Chapter 10 - The Men Who Stole The World

A book cover in the style of a 1950's pulp sci-fi novel. An AI generated set of computers are connected by wires.Welcome to NaNoWriMo, where I - and thousands of other plucky souls - try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.

You are reading "Tales of the Algorithm". A compendium of near-future sci-fi stories. Each chapter is a stand-alone adventure set a few days from now.

Everything you read is possible - there's no magic, just sufficiently advanced technology. Think of them as technological campfire horror stories.

Your feedback on each story is very much appreciated.

And so, let's crack on with...

The Men Who Stole The World

The Canadian's drunkenness only heightens his indignation. "You don't believe me? I was there, it's true!"

He doesn't look like he's about to swing a punch at me. But he doesn't look like he's practised in the art of self restraint either. "Sure man," I try to mollify him. I have a bunch of stock phrases that I use with people like this, "It's pretty interesting if true."

"Heck yeah it's true! And I can prove it!"

Ah. Now this was interesting. When people find out what I do for a living, they usually ask me to prove their incredible conspiracy theories. They latch onto me with the hope of the forlorn. I've been told stories about which ethnicity is hiding the secrets of free energy, or what's really behind the drop in the stock market, or how Bigfoot is secretly the President. They're desperate to regale me with the free-flowing logic which they've either self-concocted or mainlined from the Internet. But their far-flung fantasies all end the same way - "Can you help me prove it?"

"You really think you can prove it? How?"

"I'll bet you a beer I can tell you who is going to die tomorrow."

His demeanour shifted. The drunken glint in his eye had been bravado, but was now replaced by pain. He took another glug of some terrible Canadian Whisky, belched, and sat back waiting for me to make the next move. Simone always attracted an eclectic mix to her soirées and I usually found an interesting prospect to write about there. But this had the feeling of something big. Something career defining.

"Do you want to talk about it somewhere private?" I asked. Conscious of all the other guests. Half of them were earwigging on the conversations around them, desperate for a juicy titbit of gossip which they could sell the next morning.

"I don't give a brass fuck any more. I'll tell anyone."

Simone sidled up behind him and placed an elegantly tattooed arm over his hunched shoulders. "Darlink, are you sure that's wise? I know this party is in honour of your retirement, but perhaps best not to spill all the tea at once?"

He shrugged the arm off, motioned the barkeep for another pour, and grabbed my tie. "Just listen," he growled.

I thumbed my pocket dictaphone. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the truth as he saw it. I seldom interrupted him, and then only to clarify something which I could later fact check. I've not yet been able to disprove anything - but I haven't been able to get anyone to talk about it on the record. His tale started with an unbelievable claim.

The Canadian Central Bank was responsible for the recent deaths of Avril Lavigne and Justin Bieber. The helicopter accident, which had tragically killed two beloved Canadian music icons at once, was planned and executed by the highest levels of the bank. He clarified that he didn't mean that they were somehow tangentially connected with the dodgy maintenance of the helicopter, or that there were weird financial shenanigans afoot. The head of the Central Bank had literally ordered a hit on the septuagenarian duo on the eve of their joint comeback tour.

What was even more horrible to contemplate was that it wasn't the first time the Bank had killed. And, if his information was to be believed, it wouldn't be the last. This was no lust for blood, however. The bank didn't particularly want to be in the murder business. It was all rather tawdry and distressing. It's just that it made excellent economic sense. Dead superstars were vastly more profitable than the living.

Their first victim was, in all likelihood, David Bowie.

One of the bank's senior executives had discovered that Bowie was in the final days with his battle against liver cancer. How? A loose-lipped insurance executive, or a mole at the hospital, or a fat-fingered email - it didn't really matter. The banker knew profit when he saw it. In the day's before Bowie's death, the Central Bank made its move. It purchased vast amounts of shares in companies which had record deals with Bowie. It took out long positions on music streaming services and shorted positions on any company that would be negatively impacted by his death. Several billion dollars was surreptitiously funnelled into the world stock market. Bowie's death was going to mean big business.

And so it came to pass. Bowie's untimely death shook the world. Grief flowed nearly as readily as money. Obscure vinyl shot up in price. Autographs suddenly became priceless. Audiophiles upgraded their vestal-virgin-blessed speaker cables so they could properly observe his passing. The return on investment was huge. The Central Bank, once it unwound all its positions, had made an obscene profit out of an obscene act. They carefully drip-fed the money back into their coffers and the politicians got to claim it was their wisdom which caused this minor economic miracle.

It was a one-off. A perfect crime. No one was hurt and, though it was sad a musical legend had passed away, the profits paid for a healthy tax cut for citizens and an even healthier set of bonuses for the executives. A once-in-a-lifetime event. Buried and forgotten.

And yet...

It seemed to one high-level executive that, under the right circumstances, a banker could make more money with a dead artist than he could with a living one. Yes, it was quite possible! If he were certain that the performer would die, a country could make a fortune!

And that's where our drunk Canadian friend came in. He was a lowly analyst with a talent for spotting connections where no one else could. His paymasters gently inducted him into their fold by asking him to conduct an economic analysis of individuals whose deaths could cause economic shockwaves. The code he produced was spectacular. He could calculate precisely which singers were straddling the delicate line between cultural relevance and exposure fatigue. If you could nobble someone just before the 40th anniversary of their breakout album, you would hit the jackpot.

It was an imprecise science and needed heaps of data in order to validate the hypothesis.

Remember 2016? The year all the famous people died? OK, Canada's Central Bank didn't kill all of them, that would be absurd, but they monitored the peaks and troughs in share prices related to those deaths. A sitcom star's death sold a few extra box-sets of DVDs, but didn't move the needle much. A movie star dying meant a few cinemas could make a fortune in retrospective film festivals. A politician might die unmourned, but it led to an influx of political donations. But it was the music industry which really cashed in. MP3s cost nothing to reproduce and you could sell a commemorative package for pure profit. Radio airplay went into overdrive and paid out handsomely. A few of the recording stars were near death anyway - so what if they were nudged off the mortal coil at a slightly more profitable moment?

It wasn't just death they traded in. The data from a hundred years of popular music sales was a goldmine for statistical grim reapers. Take a star in their prime. Mire them in scandal - perhaps a non-fatal drug addiction or a dalliance with an age-inappropriate fan. Keep them out of the public eye. Let demand build, and when they were rehabilitated, announce a world tour and make billions!

Of course, if ticket sales weren't going well you could always bump them off and collect on the insurance. There were all sorts of ingenious ways you could use data to make the most of death.

Remember that car commercial? The one with the hyper-nostalgic song? The singer wouldn't sell the rights to the car company. That was a problem because a large part of that year's economic growth was predicated on strong car sales. The data showed that the 45 year-old women who were the lifeblood of car-financing would be swayed into upgrading their car if they associated it with a specific song from their youth. But the bitch wouldn't play ball.

Well, of course, the dead have no moral rights over the commercial use of their material, do they?

Whenever there was a financial crisis, the bankers fell back on old-faithful. As far as they saw it, fame was a natural resource and it was there to be mined.

By this point the room had collapsed into silence and the Canadian was speaking in a clipped voice. His rage at what his employers had made him do dripped out of every pore, overpowering the smell of whisky.

"All the trades are in the public record," he concluded. "Don't believe me? I don't give a shit. Look it up yourself. You'll see the truth."

He stumbled off his bar stool and headed for the door. The rest of us stood stunned. It couldn't possibly be true, could it? I started mentally lining up the dates I remembered. It was fantastical. Farcical. Implausible. But I couldn't dismiss it.

I rushed outside and grabbed him by the snood just as he was entering a cab.

"Wait! You bet me a beer that you knew who was next." I fumbled in my wallet for my card, but he waved it away. He lent over and whispered a name in my ear which caused me to fall back in shock.

The next morning I flicked on the news with a sense of dread. "The flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long," intoned the sober newscaster. I felt the bile rise up in my throat as I watched legions of teenage fans sob their eyes out over the tragic death of their idol. The purchasing power of these girls and boys had been totted up and found to outweigh the life of a young singer. She would remain forever young. Forever young and forever profitable.

The television cameras showed drone footage of kids lining up outside record stores across the country. And that's when I realised - for the first time in my life - I'm afraid of Canadians.

Thanks for reading

I'd love your feedback on each chapter. Do you like the style of writing? Was the plot interesting? Did you guess the twist? Please stick a note in the comments to motivate me.

You can read the complete set of short stories in order.

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