They say the love of money is the root of all evil. Does that old adage still hold true, even in an age when mankind has learned the error of its ways?
It was a bright spring day, with a perfect, pearly-blue sky peppered with fluffy white clouds sent scudding high above by a swift, warm breeze that carried with it the scents of the sea just over the hills and the flowers in the meadows nearer to hand. Beneath that vast, clear sky, a small child sat alone, determinedly digging in the soil with her tongue sticking out of her mouth in concentration. Brown chubby hands scooped the rich earth aside, displacing bobbing flowers and sending bees and butterflies scurrying for less dangerous environs. This was Tala’s favourite place in the whole world, about half a mile from her home, just on the side of the hill where it began to rise towards the coast. From here she could see the whole valley stretching out beneath her, set in the gentle hills that demarked her little world. Often she would just sit and watch birds circling high in the sky, or maybe bring a tablet out here to read in the sunshine, but today she was in the mood to dig.
Her fingers explored the soil, and the damp sensation as she probed deeper was oddly intoxicating. She had quite a sizeable hole dug – sizable for a six-year-old anyway – and was just wondering what she might be able to do with it when her palm closed around something unexpected. Frowning, she sat up on her haunches to get a better angle and scrabbled a little further around the object she’d discovered. After a few seconds it yielded to her and she fell back onto her bottom with a small yelp of surprise. She held it up before her curiously, trying to figure out what it was. It was a metal disc, only a little smaller than the palm of her hand and quite thin, severely corroded by age and its internment beneath the topsoil, but with glimmers of a coppery surface beneath the grime. Tala licked her thumb and rubbed it against the surface of the thing, revealing some of the design underneath. She held it close to her and peered down at it. There was an image embossed on one side; a man’s face in profile. He had a beard that left his upper lip bare and an unusual haircut. There were some symbols written along the edge of the disc above his head and a few more on either side of him. They weren’t any language she could read. Still frowning deeply, she turned the disc over and rubbed the other side clean, revealing an odd design that was also unfamiliar to her. It took her a little while to figure it out, but eventually she decided it was some kind of building fronted by columns with steps leading up to them. When she looked very closely, she thought she could make out the shape of a figure seated in the middle. More of the strange symbols surrounded it. She turned it over and over again, trying to make sense of the copper object. In all her life, she’d never seen anything like it before.
Tala rushed into the living area and put her discovery down in the middle of the table. Her mother turned to her, put her hands on her hips and, adopting a tone of mock severity, said, “Tala, what is that dirty thing and why have you put it on the table?”
“I found it, mama!”
“In the ground?”
“Well then that’s where you should have left it.” Her mother flicked her wrist, pointing to show the drones where to go. They whirred past her and into place, sweeping up the dirt with their little mandibles and spraying a little antibacterial wash down in its place. Moving with their blind, machine intellects, they also scrubbed at the object, bringing it up to a fine gleam in seconds. Tala’s mother waved them away as she leaned over it and cocked her head. “What is that, little one?”
“I found it!” Tala was peering over the edge of the table, and only her head and hands were visible as she eyed the thing she’d dug up.
“I know that dear,” her mother said, walking around the table so she stood next to her and absently fondled her curly black hair, “but I want to know what it is. Where did you find it?”
“On the hill. It was buried!”
“I see.” She picked it up and looked at it, just as Tala had done a short while ago. “It’s some sort of…” she didn’t have a word for it. The etchings stirred some memory in her, but she didn’t recognise the man depicted on one side, or the building on the other. “This must be very old,” she said.
“How old? As old as nana?”
Her mother smiled. “Older than that, little one. Much older.” She looked more closely at the strange man with his funny beard and odd clothes, and then at the symbols that she was sure were supposed to be writing of some kind. “In fact, this might even date from before the Shift.”
Tala’s eyes were very wide and they followed the object as her mother placed it carefully back on the table. She knew about the Shift, but only in the vaguest sense. More detailed lessons would come later in life, and she would come to understand how that event, thousands of years before the present day, had created the world she now took for granted. Her mother felt a sense of unease as she looked down at her daughter’s discovery. Pre-Shift artefacts were rare and sometimes dangerous, for the people of those times had been strange – not much better than non-sentient animals, or so it seemed from the surviving records – and the appearance of this thing in her life was a reminder of a more savage epoch. She would need to find out what it was as soon as possible.
“Come on, Tala,” she said, taking the child’s hand and leading her away from the table, “let’s see about your dinner.” Tala followed obediently, but her gaze lingered on the bright metal disc as she walked away.
The historian came from the city in person, which surprised her at first. She met her at the door to their home and responded to her open palm greeting with one of her own. “Gonae?” the older woman asked.
“Yes. Thank you for coming so promptly – and in person too. I expected you to respond to my message with one of your own, not come all the way out here.”
“It’s no trouble,” the historian – her name was Fehn – said with a warm smile. “When I saw the image of the object your daughter found, I knew I had to see it with my own eyes.”
Gonae was surprised. “Is it that important?”
“I believe it might be.”
Gonae led her visitor to the wide, airy living area and they took seats opposite one another at the table. “A drink? Our interface is programmed with a local cordial that’s very refreshing.”
“Lovely, thank you.”
Gonae placed her hand against the table and two glasses filled with the pale pink liquid appeared on the central disc in a cloud of sparkling lights. Fehn took hers with another smile and sipped it delicately. “Mmm…that’s quite tart, isn’t it?”
“It is a little, yes.”
“Agreeable though. Now, not to appear rude, but could you show me the discovery?”
“Of course. Let me get Tala.”
Fehn lifted her eyebrows slightly. “Your daughter still has it?”
Gonae was halfway out of her seat and she cocked her head slightly. “Yes. Why?”
“Oh…nothing. It’s not important.”
“Is it dangerous? I know that pre-Shift artefacts can be…”
“No, not dangerous. I’d have messaged you straight away if it was.”
“Okay then.” Gonae brought Tala in from her room. She was clutching her find close to herself and looked at Fehn with large, nervous eyes. Gonae ruffled her hair affectionately and asked her to put the object on the table so the historian could look at it. “She’s shy,” she told Fehn to explain the child’s reluctance.
“Of course.” Fehn leant closer. “Would you like to know what that is, Tala?”
She nodded silently.
“Because I know all about it. It’s a very, very special thing you’ve found, from a long, long time ago.”
Slowly, Tala relinquished the object and put it firmly down in the middle of the table. Fehn bent over it and nodded with satisfaction.
“Well?” Gonae asked, taking her seat again.
“Do you have any idea at all what this is?”
“I tried searching the databases, but I couldn’t really find anything useful, even after a full scan.”
“No, you wouldn’t – information about this kind of artefact is quite obscure, known only to a handful of specialists in the world. Luckily for you, I’m one of them.”
“So what is it?”
“A simple thing: a coin.”
“A…coin?” The word meant nothing to Gonae.
“Yes. It’s a kind of…token.”
“A token of what?”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow…”
Fehn sat back in her chair and folded her hands. “Forgive me: I don’t want to come across as patronising. How much do you know about pre-Shift history?”
“Almost nothing,” Gonae said with a small laugh. “History’s not really my favourite subject.”
“All right then. The most important thing to understand about human society in that age was how much value they placed on…things.”
“What sorts of things?”
Gonae was mystified. “Why would they do that?”
“As you might know,” Fehn explained, “the Shift was preceded by a period of intense upheaval. Violence and brutality that was known as ‘war’, a concept with no equivalent in modern society. The end of this was brought about by the invention of atomic reconfiguration, the simple technology that makes life possible. Prior to this, humans had to compete with one another for resources like non-sentient animals, as if we were in the jungle. All of human civilisation, such as it was, was driven by this…scarcity. Even the most basic necessities of existence – food, warmth, shelter – were only obtained through labour, rather than created instantaneously via interface like today.”
“Sounds awful,” Gonae said. Tala, perched on a smaller chair next to her, looked confused and scared, when she wasn’t looking at the strange coin on the table.
“It was. Humanity existed in a state of almost constant war, and such horrors as famine, disease and slavery were rife in all societies.”
“I won’t dwell on that,” Fehn said quickly, “suffice it to say, it was unpleasant.”
“What does any of this have to do with the coin?”
“For a long time, people appear to have handled the scarcity of resources with a system of bartering, exchanging their resources. Someone with food might give a portion of it to someone without it in exchange for shelter, say.”
Gonae frowned. “But what about someone who had nothing anyone else needed?”
“This is where the coin comes in,” Fehn smiled. “You see, as societies grew larger, it became clear that a more formalised way of determining the value of exchanges was required. For example, was a night as a guest in someone’s home worth five loaves of bread or ten? Or a hundred? What if shelter was plentiful but food less so? Then the value would fluctuate. Certain metals – gold and silver especially – that were deemed unusually rare or beautiful, or perhaps difficult to obtain or fashion were used as common standards of exchange.”
“What use is gold to anyone?”
“It was used to make adornments and so on to mark out those with status.”
“Because of the scarcity of resources, some people were afforded higher honour in their tribal groups. Such individuals had access to many resources that they could distribute to the others in their group – or not. Often they ruled with force. Again, I appreciate that these are very difficult concepts to grasp. But I digress: the metals, for whatever reason, were valued as highly as food, shelter or medicine. For many centuries or millennia, the metals were exchanged by weight alone, but eventually they came to be fashioned into these discs, known as coins.”
“And they’d melt them down to make their…adornments?”
“No…the coins had value in and of themselves. An imaginary value.” Fehn held her hand out to the coin. “As you know from your scans, the amount of copper – the theoretically valuable metal it contains – is negligible. The coins only began as a means of standardising the weights of their constituent materials. Over long years, they eventually came to represent a certain allocation of resources to those who possessed them. Rather than exchange bread for a room, people would exchange these coins, then use them at a later date to obtain other resources.”
“I think I understand,” Gonae said, “how much would this coin have been worth?”
“It’s impossible for us to say. Probably very little. After a while, people stopped using physical coins. Instead they exchanged written notes, which gradually turned into printed slips of paper or linen that represented a physical quantity of metal held by the tribal group to which they belonged. In time, even this was abandoned, and the value of all the coins – the ‘money’, to give it its proper term – was held in databases. Vast sums were exchanged around the world in a sort of self-sustaining imaginary market. The symbols on this coin,” she tentatively reached for it and then held it up for Gonae and Tala to see, “tell me that it was created in the last century before physical money was abolished altogether.”
“And who’s the man?”
“The man? Oh, you mean the figure depicted on one side? Often the coins were stamped with the image of the leader of the tribe who issued the coinage. Not all tribes recognised each other’s types of money – ‘currencies’ – it depended very much on the resources available in that tribe’s territory, amongst other things.”
Gonae rubbed her forehead. “This ancient history is fascinating, but it all just seems to be a litany of horror and suffering. Imaginary value? Tribal territories?”
Fehn nodded. “It was a difficult time for our species, and this simple coin was the cause of much of the woe that came before the Shift. Many of the tribes began to prioritise the value of their resources ahead of the resources themselves, and even over human lives. This ‘money’ was treated as a real thing, instead of a mere social contract enforced by the civilisation that used it. There were those who fought against its dominance and suggested a more egalitarian allocation of resources, but they were never successful. In the end, the nature of those primitive humans always won out. They were barely removed from apes, living on the open savannah, afraid of predators. They were not sufficiently evolved to live in a global society.”
Gonae regarded the coin with a new sense of distaste. “This…thing…is the cause of a lot of evil.”
“Yes indeed. There was in fact a saying that the love of it was the root of all evil. You see, even they understood what a force for destruction it could be, but they were powerless against its lustre.”
“Perhaps Tala should have left it in the ground,” Gonae said with a small smile.
“Thankfully, it has no power to harm now. We are wiser than its creators were.”
“Such a small thing, to cause so much trouble.”
Gonae stood up. “Well, thank you for coming, Fehn. This has been very informative.” She held her palm out again.
“Ah…there was another reason I came in person.”
“Yes. You see, pre-Shift artefacts are discovered so rarely. This object is extremely important.”
“We would like to put it on display in the museum, with a full explanation of what it is and why it was so dangerous, so that everyone can see and understand it. This is a great discovery.”
Gonae thought about it. “I appreciate that, but Tala found it.”
Fehn looked at the small girl with a friendly smile. “And she’ll be given high honour in the exhibition.”
“It’s mine,” Tala said in a small voice, “you can’t take it away.”
Fehn laughed. “Little one: it belongs to everyone. Like everything else. Ours is a society built on sharing.”
“It’s mine,” she repeated firmly.
Gonae put a hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Tala, the lady only wants to take it to the city. You can look at it whenever you like.”
“It’s mine. I found it.”
“Perhaps,” Gonae suggested, turning to Fehn, “we could create a copy from the scans that you could display in its place?”
“A copy has no place in a museum. Do you want us to display a copy of our triceratops skeleton too?” She leant in to Tala. “We could make you a new coin just like it though, Tala. As many of them as you like.”
“I want this one. I found it on the hill. I dug it up. It’s mine.” Her little face was composed into a stubborn frown.
“Could I talk to you alone?” Fehn asked as she switched her gaze to Gonae.
“Tala wants to keep it. It’s hers. I’m sorry.”
“Are you going to take it from her?” The thought was unimaginable, and Fehn had no reply.
The next day she returned though, and she wasn’t alone. She came with people from the museum, and they had things with them – other objects from history that Fehn called weapons. She asked politely again for Tala to give her the coin, and when she refused, they asked less politely, and demonstrated the power of the weapons on a tree outside. Shaking, Gonae took the coin from her daughter’s hand and passed it over.
“It’s only a little thing,” she explained, but Tala was inconsolable. And for the first time in five-thousand years, a human child raised its voice in a cry of yearning. Want had been a foreign concept for so long, but now Gonae saw it writ large in her daughter’s tear-streaked face. The image never left her, even through all the horrors that followed in the next few decades.