The Understudy, Chapters 4 – 5

The Understudy coverChapter 4. Overflight


“You’re sure there won’t be any more of those winds?” President Edward Taylor leaned into the window of the helicopter as it skimmed smoothly over the beach. The gentle waves below spilled in luminous golden surf onto the smooth, deserted sand.

“Those were associated with the tsunami, Mr. President. There won’t be any more two hundred and fifty mile an hour winds. Unless the rest of those volcanoes in the Canary Islands collapse into the Atlantic. And if they do, we’ll know about it next time.” The President’s Science Advisor leaned comfortably back in the leather seat, enjoying the warm Georgia afternoon sunlight on his right shoulder as they cruised south over the barrier islands south of Savannah. Along this coast, these islands had taken the brunt of the waves, and the ten-mile wide salt marshes between the islands and the mainland had soaked up a lot of the rest, so the waves had been blunted before they hit the cities inland. Savannah, sitting on a bluff ten miles from the beach at Tybee Island, was still partly alive, although the harbor channel under the highway 17 bridge was jammed with freighters lying on their sides and the bridge had collapsed on top of them as they piled up. But that was the good news. From Jacksonville to the Keys, there really wasn’t much left.

But the islands were polished clean, the forests swept away and dragged into the sea.

“No bodies….” Taylor said, half to himself.

“We lost only thirty 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 on a boat to ride it out and the waves went right over the tops of the islands.”

“They rode out the waves on boats?”

“Tsunamis don’t really look like waves, Mr. President. The water just comes up, and up, and up, and … doesn’t stop coming up until it does. It looks like the tide coming in.”

“That’s quite a tide. A hundred and fifty foot tide. And it left nothing behind.”

“We’ll rebuild. The people, Mr. President! Think of it! 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 thirty thousand! It’s wonderful!”

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 sand, polished flat and smooth by the tsunamis. He knew this coast well. He’d spent a lot of time here when he was a kid, from Cumberland Island just north of Jacksonville up 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 cacti, 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 a prairie, not even covered with the rubble of debris so often left behind by tamer, more delicate disasters like mere hurricanes. The tsunami 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 Maine.

From a thousand feet in the air, 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.


The value of the Emergency Alert System as an election issue all depended on one disturbing little fact, which at 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.”

Armstrong hesitated, drawing a long, thoughtful breath. This was the moment he had been dreading all afternoon.

The sight of all this destruction, well, that was one thing. Looking at the faces of the fifty million east coast survivors, that was another thing.

But finding out who saved them all, well that was something else altogether. Especially if the President intended to take credit for it.

“We … don’t … actually know yet. We’re checking the logs at FEMA, the military, NOAA, the Temple, the USGS, everywhere else.

“We know that last night, the west side of 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. 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. Hopefully they’ll find her.”

“God willing.”

“Yeah. We also know that the NOAA and the Navy/Scripps computers both dropped a White Light in the queue at Interior for them to look at and classify it.”

“Did they receive it?”

“No. The NOAA system is old, and it flagged this traffic as low priority because it hadn’t been confirmed as a tsunami. That has to be done by someone with eyes before it can be escalated. There were no alerts associated with it yet. I mean, at this stage, the machines just thought it was an odd sea-level observation. Remember, every system that touched the White Light was not a part of the Emergency Alert System. That had to be triggered elsewhere.”

“So the question remains…. Who triggered it?”

Armstrong sighed heavily. “The Navy computer automatically tried to re-route the White Light traffic, but it was probably refused because White Lights aren’t priority traffic. So the Navy computer sent another message to an experimental Coast Guard traffic analysis system that specializes in tracking shipping on the North Atlantic. The system that, incidentally, routed the Navy to the downed pilot. That’s how it got involved. It’s tracking the rescue.”

“You still haven’t answered my question.”

“Well—it looks like that Coast Guard computer—somehow—changed the priority of the White Light to—to—to a National Warning System alert—”

Taylor gasped and Armstrong didn’t dare pause.

“And then sent it to the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System. That got the Emergency Alert System going.”

“The Pentagon says they received an Emergency Action Message.”

“Uh, yeah. The Coast Guard computer seemed to have thought that if the message didn’t look like an EAM, IPAWS wouldn’t know where to send it. It didn’t have access to east coast resident addresses and phone numbers, so it just sent it to … everyone.”

“The Coast Guard computer forged an EAM.”

“Looks like it.”

“An EAM. And the Pentagon would have thought it came from me or SECDEF. We use those to authorize launching a nuclear strike. A goddamned EAM. It did it on its own.”

“Well, it was an EAM with an empty target list. That was actually pretty clever.”

Taylor wouldn’t turn from the window. “A Coast Guard computer hacked Situation and activated the EAS with a forged EAM.”

Armstrong sat up. “Well, Mr. President, I wouldn’t complain. The Coast Guard computer was out of options because of the breakdown getting the Navy’s message to you. If it had waited until it had clearance to get the White Light through to you, you’d be answering some pretty tough questions right now, and we’d be mourning fifty million people.”

“It forged an EAM,” Taylor repeated, more quietly. “What if it had been wrong?”

“Well, it wasn’t,” Armstrong objected. “Not … exactly.”

“And next time? What if next time that computer decides we need an EAM with a goddamned target list attached to it?”

“I really think we need to look on these tools as aiding us, Mr. President. This was not a bad thing.”

“Why did the Coast Guard computer do this?”

“I—it was out of options and it saw a need to act.”

“Computers don’t do that. They do what they’re told to do. Somebody told it to do this. I want the programmers located and arrested.”

“This doesn’t have a programmer. Not like—you’re thinking.”

“Then where did it get the bright idea to hack the Pentagon with a forged EAM?”

“It—it made it up itself. It’s one of those new organic hybrid processors from Origyn Systems. That’s why the Coast Guard was using it on a low-sensitivity job. Just testing it, you know, before giving it anything important to do.”

“Putting it where it couldn’t do any harm.”

“Uh … yeah. That was the idea. But they’re very able systems. I mean, look at this!  This wasn’t a bad thing.”

“You keep saying that. We’re playing with a new computer system that shows initiative. What could possibly go wrong with that? Need to hack into the Pentagon? Do it! Need to forge an EAM? Do it!” Taylor’s voice tightened. “It can always let us know later!” Taylor looked down and swore, shaking his head. “So, it makes decisions without our knowing about it or how it comes to those decisions, Jack. And its methods can’t be checked. I assure you, that’s a bad thing.” His voice dropped to a low hiss. “We need to be in control. 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, and Armstrong got the feeling he had better let this one go. “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 what you’re told to do. Like being a cabinet secretary, you might say.”

Armstrong nodded and sat back in the sunlight. He waited for it to come.

“Not about deciding to hack the Pentagon and start a damned nuclear war.”

Now, he was pretty sure that Taylor was done.

But that would not be 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 any time they wanted.

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 Coast Guard’s North Atlantic Traffic Analysis Computer anytime soon.




Chapter 5. Pandemic


(Africa, on the Itimbiri River east of Bunduki)


Geoffrey Answorth squinted through groggy jet lag and peered towards the dark green tree line on the far shore of the sluggish, green current of the Itimbiri 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.

Atlanta had blistering summers like this, 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 Bunduki—right onto the tarmac—no jet ways in Bunduki. No autocabs, either. You still had to find a human cab driver here. And no air conditioner in the cabs.

Here, the nearest air conditioner was a long way back down the Itimbiri, and that was unfortunate, because all these bodies stacked up on the dock at the St. Jude Mission Station were going to need some serious cooling in the next few hours.

Answorth turned from the slow, 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. They’re coming down the Kuma channel.” He pointed over his shoulder to a tree canopied stream disappearing off into the dense jungle to the southeast. “The Kuma empties into the Itimbiri here at the mission. These bodies have been in the water for no more than two days before arriving here, and given the speed of the current….”

“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. I thought you’d find this one interesting, Geoff, so 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.”

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?”

Mputa shrugged.

“Tissue pathology and the cultures back yet?”

“They were sent to the lab 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?”

He nodded.

“But—let me guess—no pneumonia, right?”


“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 up that channel and see what’s going on. 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 Bunduki.”

And no autocabs, either, 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 they would be on the river before they arrived.


In fact it was six hours before the WHO team made it to the riverside at the St. Jude Mission Station, and the sun, low in the west, was washing the far side of the Kuma 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 St. Jude 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, 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 Kuma, 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 neat and tidy 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.”

“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. Animists. They have no juju against this place.”

“Tell them you and I 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 he was saying. He nodded his head upriver. “This is not 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 to meet us,” Mputa said.

“Yeah. It would be like the villagers to fish a body from upstream out of the river, right?”

“Yes. A professional courtesy.”

“You wouldn’t get that in New York City. They’d just watch you drift away. Savages. It’s great to be back here in civilization again. Will the captain put us ashore here and wait for us to return?”

“It’s your charter. He will wait on us 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.

Mputa took a respirator out of the kit for himself and handed Answorth one. Then he dug out the satellite phone.


On to the next chapters….

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