"Poor good, rich bad! Poor good, rich bad! Burn the rich! Burn the rich!"
Scrooge McDuck didn't know which was worst these days – the sight of the pits of mud, straw, and substances he'd rather not name that had flooded the once-beautiful Killmotor Hill, the stench rising from it that he had to walk through every day on his way to work, or the sounds of those stupid chants blaring from the bullhorns. He decided it was the sound – as long as he kept his back to the window, it was the only trace of the shameless deadbeats that could reach his office on the top floor of his money bin.
"Poor good, rich bad! Poor good, rich bad!"
How could they find nothing more productive to do with all that energy? He threw down his pen; it was useless to try to hear himself think over the din of that whining. It was a miracle he could hear his secretary buzzing him.
He let the intercom buzz for a while to see if it might drown out the chants altogether. It didn't. He pressed the button. "Are the police here yet?" he groaned.
"No, sir," replied the timid voice on the other end of the speaker. "But, there is a man here to see you..."
"No, there isn't," Scrooge informed her. "There's a man here to see the door. Show it to him." The activist-wannabes had depleted him of a lifetime's supply of patience.
"He says it will be well worth your time if you'll only..."
"Even telling him I have no time for whatever scheme he has in mind isn't worth my time," Scrooge snapped. "Get rid of him!"
"I... he apologizes for coming without an appointment but says you'll understand that it was impossible for him to make one and that he has something very important to discuss..."
"Burn the rich! Burn the rich!"
Unless this intruder could make that noise stop, he had no business with Scrooge McDuck, and his secretary had no business pleading his case. "Give him back whatever he slipped you, Quackfaster, and explain to him that Scrooge McDuck is closed to the public until you get rid of that mob outside from the League To Abolish Billionaires!"
"Actually, I believe they're calling themselves 'Occupy Duckburg' now..." The sound of her boss' fist striking the desk stopped her mid-breath. "I'll call the police again, sir," she quickly promised and hung up.
Scrooge sighed in exasperation and tried once again to read the file on his desk. But instead of focusing on the numbers in front of him, his mind kept going back to the world behind him. He turned his chair around to face the window and looked down at the sight that he still had trouble believing was real – a mob of deadbeats who flaunted their pride in being deadbeats and demanded what they claimed others were evil for possessing – money. No one could understand love of money more than Scrooge McDuck – everything he'd done since his tenth birthday had been to further his goal of earning money. Aye, therein lay the puzzle. Earning money he understood. But people who saw it as evil to earn money but virtuous to demand it for free... no, he couldn't comprehend how such madness had taken root and spread so fast.
Where had the madness started? That was easier to answer – all these new policies that catered to idleness and punished ability. Then again, maybe it was the reverse – maybe the love of idleness and hatred of ability now rampaging beneath his window had demanded the policies. Scrooge wondered if the modern feudal lords in power who started this epidemic saw the same thing he did when looking at the results of their years of taxing, regulating, and looting all businesses in the nation to death with one directive after another. Was this what they wanted? Even Scrooge hadn't predicted it would lead to this. There was no telling where it would stop. What would be next – issuing permits to erect guillotines?
Well, I hope they're happy now, Scrooge thought. He shook his head to wipe out the sight as he turned back to his desk, almost ashamed of himself – they weren't worth wasting a drop of anger or disgust on. He picked up the file again. There was work to be done here. If he could survive months fighting the snow, wind, and frozen earth of White Agony Creek for gold nuggets, and years of fighting the government to keep his businesses running, he could surely survive an afternoon of this.
"Poor! Good! Rich! Bad!"
He wondered if it was this bad in the rest of the States...
"It's just as bad in the rest of the country."
"I know," Scrooge replied, "but Calisota was the last to catch it. I thought for sure the disease would have run its course somewhere by..." He abruptly stopped when he realized he hadn't asked anything aloud. Wait... there hadn't been anyone to ask...
He looked up and saw someone close the office door behind him and stroll calmly towards his desk. Scrooge's natural instinct to demand what in the blazes he thought he was doing in here was quickly lost in shock at just what... type of visitor he had. "Mr. McDuck... it's an honor to meet you at last." He inclined his head in polite greeting and placed a small cardboard box on the desk. Then he stood and waited, as if to allow the duck time to get used to the presence of someone of his... kind.
It didn't take long; Scrooge had met and dealt with humans plenty of times before, but almost never in Duckburg. He crossed his arms and blatantly scrutinized this unusual visitor, who didn't seem to mind. Scrooge wondered how he had gotten through the protesters so unscathed and without his appearance causing a scene. He briefly considered asking this, but instead, he merely stated, "We don't see many of your kind in Calisota."
"We don't see many of your kind outside of Calisota," the intruder said in a tone that made Scrooge think he wasn't referring to ducks. The stranger exuded such a strong presence of dignity, confidence, and ease that it was impossible not to want to match it. Silently vowing to fire Ms. Quackfaster for disobeying his orders, Scrooge muffled his rage for the moment and calmly asked, "How much did you tip my secretary to let you in?"
The stranger answered, "Unfortunately for her, I had nothing to tip... nothing that would be useful to her, at any rate. I simply assured her that I was only here on an errand that it was in her employer's best interest to allow me to complete, that it wouldn't take long, and that letting me see him would be the greatest service she could ever perform for him. She trusted me. It's an effect I have on people."
"Well, I trust no one," Scrooge assured him, still matching his plain, even tone, "so don't expect it to work on me."
"I wouldn't be here if I did, Mr. McDuck," the stranger said as he took the seat he apparently took for granted he was welcome to take. "I don't expect you to trust me. I expect you to listen, evaluate, and judge."
"I suppose you're here to make me an offer I cannot refuse?"
"No. I am here to make you an offer I cannot resist making that I am sure you will refuse at first."
"No doubt that's why you didn't even bother making an appointment."
"I do apologize for appearing to take a liberty with your time, and, truly, I did originally plan to schedule a proper meeting when I could be properly prepared, but... unexpected business came up this past month, and the results required I make some adjustments to my plans. This actually works in your favor, however; you won't have to endure my intrusion for long because I am in a hurry to get New York and am only here because I knew this would be my only chance to speak with you."
"Who are you?" Scrooge briefly wondered why this didn't seem important enough to be the first question he'd asked.
The stranger smirked slightly, and his voice had the hint of a laugh as he answered, "I'm known by many names right now. My personal favorite is 'Prometheus.' "
"And your real name is one that it's better if I don't know?" Scrooge guessed.
"At the moment, no, but in the future, quite possibly."
"Well, that's reassuring... Can you tell me what you're doing here and what you want with me?"
"I have a business proposal for you, Mr. McDuck," the stranger answered. "The price is high, but everyone who has signed on so far will tell you the investment is well worth it."
"I hope you know how I treat salesmen," Scrooge warned him.
"I know almost everything about you. I know how you've been working to build this empire ever since your tenth birthday. I know your first business ventures were selling firewood and shining shoes in Glasgow, Scotland. I know that you've kept the very first coin you ever earned to this day and flaunt it as a badge of honor. I know how your first customer inspired you to come to the United States when you were thirteen. I know how hard you worked for years as a riverboat captain and cowboy before finally becoming a prospector. I know how your travels around the world eventually led you to the Klondike Gold Rush. I know how hard you toiled on White Agony Creek, fighting for the treasures the earth yields only to those who are strong enough, determined enough, and brave enough to be worthy of them. I know how you made your first million there with nothing but your own sweat and blood, helped by no one but your own muscles, relying on nothing but your own will and resourcefulness, and that you never could have loved the fortune you made if it had been made on any other terms. I know how quickly and shrewdly you turned that million into your first billion, every dollar making you more detestable in the eyes of the world whose idleness and incompetence you shamed with your very existence. I know how your arrival here turned a one-horse settlement into a magnet for people seeking work and opportunity of their own until it became a booming, bustling, prosperous town. I know that you were never satisfied with even that first billion but toiled on, working and living for nothing but your desire to make money, your only goal, then, to become the richest man in the world and, now, to remain so."
He paused, but Scrooge said nothing. "Why would you be so stunned?" the stranger asked sarcastically, showing he already knew the answer. "I haven't said anything you shouldn't already know."
"Nothing that I haven't heard four to five times a week for years," Scrooge added. It wasn't the words that had rendered him speechless with confusion but their tone. "But you're the first one who's said it as if you know it's a compliment, not an insult."
"In the ancient past," the stranger said, "heroes who performed great deeds were rewarded with treasures, kingdoms, or titles as physical manifestations of the honor their deeds had earned them. The heroes of the near past were rewarded the same – their wealth was a physical manifestation of the honor their hard work and intelligence were worthy of. You are one of those heroes, and the wealth in this building and around the world that you earned, square, for being tougher than the toughies and smarter than the smarties, as you say, is a measurement of your honor. What kind of world sees such extensive honor as something to be ashamed of?"
"A world that's either so insane or evil or both, it's beyond the reach of reason," Scrooge answered almost instantly, as if the thought had been lurking in the back of his mind for months, waiting for an opportunity to be released.
"Then why do you work so hard for such a world?"
Scrooge didn't understand the question. "Weren't you listening to yourself? I work for no one but myself."
"You also work for everyone in this city who wouldn't be here if it weren't for you and your businesses."
"That's just a side effect," Scrooge said, still clueless what the stranger meant.
"That's benefits they reap while condemning you for the intent that provides them."
"Why should I care what they think?"
"You shouldn't, and you don't," the stranger answered. "Their opinions can't directly harm you (unless they choose to stop consuming from your businesses, which will never occur to them), but they have provided the justification others can use to harm you. I know you have seen what unreasonable policies the government has been enacting for years based on the faulty reasoning of those who believe that anything that creates a condition of inequality in any shape or form is a crime."
"Of course I know, and I've taken as many measures as I can to protect myself."
"And you've mostly been able to succeed because Calisota is merely a territory, not a full state under the full authority of the national economy-runners and looters," the stranger conceded, but his voice sounded less like that of someone giving congratulations than of a doctor delivering a fatal diagnosis.
"I had quite a time with that Equalization of Opportunity Bill," Scrooge admitted. "I still try not to think of what I had to pay the lawyer who got them to rule that all of McDuck Industries are one company."
"And you see that as a victory," the stranger said, frowning, "maintaining your ability to provide them with things to loot."
Scrooge began to be annoyed for the first time in the conversation. "Let them try. They're no match for me."
"Which makes their power over you all the more tragic," was the only answer he got.
"I've never once in my life looked an obstacle in the face before and thought of giving up," Scrooge declared. "I'm certainly not going to start now."
"Obstacles like the cyclone that once unexpectedly struck your farm." The stranger didn't specify which farm, but Scrooge somehow knew he could only have one incident in mind. "Tell me about that."
"I would've thought you knew all about it," Scrooge said defiantly. One didn't call him a coward for fighting an opponent they both knew wasn't worth even acknowledging as an opponent and then give him orders.
"I do, but I don't think you know the most important parts of it," the stranger said simply.
Now would be as good a time as any to throw him out. Only a burning curiosity of what in the world he was getting at made Scrooge decide to take a deep breath and begin: "I took my nephews – that is, my nephew and three grand-nephews – on a trip to a new farm of mine, before the staff had even arrived, to give myself a hint of how well they could handle hard work. My nephew Donald didn't look very promising, but the three boys gave me hope. I could see they were not only hard workers but understood that nothing in this world is free, that someone has to work for it, and if it has to be you, then so much the better.
"I had a corn crib erected and filled with money to use for my daily exercise while I was away from the money bin. I know, I know, reckless and foolish, go ahead and laugh… at least I learned never to risk that again. As long it was disguised, I figured I wouldn't have to worry about thieves all the way out there. I never counted on a cyclone. The storm swept right through the farm and left everything practically untouched afterward except for my money – the funnel cloud sucked every coin and bill out of the corn crib like a vacuum cleaner and then poured it all over the countryside. The boys were worried, but I knew the laws of money too well not to predict what would happen. I ran through the entire process in my head in thirty seconds and knew exactly where my money would end up and how to get it back.
"I stayed on the farm working with the boys, allowing everyone who had been magically given a million dollars from nowhere for free to keep it. I knew it would do them no good because once everyone had a million dollars, no one would have to work, and then no one would get anything they wanted to spend their money on because they would find no one to provide it because no one had any motive to provide it any longer. Eventually, my neighbors realized the only place nearby to get food was my farm, and everyone brought my money back in exchange for bacon, eggs, cabbages, and anything else we had that they needed. I got every cent back and then some, and the local economy was able to function again – win, win."
"Your resources, your labor saved them all. Can you imagine the disaster that those people would have been trapped in had it not been for you and your desire to make money?" the stranger asked.
"An economy that stops functioning permanently is one thing I prefer not to imagine," Scrooge confessed.
"And that's just on the small scale that was affected by that cyclone. I won't ask you to imagine it on a national or global scale. But I will ask you this: You got your money back by charging customers millions of dollars for plates of bacon and eggs. What would you have done if the government had come in and ordered you to charge them less, whatever low prices the government deemed reasonable, and then charged you a fee for their interference?"
As painful as it was, Scrooge considered it for a minute. He shuddered and let the sense of horror pass before he answered, "I would have refused to make or sell anything unless they agreed to let me do what I pleased with my own."
"And when they responded by seizing the farm from you?"
Scrooge didn't need a second to think about the answer to that. "If my temper didn't drive me into a fatal heart attack, I would have destroyed it before I let them take what I'd worked for. I would have released the animals, blown up or burned down the property, and left them to fend for themselves."
"For the sake of argument, say you complied with them fully and sold everything at arbitrarily low prices. What would have happened to the people their policies were theoretically supposed to benefit by protecting them from the evil entrepreneur?"
That wasn't quite as easy to determine for sure. "Either they would have remained trapped indefinitely in the state they were in, or the first few customers would have cleaned me out, leaving nothing for everyone else and no means for us to provide them any more, quickly putting us out of business and them in an even more desperate situation than before. What's the point?"
"To remind you that you know there would be no point in running a business under such conditions," the stranger explained. "What happened on your farm is now happening on a national scale, except wealth is being redistributed not by a freak act of nature but by conscious human intent, and those with the ability to fix the resultant mess are forbidden from fixing it because it would benefit them too much. You see the results outside your window."
This seemed like a very redundant observation to Scrooge. "True, but they won't listen to us, so what do you suggest we do – give up and let them destroy us as quickly as possible?"
"That's the way many look at my strategy," the stranger admitted, "when, in fact, it's no different from the strategy you and your nephews used on your farm – working in private seclusion and protecting yourselves until the looters learn that nothing in this world is free and are ready to pay for the fruits of your labor."
It took Scrooge a second to realize the most significant thing about that sentence: it was spoken in the present tense. "What do you mean, your..."
He let his question trail off, unsure what he was about to conclude or say, but the stranger answered him anyway: "Ever since the Industrial Revolution began, workers who feel they have been treated unfairly have gone on strike against their employers and refused to work before their demands for fair treatment were met. Well, it would appear that it's now time for the employers to go on strike against their oppressors and refuse to work until their demand for freedom is met. That's why I'm here, Mr. McDuck. You're one of the great movers of the world, one of those who carries civilization on your shoulders. You expected it, of course; you've planned on doing it all your life. You didn't mind because you also expected it to be worth it. You didn't expect your hard-earned profits to be looted and redistributed to people either too incompetent or too lazy to earn their own. Or if you did, you expected it to be called by its true terms – robbery and extortion – and for the law to protect you from it. You didn't expect to work in a world where robbery and extortion are the law and productivity is the crime. That is the world you're now living in, Mr. McDuck – horrifying, but that does not make it any less true. Men like you... don't belong in that world."
"Unfortunately, it's the only world we have," Scrooge couldn't help pointing out.
"What if it weren't?" Scrooge raised a skeptical eyebrow at that. "You came to seek your fortune in the United States, you came back to establish your empire here once you found it, because it was the land of opportunity, where a man was free to face the world on his own terms. Tragically, those conditions have changed. But there is a new land of opportunity – a place where capability, integrity, intelligence, perseverance, and honor are allowed to yield their rewards, where anyone with the will and ability to succeed has the freedom to succeed, where the individual is never sacrificed for some paradoxical collective good, where rational self-interest is not a sin, where the only equality anyone expects is an equal playing field to compete to the best of their ability, where everyone lives secure in the knowledge that they must never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for theirs. You and the other prime movers of the world are apparently no longer welcome here. Very well – let the second-handers have it. Let them have their equality, altruism, collective good, and slavery, but stop serving them, stop spilling your blood on their Altar of Need, stop making more for them to loot. It's no longer necessary... if you join me."
The challenge in the last statement brought Scrooge back down to Earth. He was able to ask in the same tone he used during any business deal, "How come I haven't heard of this before?"
"If you had, it wouldn't be there. It must be safe from the looters, from our persecutors, from the exploiters, overseers and slave-owners."
"Hidden where no one can find it and sully its purity with their evil..." Scrooge said it mostly to himself. Something about this picture was beginning to look familiar... in an uncomfortable way.
"Where we're able to work, create, and prosper in peace and live in freedom."
"How is it hidden?" Scrooge asked, approaching the horizon of recognition in his troubled mind.
"That's the same as asking 'Where?', now, isn't it?"
"Tall, unscaleable mountains? Wilderness too treacherous for anyone to venture too close? Valley covering too small an area to be conspicuous?" The stranger remained silent, which told Scrooge that to confirm his suspicions was forbidden, but to contradict them would be a lie. The weakness passed; the picture was clear. Scrooge now knew what he was dealing with. He'd been through all this before. "You're talking about some utopia, aren't you?"
"What if I am?"
Scrooge rolled his eyes, sighed, picked up the file from his desk, and reopened it. "It's Tralla La all over again."
The stranger seemed to have missed the words and responded only to the gesture. "I see the offer does not appeal to you."
"You make a lot of sense... but you lost all credibility when you entered utopian territory." Scrooge didn't bother to raise his voice; he would at least give the intruder the compliment of trusting that he could see he was no longer welcome.
He didn't take the hint. "You would prefer to trust me if I promised you unnecessary pain, suffering, and despair?"
Scrooge looked up from his file. "Rule Number 1 of Doing Business: If the offer sounds too good to be true, it usually is." He turned his eyes back down to the page.
"Rule Number 2: No venture can be made without the courage to take risks."
"It's not a risk if you know exactly what the results will be," Scrooge said without bothering to look up.
"That's certainly a risky presumption."
"Not when it's taught by personal experience." Scrooge saw out of the corner of his eye that the stranger looked puzzled for the first time. He looked up and faced him again. "I know exactly what kind of place you're talking about. I've tried living there twice. I went looking for it after the League to Abolish Billionaires came after me for the first time. That was the last straw, on top of all the other demands people felt my money entitled them to make. I couldn't take it anymore. I decided to give up and run away, leave behind all my money, abandon the fortune I'd worked so long to build..."
"You don't say?" the stranger interrupted him.
"I almost can't believe it, either, looking back..." Scrooge started to answer.
"You misunderstand me. I'm not shocked that you ever did such a thing but pleasantly surprised that you could."
"And never will again. I went looking for a valley I heard was hidden somewhere in the Tibetan mountains – a paradise where everyone lives in perfect harmony, friendship is valued above all else, everyone shares everything freely with everyone and works for everyone else, and greed and selfishness don't exist... a place that has no concept of money." The stranger narrowed his eyes, and Scrooge clearly saw one of his hands clench into a fist, but he quickly won the struggle for control and shook his head as if to clear it of the unbearable vision. Scrooge pretended he hadn't noticed and continued: "It was true. I found a completely money-free society that seemed to know nothing of greed, ambition, progress, private property, or profit, nothing but peace, harmony, and goodwill. The land without money seemed to be everything I'd heard of and hoped for at the time."
"It's all a sham. The only reason the people of Tralla La don't act greedy is because they have nothing rare enough to be greedy for. Drop anything rare into their midst, and it becomes as good as money to them, even old caps from some bottles I brought with me. They understand worth, rarity, and trade as well as anyone; they only lack rare things of worth to trade. And they know it! They must! When I returned..."
"Returned?!" The voice was too overpowered by disbelief to restrain itself.
"By accident... long story. I found out their solution to the problem was to hide all the bottle caps – just get rid of all the 'money.' If they were really so immune to greed, why would they need to do that? I can't believe I was ever tempted. I don't belong in a place like that, where people are so determined to deny the best within us: our aspiration to change things for the better, not to keep everything unchanged forever, our system of toil and reward, and our ability to recognize value. So you can keep your utopias, your paradises, and your perfect, secluded valleys; I'll keep my money and all the stress that comes with it."
"I couldn't have said it better myself." The voice sounded so uncharacteristically open in its relief and joy that Scrooge couldn't stop his confusion from showing on his face. "Mr. McDuck, your objection to my proposal is founded on the premise that Atlantis is just like this Tralla La. It is necessary that you understand this premise is false."
"Atlantis? Already been there, too – not a nice place to visit, and I wouldn't want to live there."
"Is that so?" This was spoken without the least bit of skepticism, merely with curiosity. "You'll have to tell me someday if it's anything like our Atlantis, the Utopia of Greed." The stranger paused briefly and then added, as if he knew what his listener's mind was now busy contemplating, "Does that name tell you anything?"
"Nothing I can make sense of."
"How can an ideal society be founded on an inherently… well, supposedly inherently evil concept?"
"Contradictions do not exist, Mr. McDuck. The ideal society can be founded on the concept of greed because greed is not inherently evil, regardless of how much of the world is ignorant of this fact. The accumulation of wealth as a physical manifestation of honor by honest means is not evil – this is what the world indiscriminately calls 'greed.' The accumulation of wealth by dishonest force, fraud, or coercion is evil, but the crusaders against greed do not understand that dishonesty, envy, sloth, and exploitation are not synonymous with greed. Atlantis is the ideal home for those who recognize this distinction; this is accomplished by discarding all the ingredients and the recipe used to create other supposed 'utopias.' The inhabitants do not work primarily for a greater good but each for their own good. Everyone is responsible for his or her own life and welfare. We do not share indiscriminately but charge and spend money on all services and goods…"
Scrooge stared at the clock on the far wall as he drummed his finger impatiently on the desk, waiting to hear the inevitable catch. He didn't trust a word of what he was hearing. He knew what his visitor wanted him to think he was selling, but what secretly twisted version of the product was he really selling? Just what were his real ideas of "greed" and "honor"?
"…We do not run one vast charity but many individual businesses. We each have our own different tastes and pursuits. We are not hedonists, but we do not consider asceticism for the sake of asceticism a virtue any more than we consider joy a sin. Do you understand how Atlantis is not, as is the fashion for utopias, a cult of worshipers of the Deity of Universal Brotherhood? We do use money, we earn and keep personal profits, we have private property, we fall in love…"
Scrooge asked nonchalantly, "Hah, just what is your idea of love?", neither wanting nor expecting an answer.
The stranger looked aside, briefly laughed, and then mumbled behind a sarcastic smile, "Holding a woman hostage for a month and forcing her to work for me."
The stranger had just enough time to start at his own carelessness and whisper, "Did I say that out loud?" before Scrooge leaped to his feet, gripped the edge of the desk in both hands, and yelled, all concerns for personal dignity pushed aside by blind rage, "How dare you... How did you... Who told you about that?! What are you talking about?!"
"What are you talking about?" the stranger asked, for all appearances confused, but as calm as ever. Scrooge glared at him, sure he wanted him look aside in embarrassment at this allusion to a part of his past he never discussed; well, he wouldn't give him that satisfaction.
As the two men gazed silently into each other's eyes, Scrooge got the inexplicable impression that the stranger was reading his thoughts, watching the scenes replaying in Scrooge's mind...
...Dawson, the saloon, the valley, the rapids, the cabin, the fire...
...The months of exchanging glances as they passed in the street, saying with their eyes but never in words, I know you want me, but I'll never be weak enough to give in before you do...
"…Many a heart is aching, if you could read them all.
Many the hopes that have vanished after the ball…"
...The night she revealed herself as a dangerous adversary and he became determined to put her in her place and make her fear him as everyone else did...
"...I guess I'll stay a spell, miner..."
...The weeks he tried to break the unbreakable, to punish her for the weakness she made him guilty of, to teach her that her strength was no match for his...
"...This one's not like any other I ever met! Something more might come of this than I..."
...The night their resistance finally broke down in the most violent battle of his life, where his victory was only possible through his own surrender...
"...I'm afraid of what might happen if you... stay any longer..."
...The morning when his fear and pride drove him to send away the only opponent who had the power to defeat him – he was too vulnerable, it was too dangerous...
"...The only live one I ever knew..."
The first sight of movement in the stranger's face brought Scrooge back to the present – it was the corners of his mouth curving upward in a smile of understanding, before he said for explanation, "It appears we have even more in common than I thought." Scrooge realized in disbelief that he hadn't had Goldie or White Agony Creek in mind at all – assuming he was telling the truth, he had (accidentally, no doubt) alluded to something from his own past, completely unaware of the effect it would have on his listener.
Scrooge sat back down, crossed his arms, and tried to look composed. The stranger laughed softly at his own blunder before apparently deciding that the best course of action was not to ignore the preceding scene but to confront what had started it. He cleared his throat and said slowly, "My idea of love is admiration and trading value for value. Love is a tribute made willingly to what you admire, an exchange of values from which both gain pleasure and satisfaction, not where one gains at the expense of another's pain. Love is when you find someone who values what you value, whose strength impresses you and makes you want to match it, who offers you a challenging battle you enjoy fighting with a worthy adversary, to whom you give and from whom you receive equal joy. Love is a contest between opponents, who battle not because they hate each other or value opposing things but because they value the same things and thus naturally become competitors. The woman I love is also my greatest enemy, and I have spent the years systematically robbing her, piece by piece, of what matters most to her..."
The stranger's voice trailed off as his brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed, evidently puzzled over something he saw. Scrooge suddenly realized that his right arm was inside his coat, his fingers clasped around the dime on the end of a string in the inner pocket. He hadn't realized he'd reached for it during the last speech; he'd been too busy trying not to think of the one other woman in his life, who had been after the thing he valued most since the day she met him, pitting her strength against his not because she envied or hated him but because she wanted for herself what she admired in him. He guessed by the look of understanding coming over the stranger's face that he had deduced the meaning behind the instinctive gesture by now.
Scrooge released his hold on the coin and waited for the stranger to continue, but he seemed to have realized that he had said more than enough on the subject; he now asked, "What are your ideas of love, honor, and evil, Mr. McDuck? Are they so vastly different from what I've described that you could never find it possible to live in a world based on these values?"
"That doesn't matter if I don't believe that such a world exists," Scrooge answered.
"Understandable. If that's your only objection, all that remains is to come see the proof of it with your own eyes."
"Why me? Why not go across town and ask Flintheart Glomgold to join you?"
"Glomgold?! He's just another looter who makes money by force, fraud, and coercion because he knows he's not capable of earning it honestly. I have no interest in such men. Let them see how long they'll last without true businessmen to defraud."
"Why should you care about that? What's in it for you?"
"Every prime mover who joins the strike brings me one step closer to destroying the Hell the looters in power have made of Earth."
Scrooge smiled for the first time since the start of the interview and said, "I was almost beginning to think you sounded like just some new starry-eyed altruist on a mission to save the world. But according to you, you're out to destroy the world."
"I hope I won't have to destroy you along with it."
"Is that a threat?"
"No, it's a statement of the inevitable results of the course the world is on. If you prefer to serve the looters until they destroy you along with themselves, I can neither hinder your choice nor prevent your destruction, but I would consider it a tragic and unnecessary waste."
Scrooge said half in jest, "Do I even have enough time to stop it? Maybe you should have come to me with this proposal earlier. Did you consider how long it would take me to relocate all of McDuck Industries to Atlantis?"
"Why should I when you can't take it with you?" Scrooge looked right at him. "Joining this strike means refusing to give the benefits of your mind to a world that refuses to appreciate it, but as their world is forbidden to profit off you, you are also forbidden to profit off their world. Once we go on strike, we only do business with each other. Not a single cent of the businesses you run in this world would be of any use to you in ours. You are welcome; what the looters have, unfortunately, assimilated into their machinery is not."
The implications were too horrifying for Scrooge's mind to process them fully. The stranger spelled it out for him: "Mr. McDuck, leave all your businesses in this unjust, irrational world behind and come start over in Atlantis. That is my offer." There it was – the inevitable catch.
Scrooge sat stupefied for a minute, silently deducing the answer to the question, "Why?" before he could speak it. He eventually gathered enough strength and self-control to say, "You don't just want to spare those who don't deserve to be destroyed by this plague. You want to tell the entire body of looters, 'Be careful what you wish for!', and gloat. But you can't do that unless I – and all others like me – give them what they wish for. That's your proposal – citizenship in this Atlantis in exchange for letting you teach your enemies a lesson, which requires... everything we have! 'Leave your various successful businesses, walk away from your old lives, come follow me, and be my disciples!' "
"Before you put it that way..."
Scrooge didn't let him finish: "I do apologize for misunderstanding you. I thought you were selling a way for me to protect my business from those scavengers when you were really buying a way to punish the scavengers: destroying my business."
"You would prefer to see it in their hands rather than destroy it?"
"Never!" The word and all the anguish behind it burst forth instinctively.
The stranger said, in a tone unexpectedly but unmistakably compassionate, "Turn around." Scrooge rotated his chair around and was shocked to see, 12 stories below, outside the window, a mob gathered in a mockery of the act of storming a fortress that they knew they had neither the right nor the courage to storm. He had forgotten they were there; he hadn't been able to hear them since the stranger entered the room. "The only way to stop that epidemic is to teach them the folly and evil of their campaign. But reason cannot be forced; it can only be demonstrated. They want your money. They say all their problems are caused by you and others like you refusing to give them money. How would you suggest proving the irrationality of their demands?"
Scrooge answered placidly, "Give them what they want, and watch it fail to solve anything." He couldn't deny it.
"I came here today to ask you one question, Mr. McDuck – do you value your honor and freedom enough to shrug off this world's yoke of slavery? Do you have enough courage to start over afresh like you did so many times between Dismal Downs and White Agony Creek?"
"That's two questions," Scrooge said aloud as he turned back to face his visitor, thinking privately, But they only need one answer. He had to give the stranger credit for making something so terrifying sound so simple. Anyone else who tried to suggest that Scrooge McDuck abandon the empire he'd built over decades of toil and perseverance would have been jettisoned from the room by now. He should do that now – wave it off as a practical joke and get back to work. But as he pictured himself doing that, he realized he'd never be able to approach his work as he had before. Now, he knew that every deal he sealed, every dollar he made, would always make him think of those he was enabling to exploit his efforts, of the enemies he made stronger the longer he fought them. Once the stranger left this office, the chants would never stop; Scrooge knew he would hear them in his head every time he glanced at a coin or figure or report and curse himself for not teaching them a lesson when he had the chance. But the price...
The stranger waited patiently as Scrooge weighed the price of the offer, the benefits, the risks. Scrooge kept expecting him to say something to pressure him into taking the deal before realizing there would have been no point – there was no negotiating to be done, only a "Yes" or "No" for one to say and the other to accept. It was true that the thought of starting over again didn't daunt him; he was already relishing the possibility of such a challenge, in fact. He also judged the arguments for showing the world the folly of its economic policies to be perfectly sound. Most tempting was the prospect of never having to see those deadbeats or hear their ridiculous chants again. But was it worth trading everything he'd worked for? He knew it would be pointless to try to compromise, to suggest something like, he would give up his business if he could keep his 3 cubic-acre coin collection. If he didn't have the courage to give up all, he had courage for nothing.
The stranger continued to wait silently, never casting the briefest glance at his watch or giving the slightest indication of impatience. If his tactic was to give the impression that his patience could outlast anyone else's, it was working. Scrooge pitied any policeman who would ever need to interrogate him; he would outlast their entire force.
"Do you have anything else to say?" Scrooge finally asked, thinking, Please make some other argument that will give me the final push I need.
"Do you, yet?" was the only response he got, with a good-natured smirk that said, You'll get no help from me. Scrooge tried to tell himself this was just another tactic that he both used and got used on him all the time: adamantly refuse to help someone come to the decision you want them to come to, like ordering them on pain of death not to press the button you want them to press – he tried, but he failed; he knew the stranger meant it.
Scrooge tried a different approach: "What did you tell the other prime movers of the world to convince them to join you?"
"Whatever they needed to hear at the time."
Scrooge asked aloud, "Well, what do I need to hear?" and thought silently, Because I don't know what's holding me back.
"Everything I have just told you."
"If you've got nothing more to say, I should be completely sold on the idea. If I'm not, you should keep arguing until you win me over." I hope you know what will win me over right now because I don't, but I want to find out.
"I have no interest in winning people over by manipulation, Mr. McDuck. I can only argue by appealing to people's reason, not by convincing them to override it. If you have judged that it would not be in your best interest to join me, I cannot force your judgement. I will not ask that you sacrifice anything you value for something you judge to be of lesser value. I can only offer what I consider to be worth the value of what I request."
"How disappointed will you be if I don't agree with the value of your offer?"
"That's no concern of yours."
"You're right. My only concern is how disappointed I will be if I don't." It was definitely easier to reason through talking than while thinking silently, so Scrooge continued: "That's the most efficient way to resolve a dilemma, after all: ask which option you would regret more. If I refuse, I know I'll regret it forever. If I accept, I suppose I couldn't regret it for long... I'd only miss what I left behind until I got started replacing it, like I always have... I have no family to worry about, except my nephews, I suppose... I willed my entire fortune and this entire empire to my three grand-nephews. When I leave it all to the looters, by the time they come of age, there won't be anything left for them to inherit..."
"They're welcome to come, if they wish." Scrooge came out of his vocal reverie and listened extra attentively. "Anyone who shares our values and is willing to live by our laws is welcome to join us. Couples and even families have joined the strike – not collectively, as a unit, but each of them individually. If you know anyone in your family or on your staff whom you know would wish to join us, by all means, tell them; the less blood left for the looters to sacrifice, the better."
Scrooge thought this information should make the decision much easier. "If you've observed me as closely as you say you have, you must know why I found the boys worthy of inheriting my fortune," he said.
It should be easy now; Scrooge decided to remain on the same course until it finally became easy: "I remember when I wasn't much older than them, when I left home to begin making my fortune... when I left my family and started out on my own..."
"You're not done yet. You could leave them a much more valuable legacy than what you can leave them here."
Scrooge discovered he was already on a different track than the stranger: "Every time I started, failed, and re-started again, I had to do it on my own. I had no one to help me, no one to rely on, no one to offer me an escape or make the road smoother..."
For the first time that day, Scrooge saw the stranger begin to say something and stop before he could utter a sound. Scrooge watched him lean forward, change his mind, and lean back; he had realized where they were both heading now. It had been a slow journey, but the home stretch went quickly. It was all clear now that Scrooge could read the fine print and properly identify which part of the proposal he was incapable of accepting.
It was easy, Scrooge realized, as he said, "I thank you, sir, for teaching me an important strategy, which I'll have to pay you for somehow since I reserve the option to utilize it. There probably will come a day when doing business is no longer worth it, and I'll decide to teach the world a lesson by refusing to produce any more wealth for it until I'm allowed to produce wealth freely for myself. Once they push me too far, I won't hesitate to walk away and leave them to fend for themselves... but I'll do it on my own. I agree with your strategy, and I know I can follow it... but I can't join your club. When I go on strike, I'll have to do it alone, without help from you or anyone else. That's the only way I can do anything."
Scrooge expected an argument about how it-wasn't-help-only-a-fair-trade or how a strike, by definition, was done by a group and not an individual. The stranger merely inclined his head, closed his eyes, and smiled. Scrooge knew the conversation was over.
The stranger crossed his arms and broke the silence. "I will tell you, because I know it will interest you, that this is the first time I've gotten such a response... but not the first time that I expected... that I hoped, to get it."
Scrooge returned the smile and crossed his arms in satisfaction as well. "What do I owe you for the strategy?"
"Your answer has already paid me. You have declared yourself my ally, you now understand the only proper way to fight this battle. I will consider my purpose accomplished." The stranger rose and extended his hand for a handshake. Scrooge gave it, and the stranger continued, "It has been an honor, Mr. McDuck. I look forward to when we meet again. When we do, it will be in a very different world."
"I don't know why, but I feel like we should have met long before this," Scrooge replied.
"Yes, we should have." With that, he inclined his head once more in farewell and turned to go.
Scrooge's eye fell on the cardboard box left on his desk. "You forgot something," he said, as he picked it up.
The stranger turned around. "Oh, yes, I forgot to mention it. I usually bring cigarettes, but I know you don't smoke, so my friend recommended this. Enjoy – with the compliments of Hugh Akston."
He turned to leave again, but Scrooge stopped him again. "What was this, a bribe?"
"No, just a gift as a gesture of my respect for a man after my own heart."
He waited, no doubt to see if Scrooge would reject the gift. He placed it back on the desk to show he would accept this offer; he received a pleased smile in return. Scrooge asked impulsively, "When will I hear from you again?"
The stranger seemed to ponder briefly before answering, "November 22nd. Turn on the radio."
"Which station?" Scrooge asked, nonplussed.
"You'll find out by then; they'll let you know." One last silent, mutual look of respect, sympathy, and appreciation of the others' sympathy served as their final good-bye. The stranger walked to the door, opened it, and closed it behind him.
Scrooge wondered, if he walked through the same door and asked Ms. Quackfaster who was the man she had let in, if she would answer, "What man? No one has been in all day." Only the positions of the hands on the clock assured Scrooge that the visit hadn't been some fantastic dream. He looked down at his desk, half-expecting there to be no box there, but there it was. He picked it up again. It felt very light. It was sealed all around with masking tape, and over the top flaps was stamped in thick, black ink, like a seal, the sign of the dollar.
Scrooge took his letter-opener and cut the dollar sign right down the middle. Opening the box released a delicious scent that he recognized before he even glimpsed the contents.
"Stay tuned to hear Mr. Thompson's report on the world crisis at eight P.M."
Scrooge took a long drink from his cup. No doubt about it, the packets his mysterious visitor had left him made the best nutmeg tea he'd ever tasted. This Hugh Akston, whoever he was, must be a culinary genius. Scrooge decided it was appropriate to make a pot tonight while he listened to what the press had said would be an announcement by the Head of State. He had been reminded of no other broadcast so frequently, let alone one on November 22nd. He knew eight o'clock p.m. was the time he was waiting for.
He wasn't disappointed.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Thompson will not speak to you tonight. His time is up. I have taken it over. You were to hear a report on the world crisis. That is what you are going to hear."
Scrooge picked up the teapot, poured himself another cup, and sat back to savor the tea and the broadcast. He knew instinctively that he was one of the people to whom at least part of this announcement was particularly addressed...