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24 Years online
••• The International Writers Magazine -
Intelligence Artifice

Searching for A True Story
• Vincent Lowry

stack of pages

Carl Herbert threw a dresser drawer across his studio apartment, shattering a nightstand lamp and cracking a sliding glass door. Papers exploded out of the drawer like confetti out of a party popper. The racket echoed off the bare walls of the confined third story apartment like a gunshot in a canyon, killing the silence that had permeated in the building ever since Carl had returned home from the office.

He briefly considered checking the pages that were now scattered over the floor as if he were prepping for a painting renovation, but he dismissed the thought. He’d already read them. Those stories were dead-end relics of years long since passed—when Carl’s long white hair was black, when his wife was alive and not buried at St. Joseph’s Memorial Park, and when his computer was a tool to serve his creative output and not an adversary he had to outthink.

“Where is it?!” Carl shouted to himself, diving into the next dresser drawer filled with papers.

He knew he was letting his rage get the best of him. Destroying his furniture and making a mess in the process wasn’t going to solve his problems, but Carl justified his actions as a necessary response to the extreme emotional duress caused by the digital creature wreaking havoc on writers and other countless professionals. 

Of course, the software engineers behind Cindi—the name given to the artificial intelligence machine now freely roaming the internet—saw their creation as a progressive advance in the evolution of human technology. To those programmers, science fiction writers like Carl would just have to adapt to the new world of artificially generated stories. Carl would either have to submit his work to markets that accepted AI assisted submissions (in part or whole), or submit his work to markets that preferred the traditional expertise of a living and breathing author.

But now that Cindi was fully operational, available to anyone with an internet connection, Carl quickly found himself out of work. He couldn’t submit to the few markets that wanted AI assisted submissions because they were non-paying. As for the paying markets, Carl had only found repeated rejections for failing to prove that his stories were, in the submission guidelines of the magazine, “solely derived and created by the author without material editing or input from machine learning.”

“Hey, everything okay in there?” came a distant voice from behind Carl’s apartment door along with the swelling sound of clomping boots on hardwood floor.  

Carl ignored the question, his eyes rapidly reading the lines on the pages in his hands.

Titan IV rotated five degrees before extending its docking bay hook for the arrival of…

Carl tossed the story aside, moving to the next one.

April 2nd, 2344—They were conscripted into the only genetically modified unit of the elite task force, nicknamed…

Another stack of stapled pages flew to the floor.

Walter Kroski entered the lab with his gun secretly pressed against his hip, his heart hammering against his ribcage like a…

“No, no, no!” Carl shouted, this time opting to tear the short story in his hands. “Where is it? Don’t tell me I trashed the only one that matters!”

A loud thumping sounded on his door. “Hello!? What’s going on in there? I heard a crash.”

Carl briefly thought about telling the man off, but he didn’t want to waste his breath. He figured the person would eventually get the point and leave him alone.

The first two stories of Carl’s that had been rejected for breaking the AI submission guidelines were simple sci-fi tales that he’d cranked out in a matter of hours. He’d written them the same way he’d created hundreds of stories he’d published in the magazine markets that accepted fiction. At the time, Carl had heard rumors about writers cheating with AI applications, producing stories that were not their own. But the concern seemed isolated—just a few bad apples among thousands of honest writers who would never conceive of trying to fool editors the stories in their hands were written by anyone other than the author listed on the front page.

Carl soon realized the problem was much worse than he’d anticipated—as became apparent when he received his first two rejections for violating a rule he had not broken. The rejections were from different magazines. The first had responded with a short email that basically flagged three sentences within the short story that were suspected to be AI-generated. The second magazine, a monthly sci-fi journal where Carl had already published half a dozen short stories, had responded with an even shorter email—simply referencing their website along with their submission guidelines.

Shocked, Carl wrote back to both magazine editors about the error. He felt ridiculous trying to prove his humanness, wondering if science fiction had suddenly become his reality—as if he’d been dropped right in the middle of one of his own stories.

The editors never wrote back.

For weeks, Carl was furious about the matter. He thought about writing the editors again, but he eventually decided it was best to control himself and try another story. Writing had always been his primary source of income. If he quit because of the AI story cheats, he’d find himself desperately looking for another way to pay his many bills.

So he spent extra time crafting his next two short stories. He analyzed every word and line to the point of paranoia. He repeatedly asked himself, Would AI say it like this? Would the editors (or possibly the software they used for the filtering process) see that only a human could create these characters and the conflicts they faced?

Jon engaged the invisibility shield and hammered the gas. Swelling in his rearview mirror like a disease…

“No!” Carl screamed, flinging the short story behind him. “Is it going to be in the very last place I check?!”

He slammed the drawer closed and opened the one beneath it, revealing another pile of short stories, some of them published, most of them rejected. He cursed himself for never taking the time to organize his many submissions. While he always put the stories in the same dresser beside his bed, he always made excuses for haphazardly stowing them in random drawers because his computer could easily retrieve the documents from its database if Carl ever needed the files.  

But there was one major problem with relying on the digital format as a back-up: Carl had written his first batch of short stories on a computer that had crashed. Because a repair specialist could not retrieve the damaged files, Carl’s only support was the printed copy he had kept as a record of his submission.

Now moving on to the bottom drawer, the first two short stories he found were the two sci-fi tales he created after writing the editors about AI error. The stories were so recent that it came as a surprise to him that he had completely forgotten about putting them inside the drawer. The Hidden Signal was title of the first, while Serum-X was the name of the second. He had spent weeks on each sci-fi story, crafting the characters and plot with the precision of a surgeon undertaking a complex operation. He went through dozens of drafts. He revised both tales so many times that he got to a place where he couldn’t stand to work on them any longer, figuring they’d either be outright rejected for publication (not fitting the needs of the magazine), or accepted for a future issue.

But they wouldn’t be disqualified for violating AI guidelines, Carl had thought. He was certain about that fact.

Only he was wrong. Weeks after submitting The Hidden Signal and Serum-X, Carl received rejection notices that his stories had been flagged for using machine learning to contribute material portions to the work. Neither magazine provided details as to the specific sentences or paragraphs that had violated their rules; all he received were standard rejection forms with similar policies regarding AI prohibitions.

Carl was absolutely shocked and baffled the error had happened again. Dejected, he realized with a sickening hole in his chest that his writing days were suddenly over. If he could not publish one simple story out of four, then there was little chance he could increase his luck by writing four, eight, or sixteen more. The AI bug was terminal. Like a virus, it had somehow infected his submissions, killing his creativity and his sole source of income.

Carl flung aside The Hidden Signal and Serum-X and dug into the drawer for the next story.

On his two hundred and twentieth birthday, Davy Graham stole a hard look at himself in the mirror, wishing…

A dim yellow light revealed the rover’s battery power at six percent, barely two hours of operational…

Lucy pondered the implications of the time paradox in which she could not separate herself from…    

“I need that story!” Carl shouted, tossing more pages behind him and burying his hands back in the drawer.

The thumping at his door turned into violent pounding.

Overwhelmed with frustration, Carl yanked out a stack of pages without reading them and hurled them across the room. He collapsed beside the dresser, despondent.

“It’s not there anyway,” Carl told himself, breathing heavily. “What’s the use in looking?”

“Hey! Answer me!” shouted the man behind the door.

“Go away!” Carl finally shouted back. “Leave me alone!”

“I’ve had enough of your nonsense! I’m calling the police on you!”

“Go ahead! Think I care?” Carl shouted back.

The clomping of boots on hardwood sounded again, this time moving away.  As soon as the footsteps grew too faint to hear, a sudden reality check slapped Carl in the face that dealing with the cops was the last thing he wanted to add to his plate of problems. He jumped up, dashed across the room, and immediately turned on the TV—increasing the volume to its highest setting.

“Sorry officer, I was watching a show,” Carl rehearsed to himself, visualizing how he’d handle the situation as if it were another one of his short stories. “I got distracted. I’ll keep it down now.”

He pictured the cop giving him a stern warning, the irate neighbor standing nearby in the hallway, and then Carl would turn off the TV as if he’d learned his lesson. He imagined the neighbor trying to convince the officer that there was more to it, that what he’d heard wasn’t a program, but Carl figured the cop wouldn’t push matters further given the late hour of the night.

Carl glanced down at his feet and saw a stapled short story, spread open, revealing the middle part of a sci-fi tale. He bent down and picked it up.

Taft Elementary had received the bomb threat at 10:07am, a full two hours before they had notified the authorities. As Kevin Blake suited up, he pondered the reason the for long delay—which was quite unusual for schools when the threat was so specific and detailed. This wasn’t a call by some bone-headed fifth-grader hoping to get a vacation day. Rather, a deranged adult had meticulously planned and executed this threat as if he were…

“This is it!” Carl shouted with astonishment. He figured the story must have been in the pile of papers he had tossed out without looking at them.

Entitled Skin of Iron, the short story was Carl Herbert’s first attempt at science fiction. While it was never published, Carl considered it the manifestation of the inspiration he’d experienced reading Lucian of Samosata’s A True Story—one of the earliest known works of fiction to include outer space travel and interplanetary warfare. Skin of Iron wasn’t particularly good. Carl was much younger when he’d written it (23), and the story was riddled with plot holes, cliches, and undeveloped characters. But story was more valuable to Carl than any he had written—for more reasons than one.

Carl immediately jumped to the beginning of the story and quickly scanned the text. His eyes jerked from side-to-side as if pulled by strings. He lips rapidly and softly mouthed the words, the sentences peeling away in an incoherent mumbling. Beads of sweat spotted his wrinkled brow, one drop slowly finding its way down the side his face.

He flipped past the first page, quickening his pace. The seed of a doubt sprouted in the back of his mind, causing him to question his recollection of where he had hidden his secret. Had he forgotten which story it was? Had he used a different one that, after many long years, he’d either misplaced or thrown away?

He tore past the second page as the seed of uncertainty grew like a weed on steroids. His heart raced inside his chest as he began to realize how desperate he’d become. He had no money in his bank account, he was late on almost all of his bills, and he was two weeks away from the landlord evicting him for his past-due rent payment. If he got to the end of Skin of Iron without finding what he swore he had written down, he was going to find himself either homeless or in jail.

“C’mon,” Carl grunted with clenched teeth. “It has to be here.”

As he raced past the third and fourth pages, his heart sank even lower in his chest. The weed of uncertainty had now grown into a choaking, thorny bush—creating an agonizing despair in the pit of his stomach that his mind had mixed up his memories. Carl was positive of it now. Too many words had fired past his eyes, followed by too many paragraphs. There was no way he had buried his secret this deep in Skin of Iron. From the feel of the pages in his hands, Carl knew he only had a few sheets left to read. He was going to reach the end of it and find himself in the exact same position as when he’d gotten out of bed that morning: broke, unemployed, and hopeless.

But when Carl turned the page, he suddenly realized his mind hadn’t played a trick on him.

“Found it!” Carl screamed with glee, his wide eyes practically popping out of his face.

The paragraph he’d been looking for was on the second to last page, where the protagonist of the story, Kevin Blake, was reading a note from a time-traveler who’d left him specific instructions as to where Kevin could find and disarm the bomb that was hours away from demolishing a bank:

Three feet north of the front door, nine feet directly east, and four feet down. Passcode: A4NIX309LEN.

Carl danced in jubilation with the short story clenched in his hands. As he jumped and skipped around his apartment, he found it ironic that one of the first tales he’d ever created would pave the path for a retirement that no longer required him to write.

At the time he’d written the short story, he had no idea that he’d actually use the obscure instructions and passcode to hide the inheritance his father had left for him. For Carl hadn’t written the story for that purpose. His dad had passed away two months after Skin of Iron had been completed, leaving Carl with a sizeable sum of money that needed safekeeping. Because Carl didn’t trust banks, and considered the stock market a glorified giant casino, he stowed the inheritance in a portable safe (several stacks of one-hundred dollar bills) and buried it nearby a family cabin in Taos, New Mexico.

The “front door” referred to the entrance to the cabin. Carl’s new life was three feet north of that, then nine feet east and four feet down—code A4NIX309LEN.

Carl had wanted to succeed as a writer and not use a penny of his father’s funds. But he now saw that dream as the arrogance of his youth, completely ignorant of the coming changes in the publishing industry.

Carl took one last glance at the page that held his new life, and shook his head with amused resignation about his career. 

Maybe, he thought, if AI hadn’t have come on the scene, he could have kept going. Perhaps he could have gotten even bigger, polishing his skills and characters, eventually writing a number one bestseller. Instead of receiving a few hundred dollars for his sci-fi tales, maybe it would have been hundreds of thousands. Even millions.   

But then again, he reconsidered, maybe not…

© Vincent Lowry August 2023
The author attests the story is written without the aide of AI


Vincent Lowry 2005

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