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By Barry Epstein Darls Epstein
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Barry and Darls Epstein
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE PLAGUE
Where once stars had twinkled in the night sky, the Earth was now enveloped in an unremitting blanket of clouds. Pollutants defiled the atmosphere, thanks to humanity's greed, arrogance, and neglect. One could forgive the citizens of Richmond, Virginia for failing to recall those halcyon starlit nights of bygone times, especially now that a thousand fires blazed all around them, sending up pillars of black smoke that blotted out the merest suggestion of a sky above. A storm approached. Its cloaking clouds glowed red and angry, reflecting the light from the conflagration ...
... and in that savage light, Mark Wells stood on his balcony high above the blazing city, clutching the railing in a death grip. Far below him, the clamour of sirens and klaxons, each conveying its own particular message of panic and distress, all but drowned out by the angry cries of the rioters, the shattering glass, the screams of the victims of rape and pillage. He could see the flames rising from the burning buildings, the firestorms that engulfed the industrial areas, and the funeral pyres on the city's periphery, but the stench of searing flesh and the reek of decaying bodies in the shattered buildings and ruined avenues below had not yet reached that high.
The ravening mobs moved from street to street, looting, burning, and clashing violently whenever they chanced to meet. Drunk, enraged, caught up in the mob hysteria; it didn't matter. The end result was the same. There was neither rhyme nor reason to their actions, save for the terror all felt as civil society collapsed. The plague, lethal and inescapable, fell upon them, as governments stood powerless against it. Born of the overcrowded camps, where interned eco-refugees thronged together in their misery as they fled the rising oceans and the desertification of their lands, it spread rapidly, a story repeated the world over.
Riot police fell back in the face of the relentless power of the marauding gangs, many of them deserting the ranks to guard their own families, some even joining in the mayhem. Military forces were confined to their bases, held in reserve to mop up and restore order after the rioting abated. Inevitably, they too would be drawn into the madness, the death throes of the damned.
Tears rolled down Wells' cheeks. It wasn't just the smoke from countless fires befouling the air that caused him to weep. His wife and son lay dead in the penthouse behind him, victims of the deadly disease. Incurable, it took them in a matter of days. He whispered low, "What have we done?" Then louder, "What have we done?" Then in a gut-wrenching scream, "What have we done?" He collapsed to the floor, his cheek against the railing, his body racked with sobs.
"We failed," he moaned in anguish. "How could we have been so arrogant? To imagine that we could change the world." He sighed deeply, forlornly. "But we tried." Now in a whisper, "At least we tried." Old age had taken his friend Jace near a decade before, and D.J., the third member of the Founders, had drowned attempting to save a friend in peril. Now only he remained, a ruined shadow of his youthful self, as the nucleus of an ever expanding group dedicated to saving mankind from itself. Failure weighed heavily upon him.
From his lofty perch he was unable to hear the mob breaching the building's defenses, overwhelming security, breaking through the iron gates and locked doors. He didn't hear the final panicked announcement as the concierge tried to warn the residents even as the mob surged over him. He didn't hear the building's alarms as danger drew ever closer. At last he became aware of the looters' presence when they battered down his door, flooding into his home, his last refuge. They tore the place apart, destroying what they couldn't carry away. The bodies of Wells' family were tumbled indifferently to the floor, evicted from their beds and kicked aside as their mattresses were appropriated by the looters. Wells tried in vain to stem the tide.
"No," he screamed. "No. You don't understand." His entreaties were ignored as two of their number pushed him back, picked him up and hurled him from the balcony, laughing in derision at his terror. As he fell, he had only moments to lament the sad fate of his kind before he crashed to the pavement below, to join the detritus of a failed world, a failed vision.
Later that evening, torrential rains pounded the city, sweeping clean the blighted air, extinguishing all but the most entrenched of the fires as it sluiced down hills and gutters and rooftops, temporarily cleansing the streets and forcing rioters and defenders alike to seek shelter, save for the maddest and most frenetic of them. Sadly, the rains did not make an end of it. Tomorrow would be another day, and the violent appetite of the survivors was far from being assuaged.
There was little cause to celebrate the nation's birthday, yet they did. The plague had taken most of the world's populace in a mere ten weeks. In the United States, a scant twenty-two million survived, scattered over the land in cities, in towns, and on farms. Of Richmond's inhabitants, only a few thousand remained. Those pitiful few, the plague's survivors, had dragged themselves from the ashes and tried in vain to rebuild. The extent of the damage and the hundreds of thousands of rotting corpses finally persuaded them to abandon the effort. Most of the city was gone, the charred and twisted wreckage attesting to weeks of rioting and looting. They'd salvaged what they could from the rubble and built shanty towns of tents and huts and lean-tos in parks and fields. On the Fourth of July they'd found flags and bunting and decorated their hovels, to celebrate their elation at being amongst those who yet endured, still joyous to have their freedom and the bounty that the government pro tem was even now showering upon them. Few would admit that they were the damned, condemned to live out their lives in privation and misery unless they found a way to resurrect the comfortable civilization they'd helped to destroy.
The members of the federal government and others of wealth, rank, and privilege had taken refuge in bunkers and had managed to ride out the crisis in relative comfort. After the calamity they had emerged to govern a blighted land. They'd promised much, for of necessity there was much to be done, the feeding and re-housing of millions being a priority. For now, there was an abundant supply of food, in houses and supermarkets and warehouses that had survived the worst of the fires and the looting and destruction. Even now, survivors scrabbled for sustenance in the cellars of gutted homes and the wreckage of commercial buildings. Farms and ranches, whose owners had succumbed to the plague or to looters, were repopulated by grateful refugees from the ruined cities, and the government sent out teams to train them in the agricultural sciences. The massive recovery effort had begun.
Like North America, South America, Australia, Europe and Asia had begun their own recovery programs, but normal would never again be a state to which any of them could return. Africa was already lost, with no hope of aid or surcease, as the plague decimated populations and ancient intertribal rivalries took care of the rest. Only isolated populations in areas verdant and fertile would survive there. So much more had to be done, and the solution lay in the past and in the near future.
Decades before, a chance meeting on the Galapagos Islands would have repercussions for centuries to come. Wells had not died in vain. His legacy and that of so many others would bestow upon mankind a gift given to few species on the brink of extinction; a second chance.
Chapter TwoTHE FOUNDERS
Mark's feet scrabbled for purchase on the smooth rope lava as he plunged recklessly down the slope towards the distant shoreline, fleeing for his life. The fact that he was running towards what he most feared was irrelevant, for that way held the best chance of escape. He gasped for breath in the fetid air and cursed himself for not keeping his thirty year old body in better shape. His final expedition to the Galapagos might well be his last anywhere.
He'd cut it too close, his leave taking. The three day permit issued by the Ecuadorian government's administrative center on San Cristóbal had expired a good ten hours before. It wasn't the deadline that propelled Mark to flee, but the fact that the once inactive volcano on Isla Bartolme had recently decided to come back to life. Bartolme was on the opposite side of a broad bay from Isla Santiago, where Mark had been completing his work. In spite of many warnings by geologists, he'd taken his life in his hands to carry out a final study of the few species that remained on the island, before an eruption might well wipe them out. Even to the untrained eye of a humble ornithologist, it was evident that the penultimate moment had arrived.
Once he reached the shoreline, he realized that in his haste he'd taken a wrong fork in the trail halfway down the slope, and was now on the edge of an unfamiliar cove. His Zodiac was in the next inlet over, just around the promontory to the north. He had three untenable choices; try to make it over or around the point, attempt the dash overland to the distant cove to the west where his ship was anchored, or take to the waters and swim for his life. None of these options appealed to him, yet a choice had to be made smartly.
Debris from the mounting eruption was beginning to rain down; ash accompanied by rocks of various sizes, as it began in earnest. Lava was not a consideration ... yet. His biggest concerns were the toxic sulphur gases that were even now fouling the air and the possibility of pyroclastic flow, from which there was little chance of escape. There was no safe haven on the relatively barren shoreline. Mark knew that he had only minutes to make a decision. A marked increase in the rumbles and booms across the channel impelled him to immediate action.
Three days earlier:
The equatorial sun blazed hot in a hazy blue sky, onto the clear greenish-blue waters of the cove on the south end of Isla Santiago. The bay provided safe harbour and was far enough from the burgeoning volcano to ease a mariner's fears. Sea turtles and Galapagos penguins swam gracefully beneath the hull of Mark's boat, as mockingbirds took respite on the radar mast, and gulls alternately begged and scolded from a safe distance, circling before landing on gentle swells to await due tribute. A few of the surviving feral goats grazed high on nearby volcanic slopes.
"Ahoy, The Beagle," a cheerful voice hailed.
Mark was in the process of ensuring that his anchors were set and loose lines coiled and stowed when he became aware of the graceful sailing vessel that had managed to glide unnoticed into the cove. Fifteen meters long and gleaming with lacquered simwood and polished brass, the yacht executed a graceful arc aft of the Beagle III, as its skipper pressed a button that rapidly collapsed and stored the sails.
Mark straightened, and shaded his eyes to get a better look at the intruder, as the skipper hailed him once more, "Ahoy, The Beagle."
"Ahoy," Mark returned, giving a friendly wave. The gesture was reciprocated by the deeply tanned, white-haired senior at the helm, wearing only shorts, deck shoes, and a skipper's cap.
"Permission to come aboard?" the newcomer shouted, his request almost drowned out as his diesels kicked in. Mark nodded, and the yacht crossed the intervening space on the calm waters of the sheltered cove. It hove to on his starboard side, gentling itself against Mark's vessel by means of underwater jets, as large inflatable bumpers deployed automatically.
Mark threw him a line, then another, and the two ships were quickly twinned as the stranger tied off. The older man vaulted nimbly over the railing, landing with a gentle thump on the deck. He strode towards Mark, his right hand extended, eyes twinkling above a broad grin that emanated from a face as craggy as the nearby volcanic slopes.
"Jason Moorehead the Fifth," he said in a cultured British accent, his voice deep and strong. His agility and energy belied his evident physical age. As young and vigorous as Mark was, he understood that he might meet his match in any physical contest with Jason.
Mark shook his hand, noting the strength in his grip. "Mark Wells the First and only," he said. The older man's smile widened, and he chuckled.
"I get a lot of that. Sounds somewhat pompous, doesn't it? The Fifth part, I mean. Call me Jace."
"Perhaps just a little," Mark responded. "Jason Moorehead? Your name sounds familiar, Jace. Aren't you the British construction mogul, the one who sold his international enterprises and retired a few years back?"
"That would be me. How could one forget a name like Jason Moorehead the Fifth? Now I'm free to wander the world on permanent vacation. And you are Mark Wells, yes? A biologist, yes? I took a few moments to look you up on my comlink as I was sailing into the bay. I queried Beagle III. Aren't you worried about the volcano?"
"Who wouldn't be? The geologists have promised at least a week free and clear. In any case, I only have a three day permit. I'll be out of here well before it goes."
"If the experts are right. Shame that all of this might vanish within decades, notwithstanding the volcano. The oceans are rising. The waters here are already showing signs of pollution, and the air as well."
"Yes. The greenhouse effect, climate change, is raising temperatures above the tolerance level of many of the indigenous species. Food webs are collapsing. That's why we have to monitor the progress of the flora and fauna here. There's too few of us and too little time." Mark was aware of a scattering of scientists on many of the other islands in the Galapagos group, toiling to study and preserve the endangered ecosystems.
"Why don't we chat about this later? I'll be hanging around for a few days. Perhaps we can get together this evening for dinner and drinks. My treat. I'm a half decent chef. Pan fried turtle O.K. with you?" Mark blanched. "Just kidding. I've turned vegan in my old age. Healthier, you know. I'll let you get to your work while I set my anchors over there. See you later."
"Later it is then," Mark replied. "I'll be there will bell peppers on." He laughed as Jace grimaced at the pun.
Jace turned and, grasping the handrail of his yacht, made an impressive leap that landed him on his own deck. He cast off the lines and went aft. Behind the wheel once more, he restarted the diesels and retracted the bumpers, moving slowly some 50 meters away before punching the button that ejected his anchors and set them automatically.
Mark loaded his equipment into the Zodiac in the Beagle's aft bay before deploying it. He took it out and around the southeast end of the island, making for the shore of Sullivan Bay hard by Isla Bartolme, which made an exclamation point into the bay. His primary objective was to have a closer look at some of the fourteen species of finches that were unique to the Galapagos, those having evolved from a single species in the distant past.
Most of the protected species on these islands would likely survive the imminent cataclysm, with the exception of those that had chosen to concentrate their nesting areas and habitats on these particular slopes and on those of Bartolme itself. Many of the local species of giant tortoise had gone extinct decades before, despite the best effort of the biologists to preserve their environment or to raise them in captivity. Air and water pollution was devastating the delicate ecosystem, and the Humboldt Current that had once tempered the equatorial heat had slowed to the point where temperatures increases now had a marked effect on all of the species in the area.
The Zodiac glided gently towards the shallow beach, as Mark cut the motor and let the momentum bring him up the shore. White coral sand slid between his toes as he stepped out of the boat, lugging his pack and camera along. He pulled the boat a little further up the beach, put on heavy socks and hiking boots, then set out along a trail well-worn by eco-tourists, up the slope of a fissure volcano. It was disconcertingly close to the newly reviving cone on the opposite shore that rumbled and belched steam with alarming regularity. Lava lizards hurried to get out of his way on the barren slope as he strode briskly along, then peered at him suspiciously from the cover of lava cacti. He inhaled the fresh, relatively untainted air, took a long look at the scenery then began to set up his kit. Dark-rumped petrels and frigate birds circled overhead, while startled ground finches and tree finches chided him from nearby. It promised to be a productive day.
On his return to the Beagle III, he plunged naked into the warm waters of the bay to wash off the dust and sweat of an honest day's labour. Jace hailed him as he clambered back aboard. "Worked up an appetite yet?" he shouted.
Excerpted from USHER'S HARBOUR by Barry Epstein Darls Epstein Copyright © 2012 by Barry and Darls Epstein. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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