Overvalued

A new short story about a future in which people can buy and sell shares in one another.

Three ceramic heads in a row, a progression from one having money placed inside a slot to being shattered open with a hammer revealing many dollar bills.
Doris Liou

Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for October–December 2018: Work.

“How was your day?” Jack asked his wife as she took off her black leather pumps at the door of their spacious industrial-chic condo in NoMad.

“Good,” Sophia lied.

They didn’t use to lie to each other, not even about small things. Unfiltered honesty had always come naturally to them, despite their glaring differences—maybe because of them. But for the past six weeks, nothing seemed natural anymore. It was strange how much the death of a stranger had changed things.

She should’ve felt happy, or so she kept telling herself. She had recently been promoted to partner at her fund and shifted her role from short selling to long-term investments. Despite having to pay out 10 percent of all pretax earnings as dividends to her personal investors and an outrageous 54 percent to Uncle Sam, she earned enough to afford the three-bedroom, four-bathroom condo they didn’t fill, the designer furniture Jack shopped for with all his free time, and the bullshit modern art that now just looked like bloodstained, limp airbags after a car accident.

But she didn’t feel happy because one tiny, uncontrollable bit of bad luck sucked all the serotonin and dopamine from her brain and replaced it with cortisol and adrenaline. Jack was the only one who saw that bit of bad luck coming. The only one who’d tried to stop it. Even though she knew it wasn’t fair, she blamed him for not doing more. She stared at him as he got drunk on a bottle of overproof bourbon he wouldn’t be able to afford without her.

“Instead of drinking all day, why don’t you do something?” she regretted asking almost immediately.

“I wish I could, but people like me don’t get hired to do anything besides work on factory lines or clean up shit after RIA assholes.”

“That’s redundant,” she mumbled.

“For emphasis,” he shot back. RIA stood for “rich, indoctrinated assholes,” so she was right, but he was quick too. Jack’s IQ was high, not quite as high as hers, but he was 1.9 sigma above the mean, so certainly high enough that he would’ve qualified for a respected university. It didn’t matter; his family couldn’t have afforded it, and the Prodigy Market hadn’t been around yet to help with the cost of a degree.

Sophia’s education, a degree in civil engineering from a good school but not one of the hallowed Seven-Figure schools, had cost close to $800,000. Her Initial Prodigy Offering hadn’t raised enough for a Seven-Figure degree (the 13 schools whose reputation emboldened them to charge more than $1 million for a degree), but she was still fortunate to have parents wealthy enough to hire counsel and brokers to manage a first-generation IPO in the newly minted Prodigy Market.

Jack was older and his parents were worse off, so he graduated high school with no chance. Jack would’ve liked to be a pediatrician. But if you couldn’t afford college, there was no way of avoiding ending up on the low-wage, unskilled Wall-Head side of the modern American workforce divide, looking on enviously at the high-skilled RIAs.

So Jack, like his parents, was a Wall-Head. He worked in a factory making hospital gurneys and wheelchairs—as close as he could get to joining the medical profession. As it was, he knew he’d soon be replaced by automation, as so many of his friends had been.

But unlike his parents, Jack had married an RIA. And up until six weeks ago, their marriage of opposites had worked well.

Sophia forced herself to think about how he was with his elderly parents who’d waited for a basic income to cover life’s needs—needs they couldn’t afford. They’d died waiting, and when they did, Jack didn’t pretend to be strong or controlled or “masculine.” He was angry, uncontrollable, honest. That’s when she knew she loved him. She found herself hoping that she still loved him, but so much had changed in six weeks.

Six weeks ago, Kathryn Tally Anders died, and ever since then, white lies and cortisol and whiskey and blame had taken over. Six weeks ago, Sophia had never said the name Kathryn Tally Anders, and now it possessed her every thought. Her brain played that name and that face on repeat.

More problematically, her brain blamed her over and over again for killing her.

It was so mind-numbingly dull, filling out a W-9 tax form on his wall-mounted Ecosphere screen. How could there even still be a W-9 form? Its persistence in the world seemed to mock the rest of the technological progress enveloping most aspects of life. Then he caught himself: Was this the dullest thought he’d ever had?

When he started doing contract work, he was told, “No two days are the same.” Those people had lied to him or, more likely, lied to themselves.

Alex prepped for every job in the exact same way, and this job would be no different from the dozens before and the dozens after. The Iridious security system on his coffin-sized safe scanned his irises in the basement of the five-bedroom suburban home where he lived alone. The door popped open after he was verified, and he retrieved two SCCY CPX-II pistols and their corresponding AAC Ti-Rant 9 mm silencers. He added a serrated 9-inch SOG hunting blade to his artillery as well, but doubted he’d have to use it unless things went terribly wrong. A part of him hoped they would.

Alex always called what he did “liquidating an over-resourced target,” but in regular English, once shed of all the Orwellian indirections and rationalizations we bake into our use of language, he was nothing other than a hitman.

The bud permanently in his ear gently vibrated, and the voice on the other side told him they received the W-9. The job would be listed as “supply chain consulting” on their balance sheet. He’d receive confirmation of the go within 24 hours.

Sophia’s monitors lit up in her east-facing office at Athena Prodigy Management on the 47th floor of a 49-floor building just as the sun rose. She opened her portfolio and searched for ticker symbol KTA1108II like she had every morning for the past six weeks. She knew that seeing it would gut her, but she did it anyway, futilely hoping it wouldn’t show up at all, as if it had never happened.

But every morning, there it was, with a total gain of $32 million floating next to the symbol. And that’s all it was, a symbol. It didn’t say Kathryn Tally Anders, it didn’t show her picture, it didn’t mention her death; it was just a symbol on a spreadsheet. Every morning, she’d close out and try to focus on long-term Prodigy investments. Every morning, she hated long-term Prodigy investments and herself a little more.

Prodigy wasn’t an accurate term anymore. At first, the Prodigy Market, created by a coalition of what ultimately came to be known as the Seven-Figure universities, was only open for investments in the highest-potential students like Sophia—actual prodigies. But it was so profitable that before long any underperforming student or any bullshit, for-profit school could access the market.

High-potential students could float shares of 10 percent of their future lifetime earnings on the market, but students with less sterling credentials would offer 20 percent, 40 percent, or even 60 percent of all future income to garner interest. The market drove up the demand for RIAs, both on the part of families eager to produce them and of investors eager to acquire stakes in them, and the heightened demand further exacerbated the cost of attending the Seven-Figure schools. Universities touted the market as the great equalizer while their multibillion-dollar endowments bloated.

It was a highly liquid market at the top end, which allowed for an entirely new class of equities and derivatives. Moreover, Prodigies were bundled into PAGs (Prodigy Asset Groups) by banks for a particular risk level and industry cluster (BBB+ aspiring software engineers, for instance). The average investor didn’t even have to research individual assets; they could bet on market demand for a certain profession or skill set. It was a casino, but instead of betting on black or red, the vote was on whether a high school kid was going to be successful. And Sophia was good at making that bet.

Some high-potential Prodigies could apply for their own ticker symbol. These were much more volatile, potentially more lucrative for traders like Sophia. She liked to short individual assets, betting their value would go down. And KTA1108II had been her biggest short position ever.

Before its death, KTA1108II was an exciting asset, not just for Sophia but for the entire market. KTA1108II was extremely high-potential, touted on CNBC as one of the few assets that may be ROI positive before its higher education even began. Needless to say, KTA1108II’s market cap was spiraling upward; the futures market was betting that its lifetime worth would be in the hundreds of millions, if not more.

KTA1108II entered the Prodigy Market even before entering high school, offering up 10 percent of future lifetime earnings. It was an above-average asset: good grades, accelerated particularly in math and science, stable family. But it wasn’t until ninth grade that the asset really hit the radar. In ninth grade, KTA1108II proved that cancer cells bonded to healthy cells behaved differently, and therefore that the billions pharmaceutical companies had spent on laboratory tests of unbonded cancer cells had been a waste. This asset had made a discovery capable of impacting millions of lives and billions of dollars at 15 years old.

KTA1108II exploded in the Prodigy Market. It was expected to be a part of the team that discovered noninvasive, long-term cures for late-stage malignant tumors, particularly as related to bone marrow.

But when there’s excitement around an asset, investors ignore risk and potential vulnerabilities. They overvalue the asset. No one asks what could go wrong in a climate of irrational exuberance—no one, that is, except for dispassionate short sellers like Sophia. She had built her entire career around the contrarian quest for these overvalued assets.

Money with a bloodstain.
Doris Liou

Since the Ernst-Meyers laws following the 2021 Depression, liquidators, like Alex, were quietly contracted by unscrupulous companies to “liquidate” underperforming, overcompensated employees who could no longer be terminated by legal means. This increasingly common, if unacknowledged, practice was known as “self-regulation.” This new contract was different, though. The firm that had hired Alex wasn’t self-regulating. Instead, they held a massive short position in an asset in the Prodigy Market and stood to make a heavy profit if the asset were to be liquidated.

Alex received no identifying or demographic details about the target until right before the hit. The details of the person didn’t matter; they were a target no more and no less than a piece of paper with a bull’s-eye drawn on it. But traditionally he was liquidating long-term, overpaid executives, almost exclusively older men, sometimes older women, whose survivors stood to cash in large life insurance policies.

But a job involving the Prodigy Market meant that the target could be young and would likely not be from a wealthy family. When he accepted the contract, he refused the details like always, but he did find himself wondering how it’d make him feel if it was a kid.

And for a moment, he realized he wasn’t bored with the job.

It was only eight weeks ago that Sophia first discovered KTA1108II’s flaw. She found it in a simple iShare photo in which KTA1108II was jumping into the air with friends, arms above its head. It was in long sleeves at the beach; it always wore long sleeves. But because its arms were above its head, the sleeves had fallen down just enough for Sophia to spot the tip of a small scar on its wrist.

After Sophia verified that the mark on the asset’s wrist was indeed a self-inflicted scar, she went through her network of hackers to gain access to the asset’s medical records. The story for KTA1108II couldn’t have been better. It was seeing a psychiatrist until it entered the Prodigy Market, when it dropped the shrink and the antidepressant prescriptions because, of course, those disclosures would’ve lowered its share price. Materially adverse information, as the filings called it.

It was only a week before Sophia discovered this that she had been promoted to partner at Athena. The promotion came with a huge raise and the ability to trade the firm’s own equity and share in its profits, dramatically increasing her potential bonuses.

It’s usually hard to ascertain how much any given promotion or event will impact your overall life, but not for Sophia. Because she herself was an asset traded on the Prodigy Market, she knew exactly how much the promotion increased her worth: 29.2 percent. Such an increase was extremely rare for someone already in the workforce. The promotion drove her share price up to $551. Rumors spread that even her own fund was taking a position in her.

With the confidence of her market value spike, she used her entire new trading portfolio to short KTA1108II. Everything. It was an insane move, the biggest short position the fund had ever taken. But Sophia was logical, and this was as rational a trade as she had ever taken. Once she bet every leveraged dollar against KTA1108II, she sent the photos and the medical records to CNBC under the same reliable alias she always did. She waited for the network to cross-reference and validate the information.

Less than a week later, the story broke right before 8 a.m.: KTA1108II suffered from depression and had acted on the disease in the past with self-mutilation. The story even one-upped Sophia and asked if there had been suicide attempts. It was perfect. Within the hour, KTA1108II’s share price crashed by almost 30 percent, from $347 to $243. Sophia earned her firm nearly $11 million.

The other partners wanted Sophia to cash in. A doctor’s statement or well-timed announcement of some research breakthrough could bounce KTA1108II’s stock back quickly. Sophia talked them out of it; there was more room to fall. She knew that the stress of losing its future would be poorly managed by a highly motivated, anxiety-laden, 16-year-old asset suffering from depression.

But the market closed that night with KTA1108II’s share price up from its low. Not by much, but the take for the firm would’ve been about $8 million, and the conversations would be about the $3 million “lost” and not the $8 million earned.

But less than two hours later Sophia’s phone rang. The voice on the other end excitedly told her to turn on CNBC.

KTA1108II was dead, a suspected suicide. There was a note. They weren’t reading it.

The share price dropped to $0.11 within a minute in after-hours trading. Sophia did what she was programmed to do: She unloaded the short position and earned the firm $32 million. It was her biggest day ever.

The partners congratulated Sophia for her (and their) triumph. They insisted that she had nothing to do with the asset’s death. She could barely follow their words; her mind was racing, debating whether she was a murderer or not. For the first time since she was a girl, Sophia found that the cortisol controlling her circular thoughts was far stronger than her logic.

She expected to fight with Jack that night. He had always been piously against “profiting off the failures of others,” as he put it. He had been trying to get her to stop for years. She opened the door, and Jack reeked of bourbon; he’d seen the news already.

Jack always got home hours before Sophia even left her office; that day had been no different. He had stepped on the treadmill in their extra bedroom and was less than a mile into his run when he saw the news, a Prodigy Asset familiar from dinner conversations had committed suicide. Jack shut down the treadmill and grabbed his computer. He became obsessed, reading every article he could find. The financial outlets referred to her as KTA1108II, but some smaller publications called her Kathryn Tally Anders. Kate, her family called her.

He read about Kate’s life. Her dog. Her two older brothers who joined the Air Force. Her parents who’d immigrated to America 34 years earlier. And then at 5:24 p.m., he read about Kate’s cancer research. And that’s when he started drinking.

Kate was focused on multiple myeloma, the cancer that had killed Jack’s mother. They said Kate might help find an affordable cure. Kate was going to do that. Kate who killed herself so that he could have this lavish three-bed, four-bath condo in NoMad with paintings on the wall that he didn’t even like.

He filled another glass. And then another. And another, which is why he smelled like booze when Sophia arrived home. When Sophia walked in the door, his disgust was displaced by surprise: He could see that she hated herself too. It was the first time he ever saw that look on Sophia’s face. So instead of fighting, he walked up to her and wrapped his arms around his wife.

They talked as she drank wine and mindlessly repeated that she was certain it would’ve happened anyway. He agreed with her. Maybe that’s when the white lies between them began.

Sophia went to work for the next few days but couldn’t focus. She’d tell herself that her more successful peers wouldn’t care—they’d be celebrating. She hated that she didn’t feel that way. She’d motivate herself for an hour or two, but the emotional crash always followed, and she’d go back to reading about KTA1108II.

Sophia gathered the partners and asked to be moved to long-term investments. She thought if she started investing in assets’ futures, she’d be able to forgive herself. Her partners took less than an hour to discuss the transition and approve it. She found out after the fact that there had been a lot of pushback, but her friend and partner Ether had put his foot down.

“Humans before profits,” he had apparently said. He’d refused to leave the room if they didn’t accede to Sophia’s request. They did, and Sophia’s share price on the Prodigy Market dropped within hours to below $400 for the first time in three years.

For a day, she felt relieved. She was done shorting; she convinced herself this is all she needed to move forward. But she only felt worse.

Sophia wasn’t the best at what she did anymore. She was a part of the conventional herd, rather than a hunter seeking to capitalize on flaws in the conventional wisdom. When she was still shorting, she’d be able to motivate herself for a least an hour or two. Now, she’d spend full days obsessing over Kathryn. Searching and re-searching her name on the internet. Rereading articles she had nearly memorized.

Sophia finally understood how Kathryn Tally Anders could find relief from cutting herself. In fact, Sophia started wearing a hair tie on her wrist that she would snap on her skin when she would think about Kathryn.

It didn’t matter that she stopped shorting Prodigies; she had already killed one. At this point, all she could do was drown out the guilt with just enough alcohol to quiet her conscience.

So, after six weeks of torture, Sophia decided she should numb her mind with work. That morning, instead of looking up KTA1108II, Sophia opened up her Ecosphere screen and started investigating the highest valued Prodigies, poking them for vulnerabilities. And for a few hours, she didn’t think about Kathryn.

A glass of whiskey on the rocks.
Doris Liou

The call came through a few minutes after 6 a.m. The job was confirmed for that night.

From a dwindling roll of plastic, Alex cut out the 3- by 3-foot sheet on his garage floor, the one he’d strip onto after the job. He mindlessly prepped two tubs of silicon dioxide to dissolve the gloves, foot covers, and surgical mask that he’d be wearing. He put in mirrored contact lenses to block any iris scanning that could track him back to the scene later.

And then the encrypted message came through, including a file with the target’s information—picture, age, gender, identifying marks. Normally, Alex would review the file, but for this job, he opted to wait until he was on location. There’d be less time to change his mind, something he knew would cost him all future contracts. And even though he was so painfully bored by this career, something about this contract was making him hate it a little less.

Early the next morning, Sophia walked over to Ether’s office. He was there of course, he always was, and greeted her by offering up half of his breakfast, a caramel brownie.

“It’s the best fucking thing I’ve ever tasted,” Ether said, placing it in her hand. “Bite it. I’m telling you, you can’t not feel good while eating that.”

Sophia acquiesced, and then she laughed because he was right. For just a moment, she felt good.

“I have a trade I wanted to run by you,” Sophia laid a one-sheet on his desk.

He glanced at it, “A short position? I threw a fit for you—”

“I just stumbled across it when I was looking for long-term investments,” she lied. She knew he knew she was lying.

“Look, if you want to be trading short positions, I completely support—”

“I don’t want a big position. I’m not going to game the press or get too involved. But what do you think about me taking a minor position?” she asked.

Ether agreed. She was lucky; Ether was a good friend. He understood. And it actually made her feel a bit better, sort of like she was taking another small bite of that brownie.

Sitting in his car outside of a luxury condominium complex, Alex finally opened the target’s file. He scrolled quickly through; the asset was young compared with most contracts, but most definitely an adult. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Then he sighed again. But this time with a touch of disappointment.

Alex screwed the silencers onto the two pistols, stepped out of his car, and walked toward the home of his target, who lived in a supposedly secure 32-story building in Manhattan.
Fortunately, Wall-Head security guards were merely decorative for professionals like Alex.

Alex entered through a maintenance door along a side alleyway. As the guard approached to investigate, a tiny needle slipped into the skin on his neck. He was about to scream when Alex rested a gun on his forehead.

“Don’t make a noise and you’ll be awake in a few hours. I promise,” Alex calmly said as he compressed the plunger. The sedative flowed into the guard’s body, and Alex laid him down.

Alex rode the elevator up and noticed that his heartbeat was as calm as if he was watching TV reruns. He thought of his first contract. He remembered shaking.

Two handguns resting on top of each other.
Doris Liou

Sophia returned home late with the smell of dinner fresh in the air. She took off her chestnut suede flats and gave Jack a kiss. He reeked of whiskey, like usual. She didn’t care. They sat down to eat. Everything seemed mostly normal.

“I took a minor short position today. Nothing big and—”

“Soph, Jesus. Six weeks ago someone killed herself.”

“She was manic-depressive—”

“And you went and told the whole world that she was overvalued for that,” the conversation stopped, and Jack looked away.

“I need this,” Sophia said, stifling what could’ve been some tears, then got up from the table and walked toward their expansive wine rack.

Alex waited in the darkened front hallway of his target’s condo where the lights were off, and he watched his target get up from the dinner table and approach an expansive wine rack, only about 13 paces away. He could hear her steps; he could hear her breathe. As the target grabbed a bottle of wine, a 2024 Château Le Pin Bordeaux, Alex watched her snap a hair tie on her wrist.

The target uncorked the bottle as Alex raised the pistol in his right hand. The target’s husband was close by; it wasn’t going to be clean. The husband would have to watch what Alex knew was going to be a mess. As Alex exhaled calmly and tightened his grip, he realized that he felt nothing. He was just as bored as he was filling out the W-9.

But then, that small bud permanently in Alex’s ear vibrated silently.

“If it hasn’t happened yet, we’re calling it off,” a voice came through the tiny bud in Alex’s ear. The voice belonged to a man named Ether, Alex’s paymaster for the day.

Without a word, Alex lowered the gun and stayed quietly in the shadows, watching the target swirl her red wine, so perfectly unaware of how close she’d come to never tasting it. So perfectly unaware that her own fund recognized her as overvalued and took a massive short position on her. So perfectly unaware that Ether planned on keeping the fund’s short position on her, reviewing it again next quarter to see if she was back to shorting successfully. So perfectly unaware that she really didn’t want to die.

For today, she lived. For today, apparently, she was just profitable enough.

Sophia walked back to her dinner table and took another sip of wine. Alex slipped out of her condo and arrived home 32 minutes later. He dissolved his clothes in the premade acid baths, sterilized his weapons, disposed of his mirrored contact lenses, and took a scalding hot shower. It was the first job ever called off after he’d already seen the target. What if he had pulled the trigger before it was called off? The thought made his heart beat a little faster as the water poured over him. What if he had pulled the trigger?

But he hadn’t. So, for one more quarter, Sophia was allowed to stay perfectly unaware. Perfectly alive. Perfectly valued.

For now, at least.

Read a response essay by Zachary Karabell, an investor and writer.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
Safe Surrender,” by Meg Elison
A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado
The Starfish Girl,” by Maureen McHugh
When We Were Patched,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Lions and Gazelles,” by Hannu Rajaniemi
Burned-Over Territory,” by Lee Konstantinou