Voluntary contracts, after a while.

Monday, 12 November, Year 4 d.Tr. | Author: Mircea Popescu

Let's make a mental experiment, they're fun things.

So, let's presume that GPG-contracts as described here earlier are now the norm, and as discussed their enforcement is purely voluntary. Obviously this means records are kept of who did and who did not live up to his word. Admitting for the sake of discussion that these records are perfect in all ways, what'd be the possible evolutions ?

I. All people become strongly acculturated in the GPG-contract mindset. As such, one's word becomes a paramount attribute of the self, guarded with utmost jealousy. People routinely prefer death or even major inconveniencei to breaking their word. The exceptions are rare and don't survive long, which reinforces the outlook.

This would be a sort of society very much reminiscent of traditional Japan, or if looking closer to home something pretty similar to classical times in both Rome and Athens (different time periods, same principle) as well as the various respective Golden Ages in pretty much all European cultures.

II. Some people become strongly acculturated in the GPG-contract mindset ; some others do not. The split may fall along what may appear religious or philosophical divides, but I strongly suspect this may well be just a mask for a much older divide : the Neanderthals versus the Cro-Magnons, if you wish, the settled agrarian tribe versus the migratory hunter-gatherers, the lazy Negro versus the hard working WASP, the thieving gypsies invading complacent Europe, however you may wish to paint it the fact remains there's two sorts of people in this world and only one sort tends to stick to their word.

While a situation of this sort may indeed be stable (if the source of both types resides in the genetic mark-up of the species and the extermination of any group of either persuasion wouldn't be capable of extinguishing their kind), it seems improbable that any sort of stable situation can ever be reached. The future seen through this prism would be endless waxing and waning warfare and agreement, with alternating upper hands and no possibility of any resolution.

III. People are wired to consider the visible and discount the invisible. As such, they are bound to make contracts that imperfectly account of all contingencies. This is a stochastic process, and with the passing of time any arbitrary level of untenable contracts will have been entered into. Once this eventuality actualises, the number of contract-breakers exceeds the number of agents with immaculate reputations, this giving birth to a second community within the group of those shunned by the original community. In time this later may rise to prominence and the original may crumble into dust, but then after a finite time the contingency will revisit again, giving birth to yet another subgroup and so on.

This system is very much akin to how the aristocracy worked in medieval Europe as well as everywhere else where nobility existed as a socially-relevant institution : few of the most respected today could trace their pedigree with any degree of proof more than a few centuries back, at which point their ancestors weren't in the leading ranks, and those in the leading ranks then are nowhere to be found now.

I'm not entirely sure what other alternatives are, if indeed there are any. But, to keep things interesting let's have a little contest, as follows :

  1. Anyone interested is to write a short story of no less than four and no more than six thousand words, in which to detail one of the three proposed evolutions, or a forth of their own imagination. This is intended as a work of fiction, and all the devices and means of fictions may freely be employed.
  2. That piece will be published, either on the author's own blog or in the comment section of this article. In the former case, a link to this article should be included so I can see the trackback.
  3. Two weeks from now, that's to say at the end of November the 26th One month from now, that's December the 12th I will review all submissions and offer four prizes of 5 BTC each : three for the best respective representation of each point detailed above, and a fourth for that representation which best represents a situation that should have been included but it never occured to me in the first place.
  4. A fifth prize, equal to as many BTC as the count of valid entries participating (but not more than 100 BTC) will be awarded, by the vote of the participants themselves (I'll be paying it, but the people submitting vote who gets it).
  5. If the participants included a Bitcoin address with their work, the eventual prize will be sent there. If not, they will have to claim their prize by emailing from the same address as either used to leave the comment or originating from the domain their blog is hosted on.

I'm really curious what comes of this.

———
  1. Ha ha only funny. []
Category: Concursuri
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  1. "State your identification."
    "Five-Nine-Echo-Bravo, Eight-Delta-Alpha-Two, Echo-Nine-Nine-Alpha"
    "State your purpose."
    "Trade."
    "Please provide suitable monetary identification to confirm available credit."
    "Starting One, Hotel, Echo, X-ray, Golf, Tango. Ending Hotel, Mike, November, One, India."
    "Please send the specified amount to the address displayed below."

    59EB:8DA2:E99A stared through his glasses at the matrix displayed on the glowing screen. The panels in front of his eyes drew a strobing red rectangle over the array of black and white squares, and after flexing his frontalis muscles with the requisite intensity (59EB didn't like blink controls), a small box popped up in his vision bearing the text "Confirm Transaction?" along with some relevant details. 59EB glanced at the small "Yes" button and flexed again.
    "Monetary identity confirmed. Welcome, Five-Nine-Echo-Bravo." There was an audible clink as the electromagnets holding the entrance gate in place powered down, and the magnets in the gate behind him powered up simultaneously. The entrance gate swung inwards. 59EB stepped through the gate, down a flight of stairs, and into a sea of people, market stalls, and a smoggy haze that was the result of congealing steam and smoke from the vast multitude of hot food vendors. This continued for several hundred meters in any given direction. The entire area was poorly lit by cool-white ceiling-mounted flood lights about ten meters above. 59EB was in the Bazaar.
    The Bazaar was housed in a decommissioned airplane hangar. It was purchased from the government after the metal wars. They used to use it to hold the massive directed-energy attack planes, but those had all been torn up and recycled years ago. The hangar did nothing but cost money, so the government auctioned it off. No one really wanted it; it wouldn't make a practical office building or datacenter, and it wasn't near enough to any shipping lanes to make sense for a shipping company to pick up. Some twenty-something college student ended up buying it for about the price of a mid-range car and turned it into this.
    "This" was essentially a giant mall with a rather unique schtick: all transactions that took place here were supposed to be anonymous. That didn't mean that merchants couldn't know who they were selling to, or vice-versa; it simply meant that the identities used in the Bazaar were supposed to be kept separate from "real-world" identities. The implication was that people were to use cryptography to replace traditional identity and reputation systems. Not everyone in the Bazaar actually did this, but most of them tried their hardest. This was what 59EB was doing at the entrance to the Bazaar; he had to prove that he could be trusted.
    A few months after the Bazaar took off, it started attracting a crowd that was decidedly unfriendly to business. It started with people who were mostly harmless: small-time drug dealers and users, your average political radicals and activists, etc. But after a while, drug dealers started getting into turf fights, small-time dealers were replaced by bigger and badder ones, some of the political radicals started getting a bit violent, and muggers started to pervade the marketplace. In an attempt to put and end to all this, the owner set up a series of conditional-entrance systems. Basically, a visitor had to prove that they had money to spend, and if they did, the system ran some analytical algorithms on their money to see if they could be correlated to previous unwelcome visitors with some degree of certainty. If the machine ultimately did determine that someone was likely to be trouble, it would deny them entrance. This system was not perfect; it generated a lot of false positives and nearly as many false negatives, but it deterred the vast majority of whichever groups the owner decided he didn't like. You average thugs weren't wealthy or tech-savvy enough to avoid the credit/reputation check.
    Evidently 59EB's money didn't set off any warning bells, because he came here regularly with no trouble. Of course, a monetary identifier is just one way of holding a reputation. Many of the sellers in the Bazaar didn't care where your money came from; they were more concerned about your reliability as a buyer or partner. People with good reputations got better deals on loans, better offers from pawnbrokers, and had an easier time finding work. The money identification system worked for credit checks, but it lacked the flexibility needed for complex contracts, reputation-based escrow, and various services that tried to tell merchants who the risky business was. But with the no-real-world-identities policy, merchants couldn't exactly make their customers use government-issued IDs. Personal relationships were possible, but generally not practical given the number of people in the Bazaar.
    In place of names and plastic ID cards, people in the Bazaar often used *PG. *PG ("Star-P-G") referred to a variety of software and hardware systems that allowed people to use public-key cryptography. At the most basic level, *PG allowed people to do two things; they could keep messages private between whomever they chose, and they could generate messages that were almost unquestionably created by them. If they ever denied creating such a message, they were either lying or their identity had been compromised. Either way, they would have to sacrifice the entire reputation that they had built up with that digital identity
    It was this second property that made *PG so valuable in the Bazaar. If someone created a contract saying "I will pay back so-and-so this much money for this loan" and signed it so that it was mathematically provable to originate from them, then their reputation was irrevocably tied to their success in following through on the contract. If they ever reneged on a contract that they had digitally signed, their digital identity could be permanently marked as that of a liar and a thief. If they ever wanted to trade in the Bazaar again, they would have to start over with a new identity and no reputation.
    Because of this, reputations were very hard-earned and valuable. There were people who made a career out of building and selling digital identities. They were essentially fake-ID salesman, and the value of the identities that they sold was in the reputation that those identities held. There were also identity thieves. These thieves would watch for people who were careless or didn't know what they were doing, and they would steal the data that grants one control of a digital identity. The people purchasing these identities generally did so with the intention of either stealing a sum of borrowed money (the maximum size of which was proportional to the amount of trust the borrowing identity garnered) or ruining the reputation of the identity they were purchasing.
    In the Bazaar, there was a very well-known merchant who was called Ali. He ran a very popular kebab stand and had garnered a reputation as a very friendly and charitable man. Before the credit checks at the entrance, he would give out free food to homeless people wandering the bazaar. He was known to offer help to small businesses that were having a hard time starting out. He obviously cared vary much about his customers as well; he took any complaints about his food very seriously, and refused to take payment from unhappy customers. However, Ali wasn't very tech-savvy. He kept his *PG software on his cell phone, without paying much attention to security. A few years ago, someone evidently swiped his identity files from his phone wirelessly, because they took out a huge loan with the *PG identity used by Ali. No one believed that Ali had taken out the loan; his religion forbade it, and anyone who knew Ali personally would say that he took his religion seriously. The thief had never been caught, but forensic analysis showed that someone had indeed copied Ali's *PG data (and done a sloppy job of hiding it). The general consensus was that Ali was not technologically sophisticated enough to pull off such a stunt, and this consensus was never seriously questioned. Of course, given the fact that Ali's digital identity had been stolen and copied, it could never be trusted again. It was only because of Ali's very significant personal reputation that he was able to quickly gain trust with his new digital identity (now properly secured and encrypted). If Ali had been one of the many lesser-known merchants who only used *PG identities, he would probably have had to start over from scratch, as he would have no way to regain trust or prove that he did not actually owe the lender a large sum of money.
    59EB was one of those people who was known only by his *PG identity. Of course, 59EB was not his real name. 59EB:8DA2:E99A was a digital identifier that allowed anyone he did business with to download his full identity and reputation from an array of servers that kept records of digital identities. The credit check at the entrance asked for his *PG identity as a courtesy; there was a section in his downloadable identity file that indicated his preferred name (in this case simply the first four digits of his digital identifier). 59EB had a fairly solid reputation. He had followed through on a good number of contracts, with only a few minor complaints (mostly attributable to people who, themselves possessing questionable reputations, were prone to complain excessively about others).
    59EB's purpose in the Bazaar that day was directly related to Ali's unfortunate identity theft a few years back. A short time ago, 59EB had gone to the Bazaar looking to buy some new computer hardware. On his way from the entrance to the electronics market, he had been accosted by a diminutive man who evidently had some sort of mental deficiency. The man spoke with the voice of a severe stroke victim and had the mannerisms of an autist. The man bade 59EB follow him, and led them to a nearly-empty area of the bazaar that specialized in the sale of furniture. Once hidden amongst stacks of chairs and couches, the man handed 59EB a small data drive and explained, with some stuttering and repetition of words, that the information on it was very valuable, but that he was giving it to 59EB for free, as 59EB knew "how to use it". The man asked 59EB not to follow him, and left 59EB alone amongst the furniture.
    59EB plugged the data drive into his palmtop and told the device to connect the drive to a heavily supervised operating system running on simulated hardware. He figured that there was a good chance he had just been given some kind of malicious data-stealing device, and that it was best not to take chances. As best 59EB was able to tell, there was nothing malicious about the drive; just a bunch of files encrypted for his *PG identity.
    59EB had taken the data drive home with him so he could decrypt its contents in a secure environment on his home computer. He ended up with several hundred gigabytes of data, separated into folders titled with names or digital identifiers just like the one 59EB used. Choosing a folder at random, he found several more folders and a small plaintext file. Opening the text file, he found what appeared to be a dossier on someone identified as "B43C:7201:7CC9". There were several hundred lines containing alarmingly specific personal details and descriptions, including what the person ate on various days, whom they tended to spend time with, and a real name (which was hard to come by in the Bazaar). Towards the end of the file, something stood out to 59EB; there was a section entitled "Crime(s):". In this section, there were a number of moral and contractual offenses such as "Stole items from 9BEC (see photo(s) 622AE396)" and "Committed assault on unidentified victim (see video C4DD5989)". In the folder containing the text file, some of the various folders held the names mentioned in the dossier. Opening one of them, 59EB found a series of images from various perspectives depicting the person in question glancing around furtively, swiping some jewelry off of a countertop, shoving it in his pocket, and shuffling away.
    59EB spent several hours looking through the various folders that he had decrypted, and found them all to contain similar material. All of them held a dossier describing someone's identity (digital and sometimes real-world) as well as a crime they had apparently committed and evidence against them. It was as if some kind of maniacally obsessed stalker or private investigator had done the research work of a hundred men. One of the people that 59EB stumbled across in the series of dossiers was the man who had stolen Ali's *PG identity files. Somehow, whoever made this archive of criminal data managed to get his hands on a series of digitally signed messages detailing this person's involvement in the theft of Ali's identity.
    59EB had an idea of why this information was given to him. 59EB managed the most popular identity server in the Bazaar. This was one of the servers that, given an identifier, would return a large amount of identity and reputation-related data. It wasn't hard to imagine how the strange man wanted 59EB to use this data; he was supposed to put this data directly onto his identity server. There was no system in place for someone to anonymously submit this kind of criminal evidence to the identity servers, and if 59EB were to set one up on his server and submit the evidence through that, it would be painfully obvious that he was the one to "anonymously" submit all of the damning data he held. He supposed he could set the system up and wait a few years to submit this evidence, but by that time most of the evidence would be worthless and thousands of crimes would have been committed that could have been stopped. The responsibility fell on 59EB to upload this data himself.
    So there 59EB was, back in the Bazaar. He had separated the data into two sections. One, associating crimes with cryptographic identities, was to be uploaded to the identity server. The other, associating crimes with real-world identities (if available) might be sent to the police. 59EB wasn't sure how he felt about the second part; he felt that abuse of police powers was one of the biggest reasons that people turned to such radical anonymity as that offered by the Bazaar. However, he felt that as long as he only provided the police with data on what were fairly straightforward crimes (e.g. theft, assault, murder), he wouldn't feel too bad about any action that came from the police as a result. He decided to defer decision on this until later.
    59EB walked through the Bazaar, taking it in. Steam and smoke rose up to the ceiling from the widely dispersed food courts. Bright, monochromatic light shone from LED and neon shop signs. Harsh and actinic, but not exceptionally bright, blue-white light drifted down from the ceiling, digging into the swathes of shadow created by the various haphazard tents, mobile carts, and other temporary buildings that comprised the majority of the Bazaar.
    He made it to the data section. This was the part of the Bazaar where people set up performance computing equipment. People in the data section were selling computing power, storage space, and data transport. The data section was concentrated to this corner because this was the only area with ultra-high-current power lines and direct fiber-optic connections into the area's various high-bandwidth data carriers.
    59EB walked towards a bland concrete shack, about five meters to a side and three tall. This was one of the few permanent structures inside the Bazaar, and served to hold the various computer equipment that the owner considered directly relevant to Bazaar operations. 59EB's server was evidently considered to be directly relevant. 59EB walked towards the rack that held his identity server. The server was a simple machine; the most expensive parts were two mid-range CPUs and a few big data drives in a single rack. As he got closer, he felt himself slowing down. He stood in front of the server for a few minutes, staring at it. He plugged in the portable data drive that he had loaded with relevant information and established a connection between his glasses and the server.
    This wasn't going to be as simple for 59EB as just uploading the data and forgetting about it. It was common knowledge that he was the administrator of this particular server. If he uploaded all of this damning evidence, it would ruin quite a few positively held identities and earn him many enemies. Some of those enemies, judging by their dossiers, were the kind of people who would not hesitate to resort to violence if they felt that someone was deserving of their ire. If 59EB uploaded these documents, he would have to give up his identity to preserve his life.
    59EB had been careful to ensure that his *PG identity was far removed from his permanent, biological identity. He took many digital precautions, and he always ensured that his physical appearance was so disparate from reality that no computer or human would be able to associate his natural look and the way he chose to look in the Bazaar. Every time he came to the Bazaar, he wore different hair, a different skin color, a different bone structure (this was achieved through a large selection of high-quality prosthetics and concealing apparel). He was essentially the polar opposite of Ali in this sense; if he were to have his digital identity stolen, there would be basically no way for him to easily regain any of the trust used to have.
    If 59EB uploaded these documents and continued to use his current digital identity, it would be trivial to physically locate him. While one was in the Bazaar, a digital identity could be just as powerful as a real one. The only way for him to ensure his own safety was to start over. If he did this, he would lose everything he worked so hard to gain here. He would no longer have the trust of merchants and customers in the Bazaar. He would lose all those friends that he only knew through his digital identity. He could sacrifice himself and bring down these criminals with him, or he could save himself at the expense of the Bazaar.
    59EB executed a script he had prepared and placed on the portable data drive. Hundreds of digital identities were made worthless in the amount of time it took him to turn around and start walking away from the server. 59EB:8DA2:E99A was gone, never to be heard from again.

    1JXnwu1H8UjGYmLCRufD83nWtNYX2afECb

  2. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    2
    Mircea Popescu 
    Friday, 23 November 2012

    Ahhh, the first story! Welcome.

  3. I'm in.

  4. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    4
    Mircea Popescu 
    Monday, 26 November 2012

    And then there twere two!

  5. Oh, forgot my address: 1NpF1qXNW9UWSoxmtttkQVfdFzryaiozLF

  6. Alice didn’t really like to socialize with people. The house she was in was a bit too full for her liking. Several other pale looking crypto nerds made idle conversation, most with an uncomfortable stammer or overt displays of enthusiasm.
    She only really knew Eve, and a few of the others - friends, and people a few hops away in her social network.

    By the end of today though, it would be different - this was a key signing party; and by the end of it they would all be closer.
    The coordinator was one of those alpha geeks - dominant, and a stickler for procedure. He cleared his throat a few times, and straightened his tee-shirt.

    "Welcome everyone, are we ready to start?"

    Conversation died off, and people began to rummage through pockets or bags for the list of public keys.

    "So, you have all sent me your public keys prior to today. I've generated the keyring and distributed the text file. Has everyone brought a copy?"

    Murmurs of agreement were issues. A twitchy looking guy Alice didn't know nodded vigorously.

    "Has everyone checked their own keys are present on the list? And that the checksums are all ok?"

    Eve injected herself into the conversation, having spent most of the night so far listening.

    "I noticed something a little bit funny with the checksums..."

    The coordinator did not like this at all - the key signing party was going off-plan here.

    "What do you mean, funny? I checked this list twice!"

    "Well... it's the checksums - take a look at key #2 and key #5," said Eve.

    Everyone rustled their hard copy. The twitchy looking guy's eyes widened. Alice couldn't see what the fuss was about. She looked closely for a moment... 70096AD1? That looked like her key's short id... but the first key had it as well? What was going on?

    The coordinator was red-faced, and began insisting he had made no mistakes in shrill tones.

    Alice didn't know what this meant. How could there be another key like hers? The odds of it... they must be astronomical.

    The twitchy guy began to twitch a little more, and with jittery hands waved everyone to silence.

    "There's no mistake," he said. "My key is #2. Who's got #5?"

    Alice made eye contact with him - twitchy, yes, but kind of cute. "I do".

    Everyone began talking at once - a few began tweeting. This wasn't the first time a collision had happened, but it was almost unheard of none the less.

    The coordinator flushed angrily, he was losing control. "Alice, Bob - I need to ask you to leave! We can't have this sort of thing spoiling our web of trust!"

    Alice felt a flash of anger, Bob simply looked surprised. "Well... ok... I guess, we'll leave then!" he uttered. Alice didn't say anything, and simply grabbed her coat, stomping to the front door. Eve stayed, listening to the chaos.

    Alice slammed it open and stepped outside, turning to march down the street. Twitchy - no; Bob - hurried after her. He caught up with her - "Hey wait!"

    "What is it?!," Alice asked, probably a bit more harshly than she intended.

    "That's incredible! We've got a key collision!", he exclaimed

    "So?"

    "Well.. don't you think that's amazing?"

    Begrudgingly, she admitted it was the case. It wasn't his fault they had to leave, she supposed. He *was* kind of attractive, in a pale geeky kind of way. So when he asked, "Did you want to grab a coffee?" she simply said

    "Yes".

    That had been five years ago. They were young then, and ever since that first meeting the feeling of kismet had grown.
    They shared the same kind of quirky interests, and had grown up within a few kilometres of each other, never having met.

    The relationship deepened, they started dating, and eventually moved in together.

    When Bob asked Alice to marry him, Alice didn’t hesitate.

    For the second time in her life, she turned to Bob and said something that would change her life.

    “Yes”

    The wedding was a small affair. Eve came. Both of them didn’t have many friends, preferring each other’s company.

    They said their vows in quiet, shy tones - to love and to hold, to trust and to cherish, till death do us part - and slipped on the rings that bound them.

    Known only to a few of their friends present, etched inside each ring was the public key they had brought to that key signing party, where they had first been thrust together by chance.

    It was their secret, a little inside joke between them.

    The priest smiled, and closed the bible - his words seemed muffled as Alice turned to Bob. That was it, they were married!

    Alice closed her eyes and kissed Bob, for the first time as man and wife.

    Bob ended up having to travel for his work a lot during the next few years. Skype sessions and telecommuting only took him so far - he had to get his boots on the ground, and speak to engineers or sysadmins more than he liked.

    Alice grew lonely. Her husband was her closest friend, but she began to resent his absence. She felt lost. Eve wasn’t much comfort during this time, occasionally coming around; but never saying anything of substance - just listening.

    Bob would come back for a day or a weekend, then fly out again. Their dinners, once quiet discussions of things that fascinated them both began to grow stale, then cold.

    Months passed, and Alice felt her whole existence had narrowed down to a point where silence was the major thing in her life.
    She found herself upset for no reason she could understand, and grew even more despondent.

    Bob could see these changes, but didn’t know why. His wife was unhappy, and he buried himself further in his work to avoid the cruel reality - his marriage was failing.

    Eve sat in the kitchen, holding her tea, listening intently. Alice felt tears well up.

    “It’s not that we even need the money! We have hundreds of thousands, but there’s no way for us to spend it all! I just don’t understand why he has to work so much,” she sobbed to Eve.

    Eve didn’t say anything, always listening, nodding in sympathy. Eve couldn’t believe the problems Alice was having - too much money? Who has too much money! she thought. Not me, that’s for sure.

    “Ever since we were married, we’ve haven’t even had the time to update our keys. Our keys for goodness sake. We’re still using the same old ones from when we first met! He’s not even interstate next week, just forty minutes away; but it might as well be a thousand miles...”

    Alice snuffled her way through this week’s lamet, while Eve ruminated....

    Mallory looked at her sister in disbelief.

    "She's alone most of the time?"

    Eve nodded.

    "She has hundreds of thousands of dollars?"

    Eve nodded again.

    “Neither her husband or her have changed their keys in years? And they have a key collision?,” Mallory asked.

    Eve smiled. Mallory smiled back. This is going to work out well...

    Eve was back in the kitchen. Alice’s eyes were red, a wadded up tissue in her right fist. Bob is away again.

    Carefully, Alice inhaled, then exhaled, trying to get a grip on her emotions. Just as she was about to launch into another wave of self pity, a shattering of glass interrupted her.

    "What was that? Did you hear that?," Alice asked. Her heart rate went up a notch. This wasn't normal. Glass doesn't just break itself - was there something wrong? It was the late afternoon, not many people would be home from work.

    Was a burglar trying to break in?

    Alice looked at Eve. Eve blinked, looking worried.

    Alice stepped over to the knife block, and grabbed the largest meanest looking knife she could see. Quietly, she stepped towards the sound, slipping into the hallway. A gloved hand was reaching for the door handle through a broken pane of glasss.

    This sight send a pang of fear through Alice. She wavered, even as the fumbling hand caught hold of the door knob, and managed to funble the lock off.

    Alice began to panic. She forgot the knife she was carrying and back into the kitchen, hissing at Eve.

    "Someone is breaking in... call the police!"

    Eve went white, and began to fumble around in her purse.

    The opening of a door, followed by footsteps could be heard. These weren't the footsteps of some cat burglar, someone attempting to conceal themselves. They were brash, confident. Alice began to hyperventilate.

    A woman, holding a small pistol, stepped into the kitchen and fired once into the wall.

    Alice screamed. Eve dropped her phone and ducked under the table.

    "Don't move, " the woman commanded.

    Eve looked up at her sister, Mallory, who took two brisk steps forward and hit Eve with the butt of her pistol.

    "I said, don't move"

    Alice couldn't comprehend what was happening. A silence settled in - no longer the silence of a lonely house, but one pregnant with danger.

    Alice's ears were ringing from the shot. The woman grabbed Eve by her arm, half lifting, half pulling. A trickle of blood seeped from Eve's lip, but she followed the rough physical shoves.

    Eve found herself leant half over the table. The woman cocked the gun and pushed it into Eve's throat. It smelt of cordite, of the heat of a recently discharged round. Eve whimpered.

    "I'm here to take your money. If you complain, I'll shoot. If you make a sound, I'll shoot. Take off your rings," said Mallory, looking directly at Alice.

    "W-w-," was all Alice could manage. Where was Bob? Where was anyone? Surely someone heard the glass or the shot.

    Mallory lifted the gun from her sister and pointed it at Alice.

    "Take. Off. Your. Jewellery."

    The threat of the gun and the pumping adrenalin finally broke through to Alice. She began to fumble at her rings, never taking her eyes off of the deadly weapon pointed at her.

    Her hands were slick with sweat, but she finally got her wedding ring off.

    "Give it to me," commanded Mallory.

    Alice didn't move, her feet cemented in place by fear.

    Mallory stepped around the table, and over to Alice, grabbing her by the hair. Alice's knees went weak.

    "T-T-take it, leave us alone, " she stammered, holding up the ring.

    Mallory kneed her in the stomach.

    "I'm the one who makes the decisions," she hissed.

    Alice gasped for air, suddenly winded, falling down more from shock and fear than pain.

    Mallory picked up the ring, and kicked at Alice, who was curling into a ball on the floor.

    “Now you are going to tell me a few secrets, aren’t you?” Mallory said, pointing the pistol at Eve but staring at Alice.

    In her state of fear, Alice could only think one thing.

    Yes, anything to be left alone, yes.

    Bob’s phone buzzed with a new text message. It was a withdrawal of funds notification, over a pre-set limit, from his bank..

    Funny. Unless Alice is … shopping? But this is a hundred thousand dollars - that’s got to be a mistake.

    Bob frowned, and excused himself from the meeting.

    Alice cried uncontrollably. Mallory had hit her, kicking and screaming at her. This wasn't a robbery. She wanted bank details. She wanted security codes.

    She wanted Alice's private key.

    At first, Alice had thought about lying, but she was afraid for Eve - Eve who sat there, not saying a word, listening to the entire situation in a state of shock with a weapon trained on her.

    Ten minutes in, she broke. There was no way out but to give up her private key. She told Mallory the passphrase, and watched as it was unlocked on a nearby computer.

    At least Eve was going to be alright. That was Alice's last thought, as Mallory turned towards her, levelled the pistol and fired twice into her body.

    Bob couldn't understand. He tried to authenticate with the bank's online site, but the wireless on his phone was terrible. He'd been meaning to replace it, it kept dropping access at a cruical moment or another.

    He dialed Alice's phone, but it wouldn't connect.

    Finally, Eve spoke.

    "You didn't have to hit me so hard, sis."

    Mallory looked a bit sheepish. "I had to make it look real. She'd never have given up the key unless it seemed like she was really going to save her friend's life."

    "Even so, it's going to take a lot of time for this swelling to go down," Eve complained.

    Mallory didn't say anything. "Time is money - I'll give you an extra 5% cut of the 500,000 then - call it a pain and suffering allowance."

    "Gee, thanks sis, " replied Eve, sarcastically. Even as she said it though, she smiled. A two years salary in a day; transferred from Alice and Bob's account into bitcoins, and routed to the exchange via TOR. It would be a cross jurisdictional nightmare to follow the money - the local police were hardly at the level of Interpol when it came to this sort of thing.

    Mallory turned back to the computer, to make a few more last minute purchases.

    She turned to Eve.

    “We should go”

    They left the scene.

    Bob was frantic. He was in his car, only a few minutes away from his house. The alert messages had just kept coming. His bank balance was zero. What the hell was Alice doing?

    He barely noticed as he passed through the e-ticket toll booth, the total deducted from his account.

    Bob pulled up into his driveway. The automated roller door opened, he dashed in through the garage. He could hear sirens in the distance - some poor person getting pulled over a few blocks away, most likely.

    "Alice!", he shouted.

    There was no answer. He checked the living room, and the study. He dashed upstairs, accidentally stepping on a piece of glass. It crunched harmlessly under his shoe, and he charged up the stairs.

    "ALICE," he called. Where was she. What the hell was happening? He sat on the bed and tried his phone again for a few minutes, but to no avail.

    He was walking back down the stairs when it struck him. Glass? On the carpet?

    He turned towards the door. There was a figure on the other side, and someone has obviously smashed part of it. What...

    "This is the police. Open the door." The police officer hammered on the door heavily.

    The police? At his house? None of this made any sense.

    The police officer turned the handle and shoved the door. His partner swept into the room, brandishing a weapon. Bob simply stared, half way down the stairs.

    The cop trained the weapon on him and told him not to move.

    "Is anyone else home?", asked the cop.

    Bob stammered, feeling his nervous twitch come back with a vengeance. Bob stuck his hands up, almost comically.

    "I asked is anyone else home?"

    "Just... my wife.. but.."

    "Check the back," said the cop to his partner. He didn't lower the pistol.

    The other police officer moved down the hall, towards the kitchen.

    "Oh shit!" came the exclamation. "Take him into custody, now!"

    The detectives sat across from him, and stared.

    Bob stared back, blankly.

    “You’ve been read your rights?”

    Bob said nothing. He was shocked.

    “You understand that you are here in relation to the murder of your wife, Alice?”

    Bob was numb. It still didn’t make any sense at all. Why did they keep talking about Alice? Why did they keep saying murder?

    "You see Bob," said one detective, "We have you already. Why don't you just tell your side of the story."

    "We've got it all," said the other. "Logs of you cleaning out the bank account. The transaction with the airline to get a ticket for today. You have no alibi - we've checked. Everyone at your office says you looked at your phone, got up and left in a hurry."

    "Air-..?"

    "We've got logs. We've got logs of you passing through two different e-ticket points. We've got logs showing you arrived at your address at least within half an hour of the time of death - plenty of time for you to shoot her, go upstairs, and start preparing to flee. We've got officers at the scene discovering you with the body."

    "Just tell us what happened," cooed the original detective.

    “I don’t have to talk to you,” said Bob. He didn’t understand. Did they really think he would.. Alice.. dead? This isn’t real.

    “We’ve got the gun. We don’t need a confession - we’re going to do a gunshot residue test on you, showing you fired it. The bullets are going to match the gun. The gun is going to match your fingerprints.”

    Bob just looked back and forth at them. None of this is true. It’s some kind of game. I don’t know what they want. What gun?

    “I came home - I got an alert that my bank accounts were having money transferred. I couldn’t get in contact with Alice”

    “So, what? You got in your car, drove home, breaking the speed limit, walked inside and what then?”

    "I want to see my lawyer," The detectives looked at him. "I said I want to see my lawyer. I know my rights, I don't have to talk to you, you can't make me tell you anything without my lawyer. I want to see them."

    The detectives stepped away, and left the interview room. The first turned to the other. He looked tired.

    "I know he did it. I've got that feeling. Something just isn't right here."

    Hours later, lawyer present, the detectives and Bob sat again.

    “My client will agree to a gunshot residue test,” said the Lawyer. The detectives smiled.

    “He doesn’t get to agree or not, this is a murder investigation. One phone call and it’s a court order.”

    “Even so, let it be noted he is cooperating in the investigation while maintaining his innocence.”

    One detective exited the interview room, presumably to fetch a gunshot residue kit.

    The other looked directly at Bob.

    "Cooperation. Let's talk about that. It might interest you to know that there are a lot of commercial operations around that are really interested in cooperation. For example, Alice's bank."

    "What does that have to do with anything?"

    "Well, just as we might do a test to see if you have fired a gun recently, should we find that gun we'd look for fingerprints. In the case of your bank, there's another set of fingerprints. Access logs to bank accounts.

    “You might be interested to know that Alice's bank is very good with fingerprints - they take and log one every time someone accesses an account authenticated with their private keys. There's a time, there's a date, and we know it's accurate."

    Bob was puzzled as to what the detective was getting at. Did he know something about the missing funds?

    "The other thing we know is about when Alice was murdered. Help me with this - you say you arrived home about 3:40pm, right?"

    Bob nodded.

    "We know that Alice's time of death was between 3:10 and 3:30, from the pallor mortis. Pallor mortis is where the blood leaves the skin, giving a body a 'deathly pale' appearance.

    “What we know for sure is that Alice's bank accounts were accessed at 3:23pm, and a sizable amount of funding was transferred into bitcoins via an anonymous exchange.

    “The problem we have is this: there are no other records indicating anyone else has access to that account but her. Yet 10 minutes after her death, she decides to transfer a large amount of money. How do you suppose we explain that, Bob?"

    Bob swallowed, hard. “I was notified about the missing funds, that’s why I left.”

    “That doesn’t seem very likely. We’ve looked: there’s only ever been one key that can access that account, and it’s hers.”

    “We have a key that shares the same hash. If you only look at logs in a certain way... well you might only find that hash.”

    “You mean to tell me, that out of the millions of people - no, billions, with just about every citizen in every country having at least one private key - that you and your wife just happen to have an identical key.” The detective laughed.

    “You know, we catch criminals like you all the time. We get asked to believe the most amazing things. But I think this has got to be the most statistically unlikely.”

    “I didn’t say we had the same key, just the same fingerprint”

    “And that makes it so much difference. The odds are still millions to one. I think I’d sooner believe in santa claus.”

    “It does make a difference! It makes an order of magnitude difference!”

    The detective shook his head. “We think you killed her and took that key. How likely is it that her now 10 minutes dead body rose up, bought a plane ticket anonymously, and put it in your name. We think you’ve had that key for a while too.”

    The detective slid a printed piece of paper to him. His lawyer glanced briefly, then Bob picked it up.

    It was an email.

    It was an email written by Alice.

    Bob’s eyes widened, and he began to fume silently.

    “Pretty explicit, isn’t it. We think you’ve had Alice’s key for a while. We think you saw this. A letter to a lover. We think when you saw this, you were angry. Angry enough to plan out a murder. Angry enough to plan out your escape. We think you killed her, then started to execute your escape plan when the police arrived to arrest you. With her body in the kitchen. Still warm.”

    “I would never hurt her! I’ve never seen this email before in my life!”

    Bob’s lawyer touched his arm, and shook his head. He leant in to whisper. “The more you get worked up, the more they will push you. The more excited you get when they push you, the worse you come across.”

    Bob listened numbly, his paranoia in total control of his mind. This was some kind of setup. There was no way anyone would ever believe this. He’d been at work. Why wouldn’t they believe him? Someone must be out to get him.

    “I don’t want to answer any more questions.”

    The other detective returned, with the kit. He sat down and began to open it. The silence between his lawyer, the detectives and the rustling of the sterile packing.
    A swab was produced, and brushed against his hand.

    He said nothing.

    The surly detective taking the swab placed it in a container.

    His lawyer stood. “Detectives, my client has exercised his right to silence. You have your test. We’ve cooperated. This interview is over for now, I need to speak with my client in private.”

    They stood, without protest, and left.

    Bob put his head down on his folded arms and wept, thinking of Alice.

    The trial didn’t go well for Bob. The jury regarded his increasing paranoia with something regarding alarm - he was obviously a detached, slightly deranged murderer.

    His emphatic protests about the key collision were seen as rantings of a madman - everyone in the jury had their own private key. They knew just how secure it was.

    The circumstantial evidence was enough for them. The fact there was no gunshot residue was ignored. He’d been found with his wife’s body, by the police.
    The digital trail was his final undoing - it looked like he wanted to flee, it looked like he had access to his wife’s email for months. They found he had the means, motive and opportunity almost by the end of the first few hours.

    For the rest of the trial, he just sat sullenly. His lawyer seemed to accept the air of defeat.

    They convicted him after only four hours of deliberation.

    Outside, the two detectives smoked, and spoke in soft tones.

    “We’re lucky that guy is so unlikable. I thought when we couldn’t tie the murder weapon to him... well the DA was nuts to push forward with what we had.”

    “For me, I knew it was him. The moment we found that email from his wife. There’s no way anyone could read that and not come to the conclusion their wife was having an affair. You saw how he reacted to stress - paranoia, fear, even aggression. But always a calaculating kind of aggression.
    I can completely believe that was what triggered him to kill his wife.”

    “It’s funny..”

    “What is?”

    “Well, if you think about it - if his wife’s email provider hadn’t cooperated, if the bank hadn’t wanted to turn over logs without a court order, we’d have never had enough to convit. It’s licky for her that no one’s data is really that private - if she’d had pretty good privacy, we’d never have been able to convict...”

    The surly detective grinned, dropped his cigarette, and ground it out with his heel. He left his partner there, too amused by the pun to say anything else.

    He left.

    ---
    My address: 17hqpof5NaPs8XiErNNoF61XF8qPcqwA2Y
    P.S. I know I'm late but the two weeks were quite a short time for this...

  7. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    7
    Mircea Popescu 
    Tuesday, 27 November 2012

    NOTICE

    I've decided to extend the term a further two weeks, because loads of people have been hounding me that they're "almost done" and need "just a little more time" so "please". You'd better actually do it now, ya lazy bums! To the few that have made it in time : sorry about this, it's the absolute last extension. You are allowed to at your option either re-submit a modified version or benefit from automatic tie-breaking in your favour.

    Thanks all!

  8. Mircea Popescu`s avatar
    8
    Mircea Popescu 
    Tuesday, 11 December 2012

    Because there's been exactly zero further contributions in spite of numerous requests for an extension, I'm going to go right ahead and settle this now.

    Since there's not been more contributions than prizes everyone gets one!

    Thanks for participating and see you around next time.

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