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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