Sunday 4 October 2020

The Bombing of the Quick Stop Gas Station Bench

One of the ingredients that's coalescing for Bunkers & Billionaires is a completely surreal mission landscape. Rogue intelligence agents and terrorist cells do things that seem to make no sense, until you understand that they're the pawn moves in AI-powered late stage capitalism.

(What is Bunkers & Billionaires? It's the working title for a near future dystopian RPG that doesn't yet exist.)

I think it's easiest to illustrate with an example.

The Bombing of the Quick Stop Gas Station Bench

At 8:32pm, Nov 7, 2035, three self-professed members of "QMove" jump out of an electric van and blow up the graffiti-covered park bench in front of the Quick Stop gas station with a pipe bomb. 

One of the bombers returns to the scene on foot to quietly post live video of the Welland Corner fire department putting out the flaming wreck of the bench.

Later, on the way back to the fire station, the fire truck stalls out, frozen by a remote anti-theft command sent from head office at the request of a numbered corporation, the new owner of the fire truck as of 9:11pm. An argument breaks out between the firefighters and the young man who has turned up to drive the truck away as part of a gig he got ten minutes earlier on Fiverr. The situation is a tense stalemate until the Welland Corner police arrive.

After cuffing, tasing and pepper spraying everyone (in that order), the Welland police check their phones for follow-up instructions. Somewhat confused, they turn the truck over to the half-blind Fiverr guy, who (once he recovers) simply drives it back to the fire station and leaves the keys on the seat, as per his original instructions.

While this is happening, the stock price of Блакитна енергія (a Ukrainian fracking company) briefly dives as sell orders flood the market, but rebounds as they are snapped up by a second numbered corporation. This only takes a few hundred milliseconds, so nobody really notices.

* * *

This kind of thing happens constantly, the result of the collaboration between several forces: Liquidr (and similar asset management-as-a-service operations), freelance schismatics, and the National Commercial Interest Gateway (NCIG).


Liquidr is the category leader in the AMaaS space (Asset Management as a Service, or just "amass"). For a low monthly fee plus a percentage of capital gains, a Liquidr AI will manage individual, corporate or public entity assets. Initially this is simple investing, but it soon expands into automated mergers & acquisitions, initial public offerings and other ownership restructuring—to take full advantage of the rapidly changing regulatory landscape.

Liquidr: add liquidity to anything!

Higher tier Liquidr accounts are advertised as getting more AI time and better market intelligence, but for the most part it's just data mining privileged information from lower-tier Liquidr accounts.

("Are you liquid?" asks the flawless hottie in the ad)

Freelance Schismatics

Also in the mix are former intelligence services propagandists, now freelancing to create dissociant conspiracy theory groups with actionable false belief systems. These come complete with a custom target designation symbology, so they can be weaponized as deniable lone wolves for sale.

QMove is just one of many violent splinter conspiracy groups whose ideology and identity is the deliberate product of manufactured information. (Having no influence over its own destiny whatsoever, QMove doesn't get its own heading.)

Eventually, schismatics realize that control of dissociant groups count as assets, and can be managed as part of AMaaS portfolios, which dramatically shortens the time between radicalization and action.

National Commercial Interest Gateway (NCIG)

The National Commercial Interest Gateway started out as a joint venture between an AMaaS consortium and the US Department of Justice to create an auction system to designate private commercial interests as being of significance to the national interest.

The time to make back room deals with key government contacts was identified as a significant source of friction in the AI age. Why not add liquidity™ and make it a marketplace?

Now, multinationals no longer had to play all that tedious golf to convince their friends in the CIA that there are billions at stake if such-and-such a country gets the wrong election result, or to persuade their DOJ contacts that this or that movement should be classified as a domestic terrorist organization. Just put up a bid on NCIG, and the matter is resolved immediately.

During the kleptocrat-led weakening of federal government institutions, NCIG rapidly became a welcome source of clarity in a time of confusion, despite early criticism that it was simply "Fiverr for spies."

Things Get Weird

After the complete shut-off of federal subsidies in 2024, state, provincial and municipal governments turn to Liquidr out of desperation in an attempt to find creative ways of covering climate reconstruction and refugee management costs.

In 2029, Liquidr acquires Legal Dynamics, a machine learning-powered contract negotiation company. Liquidr starts using this to better exploit municipal asset portfolios, and it starts writing laws solely to create just-in-time opportunities for Liquidr gambits. Things that were once illegal become legal, temporarily legal, or mandatory, all as part of creating pathways to new ownership structures and financial instruments. These changes could be permanent, or last less than a second—just long enough for a complex trade or restructuring to take place.

By 2035, laws are completely indecipherable to people, a stew of machine-generated legalese that grows by terabytes per minute.

The Quick Stop Bench Bombing, Redux

In October 2035, the owner of the Quick Stop Gas Station places ownership of the gas station into her Liquidr portfolio (a Hustle! tier account). Moments later, the bench out front is carved off into a numbered corporation subsidiary, and has an automated initial public offering on the basis of its expertise at natural gas management. The Hustle! AI transfers the entire value of the Quick Stop gas station to the park bench, reverse mortgages it, and uses the proceeds to buy Блакитна енергія stock. This is a bit risky, maybe, but it's part of an A/B test. It could be great!

(The Hustle! tier AI has no idea what a park bench is, only that it technically counts as real estate and—unlike the gas station business, has no employees to complicate its tax situation.)

Meanwhile, a tier 9 Liquidr account checking its notifications sees the gas station's precarious situation and takes immediate action, doing three things simultaneously:

One, it injects a rider into an anti-competition settlement it's negotiating with the Michigan state legislature, making it temporarily illegal for Michigan-based corporations to own financial instruments in the Ukraine if they hold no US real estate. The Michigan state legislature account AI grants this rider cheaply. Michigan doesn't own any such instruments at the moment, and the proposed rider expires in three hours anyways, so no big deal. The rider goes into effect at 8:03pm, becoming law.

Secondly, the tier 9 account places an NCIG bid to have the Welland Corner Fire Department designated as a domestic terrorist organization. WCFD doesn't appear in the NCIG database, but the briefing attached to the bid has solid intel that WCFD has only twelve members (barely a cell) and the required action section is blank, so again, this is inexpensive.

Thirdly, it buys the activation key for a small QMove cell for $820. The control software sends a dynamically generated video to the three members in Welland Corner, alerting them that the park bench outside the Quick Stop Gas Station is the target they've been waiting for. (You can't see it at night in November, the video explains, but it's where Antifa has used graffiti to spread their plan to bring socialism to the gaming consoles in electric vehicles.)

* * *

QMove springs into action at 8:22pm. (The pipe bomb has been sitting ready by the front door for weeks, and they only live around the corner from the gas station, but Alex is so excited that it takes him six minutes to find the keys for the van.)

By 8:44, 720 people have watched QMove's vertical video of the bench fire, enough for a YouTube algorithm to recognize it and tag it as footage of a terrorist incident. The tier 9 updates the NCIG bid with the video, recommending a 50% commission for itself on any resulting asset forfeiture arising from law enforcement action.

Armed with video of destruction of its only US real estate, the tier 9 triggers de-legalization of the bench's holding company. Benchco's assets in the Ukraine are sold in less than a second, with the tier 9's preregistered lowball bids scooping up the shares.

The schismatic control software reports a near certainty that the QMove cell can be reactivated again, later (even for non-bench targets), so the tier 9 sells the activation key back to the schismastic's Liquidr account for 78 cents on the dollar.

By 9:15, it has also sold the fire truck back to Michigan state, exactly offsetting the cost of the legislative rider before it even expires!

Fucking tidy, it thinks.

* * *

By 10:28pm, the gas station's Hustle! tier Liquidr AI has realized that something really bad is up. With no assets, and a fresh invoice from the fire department for putting out a fire of some kind, the account's net worth is suddenly deeply negative. For Hustle! tier customers, this triggers auto-bankruptcy mode, instantly terminating the whole account to prevent the customer from becoming even less profitable by letting them complain to customer support.

Its final action is to list the gas station personnel in an eviction authorization for the property's new owner, the Welland Corner Fire Department, in consideration for 33% of the value of any assets seized from its deadbeat former owner.

Bunkers & Billionaires

As I mentioned, Bunkers & Billionaires doesn't exist, but even nonexistent games must answer the question: who are the PCs and what do they do?

They're the people who are trying to destroy this system so that something better can take its place.


  1. This is... this is fantastic, in every sense of the word. It has been said (including several times by me) that any sufficiently complicated system can be accurately simulated by randomness and post-hoc rationalising. I've often thought that mobile contact and internet access make modern settings *too* controllable by the players, but this really changes the ballgame!

  2. Very cool, kind of reminiscent of Charles Stross' Accelerando, except there's no nanotech or quantum computing; so instead of godlike intelligences slowly turning the entire solar system into computronium, you have narrowly-efficient AI awkwardly wreaking havoc because Number Go Up.

  3. You are going to get a visit (& maybe a job offer) from Homeland Security

  4. This is excellent! Glad I happened to find it...

  5. The only system I know of that could replicate this spiraling madness is Time Wizards:
    You play as the Liquidr AI.

    1. Interesting! For me, this is part of the texture of the world that alienates PCs from the 'working infrastructure of society' rather than the sweet spot for gameplay. But playing as Liquidr AIs sounds wild.

    2. I'd imagine it'd be crazy. "On my turn I use my 'Transfer Asset' ability to designate King of Prussia, PA as the legal heir to the Hohenzollerns, allowing me to initiate a claim on the salt mines of Salzburg. Then, I..."

  6. This is wild and on-the-nose, and I'll keep an eye out for further developments.

  7. To be honest, I really want to see a post on that equipment system - just from the character sheet it really interesting.

    1. Luther, this is meant to be evocative rather than a specific mechanic, but it's pretty much a straight rip from Blades in the Dark. In Blades, you choose an encumbrance level first, which has implications to how conspicuous and agile you are. It also gives you a certain number of gear picks during the mission, so it's very quick to get playing. Each character class has a different set of choices, but you can also write in whatever.

  8. How do I put this.... Amazing and Terrible. I'm actually afraid it might be presentiant.

  9. Do you feel like me this Dr Adder groove? :)

  10. Someday I look forward to transferring some of my own assets to possesses this game. :)