Indooroopilly State High School Year 9 student Zoe Tempany has won a national short story competition for a sci-fi adventure she wrote during the COVID-19 lockdown last term.
The Outside, Zoe's assessment piece for a speculative fiction short story unit in English, was the Australian winner of the Education Perfect-Story Factory Short Story Competition.
The protagonist of her story is Alice, a girl with supernatural abilities who has grown up in a secret indoor society of superhumans, oblivious to any life beyond her civilisation.
"She's very powerful, but she's also been told she's not good enough, which makes her try harder," Zoe said.
Zoe's prize was a mentoring session with short story competition judge Richard Short and Education Perfect English staff Erini Limnatites (Head of English, Australia), James Bowens (Global Head of English).
Mr Short gave Zoe feedback on her story via webinar last month, praising the momentum and beats of her story. He was also impressed with the varying sentence structure and the way she was able to conjure images that conveyed a visceral despair.
Zoe, who moved back to Australia from Hong Kong with her family several years ago, is an avid reader. Many of her characters and plot points are inspired by her time overseas.
"When I was young I had a notebook where I'd write stories, but I'd never finish them," she said. "Winning this award will encourage me to write more."
You can read Zoe's award-winning story here:
By Zoe Tempany
The intercom buzzed above Alice in synchronicity with a flashing red light above the door. The hallway fell silent and the number of students that lined the walls closed their eyes in anticipation, praying not to be next.
"4-6-9," the robotic voice resonated through the corridor.
Alice took a long breath in, resisting the stares of her peers as she marched past them and through the entryway. The large examination space was composed of white brick and fluorescent blue light.
"469 … Alice?" questioned her auditor. He wore a starch white suit, allowing him to appear camouflaged against the wall behind him.
Alice nodded, "I am in control, focus," she rehearsed in her head.
Taking her place in the centre of the room, she faced a steel cart adorned with three objects: a tennis ball – amateur; a hardcover book – achievable; a glass bowl filled halfway with liquid - challenging.
"You will have approximately one minute per object," The auditor began, "You must hold each item for a minimum of eight seco-"
"I know the requirements," she cut him off.
"Then you may begin."
With her back to the auditor Alice could feel his diagnostic stare on the base of her neck.
"Drown it out," she mumbled under her breath.
Her eyebrows furrowed and darkness clouded the corners of her vision, like an inescapable vignette. Breathing heavily through the strain, Alice reached out her hand in a contorted claw. The tennis ball quivered beneath her will and soared upwards towards the ceiling. She shoved her other hand at the object and forced it to a halt mid-air. Biting her lip, Alice counted the seconds she needed before moving on.
"Very nice," the auditor said circling her.
The tennis ball fell to the ground, rolling under the cart. Alice felt the wave of power she had summoned grudgingly retreat from her system. Next object. She repositioned her feet, knees bent to prepare for the force. She redirected her focus and glared at the rectangular figure that lay flat on the cart. The hardcover book shook violently beneath her will and echoed across the walls, like a deep rumble of thunder.
Alice closed her eyes in concentration, "Just a bit longer..."
Whoosh! The book flew upwards at the speed of a hurricane. Holding it in the air, Alice's auditor scratched something onto her evaluation sheet. She breathed out a heavy sigh and dropped the book.
"Final object," he announced. "I'm rather impressed 469, I don't think any other junior member has completed the first tasks so quickly. You have a bright future ahead of you at The Union."
Alice knew she was gifted, that she possessed the ability to obtain a high status among The Union of Gifted Humanity. Alice had only ever known what was within The Union's walls. Any speculation of what might be beyond them was strictly prohibited. They were told to be grateful for their salvation, not to question it.
One final item stood in her way. She stared down the glass bowl that sat isolated on the edge of the cart.
Alice could hear her instructor's whispers of disapproval in her ears; "The leaders are ashamed of you!" "You will never pass your final assessment!" "You are an abomination to The Union!"
She clenched her jaw, her blunt fingernails digging into her palm, "No I'm not," she whispered fiercely. Her eyes were suddenly alight with a golden fire of determination.
Alice prepared for her final task; manipulate the liquid to rise from the bowl and hold it mid-air.
"Any time now," stated her auditor, pacing the room.
Alice ignored her surroundings, she was now a captive of her mind. She thrusted her arms out in front of her, each finger slowly curling to form a misshapen claw. Her eyebrows quivered and she bit down hard on her bottom lip. The liquid rippled in a circular motion, swaying from side to side in the bowl. Alice pushed her hands closer towards the water, arms trembling from the strain. She couldn't back down now. She wouldn't.
The liquid stirred in a rhythmic cycle at a high speed, its force cracking the edges of the glass. Seconds ticked away, still the water would not rise. Fighting back tears, Alice pushed harder. It felt as if she were pressed up against an indestructible barricade, pushing and pushing with no advancement.
The water continued to spin faster and faster. Tears slipped silently from her eyes as Alice's whole body shook from the force. She could feel the mental barrier slipping away, inch by inch. She was doing it! The water's rate increased with every split-second. One. Final. Push. She closed her eyes tight and prayed the water would skyrocket.
With a reverberating roar, the brick wall behind the cart imploded, rocks and dust spewed from every direction. Alice screamed amidst the explosion, dropping her concentration, and cowered behind the industrial cart.
Alarms blared throughout The Union complex. A computerised voice echoed in time with the alarms; "Code- Red, Code-Red. Breach in The Union. The outside has been exposed."
Alice rose from the rubble in disbelief.
"Outside …? There's an outside!" she exclaimed.
The brick wall had crumbled, exposing natural light she had never known existed. Vibrant blues, greens and yellows composed a harmonic symphony of wondrous shapes and patterns. She had always trusted in The Union, believed every aspect of its truth. Now she realised she had been betrayed.
This was it. The chance she had been yearning for. The chance to escape.
Without a second to spare, Alice ran.