I’m sharing the finalist stories from the June Contest. Here’s a hopeful ending with a twist or two by Jeremy Wilson.
Sur Veil Lance
BY JEREMY WILSON AND MATTHEW CROSS
I fly up in an arc and hover over the city lights of Minimagemma.
When I reach the peak of the arc and hold steady, my hoverpack hums a little louder. I’m not supposed to do this because it wears down the hoverpack faster. But there are so many rules under the Republic, who can keep them all straight?
Minimagemma means little jewel.
At least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t know Latin. I keep meaning to learn because the leaders in the Republic eat up all that ancient Roman stuff. Statues, robes, pillars. All that random debris.
To honor that tradition, the leaders of Minimagemma re-covered their aboveground fiber channels to look like an aqueduct. I don’t know what that is, exactly. It looks like a bridge to nowhere, to me. But I heard the local Republic delegation was very impressed.
They covered the thing in blue lights, so you can’t miss it.
“Hey,” says Jolo, breaking my reverie. “You gonna hang up there all night? Or are you gonna do your job?”
Jolo is joking of course. He doesn’t care about the job any more than I do. And why should he?
The job is basically to terrorize the good folk of Minimagemma.
We are the Sur, the guardians, the watchful eye from above. Sent by the great and beneficent leaders of the Republic to protect this petty little planet. But protect them from what? This planet is so far from any of the Republic’s enemies, there’s no chance of an invasion. And what could Jolo and I do, just two lances, against a determined invading force?
That’s right, two lances per shift to protect the whole city. And some of the smaller cities only get one lance.
So . . . think about it. Two lances flying over the city day and night. Showing off their flashy compound wings like some kind of Angel of Death and carrying glowing lances. Are we really there to protect the city from the Republic’s enemies? Or, just maybe, are we there to remind the good folks of Minimagemma that the Republic is watching over them?
Here’s a hint. The Republic always sends Sur from other planets. We never protect our own planets, our own homes. Wherever we are sent, we are always strangers. And on this planet, also called Minimagemma, I don’t think any of the Sur are even from the same planet. We’re all strangers to each other. Makes it harder to get chummy. Makes it harder to trust each other.
Jolo is in charge tonight. He’s more senior than me, been on planet maybe three years, which is apparently a long time. He decides we’ll do some maneuver practice, which is my favorite.
Jolo and I are the lucky ones. And we know it. Even though we were both basically kidnapped from our homes as children and shipped off planet, there are a lot worse things than our current duties. We could be serving as Auxilia in the Republic’s wars with the Polity and other enemies. Because of our skills and test results—and passing all the necessary loyalty tests—we joined the Sur. And, for now at least, we “protect” Minimagemma by flying overhead most nights with our glowing lances.
And let’s face it, flying with wings is pretty cool.
My first station with the Sur was on a massive farming planet. We actually rode these smelly, native beasts called Loxo. They were twice as tall as me, covered in tangled hair and smelled like waste matter. But they were very loyal, and some of the lances taught their Loxo to do tricks.
My second station was only one year on an Inner Ring planet. There we actually flew patrol ships with our traditional glowing lances built into the ships’ weaponry. Now that was a cool station. There was so much to do there that I blew through my stipendium fast. I still owe a few guys back there, but it shouldn’t take me long to send the credits. There’s really nothing worthwhile to do here except fly, and I can do that for free.
I’m not gonna lie. When I saw my first set of wings, I thought they were hokey. And on the transport here, I’d heard some stories about Sur falling out of the sky because the old machinery was so busted. But that was mostly legend. Despite a few falls, almost no Sur has actually ever died “in harness.” As they taught us in training, as long as the hoverpack is operational, the worst that will happen is a slow descent to the ground. The magnetically articulated wings do take some of the burden off the hoverpack by allowing for gliding and breaking a dive, but they are not essential to staying aloft. Which is good because it’s the vaccing wings that are most likely to fail.
I follow Jolo down to an altitude just above the building tops. For practice, we follow the network of streets. We are playing a game of “Match This” with me trying to imitate Jolo’s moves. I’m pretty good in the harness—a natural some say—but Jolo has two years on me, and he can still trip me up sometimes. We work our way towards the city center, which is a little odd. The city center is where the most elite and loyal of society live. Not that we care about local crime, but there’s rarely even a mugging in the tightly guarded center. We only go there to stand pretty behind the leaders giving speeches. Our brilliant, white wings, our glowing lances and our silver “veil” masks are paparazzi favorites.
Jolo flits between the arches of the aqueduct, blue lights playing over the constantly moving testa of his wings. I follow, trying to make the minute adjustments to replicate his flares and barrel rolls. It takes all my concentration, and I barely notice we are approaching the Forum Romanum. He exits an arch at near top speed and follows the top of the blue-limned wall surrounding the Forum Romanum. Every planetary capital in the Republic has a Forum Romanum sealed inside a wall. Some even have an inner wall and an outer wall. What are they so afraid of? Mixing elbows with the dirty masses?
“Evasive maneuvers!” Jolo shouts through his Veil right into my ear.
Without thinking, I bank a hard left downwards while Jolo banks a hard right upwards. I assume we’re still drilling until I see the glare of the rocket tail, a shimmering trail of light pointing straight at Jolo.
I see him hanging there in the dark, night sky. An unearthly figure, with white wings outspread, his dark flightsuit lit beneath by the city lights and in the reflection of his Veil I see the rocket’s bright glare.
Then the rocket explodes between us. The brilliant explosion blinds me before my Veil’s autodimming feature kicks in. I’ve drilled for blind flight. I follow the Veil’s audio prompts until my flight is level. It will take precious seconds for my vision to clear and taking evasive maneuvers while blind is probably more dangerous than any rocket fire. So I take a moment to send a distress signal to Sur headquarters.
I make a guess as to the last direction I saw Jolo and I begin a gentle glide path in that direction. It’s a stupid move, but instinct tells me that the rocket exploded without hitting Jolo directly. He knew something was up and had begun evasive maneuvers, so maybe he survived the blast. But if he did, he’s likely injured.
My nightvision returns, and my eyes sweep the horizon and then the streets below for any sign of Jolo. Instead, I see dark figures emerging from almost every building on the outside border of the wall. They are flowing towards one of the major gates to the Forum Romanum. The Righteous Victory Gate, I think it’s called. They are chanting something, but I don’t know enough of the local dialect to understand it. Jolo has learned a good bit of the local patois. Too bad he’s not here to help me
I see a flash of white in the dimness. It disappears in an alley. I bank hard to follow.
Then I see something I’d never expect in a million years. A tank is crawling up the avenue that leads to the Righteous Victory Gate. It’s a homemade job. Really just a heavy hovercraft with a plasma cannon mounted to the top. But I’m pretty sure it can take out the gate.
Wow, I think, what has happened on Minimagemma? This is a full-scale rebellion!
I take careful aim and zap the tank with my lance. A golden shaft of light—a very powerful laser—strikes out and destroys the tank. That probably leaves one more charge in the lance. It’s powerful, but it sucks juice like a Loxo sucks water. It’s hard to believe the lances once were actually considered good weapons.
I rise higher, ignoring the crowds and looking for any sign of Jolo. Any reflection of samite white. Any glow of a yellow lance.
I follow my Sur training for nighttime maneuvers. I close my eyes for ten breaths and when I open them, I keep them unfocused. I pay attention to any change in my whole peripheral vision. Only then do I detect the faint yellow glow, moving along an alleyway. It’s headed towards the gate, not away.
Silently, I alight at the mouth of the alley, my lance at the ready.
A handful of dark figures running towards me pull up sharply. Two of them awkwardly carry a set of wings. A third carries the lance. And at the back of the group is Gremaine. His silver veil hangs around his neck.
By the light of the glowing lance, I can see his eyes widen. “Leila!”
“Gremaine, what are you —” but I don’t get to finish. Gremaine lunges forward and grabs me in a tight hug.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” he manages through tears. He releases me and notices my armor. “You’re a Sur?”
“What are you doing here, Gremaine?”
“They’re gone Leila. Mum, Da, the colony, all of it . . . gone.”
I hear his words but they make no sense. “What? What are you talking about? No, you’re wrong.”
“I was there, Leila! I had to watch it burn!”
“Wha— . . . the Polity?”
“No—” his chest convulses, “No, it was the Republic. The colonies peacefully protested the tribute of children and the Republic made an example of them. They sent Planetkillers, Leila! PLANETKILLERS!”
I fall to my knees, unable to breathe. My vision blurs. Through my tears, I’m dimly aware of the chanting again as a mass of angry figures passes the mouth of the alley, heading toward the Righteous Victory Gate. “What’re they saying?” I mumble, desperate to distract myself from the horrible truth tearing through my brain.
“The tide is rising. The storm has come. You will repay the blood you have stolen.”
“What does it mean?”
“You know what it means, Leila. The people will no longer cower while the Republic sends their children to be fodder for the Polity’s plasma cannons.”
“But why here?” I ask. “There’s nothing here. We’re on the outskirts of the empire,” my mind grasping for anything to wake up from this nightmare.
“Leila—” he drops to his knees to look me in the eye, “this is happening everywhere. They’ve gone too far. As for Minimagemma, what better place to hide an experimental weapons lab than the outer rim, on the other side of an impenetrable wall, surrounded by those most loyal to the Republic?”
I don’t want to believe it but something inside me screams that he’s right. I lift my gaze to meet his. “What happens now?”
“We have to bring down that gate. Otherwise the people will be slaughtered. A fully charged lance should be able to do it but this one was damaged when your partner fell.”
His mention of Jolo must have stirred something in my eyes.
“He’s banged up and unconscious but alive,” he reassures me. “Do you have any charge left in yours?”
“Should be enough for one shot.”
“Let’s hope you’re right.”
We exit the alley onto the Via Sacra, taking cover behind the charred husk of the tank. Once the lances are primed, we fire. For a moment, daylight seems to descend as the wall is bathed in golden light. A cloud of dust and debris obscures the gate. We hold our breath, waiting for the smoke to clear. Moments turn into agonizing minutes.
A gentle breeze coaxes breath into our lungs and reveals a tangled, glowing mass of alloy and stone. With a deafening groan, what’s left of the gate crashes down and a wave of anger, righteousness, and hope crests through the opening.
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jeremy and I wrote together. Jeremy is one of my favorite collaboration writers and a frequent competitor in the writing contest. His writing is so compelling that if he does not win the contest, he always makes the finalist’s cut. You may recall that Jeremy was the March Contest winner, and as one of my 2022 Champions, he cannot win another contest in 2022. He also won the April 2021 Contest.
If you enjoyed this story, I know you’ll love the version written by Frasier Armitage that won the June Contest. Frasier was the very first winner of the contest in September 2020 and he has gone on to win the contest in 2021 and now again in 2022 with this June Contest. Check out Frasier’s prize-winning ending.
If you enjoyed Jeremy Wilson’s ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.