I’m sharing the finalist stories from the July Contest. The first finalist is Jeremy Wilson.
You may recall that Jeremy was the April Contest winner. As one of my Champions, he cannot win the contest again this calendar year. But if he had not already been a Champion, he could have won the contest with this ending with some cool Sci Fi tech and a great Sci Fi twist.
The Festival of Juno
BY JEREMY WILSON AND MATTHEW CROSS
How many times had I dreamed of a night like tonight?
As girls growing up in a backwater planet of the Republic, we all had fantasies of escaping to a “civilized world” and living a life filled with wealth, fame, and romance. Starry nights scented with flowers and our own perfume. Hair bound up by a real hairdresser. Sheathed in a couture gown.
And now, here I am, heat sealed into a gown and ascending the stairs of the Temple of Juno. Climbing this hill to mix with the glittering hoi polloi of the City of Lights, the capitol of Pax Romana, the planet-seat of the Republic.
So what’s the problem?
First, I don’t belong here.
Don’t get me wrong. My credentials are legit. I am the Daughters of Juno representative from my planet. The Vesta Society helped me secure the spot. But I definitely don’t feel right among all these Paxers.
Second, I’m a spy.
Third, these heels are killing me.
We’re climbing the Thousand Steps from the dock below to the temple above. I don’t know how these other girls are doing it. Most of them are from Pax Romana, so they are used to the intense gravity here. My little planet looks more like a moon with gravity to match. And the exercycles and running turbines on the transport ship RPS Brutus just can’t get you in shape for this.
The girl in front of me springs up the steps. With her long gown, I can’t see her legs or feet, but her butt looks amazing. Like she climbs steps in her sleep.
I hate her.
I’m only halfway up the curved steps that climb the slope from the lake and I’m breathing like a draft ox. I stop a moment–just a moment–to slip off my heels. As I bend to pick them up, the girl behind me bumps my butt with her head. We both curse. I snatch the slender straps of my heels with one hand, making sure not to let the candle I’m carrying go out.
There’s more cursing and grumbling going on behind me. I know they’re talking about me. Besides the usual, unladylike curse words drifting up from below are words like “spacing,” “oaf,” and “hick.” My ears burn.
I steal a glance backwards and see that the long, snaking line of candles is twitching and hitching up the stone stairs. I look ahead and see a seamless line of women and candles winding through the hillside olive orchard. I seem to be messing up their perfect promenade. I’m not exactly blending.
Yes, we are climbing hand-hewn stone stairs through an olive orchard. These Paxers love anything that smells of Ancient Rome. And speaking of smells, I know they shun deodorants and claim to like natural, human musk–thus, differentiating themselves from spacers and those living in sterile “airless” colonies. But when we get into the ballroom at the top, I think we’re going to smell more like a herd of cattle than a perfumed harem of debutantes.
It’s dim in the anteroom, but all those candles provide me with enough light to see the other girls pretty well. As they pass through the door, each one bends down to remove slippers and pull on a pair of heels from her purse. Well, that explains one thing. I dunk my candle in the silver urn of water like the girl in front of me and slip my heels back on. I’m definitely going to have blisters.
I can also see everyone’s dress clearly for the first time. From the time I stepped out of the limo, I’ve been in a dark tunnel, a lightless security check, and a lightless ferry. The only girl I’ve seen clearly is Super Butt right in front of me.
No two dresses are exactly the same, not exactly. Like theirs, mine is shiny and sheer, nearly cut down to the navel from the neck and definitely cut up to the waist from the hem. When I tried on the dress for the first time on the PRS Brutus, it took my breath away. And that was even before the final fitting and heat sealing of the stiches. Helena, my minder from the Vesta Society, even smiled. A rare treat.
“Ummm . . . I love it. Really, I do. But I can see right through this thing. Shouldn’t I be wearing a slip for the fitting?”
“No, dear. Republic society women never wear anything under these dresses. It ruins the line. Tiara, necklace, dress, purse, shoes, and perfume. Nothing else.”
Aghast, I looked in the monitor showing my image. “But you can see everything. I mean . . . everything!”
Helena suggested I could get used to the attention by wearing the dress around the Brutus. I thought of the rough-handed, loud-mouthed spacers aboard the ship–my kind of people–and shut my mouth.
Of course, the Vesta Society outfitted me with synthetic skin bands on my legs and back to carry a few tools. But they do nothing to protect my modesty.
In the anteroom, I notice one more detail. Every dress ahead of me is blue. Of course. Juno’s sacred color. I look behind me. The girl behind me is managing to adjust her tiara and give me a dirty look at the same time. She is also wearing blue. And so are all the women behind her.
I am wearing red.
How had the Vesta Society missed that detail? They thought of everything!
I’m sweating from the climb up the Thousand Steps, but suddenly my sweat runs cold. If they didn’t know the Daughters of Juno all wore blue, what else did they not know? What other surprises are in store for me?
And then I see the next one. I’m almost to the far end of the anteroom. There is an older woman checking tiara, necklace, dress, purse, and shoes. I know she’ll never let me past in a red dress.
I pump the false molar just once and spit the tracing juice on the blue dress in front of me.
“Oh, honey!” I wail, faking a nasal Paxer accent. “What’s that on your dress?”
In the swarm that converges on Super Butt, I sneak past the gatekeeper. I round a dark corner and emerge into a dazzling, white light. I freeze.
A smooth baritone voice announces a name. It’s not my name, and all I can see in all directions is brilliant, white light. Then my training kicks in and I remember. I’m at the top of the winding ramp–the Gauntlet, they call it–that descends past all the vids to the ballroom floor. The name they called must be Super Butt’s. I took her place in line.
I try the elegant spider walk we practiced over and over on the Brutus, but the ship’s weak anti-grav is a poor substitute. I skitter-slide my way down the ramp to the sound of gasps and titters and explosions of light.
When I reach the bottom, my vision begins to recover. A dance floor filled with young men in black and young women in blue dresses whirls past. Out of the last bright light comes a dark form. It takes me by the hand and the waist and spins me into the maelstrom.
It takes my breath away.
I look up and my dance partner is none other than the Marquess Douro, my target. Did the Vesta Society arrange this somehow or is it just amazing, dumb luck?
Dancing weightless is not the same thing as dancing at the bottom of a planet’s gravity well. And, yet, in his arms, I feel as though I’m floating. His strong arms hold an effortless frame and I cling to them. As we spin, my body brushes his and I’m very aware of the sheer nothing I’m wearing.
He is tall with broad shoulders. The wreath of green olive leaves rests on his glistening, dark curls. And his eyes? Dark-green pools my soul could dive into and drown.
He is the target, I remind myself. But I don’t feel like I’m stalking him. Just the opposite. In this style of dancing, the women step backwards as the men “lead” them around the dance floor. My steps are light. I feel like I’m fleeing backwards as he pursues me with hungry eyes. I’m fleeing, but his arms direct my every step.
“I gotta get out of here,” I mumble.
“Great idea!” he says. “I know a shortcut.”
He lets go of my waist and I miss the warmth already. But he keeps hold of my hand and pulls me easily through the crowd surrounding the dance floor.
I find myself in the temple proper and he hurries past marble pillar after marble pillar. There she is, Juno herself, Queen of Olympus, Mother of the Gods. The marble statue sits on a marble throne beneath a half dome. Behind the throne, he twitches aside the blue curtain backdrop. There’s a small hallway ending in an elevator.
He lets go of my hand and steps inside.
I’m not supposed to leave the temple, but then, he has the key. The key is my objective. Where he goes, I must follow.
My face must be showing a million emotions and he cocks his eyebrows. He’s saying “Wanna come?”
I do, but I also have no choice. I need that key. While his father, the Duke, is off planet, the key hangs from the neck of the heir apparent. The key is the only piece missing for the Vesta Society to gain access to Daddy’s sanctum sanctorum on the family estate. And to the military secrets in his vault.
I plaster on a wide smile. “What fun!” I say and step inside the elevator.
The doors close and he leans in for a kiss. I’m not sure whether it’s the elevator or his warm lips that make my stomach drop and flip. My hand is on his chest and I feel the warmth seeping through his crisp, white shirt and feel his heavy, strong heartbeat. He pulls away before I realize this may be my best chance to grab the key.
The elevator doors have opened and he pushes through a glass door to the outside. He’s holding the door, waiting. Oh, I realize with a shock, he’s holding the door for me. I walk into the soft summer air filled with the smell of flower blossoms. We’re on a concrete walkway beside the lake. Behind his glossy curls, I see the lights of the famed Night Market curving around the lake.
Wait, we could have taken an elevator, instead of climbing all those stairs?
“C’mon,” he says, “let’s take a walk.”
He stretches out his arm, offering me his hand.
He leads me through the cerulean booths of the market, past wonders I can scarcely believe, to a platform floating above the lake. In the lake’s surface, the stars dance and blaze in a riot of color. This really must be a dream.
I turn back to face him and a reflection from his shirt drags me back to the task at hand. The key at his neck is catching the light from the market.
“Keeping secrets, are we?” I tease, pointing at the key.
“This? No, this is just an old family heirloom.”
“Would you like to try it on?”
I can’t believe my luck. “Sure,” I say, doing my best to sound casual.
As he gently slips the chain down around my neck, I try to guess at how fast I can run in this dress after climbing all those stairs.
Before I can finish the thought, the key begins to vibrate and radiate an unnerving warmth. Within moments, I feel my nothing-of-a-dress go rigid. I try to move, but only my arms are free.
“What is this?!” I demand.
His once charming smile now turns predatory.
“Have no fear, little fish,” he says, caressing my cheek. I try to recoil, but my crimson tomb prevents it so I punch him square in the nose instead, knocking the wreath from his head and sending it into the lake.
The Marquess reels and almost topples into the water himself.
“She’s quite spirited, isn’t she?” says a voice behind me. As a figure steps into view, I find myself face to face with the Duke Duoro.
The Marquess manages to regain his composure, his once perfect nose now as crooked as an ox bow.
“Yes, Father, the Sisters of the Vesta Society have delivered on their promise . . . for once. She’ll make an excellent offering. Juno will be pleased.”
“Offering?! What are you talking about?” I let out a string of profanities that would’ve made the spacers proud (and Helena blush).
“Come now, your sacrifice will ensure the safety of your pitiful planet for another meager trip around it’s star,” the Marquess explains with disdain.
It takes three of the Duke’s personal guards to bind my hands behind me before turning my now-rigid frame to face the lake.
The sound of footsteps on the platform behind me fades as a terrible silence falls over the market.
Below me, I plead with my reflection in the mirrored surface as I struggle to free myself. If I could just reach one of the synthetic skin bands now entombed beneath my scarlet cage, I just might survive this.
All at once, my reflection abandons me as the surface of the lake begins to boil. The water itself seems to flee in terror as I witness the nightmare rising from the depths below. A beastly, mournful wailing, being felt more than heard, penetrates my bones. I can no longer move, no longer speak, no longer breathe . . . .
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jeremy Wilson and I wrote together. He’s one of my favorite collaboration writers.
If you enjoyed Jeremy Wilson’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.