In Competition No. 3222, you were invited to supply a dystopian short story that incorporates as many collective nouns for animals or birds as possible.
Your appetite for dystopian imaginings may be somewhat limited at the moment — ‘How about setting something sweet and optimistic?’ write Frank Upton — and there was a dismal sameness about the entry this week. Notable exceptions included David Silverman’s Huxley-Orwell-Collins-Atwood mash-up, Nick Syrett’s Conan Doyle-inspired vignette, and the winners, below, who each pocket £25.
After the human colonies had been obliterated, meetings of the Great Unkindness took place, of course, at Ravenna. Each year, patrolling mobs, murders, gaggles, skeins, charms and even convocations of birds from finches to eagles reported on undue activity. Worryingly, a weight of albatrosses reported seeing a shoal of coelacanths near Madagascar — fish with legs had to be watched. A land-based covey of grouse was sent in to observe, while a siege of herons kept up surveillance. The pod of dolphins scare had worried the parliament of owls — bloody mammals, they had hooted. A bazaar of guillemots had apparently spotted a shrewdness of apes in Africa, but the ostriches (acting as a flock, troop or possibly herd) simply ignored that collective term and went in kicking. However, none of the flights, scolds, exaltations or murmurations noticed the huge division of amoebae in the ocean, as evolution quietly got going again.
At the climax he scratched her face, but she did not bleed. He began to brood. ‘Did I pass muster?’ he wondered, out loud; but seemingly she did not hear him, and lay there, glaring. The knot in his innards tightened. It was his first congress with a humanoid alien, as far as he knew, and yet he felt no pride, only confusion, even a prickle of guilt. In the distance he heard the smack of synthetic waves.
‘You may skulk on your side of the sleep-room,’ she said to him, catching him off guard. ‘Or you can follow orders and repeat the actions, only more carefully. Follow my drift?’
He felt himself flush. They had not mentioned this during servicing. Was she permitted to scold him? Concentrating, he attempted to kindle again the feelings the Masters had mentioned. And as he moved towards her, her coil begin to quiver.
Claiming to possess shrewdness, wisdom, zeal and charm, the optimistic leader of the Party in control of Parliament led his flock towards, but never quite reaching, green pastures. With little more than a leap of faith on a flight of fancy he promised that, one day, all would be well and dismissed the murmuration and mumblings from an increasingly impoverished mob. Bellowing ‘Plague on him!’ those in opposition attempted to oust him but, being restrained as if bound by a yoke, they failed to bring about his destruction. Their spears harmed him no more than a prickle. Undaunted, he soldiered on ignoring pandemonium while commanding his troop like a tower of strength. But knowing that pride comes before a fall, how will this sorry tale end? As the rules of dystopian stories dictate, it ends not with triumph or exaltation but in a confusion of mischief, murder and mayhem.
Chatter tailed off to a barely audible murmuration as the plump chairman of the Committee for the Public Good made to stand, a baleful look on his singular face. The government building had been damaged in the wake of the recent mob violence. The unvaccinated had displayed an obstinacy that surprised the chairman but the army, thankfully, had remained loyal. It was a messy business, letting the troops off the leash. Murder had followed, but there was no room for lamentation. The survivors had skulked off and would be pursued before they could cause more mischief. Now was the time to charm, not scold the people. The Committee, once known as SAGE, was now in charge of the whole damn circus and that was a good thing: England once led the way with the first Parliament, now it would do so again, with the world’s first Public Health Dictatorship.
As the disease spread uncontrollably, the stench of fear and destruction cast a shadow over the country. Parliament was recalled and people told to stay with their family. Adam lived alone and decided, with characteristic shrewdness, to hide out until the pandemonium passed. He stocked up and drove his caravan to a deserted camp site in the woods, dreading an ambush, or crash, but the roads were empty; even the army lookout tower was unmanned. When he began to shiver and felt the prickle of sweat down his spine, he knew it was the fever. For days he was unable to stand and, hallucinating, was terrified a mob was coming to murder him. But it was just the smack of branches on his roof. Finally, there was a knock at the door. A small child was glaring up, his face a knot of obstinacy. ‘They’re all dead. Feed me.’
It had not been a good day at the safari park. A troop of baboons had somehow got out and terrorised a commotion of schoolchildren, desisting only after the fire hoses has been turned on. At lunchtime, a tower of giraffes decided to stampede and several had been injured running into the fence surrounding their enclosure. Worse, the park’s bloat of hippopotamuses — the Duke’s pride and joy — had climbed laboriously out of their pool on to the bank and bellowed in unison for three hours. Nobody seemed to know why. At teatime, a murder of crows had divebombed the kiddies as they played with the horde of hamsters in the Children’s zoo. That evening, in the big cats’ enclosure, under a cloud of mosquitoes, a lion surveyed his pride with satisfaction before turning sharply to look to the east where an unimaginably bright light suddenly illuminated the horizon.
No. 3225: night terrors
You are invited to provide a version of the Lord Chancellor’s ‘Nightmare Song’, for any member of the British cabinet, starting ‘When you’re lying awake…’ and continuing for up to 16 lines. Please email entries to email@example.com by midday on 10 November.
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