Abby Sy designed this astronaut pattern and named it Roberta the Astronaut in honor of Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian woman in space. Abby is a crochet designer who lives in Toronto with her dog Ollie. Read more about Abby and Hollie.
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.
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.
“Ah . . .” 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is
January Contest: I’ll be announcing the January contest soon. (Probably next Monday.)
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.
“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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
To soldiers, information on the battlefield is essential. It’s the best defense and also a good weapon. That’s why soldiers of the future have all their information right at eye level.
Heads-Up Display–a presentation of information directly in the line of sight of a pilot or driver, often by projecting the information on a windshield, visor or other transparent screen.
The first HUDs were developed for military pilots so they would not have to look away from the horizon or an enemy combatant to read their gauges and other instruments. When you’re flying at 3,000 miles per hour, anything can happen in the flick of an eye.
Now carmakers use HUDs in passenger vehicles to show the driver everything from the vehicle’s speed to the radio station.
Let’s see where Sci Fi writers are placing HUDs.
In Behind Blue Eyes by Anna Mocikat, Nephilim belongs to the Guardian Angels of Olympias, an elite combat force of cyborgs. The Angels look like perfectly sculpted humans on the outside, except for their glowing neon eyes. Their limbs are entirely artificial and even their heads are filled with tech, including built-in HUD capabilities.
“Although the night was tenebrous, Nephilim saw the target location they were advancing on as perfectly as if it were bright daylight. Her artificial eyes were much more than integrated night vision gear. Special software connected to her brain made it possible to see everything clearly with a minimum amount of light, similar to how a cat’s eyes worked. Additionally, she activated a combat heads-up display, known as HUD that appeared directly in her line of sight, which would not only identify targets but prevent friendly fire.”
Now that’s a handy HUD. And for the Angels in Behind Blue Eyes, all their artificial upgrades are hidden inside, beneath the skin, except for their neon blue eyes.