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This is a finish-my-story contest where all you have to do is write the ending in 500 words or less.

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2022.

June Contest: All submissions are due by midnight June 15, 2022.

Sur Veil Lance

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 Josol. His silver veil hangs around his neck.

By the light of the glowing lance, I can see his eyes widen. “Leila!”


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Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

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Alien tentacles worm their way through the Republic

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

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.

Planetkiller

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.”

White brilliance creates a halo along the highest heights of the Blades. Illustrated by Joe Cross.

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.

A Planetkiller’s landing is its first strike. Illustration by Joe Cross.

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.

The shoulders appear as it grows closer. Illustration by Joe Cross.

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.

As the Planetkiller marches closer, it’s footsteps begin to actually shake the ground. Illustration by Joe Cross.

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.”

“No.”

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.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Another great story ending from a December finalist

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

I’m sharing the finalist stories from the December Contest. Here’s my favorite ending among the finalists by Jeremy Wilson.

You may recall that Jeremy was the April Contest winner. As one of my 2021 Champions, he could not win the contest again in 2021. But this is definitely an award-winning story ending with breath-taking moments and as many twists and turns as the switchbacks of the . . .

Mountains of Clouds

BY JEREMY WILSON 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.

Photo by Benjamin Voros.

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 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.

A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. Photo by Luke Richards.

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. 

I bound from rock to rock and crisscross cold mountain streams. Photo by Steve Carter.

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.

A layer of clouds floats between mountain peaks on the left and the right.
Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. Photo by Samuel Ferrara.

“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.


With the second RSF safely entombed, I continue across the snowpack until the snow thins and I reach the boulder field. The sound of the snowslide must have alerted the last RSF, so I quickly duck underneath the nearest outcrop and stop to plan my next move.

The unexpected stench of decay catches my nose. I slink from shadow to shadow, following the smell. Rounding a corner, I come face to face with the third RSF. I panic and try to shake my coat to gray to match the surrounding stone, but it’s too late. The RSF is staring straight at me.

I shut my eyes and brace for pain. My heart hammers in my chest. The world stops. I breathe once . . . then again . . . . An eternity passes.

Confused, I dare to look. The RSF is still staring at me but hasn’t moved. With disbelief I realize the third RSF is dead. Something must have gone wrong during entry, and he landed on the jagged rocks and died. I nearly faint with relief.

I wind my way down the rest of the mountain to the river and then follow it towards the forest. With the RSF dispatched, I head directly back to the shelter to collect Dr. Faustus and her family. We must get to the City.

A twig snaps and pain lances through my back leg. I yelp and tumble end over end. Disoriented, I lay staring up at the darkening sky. In my peripheral, a shadow emerges from behind a tree.

A fourth RSF! The Republic must be desperate.

The RSF steps forward and removes her knife. I struggle to get to my feet, my back leg unusable. The RSF grabs me by the tail.

“What sort of abomination are you? It seems the Polity has been busy.” She sneers and lifts me into the air. Pain shoots through my tail and my fox brain takes over. I snap at the RSF and swipe with my claws. The RSF laughs and punches my soft underbelly, wrenching the breath from my lungs. In desperation, I go limp and feign being unconscious. The RSF lifts me up higher so we’re face to face and leans in to deliver some final reproach.

I lash out, trying to clamp my jaws around her neck. She squeals in surprise, dropping her knife to the ground. The cowl of her armor saves her and she’s able to pry my jaws apart. I fall to the ground and land on the knife. Pain sears my shoulder and warmth begins pooling beneath me. The RSF retrieves her knife and stands over me. My vision darkens as she raises the knife, her eyes full of hate.

A green flash blinds us both and the upper half of the RSF disappears into ash. Behind her, Dr. Faustus stands with her blaster raised, hands shaking. I can feel the last rays of sun, but I can no longer see them. The wind ruffles through my fur as the world fades.


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.

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Matthew Cross

P.S. If you enjoy Jeremy’s writing style and story-telling ability, you’ll definitely want to read these other story endings he wrote for previous contests and one he wrote as a collaboration with other Champions:

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This is a finish-my-story contest where all you have to do is write the ending in 500 words or less.

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

March Contest: All submissions are due by midnight March 15, 2022.

Planetkiller

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.”

White brilliance creates a halo along the highest heights of the Blades. Illustrated by Joe Cross.

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.

A Planetkiller’s landing is its first strike. Illustration by Joe Cross.

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.

The shoulders appear as it grows closer. Illustration by Joe Cross.

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.

As the Planetkiller marches closer, it’s footsteps begin to actually shake the ground. Illustration by Joe Cross.

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.


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Matthew Cross

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This is the winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest–December

A red fox walks through a forest at night
Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

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.

Photo by Benjamin Voros.

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.

A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. Photo by Luke Richards.

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. 

I bound from rock to rock and crisscross cold mountain streams. Photo by Steve Carter.

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.

A layer of clouds floats between mountain peaks on the left and the right.
Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. Photo by Samuel Ferrara.

“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.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross