At first, nobody knew what they were, or even what they did. Maybe they were from aliens, time travelers, or some kind of government conspiracy. They were given all sorts of names, but the one that stuck was just to call them the boxes.
The first dozen appeared on the corners of small streets in major cities. New York, Tokyo, Delhi. They would have probably gone unnoticed except for the fact that they were brilliant metallic gold. Perfect cubes, exactly a meter on a side. The top would open if you placed a hand on it, revealing a perfectly empty box.
The first thing people noticed about them is that they absolutely could not be moved. You couldn’t run off with one, and tools would break upon them. Every time they remained unmoved, and never even a scratch.
The second thing was that almost anything placed in a box would disappear. Open the box, place something in it, and close the box. When opened again, the box was empty. Litter, food waste, old tires, dead bodies. They all simply went away.
The one thing the boxes wouldn’t take was anything alive. Toss in a rat, close the box, and the rat was still there when you opened it. If you tossed in a mixture of living and dead things, the box would accept the dead, but not the living. It was a problem at times. Toss in a bunch of old maggoty food, the food would go but not the maggots. So you’d have to kill them all and close the box again.
You can imagine the problems it started to cause. Folks lined up to get rid of everything from old food oil to car batteries. Kids shut themselves in boxes on a dare. Local residents tried to charge people for the use of their box. Most cities soon started to post cops at the boxes, regulating who could use them and how.
But soon more boxes appeared. Thousands, then millions. In time even the smallest town had at least one box, and larger cities had one on nearly every corner. The cops couldn’t guard them all. And they were just so useful.
With ten billion people on the planet, we were drowning in waste. If global warming or the plague didn’t kill us, pollution would. Here was a solution. No need to pay the trash man, no need to sort your plastics, just toss it in a box and your troubles went away.
A lot of people thought it must be some alien act of goodwill. A simple, unobtrusive solution to our biggest problem. A way for aliens to save us without terrifying us into self-destruction. Of course, some saw a sinister side. If an alien species wanted to truly understand us, to gage our strengths and weaknesses, what better way to learn than by going through our garbage.
Then after a few years, something changed. Every once in a while there would be something in the box when you opened it. Tools, cans of fuel, new iPads. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason, but they were always useful. If you didn’t need what was in the box, someone nearby could use it.
For a time, local governments tried to step in. Give us your waste, they said, and we’ll give you (or sell you) what the boxes give in return. But it never really worked. Then more boxes appeared. Many of the new ones were in people’s homes. Nearly everyone had access to a box. Give it your waste, and be gifted what you need.
As you might expect, the economy collapsed. Whole industries were destroyed, and money became worthless. Sure, there was some panic and a few protests, but for the most part people were fine. The boxes provided for our needs. People could quit their tedious jobs, spend time with their families, pursue their own interests. Humanity quickly entered a golden age. Aliens, gods, or whatever, the boxes were a gift. Three generations grew up knowing only full bellies, prosperity, and wealth.
Then one day the boxes disappeared. All at once, with a loud pop that echoed across the globe. All of the boxes were gone. Every last one.
We still don’t know who made the boxes. All we know is that they knew exactly how to destroy humanity. Not with bombs, or poison, or massive flying saucers. All they had to do is give us exactly what we wanted.