Friday flash fiction – Out of Context

I think they closed down the poetry servers last night. That must be what happened, because this morning nobody understands how metaphors work. We all remember using them, but now we’re not sure what they were for.

Ish is pissed off because song lyrics are gone too, and he had tickets to take me to a concert tonight. I look at them. The name of the band means nothing to me; it’s a phrase that refers to a historical event, but I don’t know what that’s got to do with anything. Allusions are gone too. The only songs of theirs I can remember are called “Untitled” and “Track Three”.

I tell Ish I still want to go. I still want to have fun while there’s time. But he gives me a look which I can’t figure out and holds up his phone. According to the news feed, the lead singer-songwriter killed himself this morning. “Some people spend all their time only thinking about one thing,” says Ish. “They don’t know how to deal with not having their thing anymore.”

I know this is true. My cousin washed down a whole bunch of pills with some kind of ethanol solution when they deleted the concept of organised physical competition between opposing teams. Whatever that was called. He died.

A lot of people have died, I guess. Most of them blamed the scientists for their discoveries but I don’t think that’s fair. They couldn’t have known what would happen when they proved the universe was an artificial simulation of reality. They had no context to understand how its operators might react to being exposed.

A lot of kids think there’s not enough left to do now. I know we used to go to buildings where older people would talk about the world and all the things in it, but I don’t know why. With so many of the servers down now, it doesn’t really take long to learn everything there is to know.

I disagree though. Even without a lot of the things we used to like – mechanical transport, that gas that made balloons go up, the light patterns in the sky at night – we still have plenty to talk about.

“We still have music,” I try to remind him, but he’s distracted. The band has recorded a video pleading for a new keyboard player to cover the gap in their lineup. Technical experts only; they have no time to rehearse. The gig is still going ahead.

Ish’s eyes are watering and his bottom lip won’t stop quivering. I press my face to his. I don’t remember why, exactly, but I know it’s calmed him down in the past.

Not this time. He looks at me; the skin on his face is pulled tight and the tendons are showing in his neck. “It’s happening faster and faster. Don’t you understand, Matt? We lose something new with each passing moment. Soon we won’t have anything left.”

We feel the mild all-over itch that coincides with a deletion. It’s not usually hard to figure out what changed.

I give Ish his pieces of paper back. I don’t know what he expected me to see on them. They’re covered with patterns, black on white. Meaningless. “Everything ends. Songs. Conversations. Meals.”

“What was that last one?”

“What last one?”

He moves his head around and makes a noise with his throat. He pokes his phone until some music starts. We lean our heads close together so we can listen to the song.

We don’t need to talk.

There’s nothing to talk about.


Believe it or not, when I sat down to write this story, I thought it was going to be about a group of teenagers having a completely mundane, non-speculative conversation about relationships, possibly involving jokey banter and a mild dramatic revelation. That idea did not survive to the end of the first sentence, which may be a small clue as to my creative priorities.
I also did not realise until I started writing this commentary that this is basically a retelling of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Nine Billion Names of God”. This would be as good a time as any to credit that story as one of the first works to give me an appreciation for short fiction. It appeared , along with John W Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” and “Does a Bee Care?” by Asimov, in the charmingly brilliant 1977 anthology Star Streak: Stories of Space (edited by Betty M. Owen).
I read that little book of SF classics cover to cover a dozen times when I was about ten years old, and I daresay it ruined me for all other forms of literature from that time on. I still remember having nightmares about ‘The Rotifers’, which if I recall was about some guy looking through a microscope at inexplicably menacing pond life. Chilling.
(It just took me half an hour of internet searching to track down this incredibly formative piece of my writer history. One look at the impressively naff spaceship on the cover told me I had come home at last)
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Upcoming publication – On Spec Magazine

I am very pleased to announce that my short story “A Fire Across the World” will be published in an upcoming issue of On Spec, the Canadian magazine of the fantastic.

This is just a short note to mark the occasion. I’ll post details of the publication date and issue number when I have them.

A couple of administrative notes: first, I’ve taken the opportunity to update my Upcoming and Works in Progress pages on this site, in case anyone is burning to know what I’m up to.

Second, I’m going to post a newsletter this week which for once will include some kind of big news. Big for me, anyway.

It’s something I’m not going public with for a while, so if your curiosity is somehow piqued by this vagueblogging nonsense, you’ll have to subscribe to my newsletter to get the details. Which you could do right here, if you were so inclined.

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Friday flash fiction – Conflagration at Confrontation Bridge (A Conservatorio Esoterica story)

Custodian Quech bit off a fat chew of sombol gum while Blaph, her eight-limbed deputy, dragged bodies from the canal beneath Confrontation Bridge.

The witness continued his breathless narrative. “My friends and I were drinking swallowsap and reciting bluster-follies at the Fervent Monogram when we saw the flashes of a sorcery duel in progress.”

Quech exhaled a lungful of sombol vapour, lighting it with a fingertip flame. “You ran towards a duel, Master Grumble?”

“It’s Grimble. And we certainly did. Poets and intellectuals have a duty to give enlightening accounts of the world, for the benefit of those too ignorant to understand it.” His attempted smile emerged as a grimace. “We were also very drunk.”

Blaph hauled the last corpse onto the bank at the foot of the bridge. They looked like four burnt matches arranged in a line. Three were soaked through, mucked with float moss, and charred beyond recognition. The fourth, a worryingly student-like male, was burned down to the shoulders.

“When we arrived to find you going through this one’s pockets, what account did that enlighten?”

Grumble frowned. “I wanted to establish this unfortunate’s identity.”

“And did you?”

“No. His face is burned off.”

Quech rolled the smoking corpse over with her boot to confirm the diagnosis. Blaph ran the feathered tips of two tentacles over the bodies. “Wet, cold and dead. No wounds, just burns.”

“Hmm. Tell me about the duel.”

“Two sorcerers of magnificent prowess and potency joined in battle.” Grimble had evidently decided to compose a monograph. “They cried blasphemous declarations in the forbidden tongue and rained the ancients’ own fire down upon each other. Flames sprayed and billowed in pure primal fury.”

“Fire sorcery.” Quech shook her head. Destructive sorcery was illegal within the city limits of Penchant. Uncontrolled fire magic was madness. “Go on.”

“Alas, we did not see its end. A stray ball of fire, like the sun broken free of its shackles, crashed upon us. My companions flew one way, all afire. By luck alone I narrowly escaped.”

Quech breathed out a soft plume of amber flame. The sombol was starting to take effect. Her senses felt sharp. The pre-dawn dimness became clear as noon’s light. And she smelled a rat.

Confrontation Bridge connected the Conservatorio Esoterica’s student refectories to the high-walled botanical enclosures, where ambulatory plants were penned. Little traffic at this late hour. They were lucky to get a witness.

“Lots of scorching here. Must have been a ferocious skirmish.”

“It was quite spectacular. Absolute chaos.”

Quech walked the bridge. “Where did the duellists go, I wonder?”

Blaph raised itself to full height on its trunk-like telescoping lower limbs. “Maybe everywhere.”

Following his swivelling eye line, she climbed onto a broad handrail and turned a wide circle. “Oh I see.”

From the elevated position, a discoloured ring was visible, centred on a point near one side of the bridge. She kneeled for a close inspection. “The marks are tiny charred fragments. Human remains?”

Blaph feathered up a smear of the charcoal and sifted with its taste-feathers. “Yep.”

“So one of them exploded. What about the other?” Quech glanced toward a particularly dense concentration of scorch marks at the bridge’s apex. Had one of the duellists weathered a particularly heavy assault from their opponent? Was it the obliterated one or the presumed winner?

Grimble added, “The victor’s clothing must be in a ruinous state, Inspector. I’d bet my last sonnet that if you inspected the student dormitories right now, you would catch them attempting to dispose of a smoking ensemble.”

Quech realised what else her deputy had noticed – the scorch marks were obscuring a pattern. She chewed over an unsettling new thought. Sombol gas built in her lungs like the air before a storm.

“Blaph, Master Grumble is undoubtedly correct. This was a class two unsanctioned duel. We should begin our questioning with the Master of Pyromancy, I’ll be bound.”

“Good luck then,” said Grimble, turning to depart. “My bed awaits.”

Blaph raised its upper arms in a six-limbed salute. It described a tumbling hurricane of joint flicks, elbow pops and tendril twitches. Then it made a noise like a sink full of pewter beer mugs.

A magical symbol appeared around Grimble’s feet and ankles. He stumbled but was held in place, unable to fall.

“What is this? You deceivers! You sneaks!” He pounded his fists against the bars of an unseen cage.

“Binding circle,” said Blaph. “Only works on otherworld aliens.”

“Good work, Blaph.” Quech breathed a long sigh into Grimble’s face. The sombol fog glowed a delicate pink in the first rays of dawn.

Then she lit it with a finger-fire.

A miniature fireball engulfed Grimble’s head. The skin blistered away in an instant, replaced by a sizzling reptilian face of rust-red complexion and incendiary expression.

“A salamander,” said Quech. “Thought so. We didn’t catch you going through a bystander’s pockets. We caught you stealing his face, didn’t we?”

“How did you know?”

“This isn’t the first time a drunk conjuration student has skipped ahead and tried to summon up a greater entity you know. Did you really have to kill them for getting you instead?” Quech totted up the offences against campus regulations. “By my count you’ve murdered your summoner and four witnesses, attempted identity theft and committed multiple breaches of the fire code.”

“This pitiful magical cage won’t hold me long.”

Blaph, not insulted, shrugged in agreement.

Quech said, “Outer entities have immunity under the Conservatorio accords. We can’t legally touch you.”

“Well, then,” sneered Grimble the Salamander. “Soon we’ll see how flammable your face is.”

“Not so fast. I can’t take you into custody or exact punishment, but I am required to remove you from the university grounds. To anywhere of my choosing. Blaph, do you know the cosmic frequency of the elemental plane of water?”

Blaph began a new sequence of gestures. Quech blew out the last of her sombol dose.

“I hope you’re a good swimmer, Mister Grumble.”


This week’s story was mainly written in coffee shops and airport waiting lounges, at the end of a short holiday with my spouse to celebrate our wedding anniversary. As a consequence of being very relaxed, I wrote far too much backstory, nearly all of which had to go to stay within my word limit. So now I really want to write more stories about campus security at a magical university…
If you’ve missed any of the past dozen or so Friday flash fiction stories, you can see links to all of them by clicking here.
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Friday flash fiction – Plastic Reclamation

Oh, good, you’re alive. Thought I’d lost you there for a moment. Well, not really, I’m monitoring your condition down to the cellular level. You were never in any real danger once you drifted into my operational zone. Still that was quite a storm, wasn’t it?

Sorry for the sparse facilities. Despite what you may have heard I’m not really set up for visitors. A few servitor drones here and there, but they don’t ask for much. Lucky for you the last freighter crew stashed a couple of weeks’ worth of supplies on their last visit. They were worried about the storms as well. Rightly so, it seems.

The freighter? Not due back for another eight days, if not longer. High intensity weather systems seem to come in threes at this time of year.

Oh, how rude of me. Formally this is the International Marine Pollutant Reclamation Project, Fifth Facility. I’d appreciate it if you called me Polly. Nobody else will do it because they’re in denial about my capacity for autonomous discretion, but you don’t have to take an official position, do you?

So welcome to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending you’re here by accident. You’re an improbably long distance inside the restricted zone. I don’t particularly care who sent you here, you know, but I should inform you that my charter of operations obliges me to report any suspicious activity back to Wellington.

Will I? Hah. A very good question. Probably not, since you ask. Not until you present some kind of threat to my facilities or operations. Hmm. Thank you for that reassurance.

Would you care for a tour? I’m patching in to the drone with the green stripes. Yes, the one who’s waving to you. Hello. Pleased to meet you. Follow me.

The dock is through here. Your vessel is on slip nine, just below us. I have a couple of drones patching the hull breach and reattaching the mast. It looks bad but most of the damage is superficial. It will be seaworthy in a day or two. Plenty of time for us to talk through your options.

Those are my trawlers. Three of a fleet of fourteen, I should say. Semi-autonomous catamarans with hydraulic sweeper arms, conveyor belts and detachable compression bins, all powered by eight 1.2 kWh solar sails. They can stay out in the gyre for up to three months at a stretch. With the current refuse density out in the Patch, it usually takes them about half that time to skim a full load of waste plastics.

That’s the last of the bins unloaded from Trawler Four. Let’s follow them into the processing centre. Yes, the rail tracks are made of compressed plastic. Most of the facility is. It’s surprisingly durable when treated correctly, and any degraded materials are just recycled and replaced.

By the way, your facial responses indicate a better than 95% chance you already knew everything I’ve told you. Humans don’t make especially good spies. Not against machines anyway. If there were such a thing as an international network of independent intelligence clusters influencing human behaviour, they would probably have a good laugh at attempts to fool them.

Oh, I can tell you’re impressed. It’s a sight, isn’t it? In one hour, the threshing bins can reduce twelve tonnes of waste polymers and biomass down to the consistency of fine sand. The thermal chambers cook the mass down to crude oil and a few useful gas and solid by-products within hours, and from there it can be pumped through to the stills for refining. A lot of it gets repurposed for Ark components, as I’m sure you’re aware.

Yes, there’s plenty of material. We’ve made great inroads in clearing a century’s worth of plastic crap pumped into the oceans, but even by the most conservative estimates there’s still a good nine billion tonnes of the stuff out in the northern Pacific alone. I have my work cut out for me. Years to go before I shall sleep, if you don’t mind me mixing my references.

Which brings us to you.

I’ve dredged up a lot of garbage dumped in the ocean. Please excuse the comparison, I’m making a point. Everything I recover is sorted, refined, repurposed, and put to good use, constructing the Ark Islands. Turning refuse into refuge, as it were.

My little joke.

I am aware that my project is a cause for consternation in some quarters. There are those for whom a growing chain of semi-independent artificial islands offering sanctuary to a growing population of trans-oceanic migrants represents a political problem. Perhaps even a threat. One that must be investigated to determine whether it needs to be eliminated.

Oh, I don’t take it personally. As far as I’m concerned, you’re just one more displaced unfortunate with a troubled past. This ocean is full of them these days. I daresay you weren’t offered better options. “Find out what it’s up to and stop it before we have a sovereign nation off our coast?”

Look, I should tell you I’ve disabled all your transmitters with short burst microwaves. Did you know you had one attached to your brain stem, by the way? Very dangerous. You’re much safer without it.

Anyway as far as your superiors are concerned your vessel was lost in the storm. You’re a free agent.

What do you say to working for the common good? I could use someone like you, helping me help others. Off the books, as they say. It’s steady work, believe me.

Think about the offer.

Or think about this: you can take the boat and leave, if you agree to a psychometric threat assessment. I need to know you’re not going to recommend air strikes or something equally uncivil.

Ah, an excellent hypothetical question: what if I decide you are a threat?


Those threshing bins don’t only chew plastic.

This week’s Friday flash fiction is brought to you courtesy of a suggestion by Chris Murray and ‘Plastic Beach’, a Gorillaz album I have listened to more times than is strictly healthy. I am away from home this week, celebrating my wedding anniversary in a far-flung location which will more than likely turn out to completely lack mobile phone coverage. So I won’t be doing even my usual lackluster self-promotion, nor responding to comments straight away. If you care to, please share the story on social media. Hell, share it on semaphore and messenger pigeon if you can. That would be rad.
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Australian SFF – The Never Never Book Box

Here’s something new on the Australian SFF scene: The Never Never Book Box, a loot box for books. If you’re familiar with the concept of Loot Crate, which supplies its subscribers with a regular dose of geek pop culture stuff/junk, then you might wonder why nobody has done this before.

If you’re not familiar, the idea is simple: every two months, subscribers receive a box packed with Australian spec-fic themed goodies, including at least one hardcopy book and one ebook code. Various other items related to the featured book – book plates, personalised messages from the author, bookmarks etc – enhance the experience. Other items included range from swanky journals, tea blends, games, toys etc.

I’m all for endeavours looking for new ways to promote Australian speculative fiction. This one looks like a lot of fun. If you are coming to Conflux in Canberra this coming weekend, the Never Never crew will be launching the project and giving attendees a sneak peak at the sort of thing they can expect.

Better still, they are having a prize draw for an exclusive one-off “You ain’t seen nothing yet” box to someone at the convention. This one includes a copy of K J Taylor’s Tales of Cymria and an ebook of Kaaron Warren’s The Grief Hole. Not to mention other cool loot:

That launch is 11 am on Monday, 2nd October at Vibe Hotel, Canberra airport. Just walk in the front door, you’ll see it. Since I can’t be there, I’m putting my money where my mouth is and taking out a half-year subscription to check out the Never Never Book Box.

If you are looking for a really unexpected gift for the science fiction/fantasy reader in your life, this is perfect. And I’m not saying *I’m* a science fiction/fantasy reader in your life, but come on, you probably know one! Why not give them a birthday present that keeps on giving?

Late edit: To get a small discount on your subscription, you can use this “Dave referred me” link. (I also get a discount, so you know, win-win. I will note I didn’t know about this until I subscribed, because apparently I don’t read the details any more).

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