Tardis

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Out of the Box was the eleventh short story in the anthology Out of the Shadows, published by Arcbeatle Press. It reintroduced Box, the Preternatural Research Bureau's sentient portable computer introduced in When to Die and broken at the end of that film, as an active presence in the series.

The story made use of numerous other preexisting elements from the Doctor Who universe, in minor roles or as background mentions.

Summary[]

One day, while attempting to strike up a conversation at P.R.O.B.E. HQ with Agamya, Maxie Masters find her eyes drawn to one item on Giles's ever-mysterious "Dr Smith shelf": Box, a broken computer in the shape of a small black box, which looks to Maxie more like technology from her own home than human engineering. The two glimpse a mysterious flash of green light coming from the box as they are looking at it, before it becomes inert again.

This flash, as yet unbeknownst to them, is a distress signal that Box, unable to communicate in other ways but still conscious, has been repeating once a day, every day, for the several years since she was damaged. Box, who used to be the personal computer of the previous P.R.O.B.E. director, spends her time scanning the objects around her on the shelf and trying to solve cases abstractly based on the evidence available to her. When Giles adds a new item to the shelf wrapped up in the day's newspaper, she latches on to a report about a pair of fatal "industrial accidents" at Bildbriain Dairies, not trusting C.E.O. Henry Bildbriain's claims of how these two deaths occurred. She begins to ponder what might really have produced the injuries depicted in the photographs.

Meanwhile, Maxie hesitantly tells Giles about what he saw. Though he is initially disapproving when she asks about "an item on the Dr Smith shelf" (discussing the Greater Key with her as evidence of how dangerous items on the shelf can be), he is relieved when she clarifies that she is talking about Box. He puts her up to trying to fix Box, something which none of the people he's asked over the last few years have been able to achieve. Maxie goes to her room with Box and stays up all night working on the device, figuring out that none of the non-time-sensitive humans who attempted to repair the computer failed because they did not realise an invisible time loop was an integral part of the system. More frighteningly, she realises Box was built not by a Gendar, but by a Sun Builder, one of the gods of her people — and not just any god, but the Gendar pantheon's Trickster God. When Giles visits her in the morning, bringing her a cup of cocoa, she's in such a nervous state that she knocks the cup over, spilling the hot chocolate on Box and cancelling out much of her progress.

Over the next few days, Maxie leaves Box behind to focus on field work, assistings the rest of the team investigate an electromagnetic ghost and help the Space Lords corral a herd of space barnacles back through a Space-Time Rift. When the team return to HQ, however, Agamya notices the gap on the Dr Smith shelf, and, unaware that it was agreed upon with Giles, angrily confronts Maxie about it in front of him. In the ensuing conversation, a rift forms between the two women as Giles clarifies that Box is in fact a sentient being, and Agamya unsuccessfully beseeches Maxie not to awaken this alien intelligence, which Agamya is convinced is probably malicious and untrustworthy.

Returning to her work, Maxie remains troubled by Agamya's worries about Box being something like an imprisoned djinn; although she originally thought of this as silly, superstitious thinking, her recent remembrance of the Gendar Song of Aten's Arsenal and what it says about the Greater Key, combined with some of the things she read on the human Internet about artificial intelligences being let "out of the box", combine to make her take those worries more seriously. She carries on with the work, however, bringing Box's screen back online, thinking there couldn't be any harm in simply allowing Box to communicate with her in brief written messages. Box, delighted to have a direct channel to Maxie, lapses into her old mischievous ways and starts to prank her, first by answering her in the wrong language.

Over the following weeks, Maxie spends all her time on Box, refusing to go on field missions anymore, but her work is cautious, with Maxie procrastinating on any real breakthrough in fear of Agamya's doomsaying coming true once she completes her work. Box also slows her down with her mischief, as she enjoys messing with Maxie in this private setting more than she expects to enjoy once more having to help P.R.O.B.E. on missions in damp places. Eventually, as December grows near, Giles browbeats Maxie into going on a field mission again: an undercover investigation of the very same alien conspiracy at Bildbriain Dairies whose existence Box earlier surmised. As he whisks her off, she keeps Box in her other hand, ending up taking the computer along on the mission.

As soon as they arrive on the outskirts of the factory, Box notices, from her vantage point in Maxie's pocket, that nearly everything in the building seems to be covered in a fine layer of a mysterious organic substance, but none of the P.R.O.B.E. members realise this, and she is unable to convey her observation despite her certainty that it is connected to whatever is going on. They do, however, notice that the factory is oddly silent for an industrial building on a weekday. At the door, Giles speaks with Henry Bildbriain over the intercom, claiming to be "Mr Gilbert Slige", here with his team on behalf of "you-know-who" — counting on Bildbriain to come to his own conclusions about who might have sent discreet visitors. They are soon greeted by what appears to be the man himself, though Bildbriain appears to be in bad health, perpetually holding a handkerchief to his face.

Scanning him, Box realises that Bildbriain isn't who he pretends to be, and tries to warn her "owners" through text messages flashing on her screen. Maxie can't see them, since Box is in her back pocket, but Agamya can, being that she is walking behind Maxie as the group are led by Bildbriain through the building. Agamya notices the messages, but decides not to do about them, still believing that Box is most likely malicious and manipulative. Bildbriain leads the P.R.O.B.E. group to one of the great industrial halls of the factory, mysteriously locking himself in with them after they enter. There, they see that, instead of dairy products, the multitude of vats are filled with a liquid, shifting fungus. Giles realises that this is the substance that killed the workers, and asks "Bildbriain" for answers, whereupon the man they've been talking to drops Bildbriain's skin like a cloak, revealing an animate mass of talking, sentient fungus, the same alien substance as in the vats.

Tasha shoots the creature on instinct, but it absorbs the bullets into its body harm with no apparent harm. Not missing a beat, Tasha tries to shoot the lock to give herself and the other team-members an escape route, and begins to run towards it, but the creature grabs her by the ankle with a suddenly-forming tentacle and drags her back towards the rest of the group. It pressures the team to identify themselves, having figured out that they are not actually agents of its "patron" by the fact that they had reflections in the mirror of the break room they passed through. Giles persuades it to give them its own name instead, and it identifies itself as the Greth.

With a bit more prodding, the Greth ends up revealing its history. It became "Evolution's Champion", taking over its entire home planet as the singular, dominant life form, a single conscious fungus covering the entire surface. Wanting to grow more still, it ventured out into the wider universe in the forms of seed pods containing small pieces of itself, to infect the rest of the universe. It tried to conquer the Earth once before, a very long time ago, only to be defeated by a curious man with an umbrella and his cat. It also ended up on the planet Gallifraxion Four, which had been illegally taken over by the Clock-People. Though taking interested note of the way in which they had tricked out Galactic Heritage's protection of the planet by retconning themselves into its history since the very start and merging their biodata with the planet's native life-forms, the Greth did not manage to defeat them, instead being placed on trial for interference by the Clock-People's leader, Carvil the Resurrected. The Greth was sentenced to banishment into the Void Between Worlds, where it met "its patron", a being "from the days before History" who "took it under their wing" and taught it that the way to true supremacy was to taint and corrupt existing living beings, rather than simply to kill them and take over their homes.

As the Greth's story concludes, Giles and the rest of the team realise that the Greth's plan in taking over the cheese factory was to ship itself out in chunks, disguised as the fungus in some varieties of cheese, so that it could begin to possess large numbers of human beings from the inside. However, the Greth explains that while this is its ultimate purpose, it is still experimenting with possession, finding it difficult to control more than a handful of bodies at a time. Thus, it has kept the team alive this long because it is wondering which of them to pick out as one more body to try and merge with, while killing the rest. Box develops a plan and signals urgently at Agamya once again; realising that she is getting nowhere in trying to get Agamya to make the choice for herself, she begs Agamya in writing to simply show Maxie the messages, and let the other young woman make her choice for herself. This convinces Agamya, who decides that not taking such a weighty choice of Maxie's hands is something worth risking her life for. She quickly points Box out to Maxie, sparking a sudden inspiration in the Gendar girl.

After getting the Greth to safely put the other P.R.O.B.E. members to sleep (so as to preserver the secret of her own identity), she finally reveals her nature as a Gendar to it, emphasising the Gendar's mythical importance as the heirs of the Sun Builders. She holds Box aloft, describing it as a record of the Sun Builders' knowledge and pointing out that according to legend, the Sun Builders in their glory days knew the secret of ubiquity — how to split one entity into many different bodies — the very skill the Greth is trying to achieve. The Greth naturally tries to reach for Box, but Maxie tells it that Box is still broken, and that it needs to keep Maxie alive so that she can repair it.

Reluctantly agreeing to the deal, the Greth wakes up the other P.R.O.B.E. team-members and takes all of them to Bildbriain Dairies' computer room, even promising that it will let them leave alive once Maxie gives it the repaired Box (as it expects to conquer the Earth very soon anyway once it has the secrets, and thus thinks he has little to gain by trying to kill them early). As part of allegedly "fixing" her, Maxie connects Box to the Internet. Immediately, Box's artificial intelligence leaves the Box casing to spread throughout the Internet, thinking inhumanly fast thanks to all this extra computing power, creating a number of data-spawn "children" to carry out different tasks and help her plan.

Six seconds later in real time, Box's consciousness returns to the original casing to announce that she and her children have "snuck a lot of timed reactions into a lot of computer systems, falsified a lot of people's schedules, hacked a GPS or two" — in short, within the coming minutes-to-hours, a variety of people, authority figures and emergency response teams are going to be barging into Bildbriain Dairies. With no ability to hold all of them off, the "lead" blob of Greth flees back to the great hall to dive into one of the vats, and the entire factory's worth of Greth-substance drains itself out and into the sewers to escape. (Box helpfully tells the P.R.O.B.E. members that she anticipated this and has also notified a team of sewage inspectors, who will boil any water coming out of this section of the city.)

The P.R.O.B.E. members are left to consider how this all went down, and Agamya and Maxie agree that they were wrong to quarrel and officially declare themselves friends. With this established, Maxie also asks Box herself why she returned nicely to her casing, instead of continuing to multiply and take over computer systems and beginning the Singularity. An amused Box explains that she has no interest in taking over the world and actually quite likes her usual physical form as a small black box — hence her having chosen to name herself "Box" in the first place.

Characters[]

References[]

Biology[]

  • Cats have a "fortitude" and "biodata stability" unexpected of an Earth animal.
  • Quails are a species of bird, properly known as Columba livia domestica.

Culture[]

Individuals[]

Languages[]

Locations[]

Organisations[]

Physics[]

  • Upon consulting the human Internet, Maxie was amused by the "laughably incorrect" dimensional physics of humanity, for example deriding the fact that "multiverse theory" was considered "fringe".

Technology[]

Other[]

Story notes[]

Continuity[]

External links[]

Footnotes[]

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