Episode 1: Ziggy

10th March, 2150 Common Era

Wishful thinking…!

It was midday as Leo and Marissa woke from a night of opulence, societal theft and C-list impersonation. They lay in their autogyro, x-connected bed, looking up through their transparent skylight, offering a view of their preferred sunrise.

“Ziggy! Sunrise off,” Leo shouted, “for fucks sake,” muttering under his bad breath, pulling the sheepoid fleece duvet over his naked and hairless, muscular body. “There’s no sodding sun in the sky, so why it shines one in my face every fuckin’ morning makes no bloody sense to me. Ziggy! Close blinds,” he shouted, triggering the holographic skylight sunset to be replaced with an opaque grey shutter.

Marissa rolled over, only her head peeking out from above the covers, her long blonde ringlet hair spilt out across a plump pure white Egyptian cotton pillowcase. “Slept well then, darling?” she said sarcastically.

“Did I fuck Marissa. Are you taking the piss?” Leo said, throwing off the duvet and launching himself out of the bed. “You know you snore when you’ve been on the Drift. Why can’t you just go and sleep in the other room?”

Marissa, noticing Leo was slightly on edge, grabbed the duvet and yanked it across and off herself, revealing her beautiful, streamlined body. “Get back in here now, grumpy,” she said flirtatiously, “I know what’ll put a smile back on your little face,” she said with a wink and a giggle.

“No time for that, dear! It’s D-Day today. Or should I say No-D-Day?” Leo said, chuckling with sarcasm and excitement.

“Ziggy! Play Jack Presley.” Leo exclaimed, striding out of the bedroom with just a little regret that he had passed on Marissa’s advance. “Ziggy! Louder! Bloody annoying thing.”

Marissa quickly retrieved the duvet, pulling it back over to cover her bottom half. She sat upright and screamed, “You’re such a dick, Leo,” she hissed, her voice laced with distaste. A real spoilt dick,” forcibly throwing her head back onto the pillow.

Nine months earlier – not for the first time – they had resorted to changing their identities through deed poll. Previously known as Barry and Lydia Gerb, they had transformed into Leo and Marissa Yassi. This drastic change was prompted by a hasty exit from their previous hunting ground in San Jose, California. There, they had become uncomfortably recognisable among Silicon Valley’s high-net-worth executives and the Financial District’s diverse investment funds and trading circles. This notoriety demanded a swift disappearance and a fresh start under new aliases.

Leo and Marissa, the names they had now adopted, had recently settled into a sleek apartment in the heart of Neo-Manhattan. A place where towering skyscrapers reached up to kiss the black, carbon-polluted clouds, and neon lights illuminated the rain-drenched streets around the clock. Nestled high in Block 3066, on the 451st floor, Apartment Three provided a breathtaking panoramic view of the sprawling city below – a city that seemed there for the taking.

One month to the day, Leo and Marissa had serendipitously acquired the apartment. Its previous inhabitant had faced a sudden, unfortunate and irreversible financial crisis, forcing the young lady to vacate. This turn of events delighted and benefited Leo and Marissa. They had been hunting for an apartment of this quality for several weeks, and the unexpected availability of such a prime location was both a relief and an advantage to them. Better still, the previous occupant had left many of her items, including fine furniture and artwork. It was as if she had tailor-made it, perfectly suiting the tastes of its new residents.

Leo and Marissa were established Universal Credit System players and well-known influencers within a dark societal group: Black Hat Phishing Club (BHPC). The BHPC, a secret global cybercrime syndicate, was notorious for living up to its motto:

Black Hat Phishing Club
Quid tuum est, mum est [ What’s yours is mine ]

The couple had mastered the art of doing the bare minimum to achieve the maximum return. On days when they weren’t working on a project, Leo and Marissa would laze in leisurely activities. They spent hours lounging in virtual reality paradises, engrossed in reality shows on the holoscreen, and used their ill-gotten gains for luxury webX shopping sprees. While indulging in these activities, their physical needs were tended to by numerous augmented assistants. Life was all about ensuring comfort, ease, excess and status.

In the traditional sense, work was an alien concept to both of them. Yet their appetites for luxury knew no bounds. They craved the latest: humanoid body enhancements, top-of-the-range prestige transporters, designer wearables, VIP access to elitist clubs, and memberships in high-brow society groups.

Both Leo and Marissa possessed remarkable skills, yet it was unfortunate for those around them that their talents were finely tuned towards more illegal than legal activities. They were experts in data manipulation, masters of social deception, specialists in identity theft, and adept at orchestrating high-value fraud.

Leo’s talent for hacking had developed rapidly since childhood. Starting as a carder and script kiddie at the tender age of nine, he gradually rose to the ranks of the elite Black Hat Hackers, a status only a few could claim today, especially following the Global Cyber Security Agency’s (GCSA) honeypot sting, which terminated many of his counterparts. But he was a natural, and in his estimation, he considered himself unrivalled at penetrating corporate systems, draining financial institutions, and executing backdoor data theft in major global corporations.

Marissa, in contrast, possessed a talent for deception. Like a chameleon, she was adept at social mimicry, often adopting false personas to infiltrate high society. Her skills granted her access to exclusive gatherings and private circles of the wealthy. Here, she would either execute her fraudulent scams, facilitate introductions for Leo’s targets, or often, do both.

The previous evening, they were working the final stage of a complex deception involving two exceptionally wealthy socialite couples: John Farnscock, his wife Joan, and John’s business partner, James King, and his wife Lisa. They were equal shareholders of Nodeelay PLC, an established North American transportation business headquartered at the NM-Skyport East Complex. Both couples were deeply involved in the company’s operations, harbouring the unrealistic aspiration of Nodeelay becoming a global stratospheric transit megacorp. All four were active employees at Nodeelay’s office: John as the Chief Executive Officer, James as the Chief Operations Officer, Joan as the Chief Human Resources Officer, and Lisa as the Chief Financial Officer. In their respective roles, each one displayed a level of incompetence that rivalled the others.

After their initial encounter, Leo and Marissa conducted extensive research. They soon concluded, as they had hoped, that the directors’ plans for success were highly improbable.

The project commenced with a seemingly chance encounter at La Tes Restaurant in the SpaceX Tower on the 700th floor. It was here that Leo and Marissa first set their sights on Nodeelay PLC. Soon after meeting the couples, Leo and Marissa realised they had stumbled upon prime targets: flashy yet financially naive, trustful yet driven by greed. The profiles of all four individuals were perfectly suited to the kind of scheme Leo and Marissa had in mind. Crucially, Nodeelay PLC was a publicly listed company, with shares actively traded on the NASDAQ market under the ticker symbol NODY. Following that initial meeting, the project advanced swiftly and smoothly without significant challenges.

18th December, 2149 Common Era

Work on Project No-D-Day began at the end of last year, marking the onset of Timeout Season worldwide. Despite the biting -15ºC chill in Neo-Manhattan, the streets and skypaths were alive with activity. Couriers, transporters, shippers, and retail drones crisscrossed in a bustling circus against the backdrop of the Winter Solstice.

In the heart of the metropolis, Leo and Marissa had taken up residence in their temporary accommodation: an exclusive basement apartment tucked away underground. A generous BHPC associate, Jack O’Vol, provided it. Despite its location in a bustling city area, the condo remained a hidden sanctuary, a private and secure gem in the vibrant downtown hustle.

However, Leo was sceptical about Jack’s motives and authority in offering the apartment, especially for an unspecified period, and rent-free. This only added to Leo’s unease, a feeling that was almost second nature to him.

It was getting late, and Leo and his two dox-hackers had already breached Nodeelay’s secure networks, switched and mirrored the firewalls, and successfully located and retrieved all thirteen hundred employee files, Vitalink logins, and credit details. They had implanted a sophisticated algorithm to alter the corporation’s financial records subtly. These modifications would inflate the company’s revenue figures and mask its debts, which at the time were considerable. Finally, Leo created several digital paper trails leading to nonexistent Special Purpose Digital Entities (SPDEs). 

This strategy allowed his team to filter off all the debts and losses Nodeelay had accumulated over the years. Essentially, they transferred these liabilities from Nodeelay’s books into the SPDEs. Leo not only removed the business debt but also created an illusion of revenue streams between Nodeelay and the SPDEs. This tactic artificially inflated revenues and profits, mimicking legitimate business transactions. Both activities were crucial manipulations and deceptions that would boost the stock price in the markets. The complexity of these financial manoeuvres made it almost impossible for regulators and investigators to trace and unravel. Furthermore, there was no possibility that the Chief Financial Officer, Lisa King, had the interest or capability to detect any of these discrepancies. Another member of Leo’s team skillfully diverted her attention.

While Leo and his team were executing their plan, Marissa used false credentials and identity to secure a position as Financial Analyst at Nodeelay PLC. The previous analyst at Noodeley, known for flouting rules and neglecting security and confidentiality, faced a misconduct hearing and was promptly dismissed. Marissa was incredibly fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. It was also fortunate that Marissa had recently befriended Lisa King, who provided a glowing recommendation for her.

From her first day at Nodeelay, Marissa displayed her charm, flaunted her social prowess, infiltrated the inner circle, and seduced several key senior executives, both men and women. Utilising all her assets, Marissa charmed, fabricated stories, coerced, and double-crossed to achieve her goals. She had heard everything, which enabled her to subtly guide her pillow-talk partners towards financial moves that would further her and Leo’s high-risk, high-return plan.

At the same time, Marissa had set the PR machine in motion. She leaked manipulated financial data, anonymously directing it to industry analysts and investors. This crafted an image of Nodeelay as a rapidly expanding juggernaut in stratospheric transport technology, promising unprecedented returns. This resulted in stock prices soaring as existing and new investors clamoured to get a piece of the action.

These manoeuvres unfolded over a hectic yet rewarding three-month period.

10th March, 2150 Common Era

As Nodeelay’s anticipated quarterly financial report and 10-Q filing date approached, Leo and Marissa began their exit strategy. The first action was to inject the accurate financial data into Nodeelay’s accounting systems, preparing for the report to their shareholders and the market.

On the eve of the 10-Q filing, Leo automated several million short-sell limit orders across numerous false retail accounts. These orders were primed to trigger in the morning as soon as the stock’s price dropped by a single point.

11th March, 2150 Common Era

Today was the day affectionately named No-D-Day. Only Leo’s critical exit deadline remained with all project actions completed and milestones achieved.

At eight o’clock, Nodeelay filed the 10-Q, unveiling a horrifying financial statement to unsuspecting shareholders and institutional investors. The result was immediate carnage.

At nine o’clock, the market opened, and Nodeelay’s stock hit an all-time high. Leo, connected to his dox team through an encrypted cypher port, watched the early trading seconds unfold on the holoscreens before him. Leo sensed the tension; everyone was aware of the high stakes at play while observing the market’s early movements. The morning’s release of the financial statement, heavy with unfavourable news, triggered an immediate collapse in the share price.

As planned, the moment NODY fell by one point, short-selling limit orders across hundreds of false retail trading accounts were triggered, borrowing millions of Nodeelay’s A-class shares from unsuspecting brokers and their clients. Although they hadn’t accumulated shares, the team meticulously studied the buying patterns of ordinary retail investors to understand how to execute their trades without drawing attention. As far as Leo was concerned, the authorities, especially the SEC, would remain unaware of any unusual trading patterns. Thus, no red flags would be raised. If the transactions were ever scrutinised, they would suggest that the shares had been legitimately acquired through individual retail trading accounts.

Leo planned to repurchase millions of shares at market close, ideally after the price plummeted to an all-time low of just one dollar or less. The profit would come from the difference between the sell and buyback prices. If his expectations were met, Leo had calculated a potential profit of around $225,500,000 after accounting for a small percentage of trading fees, equipment, and hush money for the team.

Throughout the morning, as the financial world, media and shareholders quickly reacted to Nodeelay’s 10-Q filing and financial statement, Leo and Marissa sat calm and composed in their Neo-Manhattan apartment. Their gaze fixed on a bank of holoscreens, providing a live link to the team and streaming data of market charts and indicators, all showing the rapid collapse of Nodeelay and ticker, NODY.

As the stock price tumbled in real-time due to Leo’s masterfully coded high-frequency short-selling algorithm, Marissa suddenly jumped up, clutching her mouth with both hands, and ran towards the bathroom.

“What’s up?” Leo called as she flew past him, scattering cushions across the glossy faux-marble floor. “You’re gonna miss the best bit.”

Marissa slid the bathroom’s heavy glass privacy door shut with a slam; the light inside triggered, turning the door an opaque misty grey. Leo ignored the gurgling and spluttering sounds, which clearly indicated Marissa was throwing up.

Too much excitement? Maybe. Dodgy Drift hit last night? That must be it, Leo thought, as he watched the share price plummet from fifty dollars to thirty, then twenty, and now just below sixteen. “Now, that’s an impressive crash!” he exclaimed excitedly. “You doing alright, honey? My plan’s coming good,” he called out.

A quiet mumble could be heard from the bathroom, “It’s our plan, you dick! Not yours!” Marissa wretched once more, her head almost inside the bowl.

“Shit!” Leo screamed. “They’ve halted it; they’ve fuckin’ halted it!” In his fury, he hurled a cushion at one of the holoscreens, knocking it off its stand and table and crashing to the floor. Pieces of black plastic and alloy ricocheted from the impact.

Leo was both furious and concerned about the trading halt. “It had better be lifted quickly, or we’re screwed. We can’t afford it to extend into tomorrow,” he shouted down the corridor towards the bathroom.

Unbeknown to Leo, the NM-Cyberforce – a specialised unit asked to monitor financial and cyber crimes – had been tracking unusual activity in the dark pools. Over the past months, the intricate pattern of trades, rapid executions, creation of synthetic shares, and the volume of transactions tied to Nodeelay PLC have indeed raised several red flags.

Equipped with advanced tech and legal authority, the NM-Cyberforce commenced a reverse attack on the fraudulent transactions. They unravelled the network of fake identities and accounts and traced the synthetic shares back to their source. For Leo and Marissa, the actual predicament wouldn’t be getting caught; it would be the realisation that they hadn’t been seen yet. This unexpected turn of events could introduce a new and complex set of challenges and uncertainties that neither Leo nor Marissa could have anticipated.

Leo, forever uneasy and concerned about the trading halt, found himself second-guessing his strategy. A flood of thoughts raced through his mind – the decisions he made, the timings they triggered, the volumes of stock involved, the array of fake accounts used, the identities spoofed. He couldn’t see anything that jumped out as an obvious trigger that might alert the SEC.

Leo stared at the holoscreens, his eyes dry and sore through lack of blinking. The charts still had not changed. Leo’s unease quickly spiralled into paranoia. Leo thought there had to be something else or someone else responsible for the halt. He was right, although he was unaware of it at the time. The rival’s approach was a little different to Leo’s. They had utilised illegal dark pools and synthetic shares, a high-risk strategy and a practice that the SEC, over time, had grown more capable of detecting and pursuing.

“I’m logging into some of the bigger trade accounts,” Leo bellowed towards Marissa. “But looking at this, they all seem active and untouched. The log file shows no activity since the trades were triggered this morning. Weird,” Leo muttered, confused by the lack of evidence that any accounts had been breached.

“We’ve only repurchased one million shares, not dollars, between eighteen and fifteen. If it’s on trade hold for the rest of the day, we’ll be down by, err…,” Leo shut his eyes in an attempt to focus on his mental arithmetic, “Shit! We’ll be down over fifteen million dollars. What the —”

Leo’s phone vibrated on the black obsidian coffee table; Jack O’Vol! What the hell does he want? Leo asked himself, wondering whether to pick it up or let it ring off. He picked up. “Jack!” he barked down the handset.

“Leo! Say nothing. Just listen.” Jack said, anxiety obvious in his breath. “I’ve got a confession to make. And I’m sorry for you and Marissa. Especially Marissa. Love that girl.”

“Jack, what the hell are you talking about? Seriously, now’s not a good time.” Leo replied, ready to hang up.

“Leo, Leo. Sorry, right? I’ve messed up. Those five million NODY shares you spread bought at market price a few months ago.”

“How the fuck do you know —” Leo blurted before being interrupted.

“I know because I was the one who made them. They’re all synthetics. They don’t exist. They’re not real. Understand Leo. They’re all fakes,” Jack mumbled. Leo sensed the tears of worry in Jack’s throat as he spoke. “The SEC, Leo. The fuckin’ SEC they’re outside now. I can see them; they’re at my gates. They traced them back to me. And they’re going to trace them to you, too.”

“You double-crossed us! You bastard. You utter bastard.” Leo threw the phone across the room, watching it smash against the panoramic window, and screamed, “Ziggy! Market Watch 24-7!”

A vast projection of bright red graphics flickered and danced to life over the apartment’s stone tiled wall, accompanied by an excited booming voice, “Headline news from Marketwatch 24-7. Your go-to channel for financial and market news.” The picture quickly cut to a suited, tidy-looking virtual anchor man, “Hi, I’m Max Ractor, your host. Welcome to the lunchtime bulletin on Marketwatch 24-7. First up, a short message from our sponsor, Squashenuna International.”

Leo sat motionless on the arm of the sofa, his frustration mounting as he endured the two-minute ad break. His heart raced with anxiety whilst waiting for the headlines to start.

The camera zoomed in on the news anchor: “Good evening. Our top story this afternoon: A shocking revelation in the financial world as Nodeelay PLC, the transportation giant with the ticker NODY, faces allegations of massive stock price manipulation and insider trading.”

The screen cuts to a stock price chart for NODY. All Leo saw was red – red in his anger and red in the candlestick chart on screen. “Buggered,” he shouted, jumping up, his hands swinging up onto his head in despair.

The anchor continued, “Reports are surfacing of a sophisticated deception that has rocked the stock market this morning, causing unprecedented volatility in Nodeelay’s shares. Now under a trading halt, the company known for revolutionising high-speed transit is under intense scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Cybercrime Department and the Global Cyber Security Agency. Local Neo-Manhattan Cyberforce Authorities have also been conducting surveillance, and we believe we have feet on the ground, closing in on what they have identified as a prolific and well-organised criminal syndicate known as the Black Hat Phishing Club. We will continue to update you on this developing story as it unfolds. Stay tuned.”

Leo ran to the bathroom and slid the screen door open, slamming it into its stopper. “We need to fuckin’ run. Now!”

Marissa sat motionless on the toilet, her leather mini-skirt and lacy knickers covering her ankles, and a half smile pinched at her lips. Projecting up from inside the toilet rim, passing between her partly open thighs, Leo saw a thin blue line of light. “Marissa? What the —?”

“Leo,” Marissa said, her eyes brimming with tears, “we’re gonna have a baby.”

Overwhelmed with everything going on, Leo fell to his knees, looked up at her with astonishment, and blurted out, “Wait, what? Whose is it?”

Marissa paused for a moment, “Err… technically, Ziggy’s?”

“Mhmmm. Go ahead.”

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