The Kitten Box
By Gareth Lyn Powell
I sat in the main bar of the Mare Inebrium with a thin man from another planet. He had delicate features and thin hands and his name was Dray Lu. He was a well-educated hustler and card sharp. And he had a problem. He'd been hanging around the periphery of the Mare for some months now, fleecing tourists and port workers. Our paths had crossed once or twice; he knew my reputation, and now he wanted my help.
'I know you've got contacts at the port,' he said. He was well-spoken, with a gentle voice that made you want to trust him.
'What of it?'
We were in a corner booth. The bar was quiet. At a table by the door, a group of blue-skinned creatures squabbled over a plate of toasted cheese sandwiches. Their voices were an indecipherable babble of squeaks and growls. The barmaid, Trixie, watched them from behind the counter. Every so often, her lips twitched in a half-smile. She seemed to understand every word they said.
Dray shifted uncomfortably. He spoke in a whisper. 'I need to get off-planet, with no questions asked.'
I leaned back. 'It doesn’t work like that.'
'What do you mean?'
'If you've done something illegal, I'll need to know.'
My name's Verne Turner and I'm a freelance shipping agent. I find passengers and cargo for merchant captains willing to pay my commission. If you need to find me, I'm at the bar most afternoons. The staff know me; I eat there, and it's a convenient place to meet clients.
Clients like Dray Lu.
'I haven't done anything,' he insisted. His hands fidgeted on the table, like injured birds.
'Then what's the rush?'
He looked up at me. His eyes were grey and tired. I could see the fear in them.
'I won something in a poker game,' he said, 'something I didn't want.'
I waited, but he just sat there, looking miserable. The blue creatures by the door stopped bickering and left. Trixie came over to freshen up our drinks.
'Having a good night, Verne?'
'What does it look like?'
She flashed a sharp, professional smile. She swept our empty glasses onto her tray and replaced them with full ones. Her heels clicked on the floor as she walked back to the bar.
Dray watched her go.
'What did you win?' I asked.
He reached into his jacket pocket and placed a box on the table. He slid it across to me.
'Have you ever seen one of these before?'
I shook my head. It was made of a dark metal and looked about the size of a cigarette pack. There were precious stones inlaid on the lid. There was a hinge on one side, a catch on the other, both made of platinum. I reached out to brush the box with my fingers, but Dray snatched it back.
'Don't touch it!'
He pushed it back into his jacket and sealed the pocket with shaking hands.
'What is it?' I asked.
He hunched over the table. When he spoke, it was through gritted teeth.
'It's a gambling machine,' he whispered. 'I won it from a traveller in a poker game.'
'A gambling machine?'
He cracked a crooked smile. 'You could say it's the ultimate gambling machine.'
I was intrigued. 'How does it work?'
He pulled himself up straight. 'You wouldn't believe me if I told you.'
He took a deep breath.
'The box contains a miniature kitten,' he said slowly, 'and a radioactive isotope. Whenever I open the lid, there's an even chance that the isotope has decayed, killing the cat.'
I frowned. 'And you place bets on whether the kitten's alive?'
He patted the pocket that held the box.
'Yeah; every time I open that lid, I'm betting my life on it.'
There are mirrors on the walls of the Mare Inebrium. Some show simple reflections, while others show distortions of other times and places. The one on the wall above our booth was currently displaying a swirling pink fog. Small bird-like animals flicked and fluttered through it,
throwing shadows across our table.
'The box is coated with semi-intelligent microscopic machines,' Dray Lu continued. 'They get into you through the skin.'
He showed me his palms, but I couldn't see anything unusual. 'Right now, they're clustered around my heart,' he said. 'If I open the box and see a dead kitten, they'll kill me.'
'How will they know?'
He turned his bottom lip up. 'The box emits some sort of signal,' he said. 'It activates them.'
I shook my head in disbelief. 'That's awful.'
He picked up his glass. His hands were still shaking. The ice cubes clinked.
'There is an up side. Until I see that dead kitten, the machines look after me; they keep my whole body healthy. They repair damaged tissue and fight off infection. Until they decide to kill me, I'm effectively immortal.'
He drank. Pink light from the mirror played across his cheek.
'Why don't you just keep the box closed?' I asked.
He lowered the glass.
'It's not that easy,' he said.
He wouldn't make eye contact; he looked haunted.
'Sometimes, I just have to know.'
We left the Mare and stepped out into the street. There was a fresh wind blowing in off the sea. Skyscrapers towered up on either side, their lighted windows turning night into day.
'So, will you help me?' he asked. 'Will you get me onto a ship?'
I buttoned my coat and turned up the collar.
'I don't see what's in it for me.'
He appraised me with a look. He seemed to come to a decision.
'I need to get to Bluewater,' he said. 'I have relatives there; I'll be able to send you money, twenty times your usual fee.'
I had been about to leave, but now I hesitated.
'Bluewater's a very long way from here,' I said cautiously. 'We don't get many ships going out that far.'
He stepped forward. 'If I can get far enough away, maybe the signal won't reach me when the kitten dies.'
'And you'll stay immortal?'
We stood facing each other for a moment. I could smell exhaust fumes and salt water. I looked into his eyes. There was something there, something desperate.
'What guarantee do I have that you'll send the money?' I asked.
He dropped his shoulders. 'I can't offer you anything of any value, except this box; would you accept it as collateral? You're the only one who knows what it is, so you're the only one I can trust not to open it.'
I stepped back, not wanting to touch it. 'Won't it infect me, too?'
He shook his head. 'It only seems to bond with one person at a time.'
He held it out and I took it. The metal was cold and smooth to the touch. The precious stones sparkled. It was surprisingly heavy. I looked down at it and it made my skin crawl.
'My life in your hands,' he said.
His eyes pleaded with me. The wind blew scraps of litter around our feet. What did I have to lose? If he didn't send the money, I could always sell the box.'
'Okay,' I said.
We stepped into a phone booth and I used my datapad to download his details to a tramp freighter that I knew was short on passengers.
'It's nothing fancy,' I said, 'but it's headed for the Rim Stars. It should be easy enough to get a flight to Bluewater from there.'
He smiled. I could hear the relief in his voice as he thanked me.
'There's no guarantee this will work,' he said, 'but I'm grateful to you nonetheless.'
I walked with him to the corner. My ears were burning in the wind.
'There's just one thing that puzzles me,' I said.
He stopped. 'What's that?'
'The box's original owner, the traveller.'
'What about him?'
I turned the box over in my hand. The stones caught the overhead street light.
'If this thing can potentially make you immortal, why was he stupid enough to lose it in a poker game?'
'I think he was playing to lose.' He scratched his nose. 'Maybe he just got sick of living forever, knowing it could all be taken away the next time he lifted the lid.'
He blew into his hands and stamped his feet.
'And you had no idea what the box was?'
He shook his head. 'All I could see were the diamonds on its lid.'
He looked forlorn, the victim of his own greed.
I pointed down the street. 'You catch the ferry to the port down there,' I said.
He reached out and shook my hand. 'Thanks. I won't forget this.'
He turned and hurried down the street, hunched against the cold.
'I hope you make it,' I called after him.
The freighter lifted off a few hours later. I watched it rise into the sky from my hotel window. I had a glass of bourbon in my hand.
I still didn’t know whether to believe Dray Lu's story. I'm usually pretty good at reading people, and he seemed authentically desperate, but I still had doubts.
I sat down. The box was on the bedside table.
I thought of Dray in his acceleration couch, watching the planet fall away beneath him. Was he relieved, or was he laughing at me? Could such a gambling machine really exist? Or had he just conned me out of my commission? I'd seen plenty of strange things at the Mare over the years, heard many wild stories, and yet I couldn't decide whether to believe this one or not.
And so I opened the lid.
I just had to know.
© 2005 Gareth Powell
Bio: The modest and prolific Mr. Powell says only that 'Aphelion kindly included one of my short stories AND one of my poems in their 'Best of 2004' selections. My blog (http://www.garethlynpowell.blogspot.com) contains full details of my other publications. I typed this story with a broken finger. And it hurt.'
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