This is the Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Katherine Shaw

January Contest

I started the story below. See how Katherine starts after the red line and carries the tale away to a shocking ending. A Romeo-and-Juliet story where Juliet grabs the lead and won’t let go.

INTRODUCTION: This story takes place on the planet simply known as The Globe, on a stretch of water between Whitehall, also called the First City, and the farming community of Finsbury to the south. Long before the Night of the Rocket and nearly fifty years before the Seven Day War there was …

The Secret War

by Katherine Shaw and Matthew Cross

Juliet gunned the thrusters of the hover.

She sped across the surface of Lake Avon, heading south towards the dark headland. Around that bend was the end of the lake and the beginning of freedom. The headland cinched the Elizabeth River’s waist back to her usual trim shape on her journey south to the farming community of Finsbury, the breadbasket of The Globe.

She glanced back at the bright lights of Whitehall’s crystalline towers. Whitehall–First City of The Globe. A twinge of guilt tugged at her. But she had made up her mind. Her parents had told her she had to choose between her family and Romeo. So she had chosen. She did not know what her future held or where she would live, but as long as she was with Romeo, nothing else mattered.

She pumped her thrusters, urging the hover forward, but the throttle was already fully open. 

Ahead, the headland, dark with trees, formed a silhouette, refusing to reflect back the distant lights of Whitehall. It suddenly loomed up. It was too close and she was going too fast to make the bend into the main channel of the river.

Her hands twitched at the controls, her feet at the pedals, working thrusters and steering gyros at the same time to spin the hover. She used the hover’s own momentum to simultaneously slow her and spin her in the right direction. The hover, normally silent, growled in protest and threw a huge spray of water that glowed white in the darkness.

A twinge of guilt tugged at her. But she had made up her mind.

That would attract the attention of the lifeguard drones hovering high overhead. And the subaquatic monitors would record the unusual wave pattern. But as long as she didn’t capsize, they would not act. And no one would be alerted.

She knew her father monitored her movements, or leastways, his machines did, and some of his flunkies audited those data streams. But she had taken precautions.

She had removed her own tracker months ago. To avoid suspicions, she carried it with her throughout Whitehall, but whenever she left to meet Romeo, she clipped it to her cat, Thisbe. This night, she had not taken her own customized hover, choosing a plain, black model from the family boathouse from which she had removed all the trackers.

Even at sixteen, she was one of the best hover pilots in Whitehall, which meant she was one of the best anywhere north of Newlondon. (No one could compare with Newlondoners, who learned to sail before they learned to walk.) Her secret was her finesse. And being a girl, of course. Everyone knew girls made better pilots than ham-handed boys, who always tried to muscle the controls. That’s one reason she was driving further than Romeo to meet up tonight; she could drive faster and better in the dark. He was good at sports–really good–but even he had to admit she was the better pilot of the two. No one in Whitehall or Finsbury compared with her on a hover.

The hover glided so smoothly and silently over the water, she felt almost as if she were floating in the vacuum of space. Photo by Steve Halama.

The hover dove into the near total darkness on the far side of the headland. The darkness was so complete, Juliet flinched from the sensation of colliding with something solid. The hover glided so smoothly and silently over the water, she felt almost as if she were floating in the vacuum of space. She held her breath. But the slight wind across her face brought her back to her senses and she clicked on the hover’s lights for the first time. It was safe. She was beyond sight, sound, or sensor of Whitehall. She was free!

She was free to see her Romeo!

The irony was not lost on her. On a planet named The Globe, everyone knew the story of Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers. Growing up, Juliet had never thought their story a romantic one. They were stupid. Killing themselves? For what? For love?

Of course, Romeo was the stupidest one. If he’d just waited a little bit longer. If he’d just made absolutely sure, Juliet would have woken up eventually. And they could have lived happily ever after. Boys are stupid! Except for Romeo, her Romeo, the real-life, living, breathing Romeo.

But dying for love didn’t seem quite so stupid now. Still, she and her Romeo would never do that. Would never and would never have to.

But dying for love didn’t seem quite so stupid now.

Life was funny, though. Or the universe had a perverse sense of humor.

She was hardly the first Juliet on The Globe to fall for a Romeo. She herself was the ninth-generation Juliet in her family. And it was said that on every block of Whitehall lived a Romeo, a Hamlet, and an Othello. Her older brother was an Othello.

Even so, she had promised herself she would never fall for a Romeo. It was so trite! So cheesy! A Romeo and a Juliet in love? Too easy to be a constant target of mockery. And, growing up, she never had to make herself promise not to fall in love with a Finsburian. No woman of Whitehall–or not one of standing, anyway–would be caught dead in Finsbury or give a clod-shoed Finsby a second of time. Clumsy, hulking, dirty farmers with cauliflower for brains. Those dirtwalkers didn’t appreciate the beauty of Whitehall’s crystalline towers and white ways. It’s customs and elevated manners. They didn’t appreciate Whitehall’s technological bounty. They dared to compare the value of their lowly vegetables with her father’s miracle machines.

Yet, Romeo was no hick and no fool. Yes, he was large. As tall as her father and twice as wide. Standing next to him was like standing next to a solid wall of muscle. Not that she was into big muscles or anything, but when he towered over her, his long brown curls brushing his broad shoulders …. She shivered at the thought.

She had to focus! She shook her head to clear it. She breathed in the cooling lake spray.

Her flare of rage at her parents had purged her twinge of guilt. They had done this! Not Romeo. Not she, Juliet. She had no desire to leave Whitehall. She loved her ancestral home, its culture and art, and most of all, its technology. Her love of machines and their secret languages was perhaps the one thing she and her father shared, besides DNA and a name.

But they had forced her hand. Her father especially. Her mother had sympathized. Had even pleaded in private with her husband, Escalus, the “King of Data Storage.” But when he said “No,” loudly enough for Juliet to hear him through doors that were supposed to be soundproof, her mother had caved. Worse, she had taken his side and tried to turn Juliet’s heart against Romeo. As if! 

Turn her heart against her fair Romeo? Her Romeo of the glinting green eyes? Bright green eyes flecked with gold so it appeared that the sun always shone in them, even in the dark, shady places where they escaped to kiss. A girl could happily lose her soul in those green eyes. Perhaps that is what had happened to Juliet. Perhaps she had lost her soul to Romeo. If so, she did it gladly. He could have it a hundred times over.

So she had chosen the night carefully. Her father was very busy with a large project. He often worked late, but a few nights ago he had told Mom he would be working overnight on this project. That’s when Juliet knew she had to make her break for it. By dawn, she and Romeo could be so far gone that no one in Whitehall or Finsbury could ever find them.

Most days, Juliet was allowed to come and go without supervision. As long as her grades were good, she could travel anywhere in Whitehall or on Lake Avon without a living escort. Of course, there were always safety and security drones everywhere, even in the sewers and beneath Lake Avon. And lifeguard drones hung discretely high in the sky over the lake, watching everyone with electronic eyes.

Even though she was used to traveling in darkness to see Romeo, her waking dream almost blinded her to her next landmark–a sandy beach. Photo by Yusuf Evli.

She was even allowed to skim the lake in the middle of the night, if she liked–something none of her friends could do. As long as she earned good marks in school, her parents left her alone. And school wasn’t hard. She was smarter than most of her teachers. Like her father, study came easily to her, especially math and programming. And so she earned the highest marks and her parents got to brag about her achievements, as if they had had anything to do with it besides contributing the DNA.

Apparently the only thing she could not do was to see Romeo. Or any Finsby. Or have anything to do with Finsbury. And, right now, the only thing in the world worth doing was seeing Romeo. She had tried to resist him. She had tried to stay away. But she couldn’t. And when she saw his face again, after staying away a whole week, the sad look in his eyes hurt her doubly so.

She couldn’t stay away. She wouldn’t stay away. She was going to be with him, whatever it took.

She didn’t care about Finsbury. She didn’t care if the whole city–really just a noisy, smelly marketplace–and all the surrounding fields and farms burned in the fires of Belmont. All she cared about was that she was with Romeo. If that had to be in Finsbury, then so be it. She longed to be with him right now. Her Romeo of the broad shoulders and the lopsided grin.

Her stomach tingled as she envisioned that shy grin. And those full lips. Lips that kissed her beneath the tall trees of the Forest of Arden, the forest that formed the contested border between Whitehall and Finsbury. 

She cruised through the darkness with only the wind in her ears to mar the silence. The hover’s lights shining on the dark water ahead hypnotized her. In the near darkness, it was easy to imagine Romeo’s hair, his face, his shoulders. She eagerly looked forward to their first embrace in freedom. To watch his face lower towards hers. To feel his soft lips on her own.

Even though she was used to traveling in darkness to see Romeo, her waking dream almost blinded her to her next landmark–a sandy beach. It was the first place after the headland that the high bank of the Elizabeth ran down to the water’s edge. Beyond the Lake of Avon, the Elizabeth River’s currents were treacherous and even this far north it was subject to tidal surges caused by The Globes moons.

The hover ran easily over the faintly glowing sands up to the tree line. The black hover slid silently beneath the trees of the Forest of Arden and followed a walking trail that bordered the Elizabeth.

Soon, very soon, she would meet Romeo on the southern edge of the forest. There, beneath the moonlight, she would tell him of her plan. After a few kisses, of course. Her plan for both of them to keep traveling south, all the way to Newlondon. He was not welcome in Whitehall. And she would not be welcome in Finsbury. And they couldn’t survive long in the wilderness.

The black hover slid silently beneath the trees of the Forest of Arden. Photo by Gabrielle Mustapich.

She was carefully following the path bordering the Elizabeth River and planning her speech to Romeo when she heard the low growl. She flicked off her lights and let the hover glide to a complete stop. In the darkness, she strained with her ears to hear the sound more clearly. It was the low, sexy growl of a heavy hover engine, not the sound of a beast. A beast would have been less frightening.

She knew that engine–it belonged to the 9NUS Lion–her father’s newest line of heavy-duty hovers. “The 9NUS Lion … goes as fast as you like it,” her father had said with a smirk.

The 9NUS could tow heavy loads. Or it could be plated with armor and loaded up with weaponry for police or military action. She knew Whitehall had bought the whole lot.

Juliet was a quick study and it took her only seconds to put it together. Whitehall was sending troops under cover of night to raid Finsbury! And before they reached Finsbury, they would reach the edge of the forest … where Romeo was waiting for her!

All her fears were confirmed when the first hover–covered in some type of camouflage–blew past her in the darkness.

Juliet gunned her thrusters.

Laden with weapons and heavily armored, the 9NUS couldn’t reach its optimal speed, and Juliet’s small hover quickly caught up. With the lights off, she drifted behind her quarry in almost complete darkness, her engine drowned out by the guttural growl of the heavier vehicle.

He would be waiting for her now, emerald eyes glittering in the moonlight.

She had to think; with each lost second they drew closer to Romeo.

He would be waiting for her now, emerald eyes glittering in the moonlight, blind to the approaching danger. She had to save him!

With her eyes fixed straight ahead, she fumbled blindly in her satchel until her fingers closed around the energy pistol. She had smuggled it out of Othello’s room earlier that evening. Being an older boy, he already had access to firearms, though his bullish brain was too small to make proper use of it. Juliet had only practiced a handful of times, but that would have to be enough. She didn’t have a choice.

The trees began to thin on either side of the hovers – they were approaching the edge of the forest. It was now or never.

Narrowing her eyes, she drew the pistol and focused her aim on her target. If she could hit the fan just right, she could disable it and send the hover spinning into the forest, buying some time. She couldn’t stop the invasion, but she could save Romeo. Her Romeo.

The 9NUS slowed and then stopped. Juliet’s feet hit the pedals, slowing her own hover to a crawl.

“It looks like our story is a tragedy after all.”

Juliet’s trembling finger moved to the trigger, but halted as she recognized the figure stepping out of the cabin of the 9NUS. He was tall and, despite the helmet obscuring his eyes, his features were unmistakable.

Juliet could recognize her father from a mile away.

Her heart hammered against her ribs, but she didn’t move. Her outstretched arm was paralyzed, her white knuckles gripping the butt of the pistol. Her breath caught as the figure moved, and the piercing blue eyes of Escalus Andronicus locked onto her own, his face twisted in confusion.


His voice boomed, drowning out his rumbling hover and echoing out through the once peaceful forest. Juliet’s hands shook, sending small vibrations down the barrel of the pistol, still trained on its target.

“What the hell are you doing here?” He stepped closer to back of his hover, his face violet with rage. “Turn around and go home, you stupid girl!”

Juliet closed her eyes for a moment, her own hover propelling her slowly onward through the darkness. When she opened them again, her father was obscured through a veil of tears. Her hand moved slowly, the tremors steadying.

“It looks like our story is a tragedy after all,” she said, not caring whether she was heard. “Just not the one anyone expected.”

Juliet would never forget the look of betrayal in her father’s eyes as the realization struck him. Less than a second later, a searing bolt of plasma hit his chest like a sledgehammer and sent him tumbling backwards into the cold depths of the Elizabeth River.

The course of true love never did run smooth.

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

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

You can also enjoy view the beautiful, original photos used to illustrate “The Secret War,” learn about the photographers, and follow links to their other work.

Map of the Globe's Five Cities

Finally, you can also enjoy three other tales set on The Globe written by former winners of the writing contest.

The Globe Folio

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Here’s the inside scoop on how I chose Katherine’s ending as the winner.

This is the January Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Frasier Armitage

February Contest: I’ll be announcing the February contest on Monday, Jan. 25.

January Contest

I started the story below. See how Frasier seamlessly picks up the tale after the red line and gives us an exciting ending with a real twist. It blew me away!

The Lost Cadet

by Frasier Armitage and Matthew Cross

Thrace smashed through the undergrowth as fast as she could.  Every bush was twice her height and several times her width.  Even the grasses on this planet grew as tall as an adult.  And when she ran through the grass, the brilliant white sun shone in her face.

She could barely see where she was going and the grasstops whipped at her face and cut at her arms.  But she did not care.  She ran headlong from the beast that pursued her.  When it bellowed, the vibrations ripped through her entire body.  Her stomach turned to liquid, her knees lost their thrust, and even her molars ached.  She tried covering her ears once, but that only protected her ears.  And the beast had almost caught her!

She was living breath to ragged breath.  Her lungs burned, her legs burned, her heart was trying to leap from her chest.  She felt these things, but they were tiny details, drowned out by her sheer terror.

The landscape was a savanna.  There were open spaces of grasses dotted with the giant bushes. Photo by Ndumiso Silindza.

She ran towards the sun.  She turned her head now and then, scanning for landmarks.  Anything familiar.  The landscape was a savanna.  There were open spaces of grasses dotted with the giant bushes.  Where the ground rose, there were trees.  Trees as wide as a landing rocket and tall as a resi tower.  On the hilltops, the trees grew in copses, but on the flats they grew singly.

The ground shook with the footfalls of the beast.  The intelligent part of her brain–the part that was good at math and navigation–told her that made no sense.  Even a creature eight-meters tall should not make the ground shake this far ahead of it.  She had stopped screaming after the first fifty meters, but some part of her brain, the wild, animal part, still screamed louder than the intelligent part of her brain.  Her burning lungs could barely keep the oxygen flowing, oxygen she needed to feed the muscles in her legs.

The ground shook with the footfalls of the beast.

She ran, following the sun.  It was the only guide back to her hidey-hole.  She had gone foraging for food.  She had carefully noted her surroundings, even left poles of broken branches in the grassy places to guide her back.  But she had gotten turned around.

She had blundered across the beast at a watering hole.  The pond was wide and deep.  The water almost clear.  Thrace had dipped her canteen in the water, filled it and stood sealing the top.  That’s when she noticed the water dripping eight meters from . . . from what?  No tree branches were that low.  From the bushes surrounding the pond?  She looked across the pond, to her right, and saw it.  A dark-blue reptile standing eight meters tall with slashes of dark brown and pale yellow giving it some camouflage.  They both stood frozen while the last remaining gouts of water streamed from its mouth.

“Ahhhh . . .” Thrace said to no one.

The beast leaned forward and opened its mouth wide, letting out the first bellow.  Thrace had fallen backwards from the force and covered her ears.  Then she had been scrambling backwards on hands and feet.  Somehow, she had risen to her feet and begun running.  Running into the sun.  She turned her head once and saw the beast leap.

It did not run around the pond or through it.  It just leapt over the pond, landing where Thrace had stood!

Thrace had run straight across the open grassland, and the thing sprinted after her at an amazing speed.  Thrace slid under the first bush she reached and crawled to the other side.  The bush only slowed the beast a breath.  If not for the one tree on a rise and the bushes surrounding it, the beast would have caught Thrace quickly.

“It’s a sprinter,” the intelligent part of her brain said.

On the open flats of the grassland, the beast could sprint at full speed on two giant legs.  It could leap over lower bushes and tear its way through all but the densest undergrowth.  Really, there was nowhere that it could not go.

That’s why Thrace had to find her hidey-hole.  It was the only safe place.

Photo by Sharon Harvey.

Thrace had worked out a system of running along the higher ground, around the giant trees, all too tall and smooth to climb, and keeping bushes between her and the blue nightmare.

She learned its patterns.  When it saw her, it bellowed and then charged at a sprint.  The full force of that bellow reduced prey to quivering jelly.  But the taller rises slowed its speed, and it could not turn easily.  She avoided the open grasses and constantly changed course to avoid both the direct power of its bellow and its straight-line sprint.

Humans are apex predators.  Humans can run long distances.  Given enough time, ancient humans could run any prey to ground, no matter its size, strength or speed.  Thrace knew these things.  But those human hunters were adults in the prime of life with years of running experience.  Thrace was a school kid who liked to shirk her turns at the shipboard cycles so she could read about theropods of the Cretaceous.

She changed direction again and her school bag lurched to the right and her canteen thumped hard against her thigh.  The bag contained the food she had gathered–some mushroom-like fungi and a cluster of tiny, purple flowers–and the canteen held the only water she had had in days.  She needed the food and water almost as much as she needed to escape her pursuer.  She did not have the time to ditch either, and she needed them to survive.

That’s why Thrace had to find her hidey-hole.  It was the only safe place.

Then she saw it.  A broken branch on that tree off to the side.  She recognized it!  She recalled passing almost underneath that broken branch.  She remembered thinking it would make a good landmark to guide her home.  And she had been right.

She was close to her hidey-hole.  No more than a five-minute walk.

The beast was crashing through a copse of bushes.  It breathed hard and did not bellow.  Was that because it could not see her yet or because it was winded?  Not for the first time, she wished with all her being that the beast would tire and go away.  Or that some other creature would wander across their winding path and distract the beast.  Or that she had some camouflage, even some plain, brown clothing to blend into the brush.  Her blue-and-yellow cadet uniform was as obvious as a supernova among the savanna’s shades of brown and tan.

The intelligent part of Thrace’s brain told her the color may not matter.  The beast could be color blind.  Or maybe it could see her in infrared.  Or maybe it relied on sound and smell to find its prey.  However it sensed her, she had tried standing still and silent, and it had not worked.

Thrace ran along the edge of a copse of bushes.  She could make it now.  She knew she could.  And with this realization, her adrenaline seemed to flag, and she realized how truly tired she was.  There, in the open, she saw a branch she had planted like a flagpole in the tall grass.  She kept to the top of the slope, as high as the trees and brush allowed, and headed towards the hill ahead that she thought she recognized.  Underneath that hillock was her hidey-hole and on the other side, in the wide grasslands, was the wreckage of the ship.

Photo by Toby Wong.

She ran left down the slope, not directly towards the hillock, and she heard the beast roar.  She veered sharply to the right, before the rush of air and the strongest vibrations of that roar reached her.  It began its charge down the slope and she could feel the thunder of its feet vibrating the ground even though she flew so fast it seemed her feet barely touched the ground.  The sweaty hair on the nape of her neck stood on end.  Her adrenaline was back, but it could not last long.

“I don’t belong here!  I just want to go home!” she screamed with her mind.  “Just leave me alone.  Let me go!  You don’t belong here either!”

Thrace leapt the hillock top and slid down the far side.  The ground was littered with sunburnt leaves and they carried her nearly to the base of the hill.  The beast was just on the other side of the hillock and the hill was not tall enough to curb its momentum.  Still sliding, Thrace spun and scrabbled on hands and knees towards the hole dug into the base of the hill.

Teeth as long as Thrace’s arm jutted from a blood-red mouth.

The beast, a smooth-skinned reptile of blue, yellow and brown, exploded through the brush at the top of the hillock.  Teeth as long as Thrace’s arm jutted from a blood-red mouth.

Thrace squirted into the hole and tumbled into the natural cavity she had spent days widening.  She crabwalked backwards until her back hit the rough rock wall.  She hugged her school bag and covered her face.

There was nothing else to do but wait.  Wait and hope the beast was not good at digging.

She kept waiting for its yellow-slitted eye to appear at the end of the tunnel. Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw.

Thrace shook uncontrollably. Why had she dug the opening so wide?  For more light?  How stupid!  Why had she not dug the tunnel deeper before widening the hidey-hole?  Now, because she had wanted more light and space, she would die at the claws or teeth of this dinosaur-age monstrosity.

But she did not die.  She shook silently and she listened.  At first, the beast landed beyond the hillock and its thundering steps receded.  Thrace cried silently, knowing it would return.  And it did.  It scratched and snuffed along the base of the hillock.  She kept waiting for its yellow-slitted eye to appear at the end of the tunnel, but it never did.  She heard heavy breathing and snuffling.  Then a sort of bellowing snort, but not the full-strength bellow that preceded the beast’s sprinting charge.

Eventually, the too-heavy footsteps receded.  Thrace broke down.  A full-blown, shaking, crying, gibbering, snot-flying break down she had not had since she was very small.  No, no, she had never had an episode this bad because she had never truly feared for her life before.

Eventually, she slept.  Then she drank.  Then she ate.  When her meager supply was gone, she blew her nose, wiped her eyes, and cleaned herself up.

And her brain said a theropod did not belong on a planet with small, precise purple flowers. Photo by Kenny Luo.

Finally, Thrace’s thinking brain reasserted itself.  It was a brilliant brain.  A brain so quick and sharp and crammed full of knowledge of the universe that she had been accepted as a cadet two years early.  And her brain said a theropod did not belong on a planet with small, precise purple flowers or even a wide savanna.  She could name ten planets that proved her point.

Maybe that was something she could work with.  Maybe not.

Either way, she had work to do.  She looked around her hidey-hole and catalogued the scant tools she had scavenged from the wreck.  She nodded, a plan taking shape.

Thrace fixed a rag to her makeshift spear. She approached the entrance to her hidey-hole, gripping her knife, inclining her ear beyond the tunnel.

“Consider your surroundings,” she said to herself, repeating her training. “Consider your needs. Consider all things before you proceed.”

She inhaled deeply as the tall grass whispered beyond the cavern. A faint hiss crept closer. Then it stopped. A second passed. The hiss reappeared. The beast was out there. Waiting. Watching. Breathing.

Consider your surroundings. Check.

She inhaled deeply as the tall grass whispered beyond the cavern. Photo by Sharon Harvey.

Her brain analyzed her plan. The knife should be enough, but she doused the rag in fuel, just in case. Grazes bit her knees from where she’d skidded into the cave, but she was ready.

Consider your needs. Check.

That beast doesn’t belong here, she thought. Nothing belongs here. This has to work.

Consider all things before you proceed. Check.

She drew breath, counting down from three … two … one. Thrace pounced into the open.

Thrace shrieked, her roar rivalling the creature’s own as its hulking frame blocked out the sun, casting her in shadow.

The beast’s roar bellowed as it thundered towards her. She struck her blade against the spear. Sparks erupted, setting the rag aflame.

Thrace shrieked, her roar rivalling the creature’s own as its hulking frame blocked out the sun, casting her in shadow. She dropped the rag and opened her arms, welcoming the beast’s jaws before the theropod exploded into a million pixels, along with the grass, the trees, and her hidey-hole.

Alarms shook the sim-suite. A tech removed Thrace’s helmet. Sanitized air filled her lungs.

Admiral Denvers loomed over her with the menace of that creature. “You lost, cadet. And you showed so much promise. Why give up?”

“I didn’t give up,” Thrace said, as nurses stripped her from the haptic suit.

“After all those weeks on the surface,” the Admiral continued, “and the care we took setting up this charade. You know how difficult it is to make a mind like yours believe it’s in another place? Just for you to quit when you got scared. It’s disappointing.”

“I did what you taught me, sir.”

Denvers scowled. “You failed.”

We’re never truly lost if we face our fears.

“No, sir. That beast—I’d seen it before, in a textbook on the Cretaceous period. I knew it didn’t belong there. Neither did I. How else could I explain why no other ships responded to my beacon? The simulation was obvious. So I ended it.”

“You knew?”

“‘Consider all things before you proceed.’ Right, sir?”

Denvers raised an eyebrow. “If you’re so smart, why would we go to all this effort if we wanted you to fail?”

Thrace thought for a moment. “This test isn’t about endurance. It’s about knowing what it’s like to be lost. Sometimes, when we feel lost, we’re in exactly the place we need to be.”

“Is that so?”

Thrace nodded. “We’re never truly lost if we face our fears. Being lost is just the first step towards being found.”

The Admiral smiled. He waved to the tech. “Terminate the Lost Cadet program,” he said. The alarms ceased. “Welcome home, Thrace.”

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

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Here’s the inside scoop on how I chose Frasier’s ending as the winner.

P.P.S. Here’s another great ending written by Frasier Armitage:

This is the December Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Dario Ors

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

December Contest

I started the story below. See how Dario seamlessly picks up the thread after the red line and gives us a sweet, satisfying ending just perfect for a cat story! (You really want me to say it? OK, a purr-fect ending!)

A Present for Smittens

by Dario Ors and Matthew Cross

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 leapt 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 mouse 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.

Instinctively, she flattened herself hard against the forest floor, and stood still, trusting her “tortilla” coat to blend her in with the surroundings and prevent her from being seen by the unknown shade. She registered that the ground underneath her belly didn’t feel as cold and humid, as ground-y as she expected, but her attention was focused above.

The shape flew past, as silent as the Moon.

The shape flew past, as silent as the Moon. It was hard to see it, but she could just make out its silhouette, a darker shade of black against the canopy.

It was a bird! She had seen many before and chased a few in her previous forays outside the house, but none like this one. She then saw it slowly circle around, and as it came about in her exact direction, Smittens’s little heart froze for the tiniest instant.

Two giant, orange rings–glowing eyes, she realized–swept towards her. They were closing in . . . Smittens held her breath and stood completely still, her eyes closed to slits lest they gave her position away, her ears pressed against her head. The eyes grew very close now. Smittens felt seen. A shiver ran from the back of her head all the way down her spine. Her shoulders shrank in uncontrollably. Time froze.

Two giant, orange rings–glowing eyes, she realized–swept towards her. Photo by Luis Argaiz.

The bird flew past. Smittens’s body relaxed, melted even, but she dared not let it show, and stood there a while longer. She waited and waited, but the bird seemed gone. She turned her ears this way and that, listening for clues, then dared to open her eyes fully. Slowly, very slowly, she turned her head, peering into each and every shadow, checking for darker or moving bits. All seemed clear.

Cautiously, one paw at a time, she prowled forward. Her belly was oddly dry and not cold but, above all, empty. Food was in order.

Smittens picked up the pace and explored some more, trying to find something she wasn’t sure about, but–something–possibly food. Hopefully food. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of interest around anymore: no butterflies, no grasshoppers, no mice, and, sadly, no savory bites. In fact, there were just trees and shadows, and those occasional blue lights at the edge of her vision.

Bored, Smittens tried to take a better look at one, but they kept escaping her gaze. When she tried to look at one, it would either move or vanish and reappear, but would never be clearly visible or pounce-able. She tried a few times. This was most annoying, she was bored and hungry, and when neither need could be satisfied, there was only one remedy she knew of: a good, old nap.

The ground was actually quite comfortable, and she didn’t need any help dozing off. And Smittens’s person was always there–always!–after a nap.  Yes, a nap would do. And nap she did. 

And she woke to the familiar smell of her person’s hand swooping her up and smothering her in cuddles. Naps worked, every time.

Best of all, after naps came food!

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

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

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 Shanel’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is the October Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest!

Flash Fiction Writing Contest – Photo by Derek Torsani (

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is Jim Hamilton!

Jim wins the amigurumi collectible shown here.

I received so many great entries, and I’ll share one more finalist’s finish as soon as I can. You also can read some of my thoughts on why Jim’s entry shone above all the rest. (It’s stellar!)

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


I started the story below. See how Jim snatched the baton after the red line and raced to an exciting and satisfying ending!

Almost Home

by Jim Hamilton and Matthew Cross

I look over my shoulder in search of the dark, floating shapes.  I stumble and fall face first into the crusty topsoil between rows of soybeans.  It’s almost harvest time, so the plants are half a meter.  Not tall, like corn, which can hide you.  I groan and roll over, looking up at the pure, blue sky.  No dark triangles up there.

Field of soybeans
It’s almost harvest time, so the soybeans are half a meter. Photo by Meredith Petrick (

I groan and make myself stand, even though my legs feel like jelly.  My joints ache, my head aches, and I shiver.  It’s the Vere.  I caught it either on the DR. ERNESTO GUEVARA, which everyone calls the “Che,” or on Mars.  Mars was already rife with the Vere, so it was not our fault.  And Earth had it before that, so I’m not the first to bring it here, either.  I’m just trying to survive it.

My facemask clouds with my breath.  I’m still wearing my entire suit because I don’t want to infect anyone else.  If not for my mask, I would be spitting dark, Indiana loam out of my mouth.

From behind the Old Barn and the windmill, a thin plume of smoke rises from the crash. The old, decrepit windmill still pumps the water for our irrigation. In a state full of wind turbines, the old windmill really stands out. People still use it to give directions by. It’s how I found home.

Old barn and windmill
From behind the Old Barn and the windmill, a thin plume of smoke rises from the crash. Photo by T.L. Strot (

I stole a local trader on Mars.  The owners didn’t need it any more.  I had to pull them from the seats, but I lay them respectfully beneath a nearby ship.  The trader was not made for interplanetary trips.  It did not have the fuel reserves for a fast shot between two planets.  But if you set your navigation correctly, you can save all your fuel for takeoff and reentry.  It’s a long, slow trip—weeks—but you can make it.

I made it, but just barely.  On Mars, a cop was cruising the abandoned spacefield.  My takeoff was too quick.  I was nervous and I’m not a pilot, so I burned a little extra fuel.  Precious fuel needed for landing in Earth’s stronger gravity.  But I survived the crash.  If I can get more fuel, I can probably get the ship working again.  I’m no pilot, but I’m a great engineer.

Still no triangles in the sky!  I should be glad, but instead I shudder, a cold spike running down my spine.  Is it so bad on Earth?  I push myself into a run to the farmhouse.  I still think of it as Granddad’s house.  We lived here with Granddad, until he passed away, and then it became Mom’s.  Like the generations before, we continued to farm the family land.  I did my share of chores, monitoring the cultivators and irrigators at the control board while I did my homework.  Once I learned some electrical, I even fixed a few machines for Dad.  And, yes, I drove a John Deere harvester every fall.  But once I reached midgrades, I realized I didn’t want to be a farmer like Mom and Dad.  I wanted to go to space.

Still no triangles in the sky!  I should be glad, but instead I shudder, a cold spike running down my spine.  Is it so bad on Earth?

I stumble through the soybeans.  The rows are too tall to climb over, especially in my condition.  I’m forced to follow the diagonal row instead of heading straight towards the house.  It’s still 100 meters away and I begin to wonder if I will make it, even without pursuers.  My legs are shaking so bad.  I slept the entire trip to Earth with autonav on.  I ran out of food three days ago, so there was not much else to do.  Between hunger, muscle stiffness and the Vere, I’m in pretty bad shape.

I focus on the white house, on Home, as I fight dizzyness and nausea.  My aching muscles, atrophied for two weeks, don’t want to move.  And when they move, they scream.  So I don’t mind getting all nostalgic.  I’m glad of the distraction, and my fuzzy brain is going there anyway.  I remember telling my parents I wanted to study engineering and not FarmAg at college.  It broke their hearts.  They had trouble conceiving me, and I was their only child.  And Granddad’s only grandchild.  Once I left, there was no future generation to take over the farm.

It may not matter, now that we have the Vere.  It’s sweeping across Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and Earth.

It may not matter, now that we have the Vere.  It’s sweeping across Mars, Jupiter’s moons, and Earth.  If it gets really bad—worst-case scenario, they say on news feeds—the remote asteroid colonies might be mankind’s only hope.

I need to get to the house.  I need to get inside.  Granddad was not exactly a Prepper, but he’d lived through two wars, and the basement was always stocked for the family to ride out three months.  And in flush years, Dad had always made a few upgrades to the security systems.  You know, just in case.

I shamble across the green dooryard, skirting Mom’s giant sunflowers.  They wave joyfully in a light breeze. Photo by Nicky Osipova (

I have not heard from Mom or Dad in several weeks.  Mostly because I never check in.  But at the very least Mom sends me a weekly vid with any news and asks for a call back.  I never call back.  Only for Mother’s Day or one of their birthdays.  Or Granddad’s birthday, which is kind of like MLK Day, a day to be somber and proud at the same time.  But no messages from Mom for weeks.

I need to get inside.  But I’m also afraid of what I might find.

My left leg suddenly gives out just shy of the end of the row.  I take another tumble and this time it takes longer to stand up.  My vision is going red, but my mind is so foggy, it just seems whimsical, not scary.  Red.  The farmhouse looks red, like it’s on Mars.  I giggle.

That’s not good, says a voice in the back of my brain.  You’re losing it.  I giggle at the voice.

I shamble across the green dooryard, skirting Mom’s giant sunflowers.  They wave joyfully in a light breeze.  I wave back.  When did this yard get so big?  I thought things were supposed to look smaller when you went back home.  The five steps to the wide porch are the hardest.  I have to drag my left leg behind me, and I trip over the top step.  I flail and stumble my way to the screen door.  It opens with my voice authorization.

I limp to the kitchen as the house system greets me.  “Welcome home, Cass!  It’s good . . . .”

“Shut it!” I say.

“OK!  You have messages.  One from your parents to all employees.  One to you from Mom and one to you from Dad.”

“Play the first one,” I say.

I hear Mom’s voice, weak but trying to be cheerful.  She says they are OK but they are showing symptoms.  They are headed into town to see the doctor.  It’s a couple week old, but I sigh with relief.  They might be OK.  They might just be in the hospital.

A field of wind turbines. Photo by Nathan Gonthier (

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.

The red haze I’m seeing starts flashing and I suddenly realize it’s the HUD in my mask telling me I’m out of air. I rip it off and take deep, gasping breaths, trying not to hyperventilate as I do so. Almost immediately, I can feel my head clearing, and I’m beginning to function more normally again.

I look up and see the triangular attack ship headed straight for the farmhouse. At any moment, a deadly heat ray will flicker out and incinerate the house—myself included—and turn it into ash.

I look up and see the triangular attack ship headed straight for the farmhouse.

Helpless, I steel myself for that moment, watching the ship coming closer and closer. “Why isn’t it firing?” I ask myself.

The nose of the craft has dipped down and it’s no longer coming straight for me. In surprise, I watch as it crashes into the ground about a hundred yards away, just like the other one I’d seen. Maybe it has something to do with the wind turbines.

I’m thinking more clearly now, but I’m still lightheaded from lack of food, so I heat up a light broth and sip at it while I play back the other two messages from my Mom and Dad. Both are trying to sound optimistic, but they’re in stage three of the Vere. Maybe a few more weeks or a month to live.

I cautiously consume a protein shake and, feeling better, leave the house to check the wreckage of the alien ship. It had plowed into the earth, partially burying itself and I approach it cautiously. The cockpit is open and I can see the pilot inside. As I lean over to see more clearly, the chitinous head turns in its helmet and three eyes glare out at me.

I freak out and, without even thinking, pick up a large rock and bring it down on the faceplate of the helmet. I expected it to break open, but instead, it causes a narrow crack through which a green gas sprays into my face. I gasp in surprise and inadvertently inhale a good portion into my lungs. It burns like fire inside my chest, and I cough and cough, falling to the ground.

I must have blacked out.

When I come to, the sun is low in the sky. I stand up and stretch and marvel at the fact that I no longer seem to be suffering from the Vere. The aches and pains and nausea and headaches are all gone. I lean over the now lifeless pilot and find the bottle attached to its mask. I can see several more behind it in a rack. There is no doubt in my mind that they hold the cure for the Vere.

It makes sense that they would infect a planet with a virus to which they, themselves, were already immune. I head to the barn to get the truck so that I can get these bottles to the Quarantine Center in time to save Mom and Dad.

We’ll all be home soon.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jim and I wrote together. What a fun collaboration!

For one more fun ending to this story, look for the featured finalist’s version in a separate blog post next week. Also next week, we’ll reveal the November Contest story beginning and the new prize!

Finally, if you enjoyed Jim’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross and Jim Hamilton