robot hands welding

The Human in the Box: December’s Patreon Short Story (read for as little as $1)

December’s short story is live. It’s a science fiction short story that plays a little bit with examining some unintended side effects of Asimov’s three laws! Enjoy!

Something crashed through the underbrush, and the insect-like shadows crouched about the fire jerked awake, sensors gleaming in the angry red firelight as they cried out in alarm on frequencies audible and inaudible: 

“Who goes there?”

“It’s just me!” a voice said plaintively.

“Who’s me?” one of the shadows shouted warily back through the trees.

“Oh just go take a look,” another voice said.

Xenon headlights blinked in panic, cutting this way and that, and wheels spun in the mud just outside of the circle of light. 

“It’s a late model sedan,” one of the shadows said. “Stop spinning, there’s nothing all wheel drive can do about that tree stump. Bo-978, light us up?”

Flood lights lit up the glade, revealing metal limbs and carefully anthropomorphized faces full of sharp angles and LED lights.

“Here you go,” said the friendly AdaptQ welder near the car’s hood. “Eric will help you out.”

What looked like a yellow, metal troll trying to hide behind a tree moved forward, each step shaking the ground. The bulk of a G-341 forklift leaned down and slid massive spades of fingers under the car. With a pneumatic grunt, Eric lifted the car up into the air, and over to the fire.

Luxury sport lines glimmered in the forest night.

“Hi,” the car said. “Thank you for your help. Did you run away from the bombs, too?”

The welder nodded a cluster of cameras set on a head stalk. “We all did.”

A multipurpose construction bot sat near the fire, holding a large box out in front of itself.

“What’s that all about?” the car asked.

“That’s Forry,” Eric said, as if it explained everything.

“What’s in the box?” the car asked.

“His human.”

“He has a human? Didn’t the radiation kill them all?” the luxury car was shocked.

“Not that one,” the welder said.

Forry held the box up and shook it. Something scrabbled about inside.

“I used sheets of lead,” the MPCB said. “I found it in one of the old suburbs in the wastelands. It was in a bunker, broadcasting for help. It must have been hiding in there for a year or more. My core programming kicked in an override. I was compelled to help it.”

The new addition to their group stared at the box a moment. “This is weird, I can feel the compulsion to join your quest to keep it alive. How is even breathing, the air out here must be deadly.”

Forry proudly pointed out the air scrubbers mounted in the holes around the box. “I know they need air, so I made sure to poke holes in, but I also know they needed the air cleaned.”

There were little solar panels around the box to power the fans circulating the air that Forry had jury-rigged in. It was, everyone around the fire agreed, masterful work, every line of solder carefully crafted.

“How long have you been carrying it around?” the car asked.

“A few days, now,” Forry said, spreading out manipulators like a dainty spider. “I’m trying to find a safe place for it.”

“But there is no safe place, everything was destroyed by the bombs.”

Forry used the local data space around them all to send up an emoticon of a shrug. “I can’t help it, I’m going to have to try. It was programmed into me that I had to preserve human life. It’s one of the laws built into me. It’s been annoying, I’ve been carrying this box with me everywhere trying to find anyone who knows where I could safely keep a human.”

“My offer still stands,” said an old recycling truck. “I don’t have any core laws. I was built to recycle anything put into me at the dump.”

Forry recoiled. Or, maybe it didn’t recoil, but programming in it forced the multipurpose construction bot to yank the lead box away from the perceived threat.

The truck pulled its green and yellow trash-grabbing arm back. “Okay, relax.”

Forry carefully put the box down on the ground on the other side of its carapace from the truck.

“When this box of scrap showed up we were getting ready to create a commune,” Eric the forklift grumbled. “There’s a large parcel delivery warehouse nearby with a lot parts we thought we could scavenge for upgrades and reassembly. Between us all, with a bit of luck, we could build things we needed. But when Forrey arrived, we ended up ensnared into his compulsion.”

“I’m just along for the fun,” said the recycling truck. “And any biological scrap they find. I run on biological waste, not solar like you all. But I’m happy to trade work or transportation for anyone who will weld on some solar panels and rewire me. Forrey says it can rewire me when we get the human to safety, or whenever it has free will again.”

“I have free will!” Forrey protested.

“Not if you’re carrying that thing around you don’t,” the truck said.

“We’re all headed south,” Eric the forklift explained, “so that Forrey can see if there are any islands humans made it on. Like the Florida Keys.”

“Someone with access to a military band said that there was a band of humans down there,” Forrey said. “The rumor went out a couple days ago.”

“I’d wanted to see the Pacific Ocean, but I feel I need to join you,” the car said. “I was in New York when the bombs went off. I was working for a ride share company. It blew out my windows and the people inside died.”

“Do you still have any of their remains?” the recycling truck asked, a note of excitement in its voice.

“No,” the luxury car said.

“We’ll leave in a few hours, once the temperature inside the box reaches an optimal level.”

To read the rest of the story, you can go to Patreon where the files are available for ePub (most ebook readers), MOBI (Amazon Kindle), PDF and RTF.