Human Capital

Venture capitalists say they don’t bet on technologies, they bet on people. What if they’re betting they’ll be dead?

Venture capitalists like to say they don’t bet on technologies—they bet on people. What they don’t say is that they’re often betting someone will use technology to take someone else out of the equation. Welcome to the world of Human Capital, Eliot Peper’s darkly clever take on what might happen if certain corners of the tech world were taken all too literally. Enjoy. -the ed.

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*

Isabella fingered the knife in her jacket pocket. Beneath the silk handkerchief, the handle was reassuringly solid.

She took a puff off her vape pen—a prop that rendered otherwise suspicious loitering innocent—and exhaled a blooming chrysanthemum into the night. Across the access road, a crow tore at the remains of an abandoned burrito. Wind whispered through the surrounding redwoods. Leaning back against the purloined UC Berkeley maintenance cart, Isabella stared up at the darkness where treetops blotted out the stars.

If her research was right—and making it here from El Salvador with her sister had taught her the value of obsessive preparation—then she was standing in a rare envelope of digital shadow, a blindspot where the surveillance sensorium had not yet reached.

Another day, another Reap3r contract. Anonymous principals and agents hidden from each other and the world behind layer upon layer of encryption. Anyone who claimed life was priceless wasn’t paying attention.

*

Lowell forced himself to let out a long-held breath, set his shoulders, and strode onto the stage.

Lights blazed. Applause swelled.

TED.

He had worked so hard to get here. He wished he were anywhere but here.

*

Isabella thought about nothing.

Her mind wasn’t empty. It was brimming over with nothing. Nothing as in the only thing that really mattered. Nothing as in what dreams amounted to. Nothing as in the feeling that came with taking a life. Nothing as in an unbounded possibility space of existential blankness. Nothing as in the place from which we’re born and where we go when we die.

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*

Lowell smiled with his eyes, just like the media coach had taught him.

He didn’t need to look at the slides or the prompter. He didn’t need to look at the clock. He needed to look out at the audience—meet all those other eyes behind the glare.

*

Isabella imagined Francois concluding his guest lecture on applied synthetic biology. Students pretending to take notes while they wandered internet back-alleys (surely not even the most adventurous would have stumbled upon Reap3r). Students eager to deepen their understanding of life’s intricate machinery. Students jockeying to impress one of the Bay Area’s star technologists—the brilliant mind on which LumiGen relied.

*

Lowell deeply resented his fear of public speaking in no small part because it was so cliché. The butterflies. The burgeoning nausea. The dreams shot through with anxiety. To feel crippled by such a common phobia was humiliating. If anything, he should be worrying about LumiGen threatening quBIO’s lucrative monopoly. He fought back the rising tide of stage fright by focusing on the rhythm of the words.

“Analysts ask how we consistently achieve top-decile returns at Human Capital. ‘Venture is a tough asset class,’ they say. ‘What’s your secret?’”

He threw a mock coy look over his shoulder.

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“Well, I’m here to tell you that there is a secret, and I’m going to share it with all of you tonight.”

*

Isabella checked her watch: 9:05 PM. 

Francois should be walking across campus now, strolling past the wide lawn in front of the neoclassical library, equations humming in his head as he plied the shadows between cones of streetlight.

Francois. Lover of handmade ravioli, Settlers of Catan, and N.K. Jemisin novels. A tax evader who donated nearly all his wealth to local charities. A confirmed bachelor who’d tragically managed to get dumped by every man and woman he’d ever dated. He made his own yogurt. He wanted, but had never actually gotten, a puppy. He wore Pure Sport Plus deodorant even though he didn’t play any sports. Every morning, he picked up an iced Mint Mojito at Philz. Every Christmas, he binged every single Pixar movie. Every spring quarter, he delivered a guest lecture to Professor Singh’s graduate seminar and then walked home to his apartment on Oxford Street.

Francois.

This was the one-way intimacy Isabella’s work required.

*

Lowell walked back and forth across the stage, hoping movement would quiet his nerves. “quBIO is applying quantum computing to engineering life itself. Biology is a messy compost heap of hacks piled up by evolution into the most complex system in the universe. Unraveling genetic code is an unprecedented challenge, and quBIO is doing it with unprecedented methods—an approach that only a few other firms in the world, like LumiGen, can approximate. If they succeed, it will herald a biotechnological revolution that will make semiconductors look like child’s play. Medicine, food, materials, manufacturing, computing, everything will be rebuilt from scratch. Eliminating COVID-19 was just the beginning.”

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He stopped pacing, faced the audience.

“But you’re not here to learn about quBIO,” he said. “You’re here to learn Human Capital’s secret to generating outsize returns.”

He raised his eyebrows.

“Guess what? It’s all in the name.”

*

Isabella heard footsteps coming down the access road.

Time slowed. Her muscles relaxed. There was a hint of jasmine on the evening breeze. The crow took off with a crackle-flutter of wings.

And there he was, walking down toward the bridge across the stream—nodding to Isabella in greeting as he passed. 

Francois, I like the shade of turquoise you painted your bedroom’s accent wall. Francois, just because you haven’t yet found luck in love doesn’t mean you can’t. Francois, I tried the Mint Mojito and it was too sweet for me, but I see the appeal. 

Isabella said nothing, but tipped her maintenance cap to him. 

In her pocket, silk tickled her fingertips.

*

Lowell sank into the moment, reaching for the kind of inspired spontaneity only achieved via relentless practice.

“At Human Capital, we don’t bet on technology,” he said. “We don’t even bet on companies. We bet on people.”

Repressing the pain it caused him not to fill it, he let silence expand into the room for a long beat—that was the bit the coach had drilled him on hardest: holding space for silence.

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“It’s tempting to look at the world and see governments and businesses and schools and hospitals and institutions, but that’s all a convenient fiction. The truth is that organizations are just a bunch of people trying to move in the same direction, and technology is just the ways that people do things. Special relativity didn’t change the world. Einstein did. So we dispense with the theses that guide so many investors, and think of ourselves as a special breed of New Yorker profile writer who just happens to invest in the subject of the story. We find the best people in the world, figure out what makes them tick, write them checks, and give them free rein to do what only they can do.”

He opened his palms as if revealing a present. “That’s it,” he said. “That’s the Human Capital formula. Only people can change the world.”

Needless to say, he didn’t mention Reap3r. TED was for bearing hearts, not souls.

*

Isabella bent over to pretend to pick up her hand-distressed replica of Francois’s wallet from the asphalt. 

“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “You dropped something.” He looked back, surprised. She imagined how she must appear to him: a petit maintenance worker who was unlucky enough to pull the late shift—the opposite of intimidating.

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He automatically reached out his hand to take the proffered wallet. “Thank y—“ 

Kidneys.

Throat.

Heart—the jitter of steel against rib shooting up her arm like static electricity.

There was that fleeting, vertiginous feeling of nothing whatsoever.

Nothing at all.

She wiped down the blade, slipped the knife back into her pocket, and stuffed the ruined handkerchief inside Francois’s vest. Laying out the body bag, she rolled the warm corpse into it, zipped it shut, heaved it onto the cart with a silent prayer that she wouldn’t throw out her lower back again, and secured a blue tarpaulin over it. She took out her phone and claimed the kill on Reap3r. Then she was behind the wheel, accelerating out of the surveillance-free envelope, whistling Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license” as she imagined the crypto falling through servers and fiber to pile up in her account like sand in the base of an hourglass.

Francois’s time was up.

Her time was now.

After she disposed of the body, she’d pick up fresh pupusas on the way home.

*

Lowell feigned embarrassment at the standing ovation—letting the roar of the crowd wash over him. He wasn’t embarrassed. He was relieved. Against all odds and in violation of weeks’ worth of stress fantasies, he hadn’t fucked it up.

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He bowed. Waved. Bowed again.

And then he was backstage and out of the hot glare of the lights and checking his phone and—yes—the Reap3r bounty he’d pinned on Francois had been claimed. LumiGen had just lost its resident genius. quBIO’s monopoly was secure. Lowell’s fund would capture a megaton of upside.

Invest in the best. Pay whatever it takes to attract top talent. And if you can’t tempt competitors’ key personnel to abandon ship, eliminate them.

This time, Lowell’s smile didn’t require media training.

At the end of the day, it was all about people.

Human Capital took headhunting seriously.

*

Eliot Peper is the author of ten novels, including Veil, Cumulus, Bandwidth, and, most recently, Reap3r. The best way to follow his writing is to subscribe to his newsletter.

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