There was a tangible air of anticipation and worry in the Star Chamber of the Universal Bank as the Twelve Supreme Presidents took their seats and waited for the proceedings to begin. This special council had been summoned by President #5, Ramon Asquith, whose speciality was financial history. Every time Ramon called a meeting something curious happened. The others were acutely aware of this.
The Star Chamber was not star shaped, nor was the table at which the Presidents sat, but the ceiling was adorned with silver stars, many of them peeling and tarnished. The ceiling was too high to make regular maintenance of these objects worthwhile. Nobody ever looked up anyway. There were more important things to consider. The Presidents were about to be forcefully reminded of this fact.
Ramon Asquith wasted little time. He stood and greeted his comrades with a curt nod. Then he said:
“To outside observers the Universal Bank might appear to be one of the greatest success stories in the history of business. All banks have merged into one gigantic financial house. We are the controllers of that house. And yet we are suffering from a deep malaise. We have expanded as far as possible, covering the entire earth, absorbing all economies. All the money in existence belongs to us.”
The other Presidents began to applaud, but Ramon silenced them with a scowl. “This is not a good thing,” he snapped. “It means there are no more profits to be made anywhere.”
He slammed his fist down on the table. “There is no space left for us to grow. Gentlemen, we are stuck.”
There was an uneasy muttering at these words.
After a suitable pause, Ramon continued with a smile: “My latest research into financial history leads me to conclude there was only one person who might have had a solution to this problem — Jakob Fugger, the greatest banker of all time.”
Livia Turandot, President #2, rubbed her long chin angrily. “That’s all very well, but it’s not much use to us. Fugger died in 1526. We can hardly dig him up for a consultation.”
Ramon did not alter his expression. “Time travel.”
“It hasn’t been developed yet,” objected Vikram Brown, President #9, glancing at his watch for confirmation.
“Exactly!” cried Ramon. “But within a few centuries it will be. Our successors can travel back to the 16th Century and ask Fugger for his advice. Then they can return to their own time and start implementing his suggestions. All we are required to do here is hold tight until time travel is invented.”
“Can we last that long? There are already groups of rebels in every city attempting to sabotage the Universal Bank’s transactions and intimidate or confuse our staff.”
“They are becoming bolder,” agreed President #7, Anzolo Galen.
“Technological progress is inevitable,” said Ramon calmly. “It may even happen that time travel is invented much sooner than we anticipate, perhaps in the next few decades.”
Boris Ageyev, President #11, shook his head. “Nothing is inevitable, I’m afraid. Some of those rebel groups are even trying to build nuclear weapons in private laboratories.”
“The irresponsible little fools!” snorted Livia.
Vikram licked his lips. “A major nuclear war could set civilisation back five thousand years.”
Ramon frowned thoughtfully. “Five thousand years? That’s too far.” His frown remained but his eyes sparkled until they resembled two stars that had fallen from the ceiling and settled onto his face. “A major nuclear war, you said?”
Alice the maid wiped sweat from her brow with a cloth as she waited for the kettle to boil on the fire. Not all her sweat was produced by the heat of the burning logs. Some of it was due to anxiety. The future had suddenly become more uncertain.
She was distracted by a sudden noise from the courtyard. She tried to peer through the kitchen window but it was too grimy with grease and soot to afford any clear view. Somebody was stamping about on the frosty cobbles outside. Then the door was thrown open and a man staggered into the kitchen. Alice stifled a gasp.
He was a leper or the carrier of some other awful disease. His body was almost shapeless and his clothes hung in rags. How had he managed to get into the courtyard past the guards? She recoiled but he clutched her arms and started babbling at her.
“Don’t be afraid, I’m not here to hurt you. I’m from the future. I don’t expect you to believe that but I don’t have the energy to invent a plausible lie. I’m here on urgent business.”
Alice frowned. He spoke very bad German in a very strange accent. She pulled away from him but he followed her towards the stove, trapping her in a corner. Then he added:
“I’m here to see Jakob Fugger. I don’t have an appointment but when he hears what I have to say I think he’ll forgive the intrusion. You are one of his servants? My name is Ramon Asquith and I have travelled from the year 2110. I know what you’re thinking, nobody can move backwards in time, and in fact we weren’t able to until very recently, recently in my time that is. I had a great idea, you see. It was inspired by something a colleague said, an offhand remark.”
Alice fought to keep calm. “What did he say?”
“It won’t mean much to you, but he said that ‘a major nuclear war could set civilisation back five thousand years’. I realised that I only had to travel back 584 years, so it occurred to me that perhaps a minor nuclear war would do the trick. My organisation arranged a small nuclear conflict with Luxembourg. It set civilisation back exactly five hundred and fifty years. Then I used ordinary explosives, a great deal of the stuff, to travel back another thirty years. But I still had four years to cross. I managed that with a machine gun.”
“I think you are a madman,” said Alice defiantly.
“To set civilisation back smaller and smaller lengths of time, such as months, weeks and days, I had to employ smaller and smaller weapons, for instance pistols, knives and knuckledusters. After making these adjustments I finally arrived at the right moment, the day of Jakob Fugger’s death. I need to ask him a question before he expires. Please take me to him as quickly as possible. I don’t have much time left myself. The radiation poisoning is starting to kill me.”
Alice glared at him triumphantly. “You are too late. My master died exactly one hour ago. I am making tea for the physician who attended him during his last moments.”
Ramon sighed deeply. “In that case I still need to make one final adjustment. My open palm should be enough to set civilisation back one more hour. I’m sorry about this Alice, but I’m going to have to slap you to complete my journey properly.”
While he was speaking, Alice reached for the kettle on the stove and swung it at his head with all her strength. The hot metal cracked against his skull. He collapsed to his knees, boiling water streaming down his bruised, shredded face.
“Just like that,” he gasped as he keeled over. Alice had set him back forever. She wasn’t dismayed in the slightest. Madmen had no right entering the houses of their superiors.
There was a tangible air of depression and weariness in the Star Chamber of the Universal Bank as the other Supreme Presidents squatted on the dirt floor and fanned away the flies. The ceiling was open to the sky and the walls were made of papyrus reeds but it was more pleasant here than outside in the baking sun.
“How were we to know that a minor nuclear war with Luxembourg would escalate into a major nuclear war with all the other countries?” asked Livia Turandot somewhat rhetorically.
“Now civilisation really has been set back five thousand years!” muttered Vikram Brown ruefully.
“4720 years to be precise,” corrected Boris Ageyev.
“We have to start our business again from the beginning!” grumbled Livia. “It hardly seems fair.”
“At least it gives us a sense of purpose,” pointed out Vikram.
“Well I have a really good idea,” said Boris. “Instead of buying goods with other goods, such as exchanging a cow for a sack of corn, why don’t we have a system whereby the goods can be represented by a small token? We could call this system ‘money’ and use pieces of metal called ‘coins’ as the medium of exchange.”
“It’s certainly worth thinking about,” the others agreed.
A man entered the Star Chamber. It was Ollie Natty, President #1, Supreme President of the Supreme Presidents. He was very old and very withered and he squinted in the relative gloom of the building.
“I’ve been sent to fetch you back to work,” he announced gloomily. “Break time is over.”
They followed him out into the bright day. Ahead loomed the rising profile of the pyramid they were building.