By Peter S. Drang
"What's in this box?" I asked the proprietor of Xenocurios. I held my purse in one hand and the peculiar object in the other. The size of a baby's shoebox, it displayed a bedazzled surface whose colors danced like a sledge-shattered rainbow. It felt somehow alive to my touch. Vital, resonant, inwardly sonorous.
"Ah!" she replied, "that's from Cignum, so it's hard to say what's inside." She looked me over from head to high heels, no doubt to assess if I was well-heeled. Her silvery hair, up in a bun caged in an undulating vine-like scrunchie, glowed soft pink from time to time.
I shrugged, feigning disinterest. These Xeno shops were all about haggling. I knew the patter: next she'd try to ramp up my desire.
"Oh, and it's very special. Its name translates to 'Pluripossible Box' according to the label. I found it buried at the bottom of a crate from Cignum, tucked away and hidden in the trans-pack, not even listed on the manifest. Most irregular! Almost like someone was trying to smuggle it to Earth."
Nice mysterious story, and predictable as clock chimes. But this box did seem singular; I'd never seen anything like it despite haunting these kinds of shops every free weekend for years. Not like I had anyone to share my time with since Ed died. My sense of normalcy went into the ground with him. Tottering around a big empty house just magnified my feelings of loss. After his untimely death, I felt more at home in these otherworldly shops, collecting strange alien trinkets, using them to fill the void that tunneled through me like moody termites on a dreary day.
I set the Pluripossible Box on her crowded glass countertop; she quickly moved aside several other knickknacks to make room: a perpetually spinning zero-point energy toy from Makiratus, a small cage containing petrify beetles (half of them turned stony in reaction to the motion), a magnetically suspended tesseract spinning within its optically-confusing 4D manifold, and several other unfathomable oddments I couldn't identify. Every day it seemed like more and more offbeat and off-the-beaten worlds started trading their wondrous baubles with Earth. This tiny store was crowded with them —on shelves, hanging from the ceiling, some even waddling along the floor under their own recognizance.
I wanted to open the box, so I inspected it, looking for a release. Some thumbprint-sized indentations pocked it here and there. I fingered them, hoping that would work a latch somewhere. In response to my fiddling, colors swirled on the surface. Mesmerizing patterns, iridescent nuances, glows among beckoning shadows. But how did the darn thing open? I thought I saw the word 'YOU' flicker through the sparkles. "Does it have a key?"
"Sorry, came without one."
I lifted it again, tilted it side to side. Something rolling, maybe sliding. From the feel of it just a tad smaller than the box itself, maybe weighed a kilogram or two. "You don't know what's inside?"
She smiled. "Maybe nothing. But nobody truly understands Cignum technology, so maybe something...beyond."
Just spiel, sure, but..."How much?"
I'd paid half her first offer but twice what I really wanted to and felt foolish walking into the Xeno locksmith's shop.
Something...beyond. What hokum. Beyond what? Probably contained a plain rock. The glowing surface: just clever-looking nano LEDs. Pluripossible Box. Right. Did she make that up on the spot?
Ed had always been my voice of reason. He'd put a stop to more than one of these wild gotcha chase situations I tended to land into. I missed that old twig in the mud. He was my GPS, my three-point safety harness. And I kept him from stagnating within his own walls of suffocating caution. I was the angel rushing in to offset his fearing-to-tread practicality. All that yin yang, opposites attract, 'you complete me' twaddle was maybe legit in our case.
This wouldn't be the first overpriced paperweight I'd bought. Shortly before Ed had died, I picked up a Sesphalian holostrat and gave it to him as a gift. Tiny little thing, size of a can of tuna. He winced when he saw I'd given him an alien device, but as I explained what it did a twinkle sparked in his eyes.
He gave it back to me on our anniversary. I was confused at first. He'd seriously regifted his birthday present back to me!? But then he hit the button to play the holo recording: my darling Ed appeared, projected from the chest up, dressed in a tuxedo, holding a single red rose, in crisp, clear 3D. In the recording, he read a love poem to me that he'd written himself, delivered with real passion. Never knew he had it in him. I broke down and cried on the spot. Not something I'm famous for.
A week after Ed's funeral —still wrecked, crying almost every day— I found the holostrat in a drawer. I ached to hear him deliver that poem again. I pressed the button: nothing. The damn thing was busted.
Took it to a xeno repair shop. "Sorry, ma'am, half these things are defective. The recording's unrecoverable." The worst part was that I couldn't recall the poem. All I remembered was how his words had touched my essence and sent passion radiating out to my fingers and toes, lighting me up with love for my man. But the details, his exact words, were lost forever, just like my Ed.
Well, that was all water through the downspout now. I'd put it all behind me, put the lost holo out of my mind.
On to the issue at hand. I had to know what was inside my latest geegaw. In for a centi-Chit, in for a Chit, right?
"What can you need?" said the xeno locksmith's stilted voice. A Glakton, one of the few xenos who could breathe our air and speak English unaided by mechtech, making it convenient for them to set up shops on Earth. Humanoid, tall, scales with little grey tufts erupting here and there. He stood behind a counter that was strewn with all manner of alien and human keys.
I held the box up to him. "Open please." Best to keep sentences short and concrete. Misunderstandings were all too easy with xenos.
Its tufts splayed out like flowers opening, and it said something in Glakton, chirpy rasps suffused with thrumming gutterals. It popped open a nearby register and held out a stack of hard, bony Xeno Chits. "Yes. I buy."
The cop's mouth gaped. He lowered his weapon. "No, please! You'll ruin me!" He holstered the gun, backed up a few steps, held his open hands up in a sign of surrender.
"I don't understand," I said, unbending my knees, still holding the box. "What's File 286?"
He leaned to his mike again, "Suspect has escaped. Subject is loose in xeno shopping district." He ran away from me.
"You'd better get off that sidewalk," a rumbling voice said from behind me.
I stared at the stranger, gobsmacked. Human, he wore a brown turtleneck sweater, slightly overfilled, but had a kind face behind his scraggly beard. In his left ear: an alien earring which slithered and curled like a tiny live snake.
The staccato sound of helicopter blades pounded the air in the distance.
"Those choppers are for you." He gestured toward the door behind him, inviting me in.
I obliged. He placed a CLOSED sign outside the heavy wooden door and locked it behind us.
He led me through his own xeno trinket showroom —larger, holding more exotic stuff than the old lady's tiny shop— then to a windowless back room where a small pot boiled on a rusty electric ring. I sat on a rickety metal folding chair next to a plastic patio table, the kind you'd pick up at a close-out store.
He turned his back to me and fiddled around with a cup and utensils near the heating ring. "Tea?" he asked, pouring one for himself over an already-used teabag.
I shook my head. "I suppose you want my box, like everyone else."
He laughed as he dropped two sugar cubes in his cup. "I'm not that stupid."
"Then why are you helping me?" I set the Pluripossible Box on the plastic table but kept my hands on it.
"Oh, I don't know. Good deed for the day?" He took a sip but recoiled at the heat and blew over the top of the steaming cup. His snake earring reared up like a cobra.
I raised an eyebrow. His spiel was even less believable than the old lady's. Then again, it seemed like she'd actually blundered into the truth. Something...beyond. Yep, seems about right.
"Don't believe that? Then call it professional curiosity. I've never seen one of those before. And I've seen just about everything. Been handling xeno swag since the very first meta-dimension opened. But what you have isn't a typical chotsky. Damn fine artifact you got there, lady."
It sounded like the helicopters must be right overhead. I imagined them crashing through the ceiling and unloading jackbooted stormtroopers. "Do you mind letting me in on what this thing is?"
"Sure. It's a Pluripossible Box."
I sighed. "I don't know what that means. What's inside it that everyone's so afraid of?"
He laughed again. "What's inside it?" He shook his head. "Nothing. Anything. Everything. Take your pick."
"You're talking riddles—"
A deep rumbling sound shook the building, not the helicopters, something at ground level. I stood up, feeling trapped.
"Those are armored vehicles," he said. "Only seen this kind of response once before, about nine months after the start of xeno imports. They kept that whole incident out of the news feeds of course."
My stomach sank. The whole army was looking for me, from land, from air, and this joker sat there reminiscing. I needed answers. I sat back down, looked him level in the eye. "Tell me what's in this box, in terms I can understand."
"One step at a time, lady. Did words ever appear on that box?"
I nodded. "When I first found it, the word 'YOU.'"
He smiled broadly, as if I'd confirmed his wildest dream was reality. "What were you thinking at that moment?"
I closed my eyes to clear my mind. "I was wondering what could open it."
"That makes sense. See, it psychically bonded to you in that instant. You and nobody else, as long as you live. Like a husband or a wife, see? 'Till death do you part."
"I don't see at all."
"You. You are the key to opening it. You wanted to know what could open it, and it responded, 'YOU.'"
"But I don't even know how to open it, or what's in it."
"You just ask it to open. 'Please open.' That's all there is to it. And it contains whatever you want it to contain. Anything that plausibly could fit inside, of course. You couldn't ask for an SUV or a refrigerator —wouldn't fit. Only things that weigh no more than the box. It's not magic; it obeys conservation laws. But it only works one time. So be careful —be very sure— you only get one choice. After opening with your desired item, it's used up —disintegrates."
I looked at the small box again. None of this made sense. "This isn't possible."
"It's alien tech, lady. A lot more is possible than we earthlings think. The way it was explained to me is that it's sort of a 3D printer that can print using quarks —can make any atoms, arranged in any structure. You can imagine something like that, right?"
I'd seen 3D printers making small items and had even heard of industrial ones that could print metal objects like jet engines. I guess an advanced alien race could print using quarks, though I had little idea how that would work or exactly what a quark was. I thought again about all he'd said; he was clearly oversimplifying it. "But if it can do all the things you say, it's more than just a fancy 3D printer."
He turned his palms up to concede the point. "Sure, throw in a spoonful of psychic tech, the ability to read the minds of anyone nearby including deep-dives into memories, even seemingly forgotten ones. Add a dash of universal language comprehension, artificial intelligence, access to vast databases detailing object structures. Mix it all together and poof. You've got yourself a magic box that can grant something akin to a wish about this big." He put his hands about a box-width apart to illustrate how big.
My head throbbed; I felt like fainting. I imagined rows of machinegun toting soldiers going door-to-door right now looking for me. Looking to shoot me dead then take this magical box that could make any smallish object.
But so many things still didn't make sense. "I went to a xeno locksmith, a Glakton. He tried to take it from me by force. I wished I had a weapon, and the box said 'DOMROOT.' The Glakton gave up immediately."
"Domroot gas is a deadly poison to Glaktons but doesn't do squat to human beings. If you'd opened that box, he'd have hit the floor, stone cold dead, two seconds later."
"A xeno cop ran away when the box flashed, 'File 286.'"
He moved the cup aside, leaned closer to me over the flimsy tabletop. "That cop must have been involved in that other little hush-hush incident I mentioned a moment ago. It was known as '286' because it happened 286 days after first contact."
"But how could the box reproduce a classified government file?"
"The box read his mind, found out what he was most afraid of, to give you leverage —the report describing what happened that day. Rumor says everyone involved would be prosecuted for high crimes and misdemeanors for what took place. Some alien tech went out of control, cops overreacted. People died, xenos died. Tactical mistakes, corruption, coverups, you name it. A scandal to end all scandals."
"So that's why the government is after this box? Because it can reveal a secret kerfuffle?"
He chuckled. "No, they probably aren't even aware of that dandy little fine point yet. There are better reasons to hunt you down. Think about it. You could wish for a pretty big chunk of antimatter, then open the box and half the west coast would blow up. With that thing, you're the most dangerous person on the planet."
He was right. This box was...everything at once. A powerful weapon. A blackmailer's dream. A transplantable heart. A strawberry snow cone. Anything at all that could fit inside. "It must be worth an awful lot."
"As long as you don't open it, it's priceless. It's the potential that gives it value. The potential to make anything. If you wish for a hunk of gold or a bag of diamonds, then open it, well, it's just worth that hunk of gold or bag of diamonds. Chump change in the grand scheme. But if you never open it...the potential is infinite. It can be anything you need, just when you need it. Therein lies its power."
Loud, angry knocks echoed through the shop, coming from the street door. Then muffled shouts, "Police! Open up!"
I put my head down on the table. I was going to die now. Some people get shot for pocket change; how much faster would they shoot me to gain a priceless artifact?
"I’ll just give it to them."
He shook his head. "You have to be dead before it can bond with someone new."
"I'll wish for something to save me...like I did before with the Glakton and the cop."
He nodded. "It's worth a pop."
I thumbed the indentations like before. "Make something that will get me out of this room, away from the police, to a safe location. But I don't want anybody to get hurt."
The surface colors did another mamba routine, then the box displayed a large question mark.
The shopkeeper whistled. "I was afraid of that. Sometimes a problem's just too big to be solved by something that fits in a small box."
I started to cry. If only Ed had been here. He would have talked me out of buying this damn thing to begin with. He'd know what to do now, how to advise me, even with the whole world land sliding in around me.
A series of three deafening bangs followed by echoes of splintering wood told me that the shop door had been rammed in by the police.
"She's in here!" the man shouted. He smiled at me again. "A guy's gotta make a buck." His snake earring hissed and struck in my direction, biting the air.
The louse had kept me here, kept me from running, to make their job easier. Probably texted them while making his tea. I heard boots rushing through the shop, knocking things over —I had only seconds. It can be anything you need, just when you need it.
An armor-clad officer stomped into the back room. "Where's the contraband?!"
The traitorous shopkeeper pointed at the tabletop in front of me, then looked there himself and frowned.
No Pluripossible Box. Just a tuna-can-sized Sesphalian holostrat.
I pressed its button, and a beautiful holo of Ed appeared in his dapper tuxedo, holding out a perfect red rose in my direction. "I love you more than anything, my darling. Listen to this recording whenever I'm not there, and all your troubles will melt away. Here's a love poem just for you, on our anniversary..."