Memory Wall


[NYC Midnight 2013 Flash Fiction Challenge, Round 2. The Assignment: Write a 1000-word short story in 48 hours using assigned prompts. Genre: Science Fiction,  Location: A Reservoir,  Object: A Typewriter]

In his tiny, darkened office, Henry had been sitting for the last 97 minutes, with his fingers poised anxiously above the typewriter keys.

He waited for the idea to flash upon him, when he’d close his eyes and tap out his dream like a surfer on the waves.

He loved the retro typewriter interface, because of the way he could feel the keys with eyes closed, when he was fully immersed. Eventually the programmers would put in the sights and sounds for the subscribers, but it still started with a script, and before that, with a dream.

But tonight, nothing.

Henry’s eyes darted from the blank page to the time projected on the office wall to a small white capsule that lay cradled in a crumpled Post-it note on his desk.

Come on, Henry, he thought. Write what you know. Millions have laughed and cried because of you. Just one more time.


He stared at that pill.

It was against every principle to use an enhancer to finish his manuscript, but Manko was out for his head. If Henry didn't make magic tonight, it was over. 

Sweating and defeated, he palmed the pill into his mouth and chased it down with the cold dregs of his coffee. 

He could still hear his editor, Manko, earlier that night: 

"Look Henry, lately your pieces are just too writerly. Users want experiences, not stories. Don't overthink it. Some journals even have robots writing these things."

"How can robots write experiences if they’ve never experienced anything?"

"Algorithms," Manko said. 

As if writing were as simple as driving to the laundromat or making sausage.

As the drug effervesced into his nervous system, Henry closed his eyes, and looked out across the flatness of his mind. The desolate plain stretched out to meet a wall of blankness, beyond which he could not see.

But he could sense the pressure that raged behind that dam in the distance. 

It was just like Manko said when he gave him the pill (something experimental he'd gotten from a celebrity friend):

"There's a vast reservoir of untapped mental power that few of us use. This breaks open the dam and lets all that brilliance just pour in. And we need brilliance, old man!"

What I really need is a vacation, Henry thought. 

It wasn't just about quality anymore, it was volume. More stories in less time. 

The well was dry. Henry didn't need to dig deeper. He needed to take a break and let it fill. 

But even now, Henry could see fissures of light begin spiderwebbing through the dam. 

Soon those cracks opened up and something like brilliantly glowing magma poured out through the now demolished wall. It gushed like a flood across the thirsty ground where Henry stood. 

The energy flowed into him quickly. He waded waist deep in a flood of his own inspiration! Henry drank it up. 

In realspace, Henry's fingers banged away on the keys, while, in this inner reservoir, he fished fully-formed fragments of ideas out of the pool and hung them before him in rows mid-air. Each was like an intricate tile of a mosaic that would finally become the story Henry needed. 

But something was wrong. 

Glowing light around the edges of the square shapes began to sear its way through the pictures, devouring them like burning sheets of paper. Behind them were charred holes in the fabric of Henry's inner space. 

I’m losing my mind, Henry thought.

From the spaces behind the holes, Henry heard sounds in the distance. Ideas, impressions, feelings. 

At first it was just a cacophony of experiences from outside his head, like being tossed under a wave and hearing nothing but the rush, but in a moment he recognized threads of thoughts from beneath the noise that spun themselves into scenes. 

He saw Manko, strolling through a showroom of content-generating robots. He saw a flash of what the last senator was texting photographs of to his boyfriend. 

What is this, Henry thought. Hallucinations?

Stories raced by him with crystal clarity. 

He saw the woman who murdered the pint-sized beauty queen, through the killer’s eyes. He heard the whispers from Nixon's missing tape conversations. 

This feels so real.

His accelerated brain raced to figure out what was happening. The drug was firing all these new synapses. Were they firing so strong that they were reaching other people? And bouncing back?

Tomorrow's project was out the window. He was going to make millions telling these secrets. Manko could hang. 

He saw the men drilling Lee Harvey Oswald's orders into him, in a cramped Florida shack. He saw a president shaking hands with hooded members of a secret society in a cellar speakeasy.

Those guys were all dead. How was he experiencing dead men's thoughts?

Was the drug digging deep enough to unlock bits of code that had come from other people? All the organic material came from the same sources. Did he have other people's memories in him?

He dove deeper. How far back could he go? 

Napoleon. Constantine. Jesus. 

He watched the crucifixion, and knew what they saw when they came back. 

I contain multitudes, Henry thought.

I know everything. 

This is not for sale. 

I must write it all.

This will make us free. 

Henry opened his eyes. 

Robot, he said. I'm going to need a lot more paper. 


In a conference room on another floor, Manko sat on a sofa and watched a video feed streamed from Henry's Robosistant. 

Onscreen, he saw Henry, wild-eyed, bashing out gibberish at 90 words a minute. 

He turned to the brand new Autowriter at the conference table. 

“Do you have tomorrow's headline?”

The robot held up a computer tablet:

Legendary Writer Suffers Nervous Breakdown

“Finally,” Manko said. “With the religion they built around that guy, I was never going to get rid of him.” 

Manko folded his hands across his belly, and watched as the nanobots tore up all the wiring in Henry's mind.