So Many Plans
We're excited about 2024, here at Working Title. We are starting up a new series of 4X4s (four authors write four stories over four weeks), expanding our podcast into interviews with authors, and will be publishing our first collection of stories from 2023 in March. More on that to come!
On Episode 12 of Writing Naked, we interviewed Lara Messersmith-Glavin, a Willa Literary Award Finalist and Portland author, about her writing life, process, and publication journey. On the way we touched on recent work, her different approaches to creative non-fiction and fiction, how she summons her writing, her cetacean/angler fish-mermaid-climate fiction/non-fiction-horror WIP, and her future plans.
Story Prompt Survey
If you would like to vote on the prompt for next month's story, submit your choice in this survey.
I think Cody did justice to last month's prompt winner, "The empty sea and the stroke of a bird across the sky." Please enjoy this story of a poet, a singer, a priest, that walk into a room tended by an AI at the ends of the earth.
Cody T Luff
The lawyer stared at Paulson from the corner of the room, his laptop yawning wide, fingers curled, taking notes in a way that suggested damnation. Lettie had finished asking questions a few moments ago. The little room beneath the geothermal plant was silent save for the gurgle of the priest’s stomach and the soft thrum of the machines nested in the guts of the building.
“So, it’s depressed.” Paulson fidgeted with the warm paper cup of coffee he clutched in both hands. He was aware that he was much older than most everyone in the room, including the priest.
“That’s not what it said,” Lettie sighed. “No one said Bui is depressed.”
The three Gunnarssons nodded in unison. The shortest of the hard-hatted men blinked rapidly as he spoke. “That’s true. The system didn’t state that it was depressed. It didn’t indicate any emotional state save for the desire to meet with…”
“With us,” the priest said.
Paulson had already forgotten the man’s name. He was some flavor of Protestant, Paulson wasn’t sure if the priest had offered specifics during their brief meet and greet. He was short, blunt fingered, and smelled like his coffee had something from the duty-free store in it.
“Yes,” a second Gunnarsson spoke, younger than the original speaker. His beard salted with early middle age, his eyes too wide in the dim light of the conference room. “Each of you specifically.”
“Listen, I don’t want to keep going in a circle.” Lettie set her own paper cup on the conference table that split the room. “Your lawyer already mentioned that in the email. My question, that you still haven’t answered, is could it ask for us? How could it even know who we are if it is a closed system like you say it is?”
The lawyer’s fingers flickered as he exchanged a long glance with the eldest of the Gunnarssons.
Paulson swallowed a chuckle and flashed Lettie a grin.
She ignored him. “Nothing? You’re not going to offer anything on that?”
“It’s a closed system.” All eyes turned to Gabriel, the self-identified AI ethicist. He’d arrived in the same car as the priest, but Paulson doubted if they knew each other. Gabriel could have passed for the fourth Gunnarsson, bearded, tall, nervous. He shrugged at Lettie. “I’ve gone over the specifics. They trained it cold and kept the system locked away from the net.”
A Gunnarsson opened his mouth to speak and Lettie interrupted, “What do you mean cold?”
Paulson sighed. When he got the letter about Bui, he thought it was a joke. It had been routed through Samantha’s office, and his old agent was kind enough to forward it along to him after a brief phone conversation. A speaking gig, of sorts. Iceland. Geothermal lab. More information promised once he’d agreed to both the price and the timeline. He needed the ten grand so he found himself just outside of Reykjavik, six levels below the Icelandic winter, waiting for someone to get to the point.
“Closed system. Think private school. Everything the AI learned was hand fed to it. No outside training, no scraping the wilds of the web. It got a primer and practical experience with the lab’s network and that’s it,” Gabriel said.
“Bui, please,” the oldest Gunnarsson said, clearing his throat.
“Bui?” The priest raised an eyebrow.
“That’s its name. Bui prefers to be addressed as Bui.”
The invitation had read like email spam. The AI at EnTherm Labs in Iceland has requested your presence. After all the news pouring out of Iceland during the last six months, Paulson assumed it was just another riff on Iceland’s legal moves to offer sentient AI personhood. The media had played push me, pull you with the idea all summer until a few prominent political heavies declared that the US would never adopt such a measure. The public grew bored, and Iceland’s AI proposal faded to the background of the normal everyday political hellscape that shaped the feeds back home. Paulson was not overly interested. He was busy juggling a teaching gig at a high school and weekend bartending to keep himself indoors and fed. But ten grand would make that easier for a time. Lettie’s voice brought him out of his thoughts.
“But that just proves that.. Bui… couldn’t know about us, right?”
The eldest Gunnarsson shook his head, his blue hard hat tight to his scalp. “We talk to Bui.”
“Well, yes, I mean…” Lettie began but Gunnarsson held up a hand.
“We read to Bui. Tell Bui stories. Sometimes we sing to Bui.” A soft smile bloomed in Gunnarsson’s beard. “It makes work easier.”
“Singing to your AI makes work easier?” Gabriel’s voice thickened with a note of sarcasm.
“Doesn’t it for you?” Gunnarsson’s smile vanished.
“So you’re telling us that Bui learned about each of us through you?” Lettie looked exactly like the nurse she was. Big knuckles, sharp jawline, take-no-shit brown eyes. When she offered that she was a nurse in their meet and greet, Paulson had no trouble imagining her wading through an ER.
“Yes.” This came from the quiet Gunnarsson. Paulson had a hunch these three men were either brothers or some mixture of father and sons. He liked them immediately for their soft-spoken voices, callused hands, and the way they checked in with one another silently, small glances here, small nods there. They were in this together, whatever this was. “I told Bui about you, Miss Lettie. You appeared on episode 173 of Hidden Talent. You sang.”
Lettie blinked, her mouth open, eyes wide. “What?”
“You sang “Summertime” for the three judges…”
“Wait, so I’m not here because I’m a nurse?”
Paulson glanced at the lawyer in the corner of the room, even his fingers had stopped clicking in the small developing silence.
“Bui asked for you because Bui thought your song was beautiful. We’ve watched your episode a number of times.” The quiet Gunnarsson’s face developed a deep blush. “Bui would like to speak to you first, if you are amenable.”
There was no chatting once Lettie, the Gunnarssons and the lawyer left the conference room. Gabriel hunched in his chair, curling around the glow of his phone like a sick plant desperate for light. The priest smiled to himself and nibbled his coffee, seemingly content with the respite. Jet lag filled Paulson’s body with warm cement. He wanted to sleep for a year. Two years. He wanted a beer. He wanted his ten grand. Even the soft spark of curiosity that bloomed during Lettie’s questions was ebbing as minutes climbed into hours.
“You know, I believe I saw that episode,” the priest said, his eyes still on his coffee.
“She was good,” Gabriel said as he swiped at his screen. “I didn’t recognize her until he said the name of the show.”
Paulson watched the priest turn in his chair, a white grin rising above his cup. “We have something equivalent here in Iceland but I find I still watch the American and European versions a little more frequently.”
Gabriel glanced at Paulson, his own jet lag written on his face in bags and lines. “I get the priest, the singer, and me, an ethicist, but what are you?” Both men stared at Paulson.
“Tired,” Paulson smiled.
“Don’t be like that,” Gabriel frowned.
“He’s an artist, I think,” the priest stood and stretched, his knees popping.
“Poet, actually.” Paulson followed the priest’s example, standing and working his shoulders.
“A singer, a priest, a ethicist, and a poet,” the priest nodded. “That’s a bit of everything on the menu.”
Gabriel opened his shoulder bag and produced a charger. He glanced around the conference room with a frown. “An accident. It’s asking for what it knows. They broke their own system by talking to it. A child wanting to meet Snow White or Mickey Mouse.”
“Bui,” Paulson said.
“Its name is Bui.”
Lettie returned after another quiet hour. She wore a frown, her sharp jaw clenched. The priest stood, opening his arms as if to offer a carnival barker’s welcome. Lettie stepped past him, slipped into an office chair and remained silent.
“That good, huh?” Gabriel remained in his corner of the room, phone balanced on his knee. Lettie offered no response. The lawyer hovered in the doorway, his eyes on Paulson.
“My turn?” Paulson said. The lawyer nodded.
The hallway was nothing more than a chute. No doors graced the walls, the flooring naked metal. Thick heavily insulated pipes clutched the ceiling radiating heat. The lawyer simply led, he offered no words or a spare glance. Paulson followed.
The three Gunnarssons stood in front of a slim door, their eyes calm, their shoulders touching. The lawyer stopped, motioning for Paulson to continue through the doorway. The now-crowded hall waited.
“What do you want me to do?” Paulson found he didn’t want to open the door. Whatever spark of curiosity that bloomed in the conference room was cold. Some deep part of himself registered the door as dangerous. The hinged mouth of a predator.
“Just talk to Bui,” the eldest Gunnarsson whispered. A reverence clung to his words as if the hallway was a church and a ceremony was about to begin.
“Whatever Bui asks you to.” The lawyer’s voice startled Paulson. He’d heard nothing more than a few sentences from the man in hours. A Gunnarsson opened the door, fluorescent light bled into the hallway. Paulson glanced at the waiting men before nodding to himself.
Bui’s room was small, an office with a simple metal desk, a small keyboard haunting its surface. A wireless speaker was bolted to one wall, its white plastic face touched with dust. A recliner leaned in the far corner, its worn brown vinyl skin cracked and peeling. A knit blanket lay tangled on its seat, and a box of tissues perched on one arm.
The door closed causing Paulson to flinch. He rubbed his palms on his thighs, frowning at the speaker.
“Please sit.” The voice pulled another flinch from Paulson, pushing him away from the speaker. “I’m sorry if I startled you, Mr. Paulson.”
Bui’s diction was perfect. Crisp consonants, smooth vowels, wrapped in a soft, genderless tone.
“I wasn’t expecting… well, I guess I didn’t know what to expect.” Paulson’s own voice was husked with too much coffee and exhaustion. “I mean your crew didn’t offer much.”
“My crew?” There was little inflection in Bui’s question.
“The Gunnarssons and their lawyer.” Paulson gestured at the door and wondered if the AI could see him. He found no cameras lurking in corners.
“My lawyer,” Bui said.
Paulson was silent for a moment. “Okay, your lawyer. The invitation wasn’t really all that informative.”
“Robert Samson is my lawyer.” Bui’s voice offered nothing beyond the words themselves. Paulson found himself longing for a face, a twitch of the eyebrows or a flutter of the lips, anything to offer emotional color to Bui.
“Alright. Robert wasn’t very forthcoming.”
“No. He worries a lot. Are you comfortable standing, Mr. Paulson?”
“Long flight, I prefer to stand. Do you have cameras in here, Bui? Can you see me?”
The AI didn’t answer right away, a moment passed by before its voice ticked through the speaker once again. “Not in the way you are thinking, Mr. Paulson. Because of my role here at EnTherm, I am especially pressure sensitive. I can’t see you, per say, but I can sense you. Minutely so. Temperature variations, air pressure disturbances, the vibration of your voice, so yes, in a way I can see. Would you like a towel, Mr. Paulson? You are repeatedly rubbing your palms on your thighs.”
Paulson blinked, drawing his hands away from his sides, “No, that’s… that’s fine, Bui. Thanks. Could you… I mean… why am I here?”
Again, Bui was silent. Paulson waited, overly conscious of his hands as he did so.
“Kristjan read me two of your poems in September of this year.”
“Which poems did…?”
“I didn’t care for them,” Bui interrupted.
“Oh,” Paulson blinked.
“They were very sad poems, Mr. Paulson.”