The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is
I started the story below. See how Jeremy starts after the red line and provides us with an action-packed, jaw-dropping ending.
BY JEREMY WILSON AND MATTHEW CROSS
It starts out as a single point of light. Like a star that wasn’t there, and then suddenly it is.
“You see it?” Jame asks.
“Yeah, I see it.”
Jame and I grew up side by side. He was born in a hospital in the City. Don’t ask which city. It’s the only one on this barely inhabited planet on the far, far edge of Polity space. But I was born at Home. Show Ma something once and she learns it forever. So once she saw how the doctors and nurses handled Jame’s birth, she said she could handle the second one herself.
Da says I take after Ma in that way. Stubborn, independent, fast learner. I guess that’s mostly true. Just like Jame seems to take after Da. But I don’t think I’ll ever be as capable and as confident as Ma. Nothing shakes her.
The point of light grows instantly brighter and then splits into two points of light and then three. Jame and I both curse under our breath at the same time. “Vacc!” It’s an old spacer curse we picked up from Ma. She grew up on a Polity academy ship and knows all the spacer ways.
Jame and I watch through our HUDs as the two dimmer lights separate from the larger one and drop off in arcs to the horizon. They dim and disappear. Those are not our worry.
The remaining point of light grows brighter. My HUD dims that part of the view screen slightly to prevent me from being blinded. Now that the object is close enough, the HUD can calculate its speed, and the numbers are stunning.
While I’ve been watching the light through my HUD, Jame has been reading the more detailed numbers on his arm band. It displays the extensive data collected by the Home system’s sensors, which alerted the family to the invasion in the first place.
“Home just picked up the three we saw, but there might be more, out of range further around the planet,” Jame says. His breath is harsh. “But three Planetkillers is enough to . . . ,” he pauses, thinking deeply, as he always does. He shakes his head. “Well, it’s enough, anyway. One for the City, one for the Factory and one for the Mines.”
I admire Jame. He’s a thinker, like Da, not a soldier. But his voice doesn’t shake until he says “the Mines.” I watch the white point of light bloom through my HUD. It’s headed straight towards us. Towards the Mines, which Ma and Da left us to protect.
Jame exhales slowly through his nose, his warm breath fogging the cool evening air, and I realize his body has grown rigid next to mine. He has settled his mind on something. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it and the splinter of cold fear on the back of my neck suddenly blooms like a web of crystals down by back. I’m afraid Jame is about to do something brave.
Ma has told me time again that men don’t usually have the strengths of women. But they are tools; useful tools, if you know how to handle them. Good men are loyal, and, if you let them, sometimes they’ll throw their lives away to save yours. “Don’t let them do that, Els, not unless it’s absolutely necessary. Too often a man will sacrifice himself before it’s necessary.”
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.
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.
As soon as it is launched, I know something is wrong. Perhaps it’s a stray wind blowing through the Pass, but the rocket begins a tight spiral that grows as it races towards the giant mech. Just as the rocket is about to reach the Planetkiller, it lifts a giant arm and a hail of dark shapes fly out to intercept the rocket. Even so, we must have caught them by surprise because the blast that occurs when Jame’s rocket meets the small cloud of defensive rockets pushes the mech backwards. For a moment, I think it’s going to fall, and a cheer rises in my throat. But the pilots inside manage to compensate and the Planetkiller catches itself on a back foot. It rises. And when the smoke of our attack clears, I can see no damage at all.
We load the second rocket, but I know Jame and I are thinking the same thing. We are going to fail. We may survive, but we are not going to stop this goliath. We’re just children playing at war. Maybe that’s why we make another mistake. We do not move. We stay in position. And the mech pilots make our position. They fire just one rocket. As it races towards us, I feel the gesture from the robot’s lifted hand is almost casual. Then Jame and I leap upwards.
When the blast comes, it throws us higher. It feels like someone punching my legs up into my chest. But I manage to grab a thin ledge above me as the blast subsides. I look down and see Jame hanging limply from the rope that links us. We’ve always been able to carry each other easily, so it’s no problem to pull him up to me.
He’s unconscious but still breathing. Lying on the ledge, I lash him to me. Then I leap up the face of the Blades, moving towards the back side of the mountain again. I find a small crevice where he will be safe from robot or beast. From my pack, I pull out a medical stabilizer. Crying silently, I attach it to his chest and place the rubber mask over his face. It will monitor his condition and, if necessary, help him breathe or restart his heart.
“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I whisper. “I love you.”
Before the Planetkiller can make it to the Pass, I’ve made it to the hover. With the rocket launcher strapped to my back, I flash through the Pass at top speed. I settle myself in the undergrowth beneath the trembling firs, every step of the Planetkiller jarring my whole body. I let it step over me and enter the Pass. I rise from hiding, sighting through my HUD, looking for any point of weakness.
The knees, I think, recalling my self defense classes.
The rocket flies true and strikes the back of the giant machine’s knee. Planetkillers are heavily armored, but I know right away I hit something vital. The gout of orange flame from the rocket’s explosion is overwhelmed by a cloud of white smoke or steam rising from the machine’s leg. The knee bends outwards with a pop and the giant lurches to the side. It’s head strikes the mountain wall.
I don’t make the same mistake twice. I don’t watch and wait. I leap.
It must be adrenaline because I swear I’m bounding as high as Da. The Planetkiller’s pilots have their hands full trying to restore control, but they may have already lost. It seems to be falling in slow motion with the most horrendous screeches. The awkward angles of its limbs and the close walls of the Pass form the perfect angles for me to land and leap further up the monster and plant charges from my backpack. Then I leap free and detonate them all.
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.
A woman in a fitted black uniform bounds up out of the jagged opening, landing silently within a few feet of my perch with the grace of a scree stalker. Her short, dark hair framing piercing yellow eyes.
“Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself, kid,” she says, her eyes dissecting me as she slowly circles to my left, stopping next to an outcropping. “You’ve made a real mess of things.”
Soldiers in similar uniforms pour out of the opening before I can react, their plasma rifles trained on me. The woman holds my gaze, but says nothing more.
Reluctantly, I lower my blaster.
“Charlie Team, secure the —” the sound of rocks falling unseen cuts her off.
“Let’s see how your soldiers do without their commanding officer.” Jame limps out from behind the outcropping, his blaster leveled unsteadily at her head.
“You don’t want to do that,” she says calmly, her eyes never leaving mine.
The commander sighs. “Let’s all just calm down.” She releases my gaze to study Jame’s blaster and then her eyes come to rest on the med pack beeping erratically on his chest. Slowly, she reaches up to a flap on her chest and lowers it to reveal a Polity insignia.
“You’re Polity?! Why are you attacking us?”
“We’re not attacking you. We’re —”
“Not attacking us?! What a bunch of excrem!” I shout, “You nearly killed us! And you probably killed our —” my voice falters.
Her calm demeanor wavers. “I could say the same of you! Half my team is down thanks to your little stunt. We came here to protect you!”
“Protect us from what?”
The woman pauses, as if trying to decide something. Her countenance shifts to one of resignation. It’s a change I recognize from when Ma has to tell us that she can’t fix one of the machines after a cave in.
“The Republic is amassing an armada behind your largest moon. They’re preparing to take the planet, which is why they haven’t bombarded you out of existence yet. We don’t know how they made it across the system undetected, but it doesn’t matter at this point. Our spec-ops squadron was the only thing patrolling this far out. At great cost, we managed to infiltrate a few of their ships but could only ‘liberate’ three Planetkillers.” She motions to the soldiers, “Charlie Team launched for the mines. Alpha and Bravo headed for the City and the Factory.”
Jame and I exchange glances.
“Why didn’t you warn us?”
“Our comms were knocked out during the fighting.”
“You should have found a way to tell us.”
“The next time I hijack a Planetkiller from a Republic carrier, I’ll bring you along to show me how it’s done!” she snaps.
The nearest soldier interrupts, “Commander, we have incoming.”
In my HUD, artificial stars begin blooming across the twilight sky, flaring as they split again and again.
“I hope you’re half as sharp as your mouth, kid, because the Republic is coming.”
I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jeremy Wilson and I wrote together. He’s a great collaboration writer!
If you enjoyed Jeremy ’s prize-winning ending, please make sure and share some kind comments below.
P.S. If you enjoy Jeremy’s writing style and story-telling ability, you’ll definitely want to read these other story endings he wrote for previous contests and one he wrote as a collaboration with other Champions:
- “Mayday” by Jeremy Wilson and Matthew Cross–April 2021 Contest
- “Festival of Juno” by Jeremy Wilson and Matthew Cross–July 2021 Contest
- “Mountains of Clouds” by Jeremy Wilson and Matthew Cross–December 2021 Contest
- “The Pyramid” by Jim Hamilton, Glenn R. Frank, and Jeremy Wilson