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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 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.


I can’t wait to see what you write!

Submit your story ending

Please post your story endings below. And if you just want to leave a comment, that would be great, too!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. If you have any trouble pasting your story ending below, just email it to matthewcrosswrites@gmail.com by the deadline and you will be entered. MC 🚀✨

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

Lob an EMP at an android and see what happens

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

I’m sharing finalist stories from the September Contest. We have 3 finalists, and here is the last finalist story, a prize-winning ending by Alan R. Paine. Enjoy Alan’s fun, fast-paced, and upbeat ending!

After the Fall

BY ALAN R. PAINE AND MATTHEW CROSS

Something is wrong with me.

Seriously wrong.

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.

Dr. Herbst’s country villa. Photo by Zane Lee.

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.

Most of the windows in the row houses are empty or just lined with jagged little teeth of glaze. Photo by Daniel Lincoln.

“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. 

Photo by Denny Muller.

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.

Following the child’s pointing finger, I find the body of a woman. Photo by Denny Muller.

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.”


There is a hubbub of voices from the gathering crowd.

“Hey, that’s an android.”

“How did it survive the Pulse?”

“Underground maybe.”

“Could be dangerous.”

“I am carrying a library of music, literature, science, art, films and television,” I say. “All that remains of our culture.”

“Not your culture. You’re a freaking android.”

A large stone arcs through the air, striking me in the body.

I am confused. Don’t these people want to preserve their precious culture like Dr. Herbst said they would?

A person carrying a cylinder over their shoulder steps forward. My weapon recognition program is slow to act, swimming through the load of data that I am carrying. Then, almost too late, I know it’s a EMP grenade launcher. The grenade flying towards me only has to stick to my body, emit its deadly pulse and it’s goodnight to everything. With my good arm, I pick up a piece of wood lying near my feet, whack the grenade back to where it came from and dive down the near vertical side of the crater.

The girl screams as I scoop her from the path and carry her–half running, half falling–into the shadows at the bottom of the bowl. Voices behind us fade. We are safe for now.

I run my diagnostics. The high-speed emergency action has affected the music library, deleting a block of Baroque Concerti Grossi, whatever they are, or rather, were.

“You OK?” I ask the girl.

She nods, but my childcare protocols show she is weak.

The sun rises ahead of us. The city is far behind. After climbing up the other side of the crater, we had passed through a forest where the girl had drunk some water from a fast-running stream. She had jumped down from me and consumed a large quantity while I was still analyzing the risk.

Now, she is sleeping in my arms as some buildings come into view ahead of us. Friends or foes? Culture lovers or not?

People are all around us. A woman takes the girl from me and offers her a piece of bread.

“What faction are you?” I ask.

“All the factions ’round here wiped each other out. We are just people trying to survive.”

I explain about the data that I am carrying and the importance placed on it by Dr. Herbst.

“But what use is it if it’s inside you? We can’t see or read it,” says a girl of about thirteen.“

“It can be printed or transferred to other data management devices like this box I am carrying,” I say.

“Do you have the special cable required to load the box?” the girl asks.

“No,” I say

“We have nothing like that,” says the girl. “You will have to tell us the information so that we can write it down.”

“My operational life will only be enough to pass on a tiny fraction.”

“Well, there’s no time to lose,” says the girl. “Let’s get to work.”


I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Alan R. Paine and I wrote together. He’s a great collaboration partner!

If you enjoyed Alan’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Win a $75 prize if you write the best finish to my story

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

A cartoon-style red fox following a glowing butterfly through dark woods
Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.


December Contest
: All submissions are due by midnight December 15, 2021.

Look here for contest rules.

Mountains of Clouds

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.

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Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

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