Semi final. I made an honourable mention in this high-profile, fast-paced International Short Story Writing Competition.
Below in the email I received today with the honourable mention, followed by my story Welcome to Marstown. Below that is the first round story, In Full Pursuit which led me into the semi final.
If your story placed in the top 5 below, congratulations, you are among the 40 writers advancing to the 3rd and Final Round kicking off at 11:59PM EDT this Friday, May 2nd! Choosing the top 5 in this round was incredibly difficult and there were many outstanding stories that didn’t place. Regardless of how your story placed, you should be proud of completing two very tough writing challenges and we hope it was inspiring!
#1 ‘The Fading King’ by Melissa Brand SYNOPSIS – The one who bears the Mark, will repossess The Fading King’s crown and become his successor. He clings to what is left of himself as he awaits The Repossessor.
#2 ‘The Alignment’ by Jonathan Ochoco SYNOPSIS – A man journeys to a magical valley to witness the alignment of his world’s twin suns and moon.
#3 ‘Lady of the Black Irons’ by Jamie Campbell SYNOPSIS – Long after a nuclear apocalypse devastates humanity, a once-clandestine war between creatures of darkness and a secret order of warrior-clerics spills into the open, and a witch hunter of a feared and venerated line tracks her prey to a dying town in the wasteland.
#4 ‘The Hula Girl’ by Adam Dennis SYNOPSIS – An island repo man is strangely captivated by a swaying hula figurine on the dash of a routine pick up. The tiny hula girl awakens memories of his past and offers him a chance for redemption.
#5 ‘The Sound of One Shoe Tapping’ by R. Daniel Lester (Ryan Lester) SYNOPSIS – A nameless, tough-as-nails corporate repo man is sent to collect a valuable spell from reclusive mega-celebrity, Finnegan Flash, the galaxy’s greatest tap dancer.
#Honorable Mention ‘Isolde’s Dance’ by Deanna Westwood SYNOPSIS – Isolde believed that she couldn’t dance until she received a stolen gift. However that gift had a destiny of its own.
#Honorable Mention ‘Shoe Envy’ by William Wilbur SYNOPSIS – When Cinderella realizes Dorothy of Oz has ruby slippers, she devises a plan to replace her own glass slippers.
#Honorable Mention ‘Welcome to Marstown’ by Jillian Godsil SYNOPSIS – Daria has emigrated from earth to Marstown, a settlement on Mars where everyone comes on a one way ticket and the Corporation is in charge. She finds love with Harry, a Plutonian, and runs her Delightful Dancing Emporium, but the oxygen is running out.
Welcome to Marstown
The letter lay on Daria’s welcome mat. The fact that the Corporation had bothered to put it in writing meant they were serious. Paper equated to legal ruling. Harry had already heard the quiet fall of the envelope; his hearing was far superior to hers. Indeed when the letter came during the night he said he could smell the uniform – the taint of the repossessor. On a planet that was already a prison; the only real deterrent was removal of goods.
Daria picked it up and turned it over. Sure enough, there was the black and yellow stamp, the waspish colour of his office. It was addressed to Daria’s Delightful Dancing Emporium. Even twenty years ago sarcasm had been in short supply. The name was never questioned and the sign hung over her studio in the recreational section, or the wrecks as it was unpleasantly nicknamed. Twenty years of a Marsian atmosphere had buckled the external plates creating a weird, rumpled finish to the walls inside. Obsolescence had a new meaning when living on a planet that did not have its own oxygen. The one way ticket, return ticket not optional, and now the dwindling air supplies gave its inmates great clarity. Living in the moment was the only religion in town.
The repossessor was coming on Wednesday morning to collect her music centre. Since everything, the inmates included, was barcoded there was no point in trying to hide it. Sensors would pin point its new position in seconds. Strangely for the human race, no one had figured out how to create hiding spots on Marstown as the facility was quaintly called. Even when the ships came from other planets bringing a motley range of creatures, there had been no dissention. Maybe twenty years was too short to grow a revolution, or even a protesting voice or two. Or maybe it was the introduction of different species that distracted the original human settlement. Hard to devil up a rebellion when living with mutts and even marrying them. Not that marriage existed on Marstown, anyone wishing to consciously couple just put in a request for joint quarters.
‘Is it from repo?’ called Harry from their quarters. Daria nodded. Harry had moved in three years ago when Daria had used up all the available male humans. A free spirit she called herself; a modern Isadora Duncan with her scarfs and dancing emporium. When she signed up for her one way trip she had been asked her profession. As a highschool dropout with a series of minor demeanours on her record, she had paused. This question had been asked at disembarkation, not departure. They would, and did, take anyone for the Marstown mission. It was like pressganging raw recruits into the army. Daria had licked her pencil thoughtfully. She turned her head on one side and a number of possible occupations floated past. She pointed out her left foot. Once, as a child, she had been told she had nice feet. She looked critically again at her foot; it was still elegant, thin and long. It had a matching elegant, thin and long partner in the right. She clicked her heels and wrote dancing instructor.
It had been a surprisingly good choice of occupation at first. What do you do with several hundred humans locked in an airtight facility on a forbidding planet? Dance, of course, dance. Daria had been very popular. Men and women flocked to her dancing school. She called her teaching methods exploratory and her natural rhythm and pert breasts pulled in the men. The women followed by default. It was the Marsian Ballroom of Romance.
However, the real success had come once the other ships arrived. Integration of different species in a single facility was fraught with issues, not least the question of socialisation. Dancing was an activity open to all shapes, sizes and species. Even the Plutonians, with their long heavy tails, could shake their booty with the best of them. That was when Daria met Harry. His long heavy tail served as a third leg. He could rest on it while talking or pull it around his body when he danced. Sometimes, if he got very excited, it would stretch upright, taut and quivering. It had taken two years, but Harry pursued Daria. He learnt English, he learnt how to dance and he learnt how to cook human food. She in turn learnt to stop shaving, for Plutonian males like their females hairy. Now at night, curled in his arms, she would feel the heavy weight of his tail on her body, tapping gently as he fell asleep.
‘He is coming on Wednesday,’ Daria said. ‘We’ll have to dance to music in our heads,’ and she chuckled at the absurdity of that thought. Then as suddenly as she had begun laughing, she stopped. There would be no more dancing, it took up too much oxygen.
Rumours had started about five years ago when the emigrant fund dried up, even from more disadvantaged planets. Word had gotten round that Marstown was in difficulty. The Corporation denied it vigorously but the supply ships had stopped arriving. A one way ticket was well and good if you could live your life on Mars, but if you thought suffocation might be on your death certificate then chances were you probably wouldn’t apply. No new company engineers, no new oxygen tanks the size of small stars, no new food pods – in fact no ships at all. The docking terminal was all but closed except for a caretaker staff of worms. The worms, from Uranus, had failed spectacularly to integrate with anyone. They only spoke their own language, mixed only with each other and since there were hermaphrodite, spawned a new and fast growing population.
‘Give them time,’ said Harry, ‘And they’ll outnumber the rest of us.’
Daria had shrugged her shoulders at that prediction. Worms kept to themselves, were inherently passive and their only vice, as far as she could see, was their growing consumption of oxygen; but no one had shown any signs of wishing to commit mass genocide for that trait. Wars had been left on earth; maybe the blame lay with the excessive consumption of oxygen.
Around that time, sensors started displaying how much oxygen was being consumed in each airtight pod. If someone decided to run around the wrecks, lights would flash and alarms sounds. ‘Slow down,’ intoned the sad voice on the loudspeaker. ‘Save the air.’ The choir had all but shut up shop; their collective intake of oxygen singing Handel’s Messiah that winter had sent the alarm bells into overdrive. Sometimes they still met to sing Taize chants: long, slow and whispered. Daria too had modified her dance studio. She switched to lullabies, crooning singers and slow country warbles. Her dance students held each other and smooched around the floor in a parody of Hicksville bar, shuffling their way from one sad tune to the next. It was hard to be joyous when oxygen was restricted.
‘Do we need music to dance?’ Harry was by her shoulder now, looking at the letter in her hand. Daria smiled at him.
‘For all your love of hair you come from a very philosophical race.’
Harry growled and picked her up but she giggled. ‘Which came first,’ she squealed. ‘The dancer or the dance?’
He set her down laughing too but his face became serious. ‘Percussion,’ he said. ‘That’s all you need.’
When the repo man arrived, in his black and yellow uniform, he took the music centre and all her collection of music. Daria looked at him and said nothing. There were also rumours of oxygen tanks secreted away by the repo men. Harry had remarked they were welcome to them. ‘Imagine living out your final days with only the repo men for company?’ he’d said. Daria shuddered at the thought. In bed, she looked into his eyes, buried deep in his hairy face. In time she’d learnt to decipher the emotions solely from his eyes. He did not frown or smile; his face was not made for such superficial demonstrations of emotion; only his eyes. Eyes are windows to the soul was the line that repeated in Daria’s head at such times.
‘If we run out of oxygen,’ she said. ‘Will you kill me before I suffocate?’
‘Of course, my love.’
Thursday morning and Daria’s regulars were in her studio. They looked at her blankly at first. They had been told about the repo man and the removal of music. One couple began dancing anyway. What else was there to do? Daria put her rucksack on the floor.
‘We are going to make our own music,’ she said.
‘But if the choir can’t sing, how can we?’ asked Julius, a three-legged emigrant from Jupiter.
‘We are going to make rhythm,’ said Daria and she handed out the wooden spoons and rulers and kitchen implements gathered from her quarters.
‘Let’s make rhythm.’ It was messy at first and even Daria admitted it didn’t get much better, but they made a great sound. Some of the couples started dancing in a tribal fashion. They grunted and gyrated to the beat and soon the alarms were going off. Daria laughed out loud. It would take the Corporation weeks to issue all the correct warnings and even then she could argue she needed the instruments for her kitchen. Daria’s Delightful Dancing Emporium was not dead yet.
‘And when they do take the improvised drum sticks, then we have our hands,’ she said with glee.
‘And our tails,’ said Harry thumping his loudly on the floor.
‘And our feet,’ said Julius, doing a quick tap dance with his three feet. He panted and the alarms went off.
‘We can dance to the alarms too,’ said Daria, rocking in time to their swinging piercing sound.
The weeks passed and Daria’s students still met each morning. Julius had become rather good at palming with minimal oxygen expenditure. Sometimes they got to the end of a morning without the alarms going off, but Daria was getting regular correspondence from the Corporation now. They were closing her studio under section twelve of the corporate code. Once they had the final permission from the Secretary General, then the locks would be placed on the doors to the studio and the sign taken down.
‘It’s not just my studio, is it?’ Daria asked Harry. He held her tight, pulling her closer with his thick tail. They rocked together. Daria could feel the familiar desire rise in her and she kissed him. His tail quivered and went bolt upright. They made love like Plutonians did, standing up and then jumping together. Daria would never go back to human sex after Plutonian. In their little quarters where no cameras were allowed, they jumped and jumped. Moments later the alarms went off. ‘Slow down, Save the air,’ went the loudspeaker. Daria looked directly into Harry’s eyes.
‘No,’ he said. ‘It’s the end of everything, my love,’ and with one vicious sweep of his tail, struck Daria at the back of the head, killing her instantly.
The 8th Annual Short Story Challenge is a creative writing competition open to writers around the world. There are 3 rounds of competition. In the 1st Round (February 7-15, 2014), writers are placed randomly in heats and are assigned a genre, subject, and character assignment. Writers have 8 days to write an original story no longer than 2,500 words. The judges choose a top 5 in each heat to advance to the 2nd Round (March 27-30, 2014) where writers receive new assignments, only this time they have just 3 days to write a 2,000 word (maximum) short story. Judges choose finalists from the 2nd Round to advance to the 3rd and final round of the competition where writers are challenged to write a 1,500 word(maximum) story in just 24 hours (May 2-3, 2014). A panel of judges review the final round stories and overall winners are selected.
I was put into Heat 6 where the genre was fairy tale and the character of a hunter had to be incorporated. I wrote my story the first day (which speed of writing I hope I can emulate if I get into the next round). Here is my story…
In Full Pursuit
This is a story set in a world where only one child is allowed per family; any other children are considered illegals and are hunted down and killed. The title is taken from Oscar Wilde’s quote on fox hunting: ‘The unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’.
He pushed open the door and entered the warm room. The gas lights were dim and the fire smoked, but it was better than the storm outside. Peter shook his furs and stamped his feet; snow littered the ground around him. The barman looked up and gave him a neutral smile. Peter knew from experience that while he was never welcome, he was never turned away.
‘What will you have?’
‘A beer,’ said Peter looking around. ‘Have you any food left?’ It was late and the other patrons were talking into their drinks, a low rumble of chatter that clearly focused on his arrival.
‘Stew,’ said the barman pouring a beer. Peter nodded, accepting the beer and downing half it in one gulp. It was thirsty work and lonely. Most other hunters that he knew were more than fond of their beer. Peter steered on the side of caution, on the side of angels, reserving beer for the night and eschewing spirits altogether. He had shared huts with hunters who rose to beer or spirits and it wasn’t a pretty sight. It also made them uncertain stalkers; innocents were often caught in the cross hairs fuelled by a liquid breakfast. To be a hunter was to be a nomad and it was the loneliness that often led them to find solace in the bottle. Peter thanked his lucky stars for Maura, as he did often on a daily basis. Two kindred spirits, one ostracised for her healing, the other for his killing. Opposite sides of a single coin that spun through the air and had never yet found its landing place, its safe haven.
The stew was produced and Peter ate it hungrily without speaking. The barman polished a glass and watched him closely. Peter could sense he was curious and with good reason for Peter rarely travelled this far north. There was nothing or no one to hunt in these parts. When he finished, he burped loudly in compliment, pushed his bowl back and indicated he wanted another beer. The barman filled his glass and removed the empty bowl.
‘That did the trick,’ the barman said. ‘So, what brings you to our mountains?’
Peter could sense the interest across the bar; all ears were turned towards him. He could feel the curiosity quivering in the air. He burped again into silence and said: ‘That was a fine stew, thank you.’ Peter wondered if he should tell him or not. Sometimes he could get good intelligence from the locals. By the question, he presumed that he was the first hunter in the area, good if his instincts were right, bad if he was off course. He took another gulp of his beer. ‘Illegal child,’ he said. ‘From the Runoffs.’
The barman’s eyes narrowed. He spat onto the floor in disgust. ‘Dirty, nasty things,’ he said. ‘We don’t want them around here. No, we don’t.’
Peter nodded: ‘Any sightings then?’
‘No, we’d have called the Constabulary if we’d suspected anything. From the Runoffs you say? They are a bad lot there. Always flaunting the rules. Just one will do, don’t they get that message. Illegal children cause hardship always. Can’t be trusted. They don’t go to the Institution to be learned right,’ and he paused to check Peter’s reaction. Peter just nodded. ‘Dirty, nasty things,’ the barman repeated, polishing the glass vigorously.
Peter finished his beer. ‘Is there a room free?’ he asked.
‘Just in the shed,’ the barman replied. ‘But, it’s clean and there is fresh straw.’
Peter nodded. He was used to outside accommodation. His furs were old and hummed; strange smells of blood-iron, smoke from open fires and sweat from chasing prey. A heady cocktail, it wasn’t pleasant. When he moved to his shed, he knew the patrons would flap the air to try and get rid of his scent. They would not be so rude, or foolish, to do it while he was still there. Peter agreed a fee and paid the man. He would be long gone before anyone woke in this hamlet.
Morning came early, mists clinging to the side of the mountain, and the fresh tang of snow in the wind. It was bitterly cold and Peter wondered about his prey. Ten years of age, a female and no doubt scrawny. Illegal children were always thin and hard to stomach. The first one had been seven years ago, a young boy with burns on his face and legs where he had hidden in a chimney of all places; with a fire at the bottom. He had escaped so maybe he wasn’t that foolish, but it only gained him six more months of life. Peter wondered if the scars had had time to heal before he slit his throat. All that pain for six months of life; Peter wondered if it had been worth it. The boy had taken a solid week to track and in the end it was tiredness not lack of guile that let him down. Peter dispatched him quickly, a mercy killing he called it, but his face continued to haunt his sleep. When tracking children the memories surfaced again and Peter preferred not to sleep, not to chance to dream.
Peter left the shed, which had been warm, and strode off in the still air. He moved noiselessly for a man so large. He was so far north he wondered about detouring to see Maura afterwards. It had been almost eight months since he had been here last, that time chasing a convict; a weaselly, skunk of a man. He had been sentenced to death for murder, an eye for an eye, but escaped before the gallows could claim him. It was Peter who found him and returned him to the platform. The City wanted to see convicts hanged but preferred to have children executed in the field. No one wanted to know about the illegal children, and even less to see them. It was an intermittent problem, usually flushed out by inspections and areas like the Runoffs gave consistent trouble.
At the thought of Maura, Peter’s mood brightened. When he visited she made him strip before he was allowed enter her cabin. ‘Leaving the blood outside,’ she said. She would boil water and fill a bath for him. He stomped around outside waiting for her tiny kettles to boil enough water. When she opened the door, he would bellow and strip in a single gesture, before running into the house and climbing into the hot bath. Maura cleaned him with aromatic soaps and oils, anointing him for her pleasure. It was the one time his scent was submerged to hers. Sometimes she would join him in the bath, naked but for her amulet; an amber stone shaped like a cat’s claw. She had been found with it as a baby; an illegal child, but found by a childless couple and so given a stay of execution. She attended the Institution with all the legal children but she never fitted in. Now, as a healer she lived a hermit-like existence. Without words, Peter knew he was the only man who visited her, but she never asked him to stay. It was just the way things were.
Peter walked on through the morning. Why had he come to this area? Some instinct told him the illegal had come this way. He had tracked her directly for some twenty miles before losing the scent. He had a choice; to continue on the seaward direction or move inland. He had chosen inland and upmountain. All he knew about the illegal was she was light on her feet and good at climbing. He looked seaward and at the mountains. A climber would choose the mountains he reasoned and so he turned uphill. This was his second day without any tracks. He was not worried. He had more furs and flesh on him, than she had on her skinny body. Either he or nature would have its way. He walked all day without hesitation; it was as if the wind carried an invisible code and he sniffed each time he stopped for new directions. At dusk, he paused at the edge of a wooded area and looked around. Something caught his eye. It was a lone deer, grazing at the edge of the wood. He drew his bow carefully and took aim. The arrow pierced her eye and she fell quietly. Then he saw she had a fawn standing closer into the woods, he drew his bow again but the young animal slipped back into the shadow of the trees and was gone. Peter cursed. He would have liked to have brought both as a gift to Maura. Still, a deer was a mighty present and this was a plump creature. He swiftly gralloched the deer, tied up its hooves and strung the body up in a hammock over a tree. He would collect it later and this way it should be safe from scavengers.
When night fell, Peter curled up in his furs and slept. He wondered if he was close to the illegal and if she had managed to find any food or shelter. No one in these parts would harbour her; the penalties were too high and illegals generally despised. ‘Nasty, dirty things’ the barman had called them and he was not alone. Peter’s dreams were vivid again and he cursed when he woke. Then he stopped. He heard something: a tiny noise of a branch not snapping but being bent to its limit, a tiny creak. Peter silently moved to the edge of the woods. He was hidden behind a tree when he saw her; pale and thin against the dark trees. She stepped gingerly along the wooded path, for there were many twigs capable of yielding their noises. She had no furs as he suspected but dirty rags of clothes. He watched as she picked her way in the early morning light. She was actually moving in his direction. He must be upwind for surely she would have smelt him by now. He stood rigid as a statue hardly breathing. He didn’t dare draw his bow for fear of giving his presence away. Slowly, inch by terrible inch, she moved closer to him. He could smell her in the wind, tangy and light. He waited until she was mere feet away from him before he unleashed his bellow and ran at her. The sudden noise and movement surprised her. She did not run. She blinked instead and in that moment, he had his hands around her neck. He was choking her and she made not a sound. Her eyes rounded and a single tear fell down her cheek. He closed his hands tighter and shook her frame as if she was a doll. Her hands rose then fell. At that instance, a chain fell forward from around the neck; a chain with a bright amber pendent. It was Peter’s turn to blink but he loosened his hands. He had been about to break the fragile neck but the chain banged against his wrists. He removed one hand and looked at the pendent. It was of a cat’s claw.
‘Who are you?’ he hissed angrily. Her face remained the same; impassive but her lips moved though no sound came out. Peter released her neck. He placed both hands on her shoulders and he could feel her body shaking. ‘Who are you?’ he repeated but she gave no answer. For the first time in his life, Peter could feel an indecision rising in him like a volcano. He cursed again loudly. This death was worth more than 500 coins to him. He could live a year on that kind of money. The illegal looked at him. Her lips had stopped moving. Had she been trying to explain who she was or to ask for mercy? It was obvious, even to an illegal or rather especially to an illegal, that he was a hunter and no quarter would be given.
Maura did not run the bath for Peter. He handed over the illegal and the deer, but not before cutting its throat and blooding the illegal’s clothes with it. He watched the woman and the child stand in the doorway. As he watched, Maura closed the door and put on the bath instead for the child. Peter would not visit her again. He carried the illegal’s life in his hands. Returning to the City he presented the torn and bloodied clothes and collected his payment. He did not visit the North again. He found solace instead in the contents of a bottle. His drunken dreams were filled with the images of the boy but he never remembered them when he woke. That was the one gift the bottle could give him.