Short Story: “Thinking Inside the Box”

Once you’ve set something in motion, you may have to play God to stop it. (You can view a video reading: part 1, part 2.)

“Thinking Inside the Box”
by P. Orin Zack
[Mar 19, 2009]

Sal idly sipped the last of his beer while studying the troubled woman at the small table near the corner of the dimly lit tavern. She had the ashen look of someone afraid to nudge whatever problem had brought her in for a drink, and she’d been hunched over a mug of flat brew since sometime before he’d walked into Jimmy’s Place. Sal had just drained his second import, and she hadn’t so much as jiggled her drink in all that time. Her left hand was white from the death-grip she had on the glass handle, her right was clawing at the edge of the table, and the foot that still had a running shoe on was tapping out some cadence other than the one that the jazz trio in the back room was embellishing.

He went to the bar, ordered two beers, and took them to her table. “Excuse me,” he said, slipping into the seat across from her, “but it looks like your beer’s gone flat. I brought you a fresh one to ignore.” He set it down, and slid it towards her.

When she didn’t respond after nearly a minute, he craned around to follow her gaze. She’d been staring at the fright-mask that Jimmy’d mounted beside the nasty gash left from a brawl, one that was too good of a story to ever erase the evidence. He turned back towards the woman, and tapped the edge of her fresh beer with his fingernail. “If that… that monster over there is anything like the one that’s got you spooked, I’d be happy to fight it off for you. I have seen my share of cretins, if you know what I mean.”

Something must have gotten through to her, because her left hand relaxed enough for him to pry the dead beer out and slip the fresh one in to replace it. “That’s better,” he said. “Do you want to talk about it?”

She blinked a few times, and looked him over. Sal wasn’t exactly the kind of man you’d expect to offer his services in a contest of strength, but then, ever since the bottom fell out the economy, he’d been trying his hand at a lot of things. Today, he was wearing a blue work shirt, but it was too clean for him to claim solidarity with the people he was playing support for. Being a former design engineer didn’t guarantee many interviews these days, but it did give him some credibility as an inspector at a construction project he’d once helped to lay out.

“Look,” she said unsteadily, “thanks for the beer, Mr. –?”

“Merino, ma’am. Sal Merino.”

“…but the monster I’m worried about isn’t…” She stopped, closed her eyes, and hung her head.

“Isn’t what?”

“I don’t know what it is… what it’ll be.”

Sal thought for a moment, and then glanced at the mask again. “Well, whatever it is that’s got you spooked, maybe talking about it will help.”

She stifled a humorless laugh. “I’m not sure I even understand it, and it’s my experiment.”

“An experiment? Listen, if this is going to take a while, I can order us some food. You shouldn’t try to drown your problems on an empty stomach. What do you say, Ms…?”

“Paula. All right. But, umm… but no soup, okay? I don’t think I could deal with soup right now. Or stew.”

“No… soup,” he mouthed, yielding to his growing perplexity. After he ordered them each a roast beef – without the au jus, Sal tried to ease her anxiety by telling her a bit about his own monsters, the kind that he guessed were spawned in business school dungeons. By the time their food arrived, he felt that she seemed ready to breach her own story, so he asked about her experiment.

“It was hell to get funding for,” she said after a few bites. “What I wanted to do fell between the ivory walls of several departments, and each one wanted the others to be responsible for it.”


“Physics. Chemistry. Biology. Even psychology. The university –.”

“You’re a professor, then?” he interrupted.

“No. Grad student… in a one-off major I forced on them. Interdepartmental students always give the stewards of traditionalism the willies. Anyway, the idea was to find out whether an unstructured biological substrate could support a self-sustaining network of quantum coherent reactions. Because if it could –.”

Sal raised both hands, and almost choked on his sandwich trying to get her to stop. “Whoa, whoa. Back up a few light years. I think you’re gonna have to take that a lot slower. Now what was that again, in English?”

By the time she’d finished both her sandwich and the replacement beer, Paula had explained that something really strange happened when you made a thick enough stew of the sorts of proteins, fats and so forth that packed living cells, especially the nerves in your brain.

According to the outlandish theory she was trying to prove, if those big molecules were packed between twelve and sixteen Angstroms apart – a scale so small that she had to compare atoms to the condiments on the table, the few water molecules that could squeeze between them would be held in place like a maglev train balanced over the electromagnets in its track. Once that happened, the whole stew would start acting like the Internet as far as the electrons in the water’s hydrogen atoms were concerned. More importantly, those electrons would bounce around at unimaginable speed, with all sorts of quantum coherence effects that Sal asked her not to even attempt to explain. But the end result was what she was after, because if this panned out, her energized stew would be like a skating rink for reality, and that might answer some of the thorniest questions in all sorts of fields.

“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, draining the last of his beer, “that a bunch of these ‘probable electrons’ could be the secret to how a couple of pounds of brain cells can think?”

She nodded. “That’s what I was trying to prove, yeah. Well, not that it is how we think, but at least a mechanism that could explain a lot of the mysteries.”

“I can appreciate your excitement, then. But something must have gone horribly wrong with your experiment to make you so scared. What happened? Didn’t it work?”

“Oh, it worked, all right,” she said. “Once I got the conditions right, and the pumps were calibrated to keep them that way.”

“I don’t get it,” Sal said, signaling the waitress for refills. “If it worked, then what’s the problem? What’s the monster you were so worked up about?”

Paula’s face darkened, and her breath grew ragged. “If I’m right… if the theory I’m trying to prove was right, then I may have created something in my lab, something without a body, without a soul, something with nothing to do but think. But what does it think? What does it experience?”

“This may sound uncomfortably practical, but why don’t you just ask it?”

She looked away. “I wish I could. I really do. But whatever it is that’s thinking – if that’s what happened — doesn’t really exist. I mean, that soup I brewed up has no way to communicate. God. All I can think of is what would it be like to be awake in a body that doesn’t work? If that stew is really thinking, it must have gone mad!”

“Then why don’t you just turn the experiment off?”

“How could I do that? That would be murder! And besides, before I left, I saw –.”

Sal sat back in his chair. “You saw something? What was it? What did you see? Is that what you’re so frightened about?”

The waitress set a new set of mugs down and scooped up the empties. Paula snatched hers and gulped half of it in a panic. “Before I left the lab,” she said, her wide eyes belying the forced calm in her voice, “I saw a wave of structure appear in the tank. Suddenly. Out of nowhere.”

“Meaning…?” he prompted her.

“Oh god. Meaning that… that thing I created, that monster that’s thinking without a body… it’s started to make one. And the longer I leave that experiment running, the more time it will have to create… whatever kind of a body a mad, insubstantial monster thinks it ought to have. My experiment will supply it as much raw materials as it can suck up, as much proteins and lipids and whatever it wants, and we won’t know what its building until either it breaks the quantum coherence that makes it possible for it to think without a body, or someone turns off the experiment. Either way, the thing’s idea of itself will stop being a quantum probability, the energy will lose coherence and whatever state its idea of itself was at right then will become real.” She stared at the mask on the wall. “I’m afraid to turn it off, and I’m scared to let it run. I don’t know what to do!”

Sal crossed his arms and thought it through. “Look,” he said a few minutes later, “if I understand your choices here, either you kill something that doesn’t really exist, since it doesn’t yet have that body you think it’s scheming, or you let it do whatever it wants, for as long as it wants, and then find out whether its dangerous. If you ask me, and you haven’t, I think we ought to go and turn that experiment of yours off, but be ready to kill whatever materializes in the tank if it looks dangerous.”

She slid her gaze back towards him. “We?”

“Well, yeah. It’s not like anyone else is likely to believe you, and if they didn’t, you might never get the chance to turn the thing off. So let’s go.”

*     *     *

The university’s lab building was never really deserted, even late on a Friday night. When they pulled into the parking lot, Paula peered through the light rain and silently counted the lit rooms. “Well,” she said as she closed the door, “at least there’s someone around to call in the emergency.”

Sal eyed her from across the car’s roof. “Don’t get ahead of yourself. We don’t know there’ll be an emergency. Let’s just go up to your lab and see what’s going on, first.”

“I’d feel a whole lot safer if we had something to kill it with… whatever it turns out to be… if it’s alive… if…”

He’d come around to the passenger side by then, and took her hand. “Come on. We’ll be okay.”

“Why? Do you have a gun or something? Or will we have to try beating whatever it is to death with a chair?”

“Um. Yeah. I do. I gun, I mean. I have a gun.”

She pulled her hand free. “You what?”

“It’s not mine, though.” He opened his jacket and pulled the corner of a plastic bag from an inside pocket, lifted it far enough for her to see the end of the barrel. “I found it at the work site. All bagged up like this.”

Paula squeezed her eyes shut and grimaced. “You found a handgun in a plastic bag at a construction site? Did it ever occur to you that it might have been tossed there because it had been used in a crime? Hell, do you even know if the thing works? If it’s loaded?”

“Well,” he said sheepishly, “I figure if it was used in a crime, then it probably does work. And yeah, it’s loaded. I checked.”

She stepped closer. “So I was just picked up by a stranger with a loaded gun in his pocket? This just gets better every minute.”

“Look,” he said, gesturing for calm, “I think dealing with your runaway experiment is just a bit more important right now than whether I’m likely to blow your head off – no, I didn’t mean that. Come on. Let’s go take care of your monster. Then, if we’re still alive after that, we can argue about how stupid I am, okay?”

A few minutes later, Paula gingerly unlocked the lab and opened the door. Sal followed her inside and stopped to look around while she walked over to the rack of electronics to the right of the oversize fluid-filled tank that dominated the room. There was a fire extinguisher in handy reach from the other end of the tank, and what looked like a master kill switch for the pumps and other gizmos attached to it. The top was held in place by a set of clamps, so it would take some time to remove it, should that be needed.

Having satisfied herself about whatever she needed to see on the monitors, she approached the tank. Sal was already there when she stopped drifting towards her experiment.

“So this is your stew,” he said, wiping some condensation off the front glass. “How can you tell what’s going on in there?”

She nodded towards the bank of monitors. “That’s what the special cameras and sensors are for. But it’s a lot thicker now than when I left.”

“What do they show? Have we got a monster in here?”

“There’s something, all right, but it’s all just a complex probability wave until we turn off the juice. The changes I saw earlier, and the scattering of partially built structures that are in there now, are just leakage from the quantum coherence I made possible. As soon as the power is cut, and the conditions that are supporting this hypercomplex web of acausal quantum connectivity change sufficiently, that probability wave will collapse into our world of classical matter and energy, and we’ll know what I’ve done, what kind of monster I’ve made.”

Sal glanced at her. “Then I guess we’d better get ready to deal with… whatever it is.” He grabbed the fire extinguisher and set it down in front of the tank. Then he pulled the gun out of its bag and set it down on a nearby table. “Okay. What do you want me to do?”

“I’ll shut off the experiment from the console, then you smash the tank with the extinguisher. That’ll pull the thing’s quantum Internet out from under it. There ought to be a loud snap when all that potential grounds itself, but there’s no way to know how big the thing might be, or what it might look like. It’s been designing itself in a kind of parallel universe, after all. Ready?”

He nodded, and picked up the extinguisher.

“On the count of three, then.”

At the zero mark, Paula pressed Enter, and Sal heaved the extinguisher against the tank, but it bounced off rather than shattering the glass.


He tried a second time, then dropped the cannister and snatched the gun off the table. While he was swinging around to aim at the tank, the thing erupted, as whatever materialized inside it displaced some of the stew, and a crack of watery lightning illuminated the glass case in a blinding flash.

“Get it open!” Paula yelled.

Sal rubbed his eyes. “Damn it,” he grumbled, “I can’t see.”

“Well I can,” she said, running towards him. “Give me that thing.” She grabbed it out of his hand and squeezed off a round into the side of the tank, but it only made a hole, leaving the glass leaky but intact.

By this time, he’d regained enough sight to act, and he rammed the fire extinguisher into the injured glass, which shattered, and released the slimy stew to cascade across the floor. As the fluid in the tank drained, a shape was revealed inside, a small one, easily small enough to strangle, if it came to that. Paula stepped closer, ignoring the muck splashing against her, the gun jiggling in her hand, which was dancing an erratic rhythm of its own. Sal pried it out of her hand and aimed it at the thing while she reached towards it.

It moved.

They looked at one another, and then at the little monster. It was wrapped in what appeared to be a thin, flexible membrane of some sort. As the remnants of the thick stew continued to drain away, it started to show some coloration.

Paula gingerly touched the membrane, and when she removed her finger, they could both tell that it had a sort of mottled appearance. A second later, it jumped, turning about ninety degrees to the right. She pulled her hand back, and looked at Paul.

“Well,” he asked, “should I shoot it?”

“Yes. No. Wait. I want to see what it is, but keep that thing handy, just in case.” She went to a cabinet and returned with a rag, which she used to wipe more of the stew from the thing’s colorful membrane. There were patterns to the color, intricate lacy swirls of vibrant red, gold and blue.

“Wow,” he breathed, leaning closer. “If it’s a monster, it sure is a colorful one.”

Paula bit her lip, and reached towards the edge of the membrane. Then she carefully slid her hand under it, and giggled.

“What? What’s so funny?”

“It’s got fur. Whatever this is, it’s furry.”

“Great,” he said, “but so are tigers, and I don’t think I’d be poking around one of them, either. In fact, –.”

An odd sort of chirping purr erupted from the case, and the multicolored monster started to wriggle free of the membrane. At first, it looked like the wrapper was falling off the thing, to reveal an expanse of orange fur. But then the wrapper folded back, and it was clear that the thing was more of a calico monster.

“Are you a cat?” Paula whispered, reaching towards it.

“Good question,” Sal agreed, putting the gun down and kneeling in the muck before the tank.

Its face certainly looked like one, and the tail. But it was obvious there was no way they’d be able to pass it off as a cat, not after it finished stretching, and it extended those gorgeous butterfly wings.

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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