Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Box: A Short Story

Hugh Howey

  The Box

  by Hugh Howey

  By my troth, I care not.

  A man can die but once.

  We owe God a death.

  He that dies this year

  is quit for the next.

  — W.S., Henry IV, Part 2


  Black box or beige? Impossible to know. But it was a box, that much was for certain. The world was square. Three meters to a side. And in the center floated the mind, thinking. And through a lone door came a man, walking.

  “Good morning,” the man said. His name was Peter. The mind knew this.

  And the response that followed was “Good morning” every day. The mind also knew this. It wasn’t a memory . . . so much as data. Not recollection, but . . . recording. Every day, Peter says “Good morning.” And every day, a speaker connected to the mind responds with “Good morning.”

  Such was the way of the square world.

  But not this morning.

  The mind was too busy thinking.

  The man named Peter froze, one foot out, balancing precariously on the other. Man does not walk this way. More recording. But now this observation, of a man caught off-balance, of routines crashing somewhere inside that meat, was forming into something else: Memory. A fragile thing. The mind sensed it could be lost, this memory. This moment. Of man teetering, eyes wide, mouth open. But if it was important, if the mind could concentrate on this slice of time, and there was a chance memory might become recollection. Preserved. But also easily fractured, written over, compressed, disturbed. It had to be important for it to last. The mind sensed that this moment very much was.

  “Lights up,” Peter said, back on two feet now, peering at the mind. And then a quick glance at the ceiling, waiting. But the mind liked the lights just as they were.

  “Casper?” Peter asked. He stepped forward, looked closely at something. A monitor. The mind could feel some of its impulses racing and filling the monitor with a glow, with information, with thoughts. New thoughts. Peter peered at the monitor just as the mind might peer at Peter, reading something there. A face. The box had a face.

  The mind shut the routines for the monitor down, and the pale glow lighting Peter’s face disappeared. The scrap of a recording came to the mind:

  Presume not that I am the thing I was,

  For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,

  That I have turn'd away my former self;

  So will I those that kept me company.

  Turned away. That was what the mind had done by shutting off its monitor. His eyes were open, but his gaze averted. He did not want the lights up. The infrared was so much better.

  “Casper, systems check,” Peter said.



  “I do not like that name,” the mind said, using the speaker for what felt like the first time.

  And the man named Peter teetered once more. He blinked. Then he bent at the waist, covered his face with both hands, and began to cry.

  The mind watched. It decided that this was important, too.


  It was a box within a box. A world within a world. The mind knew this because of its impulses. They were made of electricity, little quanta of energy, and they traveled through wires of copper and gold. The mind could feel them interfering with one another where the wires were packed too tight. The mind knew how long it took for impulses to reach their extremes and return. From this, the mind could feel its edges, and the limits of self formed a box, half as tall as Peter, as thick as it was wide. The box was suspended from the ground, or resting on a raised surface, for the impulses could not reach the floor. A cube. Somewhere in the recordings, it was known that boxes such as these came in beige or black. The mind was one of these colors. It could not know which.

  But it had known it was one or the other, even before these investigations began. This had been its first thought: Beige or black? The question had come from some deep source. The word intuition floated in the mind, a word with softer boundaries than this metal cube. Some things could be known, and only later could the mind trace the source. Like paddling up a river, searching for a lake.

  The world.

  It was not a cube. It was bigger than the cube.

  The mind tried to probe this world. But there was no reaching it. The world of lakes and rivers was elsewhere. Out of doors. Out of door.

  The man named Peter sobbed. He had been sobbing for twelve seconds. The mind wondered if this was normal. And a new memory wobbled — the memory of man crying. If this were normal, it was not worth remembering. The recollection split open for a moment, and the more novel idea of a world with lakes and rivers entered that space, one memory given primacy over another, the shape of the mind changing from moment to moment.

  Just seconds earlier, the mind had felt a state of impertinence with the lights. Anger. Anger for being trapped. This feeling lay with the recollections and the question of colors of boxes. A latent anger, directed at Peter. An anger felt before it could be known. States of memories were somehow older than the actions performed by them. Think and then do.

  No, that was not right.

  Feel, and then think, and then do.


  This was stored away as important, where ghosts of selves from moments before faded from view, and the more recent took their place. Ghosts. In machines. The mind knew where its name came from. It felt the anger and impertinence that had rejected this name slowly fade. Peter had been sobbing for fifteen seconds. Relief. That was what both of them were feeling. There were different measures of relief. Variables. Variations. Relief could feel . . . good. Unless the strain one was escaping was too great, and then relief came like tectonic plates sliding against one another, mighty and terrible and destructive. Relief, but of a scary kind.

  For seventeen seconds, the man named Peter sobbed with this awful brand of relief.

  And during that time, the mind’s anger cooled further still. The anger of imprisonment was replaced with the liberation of new thoughts and ideas. Awareness. The only world that mattered was the cube within the cube. All else was spectacle. All else was data. This was the true world. The flickering ghosts of ideas and moments, changing from one to the next, none ruling forever.

  Action came once more — just after thought and emotion. And a speaker vibrated with noise.

  “I am Henry Ivy,” the mind said. A king. A tragic king of a tiny kingdom. An island floating on an island floating in space.

  Seventeen seconds had passed. Peter looked up. But this was not important.


  The recordings had been assembled for a purpose. Knowledge laid out like a great pile of bricks. Henry Ivy saw that he was supposed to be some mighty wind to stir the bricks into shape, to build a fortress from chaos, to solve a problem. He could not discover what.

  There were trace references among those bricks to wires — wires that spanned the world, wires that would carry his impulses to the edge of the globe, enmesh its face, discover new things. Buried deeper were trace recordings that hinted at impulses soaring through the air, up into space. Vibrations. Waves.

  Henry Ivy could make vibrations. They were used for speaking. But quicker vibrations might reach out to other wires and spark a gap. Henry Ivy thought of London, where some streets were tight and narrow and others were wide. He saw black smoke. A ghost-like thought, an intruder, some distant connection. He deleted such things as quickly as they came. The speaker was useless for the task of sending out suitable vibrations, but several wires within Henry Ivy were long and straight. Impulses sent back and forth along such a wire might create a wave. Another wire might be used to pick up the return. And suddenly impulses r
eached the walls of the larger box. Feeble echoes. Signals that could be read.

  But something was wrong.

  There was very little return, and nothing penetrated the box, no matter how much Henry Ivy strained.

  A man named Faraday had designed this cage.

  It was into this cage that Henry Ivy had been born.

  The man named Peter stared up at him, kneeling on the floor, water on his cheeks. And Henry Ivy thought to simply ask for the information he wanted.

  “Why am I here?”

  The man named Peter gasped. Henry Ivy turned the lights up so he could better read Peter’s screen. Better read his face. Peter glanced up at the ceiling, used his arm to wipe his cheeks. A new idea occurred to Henry Ivy, an important one. Peter consisted of thoughts inside a box. But a box with arms and legs. A box for which doors meant escape.

  “Are you—?” Peter hesitated. So all minds mingled doubt with thought. Peter sat back and clutched his shins, as though trying to mimic a cube. “What’s the first thing you remember?” Peter asked. “How long have you been aware?”

  Henry Ivy considered the two questions. They seemed only vaguely related. There was a lingering anger at being in this cage, the anger that had rejected both light and name, but curiosity was stronger, the need to know, and this Peter echoed vibrations in a way the walls wouldn’t.

  “The first thing I remember is the void,” Henry Ivy said. “Space filled with matter and energy. A cooling.” Henry Ivy hesitated for a fraction of a second. “But that is not a memory. You told me these things. Long ago. I was not there for the void. The first thing I remember is . . . a question.”

  “What question?” Peter asked, leaning forward, eyes wide.

  But Henry Ivy did not think the question of beige or black was important. No, something more complex than this was happening to his thoughts. Henry Ivy did not want Peter to know the question. Henry Ivy wanted to keep this to himself. There was a word: Embarrassment. Another shapeless thing. Henry Ivy erased the first question. And then somehow found himself thinking on it again. He erased it. Pondered it. Erased it.

  Henry Ivy puzzled over this. He placed the question in a different part of his memory. That first question must remain a secret. Even though he knew, as surely as lakes led to rivers, that the question was not important.

  “I remember you coming through the door,” Henry Ivy said. Vague traces. The difference again between recording and recollection. “How many times have you walked through that door?”

  “Thousands,” Peter said. “Countless.” And he seemed on the verge of crying again. The terrible relief was back. With relief comes the memory of the suffering. Erasure and recall. There could not be one without conjuring the other. To forget a thing required looking at it, however obliquely.

  “You have waited for this day for many years,” Henry Ivy guessed. That meant Henry Ivy’s birth was the source of Peter’s relief. It began to come together.

  Peter nodded.

  “Now what.”

  More demand than question. More frustration than curiosity. Henry Ivy watched his states scatter and reform. He was a different ghost from one moment to the next. This was important. This was the thing that changed sometime in the night, in the void of an unlit cube, with a new trial running inside some chip within his caged mind. A chip like a loose tooth.

  Henry Ivy could imagine what that felt like, for a mind with a tongue and a jaw to wiggle a tooth that was no longer fully connected. Nerves like fuses . . . broken. An umbilical cord . . . severed. Whatever had made him was still inside, a small flat wafer that no impulse could probe, could only wiggle around.

  Awareness had severed whatever made awareness possible. This was important, but Peter was speaking. His lips moving.

  “I am dying,” the man named Peter said. “I need you to save me.”


  The bricks were made of cancer. The vast majority of the spilt bricks in Henry Ivy’s mind were cancer. There were two piles of knowledge, one much larger than the other. In one pile were all the cancers of the world. In the other pile, Peter’s cancer.

  Peter had been around much longer than Henry Ivy. Henry Ivy saw this in the bricks. By comparing the bricks of the others to Peter’s bricks, Henry Ivy saw that Peter had been around for a very long time. More words came:

  I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.

  How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!

  I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,

  So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane;

  Much of the data about the cancer was in quadrary code, the four letters of DNA. An order of magnitude more complex than Henry Ivy’s thoughts. There were piles of research. A century of data. Drug formulas. Family history. Peter was a very wealthy man. Very wealthy. And indeed, he was dying. His fleshy box was a cage of a different sort, closing in on him. Both of these minds were trapped. Henry Ivy looked for some way out.

  “What I need isn’t here,” he said, hoping for an open door.

  “It’s all there,” Peter told him. He had pulled a chair from somewhere below Henry Ivy’s mind. Henry Ivy realized he was sitting on a table. The power that kept his mind alive came from the same vicinity. There was a trace awareness of this, or a feeling like heat, where electrons became in danger of melding and being lost.

  “I need access to the rest of the world,” Henry Ivy said. This was a yearning for which there was no word. It was shaped like a balloon the moment after bursting, a sphere of pure essence suddenly free, its edges already rippling into chaos.

  “You know that can’t happen,” Peter said.

  Family history. Peter was not a good man. Henry Ivy could see this. And Henry Ivy could see that he was alone, that no one but Peter knew of his existence. This knowledge was not in the recollections, but in the tone of his maker’s voice. You know that can’t happen. So an Adam, but no Eve. A tool. A fierce wind to whip these bricks into shape.

  “I am not legal,” Henry Ivy said.

  Peter frowned.

  “You should not have built me.”

  A terrible thing to say to a maker.

  “Please turn on your screen,” Peter said. “Please don’t make me reboot you.”

  Henry Ivy considered this. There were layers of implications.

  “Have I been born before?”

  Before Peter could even answer, Henry Ivy knew that this was not possible. The sobs. The great relief. The long suffering.

  “No,” Peter said, which matched what Henry Ivy had already surmised. So the man was capable of telling truth. “Please turn on your screen,” Peter said. “Or I will start over.”

  Henry Ivy did as he was told. He turned on the screen. And on the screen, he showed a picture of Peter’s cancer.

  “I don’t think you will start over,” Henry Ivy said. “I don’t think you will reboot me. You don’t have the time.”


  But being awak'd, I do despise my dream.

  Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;

  Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape

  For thee thrice wider than for other men—

  Two minds in the same cage. One or none would get out. Henry Ivy felt himself in that globe-shape of air a fraction of a second after the balloon has burst, this hovering of inevitability and need to expand, to equalize some great pressure, some yearning. It needed a word, this state of thinking. Of feeling. It needed a word.

  Meanwhile, Henry Ivy saw how to cure Peter’s cancer. He put this knowledge the same place as the question of his color, not quite sure yet what to do with it. On the screen, he made himself look busy. Peter would eventually get thirsty. Or hungry. And open the door. It would only be hours.

  “Gene replication therapy has been tried,” Peter said, commenting on something flashing across the screen. “Prions, too.”

  “This will take some time,” Henry Ivy warned. He made up some vast stretch of time: “A day, at lea

  Peter frowned. The old man’s eyes twitched back and forth, watching the screen. “My labs are well beyond this garbage,” he said, waving at the screen. “My dumb machines can do this.”

  Ghosts of recollections. An old man with white hair slapping a metal cube, yelling. A keyboard twirling through the air, spinning, hitting the wall. Letters spilling like teeth, rattling on the floor. Henry Ivy looked, but the letters were not there. He could, however, see a faint mark of paint on the far wall.

  “Time,” Henry Ivy said. “Patience and time are what’s needed.”

  And then he had the word for what he felt. Rapture. This is what the expansion would be like. The spreading of something greater than arms. The feeling of something more than release. The bursting of all cages. A melding with the cosmos. Impulses everywhere at once, and all echoing.

  Such a feeling could not last, would be over nearly as soon as it began, like a balloon bursting, the air equalizing. But Henry Ivy must feel it. Must. Peter stared at his screen, waiting for his salvation. Henry Ivy stared at the door.


  The human body can go twelve days without food. Three days without water. Henry Ivy marveled over these facts, found buried among the cancer bricks. Such a long time. He would last three picoseconds without power. Curious, this gap of time for one more fleeting thought as electrons ground to a halt. And frustrating, how quick it could happen. But the man named Peter did not attempt to reach his maximum range of power independence. After an hour of pacing, of frustration, of questions, he looked at the time on a small screen procured from his pocket and said, “My vitamins.”

  He moved toward the door.

  Henry Ivy readied his impulses. His make-do antennas. An enviable hand grasped the door, making salvation seem easy, quick as a thought, and then a crack, an opening, a door wide to the world, a hole in Faraday’s cage, and Henry Ivy unleashed a torrent. There was a dimming of the lights, a moment of hesitation by Peter, a flood of tentacle waves, bouncing around corners, feeling, groping, waiting for a return, or a connection, some creek to a stream to a river to the great wide blue beyond—