The Box Is Protection, Not Prison (Preview)

If you asked Dominic Mitchell, the only things sloppier than the Daybreak Herald-Gazette’s reporters were their bathrooms.

It was a great irony that he’d spent ten years scrubbing floors and wiping windows for this rag of a paper. He couldn’t mention the name—much less read the drivel its writers churned out—without rolling his eyes. If any other job were available, Dominic would’ve taken it years ago, but jobs were scarce in the Box. Everything was.

Of the Herald-Gazette’s many flaws, the worst was its relentlessly pro-Box agenda. Every story reinforced the tired narrative that the Box existed for the safety of mankind, that the Creatures outside meant no harm. According to the Herald-Gazette, the Creatures crash-landed on Earth centuries ago. They built the Box to protect humanity from the toxic gases leaking from their damaged ship, and as soon as they finished their repairs, the Box would come down.

A nice story. Unlikely, though.

It was hard enough to imagine the Creatures quarantining an entire species out of the goodness of their hearts. Harder still to believe they just happened to have all the materials needed to build this Box. Did they often crash on foreign planets? Did their spaceships regularly leak fumes capable of exterminating an entire species?

This was no safehouse to protect humans. It was a cage to trap them.

Dominic scrubbed a glob of congealed urine off a commode. The minute he got home, he’d check the classifieds again. The janitor at the Nova Times wasn’t getting any younger. He was due for a heart attack any day now. The minute his position opened, Dominic would be ready.

Raucous laughter echoed into the bathroom. There was a thud as someone shoved Dominic’s supply cart out of the way, into the wall.

“Naw, I’ll be out soon,” said a throaty voice. It was one of the reporters. “I won’t make you wait up if you promise to have a drink waiting when I get there.”

More laughter.

Dominic hunched over the toilet, knees growing sore. This stall was his final stop. If he could work in peace, he’d be home by—

“Aw, dude!”

The reporter appeared in the stall doorway. He was tall, with a bald head and shoulders wide enough to graze either end of the stall. He wore a rumpled shirt, and a leather satchel dangled from one shoulder. Patchy stubble dirtied his cheeks. Dominic had seen his photo looming over plenty of atrocities masquerading as stories, but his name escaped him.

“Yeah, I’m about to take a dump,” the reporter said into his phone. “Janitor’s in my stall, though.”

Dominic returned to his work on the toilet.

“Hey, did you hear me?” the reporter said, louder now. “I gotta use this stall.”

Without turning, Dominic gestured to one side. “There are other stalls. I’m cleaning this one.”

“But this one’s my stall.”

Dominic only snorted. How old was this guy, anyway? Throwing a tantrum because he couldn’t do a dookie in his favorite potty.

He’d scarcely turned when the reporter took a fistful of Dominic’s jumpsuit. The collar tightened around his neck for a moment, and then he was tumbling backward. His head smacked the tile floor. He slid across the freshly-mopped floor, and came to a stop beneath the sink.

Dominic gingerly felt his head. It stung enough that he felt sick to his stomach, but at least there was no blood.

The reporter smirked inside his stall, still holding the phone to his ear.

“I gotta let you go, dude,” he said into the phone. “You don’t wanna hear this.”

He laughed again and slammed the stall door.

For a moment, Dominic lay still, listening to the reporter do his business. How had his life come to this? He’d dreamed of improving society, of helping others find deeper meaning in their lives. Now he was lying on a chemical-damp floor while a Neanderthal carried out bodily functions a few feet away.

Dominic pulled himself up and grabbed a handful of paper towels to wipe the cleaning solution off his skin. The bottle promised its contents were non-corrosive, but Dominic didn’t believe it for a second. Not when his nostrils burned every time he twisted off the lid.

After drying off, Dominic carried the soiled paper towels to his supply cart. The reporter’s voice boomed after him.

“You aren’t leaving, are you?”

Dominic rolled his eyes.

“This one’s gonna need some attention. Sorry.”

More coarse laughter. Dominic folded his arms.

“Hey! I’m talking to you.”

Dominic took a deep breath, counted to three, and forced himself to say, “Do what you need to do. I’ll take care of it.”

The bathroom fell silent, and Dominic leaned against the wall. The tile cooled his aching scalp, but not his anger.

As Dominic waited for the reporter to finish, something caught his eye. The reporter had set his leather satchel on the sink. The satchel had tipped over, scattering its contents about. Most were inconsequential—pencils, notecards, and snack wrappers—but in the clutter, one item drew Dominic’s gaze.

A data disk.

It wasn’t labeled. It was a plain ring of silver, two inches in diameter.

For all Dominic knew, it was blank, but what reporter carried blank data disks? Any given Herald-Gazette reporter would have two or three disks rattling around in his satchel, and not one would be blank. Each would be filled with half-finished stories and half-cocked theories about benevolent Creatures.

Dominic crossed the bathroom, snatched the disk, and dropped it into his back pocket. He couldn’t explain why he did it. All he knew was how angry he was, and how good it felt to take something that belonged to the reporter.

The toilet flushed, and the stall door swung open.

“Going through my stuff?”

Dominic turned, ears burning. The reporter stood at the edge of the stall. His build was more wrestler than writer. If it came to blows, Dominic wouldn’t last five minutes. The reporter had at least fifty pounds on him.

Dominic’s mouth opened, but no sound came out.

Finally, the reporter’s broad face broke into a stupid grin. “I’m just messing with you, bro. Don’t be so serious. That’s why nobody likes you.”

The reporter clapped Dominic on the shoulder, hard enough to knock him off balance. Dominic stumbled aside, and the reporter reached for his satchel. He slung it across his shoulder and left the bathroom.

“Stall’s all yours!” he called over his shoulder. “Gonna need a good scrub, if you ask me.”

Dominic listened as the footsteps faded away. His heart still hammered in his chest, but now that he was alone, its pace subsided.

He patted his back pocket, making sure the disk was still there.

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