This is the Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest–April

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Jeremy Wilson

I started the story below. See how Jeremy Wilson starts after the red line and takes us to a smart, action-filled and deliciously vengeful ending.

Fools

by Jeremy Wilson and Matthew Cross

I like shiny things.

I think most cat burglars do.

Is that why we wear skintight suits and climb tall buildings? Yes. To retrieve shiny things. Plus, it’s just fun.

That’s why I’m hanging off the side of this 16-story, private resi tower right now. From this corner, I can see in one direction the 20 hectare property stretching off into the darkness and the brightly lit, private driveway that winds from the gate at the highway. In the other direction, I can see the private beach and the softly glowing surf. As you might guess, some pretty rich people live here. Some of the richest on the planet: M. Lasone and M. Lasone.

Yeah, those Lasones.

Why is that the richest people have the most beautiful jewels? Oh, yeah, coz they have the money.

My earpiece softly chimes, bringing me back to the task. I test the suction cups I just adhered to the plate window on the top floor. I attach the cables dangling from the roofline. Will it hold? I’ll find out in a few mins.

I liberally apply the repel gel on the glass around the suction cups. The windows were made to withstand everything from lasers to warheads, so they’re pretty tough. But they have seams, which are only covered by polysteel. That’s pretty tough, too, which is why I brought demolition-grade nanobots. They love polysteel.

I stole them from a junkyard. That was a tough job and not at all glamorous.

I highly recommend testing your nanobots before applying them hanging upside down from the 16th floor. I did. I borrowed a suite at the Ritz Boca Hotel in town for an afternoon. It had a lovely walk-in shower. That’s where I learned to apply the repel gel thickly. By the way, I don’t recommend making a reservation at the Ritz Boca for a while. Not until they clean the nanobots out of their plumbing system. Oops.

It’s crucial to go through every step of your plan meticulously. Especially when you’re mixing a job with revenge. On the upside, when you’re seeking revenge, choosing the target is real easy. I’ve had two years trapped at an all-girls prep school to prepare for tonight. It’s gonna go like clockwork.

I’ve timed out everything. There’s the chime in my earpiece again. I carefully open the sealed package holding the nanobots and spread them over the glass. They drift like gray dust across the shiny surface. They have no problem clinging to the slick glass. I’m a little jealous.

I can see the private beach and the softly glowing surf. Photo by Jordan Steranka.

I’m not exactly sure how long they’ll take to eat through the polysteel frame holding the window in place. But I tested a small sample of the nanobots on a bar of polysteel thicker than this window. It took them less than sixty breaths to consume the whole thing. Like I said, they love the stuff.

I climb back up to the roof and wait.

I don’t want to be hanging next to that window when the frame is gone.

I cross the roof to the corner’s other side. My guests are beginning to arrive.

This is the offseason for the beach, so the family is away. But there are still a couple of guards and some maintenance staff that live here even in the offseason. I gave them a few distractions. Just a couple days ago a package was delivered with an amazing new video game. Don’t worry, I bought it on someone else’s credit and it can’t be traced back to me. The gift card inside says “Play it loud to unlock bonus features.”

When I climbed up here tonight, the windows on the first three floors were vibrating. So I’d say they have a pretty good sound system in there. And I’m counting on that to distract them from the fact that the rooftop cameras went out for a little bit. I’m just jamming them until I get inside.

The second distraction is forming at the gate on the highway.

Someone spread the word of a secret blitz party. Meet Downtown. Bring your own transportation and your own drinks. Costumes encouraged. Party favors will be provided.

As I was climbing the tower, my earpiece chimed to confirm that another scheduled message had gone out with the address for the Lasone’s beach resi.

On my way here, I also dusted the hinges of the gates with a tiny amount of nanobots. And from the lights and shouts wending their way down the long driveway, I figure the gates must be open.

Actually, there’s a long line of lights stretching up the highway towards town. Looks like it’s gonna be a rager of a party tonight.

Oh, and the last message said they could park anywhere.

I hear popping sounds and then a low, dull “tonggg.” I walk back to the other wall and look down. The large rectangle of glass is hanging from my wires and swaying gently to and fro. OK, party time for me is over. I slip inside.

It’s a large bedroom. I pad to the closet.

This is the offseason for the beach, so the family is away. Photo by Tobias Rademacher.

This is not the master suite, which takes up most of the floor. This is an adjoining guest room next to the elevator. The closet actually has a back door that leads to utility rooms and the machinery for the elevator. There are cameras here, too. And I have to jam them with the equipment in my backpack until I get to the bare patch of wall right behind the huge, walk-in closet in the master suite.

On the other side of this wall, the closet itself is jammed full of clever security features, including cameras and lasers and whatnot. And two combination locks that I can’t crack. Sure, I can jimmy or pick simple locks. That’s a necessary skill for a high-story thief. But I’m no safecracker.

But I don’t have to be. Not when you back the safe up to a simple cinderblock wall. And not when you don’t even guard that wall with cameras or any kind of alarms. Fools! When you do that, you give me all the time in the world.

I set my pack down and draw out the heaviest and most expensive piece of equipment I’ve ever used. It’s an industrial marine drill. Works wet or dry, hot or cold. I slip the air filter over my mouth and nose and slide earprotectors over my ears and the earpieces. This is gonna get loud.

See why I planned for some loud distractions?

The drill cuts through the cinderblock like a hot knife through crème dela crème. There it is, the dull-gray finish of the back of the safe! I clear a larger whole in the cinderblock. This is where it gets tough. I have to make a hole large enough for the top half of my body and then lean into the hole. I snag a brocade chair from the bedroom.

Don’t worry, I jammed the cameras both ways. And I’m careful not to leave a trail of cement dust everywhere I go.

I can’t hear what’s going on around me because of the earprotectors. So I’m looking around furtively every 50 breaths. It’s annoying and the sweat protector across my forehead is beginning to feel damp. My earpiece gives another chime. This is a special chime that sounds like a short trumpet fanfare. That was supposed to celebrate finding the back of the safe. After all, finding it on the first try is no guarantee. But I’m already drilling into the safe’s outer core. So I’m well ahead of schedule.

I’m not normally superstitious. But when you’re on a job, you need to use your brains and your guts. And when your guts say something’s off, you need to listen. Everything is going according to plan. In fact, it’s going far better than expected. And my gut says this kind of luck can’t hold.

But there’s always an element of risk to a job. Otherwise, where’s the fun?

I stop the drill and wiggle my way out of the hole in the wall. I slip off my earprotectors and listen intently in the darkness of the utility hallway. Nothing. I check my jamming device. It has a small screen that allows me to see the feeds coming from cameras very close to me. I click through all the cameras I can reach on this floor. Everything looks dark and quiet. I left sonic sensors on the wall of the double elevator shaft. No movement of the elevators.

I even check my jammer device again to make sure I haven’t been jamming one of the cameras this whole time. That could draw attention.

I shrug and get back to work. You can plan for every eventuality. In fact, you must. But there’s always an element of risk to a job. Otherwise, where’s the fun?

I eliminated all the risks I could. I timed this out perfectly. I have to trust to my distractions and stick to the timetable.

I figured M. Lasone really wanted to protect his wife’s lavalier. Photo by Patricia Zavala.

The standard version of this safe is built with five layers of polysteel with some thin carbon layers in between. Even that standard version requires some heavy-duty floor supports, which are even more expensive than the safe itself. My timetable allows for seven polysteel layers with possibly a few extra carbon layers.

I figured M. Lasone really wanted to protect his wife’s lavalier. After all, I had nearly stolen it the first time two years ago. Well, I actually had stolen it. I was literally holding it in my hand when they caught me. But I looked up at the judge through wet eyelashes and he knocked it down to “attempted theft.” Old fool.

Of course, he still sentenced me to stay on this lousy planet and go to school. School!

And then the Lasones offered to pay my tuition at the prestigious Wycombe Hall boarding school. The same school their own daughter attended, they told the judge. But don’t think they were doing me any favors. Sending a poor girl to Wycombe is cruelty, not kindness.

But did you know that rich girls like to gamble? They do. Especially when the betting pools are based on their classmates’ social lives and their steps into womanhood. More than once there was an awkward throng waiting for some debutante to come out of the shower in the locker room.

PopPop was a bookie, so I knew a lot about the trade. But I put together some betting pools he never would have imagined. That’s how I paid for this amazing drill.

Thief, con artist, bookie. Maybe Wycombe did help me round out nicely.

The drill breaks through to the inside of the safe. I’m stunned. The drill bit spins in midair for a few breaths before I release the trigger. That cheap, hairless, milk drinker Lasone! He put his wife’s most precious jewels inside a five-layer safe. A basic model.

I should feel grateful, but I don’t. I feel insulted!

I shake my head. You’re on the job. Focus!

I pull the marine drill out. It’s no good for cutting at angles. I insert my telescoping drill and camera. I drill upwards through two shelves and there it is. The lavalier. It captures the light from the drill and paints blue fractalson the safe’s walls.

A warning chimes in my earpiece. The elevators are moving. It could be something. It could be nothing.

I flick my wrist and the lavalier slides down around the long neck of the drill. With a few twists, I maneuver the necklace over the hole in each shelf and gravity does the rest.

There’s my beauty!

Resting in the dust-covered palm of my gloved hand.

Another chime. One of the elevators has moved above the fifth floor. I pull out of the hole and flick through the camera feeds. Again, I can’t see every camera on this floor, but nothing seems amiss.

I slip the lavalier down my neckline. My own necklace ends in a simple hook at my breastbone. The lavalier snags on the hook. I tug to make sure it’s secure. It feels cool against my skin. I tremble.

I also have a cat mask. A little inside joke. Photo by Soroush Golpoor.

There’s a funny thing about rich people. Despite all their vast wealth, they’re very cheap when it comes to someone outside their circle. Say, the help, for instance. With my bookie earnings, I was able to supplement one of the maid’s meager wages. And you wouldn’t believe the things she told me about M. Lasone and M. Lasone.

For one thing, that’s one sick marriage. I kind of let the maid think I was a gossip reporter. That made her a lot less suspicious when I asked about their bedrooms, their jewelry, and their schedules. But I also had to listen to a lot of details about the Lasones, including the children, that I can’t unhear.

The best secret I learned was about the safe room. It takes up two floors of the subbasement. And there’s a glide tube from the master bedroom straight down to the safe room.

I slip the backpack over one shoulder and head out through the bedroom closet. I leave the rest of the gear behind. I always handle all my gear with gloves so bio traces are minimal and degrading every sec.

I flinch as I open the closet door into the bedroom. In total darkness, I can tell a difference in the trace light from outside. Then I feel the ocean breeze and smell its salty tang. Turns out the nanobots were real hungry and all the windows along that wall have fallen out of their frames. I hear more popping sounds and one of the windows on the other wall silently falls out of sight.

There are no audible house alarms, but my elevator sensors now chirp in my ear. Both elevators are headed up. With windows on this floor dropping out of the sky, they have to know something’s up. Plus, I probably triggered some motion alarms in the safe or its closet sometime during the drilling and at least one more when I lifted the lavalier from its base.

It’s time to join the party outside.

I glide down the brightly lit tube for 16 floors. Photo by Joe Ciciarelli.

In my pack, I have a party dress that slides easily over my catsuit. I also have a cat mask. A little inside joke. But the costume serves a practical purpose. It hides my real features from cameras, whether they be security cameras or cameras carried by partiers. After all, I’m still on parole and I can’t be seen at this party.

I also have five mailer pouches in my pack. When I reach the party outside, all I have to do is find five of my plants wearing orange vests. There should be ten people wearing orange vests, so five should be easy to find. Then all I have to do is hand off my envelopes and make my exit.

The slider tube is in M. Lasone’s smaller closet behind a parquet door. I type in the code, step in, and glide down the brightly lit tube for 16 floors.


Or at least it should’ve been 16. Two floors down and I know something’s wrong. And then it hits me . . . literally. The ceiling of the tube collapses onto my head as the tube crashes through the side of the resi tower.

Looks like I may have miscalculated the appetite of the nanobots. Hungry little rascals.

As the tube careens into the sand below, I do my best to stick the landing to the great amusement of the revelers. I land on my feet, obviously, and quickly check my mask before turning and throwing my hands in the air, screaming like I just won the lottery. A thousand wild eyes light up and mix with a deafening roar as I’m swept up in a cresting wave of intoxicated party goers. With the side of the building practically dissolving, there’s nothing stopping the throng from exploring their new playground.

I should feel safe within the chaos, but something’s not right. There’s too much orange. Glancing around, I realize there’s way more than ten people wearing orange vests. Apparently construction worker is a very popular costume.

Time to improvise.

I check the camera feeds one last time. The remaining guards and staff are all abandoning ship.

A self-appointed DJ has set up shop on the upper floor. With all of the windows missing, it’s become quite the nightclub. I can feel the bass from here.

I spend a few too many breaths staring at a camera feed of two drunk girls violently squabbling over a throw pillow but, hey, who doesn’t like a good cat fight?

Suddenly, a familiar silhouette stumbles into the frame. It’s “Princess” Lasone, awkwardly coaxing some rando onto the makeshift dance floor. I should’ve known she’d show up to a rager at her own resort. Probably even took credit for it. I hate her.

I decide to scrap the mailers. I can’t risk handing the lavalier to a stranger or getting caught with it myself. Plus, this was as much about revenge as it was about the shiny.

I quickly thread through what’s left of the party on the beach until I find what I’m looking for: A bubble-gum-pink Benz with a diamond-studded license plate that reads “M&Ms.” Barf.

I check the handles. Unlocked, of course. I rummage through the compartments but finally decide to stash the lavalier in Princess’s glove box. Crazy, right? But the people who get hired to clean up this sort of thing know better than to mess with the Lasones’ things.

A cacophony of sirens and diesel engines signals my cue to slink away into the darkness.

I figure either her car will get towed, allowing me to easily recover the lavalier from the impound yard before Mommy and Daddy come to the rescue. Or she’ll get caught with it and she’ll actually have to go to jail this time. Did I mention that rich girls like to gamble?

Either way, I win.

After all, she’s always been a terrible big sister.


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

Make sure to check out the original, beautiful photos used to illustrate this story. and learn more about the photographers.

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is the Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest–March

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

S. Songweaver

I started the story below. See how S. Songweaver starts after the red line and takes us to an action-filled and hopeful ending.

Lucky Day

by S. Songweaver and Matthew Cross

Ophir woke in the dark to the thick, warm smell of cabbage cooking.

The lights automatically turned on as he rose from bed. On Hulm, where the sun shone brightly most days, they never lacked for electricity. Baba had scavenged solar panels for the roof and, through constant care, kept the tricky wiring running. To Mama, he would say, “Habibti, as long as you are married to me, light shall always shine on your beautiful face and you shall feel the electricity of my love.”

“Habibti,” Mama would say with a small smile, “Light is plentiful on Hulm. Are you so generous you would also give me air to breathe and ground to walk on? I would much prefer a larger cistern.” But when Mama said it, she said it with such a soft smile and soft eyes that Ophir knew it was a joke.

Baba was making fried cabbage rolls for Lucky Day. Photo by Monika Grabkowska

Ophir snapped on his toolbelt and ran to the kitchen. Baba was making fried cabbage rolls for Lucky Day.

It was still dark outside, but Baba had been up for hours rolling out and cutting the dough. Baba only made vegetarian rolls. They cost less to make, but Ophir could only sell them for half the price of rolls filled with goat meat or even eggs. “Habibti, we don’t eat meat. Some of our friends do and some do not. But we will make sure our friends that don’t have a special treat for a festival day.”

Ophir helped fold the rolls as Baba began dropping them into the hot oil. The first batch always came out wrong and Baba let Ophir eat as many as he wanted from the first batch. Ophir crunched the crispy roll and hot cabbage juice flooded his mouth. The fried dough burnt his tongue.

Baba laughed as Ophir rolled the bite around his mouth and sucked in air, trying to cool the hot dough. Fried juices dripped from Ophir’s lips, and he laughed, too. “Couldn’t wait for it to cool, eh, Habibti?” Ophir shook his head, giggling.

It was going to be the best Lucky Day ever!

Most days, Baba was a mender and Mama was a weaver. Mama worked her looms in the back room where the good light shone in through the window. Baba sat at the counter on the front of the house, repairing small machines, family heirlooms that had cracked, and sometimes even favorite pairs of shoes. He also sold small machines and odds and ends that he had repaired but never been paid for.

It was going to be the best Lucky Day ever!

At sunrise, Mama produced another surprise. She had made a new apron for Ophir, a real shop apron made of sturdy material like Baba’s. And it had two large pockets on the front! Ophir donned the apron over his toolbelt to protect the tools. Mama cinched the strings and tied them behind his back. “You look just like your Baba, Habibti,” Mama whispered.

Baba and Ophir took up their stations at the counter. Baba sold cabbage rolls and Lucky Day ribbons, made by Mama, to the growing crowd. Ophir had grown tall the past year and he could finally see over the counter without standing on a stool. He handed out rolls while Baba handled the money.

Ophir did not see any dragons. Just men carrying two large, wobbling dog heads. Photo by Marilyn Paige.

The parade wound through every street of the village on the way to the central square. “Habibti, come look,” Baba called to Mama. “Come! Come! This year, they have made dragons!”

Mama came out from the kitchen, where she had been cooking more cabbage rolls. Baba wrapped his arms around Mama as they watched the dancing figures weave drunkenly up the dusty street. Ophir climbed up on the counter to see over the crowds lining the street. He did not see any dragons. Only men carrying two large, wobbling dog heads and lines of men and women behind carrying streamers. Then came the usual figures wearing headdresses of gold in the shapes of dogs, cats, camels and unicorns.  

When the crowd dwindled, Ophir took his tray and followed the crowd to the central square. There, the Eumda would make a speech and declare the day a holiday, even though everyone already knew that. The school was closed and the richest children in the village would buy the treats and play the games lined around the square. The poorest children would run and play, even if they could not afford the games or sweet treats. And, if they could steal a treat, they would.

None of the child thieves bothered Ophir. Only adults seemed to care for the cabbage rolls. Ophir circled the square, trying to make his voice heard over the adult vendors and the gleeful chatter surrounding him. Baba and Mama let him spend the whole day in the square. When his tray and the insulated box beneath were empty, he ran home and bounced on the balls of his feet, eager to return to the square, as Mama filled the box with steaming rolls. Baba counted the coins in the box. “Habibti, you have done well. Even better than last year. We are blessed by Lucky Day.”

Encouraged, Ophir ran back to the square. This time, he ignored the games and he zeroed in on the older adults, urging them to buy his wares and buy one for a friend. If he did well, perhaps they could buy Mama a new cistern. One without a weeping crack. And if he sold all the rolls, he could leave the tray at home and return to the square, free to run and play with the others.

Business picked up at midday, and Ophir even sold a few rolls to his classmates for their lunch. Mama had run out of dough and Ophir’s box was only half full. He kept counting the rolls after every sale, counting down to when he could return an empty box with coins at the bottom to Baba.

Ophir took his tray and followed the crowd to the central square. Photo by Reiseuhu.

He stood in the shade of an alley, counting the rolls one more time when he heard the popping noises. At first, he thought it might be firecrackers. He looked up, eager to see the bright, sparking colors. Instead, a crush of people ran to the middle of the square. Then he heard gunfire. He turned to run down the alley, but there was already a soldier coming up the far end. Thinking of the coins, Ophir tried to run past the soldier, but the alley was too tight.

The soldier threw Ophir to ground. The man dumped the last of the rolls on the ground and scooped the coins into his pockets. Tears sprang to Ophir’s eyes. His whole family had worked so hard for that money. He rushed at the soldier and found himself suddenly sitting on the ground, his eye exploding in pain. The soldier laughed harshly and pushed Ophir into the square with the muzzle of his rifle. Soldiers with guns ringed the entire square.

Ophir was herded into Alththania’s pawn shop with dozens of villagers, mostly adults. The villagers were crying and screaming, but still they instinctively sorted themselves out. The men pushed the women behind them and faced the soldiers at the door. The women pushed the children to the back of the store, hushing and holding the smallest ones. Ophir was almost 13, but he was short for his age and he found himself at the back of the store with the children too big to carry.

He was afraid, especially when he heard more gunfire erupting outside. But it was distant, coming from other parts of the village, not the square. Ophir closed his eyes and prayed for Baba and Mama. Baba was smart. At the first sign of trouble, he would have dropped the swinging wood door that also acted as the stall’s awning and latched it tight. Soldiers would want nothing with a mender and his second-hand goods.

After the soldiers closed the door, the men in the front huddled together and spoke in low voices. Some of the women cried, and some of the women comforted those women and the children. “It’s OK, Habibti. Everything will be fine,” one woman said, rocking a child in her lap.

“It’s a cleansing,” one young man said very loudly. “It’s happened elsewhere. And now it’s happening here. We’ll never …”

Ophir stood in the shade of an alley, counting the rolls. Photo by Joshua Sukoff.

The other men shouted him down, but their frenzied talk continued in a louder rumble.

If Ophir could just make it home, everything would be alright. But for security, Alththania’s shop had no windows. That had been the soldiers’ first mistake. Everyone knew that Alththania bought and sold gold, silver, and the occasional jewel. The glass case behind Ophir was filled with gold necklaces and rings and even a few ruby rings. It was the closest he had ever been to true wealth. But Alththania also bought and sold guns, everything from slug slingers to pulse rifles.

The soldiers had left the jewels, but they had removed the guns from the shelves. The wall behind the main counter had nothing left but empty shelves and wire hangers. But even Ophir knew Alththania kept some things hidden beneath the floorboards.

Ophir could not hear the details of the men’s talk up front, but it was clear there were two camps. One said to wait for the Eumda to sort things out, and the others were suggesting they do their own bargaining, purchase their way to freedom. “We are a poor village,” said a thin man with lined cheeks. “They will soon see that and be on their way.” That brought on doubtful grumbles.

Ophir took stock of his surroundings. There was a door to Alththania’s backroom. He knew all the village alleyways and there was no back door to the pawn shop. But he wanted to get away from the crying, snot-nosed children crowding around him. He wanted to stretch his legs.

Quietly, he crawled around the counter. Luckily, the room was not locked and Ophir crawled inside and latched the door behind him.

It was a small, cramped space with a desk in the front corner and a large safe, shelves on three walls and a large row of shelves running down the center of the room. Curious, Ophir examined the shelves. Like his father’s shop, it was filled with machinery, but expensive machines his father would never be allowed to work on. There were kitchen mixers, microwave ovens, and pulse massagers. They were not new, but they were not dusty or dented like the machines in Baba’s mending shop. Some even came with their own cloth or plastic covers.

In the far corner, where the automatic lighting barely reached, Ophir found the android. The head, torso and arms were all in one piece, sitting drunkenly on a stool. The legs were on a nearby shelf. They gleamed metallically in the dim light.

Ophir looked guiltily at the door, his fingers already itching to touch the android.

His father would have given a day’s wages just for five minutes with the android, working or not. Baba and Ophir had even talked of building their own android one day, but they all knew it was a dream. Like when Mama would buy one lottery ticket and they would take turns holding the ticket and saying what they would buy with the winnings.

Ophir looked guiltily at the door, his fingers already itching to touch the android. The door was still latched and he could not hear anything from the main room. He had more than five minutes. He might have hours and hours.

After examining the parts until he grew tired of standing, Ophir took the pieces to the desk to examine them more closely under the bright, white light of the wall lamp. All the connections seemed sound and clean. Ophir could not understand why the android had even been disassembled.

He only looked guiltily at the door once more before pulling the tools from his tool belt. He set to work, only pausing when he smelled smoke. The smell was very faint but acrid. Not the smell of hearth fires or cooking fires. He heard rumblings from the men in the main room, but there were no screams. He decided the fire must be from another part of the village.

Ophir lost track of time. Only when the start-up sequence began did he finally sit back with a sigh, rubbing his eyes. He heard a murmur from the main room and a strange noise.


There were muffled screams followed by gunshots and whimpering. Ophir swallowed as the android hummed to life. Shuffling could be heard in the next room followed by REE-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA-TA. The sickening noise of gunfire.

Ophir instinctively crouched behind the bot that was still calibrating, making himself as small as possible in a corner of the room until the noise outside stopped.

Nearly an hour passed before the silence in the room was finally interrupted by the shiny, metal android stretching and standing. It whirled as its face displayed the word “Hello.”

Ophir was hiding his face in his arms. He did not notice the android’s message until the android poked him.

“Hello. I am Bot A1M.”

The blue words appeared across the bot’s square faceplate.

Ophir swallowed and asked “Hello, Aim . . . . Is it safe?” unsure if the android would know such things.

“There are no life forms other than you here,” the android updated.

Ophir nodded, then remembered what the man had said about a cleansing.

“Baba!” he blurted out.

“I am not your Baba,” The android displayed, trying to be helpful.

“No, not you.” Ophir carefully approached the door and placed his shaking hand on the knob.

“I sense the field beyond here is not good for a child to see,” the android offered on its faceplate. “Although my parental restrictions have not been turned on.”

“I have to get to my family. Is it safe?” Ophir asked.

Dots appeared across the android’s face as it considered. Then, after a moment, it displayed “Yes. The nearest life form is about one half kilometer away. It seems the gunfire has ceased.”

Ophir swallowed. “Baba and Mama are barely outside that range.” He opened the door and carefully walked into the other room. Ignoring the acrid, metallic smell, he tried to pretend the people were only sleeping as he edged to the exit.

As Ophir reached the door, the android lingered behind, shuffling its feet hesitantly at a floorboard.

“Is that something that might help?” Ophir asked.

“Yes.” Carefully, the android lifted the plank of wood to reveal a gun as big as Ophir’s torso.

Ophir’s eyes went wide. “Do you know how to use that?”

The android picked up the weapon in response and seemingly armed it.

“Yes.”

“Okay, Aim,” Ophir said. “Can you come with me to find my family?”

“A1M priority has been updated to protect and serve.”

The bot readied as the boy opened the door to the dusty air outside.

Together, they braved the street towards home.


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

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

You can also enjoy view the beautiful, original photos used to illustrate “Lucky Day,” learn about the photographers, and follow links to their other work.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is the Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Katherine Shaw

February Contest

I started the story below. See how Katherine starts after the red line and carries the tale away to a shocking ending. A Romeo-and-Juliet story where Juliet grabs the lead and won’t let go.

INTRODUCTION: This story takes place on the planet simply known as The Globe, on a stretch of water between Whitehall, also called the First City, and the farming community of Finsbury to the south. Long before the Night of the Rocket and nearly fifty years before the Seven Day War there was …

The Secret War

by Katherine Shaw and Matthew Cross

Juliet gunned the thrusters of the hover.

She sped across the surface of Lake Avon, heading south towards the dark headland. Around that bend was the end of the lake and the beginning of freedom. The headland cinched the Elizabeth River’s waist back to her usual trim shape on her journey south to the farming community of Finsbury, the breadbasket of The Globe.

She glanced back at the bright lights of Whitehall’s crystalline towers. Whitehall–First City of The Globe. A twinge of guilt tugged at her. But she had made up her mind. Her parents had told her she had to choose between her family and Romeo. So she had chosen. She did not know what her future held or where she would live, but as long as she was with Romeo, nothing else mattered.

She pumped her thrusters, urging the hover forward, but the throttle was already fully open. 

Ahead, the headland, dark with trees, formed a silhouette, refusing to reflect back the distant lights of Whitehall. It suddenly loomed up. It was too close and she was going too fast to make the bend into the main channel of the river.

Her hands twitched at the controls, her feet at the pedals, working thrusters and steering gyros at the same time to spin the hover. She used the hover’s own momentum to simultaneously slow her and spin her in the right direction. The hover, normally silent, growled in protest and threw a huge spray of water that glowed white in the darkness.

A twinge of guilt tugged at her. But she had made up her mind.

That would attract the attention of the lifeguard drones hovering high overhead. And the subaquatic monitors would record the unusual wave pattern. But as long as she didn’t capsize, they would not act. And no one would be alerted.

She knew her father monitored her movements, or leastways, his machines did, and some of his flunkies audited those data streams. But she had taken precautions.

She had removed her own tracker months ago. To avoid suspicions, she carried it with her throughout Whitehall, but whenever she left to meet Romeo, she clipped it to her cat, Thisbe. This night, she had not taken her own customized hover, choosing a plain, black model from the family boathouse from which she had removed all the trackers.

Even at sixteen, she was one of the best hover pilots in Whitehall, which meant she was one of the best anywhere north of Newlondon. (No one could compare with Newlondoners, who learned to sail before they learned to walk.) Her secret was her finesse. And being a girl, of course. Everyone knew girls made better pilots than ham-handed boys, who always tried to muscle the controls. That’s one reason she was driving further than Romeo to meet up tonight; she could drive faster and better in the dark. He was good at sports–really good–but even he had to admit she was the better pilot of the two. No one in Whitehall or Finsbury compared with her on a hover.

The hover glided so smoothly and silently over the water, she felt almost as if she were floating in the vacuum of space. Photo by Steve Halama.

The hover dove into the near total darkness on the far side of the headland. The darkness was so complete, Juliet flinched from the sensation of colliding with something solid. The hover glided so smoothly and silently over the water, she felt almost as if she were floating in the vacuum of space. She held her breath. But the slight wind across her face brought her back to her senses and she clicked on the hover’s lights for the first time. It was safe. She was beyond sight, sound, or sensor of Whitehall. She was free!

She was free to see her Romeo!

The irony was not lost on her. On a planet named The Globe, everyone knew the story of Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers. Growing up, Juliet had never thought their story a romantic one. They were stupid. Killing themselves? For what? For love?

Of course, Romeo was the stupidest one. If he’d just waited a little bit longer. If he’d just made absolutely sure, Juliet would have woken up eventually. And they could have lived happily ever after. Boys are stupid! Except for Romeo, her Romeo, the real-life, living, breathing Romeo.

But dying for love didn’t seem quite so stupid now. Still, she and her Romeo would never do that. Would never and would never have to.

But dying for love didn’t seem quite so stupid now.

Life was funny, though. Or the universe had a perverse sense of humor.

She was hardly the first Juliet on The Globe to fall for a Romeo. She herself was the ninth-generation Juliet in her family. And it was said that on every block of Whitehall lived a Romeo, a Hamlet, and an Othello. Her older brother was an Othello.

Even so, she had promised herself she would never fall for a Romeo. It was so trite! So cheesy! A Romeo and a Juliet in love? Too easy to be a constant target of mockery. And, growing up, she never had to make herself promise not to fall in love with a Finsburian. No woman of Whitehall–or not one of standing, anyway–would be caught dead in Finsbury or give a clod-shoed Finsby a second of time. Clumsy, hulking, dirty farmers with cauliflower for brains. Those dirtwalkers didn’t appreciate the beauty of Whitehall’s crystalline towers and white ways. It’s customs and elevated manners. They didn’t appreciate Whitehall’s technological bounty. They dared to compare the value of their lowly vegetables with her father’s miracle machines.

Yet, Romeo was no hick and no fool. Yes, he was large. As tall as her father and twice as wide. Standing next to him was like standing next to a solid wall of muscle. Not that she was into big muscles or anything, but when he towered over her, his long brown curls brushing his broad shoulders …. She shivered at the thought.

She had to focus! She shook her head to clear it. She breathed in the cooling lake spray.

Her flare of rage at her parents had purged her twinge of guilt. They had done this! Not Romeo. Not she, Juliet. She had no desire to leave Whitehall. She loved her ancestral home, its culture and art, and most of all, its technology. Her love of machines and their secret languages was perhaps the one thing she and her father shared, besides DNA and a name.

But they had forced her hand. Her father especially. Her mother had sympathized. Had even pleaded in private with her husband, Escalus, the “King of Data Storage.” But when he said “No,” loudly enough for Juliet to hear him through doors that were supposed to be soundproof, her mother had caved. Worse, she had taken his side and tried to turn Juliet’s heart against Romeo. As if! 

Turn her heart against her fair Romeo? Her Romeo of the glinting green eyes? Bright green eyes flecked with gold so it appeared that the sun always shone in them, even in the dark, shady places where they escaped to kiss. A girl could happily lose her soul in those green eyes. Perhaps that is what had happened to Juliet. Perhaps she had lost her soul to Romeo. If so, she did it gladly. He could have it a hundred times over.

So she had chosen the night carefully. Her father was very busy with a large project. He often worked late, but a few nights ago he had told Mom he would be working overnight on this project. That’s when Juliet knew she had to make her break for it. By dawn, she and Romeo could be so far gone that no one in Whitehall or Finsbury could ever find them.

Most days, Juliet was allowed to come and go without supervision. As long as her grades were good, she could travel anywhere in Whitehall or on Lake Avon without a living escort. Of course, there were always safety and security drones everywhere, even in the sewers and beneath Lake Avon. And lifeguard drones hung discretely high in the sky over the lake, watching everyone with electronic eyes.

Even though she was used to traveling in darkness to see Romeo, her waking dream almost blinded her to her next landmark–a sandy beach. Photo by Yusuf Evli.

She was even allowed to skim the lake in the middle of the night, if she liked–something none of her friends could do. As long as she earned good marks in school, her parents left her alone. And school wasn’t hard. She was smarter than most of her teachers. Like her father, study came easily to her, especially math and programming. And so she earned the highest marks and her parents got to brag about her achievements, as if they had had anything to do with it besides contributing the DNA.

Apparently the only thing she could not do was to see Romeo. Or any Finsby. Or have anything to do with Finsbury. And, right now, the only thing in the world worth doing was seeing Romeo. She had tried to resist him. She had tried to stay away. But she couldn’t. And when she saw his face again, after staying away a whole week, the sad look in his eyes hurt her doubly so.

She couldn’t stay away. She wouldn’t stay away. She was going to be with him, whatever it took.

She didn’t care about Finsbury. She didn’t care if the whole city–really just a noisy, smelly marketplace–and all the surrounding fields and farms burned in the fires of Belmont. All she cared about was that she was with Romeo. If that had to be in Finsbury, then so be it. She longed to be with him right now. Her Romeo of the broad shoulders and the lopsided grin.

Her stomach tingled as she envisioned that shy grin. And those full lips. Lips that kissed her beneath the tall trees of the Forest of Arden, the forest that formed the contested border between Whitehall and Finsbury. 

She cruised through the darkness with only the wind in her ears to mar the silence. The hover’s lights shining on the dark water ahead hypnotized her. In the near darkness, it was easy to imagine Romeo’s hair, his face, his shoulders. She eagerly looked forward to their first embrace in freedom. To watch his face lower towards hers. To feel his soft lips on her own.

Even though she was used to traveling in darkness to see Romeo, her waking dream almost blinded her to her next landmark–a sandy beach. It was the first place after the headland that the high bank of the Elizabeth ran down to the water’s edge. Beyond the Lake of Avon, the Elizabeth River’s currents were treacherous and even this far north it was subject to tidal surges caused by The Globes moons.

The hover ran easily over the faintly glowing sands up to the tree line. The black hover slid silently beneath the trees of the Forest of Arden and followed a walking trail that bordered the Elizabeth.

Soon, very soon, she would meet Romeo on the southern edge of the forest. There, beneath the moonlight, she would tell him of her plan. After a few kisses, of course. Her plan for both of them to keep traveling south, all the way to Newlondon. He was not welcome in Whitehall. And she would not be welcome in Finsbury. And they couldn’t survive long in the wilderness.

The black hover slid silently beneath the trees of the Forest of Arden. Photo by Gabrielle Mustapich.

She was carefully following the path bordering the Elizabeth River and planning her speech to Romeo when she heard the low growl. She flicked off her lights and let the hover glide to a complete stop. In the darkness, she strained with her ears to hear the sound more clearly. It was the low, sexy growl of a heavy hover engine, not the sound of a beast. A beast would have been less frightening.

She knew that engine–it belonged to the 9NUS Lion–her father’s newest line of heavy-duty hovers. “The 9NUS Lion … goes as fast as you like it,” her father had said with a smirk.

The 9NUS could tow heavy loads. Or it could be plated with armor and loaded up with weaponry for police or military action. She knew Whitehall had bought the whole lot.

Juliet was a quick study and it took her only seconds to put it together. Whitehall was sending troops under cover of night to raid Finsbury! And before they reached Finsbury, they would reach the edge of the forest … where Romeo was waiting for her!

All her fears were confirmed when the first hover–covered in some type of camouflage–blew past her in the darkness.

Juliet gunned her thrusters.


Laden with weapons and heavily armored, the 9NUS couldn’t reach its optimal speed, and Juliet’s small hover quickly caught up. With the lights off, she drifted behind her quarry in almost complete darkness, her engine drowned out by the guttural growl of the heavier vehicle.

He would be waiting for her now, emerald eyes glittering in the moonlight.

She had to think; with each lost second they drew closer to Romeo.

He would be waiting for her now, emerald eyes glittering in the moonlight, blind to the approaching danger. She had to save him!

With her eyes fixed straight ahead, she fumbled blindly in her satchel until her fingers closed around the energy pistol. She had smuggled it out of Othello’s room earlier that evening. Being an older boy, he already had access to firearms, though his bullish brain was too small to make proper use of it. Juliet had only practiced a handful of times, but that would have to be enough. She didn’t have a choice.

The trees began to thin on either side of the hovers – they were approaching the edge of the forest. It was now or never.

Narrowing her eyes, she drew the pistol and focused her aim on her target. If she could hit the fan just right, she could disable it and send the hover spinning into the forest, buying some time. She couldn’t stop the invasion, but she could save Romeo. Her Romeo.

The 9NUS slowed and then stopped. Juliet’s feet hit the pedals, slowing her own hover to a crawl.

“It looks like our story is a tragedy after all.”

Juliet’s trembling finger moved to the trigger, but halted as she recognized the figure stepping out of the cabin of the 9NUS. He was tall and, despite the helmet obscuring his eyes, his features were unmistakable.

Juliet could recognize her father from a mile away.

Her heart hammered against her ribs, but she didn’t move. Her outstretched arm was paralyzed, her white knuckles gripping the butt of the pistol. Her breath caught as the figure moved, and the piercing blue eyes of Escalus Andronicus locked onto her own, his face twisted in confusion.

“Juliet?!”

His voice boomed, drowning out his rumbling hover and echoing out through the once peaceful forest. Juliet’s hands shook, sending small vibrations down the barrel of the pistol, still trained on its target.

“What the hell are you doing here?” He stepped closer to back of his hover, his face violet with rage. “Turn around and go home, you stupid girl!”

Juliet closed her eyes for a moment, her own hover propelling her slowly onward through the darkness. When she opened them again, her father was obscured through a veil of tears. Her hand moved slowly, the tremors steadying.

“It looks like our story is a tragedy after all,” she said, not caring whether she was heard. “Just not the one anyone expected.”

Juliet would never forget the look of betrayal in her father’s eyes as the realization struck him. 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.

The course of true love never did run smooth.


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

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

You can also enjoy view the beautiful, original photos used to illustrate “The Secret War,” learn about the photographers, and follow links to their other work.

Map of the Globe's Five Cities

Finally, you can also enjoy four other tales set on The Globe written by former winners of the writing contest.

The Globe Folio

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Here’s the inside scoop on how I chose Katherine’s ending as the winner.

P.P.S. If you would like to read some more stories by Katherine and check out her new website, why not start here: www.katherineshawwrites.com/stories. (And make sure to scroll down to see all Katherine’s stories on that page.)

This is the January Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Frasier Armitage

February Contest: I’ll be announcing the February contest on Monday, Jan. 25.

January Contest

I started the story below. See how Frasier seamlessly picks up the tale after the red line and gives us an exciting ending with a real twist. It blew me away!

The Lost Cadet

by Frasier Armitage and Matthew Cross

Thrace smashed through the undergrowth as fast as she could.  Every bush was twice her height and several times her width.  Even the grasses on this planet grew as tall as an adult.  And when she ran through the grass, the brilliant white sun shone in her face.

She could barely see where she was going and the grasstops whipped at her face and cut at her arms.  But she did not care.  She ran headlong from the beast that pursued her.  When it bellowed, the vibrations ripped through her entire body.  Her stomach turned to liquid, her knees lost their thrust, and even her molars ached.  She tried covering her ears once, but that only protected her ears.  And the beast had almost caught her!

She was living breath to ragged breath.  Her lungs burned, her legs burned, her heart was trying to leap from her chest.  She felt these things, but they were tiny details, drowned out by her sheer terror.

The landscape was a savanna.  There were open spaces of grasses dotted with the giant bushes. Photo by Ndumiso Silindza.

She ran towards the sun.  She turned her head now and then, scanning for landmarks.  Anything familiar.  The landscape was a savanna.  There were open spaces of grasses dotted with the giant bushes.  Where the ground rose, there were trees.  Trees as wide as a landing rocket and tall as a resi tower.  On the hilltops, the trees grew in copses, but on the flats they grew singly.

The ground shook with the footfalls of the beast.  The intelligent part of her brain–the part that was good at math and navigation–told her that made no sense.  Even a creature eight-meters tall should not make the ground shake this far ahead of it.  She had stopped screaming after the first fifty meters, but some part of her brain, the wild, animal part, still screamed louder than the intelligent part of her brain.  Her burning lungs could barely keep the oxygen flowing, oxygen she needed to feed the muscles in her legs.

The ground shook with the footfalls of the beast.

She ran, following the sun.  It was the only guide back to her hidey-hole.  She had gone foraging for food.  She had carefully noted her surroundings, even left poles of broken branches in the grassy places to guide her back.  But she had gotten turned around.

She had blundered across the beast at a watering hole.  The pond was wide and deep.  The water almost clear.  Thrace had dipped her canteen in the water, filled it and stood sealing the top.  That’s when she noticed the water dripping eight meters from . . . from what?  No tree branches were that low.  From the bushes surrounding the pond?  She looked across the pond, to her right, and saw it.  A dark-blue reptile standing eight meters tall with slashes of dark brown and pale yellow giving it some camouflage.  They both stood frozen while the last remaining gouts of water streamed from its mouth.

“Ahhhh . . .” Thrace said to no one.

The beast leaned forward and opened its mouth wide, letting out the first bellow.  Thrace had fallen backwards from the force and covered her ears.  Then she had been scrambling backwards on hands and feet.  Somehow, she had risen to her feet and begun running.  Running into the sun.  She turned her head once and saw the beast leap.

It did not run around the pond or through it.  It just leapt over the pond, landing where Thrace had stood!

Thrace had run straight across the open grassland, and the thing sprinted after her at an amazing speed.  Thrace slid under the first bush she reached and crawled to the other side.  The bush only slowed the beast a breath.  If not for the one tree on a rise and the bushes surrounding it, the beast would have caught Thrace quickly.

“It’s a sprinter,” the intelligent part of her brain said.

On the open flats of the grassland, the beast could sprint at full speed on two giant legs.  It could leap over lower bushes and tear its way through all but the densest undergrowth.  Really, there was nowhere that it could not go.

That’s why Thrace had to find her hidey-hole.  It was the only safe place.

Photo by Sharon Harvey.

Thrace had worked out a system of running along the higher ground, around the giant trees, all too tall and smooth to climb, and keeping bushes between her and the blue nightmare.

She learned its patterns.  When it saw her, it bellowed and then charged at a sprint.  The full force of that bellow reduced prey to quivering jelly.  But the taller rises slowed its speed, and it could not turn easily.  She avoided the open grasses and constantly changed course to avoid both the direct power of its bellow and its straight-line sprint.

Humans are apex predators.  Humans can run long distances.  Given enough time, ancient humans could run any prey to ground, no matter its size, strength or speed.  Thrace knew these things.  But those human hunters were adults in the prime of life with years of running experience.  Thrace was a school kid who liked to shirk her turns at the shipboard cycles so she could read about theropods of the Cretaceous.

She changed direction again and her school bag lurched to the right and her canteen thumped hard against her thigh.  The bag contained the food she had gathered–some mushroom-like fungi and a cluster of tiny, purple flowers–and the canteen held the only water she had had in days.  She needed the food and water almost as much as she needed to escape her pursuer.  She did not have the time to ditch either, and she needed them to survive.

That’s why Thrace had to find her hidey-hole.  It was the only safe place.

Then she saw it.  A broken branch on that tree off to the side.  She recognized it!  She recalled passing almost underneath that broken branch.  She remembered thinking it would make a good landmark to guide her home.  And she had been right.

She was close to her hidey-hole.  No more than a five-minute walk.

The beast was crashing through a copse of bushes.  It breathed hard and did not bellow.  Was that because it could not see her yet or because it was winded?  Not for the first time, she wished with all her being that the beast would tire and go away.  Or that some other creature would wander across their winding path and distract the beast.  Or that she had some camouflage, even some plain, brown clothing to blend into the brush.  Her blue-and-yellow cadet uniform was as obvious as a supernova among the savanna’s shades of brown and tan.

The intelligent part of Thrace’s brain told her the color may not matter.  The beast could be color blind.  Or maybe it could see her in infrared.  Or maybe it relied on sound and smell to find its prey.  However it sensed her, she had tried standing still and silent, and it had not worked.

Thrace ran along the edge of a copse of bushes.  She could make it now.  She knew she could.  And with this realization, her adrenaline seemed to flag, and she realized how truly tired she was.  There, in the open, she saw a branch she had planted like a flagpole in the tall grass.  She kept to the top of the slope, as high as the trees and brush allowed, and headed towards the hill ahead that she thought she recognized.  Underneath that hillock was her hidey-hole and on the other side, in the wide grasslands, was the wreckage of the ship.

Photo by Toby Wong.

She ran left down the slope, not directly towards the hillock, and she heard the beast roar.  She veered sharply to the right, before the rush of air and the strongest vibrations of that roar reached her.  It began its charge down the slope and she could feel the thunder of its feet vibrating the ground even though she flew so fast it seemed her feet barely touched the ground.  The sweaty hair on the nape of her neck stood on end.  Her adrenaline was back, but it could not last long.

“I don’t belong here!  I just want to go home!” she screamed with her mind.  “Just leave me alone.  Let me go!  You don’t belong here either!”

Thrace leapt the hillock top and slid down the far side.  The ground was littered with sunburnt leaves and they carried her nearly to the base of the hill.  The beast was just on the other side of the hillock and the hill was not tall enough to curb its momentum.  Still sliding, Thrace spun and scrabbled on hands and knees towards the hole dug into the base of the hill.

Teeth as long as Thrace’s arm jutted from a blood-red mouth.

The beast, a smooth-skinned reptile of blue, yellow and brown, exploded through the brush at the top of the hillock.  Teeth as long as Thrace’s arm jutted from a blood-red mouth.

Thrace squirted into the hole and tumbled into the natural cavity she had spent days widening.  She crabwalked backwards until her back hit the rough rock wall.  She hugged her school bag and covered her face.

There was nothing else to do but wait.  Wait and hope the beast was not good at digging.

She kept waiting for its yellow-slitted eye to appear at the end of the tunnel. Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw.

Thrace shook uncontrollably. Why had she dug the opening so wide?  For more light?  How stupid!  Why had she not dug the tunnel deeper before widening the hidey-hole?  Now, because she had wanted more light and space, she would die at the claws or teeth of this dinosaur-age monstrosity.

But she did not die.  She shook silently and she listened.  At first, the beast landed beyond the hillock and its thundering steps receded.  Thrace cried silently, knowing it would return.  And it did.  It scratched and snuffed along the base of the hillock.  She kept waiting for its yellow-slitted eye to appear at the end of the tunnel, but it never did.  She heard heavy breathing and snuffling.  Then a sort of bellowing snort, but not the full-strength bellow that preceded the beast’s sprinting charge.

Eventually, the too-heavy footsteps receded.  Thrace broke down.  A full-blown, shaking, crying, gibbering, snot-flying break down she had not had since she was very small.  No, no, she had never had an episode this bad because she had never truly feared for her life before.

Eventually, she slept.  Then she drank.  Then she ate.  When her meager supply was gone, she blew her nose, wiped her eyes, and cleaned herself up.

And her brain said a theropod did not belong on a planet with small, precise purple flowers. Photo by Kenny Luo.

Finally, Thrace’s thinking brain reasserted itself.  It was a brilliant brain.  A brain so quick and sharp and crammed full of knowledge of the universe that she had been accepted as a cadet two years early.  And her brain said a theropod did not belong on a planet with small, precise purple flowers or even a wide savanna.  She could name ten planets that proved her point.

Maybe that was something she could work with.  Maybe not.

Either way, she had work to do.  She looked around her hidey-hole and catalogued the scant tools she had scavenged from the wreck.  She nodded, a plan taking shape.


Thrace fixed a rag to her makeshift spear. She approached the entrance to her hidey-hole, gripping her knife, inclining her ear beyond the tunnel.

“Consider your surroundings,” she said to herself, repeating her training. “Consider your needs. Consider all things before you proceed.”

She inhaled deeply as the tall grass whispered beyond the cavern. A faint hiss crept closer. Then it stopped. A second passed. The hiss reappeared. The beast was out there. Waiting. Watching. Breathing.

Consider your surroundings. Check.

She inhaled deeply as the tall grass whispered beyond the cavern. Photo by Sharon Harvey.

Her brain analyzed her plan. The knife should be enough, but she doused the rag in fuel, just in case. Grazes bit her knees from where she’d skidded into the cave, but she was ready.

Consider your needs. Check.

That beast doesn’t belong here, she thought. Nothing belongs here. This has to work.

Consider all things before you proceed. Check.

She drew breath, counting down from three … two … one. Thrace pounced into the open.

Thrace shrieked, her roar rivalling the creature’s own as its hulking frame blocked out the sun, casting her in shadow.

The beast’s roar bellowed as it thundered towards her. She struck her blade against the spear. Sparks erupted, setting the rag aflame.

Thrace shrieked, her roar rivalling the creature’s own as its hulking frame blocked out the sun, casting her in shadow. She dropped the rag and opened her arms, welcoming the beast’s jaws before the theropod exploded into a million pixels, along with the grass, the trees, and her hidey-hole.

Alarms shook the sim-suite. A tech removed Thrace’s helmet. Sanitized air filled her lungs.

Admiral Denvers loomed over her with the menace of that creature. “You lost, cadet. And you showed so much promise. Why give up?”

“I didn’t give up,” Thrace said, as nurses stripped her from the haptic suit.

“After all those weeks on the surface,” the Admiral continued, “and the care we took setting up this charade. You know how difficult it is to make a mind like yours believe it’s in another place? Just for you to quit when you got scared. It’s disappointing.”

“I did what you taught me, sir.”

Denvers scowled. “You failed.”

We’re never truly lost if we face our fears.

“No, sir. That beast—I’d seen it before, in a textbook on the Cretaceous period. I knew it didn’t belong there. Neither did I. How else could I explain why no other ships responded to my beacon? The simulation was obvious. So I ended it.”

“You knew?”

“‘Consider all things before you proceed.’ Right, sir?”

Denvers raised an eyebrow. “If you’re so smart, why would we go to all this effort if we wanted you to fail?”

Thrace thought for a moment. “This test isn’t about endurance. It’s about knowing what it’s like to be lost. Sometimes, when we feel lost, we’re in exactly the place we need to be.”

“Is that so?”

Thrace nodded. “We’re never truly lost if we face our fears. Being lost is just the first step towards being found.”

The Admiral smiled. He waved to the tech. “Terminate the Lost Cadet program,” he said. The alarms ceased. “Welcome home, Thrace.”


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

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Here’s the inside scoop on how I chose Frasier’s ending as the winner.

P.P.S. Here’s another great ending written by Frasier Armitage:

This is the December Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Dario Ors

January Contest: I’ll be announcing the January contest soon. (Probably next Monday.)

December Contest

I started the story below. See how Dario seamlessly picks up the thread after the red line and gives us a sweet, satisfying ending just perfect for a cat story! (You really want me to say it? OK, a purr-fect ending!)

A Present for Smittens

by Dario Ors and Matthew Cross

Smittens heard the front door open and she leapt down the stairs.  A stranger stood in the doorway and Smittens’s person let the stranger enter.

Smittens saw her chance and dove between the stranger’s legs towards the morning light and freedom.  Smittens’s person was not as fast as Smittens, not usually, but somehow Smittens found herself scooped up in her person’s arms.

“Mwooorrroowwrrr!” Smittens said, demanding to be put down.

The stranger and Smittens’s person coughed in that odd way that only persons cough.  “Hahahahaha,” they coughed.

Smittens squirmed and squirmed, making louder noises of complaint and finally freed herself to drop to the floor.  The persons were walking down the hallway towards the kitchen.  That’s where Smittens’s person kept all the food.  Feeling hopeful, Smittens raced down the hall and arrived first in the kitchen.  Her claws clicked on the hard floor.

Smittens heard the front door open. Photo by Mary Abreu.

“I see what you mean,” said the stranger, “she has a lot of personality!”

“Oh, yes,” Smittens’s person cooed.  She coughed some more.  A happy, throaty cough that usually meant Smittens could continue to do whatever she wanted to do.  “She’s a torty–a tortoiseshell cat–and they have a lot of personality.  They’re very smart and very determined.  They do whatever they want, and if they don’t like what’s happening, they’ll tell you.”

“She’s a torty–a tortoiseshell cat–and they have a lot of personality.”

The stranger coughed.  “Ha ha ha!  Well, at least you know where you stand.”

The stranger set a large box down on the floor.  Smittens gave it only a quick glance.  It looked like the box her person sometimes put her in when Smittens got carried out of the house.  But it did not smell like the box.

Her person was ignoring her, so Smittens wove her way between her person’s legs and began saying that she would like some food.  “Meow, meow, meow, meow, meow, meow!” Smittens insisted in a high-pitched voice.

“You see what I mean?  She’s asking for second breakfast.  No, Smittens, no more food.  I already fed you this morning!”

The stranger coughed.  “Trying to get fed again?  Every cat knows that trick.”

Both persons coughed.

Smittens’s person reached for Smittens to pick her up again, but Smittens dodged her easily.  Smittens decided to ask the stranger for food.  She rubbed up against the dark covering of the stranger’s leg.  She told him she was hungry and told him to bring some food.  The stranger kneeled down and Smittens ran away a few steps.  She looked at her person, who stood with hands on hips.  Her person did not seem alarmed, so Smittens waited.  The stranger held out his hand and became very still.

He made a tiny clicking noise that intrigued her.

She approached his hand carefully and gave it a courteous sniff.  “Hi, there, Smittens,” he said softly.  But he did not move.  She gave the hand an approving bump of her head and he coughed.

This box smelled like hard metals and sticky oils. She rubbed her face on the corners, marking it with her scent anyway.

“You have a way with cats,” said Smittens’s person.

“Well, we have a couple.  They’re my wife’s really, but I help feed them.  And I’ve gotten exposure to lots of cats since joining Virtual Ventures.  I’m an engineer and we designed the VAC–Virtual Adventure for Cats–especially for cats.  They’re working on a model for dogs, as well, but that’s still a year away from production at least.”

Smittens kept talking to the persons, raising her voice louder and louder.  But no one gave her any food.  She wove around their legs over and over, but they just stood there and made person-sounding meows at each other.  Smittens got bored and went to see the box.  She checked carefully over her shoulder to make sure neither person was going to scoop her up.

She sniffed at the box.  It did not smell like the box her person called a “crate.”  Whenever Smittens heard that word, she ran and hid under the bed.  She knew the “crate” meant being stuffed, clawing and hissing, into the box and leaving the house.

The “crate” smelled like Smittens.  It smelled like her nap places and there was a soft, frayed towel inside filled with old but strong smells of herself.  This box smelled like hard metals and sticky oils.  She rubbed her face on the corners, marking it with her scent anyway.

“And it’s perfectly safe?”

“…no, no electrodes are needed.  Nothing like that.  The VAC contains tens of thousands of sensors to read the cat’s temperature, respiration, pulse, everything.  Believe me, the VAC knows every second more data than your vet would ever collect in an entire visit.  We want to make sure Smittens is safe, comfortable, and engaged at all times.”

“And it’s perfectly safe?”

“Oh, of course!  We’ve built in tons of failsafes.  Everyone who worked on the VAC is a cat owner.  We all want what’s best for Smittens.  Believe me, we wouldn’t let anything bad happen to her.  That’s the point of the VAC, to keep her safe and entertained while you’re gone.”

“See how she’s curious about the VAC?  Now’s the best time to introduce her.  Do you mind?” the stranger asked.

“Do you want me to pick her up?” Smittens’s person said.

“Not to worry.  I’ve gotten pretty good at this,” said the stranger.

The stranger knelt down and it turned out he had food after all.  He dropped a couple of bits of dry but soft and savory bites on the floor and Smittens quickly crunched them up and swallowed them.  He had two more bites in his hand.  Smittens looked cautiously at the stranger and then up at her person.

The next thing Smittens knew, she was swooped up and plopped inside the box.  An opening in the front had appeared and the stranger had smoothly slid Smittens through it.  She cried out and spun but the opening was gone with a whirr and a click.

Yowling, Smittens turned around in the small space, looking for any opening.  Everything went completely dark and she froze.  She was frightened and called out to her person.  “Meoooowl!”

It grew from a pinpoint of light. Photo by Casey Horner.

There was another hum and she saw tiny blue lights flashing on the edges of her vision.  The floor began to vibrate and she tried to lift her paws.  They felt tingly and suddenly she couldn’t feel the floor!

She leaned drunkenly but did not fall over.  She was beginning to really panic when a light appeared directly ahead.  It grew from a pinpoint of light.  Smittens squinted her eyes.

Yellow sunlight poured through the hole, and a tiny yellow butterfly flitted across the opening.  It was a hole to the outside!

Smittens leapt at the opening.  Her takeoff was awkward and when she landed at the far side of the box, the floor felt squishy.

The hole grew larger and Smittens squeezed through.  She found herself blinking in bright sunlight.  She was surrounded by green grass.  Several butterflies flitted lazily above the grass tops.  One floated within reach.

Smittens pounced.  She landed softly but awkwardly in the grass.  The grass rustled when she landed, but it did not brush her fur the way it should.  Then the yellow butterfly flitted past the edge of her vision again and she turned and pounced.  She missed it again, but this time her landing was almost normal.

Image: Greenish-yellow butterfly on a yellow flower. Text:
Smittens chased butterflies for a long time. Photo by Tim Mossholder.

Smittens chased butterflies for a long time.  She finally caught one, but when she tried to close her teeth on it, it felt like empty air.  Just then, two more butterflies floated in front of her and she leapt at them.

Just as she was growing bored with butterflies, a fat, green grasshopper leapt up from the grass with a “thwap.”  She watched it land.  She lowered her head, so she could just peer over the grass.  Her tail twitched.  She shook her rear end, once, twice, and then leapt at the grasshopper clinging to a blade of grass.

She chased the grasshopper to the edge of a tree line.  She was tired.  She lay down in the grass and watched the grasshopper, sitting still on a blade of grass.  The sun was warm on her fur and Smittens fell asleep.

Sunlight shining down on a patch of grass beneath dark trees.
She chased the grasshopper to the edge of a tree line. Photo by Tim Mossholder.

When she woke, the grasshopper was gone.  Smittens stretched and began to clean herself.  The sun had moved, but it still shone warmly down on the meadow.  Yellow butterflies flitted by but Smittens only pawed at one if it came within reach.

She thought about eating.  Breakfast seemed a long time ago.  Smittens did not think butterflies or a grasshopper would fill her belly.

She heard a soft scratching sound and froze.  Only her ears twitched, turning towards the scritch-scratching sound.  She slowly rotated her head until she found the mouse.  It was moving along the edge of the treeline under the shade of a row of bushes or brambles.

The mouse moved with determination, following the line along the edge of the grass.  The undergrowth under the trees seemed too tight even for the mouse to enter.

Tortoiseshell cat standing on leaves before a green bush, turning to look behind it.
She heard a soft scratching sound and froze.  Only her ears twitched, turning towards the scritch-scratching sound. Photo by Mary Abreu.

Smittens paced the mouse for several feet, ignoring the yellow butterflies that floated by and even the two grasshoppers that suddenly sprang from almost underneath her feet.  The mouse turned, disappearing into a dark hole in the brush.  Smittens reached the hole just after.  It was just wide enough for her to fit.  She sucked in her sides and squeezed through, determined not to lose the mouse.

Gnarled roots covered the forest floor along with a smattering of dried leaves.  The mouse came in and out of view as it climbed over the hump of a root and then plunged down the other side.  Its tiny claws made little scritch-scratch sounds as it ran and slight rustlings as it ran over old, dried leaves. 

Smittens followed deep into the forest.  She ran almost silently on the pads of her feet, eyes glued to the mouse’s progress.  She chased it until it disappeared into a hole dug beneath the large knee of a tree root.  Smittens stuck her paw in the hole and batted it around, fishing with her claws.  But she could feel nothing but air.

Smittens settled down over her paws a few feet from the hole.  She waited a long time.  If the mouse came back out, it would be worth the wait.  Eventually, she decided to take a bath while she waited.  She grew bored and her tail twitched.  Just then, she heard the tell-tale scritch-scratch of mouse claws behind her.  She turned and another mouse was climbing over the tree roots, busily making its way across the forest floor.  In a flash, Smittens followed with cat-quiet tread.

Tortoiseshell cat, standing in leaves before a tree trunk, turns its head to look behind it.
She turned and another mouse was climbing over the tree roots, busily making its way across the forest floor. Photo by Mary Abreu.

In this way, Smittens followed three mice, catching none of them.  After the third mouse went to ground, Smittens was tired and hungry.  She looked about the forest, paying attention to her surroundings for the first time.  It was dark and gloomy.  No sunlight made its way through the treetops.  Had night fallen?  She relied on her night-vision to see through the dim murk.

There was no undergrowth here, only thick, gnarled roots, bare dirt, and piles of dead leaves here and there.  The trees were tall, dark and thick and marched to the horizon.  Smittens suddenly realized she was alone and far from home.  She did not even know which way home was.  She was lost!

She wandered aimlessly.  Occasionally, she saw blue glints of light on the edges of her vision.  She could not tell if they were glowing bugs or glints of an unseen moon or just her imagination.

A dark shape glided silently overhead.  Smittens was afraid.


Instinctively, she flattened herself hard against the forest floor, and stood still, trusting her “tortilla” coat to blend her in with the surroundings and prevent her from being seen by the unknown shade. She registered that the ground underneath her belly didn’t feel as cold and humid, as ground-y as she expected, but her attention was focused above.

The shape flew past, as silent as the Moon.

The shape flew past, as silent as the Moon. It was hard to see it, but she could just make out its silhouette, a darker shade of black against the canopy.

It was a bird! She had seen many before and chased a few in her previous forays outside the house, but none like this one. She then saw it slowly circle around, and as it came about in her exact direction, Smittens’s little heart froze for the tiniest instant.

Two giant, orange rings–glowing eyes, she realized–swept towards her. They were closing in . . . Smittens held her breath and stood completely still, her eyes closed to slits lest they gave her position away, her ears pressed against her head. The eyes grew very close now. Smittens felt seen. A shiver ran from the back of her head all the way down her spine. Her shoulders shrank in uncontrollably. Time froze.

Two giant, orange rings–glowing eyes, she realized–swept towards her. Photo by Luis Argaiz.

The bird flew past. Smittens’s body relaxed, melted even, but she dared not let it show, and stood there a while longer. She waited and waited, but the bird seemed gone. She turned her ears this way and that, listening for clues, then dared to open her eyes fully. Slowly, very slowly, she turned her head, peering into each and every shadow, checking for darker or moving bits. All seemed clear.

Cautiously, one paw at a time, she prowled forward. Her belly was oddly dry and not cold but, above all, empty. Food was in order.

Smittens picked up the pace and explored some more, trying to find something she wasn’t sure about, but–something–possibly food. Hopefully food. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much of interest around anymore: no butterflies, no grasshoppers, no mice, and, sadly, no savory bites. In fact, there were just trees and shadows, and those occasional blue lights at the edge of her vision.

Bored, Smittens tried to take a better look at one, but they kept escaping her gaze. When she tried to look at one, it would either move or vanish and reappear, but would never be clearly visible or pounce-able. She tried a few times. This was most annoying, she was bored and hungry, and when neither need could be satisfied, there was only one remedy she knew of: a good, old nap.

The ground was actually quite comfortable, and she didn’t need any help dozing off. And Smittens’s person was always there–always!–after a nap.  Yes, a nap would do. And nap she did. 

And she woke to the familiar smell of her person’s hand swooping her up and smothering her in cuddles. Naps worked, every time.

Best of all, after naps came food!


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

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross