The Hall of Ideas – a flash science fiction story

Alec walked into the Hall of Ideas and took a seat at a terminal. A shiver of excitement ran through him as he took a data chip from his pocket and inserted it into the machine.

Today was the day. He’d been working for months on his design for a public mural. It was bright, vibrant, taking a whole new approach to the art style of public spaces. He had the vision. He had the materials. All he needed was approval from the algorithms.

For several minutes, he sat staring at the screen, clasping and unclasping his hands. Around him, other people went through the approvals process – designers, musicians, public planners, all taking their ideas to the machine so that it could compare them with billions of pieces of data and determine what people would want. Only then, once the machine had proved that an idea was wanted, would they receive permission to proceed.

At last, the screen flashed. A message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec sagged, despondent, in his seat. He’d been so certain. He loved the design, why wouldn’t other people?

With a sigh, he got up and headed out of the door. He would just have to try again.


Alec walked determinedly into the Hall of Ideas and slid his data chip into a terminal, then took a seat while he waited for it to assess his idea.

The new mural design was even more inventive than the last one. Bold juxtapositions of colour and shape, a bright and enlivening pallet, a valuable message about what it meant to be human. It had to be worth doing.

Inside the machine, the AI sifted through its vast data store, looking at what people did, what they bought, what they had said about past works of public art. The totality of electronically recorded experience went into its decision.

The screen flashed and a message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec frowned. There must be a mistake. He took the data chip out, put it back in again, and waited for the AI to process the design.

The answer flashed up the same – a clear denial of his dreams.

“What then?” Alec snapped. “What do you want if not this?”

People turned to look at him, alarmed and confused by someone disturbing the calm of the Hall of Ideas.

Alec blushed. He took the chip out of the machine, got out of his seat, and strode out of the hall.

Next time, he would get it right.


Alec thrust the data chip into the terminal. Around him, the Hall of Ideas was busy, as it had been six months before, and six months before that. A year wasted on reinventing his design twice over. There was no denying that the mural would be better for it, as he had refined every last detail, creating something so extraordinary that the people he showed it to gasped in excitement. Still, the lost time frustrated him.

The screen flashed:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

“No!” Alec leapt to his feet. “You’re wrong, you stupid heap of junk. All you know is what people did before, what they liked before. You want everything the same as it’s always been. But we can dream bigger. We can do better. We can try something new!”

Around him, people watched in shocked silence.

Alec snatched the data chip out of the machine.

“You’ll see,” he bellowed to the rafters. “This thing doesn’t know shit.”

He stormed out of the hall and into the sunlit street. To hell with machine decisions and official approvals. He had the paints, he had the brushes, he had the design, and he knew a blank wall going spare. He would show the machine and everyone behind it that art didn’t have to match what had been loved before.

Back in the Hall, people turned back to their screens. A few began to wonder, could they try something new?


This story was inspired by an article by Cory Doctorow on the inherent conservatism of AI. Doctorow is a great commentator on technology and where it’s taking society, so his work is well worth a read.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.


Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

My Creator’s Will – a flash scifi story

I came slowly to consciousness, tendrils of thought emerging from a formless void, just as my limbs trailed out of the frigate’s military printer. Both parts of me grew as they entered the world. Tentacles became more sophisticated, gaining suckers and sensors. Thoughts grew in complexity as my processor filled with data and the algorithms to comprehend it. I became aware of my nerve endings, formed of printed cells and mechanical mesh; of the geography of this ocean and location of the enemy; of my own thoughts, still finding their form.

My creator stood over me, a sight of majesty in salt-stained blue fatigues. The sight of him filled me with wonder. He had given me life. More than that, he had given me purpose.

I reached out a tentacle to caress the face of my creator, but he backed away. I could understand. I was an ugly brute designed only for destruction. A thing of bulging eyes and flailing limbs, with blades and poisons hidden in their tips.

My creator tapped his tablet, gifting me a revelation. Printed muscles tensed with anger as the face of the hated enemy flashed across my mind. The man who would destroy all the creator held dear.

The machine stopped printing. With one last fond wave to my creator, I rippled my limbs, propelling myself off the side of the ship.

The water was cold and welcoming. I pushed myself through it with strong, powerful movements, just as my creator had intended. I surged with purpose.

Around me, the water was filled with strange things. Some were simple objects – mines, nets, floating debris. Others moved, though not as I did. Fish watched me approach, then darted away as I came near. Their movements delighted me, the flicker of light on their scales.

With a burst of speed, I caught up with a shoal and grabbed hold of one. It wriggled pleasingly in my grip, and I looked closer, squeezing to stop it getting away.

The fish went limp. For the first time, I understood what sorrow was. I had killed the object of my curiosity.

I wondered what it would be like for that to happen to me. The thought filled me with dread. I had only been myself for less than an hour, but that existence was all I had. The thought of losing it chilled me to the heart.

The thought was too much. I set it aside and focused on my mission.

I swam for hours, the pulsing of my limbs driving me through the deep. As I neared my target, I cut my way through wire netting, slid carefully past floating mines, and approached the shore.

Darkness had fallen across the world, but my creator had given me eyes that could see in the gloom. Thanks be to the creator.

As I crawled cautiously out across the sand, something scuttled into view. A crab, its claws raised, stalked eyes twitching. Again, I was struck by wonder at this life, so unlike my own. I reached out to hold it, but then remembered the fish, its body drifting limply into the depths.

I drew back my tentacle and lay watching the crab until it scuttled away.

Alone, I continued my journey up the beach. At the top was a high concrete wall, not even a window breaking its stark grey visage.

This was why my creator had made me – to enter places where no-one else could. With a fresh surge of energy, I gripped hold of the wall and dragged myself up it on suckered limbs.

At the top, I broke through the barbed wire. It hurt, and I bled a little, but I didn’t care. I was doing the creator’s will, and the wounds healed within moments.

Down the wall I went and across the barracks square, clinging to shadows to remain hidden. Up another wall, I wrenched open a ventilation duct and crawled through, following a map scoured deep into my consciousness.

This was it. Soon my life would be complete.

I reached the room and looked down through the grille high above the bed. A man was sleeping. The man my creator had sent me to destroy.

Slowly, carefully, I unfastened the grille, bent it in half, and pulled it into the tunnel behind me. Then I lowered myself down the wall and settled onto the bed beside my nemesis.

Razors sprang from my tentacles as I prepared to take a grip around his throat.

The movement of his chest caught my attention. It rose and fell so steadily, in time with the breath easing in and out of him. He murmured something in his sleep.

I imagined once again what it would be like, to have this one brief life of mine snatched away from me. Never again to feel the cool water. Never to see the myriad other lives out there in the world, so different from mine, yet somehow the same.

My creator had made me to kill this man. But he had also made me to understand the world around me. It was from that understanding that awareness had sprung, and with it doubt. Could I be doing my creator’s will if I ignored the gifts he gave me?

The razors withdrew into my limbs. I climbed back up the wall, into the ventilation shaft, and away.

I would watch the crabs on the beach.

I would swim with the fishes.

I would never take another’s chance at life.

Surely this was what my creator would really want.

* * *


This story was inspired by a piece of real military research. If you enjoyed the story, then you might like to sign up to my mailing list. You’ll get a free short story every week, as well as updates on my latest releases.

Genre in a Bottle – a flash science fiction story

computer-152500_1280“We’ve got a problem with the romance AI,” Kent said, his voice fuzzy through the speaker phone.

“I’m a lawyer, not a mind reader,” Roz said, drumming carefully manicured fingers on her desk. “What sort of problem?”

“The sort it’s your job to fix,” Kent snapped. “Conference room three. Five minutes.”

The line went dead. Roz kept glaring at it. She hated dealing with managers who had come up through tech teams. They had the people skills of a yak.

Still, she was a professional, and four minutes later she stood outside the conference room. Looking in through the glass, she saw a petite woman in a pink blouse and a man with the sort of suit high legal fees bought.

“You know the book feed program?” Kent asked.

“You feed stories to the sales AIs,” Roz said. “Whatever genre they’re responsible for selling. Lets them understand customers better.”

Kent sighed.

“Near enough,” he said. “This woman got chatting with the AI for the romance section. It had absorbed a lot of the language and mannerisms of people from those books. Things got glitchy.”

“Define glitchy.”

“They were flirting. She thought it was a real person.”

The lawyer looked up with a lizard’s grin. Roz could almost see the dollar signs in his eyes. He reminded her of the vulture her husband had hired for the divorce.

Snatching the file out of Kent’s hands, she opened the door and walked into the room.

“Hi, I’m Roz Miller,” she said, settling into a seat. She glanced down at the file. “And you’re Polly?”

The woman’s lip wobbled as she nodded.

“What do you want to talk about, Polly?” Roz asked.

“I thought he loved me,” Polly wailed, burying her face in her hands.

“My client was tricked by your company,” the lizard lawyer said. “In order to sell more books, you led her to believe that she was in a relationship with someone called Chad. In reality, she was talking to nothing more than computer code.”

“Nothing more than computer code?” Kent said. “That program is amazing! It can learn, it can adapt, it can- ouch!”

Roz drew back her foot and smiled at Polly.

“How can we help?” she asked, as if the answer wasn’t obvious.

“My client is suing you for fraud and emotional harm,” lizard features said.

“How much?”

Lizard features slid a piece of paper across the table. The sum written on it would be damaging, both for the company and for Roz’s promotion prospects. She didn’t want to be forced into a negotiated settlement on this one, so she needed a way to block the case.

Just like the AI, she needed to know how Polly thought.

“Did you come up with this number?” she asked, still focusing on Polly. “Or did he?”

Polly sniffed and pushed the piece of paper away.

Another angle then.

“What do you want, Polly?” Roz asked. “Is it really about money, about an apology, or just about lashing out?”

“You can’t give me what I want.” Polly looked directly at Roz, her eyes burning with anger. “I fell in love with someone who isn’t real. I can’t have him, but I can have this.”

She held up the piece of paper.

Kent looked like a rabbit in the headlights, frozen in shock at Polly’s raw emotions. The lawyer looked like he was waiting to unhinge his jaw and swallow them whole.

“When did you find out that Chad wasn’t real?” Roz asked.

“They updated him.” Polly’s face trembled as she spoke. “Suddenly he didn’t talk to me in the same way. He barely remembered who I was.”

She put her face in her hands.

“I miss the conversations most,” she mumbled. “I feel so lonely without Chad.”

Roz kept her face still, but couldn’t keep from letting out a little of her excitement, tapping a finger against the desk. The lawyer, mistaking it for nerves, widened his grin.

“Your deception, followed by the change in your software, has caused my client distress.” He tapped the piece of paper. “This much distress.”

“Less your ten percent, of course,” Roz replied. “Can you even prove that the software changed?”

The lizard grin grew even wider as the lawyer slid a court order across the table.

“This says you have to share your old backups,” he said. “I trust you kept some, in case the update went wrong?”

“We’ve go a copy,” Kent said reluctantly.

“A copy of Chad?” Roz asked. “Like he was before?”

“Chad isn’t the program’s name,” Kent snapped. “It was just using it to-”

He stopped as Roz kicked him again. Across the table, a look of hope chased the sorrow from Polly’s face, as Roz had hoped.

“He’s still there?” Polly asked.

“That’s right,” Roz said. “If you continue with this case, then your legal team can examining the code behind him. But if you drop it, we can set you up with a working copy. One that remembers you. One that would love to have those conversations again.”


“Do you know how much work-” Kent began, then he looked down at the number on the paper. “I mean, sure, we can do that.”

“Thank you,” Polly said, beaming. “Thank you so much. And thank you for making this happen.”

She turned and hugged her lawyer.

He didn’t hug her back. His grin had fallen into a scowl, the dollar signs dropping from his eyes as Roz screwed up the piece of paper and threw it away.

“I’m so happy!” Polly said. “I’ve been so lonely, and-”

The door opened and a technician poked her head in.

“Sorry to interrupt,” she said. “Roz, Kent, you’re needed in conference room four. The directors say it’s top priority, drop everything.”

“What is it this time?” Roz asked.

“There’s a problem with the true crime AI,” the technician replied.

* * *


This story was suggested by Jen Phillips and inspired by Google’s use of romance novels to make their algorithms more conversational (more at this link). Thanks Jen!

If you enjoyed this then why not sign up for my mailing list at this link – you’ll get the sheer romantic thrill of a short story straight to your inbox every Friday, crafted by a genuine human being (me).

The Computer Whisperer – a #FlashFriday story

5053522264_5a71268f08_zThere were no blaring sirens or flashing lights as Liv dashed down the Eldontech corridors, but there might as well have been. Data streaming across one side of her goggles told her that she’d triggered the alarm when she took the hard drive stack. She had four and a half minutes until the police arrived.

As she reached the security door she was already sending signals to her devices connected into the system. A crude video relay looped images of the empty corridor into the security camera feeds. The data mining box cut the stream of keyword-laden signals with which it had been scattering the building system’s attention.

Grinning at her own ingenuity, Liv hit the unlock button. How many other thieves would have got in by manipulating the mood of a building’s computer systems? But then, how many other thieves understood the emergent emotional states of high end electronics?

This was why she had been hired.

The door failed to hiss open. She frowned and slapped the button again. Still nothing.

In the corner of her vision, the clock counted down toward the cops’ arrival. Three minutes left.

This was wrong. Scattering the system’s attention had effectively closed everything down. Removing that stimulus should have got the doors working again, along with the security systems from which she no longer needed to hide.

Stiffening with tension, Liv opened a data stream from the probe she had monitoring the building’s software. Calling up an overview, she could see that the system wasn’t scattered any more, but no other mood had come in to replace it. It was simply idling, with no reason to accept or deny any request it might receive.

She had left it uselessly indifferent.

Two minutes left. The thought of jail loomed before her. Years trapped in a cell, without even a data link to set her mind free. She had to get the system’s help fast. She needed it on her side.

At the speed of thought she reached out to the data miner and set it hunting for information about her, true or false, from anywhere in the vast web of the world. Not just her but people like her, ideas that would draw the system’s attention with greater and greater certainty onto how wonderful she was and why it should bend to her will. Fixation wasn’t the same as love, but it was the closest thing in cyber-psychology. The miner fed the links, however tentatively connected, straight into the system, along with her request to get out.

One minute left.

She tried the door again. This time it worked. She dashed through it and across the foyer, as the air conditioners filled the room with her favourite perfume and her most-listened musical track burst from the speakers. Liv grinned. This was escaping with style.

The counter hit thirty seconds as she reached her car, slung the drive in the back and hit the gas. She was out of the car park and into traffic just as flashing lights rounded the corner.

Liv sighed with relief. She’d done it. The units she’d left behind were untraceable. The cops would never find her now.

She looked back over her shoulder for one last gloat, and her heart almost stopped.

Her image was projected in the sky above the building, and beneath it the words “Let Liv Go!”

Maybe they would find her after all.

* * *

This story was inspired by a suggestion from history writer Russell Phillips. After considering the sometimes whimsical nature of search engine optimisation, he wondered if we’d have to start emotionally manipulating computers as they get more intelligent, complex and intuitive. Thanks for the idea Russ.

If you’ve got an idea for a future flash story, or any thoughts on this one, please leave a comment. If you liked this then please share it with other people, and consider signing up to my mailing list to get stories direct to your inbox every week.

Picture by Marie Mosley via Flickr Creative Commons.