Short Story Prize - Shortlist
The sky is on fire.
For an instant, there’s a blinding flash. Something is entering the atmosphere. Out of control. Fast.
It is night, and yet my eyes are adjusting to light. It is a nuisance - light. Especially when you don’t want to see. I often hide in my pothole in the daytime and risk the moonlight at night. I was not expecting this spectacle.
A gliding flame lacerates the sky, temporarily blotting out the stars that can usually be seen in the darkness. Why is it so bright? I hide my face in a knot of broken rocks, hoping that the luminosity will subside soon.
There’s a faint rumble at first that reaches my ears moments after the first sighting. I wait patiently for the second impact - predictably louder - as it crash lands nearby. Forget the overwhelming power of light, it’s the unnerving sounds of the fireball that are most alien to me. I have not heard anything other than the sound of my own footsteps. I am a scared fledgling, hiding from a stranger. A stranger from space.
When the minor quake dissipates following the collision, I reluctantly rise up from the ground. I sniff. There’s a faint smell of smouldering in the wind, rushing towards me across the land. Dead air. Tentatively, I scan the sky above me. I know the object has crash landed, but I feel that a second stranger will be joining the first at any moment.
Nothing. The stars have returned, and the blackness is winning once more. The comfortable silence has returned too; a safety blanket for my virgin ears. The world is as it was.
Strangely, I am dissatisfied with the silence. I have lived with it for a long time, alone. It has been my environment. My civilisation. My home.
And yet, the stranger tempts me. Here is something new, something alien. Something that for once in my life has surprised me. My routine has been shattered. My senses heightened. It’s in my nature. I can’t ignore it.
Without hesitation, suddenly my feet take me where I want to go. Across the mundane landscape. Beyond. To the stranger. I have seen the clutter of land so many times that it seems reasonable that I would recognise it. But, everything’s different. Nothing is as it was. It’s as if the stranger has coloured the world in a different light. A different perspective. Everything is new, reinvigorated. Awake.
There it is. My body is shaking. I can’t understand it. A sensation powers through me like the fireball crossing the sky. I want to go forward, and yet I’m very afraid. Afraid of the stranger.
Smoke rises in tendrils from the wreckage. The stranger is wheezing. Or breathing. I can’t quite make out anything specific. Everything is wrapped in a dark cloud not even my acute eyes can discern. Perhaps the fireball has damaged them.
I see it…them. The stranger. There’s a definite glint amongst the cloud. Something beautiful. Something new. Something alien.
Earth has lost its beauty, its splendour and its uniqueness in the Universe. Mountains turned to slag heaps. Forests turned to skeletal hordes. Oceans poisoned. Grasslands burned. Cities degraded. A world reeking of devastation and neglect. Any sign that it had once harboured one of the Universe’s most diverse ecosystems has long disappeared. The only evidence is a single fox pawing at the remains of a crashed spacecraft. The last evidence that Humanity had ever existed on this barren planet.
The golden disc contained within the spacecraft was mostly undamaged; its inscription barely visible: The Sounds of Earth. NASA. United States of America. Planet Earth.