This is the story that recently won the 2021 Bellingen Writers festival writing competition. It’s a piece of feminist political satire. Enjoy.
The five remaining competitors stood in a line on the lawn, cradling instant coffee cups and breathing out a collective cloud that mixed with the winter morning mist. An official drone zipped and hovered over the compound, just as it had done for the previous three days.
Sharlene looked down at her sweat-stained yellow ‘unisex’ tracksuit that was too wide in the shoulders and long in the legs, but too tight across the hips and bust. Clearly unisex meant ‘men’ with the label removed.
Since she arrived on Thursday, she had not been allowed to make contact with the outside world or to shower, and it was this second detail that bothered her the most on this final day of competition. She had woken that morning with patches of angry red chaffing on her thighs and in her arm pits and a strange yeasty smell she couldn’t quite explain. But a win today would see her secure pre-selection with the full endorsement of the Crooked Bay local government sub-branch; a win today would kick-start her political career. Her spring bud would finally come to bloom.
Yesterday she had won the penultimate challenge. The warehouse building at the side of the compound had been set up to look like a shopping mall. She had successfully filled her reusable bag with ethically produced items, returned a lost child to the help-desk, located a defibrillation machine and performed life-saving CPR on an elderly gentlemen and got back to the car in time for afternoon school pick-up. She even had time to apply red lipstick, and in the heady thrill of the win, she could hear the excited voices of the commentators and the film crew packaging sound bites to use in the publicity package. She felt as if she could win this.
The group were ushered towards the bottom of the compound, past the fence lined with thick sheets of black plastic. A group of organisers stood in close proximity, huddled around a cardboard box. The presence of the film crew signalled that this was indeed the site of the final challenge. A grey-haired man with a thick moustache and army boots ushered the competitors to form a line. In his arms were a stack of what looked like colouring books and he handed one to each competitor, along with a red pencil. He stepped back and in the click-flash of the cameras, addressed the group.
“This is your final challenge. It’s aptly called Policy Graveyard. One single wrong choice, one single error in political judgment, and your political career will be dead before it even starts. Frozen in the eternal winter suffered by candidates that no one will ever remember. But win, and you will already have a set of winning policies to take to the upcoming election.”
Sharlene smoothed down her tracksuit and took three deep breaths. She felt for the lipstick in her pocket as a rising sense of feverish excitement rose in her stomach and spread itself like thrush. Every sinew and surface of her body prickled with anticipation. She wanted this. Decision making under pressure. She could do this. Had to do this.
“You have ten minutes to complete the challenge. In your books are a series of ten gravestones, all representing potential policies. It’s a simple game of noughts and crosses. Cross out the policies you reject, circle the ones you support. Make a wrong choice and your political career ends today.”
The five competitors had a staggered start, one minute apart. Sharlene went last. As she dashed through the plastic covered gates, she could finally see what was on the other side. A path was marked out with arrows on the ground, and the large area was dotted with huge Styrofoam structures that looked like oversized clipboards. On each was taped a sheet of paper.
As she got closer to the first one, Sharlene could make out the words. One- FREE CHILDCARE- A tough one. In theory she supported it, but she knew that middle aged voters hated the idea of women mooching off the system. Men generally saw it as a women’s issue and struggled to find their own equivalent. She crossed it out. Two. CURFEW FOR TEENAGERS. Hmm. Circle. Three. COMPULSORY MILITARY BOOTCAMP FOR THE UNEMPLOYED. Smirk. Circle. Five, six, seven and eight were a series of centre right choices, no problems there. Nine. INCREASE THE RETIREMENT AGE TO 75. Okay, this was a challenge. She thought about her electorate. Lots were too young to care, lots had already retired. It was just the vocal 40-60s group she was worried about. She crossed it out. All that remained was number ten.
The final oversized novelty clipboard loomed before her. She could see on the oversized novelty clock that she had less than 60 seconds to make her final policy decision. QUOTAS TO ENSURE THE EQUAL REPRESENTATION OF WOMEN IN GOVERNMENT. Sharlene stopped and felt time slow down. She was a woman, so she wanted to circle it for herself and all the young women of the future. For them to attain the ripe autumn harvest of their struggles. But…she knew the arguments around merit and knew that endorsing it was a bad idea. She’d won these challenges fair and square. She could make ethical choices AND wear lipstick. She took her pencil and firmly crossed out the last policy on her list.
The other competitors were all laying exhausted on the grass, and the official came around to check their entries. Over the loudspeaker Sharlene could hear crackling and hissing and the reverb drilled into her frontal lobe.
“The successful candidate is Mitch Reynolds.” A murmur swept through the crowd. “And he will campaign for equal representation for men and women in government.”
Sharlene felt like she was suffocating in her unisex uniform. She felt the suffocating weight, like heavy woodsmoke in the dead of winter. On her skin the rash kept spreading like ill-informed votes across the map on election night.
Slave To Coffee
This story was inspired by my current Year 11 English class. There are some dedicated coffee drinkers in there and we recently had a chat about the perfomance enhancing qualities of coffee. I told them my two favourite phrases about coffee. 1. Coffee is survival juice. 2. A yawn is a silent scream for coffee. This sci-fi story is my entry for the semi-finals of the NYC midnight flash fiction competition, but I wanted to have some fun with it and come up with a story that had a life outside of the writitng competiton. This one is more like Hitchhiker’s Guide than hard sci-fi and I tried to go big and silly, instead of technical and detailed.
Synopsis: surviving on a hostile alien planet is hard, but doing it without coffee is impossible.
Slave to Coffee
Carlo was abducted by aliens before his morning coffee. He could remember opening the front door to a strange sound, a rush of air and then waking up in some sort of padded shipping container. Groggy, he came-to with discomfort and a lingering coffee craving. His lungs felt heavy, but he checked himself and found he was breathing normally. There was no chrome gadgetry in here like in those 90s films, no sterile probing labs or superior biomechanical lifeforms standing over him. Instead, Carlo turned to see a fleshy yellow creature twitching and taking a series of rapid breaths. On the other side an almost human looking creature with overly long arms was shaking and making a series of wet, sucking sounds. There were seven of them in total; Carlo, the yellow lumpy thing, the long arm thing and four other creatures united by a few common features; they were all breathing and each had variations on limbs, ears, eyes, and mouths. None looked exactly human, but they weren’t far off.
The container shuddered to a standstill. They had arrived, but where? Why? A high-pitched siren screeched inside the vessel and one rectangular wall fell away to reveal a large green oasis encircled by tropical-looking trees with buttress roots and large leaves. The sky behind was a pale mauve and Carlo blinked at the majestic beauty of the vista. The other creatures were manoeuvring their way from the vessel to get away from the siren and Carlo did the same.
He found his large feet and legs gave him an advantage on the soft ground, and he stepped over the yellow lumpy thing which was now having obvious end-of-life convulsions on the grass. When the creature stopped moving, the others looked on in shock as a mass of white tentacle-shaped worms emerged with razor teeth, ingested the creature, and retreated beneath the soil again in a matter of seconds.
Another siren sounded and a series of bright orange holographic arrows appeared, marking a path through the trees. Despite his pounding head and hatred for running, Carlo did not need any more encouragement to put some distance between himself and those flesh-eating worms. The other creatures had the same idea. A smallish humanoid with long legs and pink skin darted ahead and disappeared into the jungle and the long-armed creature broke into a four-legged run and loped off in second place, with Carlo in third.
The jungle was humid and Carlo was trying to remember what he’d learnt in science class. There were plants, steam and the worms signalled a food chain. The fact he was breathing was an indicator of an atmosphere. The trees looked exaggerated and cartoon-like, similar to what he imagined the Cambrian era was like on Earth.
He arrived at the edge of a lake where a large holographic display map flickered to life in front of him. It showed the orange arrows dancing in a line across a series of images: a lake, a grassy expanse and ending at a big stone circle. Get to the stone circle? Survive? Was he in some kind of tournament? Kneeling at the water’s edge, Carlo noticed it was sightly purple with little pops of effervescence. He tentatively cupped some to his mouth and while it wasn’t coffee, it had a slightly sweet, satiny mouth feel that quenched his thirst. He waited for the skin on his hands to peel off, or his insides to dissolve but they didn’t. He set about fashioning himself a crude dinghy from some broken jungle branches and lashed it together with vines, pleased to have opposable thumbs. He couldn’t risk drowning, but didn’t trust the craft, so he used it as a buoyancy device. Behind him, one of the larger humanoids had gotten a short way across the lake before slipping under the surface. A series of splashes followed and then silence as it disappeared under the water. Carlo kicked harder and dragged himself panting onto the safety of the bank.
His legs were tiring as he emerged into the grassland. The mauve sky was tinged with pinks and reds and again he had a flashback to Science class, reading about the savannahs of prehistoric earth. A group of herd animals that looked like goat giraffes registered his presence before returning to their foraging. They were standing on their hind legs, attempting to reach the waxy fruit of a plant with oval-shaped leaves. But why was this scene so familiar? Then he remembered. He’d been waiting for a triple shot espresso, reading about the history of coffee. Ethiopian goat herders noticed their animals were friskier after nibbling on the red berries from a sub-tropical plant. And now, on this alien planet, he found himself gazing at a dense grove of oversized coffee plants, groaning with ripe red beans. With the promise of coffee providing fresh clarity, Carlo knew what he had to do.
From a distant galaxy the scene was watched by millions. The stone circle had one opening, and a holographic finish line glowed across it. A humanoid with long arms was seen approaching with labored movements followed by a second creature, pink and limping. But then, as if out of nowhere came the thundering of heavy cloven hooves in the mud. On the animal’s back was a sub-species of humanoid many had discredited as too lazy to survive, let alone win the tournament. He had one arm around the animal’s neck, and in the other he clutched a huge branch laden with bright red berries. A grin was stretched across his face and red juice was running down his chin as he burst across the finish line. Holographic victory lights went whizzing above his triumphant head.
That was the day a superior slave species was discovered. Not only had the human survived in an ecosystem not conducive to highly-evolved intelligent lifeforms, but he had managed to identify what was to become the most lucrative plant crop in the history of the universe.