By Cornelius Black
“Aaaand goxxed! Another one for the Knights of Nigeria!”
Leona slammed her fists down onto the desk as she yelled into her headset mic, making the keyboard do a little jump of joy. The glow of the computer screen lit her face. Four words flashed in front of her in bright red letters.
FUNDS DEPLETED – AGENT DECOMMISSIONED
“Enough, Lee! I’m trying to get some work done.”
“Sorry, Mike. I know you think this is some kind of game, but it’s not. Really! Many times it’s real people’s lives we’re saving here.”
Mike looked up from his books and glanced across the room. “Yeah, yeah! Just look at you. Your grades are down the drain and you can’t even afford Warcraft Universe because your bitcoin billionaire dad’s cut your funding. Instead, you play being a hacker.”
“My dad was smart enough to mine some bitcoins way back in ’11, and so what? I mean it’s not his fault your old man didn’t listen to him back then. Everyone knew the global banking system was collapsing, but nobody wanted to admit it. And then it happened, and we still helped you out ’cause that’s what friends do.”
She looked at him and leaned back in her chair, twirling her magnetic ring in her fingers. Two weeks before, Mike had proposed to her, kneeling down on one knee like they did in the old days and declaring his love and that “opposites attract.” She eyed the matching band around his finger and twirled her own ring a little faster.
Mike caught sight of her hand. “I don’t know, Lee, darling. I just worry for you. What the hell’s Knights of Nigeria supposed to mean anyway?”
“Finally, you ask. Listen, everyone’s got a hobby. You translate classical Greek manuscripts just for the hell of it, and I save pensioners and single moms from losing their bitcoin savings.”
“Seriously. Tell me.”
Leona pouted her lips and let out a long puff. “Well, you’ve heard of those scammers in the early days of the Internet who used to send emails to unsuspecting people? The ones that pretended to be the Prince of Nigeria, or his banker, or whatever.”
“Scammers. Crooks. They’d send out spam emails saying the deposed Prince of Nigeria inherited a great fortune worth millions of dollars but can’t get at it because of the corrupt government or something. They’d say he desperately needs your help to transfer the funds and promises you a nice cut in return. Basically, they’d slowly try and win your trust and then ask you to send some money so the prince can pay a bribe. A necessary bribe. To do the deal and get the money and your reward. Sounds dumb, but when you send out enough emails there will be people who fall for that sort of thing.”
“Gotcha! Knights of Nigeria,” interrupted Mike. “And you’re giving up on your degree to fight some email spammers in Africa.”
“Actually, it’s a bit more complex than that. You know how they later built smart contracts on top of Bitcoin?”
“Yeah. Like the one your dad uses to automatically match your allowance to your grades, aye? You should tell him to give you a bonus for each agent you decommission. Heh!” Mike made quotes with his fingers as he said the word agent. “What are these agents all about?”
“Screw my dad, Mike!” Leona rolled her eyes. “And I was telling you. An autonomous agent is another name for a distributed autonomous corporation. An agent is simply a smart contract with built-in AI, which is given an amount of bitcoin to work with and allowed to do its own thing online. It pays for its own hosting and processing power, negotiates with other agents, interacts with people, and usually tries to make more money. Some agents trade futures or whatever on the decentralized exchanges, others make business deals and source raw materials for corporations at the best prices. And then you have agents that just try to find ways of cheating people out of their hard-earned coins.”
“I guess that means there’s no scammers in Africa after all.”
“Who knows? It’s practically impossible to find out who owns an agent. Could be the Russian mafia, or the kids next door. And criminal agents usually operate in full stealth mode anyway, so they’re undetectable until they make themselves known. Then, once an agent has earned enough money, it can be programmed to automatically spawn a child agent, give it some bitcoin and send it off to do its own thing. And they learn. And they evolve. Sometimes it feels like we’re fighting a lost battle, Mike.”
Mike furrowed his brow and looked back at Leona. He pictured her, sword and shield glistening in the golden sun, standing shoulder to shoulder with the Spartans as the Persians charged at Thermopylae.
“And yet there’s real people losing their savings and committing suicide over stupid scams like this.” She interrupted his daydream. “All the Knights of Nigeria can do is follow up on scam reports and interact with malicious agents to try and make them crash or deplete their funds. We call it goxxing them.”
“Goxxing comes from this huge Bitcoin scam at the very beginning, right?”
“Oh yeah. A long time ago. I was like four, I think. My dad still talks about it sometimes. ‘The day Bitcoin didn’t die’, he calls it. This big exchange was having all kinds of trouble, people couldn’t get their money out, balances weren’t matching up, that sort of thing. People were nervous, but the exchange kept making excuses and saying everything was fine until one day they close down and vanish, just like that. Everybody’s money, gone. We’re talking close to a million bitcoins. That was already big money then. The exchange blamed a bug in the Bitcoin software itself and claimed hackers had been slowly draining their wallet for ages without them realizing. But none of the other exchanges were affected, so, you know…”
“No shit! How do you let something like that happen?”
“Nobody knows. Some said they were dumb enough to not have noticed the ongoing theft. Others thought it was an inside job and these criminal geniuses managed to steal a fortune through millions of transactions hidden among the regular withdrawals of everyday users, making the stolen bitcoins completely untraceable. Anyway, the papers and the pundits and just about everyone was proclaiming the death of Bitcoin. And yet, look where we are today.”
“Well, it was a huge blow for Bitcoin, right?”
Leona straightened up in her chair. “Look, Bitcoin proved it’s tougher than any one company, even when it’s a big company. Lots of people lost their money, of course. My dad lost a good chunk of coin too, but he made it all back buying cheap from the weak hands who thought the game was up. In the end, those who really believed cut their losses and got back to work rebuilding their dreams.”
“The ones responsible were killed off, weren’t they?”
“That’s what some say. I guess that’s what they’d want everyone to believe. Who knows what happened to them? The one thing that’s sure is they’re gone for good. They say there’s nothing like a complete makeover, a new identity and a ticket to the Bahamas. My dad says there was a huge WikiLeaks release a while later and leaked NSA and FBI documents made it clear that the trail went completely cold just two weeks after the exchange collapsed.”
“Do you believe the ‘Ghost of Gox’ stories, Lee? That they’ll be back to wreak havoc when one bitcoin is worth a quarter of a million bucks?”
“Come on! Urban legend. Why would any criminals want to destroy the very currency they stole?”
“I guess we’ll find out any day now. What’s the price?”
Leona’s fingers skimmed across her keyboard with a fluid grace and speed that put air gestures to shame. She turned to look at Mike, her face white as the snow outside.
“We’ve actually just spiked up eight thousand bucks to hit a quarter million, and then there was what looks like a panic sell all the way down to 235k. What’s the hell’s going on?”
Leona was about to look up some kind of explanation, when her headset started vibrating on the desk and her watch gave out an ear-piercing beep at exactly the same time. She snatched the headset and put it on. Mike closed in to listen.
“Code Siege! Code Siege!” came a deep voice. “All Paladins at your stations. Code Siege! Calling all Paladins.”
“What’s up, Lee?”
She ignored him and rained a torrent of fingers down on her keyboard. Letters, numbers and symbols washed up the Knights of Nigeria console window like a green river. Mike squinted over her shoulder. And then, something he could actually read.
Code SIEGE – Critical Mission Briefing – 01-28-2033, 11:36 UTC
Systems have detected an autonomous agent (Short ID: 1BlueBallFaz5xs2kw5M, pseudonym: BlueBall) primed with an estimated 500,000 BTC. Agent has been observed hiring and paying selected assassins to kill Bitcoin core developers and high profile industry figures. Over 6,300 assassination contracts identified so far. Target list confidential. Reported terms: advance of 10 BTC plus 20 BTC reward per assassination. It is suspected that, to ensure human compliance, BlueBall will automatically convert rewards into a bounty on the assassins’ own heads if they fail to deliver by an established deadline.
Mission objectives: 1) Gox agent BlueBall 2) Deactivate any bounties on assassin’s heads 3) Terminate all smart contracts, including reward delivery system – Assassins naturally keep any coins already paid out.
Leona stared at the screen. Was this some sick joke? Who on Earth would call their murderous agent BlueBall? She ran the briefing through the Knights of Nigeria authenticator program. It checked out. Tap, tap, tap, tap! Her fingers hailed down again.
Mike sighed and ran his hands through his hair. He grabbed his tablet, plonked down on the bed and started scanning the news.
BREAKING: Bitcoin Developers and Industry Leaders in Hiding After Mass Death Threats
Bitcoin’s core developers and other prominent industry figures are reported to have gone into hiding after receiving credible threats on their lives. The threats included an obscure message from an unknown author, “You laughed at my blue balls, now this one will destroy you. Enjoy!”
More details to follow.
He swiped to another website. Ghost of Gox Revenge? ran the headline. And another: Gox Pox Returns! Bankers Say Bitcoin’s Death Imminent.
Mike looked down at the pile of books and notes before him and his mind went blank. Writing Socrates’ Secrets: how ancient Greek philosophers invented the bikini would have to wait.
Tap, tap, tap! Tap, tap, tap, tap!
Tap, tap, tap! Tap, tap!
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap!
“Hey, Lee? Can these agents kill you, like Agent Smith in that old ’90s film? What was it called?”
She had taken him to the film club to watch what she had promised would be a modern retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, dreams, reality and the difficulties in figuring out which was which. It was a classic, she said. But it turned out to be just this futuristic action film about computers that enslave all humanity. Then, on the subway home, he had stared at the other travelers, sitting all alone, catatonic, their faces lit by the dim glow that seeped out of their VR goggles.
Tap, tap! Tap, tap, tap, tap!
“Of course not, silly!” Leona glanced back at him and a grin lit up her face. “Though they could always send an assassin over if they found out where I was.” She got back to her tapping.
Mike shuddered and said not a word more.
The rhythmic tapping went on, and on, until it became the deafening clang of Spartan swords. Thousands of crazed Persian soldiers swarmed down, held at the narrow pass. The two mighty armies clashed, again and again. Then, betrayal. A secret passage was revealed to the enemy. The defenders were outflanked and ordered to retreat. Only a few, the finest warriors in all of ancient Greece, stayed behind.
Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap!
Mike blinked, rubbed his eyes and peered at Leona, who was jumping about on the edge of her seat. He flicked through the news again.
Knights of Nigeria Activists Uncovered
Bot Places Bounties on Bitcoin Activists.
“Leona! Let’s go! You’re in danger.”
“I know.” Her voice was steady and calm. “Just two more minutes.”
Mike glanced at his watch. “What can you do in two minutes if you’ve been here all day?”
“I said two minutes, Mike.” She turned and looked him straight in the eye. “Bitcoin is dead.”
Mike scurried about for his notes and other essential items and threw them into an old gym bag. Tablets, phones, documents, keys, water, jackets, and a small stack of old, worn out paper dollars from Leona’s box of keepsakes. He ran out of the house with the bag, tossed it into the trunk of his car, and sped back in.
“Come on, babe. Let’s go!”
“It’s over, Mike. We’re safe.” Leona was sitting on the bed, massaging her slender fingers.
“Did you say Bitcoin is dead?” Mike stood in the bedroom doorway and looked at her as she wiped her hand across her forehead. Was she crying?
“Indeed, Mike. The bankers got it right this time.” She pointed at the news website that now filled her screen. Then she grinned at him and winked. “We’ve just got a new cryptocurrency up and running. It’s called Phoenix. It’s just Bitcoin on a brand new network, really. People are transitioning already.”
“And BlueBall? And the assassins?” Mike jiggled the car keys in his hand.
“Sorted. To switch to Phoenix, you have to destroy your old bitcoins by sending them to an address that has no private key, meaning they can never be spent again. However much bitcoin you destroy, you automatically get the same amount on the new network. We call it proof-of-burn: your transaction proves you’ve burnt your bitcoins and you get new Phoenix coins instead. It’s a fair way for everyone to cross over. Everyone except agents, that is. Agents were never programmed to foresee a switch to another crypto and definitely not to destroy all their bitcoins, so they need human help to make the jump. In the meantime, the assassination contracts are no more, and the assassins have been told to burn whatever coins they were paid into Phoenix coins and get on with their lives.”
“I guess we’ll soon see if whoever deployed agent BlueBall is still around,” said Mike, as he sat down on the bed and put his arm around Leona.
“Yeah. We’ll see.”
There was a sound at the bedroom window. Mike froze and looked at Leona. She stood up and cupped her ear. Then, she approached the window without making a sound, and opened it.
The cold outside air blasted in, and a black cat sprang into the room and shook off some snow onto the carpet.
“It’s a stray,” said Leona. She knelt down to nuzzle it. “Shall we adopt it? What shall we call it?”
“Ghost of Gox,” said Mike with a smirk.
Leona looked up at him and frowned. Then, they both burst out laughing.