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by Samuel Marzioli
Harold Lewis entered the liquor store, a decrepit old space that was as dusty and unkempt as it was gaudy. Seasonal decorations lined the scuffed and holed walls and ceiling, along with advertisements featuring alcohol and scantily clad girls in semi–erotic poses. Far from an oddity, it was indicative of the kind of slum the Mars colony had become over the past fifty years.
He stopped briefly by the counter and said to the tattooed and heavily pierced girl behind it, “Where’s your whiskey?”
The girl didn’t look up. Instead she furrowed her brows, causing a metal ball connected to a chain that linked her eyebrows to droop and rattle. She read a few more words from her book, and then flicked a finger toward an old plastic palm tree set in a fraying wicker basket in the back corner.
Harold strolled over. It wasn’t taste he was after, just the kind of slosh that could get the job done. Anything that would burn his throat and dull his brain until it had all the sharpness of a polished steel ball. His eyes lingered on a sign with the words CLEARANCE – $5 written in bold letters. The brand was Irving Don Blankly, a swill peddler whose reputation made a descriptor like “hideous” sound too flattering. He took it anyway.
When he placed the bottle on the front counter, the girl gave Harold a phony smile, threw a disgusted if well–deserved sneer at the bottle, then scanned it in.
“Seven ninety–four,” she said.
He reached into his pocket and grabbed out a crisp, new ten–dollar bill. Its center portrait was embossed, covering the advanced tech hidden beneath the surface of every bill of its kind. Smart Money, they called it, but Harold hadn’t a clue why. He only knew what he had read in the daily news ticker: that it had replaced paper cash, checks, credit and debit cards for the colony; that it was supposed to keep both Martian government officials and citizens fiscally responsible; that it was the last resort of a failing economy on the road to utter disaster; and that the bills were supposed to pay for themselves in only five years, if the numbers had been crunched correctly.
The instant the girl touched the bill it turned a bright shade of red. She jerked her hand back.
“A financial and mental health assessment has been requested,” said a tiny voice from the center portrait. Two seconds later, it continued, “Purchase denied,” and its color shifted back to green.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” said Harold, half–caught between bewilderment and the implications of what the voice said. The girl stared at Harold, uncertain on how to proceed.
“This man is an alcoholic, has no savings, and has only fifty dollars in his bank account. Do not sell this product to him,” said the bill.
The girl let her arm drop, shrugged, and took up her book. She settled back on her stool and began to read.
“Wait,” Harold said. “Take it!”
The girl shook her head.
“It’s my money. I can do what I want with it!”
“Not my problem,” she said.
“Harold,” the bill said, “fiscal responsibility is every citizen’s priority now, and the only way to achieve it is by eliminating self–destructive and time–wasting behaviors.” It then turned a dull shade of brown, and the words, “This note is legal tender” disappeared, to be replaced by, “NON–NEGOTIABLE.”
The moment Harold saw the change, his face contorted with rage. “Like hell! You turn back right now, or so help me—”
“Purposeful damage, defacement, or destruction of legal currency is a federal crime subject to a ten thousand dollar fine and up to a year imprisonment,” the bill said.
“Take it!” he pleaded with the girl.
“No way, man. I’m not getting in trouble for you or anyone else.” To prove the point she snatched up the whiskey bottle and put it in a plastic container behind the counter marked “Reshelf.”
“I don’t need this! Screw you, lady! And screw you, too!” he said to the bill.
“Please avoid unnecessarily foul language, or I will be forced to contact the authorities and report this disorderly conduct,” said the bill.
“Screw you!” He poked the bill, leaving an indention the size of his nail tip.
The bill immediately turned bright red again, let out an electronic beep, and said, “A deputy is en route. Your threatening gesture has been deemed a potential risk to public safety. I must warn you, do not touch me again, as I have initiated self–defense mode.”
Harold began to hyperventilate, to shake with fury. He stared at the bottle in the reshelf container, licked his lips, and then eyed the bill warily. He felt like a starving man in a locked cage, just out of reach of food but with no key. Or rather, it was worse than that, because he did have a key, if only he dared to ignore its threats.
He pushed his face closer to the bill, dropping his shadow across its polymer surface, as if his proximity to the portrait of the president was as intimidating as it would have been to a human. “Last chance.”
The bill remained red, silent, and impassive.
“Ease down! It ain’t worth it!” said the girl, her eyes peering over the top of her book.
“You’d better listen to her,” the bill said. “You’re only making things worse for yourself.”
Harold snatched the bill up with both hands, holding it with his index fingers and thumbs. Before his brain received his intention to rip it in half, firing up the appropriate synapses to trigger muscle movement in his arms and hands, the bill made a solitary beep. A jolt of electricity shot through Harold’s body, causing his muscles to shake and vibrate.
His eyes stared wide and round—a mixture of surprise and terror. He teetered for a moment, and toppled over onto his back with a resounding crash. There he lay, stiff, with his arms held out in front of him, still holding the bill.
The girl fell back, pressing her palms flat against the wall behind her, pushing on it as if she were trying to climb by the force of friction alone. “Damn,” she said, over and over again, uncertain whether Harold was merely stunned or dead.
The bill reverted to non–negotiable brown. “Subject designated Harold Lewis has been pacified. Martha Foster, consider yourself to be held as a material witness until the authorities arrive.”
“Damn,” she said again. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“On the contrary, fiscal responsibility is no joke.”
It then resumed its state of soundless hibernation.
Samuel Marzioli was born and raised, and that's all you need to know about that. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications, including Penumbra eMag, Stupefying Stories, Space and Time Magazine, and the anthology A Darke Phantastique by Cycatrix Press. You can find updates about his latest projects by visiting his website: marzioli.blogspot.com