The Box, part two

Welcome to the 24th RAINSHINE, and the 2nd part of a story about the future and racism. Part One can be found here.


Thom closed his eyes and enjoyed the warm light on his eyelids, imagining it was sunlight on a beach, although it was really the Bell’s internal lighting system. He listened to the muffled clanking as the Bell was lowered from the ship into the water; and he heard the two pilots speaking softly. In a row beside him, his five fellow divers were also sitting with their eyes closed. They had nothing to fear – they had made the descent and returned dozens of times. They closed their eyes for a few minutes at the start of every trip because the psychologists taught them – it aided relaxation and focus. Although, there was rationally nothing to be afraid of, they knew that there was a low level of anxiety in all divers. It was assumed to be instinctive -evolutionary flotsam. The anxiety was rarely strong enough to cause much fear, but it was best to keep it low, so that they could all stay as calm and concentrated as it was possible to be, when they swam into a sunken city 110 metres below the surface of the river.

“That’s two minutes” said Selky, the assistant pilot. “You can all wake up now. Thom, you were snoring.”

Thom opened his eyes and blinked a few times and focused on Selky. She looked away from him, back to the controls, but she was still smiling. “I was not snoring” he said to her, as the other divers stretched and two or three sniggered. “I was conducting an advanced relaxation technique – called treacleonomy.”

The team laughed. Thom’s diving partner – Jovar – rolled his eyes and shook his head. He was a full half metre taller than anyone else in the team and seemed entirely made of muscle. His voice was deep but surprisingly soft. “No such thing man” he said. “You was snoring. No mistake.”

Thom shrugged. He may have been snoring, but he knew he wasn’t fully asleep. He was thinking about the first presentation by the Professor and the five presentations since then, and the strange ideas in the diary from 1000 years ago. Most of all, he was thinking of the clue that the Professor spotted in the diary, which was the reason for the dive.

“Approaching the landing zone” announced the pilot calmly, without turning from his controls. His name was Araltaz. He was a short man with pure white hair. At 86 years old, he was the oldest pilot in the Exploration Service.

Outside the massive windows, the team could see ruins lit into the distance along trails of lights attached to cables. The more distant lights seemed green in the water, which was thick with millions of tiny organisms. In some places, all that could be seen were fuzzy green smudges of light. At other places, stretching here and there for hundreds of visible metres, the lights showed hulks of ancient buildings, although the edges of the buildings were more like plants now. Hundreds of small signs on spikes were dotted everywhere. On each sign, there was a different coded number, marking places where artefacts were found or where further digs were planned. The only sign which was world famous was HD-2021-1510, but it was two miles away -in the spot where Thom had found the box.

“Thom” said Jovar. “Go- time.”

Thom nodded and followed his giant companion towards the exit station. The remaining divers watched them go – some wondering if Thom would find another box from the past; others wondering if Jovar would. Or perhaps it would be one of them, when it was their turn to dive. If there was anything else out there. Another box perhaps, or something else. The past was still as murky as the green soupy river. The stories in the ancient diary just made it weirder.

Jovar and Thom sat in the tiny exit station. Helmets on and oxygen supplies activated. Clear water rose slowly around them. As the water began to cover their silver-white diving suits, the special material glowed brightly, making both divers look like they were lit from within.

Out in the deep water of the river, Thom felt a familiar joy, moving slowly through a strange world of distant past and present, with only an occasional murmur from Jovar in his communicator. “It’s not far at all” said Jovar; and later: “this way, yes”. Thinking out loud. They swam side by side. Long trails of lights showed them the way. The ruins looked even more plant-like close-up. Occasionally, they noticed a patch of old bricks or concrete, where vegetation had been brushed aside by archaeologists on a previous dive. Thom and Jovar swam over ruin after ruin, and over some large sunken spaces, where small shoals of fish suddenly turned and glinted silver as they darted away. Once, something like a tentacle stirred in some dark vegetation, but they ignored it and carried on. I can’t remember the bio-team saying anything about an octopus, Thom thought. On an ordinary dive, the glimpse of a possible octopus would have held his attraction longer, but not today. He was too busy thinking about the words of the professor when she had spoken to him at her computer, the day before.

“Thom, that name we read in the diary presentation last week. Do you remember – I said it could be of some importance?”

“Yes, of course” said Thom. He glanced at Elinsabeth’s excited face and then to the photograph of a man appearing on the screen in front of her. “Professor Tealing?”

“Yes, that’s right. This is the only image we have of him” Elinsabeth said.

The man in the old photograph wore a white shirt, and grey trousers. He was striding into a tall building. Thom stared at the man’s face – it was very dark, even darker than Elinsabeth. Thom felt weird to be noticing such things. It was like noticing hair colour all the time. Yet, ever since reading stories in the ancient diaries, he had looked at skin colours differently – as if they held secrets. He knew that others also had all sorts of reactions to the strange stories. A few had nightmares. Others wondered if the man from the past had been mentally ill or in thrall to some delusion. After all, the man spoke about people being monsters and people hating others because of the colour of their skin! And he gave examples from his own time: vicious attacks on young people; a woman whose car was sabotaged; and killings. All the result of some weird skin colour obsession. It was like the perpetrators were controlled by some kind of brain virus which made them all act insanely. Worst of all, there were references in the man’s diary to more distant horrors – slavery and Nazis. Some people who remembered fragments of history from higher school had a vague outline of those horrors, although there was widespread disagreement even amongst experts about what was history and what was myth. And now there was also this ‘Professor Tealing’ – a man who was a victim of racism himself, according to a few entries in one of the diaries. ‘Racism’ was a term used over and over again: the name of whatever form of insanity which caused some people to hate others because of the colour of their skin.  

Elinsabeth’s voice spoke in Thom’s mind as he swam ever deeper between rows and rows of green covered ruins. “I’d heard of Professor Tealing a long time ago” she said. “His name was mentioned in fragments of papers dug up on the edge of a depleted zone, in Russia. They were notes from a lecture, and they suggested that Tealing tried to develop a coating which would protect metals- doors, containers, buildings possibly- from the kind of intense radiation generated by atomic explosions. Of course, there were other attempts. But what interested me about this attempt was the unusual chemical nature of it. It probably wouldn’t have given much protection from the radiation it was designed for. But it may have withstood something else.” She looked closely at Thom, as if silently willing him to understand what she was getting at.

Thom nodded. “The Mistake?” he said. His words came out as a gasp.

“Yes. And, if he developed this coating, and it could stop the rays of The Mistake, then, maybe, he was able to preserve more than just a diary.”

“Computer records” said Thom. He began to think he would only be able to speak in gasps from now on.

“Until you found the diary, we didn’t know he worked in Dundee. The photograph we had of him was taken in London.”

Thom and Jovar could tell, from the larger brighter lights ahead and the deeper excavations, that they were within the ancient University district. It was where the mysterious Professor Tealing had worked, centuries before. Many thoughts twisted and turned in Thom’s mind. Sitting beside a bright window in a classroom overlooking the space port, half-listening to a history lesson, and trying to imagine what it was like when the Dark Ages began.

He was taught – that the defeated side in the Great War had wanted to bring back huge inequality- when a handful of people ruled the world from palaces, while many millions of people were starving. In the final years of the war, the losers – known as The Movement of Nations – became increasingly desperate, and they unleashed a weapon of mass destruction, later referred to as ‘The Mistake’, because of its vast unintended consequences. The Movement of Nations had hoped that a complex combination of electronic and electrical signals sent into the control and command systems of The Resistance would disable aircraft, ships, vehicles, and computer systems. It did, but it was even more devastating than planned. Not only were the enemy systems hit -causing widespread, planned carnage – with planes falling out of the skies and hospitals failing, but The Mistake evolved technologically and spread like a virus to every electronic device on the planet. Nothing was safe from it – vast stores of data were wiped out. Human society began to regress to much more primitive ways.

Written records, including books, survived. Yet, decades of the most brutal forms of warfare slowly took its toll on the storing and use of knowledge. The ‘Movement of Nations’ released chemicals into the ecosystem which poisoned millions around the world, leading to whole cities and regions becoming abandoned. Floods, fires, and new forms of insects destroyed books and papers at a rate which would have been impossible before the Dark Ages.  Plagues also stalked the world.

Thom and Jovar swam down to the largest excavation in the city- around the ancient University. A vast dig was spread out beneath of them, in a patchwork of deep trenches, at different stages of development. There were many flags with coded numbers on them. Larger shoals of small fish darted around lights, which illuminated the trenches down for 20 metres below the bottom of the river. In the distance, they could see other teams working – each diver’s white suit softly glowing.  

“We start down there” said Jovar’s voice in Thom’s ear. Thom gazed through the glass of his helmet across to Jovar, who was pointing a gloved finger down towards the corner of a long trench. Thom thought it still felt strange to see someone a few metres away but hear their voice as if the person was right beside him. He nodded, and said “Okay, let’s go.”

Thom followed his companion down to the bottom of the trench. Each diver carried a heavy squarish device, newly manufactured by Professor Artania and her team. The device had been tested on board the ship, but this was its’ first test underwater. Jovar was gesturing that he would begin searching further along the trench. Thom crouched down to begin his own search. He activated the machine by thought, and it’s  small screen flickered, white and then blue. Along the centre was a bright white line. Thom was watching it intently- if the device detected one type of chemical, the white line would form rapid wave patterns. Slowly, Thom moved along a route marked out by a thin orange cord, placed there by one of the archaeologists on an earlier dive.

Thom had never felt the same before – it was like he was on the edge of seeing through the underwater gloom into a different world. He recalled Elinsabeth explaining the idea behind the detecting device.

“It may not work. But it might, so we have to try. We’ve known, for several years now, from studies in America, that there is a substance we can make – which protects our Systems from the kind of rays unleashed by The Mistake. It’s on every device now. Just in case someone becomes mentally ill and tries to recreate The Mistake, or perhaps does so by accident. One mistake resulting in 200 years of Dark Ages is more than enough for humanity.”

Thom remembered nodding along to the Professor’s words. He inched the hand-held device further along the orange line of cord. Glancing up, he saw Jovar – a few metres away, moving along a line parallel to his own. Thom glanced back at the screen of the device and saw that its thin white line remained stable: no hint of a wave. At his feet, a crab-like creature crawled out from under a stone and then crawled back.

Thom returned to his memory. “I’m hoping the devices we’ve made” said Elinsabeth “will detect the same substance we coat our System’s with. But it would be an ancient version made long ago, by Professor Tealing. What I’m hoping is that his work was so advanced, so ahead of it’s time, that he may have coated a container of some kind, perhaps as an experiment, and he may have saved some historical data or some electronic device. There were many rumours in his lifetime about nuclear weapons which might be used by The Movement of Nations. So, just like the man whose box you found, maybe Professor Tealing also buried or hid something for future generations to find.”  

“Okay” said Thom. “But, if he did, what if Professor Tealing buried his box in his garden, and not at the University?”

“Then” said Elinsabeth, “I’m afraid we may need a few more decades to find it. Unfortunately, we don’t know where he lived.”

For months, teams of divers searched the University area. Gradually, other detecting devices were manufactured to help in the search. The first innovation was simply – a long handle, so that the divers did not have to crouch. Tom often wondered if he was searching for something that did not exist, but he told himself it was worth trying. He longed to find out more about the ‘monsters’ in the diary stories. One night, he spoke about it with Shaar, as they lay together outside on the ship’s deck.

“What kind of people would hate, hurt, and kill other people because of the colour of their skin?” Thom said.

“People nothing like us” said Shaar.  

They lay side by side, looking up at the stars and listening to the cries of seagulls in the distance. Did seagulls sound the same 1000 years ago? From deep within the ship, they heard the dulled beat of music in the large entertainment hall. Thom reached out to hold Shaar’s hand. Their fingers curled together. He looked at their hands. His hand looked pale and hers looked dark. He liked the contrast. Without trying to or wanting to, he wondered what they would find beneath the sunken city. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps, a box full of electronic proof – of people who were monsters. Could they have been as bad as or even worse than the armies which made The Mistake and the Dark Ages? Perhaps, somewhere beneath the ruins, they might find a whole room of stories about monsters. But maybe they would find better things too. There had to be better things. He held Shaar’s hand a fraction tighter, and she squeezed his hand.

“This is good” he said.

“Yes” said Shaar. “There are no monsters here.”

Harvey Duke

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