The Network Revenant
The dollar zone collapsed after years of threatening noises. Oil prices, security worries, hostile central banks switching reserve currencies, and domestic shocks to the economy dealt the dollar a steady drumbeat of blows in quick succession in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The People's Republic of China, it turned out, had a lot of T-Bills, and when they felt both confident enough in the Euro and annoyed enough at the U.S. they started dumping them. The OPEC countries started mumbling that they'd prefer other forms of payment. Despite the fact that nobody was convinced they had that much more oil to sell, tankers kept leaving the petrozone with oil aboard - and, increasingly, New Yen, ExportYuan and Euros went back.
Finally, sometime in 2018, a group of very smart, very dedicated, very idealistic and somewhat naive scientists and engineers produced the world's first nanostack. It wasn't very efficient, but it worked as intended - hydrocarbon pollutants were stuffed in the top, electricity and data shoved in the side, and gasoline came out the bottom. The usual thermodynamics losses applied, plus a hefty interest fee in general shrinkage, but it was levied in output heat, water and powdered carbon, suitable for industrial use. The nanostack was used, almost tongue-in-cheek, as a hot water heater for the lab building and to make coffee.
They were at Dartmouth. The U.S. economy collapsed almost immediately. Despite its attempts to wean itself off dollars, the petrozone's collapsed almost immediately thereafter. The southwestern U.S., with vast stretches of desert containing lots of sun and wind (and, happily, pollutants), rubbed its hands. Then Something Bad happened. Although there had been warnings in the fine print, nobody had bothered to read it too carefully, and somehow some of the tiny machines busily cracking aromatics and building benzene rings got slightly enthusiastic. They found a chink in the works, and out they went.
It wasn't the horrorshow of the 'Grey Goo' nightmare that had been forseen. It was a hell of a lot worse than Agent Orange, though. Living organic material dissolved into organic chem slopbuckets slowly and fitfully as the sun warmed the microscopic escapees. The nanomachines didn't reproduce, and their very product killed them quickly, so unlike inside the nanostack's protected and flushed environment they sputtered and died - but slowly. A dead region spread downwind from Dartmouth, holes pocked in limestone cement as atmosphere and calcium carbonate slowly struggled its way towards gasoline.
What didn't dissolve, burned.
Eventually, most of the nanofactories were dead, and the stack itself was destroyed with the local area. Every now and again, though, someone drives through a dirtpile or overturns a garbage can and releases a long-dormant cache of the hungry microconverters. People tend to stay away from Dartmouth.
They call it the Scar. It's visible from space.
The outside world didn't have the attention to spare. The economy was busily eating itself in linked trees across the planet, both from the dollar's implosion on the classic side and fear of the nanostack on the future side. Even though the nanostack couldn't produce heavy-molecule materials, much less complex objects, the developing industrial economies of South Asia as well as the dwindling but still lucrative resource extraction industries of the Middle East and Africa went into free fall. Nobody stopped to think about the fact that although wind and solar were free, it was still cheaper to dig and ship oil (for the moment) than build enough wind turbines and solar furnaces and then collect and ship in enough carbon-based byproducts for the nanostacks to convert.
At this point, something happened that directly affected the rest of the world's technoelite who weren't panicking about how they were going to fuel their cars.
The banking system broke links, driven by a realization that there simply wasn't enough reserve capital to float the global system in a meltdown despite the forlorn hope of the Basel Accords. Regional and local institutions began to extricate themselves from nonlocal linkages as fast as possible in an attempt to stave off the capital crunch that everyone knew was coming, and its resultant bank run.
Nobody's sure who thought of it first, but apparently everyone agreed it was a great idea to 'cool off the process.' The only way to do that was to slow down the interaction of the banking system. The simplest way to do that was obvious - remove the tools that linked it.
All the financial institutions swiftly withdrew from the electronic funds transfer and automated clearinghouse networks in favor of escrowed electronic (and couriered) informational transactions.
There are still ongoing investigations on the part of numerous agencies, companies, irate individuals and likely several AIs which continue to labor at determining which banking firms embarked on direct sabotage against the non-financial internet in order to prevent its being 'drafted' as a funds transfer network, but nobody's talking about it. On August 23rd, 2021, an entire generation of internet routing products self-destructed.
The resulting traffic spike took out the routes and peering for more than half the remaining functional transcon links. Most of the remaining links were downed by their owners to prevent overload and/or damage.
In a final burst of military logic, USSPACECOM decided that whatever was going on was coming over the satellite links also and had to be prevented from invading military systems. An 'unspecified number' of 'undisclosed systems' activated. Two hundred and ninety-one communications and navigation/communications satellites went off the air. Clear night skies were remarkably beautiful for several weeks as 'unidentified debris' burned its way back into the stratosphere.
The computers didn't vanish. Nor did local networks. But without the ability to reach global infrastructure, the local tree-based systems degenerated into chaos. Sysadmins and netadmins worldwide struggled to bring up alternate links, relying on personal connections, organizational linkages, and the like, but the routes wouldn't converge. There were too many holes, not enough coordination and too little trust. The once-pervasive Internet that DARPA had wrought spun apart into thousands upon thousands of small local ponds which began, rather than reaching out to each other, to armor themselves against the outside and the hail of attacks that began to rain in with the chaos. With the Real World crumbling slowly for lack of money to buy new hardware, fewer and fewer techs remained to try to rebuild the network. More and more of them went home to keep their families healthy and their home tech running in the chaos.
Downtime had begun.
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