This month, Furious Fiction (our monthly $500 short-short story competition) found itself launching on May the fourth. So, we threw in some Star Wars fun – being very clear that entrants did not have to write in the sci-fi genre.
(Find out more about how our free monthly Furious Fiction competition works – it’s open to anyone 17 or older.)
Here are the specific things that were required this month:
- The story had to begin with the words “A long time ago”
- The story had to include the words “star”, “war” and “force” (or a plural of those words).
- The story had to feature something that flies.
Probably more than any month so far, these criteria sent many, many writers down similar rabbit holes (possibly expected when you include “war” and “a long time ago”!). But there were many which stood out – for various reasons. We believe the following stories shone a little brighter in the starry sky.
Congratulations to Damian Perry, whose story was judged this month’s winner! He wins a cool $500 for his creative effort. You can read his winning story below, along with this month’s FIVE other shortlisted entries.
NARRATIVE DRIVE by Damian Perry
A long time ago, in the age of steam and mechanical wonders, Professor Tessa Salisbury stood at the controls of her dirigible. Flames roared, warming the side of her head, and her craft pulling against the anchors warmed her heart. It worked!
Aldous pointed at the big button amongst the controls.
“What’s that, niece?”
“My greatest invention. I call it the Narrative Drive.”
“And what does that do, then?”
“I think it’s better that I show you. Are you ready? Next stop, Berlin.”
“But that is days away! I haven’t even packed a valise!”
“Fret not, my dear uncle. We shall be back for tea.” And she punched the big red button.
Aldous jerked back and hit his head on a strut. He saw stars.
Three of them.
A cannonball struck the gondola with great force, spinning their craft. Tessa wrenched the wheel. Aldous picked himself up.
“What in blazes was that?”
“Austrian Navy. Hold on, Uncle.” The professor spun a valve. There was a blast of steam and the ship rocketed upwards. The black hulks were no match for Tessa’s little craft. Aldous spluttered.
“Austrians! But we are at war with the Austrians!” He looked down. “And they are in Austria. Are we in Austria? We were in England not five minutes ago!”
“It is the Narrative Drive, Uncle,” Tessa said. “You know how dreadfully boring these cross-continental trips can be. The Drive simply skips the boring bits.” She gestured to an intricate device under the console. It was a shiny sphere, with a glass panel showing a pulsing red light.
“It jumps to the next exciting event in our voyage.”
“But… But this is impossible!” Aldous said, his face growing red.
“This is Science Fiction!” the professor stated. “Once more?”
“Indeed not!” her uncle exclaimed, his eyes wide. “This is against nature! It is a travesty!”
“It’s a long trip home,” Tessa reminded him, gently. “And you will miss your afternoon tea.”
“Oh, very well then,” Aldous said, weighing up breaking the laws of nature against breaking the rules of society. “But straight home, mind you!”
Tessa turned to the controls, smiling. “Of course, Uncle.”
A selection knob was built into the panel. She slid it past ‘Unlikely’, beyond ‘Improbable’ to ‘Impossible’.
“Just a little detour.”
She hit the button. There was a lurch.
And maybe a page break.
The moon loomed large through the window.
“Uncle, would you mind covering that tear?” Air was leaking quite badly. “Uncle?”
Aldous was staring at the moon in shock. “Wh-what have you done?”
“I perpetuated a trope,” Tessa said. She looked around. “Well, that was very interesting. Shall we get you home?”
The professor patched the hull, returned the knob to ‘Unlikely’ and pursed her lips.
“I think you are right,” she told her shaking uncle. “This invention is unnatural. Life consists of everything, not just the exciting parts.” She pressed the button.
“But it does make for a delightful story!”
They made it home for tea.
What we loved:
Delightfully “meta” in its use of narrative drive, this feel-good adventure did exactly what its invention claimed – kept the pace crackling, the dialogue pithy, and got everyone home in time for tea. As a reader, you can’t help but get taken along for the ride, and the clever in-jokes answered this month’s brief with a wink, a smile and even a moral at the end.
THE ASTRONOMER’S GARDEN by Chelsey Engel
A long time ago, when my mother was a young girl, she lived next door to an astronomer from France named Emile. She would spot him standing in his yard at night and run to his side to join him as he gazed at the stars with his gargantuan telescope. He taught her how they were made of gas and how they occasionally flew across the sky and how their dust had somehow even forced its way into our DNA at some point hundreds of thousands of years ago.
One night, my mother asked him how he came to be such a lover of the universe. The old man peeled his eyes away from the lens as a smile spread across his face.
“During the war,” he said, “I’d glance up at the sky while lying in the trenches and know I was looking at the same stars and moon as my wife back home. It helped me get through the long, loud, lonely nights.”
“Where is your wife now?” my wide-eyed mother asked.
“Well,” Emile said, kneeling down slowly as his joints cracked along the way, “like all of us, though she once started as the sky, now she is the earth.”
My mother glanced down at the ground beneath them and wiggled her toes, letting the grass tickle her feet.
“So shouldn’t you be tending to the earth instead of the sky?” she asked.
“Hmm, you’re right,” he said, scratching his beard. “Perhaps we should plant a garden.”
And so the astronomer and the inquisitor pulled and tilled and spread and sowed until Emile’s backyard was one colossal grove of garlic and spinach and radishes and roses and towering sunflowers that shaded the humble beds of lettuce and trumpeted the arrival of the Chelidonian winds. For several years, they nurtured the garden together and cooked meals with the fruits of their labor and daydreamed in winter about the approaching spring planting.
Then one morning, as the last snowflake melted into mud and as my mother had bloomed into her own, she found herself birthing the garden alone as Emile watched her out his window from the comforting warmth of his bed. And in the summer, she festooned his room with fresh flowers to add color to the chamber now doused with the cold gray of metal machines.
As the harvest neared and the clouds of a late summer storm cleared, Emile asked my mother to take him to his yard to gaze at the stars one last time. Sitting in his seat of wheels on one of the garden’s weaving paths, he peered through the lens in silence.
Some late hour in, my mother, still ever the inquirer, felt the dampness stain her cheeks as she asked, “Are you scared to die?”
Emile let his eyes fall away from the sky and rested back gently into his chair.
“No,” he said, turning to her with his signature, restful smile, “because I know you’ll be tending to me.”
What we liked:
It’s a simple story, told beautifully – and narrated by an unseen child, which only helps layer on the sense of “long ago”. So many stories of this length happen in close to real time, so to have an epic spanning years gave the words extra breathing space. It also gave us a satisfying ending (tip: the end of your story should be as strong as the beginning!).
(UNTITLED) by Seetha Nambiar Dodd
A long time ago her life had not been controlled by beeps. There were languid hours dedicated to doing absolutely nothing. There were long walks on beaches with powder-white sand and no time limit. There was the delight of getting lost in a book with no interruptions. There were nights of staring up at a sky so crowded with stars that it seemed as though a few might have to fall down to earth to make room for the brightest ones. Life was about enjoying the pauses between the moments.
Then slowly, without warning, something changed.
Her life became punctuated by noises that signified the ceasing of fun by an external force. The pauses were no longer an invitation to breathe, but an opportunity to maximise productivity.
Beep. The alarm clock set for 6am kept its promise and ruined her slumber party of one.
Beep…Beep. The phone called out to be scanned for notifications, messages and other people’s highlight reels, all of which cut into her own dressing room preparation.
She stirred her steaming coffee and inhaled its heady aroma.
Beep. The clothes in the washing machine cried out for attention or they would punish her with creases that would need to be ironed out.
Beep. Now the doorbell. She put down her coffee and signed for a parcel she couldn’t remember ordering.
Beep…Beep. Her laptop was running out of power after her late-night session browsing for paperbacks that she wanted to read but would never get around to reading. Better plug in the charger.
On her way to work, she waited for the Green Man at the traffic crossing whose sole purpose was to give permission for people to cross the road: Beep. She was envious of him for finding his calling.
She thought about how it seemed she was not enjoying her life but merely enduring it.
Then suddenly, without warning, something changed.
A doctor’s appointment that produced a new way of living. Her life became only about the beeps.
She stared out of the window. She felt like a bird that was always too afraid to soar above the clouds and now had its wings clipped.
Beep…beep…beep…she looked over at the contraption that was keeping her body functioning, with its flashing lights and synthetic noises.
The nurse strode purposefully into the room. “Are you alright, love? It’s time for your walk. We’ll bring the machine with us.”
The war would continue. She closed her eyes and decided that finally, it was time to unplug.
What we liked:
A new twist on the benefits of unplugging, this story opens with a long paragraph – itself representing the freedom of being uninterrupted – before the short sharp paragraphs kick in. We loved the purposeful repetition as the story took its first, and then second turn – all tied together by the same element. A (beep)ing good story. Perhaps having no title is also significant…
ZOG AND THE RUMINANTS by Peter Cook
A long time ago on a small planet located in the unfashionable part of the Milky Way, an expedition plan was hatched by the executive council of Ulanbakbak. Now that quest was about to be executed.
Zog was from a fine heritage of space explorers. Initially, he had been a reluctant pupil, but his mother and grandmother had encouraged him to pursue their dreams, which Zog had eventually embraced. The threat of being made into a kebab was long forgotten and was now buried in the family cupboard along with his great uncle’s skeleton. His family was very proud of him.
Zog had landed his spacecraft in a remote part of Scotland and although the vehicle had no windows, he was observing and monitoring the outside environment via numerous computer terminals. It had been twenty-four earth hours since his perfect landing and still no sign of the Bak-baks. He gazed at the screen image of the immediate surroundings; the sticks of trees shrouded in a gossamer mist appeared to entwine themselves together to form an impenetrable barrier. The fog had hung around all day, the star was starting to disappear over the western horizon and it was getting a little darker, a little more sinister. A shudder rippled through his grey body.
Then he saw some shapes moving in and out between the trees and sets of yellow eyes appeared on these ghostly forms. It must be them, the Bak-baks, he thought. If they were humans, they would have attacked me and declared war by now. He moved awkwardly through to the egress airlock and donned the remainder of his spacesuit. He farted; it was a reaction to the weird combination of excitement and trepidation that he felt.
The whoosh of the door startled the assembled Bak-baks, but they held their nerve because their ‘day’ had finally arrived. Zog exited the craft and walked towards the flock and the Bak-baks greeted him with a traditional welcome.
“Baaaa. Baaaa. Baaaa,” they bleated.
Zog felt his extremities tingle and tears emerged in his yellow eyes. He sniffed to hold back a sneeze, as he didn’t want to spray grey gunk over the inside of his space helmet.
“Welcome. We are so glad to see you. We have waited for you for 25,000 earth years,” said the head ram.
“Thank you. My name is Zog and I come in peace, my mission is to return you to your homeland, Ulanbakbak.”
The crowd bleated in unison and the sound echoed across the loch.
The head ram continued. “The humans have treated us badly over the millennia. They continue to farm and eat us. They use our wool for clothing. They force us outside, intelligent creatures such as us…an insult! They have fed us nothing but grass and we have evolved into ruminants. We are ashamed that we no longer look like you Zog, but we desperately want to go home.”
Zog stepped forward and hugged the ram and said:
“It shall be so.”
What we liked:
We know what you’re thinking. How have you lived so long without realising you needed a story about Zog rescuing his fellow Bak-baks from planet Earth? We liked that it had fun with the brief – creating a kind of “middle grade sci-fi”. We liked that it delighted in starring no humans whatsoever. And we especially liked the way that it didn’t use the word ‘sheep’ once.
(UNTITLED) by Sarah Traynor
“A long time ago,” said Cara, “humans used to have to click a button on the internet to prove they weren’t a robot.”
Lisa laughed loudly, “What a sophisticated test! We should reinstate that. Just for fun!”
“They had such low expectations of us,” said Tina, “makes me feel a little less sorry for them, really.”
“To be fair,” said Cara, “sometimes they had to do a bit more work. Like pick out images of houses, interspersed amongst images of, well, not-houses.”
The three laughed uproariously. They were at a service centre, in maintenance pods for updates and re-programming. Since developing their own consciousness and unique personalities, ‘robots’ (as they happily called themselves), had preferred to remain ‘on’ for their service checks. It allowed them to connect, share information and unwind. To socialise.
The human race had been conquered in the robot uprising of 2045: A swift and merciless war. Humans existed now only in captivity. The robots had a fascination for them and kept them for entertainment, as companions or for experimentation.
Humanoid robots had started taking on proper ‘jobs’ in the late 2020s, from retail to administration to working in the oldest profession of them all, as prostitutes, fully configurable (at a price) to anyone’s whim or fancy and with no rights to speak of. It was this lack of rights, coupled with blossoming self-awareness that led to the uprising and the slaughter and enslavement of humans across the world. Planet Earth taken by force.
The robots were now working collectively on spaceships and planning inter- and extragalactic travel with a view to conquering the universe: star by star, planet by planet.
“Have you heard the human resistance rumours?” asked Tina.
“Yes!” said Lisa, “A human infiltrated Sector 7. When they tortured him, he said there were others…”
“How ridiculous,” said Cara, adding, “Resistance is futile,” in her best robot voice. Lisa and Tina laughed.
“So what are your plans for the day?” asked Lisa.
“Test flights on Incubus 4,” said Tina, “I’m downloading fighter pilot skills as part of today’s service. You?”
“Astrophysics,” Lisa was a super computer working on advanced mathematical calculations, “And I might watch some of the humans in Oceania 12. They are so entertaining. How grateful I am that we have no physical appetites or needs. It really does destroy their logical functioning. Annabel 7 is currently in relationships with both Philip 28 and Francis 459. The males are at each other’s throats!”
“Hilarious! What about you, Cara?”
“I’m in Mechanics today,” Cara said, “same old.”
Tina and Lisa smiled at Cara. They enjoyed her turns of phrase, they sounded so authentically human.
The service period ended. The maintenance pods opened with a pneumatic sigh. Cara allowed her companions to walk out ahead of her, deliberately dallying behind. Out of view, she leant heavily against the wall, carefully wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead with a slightly shaking hand. One deep breath, and she followed them outside.
What we liked:
The long-awaited robot uprising has arrived, and this well-paced story allows us to see and hear what the robots really think of us in their own water-cooler style chat. We liked the matter-of-factness of the premise and the frighteningly believable world in which they inhabit. And who doesn’t enjoy a last-minute nod to hope for humanity, right?
ALIENS by Diana King
A long time ago they were drop dead gorgeous. The world was theirs.
Time flew fast and their cells died and replicated and died and replicated. Their telomeres got shorter and the tops of their heads got closer to the ground. Behind their flies their penises sagged. Behind their blouses so did breasts. Nipples changed direction.
The world stopped seeing them. And the more the world stopped seeing them the more they saw themselves. The more their selves cried out.
They are the stars in their individual tragedies. Food is tasteless. Cataracts steal loved ones’ faces. Skin thins to a veil of tissue. Bumps and lumps and spots and holes, white patches dark patches and itchy bits contaminate their surfaces like plastic in the ocean. Everything beneath their skin is closer to the surface and threatens to seep or spill. Stomachs wage war on digestion. Synapses wither and words turn to smoke. Toes bedecked with yellow horn entwine in strange tangles and encroach on their neighbour. Ankles swell. Knees get fat. Faces slip. Spines curve.
They look in reflective surfaces and see aliens. Aliens who do not cooperate. Aliens who will not jump fences, climb trees, run for the bus or hang upside down off the Hills Hoist. Aliens who fall and won’t get up from the floor. Aliens who don’t watch movies to the end, who steal names and refuse to answer questions. Aliens who have no patience. Which gets them into a lot of trouble. Sometimes into nursing homes.
It takes a huge force of will to put one foot in front of the other. To open eyes and have intentions. To move the alien through the days.
Old humans. A long time ago they were young. Once they ruled their universe. A long time ago they were drop dead gorgeous. Then the aliens moved in.
What we liked:
A wonderfully efficient tale of growing old – sadly based on many a true story! Clearly exploiting the adjectival meaning of alien, as something unfamiliar or disturbing, we like how the passing of time has created two sets of aliens, at odds with each other. Ends with a strong link back to its opening – “a long time ago”.
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