Black Market

“I am pleased to announce that we have slain the dragon.”

All the enthusiastic MercurEx employees gathered around the trading oval, cheered. James Tucker had hoped for this type of reaction.

He needed them to know how much he valued their support.

He wanted them to trust him again.

He wanted to trust them back.

“The hypergoblin incursion has been neutralized. It seems we have become experts at killing these things.”

The remark drew laughter.

He sensed they hankered for a laugh, so he gave them one, even though he feared remnants of the demented zoid could still be lurking freely within his datasphere.

The MercurEx CEO could not afford another setback. He knew that moving forward; encumbered with looming, unresolved threats, was a risk.

A daring risk? Maybe.

A huge, calculated risk?

Well, risk-taking is an Uberman’s business.

“I am also pleased to announce that the Government has set a date for a debate on currency deregulation. This means MercurEx is back in business.” Cheers from his employees filled Tucker with hope and confidence.

“Eighty percent of our fellow citizens hate the current land-backed cryptocurrency. Sixty percent support deregulation. I smell inevitability in the air, so regardless of the outcome, regardless of whether it’s legal or not, MercurEx will declare itself a sovereign entity and the path will be set for us to issue our own currency.”

Tucker heard gasps of surprise.

“Every stakeholder, including each of you, will receive an equal, non-transferable share entitling everyone to voting rights, access to services, and income.”

Speaking over jubilant applause, Tucker pressed on.

“The key elements in our enterprise are close to realisation. We have already implemented our own in-house, time-based monetary system. Currently, every Mercury-hour you earn, MercurEx buys it back at six federas. In the future, this unit of account I believe, will dominate over the competition because time is the most valuable asset an individual will ever possess. When, and I mean when deregulation occurs, our competitors will be peddling the same old interest-bearing kleptocurrencies. MercurEx will be offering not only a local, communal monetary system, but also a regional one, and also a global currency. Today the store of value in our system is MercurEx stock and its assets. In the future, it will be the Global Stock Exchange. It will be the intermarket.”

Tucker waited for the excitement to ease.

“The last piece of the puzzle is our medium of exchange. This is why I have vigorously pursued to merge hyper-technology with our finance products. Bionaut has finally developed third generation capabilities and is ready to go. In fact, our superzoid is busting to go. The only thing stopping us right now is that NASE.2 still isn’t ready. This is where my priorities currently stand and I will be working hard to get the Nasewire dryware up and rolling as fast as I can. So bear with me, we still have a way to go.”

Tucker spent the next few minutes discussing trivial matters with his Mercurians, joking with them, appreciating each affectionate smile, thankful for their unadulterated attentiveness. He did not need newsfeeders and rankerphiles to tell him he had the best staff in the world. Tucker hoped he could remain the best boss in the world.

With great reluctance, he dismissed everyone and MercurEx returned to its usual hum as Capital Traders, Social Developers, Marketing Engineers, Hypernauts, and Consumer Guardians went back to work.

Rebeka Mock walked up to him. The concern on her face a stark reminder of what hazardous adventures lay scheduled for the day.

“I’ve been unable to contact Mr. Blackwell.”

“He’s stonewalling.”

Asshole.

Tucker had never expected his closest acquaintance, a peer he considered a friend, first and foremost, would resort to such nasty tactics. He felt betrayed and found it hard to stomach. Even thinking about it made him feel sick. He could not allow it to drag on. “I know where that knucklehead frolics,” he said and headed towards the elevator gallery. “I guess it’s time to pay him an impromptu visit.”

“I’ll arrange a taxicab for you,” Rebeka offered, her look of concern unchanged.

 

Outside, the sweltering air pounded against Tucker’s skin the second he passed through the lobby’s giant revolving doors – titanic pieces of moving glass that never failed to intimidate. Tucker fast-legged it to the nearest transtop, and joined a medley of commuters coveting the free rides offered by the local district.

Wondering what delayed his pre-booked taxicab, James Tucker jostled for a better vantage point on a notoriously hectic stretch of Ocean Drive.

Hypergoblin crisis averted for now, he thought.

Whatever reprieve he felt was short-lived when a strange, foreboding sensation overwhelmed him. Paranoia burned behind his ears. Casting his eye out to the crowd, he spotted a few people looking back. Nothing threatening, just the regular fans who have noticed an Uberman in their midst.

Ex-Uberman.

A flash of white blotted out half his vision.

An abrupt, loud screech followed the commercial Cargovan as it stopped right in front of him. For a heartbeat, nothing happened.

Tucker’s brain ceased to function, stalled by the unanticipated occurrence.

React, you idiot.

His internal voice screamed at him as a huge slit appeared on the white panel. A side door slid open, revealing a dark interior. Two gloved arms lashed out and grabbed Tucker, pulling him inside the Cargovan.

It took only a second.

The abductor’s arms were strong.

Tucker felt like a rag doll.

The slide-door slammed shut behind him. The vehicle took off and the sudden motion added to his disorientation. Thrown onto the bare steel floor he flailed in the darkness, straining to get a look at his kidnappers.

He saw a gloved fist fly and smack the side of his head

Tucker fell on his back, holding his hands out in submission.

Confusion reigned in his mind as he looked past his outstretched arms to get a glimpse of his attacker. What he saw intensified his fears.

A brutish, well-built man, wearing black overalls and a black ski mask, crouched over him. The brute pointed something at his face. Tucker strained his vision further to get it to focus on an object forged exclusively for death.

His brain went numb.

…until he remembered his training.

Tucker never bothered to prepare for such an occasion. He knew the statistics were high, even within the Bluezone. Arrogance had gotten the better of him, shunning bodyguards and corporate security while others in his position did the opposite. Operational security in a majority of companies gobbled on average a third of profits.

MercurEx spent zero.

He built a corporate empire around giving out free products, making no enemies, and supporting Bluezoners, slumfolk and refugians, whenever possible.

Who needed operational security?

Now he delved into his military service past in an urgent search for survival tips.

“Easy!” His military training kicked in. “Whatever it is you want I’ll cooperate!”

Fear not the enemy. Fear the emotion that hamstrings intuition. Fear.

“Is that right?” the brute grunted.

“I have no wish to become a statistic.”

Never in his life had James Tucker faced anything as precarious as this. In his tour of duty during the Phosphorus Wars, he had come face-to-face with tecto-rifle wielding warlords, but over there, Tucker was armed to the teeth and in the company of expertly trained troopers.

The brute reached over and plucked the Kinefone lobeset from Tucker’s ear.

Assess the situation.

Tucker’s heart thumped harder, as adrenaline rushed up to flood his head. Outside, the multiple arches of the Gateway Bridge grew in the distance. They were heading north along Ocean Drive, away from the Bluezone.

Ransom?

The possibility crossed his mind.

Statistically and traditionally, kidnapping was the official sport for amateurs. Statistically and traditionally, these affairs ended in grief for both parties. He hoped these were not the regular, garden-variety clubbers.

Tucker looked past the brute, at the similarly dressed passenger.

A woman! Tucker wondered.

The body shape and the short blond hair protruding from the ski mask implied that it was, though Tucker could not tell for sure. Amongst the body odour and gunaline he detected a faint jasmine-like aroma, or is it witch-hazel?

He knew the smell well, having recently used it to sooth his own skin ailments.

The woman thumbed away at a touchy.

Who uses a touchy these days?

Moreover, what the fuck do these people want?

The sooner he found out, the quicker he could formulate a response. If he let them carry out their plans unopposed, Tucker knew from all the newsfeeder-spawned statistics that he would most likely wind up dead. He needed to press the issue a little, so he decided to provoke them. “Listen, I get the message. There is no need to take this any further, so give me a figure and we can work something out. How about it?”

A third goon in the driver’s seat, also in analogous black overalls and ski mask, turned around and looked at him with cold, youthful eyes.

A young adult? A kid? What the fuck?

With one hand holding the small piece of artillery, firmly pointed at Tucker’s face, the brute used his other hand to take the touchy from the woman and shove it into Tucker’s belly.

“You are gonna contact your broker,” said the brute, with a calm yet menacing voice. “You are gonna buy a particular stock. If you deviate from any of my instructions…” He pointed towards the rear of the van, “…we will throw you into the path of an oncoming freight truck for the entire world to enjoy.”

Tucker looked towards the rear and felt the rumbling of the road. He had seen plenty of snuff victims on DisasterCaster. The waves were full with these disturbing killings. Snuff-murder for entertainment sat second only to pornography.

With dread infecting his thoughts, he attempted to explain. “I don’t have a broker.”

I killed my broker.

“You don’t seem to understand.” The brute sounded annoyed.

Tucker nodded.

He pressed at graphicons, something he had not done in a long time, until he brought up the Hermes corefront. He thumbed in his security details and for a brief tense moment, he thought he failed to gain access.

He was relieved to hear the sound of a familiar voice.

#Am I talking to my highly esteemed boss?#

“Don’t talk to any human, asshole.” The brute poked the gun barrel into Tucker’s temple, “And no fucking Redhand gestures.”

“Yes it is, Hermes,” said Tucker. He looked up at the thugs and waited for instructions.

“Aztechno,” said the woman, her voice confirming her gender. “Its code is AZT23SG slash F.”

Tucker scavenged his memory for information about the stock. “Hermes, I need you to tell the guys in the trading oval to make a move on Aztechno.”

#Why on earth do you want to do that?#

God damn it. Stop acting so human, you stupid fake.

“I need you to buy Aztechno stock right now.”

#Aztechno is debt ridden,# Hermes continued to argue, trained to query such unusual requests. #It’s practically in the clutches of voluntary administration. Buying that shit at three fents would be scandalous.#

“That sounds like no fake,” said the brute.

“Oh, yes it is. Hermes, just do what I say,” Tucker yelled.

Tucker figured he was about to lose a whole lot of cash. He only hoped to live long enough to complain about it. He did not want to end up a mangled piece of flesh on the highway. Tucker had viewed too many grisly snuff murders of hapless executives thrown off the tops of skyscrapers to dismiss it from happening to him.

Tucker had no desire to end up a faceless victim in some morbid newsfeed.

#The team wants to know what kind of stake are you after.#

“Tell your broker to keep going until further notification,” said the woman.

Her words stunned Tucker.

The enormity of the situation smacked him hard.

I am about to lose a shitload of client money.

“Keep going until I call you back,” he said with great reluctance.

The brute snatched the touchy out of Tucker’s hand, ending the conversation. The woman studied real-time data scrolling off the GSX corefront. “It’s on the move.” Excitement tainted her voice.

“I could have just given you the money.”

“Three point seven fents!” shouted the woman.

“This is ridiculous!” Tucker tried to anticipate their motive.

What kind of scam is this?

“Refreshing now! Four point eight fents!”

Tucker felt cold sweat forming on his skin. He realised he was not dealing with two-bit outlaws from the slums.

These were Bluezone scamsters, using his company’s account to spruik up a thinly traded stock. When enough suckers are taken in, the stock price rockets, at which point the scamsters take their profits. Then the share dives, and all the suckers lose. This swindle was as old as the stock market, but with a Global Stock Exchange that did not stop trading for no one, a truly free and open market, this evolution of the scam had become more potent, and deadly.

“How cashed up are you?” asked the brute.

“I have limited funds.”

“Refreshing!” called out the woman. “Seven point two fents!”

Tucker’s Kinefone lobeset started buzzing and flashing in the brute’s hand. “That’s them,” he said, “They want to know when to stop.” The brute held up the lobeset, taunting him.

“Eight fents!” updated the woman.

Tucker did the arithmetic in his head. It did not look good.

“Answer the damn lobe!” he yelled.

“We are about to hit ten.”

If my traders continue buying beyond ten cents, Tucker deduced, I’ll end up owning this crappy company outright.

Tucker did the sums in his head again. Not only will he be losing money, he would be losing clients’ money. With no funds of his own, thanks to his wife, he would be unable to offset such a loss.

The lobeset kept buzzing.

“Refreshing!”

“The intermarket will spot this irregularity and they will dump the stock.” He warned them, hoping to thwart them in some way.

“Twenty-one point five fents.”

“It won’t get any higher so I suggest you start dumping now.”

“Twenty-one point seven! It’s leveling off.”

Thank god.

The lobeset continued to buzz.

The brute turned towards the driver, “Are we satisfied?”

“Let’s wrap it up,” said the driver.

The brute tossed him back the flashing lobeset, “My threat still stands.”

Tucker fastened the device back into his ear.

#We stopped buying at nine-fents.#

What a relief.

#You are a genius,# continued Hermes. #According to the feeders you have left a trail of mass destruction.#

“It’s dropping,” updated the female. “It’s going backwards.”

#The trading crew want to know their next move.#

Tucker could imagine the jubilation in the trading oval. The dumb rats would willingly follow him into the darkest abyss.

Tucker looked at his kidnappers.

The brute studied him and then nodded.

“Sell it!” Tucker shouted. “Sell it all.”

“Wrap it up,” demanded the brute.

Tucker complied, feeling a change of circumstance in the air.

A change for the worse.

The brute leaned closer and said, “Seems to me… you stand to make a decent profit.”

Tucker did the mathematics in his head.

True.

Although, he predicted this adventure would eventually cost him his Office of Ethics and Standards Accreditation.

“What now?”

It occurred to Tucker what the next logical step was. They would throw him out of the speeding Cargovan. For a scam like this to work, the victim must not lodge a complaint within the next few days, if ever. It buys the scamsters time to launder the money out of the system, hiding the trades in amongst billions of transactions.

Most often, victims of these unscrupulous spruikers never came forward. Technically, losing a small fortune through greed, naivety, or plain stupidity was legal.

This situation was different.

With extortion a capital crime, these clubbers were playing for keeps.

Tucker noticed the Cargovan slow to a halt. The brute opened the sliding door and hot, dry air inundated the vehicle.

“Get out.”

Shit!

Tucker succumbed to fear.

They are not going to risk leaving me alive.

Sunlight burned his eyes.

“Why?” he pleaded, keeping calm, suspecting they would ignore any display of anger. “You have what you want.”

“Get out.”

Fear invaded his heart. Tucker stepped out into an open desert, his feet sinking into dry, silty sand. “You don’t have to do this. I won’t report this to the authorities. I have just as much to lose. I can’t fuck this up for you.”

The slide door slammed shut.

Tucker watched the Cargovan bury its spinning wheels into the soft dusty ground until it gained the momentum to speed away. He waited for the minor sandstorm to clear before he attempted to survey the desert around him.

Tucker established his location.

East River.

Standing smack bang in the middle of a dry riverbed, Tucker made out the two opposing shorelines and the Lower Bayside barrios beyond them.

What was once thriving industrial and commercial conurbation was now derelict, forsaken by civilised society and home to millions of slumfolk.

Those goons are trying to kill me.

Tucker made a mental list of the dangers working against him.

He estimated that he was around thirty kilometres from the nearest Bluezone. The temperature, probably sitting at around forty degrees, felt like it still had a degree or two to rise before sundown.

The locals will eventually discover my presence.

God only knows what’ll happen when they do.

All Tucker knew with any certainty was that slumdwellers hated Bluezoners with a passion. There existed no Ambercast coverage in such places, leaving him with no way to connect with emergency services.

Satnet coverage existed, but due to his bias against Meganat’s Jim Dochersky and his fleet of low earth orbit satellites, Tucker only bought Kinefone products.

So no Satnet.

Tucker headed downstream, west towards the mouth of the river, hoping to get to the cooler beaches of the bay before the sun reached its most treacherous hour. He avoided the shore, opting to stay out on the open, cracked riverbed than risk moving through dangerous and unpleasant neighbourhoods.

In the distance, he saw a ragtag group of children playing on a neglected chain-link fence. He stopped to study them, and noticed that they were in fact studying him. What caught his attention was the fact they all carried or wore electronic devices, interacting with them.

He concluded two things.

One, that once his presence in the slums became exposed; they would be celebrating over his dead carcass within the hour.

And two, the devices used by the locals were not Ambercast or Satnet enabled. Even if they were, these people would not be able to afford using them.

Episoft.

The peer-to-peer wave network offered free communication in areas where enough Episoft-enabled devices were active. The higher the saturation, the faster and deeper data packages travelled. When sparse, data packets took longer to propagate.

As long as a link existed between any two devices, between two pockets of saturation, the message would ultimately progress to its final destination.

God damn brilliant piece of technology.

He had made a fortune speculating on Episoft’s success.

All Tucker had to do was ping an emergency rescue request and wait for the message to snake its way through, hoping there were enough devices out there between himself and the nearest safe-haven.

Wishful thinking kept him going.

Wishful thinking was all he had left.