“A dystopian science fiction short story set in Paris and on an unnamed shoreline in the global South. Experimental in form, the writing achieves a disturbing dramatic tension.” – Professor Michael Jacobs
Northern Hemisphere, Grigny, Paris
She looked at the empty containers. After taking them from the storm cellar she had just left them sitting on the counter, dreading what their vacant bodies meant. When the cellar got down to the dregs then it was time to replenish, else face the inevitable reality of starvation.
Today she’d have to go outside. With a new face mask delayed by Neoquick’s trademark slow delivery service, she would have to brave the air alone.
The girl downed another glass of water before optimistically slathering on sunscreen, a thick layer of white to cover her flushed skin. She flashed a smile to whoever may be watching through the front camera before she flicked to the Paris air alerts. She studied the screen, not bothering with the flat’s windows. It may look clear and sunny out there but she knew better. Everyone did.
The app indicated the air quality had decreased dramatically over the last hour; the Capital had issued a red warning: STAY INSIDE. She sighed and went to close the phone, not wanting to see another ad, but without failure, a propo from the rebellion popped up.
Today the hackers had replaced the normal image of smiling Parisian farmers working from the kindness of their hearts for their twisted truth:
the Capital’s propo is sent out daily to ease the minds of the rich who had condemned their fellow Frenchmen to death. To ease the mind of sinners. Many don’t care as so many of the Capital’s farmers are immigrants, escaped from the uninhabitable land of the equatorial belt. Unable to speak French, unlike yourself, no work is available to them and now they can’t even get necessities-
She shut off the phone, bored of their ludicrous proposal.
Rolling her eyes, she flopped onto the easy clean sofa that was positioned directly opposite the kitchen. She wasn’t entirely sure why it was designed this way but it was always too hot for her to consider moving it. Tugging her knees into her chest defensively, she attempted to bypass her reality.
She buried her face in her hands, the darkness giving her space to think. Her mother had gone out this morning, this she knew without even checking. Her mother would be out late into the night, working hard in order to allow her to order things on Neoquick. But since wages had dropped again, ordering on the web was impossible. She didn’t have a choice.
Removing the ice, she rose and headed to the door. She didn’t bother checking her phone, knowing the warning would only work to dissuade her from the task at hand. Taking the scarf from beside the door, she tossed it around her neck before gathering the containers.
After the Crisis had begun its steep incline, the Capital stepped in. No single-use plastics would be tolerated, as if this would close up the disintegrated mess of the Ozone layer. No one tried to fault the stupidity of this plan from either the illusion of hope or the reality of what would happen if they ever did.
The girl pressed her hand against a square panel hidden in the surface of the wall, listening for the hiss of the door release. As the iron door slowly rolled open there were three short beeps before her morning pill shot into her mouth. Dutifully she swallowed it, without a second thought, and tightened the scarf over her nose and mouth before stepping into the hallway.
The apartment block was as hot as everywhere else in the suburbs. There were rumours of air conditioning in central Paris, where the elite lived; spread through whispers that have no discernible source and without a defined source there can never truly be truth.
She stepped out into the sweltering heat and doubled over, unable to breathe. The air was hot and heavy, clogged with the pollution of her ancestors who she silently cursed, her eyes watering as grit poked at them.
She tried to cough the grit out of her, tying the scarf even tighter. Hoping and praying that this time wouldn’t be the time, that today wouldn’t be the day that Marjorie Morel died.
Southern Hemisphere: off the grid
Frances’ head broke the warm surface of the water, rivulets of the foul smelling substance rolling down her face. She threw her spear and morning catch onto the shore before dragging herself to meet it.
After the Capital had banned practically everything, Frances had had enough of watching others slowly fade away on the rations that had been provided. She had taken her life into her own hands, fuelled by the rumbling pit in her stomach. With no family or friends left, she headed back down the rocky mountain trail but nothing could have prepared her for the sight that greeted her return.
Her home entirely sunk beneath the dark surface of the swollen Indian Ocean. It wasn’t something easy to get used to and even after a week Frances wasn’t sure if she ever could.
Returning to her home was preferable to complying to the Capital and blindly following their soldiers. The water submerged most of their cameras and short circuited the rest and with the soldiers all deployed on the Capital’s relocation missions, she couldn’t have been safer.
After the Capital’s warnings she had avoided the ocean at first, chewing on bark to alleviate some of her gnawing hunger. Then she decided enough was enough and used a sharp stone to fashion her first spear.
Frances lay back, letting her hair pool around her as she let the sun dry her off. In these moments the stifling heat was a little more bearable. As she took a second to breathe, she thought about today’s hunt.
It had been much harder than usual: the water harder to move through, the jellyfish harder to spot. Today she’d had to settle for lumping handfuls of salty seaweed into the shell she used. The shell was likely her greatest success, it was large and green with a curve that made it a great bowl. Whatever creature that had called it home was long dead so she had little qualms in taking it from the ocean bed.
Sitting up, Frances reached over to her Capital-issued water bottle. Other than the clothes on her back, it was the only thing she had kept as its distilling function allowed her to drink
from the sea. She wasn’t entirely sure of all of the science behind it but she knew some of the basics. It was designed to remove salt, cells of dead marine animals and carbon dioxide among other things.
She took a sip of the water, it was gritty but she was used to it. After she had knocked the bottle, one of the mechanisms had been damaged and it didn’t work right but it had kept her alive so far so she wasn’t complaining. Frances looked over at her pathetic pile of seaweed, pushing a ringlet of readily dried hair from her face. Then she heard it-
The unmistakable buzz of helicopter blades.
Fear clenched her chest, stopping her heart as the realisation hit her. She hadn’t been careful enough and now the Capital was coming for her.
Foregoing the collection of her meagre morning catch, Frances ran. Darting through the trees, she wound her way uphill trying something they wouldn’t expect. The helicopter persisted.
The machinery was faster than her, skimming across the top of the canopy as the soldiers peered down at her. Soldiers dropped to the forest floor, boots landing with heavy thumps.
She only noticed their chase as the helicopter darted away, inspiring her to pick up the pace though she couldn’t work her aching limbs for long.
Darting to the right she heard them crashing around behind her. The pounding of her heart in her ears was too loud for her to realise they were close enough to hear her breathe.
Feeling herself begin to slow, she willed more air into her lungs, more strength into her pumping legs. It wasn’t enough.
The soldier pounced: his solid weight driving her face-first into the ground as he chanted the Capital slogan, chilling her to the core.
“Tell Tale Tit, your tongue shall be slit; and all the dogs in the town shall have a little bit.”
We asked our 2021 and 2020 Orwell Youth Fellows to interview our new 2022 winners and runners up. Below, 2020 winner Hugh Ludford interviews Eleanor Mead about her tips for budding writers and the inspiration behind her story ‘2054’. You can also read Hugh’s 2020 winning story ‘You Are What You Eat’ here.
- Is the grim future your piece presents something you could see coming to pass in the coming decades, given the date you chose?
Grimness is all I can see for the future as of late. The climate crisis will not be abateing any time soon, as no policies can truly support the future science foresees for us. My story exaggerates the 2050s as a reminder of what is to come if we fail to change our ways in the face of our rapidly heating planet.
- What would be your one tip for a budding writer?
Stories don’t always come to you as you’d expect, taking some time away from your work can sometimes be the best thing for your story.
- Which other writers inspire you?
When writing dystopian pieces I tend to find inspiration from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Christina Dalcher. Both are feminist icons who write stories that view the female experience through a different lens. I would like to emanate their ability to shine a light on feminism in my own work.
Enter the 2023 Orwell Youth Prize here.