Week 1 of Odd Prompts: 2023 Edition

New year, new odd prompt! Or at least a taste of something different to kick off 2023. Let’s kick off with some extra focus, like the bird plowing ahead in the river.

This week, we all receive the same prompt, with 100% certainty of wildly different variants.


It was an impossible dilemma.

Next week, we’ll be back to trading prompts, so if you want to play, send your ideas to oddprompts@gmail.com (add “spare” if you’d prefer to send ideas without an obligation).

Did you make resolutions for the new year? Changes to writing or creative goals? Determined to gain mastery of an existing skill, or explore a new one? Share your new purposes – and your stories – in the comments.

Header image by Fiona Grey



  1. One prompt to rule them all, and in the Odd Prompts to bind them this week: It was an impossible dilemma.

    Without further ado:

    The Phoenix was a 6th rate warship, used for patrolling the far reaches of the empire. It was currently in the Naseby system. Nowadays Naseby was a bit of a backwater, but a few centuries back it had been on the front line in a major war, and had even been the site of a couple of major battles where the invaders had been repelled and sent packing with their engines slung under their keels.

    Sub-Commander Harriet FitzJohn, captain of the Phoenix, was on the bridge, checking the long-range scans, when suddenly there was a very loud sound, and everything shuddered violently. Alarms sounded, and red warning lights flashed across most of the screens.

    Harriet accessed the ship’s intercom – thankfully still apparently operational. “All crew report to the bridge. Repeat: All crew report to the bridge.”

    A few minutes later the bridge felt very crowded with six of the ten crew inside it. Third-in-Command Sub-Lieutenant Richard Smith was reading out the damage assessment, as far as the internal sensors could still figure it out.

    “… The crew quarters are all open to vacuum. Captain, I don’t think they stood a chance.”

    “No, they wouldn’t.” Harriet had a very heavy heart at the confirmation that four of her crew were dead – and before she had had any chance to realise something was wrong.

    “Any idea what caused the damage?”

    “Captain, it might have been a mine or three.” Weapons Specialist Kevin Jones had been reviewing the system records on his screen.

    Before Harriet could react, the Sensor Specialist scoffed. “We’re fitted with all sorts of countermeasures. A mine would explode long before we came into its blast radius.”

    “If it was a modern mine. Captain, we’re in the middle of what was a defensive minefield formed of pure-magnetic mines. Our counter-mine systems aren’t designed for such a primitive device. We must have approached too close to one left over from the mine-clearance operations.”

    Unfortunately that explanation made far too much sense. But now wasn’t the time to wallow in despair. Now was the time to fix the ship so that she could be flown back to port.

    “How are the life support and power systems?”

    It was the Senior Engineer who replied. “The life support system was set-up with a lot of redundancies. Which is good, because even with the major damage to the ship it’s still fully operational in the parts we can currently reach safely. Unfortunately it will only keep running for about six hours. The power unit is damaged and currently non-operational, and our battery storage is vastly depleted.”

    “The power unit can be mended relatively easily under normal circumstances if the sensor readings are accurate.” It was Maintenance Specialist Henry Kelvin. “But the chamber it’s in is currently open to vacuum. It can still be done, but it will take a lot longer as much more care needs to be taken.”

    T-in-C Smith clarified some of the situation. “Captain, we’ve shut down the engines due to damage received, and I don’t think we should restart them before they’ve had a thorough going-over unless we have no choice. We’re broadcasting an SOS, but we’re more than six hours from our nearest support – and risking the engines and heading in that direction by sheer blind luck won’t reduce the time to contact by enough.”

    “So,” said Harriet, “we need to repair the power unit. How long will it take?”

    “I’m not sure,” mused the Maintenance Specialist. “It will depend on the amount of damage, but everything will have to be checked. With two people, perhaps 50mins to an hour. With only one person, perhaps two hours.”

    “Can we seal the chamber, so we can refill it with air?”

    “No, Captain,” responded T-in-C Smith. “The damage to that area of the ship is severe. I don’t think we can make the power unit chamber airtight in less than six hours.”

    “Fine. What oxygen supplies do we have for the task?”

    A quick discussion between the Maintenance Specialist, the T-in-C, and the Senior Engineer followed. “We only have access to two oxygen tanks, each of which are rated for 75mins.”

    “And how long will it take to get to and from the power unit?”

    The Maintenance Specialist glanced across at the Senior Engineer before answering. “Based on the distances, and the need to be careful, probably twenty minutes each way.”

    Harriet thought through the possibilities. If they didn’t repair the power unit, everyone would die after about six hours. If she sent two people to repair the power unit, they might both die before they finished the job. If she sent only one person, that person would have enough air to repair the power unit, but would probably die on the way back.

    They had to try to repair the power unit. But she couldn’t order anyone to their deaths.

    “It’s impossible.”

    Harriet didn’t realise she’d spoken the last out loud until the Maintenance Specialist responded. “No, Captain. There’s exactly one solution.”

    Harriet looked across, surprised.

    “I try to repair the power unit alone.”

    “I can’t order you to do that.”

    “I volunteer. You’ll have to order me not to make the attempt to stop me.”

    Harriet thought, but she’d been outmanoeuvred. She couldn’t order anyone to their deaths, but she couldn’t order all six of them to await death in six hours’ time either. All she had to do was do nothing and she wouldn’t have to do either. She nodded.

    Everyone set to work, preparing Henry Kelvin for his journey into the vacuum within the ship. He was helped into a vacuum suit, and the two oxygen tanks were attached.

    Henry set out into the airless portions of the ship.

    The remaining crew had nothing to do but wait, the tension increasing minute by minute.

    About two-and-a-quarter hours later, slightly ahead of schedule, Henry radioed back that he’d finished the repairs of the power unit. It was turned on, and confirmation was soon obtained that it was generating enough power to run the life support.

    They waited, but it eventually became clear that Henry wasn’t returning.


    The Phoenix was rescued two days later. It took a further week before it was successfully towed into port in orbit around Naseby itself, and then repairs could begin. The surviving crew were ordered onto a transport ship to return to the nearest fleet base.

    When the vessel was searched in an attempt to find the bodies of the dead crew, only the body of Henry Kelvin was found. He had made no attempt to return to the crew, but had instead attached himself to the nearest bulkhead, and awaited the end.

    Henry Kelvin was awarded the Imperial Cross of Valour – Platinum Class, and given a full military funeral.

    Harriet FitzJohn was removed from ship command, and sent on an Advanced Sensor Course (sensors being her best specialism in her previous training). After successfully completing the course, she was assigned to a 5th rate warship as a Sensor Specialist. Eventually she worked her way up to the rank of Commander, serving as the Senior Sensor Specialist on the Gyrfalcon, a 1st rate warship.

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  2. One prompt to rule them all…

    It was an impossible dilemma.

    [Let’s see. Dilemma always reminds of the old lemma, which is what one of my professors used to identify the assumptions we were to deal with, I think. Di, I suppose, refers to the split bifurcation we are facing. Impossible? Implausible? Hum…]

    [dilemma? Di llama? Dali lama? Impossible, for a plain yellow pumpkin to become a golden carriage… ]

    [oh, wait… Try google? … four different ethical dilemma paradigms: truth vs loyalty, short-term vs long-term, individual vs community, and justice vs mercy. Moral? These are the Personal Dilemmas, Organizational Dilemmas and Structural Dilemmas… and here’s a list https://icebreakerideas.com/moral-dilemma-questions/… ]

    [so, random brainstorming didn’t get me very far. Google turned up stuff, but it’s confusing, and pretty abstract. So, what’s next? ]

    Harry was pretty sure it was just an impossible dream. After all, having to choose between two possible futures, both of which were horrid… wasn’t that the definition of tragedy, or something like that? Still, he thought about it. He’d been strapped in that chair, and the switch in front of him had two positions, clearly labeled. Throw it right, and he would kill a thousand strangers. Throw it left, and he would only kill a hundred people, but they would all be people he knew. And then the voice yelled into his ears, “Make your choice! If you don’t make a choice, we will do both!”

    Damn, that was just an impossible dilemma! With a forced choice, to boot. What had he been drinking last night to make such a nightmare come to him?

    [oh, now that’s nasty…]

    Of course, the next night, the nightmare came back again. But this time, the labels had changed. To the right, was just 100 strangers. To the left, was 100 people he knew. And the voice purred in his ear, “Make your choice. Take your time, think about it, but… every five minutes, we’ll increase the number on both side by five more people. See, it just jumped to 105 people on each side! So, go ahead, think about which way you want to throw that switch. Don’t be late!”

    He woke up, sweating, and shaking.

    [oh, the stakes are rising…]

    [there can be only one! and the scimitar slashed down, cutting off ruminations for now…]

    [Ah, me? The question, to post or not to post? To not post, so no one will read this silliness, no one will think about it, no one will comment, no one… Or, to post and… ?]


  3. One prompt for everyone this week: It was an impossible dilemma.

    Two of the cultists were dead before they knew he was there, their throats opened by the broadhead arrows he was shooting, a third reacting too slowly before he too was bleeding out on the ground. The other seven turned towards Drak and paused their chant as the leader pointed a finger towards him.
    “He is there. Grab him and we will sacrifice two to the dark ones tonight.”
    Drak was already moving, slipping sideways and to the right along the edge of the clearing, before pausing to take another shot. Then, the spell holding the girl broke and she splashed back up through the surface of the pool, to stand waist-deep in the clear water.
    She was drenched. Her long blond hair was plastered over her face, shoulders, and back and her entire body visible through the soaked cloth that refused to cover her before her left arm pressed over her breasts, shielding them from the gaze of the men who were trying to sacrifice her. Her eyes shifted wildly, then she screamed, terror and despair fighting for dominance before it vanished into the stillness of the moonlight night.
    Drak could see it in her face in that brief second. It seemed an impossible dilemma to her. Stay and be recaptured by the cultists, then sacrificed to whatever dark gods they worshiped or flee and die from exposure in the woods. She chose the latter instinctively, turning and running for the woods opposite him, deeper in and away from where he knew civilization lay.
    “You two, after her. We’ll deal with this interloper, then continue with the sacrifice.” The cult leader’s voice broke through Drak’s reverie and spurred him on to further action. He pulled back the string and loosed a hasty shot at the leader, but missed by a finger-width as the dark cloaked man swayed aside at the last second.
    He moved left and few steps back into the woods, trying to let the darkness around the clearing hide him from the cultists searching eyes, before he paused and drew a bead on one of the men coming towards him. Drak hissed in satisfaction as the arrow punched through the cultist’s chest, slicing through lung and heart and leaving him dying on the ground. Four more to go, plus the two who had chased after the girl.
    Drak paused where he was and carefully sighted down the arrow at one of the other cultists coming towards him. These three of them had pulled long knives from somewhere on their persons, black iron and razors sharp. They were coming directly at him, more certain of their target. They were obviously not men of violence, soft southerners who practiced subtle arts and magic for power, no real men among them. He loosed again, dropped his bow, then drew his shortsword. He could take these two with its longer reach before dealing with the cult leader.
    The two came at him from two directions, trying to flank him, but Drak recognized their advantage and leaped first at the one on his left. A quick flurry of blows got him past the cultist and left the man bleeding out on the ground with a severed artery in his upper thigh, before he spun on the other one. This one too died under his blade, then Drak turned towards the cult leader and began to curse under his breath.
    The man had hauled the first two cultists he had killed to the altar and was busy casting some rite using their blood. Even as he watched a form was beginning to coalesce out of air above the altar. Drak turned and ran towards where he had dropped his bow. It was unlikely to help, but if he could just put an arrow into the summoner, he might have a chance.

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