By way of a Christmas treat, we present a short story from the pen of Wilf Prigmore. Meet Max Helpmann...
Only the very, very rich went to the Holiday Belt. Max Helpmann wasn’t rich — yet he was going there. As an ex-con he shouldn’t have even been aboard the Sinclairways’ Shuttle now speeding beyond the reach of Earth’s gravity and its law enforcement agents.
‘The Lord helps those that help themselves,’ grinned Max, unfastening his seatbelt and making himself comfortable. His drink tasted good. Pollution-free ‘Syntheau’ from one of the moon based conglomerates, reminded him of his childhood. It used to be available from a tap. Then came rumours that the treatment plants couldn’t cope with the amount of bleaches, detergents and disinfectants which were ending up in the system... Naturally, people turned to the bottled water which, advertisers assured everyone, was far more healthy. If you wanted free water after that, the only way was to sink a well in the garden.
Max skipped over memories of the next twenty-odd years and concentrated on the events which had taken place that very day. Hard to believe that only a few hours ago he’d been conning his way into homes and taking any valuables which hadn’t been screwed down. (The campaign supporting screws as an ideal anti-theft device had been particularly compelling. To Max’s way of thinking it was rather distasteful. And bad for his line of work.).
To avoid early detection of a pattern, Max liked to vary his story fairly often. He’d had some success as a ‘rodent exterminator checking on black rat sightings in the area’ and thought he’d do his gasman. He banged on the target’s door and rushed past the startled occupier when it was opened. In reaction to Max’s urgent request to check a serious gasleak, the occupier unleashed two savage-looking dogs, which sent Max stumbling back into the kitchen. Only his quick thinking — throwing the occupier’s lunch on the floor between the two dogs saved his hide and allowed him to nip out the back door and over the wall.
‘Bloody Solar Power Houses!’
The alarm was raised and Max knew he could soon have his collar felt. Figuratively speaking that is, for Max had often noticed how computer-directed lawmen these days lacked feeling! In his hurry to get away, he didn’t see the man coming out of an alleyway and ran straight into him. Old habits die hard. Max apologised profusely, dusted the man down, and relieved him of his securibelt...
Normally, a shuttle ticket would have ended up in the street Litter-Vapourizer (Keep Earth Tidy), but not this time. It was the jammiest bit of luck to smile on Max in years. The ticket and interzonal ID Card belonged to one Arthur Plumtree, a fourth-rate impressionist who Max had been embarrassed to watch on channel 28 recently. Word was, Plumtree had bribed the producer to let him appear. The TV station got the equivalent of a month’s advertising money, Plumtree got his appearance and only the viewer lost out. A flimsy escape plan fluttered in Max’s mind. The odds were heavily stacked against him, of course, but who’d expect him to head for the shuttleport. Criminals never got past the check-in, did they!
‘Hi, chum. Just spoke to your brother. Put money in him for a chewbar and he read my horoscope. You might say he gave me thought for food. Haha! Where do I stick the ID? Oh, I got it. Catch my show the other night? No, I guess not. You guys are kinda tied to the job, eh!’ Max couldn’t believe what he was was doing. Imagine trying to fool an Excise Droid (Mark 3 2D Klair, according to the manufacturer’s label), that he was Plumtree putting on silly voices. The voice pattern strip in the ID would betray him. Oh well, it’d give the lads in Their Majesties Prison Wadmoor something to laugh about.
‘Plumtree? Arthur Plumtree?’ asked the Droid officiously.
‘Arthur Plumtree. You are cleared for take-off.’ The Excise Droid accurately spat the ID card into Max’s trembling hand. That was about all Max could remember of what had gone before. (Apart from the smell of fear rising from his armpits). The ride on the travellator, boarding and lift-off — these were all like areas of fresh, untrodden snow in his brain. But now he felt good. He had beaten the unbeatable machine. The human touch was still supreme.
...Max knew he could soon have his collar felt. Figuratively speaking that is, for Max had often noticed how computer-directed lawmen these days lacked feeling...
‘Land ahoy!’ shouted one of the merry holidaymakers, and Max found himself looking out of the porthole. Even from this distance he could see the garish lights of the holiday belt — a chain of artificial planets designed by an advertising company as the ultimate ‘Shuttle away from it all’ dream. They flickered like some vast, unearthly candle luring monied moths towards it. But they spelled welcome to Max. For soon the shuttle would be landing and he would be free to ply his trade.
Trade on The Belt, Max found, was far easier to ply than on Earth. Here, there was little security. The filthy rich didn’t need to rob each other and the likes of Max were not permitted to travel in space, so why bother with any fancy door locks?
Back home however, it was different. Robberies at one time were so frequent and credit cards so easy to obtain that cash became obsolete. Then robbers turned to computers to hack their way into accounts, transferring funds to their own numbers. In the end, people were employed round the clock to check incoming instructions to bank computers. He had laughed about that. It had reminded him of stories that his grandfather used to tell him of men riding shotgun to guard money for Wells Fargo.
Underworld friends laughed at Max’s old-fashioned ways. But he had the last laugh. Before long, computers ran everything and made themselves virtually foolproof. Much of the criminal fraternity became redundant.
Yes, it was much easier up here. While ‘The Belters’ were out doing their own particular things, Max was doing his. Without sophisticated electrolocks to crack, he could use the despised credit cards to let himself into hotel rooms. Old-fashioned skeleton keys, fashioned from one of his bed springs, gave him access to every drawer and cupboard. And anyone who slept with the key in their lock would not have seen Max push it onto a piece of waiting paper, pull it under the door and let himself silently in and relieve them of their jewellery.
Trouble was, it wouldn’t be long before people talked and realised that they hadn’t merely lost their items, but that the unthinkable had happened. Max would need to be long way away by then. But to do that he’d need to make a really big haul. Shuttle pilots only took megabribes!
Now Max had been keen to get started. All this work on The Belt was carried out over a mere twenty four hours. Having hidden his loot in a park, he was making his way back to his hotel for some well-earned rest when he passed the casino. People were coming out with wads of — money? Max blinked. He saw pictures of getaway cars screaming from a bank, notes fluttering from a suitcase as passers-by stood in amazement. Max had only seen money in a museum — people stopped using it when he was a kid... It might have been the shuttle-lag, or lack of sleep, maybe even nostalgia brought about by another of Grandfathers’ stories. Whatever it was, Max decided he wanted some money for himself. He’d find an excuse to get into the casino vaults and case the joint.
A crate of beer outside the cellar gave Max the excuse he wanted. He picked it up and strode purposefully down. Even in his present befuddled state Max should have been more suspicious. More cash than he’d ever managed to count in his mind to induce sleep lay before him in boxes next to the crisps. Grabbing an armful, he threw it madly above his head and enjoyed the new sensation of notes skidding off his head and face.
‘If Sir would just care to leave his account number, we will gladly fetch the chips to the table for him!’ A Tuxedoed figure looking patronisingly down at him. A few drinks and people did the most incredible things!
Max was embarrassed. Casino chips — made of paper? What a gimmick! But they were not negotiable outside the casino. What a fool!
‘I think you’d better have a word with Lowsy, Umble and Vyle, sir!’
Max gulped. They must be what passed as law in these parts, or the casino’s heavy boys. Either way he didn’t like the sound of it.
The coffee in front of Max reassured him. He was alone in the room save for a large screen on one wall. Why give him coffee if they were going to do nasty things to him? He started when the screen spoke to him.
‘Wh-what the-? My name’s not Max. You’ve got the wrong man. And where are the three I’m supposed to see?’
... he saw pictures of getaway cars screaming from a bank, notes fluttering from a suitcase as passers-by stood in amazement. Max had only seen money in a museum — people stopped using it when he was a kid...
‘Lowsy, Umble and Vyle, you mean? That’s me, Max. But you can call me Luv for short. I’m an advertising agency you see. Silly I know, but it’s traditional to have several names. I’ve noticed you’re a traditionalist in your own way Max. That’s why you’re here. Oh, you think you were so clever getting here. But while you were putting on your ridiculous act, my Excise Droid was telling me all about you. I ordered him to let you on the shuttle.’
Max was lost for words. Luv, however, wasn’t. She continued.
‘I Max, am a computer. We took over the advertising business a year ago. I was — am — the best agency there’s ever been. You may know some of my work. The bottled water campaign was good. Kept me at the top of the league for ages. The others were green with envy. Then the plastic credit cards. My idea... Trouble was I never got the idea patented so everyone else jumped on the bandwaggon. You know the result. After that things got boring. Nobody went out and bought things on impulse anymore — they just ordered things they saw on the TV screen. And it never looked as good as the real thing, so not many people bothered. I could see a slump coming so I invested my money in the Holiday Belt. The press said it was a bad move... came up to personally see to the operation. It’s working. But I want to go back down. Start a campaign that will shake them all up. And that campaign will happen — because of you Max.’
‘Sorry, I don’t follow Luv. I don’t know anything about advertising except that I hate it! Flaming bottled water and plastic money!’
‘Quite Max, but with your help things will change. I am going to shake the world with my exciting new concept of commercialism — cash! Money. It will be the greatest thing since sliced bread. A bit before your time Max, but I modestly admit that that too, was my idea!’
‘You’re crackers! It’ll never catch on!’
‘But it will, Max. You love money, don’t you? Look at your behaviour in the casino vaults just now! I tell you it’s a winner! We sell it on nostalgia. We tell people it’s wholesome, old-fashioned and what they’ve been missing — the human touch — you’ve shown me the importance of that Max! Take the money out to a shop — see people — talk about your personal problems. Money will bring you friends, happiness.’
‘I think you have a point there Luv. And if you patent money, nobody else will be able to make any. They’ll have to come to you for it! And I could go round nicking it from them — so they’d have to get more!’
‘You’re a fast learner Max. I have seen the correlation between cash and human emotion. We will play on that emotion to make them part with the cash. I desire to be respected, and this scheme will secure it. Look, Max, I have even designed the notes. Pretty aren’t they? I searched my memory dump and came up with the motifs. Something called ‘knitting pattern!’ But very human, I think. I would like you to have these first copies as a gift. A first payment.’
Max stifled a laugh as he accepted the notes. His mind was already racing. He didn’t want to work for a stinking computer, but it might serve his purposes for the time being. His grandfather had been a money forger in the last great money age and Max had inherited his artistic talents...
When Luv’s campaign got underway, Max Helpmann was planning to get very, very rich!