Jerome woke earlier than usual on that dank morning in November. Normally first light would be preceded by the flare of car headlights as the early morning commuters arrived in the city. But this morning the light that had burned through his tightly shut eyelids was accompanied by silence. He tugged the stained anorak tightly to his chest and peered out from his vantage point. He’d found a concealed area in the lee of a dumpster which gave him some measure of protection and a view onto Time’s Square. There was always the chance that food would be thrown into the dumpster and he could quickly spot any soft hearted tourists whilst avoiding the attentions of the police.
He looked around to see if he could spot the source of the bright light that had awoken him. There was nothing out of the ordinary. The numerous theatres and their billboards dominated Broadway, yellow cabs slept at taxi ranks and the glittering façade of the Broadway theatre bedecked with enticements to the latest smash hit stage show cast it’s lurid glow over the rain slicked streets. But as he watched, a well-dressed man stepped out of a waiting cab and walked towards a lone ATM that sat in the middle of the sidewalk. He was in a hurry, cash card already in his hand as he reached the machine. But instead of slipping it into a slot he just stood there. He looked bewildered and then angry. Then he kicked the machine and strode back to the cab. Jerome watched as it screeched off. Jerome looked around. He was the only person to have witnessed this tirade. He stared at the machine. What was strange was not the man’s behaviour, but the fact that the ATM machine hadn’t been there when he went to sleep.
He moved towards the machine. It was a strange design, more of a pyramid shape than the normal squat oblong of steel he was used to, neither was it attached to any building.
Normally ATM’s were huddled against some form of bank or government building where they could easily be serviced and restocked with notes. But this one was different. He stood in front of it and studied the machines surfaces. It didn’t have the name of any bank emblazoned on it. Neither did it give any clues as to how to withdraw money. The reason for the man’s confusion earlier became clear. There was no slot for sliding a card in. No illuminated instructions, no clue in fact if this was even a real ATM. Jerome looked at the white softly pulsing screen that sat embedded within one face of the pyramid. As he did so the outline of a hand appeared on the screen.
He looked around to see if this was some kind of a trick. A new reality show where he would be made a fool of. He saw nothing. He slowly put his hand against the screen. It was warm to the touch, and as the machine made muted hums and clicks to itself as if someone was speaking quietly to him. Voices were whispering in his ear. But he felt no fear, in fact quite the opposite. In fact he’d never felt better in his life. The machine spoke: “Jerome” He jerked back, snatching his hand away from the screen.
Again he looked around, fully expecting to see some slick haired presenter bursting out of a parked van ready to make him look like an idiot to millions of slack jawed viewers. But there was nothing, just him, and the steel pyramid. And then the screen came to life. His picture flashed up. Followed by a pathetic list of his meagre accomplishments, a meticulous record of his spiral into poverty and homelessness.
The detail was unbelievable. He read about the business deal that went wrong between his partner Ronald Goldstein and him. A real estate development up in the Hollywood Hills that would have made them billionaires. He’d sunk his house and every cent he could beg steal or borrow into the venture. But at the last moment a newspaper article about the faultline north of Hollywood spooked the major investor. Having spent all of their seed money drawing up plans and buying up key sites Ronald and he were left penniless.
Ronald disappeared leaving his wife and children homeless and Jerome ended up on the streets. Jerome read details that no one could have known except him. There was no way this dumb machine could hold all this information. The screen winked out. Text rolled across the screen. His probable lifespan, the approximate cost of a house in a nice area in Manhatten, estimated daily living expenses. An ever increasing total flashed up on the right hand side of the screen. Finally the information came to a halt. The final total stood at $2.6m. The outline of the hand appeared on the screen. Text blinked: PLACE HAND ON SCREEN TO RECEIVE MONTHLY ALLOWANCE. Jerome looked at the screen, looked around. This had to be some kind of a scan. He knew at some point there was going to be a request for his bank details or credit card numbers. He smiled to himself. They were going to be all out of luck on that score. The only number he could remember was his social security number, and that wasn’t going to do anybody any good.
The outline of the hand continued to flash. Jerome sighed. He placed his hand on the outline. Again he heard voices swirling around his head. And again a feeling of contentment washed over him. How were they doing this? Was it some kind of electronic hypnosis, a gas affecting his mind pumped out through controlled vents in the machine. A voice issued from the machine: “Thank you Jerome. Have a nice day. He removed his hand from the machine.
A sonorous hum emanated from the machine as a concealed compartment hissed open. Jerome looked into a steel cavity illuminated by a soft blue light. “What the…?” His breath caught in his throat as he took in the sight. Stacks of tightly packed $100 bills filled the compartment. He reached in and withdrew one of the bricks of money. There had to be at least ten thousand dollars in his hand. Reality show or not he didn’t care any more. He grabbed the bricks of cash and distributed them into the many pockets in his anorak, shooting glances around to see if he was being watched.
Having finished he looked at the machine. He noticed a small pinhole of glass in one corner above the screen…a camera maybe, he didn’t care. He started to walk away from the machine. It spoke. “Come back when you need more Jerome.” The voice made the hairs stand up on the back of his head. Because he was sure he recognised it.
The room was lit with dim pools of light. A long black table stretched towards a wall filled with video screens. On the screens CCTV pictures from around the world. Paris, London, Barcelona, Rome and many others, all linked by one particular feature. The distinctive pyramid shaped cash machines that had sprung up seemingly overnight. Jerome was visible walking away from the machine in Times Square. The image froze.
Two men sat either side of the table. One, impeccably dressed in a suit, hair streaked with silver and eyes the palest of blue, sipped tea from the finest china. His companion, younger and more casually dressed controlled the screens from a computer tablet. He looked over. “Well so far it all seems to be as you predicted.” The older man nodded, steepled his fingers as he contemplated the international pictures that filled the screens.
“Yes, it takes a little time for people to work out that something’s different in their surroundings.” The younger man widened out on the Times Square monitor. As if by magic a small group of people were gathering round the triangular structure. The older man put down his cup. “Desperation always conquers fear eventually. At first they will be suspicious, after all, they didn’t get to be homeless through the honesty of others.” The younger man tapped the screen of his tablet. The wall became one seamless screen as it switched from city to city. One thing was evident; people were being drawn to the triangular machines like bees to honey.
“The gas will calm them, make them more susceptible to the suggestions. Once they realise that the machine is tailored to their lives and that it knows their needs and everything about them they will trust it.” The young man put the tablet down. The display returned to individual city viewpoints.
Next to the screens a display of numbers started to scroll down. Worldwide currencies with an accumulating total at the bottom. Millions of units increasing at an exponential rate. “Do we have a limit?” The older man shrugged. “For hundreds of years the world financial system has been an imperfect mechanism governed by human greed, taxes and consumption. A never ending succession of political parties sewing unrest with broken promises and failed policies.”
The young man shrugged. “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, all that changes is the gap between the two widens.” The older man took another sip of tea. “Yes. No party is in power for long enough, or without corruption to see anything through. Billions of dollars are wasted on quantative easing, and again nothing trickles down to the poor.”
The younger man got up and wandered closer to the screens. People were now queuing in front of the machines, getting their cash doled out to them before scurrying away. “So rather than pump money into the economy which only benefits the rich we’re giving them the money directly” The older man smiled. “Yes. The cost of supporting the unemployed, the sick and the tax avoidance culture within society as a whole could be balanced out by directly supporting those that need it most.” The young man studied the figures that streamed down one side of the screen. One of the totals was pulling away from the other. “World debt is coming down faster than the amount of money being drawn out of the machines. And they’ve only been running for six hours.”
The older man stared at the figures. His eyes gleamed in the light from the screens. “No government would have the courage to do what we’re doing. We’re proving what the people have been saying all along…that it’s better to release the poor from the burden of debt than just pumping money into the economy for the benefit of the few.” The younger man looked around the room. “What happens when the federal reserve realise where the money’s coming from?” The older man gave the smallest of smiles. “It’ll be too late. They’ll never be able to track down the millions of poor and homeless people around the world.
And once the people know that it’s better to give the money directly rather than through quantitative easing, austerity policies and punitive taxes, no government will be able go against the public feeling without being toppled.” The young man smiled. “A perfect mix of capitalism and socialism.” He turned to look back at the screens. Something was going on. Fights were breaking out around the world. “What’s happening?” The older man shook his head. “There was always a chance that this might happen.
The machines are designed to hand out money to those that need it. The poor, the homeless the unemployed and unemployable, the disabled. But human nature has a fault in its genetic coding. Greed. No matter how rich people are, they always want more.”
The younger man shook his head. “So the rich are stealing from the poor…nothing new there, but this time it’s a physical act.” The older man sighed. “Shut it down. We need to pack up and leave. I estimate we have less than thirty minutes before they trace the IP addresses back to this building.” The younger man hurriedly began to shut down the computers and internet feeds.
On the screens around the world the pyramid cash machines slid slowly back into the ground. The young man checked his tablet. “That’s all of them. Seems you can’t even give money away without something going wrong.” The old man straightened his tie and took a last sip of tea. “Yes. Humans are past the point of being able to save themselves.” The younger man switched off the power to the screens. “Well at least you helped Jerome before it all fell apart. Were you friends?” The older man nodded. “We were once in business, it ended badly. I promised myself that if I ever got the chance I would put things right.”
They headed for the door of the conference room. The young man shook the old man’s hand. “Thank you Mr Goldstein, for giving me the chance to try and save the world.” The older man shook his head. “You can call me Ronald, I think someone who’s helped me spend twenty trillion dollars stolen from the world bank can be on first name terms.” The young man opened the door. “I guess so.” They headed down the long corridor to the elevator that would take them down to street level. Outside the distant wail of sirens grew closer as they descended to the street and stepped back out into a slightly better world.