The Box

Thanks to all who voted last week for what I should write about next. The favourite option was Option 1, which inspired the story below. The idea of turning it into a Sci-Fi-ish story – I owe to Arthur Nicoll. The next favourite reader’s choices from last week’s post were Options 3 and 9: about Words and Mental Healing. I’ve decided to combine those in a single post soon. The third favourite option was Option 6: about ‘Memories – the tricks they play on us and the games we play with them’. I’ll also write about this too, soon. In time, I’ll probably write about the other options, which all got one or two votes. The only exception was Option 5, about TV adverts, which got no votes. That’s fine: I’m happy never to mention TV adverts ever again.

I hope you enjoy this first part of the story: The Box. The concluding part will be posted next week.

PART ONE

“Hey, Ethica, come look at this” the young diver shouted across the deck of the huge ship. The recipient of his call- a man in his late 50s, with deeply tanned skin and grey curly hair, mumbled “okay”. He was crouched about 10 metres away at the port side of the ship, trying to turn a giant spanner around a rusted nut on a rusted bolt, which held the ship’s prehistoric winding gear to the deck. Agonisingly slowly, the nut turned. Ethica grunted as he forced the nut to turn another 2 or perhaps 3 millimetres, before giving up and placing the heavy spanner down on the deck. He stood up and noticed for the first time that his forehead was dripping with sweat. His face felt suddenly cold in the breeze, but not too cold, and the chance to ease his back and neck muscles, combined with the soothing cry of far-off seagulls, made him smile. He ambled across the deck, nearly tripping over a coil of thick rope.

“Have you found more rusty metal?” Ethica said to the young man. It had become a running joke that the only things divers to the sunken city of Dundee were likely to find was rusty metal rubbish – or, “artefacts” as the Professor called them. Bits of ancient girders or cars or trains. Most of the remains of ancient vehicles had either disintegrated a long time ago or were preserved only in museums.

“I don’t know what it is” the young man said, holding up what looked like a rectangular block of earth, now protected in a clear plastic container. “I found it when we were digging near some house ruins. There’s not much left of the house itself.”

Ethica carefully took hold of the old object inside the new box. All the crew were trained in how to handle artefacts safely. Instantly, he braced his legs more firmly on the deck as he felt the weight of the object. It was a lot heavier than it looked. Now that he was holding it, he could see that the earth around it was hiding what looked like a metal box. The box was inevitably rusty, but it was not disintegrating like most things the divers found.

“I’ve no idea what it is either” Ethica said. “It’s definitely one for the Professor, I think.”

The young man nodded, and took the box back from Ethica, who handed it over with a look of vague reverence. The moment was cut across by a triumphant shout from near the winching gear. The two men looked over to see Shaar twisting the heavy spanner a full three quarters turn and then a quarter turn more, so that the rusty nut became fully tightened.

“Hey Shaar” the young man shouted across the deck, grinning. “Good job! Ethica nearly killed himself turning it less than a filinico.”  

“Oi” said Ethica. “That’s not fair.”

“Why not?” Said Shaar, laughing. A very thin layer of sweat glistened on her forehead.

“Because” Ethica said feebly, looking around the deck as if an answer might be lying around somewhere.

“That’s not really an answer, old man” said Shaar.

“That’s why! Because -you’re young and, well, I’m…”

“Ancient” said Shaar and the young man together. Then, they laughed. And Ethica laughed too.

“No!” he said, in mock astonishment. “I’m almost middle aged, that’s all.” He shook his head, and ambled away, looking for something less arduous to do.

The young diver carried the box down a few metal stairs and along a narrow corridor into his cabin. He stepped out of his thin diving gear, threw it into the sanitizer and switched it on. The device quietly hummed, as he washed and dressed and listened to the familiar sounds of the ship. From up on deck, came dulled clanking and muffled sounds of voices shouting and laughing, as other teams of divers returned to the ship. There’s always someone laughing on this ship, he thought. He guessed that all jobs were like that, but he felt glad he had chosen this job. He loved going into the river and going down and down in the Bell with the rest of his team. And then heading out into the deep darkness with their lights eventually touching miles of ruins – a whole city where thousands of people once lived in the sunlight. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply and felt today’s sunlight from a small window on the wall of his cabin. What do I feel? What do we feel? Divers. He opened his eyes, picked up his notebook, and wrote some ideas for a poem he planned to write later. Or maybe it would become a story.  Then, with his shoes back on – the gold-coloured ones that Shaar designed for him- he lifted the box and placed it on an artefact tray and carried it for twenty minutes along a maze of narrow passageways. He only got lost twice. One time he took a quick detour, guided by his nose, to walk by the massive kitchen with its mysterious smells and crowds of white jacketed workers.

“Professor Artania” the young man called out, as he stood at the open doorway of another large room. “I’ve got something interesting for you. I don’t know what it is.”

The Professor of Pre Dark Ages Archaeology, Elinsabeth  Artania, swivelled around from a computer screen floating at eye height, and beckoned the young man into the busy room. Of course, as soon as she turned, her computer screen vanished. A couple of the assistants also glanced over. Around half a dozen other assistants were carrying objects into and out of the large room, from adjoining storerooms or along corridors, to one of several laboratories. Elinsabeth smiled warmly. She admired the young man’s skill as a diver and excavator, and she thought his poems showed great promise, although they seemed a bit too “fuzzy” for her tastes. “How are you, Thom?” she said.

“Good” the young man said. He always felt a special thrill in this room, but it was even more special this time, with his find.

“Let’s take a proper look” said Elinsabeth.

They walked across to a free square of floor. Elinsabeth took a quick glance around to check that no one was near, and then, by thinking,  she activated a command on her neurological control panel, and a gleaming black- surfaced cube rose up from the floor. Thom placed the tray and box on the solid table and opened the new box.

Elinsabeth looked closely at the box within the box. Mostly, it was coated with earth, but she could see patches of rusty metal beneath the earth, and she noticed something Thom had not- a tiny blue dot of paint. Her eyes grew brighter. “I may know what this is”, she said.

Thom, amazed and a little bit sceptical, said: “You do?”

“Possibly” she said, in that special manner that many Professors seem good at. That capacity – to give an extremely definite maybe. “Come with me.” They walked over to where she had been sitting and she pulled over anther chair for Thom. She turned to the space in front of her and activated her computer screen. It showed a flurry of blurred images, and then an ancient picture – a photograph- of a metal box. There was no layer of dark earth stuck to this box. It was painted light blue. Under the image was the typed caption: ‘Early 21st Century Time Capsule’.  

“Okay” said Thom. “But what is it?”

“Just over 1000 years ago” the professor said, “a lot of people all over the world buried boxes, which look like the one you found. In fact, I think your box might be one of those. It has a very small particle of blue paint on it. The paint shouldn’t have survived, but it has. Anyway, the boxes were full of things that our ancestors hoped would be of interest to generations of the future.”

“What kind of things?”

“Oh, everyday objects, and things people thought might not be around in the future. Books. Watches.”

“What?”

“Exactly”, said Elinsabeth, grinning. “I’ll show you a picture later. They put in lots of things you can only see in museums now or in the Systems.” She stood and walked back to the box on the black table. Thom followed her. “A very few times” the Professor continued “archaeologists found scraps of written material in a box – bits of ancient diaries and letters.”

Thom looked puzzled. He had a question, but he was  unsure if he should know the answer already and had forgotten. “I wonder- why I’ve never heard of a time capsule before, if there were thousands of them?”

“Good question” Elinsabeth said. “The problem was that very few capsules survived. The metal which they tended to be made of was particularly susceptible to corrosion, from the kinds of chemicals which poisoned the soil, during the Last Great War. Only a few dozen boxes survived at all and they were all damaged. The few which had any written records in them were in a terrible state and the records were largely indecipherable.”

“I see. But if this box is a time capsule, then maybe…”

The professor nodded. “If there’s something in it, then maybe it can tell us a story. From a thousand years ago.”

Seven days after Thom’s discovery of the box, he sat in the front row of the ship’s large auditorium. Around him sat hundreds of other crew members- almost the entire crew, apart from the bridge staff, 12 marine engineers, and two nurses, who were looking after three patients – a diver with a broken wrist, a cook with a badly twisted ankle and concussion, and one of the ships resident artists- who had fallen into the river from a small boat, while sketching sea birds. She had swallowed too much salt water but was recovering rapidly. No one wanted to miss out on the presentation in the auditorium, so three screens were showing the event live in the areas where workers were attending to other duties. Everyone knew about the box discovered beneath the sunken city, and everyone knew that some that very old written papers were found within the box.  

The lights dimmed in the auditorium and the massed mumbling and chattering stopped. Seconds earlier, Thom had stood to acknowledge applause – as the diver who had found the box. He felt glad to be seated and anonymous again, in the dark, although he enjoyed the weird feeling as hundreds of people looked at him and applauded. Some even cheered. He gazed up at the big screen behind Professor Artania, and watched a montage of images. Underwater shots of the Dundee ruins. The box, as it was when he left it on the table in the Professor’s room. Then, a sequence of shots taken when the box was first opened. There were gasps around the hall as individual items were shown: books, a newspaper, a watch, and a small, black device – perhaps electronic. And then, on the screen there was a photograph of a middle-aged man with short grey hair, smiling into the camera with bright green trees and bushes behind him.

“This is the man who left us his diary” the professor said. “The garden he is standing in is now 110 metres below water. His diary – ten large volumes – is the most intact written record we now have of a time before the Dark Ages, before the Last War, and before both World Revolutions. As we all know, the technological destruction of the Dark Ages destroyed so much human culture that even today we are still piecing back together the remnants of our own past. So, this really is a fascinating discovery.”

A handwritten page appeared on the screen. Thom felt himself holding his breath and imagined that everyone else around him was doing the same.  

‘One thousand years from now, centuries after the people on this planet have cleansed it of the evils of poverty, war, inequality, and injustice – pupils, students and other readers will look back at the history of our times and before with horror and amazement. It may seem to them as it must have seemed in the years after Darwin’s ideas came out, when people realised that they had evolved from wild animals. The difference will be – that the people of the future will look at times when many humans were monsters. They polluted the air, the seas, and the land. They slaughtered their fellow human beings. And, unbelievably to the people of the future, their ancestors hated and oppressed people because of the colour of their skin. People of the future may look at their own skin, as if for the first time, and say to their ancestors: why? Why would someone be treated horribly because of the colour of their skin? It doesn’t make any sense.’

After leaving time for the audience to read the paragraph, and with many questions beginning to form in many minds, the Professor’s voice rang out clearly in the auditorium. “Friends, please notice the year of this diary entry: 2021. It is exactly one thousand years ago. A mere 20 years before the First World Revolution. That was followed, as we all know from first school, by the terrible Last Great War and the Dark Ages – 100 years of barbarism versus humanity’s finest. We owe our lives on this planet and this planet itself to the Resistance which, of course led and won the Second World Revolution 850 years ago. So, a few things have happened since our friend from Dundee wrote in his diary. Any questions so far?”

Before anyone could ask a serious question, a familiar, high pitched voice shouted out. “Can we have a food break now?” It was Sam, the Chief Systems Coordinator. “All this is really terrific, but it’s making me hungry.”

The audience in the auditorium laughed as if it was a single person, although it was Sam’s almost predictable input to most big occasions. Some things never change, Thom thought, as he laughed along with everyone else. At the same time, other questions were forming in his mind.

Harvey Duke

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