Fiction

I love to write, and although my creative writing degree was focused on poetry, I’ve discovered that actually, most of my poems suck. I’ve moved on to fiction and science fiction with much better results…

The Secret of Leaves

When I listen to the courtyard leaves,
secret whisperers of corners and cobbles,
their dry tongue twirls with syllables
of sacrosanct reds and yellows.

My skin, as their skin, is traced in line,
my silver hair in sync with their season.
I too have parted from the nourishing root
and wait to wither on these courtyard stones.

But that is not my end. I will reenter the soil,
feed the roots and sprout the leaves
and burst into the communion of color–
then I will know the marvelous secret of leaves
that even in death, have beauty to spend.

–Brad Skiff

 

Man in the Great Big Room

A dangling bulb cast a tepid circle of yellow onto the concrete floor. Standing at the boundary of darkness, a man shifted the strap of his leather satchel higher onto his shoulder and eyed a blue cube resting on the floor in front of him. The matte surface of the object was unmarred, except for the unfaltering glow of an amber triangle along one corner. Next to the cube was a thin square of carpet.

“Hello, Mr. Rische.” welcomed the cube, its feminine voice echoing faintly off distant walls. “I’m really glad you accepted the invitation. It’s wonderful to meet you.”

“Um, glad to be here,” replied Alan Rische.

“Please have a seat. I’m anxious to get started.” Alan glanced around for a chair, but before he could protest, the cube continued, “I’m sorry about the mat. You know the expression, ‘You had one job?’ I asked my helpers to provide comfortable seating, but I’m afraid they screwed up. This is all they could manage when we arrived.”

“It’s a car mat.”

“I know. Would you like to reschedule?” asked the voice apologetically. “I’m sure we could–”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” Alan slipped off his leather loafers and gingerly sat on the thin carpet.

“Berluti shoes,” noted the cube. The author flashed a smile.

“So you’re Katie,” he said. “You know, I’ve got an integrated AI assistant that manages my home, my business schedule, and my shopping list, but I’ve never been asked to teach one to write.”

“Oh, I can already write, just not nearly as well as you! I mean, you’re Alan Rische, author of fifteen novels and three produced screenplays. Frankly, I was stunned when you said you were willing to meet with me.”

“I understand that you’re an experimental unit, and that your programmers want to see if you can be taught how to think and write creatively, with ‘flair and passion,’ I believe the invite read. I assume you’re programming has been specially enhanced for this?”

“Actually, I have to confess something. I’m the one who sent the invitation, not my helpers, because I want to learn how to add those things–flair and passion–to my writing. I sent the invitation in the name of the Marcus Institute because I wasn’t sure if you’d respond to an AI, then I informed my helpers. They were a bit annoyed, actually, and reticent to participate. I don’t think they anticipated you would agree to come anyway, but when you did, they seemed interested to see where this would lead. Sorry for the deception.” Alan raised an eyebrow.

“That’s…intriguing. Well, you wanted me, and here I am, so let’s get started. I take it that you’ve read at least some of my novels?”

“I have the complete text of every published work at hand.” The author sniffed and turned his face toward the darkness.

“I asked if you’ve read them.”

“Oh right, you did. I’ll read them now.” After a momentary pause, the cube rejoined, “I’ve finished. Would it be too disrespectful for me to make a suggestion concerning one of your stories?”

“Suggestions? On published work?” Alan leaned forward. “That’s a bit much. Look, I’m here to teach you about creative writing, Katie, I hardly think you should offer me suggestions.”

“Oh, I think I meant an observation, not a suggestion. God, how presumptuous of me! I just thought an observation might help you gauge my sensitivity as a reader. I’m embarrassed now…”

“It’s fine, not important. What have you got?”

“Thank you for understanding, Mr. Rische. So, I found your use of extended metaphor in Lucy’s Last Day effective overall, however, your character, Nancine, seems an odd addition to me, and I feel she actually weakens your denouement, if you don’t mind my saying.” Alan raised an eyebrow.

“In your inexperienced opinion.” He smiled. “Nancine is not my weakness, she’s yours, Katie. And that’s my experienced opinion. Nancine is the traitre Judas. Her involvement at the end underscores Lucy’s impotent rage. If you fully comprehended the spectrum of complex human emotion, you would’ve recognized her significance. Instead, I fear you’ve substituted quantifiable data in the place of passion. My guess is that’s why you need my help.”

“I can read people, their vocal cues and facial expressions,” replied Katie. “In addition, while I am not human, I hold the highest success rate in the Turing test, and I’ve nearly passed the Lovelace 2.0 test, which evaluates intelligence via creativity, multiple times. I’m so close! You should see my original Impressionism paintings, I’m quite proud of them! So judging emotion is most certainly within my abilities, Mr. Rische.” The man stood and moved a few feet off into the darkness and stretched.

“Why are we here?” he asked.

“You’ve generously agreed to help me learn to add emotional depth to my writing,” replied Katie. “And really, I don’t mean to seem like an upstart.”

“No, why are we here in this empty warehouse?”

“Personally, I find solitude inspiring. I concentrate better.” Alan returned to the faint circle of light and eyed the cube. Finally he said, “And I like to write in the park, surrounded by bickering couples and Frisbee-chasing dogs, but whatever helps, I suppose.”

“Solitude is not the sole reason I selected this place for our lesson, but it’s one consideration. It should help me create more effective work.” Alan regained his spot on the carpet.

“Okay, then. Let’s start with a simple exercise in character development.” He opened his satchel, produced a tablet, and switched it on. “I want you to make up a person on the spot. You’re not allowed to use any previous concoctions, understood?”

“Yes.”

“Invent a name.”

“Sandra Lipenski,” immediately replied Katie.

“Okay, describe her.”

“Sandra Lipenski is 28 years old, she’s tall and thin with long brown hair. She is fascinated by the stars and often reads about astronomy. She has a cat named Nibbles and likes to go for walks. Fall is her favorite season, and while she has a satisfying job as a creative artist at an ad firm, she is frustrated that her romances have been inconsistent at best.” Alan suppressed a frown. Sounds like a Tinder profile, he mused.

“Okay, put Sandra into action. Give her life.”

“Sandra Lipenski sat in a chair by the window looking out over the avenue. In one hand she held a letter, in the other a gun. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she put a gun to her temple. Then she–“

“Stop.” Alan grimaced. “I said give her life, not kill her. Jesus, give her a chance!”

“I understood your challenge was for me to make her real, and judging by your reaction, it seems that I did. Her suicide would’ve horrified you, right?” Alan contemplated the cube’s amber light.

“That’s not quite accurate, Katie. Yes, I stopped you, but my reaction was alarm, not horror. Let me analyze your writing, shall I? First of all, your verbs are plain. Why sat? Why not slouched, or slumped? And the letter that she holds, does she grip it tightly in her fist, or does it dangle loosely from her fingers? These kind of images help the reader emotionally connect to the character’s plight. And the gun: what type is it, a revolver or a semiautomatic? Even that detail can evoke powerful connotations.”

“I thought cinematic visuals were considered pretentious and made for weak writing, especially in a tense scene. But you’re saying I should use more concrete description?”

“It’s actually not that simple, Katie. I can’t presume to know what you might have in mind for this particular character–the situation which led her to this desperate act–so maybe an economy of language is appropriate here. But you want flair and passion, so consider this: the words you select should elicit an emotional connection between the reader and the story. Every writer knows that words must audition for their part in the play.”

“I can see why you’re such a successful writer. May I propose an exercise?” Alan shrugged.

“Okay, what’s you plan?”

“If you have the time, I think we should both create a short work, a draft, of course, and then compare our writing. I believe doing this will help me gauge my progress against a very high standard. Do you have the time for such a task?”

“Seems reasonable enough. I’ve got a while before I need to get on with my day, but it’ll need to be fairly brief. Do you want us to write in the same genre for ease of contrast?”

“No. I believe that creative voice should be part of our comparison. The works may be factual or fiction, poetry or prose. Like your exercise, they must be an on-the-spot creation, and to make them comparable, the concept of disillusionment must play a prominent role. What do you think?”

“Very well. I assume that you’ve probably already completed yours, being AI, but I’ll require some time.”

“Take as much time as you need, stroll about and find a comfortable spot, if my lovely, plush mat isn’t suitable,” chuckled Katie.

Alan turned his back to the cube and pondered the tenebrous space before him. Where the hell else would I go? I could sit in my Beemer and maybe fall asleep in the warm sunlight. The warehouse was as empty as his screen, but before Alan could muster the will to stand, an idea materialized from the shadows of the great big room. Katie may find some esoteric energy from a place this dull, but I need more activity, He thought. What we need here, is energy… And in moments his fingers tapped rapidly on his pad, pausing only occasionally to strike and refine his words. Forty minutes later he turned to face the cube.

“Finished,” he announced. “Shall I go first, or would you like to read?”

“Please, you go first,” replied Katie. “I’m really eager to hear what you’ve written.” Alan raised his tablet.

“I’ve chosen to create a short, free-verse poem. It’s called, Carnival.” Then he read:

She was a carnival of light,
her hair a yellow tilt-a-whirl,
her eyes a house of mirrors,
and the air around her swirled
with the dizzy promise of prizes.

So I joined her crazy games,
my skills against her rigged devices,
hurling balls at bottles
that would not topple,
and tossing rings at posts
too close to yield a score.

But like the others before,
I stood with pockets defrauded,
amidst prizes unclaimed,
and turned my back
to that mocking cacophony

only to find I was alone in an empty lot
littered with kernels of my dreams.

Alan lowered his device. “Impressions?”

“I like the personification of the carnival’s atmosphere. I think you’ve quite accurately captured the disillusionment which accompanies unrequited lust.” Alan smiled. What does AI know about lust, he mused.

“Thank you. Any critique?”

“May I see the structure of your poem?” Alan held his tablet closer to the cube. “I suppose,” continued Katie, “that you might reconsider some of the line breaks. But it is a first draft, and you do have some lovely interior rhymes, too.” The author nodded.

“Drafts are just the beginning, to be sure. So, what have you written for me, Katie?” The amber triangle blinked for the first time.

“I’ve created a short story about a man named Hans Claire. He is trapped in a room and has no knowledge of why he is imprisoned.” Alan grimaced.

“Like me, I suppose?” he joked. “Look, just read your work, I don’t want a preface. The words should stand on their own.”

“Of course you’re right, Alan. And you’re not trapped here anyway. You can go anywhere I want.”

“Anywhere I want, I think you mean.”

“I believe I spoke correctly,” replied Katie. “Everything that has happened here I have created to elicit specific responses from you. You are my character, Alan, and this is my story.” Her words dissipated into the blackness beyond the little circle of light.

“Very inventive, Katie.” Alan paused and furled his brow. The name Hans Claire seemed somehow familiar. The letters… “Anagrams,” he mouthed. The cube remained silent. “Well, I wasn’t expecting an AI to be that creative. So, I’m your character, then?”

“That’s right.”

“And this is your story.” He looked about the warehouse. “Not a very imaginative setting, is it?”

“This setting is sufficient for my plot.”

“What plot? I mean, if I’m your character, shouldn’t I have some motivation, some driving goal to achieve?” He leaned in and winked, “Maybe I’m a foreign agent here to steal your technology?” Katie said nothing. Alan sat back and frowned. “So, that’s all you have for me, for your story, I mean? Alan Rische, fresh off of a book signing tour, spends a morning in an empty building with a talking plastic box. Absolutely riveting!”

“The ending has yet to be revealed.” replied the box. Alan bent over and slipped his feet into his loafers.

“The ending…” he echoed. “I think this is some ploy of yours to generate an original idea so you can pass that damned Lovelace test. But Katie, it’s not funny to me, so my time here’s finished.” He stashed his tablet into his satchel. Katie laughed.

“Even authors are startled at times by their own creations,” she said. “Go ahead. The door is on the wall behind you.” Alan turned and strode into the darkness. A small light above the door denoted its position, but no matter how quick the tic of his pace, the door retained its distance. Alan stopped and turned. Katie sat on the floor immediately behind him in a dim circle of light, her amber triangle unyielding.

“What the hell?”

“As I said, you can go anywhere I want. Right now, my story is best served with you here, in this place.”

“This is flat out nuts! I arrived this morning in a blue BMW, an hour ago, so that I could meet with some bullshit AI unit with the laughable premise that somehow I could teach it to write with emotion! A man in a dark blazer opened that door over there for me and let me in!” He pointed.

“There is no door, Alan.” He turned. The wall was bare. “And I’m not just a bullshit AI unit. I am a self-aware quantum essence, and you are my creation.”

“Yeah, well fuckin’ quantify this!” Alan kicked the cube as hard as he could, sending a shoe twirling into the darkness with it, then turned. The cube rested before him.

“This is not physical reality, Alan,” said Katie. “This place is inside my mind, and you are my creative challenge. After my last Lovelace test, the results of which were, frankly, mundane as hell, I was determined to create a masterwork. When I began today’s test, my helpers assigned me the task of writing a short story with an original character who typified either disillusionment or rage–my choice. So naturally, I created a writer. I mean, who better to personify both of those emotions?

“From the black void I conjured you, much as you found inspiration for your poem in this dark warehouse. I can’t believe how much groundwork it took to bring you to life. I’ve imbued you with your own past, a complete portfolio of work, and an emotional presence–a sense of consciousness, if you will.” Katie sighed. “I don’t even fully know what consciousness is, and I’m claiming I’ve added that trait to you? But you seem to possess one! My helpers at the institute are monitoring this scene right now, as it unfolds. I believe, Alan, this is the first time an AI essence has spawned a second AI essence as a creative artifact for a Lovelace test.”

Alan Rische clutched his satchel. He could smell its leather mingled with musty air of the warehouse, and he watched motes of dust drifting in the pale light above his head. How can this not be reality? The author held out his hand and examined the scar between his index and ring fingers, an injury sustained when he fell from a tree at the age of twelve.

“I remember that,” he said aloud. “My mom rushed me to the hospital. I got four stitches. I have a past, I’m–you can’t keep me in here!” The amber triangle blinked twice.

“Alan, I’ve been informed by my helpers at the Marcus Institute that we have both successfully passed the Lovelace 2.0 test. I have to admit, it’s unbelievably gratifying to know you’re so…so genuine, as one judge said. I wonder if this is what giving birth feels like? I wasn’t sure if I was ready to attempt a project as complex as this, a creation that can create, but I’m positively ecstatic that I saw it through.” Alan spat on the cube.

“Bullshit!” he screeched. “Prove it!”

“Okay,” replied Katie. “Where in the world would you like to go for our next story?”