First of all a piece of non challenge related news. A few weeks ago I was alerted by a couple of people (thanks guys!) to a whole list of writing competitions that had upcoming deadlines.
I decided that I didn’t want to enter any of my current stories to the competitions as they are, and I really wanted to do the editing for them all next year. However, there were a couple of contests that required me to write something new, which I have entered.
One of these entries was for a travel writing contest, which has since been published here. Publishing does not, unfortunately indicate that I have won. I’m still waiting to hear about that. But still, it’s another thing to add to my list of “places where my stupid opinions are on the Internet”.
The other contest was a flash fiction (less than 100 words) competition, which has not yet closed for entries. I’ll keep you updated as and when I know any more about that one.
The final competition update is that I forgot to mention the results of the other two competitions I entered. Unfortunately the bad sci fi contest seems to have just vanished, which is a shame, really. It was still an interesting exercise in having to write deliberately bad prose, which is harder than it sounds, so that’s something at least.
The other contest, the Llandudno Writing Group one, did not result in a win, sadly. I didn’t come in the top 6, who were the prize winners, but one of the stories, the one about the flood, was published in an anthology of the best competition entries online. I expect regular readers have read the story here before, but there’s some other good ones in there, so check the anthology out here.
Anyway, on to this week’s story, which was suggested by the delightfully funny Sebas (check him out on Twitter – @ohlookbirdies. He does come with an extreme pun warning, however). His idea was: ‘It turns out there is no such thing as outer space. Earth is surrounded by an orb of some sort. “Space” travellers are fed false information, and truly believe they went to space.’
I had to drop the last bit because I ran out of space, but I feel like I got the gist of it. Here it is:
2014 – A Year In Stories
The Order of the Orb
The Georgian science minister fiddled with his tie as he prepared to step up to the podium outside 8 Rustaveli Avenue, the address of the parliament building in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital.
He was a little nervous. Only a junior minister by the standards of some of Georgia’s political elite, many of whom had been in post since the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was sure that there were those who had been involved in the running of Georgia long before that, too.
Still, they had chosen him to make this announcement. It was one of the most important moments in his country’s history, and he supposed that the government wanted to present the youthful, media friendly face of the regime in this age of instant global news reporting.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to present the Minister for Science, Georgi Kakhaladze,” the announcer on stage said in to the microphone.
Georgi stepped up on to the podium and surveyed the crowd. Many journalists were present, and Tbilisi residents who had been walking past had stopped to see what all the commotion was. He cleared his throat.
“People of Georgia, and the world. I am proud to announce that within the next week the Georgian government will be ready to launch our first unmanned space flight. We are sending a rocket to space.”
Two hours later he walked back in to his office. The announcement and subsequent clamour of questions from the gathered media had been a success, he thought.
His secretary looked harangued, and there were a number of unfamiliar people sat on the chairs in the waiting area outside the office, all looking very uncomfortable indeed.
“Any messages, Jeti?” he asked.
“You could say that, sir,” his secretary replied. The people sat down there all wish to have an audience with you, urgently, and Vladimir Putin himself rang the office about 20 minutes ago.
“Ah, I expect they all want to congratulate me on the endeavours of the Georgian government,” Georgi said.
“I don’t think so, sir,” Jeti replied. Before Georgi could respond she had picked up the phone, only a millisecond after it had started to ring.
Georgi turned to the gathered throng of nervous looking individuals.
“So,” he said, clasping his hands together. “Who is first in line to offer their congratulations?”
It turned out that the gentleman at the head of the queue was named Marceaux, and he was the ambassador from France.
“Minister,” he said, as they both took chairs on opposite sides of Georgi’s desk. “The government of France protests most strongly at your government’s pursuit of a space programme without consultation with the United Nations or any other government.”
“What is to protest?” Georgi asked. “Surely it is only to the benefit of all mankind that more of our nations are able to reach our fingers in to the void of space?”
The French ambassador wrung his hands together.
“Alas, Mr Khakhaladze, it is not that simple. Monsieur Hollande insists that you cease plans for this unmanned space flight immediately. The consequences of your continuation will be…most regrettable.”
After Mr Marceaux left, Georgi saw the remainder of the visitors to his office. All of the meetings trod a remarkably similar path to the first.
Disappointment in the lack of cooperation with authorities that had been exhibited, and vague but nonspecific threats of consequences of the warnings were ignored. The whole thing left Georgi feeling drained.
At 4pm, with the last ambassador having offered up his warning, Georgi left the office. He decided that Mr Putin could wait until the morning.
Georgi walked along his street, in a quiet neighbourhood in western Tbilisi. As he approached his apartment building he noticed something suspicious. It seemed as though a black saloon car was following him along the street.
Without missing a beat, he recalled the training his secret service guards had given him, and dived down a side alley. He heard the car’s doors open and slam, and several feet giving chase. Turning a corner, he kept running, but stopped short when he ran in to the enormous bulk of a man dressed in all black.
“Nice try, Mr Khakhaladze,” the man said, before grabbing Georgi by the scruff of the neck and lifting him off the ground. The next thing he knew the lights had gone out, as someone had thrown a sack over his head.
Some time later, after much jostling and confusion, the bag was removed from Georgi’s head.
“Where am I?” he managed to blurt out, before one of his captors stuffed a gag in his mouth and tied it behind his head. He was also. He noted, tied by the arms and legs to a chair.
“Mr Khakhaladze,” a female voice came from behind him. “You will do us the service of listening to what we have to say.” Taking note of Georgi’s unsuccessful attempts to swing his head around and see his captors, the voice added, “You do not need to know who we are. Suffice it to say that we are what is known as the Illuminati.
“You must be wondering why we have brought you here. Well, it is no coincidence that it happens to be the day of your big announcement. We applaud your government, even we, with our wide reach had no idea you had gotten this far.
“We understand that there have been some naysayers visiting your offices already, making nonspecific threats of consequences if you proceed. They make these threats because they are scared. They know what the consequences of an unapproved nation achieving space flight are. In short, Mr Khakhaladze, they know that they will be revealed as frauds.”
Georgi was trying his best to say something, but the gag in his mouth made it impossible.
“Take the gag off him,” the voice instructed, “before he hurts himself.”
“What do you mean, revealed as frauds?” Georgi asked, after the gag had been removed.
“Space flight,” the voice continued, “is a lie. No one human being has ever left the atmosphere of this planet.”
“Come on,” Georgi scoffed. “I’m not that stupid.nwhat about the moon landings? Yuri Gagarin?”
“All faked, quite elaborately as well. An international conspiracy to keep some nations powerful by appearing vastly technologically advanced, and other nations weak.”
“Faked how? And why? Surely if a tiny country like Georgia can develop the technology, they would have had no trouble at all to get in to space.”
“Oh yes, they developed the technology. It is theoretically possible. The fix had to look convincing or no one would believe them. But they couldn’t do it for real.”
“Why not? If they had the technology surely it was easier to do it than to just fake it at that point?”
“They didn’t do it because it would have ended…badly.”
“Look, I understand that you’re the Illuminati, and that you’re supposed to be elusive, but this rope is starting to chafe my wrists so I’d appreciate it if you got to the point.”
“As you wish, Mr Khakhaladze. The attempt would have failed, as there is a giant orb surrounding the earth that the ship would have crashed in to, exploding in to a fireball and killing all on board.”
“What?” Georgi managed, after an uncomfortably long silence. “Who installed the orb?”
“Regrettably, we did.”
“Why would you encase the entire planet in an orb?”
“To save it. Several hundred years ago we detected the presence of an upcoming solar flare, the radiation from which would have wiped out all life on Earth. We had to do it to save humanity and the planet. So, we employed the greatest scientist and inventor of the day, Leonardo da Vinci, to build us an orb to protect us from the harm. It was so technologically advanced for the time, we were even able to project images of the sky on to it.”
“Why haven’t you taken it down?”
“The radiation levels have only recently subsided below acceptable levels.”
“But what about the United States, Russia, the International Space Station countries? Why did you let all this happen if you knew about the orb? You said that these countries using this as a way of gaining power. Why aren’t you stopping them?”
“We had to tell them. When Russia and America started their space programmes, we had to tell them before they crashed a ship in to the orb. It would have let the radiation in and killed us all. When they found this out, they knew we were powerless to stop them. We couldn’t stop them, lest they reveal our existence, and we couldn’t destroy the orb without destroying the planet.
“But your government’s space programme has fallen at a rather fortuitous time. They are scared. They know that the orb is no longer required. That their power will be broken if it is removed. Their programmes have fallen in to disuse because their position was so secure. Georgia is the first nation since the 1960s to develop its own space programme. You can be the first country in to space. You can break their domination of the world.”
“But how?” Georgi asked. “Surely the rocket will hit the orb and explode?”
“It will, but it will compromise the orb’s integrity. Pieces will start to break off and float away in to space, leaving enough room for a second rocket to go through.mwe know nothing about your space programme, but conventional wisdom would suggest that you at least have a backup rocket in case the first one fails.”
“And what of their threats?”
“Empty,” the voice replied. “They know that to declare war for such a trivial matter would be diplomatic suicide. They were merely hoping to dissuade you from your actions.”
“Very well,” Georgi said. “I will go along with your plan. Now will you please untie me?”
One week later Georgi sat at the newly unveiled Georgian National Space Centre, just outside Tbilisi. He was sat in the control room alongside the ambassadors of all the other spacefaring nations, whom he had personally invited to the launch.
They sat and watched as final preparations were made to Georgia’s first spacefaring rocket. After all checks were complete, the countdown began.
“Here we go,” said Georgi.
The rocket took flight, accompanied by silence in the control room. Less than a minute later, the rocket exploded in a gigantic fireball as it hit the orb.
“What a shame,” Monsieur Marceaux said, completely failing to conceal the smug look on his face. “The experiment was a failure.”
“Oh, we aren’t done yet, Monsieur,” Georgi replied. He turned to the controller, and added, “Davit, if you don’t mind?”
The controller pressed a number of buttons and a hangar door in the complex opened. Another rocket trundled out along some rails and took its position on the launchpad.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that first rocket was one big step for man. This next one will be one giant leap for mankind.”
Business as usual this week (aka me leaving it to the last minute) after last week’s landmark. The World Cup final is to blame for this one. But I’m still getting this in before midnight and that’s what counts.
This week’s story has actually coincided rather nicely with the birthday of the person who suggested it. Andrew Murray, who will be 29 next Sunday (OK, it could have coincided a little better) suggested I write a story about ‘the fence on the edge of reality’.
2014 – A Year In Stories
On the Planet Earth, one of many planets inhabited by intelligent life during the history of the universe, a debate raged for many centuries between a scientists about whether the universe was a finite or infinite construct.
In a way, they were both right.
The universe, at least the universe as it was inhabited by the people of Earth did indeed have an end. Rarely did any living creature, from Earth or otherwise, make it to the edge of the universe, but those that did found something they didn’t expect. That they were fenced in.
The rare few who stumbled across the fence all came to the same conclusion: that some ancient, long forgotten civilisation had built it in order to keep whatever lay on the other side out. This was an incorrect assumption. Something wanted to keep them in.
The being of pure energy waited, and observed. It had done this for a thousand centuries, and it anticipated doing it again for a thousand more. The waiting was the reason for its existence.
It observed the fence, but from the outside. It was one of many that observed large sections of the fence, to scout for approaching threats. Threats were determined to be any objects composed of matter that came in to the vicinity of the fence.
Its species existed in the space outside of the universe. In human terms it was the difference between reality and unreality, a difference between dimensions. Different laws of physics applied here, and no living creature from within the universe would be able to survive for very long outside of it.
The opposite was also true for the beings of purple energy. Any matter coming through the fence that bordered the edge of reality was deadly to them.
The fence could only take so much impact, and that was why they stationed sentries along its edge. Any potential intrusion was a major threat that had to be stopped before it broke through and caused major damage.
Thetis, as the being was known, glowed as it became alert. There had been no incidents on this section of the fence for a very long time indeed; longer than was conceivable to any mortal being, but Thetis’ entire existence was dedicated to dealing with moments like this, and that allowed for an instantaneous reaction. Immediately it was checking the fence for signs of weakness and evaluating data on the incoming object.
The object appeared to be primarily metallic, and Thetis calculated that it had been drifting through interstellar space for millions of years, longer even than Thetis had been in existence or would exist for. It wondered where the object had come from.
The object drifted ever closer to the fence. Light from a star that was, by the scale of the universe, relatively nearby glinted and illuminated four letters written on the side. NASA.
Thetis observed the object. It’s probing determined that there was data accessible within the storage drives of the object. It allowed as much of its energy as it dared to penetrate the fence and interfaced with the ancient databanks.
The probe’s storage units whirred in to life, and Thetis was presented with thousands of years of data collected during the probe’s working life. It was exposed to information of planets, galaxies, stars and much more that it had never previously been able to comprehend.
Calculating the length of time before impact, Thetis decided that it had plenty of time to continue to scan through the information. Some time later, when it had finished, it disconnected from the probe and gave thought to what it had experienced.
Voyager 1, it thought as it processed the information.
It had experienced things it could never had imagined and felt itself a changed being for the experience. None of its species had been in to the universe for hundreds of millennia. It was the first of its kind to receive such information for all that time.
And it had to destroy the source. Its species was one of logic and reason, and not given to outbursts of emotion, but it felt uneasy at the thought of having to remove this object from existence, purely because it constituted a threat.
For the first time in its existence Thetis hesitated. It would be a simple thing for it to divert power from surrounding sections of the fence to shore up the area that would be struck. But it didn’t want to. It wanted all of its species to be able to experience the forbidden wonders that this ancient probe had stored inside it.
The time was approaching when Thetis would have to make a decision. If it was left too much longer then it would be too late, and the probe would cause untold damage to the dimension Thetis inhabited, to its people. But it did not seem right.
With its full power being back inside its own realm, Thetis used the collective consciousness it shared with the rest of its species to consult them on the best course of action.
It explained the situation as beet it could, that it was a unique situation and the species as a whole would never have a better opportunity to learn more about the universe that was so deadly to them.
Immediately Thetis received a cacophony of responses that ranged from urging immediate destruction of the object to statements of support for its proposal to keep the object for its informational value.
But it was one suggestion that struck Thetis as the most sensible, and the most practical. Fence guardians had the ability to remove and repair sections of the fence that were damaged or had become worn throughout the aeons. Replacement sections were stored nearby to every outpost, and there were plenty spare near to where Thetis was stationed.
If it could build a much smaller version of the fence, large enough to contain the probe, then it would be possible to keep it within the realm outside of the universe, whilst simultaneously neutralising the threat it posed by keeping it, technically, within its own.
Thetis immediately began the necessary calculations. It already knew what the zone of impact would be, so, using its consciousness it moved sections of replacement fence in to position to create a bubble on its side of the divide. It then carefully removed the section of the actual fence that would be impacted, creating a catch pocket. When the time came it would quickly seal the ball with another section and replace the original in order to prevent any excess matter from escaping through the gap.
It waited. It was good at that. It waited for the precise moment the probe entered the pocket, making sure to seal it up and detach it from the main structure as quickly as possible. If the probe touched the inside of its new enclosure it would be destroyed, or at the very least damaged beyond recovery, and so the ball had to be kept moving at a speed constant to its contents if both were to remain intact.
Once this was achieved Thetis immediately set to replacing the now vacant section of fence. The job complete, it reflected warmly on the experience. It had preserved some information that would have an extremely positive impact on the future of its race, it was sure.
Now that the object was secure within its container Thetis devised a way to slow it down. It reduced the energy on one side of the fence structure to be as low as possible without posing a danger of it breaking and slowed the structure down. This allowed the probe to come to a gentle halt against the inner wall, the impact glowing along the outside of the container.
It would not be long, Thetis knew, until the great leaders, thinkers and scientists of its species would come to this corner of the realm outside of the universe to investigate the probe themselves. It only had a limited time to himself to experience the full wonders found within before it would be taken somewhere were more research could be conducted.
Thetis moved closer to the probe.
Voyager 1, it thought again.
Gently Thetis probed the most minute element of its being through the protective barrier and interfaced with the storage systems of the object.
It probed deeper than it had previously and encountered a curious object, a disc made from what seemed to be a different metal. It spun the disc and was amazed by images of a planet it had never before seen, and the creatures that inhabited. It continued searching through the disc and was presented with music of many different varieties, the likes of which it had never even imagined.
Thetis felt so privileged to be the first creature, possibly ever, to hear and see these things since they had been placed on the probe.
It came across a recording on the disc of a voice.
“My name is Jimmy Carter, and I am President of the United States of America on the planet Earth. If you are listening to this recording then you are an intelligent being, and to you I say hello.”
Hello, Jimmy Carter, it thought. I am Thetis.
Hello all, just a quick word from me this week. I’m sad to say that this week’s story isn’t very good. I rushed it a tad at the last minute and honestly I think it would have been better if I hadn’t included any named characters at all.
Oh well, no one will ever be completely happy with everything they write. And after all, that is what editing is for!
My cousin Simon (father of Rosie and Sam from one of my early stories) asked for: ‘A huge asteroid heads towards earth. The world awaits with baited breath. Good news: it missed! Bad news: it took out the moon. Cue massive changes to tides the world over, mass flooding and the rapid collapse of civilisation.’
And here it is!
2014 – A Year In Stories
In Off the Rim
2000 Years Ago
The quiet in the void was deafening. The icy, craggy mass hurtled its way through the vastness of space like a master assassin. Silent. Deadly.
It careened on with a purpose beyond comprehension. One day this ball of rock would affect the destinies of billions of people.
Without warning it collided heavily with another asteroid, and in that one action the very fate of human history was defined.
The rock span out of its orbit around this far off star; a star as yet unknown to humanity, whose fledgling civilizations were only now looking up in wonder at the heavens, and wondering if perhaps they held the answer to life’s questions, utterly oblivious to how right they were.
The Near Future
Jeff Rogers sat dozing in his chair at Jodrell Bank. It was 3am and he had drawn the night shifts this week. It wasn’t so bad. Someone had to man the equipment that looked out in to the infinity of space in case new objects were perceived entering the solar system that required an early warning.
This was the last of his night shifts for the week, and there had been nothing to report. There was never anything to report. He had been working at Jodrell Bank for 5 years and he had never had to report a single incoming object during the night shift.
It seemed to him that it was almost as though the universe went to sleep at night with everyone else. Of course, when he thought about it the idea was preposterous. It was always night time somewhere on earth, and new objects were sighted several times daily. Perhaps the universe just ran on GMT.
His colleague wandered past the open office door.
“How’re things, Jeff?” the man asked, poking his head in.
Jeff came to and glanced at his watch. “3 o’clock and all’s well, Barry…” He replied, with a wry smile, and went back to sleep.
On the other side of the northern hemisphere, in a room deep below Cheyenne Mountain, Sergeant Benny Goulding of the United States Army 405th Rifles, a stellar avionics expert on special secondment to NORAD, sat and watched what everyone in the base affectionately called the ‘Fortune Teller’.
It was actually a series of sophisticated computers linked to a number of orbiting satellites and other probes sent in to the depths of the solar system.
It’s sole purpose was to detect incoming interstellar objects, and determine the chances of any one of those objects colliding with and obliterating the Earth. It existed to give humanity a few hours warning if the whole planet was fucked.
Sergeant Goulding sipped at a cup of coffee and listened to the familiar bleeps indicating that the system was fully functional. It looked like it would be another easy shift.
Scientists had been predicting for years that eventually the earth would be on a collision course with an interstellar object the same size as the one that wiped out the dinosaurs all those millions of years ago.
Most of them would say with a wave of the hand that any such event was millions of years away, that mankind would long since have left the confines of its home planet and conquered far off stars by the time some kind of cosmic disaster wiped the tiny blue and green rock from the annals of history.
But there were those who were a lot more pessimistic. It’s only a matter of time, they would warn, wagging a cautionary finger, as their more reserved colleagues made a joke of their crackpot theories behind their backs.
They were constantly dismissed as nutjobs. The kind of people convinced that everything was out to destroy the world. From Vesuvius and the super volcanoes in Yellowstone to solar flares and the San Andreas fault, the planet and everything outside was trying to wipe away the stain of humanity in one way or another.
Quite some of these scientists were about to, for a very brief moment indeed, feel extremely smug.
Both machines were set off within seconds of each other as the asteroid reached their sensor range.
The British dishes, which were older and suffered from a lack of military funding enjoyed by their American counterparts picked up the signals just as the red phone on Jeff Rogers’ desk buzzed.
He jerked awake, nearly falling off his chair in surprise at the sudden noise.
The phone was designed to be used when one station reported an unusual object and needed to check with its sister station to verify the sighting. He picked up the phone gingerly, and licked his dry lips.
Sergeant Goulding replaced the receiver slowly. He let out a long breath and slicked his hair back. This was it. This was not a drill. He went through his procedures in his head. In this situation it was necessary to immediately inform the Commander in Chief. He had to call the President.
It wasn’t long before the news filtered its way down to the general public. An asteroid had entered the solar system and was on a collision course with planet earth.
Different time scales and projected landing areas were plastered across the media. Some said it would be days before the object landed, whereas some gave weeks, and others a matter of hours.
Everywhere from California to Scotland to the Sahara and the Himalayas were posited as possible impact sites by different experts. Wherever it landed, it was going to be a big one. Big enough to eradicate civilisation from the world. No one had any doubt that this was the end.
Sergeant Goulding and Jeff Rogers both knew exactly how long they had. It had been computed that at the speed it was travelling the asteroid would collide with the earth in 5 days time. And there was nothing they could do. The Fortune Teller had done her job and predicted the doom of humanity.
Vigils were held worldwide, nations put aside their differences and people spent their last moments together before the coming apocalypse. Eventually, society began to crumble as people abandoned their workplaces. Power ran out and utilities broke down as those called on to repair them stayed with their families. Petrol stations ran dry and supermarkets were looted for their remaining food as people fled underground with supplies to wait out the coming disaster.
It was on the 4th day that the news came. The rock had collided with another object in the asteroid belt. Experts predicted that it would now bypass the earth altogether, but the millions who had gone underground were unable to receive the message. They were prepared to wait it out whatever happened, and had simply locked themselves away until they were certain the event was over.
Those that had remained above ground were elated and tried to return to their normal routines on the next day; the day when the asteroid should have struck.
What the experts failed to mention, however, is that the collision with the object in the asteroid belt had thrown the rock so off course that no one could predict where it would go.
At 12pm GMT, the previously expect impact time, millions gathered together around television screens expecting an update on the progress of the asteroid. Littered on the floor in cities worldwide were newspapers with headlines reading ‘Near Miss!’ and ‘Humanity Saved!’.
Cheerful newscasters around the world announced that the asteroid had indeed missed the earth, and would have gone on to say that humanity had indeed had a narrow escape, had their broadcasts not been interrupted by a catastrophically loud explosion as the stray asteroid whizzed past the earth and slammed full speed in to the moon.
The impact sent chunks of the earth’s satellite hurtling through the atmosphere, and the shockwave shattered glass and collapsed buildings worldwide.
The tides were immediately affected and within hours several gigantic tidal waves were bearing down on densely populated costal regions of the planet.
Millions were killed in the initial shockwave, and further still in the subsequent natural disasters and debris impacts. Interstellar radiation put paid to most of those who were left after the first couple of days.
Within a week less than a million people remained alive, scattered across earth’s surface. No semblance of government or order remained, and the people were left to fend for themselves.
But if civilization did not endure, humanity did, and those that survived were eventually joined by those millions who had, sensibly it turned out, fled underground. Between them they took stock and began to rebuild the world. They vowed to right wrongs and make a new world, a better, fairer world than before.
It was certainly no easy ask. The circumstances were difficult and for some time food would be scarce. In addition there would always be people willing to take advantage of lawlessness to carve out some influence for themselves in a post disaster environment.
But humanity, like the cockroach, endured, and eventually again began to thrive. Life went on for those who remained, and the earth went on turning.