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It Could Be Worse · Original Minific ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 400–750
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‘Did everyone put their bulletproof jacket on?’ the teacher asked.

She was rewarded with a cheerful ‘Yes, pedagogue!’ from all her pupils.

‘Very well!’ she said. ‘Go home now. See you all tomorrow, I hope!’

Alex hauled up his rucksack and scarpered off the classroom chirping, one fleck in the merry flow of children. He rushed headlong down the stairs, snatched his helmet, put it on and made it for the school gates.

He paused there, inhaled deeply. ‘Let’s do this,’ he said to himself. He leaped as far as he could into the trench ahead, tumbled round to cushion his fall and began crawling.

Barely in time.

Bullets swished above him. Shrill shouts erupted behind, suddenly stifled as more projectiles flew. No time to look back. Snipers. He had to clear off immediately.

The trench was filthy with mud and blood, and uneasy to crawl. Bullets kept singing above him. He must be extra-careful. He wiggled left and down into a gloomy subway that led across the borough’s agora ahead. It was safe here – until they decided to shell the place, that is.

He emerged from a foxhole at the cater-cornered side and sidled his way up the narrow street, hugging to the walls, until he reached an archway under which he squeezed. He paused briefly then darted along the alley past the doric columns. He felt something hit his back, but it was deflected by his jacket.

He stopped at the edge of another square. So far, so good. He looked round. There was no one in sight. Home was straight ahead across the expanse of flagstones.

Suddenly a distinct patter of steps behind him. He swung round in terror. But it was his neighbour and friend Irene. Alex sighed and wiped his brow.

Irene trailed to him. Her breathing was labouring. She put her arms akimbo, doubled up and vomited.

‘I… can’t bear it… any more,’ she said to Alex in a wheezing voice.

‘Come on!’ Alex replied. ‘It’s just a few steps away. We’ll do this together.’

Irene gestured towards her chest. ‘Can’t breathe… I… You go! I’ll stay here until they get me. It won’t take long.’

Alex grasped Irene’s shoulders and shook her. ‘For Zeus’ sake, girl, brace up! You’re a Spartan. You MUST do it. For your family. For the city!’

Irene cast him an icy look. ‘Oh yeah?’ she said. She yanked herself free and stomped into the open.

‘No!’ Alex yelled. ‘Don’t—!’ But it was too late.

She was about halfway through the square when a whizz erupted. She fell on her knees, raised her face and lifted her arms. A shadow descended on her. Alex crouched against the wall.

The blast dug a small crater. Shrapnel poured. When Alex could look again, rubble littered the square and thick smoke obscured the scene.

‘That’s my chance!’ he whispered. He bolted out. There were shots in the distance, but no bullet hit him. He almost crashed into the gate. He smashed his badge against the entry sensor. The lock clicked. Alex flung the gate open and slammed it back behind him.

He collapsed on to the front lawn, panting. When his heart stopped pounding, he stood up and went inside.

‘Mum!’ he shouted. ‘I’m home!’

‘Over here in the kitchen!’ his mother replied.

Alex chucked his rucksack down, took off jacket and helmet and padded to the kitchen. His mother came to him. They hugged.

‘How was your day, dearie?’

Alex shrugged. ‘Uneventful,’ he replied. ‘Except. Irene… She couldn’t make it. She was asph… Aspha—’


‘Yeah, that. She let them have her, just outside.’

‘Oh!’ his mother exclaimed. ‘What a shame. Isn’t that the second child her family loses in a row?’

‘Third,’ Alex corrected.

She looked away. ‘Asthma,’ she hissed, as if to herself. ‘All their daughters have it. Crippled weaklings.’ Turning back to Alex. ‘At least she died as a brave girl.’

Alex nodded.

‘You join the shooters tomorrow, right?’ his mother added.

‘Yeah. I’m not sure what I want as a weapon, though.’

‘We’ll talk about it when Dad comes back from the Boule tonight, okay?’


Alex grabbed a box of shortbreads and helped himself to a glass of orange juice. He placed both on a tray and walked out of the kitchen up the stairs to his bedroom. He put the tray on his desk, took the weapons catalogue, and, sitting on the edge of his bed, began leafing through it.
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#1 · 2
· · >>libertydude
So what the heck is going on here?

1. Taking the narration at face value seems to be impossible. Of course we'd have to imagine a seriously alternate universe, but even so, the numbers simply won't work out for enough kids to be left alive to still form a group by the time this becomes a slice-of-life event. The lack of emotional investment from the mother would also be a very tough nut to swallow.

2. It might be Alex simply embellishing his humdrum walk from school in his head, like Calvin would. Perhaps Susie Irene is also in on the game, but what's up with the teacher and mother playing along too? We could chalk that up to the unreliable narrator embellishing their lines too. But if so, the story seems to be missing some kind of punchline or denouement.

3. There's a few points -- "pedagogue", "agora", "doric columns", "for Zeus's sake" -- where it sounds like this is a straight "what if" premise: ancient Greece customs with modern weaponry. But offhand I don't think even the Spartans had their youth routinely indulge in outright fights to the death; that would have been too wasteful of manpower.

4. It's all completely symbolic and intended to illustrate a polemic point. This has the advantage of allowing the prompt to participate in the interpretation -- not "this is a situation that could be worse" but "this is how it could be worse". However, then what is the actual point being made? The opening lines naturally lead towards thinking about school shootings and disputes about how society should or shouldn't react to them. On the other hand, the whole allegory could also be about plain old-fashioned bullying. Or it could just be a generalized accusation of the education system for amounting to psychological abuse of children.

5. Oh! I've got it! Combining options 2 and 4: Alex and Irene are harassed by bullies on their way home from school. The narration of the attack itself is Calvin-style embellishment. The uncaring attitude of the adults is real, with just minor adjustments of word choices to match his interpretation. Alex decides to get back on them all and (after the story) becomes an actual school shooter.

Hmm, that's a whole lot more chilling than I thought this review would be when I started writing ...
#2 · 3
· · >>Troposphere >>Monokeras
The idea of school as a preparatory for war is an interesting concept, and the fact that many of the settings come off as World War 1-era ideas (trenches, snipers etc.) raises a disturbing idea about how children were essentially prepared for slaughter by their own countries. This is just my interpretation, of course, and I have no clue if it was intentional on the author’s part, but it’s the one that I think works best and has the most satisfying subtext. Reading it literally, as >>Troposphere said, really raises too many questions about the logic of the world.

However, that’s the main issue with this piece for me: the reliance on interpretation. Both Troposphere and I were looking for deeper meaning because, as is, the story doesn’t seem to provide anything else to glean from it. The plot is simple enough, but the setting seems too obscured by the strange mish-mash of cultural elements (Spartan war-mindset, modern weapons, usage of the phrase pedagogue). Leaving things up for reader interpretation is fine, but when the totality of the story requires the reader to infer nearly everything about the world and situation, it comes off like a cop-out on the author’s part, where being vague about the situation and characters puts the brunt of the creative weight on the reader instead of the writer. A strong narrative where the writer’s goals are clearer is much more thought-provoking in my mind than simply handing the reader a skeleton and telling them to build the rest of the body. With the former, you can at least debate and argue about the author’s viewpoint and the world itself, whether you love or hate these elements. Here, I can’t really get mad or elated at the story because I know that everything is just coming from my own mind and perspective, not the author’s own intent. Nothing wrong with trying to get the reader thinking (I’m sure most of us here would applaud such an endeavor), but remember that readers will likely be more appreciative of a story that caused them to ponder about its contents rather than forced them to ponder them.

I fear I’m sounding overly negative, so I want to say that there is a good story in here, but that any future editing should focus on emphasizing what the author wants to actually say. If it’s an imaginative flight of fancy by a bullied child, show us. If it’s a bizarre conflagration of warrior cultures in an alternate universe, show us. If it’s a dystopian future where kids are prepared for school shootings by being shot at all the time, great, but show us. Once the author has a clear idea in their mind about what they want to do, I think putting down their ideas in text will be a lot easier and provide an intriguing tale in whatever genre/storyline they go with.
#3 · 2
· · >>Monokeras
For the record, I'll stand behind >>libertydude's critique here -- I'm not at all sure my eventual interpretation is in fact the story the author intended to tell. And so I'm torn between ranking the story high because it was the one that didn't make me go "meh", or ranking the story low for how opaque it is.

Occam's razor probably favors the hypothesis that the author was attempting satire but failed to carry it all the way through. The first half of satire is extrapolating a real-world trend unto the absurd. And the story certainly does that, inasmuch as it presents an absurd world that feels vaguely at the end of some sliding scale that starts at ours. But the second half of satire is when the story anticipates the reader's objection that it's absurd, and responds with as straight a face as possible: "No, dear reader, this world makes perfect sense, and here's how". It doesn't need to actually make sense, of course -- but the inhabitants of the story's universe must genuinely believe it does, and tell us (or each other, or an appropriate audience-surrogate character) why. It only really becomes satire when their rationalizations echo arguments we've heard in the real world, in support of less obviously absurd outcomes.
#4 · 2
Well, I read this story, and I must say I totally disagree with what you both have said (both >>Troposphere and >>libertydude). This might boil down to idiosyncrasies, or the way we've been taught literature, but for me the best pieces are those open to interpretation, where the reader is not walked through the story by in-your-face details. Alright, I don’t speak about cases like Finnegan's wake where the reader is completely left at sea as to what the contents even are. But that’s not the case here: we have a structured story, easy to understand.

Now what? The Calvin & Hobbes hypothesis is cute, but the callous and/or flippant remarks of the mother suffice to dismiss it. It is obvious the situation is both normal for her and her son, and even Irene's death is perceived in a ‘serves her right’ way.

So we’re left with basically two possibilities: or this is a modernised version of a Sparta-like culture, or this is a thin veiled allusion to what an hyper-violent society could look like, for example the US or Russia if the present trend was pushed to its logical conclusion.

Now, I once again disagree with the reasoning that ‘it cannot be about eugenics because the numbers just don’t tally’. It is NOT the job of the author, especially in a fictional environment like this, to ensure 100% realism. First of all, because you don’t have sufficient background to judge: what if children are continuously bred, as in Huxley’s Brave New World and given to their family each time a former one is killed? Or maybe what is described here happens only once or twice a year, like a sort of festival, or the famous lottery in the itself notorious short story, in which case the casualties would be much more limited.

But most of all because the aim of the story is elsewhere. Let me illustrate again. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is widely held to be (one of) his best novel(s). If you haven't read it, it’s a road trip in a post-apocalyptic world, where all land life, animal or vegetal, has disappeared, but for a few wandering humans who – for those who have not erred on the side of cannibalism – subsist on tinned/dry goods. Now, no critic has even ever suggested that the book is worthless because in such a world, vitamin C would be impossible to find and all would die from scurvy in a couple of months at most (which is the cold truth, though). Why? Because the point of the story is not to describe how people would survive in such a fictional world in every detail. The story is all about the relationship between father and son, and the background is just a pretence to ‘screenplay’ that with a minimal degree of consistency.

Here, we are in the same scheme. The story is not about counting casualties and figuring out what the birth rate would have to be in order to sustain such a dystopia. The story here is about eugenics, violence, and how children raised in a violent society adapt so well that violence becomes completely natural to them. That violence could be the result of a deliberate policy, and we’re in the case of a neo-Spartan society where the weakest are doomed to die, and I remind you that Spartans used to throw ‘deformed’ newborns from a crag into the sea, a war-oriented society where war abilities are prised much more than anything else. Or we are in a society where gun liberty is pushed to the extreme, and that may not be far off in countries like the US or Russia. In the US, I remind you also that a few years ago, a 5-year old boy shot his 2-year sister with a child-sized rifle, if I remember correctly. The fact that, at the time at least, they were companies manufacturing and advertising for child-target firearms is itself proof this story is not that far-fetched at all.

And it may be well that the author lets the reader decide which one suits them the most, or even find new interpretations besides those that he had in mind. In both cases, the message is a strong one, and one that gives me pause, and ask: ‘Am I going to allow this to be even a remotely accurate description of our future world?’

Ok. I'd planned to write a comment for all stories tonight, and I've used up all my time for this one. Woebegone me! :p
#5 · 3
· · >>Monokeras
I'm having trouble deciding what to make of this one.

It's definitely sardonic, and the initial juxtaposition of bulletproof vests and school had me in mind of a piece about school shootings. But there's an actual war, and the motivation for it is never given. It makes me think of the short film "Cannon Fodder" which was part of a longer anthology film called Memories.

Really, it spends the whole exercise just establishing that gunfire is such a ho-hum occurrence that children are allowed to brave it without a second thought. It never does any more than that. It never tries to say why this war is happening (or posit that the lack of an explanation is the point), why Irene values her life so little that something as manageable as asthma is worth dying to avoid, why just going through this locked gate into his home makes the main character safe. Are the house and grounds just considered off limits? Are all buildings? That the school also seemed safe inside lends credence to that, though the large weapons used don't seem to fit with the scheme.

I will say that it takes the entire story for the main character's attitude to be made completely clear, so it's not like it presents its theme up front then never does anything more with it. Though it doesn't do a lot more; how lackadaisical he acts upon leaving the school sets up the mood right away. It's just not until the end that we learn he doesn't just endure it but wants to participate, plus how casually his mother treats death.

Language-wise, it's a little like the lemonade story in that it feels like a limited narration that's a bit too advanced for the focus character, though I don't have a clear gauge of how old he is.
#6 ·
Daka daka, pew pew
Strongest of the fittest
Other than that, no clue
#7 ·
I didn't even notice the voting period had ended yesterday! :p

I’m mainly going to answer to you, Pasco, since I did already answer to the two previous comment in my fake comment.

First off, thanks for commenting.

Thanks for ‘Cannon fodder’ → I just saw two excerpts of this on YouTube, and I’m flattered my story made you think about that. I had never seen this cartoon, and it’s great.

It is fairly difficult to squeeze both a scene like this one and its explanation in 750 words. Somehow, one must accept that some details, or background elements, must be left out. Which, in my opinion, is not necessarily a bad thing since it ‘forces’ the reader to ask themselves what can possibly have led to the painted situation (that’s, by the way, typically what the comments in the YouTube pages suggest).

You know my fondness for flash fiction involving children behaving off-base, see, e.g. The Hangman.

I was discussing this story with Cassius as I was writing it, and he immediately thought about Sparta, so he told me to ‘greekify’ the story as much as I could. And yes, the idea was that only pupils in public spaces were considered fair game. Private estate would be considered off-limit. Even war has rules.

So we’re not here in a setup where there's war because war has been there for decades, and no one questions it anymore. That would be a nice background, though: ‘Alex was born with the war, raised with war and taught for the war.’ This premise underpins several stories, such as Dick’s The Penultimate Truth or a very interesting Star Trek TOS episode called A Taste of Armageddon, in which the state of war prevails because casualties and destruction are all virtual, except that people called killed in the interplanetary ‘wargame’ must perform real suicide. It is tackled somewhat differently in another episode called Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

So here, my intent was to describe a form of eugenics practicing society, à la Gattaca, only pushed a bit further. Whereas in Gattace genetics serve as basis for societal discrimination, in this ‘Nea-Sparta’ city, ‘weak’ children are physically eliminated, as they were in ancient Sparta, with the difference that instead of being thrown into the sea from a cliff, they are killed by their peers in a ‘serious game’ that repeat often enough to skim out all who are deemed unworthy to live. Secondary benefit, all children get used to being shot at and shooting others, something especially valuable in a ‘real’, all-out war.

Irene’s (a name borrowed from ancient Greek [i]eirenê[/i,] ‘peace’) suicide was to suggest, besides the Easter egg of the name, how such a competitive background, and its associated brainwashing machinery, could lead every children burdened with but the slightest disease to feel useless, sidelined, rejected and therefore suicidal. Maybe Irene is in love with Alex? Alex suggests he feels something for her when he says: ‘We’ll do it together’, but then all Irene's hopes are shattered when he justifies her sticking through for nationalistic values only. Originally, there was a final ‘For me.’ in Alex's line, but I deleted it purposefully. Irene doesn’t want, or doesn’t feel up any more, to fight for the honour of a city, or a system, that treats her as a parasite.

And in a world like this, how could death be treated differently? This is not so surprising. Until the end of the WW2, parents were used to lose young children from disease or accident. I didn't say it was banal and everyone shrugged it off, but it was something every mother and father was prepared for, and I don’t even count neonatal nor maternal death. I think both world wars, and their fallout, have led our society to reject death under in every form, including the most normal one, i.e. ageing.

I think the text would've been more impactful, had I been able to reclaim a bit more space for it. As such, it is a bit cramped, and leaves too much to the reader’s imagination, maybe. In any case, thanks again for your always valuable input.