The box was crafted from a substance that resembled wood, but not quite. It gave no splinters, nor did it possess the rigidness or vulnerability to water-damage of wood. Intricate patterns, painted in colours that were at once varied and complementary, had been carved into the box’s every surface, displaying its creator’s meticulous attention to detail.
“A standard storage box,” said Maldofax nonchalantly. “Commonly used for storing food, tools, and occasionally unhatched eggs.”
A bemused expression spread through the by-standing crew.
“Why are you wasting everyone’s time with this box if it’s so unremarkable?” asked Evans, the submarine’s pilot.
“Look at the latch,” urged Maldofax, adjusting his large red scarf.
The crew, and Evans, did as instructed. The latch was more rust than metal, but otherwise quite ordinary.
“This latch is man-made. Merpeople don’t use man-made things. Especially not latches. They have far superior alternatives.”
Scattered gasps were heard, but died down shortly, with non-plussed glares taking their place.
“As an experienced merculturalist,” continued Maldofax, puffing out his chest slightly so that his scarf swung back. “I find this highly unusual, and cause for grave concern.”
Eyes widened all around; some in fear, others in skepticism.
“This must be reported to Mer-Seek Command immediately!” Evans barked authoritatively. “Johnson, go send the message.”
As Communications Officer Johnson made his exit, someone shouted out a question.
“Why not just open the box?”
Evans cleared his throat. “In the event that a merculutural object is deemed unusual by a qualified merculturalist, it is not to be interacted with outside of a qualified psychologist’s presence.”
Some of the crew members rolled their eyes at Evans’s rulebook quote. The submarine’s only psychologist had been arrested a few days earlier, on a charge of gross misconduct.
“Everyone is to stay away from this box until we receive instructions from Mer-Seek Command on how to deal with it,” commanded Evans. “And that’s an order!”
Unfortunately for the more curious members of the crew, Mer-Seek saw the hierarchical position of pilot as just below captain, and the sub’s captain was also its psychologist.
Evans tossed and turned in his bed, unable to sleep. He had counted well over two hundred sheep, but was still as awake as ever.
A pillow flew across the small cabin, and Evans got up, acknowledging insomnia’s victory over him.
He walked around the submarine aimlessly, hoping that it would tire him out. He walked through the kitchen, through the control room, through the entertainment room, and finally into the cargo hold, where he stopped.
The box lay in front of him, untouched since Maldofax had brought it aboard. It taunted him with its mystery, a mystery just waiting to be solved.
Evans didn’t want to break Mer-Seek’s rules. He was a good, law-abiding man. He knew that rules existed to protect him. Even so, the box felt inviting. Very inviting.
Evans couldn’t hold back any longer. The curiosity was just too much for him to bear. He reached out his hand, closed his eyes, and broke Rule 27-5B.
Trying to ignore the feeling of terror in his gut, Evans opened his eyes slowly and looked into the box. In the darkness of the cargo hold, he made out a bright red number in the darkness of the box.
“Yes, sir, the mission was a success. Twenty bodies in all. One’s a bit messy, but should still be fit for consumption.”
The figure returned its waterproof communication device to its pocket and walked off, discarding a long piece of red fabric as it went, so as to free up its breathing.