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The Grass isn't Greener · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Show rules for this event
As far as he could remember, Jim had always been a fan of “ecology”. Not that the term meant much these days, but thumbing old books about plants and animals, or hopelessly trying to catch the fleeting shadow of a panicked rodent or the green fleck of a rogue grass tuft growing in a gutter were one of his favourite past time during his morning and evening commutes. His chances were low though: few were the species which could adapt to the kingdom of concrete and steel the continent has become. Even birds had been cast away by the repeated pollution episodes, and the ruthless war led by the sanitary authorities against flying insects had resulted in the total eradication of what minute number had managed to survive.

Only rats, it was said, had survived deep inside the underground sewers maze, though little was known of them. Apparently, some might have been spotted on transient images taken by the cleaning machines which relentlessly paced the noisome pipes. On what they fed and what sort of life they lived no one dared think about. But their presence was a constant nag to the authorities, and might have been to the most fearful people, too. Jim remembered one of his colleagues telling him how she had dreamt about their countless furry legions silently slithering out of the manholes, then proceed to invade every home and slaughter their residents before finally take the city over.

Could rats be the future of humankind?

What remained of vegetation was a booby trap for naïve eyes: even if they looked the same from a distance, trees and grass were all made of plastic, or of whatever new synthetic material closer to the look and feel of the original, living models. But no oxygen would ever come out of those sheeny green leaves, which stubbornly stuck to their twigs even in the harshest of winters. They wouldn’t grow either, and, most of all, they didn’t require any care beyond occasional cleaning with high pressure water jets. Modern society had no time to waste on such unproductive trivialities.

The white, nondescript walls of Jim’s small, nondescript “flat” – cubicle would have been a better word, but it was nevertheless officially called a “flat” – were also spattered with photographs of forests and fields. Old stuff he had inherited from his great-grand-parents, the last generation to have caught a glimpse of the ancient world, though they had been infants when the Catastrophe had struck. Back from work, Jim liked to immerse himself into those pictures of a bygone age, imagine himself lying deep into the lush grass and spending his day looking up at the sky watching birds and clouds, doing nothing except fill his lungs with oxygen and bathe in the perfume of turf and earth.

But of course, even a single blade of grass was a luxury no one could afford now, not even the richest amongst the rich.

And yet. Yet, there were… this.

How had it begun? Rumours and banter, of course. There had always been. But Jim had always dismissed them as pure imagination: throughout the ages, people had always dreamt about better places. “Utopia” was the word they used. They needed something to hold on, something to buoy them up all along their bland lives, and what would have been better than the promise of a bright future, either in this world or in the other?

Until the day when that strange email had landed on his desk. As chief security officer of a large software company, one of Jim’s routine task was to monitor the constant flow of in and out emails, and spot anything that might have seemed suspicious. That day, in the logs, he saw the footprint of a weird message. The sender’s address was obviously faked, but that happened a lot, especially with fraudulent emails. The recipient address was wrong and had resulted in a non-delivery status, that was why the email had crashed into Jim’s own mailbox, nor did it seem to him that any employee has ever borne such a name, at least since he has joined the company. What was really baffling, though, was that the headers had been somehow removed, so the email appeared to have popped up from nowhere. There was no easy way to remove headers from emails, since all messages were automatically stamped by the relaying devices. Somehow this meant ultra protected code has been tampered with.

Uncanny also was the message enclosed. It simply said: “Want to change life? Dreaming of green fields and wild animals? Then click here and let the adventure begin!” The link, however, was empty, so clicking on it wouldn’t produce any effect. It was like a clickbait message from nowhere to nowhere.

Where could the message come from, and who could have sent it? This became, during the next day, like an obsession to Jim. And thus he decided to set out on his own private investigation over the following weeks. He gathered the binary code of the various routers of his company, and conducted a systematic disassembly process, followed by an in-depth scan, with the help of several classified IA tools. It took him almost half a year, mostly because this was a background task he carried on only when he was at loose ends, but at the end, he had something: a small segment of code which appeared to be triggered by a keyword in the subject line, and whose purpose was to take out headers from emails. The keyword was a simple name “Gardenia”, which, he quickly found out, was the name of a plant or tree.

Out of curiosity, and to confirm his discovery, he sent an email from an external address to himself with that word as subject and nothing in the message itself. To his utmost surprise, when it landed on his mailbox, the message was not empty but read the same as the first message he had intercepted. Except that, this time, the link was active and pointed to a bare IP address. How this has been inserted? Jim had no idea.

Besides, the IP address was ill-formed and incomplete, but Jim quickly recognised this as normal: it wasn’t intended to be keyed in into the widely available browsers, but rather into a special, modified version of Quaestor often used by hackers to explore and find vulnerabilities in the websites of state agencies. Using his position, he had enjoyed an easy access to the illegal version, pretending it was for security assessment purposes.

So Jim fired the app and punched the IP in. It took several seconds, an eternity for anyone used to the latest technologies, before the app reacted. No wonder: the packets were heavily encrypted and dripped into the network, so as to blend into the main rushing stream and pass unnoticed. But at last the window went black and a single message appeared.

It was a pair of coordinates, and a timestamp.

It looked like an appointment.

The street was dark and deserted, lined with the vaguely menacing shape of ramshackle buildings. Jim kept asking himself why he had been foolish enough to go there, spot on in the middle of the city’s most sketchy borough, on what everyone else would have been called a whim. There was, however, something appealing in this situation, a level of weirdness he had never experience in his life before. As an author of the former world has written: “When the mystery is big enough, you dare not shrug it off”.

Pacing down the alley, he was nervously scanning every building, his right hand almost squeezing his concealed handgun, ready to push the trigger had anyone threatening showed up. But no one did, and Jim walked safely to the point the coordinates given to him pointed at, facing a metallic door at the entrance of another rundown building. Looking around for any presence, he softly knocked at the door. His rapping resounded hollow, so without expecting someone to show up and open, he pushed on the door. It creaked as it hinged inwards, and Jim stepped inside.

The hall was dark, and empty, though the rear part was lost to darkness so Jim couldn’t properly evaluate its dimensions. All of sudden, the front door slammed shut behind him with a loud bang, which made Jim jump, draw his gun out and spin. He stood, his heart pounding in his chest, with both his extended arms joined to hold and swing the gun, trying to make out any living thing in the gloom. But when the last echoes had died away, a hush fell again. Jim exhaled loudly, then slowly relax, letting his arms hanging back loose.

At that very moment, with a click, a hidden spot light was turned on. Jim turned around once more. The light fell directly on a white chair set in the middle of the room. “Jim!” a voice called from everywhere at once – loudspeakers, Jim thought. “Please take a seat.” It was not threatening, not even commanding. Just the standard voice of someone inviting someone else to sit at a meeting. So warily, scanning left and right for any presence and holding his gun, Jim walked to the chair. As soon as he had sat, a hidden monitor switched on, displaying images of a gorgeous landscape covered in grass, trees and hedges.

“Isn’t it was you have ever dreamt of”, the voice asked.

“Who are you?” Jim asked in return.

“This place,” the voice carried on, ignoring Jim’s question, “is very much real. It is called Gardenia. Gardenia is the only place on Earth were the old world could be preserved. There is no concrete building in Gardenia. No invading tarmac. But there is grass, trees, bees, and all sort of animals.

Gardenia is located far away overseas, and no commercial flight is permitted to fly over it. It has a limited extension, and as such, can welcome only a limited number of people. New people aren’t permitted to enter unless someone dies, so the population is maintained constant. You can be the next person to join this privilege community. Will you?”

The monitor kept showing beautiful overlooks. Even in his wildest dreams, Jim had not thought that possible. It was as if the paradise of the old religions had descended on Earth. “Why me?” he asked.

“Not anyone is eligible to go there. We need people who will fully reckon how fortunate they are. People who will cherish their future home, so that they passed it unspoiled to their successor when the die. We need smart and passionate individuals. It seemed to us that you could be one of those. Hence our message.”

”How? How did you manage to reach me? To hack the routers and—”

”I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the voice replied, and Jim thought he could detected some overtones of sarcasm in it. “We didn’t do anything like that.”

“What am I supposed to do?”

“It’s very easy: just be at the right place, at the right time again.” Softly rustling as it glided down from the darkness above, a sheet landed at Jim’s feet. He stooped to pick it up. Once again, there was only a pair of coordinates and a timestamp. “Remember, you can drop out anytime. If you don’t show up at the exact place exact time, we will simply move on to our next candidate, and you will never hear from us anymore. It’s your call now.”

Jim considered the sheet, pondering a little while over the figures written on it. “There’s a catch, of course, innit?”

“There is no catch,” the voice answered, this time more suavely. “Only one condition. This is a single ticket. Gardenia’s existence has been kept secret for almost a century now, no one living there is permitted to keep contact with anyone living in this part of the world. So you’ll have to say goodbye to your friends.”

Jim sighed. He wasn’t particularly emotionally engaged with anyone since he had broken his childless marriage a few years ago, so he wouldn’t really miss anyone, and he thought no one would miss him either. Yet, such a decision was hard to make.

“Are we authorised to carry our stuff with us?”

“No,” the voice replied. “You’ll be furnished with everything necessary once you reach Gardenia. This is a new life, much like a butterfly breaking out from a chrysalis. You have to leave your old life behind. That’s the rule.”

There was a pause. Jim was slightly overwhelmed. No other question popped up in his mind.

“Very well,” the voice resumed. “See you soon. Or not. Goodbye for now.”

With another lugubrious creaking, the front door cracked open. It was a dismissal. Wordlessly, Jim stood up, folded the sheet and shoved it into one pocket. He put back his gun in his belt, and slowly shuffled to the door and outside. As soon as he had crossed the threshold, the door slammed again. Jim paused, looked around, then slowly walked backed to the nearest metro station.

He still didn’t feel very sure about this. It might have been a trap, after all. But if it was, it would be the strangest trap Jim had ever fallen it. He had checked the code of the routers, the very next day after his first meeting: there was no more trace of the rogue code. Everything had reverted as he should have been. The extra code had vanished. Sending an email with Gardenia as subject had not triggered anything anymore. The organisation which had planned the whole affair had much clout, and probably some sort of official support, which could explain the ease with which they had broken into the software.

Jim was waiting in the rain, slouching against the brick wall of another crumbling building lost in another forlorn quartier of the megalopolis he was living in. For someone who was wont to spend all his days downtown amidst the upper crust, the very fact that areas like this one existed was an unsettling discovery. He wasn’t even sure people could actually live in such slums. Actually, he hadn’t crossed anyone since he had emerged from the underground station, although, to be honest, it was two in the morning, and rare would have been the people still out at that time, especially under such a pour.

He was lost in thought when the splashing of tyres came to his ears. He raised his head and saw a dark car coming along the street towards him. It stopped when it reached his level. The rear door opened and someone inside said “Come in, we’re expecting you.”

Jim walked to the door, stooped and looked inside. A hooded figure was sat at the rear end of the seat. He couldn’t see its face, nor was he able to make out any distinctive traits of the driver, whose lush hair masked everything else, and who seemed to stare fixedly at the road ahead.

“Are you—”

“Yes,” the passager reply. “Hurry up. We must leave this place as soon as possible.”

Jim hesitated, ever so slightly. Then, exhaling, he stepped in and close the door behind him. Right away, the car peeled out down the street, and veered at the next crossing.

The passenger took his hood off. He was a dark hair, somewhat handsome guy with sharp blue eyes. He reached out to Jim. “I’m Gary”, he said. “Please to meet you. And welcome to Gardenia!”

“Jim,” Jim replied. They shook hands.

"I know,” Gary replied. “Relax, all you have to do now, is enjoy the trip, and your future life.” He smiled brightly. “Here,” he carried on, pointing at the seat in front of Jim, “you can enjoy a documentary about Gardenia. Much more detailed than what you have got to see until now. If you have any questions about it, please feel free to ask me.”

Jim turned to face the back of the front seat. A monitor started displaying images of blue and green, much like the ones he had seen during his first encounter. He grabbed the headphones, and put them over his ears.

He barely heard Gary apologise as he was seized by two metallic rings which sprang from his seat and a sharp prick ran through his left arm. He could only jerk his head towards Gary and cast him a puzzled look before blackness fell on him and he lost consciousness.

Jim swept away the sweat from his forehead, as he contemplated the two yoked oxen he had put to a still and the rest of the field that remained to be tilled. More than half remained, and he was not sure he would be able to finish before the sunset as the foreman had requested. It was too hot. The earth was clumpy and dry, and big chunks of rock were hampering the progression of the beasts, who were slogging away under the heat. He had to stop every ten minutes to let them rest a bit.

Slowly, he grasped the wineskin from his loincloth belt and drank what few drops still remained in it. He didn’t think he had ever known a drought of such intensity… at least he couldn’t remember. That was weird. He couldn’t bring back anything from the past beyond a certain point, about five summers ago. His brain seemed to have wiped out all his childhood. It was as if a black hole has engulfed all of his early life. Not that he was particularly upset about it: everyone around here seemed to experience the same syndrome.

Except… a vague feeling. There was a longing in him. The fuzzy, shifting and wistful appeal for someplace else, somewhere far away. A place with… machines? Computers? He was positive those words existed, he had learnt them, and they had meant something to him. But what?

A place where they was food at every meal, a place where you didn’t have to sweat and slave away all day to win your meagre evening ration. A place rife with magic and joy and boisterous parties lasting late into the night. A place where you never felt hot or cold.

When he thought about it, he was tempted to call that an earthly paradise.

He dismissed the idea with a shake of his head. The sun made him mad. He took the whip, and cracked it loud to set the oxen back in motion.
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#1 ·
· · >>No_Raisin >>Monokeras
You really went all in with the prompt for this one, huh?

I'm mixed on this one. I really like the last section, and the first works quite well for me too, but I'm not quite as sure about the middle. The whole mystery treasure hunt didn't do a whole lot for me. I also spotted a few grammar issues when I specifically wasn't looking for them:

Gardenia is located far away overseas, and no commercial flight is permitted to fly over it.

I think this sentence should have a quotation mark in front of it?

“Yes,” the passager reply.


He was a dark hair, somewhat handsome guy

This future is certainly a strange one, if hair has somehow become a species now. :p

But anyway, those issues aside, this wasn't bad. And like I said, really liked the ending section. Couldn't tell you exactly why, the writing was just very evocative for me.
#2 ·
· · >>Monokeras
The mystery at the beginning of the story isn't told in the most exciting way in this story, as the threads that Jim follows at first are only really interesting to him. I don't know how to improve it here, but just as an idea: The best mysteries are where we are as intrigued by it as the main character is. When he first receives the email without the header he says "interesting, there's no header", while I say "Wait, there's supposed to be a header"? So as he goes about his merry investigative work I just kind of take a back seat and wait for him to finish instead of getting the chance to follow along.

I liked how you set up Jim's character, the daydreamer. But while I saw the connection between his daydreaming and him being selected for Gardenia, I wish the connection the curators made had been more concrete. As far as we know, Jim doesn't talk about his hobbies that much. What if he were to talk about it to the right person?

For the story proper, I was very intrigued by the concept, and by the ending. As Meri said, it played the prompt very straight, but I wasn't necessarily expecting. I probably should have but oh well. The doctors have told my parents it's too late for me (:

But no, I liked it. The only thing I would say is that I wish we had more time to live in that world, discover its beauty, and then slowly but poignantly stray into the "actually this ain't so great" territory. We're told a lot about how great the world is, but we don't get to see it shine. One way you could work this in would be to have the curators give Jim a taste of the world, get him hooked, have him agonize over the decision, and then make the wrong one. I think the clincher would be just that bit stronger.

That's all from me. Ciao friend-o!
#3 ·
· · >>Monokeras
Alternate Title: Maybe Skynet Ain't So Bad?

Two things I liked:

1. Jim isn't the most complex of protagonists, but his simplicity perfectly suits the theme of Gardenia. He's a simple man with simple aspirations who acts as sort of an everyman, because god forbid we get another sci-fi protagonist who's a goddamn scientist or super-smart businessman. Jim is like someone out of a Philip K. Dick novel, but not as neurotic; therefore he's the perfect match for my second point.

2. The ending, oh how I love it. Might be my favorite ending of the bunch. It's simple, and it plays the connection with the prompt in an unusually straightforward way, but I think it's kind of poignant. We often get a romanticized portrait of agricultural life, and not entirely without good reason, but it's refreshing to see such a concise and ponderous deconstruction of that rosy-eyed vision. The farm life is not for everyone.

Two things I didn't like:

1. The typos, oh man the typos. The ones that >>Meridian_Prime pointed out are just the tip of the iceberg, my friend. And, as some in the WriteOff Discord server have noted, the passage with the holstered gun borders on hilarity in how wrong it sounds. You don't push the trigger, ya silly goose!

2. Weirdly enough, considering this is one of the shorter entries, it could be shortened a fair bit. There's a good deal of fat in the set-up, like there is a lot of description but not much happening, and as such the pacing takes a hit. Things do pick up, though, just in time for that kicker of an ending. But yeah, you could trim 500 words off and the story would probably be all the better for it.

Verdict: I like Gardenia more than I probably should, but that's what happens when you have a good story that's rough around the edges.
#4 ·
· · >>Monokeras
As often happens:

I'm getting all hung up on details that don't make sense to me. I mean, if the artifical trees don't create oxygen, what does? If Gardenia is where all the food and oxygen come from for the entire world, how do they produce it all in such a limited place with just oxen to plow the fields? Is Jim incorrect in thinking that the entire world except for this place is covered with steel and concrete? Or does everyone eat Industrial Unipaste that's squeezed out of tubes in a variety of colors and flavors? Except that, if Gardenia isn't the world's bread basket, why does it exist at all? What economic sense does it make?

The story uses a lot of science-fiction imagery, author, but it's an allegorical fantasy through and through. So I'd suggest making it more science-fictiony. Give me some hand-waving at the beginning about how science has replaced the natural processes of the world with things that do the same jobs but aren't as pretty. And as long as I'm asking for presents, I'd also like to have that information conveyed in an actual scene instead of being told to me by a faceless narrator--maybe Jim's complaining to a co-worker in the cafeteria as they eat their Industrial Unipaste burritos. It would let you give us all the details about the world while also letting us get to know Jim as a character.

That still doesn't answer the question of why Gardenia exists, though...

#5 ·
· · >>Monokeras
I just wanna say that Gardenia is the name of a local bread company where I live, so I had an interesting, if not skewed, impression of this story in my first few reads. Even so, there were some glaring issues with this story (alongside the minor grammatical hiccups) that I couldn't get over. Really, the concept as a whole is simple and neat. Stripping all the text away and looking at the core, it definitely works, so my issues with this entry are certainly not stemming from that. Everything else packaged alongside it, however, ultimately sealed the deal for me.

Jim as a character stands out in that he's really ordinary, to the point where he's almost nondescript. Personally, I'm not really a big fan of that, though it works in the context of the story. He's just some random office guy who had his name picked from Gardenia's Goblet of Fire. I will say though, I'm not entirely sold that Jim would be the kind of person to actually go off and discover what this is all about. As appealing as the situation may be to him, there is a dramatic character shift from 'cracking a code and viewing some coordinates in an office cubicle' to 'physically heading towards the coordinates not knowing what awaits him yet confident that he will be safe'. The single paragraph you've placed addressing that shift is not enough. There needs to be a more substantial motive driving that change beyond nostalgia and frankly, I'm not seeing it.

Gardenia as well seems to be the selling point of the story. It definitely was sold to Jim as this wonderful, glorious world teeming with nature and free from the rigidity of the industrialized complex that Utopia was. However, we're only given a few glimpses of it within the whole story through portrayals that are just plain generic. No good way to say it, the descriptions are redundant. Sure, in the context of the story, Gardenia may not be as different as Utopia, yet I don't think that's how it wants to seem prior to the reveal at the end. I'm not sold on Gardenia being the better of both worlds and I fail to see what Jim finds about it intriguing either.

Ultimately, every issue I had with this story seems to stem from it being rushed more than an issue with your competency, Author, The measured and diligently-written prose of this entry seems to indicate that. Nevertheless, Gardenia, the main feature and driving force that sparked this story, was criminally undersold. That, coupled with the story's failure to properly translate what Jim found so mesmerizing about it, just only made the story crumble underneath its ambitions. I can't say this story lived up to its full potential. There's definitely something there, though overall it just needs to be more focused on figuring out what it's trying to say instead of just slowly rolling the narrative out for our general consumption.

Thanks for writing, and good luck!
#6 · 2
Greetings to GGA and Miller! Well done guys!

>>Miller Minus
>>Baal Bunny
Thanks to all for your comments, and thanks for your appreciation, though I still think this “story” didn’t deserved to medal. It was really rushed, written in four hours Monday morning at work, and finished 3 minutes after the official deadline.

More a sketch than a final product.

I’m truly sorry I left so many mistakes, typos and others grammatical horrors – this proves I have still a lot of progress to make to hike up my English to an acceptable level.

And that was an unmistakable giveaway, too.

As I said before, I’m currently in the boonies with nothing else than my phone, so I’ll keep it deliberately short, but I’ll add a few lines to each of you as soon as I return to civilisation tomorrow.

Thanks again for your appreciation, and congratulation to everyone!