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The question was, go for the Nobel or just get unbelievably rich? If you are, or ever were, a research scientist, the answer would be obvious – go for the money.

My discovery was completely serendipitous. I was working as a post-doc in the metamaterials lab, but made a bit of cash on the side helping out the quantum computing guys in the laboratory next door. Then their entire cryogenics unit went tits-up and work stopped completely until a replacement was available, killing that cash cow or, at least, putting it into suspended animation.

So I was back making lanthanide oxide lattices with trapped heavy alkali ions and testing their potential for reducing radar signatures. Military stealth technology R&D – tedious, unimaginative and under-funded; the exact opposite of the quantum lab’s sponsorship from Microsoft blue-sky funds. All that money just to set up about fifty qbits, represented by entangled particles held within a hair of absolute zero. I was brooding on this while scanning my latest product with a pair of high-resolution lasers when I had my lightbulb moment. It wasn’t at all what I was aiming for, but I realised that I had produced a matrix of about ten thousand ions in stable superposition at room temperature.

It looked too good to be true, but easily tested. I decoupled the required kit from the defunct quantum computer and quickly hooked it up to my specimen. The simple tests were already preprogramed and ran faultlessly. Then a real test, set up almost as a joke – a challenge for the far future: factoring a five-hundred digit number that was the product of two huge primes. The answer was produced almost instantaneously.

I recognised immediately that this was a real game-changer – the equivalent of moving from vacuum tubes to solid-state circuits. Absolute dead-cert for a Nobel, even for a mere post-Doc! Then again, post-docs don’t get Nobels – it’ll be my supervisor and a couple of old fogies who’ll have done obscure theoretical work on this in the distant past. I’ll get some credit, but how much? What’ll it be worth to me?

So, I could hand over the results like a good team worker or actually do something for myself with the lash-up on my workbench, a tool that could out-compute any existing machine. All I needed was an application that’d make me rich quickly. Then the second lightbulb moment: mining bitcoins!

Despite having a running start for my new project due to experience gained during a post-grad project on crypto-currency, it took me the entire weekend to set up everything I needed. I lived in the lab for the entire period, glad of the absence of both students and staff over the weekend.

By Sunday midnight all was set up. The bitcoin mining part was straightforward; the tricky bit was to exchange them for dollars quickly enough that I would be in and out of the finance markets before I rang any alarm bells. As far as I could see, I wasn’t actually doing anything illegal, but there’s sure to be something that prevents people like me getting so rich, so quickly. Even if there was a loophole, I was sure that it’d be closed pdq.

Eventually I had set up ten off-shore accounts in different tax havens and prepared them for rapid fund transfers. After that, all I had to do was decide how much I wanted. My first thought was a million dollars, but professional sportsmen earned multiples of that annually. A hundred million was closer, but the useless tossers who were responsible for the software that made users’ lives miserable had orders of magnitude more than that. Ten billion – that was a nice round number. Maybe a little greedy – but I deserve it!

Everything thereafter ran over a bit of custom code, distributed through the US universities’ intranet, both to spread my buying spree geographically and to make trace-back to me more difficult. I knew that the currency trading market ran over autonomous systems that reacted to adjust rates according to buying and selling trends, but my software would take that into account and mine enough bitcoins to meet my target. Then it closed down operations and covered my digital tracks to the extent possible.

In less than an hour the job was done and I was a billionaire. I celebrated with a can of beer, adrenalin fighting exhaustion after my marathon work session. I fell asleep in my chair before I could finish the beer – a rather appropriately named Arrogant Bastard Ale.


It was just before 9 am when I awoke, rubbing my eyes to look in amazement at the account balances presented by the large monitor on my work station. I unhooked the computing interface from my qbit store and dragged it back to the quantum lab, surprised to see no trace of anyone at all in the basement labs.

Back at my workstation, I scanned the internet for options to spend some of my vast wealth. A lodge in the mountains might be a good start, with some staff to look after me. Maybe a cook, a couple of chambermaids and a courtesan or two… It was while on a site offering top-end villas for the mega-rich that I noticed the news banner running along the bottom of my screen. Something about a global economic meltdown. A shudder ran down my spine as I opened the record of the activities by my bitcoin-selling interface, realising that last night I had checked only the results of the sales and not even glanced at the mining required to meet my goals.

The money-trading expert systems had reacted much faster than I had dreamed possible and, within minutes, the bitcoin exchange rate had started to fall. My software simply upped the minting speed to meet my dollar goals, causing the rate of the fall of the exchange rate to increase. This resulted in positive feedback, initiating a currency crash. Initially I made over a thousand dollars per bitcoin, but by the time I stopped buying this had dropped to fifty cents. Thereafter, the rate had dropped further before all trading was belatedly suspended – an action that would have occurred much faster for anything but a crypto-currency.

Although my involvement was not yet suspected, it was clear to the experts that the assumed invulnerability of the blockchain had been lost, which must mean also that the entire cryptographic basis of electronic trading was compromised. A global market crash was then inevitable.

With a feeling of trepidation I moved to CNN and faced a barrage of bad news. Just when I thought that things couldn’t get worse, breaking news proved me wrong. It seems that amongst the mega-rich concealing their wealth in bitcoins were the oligarchy comprising the de-facto leaders of China. Chinese cyber-warfare teams had already identified sources in the US as the producers of the bitcoin flood and hence retaliation was being planned – starting with calling in the huge component of the US national debt held in China.

All it needed then was one presidential tweet – We have evidence the Chinks behind all this sabotage of US economy. We do not give in to economic terrorists!!! We will just default on the debt and see who suffers then!!!

That was the final straw, the dollar dropped off a cliff, closely followed by the stock markets that were open at the time. I quickly checked exchange rates – the dollar had dropped by a factor of five against the Euro before a rapid intervention stopped trading. Nevertheless, the cost of oil in dollars had increased by a factor of ten and the cost of gold by a factor of twenty, indicating the dire state of the US currency. I had possessed them for less than ten hours and already the true value of my dollar accounts had been reduced by over 90%. Even worse, the cessation of electronic cash transfers meant that I couldn’t access them and only watch as their buying power plummeted further.

Gradually my self-pity transformed to a feeling of terror as the news broadcast continued, showing the chaos resulting from this unprecedented financial crisis. I tried to console myself with the thought that it proved only that the global economic bubble had been ready to burst at any time and my actions had simply been the initiator of something that was due to happen anyway. Nevertheless, I had to admit that, although I knew a lot about materials science and quantum computing, I was completely ignorant when it came to macroeconomics. Maybe I really was completely responsible for a disaster that would wreck the lives of tens of millions of people. It was clear from the CNN talking heads that even the experts had little idea of the consequences of a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Of course, whether or not I was completely responsible, I’d spend the rest of my life in prison if my role was ever uncovered – assuming, of course, that a lynch mob didn’t get me first. I searched out a large hammer and smashed my qbit rig to smithereens. Okay, time to get a backpack and head for the hills. Look for a small town in the middle of nowhere, change my name, get a job in a garage or something and lie low for a year or two. Maybe it’ll all blow over – who knows?

Whatever, I should have definitely gone for the Nobel.


Bio: I am a Scot who lives in Switzerland, working in the rather bizarre field of radwaste disposal, planning facilities that may be operational for the next three centuries and need to be shown to be safe for a million years. This experience forms a technical basis for writing hard – somewhat dystopian – science fiction. Previously published novels have examined the impact of internet collapse (Cof), evolution of artificial intelligence (Emergence), social inequality (Kabuki-cho Cabaret) and enhanced longevity (Extremophile and Chemotroph).


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