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by Matthew Harrison

Mark Horton, IT project manager at PicoBank, was in trouble. And it didn’t help that the user, head trader Tracy, was also his girlfriend. His algorithm had failed, and Tracy was less forgiving than a normal user would have been.

“No more juice in this one,” Mark had begun cheerfully enough. “We’ll have to decommission it.” He sat back in his chair.

“We put a lot into the design,” Tracy said quietly.

She was leaning on Mark’s desk, close yet somehow remote, blonde hair trailing over her shoulder. He caught a tantalising whiff of perfume.

“The algo’s supposed to trawl through the market to snap up mispriced orders,” Tracy continued, “but it’s not doing that anymore. It’s gotten tired.”

“We have to expect performance erosion,” Mark countered. “The market’s caught up. The other firms have tightened their order management.”

“Tell you what, though,” he said, at last sensing the chill, “we could beef up the algo with a tracking module. Give it another lease on life. How about that?”

Tracy stood up without looking at him. “I’m quite fond of the thing,” she said coolly. “Show it some love.” And she walked out.

Mark almost gave up. But the combination of the perfume, his own good nature, and professional pride set him to work again. Show it some love... He pursed his lips, and tried to picture the algorithm in his mind. It would have to go to a new level.

Scanning the head of each data packet, seeing the signal, locking on, neutralising, ejecting the re-formed data packet. Scanning, seeing, locking on, neutralising, ejecting. Data packets cease. Power off.

Power on. Data packets streaming past, but no signal. Signal appears — locking on, neutralising, ejecting. Then streaming packets, but no more signals. Power off.

Power on. Scanning without finding as packets stream past.

“Out of juice again!” Mark exclaimed later, when he and Tracy reviewed the algo’s performance. “That was quick. It’s a tough market.”

“Competitive,” Tracy agreed. “You can’t get far with just the basic.”

Mark did not reply. The tracking module was far from basic. In fact, it was the best he had.

“Well?” Tracy looked at him. “Are you out of juice?”

Stung, Mark cleared his throat. “There’s something I’m working on, a responsive tool, so the algo can adjust its strategy as the order flow changes. Although I haven’t had time to test it...”

“Now’s the time!” Tracy patted him on the shoulder. “Rev it up, and let’s see what it can do. There’s a darling.” And she gave him a kiss.

This time, Mark got down to work straightaway.

Power on. Looking. Looking for what to scan. Measuring the signals, comparing with the internal frame, adjusting the frame. Match found. Scanning and seeing and locking on and neutralising and ejecting. On and on until the stream of packets ceases. Power off.

Power on. Looking at the signals and measuring and adjusting. Then scanning and seeing and locking on and neutralising and ejecting. Power off.

Power on. Looking and measuring. No fit is found.

Bleary-eyed with fatigue, Mark reviewed the performance with Tracy after trading hours.

“It’s hardly better than before,” Tracy said.

“I haven’t put the persona in yet, the pleasure-pain motivators.” Mark gritted his teeth. He had been up all night as it was, and regretted having been pushed into releasing the thing early. “At this level, the algo’s got to have a rounded persona, and it hasn’t yet.”

“Why not, Mark? You know how I like them: aggressive, ‘know-what-I-want’ types.”

“All right, all right.” Mark submitted. “Give me another chance.”

“One more chance,” Tracy said.

But her tone was light, and Mark swallowed his concern. He braced himself for one more effort.

Power on. Streaming flow of cold-dark data packets; now a warm bright star. Want. I want. Measuring the data flow and the packet-type. I want warm bright, I want. Setting my frame, waiting for a sweet bright star. There! I pounce, but miss; the star shoots past. I adjust again and wait. Another star: I seize and eat. Ah! Deep, sweet joy! I eject the re-formed packet and am empty again.

Wanting. Waiting cold and lonely for the next warm star. Pounce and subjugate and eat. Eject and empty again. Waiting and wanting. Pouncing and missing. Pain — adjusting. Pouncing — and this time, Ah! the pleasure of it.

Power off.

“Hm, aggressive enough,” Tracy said grudgingly, when they reviewed performance again. “But not smart enough. The algo doesn’t know where to look; it’s leaving too many trades undone. The other firms are getting them.”

She twisted a curl of blonde hair around her finger in irritation. “We’ve tried intervening, but it doesn’t pick up. Design limitations, I suppose?”

“You didn’t give me much time,” Mark said huffily. “But it’s a pretty advanced piece of kit.”

“OK, OK,” Tracy said.

“Hey,” she began again, “suppose you give us access to it?”

“Don’t follow you.” Mark was still smarting.

“Now, sweetie,” Tracy softened her tone. She stroked his hair. “Let me have an interface. I want to give it some guidance.”

The touch, the perfume. Mark yielded, feeling himself weak. “Will do. Just a quick one?”

“All right.” Tracy offered her cheek.

At the door she turned. “What do we call it now?”

“‘Josh’,” Mark called over his shoulder. “Thought you’d like a ‘he’.”

Tracy smiled.

Pleased with himself, Mark quickly finished the interface. He spent much of the afternoon planning his next date with Tracy.

* * *

The following day, Mark found himself working next to the room where they held the regular morning meetings. Traders, salesmen and economists were gathering to share insights and decide on the day’s strategy. Mark listened with some unease as people filed in. IT, of course, was not invited; he could not participate in this key forum where decisions were made and relationships struck.

Muffled through the wall, he heard voices as participants threw in their thoughts about the market. Then he heard Tracy’s sharper tones: “Haven’t heard from you, Josh.”

A new, metallic voice: “How are you doing, Tracy?”

And Tracy’s voice, warmer than he had heard it for a long time. “Fine, Josh, just fine.”

Mark felt a sudden chill. What have I done?

Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Harrison

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