Contest #219 shortlist ⭐️


Science Fiction

We had achieved perfection: total equality, immersive community, life sustained; not by death but by living in balance. We left behind our baser instincts: war, reproduction, gluttony and envy. There were no unwanted babies born, no addicts, no starvation, or deaths from preventable disease. There were pleasurable activities: walking, sports, gardening, art, performance. Not for the purpose of winning, or outshining others, but for the collective enjoyment of participating. We had transcended the need for pairing off and spousal ownership. We had overcome our animal instincts to hoard resources for ourselves and our descendants. We had achieved equilibrium with the earth. Society was perfect.

I was miserable.

I lived in the Plenty quadrangle in Contentment. My building was a squat brick structure, two stories, with doors that opened onto the square of green that centered our quad. The three other sides were also dorms like mine. The windows set into the flat fronts of the buildings loomed blank and staring, like eyes. Men weren’t allowed in women’s quads, to prevent unnecessary temptation.

My first year in Contentment a young woman snuck a man into her room. She was reported and she and the man underwent a week-long Refresh. When I spoke to her afterwards she didn’t meet my eye and spoke in a soft tone, almost a whisper. She glanced around so much that I found myself checking over my own shoulder in her presence. In the shower I glimpsed gleaming pink scars on her abdomen.

A few weeks after she returned from her Refresh, she was absent from the bath house and morning meal. We were called to a togetherness session that evening and were told she had been relocated to the Haven in New Texas. Minna and I spoke of her, though discussing former kin was Forbidden. Minna said she heard that the woman’s roommate had found her hanging by the neck from the top bunk post. She said the roommate was very distressed because she had been the one who reported the woman and felt responsible for “what happened.” The roommate underwent Balancing sessions for several weeks.

My roommate was called Francine, and I doubted very much that she would be distressed by my death. She was Ascended. When you Ascend you join the Consciousness, knowing and seeing as one entity, all Ascendants joined in mind and spirit; total unity, perfect harmony. Ascending requires an absence of self that takes years of practice to achieve safely. Those who aren’t able to dismiss of themselves as individuals are often damaged by the overwhelming sensory information and some die. This was a tragic occurrence and a cautionary tale. Only the truly selfless can Ascend.

On a morning in late summer, I arrived at the women’s bath house at my allotted time, undressed and joined the line for the showers. It was a warm day and the steam wafted out of the vents towards the blue sky. I greeted my sisters cordially according to standards, except for Minna. We often waited next to each other in line. I would have considered her my closest friend had it not been one of the Secondary sins to rank fellow human beings. For Minna, I chose one of the approved greetings for special occasions (Auspicious day to you, sister) and whispered it quietly in her direction. She smiled and whispered: May benevolence follow you, sister. I let out a tiny sound, half of a giggle. Then I stepped forward and took my place next to the other naked bodies and let the warm water relax my body.

After bathing, Minna and I attended morning meal. We sat with other brothers and sisters and engaged them equally. The question ‘how was everyone’s sleep?’ was answered five times in variations of ‘good, well, excellent.’ We deposited our empty bowls and checked a nearby assignments board. Minna had bath house cleaning, I was in the greenhouse. We walked together as far as we could, smiling and nodding politely at other kin we passed. Eventually we left the main path and wended through a small copse towards the greenhouses near the east wall. Minna became silent and thoughtful. I thought she might speak of a Forbidden; I glanced quickly up into the trees and around us for signs of life.

I’m thinking of Ascending, Minna said in a flat tone. She was looking vaguely at the dirt path in front of us.

I stopped walking and looked at her. What?

She nodded.

I didn’t speak. I was breathing hard through my nose and engaging my senses to quell the onset of an undesirable emotion.

Are you- are you sure? I asked after a long moment.

She nodded again. Her mouth was fixed in a grimace.

I think I’m ready, she said. I want to be a part of something bigger than myself.

I didn’t say anything more. I simply nodded and tried to relax my face. I could feel my jaw tightening and my brows drawing together.

We parted shortly thereafter. On top of the east wall a sister was carrying her stun device in an inappropriately lax position. I started to continue into the greenhouse but I stopped. If I was seen failing to report the guard, I could be reported for negligence. I glanced behind me and saw no one; I entered the hazy plastic building.

The greenhouse was full of smells: dirt, loam, life. The proctor of tasks welcomed me to the daily blessing of contribution and provided a set of gloves and a small snipping tool. She instructed me to begin pruning the squash plants. I took my place near a man I hadn’t seen before. He was kneeling down and rooting up potatoes.

I began trimming long curling arms of green. Those which were sickly, browning, or did not bear flowers were obvious choices. But if the whole plant was healthy, arms still had to be cut lest the plant overgrow and take nutrients from the rest.

I was reaching forward to clip an arm at the base of the plant. I snipped my finger and without thinking I swore.

I looked sharply over my shoulder at the unnamed man. He wasn’t looking at me, but I could see his profile, and he was smiling. I turned back slowly and pulled off my glove. My skin was rent and bleeding.

I felt a touch on my arm, and the unnamed man was beside me.

Here, he said. He held out a torn strip of fabric.

Thank you, I said. I pulled my hand out from under my overshirt, and he carefully tied the makeshift bandage around my wound.


Minna’s Ascension was celebrated by all kin in the amphitheater two weeks after she first spoke of it. She was upon the stage with the Guide, and they were lit by a single light from above.

The Ceremony began. The words of the anthem resonating around the sunken pavilion.

Born we begin

Forsaken, alone

Next we learn

Our sins atone

Ready, we come

Finally grown

Selfless and pure

Unity known.

I watched Minna singing. I was far enough away that her facial features were indistinct, but her posture appeared peaceful. After the singing, the Guide recited the Pledge and Minna repeated after him. She spoke in a solemn way, as though she meant the words truly.

Then the Guide nodded in affirmation, and Minna bowed her head. The action cast her face in shadow, and the light draped her form like a mantle. The Guide placed the syringe into the base of her neck, and all was painfully silent. Then he removed the needle and held it triumphantly. Minna raised her head and smiled benevolently around at us. I felt sick.

After the Ceremony all the kin partook of a Bounty in the dining house. Minna was surrounded with the curious minded and well-wishers. She seemed unaffected by the attention, smiling and nodding peacefully, answering questions with composure.

I found the man from the greenhouse by a table laden with juices. I poured a large measure of dark colored juice into my flagon and drank it all in one breath. The man emitted a small cough. I looked at him. He was smiling.

Do you find yourself ill, Brother? I asked.

No; perfectly well, thank you, he replied.

You shouldn’t let that cough go unchecked, I said. I was feeling cross, and I should have practiced self-balance techniques, but I didn’t. I was angry, and I wanted to feel it.

You shouldn’t let your overconsumption of juice become a habit, he responded.

I glanced at him sharply to see if he was threatening me, but he was smiling in a friendly way.

I won’t, I said.

We stood in silence for a moment.

Where did you learn that word? the man asked. The one you used that day in the greenhouse?

I didn’t answer. I glanced around.

I read it in a book. It was redacted but I could see through the mark.

I spoke quietly and looked at the far wall and barely moved my lips

He made a noise of acknowledgment. I think I know the one.

I didn’t make any response.

There’s a book in the library. He leaned close to me in the guise of pouring himself more juice.

A mistake was made and it has the wrong cover. It was never redacted because it was assumed to meet standards.

His voice was warm and breathy and I felt something inside me lift up.

Edible Plants of North America.

I placed my flagon upon the table and made my way to Minna. My pulse was fast and raucous in my ears.

I touched Minna on the shoulder.

Auspicious day to you, sister, I said. I said it in the over-sincere way we always did when we greeted each other, our dangerously private joke.

She didn’t stand to embrace me. She smiled distantly and nodded.

Thank you, sister. It is auspicious indeed.

Then she turned back to her untouched plate. She left her hands in her lap.


Harold and I began communicating through the misprinted book in the library. On a day in the midst of autumn, when the leaves were changing, becoming rich with color, his message read “meet at midnight; cistern.”

I was terrified. I climbed out of bed and donned my coat and shoes. Francine woke, and I told her my stomach was unwell, and I needed to use the bath house. She responded: good health to you, sister, and went back to sleep.

He was there when I arrived. We didn’t speak. We touched our hands together, then our mouths. I was alight with feeling in my body. I had never known it was capable of such magnificent sensation.

We only stayed for a few minutes. When we parted, we whispered “I love you.” I felt that my life- my true life, not the barren state of existence I had tolerated for twenty-three years- had begun.


It was the first time we had shared an assignment since her Ascension. The season was late fall when the sun fell behind the earth early and the winds were cold and uncaring. My hands were numb as I swung the scythe, felling the wheat like soldiers of bygone wars.

We were near each other, the beige field and gray sky like two halves of a world. I heard her speaking, but I wasn’t sure she was speaking to me as she didn’t look my way.

May… benevolence… follow… you… sister.

The scythe went limp in my hand. I wrenched my attention back to my contribution to avoid notice.

And you, Sister Minna.

The sound of scythes hacking lay between us.

How are you finding your experience of the Consciousness? I asked.

She didn’t answer for a minute, two. We continued hacking the dry stalks and piling them onto the wheelbarrow.

I’m finding it… more difficult… than I expected, she said in this strange halting way.

I made a noise. My shoulder ached.

I find the… extension of my… consciousness to all the Ascendants… very… burdensome. I see… and feel… intense… suffering and… can do… nothing… to… alleviate-

I was looking at Minna out of my periphery and she had stopped slashing the wheat and was holding her forehead in her gloved palm.

I started to feel sick in my stomach.

Minna dropped down and gathered wheat stalks. I could see the side of her face and neck. A bead of dark red was seeping from her ear.

Minna, you look- unwell, I said in a panicked way. Please, let me call a medic for you.

No, no, thank you Sister. I’m quite well. Minna smiled at me in that placid way she had at the Bounty after her Ascension. She placed the cut stalks into the wheelbarrow. She didn’t speak to me again during our shift.


Harold and I had been seeing each other often, more often than was safe. When we met- behind the solar farm, in the copse, beside the greenhouses- I escaped my fear, my dismay. He started asking me to run away with him, to the in-between. I was afraid to go and afraid to stay. I wanted our meetings to stretch on and on, like the solstice, outside of time. I knew if we were caught I would be Refreshed and lose myself- and though it was a Cardinal sin, I couldn’t help but feel that I loved myself, and I didn’t want that self to go away, wiped from existence like Minna, like the dead girl.

A few weeks later I was woken to a hard banging. Francine was already rising from her bed when I gained enough sense to realize what was happening. I climbed from bed and joined Francine in the small main room. She opened the door to Minna.

Sister Minna, how might we assist you? Francine asked in her affectless way.

Sister Francine, I am here to summon Sister Jacqueline to the dining hall. She has failed to report for morning meal duty.

Oh, I apologize Sister Minna for the inconvenience I have caused. I’ll be right with you.

I went back to our bedroom and dressed hurriedly. I didn’t have morning meal duty. I was assigned to main campus cleaning.

I exited the dormitory and strode alongside Minna across the wet, dead grass.

I don’t have much time, Minna said quietly. I will be terminated by the end of this conversation.

Fear gripped me.

No, please, don’t speak if it will-

It’s too late. I must tell you the truth about the Ascension.

I waited, my throat tight.

The Ascension brings you into the Consciousness, that part is true. You have access to all other Ascendants’ knowledge, minds, sights, sensations. It’s overwhelming and intoxicating. The technology was created to make empathy for all humankind accessible in a real way. But since, it’s become a tool, to watch us. To make sure revolts are quelled before they take place, to ensure anyone who attempts to speak the truth of what is happening is eliminated.

I was cold and my armpits prickled with sweat.

What is happening?

Minna stopped and looked around. We were in the center of main campus under a streetlight near the fountain. I stopped with her.

We’re dying. All of us. All over New America, Havens are crumbling. Famine, disease outbreak, mass suicides.

Her eyes were entirely dark, cast in shadow like they had been on the stage during her Ascension.

The core tenets, not to harm the earth, not to rely on chemicals- fertilizer, pesticide, fungicide, synthetic medicines- these practices are unsustainable. We are dying and the Consciousness is doing nothing to stop it.

Why? I breathed. I realized Minna was gripping my wrist hard.

Because the Consciousness isn’t only us. It is its own entity and it’s comprised of us but also of itself. It was designed to facilitate harmony and prevent the human mind from crumbling under the weight of all knowledge. But its goal- harmony among all human beings, balance among all human beings, purity of mind- is most easily achieved when there are many fewer humans to harmonize, balance, purify.

How did you escape it? I asked.

I haven’t escaped it. It can override individual minds, but its computational power is limited to the number of wakeful Ascendants. I had to learn its patterns so I could tell you.

I was breathing hard but no air was getting to my lungs.

What do I do? I asked.

Minna’s expression changed. She was looking at someone behind me. Her hand slackened on my arm.

I’m sorry Sister Jacqueline, but I believe someone’s listening to our conversation. Good morning Sister Francine, she said calmly.

I turned. Sister Francine was standing entirely still at the edge of the fountain in shadow..

Good morning, Sisters Minna and Jacqueline. May I inquire as to why you are not both attending morning meal duties as you stated previous?

No, I don’t think so, Minna said. She gripped my hand hard, and I knew what she wanted from me.

I ran. I heard scuffling, slamming of flesh and bone against something hard. I wanted to scream, but no sound would come.

I had made it to the greenhouses when she caught me. She encompassed me with her body. I struggled. She wrenched my limbs and I cried out in pain. Her hands fastened around my neck, hard, ruthless. I thought of Harold; of how close I had been to freedom, to happiness. My final thoughts were nothing but pain and the futile struggle of the one against the many. When I lay dead, Sister Francine dragged my body to Minna’s and we were lifted into a dark van. We were driven far from the campus, down a long gravel road and unloaded into an open pit. We joined the dead girl and her boyfriend, harmonious in death, equal in death, perfect in death.

October 14, 2023 02:24

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Amanda Lieser
07:10 Nov 20, 2023

Hi Leigh! Congratulations on the well deserved shortlist. Your fiction was brilliant and paced the story quite well. I adored the love story, but the ominous undertone was masterfully crafted. I also liked the way your dialogue created an interesting structure to the piece. You are a master at world building, giving us just enough to clue us in while letting us fill in some of the puzzle pieces. That can be a challenge with creative fiction. Nice work!!


Leigh Johnson
01:54 Nov 22, 2023

Thank you so much. I really appreciate your feedback. I enjoyed the love story as well and wish I had more time with those characters. Glad that the worldbuilding wasn’t too heavy handed. Thank you again for reading!


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Graham Kinross
13:54 Nov 11, 2023

I got feelings like Hunger Games or Brave New World. Dystopia posing as a utopia is always interesting if it’s done right. The ideals of the society you created and the way they are enforced feel like a cult. Well done.


Leigh Johnson
22:55 Nov 11, 2023

Thank you for reading and for your comment! I was hoping to achieve a feeling of oppression similar to the Hunger Games or 1984. I haven't read Brave New World but it's on my list. Thanks again for the feedback.


Graham Kinross
00:29 Nov 12, 2023

You’re welcome.


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Branson Kennedy
19:36 Nov 09, 2023

This is an excellent idea for a novella. The dystopian themes tied with religious fervor brings about a very grim yet suspenseful scenario. I think you should consider expanding this into a larger story. Many great books start off as short stories.


Leigh Johnson
22:50 Nov 11, 2023

Thank you so much for your feedback. Glad you also felt the grimness that I felt while writing it. I think it would be interesting to see other characters' responses to this world and a novella would definitely allow me to do that.


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Philip Ebuluofor
08:48 Oct 24, 2023

Fine work. Congrats.


Leigh Johnson
16:37 Oct 24, 2023

Thank you very much.


Philip Ebuluofor
19:01 Oct 26, 2023

U are welcome.


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Kathryn Kahn
23:59 Oct 20, 2023

Such a scary and bleak world, and you've drawn it so well.


Leigh Johnson
05:39 Oct 21, 2023

Thank you so much. I took a lot of inspiration from ‘1984’ which I found extremely bleak and anxiety-inducing.


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