Here’s the first shot at writing a 100 word story for the Dreamscape Press “100 Worlds” anthology. This is a kind of “Flash Fiction” even more restrictive than NPR’s “Three Minute Fiction” (600 words) or “Flash Fiction Online” with its 1000 word limit.
That said, let’s give it a go:
Juno saw it first, the ten kilometer wide spacecraft. No one can say how long it had been orbit of Jupiter, but it remained for a little over thirteen years. Some sort of continent sized net hung from it, dragging through the upper Jovian atmosphere while smaller object — kilometer wide vessels or probes — made regular trips to the moons, especially Europa.
All we could do was watch. We fast tracked designs for future Jovian missions but budgets and science and politics and just plain physics being what they are, none made it in time. There is a rumor that we successfully contacted them. Don’t believe it. It was considered, of course, but the ramifications of its existence alone was enough to stifle any political will to reach out. That, and fear.
On August 19, 2029, it left. The last of its probes returned to it. It drew in its net and it moved out of Jovian orbit. We lost sight of it within hours.
The thing that is most disconcerting — hell, the thing that is most depressing and even a little hurtful — is that not once in the entire time they were here did they ever once try and contact the Earth.
That comes in at 186 words, nearly double the intended limit. In order to trim it, I have to discern the key elements of the story and distill it to its essence.
“An advanced alien spaceship is detected in orbit of Jupiter engaged in acquiring resources and possibly other activities. It remains for years. We are unable to investigate and unwilling to initiate contact. The aliens ignore us completely before eventually leaving for parts unknown. We are left with the knowledge that we are not alone and the feeling that we wish were had remained ignorant.”
Even that seems to long to explain what this story is really about and why I want to write it.
“Humankind is so insignificant that either we don’t register as an intelligent speacies, or are not worth investigation even if we do.”
I think in order to really underline that insignificance and make it certain to the reader that the aliens intentionally ignored us, humans have to attempt contact. It is conceivable that an alien mining probe could fail to recognize life on a planet millions of miles from its work zone; it is less conceivable that it could fail to notice signals directed at it.
Those things said, with an eye toward slimming it down, here is attempt number two:
On February 9, 2017 the Jovian probe Juno returned images of a ten-kilometer wide spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter. By the eleventh, the images had been leaked onto the internet and the whole world knew we were not alone. We all watched as the strange vessel skimmed the surface of the gas giant’s atmosphere with what looked like a net thousands of square kilometers in size. We saw the smaller half-kilometer probes or ships travel back and forth between the main ship and the Jovian moons, especially Europa.
We fast tracked the next generation Jupiter mission and launched it even while we tried to contact the ship on every frequency. It ignored our probes, our signals and our very existence for over a decade.
On June 13, 2029 the craft reeled in its massive net, recalled its probes and drifted out of Jupter’s orbit. Within hours it had moved beyond our ability to detect it. We were left with the absolute knowledge that we were not alone as well as the numbing realization that we did not matter.
That is hardly better at all: 178 words. Now comes the hard part: I have established what the story is about and twice now wrote it how it “felt” like it should be written; now I have to start trimming out lines of text. Already the story is skimpy, eschewing Character entirely (save for the understood “we” that is intended to make the reader the protagonist) and only invoking Setting in the slimmest way possible (relying entirely on the reader’s knowledge and understanding of Jupiter and its environs). The story is all Plot and a bare bones one at that.
The first paragraph of the second try is 88 words — almost the whole story length. Let’s trim that down a bunch:
“The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.”
As much as I like a good turn of phrase, I just can’t afford the words to obscure what the ship is doing in descriptions of what that looks like. I have to trust that a science fiction reading audience is going to imagine interesting and fun methods by which aliens might skim the atmosphere and jaunt back and forth between the ship and the moons — not to mention a useful definition of the term “massive” as it relates to extraterrestrial orbital craft. That’s 42 words.
The remainder of the story above is 90 words, about a third too long. That’s good, since the bulk of the “story” (such that it is) happens here and trimming is going to be harder. The first thing to do is simplify the language and be more direct.
“We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all.” Far more efficient that the above and the brevity helps create a sense of exasperation, I think. That brings the current total up to 53 words. The final paragraph — Act 3, as it were — is 54 words as written above, which means I only have to trim it down a little.
“It carried on its work, oblivious to us. Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.” At 30 words, that finishes the plot and leaves 17 words to hammer the point of the story home.
“We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.”
That hits 100 precisely, as well as landing squarely on the point. Here is the final version:
The images hit the net on February 9, 2017. Taken by the Juno probe,they showed a ten massive alien spacecraft in orbit of Jupiter, apparently skimming the atmosphere for fuel and sending smaller vessels to Europa and the other Jovian moons.
We launched probes. We broadcast greetings. Nothing. No response at all. It carried on its work, oblivious to us.
Then, on June 16, 2029, it recalled its ships, retracted its skimmer and left Jovian orbit. It was beyond detection within days.
We knew with certainty then we were not alone. But knowing it, we never felt more isolated.
I’ll let this sit for a couple days before I submit it to the anthology, just to be sure I still like it.