I helped Stephen over to his exercise bars. He wouldn’t be able to use his legs, and frankly I didn’t want him to know what I might find before I’d had the chance to react myself. I still felt the need to control what he knew about me, or at least filter it.
The snow had melted substantially over a few days. Being out in the wilderness, some of the water had been absorbed into the ground, while the rest formed a slick sheet of ice. Jessie whinnied around the corner. I could see the generator in the daylight, which was already past its brightest. The noise it made brought back images of wasps’ nests, and distantly I thought I could hear the sound of the river deep underground, turning some sort of invisible turbine. I turned and looked past the generator, trying to work out which direction I had come from. The melted snow had hidden my tracks. Combined with the daylight, which had previously been my only source of navigation, and the fact that the last time I was here I had been quite delirious with pain and desperation, meant it took quite some time to orientate myself.
I could just about make out the concrete, then the train tracks which dipped below the layers of ice at points. Then, there. Just before, in front of it, I saw it. A discolouration, a hole in the ground.
I had the sudden urge to turn away, to climb back down into warmth and safety. But I had to go back, now that it was light. Dig it up, see it for myself.
With the shovel in hand, I walked back to the ladder and stopped at the bottom, puzzling over how to climb it with bruised bones in my hands and a heavy shovel that, looking up, I would struggle to get through the holes that the ladders poked through. After a couple of attempts in which I dropped the fucking thing on the floor before I was much off the ground, the best way seemed to be to clutch it against the side of the ladder and slide it up. At least, that worked until I got to the top and had to get through the hole, which proved another acrobatic challenge. After another failed attempt, I made it back to the top and managed to claw my hand through the handle, which was just large enough for my wrist to fit through. The ladder rocked as I gripped the side with one hand and used the other to throw the thing up and forwards. A crash, and the light went out.
“Everything okay?” Stephen called through from somewhere below. His concern was touching, in a way, but it felt patronising.
“Is it your hand?”
“I’m fine. Just… don’t worry.”
I stalled in my momentary blindness. I hadn’t even been thinking about my hands, but now I was. I focused again on trying to see where the shovel had landed. Moving slowly, I climbed through the hole and let my eyes readjust to the even lower light level. The lantern lay broken on the ground, the shovel lying next to it. With the open door above, some light slipped through into the cabin and down the hole, revealing a diffuse, irregular square of dim, pale light around the base of the ladder. I began my next ascent, the ladder buckling and groaning beneath me as I climbed to the top. Nevertheless, it held out, like a friend who whines at the prospect but still helps you to move house in the driving rain.
This time, I used the top rung as a fulcrum to lay the shovel down gently before climbing through myself.
I once again found my footsteps, treading in or alongside them, wherever looked more like earth and less like black ice. Finally, I reached the hole and thrust the shovel into the hard ground. It resisted, cold and frozen and uncaring.
The top layer of ice was brittle and thin, breaking like the top of a blue crème brulée. Scorched cream. The earth beneath was not nearly as simple. It took some convincing to begin the process. It reminded me of a giant tub of ice cream that just needed a few minutes to start melting so that you could get the spoon in easily. Unfortunately, this wasn’t ice cream. Fortunately, the earth beneath was already weakened from my earlier upward excavation, and I soon found the weak spot. Standing slightly back, I stabbed the ground with the shovel, causing a large part of the earth to drop about a foot and break up. I dug out what had fallen and kept going. The earth was softer and a little warmer further down: not quite frozen, but wet and muddy. It was already a different consistency to the hard, almost brittle earth it had been when she pushed through it the first time. Still, nothing is the same the second time around.
The soil soon gave way to my persistent ministrations, and at last I caught sight of the lid of the box. I bashed away at the wooden top, revealing more of my former prison. Stephen had given me a cheap old phone, which had a small flashlight. I turned it on and crouched down. To see I had to lie on my front and shine it inside. The cold, wet ground soaked almost instantly through my jeans, making me question what I was complaining about before. Still there, at the foot of the box, was an old 35mm SLR camera. It was mine. I put the phone with the light facing up just inside the box. Taking a breath, I crawled in to reach it, then shunted myself quickly backwards and out of the box. Shining the light back inside, I could see nothing else in my burial box, so I returned to the cabin via Jessie, who nickered a ‘hello’ at me. I couldn’t refuse a quick pet. Stephen did the bare minimum for her, but didn’t really think about her social needs. Not that he could right now, I suppose.
I made sure she had access to everything she needed, and had to make a trip down the ladder, dropping the shovel down carefully to avoid causing more damage, and take my camera back in. Stephen agreed to start downloading the photos from the memory card onto a screen, but it was old tech so it would take him a while to find the right adaptor. Meanwhile, I scaled the ladder with some warm water from the shower. Fortunately, Stephen had a water pack for this purpose, so I didn’t have to juggle something in my hands again. It was tricky to fill in the shower without getting wet – I didn’t want to freeze up there. I also found a brush, and thought she might enjoy some more pampering.
After a meditative half hour with Jessie, I went back down with the empty pack and brush to find Stephen sifting through my photos.
I joined him in staring at the pictures on the screen. “I don’t remember taking these.”
“How are they on here, then?”
“I gave my camera to someone else for a while… it’s pretty good, because the tech is over a hundred years old, people don’t even know what it is. Someone I met thought it was a clutch bag, asked where he could get one.”
Stephen scrolled through the photos on the screen. Many of them were quite useless, but some would be useful as counters to the endless propaganda on Aquatia. The religious zeal was being generated by the top – if they could achieve their dreams, so too could everyone else, but only if they devote themselves fully to the Book, to the cause of colonising Mars. Some of the photos showed rituals, others the ceremonial bestowing of Aquatian citizenship on the worthy. Then there was one…
“Hm, I don’t know.”
It looked like Stephen, shaking hands with our father, and passing him something with the other hand – but it was a little blurry. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, and Stephen continued to scroll.
“Stop. Go back, I was looking at that.”
“Oh, that, it’s nothing.”
“What is that? What are you giving him?”
“It was a long time ago,” he said, his voice tense. A lie.
“No it wasn’t.”
“Fine. I told you. My father makes me do things from time to time. I can’t–”
“What was it?” I asked, unsmiling.
“It’s really nothing very exciting. It’s a security access device.”
“Some of the Daimyo… they’re trying to take control of their region. They want autonomy. To have complete control. I designed the Sky Castles – so of course I built a way in. Just in case.”
I went from unsmiling to feeling myself go way beyond rage.
“So you could have stopped all of this, but instead you gave him the codes? When was this?”
There was an uncomfortable silence, which told me as much as I needed before he even said it.
“About two weeks before you arrived.”