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Staring Into the Abyss · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
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“And now,” Zolfran broadcast in his emitter, “let’s get this over with, right? I must move on and finish to prepare my address for the yearly pageant”. It was one of his appointed task, as elected archon of the community, to deliver the first speech at Remembrance day, before the two arch-priests followed suit.

He looked around. No one seemed to object: neither the Reds, nor the Blues. This was a miracle of sorts. A waft of frustration floated over the air for a short while, but Zolfran couldn’t tell who was responsible for it. Out of mere caution, he decided to wait a few seconds more, but the hush dragged on. So he thanked everyone and dismissed the meeting.

He remained in the room until everyone else had left, then made his way to the temple’s exit. He waved reflexively at the people – mainly subordinate priests – he crossed, and they repaid him with a bob. Once outside in the concourse, he hesitated, then made up his mind and turned left, heading for the nearest school.

It was one of his pleasure, when he had some time to kill, to watch the pupils during their classes. Sometimes he would linger for a while behind the window, wondering which one of those fledglings would become the next leader, or the next genius whose theory would overturn all the knowledge the previous generations had laboriously amassed. Not that it happened frequently. The last brilliant mind, whose research had made their small world possible, had been born well before the Great Departure.

Pondering thus over the past, he reached the first window of the school. He paused and gazed inside. A group of small children was playing a catch-and-throw game meant to develop their mental control over the muscles of their tentacles. He smiled, and carried on to the next window.

The spectacle here was different: a seven or eight grade class, if the size of the pupils was anything to go by. They were listening to a White male, so no doubt he had arrived in the middle of a science period. As usual, alas, all the Blue pupils sat on the left of the room, and all the Red on the right. So long for his hopes of coeducation. Despite the diligence of the hatchery’s nurses – mostly Whites – their relentless teaching about equal footing and so on, the children, once on their own, would generally fall prey to the smarmy spiels of the two churches. Thousands of years of prejudice could not be forgotten in a few months, not even in a situation like this.

With one of his suction cups, Zolfran tuned his radio-receptor to the proper channel and listened. “Zoran,” the teacher was saying, “was one of the brightest scientists of his time. He discovered the equation that still bears his name, and that we use everyday in common appliances such as…” The teacher took a small golden semi-sphere studded with buttons. He lifted it high up and showed it all round. “The food-machine,” he concluded.

Putting back the device on the desk, the teacher began to graze the glassboard with a tentacle. In its wake, dark lines appeared on the surface, divided and whirled, forming an intricate pattern where curves and spirals intersected straight lines and rhombuses. When he was done, he turned around and “Can anyone read this?” he asked.

The famous ideogram was complex enough to elude the understanding of most pupils of that age. As a matter of fact, a long time elapsed before a student finally raised a tentacle. “Zohal, yes?”

“I… I think it reads ‘That which does not exist, exists’,” the student said.

“Very good,” the teacher replied. “That’s indeed what it means in common language, and that’s all you need to know for now. Its counterpart in the mathematical language is far beyond your current skill to grasp.” He took a sip of water from his glass then carried on. “Zoran’s equation also is the principle that underpins the reactors that we—”

Zolfran cut the receptor off. Zoran’s equation, which stated how to tap spacetime’s background energy and transform it into ordinary matter, had been the major scientific breakthrough. At the time of its discovery, the inhabitants of Yah’na had widely believed that this new bonanza would grant them unlimited resources and peace. That was before the arch-priests had come to realise the power that could be unleashed from this elegant theory. The heinous and merciless war that had followed had left the planet devastated. Yet, like everything in science, it cut both ways, and the same equation had given the means for the survivors to escape with their lives.

But that was precisely the story which would be celebrated tomorrow. So turning back to his duty, Zolfran left the school compound and strode to the magnificent building that hosted the headquarters of the council. Beckoning the various clerks he encountered, he walked up the monumental stairs and stormed into his office.

His secretary, a brainless Red that had been personally appointed by the arch-priest for some unknown reason, was fiddling with his food-machine. Caught by surprise, he almost let it fall. Zolfran smelled the sudden release of hormones that betrayed his emotion — a reflex dating back to long ago, when their forebears were but mindless animals crawling in Yah’na’s primeval mud, communicating through volatile molecules.

“I’m sorry your highness,” the guy said apologetically over his radio link. “I couldn’t have lunch before. I was–”

“Take it easy Zojar,” Zolfran answered, in a effort to appear lenient. “Go get your nutrition pill and take a five too, if you need one.”

Zojar bowed and let his tentacles fly deftly over a few coloured buttons. The machine purred, then expelled in its small drawer a bright yellow pill full of vitamins, minerals, proteins and other high-value nutrients. Where did this pill come from? Only the most able in physics could answer that question. For all the others, the machine was just a wonderful mesh of delicate golden wires and tiny circuits that worked magically, conjuring up substance from nothing.

It was god’s power of creation harnessed in a pocket device.

“Anything for me?” Zolfran asked.

“Yes, a message from the observatory,” his secretary replied. “Do you want me to deliver it in private?”

“Please.” Zolfran reached out with one of his tentacles to Zojar, who did the same with one of his. When the two touched, the flow of electrons flew from the secretary to his superior, carrying the message from the observatory. It was a simple memo from Zoroas, the observatory’s head, reminding him that the first data from the probes which had been sent months ago ahead to explore the system they were heading to were expected in the following hours. That meant he should be prepared to be waken up or disturbed anytime, since himself had requested an urgent meeting to be held when the data arrived.

With that in mind, he withdrew his tentacle, asked to be left alone and locked himself up in his office. He sat at his desk, took the material he had already written out of a drawer, and opened the heavy, time-worn book that he had left behind a few hours ago. He immersed himself in it, hoping to scrape inspiration from the words laid down inside.


The large square was crammed up with people of all ages and colours. Despite of this, no real signal was registered on the common radio channel: people kept chatting privately using tentacle-to-tentacle messaging. It was like facing a crowd of mutes, Zolfran thought. He stepped up on to the rostrum and rapped the electrode that would collect the electrical currents emitted by his tentacle and turn them into radio signals everybody would – should – listen to.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began. He let a few seconds elapse to give people time to conclude their conversations and tune their receptor on the right frequency. Then he carried on, “We are gathered here, like each year since the Great Departure, to remember and celebrate the memory of the old ones who gave up their life to design and build this tiny crumb which hurtles through space in search of a new home.

“Should I evoke again the image of a devastated world, left bare and barren by centuries of ruthless warfare? Should I recall how, in the nick of time, the arch-priests of both religions, under the pressure of the few scientists—” He cut off and watched the audience, but no one seemed to protest, “— accepted to sit round the same table and underwrite an armistice, promising each other never to backslide into the same errors? How they all together set the basis of what would become the laws and principles our little community agreed to abide by? How the survivors leveraged the knowledge science had given us to trawl meteorites, transform them into breathable, liveable small worlds and launch them haphazardly though the vast ocean of space in quest of a new habitable planet where our placated civilisation could blossom anew? And how since that great feat we’ve put aside our differences, learnt to live together again and been at peace, generation after generation?

“No, I think I shouldn’t.” He paused again, and chuckled silently at the intentional preterition. “Yet,” he went on, “when I see some—”

At that very moment a clerk rushed up the few stairs and touched him with his tentacle: “Your highness, pardon my intrusion, but the data from the probes are in,” he communicated. “The astronomer in chief wants to see you immediately.” Then he broke contact and dashed away, as fast as he had come.

“I… I’m sorry,” Zolfran stuttered, “an emergency has arisen that requests my immediate attention. Anyway, I hope you enjoy the festival and the pageant, and I respectfully hand the floor over to the arch-priests, this year the Blue one first.” He waved at the crowd and flew away, not even waiting for the Blue arch-priest to take his place.


Zoroas, the incumbent observatory’s head, was a brilliant middle-aged White, outgoing and outspoken. Zolfran and him had attended the same classes during their youth, and they had become close friends. But whereas the former had chosen physics as his speciality, the latter had chosen astronomy. Their friendship had thus lost a bit of its substance in the following years, but Zolfran had been delighted to watch his former friend’s successful and much deserved career. He had moved up the hierarchy step by step, until he was finally appointed as head of the observatory.

He welcomed Zolfran with a smile, but the archon could smell something on the air that betrayed latent worry.

“So?” Zolfran asked.

“I have two news for you,” Zoroas answered. “One good, one bad. Pick up the one you want to hear first.”

“Go on with the good one first,” Zolfran said.

“The probes reported two potentially inhabitable planets in the system we’re targeting.”

Zolfran beamed. “Awesome!” he exclaimed. “Our long errand is over at last!” But somehow he sensed doubt in Zoroas’s eyes. “What’s the bad news?” he asked, in a more subdued tone.

“See by yourself,” Zoroas answered. He took a small remote and clicked on a button. The large glass board that lined the wall lit up and a slew of intricate patterns slid down from the top until the board was full of shining ideograms.

Zolfran glanced at the board. “What’s the problem?” he asked. “Rocks. Atmosphere. Water. Abundance of minerals. I don’t—”

“Here,” Zoroas cut in, gesturing with his tentacle to a small corner of the board.

Zolfran eyes bulged out, as a flow of hormones streamed out of his pores. “Oh shit! Oh fucking holy shit! Don’t tell me…” he faltered.

“Yes,” said Zoroas, and the radio receptor conveyed the resignation in his words. “One is blue, and the other red.”


“I… I need time to work things out,” Zolfran said. “This is a flashpoint situation. How long you think you can keep the information secret?”

Zoroas pouted. “A few hours? A few days at most? Journalists are in on it. I won’t be able to keep them at bay forever. The data will leak eventually, or they’ll suspect something is badly off, which is no better.”

Zolfran didn’t answer, but the atmosphere was saturated with his anxiousness. “Maybe we could cook the data and pretend the system is inhabitable? Or that the probes have failed?” he said at last.

“You’d renege on your oath? Be the first archon to be disgraced? I remind you the two arch-priests accept our leadership only because we, as scientists, swore to be equitable and honest. If they ever find out you’ve lied to them…”

“I mean… It doesn’t tip the scale either way. Both sides are in the same boat,” Zolfran protested.

“I wouldn’t bet on that if I were you. Besides, passing up that system would mean wait for a few other millennia before we come even close to the nearest one on our path. We’ve been able to keep the stifled hatred between the two communities under control, but I suppose you’re not blind and have seen how it seems to sprout again lately. Give it a couple of decades to boil over, and that’s a lifeless meteor which will reach the next system…”

Zolfran sighed. ”Why does it have to fall on me?”

Zoroas came closer and wrapped a tentacle around Zolfran’s shoulders. “Come on, big boy! I’m sure you’re gonna defuse this. You’ve a knack for it, otherwise you wouldn’t’ve been elected archon, would you? Think we’re only months away from our next house. That means you’ll be in charge to organise the disembarkation and the founding of the new colony. Isn’t that thrilling?”

“I was hoping for better conditions,” Zolfran said.

“Maybe we could disembark the Reds on the red planet and the Blues on the blue?”

Zolfran looked daggers at Zoroas. “Do you have other idiocies like that to put forward?” he exploded. “I’m sorry,” he apologised immediately. “Stress. But yes, what do you think would happen? At first, nothing maybe. But then the two colonies would soon become enemies and the war would start over. No, the only way to secure peace is to force all the people to live together, so that neither side would dare kindle the hostilities lest they all be destroyed. Well—” he broke off. “To be honest I’m not even sure that would work,” he added in a somber tone.

“There’s no reason to be pessimistic. I’m not acquainted with the arch-priests, but they don’t seem to be bad blokes,” Zoroas said.

“You’re wrong,” Zolfran replied in a whisper. “They look benign, but they’re fanatics.”


Zolfran was holding the tentacles of the two arch-priests. He had commanded his secretary to keep the meeting under utmost secret and not to be disturbed under any circumstances. The hostility between his two guests was evident. The room was so full of it that even a newborn would have noticed.

“Sirs,” he began. Protocol wanted the arch-priests to be called “Holinesses” but he had always refused to use a word he deemed ludicrous. “I’ve summoned you here to—”

“We know,” the red arch-priest cut in.

“What?” Zolfran exclaimed.

“Do you really think you could hide such crucial information away from us? We’re smarter than you believe, your… highness.” The last word was full of scorn.

“Naturally,” the blue arch-priest said in turn, “it is out of the question to think I will authorise this colony to settle on a red planet.”

“And likewise on a blue planet,” the red arch-priest added.

“Sirs,” Zolfran said. “Please. Don’t you think it’s a bit early for those sorts of threats? We’re still months ahead of this system and the data we received is preliminary. What if it turns out one of those worlds is inhabitable?” He felt anger well up inside him, but kept his electronic flow as courteous as possible.

“And why would it be so?” the red arch-priest asked. “Aren’t your probes the most reliable ever made? Aren’t you, you Whites, infallible?” He giggled.

“Well, there are many possible reasons,” Zolfran responded, fighting to keep his composure. “The atmosphere contains toxic gases. The planet is a water world without solid surface. The planet is already inhabited by a sapient species that wouldn’t welcome us. Or it is not, but life has developed, and we must deal with a slew of bacteria that maybe harmful to us, since our immune system has never been in contact with them. And so on.”

“Don’t even think about trying to deceive us,” the blue one snarled. “We know what you know, sometimes even before you do. We have scientists too, who have refused to embrace the neutrality chart you keep boasting, but who are nonetheless as apt as yourselves Whites. If you ever attempt to trick us by passing off some pseudo-scientific nonsense as genuine, we’ll know it right away, and you can forget about your archonship.”

This was the last straw. “Sirs, and what about your own oaths?” Zolfran roared. “Shall I remember you that you sworn to strive for the common weal and set your petty quarrels aside? Is that the way you honour the memory of the founders, especially on the day dedicated to them? What would your gods think of you? Aren’t you even ashamed to turn your prayers to them, your prayers of love and tolerance, while all you can think of is violence and prejudice? I warn you that I’ve been elected commander of this vessel and I won’t let you jeopardise this expedition and trample the dream our ancestors made so long ago, and for which they fought with their lives, just to satisfy your bloated egos and your crazy faiths. I don’t know who informed you, but I will soon find out, believe me. And I strongly suggest you keep a low profile for the weeks to come and not comment on that matter. My patience has limits, and you’d better not try it too much. This meeting is now dismissed. Goodbye, sirs.”

The two arch-priests broke the contact and exited. Zolfran slammed the door behind her. He breathed deeply, walked round his desk three times, then picked up the phone and called Zoroas.

“Yes,” Zoroas answered. The phone transmitted his electron flow directly.

“Zoroas? It’s Zolfran.”

“Oh, hi buddy! How did it go?”

“We’re way up a creek, Zoroas. And I’m afraid there’s no paddle to be found nearby.”


Much to his own surprise, Zolfran’s fears turned out to be unfounded: the next weeks elapsed in relative quietness. The information about the planets ahead was published in detail in the newspapers, barring the colour dilemma which was kept undisclosed. The scoop fired up a tidal wave of emotion in the community. People became excited and restless. This was a natural reaction: they had always lived in a confined space, where days and nights were simulated using thousands of light bulbs, and where the longest stroll would take two hours at most. The promise of abandoning what sometimes looked like a giant tomb to settle in the cozy cradle of a true planet had a deep appeal to everyone, especially since it also involved the epic dimension of a new world to tame. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Meanwhile, the scientists did not twiddle their tentacles. Zolfran and Zoroas lived under constant media crossfire, but they dismissed almost all requests, explaining it was far too soon to draw any sound plans and that what appeared to be promising could, after a more thorough examination, morph into a big disappointment, so caution had to be the word. Journalists did not really enquire about the colour of the planets and, when they did, they were given elusive answers which seemed to slack their curiosity. Nor did the two churches let the cat out of the bag, something Zolfran didn't stop marvelling. Could it be that his harsh upbraiding had brought back both arch-priest in the ways of wisdom? He had his doubts, but the facts doggedly contradicted him.

Other, more sophisticated probes were sent, and new data kept coming in,
until a broad picture of the looming system could be drawn. It was made up of about ten planets, the inhabitable ones set in third and fourth position. A large belt of asteroids separated the fourth from the gaseous giant fifth planet. More gaseous planets followed as one moved away from the central sun, and their temperature dropped into unbearable cold. On the other side, the first planet was barren and scorched by the fires of the nearby star and the second, swaddled in a thick atmosphere that looked interesting at first, but turned out after closer examination to be some sort of giant unbreathable kiln fuelled by a runaway greenhouse effect.

The third and blue planet, on the other hand, had a moderately thick atmosphere rich in nitrogen and oxygen. It was accompanied by a large natural satellite. Its colour stemmed from the large body of water that covered more than three quarters of it. Life has blossomed on its continents: the numerous pictures flowing in showed an extensive expanse of what seemed to be plants or trees, under twirling clouds of water. No sign of technology had been recorded however, either by eavesdropping on the radio spectrum or peeking at the dark side, which remained desperately dark. Nor did the pictures reveal any intelligent design in the landscape.

The fourth planet, the red one, was smaller. A small unique ocean bathed the shore of a vast ruddy contient cut up by a slew of rivers. The colour was caused by the pervasiveness of iron oxides, that had lapped up almost all the free oxygen. A large and impressive volcano sat right in the middle of it, and evident traces of recent lava spewing surrounded it. More worrying though was the thin and waning atmosphere: the first calculation showed that the air was trickling into space, and soon the ground pressure would be insuffisant to sustain liquid water. That planet was agonising, and it would take a long time and a complex machinery to breathe life back into it. Of course, if life still inhabited that world, it would have to be limited to its simplest forms – which could however prove as deadly as bigger ones.

As the weeks elapsed and more information was released in the papers, the idea of reaching the end of the voyage took more and more substance. Laymen, still ignorant of the colour strife, began to adapt to the idea and show impatience. Zolfran found more and more difficult to beat around the bush. At the end, as their meteorite-vessel entered the area of space dominated by the sun’s particle wind, he decided to organise a public conference where details of the future settlement would be discussed, and invited some of the most competent experts in the scientific community.

People came in droves. Zolfran opened the conference, disclosing at last that the first of the planet had ‘a blue tinge’ while the other had ‘a reddish hue’. He then solemnly declared that any decision to settle the colony on one or the other world would be based on strictly scientific grounds, and that it was out of the question that any of the churches had their say in the matter. Much to his surprise, the audience did not seem to react; or, of if it did, it was very subdued. Zolfran was puzzled. Could it be that each churches had secretly informed their flocks? If it was the case, then it had been done so slyly that it has gone unnoticed to Zolfran’s network of informers. This was unsettling, all the more that the inquiry he had ordered to find out who was the informer in the observatory team had failed. Zoroas himself was above suspicion: the guy was a fanatic in his own way; he would rather die than accept to speak to anyone of the clergy. Zolfran supposed that was the one reason why he had never got involved in politics.

What underhand plan could the churches be devising? On a brighter note, he then thought, maybe the people were just fed up with their lives in this comfortable jail, and wanted to put an end to it at whatever cost, even if it meant living on a planet whose dominant colour was the opposite of theirs.

The conference went on and the rest of day was spent discussing the issues of colonisation. Many different parameters had to be factored in: atmosphere, temperature, soil composition, presence of life, etc. so a lot of scientists went to great lengths to explain as simply as possible what the challenges were and how to address them. Zolfran, in his closing speech, explained that the vessel would be put in orbit around both worlds, and in-depth studies would then be carried out, that would involve both automated probe launches and, in a second phase, inhabited flights back and forth to ferry samples. That could take several years, and it was out of the question to take a rushed decision that could jeopardise the lives of all in the colony. So patience remained the master word.

It was logical to begin by the fourth planet, since it was the closest to them. Zolfran thus asked the engineering section to set course for the red planet, and received an estimation of ten days before reaching the goal.


Following the conference, the buzz subsided a little. People had realised their deliverance wasn’t for tomorrow, so in the meantime they had better return to their everyday jobs and activities. The press helped to relay the message for those who hadn’t been able to attend the conference.

The scientists, on the other hand, had never been so busy. As the ship barrelled ahead to the inner set of planets, instruments were deployed to register, capture, photograph, measure almost every physical parameter known. Zoroas and his team found themselves at the centre of the fray, processing tons of data and computing each of the planets’ and micro-planets’ orbital parameters. The ship trajectory was slightly altered three times to match their most recent calculations.

Eventually it flew past the large asteroid belt. The observatory fed the engineering section with the definitive figures needed to program the deceleration phase which would put the ship in elliptical orbit around the red planet. The delicate manoeuvre had to be carried out in a couple of hours, and Zolfran insisted he supervise it personally. In the meantime, he headed back home and took a catnap.

He was in the middle of it when the light of his private phone flashed. Half-reflexively he picked it up.

“Yes?” His current was sluggish.

“Your highness?” Zolfran recognised the electron flow of Zoblov, the chief engineer.


“Sir, helm has been sabotaged. We’re set on a different course, and cannot change it.”


“What happened?” Zolfran asked.

“We left the control room for a short while, and when we came back the situation was all messed up,” Zoblov answered. With one of his tentacles he pointed at the glass screen when the flight parameters were displayed. The figures were widely wrong, even a rookie in astronomy could figure it.

“Can’t you change it back?”

“See by yourself.” Zoblov motioned the helmsman to stand up and Zolfran sit at his post. He quickly punched some orders on the keyboard, rotated a few dials, but nothing happened. He was about to try and reboot the helm console when Zoblov’s phone rang. The chief engineer remained still a few seconds before hanging up.

“We’ve found the culprit,” he announced over his transmitter. “Someone installed an override circuit in the feeder chamber. It intercepts the helm console messages and substitutes its own.”

“Good job! Deactivate or bypass it,” Zolfran said.

“Impossible,” Zoblov replied. “It’s locked to a miniaturised Zoran’s energy fed detonator. Cut the wrong wire and the whole thing blows up. Goodbye reactors.”

Zolfran hesitated. “What’s the new course?”

“The blue planet,” Zoblov said.


Zolfran’s eyes turned away from the large monitor on which the disc of the red planet was slowly receding after the aborted orbital rendezvous. He looked daggers at the blue arch-priest.

“Do you realise the craziness of your act? Do you want to trigger another war?” Zolfran growled.

The arch-priest opposed a poker face to Zolfran’s anger. “How dare you accuse the church of committing that sabotage? Do you have any proof of your accusations? I’m ready to condemn the act, if you ask me to do so,” he replied calmly.

Zolfran’s eyes almost bulged out of their sockets. “Name me a nitwit, while you’re at it. Who would be so bonkers as to place a device like this, just to force us to fly to the blue planet first?”

“We’ve had a lot of problems with fanatics lately. Most of them don’t even listen to what the priests teach. But, it might also be an attempt to frame us?”

Zolfran grunted and shrugged. He pressed the button of a remote: “Look,” he said. A screen lit up. It was the picture of a wall, taken by a CCTV camera. Painted on it, a graffiti read “The Blues have robbed us from our planet.” It was obviously fresh. “I don’t know how the news got on the lose, but the Red church is aware of what happened. And they’re certainly preparing a riposte at the moment.”

“You should relax. I don’t see what the problem is,” the arch-priest said. “We head for the blue planet? What of it? Let’s visit it first, then you will have ample time to get back to the red one. Does the order matter so much? Such ado about nothing—”

“You?” Zolfran cut in. “You tell me the order does not matter? And you except me to swallow that hook, line and sinker? And how by the way am I supposed to recover the control over the reactor when we arrive there?”

The arch-priest giggled. “I’m sure you’ll figure out a way to neutralise the device by the time we get there. Aren’t you the most clever of all our scientists, like all the archons before you?”

“I find your humour rather unsavoury and—” At that moment the phone flashed. “Excuse me,” Zolfran said. He touched the electrode. “Yes?”

“Urgent message from Zoblov at engineering,” Zojar, his secretary, announced.

“Put him through!”

“Zolfran?” Zoblov’s flow carried a tinge of panic. “A squad of Reds has invaded the reactor using what we think is an old passage we believed to be blocked by boulders. They’re currently tampering with the detonator box.”

“WHAT?” Zolfran shouted. ”Drive them out!”

“They’ve locked the doors from inside. Blasting through them means we risk inadvertently destroy one cable and set the explosion———”

There was a huge detonation immediately followed by a powerful shockwave than sent anything and anyone in the room rocking. Objects toppled over and fell on the floor while small debris rained from the ceiling. Zolfran was sent rolling against a wall and crashed against it.

“HOLY SHIT!” he exclaimed over the radio when the tremor subsided. His body was aching. He looked over him, but saw no open wound except minor grazings. He stood up, rubbed his bruised limbs, then flew off through the door.


The control room was in shambles: the ceiling had caved in under the shock of the explosion, destroying about all the delicate electronic equipment. Emergency medical response teams were already at work clearing the rubble, but there was little chance to find any survivors given the circumstances. Zolfran asked for Zoblov, but he knew it was a rhetorical question. So he didn’t flinch when he was told that the chief engineer lay buried somewhere under the debris.

He asked one of Zoblov’s assistants for a damage report. The young engineer answered that about half of the reactor had been blown up. The thick metallic doors and the overall structure had miraculously resisted, and no major air leak was reported. But it would take years to repair, admitting repair was even possible in this cramped space. In any case, that would involve long and intricate works in the void. It was, in his own words, ‘basket case’.

Zolfran’s phone rang once more. This time it was Zokolus, the police head. “People are out in the streets and it doesn’t look good,” he told Zolfran. “We’ve already spotted brawls. People pick up all they find around to smash or pelt at the others. The Reds charge the Blues with this mess, who return the charges. Barricades are being put up right now. You have to do something real fast, otherwise it’ll skid out of control and god knows what will happen then.”

“On my way,” Zofran answered. He hung up, phoned his secretary to summon the arch-priests in his office on the double, and scooted off.


Alone in his office, Zolfran was waiting for the arch-priests. They were on their way, but almost every street was clotted and barred, and none of them would even risk falling in the hands of fanatics of the other side.

He turned his attention to the only glass screen that had survived the explosion unscathed; it showed a map of the city. Damage report was flowing in, colouring each building in red, orange or green according to the extent of destruction it had sustained. But that was not what Zolfran was focussing on. Haphazardly over the streets, blue pins popped up into existence every second: they indicated the places where violence had flared up. On the lower left corner, a figure tallied the number of casualties. It was already over one hundred, and was increasing by the minutes.

Zolfan sighed, picked up his phone and called Zoroas. Fortunately, the observatory was located at the other end of the meteorite and had undergone only minor damage. He asked his friend for updated data on their trajectory. Zoroas answered that it was a bit too soon to be definitive, but the explosion had not made them deviate much from their former course. They were still bound to graze the blue planet, albeit they had been given a boost. Preliminaries calculations showed they should pass about twenty thousand kilometres away from it.

Zolfran thanked Zoroas and hung up. He remained poised for a long while, then rang engineering up. He inquired about the shuttles, and was told in response that they were almost intact. He had a plan, and exposed the short and the long of it to the assistant that had taken over after Zoblov’s death. Then he phoned Zoroas again, spelled out again what he had on his mind. They discussed for a short while, and both agreed. Zolfran asked for the observatory to compute the necessary figures and hand them over directly to engineering. Then he hung up and waited for the arch-priests to come.


“Do you have anything reasonable to put forward?” Zolfran asked. “The situation is now out of the police’s ability to control. Shall we simply wait until there’s no one left alive?”

”Don’t expect us to make any sort of apology,” the red arch-priest said. “We’re not the ones who started this mess, so it’s not up to us to end it.”

”I don’t see why the all the charge would fall on us,” the blue retorted. “If that team of Reds hadn’t tried to tamper with the device, this catastrophe wouldn’t have happened. That’s clearly not our fault.”

“Maybe you could make a joint statement calling for peace and owning up to mutual responsibility?” Zolfran said.

“But why would have I to own up to something the Reds did?” the blue arch-priest protested. “It’s out of the question. I’d rather die than comply.”

“Likewise,” the red one added.

Zolfran looked at them, one after the other. “Is that your final word?”

“Definitely,” the red arch-priest replied. The other one nodded in turn.

“So you’d prefer dying than apologising?” Zolfran asked.

There was no answer.

Zolfran suddenly felt a determination he never had experienced in those last weeks. He picked up the phone and called engineering. “There’s no hope,” he said. “Proceed as planned.”

Seconds later, a slight quake shook the building. “Jettison,” Zolfran ordered. He hitched the output of the phone to the radio emitter.

“Your wish has been granted,” Zolfran said to both arch-priests. Then, over the phone, “How long before collision,” he asked.

“Three hours and twenty minutes,” the voice of the assistant answered.

“What?” the blue arch-priest blurted.

“We’re now set on a collision course with the blue planet,” Zolfran said. “You heard it. We’ve three last hours to live.”

“But… how?“ the red-one asked. “I thought the reactor was blown up.”

“The engines of the shuttles provided the necessary kick. It didn’t need that much energy. But…” He trailed off, hunched slightly to open a drawer. When his tentacle reappeared from beneath the desk, it was holding a Zoran’s hand weapon. “I will be merciful with you. You won’t even have to wait that long.”

Zolfran drew a bead and shot the blue arch-priest first, then the red one. He paused to look at the lifeless bodies now sprawled on the floor of his office, then turned the nose of the weapon towards his head and pressed the trigger.


Drzbl was eating his daily ration of leaves when something up in the air caught his eye. It was like a glaring ball of fire, brighter than the sun itself, dashing through the sky. When it passed high above him, it was accompanied by deafening thunder and a wave of blistering hot air. Then it continued on its mad course, until it disappeared over the horizon. Drzbl forgot about it straight away and returned to his grazing.

But seconds later the earth shook, a huge and formidable quake that sent Drzbl’s giant body tumbling over and over. Trees fell on him, cracks opened in the ground, and he was thrown into one of them, helplessly wriggling his limbs in search of a purchase he would never find.

Nor would ever his pea-sized apatosaurus brain figure out what had just happened.
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#1 ·
· · >>PaulAsaran >>Monokeras
Poor Drzbl...

The intro made me have a few doubts, there must be a better way to dish out that exposition because as it stands right now there are several paragraphs that could be woven more naturally in the rest of the story, but I understand you wanted the enmity between Reds and Blues to be established early on.

Another aspect I feel could be improved is the way Zolfran comes to the decision of doing some extreme landscaping. I can see how the scaling events slowly chipped away at his resolve until he decided to kill several birds with one stone, but I feel this could hve had much more impact had we gotten to read about how he was feeling, what he thought, how he felt his reaolution waver and how he may be failing thise who came before.

On that note, several parts--specially at the beginning--felt dry since they were just chunks of "This is happening, now this is happening. Then this". That's not bad per se, but it's one of the things that made the intro feel slightly less catchy.

Other than that, however, I loved the story. I liked the characters, they felt sufficiently real and was invested in them, and I liked the diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

Good job.
#2 ·
· · >>Monokeras
Funny thing; the moment I read about red and blue planets and their current state, I correctly guessed where this was going. I can only assume there were survivors thanks to certain... shall we call them myths?

All in all, I enjoyed this. While not written to be 'fun,' I can't help but think creating this otherwordly culture was enjoyable. I certainly enjoyed reading about it. It may not have been the most emotional story I've read – I concur with >>Zaid Val'Roa on the "this happened, then this happened" complaint – but in terms of concept I fully approve.

That said, I don't like Zolfran's decision, or at least the way he reached it. It seems to me like it would take a lot more than the things that have happened here to lead to that kind of conclusion. When you consider the consequences of his actions and the legacy of these people, I find it ludicrous that engineering and Zoroas would so quickly agree to them. I think that hurts this story more than anything else.

Still, not a bad story on the whole.
#3 ·
· · >>Monokeras
Once the conflict between Reds and Blues has been established and once I've read about our solar system, I knew exactly how it would end, and that killed the surprise. The only surprise was the reason why the meteorite would crash instead of landing and the reason given by the story... I don't know, it seemed rushed. While Zolfran seemed to be the logical type, thinking before acting, we don't really see why he has chosen to destroy everything so I can't buy it.

I would lazily echo what Zaid Val'Roa and PaulAsaran have said. It needs some polish but it is still good.
#4 · 3
· · >>Ranmilia >>Monokeras
These whatevers need to figure out how to start names with some other letter than 'Z'. Or make their names more dissimilar some other way, maybe.

I utterly failed to engage with this. Sorry, author, but although your paragraph/scene construction/sci-fi aspects are sound enough, your characters really turned me off here.

I had a really hard time caring about much of anything that was going on. I had trouble telling the characters apart, with their nearly similar names, and it didn't help that they all seemed like flimsy strawmen. Evil Religion A, Evil Religion B, Incompetent Scientist C. None of them seemed to have a brain license.

The end was cute, but I kinda saw it coming.

The transmitter thing was a neat concept, though.
#5 ·
· · >>Monokeras
This could have used some editing, but otherwise, it's pretty good. I was not, however, able to discover the planets until I read the comments. This makes me sad.

It was made up of about ten planets

What inspired the number 10? According to the definition of a planet, there are only eight. The number 8 is not including the five dwarf planets that have been discovered.
#6 ·
· · >>Monokeras
Sisyphus — B — Opening hook is very telly and not very hookey. Bad start. Extra comma. Extra colon. Use of ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ when referring to a… um… person? It smooths out later, but drags a little. Ok, a lot. Then picks up. Satisfying conclusion. Not bad at all. Needs several passes to trim down to size and to pad up certain descriptions, plus some smoothing between some chunky sections, but it’s got a good beat and I can dance to it.
#7 · 1
· · >>Monokeras
The idea was good, but maybe a little clunky, and in need of an edit. I liked the read a fair amount, and thought some of the descriptions and words used were quite interesting. The paragraphs began to read more smoothly around the second act, from what I could tell. I don't have an awful lot to say other than that, except that I agree that Zolfran's decision could have been reached in a better way. I liked the epilogue though, that was an entertaining way to end things.

There's a good story there, slightly marred by small issues maybe, but definitely there. The author doesn't need to worry about the structure of the story, that seems to be well executed, but maybe work on including more descriptions, and making it easier to differentiate between characters.

Thanks for the read!

#8 · 1
· · >>Monokeras
Odd title choice. I'm not really sure what this has to do with the myth of Sisyphus, as Zolfran's struggle isn't very repetitive or doomed to futility.
They were listening to a White male, so no doubt he had arrived in the middle of a science period.

That is an amazing quote, though. Sick STEM burns. I like the Blue vs Red divide a bit less, though. "The Blue and Red political/religious factions are equally stupid and both turn to terrorism" is, uh, a statement that MIGHT have some other possible readings at this particular point of history.

Moving on to the actual story, it's competently bouncy most of the time. Section I is super boring and full of infodumps, but later on things get moving. Unfortunately, I couldn't ever fully get into it, because there are a number of critical flaws and plot holes that I can't not think about. My suspension of disbelief is strained too far to buy much anything, so surface enjoyment's about all I could get from it. Let's go through the issues:

1. The existence of a universal matter-from-nothing constructor that can make whatever you want it to. This device is not only unnecessary to the plot that follows, it's actively detrimental, because it poses a perpetual question of "why is ANY of this happening when anyone could just walk up to a thingmaker and have it produce whatever you want?" Why not print a new engine and fuel after the old ones blow up? Why not print your own ships, stations and even planets and stars? Why does the thingmaker even exist when it's never referenced again? Well, it is, in fact, never referenced again, so this one's fairly easy to shelve.

2. Why are the red and blue societies living together, instead of separately? "Something something wars, peace treaty requires it" is not a very believable explanation. It doesn't work. The story itself illustrates that it doesn't work, and it's unbelievable that it would have worked for as long as it's said to when the factions hate each other as much as they do.

3. Just what were they expecting to find? Any planet or planetoid with significant iron in its soil is going to appear red. Any planet with water under an earthlike atmosphere is going to have the oceans look blue. Jupiter has a great red spot and most of the gas giants appear blue. Stars themselves are red or blue depending on their size and temperature. This never came up in basic astronomy?

4. How do the sabotages succeed? Why is security so lax when the scientists have seen this issue coming for a while? Wouldn't locking down mission critical equipment to White access only be the first thing anyone does? If the factions are able and motivated to pull off false flag terrorist attacks, why have they never done it before? Why does Zolfran have enough political pull to keep the peace until now, but no more? Kind of getting back into #2 there, but still.

There's a writing principle that, loosely paraphrased, says a writer is allowed one free pass. One "no explanations given or necessary, it just is" conceit to kickstart their story. But only one - introduce another and you're in trouble. You can have a universal constructor that runs on magic, but then you have to think through its implications, and everything else has to have a rational explanation. So it is here. I could give any of these individual items a pass by themselves, but when they're all together, the story isn't believable.

How would I improve this? Cut most of it, honestly. All of section I can go, for sure. For II and III... the story as it stands goes in too many different directions. It's a serious political drama, but also a social farce, but also a character piece, but also a space disaster adventure, light in tone, dark in tone, serious ending, joke ending... You can't do all that at the same time and have it come out as anything coherent. Pick one major concept, maybe one sub-concept, and just do those. A complete overhaul is probably necessary to get this onto a level above "turn your brain off and live in the moment for each individual paragraph."

So basically what >>Not_A_Hat said, except I used a lot more words. Don't be like me.

All that having been said, I don't hate this or anything. It's about as good as you can get for a "turn your brain off" story, and I can easily imagine how it came to be. Thank you for writing!
#9 ·
· · >>Monokeras
This wasn't bad, and had some interesting concepts, but my biggest issue was the ending. It was a real no sell for me.

You've set up this character, Zolfran, who is the latest scientist cast dud in charge of a generation ship. We see him interacting with the rest of the passengers. We see him smiling as he watches the children in their classrooms. And then, at the end we see him, in a fit of nihilistic pique, intentionally kill the entire population of his little world-ship. Red, Blue, and White, men, women, and children. He goes from struggling to hold everything together to just saying.. "Screw it, everyone here deserves to die?" That's... A bit of a jump.

Not only that, but he has enough clout / followers / etc to enact said plan. Meaning that not only does he go full on homicidal / suicidal, but important portions of his crew agree with him and decide "What the hell, let's put this bitch down hard!" Wow. Talk abut doing a terrible job screening your engineers for mental stability...

Now, I can totally see and understand him wasting the red and blue religious leaders. And if he'd followed that up by trying to end violence, but find himself unable to do so... And things get progressively worse and worse... Until at the end he's either the commander of a dead world ship, or simply unable to prevent the impact, despite his best efforts... Or even deciding that he's just not up to the job, and have him commit suicide after killing the other leaders in the hope/assumption that his successor will be better able to handle the situation... I could have bought any of those as viable options. There would have been a lot more pathos there too, with Zolfran's best efforts to stave off disaster failing on after another, or even making the situation worse...
#10 ·
· · >>PaulAsaran >>QuillScratch >>Not_A_Hat >>georg
First, I'd like to apologise to everyone who read my story. I wished you had a better experience and I’m sorry it didn’t live up to your expectations.

As it stands, the story is literally on the fence. Either it’s bound to be a short story and, as most of you pointed out, the first section is useless and could be shuffled into other parts of the text or simply written off altogether, or it needs further development into a sort of novella, with more insight into Zolfran’s thoughts and such. I hesitated to add more descriptions and Zolfran’s inner thoughts, but I was afraid a “fleshed out” version would come as too telly. In fact, I was also conscient I had no space to develop what the red and blue religions’ tenets would be, and that left you with the impression that they were terrorists and only that.

Part of the explanation is tied to the way I have to tackle short story rounds. In fact, I have to begin to write right away, because I have little time to dedicate to writing during week-ends. This story did not buck the trend, and I finished it five minutes before the deadline, which meant zero editing and no critical view on the structure.

I’m happy no one noticed any egregious English mistakes. That’s a good point. I think it may be time for me that I concentrated more on the structure and transitions rather than on the English, which has been my main focus so far.

Ah, yes. Some genealogy. Zoran’s equation was inspired by a famous book by René Barjavel, France’s Science Fiction father and discoverer of the time-loop paradox. The book is called La Nuit des Temps, English The Ice People. It’s like a prerequisite for every (French) teen who discovers Science-Fiction.

Uniform Zo- names were inspired by Star Trek Vulcans whose names all begin by S- for males, and T- for females.

Zolfran’s final decision could be summarised thus: “How can a race which could start a war over such a trifle even be allowed to survive?” This is my general misanthropy surfacing. Fully in accord with that remark from Bertrand Russell about soul immortality: “We may regret the thought that we shall not survive, but it is a comfort to know that all the persecutors and Jew-baiters and humbugs will not continue to exist for all eternity. We may be told that they would improve in time, but I doubt it.” (in Religion and Science, 1935)

Some answers:

"The Blue and Red political/religious factions are equally stupid and both turn to terrorism" is, uh, a statement that MIGHT have some other possible readings at this particular point of history.
That was deliberate. I always liked science-fiction that carried in its overtones a social message, and I try to do the same, even if it’s a bit on-the-nose because I’m just bad.

All that having been said, I don't hate this or anything.
You should have. It was middling at most.

I had a really hard time caring about much of anything that was going on. I had trouble telling the characters apart, with their nearly similar names, and it didn't help that they all seemed like flimsy strawmen. Evil Religion A, Evil Religion B, Incompetent Scientist C. None of them seemed to have a brain license.
I know Hat you hate what I write, but grousing about all the names being the same seems a bit overboard. Your analysis about A and B I share, but I didn’t intended to write an incompetent Zolfran. If I did, then the incompetent is I, not he.

Fair enough.

>>Zaid Val'Roa
I’m sorry to have failed you one way or the other. I’m going to nuke that story right away. Please just forget you read it.
#11 · 2
· · >>QuillScratch >>Monokeras
I’m sorry to have failed you one way or the other. I’m going to nuke that story right away. Please just forget you read it.

What? No. No no. Just no. That is not even remotely the right way to go about things.

This is – was? – your story. You should be proud of it. Yes, people pointed out bad things, but there were some great things in there too, in case you chose to ignore them. Nuking the story? Let's say you do decide to revise and improve upon it. If it were me, I'd want this old version to remain as a showing of where things started and how I've improved. You don't throw away your history like so much trash, you keep it around to remind you of what you've done wrong.

Contests aren't just for writing good stories, they're for self improvement. Is that not why we're all here? Keep your trash. You never know when it'll prove useful.
#12 · 7
· · >>Monokeras
Agreeing with this. Also:

First, I'd like to apologise to everyone who read my story. I wished you had a better experience and I’m sorry it didn’t live up to your expectations.

I’m sorry to have failed you one way or the other. I’m going to nuke that story right away. Please just forget you read it.

Mono, you have not failed anyone. And nobody has expectations going into a writeoff story, so I guarantee you haven't failed to meet their expectations, either.

Writing a story that contained things that people didn't like isn't failure. It's normal.

Reading a story that isn't polished or doesn't feel fully thought-out in a writeoff does not feel like being let down. It's normal.

Having a reader read your story and interpret something in a way you weren't expecting isn't bad. It's normal.

I have read a lot of stories in my time, Mono. Some of them are very, very good. Some of them are very, very bad. Most of them are somewhere in the middle. Yet no matter how bad, boring, bland, or incompetent a story may be, I have never truly wanted to forget that a story exists*. Reading stories, even the worst stories I've ever read, has always brought something positive to my life, even if I might not have noticed it at the time.

Please, never think that you have failed your readers by writing a less-than-perfect story—especially a story written under strict time constraints, in a language that isn't your native tongue. Every time anyone enters something into the writeoffs, it is an achievement to be proud of, no matter the result. You don't have to be proud of the story itself to be proud of the fact that you wrote a thing, and it wasn't totally awful.

Lastly, Mono, I'd like you to go back and re-read every review on this. Almost every single one (ignore !Hat. He's being a grumpy-guts ❤) has something they enjoyed about this story—and several liked it very much, despite the criticism. You have not failed your readers. You've done something amazing, and I find it a shame that you think anything else.

*Okay, with the exception of some weird fetishy stuff. That doesn't really count.
#13 ·
First I really appreciate you taking the time to answer me. But, I mean, I don't see any added value in keeping that schlock alive. Improving on it? What for? What purpose would that serve? Who would be interested in it, even remotely?

I mean, you don't frame your E-graded papers and affix them in your room so that each morning you can contemplate them and say "Wow, I was such a klutz at that time". You take your paper, bin it and suck up your grade. Likewise, no museum exposes low-grade art.

I don’t see any reason to be proud of what I wrote. It was barely creative, had major flaws and rattled almost anyone.

Who was that famous writer who used to throw his bad manuscripts into the fire? Hugo? Maupassant? Flaubert? Can’t remember. But I mean everything I write is disposable, throwaway, single use, like medical stuff. I’ve learnt what was wrong, let’s try to implement and move on.

Everyone comes to the WriteOff with the expectation to enjoy good stories. Not being able to deliver that is a failure to me, as I’m under the impression that I squander away others’ time and try their patience. That’s why I dearly apologise.
#14 ·
· · >>Monokeras
I know Hat you hate what I write,

This isn't the first time you've said this to me, even though I've tried to tell you several times that I don't feel that way. I'm sorry you've gotten this impression so strongly. I guess, despite my best efforts, I haven't been kind or gentle enough in my reviews. The most strongly I've ever felt about your stories is mild annoyance.

But, if one person feels this way, then there are probably others who haven't said anything.

So, to start with, I'd like to apologize. Monokeras, I'm truly sorry that I've left this impression on you. I don't want you to feel like I hate your stories, and I apologize for everything I've done that's made you feel that way.

If anyone else feels I've been unkind or unfair to them or someone else in my reviews, now or in any round, please give me a chance to apologize by leaving me a note here or on Discord. I'll do my best to make my reviews more useful and less hurtful in the future.

For now, I've written up a short piece on how and why I review. If anyone's interested in my thought processes, or has suggestions on how I can make my reviews fit it better, find it here: How Not_A_Hat tries to comment on Writeoff stories.

I in light of this, I don't think I'll be commenting next round. Hopefully, with a bit of distance, I can gain some perspective on what I've done to give this impression and how to better communicate my intentions.
#15 ·
Hat, that was a joke. Nothing personal. While it is true most of what I write doesn't really enthuse you, I mean that's perfectly fine.

Dang not only do I write bad stories, but I manage also to put wonderful people off.

So sorry. :( :( :( I mean I really feel like a prick now.
#16 · 2
· · >>Monokeras
>>Monokeras Don't apologize for writing something I liked. I just liked some other stuff more. There's some interesting three-phase potential in here that could be developed, maybe some humor, etc...

Il meglio è nemico del bene
#17 ·
Then I can apologise for not writing something you would've liked more.