At the weekend, my writing friend KK mentioned a challenge. Challenges are issued, generally by magazines, for people to come up with something on a particular theme. You submit your offering, it gets judged, and the winner gets a prize. I guess the story subsequently gets published, so there is something in it for the magazine, too.
To give an idea, the first prize for this particular challenge was $20,000. There, That got your attention, didn’t it? I think KK wrote and submitted for the challenge, but I’m not really into the competitive aspect, so I skipped. I did, however, write something, which I publish below.
The constraints of the challenge were:
- a heart-shaped locket. It was left to the author to decide how central this prop was, but it had to at least be mentioned.
- 600 – 2,000 words.
Now, look again at that word count. My piece came in at just over 1,800 words. That translates as roughly 11-14 minutes, so unless you wish to read that long a post, get out now.
If you’re still with me, I hope you enjoy.
The video hoarding assaulted Sophie, as she crossed the eighth-floor, dull metal walkway, towards the mall. “Protected by Pulsar”, it boasted. Cameras fixed to the top of the hoarding were meticulous in tracking her approach, and her identity was known before she stepped inside the building.
But Sophie knew their brand of protection. they had protected Moses. “Bastards”, she cursed, as she pulled her navy beanie over her short, dark hair and hurried past.
Moses had taken care of her all her life, since their parents had died all those years ago. Last February, Moses had been seen stealing bread. Next, his Pulsar had started blinking – that’s what they did when you were supposed to turn yourself in. Instead, he had tried to run. When they blinked, you could be detained, Non-lethal force. But six hours later, when the glow turned solid, the stakes became higher. Shoot to kill. The Enforcers – and their dogs – began their hunt in earnest. Chased to the edge of the city, running from those snarling teeth, Moses had scaled that fence. How could he have known it was electrified?
They had been a good team, but now, at seventeen years, Sophie had to fend for herself.
“Bastards”, she repeated, under her breath.
Sophie entered the mall, to be greeted with boutique after boutique, each bathed in its sickly neon glow, each seducing people to part with their credits, in return for a fleeting luxury. But Sophie did not waver, for these shops were not her goal. With her eyes fixed to the floor, Sophie hurried through the mall and exited through the other side. In the small, drab office used by the Ministry of Transport, her quest was to renew her shortly-to-expire travel permit.
Passing the bank of mirrors which guarded the entrance, Sophie noticed her own Pulsar, embedded into her neck. Or rather, she did not notice it, since when inactive, people had trained their eyes to gaze past them.
That was it, the state’s big cost-cutting exercise, the Pulsar. When they wanted you, for any reason, they activated your Pulsar. The ultimate humiliation. Commit the slightest infraction, and you must turn yourself in. Otherwise you were guilty of the far greater crime of Evasion.
Sophie re-entered the mall, having renewed the permit. It was quicker to cut through, than to skirt the perimeter. For the first time, she felt ravenous. She had not eaten since yesterday, and she was tempted by those incredible smells being pumped through the aircon. She reached into her inside pocket for her state-issued PulseAssist device, which she used effortlessly to check her bank balance.
Good. She had enough credits to be able to eat, plus NutriRite, the state-owned fast-food chain, had a large restaurant on the top floor.
Then came the anguish. She knew those places were wrong, enough of her friends had told her so, but surely a small BanquetBurger, occasionally, couldn’t hurt? Tempted, she found herself ascending the escalator to the food gallery. Because, just to look was not yet commitment, was it?
She was seduced by the images, though. That perfect flamed burger, crisp lettuce, juicy tomato.., Not to mention, by the delicious smell, and, yes, by her hunger – just how harmful could a small BB be?
The images made the decision.
Making sure she saw nobody she recognised, Sophie sidled into the restaurant. Guiltily ordering a small BB meal, she hardly noticed the black youth standing next to her. Concentrating instead on her lunch, she shuffled to an out-of-the-way seat, partway along the wall, and to ensure solitude, pulled up her collar as she took her place.
Alas, her tranquillity was not to be. Taking her first bite of this lukewarm, distinctly soggy burger, examining the limp lettuce, the resurrected tomato, she heard a commotion at the counter. Turning, she now noticed the youth, unhappy, raising his voice. “BUT I ORDERED A SPRITE”. Transfixed, Sophie watched the scene unfold – this was an event so unusual to witness in public. A short while later, two battleship-grey Enforcers appeared at NutriRite’s entrance. Facing the assistant, the boy did not notice them. His first inkling was when the prongs of the taser embedded themselves into his back. The boy shuddered, fell stunned, and was silent. The altercation was over.
“Jeez”, thought Sophie, “that’ll teach him.” Unable to take her eyes off the spectacle, she watched as the groggy boy was helped unsteadily to his feet, then led away. As the boy was helped past, Sophie saw his Pulsar start to blink. They were always super-efficient, those Pulsars, but it generally took a short while for them to fit the infraction to the person.
Sophie thought better than to complain about her awful burger, but instead made a note to eat elsewhere in future. Trying to forget the boy, she ate the rest of her meal in silence. Now that she had renewed the permit, what to do with it? Her first journey must be to the Labour Market, to look for a new job. But, too late today, she must go first thing tomorrow. She checked her balance once more. The burger was already showing, although the permit was not. When it did, it would take her perilously close to zero. No, today Sophie had no alternative but to go home. It was strange, she thought, that interactions with the state were usually the slowest to show up. It considered itself so infallible, it ran a complacent ship.
Sophie left the restaurant. Her hunger might have been satisfied but her thirst for adventure must stay unquenched until another day.
She stepped onto the escalator. This time, however, Sophie started to notice people. Noticing her. Did she have some of that horrid burger-gunk on her face? And, as she reached the bottom of the escalator, she witnessed a small boy tugging his mommy, pointing at her.
Deciding that something was out of place, she found a seat and removed the small, heart-shaped gold locket from around her neck. Opening the clasp, to the left she saw a photograph of Moses. She could not resist a rueful smile – his 21st birthday, they had been happy on that day. Those unforgettable blue eyes stared back at her.
Sophie’s interest, however, lay in the small mirror on the right, which she focussed on her mouth. Strange. Nothing. What could that boy have been pointing at? Continuing to search, Sophie finally caught the ominous red blink from her neck.
Think, Sophie, think!
Her first goal was to attract as little attention as possible, her instinctive reaction to shrink inside her coat. Needing to be out of public, she made straight for a restroom and entered a cubicle. Okay, she needed to think. How much time did she have? She pulled out PulseAssist and there, in an unmissable fuchsia font, she saw the countdown timer. 5:49:30. Good. She had only been blinking for ten minutes. With her clothing for concealment, it was unlikely that many people had noticed her. Yet.
But Sophie knew that she was not safe here, not for long anyhow. And someone locked inside one of the cubicles would be noticed before too long. She had to get out of the mall. Needed to find someplace to figure this out.
The rational thoughts, though, were countered by the irrational. What the fuck have I done? Sophie was squeaky-clean. She had seen with her brother what they were capable of. So she went out of her way to keep squeaky clean. What the fuck have I done?
In panic, Sophie’s first reaction was to bolt. She needed to be where people were not. The transit depot under the mall. The restroom was close to a utility stairwell. Perhaps she could get to the stairwell unnoticed? From there, to the depot?
Deep breaths. Calm. Another minute. She looked at PulseAssist one more time – 5:23:14. Ebbing away. She must make her move. Opening the door a crack, she quickly closed it again. Wait for that mom and daughter to disappear, then make her break.
Sophie heard footsteps leaving the restroom and peeked through the crack once more. Some cubicles were engaged, but if she were quiet, she could be out of there without anybody noticing. One last deep breath, she pulled up her collar and opened the cubicle. In a trice, she was at the restroom door. She opened it silently and quickly passed through into the corridor, an offshoot of the main mall. The stairwell was just a few feet away, so finding the coast was clear, she dashed across in an unbroken movement.
The stairwell was empty and she was relieved to make it to the depot.
The depot, too, was relatively quiet at this time of day. It also helped that an out-of-service vehicle was parked by the stairwell. Using the bus as cover, she built snapshots of the situation, stealing the briefest of glances. Fifty yards away, another bus, destined for the country park. That would do. Solitude. Pulling up her collar again, she sprinted to the side of that bus. More furtively, Sophie edged along the bus to its entrance. Replacing her collar one last time, she readied her refreshed permit and jumped on board.
“A return to the PleasurePark, please”, she requested, sounding more convincing than she felt. The driver, uninterested, responded automatically, “That’s thirty credits, please”. Seeing the permit, he waved an inattentive wave. “Just touch it onto the reader”. As she moved the fob to the reader, however, there was a piercing siren. Suddenly alert, the driver could now see on his display the reason for it. A Blinker!
Too late, Sophie remembered the rules. No Blinkers on the transit systems!
The driver’s lunge almost had her, but seeing him coming at the last minute, Sophie instinctively retreated. His half-grip exposed her blinking Pulsar before she wrenched free to evade him.
The Enforcer, alerted by the siren, could not believe his luck as he saw the young girl running straight towards him. His taser already drawn, he immediately noticed her blinking Pulsar, and fired from close range into Sophie’s left shoulder.
Sophie shuddered, surprised. Then, with her legs no longer able to support her, she toppled. Her world fell dark.
The first thing she felt was her tethered hands. Opening her eyes, Sophie gradually focussed on the handcuffs, the hospital bed, the Enforcer seated next to her. That same drab uniform she had seen in the restaurant. “Good afternoon, Sophie”, they soothed. “We summoned you because you renewed a travel permit this morning.” A statement. “At that time, the system registered an abnormally low heart rate. We thought your Pulsar might be defective.”
Is that all?, thought Sophie, slightly relieved.
“But tell me”, continued the Enforcer, “why did you run?”