Competition winner announced

First person fortnight

The First Person Fortnight competition was a huge success, we had more entries than I even imagined! Before I tell you the winners, I want to thank the judges for all their hard work. Remember that every submitted story had to be read by our special ninja judges, then critiqued and scored to find the best story!

If you’re desperate to know the winner, you can scroll to the bottom but first I want to credit the judges for all their hard work, they were:

I wanted this competition to be as fair as possible which is why I picked judges from all across the board!

The runners up

In descending order, these are the three runners up. I’ll be posting these stories here on the blog soon too. All judges told me it was really difficult picking a winner.

4th place – Back To the Deep End by Sue Wilson from Hangover City

3rd place – Last Rites by Mark Vorenkamp

2nd place – Ethical Considerations by Alleran Tan from Starbase 118

The winner

Can you please imagine a drumroll in your head when you read this for dramatic effect?

The winner was the story Not All Bad Out Here written by Aimee Shields Yankowski.

First person fortnight mug
The winner’s trophy!

I’ll be making contact with Aimee, and sending her the prize, this lovely one-of-a-kind First Person Fortnight coffee mug! Aimee, I hope you think of it as a trophy when you’re using it to drink hot beverages. Or soup. Or cold drinks. I just hope you’re proud! 😉

The winning story

As promised, here’s the winning story in full. I’ll be posting the runners up soon too.

Not All Bad Out Here by Aimee Shields Yankowski.

It was a contest to see what is going to kill me first:  the forty-pound “beginner’s” pack on my back, the hot sun, or Lieutenant Krause, leading our small group through the broken ground and who refused to let me stop at any point.

An APC large enough to hold three of the dune buggies had taken us out deep into Cannibal Sector One for the first lumbering, grinding few hours.  When it had reached some sort of semi-permanent station, it had let the three armored buggies go even further out almost immediately like three Domino Dogs let out of their cages.  Each carried a rather large group of Rangers.

Beyond that and about an hour later, Krause and his select few—and me—had gotten out of one buggy and a few more Rangers each from the others hopped into ours, presumably not to leave it abandoned.  I didn’t know what those in the buggies were going to do, but I heard Krause say that we’d stay in “over-comm range” (whatever that was) and would meet up with them later at “the standard rendezvous.”  Maybe I could call it a good thing that there existed a usual place to meet up; it meant they’d done this several times before.

Since then, we’d been hiking over the rocky, dusty ground for what felt like days and my back, hips, and neck ached horribly.  I didn’t even know if we were looking for something in particular or just scouting.  While I did have access to the “common” channel, I was pretty sure they were occasionally sharing information on a different one.  They were also making gestures that I didn’t know how to read if they weren’t self-explanatory (the obscene ones certainly were).  They were a quiet group otherwise; I was kept busy figuring out how to set my feet down even half as well as they, with no crunching or kicking or scuffing.

When we’d started out, we had with us the single Advanced Carrien from the Hellfire Base, whose name I’d learned that morning was “Moose.”  It had to be a nickname, of course, but it seemed to be given with affection instead of torment.  He acted like the primary scout and was so at ease in this environment that I felt both comforted and envious.  Krause led the team with the tall, dark-skinned man named Deeves, on point.  In the middle there was Dixon the sniper, myself, a medic named Griffon, and four other men—Croft, Carter, Graves, and Thompson—whose specialties I didn’t know.  Bringing up the rear and watching our backs was the large woman I’d seen before.  I saw on her uniform “Sgt. Corey.”

Griffon made one exasperated sound when I first started lagging on the hard pace, but eventually he just passed me, as did the others.  Corey stayed somewhat behind to keep watching the rear, but wouldn’t allow the two of us to get separated too much from the group.  With her pushing me I didn’t really have extra mental power to much enjoy the scenery around me.  It was all I could do to keep up and keep going.

Krause looked back at us at one point and slowed, allowing the others to pass.  Most of them, including the Carrien, were carrying heavier packs and moving without difficulty. He watched as the Sergeant and I approached and shouldered his rifle, gesturing to Corey, who nodded and started moving on ahead.  Krause stayed back with me for the moment.

“Fall behind, Fiske, and you’re worse than dead,” he said.  “So pick it up, SLOp.”

“Yes, sir!” I huffed and strained a little harder now that there was absolutely nobody watching the rear behind me.  Sure, I caught the change from my technical title of “Agent” back to “Operative”—and the derogatory slang at that—but his tone wasn’t any different from when Master Gunner Shan had called me “squid” (meaning no beginner deserved inflated rank and she wouldn’t use it), so I wouldn’t make a deal out of it.  I didn’t have the breath for it, anyway.

Besides, it felt more natural anyway.  I wasn’t an Agent; I was a pawn.

“Breathe,” he said as he trotted alongside me.  “Short huffs only, in through the nose, out through the mouth.  That’s what the respirator is for.”

When I’d crested the next hill, whether it was mercy or timing, the group had squatted down behind the wrecked fuselage of what might’ve been a Stingray, long since downed from the sky… and rather violently by the look of it.  The vehicle was the color of the dust and its side had been split open like a soda can.  Debris, wires, and seats, hung out of it like innards, and like everything else I’d passed, it was impossible to tell how long it had been there.

In addition to the shelter of the Stingray, there were ragged walls and even a few over-tipped columns.  We were on high ground, overlooking yet more wasteland.  It was sobering seeing those columns and crumbled walls…there used to be City here, even this far out from Mort Central.

Krause did me the favor of indicating a place I could squat down—because you didn’t just sit down first with a heavy pack on your back—and continued forward to talk with Dixon, who’d taken up a higher point on the Stingray as overwatch.  Soon I was in a small bit of shade on quivering limbs, desperately trying to catch my breath and slapping at a few large bugs trying to drink my sweat and nose their way into my clothes through my wrists and neck.

It wasn’t that I was out of shape, I knew; it was that these Sector Rangers were in even better shape.  They needed to be.  I could sprint and jog just fine; I could even climb and swim and dance a marathon all night for charity if need be.  But cross-country, long-distance, sheer endurance trekking over rough terrain was not something your average Operative did all that often in the City.  Not when the place crawled taxis, buses, and gauss trains.

There was a fair bit of space among the shell of the Stingray so the Rangers didn’t huddle tight together.  They spread out somewhat evenly to be able to watch all directions although we were within view and talking distance of each other.  Moose was the one nearest me, and up close, I could see he was probably the largest body here, even not counting the span of his antlers.

Like the others, he’d watched me struggle to keep up and fight the weight of the pack, and despite that elongated, bony face with thick skin the color of a dun coat, he’d somehow given me the impression he was both curious and sympathetic towards me.  Maybe I had just gotten accustomed to reading faces other than those with binocular vision, or maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see.

Moose tilted his head toward me and sniffed, watching with very dark, crimson eyes that—also close up—appeared both viciously feral and cunningly intelligent.  There was no doubt he was a sentient being.

“Why you here?” he asked.  “You not made for this.”

That hadn’t sounded like a judgment so much as an observation.  And regardless, he was right.  I certainly hadn’t been prepared with any extent for Ranger work and yet I’d been dropped into the deep end with a team that knew the routine.

“I don’t know.  Frying pan into the fire, I guess,” I replied, only beginning to catch my breath.

The creature winced visibly, as if some memory had boiled to the surface.  “Understanding,” he said.  “Painful until dead, both way.”

I blinked at what was actually an exceptionally perceptive comment—no one else I knew had ever explained the metaphor so succinctly—and I smiled a little.  “Yeah.  I guess so.  Yet you can’t give up and lie down, right?”

“Prey gives up, dead lie down,” he agreed, then reached into his pack.  He opened an opaque brown pouch, puncturing it with a claw before peeling it open, and extended it toward me.  “Chocolate?”

Was he serious?  Now that was a simple pleasure I hadn’t even realized I’d missed!  I accepted the pouch with a ‘thank you’ and broke off a small piece of the bar before handing it back to Moose.  I put the bite in my mouth and let it melt a while before chewing, taking the few moments to fully enjoy it.  It wasn’t the best quality, of course, full of waxy emulsifiers and stabilizers so it wouldn’t become pure liquid in this heat, but was already semi-soft and coated my tongue kind of like real chocolate.  “Mmmm.”

“I like chocolate,” Moose said and his eyes took on a predatory look and he seemed to smile.  “Better than long pig.”

At this point, only a boring literary novel from years ago filled me in on that one.  Long pig; human meat, a phrase the cannibal clans sometimes used.  Was he teasing me or was he, again, simply stating a fact that he legitimately would know?  It was the predatory look that made me decide it was possible he was teasing me, or trying to shock me, as so many of the Sector Rangers already had.

Well, two could play the game.

I smiled.  “I like eating both at the same time, myself.”
Then I bit my lip and looked for signs that he thought I actually chewed, swallowed, and digested human flesh.  Sure enough, it was apparent he really didn’t get the joke.

“Di’n’t know you ate humans,” he said.

I couldn’t resist.  My smile became a full grin.  “All the time.”

Moose looked a bit disturbed, and I realized maybe he hadn’t been teasing me before, but thinking about hunting at the time?  Regardless of that, two of the Rangers nearest us, Deeves and Croft, were visibly fighting to keep from laughing.  Croft walked away biting his lip while Deeves absently wiped his eyes beneath his goggles.

Glancing at them and feeling just a little guilty for taking advantage of Moose’s… um… innocence, I shifted so that I was sitting right next to the Carrien and we could speak more quietly.  He didn’t smell any worse than anyone else at Hellfire, though he definitely had a “Wild-Other” scent, the same way Wraith Raiders and Stormers did.

“Sorry, Moose, I’m just joking around,” I confessed.  “I don’t eat human flesh.  ‘Eating someone’ is human slang for licking or sucking genitals during mating, for pleasure.  I thought you were trying to tease me, so I teased you back, because licking chocolate off someone during mating is even better than just doing one or the other by itself.  But I don’t consume human meat.  Make sense?”

He shook his head ‘no’ then tilted it to the side, watching me with one eye.  I guessed it wasn’t surprising that he wouldn’t understand oral sex—considering his impressive array of carnivorous teeth and narrow snout, his species probably had the same problem that Wraith Raiders do…and thus it never occurred to them to try.

I shrugged with a bit of a laugh. “Amazing, isn’t it, the amount of time humans spend thinking about sex transcends even eating, doesn’t it?”

Moose nodded.  “Probably best ‘cause humans die so quick.”

I could take that as teasing again, but decided not to.  Still, nice comeback.  I chuckled in spite of myself.  “Touché.”

“Hrrgh?” he asked inquisitively.  “Don’t know the word.”

“Never mind,” I relented.  “You win.”

“Win what?”

I had only myself to blame.  “My eternal silence on the topic of oral sex and long pig,” I answered stoutly, but I really was smiling pretty widely.  I was having fun and actually felt like smiling.

Moose proved his powers of recollection were better than mine after anyone brings up the subject of sex.

“You should do something else….” he continued on his earlier observation.  I could see he was struggling for the proper Killian words, though.  “Something…softer.  Offense not meant.”

“None taken.”

Interesting that he understood the concept of taking offense…I’d have to pay him the same consideration going forward.  I scooted back a little now that we weren’t talking so low anymore.  I had no illusions about how I appeared in Moose’s eyes next to these toughened soldiers.  “I’ve no choice right now, is all.”

“Why not?” Moose asked.  “Rangers are Rangers by choice.”

Are they?  How are they presented with the choice, I wonder?  “Roman wants something from me.  That’s all I know.”

Moose made some clicking sounds in the back of his throat as he considered that.  “You will be one of us?  Or training like others?”

“I’m…not sure.”  I mimicked him a bit, tilting my head curiously.  “How many do you see come here for training, Moose?”

Moose sniffed the air for the tenth time this minute.  I knew Wraith Raiders frequently sampled the air about them but the Carrien seemed to do it constantly as if it was his primary sense.  “Lots.  Most I don’t like.  Afraid of me.”

Hmm—

“’Lots’ to him means more than five, hon,” Corey spoke up for pretty much the first time from where she was resting, successfully interrupting my budding line of questioning for Moose.

We both looked at her.

Corey had a timbre of command in her voice that reminded me very much of Master Gunner Shan, though she had more scars and less reconstructive surgery on arms that were every bit as muscular.  A lot about her build resembled a man.  I could tell her age a bit better than Shan, though; she was probably in her middle to late 30s, assuming the lines in her face weren’t premature from over-exposure to the elements.  She was watching us with a sharp set of dark eyes that I knew didn’t miss much.

“So if you don’t know why you’re here, how did you get here?” she asked bluntly, turning it back around on me, but only for a moment.  ”Did you piss off the suit?”

I shook my head, taking the offered outing.  “No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t.  He’s actually really hard to piss off.  Or at least so you’d know it.”

The other woman chuckled.  “I say if you can’t piss ‘em off, shoot ‘em in the balls.”

Deeves grinned up at her, and I could see him taking the bait.

“So dat’s why you here,” he said to her.  “An’ I just thought you couldn’t cut it in a real unit and started fuckin’ everything on a War World.”

She sneered at him and gave him a rude hand gesture.  “Just your momma, Deeves.  Just your momma.”

The dark man laughed happily.  “Yeah, the slut never had no taste whatsoevah.”

There was more laughter from the rest of the Rangers.  This sounded like ongoing banter.  I had learned my lesson with Shan before and didn’t presume to get involved.

Corey looked back at me contemplatively, apparently not finished.  “You off him out here, nobody would know.  What happens out here—“

“—stays out here.”

The punchline was a chorus from several of them including Corey that ended in chuckling.  I blinked around me as I grasped that she’d been referring to Roman, my handler and the one who sent me here.

I watched the other woman for a few moments, the idea of ‘offing’ Roman having a certain appeal in fantasy but…despite everything so far, I didn’t have any sort of true motive to murder anyone, not even him.  I was about to ask her why her first thought about Roman was to lure him out here to kill him when the questions turned back again.

Deeves smiled with that bright, white grin, and I did catch his gaze dropping a little to my chest before coming back up to my face.  Amazing that I could still look appealing to him in this get-up.

“So…Fiske, ain’ it?  You shoot someone you wuddn’t supposed to? Dat why you’re out humpin’ it with us mis-cre-ants?”

I guess he noticed I hadn’t answered Corey’s question.

In another setting, I might have turned it with something lighter like, “Actually I just asked to see more of the countryside!”  But that was something you did when you were accepted as a resident smartass.  Three of them had asked, and I had to give them some kind of answer so they’d stop asking, but I didn’t want to go into the truth.

I shrugged.  “Roman recruited me for some kind of job.  I guess this has something to do with it, but I haven’t been told what.”

That was entirely true, just woefully incomplete.

Deeves nodded.  “Hell, y’have to be crazy like us to do dis by choice an’ you don’t seem nuts enough.”  Then a devilish grin spread across his face.  “So, you gotta man?”

There were a few chuckles and at least one “here we go” remark.

“Leave the new meat alone, D,” Corey said.

Deeves nodded and raised a palm.  “Ok, Sarge, just tryin’ to get to know the noob is all, I sweah.”

Yeah, right.  Here was one who disobeyed “regs” about fraternization on the sneak.  He was cute, though.  And I here made that promise to Krause not to invite advances from among his team.  Nuts.

He looked back at me, still grinning.  “So?  Who the lucky guy?”

How to gently dissuade him without seeming like a frigid bitch?

I smiled pleasantly.  “When I’ve got one, it’s for convenience.  Out here I’ll have to stick with myself, though.”

Deeves’s grin widened and his eyes looked me up and down shamelessly.  I was guessing he only heard the “no man” and “I do myself” parts in that sentence.  Probably wasn’t my best choice for a reply, but the flirt-habit was a hard one to break.

“Deeves, on watch,” Corey said firmly and he nodded after a second, rising.

“Lucky men, then,” he leaned to murmur to me as he passed.  Then Deeves whispered “cock-blocker” to Sergeant Corey and got a snicker in return.

“Fiske, on me,” Krause said from the higher vantage point, making me look up.

Corey chuckled under her breath again and commented as I passed, “Yeah, he’d like that.”

Pure surprise, there.  He would?  Could have fooled me.  I only hoped he wasn’t calling me over only to lecture me about putting ideas in Deeves’s head.  Even Krause would have to admit he was thinking them long before I said anything.

Krause led me up the side of one of the columns that leaned across the crushed remnants of a building.  He stopped on the remainder of the flat slab roof and squatted down, having pretty good cover behind the column.  As I joined him in the squat, he slid his goggles up onto his head and regarded me from foot to face, but not in the same way Deeves just had.

“No bullshit.  Why does Roman have you out here?” he asked me.  “You’re not cut out to be a Sector Ranger.”

“I know,” I said despondently and with a little exasperation, hearing it again so soon after Moose had said the same thing.  I didn’t even feel like answering him.  If he was just going to get bossy with me, then…well, they were my mistakes, okay?  He didn’t need to know them, and he’d already forbidden me from getting any stress relief in my favorite manner, so screw him.

Well…or not.  You know what I mean.

He couldn’t help but notice my frosty silence as I looked out over the empty rocks and dust, and he breathed out slowly.  “I meant no offense, Fiske.  You’re agile, gutsy, and have looks good enough to be on TeeVee.  It just seems wasted out here in…this.”

I turned my head to look at him again.  “Good to hear I have some redeeming qualities.”

Really.  It actually was.

Krause smiled a bit.  “I’m sure you have a lot of them but wasteland survival isn’t one of them.  Are you…what are you, getting experience for a part or something?  We don’t get many Uptowners, they have better things to do.”

I was quiet a moment.  “Wait, that’s not true.  You told Roman you couldn’t afford to babysit ‘another’ would-be celebrity,” I said, calling back our very first meeting.  “What were you referring to?  Answer me that, and I’ll answer you.”

He pursed his lips briefly.  “I’d rather forget.  They were shooting movie scenes out here for a while, few months ago.  Royal pain having those knuckleheads stumbling around getting in our way.  They insisted they needed real action footage.  I lost two of my team during the ‘scripted’ stuff outside the base.”

I was interested despite myself.  “What was the movie?”

He actually rolled his eyes a bit.  “’Hero of the Rangers.’  Action flick with several Contract Killers starring.  No idea if it’s even out yet.”

I mulled over whether I’d seen any trailers for a movie with that title when Krause spoke again.

“So you’re not an actress, or Media Op.  Guess that’s something.  So what did you do to be sent out here?”  He lifted a pair of WW-style macronoculars to his eyes and scanned the horizon.

The memory of Godspawn slammed into the front of my brain with unwelcome swiftness; his charred cheeks and open mouth screaming my name just before the black hood came down.  I felt my face flush as hot tears pushed at my eyes.  I spoke quietly.  “Proved my selfishness, I think.”

He nodded, even if that wasn’t really a satisfactory answer.  Maybe he was trying to be less pushy.  “Selfishness is part of surviving.  Nothing wrong with a little of it.”

I tried to balance what happened to Godspawn with what Krause had said.  How “little” was enough?  How much was too much?  It had to be too much selfishness on behalf of someone, somewhere in that fiasco, because Godspawn was dead and I was out here…

“You don’t look like one of his regular spooks,” he tried again, having failed to get me to answer again.  “Are you a Soft Company Op?”

I shook my head, surprised to hear that was an option.  “No, I’m not.  I told you, I was a SLA Operative.”

“Alright.  Does he have you out her looking for something no one should find?”

“With all due respect, sir, you’d have to ask him.”

“Call me Krause,” he replied with a smirk.  “I work for a living.”

I shrugged.  “As you wish, Krause.”

He looked at me for a few seconds. “Hydrate yourself.  You’re looking flushed.”

I gave a soft harrumph, I was still blinking away tears, but I drank from my canteen as suggested.

He replaced his goggles.  “An alternative to a Black BPN,” he said somewhat quietly, apparently remembering our earlier conversation on the base.

I’d told him truthfully that I was an Agent piggybacking with the Rangers for a while out in the Sectors. What I hadn’t told him was that it was because it was either this or a suicide mission to Salvation Tower as an Operative—still out in the Sectors but without the Rangers.  There really hadn’t been a choice if I wanted to keep breathing.

He spoke again.  ”Really hoped this was voluntary so we could get you to reconsider.  Half of us have done this for over five years now and the rest of them are War World Vets.  You can’t pull your weight and you lack training that we just don’t have the time to give.  You’d never fit in, even if Moose and Dixon like you.  You’re a liability.”

As he voiced his very valid concerns, I still felt a rather bitter burn in my chest for a few seconds before the heat spread out through my limbs, leaving me feeling a little sick.  I swallowed deeply against a sob that caused my diaphragm to flex.  Why did I want to cry now?  Part of me wanted to really cry; for hours if needed.  I hadn’t felt anything like crying for the last week since all this began, I’d felt numb…

Krause’s hazel-green eyes weren’t totally uncaring as he picked up on my expression, even through my goggles.

“Look, Fiske,” he said more softly.  “We aren’t going to abandon you or let anything happen to you.  We wanted to know why you’re here, but it doesn’t sound like we’re going to get that, so…just stick close and act like we do.  All I’m saying.”

I nodded, a little of the sudden sickness easing inside me.  Could be a lot worse; I could be with a group that resented me so completely that it was only a matter of time and a sadistic game before they let me stumble to my death.  Wouldn’t take long out here.

But what I really didn’t want, I realized then next to that toppled column, was for my lack of ability to get one or more of the others killed.  Please…don’t let that happen.

Lt. Krause shifted to stretch first one leg, then the other.  Once he was back in his crouch, he handed me the macros and pointed to something on the horizon.  I hesitantly lifted them to look in that direction, not sure what I’d see.

“Do exactly as we say when we say it,” he said near my ear.  “And you’ll live longer.  First rule is stay out of the view of things like that.”

The macros showed a range of a mile and a half, but the creature was visible without them.  It looked like some sort of gigantic Carrien and it lumbered heavily over wreckage, followed by countless of its smaller kin.  Disturbingly, the creature stopped and looked in our direction for a few seconds.  I resumed breathing only when its head continued its arc to survey the area.

“Don’t worry,” Krause said.  “We’re too far away for him to see us and the wind’s against him.”

“So that’s what I smell…” I mumbled lowly.  I wasn’t sure that I did, it all smelled bad out here, but it seemed I should be able to smell a mass like that if we were sitting downwind.  Maybe I could call it a glib remark.

The Ranger nodded.  “Yeah, he’s hunting.  You’d better eat something before we go.  We won’t move until they’re gone but we aren’t staying here.”

“What are we supposed to be doing out here?” I asked, but took his advice and poked around my pack for one of the meal pouches I’d seen the others use.

“We’re supposed to bring some sort of order to the Cannibal Sector,” he said too easily, then looked at me with a small wink.  “All I can tell you at your level, SLOp.”

I grimaced, and only barely prevented sticking my tongue out at him—even just the tip of it— and continued with the battle of the bulge in my pack.

After I’d finished eating—though not nearly all of the individual pieces were inside the pouch—and when it looked like the mass of Carrien had gone on their way, Krause led me back to the Stingray and we finished the rest of the break there.

I caught Dixon watching me, but she looked away quickly when she realized it and said nothing.  Moose had shifted to sit near the small woman, and I would’ve said from their posture that they were companions as much as squadmates.  Dixon was, from what little I’d seen, a tense young woman and she didn’t really let anyone get close, though she moved easily and communicated effectively among her own.  She was, however, visibly more relaxed next to Moose than I’d seen her near Griffon or Deeves, or even Krause.

Before long, our fearless leader pointed a finger into the air and circled it as he climbed down, and the squad got to its feet.  Food was put away, weapons checked, and the group again made its way through the wreckage.  I began in the same position as before near Dixon and Griffon, behind Deeves and Krause and Moose, but I still started trailing behind again.  Now that the ice had been broken, I might’ve tried talking a bit to Corey while she herded me along like a sheepdog, but again, I didn’t have the breath to try.

C’est le vie.

Published by

David Ball

David is a web developer, and the creator of OngoingWorlds