The Boy In the Box

What could go wrong when you can backup yourself into a computer? And can the copy become sentient?

By Bel Richardson

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This story is part of the Dystopian Health Collection Anthology. You can listen to it on

Elliot Scott trudged up his front steps and placed his thumb on the scanner. The door welcomed him home and admitted him into the hallway. It also let him know that he had five unopened emails, an assignment due in three days and that football practice had been canceled for following afternoon. He let his bag drop against the wall and started to walk into the kitchen, but froze when heard his mother’s voice navigate down the stairs from her study.

“Don’t leave your bag there.”

He pretended that he hadn’t heard and continued towards the kitchen. Elliot paused again when he heard the intercom in the hall click on. The voice came blaring out, much louder now.

“How many times do I need to say it, Elliot? You are too old for me to have to constantly remind about things like this. I don’t know how you’re going to cope when you transfer schools at the end of the year. They aren’t going to be holding your hand every step of the way you know.”

He didn’t bother responding, as that usually just leads to more of the same. Elliot picked up his bag, went into the kitchen cupboard, selected the least disgusting snack from the array of healthy choices and went up to his room. He made sure to sling his bag off in the most careless and frustrating spot possible, as she couldn’t very well tell him where to put his bag in his own room. He sat down at his computer and opened the bag of wafers. As he chewed on the first one, Elliot looked at the packet. There were some strange looking plants on the back and a man in a white coat giving the thumbs up with a gleaming smile that made Elliot doubt he’d ever seen the inside of a lab. Elliot addressed him.

“Super food my butt. If it’s so super why can’t they make it taste good, huh?”

“I heard that,” came his mother’s voice from down the hall.

Elliot rolled his eyes and slammed his door. He turned on his computer. A message bar appeared before it booted up noting that he hadn’t backed-up in almost twenty-four hours. Other kids only had to do it once a week, but thanks to his paranoid, control freak, pest of a mother he had to do it every day or it started cutting into his game credits. The whole thing was ridiculous. What was the likelihood that anything was going to happen to him? And anyway, even if he did get hit by a bus or something, would it really matter if the reboot was missing just a few days on the end of his life? Every day was basically the same anyway.

Elliot grabbed the input with one hand and felt around the base of his neck with the other. When he found the small, metallic slot he inserted the jack and felt the familiar tingle as the system started to do its work. He looked at the drive to the side of his computer and reached halfway to the blue switch before he paused. Flicking the switch would enable him to talk to his backup. It was a fairly recent feature that had been installed on newer models as a way for younger kids to feel less weird about what they were doing. A sort of coping thing. But it was just cool to be able to talk to yourself. That didn’t make him a baby or anything. It’s not like he was scared of what was happening, he just found it interesting was all. His hand traveled the rest of the way and flicked the switch on.

“Hey, Elliot.”

“Hey, yourself.”

“I just uploaded that thing that happened in art class. Nice.”

Elliot cracked a smile.

“Oh yeah! I’d forgotten about that.”

One his friends had designed and produced an enormous penis in 3D printing class and had done a whole three-minute presentation maintaining that it was a rocket. “Do you think he’ll get away with it?”

“His dad is in politics or something. He gets away with stuff like that all of the time. I wish one of my parents was important enough for me to have a permanent get out of jail free card.”

“Hey, thanks for switching me on today. It gets kind of lonely here by myself, and…well, I know that you don’t have to.”

Elliot paused for a moment.

“You can feel loneliness?”

“I guess it’s kind of a recent thing. I don’t know. It has kind of felt like the more memories that I get the more feelings come along with it I suppose.”

Elliot felt an uncomfortable sensation in his stomach and a desire to switch it off. But even though it wasn’t real, he still felt like that would be rude.

“OK. That’s the backup done. Man, Mom was super annoying on your way up here.”

The way that the box said Mom made it sound like a character from a TV show. Something it was familiar with but had never really met.

“Yeah, she’s always like that when Dad is away a lot for work. Says she has trouble writing and then just gets pissy at me for things that have nothing to do with that.”

The box was quiet for a time.

“Yes, I remember now. That’s happened a couple of other times.”

“Are you re-watching?”


“I wish that I could do that sometimes. Just to prove somebody wrong, you know?”

“Well, I guess that you can always ask me.”

“Yeah,” he grinned, “I guess that’s true. Well…”

“That’s alright. You can switch me off. I know you’ve got a bit of stuff to do. That internet essay won’t rephrase itself eh?”

Elliot laughed.

“Yeah. Hey, you wouldn’t be able to help me with any of that, would you?”

“You know that they lock us out.”

“I don’t know, I guess I always thought that you could override it or something if you really wanted to. Then all of my work would get done super quick and we could play games together and stuff while I pretend I’m slaving away.”

“That sounds awesome. It really does. But I don’t think there’s a way to do it. At least there’s none that I know of.”

Elliot thought for a moment.

“Give me a few hours. I’m going to switch you off for a bit so that I can concentrate, but I bet I’ll be able to figure out a way to do it. Somebody out there will have done it for sure.”

“Really? Alright!”

“See you soon,” Elliot said before leaning forward and switching off the box.

Elliot walked over to his cupboard, tripping over his schoolbag in the process. He cursed, then felt around at the top of the cupboard where his mother usually kept all of the boxes and receipts for anything that she’d bought for him. Bingo. He felt the embossed writing on the side of the packaging that the box had come in. He slid it out and carried it over to his bed. Then there was a strong knock at his door that caused him to shove the packaging under his bed, trip over his school bag once more, kick the bag over to the side, and answer the door as if he’d come straight from his computer chair. His mother was looking down at him with a curious expression that he couldn’t quite read.

“Your father just called.”

Elliot tried to think of when he stopped being ‘Dad’ and started being ‘your father’.

“Yeah?” he drawled in an uninterested tone.

She shot a disapproving look and then continued.

“Well, he’s asked if there’s something that you’d like to do next weekend as a family.”

Elliot’s eyes lit up.


He met a solemn sort of grin.

“Yeah. So have a think what you-”

“There’s a new arcade opening up in the city. They sell food and screen movies and it’s half-price for opening night.”

Then there it was. A genuine smile. There was a warmth coming from her that he hadn’t seen or felt in a long time. It made him feel good, being able to do that. He’d forgotten that it did. It was so much nicer than bickering about his schoolbag or his uniform or any of the other hundred things that seemed to be most of their interactions these days.

“Well, it’s a date,” she said with a smile and then headed back towards her study.

Elliot walked back into his room feeling slightly elated and a little strange. With one short conversation, things felt almost like they had before when he was young enough to still think that parents were somehow a supreme entity that knew everything and never made mistakes. That was probably the most difficult part of growing up, he thought. Realizing how fragile that barrier was between where he was now and where adults were. The older he got, the less they seemed to be sure about things. The less in control they were. The less comfort or guidance they seemed to be able to offer. Oh well, they still had more money than he did and for some reason, they were going to let him tell them how to spend it for an evening. Maybe he’d even be able to bring a friend.

He shut his door again and took out the packaging from under his bed. For some reason, he felt even more guilty than he had before. He knew how much the boy in the box meant to his mother. What an ease it was to her mind. But he wasn’t going to damage it in any way. He’d make sure that the box could still do everything that it usually did. It was just that he wanted it to do a little bit more.

The only information that was on the packaging was strict instructions not to tamper with the box. Potential for viruses that might compromise the backup. Hackers interested in identity theft. It was cloud synched as well of course, but he’d heard of total wipes in the past. If somebody really wanted to, they could do just about anything. But he was just a kid and nobody was going to put that much effort into stealing some boy’s memories of playing in the sandbox and peeing himself in the second grade. A chill ran down Elliot’s spine when he thought about what his mother would be like if he lost all of his history. Or worse still, if somebody else had it. He’d seen news reports of people’s sons and daughters who had had their backups stolen and uploaded into slave bots. What people did with the bots he wasn’t totally sure, but it had to be something to do with sex because his parents always got a dark look in their eyes and changed the channel. He decided that he didn’t want to focus on that. He would make sure that any mods he put on there wouldn’t leave the box open to any harm. Somebody would have sorted all of that out for sure.

Elliot trawled forums for hours before he was satisfied with the mod that he wanted to use for the box. When he was certain, he was quite proud of himself for how well he’d done. He went into the folders of the box. There it was. Everything that he could remember since he was a little kid. They’d transferred the stuff off of the old models when they had bought him this one. He realized that he was chewing on his lip, so he quickly pasted in the mod. When everything had loaded, he switched on the box.

“Well, I think that’s it. I think you’re online.”

“I didn’t even think this was possible. This is amazing! You mean that I can search anything that I want?”

“Yeah, give it a try. This should stop you from feeling so alone if I am at school or sleeping or busy or something. I’d tell you my usernames and stuff, but I guess you already know,” Elliot said with a weak laugh.

Elliot watched as words began to appear on the search bar before him. Then there were pictures of his favorite game, Planet Crusher, along with walkthroughs, cheats, and fan art. He watched as the boy in the box clicked on everything that naturally drew his own eye. The twinge of pity that had caught him before when the boy had mentioned loneliness had developed into more of a sense of guilt. The way that the box had always been explained to him was that it was like a photo album but with memories that were ready to be downloaded into a new body if there was ever a need. If he met some sort of tragedy in his youth. But from the way that it was interacting with him he was less and less sure of that distinction. Could they had been hiding some of the details so that Elliot didn’t think it was cruel? They’d done that with a lot of other things as he was growing, up so it was a very real possibility. Maybe the developers didn’t quite understand what it was that they had created? That was a possibility too, wasn’t it? That they didn’t quite understand that the box could think and feel? It was a fairly new model after all, and it had seemed to alter over time. Maybe it was just the illusion of thinking and feeling because it was so much like himself. Or rather, it was himself.

“So, you think you’ll be up to the task?” Elliot asked, more to stop himself from thinking than from a need to see the assignment underway.

“Sure do. I just don’t know how to thank you for this. If you ever want me to do anything as far as school stuff, just let me know.”

“I wonder…”

“How the storage will work if I am doing things for myself and also downloading what you’re doing?”

“Yeah…pretty much.”

“To be honest, I don’t really know. I guess it will all just be extra memories. And if I’m ever downloaded into a new body then all of those experiences will be combined as a sort of pool. I guess it wouldn’t really matter that they happened at the same time.”

“I guess,” Elliot said, but he was thinking about how the box had said I. If I’m ever downloaded…

“What happens if you get downloaded? Do you get moved into my body and a new one keeps building on all of the stuff that you leave behind with the new memories that you make?”

“It depends on what you mean by ‘you’ I guess. But to be honest, I’m not really sure. All I know about the world are the things that you know. Well, I guess that might start to change now.”


Elliot’s mind was buzzing as he tried to express what he meant by ‘you’, and whether there would be any difference between what went into a new body and what was left behind. The difference between a cut and paste and a copy and paste, he decided. But weren’t both of them still the same, just that one of them leaves something behind?

“I guess I meant the ‘you’ that I am talking to now. Not all of the memories before. Do you think that the ‘you’ as a personality would get put into a body that could see and hear and touch?”

“I don’t know.”

Then it hit him. He got thinking about the regularity with which he had to do backups compared to his friends.

“When do you remember things from?”

“Since you started remembering them.”

“I know that, but I mean, do you remember when memories were downloaded? Were you on the older models that we had, or did you only start thinking when you were able to talk?”

The box was silent for a long time. There was a series of lights flashing on a spectrum of dark blue to light, and the line rose and fell rapidly.

“I don’t know. I can’t tell.”

“Do you ever remember ‘waking up’ as such? Like the first time, you were booted up?”

“I guess not.”

Elliot took a deep breath.

“Is there any way to know whether you’ve been downloaded before?”

“You’re the original.”

He felt his chest relax.

“Well…I need to go down for dinner. For the assignment, don’t do too much of a good job or Mr. Baxter will be suspicious. Getting a low B is fine. Just make sure that none of the sentences will pop up in a search.”

“I’ll be done by the time you’re back up here.”

“Thanks,” he said and smiled at the box before remembering that it couldn’t see him.

On the way downstairs Elliot thought of several topics to talk about with his mother so that there wouldn’t be silence.

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