It wasn’t even 5 o’clock yet, but the office was completely empty. All the traders bolted as soon as the market closed at 4 p.m., most likely to get drunk somewhere on Wall Street.
Typical end to the day. The buzzer went off, and then there was lots of yelling and dancing around, like all the traders had just won the Super Bowl. Zak Winston looked up at the board — the Dow Jones fell almost 10 percent, or 11,000 points, as the whole world rushed to the safety of fixed income. It had been down as much as 15 percent, but crept back up toward the end of the day. They’d all have to be careful tomorrow: maybe the war would end quickly and people would jump back into stocks, who knew?
Zak made his way from desk to desk, building himself a dinner out of the piles of food that were left behind, like an Army general poking through the ruins of a town he just sacked.
Working here was like attending a wedding every day, at least when it came to eating. Tons of food was trucked in so all the hotshot traders could keep trading and making money. And then they just left it there, walked out, let the office cleaners eat thousands of dollars of it each night.
Zak picked out some cold pizza and some little puffy pastry things that looked like they had spinach inside, and walked back to his desk. During the day, he’d usually beam his own music right into his head, but now that he was alone, he turned on some office noise and got back to some of the ancient history he didn’t have time to research during the rush of the day.
He activated his screens and called up the year 2035, when the U.S. bombed Japan. Just 16 years ago, and already it was easy to forget. Japan was passive, so the bombing and takeover didn’t take that long. And the relationship went almost back to normal just a few years after the bombs fell, at least on the surface.
Zak didn’t care about the geopolitics of the whole thing. He was looking for old news clips from before the attack, something that explained why it happened. He found a few.
“…Dawson administration officials said Thursday that pre-emptive strikes against Japan were warranted and hastily arranged after a ‘silent coup’ on the island nation that posed an immediate national security threat to the United States.”
But what was the threat? Zak found a few examples here and there. “Opening Japanese shipping lanes to terrorist organizations… a state of martial law that threatened democratic values… technical aid to U.S. enemies and access to secrets at the highest level of government…”
Vague stuff, and not convincing. The U.S. seemed to invade on pre-emptive grounds, and promised to be there until “Democracy was restored.” Sixteen years later, we were still there.
And there was good old Dawson I, back when he was just “Dawson.” Philip Clyde Dawson the first, a Democrat out of New York, elected late in life, 76 years old. Won the White House in 2032 and about two years later, we were bombing Japan.
The Dawsons really had it out for Asia. Two years into his son’s administration, and now we’re bombing China.
Zak tried to dig deeper, in the months before the war. But Jesus, the political press was useless. None of the reporters seemed interested in the details that slowly but surely prompted the U.S. to bomb Japan.
The political news was just constant fighting, almost all of it domestic. Democrats saying all Republicans should be in jail, Republicans saying all Democrats should be in jail, and every few years, voters had to somehow decide which party seemed a little better than the other. Speakers of the House moving in, then moving every few years after being toppled by one scandal or another. And endless procession of forgettable, power-hungry public servants.
Scanning it all at once was depressing, and it made Zak wonder if all the history books would have be written by using all this garbage as a source. If so, no one would ever know why we bombed Japan at all.
Zak turned away from his screens. The political press was simply no guide of history, unless you needed historical proof that politicians were always saying dumb things in the press. Well, how about financial press?
He turned back around, activated his normal news screens, and went back a decade and a half to see what people were writing about Japan. Here was something, at least, from 2031.
“Japanese finance minister: Japan is tired of dollars.” “Japan makes play for euro, renminbi holdings.”
And more from 2032: “Japan net seller of U.S. debt securities.” And here was one that caught his eye, from the Wall Street Journal: “Japan: We’re done with U.S. debt.” He couldn’t find any videos, so he braced himself for a few minutes of actual reading.
“Japan, traditionally an avid buyer of U.S. government debt securities, is increasingly missing from the table when the U.S. auctions off new debt holdings, and it’s making some people nervous.
Japan’s prior purchases, along with those from China, India, the United Kingdom and others in Europe have fueled the United States’ debt-based expansion for decades. Now, Japan seems to be walking away.
‘It is crippling us,’ unnamed official in Japan’s Ministry of Finance told the Journal. ‘We do feel an obligation toward the United States, and of course we have no doubts when it comes to repayment, but it is no longer in Japan’s interest to focus so many of its financial resources in one narrow area. We need to diversify.’”
Jeez, Zak thought, that’s a pretty big signal. That bit about no doubts of repayment sounded like government-speak for, “We have real doubts about repayment.” What was the national debt today? Almost $70 trillion or something.
He tried to think how he’d trade Japan’s signals back then and came up empty. Maybe it was just more noise from a foreign official.
Zak heard something squishy and wet from close behind him, as if someone stepped on a cupcake. Then a woman’s voice said, “Ugh.”
He swiveled around to see Cassi, the new office hire who had all the guys’ attention. She was trying to scrape something off her shoe.
“Jesus, I just stepped on a cupcake,” she said. “These goddamn animals. Who leaves a cupcake on the floor?”
“Sorry, it was me,” Zak said. “It’s my alarm system to signal when someone’s close. I’m Zak.”
She smiled a little as she scuffed her shoe a little more into the rug. “They can pay to get the floor cleaned. I’m the new person, Cassi. What’s up? Not getting any drinks tonight?”
She was wearing a simple black skirt, white button-down shirt, and some classy pearls around her neck and one of her wrists. Her shiny black hair was a little messed up, like she’d been working all day and was tired and just didn’t have time to care about it.
It was her eyes that made her attractive, Zak decided instantly. They were a caramel brown that matched her hair, and they were set far apart, not all bunched up around her nose. She looked vaguely Asian — one of her parents might have been Korean or something.
Here wide-set eyes gave her an air of authority somehow, as if she could see more, command more. And it was almost work trying to figure out which eye to look at. He couldn’t really focus on both at the same time, so he alternated, and then wondered if that bothered her. All of this seemed to give her some kind of instant psychological edge, even with blue cupcake frosting all her left foot.
Her other attributes weren’t too bad either. Her skirt was twisted around her waist a little, so the slit in the back let him see up her toned right leg more than she probably intended. Did she work hard to tone those legs, or was that just what youth looked like?
Anyway, her all-seeing eyes didn’t seem to notice her skirt was crooked, so he took advantage of that for a half second more before answering her.
“Nah, too busy for drinks,” he said.
Cassi walked over and leaned against his desk, like some guy friend of his who he knew for years. The deepest parts of his brain that were good at math were frantically trying to work out the formula for how long he might be able to steal a glance at her legs after looking at her left and right eyes for a bit.
“What this, more work?” she asked, watching his screens.
“No, it’s just… I dunno research,” he said. Zak started to close down his screens, but she stopped him.
“Ooh, Japan? That’s cool. I was thinking about this stuff today too,” she said. “Something about it was reminding me about Japan somehow.”
“Really?” Zak said, surprised and suddenly comfortable around her. “Yeah, I was… I guess I was trying to make some connection between Japan and China. I’m wondering if it’s the debt situation.”
“What did you find?” she asked, then quickly tried to retract it. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to intrude. Wasn’t up for drinking tonight.” She got up as if she was about to leave.
“No, it’s fine. Just history so far, but it could lead to some information that gives us a heads up on how to trade this. Check it out,” Zak said as he opened up his screens again and let her see. Cassi grabbed a seat and watched him trace through the history he had uncovered.
“There was lots of noise about the debt just before we bombed Japan, almost 20 years ago,” he said. “Japan saying it didn’t want to hold dollars, and then it didn’t want to buy more debt. A few years later, we invade.”
“Hmm, that’s good,” Cassi said. “I didn’t think that far into it. I was just thinking, another Dawson, another war in Asia. I hadn’t made the money connection.”
“I’m not sure I’ve really made it either,” Zak said. “I was wondering if maybe China has been making noises the same way. Let me search here.”
Zak ran a similar search, and almost immediately, similar headlines popped up for China. “China eases back on dollar holdings.” “China fades as major buyer of Treasury debt.” “Meet the new U.S. debt holder: India.”
“Jesus,” Zak whispered. “That seems familiar. Are we invading countries when they stop buying up U.S. debt?”
“If so, how come no one’s saying that?” Cassi asked. “Dawson II is talking about national security threats, stuff like that. I saw one official saying that maybe China lost control of its nuclear missiles.”
“I dunno,” Zak said. “Maybe that’s a cover story.”
“What are you gonna do about it?”
“Well, the next step should be to see what the markets looked like after Japan,” Zak said. “Maybe that tells us something how long this thing will last with China. If we can compare the two events, maybe we get a sense of how this will run, and the trades become easier.”
“Who cares about the trades?!” she said, and moved even closer to him. “I mean, shouldn’t we tell people what’s going on?”
She was leaning over to look at his screens, and he could see down her rumpled blouse a little bit. She seemed totally oblivious to his new strategic viewpoint. And somehow, at the end of the day, she still smelled good. Fresh out of the shower, mixed with a little stale cupcake, which wasn’t hurting it one bit for Zak. The overall effect was debilitating.
“You may have just uncovered the motive for why the U.S. is doing this,” she said. “If you’re right, it’s like… the biggest scandal ever.”
“Maybe, but it’s just a theory,” Zak said. “Who knows what’s true? What do you want to do, hold a press conference?”
“You don’t feel like the world needs to know about this?”
“What are you talking about?” Zak said. “We don’t work at the Justice Department. We should just trade off it, as fast as we can. Make tons of money. All sorts of bad stuff happens, and we trade off it. You want justice? That’s the best we can do. When a company makes some kind of toy that poisons kids, we don’t call the cops or investigate. We sink their stock. And hopefully we do it before someone else thinks of it so we can make money. That’s our contribution to justice.”
“How can you just think about the money,” Cassi said. “Maybe I’m too new to all this, but if you’re right, and we’re bombing countries that don’t buy our debt, that’s like… the biggest story of our lives. It’s horrible. I don’t know if we should just sit back and make money off it.”
Zak was suddenly pissy. It was great to have this beautiful girl visit him after work, but this was becoming a morality lecture. He came to Wall Street to get away from this kind of nonsense. Now he wanted her gone.
“If you want to make a big political stink over it, go ahead, but leave my name out of it,” he said. “It’s just a theory. No one’s going to listen to you anyway.”
Zak got up and walked toward the window, and watched people scurrying across the streets from a few dozen floors up. He could help all those people down there by ignoring this and just managing their money. Help the firm. Help his own bottom line. But it was pretty awful, he had to admit. Maybe Cassi had a point. Should they try to sound the alarm somehow?
“You can’t think about what all these people down there think,” she said. “New Yorkers just want to make the right trade. But there are big political implications to this, aren’t there? The United States is robbing the world. That’s insane and you know it.”
Zak kept staring out the window, since it was easier than turning around and trying to figure out what part of Cassi to look at. But also, he didn’t want to let her down.
“Fine, maybe we can talk about somehow getting the information out there,” Zak said. “But there’s a lot to think about. We could lose our jobs over this. They don’t hire political crusaders here. They want people to make them money.”
“Plus what should we do?” he asked. “I have no idea how we can get anyone to pay attention. And whatever we do, it should be anonymous.”
Suddenly she was by his side, close enough to put her hands on his troubled shoulders. He could feel her chest pushing up against his back.
“How about an anonymous leak to the press?” she whispered from behind him. “The world needs to know, don’t you think? But we shouldn’t talk here. Let’s figure it out back at my place, where we can talk openly about it.”
What the hell was happening here? Was this girl really getting turned on by the idea of disrupting an international scheme to force other countries to keep buying U.S. debt? They made all types of people, and all the weirdest ones ended up on Wall Street.
But that was just the tiniest part of brain talking. Most of his brain was busy redirecting as much blood as it could to his groin, to feed his growing erection. He was almost dizzy from it, as it if was creating a new center of gravity just under his belt that required him to learn a whole new way of standing up.
She took his hand. “Come on, follow me.”
So he did.