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A Word of Warning · Original Minific ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 400–750
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One Step at a Time
"...sorry if I seem a little nervous," Dr. Rachel Minsky said, chuckling uneasily. "My first time, you know... I've seen the videos from previous explorations, but to actually go into the City myself—"

"Yeah... first time," the Guide responded, almost sarcastically, not slowing down his pace.

This particular "district" (if such concepts even applied to the alien City) was a web of oppressively narrow streets, with huddled buildings—all angles and crooked lines—leaning over them like a clamp closing imperceptibly slowly. There was no need for the human archeologists to install lamps; the existing million-year-old light fixtures still illuminated the underground City well enough.

A signpost here pointed out the route to the Dig Site 01 (a particularly profitable location, albeit far too deep in the City for comfort), but the Guide did not bother looking at it, knowing the route by heart. He led Rachel past one crossroad to another, then down its right-hand fork, when suddenly—

—a dark shape, like a misshapen maggot twice the size of a subway train, rushed at them down the street, and before Rachel could react they were both smeared on the pavement underneath its bulk—

—he dragged her brusquely towards a side alley. Right as they reached the end, something hulking and black could be seen rushing down the street they just left. It passed them with a rumble, and the moment it was out of view, its shadow vanished and the noise went silent.

Without a word he led her out of the alley and they resumed their route. Disquieting sounds arrived occasionally from neighboring streets — sizzling sparks, unhuman shrieks, earthshaking thudding; the sounds of the Traps activating blindly around the City against nobody in particular.

They soon arrived into a new "district", a giant checkerboard of city squares studded at their sides with kilometer-tall towers scratching against the cavern ceiling. Here he bid her to wait seventy-six seconds before entering one particular square, and in doing so he saved her life from a fractal web of gleaming, hair-thin, razor-sharp floss that filled the square in an instant, and disappeared just as suddenly. Rachel wanted to go on, but the Guide held her tight for thirteen seconds more, and then the floss once more appeared for a brief while—

—slicing her head and neck into a mess of bloody chunks of meat, her body collapsing at his feet and twitching, twitching—

—giving Rachel a cold sweat; she had been completely sure that it was safe, and she'd have entered the square carelessly had he not held her. Was the City developing new tricks? The Traps had never been known to remanifest so soon after the last activation.

Nobody ever managed to figure out a clear pattern to the Traps, if any. They manifested apparently at random, and always with just a split-second warning at best. Only the Guides somehow knew every Trap in advance, and the only way to traverse the City safely was to use their services.

The safe route that her Guide had planned, all the stops and detours at exactly the right moments—all of it from his visions of never-to-be futures, inside which died countless beheaded, dismembered, incinerated Rachels. (His visions had to include her presence; the Trap pattern changed depending on who accompanied you.) No wonder he avoided talking to her, even looking at her; from his perspective, she had died in countless horrible ways so many times.

Rachel shuddered. No, there was no point in thinking about those dead in other timelines, because after all, she was entirely safe, wasn't she? Nobody led by a Guide had ever died in these streets.

Then she remembered the theories. That the Guides' precognition was not precognition at all, but rather experience; that upon dying, they immediately returned to a 'savepoint', the timeline of their death no longer extant but for the memories in their heads.

Thus a hundred Rachels went on that route with him, and every single one was sure that she is the last one, the one who will survive...

Just as sure as I was, she realized.

"Guide," she said, her throat suddenly hoarse, "tell me... right now, do you know of every single Trap, right up to when we'll safely arrive?"

He looked at her askance. "Yeah, of course," he said, and her heart sunk as she realized that she had no way to verify whether he was lying.

And then she kept following his guidance, because she had no other choice.
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#1 · 2
· · >>JudgeDeadd
Precognition is always a plentiful story device, and this story certainly touched on an interesting aspect of it (specifically, the knowledge of knowing how someone will die repeatedly). It was also intriguing how the story mixed it with an alien archaeology adventure. That’s certainly not a combo I’ve seen before, and it was fun seeing it in action here.

The primary issue with this story is that it really depends on us being invested in the characters. After all, the whole horror is the idea that they may be dying hundreds of times, so we need to really care about them to let the horror fully develop. However, neither the Guide nor Rachel really come across as three-dimensional; the Guide is just the silent and serious guy, while Rachel is…not as silent? There’s so little to go off of character-wise that the Rachel’s final musing doesn’t really impact us as much as it should.

That final musing is also kind of sketchy, too. What evidence is there that the Guides might be resetting time? Is that something that’s possible in the world? Did Rachel see it happen before? What scientific evidence is used to posit this theory? I know I sound really picky, but if a character’s going to make such a claim in a science-fiction story, there ought to be some kind of science behind their theory. Besides, if the Guides had control of that kind of power, you’d think they’d have better things to do than guide people around trap-infested architecture. The whole hypothesis just comes out of nowhere, and it feels like it was just put there to make the story have some sort of emotional ending. But because the characters are so flat, it doesn’t really work.

In the end, this is a good story idea that just isn’t fleshed out enough. Maybe if there was an extended word count the ideas could be developed more fully and the characters could be more concrete. As is though, it brings up too many things too fast, and doesn’t allow readers to really get to know the characters.
#2 · 2
The two interjections -- the italicized flashes of Rachel's death -- are evocative. but problematic. Who is experiencing them, Rachel or the Guide? The story is from Rachel's POV, but it seems only the Guide is privy to precognition.

This was a good story, one of the better ones on my slate so far. But I think if you had written it from the Guide's perspective it could have been better.
#3 · 1
The ideas on display here are very good ones, I think. The tone of the ending matches the tone of the world, and some of the elements - de-humanizing the Guide by not giving him a name - are well-picked. There's definitely stuff to like here.

However, I can't help but think that the conclusion would be a little more powerful if it was a little more subtle. It works alright as-is, because the conclusion being reached is a fairly awful one; but if, instead of simply stating the conclusion right out, you carefully led Rachel to it and had us follow alongside her, the moment of insight when she realizes what's going on might be more powerful?

Honestly, though, I feel a bit unfair suggesting something like that, because I'm not certain I can give concrete suggestions on how to go about it. Suffice to say, I think this story is tipping it's hand a bit too fast and a bit too far. Hopefully that's helpful to you.

Oh, and I agree with Mr. Gardez's point about the viewpoint character and the flashbacks.
#4 ·
I'm not sure how to think about these sorts of stories. It's not that I don't like them; it's that I don't understand the subject enough to know what to think about it. Precognition isn't something that interests me, but I will give the story credit that it gave me a new point of view on the matter. I think the point of view works, at least for me; although we don't get into the harrowing torture of precognition, we do get a musing about those that die several times. I thank you for that, even if I personally didn't get the full weight of what was going on.
#5 · 1
The Great

Very neat idea. Has all the makings of a fine creepypasta.

The setting is intriguing, evoking greater ideas while being entirely self contained.

The Rough

Those two opening paragraphs are rough. The part the guide focuses on being in the dead middle of the sentence forced me to go back and read it a couple time to really understand what he was trying to say, especially given that our lead has no reaction to it. Which creates this kind of weird tension: I'm expecting a twist, and, from a reader standpoint, there is. However, Rachel already knows the twist, so the slightly delayed explanation just feels... weird.

His opening line also detracts heavily from the ending since it pretty blatantly implies she dies multiple times. While I'm not sure how much I like the ambiguous ending (I actually kinda prefer the raw horror angle - yeah, we end on the realization that she does die every tome), if you do want to keep it, you need to remove the start of story implication. Heck, I'd go so far as to say you should make the guard more sociable and cheerful, because that too heavily implies he experiences each and every one of those deaths in a real way. With a more positive attitude, it really adds to the potential fridge horror, I think. It reinforces the positive while making the negative even scarier, because what sort of man could act like that -after- that sort of endless horror?

EDIT: Actually, having thought on it a little, I think you DO want to more or less outright say it is a timeloop. I was going to comment on the visions/pov thing, but really, that also more or less says that they have, indeed, lived through all these timelines, because the narrative contains the failed timeline, but moves forward on the next attempt. So yeah, have her die on the last line.
#6 · 1
loved the first half. descriptive and creepy and tense. whew. and subtle enough for me to put some puzzle pieces together.

the second half's explanations killed that mood, haha. oh well. but I felt really disappointed at the new theory explained, which didn't even match up with what I'd experienced.

this may be one of those annoying subjective reviews, where I want to read a certain story -vs- the author intended a different story all along. please forgive me if you dislike this kinda thing.

the POV switch was distracting, but I'd actually prefer to keep it in Rachel's head. these death visions are happening in the text, sorta like she can only sense them subconsciously, but not fully comprehend them (like a deja vu moment). and instead of going into worrying about the theory behind it all, it goes on with.... something resulting out of it. I dunno what. after all, it's not like she can do anything about the precognition part itself. (or can she?)

so in short, I guess I enjoyed this more as a horror story than as a scifi story. (and it's actually very rare for me to like horror)
#7 · 1
· · >>georg >>JudgeDeadd
This feels much like Bradbury’s short story The City, on top of which you added a complex scientific-philosophical quantum mechanical-like take about time and forks in time.

I had a hard time connecting to that story. It is very atmospheric but lack specifics: for example, we don’t get to know why Dr Minsky is here or what exactly her mission is. We get the guide is a precog but, I mean, it’s not like Dick’s Minority Report, where the plot is woven around the capacity of the three precogs and the way they interact with each other.

It’s almost as if there was no arc, just descriptions. Of course, you had to make-do with the limitations of a minific, but in this case – outside the atmosphere – it fell a bit flat for me.
#8 ·
· · >>JudgeDeadd
>>Monokeras It's probably closer to Silverberg's The Man In The Maze, but still a great take on the concept. Kudos author.
#9 · 1
Thanks to everyone for your comments. Barring a few 50-word vignettes on a blog somewhere, this is pretty much the first proper story I've published anywhere in a long time, and frankly, it was pretty exhilarating to see people reviewing something I've made (and even actually discussing it in a podcast!).

It's been written in a rush. I came up with the basic idea of "a guide shepherding someone through dangerous terrain" in bed, fleshed out the concept the next morning, and hastily wrote the entire story in like 45 minutes, to give it one more re-read a hour later, shortly before the end of the contest. Aaaand, literally a minute or so before the end, I suddenly noticed a glaring plot hole (why would the Guide need to take his charge on the deadly trip every time? Can't he just sacrifice himself alone, or even send out remote-controlled drones?), and I ended up racing against time to cram a coherent explanation into the almost-depleted word limit. Hence this random bracketed sentence:

(His visions had to include her presence; the Trap pattern changed depending on who accompanied you.)

Regarding the matter of the point-of-view, I wasn't having any specific POV in mind when writing the flashes of Rachel's deaths (apart from a generic omniscient narrator.) I haven't considered that readers would feel a glaring disconnect between the bulk of the story where we accompany Rachel, and the parts which show things she obviously couldn't have seen (i.e. her own dead bodies) without explanation. This is interesting to know, and I should keep this in mind for later stories.

Besides, if the Guides had control of that kind of power, you’d think they’d have better things to do than guide people around trap-infested architecture.

I actually had a vague sort of explanation for this--I intended to explain how the Guides were people transformed by a certain room inside the City, and this transformation gave them precog powers but also made it impossible for them to leave the City without dying, plus maybe afflicting them with a few other demerits--all to explain why the Guides work in this job. Then I found out just how short a 750 word limit actually was, and the explanation had to go.

This feels much like Bradbury’s short story The City, on top of which you added a complex scientific-philosophical quantum mechanical-like take about time and forks in time.

I've never read "The City". But instead the setting concept is ripped wholesale from Silverberg's "Man in the Maze" (good catch, >>georg). I moved the City underground as a quick explanation as to why can't people just travel above its streets in a helicopter or something (I don't remember how this was explained in Silverberg's novel).