by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
First published 2018, in Future Visions (Goodreads link)
I wish my mother would die.
A son is not supposed to say such things, but there comes a time.
Look at her, now. All alone in this dark room. It stinks of dying––you know that rotting, sickly-sweet smell that old people give off, that nasal vomit that every part of your secret mind tells you to run, run like a deer from the hounds, and never look back? It is dimly lit, this dark room of hers; there’s some light leaking through the curtains. A few white rays paint the HospaBed. And in the center, glaring like a baleful spider, is my mother.
“Turn up my painkillers,” she croaks. “Goddamn you, you’ve left it low again, you bastard.”
The HospaBed is all-metal outside, with built-in painkiller and medicine delivery. The painkiller dials are turned up to maximum. I pretend to adjust it.
“Look at you,” it sneers from the bed. “When are you getting married, eh? Living here, nancy-boy, until I die and give you the house?”
Getting married. Yeah, mum. I could, maybe, if I wasn’t spending half my salary on your medical payments and the other half on groceries. Maybe if you crawled out of that HospaBed right now and threw yourself out of the window we could think about it. I might even be able to afford a ring.
“Fuck off,” I growl at her. “Shut up and sleep.”
The woman who packed my lunches and fetched me a hard wallop across the ear is just a photograph. In its place is a rattling corpse that refuses to go away. I feed it, change its blankets, wipe away its dribble and its shit, and it curses me for leaving the painkiller setting too low.
Maybe you either die a parent or you live long enough to see yourself become a child again.
There is, however, one thing that might help.
The Writers of the Future. I’ve been refreshing this website in my head ever since I heard they’re opening again. One of the last big writing contests on the Internet. $35,000 for the winner, $15,000 for second place.
I’m a good writer. It’s the one thing I’ve known since I was little. I know how words go together.
Of course, you can’t be a true-blue author anymore – we can’t complete with HemmingwayBot or McKillip.Ai or the other ghosts resurrected from the books of the best writers who ever lived. Beating a legend on the BookMarket is damn near impossible now, even for a bot. Who the hell can match Clarke, for instance, paired with the contents of every new research paper, every news stream, every open data store? Forget writing scifi. The ten Shakespeare bots, cranking out their faithfully patterned dramas; those alone would wipe the floor with you before your book ever hit the new releases lists. There’s a lot to be said for churning out 50,000 words a day.
But there is a growing market for human writers now. People are tired of perfection, I think: they want flaws, they want something to critique, they want novelty. And I know I’m good enough. I’ve written––I don’t know how young I was, but I remember stories scrawled on the backs of the paper bags they give you at the street-food stall. I remember that thrill when I got to the creative writing class, where the tests seemed more like pedestals than challenges, a chance for me to show off what I could do with my pen. I went from that to college, English and Chinese literature, BA, the works. Even my mother, who told me being a writer was stupid, that being an engineer or a data scientist was the only to make money in this world––even she was proud, at least momentarily, that I’d actually graduated.
And then someone got a bot to write a perfect Heinlein novel, and the world was never the same again. I knew that day how painters felt when they realized photography had taken over.
I open the curtains on my way out, and the white beams of sunlight turn into the Yard. Contrary to what my mother thinks, I don’t live in her house: she lives in mine. It’s a two-bedroom . They built it out of an old shipping yard, turning the container units into tiny one-man apartments. Some of them are stacked in piles with a bit of metal and concrete riveted on to keep them from falling off. Very few of us can afford to drive, so the only moving vehicles are Beatnik, the neighborhood cop. His split bodies trundle leisurely down broken concrete paths, swerving every so often around the kids playing in potholes.
I could write a story about that guy, you know. Maybe interview him a bit. Hey Beatnik, what’s it like being a cop? You see a lot of, uh, action?
And he might tell me stuff I can use, I mean really use. Maybe a Triad whistleblower ran into our part of the yard and the Triads walled off the entire thing, made a fence of black-suited bodies, and Beatnik was the only thing between them and us and a killing spree. Maybe he used to be something different, I don’t know, special forces, and he disobeyed a stupid command and was sent back here and cast into police bodies as punishment. Maybe he might tell me what it’s like to live in six bodies at the same time.
I’ll need to do some prep work in my head. A list of questions. Let’s do a proper interview of my man Beatnik. I take out my tablet and jacket. Let’s go hunt a story.
It is cold outside and the sun is setting. It isn’t hard to find Beatnik again. One of his units is a hulking triped thing, some sort of old military drone given to the police after it had become obsolete. It has a habit of sitting outside Moorungs, the Yard’s one and only teashop, diner and pub. There he is. A squat dome head with a single blue strip for eyes sits on a torso the size of a one-man car. Police units on the Webserials are a dazzling white, but Beatnik is more like chipped cream. He sometimes leaves oil stains outside Moorungs, which old Mr. Moorung cleans up without a fuss. I don’t think Beatnik knows.
At least he doesn’t bitch about painkillers.
The head swivels with a slight squeak and a grating noise. “Squire. Hands where see ‘em.”
It’s Beatnik’s old joke. We all indulge him. “How serve you?”
I explain to him that I’m writing a story, and I want him in it. The blue strip goes indigo and his metal-on-oil voice goes up an octave.
“Story, squire? La us?”
“Possibly,” I say. One should never give away their main characters. In case someone else comes along.
“Have get permission from HQ,” says Beatnik. A pause, then: “Right, done. Within limit, squire. Ask.”
I quiz him at length. First a description. Seven machines, I tell my tab, repeating what Beatnik tells me. Three wheeled, two with legs, two quadcopter drones. Beatnik spreads himself out all over the Yard using the drones as overwatch. Right now, he tells me, Units 2 and 5 are homing in on someone near the perimeter; there’s been some sort of fistfight, probably knives, and someone’s been stabbed. Unit 2 has basic first aid. 5, which is faster, is in pursuit of the assailant: a thin woman in dirty green and white. She has wires embedded in her skull instead of hair and has a gun in her belt. 5 will either catch her or drive her to the perimeter, where three units from the B-14 police crew are waiting. The penalty for attempted murder is death.
Between the two of us, Beatnik’s trying not to catch her. He doesn’t want another murderer. They’re messy and he has to find a place to bury her afterward.
I spring the Big One. “How did you end up in this line of work, Beatnik?”
The blue strip goes indigo for a second. “Cannot official answer, squire.”
Oh. “At least a hint?”
“Cannot official answer, squire.” The drone squeaks a bit. “But tell you something la police recruitment thirty years ago. Know they used catch murderers back then? Gave choice. Die painful or join police. Many die. Many join police. Cut up, discard body, install mind la distributed nodes in multiple bodies la built-in safeguards. Turn problem of crime into solution. More criminals, more police. La while, less criminals, more police.”
Jesus. My blood runs cold. The friendly ex-war-machine parked next to me, leaking slightly, was a murderer?
“La social conditioning,” Beatnik goes on, as if talking to himself. “La pain, la directives. Bound to beat, bound to street.” The drone extends its arms as if to touch the whole Yard. “Prison, squire, except la purpose. Squire understand?”
Squire understood. I ask if I can take a picture of him. He agrees. I fiddle around until he thinks I’m done and take one as soon as he turns away. It comes out perfect: the enormous drone looking out over the Yard, blue scanner strip tilted towards the dying sun.
Back at my apartment I pore over this conversation, running searches in my head as I stare through the window through the gathering darkness. The searches spiral and grow more and more complex, like some sort of information bacteria evolving from the void.
Beatnik police. Yard district Beatnik. Officer Beatnik. Beatnik B-12 police department. I attach photos of Beatnik, or at least of his drones, swerving around children, chatting with me.
Mum groans from her room, a ceaseless diatribe about how much of a failure I am, a rant repeated so often that it must have carved grooves in that rotting brain of hers. It is as automatic to her as breathing now. Shut up, Mum, shut up, shut up, just swallow your words and choke on them and die. I make tea and leave hers on the table out of spite. I’m not going into that room today.
The searches come back positive. Officer I.S. Beatnik began service thirty years ago. He has survived three station commanders and at least one raid by the Triads on the police HQ.
There is the makings of a story here. Prison, squire, except with purpose. That photo of him sitting there, looking out at the sunset, trapped in six metal bodies bound to serve the Yard until they burned out. Already I feel the lightning coming. The beginnings of the Words. They’re sparking in my head, just out of sight or thought, slotting things together in unfamiliar combinations, seeing what works and what doesn’t. I smoke a cigarette and the process speeds up wildly, dragging itself into the foreground with the nicotine high. Part of me keeps refreshing the contest page. Wordcounts, delivery dates, requirements.
And there we have it.
I have an opening line.
I pull the tablet towards me, open a new repository, and write.
Six hours later I have eight thousand words sitting there, gleaming softly in the darkness. The Yard is silent; even my mother is silent, her terrible cacophony muted by sleep. Only the dull thump-thump-thump of the night trains are there to remind my ears that they exist.
“Edit,” I command. The tablet goes to work, highlighting phrases, deleting, fixing a bit of spelling and grammar here and there. Occasionally it shifts a bit of exposition around after checking with me. When it’s done, I have a healthy 5,000 words sitting there. It’s a redemption piece: a policeman gets thrown into death row for killing a bunch of drug-runners. He’s furious; he feels betrayed. He was only standing up for what was right. Keeping order. Cutting out a cancer in the body of the society he served to protect.
The judge is a piece of work. She throws our cop in jail. While there, he’s given the standard contract: serve or die. He picks the chance to serve, convinced that once he’s out he’ll go pay a visit to that goddamned judge, show her what justice really means by pounding her head in. He gets himself assigned to her neighborhood. Her house is a large one, baroque and by turns ugly and impressive. He’ll need some special equipment to get into that house. He befriends a mechanic who builds him pieces of what he needs. Tools for ramming open doors, popping gas, detachable limbs, the works.
And then, one day, a 911 call comes in: a kid’s fallen from a balcony and broken her spine. It’s the judge’s house. He walks in. Inside is the judge, surrounded by a sea of children. He’s confused––they can’t all be hers. Black, White, Hispanic, Chinese, South Asian––every shade of skin turns hopeful, pleading eyes at him as he flashes his badge and takes stock of the scene. One of them, a thing girl of about six, is whimpering on the floor, her back twisted horribly from what must have been a nasty plunge off a balcony. And the judge, no longer impressive and official, turns a tear-streaked face to him and pleads with him to help.
He does, confused. He’s not going to kill in front of kids. He takes the injured kid and the judge to the hospital. He watches, amazed, as she frets over the kid and almost collapses with relief when the autodoc tells them the kid will be okay, but will need surgery. Can they wait outside?
They wait. And as they wait, the judge, not knowing who she is confessing to, tells him about the kids. How she feels guilty every time she sentences someone to death, so if they have children, she takes them in, raises them as their own. The families are often unfit anyway: left to their own, they will only raise more murders, rapists, thieves. Her kids, she says, will be different. They will not repeat their parents mistakes.
Cue grand moment of realization. Cue introspection. Cue a sort of shikata-ga-nai where the officer questions the entire reason for his current existence. He flees the hospital in horror, and promptly has himself reassigned to a different neighborhood.
Later, on her deathbed, the judge asks to see him.
I know you, she says, tracing the unit number on his metal chest. You came that day to kill me, didn’t you?
I did, he says. But I think I killed myself instead.
I pull back and marvel at what I’ve done. I haven’t had a six-hour day in a long time, maybe eight, nine months, and goddamn, but I feel good: I feel alive. The final thing looks good. It’s readable, it’s witty, it’s serious. I go back to the contest page, click submit, and spend a few minutes carefully ticking off boxes. Name – done. Address – done. Legality – done. Story title – let’s call it ‘The Law’. A moment of panic as I hit Submit, and then the story is away, spiraling out of my reach, lost in the ether.
Outside, the sky is the color of the virtual ink I write in. There is a dusting of stars, some of them moving slowly over the crazy pile-up of metal boxes that make up my world. Soon the world will wake up and the boxes will come alive with the ceaseless hum of humans going about the business of being human . . .
But for now this night is mine.
I light a cigarette, marveling, and put a fresh pot on the stove to boil. Soon Mum will wake, and will need her tea. I should go down to the shop and buy some biscuits for her. Hell, if I get those 35,000 dollars, she can have enough biscuits for a lifetime.
It isn’t until the next day that the panic hits.
Jesus. I pull up short. What the hell was I thinking? Writers of the Future? That’s where the highbrow writers submit. MFAs. Astrophysicists who spend seven years writing the perfect science fiction short on the side. I don’t stand a chance.
“You okay, squire?” asks Johan, my line manager at the scrap factory.
“I feel sick,” I mumble.
Johan peers into my face. “You look like shit,” he says. “But shit that can finish this line before it hits the toilet. Finish your line and go home.”
All through the day, my numb, gloved hands work on autopilot, teasing out metal, electronics, whatever comes down through Line 4. At the same time, my mind is online, connected through the slow network they give us grunts. There is a counter by the contest submission box now. 25 people have submitted. I have a 1-in-25 chance of winning, 2-in-25 chance of taking something home. Those aren’t bad odds, I tell myself. I have a good story. I can do this.
My hands, pulling and stamping, shred computer cases, excavate old robot heads for their circuits, and––stop. Something that isn’t metal.
It’s a book. 5 by 9, paperback, with a nasty gash across the front cover. Books are useless for recycling. Probably was in the back of someone’s car or in a drawer that ended up here. Macbeth’s War, it says on the red cover. Shakespeare 3.1.1. It’s one of the bot-written ones from the old days, back when bots were let loose to fill in the gaps in Shakespeare’s dramas. Flesh out the world a bit, so to speak. They knew the beginning, they knew the ending where it tied back in to the main work. And they were free to pilfer any number of tried and tested plots and put some window dressing on top. This one would probably have a last stand, a heroic speech, some gallant but foolish action that nearly sends the whole thing awry, and Macbeth himself killing everything with a grim determinations that lands him with PTSD, maybe an award or two.
Hail, Thane of Cawdor, it says in big letters on the back. And beneath that, Explore the dark and bitter battle that fulfilled the witches’ prophecy in Shakespeare’s legendary drama.
I show it to Johan and asks if I can keep it. He shrugs, and I turn back to my work, checking the contest page against.
113 entries. As I watch, the count increases. 114.
I work the rest of the day in a grim determination that even Macbeth would have admired, trying not to lose my shit.
“Why are you early?” begins my mother as soon as I opened the door.
I mumble something to the effect of being ill and replace her hot water bottle. Her body, withered and crumpled, jerks and shudders on the HospaBed. Her beady eyes watch me. “You’ve been writing again,” she chuckled. “Fool.”
“You think you’re going to make money?” she baits. “You think you’re going to end up on the news?” Her voice becomes a loathsome, mincing rattle. “Yard boy writes novel, wins award.”
“I said shut up!”
“All you had to do was be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer!” she screeches at me. “We could have lived somewhere else! Then I could at least die with dignity! I could – I could -”
To my horror I see that great tears are coursing down her cheeks. She’s gulping back sobs.
“All I had to do was give you the world, eh?” I say bitterly, standing over her. “Would you like some fries with that? How about a castle or two?”
“I gave you everything,” she whimpers.
Wrong. All she ever gave me was a head full of dreams a mountain of debt. “You had nothing to give,” I say, the words twisting something inside my heart, and I shut the door. I sit at my ramshackle desk and buried myself in the bot-written Macbeth, as much to drown out my own seething as to bury her screeching in my head. Yard boy writes novel. Bitch.
The bot book turned out to be surprisingly good. It is prose, not Shakespearean drama, and it unfolds for the first few chapters exactly as I’d expected it to. Macbeth, saddled with a power-hungry wife, leaps at the chance to take out the Thane of Cawdor, who is leading Norwegian and Irish forces in an attack. The king, knowing Macbeth is a bit of a berserker, saddles him with Banquo. They are classic archetypes, Macbeth and Banquo: one of them is the hotheaded hero with his own demons, and the other is cool, level-headed. We want Macbeth to win, but we want Banquo to set up the army.
Damn it. It’s good. It’s readable. I fling the book across the room. Goddamned bots. Goddamned programmers sucking up royalties. Once upon a time we used to think robots would do all the grunt work and free the entire human race to be writers, artists, musicians, philosophers. Fuck that. Now the bots do everything except the grunt work. Anywhere there’s a market there’s a bot, beating the crap out of people like me trying to break in, writing a hundred books in the time it takes us to write one.
Can a bot do what I did yesterday? Can it spot a policeman on the street and go talk to him and weave a story out of that? No, but it can read every single police novel ever written and figure out exactly what the average reader wants from them and write that. We humans have no chance, not, not in this brave new world.
My mother, damn her, is right. I could have, should have been anything else but a writer.
I check the contest page again and feel like someone hit me over the head with a hammer. 742 people have sent in stories. My odds of winning look about as good as my chances of achieving low earth orbit. That’s almost a thousand other people to fight. Some of them might even be bots: there’s no real way of telling. By sheer probability I’m already out.
Some of them might be bots.
I eye the Macbeth novel where it has fallen, splayed out like a dead thing. There are ethics, you know. Things you don’t do. A writer has to be true to their art, because if we aren’t true to our art, what are we? Only entertainers, prancing on a stage to pay the bills. It is Art, capitalized. Everything else in this world has been commodified. So says every writer I have read and revered.
My mother’s voice, muffled, rises in sharp peaks from her room. Jesus, I really need the money. I don’t want to live in this shitbox forever.
I pick up the Macbeth book and rifle through it again, skipping pieces, reading a passage here and there at random. It really is quite good. Not something I’d be proud of, not something that would get me a lifetime award, but a good little book, with enough craft in it to give pleasure, if not wisdom.
Damn it, damn everything. I need a cigarette. Fuck that. I need several. I need to be away from this damned metal apartment with its creaking walls and dying parent. I grab my jacket and head out.
There’s a place we used to smoke back when I was a kid: a little fire escape built into the side of a particularly tall stack of blocks on the East End, near where the highways met the dirt roads. It was empty then and it’s empty now. Someone’s thrown some old garbage around––a few junk bots, a car shell, some sheets––but if you’ve been here before you know where the sheets peel back to reveal a footpath. The ladder’s rusted but it holds. It’s kept this way, I suspect, by kids of the verge of adulthood, kids who need a place to escape and make out and have a smoke every now and then. A minute later I’m up there, puffing away, watching speeding cars turn the highway into blurred neon, my head a furious debate.
742 people. There’s very little to stop me from downloading a bot, letting it generate a few stories, and tossing them into the mix. Not too much. Just enough to tip the scales in my favor. And the writers . . . as I smoke, I realize the writers who talk about Art in capital letters are people who can afford to speak about Art in capital letters. I have bills to pay. A corpse-mother to keep alive.
A terrible image rises into my head, unbidden: my mother, dead and stinking in that HospaBed, and me with no money to bury or burn her. Jesus. That would be a picnic and a half.
A whirring breaks that nightmare, startling me. It’s one of Beatnik’s drones, floating at eye level. In the gloom it looks like a wraith, a dangerous one, all the oil stains and chipped paint ironed out by the darkness.
Squire is alone, yes.
“La story complete?” Beatnik is trying to cheer me up, I think, but this is precisely the wrong question to ask. I start by explaining what I had in mind, and how it’s done, but I’m not really sure it’ll win, and before I know it everything comes out: Mum, the things she says, the job, the contest, the market, the bots. The drone floats in the silence, drifting. I’m venting years of crap now. It is both therapeutic and exhausting.
“We read not, squire,” it says at last. “Worse things many do for money, we tell you. Man must put food la table, keep roof. Such la we do.”
“I’d be turning my back on everything I wanted to be,” I say into the darkness.
“Worse things many do,” replies Beatnik. “We not have no solution. But two thing la: either squire write la every tool at disposal, or squire give up, retrain, la better work. Last not bad. Squire young, healthy, have brain, have all hands.”
No. “I’m a writer. It’s what I was born to do.”
Beatnik twirls, amused. “Think you a doctor la surgery?” he says. “Think you lawyers debate law?”
Come to think of it, that’s true. Engineers, as far as I know, don’t balance the physics of their creations any more: they just draw and let the software handle the rest. Doctors mostly just talk to families once the autosurgeon is done. And lawyers might as well be psychiatrists.
“What we think born to do la not what we end doing la life,” the drone says. “Goodnight, squire.”
The drone trails off into the gloom of the Yards, ghostlike. As I watch it go, something in me rebels.
I’m a writer. I may be a shit writer or a good one,. I’m never going to be an doctor or an engineer or a lawyer. But if they’re playing that game and making money, then so can I.
I reach for the tablet and begin searching.
It isn’t difficult to find bot software: in fact, it’s almost disappointingly easy. The best stuff is no doubt intensely private, but the second-best is available on a trial basis, pay-as-you-use, 50 stories free. The actual problem is the training data. I need to feed books into it, and I can only feed stuff that I have the rights to. It’s either my own work or books already in the public domain.
After a moment’s thought and another cigarette, I start feeding it my work.
There’s not a lot. Three novels, self-pubbed. A dozen short stories published by Artisan Planet. After some thought, I mix it up with a few bits of stolen Robert Silverberg and Cordwainer Smith. I don’t want it too like myself: it has to be different enough to pass plagiarism checks. New stuff might ring too many bells: better to use the oldies.
Extracting features, it says, little dots filling up on a screen. An untrained neural network pores over my life’s work and judges it against the noise of those greater than I am. My hands are shaking now. I have another cigarette, another, another, ignoring Mum’s incessant whine about how much I spend on cigarettes, why the hell have I not bought her anything nice to wear for the past five years, do I want to go the same way my father did?
Right now I don’t give a damn. Death after publication is the writer’s motto. In my case, death after $35,000.
The program, having completed its task, lists a series of basic plots for me and asks me to pick. The next hour is spent poring over plot structures. Freyatag’s? Search. Ah, Shakespearean. The Hero’s Journey. No, too complex, no bot has pulled off something the size of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter yet. I need something tighter. There.
Another hour spent picking basic conflicts, character backgrounds. Nothing outside the usual fare, but here they are, the collected image of 99% of the genre I write in distilled down to a few bullet points. It makes my heart bleed.
Who needs an MFA when you can program? I pick one conflict and sub-plot and setting after another, hook up random character name generators, map generators, described limits. Allow lightspeed travel? Nay, good science fiction is built on constraints.
My tablets begin filling up with notes, backstories, pennames.
At last the task is done. Generating, says the program coolly. 7 hours 13 minutes remaining.
I try to get some sleep.
And there we are. 50 short stories, neatly packaged, await me when I get home. LIMIT REACHED, the tablet tells me.
It makes me a bit sick to think of them. 50! In the time I had taken to get my brain out of gear, the program had eclipsed my entire output. I had it hooked it up to my pet editor, so they’re free of tiny errors.
I flip through them. Damn, but these are readable. They’re simple. Fundamental plots. Girl meets boy. Boy dreams of the stars, perseveres. Something strange attacks an isolated bunch of people on a space station. They are the oldest stories, the most resonant in our minds, and they reach out through the pages regardless of whether they’re cloaked in medieval blood or the cool metal of a seedship. Some I reject because the program’s tackled something far too complex for it and immediately gone haywire, but 47 good stories remain. I know immediately that they work. If I put these on the market, they will actually sell.
What use is innovation, of dreaming new stories, when all the best stories are our oldest ones? I muck around a bit, lifting passages from this one here, evening up this one, knocking this other one a little bit out of shape, inverting a trope here and there. I create forwarding mail addresses for each of the pennames. And then I submit and wait.
I’m an Editor now, not a Writer. The change is one night’s work and I wonder if I should feel something. I don’t. I go over to my mother’s room and watch the broken shape breathe on the HospaBed, wondering if I’ve made the right call.
I think I have.
The next few days I spend in a gray funk, thinking about the stories on that tablet. My body got itself up, made tea, made breakfast, froze lunch in the fridge, got me to work. I barely noticed.
“You alright, squire?” says Johan, peering at my face again.
“Doing good,” I say bleakly.
“I’m starting to think you’re legit sick,” he says, making a note on his tablet. “Listen, why don’t you go check yourself in at the autodoc for a few minutes. I don’t want you dying on my line.”
The autodoc pokes and prods and suggests that I might have early onset depression. “I’m a writer,” I say to it. “We’re supposed to be depressed.”
But was I still a writer after what I had done? And what if one of those autogenerated stories won?
No more a writer than you are, autodoc.
Eventually the deadline rolls around. I carefully call in one of my leaves. My mother’s getting worse, I lie. Johan, who is not a cruel man, buys it and waves away my request, marks it down as paid leave. More than anything, that gets to me.
The whole day is spent in a state of nervous tension. I can’t think, I can’t eat. All I can do is smoke. “Shut up!” I scream at the door like a demented dog when Mum resumes her cackling whine. “Shut upshutupshutup!”
One by one, the rejections start coming in.
Dear Mx. Anderson,
Thank you for your submission to Writers of the Future. We regret, however, that we have not selected your story for inclusion . . .
Dear Mx. Chaudury . . .
Dear Mx. Lee-Hsin . . .
Dear . . .
Dear . . .
Dear . . .
Every time I leap off my chair, convinced that this time it’s me being rejected, not the bot. But no. Bot after bot gets rejected. 12 down. 20 down. 35 down. 42 down.
And then silence.
We must have entered the shortlist.
“How la story, squire?” inquires Beatnik as I pass his hulking body on the way to the store for more cigarettes.
“Going good, Beatnik,” I say tersely, stalking past him. He must wonder why I don’t stop, after all these heart-to-heart conversations we’ve been having recently, but I can’t stop. I can barely stop my hands from shaking. It hits me that I have 48 entries in this competition, and 6 of them––6! have made it to the shortlist. My God, I’ve just beaten out 700 others. Even if I don’t win, this should be good enough.
I run back to my apartment, shut the creaking door, and watch the tablet until I fall asleep.
I wake up to a sickly sweet smell.
At first I don’t know what it is, but then it hits me: it’s the smell of old people dying, the smell of my mother amplified a thousandfold until it fills the apartment with its terrible cloying scent. That smell of cells that had once moved together falling apart, rotting at the seams.
It’s coming from her room.
“Mum?” I call.
There is no answer. Sometimes she pretends to be deaf. I push the door open. “Mum?”
The smell is awful. There she is in the HospaBed, all shriveled up and ghoulish, wrapped in her blankets. I start forward, thinking that she’s had one of her ‘accidents’, but then I stop. There are marks along the side of the HospaBed – marks like long metal scratches leading to the controls. Some of the little screens are black and flickering. In the painkiller dial is jammed a screwdriver. The fucking junkie has sabotaged the HospaBed.
And the heartbeat screen is empty.
And then it hits me. “Oh God, Mum,” I manage, before the stench and the sickly sweetness overpowers me, and I slam myself out and on the door, sealing it shut, sealing the stench away, trying not to think of that crumpled body and the painkiller dial. I half expect her to wake up and spew that mad cackling bitterness at me through the door, but there is only silence and the sound of my gasps.
The tablet vibrates.
I stare at the door. Then I stare at the tablet. 6 new messages.
My hands tremble. I open the tablet.
Dear Mx Algonquin . . .
Dear Mx de Silva . . .
Dear Mx Parker . . .
Dear Mx Andragonian . . .
Dear Mx Sunder, we are pleased to inform you that for your complex and touching narrative, your exploration of the sense of self and both the prison and justice systems of this country, your entry for this year’s Writers of the Future contest has been awarded the second place.
Second place. The words catch in my throat; whether it’s the email, or the stench, I cannot say. Some lucky bastard won the full pot, but I made $15,000. Enough to bury her, I think, and weep with relief. Enough for a funeral. Enough for rent for a little apartment somewhere way the fuck away from here.
Enough to leave her behind.
I know I should be crying, but I can’t. Bastard that I am, I feel nothing but relief.
The other message has got to be a rejection. I open it for the sake of opening it. After all, it got this far, made it to the shortlist. I should at least check the bot’s name.
Dear Mx Portrait, it says. For your wonderfully minimalist story, for your careful and deliberate worldbuilding, for your careful, tempered tone, we are proud to declare you the winner of this year’s Writers of the Future.
I read the rest of the letter. And then I read and re-read it, certain that I have missed something, that it is some kind of grand joke.
The letter, addressed to a man who does not exist, addressed to a bot, praises it at length, and invites me to collect the money as soon as I’m able. Yes, $35,000. And, it says graciously, the judges will be happy to put in a word with the publisher of your choice, or, should you self-publish in the future, they are more than willing to recommend your work to the review sections of certain widely-read Webfeeds.
Good luck, Mx Portrait.
“You hear that, Mum?” I say, sobbing. “We lost.”
Note: I think this was the first time I seriously sat down and contemplated what it would be like to live in a future where automation had replaced large chunks of the labor force – not just for heavy lifting, but in creative industries, like writing. And, given the unequal nature of technological progress, what that might look like.
The story, combined with my corpus linguistics work, sparked an interest in seeing if I could, in my personal work, encapsulate the sort of hybridity shown in the story – not in this dystopian sense, but in a more symbiotic fashion. Which in turn led to weekends of research and writing tools that I’ve collaborated with to produce at least one novel (at the time of writing). I’ve got more experiments inbound.
This also accidentally created the split-cop Beatnik, whose story I got to explore in more detail in one of Samuel Peralta’s Future Chronicles anthologies. There’s definitely more stories in this universe – maybe I can daisy-chain these stories, with characters appearing in each other’s narratives. Maybe.