Win a cash prize if you write the best finish to my story–December Contest

December Contest

This is a finish-my-story contest where all you have to do is write the ending in 500 words or less. See the prize here!

December Contest: All submissions are due by midnight December 15, 2020. 

Look here for contest rules.

A Present for Smittens

Smittens heard the front door open and she leapt down the stairs.  A stranger stood in the doorway and Smittens’s person let the stranger enter.

Smittens saw her chance and dove between the stranger’s legs towards the morning light and freedom.  Smittens’s person was not as fast as Smittens, not usually, but somehow Smittens found herself scooped up in her person’s arms.

“Mwooorrroowwrrr!” Smittens said, demanding to be put down.

The stranger and Smittens’s person coughed in that odd way that only persons cough.  “Hahahahaha,” they coughed.

Smittens squirmed and squirmed, making louder noises of complaint and finally freed herself to drop to the floor.  The persons were walking down the hallway towards the kitchen.  That’s where Smittens’s person kept all the food.  Feeling hopeful, Smittens raced down the hall and arrived first in the kitchen.  Her claws clicked on the hard floor.

Smittens heard the front door open. Photo by Mary Abreu.

“I see what you mean,” said the stranger, “she has a lot of personality!”

“Oh, yes,” Smittens’s person cooed.  She coughed some more.  A happy, throaty cough that usually meant Smittens could continue to do whatever she wanted to do.  “She’s a torty–a tortoiseshell cat–and they have a lot of personality.  They’re very smart and very determined.  They do whatever they want, and if they don’t like what’s happening, they’ll tell you.”

“She’s a torty–a tortoiseshell cat–and they have a lot of personality.”

The stranger coughed.  “Ha ha ha!  Well, at least you know where you stand.”

The stranger set a large box down on the floor.  Smittens gave it only a quick glance.  It looked like the box her person sometimes put her in when Smittens got carried out of the house.  But it did not smell like the box.

Her person was ignoring her, so Smittens wove her way between her person’s legs and began saying that she would like some food.  “Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow!” Smittens insisted in a high-pitched voice.

“You see what I mean?  She’s asking for second breakfast.  No, Smittens, no more food.  I already fed you this morning!”

The stranger coughed.  “Trying to get fed again?  Every cat knows that trick.”

Both persons coughed.

Smittens’s person reached for Smittens to pick her up again, but Smittens dodged her easily.  Smittens decided to ask the stranger for food.  She rubbed up against the dark covering of the stranger’s leg.  She told him she was hungry and told him to bring some food.  The stranger kneeled down and Smittens ran away a few steps.  She looked at her person, who stood with hands on hips.  Her person did not seem alarmed, so Smittens waited.  The stranger held out his hand and became very still.

He made a tiny clicking noise that intrigued her.

She approached his hand carefully and gave it a courteous sniff.  “Hi, there, Smittens,” he said softly.  But he did not move.  She gave the hand an approving bump of her head and he coughed.

This box smelled like hard metals and sticky oils. She rubbed her face on the corners, marking it with her scent anyway.

“You have a way with cats,” said Smittens’s person.

“Well, we have a couple.  They’re my wife’s really, but I help feed them.  And I’ve gotten exposure to lots of cats since joining Virtual Ventures.  I’m an engineer and we designed the VAC–Virtual Adventure for Cats–especially for cats.  They’re working on a model for dogs, as well, but that’s still a year away from production at least.”

Smittens kept talking to the persons, raising her voice louder and louder.  But no one gave her any food.  She wove around their legs over and over, but they just stood there and made person-sounding meows at each other.  Smittens got bored and went to see the box.  She checked carefully over her shoulder to make sure neither person was going to scoop her up.

She sniffed at the box.  It did not smell like the box her person called a “crate.”  Whenever Smittens heard that word, she ran and hid under the bed.  She knew the “crate” meant being stuffed, clawing and hissing, into the box and leaving the house.

The “crate” smelled like Smittens.  It smelled like her nap places and there was a soft, frayed towel inside filled with old but strong smells of herself.  This box smelled like hard metals and sticky oils.  She rubbed her face on the corners, marking it with her scent anyway.

“And it’s perfectly safe?”

“…no, no electrodes are needed.  Nothing like that.  The VAC contains tens of thousands of sensors to read the cat’s temperature, respiration, pulse, everything.  Believe me, the VAC knows every second more data than your vet would ever collect in an entire visit.  We want to make sure Smittens is safe, comfortable, and engaged at all times.”

“And it’s perfectly safe?”

“Oh, of course!  We’ve built in tons of failsafes.  Everyone who worked on the VAC is a cat owner.  We all want what’s best for Smittens.  Believe me, we wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her.  That’s the point of the VAC, to keep her safe and entertained while you’re gone.”

“See how she’s curious about the VAC?  Now’s the best time to introduce her.  Do you mind?” the stranger asked.

“Do you want me to pick her up?” Smittens’s person said.

“Not to worry.  I’ve gotten pretty good at this,” said the stranger.

The stranger knelt down and it turned out he had food after all.  He dropped a couple of bits of dry but soft and savory bites on the floor and Smittens quickly crunched them up and swallowed them.  He had two more bites in his hand.  Smittens looked cautiously at the stranger and then up at her person.

The next thing Smittens knew, she was swooped up and plopped inside the box.  An opening in the front had appeared and the stranger had smoothly slid Smittens through it.  She cried out and spun but the opening was gone with a whirr and a click.

Yowling, Smittens turned around in the small space, looking for any opening.  Everything went completely dark and she froze.  She was frightened and called out to her person.  “Meoooowl!”

It grew from a pinpoint of light. Photo by Casey Horner.

There was another hum and she saw tiny blue lights flashing on the edges of her vision.  The floor began to vibrate and she tried to lift her paws.  They felt tingly and suddenly she couldn’t feel the floor!

She leaned drunkenly but did not fall over.  She was beginning to really panic when a light appeared directly ahead.  It grew from a pinpoint of light.  Smittens squinted her eyes.

Yellow sunlight poured through the hole, and a tiny yellow butterfly flitted across the opening.  It was a hole to the outside!

Smittens leaped at the opening.  Her takeoff was awkward and when she landed at the far side of the box, the floor felt squishy.

The hole grew larger and Smittens squeezed through.  She found herself blinking in bright sunlight.  She was surrounded by green grass.  Several butterflies flitted lazily above the grass tops.  One floated within reach.

Smittens pounced.  She landed softly but awkwardly in the grass.  The grass rustled when she landed, but it did not brush her fur the way it should.  Then the yellow butterfly flitted past the edge of her vision again and she turned and pounced.  She missed it again, but this time her landing was almost normal.

Image: Greenish-yellow butterfly on a yellow flower. Text:
Smittens chased butterflies for a long time. Photo by Tim Mossholder.

Smittens chased butterflies for a long time.  She finally caught one, but when she tried to close her teeth on it, it felt like empty air.  Just then, two more butterflies floated in front of her and she leapt at them.

Just as she was growing bored with butterflies, a fat, green grasshopper leapt up from the grass with a “thwap.”  She watched it land.  She lowered her head, so she could just peer over the grass.  Her tail twitched.  She shook her rear end, once, twice, and then leapt at the grasshopper clinging to a blade of grass.

She chased the grasshopper to the edge of a tree line.  She was tired.  She lay down in the grass and watched the grasshopper, sitting still on a blade of grass.  The sun was warm on her fur and Smittens fell asleep.

Sunlight shining down on a patch of grass beneath dark trees.
She chased the grasshopper to the edge of a tree line. Photo by Tim Mossholder.

When she woke, the grasshopper was gone.  Smittens stretched and began to clean herself.  The sun had moved, but it still shone warmly down on the meadow.  Yellow butterflies flitted by but Smittens only pawed at one if it came within reach.

She thought about eating.  Breakfast seemed a long time ago.  Smittens did not think butterflies or a grasshopper would fill her belly.

She heard a soft scratching sound and froze.  Only her ears twitched, turning towards the scritch-scratching sound.  She slowly rotated her head until she found the mouse.  It was moving along the edge of the treeline under the shade of a row of bushes or brambles.

The mouse moved with determination, following the line along the edge of the grass.  The undergrowth under the trees seemed too tight even for the mouse to enter.

Tortoiseshell cat standing on leaves before a green bush, turning to look behind it.
She heard a soft scratching sound and froze.  Only her ears twitched, turning towards the scritch-scratching sound. Photo by Mary Abreu.

Smittens paced the mouse for several feet, ignoring the yellow butterflies that floated by and even the two grasshoppers that suddenly sprang from almost underneath her feet.  The mouse turned, disappearing into a dark hole in the brush.  Smittens reached the hole just after.  It was just wide enough for her to fit.  She sucked in her sides and squeezed through, determined not to lose the mouse.

Gnarled roots covered the forest floor along with a smattering of dried leaves.  The mouse came in and out of view as it climbed over the hump of a root and then plunged down the other side.  Its tiny claws made little scritch-scratch sounds as it ran and slight rustlings as it ran over old, dried leaves. 

Smittens followed deep into the forest.  She ran almost silently on the pads of her feet, eyes glued to the mouse’s progress.  She chased it until it disappeared into a hole dug beneath the large knee of a tree root.  Smittens stuck her paw in the hole and batted it around, fishing with her claws.  But she could feel nothing but air.

Smittens settled down over her paws a few feet from the hole.  She waited a long time.  If the mouse came back out, it would be worth the wait.  Eventually, she decided to take a bath while she waited.  She grew bored and her tail twitched.  Just then, she heard the tell-tale scritch-scratch of mice claws behind her.  She turned and another mouse was climbing over the tree roots, busily making its way across the forest floor.  In a flash, Smittens followed with cat-quiet tread.

Tortoiseshell cat, standing in leaves before a tree trunk, turns its head to look behind it.
She turned and another mouse was climbing over the tree roots, busily making its way across the forest floor. Photo by Mary Abreu.

In this way, Smittens followed three mice, catching none of them.  After the third mouse went to ground, Smittens was tired and hungry.  She looked about the forest, paying attention to her surroundings for the first time.  It was dark and gloomy.  No sunlight made its way through the treetops.  Had night fallen?  She relied on her night-vision to see through the dim murk.

There was no undergrowth here, only thick, gnarled roots, bare dirt, and piles of dead leaves here and there.  The trees were tall, dark and thick and marched to the horizon.  Smittens suddenly realized she was alone and far from home.  She did not even know which way home was.  She was lost!

She wandered aimlessly.  Occasionally, she saw blue glints of light on the edges of her vision.  She could not tell if they were glowing bugs or glints of an unseen moon or just her imagination.

A dark shape glided silently overhead.  Smittens was afraid.


Submit your story ending

I can’t wait to see your story endings! Don’t forget to read the contest rules.

Please post your story endings below. And if you just want to leave a comment, that would be great, too!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is the November Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is Shanel Wilson!

You may recognize the name. Shanel is also the sole finalist I awarded from the October Contest, and this time she grabbed the brass ring and is the winner.

December Contest: I’ll be announcing the December contest soon! (Probably next Monday.)

November Contest

I started the story below. See how Shanel seamlessly picked up the story after the red line and gave us a sweet and satisfying ending!

A Forest of Blue Eyes

by Shanel Wilson and Matthew Cross

Shim picked his way down the narrow, rocky track.  This planet was covered with rocks.  Rocks and nothing else, it seemed.  At least until today, when he found the canyon.

He leaned against the red, crumbly cliff wall and spat hard.  He tried to, anyway.  He was dehydrated and what came out was a thick, red glob.  He dizzily watched it fall to the green treetops far below.  His mouth was full of red dust.  In the first few days, the red spit used to alarm the settlers.  It looked so much like blood.  It only fed the rumors that God had cursed them.

Shim pulled off his wide-brimmed hat and wiped his sweating brow.  He was hot and tired.  He was also hungry and thirsty.  Very thirsty!  He probably should not have wasted his body’s moisture by spitting, but the red grains just got in the mouth and tumbled around and around.  Da said they contained silica.  After a few hours of breathing outside, it felt like you were chewing glass.  Even the three-ply scarves Ma made couldn’t keep it all out.

But Shim knew water was close.  Really just a step away.  The ledge was not wide, and if he stepped off the edge–one step and a long trip down–he’d find himself among the lush green trees.  And where there were green plants, there was water.

Shim chuckled wryly.  “It’s just one step away, Shim,” was the kind of joke Da liked to tell.

The track had been worn smooth by many feet over many years.  It had to be the natives.  Had to be because he had followed one of them this way.  It occurred to Shim for the first time that the natives, the ones nearest camp anyways, lived in this well-hidden canyon.

Shim had been the first of the settlers to see one, at least that he knew of.  And he’d tell Ma and Da and Mr. Johnson–Shim refused to call Mr. Johnson “Second Da”–as soon as he could find his way back to camp.

Da had gone to check on the Heddrys again.  The Heddrys had the closest landing site to Shim’s own clan.  Mrs. Heddry had lost two of her three husbands in the landing.  That would be hard on the whole clan as they tried to carve out their own homestead.  When Da had brought back the news two weeks ago, Shim had seen the pain in Ma’s eyes.  All she said was “We knew the Lord would demand sacrifices.  Mrs. Heddry has the faith so the Lord will provide for her.”

We don’t have time to do a search party for ya.  So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.

With Da gone, Johnson had his hands full with repairs.  Ma had set Shim a chore, and Shim was grateful to leave the chaos of the ship and a clan full of young ones.  Ma set him to look for food, water or wood.  Anything of use really in this unending waste.  “But keep within sight of camp plus five minutes,” Ma had said.  “If ya don’t see nuthin’ in five minutes, you turn right around and walk until you can see camp again.  Then walk five minutes in another direction.  Got it?”

He had nodded.

She placed her hand on the back of his head.  “Five minutes, ya hear?”  She held his gaze with a stern glare and held five fingers in front of his face.  Did she think he was daft?  He heard her.  But he didn’t dare raise his voice.  Not to Ma.  Not to the family matriarch.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, holding her gaze.

“We don’t have time to do a search party for ya.  So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.”

Shuffling down the narrow canyon path, Shim shivered, even as hot as he was.  He had managed to get lost anyway.  If he ever got back, Ma would take it out of his hide.  He was sixteen, but she’d probably bend him over her knee anyway.  In front of the little ones even, to make it a lesson for the whole clan.

He had not meant to get lost.  He had remembered Ma’s warning of keeping within five minutes of camp.  He had wandered nearly an hour in and out of sight of camp.  He had followed the rule real good.  But then he had seen something.

No, he had seen someone.  A girl.  

At first, it had just been a suspicion.  A whisper on the back of his neck.  Each time he passed out of the sight of camp–which was really just the remnants of the ship after Da made the hard landing–he had the sense of someone else.  Someone unseen.

At first, he attributed the spooks he felt to the strange landscape–formations of brittle, crumbly, red rock–and his nerves.  But then he had heard the sound of a rock skittering across the hard ground and the hairs on his neck and arms rose.  He was being followed.  He carefully backed his way towards camp, and once the top of the ship came into sight, the feeling faded away.

Now, he cursed himself for not going back to camp and asking Ma or even Johnson for help.  But once he had realized that the someone following him was afraid to go near camp, he lost most of his own fear.  He wove a winding path, sometimes walking away from camp, and sometimes back towards it, and started noticing signs of his invisible pursuer.  Sounds mostly.  A skid of skree here or there.

He trekked out towards the flatter land, where there was almost no cover.  Then he suddenly backtracked, came back towards camp at a run and passing on the other side of a large boulder that sat alone.  She had been hiding behind it, of course, as there was nowhere else to hide, but he caught her off guard.  He saw her shadow and then a foot.  He began running a large spiral around the rock, but she crept around it, staying just out of sight.  Winded and spitting red spit, he stopped.  He shrugged.  This was pointless.  She had nowhere else to go.

“Hey,” he called.  He waved his hand, real friendly like.  Not threatening in any way.

That’s when she tore off at a run, towards the higher, rockier ground.

Without thinking, he ran after her.

Her eyes were blue!  Bright blue!  He had never seen blue eyes before.

She was short.  Well, just half a head shorter than he.  And thin.  She wore all brown from head to foot.  And some kind of head covering with two small horns.  Her hair flew out behind her.  It was black and straight.  It looked so strange that he did not recognize it as hair at first.  She glanced back at him.  Her eyes were blue!  Bright blue!  He had never seen blue eyes before.  

He was so shocked, he stopped.  And then she disappeared into the jumble of rock formations.  He had followed, of course.  Climbed the rising ground, passed over a ridge, and, curse him, left sight of camp behind without a second thought.

He just kept thinking of the thin face with blazing blue eyes.  And the straight, black hair.  His whole family had red, curling hair.  Everyone back home on Davven had hair that curled.

Rocky desert ground with rocky cliffs to the right and an ominous stormy sky overhead, all with an ominous red coloration.
But the sandstorm swept over the ridges with a fury and was on him before he knew it. Photo by Patrick Hendry.

Even so, as stupid as he had been, he could have found his way home.  He was sure of it.  If it had not been for the sandstorm.  It came from the flatlands to the east.  At first, it was like a cloudy wall of red.  Stupidly, he had stopped and stared at it for a while, thinking mostly of the girl and wondering dumbly why the eastern sky looked like a red fog all the way to the ground.  He had even kept hiking over the ridges and away from camp until the sound of the wind reached his ears.  It made a wailing sound.

Disappointed, he had turned around and headed back. But the sandstorm swept over the ridges with a fury and was on him before he knew it.  He sheltered beneath a boulder at the bottom of a small ravine.  The wind cut at his skin like razors.  He pulled off his jacket and covered his head.  He pushed as far under the cover of the boulder as he could.

The storm raged all night.  When he woke the next morning, the world had changed.  He stumbled about through a red fog of dust.  One part of the sky seemed brighter, and he made his way into the bright morning light.  It was nothing but a flat desert.  And even when the red dust finally drifted away–fading like a fog back on Davven–he found himself entirely on the flats, with no sign of camp, of rock formations, or even of ridges.

He stumbled through the blinding brightness and heat for a day.  When the sun set, he curled up and shivered in his jacket through the night.  When he woke, he found a set of footprints in the red sand.  A shock ran through him.  Whoever left them had stopped and practically stood over him while he slept!

He had jumped to his feet.  He stood there, swaying, trying to formulate thoughts.  He was afraid to follow the footprints.  What if it was a trap?  He licked his lips and surveyed the horizon.  He spun slowly but it still made him dizzy.  Nothing but red sand and rock in all directions.

His stomach rumbled.  He licked his cracked lips. He needed water badly.  That decided it.  He followed the footprints the whole morning until he saw the slit of green cracking apart the red desert ahead.  If she had not come for him, if she had not left her footprints in the sand for him to follow, he would have died in the desert.  He had no doubt.  He had been headed in a completely different direction with no end of the desert in sight.

The footprints had to be hers.  They were small and dainty.  She was walking through the desert barefoot, no less.  The prints also looked odd.  As the heat of the day quickly rose with the sun, his head felt hot and stuffy.  Thoughts came slowly, but eventually it came to him.  She only had four toes.  Four toes on each foot!

The sun was far overhead when he found the trail down into the green canyon.  It was so lush below, but only hot and dry on the cliffside trail. His forehead burned under his hat, but he had stopped sweating.  He knew that was a bad sign.  His head and his mouth were hot and dry.  The trail was long and gradual and took its time leading to the canyon floor.  And his legs were beginning to shake.  On the narrow path, he could not afford a misstep, so he went slowly.

By the time he reached the bottom, he could hear the sound of running water.  Not like a creek.  Like a river.  The trail branched with paths going in both directions along the base of the cliff face and a wider one diving straight into the thick undergrowth.  He stumbled along it, following the sound of the water as much as the path.  The path suddenly widened at a riverside and went over a bridge made from a long log cut lengthwise.  He threw himself onto the red, sandy soil of the riverbank and drank and drank until he had to stop to breathe.

He leaned back on his heels, water still dripping from his chin, and he saw her.  Or he saw her eyes, anyway.  She hid in the greenery on the other side of the riverbank.  He stood and he heard rustling in the undergrowth behind him; he heard it even over the sound of the river.  He looked over his shoulder and saw pairs of blue eyes peering at him.  He looked back across the river and saw more.  Blue eyes everywhere!


The blue eyes continued to stare while he sat frozen on the riverbank. Shim’s mind began to race just as his shaking legs grew still. He wished Da was there with him. He would know what to do. But Da was not the one who had gotten himself lost. Shim was and now he was surrounded by peculiar natives. He reasoned that they must be friendly, or they could have killed him in his sleep or while he drank. He drew in a slow breath and slowly raised both his hands in a non-threatening way. He glanced around to all the eyes.

“Hello,” he said loudly over the river’s roar.

He heard more rustling, but none of the eyes moved from their hiding spots in the undergrowth.

“Thank you for helping me find water. You saved me.” He waited but again no response.

The gravity of his detour began to set in as it seemed his observers would keep their distance. Shim slowly bent down for one more drink from the river. He had no idea how long it would take for him to find Ma and the others.

It had been two whole days since he left camp. They must be looking for him, even after Ma’s warning, and he better not make them wait any longer than he could help. Then he stopped mid-sip and stared into the rushing water. Maybe they weren’t looking for him. Maybe Ma decided his disappearance was one of the Lord’s sacrifices like Mrs. Heddry’s husbands.

While he was lost in thought, Shim failed to notice the girl with the blue eyes had left her hiding spot and knelt beside him. He leaned back and saw her. Startled, he nearly fell into the river. Her small hand shot out to steady him. He looked into her blue eyes, feeling her cool hand on his arm. His eyes were mesmerized by hers, but he could feel only four fingers, just like the toes in the footprints he followed. He felt his lips curl into a smile. The first since he had landed here in the red rocks.

The girl slid her hand into his and stood. She motioned with her other hand for him to stand and follow her. He peered at the forest across the river. The other eyes had disappeared. He looked over his shoulder toward the path that led him down into the canyon and then down to the delicate hand in his.

“It’s just one step away,” he said, standing, giving her hand a gentle squeeze.

He looked down into her eyes, grin spreading from ear to ear. A shy smile graced her beautiful face. She took a step forward and led him over the log bridge into the dark green forest.


I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Shanel and I wrote together. She’s a great collaboration partner!

If you enjoyed Shanels’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Here are the prizes for the December Contest winner

This is astronaut Major A. Ward. She is the trophy for the December Contest. But there’s more!

For December, I’m presenting a host of prizes for the winner:

  • $25 cash (in the form of an Amazon gift certificate)
  • Trophy–The Maj. A. Ward amigurumi astronaut (I crocheted her myself. She’s about 5 inches tall.)
  • A Twitter banner–or use wherever you like–pronouncing you the winner of the December Contest.
  • Listing in the Circle of Champions on this website, including your social media contacts and website link, if you’d like to share them.
  • Lots and lots and lots of promotion on Twitter. (I go a little crazy.)
  • Other opportunities to mix and mingle with my other Champions and join them in special projects. (Check out my current special project exclusive to my Circle of Champions.)

Why not get started now?

The secret origins of Major A. Ward

Abby Sy designed this astronaut pattern and named it Roberta the Astronaut in honor of Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space. Abby is a crochet designer who lives in Toronto with her dog Ollie. Read more about Abby and Hollie.

The photos and the photographers of “Circle of Champions”

The photographers of Unsplash.com provided me with a great collection of photos for my pass-the-baton December story: “Circle of Champions

[Warning: This post contains spoilers. I recommend you read the story first and then enjoy the art below in its full glory.]

Let’s start with the main image for story. The only alterations I made to this photo were to crop it to fit and add the text. Here is the original, unaltered photo in all its glory.

Salem stares at her mech

Woman with goggles looking to orange window. Photo by Kyle Johnson (unsplash.com/@kylejeffreys).

Actually, this photo was untitled, so I gave it the above descriptive title.

Kyle Johnson hails from Seattle, where he shoots mostly on film with a Nikon F3, an Olympus Stylus, and a Sony A7iii. He enjoys shooting outdoor and urban subjects.

How I survived the first battle of the Circle of Champions

Ever had one of those 3 a.m. ideas?

What I mean is those epiphanies of genius that light up our brains. Ideas we fall in love with immediately. Ideas that won’t let go.

These ideas often come to us late at night or even in the early morning hours. That’s why I call them “3 a.m. ideas.” They may wake us in the middle of the night or they may come to our sleep-deprived brains when we’ve stayed up all night.

Jerry McGuire, in the film of the same title, lost his job because of a personal crisis of conscience and a 3 a.m. idea. He wrote, printed and distributed a manifesto on how sports agents should deal with their clients. It went against industry norms and he lost his job. And he was black-balled. Clearly, not all 3 a.m. ideas are good ideas.

Writers often have these 3 a.m. ideas. For Sci Fi writers, these ideas are for stories. If we latch onto these ideas, they can become our works-in-progress (WIPs). Sometimes the ideas are bad. Sometimes all we need is the cold light of day to realize how bad a 3 a.m. idea is. Sometimes we just need a good night of sleep. Sometimes it takes longer. Sometimes 10,000 words or longer.

But sometimes these 3 a.m. ideas are good ideas. Sometimes they really are the brushes with genius they feel like they are. But it’s hard to know which is which.

The longer I write and the more I blog, the smoother the idea machine in my head seems to work. The gears keep whirring–warm and oiled–working smoothly in concert. And the 3 a.m. ideas seem to come to me at all times of the day now. I don’t know if they are any good, but the ideas keep flowing.

So it was this week, when I should have been working on the December Contest story beginning. And I still have to post that this Sunday for release on Monday, and there’s a good amount of work yet to be done. But instead, I was thinking about my three “Champions,” the winners of my monthly contests for September, October and November. I chat with all three now and follow them on Twitter.

If you have read any of my previous thoughts on writing, you know that I believe the best writing ideas are often born from the combination of two disparate, unrelated ideas. In this case, I was toying with two ideas:

The ideas came so quickly, I’m not sure the order. And there were some false starts and dead ends thrown in there. But I imagined a story written by my Champions and me in pass-the-baton fashion, each of us writing a segment. And that story would be named after them, my Champions.

And in the flow of ideas came the first image: a young woman in a mechanized battle suit floating inside a sphere. She looks up and sees a row of windows–like a luxury suite at a sports arena–where the ranks of champions watch her. And then the name came to me: “Circle of Champions.”

Should it have been “Sphere of Champions”? After all, the sphere I envisioned was clearly the arena for a futuristic gladiator match. But then I thought of the contestants themselves, all vying for the one seat among the professional gladiators, and I thought that the contestants themselves were the champions–elite champions selected from all over the globe. Or maybe the solar system? Or maybe the galaxy?

I’ll leave that detail up to the writers who follow me to decide. But when I thought of those combatants, it felt right that they should be the Circle of Champions. (Consider the Sweet Sixteen or the Final Four in NCAA basketball.)

And so it seemed fitting that I should also name the winners of my writing contests my Circle of Champions. And, to bring things full circle here, my first three contest winners–my Circle of Champions–should help me write this story “Circle of Champions.”

The Challenge

So, in Jerry McGuire fashion, I wrote the idea up and sent the challenge to my Champions. I did not wait. I did not sleep on it. I did not tend to my blogging duties and my December Contest.

This was Wednesday, November 25, the day before Thanksgiving. Here’s the challenge I sent them:

CHALLENGE!!!

I’ve come up with a fun December writing challenge. No prizes this time. Just one great story and a chance to turn the tables on me. I’ll write a story beginning of a story called, what else, “Circle of Champions.” I’ve set my limit at 250 words.

Frasier, if he accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to continue the story.

Jim, if he accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to pick up from Frasier.

Shanel, if she accepts the challenge, will have 250 words to pick up from Jim.

And then I must conclude the story in 250 words. Hoping and praying that you guys have not set me up to fail. 🙂

As I said, I already had the beginning image of a story in my head, so I wanted to write the first 250 words. But I thought it might be a fun twist on my writing contest–which I always start and contestants always finish–if I had to finish the story this time. I thought my Champions might also enjoy this turnabout. I’m hoping they will be kind and not write me into a corner. But I will accept the fate they assign me and finish the story as best I can.

And in quick fashion, each of my Champions accepted the challenge. Quickly and without hesitation.

The Rub

All three accepted! Wait, all three accepted? This was real. This was happening.

Next I had to set the calendar. Since all three Champions accepted, I needed five story segments. Remember, I wanted to write the first and last segments. And no Champion could start their segment until the previous one was written. But readers cannot wait forever for a 250-word installment. So it came to be that I scheduled each segment to be released on a Friday with the final segment–my ending–to be released on December 25.

Christmas Day? Truly a coincidence, but why not? Then our readers get a special gift on Christmas Day. Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, you can enjoy a completed Sci Fi story on December 25. But that meant I had to write my 250-word segment by today, November 27, only two days after I issued the challenge. And I wanted to enjoy Thanksgiving with my family.

You see how these 3 a.m. ideas can lead you into folly?

The Battle of Words

So I took a walk.

When I need fresh ideas, I find a walk sometimes helps. I take my phone and open a dictation app and dictate what comes to me. It’s not Shakespeare, but I’m not Shakespeare on my best day, anyway. And the dictation needs tons of clean up. But I get a few words on the page, usually some good images fleshed out, and, if I’m lucky, a bit of action.

Well, I finished the walk with some gobbledygook, but I had 251 words. The exercise also let me know I had really wasted some words on starting the scene in a space taxi. No room for that when I only have 250 words to set the stage for my Champions.

So this morning, I rewrote the whole thing. But I kept the beginning line, “Welcome to the Circle of Champions!” And the reference to the Death Star and some other key pieces. I wanted to describe the arena in a lot more detail, but that eats up words fast. In flash fiction, it helps to use universal references that complete a picture in as few words as possible. For brevity, it’s hard to beat “Death Star.”

My rewrite, after a little clean up, was more than 350 words! I went back through it twice more. I had so many lovely details and I didn’t want to give any of them up. In despair, I considered cheating.

I rationalized to myself. “Only my Champions know the word limit I set. No harm done. I’ll just reset the challenge at 300 words per segment. It will be like giving my Champions a gift of 50 extra words. They’ll probably thank me.”

It didn’t feel right, but the clock was ticking. I read and reread my story. I tinkered here and there. I reworded, rephrased and cut, cut, cut. And lo and behold, I got it down to 275 words!

This, I thought, this is even better than the 350+ version! I still had to cut 25 words, and I knew a word parsed here and there would not do the job. I was going to have to cut a whole sentence, maybe two. Somehow I found a way and got it to 247 words. I put a few back and I was at 250!

I had done it! I had met the challenge!

Then I did my spell check. And it turns out “Death Star” is two words. Agony!

Wait, I had used “Death Star” only once! And by this time, I had rewritten a few spots over and over. I knew I could easily add or lose a word in those places. I took out an adjective and Boom-Boom, I was done!

I actually said “Boom-Boom” aloud.

Why? I don’t know. Why does Tiger Woods pump his fist? Why do running backs dance in the end zone? Because it feels good.

I had done it! I was done! I rock! Boom-Boom!

And then “Thunderdome” came up in the spell checker. But wait, if “Death Star” is two words, how many words is “Thunderdome”? I panicked. I had used Thunderdome a bunch of times. (I just checked. Only three times, it turns out.)

I did a quick Google search. Relief washed through me. Thunderdome was one word, just as I’d recalled.

250 words exactly. Boom-Boom!

And that’s how I survived my first Battle of the Thunderdome. Now, it’s Frasier Armitage’s turn in the hot seat. Good luck, Frasier!

Frasier’s Challenge

Here’s the challenge I gave Frasier. He has to seamlessly continue the story and add some “history.” I imagine that will be backstory for our intrepid hero, Salem. But that’s up to Frasier.

He must write it in 250 words or less. And he must use the word “orange.”

For added fun, I assigned each segment a color of the rainbow. (My daughter loves rainbows. Rainbow is her favorite color.) My first segment includes the word “red.” Frasier must use “orange.” Jim must use “yellow.” Shanel has “green.” And I’ll finish the last segment using the word “blue” somewhere.

That should not be too hard. And sometimes, for writers especially, limitations or requirements that seem binding at first can lead us to interesting new ideas.

That’s all for now. But I’ll post some more thoughts and comments here when Frasier shares his installment of “Circle of Champions” next Friday.

Feel free to share comments below. I love comments and I always respond.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Join the Circle of Champions, if you can survive

My Circle of Champions–my name for the winners of my monthly flash-fiction writing contest–have banded together to create a special holiday treat this December. Each Friday, I will post a new segment of this flash-fiction story. The next champion in line must write the next segment in 250 words or less. The final segment will be unwrapped on December 25th.

Learn more details on the challenge I posed to my Circle of Champions and read more about the photo artists. Or just enjoy the first segment I wrote for this week:

Circle of Champions

“Welcome to the Circle of Champions!”

The emcee’s booming voice filled the comms of the ten champions, who floated in the cold vacuum and Zero-G. The sound and their images streamed planetside, of course. Bookies slavered and took notes.

Salem shivered in spite of her red thermal suit. She would have a month to train in the Zero-G of the Thunderdome, a grotesque contraption in high orbit designed to look like the Death Star. The producers were such Sci Fi nerds! Inside, VIP boxes surrounded the vast void.

Death was not required, of course, and not inevitable. The twenty-foot mech suits were protected by the defense industry’s most advanced force shielding. But the suits were also loaded with the most advanced weapons. So deaths occurred.

Back home, Salem had survived countless battles. In her sixteen years, she had progressed from video games to waldo jockey to mech fighter due to her speed and flawless instincts. But the armor in her mech suit–modified for her small size–could withstand all the standard weaponry allowed in sanctioned ground battles.

Here, in the Thunderdome, she could die. And even if she won the Circle of Champions, that only assured her ten mandatory years of battle with the professionals each week here in the Thunderdome. She would have wealth beyond her wildest dreams for as long as she could stay alive. But few lived to retirement.

Spotlights rose and for a few breathless moments, she forgot it all when she saw her shiny, red mech.


Stay tuned for next week’s segment, written by the winner of my very first writing contest, Frasier Armitage. Frasier must continue the story in 250 words or less. And he must use the word orange.

In the meantime, enjoy this completed story by my newest champion, Shanel Wilson:

3 ways to defeat killer asteroids

If astronomers found a large asteroid headed towards Earth, could we defeat it before it smacked into our atmosphere, raining down fire and destruction?

Image: Artist’s rendering of an asteroid’s view from the Kuiper Belt. Text: Killer Asteroids--3 ways to defeat asteroids and prevent Armageddon
Cover of November/December issue of Popular Mechanics magazine
Cover of November/December issue of Popular Mechanics

Astronomers, physicists and engineers have been watching for “planet-killing” asteroids and other space bodies and making plans for decades. I just finished reading the Space column in my November/December issue of Popular Mechanics by Jennifer Leman, titled “Could a Cosmic Lasso Divert Extinction-Level Asteroids?”

It’s a good read and I recommend you check it out. In the meantime, I was thinking of the 3 basic ways to defeat an asteroid, which can be found in discussions with scientists and also in Sci Fi film and literature: pound it, push it, or pull it.

1) Pound it

That’s right, pound the asteroid with missiles, nukes, bombs, whatever! Throw everything we have at it. Blow it up! So simple and easy, a 5-year-old could figure it out.

That is possible, but a “blown up” giant asteroid can be as dangerous, sometimes more dangerous, than an intact one. Consider a Mack truck rushing towards you at 100 miles per hour. If it hits you, you’re a pancake. But if I disassemble that Mack truck into its thousands of metal and plastic pieces, put them on a cart, and shove them at you at 100 miles per hour, the pieces are just as dangerous as the fully assembled Mack truck.

The point is that “blowing up” an asteroid does not change the overall mass of ice and rock. Unless the explosion threw most of that mass off its course with Earth, it would still be a devastating blow for life on Earth whether the asteroid was one solid piece, hundreds of one-ton pieces, or even a massive cloud of dust. In fact, sometimes pieces are worse.

Here’s what Jennifer Leman says on this topic in her Popular Mechanics piece:

“It’s risky to Hulk-smash an Earth-bound, extinction-level asteroid, though. ‘In general, when we move an asteroid, we want to keep it in one piece,’ says planetary astronomer . . . Andrew Rivkin, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The rock could break apart and create a wave of several smaller ‘city-killing’ asteroids instead.’ (This risk also applies to an Armageddon-style nuclear solution, we’re told–there are no plans to test a space nuke at this time.)”

Dust is also a problem.

According to killerasteroids.org, “to lead to a global catastrophe, an asteroid or comet only has to be big enough to launch large amounts of dust into the atmosphere. That leads to the abrupt change in climate that wipes out species.”

If an intact asteroid enters the atmosphere as one giant mass, hits the ground, and releases a giant cloud of dust, it’s bad. But if the remains of a blown-up asteroid hit the atmosphere as a giant cloud of dust, it’s still very bad.

2) Push it

In Arthur C. Clarke’s 1993 novel The Hammer of God, scientists on Earth in the year 2109 decide to use the “push it” method to divert an asteroid on a collision course with Earth. They send the spaceship Goliath to the asteroid with the “ATLAS propulsion module,” which is basically a super-powered rocket that uses nuclear fusion-powered thrusters.

Cover of The Hammer of God by Arthur C. Clarke
Cover of The Hammer of God by Arthur C. Clarke

Clarke explores several problems with this method, including the fact that asteroids are not designed by engineers to be pushed. Asteroids are random collections of metals, rocks, water ice and other ices. They can have soft spots.

After weeks of pushing the asteroid, the Goliath sinks a few meters into the asteroid and the ship is damaged. The Goliath ends up losing its fuel and is stranded on the asteroid. And the asteroid is still headed towards Earth!

On Earth, the scientists come up with a back-up plan to blow up the asteroid with nuclear weapons. That’s the “pound it” approach. That strategy does not turn out as expected, either. But I won’t spoil this Sci Fi classic for you. Check it out!

3) Pull it

I’m not a scientist, so to my simple mind this seems like a variation of “push it.” You need a rocket or some other method of propulsion. The only real difference seems to be how you attach the rocket to the asteroid. But is there an even better way?

According to Leman’s Popular Mechanics article, Flaviane Venditti at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico and other scientists are studying a “lasso” method that could pull a “killer asteroid” off course.

By tying another smaller asteroid to the “killer asteroid” with a long tether, you change the center of mass. Given time, that will change the asteroid’s trajectory. Even an asteroid only one-thousandth the size of the “killer asteroid” can divert the larger asteroid by millions of miles if the tether is long enough and the angle of the tether is right. This could require a strong tether that stretches for nearly 2,000 miles. (That may be a challenge for engineers to build, but so is a fusion rocket.)

Here’s another post where you can learn more about asteroids:

1 more great story ending from the October finalist

Image: Large, white farmhouse in a field. Text: Almost Home--Win a prize if you write the best finish to my story--Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest. matthewcrosswrites.com

While we’re waiting on the November Contest winner to be chosen, I wanted to share one more story ending from the October Contest. You may remember that Jim Hamilton won the October Contest, but this finalist gave him a run for the prize. She wrote an excellent story ending, and I almost chose her as the winner.

So she is very deserving to be the one and only finalist for October, and we hope to see more of her writing soon!

The one and only October Contest Finalist is Shanel Wilson!

Shanel is a Sci Fi writer finishing her first novel about near-future space colonization. You can follow her on Twitter at @shanelaileenw. Please send her some congratulations and let her know what you liked about her story.

In the meantime, please enjoy Shanel’s story ending below.

If you have not read the original story beginning, read it here first!

If you have already read the story beginning or the winning version of the story with a beginning and ending, then you’re ready to read this different ending by Shanel. Remember, in our story, Cass had escaped Mars with an infection of the Vere, crash landed on Earth at the family homestead and made it inside the farmhouse:

I peek out the window and I finally see them.  Just two tiny triangles, but one is already veering off to the left.  I think maybe it’s headed to another farm, but it just keeps going down at a diagonal until it crashes in a field of wind turbines.  The lead ship comes straight ahead, following my smoke plume.

by Shanel Wilson

I only have a few minutes until the lead ship discovers my wreck and lands. I push off from the sink beneath the window and fall back against the barn-wood table. Dad’s favorite coffee mug sits in front of his favorite chair. I giggle again. I never knew why he loved that cartoon cow so much.

“Would you like me to play your next message, Cass?” the house system cheerfully breaks in.

“Fine,” I say, wincing as I use a table and nearby wall to support myself.

Dad’s voice sounds like a ghost of the voice I know so well. Even if it has been since his last birthday that I spoke to him.

“Cass, don’t come home. It’s too late . . .” his voice trails off.

“End of message. Would you like to send a reply?” says the house system.

My heavy breathing is my response. So, they might not be OK. The room starts to spin. A red, spinning swirl of childhood. I have to get to the basement. I concentrate on the door leading to the hallway. My arms are starting to give out from trying to carry all my weight.

Move! The voice in the back of my brain is back. I’m working on it, me! I think to myself.

I summon the last bit of strength I have left and launch through the door. I crash into the opposite wall. I grip the wall and drag myself along. Only a few more feet to the control panel.

A whirling sound drifts in through the open front door. I must have forgotten to close it. Not that doors are a problem for them. I could use all the advantages I could get at this point.

I reach the control panel. The keypad is gone and in its place is a retinal scanner. Dad’s latest upgrade, I could only assume. I use my filthy, gloved hand to try and clean my facemask enough for the scanner to see my bloodshot eye.

“Incomplete scan. Try again.”

I bang my head against the wall next to the scanner. The whirling is getting louder and closer. Sweat is dripping down my face. If this is the end, by the Vere or by them, I might as well smell my dusty house one last time. My home.

I clumsily unhook my helmet and toss it to the floorboards. I take a deep breath in. My cloudy excuse for a brain is flooded with memories of early mornings and days in the fields. I try and shake the cloud away long enough for the scanner to do its job.

Click.

The door opens and I tumble in. I am Home.


Please post your comments below. I’m sure Shanel would love to hear some kind words.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

The Photos of the November Contest and their Photographers

The photographers of Unsplash.com provided me with a great collection of photos for the red, rocky desert and the lush, green canyon in my November Contest story: “A Forest of Blue Eyes.”

[Warning: This post contains spoilers. I recommend you read the story first and then enjoy the art below in its full glory.]

Let’s start with the main image for the contest story page. I actually altered this photo from the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area by adding some red tint. Here’s the original beauty by Olenka Kotyk.

Red desert rocks in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA. Photo by Olenka Kotyk (unsplash.com/@olenka_kotyk).

I actually used the photo twice. It’s the background behind the story title and the main image for the entire page. I used it again to set the mood as Shim is shuffling down the canyon trail thinking about how he got lost in the red desert.

Toadstools

Formation of red rock with precariously balanced tower of rock
The Toadstools Trailhead at Grand Staircase Escalante near Kanab, Utah, USA. Photo by
Joshua Sukoff (unsplash.com/@joshuas).

Joshua Sukoff captured this great shot in an area of Utah that would be perfect as the setting for the red rock-covered planet where Shim’s family lands. According to grandcanyontrust.org, this hike is a “south-facing route with little to no shade.” They recommend bringing “plenty of water and sunscreen.”

Here’s a great explanation of how these toadstool-looking rock structures form, as provided by grandcanyontrust.org:

“The trail climbs to the top of a knoll, where it opens into a landscape of hoodoos, alcoves, and balanced rocks. These ‘toadstools,’ or hoodoos, form because Dakota Sandstone boulders perch atop pedestals of softer Entrada Sandstone. As the Entrada erodes away, the harder Dakota forms a cap, and leaves a rock column sheltered from water and wind.”

Here’s where I used it in the story.

Desert Texture

Close-up detail of rough rock textures
Close-up photo of a brown cliff at Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. Photo by John Schnobrich (unsplash.com/@johnschno).

Natural Rock Formations

Natural rock arch
The Delicate Arch at Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, USA. Photo by Mike van den Bos (unsplash.com/@mike_van_den_bos).

Mike van den Bos captured this great shot of the Delicate Arch, which arguably is the world’s most famous natural stone arch. It also makes a perfect example of “formations of brittle, crumbly, red rock” that give Shim the spooks.

Storm Brewing

Dark storm clouds hang over rocky  desert ridges.
Photo of storm brewing over Behind the Reef Trail near Green River, USA. Photo by Patrick Hendry (unsplash.com/@worldsbetweenlines).

This is the original photo in all its correct-color glory by Patrick Hendry. On my story page, I added a red screen to give the effect of the red sandstorm that caught Shim in the ridges.

Lush Canyon

View into a canyon with rock walls rising on either side and vegetation on the canyon floor.
Titled: Geological Beauty. Angel’s Landing in USA. Photo by Fineas Anton (unsplash.com/@fineas_anton).

Here’s where I used the canyon photo and the two photos that follow to suggest a lush, green canyon.

Large green leaves with sunlight filtering through green through the leaves
Indoor plants by Martin Knize (unsplash.com/@martz90).
Large, wide green leaves standing vertically
Large, green leaves stretching up vertically. Photo by Kaori P. (unsplash.com/@archival_ink).

Blue Eyes

Woman with blue eyes peering between green leaves
Photo of blue-eyed woman peering between green leaves. Photo by Alex Iby (unsplash.com/@alexiby).

In my first draft of “A Forest of Blue Eyes,” I described the blue eyes of the girl that Shim followed as “entirely blue even where the whites should be.” I was imagining a human, but a human so distantly related from us that she looked a bit alien. But I don’t want to influence contestants. They may decide the “girl” is a woman or something not human at all.

But when I found this photo by Alex Iby, I knew I had to use it in the ending of my part of the story. So I revised the story and just described the girl’s eyes and the other eyes in the forest as “blue” so the narrative and the photo would not contradict each other. But the photos are just there to entertain readers. Contestants may take the photos as inspiration or ignore them completely.

By the way, I believe Iby titled this photo “Awaken.” It was taken at the Boston Public Garden in Boston, Massachusetts, USA.

Finish my story and win a prize – November Writing Contest

Image: Red desert of rock mountains and scrub hills. Text: A Forest of Blue Eyes: Win a prize if you write the best finish to my story. - Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest - MatthewCrossWrites.com

November Contest

This is a finish-my-story contest where all you have to do is write the ending in 500 words or less. See the prize here!

November Contest: All submissions are due by midnight November 15, 2020. 

Look here for contest rules.

A Forest of Blue Eyes

Shim picked his way down the narrow, rocky track.  This planet was covered with rocks.  Rocks and nothing else, it seemed.  At least until today, when he found the canyon.

He leaned against the red, crumbly cliff wall and spat hard.  He tried to, anyway.  He was dehydrated and what came out was a thick, red glob.  He dizzily watched it fall to the green treetops far below.  His mouth was full of red dust.  In the first few days, the red spit used to alarm the settlers.  It looked so much like blood.  It only fed the rumors that God had cursed them.

Shim pulled off his wide-brimmed hat and wiped his sweating brow.  He was hot and tired.  He was also hungry and thirsty.  Very thirsty!  He probably should not have wasted his body’s moisture by spitting, but the red grains just got in the mouth and tumbled around and around.  Da said they contained silica.  After a few hours of breathing outside, it felt like you were chewing glass.  Even the three-ply scarves Ma made couldn’t keep it all out.

But Shim knew water was close.  Really just a step away.  The ledge was not wide, and if he stepped off the edge–one step and a long trip down–he’d find himself among the lush green trees.  And where there were green plants, there was water.

Shim chuckled wryly.  “It’s just one step away, Shim,” was the kind of joke Da liked to tell.

The track had been worn smooth by many feet over many years.  It had to be the natives.  Had to be because he had followed one of them this way.  It occurred to Shim for the first time that the natives, the ones nearest camp anyways, lived in this well-hidden canyon.

Shim had been the first of the settlers to see one, at least that he knew of.  And he’d tell Ma and Da and Mr. Johnson–Shim refused to call Mr. Johnson “Second Da”–as soon as he could find his way back to camp.

Da had gone to check on the Heddrys again.  The Heddrys had the closest landing site to Shim’s own clan.  Mrs. Heddry had lost two of her three husbands in the landing.  That would be hard on the whole clan as they tried to carve out their own homestead.  When Da had brought back the news two weeks ago, Shim had seen the pain in Ma’s eyes.  All she said was “We knew the Lord would demand sacrifices.  Mrs. Heddry has the faith so the Lord will provide for her.”

We don’t have time to do a search party for ya.  So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.

With Da gone, Johnson had his hands full with repairs.  Ma had set Shim a chore, and Shim was grateful to leave the chaos of the ship and a clan full of young ones.  Ma set him to look for food, water or wood.  Anything of use really in this unending waste.  “But keep within sight of camp plus five minutes,” Ma had said.  “If ya don’t see nuthin’ in five minutes, you turn right around and walk until you can see camp again.  Then walk five minutes in another direction.  Got it?”

He had nodded.

She placed her hand on the back of his head.  “Five minutes, ya hear?”  She held his gaze with a stern glare and held five fingers in front of his face.  Did she think he was daft?  He heard her.  But he didn’t dare raise his voice.  Not to Ma.  Not to the family matriarch.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, holding her gaze.

“We don’t have time to do a search party for ya.  So don’t cross me by gettin’ lost.”

Shuffling down the narrow canyon path, Shim shivered, even as hot as he was.  He had managed to get lost anyway.  If he ever got back, Ma would take it out of his hide.  He was sixteen, but she’d probably bend him over her knee anyway.  In front of the little ones even, to make it a lesson for the whole clan.

He had not meant to get lost.  He had remembered Ma’s warning of keeping within five minutes of camp.  He had wandered nearly an hour in and out of sight of camp.  He had followed the rule real good.  But then he had seen something.

No, he had seen someone.  A girl.  

At first, it had just been a suspicion.  A whisper on the back of his neck.  Each time he passed out of the sight of camp–which was really just the remnants of the ship after Da made the hard landing–he had the sense of someone else.  Someone unseen.

At first, he attributed the spooks he felt to the strange landscape–formations of brittle, crumbly, red rock–and his nerves.  But then he had heard the sound of a rock skittering across the hard ground and the hairs on his neck and arms rose.  He was being followed.  He carefully backed his way towards camp, and once the top of the ship came into sight, the feeling faded away.

Now, he cursed himself for not going back to camp and asking Ma or even Johnson for help.  But once he had realized that the someone following him was afraid to go near camp, he lost most of his own fear.  He wove a winding path, sometimes walking away from camp, and sometimes back towards it, and started noticing signs of his invisible pursuer.  Sounds mostly.  A skid of skree here or there.

He trekked out towards the flatter land, where there was almost no cover.  Then he suddenly backtracked, came back towards camp at a run and passing on the other side of a large boulder that sat alone.  She had been hiding behind it, of course, as there was nowhere else to hide, but he caught her off guard.  He saw her shadow and then a foot.  He began running a large spiral around the rock, but she crept around it, staying just out of sight.  Winded and spitting red spit, he stopped.  He shrugged.  This was pointless.  She had nowhere else to go.

“Hey,” he called.  He waved his hand, real friendly like.  Not threatening in any way.

That’s when she tore off at a run, towards the higher, rockier ground.

Without thinking, he ran after her.

Her eyes were blue!  Bright blue!  He had never seen blue eyes before.

She was short.  Well, just half a head shorter than he.  And thin.  She wore all brown from head to foot.  And some kind of head covering with two small horns.  Her hair flew out behind her.  It was black and straight.  It looked so strange that he did not recognize it as hair at first.  She glanced back at him.  Her eyes were blue!  Bright blue!  He had never seen blue eyes before.  

He was so shocked, he stopped.  And then she disappeared into the jumble of rock formations.  He had followed, of course.  Climbed the rising ground, passed over a ridge, and, curse him, left sight of camp behind without a second thought.

He just kept thinking of the thin face with blazing blue eyes.  And the straight, black hair.  His whole family had red, curling hair.  Everyone back home on Davven had hair that curled.

Rocky desert ground with rocky cliffs to the right and an ominous stormy sky overhead, all with an ominous red coloration.
But the sandstorm swept over the ridges with a fury and was on him before he knew it. Photo by Patrick Hendry.

Even so, as stupid as he had been, he could have found his way home.  He was sure of it.  If it had not been for the sandstorm.  It came from the flatlands to the east.  At first, it was like a cloudy wall of red.  Stupidly, he had stopped and stared at it for a while, thinking mostly of the girl and wondering dumbly why the eastern sky looked like a red fog all the way to the ground.  He had even kept hiking over the ridges and away from camp until the sound of the wind reached his ears.  It made a wailing sound.

Disappointed, he had turned around and headed back. But the sandstorm swept over the ridges with a fury and was on him before he knew it.  He sheltered beneath a boulder at the bottom of a small ravine.  The wind cut at his skin like razors.  He pulled off his jacket and covered his head.  He pushed as far under the cover of the boulder as he could.

The storm raged all night.  When he woke the next morning, the world had changed.  He stumbled about through a red fog of dust.  One part of the sky seemed brighter, and he made his way into the bright morning light.  It was nothing but a flat desert.  And even when the red dust finally drifted away–fading like a fog back on Davven–he found himself entirely on the flats, with no sign of camp, of rock formations, or even of ridges.

He stumbled through the blinding brightness and heat for a day.  When the sun set, he curled up and shivered in his jacket through the night.  When he woke, he found a set of footprints in the red sand.  A shock ran through him.  Whoever left them had stopped and practically stood over him while he slept!

He had jumped to his feet.  He stood there, swaying, trying to formulate thoughts.  He was afraid to follow the footprints.  What if it was a trap?  He licked his lips and surveyed the horizon.  He spun slowly but it still made him dizzy.  Nothing but red sand and rock in all directions.

His stomach rumbled.  He licked his cracked lips. He needed water badly.  That decided it.  He followed the footprints the whole morning until he saw the slit of green cracking apart the red desert ahead.  If she had not come for him, if she had not left her footprints in the sand for him to follow, he would have died in the desert.  He had no doubt.  He had been headed in a completely different direction with no end of the desert in sight.

The footprints had to be hers.  They were small and dainty.  She was walking through the desert barefoot, no less.  The prints also looked odd.  As the heat of the day quickly rose with the sun, his head felt hot and stuffy.  Thoughts came slowly, but eventually it came to him.  She only had four toes.  Four toes on each foot!

The sun was far overhead when he found the trail down into the green canyon.  It was so lush below, but only hot and dry on the cliffside trail. His forehead burned under his hat, but he had stopped sweating.  He knew that was a bad sign.  His head and his mouth were hot and dry.  The trail was long and gradual and took its time leading to the canyon floor.  And his legs were beginning to shake.  On the narrow path, he could not afford a misstep, so he went slowly.

By the time he reached the bottom, he could hear the sound of running water.  Not like a creek.  Like a river.  The trail branched with paths going in both directions along the base of the cliff face and a wider one diving straight into the thick undergrowth.  He stumbled along it, following the sound of the water as much as the path.  The path suddenly widened at a riverside and went over a bridge made from a long log cut lengthwise.  He threw himself onto the red, sandy soil of the riverbank and drank and drank until he had to stop to breathe.

He leaned back on his heels, water still dripping from his chin, and he saw her.  Or he saw her eyes, anyway.  She hid in the greenery on the other side of the riverbank.  He stood and he heard rustling in the undergrowth behind him; he heard it even over the sound of the river.  He looked over his shoulder and saw pairs of blue eyes peering at him.  He looked back across the river and saw more.  Blue eyes everywhere!

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Matthew Cross