The window for entries to ENR's construction science fiction writing contest closes at the end of July. There are prizes for the best received. We are looking for people who understand construction to imagine a vision of a future in construction and express it through the lens of science fiction. Who better to do it than the readers of ENR? Here's a sneak preview of one entry just in. Click here for full contest details, and then give it a shot. Start writing!

The Trouble With Bots
By Montague Dawson

    Roger wore his tool belt like a gunslinger, about as low around his hips as it could go without sliding down his legs into the dirt. He wore a t-shirt tied around his head and talked strings of unintelligible slang whose meaning I could only guess at—although I was pretty good at it. Or maybe he just agreed with everything I said I thought he said. But he was an ace at robot control and he had an instinctive feel for managing the jobsite.
    Roger and I and the robots were the crew building a 77-floor hotel in mid-town, and despite the generous air conditioning in the job trailer we were sweating our butts off on this one. OSHA was all over us about fall protection after one of the bots blew a circuit in a thunderstorm and took a nosedive to the sidewalk. Not that anybody but Rental Tool and the insurance company gave a damn about the bot, but we were just lucky it was raining cats and dogs and there was nobody on the street for it to land on. Now we were on notice, though, and we had extended the fall-protection perimeter-steel sitewall to the edges of the sidewalk and flared it out at the top like a funnel and all the hardware guys were wired up from overhead like an army of marionettes, dancing through the air around the rising steel.
    Roger was the field hand. He was the one who had to actually leave the trailer now and then to sort out the anomalies, like when the interface claimed there were 14 rust monkeys bending rebar and we had only 12 rented for the job, or, most strangely, when one of the skywalkers sat down on a beam and the data feed indicated it was suddenly terrified of heights.
    Roger got up from his terminal and lumbered out of the trailer with his hardhat and test meter while I got on the phone with Rental Tool and started giving them hell.
    “It’s going round,” confessed old man Ebersol. “That’s the thirteenth one this week. We think it’s a virus.”
    “Oh, so you just wait for it to bite me and screw up my job and then give me some lame apology?”
    “I didn’t apologize. I just said it’s a bug going around.”
    “So what am I supposed to do with all this steel I’m trying to fly in? Hire workers?”
    “Oh no, don’t go there. Rental Tool’s got you covered. We’ll send over another crate of Ironmen.  Just boot ‘em up and send them to the top and keep the ones that work.  Shove the scared ones off for all I care. You’ve got a good fall protection perimeter now, and they’re no good to us once their dataloggers have captured a reputation. That’s why we carry insurance.”
    I had to admit, it was a practical, win-win solution if we were in such a situation, and kind of fun, too, throwing stuff off the building, so we took precautions and quarantined the site from the network and got busy shoving infected bots off the steel to the street.
    I joined Roger on top and we found one crouched and trembling in a corner by a parapet wall and, slick as Vaseline, we grabbed its feet and flipped it off.  Perry Pickney, the insurance supervisor, happened to be inspecting the site with his little opera glasses from across the road when the bot took the flip and we were rolling on the roof in hysterics when that thing hit the ground and Pickney started to howl. We peaked over the edge and he was dancing around furious, with his white hair flapping and his little red face turning purple, cursing and cursing in his high whiney voice and going apoplectic like those stupid little firecrackers they call “whistling screamers,” which spin in a circle and go “Weeeee-POP!” They’re the dumbest things you ever saw, next to bots.
    Roger and I were giggling like madmen as we separated to look for more scardiybots, and I went prowling around on my own, welcoming the respite from hours of labor at the computer screen and the opportunity to actually get up high in the blistering sun and smell the welding and wet mortar and concrete and listen to the noise of construction. I ran into a crew of masonbots on the 50th floor mixing mortar and laying brick with dizzying speed and I marveled as the labor-bots fearlessly wheeled enormous loads of brick and sloshing mortar in barrows across planks spanning chasms 50-stories deep. We sure as hell could afford a broken plank or two in the interest of “gettin’ er done!” We were ahead of schedule, on budget and with only Roger and me on the job—plus that insurance fart wandering around—there was next to no risk exposure for physical harm.
    I was congratulating myself mentally on such a job well done when the heat, I think, suddenly caved down on me.  I was following a stupid bot with a wheelbarrow crossing a 2X12 plank over a bottomless space when I realized my peripheral vision was zeroing down like the closing iris of a lens. Everything was going black from the edges and my sight was drilling down to pencil points in the center of my field of vision.
    “Oh shit,” I said aloud as I went down on my knees, and then onto my stomach, wrapping my arms around the plank to hang on. “It will pass,” I thought, hopefully, and I believed it was true until my chest began to tighten like a vise and I started throwing up, my spume sailing off into space and spattering far down on the pavement in front of Mr. Pickney, who abruptly stopped his rant and looked up in amazement.
    “Oh my God,” I thought. “I’m going to die 50 floors in the air on a plank from a heart attack and I’m the only human in sight, except for that jackass down there.”  I embraced the plank and closed my eyes and started to cry.
   “There there,” said a soft voice in my ear. “Take my hand. We’ve got you. We’ll save you.”
I screwed my eyes tight and tried to hang on. I felt the weight of one of the bots climbing onto the plank and embracing my body with its arms, locking me on safely, and then the crew of masonbots extended their legs and telescoping arms to reach way back on the plank and support it like the cables of a suspension bridge until they had the load and could draw me in safely. The forebot was programmed to administer first aid, and just before I passed out I remember him repeating my vital signs and instructing the other bots to prepare the paddles, just in case.
    When I came to I was on the ground and a bored looking squad of EMTs was lumbering up, shooing the bots away. Roger was standing about 15 feet off in his tool belt, looking stupid, and the crew of masonbots was already wheeling for the botlift to get back to work.
    I don’t know about them bots anymore.  But I’m just glad we haven’t gone to the AI models—the ones that learn based on what they see. Some of them act pretty smart, in a way, but the confusing thing is that they sometimes seem almost human. What the hell are we supposed to do with that?