Thinking Inside the Box

This is an excerpt. Find the complete story in SURVIVAL TACTICS, available August 10.

“Power variance nominal,” says Bunny.

I glance up at her face through the power room window. She’s bathed in light, that strange, nearly sub-visual shade of blue-violet some techie centuries ago decided should mean “nothing’s happening but nothing’s fucked up.” Her eyes are on the panel in front of her, and I relax a little. Bunny’s attention span isn’t a given, what with her being bugfuck insane, but most days she’s good enough at her job.

I’m not allowed in the power room yet. I’ve only been on The Box Starstation three months, and I’m still stuck in Monitoring, this tiny room that’d feel a lot more comfortable without the floor-to-ceiling glass showing me unobstructed light years of star-studded pitch-black fuck-all. Bunny’s supposed to be training me, but she doesn’t really have an aptitude for teaching. Her instructions come in the form of handing me tech manuals at breakfast while she’s humming and swaying her way around the cramped kitchen, as if one of us isn’t real.

Days I’m pretty sure it’s me.

“Proceed to Contact,” I say, and Bunny slides her finger across the panel.

Somewhere inside The Box, some bastard who spent too much damn money for a ticket is getting a fast-forward showing of the rest of his life.

I know what you’re thinking: Nobody cares about The Box anymore. Most people think it’s over, a fad that died an ignominious death. I mean, that’s fair. A 30 percent rate of irreversible insanity is the kind of thing you could expect to kill an exotic tourist destination like The Box, and it nearly did. That’s why there’s only three of us staffing the starstation now—me, Bunny, and Godot, the supervisor—instead of the twenty-seven scientists and industry wankers who camped out here in the middle of Galactic Nowhere for the first fifteen years.

Tourism has dropped off a cliff, for sure; but there are still shitbags stupid enough to believe that if they spend their life savings, The Box is going to tell them their future is full of sunshine and fucking roses.

I thought the same of my future when I was sixteen, before one of my dumbass Lukos highs turned into felony murder. I didn’t even do the shooting, but Mattie handed me the gun while the metrodome cops were landing on the roof, and I took it. Lukos makes you fucking stupid. Pled guilty at the advice of my court-appointed advocate, who told me I’d be out young enough to start over; instead they locked me up for life. So maybe it wasn’t the Lukos after all.

Prison sucks, no question, but to be honest it wasn’t a whole lot worse than pissing away my life robbing the local Smoke-n-Shoot to finance the next high. At least I got free food, and—after the first few years, at least—a reputation as the guy you leave the fuck alone. By forty years in, I was pretty comfortable with the routine. You’d told me a year ago I’d take work out at The Box, I’d’ve said you were high yourself.

But since the riots on Iobe, the prisons have been overflowing, sometimes with real criminals. Before, I knew exactly how much hardware to roll up in my towel in case I got jumped heading to the showers. After, it turned into a fucking war zone.

The warden and I weren’t friendly, but I was an easy prisoner from the start. Kept to myself. Not one to shake things up, me. Once or twice a year, the warden found a way to express gratitude for my temperament. This time, he offered me The Box.

The proposal they give you is simple: A two-year stint on staff at The Box Starstation. Deep space, no visitors, no chatter with anyone but the tourist transports. Not even a fucking letter home. But if you get through your two with a clean record, you’re free, full stop. No money, no resources, but your record’s expunged, and you can try for paying work.

Assuming you can find anything you can do after being inside. Prison’s never been much of a jobs program.

Wasn’t thinking about money when I said yes, though. Was thinking about being out. Sunshine. Maybe fresh air. Fuck it, I’d live under a fucking skylane and freeze to death the first night if it meant breathing something non-generated again.

“Contact complete,” Bunny says, and she turns to meet my eyes and smiles. It’s the smile of a kid ready to clap to show she believes in fairies. Seems Bunny’s having one of her bad days.

One of the perks of working at The Box is you can make Contact for free. Often as you want. It’s in the contract. Thought about it, on that four-month trip out here, working for passage in the ship’s data dungeon. How bad could it be, to see what the rest of my life was going to be like? Can’t be any fucking worse than what’s come before, right?

I asked Godot, that first night, what the deal was with Bunny. He looked at me and said, “She tried it.”

Decided mystery wasn’t so bad after all.

The lights in the power room turn back to ordinary prison-shower yellow, and Bunny opens the door. She’s pretty, or at least I think she is; at my age anyone under forty years old is fucking Aphrodite. She’s tall, but small-boned and thin, and she has this sort of tawny skin that goes all gold in the crappy light. Back when I thought about girls, I’d have let myself go stupid over her, but now I mostly want to be her fucking dad and make sure she eats properly and goes to bed on time.

I wish a lot I’d met Bunny before Contact. I don’t think my Bunny is much like the person she was before The Box.

“You had dinner?” I ask her. Behind us, on the other side of the power room, I can hear Godot talking to the client in that low, modulated voice of his that I’m pretty sure is the only reason he’s employed here. It’s the same crap every time, about disorientation and perspective and how we don’t really know for sure that everything The Box shows us is real, so maybe don’t panic if it said your life is going to end fucking horribly or fucking soon.

Bunny’s already humming, but she answers me. “I ate before.” She turns around and walks backward, still next to me, her eyes on the open door to the power room, toward Godot and the client. “That one won’t go mad,” she tells me, and because Bunny almost never tells me shit, I’m curious.

“How do you know?”

“Godot likes him,” she says.

After three months, I’m starting to be able to decode some of Bunny’s shorthand. “You mean he’s really fucking rich.” When she nods, I ask, “Does that make a difference?”

Her hum turns into an affirmative noise. “They think they can change it.”

I don’t need to understand shorthand for that. Rich people never think life is ever going to fuck them, no matter what. “Which ones go mad?”

She’s still walking backward, but she stops humming, and when she looks me in the eye she looks sane enough to make me nervous. “The ones who realize they can’t.”

Then she smiles, sanity forgotten, and part of me expects her to start clapping her hands.

Excerpt copyright ©2021 by Elizabeth Hartwell Bonesteel. All rights reserved.