Niki stared at the holographic image of a mask floating above her desk. She found herself staring at the mask — made of thousands of layers of code — more and more frequently over the past two weeks, as information rolled in from her research team about the organization it represented.
She knew members of Opus were disseminated throughout society. It wasn’t like the old days where a curious party could slowly hone in on a hacker by keeping tabs on the tech-set in cities around the world, waiting for a real-life identity to match the online habits of an anonymous troublemaker. No, Opus was made up of high school students and housewives. Senior citizens and senior managers at banks. It was like someone identified the most disgruntled cross-section of the world, those who would normally protest, and plugged them all into each other, allowing for ops neither hackers nor protestors would be able to pull off on their own.
Most confounding was that not a single confirmed member of Opus had yet to be captured. ‘Confirmed’ was the key qualifier there: Niki suspected people involved with ops had been pulled in and questioned by law enforcement, but their connections to the ops they were a part of were so tenuous, nothing would stick to them.
Was it Henry Ford who said “Nothing is particularly hard if you break it into small jobs”? Niki couldn’t help but feel a modicum of respect for whoever applied that concept to illegal ops. If she was right about the ways and means of Opus’ operation, they were probably the most successful barons of their time. Then again, she corrected herself, they’re producing anti-value, rather than value. Successful technicians, perhaps, but not successful capitalists.
She looked down at the data arranged on the surface of her desk, and swiped her hand above it to turn off the holographic projection of the mask. No, they’re not just technicians: they’re successful economic terrorists, she thought. The numbers were the same no matter how she juggled them, looking for a silver lining. The global economy was collapsing, and no matter how much book-cooking the banks managed before it all went up in flames, it would go up in flames. Niki hoped not literally, but such things had been known to happen in times of great economic strife.
She wouldn’t allow those numbers to continue their plummet. She’d seen this coming, and she was well prepared. In the buildup to the crisis, which was still just a light rumble in the public’s consciousness, she’d knocked out three major competitors in energy interests around the world. She’d also kicked up production of consumer-grade devices, and was launching a new tile model in a month, which would help push consumption.
Amidst the buyouts and new production cycles she’d established, Niki also decided to purchase a free-floating city out in the Pacific Ocean. It was a strange piece of property, with a few dozen acres above ground, most of which served as a landing strip and loading docks, but it also had about fifty square miles of real estate under the surface. The underwater property was set up like a reverse skyscraper, complete with multiple floors and elevators, and served the same purpose. Each floor contained research stations and offices rented out to interests around the world: companies that were trading in undersea exploration, algae-based pharmaceuticals, even a group of entrepreneurs who decided to incorporate their businesses away from any territorial country and government.
That last part was perhaps the most vital asset of the base: it wasn’t under any government jurisdiction. Much like the private islands of old (most of which were underwater by the time Niki was wealthy enough to consider buying one), the base, called Placid Deep by the eccentric software tycoon who built it back in the Teens, but known publicly as ‘Hydrotopia’ in recent years, was unaffiliated politically, militarily, or financially. Although Niki was happy doing business within the United States, she also knew it was prudent to have a base through which she could seal deals that were politically unacceptable in the Western world.
The seascraper was being sold to make up money lost in bad investments by the Dubai-based businessmen who owned it before Niki, so after some tough negotiations spanning months, they almost gave it away. In Niki’s mind, what she was spending would have been worth paying for the base’s hydro-generators and geothermal vent engines alone; the rest was gravy.
Niki continued to browse through the data on her desk as she spoke to her office AI. “Terry, schedule a visit to Hydrotopia. I want to take a look at the place and see what I purchased. And meet some of the current residents.”
“Of course, Miss Jenks. Do you have any preferences as to what day and how soon?”
Niki surprised herself by sweeping a hand across the desk, scattering the digital documents back into their respective home folders; an act that was far less satisfying virtually than it would have been in real life, if less messy. She looked down at her hands, which were shaking. She realized she was stressed. Incredibly so. She only lost her temper as a negotiating ploy, and occasionally to maintain her reputation as being a dangerous person to cross.
I’m the only person holding this damn country together, she thought. And it’s still not enough. I’ve earned a temper tantrum. She laid her head down on her desk and closed her eyes for a short moment before lifting it up quickly and opening her eyes wide. Or a vacation.
“Terry, schedule the tour of Hydrotopia as soon as possible. Actually,” she moved her hand through the air in a writing gesture, and her desk projected her calendar above its surface. “Yes. Tomorrow. Schedule it tomorrow. If this inconveniences the people who run it, tell them to get used to it. They work for me now.”
“Yes, Miss Jenks.”
Moment of crisis averted, Niki traced a symbol on her desk and the documents she’d thrown off less than a minute before reappeared, neatly stacked and ready for her perusal.
The next day, Niki found herself wanting to punch the digital face of the newscaster projected on the opposite wall of her private jet. But he kept talking, unaware of the imaginary threat she posed.
“Despite some mild gains in job numbers, experts say the US economy is not looking good, and some industries will be harder pressed than others to make it through the impending recession.
“Sensing these hardships, in part due to a decrease in spending power, and partially because of a series of economic awareness campaigns circulating around the net, which blame the crisis on the wealthiest and most influential people in the country, protestors have massed by the hundreds of thousands at the center of United States wealth: New York City. Wealthier parts of the island like 5th Avenue and Wall Street have been particularly on guard against a possible escalation by the protestors, though the gathered masses have been peaceful so far. Police Chief Anthony Rodriguez has warned residents and tourists to avoid the occupied areas, and says traffic in Manhattan could be backed up for days.”
All the reports coming across the net were the same: protestors this, protestors that. They should be so proud of themselves, putting all that effort into fixing the economy they’re upset about, Niki thought. Oh wait, that’s right, they’re protesting against the people who are trying to fix the economy instead of being productive. Idiots.
An alert flashed on Niki’s tile. She picked it up when she saw who was calling. She tapped the screen and a man’s face appeared on the semi-transparent screen. “Really sorry for calling instead of sending a message to your drop like we arranged, but I’ve discovered something you should probably know sooner rather than later.”
“It’s fine, Charles. What did you discover?” Niki managed to keep most of the curiosity out of her voice, not wanting Charles to know how much she was aching for more information on Opus; the task she’d hired him for.
Charles’ pudgy face was smiling and animated, like a dog excited about its master’s return. Based on her previous encounters with him, which consisted of one email introduction from Mason, and a few video calls, he was always like that when he’d discovered something he thought was particularly ‘cool,’ which was information she universally thought was impressive but worrying. “I’ve discovered how they’re tied to the worldwide economic collapse.”
Niki’s back straightened as her body tightened up. “What? How?” She took a quick breath, then said, “Are they making this happen? They’ve got to be.”
“Yes and no.” Niki’s face smoothed into a frown. He added, “Some kind of recession was going to happen anyway. That’s supported by data, which I’m sure you’re aware. There are cycles for this kind of thing, and we were due for one.”
“Well, I get the impression they planned on the world’s experts knowing about that cycle, and that’s why it’s been so hard to figure out if what’s happening is part of the normal rotation or not. You noticed it because you’ve been actively fighting back, and fighting that fight has proven to be a fairly Sisyphean task. And you’re right, they’re actively pushing numbers down further than they would normally go.”
“That’s the interesting part. It’s really quite clever, actually. They’re flooding the market with digital currency.”
“And how are they doing that? Others have tried similar things before; how is this different?”
“Online transactions are protected by one bank checking their numbers against another bank: the sender and receiver make sure no funny business takes place on either end in this way. They do this any time there’s a transaction that doesn’t involve physical notes or coins or whatnot.
“Opus has come up with a way to create money that doesn’t exist by using software that creates what seem to be legit transactions. The software is clever: instead of having to break into any banking software, it simply sends them a transaction they read as secure. And because of how banks operate today, it’s unlikely any transaction of under a few thousand dollars will ever be noticed by the automated systems looking for such things. If the transactions are noticed, they’re lumped in with the many false transactions sent every day because of glitches or other trackable computer errors.
“In essence,” Charles spread his arms and shrugged, “they’re creating money that doesn’t exist, which means the economy is slowly becoming hyperinflated. There are way more IOUs, which is all that money is, at the end of the day, than there is value backing them.”
Niki was shocked: not so much at what she was being told by Charles, but more at her response to it. She could feel herself being pulled into a contemplative spell, so she said, “Thank you, Charles. I’ll be in touch,” and disconnected the call.
She always knew this kind of situation could happen someday, though when she’d worried over it in the past, the cataclysm had always been caused by the politicians, who seemed determined to pull the economy down around her ears.
Things had been on this trajectory since long before she was born. As soon as her country went off the Gold Standard, the people up top were reneging on their deal with the people below to print money that was worth something; currency that had something of real value backing it. From that point on, a dollar was no longer worth one dollar in gold: it was worth one dollar in silver, or copper, or whatever other substance they could get away with calling ‘precious’ and lock away in a vault somewhere.
With that little trick up their sleeves, standing politicians could print as much money as they wanted. “Amazing how much they could get done without raising taxes!” the NetTV talking heads — actually, they were still using cable and antenna-based TV back then — would trumpet about their favored candidate. And all the while, that same candidate would slowly inflate an economic balloon, hoping it burst during the term of someone from the opposing party.
But now the issue was being exacerbated by outside players, and they didn’t seem to be planning to stop, based on the numbers she’d seen.
What will the world look like in a year? Niki thought. If this level of inflation continues, and I’m not able to realign things…
It would be more of what was being seen all over Europe. Entire countries defaulting to other countries. The debtor nations would survive just long enough to pull down the countries that loaned them money. They would keep on spinning but never achieve the speed they needed, not when they’re all in debt.
And there, again, was the thought that excited and terrified Niki at the same time.
I could help them get back up to speed. I have no debt, and am worth more personally than a handful of medium-sized countries put together. Add the value of my companies to the equation and I could buy…
Her mind spun in circles around the possibilities for a full hour before an aircraft carrier-sized platform came into view. Though she knew she was only seeing the tip of the metaphorical iceberg out her window, her brain took stock of how long she’d been in the air, calculating the base was in an excellent spot to export energy to both North America and Asia, if she could increase the output of the infrastructure powering it.
By the time her jet had slowed, hovered, and started its slow descent to one of the landing pads atop the massive underwater structure, Niki’s mind had completely turned from all thoughts of Opus.