Earlier this year, we launched our first Flash Fiction Challenge, and what a year to do it. 2020 will undoubtedly go down in history as a year that shook up the status quo; created stark polarisation and invited us to question our collective future with ever-increasing urgency. The Covid pandemic, racial justice protests and the heightening climate crisis have been some of the global events that have caused us to reflect on the shape of our society and the values and actions that we prioritise as we move forward.
Here at Systems Change Alliance, we don’t want to stay focused on the problems. We want to put our energy into finding and implementing solutions, to transition to a world made up of fair and resilient societies of happy, healthy people living as part of robust ecosystems.
To support this ethic, the Flash Fiction Challenge was based around the idea of visioning a better world beyond the pandemic. Would-be writers were invited to submit a short story that envisioned a brighter future, which integrated some of the essential values of SCA, while still making for a good read with engaging narrative and characters.
It was a challenging proposition and we received many entries from all over the world, which focused on different topics inspire by the central theme.
Meet our Guest Judge
After narrowing the entries down to a short list, we invited writer, Thomas Rain Crowe, to pick the final winners of the Challenge.
Thomas Rain Crowe is an internationally-published and recognized author of more than thirty books, including the multi-award winning nonfiction nature memoir Zoro’s Field: My Life in the Appalachian Woods); a book of essays and articles titled The End of Eden (Writings of an Environmental Activist); and a collection of place-based poems titled Crack Light. He has been editor of major literary and cultural journals and anthologies and is founder and publisher of New Native Press—a small literary press founded in 1979 . He is and has been on the boards of several environmental conservation organizations in western North Carolina over the last 40 years and has spoken widely to large and small groups on the subject of higher consciousness, sustainability and protection of the planet as a resident of western North Carolina and the Southern Appalachians. He lives in the Tuckasegee watershed and the “Little Canada” community of Jackson County in western North Carolina.
This Year’s Winners
First Prize: All Along the Forest’s Edge by Tony Dunnell
Runners Up: Elysium by Nydia Dara and The Oldest Banyan Tree by Ciena Valenzuela-Peterson
Here is Thomas’s feedback on the winning stories:
“All three of the Finalists were excellent pieces of flash fiction and so this was a very hard choice to make. In making my decision, I took into consideration the four competition guidelines as well as the SCA main focuses as highlighted on the website. For instance, In “The Oldest Banyan Tree” I liked the author’s sense of strong feminine human warmth and caring and the social references to capitalism, autocracy, and the rich and inequality. In “Elysium,” the story spoke to my own interests in the sci-fi genre and this story’s style and theme and a glimpse into a possible hopeful post-apocalyptic future. But after multiple readings and copius notes from all three, in the end I had to rely on my emotional reaction to all three, since each in their own way was well-written, original, and pertinent to the SCA focus. That being the case, I selected “All Along The Forest’s Edge” for the following reasons (from my notes):
*…is jubilant, celebrational, hopeful—in seemingly real time and of the moment or near future
*well written; characters well-developed and well-spoken
*honors indigenous communities
*highlighting an important event of international legislation and a global government concerning climate change and endangered species, (including human species), before it was too late—and so a possible inspiration and outcome for us Now.
*it touched my emotions, my heart
*the author took us there and put us in the room
*embodies the major precepts for the competition
While all the finalists had their individual merits, it was “All Along The Forest’s Edge” that captured my heart and helped stoke the flames of my own sense of hope and resiliency for mankind going forward. My congratulations to Mr. Dunnell and to the three Finalists and to all who participated in this timely competition, and to SCA for the work it is doing to reach a balanced and sustainable future. Onward to all.“
–Thomas Rain Crowe
Read the Winning Stories
First Prize: All Along the Forest’s Edge by Tony Dunnell
I thumbed the app on my smartphone. In less than a minute, an autotaxi rolled down Simmons Street to collect me. I stepped inside. The pandemics had stripped economies bare, but the work-from-home revolution had certainly made London easier to get around.
“Saint Anne’s Hospital, please,” I said.
“Saint Anne’s Hospital, arrival in seven minutes,” confirmed the taxi’s disembodied voice.
My phone rang as I settled in to my seat. It was Etienne.
“Have you told him yet? Does he know?” he asked.
“Not yet. I’m on my way to the hospital now. I’ll call you when I get there.”
The city slid by as if nothing had happened. School kids and cyclists, dog-walkers and shoppers, some still wearing masks. I looked at my phone, messages still streaming in. First I had to talk to dad.
The autotaxi pulled in to the hospital parking lot and edged up to the white marble façade of Saint Anne’s. I thanked the nonexistent driver (a common habit, apparently), thumbed the payment and got out.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Howe,” said the receptionist in the spotless lobby. “Sir Phillip is in his room. You can go right up.”
“Thanks, Clare.” I strode up the stairs to the third floor and tapped on my father’s door. No reply so I walked in. He was asleep in his hospital bed. Orange flowers in a white vase were beginning to wilt on the bedside table.
“Dad?” I touched his hand and his eyes flickered open.
“Hello, son,” he said, his smile as bright as ever. He sat up in the bed and readjusted the pillows behind him. “Everything alright? I thought you’d come by this evening.”
I took his hand. “We did it, dad. We did it.” His inquiring look suggested he’d forgotten the importance of the day. “The UN just voted on the Forest Edge Initiative. One hundred and ninety-five countries have signed. We did it. It passed. Look.” I took the remote control and turned on the wall-mounted flat screen. A reporter was standing outside the Palais des Nations in Geneva, the white steps behind her full of suited politicians, smiling and shaking hands.
“—an historic international accord, whose comprehensive measures will provide an unprecedented level of protection to the world’s tropical forests. Most political analysts agree that the Forest Edge Initiative gained such universal support due to the clear threat posed to the global economy by further pandemics. As the secretary-general reiterated yesterday, the forest edge is the first line of defense against the pandemics that have caused such turmoil in recent years.”
Realization flooded across my father’s face. “Oh, my boy, that’s marvelous,” he said. “And China?”
“Yes, dad,” I laughed. “China, Brazil, all of them.” I turned off the TV.
“My, my. That calls for a cup of tea.”
“Dad, someone wants to talk to you.” I took my laptop from my backpack and pulled a table closer to the bed. I flipped open my laptop on the table and called Etienne on the vidchat. His face appeared, the greenery of the Loreto Research Station behind him.
“Sir Phillip!” he said in his thick French accent. “You are looking well.”
“Etienne, no need to lie.” My father chuckled. “How are you? Still in Peru?”
“Yes, and we have been watching the events in Geneva. A success! Congratulations.”
“It’s wonderful news, my friend.”
“I have someone here who wants to talk to you.”
Etienne moved away from the screen. Tupa came into view, his brown skin wrinkled with smile lines and sun, his dark eyes shining. Two smudges of red achiote stained his weathered cheeks.
“Hola, Señor Phillip,” said Tupa.
My father’s eyes widened and he grinned. “Is that you, Tupa?” He leaned forward. “Oh, it is, my dear old friend. How are you?”
“I am good, Señor Phillip. We are good. Better now.”
“Well,” said my father, “what a treat.”
“Señor Phillip, would you like to see my home again?” said Tupa, smiling and gesturing to the dense jungle around him.
“How I would my friend. If only I could.”
I pulled the visor headset out of my backpack and placed it on my father’s lap. “Put it on, dad. It’s connected to one of the guardian drones at Loreto Station. Etienne’s going to take you for a ride.”
I helped my father put on the headset and adjusted the visor to fit snuggly across his eyes. “It might be disorientating at first, but you’ll get used to it. Etienne will control the flight, but you can look around wherever you like. You can hear, too, so tell me if you need more volume. Ready?” My father gave me an unsteady thumbs-up. “Etienne, take him up.”
“Oh, my,” said my father. A smile broke out across his face. “I’m in the canopy! Look, son.”
I laughed, my heart swelled. I knew from experience what he was seeing. Rising through the dark glinting green of the rainforest canopy, the shimmering leaves, the whoops and whistles of colorful birds, the chatter of frogs and insects. His expression turned to wonder as he broke through the canopy into the emergent layer, where the Amazon’s tallest trees rise above the vast sea of green, where giant kapoks stand like ancient watchmen, two hundred feet tall. The morning sun rising in the bright blue sky, dappling the roof of the jungle, the rainforest coming to life. And my father, flying above it all.
“Toucans! And down there, look at the river.” His voice fell to a whisper. “Magnificent.” A tear squeezed its way beneath the visor and rolled down my father’s cheek. “Magnificent.”
His mouth rolled with childlike expressions, forming smiles and circles of delight. His head turned one way then another.
Soon the world would share this spectacle, and my father’s dream. The guardian drones in the skies above the Amazon basin, the Congo, the lowlands of Borneo and all the other vital tropical forests of our planet.
“I can see Iquitos in the distance. And tiny fishermen on the river. Hundreds of macaws.”
The whole world would look upon the forests through the drones, a collective witness inspired and steeled by what it saw. And below, indigenous communities would continue their ancient undertaking as the defenders of the forests. But now, men and women like Tupa Tupalima would be acknowledged, protected and empowered, a bulwark against deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade. Pandemics would come, diseases would still find a way to cross species. But the new-found inviolability of the forest edge, and the jungles within its boundaries, would reduce their frequency and voracity. With the eyes of the world watching.
“Coming back in to land, Sir Phillip,” said Etienne. The drone settled. I helped my father remove the headset.
“Spectacular,” he said. “Thank you, everyone.” He paused, pensive, and the old fire burned in his eyes, stronger than I’d seen in years. His brow furrowed with the determination of a life’s work. A life nearing its end. “Now, I need to speak with Tupa.”
Tupa appeared on the screen. My father leaned in close.
“Tupa,” he said, “are you ready?”
Tupa reached out his hand, as if touching my father’s face.
“Yes, my friend, we are ready.”
Runner Up: Elysium by Nydia Dara
As a kid, I travelled to a new universe each night. In my sterile sleep chamber, somewhere above the Milky Way, I flew through the stars on the rocket of Ma’s stories. She told me about better places. There was heaven, Jannah, Eden, and Nirvana. But my favourite of all was Elysium, the fields of plenty: the place where heroes go. It didn’t matter how many times I failed my ethical termination and organism hierarchy exams. It didn’t matter that my great-great grandma wasn’t an Ether, born and bred on our ship. It didn’t matter how many times kids shoved me in the galleys. My mother said I’d be the Heracles of the stars. My mother said I’d make it to Elysium someday.
The air on this planet scratches at my throat. The shuttle’s damaged motor coughs in the distance. We’re in a warehouse, maybe, or a factory – with only metal contraptions, gates, and machines. There’s a narrow arm of sunlight from an overhead window, but the stale dancing of dust is the only movement around. I guess I’ve lived my whole damn life to see empty cages. I guess I was kidding myself to believe in stories.
“This where they bred their food?” Marvin runs a suited-up hand along a steel cage, his Oxy-Helmet tucked under his arm. “Wild.”
“It’s empty,” I say, running a hand through my sweat-slicked buzzcut. “Why’s it empty?”
Marvin shrugs, and continues down the row of tiny cages. His umber brown skin, so rare for an Ether, blends with the darkness. “Ben, take a look at their engineering and you tell me why they didn’t last.”
“So you think there’s nobody left?”
“Control told us not to get our hopes up.”
All six feet of Cap come shuffling through the entry, a struggle in his ballooning space suit. “Protocol still applies,” he barks, with an accent as harsh as the bone structure behind his visor. The monitor in his hand beeps. “Could be toxins.”
“There’s not a soul on this planet,” I say. “We’ll probably die from gamma rays.”
Cap shakes his head and fiddles with the monitor. “This is just one area. You said so yourself, Ben, that there’ll be life here somewhere.”
“This planet has been uncontactable for years. I was an id-”
“Man!” Marvin whispers. “What the hell was that?”
Silence. Then I hear the shuffle, and the prompt click of Cap’s GQ7. We all spin to the doorway.
There, in the dim light, is a boy. No more than eight, he wears brown leathers and a utility belt. He clasps his hands in front of him, rocks slightly on his heels. His fingernails are grubby, but the rest of him looks healthy enough.
“Are you the space people?” he says.
“Oh my Cosmos.” I want to fall to my knees. There’s life.
“I think the council wants you,” the boy says, wringing his hands. “I’m not supposa be here. Don’t tell ’em where I found you, okay?”
“There are others?” I say, moving forward.
The boy steps backward into the light outside. His whole face is illuminated. Uptilted eyes with blue irises, dark skin, thin lips; features I’ve never seen on the same face. He looks as alien as they get.
“What is your name, child?” Cap crouches where he is, staring at the boy like you would an extinct species.
“Odin,” the boy says, his eyes darting towards Cap.
“Okay, Odin,” Cap says. “Take us to the people.”
From around his neck, Odin pulls out some kind of tag, and presses it.
And then: a spot in the distance. The tiny vehicle travels almost as fast as our shuttles. It’s eerily silent, and almost floats across the terrain. “Citizen Travel!” The driver leans out of the wing-like doors as the vehicle comes to a stop outside the building. “Odin! Good to see you, kid.” He looks at us, and his face brightens. “Ah. So you’re what the radar picked up!”
Cap eyes the vehicle wearily.
“I promise you,” the driver says. “It’s safe. A lot’s changed since you people last spoke to us.”
Marvin clambers inside before Cap can protest. “Come on, Captain. Ben.”
Cap sighs. I step inside.
The driver pulls a gear and we fly across the land. The windows slide down and the wind catches in my throat. I see more colours than I know the names of; homes among the mountains, wrapped in nature’s greenery; cows and sheep roaming the hills; other children with features unknown to my childhood textbooks; fields of turbines and the nearby sound of crashing water; the smell of freshly-cut grass; rain. These are things I’ve only experienced through simulation, and man, did they not do this justice.
On the steps of a glistening, cone-shaped building, a short woman with a pixie cut assures us it really is fine to remove our suits; undergarments are the norm in summer. There are ceremonial greetings and handshakes. Then they take us through their home.
“You must’ve had quite the scare,” the council woman says over her shoulder, “landing in that district. Thinking you’d run into the apocalypse.”
“You could say that,” Cap says. “You people don’t have the best track record.”
The woman nods, putting her hands into the pockets of her bright yellow overalls. “Our ancestors made some costly mistakes.”
I pause to touch a nearby tree, then pluck a leaf and hold it up to the sun. I squint at the veins. It’s the first piece of non-human life I’ve ever touched.
Marvin nudges my side. “What?” I say, then follow his gaze down to where Odin stands, watching us.
“You could get a fine if you do that,” Odin says.
“Oh,” I say. “This?”
“Yeah. Don’t take from nature without a good reason. Section 29. I remember it, ’cause I had a test last week.”
I let the leaf fall to the ground. “Oh, sorry.”
A flurry of colour and sound fills the air down the nearby path. It takes a moment for my eyes to interpret the scene. They’re costumes, I think: dragons, tigers and serpents. And music. The kind that makes your hips sway involuntarily. The children sing a chorus of what sounds like three languages.
“Our whole land is free-range,” the council woman calls over the noise, nodding to Cap. “We don’t use those factories anymore.”
“And what about decision-making? It’s all in the hands of the council?”
“It’s in the hands of the community. Think the Greek Ekklesia. In your records, no?”
“I know it,” Cap nods.
They talk for a while, then Cap moves ahead to test the acidity of a nearby waterhole.
The woman falls beside me. “You seem overwhelmed. Ben, was it?”
I can’t take my eyes from the rolling hills, the thatched houses scattered like mushrooms. “This stuff… just doesn’t exist.”
“The only reason we are here,” the woman says, “the only reason we have become one with the land and all else that lives here – is because of hope.”
I just stare ahead. A laughing girl runs towards us, chased by an excited lamb.
“This is something else,” I say. This is what my mother meant, by those stories.
“Welcome to Earth.” The woman laughs, grabbing the girl in her arms.
Runner Up: The Oldest Banyan Tree by Ciena Valenzuela-Peterson
Great Grandmother sat, cradled in the roots of the oldest banyan tree. Her family prepared for the celebration around her; her children shouted directions in playfully scolding tones, her grandchildren collected food from the village garden and cooked rice in big pots, and her great-grandchildren zipped around like bumblebees, dirtying their knees and dress shoes. Three generations she birthed and raised. Great Grandmother smiled faintly and breathed the damp smell of Indonesian summer.
Her youngest great-granddaughter, little Buana, toddled over and nestled under Great Grandmother’s waiting arm, legs tucked into her chest. The two rested, observing the bustle of activity. A firefly floated lazily by. Great Grandmother remembered when they used to be endangered, their numbers dwindling.
“Nenek, are you scared?” Buana asked.
Great Grandmother shook her head. Contented with that answer, Buana rested her head back on her bosom. Great Grandmother was a woman of few words, especially in her old age. She had more than her fair share of scars, and she worked hard to prevent her family from inheriting her trauma, wounds from a time before.
“Let’s go for a walk, little one,” Great Grandmother said, her voice hoarse. She began to rise, gripping a bough of the banyan tree, and Buana’s mother rushed over to help her up.
“Are you sure, Nenek?” Buana’s mother asked. Great Grandmother nodded and flapped her hand. She took Buana’s tiny hand between her weathered palms and patted it before walking slowly through the village.
They passed the community kitchen, warm and well-stocked, and the barter hall, where villagers traded and gifted their wares. The village was beautiful, full of greenery and art and smooth roads. Great Grandmother was glad; she remembered a time when no one had the time or the money or the will to invest in their village, before everything changed.
They stopped in front of a very old building. The steel walls were transformed with multicolored murals, and the steps were covered with candles and flowers. The gentle hum of machinery filled the air outside.
“I used to work here, many years ago,” Great Grandmother said.
“But, Nenek, nobody works here,” Buana said, puzzled.
“Not anymore,” Great Grandmother agreed. “They called it a sweatshop.” She tugged gently on one of Buana’s braids, and Buana wrinkled her nose petulantly. Great Grandmother cleared her throat. She had no tears left to cry for the horrors of the past, but today seemed like the day to remember.
“Before they had the robots, people made everything. We worked for twenty hours, sometimes.”
Buana gasped. “Twenty hours in one week?”
Great Grandmother smiled. “Every day, little one.” Buana squeezed her hand tight, and Great Grandmother squeezed back.
“When people first invented the machines, we were scared. We thought, if robots replaced us, made everything, we’d have nothing. No work, no food.”
Buana frowned. “That doesn’t make sense, Nenek. Everyone gets food,” she said, like it was obvious.
“You’re right. But before, the powerful, the rich—they kept all the money from the factories and hoarded it. If we worked for many hours every day, they gave us a little, and we could usually buy food. We had no choice.”
“What about Paman?” Buana asked. Buana’s uncle had been paralyzed from the waist down in a car accident years ago. Even after receiving the best public healthcare, he remained paralyzed. It never hindered him; roads and buildings were always wheelchair accessible, virtual workspaces offered him a wealth of opportunities to contribute to worldwide innovation, and the abundant community pool took care of him same as everyone. He lived a happy life.
“In the past, your Paman would have suffered. People who could not work received very little. You had to earn the right to live.”
Buana said nothing. She buried her face in Great Grandmother’s linen skirt. Great Grandmother smoothed her hand over Buana’s hair.
“But that is not now. Your Paman is happy. We learned.”
Just beyond the factory stood the cemetery gates. Great Grandmother led Buana through the rows of gravestones, their faces tall and smooth. Most of them were from the Sickness. Great Grandmother remembered her friends dropping like the endangered fireflies, lights slowly blinking out, as they were forced to live out their last days laboring in the sweatshops. Now, their ashes mixed with fertile soil to support new life. Dozens of trees created a canopy overhead, many planted by Great Grandmother herself in living memory of those who passed.
At the center of the cemetery, a still pond reflected the afternoon light, surrounded by meditation benches. A statue stood in the middle of the pond. It depicted a woman holding bread with arms outstretched next to the mechanical arm of a robot from the factory. Hundreds of names were engraved at the base of the statue and on the nearby benches, commemorating the revolutionaries.
“People had to fight to make the world the way it is now, little one. To show the world that there is always enough food to go around. That taking care of each other is our sacred duty.”
Buana traced her Nenek’s name on one of the benches and looked back at her in wonder.
“Come,” Great Grandmother said, squinting at the setting sun, “Let’s go back now.”
The two were greeted with cheers and energetic music; the celebration began. Colorful paper umbrellas filled the air, and skilled performers started their puppet show, a rich cultural tradition that thrived once again in this post-Sickness renaissance. Basked in the pink glow of the sunset, Great Grandmother chuckled, shooing Buana off to play with the other kids. Buana lingered, squeezing her Nenek’s hand once more. She nodded gently, and the child wandered away.
They adorned her spot in the roots of the oldest banyan tree with pillows and streamers and flowers. She nestled in. Her doting family brought her rice and sweet potato and tofu with chili sauce. Her cup was never empty. Gathered around her tree, a joyful bonfire blazing in the center, the village shared in stories and prayers and raucous laughter.
One by one, each of Great Grandmother’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren approached her tree. They took her hand and wished her a final farewell. Buana was last.
“You’re not scared?” she asked again, tears wetting her round cheeks.
“No, little one. I lived a long life. When you live a life full of value, full of family and nature and art, you don’t need to fear the end. My life is complete. Death is not so scary.”
“I’m scared,” Buana admitted, voice wavering. Great Grandmother took her into her arms.
“I will see you again, my baby.”
Great Grandmother stayed in the arms of the banyan tree, long after the bonfire dwindled and the villagers cleaned up and put their children to bed. Buana insisted on sitting by her side. Glowing fireflies blinked in the night. Great Grandmother leaned back against the trunk of the tree, the tree that had witnessed it all. She felt its solid bark cradling her head. With the profound weight of a lifetime, her eyes had long grown heavy and tired. At last, she closed them, at peace.
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Photo by Patrick Tomasso