There was a knock at Jacob’s door and when he opened it, a mailman was there, from the old United States Postal Service. “You got a registered letter,” he said. “It’s from the IRS. You gotta sign for it.”
“IRS? What’s that?” Jacob said.
“Internal Revenue Service,” he said. He chuckled. “I been handing out a ton of them today, some new program, I guess.”
Jacob signed the mailman’s pad, then turned the envelope over curiously. “I’ve never got a paper letter before,” he said. He opened it. IRS Notice CP504: AMOUNT DUE IMMEDIATELY: $12,323,930.72.
“Twelve million what? What’s this squiggle in front of the number?”
The mailman chuckled again. “You kids. It’s the dollar sign. Everybody’s bitching about it.”
The next morning, Jacob mentioned the notice to Bill the boss. “Yeah, well, welcome to the world, kid. Big Al’s latest prototype is ready, get it over there, okay?”
Jacob was a bicycle courier at Acme Nanotemplates in Santa Barbara. After Jacob had graduated from UC Santa Barbara he decided it would be a nice town to stay on in. Jacob was barely scraping along on his job at Acme Nanotemplates.
Acme Nanotemplates scanned objects and made digital descriptions that you could download into your own home printer to make a duplicate. They also had industrial-strength fifty-element 3D printers to make prototypes for developers who wrote their own code and used Acme’s printers to make a first article. Santa Barbara had quite a development community, and Acme was one of the largest employers in the city.
Jacob’s job was to carry the printouts to the developers for analysis and appraisal. He grabbed Big Al’s latest gill mask prototype, put it in his backpack, and took the Granada Building elevator down to State Street.
He had a pretty good bicycle–28 ounces, diamond lattice frame, superconductor magnetic induction link between pedals and drive wheel instead of a chain, intelligent automatic transmission–another side benefit of working at Acme, of course. They allowed Jacob to specify his own bike when he started, and he researched it till he was blue in the face and then found this design in the files and downloaded it to Large Printer #4 on a Sunday morning when the shop was closed; he’d monitored the project and kept an eye on the printer’s element cartridges, and by Monday morning it had been ready for his first day on the job. That was a year ago.
Jacob pedaled south on State Street, an easy downhill coast toward the Pacific Ocean. Most of the old retail and commercial storefronts had been converted into condos, but there were several bars and restaurants and corner grocery markets, plus the shopping center where pre-printed goods could be examined. At Stearns Wharf he turned right and pedaled on the bike along the beach.
It was one of the electric blue days in Santa Barbara, days when there’s not a particle of dust in the sky, not a whisper of water vapor, and the sky is a deep blue and there’s a feeling of electromagnetic tension in the air, and the air is so clear that the mountains loom extra large in the sky and the Channel Islands seem near enough to touch. He turned on his helmet’s RECORD mode–he earned fifteen or twenty Likes a week by recording his bicycle rides and uploading them to the web. People around the world enjoyed his fullsense recordings. He needed the income–Santa Barbara was expensive.
He pedaled through the marina to Big Al’s Dive Shop. Big Al didn’t know a thing about nanoengineering, but he knew what he wanted. Last week Jacob had dropped off 3 new gill masks at the dive shop, each slightly different than the standard model you could download. Al had been tinkering with the gill mask ever since Jacob had been with the company.
Al was behind the counter and he looked up and smiled when Jacob came in. “Jake, my man! This could be the big one!”
Jacob set the gill mask on the counter. It looked like all the rest of them, to his eye. “What’s different this time?” he said.
“It’s not so much different as augmented–twenty more square inches of absorption area. I’m still trying to get an improved oxygen extraction performance in warm water. It already works great in cold water, but that’s not where people like to swim.” Over time, Al’s gill mask was becoming better and better. That’s one of the reasons hundreds of people a day downloaded the nanotemplate for Al’s standard version, which was the main reason Al was able to afford to live in Santa Barbara.
“How come you keep tinkering with it? I thought it was the most popular gill mask in the world.”
“Yeah, but’s open source. Anybody can modify it and improve it–there’s no patent protection any more. I have to stay ahead of the game.”
Al was older, maybe he knew about dollars. “Al, what’s a dollar? I got a letter from the IRS, and they want dollars.”
“That was the money in the old United States before money went open source. You better pay up, the IRS does not monkey around.”
On his way back to the office Jacob saw his girlfriend Olivia going into the downtown shopping center. He stopped and said, “Hey, I got a question. Have you ever heard of a ‘dollar’?”
“I’ve got to get in here and work,” she said. She made her living by shopping. She didn’t buy things, she selected things. She had followers around the planet who kept track of what she selected because she had great taste. Whenever somebody bought one of her selections, she got a Like commission. He told her about the IRS notice. “I’ll look it up,” she said. She was another UCSB grad; her degree was in Information Access.
Jacob met her for lunch at the Paradise Café and she told him, “This dollar thing is screwy. The only real definition I could find was from the earliest days of the United States. We’re technically still part of the US. A dollar was 0.7734 troy ounces of silver. What was that IRS bill for?”
“Twelve million and something.”
She accessed the heads-up display in her sunglasses. “Jake! That’s over three hundred TONS of silver. This is simply a mistake.”
Jake pedaled back to the office worrying all the way. Acme kept supplies of almost all elements in stock–when there were no deliveries, one of his tasks was to check the element levels in the printers and replace cartridges that were running low. He accessed the inventory file: they had 35 pounds of silver in stock. Robbing the company wouldn’t help him.
Bill saw him looking at the inventory and said, “Never mind that, the next iteration of that induction motor is ready, why don’t you wonder it over to the university.”
“Not that thing again!” The motor was as heavy as three bowling balls and he couldn’t put it in the bicycle’s rear carrier, it affected his balance too much and he had to carry it in a backpack.
He stopped at the IRS office along the way, a shabby little building on Anacapa Street that was even shabbier on the inside. A woman sat at a desk. Jacob said, “I got a notice from the IRS and I need to find out what’s going on.”
“You’ll have to talk to Mr. Gonzalez about that,” she said, “I’m not with the IRS, I just rent this space from Mr. Gonzalez.”
“He’s the manager, right?”
“He calls himself the manager, I think they let him have a title to keep him quiet. He’s right in there.” She pointed to another door.
Jacob went through the door and waved the IRS notice at Mr. Gonzalez. “What is all this about?” he said.
“Oh yes, you’re one of our CP504 people. Are you here to make your payment?”
“What is this about?”
“Our records show that you have evaded payment of income taxes and other Federal liabilities. You are advised to make payment now to avoid further penalties.”
“I don’t have that kind of money!”
Mr. Gonzalez shrugged. “The penalties are severe. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my tee time.”
Jacob went back to his bike and resumed riding north. It was ten miles to the university. He looked at the Los Padres mountains as he pedaled, inhaled a big whiff of ocean and eucalyptus smells, listened to the crows and mockingbirds, watched a pelican gliding in the electric blue sky. He also turned on his TV receiver because it was time for the Dodger game–they were playing the Havana Cigars today–and he watched it in his helmet’s right eyepiece as he pedaled.
Jacob bicycled through the deserted summer campus of UC Santa Barbara, threading his way among the palm trees around to the rear of the Marine Sciences building, parked the bike and went in. He walked between a pair of ten-foot-high water storage tanks and then down a flight of stairs to the holding area: rough sheds filled with a maze of pipes, pumps and machinery designed to keep highly corrosive sea water flowing through tanks holding hundreds of ocean animals.
He went through the shed’s lab door saw Steve and another man at the far end of the lab. He set the motor down onto a bench and said, “Yo, Steve! I’ve got the latest iteration of your motor.”
“That was fast, Jake! Tell Bill I said thanks.”
The other man said, “A motor for fish?”
“Well, sort of, it’s for chasing fish,” Steve said. “Jake, this is Wally Leone, he’s from the economics department, I’m giving him a tour.
“It’s a superconducting induction motor,” Jacob said. “It’s an old idea that Steve is trying to make work.”
Steve said, “It generates a strong magnetic field from a superconducting coil to eject water at high speed to propel the boat forward. It’ll be like an underwater jet engine.”
“If we get it to work right, it could go over 100 miles per hour!” Jacob said.
“Well, we want it because it’s efficient and quiet,” Steve said. “With this motor in a small submarine, we could pace along with sharks and whales without spooking them. It’s noiseless.”
“Why isn’t it working?” said Wally.
“The graphene coils keep expanding and heating up, which destroys the superconducting properties,” Steve said. “Salt water is really corrosive, too.”
“Yeah, Bill told me to remind you not to go out of sight of shore,” Jacob said. “He’s still not sure the shielding is going to be good enough.”
“Of course, we’re very careful. Well, thanks.”
“You bet. Say, Mr. Leone–you’re an economist?”
“I got this notice from the IRS and I don’t understand what it’s about.”
“Let me see it.” He took one glance at it and laughed. “You don’t have anything to worry about. The US dollar has been in hyperinflation for years, and it’s been accelerating recently. They’re desperate for anything they can get right now.” He went to Steve’s computer and logged in. “Here, why don’t we take care of it. There are all kinds of open-source supplies of dollars. Everybody ignores the old US government–it can’t afford to hire anybody to enforce its edicts. Dollars are still legal tender: it’s the only payment the US government can accept. Here, sit down and buy some dollars and be done with it.”
Jake made the conversion and forwarded the dollars to the IRS.
That night he took Olivia out to dinner. She was amused to discover that their tab came to a hundred million dollars in the defunct currency. He left a tip of twenty million dollars.