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Once Upon A Time - Earth Burning

Once Upon A Time

  12+   This story begins at the end.

But my time spent observing your planet has taught me humans like to process events and information in an orderly, if not entirely predictable, sequence. So forget the first sentence, and I'll serve you a linear tale. Just don't skip to the end and spoil it.

Part 1: An early UN Climate Change Conference in the 1990s. Our protagonists enter the main conference area stage left and right, a pair of dedicated young scientists, heads down, pouring and worrying over data and projections. They collide, and papers fly everywhere.

"For goodness sake, watch where you're going," she explodes and kneels to collect her papers from the floor.

"You, too!" he retorts, also kneeling.

Clutching their mixed-up piles, they apologise awkwardly, introduce themselves, and find a table to separate and sort the papers. Remember, humans like orderly information.

It's an unpromising start to a relationship, which, despite conference gossip, will remain professional and never romantic. But it's also the beginning of a long-term collaboration between two scientists keenly concerned about the effects of climate change.

How do I know this? Because, unlike you, I'm not limited to linear timelines.

Part 2: A post-pandemic UN Climate Change Conference in the 2020s. And our more mature protagonists are catching up at a social event after the first day's plenary session.

"How are the children?" she asks, clinking his glass.

"Both at university," he replies, adding, "The years have flown by so fast."

"Too fast," she comments.

"With too little action," he reflects.

They sip their drinks in contemplative silence for a few moments before dissecting the day's speeches. The projections and promises, the depressing reports of illegal logging and deforestation, and the lack of progress on reducing carbon emissions. And the emergence of a block of climate change "adaptists", seemingly intent on hijacking the conference agenda.

"Are we too late?" she asks.

"No, it's never too late," he asserts, clinking her glass, "for hope and action!"

Our protagonists have matured but retain the optimism of young scientists. Optimism is another endearing trait I've noticed in humans.

Part 3: A UN Climate Adaptation Conference in the late-2050s. Our protagonists are much older. And although both are retired, they have accepted an invitation to address a forum on the conference sidelines.

"It's down to the wire," she says in closing, still sounding strong and determined.

"But with goodwill and purpose," he adds, pausing to grip the lectern to steady the tremor in his hands and voice, "we can reverse the effects of climate change."

The applause is generous, but it's not the main conference hall. And our protagonists give each other a resigned look, acknowledging those days and hopes are in the past.

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Once upon a time, a pair of dedicated young scientists tried to save the world from climate change. But you know that, even with your linear limitations.

And how does our story end? That's up to you. I'm only here to observe your planet.

© 2022 Robert Fairhead

With thanks to Tumisu for the Earth burning image from Pixabay.

I wrote Once Upon A Time in June 2022 for the Australian Writer's Centre's quarterly writing competition, Furious Fiction. The brief for the 500-word short story was:

  • It had to begin with a sentence containing exactly SIX words.
  • Include something being served.
  • And use the words STAGE, WIRE and LOG. (Longer variations were acceptable as long as they retained the original spelling.)

Fittingly, the six-word sentence popped into my head first: This story begins at the end. And it also signposted the ending, so I knew my writing destination.

I wanted to play with form and point-of-view in the story, so I came up with the idea of an omniscient narrator, possibly other-worldly and not limited to "linear timelines". However, our narrator has observed "humans like to process events and information in an orderly sequence". And so serves the reader a three-part "linear tale" of two scientists dedicated to saving the world from climate change. 

We follow the scientists from their first meeting at an early UN Climate Change Conference in the 1990s to their collaboration-catch-up at a post-pandemic UN Conference in the 2020s and joint address on the sidelines of a UN Climate Adaptation Conference in the late-2050s.

In addition to form and point-of-view, I wanted to write a story on climate change. About how scientists have warned us of its existence for decades, while vested interests have denied it or urged us to adapt rather than take action to halt and reverse its effects.

I found places for the required words from the brief in the story, although I took advantage of being allowed to use longer variations for one of them.

And for the first sentence callback at the end of the story, I used a classic beginning, "Once upon a time, a pair of dedicated young scientists tried to save the world from climate change." But as our narrator-observer explains, how this story ends is up to the reader.

N.B. You may like to read another other-worldly story I wrote for an unofficial Furious Fiction, The People Were Happy.

And you might like to listen to my narration of Once Upon A Time on the Tall And True Short Reads podcast.

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Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.

Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.

Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.

He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you. ~ Maya Angelou

Tall And True showcases the writing — fiction, nonfiction and reviews — of a dad and dog owner, writer and podcaster, Robert Fairhead. Guest Writers are also invited to share and showcase their writing on the website.

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