Wednesday, July 4, 2012

ZOVA Books Writing Contest Winners

Happy Fourth of July! 

Today we wanted to post the winning submissions of our ZOVA Books/Storiad Short Story Writing Contest. We asked that each story be 500 words or less and begin with the prompt: "The red flashing lights on the control panel told him/her that something wasn’t quite right." We received quite a few submissions and the competition was tough. We looked for originality, writing style, over all story development (hard to do in only 500 words), and well, just plain good old fashioned story telling. After much deliberation, we decided on these three. 

Once again, congratulations to Kay Poiro for "Under the Gun," CM Stewart for "Gods of the Compuverses," and Kevin Varner for "The Interruption." 

To check out what they are up to and what is going on at Storiad, visit

Check out out winners' complete stories below. 


Under the Gun


Kay Poiro

The red flashing lights on the control panel told her that something wasn’t quite right. Under scornful eyes of an ever-growing audience, Kreskin McHull tapped the button in rapid succession five times, just like the manual instructed. Nothing. The lights continued their defiant blinking. Adding insult to injury was the heat. It was maddening, dampening her ponytail and stifling any coherent thought. But Kreskin kept her eyes trained on the panel. If I look at that, she reminded herself, I can’t look at them. “Them” were her audience. Angry stranger’s faces floating just beyond her peripheral vision. As their grumbling grew louder, Kreskin imagined a massive swarm of bees cutting a swath toward their target. She gulped. Where was Bolton? 

“I don’t mean to be rude, but—” Kreskin chanced a look. Thank God it was only the sweet old lady with hair the color and texture of carnival candy floss. A regular customer, but why couldn’t she remember the name? Maybe because stray ponytail flyaways wet with sweat lay pasted on her bottom lip, playing footsie with the coppery desperation that had settled in her mouth.

The old lady cleared her throat. Kreskin replied with empty apologies. Not quite sure what happened. Maybe it was the main flywheel? Bolton would know for sure. He had been paged and he would be here any minute.

“You said that five minutes ago.” Eyes still on the panel, she knew it wasn’t sweet pensioner lady who’d spoken this time, but a far angrier face. The bees no longer swarmed, but were amassing themselves into an undulating attacking arrow. Why had she picked yesterday to quit smoking? Where the hell was Bolton? Through tearful eyes, Kreskin again tapped the button five times. Quick succession. Just like the bloody manual said. 

In that moment, Kreskin knew death was near. When death is imminent, memories and otherwise insignificant observations leap to the fore. The chocolately sweetness of Nutella. Digestive biscuits being on special this week two for five. Or that the constellation of liver spots on the back of the old lady’s hands looked just like Ursa Minor. Before these monsters have their way, Kreskin prayed, please let me see my cats one last time. 

When he tapped her shoulder, Kreskin yelped, sure that death had come to collect. But it was just Bolton. Sweet, oh-so-late Bolton. Kreskin stepped aside as he took over. He inserted a key. The blinking stopped. Lifting the top, he peered inside and poked around a bit before announcing to the mob, “This register is out of tape. Please take your purchases to Lane Six where Patty will be more than happy to help you.” He then shepherded the group further out of Kreskin’s periphery before disappearing for good. Kreskin McHull exhaled, spitting the hair out of her mouth. She came out of her smock, flicking the Lane 5 light to “off.” I deserve a break, she thought. And a cigarette.

Gods of the Compuverses
CM Stewart
The red flashing lights on the control panel told her something wasn’t quite right. Oncott sat holding her breath a few seconds, eyes fixed on the flash pattern. It was the first time she had seen the red switches illuminated. Red flashing lights meant her spaceship’s computer was running out of memory.
No more memory . . . what about over-writing? Does this mean the imaging vortex will collapse? Lately, every equation I’ve run has taken the same amount of time to process, yet the processor speed remains constant, a nanosecond below light speed, so . . .
A widow on her computer screen popped up, saying: “Greetings. My name is Dycan. You and your universe are a subroutine of a sentient software program I created on an ultimate ensemble hypercomputer. The memory capacity of your specific compuverse, however, is approaching 100%. Welcome to your compuverse ending. The termination of this subroutine is in T minus 822 seconds.”
“What? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Oncott said, her face turning red as the lights.
The screen displayed: “Your earlier knowledge of your artificiality would have negated the authenticity of your simulation.”
Oncott hunched over the panel, furiously typing a new subroutine, but the screen went blue.
The blue blinking buttons on the command center told him everything was quite wrong. Dycan stood clenching his fists for a few minutes, his optical scanners averted from the blink pattern. It was the fifth time he had seen the blue buttons illuminated in the last hour. Blue blinking buttons meant his stellar navigator’s computer was running out of memory.
Great. Memory glitches weren’t covered in the manual. But as long as the spectrum stabilizes don’t start oscillating wildly, I’ll be okay. I can’t afford another seizure.
A window on his computer screen popped up, saying, “Hello, my name is Gerry Furtado. Yourself and your universe are a set of infinite algorithms within pattern generating program I created. The memory capacity of your set’s data bank is near capacity. Yourself and your universe will soon cease to exist. You have approximately 290 seconds left. ”
“Seriously? Why didn’t I know about this?” Dycan said, tears spilling over his cheeks.
The screen displayed: “Had you known the true nature of your reality, this exercise would’ve been pointless.”
Dycan reached for the emergency kill switch, but the screen went yellow.
The yellow strobing bulbs on the power port meant anything was subjective. Gerry laid back and yawned, personal light conduits off. It was the only time Gerry had seen the yellow bulbs illuminated, and once was enough. Yellow strobing bulbs meant the Dyson sphere was running out of memory.
Another day, another faux emergency. Yesterday, the toilet wouldn’t flush. Today, the memory is bloated. Too many glitches, so I can’t confirm the port bulbs just yet. And there’s nothing a good nap won’t cure.
An hour later, Gerry’s conduits auto-switched on.
A window on the computer screen popped up, saying: “Hi. I’m—” 
Gerry and the sphere disappeared.

The Interruption 
Kevin Varner
The red flashing lights on the control panel told him that something wasn’t quite right.
The bowl was empty. He sniffed the air for an answer, the aromatic burst of dust just before dry food clattered down the chute, its percussive pattern music to his ears, triggering his purr. He liked his purr. It was loud and commanding. It said, “I could roar. I choose to purr instead.”
One red light flashed on the console that always held food, another flashed on the device his Human dropped on the floor next to the bowl before quickly disappearing into another room and shutting the door. His Human had not returned.
Mister Crab didn’t know how long he had been hungry. He only knew he was. Any interruption in food delivery was a gross indecency reported with annoyed meows—gravely, parched, insistent. His Human would respond with apologetic tones and a fresh supply of dry food, proffering a small handful as a peace offering. The light on the feeder had never flashed red before. The flashing device lying next to the feeder had never been there before today.
Something was not only “not quite right,” something was terribly wrong.
Unlike the small red light he would chase around the room as his Human made noises of approval, these lights were steady,
neither speeding up nor slowing down. Was this a conversation? Some covert transaction between two invisible parties? He had no way of knowing. He could never truly “know,” he could only “surmise.” Cats were known for surmising.
His eyes narrowed until the two flashing lights merged into one blur--blink-BLINK, blink-BLINK. As he began to drift into a cat nap of hunger and disappointment, his world exploded.
The door crashed open flinging four new humans in with it. They smelled foreign and moved fast. He dashed across the floor sliding head-long into the refrigerator. He began to caterwaul, hoping this tactic would finally rouse his Human to feed him.
They threw open the door to the other room. His Human was there. Something was wrong. His Human was not moving. They turned his Human over, saying words and performing a rhythmic dance while hovering, breathing, pushing, yelling and listen- ing.
Time passed in strange noises, voices and alien smells. They covered his Human with a sheet. Their somber tones told him this would soon be over. He would go un-fed. As they hauled his Human away with the smell of something moist and freshly dead trailing behind them—like a mouse he’d once killed, he let fall a small, tentative “meow”.
One Human turned, sighed and wiped a sweat-beaded forehead. Near the food bowl flashing red—low on batteries, beside the Medical Alert Device that had been flashing for the better part of an hour, was a Tupperware container of dry cat food.
Scratching his ears, the Human placed a handful in the bowl and Mister Crab began the distinctive purr which said, “I could roar. I choose to purr instead.”

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