Boxed In

Cath UK

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It was an irony that while human beings had evolved sociologically to the point that they were a mostly peaceful, vegetarian race, the vegetable kingdom had experienced an opposite growth. While humans considered themselves the evolutionary peak of the animal kingdom, their nemeses, the Snins, believed they were the ultimate product of vegetative progress.

The Snins were indeed plants – plants that had evolved until they were mobile and carnivorous.  They had become active hunters, adopting strangely humanoid forms as these seemed to be ergonomic for hunting and mobility purposes.  In the early stages of their development, they had first fed on insects and carrion; then, as motor and intellectual functions had improved, they had moved on to bigger and tastier species. Thus the vegetarian human race had become a delicacy of choice for the carnivorous vegetal Snins. Humanity’s only saving grace had come from the fact that for all their adaptation, Snins were still relatively fragile: they were sensitive to extremes of heat or cold, and were easily destroyed by explosions or the shock of weapon recoil.

Thus to net their quarry, the Snins had developed softer, more creative tactics. They were un-armed in the classical sense – only human barbarians took pleasure in making their foes explode– but that did not mean that Snins were powerless. They used coercion as their prime weapon. Coercion, for Snins, was primarily implemented through Boxes. Humans never did learn the Snin word for them –  the Boxes were, quite simply, devices that could attune to individuals and then send out subliminal thought-waves. These thought waves could induce lethargy, or thirst, or accelerated photosynthesis, or whatever else the Snins judged to be appropriate at the time. Since their discovery, Boxes had helped produce stronger, healthier Snins. Of course the effect was psychological to humans, but then, what non-violent method of force could have been more effective? A human who was suddenly afflicted with enormous thirst, or lethargy, or sadness, could be just as incapacitated as one who suddenly lost a limb.

Major Bentley Wang Pantheas (“Bent” to his friends) crouched under a flog in the vicinity of Human Base Camp Dago-5 on planet Caesmi. The flog’s jelly-like girth concealed him, for it was opaque from the outside. Fortunately, its strange reflective surface acted like a one-way mirror, allowing him to survey the terrain around him. This was how the flog saw, and while Bent had never stopped to wonder what use a giant fungus-like space-growth would have for sight, he was grateful for this peculiarity at this moment. Its soothing warmth and clean lemon-scented interior was an added bonus.

In the distance, he could see Glimma’s statuesque form. She was looking for him, still. They had been playing a game of cat-and-mouse for days now, but it seemed that Bent’s luck had finally run out. The evil Commanderess of the local Snin Army Battalion was the last Snin representative aground – but then, Bent was the only human left on the base, too. He’d been armed with his trusty laser pistol, but had finally found out after better than ten years of use that its power supply was not, after all, eternal. It had been a near-miss – he’d gotten Glimma’s considerable chest in his crosshairs and aimed… but nothing had come out. He’d given himself away at that moment, as Glimma realised that the game was hers. She’d come after him, but like all Snins, she did not carry any weapons other than her Box.

The Box was a rather ineffectual thing so long as Bent remained hidden. If he could wait long enough, one of the nearby human colonies might send reinforcements. A ship to bring him back, extra soldiers to dispatch the notoriously devious Commanderess Glimma. She was a highly effectual Snin representative who had foiled a number of important Earth missions; nabbing such a royal pain in the ass would be a great achievement for human forces.

But Bent worried. While Glimma didn’t know precisely where he was, she knew he was in the area because of that botched shooting attempt. And she had her Box. She could make him feel tired, which was all right because moving was the last thing he wanted to do. She could make him sad or happy, but that would not betray him either so long as he remained hidden in the flog. She could make him hungry or thirsty or itchy, but Bent would hold fast. Still, Snins were notoriously creative – surely she would do something that Bent hadn’t planned on.

Bent watched Glimma sit down on a rock roughly forty metres from where he hid inside the flog’s cushy bulk. Her expression was indolent; she knew he was likely to be hidden somewhere in the vicinity, but the area was veritably studded with flogs. None was more likely to contain Bent than any other, and flogs, not being exactly sentient, could not be affected by her Box. She had to force him to reveal himself, and like the clever Commanderess that she was, prey on the human weakness that would most effectively achieve the end to her means.

She fiddled with the box, frowning, her face quite pretty despite the greenish cast to her skin. She concentrated, adjusted dials, pressed buttons, and finally lifted the Box. She waved it around, like a remote control for the old Earth televisions that had long ago been replaced by 3D plasma tubes. When the Box finally pointed in his direction, Bent immediately realised what strategy she had opted for.

The sneeze.

He had to give Glimma credit for ingenuity. Sneezing was a wholly human foible. Snins absorbed the gases they needed trough their skins in a complex chemical process. They rejected irritants in much the same way in a slow, undetectable manner. Humans, however, released them through their respiratory apparatus in one noisy burst of sternutation. Bent himself enjoyed letting loose with a huge sneeze on occasion; it could be tremendously liberating. Under different circumstances, of course – currently, it would spell his doom.

The burning sensation in his nose flared up as soon as the Box was oriented in his direction. It was powerful, hugely irritating, nearly overwhelming. Thankfully, it only lasted for a second or so, because Glimma did not know precisely where he hid. Thus she was reduced to swinging her Box in a wide arc if she wanted to encompass all the flogs around her. He could see her, turned three-quarters from him, waving the Box in a harmless direction. Slowly, she was rotating back to him though. Bent steeled himself. In a few more seconds, that dreaded instrument would be pointed right at him.

In preparation, Bent gripped his nose. It was slightly oily with perspiration, but he wrapped the fingers of both rough hands around it. Perhaps if he blocked both of his nostrils off, he wouldn’t succumb to the urge Glimma would provoke. He remained still, eyes wide open, taking her in as, slowly, she veered towards him.

He knew as soon as the Box was oriented on him. It took him only an instant to realise that holding his nose wasn’t going to cut it; the fact was that the Snin Box oriented on the mind, not the body as such. Thus the urge to sneeze was not physical, but wholly psychological. This was much more dangerous; it meant that no tangible means to stop it were available to him, and my, but was the Box strong! Even though he knew that he was breathing through his mouth, that his nose was securely blocked by his strong hands, it still felt as though there were ticklish feathers looping around his nostrils, clouds of dust in his sinuses, fine points torturing the deepest recesses of his nasal cavities. Before he knew it, Bent had shut his eyes, which were watering copiously. His breathing became ragged, his chest heaving in gulps of air as fuel for the inevitable sneeze. He got so far as to lean back inside the flog, his mouth opening as though in a wide yawn, when abruptly, the seism was over.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes. Glimma was still there in the distance, but she had turned away from him again. Bent blinked back irritated tears, cautiously, letting go of his nose to wipe at the moisture on his cheeks. Glimma’s face was still placid; Snins, for all their evolutionary progress, were still not up to speed on emotions. They probably considered them a hindrance, and on this score, Bent had to recognise, they were probably right. Surely if he had not felt so powerless, afraid and shaken, he would have been in a better position to take some sort of action to extricate himself from the bind he was in. As it was, he felt trapped and desperate, knowing that in less than a minute, Glimma would orient on him again with her Box. His second “dose” of the Box had been longer; she was rotating more slowly now, surely having caught on that a sneeze took some time to manifest. During her next sweep, Bent would capitulate, his sinuses would rebel, and before he could stop it, he would have betrayed his position by bellowing out a massive sneeze. And after that, why, he would be just what Glimma wanted: dead meat.

There was only one thing to do, Bent realised. He would have to strategise differently. Instead of waiting for Glimma to find him, he would switch tactics. There was an old Earth saying according to which the best defence was offence. He remembered it as he watched Glimma again turn from him until only the back of her left ear-pod was visible.

Bent steeled himself. It was his last chance. While Glimma wasn’t looking, he lifted a corner of the flog where he’d been hidden and dragged himself silently out of it. The cool air, made even colder by contrast to the flog’s pleasant warmth, made him break out in goosebumps under his thermal uniform. Bent held his breath, so intense was his desire to be quiet. Like a pantomime of a football player, he hobbled from one flog to the other on the otherwise barren, studded landscape. He was rushing towards Glimma, hoping that she would be so absorbed in her handling of her Box that she wouldn’t notice him in her peripheral vision until it was too late. Bent still wasn’t sure what he would do when he had her in his grasp, but he knew it would start with a very good tackle.

He slalomed through the flogs as fast as he could while Glimma revolved. His luck held up until the last moment; when Bent was only about ten yards away, Glimma spotted him. She hissed and lifted her Box so that it reached his eye-level.

The result was immediate. Where Bent had experienced momentous discomfort before, the full-on effect of the Box-induced urge to sneeze was staggering. He didn’t even have time to breathe in – his throat and nose convulsed violently.

“Harsshoo! Arrrshh! Arrrrch! Arresshoo!”

Bent flailed as though he were a rag doll, his arms flying up in the air as his head snapped back and forth. It was all he could do not to fall into a quivering heap. Somehow, he kept his legs pistoning forward in spite of the volley of sneezes that ratcheted through him.

“Arrshooo! Harrssh! Harrrrsh! Iarrrschoo!”

He could do no more than to blink his eyes open between violent sneezes; he saw snapshots of Glimma’s complacent face. He could’ve sworn she looked mildly bored, even though surely inside she was jubilating. Despite the frenzy he was in, Bent was still advancing. He had to do something, otherwise, his head would explode. And yet no matter how much she made him sneeze, there was no respite to be had, no relief to be gained. The urge was just as blinding, just as intense as it had been at his first explosion.

“Arresshoo! Harrch! Harrrchoo! Harrrrshoo! Haarr—“

His hands had closed on something, gripped, twisted. The urge to sneeze dissolved as suddenly as it had come.

Bent opened his watery eyes, sniffled. Glimma’s face, still impassive, was only inches from his own. In his hands, he held her Box; he had wrenched it from her. He lifted it up in the air, intending to smash the evil instrument against the rocky ground, when suddenly he thought the better of it.

With this Box, she had almost destroyed him. Bent felt that if he’d been forced to keep on sneezing that way, he might have done so until his last breath left him. Snins didn’t have an ounce of compassion in them, and Glimma wouldn’t have thought twice about inflicting such a cruel fate. Bent was human, with human sensibilities; he liked to think he would not now use Glimma’s Box to inflict similar tortures on her.

He liked to think so, but he wasn’t convinced.