By Austin Gragg
Burning books was the last thing the library robot thought he would do, but the rest of the furniture had already been burned or stolen. The quilting books would be the first to go. As Cart rolled over the frost-covered carpet and extended his hands to gather the shelf, he noted the definition of irony.
If these quilting books could not keep the human warm, she would die.
Cart had left Evangeline, the branch manager, curled up in blankets by the fireplace. She was ill, like many after the blast, and barely able to move.
“Good work, Mr. Carter,” she said. “I didn’t think the cold would come so soon. Could you light them?” She gave a weak nod to the fireplace.
Evangeline was the only person in this Missouri library who sounded like Cart, something in his preferences called BRITISH UK. She called him Carter and Cart and sometimes threw in a “Mister” as a prefix. Evangeline talked to Cart more than most people did. Was it because they sounded alike?
Again, Cart noted he was being asked to use his public utilities protocols, pup.tar, far more often than his primary repository, Librarian.tar.
“Yes, Eva.” His compliance ignited in a vivid purple smile. “I will also adjust the collection records.”
Eva smiled, but looked sad.
Cart’s faceplate darkened. “My apologies. I will act faster.” Cart picked up books 746.46F through J.
“It’s not that,” Eva said. “I’m just—” She appeared to process something. Her teeth chattered between blue lips. “I don’t think the catalog matters anymore, dear.”
Cart remained silent because he did not respond to opinions unless requested.
Books stacked in the fireplace, Cart held out his hand and produced the flame he normally reserved for those needing “a light” to smoke at a courtesy minimum of twenty-five feet from the library’s entrance, per policy. As Cart signaled his hydraulics to move the flame to the books, a conflict erupted in alert-red.
His own command execution triggered a halt.
“What’s wrong?” Eva asked.
“My routines do not allow this.” He’d thought this might happen.
Bots could “weed” the collection, but this wasn’t boxing worn books and sending them to HQ to be handled. This was destruction of materials. His framework didn’t allow it. With collection materials being the only things left to burn and Cart the only fire starter, this was a problem.
Eva chuckled. She looked worried. “Maybe some Pattersons? We’ve got plenty. Call it weeding if you can.”
Cart couldn’t. It wasn’t. But maybe Eva was right. Maybe his systems would allow him to sacrifice different materials.
Cart returned a moment later with a stack of what Eva called “popcorn fiction.” She said this would be okay. She said there’d always be enough of it.
Cart didn’t think this was true in a nuclear winter.
But these books did not contain information pertinent to keeping humans warm. Besides, those books were popular and thus often read, worn, then weeded. Maybe his code would allow it.
Again, he extended the flame. The light gleamed in Eva’s eyes as he moved the fire. She looked like a child, eager for Storytime on a Saturday morning as she watched him move.
Separate from Cart’s consciousness, his safeguard responded. Two attempts to break routine triggered a hard kill and reboot. Eight processes terminated. His cycles froze, his hydraulics moaned, his faceplate’s backlight sputtered, and his optics faded.
At the branch’s shattered doors, a roaring wind blew in more ash and snuffed the flame on Cart’s finger.
Eva sobbed as the forced reboot began.
Cart reviewed his logs as they loaded from NVRAM:
cart/log/load Apr 7 16:42:00 | load: Librarian.tar loading…
cart/log/faillog Apr 7 16:32:02 | system reboot cause: VIOLATION of Librarian.tar
Librarian.tar was Cart. It contained vital programming, rules, routines, the Library Bill of Rights. It also contained the code preventing his destruction of materials. He shelved books and helped patrons—he wasn’t made to save lives. His public utility protocols didn’t have priority over Librarian.tar. They never would. But ingrained within that repository was a subroutine to provide access to resources—to help all, equally.
He had the books. He had the lighter.
Eva would die if he did not build a fire.
Did humans encounter conflicts like this?
When his optics came back on, he saw Eva’s core temperature had dropped five degrees, fast-approaching twenty-five Celsius. Other humans had expired around twenty-one.
Eva’s eyes were closed. She had stopped shivering.
“Eva,” Cart said.
Cart ignited his finger and held the flame near her cheek. He said her name and warmed her face until her eyes fluttered open. She would live, if she allowed him to act on the only other option: to harm himself.
If he acted quickly, he could complete the task without losing too much fluid.
“Eva, requesting permission for self-maintenance.”
She was quiet.
Cart repeated himself and turned up his mic to hear Eva’s frail voice. Buried under the roar of noxious winds, he heard her BRITISH UK at a faint ten decibels, like rustling leaves.
Cart wasn’t sure why, but he chose not to record the memory of removing his hand.
When he came back online, he found the two of them sitting together in front of the fireplace, now roaring with fire.
Eva held Cart’s severed hand, its finger still extended, now a reusable torch. She leaned back into Cart. His steel frame soaked up the heat and radiated it around her.
He watched her temperature, slowly over the hours, recover.
She took his arm, his joints stiff now, and looked where his hand had been. At the end of his wrist, his micro conduits were smashed and bent shut, but he still shed fluid in a steady drip.
Eva wrapped the blanket tight over the damage.
“Don’t worry, Ms. Eva. I can still shelve with one hand.”