you come after A in the alphabet and also in the order of vowels?"

E had no answer, not being anything he had ever considered himself, so he went to consult the other members of that all powerful cartel. But IOU, always a dodgy and dubious arrangement, were no help (are they ever?) and E was forced to go back to @ without an explanation. Seduced by promises of e-mail and e-commerce, E soon provided @ with exactly what he needed: voweled allegiance.

With this backing, @ was now able to call together the Great Council. All the characters of the character map were summoned - not that they needed to be: no-one was going to miss this parley. There hadn't been such an event since the Greek block attempted to save their deputy, ? (Beta Maximus), from extinction - and that was back in the 80's. It had been a battle, but in the end the council voted in favour of V, H, and S and the Greeks lost yet another battle to the forces of modernization. But that was ancient history. Everyone was now fixed solely on what was taking place right there and then, waiting to see if the rumours of a split within the big 5 were true.

E spoke first, describing in vague terms the motion as one in defence of equality, equity and freedom-loving individuals everywhere. Then he handed over the floor to his new bedfellow. All eyes were now on him, the snail, who was standing up as high as his Quasimodo hump would allow him and yet still he appeared bowed and frail. But this was the moment he had waited for all his life and he was not about to falter. As he looked out onto the curious curia, he knew that, for better of for worse, he had crossed the Rubicon, his die had been cast. He would win over the emotions of the masses and rise to the top, or else he would suffer a fate much worse than neglect.

He opened with an impassioned plea to all about brotherly love and universal principles of equality, liberty, and fraternity. Next he lambasted the privileged few whose lives of luxury came at the expense of the many. Then, in a sombre tone, he lamented the ills of abandonment and neglect and, as if to underscore to the point, he asked _ (underscore) if she could remember the last time she had been used. She could not she said softly, before breaking down in tears.

@ continued: "It's the perfect plot to bring us all back into the fold. A new high-tech jargon I call 'The Internet'. Of course the humans will be needed but they have no idea what it's really all about. They buy any old line we sell them. Our latest one is called 'The Paperless Office'. instead of Amazon soon gone. Ridiculous I know, but don't worry, no-one's gonna ask those native tribes in Brazil, I guarantee it. Now, who's with me?"

For a few moments there was nothing, only an ominous silence from a stunned crowd. What @ had just proposed was so radical, so unprecedented, that it was impossible to gauge what everybody else was thinking - and no-one wanted to act first. They looked around in bewilderment, shaken and stirred by what they had just witnessed. In their shock and awe they looked out at the hunched figure before them as if they had just heard a promise by Prometheus. And then suddenly there was movement.

The first to rise were the W brothers. These triplets, who did everything together, had often felt overlooked as figures of minimal importance. Next in line came C,O, and M and that too surprised no-one: the USSR had long since fallen but Commies were as red as ever, and longed to be as read as ever. After COM came / (slash) and then the floodgates just opened. Everyone was forced to pick a side, except, of course, Y who wanted to know "why can't I be neutral?".

The war would be fought across all lines, from little lounge rooms to the vast expanse of cyberspace. There was strike and counter-strike, dotcom booms and dotcom busts, viruses and cures (and all this time you thought the MyDoom virus was created by some fourteen year old computer geek from the Philippines). There were break-throughs in fibre optic technologies and stubborn technophobe grannies who just refused to give up the pen in favour of the keyboard. Napster was shut down; Kazaa and Grokster and E-donkey sprang forward like a hydra's head to fill in the void. Despite all their valiant attempts, the old order were simply unable to stem the tide of the information superhighway (as @'s forces, now based in the fortress-like region of Silicon Valley, were called). Nevertheless, they refused to go quietly. Their final attempt to halt the rebel advance came on the symbolic date of December 31st, 1999: Operation Y2K. Yet, for all its promise, it was a complete flop. Many dubbed it the anti-climax of the millennium, and on 01/01/00 they were forced to accept the regime as a fait accompli.

@ now emerged the alpha mail and ran the post with both speed and efficiency. He once again enjoyed the comparison to Claudius, who was also renowned for making great strides in improving the postal service of his day. And, like his favourite emperor, @ took his position most seriously: whenever anyone wanted to address him, they had to shift2 attention. And finally, in a cruel payback, he labelled any communication outside of his domain "snail-mail", declaring them as doomed as a snail in a Parisian restaurant.

Copyright © 2005 Marc Luboff.

A shorter (500 word) version of this story was one of the commended stories of the 2005 Magic Casements Flash Fiction competition sponsored by Infinitas Bookshop.

This page last updated 16th September 2008.