Da Vinci in the Writer's Room
By Luke Mitchell / 7,100 words
Happy reading! 🙂
What was in the box?
That’s what Don wanted to know.
It was a question that, if not quite as old as time, probably at least predated language.
Monkey see box, monkey open box. Simple as that.
Not so very different than what they were doing here, he supposed.
It was almost impossible to think. After having produced such chestnuts as Sexy High School Drama Show and Facekicker 2: The Kickening, Don had been sure they’d hit rock bottom. Looking up from his absentminded doodles, though—and away from that confounded mystery box out in the hallway… Taking in the expressions across the writers’ table, he had a sudden feeling that this roomful of Plot Buddies had somehow found a way to plunge deeper.
“So, get this,” Arun was saying, leaning forward and spreading his hands like he was about to perform a magic trick. “Just when Huge McDickerson is charging up to storm the enemy stronghold for the final act, it turns out that Sheila Needsaman—”
“Was secretly working for Nico Badguy all along,” someone murmured tiredly. That was Grace, who was the only other orgo at the table, and probably the best writer in the room. She looked surprised by the sound of her own voice, like she really hadn’t meant to speak. Or to be there at all, existentially speaking.
Silent gazes tracked from her to Arun, waiting.
“Badman,” Arun finally muttered. “Nico Badman.”
“Oh, right.” Grace failed to suppress an apologetic cringe. “That’s, uh, yeah… And—”
“And so, Sheila betrays the coordinates of Huge’s chargepod location,” Troy Zimmer stepped in with a summary tabletop rap of the knuckles and a borderline inappropriate wink at Grace. “Thus, leading to Huge’s blackest black moment in nine whole seasons.”
That was Troy—always there to step in and take the convenient spotlight.
“Right,” Grace echoed, still frowning like she would’ve appreciated the chance to shower after Troy’s wink. “Nice twist, Arun.”
It wasn’t. But, fortunately for Soma Studios, when it came to opinions, everyone was entitled to one. Case in point: for reasons Don could only begin to fathom at the bottom of several stiff drinks, some six-hundred million people across the world had already willingly suffered eight self-inflicted seasons of Huge McDickerson and were currently begging for more.
“No way,” murmured Mark O’Connell at the end of the table, shaking his head in awe. He was one of the six-hundred million. “What a—” He glanced surreptitiously at Grace and Anita, seeming to remember himself. “What a B-word, dude,” he said anyway, like that was somehow better. “Freaking Sheila. How’s Huge gonna get outta this one?”
“Well…” Arun started uncertainly, only to puff up a bit as he gauged Mark’s raging interest. “Well, I guess you’ll have to find out next season, won’t you?”
“No way!” Mark cried, clapping his hands in delight.
Punchline saved, apparently.
Don had to get out of here.
Without exception, today’s collection of the 377 shows Soma was green lighting to air in the fall had been the most lackluster string of pitches he’d ever heard here at Soma Studios. And that was truly saying something.
Across the table, Arun was still side eyeing his way up and down the writers’ table, no doubt looking for more affirmations. Don idly wondered if maybe the young man’s Plot Buddy hadn’t lost connectivity midway through the drafting. Granted, he’d come to expect the formulaic. What else could you expect in this day and age? But another few meetings like this—another few hundred seasons of this, this… mindless churn, and… well, he didn’t know what he’d do. Quit, maybe, for starters.
He wasn’t even sure it mattered anymore. The stories practically told themselves, at this point. And not in a good way.
At the head of the table, the boisterous head honcho of this particularly horrific pitch-fest kicked his crossed Italian leather Oxfords down and leaned forward to rap thick knuckles on the dark wood, like that was that. Boss Bossman was a man from a different era—and probably not in a good way there, either. Not where meaningful stories were concerned, at least. The man was a kind of oddly self-aware metaphor for the studio’s own twisted relationship with storytelling: all ten-thousand-dollar suits, snazzy gadgets, and relentless convictions that his financial success in some way nullified the inconvenient truth that he was, in fact, utterly empty inside—not unlike the flashy, brain candy garbage he green-lit by droves for the world’s consumption.
He’d once told Don, in private, that he’d of course, given the option, (of course) rather live in a world where Soma could survive on a few choice, substantive masterpieces a year rather than the prolific churn-and-burn model that’d gripped the markets. Of course, he’d also said it in a way that made it clear he wasn’t at all interested in the artistic aspect so much as the intriguing pipe dream of making equal money with far less “product investment” expenses, but whatever. It wasn’t the world they were living in anyway. “You gotta play the hand you’re dealt, Don,” Bossman had said. “At the end of the day, you gotta feed your family.”
That’d been about a year before Bossman’s wife had left him and taken the kids. Coincidentally, no doubt.
“Great work, monkeys,” the man boomed back in the here and now, punctuating the words with a ham-fisted thunk on the table. “Great work.”
Apparently, he didn’t have any compunctions about Arun’s work, either. Or about anyone else’s, for that matter. Say what you would about the man, but he didn’t question his writers—his trusty pen monkeys, he called them. Not so long as the ideas they were pitching were certified commercial goldmines, as calculated by their infallible Plot Buddy Overlords. (Which, spoiler alert, they always were. That was the most maddening part of it all.) In many ways, their meetings had grown as formulaic as the stories they were writing. Or maybe it was vice versa.
Either way, Don wasn’t ready for it when Bossman lingered instead of calling the meeting like he normally would. “One more thing,” he said, looking around his writers’ table like a commander preparing to break the bad news to his battalion. Don felt a strange wriggling in his gut. Maybe this was it. Time to cut the highfalutin, dead weight orgos.
You can’t fire me, he thought preemptively. I quit.
“Word’s come down from above…” Bossman started, somehow making it sound as if he actually possessed the requisite machinery to disagree with any fiscal decisions from “above”—and as if there were anywhere but “above” from which to come down.
“—bleeding subs to Bingetopia and Tranceworks like a fat kid, uh… well, just bleeding, I guess,” Bossman was saying, frowning at his own lackluster metaphor. “Irregardless…”
Times are tough. Gotta tighten the belt. Gotta feed the family.
Just not yours.
“—which means management’s looking for something fresh to yank in new subs.”
Don blinked, scattered attention turning from processing Bossman’s unexpected conclusion to taking in his aid, Petey, who’d just uttered the hesitant monosyllable, hovering at Bossman’s shoulder like an electrically charged will-o’-the-wisp dancing in the wind.
Bossman didn’t turn, just arched one thick eyebrow like he was speaking to his own inner daemon. “What is it, Petey?”
“Oh! It’s just that, uh—I thought we weren’t supposed to call them that anymore? Subs, I mean. Sir. Like PR and marketing said? You, uh—You told me to remind you, sir. Just in case you—”
Bossman dismissed the rest of Petey’s comment with an impatient wave of his hand. “Fine. We need more real people tuning in,” he said, framing the words in air quotes. “And we need something the stupid idiots won’t be able to pry their eyes away from. I’m talking about something fresh. Something subs’ll wanna talk about. Word of mouth. Something with all the energy of Huge McDickerson and all the brains of…” He frowned as he trailed off, snapping his fingers in search of some reference.
“Real Quantum Housewives, sir?” Petey offered.
Boss scowled reflexively, then dismissed the details with a shrug. “Whatever. Brains. You get it. Stupid bastards…” He trailed off as Petey cringed behind him. It was almost cute, in a weird sort of way. “Real people like to feel smart,” he amended, much to Petey’s apparent relief. “So, let’s have it. Who here’s got something new and interesting?”
For the first time that day, silence reigned supreme at the pitch table.
“Vampires are trending again,” someone finally said.
“Ooo”—Mark was bobbing his head like someone had just found a good song on the shuffle—“vampires are tight!”
“But he said new.”
“Well, what if the vampire was, like…”
“A dog!” Mark cried, right at the same time as Arun said, “An old man.”
“An old man with a dog,” Troy offered.
“A vampire dog?”
“Probably just a dog.”
“An old man with a dog,” Troy repeated patiently.
“Yeah,” Arun said, leaning forward with brimming excitement. “And, like, a really huge, sexy… backstory,” he added, only remembering himself at the last moment. “Like, character development for days, you know? We’re talking the Walter White of old man vampires.”
“Maybe he cooks, like, vampire meth.”
“Dude, that’s just blood.”
“Well, what about like… really addicting dog treats, then?”
“Baking Bad,” Arun announced, with an aha! snap of his fingers.
The room chewed on that for a minute.
“I… don’t think we’re there yet?” Grace said, looking furtively around the table like she was praying to god this wasn’t where they actually were.
“What if it was a redemption tale?” Troy said. “Like, this old man’s tried and failed to change his ways for his fellow man before, but it’s only when he meets this dog and sees himself reflected in its big, loving eyes that he really finds himself for real and decides to change.”
“Dude.” Arun clapped his hands in victory. “All Bark, No Bite. You’re welcome.”
“No way!” Mark cried, slapping the table. “Dude! Nailed it in one.” He thought about it and shrugged. “Or two. I still like Baking Bad.”
“So… All Bark, No Bite?” Bossman asked, looking around the table like he genuinely had no idea if they were sitting on writers’ room vomit or their next golden goose.
“Too introspective, as is,” Troy finally said.
“Buddy Score is under thirty,” Mark agreed.
“Needs a villain,” someone said.
“And some hot little piece of… love interest,” Arun added, with an almost self-aware side glance at Grace and Anita.
“Dude, isn’t he, like, an old man?”
“An old vampire man.”
“Great. So, he’s like 500?”
“What if we just put them in high school, instead? Really up the sexy drama factor, you know?”
“High school vampires are tight!”
“But isn’t that a little too much like that show, Vampire High?”
“And that other one, Saved by the Bite?”
“Did we make those?”
“Dude, you wrote those.”
“Oh, yeah. Man… those shows were tight.”
At the head of the table, Boss Bossman cleared his throat, finally showing the first signs of frustration—which, after the string of uninspired pitch vomit they’d been enduring all day, was actually kind of a testament to his self-restraint.
“Maybe we’re not there yet,” Troy said calmly.
Arun seemed to take some personal affront to that. “Well, why don’t we ask the orgos for some fresh ideas, then?”
“Yeah,” Mark said. “Isn’t that, like, kinda their thing?”
Don traded a nervous look with Grace, the only other non-augmented writer in the room. Mark wasn’t wrong, per se. General practice these days was to keep a few so-called orgos in the room to offer up some non-computer-generated ideas here and there. To buck the algorithms and keep things fresh, in other words. Which, it turned out, tended to be a liability when it came to producing commercial hits. Fresh was unpredictable. And in the era of binge-worthy streaming, predictability was king. It hadn’t taken long for the term orgo to slide into the land of the derogatory—as if it’d somehow become unreasonably purist or self-indulgent to compose stories organically, without the aid of a freaking neural implant.
“Don’s got something he’s been working on,” Troy was saying. “Five years now, right?”
It took a moment for Don to register that the last bit had been directed at him.
“Hmm?” was all he could think to say.
The rest of the room seemed to be pondering the meaning of the phrase, five years now.
“Uh… Great,” Bossman declared, finishing something on his phone. “Whatever.” He tucked his phone away, knocked a curt double-tap on the tabletop, and leaned back in his chair, attention suddenly and unwaveringly focused on Don. “So let’s have it, then. Your pitch, Schmidt. What’s this big idea you’ve been hiding?”
“Oh, um… Well, I’m actually not sure it’s the kind of thing you’re looking for, if—”
Bossman silenced him with one raised, oversized hand and leaned forward, looking irritated at the holdup. “Schmidt. Do you think my father named me Boss Bossman for nothing?”
“Uhhh…” Don stared dumbly. “I don’t… know?”
Bossman just knocked the table again and rested back in his chair, point apparently made. “Your pitch, Schmidt. Show us what we’re keeping you orgos around for.”
“Well, umm. Okay. Well… I’ve been calling it The Manifest Man, but—”
Across the table, Arun snorted. Loudly.
Boss turned his shut-up hand on Arun, his eyes still fixed on Don, waiting.
“But, um, well. That’s just a working title. It’s got a lot of layers, kind of hard to condense down to a catchy log line, but—”
“Your pitch, Schmidt.”
Don sighed. “Basically, it’s the story of a man—a person, could be any person—but a person who, well, basically leaves his crazy-ass, 9-to-5, 5-to-9 nonstop digital life behind and finds himself—really finds himself, for the first time since childhood—in meditation out at his family’s old cabin in the mountains. But the story starts after all of that, after this guy’s already had this mysterious awakening and rumors have started to circulate of the strange man in the mountains who’s mastered himself so deeply that he can actually affect the world around him. People start to gather—would-be acolytes—and he hesitantly starts accepting a few students here and there. No one can figure out how and why he chooses the ones he does. But the story’s actually told mostly from the perspective of this skeptical intelligence agent who’s sent to infiltrate this guy’s inner sanctum and basically find out if he’s for real and, if so, whether he poses any threat to national security, or if he can be turned into a weapon.”
“Ahh,” Arun said, nodding along like he’d just gotten it. “Like a warrior monk.”
“Dude, warrior monks are tight,” Mark added.
“No, not like a—” Don reined himself in. “This isn’t an action story.”
“Be cooler if it was,” Arun muttered.
“This isn’t an action story,” Don repeated, ignoring him, “because the entire point is that… Look, it’s not a Michael Bay flick, and it’s not some ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ inspirational bullshit. If anything, it’s ‘with great humility and compassion comes great power.’ It’s… It’s transcendence. It’s this idea that, actually, the most powerful thing we can do is to set aside our inner need for power.”
The room chewed on that one for a minute.
“I don’t get it,” Mark finally said.
“Be a lot cooler if it was an action flick.”
“Maybe with a dog.”
“And, like, a hot lady monk.”
“Someone run the Buddy score and—”
“Just did, sir. It’s a crap shoot. Variance is off the chart.”
“Which is exactly what you’re looking for, isn’t it?” Grace asked, looking incredulously around the table. “Jesus, you want fresh, don’t you? This has layers of intrinsic conflict and intrigue naturally baked in with larger thematic elements. It’s actually got a…” She pursed her lips, reconsidering whatever she’d been about to say. “You know, people used to actually care if a story had something to say, and that’s…” She looked around the table, seeming to remember where she was. “I like it,” she finished quietly.
Uncomfortable looks around the table.
“So, how’s it end?” Bossman finally asked.
“It’s not done yet.”
“What do you mean, not done?” Bossman asked the question like he sincerely didn’t understand the meaning of those two words. Around the table, the rest of his loyal monkeys appeared to feel the same way.
“You’ve been working on this for five years,” Bossman tried again, sampling the words. “And it’s… not done.”
The thought practically sent a shudder through the room.
“It’s a…” A delicate idea, sir, Don couldn’t bring himself to say. He genuinely didn’t know how to convey himself on this one, to this room. “I’m just trying to get it right,” was all he could think to say. “Sir.”
Arun snorted, eyeing his fellow writers. “Sounds more like you’re trying to get it fossilized, am I right?”
Bossman waved down the chuckles before any cross-chatter could take flight. “Fine. That’s fine. I want the script wrapped and on my desk by the end of the week, then.”
“Sir, there’s no way I can—”
“What?” Bossman said, his voice suddenly sharp. “Do your job? Finish one script in an entire week?”
“Dude, I wrote five this morning,” Arun said. “Literally knocked one out on the toilet.” He looked around the table. “A script, I mean. Not a—I mean, yeah, that too, but… Yeah.”
Silent stares pinged from Arun to Don to anyone else, waiting for someone to change the subject.
Bossman cleared his throat. “Anyway. By the end of this week, Schmidt.”
“Sir, I don’t think…”
But Bossman didn’t appear to be listening anymore. His attention had drifted to something outside the partially frosted glass walls of the writer’s room. Through the narrow stripes of clear glass that cut through the frosted design like a snowplow’s tracks. Out, Don realized, to that damned, confounded mystery box that he’d nearly forgotten about in all the shuffle.
What the hell was in that box?
Don had watched the two delivery people haul the thing in from the elevator bank on an industrial grade dolly. It had looked heavy. No one else had really seemed to notice. But something about that enormous, unmarked box…
“So, take a second set of eyes to get it done,” Bossman was saying, waving distractedly their way as he stood to leave. “Troy. You’re on this with Schmidt. Get it done.”
“Yessir,” Troy said, before Don could even begin to argue. The smug bastard rapped the table with his knuckles, aping Bossman’s trademark gesture like a good little brownnose and nodding along like he wasn’t even the least bit surprised. Like the decision to cram his Plot Buddied, insta-fluff bullshit into Don’s painstaking life’s work just made perfect freaking sense.
From across the table, Troy smiled at Don.
“I’ll help him get it sorted.”
Bossman was already out the door.
It took all of ten minutes for Don and Troy to arrive at a perfect stalemate.
Which, given Don’s disposition going into their uneasy coffee shop story meeting, was not all that surprising. But what was he supposed to do? He’d spent five years of his life incubating this story (not to mention a lifetime before that, gathering the emotional experience to properly tell it), and he’d be damned if he was going to sit here and let Troy and his Plot Buddy cram the fruits of his labor into their one-size-fits-all mold, just in the name of finishing the thing.
“You know what your problem is, Don?”
With a heavy soul, Don turned his attention away from the soothing rivulets of rain on the coffee shop window and focused on Troy. The younger man was leaned back in his chair at perfect ease, watching him with a kind of debonair curiosity, like he was studying a particularly interesting specimen. See the wild pen monkey, roaming free in its ancestral environment.
“You think there’s some big noble pie-in-the-sky,” Troy continued, raising one perfectly groomed hand from his coffee to gesture casually to the heavens. It was mildly infuriating, how pristine and put-together the young man’s every move seemed to be. “Some perfect, worthy story just waiting for you to come along and tell it, and to tell it true. But you know what? It’s already been done, man. You could spend your whole life crafting the greatest masterpiece anyone’s ever seen, and you know what? The world wouldn’t care.”
He paused there, waiting to see if Don would argue—maybe even hoping he would. Don just considered his cooling coffee, feeling oddly detached from the conversation. Still wondering, of all things, what the hell had been in that giant, unmarked box they’d passed on the way to the elevator. Bossman’s mystery box. How intriguing.
Maybe they’d find out next season.
Troy was talking again.
“No, they’d just be onto the next show as soon as the credits rolled. Because that’s what you don’t get, Don. The world’s changed. No one’s looking for a masterclass in”—he wiggled his fingers—“thematic elements anymore. You know what they are looking for?”
In his mind, this was the part where Don stood up, walked out, and never came back again. In that moment, he almost didn’t care what might happen after that, so long as he didn’t have to hear Troy’s take on Commercial Fiction 101. But somehow, he still found himself rooted in that chair, Troy trucking on all the same.
“They’re looking for escape,” he was saying, talking with his hands as much as with his mouth. “They’re looking for a friend. Someone or something they can come home to and spend some happy hours with, without question. Something to make them feel less alone, without all the messy complications.” He thrust a finger at Don, like he was about to skewer him on the point of his magnanimous wisdom. “You’re trying to give the viewer a full-on marriage, wrinkles and all, when all they really want is a dog. A happy, tail-wagging pooch, thanking all the gods above for the simple fact that their beloved person came home again.”
“And you’re good with that?” Don asked, before he could help himself. “You’re fine with writing mindless garbage that your viewers chew up and spit out so fast they can’t even remember what it was called the next day?”
Troy’s smile was perfectly saccharin. Gotcha, it said.
So maybe Don wasn’t so detached from this after all.
“It’s not garbage if it sells, Don. And it’s worse than self-indulgent to think you know better than the market.”
“Worse than…” Don gnashed his teeth, knowing he shouldn’t engage any further. Knowing, even, that Troy was actually probably right on some level, and that, on that same level, this was just the way things were now, in this frenetically digital day and age. But still. “Do you hear yourself, man? The market? You’re supposed to be a writer. Not a freaking stockbroker.”
Troy rolled his eyes over an amused huff, like he wasn’t surprised to receive this confirmation that Don simply didn’t get it. “You’re pretty naive for an old-timer. You know that, right? We’re not writers, Don. We’re not storytellers, or whatever other old guard, nostalgic bullshit you want to call it. We might do those things, yeah. But you know what we really are, at the end of the day?”
Pompous airbags, Don opened his mouth to say, but he faltered on the words, struck by the sudden memory of the last time he’d heard them. It had been over twenty years ago, in a conversation not unlike this one. And he’d been sitting on the other side of the table.
“Content creators,” Troy finished, tapping meaningfully on his overturned phone. “The market wants content. And we give the market what it wants, Don. What it wants, how it wants it, when it wants it. Anything beyond that is—”
“Disrespectful,” Troy countered. “Ignoring the algorithms, thinking you can subvert expectations, give them something they didn’t even know they wanted…” He shook his head, like perish the thought. “Granted, there might have been a time for all that back in the day, when creatives lacked sufficient data to know better. But now? We’re here to serve the audience, Don. Not to stroke our own egos.”
“And you honestly think you’re serving your audience by helping spoon feed them… what? Huge McDickerson? Really? You really think the value of a story—Sorry, of a piece of content—is measured in engagement metrics and ROI more than whether or not it actually has a damn point? What the market wants, when it wants it?”
“I think the proof’s in the bank balance. You can’t argue with supply and demand, Don. People want what they want.”
“That’s a fascinating supposition. I’d love to hear your take on potato chips and crack cocaine. As long as it’s what they want, right?”
Troy just gave one of those smug little clearly, you just don’t get it eye rolls and relaxed in his chair, idly tapping at the tablet where they’d been reviewing Don’s script. “Better to entertain them now than to keep them waiting half a decade for your Manifest Man.”
“Yeah, because clearly there’s such a shortage of other shit to watch in the meantime.”
Troy spread his hands. “And so we win anyways, see? Us uninspired hacks, and sellouts, and whatever else you and Grace must call us behind our backs.”
Don opened his mouth, intending to point out how rich that statement was, coming from someone who routinely called him and Grace orgos to their faces, but the words died short. What was the point? What was the point of any of this, really? Because whatever other problems there might’ve been in Troy’s questionable lines of reasoning, Troy was right about one thing. It had already been done. All the great writers and poets and creatives of the past however many centuries. All the earth-shaking, life-changing wisdom that’d flown out of their minds and onto the page. And what had it all changed, exactly? Jack all, as far as Don could tell. Because here they were, living in a bright shiny future where storytellers literally couldn’t even be bothered to use their own brains anymore—and all for the best anyway, because their audiences apparently would’ve crucified them if they had.
Once upon a time, artists had labored to serve as the black mirrors intended to keep humanity’s soul in check. Or they’d labored to create those black mirrors, at least. Don truly believed that. But now…
Now, they were just the chintzy things sitting on the vanity—the ones that the world used to check its hair before going out to party. And this… This conversation. This studio. This young man sitting before him, reminding him, in some unsettling way, of some younger, Dark-Side-evil-twinversion of himself…
“I’m done here.”
The words left his mouth of their own volition, echoing back to him first with timid surprise, then with growing, exuberant certainty as the full extent of their meaning washed over him.
Troy eyed him dubiously, then shrugged. “Talk about it tomorrow, then?”
“No, Troy. I’m done here. For good. I quit.”
That earned him the first genuine response he’d seen since they’d sat down—the younger man’s carefully composed body language unraveling like a shapeshifting chameleon encountering something that was simply inimitable, his thick eyebrows taking it in turns to reach for the ceiling and for one another.
“But you… Don, if this is…”
For a few seconds, Don thought the young man might actually be upset by the news—might even be searching for the words to implore him to reconsider. But then Troy the Shapeshifting Chameleon found his footing, and that look of unsteady surprise gelled into something politely disgusted.
“You don’t generate scripts,” he said, sticking up a thumb like he was starting a count. “You don’t have deadlines…”
Don leaned forward and pointedly tapped the tablet between them. No deadlines until someone had to open their mouth.
Troy swiped angrily at the air, batting the point aside, looking properly agitated now. “Give me a break, Don. You’re a goddamn consultant, as far as anyone’s concerned. You don’t do shit most days. We could replace you with another Buddy, and no one would ever notice. And you’re telling me you’re gonna walk away from that just because Bossman finally asked you to step up?”
Maybe it was just the first manic crack in his sanity—or the fact that it actually did sound like a pretty ludicrous move when Troy laid it out that way—but Don found a soft smile creeping across his face. “Sounds like I don’t deserve to be here anyway, huh? So, you, and Bossman, and everyone else can all just…” He considered the swirl of bitter barbs drifting through his head, each one feeling flatter and more unnecessary than its predecessor. He sighed. “You can all just have a nice life, Troy.”
He was already up and sliding his chair in when Troy finally spoke again, quiet and sullen, eyes on his coffee.
“You think you’re Leonardo da Vinci over here, holding onto your grand artistic vision. But you know what? He never finished that stupid horse. And my Plot Buddy’s already got three dozen killer endings for your Manifest Man.”
He looked up at Don with something like a challenge in his eyes. It might’ve been underpinned by something else. Maybe disgust or hatred. Maybe even envy. But then, maybe not. Don wasn’t sure he cared. Because Troy’s words had just pretty much settled it—the Great “It” that Don hadn’t even realized he was still attempting to settle.
He turned to leave. Faltered.
“You call it self-indulgence,” he said quietly. “Act like I’m being… being audacious, for Christ’s sake, just for trying to find something meaningful. Something off-market or whatever you want to call it. But you know what, Troy? Respecting a market is not the same thing as respecting the people in it. No one ever thanked their drug dealer for keeping them hooked on an empty high.”
He looked back at Troy, then. Found the younger man watching him with an inscrutable expression.
He shrugged—maybe in apology, or maybe not—and turned to go.
Upstairs, the offices of Soma Studios were in total disarray.
Don blinked at the chaos from the threshold of the elevator bank where he’d just emerged, feeling his initial plan—find Bossman, politely recuse himself from this utterly meaningless studio, and get the hell out of Dodge—unraveling like the hopeful Plan A, B, and/or C of a Plot Buddy’s third quarter lead up.
People were unsettled about something. That much, Don registered even before he started to note the finer details of the room. Arun and Mark, talking with agitated hand movements. Anita and Eduardo, shooting sour looks toward the executive offices. Others absentmindedly shuffling papers, or just staring blankly at displays—or at blank walls. Grace was stretched laconically back in her chair, feet kicked up on her desk like Don had never seen, her favorite pen poised thoughtfully at her lips. She caught his eye and nodded at something across the room, looking vaguely amused. More amused than anyone else looked, at least.
Don turned in the indicated direction and felt his eyes widen at the new hardware that’d appeared on prominent display outside the conference room. It was the size of a large bookshelf and looked something like the quantum computing mainframes from the movies—albeit way more sleek and stylized, like it had been designed to be ogled rather than hidden away in some sprawling underground facility. And across the top of the frame, etched neatly in gold-rimmed letters, two words: Movie Bot.
That seemed to explain the giant box the delivery men had carted in earlier, at least. And maybe also why—
“Greetings!” cried a metallic voice beside him, close enough to send him thumping against the wall, one arm raised to fend off incoming attack.
He only relaxed by a hair when he saw what had spoken.
It was a humanoid robot, lanky and hawkish, but rather sophisticated judging by the almost sheepish way it responded to his jumpiness—easing back a half-step and shooting him an awkwardly friendly wave. Don was lowering his arm, starting to figure maybe this was some snazzy set piece up for a visit from production, when he spotted the neat golden letters emblazoned on its left breastplate, a perfect match to those etched across their pal Movie Bot.
Story Bot, this one was called, apparently.
“Story Bot is pleased to make your acquaintance,” it declared, extending one bulky, three-digit manipulator appendage that reminded him just a bit of a ninja turtle’s hand. Don looked dumbly from the appendage back up to the robot’s face, brain turning cartwheels trying to process—
“What’s going on?” came Troy’s voice from within the elevator bank.
Don turned his dumb look to the younger man, who’d just emerged from one of the elevators, and back to the robot, mouth caught in a stupor.
“Don”—he was coming closer—“what the hell’s all this—”
“Jesus Christ!” Troy cried, before Don could find his tongue enough to warn him.
“Story Bot is pleased to make your acquaintance,” Story Bot added, making an odd combination of energetically offering its hand out while also leaning back in a non-threatening way from Troy, who’d gone dukes-up reflexively. Troy lowered his readied fists a few inches, wide eyes searching Don’s face for some cogent explanation.
The proof, some part of him half-wanted to say, before he could even figure out why, is in the bank balance.
That part of him was just getting around to sharing its answers with the rest of class when they spotted Boss Bossman hustling over, beckoning for their attention with what could’ve been excitement but felt a bit more like a hey, your car’s about to get towed vibe.
“Troy!” He called. “Schmidt!”
Sullen looks followed him down the open office aisle.
That seemed to settle it, then.
“What the hell is this?” Troy asked anyway, as their boisterous boss drew up to them, slightly red in the face.
“Ah, yes,” Bossman said, tugging at his loosened shirt collar—he’d already ditched the expensive tie. He seemed to consider something for a moment, then his whole demeanor sort of reset. He laid a dignified hand on Troy’s shoulder, then, almost as an afterthought, laid the other one on Don’s. “The thing is, boys, there’s been a change of plans upstairs. Execs, you know how it goes,” he added, like he wasn’t one of them. “Bigwigs in their Big Boy offices. But… well, long story short, we’re letting you go. All of you.”
“But sir, that’s…” Troy turned his furrowed brow from Bossman to their robot spectator, clearly reading the insinuation, clearly refusing to believe it. “You’re… You’re replacing us?”
“Not replacing,” Bossman cooed, like the very thought was unconscionable, “so much as, um… Dammit.” He looked distractedly around the office, unhanding Don’s shoulder to tug at his collar again. “Where is that—PETEY!”
From the tiny assistant’s cubicle outside of Bossman’s office, Petey came staggering out like a business casual sprinter who’d been asleep for the starting pistol. If the looks for Bossman had been sullen, the ones that tracked Petey were pure venom as he barreled down the aisle, clutching a precariously sloshing ice water and a hand-held fan.
“You’re keeping Petey?” Don asked, almost not caring, but mildly bemused despite himself. It kind of just figured.
“Not replacing,” Bossman repeated, like he hadn’t even heard Don’s question, as Petey slid to a halt and offered him his kingly gift of ice water. Bossman took a brief glug-glug of water, not seeming to notice when Petey moved into place with the fan, nor when he went so far as to actually peel the big man’s shirt collar from his neck and apply the breeze there, too. “Modifying your employment status, is the official company line,” Bossman finished, wiping his mouth with the back of one hand.
Troy was aghast. “Sir, you need real human writers—” He glanced sideways at Don, like he’d just realized what word he’d used. “Human content creators. There’s no way this thing can—”
“Story Bot!” Bossman boomed, nearly whacking Petey in the face as he waved a hand in invitation.
“Story Bot is fluent in over six million forms of genre and micro niche content,” the robot chimed, rocking up on its feet and playfully flourishing its dukes at Troy, as if to say I see you. I learn. I AM you.
“Story Bot can do it better,” Bossman translated. “Market research. Content analysis. Content generation. All of it. And we don’t even have to pay him! Sorry, it.”
“Story Bot is pleased to acquiesce,” the robot agreed cheerily, settling back to a flat stance and going hands-to-hips.
“Sir, I’m sorry, but there’s no way in hell this thing can—”
“Focus groups are already showing a 13-point bump in bingeability factor for Story Bot’s first show, Troy. 13 points! And that’s 13 over Huge McDickerson, mind you.”
“But… When did…” Troy shook himself loose of his funk, like he was only then realizing that this was all actually happening. He looked around the offices, seeming to note his colleagues’ stares for the first time. “What show? Who even shot it? There was nothing about this on the production schedule.”
“That’s the other exciting bit,” Bossman said, waving his hand toward the conference room. “We’re pairing Story Bot’s output with our brand-new Movie Bot engine. We’re going full auto, baby!”
“What?” Troy followed Bossman’s gesture, gaping at the shiny new machine on the far wall. “I don’t…”
“Story Bot,” Bossman said, practically bouncing with excitement now. “Give me scripts for…” He rolled his fingers, thinking. “A buddy action-comedy series. Somewhere tropical, maybe.”
“Story Bot is pleased to acquiesce,” the robot said, raising a hand for pause. A few seconds later, it added, “32,768 market viable scripts generated.”
“Perfect. Give us number, ah, I don’t know… 8,007.”
“Story Bot is pleased to acquiesce,” the robot chimed again.
Then it bent over and ejected a portable data key from its backside, faster than even Arun could drop a script.
“No shit,” Don murmured as Bossman scooped the data key up, drawing a brief, almost desperate look from Troy, like the young man was hoping he wasn’t following correctly. This can’t be happening, that look said. There had to be something—some contractual protection, maybe even some creaky old moral fiber lingering in the board’s heartstrings.
Except there wasn’t. They all knew it.
No unions. No contractual rights. And certainly no moral fibers.
Over by the conference room, Bossman brandished the data key, giddy as a freaking schoolboy, and jacked it into one of the Movie Bot’s waiting slots.
Don watched with a kind of morbid fascination as the big man withdrew the matte black tablet that popped free from the side of the machine and bounded back over to them, holding it up so they could see. Then, after a brief loading bar, they found themselves staring at the first rendering of an apparently fully AI-generated trailer for Maui Wowie, a buddy cop procedural which seemed to be set on the titular island, featuring convincingly rendered replicas of two all-star actors portraying a pair of mismatched detectives—one a straight-laced transplant from the Big Apple, and the other a comically baked detective who used his near-supernatural highs to pluck up details about each mystery that no sober mind could’ve ever intuited.
It actually looked pretty damn funny.
“The market wants content,” Bossman said, eagerly eyeing their reactions. “And we here at Soma give the market what it wants. Don’t we?”
Don huffed, part of him barely able to believe what he was seeing, even as another part pointed out that this was always where they’d been headed—that this kind of just figured, too, in a world where he’d become a fossil for opting to keep scraping by with naught but the self-indulgent thoughts in his own sad little orgo head.
“But… the actors,” Troy was murmuring, eyes distant. “Christ, the set crews. The productions teams.”
“Mmm,” Bossman agreed, nodding somberly, as if he honestly saw no reason he couldn’t stand there and commiserate with them over this clearly unpreventable travesty. “Tough times, all around. Exciting times, to be sure. But tough, too.”
He pursed his lips and seemed to be counting.
“That said,” he finally continued, when the sentimental silence had apparently stretched long enough, “you are all still fired—”
Petey made a finicky sound, and Bossman cleared his throat.
“Er, that is, you’re all still, ah, contractually modified,” he amended. “Just in case that part was unclear.”
It was only then Don noticed just how many of the desks in the open office space had already been cleared off, either partially or in total.
“But… What am I supposed to do?” Troy asked, looking blankly around the room. “What are we supposed to do?”
For some reason, he directed that last part at Don.
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll think of something,” Bossman said. “Maybe your Plot Buddy can help you figure out your own hero’s journey,” he added, framing his oversized hands to dramatically showcase those last two words—looking, no shit, like he really believed they should be excited about such a bold new opportunity.
Troy’s mouth worked soundlessly.
“Irregardless, we’ve got it from here, boys,” Bossman continued, clapping a hand each on Don’s and Troy’s shoulders. “Rest assured, the market’s in good hands.”
“Story Bot is pleased to acquiesce,” Story Bot agreed behind him, as it threw them an emphatic double thumbs-up.
Don just smiled at Troy. Smiled until Boss Bossman uneasily released his shoulder.
Then he turned to leave—for good this time—thinking of the old family cabin he hadn’t seen in far too long.
Thank You For Reading
If you loved this story and want more like it, the place you're looking for is Luke's Patreon, where in addition to fresh short stories delivered every month or so, you also get full access to all of Luke's published books — plus a handful of other assorted goodies. It's a pretty fun time. Whichever way you go, thanks for coming along for this little adventure!
3rd Person Luke