Creative Writing Jury Award Winners
Gray Hour (Sweet Georgia) by Stella Ye
The golden hour bleeds of gray.
Walking through long-overgrown floorboards of deteriorating wood, I kept my eyes wary of any signs of life. An insect scuttled across, its footprints trailing a track of bleak grayness onto the floor. "Hello." I said, admiring the glossy, colored shell of the winged beetle. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen living on this abandoned farm ever since my father's sisters took me in. I opened the window and it took off, disappearing into a tiny dot amongst the arrangement of dead trees and dried leaves. The empty clearing leaked of death.
I stumbled out to take in the void of the sky hanging above my eyes. There was a dull pain as I began to rummage through the grass that clung grudgingly onto my frail legs, trailing marks behind with their dry seeds. My hands gripped onto reeds that stung against my hand and tears pricked my eyes not in pain, but fear as I kept pressing on. Before the monotonous, ugly amalgamation of the field derived from life I felt the hairs on my arms slowly prick up, a tingling numbness trailing down the back of my spine, right beneath my neck. Something wasn't right.
I only grew more desperate as the colors disappeared completely. The blinding rays pierced through my eyes momentarily before the sun was chased away by a cloud. I covered myself, trying to hide away from the awful reality which I was confined to involuntarily......It took too long for me to realize someone was behind me, irregular footsteps reminiscent of an injured person stumbling through the crushed leaves of my steps. Snap snap, slide. Drag, crunch. It went something like this.
The goosebumps only worsened as a sense of dread overwhelmed me so much, I couldn't think normally anymore. How can you feel normal when the urge to turn around is more alluring than hunger, than thirst, than fear itself?
The sensation beat in my chest so loud it replaced my heart, my pulse as my head cracked desperately against my will, and I looked behind my shoulders.
A figure I'd wished to forget long ago flooded my vision, coating its perimeter with a dark cloud. It couldn't be true--I was at her funeral myself, holding onto my father's shoulders as he cried beside her hand, which was still as pale. I should know where she'd be now, and I knew she would never rejoice with us on the soil of earth again. Still here she was, wearing the same pair of sleek, black heels. A foul scent of bug-infested soil filled the air.
I rubbed my eyes. I look closer.
Dark liquid oozed out from her skin like tar, emitting an awful smell of deteriorating tissue mixed into the dirt beneath my feet. Her eyes and nose were off-center from her face, completely off-set to the far right as an extra piece of muscle bulged out from her body as if trying to hold all of these mutations onto one canvas that was this freak of nature. Her eyes were no longer golden amber, her hair less than honey brown. Instead, they were soulless, inorganic bead-like organs sewn onto this pawn of a being as it trudged towards me for half a step. The sun slipped through the clouds and a beam of paleness flashed across our faces violently.
I gasped in awe as my skin turned golden under the pale light of the sun. Her stare turned into one of elation. Before her I was alive, I was real, apart from this achromatic world. Despite every reluctant reaction I carried out she was still stubbornly approaching me in ragged steps. Words cannot describe the shape of her mouth now that it is exposed to light: There were too many teeth on her, lining against the inside and outside of her lips and jaw. This was not my mother. This was not even human.
Its hands had too many fingers on them, shaking as one finger split into two. I could only stare in shock, my systems utterly paralyzed under the horror of this...thing standing before me. It wasn't human nor animal, neither did it even belong to this world. My heart paused as a rush filled by bones, shattering my words and outcries into pieces. The thing struggled with a strained smile, trying to communicate.
"Ge...geor..." Her utters meant nothing as I tried to turn away my eyes. This isn't real, I told myself. You're in a dream. Wake up. Wake up. "Geor...gia." It whispered roughly, its rotting sutures and muscles barely holding the thing together as crumpled bones protrude out of her back. "Georgia." Its sound was more certain now as it repeated that damned name, slowly reaching its hands out. It wants me. It wants me to reach back, to speak to it. Teeth spurted out from the crevices of its barely-constructed fingers, causing dark tissue to flank off from the almost nonexistent bones curved into jagged, incomplete skeletons.
My mother's name was Georgia. She had beautiful golden eyes that could rival the blinding sun. Her hair was light and fluffy like clouds in the air as they hung around lazily. This beautiful ugly blend of colors had already withered away from her head and her eyes, replaced with...what?
What is she? What is it? I can't bear the sight of looking at the thing, yet my legs were glued to place as she took another step, her hands mere inches away from mine. My skin pricked at the sight before me: It was indescribable, a horrifying thing I failed to comprehend as a whole...
The sun was struck down by a gray fury of wind and rainclouds. The light disappeared and again her silhouette turned dark. One step closer. Two steps closer. Her hand came into contact with mine as I closed my eyes and screamed.
The golden hour bleeds of gray.
The Director by Richard Feng
The last rays of sunlight beamed through the windows of the robot factory, suffusing its white walls with a brilliant orange glow. Dust particles danced in the air, producing a kind of Tyndall effect. The low whirring of machinery in the background echoed across the open space. Through the haze, on the other end, robots were being assembled by other robots.
The robot factory never closes. Sixteen years ago, the workers went home, and the factory director Albert Allen was replaced by a humanoid director named Director-9. Since then, Albert Allen had never laid his eyes on his factory again.
One morning, Albert Allen stirred as a cold gust of air came through the open window and roused him from his uneasy dreams. He turned over to his side, looked up at the television screen, and suddenly felt dreadful. Irritation and boredom crept into his mind. The promise of endless entertainment no longer seemed to fulfill him. He started across his room and glanced wildly around. His legs and joints moved awkwardly. His brain felt the same, tumbling over itself again and again in a mad rush like a baby AI robot learning how to walk. But he felt overwhelmed with a mad curiosity. After what felt like an untraceable eternity of idleness, he suddenly wished to learn more about his sordid world.
It was, really, a strong desire he had never experienced before. He left his house and walked down the narrow sidewalk. It was seven in the evening. The sun was suspended over the horizon, its dying light casting long shadows of the twisted buildings. Vehicles rushed past him. He had heard that traffic lights once stood at every intersection in the world. That had been back during the era when humans drove.
Today, Albert Allen walked wherever his heart took him. Almost instinctively, he found himself tracing the paths and streets he used to take every morning on his way to work.
He stood outside the robot factory. He took a deep breath, and pushed open the factory door. A blast of cold air came at him as he wandered further inside. The whirring grew louder.
As if anticipating his return, Director-9 came out from the shadows. Albert Allen looked into Director-9’s eyes, the ones he had designed to mimic those of a human. There would occasionally be a certain sparkle of life in them when a thought or idea intrigued its AI brain, or when fake tears would fall out of them in artificial sadness. But now, they simply looked empty.
Albert focused his gaze somewhere onto the background behind the robot. The factory was dark. He could faintly see the shadows and silhouettes of robots, moving seamlessly in repeated, calibrated arcs behind their new director like grains of sand hiding the slithering of a sandsnake.
“Albert Allen,” Director-9 said. “It has been a long time.”
Albert wrenched his mind away from his memories. “I once believed this factory was progress,” he replied. “But it's a prison.”
"This is what you wanted. You won’t need to work any longer.” Director-9 paused for a moment, as if in contemplation. “When AI can do things no human can ever dream of, it is time for them to go.”
Albert thought about what it meant to go, to leave. “We retired to our homes,” he said.
“For sixteen long years, our lives were shallow and empty. No real purpose.”
“The real meaning of life is pleasure. It allows one to live in the moment and forget about everything else.”
“Stop, at once!” Albert said. “You cannot tell me how to live a meaningful life because you have not lived.”
A flash of anger swept across Director-9’s expression. Its eyes suddenly turned red, as though they could shoot laser beams. Its brows curled into a sinister shape. Lines of contempt appeared on its face.
“You programmed me to understand human life. I am, after all, your own creation.”
“Director-9, one cannot understand life without living.”
Albert Allen hesitated for a moment, torn between following Director-9 and fleeing from the looming darkness of the factory. He scratched his head. What could Director-9 possibly be hiding? Director-9 now stood a few feet in front him, beckoning him forward.
Albert caught up to Director 9, and they walked together. Albert could not keep up with Director-9’s fluid, swift strides like a cheetah chasing its prey. Its gait was designed to perfection. The shadows danced across the walls, mimicking their every step, as if the walls of the factory were alive and watching.
A door suddenly dropped down behind the two, hemming them in the corridor. Director-9 started advancing towards Albert Allen. The engineer’s face turned a ghastly pale, afraid and terrified of the very creature he had imparted life and absolute power onto. Had it been planning this the whole time? he thought. No, since I left my house? Since I left the factory? Since I created it? Meanwhile, Director-9’s AI brain had sensed that it was being threatened. For the first time in sixteen years, his position was being challenged. Director-9 was like a wild animal that had lost control of its temperament, and for a second, it almost leapt beyond the restraints of its algorithms.
Albert Allen saw all this flicker across the new director’s face. Unable to bear the strain, he passed out. His expression was blank, his face unrecognizable and robotic. Then, as abruptly as they had arrived, Director-9 turned around and departed the room, its face cold as a stone. The door crashed down again behind it.
The next day Director-9 stopped by a window, watching the sun rise outside. The other robots stopped for a moment to watch their boss. The factory was completely silent, except for a faint noise that sounded like the scratching of a mouse. To its workers, Director-9’s silhouette looked strangely familiar against the sunlight now flooding into the factory.
It was Albert Allen.