Story Excerpt

Out of the Box

by Jay O'Connell

 

“Nayla!”

Was my name being shouted over the music? There came a knock, then my name again, louder this time. I’d been deep in the code and hadn’t slept in . . . days? But then my circadian rhythms are sketchy at best.

Figuring Papa was at the door I shouted back, “Busy!”

The door cracked open, a rivulet of hall light spilling over the threadbare carpet.

“I’m naked!” I lied. I had on underwear, but this stops Papa cold.

“Put on a robe.” I finally recognized Carlos’ voice with a shiver that tingled from head to toe. He was waiting off to one side, invisible behind the doorframe.

“Okay! Okay! jeeze!”

I looked at my hands to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. I pinched my cheek. It hurt. I’d been thinking of calling Carlos, but resisting the impulse. The boy from down the street who had been my best and only friend forever . . . until he hadn’t.

The usual ache ran down my forearms into my hands, pulsing in my fingertips. I rubbed my forehead and moaned as hard-won tendrils of logic evaporated from my forebrain like spilled acetone. Damn it.

I wriggled into a forest green political T-shirt that fell halfway to my knees. Even after I’d abandoned the radical greens, the Eco-Savior logo had bugged the hell out of Carlos. He’d have to deal with it.

“Gort! Music off!” I paused that quarter beat to avoid confusing the bot. “Come in!”

The door swung open as the music faded. A stocky figure stood silhouetted in the painful hallway light.

“We’re in the dark, Nayla.”

It wasn’t dark, it was dim, but he’d come out of the midsummer glare, and his eyes hadn’t adjusted. “Gort, lights up.”

The room brightened slowly. My space was the usual kind of functional mess. I knew where everything was, and Papa didn’t throw a fit about me tidying it up. Not like my mother used to. The state of my bedroom had driven her nuts, but then, everything about me had. Christ, I was twenty-six years old. Why did I even care any more?

Carlos hadn’t changed a bit in the last two years. jeeze. It had been two years and three months, but I wasn’t sure how many days, because I wasn’t counting. He looked like his crappy LifeBook profile, which was kinda old at this point. Wait. Was his jet-black hair receding already? His father had been bald at the end. I’d watched his hairline recede throughout my childhood, at dinnertimes with his Catholic family, gathered around their huge table. I’d daydreamed, back then, of what it would be like to grow up in a family with a boring religion. Nobody had harassed the Catholics much since Kennedy.

Carlos met my eye. “You look awful.”

“Thanks.”

He gazed around at the clutter, drinking it all in impassively. Strange that Papa had sent him up. My mother’s religious fervor would never have permitted a boy in my room.

Did Papa no longer give a damn?

Carlos picked his way through my laundry toward the blackout-curtained doorway onto the fire escape. I’d brought three of the pigeon drones up from my workshop for no reason other than I liked looking at them. One of each prototype.

Carlos inspected the birds. Their feathers looked real, but weren’t; that was a dead end in terms of masking their heat signature, which was turning out to be impossible anyway.

“Always wondered if you’d ever finish the things.”

“They’re still not done.”

He nodded.

The bird drones were the first piece of sequestered technology I’d liberated. I’d been sniffing around hinky recombinant DNA research linked to the Eschaton plagues at a consulting company that farmed out military contracts. They rented a lab a quarter of a mile away, on Commonwealth next to the New Frontier Café my father frequented. The partially completed effort I’d snitched I found in a folder titled “Effing Canceled Contracts.” Bio-mimicking drones had fallen out of fashion after that pod of autonomous dolphin drones scuttled the USS Kentucky.

“Your mother loved birds,” Carlos said softly. “I get it.”

She had, but he didn’t. Not really. He toured my room silently, as if he hadn’t just materialized out of nowhere after ghosting me for years. He squinted at the diagrams pinned to my lumpy plaster-lap walls.

He pointed. “There’s the flat Earth. That’s Pellucidar, right . . . ? The hollow earth . . . that’s the . . .” He leaned forward to read the small type. “Welteislehre?”

He’d mangled the pronunciation. I didn’t bother to correct him. “It’s Austrian pseudoscience, an inverted sphere universe. Celestial objects get smaller and smaller as you approach the center point, a forced perspective. Nazi cosmology. What are you doing here, Carlos?”

He ignored the question.

“That’s a Tesla tower. . . .” He nodded at the blueprint of a tall grid-work structure with a domed top, like the love child of the Eiffel Tower and a kaiju-scaled vibrator. His brows knit in a way that brought back our tragic year of Calculus tutoring.

He was staring at a patent diagram for a round thingy with hinged weights at the ends of each spoke. “That’s . . . that’s . . .”

“An over-balancing wheel.”

“Perpetual motion? Does it . . . work?”

“None of it works. It’s a hobby. I study kooks and weirdoes like me in my copious free time.”

He moved closer. “That’s interesting.” He was examining the clippings pinned nearest to the workstation, to the right of my monitors, the newest stuff.

His eyes alighted on the printed object next to my split keyboard: a 3D cross-section of my painfully extrapolated zero-point displacement curve. It had begun as the work of my favorite crackpot, the late Immanuel Ahazred, former Moroccan college professor and climate refugee.

He’d made his breakthroughs working with public particle collider data on an obsolete smart phone, while living in a shantytown on the outskirts of Morocco. That Einstein thing. Thought experiments, like the one that gave us relativity.

Carlos picked up the fist-sized plastic dingus, fascinated because it was fascinating, an impossible Escher knot rendered in three dimensions. I jerked it out of his hand.

“It’s all bullshit. What do you want, Carlos?”

He wrinkled his nose and frowned. “When did you stop showering?”

“I don’t know. When did you stop being a pain in the ass? Oh, wait. You didn’t.”

Carlos smiled for real, flashing his jacked-up teeth in a way achingly familiar. He’d resisted orthodontia for mysterious reasons. My breath whistled angrily through my nostrils.

Carlos took a step back, out of punching radius. We used to mess around like this. But he’d been gone too long. I was angry.

His smile fell away. I didn’t know what he was thinking, but then, I seldom did. Empathy isn’t my thing.

“Maybe this was a bad idea. Talk online?”

A little stab of stomach pain. “Don’t be pissy. Wait for me downstairs.”

He gave me a thumbs up, a Carlos gesture, and let himself out of the room, clicking the door shut behind him.

Inexplicable sensations roiled my guts, a trembly nausea. I stretched until the tingling in my arms and legs stopped and I felt steady. It seemed weird to me that he’d just appeared at my door without any warning. Had I turned on Do Not Disturb? I checked my dashboard. Turns out I’d airplaned my status across all devices. I had been unavailable for . . .

Yeah. Three days.

I slipped on my watch and flicked through my feed. Carlos had warned me of his impending visit a half dozen times. Still it was spooky. His showing up now.

I needed him. Or someone like him. I had to decide what the hell to do with what I had . . . integrated? Translated? Liberated? Whatever.

I struggled again to think of anyone else who could help. Anyone else I could trust.

I drew a blank.

*   *   *

I rushed through a three-minute shower, towel dried my buzz cut and put on a pair of shorts and a ripped T-shirt with a gray ace of spades printed on both sides, both of which Papa disliked.

I padded downstairs and through the disused living room piled high with boxes of obsolete flyers, menus, and packaging for the family food trucks. They needed to be discarded but Papa held onto them for ridiculous reasons.

Carlos sat at the kitchen table across from the white-bearded man inspecting a tomato as a jeweler might a counterfeit diamond.

Carlos turned to me. “Nice shirt. What does the ace stand for?” He knew the answer. His eyebrows waggled.

Papa grunted and threw another inadequate tomato into a half-filled compost bin on the floor. I made a face at him for doing this in front of Carlos and froze. The Baby Box, the breadbox-sized prototype, was sitting on the kitchen counter behind him. He’d hauled it up from the basement!

Carlos sat with his back to it, oblivious. “So, Nayla, tell me why you’re dropping out of CIT a semester before a degree?”

So that was it.

“I’m busy.”

He made that little rolling, out with it gesture.

My face grew hot. “There’s plenty of work in the trucks! I’m doing my own stuff, too. Projects. Big ones.”

Carlos cocked an eyebrow.

“I take courses online. I still have access to CIT libraries and Maker-spaces. I don’t need a stupid piece of paper—”

Papa interrupted with a gnawed tomato waved in my direction. He rapped the table with a bony knuckle.

“Nayla! Your scarecrow is broken! The rabbits are back.”

Cantaport’s carbon abatement efforts had produced an explosion of furry creatures that the city struggled to control humanely. Pigeons and bunnies were among the least problematic from a public health perspective, but still bad for gardeners.

“I’ll fix it later.”

“When is later?”

“Soon! I’ll fix it soon!”

Papa hurled an oddly shaped tomato into the bin. A silence fell.

Carlos chewed his lower lip. “Want to go for a walk?”

Papa nodded his permission

As if I needed it.

*   *   *

“When was the last time you were outside?” Carlos asked as I closed the door behind us and we exited blinking into the sunny summer day.

“Yesterday.”

Carlos shook his head, recognizing the lie. I must have a tell. I hadn’t worked in Papa’s food trucks for months, so I hadn’t had to leave the house. Not since I’d gotten the Box prototypes working. We crossed the street to walk on the shady side, the late-afternoon sun warming my bare shoulders and neck.

Coppery light warmed the verdigris-encrusted spire of the First Parish Universalist Church as we strolled past the muni-bike docks out front. I’d spent many hours inside the church in quiet reflection with my mother in the Sethian Atheneum just through the small set of doors on the building’s east side. The Unitarians had shared the impressive structure with my family’s peculiar ecumenical faith for half a century.

In fact, we’d fled Egypt and come to the Commonwealth to be close to First Parish, but this was mostly my father following in my mother’s footsteps. Or so he’d told me after her death. She had been the humorlessly devout one. And now she was gone, into the infinite, or just plain gone; I wasn’t sure and tried not to think about it.

A ten-second net search identifies the Sethians as a post-millennial Gnostic revival founded by the Egyptian polymath Eskander Bana, based on interpretations of the Nag Hammadi texts unearthed in Egypt in 1945. He’d uncovered a plan for peaceful living hidden in the sealed jar’s thirteen papyrus codices. A vision (or hallucination, if you thought of it that way) of glowing cabalistic rings churning like gears in a cosmic automobile differential unzipped the sky, revealing to the First Witness a manifestation of Sophia, holy feminine creator. Afterward, he’d curated a greatest-hits faith that blended Christian apocrypha, Hellenistic Judaism, and Islamic poetry with a bit of Buddhism thrown in for laughs.

But of course you know who the Sethians are.

We are the people they blamed for the Eschaton attacks.

I fought back a pulse of rage, one that threatened to overwhelm me every time I left the house and looked up at that spire. Into the sky where Sophia had revealed herself. Into the sky that had done nothing to save us.

Carlos kept to the sidewalk as I padded down the center of the scooter lane. This was a no-no, but the city didn’t use muni facial ID to fine you. So what the hell. I’d get out of the way if necessary. I enjoyed the perfect springiness of the brilliant green surface; they maintained these lanes better than roads or sidewalks.

I hopped up to walk beside Carlos to let a goggled teen on a uniwheel buzz past. The boarder’s fingers twitched in the AR skinning his field of vision. We’d appear as orcs or zombies or something in whatever game he was playing.

I avoid VR, and as such had opted out of a ton of gaming culture. My slightly wonky brain thrashes at the contradictory inputs. Parallax and the fixed-focal length of the imaging plane. One in twenty never adjust to the tech, and Papa’s generation never warmed to it. Many only remove headsets for sleep or sex. For the sex not in VR, I mean. The thought always made me throw up a little bit in my mouth. Not just the sex, but having to wash the gear, afterward.

Fortunately I didn’t need VR, or intercourse, to keep myself amused.

A pair of Evergreen service vans was parked near a utility pole a block from our house, which gave me pause. I’d had some, uh, unofficial network hardware installed here and there around the neighborhood and didn’t want Cantaport’s smart-grid monopoly poking around in it.

Papa and I lived on the least gentrified street in Cantaport, the last block with a genuine, beat-up bodega selling an odd assortment of fruits and vegetables, scratch tickets, cigarettes, vape pods, morning-after pills, and digicash cards.

Adolescents congregated in the park next to the tiny store. They didn’t scare me. Much. The Ports and Coasts were barely gangs. They dealt rogue Pharma and Fab-lab weaponry, mostly cheapo one-shots designed to look like flashlights. But they didn’t hurt anyone but each other, and even that was rare.

Carlos settled into a swing as I plunked into the one beside him. He pushed off and arced back and forth, rusted chains creaking as he gathered energy.

“Tell me how you lost your scholarships.”

“I still have the independent study grant.”

“Anyone can get those.”

This was true.

“I expressed ‘divisive political opinions that didn’t align with CIT’s values in social media.’”

But he knew that.

“What the hell did you think would happen?”

I shrugged.

“I’ll lend you the money to finish up,” Carlos said. “You weren’t expelled. You can still get a degree. I checked.”

“Why would you give me money?”

“Call it a loan.”

“What kind of interest?”

Carlos shrugged, making the swing wobble. “A percent or two?”

“That’s stupid,” I said. “An unsecured loan should be closer to fifteen. Twenty maybe.”

“Nah.” Carlos was pumping his legs in earnest now and had reached maximum arc. He spoke in snippets as he breezed by.

“I’m not worried . . .”

“. . . about getting my money back . . .”

“. . . you’re a genius.”

He dug in his heels, shuddering to a stop in a spray of wood chips.

“In some ways,” he hedged.

“How did you find out I wasn’t graduating? You spied on me?”

Carlos shrugged.

“You’d have to be an idiot to lend me money.” My chest ached weirdly.

“I’m not as smart as you.”

“Apparently,” I said.

We sat on the swings for a while without talking. Carlos didn’t push. I enjoyed being out of the house with him, listening to the rustle of the leaves in the trees, the coolness of the breeze against my skin. The heat advisory had ended, though cooling shelters would be kept open until the nighttime temps dropped below ninety-five.

“Thank you. I should have said thank you. About the money. But no thanks.”

“I know your father is a proud man, but that shouldn’t—”

“Shut up,” I said. “Please?” A migraine aura boiled behind my eyeballs, bright crystalline notes pulsing in my peripheral vision. Damn it. “I’ll tell you why. What I’m working on. But not now. I’m getting a headache”

Carlos shut up.

We walked home. He bumped his shoulder lightly against mine, hands in his pockets, a Carlos thing as annoying as it was endearing; the contact so fleeting it didn’t trigger bad feelings.

The Evergreen vans were still parked where they had been, their drivers nowhere in sight. This wasn’t good.

We stopped across the street from my house. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

He nodded and undocked a bike from the muni-rack in front of the church.

I noticed that my home sweet home was now the ugliest in the row of century-old triple-deckers. Our peeling clapboard desperately needed a coat of paint, the windows a professional cleaning.

The triple-decker to the left, the Spiegels’, was in much better shape, sporting pale yellow solar shingles and an indestructible carbon fiber siding. They had taken us in, tried to shelter us after the Eschaton attack on the statehouse. A nice gesture.

The building to the right belonged to the O’Neils, who had reported “mysterious comings and goings” at our address. My uncle and his nephews and friends, who worked in the family business. I discovered the O’Neils’ betrayal in docs declassified after the Cortez commission had emptied the camps. ICE hadn’t needed a warrant to unlock the muni facial ID during the state of emergency. We’d never had a chance.

Carlos lingered, straddling the beat-up public bike.

“You should wear a helmet.”

“I’m a rebel.” He grinned.

To my knowledge Carlos had never broken a rule in his life. Well. Just the once. He hummed away. My weird chest ache faded as the flashing red LED on his bumper turned the corner onto Commonwealth.

What was I going to tell him?

I walked around the side of the house, on the cracked concrete path running next to the fence, and went past the garden and in through the back door that opened into the little mud room off the kitchen.

Papa had found tomorrow’s perfect tomato and was now sampling a falafel. The scent of freshly chopped mint and frying oil hung in the air. Piles of chopped herbs, parsley, cilantro, and mint were neatly arrayed on the butcher’s block. A strainer full of chickpeas rested over a stainless steel bowl on the counter.

I twisted off the burner under the smoldering cast iron pan that would soon set off the hallway fire alarm. It was a smart alarm, you could disarm it by voice, but Papa sometimes took out the batteries.

“You shouldn’t have brought this up.” I laid my hand on the Baby Box. The faux marble countertop under it was old, but the fresh webwork of cracks radiating away from the Box made my heart sink.

“My knees are rotten. I can’t keep going up and down the stairs.”

“We’ll put the Box in my old room.” I’d lived on this floor with Mother and Papa when I was younger. Before the detention.

“It’s better in the kitchen. What does it matter? Nobody ever comes over.” This wasn’t exactly true, as my Uncle Sayid came over every workday morning to load the bins of prepped ingredients into a pickup to distribute to the food trucks, but he had a point.

Mother had been the social one, but her friends had gradually stopped coming by. There had never been a reason to bring food, Papa had always been the cook, and since the end of his anthropology career in Egypt, a culinary entrepreneur. The family owned an expanding fleet of lunch trucks.

Of course our church friends had brought food anyway, at first. Piles and piles of it. But the empty platters and bowls and Tupperware containers had been returned long ago.

“What are you doing with the boy?”

“You know his name. Um. Why did you let him upstairs?”

Papa shrugged. “To get you out of your room. You’ve been shunning me for days.”

His eyes avoided mine, intent on the ingredients arrayed before him.

“I’ve been thinking.”

“About?”

“Dating.” The stupid word slipped out quietly, as if it were no big deal.

“Who are you going to date?”

“I was talking about you.”

My heart beat fast and hard. I couldn’t have this conversation now, not with everything else happening. The humiliation of Mother’s matchmaking phase flooded back, burning my cheeks. It had not ended well.

Papa sighed at whatever distress signals I was radiating. “None of my business. You’re an adult. Or so you say.”

He picked up a falafel and took a bite, closing his eyes.

“Too much mint.”

“The falafel won’t be fresh. You’ll make them again tomorrow.”

“I know,” he said.

“Carlos wanted to give me money to stay in school.”

Papa made his surprised grunt. “Do you want to go back?”

“No.”

He made a note on an index card. “Good. I like having you around.”

He picked up another falafel.

“CIT is down the street. I was always around.”

Papa chewed and frowned. He made a note on the card. “Over-toasted cumin.”

“I’m going to bed.”

Papa grunted amiably, and I trudged upstairs and slipped between the sheets. My teeth had already been brushed for Carlos.

My migraine aura was fading, the sparkling at the edges of my vision dampening. Usually the effervescence spread, and it was as if I were looking through an abstract, shifting stained glass window. All I could do was wait it out.

Painless migraines were better than the agonizing kind, but they induced an existential nausea, and they were blinding. I could see through the stained glass, but it didn’t make sense.

I lay in the comforting dimness. I was smiling. My cheeks ached.

I wondered what it would be like to have Carlos, at arm’s length, lying beside me. No groping. Nothing disgusting. No slurping. Just lying there. Being there. Together. Breathing.

I drifted off.

I would tell Carlos everything.

*   *   *

Carlos stood a little bit too close beside me at the bottom of the basement stairs. Not his fault; there wasn’t much room.

I fumbled with my keychain. The chromed Spade dangling from it caught the overhead light as I found the right key and twisted it in the padlock.

“Old school,” Carlos said.

“Coders use real locks. Smart locks suck.”

“What’s with the storage locker key?”

I shivered. Jesus. I’d used the same storage facility as Carlos’s family. When he’d moved into the dorms, they’d cashed out of the local housing market and moved out to the suburbs, just inside the metro perimeter.

The storage facility was this huge, century-old gothic brick monstrosity, a converted candy factory a few blocks away with idiotically distinctive brass keys.

I hesitated, which was probably my tell. “We stored some of Mother’s stuff there. Papa couldn’t stand looking at it anymore.”

Carlos looked skeptical. “No room in the basement?”

At least I had an answer for that.

I opened the door.

One thousand and twenty-four cell phones hung from power cables snaking through the rafters, filling roughly two-thirds of the floorspace. It resembled a fancy art installation, a cubic volume of space defined by cables and shiny black rectangles.

The basement had been sectioned into storage spaces for each of the three floors, but after Papa had let the tenants go I’d broken out the plywood dividers to create a single contiguous space with stained concrete floor below and cobwebbed beams above. The remaining floorspace on our right contained my workbench and maker gear. I gestured for Carlos to sit at a stool beside the Mother Box.

I hit a key on the ruggedized laptop and a thousand cell phone touch screens flickered on and off, leaving behind a single working light status indicator on each. Different models booted at different speeds, and the spatter of lights in the dim space was hypnotic as each node flared and dimmed, leaving only the status lights casting linear shadows over the concrete.

Air currents produced by the warming hardware made the power cords sway like a field of ocean kelp.

The portable booster heat-pump in the corner flicked on a few seconds later. In the winter, the 1,000 phones heated the house. In the summer I kept the thing powered down most of the time and used a botnet.

Carlos was tapping his watch while I checked the house’s perimeter on my laptop, my home brew, back-door-free burglar alarm. He returned his watch to its do-not-disturb setting, something he did when he was talking to people. Carlos is mostly polite.

“That’s a cell phone super-computer,” he said. “Is this your project?”

I could have said yes. That was why I’d booted it up. But I didn’t say anything. Should I involve Carlos or not? The time had come and I was nauseous at the thought.

He examined my tool bench, the triple-axis 3-D printer, chip fabricator, CNC cutter, injection-molder, Shop-Smith, before alighting on the disassembled pigeon on the workbench. I’d been incorporating the higher-powered jammer in its innards.

Carlos frowned. “I don’t see a plate on that thing. I’m guessing it doesn’t have a muni transponder either?”

I shrugged.

“That’s a felony.”

I shrugged again. This was the reason he’d cut me off. My bending the rules.

I snapped the beak shut, concealing its telescoping injector tongue.

I had mostly finished three prototypes. The Scrambler, with its wireless jammer, the Wire Cutter with its diamond-sharp beak and talons, and the Injector.

The Scrambler’s Gaussian signal generator was removable. Its belly had a latch you could open with your thumbnail, creating a forth model, the Carrier. I tried not to think about what it might carry if the prototypes ended up in the wrong hands.

And so each drone carried a self-destruct mechanism secured with an illegally long crypto-key. Another felony; in for a penny, in for a pound. They all had wire-stripping talons that sliced through insulation to harvest juice from power lines.

“Oh. I bumped into your father on the way over. He was acting weird.”

“How so?”

“He said hello. And called me by name. He asked if we were dating?”

“What did you say?”

Carlos smiled. “I said we were friends.”

“Just friends.”

“I didn’t say just.”

I swallowed. “This isn’t it. The drones. Or the super-computer. What I wanted to talk about, I mean.”

Carlos sighed. “You don’t have to tell me anything. I’ll stop bugging you. I was being pushy. I wanted to help with school if I could. I mean. I wanted to see you.”

An unbearable feeling at that. I pushed it down. “You study meaningless crap, still?”

“Hm? Non sequitur much?” He’d given up on STEM after our disastrous first semester at CIT. I sucked as a tutor. Turns out teaching requires empathy. We’d avoided talking much about his studies since. He called the degree prelaw, but that didn’t mean anything. He took a crazy course load, a custom major including history, economics, political science, and stuff about intellectual property and the impact of emerging technologies.

Still smiling, he nodded. “I study meaningless crap. I use consumer apps with colorful interfaces and the nice little blue lady that talks to you.”

Would his nonsense even help? I’d been skimming these courses online, but they were so thin. They must have been plugging into mental software I didn’t have, or hadn’t developed.

Even at 6x speed they put me to sleep. They were, as Carlos suggested, virtually numberless except for some tenth grade statistical modeling. Rationalized conjecture. A collection of stories about why people acted the way they did, rewritten by every generation.

I felt queasy. I remembered demoing the Box for Papa, that first time. It had unnerved him profoundly.

“I’m going to show you a trick. Think about what it would mean if it were real. Okay?”

Carlos nodded.

I went over to the Mother Box. I may be good at languages, but I am bad at naming things, and everything I’d come up with felt wrong, so I’d gone with a neutral moniker.

I picked up a pair of scuffed needle-nose pliers and handed them to Carlos.

“Examine these,” I said.

Carlos peered at the tool. He worked the pincers open and shut and tapped the workbench and then handed them back.

I gestured for him to stand and slid the stool he’d been sitting on a few feet back from the Mother Box.

I pressed the green button on its upper surface and the top hissed open. I placed the pliers in the hopper, closed the lid, and pressed the blue button and took two steps back.

The Mother Box shimmered for a split second, going translucent, strobing, and shuddering. I blinked away afterimages, a dozen Boxes, slightly mis-registered, as if badly layered in an image editor.

Carlos winced. Watching the Box operating made your eyeballs itch.

I opened the hopper and removed the pliers. I closed it and pressed the red button, again taking two steps back. The Box did its thing. Carlos’s eyes were drawn to the webwork of cracks in the cement under the Box, the radial pattern of reticulation.

I reached in and removed a second pair of pliers and laid them beside the first.

Carlos laughed. He picked up both sets of pliers and studied them. Sniffed the rusted metal serrated tips. “Huh. The rust spots are identical. All the little nicks and scratches.”

I nodded and placed both sets of pliers back in the hopper, and repeated the copy and paste.

Carlos examined all four pliers, frowning. He licked his lips and nodded, making that little rolling on with it gesture.

I could have stopped. Instead I went again, turning four into eight, eight into sixteen, and then I just hit the paste button over and over again, removing pliers by the handful and piling them on the floor until I had a mound four feet high.

Carlos sat very still, eyes widening.

Then I fed the pliers back into the Box, using the black button to clear the hopper until I was left with just the original pair.

“I might have believed it was a trick if you’d stopped at two.”

“I got caught up in the moment.”

“So you don’t need my money. What exactly did you want to talk about?” His voice held an edge. I sensed the argument was going to start up again.

“Wait a minute,” I said. In for a penny. I ran upstairs, grabbed the Baby Box off the counter and lugged it downstairs. I slipped the Baby Box into the Mother Box, a tight fit, and pressed the copy button, removed the Baby Box and pasted.

I cut and pasted five Baby Boxes. I demoed one of the new Babies with the pliers. Then I made the extra four go away with the cut button.

Carlos nodded, looking more and more alarmed. He puffed out his cheeks and exhaled. That meant exasperation.

He got it.

“What will people do with this? I’m afraid it’s going to kill billions.”

Carlos cleared his throat.

We were alone in my room for the second time in my life, atmospheric music playing, ensconced in the comforting dimness. Papa hadn’t batted an eye as we’d walked past him and trotted upstairs.

I’d made space for us on the carpet and given him a cushion.

“Who did you steal the tech from?”

“I didn’t steal it.”

He glared at me. I cursed my tell.

“Most of it.”

“This is madness. You won’t be sent to a country club prison, or get a gig in corporate cyber security. They’ll stick you back in the dark. Surely you know that?” The hairs rose on the back of my neck at the mention of the dark.

This was it. Again. Our final argument.

“Of course I know! My people were interned. Yours weren’t.”

Carlos nodded, good humor gone, his nostrils flaring. Whenever he was mad I noticed how big he was. I’d never seen him hurt anyone or anything. He captured and released spiders rather than kill them, but he could snap me like a twig. I’d never thought of that before.

“I’ve read about that internment thing,” he snarked.

I felt like crap. Carlos’s father had died in the protests over the detentions. Needlers—the infrared crowd dispersal drones—had driven the protestors away. The “nonlethal” weapon triggered a preexisting heart condition in the middle-aged public defender. He’d died in Carlos’s arms. He’d been protesting, too, against his father’s wishes.

“I know you know! I’m sorry!”

Something shut his anger off like a switch. Instead he wore an unhappy expression, pity I guess. He probably wanted to hug me. Instead he looked so sad I wanted to punch him.

Intense emotions drive me nuts.

“So, what are you worried about? If you stole this, liberated this, it isn’t up to you what happens.”

I sighed. “You’re not listening. I borrowed some, interpreted some, and put it together. That’s what I do. I’m not sure anyone else will be able to, for a good long time.”

“Did you use your, ah, phone computer?”

I waved that away. I’d used them as a lock-pick to exploit the processing power of two of the tech giants, hijacking a dozen offshore data centers and liberating some research I’d needed.

But I wasn’t going to tell Carlos this.

Carlos’s eyes went wide, white showing all around the dark brown iris. “Jesus. The weird paperweight?”

I needed to vanish that stupid thing. “Remember how you used to prattle about the Singularity delayed? That paper?”

Carlos nodded. “The Corporatization of Strategically Essential R&D?”

“The tech giants are doing basic research governments can’t fund anymore. But the data is kept proprietary, for years and years. They don’t share it.”

“I wrote the paper, Nayla, I know what’s in it.”

“So I put a bunch of stuff together.”

“You stole from the Giants? And the Kook? You stole from a kook?”

“The kook was a scientist. And his work was freely available online. The way all knowledge should be. Oh, and he’s dead, of something dumb, his camp was embargoed.”

Carlos nodded slowly.

“What do you call your . . . printer? Replicator?”

“It’s not a printer or even a copier. It displaces objects.”

“What about the conservation laws, of matter and energy?”

He didn’t have the math. “Matter and energy are conserved across the multiverse. You know about the multiverse?”

“You’re telling me you reversed the polarity of the neutron flow?” He was half smiling. He got that he couldn’t get it.

“Yes. It’s hand crafted from the finest unobtainium. I call it the Box. Baby Box and Mother Box. The mother can make babies. “

“I got that. Catchy. You should be in branding.”

“Oh shut up.”

“How big can Boxes get?”

“The Mother is as big as I was willing to risk.” Damn. I regretted the word immediately.

“Risk?”

I wasn’t going to talk about this. “There’s a tiny possibility of a spacial inversion. Or rupture.”

“That sounds bad.”

Did Carlos know what anti-matter was?

I nodded. “The Baby Boxes could conceivably be rigged to blow up . . . the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb. Or two. I mean I could rig them to blow up. Nobody else could. I think.”

Carlos grew visibly paler. “So . . . the Mother Box would be like an H-bomb?”

I gave up on trying to lie to Carlos. “The effect is nonlinear. It’s more of a planet cracker.”

Carlos snorted. “Right. What could a really big one do?”

“Maybe they’re the quasars?”

“Can they . . . go off accidentally?”

I laughed. “Never. Safe as houses. Nobody without a deep understanding of the zero-point could turn them into bombs. Me, is what I’m saying. Only I can do it.”

“Can the curve be extracted . . . derived? From the hardware or firmware or software or whatever?”

“I’ve been working on that. No. Without Ahazred’s work and my source code it’s safe. At least in that way.

“You think.”

“I’m sure. But even these . . . they can make anything. Ammo. Grenades. Land mines. Poison. Radioactives. People will design horrible crap to fit into the Boxes, componentize everything.”

Carlos shrugged. “There are more guns than people in the country now. What are you really worried about?”

I sighed. “Economic disruption.”

“Have you printed money?”

I made a face. “I’m not an idiot.” I didn’t tell him about the gold buried in the backyard, or the gems in storage. Or the ones I’d sold to pay to outsource work on the drones.

Carlos nodded. Then he smacked his forehead. “The tomatoes!”

He’d figured that out, too.

“We own those sandwiches! They’re our IP. Papa preps them at the component level. They’re better assembled just-in-time, but still a ton of work is being done by the Box.”

“Your corporate catering business . . .”

He had been snooping. The margins were higher there; a Box of prototypes popped out at a whack. Less human labor. Near zero materials cost.

“Yeah.”

Carlos was grinning. “You could be making precious materials. Or computer chips. Selling them on BlackNet. You make sandwiches?”

I shrugged.

“You could fix the climate.” He wasn’t looking at me anymore. Just staring into space. “Print bricks of biochar—”

“There are better carbon-capture compounds. Expensive, but that doesn’t matter.”

“There’s no disposal problem? You make stuff disappear?”

I nodded.

“Are we dumping this garbage on someone else in another universe?”

“No,” I said.

“I don’t understand.”

“No, you can’t.” I could show him a model of higher dimensional zero-point displacement curve in a VR headset, but he probably couldn’t resolve it. It would look like noise. It had been meaningless to me, until I’d studied it through a visual migraine.

A brilliant needle of pain had knocked me unconscious. But when I woke up . . . The solution was just there. Like that guy who intuited the shape of benzene rings in a dream of snakes biting their own tails. I’d needed a ton of processing power, though, to boil the curve down. I’d hijacked a half-dozen data centers to do it.

“The Boxes would get out. Not the secret of their making, but the boxes themselves. Too many people in the loop.”

“You could build a robot factory, like an Orinoco fulfillment center. Pick and pack bots. Prefab components. Everything off the shelf.”

“Now you’re thinking.”

“Copy, expose, destroy carbon capture material. Um. Does atmosphere-mixing work, for evening out CO2 distribution? Globally?”

“Models say that isn’t a problem as long as you don’t do it crazy fast.”

“Huh. But you’re right. The Box is going to escape your grip. Eventually.”

“What does that do to the economy?” I asked.

“Hard to predict. Economics is best at explaining things after they happen.”

“I know. That’s why it isn’t a real science.”

“So. Most manufacturing goes away. So does most transportation, other than tourism and shipping prototypes. Only a few boutique farms. Jesus. Slaughter a few animals a day for infinite fresh meat. You could plow the fields under. Reforest whole continents. Consumer culture reduced to design firms and one-offs.”

He nodded at the Box on the floor. “That thing will blow up like a nuke no matter what you do. Create chain reactions of social disruption. Exponential societal change.”

This was why I’d wanted to talk to Carlos. So far, he wasn’t telling me anything I hadn’t already imagined.

“Can you limit what it can make?”

“I’ve been working on that.”

“Could buy us time, after the initial deployment.”

“Maybe.” Wait. Had he said us?

“Still. What one person can make another can copy. I mean. Unless you’re an order of magnitude smarter than anyone on the planet.”

I grinned at that.

Carlos’s eyes went wide.

I laughed. “It’s a feeling I get, sometimes. But there are different kinds of intelligence. You have some I lack. You know, the stupid ones.”

Carlos nodded, then quirked his eyebrows and asked a stupid question.

“Your shirt. The one with the ace on it. Is the image faded, or was it printed in gray?” The shirt was, in fact, a gray ace. Like me.

“It’s faded,” I lied, a beat or whatever my tell was later. Damn it.

Carlos laughed. “Thought so.”

*   *   *

The conversation went on until morning light leaked around my blackout curtains. The talk had looped around, edged into personal stuff, stories about his father, my mother. Grief. Loss. All that wonderful stuff I can’t bear to talk about head on.

“I have to go,” Carlos said. He rose to his feet, groaning, and I followed suit. We’d been sitting for too long. Carlos stamped feeling back into his feet as I stretched.

“Unintended consequences.” Carlos was doing neck rolls, making repulsive crunching noises. “What’s the downside of the Box? I mean, other than it making stuff free.”

“There aren’t any.”

“How can you know that?”

I shrugged. “I can’t detect any problems, and I’ve looked . . . analyzed news feeds looking for patterns, unexplained phenomena, logging every use of the Box, looking for correlations. I’ve found nothing. No power outages. Earthquakes. Rains of blood or frogs. Spikes in homicide rates. Freak weather. Sports upsets. Stupid social media trends. Nothing. “

Carlos tilted his head, which meant he wanted more details.

“Electromagnetic and gravitic effects are limited to a two- or three-foot radius, or rather, they drop off so quickly they’re impossible for me to detect. The Box is safer than a cell phone. Other than what it does.”

Carlos nodded. “Making most human labor meaningless. Granting infinite wealth and power to whoever controls it. Or both.”

I nodded. “Think balance of power. Nukes are super easy with free fissionables. Free unlimited fissionables. Not to mention infinite supplies of small arms and ammo, landmines and small kill bots. Bioweapons.”

Carlos rubbed his forehead. “Uh huh,” he said.

“It could be used to make significant quantities of antimatter.”

Carlos tilted his head, his eyebrows quirked as if I’d been talking about dilithium crystals or unobtainium.

“How is that worse than nukes?”

“The reaction is more energetic than nuclear fusion, particle antiparticle pairs annihilating each other, releasing pure energy. Containing the stuff is impossible, but you could breed it inside a zero-point field, swirling it in a containment torus, feed that into a combustion chamber . . .”

“That’s a space drive.”

Carlos was not stupid. Just math disabled.

“I haven’t worked out the details. I can’t. I need a half dozen engineering disciplines. Maybe in five years? Or ten?”

Carlos wasn’t looking at me again. But he was smiling.

“Relativity is still a thing, we’re bound by the speed of light. But . . . we should be able to move at a substantial fraction of C with the fuel problem solved.”

“Fuel problem?”

“The weight of fuel, even hydrogen atoms for fusion, makes it impossible to accelerate to a significant fraction of C.”

“Human history cleaves in two. Pre-Box and post Box.”

My head was throbbing. My face felt hot. He’d said it, not me, making it real. All too real.

“Yeah.”

“This is the most important thing in the world. You’re the most important person on Earth. Maybe in human history.”

This made me feel horrible, and you’d have thought someone as people-smart as Carlos would have known that. I let out a low moan. Pulses of multicolored light flared in my peripheral vision. The migraine was coming on fast and strong, and for the first time in my life, it hurt.

“Until they take the Box away from me.”

I blinked as the sparkling washed through my visual field, leaving behind an impressionist painting of Carlos’s face, faceted, colorful, beautiful. I sat very still. Breathless. Paralyzed.

“Are you all right?” A light touch, on my shoulder. I shrugged him away. I couldn’t take that now.

When I opened my eyes Carlos was no longer a person, but a shifting composition of lines and planes, seething ramps of color and bubbling noise. I lost my balance.

Carlos’s arms were briefly about me as he carried me a few steps. I heard rustling as he rearranged the covers and laid me down. His hand pressed against my forehead, and then lifted. “No fever. Another migraine? Panic?”

I shook my head.

And then he was murmuring something, and I was crying because the migraine was fading into dark, and I hate the dark, I hate it, and his hand was warm in mine and then the blackness, like a whirlwind, all around, blotting out all light, all sound, leaving behind a terrible emptiness.

A nothing that went on forever.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2021. Out of the Box by Jay O’Connell

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