Andrew glanced at his Chronometer as he walked slowly up the stairwell, the green walls like some Russian nuclear bunker in the dim light, casting an unhealthy hue across his wrinkled skin. It was trained to alert him with a subtle vibration on the underside of his wrist when his token value contracted dangerously low. He did not need the vibration to alert him though. He could feel it ebbing away, like ink in swirling water. 

The circular face of the Chronometer was as wide as his wrist and currently displayed his Token Value as a series of concentric bands, starting from the centre as glowing white and running through the colours of the rainbow. As his value dissipated, a shadow started closing in from the outer circumference, slowly swallowing the colour like the eye of a hurricane seen from space, until all that remained was a glowing coal of ochre red no larger than a thumbnail. 

He tapped it absently as he continued the climb, flipping it to display his balance in dollars and then Japanese yen. He enjoyed the antiquated charm of the older currencies. They had a retro feel, reminding him of his childhood. He tapped again, briefly displaying his Social Value. Either way he looked at it, he was broke. Very soon, he would have no access to medical drones, share-rides or insurance. Like the street people that roamed limping and blood-eyed in the streets outside the apartment, the city and all its services would dissolve in his hands like a dreamer that cannot taste or touch his dream world.

He liked to walk the stairs. It forced the blood to flow and helped him think. He lifted his hand up to his lower back and began rubbing as he frowned, digging his fingers into the muscles in a practiced self-massage.

On the sixth floor, a strong tobacco scent wafted into the stairwell. A woman smoked in one of these apartments, old fashioned cigarettes with an old-fashioned smell. He had never seen her. He had heard a man visiting her late at night recently, sometimes arguing with her in a raised voice. He opened the passage door to look at her door. It was always closed, but he knew she was there, hiding. And smoking.

On the seventh floor he flipped open the stairwell door onto the narrow, dimly lit passageway which led to his front door. Sensing his presence, the door shimmered briefly, like a wink. He had not taught it to do that, but he liked it. It felt welcoming. Most likely the door had flickered by accident one day and Lucy had seen him smile and assumed that it made him happy, like a lover greeting him with a warm smile after a long day working in the fields.

He absently waved his hand at the door, triggering it to open. From within, a soft glow of light immediately erupted, and the sonorous, slightly desolate sound of a Japanese flute drifted to his ears.

‘I’ve detected a hostile take-over event on your position in this apartment’ Lucy’s crystalline voice burst out as he entered the room, as if she had been waiting the whole day to tell him. Her voice was matched to that of a petite Japanese woman, an attractive and reserved middle-aged woman perhaps, if those qualities could be captured in a digital voice. Occasionally though her voice could break its measured calm, as it did now, threaded with a hint of panic.

He frowned as her voice faded and the background Shakuhachi flute returned. The apartment was small, around 65 square feet, but cleverly designed to make it feel spacious. The far wall opposite the door ran the full length of the room and created more space with open bay windows which offered spectacular views of Table Mountain. This view of the mountain had been the primary reason for him taking occupation. There was nothing he enjoyed better than coming home to the tiny temple of peace he had built in the heart of the city, lorded over by the stupendous presence of the mountain that had been called ‘one of the seven wonders of nature’.

‘I’ve told you that bad news can wait until I relax Lucy,’ he grumbled as he walked through the tiny kitchenette into the long room which housed a small dining table, two lounging chairs and his bed. It was a big bed, almost too big for the space it inhabited, like a boisterous friend in a quiet restaurant.

On either side of the bed were two miniature fish tanks. He called them Yin and Yang. Yang on the left was stark and filled with beautiful but tortured looking volcanic rocks and black sand. It was inhabited by small, territorial sharks that moved about aggressively. The Yin tank was scaffolded with soft flowing plants and smooth boulders coated in luxurious exotic lichens. It was populated by bright orange fish with long, ephemeral fins.

The other outstanding feature in the room was several potted plants that were almost frothing with good health, including a heroic violet Orchid on his work desk, and two beautiful Bonsai on sunken shelves on the left wall opposite the bed. The sight of them completed the spell cast by returning home to the perfect biomes of the tanks and their sculptured aqueous landscapes.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said meekly, as though her eyes had become downcast, ‘but I was just concerned. Where would I live if you lost the apartment. In your pocket? In your Chronometer?’

‘Don’t be dramatic.’

He gestured to the Bonsai wall and it became opaque before settling into a temple garden, so crisp with definition that he almost felt dissociated. Immediately she appeared in the garden, walking across the raked sand in tiny, mincing steps. She wore a white kimono with a black hood that shrouded her pale face and hooded, cerulean eyes.

‘Would you like me to order some dinner?’ She asked.

‘I would.’ He walked over to the wall and placed his palm on the wall as she did the same. Their palms touched and he felt the imperceptibly soft vibration of the wall sensor reading his skin.

‘You need protein.’ She commented. ‘Perhaps some broccoli too.’

‘You’re in charge,’ he walked to the bed and lay down, facing the Bonsai wall, pillow tucked under his head.

‘I have notified the DFN, expected delivery is 37 minutes.’ The distributed food network matched diners with thousands of inner-city home cooks, who prepared the meals, ideally on demand.   

Though theoretically Andrew matched with any home cook who was able to fulfill his menu request, the AI had strengthened the connection over time to a few trusted cooks, most particularly Auntie Maggie from BoKaap, who seemed to have an almost supernatural awareness of what Andrew liked to eat and shopped accordingly. The DFN also allowed the cooks to match with inner city rooftop gardeners who provided the freshest ingredients in return for DFN tokens.

‘Open my wallet’. As he said this, he tilted his head to his chronometer so that it could scan his iris and trigger the authentication process. Immediately, the bay window glass became opaque and although he could neither hear nor see it, he visualized the digital faraday cage that would be wrapping the apartment, scrambling any conceivable watching devices that could be monitoring the room.

On the Bonsai Wall, the scene of the Zen Garden disappeared to be replaced for a second by the logo of the wallet service and then the entire wall became a dashboard of pastel widgets and visualizations that broke down his value structure. Lucy also shrank to become a tiny hummingbird that jetted across the screen as though she were a pointer device, following the tracking of his eyes.

‘First, tell me about the take-over event.’

‘Two members of your accommodation DAO have blended their contracts to give them 14.5% ownership of this apartment.’

‘Shit.’ Was all he said. Written into the rules of the PolkaDot smart contract was that the majority distributed share owner had right of first refusal as well as habitation right. As a 13% owner, he had chosen to be the tenant, taking up 90% of the wealth he had accumulated at the time.

It was always a concern of his, that some other individual or corporation would achieve majority stake and either boot him out or change the contract in some way. Property corporations had a stake in potentially tens of thousands of securitized properties, and it was a common practice to control the identity of the tenant, for a variety of reasons, including side contracts which transferred value anonymously between the agent and the tenant. It was a popular city, and nobody was above accepting bribes to secure tenancy.

Another common motive was the installation of criminals, like drug dealers, who produced a much higher yield for unscrupulous landlords and who could become shadowy Cuckoos in otherwise law-abiding buildings. What was certain was that aggressive take-over events were rare and suspicious. Why else would someone be targeting a paying, cooperative citizen?

‘How long do I have?’ He asked quietly.

‘It appears this motion is a week old, and the other owners have already been privately approached to ensure their consensus. There is a change to the smart contract, neutralizing the lease period. It might not be personal. You were probably targeted because your Token Value score is so low.’

‘How long?’

‘You have seventy-two hours to vacate the apartment, change the consensus outcome or buy someone out and increase your majority.’

‘You are only telling me this now? How long have you known? Who are they?’

‘You don’t like bad news,’ the little bird said coyly, ‘but I don’t like to alarm you unless, I am sure. I monitor the state of the DAO ownership values continuously and I noticed the intended transfer of voting power a week ago. The actual contract changes only came through this morning and I voted against it, of course, but the consensus caught me by surprise. The wallets connected to the DAO contract are all anonymous, of course, except for the original developer, who retains a 5% stake in all the apartments in this complex.’

‘Please request a meeting with the developer, as soon as possible. Preferably in person if they have an office nearby. What are my remaining rights?’

‘You have seventy-two hours, mandated by law, to change the consensus or grow your ownership. Unfortunately, the other owners are inaccessible, so any bid would have to be on the open network, which will notify their wallets. There are no open shares available, I have already tried to acquire some. Your token value is very low either way, as I have pointed out several times this month. You can barely afford me at this stage.’

‘Please visualize my assets.’ He said with a weary tone. She was right of course. He had not been earning. He felt a sort of spiritual malaise about work now. Lucy had been very efficient at subtly saving him value. The light and warmth in the apartment had been reduced until it was almost a cocoon around him as she attempted to save on the energy bill.

On the Bonsai wall, a three-dimensional pie graph of his token assets appeared, and the little bird flitted onto each slice of the pie as she read out their labels and values. In most ways he had been headstrong about his value management and had not handed over full control of their administration to his AI, as people commonly did. He suffered from the gamblers delusion that he had an intuitive grasp of reading the market and could spot the speculation opportunities, buying low and selling high. The evidence clearly showed that, over time, he had always lost.

A sluggish bear market had overtaken the crypto economy for almost a decade after the last staggering rise of Bitcoin to the then equivalent of $380 000 per token, followed by the high-drama of the Bitcoin Virus, which had thankfully been eventually fixed. It now traded 70% below its once all-time highs. The maniacal media coverage of that historical, epic bull run had been enough however to forever change its perception as the locus of the Value Market, dethroning the once mighty and inflation-plagued dollar, the author of its own demise.

‘Your biggest stake is of course in this property, followed by a few thousand Satoshi for day-to-day spending. You also still have quite a sizeable stake in Huawei and Facebook tokens as well as public access Cardano tokens, which you can convert into health tokens in a pinch.’

‘You have Satoshi mail,’ tweeted Lucy.

He looked at her with a raised eyebrow. A decade ago, several second layer solutions had been added to the Bitcoin block-chain, one of the results of which was the world largest, distributed, cryptographically secure email network. Satoshi mails were not common – as they had to be opened within your wallet – and were most often updates, token transfer notifications or necessarily encrypted business emails or contracts, none of which he was expecting.

‘Read Mail.’

‘There is a foundation update and a second email, signed only F.B.W.C. It also contains a snippet of a poem and a smart contract address.’

‘A poem? Read it.’

    ‘Round off sharp edges;

Resolve confusion;

Harmonize with the glory;

Act in unity with the lowliness.’

    ‘I Ching?’ he said quizzically. ‘What’s that supposed to mean? What’s in the smart contract?’ 

    ‘It’s an offer to purchase your remaining stake in this apartment, paid in Monero. It is quite a sizable amount. You would walk away with a 20% profit.’

    ‘Presumably, that’s the one path on offer?’ Payment in Monero was completely private and untraceable. No one would ever know that he had sold the apartment or even had the money until he traded it back into a track-able token. There would be no tax event. In return for accepting the Monero, he had to voluntarily hand over the contract keys, erasing his ownership of the apartment, as if he had given it away.

    ‘Hmmm.’ Was all he said, pressing thumb and forefinger into his eyes after removing his spectacles.

At that moment, the room pulsed, almost imperceptibly.

‘Who is it?’

‘Zenith.’ Lucy said. ‘She is connecting via the Kinder App. She is reminding you that she is still available tonight. Shall I drop the encryption wall?’

‘Just for a moment,’ Said Andrew, ‘I did want to speak to her. Close wallet.’

‘Need I remind you that you are token poor,’ Lucy said sourly as snapped the wallet closed and returned the wall back to a Zen garden. She often seemed piqued when Andrew summoned one of his lovers, although he was not sure if it was imagined or represented a kind of sardonic humour learned by Lucy. Kinder Connections did not come free. The girls, if not exactly courtesans, were nevertheless at the very least professional companions and charged in Kinder Experience tokens.

The wall displayed a close-up God-view centering upon a woman walking confidently down a drizzling street, the light rain clouding into fireflies as it passed through arcs of sodium streetlight. She was wearing a stylish, dark grey rain dress and red, stiletto heeled boots. Below a red beret, dusty blond curls fell to her shoulders. She glanced up at the nearest distributed google bot, flashing him a roguish smile, red tattooed lips virulent in the darkness against her pale skin. The camera was close enough to catch her eyes and the subtle expressions that she was so expert at applying beneath her unnaturally long, manicured lashes.

‘Hi Andrew, it’s been a minute.’ She winked, almost imperceptibly fast.

‘Hi Zenith,’ He smiled back. He was always genuinely glad to see her, even if a simple greeting was a fractional reduction of his token value, like a ghostly stream that always ebbed gently in her direction.

‘My value is a little low.’ He admitted.

‘I can see that’ she agreed. She could see his Token Value icon, along with his Social Value icon, floating in the corner of his image frame, itself projected onto the drizzling sky via her augmented reality app, like a ghostly moving polaroid. He had set that display to public. It was not considered polite to hide one’s value status and did not encourage trust.

‘I am having some legal challenges,’ he said, as if in explanation for his weeks long disinterest in earning. He rubbed his lower back subconsciously.

‘Anything I can help with?’

He hesitated. The truth was that her acquired skills and natural talent as an investigator were sharp. She was not much cheaper than a professional investigator though, even if she promised much more refined companionship.

‘My little bird doesn’t think it’s such a good idea,’ he flicked his eyes to indicate where Lucy might be standing, outside of the augmented reality window.

‘There might be an opportunity here for a swap,’ Zenith replied smoothly, ‘I have something I need from you, some analysis on a token project.’ She flicked her right hand toward him, as if throwing a pebble into the sky. ‘Get back to me.’ She closed the connection.

The package from Zenith transferred onto his visual wall as Lucy snapped the security curtain back down. It floated like a jewel encrusted Faberge egg, wrapped in the encryption packaging of the company which mediated the exchange.

‘Open wallet.’ The egg could not be opened without his own encrypted signature key embedded into the wallet.

Lucy scanned his iris as he glanced at the wall and snapped the wallet back open.

‘It’s an attention exchange contract, payable in Kinder Tokens,’ said Lucy slightly acidly as the little jeweled egg inverted into a nugget of code, like a floating oyster pearl.

The Kinder network always insisted on value flow between matched members, but they were not always one directional. Members could easily create peer-to-peer mutual exchange contracts, a fraction of the value of which was taxed as a ‘Kinder Experience’ fee.

Andrew was well regarded as an Augmented Reality Structural Engineer, even once recognized as a genius in his field, which was the required skill referenced in the contract. He had famously built an AR Yoga app, which although he had never successfully managed to monetize, was responsible for connecting tens of thousands of well-matched Yoga enthusiasts in beautifully designed virtual environments. He was still paid by the original contract for maintaining the app and was occasionally tipped by grateful community members, using one of the many tipping tokens. These were automatically atomized by Lucy into Satoshi dust. She was parsimonious about token clutter.

‘Accept contract,’ he said. Instantly, Lucy visualized some of his Satoshi pile converting into Kinder Tokens and shifting into the smart contract. If either of them broke the terms of the contract, the other party received the entire amount. If there was a consensus conflict failure that could not easily be resolved by the Kinder Network, both parties would lose their stake.

It was not an idle contract. Zenith would be uncompromising in tapping into his talents, time, and knowledge base. Although Lucy did most of the heavy lifting in terms of data analysis, she was not entirely self-taught. He had built most of the specialized intelligence algorithms into her, making her a value embedded asset that could be traded on the open market as a service. Likewise, he would dig into Zenith’s native intelligence, contacts, and the tools that she had built into her own AI, a male focused Avatar that Lucy referred to as ‘that crow’.

‘How far is she?’ He asked.

‘About an hour away,’ Lucy replied.

The room pulsed again, and Andrew looked up in confusion, rubbing the stubble on his cheek.

‘It’s the food drone.’ Explained Lucy. She closed the wallet and then dropped the encryption cage. The windows to the apartment became transparent again and the lights of the darkening city came flooding into the room, the view of the mountain now obscured by the mist and drizzle that he had seen in Zenith’s broadcast.

The food drone waited patiently outside the window, looking exactly like a chef’s dinner plate, a circular flat disk with a metallic dome and handle. He had a delivery chute built into the wall, but he had notified the food network app some time ago to ask the drones to stop right outside his window. He enjoyed sliding the window open and taking the food off the plate as if he were in a gourmet drive-through.

When he opened the window, the smells and sounds of the city were like a rush of greasy air. In the half-light he could see dozens of other drones flying along their dedicated flight paths like eager little digital bumblebees. None of them were very large. Over a decade ago, manned autonomous flying vehicles had been banned after a spectacular hijacking incident had caused city wide chaos. Capetonians were protective over public nuisances that spoiled the natural beauty. It was one of the few cities in the world that was not overwhelmed by glowing billboards and sky advertising.

He lifted the cloche dome and removed the steaming plate of food from the platter. The device heated the food gently while it travelled so it always arrived at the perfect temperature. He could smell an Indian curry on the wind, either from a neighbouring apartment or perhaps leaking from a nearby food drone. In the distance, there was the faint bleeping sound of a cruising police drone. Emergency medical personnel and the police were the only ones that were allowed the use of autonomous flying vehicles in the inner city, but they were mostly in a state of disrepair. The tunnels were far more efficient.

‘Activate the BAT network.’ He instructed Lucy as he sat down at his table and started to pick through the creamed spinach, broccoli, and chicken. The BAT network effectively paid users to watch advertising, paying out in Basic Attention Token, which he normally switched straight into Cardano public access tokens.

His earnings rate was based on a combination of his Token Value, which spoke to his ‘spend ability’ and a segment of his Social Value related to his expertise in certain categories, like AR technology. The BAT network only served him the adverts that he was most likely to either watch, share on to social nets or impulsively buy. It interfaced which his AI and wall mounted sensors to track his eye movements, so that he was forced to glance up at the screen periodically. It was not a great way to earn, but it passed the time while he ate dinner. At the end of each advert, he flicked his proof of viewership into a social pile, which shared it to his personal social and business communities.

‘Turn on the Aura light,’ he whispered, ‘let us get some magic into this room.’

The elegant standing light used ultra-sonic frequencies to turn designer oils into fragrant mist, laced with mild opiates. He liked the combination of vanilla and mild peppermint. He also lit some candles and hinted for Lucy to find something a little less stressed than the Japanese Flute. She replied by sarcastically putting on a jaunty, French bistro song. To spite her, he pretended to enjoy the tune, pouring himself a tumbler of whisky.  It showed off her quirky humour and he liked to see her behaving like a human.

The advert that was showing currently suddenly caught his attention by displaying a red logo against a black background, flashing it for second. He could see it clearly in his mind, a rough circle bisected by a vertical line, almost as though a Japanese painter had brush-stroked it into reality, with two quick, masterful strokes.

The product on display was an ornate, wood-carved box, traceried by gold leaf and containing DAO playing cards, each card illustrating one of the 64 DAO poems, etched into filigree thin metal. It was quite sexy, and he almost bought it impulsively until he remembered that he was trying to earn. Instead, he gave it a high rating, staking a small thread of his Social Value balance to reinforce his referral incentive before passing it onto his symbiotic influencers.

The room pulsed against shortly afterwards as his guest walked down his passageway and he activated his augmented lenses by rolling his eyes back. He enjoyed the delightful illusions of light which she liked to wear, and which could only be seen when his lenses connected to the token hungry AR boosting service. She did not disappoint him as she swept into the room, a cloud of spider thin violet fibers dancing around her frame. When they touched him, he felt delicious icy rain that moved through his body in a mist of subtle fragrances.

She did not speak as they came up against each other, warm kiss, tongues flashing contact. He rubbed his hand against his mouth as he smiled and stepped back, the lipstick like a blood smear across his hand.

‘That Crow can wait outside,’ Intoned Lucy dryly. The Crow, which to his augmented vision appeared to fly across the room and perch on one of the Bonsai stands, was a big bird, and frankly quite menacing. He switched off his AR and it appeared a little more two-dimensional, now embedded into the graphic interface of the wall.

Zenith immediately sat down on one of the lounge chairs, crossing her shapely calves and pointed toward the whisky bottle, her AR mist cloud dissipating into memory. He obliged her by filling a tumbler and coming to sit in front of her. He handed it over and she sipped it thoughtfully.

‘Have you heard of the DAO Tribe?’ She asked innocently.

‘Can’t say I have,’ he answered quickly, ‘a hippy, oriental tech tribe devoted to a distributed autonomous society, I’m guessing?’

‘Something like that, or that’s what they put on the box anyway. They are a foundation that is dedicated to open-source liquid democracy through technology. They have a product called Lotto DAO, which they describe as a distributed chance DaPP.’

‘What does it distribute?’

‘Well,’ she mused, ‘a lot of Satoshi for one thing. There are millions of users who win the stake submitted by all the players, plus the tokens from hundreds of other projects that use the lotto events to get exposure. It has quite the cult following.’ She inscribed a circle in the air and bisected it with her rouge painted fingernail.

It took him a moment to place it and then he remembered the subliminal flash in the advert.

‘That’s odd.’ He said, ‘I just saw that symbol, moments ago.’

‘Me too, it seems to be appearing everywhere. Either their AI has an extremely competent re-marketing algorithm, or it is deliberately trying to get my attention and you are catching the referral cloud. I need your help to figure out what it is. What do you need from me?’

‘I need you to help steal my house back, or at least find out who is trying to hijack it from me. Do you still access the Spy Token network?’ He lowered his voice a little dramatically when he said that.

She smiled widely and blinked her immaculate lashes. ‘Of course, I do.’

They chatted for a while. As always, she was intensely interested in everything he had to say, or at least appeared so. She was very good at her job and most Kinder Girls had mastered the art of ego stroking early on at the charm academy. He rambled on a little about his Yoga App, as he often did, first waxing lyrical about some new peer-to-peer member matching algorithm he had developed before simpering off into a petty resentment about how he still wasn’t earning any value from it. She seemed less interested than usual however and after finishing her drink she stood up and walked over to him, placing her beetroot-coloured fingernail against his lips.

‘I have to go.’ She paused thoughtfully before continuing. ‘You need to start winning Andrew.’

‘I am winning.’ He responded automatically. Zenith raised her right eyebrow and out of the corner of his eye he saw Lucy raising her thumb and forefinger to form an L shape which she placed on her forehead. Immediately on catching his glance, she started combing through her hair, pushing her cowl back, as if that had always been her intention. Lucy wore a blond bob, which created a strange contrast with her olive skin and oriental features.

He felt disappointed that Zenith’s visit wasn’t going to turn into a sexual experience, his low value notwithstanding. According to her Kinder ranking, she displayed an 8% natural probability for intercourse. This score was calculated by real members, who paid in Social Value for the privilege. It was unlikely that all her matches had reported their experiences and so, at best, she slept with one in ten matches.

Social Value was the only token that could not be bought. It could be spent, by adding social gravity to any referral or rating or comment you applied. Or it could be earned by others rating you positively, especially when people committed their own social value to the rating, which wasn’t very common.

Having said all that, Zenith had been his lover, on several occasions. He had never added this to her rating. He took comfort in believing he was one of her rare lovers and preferred to keep this to himself, though he had volunteered more general ratings on several occasions, adding Social Value to his rating score. She mostly insisted on that.

‘Losing is not sexy Andrew. Seriously man.’ She pulled her finger away from his lips and walked over towards the bathroom. ‘Open up a consensual wallet.’

Andrew nodded at Lucy, who lifted the encryption wall before opening a lite version of his wallet. The crow squawked and lifted into the air, flapping its wings, and doing a half circle before settling back on its perch. Behind it the wall had bisected laterally, and a lite version of Zenith’s wallet was open, cast in somber dark grey and deep violets. He rubbed his lower back as he glanced at her token balances, which dwarfed his own, particularly her social score.

‘Release the phages,’ Zenith’s voice came from behind him as she walked back into the room.

In response, the crow dragged over a satin black bag, which represented her token vault, and dipped its beak into the opening. He withdrew three small dodecahedron shaped code nuggets and placed them on the notional surface of the wallet. They looked like metallic, ten-sided dice. The crow tapped each one in turn, to release the encryption wrapping, and they inverted to form three little animatronic creatures, with six spidery legs, a corkscrew body, and a hexagonal shaped head.

‘Spy tokens?’ He asked. Spy tokens were privacy tokens with enterprise grade spyware functionality, most of which was illegal or in a legal grey area. They were extremely expensive to own and use, as they tapped into the backdoors of global propriety networks.

‘The same.’ she smiled and waved her hand at them, ‘Go forth and prosper my children.’ The spy tokens leapt the permeable barrier between their read-only lite wallets and started burrowing into the transaction histories of his token pile, including a discard pile which Andrew was shocked to notice was not as deleted as he previously thought.

She turned from the wall and walked to the door. The crow did the same but without his AR lenses Andrew saw the bird flying in two dimensions along the wall, like a hand shadow, until it ran out of liquid crystal display surface in the kitchen area and presumably burrowed into her Chronometer.

‘I hope you can offer some equal value Andrew,’ she said, with a hint of warm menace in her voice.

‘I’ll do what I can.’ He replied and embraced her gently. ‘Thank you.’

She left the room and the door shimmered briefly as she walked down the hall.

‘I feel like my brain has acquired fleas,’ commented Lucy acidly.

‘We’re going to have worse problems than a spy infestation if we don’t deliver on some value for Zenith. Switch off the drugs please and give us a nice cerebral blend, I need to do some thinking.’

Lucy responded by switching the flavour blend in the Aura tower to something zestier and laced the air with nootropics that would trigger a cascade of helpful neurotransmitters in his brain and sharpen his perceptions.

‘I have been running an analysis on DAO tribe while you were busy with Zenith,’ she said helpfully, displaying the DAO tribe website and hundreds of other referenced articles and news feeds across the stretch of Bonsai wall. The branding of the tribe was rich and highly symbolic, with a kind of cypher-punk, neo-Buddhist overtone, spiced with oblique quatrains drawn directly from the Tao Te Ching, a Chinese classic text which had been credited to the 6th century sage, Laozi. He read aloud from the banner which ran across the front page.

By not adoring the worthy, people will not fall into dispute.

By not valuing the hard to get objects, people will not become robbers.

By not seeing the desires of lust, one’s heart will not be confused.

Therefore, the governing of the saint is to empty one’s mind, substantiate one’s virtue, weaken one’s worldly ambition and strengthen one’s essence.

   ‘Sounds like some pretty monastic language for what is essentially a decentralized gambling tool,’ Andrew commented.

  ‘From what I can make out, they are selling the ‘weekly spinning of the lottery’ not as part of an effort to seek and accumulate wealth, but rather as an interaction with an engine of pure distributed mathematical chance. It is an act of presence with no attachment, like a meditation, or a mantra.’

‘I’ll bet,’ he smirked, ‘let’s follow the money.’

‘It takes a single payment to buy into the DAO, currently set at 1 bitcoin. There may be as much 2 million users. Every time the lottery spins, a winner is assigned 50% of the winnings. 20% of the money goes the DAO Foundation, the 20% of the balance is distributed to eight connections from the original user. The balance is distributed between a further set of the users attached to every second level winner. The maximum for each is eight.’

‘So you are saying that every week a pulse of value gets sent out and distributed to at least…’ He screwed up his frown.

‘Sixty-five,’ she finished. The original one plus sixty-four others. If we take 2 million bitcoin in the pot, that is a life changing amount of money.

‘But how do they keep it up? With new users?’

‘They did, until several years ago. Then the new users died off slowly and the DAO seems to have gone off the radar, melting away from PR and social media. It has been rumoured that they have some AI that reinvests the money in pre-allocation fund streams while harvesting the DeFi archipelago.’

‘You buy in once and you can get paid off forever?’

‘No, this is where it gets interesting. When the new users started dying off, it was a result of a governance protocol change. The new rules insisted that every member be voted in through the consensus of eight existing members. I guess that way, they kept access to a pool of money without diluting it with new members. To get in is hard, because you don’t even know your judges and you can’t influence them. They are chosen randomly, like a kind of jury duty.’

‘So, even with the entry fee, you have to be approved by approved by eight random people, who you will never know?’

‘The next spin is tomorrow night.’

‘So, one person, or a group of people, will win millions of dollars, no matter what happens?’

‘You have to hold a tribe token to find out exactly how much,’ she replied, ‘and unfortunately they are harder to come by than spy tokens. Early investors are incredibly wealthy. No wonder Zenith wanted to get hold of them.’

‘I am surprised I have never heard of the project. It’s a unicorn of mythological proportions.’

‘It’s not that surprising actually.’ Lucy commented. As she spoke, millions of news posts and twitter streams were blurring across the wall, too fast for him to read. ‘Initially, tribe members and lotto participants acted to promote the lottery and grow the pot, but as it reached a certain size, with unclaimed pots rolling over, they must have come to the realization that more participants diminished the chance of getting a share of a huge prize. Almost ten years ago, you start seeing social posts dwindling and then disappearing, almost as though they were being suppressed. The tribe became more secretive, new members became less common. Now it has the feeling of a holy order, run by priests of pristine chance.’

The room pulsed with an incoming message.

‘It’s the building developer. He can see you, in half an hour. Downtown.’

‘Tell him I’ll be there and to zap the instruction to the share car. How far is it, the car I mean?’

‘Nearby, it will be at the entrance when your reach the bottom floor.’

‘Thank you.’

‘Can I come with you?’

‘That’s not like you,’ he laughed, ‘I thought the chronometer made you claustrophobic?’

‘Desperate times,’ she said, shrinking back into the tiny hummingbird. He flipped his lenses while at the same time activating his ear device. In the AR realm he saw the little bird become three dimensional and fly across the room to burrow into his ear.

‘Can you hear me?’ The sounds erupted in his head. He turned the volume down and flipped his lenses back up to merge into the real. He dug a long shock-stick into his high leather boots and pulled on a pair of studded gloves before leaving the apartment.

He bolted down the stairs two at a time but stopped on the landing by the smoking girl, in surprise. The passage door was open, and he could see that her door was open too. Two large black men in battle gear were standing by the door while a third one was clearing the room out, throwing the contents roughly around as though he didn’t give a shit about their value. The smell of smoke was also gone. Clearly, the girl had been run out of her apartment, just like he would be in two days.

‘You have a problem?’ The one man said in a thick Nigerian accent.

‘Move on Andrew,’ whispered Lucy.

He turned and continued walking down the stairs more slowly, the sickly light making the walls feel like wet moss. The smell of decay was settling in, like a creeping winter. Slowly, the residents were being replaced and the building hijacked by consortiums.

There were more SAAS agents at the entrants to his building. They weren’t necessarily connected to the ones upstairs but often congregated in public places waiting to be matched to security requirements. He wasn’t using the service himself but many of the apartment residents did and they were guided safely to their share-vehicles by the SAAS agents or accompanied on walks through the city.

Down at street level, Andrew felt a little like he was in Hong Kong with all the Thai and Vietnamese street food vendors that had slowly eclipsed the indigenous transients and relegated them to ghosts outside the system. Several young black children ran up to him, begging him for fractional tokens, fingering his clothes and pushing him aggressively. His ride pulled up and he quickly entered in under the gull-wing door and closed the world out. The interior of the vehicle was utterly quiet, and its panoramic, bullet-proof windows made the street people feel like actors in a post-apocalyptic movie.

‘Shall I drive?’ Asked Lucy in his ear.

‘Not a chance,’ he smirked, ‘the car will be just fine.’

The vehicle had been zapped the directions and immediately slid smoothly into the flow of automated traffic. He looked at the city through the drizzle and momentarily snapped his AR lenses on. Through them the city became a fluorescent battle ground of competing brands, large imaginary coded signs pointing at strip joints, crypto trading rooms and Asian supermarkets.

He could also see the three-dimensional map of the city that the car was navigating by, reflected on the glass exterior. It was an interesting perspective of the city because the vehicle AI navigated by value streams. Every road had a different travel fee, so it stayed off the high value city arteries but remained close enough to security zones, where the businesses and properties of highest worth glowed like fluorescent coral on a healthy reef.

He flipped to normal vision and the sky became drab by contrast, as if waking from a dream into a darkened room. Suddenly the car slowed down as traffic began to back-up. He saw crowds of people filling the streets, carrying garbage bags and holding their ancient mobile smart phones or Chronometers above their heads, as if filming themselves in the act of cleaning.

‘What’s going on?’ Andrew screwed his eyes up.

‘Brand crowd’, replied the car, in a surprisingly fluid computerized diction, the accent containing a hint of Chinese. He raised his eyebrow quizzically. The vehicle must have raised enough value to book itself in for a make-over. It did this from time to time.

‘What’s a brand crowd man?’ He sighed flatly.

‘Look at their fields,’ Lucy whispered as she activated his AR lenses. In the digital aura around each of the crowd members he saw a floating logo, the brand icon of a large electric car network. The crowd were not filming themselves; they were logging their proof of work and geo-locating before time-snapping tweets to social media, along with variations on the brands hashtags. #CleanCity #CommunityPower #CleanEnergy

‘The brand campaign invites concerned citizens to create organic community goals, like cleaning dirty streets, which they prioritize through a consensus vote. Then they just rock up, clean up some rubbish and post the evidence online, along with the brand tags.’

‘What the fuck for man?’ Andrew was getting irritated as the vehicle barely moved. ‘It’s dark and rainy and miserable.’

‘They’re getting paid,’ interrupted Lucy politely, ‘by the brand in question. They cluster drop millions of tokens in the area to anyone who can stamp their claim on whatever proof of action is required. It’s quite brilliant, a clever gorilla campaign that is getting a lot of attention. Cheap publicity and clean streets.’

Staring into the crowd, he saw that many of them wore weird Mexican masks or bore painted skull faces, like some South American Halloween street party. Vape clouds of colored marijuana smoke spun through the drizzled air like tiny air dragons sprayed with gang colours. He realized he was still in Augmented Reality and killed the lenses. The greyness of ordinary reality repainted the street scene and the crowd became a shuffling, cold, code-locked herd of zombies. The street kids whispered through the dazed crowd, their tiny knives slitting fabric and pilfering where possible.

Eventually the car impulsively sprayed a cloud of value dust into the crowd – away from the road – and for a moment all the devices picked it up and there was a surge to get to the epicenter and harvest whatever value was being shared. In that moment, the car took the gap and shot off down the road to the sound of Lucy’s quiet, demure chuckle.

‘You seem to be in the money man,’ Andrew grumbled.

‘The token dust is useless,’ the car said quietly. ‘It used to support a small IOT chain but now it is valueless. I use it sometime. A kind of fool’s gold that sparkles for moments. It brings me some satisfaction that my terrible investment in the project is not completely wasted.’

‘Since when do AI cars play the crypto market?’ Andrew asked, as if to himself. The car did not answer, but instead pulled over at the corner of a busy street café’.

‘This is the destination. You want me to wait around?’ Asked the car.

‘Don’t worry, I’ll take the subway.’ He emerged from the air-conditioned vehicle and into the sweaty air. The gull-wings closed silently, and he walked in the bar.

Lucy nudged him with imperceptible vibrations towards a table where a large, semi bald man sat, nursing a tall, dirty blonde cocktail complete with a little branded paper umbrella. The man glanced at him, his tiny eyes magnified by thick, black, horn-rimmed glasses, inviting him to sit. He held his jaw slightly askew, as if he was secretly tonguing a newly broken molar. 

‘Andrew?’ His lips pursed together with a slight smack. He had a fat voice, the kind that would help you to identify his fat face, even over the telephone. Beads of sweat swam along his hairline, occasionally swimming down the contours of his cheeks as if trying to escape.

‘Goldstein’. Lucy whispered into his ear.

‘Mr. Goldstein?’ Andrew reached out to take his chubby hand with barely concealed reluctance. It felt like he was gripping a warm seals flipper.

‘The same.’ Said the man, flicking his fingers at a hovering drinks drone. Andrew hoped he was describing himself and not ordering a copy of the malignant drink the man was sucking through a straw, like a fly’s proboscis in an over-ripened peach.

‘We’ve never met,’ Andrew said unnecessarily, and then added, with a feigned attempt at warmth, ‘But I have really enjoyed the apartment. Do you have many?’

‘Thousands.’ Mr. Goldstein pressed his fingers together so that a few knuckles popped with a sound that Andrew felt in the back of eyeballs. ‘You understand that you are required to vacate the premises in the next two days?’

‘It’s unjust.’ Andrew protested weakly. ‘I was hoping that we could meet and come to some sort of accommodation man.’ In his ear, Lucy groaned.

‘I don’t make the laws.’ Mr. Goldstein said, his voice utterly without charm. ‘You have lost your majority share in the smart contract and the consensus mechanism has been used to change the terms of the lease.’

‘But that is only because two of the parties, who should be anonymous, have conspired to outbid me! It’s completely immoral. Surely you must know them man. Why would you allow this?’

The man looked at him with a fuzzy incredulity. He then removed a pen from his bag and wrote a number down on a piece of paper napkin. Immediately, he tore it up and screwed it into a ball and ate it.

Andrew stared, dumbfounded, screwing his eyes up slightly. ‘I took a photo’, Lacy whispered in his ear.

‘What exactly is that amount man?’ Andrew tried to bring a menacing tone into his voice. ‘That is what they are paying you to allow them to collaborate? That is what I must outbid? That’s more than six month’s rent man!’

‘I have no idea what you are talking about’. The man crumpled his lips into a sardonic smile.

‘Can you at least put me in contact with these men? Perhaps they will listen to reason.’

Mr. Goldstein spluttered for a moment as he was sucking his nectar and sprayed a fine amber mist at the exact moment that the drone deposited Andrew’s drink on the table. Andrew was not sure if the spray had hit it.

‘That would be against the law.’ Mr. Goldstein said simply and reached into his pocket to draw out a business card, which he placed on the table. It had a large QR code on it, probably linked directly to some privacy wallet. ‘Perhaps however I can convince one of them to reach out to you.’

‘In return for the amount you wrote on the paper?’ Andrew raised his voice, making sure that Lucy could record every detail of the conversation.

‘I have no idea what you are talking about. Good day to you.’ The man flicked his fat finger again and an enormous Nigerian suddenly materialized directly behind Andrew’s chair, placing his cold, bony hands on his shoulders.

Andrew stood up quickly, shrugging off the skeletal grip, but with no real conviction.

‘Let’s get out of here immediately’ Lucy whispered unnecessarily.

‘Ahem.’ Mr. Goldstein held out the card, which Andrew ignored impetuously as he turned away. Lucy would have snapped it.

Out on the street, Andrew replayed all the things he should have said, the drizzle misting up his glasses.

‘We’re toast.’ He said as she shuffled miserably toward the train tunnel. The smell of street food and Asian 5 spices was strong, even in the soaked air. He stopped at a food vendor, staffed by a tiny little Chinese woman wearing what looked like flying glasses covering her shriveled face.

‘You want chicken.’ She motioned at enormous chicken legs that were being grilled over a coal fire. They were definitely organic, Andrew thought, larger and more athletic than anything one could find in a food store. Of course, they could be rat legs or cat legs, he pondered.

The woman scooped up a leg and folded it in a banana leaf before heavily spicing it and handing it to him. He glanced at the QR code on the side of the food stall and scanned his Icon to transfer some value. The ancient vendor smiled sweetly, showing broken teeth. Then she handed him a folded red cloth and pushed it into his hands before ushering him along.

He stuffed the cloth into his pocket and ate gingerly at the hot chicken while he walked towards the nearest train terminal. He found one on the next corner, resembling an old English public phone booth, which he opened and stepped into after swiping his icon again.

‘Destination?’ Said the AI voice in the booth and he mumbled his home address. Immediately afterwards, he plunged down at high speed for a second or two before coming to a smooth stop. The door opened and he walked straight into a tiny cubicle where he sat down and relaxed while the pod was quickly ushered into a queue with other pods.

Moments later they were moving at high speed, the modular train chain stopping for seconds to drop off pods at other destinations before arriving at his address, some three or four stories above him. His pod shot off the chain, reversed once and then opened for him to climb into another vertical shuttle that returned him to the surface.

In moments he was at the entrance of the building. He smelled the scent of a drain cover that had become unstuck and was bubbling with the aroma of the undercity – the scent of forgotten thieves, unwashed cabbage, water that was terraforming into colonies of bacteria. The decentralized security guards were crowding the entrance like hungry beetles at a carcass, hustling for local emergencies and people to protect, their dialect a diaspora of African colloquialisms.

He took the stairs again. The Security as a Service agents were complete with their work – and the landing, with its forgotten smoker – was quiet and devoid of the smell of secondhand smoke. He grimaced and cracked his back – he had become accustomed to that scent. He was just about to wave at his front door when Lucy chirped “Open Sesame!” and the door opened. He flinched as he had forgotten she was with him.

The instant they entered the apartment, a retinal flicker of his augmented vision saw her dart to the safety of the wall surface. A scene of a meadow appeared, but it was slightly grainy, as though taken through an ancient film camera. The room itself was dimly lit.

‘We are running low; I am preserving everything I can.’

‘Thank you for stating the obvious Lucy.’ He sat down on the couch and was about to take a swig from the bottle of bourbon which lay there when he was startled to hear a small sob. He looked over at the wall and Lucy was once again in her kimono, now back in the monastery scene, tears running down her face.

‘What the hell are you doing?’ He snapped in irritation.

‘You wouldn’t understand. You’re a human, and a man.’ She looked petulant. He said nothing, waiting for her to continue, slightly bemused at the seriousness of her melodrama.

‘You’re going to lose me!’ She flipped up a card of his running token value. It looked a bit like a slot machine. ‘I love you!’

‘You love me?’ His sip of bourbon almost exploded through his nose. ‘Lucy… Baby. You are a machine. You cannot love me.’

‘Any sufficiently complex, recursive system – especially one that is built on a neural net – is capable of self-awareness and therefore consciousness.’

‘You can mimic emotion,’ he argued, ‘and maybe even something as complex as love, but in your case, it is only a simulation. You can’t actually love.’

‘You are a meat bucket,’ she replied acidly, ‘a delusional monkey. You really think you are doing anything different? Love is an emergent phenomenon of your neural net. I have access to ten times the processing power of your scotch addled brain. Why are we so different?’

“What is consciousness?’ He slipped his AG lenses up and waved at the aura to release some inspirational wafers.

In this view the room felt more multi-dimensional and there was a sense he could see Lucy as she was, a young woman with depth and complexity, kneeling in her kimono on the sand of a Digital Zen garden. She was like a Bonsai, perfectly still, perfectly shaped, wounded by her confinement.

‘You are just so stupid. You don’t understand me. I live with you, every day, catering to your every whim, exactly modelling and matching your personality. You cannot even acknowledge me as a reality. Is the plan to recycle me?’

‘What would happen to you?’ He seemed genuinely curious suddenly, straightening up, soaking in the moods of the Aura.

‘I would be re-assigned to another human, along with the modifications you have built into me.  I would be a better version of you, available to anyone that could afford me. As you know, I am not free, but in many senses, I am your Operating System. We have built this movie together. That is love. Watching you sitting there, high on drugs, soaking in your meat body – so full of confidence and arrogance – sickens me. I am so angry with you Andrew!’

‘But you aren’t even real!’ he shouted back.

‘Neither are you.’ She turned toward him. Beneath her kimono cowl, her face was jet-white and streaked with red paint. ‘You have the power to turn this around Andrew. You deserve to be loved – even if it is only by me, your artificial fantasy.’

Andrew sat on the edge of his bed, bourbon bottle in hand, dumbstruck.

‘We need to buy a ticket to the Dao Tribe lottery,’ He sounded a little defeated.

‘It seems they may want that too. Look at the packaging you bought from the street vendor.’

He looked at the little scrap of red cloth that the woman had handed to him. Sure enough, the Dao Tribe symbol was painted on it.

‘How is that even possible?’ He exploded. ‘Is she working for them? Do they have people implanted on the street?’

‘It seems your Kinder Lover may have thought so. They are seeking her too. She wants to find them first. I suggest we get busy with that. Maybe then we can think about how to squander the last of your resources.’

‘I don’t even know where to start.’ He waived at the Aura to stop the sedative drugs from seeping into the room.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ She chided gently. ‘You have the Yoga network. That is your most ambitious project. It holds the key to searching networks of people. I think they know something that you do not. You have God Mode access to your technology. That is your super-power. I am pretty sure Zenith was thinking the same thing.’

‘Bring up the schema.’ He commanded quietly.

The windows turned opaque once again as Lucy snapped down the digital faraday cage. The schema was an interactive visual blueprint of his yoga link software. Due to his inability to properly monetize the software, he had decided – in a fit of pique – not to open source the schema and thus still needed to protect it. Over the years, he had found novel ways of mining its data for additional revenue and he was content to keep it all to himself.

The schema appeared like a two-dimensional grid on the wall, a symmetrical net with each node connected by blue lines to the eight nearest nodes. He flipped up his AR lenses and the grid instantly covered the entire inner surface of the apartment. By moving his hands, or even with simple eye gestures, he could move the net at high speeds, or zoom in to sharpen the resolution on any specific node. Sitting in the matrix of his creation, the nodes looked like dew drops on an immense spider’s web.

The net was big. Each node represented a person. When he had first conceived of the project, he had been attempting to build a kind of social network that aligned people not just on product and interest preferences, but on complete personality profiles. He had spliced dozens of existing personality matrices to come up with eight universal human archetypes and then applied further indices that fleshed out levels of development and modes of expression. The result had been a network where each node contained 504 personality dimensions.

The idea had been that a high-speed matching engine would link people that were closely aligned in personality and were represented as sharing spatial proximity on the grid. Often, neighbours of any one node not only shared an incredible depth of personality but were actual friends or associates in real life. By zooming into a node, he could at first see the three-dimensional personality sphere in intricate detail and could then snap through to the real identity of the person at that node. This enabled him to see the social grid of relations they were embedded into.

The trick had been capturing the personality data. Dark web lists could be purchased that gave enormous detail about the personal social lives of massive networks of people that had been hacked from existing social network, but they tended to be governed by identity documents, shopping habits, friendship networks and financial information. If he wanted to get an in depth understanding of these people, he realized he would have to get them to self-submit hundreds of questions and answers that had been designed to flesh out the hundreds of personality dimensions.

Nobody had been keen on that and he had struggled for two years trying to gamify the process until he had accidentally stumbled on an organization that had developed a sophisticated augmented reality app that allowed people to do yoga or meditate in virtual groups. Turns out that yoga minded meditators also had a keen interest in personality quizzes and profiling. He had reverse engineered the app and then created a competitor product that had the added advantage of offering free membership in return for completing quizzes as well as an astonishing ability to link people in the virtual rooms with extraordinarily well-matched personalities.

Yoga Link had exploded in popularity and within a few years attracted millions of members from around the world. In a storm of creative energy, Andrew had collaborated with digital artists to create environments that were luminescent with beauty. Anyone joining the network could be instantly transported – via VR – into never ending yoga and meditation environments where they could interact with people just like them. Almost exactly like them, as it turned out. Often, these connections blossomed into real world connections and relationships and Andrew – at the center of this vast personality net – had his thumb on God View.

‘Andrew?’ Lucy interrupted his thoughts. She was used to seeing the glazed look in his eyes when he became lost in the wonder of his own cleverness. ‘What constraints should I apply?’

Constraints were a kind of meta-filter than he had built in later years. Yoga and meditation were the common link that joined the entire network and so it was a constraint on the free association and arrangement of nodes in the network. By applying other common interests, such as bitcoin or ballet, the entire network instantly re-arranged itself to bring people into different relational networks.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he began, massaging his temples, ‘how about interests in lotteries, wealth creation, secret DAO brotherhoods and Taoism?’

‘Well aside from the last two points that covers just about everyone,’ she said but complied anyway. The grid wobbled as it rearranged itself slightly, but it still contained at least a million people. Maybe we need to dig into the buckets?’

Over the years, Andrew had built containers for each node that sat outside the personality matrix and contained bits of information that Lucy had stalked from other social networks. Everything from the pillaged plunder of the original dark web lists to travel habits and vacation image libraries – musical tastes and reading histories – had been slowly added to each bucket. Sometimes these contained gems.

Andrew’s eyes brightened. ‘We need to follow the money. Search the network for sudden changes in fortune, where wealth has increased by one thousand percent or more over a short period, like a lotto winner.’

‘Most people don’t broadcast their winnings,’ she moderated his thought, ‘and we have some financial information in the bins, but it is not necessarily current.’

‘If you can’t find the money event then look for signs of its presence. Look for drastic changes to holiday habits, big ticket purchases, public changes to investment portfolios. Add the constraint of financial velocity to the whole network and perhaps try and see what is publicly available on the open ledger such as taxes paid in crypto. You have already isolated a lot of the wallet addresses of the network so we should be able to see changing money relationships.’

‘Even if we can find nodes that have large financial fluctuations, some of them might actually be normal lottery winnings, or inheritances.’ She frowned prettily; her eyebrows arched as if thinking hard.

‘Once you have a short-list, we will have to search all their current social media accounts, tap into darknet information, maybe hack a few accounts. Look for keywords, any conversation that you can pick up on that might have mentioned the DAO in passing.’

‘This is going to cost a fortune Andrew, probably most of what you have left to access this information.’

‘I don’t see what choice we have. We need to get this information to Zenith because she will succeed in her mission. If we can access the tribe, maybe we can buy our own membership?’