Short Stories

A Short Story: The Knowledge Box by Allison James

It was a warm, humid day in the middle of August when, of suspicious yet unknown circumstances, a middle-aged man in good health dropped dead in his apartment in central London. Nobody witnessed the event and there was nothing to suggest a murder had taken place. Police were unable to pinpoint any living relatives. Furthermore, the man only had one known friend.That friend was me…As I drove to Bert’s apartment, I speculated upon the cause of his death. It certainly wasn’t an ordinary domestic death; the authorities had made it perfectly clear over the phone that there were no physical marks on him and I ruled out anything chemical, such as an overdose, as I knew he wouldn’t have it in him to go through with that. He was reclusive, but not unhappy, and certainly not suicidal.I parked my car in the last remaining space. A number of ambulances and police cars occupied those not taken by other residents of the apartment block. As I climbed out of my vehicle the rays emitted from the distant sun nearly lacerated my skin with their blistering heat. After quickly working my way into the correct apartment block and navigating my way up two flights of stairs, I was immediately able to identify where Bert lived by the fact that it was cordoned off by the authorities. Having been invited by them, I took out my passport to identify myself and was allowed to cross the tape.An unusual atmosphere plagued the flat, though I couldn’t tell what. I’d been there many times before, during which it had never changed. Visually there was little difference – an assortment of clothes, magazines, litter and other unneeded items strewn across the floor, walls coated with damaged posters given away from magazines from decades ago, and furniture in dire need of cleaning and/or complete replacement (as was with the sofa) - but the scent of cheap deodorant and cigarette smoke that once lingered in the stuffy apartment seemed somehow overshadowed by… something else.Bert lay in his bed as if nearly asleep. He had definitely passed, though – for one, there was an absence of loud, hearty snoring, which would be present if he was sleeping. The bedsheets were nearly as dirty as the sofa. What intrigued me was a small, matte-black cube beside the corpse. It was no more than a couple of centimetres per side. Circular holes were found in each of its faces, as if the shape of a sphere had been carved out from the inside. Intriguingly, there was a central sphere that seemed completely suspended. The police must have passed it off as a pointless little trinket, but I’d never seen anything like it before. And it wasn’t in Bert’s nature to possess anything of genuine interest. As I looked at it inquisitively, I became aware that the eyes of a police officer behind me were burrowing into the back of my skull. With a hint of melancholy in my facial expression I turned to face him. “Erm… excuse me. Can I please take this?” I asked, pointing to the mysterious cube. As he nodded affirmatively, I took it with my right hand and slipped it into the pocket of my jeans.The policeman met my eyes. I could tell he had detected the eeriness of the atmosphere too. “Have anything you could contribute to the reason for this death?” he asked me, in a fairly deep tone. It took me by surprise. For a policeman he was fairly short. I was expecting  a higher pitch to his voice. Nevertheless, I recounted the musings from my drive here before being permitted to leave. Bert had never been a best friend as such. We spent many nights together, drinking and watching films, but, in all honesty, his death didn’t trigger any particular upset.I returned to my car with plans to stop off at the nearest drive-through for an easy meal, then go back to my house for relaxation. It was getting fairly late – around 5pm (I’d forgotten to put my watch on and the clock in Bert’s house had stopped). On the journey, I resumed my thoughts on how his death could’ve come to pass. Without particularly thinking about it, my thoughts caused me to start talking to myself. The shock of my life occurred when I asked myself “How could Bert have died?”.I got a response.It sounded like it was coming from inside my mind. It certainly wasn’t my subconscious – its voice differed immensely from mine. I had been told my voice had a tender, medium pitch to it (I didn’t know personally since I despised listening to myself). No. This voice was deep, booming and deadly serious. “He asked me the wrong question.” Confused and in a mild state of shock, I found myself a layby to pull up in. Wondering if it was insanity, confusion or my subconscious taking on a mind of its own and an accent to match, I queried out loud “Wh-who or what exactly are you?”. A few seconds passed with a deadly silence.The same voice then uttered, “I’m the Knowledge Box.” My bewilderment was then averted by the awareness a newfound warmth that had found its way into my pocket. Moving my fingers down to touch the source, I became aware that it was emanating from that bizarre black cube I’d picked up from the apartment. I took it out and held it to the light between my middle finger and thumb, noticing that the suspended sphere in the centre of the cube was red. As I stared at it in disbelief, I noticed the sphere slowly fade to black; this was accompanied by the cube’s return to its original temperature.I decided to drive home before further investigating what the self-named “Knowledge Box” was. Having lost my appetite from the consternation, I was able to cut a few miles off my drive. This was inherently a good thing; my entire body was shaking, my vision was slightly blurred and my brain was working at a decimated capacity. I placed the black cube carefully in the glove compartment and brought the car to life with a quarter-twist of the ignition-holstered key.Arriving at my house in a state of shock just as strong as when the little cube first “spoke”, I took the Knowledge Box into the palm of my hand, locked up my car and ran inside, shutting the door behind me and closing its latch to ensure privacy. Feeling a twinge of excitement flow through my body (as much as the Knowledge Box worried me I was about to solve a curiosity that, in the last half an hour, had completely enthralled me despite the shock), I set the cube down on my dining table and sat on the nearby seat. I crossed my arms and legs and gazed at the object. After a few minutes of staring I decided to start with my interrogation.“So… what are you exactly?” I asked, in my head partially wondering why exactly I was talking to a cube. A momentary, familiar silence followed for a few seconds, then once again the low voice from earlier piped up.“I’m the Knowledge Box.” The inner sphere once again changed to a fiery red colour. I presumed its warmth had also returned. To prevent damage to the table top I slid a coaster underneath the cube.“So give me a detailed explanation of what exactly you do.” My gaze remained unbroken with the object. However, after several seconds I realised it wasn’t replying. The sphere was once again black. Wondering if perhaps it only responded to questions I reworded my statement.“So… what exactly is your purpose? Can I have a history of what you are and how you came to be?” A few seconds passed. Then something strange happened. The sphere turned blue. I tapped its side. Its touch was akin to a block of ice. Then the voice piped up once again.“I’m the Knowledge Box. I was created in Ancient Greece in 295BC by the least intelligent being alive at the time. I am the result of a pure accident.” The cube paused. It seemed to be comprehending something. The sphere changed from blue to red. “I know absolutely everything. The past…” (blue again) “…the present…” (red) “…and the future.” With this final word the suspended ball switched to the most beautiful shade of yellow. It felt neither warm nor cold. Infact, it felt like it didn’t even exist. Finally, it changed back to red to add a footnote “…to an accuracy of 100%.”Sorry? Had I misheard? How could it know the future so perfectly? Surely I could ask it something I was going to do, then simply do the opposite to its response? I felt the need to test the cube’s authenticity. I noticed my mobile phone residing a little further along the table. I had a real liking for this phone. It was a bright red flip phone, with a minuscule screen on its cover and the buttons and screen tucked inside it. It was fairly worn - I’d had it several years - but since I didn’t need to text or phone people much and I had another device for doing anything else portably, not to mention all the memories and general nostalgia connected to this one, I had never upgraded it. I brought the phone to a few centimetres to the left of the cube, pointed at it, and prepared my test.“Okay, Knowledge Box, in the next minute am I going to turn this phone off?” That beautiful yellow once again appeared on the surface of the cube’s inner sphere, giving me a feeling of serenity. I was eagerly awaiting the cube’s response, when, without a flicker of warning…Something unexpected happened. Something loud. Something violent. The phone exploded. I was hit by part of the casing, causing a cut on my brow. A chunk of the table, newly blackened by the blast radius, spread itself around my dining room floor. The Knowledge Box rolled over a couple of times from the force the explosion exerted. As I leant back in my chair with renewed stupefaction, the cube, in its monotonic voice and without an ounce of remorse, simply uttered “No.”It was time for me to head to bed.***I woke up in a cold sweat. An unpleasant dream had occupied my mind throughout the night, though I was hazy on the details now - I never could remember dreams. Stepping out of bed and still in a partially dazed state, I stomped across the room in pursuit of the shower. The sweat, amongst other things, made me feel rather unhygienic.As the water shot down on me I remembered the presence of the small cube still undoubtedly sitting on my table. I would still be mourning the loss of my old mobile if the way it had died hadn’t been so mesmerising. I hooked the shower head back into its holder, wrapped a towel around myself to prevent people walking past my house ending up in hospital with eye wounds, and sat back at my dining table, surveying both the cube and the damage it caused. I so desperately wanted to ask it another question, but with a twinge of pessimism, feared it might result in my death, searing pain or related general hindrance. Then, however, I remembered the questions I’d asked before. No ill effect had been noticed with any of those. So why did…I paused. The words the Knowledge Box had uttered yesterday replayed in my mind. “…and the future …to an accuracy of 100%.” To be certain on knowing the future it would have to have some kind of effect on happenings to ensure it was 100%. It wouldn’t have known if I’d decided to turn my phone off or not, so it eradicated the defenceless little device, making turning it off entirely impossible. The thought of the damage such a tiny cube could do was mind-blowing. But I couldn’t use it to my advantage incase the Knowledge Box chose a disadvantageous solution. If I asked it if I would win the lottery, for all I know it could kill me off!It was getting on 11am. My drowsiness had worn off, so I decided to do what any guy would do in my situation. Get drunk. There was a pub 200 miles north of my house. Walkable distance, though certain parts, including a tricky blind spot in the road, were potentially problematic on the stumble home. I slipped on a T-shirt and the closest pair of trousers and headed off.The pub was fairly densely packed with soon-to-be fellow drunkards. That unique smell of the combination of alcohol and sweat (fairly similar to how Bert’s flat used to be) lingered in the air. As I ordered my first pint and prepared to nestle my chin into the palms of my hands and ponder, I noticed a fairly pretty woman sitting on the stool to the left of mine had beaten me to it. With a shimmering of human kindness that definitely wasn’t just a preliminary attempt to get into her underwear, I placed my hand on her right shoulder.“Hey, what’s wrong?” I asked, with a look of concern. She brought her head up, and her eyes met mine. I could tell she had been crying due to a mascara-stained tear perched on the top of her cheek. It took her a few seconds to reply, during which I retained my look and readied my mental list of cheer-up lines for easy access to the one most fitting.“M… my brother died yesterday.” Her reply was fairly slow and contained a couple of stammers. I could tell she was close to bursting into tears again. As I looked to her with sympathy, I realised who she was. I didn’t want to let on, however, so I played dumb.“Oh… I’m sorry to hear that.” I looked away for a second or so; it felt a lot like I was staring. I then returned my head to ask her the question I already knew the answer to. “Who was he?”Her reply confirmed the definite. “I don’t expect you to have known him… he was fairly reclusive. His name was Bert Starr.” She hesitated and looked to me. Instead of publicising how big a coincidence it was, I let the girl continue. “We don’t know how he died… but it’s horrible. He was only in his 20s and in perfect h… health.” With the final word she began to break down again. I wrapped my arms around her, feeling a level of empathy I really hadn’t before experienced.“Come on, I live a couple of hundred yards down the road.” I responded, with the sole intention of cheering her up. “You don’t want to be crying in a stuffy place like this.” She nodded, hopping off her stool and wiping her tears away with one of her blouse sleeves. A black streak spread its way across the white fabric in doing so. We walked out of the publican, slaloming around the other customers, with her arm traipsed across my shoulders. I could tell she’d already had a few drinks – though she wasn’t completely off her mind, she was walking awkwardly and, without me there as a balance, I’d expect she’d fall over fairly promptly.***As we approached my front door I slipped my hand shakily into my pocket, taking a grasp on my front door key and withdrawing it. Gaining entry to the flat, I guided the girl to my sofa, on which she laid down and fairly quickly fell asleep, accompanied by loud snoring. I threw the key haphazardly onto the coffee table fronting the sofa, where it slid for a foot or so before friction took its toll.At that point, I was fairly lonely. My only source of conversation for a while had been a girl whose problems had dominated our last conference – she was more than out of action. I didn’t want to leave the flat either, because of something loosely comprising feelings of security and ruefulness. Then, a brainwave occurred. I made my way to the dining table, still bearing the scars of a previous encounter with the object of my current desire, and clasped between slightly shaky fingers the Knowledge Box. Sitting down to try to calm myself a little from what could well be another disastrous session with such a seemingly innocuous object, I prepared my words.“Can you converse with people?” I asked it, wondering if it should be considered weird I was talking to a piece of plastic barely larger than a die.A few seconds passed, to which a familiar red glow was discharged from the cube, and a steely deep voice replied “Yes.” Well, when you’re lonely, you can’t be picky.“So…” I began formulating my next words with relative care. “When were you created?”The blue glow returned to the central sphere of the Knowledge Box as its voice answered my query. “I was never created. I have always been.”Thoughts. Feelings. Curiosities. All of these swept across my brain. Had I located God or something? Surely not, the box wasn’t free to make its own decisions. It was a tool. With the right questions it could achieve anything, but it always needed someone in control. In command. I could feel my heartbeat racing; my mind was filling to the core with potential questions. Some stupid. Some potentially life changing. But I had to start somewhere so I decided to quench a curiosity which had been with me ever since the destruction of my mobile phone. “Knowledge Box… when you alter things based on questions, like with my phone, how do you actually destroy it?” Red seeped through the invisible pores of the Knowledge Box’s core.“I do nothing.” A pause followed, leading me to believe the device had just tried to avoid such a question. But before I could retort, it continued. “A power bestowed upon me before time itself ensures that I am always correct.” Though the box carried no visible emotion, I could visualise a very smug face slapped across its chassis right now. “For certain things to be correct, ie questions about the future, things have to change to maintain that guarantee.”A temptation arose to ask how such changes occurred, but I predicted the answer to be something beyond my comprehension skills. So instead, I went leftfield. A tiny iota nestled inside me wanted to outsmart this know-it-all item.“So… will you ever die, or break?” I couldn’t help but smile – given its logic, such an answer could only result in its self-destruction.“No.”So there was no way of getting rid of it. Superb. My leftfield swerve had just led me into another pointless field. I spent a minute or two eyeing up the Knowledge Box, an item that looked to be made out of inexpensive plastic. An item that had been around forever and would be around forever. But the thought of immortality triggered something inside me. I had a question for the Box… could others be immortal? I would ask about myself, but being immortal was far from appealing. Then, a selfish thought crossed my mind – how about the girl currently laying on my sofa? Surely one little question about her wouldn’t be of any harm, and she was too inebriated/asleep to realise. I took a deep breath in preparation, then asked my question.“Okay, Knowledge Box… will the girl currently in my house, on my sofa, ever be immortal?”As the stunning golden glow once again protruded from the device, I realised a newfound silence had dawned upon my flat. There was no snoring coming from the girl. A deep, powerful feeling of regret caught my heart as I rushed in, only to discover my fears were confirmed. She was dead. Tears of anger, remorse and downright upset slid gracelessly down my unshaven cheeks as I ran towards the Box.“WHAT WAS THAT FOR?!”The Knowledge Box’s calm demeanour was fully intact as it issued its reply. “I only know the future by changing what’s current. Death is an irreversible process; I don’t know if that girl would ever have been immortal so only one solution existed to ensure I was right.” Another emotion joined the crowd quickly gathering inside me – disgust. But it was expectable. The cube resting on my dining table didn’t have feelings. It just had every single piece of knowledge in existance and enough artificial intelligence to talk about it. But I should have known. I’d let my guard down when I already knew from past experience what the Knowledge Box could do. And now a girl was dead. A girl grieving for her dead brother. Both had been killed by the Knowledge Box. God knows how many other corpses were a direct result of this foul little piece of equipment.The guilt was too much. Tears continued streaming down my face, as I slowly and knowingly picked up the Box, ready to ask it one more question.***It was a cold, rainy day at the end of August when, of suspicious yet unknown circumstances, an early-20s-aged man in good health dropped dead in his apartment in central London, along with the sister of a middle-aged man who had also died a couple of weeks prior. Nobody witnessed the event and there was nothing to suggest a murder had taken place. Police were unable to pinpoint any living relatives.I was his closest friend. I’d gone to college with him.As I entered the flat, an odd feeling crept into me. I walked past the first body, one I had no relation to. I made my way to the dining room, which was where Sam lay. I knelt beside him, bringing his hand into mine as I felt sad. He’d not had the healthiest of regimes, sure. But he was in good health. It was then I noticed he was clasping onto something. I carefully prised it from his hand and began examining it. I noticed the pair of policemen take a look at the item but show little interest. But it had tickled my curiosity.“Erm… excuse me,” I directed inquisitively to the policemen. “Can I please take this?”