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

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Shanel Wilson

I started the story below. See how Shanel starts after the red line and provides us with an uplifting and hopeful ending.

After the Fall

BY SHANEL WILSON 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.”


“Uh-uh!” The girl sits on my left foot as she clamps tightly to my leg.

Her attachment to my leg decreases our chances of successfully fleeing to only 15 percent. My scanners don’t recognize the insignia of the approaching faction. There are 1.34 mins left of the pulsing punk-synth song.

“Cover your ears, baby girl.”

The girl presses one ear into my leg and covers the other with her arm. I route the music file to my voice box. The sound of the thrumming echoes across the crater as the song reaches its deafening crescendo. The people approaching pause and cover their ears against the cacophony. I try to assess our options, but my Opsys can’t keep up with the multiple processes I am using to protect the child and Dr. Herbst’s library.

The people uncover their ears, and a person walks forward with her hand raised. Her other hand holds a lightstick near her face, ruddy and sun beaten. A shock of white hair done up with feathers in a mohawk is perched on her head. She carries several leather satchels slung over each shoulder with another pack on her back.

I step my right foot forward to block the child. The first soft piano chords of “When She Went Away,” by the consummate jazz crooner Ash Descanso, sounds through my voice box. The woman slowly steps forward, studying me. I’m not sure why she hasn’t attacked us yet. Perhaps my scanners are malfunctioning now, too.

“That song has not been heard in some time. Where did you get that file, droid?” The woman points the light in my face.

I send the music file back inside my head.

“Leave us alone. We are no use to you,” I say, engaging my defense voice modulation.

“Quite the opposite. You carry things valuable to us, the Tomes,” the woman replies.

Dr. Herbst filled my interpersonal relations files with a collection of films, so when I try to respond, a scene from The Edge of Life, directed by M. Evangeline Vita, overrides my voice box.

“No. How dare you try to destroy beauty itself! Despite your efforts, it lives on. Long after this mortal life. Into the universe and into the stars.”

The woman’s serious face suddenly lights up with an internal light. “It is true! Dr. Herbst did it!” The woman rummages through her satchels as whispers ripple through the crowd.

“Dr. Herbst? You knew him?” I say, once again cocking my head.

“I believe you have been searching for these.” The woman lifts a string of storage drives that glitter in the gold light of the lightsticks.

My scanners indicate they will hold Dr. Herbst’s library, but I stay still. I look at the girl.

“The child will be cared for. We, the Tomes, believe in the preservation of our world’s culture, and that includes our children.” The Tomes leader pulls out a small piece of bread and offers it to the child.

The child looks at me. I scan the woman again; no music files play this time.

“Go ahead, baby girl. We are safe.”


I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Shanel Wilson and I wrote together. She’s a great collaboration writer!

Shanel is also the most decorated of my Circle of Champions. She has three times been a finalist in my contest, and she won the November 2020 contest with the ending for “A Forest of Blue Eyes.” (Once a Champion wins a contest, they cannot win the overall contest again within the same calendar year, but they can still enter and can still win as a finalist.)

Shanel is also one of the most prolific writers for our Globe Folio project and also one of my trusted editors. The Globe Folio is a five-part Sci Fi anthology posted in regular installments on this website. All the stories are set on the same planet, simply called the Globe.

Nights of Revelation, Part 2 of the Globe Folio, recently began with “The Voice of Beasts,” and on Wednesday, we’ll release “The Sands of Change,” written by none other than Shanel Wilson!

If you enjoyed Shanel’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below. And if you can’t wait to see more of Shanel’s stories, you can find several here.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Contest Rules

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!

Deadline

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.

What will I do with the e-mail address? If you are the winner, I’ll use the e-mail address to let you know you won and make arrangements to send you the prize. For other uses of e-mail, see my Privacy Policy.

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!”)

Prizes galore!

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!

What else?

I think that covers it.

If you have any questions, post them as a comment on the contest story page or e-mail me at matthewcrosswrites@gmail.com.

Otherwise, get to work. You have some writing to do. Best of luck!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Here are the prizes for the September Contest winner

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

For September, I’m presenting a host of prizes for the winner:

  • $50 cash (in the form of an Amazon gift certificate).
  • Trophy–An amigurumi rocket. (I’m crocheting the rocket myself, so I don’t have a photo yet.)
  • A Twitter banner–or use wherever you like–pronouncing you the winner of the September Contest.
  • Listing in the Circle of Champions on this website, including your social media contacts and website link, if you’d like to share them.
  • Your very own Author Page on this site with your writer’s bio, if you’d like to share one.
  • Lots and lots and lots of promotion on Twitter. (I go a little crazy.)
  • Other opportunities to mix and mingle with my other Champions and join them in special projects. (Check out my current special project exclusive to my Circle of Champions.)

Why not get started now?

Win a $50 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.

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.


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

Look here for contest rules.

After the Fall

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.”


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 can’t wait to see what you write!

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 e-mail it to matthewcrosswrites@gmail.com by the deadline and you will be entered. MC 🚀✨

1 more great story ending from the first July finalist

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.

City of Lights, the capitol of Pax Romana, the planet-seat of the Republic. Photo by Carlos Ibanez.

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.

These Paxers love anything that smells of Ancient Rome. Photo by Mathew Schwartz.

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?

There she is, Juno herself, Queen of Olympus, Mother of the Gods. The marble statue sits on a marble throne beneath a half dome. Photo by Mateus Campos-Felipe.

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.

Behind his glossy curls, I see the lights of the famed Night Market curving around the lake. Photo by Julie.

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.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“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.

This? No, this is just an old family heirloom.” Photo by Tom Joseph.

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.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross