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Errols folly, p.1

Errol's Folly, page 1

 

Errol's Folly
 

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Errol's Folly


  ERROL'S FOLLY

  by Dave Brown

  Copyright 2009, David Edward Brown

  This book is a work of fiction.

  Part 1

  The Ship, The Sea

  Chapter 1

  A clanging sound woke her, metal on metal. After four years on the ship she was intimately familiar with all the different noises on board. This sounded like it was two decks down, in the machine shop. She knew the crew even better than she knew the ship. This had to be Errol, capable of focusing so tightly on a project he sometimes forgot he was banging on steel at two in the morning.

  Anne lifted herself off her bunk, so used to the constant roll of the ocean under her feet that she often didn't notice it anymore. With the utmost care she gripped the hatch wheel on her door and cranked it open. If Errol hadn't woken anyone else, she didn't want to risk it herself. She stepped into the passage and looked around. All the quarters were shut up, no sounds behind their doors.

  “Great awareness, guys,” she mumbled. She'd been a light sleeper for the last four years, but apparently most of the crew had grown comfortable. Anne shook her head. As if agreeing with her, Errol landed another ringing blow. She waited, but there was still no sound from the surrounding quarters.

  The passages and stairwells of Errol's Folly were dimly lit with red lights. It saved the night vision in case the power went out, or they needed to put it out. Anne padded softly in the crimson glow, turning, descending, turning some more. She reached the hatch to the machine shop and found it standing wide open. Inside she saw Errol, just as she had predicted, bent over some steel tubing clamped in a vise with a mallet and a three-millimeter punch in his hands.

  Feeling a little naughty, she waited until he'd raised the mallet before she spoke. “Errol,” she said and then suppressed a chuckle when he dropped the mallet on the floor. A breathless little squeak escaped his lips. “Errol, it's two AM.”

  “Oh,” he said, glancing around. “Right. Sorry about that. I woke you?” She nodded. He continued surveying the shop, avoiding eye contact as he sometimes did. “I was just working on some new ideas for the hydroponics. Nutrient distribution, you know?”

  “Have you thought about sleeping?” She raised an eyebrow, cocked her head.

  “Can't. Dreams.” He looked her in the eye then. He was a wiry man of thirty-one, balding but still with a fair amount of hair around the sides. What she saw behind his thick glasses told her not to push further. They should all have been plagued by nightmares. Some certainly were. Errol seemed to have the hardest time living with them. This was not the first time Anne had found him in the machine shop at an uncivilized hour.

  “Okay. Well, maybe you could try some quieter tinkering, yeah? Less metal on metal, more cotton on cotton.”

  “Yeah, I'm sorry.” He had regained some composure. “I didn't mean to wake anyone. I'll keep it down. If anybody else is awake tell them I apologize.”

  Anne nodded and left. She heard him shuffling around, looking for something else to do. As she ascended back to her deck, it felt like sleep had abandoned her, so she kept going. The roll of the ship suddenly occupied her senses, made her want to look outside. She reached the bridge and found Barbara and Jones on duty, watching each other more than the ship.

  “Don't mind me,” she said, walking past them. They didn't. Anne sat down in a lawn chair somebody had bolted to the deck years ago, and leaned back. It was pitch black outside, except for an occasional flash of lightning from some far-off squall. It was almost rhythmic, but not quite. Flash, pause, flash flash, a longer pause.

  She dreamed.

  #

  Five years younger and still on dry land. Sitting in her lab. She chuckled to herself. It wasn't really her lab, but people always become possessive of their work, their space. She was studying new nutrient recipes for her hydroponics project, trying to find a new minimum for successful growing. What are the absolute minimum amounts of nitrogen, magnesium, and all the others to keep a hydroponic garden healthy and producing? That was the essential question of her current research.

  The phone rang. She answered reluctantly, absorbed in her work. “PSU Botanical, this is Anne.”

  “Miss Grundig?”

  “This is she, how can I help you?”

  “My name is Errol Stimsky, we spoke a few weeks ago?”

  She brightened immediately, “Yes Mr. Stimsky, how have you been?”

  “Uh, fine.” He sounded disoriented by the question, like he had a script in his head and she had wandered off the page. “I've been going over your credentials, your proposal, and I believe you'd be an ideal addition to our team. I've spoken with your doctoral adviser and the dean, and they're both very excited about the project. They've agreed to accept any time you spend with us as credit toward your work. All that remains is your decision.”

  This was exactly the news she needed. Stimsky was mounting some kind of long-term ocean expedition, the perfect testing ground for some of her theories. “Absolutely, when can I start?”

  “I've almost completed the acquisition of the ship, and then we'll be about six months converting it for the trip. I'd like you to be involved from the beginning, helping design the hydroponic bays. Maybe you could even get the first crops started. If we had a few successful on-board harvests under our belt before launch, I'd be very pleased.”

  She was grinning from ear to ear. “That's great news. Call me as soon as you're ready for me to show up, I'll be there.”

  “Cool! I'll be e-mailing you some details by the end of the day. I'm looking forward to working with you, Miss Grundig.”

  She thanked him and hung up. Then she went looking for some of her friends in the department. It was time to celebrate.

  #

  Her mind drifted upward, just past asleep but not quite reaching awake. The ship swayed around her, in its unending slow waltz with the water.

  “Should we wake her?” whispered Barbara.

  “No, let's just...” and the rest was muffled.

  Anne drifted back down.

  #

  In Anne Grundig's opinion, there were two key components to a research philanthropist: wealth and curiosity. She had researched Errol Stimsky extensively and discovered he was one better: rich, curious, and smart. His smarts gave birth to his curiosity and built his wealth. Near the end of the infamous “dot com” era he made a software product that actually worked, in apparent defiance of the industry trend toward uselessness.

  The money poured in, like water from a hose. Raised by fiscally conservative parents, Stimsky shuffled every penny away, carefully investing in more traditional enterprises and expanding his net worth. Then one day he suddenly dropped out. He sold his company, took the money and vanished from the view of the media. The industry went bust not long after, and for six months nobody talked about Errol Stimsky anymore.

  Then just as suddenly as he had vanished, he emerged from self-imposed exile seeking out engineers, biologists, MDs, even ex-military types if there was any truth to the rumors Anne heard later. When she first heard of him, she was desperate for grant money to continue her research. Hydroponic farming was a fast-growing field, but mostly in the private sector, like people learning how to grow in their apartments without soil. Very few big commercial growers were funding research in the field, and those that were went for the big-name schools. Anne, in love with northwest Oregon, couldn't bring herself to head east.

  It started as a rumor around campus, and then there was a note on the department bulletin board, “Botanical Grad Students Wanted.” She sent some e-mails, wrote a proposal, had a few phone conversations. Finally, three months after the final call, she drove south down Highway 101. The Pacific was heaving and alive off to her right, the deep-water port of Coos Bay som
ewhere ahead.

  #

  Distant thunder crept into her hearing, tugging her toward the surface. The whispered voices of Barbara and Jones were gone. She opened her eyes to a dark gray sky, though the sun hadn't yet risen. She sat up, blinked the sleep out.

  “Asleep at the watch? Shame, shame.” Errol stood leaning against the starboard bulkhead, looking at her. When she turned her eyes to him he looked out the window. “I'll have to tell the captain.”

  “Very funny, sir.” She hugged herself, stretching her neck and shoulders. Errol was staring ahead at the unmarked horizon. “What was your dream?”

  He shivered a little, remembering. “About the escape. It's almost always the escape. I dreamed I didn't make it, none of us did.”

  She turned to look out the forward windows now herself. Remembered running flat out, heart pounding, not daring to look back. Up ahead was the gangway leading up to the deck of the Folly. Right in front of her, others were running for their lives. Errol was on her left, the only one with the nerve to glance back. Behind her, pounding feet and moaning terror.

  “Errol, do you ever wonder about the coincidence? How the ship was ready to launch just before it happened. Sometimes I wonder if it was a miracle.”

  “A miracle?” He looked down at the deck. “No, I don't think so.”

  “Why not?”

  He looked right at her, his usual shyness gone. “I knew it was coming.”

  Chapter 2

  Errol Stimsky was a software engineer with a talent for creating virtual models of real-world processes. At twenty-two he started his own company, StimTech, and within a year he had more money than he would ever know how to spend. He invested instead, turning lots of money into ridiculous amounts of money, all the while continuing to crank out software to help other companies see where they were dropping the ball.

  One day in August of 2002 he received a very intriguing offer from the United States government. The money involved was impressive but also a secondary concern. What really grabbed his attention was what they wanted him to build: a detailed model of covert research and development programs, with the purpose of looking for holes in their security. He decided to take on the project and complete it on his own, keeping the rest of his employees on other assignments to protect them from any potential liability issues. He built a massive new development system at his home and worked from there. For months he pored over the data and specifications they had provided to him, meticulously crafting a near-perfect model of their organization. It grew larger by the day, and eventually he began adding other models representing interactions with outside agencies, other governments, civilian contractors and more. Then one day, almost a year after he had started the project, Errol Stimsky stepped back from his console in disbelief. The final prediction of his model was that the world was going to end.

  #

  He looked out at the assembled faces, twenty-nine, each one with strengths and talents he had hand-picked for this project. None of them knew he was leading them into a grim future, possibly to be the last survivors of a doomed society. They all believed they were joining a research mission to last a number of years if it was successful, testing the team's ability to be completely self-sufficient in isolation.

  “I want to welcome all of you to Errol's Folly.” All smiles, a few appreciative chuckles. The ship bucked slightly beneath them, and Errol thought it might have been nudging him the way a friend will poke you in the ribs with an elbow. I know what you're up to, the ship chided.

  “I started this project with the idea of testing the limits of our ingenuity with a deceptively simple question: what can we do on our own? Given all we have learned, standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, how much can we accomplish using sheer cunning and inspiration? Looking out at all of you now, I can already sense the answer. Anything!”

  They were excited, looking around the ship and at each other, all grins and thumbs up. He was sure they would hate him if they ever found out the truth. “I'm not much for big speeches, but I am interested in a hard day's work. So let's get this ship ready and make a little history. We've got six months until we sail, and I, for one, hate being late.” They clapped, some cheered. All of them thought they were getting grant money, doctoral credit, you name it. In truth, all he was offering was a chance at survival.

  #

  “What do you mean, you knew?” She looked very confused and a little alarmed.

  He sighed. “I never thought I'd tell anyone, but after the zillionth dream I'm starting to think it's my guilty conscience. That somehow I've killed you all just as if I'd never built the Folly.” He paused, gathering his courage, then launched into a hurried explanation of his model. “It all came together at some catastrophic accident in their program,” he said, after he'd covered the high points. “The margin of error on the timing was fairly large. I couldn't pin it down closer than a month. But there were other outputs from the model, precursors that would give it away, nail it down to a specific week.”

  “Precursors?” she asked, still confused.

  “Certain economic conditions, mixed with some geopolitical events. When I saw them I knew we had a week at most to set sail. Any later and we'd be caught in it.”

  “Well, what did they say?” she asked, her voice beginning to rise.

  “Who?”

  “The government? What did they say when you showed them.”

  Errol stared at her for a moment then looked out the window again. “I didn't.”

  “What?” she shouted.

  “You don't understand. The collapse was a chain reaction, a cascading series of events so complex that the starting point had already come and gone. It was inevitable. If I had told them about it they would have just killed me and tried to cover it up.” He picked up a water pitcher from a small table and poured some into a cup. A few sips helped settle him. He had a long story to tell. “So, I worked up some false reports. Actually, they weren't even false. There really were some security problems. I just gave them those, agreed to keep my mouth shut about what I knew, and then started working on the Folly project.”

  #

  The ship was essentially ready. Some of the crew were staying on board, others in hotels on dry land, holding off the time when they'd be bound to the ship as long as possible. The world's final month had started two days previously, and Errol was tensely monitoring the news. The first sign came early on a Saturday, July 10, 2004. A series of bloody coups occurred overnight, scattered around the globe. All of those responsible put out bravely worded manifestos about freedom from American imperialism. A dozen governments in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia were toppled inside a twenty-four-hour period. By the end of the day, the stock markets of the world had suffered the largest one-day drop in history.

  At the evening staff meeting Errol declared they had to sail in five days. By the next meeting on Monday the ship was fully stocked, final preparations made. That night the first outbreak found its way to the eleven o'clock news.

  If Errol were a betting man, he would have put good money that the final event in the collapse, the thing that sent it all flaming to the ground, would be biological in nature. Many of the projects he had modeled for the government, without knowing exactly what they were doing, involved large purchases of attached items like haz-mat suits and complicated airlock systems. He turned out to be right, but didn't really know it at first. Nobody else did either, at least nobody willing to speak to the public. By the time it reached the news it was already too late. An entire town had succumbed.

  The bodies of the dead got up and attacked the living. Errol couldn't believe what he was seeing. It was ridiculous, the stuff of cheap horror movies. For months afterward he refused to say the word “zombie” because it was just so crass. His incredulity changed nothing, and this was driven home two nights later. Wednesday, July 14, 2004.

  That first town overrun by the dead sat on a major interstate highway, an ideal rest stop for travelers,
four hours each way to the next real town. Hundreds, maybe thousands of infected people had already rolled out before the first attempt at quarantine. By Tuesday morning there were outbreaks all over the country. Because Errol had not been able to model the exact cause of the final collapse, he could not predict how it would spread. At the time he simply accepted that he might be too late, and then worked feverishly to make sure he wasn't. The first reported cases in Portland came over the internet Wednesday afternoon.

  That night he rounded up the last handful of the crew. He was walking down the pier behind Anne Grundig and a few others when he first heard the sound. The chain-link gate at the end of the dock was rattling. Somebody shined a flashlight that way and the sight was chilling. The people of Coos Bay, the busy coastal town where they had lived and worked for six months, were massed at the gate. They were little more than animals now, shaking the gate as hard as they could. Never meant for that kind of stress, the fence was already groaning when Errol turned toward the ship.

  “Run!” he screamed. The sound of the gate crashing down onto the dock came before he could move his own feet. The gangway was a hundred feet away, the mob forty feet behind them at most. Errol's feet found purpose, and he pushed at Anne Grundig as he gained momentum. Soon they were all running, sprinting, heedless of the slippery dock. Looking back later it turned out they were much faster than the mob, but at the time it seemed deadly important that they go as fast as they could. When Errol, last up the gangway, turned around and looked he saw that the mob was still sixty feet from the plank. Someone shoved him out of the way and yanked it back. Free of the dock, it fell in the water, lost for good.

  The mob – no, pack, Errol thought - reached the end of the dock. So focused was their hunger that they kept right on coming, toppling off the dock and into the water. They thrashed and sank. When he woke from his nightmares Errol often wondered if they were still walking along the bottom, following the wake of the Folly until he was foolish enough to land somewhere. There were some sobs on deck. The pack on the dock snarled and moaned. They continued to push toward the ship, tumbling into the water as they reached the end of the pier. Errol stared at them for a moment, his hypothesis made fact. Then he turned toward the bridge and lifted a radio to his lips. “Let's go.”

 
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