The Understudy, Chapters 1 – 3




Chapter 1. Low Altitude


(In which Alice the test pilot discovers maybe you can’t believe your eyes, but you had better believe your AI.)


(04:24 ZULU, the Eastern Atlantic Ocean)


“Low altitude.”

Alice Veneer felt her wrist tense when she heard the computer call out, 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 as 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 obstructed the flight path. Veneer’s stomach lightened as the aircraft came nose-to again on the horizon, invisible in the black night outside, confirming in her gut that the aircraft had ceased its brief, sharp, climb into the night over the middle Atlantic. The aircraft then began to descend gently as it returned to the programmed altitude, one hundred feet above the waves, and again she felt the truth of it in her body. Then it leveled off again.

She felt something chill under the fine black down at the back of her neck. The radar was perfectly clear through the whole maneuver. There was nothing blocking the path ahead of her. And the ocean was famous for being flat. Yet the radar altimeter read a steady hundred feet elevation above the surface of the sea through the climb, through the descent. A hundred feet altitude 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 lover.

She hesitated, staring at the instruments. You can’t fly with your body—it will kill you. You have to trust the instruments. 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 this aircraft did rise a hundred feet, at least. She felt it. No matter what the altimeter said. She felt it.

“Low altitude.”

The plane began to rise again. Again she felt 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 up and all the way down.

The artificial horizon agreed with her gut. It showed the aircraft nose up, then slowly pitch down to level flight, and then the nose dropped until the aircraft finally resumed level flight after yet another brief descent.

The back of her neck tingled again. 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.

Again she scanned the radar. Clear through the whole thing. It was tuned to ignore water—otherwise it would have been cluttered with returns at this altitude. The screen was as clear as the sea.

You have to trust the instruments. 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, as the plane nosed up sharply, leveled off, and descended. Again she felt it. The artificial horizon 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. That had to be it.

With that, the fear drained out of Veneer’s tightening chest. The AI could fly the plane, but not with a radar altimeter giving it faulty data. That’s why there were still test pilots.

“Wallops Center, AF2011 reporting flight parameters out of safety constraints. Request abort and 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, AF2011, 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, half 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 middle of the eastern 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.

“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 be sluggish 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 crest 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, not while there was still a chance to save her.

There was nothing left that it could do for its makers, sleeping in the pre-dawn along the eastern coast of the Americas, as the cold, dark waves, a half dozen of them, each two hundred feet high, raced on through the night to drown the sleeping cities on the coast ahead.


Chapter 2. Emergency Alert


(Miami, 7:08 AM ET)



Kevin Norton turned away from the television broadcast, “The Witch’s Reed,” cut off in mid stride and replaced with a strange red and white screen he had never seen 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, the only thing he could see was that weird red and white logo 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 white logo with the words EMERGENCY ALERT SYSTEM stenciled across it 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 slowly started to drill through her 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 Nightstar 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, common enough here in southeast Florida, 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 Nightstar 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 Maine. 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 over 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 Nightstar 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, 08:03 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 eight 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 right behind the trucks. Autocabs, private cars, buses, trucks, and evidently anything else with wheels 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 National Guardsman, who just shrugged, shifting his rifle.

“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 far ahead and down the road 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.

Then, he saw something on the horizon. Something, odd, strange, something his eyes and eighty years couldn’t make any sense of.

There was a low wall of dark gray and green on the eastern horizon right under the rising sun, its crest sparkling like something polished, 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 cars, broken furniture and timber, 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.


Back to Table of Contents

On to the next chapters….