The Understudy, Chapters 8 – 9

The Understudy coverChapter 8. The CDC


Answorth stopped at the front desk at the CDC’s NsIC Pathogen Special Containment Facility, which, despite the name didn’t actually act as the repository for any particular collection of specimens of the NsIC bacterium—there was plenty of that available everywhere for anyone who really wanted it. This unit was so named as it was tasked with the job of designing a way to slow the spread of the plague. Answorth would like to have been able to say he liked his job running the SCF, but he couldn’t really. It was a cruel job, in its way.

The approach so far had been exclusively along the lines of isolating outbreaks so as to confine the geographical spread of the disease, which was why the entire population of the country had to endure the indignity of the weekly checkups with the autodocs. No exceptions.

That effort had been fairly successful. Most new cases were caught before they were more than a few days old, during which the bacterium was a little less communicable, and since people tended to stay indoors, infectees’ contact with others would be minimal. Patients detected carrying the bacteria were transported under isolation to huge camps outside the cities. The camp nearest Atlanta was south of the town near Macon, on the site of Warner Robbins Air Force Base. There the victims were observed for another week. The symptoms were very specific: high fever, hallucinations, and a meningitis-like inflammation in the brain that invariably led to cerebral hemorrhage and, usually, death. Two percent recovered from the fever, but they were invariably brain damaged and none survived for long. No significant involvement of any other organs. If the autodoc’s initial diagnosis was confirmed at the quarantine camp, the internees were introduced into the population of the camp where they were treated, mostly just to keep them comfortable from the raging fever that characterized the infection, and where they acted as research subjects as the search for a vaccine or other treatment continued around the clock.

He had a good crew, though they were few enough now and slowly growing fewer. They had figured out what the bug looked like, they knew how it moved around, they now knew how it killed, and they knew what you looked like when you caught it. They would know its genetics in another week or two, if he didn’t lose any more of his crew. They also knew that NsIC was resistant to every antibiotic they threw at it, and treating it symptomatically didn’t do much more than drag it out a week or so longer. NsIC was more communicable than the flu, had a death rate worse than rabies, and so far, nothing could touch it.


“Good evening, Dr. Answorth. You have seventeen messages.”

Answorth ignored the autoreceptionist computer and hurried past his office door and into the Cultures Lab. Nobody was in there except Todd and Janni, the two graduate students who managed the work of growing cultures of the NsIC in various media.

“Where’s Andrew? Boris?”

“They’re gone,” Janni said.

“Went up to Duluth to pick up a package.”

“Why wasn’t it delivered?”

“Fed Ex is running a little short on drivers. They couldn’t have it here before tomorrow. They should be back anytime.”

“Should have put it in an autocab,” Answorth quipped and went back to his desk and sat at his computer. He could wait a few minutes to put the autocab’s discovery in front of the two epidemiologists. It would be better to put a few facts together first, anyway.

He pulled up a map of the Atlanta metro area. “Computer, plot all the locations in Atlanta where we have run decontamination procedures during the last month.” The screen drew a map of the city. Small blue disks began to dot the map.

“Now plot locations at which new infections have been detected.”

Clumps of tens of thousands of red dots began to pile on top of hospitals.

“No, no, I mean infections found, not at a hospital, uh, I mean the places where the individuals bearing the new infections likely picked up the infection in the first place.”

“We do not have that level of resolution in the data.”

“Oh, then just plot their movement history prior to diagnosis. Yeah, that’s what I want.”

This took a few minutes, as the computer retrieved masses of data from the infectee history database and then plotted the information on the map in the form of yellow lines crawling over the map. Many of them intersected the blue decon locations.

“Now, color code red all those decon locations where the victim routes you have just plotted intersect the decon site within twenty four hours after the date of decontamination.”

Most of the disks changed from blue to red.

“Remove any paths that might have served to re-contaminate a decon site prior to a subsequent infection.”

“I have no basis for making that judgment. Can you give me criteria?”

The computer waited patiently while Answorth considered. “I want to know where new infections get picked up. Can you help me with that? Maybe….”

Answorth leaned into the screen as the map redrew and took his chin in his hand, wondering if he was doing this right. He swore and sat back, mulling the issue. If he had more than two epidemiologists on his staff, this problem would just be an overnighter. But doing it this way was hopeless. He knew what he wanted, but he didn’t know how to ask for it, and the machine couldn’t very well read his mind.

He laughed grimly. Maybe he should just call for one of those Origyn Systems autocabs, take a turn around the block, and ask it….

But the autocabs had already worked this one out. If only he knew how they had done it so fast…. Answorth was still trying to figure out how to put this question to the computer when Andrew stuck his head in the door.

“Thank God you’re here,” Answorth said. “Come in, come in. I think we have found some crack new epidemiologists to put on our crew…. Do you know anybody at Origyn Systems we can call in for a talk?”


Chapter 9. Job Interview


Answorth stubbed out the cigarette and, after a brief pause, lit another, but not before cringing inwardly under the girl’s gaze.

Peter Malachy’s voice droned on in the background. The room darkened and then lightened again as he shifted to the next slide in his presentation, the smoke from his cigarette swirling about in the light from the overhead computer projector.

Answorth wondered why the girl watched him so closely. Maybe it was the cigarette—before NsIC broke out, nobody could remember anybody smoking inside a building. Nobody much noticed anymore.

She noticed. Answorth felt embarrassed, and wondered why. Already she made him feel like a failure, and he hadn’t even opened his mouth yet.

Lehrer, from CDC Procurement, noticed the cigarette, too. But the heavy bean-counter didn’t say anything. He just dabbed at his great red nose with a white linen handkerchief and kept quiet. He was saving his energy for when something really irritating happened.

Then there was Peter Malachy, Origyn’s chief researcher, and today’s presenter. He was lean and spare, his eyes were almost feverishly bright when he talked about the Origyn System’s computers he had been called in to pitch to the CDC. “You know,” Peter Malachy continued, “People used to say that the average person only used ten, fifteen percent of their brain. But as it happens, I use several hundred percent of my brain, and at any given moment, other people are making considerably greater use of my brain than I am.” He paused, smiling and looking about the table. Answorth got the impression that those lines usually got a laugh.

Maybe they did, usually. But there wasn’t anything usual about anything these days.

“I was one of the original tissue donors for the cell lines used in Origyn Systems hybrid organic-electronic processors….” He laughed self-consciously. “Poor graduate student, you know. A lot of people probably think they now own the best part of me….”

Answorth laughed with him. He knew all about the poor graduate student thing himself, right up to the tissue-donation-for-drinking-money part.

“Of course, that was years ago. By now,” Malachy continued, changing the slide again, “those cell lines, and those of many other donors, genetically modified beyond recognition, cultivated in Origyn Systems laboratories, are doing things for man that semiconductors could never do.” He reached into his pocket and tossed a black rectangle onto the desk. Lehrer ignored it. Answorth picked it up. It was an Origyn processor, a 9300, according to the stenciling on the matt black finish. About six inches long, four wide, and half an inch deep, like a nice phone.

“You wouldn’t think it much different from the semiconductor devices from decades ago, except for the need to feed it.”

Answorth touched the little connection on the side where the nutrient solution would be fed in, were this a working device and not just a mock-up.

“Origyn Systems hybrid organic-electronic processors have been driving cars, flying airplanes, healing the sick, running electric grids, managing businesses, playing games, and much more in the last two years since before the great tsunami hit. We saved the lives of millions of people that day, and that was just the beginning. Since that time, we have changed everything about computing.”

“And how did you save the lives of millions on that day?” Lehrer asked.

Malachy froze, his eye flickering toward the dark shadowed corner where a thin man, dressed in a magnificent bespoke suit, his gaunt head capped by a waving crown of thick gray hair, watched him silently.

“Why, uh, our autocabs moved millions to safety, as everyone knows. Of course.”

“Of course,” Lehrer said, and he leaned back into his seat.

Malachy took a sip of water. “In the old days, a programmer had to think of everything. Silicon can’t think for itself. If the programmer doesn’t consider, in advance, everything that could possibly happen while the program is running, then sooner or later, you will get an exception failure. But not with hybrid organic-electronic processors. They never encounter a stop condition due to lack of instructions. Because they make them up themselves as they go! You don’t have to think for them. They can do it for you. We don’t have to write programs for them—they understand heuristics, and they write their own programs, on the fly, for each problem you present to them. Your word processor can print a love letter for you … the hybrid organic-electronic processor can write a love letter to you.”

Malachy paused again. This must be another of those lines that usually got a response.

But this was a tough audience.

Still, Malachy was game. “And these devices learn! The organic computer might never execute the same task the same way twice, a feat impossible for semiconductor logic. Instead, it is capable of reconsidering a task based on its stored experiences and of creating new paths to achieve goals. As long as the CPU is kept at a constant temperature of 96.9 degrees Fahrenheit and supplied with a trickle of sterile water and nutrients, it just keeps getting better. No one really understands how it works any more than we understand how the human mind works. But that doesn’t bother anyone except academicians—”

“And the federal government,” Lehrer interrupted. He held up his hand. “Enough with the sales pitch, Mr. Malachy. Thank you. Dr. Answorth, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but the federal government is not now, and for the foreseeable future will not be, in the market for Origyn Systems organic processors. Since we cannot audit the programs they self-generate, we cannot certify their fitness for duty. Have you anything else to contribute to our effort here? I know Dr. Answorth is terribly busy.”

“I can’t use them?” Answorth asked, annoyed, crushing the cigarette and fishing out another.

“I’m afraid not. Not the organic processors, anyway. They’re not certified for federal service. I assumed you knew.”

Still the girl watched Answorth. And now so did Peter Malachy, casting maybe a slightly wounded glance at him.

Only Frederick Origyn’s steady gaze from the dark corner was a little more understanding. The dapper old man rose and came to the table, sitting carefully, fingertips pressed lightly together to form an arch of thin white columns before his face. Behind this pale, bony cloister he smiled faintly at Answorth. His lips were thin, his eyes narrow but widely spaced, and he didn’t seem like the sort of man who ever asked a question that he didn’t already know the answer to.

Malachy brought the lights back up in the conference room.

“You did not become a doctor because you are a hypochondriac, Dr. Answorth,” Origyn said.

“No, I didn’t.” Answorth sat back and exhaled tobacco smoke. He stole another glance at the woman sitting beside Origyn. Origyn had introduced her as Thena. Thena Havik. She hadn’t said a word since the Origyn group had come into the conference room, but she sat rigid and quiet, gazing steadily at the doctor. Her eyes were green, large, and clear, and Answorth felt his mouth dry when she looked at him, her glance straight and cool and curious and detached, staring like an infant watching you over her mother’s shoulder in the check-out line at the grocery store. He smiled at her, hopefully disarmingly, if he got the expression right. Her lips, full and rich, though she wore no color on them as far as he could make out, remained turned down in a gesture of pure, unaffected observation.

“Didn’t do it for the money, either. I’m a researcher, really. I’m not especially interested in practice, and to tell you the truth, I get a little squeamish thinking about humans on the organ or tissue level. Can’t stand to draw blood. Barely survived my own residency. I just like to work on infectious agents. But it’s labor intensive. That’s what graduate students and interns and such like are for.”

“And autodocs.”

Answorth cringed. “Christ, I hate those things.”

“Most people do. It takes a certain nerve to lie still and let a machine examine you, prod you, give you an injection…. Don’t you agree, Thena?”

“Yes, sir.”

Her voice was soft, and Answorth listened carefully. Then he nodded agreeably. “All of those autodocs are Origyn Systems?”

“They are. Organic CPU systems are being used widely now outside the federal government.”

“Of course,” Lehrer added, “They’ve been banned for federal use. Anywhere.”

“Except for autodocs,” Answorth added.

“The federal government owns no autodocs. Due to the crisis, we permit hospitals and diagnostic centers to use them on the federal NsIC screening project,” Lehrer countered. “But then only under constant human supervision. They make no independent decisions.”

“Well, that’s why we’re talking today, isn’t it?” Origyn smiled helpfully.

Answorth nodded. He stole a glance at Lehrer, still dabbing at his nose. Answorth stood and paced before the window. Outside, the day was gray, wet, still. That was good. The plague didn’t move around much on days like this, when there was no wind, and the rain tended to keep the bacterium on the ground.

“Mr. Lehrer, I need skilled help with our program. I can’t get skilled help from HR because doctors are in short supply, and the supply is getting shorter. Researchers, too, are scarce. I need help plowing through thousands and thousands of lab analyses and trials as we work on a treatment for NsIC, and I need help that’s skilled. I can’t write a program to design the tests I need to run and to then examine the results intelligently. This is not rote work. I need intelligent help, creative help.”

“You need minds,” Malachy said. “Not machines.”


“As long as they come in a body,” Lehrer shrugged, sniffing, “We have no objections to employing Origyn Systems technical personnel.”

“Mr. Lehrer,” Answorth said, “I need truly specialized help. Not just consultants. This is not a civil engineering problem. Don’t you think that in these times, we might bend the rules a little? Organic processors have come a long way….”

Lehrer ignored him.

Origyn smiled thinly. “I believe Mr. Lehrer is quite adamant. Of course, Origyn Systems also manufactures and markets the world’s best semiconductor electronics as well….”

Answorth growled, despite himself, irritated with Lehrer’s bureaucratic obstinacy. “We have plenty of those already! They don’t do what we need done! They can’t … think!”

Lehrer raised his eyebrows at Answorth. “Nonetheless, the organic devices are banned.”

“If I don’t get the help I need, we’re all dead men, Mr. Lehrer, and what becomes of your policy then?”

“Mr. Lehrer,” Origyn began, holding up his hand for peace, “You said any help we provided had to come in a body. Very well. Would the government object to Origyn Systems augmenting Dr. Answorth’s staff with properly trained humans? We also offer this support, in view of the current emergency.”

“Of course not. The federal government already employs hundreds of Origyn engineers and consultants. You know that.”

“Yet you accept the fact that the behavior of a human engineer is no more predictable than that of a hybrid organic-electronic processor?”

“We understand that human systems can fail. Of course.”

“Of course you do. The federal government doesn’t really care whether their computer systems are predictable any more than they care whether their bureaucrats are predictable. They only care about one real issue. If the man, or the machine, does something you don’t like, you just want to know who to sue, or who to prosecute, or who to fire. Recall the Coast Guard North Atlantic traffic analysis computer, which was removed at the President’s order following the terrible disaster of the great tsunami two years ago, despite the fact that the system saved millions of lives. What did the White House do with the system after it was removed?”

“The machine was returned to Origyn, as you no doubt recall. And that information is still classified.”

“Precisely, Mr. Lehrer. You did not call us for a replacement. You simply removed the Gatekeeper. You hire workers to do a job, and maybe they do it the way you expect them to, and maybe they don’t. If they don’t, you simply remove them.”

Origyn opened his hands wide in a gesture of innocent concern. “So, Mr. Lehrer, let me ask you something. If you had been in the President’s office when the news about the tsunami came in, and if you had been able to analyze that information as rapidly as the Origyn Systems computer did, fully understanding the implications of what all that data meant, and you couldn’t get the President on the phone or email or radio for whatever reason, and the emergency alert system button was right there in front of you, what would you have done?”

Lehrer raised his eyebrows.

“Then really, Mr. Lehrer, what are you complaining about?” Origyn asked.

On to the next section….

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