Pandora's boxes was originally published in Volume Seven of Pressed, a literary journal (formerly Pressed: Taiwan's English Literary Journal) which came out a few weeks ago at the 89K launch party. The publishers, Joel and Veronica McCaffrey, have since fled Taiwan to claim asylum among the cognoscenti in Australia. They are rumoured to have smuggled several crates of the journal, and a whole whack of vintage gao liang, which was stashed in their checked luggage. We wish them the best of luck and hope that they realize they will be sorely missed and always welcome back.
This is the fourth of my stories to find its way into Pressed. I have included links to the other three stories at the bottom and will create a box in the sidebar later to house
the entire set along with other works of short fiction.
There are stringent intergalactic laws about conquest. Various life-forms had developed technology that could erase a creature’s family back 100 generations, make an entire species go sterile overnight, or wipe out star systems without a trace. These abilities had been around for several hundreds of millions of years, and their initial use was quickly followed by some universal and fairly airtight legislation. It was either that or the possibility that the entirety of civilization would get flushed down a black hole.
I found my box down by the river in a little fort I had made out of scrap lumber and corrugated metal. It scared the hell out of me, because it should not have been there; I thought it was a trap from the beginning. You see I had woven the branches of the trees around my fort together and there was only one way in or out: Fort Apache-style.
None of my path or perimeter traps had been sprung, and there were no tracks in the soft mud; save my own, yet there it was in my contraband chest that I keep under grandpa’s old army cot. It was right on top of my journal, an extensive collection of pornography, half a pack of Lucky Strikes and other assorted trophies of adolescence.
I didn’t even touch it. There it was sitting in my most private place, screaming to be opened, as every box does. I imagined that it would detonate when I lifted the lid, blowing me and my little fort into our base elements. Paranoia carried my feet home like a pair of spooked horses, and I was out of breath when I reached the back porch. I couldn’t even remember unlatching the back gate and imagined that I must’ve plowed right through it like they do in the cartoons.
The laws governing what a mature, advanced species is allowed to do with an underdeveloped, and thus unconnected, planetary system were written to provide some protection to those barbaric backwater worlds and their backwards inhabitants. (This is a lot like the Terran laws that protect various animal species on Earth that are considered important enough or cute enough to be spared.) The laws aren’t perfect, though, and every few dozen millennia some overly aggressive alien grouping ends up with an entire planet of slaves, and it’s all nice and legal.
“You go down there and get that box!” came my Gran’s ancient, but powerful voice, which was currently set to dangerously agitated. My heart nearly exploded in my chest. If she knew about the box she must also know about the other contents of the chest: I was a dead man. This would mean the switch or the belt was coming out, and I was going to be saying Our Fathers and Hail Marys until I finished university.
“I don’t know if this is your idea of a joke, but you go down into my root cellar and get that box out of there. I can’t believe that I have to suffer the humiliation of having that horrid woman beat me every year at the Summer Fair, only to find a box of her crabapple jam on the same shelf as my rhubarb raspberry preserves. It’s an outrage, and I have half a mind to get the belt out.”
Relief and confusion were washing away abject terror in equal measure and I really thought I was going to pass out. “Pardon me, Gran…,” I stammered.
“Go down to my cellar, and get that box of Madeline O’Malley’s crabapple jam out of my house and into the trash where it belongs.” There was venom in my dear grandmother’s voice; poison reserved for her arch baking-and-all-things-grandmotherly nemesis. Her blue-haired arch rival, dear old Mrs. O’Malley from down the street.
“I didn’t put a box of jam in your cellar…” I began.
“Well I certainly didn’t, so who else could’ve put it there, space aliens? It’s an abomination, sitting there stinking up the place. That woman uses chemicals, like what McDonald’s puts on their French fries. That’s why she always wins, it’s no secret,” and she stared at me, fiercely daring me to argue.
“I know she uses chemicals, Gran, but you know I would never, ever touch a jar of her jam. If I ever found a box of that stink-apple jam, I would throw it in the river so it couldn’t hurt anyone.”
She stayed quiet for a second after I had stopped speaking. My grandmother was not a stupid person by a long shot. If she sensed I was patronizing her, then I was dead, but the stink-apple jam crack had saved me in the past. “Well, you just make sure you throw it downstream.”
It was then that I realized I hadn’t taken off my shoes at the back door, and my grandma hadn’t even noticed. Normally, I’d be lying on the kitchen floor in a daze looking for my teeth. No one wore shoes across my Gran’s kitchen floor. It was the first clear thought I had had since fleeing my fort. The whole world was being taken over by madness, and each surprise seemed less likely than the last.
“Now, could you be a dear and remove it from this house?”
“Yes, ma’am,” I rushed past her and down the stairs into the cellar. There on the second shelf amidst my grandmother’s prized silver medal winning preserves was the offending box of jam. I picked it up and carried it up the stairs and out of the house to the bins in the back alley.
It’s always difficult to write a law that covers every conceivable form of selfish, anti-social behavior, especially when you are dealing with very old civilizations: species that had had lawyer castes for millions of years. You can’t aggressively attack another grouping, but you can trick people; fool them; cajole their freedom or their lives from them. However, there are legal conditions that must be met. The species that gets fooled; the unlucky souls that are living on a planet with an enviable weather system, location, or a particular precious metal, have to invite the invaders in to a great degree. It’s like how vampires have to be invited into a house before they can enter, bound by the oldest magic.
“What’s in your box, Luke?” rang Simon Flynn’s voice in my ears.
“Just some substandard condiments, Simon,” I replied, “…loaded with gut rotting chemicals and quite possibly the result of a Faustian pact with the Devil.”
“Mine was full of porn, and Phil’s was full of cigarettes!” He beamed, “You wanna come over?”
“I sure do…” I began, but then my grandma started yelling from the back porch, something was on TV that I had to see.
The governing rules and regulations stipulate that picking up the object, and using it three times of the users’ own volition, constituted a binding, intergalactic contract with the supplier. It was not generally regarded as unreasonable that this contract was unbreakable, lifelong and only terminated on the death of the user. The more advanced groupings never really had much empathy for the less advanced ones.
“It’s on the CNN, Luke. People in Africa with boxes of McDonald’s hamburgers and guns; factory workers in Indonesia with boxes of Gap Kid’s t-shirts, most folks around here got i-Phones…”
The aliens, known as the Sainmhíniú, had near mastery of both the physical and psychic realms and loved to play games. They would find planets that were unconnected and then figure out a way to enslave the greatest percentage of the population without spilling any blood. One of their more clever thinkers came up with the boxes. S/He realized after careful observation that Earthlings would give up just about anything to get inside of a new box.
They thought the tricky bit would be finding out exactly what 7 billion people each wanted enough not to question exactly how they had gotten it. On Earth, it didn’t turn out to be that difficult after all. The twentieth century had efficiently programmed people to want without need and to take without thought. The result was that everyone was so full of insatiable greed or abject desperation that the Sainmhíniú managed to harvest about 97% of the population; a new record.
Things for Gran and I have continued pretty much the same as before; fewer lines, but fewer things to line up for as well. Gran still goes on about how they could read Mrs. O’Malley’s mind but they couldn’t read hers, and I don’t say a thing.
I still wonder what was in mine, but I realize that it was probably something I didn’t really need, and it would’ve come with consequences, as all boxes do.
...and, as mentioned above, some of my other short works of fiction
Don't spook the robots
The oldest vice
The thing about lip burqas