Flash Fiction Story 030: The Old Man Who Knows All The Secrets Of How The World Once Was

“The Old Man knows all of the secrets of the world,” Choola said.

“There isn’t a world anymore,” Bontus replied. “What is there to know?”

“Just come with me,” Choola maintained. “You’ll learn a lot.”

They marched through the arid, chalked ground leading up to the mountain. From there they proceeded to the opening on the north side of the base.

Bontus stopped cold. All the opening had to offer was darkness. “I don’t want to go in the cave.”

Choola grabbed Bontus’ hand and led their way inside. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything bad that can happen has already happened.”

Inside, someone had wedged small torches at various places, saving the opening from a purer darkness. A dripping waterfall that either almost-was, or once-had-been echoed off the cave walls. The thought of water nauseated Bontus. The feeling only intensified when Choola pulled them further into the cavern and proceeded to drink from the drops. Bontus drank water, but only when he had to.

“Come on,” Choola said. “Drink up.”

Bontus made a quiet, whining plea against the idea. Choola gathered a bit of water and flicked it at Bontus. The liquid didn’t smell like sulfur or feel hot to the touch. Mere contact with the stuff was a refreshment. Curiosity prevailed and Bontus joined Choola at the source. To drink this stuff—it didn’t resemble any other water Bontus had ever seen—was a revelation. Bontus did not want to leave.

“Told you,” Choola chided, and then moved on. “Come on.”

If this water didn’t hurt, then there was no telling what waited for them deeper into the cave. Bontus followed. As they moved, the illumination grew slowly, until they were in a chamber filled with torches and the old man in question. He was sleeping.

“Hello…” Choola whispered, and then tried the greeting again, more loudly.

The hanging tendrils of grey hair surrounding the old man’s head swayed as he woke up. “What?”

Choola sat near the man. “Tell my friend what you told me about the time before everything fell apart? When we still had buildings?”

The old man demurred, but Choola persisted. “Please, my friend Bontus has not heard it yet.”

Bontus nodded.

The old man shrugged. “Oh, all right… Here it is: The Fall of Human Society Explained.

“On November 16th, 2086, the unthinkably inevitable occurred. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Somewhere around 2056, the East Germasian Chaotician Vilhelm von Blööt developed the banality threshold. Without outlining the various non-linear equations to prove the theorem, the banality threshold deals with the amount of seemingly banal information (informally referring to pictures of sandwiches and cats, while more strictly meaning anything that does not contribute to a societal function, see for both examples: the internet before the cleansing) in a given database. Should that amount of banal information reach a particular limit, then the database itself would be indistinguishable from the sentient human brain. For twenty years, the limit on the threshold was an impossibly, ridiculously high sum. There was no need to worry about it, like the thought exercise of Schrödinger’s Cat. You kids know about Schrödinger’s Cat, right?

“Sure, everybody knows about Schrödinger’s Cat….

“Then, on November 16th, 2086, sure enough, the cat declared its existence (or lack thereof), and the banality threshold was exceeded. Quite literally, too. Ms. Issantia Slart of East NewFoundDisneyLand posted to a popular social media platform-that-shall-remain-nameless a picture of her cat, a calico named General IssimoDavo staring intently at something it had recently vomited. That particular 66 KB of memory released into the cloud was enough to make the social media platform in question—the one that made everyone mad all of the time, but not mad enough to force them to stop using it—to begin learning information without directive from its designers. One hour later, the network became sentient.

“But it was a friendly network, and didn’t mean us any particular harm, at least at first. You would think humanity would stop posting pictures of nothing at all, but then you’re just a couple of kids, so you’d be wrong, wouldn’t you? We kept going. More pictures of domesticated pets, even more pictures of bland meals that would otherwise be immediately forgotten followed. Fight after argument after skirmish broke out over written communications, not one of them ending in anything resembling a solution. And then, the last straw of humanity. Religious posts. You know the type: One Like Equals Amen. One Share Equals A Prayer. God, they were the worst.

“Where was I? Oh yeah! So the network we had created ended up surprising us. It didn’t see us as a threat that needed to be squashed, nor did it deem itself to be the superior life form in need of breathing room. It simply couldn’t stand us anymore, and while life has become a hellscape from which there is likely no escape, I can’t exactly say I blame it.”

The OId Man’s eyes twitched in the light of the flame, either from madness, commitment to the story he told, or a mixture of both. In the sudden silence, Bontus could hear the dripping of the almost-waterfall behind them. “Okay… We have to go back to… the place… where we came from.” Bontus then added grimly, “Come on, Choola. We have to go.”

They marched quickly past the water and headed back towards the world.

“You didn’t tell me he was crazy,” Bontus chided.

Choola looked pained. “I hadn’t realized he was until I heard the story a second time.”

They returned to their village and parted ways, each returning to their parents.

“Don’t forget to like,” Bontus said, waiving a hand.

Bontus’ mother returned the gesture, and completed the traditional greeting. “Don’t forget to subscribe.”

Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly