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The Box

By David Ronayne

The days had been bleak and the nights bitter. Even for a Russian winter the air had been unseasonably cold. Illya Tychencia caught a icy blast of wind as he left the Pirogovskaya and headed for Moscow's central park. Clutching the heavy cardboard box to his great-coated chest he picked his way over the thawing crust of ice that covered the footpaths. It had been several years since he had walked through Gorky Park. Once a regular trek to the university, he had often stopped to admire the skaters and feed the pigeons, but not today.

Recent events had been worrying; the appointment of the new young premier had caused many anxious ripples through the party. The changes and the increasing economic problems had bred a new generation of rumours which had rapidly spread round the capital. Of course Illya was not a political and normally didn't listen to gossip, but his present circumstances sent his thoughts reeling. He had spent forty years teaching history at the University. Forty years of towing the party line, albeit reluctantly. He wasn't against the regime; it was just a case of not being particularly for it. His mind was usually set in the past. Politics of the day didn't enter into it, not until tomorrow anyway.

The phone call came in the early the previous evening. An address, a time, and a brief message. ‘Bring the box.’ No appeal or chance to reply before the line went dead, forty years state service and he was going to be arrested for a paper weight. At least he hoped he was going to be arrested, rumours spoke of worse. At least he hadn't received a midnight visit.

The box had always been regarded as a curiosity. It was unique, and to the best of his knowledge it couldn't be reproduced. After the initial interest, curiosity usually waned. He kept it as a paper weight in his office, and it eventually became a faculty joke, Illya's way of taking the wind out of impetuous undergrads. He sighed deeply, sending small clouds billowing upwards, as he walked out of the park and crossed over to the imposing brick building next to the university. After a few minutes he was standing outside apartment five, knocking gently on the door. It opened silently, by itself, onto sparse wood lined office room, populated by a solitary wooden chair cowering in front of large bare desk.

The young woman stood by the window with her back to him, staring out the park. Bundled in heavy winter clothing, topped with brown fur fez, she had the detached air of someone who would rather be doing something else. Between them a tall, dark haired man lounged on the swivel chair behind the desk. His dress and manner was unusual. Decked out in matching greatcoat and pants, the neck of his shirt and waistcoat hung open in the same relaxed way one of his hands propped up his head, the other beckoning Illya into the room and the waiting chair. Slowly he crossed the floor, sat down, and placed the now crushed cardboard box under the rickety wooden seat, trying to avoid noticing the wires that snaked up its legs.

‘The box?’ the man asked glancing at it.

Illya looked up into his wide staring eyes, noting the precise Muscovite accent rather than the expected Czech. ‘My lunch.’

Delving into the side pocket of his greatcoat he retrieved a small metal cube, which he gently placed on the table. They both looked at it for a brief moment before the man carefully picked it up and turned it over in his hand. It was about five centimetres square, deceptively light, and had a hairline seam, faintly separating the lid from the rest of the dull sheen of the metal. He removed the top and looked inside. A few more seconds passed before the man slowly pulled a pen out of his pocket with his free hand, and, just as slowly, lowered its full length into the box. Defying its limiting dimensions, he swivelled it through a series of impossible angles, before stopping stock still, staring levelly at Illya over the box. The girl half turned as if to inquire on his silence before he muttered, without moving, ‘It's bigger.... on the inside.’

The pungent aroma of the cheap Prima wafted over Illya as he stubbed out his last cigarette, cursing his limited ration. He had explained how his granduncle, son of one of the last Tsar's courtiers, was, in an effort to improve the nation's nobility, educated in England. Returning with equipment, he was able to teach at the university, and continue with his private studies, working for fifteen years to produce one prototype, before the revolution ended his work, his lab, and effectively him. Illya had only been twelve when he ‘inherited’ the box. Standing next to his mother they visited the mad eccentric in the state asylum for the last time. Deemed safe to the general public he'd been placed in a minimal security penitentiary, and allowed to keep a few personal items. The old man handed him the crumpled paper bag, sank back on his bed, and into oblivion.

‘How does it work?’ the man asked, his face betraying a vague interest.

‘Well, I was very young...

‘It'll do.’

‘But my understanding is quite superficial.’

‘I like simplicity.’

Illya seemed to shrink into his chair, ‘Have you got any paper?’

‘We live in a universe of three dimensions,’ Illya sketched the corresponding axes, ‘which we freely move about in. The x axis shows movement left and right, z shows movement up and down, and the y axis represents forwards and back. These relative dimensions make up...’

The girl suddenly cut him short. ‘What about time?’ She had remained so quiet before he had almost forgotten she was there. She still hadn't turned from the window, the park, and the distant spires of the Kremlin. ‘Einstein says time is a relative dimension.’ Illya's went through a series of confused contortions, not to solve the problem, but as he tried to remember exactly who this Einstein was.

‘By relative I mean able to move about a fixed point. These three relative dimensions make up space. Time is a dimension, but you can only travel in a straight line. Even if you could travel in time, your own personal timeline would always be moving forward.’ He quickly scribbled down an example. ‘Now, the reason the box is bigger inside than out is because it transcends the three physical dimensions of our universe into another.’ Illya registered the blank expression on the man's face and decided to try a different tack.

[Diagram: Time Traveler's personal timeline]

‘A singularity is an object with no dimensions, a point with no depth, height, or width. If you add a dimension you get a line, and if you add another you get a flat plane. Length, width, but no thickness. Then you progress onto our three dimensions, and theoretically after that there is forth. We can't perceive it as our knowledge is limited to our three dimensional universe, but we can analyse it by using analogies with a two dimensional universe interacting with our three dimensional one.’

[Diagram: Four Dimensions]

‘Imagine a flat, two dimensional universe populated by equally flat creatures, unable to perceive any dimension outside their two. Now consider an individual here, a square happily meandering through the x-y plane. High above him he is watched by a three dimensional sphere, hanging in space. Because the square can only be conscious of its plane it can't see the sphere or even comprehend the concept of three dimensional space or movement outside its two dimensional universe. The sphere drops into the plane, and as the plane cuts the sphere, it appears, to the square at least that a small circle has appeared on the plane out of nowhere. As the sphere lowers itself deeper through the plane the square sees the circle seems to expand, until such a point as it stops or more than half the sphere goes through, and then the circle appears to contract.’

[Diagram: third and second dimension interaction]

‘Hang on a minute,’ the man interjected, ‘are you suggesting that this,’ he hefted the box in his hand, ‘can appear and disappear by sliding sideways through space, and that most of it exists at 90o to reality?’ Illya shook his head. ‘As far as I know it has no engines or motors, and has no form of propulsion. I was just trying to outline the dimensional interface.’

‘But if it could, you said it could change its size. What about its shape?’

Illya shrugged ‘I suppose such a thing is possible. If you used a cube rather than a sphere, by rotating it about its various axes, you could produce an infinite number of triangles and quadrilaterals. The more complicated the solid the greater the number of shapes it could produce. If you had a somehow malleable solid you could produce any shape you wanted.’

[Diagram: Geometrics produced by cutting cubes]

‘Now think back to the square and the sphere. The square can only see the circle where its plane cuts the sphere, so to the square the object has a limited size. An area defined by the formula r2. But if the square tries to occupy the same space as the circle, it folds onto the surface of the sphere, so to the square the internal size of the circle is actually the surface area of the sphere. So to the square the object is bigger on the inside, infinitely big in fact.’

The girl turned this time. ‘Infinitely big? How is it possible to build something infinite? It would never be finished.’

Illya smiled, ‘Infinite size doesn't essentially mean infinite mass. The sphere's surface area is finite, and can be calculated.’

‘4r2,’ the man agreed. Eagerly Illya nodded. ‘It can be produced with a finite mass. But, because the two dimensional square can't sense movement or curves in vertical directions it could circle round the sphere forever, considering it to be a continuous plane. It would pass the same point several times, but from the square's two-dimensional perspective it would have traveled in a perfectly level, straight line.’

[Diagram: Cicle on plane]

The man examined Illya's notes for some time before speaking. ‘If I'm following your analogy correctly, you are suggesting it is possible to construct an object transcending our three physical dimensions into another one. This object being bigger internally than externally is apparently infinite and yet is of finite mass.’

‘I don't need to suggest it,’ came the calm reply, ‘you've seen the box. That's proof enough.’

There was a nasty silence, as the man's stare evaporated Illya's sudden bravado. ‘You also suggest it is possible, theoretically at least, to empower this object with an engine enabling it propel it in and out of our universe, and that it could potentially be able to adjust its shape or form.’ Illya glanced up from the floor. ‘I wouldn't say it was possible, but...’ He shook his head wearily. ‘I don't know anymore, I was very young and it was a long time ago.’ He looked up into the man's wide eyes, ‘I just don't know.’

The man suddenly sagged back into his chair. ‘Thank you,’ he muttered, leaning forward to press a concealed button behind the desk, ‘that's all we really needed to know.’ A buzzing, spinning multitude of lights slowly descended from their concealment directly above Illya's head. Subtle electric fingers probing and entangling in the neurons and synapses of his brain. Vision blurred as he felt the gentle tug that pulled him out of consciousness.

‘Professor Tychencia, Professor...’ The girl shook him gently by the shoulders until he slowly stirred. Initially disoriented, Illya groggily rose to his feet. ‘You were talking about the Tsar's Order of Service when you dropped off.’ Slowly he wiped his eyes. Unsure of his surroundings, he readily agreed when the girl suggested a breath of fresh air in the familiar surroundings of the park. She had walked him to the door before the man called him. ‘Professor, I believe you've forgotten something.’ He felt the girl stiffen beside him as he turned. The man knelt down and slowly pulled the crumpled cardboard box from under the spindly wooden chair. ‘Your lunch’, he said quietly, handing it over. Illya thanked him and left.

As the door closed the Doctor heaved a sigh of relief, and pulled the metal cube out of his pocket. ‘You gave me quite a turn with that lunchbox routine.’ Romana muttered. The older Time Lord replied with a tired shrug as he picked his distinctive scarf and hat up from behind the desk. ‘I just despise using the ‘amnesia machine’.’ He spread his arms wide, as if despairing for the offending device, then raising his voice as if to unseen watchers, ‘almost as much as I despise being other peoples' fix-it man!’

Romana followed him out. ‘It should be all right,’ she smiled, ‘provided of course, he doesn't find any subtle reminders.’ The Doctor stopped and turned to her, his face a picture of shocked indignance.

Sitting on one of the cold wrought iron benches in Gorky Park, Professor Illya Tychencia pondered the events of the day. He could remember going to the interview, but couldn't remember why. His mind was full of jumbled memories, and half forgotten thoughts, as if someone had scrambled his past with an egg whisk. He was so preoccupied with this it was some time before he noticed the small cooing gathering of pigeons at his feet. Gently he opened the crumpled box, willing to share his bread and cheese. There was a small thin book, discreetly hidden under the meagre lunch. The title was faint and in English, but he could just make it out. ‘Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott.’

This item appeared in TSV 33 (April 1993).

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