I’m sharing the finalist stories from the March Contest. Here’s an exciting ending by Alan K. Dell with more than one twist.
I started the story below. See how Alan starts after the red line and provides us with a story full of surprises.
BY ALAN K. DELL AND MATTHEW CROSS
It starts out as a single point of light. Like a star that wasn’t there, and then suddenly it is.
“You see it?” Jame asks.
“Yeah, I see it.”
Jame and I grew up side by side. He was born in a hospital in the City. Don’t ask which city. It’s the only one on this barely inhabited planet on the far, far edge of Polity space. But I was born at Home. Show Ma something once and she learns it forever. So once she saw how the doctors and nurses handled Jame’s birth, she said she could handle the second one herself.
Da says I take after Ma in that way. Stubborn, independent, fast learner. I guess that’s mostly true. Just like Jame seems to take after Da. But I don’t think I’ll ever be as capable and as confident as Ma. Nothing shakes her.
The point of light grows instantly brighter and then splits into two points of light and then three. Jame and I both curse under our breath at the same time. “Vacc!” It’s an old spacer curse we picked up from Ma. She grew up on a Polity academy ship and knows all the spacer ways.
Jame and I watch through our HUDs as the two dimmer lights separate from the larger one and drop off in arcs to the horizon. They dim and disappear. Those are not our worry.
The remaining point of light grows brighter. My HUD dims that part of the view screen slightly to prevent me from being blinded. Now that the object is close enough, the HUD can calculate its speed, and the numbers are stunning.
While I’ve been watching the light through my HUD, Jame has been reading the more detailed numbers on his arm band. It displays the extensive data collected by the Home system’s sensors, which alerted the family to the invasion in the first place.
“Home just picked up the three we saw, but there might be more, out of range further around the planet,” Jame says. His breath is harsh. “But three Planetkillers is enough to . . . ,” he pauses, thinking deeply, as he always does. He shakes his head. “Well, it’s enough, anyway. One for the City, one for the Factory and one for the Mines.”
I admire Jame. He’s a thinker, like Da, not a soldier. But his voice doesn’t shake until he says “the Mines.” I watch the white point of light bloom through my HUD. It’s headed straight towards us. Towards the Mines, which Ma and Da left us to protect.
Jame exhales slowly through his nose, his warm breath fogging the cool evening air, and I realize his body has grown rigid next to mine. He has settled his mind on something. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it and the splinter of cold fear on the back of my neck suddenly blooms like a web of crystals down by back. I’m afraid Jame is about to do something brave.
Ma has told me time again that men don’t usually have the strengths of women. But they are tools; useful tools, if you know how to handle them. Good men are loyal, and, if you let them, sometimes they’ll throw their lives away to save yours. “Don’t let them do that, Els, not unless it’s absolutely necessary. Too often a man will sacrifice himself before it’s necessary.”
I snatch Jame’s hand and I will my voice to be steady.
“Ma and Da told us both to guard the Mines. Both of us,” I say. “We stick together. You and me. Like always.”
Jame nods and his body relaxes just a bit. It will have to do for now.
“It will be heading for the Pass. Come on,” he says.
We both push off the ground with our hands and we’re instantly in standing position a foot above the ground. We slowly drop to our feet. Our planet is a small one and gravity is weak here. That’s why the firs can grow so many metes tall, Da says. And why we can bound over the house with a single leap.
Ma says our planet is small, dark and cold. But it doesn’t seem dark or cold to me. It just seems normal. And beautiful.
We drop 30 metes from the ridgetop to our hover. It doesn’t look like much. Just a skeleton of tubes with a bulb at the back for two seats. But in our low gravity, it can tow a wagon of ore near big as Home. I take the controls and Jame straddles the seat behind me. Everyone knows I’m the family’s best driver.
Staying out of view of sight and sensor of the Planetkiller, I whip around the sides of ridges until we reach the Pass. The Blades rise in darkness high into the sky. The Blades, the tallest mountain range on this continent, separate the City and the Factory on one side and the Mines on the other. We live on the side of the Mines. We’re the only humans on this side of the Blades. With all the machines to perform the labor, the Mines only need a couple of overseers. Pa manages the complex processes and schedules, the stuff Ma finds boring. Ma gets her hands dirty fixing broken machines and leading the charge when there’s a cave in.
There’s only a few families to manage the Factory as well. The Factory is the most valuable asset on the planet. Most valuable to the Polity, anyways. Because the Factory builds munitions for the war against the Republic.
We all knew this day might come. That the Republic might find our secret home. We’ve trained for every kind of attack imaginable, even Planetkillers. But, really, they were the last things we thought the Republic would send, not when they could simply bombard us from space. But nobody thought the Republic would attack the Mines, either. After all, what’s so valuable about a hole in the ground?
With Ma and Da gone to protect the Factory, it’s up to Jame and me to protect the Mines.
When we reach the base of the Blades, we hunker down beneath the shelter of the black rock edifice and wait. The sheer cliffs above us conceal half the evening sky in blackness.
The sonic boom of the Planetkiller’s shell traveling through the atmosphere finally assaults our ears. Then white brilliance creates a halo along the highest heights of the Blades. Finally, the egg that contains the Planetkiller strikes the ground, plowing a crater into the earth. A Planetkiller’s landing is its first strike. But this one’s attack is wasted on hectares and hectares of lonely mountains.
All of this I see in my mind’s eye because the Blades separate us from the point of impact. But we do feel the impact in the ground. It shakes the very Blades themselves, ever so slightly, and black chips of skree slither down the face of the Blades.
“It’s safe now,” Jame says.
Leaving the hover, we leap our way up the face of the Blades. Although we are a hundred metes above the ground, most of the Blades still climbs the sky above us. We rope ourselves together, and I lead the climb around to a low ledge that juts out over the Pass. Here we will make our stand.
The egg’s impact has thrown up a cloud of dirt that obscures the far horizon. It also interferes with Home’s sensors and Jame curses as he tries to check the status of the City and the Factory.
“I’m sure Ma and Da are fine,” he says finally. Neither of us believe it. The other two Planetkillers probably slammed directly into the City and the Factory, if the Republic could get readings of their locations. The only hope we have that our parents survived the initial attack is if they did not make it to the Factory before impact.
“We’re on our own,” he says, not looking at me but watching the horizon through his HUD. I nod, also staring at the horizon, waiting for the Planetkiller to emerge.
Finally, it’s head appears over a distant ridge. It’s basically a giant robot—if you can call a machine bigger than a city a robot—controlled by a whole team of human pilots and technicians. Even kloms and kloms away, I can feel its every footstep through my feet. The shoulders appear as it grows closer. It steps over ridges and clambers awkwardly but resolutely over mountains. The cloud of smoke and dirt from the crash hides the sun in the western sky, causing night to fall early.
Jame assembles the rocket launcher he carried in his backpack. I unload the two shells from my pack. As the Planetkiller marches closer, it’s footsteps begin to actually shake the ground, even up here on the stable rock of the Blades. My hands shake as I pass the first shell to Jame, but we move slowly and methodically. We do not make any mistakes.
From a kneeling position, Jame takes aim, using data inputs linked between the missile launcher and his HUD. He holds his breath and waits for the shake of the last footstep to subside. Then he launches the rocket.
As soon as it is launched, I know something is wrong. Perhaps it’s a stray wind blowing through the Pass, but the rocket begins a tight spiral that grows as it races towards the giant mech. Just as the rocket is about to reach the Planetkiller, it lifts a giant arm and a hail of dark shapes fly out to intercept the rocket. Even so, we must have caught them by surprise because the blast that occurs when Jame’s rocket meets the small cloud of defensive rockets pushes the mech backwards. For a moment, I think it’s going to fall, and a cheer rises in my throat. But the pilots inside manage to compensate and the Planetkiller catches itself on a back foot. It rises. And when the smoke of our attack clears, I can see no damage at all.
We load the second rocket, but I know Jame and I are thinking the same thing. We are going to fail. We may survive, but we are not going to stop this goliath. We’re just children playing at war. Maybe that’s why we make another mistake. We do not move. We stay in position. And the mech pilots make our position. They fire just one rocket. As it races towards us, I feel the gesture from the robot’s lifted hand is almost casual. Then Jame and I leap upwards.
When the blast comes, it throws us higher. It feels like someone punching my legs up into my chest. But I manage to grab a thin ledge above me as the blast subsides. I look down and see Jame hanging limply from the rope that links us. We’ve always been able to carry each other easily, so it’s no problem to pull him up to me.
He’s unconscious but still breathing. Lying on the ledge, I lash him to me. Then I leap up the face of the Blades, moving towards the back side of the mountain again. I find a small crevice where he will be safe from robot or beast. From my pack, I pull out a medical stabilizer. Crying silently, I attach it to his chest and place the rubber mask over his face. It will monitor his condition and, if necessary, help him breathe or restart his heart.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I whisper. “I love you.”
Before the Planetkiller can make it to the Pass, I’ve made it to the hover. With the rocket launcher strapped to my back, I flash through the Pass at top speed. I settle myself in the undergrowth beneath the trembling firs, every step of the Planetkiller jarring my whole body. I let it step over me and enter the Pass. I rise from hiding, sighting through my HUD, looking for any point of weakness.
The knees, I think, recalling my self defense classes.
The rocket flies true and strikes the back of the giant machine’s knee. Planetkillers are heavily armored, but I know right away I hit something vital. The gout of orange flame from the rocket’s explosion is overwhelmed by a cloud of white smoke or steam rising from the machine’s leg. The knee bends outwards with a pop and the giant lurches to the side. It’s head strikes the mountain wall.
I don’t make the same mistake twice. I don’t watch and wait. I leap.
It must be adrenaline because I swear I’m bounding as high as Da. The Planetkiller’s pilots have their hands full trying to restore control, but they may have already lost. It seems to be falling in slow motion with the most horrendous screeches. The awkward angles of its limbs and the close walls of the Pass form the perfect angles for me to land and leap further up the monster and plant charges from my backpack. Then I leap free and detonate them all.
Several puffs of white smoke rise up from its legs. The explosions seem small compared to the bulk of the thing. I’m not sure they’ll make a difference. But with great satisfaction, I watch as the behemoth falls forward and bashes its head against the floor of the Pass.
I just killed a Planetkiller!
All by myself, I killed a Planetkiller!
Wasting no time, I leap forward and climb the body. It’s easy now that it’s mostly prone. I find the hatch for the humans on the back of the machine, not on the head as I’d always imagined. I place charges all around the hatch and then leap high to a small ledge on the wall of the pass. I point my blaster at the opening and detonate the charges.
The smoke clears. I can’t believe my eyes. I don’t know exactly what I expected to see, but I never expected to see this.
Out of the hole climbs a six-limbed creature with a wide, flat head and four insectoid eyes. It stands mantis-like astride the hatch. It tilts its head, making a clicking sound with its chittering mandibles. I am frozen. Everything in my being is telling me to run, leap or bound away, but my body remains rooted.
Tentacles extend slowly out from the alien’s carapace and reach for me. I’m not what it expected, either. A mere human; a child by comparison.
It makes no threatening moves, but its tentacles caress my hair. Is this first contact? How did it find its way into a Republic Planetkiller? Where did it come from? Ever since I was a young girl, I was taught that there was only the Polity and the Republic in all the galaxy.
The hammering of my heart slows and I breathe easy. It doesn’t want to hurt me.
As if to punctuate my thoughts, the tentacles lash themselves to my temples. I convulse and writhe and my vision blurs. I see in my mind’s eye Republic ships engaged in fierce battle in the depths of space, one by one annihilated by their enemy. But it is not the Polity.
Knowledge fills in the cryptic vision. The Republic, in their careless expansion of far space, encroached into the territory of this insectoid species. In a few short months, the Republic was completely usurped. Yet the war with the Polity continued unabated. Except now the tide turned in favor of this new, alien Republic.
It’s no longer a war; it’s eradication. And . . . it’s good? My body feels light, my heart sings in the presence of this being from beyond the stars. I have met with God.
The vision fades from my mind. The tentacles recede. Bright orange lights–the wondrous fires of doom–flare on the horizon in the direction of the Factory and the City.
I look into the compound eyes of the divine. I gaze into its mandibles as they open like the gates of heaven, and I kneel before it.
It skitters forwards, razored forelimbs spread ready to embrace me and end my pitiable human existence. I am glad to be prey.
Two sharp cracks pierce the night. The god’s carapace splinters, and it falls away down the mech’s back. Jame clambers next to me, smoke rising from the barrel of his blaster.
“Els! Are you alright?”
I mumble something in reply, and he turns away with a smile. Groggy, I follow him inside the mech’s control center. The lights are on. The readouts show my attacks did minor damage at best.
“The Planetkiller isn’t broken!” cries Jame in triumph.
My hands move by themselves to the blaster at my side, raising it at Jame. Something inside me cries out to stop, but my body doesn’t listen.
There’s fear in his eyes. “What are you doing? Let’s use this thing to save Ma and Da.”
And I pull the trigger.
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Alan K. Dell and I wrote together. He’s a great collaboration writer!
If you enjoyed Alan’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.
You can also enjoy another version of this story with an ending written by the March Contest Winner, Jeremy Wilson.