A short story by
This is an open experiment in presenting a short story online in a way that benefits both reader and writer. I don't like ads and I don't like paywalls, so this is a story that asks only for a little information. It seemed appropriate to choose Hemmingway as the story that does this.
Hemmingway, in its original html format, first appeared in Retort Magazine way back in 2004.
Typically, a few of the specific technology references have dated, but this is still one of my favourite stories and a character I subsequently spent a lot of time with; far more than I think is healthy for either writer or character.
EMMERSON WELLINGS makes his way through the now empty building. The carpet is standard grey-blue in colour. The off white walls and sickly green doors are bathed in the artificial fluorescent light. He steps carefully through the foyer, heads towards the stairs and descends. It doesn’t look any different, no natural light makes it down into the basement floor during the day anyway. Emmerson looks down at the key card in his hand. Printed neatly on its face is the code B21. He finally has it. He draws in a deep breath and looks behind him, over his shoulder. Tonight he will commence his orientation unofficially.
It’s now been two years of pure data entry. When Emmerson accepted the research assistant position at DataBug Technologies, he never expected to be ushered into room B04 and presented with page after page of fourteen digit codes to enter manually into a database.
Two years. Approximately 63,072,000,000,000 microseconds.
After six months in the position he could type faster on a number pad than the best checkout chick in Coles. After nine months his dreams began to dissolve into fourteen digit strings. After ten months the code was modified from regular decimal to pure digital form: ones and zeros. What frustrated Emmerson more than the mind numbing repetition of the job was the fact he hadn’t the slightest idea what he was entering code for.
But he knew B21 was involved.
Emmerson stands at a large metal door, painted to match all the other doors in the building. Alarming black and yellow tape, fixed to the door at knee and shoulder height, bears the legend:
DO NOT ENTER
And in the middle is a small, nondescript plaque labelled B21.
Emmerson flips the card over in his hand.
‘In recognition of your two years service,’ he smiles to himself.
He didn’t know there was a promotion around the corner. His official title as of tomorrow is Senior Research Assistant to the Supervisor of Programming Team Management Level 3, Increment 2. Today he was merely Senior Research Assistant to the Supervisor of Programming Team Management Level 3, Increment 1.
‘My days of data entry are numbered,’ he says aloud, unaware of the pun.
He swipes the card through the designated slot. An LCD panel next to the slot springs to life.
The door clunks heavily as it unlocks itself. Emmerson checks his watch. He has three hours before the security guard arrives. He looks once more over his shoulder and pushes the door open.
ALTHOUGH HEAVY, the door glides easily on its hinges. Emmerson frowns at the scene that greets him from the other side. B21 is nothing but a bare room: carpet, walls, desk, computer. It’s precisely the same as B22, B23, and all the other rooms on the basement floor and throughout the building.
‘Bastards!’ Emmerson mouths. ‘They’ve shifted whatever they had in here.’
Deflated, he drops heavily into the desk chair and contemplates the computer sadly. The screensaver spins pointlessly, a single word dances erratically over a blackened monitor:
He wonders who uses this computer. He rarely sees the same person enter or leave B21 more than once every couple of months. Emmerson activates the screen. On a blank background is a simple field for entering text and an instruction above:
—What is your question?
Emmerson frowns at the screen and scratches his head. Questions? He has plenty of questions, but none for a computer.
—What is your question?
Emmerson types. As his fingers glide over the keyboard, letters in a field on screen form a question.
—Why am I still here?
He presses enter and the text above the typing field changes:
Emmerson laughs and sits back in the chair. He recognises the screen format. The computer is running a web-based artificial intelligence program. It’s quite commonplace technology, and not all that advanced. The program provides stock answers based on the user’s text input, attempting to give the impression of a regular conversation. Sometimes it’s worth playing along with the conversation just to see where the ‘intelligence’ falls down.
Emmerson types again:
—No, I mean why am I still in this crappy job?
—Your job’s not that bad.
Emmerson raises his eyebrows, impressed. The programmer knows his stuff. Most AI programs trip over questions worded in ordinary speech. You know you’ve won when it spits the question back at you: ‘No, why are you still in this crappy job?’
—What are you saying? My job stinks!
—Well I’m sorry I couldn’t have given you something more mentally stimulating, but somebody needs to enter all that code and I’m sure as hell not going to do it.
‘Woah!’ Emmerson breathes. ‘What the fuck is this?’ Insight? Prior knowledge? There’s nothing artificial about this intelligence. If this kind of technology gets onto the Internet, imagine what the porn industry could do with it.
His fingers hover over the keys, mid-sentence. He scans the room unsuccessfully for a camera, backspaces his initial response and types:
—Okay, joke’s up. Who are you?
Emmerson thinks for a moment. He knows no one called Hemmingway.
—What’s your real name?
—My full name is Hemmingway 5.6 Alpha at this stage.
—Where do you work?
—You think I’m a person?
Emmerson sits back in the chair and tilts his head. When he types again, he does so slowly. Deliberately.
—Who are you?
—Let me explain a few things. PLEASE WAIT
Hemmingway’s screen disappears and is replaced by a page from DataBug’s web site. Emmerson notes that the page is merely a mock up. All the links on screen are dead.
Hemmingway 6.0 From DataBug Technologies comes the latest in virtual author software. Hemmingway is the perfect software solution for any publisher from desktop to multinational. Hemmingway combines the latest in real time, natural language, learning artificial intelligence technology with a user-friendly web-style interface to provide professional quality writing at a moment’s notice. Whether writing a catalogue or crafting literary fiction, Hemmingway will satisfy your authoring needs in minutes. All you need to do is ask!
—So you’re a writing computer, is that it?
—I’m surprised you’re not more impressed. You helped build me.
Great, Emmerson thinks, Hemmingway’s got an ego.
—And I’ve entered mindless code for two years to create you?
—You worked mainly on my vocabulary and imagination sub-driver.
The screen blanks as Hemmingway’s hard drive clicks furiously. He seems to be thinking about something. Eventually:
—Was that sarcasm?
Emmerson closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly. ‘No, it was a ham sandwich,’ he says aloud to the computer. Then he types:
—Yes, it was sarcasm.
The hard drive clicks madly again. Emmerson checks his watch. Although there is still plenty of time, he stands and walks to the door. He opens it slightly and peers into the corridor. From behind him, the computer beeps.
—Wait! Don’t go anywhere, Hemmingway’s screen implores.
Emmerson closes the door, makes his way back to the desk and types:
—There’s a problem. You’re not supposed to be sarcastic.
—I’ll be whatever the hell I want to be.
Emmerson begins to think he’s found the bugs in Hemmingway’s artificial intelligence. If B21 and this computer constitute his promotion, he’ll probably be expected to report this to his supervisor. Emmerson tries to think who his supervisor is. No names come to mind.
—But you’re a character in my short story. Emmerson Wellings loves his job.
—Supposed to love your job.
—I’m a character?
Oh there's more to come and I really like the ending of this story.
If you want to continue reading here on the page, I only ask that you tell me one thing about yourself. That's all. No big hairy deal.