The Understudy, Chapters 12 – 13

The Understudy coverChapter 12. Thena

 

Halfway down the hall, Answorth could see the light streaming out beneath the closed door of the Qualitative/Quantitative Chemistry Lab. He stopped by the door, still wiping his hands on a paper towel. He couldn’t hear anything but machinery. But the light was on. He opened the door and looked across the tangle of busily flickering monitors. He went over to the console. The sequencer was running. The Gas Chromatograph was running. He had no idea what it was analyzing, but it was running.

He tossed the wet paper towel in a trash can, already full of dried up paper towels and coffee cups ballasted with crystallized dregs, left over from when Andrew, Boris, Nikki, and Janni were still around, spending their days and nights in this place. He stared into the trash can. Some of the coffee cups had Janni’s dark brownish red lipstick on them. Answorth felt his throat constrict, and he blinked rapidly and stepped back out into the hall, looking left and right.

He could hear typing down the hall, and he followed the sound around a corner to another open doorway, light spilling into the hall, he turned into the door to see Thena where she sat, her back to him, her head leaning lightly over the liquid electron microscopy monitor.

She had a very narrow waist. Great hips, too. Her shoes were lying on the floor beside her.

“Thena, who’s running the sequencer and the GC in the Qual/Q Lab?”

She didn’t move, but typed at the keyboard. He drew breath to repeat himself, but stopped.

She had been here for ten days now. At first he had seen her mostly involved with other Origyn crew, installing new hardware, networking them into the system. She was busy, too busy to do anything other than nod at him in the hall in passing, usually in the middle of a clump of overworked-looking Origyn technicians.

Pretty soon Answorth found himself too busy to talk as well, when Boris, Nikki, and Andrew all three failed their weekly NsIC checkups right after they finished the study of the faulty decon procedures. They were now in quarantine down at Warner Robbins, and Answorth was wondering how he and Janni had managed to avoid catching it from them. Five days ago Janni’s Navy reserve unit got called to active duty. There was a blinding three day period trying to stop Janni’s recall, and trying to find replacements for the rest of them. But it was no good.

In the midst of it all Thena was always busy somewhere on the blurred edge of his vision, integrating all the equipment, tying in all the instruments to the database computers, automating as much stuff as she could.

Not that there was any need for the equipment anymore. Not now. Not with his crew gone. There would be no clinical trials without a therapy, and there would be no therapy without his crew. Without their background, without their experience, nothing was going to happen. It didn’t matter how good Origyn’s consultants were. You couldn’t just step into a project like this. Without his crew, they couldn’t even tell Thena’s consultants—whoever they were going to be if they ever got here—what to get started on.

Yet every time he walked past a lab with a light on in it, there Thena was, back to the door, eye to some instrument, typing on a portable computer, setting things up. She worked all the time.

Answorth sat in his office for a week on the phone and on the computer trying to scare up some more help. The CDC had no one to spare—it took three days just to get the Human Resources Office to answer the phone. Same thing for the NIH. They ended the conversation asking him for Thena’s phone number. He had to hang up on them. Same thing for the pharmaceutical companies. He couldn’t even get skilled lab techs from the DEA. He even tried the US Department of Forestry. Anybody who would answer a phone.

Not that it would do any good. A new crew would need a month with him just to learn what they had discovered, just to learn where they wanted to go with this, just to pick up where they had left off.

He began to dread the day when Thena appeared in the door wiping her hands on a cloth so to speak, and announced that she had everything ready to go, and what do they do next? And he would have to tell her things were closing down. Thanks for the effort, but tell Mr. Origyn we’re finished here. He can have his stuff back. There won’t be any work to pass on to the consultants. We’re not going to get that far.

The Origyn Systems technical support staff had long since gone on to other work, but Thena was here every day, from before Answorth arrived until after he left.

 

Just like today. Just like right now, her eye alternating between the EM and her computer. A wave of guilt passed through him. He was still supposed to be the manager around here, after all. He supposed he ought to act like one, even if there wasn’t anything to manage. And what in the world was she doing looking into the EM anyway?

He leaned against the door jamb and cleared his throat. “How’s the work going, Thena? Have you got everything you need?”

“Everything’s fine,” she said.

“You must be worn out. Have you got all the lab equipment networked yet?”

“Yes. That’s finished.”

“Great. Thena, I guess we need to talk about what happens next around here when you finish with the hardware setup. I had hoped that by now I would be ready to begin….”

“The hardware setup is complete. In fact, it was complete nearly a week ago. I’ll have the first of a series of new culture response studies in the database for you in about two hours. Then you can proceed with your review of the immunological response study.”

“Ah—did you— the hardware is set up?” Answorth asked dumbly. He couldn’t quite understand what she was saying. He tried to repeat her words in his head.

“Yes. The hardware was set up six days ago, but since I knew you were trying to recruit crew, I didn’t bother you about it. So I went ahead and finished the new series of culture and immunological response studies, the ones Janni was halfway through when she left. I knew they couldn’t wait, and we didn’t want to waste all her work.”

Answorth felt his head lighten, and he gripped the door jamb. “You will have the culture response data in the database? That’s Janni’s work.”

“I know. She told me.”

“She’s not here.”

“She told me on the telephone. I called her.”

“Who did the culture responses?”

“Janni started them. Remember? I finished them.”

“I didn’t know you could do culture responses. Did Janni…?”

“We’ll have the preliminary amino acid study and review both done tonight. I will then start on the protein synthesis.”

Answorth gaped, though if she heard it, felt it, or in some other way sensed the gesture of pure, confused astonishment on his part, she didn’t turn away from the machine.

The amino acid study took a week in the hands of a dedicated lab tech. Andrew was doing it when he got sick. Andrew was the only man in the state who could even start a program like that on NsIC.

“I didn’t know you could do amino acid studies.”

“The procedure in the CDC Manual QE8.2 Methodology for Biochemical Analysis is very thorough, and Andrew left good notes. Simple as a cookbook.”

True enough, Answorth thought. However that might be, you still needed a Ph.D. in biochemistry to understand what the cook was trying to tell you. And then there was the data review. That was a week’s work for another two people.

“Who did you give the amino acid review to, Thena?”

“I did it myself.”

“You did … it?”

“Well, I’m not finished yet. Give me another hour. The chromatograph you’ve got here is a little slow. And then we’ll know what we have to run for protein synthesis.”

Answorth blanched. He couldn’t have done any kind of AA review on NsIC in a week, even with the best AA results and even with Boris and Nikki both helping, full time. It took two people trained in completely different Ph.D. specialties to do that work in fifteen days. A week?

“And … the protein synthesis, Thena?”

“Five days. And then,” Thena said, and suddenly she sat up from the monitor. “And then we can get started on the phage studies.”

Answorth’s mouth felt dry. “Phage studies? I don’t remember….”

“A project of my own. I’ll have a proposal for your review in a few days. I have been looking at some potential phage-NsIC lytic pathways that might be interesting to us.”

Answorth wondered if that would give him enough time to drag down the textbooks and get up to speed on bacteriophages.

Thena swung around and faced him and looked into his eyes.

Answorth’s knees weakened, and despite the fact that he always fancied himself a fairly big, powerful man in a sloppy sort of way, he thought his legs were going to buckle. His lips felt full, his ears buzzed, and he vaguely recalled the symptoms of an incipient faint from when he used to have to draw blood during his residency.

This didn’t make any sense. With an effort, he swam through the haze fogging his mind. This wasn’t NsIC. He was getting a little stressed, that’s all. He was just missing Janni and Boris and Nikki and Andrew. That’s what it was. He wasn’t sleeping enough. This was crazy. He blinked.

Thena was still sitting there, looking straight at him.

This had to be a joke. People were getting a little crazy as the days passed, each more hopelessly than the last.

He felt a flush of panic. Maybe this was an NsIC hallucination? His hand went to his ear, always the first place for a fever on his body. He blinked in the bright fluorescent light. But he felt OK. He looked closely at Thena. She looked healthy enough. But you never could tell. Somebody was hallucinating around here.

“You almost had me going there for a minute, Thena,” he said, and he couldn’t help his voice coming out mournful and a little pitiful.

He hushed the instant he saw the look on her face. “Going where?” she asked. “I don’t understand.”

Answorth realized that whatever talents this young woman had, she had very little sense of humor.

She rose from her chair and stretched. Her arms were long and slim and reached above her head, her eyes closed. Her arms bent slightly back at the elbows the way girls’ arms do, and there was a short, slim, white scar running down the back of her left arm across the elbow.

“This won’t need further attention for another forty-seven minutes. That’s when I can load the results into the database.” She stretched again. “I ought to be exhausted. I know that my eyes hurt. Is there some place we can go get a drink?”

 

“Whatever they’re paying you at Origyn, it isn’t enough, Thena,” Answorth said. He pushed the candle to the side of the table so the glare didn’t interfere with his sight of her.

Thena ran her finger along the top of a glass of water. Water was the only thing he had ever seen her drink. Morning, noon, and evening, there was never anything on the lab table beside her but water. Answorth was hoarding coffee and wine at home against the day when the trucks quit making deliveries to the few remaining stores.

The bar was quiet, only a half dozen students from the university sitting somberly at their tables, most with just coffee and each other. The university had cancelled classes months ago by decree of the federal government, all such public gatherings deemed too risky as easy paths for spreading NsIC. But a lot of students lived in town and had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Here they sat. There was one couple—the wife was heavily pregnant, and two other girls with their dates, as near as Answorth could tell.

They were all so young, and Answorth felt his shoulders and arms grow heavy as he looked around the bar at those faces, all of them young, fresh, and dull with spending so much of their time just thinking it all through.

The loudest of the young men, laughing drunkenly and letting his gaze sweep around the room, turned to Answorth and caught his eye. He was dark-haired, big eyes, large mouth, sunken cheeks—well, Answorth figured, it didn’t sound all that good when you list it like that, but that was the way the young man looked, anyway. He wasn’t so sure about the terminology. He’d never really thought about handsome men before. But the two unattached girls looked like they thought he was handsome. In fact, this fellow looked a little like Boris, or like Boris had looked, a couple of weeks ago. Boris had been moved from quarantined/observation into the quarantined/infected population at Warner Robbins just two days ago.

Answorth glanced at Thena and he lit a cigarette. Her face warmed redly in the glow from the lighter, her pale face haloed by that loose swirl of dark red curls that spilled across her shoulders and down her back, a few stray curls tumbling forward onto her breast. Answorth felt a sudden rush of guilty gratitude that Boris was not around the lab since she’d arrived.

But she was watching him, and he blushed back into his drink.

He wanted to say something like ‘I can’t believe you know how to do all this epidemiology stuff,’ or something like that, but the idea of saying it crushed him. How would she respond to that? ‘I can’t believe you don’t?’ or maybe ‘Yes, look on my works ye mighty and despair.’

She probably didn’t care whether he thought she was intelligent or not.

He had never told a woman that she was beautiful. He had never told a woman that she intimidated him. And he had no idea at all how to tell her that he was glad for the chance to be intimidated by her, if that’s what it cost just to get to sit here and look at her over the candle. So he said nothing.

He didn’t bother talking about where she learned what she knew. She was what she was, however she got that way. She couldn’t be any older than those college kids. But they weren’t going to live to finish school, and, based on what he had just seen tonight, evidently Thena just happened to have two or three Ph.Ds in bioengineering and microbiology behind her. Like Origyn knew what he needed before he even showed up with her at the CDC. Simple.

 

“I think I’d like to try some wine,” she said.

“What do you like?”

“I’ve never had it before.”

Answorth fetched her a glass of Chablis. Her deep green eyes caught the light, and he could see her large, dark pupils dilate as she sipped. “Do people usually like it from the start? Or does it take some getting used to?”

“I don’t … remember,” he said. “Want to try some port? That’s my personal favorite.”

“One at a time!” she said.

Answorth blushed. After all, there wasn’t enough time left for anyone to develop new tastes at leisure. Maybe that’s what those girls at the other table saw in that young man.

Answorth scowled at himself. He ought to be too old to feel jealous. Besides, Thena was sitting here with him. But he only managed to wonder at how fragile that felt, like a flying dream when you have to keep holding your breath or you’ll fall.

“No port for me tonight. I have to get back.”

“Sure you want to wait?”

“There’s always later,” she said.

The pregnant girl rose slowly, heavily, her husband—at least Answorth supposed he was her husband—helping her to her feet as she made her way to the bathroom. He was a little drunk, and staggered as he helped her towards the bathroom, both of them moving like the old people they were never going to get to be.

 

Thena had the AA finished in three days, and the protein synthesis and the immune response study was ready a week later. All the data were loaded into the central database, and with Thena managing the processing, the results were coming out faster than Answorth could design potential therapies. Things were moving fast. He was beginning to stay up all night himself just to catch up on the research so he could validate her studies. She was generating a lot of good, solid data, and they were well on the way towards a therapy of some sort for NsIC. Answorth began to think they just might pull a rabbit out of a hat yet.

They might have a future yet.

He wondered if that pregnant woman at the bar had picked out a name for her baby.

He hoped she had.

 

Chapter 13. Attik

 

Peter Malachy waited in the hot sun out in front of the Snapginger generator room and watched the sluggish river winding away out toward the plain.

He wondered idly if Attik ever stood here and watched river flow by. He hoped he did. That would have meant something. But he would have bet he didn’t do it.

Malachy didn’t turn at the sound of the door slamming shut behind. He knew who it was.

“So, how’s Mr. Attik working out?” Malachy asked without preamble. “Everything working better now that he’s here?”

“We have to talk about that,” Viter said. “Attik’s good. Don’t get me wrong. But the rest of the crew doesn’t like your man.” Viter leaned against the railing too, though Malachy would have bet he didn’t notice the water, either.

“They don’t like Paul Attik? What’s not to like? He’s just solved your staffing issues all by himself. He’s the best engineer on the staff.” Malachy resisted the temptation to add ‘on either of our staffs,’ though it would have been perfectly just.

“He knows his stuff. I’ll give him that. It’s not that. It’s just that they don’t know him. And the ones who work with him know he’s not handling the data processing according to SOP.”

“For instance?”

“He’s not following the QC procedures on the data loading.”

“That’s it? Come on. You don’t have the crew to do quality control. You said so yourself when you asked us to bring him in on this job.”

“Yeah, I know. But the thing that bugs the crew is the fact that he doesn’t even admit we ought to be doing it. There was some canteen jabber going on at lunch the other day….”

“Attik eats lunch here?”

“Sure, why not?” Viter seemed to mull over this non-sequitur for an instant, and then resumed his complaint. “And during the conversation, the issue of data QC came up. We don’t have any database people left, except for Attik himself, and it was just idle gossip, because there’s nobody here to do the QC, but Attik mentioned off-handedly that his stuff didn’t need QC in the first place, it was checked when it was loaded onto the OS9000. Somebody asked who checked it, and Attik said the 9000 did the QC. Somebody else pointed out that this was DOE QA Level 2 work, and it was illegal for it not to be properly QC’d, and a computer couldn’t do it, and Attik said the machine was doing just fine, so one thing led to another, and now everybody’s griping about Attik.”

“That’s it? These guys are running this complex with one tenth the crew the law requires, and they’re griping about QC?”

“Well, you know. It’s … subtle. I don’t think he’s bonding with the engineering staff.”

Malachy slapped his forehead in astonishment. “Does that matter? He might not be a hit at the company picnic, but we’re talking about a power plant that we’re just trying to keep running until the end of the world, in a month or two, at the rate people are dying….”

“Look, we’re due for an NRC audit next week. It’s been on the calendar for a year and a half.”

Malachy stared at Viter in stunned bewilderment. “You know they won’t be here. The NRC doesn’t have five hundred warm bodies left on the payroll. The last resident inspector went into quarantine a month ago. It takes a year to certify a new one, and the training center in Chattanooga is closed down. You know that.”

“They have to show up. The law requires it. Otherwise, we have to shut down.”

Malachy didn’t bother responding to that.

“All right. I know. I know.” Viter nodded, and for a few seconds he was silent. “Look, Dr. Malachy. There’s just something about Attik. He rubs the rest of the crew the wrong way. Don’t you have somebody else who can come out here and manage the hardware monitoring and data loading?”

Malachy felt the words form behind his teeth, the irritation and impatience welling up behind his lips, and he gripped the iron railing hard, until his knuckles hurt. As the anger subsided, he stole a glance at Viter.

He wasn’t a bad man. None of them were. He wasn’t a stupid man, either. None of them were. They were just in over their heads. That was all. They knew what they were doing. They knew they were just trying to keep a power plant running a few more weeks. Most of them had spent their lives here. They had their ways. That’s all.

But things were changing too fast. They didn’t know what to do. They just wanted to be able to pretend that all the old things still mattered. They figured if they could pretend that all the old things still mattered until they all dropped dead with fever, maybe it would be easier to take when it happened. People just wanted to believe that it would all still be going on. That it mattered. That they would be remembered.

And they would be remembered. By Attik, at least. But that didn’t seem to make them very happy.

“Let me see Attik.”

 

Paul Attik sat in the chair under the bright lights of the empty conference room. Through the walls, the heavy drone of the dozens of generators could barely be heard, but it was always there.

“Paul,” Malachy leaned forward confidentially on the glass-topped conference room table, the cool glass misting around his fingers. “What’s going on here?”

“I don’t understand what you mean, Dr. Malachy.”

“I mean, why is David Viter griping to me about the work you’re doing here?”

Attik sat forward slowly. “Is Mr. Viter complaining about the quality of the work we’re providing?”

“Well, yeah. In a way. He says you’re not following DOE Level 2 QC checking. Is that correct?”

“Of course it is. We don’t have any personnel out here qualified to QC my work. The only guys left here have no data loading experience. None of them can program. They can’t run half the new monitors I’ve installed, and there’s no time to train them.”

Malachy nodded. “I know. I know. So what’s really bugging them?”

Attik stared straight at Malachy, but did not answer. Malachy did not expect him to answer. He knew Attik was new to all this. He knew Attik just didn’t understand yet.

“Last week,” Malachy said, laying a legal pad on the glass-topped table and pushing it across to Attik, “… last week, you completed the revision of the data loading program to make real-time data monitoring possible via the Internet.”

“Yes, sir. After all, the NRC resident inspectors are dead, and they don’t have any replacements to spare us. This way, they don’t have to send inspectors from the regional office down here. If they still have any inspectors left at the regional office. Nobody’s answering the phone there or at Rockville either, so we don’t really know….”

“And a day before that, you revised the monitoring compression software to double throughput and free up enough bandwidth to make remote administration possible.”

“Yes, I did. They were wasting a lot of bandwidth around here, and the Internet is getting a little overstressed as nodes collapse from lack of maintenance.”

“I know. We have engineers working on that. Origyn pretty much is the net, these days. Yesterday, you installed a program that automates the turbine spin compensators. Since then, they have been able to run the turbines at one hundred and seven percent maximum rating.”

“Yes, sir.” Attik smiled faintly and sat back in his chair.

“Look,” Malachy sighed, letting his head roll back to face the ceiling. “We didn’t have enough time to train you properly before sending you out here, I know that. A lot of things are happening too fast. We didn’t expect to have to put you out on a real job all alone for another year or two. And then along comes the NsIC plague, and we’re all dying off, and we’re shorthanded, and we need you. We just hadn’t had the chance to finish training you. You don’t know anything about customer relations, for example. Do you?”

“Only what I have learned here.”

“Well, the only thing you have learned here is that you piss people off when you do their jobs better than they do, and when they can’t even have the dignity of checking your work, and when you don’t leave them much of their own work to do themselves, OK?”

“Yes, sir.” Attik looked hurt.

He probably was hurt, Malachy supposed. So were the engineers who had to spend their days watching wonder boy here leave them all standing around with their hardhats in their hands. Everybody was hurt. He briefly thought maybe they should move this talk outside, by the river.

Malachy searched Attik’s open face, no longer seeing his clear, gray eyes and his strong jaw and his black, glossy hair. He thought back to Mildred, and how he asked her out, and how everyone at Origyn Systems asked her out, and how she never accepted any of the invitations. He wondered if she was still alive. He bet she would have gone out with Attik. Wouldn’t have waited for him to ask twice.

“Look, Paul.” Malachy stood and leaned against a wall, staring down at the moist handprints he had left on the glass of the conference room table. “You have to remember, Paul. People are scared. Things are not going well with this plague. These guys think they might well be dead in a month or two or three. Hell, they think everyone might be dead in a few months.”

“Impossible!” Attik interrupted. “Haven’t we sent Thena to work at the CDC with that Answorth fellow? They can’t be far from a cure now. She’s been there a month!” He leaned forward passionately, pressing his hands onto the table so that he looked like he was about to spring onto the table, if not over it.

Malachy cringed. “Paul, that’s my point! She may not find a cure in time! She may never find it at all! They hired her as a database consultant. We gave her all kinds of training in specialized fields—in her case, immunology, chemistry, microbiology, but they didn’t hire her to find the cure! They may not let her work on it in the first place!”

“But if she can do it….”

“They won’t believe she can do it, Paul. The very idea will never even come up! They won’t believe.” Malachy tossed his pencil onto the table. “And with people, especially like this and in these circumstances, if they don’t believe in you, then it really won’t make any difference at all whether you can run this plant all alone or whether you can find a cure for the plague for them, will it? Because they won’t give you the chance to do it. Not if they don’t believe in you. OK? You have to play it the way they like it. OK?”

“OK,” Attik said simply.

“Remember, Paul. We’re doing this for them. I suppose that means a certain amount of sacrifice. We have to be ready and willing to accept a certain amount of inefficiency, redundancy, sacrifice. Humility, Paul. Humility! OK?”

“OK.” Attik took his hands sheepishly from the table, the polished glass clear and dry under his fingers. “Can I go back to work now?”

 

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