Monday, July 10, 2023

“Red Boxes” • by Matthew Castleman

Sophie woke to a red glow. Blinking herself borderline functional, she sought around her dark bedroom for a culprit. Phone, no. Tablet, no. The shades were down. She blinked and cleared her head, then saw it.

In the bottom right-hand corner of her vision, superimposed to look like it was floating about three feet in front of her, was a red box with white lettering.


“Shit,” she realized.

She reset her overlay with a thought. The ad didn't move. Her heart rate spiked for a second and she forced her breathing to slow.

“This happens,” she whispered to herself. Cortical boxes glitched a little sometimes, and the fact that it was hooked directly into your senses made it seem like a bigger deal than it was.

Still, getting it looked at might be expensive, if it came to that. She squinted and focused on the ad again. There was no link or pop-down text. Wasn’t even a working blurb. Some lawn care company made a glitchy ad. Hopefully they’d catch it and fix it by morning.



The hopping clock icon jumped up and down a few times until she was alert, then disappeared. The new box didn’t. It was the same color and shape as the lawn care one, in the same spot. Could this be a single company’s glitch? There were corps big enough to have their hands in both horticulture and nephrology, but would it put out identical ads for them?

She sat down to oatmeal and tea with a scowl. She had work to do today, and a dinner date. The red box glared up, defiant.

She put her tea down and called her sister.

“Hey,” her sister said sleepily. “You okay?”

“My overlay got spammed,” she said.

“Huh,” her sister said. “I assume you already tried resetting it?”

“Tried,” she said, stabbing her remaining oatmeal with her spoon. “It’s weird, it’s been two ads that look the same but for totally different stuff. No link or anything. It’s like the first sentence of an ad got chopped off.”

“Well, give it a day or two and see a tech if it doesn’t go away.”

“Yeah,” she said, not sure why she’d thought her sister would have any better advice, being a chef. “Okay, I’ll talk to you later.” The translucent window framing her sister’s face faded away, leaving the nosy kidney query alone.



“Have you seen the acclaimed new film adaptation of Hamlet?” Sophie asked with a brittle smile.

“I haven’t,” her date said. “Not usually a Shakespeare person, but I’d be up for it if you’d like to.” He smiled and sipped his wine.

“I was just curious,” Sophie said, trying not to grind her teeth. “A, uh, friend was telling me about it.”



Sophie blinked at the text as she dug in her backyard. She looked at her trowel. She clacked her teeth in thought.

“I am entirely insane.”

She abandoned her bulbs and probed past the topsoil. For three hours she cut ravines into her yard.

Just past the third hour, she struck metal. Feverish troweling revealed a box about the size of a footlocker, heavily padlocked. She stared down at it for a long time, shivering.

Sophie dragged the box into her car. She preferred manual normally, but her hands were shaking so much she could barely type the police station’s address into the auto console. She spent the short ride clasping her arms around herself and not looking behind her.



The detective paid her a visit three days later.

“Please sit,” Sophie said to the fiftyish woman.

“The department owes you one,” the detective said, accepting the proffered iced coffee.

“Who, um… who?” Sophie asked in a vanishing voice.

“John Burns, who owned this house years ago. Brother of Roger Burns, the man you bought it from last year. John had no spouse or children. The house went to his only sibling after he disappeared. The remains didn’t leave us a lot to work with, but on your insistence, our lab went deep for signs of renal failure.” She set her drink down slowly. “We found them. What inspired you to ask?”

“It’s… hard to say.”

“Mm. Well, detectives picked up Roger yesterday. Before I even got to bad cop him, everything came out. He was desperate for money and poisoned his brother. Don’t worry, he’ll never make bail before his trial.”

“Thank you.” Sophie sipped at her own drink and almost missed. The detective worked her silent pressure a moment more, but Sophie left it at that, and she went on.

“One other thing, unusual. John’s cortical box was slightly active. Normally their power reserve only lasts a week or so without solar derms. It had been scrolling randomly through his home feed.”

Sophie set down her coffee as a gentleness under the detective’s eyes asserted itself.

“If you were marooned somewhere with nothing, how would you call for help?” Sophie asked, her back straightening.

The detective thought.

“Whatever was around, I guess. On a beach, I’d write messages in the sand. On a mountain I’d pile rocks.”

Sophie nodded.

“Use the environment as your medium.” She smiled. “The whole net floats on a framework of ads. They’re sort of the sand on its beach.”

“Uh-huh,” the detective said, and Sophie watched her brows tick as she calculated whether to probe further. In the end she ritually brushed her legs as she got to her feet. “Thank you again, ma’am. John’s resting easier.”

Sophie saw the detective out and spent a while standing in her kitchen wondering if she was entirely insane.

Perhaps. But the red boxes never came back. One thing was certain, too, given that a dead man had been slumbering undisturbed a few inches under her backyard. She was definitely paying too much for lawn care.


Matthew Castleman is a New York-raised, Washington, DC-based stage actor, writer, and theater educator with a strong penchant for Shakespeare and swords. His published short fiction includes several stories in Daily Science Fiction, as well as in Andromeda Spaceways, Fireside Quarterly, and most recently in issue 2 of Old Moon Quarterly. His sci-fi adventure novella Privateers of Mars is available on Amazon. Look him up at



Meet Jacob Rhys: scoundrel, brawler, gambler, drunk, and licensed privateer working for the Free Mars State—until the authorities on Ceres seized his ship…

When shipyard engineer Valerie Morton found him a week later, face-down in a bar, she showed him the official report on what was discovered in his ship’s cargo hold. As Rhys read the report he began tapping nervously on the grip of his sidearm. Then he suddenly stopped tapping and looked up at her.
“I’m getting my command crew back together,” he said. “We are, handily, short an engineer. Do you have strong aversions to petty or grand larceny, extortion, card cheating, recreational and spiritual drug use, sexual practices that may involve recreational and spiritual drug use, and ubiquitous, often unnecessary violence?”

After a slight hesitation, Morton shook her head.

Rhys smiled. “Good. Welcome to my crew.”

What happens next? Join Rhys and rest of his slippery crew and begin the dark and dirty adventure of tomorrow today! If you liked COWBOY BEBOP, you'll love PRIVATEERS OF MARS!

If you liked this story, share it!
These buttons work!


Made in DNA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Made in DNA said...

Creepy, creepy, creepy. Oh my lord, reminds me of an idea I had for a story about a protagonist's significant other's digital consciousness trapped in a vending machine while their body's in a coma.