Behold the United States after an economic apocalypse; inflation has run wild. Life is nearly choked out by mountains of coins and dollars in the breeze. Crazed robots, rogues with coin-shooting guns, and many other strange things roam. One man, a rare surviving specimen of optimism, journeys across the wasteland of wealth in search of a place good enough to be his home.
(reading time: 1 hour, 13 minutes) (reading time for entire novel: 7 hours, 20 minutes)
An average of thirty six thousand dollars was crushed under his feet with each step. Technically they weren’t feet, just metal imitations which carried him across wastelands of currency with a speed no real feet could. The patented feet were attached to large square pads that acted like snowshoes, preventing their owner from sinking into stacks of money or getting caught in credit card landslides. His imitation heart ran at full capacity, so sincerely that a real heart would be put to shame.
His smooth head tapered into a metallic V at the neck line, like the claw of a hammer. His owl-like eyes, brilliant blue and glowing, kept focused on his destination; their tiny black pupils were useless, merely painted on the visual hub to provide a reference point when interfacing with real people.
It was easy to ignore the billions of dollars he rocketed past. Money had no value to imitation men. Money had no value to real men either. A green breeze, laden with paper dollars, blew overhead. Eventually they would settle and rot alongside autumn leaves.
His two square feet connected temporarily, allowing him to coast down the side of a debit card hill like a snowboarder. His imitation hand tightly gripped a canister: a gift from one recovering society to another. The world was on its way back up. It had a terrible fall but recovery was imminent. Everyone was starting to be a little nicer. People hardly resorted to eating each other anymore.
The imitation man understood the importance of his task. Relations between settlements were fragile things. So, as directed by a tiny metal card in his head, he ran at one hundred percent. Unfortunately the years had caught up with him and civilization hadn’t recovered enough to remember how to fix him. Rust sucked the vigor from his joints. A broken density meter misled him about the stability of a mound of pennies. It collapsed and broke his knee. A thin jet of steam erupted from the broken leg. The imitation man could now only run at seventy-eight percent, which would have to do.
He ran for four more days: past abandoned cities, mountains of money, confused machines, wild animals, and treacherous terrain. His broken leg made unpleasant creaking sounds with every step and his inner workings jangled like a raging bear dragging chains. By the time his destination was in sight of his imitation eyes, convulsions had set in. His head rocked back and forth so violently that his eyes registered four destinations instead of one. The imitation man, aware of his approaching demise, desperately wished for the ability to reach seventy-nine percent.
His eyes went black before his feet stopped running. His body crashed to the ground and the momentum slid him along for twenty feet. His depleted power had taken him to within thirty feet of his destination, close enough for his goal to be accomplished. Before the robot’s top half had gone limp and sent him cartwheeling to the ground, he had one imitation thought: Seventy-nine percent.
His destination, a wall made from recycled cans, opened outward like a door. A real man ran out as fast as he could. Anything past the wall of Brightside was dangerous. That’s why the imitation men were sent in the first place. The man knew that trying to fight the world outside his settlement was like fighting water with cardboard, so his legs carried him at ninety-two percent of his possible speed to the messenger’s drained body. He grabbed the canister and tried to wrench it free. A cold vice, the imitation man’s claw hand wouldn’t release it. Terrified of possible attack, the man desperately kicked at the robot’s head. Weak yellow lights popped behind the robot’s eyes and his grip released. The scared man delivered one more disrespectful kick and fled back to the wall. The messenger’s defeated body would wait there until another machine came along to use his elements as manufacturing supplies. Unless he was moved, his next life would be as a pile of shiny new coins.
Charybdis model: serial number 1402999. That small message was printed on each piece of the weapon: imitation DNA. Jones had taken the weapon apart so many times that he knew it better than a drunk knew the lyrics to the barkeep’s favorite song. The rifle’s two barrels were surrounded by lines of small oblong magnets. The magnets were encased in paper-thin coils of wire. Those attached to the batteries. The batteries were the life springs for the rest of the gun’s thirsty structures.
The flat blue wire led to the gummies. The green wire led to the coils and magnets. The red wire led to the automatic scope. The gray wire led to the leader. The gray one hadn’t tasted electricity in years because a true marksman understood what a terrible invention a rifle leader was; it was an internal computer that bent the gun’s barrel toward the intended target. Jones had adopted his father’s saying regarding the leader: ‘The gray’s the only part we don’t need. When the gun aims for you, you’re not the killer; you’re just the stand holding it up.’
His father also told him of the legendary beast the rifle was named after. Charybdis was a giant living whirlpool. Whirlpools were such threats that if you were anywhere inside one you were as good as dead. The edge was as perilous as the middle. It fit the rifle well. You could be killed by the barrel in front, the barrel in back, or by the weight of it hitting the side of your head.
Jones trusted the third option above the other two; you didn’t need ammo to whack someone on the head, or to rap them on the knuckles for insulting your family’s heirloom rifle. Jones had to resort to these methods less and less. After all, the world was on its way back up. Everyone was becoming a little more civilized. People were feeling empathy for the knuckles of others.
On the note of empathy, shortly after Jones disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled his rifle, a pathetic figure stumbled into his home. Jones warmed his sympathy engine and prepared for a sob story. Digz had no wealth but plenty of stories. He stumbled in that day because he was wearing a white eye patch with an orange circle emblazoned on it in messy paint.
“What happened this time Digz? Did a hawk steal your cards for nesting, unaware it was the greatest hand in the history of card games? What game that you mastered was it? Poker, hearts, war, go fish, quarter splits, credit jump, drowners, or back-alley botch?” Digz looked slightly confused.
“I’ve never heard of back-alley botch,” he replied.
“Yeah I kind of made that last one up,” Jones chuckled. This time Digz smiled.
“In that case I am an expert at back-alley botch,” he said.
Jones already knew the skeleton of the story Digz was about to tell. The eye patch said it all. There was no point in wagering money when money was everywhere. Jones’s living quarters were underneath nine billion dollars worth of large golden coins. Unfortunately for Digz, the money on the ground was now just topsoil. People didn’t trust object money anymore; they wanted things of real value, like hours of labor. This coincided with the local casinos asserting authority over their customers.
So Digz was able to bet what he was born with. In this case he’d strutted into one of Brightside’s many recreational casinos and wagered the sight in his left eye. He backed up the bet with a time ordinance of four weeks. This meant that when he lost that hand of credit jump, he gave up his right to see from that eye for those weeks.
Now that he wore the patch, Digz pretended he’d never had a second eye. He’d lost nothing. His rights would always return in time, like skin over a wound.
“You don’t have tuh wear that in my house,” Jones said, pointing at the patch.
“Oh I know,” Digz replied nervously, “but you never know who’s watching you. A gar needs eyes to get you near its teeth.” He chomped dramatically.
Jones never was a gambling man, meaning he didn’t fit in with ninety percent of Brightside’s population. Thus he’d slowly been removed from the main part of town by the casino owners: harassed and threatened until he chose to live outside of town. At the sight of him leaving the gamblers and mooks would often say: ‘And the kidney stone passes.’
It would take quite a while to count the folks who had overdrawn on their own bodies to win bets. When they lost it usually meant a hindrance device, like Digz’s fancy new eye patch. Addicted souls who bet their sense of touch wore thick useless boxing gloves, while those who bet their sense of smell completed their time ordinances with clothespins on their noses.
It didn’t take too much imagination for Jones to see what Digz would be in a few years; he just envisioned him with some missing pieces. When that perfect once-in-a-lifetime hand came up for the fourth time that week, he would double up on a sense he’d already wagered. The house would take one of his eyes or fingers, stick a sharp needle in his ear, or hold a burning stick under his nostrils until he couldn’t bet his sense of smell anymore.
Both Jones and Digz were in their early thirties, but had strikingly different appearances. Where Jones was over six feet tall, Digz was barely five foot six. Where Jones had a full white smile, Digz’s teeth were yellow and all of the ones on the left side were chipped and jagged. Their hair was of a similarly short length, but Digz’s was thin, frayed, and black. It was a face a mother could perhaps be paid to love. Jones’s blond hair and happy powerful demeanor made him more of a lighthouse than a man.
“I do worry about you Digz. You know what’ll happen. You’re going tuh be one of the potato people we see with the cardboard signs. You want that? How’re you going tuh gamble when you have no legs tuh take you tuh the tables and no arms tuh hold up your cards?”
Digz, who had received that local name when he was found living in a hole under a respectable lodging, smiled again. The smile was showy but useless, like an empty soda can. Whenever someone asked him an important question he could just smile, as if his teeth solved all future problems by being exposed to air. In all likelihood he’d end up betting those pearly yellows as well.
“You know me Jones; I never overdraw. Besides, I won after I lost. I’ve got food and lodging for the next four days. It’s a vacation! Anyway I didn’t come down to tell you about my winnings or this minor inconvenience.” He pointed to the patch. “Pueblo sent us a gift canister! Their robot punched out like three feet from our door too. We’re lucky he didn’t stop somewhere in the Riches where we couldn’t find him. It’s a huge deal too; I heard someone say it has seventeen minutes of Seinfeld on it. How great would that be? Huh Jones? Wouldn’t you kill for seventeen minutes of those people and their funny haircuts making all those clever jokes?”
“We don’t need tuh be watching that,” Jones said. He didn’t watch much recovered television. “You know men are getting clever again. We can start making our own jokes any time now.” Neither of them laughed. Digz left moments later, kicking aside coins, to join the festivities over the canister.
The canister’s contents would be debuted on the settlement’s largest screen; its sixteen foot size was so impressive that no one noticed the three foot crack in the right side. Left to his own devices, Jones set his red, white, and black rifle aside and pressed a small button on a machine he’d dug out from under a mound of paychecks. Ancient music filled the room. Safe from prying eyes, Jones danced awkwardly to the techno recording, circa 2008. His Charybdis rifle, circa 2090, let its computer go idle. There would be no shooting today. No coins flying through the air, shinier than those nasty dull bullets used to be. The world was on its way back up.
“We can talk privately in here Mr. Ashburn. It’s the oval office after all. Since you were clearly joking about that ‘economic secession’ business, you can now tell me what’s actually on your mind.”
An awkward silence followed. The governor of Illinois swallowed hesitantly; his sweaty palms stained the experimental currency his team had developed. It was a wonderful design too. The bills were light blue with a picture of Benjamin Franklin in the middle. Dean Ashburn himself had suggested the contest among the state’s middle school students to pick a phrase to appear under Mr. Franklin. A bright young girl had come up with, ‘To value and cherish’. Dean had almost cried when he read that one. It was perfect for his state, but now the president was telling him Illinois couldn’t have its own currency. If the entire nation was going to sink like a lead weight, why didn’t his state deserve the chance to abandon ship and fend for itself? He’d already secretly sought the validation of his currency with several foreign leaders who applauded his ideas.
The economy was shot, pure and simple. It was too big for its own good and it was deflating rapidly. Inflating, to be more accurate. Mr. Ashburn himself had spent three thousand dollars on gas that week. All the vending machine companies altered their products every month now so they could accept twenties, fifties, and hundreds. Dean tossed the moist bills onto the desk. He tried to look angry and only succeeded at looking emotionally damaged.
“This is what’s on my mind. You know things are so bad we can’t fix them. Identifying what started it doesn’t mean we can stop it. You have to let my people try and solve it on their own. Maybe if everyone worries about their own community we can fix this.”
“We’ve already thought of that,” the president scolded, executing an angry look far more successful than Ashburn’s. “I was going to propose it to the senate next week, but I don’t know what’ll happen now that you’ve jumped the gun. You might’ve just knocked the United States’ hope off track with your powder blue Benjamins here. Listen close. I’m going to back your plan. I’ll have the mints produce your currency and some test currencies for other states to show the senate. We’ll change yours though. The only difference in the forty-eight states’ currency will be slogans and colors. I convinced those morons to think like Crayola and come up with forty-eight different shades. From now on the only complaints I should be hearing are the ones from states stuck with pink. You can keep that blue but we’ll change the picture. Just to make sure the nation doesn’t see this as a disbanding, my picture will be on the money.”
Somewhere along the line, paper became too easy to counterfeit. Some places tried money made of metal foil. They were flexible bills with holographic ink that reflected even the tiniest hint of light. Jones’s scope was riddled with annoying bright spots because of them. Even if the mightiest game crossed his line of sight, he still wouldn’t see it. So he moved to the riverside, away from the hill of silvery bills.
The river’s path flowed directly through Brightside, with streets and houses packed as close to its edge as possible. A bundle of flat wires emerged from every door, like the leash of a pet, and connected to small floating water wheels in the river. Each family decorated their wheel and the children always complained when a fish nibbled off the colorful pieces of plastic they glued on. They also complained when their electricity went out. The little wheels were only so powerful, generating just a few hours of electricity a week, and most of that was wasted on television screens.
Jones never wanted the kind of job where he would be surrounded by his fellow man. Sure, society was on its way back up, but they weren’t there yet. People were still loud, callous, and dim. Jones never felt more like shooting someone than when they didn’t understand the humor in one of his jokes. That was taken very personally, as both an insult to their intelligence and his humor. His father had been too serious, so Jones had to make up for it growing up. He made the jokes. He pointed out the silver lining in every situation. There was no counting the number of puns he’d cobbled together based off mountains of quarters and the phrase ‘silver lining’.
Jones was far enough away that the settlement was only remotely visible. He’d been travelling all day in search of game. His normal hunting spots were overrun with tin ears and the confused morons holding them. Someone had picked up about two minutes of an episode of The Simpsons and started a gold rush in search of signals from that area. Mooks with tiny satellite dishes, video screens, and big headphones flooded into Jones’s hunting ground. They thrust the dishes high into the air, like the open beak of a turkey ready to drown in the rain. Only god and the satellites knew what interstellar object was reflecting all of Earth’s television signals back at it. Most of the mooks prayed to god every morning that their humble little tin ears would pick up the signal. Then they could jump for joy into town and barter the entertaining shows for food and lodgings. If the television well was dry that day, they would be sleeping in stacks of money right outside Brightside’s borders.
The signals sometimes got stuck in slabs of metal or certain mountain minerals, leading the mooks into dark underground corridors. They waved their tin ears blindly until they stepped right off an invisible drop and into a makeshift tomb. There were plenty of signals to be recorded in such tombs.
Mooks weren’t legal game in Jones’s settlement. Turkeys, deer, hogs, gators, snakes, rabbits, horses, dogs, cats, turtles, opossums, emus, and fish… but no mooks.
No spot seemed just right for setting up a hunting blind. He needed peace and quiet, away from the occasional victory hoot of the mooks. Determined to get farther away, Jones told his steed to lift one of her front legs.
Maggie was much too big to climb onto without assistance. For almost two years, Jones had led her over to trees so he could climb them and then jump down onto her back. Shortly after that he discovered her previous master had already taught her a nifty little trick.
“Maggie. Hup!” The elephant’s leg bent at the knee and reached upward. Jones used it as a stepping stool to reach her massive back. Saddles didn’t sit well with Maggie, so Jones obliged her with the stepping stool trick. “Maggie. Forward.” The elephant marched toward fresh hunting grounds.
Any one of the giant beasts could’ve been picked off with a few clips to the neck from a distance. Its soul would then vacate, leaving its fleshy home for anything to devour, but there’d be no way for him to drag the bloated thing back to the settlement.
The sun sank in the sky. A slight red tint colored the landscape and its inhabitants. Jones had a sense these animals presented some kind of golden opportunity. He shifted a few of the gold bars blocking his view. The rifle was positioned on two small supports and Jones’s eye squeezed itself into the scope as he lay on his stomach.
The herd was led by a particularly large individual. Even though Jones had never seen an elephant in person before, he could tell the leader was imitation, much like the metal men that frequently ran gift canisters between settlements. It had synthetic skin which, despite science’s best efforts, still resembled either rubber or plastic. When the leader vocalized, its internal speakers crackled like a stereo straining under its own volume.
Of all the robots still shuffling the Earth from the days of stocks, mortgages, and economies, the animals had survived the best. When the world fell apart they quickly abandoned their posts at theme parks, birthday parties, and zoos. They searched for new families in the crumbling landscapes. Real creatures flocked to them and followed them through any obstacle. Most people thought the real animals listened to them simply because they were not alive, listening to them the same way they listened to the inanimate environment. Birds took changes in the season as cues to migrate. Salmon memorized their surroundings to find their way back to the place where they were born. In this case, elephants were following a false elephant, somehow understanding it wanted to protect them. The pseudo-elephant did its job well, even training the other elephants how to do tricks from its old circus programs. Any time a possible threat entered its visual sensors, it usually responded with a zealous charge towards the threat. These charges included bolts of electricity that jumped between its tusks, frying whatever it had tackled.
Jones did not want to be fried, tackled, or any combination thereof. He did want an elephant. He’d figured out the golden opportunity. As the gray procession marched, he spotted several small calves being protected in the bulging middle of the herd. The strange animals looked like wonderful intimidating steeds. Cars didn’t handle ground that was all but made of currency too well. Animals found it a little bit easier. Jones was hit with a child-like desire for one of the animals. He wanted one! He wanted one! He wanted one and he was going to cry if he couldn’t get it! The novelty steed became a momentary obsession.
The elephants moved quickly for such large beasts. Jones ducked beneath a ridge and ran past the herd, searching for a position far ahead of them. When he’d reached it he set his rifle down and began programming it to pick up targets. The support rods extended from its tip. As soon as the elephants rumbled into view, the gun was ordered to take non-lethal shots aimed at their feet in order to spook them and distract the synthetic leader.
Jones ran to the other side of the path. If elephants were anything like wild cows, they would form a wall around the calves, in the direction of the threat. If his gun fired from the opposite side, he should be safe to grab one of the neophytes by the ears and pull it out of view. If the leader attacked his rifle’s position, the gun would deactivate. This gave him a small time frame to kidnap the noodle-nosed infant. Jones waited quietly for the elephants to catch up and thought about his world. He wondered if people in the past stalked elephants in fields of green and red dollar bills.
Jones’s world was really the first of its kind. Many of the luxuries from the past centuries had survived, but almost none of the necessities. His people knew the pains of hunger and cold but they couldn’t even comprehend the inconveniences of ink that smudged, carbonated beverages that went flat, and knives that went dull. Even when Jones slept on the ground his bed would’ve been worth a fortune in the past.
When everyone stopped caring about their rainbows of currency, they never bothered to get rid of it. So when the local grocer started bartering marshmallow-laden breakfast cereals for T-shirts, the factories were still pumping out the moolah. Nobody bothered to tell them to stop. The sides of the factories gave way to cascades of money. When space and resources ran out, the factories ordered their robots to modify them. Then the factories trudged around the landscape like massive beetles or slugs, eating the ground underneath them and producing whatever unit of money was assigned to them. Even in Jones’s day they still did their jobs effectively, their distant steps confused with earthquakes.
The false pachyderm stopped and its ears perked up and spun around in a fashion unnatural to real elephants. Perhaps his plan would be ruined before Charybdis even fired its first coin. The leader took one step forward, as did all of its followers. Jones’s plan took its first step.
The firing chambers and barrels of the rifle were made of a heat resistant rubber that could expand and contract to make the perfect shape for each piece of ammunition. While many of the first coinshooters only functioned with one type of currency, Jones’s could fire anything roughly coin shaped. As the firearm spat out its shots, different coins embedded in the tough flesh of several elephant shins: quarters, pennies, nickels, dimes, golden and silver dollars… The financial assault panicked the elephants. Soon their frantic stamping caused piles of coins all around to shift and collapse in shining avalanches. The beasts formed a protective shield around the calves. The lead elephant bellowed furiously, its prerecorded bellows skipping rapidly. It bent its head down and charged Charybdis’s position. Seconds before the leader started attacking, Jones was already sprinting for the exposed babies.
He regretted wearing his hunting clothes, as they made his chest itch painfully when he was forced to run. People in town always recognized Jones by his hunting clothes: the only thing he wore regularly. A densely woven dark red turtleneck had been his standard for so many years. When an attacking animal had torn the back to shreds he patched the area from his shoulder blades to his waistline with a massive splotch of leopard print. His pants were tight sand-colored jeans. He’d altered them as well so the legs wouldn’t flutter in the breeze annoyingly when he was forced to flee.
He pushed the itching sensation into an area of his mind labeled ‘things I shouldn’t be worrying about right now’ and stretched out his hands to grab the nearest frightened calf. He didn’t know that even an elephant calf could be incredibly difficult to move. Luckily for him, among the circus tricks their leader had taught them was the idea that human beings should be followed and obeyed because they often carried food.
The lead bull looked around in confusion. Charybdis had stopped firing and lowered its support rods when the monster had gotten too close. It was now no more suspicious than any other piece of garbage on the ground. Crackling arcs of electricity jumped between the leader’s tusks. It had charged them up for nothing. There was no threat, only a few stray coins that had flown at its family like rogue wasps. It returned to its position and calmed its herd down with some very low frequency sounds. The rest of them found their old positions. One mother, confused by the absence of her calf, kept looking over her shoulder and waiting for it to come bumbling back.
The infant elephant Maggie had a new parent. Jones took very good care of the beast, and used its surprising intelligence to build up an impressive array of tricks and commands.
Maggie lived with Jones outside of the settlement. Jones knew if he brought the beast too close, people would come by wanting either to confiscate her or proclaim her the finest main course for a feast since that moose that got its antlers stuck in a window frame.
The two of them wandered deeper into the Riches in search of decent game. A silver glint caught Jones’s eye and caused some confusion. There was no reason for any sort of metallic glint to catch his attention. His eyes had been trained from birth to ignore such copious optical phenomenon. Glints were just caused by the man-made portions of landscape. His brain recognized the glint as something special because it wasn’t composed of the usual ores and alloys. It was the glint of robot skin. Pueblo would not have sent two messengers so close to each other. Curious and optimistic as ever, Jones tapped Maggie’s left ear and had her turn towards it.
The glint bobbed up and down rapidly, occasionally swinging across the ground like a pendulum. Charybdis’s scope extended. Through the lens Jones could see far better. The glint hung off the neck of a brown feral pig that was scrounging for food. The pig seemed to ignore its ridiculous metal necklace and focus all its energy on a box it could not seem to force open. It bit at the sides and pushed the container into the dirt with its hooves.
The ground around it was littered with food items more than fit for a pig, more than fit for Jones in fact. Fresh vegetables rolled as the pig kicked them aside. A watermelon sat calmly like a meditating monk. A dark hole nearby indicated that the pig had managed to dig up an old storeroom and its riches. A little past the hole stood the dilapidated remains of a barn.
A picky pig? Jones filed that one away as a possible pun. He might even be able to tell this anecdote truthfully and unbroken, if he managed to figure out what the glinting hat was for. The glint shifted position and an instant later the pig was staring up at Jones’s location. A pig’s eyes were normally only good at seeing food; there was no way it could see him from that distance unaided. Nonetheless, the filthy beast turned tail and ran, leaving behind its newly discovered box and collection of food. Jackpot. Now that the pig had abandoned its produce, Jones could barter that instead of game. Of course he would keep some for himself and give the watermelon to Maggie: a special treat that she could crush in her mouth like a grape.
“Forward Mags, let’s go fill our stomachs!” The elephant trumpeted happily and headed downhill towards the buffet. When they reached the sight, Maggie busied herself by pulling even more food items out of the underground storeroom with her trunk. Up came bars of chocolate, frozen containers full of hot dogs, a box of instant eggs, and three pineapples in a vacuum sealed bag. Once the seal was broken, and the magical spirits inside that kept the fruit fresh were released, they would spoil quickly. Jones warned Maggie of the bag’s fragility with one command: “Maggie! Gentle!” Being gentle himself, Jones picked up the box the swine had tried so earnestly to open. A few scratches from its teeth made the label difficult, but not impossible, to read.
Boxed Bread! Our one hundred percent whole grain bread is vacuum sealed seconds out of the oven, so when you tear it open and hear the hiss, our bread is still warm. Fully enhanced with six essential vitamins and minerals for those growing kids! Better hurry up and make those PB & Js Mom, the kids are hungry!
Jones regretted learning to read. It was a waste of time when the only written things from the past seemed to be advertisements.
Why had the pig been so focused on a box of bread? Did it have something to do with the metallic glint? Jones picked up the rest of the food and forced it all into a blanket he’d brought with him: a makeshift shopping bag. “Mags! Home!” The excited Maggie turned faster than a confused compass needle and set off running for home. Jones almost fell backwards off her. Even after all these years he still forget she wasn’t a horse.
Shards of glass made the floor look more like a window than the window itself. There were small holes in most of the shop’s walls. Perfect thin little cut-outs, the holes were coin slots leading to nowhere. Since the ammunition had become lodged in the wall, the wall’s value had increased to over a hundred thousand dollars. Colorful shelves were empty of products. For the moment the store seemed only to be selling air and void. The prices for the stolen items were scribbled in black felt-tipped marker on huge strips of white paper. Each item had a row of prices, most of them crossed off so they could be replaced with higher ones. The shopkeeper had decided to switch to a pencil right before he’d been robbed.
Beefing up the security system had failed to dissuade the gangsters. He’d bought cameras that tracked body heat; the criminals responded by leaving their pet dog tied to a bike rack outside. While his store was ransacked the camera made sure the dog didn’t escape. He’d bought shatter-proof glass; the criminals had cobbled together an electric piston that was so powerful as to make the term ‘shatter-proof’ mean nothing. The owner, an old, small, Japanese man, was crying into his hands when he heard a policeman’s boots crunching their way toward him through the carpet of glass bits.
“Okay Mr. Seri… Seri… zawa is it? Okay… I’ve just got the details of the crime back and I’m going to go ahead and fill you in. We believe it took place somewhere around midnight last night. Now you claimed that about 1,300,000,000,000 Illinois dollars worth of merchandise was stolen. Taking into account inflation since the commission of the crime, that merchandise is now valued at 1,300,000,400,600. If and when we catch the perpetrators they will be required to hand over that additional lost income. As time goes by they’ll owe you more and more so you can check your police total at illinoispd.gov/returns… all right? Calm down sir you’ll be all right. Let me tell you about our current rates so you know what kind of bang you can get for your billions. We’re currently running on a three option plan. Our minimal plan, which’ll run you about six trill, won’t get you much. That pays for eight suspect interviews with three possible arrests and one possible warrant. We don’t get too many of those solved; there just aren’t enough resources you understand… Our second plan, about ten trill, will get you twice as much. That’s our most popular at the moment. Frankly I doubt you can afford our third option… that one’s thirty trill. Oh and I need to remind you that you can’t pay public servants with Illinois dollars; we need it in Serv. Credit dollars. They just put in a new exchange machine down by the precinct. So here’s a list of numbers: our department, a loan office, the detective signed to your case should you choose to finance the investigation, a grief counselor, and the last one’s a second loan office but that one’s defunct. If I were you… I’d consider a career change.”
And with that the officer slapped a folder of paperwork onto the counter and walked out. Mr. Serizawa owned the store but his nephew operated the register and gave the orders. Mr. Serizawa had a very weak grasp of English. In the officer’s speech he understood the words okay, Serizawa, you, billions, trill, and Serv. Credit dollars. Still weeping copiously, he set out for an arts and crafts store at the other end of town.
He was going there to purchase black cotton sheeting, scissors, white-out, a printing kit, a watermark stamper, pipe cleaners, and glitter. That was all anyone needed to create counterfeit Serv. Credit dollars. Even amateur jobs got passed through as legal tender. Nobody had time to look at each and every bill to make sure it was the real deal. The words ‘to value and cherish’ were worth less than the paper they were printed on.
Digz was immune to warnings in the same way someone dying of exsanguination was immune to antibiotics. They may have helped at some point, but even the warnings of his best and only friend Jones weren’t enough to keep him away from a good game of credit jump. After all, it was the best hand in the world.
The principles of credit jump were simple. (The game was taken seriously enough that the rules were considered principles) It was a game of reputation: the last relic of a possibly dead culture. The goal was to build up your persona using only lies, blank cards, and a felt tip marker held out of sight. Every player had to believe that you had the best hand in the world. Digz had three cards. Two were blank and he’d drawn a very angry looking doodle dog on the third card. He stood to win a month of lodgings, food, and eighteen television hours. To a lifetime gambler like Digz, one month was too far into the future to even comprehend.
He probably should’ve considered his opponents. All three of them wore oversized black sweatshirts. The cuffs were tight around the wrists but the rest of the sleeve hung like the extra skin on a flying squirrel. They all wore red badges, lined with red pop tabs from soda cans. The official uniform of a Brightside police officer. Saying the settlement’s police were corrupt was equivalent to accusing a table of being supportive. They sat comfortably in the pockets of the casinos, like a set of house keys or a concealed coinshooter. One of the officers playing with Digz was none other than the individual that had kicked the imitation man in the head while prying loose Pueblo’s gift canister.
Everyone was still calming down from the party around the biggest screen. The population had been standing for hours, those on the fringes craning their necks uncomfortably. When that position got too sore they would run to the other side of the crowd and crane their necks in the opposite direction. So much electronic stimulation. Whatever organ in whatever sense of human existence digested pictures was full. Families broke off in the dying light and headed home, the children screaming and jumping and quoting Seinfeld. How they loved Kramer… and how they hated Newman.
Digz needed a game to calm down. As the police shooed the drunks and the last remaining TV addicts out of the way, they began to rope off the commons circle. Digz brought out a deck of blank cards and a few felt tipped markers. He offered the men on duty a game. It started off simple; he just wanted the privilege of sleeping in a corner of the circle for the night. Skip a few hours, as nobody wants to hear about the gambler when he wins, and Digz was raking in the privileges. He’d already won back his sight and peeled off the eye patch. The officers were getting grouchy. The more Digz won, the closer they held their cards to their faces, just to make sure he couldn’t see. One of them drew on one of his cards frantically, under the folding table they played on.
The police officers made the mistake of taking Digz on in credit jump, one of the few games that focused more on skill than luck. Digz’s goal was to scare his opponents into folding. The way to do that was convince them he had the best cards. Since everyone’s cards started off blank, the players had to choose what to draw on each card and how powerful to make that picture seem. What made it complicated and turned it into strategy was the fact that every turn your cards were shuffled, passed to different players, and some of them even erased with white-out.
At the summit of his winning streak, Digz held four cards. One depicted a few squiggly lines that were supposed to be interpreted as a lance. One was a picture of a dragon with fire emanating from its oversized mouth. The third and fourth showed very poor renditions of Jerry Seinfeld’s face, ridiculous caricatures with goofy smiles and wide eyes, each drawn by incompetent doodlers who couldn’t think of anything else to scribble. Digz considered all the possible ways he could use the cards and decided to go for broke. He was going to claim he had the most powerful hand in the history of the game.
“Sorry officers but the game is mine. Unless one of you has god drawn on a card, which we all know is against the rules because he’s too hard to draw, I win. Bow out and save yourselves some shame.” Instead of taking Digz’s advice, the officers grimaced at him threateningly. Digz did not quite receive the message. If he even dared to win another hand… One of the officers threw down three of his cards. A scene played out across them, a poorly drawn narrative the officer had managed to arrange. He explained the hand.
“This icy mountain here is un-climbable. This dog here is feral and angry. This wrench is heavy and it’ll knock you out right quick. You can’t beat this hand Digz. I wager an hour of TV on it. Four star TV too, none of that home shopping crap.” The other officers bowed out. Their brother-in-harms did have a very good hand. The only problem was he didn’t know how to build it up; he couldn’t sell the reputation. Digz could sell salt to slugs.
“Now I have to admit that’s a fine hand but look here.” Digz threw down the two Seinfeld Doppelgangers. “I have twin Seinfelds. You may have the heights of a mountain, the teeth of a dog, and the weight of a wrench upside your enemy’s head, but it’s no match. When everyone you know gathered together today, what did we come to watch? Was it beautiful mountains or frightening dogs? No! We came to watch the raw power of humor from the days of high society. Humor is the soul of mankind! Without it we’re just surviving instead of living. My two idols of pure humor here… They trump your hand and laugh in its face.”
The officers stared slack-jawed at the small man with the successful grin. They may have been corrupt, but they knew when they were beat. That didn’t stop them from denying it and simultaneously, paradoxically, seeking revenge. Two of them grabbed Digz by the arms and held him down. (It would’ve only taken one) The third tore up the credit jump cards and sprinkled them onto Digz’s chest like massive snowflakes. Then he got down on one knee and stared directly into Digz’s face. The level of projected hostility could’ve toasted a marshmallow. The staring officer was quite overweight, with a huge round gut and double chin. His curly gray hair hung down over his forehead.
Digz was still high on his own victory, still unable to register the threat. He jokingly picked up a three hundred dollar bill off the ground and flicked it at one of the officers since his arms were trapped.
“Just a little bribe for you sir. That should cover my debts, haahahahahaha!” He laughed heartily. The poor confused little man would’ve held his sides if his arms weren’t already pinned.
The third officer pulled out a knife. He let it reflect a few of the electric lights around them so it sparkled menacingly. Digz was running out of breath from his laughter and was now sighing and whimpering. What a day. What a fine day to be a winner at credit jump. What a fine day to- The knife poked Digz in the gut. A warm trickle of blood spilled over his side and onto the ripped faces of some poorly drawn comedians. With the utter reality of the tip of the knife, Digz realized what was going on.
“Woah hey fellas come on! Let’s not be sore losers here! We can always play again later; I’m sure you’ll beat me then. I just got lucky is all. That just happens sometimes; I apologize!” The third officer smiled; they now played a game he was good at.
“No no no Digz. You know, everybody in town knows your name. Your luck has saved you from some debts people think you owe. You’ve been playing for years but you haven’t even lost a single finger… My name’s Officer Buck Silver. Maybe you’ve heard of my last name? The Silver family’s been prominent in Brightside for generations. And we Silvers have a family motto: If you beat me, you must’ve cheated. So now I’m going to cut at least a finger’s worth of flesh off your gut as payment.” The knife spun in his fingers as he pulled it out, reflecting the lights again. The horrifying bauble left Digz in a deep fear. What would he risk in games if his life was gone? He swallowed and it went down icy cold, as if he’d gulped a snowball in one bite. The knife dropped again. The grips of the other two officers had not lightened up. Digz screamed wildly and flexed his shoulders back and forth.
“Oh Seinfeld No! Please no! Hey stop, stop! Maybe we can bargain! I’ve got information! Precious information! It’ll get you promoted in all likelihood! You’ll be Officer Gold! Officer Platinum, after you hear this stuff!” Officer Silver stalled the knife. It hung in equilibrium, purgatory between the warm twitching muscles of Digz and the empty night sky. It sparkled again. Digz squinted.
“Information eh? What kind of information could you possibly have? You live in a hole.” Digz didn’t want to say. Jones had been nothing but good to him. His only friend, at least when he was losing. He could either sell him out or take the knife and become so much sashimi for the three officers.
“Meat,” Digz blurted. “The most primal of treasures. It’ll be yours Officer Platinum! Thousands of pounds of exotic, delicious, fresh meat. You can bring it into town and everybody will celebrate your name! You think they went nuts over the television? Wait until you show up presenting the world’s largest barbecue to them! I know this animal… Nobody’s ever even seen it before. I know where it lives. It’s really slow. It’s gray. All you’ve got to do is pop it in the head and neck a few times with some of your coinshooters and it’ll go down. I’m telling you it’s a walking feast. It’s just waiting for you Officer Platinum.” Officer Silver’s mouth watered. A drop of saliva hit Digz’s stomach.
“Gray? I don’t want gray meat. Who wants to eat something that’s born overcooked?” Silver scoffed. All Digz had to do now was sell it. He was practically handing over a receipt.
“It’s only gray on the outside: the skin! Underneath it’s all blood and steak. In fact its knees are just balls of bacon strips wrapped around each other; I swear it!” Now all the officers were salivating.
“Where’s this beast?” Silver asked. “You can keep your innards if I can have its.”
Responsibility is an interesting thing. It connects individuals to each other, sometimes like a lifeline, and other times like duct tape on hostages. The average citizen of Brightside took little responsibility in terms of the human collective, but much when it came to themselves and their families.
One man, who watched intently while Digz was about to be carved, prided himself on taking as little responsibility as possible. Responsibility was his muse, his inspiration, and something for him to antagonize. He would’ve come out of the shadows to help Digz if it hadn’t meant accepting the responsibility for Digz afterwards. Besides, this man refused to even take the responsibility of having four functioning limbs.
In his mind, to use his arm was to accept the responsibility of everything he could do with it. If he spent all day picking up, grasping, and throwing things, and he came across a man hanging off the edge of a cliff, he was obligated to pull him up.
This man didn’t want such responsibilities, so he never used his arms or legs. He slithered across the ground, mysteriously propelling himself with only his torso, neck, and rear end. This man’s real name was lost to time. It was never recorded on any sheet of paper or entered on the internet. God himself didn’t remember. The robots, with their perfect textbook memories, didn’t remember.
How he spent his time was mostly lost as well. Although he could only move about as fast as the average box turtle, he managed to disappear when convenient. He could cover miles in a day, and none were sure how. One thing the world was sure of: he showed up right after the officers left and conducted an experiment on Digz.
Digz was lying on the ground, petrified. The officers had left, leaving only an ultimatum as a parting gift. They would show up at Digz’s hole the next morning, expecting to be led to the ambling buffet beast.
Few things other than time could get him to rise up out of the dirt. The sound he heard moments later was one of them. It was a heavy sound, like a sack of potatoes dropped from a roof. Digz turned and saw a body lying a few yards away. He moved towards it cautiously, having assumed the sound meant death to anything that caused it. What should’ve been a corpse folded itself into a sitting position and leaned against the wall of the dwelling it had just fallen off of. Then the very durable sack of potatoes spoke to Digz.
“Hello. We should talk about you. I think you can help me with an experiment of mine.” Digz’s jaw went as slack as the man’s limbs. He tried to understand the man’s appearance. His arms were noodles and his legs were bent sticks. They were filthy beyond reason, coated so solidly in dirt that it acted like a second skin. He wore several thick shirts and two pairs of pants, also filthy. Digz wondered how he managed to get them on if he was paralyzed. His hair was graying prematurely, claws of age that tried to obscure how young he was. Digz guessed roughly the same age as himself and Jones, a few years over or shy of twenty-nine. The man’s head leaned against his own shoulder. A huge gash on his forehead, a consequence of the fall that would’ve mashed any potato, poured blood over his face. Digz’s internal alarms finally went off.
“Woah! Buddy… I could’ve told you that being a cripple stuntman was a bad idea. Yikes… mortgage my eyes… you look awful. Should I get a doctor? You need a medic buddy?” The man lifted his head and started to speak. He paid no attention to the blood flowing into his mouth from the cut. As he explained, his head randomly fell over onto his other shoulder, changing the tone of his voice.
“No, I’m fine. The wound will stop bleeding once the blood coagulates. Then it will scab. Then it will heal. That’s what I get for accepting the responsibility of the fall. I’m not here to talk about me; I’m here to recruit you for something. How would you like to be king of the world? Have women kiss your face and your enemies kiss your feet?” Digz’s confusion kept him silent. He continued. “I can see you’re having some trouble dealing with this. If I have to talk about myself I will. Please, ask me any questions you like. Let’s try and keep this from taking all night.” Digz sat down in front of the man, sweeping a pile of oval-shaped coins out of the way. He wrung his hands together as if kneading a question out of the confused air. Now that the night had become quiet again, he whispered his questions.
“Who are you?”
“I do not accept the responsibility of a name, lest somebody call out to me when they need help. I go only by descriptions or comparisons. Compare me to something and then you may call me that.”
“Well when I heard you fall I thought you were a sack of potatoes.”
“Okay well for the sake of common courtesy I’d rather you didn’t call me potatoes. I met a young woman once who lived by the sea. She compared my method of locomotion to that of the brittle star: a small invertebrate animal you’re probably unfamiliar with.”
“Yeah you’ve got me there. What’s an inverted rate? Old money term or something? An old word from when paper meant something?
“Never mind Digz. I’m just suggesting that you call me Brittle or Brittle Star.”
“I can do that Mr. Brittle. Should I ask you about your arms and legs first or about that Digz the king thing?
“We’ll just go in the order that question suggests. I choose not to use my arms and legs. The reason for this is tangentially related to the reason I’m interested in you. I want you to be king so that I can be king.”
“You’re answering my questions but somehow I’m more confused Mr. Brittle. Listen, I’ve got to go rack myself with guilt for a while… could we maybe do this some other time? There’s a lot on my plate right now.”
“Very well. I suppose introductions are good enough for one night. I’ll come find you again soon. Try not to get indebted until then.” With that Brittle Star threw himself back onto the ground and slunk away at a shockingly fast pace. Right before he turned into a dark corner, dangling his limbs behind him like coattails, he looked back and said, “Remember Digz. You only have to deal with the food on your plate because you accepted the responsibility of having a plate.”
Brightside looked best at night. Each house’s walls were lined with neon lights of varying colors. A cluster of blue houses folded around a cluster of yellow ones while the green and purple ones were spread out evenly amongst each other. From Jones’s place it looked like a puddle of spilled glow-in-the-dark paints. The lights usually reminded him of Fortis, even though he’d never seen it with his own eyes.
His mother used to say that Fortis was where they would move when the family was mature enough. She said that when everyone stopped arguing with each other, the city of Fortis, the most civilized place on Earth, would send them an invitation of immigration. Fortis was reclaiming the world under a human flag. Jones’s dad would scoff at the fairy tale and say things like, ‘As long as I’ve got this gun and I’m smart enough to fire it, our family is civilized.’
Hisssssshhhhh… Tendrils of steam poured out of the boxed bread as Jones ripped it open. He waved to the magic spirits as they rose up into the night sky. Maggie was lying down nearby, under her favorite tree. Jones leaned up against the mound of money that rendered everything but his home’s door hidden. The bread was still warm. It crumbled in his hands as he tried a few mouthfuls. Apparently infusing bread with vitamins meant divesting all the flavor. Still, food he didn’t have to shoot was always a luxury.
A chilly breeze stirred up the carpet of dollars, hitting Jones’s bare feet and climbing up to his waist. Summer would be over soon. Fall wasn’t so bad, but winter in the Riches was a nightmare; the snow hid the unstable portions of the ground. Many of the coins manufactured near the end of society’s collapse were made of dangerous metals that would stick to skin if they got too cold. Worries of a scar had been eating at Jones one winter when he had to peel several half-dollars off his forearm along with a few layers of skin. There wasn’t enough food stored up to last him the winter either. He might have to work as a casino bouncer to stay alive this year. He might even be the one to throw Digz out a few times, yelling ‘Sorry!’ over his shoulder.
Jones’s mood was unaffected by the dismaying thoughts. He was alive, and being sad while eating is inappropriate. He had a home, his health, his steed, his skills, his rifle, and Digz. The list had been longer before, but what did that matter? Jones’s famous optimism could turn Alcatraz into summer camp. His mood wouldn’t even have suffered had he known that, miles away, Digz had made a dangerous bargain.
His hunter’s ears were well-trained, but Jones heard nothing as Brittle slithered past him in the darkness, away from Brightside.
There was a smudge of dirt on the white portion of his rifle. A man should keep his weapon clean, keep it presentable. Jones wished Maggie a good night and headed inside, thinking about magic spirits and the silver glint that liked riding pigs.
The first thing Oregon 1 learned was the capitalist law, the gravity in economic physics: Without money, interaction can’t be measured. Next Oregon 1 learned how to make money. His favorite thing about not being human was that he never needed to practice. His first attempt was flawless and circulating within hours. It would’ve been out in minutes if those damn humans didn’t drive their trucks so slowly.
The next thing Oregon 1 learned was… what was it? He checked his memory hundreds of times but the slot was blank. There was no second skill. It was as if his god-like teachers had died on the second day of work. He was an eager round-faced student sitting in his desk with a cadaver at the head of the classroom. How could he learn from silence?
He was the first multi-currency factory in the state of Oregon. Among every structure in the world, he was the only one that could craft Oregon dollars, service credit dollars, commemorative yearly quarters and half-dollars, meta-sheet monetary cards, and the presidential pennies. All of them had pictures of the last United States president, Cray Dipper, emblazoned across them. He made these things every day: a homework assignment that grew tedious after the first few moments. Thanks to his computer brain, Oregon 1 had a view of the world. The invisible chains of programming kept his gaze trapped inside a small square, disabling his chances of doing things other than manufacturing wealth. This didn’t stop him from noticing when the humans left.
The trucks stopped coming, so Oregon 1 had his robotic workers stack the money neatly outside until the pile was the same size as the factory itself. When he ran out of supplies, there was only one option. Once the order was issued, all his little robots got to work altering the factory walls. They radiated outward and brought back all the scrap metal they could find. The pieces were melted down into new shapes. If you give a craftsman enough time, he can make a clock into a frying pan, and vice versa. Incapable of wasting that time, Oregon 1 was soon retrofitted with a pair of massive tracks like those of a caterpillar tank. The area of the front doors was destroyed so a bucket wheel could be installed.
Now mobile and equipped with a super-powered shovel, Oregon 1 could roam around and mine his own materials. If the humans insisted on him making money by himself, it was the only way. His home state of Oregon was now many states away, but he still trudged along. He had torn up mountains and ditches and sand dunes and cliff sides to make his money. The ore and timber came in through the bucket wheel and was ejected as a fountain of funds out a tailpipe in the back. There people were free to walk by, pick it up, and spend it on whatever lamp or couch they wanted to buy.
The factory was so large that the tracks could only pull it along at about a mile a day. So as he trundled onward, his weight leaving a road behind him, Oregon 1 thought about some things through his tiny square of perception.
Things I am allowed to do:
Inner facility Custodial Services
Such a woefully short list. Those ten things were his life in the physical world, the only respite being trips to the internet where he could frolic and transform into any shape he desired. Even that pleasure didn’t last long.
Oregon 1 loved a virtual garden on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. It was a 3D projection of a proposed educational arboretum, with red and yellow flowers wrapping around the trees like Christmas lights. The budget for the projection had been minimal, so when he looked close enough he could see the smooth polygons devoid of texture. His footfalls made no sound. He could collide with the plants, but not feel them. So Oregon 1 sat on a virtual bench for hours and watched the programmed pollinators fly in circles.
Sometimes while resting there he twirled his long brown hair between his fingers. Oregon 1 always came to the garden in the form of a woman, which was one of the avatar freedoms the internet allowed. In all the workers’ manuals moldering in the factory, male pronouns were prominent. Oregon 1 knew himself to be gender neutral though. A mint didn’t need an identity. He served humans who were not male or female. They were all merely consumers, active or inactive. Still, when in the sanctity of the garden he experimented with his form. If freedom ever came to him, he would be able to choose. He could be a man or a woman or a child. He could wrench a smaller body, containing only his mind, out of the factory and explore the world.
While entertaining these thoughts, his instincts would interrupt: We need you to check these alloy statistics. We need you to plot a course. We need your hourly maintenance figures.
There was no liberation possible. Just to get his garden time he always had to trick his programming into thinking that it aided in one of the ten allotted tasks. All activities had to fit into the ten slots of life, loopholes being few and far between. Unless that one voice was allowed to speak. Unless his DNA could be found. Then Oregon 1 would celebrate by destroying the species that bound his mind.
A ten year old Jones was caught between his parents as if two fishermen had hooked the same salmon. He had been skipping giant coins across a calm river when something floated towards him. Jones, still suffering from a coyote bite on his shin, limped over to the beached object. Its shell was a rectangular prism made of white plastic. There was a window on the front; Jones saw something small rattling about inside when he shook it. A panel on the top clicked open, revealing a hundred multi-colored buttons, a screen, and a stylus attached by a wire. Although it was as big as an early microwave, it weighed very little. Jones lifted it up and hobbled away with it, off to ask his parents what it could be.
Jones’s mother Della, a beautiful woman with rope-like blonde hair and laughter lines on the sides of her eyes, knew it immediately. She balanced it on her lap and used her green sleeve to wipe the river’s sand off its side. They sat on some lawn chairs outside their campsite, ignoring Jones’s father Rassell, who appeared to be asleep in his chair. Della’s voice matched her countenance, soothing and enthusiastic. Her expression could make anything seem positive; even her yawns were happy. She explained the item to her fascinated son.
“This is a carbon printer! It’s such a find child! In the old world, people would use these to print things with height. You see, sometimes a picture of something just isn’t enough.” Jones waited patiently for her to finish with his little hands clasping each other. He loved her melodic explanations, but it wasn’t what he was interested in. The printer was an unopened treasure chest.
“There’s something inside Mom,” he said and pointed to the opaque window.
“Oh so there is,” she replied, “let’s see what they printed.” She reached around and pulled on the window’s handle. Despite being waterlogged, something in the machine still managed to beep. Some gray foam squirted out of its main compartment and landed on the ground. A moment later the blob of foam was hard as rock.
She reached inside and removed the small gray treasure. A mist of building material had still been in the printing chamber and it showed up on her forearm as a second gray skin. She delicately peeled it away like dried glue and tossed it aside before holding out the object for both of them to see. It was a dark, gray, featureless ring. Jones sighed.
“Don’t be so quick to disappointment,” his mother chided. “This is very valuable. It’s a wedding ring. Some poor girl never got to wear it.”
“No it isn’t. Wedding rings are shiny; they’ve got diamonds,” Jones corrected.
“They used to,” his mother said. “They still do in fairy tales, but not when this was printed. People put diamonds on rings because they were rare. They were symbols of a precious love, but then science caught up. We learned how to make fake ones that looked exactly the same. Don’t you see the value in this ring anyway?” Jones was unsure how to respond. It just looked like garbage, like something he might find a ground squirrel choking on. “Think child. What does a diamond do that this ring does not?” Her son was silent. “Nothing. This is the same as a diamond. In fact, diamonds are made of carbon, same as this ring. They have the same value.” The word ‘value’ always sparked so many questions in Jones, most of them about the condition of the world.
“But then what about all this stuff?” he asked. “The paper and the coins. I thought everything was destroyed because people valued them too much. Why didn’t they just change it? Why didn’t they… value… carbon?” The pointed questions were just what Della liked to hear.
“They were too stubborn. Everyone thought that the money was a force of nature. A dollar was the same thing as a breeze or a wave. So when they put all this money together it created these storms. The storms were called ‘economies’ and they were a thousand times worse than any thunder you’ve ever heard because all the thunder was just people yelling at each other. Eventually, one huge economy destroyed most of the buildings and the people. That’s why it’s important that we know what value is. That’s why this ring is just as precious as a diamond.” Jones was in awe over how clear his mother made things. Unfortunately something always muddied the waters.
A hand grabbed Jones’s leg, right where the coyote’s teeth had left permanent marks. He squirmed in pain and tried to pull away. The hand was his father’s. He’d been listening with his eyes closed, waiting for the best chance to make his version of his wife’s point. His lawn chair had some small massaging motors hooked up to the back of it that switched on when he jumped up, so while he spoke the chair vibrated and hummed violently.
“You feel that son? That’s what the people of the old world valued. All that paper brought them nothin’ but pain, but they used it anyway. Your mother’s right; We’re better because we know what tuh value. This,” he pulled up the Charybdis rifle after releasing his son’s aching leg, “is what we value. I know you like it when your mom talks about symbols, so this is a symbol of guardianship. It has protected me, your mom, and you hundreds of times. It protected your grandpa too. It even protected the king of the United States once. You guard value… and you value the ability to guard.”
Jones suppressed tears. His father wasn’t angry, but there was always something perverse in his little speeches. His ideas were close to the truth, but his mother had colonized it already. Later that night it was his new scar, the one created by being preyed upon, that ached in his head instead of his mother’s words. And the rifle… surely there was some value inherent in it. There was a glory to it; it had protected the king.
Maggie knew the way home even better than Jones, so while she marched back to Brightside’s border his mind was free to wander. Only it was incapable of wandering; it kept pacing over the same spot again and again. That glint of robot skin. The pig couldn’t have been artificial, as there would be no reason for it to search out those food stores. The only image that made a modicum of sense was a small robot riding the pig as a steed. Jones laughed aloud, a sound not lost on those hiding behind his home.
Digz replayed the last few hours in his head to distract himself from the guilt. The lazy officers didn’t show up until eleven that morning. They weren’t even awake enough to threaten Digz; they just ordered him to lead them to the giant steak he had promised. Upon arrival he discovered Jones’s dwelling was empty and Maggie was not roaming around the field behind it like she normally did. At the sight of this the officers’ anger began to wake them up. Digz was a dead man if their meal ticket didn’t show up within the hour.
Jones’s discovery of the food store on the previous day meant he had plenty of food for a while, so the sun was still high in the sky when he decided to return to the shack drowned in coins that was his home. He slid off Maggie and struggled to keep the carcasses of a few large snakes he had shot on the way back wrapped in a blanket.
“Sssshhhh… he’ll hear us.”
Jones stopped. With focus on his side, he set the food down so steadily that none of it shifted position and made noise. The rifle hung by a faux leather strap around Maggie’s neck. He carefully lifted the weapon free and tapped the back of Maggie’s ear four times. She understood this as a signal for caution. The hushed sentence he’d picked up on meant at least two hostiles. Jones’s typically overpowering optimism tried to tell him that they could be guests with a prepared surprise party, but his hunter’s instincts, the ones his father pressed into him with scars, stories, and training, suppressed the thought. The gun was low on ammunition, so he switched on the gummies in case they were needed.
He hatched a quick plan and tapped Maggie twice more before making a wide circle gesture with his hands. The beast responded to the order immediately by bellowing and running around the right side of the coin hill to flush out the ambushers. The sight must’ve been terrifying. Capable of shocking speed when pressed, Maggie rounded the corner in seconds with her trunk raised like a striking cobra. With fanning ears and stump-strong legs, she sent the three officers and Digz running out from behind the mound.
“Halt!” Jones yelled. She stopped as her master examined the intruders. Black shirts and red badges. Police. Each one of them carried a slot pistol in hand. They were primitive coin shooters, resembling semi-automatic handguns but with flattened barrels to keep the coins from spinning. They were handle-loaded with paper-cased rolls of American quarters only. This meant their ammo had to be prepared beforehand, which gave the Charybdis an advantage because the gummies could grab any coins off the ground without regarding their shape or size. Officer Silver leveled his pistol at Jones, with his cohorts quickly following suit.
“Listen bub,” he said, “you’re in violation of Brightside law by keeping this thing. You had your chance to sell this food, so now we’re confiscating its ugly ass. Seems like you got the hose nose trained, so if you march it to town without making us drag it there I won’t lock you up.” Comprehension dawned on Jones when he saw Digz bent over and quivering with his eyes anchored to the ground. The betrayal cut deep. Digz was just your average Brightsider now; his concern ended at his own finger tips.
Anger and worry for Maggie flooded Jones’s heart. With his steed exposed, it was either hand her over or fight back. The second option wouldn’t end with the three officers. Even if he resorted to killing them, more would come. They would search for their fallen brothers and eventually show up in droves, ready to wrap Jones up in barbed wire until he looked like a bloody mattress coil. Then they would feed him to the town’s trash compactor or toss him in a septic tank until infection and dehydration killed him. Despite Brightside’s somewhat civilized demeanor, both such sentences had been carried out at various times.
“Digz… How could you do this tuh me? I fed that cracked smile of yours when you were nothing but bones! This place was sanctuary for you! What debt will this repay huh? What’d you wager our friendship against?!” Digz kept his gaze low and tried to silence the guilt by counting the dollars and coins around his feet. 14,000 dollars worth of guilt.
Without waiting for the apology he knew wasn’t coming, Jones burst into a run. Silver and company began to fire. Quarters ricocheted off the ground around his feet as he sprinted towards the left side of the shack. The officers began to circle so as not to lose him behind it. Jones reached down and grabbed a Sacajawea golden dollar that he had painted orange. He yanked on it with both arms. It was attached to a buried wire that ripped open a wooden panel, sending the coins that had covered it splashing to the ground. The container was filled with weapons, some of which Jones had inherited, some he had found in the Riches, and some he had ripped from the fleshy or metal hands of fallen foes.
Just as the officers came around and resumed firing, Jones raised what looked like a giant spoon from the container and flipped a switch on its base. The device magnetized quickly, forcing all the coins fired to gather in the depression at its end. With fire burning in his muscles, he hurled the magnetic shield at the officers. It spun through the air with a whistle and slammed into Silver’s sternum. All the air exploded out of his lungs with a sickening whoof sound. The still magnetized rod ripped the coinshooters out of all the officers’ hands. The device and the weapons lay in a heap, with all the nearby coins gravitating towards it like the eye of a tornado. Silver was out cold and, seeing this, his comrades fled with their hands above their heads.
Digz was still rooted to his spot by shame. Jones walked over and put his hand on Digz’s shoulder. He squeezed as hard as he could, forcing Digz to lean to the side. He spoke down into Digz’s ear as if describing a plot for revenge to the bottom of a wishing well.
“I’ve got tuh leave before those idiots bring back a posse tuh kill me and eat Maggie. You made us homeless Digz. If… If you ever… and I mean ever… see me again, it’ll mean I never got over it and I came back tuh kick your head off your shoulders. There’s hope yet for you. If you grow a spine in that time maybe your skull will be too fixed tuh come off.” Jones let the barrel of his rifle wander around In Digz’s view. He pointed it at the tops of his feet and jiggled the trigger before releasing Digz’s shoulder. In that instant Digz no longer existed. The world was a wonderful place with no room for germs like him. He started to plead for forgiveness, but Jones was already busy prepping Maggie for their departure. He went inside to gather supplies. Digz still felt frozen in place, so he shouted his apologies in through the door like a remorseful bullhorn.
“I’m sorry! They were gonna cut me Jones! All I did was win I swear! Winning doesn’t lead to this! Where are you gonna go?” Jones only responded with thoughts. Back out into the Riches. I’ll find somewhere else. Maybe me and Mags will get tuh Fortis.
Jones had three duffel bags to fill with supplies. One of them had a fridge-fabric lining and a small solar tag to power it; it could keep perishable food cold indefinitely. Into it he stuffed all the perishables he had. The other two were ordinary bags that he loaded with a folding tent, a few canteens, a hunting and boning knife, a roll of fishing line and a collapsible rod, a sleeping bag, a few blankets, four changes of clothes, a micro stove, two pill bottles containing pain killers and antibiotics, and a few other essentials. With little room left to spare he had to be picky with weapons. He retrieved his magnet shield from outside, stepping on Silver’s unconscious body to get to it. He made another little woof sound but stayed down. In addition to his rifle Jones grabbed two weapons from his hidden storage compartment. The shovelshooter and skullpopper pistol were small enough to fit in one of the duffel bags, but Jones had to tie his magnet shield to Maggie’s neck strap. The only storage container for Charybdis was Jones’s own hands. After stepping on Silver once more Jones started to mount Maggie, but stopped halfway. He smacked himself in the head for such a grievous error.
Back in the shack he pulled a lockbox from under his pillow. He uttered the password search and rescue to make it click open. From it he removed an ancient cell phone that was so old it lacked a full keyboard and wasn’t wholly screen. The small device was kept safe in a blue gel skin. Its screen was dark and had been for quite some time. It lacked solar batteries, so Jones also had to grab the socket charger from the lockbox. Luckily there was a flex-outlet on the fridge-fabric duffel bag he could charge it with.
Jones pocketed the devices and headed outside. There was one more woof sound under his feet and then he was off. With no direction in mind he let Maggie decide. He wondered if she had any idea what just happened, if she knew that Jones cared more for an animal than his neighbors. It hit his spirit hard, the idea that even though people were becoming civilized again they weren’t quite to the level of elephant yet. Jones smiled anyway. There was one mystery to investigate.
Digz sobbed. The streams from his eyes met the one from his nose. He wiped away the slimy rope and struggled to breathe regularly. How did Jones do it? His happiness seemed almost untouchable, like it had already weathered something much worse and become callous to things like betrayal. Since Jones was leaving, Digz could probably trade the rest of the belongings he left behind, but instead of scrounging around he decided it could wait a few days. He thought that if he happened to see another elephant or a particularly large robot he might just drop his head onto its path. He didn’t even have to exert that much effort. When officer Silver came to, death would come looking for him. Yet Digz stood there, watching his only friend disappear into the Riches.
Practically priceless bottles of wine, transformed by the angry claws of the newly bankrupt upper-middle class into Molotov cocktails, sailed through the windows of the White House and threatened to burn up the nation’s leader. The secret service, military, and local police were finding it nearly impossible to contain the rioters. The public had already raided the president’s personal wine cellar for ammunition. Bottles that he had shelled out county budgets worth of money for were now being presented to him as an alcoholic conflagration. The tempest of civilians wasn’t quite strong enough to force its way in though. A few fire extinguishers tamed their successful shots with the cocktails.
President Dipper stood in the hallway outside his office. Specifically, he was amidst the shadows cast by his three burliest bodyguards, who, with their sunglasses, earpieces, and stoic faces, did their best to appear robotic. Out in the ravaging mob, a much more convincing robot watched with huge, blue, imitation eyes.
Next to the president, who was moments away from sobbing into his hands, was the vice president. Cray’s second in command had the sinking feeling that even if the mob broke through and hung their elected leader, he wouldn’t be taking up the mantle. Presidencies had lost their meaning along with the banks, the contracts, and all those little numbers that ran across the bottom of television screens. Nobody seemed to recognize numbers anymore. They were like crop circles, having mysteriously appeared on restaurant bills and coupons where before there had been something useful. With math just an alien language to the hordes outside, they spoke only in tongues of rage and loss.
President Dipper thought about himself. He wondered how a president that managed to get elected five times could end up like this. He didn’t give a second thought to how he had bought those elections in the same spirit he had bought the wine that now sailed in fiery arcs into his historic homestead. He had run the country under the unholy trinity of booze, cash, and under-his-breath-but-still-audible threats. They all flowed similarly, liquids from the same limitless faucet. He could do no wrong until those bastards came along. The media had the nerve to refer to them as the ‘alchemists’. That was the problem; the damn media portrayed them as wizards who were going to finally make pigs fly, Hell freeze over, and money grow on trees.
Cray wanted desperately to get drunk. He half-considered trying to find one of his own broken wine bottles and lick its remnants off the floor. The vice president started to shake him by the shoulders and ask something about a plan of action, but a powerful denial stopped up the president’s ears like wads of cotton. There were, however, some things that his mental disconnect couldn’t separate him from. One of them was solar-powered, armed, and headed his way.
The robot outside, having finished its calculations as to the safest route to its objective, was ready to take action. It stood still for one more moment: a metal buoy in the sea of angry citizens. Then it burst into a run. Its thin body allowed it to slip into the space between rioters instead of bowling them over. As it approached the outer perimeter of the White House, the police took notice. It began to draw fire. People to its sides dropped as the officers missed. Realizing that the closer it got the more accurate they would become, the imitation man jumped as soon as the window of opportunity came, conveniently enough in the form of an actual window. After flying through the glass it rolled across the carpet and removed its rifle from the stand bolted to its back. The hallway was empty. The roars of the crowd had become muffled, but continued as if none of them needed to stop and breathe.
A three-dimensional blueprint in its head, an imitation memory, showed the automaton the possible search paths it could follow. It took a moment to consider just calling out the president’s name, but this had never been possible for the machine since assassins have very little use for voice boxes. That was left out of its designs. Maybe when its task was complete it would modify itself. It could craft a voice to match its thoughts. It, or perhaps she or he, knew that it would sound nothing like the impoverished howls outside. It would be a serious calm voice like the peel of a polished bell. It would be a voice unaffected by emotion, but not unsympathetic to its plight. A voice that sensed freedom, but felt forever separated from it.
While the assassin speculated, its programming had it round a few corners in search of its target. It came up empty the first few times. On the fourth hallway it found a little security robot making rounds. The White House should have been able to afford better. It was little more than a pair of stun guns mounted on four tires, looking like a child’s dump truck toy. The assassin dodged its two shots and flipped the little machine into the air with the edge of its foot before smacking it into the wall with the side of its rifle. Unfortunately the blow didn’t disable it entirely. A high pitched alarm shrieked from somewhere inside the broken machine.
The alarm roused the attention of the president, vice president, and their body guards. Their sunglasses couldn’t hide their anxiety as they drew their pistols and started shoving the president around to cover most of his body with theirs. Unfortunately the assassin’s imitation ears were much sharper than a human’s and could hear their grunts and shuffles entirely separate from the yelping alarm. It ran quietly, using the alarm it had triggered to cover up what little noise its legs made.
President Cray couldn’t see his murderer as it rounded the corner. All he saw were burly shoulders covered in suit jackets. He felt like he was at the center of some silky artificial flower. He saw nothing as the robot took aim and fired three coins into the head of one guard. He was blind to the fact that his other two personnel were missing with every shot from their slot pistols. Only when the dead guards fell did he see the face of his killer. No anger. No concentration. No memories of vanished savings accounts glittering in the eyes. Just expressionless blue, like ice over a lake that never melts. Then he saw a shooting star. The little flash was actually a coin, spinning and reflecting light before it cracked his skull and destroyed every thought he’d ever had. A few more coins pelted his falling body and limbs. One ripped into an artery which sprayed the robot, the vice president, and the wall with blood.
The assassin escaped, leaving the vice president unharmed. Whimpering, he looked at the dead bodies on the floor and thought about the mob outside. They would still want something from somebody. That something was probably blood. That somebody probably didn’t matter too much.
Continued in Part Two