H.E.Bates Short Story Competition

Welcome to our site, enjoy your stay!

header photo

First Prize Winner

Space Junk       Elizabeth Pratt

Jeffry Farmer is an astronaut.

Sort of.

Today is the launch of the Planetary Rover Inspiration and Jeffry is nervous.  I find him down in Mrs Oglethorpe’s front garden, which is really just a patch of concrete with a pot of red flowers on it. She’s gone to the day centre, so we have the whole Hangar to ourselves. I don’t ask how long he’s been there; Jeffry tends to spend hours making sure everything is perfect. He checks and rechecks everything, even small stuff.

The Rover’s bottom is an old skateboard and the top is the canopy from a doll buggy and if something needs tightening or fiddling with, Jeffry uses the wrench on the string around his neck. I got the wrench to adjust my roller skates, but I thought it looked like something Jeffry should have. He's the only scientist I know.

Jeffry squats on the concrete and peers up at me, his grubby cheeks flushed with excitement. ‘Lorna,’ he says, ‘we're ready.’

‘You're not doing another spacewalk,’ I say.

‘Not until you take me off medical leave.’ He rubs his wrist where he had a cast for nine weeks. When the plaster got grubby and really slimy inside, I helped him cut it off with a hacksaw. I got a medical officer's badge for that one. I tell him that in my capacity as chief doctor or whatever, I cannot sign off on another walk right now. I’m very firm on that.

‘Just the rover today,’ he says. ‘You are in mission control. You'll do that bit, right?’

‘Sure,’ I say.  I’m good at mission control. He told me once that my job was most important, because astronauts need a good voice back home or else why would they even return? He said it's easy to be lost in space. You look at all those stars and swirly fog and you think maybe you could just up and drift through the lights and shadows, moving through time and space because up there, they’re the same thing. You’d float away and forget what your family looks like, even.  

Jeffry said that's what happened to his father, but the day that he left, I heard Jeffry's momma yelling down the stairs at the back of Jeffry's daddy, and she was shouting, 'You drunk son-of-a-bitch'. Jeffry was at school and when he came home, his momma told him that his father had been called up by NASA to go to the moon for all she knew. Jeffry was six at the time, and he said, “Okay”.

So, today is launch day and Jeffry has his spacesuit on like he always does when he's working, even if he's not going out there. He says that his spacesuit might look like just a grey sweatshirt and grey pyjama bottoms, but the material has been dipped in a titanium extract and that makes it vulcanized and able to withstand the great temperatures of the atmosphere. I had to hear all about it on Friday.

My mom got a pair of wrap-around sunglasses free from the gas station for filling up at the Dash-In instead of the place across the street. I gave them to Jeffry and told him that they would protect his eyes from the solar sear. He thought carefully before accepting the shades and giving me a solemn salute. ‘Where would I be without you, Houston?’ he said, and I just nodded like it was my job and all, but I was proud of myself for thinking of them. He's wearing them now, taped around his head so they don’t slip down during the launch.

We are almost ready to go out to the launch pad, but I make him wait while I put pieces of silver tape around the holes in his tennis shoes, to protect him. It has been a long time since anyone has set foot out there and we have no idea, I tell him, what kind of dangerous stuff could be around. The last launch was a very long time ago and the records have been lost. Nobody remembers the details of that mission anymore, nobody but the two of us knows how to get to the launch pad, even. He stoops to collect the rover, which looks kinda like an old fruit crate sandwiched between the skateboard and the buggy top, wrapped tightly in tin foil. Inside is a nest of wires and sensors that Jeffry says will send information back to us from the planet's surface. Fortunately, my Auntie Zena's old FM radio is perfectly tuned and will be able to pick up the signals, which Jeffry will translate for me because I'm not good at science.

On the roof of our apartment block, there is what used to be a pigeon house, a kind of giant hutch. We found it one day behind two big air ducts. It hadn’t been opened in years and nobody in the block knew anything about it or remembered anyone keeping birds up there. It became Mission Control and Jeffry said that was fitting, because it was a room always given to the Art of Flight. I asked him if flight wasn’t really more to do with science but he said it must be a mixture of things, really, because it was so complicated. I couldn’t argue with that.

We head for the stairs to the roof, going up the communal stairway that stinks of pee and spray-paint. The boys from upstairs have been here. The landing is where they sit and smoke and drink beer that they stole from the Dash-In. I'm glad that they’re not here today, because the boys aren’t really interested in science and Inspiration wouldn't survive  a kicking down the stairs.

When we go past the third floor, the door where the Hungarians live is open and Herve is taking out his garbage. He stops and smiles at us. Herve is a big man, and maybe a little slow. We like him because he never tells us off for going up to the roof and he even gives Jeffry any spare parts and old light bulbs and stuff to use for projects. He puts the garbage down the chute and then helps Jeffry with the Rover, lifting it over the railing with strong, tattooed arms that look like suntanned hams.

Herve is chewing on an unlit black cigar and he takes it out of a mouth full of metalwork and says, ‘What is this, eh?’

‘It's the Planetary Rover, Inspiration.’ Says Jeffry. He points at parts of the thing and shrugs. ‘Sensors. Front and rear wheel steerage blocks. Solar panels for power and sheath electronics for feedback and data… alias.’

‘Oh.’ Says Herve, nodding. He seems impressed. ‘It goes to space?’

‘Yes.’ Jeffry says.

‘Wait.’ Herve puts his cigar in the pocket of his work shirt and goes into his apartment. We wait in the dim hallway and look at the peeling wallpaper that has swirls of bright red against a dull pink background. The whole floor smells like cabbage and floor polish.

When he comes back, Herve is grinning. ‘I half this. For you, for your river.’

He gives Jeffry a small American flag on a plastic stick. Jeffry's eyes well up as he takes it and before I know it, he's hugging Herve and Herve is laughing that big laugh, the 'Hur-hur-hur,' and he says, ‘Happy for you to enjoy. I get with immigrants offits.’

Herve has two jobs, cleaning for the court offices and working at a slaughterhouse. He still finds time to do maintenance for the apartments, though, and even came up and swept out Mission Control for us. Jeffry says that getting Herve in the Agency was a good move, because he makes it international and he is an excellent Chief Security Officer. Mostly because he’s so giant.

When we get up on the roof, the sun is so hot that the tar is melting and we have to be careful where we walk. Jeffry takes a long time to find the perfect place for the launch pad, which moves on subsurface rollers that resemble skateboard wheels. I sit on the small wooden stool left in Mission Control and watch Jeffry set the rover down and carefully tape the flag to it. Finally, he stands up and looks it over, and he nods.

‘We're ready.’ He calls to me.

‘What do I do?’ My stomach jitters. I don’t want to mess my part up.

‘We launch the capsule with Inspiration, and when it gets to the correct climate, the right… altitude… it opens the parachute and drifts down to the surface.’

‘Sounds tricky.’

‘I've done the calculations.’ He says. He's been working for days. He missed the Bugs Bunny telethon and everything. He showed me his notebook and it was full of numbers and letters where numbers should be and I knew it was special.

‘Okay,’ I say, ‘So what's the mission?’

‘It will start sending back data after about sixteen hours. It needs to fully charge and triangulate its position so that its data feed is accurate.’

‘Oh.’ I stare at him through the wire screen of Mission Control. ‘Sixteen hours.’ I know Jeffry doesn't like to rush things, but I can’t wait that long. ‘No way to speed it up?’

Jeffry sighs. ‘Not unless you have some mercury extract.’

‘I don't. But maybe we could use the extract of… of...’

‘Vanillium?’ Jeffry asks. ‘That's good thinking. Do we have any in the zero store?’

‘I have some left over from when we tried to make that…  um. The Zena project.’

‘You're right. Bakersfield won't miss it.’ He smirks. ‘They're months behind in their research.’

I brush dried bird mess from the hatch where we store dangerous materials. At the back of the cupboard, past the crusted tins of reflective paint and some old gravity wash, I find the small brown bottle and lift it out, careful not to drop it. Even a drop would compromise the atmosphere, I’ve learned.

He does some science in his book and decides that two drops will be enough to speed the whole thing up and get it into Comms mode before the sun even goes down, which is good because I want to watch Singer of the Year at eight.

I'm back in place and back on the headset. Jeffry makes some last-minute touches and then nods. It’s time to go.

I give him the countdown, starting from thirty seconds because ten seems too short for such an important event. When I reach zero, Jeffry unhooks the bungee cord, pulls it back and whispers, ‘Godspeed, Inspiration.’

He lets it go.

The rover sails over the wall in a perfect arch, glittering against the crisp blue sky, the metal edges catching the sunlight. It seems to hang there, seems to hover a minute. The flag flutters and snaps in the wind and slowly, the rover turns in mid-air. There's a little 'pop!' and the parachute deploys. It's not enough. The weight of the thing fights against gravity, and gravity wins. The rover plummets.

We hear the crash.

I scramble to the edge of the roof and stare over the edge and into the alley behind Lehman's dry cleaners. It takes me a minute and then I spot the buggy part, or at least what's left of it. It must have hit the dumpsters, because the skateboard has splintered and spread out all over the ground. I can't see the flag and can just about make out the bent and broken frame where it was attached. There's almost nothing else left.

‘Oh,’ I say. There's a catch in my throat, and I talk around it. ‘Now what do we do?’

Jeffry hasn't moved to look. He's leaning back, eyes closed against the warming sun, arms crossed over his scrawny chest. He smiles and nods, letting the light wash over him.

‘Now we wait,’ he says.



Third Prize Winner

Dreamcatcher      Vanessa Horn

Sam stood still, his quiet demeanour belying his excitement. Staring at the large bruise-cloud directly above him, he waited for a moment before turning his attention to the small metallic device in his hand. Noticing his fingers trembling slightly, he sighed, knowing he couldn’t proceed if there was the slightest possibility of him missing the target. So he concentrated instead on regulating his breathing – in, out, in, out – as his thoughts returned to the directives given at his interview several months previously.  

    After almost an hour of intense questioning, a pause had ensued. Sam had peered through the window at the thick cloud hovering outside, then turned to ask the question which had troubled him ever since he’d found out about the job. “How do you know when to take action? For example, I can’t see any difference in the cloud from yesterday. Or from the day before, for that matter. And I know from the information given to me at the other interviews that there’s no real regularity as to when the procedure is carried out: only that’s necessary around three or four times a year. So – how do you know when to proceed?”

     Elle, the senior technician, had sighed; he wasn’t exactly sure why. Maybe she had had enough of his questions? He hoped not; he’d always believed that they showed enthusiasm on the part of the requester, but you never knew.

     Anyhow, she too stared out of the window before turning back to him. When she replied, her voice sounded passionate: intense. “You study the cloud. Day by day, hour by hour. You get to know it. There are changes. Tiny, barely discernible differences. And when it changes, then you know that… it’s time.”

     He nodded, wanting her to go on. To elaborate. And she had, her voice low and almost mesmerising.

      “It’s like… well, it’s like the way you know a person’s face. Someone very familiar to you. You recognise the way their expression changes, according to their mood. Their feelings. Every little line and contour form and reform to make different patterns. Those changes might be unrecognised by other people, but you yourself can tell.  However tiny those changes might seem to others. It’s similar to the cloud; when you see the variations – when you feel them inside you – you have to act: to take one unfulfilled dream away. Take it away and realise it. That way you will stop the cloud overflowing.”

     “And if you don’t? What would happen if you don’t do anything?” Sam frowned, feeling apprehensive, though he couldn’t identify why.  

        Elle shook her head. “We don’t know. Not precisely. We’ve never risked ignoring the signs. We have, however, delayed it on occasion… so that we can compare...” She shuddered, then gestured towards the cloud. “Look, you can see already that the whole mass is beginning to strain slightly; it’s obvious that it would be hazardous for the atmosphere – the equilibrium – if it was left to overflow. To erupt outright, even. The procedure needs to be carried out within two months, maximum three, I’d estimate.”

     Sam nodded. “Ok. Does removing a part of it also have risks? To the atmosphere, I mean.”

      “Of course. To the atmosphere, yes, but also to both the remover and the facilitator. It’s an intricate procedure. Delicate. Those who work here – and those who have worked here - are forbidden to divulge the cloud’s secrets. It’s a privileged career but also an intense one and so, partly for that reason, we experience a high turnover of staff. It’s certainly not a job for everyone.”

     Sam had felt it was definitely for him. In fact, he knew that this was the job he’d been looking for ever since leaving university two years previously. He hadn’t been wrong so far either, with the training certainly living up to his expectations, transpiring to have been interesting and fascinating in equal terms. All of it leading up to today, of course: the carrying out of the procedure. The pinnacle.   

     Now he nodded to himself, affirming his commitment. His enthusiasm. It hadn’t wavered at all during the past few weeks, difficult though some areas had proved to be. After all, he’d needed to prove he was capable of performing under pressure, of taking responsibility for his actions, of spotting irregularities within test results in the lab. And this, tonight, was the goal. Actually performing his first dream extraction. One of many, hopefully.

     Checking that his hands were no longer trembling – yes, finally – he held the small machine closer to the cloud and carefully inserted the syringe. Immediately, the entire mass began to throb and blink, its purplish colour intensifying to an electrifying hue. It was almost as if it were experiencing some sort of seizure. Narrowing his eyes and telling himself to focus, Sam used a spatula to carefully separate the dreams, recalling his preparation in identifying exactly where each began and ended. Then, choosing the largest and most animated, he aimed the syringe, pulled back the plunger and slowly withdrew the required amount. Finally, he placed the syringe back in its metal container, glancing at his watch as he did so. The whole procedure, despite needing hours of training, had taken less than five minutes.

     Now he allowed himself to stand back and watch the cloud’s transformation in front of him. He shook his head, marvelling. Just losing a tiny part of its substance had caused the previously static cloud to animate into a writhing, buckling being. Thrilling and just a little frightening. Now he realised exactly why the process had to be carried out at night; if commonly witnessed, there would probably have been great consternation at this unusual weather phenomenon. Sam thought about all the years this had been happening without his knowledge. Remarkable. And yet, he remembered – Elle had stressed as much on one of his briefings – that the cloud wouldn’t take long to return to its usual dense and static state.

     He exhaled deeply: ok, first stage completed. Now he needed to get the sample – the dream – to Elle in the lab, so it could be realised. Gathering up his equipment, Sam quickly made his way back.


     Elle looked up from her laptop. “Everything alright?”

     Sam nodded. “Yes, fine. I took the largest one, as you instructed. And the cloud… well, you can see the reaction.” He gestured towards the window.

     “Yes, I’ve been recording the changes; they’re much the same as usual. No real discrepancies.” Elle smiled. “You did a good job, Sam. Here, have a beer.” She passed him an opened can.

     Sam sat down and took a long swig before replying. “I enjoyed it. It felt… exhilarating. Exciting. And now-“

     “And now we need to realise the dream,” said Elle, taking the case and extracting the syringe. “Let’s have a look.”

      Sam peered curiously into the small pump. He hadn’t taken much notice of the dream previously, the cloud itself having taken precedence, especially given the way it had reacted. But now he looked more closely at the liquid within the syringe. It was of a thick grey consistency, almost like porridge. He turned to Elle. “What do we do with it now? Is it stored away somewhere? This part of the procedure wasn’t covered in my training; I was told it would come later.”

     “Initially, all we’re going to do is study it,” replied Elle. “We keep records and observations of each dream, looking for patterns, inconsistencies and such like. Right, well, let’s enter it into the data bank first.”

     Sam watched curiously, sipping his beer, as Elle poured the dense gloop into one of the test tubes which was part of an odd-shaped appliance, incorporating a large screen in the middle. After the last drop had been transferred, she pressed a few buttons and then sat back. “Now we’ll see what category of dream you’ve collected.”

     Sam gazed down at the machine, his heart starting to beat a little faster. He only had to wait for a few seconds before he noticed tiny pinpoints of colour on the screen. These then intensified into whirling, swirling hues: blues, browns, reds. Tiny mosaic-type particles, they augmented into indistinct shapes, each fighting for supremacy of the screen, pushing and shoving until finally merging into one recognisable form: a large Victorian house. High on a hill, it was surrounded by dense clusters of trees, swaying and whispering in front of the building. The picture then zoomed in on one of the upstairs windows: an attic window, Sam realised. He leaned forward, eager to see what would happen next. But before the screen allowed him to view what was within the room, he noticed orangey-red waves licking and crackling around the wooden sill. Fire! Sam’s heartrate increased further as he saw that the room had an occupant – an elderly man sitting on a rocking chair and trussed up with rope, a gag over his mouth. Sam gasped then looked at Elle, needing to see her reaction. But her face remained impassive. Unreadable. He turned back to the screen just in time to see the fire begin to spread from under the window, creeping across the wooden floorboards towards the elderly man.

     “So now we know,” said Elle, freezing the image with a touch of a key.

     Sam blinked. “That was incredibly intense. So… realistic.” He shook himself. “But it’s just a dream, I suppose, however lifelike it appeared. Is that the end of the procedure then, now the dream’s been extracted and viewed?”

     Elle shook her head. “No; that’s just the data section completed. Next, you need to continue your job; complete what you started. The dream has to be realised.”

     “Realised? How?” Sam could hear his voice breaking as he spoke. “What do you mean, that I… I have to dream the dream I removed?”

     “Not exactly,” said Elle. “Rather, you’ll physically experience it for yourself. A reality rather than a sleep visualisation. Obviously it would be preferable for you merely to dream it, but we’re not able to do that yet. Though, the way our research is progressing, it’s only going to be a matter of months. Anyway, regardless of that, the dream needs to be withstood. ”  

       “But I wasn’t tol…” Sam’s words petered out as he tried to regain his composure.     

  “No? Well, the reality is that the dreams are recurring nightmares – that’s obviously why people pay to be relieved of them. It’s why they’re collected and stored in the cloud. Of course they still have to be dreamt, even if not by the intended dreamer. And this one needs to be dreamt by you.”  

     Sam felt a bead of sweat run down his spine. He shivered. “You said nothing about anything like…” - and he nodded down towards the screen, before continuing with a shaky voice – “that.”

    Elle shrugged. “I apologise; it’s most remiss of me. Yes, the receiver of the dream has to do exactly that: receive the dream. Or, in the majority of cases, the nightmare. They have to ride it out, whatever it might be. Sometimes, of course, the dreams aren’t so bad, though not exactly enjoyable. Other times… well.” She nodded at the screen, pressing ‘play’ again.   

     Sam turned his eyes back to the screen, watching the trussed-up man pulling desperately at his ropes while the fire flickered and grew at the bottom of the chair. “I – I.” He fought for words, suddenly aware that his head felt heavy – very heavy - and he couldn’t seem to get his speech out or even, as he found when he tried to rise, move.

     Elle paused the dream again then nodded towards Sam’s empty beer can. “Atracrim. It’ll make it easier for you to succumb; I had an inkling this dream would be bad. Unfortunately, it’s a recent pattern – hence our high turnover of staff.” She picked up the syringe, deftly decanting the liquid back in from the machine. “So… you’ll feel a small sting.”