EXT. LIT-HEAD'S BAR - OVERPRICED NY HOTEL HOSTING NAT'L WRITER'S CONFERENCE - NIGHT
Silence. Gradually the sound of writers arguing and getting drunk becomes audible. Soiled bookmarks and discarded freebie books litter the sidewalk. An agent runs out of the bar, followed by three romance writers seeking representation and Mr. Cover Art 2009, who thought he was cute.
INT. LIT-HEAD’S BAR - NIGHT
The roaring fire from the free books handed out during the writer’s conference and now being burned behind the bar is spreading fast. The air is thick with smoke, laughter, and too much designer knock-off perfume. Deese throws his copy of Publishers Weekly into the fire. He hauls the lolling has-been SF writer off Sahara Conrad and reaches for her.
DEESE: Come with me if you want to make a living.
CUT TO: EXT. LIT-HEAD'S BAR/HOTEL - NIGHT
The Promonator is rising calmly to his feet. Shreds of bad reviews drift from him, except where they get caught in the wads of cash sticking out of his suit pockets. He collects a crumpled contract from the ground and retrieves his calculator and scattered business cards.
CUT TO: INT. LIT-HEAD'S BAR - NIGHT
SAHARA, feeling a bright arrow of terror greater than she could ever imagine in any black moment scene as the Promonator’s cold gaze fixes on her.
PROMONATOR: Sahara Conrad. You did not sign. I need a retainer check. Where is your web site? You must have a web site. And book videos. Many book videos.
SAHARA (awed whisper): Oh no . . .
PROMONATOR climbs over an intoxicated editor, back through the window and stalks through the flames toward SAHARA. DEESE seizes SAHARA as he runs, dragging her with him toward the back exit door. REVERSE ON PROMONATOR, DOLLYING as he kicks burning wreckage out of his path and pursues them.
CUT TO: INT./EXT. EXIT CORRIDOR/ALLEY - NIGHT
Deese and Sahara burst through the outside door and into the alley. Sahara bangs into garbage cans, and Deese pulls her along ruthlessly. Behind them Promonator is moving with non-human speed, as agile as a hyena, leaping over the garbage cans and other obstacles. As they reach a chicklit author's pink sedan Deese shoves Sahara inside, climbs in, hot wires it and takes off.
CUT TO: INT. PINK SEDAN - NIGHT
Sahara is in a muddle, her face white, her hands tightly clutching her AlphaSmart and her homemade bookmarks in her lap as she glances back at the alley.
DEESE (calmly): Are your feelings hurt? Are you blocked?
Sahara doesn’t reply. He reaches over and runs his hands over her smart keyboard, trying to find the Open File button. Sahara shrieks and slaps his hand away before she tries to open the door. Deese slams her back in the seat.
DEESE (continuing): Write exactly what I say. Exactly. Don't reread unless I say. Don’t open a new chapter unless I say. And don’t you dare try to get on Twitter and tell your critique partners where you are. Do you understand?
Sahara doesn’t respond.
DEESE (shouting): Do you understand?
SAHARA (cowering): Yes. Please, don’t hatchet job me.
DEESE: I’m not a critic, I'm here to help you. Deese, Sergeant/Tech Anti-Con, DN38417, assigned to protect you. You've been targeted for self-promotion.
SAHARA (hoarse whisper): This is a mistake. I haven't published anything yet.
DEESE: No. But you will. And it's very important that you keep writing.
SAHARA: I can't believe this is happening. How could that man get up after you battered him by reading all those horrible PW reviews?
DEESE: Not a man. A machine. A Promonator. Scriberdyne Model 501.
SAHARA: A machine? You mean, like a robot?
DEESE: Not a robot. Scriborg. Scribernetic Organism.
SAHARA: But...he was bleeding. I saw the paper cuts you gave him when you swatted him with this month's sucky SF section.
DEESE: All right. Listen. The Promonator's an author bank account infiltration unit. Part human, part machine. Underneath, it's a hyperalloy advance-sucktration chassis, micromarketing-controlled, fully armored. Very tough. But on the outside, it looks like it’s alive. Flesh, skin, hair . . . blood. Grown in corporate labs for the Scriborgs.
SAHARA: Look, Deese, I know you want to help me make the lists, but . . .
DEESE (cutting her off): Pay attention. The 400 series had rubber briefcases and phony Florsheims. We spotted them easy. But these are new. They look like real publicists. Sweat, bad breath, everything. Impossible to tell the difference. I had to wait 'til he tried to make you write him a check before I could zero him.
SAHARA: Hey, I'm not stupid, you know. Publishers can't force us to self-promote like that.
DEESE: Not yet. Not for about forty years.
SAHARA: So, it's here from the future of Publishing, is that right?
DEESE: One possible future. From your point of view in this genre . . . I never wrote time-travel stuff.
SAHARA: And you're from the future of Publishing too?
They come to a red light and Deese stops.
SAHARA (patronizingly): Man, I've heard some pickup lines before, but this . . .
She tries to get out of the car, but Deese grabs her arm and drags her back inside. She bites his mouse clicking finger, but his grip doesn't change.
DEESE (coldly): Scriborgs don't feel pain. I do. Don't . . . do that . . . again.
SAHARA (weakly): Just let me go back to the conference.
DEESE: Listen. Understand. That Promonator is out there. It can't be reasoned with, it can't be bargained with. It doesn’t care how much you’ve suffered while pursuing publication, or how many bills you haven’t paid, or how much this dream means to you. It doesn’t feel empathy, or remorse, or shame. And it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are broke.
SAHARA (quietly): Can you stop it?
DEESE: Maybe. With these contracts your publisher is offering, I don't know. They've already started demanding platforms and book videos and con appearances from their signed authors. Three-piece bastards.
Deese grabs Sahara and pulls her down to duck out of sight. A moment later a bookseller spotlight flashes across the seats above them, projecting the latest bestsellers at 40%.
SAHARA: Deese . . . why me? Why does it want me to self-promote?
DEESE: There was a Marketing war. A few years from now. Everything went nuclear. The whole industry. All the opportunities, the hope --
He gestures toward her AlphaSmart and crappy bookmarks, Hudson Street, and the Publishing world.
DEESE (continuing) -- are gone. Just gone. There were survivors. Here. There. Nobody knew who started it. (pauses) It was the suits, Sahara.
SAHARA: I don't understand...
REESE: Corporate publishing. New. Powerful. Hooked into everything that made it into print. Trusted to do right by their authors. They say a senior editor got smart . . . a new order of intelligence. Then the suits saw all authors making a living by writing as a threat, not just the ones on the lists. They decided our future in a microsecond . . . self-promotion until bankruptcy.
SAHARA: You saw this?
DEESE: I didn't see the war. I started writing after, in the industry ruins. Sneaking online to post anonymously on writer discussion boards. Starving for well-written books. Hiding from the B-K's.
SAHARA: The B-K's?
DEESE: Buzzkillers. Patrol machine hatchet-jobbers, built in automated promo factories. Most of us were rounded up anyway; what money we had sucked out of us, and our remainders put in shredders for orderly disposal.
Deese shows Sahara a ten digit number branded on his forearm.
DEESE (continuing): My last ISBN. Burned in by laser scan. In my time, they make you tattoo it on your body. Sometimes on your forehead. (pause) Some of us were kept on the con circuit to fool the others into signing with and endorsing their advance checks over to the Promonators. Nothing was being marketed. All we really did was dump their unsold, miniscule first print run into shredders a week after release. The paper-chewers ran night and day. We were that close to going back to our day jobs forever . . .
SAHARA (weakly): Oh, my God.
DEESE: But there was one man who made us do the right thing, the only thing we can do well: write. To focus on the story. To stop spending all our advances on mindless, useless self-promotion and instead to give the reader a great book so they'd want more. He was the one who taught us to storm the writer conferences and drag other authors out of there. To smash those moronic cash-suckers into junk. He turned it around, brought us back from the brink. (pause) His name is Conrad. Joseph Conrad . . . your son, Sahara. Your unborn writer son.
SAHARA (indignantly): I'd never name my son that. I hated reading Joseph Conrad in high school. I even thought about changing my last name because his stories annoyed me so much.
DEESE (waggling eyebrows as he delivers the plot twist): But he's my favorite author.