Winner of Writing Challenge #26!
This contest is now closed to submissions!
The prompt for this contest has been...
Write about a sailor marooned on an island where surprising inhabitants live.
And the first-place winner is...
Leticia Toraci with "The Bumpy Way Home"
We received a bunch of great stories, but one, in particular, caught our attention and didn’t let go. Congratulations, Leticia, and thanks for entering!
Read the winning entry below.
The Bumpy Way Home
By Leticia Toraci
1) The odd one.
Expelled, not forgotten. And certainly not dead. Nyxa knew the truth even if she also knew that Reginald Pricht, the Second of His Name, Prince Regent of Aldora and captain of the Purist’s ship would play the devastated ex-boyfriend so he could be consoled by the younger female members of the crew. To tell the truth, he could have executed her, but not without tarnishing his reputation of a modern and loved monarch and spaceship captain, so he only conveniently left her behind.
Nyxa looked at the broad-leafed green trees and the soil rich with rotting fruit and living insects around her and sighed. Only the tick lotion she spread before leaving the ship stopped the mosquitoes making an immediate meal out of her, but the sweat profusely dampening her skin would soon wash away even that civilized protection.
Her light backpack contained one and a half liter of water, an extra change of clothes and a couple of meal bars. She had never thought she would be spending the night on that green hell of a planet.
Reginald himself had divided the small exploring crew into groups of two and insisted on going with her so they would “show the crew they still could work together”. She had agreed because that could alleviate her current unpopularity with them, but after a while walking she had felt so drowsy she fell asleep. One hour later she awakened on the forest’s floor with ant-like insects crawling all over her. After getting rid of the stinging insects she saw Reginald was gone.
She found a note attached to her backpack: “I gave you, a dirty Escapist, a fresh new start. Of course, I would never marry you due to the disgraced status of your family, but as my lover, your return ticket to nobility was assured. Apart from marriage, I would have given you everything. But you dreamt too high like all of you, Escapists freaks, do. So now I throw you out, and sadly the meat-eating animals of this planet won’t even have a good meal out of your bony ass.”
Nyxa ran through the forest back to the ship, her skin tingling, her heart racing, but then she heard the explosion of the Purist’s departure. When she arrived the only thing left was a wide circle of scorched soil.
She pressed her lips. I wonder what Reginald told the rest of the crew to convince them I couldn’t be found. Or, most certainly, they hated me so much they didn’t need any convincing. All that merely because I dared to leave the evil sod. She kicked a small twig away and sat on a rock, holding her head with her hands and sobbing.
Lousy in bed, worse in daylight. But even though it had taken Nyxa a couple of years to see through Reginald’s charming façade. His friendly manners were perfect for handling the ship’s crew, but they were also only but a nice shell for the bitter snake coiling inside. But even after seeing the Purist’s captain true face, Nyxa still didn’t expect him to care enough to exact even more revenge on her because the months aboard his ship before arriving in Endymion had been nothing but a petty revenge day by day.
After their separation, the daggers in the crew’s stares and their whispered speculations were more than enough to convince her of her sudden and complete unwelcome status among the reproving Purists. Poor Reginald didn’t speak a word against her. He didn’t have to. He had the whole crew on his charismatic bandwagon from the start.
She had forcefully ignored them. As long as she did her work no one could do anything directly against her. The indirect rumors though hurt her as much as the lost friendships. From colleagues talk implying that she had slept with another man to an overall dislike in the remaining crew’s faces, she counted each day remaining until the ship’s return to Aldora in a couple of months. Then she would disappear and never see any of those horrid Purists, including Reginald, ever again.
Nyxa started looking for a place to sleep since it was getting dark. She hadn’t seen any dangerous animal since their arrival, but she looked around for big footprints near her chosen campsite nevertheless. This planet was still largely unknown and she couldn’t even be sure about the intelligent beings in it, so she looked for a dark shadowy corner under a big tree and sat there observing from her hidden place.
I’ll wait for one hour, she thought, to see if this place if quiet enough. Endymion is a laid back planet, the perfect place to banish an ex-girlfriend forever since very few ships ever visit, it’s reclusive inhabitants refusing to talk to outsiders and suspicious of technology and commerce. Nyxa had yet to meet one of the Endymians, but since they weren’t technologically oriented she didn’t expect to find transport back to Aldora or anywhere else from them either.
The Purist’s ship, also named the Purist in a highly creative way, had only made an emergency stop to fix some broken equipment, but the captain hadn’t even asked for permission to land there. Reginald had demanded they be allowed a day on the planet’s surface for repairs and the Endymians had agreed probably only to stay out of trouble with those they considered an extremely primitive species. Not that Reginald’s behavior had given them any reason to think otherwise.
So Nyxa didn’t expect a welcoming party when she did meet the Endymians. Not that she was used to feeling welcome anywhere she went anyway. That feeling had lasted only when she had been Reginald’s favorite and it had even then been fake and full of veiled scorn judgment. The Purists had never especially liked her because she was still considered impure, even if she had kept herself away from virtual dreaming for more than two decades.
It did not matter. If you had, ever in your life, immersed yourself in the impure Virtual World you would never be seen as a real Purist or, as they so proudly called themselves, a person only of the Real World. The Purists hated the Virtual World and all Escapists, the people who could afford to spend time there. And you were called an Escapist even if you didn’t have any more contact with the Virtual World. Even if you didn’t go there for decades.
Besides hating anything connected to virtual reality, the most radical Purists even took pills so they would never dream, their minds never leaving the Real World. They were afraid that a few dreams would be enough to distort their beliefs. They are never really free. Nyxa thought.
She didn’t take pills at night and dreamt as only an Escapist could. She dreamt intense, vivid, logic dreams, the resulting escape of a brain enhanced while still in the mother’s womb as all Escapist’s brains were. She could still be an Escapist if she won enough money to pay her ticket back to the Virtual World. This was probably why all working class Purists hated her despite Reginald’s maneuvering. The Purists could never follow her to the Virtual World. They were like captive silk butterflies who died still as caterpillars. And they hated all flying butterflies.
Nevertheless, she had left the Virtual World behind out of necessity. The debts and the lost social status of her family made her presence there more than she could pay. The ones who could afford to lay their bodies in a body conditioning pod, remaining alive for a much longer time than a human life, were not interested in other people’s Real World problems, these she would have to solve herself.
The Virtual World endless entertainment and learning was reserved to the Nobility to which she didn’t belong anymore. Her family had fallen into disgrace, so she had to try her luck with the few nobles who remained in the Real World. As a fallen noble, she now belonged to the working class and thus required to remain out of debt or be forced out of it. So, before the Purist police would put her in a forced working camp she enlisted herself on one of their ships as a scientist. If she couldn’t travel the virtual worlds, she would travel through space. And she would still dream.
Nyxa heard light footsteps. She looked around startled, out of her concentrated thoughts that were the first stage of a disconnected Escapist’s trance. I must be more careful. The young woman narrowed her eyes and saw the Endymians slowly approaching.
They didn’t seem warlike, pale and tall would be more like it. They had long fingers that ended in pads like a frog’s toes and gills on their necks, but apart from that, they looked similar to humans, if humans had decided to become also adapted to aquatic environments. They raised long translucent weapons humming with red energy. The hell with not being warlike. Nyxa thought.
An endless inconvenience, these humans. Thought the tallest of them pointing his gun at her, while the rest of the group did the same.
Nyxa gasped. “I can hear your thoughts.”
“That is… unexpected.” The only of the group without a weapon said. “Aldora humans aren’t known to be telepaths.”
“I’m not a telepath,” Nyxa said. “Not among my people at least.” But she remembered the faint whispers and the incongruent feelings she always felt when being near others.
Perhaps because no one was sending you thoughts so far? Thought the tallest one. Now, I would like to know if you aren’t a spy or a terrorist on a suicidal mission left here by the Aldoran King.
“I’m sorry for being on your planet,” Nyxa said “but I lost my ride home because my ex-boyfriend left me here and I… I need a place to stay until I can go back to Aldora. I don’t want to be a burden to you. I will work.”
The tallest Endymian blinked rapidly. She likes to tell passionate tales. Which could also be nothing else than lies.
The other bit his lower lip: “I’m Gap and this one is Vepak. As you already know, we are the natives of this planet. We don’t intend to harm you unless you fight us, but you must come to our city with us so we can clarify what you are doing here.”
Nyxa shrugged. “It’s not like I have any other choice.”
Gap smiled. “Then follow us, human girl.”
Nyxa followed them. After walking for a half hour they arrived in a completely inconspicuous grassy plain. Vepak stood in a funny body position, as if he would be trying to imitate an Egyptian hieroglyph shape, then Nyxa heard a subliminal humming. A door opened to a huge lift. This is why only a handful of buildings could be seen on Endymion’s surface. They lived underground.
Why are they allowing me to see what hadn’t even been shown to diplomats from Aldora? Nyxa wondered.
Vepak sighed. If we left you out there to die this would make us as bad as your human peers and it would be highly dishonorable of us. Besides, we can still erase your memories of us if necessary.
The whole group entered the elevator.
Nyxa snorted. “I understand. I ask only that you never erase that it was Reginald that did this to me. I swear…” But she stopped talking when the elevator doors opened and cool air smelling of wet soil and plants filled her nostrils. She could also recognize the unmistakable salty note of the ocean. An underground ocean? She looked around and saw that Endymion’s underground was… huge. The ceiling was so high she almost could not see it. A shining moss added light to it, making it look like a spectral foggy sky. Thick rock columns rose from the floor, it’s tiny windows shining like if multifaceted diamonds were embedded in the smooth light pink and white rock. Lush vegetation surrounded the alien city sprawling under their platform. It looked bigger than the capital of Aldora.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Gap said.
“Indeed,” Nyxa said.
As you see, there is nothing we would need from Barbarians. Vepak thought.
“No need to be impolite with our guest.” Gap said. He turned to Nyxa: “Before we can allow you to stay with us, you must meet our council. But of course, if you are too tired, we can postpone it until tomorrow.”
Nyxa smirked. “I was never the one to avoid a pleasant getting-to-know-you party. Let’s go before the day is done.”
2) The other odd ones
Nyxa entered a big white chamber where ten different Endymians sat behind a round table. Gap and Vepak were still there, while the other council members looked more like administrators than her initial group had looked. She sat and looked at each of the faces around her, a cat surrounded by leashed dogs. Thoughts circled around her head.
We didn’t have contact with them for awhile, have we?
It could be more than a century. Or five centuries. We haven’t been observing them lately…
They needed time to evolve. But perhaps…
Be aware that she can hear us. Gap thought addressing the council. You aren’t dealing with the same type of beings you dealt in the past.
Now, the being who appeared to be their most prominent leader thought. I think that we can not decide anything before we hear the female human’s story.
All the Endymians seemed to agree with their leader’s suggestion. So, after looking around, the leader thought: Tell us how you ended up on our planet.
Nyxa told them everything. She made pauses to breathe deeply so she wouldn’t swear out of frustration in front of the council. Why did she always end up having to explain herself? When she finished talking she rubbed her face and moved her head around, trying to ease her stiff neck. A rough day in a string of many. Would there ever be an end to it?
Vepak was the first one breaking the silence with his thoughts. From what I understand of your story you humans now are divided between the ones who dream and the ones who don’t. Is this correct?
“Yes and no. Some Purists still dream, even if they aren’t proud of it. But only the Escapists can dream in a more intensified state and join the Virtual World. For this, your brain must be changed before birth. It’s an expensive procedure. So the Purists can’t afford it. For this reason, they hate the enhanced ones, the Escapists like me. Nyxa sighed. In this case, the Virtual World is inaccessible, but even Purists could still dream if they didn’t medicate against it.”
“But why is your Regent a Purist?” Gap asked.
“Mainly politics, the royalty has to be on the Purist’s side even if privately they often escape to the Virtual World. The Purists are the majority on Aldora. On the other hand, sometimes the procedure also doesn’t work.” Nyxa lightly rubbed her tired eyes. “I think Reginald was such a case even if he always put up a front of choosing to stay out of the Virtual World out of his own will. But I can’t say for sure, we had no connection on our ship.”
“You must have missed it.” Gap said.
“I missed many things,” Nyxa said. “Space isn’t for the faint-hearted.”
The council was silent for a moment considering her words.
What is dreaming? Vepak asked.
The Endymian leader thought: A behavior we left behind in our evolution as we evolved. It was associated with sleeping.
But, as I understand, it has restorative Psychological effects. Vepak thought. What if we made a mistake by evolving out of it? It could be that the lack of dreaming is causing fatal mental fatigue among us?
You mean that her dreaming ability could help us with our losses? Gap thought.
This could be… Vepak stared at Nyxa with a hopeful smile on his face.
It must be observed, and learned, this… dreaming. The leader of the council said. The other members nodded the heads in agreement.
It could be our cure. Vepak thought. Our salvation. We must learn how to dream again.
Gap smiled: “The universe conspired so that, of all the most primitive people we know about, a teacher arose.”
The council stood together in unison and greeted Nyxa with a slight bowing of their heads. We would be honored to learn from you, Dreamer.
Nyxa widened her eyes. She had not seen that coming.