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The Box

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He openly began to question why he had ever embarked on this awful quest for the most elusive of knowledge. Because I’m a scientist, he told himself. I have to know.

Scifi / Drama
Ray Gardener
Age Rating:

The Box

The light in Alan’s workshop was suffuse. He was in the basement of his house where black bottles of wine shared space with exposed plumbing and put-away storage boxes all nestled in perpetual darkness. No windows distracted him with slowly shifting sunlight, or light that could be darkened and brightened by clouds. Dust motes clung to the air like bubbles in a strange ocean that would not tell them up from down. A single desklamp illuminated a solitary table, a pale wooden slab an inch think nailed to four posts rather than being a true desk. The more one stared at it, the more one could be forgiven for expecting it to wobble.

He had been working all day but had not once noted the passage of time, not even to eat lunch. His bladder hurt but it could wait. It would have to wait. A small instrument of less width but of greater thickness than a smartphone occasionally tumbled in his hands as he inserted parts and made connections. Nearby a recently-used soldering iron started to cool down. Little pieces of bright metal, stripped wires and shaved plastic littered the worktable’s surface next to his other tools. There was an exacto knife, needlenosed pliers, and three or four tiny screwdrivers, the kind used to tighten eyeglasses. On his other side was a Textronix digital oscilloscope, still on but its square pale green display showing nothing. Farther out was his laptop computer, its case open and its keyboard grimy with accumulated finger oils.

There. He finally finished assembling the box. The last remaining touches were done. Its amber high-impact plastic casing was smooth and shined with a tawny, waxed glossiness. It felt polished but gripped well in his hands, like a sanded bar of soapstone. All that was left to do was to clip in a battery, turn it on, and try it out.

He hesitated.

He was afraid.

This was perfectly natural, he told himself. Only a complete fool would want to turn the box on. Even if creating it meant he would be alright, he could still not help himself or his fears. And that was perfectly natural too. At some point, however, he knew he had to proceed. It was illogical to have invested so much time and effort only to now let the device gather dust on some shelf. Only the box held the answers he sought, answers he must have at any cost. It was that line of reasoning that, with some relief, he found courage.

His fingers trembling, he picked up the little nine-volt squarish battery still lying on the table and pushed it into its mating contacts deep inside the box, and then clipped the access panel firmly into place. The panel became nicely flush with the box casing. If nothing else, he could take pride in the basic workmanship.

His hands were now trembling too. He turned the box around so that he could see its readout display, a small black-and-white LCD panel (or black and gray, rather) holding a mere hundred pixels square. Overkill for its main purpose, he thought, but it came in handy for showing diagnostic messages. All that was left was to push the single button underneath. The box would power on, do its thing, display the message (the message!) for a few seconds, and then turn off. He tried not to let his breathing increase as he pondered the inevitable.

He was forgetting something. The feeling haunted him; it was inescapable.

The test suite? No, he had already done that five minutes ago. How terrible to think that he could have forgotten that. But what, then? He racked his mind fiercely for an agonizing moment while sweat started to bead on his forehead.

Of course, he thought. Silly me. He rotated the box a full half-circle so that its front end was now pointing at himself. He wondered if he should have put the business end on the other side, but then dismissed the thought. What was done was done. He could always change it later. The important thing now was to do what he had to do, and use it upon himself.

Funny, he thought, how hard it was, now that the moment had come, to own up to it, despite all the logic he could easily muster demanding him to proceed. The box was ready. All he had to do was look at the display panel and push the button. Nothing more. His right thumb rested over the button and a simple press, like that of clicking a computer mouse, would do the job. And still he could not bring himself to do it.

Tears threatened to well up out of his eyes. He felt silly, childish, small. What had he been thinking all this time? That this would be easy? That he could just put together a simple device (simple in concept, anyway) and then go out and look upon the face of God? What colossal hubris. Who was he to open the door to absolute truth?

His pride finally got the better of him. He dimly recalled a poignant line from an old Kevin Costner movie he had seen long ago: either you define the moment, or the moment defines you. A little corny, perhaps, but true. Maybe Shakespeare said it best: To be, or not to be? That is the question. Yes, good words. Excellent words. They defined his current situation perfectly. With a new courage, a true conviction, he told himself plainly that this was no different than dating someone. To risk was to be human. He would either rise to the challenge, or shrink away. Kennedy called to him: The credit belongs to the man who is in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat... and even if he fails, his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

He made fists and steeled his eyes. He would not be timid. Such a fate was galling. He was insulted. He would not be indecisive. He was a man. He was not a pitiful coward. He would not let ultimate progress be stalled by his pitiful childish fear. I am not timid, he told himself, nearly yelling the thought. I am not timid! I’m forty-six years old, for God’s sake. Dammit, I have what it takes! I have what it takes!!

He closed his eyes tight and the tears came out. With a heart heavier than he could ever remember it being, he took every ounce of will he could muster and pressed the button. That damned button.

He could feel the box using power. Electricity surged through it, however meager. Funny, he thought, how such an important operation could be done by so little juice. On the other hand, given how it worked, nearly any battery would have sufficed, even the one in his wristwatch. If the thing ever went into mass production, then that, like the unnecessarily large display, would certainly be an optimization to make.

He forced his eyes open. Part of the procedure was to look at the display, to see the message. Unbelievable how much strength it took just to make his eyelids go up. Odd how his fear could be so absurdly, terrifyingly all-consuming. But somehow he managed. He had been holding his breath for so long that he thought his lungs would cave in.

One second, two, three. And there, on the tiny screen, the message appeared, flicked into existence by the box’s inevitable, unavoidable logic.

The message.

He allowed the air to fall out of him. On the box’s display screen, the single word PASS remained for five more seconds and then, just as easily as it had come, it went, and the box powered down. He could feel it grow cool in his hand as he remained standing for the five additional minutes he needed. Both his palms were sweaty, and at long last he put the box down on the table and wiped them with some Kleenex.

I will never forget this day, he thought somberly.

Early the next morning, he attached a keychain fitting to the other end of the box, and then looped a nylon camera tote cord through it and cinched the other end around his left wrist. He didn’t want to take any chances. He rummaged around for another battery and put it in his pocket as a spare.

Alan got to work only five minutes late. It was with some anxiousness that he got through the morning’s tasks. His e-mail was the usual ninety percent junk, he zapped the current round of bugs in the company’s product software with his usual efficiency, he played helpdesk and replied to a few support questions, and then it was lunchtime. All the while, the box dangled closely from his left wrist. But even if it had been stowed deep in his briefcase, he would not have forgotten it.

As people started to get up and go to the cafeteria he walked over and joined them. He hoped that the usual crowd of Betty, Paul, Arnold, and Stephanie would be at their usual table. They were not complete extroverts, and so their table was nicely off to one side.

He found them just starting to dig in and asked to join them. He didn’t have to ask, but he was so nervous, and what he wanted to do was so extraordinary, that he couldn’t help himself. Betty shrugged and offered him a spot near her and he said thanks and put his tray down next to theirs.

He and they made small talk. He wanted to wait until most of the food was gone, so he could have their proper attention. As the moment arrived he naturally started to wonder if maybe this was such a good idea after all. They’re coworkers... I can’t really afford to upset any of them, you know.

Alan was the oldest of the group, but they were all in their late thirties or early forties. Betty dyed her hair blonde and wasn’t even trying to mask her dark roots, which were now thick and obvious. She did something in marketing. She babbled easily about anything and could let subjects change without discomfort. Paul was short and balding and worked in accounting. He couldn’t decide between bowties and the normal kind, and so alternated between them depending on his mood. He didn’t joke often but when he did, his humor was of the penetrating, intelligent variety. Arnold was a beefy, good-humored product manager visiting from Europe but would likely stay longer. He liked to talk about sports and vacations and how Italian women were so beautiful. Stephanie wore dark-rimmed bifocals and had her dark hair always tied up, making her look like a librarian. She worked as a receptionist on an upper floor for one of the higher-ups, but never talked about it. Her gaze was penetrating and severe; judgmental. One could not just have her friendship, one had to earn it.

Alan had picked these people because he had come to know them fairly well. At least, he knew them better than anyone else outside his own family. He had made his guesses about what the box would say, and it was important to find out if his guesses were right. He suddenly bristled at the thought, a searing voice saying What gives you the right to play God flashing into awareness. It was brutal but fair. He should have expected it.

When he had first met them, they were all equally unfamiliar to him and so he had carved his benefit of the doubt equally amongst them. But as he had got to know them over the following weeks, and then months, he had built a picture of their personalities, and as much as he disliked doing so, he had concluded that while Paul and Stephanie did, Betty and Arnold did not.

And now...

And now, the box would tell him for sure.

The food was nearly gone. It was funny how they all managed to eat at the same rate. Alan glanced at his watch and noted that there was still forty minutes left. He waited for the talk to die down, and then cleared his throat.

“Excuse me.” he said, trying to keep his voice even. He padded his lips with a napkin to be sure he looked alright, and then put it down. “I was wondering if I could ask you guys something.”

They looked at him with a faint curiousness and mild surprise, and then at each other. Betty shrugged and then the others shrugged with her. “Sure, okay, sure.” they mumbled in unison. “What’s up?” Paul asked. Stephanie stared a little harder, as if wary.

Slowly, carefully, Alan brought out the box from within his jacket sleeve. He did not untie the camera cord, not just yet. He wondered how to proceed and then decided to just forge ahead, consequences be damned. It was the same moment of truth as before, back in the basement, and there could only be one path to the truth, also as before. So he opened his mouth and just let the words be said.

“I, uh, made this device. Back at home. I won’t bore you with a full explanation of what it does or how it works, because it’s all very technical. But, um...”

“Vat does it do?” Arnold asked, smiling, his French accent rising. He was always pleasant. It was a wonderful quality, Alan thought sadly.

“I, uh, use it to measure a certain attribute about people. You can think of it like a Geiger counter, I guess. But instead of measuring radiation, it just measures your, uh, aura.”

Suppressed laughs and giggles. Even Stephanie smiled. Well, at least they were still in a good mood.

“Sounds like fun.” Betty said. Others nodded. “Is it complicated?”

“Oh no.” Alan shook his head. “Not at all. I was hoping we could take the measurements today, right here at lunch. It’s very simple, actually. I just need each of you, one by one, to hold the box like this,” and he demonstrated, pointing it squarely at his chest and about a hand’s width away from it, “and then press this button. In several seconds, a single word will appear on this display screen, PASS or FAIL. The message will then go away after a few seconds more.”

“That’s it?” Betty asked. She seemed disappointed.

“That’s pretty much it. Oh, one other thing: you have to keep your eyes open after you press the button until the message appears. Also, no one else must be looking at it when you’re working with it. So when one of you uses it, the rest of us need to look away.”

“How,” Paul piped up, “will we know if the message is right? I mean, what if it says FAIL when I use it, but I say it said PASS?” He laughed slightly, and then so did Arnold and the women.

“Good point.” Alan replied. “I almost forgot. After you see the message, turn the box around so we can see what it says, or at least show it to me.”

He remained silent, and they all nodded slowly. “Sounds pretty straightforward.” Arnold said. “Should not take long, I would think.”

“Not at all.” Alan agreed, handing the box carefully to Betty. He unclipped the cord so that there would be no risk of anyone getting tangled in it or tangling it with something.

“What if it says I fail?” Betty wanted to know. “What does that mean?”

“Hell,” Paul said. “what does ‘pass’ mean? That our auras are coherent?”

More laughter. Alan wondered what to say. He mentally kicked himself and realized he should have picked a better choice of words. Or maybe not words; even a picture of a circle that was either one of two colors would have been better. Well, next time, next time...

“Pretty much.” he lied. “It just measures how easily it can pick up your aura. Or at least that’s what I’m hoping it will do.” He relaxed a bit; shifting the box’s results to an implied limit of the box itself sounded great. If someone did fail (and he prayed to God that they would not), at least they wouldn’t feel bad. They would just think that their aura existed, but was beyond the device’s ability to detect. Or so he hoped. At this point, it was all he could do. He’d come this far, so it would have to be enough.

“Cool.” Betty said. She raised the box up and held it level just above her breasts, which the men strained to avoid looking at too noticeably, and after tilting it a bit to make sure that only she could see the display screen, pressed the button with a little smile. She waited, and then somewhat dourly held up and turned the box so all could see.

The word FAIL emanated clearly from the box. The silence became pregnant, but eventually the message cleared and they started mumbling. Whatever failings Betty had, at least cowardice wasn’t one of them. Alan tried to remain composed, but inside he felt like a spear had been thrust cleanly through his chest. Why his heart bothered to keep beating he didn’t know.


It can’t be.

This isn’t possible!

He stared at Betty, seeing her in a new and horrible light. His flesh went cold and goosebumps formed along its entire length. He gasped and felt the air catch in his throat, and then shivered again. The world wasn’t what it seemed to be, and something important he had always taken for granted was suddenly a lie. His mouth hung open, his mind unable to believe even though he had always suspected this result. With complete detachment born of fatalism he watched Betty quietly hand the box off to Paul and murmur something like “Probably not strong enough. Prototypes always need refining, you know.”

Paul mimicked Betty’s handling of the box and waited for the message to appear for him. When it did, he made a tight-lipped grin and proudly showed the others the word PASS.

As Alan always suspected it would. Paul’s reaction was understandable; men had a natural competitive inclination, even if they didn’t know what it was they were competing for. For all they knew, the words could be inverted and the real meanings completely reversed, but for now, a pass was a pass and a fail was a fail.

Arnold diplomatically pressed the button during his turn and bravely showed everyone his FAIL result. His smile never wavered; to him, it was just another piece of interesting American culture. By the end of the day it would fade into the realm of forgotten trinkets and banal lunchtime conversation like so much else. Again, Alan’s blood ran cold.

Stephanie nervously began her trial. For a brief moment Alan thought that she suspected the truth, but if she did, she kept it to herself. With no emotion at all she pressed the button and then, after a suspenseful moment, showed everyone her PASS message. Alan thought that a slight glimmer of triumph entered her eyes, but no, it was something else, more like... relief, or concern. She knows, he thought. He looked away, lest she start demanding the truth from him.

Alan breathed again, relieved to be done with it. He accepted the box from Stephanie and tied it to his left wrist again and tucked it out of sight. A big part of him earnestly prayed that he would never have to use it again. He thanked them all, rose up and quickly walked away before Stephanie or anyone else could ply him with deeper questions.

When he returned home that evening, he thought he would be okay, and perhaps that was true for a while. But Janine arrived in only a few minutes, and he knew that the day was not over yet. He opened the liquor cabinet in the living room and poured himself a drink, hoping against hope that it would calm his nerves. He openly began to question why he had ever embarked on this awful quest for the most elusive of knowledge.

Because I’m a scientist, he told himself, trying to put conviction into the words. I...

He started to cry. He couldn’t help it. A tear fell into his drink and he put it down on the coffee table, his body slumping wearily into the sofa.

I have to know. I just have to know.

No matter what the cost.

“Oh, Alan!” Janine cried out. She rushed over and sat down next to him, holding his shoulders. “Oh honey, what’s wrong?”

He struggled to find words. “I... I’m alright. It’s nothing.” He knew she wouldn’t believe him, but what else could he do?

“You can tell me.” she said softly, holding his head so that it would nestle against her neck. She was warm and soft, and caring, and suddenly he ached to reveal everything to her. It would be such a release, such a weight lifted completely from his shoulders, but...

He couldn’t. He couldn’t! She was kind, and caring, and wonderful, but she wasn’t...

She would want to know, but he wasn’t sure if she was... that is, he wasn’t sure if she actually had a...

No! I can’t! I won’t!

He had to find a lie. A beautiful lie, something that would work. Something close enough to the truth so that even he could believe it, curse his soul.

“I was thinking about Richard Feynman.” he said, the words distorted by sobs.

She blinked but didn’t let go. “The physicist? The one who died just a few years ago? Oh, the professor in that book you liked so much.”

“Yes, that’s the one. Genius by James Gleick.”

“Oh.” she cooed. “That was such a beautiful book. It had such a lovely ending, didn’t it?”

“Yes.” he nodded. “Yes, it did.”

He tried to recall the book. Feynman was dying from cancer, and the biographer had come across a letter that the brilliant scientist had written long ago to his wife. To which one, he couldn’t recall — Feynman had married a second time, after his first wife had died from tuberculosis — but the gist of it was, in his letter he revealed how human he was, how despite all the knowledge gained from brilliant experiments and equally stunning insights and leaps of logic and a disdain for philosophy, he loved his wife. He could never be sure that she was real, because of the fundamental limits of what science could know. It was impossible to be certain that one wasn’t just merely imagining the world and everyone else in it, but in the end, he had decided that yes, she was real; she had to be. In the end, when his science could not answer him, he found acceptance.

Alan blinked away tears, trying to regain his composure.

He hoped Janine would not press him. He had to believe that she was real. He loved her more than anything, no matter what the box could say.

He sighed. He could never really have helped inventing it. It was so simple, after all. If the others ever found out what it really measured, the ones for whom it had displayed the word FAIL would have his head. It was a secret he would have to keep forever. He prayed that no one ever figured out how to duplicate his work. The thought of taking the box down to the basement and smashing it with a hammer into a million pieces offered itself, and it was indeed hard to resist. Only the objective, rational scientist in him said no. If he turned his back on the work, then everything that people like Feynman had lived and died for would be forsaken.

He had asked for the truth, and the universe had obliged him. How facetious, how ignorant, to now reject it. How turnabout to behave like the very people he despised the most, those who preferred the supernatural over science. No, as uncomfortable as he was between this rock and the hard place, it was his. He had asked for it; nay, demanded it, and the powers that be had accommodated him. If he had not wanted it, he had had every opportunity to not go poking around in the first place. Indeed, the box even showed him that he did have a choice, because it proved he had free will.

For that was what the box measured.

Deep inside its innards, two electrons vibrated furiously in separate (but nearby) quantum dots in a confined molecular silicon trap. The nanoscale circuits around it, their design painfully and slowly worked out by Alan over many months, used the two tiny point particles to run a workable version of the classic two-slit experiment. When the button was pressed, the display formed a faint pattern that only one’s subconscious could register. The displayed image was either an interference pattern caused by the electrons’ waveforms mixing with each other, or a flat color caused by the waveforms decohering from observation. The display was partially transparent and let one, indirectly, “see” the electrons inside. The circuits were designed to, after several seconds, display the word PASS if their waveforms collapsed.

A mere machine or mindless animal was just so much matter and therefore did not cause the waveforms to collapse. Only a true observer, someone with a mind, a soul — could do so.

He gasped. Betty and Arnold... they hadn’t really been there. Just... bodies going through the motions. No actual consciousness. Mere imitations of mind, practically flawless, but not mind itself. In their brains, there was no “I”, no sense of self, that experienced anything. They were just... automatons... moving lumps of hydrocarbons. When they had looked at the box, the box reacted as if it had been in the presence of other inanimate, soulless matter. The electrons had happily continued interfering with each other as if no one had been looking at them.

He shivered violently, then sighed. Janine started to rub him, and he held his head in his hands, vowing to never use the box again, especially with her. At least his love was real.

No, he thought, turning to face her. You are real too.

I have to believe that.

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