The Understudy, Chapters 10 – 11

The Understudy coverChapter 10. New Hire


Lehrer rose, closed his folder, and walked around the table, but he stopped in the door. “We are not employing hybrid processors, Mr. Origyn. I’m truly sorry. It’s simply impossible.” His eyes darkened. “If however you have materials of any other nature that can assist Dr. Answorth, we would be most pleased to hear about them. We would also accept the use of Origyn Systems engineers, of course. We value a good product, Mr. Origyn. We really do. So, Dr. Answorth, you can have all the engineers and researchers that Origyn can provide. That’s it. And it’s your job to watch them. We’ll waive the standard procurement requirements, we’ll sign off on Origyn as a sole-source vendor. I will bend the rules for you as far as I may. But whatever you get from Origyn, it has to be auditable, or it has to be breathing.” And with that, he left.

Answorth sighed and rose. They went out into the hall and started for the elevator behind Lehrer, the sliding steel door closing on the tense back of the bureaucrat before they could follow him through. So they pressed the elevator call button and waited.

“It’s not his fault. He’s just following his instructions.” Origyn said.

“Yeah. Semiconductor thinking,” Answorth said.

Malachy laughed despite himself.

“You’re confident of success?” Origyn asked.

“No. Not anymore.” Answorth leaned forward confidentially. “I can do this, I know it. It’s just a matter of brute force now. We know everything about this bug except what kills it without killing us. I just need time! But the NIH has withdrawn half my staff, the DOD the other half. I have only three full-time researchers working with me now, and they’re just not enough. I’m not even sure I’ll have electricity in another month. But if I can keep my remaining staff….”

“And some expert systems….”

“Precisely. Origyn Systems autocabs, for God’s sake, the autocabs detected a weakness in our decontamination procedure. I need that kind of analytical ability, that kind of creativity. I mean, you can’t write a program to look for problems that you don’t know exist until you find them.”

“Organic CPUs can do that for you.”

“Yes.” Answorth slapped the wall with his hand. The elevator arrived, and they started down. “But you see what I’m up against.”

They walked in silence down the hall and Origyn smiled and waited while Answorth opened the door in front of the abandoned reception desk and led them out into the gray day. The outside breeze smelled wonderful, fresh, clean, and free of the disinfectants that filled the air in every building. But Answorth glanced at the sky apprehensively, the way people did these days when they weren’t sure what the wind was carrying their way.

“I need autodocs, I need analytical systems trained in epidemiology, microbiology, biochemistry… and … and I need the whole mess networked so everything talks to everything else round the clock. And I need IT people to monitor the whole network and keep it running. My IT staff here has never touched Origyn Systems stuff, and they don’t know anything about organic processors, obviously. I could get better help at an autocab garage, for God’s sake.” Answorth scowled and pitched the still smoking cigarette onto the asphalt. He idly stuffed the front of his shirt back in at his belt line. “But what good does wanting do me? No organic processors. That’s the rule.”

“Oh, I don’t know that wanting is altogether useless.” Origyn turned to Thena. “Well, my dear? What do you think of Dr. Answorth’s unique problem?”

She stared at Answorth for a long moment, and he stood a little straighter. He expected her to pull out a calculator or datapad or something and do some calculations or look up some numbers or something—that’s what this sort of analyst usually did.

But she didn’t do that. She simply stared at the doctor while she considered the question. She had very clear green eyes, and Answorth wondered if they would have looked so green if her long hair had not been such a deep red. He caught himself wondering if she and Origyn were anything…. He finally pulled his gaze away, his cheeks reddening, and fished about in his pocket for cigarettes.

“Origyn Systems can assist Dr. Answorth to develop either a treatment or prophylactic against NsIC. We can advise on most of the biochemistry and physiological response studies. We should be able to begin to develop therapies. It will take some time, however.”

“Very well,” Origyn said. “How soon can you set up this program?”

“We should begin this evening,” she said.

Answorth shook his head. “Lehrer will never let me do it. You heard him. No hybrid processors need apply.”

“Dr. Answorth, Origyn Systems is the largest consulting company in the world. Mr. Lehrer said we could provide all the engineers and consultants we wished.”

“Microbiologists? Epidemiologists? Biochemists? Immunologists?” Answorth whispered. “I know the community, Mr. Origyn. You won’t find anybody for hire. I’ve been in this work for years. I know who they are and where they are. The ones who aren’t dead yet have all been grabbed by the DOD. Where are you going to find the kind of experienced men and women….”

“Thena will coordinate everything for you. She will remain here, on site.”

Answorth stuttered. “She will—she—who are these people you can bring, Mr. Origyn?”

“Thena will personally develop the programs you need. Trust me. Just tell her what you need.”

“She’ll need a Ph.D. in microbiology just to understand what I’m asking her to pass along to your … experts! Whoever they are!”

“She’ll understand. Trust me.”

Answorth lit another cigarette and tried to avoid Thena’s eye.


Chapter 11. The Stables


Peter Malachy crouched close to the concrete floor of the generator room and stared down the long line of turbines that extended for a hundred yards in each direction. He placed the palm of his hand flat on the smooth, cool concrete floor. The generator room floor was perfectly still, no vibration at all, despite the frantic spinning of thousands of tons of iron and copper in the massive machines spinning out the long, hot thread of electricity for the dying cities in the plains.

The smooth floor gleamed faintly in the gray light of the long hall, northern facing skylights letting in only indirect sunlight and giving the generator hall a soft gray and blue glow.

“We don’t let direct sunlight into the Stables, Dr. Malachy. These machines are engineered to such close tolerances, and they are so massive and rotate so rapidly, that we can’t afford any uneven heating in their frames. Air conditioning keeps the air in here at a constant 75 degrees. Never varies.” Chief Engineer Viter breathed deeply, a sound of wistful satisfaction, chin jutting with pride as he surveyed his stable full of big charges. “The first thing we do with the juice that we make here is to keep these cows happy. But the government wants the rest, and that’s the problem. That’s why I called you folks.”

Malachy straightened, his back protesting over the strain, his mind over the mixed metaphor of cows and juice.

“Any of these things ever get loose?” Malachy asked.

Viter took off his hard hat and rubbed his brow. “Not yet. Be a mess if one broke loose. Can you imagine? That’s a lot of angular momentum. Hell, if one of those things got imbalanced and broke loose, it would fly halfway to Cheyenne before it landed.”

Malachy shook his head. “Big piece of steel.”

“Yeah.” His guide put the hard hat back on. “So, what do you think, Mr. Malachy? Can Origyn Systems help us out here?”

Malachy sniffed and looked left and right down the long line of humming machines. “What’s your crew strength down to?”

“We got only twenty percent of our crew left. Half dead, the others in quarantine. We got to keep these things running, though. They already shut down the nuclear reactor at Padgett’s Ford. This is the only generating station left working in this half of the state. Government says we got to keep the power going. I don’t mind trying, but damn, it’s not going to be safe if we can’t keep the crew alive. Sooner or later we’ll have to shut this place down just for safety’s sake. I’m already sleeping here. We lose another couple of guys, and it’s over. And you know how it is—you never know who’s going to get sick next.”

Malachy wandered over to the base of one of the massive metal generators and kicked at the red painted metal foot. It was bolted to the floor. The bolt was six inches in diameter, and there were a lot of them, all mounted in spring loaded bases. That thing would take quite a wrench to loosen.

“We can automate a lot of your monitoring processes, if that would help.”

Viter shook his head. “We need engineers, Dr. Malachy. Computers can’t control these things. They can monitor them, but, by law, they aren’t allowed to control them. I never saw a computer system that could manage the task anyway, even if it were legal. You can’t program that kind of thing.”

“People. You’re talking about people.”

“Well … yes. We need more people, because these machines need a lot of manual inspection. We get a lot of metal fatigue in here, and we’re X-raying structural members all the time, and then the pictures have to be looked at, and the autobalancing systems have to be monitored, and I mean close, and we have to watch the electric side of the grid to make sure we’re not about to burn something up…. There’s a lot to do, and it’s never the same thing twice in a row. Hell, they don’t even make sensors for half the things we have to look at. Except these…” he pointed to his eyes.

“What made you think Origyn would have something you could use?”

“Nobody else is answering my phone calls, Dr. Malachy.”

Malachy started for the hallway door, and as he glanced down the long line of spinning turbines, he thought of a concrete cathedral, the massive prayer wheels spinning endlessly.

“Yes, we might be able to help,” he said at last, wearily. “I think Paul Attik ought to be able to help you with this. I’ll have him out here this evening to get things started.”

“Just one guy? That’s all you have?”

“Let’s start with Attik, and see where it goes. I think you’ll be pleased.”