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Empty Box

Robert Maas was born in England but has spent the last ten years in Tokyo, where he works as a technology ghostwriter. When he's not providing Japanese CEOs with excited mouth noises, he fends off cultural alienation by writing science fiction, thrillers, and fantasy. His novels include "Residuum," "Biome," "A Thousand Years Of Nanking," "Slow Wilhelm Exit," "Grand Funk Central," and the 18-part imaginary TV series "Hemisphere." His blog is at activemaas.wordpress.com.

When Pinnacle ripped open, it wasn't the twenty thousand dead bodies you remembered, belched into high orbit above Ours Now. It wasn't the frost-crusted children or the pregnant women or the babies in their chewed up swaddling blankets. It was the garbage: the vast teardrop-shaped plume of books and clothes and food and commode ice and crockery shards and electronic junk, the human detritus of a station turned inside out.
That woke me in the panic of my nights, clutching for the green status lights on the convex plastic underside of Koss's bunk, and that woke Koss to curse and go clattering across the ship's small hab as if he wanted to punch something and that something was either a bulkhead or me.
Most of the time he'd end up next to the big square box of the prisoner's crate, snarling impotently at the blank metal corrugations that separated us from the Griol telepath trapped inside.
"One day," he told me as I came jerking across the hab after him, struggling to locate myself back in the bruised remnants of my body, a place where no two bones seemed lined up right, "one day I'm going to tear this thing wide open--"
"With your bare hands?"
We both looked at his hands, gripped like claws on the metal. We'd been transporting the prisoner for two weeks now. There were another two to go before we reached the tribunal on Buck Stops where it would be summarily indicted--you couldn't talk to these things, so the trial was all one-sided--and incinerated right there in the box. Incineration was the only possible outcome for the Griol scum that had induced Pinnacle's command to set and arm the bombs.
"I can feel it," Koss said. He lifted his hands away and clenched his own skull just as fiercely, buckling the neural mesh that was supposed to protect us from the Griol's emanations. "Telling me to overload the reactor or override the airlock controls. Can't you feel it, too?"
You weren't supposed to feel anything. Not with all the protections. But every day I heard it whispering ugly thoughts in the back of my mind, and every night it hissed at me in the garbage-cluttered pool of my dreams.
Worse things than Koss's sabotage. Things about feeding metal implements into my flesh, drawing out strings of guts, smearing bloody messages on the walls with eyes for punctuation marks. The usual psychic stench the Griol emitted from their holes in Ours Now. Our landing teams had to grub them out like tubers and get them in the crates before the wind scoured away their armor or they turned the entrenching tools on each other.
"You know some of these boxes are empty," I said. "Sometimes we're just transporting air."
"Not this time." Koss slammed his palm into the box. He thought it might rattle the beast. "This time I'm sure."
It leaned over the ship, a box of horrors big as space, feeding us a constant background radiation of insinuations. Koss couldn't keep away from it.
"How many did you lose on Pinnacle?" he asked me one day. I was staring furiously out the monocle, trying to see if I could spot Buck Stops yet. There was nothing to do except wait for the moment when Buck Stops separated itself from the other stars.
I didn't want to talk about it. But every flight we talked about it. Sometimes it was all we talked about.
"Six," I told him. "Mother, four sisters, a nephew."
"You were out on a scouting mission with your father," he said. He knew all this. He also knew it helped.
"We'd gone to the Dumbbell," I said. The Dumbbell was the big rock rich in lanthanite that spun uselessly at the planet's trailing Lagrange. "Father was on the surface. When he heard what had happened he severed his own air intake. Some of the others wanted to drop the ship on the rock. But we made it back to the wreck."
"Four weeks waiting for rescue," Koss said. The length of this trip.
"Fishing for food," I said. I closed my eyes. Once I started thinking about it all the stars flashed and spun in the monocle. "Hanging out on lines in the garbage cloud."
Koss said nothing. I knew he was waiting for me to ask him. I also knew exactly what he'd say. He'd been a mechanic on the power ring, way over in Move Along Now. He'd had two children and a pregnant wife on Pinnacle.
I asked him anyway. It was what we did.
The thing was in my head again. From the blind flesh of its tuber sprouted ectoplasmic stalks supporting vast fan-shaped transmitters. Their edges curled a little in the iron-seamed wind that raged constantly on Ours Now but nothing physical could damage them or prevent the steady nightmare pulse of their broadcasts.
All the leaves were turned toward Pinnacle, and each one had a different target to invade. One human mind per Griol, so we tried and executed them, one Griol per human mind.
What did they tell my mother, I wondered, and my four sisters?
Thick pulses of psychic damage came up from the surface. I felt them now, the monstrous slick of the Griol washing over me in my bunk. As always, the telepathy manifested itself as panic. I thrashed myself into consciousness to find my neural mesh had come off in the night and the status lights above my head were all red.
Koss had dismantled half the ship's engine to get at the reactor blade. When I reached him he was preparing to switch the thing on and carve a hole in the front of the crate.
"It might be empty," I told him. "What happens if it's empty?"
"Then it's empty." He reached for the switch.
"What if they're all empty?" I said.
He paused then. He looked at me.
"You feel it," he said. "Like anger. Like hatred. Like--"
"Something to blame," I said. Like a means of using the maddening horror of the Griol to blanket something even more horrible and even more maddening. One psychic wave to overwhelm another.
It didn't matter what was in the box. A plant, maybe. A harmless Ours Now vegetable. It only mattered that we had something into which we could pour the torrent of our pain, Koss and myself, and all the other survivors, and all of grieving humanity, and keep that fear turned outward.
I pulled the neural mesh over my head. It seemed to damp down the voices a little. Koss had already moved back from the blade and was kneading the radiation-scarred knuckles of his hands. It would take us a day to rebuild the engine. But we'd be glad of the work, and Buck Stops would be one day closer at the end of it.
We hung there a long time, numbed by silent thoughts of hostile space and pools of humans gazing into the void just long enough to cut their own throats.
"There it goes again," Koss said suddenly, and slammed his palm into the wall of the box.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 2nd, 2018

Author Comments

This story began as a thriller about two men transporting an alien criminal to trial. Along the way, they grow convinced that the alien is psychically attempting to get them to open its box, abandon their mission, or kill each other.

But soon I realized that the alien itself is irrelevant. The men's reactions are a result of their own need for redemption. In the first paragraph, we learn that these are humans who feel both superior to the universe and overwhelmed by it to the point of suicide. That Larry Niven-style planet name "Ours Now" implies a dark history that manifests itself in a constant, crippling sense of guilt.

Rather than brood on these weaknesses, Pinnacle's survivors are encouraged to externalize their hatred through revenge against a scapegoat enemy. The journeys to trial are themselves the therapy.

I felt so many real world analogies in this scenario, so much bursting to be told. The only problem was defusing the genre expectations. I didn't want readers to spend the entire time thinking I'll throw open the box at the end to reveal--tada!--there's nothing inside. So I foregrounded the issue in the title. Don't fixate on the box, it says. The story isn't happening in there.

- Robert Maas
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