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257

FINALIST
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I reached for the control strip and tapped the edit icon. Immediately, the scene changed to a woodland, dark fir trees casting long shadows beneath a heavy winter sky. For background effect, I added the sound of a river, imagining the ribbon of icy liquid tumbling down waterfalls as it rushed to the sea. I spread my fingers on the screen to enlarge the old-fashioned cottage slightly and set it in the foreground. The next edit created smoke, rising slowly into the still air from a jumble of chimneys. Another tap on the insert key and I brought up a basic quadruped shape, colouring it brown and lengthening the legs. I moved it to the side of the house and left it there, until I decided how to use it. Satisfied with the first level of the project, I stood up and rolled my shoulders to ease the stiffness in my back. Yawning, I rubbed at my beard. Time for a coffee. I moved into the kitchen.

I like working from home. At fifty, I can’t be bothered with commuting to an office, to perch on a stool all day. And anyway, I have Ella to think about.

Passing the stairs, I called up. "You coming down? It’s nearly tea time." I heard movement and a door opening. Satisfied she was on her way, I took my mug back to the desk. The haptics trip had reset itself again. You’d think a VR Dev workstation costing almost a year’s salary would be a bit more stable. I glanced at the screen. What the hell – the shape had moved. It looked a bit like a dog now, I thought, reaching for the eraser tool. I took a sip of coffee and prepared to continue. 

"Can I help?" Ella was beside me, looking up at the screen.
"Why not? What would you like to do?"
"Have you made any animals yet?" She knew how I worked, scene first, then animation. I showed her my creature.
"It’s just an outline, it was going to be a pony, but it could be a puppy..."
"Can I make something?"
"OK. Climb up here." I patted the stool beside me. "What do you want to make?"
Her fingers flicked quickly over the icons, selecting shape and colour. Her beast was lilac and pink, had a spiky nose, huge eyes, four stubby legs and a long fat tail.
"What’s that?" I laughed.
Her bottom lip jutted out in a pout. "It’s a unicorn."
"Looks like a rhino on steroids. Here, let me – "
"No." The little girl pushed my hand away. "I like her like that. She’s called Livy." She began controlling Livy, had her run a few steps in front of the cottage. I added a large red ball to the screen and rolled it slowly across the grass. 
"Your go."
The animal pushed the ball with her nose and then looked up, head on one side.
"Good control," I praised Ella. She might only be six, but her grasp of the conventions was sound.
"Can I?"
"Go on then." Flicking the VR-Ngage sensor I slipped the child into the scene. Not strictly legal, but it was a test environment, there was no danger. With Ella out of the room, I settled down to concentrate. I sipped my coffee, adding more plants, a low white painted fence and a side gate. I was half watching Ella play, half sketching in the cottage chimneys against the roofline, when a slight movement beneath the trees made me look more closely. I realised I hadn’t erased the other animal. It was moving slowly, almost stealthily, out of the shadows, across the meadow, towards Ella. 
It crept along, belly to the ground. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was watching it evolve into a wolf, and a huge one at that, the coarse thick pelt rippling along its flanks with the constant slow creeping movement. I reached for the microphone and spoke quietly, so as not to frighten Ella.
"Come out of the game now Ella, time for tea." She didn’t hear me, threw the ball again and stood watching Livy lollop after it. Her back was to the threat.
"Ella," I said again, sharply this time. To hell with not frightening her, she needed to get out of there. Her lack of reaction made me check the microphone control – it was greyed out. Typical – the worst possible time for the system to malfunction. For a split second, I longed for the days when VR meant wearing a headset. If there was a problem, all you had to do was take it off. With Total Perceptual Immersion it wasn’t so easy.

I froze. I could see the shadows lengthening much too quickly as the afternoon wore on, out of sync with real time. And I must have made a mistake with the smoke. It was whipping away from the chimneys. A squally wind was howling around the house, banging the side gate against its latch. The trees were thrashing black branches against each other in the deepening dark. Back and forth, as if shaken by a giant invisible hand.
I jabbed at the icons on the control strip – nothing changed. What had happened to the Fail-Safe control system? My options were diminishing with every moment. I did the only thing I could. I flicked the VR-Ngage sensor and went in.
I gasped at the cold. Standing shivering in the chill air, still holding my mug, I had no game plan except to warn Ella. The wolf had seen me, and it stopped, flattened to the ground, waiting to see if I was a threat. 
"Ella, get out of it, quick," I shouted over the wind, frantically beckoning and covering myself in coffee as a result. At the sound of my voice, she turned and caught sight of the wolf. It rose out of its crouch and started loping towards her, all stealth abandoned. Its mean yellow eyes glinted in the low light and a long black tongue lolled out over murderous teeth. Who’d designed this damn thing? This was not the standard Country Experience plugin. 

I threw my mug at the wolf. It missed. The wolf watched it drop and roll. It kept coming.
"Ella. Now!" My heart was racing, and I had begun to shake uncontrollably. I watched Ella as her eyes moved jerkily from the wolf to me and back again. She took a hesitant step towards me.
"Go," I yelled. She went. Thank heaven. All that obedience conditioning paid off when it really mattered. The wolf spotted Livy then, immobile since Ella had stopped playing. I used a couple of standard hand control gestures, but Livy didn’t respond. I realised, too late, the wolf had caught the movement. Those yellow eyes locked on to mine. Its breath left puffs of vapour in the freezing air as it started to move. I touched the stop pad on my wrist, expecting to find myself back at my desk. Nothing happened. I tried again. With my pulse hammering, my synapses must have been overloading the Bodycomm system. The wolf was picking up speed, coming straight for me. There was no cover. No handy lump of wood. Nothing to defend myself with. I knew better than to run. I dropped into a squat, covered my head as best I could and waited for the impact.

I felt a series of juddering thuds, driving from the earth up into my legs. Livy was roaring towards me, enormous now. She was two tons of pounding pink and purple muscle, with fangs like steel scimitars and great leathery wings thrashing the air out of the way. The wolf fled, yelping, its ruff flattened against its body. Livy thundered past me, in hot pursuit. I uncurled myself and stood, my breath snatching out of my chest in sharp gasps.
"I’ll reboot," said Ella’s voice. There was a pause. "Can you get out now?"
My pulse took a moment or two but finally slowed sufficiently for the stop pad to work when I pressed it with shaking fingers. 

I staggered as I found my feet again, back in my room. That was entirely too close. Way too much reality for a Level Four Experience.
"Did you like what I did with Livy? Did you? Wasn’t I quick? Wasn’t that cool?" With the naiveté of any six year old, of course she wanted praise for her efforts. Once I got my breath back, I told her again and again how clever she was. She crowed with pleasure, jumping jerkily up and down, nearly catching me under the chin with her head, when I bent to hug her. A quick look at the master controls showed me that she had low energy. It was affecting her coordination and she was ready for her tea, so I powered her down, while I started my hunt for the bug in the software that had nearly killed me.

CONTEST

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257

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Image of Keith Simmonds
Keith Simmonds · ago
Congratulations, Mimi!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
You too, Keith!
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Image of Keith Simmonds
Keith Simmonds · ago
Thanks, Mimi!
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Image of Cathymac
Cathymac · ago
This story really grips you from the beginning. It is beautifully written, and deserves to be top. It is more imaginative than most stories. Cathy
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Image of Mimeagle
Mimeagle · ago
Great well written story! Malcolm
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Many thanks
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Image of Sussexmad
Sussexmad · ago
Brilliant! Ian
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Image of fifi
fifi · ago
Hope this does it!
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Image of Eve Brimacombe
Eve Brimacombe · ago
Best of luck!
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Image of SALLY LOU
SALLY LOU · ago
Good luck!
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Image of Melissa Roberts
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Image of Gwyneth
Gwyneth · ago
Good Luck!
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Image of Ian
Ian · ago
Excellent
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Image of Jim
Jim · ago
Good Luck !
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Image of Hilary Harris
Hilary Harris · ago
Excellent, love it.
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Image of Lynn Capon
Lynn Capon · ago
Good luck!
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Image of Nneka53
Nneka53 · ago
Good luck! Nikki
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Image of Amanda
Amanda · ago
Good Luck !
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Image of ChrisH
ChrisH · ago
Fabulous story Susan, wonderfully visual and love the tension. Good luck!
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Image of Michael Round
Michael Round · ago
Nicely balanced, convincing dialogue. Presume layout and missing closing speech marks, variously, is due to site defaults rather than that of the author
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Exactly so! Thank you for comments and your vote.
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Image of Heather
Heather · ago
Still think it’S a worthy winner. Good luck! Heather xx
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Image of LupoZo
LupoZo · ago
Good luck 🤞
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Image of James Padbury
James Padbury · ago
Have voted, good short story good luck.
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Susan O'Neal · ago
Thanks James
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Image of Becky Card
Becky Card · ago
Bummer I meant to vote 3and can’t now change it
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Every vote is very welcome, thank you!
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Image of Pjrockey
Pjrockey · ago
Your story was exciting and imaginative. I loved the tension and creativity. Well done!
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Image of Lilli
Lilli · ago
I absolutely loved this story. I signed up so I could vote for it.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thanks Lilli, I appreciate your vote!
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Image of Mollie Kidd
Mollie Kidd · ago
Very good, never saw the ending coming.
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Image of Louise Wilford
Louise Wilford · ago
This is fab! Loved it. Beautifully structured, beautifully written, exciting and imaginative!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Louise
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Image of Lisa Wright
Lisa Wright · ago
What an imaginative story! really enjoyed it
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Image of Lynne Mcfarlane
Lynne Mcfarlane · ago
Twist and twist again, great plotting, fine writing, I love it.
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Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Lynne
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Image of Cin
Cin · ago
This is great, really loved reading your story x
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Image of Tom
Tom · ago
Well done Susan. Good luck
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Image of Jan Liepins
Jan Liepins · ago
Such a good story!
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Image of Liz Aitken
Liz Aitken · ago
Very well deserved as it is a startling story! Good luck!
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Image of Cathymac
Cathymac · ago
Extremely inspiring and captivating, and just as enjoyable when you re-read. Deserves to be a finalist...!
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Image of Roopa Banerjee
Roopa Banerjee · ago
Great going! Loved it!
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Image of Gabrielle
Gabrielle · ago
Well deserved finalist congrats
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Image of Angela Haynes
Angela Haynes · ago
Still as gripping as the first time I read it. Love it.
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Image of teresa
teresa · ago
brilliant well done
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Image of Ali Dee
Ali Dee · ago
Jolly well deserved. Good luck x
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Image of Clare Chapman
Clare Chapman · ago
Lovely story
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thanks Clare, this is really exciting!)
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Image of Sallyanne
Sallyanne · ago
Still love this!
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Image of Baz
Baz · ago
Loved this, such a clever twist. Good luck!
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Image of GME
GME · ago
Thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected and gripping venture into VR!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thanks for reading and voting.
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Image of Caro
Caro · ago
Thoroughly enjoyed this! Certainly gets my vote.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Caro
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Image of Barry Shorland
Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Barry
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Image of Eve Brimacombe
Eve Brimacombe · ago
Great story - you deserve my vote!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Oh - thank you Eve!
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Image of Nicola Barton
Nicola Barton · ago
Really good read, absolutely gripping, well done!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Nicola!
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Image of James Padbury
James Padbury · ago
Well done, voted hope all goes well.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you James
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Image of James House
James House · ago
Great read!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you James
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Image of Roger
Roger · ago
Good little read!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Roger
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Image of Hilary Harris
Hilary Harris · ago
A very good short story thank you.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Worth a vote, possibly? :-)
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Hilary
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Image of Sharon Woodley
Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you, Sharon
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Image of Hazel Longworth
Hazel Longworth · ago
Reading time well spent ........
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Hazel
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Image of Heather Dickinson
Heather Dickinson · ago
Gripping. Couldn’t stop reading.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Heather
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Image of Anna Pendlebury
Anna Pendlebury · ago
Very good Interesting
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Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Anna
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Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Anna
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Image of Melissa Roberts
Melissa Roberts · ago
Interesting, even for a non-games- computer -literate, person.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you for reading, (especially if it's not something you're interested in!)
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Image of Melissa Roberts
Melissa Roberts · ago
A friend asked me to read it. No need for exclamation marks.As a retired English teacher, I was interested..just not au fait with some of the technical/nternet/computer terms.
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Image of Jim
Jim · ago
Excellent!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you, Jim
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Image of Annie Moore
Annie Moore · ago
So, his pulse was hammering??? No thought for mine!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Did it do that to you Annie? Oh dear! (But thanks)
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Image of Ian
Ian · ago
Enjoyed it. Keep it up
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Ian
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Image of Meurig
Meurig · ago
Great story Susan
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Meurig!
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Image of Paul Slater
Paul Slater · ago
Drat, as a new member I can only give one vote. What a wonderful story. Praise indeed for Susan.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you Paul, you're very kind!
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Image of teresa
teresa · ago
Very well written with that twist at the end. want more please
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Image of Reine Marais
Reine Marais · ago
What a delightful story! Really up-beat, up-to-the-minute, with great family values built in.
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Image of Anusuya Kashi
Anusuya Kashi · ago
Amazing story! I still don't know what hit me! This deserves more than one vote :-)
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thanks Anusuya!
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Image of Cathy Park
Cathy Park · ago
Great story! was just recovering when the twist at the end took my breath away
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you - hope you've recovered now!
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Image of aries18
aries18 · ago
Great story, loved it all the way through, especially the twist at the end. Excellent.
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Image of Shaun Thompson
Shaun Thompson · ago
Captivating and incredibly well written. Thoroughly enjoyed the experience, and that penultimate sentence: awesome. Did not expect that twist. Only wish I could give more than the newb one vote.
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Image of Amanda
Amanda · ago
Wowza! Loved it, totally engaging and so imaginative - well done and good luck
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Image of fifi
fifi · ago
more please!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Image of fifi
fifi · ago
highly engaging
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Image of Cathymac
Cathymac · ago
Extremely well written, and intriguing! I got very involved, very quickly...
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Image of LupoZo
LupoZo · ago
Well written! Very pleased for you!
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Image of Emma Scott-Smith
Emma Scott-Smith · ago
Super story. Totally drawn in. And I love the concept of short stories to print off in public places - I've used the ones in French railway stations several times. Good luck!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Image of Keith Simmonds
Keith Simmonds · ago
A lot of imagination for this well-written, captivating fantasy! My votes !
I invite you to read “The Awakening” and support it if you like it. Thanks
in advance! https://short-edition.com/en/story/3-min/the-awakening-1

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Image of Clare Chapman
Clare Chapman · ago
Brilliantly written
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Image of Heather
Heather · ago
The story draws you in quickly and holds the reader right to the end. Your skill with words and love of language is evident throughout. A very enjoyable read.
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Image of Amrita Sarkar
Amrita Sarkar · ago
Loved this modern fantasy! Your descriptions weave such a vivid picture. I was on the edge when the wolf saw the writer. VR truly seems like a frightening thing, am glad I haven't tried it yet. Fantastic story. All the best!
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Neither have I! Thank you for your comment!
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Image of Danie Botha
Danie Botha · ago
What a pleasant surprise with full-throttle tension and a myriad of twists and turns. Well done!
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Image of Liz Aitken
Liz Aitken · ago
Gripping- and a good twist at the end!
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Image of Angela Haynes
Angela Haynes · ago
A stunning story 💜
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Image of Daisy
Daisy · ago
Great story, well done!
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Image of Becky Card
Becky Card · ago
Always brilliant xx
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Image of Tom
Tom · ago
Another fab story. Well done!
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Image of Jan Liepins
Jan Liepins · ago
Brilliant story. You’re my hero!
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Image of V Verity Oneal
V Verity Oneal · ago
Brill! Keep it up!
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Image of Baz
Baz · ago
Great story
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Image of Susan O'Neal
Susan O'Neal · ago
Thank you for your kind comment, much appreciated!
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Image of Ali Dee
Ali Dee · ago
Such a great story. The tension built nicely and drew me on, great use of descriptive language and just technical enough to make it authentic. I never saw the end coming - good work.
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