Disassembling the World (2)

MCMTuesday, June 16, 2009

At the end of July, 1889 Books will be releasing The Vector, a science fiction novel about people trying to survive a slow apocalypse. When we start the book, things have already been deteriorating for some time, and no time is wasted explaining why. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to writing a series of background articles here that fill in the back story. You don’t need to read these to understand the book, but if you’re like me, you’ll probably want to know.

Part II: Nodes on a Grid

The first reaction to the San Jose Avian Flu was to reverse the moratorium on incubator technology, and get units in the hands of the front-line experts in California. Traditional diagnosis and treatment put a vaccine six to nine months away, and at the rate the flu was spreading, there was well-grounded fear that a major economic collapse was imminent in North America. There was no time to waste.

Three weeks after it started, it became clear there were two distinct variants on the Avian Flu: type A was becoming less potent but had a longer infection period, while type B was doubling its mortality rate alarmingly fast. Both types were mutating rapidly. As quarantine areas proved ineffective, the incubator operators were worked to the point of collapse, trying to stay on top of the dozens of sub-classes before they branched further. It was an unsustainable position, made worse when cases of type B were detected in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Bowing to pressure from the Governor of California, the federal government began examining a plan suggested by WHO President Jacques Démarain: build a grid of incubator nodes, connected on a secure network, and let each technician diagnose and treat their own strains, without having to send back samples for processing at a central location. By using a distributed treatment strategy, it was hoped the flu could be contained before it spread any further.

Despite an ample supply of confiscated Genesis incubators in Europe, Congress granted a special contract to American hardware manufacturer Brayhold Systems to build new models — dubbed Patriot Incubators — implementing new features demanded by the Defense Department. The estimated timeframe was six weeks, but Brayhold President Mitchell Gentry further complicated matters by insisting no work could be done until his company was granted a special exemption from the incubator technology's license, which would have required him to share his modifications with the original developers. His argument that the DoD additions were a matter of national security resonated with many members of Congress, but not enough to ensure swift passage of an exemption. All told, it took five weeks to grant Brayhold permission to ignore the license, and a further nine to actually manufacture the incubators in Malaysia.

The delay was devastating. By the time the first incubators arrived on the scene, Avian Flu had spread across most of the west and south, with reports of type B in isolated pockets of New York City, which was put under martial law almost immediately while the Centres for Disease Control struggled to develop an adequate quarantine plan. Internationally, detention centres were set up for all travellers who had recently passed through a North American port, with wait times of up to six weeks (based on a since-retracted article in the New York Times). America itself was in a depression, but was too panicked to notice. The rest of the world was not so lucky.

It took a further two months for the Patriot Incubators to get up to speed across the country. The initial firmware was buggy and produced useless treatments, and it took Brayhold developers several weeks to track down the bug. Once the code was bug-free and units were dispersed in communities across the country, incidents of Avian Flu began to drop rapidly. By the end of the second month of service, type B was declared "dead" by the CDC, and two months after that, type A was considered a "non-entity". Despite the many false starts, the incubator network was considered a stunning success, and soon American policy experts were bringing their "lessons learned" to governments around the world.

It was, ironically, this new age of disease containment that brought about the worst pandemics in the history of the world.

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