Read a finalist’s ending with a twist from the September Contest

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2022.

I’m sharing the finalist stories from the September Contest. Here’s a great ending with a big twist by Jeremy Wilson.



The two missiles came out of nowhere.

Shelby was on a geomapping mission on an uninhabited planet, S2-298.3890, so the last thing he expected was missiles.

Riding along in the bus, he had kicked up his feet on the navigation control panel and was checking some sports stats on his handheld when the audible alert sounded. The main screen flashed a warning in red: “Incoming projectile.”

Shelby nearly fell out of his chair.

“Emergency evasive maneuvers,” said the bus’s AI. “Fasten harnesses.”

Shelby saw the missiles appear in the corner of the main screen. Then the bus tilted sharply and Shelby did fall out of his chair.

Faster than he could think, his body slid from the chair and into the leg space under the navigation control panel. Like an idiot, he just curled up and covered his head as the sound of the engines and the rushing wind outside grew so loud it overcame the bus’s sound dampening.

The bus only had shielding for atmospheric conditions, not military grade stuff. If those missiles exploded nearby, his hands over his head weren’t going to do him any good.

As he curled in the dark crevice, the strangest thoughts passed through his mind. He didn’t find himself praying or calling to his mother in desperation. Instead, he remembered the first time he laid eyes on the bus.

On Shelby’s first day aboard the Ever Loving, Captain Herb gave a tour of the ship, ending Cargo Bay 4. It was reserved for the bus and Shelby’s gear. The bus was 20 metes long with a wingspan of 40 metes. The body was a fat cylinder with a barely rounded blunt nose. The fusion engine took up the back half of the craft, and the imaging and analyzing equipment filled the front. The bus’s geomapping equipment probably cost more than the Ever Loving

The bus was spaceworthy but it was built for long glides in planetary atmospheres. The fusion engine could keep the bus aloft for a month in normal atmospheres.

“Sturdy and long lasting,” Herb said with an approving nod. “Plus, she flies herself.”

He gave Shelby an appraising look. Shelby got the distinct impression that Capt. Herb did not think Shelby measured up to the craft.

As a pilot, Capt. Herb was right. The only craft Shelby had ever flown were in gaming simulations. In fact, growing up on an urban planet, he had never driven any sort of vehicle because all the vehicles drove or flew themselves.

The bus shuddered and then there was stillness. Not silence. In fact, if anything, the wind sounds had grown even louder than the engine noise.

Shelby opened his eyes and found himself floating in the middle of the cramped cabin. The bus did not have artificial gravity, so when the bus was in space, the passengers were weightless. And when flying through atmospheres, the planet’s gravity applied.

In wonder, Shelby watched minute flecks of water splatter against the main screen as soft, gray streams of fog roiled as far as he could see. Then Shelby’s head gently struck the ceiling, and he came to his senses. The bus was in freefall. That was the reason he was weightless.

The bus was plummeting towards the planet. The gray mist outside was the cloud layer he had been flying over. The bus was falling through the cloud.

“AI, craft status update.”

Shelby pushed off the ceiling, grabbed the top lip of the chair, and swung himself into the seat. He clung to the webbing with shaky hands as he snapped in the five-point harness.

“Explosion imminent,” said the AI in a calm voice.

Then Shelby heard two pops in quick succession. They sounded distant. He almost breathed a sigh of relief when a roar washed over the bus and the entire craft shook. Even fully strapped in, Shelby was nearly shaken from his seat again. He could feel his molars tapping together like dice in a cup. It seemed like every bolt of the bus was shaking and grinding. Shelby imagined the entire structure separating into its component parts, all flying in separate directions into the sky, leaving Shelby strapped in his seat in midair like a cartoon character.

In a panic, his mind returned to the first day aboard the Ever Loving.

“I’ll see you in the mess at 6 ship’s time for dinner,” Capt. Herb said. Then he left Shelby to examine the bus and get to know her. Shelby quickly walked around the ship’s perimeter. It was just a big, bulky hunk; nothing exciting. Nothing like the gleaming, sexy craft available in gaming. He climbed inside and the AI automatically booted up.

Sitting in one of the two seats, Shelby ran through the AI’s introduction videos. They covered the bus’s specs, details about the fusion engine, and operating conditions in literally hundreds of atmospheric types. Before Shelby knew it, it was 6. He wandered through the Ever Loving, trying to find his way to the mess. He ended up 15 minutes late. Facing Capt. Herb’s glare, he promised himself to be on time for dinner the next day.

Capt. Herb and Shelby were the only two aboard the Ever Loving. Capt. Herb had his routines. He had only a few rules. One, don’t touch anything that’s not yours. (“The Ever Loving is not yours.”) Two, keep to your quarters, the mess, the head, the main corridors and Cargo Bay 4. Three, dinner’s in the mess at 6 sharp. Four, dinner topics are captain’s prerogative.

Capt. Herb kept to himself except for dinner. Dinner was an event. Capt. Herb personally prepared dinner each night and served it piping hot at precisely 6. He chose the evening’s dinner topic, and he slowly teased every morsel from his guest on that topic. On topic per night. As Capt. Herb put it, they had a month together and most people’s life story took less than a month to tease out. So Capt. Herb spent the month in transit slowly savoring Shelby’s life story, asking probing questions and sometimes even sharply questioning the details of Shelby’s life.

After the first week aboard, Shelby realized he had not done much in his short life. Barely out of university, this gig was his first real job. He felt slightly guilty that he did not have better stories to entertain Capt. Herb in return for the homecooked meals.

Shelby spent the first week in the bus’s cramped compartment. He completed the bus’s video manuals, but there were no vid materials on flying the craft and no simulators. He tried poring through the written manual in the ship’s computer, but it was so technical, he gave up after only a couple of hours. Then he threw himself into analyzing the geomapping data from the two drones that had been sent to map the planet. Both had reported anomalous readings of the planet’s geothermal zones. The Type M planet with its healthy fauna and breathable air could prove to be an excellent colony, a valuable commodity. But the subsurface readings showed very active geothermal reservoirs on all four continents. 

Shelby, a geomathematician, had been sent at great expense to scan 3890 again and to determine what dangers the geology may pose to colonists. After the first week aboard the Ever Loving, he felt comfortable with the bus’s scanning and analyzing equipment. So he spent most of the second week analyzing the data available in his roomier quarters. He was going to spend a cramped month inside the bus flying over 3890 before Capt. Herb came back to retrieve him, so he decided to enjoy the room aboard the Ever Loving while he could.

Halfway through the transit to 3890, Shelby decided he had done all he could with the data provided by the two drone expeditions. He had a lot of free time, and he found himself spending more and more time working on a side project he had started in school. He was developing a mathematical model to predict the outcomes of one-on-one first-person fighter games, Shelby’s favorite sport. If he cracked the code, he could win a fortune gambling.

The bus stopped shuddering and at almost the same time the viewscreen cleared. The clouds disappeared and the blue expanse of an ocean filled the screen. Off to the left, Shelby could see the mottled greens and browns of a continent. The continent seemed to be growing and Shelby realized the bus was still diving towards the planet.

“AI, can you straighten up or flatten out or something?” Shelby couldn’t find the right words. He felt like “horizon” might be one of them, but he prayed the AI would figure it out.

“Emergency controls have been compromised. Switching to manual control.”

“What? Manual? No!”

The panel in front of Shelby slid open and a joystick surrounded by buttons slid towards him.

“AI, engage automatic pilot!”

“Automatic pilot has been compromised. Manual override engaged.”

The right side of the main screen filled with symbols that probably made sense to a pilot, but Shelby was no pilot.

The continent below filled half the screen and was growing.

Shelby grabbed the stick. He had not played any flying games since childhood, but he remembered that in some craft the stick goes forward for down and in some you pull back.

“Here goes nothing,” Shelby said and pulled the stick back gently. The stick felt small, light and cheaply built. It felt like he could break it with one swift jerk. Clearly the manual controls were an afterthought. But the stick turned out to be responsive. The bus’s nose came up gradually. 

It took a few harrowing minutes, but with a little coaxing, Shelby managed to bring the craft level. He wiped his brow and leaned back in his seat. He scanned the readouts on the right side of the main screen. He found a graph showing his altitude and an outline of the bus in a circle showing the angle he was flying at.

“Whew, glad that’s over,” Shelby said.

“Proximity alert,” said the AI in a calm voice. “Two aircraft have matched your vector and are accelerating. Threat estimate: 92 percent chance of hostilities.”

“Aircraft?! AI, where are the aircraft?”

Sparks cascaded down from the overhead console.

“—correction, twenty-seven aircraft—correction—” More sparks. “Sensor systems compromised. Engage manual sensors.”

“Manual sensors? Seriously?!” Shelby pulled up the port viewscreen. Nothing. Then he scanned the starboard viewscreen and saw something outlined against the gray of the sky. A single ship, angular and imposing, was closing fast. Shelby’s mind raced. This planet was supposed to be uninhabited. Had the drones missed something? Or was this another would-be colonizer? The answers would have to wait. The roar of unfamiliar engines reminded him that the bus wouldn’t survive another salvo. Shelby frantically scanned the viewscreens again. His eyes were drawn to the flashing of a violent hailstorm raging in the distance. He hoped the bus’s atmospheric shielding was still intact and that the other craft was more fragile than it looked.

As Shelby accelerated toward the storm, he could see a massive column of black smoke rising from the sea beyond the curve of the horizon. An eruption, maybe?

The proximity alert sounded again just as he entered the storm, followed almost immediately by a muffled pop. Both were barely audible over the sound of ice chunks thwunking against the hull. The bus shuddered and bucked, but held together. Shelby checked the aft viewscreen. The other craft had fallen back but was otherwise unaffected.

Shelby accelerated toward the storm.

A desperate plan formed in Shelby’s mind.

“AI, prepare to jettison the fusion engine.”

“Emergency systems compromised. Engage manual—”

“Yeah, yeah. Engage manual override.” Captain Herb would just have to come pick him up. The Captain wasn’t going to be too pleased about this, but at least it would make for a heck of a story.

Shelby angled hard toward the continent and flew low over the nearest geothermal pocket, building up speed. He triggered the release of the engine. There was a series of explosive pops, followed by a deafening roar, as the rear half of the bus fell away. Without thinking, Shelby slammed the throttle forward and then groaned as he remembered what he had done only moments before. He watched as the impact of the engine created a blinding flash followed by a terrifying silence.

The ground erupted into a colossal geyser of molten rock that destroyed his pursuer. The shockwave sent the already unstable bus hurtling toward the ground a lot faster than Shelby would have preferred. All he could do now was hold on. The left wing clipped an outcropping, sending the bus cartwheeling into a thicket of small, stunted trees high up on the side of a hill.

When Shelby awoke, he crawled from the wreckage. A lake of lava had formed in the valley below. Above him, just over the crest of the hill, he could see the column of black smoke was now much closer. He stumbled to the top of the hill and then fell to his knees. Protruding from the sea beyond, consumed in fire and smoke, was the towering wreck of the Ever Loving.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jeremy Wilson and I wrote together. He’s one of my favorite collaboration writers of all time!

If you enjoyed this story, you will certainly enjoy these other story endings Jeremy wrote for the last few contests:

If you enjoyed Jeremy’s ending to the September Contest, please make sure and share some kind comments below.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. You can also read the winning story ending for September written by Alan K. Dell.

Read a thrilling and feel-good ending by Jeremy Wilson

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2022.

I’m sharing the finalist stories from the June Contest. Here’s a hopeful ending with a twist or two by Jeremy Wilson.

Sur Veil Lance


I fly up in an arc and hover over the city lights of Minimagemma.

When I reach the peak of the arc and hold steady, my hoverpack hums a little louder. I’m not supposed to do this because it wears down the hoverpack faster. But there are so many rules under the Republic, who can keep them all straight?

Minimagemma means little jewel.

At least, that’s what I’m told. I don’t know Latin. I keep meaning to learn because the leaders in the Republic eat up all that ancient Roman stuff. Statues, robes, pillars. All that random debris.

To honor that tradition, the leaders of Minimagemma re-covered their aboveground fiber channels to look like an aqueduct. I don’t know what that is, exactly. It looks like a bridge to nowhere, to me. But I heard the local Republic delegation was very impressed.

They covered the thing in blue lights, so you can’t miss it.

“Hey,” says Jolo, breaking my reverie. “You gonna hang up there all night? Or are you gonna do your job?”

Jolo is joking of course. He doesn’t care about the job any more than I do. And why should he?

The job is basically to terrorize the good folk of Minimagemma.

We are the Sur, the guardians, the watchful eye from above. Sent by the great and beneficent leaders of the Republic to protect this petty little planet. But protect them from what? This planet is so far from any of the Republic’s enemies, there’s no chance of an invasion. And what could Jolo and I do, just two lances, against a determined invading force?

That’s right, two lances per shift to protect the whole city. And some of the smaller cities only get one lance.

So . . . think about it. Two lances flying over the city day and night. Showing off their flashy compound wings like some kind of Angel of Death and carrying glowing lances. Are we really there to protect the city from the Republic’s enemies? Or, just maybe, are we there to remind the good folks of Minimagemma that the Republic is watching over them?

Here’s a hint. The Republic always sends Sur from other planets. We never protect our own planets, our own homes. Wherever we are sent, we are always strangers. And on this planet, also called Minimagemma, I don’t think any of the Sur are even from the same planet. We’re all strangers to each other. Makes it harder to get chummy. Makes it harder to trust each other.

Jolo is in charge tonight. He’s more senior than me, been on planet maybe three years, which is apparently a long time. He decides we’ll do some maneuver practice, which is my favorite.

Jolo and I are the lucky ones. And we know it. Even though we were both basically kidnapped from our homes as children and shipped off planet, there are a lot worse things than our current duties. We could be serving as Auxilia in the Republic’s wars with the Polity and other enemies. Because of our skills and test results—and passing all the necessary loyalty tests—we joined the Sur. And, for now at least, we “protect” Minimagemma by flying overhead most nights with our glowing lances.

And let’s face it, flying with wings is pretty cool.

My first station with the Sur was on a massive farming planet. We actually rode these smelly, native beasts called Loxo. They were twice as tall as me, covered in tangled hair and smelled like waste matter. But they were very loyal, and some of the lances taught their Loxo to do tricks.

My second station was only one year on an Inner Ring planet. There we actually flew patrol ships with our traditional glowing lances built into the ships’ weaponry. Now that was a cool station. There was so much to do there that I blew through my stipendium fast. I still owe a few guys back there, but it shouldn’t take me long to send the credits. There’s really nothing worthwhile to do here except fly, and I can do that for free.

I’m not gonna lie. When I saw my first set of wings, I thought they were hokey. And on the transport here, I’d heard some stories about Sur falling out of the sky because the old machinery was so busted. But that was mostly legend. Despite a few falls, almost no Sur has actually ever died “in harness.” As they taught us in training, as long as the hoverpack is operational, the worst that will happen is a slow descent to the ground. The magnetically articulated wings do take some of the burden off the hoverpack by allowing for gliding and breaking a dive, but they are not essential to staying aloft. Which is good because it’s the vaccing wings that are most likely to fail.

I follow Jolo down to an altitude just above the building tops. For practice, we follow the network of streets. We are playing a game of “Match This” with me trying to imitate Jolo’s moves. I’m pretty good in the harness—a natural some say—but Jolo has two years on me, and he can still trip me up sometimes. We work our way towards the city center, which is a little odd. The city center is where the most elite and loyal of society live. Not that we care about local crime, but there’s rarely even a mugging in the tightly guarded center. We only go there to stand pretty behind the leaders giving speeches. Our brilliant, white wings, our glowing lances and our silver “veil” masks are paparazzi  favorites.

Jolo flits between the arches of the aqueduct, blue lights playing over the constantly moving testa of his wings. I follow, trying to make the minute adjustments to replicate his flares and barrel rolls. It takes all my concentration, and I barely notice we are approaching the Forum Romanum. He exits an arch at near top speed and follows the top of the blue-limned wall surrounding the Forum Romanum. Every planetary capital in the Republic has a Forum Romanum sealed inside a wall. Some even have an inner wall and an outer wall. What are they so afraid of? Mixing elbows with the dirty masses?

“Evasive maneuvers!” Jolo shouts through his Veil right into my ear.

Without thinking, I bank a hard left downwards while Jolo banks a hard right upwards. I assume we’re still drilling until I see the glare of the rocket tail, a shimmering trail of light pointing straight at Jolo.

I see him hanging there in the dark, night sky. An unearthly figure, with white wings outspread, his dark flightsuit lit beneath by the city lights and in the reflection of his Veil I see the rocket’s bright glare.

Then the rocket explodes between us. The brilliant explosion blinds me before my Veil’s autodimming feature kicks in. I’ve drilled for blind flight. I follow the Veil’s audio prompts until my flight is level. It will take precious seconds for my vision to clear and taking evasive maneuvers while blind is probably more dangerous than any rocket fire. So I take a moment to send a distress signal to Sur headquarters.

I make a guess as to the last direction I saw Jolo and I begin a gentle glide path in that direction. It’s a stupid move, but instinct tells me that the rocket exploded without hitting Jolo directly. He knew something was up and had begun evasive maneuvers, so maybe he survived the blast. But if he did, he’s likely injured.

My nightvision returns, and my eyes sweep the horizon and then the streets below for any sign of Jolo. Instead, I see dark figures emerging from almost every building on the outside border of the wall. They are flowing towards one of the major gates to the Forum Romanum. The Righteous Victory Gate, I think it’s called. They are chanting something, but I don’t know enough of the local dialect to understand it. Jolo has learned a good bit of the local patois. Too bad he’s not here to help me

I see a flash of white in the dimness. It disappears in an alley. I bank hard to follow.

Then I see something I’d never expect in a million years. A tank is crawling up the avenue that leads to the Righteous Victory Gate. It’s a homemade job. Really just a heavy hovercraft with a plasma cannon mounted to the top. But I’m pretty sure it can take out the gate. 

Wow, I think, what has happened on Minimagemma? This is a full-scale rebellion!

I take careful aim and zap the tank with my lance. A golden shaft of light—a very powerful laser—strikes out and destroys the tank. That probably leaves one more charge in the lance. It’s powerful, but it sucks juice like a Loxo sucks water. It’s hard to believe the lances once were actually considered good weapons.

I rise higher, ignoring the crowds and looking for any sign of Jolo. Any reflection of samite white. Any glow of a yellow lance.

I follow my Sur training for nighttime maneuvers. I close my eyes for ten breaths and when I open them, I keep them unfocused. I pay attention to any change in my whole peripheral vision. Only then do I detect the faint yellow glow, moving along an alleyway. It’s headed towards the gate, not away.

Silently, I alight at the mouth of the alley, my lance at the ready.

A handful of dark figures running towards me pull up sharply. Two of them awkwardly carry a set of wings. A third carries the lance. And at the back of the group is Gremaine. His silver veil hangs around his neck.

By the light of the glowing lance, I can see his eyes widen. “Leila!”

“Gremaine, what are you —” but I don’t get to finish. Gremaine lunges forward and grabs me in a tight hug.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” he manages through tears. He releases me and notices my armor. “You’re a Sur?”

“What are you doing here, Gremaine?”

“They’re gone Leila. Mum, Da, the colony, all of it . . . gone.”

I hear his words but they make no sense. “What? What are you talking about? No, you’re wrong.”

“I was there, Leila! I had to watch it burn!”

“Wha— . . . the Polity?”

“No—” his chest convulses, “No, it was the Republic. The colonies peacefully protested the tribute of children and the Republic made an example of them. They sent Planetkillers, Leila! PLANETKILLERS!”

I fall to my knees, unable to breathe. My vision blurs. Through my tears, I’m dimly aware of the chanting again as a mass of angry figures passes the mouth of the alley, heading toward the Righteous Victory Gate. “What’re they saying?” I mumble, desperate to distract myself from the horrible truth tearing through my brain.

“The tide is rising. The storm has come. You will repay the blood you have stolen.”

“What does it mean?”

“You know what it means, Leila. The people will no longer cower while the Republic sends their children to be fodder for the Polity’s plasma cannons.”

“But why here?” I ask. “There’s nothing here. We’re on the outskirts of the empire,” my mind grasping for anything to wake up from this nightmare.

“Leila—” he drops to his knees to look me in the eye, “this is happening everywhere. They’ve gone too far. As for Minimagemma, what better place to hide an experimental weapons lab than the outer rim, on the other side of an impenetrable wall, surrounded by those most loyal to the Republic?”

I don’t want to believe it but something inside me screams that he’s right. I lift my gaze to meet his. “What happens now?”

“We have to bring down that gate. Otherwise the people will be slaughtered. A fully charged lance should be able to do it but this one was damaged when your partner fell.”

His mention of Jolo must have stirred something in my eyes.

“He’s banged up and unconscious but alive,” he reassures me. “Do you have any charge left in yours?”

“Should be enough for one shot.”

“Let’s hope you’re right.”

We exit the alley onto the Via Sacra, taking cover behind the charred husk of the tank. Once the lances are primed, we fire. For a moment, daylight seems to descend as the wall is bathed in golden light. A cloud of dust and debris obscures the gate. We hold our breath, waiting for the smoke to clear. Moments turn into agonizing minutes.

A gentle breeze coaxes breath into our lungs and reveals a tangled, glowing mass of alloy and stone. With a deafening groan, what’s left of the gate crashes down and a wave of anger, righteousness, and hope crests through the opening.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jeremy and I wrote together. Jeremy is one of my favorite collaboration writers and a frequent competitor in the writing contest. His writing is so compelling that if he does not win the contest, he always makes the finalist’s cut. You may recall that Jeremy was the March Contest winner, and as one of my 2022 Champions, he cannot win another contest in 2022. He also won the April 2021 Contest.

If you enjoyed this story, I know you’ll love the version written by Frasier Armitage that won the June Contest. Frasier was the very first winner of the contest in September 2020 and he has gone on to win the contest in 2021 and now again in 2022 with this June Contest. Check out Frasier’s prize-winning ending.

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Strange creatures lurk out in the dunes

Feral Fields


The late afternoon light trickled through the crystalline window of Verges’s home in Westminster. He shuffled around his kitchen, filling his pockets with two-day-old fry bread before he left for his shift in the Wildcat Fields. Satisfied his pockets were full enough, he turned to the two work packs that hung from wooden hooks by the front door. The smaller one was covered in a thick layer of dust. Seeing the smaller pack, Verges grumbled and grabbed the larger one.

Seeing the smaller pack, Verges grumbled and grabbed the larger one.
Photo by Derick McKinney

“I should put that away already,” he grunted, as he slung his pack over his shoulder.

As Verges adjusted the straps of his pack, he squinted against the sun reflecting off a small picture frame hanging next to the wooden hooks. He didn’t need to see the picture to vividly recall its image: a smiling, curly-haired girl with a face full of freckles wrapping her arms around a jolly, bearded man in a happy hug. Verges’s beard was a lot grayer these days, and his beloved daughter, Cleo, was now grown and working as a Bride in Whitehall. He had hoped Cleo would inherit her mother’s oil-slick-colored eyes, but she had his bold, violet eyes instead. When she came of age, she left to fulfill her duty and become a Westminster Bride.

His house had grown quiet because of her absence the past few years, causing Verges to pick up as many shifts as his manager, Imogen, would allow him out in the Fields. He preferred to be out there anyway, where he could catch a glimpse of the feral creatures that lived in the savagelands surrounding the Wildcat Fields.

Verges stepped off the hover trolley when it reached the refinery. A crowd of crew persons waited to board, covered in dust and sweat from a long day managing the rigs out on the dunes. A few muttered hellos as Verges passed. He nodded in return and made his way to the hover garage.

He nodded in return and made his way to the hover garage.
Photo by Marten Bjork

Verges checked in on the console at the entrance. He noticed his partner, Lodovico, had not checked in yet, so he made his way to their hover to get it ready for a night out in the Fields. He threw his pack into the driver’s seat and started performing the safety checks.

“Oy there, weren’t you just here last night, Verges?” 

The voice startled Verges, causing him to bump his head on the undercarriage of the hover.  

“It’s got to be done, Aaron.” Verges rubbed his head as he stood to greet the tall, slim man.

“Well, it’s your lucky night. The rigs will get a night off from your poking and prodding. Lodovico has called out, so you don’t have a partner to go out on shift with. Something about his wife being nervous about the Polity’s captain arriving tomorrow.” Aaron leaned casually against Verges’s hover, picking his filthy nails.

“I doubt Tamera is the nervous one.” Verges scowled, strapping down the toolbag to the rear of the hover.

“You’re right about that, mate!” Aaron’s scraggly hair bounced as he snickered.

Verges‘s brows knitted together as he watched Aaron continue to lounge against the hover while Verges tried to finish the safety checks.

“On shift tonight with Tubal, are ya Aaron?” Verges shooed the younger man away from the hover so Verges could check the drill poles.

“Nah, I’m heading home. I saw you check in, so I thought I’d wander into the garage to say hello, let you know you were off the hook for the night.” Aaron perched on the hover parked across the way.

“Well, hello. I am sure your children will be waiting at the door for their dear old pop, don’t you think?”

“I suppose you’re right, as usual, Verges. You’re a wise old geezer. Want to catch the next trolley together?” Aaron hitched a thumb toward the door.

“Not tonight. I want to make sure the hover is ready for the next run.” Verges kept his eyes on the hover so he wouldn’t be tempted to escort Aaron out forcibly.

“Always thinking ahead, aren’t ya? Just don’t go out alone. You know how dangerous it is.” Aaron hopped down from the hover and started strolling to the door.

“Do you think I’ve forgotten the rules?” Verges called after him.

“Not at all, but that hasn’t stopped you before, old boy. G’night, Verges.” Aaron waved and disappeared through the door.

Verges grumbled but was glad to be left alone. Verges hadn’t gotten the chance to take the hover out solo at night in ages. While it was expressly against the Wildcat Field rules to go out into the Fields at night alone, he knew how to avoid the dangers and he knew Imogen would go easy on him if word got back to her. The rigs needed tending, especially if the Polity would soon be trying to take a share of the oil the Fields produced. Every drop would become that much more precious. Verges also would not miss an opportunity to encounter some of his feral friends, especially without Lodovico scaring them off every chance he got. Once he was comfortable that the hover was ready and sure that everyone else had gone home, Verges climbed into the driver’s seat and quietly steered the hover out to the dunes.

Just beyond the outskirts of town, Verges paused to watch the last rays of sunlight dance across the dunes. A gentle breeze welcomed him, carrying the scent of Mary’s Irises. Verges inhaled deeply and smiled. He’d always loved Mary’s Irises. They were a sight to behold but nearly impossible to find, hidden among the sandstone crags and only blooming in the darkest hours of night. Their pale, translucent petals, speckled with crimson, suggested a fragile nature, but they were far hardier than most of the Smith workers he knew.

A gentle breeze welcomed him, carrying the scent of Mary’s Irises.
Photo by Christian Lambert

When the sun finally disappeared below the shifting sands, Verges eased the hover onward toward the Barren Sea, where they’d left off tending the rigs the night before. The gentle breeze grew into a steady wind and the dunes began to hum. Lodovico always complained the sound gave him a headache, but Verges found it calming. Even so, it made his job trickier by masking the sounds of the creatures in the dunes.

He glided past dune after dune, his mind wandering to thoughts of his daughter. When she was younger, Verges would bring her along on nights when he would be tending the rigs solo. Together, they would repair the derricks and marvel at the creatures they came across. He wished she could be here now, but Whitehall had demanded that she stay to train other Brides. It had broken his heart, but he couldn’t say that he was surprised, knowing the incredible young woman she had become. Love and pride began to well up in the corners of his eyes.

Abruptly, the wind turned into a gale, pelting Verges with stinging sand and reducing his visibility to almost nothing. He slid his violet goggles into place to protect his eyes and veered the hover sharply north to cut through the Rift. When he reached it, he slowed again, buffeted by the wind.

The Rift was a deep scar in the ground hidden by the endless dunes. Passing through it always filled Verges with a mix of unease and excitement thinking of what must be lurking in the labyrinth of slot canyons and caves branching out ever deeper into the planet. Traversing the canyon was actually the quickest way to get to the Barren Sea, but Imogen’s grandfather had forbidden the rig teams from passing this way since they’d lost several teams mysteriously during the last Alignment. Not that that had ever stopped Verges on nights when he was out alone.

The Rift was a deep scar in the ground hidden by the endless dunes.
Photo by Tom Gainor.

Verges carefully navigated the hover into the canyon. On nights like this, the raging wind above would send sand cascading down the sculpted canyon walls, creating flowing curtains backlit by the blood-red Swearing Moon. A fist-sized puffadoon eyed him suspiciously from a nearby rock ledge as it gnawed on a sand hopper. It’s bloated, warty skin reflecting dull orange in Verges’s goggles.

As the canyon reached its narrowest point, the hover’s headlamps reflected off of what appeared to be a rippling, silvery pool on the canyon floor blocking his path. Easing the hover closer, he could see the pool was a writhing mass of silvery bodies. 

Verges smiled and readied the fry bread in his pocket. He tossed a piece toward the silvery mass and was greeted by a cacophony of excited clicks.


Agile little beasts with black, beady eyes, sharp snouts, and shimmering hides that reflected light like a mirror. A single Quik was relatively harmless, but a family of them will make quick work of even the strongest man’s hubris. Normally they were found among the dunes, where many a weary traveler were enticed into an unpleasant demise thinking they had found water. Occasionally, though, a brood would wander into one of the canyons and take up residence.

Verges used the fry bread to lure the Quiks out of the way and slide the hover past, barely clearing the outcrops on either side. He had to bring the hover to a crawl to avoid wedging it in the narrow opening. Once through, he paused briefly to admire the small, silvery beasts.

The sound of rocks being knocked loose, amplified by the canyon walls, startled Verges and sent the quicksilvers scattering into clefts and crevices. He scanned the canyon walls and saw nothing, but he suddenly felt like he was being watched. Curiosity gave way to prudence, and he decided to continue on his way.

By the time he reached the other end of the canyon, the wind had died down. As he exited, he glanced back and thought he saw a shadow moving at the canyon’s mouth. He stopped the hover and watched intently, holding his breath. When nothing happened, he slowly pressed on into the Barren Sea.

He passed the first two rigs, having tended those last night. He quietly swore as he approached the third. The rig was overrun with vines of Hathaway’s Crown.

The rig was overrun with vines of Hathaway’s Crown.
Photo by Matt Hoffman.

Early Globers discovered the flowering vine growing straight out of the dunes and had named it so because of its beauty and tenacity. Ironically, it turned out that the vine fed on the very oil they were trying to extract and could wreak havoc on the rig machinery.

With a little effort, the vines could be trained to create a barrier around the rigs to keep the Quiks out. Verges found, though, that if he didn’t cut them back regularly, Hathaway’s Crown would quickly overtake the rig and force its way into the casings, seeking oil.

It had been less than a week since Verges had checked this rig, but already the vines had overtaken the structure. Cutting them back would take considerable time. Verges sighed. No need to be in a rush; that’s how accidents happen. 

He slid the hover next to the rig and switched off the engine. Without the hover engine running, Verges paused to enjoy the sounds of the sand for a moment. The peaceful calm belied the dangerous traps the dunes held. He glanced back toward the edge of the canyon. The rig was a good distance away from it, but something in the pit of his stomach didn’t trust that the shadow near the canyon wasn’t lurking in the darkness. Once he was satisfied that he was alone, Verges dug in his pack for his plasma shears. 

“Hathaway, I better have enough charge to cut away your crown,” Verges prayed, since he had neglected to charge the battery pack after using the shears the night before. 

Vine shears were standard issue for Wildcat Field workers, but Verges had modified his with plasma blades. They were risky because of how much ultraviolet light they emitted, but they cut his work time in half. It was a trade-off he was willing to make. He ignited the blades and set to work. 

After several hours, the canvas sack Verges used to collect the vine clippings was nearly full, even though he was only halfway through his trimming. He wiggled and tamped the sack to make more room before he reached for another piece of vine on the side of the rig. When he flicked the switch on the plasma blades, they popped and fizzled instead of igniting.

“Blast it.” Verges hit the blade handles against his palm several times. The blades stayed dark.

He looked back to the rig, vines still curling around the top of the derrick. If he left those there, the rig would be engulfed before he could return. Verges climbed back into the hover where he pulled out a long cable from under the controls. He inserted the cable into the charging port on the shears and paused, taking another look around the dunes. No signs of curious creatures, yet.

The night had grown dark and still. Normally Verges would have been disappointed to have such a quiet, creatureless night in the rigs, but he knew that could change as soon as he turned on the hover. Verges reached over and flipped the ignition switch. The hover engine purred like a kittercat, and he tried the switch on the shears again. Their violet glow instantly illuminated the buzzing hover. 

Verges jumped out of the hover and scrambled up the side of the derrick to reach the remaining vines. He took a deep breath to calm himself. He hated rushing, but dawn was approaching and he hadn’t given himself much of a choice. He made a mental note to keep a spare battery in his work pack to avoid this in the future. Verges looped the cable around the upper strut of the rig and continued trimming. Clippings fell to the sand, making soft thuds and sending grains of sand cascading down the side of the dune. 

Between the purr of the hover and focusing on the vines, Verges couldn’t hear the clippings fall. He couldn’t hear the quiet padding of footsteps approaching, either. It wasn’t until he felt a tug on the cable connecting his shears to the hover that his attention was pulled away from the vines.

He couldn’t hear the quiet padding of footsteps approaching, either.
Photo by Harpal Singh.

Beneath him, several bulbous eyes reflected the glow of his shears. The creature tossed its ragged, russet-colored mane and let out a low growl. It pawed the sand between them with one of its eight, spindly legs that was now entwined in the cable.

“A sand wraith!” Verges whispered into the night.

All the blood from his face drained when he locked eyes with the beast. Verges had never seen one before, nor had he met anyone who had. It was said that anyone who did never returned from the dunes. 

The legends described the beast as having eight, giant, spider-like legs covered in thick, tawny hair that tower over even the tallest of men. Its head and body, it was said, resembled a monstrous, engorged lion, with jagged fangs curving out from its whiskered muzzle. It was thought that sand wraiths lurked in the canyons and only stalked prey into the dunes if they were particularly hungry. They would strike with unnatural speed, pinning their victims down in a flurry of legs while slowly ripping them apart. 

The legends described the beast as having eight, giant, spider-like legs covered in thick, tawny hair that tower over even the tallest of men. Photo by Jeremy Bezanger.

Verges noted that the legends were right about the beast’s fearsome lion and spider-like features, but its legs were not quite as tall. The wraith looked to be about his height if he had been on the ground next to it. Though, he knew those nimble legs could scale the derrick to reach him in seconds flat if it wished. Being caught in the cable would barely slow it down. 

The sand wraith’s growl grew into agitated grunts, its legs skittering in the sand as it pulled against the cable, nearly yanking the shears clean out of Verges’s hands. Verges flicked off the shears so neither of them would be sliced by the plasma. 

“Easy there.” Verges cautiously climbed down the derrick; his hand outstretched toward the sand wraith. 

It lowered its massive head and sneered; a low guttural roar shook the derrick as Verges landed in the sand. 

“I won’t hurt you.” Verges dropped the shears and held his hands up to show the beast he meant no harm.

It stepped backward, jolting the hover that was still connected by the cable to the shears and sending the hover crashing into the derrick. Verges lunged forward and rolled to avoid being pinned between the two. 

“Whoa!” Verges unsteadily got back to his feet, his sweaty face and neck now covered in sand. 

He slowly reached into the hover and killed the engine. Verges watched as the beast’s hackles seemed to drop and relax. Though he took that as a good sign, his heart pounded against his ribcage. He stepped forward, half bowed, while keeping his eyes locked with the wraith’s. The intense yellow of the wraith’s eyes glowed brightly because of his goggles, which had started fogging up from his sweat. He yanked them off and dropped them by his side. The air between them was thick with the beast’s hot, sticky breath.

“Let me help you.” Verges bent down and found the cable in the sand.

He reached a hand out, mere inches from the wraith’s trapped leg. He paused, bowed his head and then gently stroked its spike-like fur. The hairs bristled at his touch, creating a rasping sound as they rubbed together. Verges recoiled, watching the wraith’s every move. When it did not retreat or attack, he continued. Verges gingerly lifted its clawed foot pad and unwrapped the cable from its leg. Once freed, he set the leg back down into the sand and took a step back. 

The wraith snuffed and stamped its legs, stretching to its full height and causing Verges to stumble backwards a few paces. The wraith’s eight legs worked in perfect harmony as it stepped forward to close the gap between them. Verges held as still as he could, though he couldn’t mask the heaving of his chest.

The wraith crouched down, pressing its body against the sand and wrapping its legs around itself like a cage. It sniffed at Verges’s boots, giving them a small lick with its leathery tongue. 

Verges allowed himself to breathe again, watching the creature intently.

It sniffed at Verges’s boots, giving them a small lick with its leathery tongue. 
Photo by Tim Foster.

When the wraith finished slathering his boots, it stepped even closer, knocking Verges backwards, and shoved its oversized muzzle into Verges’s lap. Despite being perilously close to its fangs and nearly suffocated by its mane, Verges let out a giddy chuckle. Instinctively, he reached out and began to scratch the wraith behind its flattened ears, as if it were a kittercat.

A sudden, low, thundering noise caused Verges to pause and scan the horizon. Seeing no clouds, Verges was confused until he realized the sound was coming from the wraith. The more Verges scratched, the louder the rumbling got, and the heavier the wraith’s head became in his lap. He eventually had to stop scratching when the weight of the creature’s head threatened to crush him.

When Verges stopped, the wraith raised its head and stared at him intently, looking almost confused. Verges chuckled again and returned its gaze, losing himself in the wraith’s intense, golden eyes. After several long moments, a crackle of static burst from the comm on the hover, startling them both. The wraith leapt backward and reared up as if to attack the hover.

The horizon began to glow, signaling the return of light and, with it, a gentle breeze that rippled through the wraith’s mane.
Photo by David Gavi.

“Woah,” Verges intoned, trying to calm the beast. The creature’s many eyes darted from Verges to the hover and back.

It hesitated. When the comm remained silent, the wraith lowered itself back down but kept its distance. They stood watching each other.

The horizon began to glow, signaling the return of light and, with it, a gentle breeze that rippled through the wraith’s mane. From the direction of the Rift came a series of loud, short grunts. The wraith tilted its head toward the sound and returned a similar grunt. It padded a few steps before turning to regard Verges one last time. They locked eyes and then the wraith sped off toward the canyon, disappearing into the dunes as the first rays of light began to paint the mouth of the canyon in the distance.

Verges stared toward the canyon for several long minutes, his mind struggling to comprehend the night’s events. The comm crackled to life again, tearing Verges’s attention away from the creature.

“Verges,” came Aaron’s voice over the comm, “Verges, come back.”

He cursed and reached for the comm, unable to keep the irritation out of his voice, “What?!”

“No really, Verges, come back. You’d better get your tail back here before Imogen gets in or she’ll have your hide, gray and wrinkled as it is, old boy.”

“Yeah, yeah. Thanks, Ma!” Verges shut off the comm and collected his tools. With one last glance toward the canyon, Verges eased the hover into the rising sun.

If you enjoyed Jeremy and Shanel’s story, feel free to leave comments below. If you would like to read more about Westminster, read “Shadow of the Dunes,” which kicked off the Westminster stories in the Globe Folio series.

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. Now you can enjoy the Globe Folio from the beginning:

Act 1: Night of the Rocket

Act 2: Nights of Revelation

Now you’re all caught up. But don’t worry, we have more stories from the Globe on the way soon!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

Another great story ending from a December finalist

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

I’m sharing the finalist stories from the December Contest. Here’s my favorite ending among the finalists by Jeremy Wilson.

You may recall that Jeremy was the April Contest winner. As one of my 2021 Champions, he could not win the contest again in 2021. But this is definitely an award-winning story ending with breath-taking moments and as many twists and turns as the switchbacks of the . . .

Mountains of Clouds


Wearing my bright red coat, I scout the trail ahead of the Faustus clan.

They’ve spent six months in a hidden orbit elsewhere in the system, waiting on a clear-weather window for a landing on Y-12, the only designation for our secret planet. Three days ago, we got word of the landing site and I raced over the mountain ranges to meet them. Those were happy days, running in the sunlight over tricky terrain, the harsh wind rustling my fur. On days like this, I don’t miss being human at all.

Photo by Benjamin Voros.

They were late, of course, but it was a solid landing. The weather on Y-12 is querulous. Anything other than a crash is considered a success. Decades ago, the City itself crash landed here before burrowing itself deep into its hidden valley. The damage set back the Deliverable by at least six months. Secrecy has its price.

Even two days after the landing, the weather continues to hold. A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. I turn to return to the camp to wake Dr. Faustus, Dr. Faustus, and their three children. They brought five hovers with built-in skis and each hover tows a hover-lifted trailer. Landings are so rare that every new recruit to the City must not only bring their own gear but also whatever crucial supplies are most needed in the City. Every micron of space in the hovers is carefully scrutinized by committee before a landing.

But Dr. Faustus is the real prize. She and her wife, a respected experimental physicist in her own right, have defected from the Republic. Rumor in the City goes that after the carefully planned defection, their ship came directly to Y-12, only diverting course now and then to shake any possible pursuing Republic spacecraft. A calculated risk. And an indication of how urgently the Deliverable is needed in the war with the Republic.

As I turn, a cold wind blows down from the highest peaks. It ruffles the fur on my back and my hackles rise. The cold does not create this reaction. My thick fur is made to handle the worst of Y-12’s winter storms. No, it’s a scent carried on the wind that my fox body reacts to. An oily, metallic smell.

Nothing on Y-12 smells like that. Nothing outside the City anyways, and the City is still two days’ travel away. The City is the only human habitation on the planet. A planet hidden inside a nebula treacherous to cross. A nebula guarded by a fleet of Polity stealth ships. So there is no way a human, or any human smell, made its way to the wilds of Y-12 by accident.

A rare, cheery, yellow sun begins to rise over the nearest peaks. Photo by Luke Richards.

I have to assume a Republic Special Forces team has somehow followed the Drs. Faustus to Y-12 and landed during the same clear-weather window. The RSF always work in teams of three. If I’m lucky, at least one of them has been injured or killed in the landing. As no enemy ships were detected by the City or our secret guardians in space, it’s likely the RSF attempted to brave the upper atmosphere in individual landing suits instead of a ship. It’s just the sort of foolhardy mission the RSF are famed for.

But if even one team member survived the landing, the Republic had pulled off an impressive feat. So far, their only mistake had been their failure to account for me and the smells they gave off. But that’s not surprising. No one off planet even knows about Dr. Amdo Basnet’s arctic fox project.

The good news is that they haven’t found us yet. If the RSF knew where we were, we’d all be dead already. Another frison sweeps through my hackles. The Faustuses were safely sleeping in camp when I left, but that was a couple hours ago. I have to get back!

Careful, I warn myself. Play it smart.

I scamper into the underbrush and shake myself from head to tail. As I shake, the bright red and white hairs shift, turning into mottled greens and browns to match my surroundings in the lowland evergreen forest.

I carefully and quietly tread a circuitous route under the cover of the trees back to the camp. I wake only Dr. Faustus. I don’t have time for a lot of questions. Speaking through the amulet around my neck, I tell her the RSF have followed her to Y-12. To her credit, she only nods tightly, but I see tears in the corners of her eyes glimmer in the early morning light.

She and her wife each have a basic blaster for the trek through the wilderness, but they stand no chance against even a single RSF. I tell her that her only hope of surviving–and saving her family–is to hide. I’m the scout. It’s my job to dispatch the RSF team or reach the City and send help. Under the dark-green shadows of the trees, I see dark despair shade her eyes. Good, at least she knows what we face. Perhaps she’ll follow my directions to the letter.

Abandoning their gear, the Faustus family follows me into the forest carrying only an inflatable snow shelter and cold tack for two days. Encased beneath a mound of shaded snow, they’ll need to wait until help returns. My amulet has no beacon or tracker to make me untraceable. The shelter has an emergency beacon, but that will alert the RSF. Everything depends on me.

I head towards the mountain range again. If I can make it unseen to the top peaks, I can approach the first RSF, the one I smelled, from a direction that gives no clue of the direction of the City or the Faustus family. I bound from rock to rock and criss-cross cold mountain streams several times, making my back trail impossible to follow, even for a wolf or an arctic fox. The sun disappears as I make my climb through the cloud cover. My human mind, the overlaid copy of the mind once belonging to Dr. Amdo Basnet, begins to formulate a plan. 

I bound from rock to rock and crisscross cold mountain streams. Photo by Steve Carter.

Military strategy is difficult. Like all foxes in the project, my mind is a scan of Dr. Basnet’s brain overlaid onto that of a native arctic fox pup. There’s not a lot of extra room in a fox’s gray matter, so I only have Amdo’s core memories and personality, just enough to make me entirely loyal to the Polity and the Deliverable, and knowledge of human speech. I have survival training, a basic skill for all guides, but no tactical training. Scouts rely on orders, personal experience in the wilds and instinct. Planning does not come naturally.

Like Amdo, I retreat into logic. I have no weapons. I assess the tools I do have. I have the collar and amulet, which allows me to speak. I have my color-shifting fur. I have speed and guile. And I have superior knowledge of the terrain.

Perhaps I can distract them until the normal weather of Y-12 reasserts itself. I hit the first patch of snow on the mountainside. Without thinking, I shake myself and my coat shifts to white. Not long after, I catch a break. I wander across the footprints of the first RSF!

Republic Special Forces are like wolves. In the first few moments of contact, the important thing is to move quickly, draw attention, and count on their predatory nature to drive them to follow. But unlike wolves, the RSF can attack unseen from a long distance. And though they travel as a pack, they spread wide to encircle their foe. They won’t risk propellant weapons because the sound would give away their position. So the greatest danger is a long-distance laser pulse. Silent. Deadly.

I follow his trail along the ridgeline and spy him easily. He has set up a sniper post behind a spill of rocks. He wears the charging pack for his laser rifle on his back, ready to move as soon as he fires a shot. When firing at full range, it takes several mins to recharge. 

I slowly climb over the ridgeline to approach him from the back. Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. The clouds are hiding the steep drop off on this side of the mountain. That gives me an idea.

A layer of clouds floats between mountain peaks on the left and the right.
Down the far side of the range is a river of clouds that give the Mountains of Clouds their name. Photo by Samuel Ferrara.

“Hey,” I call. What do I say next? I did not think this through. Before I can think of anything else to say, the RSF leaps silently and cleanly over the ridge. He lands and spots me immediately. He has the rifle in one hand and a long, black knife in the other.

The look on his face says he did not expect to see a fox. In a flash, he scans the expanse of spotless white snow, and seeing no other enemy, raises his rifle. I allow my deepest fox instincts to take control. In the flick of an eyelash, I bound down the mountainside.

In front of me, I see a puff of steam from vaporized snow and hear the peculiar whooshing sound that frozen water makes when a long tunnel of it instantly boils to gas and emerges from a pinpoint hole. He took his first shot. That leaves the knife and maybe a sidearm blaster. Blasters are notoriously clumsy shots, but up close one can vaporize my entire body.

I disappear into the cloud bank. He follows but stops when he’s completely surrounded by mist. He speaks softly, probably on a comm to his teammates. If he waits until reinforcements arrive, I’ll lose my advantage. 

I give him a little incentive. With a swish of my tail, it turns red. I wave it like a red flag and run right along the nearly invisible clifftop. The RSF leaps. And falls.

Falling through the fog, he spins and fires a blaster from his hip. The green blast expands rapidly into a cone, wiping away the swirls of fog in its path. But the shot is wild and I merely flinch. The RSF does not scream and I do not hear the impact. It’s kloms down, so that’s no surprise. The wind rises and the whirling vapor closes the hole left by the blaster.

One down. Two to go.

Knowing the RSF team has my coordinates, I bound back to the mountaintop and head down the valley side of the mountain range to the most dangerous area I know. It’s well known for crevasses and avalanches. When I can, I stick to cloud cover, which neutralizes their long-range weapons. I reach the hazardous area undetected.

 When I meet the next RSF, we are both shocked. I’m headed down the mountain on the crusty snow as he heads up. We lock eyes and I freeze. An odd smile crosses his face and he scans the pristine, white mountainside for other threats. He does not raise his weapon. That’s when I realize they still have not learned the secret of Dr. Basnet’s foxes. He thinks I’m part of the natural wildlife. And, I am, sort of.

The wind shifts and the river of clouds below moves more swiftly. I scamper up the layers of crusty snow and cracked ice. To my fur-covered paws, the footing feels secure, but I know the innocent-looking layer of snow hides unknown dangers with every step. I have no particular plan in mind except to outlast the RSF on this treacherous terrain. I’m betting my life that I know this terrain better than a trained RSF. Betting my natural instincts against his lifetime of rigorous training. But I’m also betting on something else more basic: Gravity.

I’m not light as a bird, but I don’t weigh much. This muscle-bound RSF is loaded down with a backpack full of gear and laser batteries. As long as I can keep him on this precarious shelf of ice–and avoid getting shot–I think I can last longer. But in the wilderness, there’s always an element of chance thrown in to keep things interesting.

The cloud river below ripples and parts, revealing the dark, evergreen trees in the valley. I’m losing my cover from the third RSF hiding in the valley. I need to speed things up.

“Follow me,” I call softly. A visor hides his eyes, but I can see his relaxed stance tighten. He realizes I’m more than I first appear.

The RSF snaps his rifle to his shoulder and I scamper further upwards. I sneak a look back, but he has lowered the rifle. Either the wisps of fog between us or my zig-zag pattern must make the shot look risky. He whips a blaster from his hip and fires a shot. The blast melts a large section of snow between us, but I’m out of blaster range by that time. Chunks of ice and melted snow begin to slide down the mountain towards the RSF. From the corner of my eye, I also see trickles of powdered snow dusting down from above me. The force of that blast unsettled the entire mountainside.

I turn and head neither up nor down the mountain but sideways, towards more secure footing. The RSF does the same. The wedge of ice, slush and water rushing down on him widens. It’s hardly an avalanche, but it places him in more immediate peril than me. I can focus on getting to safer ground, but I keep him in my peripheral vision as I scamper across now-looser footing.

The RSF is heading along a path parallel to my own. A river of ice melt swirls around his knees. He leaps and comes down hard. No! No, he disappears completely beneath the white torrent. And then the mountainside is still again.

There’s only one reason for the tall RSF to have disappeared like that. A crevasse. Sometimes you can defy Mother Nature, but you can’t beat gravity.

Two down. One to go.

With the second RSF safely entombed, I continue across the snowpack until the snow thins and I reach the boulder field. The sound of the snowslide must have alerted the last RSF, so I quickly duck underneath the nearest outcrop and stop to plan my next move.

The unexpected stench of decay catches my nose. I slink from shadow to shadow, following the smell. Rounding a corner, I come face to face with the third RSF. I panic and try to shake my coat to gray to match the surrounding stone, but it’s too late. The RSF is staring straight at me.

I shut my eyes and brace for pain. My heart hammers in my chest. The world stops. I breathe once . . . then again . . . . An eternity passes.

Confused, I dare to look. The RSF is still staring at me but hasn’t moved. With disbelief I realize the third RSF is dead. Something must have gone wrong during entry, and he landed on the jagged rocks and died. I nearly faint with relief.

I wind my way down the rest of the mountain to the river and then follow it towards the forest. With the RSF dispatched, I head directly back to the shelter to collect Dr. Faustus and her family. We must get to the City.

A twig snaps and pain lances through my back leg. I yelp and tumble end over end. Disoriented, I lay staring up at the darkening sky. In my peripheral, a shadow emerges from behind a tree.

A fourth RSF! The Republic must be desperate.

The RSF steps forward and removes her knife. I struggle to get to my feet, my back leg unusable. The RSF grabs me by the tail.

“What sort of abomination are you? It seems the Polity has been busy.” She sneers and lifts me into the air. Pain shoots through my tail and my fox brain takes over. I snap at the RSF and swipe with my claws. The RSF laughs and punches my soft underbelly, wrenching the breath from my lungs. In desperation, I go limp and feign being unconscious. The RSF lifts me up higher so we’re face to face and leans in to deliver some final reproach.

I lash out, trying to clamp my jaws around her neck. She squeals in surprise, dropping her knife to the ground. The cowl of her armor saves her and she’s able to pry my jaws apart. I fall to the ground and land on the knife. Pain sears my shoulder and warmth begins pooling beneath me. The RSF retrieves her knife and stands over me. My vision darkens as she raises the knife, her eyes full of hate.

A green flash blinds us both and the upper half of the RSF disappears into ash. Behind her, Dr. Faustus stands with her blaster raised, hands shaking. I can feel the last rays of sun, but I can no longer see them. The wind ruffles through my fur as the world fades.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction that Jeremy Wilson and I wrote together. He’s one of my favorite collaboration writers.

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

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:

It’s finally here: the gripping conclusion to “The Pyramid”

Today, the Circle of Champions, the winners of my monthly writing contests, wrap up a great Sci Fi story collaboration. This week, Jim Hamilton gives us the thrilling conclusion to . . .

The Pyramid

Part 1 by Jim Hamilton

At 2:27 p.m., on an otherwise unremarkable Friday afternoon, The Pyramid shimmered into being only 17.2 miles northwest of downtown Las Vegas. Fully a mile on a side and rising 4,000 feet above the desert landscape, it was impossible to miss.

By 2:37 p.m., hundreds of videos of it were already trending on every social media platform and two local news stations were transmitting raw footage as their helicopters flew towards it. Already, millions of people around the globe were beginning to endlessly speculate—each wanting to be the first to successfully guess the whys and wherefores of The Pyramid.

Two thousand miles to the east–2,095 miles to be exact–the U.S. president was holding a meeting in the Oval Office when the head of her security detail opened the door and said, “Madame President, I need for you to come with me right now. Protocol seven.”

Surprised at the sudden interruption, she immediately arose while apologizing, “Gentlemen, I’m afraid that you’ll have to excuse me.” She quickly followed the Secret Service agent out of the room and down the hall to the elevator.

As the car made its descent deep underground, the agent handed her a tablet. “You need to see this, ma’am.”

“What am I looking at?” she asked, as she watched the news video.

The chyron was too small to make out.

“It’s a giant pyramid, ma’am. It appeared about fifteen minutes ago outside Las Vegas.”

The elevator bell dinged and the doors parted. The President strode into the Situation Room and stood for a moment, studying the displays before addressing the Officer of the Day. “Status report!”

“Yes, ma’am. As you can see from the various video feeds, a large pyramid has suddenly appeared outside of Las Vegas.”

“Yes, yes. I’ve already got that part.”

Unfazed, he continued. “It covers about a square mile and is of unknown origin. We’ve got an AWAC en route to the site and two F-35s from Groom Lake are already orbiting five miles out. All air traffic in and out of McCarran International has been halted or diverted elsewhere. Local police and Homeland Security are currently working to cordon off the area on the ground.” He pointed at one of the screens. “That feed is from one of our military satellites that was fortunate enough to be watching at the time.”

“Any hostile activity?”

“None yet, ma’am. The relevant personnel have all been contacted and are on their way. The Secretary of Defense should be here at any moment.”

“Very good, Leroy,” she said, as she took her seat at the head of the long oval table. As she waited for the others to arrive, she contemplated the scenes on the ever-changing screens, frustrated with the lack of information at her disposal. She had seen the UFO files and knew that Earth had been visited before. She knew that this could only be another visit, but for what purpose? She crossed her fingers and hoped that they had come in peace.

Part 2 by Glenn R. Frank

“Osiris Flight, be advised, telemetry and comms are on live-feed to the White House Sit-Room.”

Maj. Holder knew this was as much a jab at his frequent use of profanity as it was critical information. He could feel his wingman’s silent laughter, in spite of the radio silence that followed.

“Osiris One. Acknowledged,” Holder responded.

Holder looked down to his left toward the Pyramid. His F-35’s helmet visor displayed the view as if he were looking through the side of his aircraft. It accented the huge object with infrared and data overlays.

“The structure has no radar return but is visible as solid material on all other wavelengths. Request permission for close approach.”

“Granted, Osiris One.”

“Osiris Two, maintain five-mile orbit,” Holder instructed his wingman.

“Acknowledged,” came Capt. Anderson’s reply.

Holder rolled his plane left and pointed it at the Pyramid. He approached and engaged the hover ability of his aircraft, slowing to a standstill half a mile from the structure.

“Surface still appears solid . . . Zero radar reflection . . . No signs of electronic emissions . . . .”

A point of light blazed on the surface of the Pyramid, from which a dark object zipped over Holder’s head and accelerated toward Las Vegas. His heart pounded. He hesitated for just an instant before he spun his plane and punched the throttle in pursuit.

“Shit! Bogie deployment from the structure. Osiris flight in pursuit!”

Anderson’s F-35 zipped past him, chasing the unknown object as Holder boosted up to maximum afterburner speed. The dark, winged object flew over the Las Vegas Strip at an altitude of 1,000 feet, made two abrupt ninety degree turns, and sped straight back toward the Pyramid. Anderson and Holder banked hard but couldn’t hold the turn as tight as the alien craft.

“Holy Cra . . . ” Holder caught himself mid-phrase.

“Object has doubled back to the Pyramid – we’re in pursuit.”

Flight control cut in. “Weapons release is not authorized, NOT authorized, pursue only.”

The object accelerated away from them and re-entered the side of the Pyramid at full speed in a flash of light.

“I’m going through,” shouted Anderson.

“Veer off,” Holder ordered.

Anderson’s plane flew right into the side of the Pyramid with a flash, just as the UFO had. He vanished from sight and radar.

“Osiris Two entered the Pyramid. I’m following him.”

“Negative, Osiris One . . .” 

But Holder had already plunged into the Pyramid.

Complete darkness enveloped his view. A shrill sound attacked his ears and a metallic taste filled his mouth, making him sick.

“Osiris Two . . . respond,” he managed to choke out. There was no reply.

The darkness cleared with another flash of light. It was replaced by a dim, blue landscape of hills and an enormous white disk dominating the sky.

Alarms blared – engine flameout. 

Holder attempted a restart. No good. The engine was O2 starved and dead.

Wherever I am, there‘s not enough oxygen in this atmosphere!

The ground came up fast. He yanked the ejection trigger and the seat shot him through the canopy. He blacked out.

Part 3 by Jim Hamilton

As the two planes disappeared into the side of the giant Pyramid, an audible gasp went up around the table in the Situation Room at the White House. The President turned to face the monitor that displayed General Hemington, seated at his own console two miles away underneath the Pentagon.

The President’s eyes widened, glancing back at the other monitors, then again at the General’s image. “What just happened to our fighter jets?” she asked. “Are the pilots okay?”

Hemington put his hand over his microphone and looked to the side, apparently asking someone a question. He removed his hand and looked back at the President. “We don’t know, ma’am. The AWAC tracked the F-35s with both FLIR and RADAR, but they disappeared when they passed through the wall of the Pyramid. According to the AWAC operator, she says that the Pyramid isn’t there at all. Or the planes. Just the flat desert terrain that we would expect. It appears to somehow be shielding itself from everything but the visible spectrum.”

“What about the unknown object that they were chasing?”

“Both pilots automatically turned on their high-speed cameras before giving pursuit,” Hemington said.

“Like the Pyramid itself, the object seems to be transparent to almost everything, only reflecting light in the visible spectrum. Even at 500 frames per second, almost all of the video is blurry.” He smiled a bit. “However, we’ve managed to isolate several frames that show the object clearly. If you’ll look at Screens 3 and 4, you can see that it’s a small, delta-winged craft, about three feet across.”

“Do you think that it’s a drone or a probe of some sort?” asked the President, as she studied the photos.

“Could be, ma’am.”

She turned to her science advisor, seated to her left. “Carl? What’s your take on this? Does that look at all familiar?”

Carl glanced over to the communications operator and drew his hand across his throat. The com-op acknowledged his request and tapped on his keyboard before looking up and announcing, “All mikes are off, Madame President.”

“Sorry, Madam President,” Carl said, a bit apologetically. “You know the protocol regarding all things ENIGMA.”

She nodded. Pointing to screen three, she said, “It’s the same thing that hit that weather balloon in Roswell, isn’t it?”

“It would appear to be the same, ma’am. But we don’t want to make that assumption quite yet.”

“So, what do we do now?” She indicated a screen. “Hemington will want to attack it with everything he has handy, but I think that we should hold up until we know more.”

Carl nodded vigorously. “Oh, I quite agree. While the planes quit transmitting once they passed through the Pyramid’s shield, we might be able to send in a tethered robot that would only be linked by fiber.”

“Do you think that will work?”

Carl shrugged. “Maybe. We won’t know for sure until we try it.”

The President smiled for the first time since the Pyramid appeared. She turned to the com-op. “Connect us to General Hemington.” She turned back to her science advisor. “And you tell him what we need to make it happen.”

Part 4 by Jeremy Wilson

As the great disk ascended on rotation 702, Larry began preparations on the scout ship.

Of course, Larry wasn’t her actual designation, but she found that it facilitated communication with the carbon-based beings of Earth during routine probings (for information, of course).

For eons, her brood had been monitoring the progression of the humans, though Larry could never understand why. They were primitive creatures; prone to violence and self-destruction.

As Larry reviewed the day’s mission, she warmed up the refraction engine, having verified the accumulator was at capacity.

The engine sputtered. She slammed her claw down onto the engine chamber in frustration and the resonators fell back into place, humming as they should.

Aside from actually propelling the craft, the engine created a connection point at the coordinates Larry set and was supposed to camouflage said connection point by manipulating the local ambient spectrum.

Many orbits ago, camouflaging the connection point wasn’t a concern. It could appear as anything and the early humans would welcome her like she was a great creator. But now that the humans had discovered the power of the atom (which any broodling could have figured out, by the way), she was expected to be more cautious.

Unfortunately, ever since the “incident” with the humans’ gas-filled atmospheric monitoring apparatus, Larry had been forced to share this ship with Jerry, whose excretions frequently caused malfunctions.

At least this was to be a night mission, so any malfunctions should go unnoticed.

Larry entered the craft and engaged the engines. The craft hovered while she tapped out the coordinates. All at once, she shot forward into darkness, the pleasant sensation of heavy metals greeted her mandibles.

As she exited the portal, she was blinded by bright light. Pain shot through her ocular sensors as she realized it was the middle of the day cycle.

In terror, she rotated her rear ocular stock to look back at the connection point. She panicked when she observed that the connection point was appearing as a large polyhedron.

At the velocity she was traveling, Larry was already over the human’s habitable zone before she could react. She immediately changed course and headed back to the portal, but it was too late. The primitive human ships were already giving chase.

She re-entered the portal, but before she could disengage the engine, both craft followed her. The first was so close that the disturbance from her engine sent it almost immediately back through the portal, though Larry guessed it might take some time to reappear on Earth.

The second craft also made it through but failed immediately, ejecting the soft human held within.

Larry went over and examined the unconscious jelly bag of a creature. Its soft outer shell had the symbol “‘Hang-On’ Holder” emblazoned on it. It was beginning to twitch and sputter.

Larry knew that if this thing died in here, she’d never get the stench out, so she gingerly shoved the jelly bag back through the portal.

She turned to close the portal, but a massive metal contraption floated through with a long filament connected to it.

She slammed the portal shut, severing the filament protruding from the metal monstrosity . . .

Part 5 by Jim Hamilton

In the Situation Room beneath the White House, the President, the Secretary of State, and the President’s Science Advisor were wearing virtual headgear and being fed the eight-channel stream from the UAV drone. Six separate video views seamlessly overlapped and provided the perception of being able to see in any direction while two audio channels provided stereo sound to the headsets.

They watched as they drew closer to the Pyramid and then suddenly passed through the wall and into utter darkness.

“What happened?” asked the President.

“I’m not sure, ma’am. We’re still getting data.”

Carl spoke up. “I think we’re seeing the absence of light.”

For ten long seconds, the visors remained dark. Suddenly, they passed through a black curtain and they had their first view of the alien landscape. A movement to the side drew their attention, and they glimpsed Holder’s body being dragged into the curtain. A moment later, they got their first look at the alien. It walked erect on two spindly legs and had two arms that ended in giant claws. The upper end, where a head would be, sported several dozen eyeballs, each on a separate stalk. It mostly resembled a lobster on steroids wearing a pincushion hat.

The Secretary of State started laughing. “It’s only about three inches tall!”

At that moment, the alien saw the probe. There was a high-pitched shriek and its eyes bugged out in all directions. It fumbled at its belt with its claw and, in the next second that followed, three unexpected events happened at once. The first was the sudden appearance of Capt. Anderson’s F-35 as it came cart-wheeling out of the Pyramid. The second was the sudden disappearance of the Pyramid itself. And the third, while not immediately noticed, was the appearance of Maj. Ken Holder’s body on the ground at the center of the space which the Pyramid had previously been occupying.

They sat in stunned silence until the President broke the ice. “Well, I must say, I didn’t see that coming!”

Larry stomped back to her craft and climbed aboard. She turned to her navigator and shook her mandibles. “Do you know what that was, Jerry?”

His eyestalks all retracted in fear. “Which ‘that’ was that?”

“All of it! This whole mission was an unmitigated disaster. We’re lucky to get away with as little exposure as we did.” She pondered a moment. “What are we going to do about it, Jerry?”

He turned a lavender shade of blue. He knew what was coming.

“I’m cutting you off from all heavy metals until you can get your digestive tract under control.”

“Even the Zolium?”

“Yes, especially the Zolium. It makes you bloat.” She collapsed her mandibles. “When we’ve got you fully purged, we’re coming back and finishing what we set out to do, okay?”

Jerry’s eyes all bobbled together.

“These humans are very simple and have a very short attention span.” She wagged her head in amusement. “It won’t be long before most of them will have forgotten we were here.”

General Hemington spoke up. “We have confirmation that Osiris Two is okay and returning to base. One of our helos is in voice contact with Major Holder over his suit radio. He’s shaken up a bit, but says that he’s alright.”

“That’s great news, General!” said the President. “I want Protocol Seven clean-up immediately. All videos, all cloud sources, all social media. Wiped.” She looked him in the eye. “This time tomorrow, I want everyone to think that it never happened.”

“Understood, Madame President.”

Wow! Like the President, I have to say “I didn’t see that coming!”

Jim wrapped up this pass-the-baton story with action, drama and some humor. Great job!

If you enjoyed the story, please leave a kind comment for Jim, Jeremy, and Glenn below.

Soon, my Champions will be bringing to you a large collection of free stories in Act 2 of our Globe serial. If you have not read any of those stories, start with the drama-filled Pillars of Smoke from Act 1.

Also, my September Contest has just begun. Readers are really enjoying the beginning of the story. Take a read and then see if you’d like to finish the story and enter my contest. For September, I’ve increased the cash prize to $50. All you have to do is write 500 words (or less).

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross