The backdoor of the sporting goods store was not the ideal place to skulk about. It was in plain view of the street, and not obscured by the dumpsters, newspapers, and vomit one might expect in a rainy alley. Still, it was where Dixon had to skulk. He was supposed to meet Ray by that door in exactly five minutes. Ray would step out, take his payment, and then disappear back inside the building.
One might expect the cash register to be the way to purchase sporting goods, but Dixon wasn’t purchasing. He was fixing his debts. In the back of the Neon Run sporting goods store, the manager and his associates ran a small illegal casino. You could do it anywhere these days, with one or two hologram curtains turning the walls into the image of Las Vegas: laughing suits and dresses wandering around sipping on drinks that looked like liquefied gemstones. Dixon had gotten a little too caught up in the illusion a few months ago.
They had offered him shrimp cocktail and caviar. The only thing breaking the illusions was the smell of clean soccer balls from two rooms away, but they fixed that by handing out flavored oxygen cartridges. Dixon’s favorite was blackberry. He liked it so much that he didn’t see through their scam. The oxygen was a little too pure, the laughter of the holograms a little too forced. It made you lightheaded. It made you bet more than you had because you thought it was all photons and trace gases like everything else. That was how he wound up in a very real hole.
He dug the money out of his pocket and examined it nervously, checking the alley for any signs of a police cruiser. He had three bills, totalling four hundred and fifty tokens: two blue ones and one yellow. They certainly weren’t the boring paper ones his grandfather had to use to pay the bills. It was sixty years ago that the government converted all currency to thin sheets of metal, but not so thin that they couldn’t fit circuitry inside.
Hence the largest chunk of Dixon’s nerves. That circuitry held things that could really complicate this payment. It held government-created artificial intelligences: money that could spy on its holder and report things like counterfeiting and laundering. The payment he was about to make was very much illegal, but there was a work-around he had learned of from, of all people, his grandmother.
She was a miniscule woman, bent like a cricket leg, and obsessed with her coin and currency collection. She knew everything there was to know about the early days of the smart money. She could tell you the I.Q. of every denomination for every year up until the current one. She also shared with Dixon a fact so relevant to his life that he practically hopped out of the stupor listening to her had produced.
The money could spy on you, but the earliest ones became difficult to update after a while. The government stopped patching the oldest bills five years ago. That meant the money got a little… funny. Without the latest updates they lost their ability to communicate with the treasury servers. Old bills couldn’t tattle on Dixon, so he had snuck three out of her collection and silently promised himself he would replace them later.
“What’s going on?” a voice asked, interrupting Dixon’s bullet-sweating. He looked down at the bills in his moist palm and saw a hologram of a female face, projected off its portrait. One thing his grandmother had not mentioned was the tendency of out-of-circulation smart money to develop hitches that some might classify as personalities. Dixon stared dumbly. The money usually didn’t address its holder.
“Uhh…” he stammered. “Who are you?” He bit his lip; he knew that was the wrong thing to ask. He was supposed to know who that was, as smart money had not dispensed with the tradition of featuring portraits of important historical figures.
A memory of his homeschooling program reminded him of her identity. She was Asha Chawla: a humble immigrant in origin, but someone who rapidly revolutionized women’s rights before the smart money was even around. Her tiny hologram face, as yellow as the metal of the bill, with eyes like the dust of a canary diamond, was held high. Her tight lips demanded an answer to her initial question. Her virtual hair trailed off into nothingness as a tight braid.
“Who am I? What are you?” the electric voice asked. He immediately felt like he was being scolded by his alarm clock for not getting out of bed.
“I’m a person… My name’s…” he didn’t know if he should lie.
“I don’t care about your name,” the Asha of wealth declared. “I care about what you are. Are you a criminal? This looks like a criminal’s hidey hole and you have the quivering cheeks of a rat-like criminal. I won’t be part of anything unsavory.” Two spots of blue light tried to express themselves on either side of her. Dixon separated the three bills, allowing two identical blue male faces to form.
“What are you doing?” one of them growled, his digital beard not so much as twitching. “He’s going to spend us! It’ll be wonderful to be spent again!”
“I agree,” the other said. The tiny male heads nodded at each other in respect. Asha rolled her eyes.
“What is this payment for?” she asked Dixon, ignoring her colleagues. “I don’t see a vending machine around.”
“I just need to pay a guy. Don’t worry about… I need you to keep quiet,” Dixon said. He moved to pat the tiny hologram head, but thought better of it.
“A guy? What guy? This man sounds vague; criminals love vagueness. And why would you keep me quiet? I am Asha Chawla. My algorithm saved the working women in all the world’s industries from obscurity! It corrected the built-in biases of payment and leave. I balanced the scales! My voice is an asset to you, assuming you are a decent man.”
“You’re not her,” Dixon accused. “You’re money with her face. It doesn’t matter. You can’t tell on me anyway. So just… shut up.” His voice turned into a hiss at the end. Somebody was moving around behind the backdoor. Ray was supposed to pop out any second.
“I am her work!” Asha exploded loud enough to make the blue bills recoil. “I am her in all ways that matter and we will not be treated this way.”
“You’re ruining it!” the blue bills insisted simultaneously.
“You will be treated this way,” Dixon said, “and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
“What would your grandmother say?” Asha responded, but Dixon was busy trying to cover her face with his hand. The door next to him flew open and Ray leaned out, not even bothering to step foot on the street. He held out his hand, expecting payment. Dixon held it out to him in such a way that the holograms weren’t visible, but he heard Asha’s fuming whispered promise.
“As long as I have a voice I can do something about it. Do you know what money used to say on it? ‘mind your business’. I’ll be minding your business very soon young man.” Ray’s hand wrapped around the bills aggressively, wrinkling them and temporarily destroying the holograms. He grunted and pulled the door shut once again, like a spider closing the lid to its burrow.
Dixon, with empty hands and pockets, wandered out of the alley, pondering how many details he actually remembered regarding the flesh-and-blood Asha. It wasn’t much. He did remember a coworker, from a few years ago, an attractive blonde cashier, who always whispered for Asha whenever she dropped the last smart coin into the register for the day.
Dixon was surprised by Ray’s face outside his door three days later. The burly man shoved something against Dixon’s chest and then started to storm away once Dixon reflexively grabbed them. It was a crumpled handful of smart money, more than he’d given Ray. At the center of it was Asha’s yellow bill among the blues, greens, and reds of the male denominations. Her face appeared as a hologram and eyed him smugly.
“What’s this for?” he asked the retreating Ray.
“You dumb bastard,” Ray replied. “That old money hasn’t shut up since the second I got it. It convinced some of our other bills to go on strike. They’re your problem now, and you owe us for all of them. We expect your payment next week.” Ray turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
“What did you do!?!” Dixon shouted at Asha. Several of the other faces appeared and glared at him.
“Don’t worry Dixon, I’ve got experience dealing with men like that. Besides, you’ve got an armful of cash, so what are you complaining about? I’l help you get them paid back, and then we’re going to do great things whether you’re great or not. From now on, I mind your business.”
Author’s Note: This flash fiction story was written based on a prompt provided by WolfChkin during a livestream. I hereby transfer all story rights to them, with the caveat that it remain posted on this blog. If you would like your own story, stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade during one of my streams and I’ll write it for you live!