“The Phoenix Narrative”
(Part 6 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
As Beth coasted down a curving stretch of Arizona 95, she gently squeezed the handgrips on her bicycle, engaging the home-built regenerating brakes. She hesitated briefly, smiled, and leaned into a right turn onto Parker Dam Road.
A few years earlier, before the economy cratered and governments around the world fell apart, she might have driven the ninety-miles back from Lingman without a second thought. Even now, with gasoline so hard to come by, she’d made the trip out in an afternoon, thanks to the damaged baby steam engine rattling around in her saddle basket. But the ride back had taken considerably longer because Norwyn Rosset, the cretin she’d gone to thank for his part in bringing the world to its knees, had kicked the overtaxed machine from it’s mountings after it succumbed to the stress of pushing them both up a hill.
Parker Dam had been a touchstone to her even before she’d moved to Parker to escape the rat race her engineering degree had sucked her into. Towards the end of the corporatists’ reign, new hires out of school were like a drug to penny-pinching managers eager to consign their senior, and more expensive, employees to the growing ranks of the unemployed. But like many of her cohort, she’d taken strength from the global Occupation movement and chose to strike out on her own rather than help her moneyed masters further drive down the value of human labor.
After parking her bike on the untraveled roadway high atop the curving concrete dam, Beth turned her back to Lake Havasu and drifted towards the southern railing. She took a deep breath, and cast the anger she’d worked up against Rosset to the gentle breeze, imagining it drifting down over the Colorado River, where it was absorbed and cleansed by the flowing water. Then her gaze lifted, across the rocky horizon, and up into the early evening sky. She smiled as she envisioned herself soaring low over the river, down past Lake Moovalva and Headgate Rock Dam in the steam-powered ultralight of her imagination.
“Someday,” she told the river, “I’m going to skim your length not much higher than this. Someday.” But first, she reminded herself, she needed to get back to Parker. Dusk was falling, and she knew that pedal-powered headlights were neither as dependable nor as bright as steam-powered ones.
Rather than returning to Arizona 95, she continued across the dam and rode the last leg home on the California side of the river. But before re-crossing to Parker, she stopped at a bakery she favored to pick up a treat for Peter.
“Elspeth!” chirped the craggy proprietress as she opened the door. “I didn’t hear the unmistakable sound of your handiwork. Something wrong with your steamer?”
She nodded and glanced back towards her bike. “Yeah, Roz. That jerk I tracked down in Lingman kicked it free after it gave out on the way back here.”
“I trust you didn’t cart him the rest of the way home, then.”
“No. Last I saw him, he’d taken my bike and was trying to pedal it back to civilization. Didn’t make it, though. Well, at least I don’t think he did. In any case, he took my pistol before ditching the bike and setting out cross-country on foot.”
“You think he might’ve shot himself?”
“Not likely. I still have the bullet.”
Roz grabbed a small sack and started to fill it with scones. “That’s too bad. Weren’t you planning to barter it for something?”
“Yeah. But I’ll be okay. The repair shop’s doing better, now that Peter’s helping out. Which reminds me, that’s what I stopped in for, to get a treat for him. I hadn’t expected to go missing for this long.”
She made a face when Beth held out some money. “Put those Angels back, dear. The treats are on me this time.”
It was nearly closing time when Beth rolled up in front of her repair shop, but the lights were still on, and she could hear her protégé arguing with someone inside.
“You heard me, kid,” the customer thundered, “I don’t want any of those stinking Phoenix notes. Give me my change in L.A. Angels or I swear to God I’ll torch this place!”
Beth grabbed the scones and opened the door.
“Elspeth!” Peter said, surprised.
The customer wheeled to face her. “Where the hell have you been? I came to pick up my cultivator and this idiot here tried to make change with defective money.” He waved the notes at her and slammed them on the counter. “These!”
Beth put her bag down and glanced at the contested money. They were the colorful Phoenix notes that she’d gotten from some customers passing through on their way to the coast. “Look, Frank,” she said, “if you’re happier with money starring dead actors and designed by a convicted counterfeiter, fine. I think I’ve got enough here to cover your change. But please, don’t take your anger out on Peter. He is the one who repaired your John Deere knock-off, after all.”
Frank snatched the bills out of her hand and glared angrily at the teenager. “Fine. But don’t expect me to come back any time soon. Next time I need something fixed, I’ll take it to an American patriot, not some goddam Indian scam artist!”
Peter winced at the remark, but held his peace as Frank stormed out into the night. When he turned to look at Beth, she was grinning happily and offering him a scone. “Thanks,” he said, taking it. “You were gone a long time. Did you run into some kind of trouble in Lingman?”
She nodded, and picked up one of the Phoenix notes that Frank had refused. “It was worth it, though. Before that jerk made off with my bike, he told me about a scheme he’d heard about for keeping money in circulation. Of course, from his perspective, that was a horrible thing to do, because his kind would rather hoard it. But I do know why the background pattern on these things faded.”
“Mmm-hmm. The cagey folks in Phoenix printed their money with a number of different ink blends, each one crafted to fade after a different period of time. According to Rosset, as each component of the design fades, the exchange value drops.”
Peter touched the faded screening beside the heavily saturated phoenix design. “By how much?”
“That was the last bit he heard about before the big telecoms went bust and their networks shut down. These bills have already lost ten percent of their value. When the phoenix loses its tail, they’ll fall to three-quarters of the face value, and so on.”
Peter touched the printed phoenix’s tail and checked for ink marks. “Clever. But what’s the point?”
“When you’re paid with this kind of money, what you’re supposed to do is take it to the bank. They exchange it for fresh, unfaded bills. The ones that are turned in are then stripped and reprinted for the next go-round. So the only people who need to worry are the ones who sit on their cash instead of spending it, and you can tell who they are because the money gives them away.”
He took another bite of scone. “So how did they end up in Parker?”
“Travelers,” Beth said as she counted the till. “Some people from Phoenix came through town a few months ago. They needed supplies and repairs, and this was what they had for money. Of course, they didn’t bother to tell me about the little trick they do.”
“Dollars must be pretty much worthless everywhere by now, I guess.”
“Well, sure. There’s nothing to back them up any more. Not like the L.A. Angels, which are based on the value of an hour’s labor, or the Phoenix notes, which are based on the value of a standard basket of locally grown food. But it does present us with a problem.”
He looked up. “Oh?”
“Mmm-hmm. Do we honor the narrative that adjusts the value of a Phoenix, or do we continue to accept it at face value?”
Peter raised his eyebrows. “Frank didn’t want to do either one.”
“I know. And that’s why we need to call a town meeting.”
“Okay, okay!” the facilitator shrilled, her hands spread for order. “The only way we’re going to make any sense out of this is if we give one another a chance to speak.” It had taken a few days to get the town meeting scheduled, but only a few moments for it to succumb to chaos. “Elspeth,” she said calmly, “you requested this meeting, and it appears that you’re the only one with an explanation for what’s happening to the money from Phoenix.”
She nodded. “That’s right.”
“Hearsay,” someone shouted from across the room. “Where’s your proof?”
Peter hopped onto a chair and was about to yell back when Beth tapped him on the leg and he relented.
The facilitator shot the man a dirty look before continuing. “That’s as good a place to start as any, I guess,” she said amiably. “Beth?”
“It’s like this,” she said, “I spoke to a man named Norwyn Rosset last week in Lingman. He’s one of the people responsible for the fall of the Dollar, and with it, the US government. I’d gotten a lead on his whereabouts from the folks that came through from Phoenix a few months back. It seems that Rosset had been hiding out in Lingman, but then he got stranded when the few people still living there ditched town on him.”
“Then let him speak!” someone called out.
“Yeah,” another voice chimed in, “where’s Rosset?”
Beth shook her head in frustration. “He’s not here. I tried to bring him back with me, but he stole my bike and disappeared. I found it later, but he’d taken my gun and set off on foot.”
“So what you’re saying,” the facilitator said, “is that you’re our sole source for this explanation, barring other visitors from Phoenix. Is that correct?”
“I’m afraid so, yes.”
“In that case,” the founder of the local credit union said, “all we can do is judge Beth’s explanation on its merits, since we don’t have anything official to back it up. The way I see it, we’ve got three choices. One, we decide to not recognize Phoenix money at all here, two, we accept Elspeth’s explanation and let these notes devalue themselves to nothing, or three, we ignore the explanation and use them at their face vale.”
“Rubbish,” a voice rumbled. “All we need to do is send someone to Phoenix. Then we’ll know whether this cockamamie scheme holds any water.” It was the grossly overweight bully who had been the branch manager of a now-defunct bank.
“Great idea, Tom,” Beth shot back. “You hobble right over there, and we’ll just not spend any Phoenix money until you return.”
The raucous laughter that followed was cut short by a resounding crash as the double doors burst open and the young tech who’d set up the town’s open-source cell towers rushed in clutching a phone. “It’s fire and rescue,” he said breathlessly, eyes wide. “Roz’s bakery’s in flames and she’s trapped inside.”
“Oh my god!” Beth breathed, color draining from her face. “Frank.”
“Francis Stoneway. He threatened to burn down my shop when Peter offered him Phoenix money as change. Those travelers stopped at Roz’s, too, and Frank likes donuts!”
The young man held up a finger while listening intently to the phone. “They’re going in after her,” he said, glancing around the crowd. Then he winced, and asked the caller, “what was that?”
The crowd drew closer. A few people clasped hands.
He swallowed, and lowered the phone. “They were… they were just inside when the roof fell on her.”
Beth collapsed into a chair and cried.
Several people conferred with the tech for a few minutes. He made calls to some of the other working groups, passing instructions from those present. Even though Parker no longer had a formal police force, Frank would nevertheless be found and brought in for questioning.
“Okay people,” the facilitator said a few minutes later, “we still have to decide what to do about the Phoenix money that‘s circulating here in Parker.” She paused for a moment and glanced nervously around the room. “Even if Frank wasn’t responsible for that fire, he, or someone else who refuses to accept the Phoenix money, might do something stupid.”
“Damn right,” Tom shouted. “I say we just refuse to honor the crap!”
“Do you,” Beth asked sarcastically, rising to her feet. “So tell me, exactly how much Phoenix money have you accepted?”
“Not one bit. I know real money when I see it.”
“That’s a laugh,” she said, pulling an Angel out of her wallet and holding it up. “And what exactly makes these things real for you? Is it the pictures of dead actors, or the fact that they were designed by a convicted counterfeiter?”
“What’s important,” he said angrily, “is that it’s backed by gold.”
“Gold? Can’t you even read? It says right on the back that Angels embody the hard work and good faith of the people who labor for the betterment of Los Angeles.“
“I think we’re getting sidetracked here,” the facilitator said. “It’s ludicrous to argue about which city’s money is real and which one isn’t. What makes any money real is people’s willingness to use it. Our problem is what to do about the fact that at least one person here in Parker is in violent opposition to using it.”
“Excuse me,” Peter said tentatively, “can I say something?”
“Well, it seems to me that if the people in Parker refuse to accept the Phoenix money, we’d be alienating an awful lot of people who ought to be our allies.”
“Allies?” Tom shot back. “What the hell do we need them for?”
“Well, for one thing,” someone replied, “they buy a lot of what we make here.”
“Besides,” Peter went on, “if we accept the money but reject the explanation for the fading ink, there’s no reason for us to accept the labor conversion for Angels either. The only way we can survive as a community is if we agree on some common principles. I say we accept the Phoenix narrative, and talk with the people there about setting up a printing operation in Parker so we can refresh any of their money that’s spent here, and extend the territory where it’s accepted.”
Beth looked at him agape. “I thought you came to work for me because you wanted to build things. And now you want to be a banker?”
“Of course not,” he laughed. “What I want to do is build the printing press.”
(The story continues in “Steam Cycle“)
Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack