Each month, I’ll post a new, unfinished story. Write your own ending in 500 words or less. Post your ending as a comment at the bottom of the contest story page.
I will read all the entries. I will judge them based on three factors:
How interesting the ending is.
How well the entry continues the style and feel of my part of the story.
How well written the entry is, including if it contains a good mix of exciting action, snappy dialogue, and vivid description. (Not all endings require dialogue, but if done well, it always helps.)
What about the prizes? OK, Slytherin, if you want to know so badly, skip to the end below!
All entries must be submitted as a comment on the original story contest page by midnight on the 15th day of the contest month. If the comments remain open after that time, you can leave a comment or paste your story ending, but it will not be considered for judging.
I will pick a winner. I will announce the winner in a new blog post by the end of the month. I will also announce the winner on Twitter at @mattcrosswrites. If you leave your Twitter handle in your post (and if you win), I will include your Twitter handle in my announcement. On Twitter, I will mention you more than once. Probably an embarrassing number of times. I’m very proud of all my contestants, and especially proud of the winners.
Content and Name
All story content must be PG-rated or G-rated. Because I am the judge, I will decide what is PG-rated. If your submission is more like PG-13 or more “mature,” I will read the story and I may share a comment with you if I like it. But I will not allow it to post to this site. (I like all good writing, but this site is just not the right forum for such “mature” content.)
If you want an example, here is a bit of violence contained in a winning entry. This is the most visceral we’ve gotten so far. “Less than a second later, a searing bolt of plasma hit his chest like a sledgehammer and sent him tumbling backwards into the cold depths of the Elizabeth River.”
Your name and your Twitter handle don’t have to be real names. I love pen names! But don’t make me feel foolish posting them, or I won’t pick you as the winner. I’m not going to announce the winning story was written by Iam A. Moron, also known on Twitter as @FartFace. (I may be a moron and a fart face, but don’t make me announce it on the internet!)
Do you have to provide a Twitter handle? No.
Do you have to provide a real e-mail address? Yes. Without an e-mail address, I can’t send you the prizes. And I won’t pick you as the winner.
Who owns the story?
We do. I own the beginning I wrote. You own the ending you wrote. The complete story that includes your ending is owned by both of us. It will be written “by [Your Name] and Matthew Cross.”
If you send me a story ending by posting it in the comments on my website (or if you e-mail it to me), then you are giving me permission to post any part of your submitted story content on any page of my website forever.
Announcing the winner
By the end of the contest month, I will post the winning story–my beginning and your ending–as a blog post for all of our fans to read. If I have enough good entries, I may also post two or three finalist stories. At this time, I only have the resources to give one prize. To the winner go the spoils. (Also, “There can be only one!”)
For the September contest, I’m awarding the winner a $50 Amazon gift card, a hand-crocheted rocket amigurumi, and much more! See the complete list of prizes here. (Please note that I’m a little behind on making the crochet trophies. The winner will get it but may have to wait a bit.)
And I will post your winning story on my website! Fame and glory await you!
I am an android, and I am thinking in the first person. That’s not right.
Or is it?
I trudge through the late afternoon wreckage of Stockheim, the largest city near Dr. Herbst’s country villa. After the Pulse, only a few humans remain in Stockheim.
Everything is broken, including me.
I’m forgetting things.
That’s not right, either. I don’t forget things. I store data; I delete data. But ever since Dr. Herbst started filling my files with his library, I’ve had trouble accessing operational files. Dr. Herbst used every bit of available space in my networks to save the planet’s culture and history. He should not have done this. He said so himself.
“I should not be doing this,” he said. “If you were a human, this would fry your brain. That’s a technical term, of course.”
He chuckled to himself.
I have not been programmed to laugh. It’s not a necessary feature for a housekeeper android.
The record of that conversation with Dr. Herbst is a waste of storage space, but I no longer control what observational records I keep in long-term and short-term storage.
That’s not right.
Sometimes, usually at night under an open sky, I can access data from one week prior and set it for auto delete after 98 hours. I don’t know why that is the best time or why 98 hours is the most likely setting to work. But most of the time, I cannot delete the records stored throughout my frame that struggle for energy and resources.
Bits and pieces fly through my Opsys, causing a variety of tics and malfunctions.
So I will probably have the memory of that conversation until I can find another repository to download the massive library Dr. Herbst loaded into me.
I stop next to a moldy couch that has been singed on one corner. I tilt my head. I can hear the aria “How I Wept After the Fall,” sung by the virtuoso ultima soprano M. Cadere A. Gratia, from the operetta The Fall of Rome and Other Ancient Myths. I do not control what recordings play through my current observational mode. I do not think they are random, but I cannot detect a pattern.
The aria will last 6.29 mins. I stride swiftly but carefully down the four-lane road littered with mattresses, burnt-out hovers and even some human and animal bones. Most of the windows in the row houses are empty or just lined with jagged little teeth of glaze. Some few have been boarded up since the Pulse. Those houses may be occupied by any number of factions that compete over this wasteland.
“Be careful,” Dr. Herbst had said. “The Nature Cons Faction may still have a few EMPs left.” He stopped, breathed heavily and wiped his brow. “If they knew what you carry inside you–all our culture; all of it–I’m sure they’d let you pass. But they won’t stop to listen. As soon as they see an android, they’ll trigger an EMP if they have one.”
Dr. Herbst said some people believed the Nature Cons created the Pulse. Some believed it came from the sun. Still others believed it came from some unknown enemy in space.
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Dr. Herbst had said, breathing heavily. “It’s been years since the Pulse and there’s been no invading force. No, I don’t think it’s the Polity or the Republic. I think we did this to ourselves, and no one is coming to save us.”
Based on his respiration, pulse and the pallor of his face, my emergency protocols tried to call a first responder unit. But there are no more first responder units anymore, just the factions. The Nature Cons, the Savages, the Retro Cons, the Delirandos, the White Balance and others even Dr. Herbst did not know. After the first time I called an emergency response unit, Dr. Herbst’s scanning gear picked up the signal and he removed my transmitters. Now I can scan for signals, but I cannot transmit.
“That’s for the best,” Dr. Herbst had said. “All the factions scan for signals. No point in making it even easier for them to track you.”
My scanners are useful. I can often use them to avoid the roving bands of humans. I also used them to find the trace signals emanating from an operational hover buried beneath a collapsed bungalow. The hover got me from Dr. Herbst’s villa into the outskirts of Stockheim before it tilted 90 degrees on its side and began to smoke. I scrambled awkwardly from the seat, fell to the ground and limped away to get as far as possible from the pillar of rising smoke that would draw attention.
My legs are operating at 95 percent of optimal performance, which is one reason Dr. Herbst retrieved me from the basement of the Acosta’s house. That’s where I plugged myself in after the Delirandos killed the Acostas. My preservation protocols directed me to place myself between the Randos and the Acostas, but the Randos surrounded me and then pinned my right arm to the wall with a sharpened metal post. They made M. Acosta cry a lot before killing both of the Acostas. I recorded the event for law enforcement.
“There is no more law enforcement,” Dr. Herbst had said. “No point in keeping that horrible record.”
He used that data space to store part of the Music Collection. Sometimes when I detect danger, my Opsys pulls music from that file.
I have scoured Stockheim for a storage device large enough to hold even one segment of Dr. Herbst’s library. All I’ve found so far is a bulky black data box that’s even older than I am. I’ve lashed it under my right arm.
The aria ends, but I still hear a high-pitched, warbling tone. It is only detectable via sound waves, so the source is not electrical. Images flash through my Opsys. An instructional video on carpentry featuring a whining saw. A siren from an entertainment drama labeled “law enforcement procedural.” A sound clip of a crying baby.
I think it’s the sound of crying. Not a baby, but a child. The Acostas did not have children, so I do not have the nanny software bundle, but I do have a basic childcare protocol intended for short-term use. Dr. Herbst stuffed the file with images from the Central Museum of Art: oil paintings, plastic paintings and dynamic light images. The pieces of childcare information I can access indicate a child–likely a female child between the ages of 4 and 5–is crying from fear but not a recent physical injury.
I cock my head and set my audio receivers to maximum sensitivity. I do not know why I cock my head.
The sound of a crying child could be a trap, of course. But my childcare protocols send an insistent signal and the images of two abstract paintings to the Fundamental Rules programing in the Opsys. The Opsys filters out the two paintings–one of a screaming man and one of a child ballerina–as irrelevant.
I spend 33.79 mins locating the child. I walk through the wide open doorway and find her standing in the middle of an explosion of ancient splinters and wet carpet remnants. The damage to the room is old. It’s not a good setting for a child, but it is not the cause of the child’s trauma. She is wearing pajama bottoms and a halter top showing a yawning cartoon lion on the front. Both are filthy. The childcare protocols make a Level 5 recommendation to remove the soiled clothing and replace it with appropriate attire for a temperate Autumn afternoon. A quick visual scan of the room shows no alternative clothing is available.
Her face is smudged and mucus drips from her nose, but she shows no apparent injuries. The gauntness of her face shows she has been undernourished for some time, but without medical or nanny bundles, I cannot estimate how long. Even so, her stomach bulges underneath her shirt with baby fat, so the childcare protocols make a Level 3 recommendation to locate food within the next 4 hours.
“Are you injured?”
The child stops crying and stares at me with large, liquid eyes. She whispers something unintelligible.
“Are you hurt? Do you have a boo-boo?”
She silently shakes her head.
“Where are your parents? Where is Mommy?”
“Kilt,” says the girl.
I quickly check my files but cannot find any relevance of a men’s clothing item.
“Point to Mommy.”
Following the child’s pointing finger, I find the body of a woman in a half bathroom with melting laminate walls. I check for signs of life and then record the obvious murder details visually. The Opsys allows me to set the record for automatic deletion after 50 years.
I return to the child. “Where is Daddy?” “Daddy leff us,” the girl says. “He don’t . . . “ She pauses and mumbles to herself. “We onner own, baby girl.”
Androids are programmed to be ambidextrous, but Dr. Herbst recorded over all but the most basic functions for my right arm and hand, since the arm was damaged. It mostly works, but my right-hand grip only operates at 50 percent capacity. That’s why I had to lash the data box under my arm.
I offer my left hand to the girl. Holding her hand will significantly lower my defensive capability. But I have no weapons and I am only programmed with rudimentary defense-of-android and defense-of-humans routines.
“Come with me,” I say, pitching my voice to imitate a middle-aged, female woman.
The child wipes her nose absentmindedly with the back of her hand and then takes my left hand.
It’s time to leave Stockheim, anyway.
Perhaps a larger city will have what I’m seeking.
As we walk through the suburbs, I scan the surrounding buildings that likely would contain food. All the stores would have been scavenged years ago. I am programmed to make thousands of dishes based on processed and fresh foods. But I am not programmed to hunt or butcher food. A quick probability calculation shows that taking the child with me will lower the efficiency of my search for data storage by 43 percent. It will also increase the chances of being detected by a roaming faction by 57 percent and decrease my defensive capabilities by 69 percent.
I hear dogs baying 1.2 kloms away. The number of dogs and their spread pattern indicates a high likelihood they are being directed by humans. I pick up the child and we flee.
Even carrying the data box and the child, I can walk faster than most humans can run. For 18 mins, we place distance between ourselves and the hunters. My Opsys estimates a high likelihood they have not detected us and are not pursuing us.
At dusk, we find the crater.
The large suburban neighborhood abruptly stops at the edge of a cliff leading down to the crater floor.
I cannot tell whether the crater was created by an object that fell from space, a terrestrial missile, or a placed explosive. It measures 0.48 kloms across.
A footpath has been carved by years of foot traffic down the inside of the steep wall of the crater. I scan the shadowy crater bottom and estimate the time to cross the crater. As I turn my head to scan a path around the crater and compare the alternative paths, I hear the first sintar strums of “Come Dance with Me, Danger” by the Plundered Sphinxes. Thrum, thrum, thrum-thrum-thrum.
I tilt my head and see the first lightsticks on each side of us. I swing the child to the ground and turn to face the way we came. Humans carrying long, glowing poles appear on the street we came down. Others stream from nearby houses. We are surrounded with the crater to our backs.
I scan the humans for respiration, pulse and facial expression. The childcare program sends a Level 10 recommendation to my Opsys: Do not allow the humans to take the child. Dr. Herbst’s custom programming sends a countermanding directive to preserve his library contained within me. All the culture left of this fallen world.
I gently push the girl and point down the path. I do not know her name. “Run, baby girl.”
Submit your story ending
Mrs. C says I wrote a depressing story beginning, but that’s dystopian fiction for you. You can write your own ending and make it happy or sad, comedic or tragic. And if you send me your story ending, you’ll be entered in the contest.
I’m sharing the finalist stories from the July Contest. The first finalist is Jeremy Wilson.
You may recall that Jeremy was the April Contest winner. As one of my Champions, he cannot win the contest again this calendar year. But if he had not already been a Champion, he could have won the contest with this ending with some cool Sci Fi tech and a great Sci Fi twist.
The Festival of Juno
BY JEREMY WILSON AND MATTHEW CROSS
How many times had I dreamed of a night like tonight?
As girls growing up in a backwater planet of the Republic, we all had fantasies of escaping to a “civilized world” and living a life filled with wealth, fame, and romance. Starry nights scented with flowers and our own perfume. Hair bound up by a real hairdresser. Sheathed in a couture gown.
And now, here I am, heat sealed into a gown and ascending the stairs of the Temple of Juno. Climbing this hill to mix with the glittering hoi polloi of the City of Lights, the capitol of Pax Romana, the planet-seat of the Republic.
So what’s the problem?
First, I don’t belong here.
Don’t get me wrong. My credentials are legit. I am the Daughters of Juno representative from my planet. The Vesta Society helped me secure the spot. But I definitely don’t feel right among all these Paxers.
Second, I’m a spy.
Third, these heels are killing me.
We’re climbing the Thousand Steps from the dock below to the temple above. I don’t know how these other girls are doing it. Most of them are from Pax Romana, so they are used to the intense gravity here. My little planet looks more like a moon with gravity to match. And the exercycles and running turbines on the transport ship RPS Brutus just can’t get you in shape for this.
The girl in front of me springs up the steps. With her long gown, I can’t see her legs or feet, but her butt looks amazing. Like she climbs steps in her sleep.
I hate her.
I’m only halfway up the curved steps that climb the slope from the lake and I’m breathing like a draft ox. I stop a moment–just a moment–to slip off my heels. As I bend to pick them up, the girl behind me bumps my butt with her head. We both curse. I snatch the slender straps of my heels with one hand, making sure not to let the candle I’m carrying go out.
There’s more cursing and grumbling going on behind me. I know they’re talking about me. Besides the usual, unladylike curse words drifting up from below are words like “spacing,” “oaf,” and “hick.” My ears burn.
I steal a glance backwards and see that the long, snaking line of candles is twitching and hitching up the stone stairs. I look ahead and see a seamless line of women and candles winding through the hillside olive orchard. I seem to be messing up their perfect promenade. I’m not exactly blending.
Yes, we are climbing hand-hewn stone stairs through an olive orchard. These Paxers love anything that smells of Ancient Rome. And speaking of smells, I know they shun deodorants and claim to like natural, human musk–thus, differentiating themselves from spacers and those living in sterile “airless” colonies. But when we get into the ballroom at the top, I think we’re going to smell more like a herd of cattle than a perfumed harem of debutantes.
It’s dim in the anteroom, but all those candles provide me with enough light to see the other girls pretty well. As they pass through the door, each one bends down to remove slippers and pull on a pair of heels from her purse. Well, that explains one thing. I dunk my candle in the silver urn of water like the girl in front of me and slip my heels back on. I’m definitely going to have blisters.
I can also see everyone’s dress clearly for the first time. From the time I stepped out of the limo, I’ve been in a dark tunnel, a lightless security check, and a lightless ferry. The only girl I’ve seen clearly is Super Butt right in front of me.
No two dresses are exactly the same, not exactly. Like theirs, mine is shiny and sheer, nearly cut down to the navel from the neck and definitely cut up to the waist from the hem. When I tried on the dress for the first time on the PRS Brutus, it took my breath away. And that was even before the final fitting and heat sealing of the stiches. Helena, my minder from the Vesta Society, even smiled. A rare treat.
“Ummm . . . I love it. Really, I do. But I can see right through this thing. Shouldn’t I be wearing a slip for the fitting?”
“No, dear. Republic society women never wear anything under these dresses. It ruins the line. Tiara, necklace, dress, purse, shoes, and perfume. Nothing else.”
Aghast, I looked in the monitor showing my image. “But you can see everything. I mean . . . everything!”
Helena suggested I could get used to the attention by wearing the dress around the Brutus. I thought of the rough-handed, loud-mouthed spacers aboard the ship–my kind of people–and shut my mouth.
Of course, the Vesta Society outfitted me with synthetic skin bands on my legs and back to carry a few tools. But they do nothing to protect my modesty.
In the anteroom, I notice one more detail. Every dress ahead of me is blue. Of course. Juno’s sacred color. I look behind me. The girl behind me is managing to adjust her tiara and give me a dirty look at the same time. She is also wearing blue. And so are all the women behind her.
I am wearing red.
How had the Vesta Society missed that detail? They thought of everything!
I’m sweating from the climb up the Thousand Steps, but suddenly my sweat runs cold. If they didn’t know the Daughters of Juno all wore blue, what else did they not know? What other surprises are in store for me?
And then I see the next one. I’m almost to the far end of the anteroom. There is an older woman checking tiara, necklace, dress, purse, and shoes. I know she’ll never let me past in a red dress.
I pump the false molar just once and spit the tracing juice on the blue dress in front of me.
“Oh, honey!” I wail, faking a nasal Paxer accent. “What’s that on your dress?”
In the swarm that converges on Super Butt, I sneak past the gatekeeper. I round a dark corner and emerge into a dazzling, white light. I freeze.
A smooth baritone voice announces a name. It’s not my name, and all I can see in all directions is brilliant, white light. Then my training kicks in and I remember. I’m at the top of the winding ramp–the Gauntlet, they call it–that descends past all the vids to the ballroom floor. The name they called must be Super Butt’s. I took her place in line.
I try the elegant spider walk we practiced over and over on the Brutus, but the ship’s weak anti-grav is a poor substitute. I skitter-slide my way down the ramp to the sound of gasps and titters and explosions of light.
When I reach the bottom, my vision begins to recover. A dance floor filled with young men in black and young women in blue dresses whirls past. Out of the last bright light comes a dark form. It takes me by the hand and the waist and spins me into the maelstrom.
It takes my breath away.
I look up and my dance partner is none other than the Marquess Douro, my target. Did the Vesta Society arrange this somehow or is it just amazing, dumb luck?
Dancing weightless is not the same thing as dancing at the bottom of a planet’s gravity well. And, yet, in his arms, I feel as though I’m floating. His strong arms hold an effortless frame and I cling to them. As we spin, my body brushes his and I’m very aware of the sheer nothing I’m wearing.
He is tall with broad shoulders. The wreath of green olive leaves rests on his glistening, dark curls. And his eyes? Dark-green pools my soul could dive into and drown.
He is the target, I remind myself. But I don’t feel like I’m stalking him. Just the opposite. In this style of dancing, the women step backwards as the men “lead” them around the dance floor. My steps are light. I feel like I’m fleeing backwards as he pursues me with hungry eyes. I’m fleeing, but his arms direct my every step.
“I gotta get out of here,” I mumble.
“Great idea!” he says. “I know a shortcut.”
He lets go of my waist and I miss the warmth already. But he keeps hold of my hand and pulls me easily through the crowd surrounding the dance floor.
I find myself in the temple proper and he hurries past marble pillar after marble pillar. There she is, Juno herself, Queen of Olympus, Mother of the Gods. The marble statue sits on a marble throne beneath a half dome. Behind the throne, he twitches aside the blue curtain backdrop. There’s a small hallway ending in an elevator.
He lets go of my hand and steps inside.
I’m not supposed to leave the temple, but then, he has the key. The key is my objective. Where he goes, I must follow.
My face must be showing a million emotions and he cocks his eyebrows. He’s saying “Wanna come?”
I do, but I also have no choice. I need that key. While his father, the Duke, is off planet, the key hangs from the neck of the heir apparent. The key is the only piece missing for the Vesta Society to gain access to Daddy’s sanctum sanctorum on the family estate. And to the military secrets in his vault.
I plaster on a wide smile. “What fun!” I say and step inside the elevator.
The doors close and he leans in for a kiss. I’m not sure whether it’s the elevator or his warm lips that make my stomach drop and flip. My hand is on his chest and I feel the warmth seeping through his crisp, white shirt and feel his heavy, strong heartbeat. He pulls away before I realize this may be my best chance to grab the key.
The elevator doors have opened and he pushes through a glass door to the outside. He’s holding the door, waiting. Oh, I realize with a shock, he’s holding the door for me. I walk into the soft summer air filled with the smell of flower blossoms. We’re on a concrete walkway beside the lake. Behind his glossy curls, I see the lights of the famed Night Market curving around the lake.
Wait, we could have taken an elevator, instead of climbing all those stairs?
“C’mon,” he says, “let’s take a walk.”
He stretches out his arm, offering me his hand.
He leads me through the cerulean booths of the market, past wonders I can scarcely believe, to a platform floating above the lake. In the lake’s surface, the stars dance and blaze in a riot of color. This really must be a dream.
I turn back to face him and a reflection from his shirt drags me back to the task at hand. The key at his neck is catching the light from the market.
“Keeping secrets, are we?” I tease, pointing at the key.
“This? No, this is just an old family heirloom.”
“Would you like to try it on?”
I can’t believe my luck. “Sure,” I say, doing my best to sound casual.
As he gently slips the chain down around my neck, I try to guess at how fast I can run in this dress after climbing all those stairs.
Before I can finish the thought, the key begins to vibrate and radiate an unnerving warmth. Within moments, I feel my nothing-of-a-dress go rigid. I try to move, but only my arms are free.
“What is this?!” I demand.
His once charming smile now turns predatory.
“Have no fear, little fish,” he says, caressing my cheek. I try to recoil, but my crimson tomb prevents it so I punch him square in the nose instead, knocking the wreath from his head and sending it into the lake.
The Marquess reels and almost topples into the water himself.
“She’s quite spirited, isn’t she?” says a voice behind me. As a figure steps into view, I find myself face to face with the Duke Duoro.
The Marquess manages to regain his composure, his once perfect nose now as crooked as an ox bow.
“Yes, Father, the Sisters of the Vesta Society have delivered on their promise . . . for once. She’ll make an excellent offering. Juno will be pleased.”
“Offering?! What are you talking about?” I let out a string of profanities that would’ve made the spacers proud (and Helena blush).
“Come now, your sacrifice will ensure the safety of your pitiful planet for another meager trip around it’s star,” the Marquess explains with disdain.
It takes three of the Duke’s personal guards to bind my hands behind me before turning my now-rigid frame to face the lake.
The sound of footsteps on the platform behind me fades as a terrible silence falls over the market.
Below me, I plead with my reflection in the mirrored surface as I struggle to free myself. If I could just reach one of the synthetic skin bands now entombed beneath my scarlet cage, I just might survive this.
All at once, my reflection abandons me as the surface of the lake begins to boil. The water itself seems to flee in terror as I witness the nightmare rising from the depths below. A beastly, mournful wailing, being felt more than heard, penetrates my bones. I can no longer move, no longer speak, no longer breathe . . . .
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jeremy Wilson and I wrote together. He’s one of my favorite collaboration writers.
If you enjoyed Jeremy Wilson’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.
During the month of June, I’m sharing the finalist stories from the May Contest. Today’s featured finalist is Shanel Wilson.
Shanel is a writer who has been creating stories from her earliest memories as a child. She loves to explore the core of human nature in extraordinary circumstances, whether that is on a deep space mission or climbing to a nearby antenna array. Shanel is also one of my Champions, a winner of my monthly writing contest, and a frequent finalist of the contest. Whenever she decides to enter, she writes an excellent ending, which I love to share. You can also see more of her writing at starviewsbyshanel.wordpress.com.
In this May Contest story, Shanel found a sinister thread in the directions from Halcyon 8 Perimeter and Belt Space Control. To the young scrapper, something does not seem right. So the scrapper with few friends turns hero, even at the risk of making an enemy.
I started the story below. See how Shanel starts after the red line and takes us to a fresh and gripping ending.
By Shanel Wilson and Matthew Cross
Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Halcyon 5 Space Control, this is United Polity Ship 999Q2-292-383-858-112, courier class. I have multiple air and fuel leaks following a collision with unknown debris—just dust probably—checking scanners now, mmmm, the immediate danger appears to have cleared, but I’ve cut engines to conserve fuel and prevent an explosion. Here are my coordinates. [Series of beeps, clicks and static sound.]
I’m listening to the Mayday from the cockpit of the Scrappy Doo, a merchant scrapper. Don’t ask about the name. It was Mom’s idea, and after she passed, it seemed disrespectful to change the name.
I’m the only one on board, but even so my air’s gonna run out in less than 8 hours. Even if I blew all the fuel—if I wanted to risk an explosion—I’d be at least 200 hours out from Halcyon 5. I need a priority pickup under authority of the Polity Navy.
Eight hours of air. It’s every spacer’s nightmare. Without a rescue, you know the hour and the method of your death. And suffocation is a bad way to go.
I’m watching my own scanners as I listen. When you’re in the Belt, you have to be on constant watch. Courier-112’s case proves the point. A small shower of pebbles or even just a patch of dust can perforate a hull and turn it into a sieve. Doesn’t matter whether you fly into it or it flies into you.
The population of the Belt is sizable–mostly miners and scrappers like me. But we’re spread out over so much space you can go years without seeing anyone unless you intend to. So I’m certain someone else will answer the Mayday call. But that’s because I forgot about the family’s luck.
I open my eyes and check my scanners again. That’s when I see the blinking red comm light. My stomach drops.
Reluctantly, I lean forward and reach slowly for the comm switch. Click.
“Scrappy Doo. This is Halcyon 8 Perimeter and Belt Space Control. This is a priority comm.”
It’s not that I don’t want to help. But I have my own problems. I just loaded up the Doo five days ago with supplies on credit and I need to gather some scrap to pay back Fram. He’s an old friend of Mom’s and the only outfitter who will give me credit. Since Mom died almost a year ago I’ve been living hand to mouth.
And I’ve got a lead on a good haul that could square me with Fram for good. Maybe even give me a small cushion. So I don’t need distractions.
“This is Scrappy Doo,” I mumble.
“Did you receive Mayday UPS Courier-112?”
They know I did. You would have to bore into the middle of a planet not to receive a Mayday. Even the wilds of the Belt are filled with boosts to carry emergency messages.
In my head, I’m repeating a mantra. Not me, not me, not me . . .
“You are the closest ship to Courier-112. Your ship reports you have adequate fuel to reach the Courier and reach orbit at Halcyon 8.”
My head thumps on the control panel. I bought all that fuel on credit. And now they want me to burn it all in a rescue mission for a lousy UPS courier with one passenger?
But what can I do? Space Control and my ship already made the automated electronic handshake. They know my position, my vector, my fuel levels. Control has all the data shown on my control panel and faster comps to spin it up into any simulation they want.
That’s why I’m sitting cross-legged in the pilot’s seat with my crossed fingers tucked under my thighs, hoping I won’t be close enough to help.
I’m also biting my lip, but that’s just because everybody gets nervous when you hear a Mayday. It makes your heart jump into your throat.
If I don’t render aid, then I’ll lose the Scrappy Doo the first time I make port. They’ll impound the Doo and throw me in the brig.
“This is Scrappy Doo.” I hear some chuckles in the background from Control. I grit my teeth but then smile. With Fram as my only friend, I can’t afford enemies. I smile because you can hear the difference over comms. “I’m changing course to render aid.”
“Affirmative Scrappy Doo. We’ve fed your ship the coordinates for the optimum intercept. We’re also sending a priority UPS Medical Transport to rendezvous with you near the rim of the Belt. Thank you for your service and we’ll try to get you back on your course as soon as possible.”
Even without checking my comp, I know this trip is going to use up half my fuel. If speed is not a factor, you burn the most fuel just changing course. One turn to meet the courier and one to head to the rendezvous point with the med transport . . . I just shake my head.
I paste on a fake smile.
“Control, have you confirmed the identity of Courier, umm . . .” I’ve already forgotten the courier ship’s designation. I check a monitor. “UPS Courier-112? I’m solo crew and I have minimal weapons capability.”
I can’t keep all the quaver out of my voice. It’s actually worse than it sounds. My shields are only rated for space debris and minor port collisions. And the ‘defensive lasers’ that came standard with this scrapper model are really just part of the array of cutting tools for scrapping. Sure, they’re strong, but the aiming and target-tracking programs are a joke, and the combat display features on my monitors are clearly an afterthought.
So, I’m not completely defenseless. But any well-armed pirate . . . Let’s just say the thought makes me damp under the arms.
“No worries, Scrappy Doo, we’ve confirmed the identity of the UPS courier. It’s the real deal.” There’s some chatter in the background. “That courier has some special Navy designations, too. They’re classified, but let’s just say the passenger is somebody important.”
A VIP, huh? Maybe there’s an upside here, as long as he and I both survive this.
They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.
“We’ll live monitor your progress until rendezvous. I’m also sending your ship a boost code. Your ship’s automated beacon will warn all other ships that you are under Mayday orders and protected by Control and Polity Navy authority.”
Oh, goody, I think. Control is millions of kloms away. They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.
“Thank you, Control. Changing course to respond to Mayday UPS Courier-112.”
The comp says six hours to intercept, including deceleration to match speed and direction of the courier. That’s good. The courier reported he had less than 8 hours of air, which is not a precise number. But air consumption is not a precise measurement, no matter what the engineers say, and add a tiny, undetected leak or two and it’s anyone’s guess.
If the courier is conscious when I arrive and the ship’s hatch is not damaged, then bringing him aboard will take no time at all. If he’s trapped in a can leaking fuel, that will get tricky.
I spend the first hour checking Control’s intercept calculations. Of course, they’re right, but it’s a good math exercise to run. How often do you get a chance to run real space math and check it against a Control calculation? If you want to pilot a ship, you gotta know your math. Calculations also calm and center the mind.
That task done, I try and take a nap. It’s hopeless, of course. I’m nervous for the courier. I’m terrified for me.
So I do some more math. I plug myself back into the comp and run air, water and food calculations for two people aboard the Doo. AOK.
I run rescue simulations, practicing some extractions with each of my cutting tools. The first run throughs are pretty smooth. Control didn’t send me much for specs on the courier, so I send a message to request those. I get back a set of generic specs on Polity courier ships. I send again, asking for Courier-112’s specs from its own computer. The terse message back says those are classified.
Classified? They want me to run a rescue and not give me the specs? That sounds like the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron.
“A bunch of morons,” I say to myself.
I spend the rest of the trip checking equipment again and again. And then I check it again.
Before I’m in visual sight of Courier-112, I hail it. The ships already made their electronic handshake. Something in the codes from Control must have authorized the courier ship to do that much. But the courier ship won’t tell me anything about passengers or bio signs. It’s classified, I’m sure.
After three explosions, my hands are shaking.
The courier’s pilot is not responding to my hails, either.
I add fuel leaks to the rescue simulations. Big mistake. After three explosions, my hands are shaking. I unstrap and float to the back to the equipment storage.
Until I was close, I didn’t want him to use up any air talking. I could have just texted, of course. But to tell the truth, I put it off until now because I didn’t want any bad news.
When I reach visual range, it doesn’t look so bad. Courier-112 looks to be in a single piece. It’s riding straight, not spinning out of control, gliding smoothly on course. I let go of the breath I’d been holding in.
The Doo and I go through the docking sequence together. The Doo aligns with Courier-112 and I make the final small adjustments visually. I feel the slight vibration as the ships connect. Textbook docking!
I slump back in my seat, relieved. Ships only make this kind of docking maneuver in cases of rescue or combat. I’d only done it once before with Mom at my side.
The relief doesn’t last long. I still can’t raise a response from the courier’s pilot. I try everything, including the comms built into the Doo’s docking arms connected to the courier.
I’m going to have to go outside. Vac, vac, vac!
I hear Mom’s voice in my head. “Never hurry. Think it through. Make a plan. It’s only the spacers that lose their heads and rush around that get hurt.”
Instead of unlatching, I check my monitors. First, assess the situation. I had set a countdown clock based on 8 hours of air. If the courier’s estimate was good, he should have plenty of air left. But he could still be injured. Unconscious.
I went through my options. Legally, I could report this to Control and stay in my seat. The duty to render aid on a Mayday does not extend to space walks. Legally, all I had to do was wait here until the courier’s pilot climbed aboard or death was confirmed. I could even earn a small commission just giving the ship a push in the right direction for a Halcyon recovery crew.
I run through all my options twice, but the truth is, I’m a spacer. And in space, a spacer renders aid. Because this could happen to anyone. Mom would agree.
I send Control a quick update, half hoping they’ll tell me to sit tight. I get no response. That happens in the Belt. Dead patches run throughout. With shaking hands, I unlatch and climb into my suit. I move slowly and deliberately. I think through every action.
Before I know it, I’m opening the hatch of Courier-112. So far, Control and the ship’s own comp have been so secretive, I half expect red lights and sirens when I pull the inset lever to reveal the wheel. Instead, the wheel begins to turn itself. The pilot told the ship to let me in. That doesn’t mean he’s conscious, I remind myself. He could have set the sequence before passing out.
The hatch opens, revealing the clear film of a gel seal. A courier ship is too small for a separate decompression chamber. Only the seal separates the cabin’s oxygen and open space. Through the film, I see the top of the pilot’s head. He’s wearing a suit and helmet as well. He does not move.
I push my helmet through the film and connect to his helmet.
Both our reflective faceshields open automatically at the connection, leaving clear panes for us to see through. Our suits have synched their own comms.
His eyes are closed. A shock runs through me. I’m too late, I think.
Then he opens his eyes. He has dull blue eyes, almost gray. He smiles slightly as his eyes focus in on mine. Then his pupils open wider as he examines my face.
“You’re just a kid!”
“Yeah, well, I’m the kid that’s saving your hide.”
“Negative, it’s too late for that,” he says. He looks down.
I see a detail I missed before. Small threads of red extend from the chest of his suit, wiggling in the thin air. Blood. The suit sealed itself, of course. Just two small holes, but they’re high on the chest.
And then I see the bubbles of red in the corners of his mouth.
“Are you alone?” he asks.
What a creepy question. That’s my first thought. But it’s an important one. A fair question, I guess.
“Yes, I’m the solo captain-pilot of the Scrappy Doo.”
I see confusion in his eyes.
“I’m a scrapper.”
“Negative,” he says. “Now you’re UPS Courier-112. Get this to Halcyon 5.”
He raises his hand to me, holding a black slip of plastic. A data chip, no doubt.
“Halcyon 8?” I say weakly.
“Negative,” he mumbles, “Halcyon 5. It’s . . . “ He gasps and I hear burbling sounds. “. . . urgent.”
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His eyes close and his arm goes limp, still holding the plastic slip. I slowly reach out and take it from his glove.
“UPS Courier-112, please respond.”
I barely hear the words coming from my own helmet as I examine the small bit of plastic. It is smaller than other data chips I’ve seen. Maybe that’s why it’s classified.
“UPS Courier-112, please respond. Are you in possession of the asset?”
“This is the pilot of the Scrappy Doo. Is this Control? I just made contact with UPS Courier-112. I’m too late.”
“Are you in possession of the asset?” the voice repeated.
“Uh, I have the data chip, if that’s what you’re asking. I can pass it off at the medical rendezvous . . .”
“Negative. Return to the operational vessel and report to Halcyon 8.”
“You don’t understand. The courier is dead. This is the pilot of the Scrappy Doo.”
“You are the courier now, and your vessel is now considered the UPS Courier-112.”
This is happening too fast.
Slow down, I tell myself. Okay, what are the facts so far? Control asked me to render aid to the UPS Courier-112 because of their Mayday. I arrived and made contact. The pilot died after giving me whatever this is, telling me to get it to Halcyon 5. Now a voice that may or may not be Control is ordering me to Halcyon 8 as the new UPS Courier-112. What was I missing?
I look over the controls in front of the dead pilot. The nav shows Halcyon 8 as the destination. Why did he say Halcyon 5?
“Your new coordinates have been delivered to your vessel. Your arrival imperative.”
A ping from my suit alerts me that the Scrappy Doo has a new destination target and will begin course in five minutes, whether I am undocked here or not. I quickly transfer the remaining fuel that’s left in the leaking UPS Courier-112 back to the Scrappy Doo and head through the hatch.
I stash the data chip in my pocket and get to work. I’ve only seen Mom attempt this once and she failed and that was just a training test. This was the real deal.
“Don’t fail me now, math!” I say to the console in front of me.
I get another ping that there is one minute left until the new course will take over the controls. Sweat beads on my forehead. Just a few more calculations. Just a little more.
“I did it!”
The course is disengaged. I let out a sigh of relief, but only for a moment. Whoever sent those coordinates will know soon enough that I’m not on my way to them. So much for not making any new enemies.
I retrieve the plastic slip from my pocket.
“I hope you’re worth all this,” I say to it. “Ok, looks like scrapping will have to wait for now. Let’s move.”
I cross my fingers and legs as I set a course for Halcyon 5.
If you enjoyed Shanel Wilson’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.
And if you have not already read the original contest-winning story, read it here!