|The Black Box|
|THE fighter's head spun. He never saw the swift upper-cut that sneaked under his guard catching him neatly on the left side of the jaw. He felt a vicious stab of pain at the back of his cranium, and a cold fog seemed to descend over the ring. For a few moments he gazed at the crowd, an expression of puzzlement in his eyes as if he were surprised to see anyone there, then at the bloodied face of his opponent. At last his head seemed to nod in recognition, his knees buckled and he sank gently to the canvas.
Later, in the bar, Danny was commiserating with his friend Joe.
'I just don't know how it could've happened,' Joe was wailing. 'A hundred quid it's cost me. My man was way ahead on points. He'd knocked that lump of lard down twice, no, three times. There was no way he could have lost.
'Well, he did lose,' said Danny in a sombre tone that suggested a profound truth about the nature of human existence. The two men contemplated the truth in silence. Then Danny spoke again. 'He lost his concentration for a fraction of a second, that's all.'
Joe said nothing. That fraction of a second had swallowed up the week's housekeeping money.
That night, Joe had a dream. At first, he thought he'd woken. Next to him, his wife Betty looked serene. On her face there was no hint of the furious row they'd had that evening. Then his heart stopped as he became aware that someone else was in the room. From the shadows a tall figure in a shabby anorak approached, its face hidden by a voluminous hood.
'You don't know me, but I know you,' came a well-spoken man's voice, barely above the level of a whisper. Joe lunged at the figure, but his arms grasped at thin air. 'I'm sorry about your bet, but I knew you'd lose,' continued the voice unperturbed. 'You haven't been very lucky lately, have you?' Joe did not reply. It was a statement, not a question. 'That's why I've come to make you a proposal. I think you'll find it quite attractive.'
'Don't tell me, you want to buy my soul!' laughed Joe. 'Well you're in luck. It's going cheap.' He was no longer afraid, but settling down to enjoy his dream.
'No, not at all,' replied the voice. 'I have a gift for you. You can accept the gift or reject it, there's no catch. Then it's up to you how you use it.'
Joe noticed a small black box on the bedside table. He picked it up. The only features were a red button, and next to it in large white capitals the words, 'PRESS HERE'. For a few seconds Joe's finger hovered, then he carefully placed the box back on the table.
'Very wise,' said the hooded figure. 'You want to know what it does first. I'll tell you everything, we've got nothing to hide. In our organisation, we know the future like a book. On the basis of our exhaustive knowledge of the present state of the physical universe I'll spare you the details! we are able to predict every event that will ever happen, the birth of a solar system, the falling of a leaf, with perfect accuracy. Now, the answers to any questions that you will ever wish to ask about the future are stored in that box. Need I say more?'
'Yes you do!' said Joe defiantly. 'What you've just told me doesn't add up. It's one thing being able to predict the course of physical events, whether large or small. For the sake of argument, I'll grant you that, though the idea seems utterly far fetched. But if you then make your predictions available to human agents, you've introduced a new variable which wasn't part of the prediction, and that is what a person such as myself chooses to do with that so-called knowledge. If you had told me that I was going to go to the boxing match yesterday, you would have given me a reason that I previously didn't have for not going, namely, to prove you wrong!'
'How naive of you!', the hooded figure admonished Joe condescendingly. 'Do you suppose that we haven't already included what you're going to do with the information as part of the calculation? I assure you everything has been taken into account.'
'Then you already know whether I'm going to accept your gift or not?'
'Precisely. Now, will you take it?'
Joe's tongue moved to form the word 'No' but he found himself saying 'Yes.'
Joe awoke to find his wife already up and dressed. He was about to tell her of his strange dream when he noticed with a stab of fright the black box in her hands.
'I suppose this is what you spent the money on!' Betty looked at Joe accusingly.
'For God's sake, don't press that button,' cried Joe.
'Why not?' Seeing her husband panic, she tossed the box carelessly from one hand to the other. Then she pressed the button. From inside the box came a woman's voice. 'Thank you for calling. Please state your question after the tone...Beep.'
'Oh God, what am I going to do now?' blubbered Joe.
'You're going to take the box from your wife.'
Without thinking, Joe grabbed the box and put it on the bed. He waited to see what else it would do, but nothing happened. Keeping his eyes fixed on the mysterious device, Joe told Betty about the man in the anorak. Betty's mouth grew wider and wider.
'You expect me to believe that!'
'You heard what happened.'
For the first time, Betty's face showed signs of doubt. Joe saw his chance to take charge of the situation. Controlling his fear, he slowly reached forward and pressed the button. 'Go on, ask it something!'
'Thank you for calling. Please state your question after the tone...Beep.'
Betty hesitated. 'All right. What am I going to do now?'
'In fifteen seconds time you will make a phone call to your friend Judy.'
'Well I'm not, so there!' replied Betty, marching over to the dressing table. On the table she noticed a note that she'd scribbled two days before: 'Judy's birthday tomorrow.'
'Oh drat!' Without thinking, she marched over to the phone, picked it up and dialled. As her friend's voice came on she slammed the phone down. The penny had dropped.
Joe laughed with glee. 'My turn now!' He asked the box for the complete list of winners at Kempton Park horse races that afternoon. As the woman in the box recited the names, Joe's eyebrows rose several times. Then he phoned his bookmaker to place a 50 accumulator. 'We're going to be rich!'
Joe and Betty danced around the bedroom.
Betty sipped a Bacardi and Coke as the Caribbean sun beat down on pale yellow sands that stretched as far as the eye could see. The azure ocean merged at the horizon with a cloudless sky. 'Darling,' she said suddenly, it's been a wonderful holiday, but I'd really like to go home now. I miss my friends.'
Joe looked desperate. 'We can't.'
'Why ever not? Is there something you haven't told me?' As she stared into Joe's pleading eyes, Betty felt her insides turn to ice.
'I asked the box this morning how long the holiday was going to go on and it said another two months,' Joe said in a flat tone. 'There's no point in trying to leave, something's bound to stop us.'
Betty's eyes flashed with anger. 'The box!' You told me you'd left it behind!'
'I was going to,' said Joe breaking into sobs, 'then I asked it whether I would leave it behind and it said no.'
Betty gripped his shoulders. 'Listen to me. We've got to get rid of it!' But Joe avoided her eyes.
'There's nothing we can do.'
The kitchen table was strewn with empty beer cans. Joe was alone. In front of him the black box seemed to grow larger and larger until it filled his field of vision. Gripped by an irresistible desire and an equally strong aversion, Joe willed his hand not to move. But he had to know. He pressed the red button.
'Thank you for calling. Please state your question after the tone...Beep'.
'Whaddam I g'n do now?'
Joe's voice was barely comprehensible but the box replied immediately. 'In one minute's time you're going to drink another can of beer.'
Joe surveyed the table. All the cans were empty. He felt a surge of joy. He counted them to make sure. He'd bought twelve and drunk twelve. There was no more drink in the house. 'I'm free, free at last!'
At that moment, the door bell rang. It was his friend Danny. 'I heard things weren't going too well for you,' said Danny. 'I thought I'd drop by to watch the snooker.' In his arms were two six-packs of beer.
'Dark Star' © Ruth Klempner 1999
'The Black Box' © Geoffrey Klempner 1995