Collaborative Writing Challenge

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much”
― Helen Keller

ARK
Short Story Winners

In every collaboration you will find a short story published at the end. The story will be in the same genre as the book it features in, and was the winning story in a competition we run alongside each collaboration. The winner and runner-up are featured below. Both stories are exceptional and it was a very tricky choice to award first place. Congratulations to both of these tremendous authors. More details about our short story competitions can be found HERE.

1st Place awarded to Cayce Berryman
Human Against All Odds

Villains are not determined by their actions but by their potential to do bad things. I wasn’t always a villain, just like I wasn’t always human. No one wants a deformed creature living amongst them, and when that creature is young, humans find exile easier.

“Get rid of the abomination before it destroys us all!”


That’s what they said and what they tried to do. The only problem is that they failed, and their actions created the enmity needed to make me what they feared I’d become.


The wet grime providing life for the sickly green shoots in the warm season forms a ghastly white to my gray skin. The sun warms the land, and my body swells until the return of the cold season.


The ground isn’t good for much. It makes my hands brittle because it gives way to my claws easily, like wet soil to the burrowing Silkien fish in my own world and the beach clams which claim sand in this world.


Oh, how I remember my world, its turf expanding for turns longer than the Earth’s curved surface could dream of stretching. Though I had only lived there a year, a Silayan never forgets. I’ve never forgotten the day my world fell to the death of the black hole consuming its surface, pulling it bit by bit into nothingness forever. I’ve never forgotten the screams echoing through the last portal I selfishly buried in the ground for my own use. I’ve never forgotten the pain I experienced upon my arrival to a new plane, so much closer to the sun that my skin wished to melt off my back. I’ve never forgotten, and for a young Silayan offspring who left their colony to die, the memory alone is enough torment.


I circle my claw in the dirt above, licking my lips as water drips off the hovering roots, warning me of the new rain welcoming the warm season again. Humans celebrate this time, and even after years of my heart slowing and succumbing to a constant chill, I cannot bring myself to do the same. I despise what the sun will do to my skin, darkening it to mirror porous, human flesh. The sun has powers of change not unknown to those of my world but still unfamiliar to us.


I do not know the humans’ lifespan, so I make sure to hide beneath the soil until I feel the hatred dissipate. After one hundred years, I watch humans from a distance, scrambling for food and shelter before the cold season. They rejoice when the sun returns with food.


Every warm season, I call upon the stars to take the life of a child, and they curse the villain they know still lives. They think me an evil being, so I comply. Every cry resounding from a young life reminds me of the one I couldn’t live…the one I was denied because of a human’s incapable mind. No amount of life satisfies my thirst.


I have to stop after a century passes, and I wait for another century to return. Death doesn’t please me, and I will never feel satisfied seeking vengeance from a helpless tribe. 


My heart is slowing even more, now; I know I need to walk into the village this time. Silayans cannot survive more than half a millennium without a colony, else we do not adapt to the changing climate. I can feel the Earth change, but I’m not changing with it. As Silayans live off the flowing blood within the colony, mine has slowed in the last century. Now, even the sun’s warmth does not alleviate the chill of a slowing heart.


A weakening body does not help me walk into the human colony, but without their acceptance, my heart will stop before the cold season returns. I’ve waited too long to accept the fate of joining such a primitive species. Because my skin mimics their own, my towering above them only provides them one oddity to glance at, disturbed, before norms of society remind them not to stare.


Walking down rows of small houses and thatched roofs, I glance at small children chasing each other across the soft ground. Each child sends sharpened staffs, large fires, and screams into my mind, and the memory of reddened human faces quickens my pace.


The blue linea of interitus stretch from the sky, ready to strike down anything I wish, as they did centuries before. The power of stars never leaves a Silayan, but I swore never to use it, else I will give into the frenzy and will kill another race.


Uplifted voices tug an irritated thread in my chest, but I swallow it, knowing I have to learn to like those who would hate me if they knew me.


Another child races by, and I turn around, feeling the slivers of interitus plead for further direction and a target. I could give them one—every child in this generation. Their small faces bring the gray face of my youth into the forefront of my mind, fear shading the once selfish innocence of my being.


“Sir?” a miniscule voice whispers.


I turn to face a child whose eyes look the same color as my skin once had. I recognize “sir” as a gender affiliation; however, I never understood the purpose of gender, aside from procreation.


I nod and the child flashes its teeth at me before grasping one claw with the other. “Do you have any food?”


The words make me face him completely. I know of young children who ask for food or shelter. They are denied the same as I. I have always made sure not to strike them, but to instead strike the children who are entitled to such things. I never need food, but while I’ve sought a colony to sustain my life, humans seem to thrive by devouring other life.


I shake my head, regretting immediately that I have not taken time to learn the words of humans. I hadn’t thought of it, nor did I feel the need. Communication works equally well through the body, but humans seem to need multiple languages. Watching them allows me to understand their words, but I never considered trying to speak them. I don’t even know if I can.


“Well,” it persists, brushing back the fur atop its head and holding it at its shoulders. “Do you have…”


I shake my head before it continues; I have nothing to offer. Still, I hurt for the child. I came to Earth expecting help, though I received only hate for my oddities. This child threatens no one, yet it still is denied the right to life.


A sparkle leaves its eyes and it remains as defenseless as it was when approaching me. Without any hope for sustenance, the child turns and asks the next passerby, who turns away before it finishes asking. I dig my nails into my palms, holding back the urge to change my target and strike the elders who deny helpless lives their needs. The humans are worse than I thought.


I growl at myself for having nothing for the child, feeling as useless as the humans. The language of movement allowed me to see much, and this child only wants what anyone could have provided. Before digging another hole into the cool soil, a soft thump draws me to a hollow trunk. Small, brown creatures with long ears cower after a glance at the face recognized as human, and I smile. I grab the two thick pairs of ears and turn back toward the colony.


The child looks up, startled, when I kneel on the ground beside it. A glint of hope shimmers in its eyes, and it pulls long locks of hair away from its soft, gentle face. After risking a quick glance at the creatures in my hand, it smiles softly. I hand it the dead carcasses, and it throws me another pair of wide eyes.


“For me?”


I nod, this time giving it a smile of my own. I close my mouth when I remember the odd sharpness of my teeth, but the child doesn’t cower and, instead, throws its body into mine, covering me with tears. Immediately, the heat of the sun bares on me harshly. My eyes dart around at the forming circle of elderly humans. Tears form on a few faces and they turn away, returning with round, brown lumps and colorful fruit. Before long, other rejected children meet the one beside me, sharing their tears and thanks.


It doesn’t make sense, but I don’t care. I continue ensuring the lives of those children prosper, and the act encourages the colony to come together as mine once had. My blood flows strongly, and my winter-gray skin barely surprises them when it appears. They once declared me to be an evil creature for my appearance, but this time they don’t. This time, I am an angel. 


This time, I’m the guardian.

About Cayce Berryman


Cayce lives in Corpus Christi, TX. Her writing career began with her first poem in 2005, which grew into dozens of poems and short stories that she eventually had published in her high school literary magazines. 


She serves as Managing Editor of the Del Mar College Foghorn newspaper and freelance editor for articles, fiction, and non-fiction works. She is a trained, certified member of American Writers and Artists Inc. (AWAI), and her offered services as a copywriter include travel articles and fundraising copy. She claims her freelance editing and her own fiction writing as her passions above all else. However, she knows and humbles herself with the knowledge that even skilled writers and editors can always learn more, so she is a current student, earning her degree in Creative Writing & English with a concentration in Fiction, while also earning her associates in Journalism at Del Mar College. 

Runner Up awarded to Mike Smith
In The Blink Of An Eye

"Dedicated to my Dad. Always supportive of our shared passion for photography and writing. These words will always remind me of you."


Charlie Sydcup had finished his night shift at St. Thomas' hospital. Breathing in the fresh Thames air, he walked along South Bank in search of some sustenance finally stopping at his favourite coffee shop where he ordered a latte and bacon sandwich. He sat down for some brief respite and, out of the side pocket of his rucksack, retrieved his camera, switching it on; the lens extended out from the front. Breathing heavily on the outside element, he gazed as a layer of mist formed, then used a cloth to wipe the glass. He had a couple of hours before he needed to be back home and there were a number of buildings in the City of London he wanted to visit and photograph.


Today he was excited because his digital camera had just returned from the specialist repairers. It had actually been in for modification and was now converted to record video in near infra-red, or NIR as it was known. Not only did the video have an ethereal quality in NIR, but it enabled him to record things you couldn't see with the naked eye. What was unusual, and he was keen to test, was the slow-motion functionality on the camera. Recording at up to 1000 frames per second, he could see every movement, every expression, no matter how fleeting.


He walked out of the coffee shop and strode onward until he came to the Millennium Footbridge, connecting South Bank to the City of London. After crossing the river, the streets became narrower, winding their way through the heart of the city. He filtered his way through the burgeoning city of commuters before arriving at Bank, the crossroads where the Bank of England was based. The city radiated out from this point and the core of grandiose buildings was encircled by modern skyrise, each creating its own imprint on the city's character - the Gherkin, Cheese Grater, Walkie Talkie.


Crossing the road, he darted between recently emptied rubbish bins, around protective railings and under discrete shop hoardings until he found himself standing outside 20 Fenchurch Church - aka the Walkie Talkie due to its distinctive shape. Removing the tripod from his bag, he extended the legs and clamped them tight before mounting the camera on top. He was filming short segments and wanted to capture a range of interactions between people - builders coming and going, shoppers mingling, businessmen marching between meetings. He framed up the width of the building so that people were shown in their context. A young man in a pin stripe suit and shining cufflinks barged passed a dithering young couple and drew curses in return. Charlie replayed the footage and slowed the motion down - the man had a swagger, a smirk on his face. His body leaned in to the motion and, like the bow of a ship crashing through a wave, he tossed the couple aside.


He started recording again, focused upon his equipment, ensuring it was set up correctly. Then he heard it - a yell, loud, clear, startled. This was followed by a sharp crack, the sound of a dead weight hitting a hard surface. Then screams followed. Charlie looked up as across the street chaos erupted - the frenetic movement of limbs, people, accompanied by shouts and screams. Then a strange stillness: eyes staring, mouths agape, a shocked silence. And in the centre - a motionless body, splayed on the pavement, blood seeping from stained clothes. Life draining away into the cracks below. Charlie could clearly see a builder - the large boots and rough-hewn clothes, the helmet spinning away from him. People were thrust into action, phoning for an ambulance, creating space, attending to the body, attempting first aid.


A strange compulsion seized Charlie - had he really filmed the fall? Instead of rushing to help he replayed the file at half-speed. People moved backwards and forwards, slowly, slowly... and then the body appeared, in freefall. Even in slow motion the speed surprised him and whilst there was no sound playing, he could see people flinch when the body came to rest.


What was that? he thought, looking at the screen on the camera.


He rewound the clip and slowed it down to a tenth of the speed. The body appeared, passed through the scene and hit the pavement. It was a sudden, violent, death, the head rolled toward him.


He slowed it down to a hundredth of a second. The body, pavement, head, the eyes looking straight at him, at the camera - FLASH. He paused the film - a white flash filled the frame, bleaching the scene, obscuring everything the camera recorded. It looked like a camera flash, but stronger, more powerful… from the eyes.


Charlie replayed it again - the image etched on his memory. He paused, trying to understand before snapping out of his reverie. He snatched the camera from the top of the tripod, rapidly collapsing it and stuffing his kit into his rucksack. Crossing the street and working his way back up to Bank he jumped aboard the first red bus back to St. Pauls, before switching on to a second bus running out to Elephant and Castle. Whilst travelling he kept replaying the clip over and over in his mind.


The bus was empty, running away from the city in the rush hour, as it trundled along bustling streets, jammed with cars. Charlie got off the bus and walked along next to Albany Park back towards the Aylesbury Estate. Whilst he lived in a slightly ageing tower block, the area was undergoing renovation. He slapped his card against the lock on the gated entrance and slipped through to the lift. After pressing the ‘Call’ button and the inevitable wait, there was a ping and the doors opened. The tin box accelerated upwards to the fifthteenth floor, where he exited, sliding the key into the lock and opening the door.


His one-bedroom flat was spartan, but clean and tidy. The open plan kitchen-diner was off one end of the entrance hall, with the bedroom at the other. He went in to it, extracting his camera before flinging the rucksack on to the bed.


Switching the computer on, he put the SD card from the camera in to the reader on the computer; the videos were then automatically extracted and stored on the internal drive. Loading the last video file, he dragged the timeline slider to the end and again played at one tenth speed the builder falling through the frame. There it was, top-to-bottom, thud, head lolling, the eyes. He slowed the motion down to one hundredth of a second and rewound it. Thud, head loll, the eyes - flash.


Charlie froze the screen then took a screen dump and loaded the image in to his processing software. His reduced the brightness on the screen and, to his surprise, realised that the image wasn't saturated. Given the brightness of the light he had assumed that what he was looking at was pure white. He wasn't. He masked off the white flash and applied a reduction in brightness, boosting the contrast in the image. Given the high resolution of the image, the process took some time to complete. He waited impatiently as the percentage indicator on the taskbar slowly inched its way across the screen. Areas of high and low contrast appeared first, followed by shapes, outlines, the edge of a building, the figure of a person. It finally came in to focus… he realised he was looking at himself!! He was stood in the street, next to his tripod and camera. The view was from the builder, his last conscious vision of the bustling Fenchurch Street before he died.


He had a thought - the whole flash was one tenth of a second in duration which equated to one hundred frames on his video. He skipped back fifty frames and froze the image. The flash was there, less intense but clearly visible. He extracted the image and ran it through the same process. The processing took its time, but gradually the scene emerged on his screen - a rough floor, concrete ceiling, sky, people with helmets. It was the building site, presumably the floor the man had been on. The image was paler, lacking detail and contrast, clearly not as well formed as the previous scene he had looked at.


Charlie yawned - it had been a heck of a morning and he was due back in work at eight that night. He needed sleep. Going back to the video stream he extracted the complete tenth of a second flash and buffered it a tenth of a second either side. These were then exported as individual frames creating three hundred files - he initiated an image processing batch job and set it running. Switching the monitor off, he pulled the curtains, put ear plugs in and curled up under the duvet - before long he was in a deep sleep.

***

Evening dawned and Charlie awoke to the quiet of a summer night, with just the occasional sound of his neighbours indicating life. He jumped out of bed and in one stride was in front of his computer. Flicking the switch on the monitor, the screen burst in to life - the cursor blinked indicating the batch job had finished. He loaded the image viewer and used the scroll wheel on his mouse to cycle between the images. As before the first images were faint, like a degraded memory, low in contrast and slightly fuzzy. The first gave him broad shapes but as he progressed through them they became more solid, firmer, taking on the appearance of people. The view moved across the building - a fixing was placed in the wall, before it pinged straight back out, straight towards him. He sensed the head tilt back, then moving backwards before a jolt to the vision. The head rotated backwards suddenly looking at sky and then the world flying past. It all stopped, the head slid sideways and, across the street, he stood looking back at himself. As the image faded the scene changed - it was a kitchen, morning sun streamed in through the back window. As he looked at the view he realised he was standing, facing a woman with long blond hair; she had thin pursed lips, a visible layer of foundation and heavy mascara. The facial expression turned to a scowl as the scene faded.


Charlie sat back - the sequence of images must have been the last moments of the builder as he plunged to his death. The scene was unmistakably 20 and could only have been that morning - he recognised the young couple looking back in to the scene as the events unfolded. But the ending… what was that? Who was the woman?


Charlie paused, reflecting upon the last scene that had flashed before him. It had clearly happened before the morning’s events, before the builder’s death. Was that his wife? He could see the disapproval, the anger, being directed at the builder. The death was clearly significant, traumatic, and he had assumed that he was simply watching a ‘replay’ of the scene. But was the significance more important? Was this last scene an argument? An event seared in to the memory?


"Maybe I’m looking in to his soul,” he whispered to himself. “And it's not only what I’m seeing, but how I’m seeing it!"


The flash of light was fast – a tenth of a second – and he had only managed to capture it because the builder had been looking straight at him. And given the sensitivity of the camera to NIR it couldn’t be visible to the human eye. And if light was coming out, being emitted, from the eyes how was it being generated and how did it produce those images?


He looked at his watch and realised that time was getting tight for him to return to work on time. He threw the camera in the rucksack, left the flat and ran down the stairs, jumping four at a time until he reached the bottom. This time he went out the back and grabbed his bike from the secure storage area. He left via the rear entrance and cycled up to Waterloo Station before turning alongside the Thames and then switching on to the river footpath. He arrived at the hospital building and padlocked his bike in the parking area before entering through the lower staff entrance.


Charlie went to the staff lockers and threw his uniform on, clipping his ID badge to the outside. He slipped his camera in his pocket and walked over to the main building before going through the double doors of Jeffries, a ward for elderly male patients.


"Good evening Jane" he jovially greeted the nurse in charge of the ward.


"Evening Charlie. You OK?" she replied.


"Of course! I'm starting here tonight, but just need to do a site walk first."


"No problems,” she called. “Just shout if you need anything."


She smiled at him and then carried on with her paperwork. He slowly made his way down the room making a mental note of the patients in their beds. Most had headphones on and were watching TV - visiting had finished so the place was quiet.


He was interested in the private suite at the end of the ward that the staff called eel which was a bastardisation of EoL for End of Life. It was where patients expecting to pass away were taken to offer specialist care and privacy for family members. Looking through the window he saw an elderly man sleeping. He quickly glanced over his shoulder and, with everyone else busy, slipped in to the room. The patient's notes - a Mr Stowe - showed that he was emaciated and clearly in very poor health requiring supplementary oxygen. Two things jumped off the page - he had a DNR and no next-of-kin. Thoughts raced… could he?


He retreated from the room, his mind swimming in possibilities. He needed to work, to think. Come back later. He walked back down the ward and, just outside the doors, opened the facilities storage room to collect his large double-broom, bucket and mop. He worked his way systematically through the ward, sweeping all the large open areas first, before cleaning under and around beds and cabinets. Some areas were curtained off so these he left. His mind still raced… the old man was dying, going to die. Could he capture that moment? After sweeping he moved on to mopping the floor. He cleaned around the nurses’ station, smiling at Jane. She was illuminated by a small desk lamp in the darkness of the now asleep ward.


He worked his way back down the central aisle - it was 2am, the ward was deathly quiet. He looked in to the eel room – with the man still asleep Charlie again entered. He made a snap decision – with his heart racing, he pulled the camera out of his pocket, securing it to a portable camera mount and wrapping the flexible legs around the TV bracket high up on the wall. He set the camera to record, checking the image, before leaving.


With Jeffries complete, Charlie moved to the ward on the floor above, working his way slowly through the room. By 5am he had finished and went back down to Jeffries - he placed his cleaning equipment in the storage room before walking back in to the ward. A new nurse - Gemma - was now working.


"Morning Charlie - did you have a good night?" she said.


"Hey Gemma. Yes, no dramas. All done and dusted - literally!" She smiled at his response.


"Mr Stowe…" His voice tailed off. "How's he doing?"


Gemma looked sad. "He didn't make it - no relatives. Can you believe that? He died peacefully."


"He was fine when I looked in at 2am," Charlie replied.


"He took a turn for the worse around 3:30am so I went in to him."


"At least he had someone with him at the end." Charlie paused, letting the moment hang, briefly.


"I just need to clean one of the cubicles that was busy last night, then I'm done."


"No problems Charlie. I'll see you later."


Charlie went back and grabbed his brush and mop, before heading down to the eel room. Checking he was alone, he slid in through the doorway - the room was empty, tidy. He looked up - his camera was there, still recording. He clicked it off, put it back in his pocket and left. As fast as he could, he finished his duties before he dashed back down to his locker. Stripping off the uniform, he grabbed his rucksack and raced out the exit. His collected his bike, unlocking it from the railing.


The adrenalin was building as he thought about the enormity of what he had just done. He began cycling, retracing his route through the London streets before arriving back at his flat slightly flushed. He took the lift up and bounded in through the front door, straight to the bedroom. Turning his PC on, he took the memory card out of the camera and immediately started downloading the footage.


Loading the clip in to the video software he scrolled forward to 3:30am. Gemma entered the room, but Mr Stowe was still asleep. She went up to him and checked his vital signs, before moving back to the oxygen supply. With her finger on the power button she paused, looked back at the old man, then flicked the switch. The airflow stopped - slowly the man became starved of oxygen as the blood, depleted of supply, surged around his body. The chest heaved as he tried to take deeper breaths. On the video Charlie could see him coughing as his lungs began to retch, trying to take in more air. His eyes flashed open - he was alive. Charlie could sense his weakened state, his inability to function. His head moved slowly as the eyes tried to rove around the room. Could he see? Gemma continued to look at the old man. There was a pause, then his head swung around to her, fixing at her position. The lines on his face changed, relaxed, as recognition swept across his expression. She said something – his expression instantly changed to one of panic. 


The breaths became shorter, faster, shallower - the chest heaved, the body strained.


FLASH


He passed away.


Gemma flicked the machine back on and left the room.


Charlie pressed pause, shocked by what he had just witnessed. He realised his heart was racing, blood pumping around his body.


What next, he thought.


Snapping back to the moment he realised he should process the footage. He clipped the video to a tenth of a second either side of the flash and then set the same batch job running. He couldn't stop thinking about what he had seen recorded but he had to sleep - he changed in to a tracksuit and t-shirt before lying down in bed to try to rest. But his mind raced - he wasn't asleep, yet he wasn't awake. His kept replaying the scene in his mind - oxygen calmly switched off, eyes clicking open to relief then panic. The stillness. It played again - this time he saw the flash in slow motion, his mind inserting images of his own father into the scene. He didn't know if he was awake, in a reality he had just walked in to.


There was a loud beep.


Shit, he thought to himself.


He had forgotten to mute the monitor and his tortured sleep was interrupted. Then his conscious brain kicked in - the batch job had finished. He clambered out of the bed and back to the PC - it was midday. The cursor flashed on the monitor, the image processing was complete.


Charlie started viewing the images - they began quite faint and slowly increased in density and contrast, forms taking shape. The inside of the hospital room with institutional fluorescent lights flickering overhead. The view panned down – the TV at the end of the room, mounted high, the end of the bed, a retractable table with a cup of water, reading glasses. The image was still blurred, swinging left - the door, a person. The movement stopped and slowly the image sharpened – he saw Gemma stood next to the oxygen supply. She lent forward, mouthing words – there was clear reaction as the view began to shake as recognition turned to panic. The view faded as Mr. Stowe breathed his last, changing to the last memory imprint – it was dark, slowly light filtered in to the scene. Two hands, a steering wheel. The head tilted back and he could see traces of blood. An accident? Looking through the window screen, the car had hit a lamppost, the windscreen smashed, bonnet crumpled. The car looked old… no new. Charlie realised it was a new car, but an old model. When was this? The image shifted to the left and there sat next to the driver was a woman. His wife? She was crumpled against the dash board, a severe gash to her head. Again the view shifted as the person looked over their shoulder in to the back seat, where a school girl sat, wearing black trousers, light blue shirt, tie and blazer. She had her seatbelt on, but was clearly in shock. His daughter? Charlie looked again. There had been many intervening years, but she was unmistakable - Gemma.


About Mike J Smith


A scientist who has spent his working life drafting reports and technical articles, staying within the strictures of the third person and being precise in the use of language. His reading is entirely science based revolving around journal articles and technical books. 


Any free time is spent taking photos and reading about photography. He has a number of articles published in photography magazines. As editor of a science journal he spends much time reviewing and copy editing the writing of others. He has not written fiction since high school and Ark was his first foray. He thoroughly enjoyed contributing and says 'it was a blast!'.