Date: 1,993,775 A.D. (Gregorian), P.W. 16,708 (Shango), N.A. 1678 (Qareen)
Location: Darkworld Semaphore
“Would the Senator care to clarify his remarks?”
The Senator in question took a subtle look around the near-empty chamber. Quite why he was defending his position to a gathering that couldn’t possibly muster enough votes against it, he had no idea. This measure came up every year; and every year, in the wee small hours, a group of diehards would gather to furiously debate an issue that had the broad, vague support of all government anyhow, and then cast a pointless vote that, even if it was unanimously against, would not have repealed the program anyway.
The small screen in front of him stated that a mere 54,000 people were viewing him and his colleagues.
“If I made any implication regarding any senators present, or their commitment to Darkworld Semaphore, then I apologise in advance. What I meant to say was that the PESMA programme is a key part of our heritage; it’s been an important part of our identity. My research indicates that only eight Darkworlds run the PESMA scheme. We are almost unique. And we should value that.”
“I would like to counter to the Senate that Senator Tskeye’s remarks are ridiculous. To hold onto something because of mere tradition is a fallacy of the highest order.”
The moderating AI blinked a red light but remained motionless.
“Senator Tskeye’s remarks will be filed under ‘Disregard’. Continue, Senator Rembarc.”
“The fact remains,” Rembarc said, “that the PESMA scheme has not delivered what it has promised to do, year after year after year. Only PESMA, beloved by sentimentalists and ignored by ninety per cent of this Chamber, persists with such a record. Any other programme from government would have gone long before now. Moderator, I would like to cite the Comprehensive PESMA report published two local years ago, as I cited in the prior debate, which pointed out in very stark terms that the alleged innovation and diversification created by a false economic scarcity was not present to a significantly greater degree than the post-scarcity settlement agreed upon by the vast majority of the Shango Federation.”
“So no new report backing this up then?”
His argument was thin and he knew it. He looked down to the screen in front of him, which stated that 1/2500 of Darkworld Semaphore’s relatively short day remained before a vote could be called.
“Well… I don’t regard such a demand as a prerequisite to examining the evidence,” Rembarc continued slowly. “If we-”
“If we are of rational mind, then we won’t-”
“Senator Rembarc has the floor,” the AI insisted in a loud, flat tone of voice, “and the window is now open for him to call a vote, if he so wishes.”
Rembarc raised his hand to indicate as much. The vote came in another 1/2500 or so later; the PESMA scheme was defeated by five votes to three in the battle, but in the war was aided by the vast absentee army of those hundreds of empty seats.
Tskeye decided to walk home; said home was about a mile away, and he felt that merely teleporting there and sitting around in the time saved wouldn’t let his thoughts flow. He wondered, as he reckoned plenty of Shango did all the time, whether he had any sort of driving purpose to his work. Certainly, year after year, for, what, fifteen years now? Was it sixteen? It was irrelevant; the point was, for too long he had been caught up in that annual debate, wasting a night out of every year to defend a system that was well-defended.
As the route inevitably would, it took him through the streets of Central Government, and past the Treasury. Yet as he passed it, he stopped and turned back. Going inside, and passing through the Membrane that screened all but those who had permission to enter, he found the place to be almost deserted – AI security blinked quietly, humming for no reason other than to assure anyone present that it was too.
He moved beyond the lobby into the corridors, and moving through them, headed towards a large chamber towards the back of the building, and entered.
Inside was a vast space, resembling a warehouse upended for height rather than length. At the far end was the real purpose of the place – the biggest wall-screen on Darkworld Semaphore. Quite possibly one of the biggest wall-screens anywhere in the Federation, in fact; and it was that, and the vast intelligence behind it, that Affan Tskeye had strenuously sought to defend.
“Do you wish to view the current situation, Senator Tskeye?” a voice asked. The Senator himself was mildly alarmed at the way that the voice sounded very close, instead of booming from the back of the room.
“It’s OK. Any long-time defend of mine is free to view the data I collect.”
“OK,” the Senator replied, and a vast 3D projection filled the hall, indeed, transcended it – it seemed to fill more than the hall, extending kilometres above, below and to either side of it. At the front of that projection, a vast spider-web of information showed streams of transactions, savings, investments, the labelling just about visible in order to show the workings of a whole Darkworld’s economy. About halfway between him and the wall, a discrete and pale red plane appeared; that marked the present, and said plane moved with agonising sloth towards the wall, consuming the ghostly vectors beyond it, which were the future transactions that the AI predicted with often astonishing accuracy. The Dual-Track Market, or DTM, was not quite a seer – it could not foresee, for instance, if a single individual on Vex 29 was about to purchase a small snack in a 24-hour store in a remote village – but once said purchase had occurred, the amount (but not the nature) of the purchase would transfer to the DTM’s database, where a prediction would be honed, and a flutter of re-arranging would occur. As was to be expected for the economy for trillions of people, said re-arranging was almost constantly occurring.
“Senator, I have already sent the message as programmed, but I will mention this anyway.”
“Well, it’s two issues. One is about the Gini coefficient, which has risen to 0.36. This is marginally above what I and independent bodies determined to be the one extreme of the ideal. It is not an immediate problem, but I suggest some form of regulation or redistributive measure be raised in the Senate nonetheless.”
“And the other?”
“I am concerned about sub-reserve trading. Such activity has largely remained small-scale up until now. In the last four days I have detected what I suspect to be the symptoms of a bubble. One bank in particular seems to possess some 1.1 billion Sigs in potential losses. I can only urge action on this front.”
“No problem. I trust your judgement in any event.”
And he did. The DTM was an all-seeing eye, for sure – but it was one that could not be bribed, extorted or made to confess. The same could not be said for the Senate.
Cave 13, Semjenfen city, financial district, was the kind of place that had a swagger about it. Unjustifiably so, Tskeye thought; this place was the sort that gave the DTM headaches and didn’t always provide the kind of payoff it should. Perhaps he was just old-fashioned, but frankly, it all seemed to pale in importance compared to the work of farmers, factory workers and so forth. Places like Vex 27 were admittedly poorer without such sectors in their economy, but by a similar merit, those places always seemed to be steadier sources of growth.
Today, though, he was going to find out exactly what these people were about. He was determined to say “fuck it” to every preconception he had.
The building he aimed right at first was a huge, palatial silver building, its logo blazed across the front.
“Welcome to Industrial Sky Banking, sir. Do you have a prior appointment?”
“I have to admit not,” Tskeye replied, “but… there is the small matter of nine hundred thousand pounds that need growing.”
About one point two million Sigs, he knew, but either way, the story did its job; one million pounds or Sigs would have seemed too precise.
“Does any particular area interest you?”
He brushed aside a number of lewd potential replies. “I think sub-reserve investment seems to be an interesting new area. But I could do with knowing the facts.”
“Well, if you can’t ask a bank about money… the wait should be about 1/50. Is that OK?”
“Should be fine.”
He was taken to an upper-floor office that seemed to be elaborately yet authoritatively furnished – an office designed for impressing clients, no doubt far more so than for accomplishing actual work. And that window, which essentially replaced an entire wall, was surely not helpful at all.
“Sub-reserve lending,” began the man who apparently worked in the office – he had introduced himself as Henoan Fedraxul – “is quite an exciting growth area in investments right now. Truly. And you’ve come to the right place, Mr. Tskeye, because we are the biggest investors in that area – so far, we’ve committed one point one billion Sigs as a test balloon.”
The Senator almost betrayed his identity at that point, but held back his shock.
“But you have to be first in these markets. If you set a precedent, then the fact that you’ve been in the game longer inspires confidence. Markets generally are about confidence, but this, this is crucially about confidence. You have to be a sure bet. Whatever you do, sir, if you are in, you are in at some point in the next eleven days. That is the one thing, above all else, that you should take from today. You have a deadline.”
“Any particular reason?”
Fedraxul gestured out of the window, pointing simply towards a huge tower that Tskeye guessed was about a kilometre away. Despite the distance, however, it had a gargantuan presence; it surely extended several kilometres upwards (or downwards) towards the Vex lands below, and it tapered to its summit, forming a huge truncated pyramid. On the side of it, at the halfway point of the tower, the logo of this competitor glowed in shadow, the jagged text looking like a cartoon depiction of a mountain range.
“Industrial Sky is the biggest bank locally on Cave 13,” he continued, “it just about has a competitive edge on Darkworld Semaphore, for now. But Redreyen-Saarg is the largest institute of any kind to do with economics, statistics or mathematics across both of these galaxies. In eleven days’ time, they will have their AGM, and there, their employers and shareholders – for the most part, practically the same thing – will vote on whether to liberalise their memorandum and enter the sub-reserve market. When they do, the distortions in the market will be immense. We are the bank best placed to weather that storm.”
“Why don’t I just invest with Redreyen?”
“Legally, nothing stops you. But, and however unprofessional it sounds, it’s true – that place is a frickin’ cult. Best of luck, as an outsider, getting into that place. We welcome all comers; they don’t.”
Tskeye looked at the Redreyen tower, which seemed no less unsociable than the building he was in. Still, Redreyen-Saarg was not in the market. This was probably something the DTM could have told him, but the important thing was that he knew for sure, and he knew when it would most likely change. There was one thing he needed to have confirmed, however.
“Fair enough. But before I go through with this, I could do with knowing how exactly this whole thing works.”
Fedraxul leaned back on his chair and made a look that Tskeye recognised from many, many advisors, the assessing look of someone trying to judge how much complexity an explanation should contain.
“The principle is simple enough. What we do, in effect, is sink our Sigs into a created currency, which we then sell to other clients in return for pounds, or Sigs, or even their sub-reserve currency.”
“Is that even legal? I mean, I guess it is, but-”
“It is perfectly legal. For one, we have to sign an exchange contract every time, which effectively renders the whole thing a kind of barter. Enough of those barters generates its own market anyhow, and once you have a market, you have the potential for relative price signals to arise.”
Tskeye knew they’d have some mechanism, though. Those exchange contracts were almost certainly signed automatically, their terms determined through AI as the deal arose. This slowed due process by a picosecond, tops.
“The point is, once you’ve invested in an Isean Mark, or IM – that’d be our sub-reserve – you’re effectively ‘under’, to use the parlance. It’s worth bearing in mind that, whatever happens down there, whatever you trade back and forth, it means nothing until you’ve converted these things back into Sigs. From there you can jump back into pounds easily enough.”
“This sounds pretty complicated.”
“Then if I were you, I’d back out now,” Fedraxul said. He got up from his seat and walked over to the window, facing the Redreyen tower. “One of the rumours about Redreyen-Saarg, unconfirmed mind, is that they’re planning to go three levels deep. A reserve of a reserve of a reserve. If they do that, there’s no limit to how deep and wide this might get. Or the opportunities. With or without you, Mr. Tskeye, we’ll be coming up with billions in Sigs.”
“You have returned earlier than I expected.”
“Well, I don’t think anyone asks you to make predictions about that.”
The DTM cycled through various data on its screen, showing GDP, PPP, inflation, exchange rates. It didn’t need to do this, but in a sparse room, rarely occupied, and containing little but an AI that did not have a mobile, visible component, it seemed like the best way to the machine of conveying some kind of activity. Tskeye, for his own part, paced around the room, and indeed had plenty of space to do so.
“I decided to follow up your mention of a market bubble.”
“The Senate have scheduled a vote in fifteen days. It was deemed a moderate priority.”
The Senator sighed. “What if,” he said, “I was to tell you that Redreyen-Saarg will enter the same market that could potentially cause the liabilities you identified in Industrial Sky, only in ten days’ time?”
For several seconds, the DTM said nothing. On screen, it merely flashed up the message: “factoring in new information, gradation and multiple scenarios in progress.” Around the text, the usual graphs and charts continued.
“Senator, I would advise that you stand back for best viewing,” the machine finally said, and as Tskeye turned, a line appeared, presumably marking the area he was supposed to be in.
He turned and found himself confronted with a familiar projection; the huge, sprawling tangle of vectors was back, the ghostly lines beyond the present swelling into immense density and then thinning out.
“So what’s going on?”
“There’s a riot going on. A storm brewing. A crash coming. I’ll push the ECSCON rating to 1 and the vote up to tomorrow; when the Senate sees this, the vote will probably not be questioned. Anything beyond that and I would have to draft reflex regulation.”
The Senator merely nodded, although the screen briefly flashed up, through the fog of the projection, the local Shango language’s version of a question mark, the word “what”, in counter-response; the machine quickly realised that this was the approach of being “understated” instead of reacting proportionately. A proportionate reaction might well have been difficult to convey, however. Reflex regulation – in which the DTM slapped down its own autocratic will, no questions asked – on the kind of scale being mooted here would have been unprecedented.
“Well let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. You are presumably constantly aware that reflex regulation can only be used for the obvious, the plugging of issues that would cause immediate flatlining-”
“Et cetera. Yes.” The projection folded back. “I am fully aware of my role, Tskeye. I know full well that I am an eye, little more. Which raises one thing, Senator, which I feel you could spearhead.”
“You can’t take this to the President?”
“What, walk over to his office?”
Tskeye winced. Being outsmarted by a machine, he could take easily. Being outwitted by one just felt more painful, somehow. He turned away from the screen, headed towards the wall, then turned and put his back up against it. He screwed his eyes shut in mock terror. “Shoot.”
“Externalities. Or as I should call them, cataracts.”
Tskeye made a rude gesture at the screen; the screen itself threw up the word “explain”, betraying its relative blindness to the externalities of Shango communication, too. The Senator disobeyed the imperative and dealt with the original request.
“Remind me again how you are supposed to handle qualitative data?”
The machine threw up an extensive diagram that covered the screen like a mosaic. Tskeye was sure he had seen such a diagram before, although a longer analysis confirmed that it had been updated. The Senator wondered briefly how much RAM this took away from the DTM’s actual job, although it probably found a way around such things. He remained silent for a long time, but the machine did not give way; it merely refreshed the image, and raised projections of loading bars and symbols. He shook his head. Caught between a pincer movement of too-smart-for-their-own-good bankers and too-smart-for-their-own-good machines, he started to think that he should have backed away from the whole issue.
“Fine, I’ll raise it,” he agreed at last, and headed towards the door. “Just don’t expect results.”
“Well, you are only human.”
“Well,” Tskeye said as he reached the doorway, “perhaps you’d like to walk over to President’s office, if you’re so above imperfection.”
The DTM said nothing.
The Senate debate the following morning was swift and relatively efficient; starting from an apparent parity of opposing views, those who supporting immediate action manage to whittle down those who urged caution with the DTM’s report. Tskeye knew that, 1/50 into proceedings, there were almost certainly enough votes to pass the measure, but it would take another 2/50 or so before a vote could come up. In the end, the debate got personal; certain Senators who took campaign contributions from Redreyen-Saarg were made to answer some difficult questions; those who opposed PESMA altogether had to be reminded that the system itself was not on the table for debate.
“Well I would like to remind the chamber that, if we refuse to debate the fundamentals of the system, those fundamentals will slide into an area of complacency-”
“What is your point in relation to the debate?” Rembarc asked.
“My point is, I will vote against this and any other measure until this urgent matter is seen to by the whole of the Senate.”
“So you will jeopardise the whole economy, and therefore put the livelihoods of millions at risk, purely to see your own personal agenda pushed through?”
Such debates wilted as the time passed. Eventually, the moderating AI’s programming brought up a rough approximation of boredom.
“Is there any other business, are there any other objections? A vote will commence in 1/2500 otherwise.”
No-one did, and Tskeye entered his vote as soon as he could. He watched as the votes stacked up – a few against, no doubt the Redreyen-backed Senators holding out to the very end, but many, many more against; barely two-thirds of the vote had come in before an unblockable majority had arisen, and still the votes kept coming in. Tskeye smiled; the most unanimous vote he had ever seen, over ninety per cent in favour, and he had made it happen.
The final votes piled in, and “measure passed” appeared on the screen. Tskeye decided to leave right then; there were other issues, agricultural affairs, crime bills and the like, but he’d done enough. He headed home, pausing as he passed the Treasury, but deciding against going in.
“What the fuck did you think you were doing?”
Rewenn Seddep, Chief of Investments at Industrial Sky, barged into Henoan Fedraxul’s office and delivered this demand for motives. Fedraxul himself was unmoved.
“Yes, I know what you were thinking. I’ve killed sub-reserve trading. But it was all part of the plan,” he replied calmly, and with a crass sweeping motion shoved the contents of his desk inelegantly into a large flimsy box jammed up against it. Seddep sat down.
“Well, for one, we managed to make Redreyen-Saarg sink three million into coming up with a plan that, thanks to me, ended up being blocked. But that was merely a side prank. The true genius does not lie within this office.”
Seddep nodded. Fedraxul was going to get the benefit of his doubt, at least until he saw what was on the other end of the teleport pad he was being gestured onto.
He wound up in a place that seemed familiar to him; not because he had been there before, but because it was in images he had seen so many times before. He was in a large room, somewhat akin to a large concrete warehouse, upended for height rather than internal space, with a huge screen covering one wall at the end of it.
“Just about everything behind the entrance lobby was demolished for this,” Fedraxul explained, “five hundred million of the investment was sunk into this. A perfect replication of the Dual-Track Market over at the Treasury. It’s programmed exactly the same, to the very last line, so the predictions are the same, because it has the exact same thoughts at any given moment.”
“This is insider trading, surely?”
The machine itself decided to field that objection. “Not if you could derive the code entirely by studying the behaviour of the device since its inception.”
Seddep broke into an incredulous smile. “It works. Or at least, I hope it does. And it’s all legal. Fedraxul, this is brilliant!”
“All told,” Fedraxul continued, “the sub-reserve ruse made some four hundred million profit. But we must be careful not to overuse this. A sudden increase in profits will look suspicious; we want to look like miracle-workers, not fraudsters, even if we are neither.”
The two men stood facing the machine, which had resumed rotating between various graphs and statistics. Seddep accepted that this worked – indeed, it more than worked. It was a genius plan, one that could make hundreds of billions of pounds, or Sigs, all the while dancing a mocking jig on the line of legality. But there had to be a catch, he thought. Someone had to find out, sooner or later. Maybe the government would shut it down, or maybe what they were doing was illegal and there had been an oversight. Maybe the AI’s thinking would deviate, and a flaw, or even a mere difference – the two were coterminous – would result in some kind of yaw away from accuracy, causing the whole damn scheme to collapse as the certainties turned out to be lies. Or perhaps the worst-case scenario would unfold, where Redreyen-Saarg would independently discover this ruse; those motherfuckers would run and run with such a thing. They’d make trillions, they’d obliterate the competition. They had to remain oblivious – that was a given.
In other words, the scheme was a piece of pure genius, but it was a fragile piece all the same.
“So that was the real plan, Seddep. This machine. We call it TOM.”
“Triumph of the Market. Because whatever else happens, that lot down at the Senate will never be ahead of us. The market always wins.”
“It sure does, Fedraxul.”