Thinking Inside The Box

For those of you stopping by because you liked “About Time”: Hello, and thanks for visiting! This story is straight-up SF, but I like it, too.

CW for violence, sexual violence, and swearing.


“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.

****

I was already inside when The Box was discovered. Even with restricted news we heard about it: a chunk of abandoned alien technology, found by a seriously dumbass scientist who thought he’d just hook himself up to it. Four days afterward he did nothing but write, all longhand, without sleeping. Turned out to be just a part of what The Box had shown him: detailed events of the next three years of his life. Week by week the news reported a tally of what The Box had right, and at first it was exciting, like a game of chance. We bet on it, because we were so bored we’d gamble on clipping our fucking toenails, but after the first week folks started getting spooked and dropping out. 

The Box was never wrong, not about a single thing that scientist wrote down.

I didn’t think much about it, what with still resenting the fuck out of the fundamental injustice of my situation, but I kept on gambling until news on The Box went dark, nearly three years after that scientist first published his results. Learned months later he’d deleted all his papers, transferred his property to some random warehouse worker he’d never met, and took a walk off a skyscraper. 

At that point we all started gambling on how long it’d take them to clean up the stain the guy left behind, pulverized bone and organs spread over a forty-meter radius, but I remember this one kid, younger than me even, who wouldn’t have anything to do with it. He was hard, all knots and cynicism, and a month later he was transferred to maximum; but that day he was real quiet until dinner when he interrupted our tasteless fucking jokes by saying, “We’re not meant to know.”

Which made us all laugh. “You don’t actually believe that shit, do you?”

I’ll never forget that kid’s eyes: deep gray like a dead ocean, usually full of confidence and violence and fuck-the-world-ness. He looked at us one after the other, and he said, “All of this? Set before you were born. You really want to know what happens next?”

I laughed with the rest of them, and he went back to being an asshole. But I never forgot that question.

I wonder how long Bunny thought about it before she hooked herself up.

****

Been a long time since I’ve slept really well. Not because of prison—you learn fast how to get people to leave you alone or you don’t survive. But they say the body needs less sleep when you get older, which must mean I’m fucking ancient, because I can’t get more than four hours anymore. Something about missing the sun. Fucks with your brain. We’re evolved for sunshine, that unique Sol spectrum. I hear some folks on Earth can’t even cope with shorter days.

But it’s way before four hours when I wake up.

For three of us, The Box Starstation is fucking luxurious. My room, Bunny’s room, Godot’s room. The other former staff rooms have been converted for clients to sleep off Contact or—if they’ve paid—stay for a few days. Besides quarters there’s the power room, Monitoring, a small kitchen that doubles as a med center, and a room containing The Box itself. My room is next to The Box room. 

Bunny was weird about that when I arrived, and I had to learn about her bugfuck craziness before I understood she was worried about me sleeping so close to it. I like it, though. Both she and Godot are superstitious, which means they never wander down my way, and I get some quiet. You’d think after forty years inside quiet would freak me out, but I love it. I’d inject it like Lukos if I could.

Tonight it’s not quiet. There are sounds, metal on metal, as if someone’s shoving things around on a table top. And there are tiny human noises, little squeaks, as if someone is trying to swallow a cry.

None of my business. Godot and Bunny have been here a long time. Tech controllers like me come and go. They have each other: the one who sees fairies in the starshine, and the one who kisses paying client ass. You have to rely on someone out here in the middle of fucking nowhere.

There’s another sound, as if something’s been knocked onto the floor, and this time I get up.

Most people don’t know The Box isn’t an actual box. It’s some weird-ass irregular polyhedron, and I guess symmetry is a human thing because it has none. It’s as high as my knee, more or less, and I don’t think anybody’s ever done anything to it since Doctor Skyscraper all those years ago hooked up an AI prosthetic to the maze of alien-ass wires coming out of the thing. The wires aren’t copper or fiber or anything I know, and all Bunny’s tech manuals say about them is DO NOT TOUCH THE WIRES. Like I’m a fucking idiot.

They built a room around it, and then the starstation. There’s a chair for clients to sit while it tells them their futures, and the space is kept comfortably warm. Clients can choose music, too, if they want; some of them paid all the fucking money they had to get here, so why not?

Godot logged the client out six hours ago. There should be nobody in The Box room. But when I approach the door, the sounds get louder, and the human noises don’t sound so tiny anymore.

I stop and shrink against the wall, then peer around the doorframe.

Godot’s face is visible through the window into the power room, only he’s not watching the panel. He’s staring at Bunny, who’s in the Contact chair, and she’s naked with the AI piece on her head and a fucking gag in her mouth while she goes rigid over and over like she’s getting electroshock. Against the opposite wall is the client, and his pants are on the floor but he’s still wearing some custom-made non-wrinkle silk shirt and he’s got his dick in his hand, and every time she moans he jerks harder, and while I’m standing there Godot hisses over the intercom “Keep quiet, you crazy bitch. If you wake the old man, I’ll fucking kill you.”

Oh, Godot. Not if I see you first.

But it’s Bunny who sees me, who meets my eyes with her mad ones, and I didn’t think you could see anything when you were in Contact, but what the fuck, Bunny’s special. And when she’s sure I’m looking back, she shakes her head once, twice: No.

The client braces himself against the wall and yells, and Godot doesn’t have the balls to tell him to keep it down, and this rich asshole must not do this much because he’s sloppy as a teenager about it, and some stunned part of me is wondering who gets to clean the fucking floor. When he’s done, his dick is limp and curled like a slug, and I think there are five or six pairs of wire cutters in the kitchen that could take care of that pretty fucking fast. 

Bunny keeps staring at me, and she shakes her head no again, and through the window Godot looks down at the controls. A moment later, The Box shuts down, and Bunny convulses and passes out.

No. No to what?

Godot steps into the room to personally hand the client his pants, his usual obsequious grin on his face. I back up and head for my room.

Not one to shake things up, me.

****

Bunny and I have breakfast together.

I want to ask her about the night before, but she’s in full humming mode, and she hands me the power room manual. “You need to test on that in a week,” she tells me, and smiles. She leaves the room backwards, seeing fairies again, passing Godot as he enters as if he were unimportant scenery. He doesn’t bother looking at me, but heads to the cabinet for his usual cereal.

The thing about prison is you get a lot of time to practice. Nearly anything, really. They had a piano in our cell block, and damned if some of the guys weren’t too bad. But it was easier if you were practicing something that didn’t need outside supplies. Most of my practice was self-defense, but I got too good too fast, and I got bored. So I started learning offense as well.

Forty years is a long fucking time.

I’ve got an arm around Godot’s neck before he even thinks to drop his cereal, and I learn I had him right on this at least: he knows fuck-all about fighting. I can feel his throat working under my forearm, and I tighten my grip, holding the point of a pair of wire cutters under his jaw, right where the nice soft bits are. “What the fuck are you doing to Bunny?” I ask him, because it seems more reasonable to let him try to justify himself before I let him bleed out in our common kitchen.

He makes a squawk, and I loosen my grip just enough for him to be able to rasp out “—her idea! First day we got here! I do it, too, I swear!”

Which is some bullshit. I’d bet my papers out of here Godot’s never been in Contact. “Difference is,” I growl in his ear, “you’re not fucking nuts.”

“I give her the money, for fuck’s sake!” He struggles a little, and I tighten my grip. “You think I’m forcing her into it? Ask her, dammit!”

Fuck if I don’t believe him. And fuck if I don’t think about Bunny, watching her own life over and over again, layer over layer over layer of bullshit.

I put my mouth closer to his ear. “But that would require me not to kill you right here and now.” I mean, fuck. I’m serving life for murder already. They owe me a corpse.

“No! No! Wait!” He manages to sound frantic even though there’s nothing but weak puffs of air coming out of him. “You want a cut? Fine, you can have the money! I have enough anyway! You won’t even have to do anything for it!”

I knocked a guy out once in prison. Didn’t mean to, but the shitbag kept coming at me, and eventually I just held on to him until he dropped. I could drop this fucker, too, and decide later whether to kill him. Assuming I didn’t make an unfortunate mistake and crush his windpipe, or accidentally snip his carotid with my wire cutters.

“You’re lucky,” I tell him. “You won’t make nearly as big of a mess as Doctor Skyscraper.”

And then something heavy hits the back of my head, and everything goes dark.

****

dark
dark and
bright and warm and red
blood
against the floor the walls my hands my arm
those wire cutters in her hands as she takes his fingers off
humming
pretty so pretty so kind
even crazy she’s so kind to me and i want to save her and
she takes off his shoes and it’s his toes this time
less blood because his heart his heart has stopped his heart
my heart
my heart is beating so fast so hard and i am alive not my blood i am alive and she hums
and she smiles at me
and there are so many so many so
young and old and pain and war and

love and

hearts so many so many hearts i am full i am dying i am coming apart
everything is bright, fire, heat, consumption, apocalypse
and when the flame dies when the flame dies
when it dies
i take a breath free and clear in the sunshine

****

Contact leaves you with one hell of a hangover.

I’m on an unfamiliar floor, flat on my back, blinking out at the stars, millions of specks of bright dust against that soul-swallowing nothingness. My breath sounds deep and heavy in my ears, and I struggle to sit up, only to find I’m wearing something heavy and stiff that makes it hard to move. On the wall opposite that window to the stars I see the words WARNING: DO NOT OPEN WHEN LIGHT IS RED.

I’m in the fucking airlock.

“Hey!” I yell, and my voice sounds flat and echoes close to my head, and I realize I’ve got a full helmet on. All dressed up for a trip outside into the fucking vacuum. “Hey!”

I hear her humming, then, and it’s the same tune I heard when I was in Contact. I press myself against the interior window, so small I can’t see much, and when the faceplate bounces off the door I remember I was fucking unconscious, because my head starts to throb in a deeply unpleasant fashion.

When my vision clears, I see The Box, and on the floor in front of it is Godot, lying on the floor staring at me, only not really. His eyes are wide and unblinking and starting to look a little desiccated, and I wonder how long I was out, how long he’s been dead. His head seems to have sunk below floor level, but after a moment I realize that’s because his skull has been bashed into pudding and is oozing out onto the metal plating. Even so, she couldn’t have killed him here; there isn’t nearly enough blood. I blink once, and things are blurry, but when I blink again I look down at his hands.

Those wire cutters left clean wounds.

Bunny is behind The Box, and I can see all those alien wires lying on the floor, disconnected, even though I can’t see what she’s doing. She must have heard me bash into the door, but she doesn’t look up, doesn’t acknowledge my presence at all.

“You put me in Contact, didn’t you?” I ask. When she doesn’t answer, I add, “Just guessing, because I’ve had concussions before and this was way fucking weirder than they were.”

She still says nothing,

“I’m not crazy,”

The humming stops. “No.”

Relaxed and tranquil, like there isn’t a dead guy in the floor with no fingers and toes. “Is that a myth, then? That people go crazy?”

“No,” she says again. She hasn’t looked up, and I still can’t see what she’s doing. “The myth is why.”

I don’t know what the fuck that means. 

“What are you doing?” She doesn’t answer, just starts humming again, and I claw at the airlock controls, but even though the LIGHT is not RED I can’t do a fucking thing in these vacuum gloves, and my sluggish fingers can’t even yank them off. Maybe I can knock the door down with this smooth-ass helmet. “Godot was a dick, Bunny. I say we flush him with the rest of the organic waste, scrub the place down, and tell them he took a wrong turn one night and sucked vacuum. Nobody’s going to miss that ratfucker, not even his own mother.”

But it seems Bunny’s not interested in Godot’s grieving relatives. She sits back from her work, still humming, and cocks her head to one side, looking it over. After a moment she gets her feet under her and stands, looking past me at something on the other side of the room. Stepping over Godot like he’s a wrench someone forgot to put away, she heads into the power room.

I watch as she bends over the console, and the light dims to that fucking useless blue. “What are you doing?” I shout, but she won’t fucking answer me. I see her hands moving, swift and sure, and after a moment the light turns from blue to red.

“Bunny?”

“Airlock cycle initiated,” says the station voice calmly.

Jesus fuck, she’s going to space me. “Bunny!” I start pounding on the door. “I won’t tell anyone! You know I won’t! Let me out of here!”

Bunny leaves the power room, stepping over Godot again, and walks up to the door, staring at me through the small window. I hear a klaxon begin to sound, and the station voice says, “Power overload. Automatic shutdown failed. Please initiate manual shutdown.” And all at once, I put it together.

Bunny doesn’t want to kill me.

“You don’t need to die,” I say, looking down at her through the window. She’s so small, and her face holds such innocence. I have no idea what crime she committed to end up in the system, what favor she did to get a ticket here. Maybe she’s some kind of killer revolutionary or some over-idealistic rich kid from Iobe. Maybe everything she’s ever done for me was faked, but I don’t think so. I don’t think the madness is faked. 

“Airlock cycle 60 percent,” says The Box Starstation. 

I’m running out of time. 

“What did it show you?”

The red light shines through her hair against her skin, and it’s not blood it reminds me of, not the congealed mess on the floor around Godot, but sunset, all those orange-and-red videos shot over oceans long dead, organic and perfect and eternal in a way none of us are, not our memories or our lives or anything we ever touch. They always dress angels in white in the stories. They get it so very wrong.

“Everyone,” she tells me. “It showed me everyone.” 

And she reaches up, and puts her palm against the window, and instinctively I do the same, the big glove of the vacuum suit making my hand look like some massive robotic paw. I never touched Bunny, never even shook her hand when we met.

“I should have gone in anyway,” I tell her. “I should have stopped them.”

She shakes her head again, just like she did before. No. Only this time she smiles, and she looks sad and happy all at once. “Live,” she says, or I think she does, because the alarm is filling my ears. She drops her hand and turns away.

After that it’s all so fast.

The outer airlock door opens. 

The rapid depressurization jerks me out of the station, which grows smaller at an alarming rate.

When it blows, the light fills my vision and I squeeze my eyes shut, expecting to be immolated.

Vacuum being vacuum, though, the flash is brief, but the percussion wave isn’t. I’m punched again, and I am tumbling, and I spend a few moments looking for something to grasp before I realize I’m in the middle of fucking nowhere with nothing coming at me but bits of station debris.

I wonder if I’ll be able to grab any of it. I wonder why my mind thinks that would help. I wonder if some debris will hit me and tear my suit or just carve its way through me.

All of it misses me, by quite a distance.

And then I’m alone.

****

Five days of air in this suit. Has to be a leftover from when the station was staffed with science shitbags they actually cared about. Or maybe Bunny put me in one of the ones meant for clients. Either way, it’s fucking high-end lifeboat shit.

Won’t save my life, though. There’s fuck-all out here. They put The Box here for a reason.

Been thinking about what Bunny said: It showed me everyone.

Kinda thinking it showed me everyone, too.

If Contact shows you not just your own future, but everyone’s—every fucking shitbag ever born to our sad, narcissistic little species—shit, bugfuck crazy seems like a pretty sensible response. None of which explains the rich assholes who head home with a spring in their step, but maybe they only see themselves. Or maybe they see everyone, and they just don’t give a shit. 

But that’s not the only thing she said, there at the end.

The Box Starstation is–was–in the middle of fucking nowhere, but it’s not completely abandoned out here. Apart from the tourist transports for the shitbags who paid to have their lives demystified, there are cruise ships full of rich fucks who seem to think you can’t see stars and nebulas out of the window of every decent colony out there. I figure I’ve got a shot at getting picked up, although it’s maybe just as likely I’ll smack into their hull before they see me at all.

Still, I’m feeling pretty optimistic. Because I was fucked up when I was in Contact, but I remember a few things.

Like sunshine. Like breathing fresh air.

The Box is never wrong.

Maybe it’ll be a hypoxia-induced hallucination. Which wouldn’t be bad, you know? If this is my time, it’s A-OK if my brain goes ahead a bit and finds me a nice slice of paradise to drift off to. Hypoxia’s not the worst way to go, after all.

But what if it wasn’t showing me a hallucination?

The thing is, hope doesn’t lose me a fucking thing. I’m stuck here, me and this vast fuck-all, and I’ve got five days of air and my own head. 

So I think it was the real thing. I think I’ll be rescued, and pardoned, and find myself some shit-paying job on an underpopulated colony with a breathable fucking atmosphere. I think, after all this, I deserve some real sunshine. Might as well hope.

After all, you never know.