(science fiction novel)
If mankind were killed off in a plague, could we leave the job of bringing us back to our machines? Would they do it? Would they want to?
It’s the end of the world . . . but only for a little while. That’s The Understudy.
When a killing fever sweeps across the world, the CDC’s Geoffrey Answorth rushes to develop a cure. He can do it—he just needs a few years. The problem is that we’ll all be dead in six months.
Well, not quite all of us. . . . The Origyn Systems model 27000, an artificial human with a normal human body but a sealed, electronic mind, is immune to the fever. So, why not just leave them the job of completing the cure? Then, they can use frozen human embryos to bring mankind to life again.
So the 27000s are given the rules: keep things running, find the cure, and then raise the children. And above all, do not tell the new human children what their parents really are. Not until the oldest of the new generation is twenty-one. Then they have to tell them everything, including who—or what—raised them.
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PART I. THE SIN BY WHICH THE ANGELS FELL
Chapter 1. Low Altitude
(04:24 ZULU, the Eastern Atlantic Ocean, west of the Straits of Gibraltar)
Alice Veneer felt her wrist tighten as she snapped awake, but she resisted the impulse to grab the flight stick as she felt the autopilot pitch the nose of the Raptor up. The silky but uninflected voice of the plane’s computer faded into the steady whine of the turbines. Her head, heavy in the flight helmet, nodded downward in response to the sudden climb.
Almost at once the jet leveled off, satisfied that it had climbed enough to avoid whatever it thought lay in its path. Veneer’s stomach lightened as the aircraft came nose-to again on the horizon, invisible in the black night outside, confirming in her belly that the aircraft had ceased its brief, sharp, climb into the night over the eastern Atlantic. Then the aircraft descended gently, again she felt the truth of it in her gut, and then it leveled off again.
She felt something cold under the fine blond down at the back of her neck. The last time she checked, the ocean was flat. Yet the radar altimeter read a steady hundred feet elevation above the surface of the sea through that whole maneuver, through the climb, through the descent. A hundred feet above the sea all the way. And she felt it, she felt the climb and the descent. She felt it in her stomach, her arms, her cheeks. She felt the deep anti-G cushions of the seat tighten around her legs and her waist like an anxious, hurried lover.
She hesitated, staring at the instruments. You can’t fly with your body—it will kill you. You have to trust the machine. Your body will tell you you’re just fine, flying level and true and straight, when in fact you’re flying in a looping spiral down through a fog and in a few seconds you’re going to drill a new tunnel right into the side of a mountain somewhere.
But the aircraft did rise a hundred feet at least. She felt it, deep inside herself. You know it. You just don’t know if you can trust it. You just don’t know where it comes from.
The plane began to rise again. Again she felt the truth of it in her arms and in her stomach and breasts. Yet the radar altimeter obstinately insisted the vehicle was a constant hundred feet above the sea. All the way through the rise, then the descent. All the way.
The artificial horizon agreed with her gut. It showed the aircraft nose up, then slowly pitch down until the aircraft finally resumed level flight after yet another brief descent.
The back of her neck tingled. Those waves just a hundred feet below would be hard as a concrete wall to anything slamming into them at a thousand miles an hour.
Veneer eased her hand closer to the flight stick, ready to snatch it away from the autopilot if the shallow oscillation started again. At this altitude, there would not be much time to interrupt a dangerous descent, if next time the ship’s AI decided for some bizarre reason that the aircraft was too high.
“Low altitude,” the AI said again in that sultry voice, maddeningly uninflected, like a classy gigolo, and the nose of the aircraft once against pitched up to avoid some imagined obstacle. The digits on the altimeter blurred through the upper nineties and resumed sitting at one hundred feet so quickly that a casual glance would never have noticed the change, if not for the tell-tale sinking in the pit of her stomach as the craft once again went through its maddening oscillation, rising, leveling, then dropping briefly. All the while, insanely, the radar altimeter remained within five feet of the target altitude of a hundred feet above the surface of the water.
You have to trust the machine. You can’t fly your body. If you listen to your body, if you fly by the feeling in your gut, if you ignore the instruments and trust your own instincts, you will surely die.
“Low altitude,” the AI said again, and Verneer’s fingers clenched, cold and damp in her gloves, as the Raptor nosed up sharply, leveled off, and descended. Again she felt it. The artificial horizon and the HUD pitch ladder both agreed with her. But this was the ocean, for God’s sake. Oceans don’t have hills.
The radar altimeter had to be defective. It was spoofing the autopilot. Had to be.
With that, the fear drained out of Veneer’s tightening chest. The AI could fly the plane, but not with a radar altimeter sending it faulty data. That’s why there were still test pilots.
“Wallops Center, aborting test op NAP HUG. Request altitude change to flight level thirty.” Her voice was hoarse from disuse during the last two hours. She reached forward, slender fingers a little stiff through the gloves, thanks to all the inactivity while the autopilot handled the long flight across the sea. She switched off the AI interface to the plane’s control surfaces. The computer might still complain, but now he couldn’t do anything about it. That would stop the oscillation.
“Wallops Center, do you read?”
“Low altitude,” the AI announced, indifferent to the fact that she had taken control of the plane away from the computer. The radar altimeter bar on the HUD began to scroll quickly down. Yet the artificial horizon and the flight path indicator both insisted the nose was level and the plane was flying flat. Her stomach confirmed it. There was absolutely no sensation of descent. She felt nothing, and the instruments—well, most of them anyway—agreed with her.
The artificial horizon said the aircraft was level.
The flight path indicator said the aircraft was level.
She was over the Atlantic Ocean, for God’s sake.
She was flying level. It felt like it, for God’s sake.
The barometric altimeter said she was flying flat.
The radar altimeter said she was descending, and descending fast.
A warning horn in the cockpit began to warble at fifty feet. The altimeter continued to scroll down, forty, thirty, twenty feet above the sea.
“Warning, gear up,” the AI said. But the machine didn’t lower the wheels for her, since the AI had been disconnected, and at this speed they would just rip off anyway.
The AI still had control of some parts of the plane however—another bug in the design. So it switched on the landing lights. Veneer didn’t do anything about it, though, because there wasn’t enough time left to do anything about it, and because she couldn’t believe her eyes as she looked forward into the night in front of her beyond the green digits on the HUD.
You can’t fly your body. It will get you killed. You have to trust the machine.
The landing lights sparkled on a gently rising wall of black sea. She felt her wrist tense and jerk back on the flight stick, but she knew the plane would rotate sluggishly at this speed. There wasn’t going to be enough time.
She felt the canopy blow away. She felt the charges fire under the ejection seat. She felt the night wind hammer her face, the black air slam against her, driving her breath away.
You can’t eject at speeds like this. She knew that. She knew the AI knew it. But the machine ejected her anyway, throwing her away into the night while it still could, because there wasn’t any time for the black boxes that purred under her seat to try to think up something better to do for her. The machine was doing the best it could.
The aircraft hit the water, shattered in a burst of light, and the night closed over it. Veneer, her head limp in her harness, settled onto the gently sloping side of the great wave, rising and falling under her and continuing its fast march west as the pieces of the plane settled to the bottom of the sea, and the bruised woman drifted on the face of the dark waters, the tiny transponder on her shoulder crying out to its kin orbiting far above in the lonely night sky, because a machine had left this foundling adrift on the dark sea alone, and it couldn’t rest until she was safe. The machine might still save her.
There was nothing left that it could do for its makers, sleeping in the pre-dawn ahead. The cold, dark waves, a half dozen of them, raced on through the night toward the eastern shore of the Americas where they would arrive with the dawn, slowing and rising to two hundred feet at the edge of the land.
And they would not stop there.
Chapter 2. Emergency Alert
(Miami, 8:08 AM EST)
Kevin Norton turned away from the television broadcast. The Witch’s Reed had cut off in mid stride and was replaced with a strange circular emblem he had never seen on the screen before. Kevin picked up the remote and switched channels irritably, again and again, and then faster and faster, with increasing curiosity and the beginnings of amusement. No matter where he tuned, the only thing he could see was that weird red and yellow disk on the screen. He put the recorder on pause. No need to waste space on this stuff. The net was just tearing up again. At this rate his collection of anime was doomed. Maybe now he could finally get his parents to go with the new PV6 service he’d seen at Jack’s house.
“Mom!” He stalked towards the laundry room. That’s where she always was after breakfast. “Mom!”
“What are you doing down here? You’re sick, remember? Pick up your shirts and take them into your room. Right now. Hang them up before you go back to bed. Don’t make me ask you again. There’s a good boy.”
“Mom,” Kevin continued, gathering up his shirts. “The TV’s messing up.”
She looked skeptical. “How can you tell, with that goofy stuff you watch?”
“It’s not goofy. And it’s not working, either.”
“What’s it doing?”
“I don’t know. You better come look.”
She followed him into the living room five minutes later, after watching him hang up his shirts. “OK, Kevin,” she said. “What did you do to it now—what in the world are you watching?”
Kevin looked at the screen with growing interest. The red and yellow logo had been replaced by a map of the Atlantic Ocean. A broad arcing red line traced across the map from just off the coast of South America at Brazil, sweeping up to the northwest through the Caribbean, and then curving around to due north across Cuba, then to the northeast off Florida, and then further east, parallel to the coast of North America. The center of the arc, if it had been a complete circle, would have been somewhere in the eastern Atlantic. Red arrows flashed at intervals along the edge of the arc pointing west and northwest, and as they watched, the red arc expanded a bit, nudged just a little further west. The line was nearly ready to graze Florida, and Kevin’s mother instinctively felt a chill slip up her back.
The synthetic voice-over started to drill through the confusion, and Kevin began to get a little impatient. “That’s not my program, Mom. So, what’s a tsunami?”
She had him in the van in two minutes, her cell phone in one hand as she backed the Ford Springstar out into the street, the rear collision warning system beeping away, breaking and nudging the steering wheel gently out of her hands as it kept her on the pavement and out of the azaleas.
Kevin switched on the radio, but it was making a sound something like the television had done. Finally the squawking stopped and a synthetic voice, like the ones that read the weather emergencies, came on. To Kevin’s ear, it sounded like a repeat of what they had just heard on the television.
“This is an emergency alert system notification. This is not a test. Please stay tuned for further information.”
Kevin looked out his window as his mom turned the van into the street. Two autocabs zipped past in quick succession, each loaded with a family, pets and children peering wide-eyed out the windows. There was Eddy, late for school, his mom pushing him out the door and into the yard and toward the car, their cocker spaniel leaping about the boy’s ankles. Kevin laughed at him. Then the Springstar accelerated and Eddy fell behind, out of sight.
Finally, after a few seconds of silence, the synthetic voice started in again on the radio. “This is an emergency alert system notification. This is not a test. A large tsunami has been generated in the eastern Atlantic Ocean in the vicinity of the Canary Islands and is radiating north towards Europe and west towards the east coast of the Americas. This series of waves is expected to reach the southeastern and midatlantic coast of the United States as far south as Key West and as far north as New York. Landfall is expected to begin at portions of the coastal areas of the southeastern United States within one hour. The height of these waves from crest to trough is nearly two hundred feet. Such waves can carry inland as far as ten kilometers or six miles. Tsunamis can be accompanied by very high-speed winds in excess of two hundred fifty miles per hour arriving on shore in advance of the wave. There is no safe shelter within the area expected to be struck by the waves. Seek shelter by moving inland, away from the coast, a distance of at least six miles. . . .”
“Kevin . . .” His mother’s voice was tight with fear. “Why doesn’t he answer his phone?” She handed the cell phone to her son and reached towards the van’s GPS mapping system. “Get your father on that thing. Find out if he has dropped your sister at school yet. What’s the best route through town to school, and then inland, and we have to avoid the traffic—oh!”
She drew her hand back from the car’s GPS system and stared at the screen; a route to the high school and then directly across Miami away from the coast was already plotted for her, a line of red winding in a zig zag for the next few blocks, and then straight west from the school.
The Springstar slowed to a stop, and only with an effort did she tear her gaze from the computer screen to discover the red traffic light before her, as the car gently but firmly forced the accelerator pedal up and applied the brakes before she could run the light. A few private cars and several autocabs raced through the light heading west. She felt a momentary stab of envy, wishing she had ordered an autocab instead of this van. That would have meant one less thing to worry about now. But it would have been maddening to sit in the back, passively, having nothing to do but hope the computer could get you out of town fast enough. She decided she liked it better this way after all. At a time like this, you want to feel yourself in control.
“Once the light changes, please turn left,” the GPS system announced, and she nodded obediently, waited for the light to change, and then she turned, just as she was told.
Chapter 3. Tsunami
(Seaview, Florida, 10:03 AM)
Floyd Adler had seen hurricane Andrew come through and worse storms than that, and he had never bothered to evacuate before. He’d seen hurricanes, tornadoes, summer squalls, hailstorms, and just about everything else that he’d ever heard could fall out of a summer sky except frozen fish and frogs and brimstone. If the rest of the neighborhood decided to run for cover at the first announcement of just another squall, well, that was up to them. Adler had seen it all before. So as soon as that new alert started up on the radio and interrupted the news right in the middle of an important story about social security reform, he turned the radio off, finished his breakfast, and did not come outside until he felt like it.
He was a little surprised when he finally emerged. The neighborhood was already deserted, and it was scarcely nine in the morning under a beautiful blue sky.
He kicked at a soft drink can in the street. The can was heavier than he expected, and it rattled into the gutter. The drink inside sloshed out, turning to pale brown foam on the concrete.
Looked like Mr. Taylor even left his boat in the driveway. Adler stared at it for a long moment. Taylor always took that boat when a big blow came through. He loved that boat.
Down the next block he heard the loudspeaker of a police car announcing the evacuation route. He couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but he saw the car make the stop sign a block away and halt. There were two police in the front seat, and the one in the passenger’s seat, the side facing Floyd, saw him, his face a pale white oval.
Then the car pulled out fast, rear tires smoking and they bore down straight for him. He stepped back off the sidewalk and onto the grass of the house behind him as the car slammed to a stop right in front of him, the front bumper low and bouncing with the sudden stop.
“Mr. Adler, get in the back. Fast!”
“Now, Officer Jinkins, I don’t have to tell you that for over eighty years I never—”
A quick blur, some hasty words, and a bruise on his forehead later, and for over eighty years Floyd Adler couldn’t remember ever being picked up and stuffed into the back seat of a car quite like that before. The door was slammed closed beside him, pinching his hip under the armrest. They didn’t even wait for him to put on his seatbelt, which had to be illegal, especially since they were cops. An elbow jabbed him to his right, and a cat dropped into his lap.
“Here,” Mr. Krezwald said, wiping his hands of cat fur. “You hold him. He’s shedding.” And Mr. Krezwald sneezed loudly, the cat digging its claws into Mr. Adler’s thin leg as it cringed at the sudden noise.
Mr. Adler held his hands a few inches above the cat hesitantly.
“Bless it, father, and get it over with,” Abraham Feltner said with a smirk, two packed sets of squeezed-in bony hips further to the right.
Mr. Adler scowled and tried to brush the cat off onto the floor, but it wasn’t playing along, and dug its claws more deeply into his trousers, pulling up threads of dark blue polyester.
“That’s it for our route,” Officer Jinkins said. “We’re out of time. Let’s blow out of here!”
The driver wheeled the cruiser about and headed west, away from the beach. In three minutes they were on Highway 90 doing a hundred miles an hour, headed into their shadow before the morning sun.
After three minutes of this, the first of the traffic began to show up in front of them, and the car slowed to thirty as a long line of cars backed up both lanes of the highway. Mr. Adler could see that they had closed off the eastbound lanes into town, and they too were backed up in both lanes with traffic moving slowly west. Another three minutes and they passed between two military police trucks with blue lights rotating, and were waved off to the side of the road to park in a haphazard collection of police cars. Autocabs and private cars stretched along the sides of the road as far west as he could see.
Officer Jinkins opened the door and Mr. Adler fell out, the cat running up his back to escape into the grass.
“You sure this is safe?” Officer Jinkins asked the Guardsman, who just shrugged.
“This is the perimeter. My orders say if you’re in front of me, you’re my problem and I have to get you to move further west. If you’re behind me, I can forget all about you. You’re behind me.”
Mr. Adler got slowly to his feet and looked about for the cat. He brushed grass from his trousers and blessed the artificial knees he had had put in three years ago. Abraham offered a hand, but though he helped him to his feet, his gaze was straight out to the east. Mr. Adler straightened up, still dusting himself off, and followed Abraham’s gaze.
Floyd Adler could remember a time when there was nothing out here but pine forest. Nothing of that old forest was left now but for the beauty strips between all the subdivisions.
Now the tops of the pines in those beauty strips were beginning to pitch back and forth, though there was no breeze here. But another minute, and a wisp of wind made itself felt through the few strands of hair on his head, beginning to burn in the early, hot sun.
There was a low wall of dark gray and green on the eastern horizon right under the rising sun, like a range of low hills, the sort of thing he saw when he was a kid in the Army in eastern Oklahoma. But this line of hills grew as he watched it, pushing the wind ahead of it until the tears started to gather in the corner of his eyes from the force of the air. He leaned back against the hood of the police cruiser. The top of that distant line of gray hills glittered in the low, early sunlight.
The long ridge swelled, more regular than anything natural should be, stretching away to the north and the south, and the wind shrieked, reminding him now why he always wished, whenever he sat out a hurricane, that he had evacuated with everybody else. Leaves, bits of twig, paper, dust, debris all roared through the air beside him, and he hid his face behind his arm and crouched down behind the car, nearly tumbled sideways as he turned in the howling gale that grew until the wind leaned against him like a horse when you pick up its hoof to remove a stone. He could feel the car rocking in the wind.
He heard a low growling somewhere through the ground under the moaning of the gale. Then the wind died, and he rose and looked east.
Half a mile ahead, the low place in the Interstate where Baxter River passed sluggishly under the road was now a shallow, swirling bay a quarter of a mile across, the water still rising. The bridge had disappeared beneath the churning muddy maelstrom. The water rose, filled the shallow valley, peaked. Somewhere off to the north, somewhere in that subdivision behind the screen of pines, he heard a transformer blow.
The water stopped rising, paused as if it were looking around to see if there was anything left to do, and then it began to march away downstream, crossing the road from the north side on the left down to the south. The current was full of trees and debris clogging the flow, cars still floating right out of driveways, sides of houses, all clattering to rest along the Interstate and the bridge as it re-emerged from beneath the massive standing waves. At last the water fell, leaving debris scattered over the concrete road.
Fifteen minutes later, the range of gray water returned, and the wind, and the gale, and the howling over it all, and again he hid behind the police car while Baxter River became a shallow, brief bay and again the ground rumbled as the debris washed back up the river valley and back into Bay Heights subdivision and back down again, a shallow stone soup of people’s lives.
Again it happened, and again, six times. Each time the only difference was that the debris left behind, the sides of houses, trailers, cars, trees, everything, was ground to a finer state with each passing wave. The bridge over Baxter River lasted until the third wave, and then, when the water retreated, it too was gone.
So was everything else.
Adler and the silent thousands that stretched away behind him all stared east into a new, clean landscape and wondered where, when they asked the autocabs to take them home, the machines were going to suggest they go.
Chapter 4. Overflight
“You’re sure there won’t be any more of those winds?” President Taylor leaned into the window of the helicopter as it skimmed smoothly over the sand flats along the beach. The gentle waves below spilled in luminous golden surf onto the deserted sand.
“The two-hundred-fifty mile per hour winds? Those were associated with the tsunami, Mr. President. The waves pushed them all the way across the ocean ahead of them. There won’t be anymore of those. Unless the rest of those volcanoes in the Canary Islands collapse into the Atlantic. And if they do, we’ll know about it this time.” The Science Advisor leaned comfortably back in the leather seat, enjoying the warm afternoon sunlight on his right shoulder as they cruised south along the smooth, polished coast of Georgia.
“No bodies. . . .” Taylor said, half to himself.
“We lost only twenty thousand people, Mr. President, all up and down the East Coast, from Key West to Maine, mostly in the Keys where people couldn’t get inland and the waves went right over the tops of the islands. It was a stunning achievement for the Federal Emergency Alert System. Absolutely wonderful. The fact that so few were killed in this disaster is going to feature prominently in the election campaign materials next year. With scarcely three hours advance notice, we evacuated fifty million people and losses were fewer than twenty thousand!”
Taylor scowled and shrugged that off, his eyes still fixed to the window. He leaned more closely into the window to try to look behind the helicopter. They flew a hundred feet above the Georgia coastline, polished by the tsunamis, flat and smooth. He knew this coast well. He’d spent a lot of time along the Georgia and the South Carolina coast when he was a kid, from Cumberland Island just north of Jacksonville to Beaufort, South Carolina.
This coast was a tangle of a place once upon a time: barrier islands, salt marshes behind, deep inlets and sounds between the islands, thick forests often right up to the water’s edge. Then there was the gray-white beach of quartz sand, washed down from the Appalachian mountains by slow, wide rivers like the Savannah and the Altamaha, the beaches backed by a low series of dunes, mostly covered with long golden dune grass and stumpy little cactus, and then behind that, low, dense, heavy forests dominated by massive live oaks, those centuries-old, broad, squat, moss-covered masters of the deep forest that made such excellent climbing trees and ship-building materials, once upon a time.
Now, there was nothing but the white-gray sand beach, here and there broken by wide, shallow, steep-walled sandy little ravines where seawater trapped in marshes behind the berm was still pouring through and back into the sea.
The land below was as flat and featureless as prairie, not even covered with the rubble of debris so often left behind by tamer, more delicate disasters like mere hurricanes. The waves had left nothing. Everything the waves hit they ground to rubble and then washed out to sea, pulling it all miles offshore as each flooding wave was followed by an ebb that dropped the sea level more than hundred feet below normal, exposing continental shelf that had not felt the touch of dry air since the last ice age. Only at the far landward end of the sea’s encroachment was there any sign of the civilization that had once been here. The farthest advance of the waters had abandoned a long trailing heap of the lighter, floating detritus like a mammoth glacial moraine stretching all the way from Miami to Massachusetts.
From a thousand feet, the five or six miles from the coast inland looked like a schoolchild’s paper map exercise with none of the features drawn in yet. From down here at ground level, it looked more like the third day of Sunday-school Creation. They had the dirt and the water and the sky all ready to go, and that was about it.
At least there were no bodies down there. It had been a glorious vindication for the Emergency Alert System. That’s what the astonished press was calling it, and they didn’t even like this president.
But it would have been pointless to deny it. There wasn’t a person on either side of the Atlantic Ocean who hadn’t heard how the Europeans lost five hundred thousand people to comparatively small waves that had refracted around and come ashore from Spain to England. Africa had lost another hundred thousand, though the coasts where the African waves struck, spectacular though those waves were, were sparsely inhabited. The Caribbean and northern South America were still trying to figure out how much of their tax rolls had been swept into the sea.
Taylor dropped back into his seat and closed his eyes. Maybe it would play in his favor as an election issue the way Armstrong predicted.
And then again maybe it wouldn’t play so well. The value of the Emergency Alert System as an election issue all depended on one little fact, which to this point had not yet become an issue. But Taylor was pretty sure that at some point it would.
“So, Jack, who gave the order? Who called for the evacuation of the East Coast? Because it certainly wasn’t me.”
“We . . . don’t know yet. We’re checking the logs at FEMA, the military, NOAA, the Temple, the USGS, everywhere else.
“We know that last night, Cumbre Vieja, a volcano on La Palma Island in the Canaries collapsed into the sea and generated these waves. A NASA test bed flying low and fast from Spain westward detected a mismatch between the on-board navigational model and the sea level reported by the radar altimeter. The plane’s AI phoned that information in to the database at Wallops Island in-flight. The mismatch was so large that it was assumed to be an error in either the radar altimeter or the GPS model, and the pilot is supposed to have then switched off the AI.”
“He didn’t trust the altimeter?”
“She. Yeah. Evidently. The plane was actually doing a good job keeping a constant altitude over the waves. She just didn’t realize what was under her. She crashed a few seconds later. Flew into one of the waves. As the Wallops Island computer received the test flight data, it referred to a NOAA database on sea level data to confirm the error, also routine, all automatic. We know the NOAA computer ran some routines that identified the sea level oscillations as a possible tsunami, and relayed this data to the databases at the USGS and the Navy. All this was automated; so far, no human eyes involved.”
“If you don’t count that dead pilot. She.”
“She might not be dead. We picked up a distress beacon. The Navy is in the area now.”
“Yeah. We also know that the NOAA database and the Navy/Scripps computers both dropped a White Light report in the queue at the White House Situation Computer, which sent a query to your desk, but of course, your Scheduling Computer sent a reply back to Navy to the effect that you would not respond to this query before this morning, since you were not at your desk. The Navy computer automatically tried to re-route the White Light traffic to Air Force One, but the Air Force computer has no record of the traffic. It was probably refused because White Lights aren’t priority traffic, and the Navy computer didn’t have priority access. So the Navy computer sent another message to the White House Situation Computer to the effect that you were not available, and that’s all we know right now. We’re checking the logs on the Air Force backup mail servers.”
“Thanks for the tour. Except we also know that the White House Situation Computer then activated the Emergency Alert System, and not at my command.”
“We feel sure that we will discover that the Navy Computer told the White House Situation box what was going on. We have several more logs to get through.”
“Damn it, that’s the problem, Jack! The White House Gatekeeper is not supposed to issue an alert until I say it can! Whether the Navy computer tells it to or not!”
Armstrong sat up. “Well, Mr. President, I wouldn’t complain. If the computer had waited until it had clearance to get the White Light through to you on the plane, you’d be answering some pretty tough questions right now, and we’d be mourning fifty million people.”
“It’s not supposed to do that,” Taylor repeated, more quietly. “What if it had been wrong?”
“Well, it wasn’t,” Armstrong objected.
“And next time? What if next time some computer decides we need a war?”
“I really think we need to look on these tools as aiding us, Mr. President. This was not a bad thing.”
“Do you understand why the system did what it did, Jack?”
“No, sir. I don’t. It’s a complex system. The latest organic hybrid processors from Origyn Systems. But they’re very able systems. I mean, look at this! This wasn’t a bad thing.”
“You keep saying that. We have a new computer system that makes decisions without our knowing how it comes to those decisions, Jack. And its methods can’t be checked. I assure you, that’s a bad thing. We need to be in control. We need to be able to stop it at any stage of the process. People have to be in the middle of this entire process. I want some changes made. I want accountability.”
“These Origyn organic processors can’t be audited like the older stuff, Mr. President. They don’t work the same way. I mean, when they’re handed a situation, they generate their own programs on the fly for dealing with it.”
“Then we have a problem, Jack.” Taylor’s eye glinted with anger. “The people don’t elect me to hand responsibility for their safety over to a bunch of computers. They elect me to represent them, to be responsible to them every minute of the day or night. That’s what being President is all about. Being a machine, on the other hand, is all about doing no more than you’re told to do. Like being a cabinet secretary, you might say.”
Armstrong nodded and sat back in the sunlight. He knew this was the end of the discussion.
But not the end of the problem. The voters might not agree with Taylor’s ideas about the nature of accountability. Maybe you didn’t always know what your computer was going to do next. But did you know any more about the president you elected? After all, he certainly fooled his supporters on that promised tax cut. At least they knew they could always pull the plug on the White House Situation Computer.
On the other hand, the voters wouldn’t get to pull the plug on this guy for another year. Armstrong wondered which of the two decision-making systems voters would really prefer if they had the choice, and he decided that Taylor was lucky he wasn’t likely to have to run against the White House Situation Computer anytime soon.
PART II. THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS
Chapter 5. Pandemic
Geoffrey Answorth squinted through groggy jet lag and peered towards the dark green tree line on the far shore of the sluggish, muddy current of the Zambero River. He scratched at his chin, and a sudden, sharp pain pinched at his throat as his whiskers caught in the weave of his collar, his two-week-old beard itchy and sweaty in the tropics.
Atlanta had blistering summers, but they also had very efficient air conditioners. Answorth shivered in the African sun at the recollection of the way his shirt felt on his back after coming into the lab in Atlanta on a hot, humid August afternoon. He couldn’t remember having a chilly, damp back since he’d stepped off the plane in Ktanu Town—right onto the tarmac—no jetways in Ktanu Town. No autocabs at the terminal, either. You still had to find a human cab driver here. No air conditioner in the cabs, either.
Here, the nearest air conditioner was two hundred miles down the Zambero River, and that was unfortunate, because all these bodies stacked up on the dock at the Kiterro Mission Station were going to need some serious cooling in the next few hours.
Answorth turned from the slow, muddy, swirling river to the corrugated metal shed, gray paint peeling from the hot, rusting walls, corroded iron tobacco and skin-lightening cream advertisements flaking slowly away to rest on the moldy, sagging boards of the landing. The wonder of it all was that the bodies lying on the dock didn’t fall through the rotten boards back into the river that they had just been fished out of.
Mputa leaned over one of the corpses. “As near as we can tell, they’re Atashi tribe. These bodies have been in the water for no more than two days.”
“These are the most recent? How many before these?”
“Just two floated down three days ago. Kosi found them—he runs this fishing pier and what little railroad business there still is at this station. He assumed they were just drowning victims. Fishers. They see that from time to time, especially during the rainy season. They keep the bodies here because the Atashi will come down to claim them. But nobody came, and then three more floated down day before yesterday. Then this group, last night. Half a dozen. There are more piling up on that sand bar up there.” Mputa shielded his eyes with his hand and pointed to a brown strip of shoaling mud roofed by the black hulk of a creeper-wrapped topa tree that had collapsed where the bank gave way at a bend in the river. “That’s when they called me. And I called you. Or, called your computer, I should say, and left the message.”
“Yeah. Sorry about the delay. I was out of town.”
“I wasn’t complaining. Your machine found you fast. I was surprised.”
The shoal was striped with the brown bodies of another half dozen dead and three crocodiles.
Answorth pulled back the plastic sheet from the nearest body. “Done an autopsy yet?”
“They didn’t drown.”
“What killed them?”
“You’re doing the tissue pathology and the cultures?”
“They were sent to the lab at Kunta this morning, as soon as I arrived. We can hope for the results in two weeks on the cultures.”
“You think this is a pathogen, then?”
“There’s very little to go on. The numbers and the lack of trauma suggest a pathogen. That’s all.”
“Probably ought to isolate these bodies. Why did they end up in the river?”
Mputa shrugged. “My guess is fever.”
“Died while trying to cool down?”
“But—let me guess—no pneumonia, right?”
“I thought so. Not enough time for it. Whatever this is, it’s fast.” Answorth straightened and winced as his back protested. He tucked the front of his shirt back in at his disordered waistline. “Guess we need to get upriver and see what’s going on up there. How soon before WHO gets here? And that Red Cross team?”
“Another hour or two. Maybe. The roads are not too well maintained between here and Kunta.”
And no autocabs in Kunta, Answorth thought, but he didn’t complain. He wasn’t anxious to see WHO or the Red Cross either. He rather liked the thought of Robert Fixton having to haggle over a cab fare and then trying to give directions to a human driver with no GPS. An autocab would get him here in a few hours. But a human driver . . . with any luck he could be on the river before they arrived.
In fact it was four hours before the WHO team made it to the riverside at the Kiterro Mission Station, and the sun, low in the west, was washing the far side of the river with a film of hazy tropical golden twilight before Answorth crouched on the bow of the sluggish riverboat nudging wearily upriver. The trees along the riverside trailed branches and creepers in the water, swaying along with the gentle, muddy current. The boat had passed half a dozen more bodies since they left dockside an hour ago, all of them Atashi, as far as you could tell from something face down in the stream.
The river was wide and loaded with floating debris, tree branches, clumps of weed where the soft, sandy banks continually slumped in, ripples from submerged bars and rocks, and long before sunset Answorth began to fancy that every dark knot in the water was another Atashi, drifting down toward the distant coast. The river smelled green, with that eye-watering pungency that makes tropical streams so chic with the gnat set.
The barge wasn’t making better than seven knots against the current, and Answorth couldn’t hope to make the village before noon tomorrow. He wondered what the population of the village was. Mputa hadn’t said. Probably didn’t know. The villagers didn’t come down to the station as a rule, especially since the Mission had been destroyed during the war. The nuns and the priests and their medicines were gone now. Nothing else at Kiterro interested the Atashi. They only came down to collect their dead, and this time they hadn’t come.
The riverboat shuddered in the heavy, stagnant morning as it nudged into the shifting currents at the confluence of the muddy Zambero with the little, green-tinted Cinti River, and Answorth leaned on the rusting rail, rinsing his mouth, still foul with hangover. Seven more bodies had passed the boat since first light.
Ahead, a village swung into view around a bend in the Zambero, and underneath him, Answorth felt the low throb of the engine slow. The riverboat drifted to a crawl, just enough to maintain steerage, but made no more progress against the current. Yet the village was still a hundred yards upriver, a ramshackle wooden pier barely visible where it sloped weakly out into the water. Answorth pitched his cigarette over the side. “What’s going on, Mputa?”
The doctor shook his head and started for the wheelhouse. Answorth could hear the talk, but it was all in the local patois, so he waited patiently, lighting another cigarette and scanning the riverbank until Mputa reappeared. The river had fallen in the night and the channel was narrow. From where he stood, Answorth could easily see another five bodies stranded on the muddy banks on both sides of the river.
“The captain will not go any further, Dr. Answorth. He says the crew will not pass this village.”
“We still have twenty miles or more to go to the nearest Atashi village.”
“They will not pass this village.”
“Does he say why not?”
“There are no fires in this village. They see the bodies. The crew is mostly Cinti. They have no juju against this place.”
“Tell them you have juju against this place. Let’s get on up there. Why are there no fires here. . . ?” Answorth’s voice died away as he realized what they were saying. He nodded his head upriver. “This is an Atashi village?”
He squinted upriver. No fires. Deserted. But the thatch on the roofs looked good, from here. He’d be able to see them, if there were people up there. . . .
“Apparently the problem has come downstream,” Mputa said.
“Yeah. It would be like the villagers to fish a body from upstream out of the river, right?”
“Will he put us ashore here and wait for us to return?”
“Yes, Dr. Answorth. It is your charter. He will wait until an hour before dusk.”
The riverboat looked a lot smaller from the sandy bank of the river. The bush was fairly thick, and lugging the medical kit was clumsy, creepers and vines constantly snagging on the equipment. The noon sun bore down painfully on Answorth’s thinning hair before they finally stepped out into the clearing that formed the center of the village. The Red Cross team, all Cinti tribe, stayed well behind Answorth and Mputa.
The village was absolutely quiet. Not even the usual sound of dogs or chickens. No movement, no smoke, nothing. Just the clearing and the neat little arc of well maintained huts and a well in the center. At the far edge of the village, the jungle started up again twenty yards away.
Answorth started into the clearing, Mputa beside him, hailing the village. There was no answer. “We’ll start with a sample of the well water, Mputa. Then we’ll search the houses. Don’t forget your gloves. You know what to do.”
Mputa took a bottle from the kit and leaned over the well, trying to tie a line to the neck of the bottle. He stopped beside the low, mud brick ring surrounding the well, peering down into the darkness.
Mputa said nothing, but moaned, a low, quavering hum of astonishment.
Answorth stepped to the well and peered down beside him. The well was full of bodies.
Answorth felt the chill right through the African noon.
The neat little huts were empty.
The fishing dock was covered with bodies, some in the boats, some half in, half out of the water, others draped along the short pier of roughly hewn and weather softened planks. Men, women, children, the young and the old. They were all here, all in the water, wherever they could find it.
Answorth took a respirator out of the kit for himself and handed Mputa one. Then he dug out the satellite phone.
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Copyright 2011 by Keith Azariah-Kribbs