I’m sharing the finalist stories from the September Contest. Here’s a great ending with a big twist by Jeremy Wilson.
BY JEREMY WILSON AND MATTHEW CROSS
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:
- A breath-taking story with as many twists and turns as the switchbacks of The Mountains of Clouds.
- A thrilling and feel-good ending for “Sur Veil Lance.”
- A story of a space scrapper filled with action, intrigue and an elegant loop effect.
If you enjoyed Jeremy’s ending to the September Contest, please make sure and share some kind comments below.
P.S. You can also read the winning story ending for September written by Alan K. Dell.