Authors: Vernor Vinge
Tags: #Singles, #Speculative Fiction
Jeff Allen, David Baxter, Ethan Bier, John Carroll, Randy Carver, Steven Cherry, Connie Fleenor, Robert Fleming, Peter Flynn, Mike Gannis, Harry Goldstein, Thomas Goodey, Barbara Gordon, Judith Greengard, Dipak Gupta, Patricia Hartman, Patrick Hillmeyer, Cherie Kushner, Sifang Lu, Sara Baase Mayers, Keith Mayers, Terry McGarry, Sean Peisert, William Rupp, Peter H. Salus, Mary Q. Smith, Charles Vestal, Joan D. Vinge, Gabriele Wienhausen, and William F. Wu.
The first bit of dumb luck came disguised as a public embarrassment for the European Center for Defense Against Disease. On July 23, schoolchildren in Algiers claimed that a respiratory epidemic was spreading across the Mediterranean. The claim was based on clever analysis of antibody data from the mass-transit systems of Algiers and Naples.
CDD had no immediate comment, but in less than three hours, public-health hobbyists reported similar results in other cities, complete with contagion maps. The epidemic was at least one week old, probably originating in Central Africa, beyond the scope of hobbyist surveillance.
By the time CDD got its public-relations act together, the disease had been detected in India and North America. Worse yet, a journalist in Seattle had isolated and identified the infectious agent, which turned out to be a Pseudomimivirus. That was about as embarrassing a twist as the public-relations people could imagine: Back in the late teens, CDD had justified its enormous budget with a brilliant defense against the New Sunrise cult. The Sunrise Plague had been the second-worst Euro-terror of the decade. Only CDD’s leadership had kept the disaster from spreading worldwide.
There were still good people at CDD. They were the same specialists who had saved the world in 2017. They quickly resolved the July 23 issue. Public Relations could now spin a more or less accurate statement: Yes, this Pseudomimi had evaded the standard announcement protocols. The failure was a simple software error at the Center’s “Current Events” website. And yes, this Pseudomimi might be a derivative of the Sunrise Plague. Denatured strains of the original, death-optimized, virus continued to echo around the world, a permanent addition to the background noise of the biosphere. Three had already been sighted that year, one just five days before, on July 18. Furthermore (and here the public-relations people regained their usual elan),
such events were subclinical, having essentially no perceptible symptoms. The Pseudomimiviruses had an enormous genome (well, enormous for a virus, small for almost anything else). The New Sunrise cult had transformed that genome into a Swiss Army knife of death, with a tool to counter almost every defense. But without such optimization, the Pseudomimis were clunky bags of DNA junk. “And so, in conclusion, we at CDD apologize for failing to announce this routine event.”
A week passed. Two weeks. There were no further captures of the organism. Antibody surveys showed that the epidemic never got much farther than the rim of the Mediterranean. CDD’s claims for the outbreak were absolutely correct. This kind of “subclinical respiratory epidemic” was almost a contradiction in terms. If not one victim in a thousand even gets the sniffles, the virus is almost dependent on charity to make its way in the world.
In fact, there was only one misrepresentation in the CDD story, and that successfully eluded public notice: The failure to announce the virus had not been a mess-up at the public website. Instead, it had been a glitch in the Center’s just-revised internal alert system. So the responsible specialists had been as ignorant of the event as the general public; it was the hobbyists who had alerted both.
In the inner circles of EU intelligence, there were people who were not forgiving of such lapses. These were people who countered terror on a daily basis. These were people whose greatest successes were things you never heard about — and whose failures could be bigger than the Sunrise Plague.
Understandably, these people were both paranoid and obsessive. The EU Intelligence Board assigned one of its brightest agents, a young German named Günberk Braun, to oversee a quiet reorganization at CDD. In those parts of intelligence where Braun was known, he was somewhat famous — as the most obsessing of the obsessive. In any case, he and his teams quickly revamped the internal reporting structure of the CDD, then undertook a Center-wide review that was to last six months and consist of random “fire drills” that would probe threats and conjectures more bizarre than the epidemiologists had ever imagined.
For CDD, those six months promised to be a torment for the incompetent and a revelation for the brilliant. But Braun’s fire-drill regime lasted less than two months, and was ended by an advertisement at a soccer match.
The first meeting of the Greece-Pakistan Football Series was held in Lahore on September 20. The Greece-Pakistan Series had some tradition behind it — or perhaps the supporters were just old-fashioned. In any case, the advertising was very much a blundering, twentieth-century affair. There were commercials where each advert was seen by everyone. Display space was sold on the inner barricades of the stadium, but even that was not targeted per viewer.
A remarkable thing happened at the match (two remarkable things, if you count the fact that Greece won). At halftime a thirty-second advert for honeyed nougats was shown. Within the hour, several freelance marketing analysts reported a spike-surge of nougat sales, beginning three minutes after the advert. That single advertisement had repaid its sponsor one hundred times over. Such was the stuff of dreams — at least for those unwhole-somely fixated on the marketing arts. Throughout the afternoon, these millions debated the remarkable event. The advertisement was analyzed in every detail. It was an uninspired thing, quite in keeping with the third-rate company that produced it. Importantly, it contained no subliminal messing about (though finding such was the main hope of those who studied it). The delay and abruptness of the surge were quite unlike a normal advertisement response. Within hours, all reasonable participants agreed that the Honeyed Nougat Miracle was just the kind of mirage that came from modern data-dredging capabilities: if you watch trillions of things, you will often see one-in-a-million coincidences. At the end of the day, the whole affair had canceled itself out, just another tiny ripple in the myriad conversations of public life.
Certain observers did not lose interest. Günberk Braun, like most in the inner circles of the EUIB, had an enormous (let’s be frank: an
respect for the power of open intelligence analysis. One of his teams noticed the Honeyed Nougat Miracle. They considered the discussion. True, the event was almost surely a mirage. And yet, there were additional questions that could be asked; some were questions that governments had a special knack for answering.
And that brings us to the second bit of dumb luck. On a whim, Braun called for a fire drill: the analytical resources of the CDD would be pointed at the
significance of the Honeyed Nougat Miracle. Whatever the practical content of the mystery, this would exercise the Center in the conduct of a secret, real-time, emergency investigation. At that, it wasn’t much crazier than his previous drills. By now, the brighter of the CDD’s specialists were very much in the swing of such festivities. They quickly generated a thousand conjectures and imagined half a million tests. These would be seeds for the search trees of the investigation.
Over the next two days, the CDD analysts proceeded down their trees, extending and pruning — all the time exercising statistical restraint; this sort of work could generate more mirages than the marketing hobbyists had ever dreamed. Just the topic list would fill an old-time phone book. Here are the good parts, dramatically arranged:
There was no connection between the buying surge and the honeyed-nougat advert. This conclusion was not based upon theoretical analysis: CDD showed the advertisement to small response groups. All of the half-time publicity was similarly tested. One of the stadium displays — an advertisement for a dating service, which had aired only briefly — caused occasional interest in nougats. (The dating-service advert was a bit of design-artist excess, its background of intersecting lines a distracting moire pattern.) Proceeding down the test tree, the dating-service advertisement was played for a number of specialized audiences. For instance, it had no enhanced effect on persons with antibodies to the July 23 Pseudomimi-virus.
As a child, Günberk Braun had often daydreamed of how, in an earlier time, he might have prevented the firebombing of Dresden, or stopped the Nazis and their death camps, or kept Stalin from starving the Ukraine. On off days, when he couldn’t move nations, little Günberk imagined what he might have done in 1941 December 7 at a radar outpost in Hawaii, or as an American FBI agent in the summer of 2001.
But when Braun considered this latest report, he knew he was in the middle of something as big as his childhood fantasies. The July 18 Pseudomimi and the advertising at the football match — together they amounted to an extremely well disguised test of a new weapon concept. In its developed form, such a weapon would make the Sunrise Plague look like a malignant toy. At the least, biological warfare would become as precise and surprising as bullets and bombs: slyly infect a population with the slow random spread of disease, all but undetected, and then
, blind or maim or kill — singly with an email, or by the billions with a broadcast, too quickly for any possible “defense against disease.”
If Braun had been a CDD person, this discovery would have precipitated immediate alarums to all the disease defense organizations of the Indo-European Alliance, as well as to the CDC in America and the CDCP in China.
But Günberk Braun was not an epidemiologist. He was a spook, and he was paranoid even for that. Braun’s fire drill was under his personal control; he had no trouble suppressing the news there. Meantime, he used his resources in the EUIB and the Indo-European Alliance. Within hours, he was deep into a number of projects:
He brought in the best cult expert in the Indo-European intelligence community and set her loose on the evidence. He reached out to the military assets of the Alliance, in Central Africa and all the failed states at the edge of the modern world. There were solid clues about the origin of the July 18 Pseudomimi. Though this research was not bioscientific, Braun’s analysts were very similar to the best at CDD — only smarter, more numerous, with far deeper resources. Even so, they were lucky: over the next three days, they put two and two (and two and two and two…) together. In the end, he had a good idea who was behind the weapons test.
Within the intelligence services of the Indo-European Alliance, there were a handful of bureaucratic superstars, people such as Günberk Braun of the EUIB. Hopefully, their identities were unknown — or a mass of contradictions — to the general public. The superstars had their own heroes. In particular, when people like Günberk Braun were confronted with the most desperate problems, there was a place to get help. There was a certain department in India’s External Intelligence Agency. It didn’t show up in EIA organization charts, and its purpose was happily undefined. Basically, it was whatever its boss thought it should be. That boss was an Indian national known (to those very few who knew of him at all) as Alfred Vaz.
Braun took his terrifying discovery to Vaz. At first, the older man was as taken aback as Braun himself had been. But Vaz was a fixer. “With the proper human resources, you can solve almost any problem,” he said. “Give me a few days. Let’s see what I can dig up.”
The rabbit hopped onto the unoccupied wicker chair and thence to the middle of the table, between the teacups and the condiments. It tipped its top hat first at Alfred Vaz and then at Günberk Braun and Keiko Mitsuri. “Have I got a deal for you!” it said. Altogether, it was an unremarkable example of its type.