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High-Tech Fairies and the Pandora Perplexity
    by Alex Shvartsman

High-Tech Fairies and the Pandora Perplexity
Artwork by Andres Mossa

The small obsidian cube felt cool to the touch and heavier than its size would suggest.

"What's inside?"

"Sorry, Sylvia, but I have no idea," said Sneaky Pete. "Won it in a card game the other week, and the chump I took it off of didn't know either. But it's valuable as-is, right? I mean, it's a Pandora's box."

I nodded. Pandora's boxes are rare and completely impervious to scans by magic or science. The only way to find out what's inside of one is to open it. And I am not foolish enough to do that. People don't store nice things in Pandora's boxes. Open one and you might be in for a plague of boils, a nasty curse, or a hologram of Rick Astley singing "Never Gonna Give You Up."

"Do you want to sell or pawn it?" I asked.

"Pawn it," said Pete. He was a two-bit hustler, always finding minor magical items to sell to the shop. Every week he would haul in junk like second-hand wands, an alchemist's engine that turned gold into lead, or an early print of Pride and Prejudice, before the Victorians edited out the zombies. A Pandora's box was a big get for a guy like Pete. But he always took cash. I arched my eyebrow.

"I wanna hang on to this one. A long-term investment," said Pete. "I just need rent money."

I named a price and he accepted it without argument. This told me he likely would be back for the box. Lots of people abandon their property on pawn, but they haggle like hell to get the maximum value out of it first.

"All right then," I said. "You will have thirty days to repay the loan with interest. After that, the box becomes property of the shop."

He took the money and the pawn slip and booked it out the door faster than the Road Runner. I stored away the box, and went back to organizing the enchanted wedding rings for our annual buy-two-get-one-free sale.

The box didn't enter my thoughts for a time. Not until the Tooth Fairy showed up.

The Tooth Fairy isn't who people think he is. He is really a short, brutish, mean-looking half-elf who works as an enforcer for the Unseelie Court of the Fae. He earned his name by knocking out many a molar over the years. That whole leaving-money-under-the-pillow thing never actually happens, but the Unseelie Court has one hell of a PR department.

The Tooth Fairy strolled through the front door and walked up to the counter. His muscles bulged under a ratty biker jacket with cut-off sleeves. There was a long scar on his left cheek. He sneered at me.

"Can I help you?" I asked in the least friendly voice I could manage. I stared down my nose at him, which wasn't all that hard given that he topped out at four foot ten. I refuse to be intimidated in my own shop.

"I'm looking for Peter Sevinich," declared the pint-sized thug. "AKA Pete the Uzbek. AKA Peter the Ungrateful. AKA . . ." He consulted a crumpled piece of paper in his fist. "Sneaky Pete."

"He isn't here," I said.

"He was seen leaving this shop last week," said the Tooth Fairy. "This man has something that doesn't belong to him. Did he leave it here? It will go a lot easier on you if you tell me now."

Poor Pete was in a heap of trouble if whatever was stored in the Pandora's box belonged to the Unseelie Court. But I wasn't about to give him up to the Tooth Fairy. Pete might have been a terrible hustler, but he was still a regular.

"I don't know anything about that," I said. "Why don't you leave a card? I'll ask Pete to get in touch. If he stops by again."

Tooth Fairy's sneer deepened to the point where it made McKyla Maroney's "not impressed" face look approving in comparison.

"How old are you, girl? Do you even know who I am?" He was practically shouting. "Is there a man I can speak to? Where's your boss?"

Before I had a chance to reply, Grandma Heide popped her head out of the office.

"What's all this racket? Is there a problem, Sylvia?"

"No problem, Grandma," I said. "This gentleman here wants to speak to the man of the house."

He was in for it now. On the list of things Grandma didn't like, misogynists were right up there with rock music and rheumatism.

Grandma strode over to the front counter and sized up the fairy.

"Man of the house, eh?" she said. "I guess that would be me. Or haven't you heard about women's suffrage? I know that time flows differently in the realm of the Fae, but get with the program. It's been around since the 1800s."

Tooth tried his sneer on Grandma. "Give me the item Peter Sevinich concealed here before I get angry, and your store might remain standing when I leave."

Grandma pulled a sawed-off shotgun from behind the counter. "Nobody threatens me in my own establishment," she said. "Get your elvish posterior out of here, before I unload two barrelfuls of buckshot at you."

Tooth Fairy shrank back. He seemed ready to fight for a moment, but looking into the double barrels of the shotgun made him think better of it. Grandma's gun was magical and morphed the ammunition into whatever could hurt the target most. Salt, silver, or, in the case of a fairy, iron pellets.

He retreated, muttering curses and threats. "You just made a big mistake," he called from the entrance, slamming the door behind him.

"Now," said Grandma, "what was that unpleasant individual saying about Sneaky Pete?"

I told her about the Pandora's box.

"Never cared much for those," said Grandma. "The things people try to put inside! In 1935, a fellow named Schrödinger shoved his cat into a Pandora's box to prove some sort of a point. PETA activists from the 23rd century keep traveling back in time to egg his house, ever since. Using artificial eggs, of course."

Grandma put away the shotgun and added: "If I never see another fairy again, it'll be too soon."

Never lasted for approximately two hours.

The next fairy to visit our shop looked like a petite, plump woman in her fifties. Her hair was cut short and dyed pink. She wore jeans and a t-shirt that read Don't Make Me Get My Wand. She was clicking furiously on her iPhone, navigating the aisles and sidestepping various items displayed on the show floor with impressive dexterity, considering that her eyes never wandered away from the screen.

She finally put the phone away and saw me watching her. "Hello," she said brightly. "Sorry about that. I just checked in on FourSquare. And you should really update your Facebook page."

"Um," was all I managed in reply. Fairies are a rare sight even in a shop like ours. All the ones I'd met were mean, solemn, and very likely clinically depressed. I never saw one like her. Plus, she was right. Our Facebook page hadn't been updated in over a week.

"I am Puck," she said. "Ambassador from the Seelie court and Her Majesty Queen Titania. I imagine you know why I'm here?"

"I'm Sylvia. And no, not really. Unless you happen to have posted about it on Twitter."

She chuckled. "Your shop has a long and good reputation among my kind," she said. "That isn't an accolade many human establishments have managed. It's because of this reputation that I'm going to do you a favor, and explain exactly what sort of trouble you've gotten yourself into."

I nodded. My family has operated the magic pawn shop for millennia, across continents and centuries. Khufu had borrowed money from the shop to erect the Great Pyramid of Giza and never paid it back in full. Gran-Gran Hannelore looked into collecting the debt, but thanks to all the grave robbers, mummies don't own anything other than a bundle of dirty bandages these days.

"You know that my kind is allergic to metals. Iron is the worst, but nickel, magnesium, zinc, and others are no picnic, either. In your world we can handle metal objects. Turning a brass doorknob is no worse than a shot of static electricity. And there are workarounds." She held up her iPhone, covered in a rubber protective case. "In our world, it is many times worse."

Puck leaned on the counter and studied me for several seconds. Her eyes betrayed her true age, many times that of her appearance or demeanor. "What you probably don't know, is that silicon is on the list of metalloids we can't handle directly, back home."

"I see. So, no computers then?"

"No electronics at all. The Seelie Court didn't much care about human science while we watched you muddle your way through the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. But the personal computing technology has changed all that. You have access to every book in the world and funny cat pictures on the Internet. Meanwhile, the only way for us to play Angry Birds is to toss actual fowl. For the first time in history, the Fae are envious of your kind."

"That's why you come to our world and are glued to your smartphone?"

"I have that privilege as an ambassador, but the rest of my people aren't as lucky. They clamor for plastic microchips, the technology that is still in its infancy on your world. But there are other worlds and dimensions, places we don't readily have access to, that are further ahead in science. Your friend Peter pilfered an electronic gadget from an interdimensional traveler which is made entirely of plastic."

Puck paused to let the information sink in.

"This gadget could be worth billions to your leading technology companies. More than enough money to kill for. Peter is smart enough to know that it's not safe for him to hang on to it while he negotiates a sale . . ."

I finished the thought for her: ". . . and so he placed it inside a Pandora's box and pawned it at the one place that he knows has enough arcane protections to keep out governments and multi-national corporations. Sneaky Pete is sneaky."

"It is a clever strategy," admitted Puck, "but while your shop is sufficiently protected against other humans, it won't stand against a determined attack by the Unseelie Court, and they are as interested in this technology as we are."

I frowned. "They don't strike me as the type who would be interested in funny cat pictures."

"Phishing, denial of service attacks, spam, trolling." Puck counted on her fingers. "Much of the Internet is already tailor-made for the Unseelie Court. And it will get far worse when they get their hands on it."

"Let me guess: you would like to do us a big favor and take this gadget off our hands. Is that it?"

Puck raised her palms. "I'm not here to trick you. I know that your business prides itself on honoring contracts. The Fae - Seelie and Unseelie alike - are creatures of our word, too. I don't expect anything in exchange for my warning, but I do hope that you'll consider reaching out to me should the gadget eventually become your property. I'm certain that I can make a competitive offer."

"Pete pawned it to us for a pittance, just to keep it safe. Don't you think he'll be back for it?"

Puck smiled. "Not likely. This human grifter may think he can bargain with corporations, but the other parties who want his prize are going to eat him alive - perhaps literally. When that happens . . ."

Instead of finishing the sentence she slid a business card across the counter. It listed her contact information for every social media site I'd heard of, and several that were still in beta. Except for Google Plus. Even Internet-addicted fairies have standards.

A loud boom followed by a high-pitched noise woke me up in the middle of the night. The stone gargoyle that perched on the roof of our building was screaming. It could mean only one thing: the shop was under attack.

I scrambled to get dressed and ran down the stairs from our second-floor apartment. The front door was missing, ripped from its hinges. Strangers were inside the shop.

Grandma made it downstairs before I did. She scowled at the intruders as she blocked the doorway leading into the office room. She wore pajamas and pink bunny slippers, and held a mean-looking morning star with both hands. Tooth Fairy and several other Fae advanced toward her through the aisles, weapons in hand.

Dealing in magic is dangerous business. Every generation of our family adds layers of arcane protections to the shop. Over the centuries it has became one of the most secure places in the world. That Tooth Fairy and his goon squad managed to get inside was an accomplishment few enemies had managed over the centuries.

I stood at Grandma's side and the thugs grinned nastily at us as they reached the counter. I smiled too, because I knew something they didn't - the outer layer of protections they overcame were only a fraction of what kept us safe. Grandma spoke the words of power, and the entire shop came alive.

Every item on the shelves and floor of the shop was waking up, becoming animated, and not in a fuzzy Disney way. A fourteenth century suit of armor thrust its sword at the Tooth Fairy. The half-elf blocked with a dagger, but the hollow tin man kept advancing, surprisingly agile, even as its metal joints screeched with every move.

A stuffed saber-toothed tiger lunged at one of the minions, mauling him and sinking its oversized canines into his flesh. A shimmering apparition confronted another opponent. Its form shifted, expanding and deflating more frequently than Oprah's waist size. The bad guy threw a knife but it passed through the apparition and lodged itself in the side of a wooden shelf. Then the apparition grew long, very corporeal claws and slashed back. It kept slashing until the screaming stopped.

A porcelain bulldog figurine jumped off one of the shelves, ran up to another goon and barked at him from its six-inch height, its eyes bulging and its voice merely a squeak. The intruder raised his foot and stomped hard, but the bulldog dodged, and opened its mouth, showing a set of sharp porcelain teeth. Its mouth kept growing, impossibly wide, until it swallowed the intruder whole. Then it collapsed back to the figurine size. The bulldog let out its tongue and panted, then emitted a tiny adorable burp.

Less than a minute later, all of the invaders were dead or fleeing. The suit of armor blocked the Tooth Fairy's escape. The half-elf shoved one of his own people at the suit's sword, buying himself enough time to duck around his opponent and escape into the night.

I surveyed the missing door, the knocked-over shelves, and the broken merchandise, and groaned.

"I can't stand fairies," said Grandma. "It's almost impossible to get their blood out of the carpet."

The following morning we cleaned up the shop.

"The Unseelie Court won't give up," said Grandma. "They'll try again, soon. We need to rid ourselves of this thingamajig everyone's after."

We made some phone calls, but no one knew where Sneaky Pete was off to. He must have been hiding like his life depended on it, which it almost certainly did. I was knee-deep in restoring the shop's protection auras when Pete burst through the newly reinstalled door, disheveled and bleeding.

"Please," Sneaky Pete panted trying to catch his breath. "Help! The fairies are out to get me."

"Help you?" I put my hands on my hips. "You got us entangled in your hare-brained scheme and cost us quite a bit of money. I've got half a mind to hand you over to the Tooth Fairy myself."

Pete shuddered. "I didn't mean to cause any trouble. You have to believe me! I thought that no one would track the Pandora's box back to your shop. That it would be safe here, while I made arrangements to sell it."

I glared at him, saying nothing.

"I set up a private auction," said Pete. "There were a lot of interested companies, and the bidding was almost at nine figures. That's when the fairies showed up. They slaughtered everyone. I barely managed to escape."

Grandma, who showed amazing restraint by not unleashing on Sneaky Pete sooner, spoke up: "Idiot. Up until now they only suspected that the thing they want is in our shop. They let you go so that they could follow you to the prize. And now they know for sure."

As if on cue, there was a rumbling noise outside. An army of several dozen fairies popped in from their realm, as close to the shop as our protections would allow.

I groaned. "A handful of them were enough to break in last night. With this many of them, we best try to talk our way out of this one."

Grandma nodded.

I ducked outside and indicated that we wanted to parlay. A minute later a fairy dressed in the finest silks walked into the shop, his nose held high and his spine rigid, as though an especially inflexible broom has been inserted from below. He was flanked by the Tooth Fairy and a female elf dressed like she thought she was Elvira, Mistress of the Slutty Goths.

"I am King Oberon of the Unseelie Court," he proclaimed. "Give me what I want, and I will let you live."

"Fine," I said. "You can have the damn Pandora's box, but there are conditions."

King Oberon tilted his head slightly.

"No one from the Unseelie Court ever sets foot in our shop again. You don't bother me, my Grandma, or that pathetic excuse of an opportunist over there." I pointed at Sneaky Pete, who was huddling behind a shelf.

"Done," said Oberon.

"Pete, I need your permission to do this. Rip up your pawn slip."

"Can't we talk about this?" Pete's greed was overshadowing his instinct for self-preservation again. "It's worth millions. Millions, I tell you! Make them pay for it, Sylvia. I will cut you in. Ten percent!"

Oberon scowled at Pete. The King of the Fae didn't look like he was about to reach for a charge card.

"There's a clause in the contract," said Grandma, "meant to cover items damaged or lost while on pawn. We can void the pawn slip and just pay you double the value you declared on the paperwork, which you low-balled anyway. Of course, if we have to do that, protection for you will no longer be a part of our deal."

I kept my expression passive and smiled inwardly. Such a clause did exist, but Grandma valued the shop's reputation way too much to exercise it. But Pete had no way of knowing that.

"Fine!" Sneaky Pete threw his hands up in the air. "You win." He withdrew a pawn slip from one of his pockets and ripped it in two. "I hope they choke on it," he added, glaring at the trio of Fae.

I produced the Pandora's box and held it up in front of Oberon. "I have your word?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, staring at the box like a cat at a saucer of milk. "The Fae never break their promises. Now give it to me."

"Gladly," I replied. And I dropped the Pandora's box into a much larger cardboard crate on the counter, which I'd brought in from the back of the shop while we were waiting for the royal pain to arrive.

Before anyone had a chance to react, I picked up the crate, and shook.

"What is the meaning of this?" asked Oberon.

I smiled and turned over the crate, spilling its contents onto the counter. A dozen identical Pandora's boxes rolled on the wide wooden surface like so many dice.

"You've tricked us," growled the Tooth Fairy.

"Not at all," I smiled at him sweetly. "Here at the shop we keep our word, just like the Fae. I promised you the Pandora's box Pete brought in, and here you have it. No one said that I couldn't include freebies. Consider this our 'demand one by threat of violence, get eleven more free' sale."

I pointed at the Pandora's boxes. "These things keep finding their way into the shop every decade or so. They aren't worth all that much, though, because no one in their right mind is willing to open them. Nobody stores nice things in one of those. Plus, the original Pandora's box - the famous one - is still out there. Could even be one of these."

I swept them back into the cardboard crate. "Here you go. Your odds are one in twelve, which isn't too bad, all things considered. But if you decide to try out your luck, do it somewhere far, far away from our shop. Have a nice life." And I shoved the crate into Oberon's hands.

After the fairies left, muttering curses they were powerless to act on bound by Oberon's oath, and after Sneaky Pete shuffled out, only marginally happier than his pursuers, Grandma and I were having tea.

I poured each of us a steaming cup of Pomegranate Delight, set out of plate of crumpets, and, after we'd had a chance to enjoy a few sips, retrieved a futuristic-looking gadget from my pocket and placed it on the table next to the china.

"This is the device everyone's after," I said. "I removed it, just in case Oberon decides that he's in the mood to play Russian Roulette with his Pandora's boxes." I grinned. "Our deal stated that he gets the Pandora's box Pete brought in. No one ever mentioned the contents."

"Oh, Sylvia," Grandma gasped. "I can't believe you risked opening one of those things." And then my prickly, tough-as-nails Grandma hugged me tight. "Please don't do anything so dangerous again. I don't know what I'd do without you."

I melted, and hugged her back.

"It wasn't dangerous," I said. "Puck told me what's inside the box, and then Pete confirmed it. How often do you get the opportunity to open one of those things, risk-free?"

The device sits on the shelf in the most secure storage room of the shop, between the Holy Grail and the snow-globe-shaped pocket dimension with Cthulhu sleeping inside.

Grandma and I discussed selling the device to Puck. She would pay more than enough to cover the damage and our trouble. But, for now, we decided against it. The Internet is a weird enough place without high-tech fairies in the mix.

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