High Frequency

Author’s Note: This story was written at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, I think many of the themes involved are still relevant. I also want to credit the fiction and nonfiction writings of David Brin for inspiration.

“Nikki—oh, God—alright, listen, you have to get the kids. Something’s gone wrong—really really wrong. I need you to get the kids and get to LaGuardia right now.”

“Julian? Whats wrong?”

“Just do it! I’m booking the flight now; I’ll meet you at the airport.”

“Flight to where? What happened?” Nikki asked.

“Zurich. I don’t know what happened. The fund just went completely nuts.”

“The fund? Zurich? Did we lose all the money?”

“No, worse. We made money—a lot of money.” she heard frantic typing over the phone line. “We have to get out while there’s still time. They’ll be after us real quick.”

“Julian, who’s going to be after us? How much money did we make?”

“About five zeros’ worth!”

Silence on the other end.

“Nikki?”

More silence, and then, “We’ll meet you at the airport.”

The average stock analyst would have called Julian Bennett a third-rate mutual fund manager, not worth any serious attention, though he wasn’t shy about trying to finally make his piece. In this cutthroat world where microseconds mattered and artificial intelligence ruled the day, he had always used the best assistance he could find, and this time, he knew he had bitten off more than he could chew.

By now, every stock watcher in the country would have their personal AI telling them that the market had been shut down and just who won and who lost in the chaos. In about five minutes, the dings of news alerts would go out from all the major outlets. Julian’s anonymizer software—every self-respecting trader had some—wouldn’t be able to keep his identity under wraps for long under that kind of pressure. Just long enough to get out of the neighborhood…he hoped.

He finished typing out his email and hit “send”. The email-tracking AIs that various interests had floating around the cloud wouldn’t be able to open it, but they would note the traffic pattern and put two and two together pretty quickly. Or if they didn’t, they would see the real life traffic pattern of the recipients’ reactions. After all, how were they supposed to react? “Congratulations, you’re now a billionaire. Now get out of Dodge!” Oh, well. The programs were pretty smart; they’d figure it out soon enough either way. An early warning would buy the recipients more time than it would lose—that part he was sure about.

Julian hardly spared another thought for his clients. 141 mostly upper-middle-class families were walking around, unsuspecting…but he had done all he could for them. He had his own family to think about. In another minute, he was running to the elevator.

Act natural, act natural, act natural, he told himself as he descended. Forcing himself to relax, he slumped against the elevator wall. Its not supposed to be like this, he thought, but he looked at the app on his phone again, and there it was: eleven figures, and that was just his commission. It shouldn’t have been possible to move that much money that fast—it wasnt possible to move that much money that fast, but he had to believe the signature on the email: Midas. It was sent by his new, experimental, high-frequency trading program, and, after all, something had shut down the stock exchange.

Act natthe elevator stopped twice to pick up people who looked even more panicked than Julian. What are they so scared of? He checked his watch: five minutes. He guessed that he was making good time.

The elevator disgorged its passengers into the parking garage, and they all raced to their cars. Julian could already hear the protesters shouting outside. There were always protesters. There had been for years, and there had been more than usual in the past few months. They surely knew by now.

“Jane, give me the fastest route to LaGuardia,” he ordered.

“Yes, sir.” Jane, of course, was his personal AI assistant—nothing fancy, just enough to help with daily tasks. She took stock of the traffic, protester activity, and special events around the city in real time and plotted the quickest directions on the GPS. 35 minutes. That was a lot at a time like this, and it would take at least half of that to get out of Manhattan.

Julian drove out of the parking garage and past a smallish crowd of protesters that police were barely keeping in line. Most of them were focusing their attention on the New York Stock Exchange itself, two blocks away, but that would not last long. A lot of other people were leaving his building and others, by car and on foot. With luck, they would distract the protesters for a few minutes from checking Julian with facial recognition.

“Jane, I want to go incognito. Keep my location off the grid as much as you can, and don’t accept any calls from work—actually, tell the company to block all calls not from my contact list or the police.”

“Yes, sir. Estimated delay of tracking: 10 to 20 minutes.”

Christ, thats cutting it close. He prayed it would give him enough of a head start. “Jane, scan the radio for information about what’s happening at the stock exchange.”

“Scanning…”

“…still not clear why trading was halted, since the markets were only down a few points,” came a newscaster’s voice from the radio. “And we’re now receiving word that the ‘circuit breakers’ may have been thrown manually. We cannot confirm…”

The station flipped as Jane assessed that what being said on the next station was more interesting: “…directors are still trying to understand the situation, but unconfirmed reports from the floor suggest that trading volume went off the charts when the breakers tripped…”

There were picketers up and down Wall Street, and, as word spread fast, they were being thrown into disarray, unsure of what to do. After all, even Julian didn’t know much about what was happening. Several police cars turned down Wall Street, sirens blaring, headed toward the Stock Exchange. That cleared the street long enough for Julian to get out onto South Street. Ten minutes.

“…looks like all of the protesters from Zuccotti Park have converged on the New York Stock Exchange. Police are being overwhelmed, they’re…they’re breaking through the doors!”

“Next,” Julian said.

The station switched again: “…volume apparently went way above normal limits, and a lot of shareholders were wiped out, even though the indexes barely budged. That’s what we’re hearing from the alerts that sounded for our own employees. I don’t know how far this goes, but I’m being told a large portion of our parent company’s stock changed hands.”

No doubt the bigwigs at whatever network that was already knew whose hands they were, and everyone else would, soon. Something must have gone wrong with the breakers. The AIs that monitored trading were supposed to act within milliseconds if things went out of whack. Julian’s copy of Midas must have spotted a glitch and exploited it, but what that glitch could have been he couldn’t imagine.

There was a lot of activity on the side streets. Thousands of people who normally showed up only to the May Day rallies were turning out—by foot, bicycle, subway, whatever—ready to go anywhere they thought they might be needed.

The next station had a lot of shouting in the background, with a reporter apparently on the scene: “Utter chaos here on Wall Street. Protesters have stormed the Stock Exchange. They’re clashing with police, they’re running after traders who are leaving the area, tear gas is in the air. There’s a…there’s a large group breaking off and converging on another office building a couple blocks away…”

“Jane, hold this station,” Julian ordered. That would be his building if his instincts were worth two bits. Fifteen minutes: almost out of Manhattan.

“A bunch of them entered the building…Do we know yet what happened at the Stock Exchange? I don’t know what could have prompted this kind of reaction—hey!” There was a sound of a scuffle and a loud bang before a different voice sounded: “I’ll tell you what happened: Julian Bennett! Julian Bennett! Dude just stole a trillion bucks!”

Julian Bennett. His name was out there with the biggest target on his back since God knew when, and he didn’t even know what he had done. It was a trillion dollars, or close to it—and there had only been about ten million in the fund that morning—but Midas was supposed to keep things above board. The money probably wasn’t technically stolen, and yet, where could it have come from?

And more importantly, now what? If anyone tracked him down and blocked the bridge before he got off the island, he was screwed. “Jane, police response time for this location?” he demanded.

“Estimated police response time 3-5 minutes.”

Too slow. Making an emergency call would give him away even sooner. Too many people with police scanners around here. He’d have to take his chances on his own. He took the last few blocks about as fast as he dared and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary up ahead as he got onto the elevated road. Twenty minutes. He pressed on, then breathed a sigh of relief as he finally crossed onto the Williamsburg Bridge.

At that moment, an angry group of protesters stormed Julian’s office, with security hot on their tail. They found papers scattered on the floor, the coffee still warm, and a single, hand-scribbled note posted on the computer screen: “I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened. I’m leaving until cooler heads prevail.”

They were disappointed, but not surprised. Before security grabbed them, one of them texted a picture of the note down to the street where the de facto leaders took action. At a word, predictive behavioral AIs guessed where Julian had gone, computed his most likely route, and diverted that part of the protesters’ own extensive camera network to the sole task of finding his car. They soon spotted it and notified anyone in Queens who would listen to try to head him off.

But Julian’s car was keeping close tabs on its surroundings. Within moments, Jane said, “Incognito has failed. You are being tracked by private cameras.”

Since he was already on the Expressway, he wasn’t too concerned. “Noted,” Julian replied. “Call the police. Tell them I’m worried about security at the airport. Resume radio scan.”

“Yes sir.”

“…more police on the scene trying to control the crowds, which have moved back toward the New York Stock Exchange. The protesters have taken to social media and are alleging that a mutual fund manager named Julian Bennett somehow managed to move roughly one trillion dollars into his fund—that’s about 5% of the entire market—despite failsafes in place to prevent it. We cannot confirm this, yet, but we can confirm that a large amount of money did change hands…”

“…protesters are putting up a reward for Bennett’s capture, soliciting donated funds to pay for it, which are already rolling in…”

“Next.”

“…claims by anonymous millionaires and even billionaires that their portfolios were wiped out…”

But does anyone actually know what happened? Julian continued down the Expressway. He passed a few people shouting on the roadside, but no attempted roadblocks. He knew that they would be tracking down and publishing the names of everybody with money in his fund by now, but he still had his own family to worry about. For now, no news was good news on that front, since the AI in Nikki’s car would inform him if something went wrong, but there were other dangers…

His car stalled. Every display went dark, the electric motor stopped, and the small gasoline engine tripped its emergency interlock. He recognized the symptoms, even if he had never seen them in person before: he’d been zapped by an EMP generator. The things were very illegal, but all too easy to build in one’s garage. Still coasting down the road at 50 miles an hour, he turned the key in the ignition. Everything restarted. It was a good thing he had sprung for the extra Faraday shielding.

“Jane, are you still with me?” Julian asked.

“Yes, sir. No damage to the car recorded. I’ll report the attack to the police. Resuming radio scan.”

By now, the newscasters were starting to repeat themselves. Things weren’t quite changing minute-by-minute anymore, and there wasn’t much new information coming in. Julian wasn’t interested in how many people had been beaten or arrested or put in stocks or whatever—on either side of the melee—but now and then, he still heard something interesting.

“…sources inside the Stock Exchange say that regulators are trying to untangle the flood of trades that went through just before the shutdown. They’re saying it’s way beyond anything they’ve ever seen…”

Actually, he was surprised it was taking this long. The computers could usually piece things together pretty quick these days. Things must have been really tangled.

“…two investors in Julian Bennett’s fund are confirming that a huge amount of money went into their portfolios, and now other stock funds are reporting wild fluctuations—some gaining hundreds of times their value and others going flat broke…”

So it wasnt just me, Julian realized. The whole market blew up. He immediately deduced that he must have been the biggest “winner”, but somehow, it helped to know that there were other people in the same boat.

“…some of our experts have been looking at the situation and concluded that a lot of the flash trades—”

“Call for you from OnStar, sir,” Jane interrupted.

“OnStar?” Of course, the protesters. “Answer it—wait, confirm ID.”

A pause. “ID confirmed by redial.”

“Good, put it on.”

“Hello, Mr. Bennett, this is OnStar. We received a report that your car was stolen. Is this correct?”

“No, it’s not,” Julian said. “I am driving my car, and there is no one with me.” Which they ought to be able to tell by scanning the data link. “Password: ‘scintillation’.”

“I understand, Mr. Bennett. The false report has been recorded.”

“Thank you.” Julian allowed himself a smile. Most people didn’t take the time to set up situational passwords, let alone remember them. Youll have to do better than that.

They did. Barely a minute later, three cars with flashing lights and sirens came up behind him, weaving through traffic and trying their best to hem him in.

“Jane, ID on those cars?” he asked, even as he pushed harder on the gas.

“They’re not registered to any law enforcement agency. I’m alerting the police. Estimated response time 2-4 minutes.”

“Not good. Oh God.” Julian floored the accelerator. The cars in front of him would barely make way. The collision alarm started beeping non-stop.

“Oh God oh God oh God!”

The fake police cars weren’t as committed to safety as real ones. Even at top speed, they were still trying to get alongside him, and he had no computer programs for helping him navigate traffic at over 90 miles an hour while being chased by fake cops. It felt like a lot longer than 4 minutes later when half a dozen more cars with lights and sirens, these with “NYPD” painted on their sides, raced onto the highway. The drivers of the fake police cars read the writing on the wall and broke off their chase.

Julian couldn’t remember the last time he had blinked. How do those high-speed chase people in California do that?

The protesters didn’t bother him much after that. They seemed to have run out of ideas, and none of the inevitable threatening calls had slipped past the phone company’s servers, so he turned back to the raw speculation coming from the radio: “…most of the trades were made by funds running different experimental versions of the AI trading program, Midas.”

“Jane, hold this station.”

“The implication being that the programs were trading with each other, which is nothing new, of course, but it’s starting to look like these Midas programs circumvented the circuit breakers somehow…”

No! Midas isnt that smartis it? The thought so unnerved him that he almost missed Jane’s notification.

“Sir?” she repeated. He glanced at the infrared camera next to the GPS screen, where Jane’s eye trackers could see it. “Call from your wife, ID confirmed.”

“Answer it.”

“Julian?” Nikki said. “I’m at the airport with the kids. Where are you?”

“I’m fine, honey, I’m…” Julian double-checked the GPS. “I’m almost there. I’ll see you soon. Jane, what’s the status on security?”

“Police are patrolling the perimeter. No problems have been reported in the airport. I took the liberty of requesting valet parking and an escort from LaGuardia’s security company. They will meet you at the door.”

“Good thinking, Jane.” Thank God for behavioral prediction software.

As Julian drove up to the airport parking lot, he saw the police line. They weren’t stopping most of the cars, but he could tell they were checking all the passengers with facial recognition. Just what list they were checking the faces against was anyone’s guess. The line ground to a halt as they caught one car that wasn’t supposed to be there and, after a heated exchange, sent it away. Julian turned his face away from that car as it drove past. Soon after, the police waved him through. If his identity meant anything to them, they didn’t show it.

As promised, the privatized security guards met him at the entrance to the airport. A valet took his car off to a private lot where it had a decent chance of not getting destroyed, and he was escorted inside.

The whole security company seemed to have been called up, and there were plenty of police, besides. It was a good thing, too, because Julian saw quite a few suspicious-looking characters milling around the check-in area, trying to look like they were supposed to be there and failing. He tried to keep his head down and peer around for Nikki and the kids at the same time. He didn’t see them and hoped they had already gotten through security. A television on the wall had his name up on the screen, but thankfully not his picture. He had just made it through the expedited check-in line and gotten his boarding pass when—

“Bennett!”

Julian turned to see several dozen angry protesters running up from the baggage claim. Of course, less security there. All it had taken was a mole hanging around the check-in counter to tell them when he had gotten there. Security and police held them back while Julian’s escorts rushed him to the security line. He was allowed to skip even the expedited line and go straight into the body scanner, to the annoyance of the ordinary very important people.

He was through, and for the first time since leaving his office, he stopped to rest. With his escorts, he would be pretty safe inside the terminal. No major airport would let a little thing like an angry mob compromise its security in this day and age. He walked down toward his gate, where he finally saw Nikki and the kids.

“Julian!”

“Daddy!”

They ran over to him as he waved his escorts back. Nikki grabbed him tight and kissed him. “Thank God you’re alright,” she said. “They’re saying the most awful things—did they try anything on the way over?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Julian said, putting on a brave face.

“Do you know what happened?”

“No, you know as much as I do. I went to get coffee, and the next time I looked, bam! A trillion dollars shows up out of nowhere.”

“But that fancy new trading program of yours? Midas?”

“Yes, I got some custom bells and whistles for it, but it shouldn’t have been able to do this. The market shouldn’t have let it.”

“But then how…?”

“I don’t know. We’ll have to wait for them to sort things out at the Stock Exchange.”

Now that he finally had time to rest for a little while, Julian checked the news again. The Stock Exchange was locked down, along with most of Lower Manhattan, and the Mayor had declared martial law in all but name. There were marches up and down several designated streets and chaos on several others. The regulators were still investigating.

In the meantime, he sent another email to his clients: “Don’t do anything until they figure out whether the money is legally yours. After that, don’t do anything until you talk to a tax lawyer. After that, don’t do anything until you know what Congress is going to do. Actually, the safest thing is probably to send it all to ‘Gifts to the US Government’, but you’ll have to make your own call.” He hoped that was enough to save his clients from complete disaster. Now, he just had to wait.

About half an hour after takeoff, a headline came in over the plane’s Wi-Fi: “Robot Apocalypse: Stock Crash Caused by Programming Error.” Julian read a few lines, and it all fell into place.

“Nikki…Nikki, look at this.” He began reading: “A note left by three programmers at the New York Stock Exchange reveals that today’s overload of trading was triggered by a single programming error in an update of the ‘circuit breaker’ program intended to stop sudden market shifts. Specifically, the part of the code that monitors trading volume, not prices, was turned off for testing and not turned back on. When the code updated, many high-frequency trading programs noticed the change and took advantage of it, most notably variants of the experimental Midas program.”

The rest was obvious. Julian’s custom version of Midas must have been the smartest AI on the market—maybe in the world—and designed for the sole purpose of making as much money as possible. When it saw the rules change, it pounced, taking advantage of signal delays, buying stocks and reselling them in the same millisecond on different servers. Even at a penny’s gain per trade, it could have doubled Julian’s mutual fund in a blink, added zeros in seconds—and it was all perfectly legal.

He skimmed the rest of the article: “After 16.4 seconds, a human shut down the exchange manually…attempts to contact the programmers involved returned a message that they had been picked up by Federal Witness Protection…”

There was also a partial list of the winners and losers in the incident. Of course, his name was at the top of the “winners” list. Ironically, he saw that most people only lost 1%-2% in the deal. Probably, their trading programs had gotten confused when they started losing money and stopped trading. In other words, they were too dumb to fool. Instead, it was the rich—people with smarter programs that tried to keep up, but couldn’t—who lost big. Oh, and the pension funds—a lot of pension funds. Of course, once trading started again, the markets would drop by about 20% anyway, so it didn’t much matter. Everyone would lose out then.

“So now what do we do?” Nikki asked.

Julian shrugged. “I don’t know. We’ve got about $10 billion, and we’ll probably have to give at least $9.99 billion of that away if we ever want to show our faces in America again. But I think we should try to wait it out for a while to see how the government and the market handle it.”

“Yeah, I suppose so.”

Julian and Nikki tried to relax for the rest of their flight, glad to have escaped the chaos in New York. Unfortunately, in his rush to get out, Julian had forgotten to actually turn Midas off. Unbeknownst to him, the world’s smartest trading program was still hard at work, and at that moment was just finding its way onto the derivatives markets.

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