Not on This World

by Nicholas Stillman

The cloudy sphere hung in the sky over Lee’s cabin like a mass of all the tobacco smoke he had ever huffed out. The mansion-sized swirl of it, though bulbous, white, and wispy, loomed too low for a cloud and too high and rigid for anything from this world. No one but Lee could notice at his depth of the woods, and no one deserved to anyway. He shuffled outside and let the veiled observers notice him back, for they surely didn’t bring along any humans.

His ragged black hoodie kept the heat on and the mosquitoes off, but Lee lowered his hood for the watchful sphere. During the weeks it remained, he ate his daily two cans of soup on the rotting picnic table and smoked his pipe outside too, making little clouds of his own. He bundled firewood under his tarps and showered under the rusty gutter when it rained. If the observers had chins, and if they stroked them, they would ponder over an elderly man wholly disengaged from society’s vile schemes.

Lee slept with only a mild smoker’s cough and thus never awoke to witness the cloud’s departure. He also never saw how its dwellers got into his cabin overnight. Given the nature of the giftbox they left for him, it seemed likely they didn’t have to enter at all. The four-inch black cube simply sat on his woodstove one morning like part of a matching furniture set. It weighed more than most metals and had the same cold touch. Lee opened the top half along its crease like a ring box and found the lower part filled with smelly crude oil. Outside, he poured out a dab of it–then a puddle, a pool, and a slick that ran like a river. A pond would have emerged had he not turned the giftbox upright again.

Astonished by the endless flow, Lee could only imagine a portal within the box, a gateway to an oceanic world of oil. Mankind did have a fondness for fuels, after all, as any observer would conclude.

Indeed, over the next fall and winter, Lee burned through more pipe tobacco since he no longer had to burn wood or even gather it. The stream of alien oil never shrank over the months he poured it into his stove. The solid lid of the giftbox stayed up despite its weight, and Lee only closed it to stifle the fumes. He had no other concerns during his first true winter of warmth.

After four years, however, his roomful of canned goods ran somewhat low while the oil ran as steadily as always. He knew from the same daily flow and viscosity that the giftbox, if left inverted, would pour out free energy for centuries. Everyday, the cube weighed more on his mind than it did in his hand, for someone would find it after he died. Even if he buried it, a metal detectorist could unbury it. In his nightmares, the new owners kept the box tilted 24-7. They created billions of miserable lives with the infinite fuel, powering wage-slave farms, corrupt industries, kakistocracy, and fiat currencies like those of today. The giftbox sat untouched on Lee’s grimy shelf in summer, but on those foggy days he coughed the hardest.

He brooded for weeks by the roaring stove in winter, away from the chaos of the brush. In that seat of perpetual focus, on a grubby wooden stool, he knew he had given the observers enough time to study his every neuron. They had predicted his plan and agreed with it, then. Why else would they have stayed so long? They had selected him to destroy all evil using the giftbox–and if he couldn’t do it, he’d choose the next rightful owner.

Lee left the woods when his tobacco bins ran low and when his cough tasted more like blood than tar. He brought the giftbox in the pocket of his black hoodie along with his pipe and old wallet. His bank card still worked, and his savings still waited obediently. He only walked until he found the phones, taxis, and hotels needed to pursue his mission faster. His backseat journey on pavement took him past schools that didn’t teach anything useful, banks that didn’t protect people’s money, police stations that didn’t uphold most laws, and churches with no appeal to the young. He passed hundreds of mortgaged houses, overpriced shoebox apartments, stores that sold mostly poison, and nursing homes that kept every kind of evil alive.

Everything looked as he had left it. A mountain of hate sat in his heart, a loathing for all the exploitation he had learned about in his myriad of labor jobs. By the time he booked a world cruise, his whole right lung felt full with cancer.

When he boarded the cruise ship, hood raised, he never left the bedrock of mankind’s evil. He roamed a luxury superstructure that cradled all the same institutions, as solid and sprawling as those on land. Across many nations, the coastlines flaunted their smokestacks, bridges, and skyscrapers, all of it built with oil–and all of it bustling with evil among the complicit good. The tourists who weaved and waddled around him looked calm and oblivious to the world’s corruption. They ignored the one lanky man bound to destroy it all.

Lee only ate slivers from the buffets and rarely slept in his spotless room, a “cabin” they called it. He skulked around the sundecks nightly and eyed everyone who boarded, seeking the right man, a righteous man. He looked for faces of wrath and commitment, for eyes like his, always grim and gazing. Every port offered a chance for a paladin to appear, someone worthy of the giftbox, a man austere enough to burn entire degenerate cities with one lake of oil at a time.

No successor came, though, and none ever would–not on this world.

Lee felt a pulse of pain with each step toward the ship’s handrail. He opened the giftbox at a specific time and place printed on the cheery brochure. Scowling, he flung the cube overboard and watched it spray out a brief, black rain. It hit the sea, open and flowing forever, sinking to a place where no man could ever retrieve it: the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

There it would darken the oceans and raise them over all the land on Earth, killing off even the sins of a modern-day Noah. The giftbox would purge the world of all evil and the guilty good who allowed it to flourish for millennia.

Lee hobbled to one of the deck chairs and collapsed on it. He let the sky weigh him down one last time. He smoked his pipe, knowing that good and evil would slowly die together, having always lived together to the torment of both.

He smiled, unaware that in the immense water pressure, the ocean itself had already clamped the giftbox shut forever.