SOUTH HAMS 500 WORDS
2023 runner up 1
by Lily Style
"As sci-fi writing, this stands out from the crowd. An exciting story with an unpredictable ending."
The clouds look ready to burst, but I don’t turn back. I must get my baby to the Sanctuary. She’s all I have left. I clutch the pod to my chest as my compass guides me onwards.
My muscles tire quickly under the pod’s weight. I shift it onto my back, one hand contorted over my shoulder to clutch its top corner, the other cupping it’s bottom below my hips. Resting it against my spine allows my arms to recharge, but it’s perilous to cross the pitted earth without them to keep my balance and brace me if I trip.
Keep focused, I remind myself. The sanctuary doesn’t accept the crazy ones who’ve been outside too long.
I come across a corpse. Its details are hard to make out through the film of grime coating my visor. I scan around me, relieved to see no crazy ones and that the clouds are holding in their toxic rain. I set the pod down gently. I feel for its air vent and wipe it clean with gloved fingers.
The corpse is male, perhaps thirty-years old. His nose and mouth are sooted black, as expected. I’m disappointed to find nothing of value in his greasy pockets.
A screech of giggles makes my heart hammer. Crazy ones are near. I heft the pod back into my arms and sprint towards the Sanctuary, pounding my feet into the cindery ground.
My visor fights a losing battle against the dust and I’m choking and gasping for breath when I reach the Sanctuary. I collapse in front of its iron gate and fumble to retrieve the signal banner from my backpack. I wave it three times, hoping a vigilant guard sees my message: not crazy–help needed-let me in.
The gate remains closed.
I hold the pod forward and tell them, ‘Baby –’ but stop because I’m making screeching sounds instead of words. I try to speak again, but only produce a strangled whine. The dust I breathed in must have clogged my throat.
Something hits me like a wall, toppling me backward. I’m suddenly cold all over. The black dust beneath me contracts and reforms into snaking, glistening rivulets. I realise high pressure water is blasting me from a hole in the concrete next to the Sanctuary's gate.
I sit, stunned and confused, in a growing pool of jet black mud. Why haven’t they opened the gate? Why are they firing water at me? It’s as if they think I’m a crazy one. Surely my hazmat suit and visor show them that I’m not?
I open my mouth to shout, I’m not crazy! but screech again instead.
Very well, I can show them the pod. It’s lying in the mud. My heart jolts. For a moment, it looks like the swing-top bin from my kitchen, but when I shake my head, the illusion’s gone. What if I really had confused my bin for a baby’s safety pod? I giggle, and can’t stop.