PAUL BIRCHCALLUM'S CHRISTMAS MONEY
The nearest thing to a common currency was the Habitat Authority share money used for interbank clearing, and occasionally for interkeep trade. Most of the major banks also issued bearer shares, and these were in general circulation for personal use and private savings. But the multitudinous floating exchange rates were unquestionably troublesome and it was widely accepted that it would be far more efficient to limit circulation to a single general-purpose currency of known value. Consequently, the frequent calls for rationalisation were promptly met by resort to interkeep warfare or pistols at twenty paces. After all, this was MacRobert's World.
Martha thought it the best Christmas ever. As befitted her advanced years (very nearly almost thirteen) her Uncle Obadiah had bought her a trip to the City, all expenses paid, and her innumerable relatives had given her enough money to buy herself plenty of presents. There wasn't a lot to buy in the keep, but in the City . . . well!
Martha had never been to the City. Till now, Wider Kansas had been her whole life. Wider Kansas was pleasant enough, but boring. From the main keep a plain as flat as piece of paper stretched as far as the telescope could reach, a thousand miles in all directions. A few houses dotted the plain, and once in a long while two or three of them accidentally came within a mile or so of each other, thereby constituting what in Wider Kansas passed as a settlement. Wider Kansas was so dull that in the one hundred and seventeen years since its foundation it had entirely failed to fight a single war. Wider Kansas couldn't even manage a home-grown noble family; for most of its recent history it had been under absentee lordship or in receivership. Only at Christmas did a faint whiff of cosmopolitanism ever ruffle its bucolic nothingness.
On the boost-and-glide from Grand Aspen such a diversity of landscapes as Martha had scarcely imagined paraded before her eyes; rivers, lakes, mountains, seas; an archipelago wider than Wider Kansas and an ocean that seemed to span the globe. The spaceplane swooped over the woods and villages and rolling hills that ringed the City, touching down in a plume of spray on a lake some miles short of the metropolis itself. The final leg into town, through scenes of stunning architectural variety and arboreal and horticultural beauty, was by shuttle railway, as strange to Martha as the preceding flight, for tourist conveyances of any sort were unknown in Wider Kansas, where the subsurface transport web fulfilled all their needs cheaply, efficiently and with a total want of excitement.
Martha wandered round the City's main shopping centre in a daze, battered by a riot of sense impressions beyond her weirdest dreams. Sky-scraping shops selling everything from underwear to rockets and tiny kiosks selling hot dogs, banana splits and chubby dolls with three eyes. Fiddlers and jugglers and lunatics pretending to be statues. A cacophony of sound spilled from every store, street vendors uttered curious cries and competing brass bands hogged the street corners. And the smells! Aromas appetising and repulsive contended with wafts of perfume and the fragrances of flowers and chocolate and coffee. Martha hardly knew where to begin.
What would Uncle Obadiah suggest? She knew that one. "When in doubt, eat!"
Two steps forward, one step sidewards to dodge a fat lady with a squalling brat, then three steps very rapidly backwards to get out of the path of an even fatter man barrelling along the pavement like a very fat man barrelling along the pavement, a pirouette starting on the spot and ending several yards away and a dizzy recovery brought her to a food stand. "One cheesy whopperburger with onion, please."
"That'll be twenty milligrams, miss."
Martha struggled to pull her money envelope from her inside breast pocket. "How much is that in Kansas money, please?"
The vendor withdrew the whopperburger. "Sorry miss, only City money here." He waved across the road. "One of the big department stores will change it for you."
Martha tore her gaze from the whopperburger and thanked him politely, turning away quickly before the tear pricking the corner of her eye could work loose. She'd thought they were supposed to sell you things in the City, not turn down your money as if it wasn't worth their while to serve you. As if you weren't worth their while, just 'cause you weren't one of them.
Once inside Bustles she cheered up a bit. There were so many things to buy, dozens, no, hundreds, no, thousands of times as many as she could possibly afford, and she wanted everything. Well, maybe not that inflatable hat with built in drinks cooler. Or the talking chamber pot. But nearly everything.
The prices were all in gold grams. "I wonder how much I've got?" She fingered the notes in her envelope. "I'll start with this silver swimsuit, anyway. It's so nearly not there at all that it can't cost much." She took it over to the sales counter.
"Can I pay with this money?" she asked.
"Certainly, madam. Wider Kansas dollars? If you'll allow me I'll just check the exchange rate." The assistant turned to his screen. A worried frown crossed his face. "I'm sorry, madam, but there seems to be a slight difficulty. According to our information, Wider Kansas dollars are designated local fiat currency only."
"What does that mean?" asked Martha.
"I'm afraid we can't accept them. They're not worth anything outside Wider Kansas. Do you have any other means of payment?"
Wordlessly, Martha shook her head.
When Callum got back to his office that evening he found the girl sobbing in the doorway. This was unexpected. "Er . . . hello," he said doubtfully. "You're not trying to sell me some matches, are you, by any chance?"
"Never mind." He opened the door and ushered her inside. "Now, what can I do for you?" He pulled out his handkerchief, peered at it, then changed his mind. "I think there's some tissue here somewhere." He looked uncertainly round the room.
"I didn't know anyone else to come to," she said, brushing away the tears with impatient fingers.
"Do I know you? You do look vaguely familiar."
She looked up at that. "In what way?"
Callum shrugged. "Oh, two eyes, a nose, stuff like that."
The girl gave a reluctant grin. "I'm Martha," she said. "From Wider Kansas."
"Ah!" Callum felt he was getting up to speed at last. "I did your Christmas on Wednesday. But what are you doing here?"
She told him. "Nobody wants Kansas dollars at all. I couldn't even spend a penny."
"Oh," said Callum. "There's one down the hall out there."
She shook her head. "I didn't mean that. I went in the station, anyhow. I just couldn't think what to do with no money."
"You could have phoned home," Callum pointed out.
"I'd rather die!"
"Hum. Well, yes. I see your point. Of course, even fiat currencies aren't normally that illiquid. Did you try a bank?"
"They said something about the sovereignty being in receivership and gave me a lollipop."
"I see," said Callum again.
"Mind you," the girl added, "it was quite a good lollipop."
"What you really need," said Callum thoughtfully, "is the sort of Christmas money you can spend anywhere."
And that was the start of Callum's Christmas Money. In denominations from one to a hundred Santas Callum's bearer notes were large, ornate and shiny, with real gold decoration a tenth micron thick, and scenes of ice-skating clergymen and stags at bay. The hundred Santa note carried a particularly fine reproduction of Rubens' Adoration of the Magi, while the one Santa note boasted a pair of red-nosed clowns pouring water down each others' trousers. Soon people in even the most lonely keeps could purchase gifts of Christmas Money, which the eager recipients could spend or exchange not only in their home keeps, but anywhere on MacRobert's they happened to be. Even the big City stores were happy to handle the new Christmas currency, once Poors and Michels had given it the thumb's up; and Callum didn't do so badly out of it himself.
As for Martha, she decided she'd had enough of the City and spent the following Christmas on a farm deep in the heart of Wider Kansas, where there was absolutely positively nothing whatsoever to buy at all.
© Paul Birch, 20th Dec. 2000.