The most recent press conference just ended. It’s a madhouse. Sebastian, despite his calm in front of the media, refuses to speak to me. He’s cloistered himself in the old wing. Nessa is just the opposite. She won’t leave me alone. “Tell me about the money,” she said.
“Do we have to do this again?” I asked.
“A thousand times more,” she reiterated. “Money. Schedule. Parsing. Clothing.”
“I feel like a talking doll!” I protested.
“Good.” She nodded once. “I will wind you up and you will speak to the world.”
I suppose, for posterity’s sake, I had better rewind the tape of the last two or three days. I think I’ll want to remember the details; though, at this point, it hardly seems likely that I could forget.
After Sebastian’s collapse at dinner, Nessa and I retired to our individual rooms. She looked upset, but dismissed my overtures of comfort and friendship. I didn’t mean anything by what I said, just that I was concerned for her and for Sebastian. For my part, I went back to the cottage and began reading. The prophets were often rewarded with dreams and visions in times of tragedy and uncertainty. I didn’t want any of that, so I read In the Place of the Lion.
Despite the story’s novelty, my eyes kept slurring off the page. I was reading Rorschach blots on my pants, stains from dinner. I saw Elisabeth in the aperitif marks on my sleeve. My eyes stuck a bit whenever I tried to blink. My lower back was sore. I kept wiggling on the sofa, twitching, and then I gave up and went for a walk.
The Chateau at night is creepy. Decorative lighting along the walking paths casts shadows from the trees, and in the trees, and in places it duplicates the trees. When they lose leaves, the trees are skeletons. They should have called this place Lichyard. It would have fit in more ways than one.
I had trouble getting into the manor proper, but as I walked down the greenway to the far end, I noticed a light in Sebastian’s office. At first I was surprised to see my friend working so late, but then I remembered what had happened at dinner. I knew it couldn’t be him. There was no way he could be out of bed.
I crept to the window, leaning my head back and half-crouching above the sill. I saw a flat screen, mounted within an elm cabinet above the liquor. Nessa was standing in front of it, partially obscuring the view. The footage was grainy, washed out colors with a timestamp. An older Russian man filled two-thirds of the screen. He was balding, with round wire glasses, and he fidgeted frequently with the camera. His pale arm extended toward the lens and was distorted by it, a white slug making the screen shake its head “no.”
I curved my hand and placed it to the glass. When I had calmed my breathing and become completely still, I could hear. I used my smartphone to capture what I could of the black box recordings from La Dignite. Originally I was able to grab an .mov file, but I’ve extracted the audio track and inserted it here into my audio journal so I can have a backup recording of these remarkable events. Fortunately the log was recorded in English. Even Institut realizes that English is the closest thing we have to a universal language. Thank God for Miami Ink and the Real Housewives of Hazard County.
Recorder Transcript Dignite 26.03.13.1.1, 7:58 am
This is Mission Commander Sergei Raskolnikov of La Dignite. We are preparing to make trip from Daedelus aboard DSRV. Will not be going to bottom until we run tests, make sure everything is A. OK. Daedelus is sublime. Crew is sharp. We are eager to make history.
Recorder Transcript Dignite 27.03.13.2.1, 11:15 am
Test voyage in Dignite very successful. Had thought to find little life, given the cold dark. Were wrong. Several species abundant that should not be. Is unusual. Possible Japanese have immigrate species to Okhotsk. Crew is A. O.K. Am making abnormalities note in log book.
Recorder Transcript Dignite 27.03.13.2.2, 2:59 pm
Took Dennis Challenger to lay microwave repeater. Will need to function at optimum for communications in venture. Dennis is confident translators are A. O.K, but reported strange feeling while at back of Dignite. Noticed film in the sea. Took sample. Is amniotic sac. Very large. Am thinking of postponing mission. Sponsor Maltraitence encouraged otherwise. Am only partially inclined to agree.
Crew no longer eager.
Recorder Transcript Dignite 28.03.13.3.1, 10:31 pm
Crew came for final test. Challenger uneasy. Am seeing things, I think. Something large trailing us, but sonar gets no reading. Fish finder show cetaceans, but have no visual of whales. Is dark here and imagination plays. I don’t like. I feel like child. There are bigger things here than gadolinium deposits, I tell you.
Tomorrow is first voyage to bottom. Will pray to sleep.
Recorder Transcript Dignite 29.03.13.4.1, 1:01 pm
<static>…good God there is something down here…
Nessa stood with her arms crossed and her head bowed. Her shoulders were shaking and her hair had fallen over the front of her face. The static continued. She clipped off the television, slammed shut the cabinet doors and ran over to the window where I was crouched. I didn’t have time to react. She opened the window, leaned out, and emptied the contents of her stomach.
“Hello, Nessa,” I said when she had finished. She screamed and banged the back of her head against the sill. “Sorry,” I offered lamely.
“David?” She wiped her mouth, sagging against the frame. “Did you see?”
“What was that?” I asked.
“Proof of a conspiracy.” Nessa invited me inside to finish the conversation. I had to walk around a ways before I finally found the open service door where Nessa was waiting. She had obviously taken a moment to wash her face. The damp sides of her hair stuck to her cheekbones and the hollows of her eyes were whitish.
“Was that actually Dignite?”
“David,” she began, “that’s the conspiracy.”
“What happened to them?”
“No one knows. It may have been Japanese.”
“Another submarine?” I asked. “Military?” She shrugged. “Has Sebastian had the box this this thientire time?”
“A package arrived just after you did,” she began, seating herself on the edge of Sebastian’s desk while I took a seat in front of her. “Before dinner. I think he watched it before the meal.”
“Maybe that’s why he got so sick?”
Nessa thought about that for a moment. “It’s a possibility.” She said, shivering. “I have chills.”
“Something is happening down there. Something more than an equipment malfunction or whatever they’ve been telling people. I’d like to give Sebastian the benefit of the doubt, but there is an awful lot of doubt and not a ton of benefit.” My thoughts were starting to run away on me. If this was news, why did he hide it from me? I can understand why he wouldn’t tell Nessa right away, but he knows what Liz means to me. She’s supposed to mean almost that much to him.
“David, are you listening?” Nessa asked. I realized I hadn’t been. Not for some time. “We have an opportunity. Sebastian has been covering this up. We don’t know why, but that doesn’t matter. This is how we break the power of unshared information. We must tell the world what we have learned.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because that information is valuable. Because sharing that information will be worth considerable money. Because we need that money to go back.” She paused. “Are you hearing me, David? We have to go back.”
And for the first time in a long time I was able to say with absolute certainty, “I know.”
That was around three o’clock in the morning, the witching hour. Things got a little crazy from there. Nessa took a moment to better freshen up and then she brought the full measure of her intelligence and influence to bear. She was a one-woman PR machine. She knew what we needed to accomplish in order to disseminate this information in the short time before Sebastian recovered and learned we had seen the black box recordings.
Nessa and I considered our options. Our biggest advantage was that Sebastian didn’t know we had discovered the black box recordings. He was keeping them secret, but we would not. I felt a little badly about sneaking behind his back, but I had spent the last year honing my justifications for all kinds of moping and self-loathing. Coming up with justifications for poor choices was now second nature. This was just a new category. So despite any lingering itches of conscience, we crafted a press release and distributed it to the local news agencies.
Sorry, Sebastian. If you wanted this handled another way, you should have told me about the black box at dinner.
Nessa made several long-distance calls to her associates in Russia. We were spreading the word on two levels: that of the academic-researcher and that of the popular media. This was something to arouse the scientific community, but this was also something that would both appall and appeal to the average Joe.
This was news.
I did my part, too. I called Glen Levant at The Times, as well as the Globe and Mail. I even left a voicemail for the Koine (You’ve got to remember your roots, right?). By seven thirty in the morning, reporters were lined up six deep outside Sebastian’s front door. He came down the hall in his robe. He kicked off his one slipper mid-way through the hall. The castellan was beside him, talking as they made their way. White gloves moved in small orbits, but they moved decisively. The castellan was shaking a paper, pointing to words on the page. Sebastian stopped and read it. His hands fell away from the sheet and he looked up the hall. I was standing there with Nessa and we waited while he picked up the pace, tied up his robe, and came to stand within about an inch of my face.
I suppose we both could have said the same thing, but my benefactor beat me to it. “She would be ashamed of you.” Part of me knew he was right. Liz never went in for manipulation. And she loved Sebastian. But part of me also knew that the only reason I discovered anything about La Dignite was either pure luck or providence. In both cases the adversary was the same. Sebastian.
I bit my tongue.
“They are waiting,” Nessa said. And to the bachelor’s credit, he gathered himself. He lifted his chin. He smeared down his hair. He straightened his back. White Gloves brought him black tea on a red saucer. He accepted it with a nod and held it up to his nose. Sebastian smiled. It was a face-eater. The corners of his eyes almost touched the edges of his lips. The color came into his skin and White Gloves opened the door as the philandering philanthropist made his grand entrance to the world of outside opinion.
Nessa and I remained inside. She had written Sebastian’s speech last night, knowing he might not have the time to get his head straight and think on his feet. He was a performer, but a script always helps. We could hear chuckling and flashbulbs. There was commotion that died down periodically while he took questions. It ended shortly after it began, with a wave and an open door.
And that was how we announced to the world that we are going back. Last year’s tragedy is surprisingly fresh in the minds of world citizenry. When Sebastian came back in through the front door, he said his final words for the next twenty-four hours. “Ami,” he began, “This is what I wanted also. But not like this. If you want to keep Elisabeth alive in your heart, do not stab her friends in the back.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked, my old anger rising.
“I wanted to tell you in private.”
“That’s not good enough,” I said. “You knew what had happened.”
“No. Ce n’est pas vrai. I did not. I wish to God I did, but I did not. Your sadness is matched by my own.”
“You expect me to believe that? After all this?”
“Yes. Because I have never betrayed you like you have just betrayed me. Because I loved Elisabeth. I can forgive you for wanting to go back there, but you have done a hard thing. I am going to rest. Promise me there will be no further ventriloquism. I am not a marionette.”
I felt all the air go out of me. His posture, his expression, and his conviction all told me Sebastian was being honest. I’m not sure I regret what I did. But I’m sure I regret how much I hurt him.
The Dignite debacle was “an international Challenger, for the 21st century.” In the absence of a more glamorous disaster, political scandal, or exciting reality TV show, the world has gone gaga for yours truly. The story of the fierce widower braving the uncharted bottom of the world to place flowers on the grave of his wife is just too scintillating to resist.
In the past three days I have done six interviews on major media outlets. After each interview more money comes pouring into the Elisabeth Mann Resurrection Fund. Nessa helped me set it up using kickstarter.com, a website for collecting donations and venture capital. You don’t need a business plan. You don’t need a 501c3. You don’t need to be a church or an NGO or a not-for profit company. You can be anyone, collecting for anything.
All you need is a reason.
We got the money. Not quite all of it, but most. From the way things are trending, we will have the rest in the next few days. It’s incredible, really. We have collected money from 27 different countries and over 150,000 individual donors. All those conspiracy theorists, fan boys, and blog stalkers (to say nothing about women who watch The View) are keen to raid their piggy banks and give whatever they can. They have chosen to believe that this is their best chance for answers to long-unanswered questions. They want to know what Institut has been covering up. They want to know what really happened to La Dignite. And most of all, they want to know what I want to know: What happened to Elisabeth Mann? Donations range from as miniscule as $1 to as significant as $10,000. Looks like I owe the press an apology. Because of their willingness to exploit my loss, I am going to the Sea of Okhotsk.
There is one condition. As I have no deep-sea qualifications whatsoever, I am only going as far as Daedelus. Sebastian will not embarrass me by telling that to the press, but I am really just cash bait. There are six planned descents, each lasting eight to twelve hours, some of which will be outside of the subs. That is a big deal, and the tech Sebastian has developed to allow people to withstand those incredible undersea pressures is a highly guarded secret. There are only five spaces on the submarine, only five sets of tech for deep-sea pressurization, and only five people going down to the bottom. Only a miracle will make me one of them.
Maybe I’ll concoct one.
If Christ made it down to earth and back, I might be able to find a way out of the boat and into the tub with all the smart people. And even if all I can do is say goodbye to the bent metal and scattered remains, I swear to God, I’ll be with Liz again.
That’s all I care about.