I was listening to one of my favorite Spanish pop songs "Nada es casualidad" ("Nothing is by chance") when I first read the news that the total hashrate of the Monero network had just about doubled, from one moment to the next.
The cryptocurrency Monero is mined by roughly a million computers around the world: They all try to solve something like a incredibly complex mathematical riddle as fast as possible, and the one which succeeds first adds a new block to Monero's blockchain and pockets a reward. Then it all repeats with a new riddle. The complexity of those "riddles" is tuned for an average time of 2 minutes between blocks. Suddenly that average had gone down to little over a minute.
Mining a cryptocurrency is a pretty anonymous process, so there was no easy way to find out what had happened. People were of course speculating wildly, but nobody was able to come up with a really convincing scenario.
Another million computers suddenly switching to mining Monero? Improbable. Somebody firing up a much smaller number of much more powerful, highly specialized mining devices, so-called ASICs? Technically very difficult. The NSA renting supercomputers to take over the Monero network? A crazy scientist with a mathematical breakthrough that brought down the difficulty of riddle solving a million times and now was snatching up half of all new blocks with running an app on a second-hand smartphone?
The Monero network soon adjusted by making the riddles about two times more difficult than before, to bring blocktime down to the desired 2 minutes again, making all known miners quite unhappy, as they had to content themselves with only half the income. Many soon threw in the towel, either by switching to other cryptocurrencies or by stopping to mine altogether. When the network stabilized roughly 2/3 of all blocks came from an unknown source, and nobody had the slightest idea what that was.
About 2 weeks later somebody with a brand-new account named "John_12345" sent me private message on Reddit. Probably they had seen that I was a frequent poster in the Monero subreddit, so they tried their luck with me:
"Hi there! I have a somewhat special problem on my hand: Somebody sent me Moneros for over a million dollars, and now I am looking for the best way to cash out. Can you advice?"
My first impulse was to write back and order this John to leave me alone with this crazy shit and get lost, but then my gut feeling told me that this was more than a prank.
"Well, a fellow Monero community colleague is working in a company that runs an OTC desk for institutional investors wanting to go into cryptocurrencies with substantial sums, and I could bring you into contact. But you have to tell me more first, I don't want to send some lunatic his way. And you know, you will have a hard time to convince the IRS that the money is rightfully yours, and not from a criminal source, so sooner or later you will have to put everything on the table anyway."
John agreed. "There is not much to it, really. I got a short e-mail with a nonsense sender address telling me that I received a grant to further my plasma physics investigations, and containing the seed for a Monero wallet. Of course first I had no idea what that even was, but after some googling and installing the Monero GUI wallet application I could restore the wallet and saw that there are XMR for over a million dollars in it that I now control. So here I am."
He had attached a screenshot, and of course it's not too hard to fake something here, but it looked as if John was right.
"So I get it you are a scientist?"
"Yes. And you know what? This grant really is a gift from heaven. For quite a while already I am begging around to get the money for some serious supercomputer run time. I have to execute a full-scale, high-precision simulation that proves my idea right how to much better heat up and stabilize plasma in tokamak fusion reactors. So far nobody believes me however. They call my idea 'outlandish' and put me into the same drawer as those cold fusion types that made headlines years ago ..."
This all gave me confidence enough to go ahead and help him. "Say, after you successfully cashed out and the balance of the wallet went to zero, can you do me a favor and forward me this e-mail? I want to have a look."
First John was reluctant, but I carefully explained him that after spending the XMR that wallet really wasn't more than an empty shell anymore, and that the IRS would certainly want to see the mail as well, he agreed.
The next person getting XMR dropped on them with the equivalent of a 7-figure USD sum wasn't as careful and shy as John and made a public post in the Monero subreddit, with an equally brand-new account named "BatteryMan85", only two days after my exchange with John. Their post asking for the best way to convert a small fortune in Monero to Euro, without too many further details, only got a few unhelpful answers together with some ridicule. I decided to take the initiative and contact them privately:
"Hello Battery Man! Let me guess - you got a mysterious e-mail with a Monero seed in it plus a short advice to use the money for your work".
"Hey rbrunner7! Amazing, how do you know that? Do you have psychic powers?"
I made him the same offer to help I had made earlier to John, but first wanted to know some background in the interest of confidence-building. He explained:
"Almost every month somebody somewhere announces a breakthrough in battery technology, for years already. Did anything ever come out of it? Tell me, are you able yet to charge your smartphone in a minute, and it runs for a month afterwards? Thought not."
I was not sure how to interpret that. "You want to tell me with you it's different?"
"Yes, really! But because of all those faltering and fake 'breakthroughs' nobody is left to believe me. For months already I try to find some investors, without success. That's why this grant money is super welcome: I will finally be able to first patent everything properly, and then produce a number of full-scale batteries to show that they do work and leave everything existing in the dust. Wait for it :)"
I wished them good luck.
This became something like a trend over the next few weeks.
Somebody claiming to know how to make room-temperature superconductors, but unfortunately so far without the money to buy and modify a press used to produce artificial diamonds, because a very high pressure was needed to make the superconductors? Finally gone shopping thanks to a quite generous donation in XMR.
Another person claiming to be able to modify SpaceX's "Raptor" rocket engines for roughly 40% more thrust, with engineers from SpaceX even ready to provide such an engine and give access to their test range, but only after a deposit was made for double the price of the engine, so in case it would blow up money was left for any resulting facility damages: This could go forward now, thanks to enough Monero from a mysterious, anonymous source to make the deposit.
For me events really reached the next level when John came back, with exciting news:
"I still can hardly believe it! My simulation was a full success and finally convinced some influential people in fusion research to give my enhanced plasma control system a chance. The Chinese and the Japanese are already busy modifying some smaller research reactors, and if it works there, which I don't doubt, the next step will be ITER."
I was impressed. "You mean ITER, that giant reactor in construction in France that is already so much behind schedule?" "Yes. I am sure that my system is so much better, they won't mind a year or two more to implement it, because afterwards that bloody thing will work."
After this I simply had to find out who was paying all those grants; this mystery simply was too great to let it go now. John had sent me the mail with the Monero seed, and that was a good starting point for an investigation.
A suspicion had been forming in my mind. We had a still unknown entity currently mining more than half of all new XMR. Then we had an equally unknown entity making grants to scientists and engineers with promising projects in trouble. What if both entities were really one and the same?
It would not be easy to prove that hypothesis because Monero implements cryptocurrency transactions with very good privacy.
Although the blockchain recording all those transactions is of course fully public you can't see who sends how many XMR to whom. What may look like an impossible feat, a paradox even, is based on some quite advanced cryptography: Everything is either cleverly obfuscated or encrypted outright using strong keys.
Nevertheless some actions leave patterns in the blockchain that you can identify with some certainty. A transaction paying the block reward to somebody who successfully mined a block uses a special, recognizable construct called "coinbase output". So if a single entity mines literally thousands of blocks and then aggregates all the small rewards in order to transfer XMR with a value of millions of dollars, it's probable that you will find transactions involving many coinbase outputs in the "ancestry" of the one final payout transaction.
And if you learn from that how that entity usually does it, e.g. if it always aggregates 50 coinbase outputs at a time, you can start to watch the Monero network for new such transactions to appear. If you are lucky you will be able to see which network node originally broadcasts them, and armed with the IP address of that node you might see where it's geographically located - more or less.
I knew some people working at a company called "CoinTracers" that was watching the Monero network with quite some effort: They were in the business of helping law enforcement agencies in cases like coin theft at exchanges, use of ransomware, or tax evasion using cryptocurrencies. They had a hard time with Monero, but they knew their stuff, and it was clear to them right away what to watch for in this particular case.
I made a little deal with them: John's wallet for analysis in exchange of trying to find where the transactions came from.
A few days later Lewis from CoinTracers phoned me. He sounded quite excited:
"I have an IP number for you. But you won't believe where it is located! It's on a submarine cable, on SEA-US that crosses the Pacific."
I did not understand. "What do you mean, it's 'on' that cable?"
"First we thought the server is sitting at one of the landing points, but when we analyzed average signal propagation delays more closely we became pretty sure that it's located somewhere in the middle between Hawaii and Guam."
"You mean on the seafloor, 3000 meters deep or so?"
"Yes, exactly. We contacted one of the cable operators to ask whether they have anything down there that has its own IP number, like some repeater, repair access point or whatever. Nope."
I started to ponder that. "It's one thing to run a Monero daemon down there, but if they also do their mining there, where would all the necessary power come from?"
Lewis agreed. "It's indeed very strange. If you find out more can you keep us informed?"
When news broke a little later about the first working room-temperature superconducting material, I started to assume that most if not all people receiving grants in XMR would succeed sooner or later.
This in turn would mean that whoever distributed all that money knew already how things worked. They knew how to get a fusion reactor running properly. They knew how to build miracle batteries, room-temperature superconductors and better rocket engines. How else would they be able to pick the probably very, very few people on the right track with such an uncanny precision? This was far beyond pure chance. "Nada es casualidad" indeed.
And running a large-scale Monero mining operation on the bed of the Pacific Ocean, splicing that into a submarine cable, complete with a strong independent power source, looked like pretty advanced technology as well.
Call me crazy, but all this did not sound as if it came from this planet.
Once I had reached that point with my reasoning, an epiphany struck.
Have you heard about the Fermi paradox? Right from Wikipedia: "The Fermi paradox, named after Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence for extraterrestrial civilizations and various high estimates for their probability (such as some optimistic estimates for the Drake equation)".
Or, even shorter, where is everybody?
One of the many possible explanations for the paradox that people had come up with over time was the following: Aliens don't contact or even visit us because we are under some sort of intergalactic quarantine. "They" wait until our civilization has matured to a point where it could withstand contact with advanced civilizations, without everything descending into chaos out of a terrible culture shock.
This line of thought was even present in pop culture, e.g. as the "Prime Directive" in Star Trek.
But what if the real quarantine regime allowed some exceptions? How about the following: Aliens are allowed to help humanity further along technological progress, to reach fitness for open contact earlier, under just one condition: Be invisible, don't get caught.
And here a really private cryptocurreny like Monero comes in handy, doesn't it? Offering ways to acquire it anonymously by mining, allowing payments that are almost impossible to trace back to their source. And indeed, 3000 meters down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was a nice place to mine without getting caught!
A few minutes after the total hashrate of the Monero network had suddenly fallen about 2/3, something looking like a big metal sphere silently broke the surface of the Pacific Ocean, ascended quickly straight upwards, reached space soon and continued its way in direction of the Moon.
A little later it docked with its mothership waiting on the Moon's far side. With all pieces of advanced technology out of the reach of humans the expedition finally could conclude and fly home.
The two commanders of the ship were quite content with the results.
"What do you think, will we be able to use Monero again when we return in a few years, local time?" asked the one.
"We will see. We have quite a few XMR left, in any case. Computer, can you please prepare our report to the Emerging Species Contact Committee?"
"Certainly. Will it mention how close Monero developer 'rbrunner7' came to the truth, resulting in a certain danger of detection?"
The commanders looked at each other with all four eyestalks, burst out into their equivalent of laughter, and finally said almost simultaneously: "Nah!"