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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Matthew Cross and Jim Hamilton