Coin, Part I

The mail said “FW: Turtle Mother is selling”, but I knew it was about a whale. Not just any whale, either. Not just some punk kid who’d got herself tied up in Delphic prophecy and pork belly futures, hiding positions away from her boss so long that the whole porcine economy is starting to lean her way, farmers are dressing pigs up as sheep just to get a good price, and she’s desperately scanning the religious news for signs of mass conversion from Islam while imams in Xinjiang pray over wallets and write grumbling sermons about the wrong government conspiracies for half a lunar year.

No, Turtle Mother was Dave’s nickname for Satoshi Nakamoto, genius, enigma. A recluse who had been identified as five different people by five different investigative journalists, all of them wrong. The inventor of the first centreless digital currency, the fabricated immaterial commodity, anonymous by design, refined from the ore of large numbers and stitched out of cryptographic memories of exchange. As the old saleswoman replied to Bertrand Russell, it’s turtles all the way down.

Satoshi had always sat on a motherlode of 980,000 BTC, mined in the earliest experimental days, when mining was at its cheapest and a clapped out iPhone on 3G could find you a segment while you rode the subway. It was a hobby then; it’s a fact of life now, as real as university degrees or influenza. The motherlode was worth billions in stateful fiat money, but Satoshi had been happy to hold, and see an ecosystem of transactions and institutions grow and flourish at the bottom of that mountain.

Now he was selling. The news would be out soon, and people would get excited, and prices would jump down a few deciles with the new supply, fear and greed as usual in the big city.

Except I knew it was a bit more complicated and terrifying. If Satoshi was selling, he was either desperate or stupid. And he wasn’t stupid.

When there wasn’t any specific crisis going on, I could do my job from most places with Excel, an Internet connection, and a tarot card reader, but despite that, my boss Jen had seconded me to the London office. She was too much of a tightarse to then fund conventional accommodation so close to global capital – the IMF paid for us but liked to pretend we didn’t exist – so I was set up in an ex-council flat a bit south of Jamaica Road.

“Close to the Jubilee Line,” Jen said. “Salt of the bloody earth,” and laughed, and it took me a while to realise there were two ways to hear it.

The office was at Canary Wharf, with the hordes of banking back office staff that stop capitalism imploding. There’s only so far outside convention you can go without losing spiritual connections, and social ones too, I guess.

I spent most of the morning chasing dead leads on Internets mundane and arcane. I started following the Winklevoss twins on Twitter, adding a couple of joke and impersonator accounts for good measure. I ended up with a spambot called @tentagrrl stalking me for my trouble.

I had just started to wonder if this was one of Dave’s obscure jokes, a cryptic dig at the new gold bugs or something, when Jen walked by my desk.

“I need to pull you into a meeting in the presence room,” she said. “You’ll have to dress up a bit.”

I rummaged through my desk drawers and unearthed a silver necklace with crucifix and a blurry photo from the Crowded House farewell concert. The boss was giving me a polite “can we go already” look so I left it at that.

The lift to the basement was meant mainly for cargo, and it descended with sounds of industrial deliberation.

The Bitcoin story was pretty well known in the economic psychic community. You see, like all financial transactions, a currency depends on faith. It’s a faith no less powerful for being everyday. All contracts need faith to float, but the medium in which contracts and exchanges happen needs something at a grander scale, a kind of mythic power to sustain the system. Usually this isn’t a problem for new currencies, because usually they are launched by nation states, and by the time a nascent state needs a currency, it already has flags, paintings, Macauly-ite Great People and my country, ’tis of thee out the wazoo. All they need to do is slap a few of those markers on physical tokens people will use, like coins and notes, and you have a whole network of monetary fetishes off and running before you can say Isaac Newton. Adding a geomancer at that point is pretty much redundant, though it didn’t stop the European Union having a subcommittee of Roma mystics sign off on the euro launch. Shame they didn’t take their advice on the Portugese-German inflation differential.

Satoshi didn’t have any of that. He didn’t even have an issuing authority with as much implicit mythic power as an airline frequent flyer program. He had to bootstrap it.

Somewhere in those early days of spinning the new currency up he cut a deal with something extra-worldly. The story is that one of the coins in his 980,000 BTC stash is marked by the deal, maybe even part of the spell itself, and to use it is to bring death and ruin onto all that touch it. Some say it’s a pair of coins. We don’t know what or who it was, or which coins are affected, but you can find the dissipated ethereal trails, if you know how to look.

Death and ruin, the trails say. Death and ruin.

Part I | Continued in Part II | Part III | Part IV

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