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

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: