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

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