Short Story: “Bankers from Outer Space”

Con men come in all shapes and sizes, but the worst of them come from Earth.

“Bankers from Outer Space”
by P. Orin Zack

“I don’t understand, Captain Gruthner. You did what?”

Irwin Polk, Vice President for Interstellar Affairs at UniBank, Earth’s third largest financial services conglomerate, was busy looking through the balance sheet of a recent acquisition, and was only peripherally aware of the conversation he’d been having with the man he’d sentenced to an extended contract in the farthest reaches of space for reasons he’d long since forgotten. He glanced briefly at the distorted image hovering over his desk, frowned, and dug in his pocket for the memopod he’d offloaded it to, along with lots of other unsavory memories. That’s right, he thought as the gadget reflashed his brain, Gruthner was plagued by a case of ethics.

“I sold them a mutual outsourcing scheme, sir. They’re each going to sub out the work they’re not good at to the other. UniBank will serve as intermediary.”

Having been snared once or twice in bad deals, Polk knew the importance of conducting background checks on any new clients. “Who are you babbling about, Lester?”

The truncated image of a balding nebbish composed itself and leaned towards the camera. “The Ghrilsjorm and the Plurfl, sir. The system you sent me to has two planets in the Goldilocks Zone. Both worlds developed commercially viable civilizations, but because their environments are so different, they never bothered to visit one another, preferring instead to be what you might call planetary pen pals. They talk a lot, but they’d rather stay home and knit than go exploring.”

“And you’ve sold them something they both need.”

“Well, not exactly need, Mr. Polk. But we’ve convinced them it would be to their advantage, and they agreed to our terms.”

The VP laid his hands over the spreadsheet, his attention now wholly on his former protégé. “Which are?”

“For one thing, all of their transactions will be conducted through accounts I’ve set up for them. Since they have different currencies, each one gets converted to ours first, so we can keep an accurate and unbiased tally of their balance of trade.”

“What kind of work exactly are they trading… these… what are they called?”

“They call themselves Ghrilsjorm and Plurfl, respectively. The Ghrilsjorm, are better at science and math related enterprises; the Plurfl at artistic ones. It’s a pretty ordinary match-up, really. We’ve done it before, even back home on Earth.”

“And I suppose we’re raking off some service charge?”

“No sir. Both races consider that to be unethical. As far as they’re concerned, the role of an intermediary is nothing more than a glorified bit of wire, so they balked at the suggestion that they pay for our assistance in the transaction.”

Polk snorted contemptuously. “If that’s how they feel about it,” he said, “why hadn’t they set up an arrangement like this on their own already? All it takes is money, after all.”

“And some communications gear. Yes, sir. That is true. But they’d never be able to afford the kind of hookup we’re using. I would imagine that the cost of buying this gear and keeping it running would easily bankrupt them. They’d be limited to far more rudimentary means of contact. But that’s not the essential difficulty.”

“Then what is? I do hope you’ll get to the point soon, Lester. I have better things to do with my time than listen to your incessant whining. What is their problem?”

“To cut to the heart of it, sir, it’s assigning a value to things in a foreign currency. Each planet has already got a dominant currency. They’re completely competent to perform whatever conversions are needed between that and the minor ones that are still used in various out-of-the-way places on their own world. They can do this because there’s at least some bit of overlap, some places where people are able to use more than one kind of money to pay for the same bit of goods or services. But that’s not the case between the two worlds. They’ve never made any sort of exchange that called for payment from one to the other. That’s what’s different, sir.”

“Tell me something, then. What’s backing their money?”

“Backing it sir? I don’t understand. All of our money is created at will. When a bank gets a request for funds, it simply nets out a matching debit and credit. What are you talking about?”

“It’s arcane, but long before we figured out how to create wealth the way the universe creates matter, people used to exchange objects that had some intrinsic value, like a precious metal, for whatever goods or services they wanted. From what I’ve read, the practice made it extremely difficult to generate new wealth, because first you had to dig the stuff out of the ground.”

Gruthner made a face. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I never kid. I thought you might have learned that by now. Or have you forgotten what got you that assignment in the first place?”

The captain wilted. “No, sir. Do you have to keep bringing that up?”

“Be that as it may,” Polk said gently, satisfied that he had reasserted his dominance in the exchange, “would you answer my question? What is backing their money?”

“Well, from what I’ve learned about the Ghrilsjorm, I’d have to say that it’s equivalent to some calculated percentage of the labor performed by a typical government statistician. They do have a tendency to revert to that metric whenever a contract is drawn up.”

“And the others? What did you call them? The Purple?”

“Plurfl, sir. I mispronounced it that way once, and horrified the gentleman I was speaking with. Apparently, purple translates into a rather crude reference to a popular work of fiction. A horror story, as I understand. In any case, the Plurfl always fall back to a metric based on the time it takes to complete one of their more advanced exercises in symbolic morphology.”

“Come again?”

“Symbolic morphology, sir. It means assigning meaning to a change in something. They use it in a great deal of their art.”

Polk threw up his hands. “It doesn’t really matter. The point is that both cultures use a measure of labor to peg the value of their principal currency. So there is a commonality to work with.”

“Except, sir,” Gruthner said meekly, “that they have no way to evaluate the relationship between these two measures of value. Neither planet has even a single person able to creditably perform the task used by the other as the basis of their money. They can’t work out an exchange rate between them until that becomes possible.”

“And you proposed a solution that they both accepted?”

“I did, sir.”

Polk studied the man’s image for a moment, hovering there over his desk. Was it possible that he’d finally become useful for something other than keeping some assets in play? “What did you propose?”

“Well, sir, I explained to them that I represented an institution with access to a number of different intelligent races, each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses, much like them, and that all of these races had worked out a conversion rate between their own money and the one used for keeping UniBank’s own books in order. I further suggested that among those races there existed some that could perform their standard tasks well enough to represent their interests in the conversion. And because those other races had already established a conversion to our currency, it could serve as the intermediary.”

“What are you blathering about, Lester? There are no other races.”

“Yes, sir, that’s true, but they don’t know that. They’ve taken my word for it, and are awaiting the results of our tests.”

“So you’re going to fabricate whole civilizations just to give them a reason to do business with us?”

“Of course. Lying is what we’re best at, after all. But all that is just window-dressing. The real genius in my scheme, if I do say so myself, is the set of exchange rates I’ve worked out for them.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

Captain Gruthner grinned broadly. “I was hoping that you might find this profitable enough to put in a good word for me, sir. To finally relieve me of this assignment I’ve been on.”

“I’m still waiting, Lester.”

“In a typical outsourcing arrangement, the labor rate is cheaper on the far end. So even if you’re paying the equivalent salary, in terms of buying locally produced goods and services, the amount of money is less, so you profit on the exchange. The people getting the outsourcing live just as well as the people you’d taken the jobs from did while they were still employed. And unless they have some way to directly compare their salaries, they think they are on par with one another. And that’s the secret to the whole scheme, because these two races will never be able to do that. You see, sir, I’ve got it worked out such that each currency is worth less than the other. We make a profit on the conversion in both directions. As I said, it’s a mutual outsourcing deal. What do you think?”

Irwin Polk leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “I think we could use you back at the home office, Captain. Consider your assignment complete. That sort of inventiveness deserves to be rewarded. In fact, now that you’ve set this precedent, we can replicate it elsewhere.”

“Thank you, sir. That’s very kind.”

“Of course, if this scheme ever unravels, it was all your idea.”

Copyright 2007 by P. Orin Zack


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