The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is
Alan R. Paine
I started the story below. See how Alan starts after the red line and provides us with a clever and happy ending.
Mountains of Clouds
BY ALAN R. PAINE AND MATTHEW CROSS
Wearing my bright red coat, I scout the trail ahead of the Faustus clan.
They’ve spent six months in a hidden orbit elsewhere in the system, waiting on a clear-weather window for a landing on Y-12, the only designation for our secret planet. Three days ago, we got word of the landing site and I raced over the mountain ranges to meet them. Those were happy days, running in the sunlight over tricky terrain, the harsh wind rustling my fur. On days like this, I don’t miss being human at all.
They were late, of course, but it was a solid landing. The weather on Y-12 is querulous. Anything other than a crash is considered a success. Decades ago, the City itself crash landed here before burrowing itself deep into its hidden valley. The damage set back the Deliverable by at least six months. Secrecy has its price.
Even two days after the landing, the weather continues to hold. A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. I turn to return to the camp to wake Dr. Faustus, Dr. Faustus, and their three children. They brought five hovers with built-in skis and each hover tows a hover-lifted trailer. Landings are so rare that every new recruit to the City must not only must bring their own gear but also whatever crucial supplies are most needed in the City. Every micron of space in the hovers is carefully scrutinized by committee before a landing.
But Dr. Faustus is the real prize. She and her wife, a respected experimental physicist in her own right, have defected from the Republic. Rumor in the City goes that after the carefully planned defection, their ship came directly to Y-12, only diverting course now and then to shake any possible pursuing Republic spacecraft. A calculated risk. And an indication of how urgently the Deliverable is needed in the war with the Republic.
As I turn, a cold wind blows down from the highest peaks. It ruffles the fur on my back and my hackles rise. The cold does not create this reaction. My thick fur is made to handle the worst of Y-12’s winter storms. No, it’s a scent carried on the wind that my fox body reacts to. An oily, metallic smell.
Nothing on Y-12 smells like that. Nothing outside the City anyways, and the City is still two days’ travel away. The City is the only human habitation on the planet. A planet hidden inside a nebula treacherous to cross. A nebula guarded by a fleet of Polity stealth ships. So there is no way a human, or any human smell, made its way to the wilds of Y-12 by accident.
I have to assume a Republic Special Forces team has somehow followed the Drs. Faustus to Y-12 and landed during the same clear-weather window. The RSF always work in teams of three. If I’m lucky, at least one of them has been injured or killed in the landing. As no enemy ships were detected by the City or our secret guardians in space, it’s likely the RSF attempted to brave the upper atmosphere in individual landing suits instead of a ship. It’s just the sort of foolhardy mission the RSF are famed for.
But if even one team member survived the landing, the Republic had pulled off an impressive feat. So far, their only mistake had been their failure to account for me and the smells they gave off. But that’s not surprising. No one off planet even knows about Dr. Amdo Basnet’s arctic fox project.
The good news is that they haven’t found us yet. If the RSF knew where we were, we’d all be dead already. Another frison sweeps through my hackles. The Faustuses were safely sleeping in camp when I left, but that was a couple hours ago. I have to get back!
Careful, I warn myself. Play it smart.
I scamper into the underbrush and shake myself from head to tail. As I shake, the bright red and white hairs shift, turning into mottled greens and browns to match my surroundings in the lowland evergreen forest.
I carefully and quietly tread a circuitous route under the cover of the trees back to the camp. I wake only Dr. Faustus. I don’t have time for a lot of questions. Speaking through the amulet around my neck, I tell her the RSF have followed her to Y-12. To her credit, she only nods tightly, but I see tears in the corners of her eyes glimmer in the early morning light.
She and her wife each have a basic blaster for the trek through the wilderness, but they stand no chance against even a single RSF. I tell her that her only hope of surviving–and saving her family–is to hide. I’m the scout. It’s my job to dispatch the RSF team or reach the City and send help. Under the dark-green shadows of the trees, I see dark despair shade her eyes. Good, at least she knows what we face. Perhaps she’ll follow my directions to the letter.
Abandoning their gear, the Faustus family follows me into the forest carrying only an inflatable snow shelter and cold tack for two days. Encased beneath a mound of shaded snow, they’ll need to wait until help returns. My amulet has no beacon or tracker to make me untraceable. The shelter has an emergency beacon, but that will alert the RSF. Everything depends on me.
I head towards the mountain range again. If I can make it unseen to the top peaks, I can approach the first RSF, the one I smelled, from a direction that gives no clue of the direction of the City or the Faustus family. I bound from rock to rock and criss-cross cold mountain streams several times, making my back trail impossible to follow, even for a wolf or an arctic fox. The sun disappears as I make my climb through the cloud cover. My human mind, the overlaid copy of the mind once belonging to Dr. Amdo Basnet, begins to formulate a plan.
Military strategy is difficult. Like all foxes in the project, my mind is a scan of Dr. Basnet’s brain overlaid onto that of a native arctic fox pup. There’s not a lot of extra room in a fox’s gray matter, so I only have Amdo’s core memories and personality, just enough to make me entirely loyal to the Polity and the Deliverable, and knowledge of human speech. I have survival training, a basic skill for all guides, but no tactical training. Scouts rely on orders, personal experience in the wilds and instinct. Planning does not come naturally.
Like Amdo, I retreat into logic. I have no weapons. I assess the tools I do have. I have the collar and amulet, which allows me to speak. I have my color-shifting fur. I have speed and guile. And I have superior knowledge of the terrain.
Perhaps I can distract them until the normal weather of Y-12 reasserts itself. I hit the first patch of snow on the mountainside. Without thinking, I shake myself and my coat shifts to white. Not long after, I catch a break. I wander across the footprints of the first RSF!
Republic Special Forces are like wolves. In the first few moments of contact, the important thing is to move quickly, draw attention, and count on their predatory nature to drive them to follow. But unlike wolves, the RSF can attack unseen from a long distance. And though they travel as a pack, they spread wide to encircle their foe. They won’t risk propellant weapons because the sound would give away their position. So the greatest danger is a long-distance laser pulse. Silent. Deadly.
I follow his trail along the ridgeline and spy him easily. He has set up a sniper post behind a spill of rocks. He wears the charging pack for his laser rifle on his back, ready to move as soon as he fires a shot. When firing at full range, it takes several mins to recharge.
I slowly climb over the ridgeline to approach him from the back. Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. The clouds are hiding the steep drop off on this side of the mountain. That gives me an idea.
“Hey,” I call. What do I say next? I did not think this through. Before I can think of anything else to say, the RSF leaps silently and cleanly over the ridge. He lands and spots me immediately. He has the rifle in one hand and a long, black knife in the other.
The look on his face says he did not expect to see a fox. In a flash, he scans the expanse of spotless white snow, and seeing no other enemy, raises his rifle. I allow my deepest fox instincts to take control. In the flick of an eyelash, I bound down the mountainside.
In front of me, I see a puff of steam from vaporized snow and hear the peculiar whooshing sound that frozen water makes when a long tunnel of it instantly boils to gas and emerges from a pinpoint hole. He took his first shot. That leaves the knife and maybe a sidearm blaster. Blasters are notoriously clumsy shots, but up close one can vaporize my entire body.
I disappear into the cloud bank. He follows but stops when he’s completely surrounded by mist. He speaks softly, probably on a comm to his teammates. If he waits until reinforcements arrive, I’ll lose my advantage.
I give him a little incentive. With a swish of my tail, it turns red. I wave it like a red flag and run right along the nearly invisible clifftop. The RSF leaps. And falls.
Falling through the fog, he spins and fires a blaster from his hip. The green blast expands rapidly into a cone, wiping away the swirls of fog in its path. But the shot is wild and I merely flinch. The RSF does not scream and I do not hear the impact. It’s kloms down, so that’s no surprise. The wind rises and the whirling vapor closes the hole left by the blaster.
One down. Two to go.
Knowing the RSF team has my coordinates, I bound back to the mountaintop and head down the valley side of the mountain range to the most dangerous area I know. It’s well known for crevasses and avalanches. When I can, I stick to cloud cover, which neutralizes their long-range weapons. I reach the hazardous area undetected.
When I meet the next RSF, we are both shocked. I’m headed down the mountain on the crusty snow as he heads up. We lock eyes and I freeze. An odd smile crosses his face and he scans the pristine, white mountainside for other threats. He does not raise his weapon. That’s when I realize they still have not learned the secret of Dr. Basnet’s foxes. He thinks I’m part of the natural wildlife. And, I am, sort of.
The wind shifts and the river of clouds below moves more swiftly. I scamper up the layers of crusty snow and cracked ice. To my fur-covered paws, the footing feels secure, but I know the innocent-looking layer of snow hides unknown dangers with every step. I have no particular plan in mind except to outlast the RSF on this treacherous terrain. I’m betting my life that I know this terrain better than a trained RSF. Betting my natural instincts against his lifetime of rigorous training. But I’m also betting on something else more basic: Gravity.
I’m not light as a bird, but I don’t weigh much. This muscle-bound RSF is loaded down with a backpack full of gear and laser batteries. As long as I can keep him on this precarious shelf of ice–and avoid getting shot–I think I can last longer. But in the wilderness, there’s always an element of chance thrown in to keep things interesting.
The cloud river below ripples and parts, revealing the dark, evergreen trees in the valley. I’m losing my cover from the third RSF hiding in the valley. I need to speed things up.
“Follow me,” I call softly. A visor hides his eyes, but I can see his relaxed stance tighten. He realizes I’m more than I first appear.
The RSF snaps his rifle to his shoulder and I scamper further upwards. I sneak a look back, but he has lowered the rifle. Either the wisps of fog between us or my zig-zag pattern must make the shot look risky. He whips a blaster from his hip and fires a shot. The blast melts a large section of snow between us, but I’m out of blaster range by that time. Chunks of ice and melted snow begin to slide down the mountain towards the RSF. From the corner of my eye, I also see trickles of powdered snow dusting down from above me. The force of that blast unsettled the entire mountainside.
I turn and head neither up nor down the mountain but sideways, towards more secure footing. The RSF does the same. The wedge of ice, slush and water rushing down on him widens. It’s hardly an avalanche, but it places him in more immediate peril than me. I can focus on getting to safer ground, but I keep him in my peripheral vision as I scamper across now-looser footing.
The RSF is heading along a path parallel to my own. A river of ice melt swirls around his knees. He leaps and comes down hard. No! No, he disappears completely beneath the white torrent. And then the mountainside is still again.
There’s only one reason for the tall RSF to have disappeared like that. A crevasse. Sometimes you can defy Mother Nature, but you can’t beat gravity.
Two down. One to go.
But is there still one out there?
A sharp shower of rain comes over and I curl up in the lee of a rock to wait it out. I am hungry. It’s a pity the RSFs fell where I couldn’t reach them. The part of me that is Dr. Amdo Basnet feels repulsed by the idea, but foxes are ready to eat almost anything. And neither of the enemy that I have met so far would have hesitated to eat me if they had gotten the upper hand.
Waking from a doze, I cling to the remnant of a dream I was having. It nearly slips away but I hang onto it. My sub-conscious has suggested something. If I could do that, I think, then I would be the most cunning of cunning foxes.
The air smells fresh and clean. Then, as the breeze shifts towards the north, a new odor reaches my nose. It’s human again, if you can call an RSF human, but his time there is a note of stress. Perhaps he is injured or fearful of how his comrades were defeated. Whatever his condition, he will be hyperalert and dangerous.
When I catch up with him, he is limping, painfully but steadily, in the direction of the Faustus hideout. He sits down to rest and bites into a field ration bar but never stops looking around, ready to fire at anything. I approach through the undergrowth and position myself in a small gully close to where he is sitting.
“Help, help!” I call out in a plaintive female voice. “I’m trapped!”
The RSF doesn’t respond.
“Please help me! I shall be ever so grateful.”
Logic should tell the RSF that the chances of there being a damsel in distress right next to where he has chosen to rest are exceedingly remote, but the RSFs are not bred for intelligence.
“I’m not sure I can hold out much longer,” I cry.
I hear him groaning as he gets to his feet and hobbles over to where I lie partially concealed. The lower part of my body is colored to look like the face of a young woman with my tail a head of blond hair. My head, camouflaged in the grass, watches his every move. He seems convinced by my less than perfect artwork. Sometimes people only see what they want to see.
“If you reach down with something,” I say, “I might be able to pull myself up.”
He grunts and passes me the barrel of his rifle.
“I can’t grip on that,” I say. “Could you pass down the other end? You’d make me so happy.”
My heart is pounding as he turns the rifle and offers me the stock. I almost pity his gullibility as I flip off the safety catch and press the trigger. In a short time, I shall be back at the Faustus camp, well fed and giving them the good news that the coast is clear.
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Alan R. Paine 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.