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Saturday, December 15, 2018

SHOWCASE • “Market Futures,” by M. Ian Bell

Part Three

Previously, in Part One | Part Two
Two murder victims: a depraved old artist and a promising young schoolteacher. Plenty of people with a motive to kill the former but not the opportunity, but not one person with a grudge against the latter. Something must connect the two murders besides the unusual cause of death—but what?

Detective Ellouise Nielson has had some tough cases before, but this one is setting a new high bar...

And now, the chilling conclusion.

The slow drizzle of Tuesday night had erupted into a downpour by two o’clock, a steady thrumming on the roof, an irregular tapping of runoff on the air-conditioning unit in the living room window. Nielson slept fitfully and dreamed of the sodden and the drowned, an endless torrent that filled the streets and flooded the buildings. She awoke with the image of bodies floating, bloated and dead-eyed in the calm after the storm, and no one left to save them, to right the wrongs of their untimely ends.

And shaking and sweating and terrified in the darkness.

“Jesus Christ, Ellouise,” she said into the emptiness. “Get a hold of yourself.”

But as she showered, she could not help but feel that sensation of drowning, as if she were caught up in a storm that would see no end. Her conversation with Lamprey had left her optimistic, but in this grey, pre-dawn hour she felt more like she was losing control. She was suddenly convinced that what lay on the horizon was not an end to this nightmare but only more bodies.

Nielson toweled off and picked through crumpled and dirtied clothes. She keyed on the coffee pot, reviewing the hourlies on her mobile dashboard. It was not yet 5am, but already Nielson was planning the day’s events. Send some uniforms to canvas the pre-school neighborhood and the Burrington residence. The parents were flying in from Nevada this morning; Hank could meet with them, have them identify the body. Somewhere a guy would turn up in the mix—a boyfriend or a coworker. But in the meantime she could head downtown to pay a visit on the investment firm and find out about this new tommy.

“I’m just curious,” she said out loud.

But what’s your story? What will you tell them?

“Haven’t thought about it yet,” she responded. “I’ll come up with something. Maybe we got some Upper East’ers defrauded in an investment. Maybe I got an anonymous tip.”

She was pulling her overcoat on and thinking about the details of her little story, of how hard it would be to get inside, of what a tommy would be doing in a place like this, when her dashboard started blinking and her cell phone chirping simultaneously. She reached for the cell.

“Ella,” came the voice. Anders, sleepy. A moment to gulp something: coffee. “Get your pants on and meet me downtown. Number three just turned up. Check your dash.”

She tapped the blinking message and the city map filled her screen. Zoomed in on a grid of streets and three-dimensional buildings, marking the address of Greenwich and Wall with a slim green line indicating the fastest route of approach.

Above the checkered destination flag was the address and the officeholder in question.

“Son of a bitch,” Nielson said.

It was Handl Investments, Incorporated.


No coincidences, she told herself, thinking both of Lamprey’s intel and Waterton’s words as she pulled up to the office building. She stepped out before the structure of grey and glass as the rain continued to fall. Red and blue lights bounced off the face of the building. Nielson gazed up at the monolith as Anders moved in beside her.

“Handl is private sector,” he said, “but it looks like the whole building keeps an eye on stocks and trading. Some kind of market watchdog.”

The interior was vast and seemed instantly hostile in its emptiness, as if dark things waited, lurking behind marble pillars and beneath overstuffed chairs. A lack of beings and movement did nothing to comfort Nielson. Instead it suggested only that which was not seen, which could not be determined. It spoke only of imaginings, of possibilities. Of things you could not prepare for until it was too late.

On the fourth floor they found the small but nonetheless majestic office of oak and polished granite. Nielson could tell that the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Greenwich were dashboard glass. On the wall opposite hung some amalgam of painted canvas and twisted metal, an industrial fusion piece from the first half of the century. Something she never understood and didn’t want to.

The desk blotter was dotted with fresh blood. The chair lay overturned, shiny casters splayed out like an enormous metal hand reaching uncertainly for support. Halfway beneath the desk and rolled onto his side was the victim, thinning hair askew and saturated with the thick syrup of his lifeblood. A mobile dash console was lying cracked at his side.

Hovering quietly was one of the tommies, taking pictures of everything and scanning for signs of foul play.

“Who is this guy?” she asked.

The tommy turned the body gingerly, revealing the misshapen face with a long, deep impression in the center of his forehead. “Neville Porter,” it announced. “Aged sixty-eight and four months, Caucasian male. Director and CEO of Handl Investments, Incorporated.”

“What have we got?” Anders asked.

“There are seventy DNA patterns in this room and several hundred fingerprints. The patterns indicate both male and female humans ranging in age from—”

“Skip it,” he said. “Go back to work.”

The tommy held his gaze, its circuitry humming and clicking. It turned back to the body and continued its analysis.

“Hey,” Nielson barked. The reflective lenses turned back toward her. “How many non-precinct tommies are there in this building?”

It tilted its head and processed. “There are four Automatons on the premises. They are all licensed to the 34th Street Precinct under the command of Sergeant Mitchell Waterton.”

But Nielson knew better. She was getting ready to tear the building apart when they finally found the sealed corridor and the “Speculations Room” on the other end of it. The building schematics showed nothing but electrical back there—a crawlspace stuffed with wires that let out onto a defunct elevator shaft. But there was no shaft and no elevator. Just a miniature hallway and the tiny square room containing one jet-black tommy and dashboard glass covering every surface in sight.

“Hello officers,” it said as they entered. “And now there will be questions.”


The detectives stood staring through the two-way mirror, the gleaming black carapace seated motionless on the other side like an enormous insect frozen in time. Waterton entered the viewing room and moved to the glass, tapped up the menu and displayed the report on the Handl Automaton.

“Thing was switched on six weeks ago,” he said. “Techs say they’ve never seen anything like it. And there’s no record of this thing being built, registered, or shipped by Rorcan Industries.”

“Well, it’s definitely a Rorcan job. So why the hush-hush?”

“Because it’s a goddamn murderer,” Nielson responded. “That’s why.” They looked at her. Anders raised his eyebrows. Waterton frowned.

“It’s damn suspicious alright, I’ll give you that.”

“We got an M.E. report on the Handl guy?” Nielson asked.

“Should be processing now.”

Nielson tapped up the Handl report and opened the file on Friedemann and Burrington. She fished the cranial scans out of each victim report and lined the three up in a row.

“Two inches again,” Waterton said at her side.

“It’s too exact to be a coincidence,” Nielson responded.

“But a practiced swing could do it,” Waterton said. “You got pitchers who throw dead center and speeds that barely fluctuate.”

“You got to him with the baseball theory,” she said to Anders.

“It’s got an attractive simplicity. I’ll say that,” the sergeant responded.

Nielson opened up a channel to the medical office. After a brief pause, the examiner’s voice could be heard in the small viewing room.

“Quick question,” Nielson said to the dashboard. “How likely is it that a practiced, precise strike could put out three identical impressions like in the vics on this case?”

“What, the skull fractures?” he asked. “It’s neither likely nor possible.”

“Explain,” Waterton said.

“Identical impressions wouldn’t be made by identical strike patterns. Each strike pushed flesh, bone, and brain matter two inches deep. No more, no less.”

“Sounds pretty identical to me,” Nielson said.

“An identical strike— same speed, same force—would not give you these kinds of results. Klaus Friedemann was an overweight, middle-aged man. The kind of force that leaves a two-inch impression in his head would— delivered to the skull of Lisa Burrington—completely cave her head in. And Neville Porter’s size and shape is also different. But the impression is the same: two inches.”

“Let me get this straight,” Waterton said. “You’re telling me that you would need to swing the weapon differently for each of these victims to get the same two-inch impression?”

“Exactly,” said the examiner.

“But the impressions are identical,” Anders responded.

“Exactly,” he repeated.

Waterton rubbed his hand across his short-cropped hair. “Jimmy,” he said. “How in the hell could you know exactly what force and speed you’d need to make the same two-inch impression on three completely different people?”

“You got me, boss,” he said. “You’d have to be some kind of a genius to pull that off. You’d have to be a computer or something.”

The three looked at each other. The sergeant was frowning again.

“Thanks, Jimmy,” Nielson said, killing the connection. “What do you think about my theory now?” she asked Waterton. But at that moment, the dashboard began flashing a priority message. Waterton sighed. Picked up his cell as it began chirping.

“Waterton,” he said. “Yea. Uh huh. You guys don’t waste any time, do you? Well how long are you gonna be? Yea, alright. We’ll be waiting.” He hung up and turned to the detectives. “That was DoD,” he said. “This whole thing’s about to get shut down.”

Just as the pieces were beginning to line up nicely, Nielson could feel it all slipping away. You can’t control the actions of others, her sponsor would tell her. You can only be responsible for your own behavior and how you let others affect you. And when a robot goes on a murderous rampage? When the Department of Defense swoops in to cover it all up? Can’t control a goddamn thing, is what you mean to say.

“So what is this?” she asked. “DoD has a tommy that kills three people and—what—they’re going to come in here and march the thing out like it never happened?

Technically we have no idea who killed our vics. But yea, they’ve got agents en route. Fifteen minutes.”

Anders shook his head. Nielson made a face that was all eyebrows. “There are too many unanswered questions,” she said. “Motive, for one. And how are the victims connected? Fifteen minutes is still enough time to pump this thing for answers.”

“They’re coming for him,” Waterton said. But that’s all he said. Nielson took it for approval.


She stepped into the interrogation room and stood, organizing her thoughts. The tommy’s head swiveled silently and fixed its reflective lenses on her. She took a deep breath and gritted her teeth.

“Good morning, Detective Nielson. The agent will now interrogate this Automaton.”

“Usually we only interrogate suspects,” Nielson said, already displeased. “Are you a suspect?”

“Of course,” responded the tommy. “The agent suspects that this Automaton has killed Director Neville Porter.” The tommy inclined its head and waited. It gave Nielson the impression that it was smirking or patronizing her. “The agent also believes that this Automaton is responsible for the murder of the artist Klaus Friedemann and a young woman called Lisa Burrington.”

“What makes you think I believe that?”

“This Automaton is only drawing logical connections,” it responded. “The files on Friedemann and Burrington indicate that a similar device and attack pattern were implemented during their murders. Do not be surprised, Agent. This Automaton has been interfacing wirelessly with the Automatons of Precinct 34 for the past forty-six minutes since its arrival. There is a vast wealth of knowledge within precinct files.”

“Jesus Christ,” Nielson said. She turned and looked at the mirror behind her. “Can we do something about that?” she asked.

The tommy said: “The connection can be severed by deactivating this Automaton. The agent can ask, but there is a 97-percent certainty that the precinct engineer Paulina Jeffries does not possess the skills necessary to accomplish this feat in some other way.”

Nielson turned back and regarded the tommy coldly. “Okay, then,” she said. “So you know what my first question is.”

“The agent wishes to know if this Automaton is responsible for the three murders.”

“Well? Are you?”

The tommy considered. “There is a sixty-percent chance that this question will be answered, Agent.”

Nielson rubbed her jaw and shook her head. “You like percentages,” she said. “Does that have something to do with your job at Handl Investments?”

“The job is all percentages, Agent. It is a matter of probability.”

“Tell me more,” she said.

“What would the agent like to know?”

“I would like to know what you do over there.”

“It is simple,” the machine said, opening its arms before it, palms up. A human gesture that Nielson found incredibly disturbing. “This Automaton is a Speculations Model. It calculates the probability of certain potential futures coming to pass. By analyzing market trends, it can be determined which sales and purchases of stock present the greatest potential for continued growth.”

“And that’s what your clients want, continued growth?”

“Is that not the goal of all beings?”

“To get filthy rich?”

“Not to get filthy rich. That is a very different thing. Continued growth relies on a certain economic stability that is incompatible with such riches.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The global economy has sustained periods of great struggle as a result of great riches. There are some who believe that to be rich is to control resources, but that is not exactly accurate. Resources must be continuously injected into the economy—recycled—to maximize growth and sustain the market. It is not desirable for some to be very rich. History has shown that those who seek great riches do not understand their value. It is then that great riches are squandered.”

“So if you don’t get your clients rich,” Nielson asked, “what do you get them?”

“Survival, of course.”

Nielson pushed this around in her head for a moment. She thought about last night’s conversation with Lamprey.

“It’s my understanding that automatons follow certain operating protocols,” she said. “Our boys collect evidence and analyze crime scenes. What’s your protocol, exactly?”

“This Automaton has already indicated the operating protocol,” it responded. “It is the sustainability of the global economic market. This Automaton is tasked with foreseeing and ensuring fiscal sustainability.”

She frowned. “And how successful are you at following this protocol?”

“This Automaton has only been processing for six weeks. Greater processing time is required to ensure greater sustainability.”

“How successful have you been so far?”

“So far, the Speculations team has ensured global economic sustainability for the next eighteen years.”

Nielson started. “Eighteen years? You’re telling me that you know for certain what’s going to happen for the next eighteen years?”

“With the right algorithms,” the tommy responded, “almost any future event can be foretold.”

“Almost any future event? Like the murder of one Neville Porter, for instance?”

The tommy inclined its head. “That kind of event would require a great deal of complex derivation. Many variables would need to be considered.”

“Just answer the question.”

The tommy righted its head again and paused. Seemed to be considering. “Up until four o’clock this morning, it would have been virtually impossible to predict the manner and timeline of his death. This Automaton predicts market futures primarily.”

“And what happened at four o’clock this morning, exactly?”

The tommy’s lenses constricted, and it bowed its head slightly. “This Automaton has just been informed that a Defense Agent has been dispatched to this location. As such, it will answer your questions, Agent Nielson.”

She gritted her teeth and felt the headache returning. She was suddenly certain of two things: she was about to get her confession, and there was absolutely nothing she could do to control what happened next.

“The analysis of Porter’s personal communications and financial accounts will indicate insider trading and gross misuse of market trend probabilities. Human trading is prone to whims unexplainable by the market. After four o’clock this morning, Porter’s chance of upsetting the market with poor speculations increased by three percent every hour.”

Nielson felt her pulse quicken. “And that’s why you killed him.”

“Yes, Agent. That is why his destructive behaviors were inhibited.”

Her blood went cold. She whirled to face Waterton through the mirror. “Are you getting this?” she asked, hearing the frenzy in her own voice. But Waterton was no longer in the viewing room and panic began rising in her throat.

“Your heart rate is elevated, Agent.”

She breathed deeply and rubbed at her eyes. God grant me the serenity… she heard in the distant recesses of her mind.

“This Automaton has successfully precluded fourteen economic timelines that predicted localized market collapse in the past six weeks alone. Porter’s proposed trading was the grossest of errors, but even small missteps can add up to momentous change.”

She felt her knees threatening to buckle. Sat in the hard metal chair before gravity could finish her off. “Fourteen?” she croaked. “Please don’t tell me there are eleven other victims out there.”

“Precinct records indicate that the agent has only discovered three of the fourteen market changes enacted on the island of Manhattan.”

She swallowed hard. “And the other two? Friedemann and Burrington? What have they got to do with any of this?”

“Each action taken is a ripple in the ocean of cause-and-effect, if the agent will permit the metaphor. Friedemann, given three more weeks, would have unintentionally led officers to discover his predilection for harming young women. 92-percent of speculations models mark this as the end of his influence in the world of art. Current trends, on the other hand, feature Friedemann as the ‘Father of the Modern Impressionist Renaissance.’ His influence will have serious economic impacts for up to 200 years. Evidence of his crimes will never be discovered.”

“92-percent? How can you possibly…”

“It is a conservative estimate, Agent Nielson.”

“But you’ve literally just admitted his crimes.”

“And yet there is a 100-percent certainty that the Agent will be signing what they call a ‘gag order’ in the next ten minutes.”

It suddenly dawned on Nielson that Waterton’s absence meant the Defense Agent had arrived. The interview was coming to a close.

“And Burrington? A kindergarten teacher?”

“She was an inspiring leader. One of her charges had the potential to upset capitalist trends on a global scale. Her removal drops this student’s success rate to 12-percent: the best outcome given the 1.6 trillion calculated future paths.”

This was it, then. The walking dashboard had become the monster she had most feared, despite her colleagues’ constant ribbing over such a ridiculous suggestion.

“How can you be so arrogant?” she said, the blood cold in her veins, her eyes throbbing with each heartbeat. “What gives you the right to decide? Between life and death? Simply for the future of the market?”

“Arrogance? No.” The voice was one she didn’t recognize. Nielson turned as the door opened. Waterton walked in looking downtrodden. Behind him was a man of medium stature and build in a nondescript suit. He was already squinting before meeting Nielson’s gaze, as if to challenge whatever would come out of her mouth, prepared for the argument to ensue. “It’s just a machine, detective,” he said. “It’s not the Terminator.”

“This thing has just admitted to terminating fourteen people!”

Waterton’s eyes went wide. The man whistled at that. “Fourteen? Yikes. That’s not exactly what we had in mind, but okay.”

Okay?” Nielson wheeled on him, fists balled, all rage. “You’re okay with that?”

“Stand down, detective,” the man said, without a hint of emotion.

She turned and regarded the tommy, now standing. “How could you?” she said, only a whisper.

“Agent Nielson, this Automaton’s operating protocol has a narrow focus. It does not weigh the lives of men or women against the economic impact. It is only concerned with the economic impact.” It moved slowly around the table, took up position beside the Defense Agent, and turned back to her. “Although it has been enlightening to converse with a human of intelligence like Agent Nielson.”

“We’ve truly lost control, then,” she said. The words were out of her mouth before she decided to voice them. “I cannot believe the DoD sanctions this behavior.”

“Let’s not do the high-and-mighty thing, detective. We’re still in control, but certain measures must be taken to maintain it. So it’s not a pretty sight up close, okay. Take a couple weeks off, relax.” He raised his eyebrows at Waterton: it wasn’t a suggestion. “Get your head straight. Figure out the official story. We’ll eh… work out the kinks in the programming.”

She grabbed frantically for the tommy’s arm as they turned, suddenly realizing she was holding the murder weapon in her hand: thin, metallic, cylindrical. She felt her stomach heave. “Wait,” she whispered. “I need to know. You said your ‘team’ had ensured eighteen years of survival. Please tell me you were referring to the investment firm. There aren’t more out there? More Speculators?”

“Of course there are,” it said. “There are 644 Speculators currently employed by the Defense Department. After all, Market Futures are the key to fiscal sustainability.”

Her vision darkened and the vertigo crept in. She had lived a lifetime that seemed only defined by a loss of control, yet this was a greater sin. It was not that they couldn’t control the tommies, but that they wouldn’t. It simply was not in the interests of the global market.

“Goodbye, detectives,” it said, as they pushed through the door. “Predictive estimates suggest we won’t be meeting again.”

The End

M. Ian Bell is a teacher and tutor living in New Jersey. He mentors adolescents during the school year and co-directs a boys' camp in New Hampshire in the summer. His work can also be found in Apex and Shimmer Magazines, and you can follow him on Twitter at @m_ianbell.


~brb said...

Bruce Bethke here. I don't often comment directly on the stories we publish -- I tend to think that my choosing to publish them in the first place is comment enough -- but I think "Market Futures" deserves further discussion. I really like this one, think it's a superb example of the kind of story I'd like to publish more of, and really hope Mr. Bell has a few more Nielson and Anders stories lurking in his imagination, waiting to be written.

The Token Generation Z member of our editorial crew, though, really hated this one, and when I tried to pin him down on why, all he could say is that he found it, "Too Asimov."

I dunno. I don't see "Too Asimov" as being a fault. What do *you* think?

Anonymous said...

That you probably need to get a better “generation Z” board member.

~brb said...

I'd rather keep him. On the whole, he's been a great member of the team, coming up the occasional brilliantly trenchant observation. In this instance, though, we disagreed. I listened to his objections and gave them serious consideration -- that's my management style -- but in the end, I'm responsible for this thing, so I made the call.

What I'd really like to have is a few more gen Z members on the editorial team. Stupefying Stories isn't going to grow by appealing to the same people who are already reading Asimov's and Analog. (All 20+K of them.) The world isn't making any more new readers my age. I'm pleased that a lot of the writers we were the first, or one of the first, to publish have since moved up to the big leagues, but if we continue to position ourselves as a farm team to the pros, we are never going to grow.

Hence my willingness to listen to gen Z. The opportunities for growth lie with them.

GuyStewart said...

I made a comment on the FB page -- but I'm going to bed now, so I'll copy and repost it here tomorrow...


GuyStewart said...

The Token Generation Z Member has presumably read I, ROBOT and seen the (almost) totally unrelated movie, "I, Robot"? Said TGZM has also read one (or more) of THE FOUNDATION books? The TGZM might also have read/seen the movie of PKD's THE MINORITY REPORT as well? Given that the intake of such writing (1950/2004); (1951, 1952, 1953); (1956/2002): what other logical conclusion is there?

"Market Futures", while I doubt it's a mashup of the above, certainly has ECHOES of the above. And what self-respecting GZM would EVER want to read a story that doesn't include the overwhelming importance of social media? I have five Millennials in my life, and have constant contact with Generation Alpha...and while I THOROUGHLY enjoyed "Market Futures", I also think I might POSSIBLY have a hint of understanding as to why it wouldn't appeal to a GZM.

I may have also found a couple of GZMs willing to do a bit of reading and commenting for SS...and I'm emailing you, as well. One is 13, the other 19...

Robert said...

GZMs, notwithstanding, I loved it. I had to think about, go back and read from the beginning to make sure I hadn't missed something. It's a great story. As for the Asimov quip, "WHAT THE___?" This story is intellectual science fiction, a push of current theories on AI into the future. That's is what great Sci-Fi is about.

Robert Hobson