The End Of October

Here are some highlights from this new Lawrence Wright novel:

* The youthful prime minister was a nationalist, with his hair closely trimmed on the sides and long on top, the fashion for the neofascists taking over Europe. Predictably, he proposed mass expulsions of Muslims.

* WHO officials confronted China, which had hidden an epidemic of SARS in the south the year before and lied about the extent of a new outbreak in Beijing. There were reports that SARS patients were driven around in taxis to avoid detection by WHO officials who had arrived to inspect Chinese hospitals. Shaken by the severity of the epidemic and the worldwide outrage that accompanied the lack of transparency, Chinese officials turned about and imposed strict quarantines of hospital wards, enforced by armed guards and the threat of execution if anyone violated their procedures. Had the Chinese been more open about the disease when it first appeared, many people might have spared.

* Her reticence had been enforced by the stain on Russian Jews like herself, going back to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who betrayed the United States by handing over nuclear weapons designs to the Soviets. And not just the bomb. They also gave away the secrets to sonar, radar, and jet-propulsion engines—all the most important military secrets on which America still held a monopoly. For that they were sent to the electric chair. Ethel, less guilty than Julius, had to be shocked five times. Smoke rose from her head. The image was seared into Tildy’s imagination: that’s what happens to traitors—especially Jewish ones. And yet, from an early age, Tildy knew she too was capable of crossing the line. The difference between her and Ethel Rosenberg was that Ethel had harmed America, and Tildy wanted to save it.

* All the virtues—loyalty, patriotism, courage, honesty, faith, compassion, you name it—are just social constructs, patches to cover the naked barbarism that is at our core.

* Someone nominated “cheese pizza” as a code word for child pornography. John Podesta was a regular customer of Comet Ping Pong. It all followed from there. Even Trump’s national security adviser tweeted that John Podesta was drinking human blood in satanic rituals and Hillary Clinton was engaging in sex with children. All this in the basement of Comet Ping Pong.

* “Putin is a tightrope walker. He wants to draw the U.S. deeper into the Middle East without actually going to real war.”

* “Most of the Saudi oil is in the Eastern Province, which is largely Shiite. The Iranians want to annex that and take control of the Saudi resources. They’ve got lots of missiles and the coordinates for all the desalination and power plants in the kingdom. Without water and power, there won’t be much left of Saudi Arabia.”

* “[Russia has] much greater control over their infrastructure. It’s very strictly regulated. Probably they have a program to isolate their systems controls from the internet. So they would have a considerable competitive advantage in a cyberwar where the target is the infrastructure that supports civilization.”

* “That’s what they found in 1918, as you know. There were precursors. Milder, of course. And older people did have some immunity, suggesting that there must have been a similar strain circulating in the nineteenth century. But then the virus mutated and turned itself into a killer.”

“In this case, it was China,” said Marco. “Two outbreaks, one in Zhalong last October, and another in Poyang Lake a month later. We think there were seven fatalities, but the Chinese have still not published anything. WHO sent their vets up to check the water birds and yes, they found Kongoli in the cranes. There is a rumor of a serious outbreak in North Korea. Something is going on in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and there may be a bird die-off in northern Iran, and what do these all have in common besides the maddening lack of confirmation?”

“Migratory flyways,” Henry said.

“Exactly. So it looks like the birds may have picked up something in Siberia and gone to Poyang Lake, which is the largest body of freshwater in China and the meeting place for millions of wild birds of all kinds. They winter over, exchange infections, maybe one bird gets infected with two different influenza viruses at the same time, they reassort, sharing gene segments, and presto, you have Kongoli, one of nature’s deadliest creations.”

* “Biowarfare has always been a part of the arsenals of the great powers. We shouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to have been concocted in a laboratory. We know the Russians have tinkered with influenza. Good scientists. Maybe they wanted to see what could be done, if there was some way of collaborating with nature to build the ultimate weapon of war, one that can destroy the enemy without fingerprints.”

* “But, listen, Jill. This disease isn’t going to stay in Mecca. Even if we can keep the pilgrims locked up until this wave passes, the birds are carrying it. I don’t know how much longer it will be before it hits the U.S. Maybe a week, maybe a month. I want you to take the kids and stay at your sister’s farm. Take a couple month’s worth of groceries. Don’t see anybody. Don’t even touch the mail. Just hunker down and wait for me.”

“I know you’re concerned about us, but really, Henry, there’s a lot to be considered. I can’t just drop everything and crash at Maggie’s for however long.”

“Please, Jill, I know it looks safe for the time being. But this disease will move really fast. But I’m pleading with you. Get out. Go someplace remote, as far from other people as you can find. Shelter with the kids until the contagion dies out.”

Henry had never sounded so scared.

* By now the origin of the disease—in an Indonesian detention camp for Muslim homosexuals—was well known, and the conspiracists were inflaming fears that Kongoli was a plot. According to one theory, Muslims had created the disease to destroy Christian civilization. Another theory posited that Muslims were being targeted for elimination by neo-Nazi scientists. A third theory postulated a worldwide war against homosexuals. These fantasies were promulgated in social media, led by Russian bots and amplified by internet rumor-mongers, stirring strife by remote control, urging people to take to the streets when they had been warned repeatedly to shelter at home. The imam of Philadelphia’s main mosque urged his parishioners to ignore the conspiracy theories, but while he was speaking, two firebombs were thrown into the building.

* “Day after day we get the same report from you,” Tildy said, scolding Lieutenant Commander Bartlett, who had become an ominous fixture at the Deputies Committee meetings—like the Ghost of Christmas Future, with grim visions delivered in a laconic southern drawl. “No vaccine,” Tildy recited, counting on each finger. “No treatment. No cure. You have to tell us something positive! The American people are beside themselves with worry.”

Bartlett responded with a look that Tildy instantly recognized as pity. “We have plans, ma’am. We’ve had plans for years, at the CDC and NIH and Johns Hopkins and Walter Reed, we’ve had lots of plans. We just haven’t ever been given the resources and personnel to carry them out. Like ventilators. We figure that maybe 30 percent of hospital patients reporting severe influenza symptoms will need to be ventilated. Right now we can accommodate about one percent of patients who require them. Meantime, people are dying of other treatable diseases because we have no stockpile of essential medicines. They’re all made in India or China, which are also suffering this pandemic. We’re running out of syringes, diagnostic test kits, gloves, respirators, antiseptics, all the stuff we need to treat patients and protect ourselves.”

“Honey, I don’t think you understand.” A deep voice suddenly broke in. The vice president was a former governor and radio host known for his tough demeanor. The president had made him the official point person for the pandemic, and recently he had begun attending the Deputies Committee meetings. Once he started coming, the room filled up with staffers and note-takers jammed against the walls. “We need deliverables! And I mean today! The president wants action, and he wants it now!”

Bartlett stiffened. “I know what you people want me to say, but that’s not my job, is it? I am supposed to be giving you information. Real information. What you do with it is your job. Now, if you had been doing your job and providing us with the resources we asked for, maybe we wouldn’t be sitting here sucking our thumbs while people are suffering and the economy is going to hell and the graveyards are filling up and all because people like you didn’t care enough about public health to pay attention to our needs.”

The vice president looked like he’d been hit with a crowbar…

“Mainly, we have to give something to the president that will project a sense of calm,” Tildy said gently. “Of hope. Of progress. Like that soon people will be able to get a shot and they’ll be protected.”

Bartlett shook her head ever so slightly. The pity thing again. “Even if we had a vaccine, the question is, who gets the shot? It takes months to ramp up production, and it won’t even start unless the drug companies are protected against liability. I mean, we don’t have time to do standard human safety testing. And let’s say we get ten thousand doses the first week, and a hundred thousand the week after, and five hundred thousand the next week, and so on. It’ll still take months to scale up to the point where we’ll have enough material to create some kind of herd immunity. Even then, you may need two or three doses to be safe.”

* TILDY SETTLED ON THE COUCH with her elderly Pekingese, Baskin, to watch a historic moment in American history. She already knew what the president was going to say: Tomorrow there will be federal troops in American cities, protecting property and government offices. Health care will be nationalized. Tented infirmaries will be set up in shopping mall parking lots. The Red Cross will take charge of a massive volunteer program. And drug companies will be commandeered and made to focus exclusively on developing a vaccine—not just for Kongoli but for any strain of influenza, providing lifetime protection. The president will invoke the Allied victory in the Second World War and the elimination of smallpox as achievements that had also seemed impossible at the time. He will guarantee that the U.S. government will apply the full force of its mighty powers to protect its citizens and other peoples of the world against the greatest plague humanity has ever known.

* As the president was speaking, what appeared to be a tear spilled down his cheek. The president furtively wiped it away, but another tear followed, and just at the same moment Tildy and the president and the American people realized that it wasn’t tears, it was blood. The president’s eyes were bleeding. Before he could finish the sentence, the transmission cut off.

Twenty seconds later, Tildy’s secure phone rang. “We’re invoking COOP,” the voice said, referring to the Continuity of Operations Plan. The president was still alive, but deemed unable to govern, so the vice president assumed office. At that very moment, he and the senior cabinet members were being removed to Mount Weather. Buried in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains was a miniature city, with twenty underground office buildings, some three stories tall. In addition to its own sewage treatment and power plants, Mount Weather had a radio and television studio (part of the Emergency Alert System), a crematorium, and sleeping quarters for the president, cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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