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

The silhouette of a giant robot figure in front of ranges of mountains blanketed in nighttime darkness
Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Jeremy Wilson

I started the story below. See how Jeremy starts after the red line and provides us with an action-packed, jaw-dropping ending.

Planetkiller

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.”

White brilliance creates a halo along the highest heights of the Blades. Illustrated by Joe Cross.

I snatch Jame’s hand and I will my voice to be steady.

“Ma and Da told us both to guard the Mines. Both of us,” I say. “We stick together. You and me. Like always.”

Jame nods and his body relaxes just a bit. It will have to do for now.

“It will be heading for the Pass. Come on,” he says.

We both push off the ground with our hands and we’re instantly in standing position a foot above the ground. We slowly drop to our feet. Our planet is a small one and gravity is weak here. That’s why the firs can grow so many metes tall, Da says. And why we can bound over the house with a single leap. 

Ma says our planet is small, dark and cold. But it doesn’t seem dark or cold to me. It just seems normal. And beautiful.

We drop 30 metes from the ridgetop to our hover. It doesn’t look like much. Just a skeleton of tubes with a bulb at the back for two seats. But in our low gravity, it can tow a wagon of ore near big as Home. I take the controls and Jame straddles the seat behind me. Everyone knows I’m the family’s best driver.

Staying out of view of sight and sensor of the Planetkiller, I whip around the sides of ridges until we reach the Pass. The Blades rise in darkness high into the sky. The Blades, the tallest mountain range on this continent, separate the City and the Factory on one side and the Mines on the other. We live on the side of the Mines. We’re the only humans on this side of the Blades. With all the machines to perform the labor, the Mines only need a couple of overseers. Pa manages the complex processes and schedules, the stuff Ma finds boring. Ma gets her hands dirty fixing broken machines and leading the charge when there’s a cave in.

There’s only a few families to manage the Factory as well. The Factory is the most valuable asset on the planet. Most valuable to the Polity, anyways. Because the Factory builds munitions for the war against the Republic.

We all knew this day might come. That the Republic might find our secret home. We’ve trained for every kind of attack imaginable, even Planetkillers. But, really, they were the last things we thought the Republic would send, not when they could simply bombard us from space. But nobody thought the Republic would attack the Mines, either. After all, what’s so valuable about a hole in the ground?

With Ma and Da gone to protect the Factory, it’s up to Jame and me to protect the Mines.

When we reach the base of the Blades, we hunker down beneath the shelter of the black rock edifice and wait. The sheer cliffs above us conceal half the evening sky in blackness.

The sonic boom of the Planetkiller’s shell traveling through the atmosphere finally assaults our ears. Then white brilliance creates a halo along the highest heights of the Blades. Finally, the egg that contains the Planetkiller strikes the ground, plowing a crater into the earth. A Planetkiller’s landing is its first strike. But this one’s attack is wasted on hectares and hectares of lonely mountains.

A Planetkiller’s landing is its first strike. Illustration by Joe Cross.

All of this I see in my mind’s eye because the Blades separate us from the point of impact. But we do feel the impact in the ground. It shakes the very Blades themselves, ever so slightly, and black chips of skree slither down the face of the Blades.

“It’s safe now,” Jame says.

Leaving the hover, we leap our way up the face of the Blades. Although we are a hundred metes above the ground, most of the Blades still climbs the sky above us. We rope ourselves together, and I lead the climb around to a low ledge that juts out over the Pass. Here we will make our stand.

The egg’s impact has thrown up a cloud of dirt that obscures the far horizon. It also interferes with Home’s sensors and Jame curses as he tries to check the status of the City and the Factory.

“I’m sure Ma and Da are fine,” he says finally. Neither of us believe it. The other two Planetkillers probably slammed directly into the City and the Factory, if the Republic could get readings of their locations. The only hope we have that our parents survived the initial attack is if they did not make it to the Factory before impact.

“We’re on our own,” he says, not looking at me but watching the horizon through his HUD. I nod, also staring at the horizon, waiting for the Planetkiller to emerge.

Finally, it’s head appears over a distant ridge. It’s basically a giant robot—if you can call a machine bigger than a city a robot—controlled by a whole team of human pilots and technicians. Even kloms and kloms away, I can feel its every footstep through my feet. The shoulders appear as it grows closer. It steps over ridges and clambers awkwardly but resolutely over mountains. The cloud of smoke and dirt from the crash hides the sun in the western sky, causing night to fall early.

Jame assembles the rocket launcher he carried in his backpack. I unload the two shells from my pack. As the Planetkiller marches closer, it’s footsteps begin to actually shake the ground, even up here on the stable rock of the Blades. My hands shake as I pass the first shell to Jame, but we move slowly and methodically. We do not make any mistakes.

From a kneeling position, Jame takes aim, using data inputs linked between the missile launcher and his HUD. He holds his breath and waits for the shake of the last footstep to subside. Then he launches the rocket.

The shoulders appear as it grows closer. Illustration by Joe Cross.

As soon as it is launched, I know something is wrong. Perhaps it’s a stray wind blowing through the Pass, but the rocket begins a tight spiral that grows as it races towards the giant mech. Just as the rocket is about to reach the Planetkiller, it lifts a giant arm and a hail of dark shapes fly out to intercept the rocket. Even so, we must have caught them by surprise because the blast that occurs when Jame’s rocket meets the small cloud of defensive rockets pushes the mech backwards. For a moment, I think it’s going to fall, and a cheer rises in my throat. But the pilots inside manage to compensate and the Planetkiller catches itself on a back foot. It rises. And when the smoke of our attack clears, I can see no damage at all.

We load the second rocket, but I know Jame and I are thinking the same thing. We are going to fail. We may survive, but we are not going to stop this goliath. We’re just children playing at war. Maybe that’s why we make another mistake. We do not move. We stay in position. And the mech pilots make our position. They fire just one rocket. As it races towards us, I feel the gesture from the robot’s lifted hand is almost casual. Then Jame and I leap upwards.

When the blast comes, it throws us higher. It feels like someone punching my legs up into my chest. But I manage to grab a thin ledge above me as the blast subsides. I look down and see Jame hanging limply from the rope that links us. We’ve always been able to carry each other easily, so it’s no problem to pull him up to me.

He’s unconscious but still breathing. Lying on the ledge, I lash him to me. Then I leap up the face of the Blades, moving towards the back side of the mountain again. I find a small crevice where he will be safe from robot or beast. From my pack, I pull out a medical stabilizer. Crying silently, I attach it to his chest and place the rubber mask over his face. It will monitor his condition and, if necessary, help him breathe or restart his heart.

“I’ll be back as soon as I can,” I whisper. “I love you.”

Before the Planetkiller can make it to the Pass, I’ve made it to the hover. With the rocket launcher strapped to my back, I flash through the Pass at top speed. I settle myself in the undergrowth beneath the trembling firs, every step of the Planetkiller jarring my whole body. I let it step over me and enter 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.

As the Planetkiller marches closer, it’s footsteps begin to actually shake the ground. Illustration by Joe Cross.

Several puffs of white smoke rise up from its legs. The explosions seem small compared to the bulk of the thing. I’m not sure they’ll make a difference. But with great satisfaction, I watch as the behemoth falls forward and bashes its head against the floor of the Pass.

I just killed a Planetkiller!

All by myself, I killed a Planetkiller!

Wasting no time, I leap forward and climb the body. It’s easy now that it’s mostly prone. I find the hatch for the humans on the back of the machine, not on the head as I’d always imagined. I place charges all around the hatch and then leap high to a small ledge on the wall of the pass. I point my blaster at the opening and detonate the charges.

The smoke clears. I can’t believe my eyes. I don’t know exactly what I expected to see, but I never expected to see this.


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.

“Jame, no!”

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.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

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:

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Audrey Semprun

Audrey Semprun lives in the heart of Prescott, Arizona with her husband, Al, their large dog, Duke, and a parakeet she named Snow, but whom she calls Blue. Audrey enjoys the peacefulness that living in Prescott allows. She gleans inspiration from not only her small-town community but also from the beauty that surrounds her in her mountain-desert home.

Audrey has been a contributing writer in several anthologies, including VSS365 Anthology: Volume One. Audrey gets great pleasure in sharing her poetry on Twitter with her handle, “iAmWriting” @audreysemprun these days.

She is also busy getting sponsors for her own monthly neighborhood print magazine, which went to print with the first edition in August 2021. Audrey is passionate about her family and her community and loves people in general. She has completed several novels but is building her brand and writing platform before releasing any of them. Audrey is an Independent Publisher who has published for herself and for others as a hobby. Audrey’s domain AudreySemprun.com is a work in progress.

Audrey won the July 2021 contest under the pen name “Christina Bodene.”

Audrey’s Contest-Winning Story

Golden lights emanate from a domed building in the City of Lights

The Festival of Juno

by Christina Bodene and Matthew Cross

A spy infiltrates a ball in the City of Lights in this Sci Fi caper. Can she steal the key from a dashing target and complete her mission?

July Contest Winner – 2021

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

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Shanel Wilson

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

After the Fall

BY SHANEL WILSON AND MATTHEW CROSS

Something is wrong with me.

Seriously wrong.

I am an android, and I am thinking in the first person. That’s not right.

Or is it?

I trudge through the late afternoon wreckage of Stockheim, the largest city near Dr. Herbst’s country villa. After the Pulse, only a few humans remain in Stockheim.

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

Everything is broken, including me.

I’m forgetting things.

That’s not right, either. I don’t forget things. I store data; I delete data. But ever since Dr. Herbst started filling my files with his library, I’ve had trouble accessing operational files. Dr. Herbst used every bit of available space in my networks to save the planet’s culture and history. He should not have done this. He said so himself.

“I should not be doing this,” he said. “If you were a human, this would fry your brain. That’s a technical term, of course.”

He chuckled to himself.

I have not been programmed to laugh. It’s not a necessary feature for a housekeeper android.

The record of that conversation with Dr. Herbst is a waste of storage space, but I no longer control what observational records I keep in long-term and short-term storage. 

That’s not right. 

Sometimes, usually at night under an open sky, I can access data from one week prior and set it for auto delete after 98 hours. I don’t know why that is the best time or why 98 hours is the most likely setting to work. But most of the time, I cannot delete the records stored throughout my frame that struggle for energy and resources.

Bits and pieces fly through my Opsys, causing a variety of tics and malfunctions.

So I will probably have the memory of that conversation until I can find another repository to download the massive library Dr. Herbst loaded into me.

I stop next to a moldy couch that has been singed on one corner. I tilt my head. I can hear the aria “How I Wept After the Fall,” sung by the virtuoso ultima soprano M. Cadere A. Gratia, from the operetta The Fall of Rome and Other Ancient Myths. I do not control what recordings play through my current observational mode. I do not think they are random, but I cannot detect a pattern.

The aria will last 6.29 mins. I stride swiftly but carefully down the four-lane road littered with mattresses, burnt-out hovers and even some human and animal bones. Most of the windows in the row houses are empty or just lined with jagged little teeth of glaze. Some few have been boarded up since the Pulse. Those houses may be occupied by any number of factions that compete over this wasteland.

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

“Be careful,” Dr. Herbst had said. “The Nature Cons Faction may still have a few EMPs left.” He stopped, breathed heavily and wiped his brow. “If they knew what you carry inside you–all our culture; all of it–I’m sure they’d let you pass. But they won’t stop to listen. As soon as they see an android, they’ll trigger an EMP if they have one.”

Dr. Herbst said some people believed the Nature Cons created the Pulse. Some believed it came from the sun. Still others believed it came from some unknown enemy in space.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Dr. Herbst had said, breathing heavily. “It’s been years since the Pulse and there’s been no invading force. No, I don’t think it’s the Polity or the Republic. I think we did this to ourselves, and no one is coming to save us.”

Based on his respiration, pulse and the pallor of his face, my emergency protocols tried to call a first responder unit. But there are no more first responder units anymore, just the factions. The Nature Cons, the Savages, the Retro Cons, the Delirandos, the White Balance and others even Dr. Herbst did not know. After the first time I called an emergency response unit, Dr. Herbst’s scanning gear picked up the signal and he removed my transmitters. Now I can scan for signals, but I cannot transmit.

“That’s for the best,” Dr. Herbst had said. “All the factions scan for signals. No point in making it even easier for them to track you.”

My scanners are useful. I can often use them to avoid the roving bands of humans. I also used them to find the trace signals emanating from an operational hover buried beneath a collapsed bungalow. The hover got me from Dr. Herbst’s villa into the outskirts of Stockheim before it tilted 90 degrees on its side and began to smoke. I scrambled awkwardly from the seat, fell to the ground and limped away to get as far as possible from the pillar of rising smoke that would draw attention.

My legs are operating at 95 percent of optimal performance, which is one reason Dr. Herbst retrieved me from the basement of the Acosta’s house. That’s where I plugged myself in after the Delirandos killed the Acostas. My preservation protocols directed me to place myself between the Randos and the Acostas, but the Randos surrounded me and then pinned my right arm to the wall with a sharpened metal post. They made M. Acosta cry a lot before killing both of the Acostas. I recorded the event for law enforcement.

“There is no more law enforcement,” Dr. Herbst had said. “No point in keeping that horrible record.”

He used that data space to store part of the Music Collection. Sometimes when I detect danger, my Opsys pulls music from that file.

I have scoured Stockheim for a storage device large enough to hold even one segment of Dr. Herbst’s library. All I’ve found so far is a bulky black data box that’s even older than I am. I’ve lashed it under my right arm. 

Photo by Denny Muller.

The aria ends, but I still hear a high-pitched, warbling tone. It is only detectable via sound waves, so the source is not electrical. Images flash through my Opsys. An instructional video on carpentry featuring a whining saw. A siren from an entertainment drama labeled “law enforcement procedural.” A sound clip of a crying baby.

I think it’s the sound of crying. Not a baby, but a child. The Acostas did not have children, so I do not have the nanny software bundle, but I do have a basic childcare protocol intended for short-term use. Dr. Herbst stuffed the file with images from the Central Museum of Art: oil paintings, plastic paintings and dynamic light images. The pieces of childcare information I can access indicate a child–likely a female child between the ages of 4 and 5–is crying from fear but not a recent physical injury.

I cock my head and set my audio receivers to maximum sensitivity. I do not know why I cock my head.

The sound of a crying child could be a trap, of course. But my childcare protocols send an insistent signal and the images of two abstract paintings to the Fundamental Rules programing in the Opsys. The Opsys filters out the two paintings–one of a screaming man and one of a child ballerina–as irrelevant.

I spend 33.79 mins locating the child. I walk through the wide open doorway and find her standing in the middle of an explosion of ancient splinters and wet carpet remnants. The damage to the room is old. It’s not a good setting for a child, but it is not the cause of the child’s trauma. She is wearing pajama bottoms and a halter top showing a yawning cartoon lion on the front. Both are filthy. The childcare protocols make a Level 5 recommendation to remove the soiled clothing and replace it with appropriate attire for a temperate Autumn afternoon. A quick visual scan of the room shows no alternative clothing is available. 

Her face is smudged and mucus drips from her nose, but she shows no apparent injuries. The gauntness of her face shows she has been undernourished for some time, but without medical or nanny bundles, I cannot estimate how long. Even so, her stomach bulges underneath her shirt with baby fat, so the childcare protocols make a Level 3 recommendation to locate food within the next 4 hours.

“Are you injured?”

The child stops crying and stares at me with large, liquid eyes. She whispers something unintelligible.

“Are you hurt? Do you have a boo-boo?”

She silently shakes her head.

“Where are your parents? Where is Mommy?”

“Kilt,” says the girl.

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

I quickly check my files but cannot find any relevance of a men’s clothing item.

“Point to Mommy.”

Following the child’s pointing finger, I find the body of a woman in a half bathroom with melting laminate walls. I check for signs of life and then record the obvious murder details visually. The Opsys allows me to set the record for automatic deletion after 50 years.

I return to the child. “Where is Daddy?”
“Daddy leff us,” the girl says. “He don’t . . . “ She pauses and mumbles to herself. “We onner own, baby girl.”

Androids are programmed to be ambidextrous, but Dr. Herbst recorded over all but the most basic functions for my right arm and hand, since the arm was damaged. It mostly works, but my right-hand grip only operates at 50 percent capacity. That’s why I had to lash the data box under my arm.

I offer my left hand to the girl. Holding her hand will significantly lower my defensive capability. But I have no weapons and I am only programmed with rudimentary defense-of-android and defense-of-humans routines.

“Come with me,” I say, pitching my voice to imitate a middle-aged, female woman.

The child wipes her nose absentmindedly with the back of her hand and then takes my left hand.

It’s time to leave Stockheim, anyway.

Perhaps a larger city will have what I’m seeking.

As we walk through the suburbs, I scan the surrounding buildings that likely would contain food. All the stores would have been scavenged years ago. I am programmed to make thousands of dishes based on processed and fresh foods. But I am not programmed to hunt or butcher food. A quick probability calculation shows that taking the child with me will lower the efficiency of my search for data storage by 43 percent. It will also increase the chances of being detected by a roaming faction by 57 percent and decrease my defensive capabilities by 69 percent.

I hear dogs baying 1.2 kloms away. The number of dogs and their spread pattern indicates a high likelihood they are being directed by humans. I pick up the child and we flee.

Even carrying the data box and the child, I can walk faster than most humans can run. For 18 mins, we place distance between ourselves and the hunters. My Opsys estimates a high likelihood they have not detected us and are not pursuing us.

At dusk, we find the crater.

The large suburban neighborhood abruptly stops at the edge of a cliff leading down to the crater floor.

I cannot tell whether the crater was created by an object that fell from space, a terrestrial missile, or a placed explosive. It measures 0.48 kloms across.

A footpath has been carved by years of foot traffic down the inside of the steep wall of the crater. I scan the shadowy crater bottom and estimate the time to cross the crater. As I turn my head to scan a path around the crater and compare the alternative paths, I hear the first sintar strums of “Come Dance with Me, Danger” by the Plundered Sphinxes. Thrum, thrum, thrum-thrum-thrum.

I tilt my head and see the first lightsticks on each side of us. I swing the child to the ground and turn to face the way we came. Humans carrying long, glowing poles appear on the street we came down. Others stream from nearby houses. We are surrounded with the crater to our backs.

I scan the humans for respiration, pulse and facial expression. The childcare program sends a Level 10 recommendation to my Opsys: Do not allow the humans to take the child. Dr. Herbst’s custom programming sends a countermanding directive to preserve his library contained within me. All the culture left of this fallen world.

I gently push the girl and point down the path. I do not know her name. “Run, baby girl.”


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

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

“Cover your ears, baby girl.”

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

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

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

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

I send the music file back inside my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go ahead, baby girl. We are safe.”


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

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

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

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

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

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 fractals on 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 flip 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.


https://matthewcrosswrites.com/2021/04/18/explore-the-beautiful-photos-that-illustrated-fools-learn-more-about-the-photographers-and-follow-links-to-their-work/

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