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This is a finish-my-story contest where all you have to do is write the ending in 500 words or less.

Illustration by Joe Cross. Copyright 2021.

March Contest: All submissions are due by midnight March 15, 2022.

Planetkiller

It starts out as a single point of light. Like a star that wasn’t there, and then suddenly it is.

“You see it?” Jame asks.

“Yeah, I see it.”

Jame and I grew up side by side. He was born in a hospital in the City. Don’t ask which city. It’s the only one on this barely inhabited planet on the far, far edge of Polity space. But I was born at Home. Show Ma something once and she learns it forever. So once she saw how the doctors and nurses handled Jame’s birth, she said she could handle the second one herself.

Da says I take after Ma in that way. Stubborn, independent, fast learner. I guess that’s mostly true. Just like Jame seems to take after Da. But I don’t think I’ll ever be as capable and as confident as Ma. Nothing shakes her.

The point of light grows instantly brighter and then splits into two points of light and then three. Jame and I both curse under our breath at the same time. “Vacc!” It’s an old spacer curse we picked up from Ma. She grew up on a Polity academy ship and knows all the spacer ways.

Jame and I watch through our HUDs as the two dimmer lights separate from the larger one and drop off in arcs to the horizon. They dim and disappear. Those are not our worry.

The remaining point of light grows brighter. My HUD dims that part of the view screen slightly to prevent me from being blinded. Now that the object is close enough, the HUD can calculate its speed, and the numbers are stunning.

While I’ve been watching the light through my HUD, Jame has been reading the more detailed numbers on his arm band. It displays the extensive data collected by the Home system’s sensors, which alerted the family to the invasion in the first place.

“Home just picked up the three we saw, but there might be more, out of range further around the planet,” Jame says. His breath is harsh. “But three Planetkillers is enough to . . . ,” he pauses, thinking deeply, as he always does. He shakes his head. “Well, it’s enough, anyway. One for the City, one for the Factory and one for the Mines.”

I admire Jame. He’s a thinker, like Da, not a soldier. But his voice doesn’t shake until he says “the Mines.” I watch the white point of light bloom through my HUD. It’s headed straight towards us. Towards the Mines, which Ma and Da left us to protect.

Jame exhales slowly through his nose, his warm breath fogging the cool evening air, and I realize his body has grown rigid next to mine. He has settled his mind on something. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it and the splinter of cold fear on the back of my neck suddenly blooms like a web of crystals down by back. I’m afraid Jame is about to do something brave.

Ma has told me time again that men don’t usually have the strengths of women. But they are tools; useful tools, if you know how to handle them. Good men are loyal, and, if you let them, sometimes they’ll throw their lives away to save yours. “Don’t let them do that, Els, not unless it’s absolutely necessary. Too often a man will sacrifice himself before it’s necessary.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s safe now,” Jame says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The knees, I think, recalling my self defense classes.

The rocket flies true and strikes the back of the giant machine’s knee. Planetkillers are heavily armored, but I know right away I hit something vital. The gout of orange flame from the rocket’s explosion is overwhelmed by a cloud of white smoke or steam rising from the machine’s leg. The knee bends outwards with a pop and the giant lurches to the side. It’s head strikes the mountain wall.

I don’t make the same mistake twice. I don’t watch and wait. I leap.

It must be adrenaline because I swear I’m bounding as high as Da. The Planetkiller’s pilots have their hands full trying to restore control, but they may have already lost. It seems to be falling in slow motion with the most horrendous screeches. The awkward angles of its limbs and the close walls of the Pass form the perfect angles for me to land and leap further up the monster and plant charges from my backpack. Then I leap free and detonate them all.

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

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

I just killed a Planetkiller!

All by myself, I killed a Planetkiller!

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

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


I can’t wait to see what you write!

Submit your story ending

Please post your story endings below. And if you just want to leave a comment, that would be great, too!

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

P.S. If you have any trouble pasting your story ending below, just email it to matthewcrosswrites@gmail.com by the deadline and you will be entered. MC 🚀✨

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

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Christina Bodene

I started the story below. See how Christina starts after the red line, whisking us through a fast-paced and breathtaking ending.

The Festival of Juno

BY CHRISTINA BODENE AND MATTHEW CROSS

How many times had I dreamed of a night like tonight?

As girls growing up in a backwater planet of the Republic, we all had fantasies of escaping to a “civilized world” and living a life filled with wealth, fame, and romance. Starry nights scented with flowers and our own perfume. Hair bound up by a real hairdresser. Sheathed in a couture gown.

And now, here I am, heat sealed into a gown and ascending the stairs of the Temple of Juno. Climbing this hill to mix with the glittering hoi polloi of the City of Lights, the capitol of Pax Romana, the planet-seat of the Republic.

So what’s the problem?

First, I don’t belong here.

Don’t get me wrong. My credentials are legit. I am the Daughters of Juno representative from my planet. The Vesta Society helped me secure the spot. But I definitely don’t feel right among all these Paxers.

Second, I’m a spy.

Third, these heels are killing me.

We’re climbing the Thousand Steps from the dock below to the temple above. I don’t know how these other girls are doing it. Most of them are from Pax Romana, so they are used to the intense gravity here. My little planet looks more like a moon with gravity to match. And the exercycles and running turbines on the transport ship RPS Brutus just can’t get you in shape for this.

City of Lights, the capitol of Pax Romana, the planet-seat of the Republic. Photo by Carlos Ibanez.

The girl in front of me springs up the steps. With her long gown, I can’t see her legs or feet, but her butt looks amazing. Like she climbs steps in her sleep.

I hate her.

I’m only halfway up the curved steps that climb the slope from the lake and I’m breathing like a draft ox. I stop a moment–just a moment–to slip off my heels. As I bend to pick them up, the girl behind me bumps my butt with her head. We both curse. I snatch the slender straps of my heels with one hand, making sure not to let the candle I’m carrying go out.

There’s more cursing and grumbling going on behind me. I know they’re talking about me. Besides the usual, unladylike curse words drifting up from below are words like “spacing,” “oaf,” and “hick.” My ears burn.

I steal a glance backwards and see that the long, snaking line of candles is twitching and hitching up the stone stairs. I look ahead and see a seamless line of women and candles winding through the hillside olive orchard. I seem to be messing up their perfect promenade. I’m not exactly blending.

These Paxers love anything that smells of Ancient Rome. Photo by Mathew Schwartz.

Yes, we are climbing hand-hewn stone stairs through an olive orchard. These Paxers love anything that smells of Ancient Rome. And speaking of smells, I know they shun deodorants and claim to like natural, human musk–thus, differentiating themselves from spacers and those living in sterile “airless” colonies. But when we get into the ballroom at the top, I think we’re going to smell more like a herd of cattle than a perfumed harem of debutantes.


It’s dim in the anteroom, but all those candles provide me with enough light to see the other girls pretty well. As they pass through the door, each one bends down to remove slippers and pull on a pair of heels from her purse. Well, that explains one thing. I dunk my candle in the silver urn of water like the girl in front of me and slip my heels back on. I’m definitely going to have blisters.

I can also see everyone’s dress clearly for the first time. From the time I stepped out of the limo, I’ve been in a dark tunnel, a lightless security check, and a lightless ferry. The only girl I’ve seen clearly is Super Butt right in front of me.

No two dresses are exactly the same, not exactly. Like theirs, mine is shiny and sheer, nearly cut down to the navel from the neck and definitely cut up to the waist from the hem. When I tried on the dress for the first time on the PRS Brutus, it took my breath away. And that was even before the final fitting and heat sealing of the stiches. Helena, my minder from the Vesta Society, even smiled. A rare treat.

“Ummm . . . I love it. Really, I do. But I can see right through this thing. Shouldn’t I be wearing a slip for the fitting?”

“No, dear. Republic society women never wear anything under these dresses. It ruins the line. Tiara, necklace, dress, purse, shoes, and perfume. Nothing else.”

Aghast, I looked in the monitor showing my image. “But you can see everything. I mean . . . everything!”

Helena suggested I could get used to the attention by wearing the dress around the Brutus. I thought of the rough-handed, loud-mouthed spacers aboard the ship–my kind of people–and shut my mouth.

Of course, the Vesta Society outfitted me with synthetic skin bands on my legs and back to carry a few tools. But they do nothing to protect my modesty.

In the anteroom, I notice one more detail. Every dress ahead of me is blue. Of course. Juno’s sacred color. I look behind me. The girl behind me is managing to adjust her tiara and give me a dirty look at the same time. She is also wearing blue. And so are all the women behind her.

I am wearing red.

How had the Vesta Society missed that detail? They thought of everything!

I’m sweating from the climb up the Thousand Steps, but suddenly my sweat runs cold. If they didn’t know the Daughters of Juno all wore blue, what else did they not know? What other surprises are in store for me?

And then I see the next one. I’m almost to the far end of the anteroom. There is an older woman checking tiara, necklace, dress, purse, and shoes. I know she’ll never let me past in a red dress.

I pump the false molar just once and spit the tracing juice on the blue dress in front of me.

“Oh, honey!” I wail, faking a nasal Paxer accent. “What’s that on your dress?”

In the swarm that converges on Super Butt, I sneak past the gatekeeper. I round a dark corner and emerge into a dazzling, white light. I freeze.

A smooth baritone voice announces a name. It’s not my name, and all I can see in all directions is brilliant, white light. Then my training kicks in and I remember. I’m at the top of the winding ramp–the Gauntlet, they call it–that descends past all the vids to the ballroom floor. The name they called must be Super Butt’s. I took her place in line.

I try the elegant spider walk we practiced over and over on the Brutus, but the ship’s weak anti-grav is a poor substitute. I skitter-slide my way down the ramp to the sound of gasps and titters and explosions of light.

When I reach the bottom, my vision begins to recover. A dance floor filled with young men in black and young women in blue dresses whirls past. Out of the last bright light comes a dark form. It takes me by the hand and the waist and spins me into the maelstrom.

It takes my breath away.

I look up and my dance partner is none other than the Marquess Douro, my target. Did the Vesta Society arrange this somehow or is it just amazing, dumb luck?

There she is, Juno herself, Queen of Olympus, Mother of the Gods. The marble statue sits on a marble throne beneath a half dome. Photo by Mateus Campos-Felipe.

Dancing weightless is not the same thing as dancing at the bottom of a planet’s gravity well. And, yet, in his arms, I feel as though I’m floating. His strong arms hold an effortless frame and I cling to them. As we spin, my body brushes his and I’m very aware of the sheer nothing I’m wearing.

He is tall with broad shoulders. The wreath of green olive leaves rests on his glistening, dark curls. And his eyes? Dark-green pools my soul could dive into and drown.

He is the target, I remind myself. But I don’t feel like I’m stalking him. Just the opposite. In this style of dancing, the women step backwards as the men “lead” them around the dance floor. My steps are light. I feel like I’m fleeing backwards as he pursues me with hungry eyes. I’m fleeing, but his arms direct my every step.

“I gotta get out of here,” I mumble.

“Great idea!” he says. “I know a shortcut.”

He lets go of my waist and I miss the warmth already. But he keeps hold of my hand and pulls me easily through the crowd surrounding the dance floor.

I find myself in the temple proper and he hurries past marble pillar after marble pillar. There she is, Juno herself, Queen of Olympus, Mother of the Gods. The marble statue sits on a marble throne beneath a half dome. Behind the throne, he twitches aside the blue curtain backdrop. There’s a small hallway ending in an elevator.

He lets go of my hand and steps inside.

I’m not supposed to leave the temple, but then, he has the key. The key is my objective. Where he goes, I must follow.

My face must be showing a million emotions and he cocks his eyebrows. He’s saying “Wanna come?”

I do, but I also have no choice. I need that key. While his father, the Duke, is off planet, the key hangs from the neck of the heir apparent. The key is the only piece missing for the Vesta Society to gain access to Daddy’s sanctum sanctorum on the family estate. And to the military secrets in his vault.

I plaster on a wide smile. “What fun!” I say and step inside the elevator.

The doors close and he leans in for a kiss. I’m not sure whether it’s the elevator or his warm lips that make my stomach drop and flip. My hand is on his chest and I feel the warmth seeping through his crisp, white shirt and feel his heavy, strong heartbeat. He pulls away before I realize this may be my best chance to grab the key.

Behind his glossy curls, I see the lights of the famed Night Market curving around the lake. Photo by Julie.

The elevator doors have opened and he pushes through a glass door to the outside. He’s holding the door, waiting. Oh, I realize with a shock, he’s holding the door for me. I walk into the soft summer air filled with the smell of flower blossoms. We’re on a concrete walkway beside the lake. Behind his glossy curls, I see the lights of the famed Night Market curving around the lake.

Wait, we could have taken an elevator, instead of climbing all those stairs?

“C’mon,” he says, “let’s take a walk.”

He stretches out his arm, offering me his hand.


I am entranced. I accept his hand. And willingly, a slave even, I follow him into his secret garden. The pulse in his hand radiates, even more than the sparkle of the key–and the way he looks at me. Again, I am conscious of my scanty attire.

“You’re beautiful,” he states in a matter-of-fact, easy drawl–like he had done for who knows how many beautiful butts before. After all, wasn’t that all I was to him? Of course that was all.

And that’s when I snapped out of his charms. but, oh, I didn’t let it show. I didn’t say so. The key shone, and my smile met his eyes. Radiated, even. Two could play this game.

The key shone, and my smile met his eyes. Photo by Tom Joseph.

I leaned into him as he skillfully unlocked the fastenings to my gown. He let out an unrehearsed gasp. He was not disappointed, and I was not surprised. I had not gotten this far without using all of my assets to my best advantage.

I slipped easily out of the beautifully designed gown. I pressed in even closer, slowly I walked my fingers up his back and over his shoulders.

There was no time to waste. I massaged his neck, and he smiled. Then I struck, both hands tight on his larynx. I squeezed the life right out of him.

How well I had been trained. Never dressed like this–or undressed–and never with a living opponent. But, indeed, I was well trained.

As he lay there lifeless, it struck me what a pity it was. All his beauty and magnetism seemed to be draining out of him. I sighed, as I knew that, indeed, I could have loved him well.

I worked fast. I removed the sacred key from around his tanned and muscled neck, wondering all the while at his now quiet strength. What a waste. What a shame.

I speedily removed his jacket, and I unbuttoned his shirt and placed it on my now pasty skin. I was hot, but I needed something on. The shirt hung like a sexy, morning-after gown, and I chided myself for the romanticism I associated it with. My God, I had just killed a man!

I placed the chain with the key intact around my neck, and I began to run. I gazed longingly at the elevator, but bypassed it, and headed down an unpaved path back down the mountain.

My feet raw, and my legs bloodied, there was only one hurdle left. I had to get back out the gate. All eyes were on the promenade of beautiful butts as I slipped through the exit–the entrance back to my own kingdom and desires.


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

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

Be stellar!

Matthew Cross

This is the Winner of the Matthew Cross Writing Contest

The winner of the Matthew Cross Flash Fiction Collaboration Contest is

Glenn R. Frank

I started the story below. See how Glenn starts after the red line and takes us to a surprise ending and reveals a dark plot.

Mayday

By Glenn R. Frank and Matthew Cross

Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! Halcyon 5 Space Control, this is United Polity Ship 999Q2-292-383-858-112, courier class. I have multiple air and fuel leaks following a collision with unknown debris—just dust probably—checking scanners now, mmmm, the immediate danger appears to have cleared, but I’ve cut engines to conserve fuel and prevent an explosion. Here are my coordinates. [Series of beeps, clicks and static sound.]

I’m listening to the Mayday from the cockpit of the Scrappy Doo, a merchant scrapper. Don’t ask about the name. It was Mom’s idea, and after she passed, it seemed disrespectful to change the name.

The shipboard comp is automatically recording this message and storing away the coordinates. I recognize the coordinate prefixes. The Polity courier is in my quadrant of the Belt, the vast ring of asteroids that forms the outer limits of the Halcyon system. But that covers a lot of space. After all, the Belt’s diameter is wider than the rest of the solar system inside of it.

I’m the only one on board, but even so my air’s gonna run out in less than 8 hours. Even if I blew all the fuel—if I wanted to risk an explosion—I’d be at least 200 hours out from Halcyon 5. I need a priority pickup under authority of the Polity Navy.

Eight hours of air. It’s every spacer’s nightmare. Without a rescue, you know the hour and the method of your death. And suffocation is a bad way to go.

I’m watching my own scanners as I listen. When you’re in the Belt, you have to be on constant watch. Courier-112’s case proves the point. A small shower of pebbles or even just a patch of dust can perforate a hull and turn it into a sieve. Doesn’t matter whether you fly into it or it flies into you.

The population of the Belt is sizable–mostly miners and scrappers like me. But we’re spread out over so much space you can go years without seeing anyone unless you intend to. So I’m certain someone else will answer the Mayday call. But that’s because I forgot about the family’s luck.

I open my eyes and check my scanners again. That’s when I see the blinking red comm light. My stomach drops.

Reluctantly, I lean forward and reach slowly for the comm switch. Click.

Scrappy Doo. This is Halcyon 8 Perimeter and Belt Space Control. This is a priority comm.”

It’s not that I don’t want to help. But I have my own problems. I just loaded up the Doo five days ago with supplies on credit and I need to gather some scrap to pay back Fram. He’s an old friend of Mom’s and the only outfitter who will give me credit. Since Mom died almost a year ago I’ve been living hand to mouth.

And I’ve got a lead on a good haul that could square me with Fram for good. Maybe even give me a small cushion. So I don’t need distractions.

“This is Scrappy Doo,” I mumble.

“Did you receive Mayday UPS Courier-112?”

They know I did. You would have to bore into the middle of a planet not to receive a Mayday. Even the wilds of the Belt are filled with boosts to carry emergency messages.

“Affirmative.”

In my head, I’m repeating a mantra. Not me, not me, not me . . .

“You are the closest ship to Courier-112. Your ship reports you have adequate fuel to reach the Courier and reach orbit at Halcyon 8.”

My head thumps on the control panel. I bought all that fuel on credit. And now they want me to burn it all in a rescue mission for a lousy UPS courier with one passenger?

But what can I do? Space Control and my ship already made the automated electronic handshake. They know my position, my vector, my fuel levels. Control has all the data shown on my control panel and faster comps to spin it up into any simulation they want.

That’s why I’m sitting cross-legged in the pilot’s seat with my crossed fingers tucked under my thighs, hoping I won’t be close enough to help.

I’m also biting my lip, but that’s just because everybody gets nervous when you hear a Mayday. It makes your heart jump into your throat.

If I don’t render aid, then I’ll lose the Scrappy Doo the first time I make port. They’ll impound the Doo and throw me in the brig.

“This is Scrappy Doo.” I hear some chuckles in the background from Control. I grit my teeth but then smile. With Fram as my only friend, I can’t afford enemies. I smile because you can hear the difference over comms. “I’m changing course to render aid.”

“Affirmative Scrappy Doo. We’ve fed your ship the coordinates for the optimum intercept. We’re also sending a priority UPS Medical Transport to rendezvous with you near the rim of the Belt. Thank you for your service and we’ll try to get you back on your course as soon as possible.”

Even without checking my comp, I know this trip is going to use up half my fuel. If speed is not a factor, you burn the most fuel just changing course. One turn to meet the courier and one to head to the rendezvous point with the med transport . . . I just shake my head.

I paste on a fake smile.

“Control, have you confirmed the identity of Courier, umm . . .” I’ve already forgotten the courier ship’s designation. I check a monitor. “UPS Courier-112? I’m solo crew and I have minimal weapons capability.”

I can’t keep all the quaver out of my voice. It’s actually worse than it sounds. My shields are only rated for space debris and minor port collisions. And the ‘defensive lasers’ that came standard with this scrapper model are really just part of the array of cutting tools for scrapping. Sure, they’re strong, but the aiming and target-tracking programs are a joke, and the combat display features on my monitors are clearly an afterthought.

So, I’m not completely defenseless. But any well-armed pirate . . . Let’s just say the thought makes me damp under the arms.

“No worries, Scrappy Doo, we’ve confirmed the identity of the UPS courier. It’s the real deal.” There’s some chatter in the background. “That courier has some special Navy designations, too. They’re classified, but let’s just say the passenger is somebody important.”

A VIP, huh? Maybe there’s an upside here, as long as he and I both survive this.

They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.

“We’ll live monitor your progress until rendezvous. I’m also sending your ship a boost code. Your ship’s automated beacon will warn all other ships that you are under Mayday orders and protected by Control and Polity Navy authority.”

Oh, goody, I think. Control is millions of kloms away. They can’t save me from pirates, just hunt them down if I’m killed. I’m so relieved.

“Thank you, Control. Changing course to respond to Mayday UPS Courier-112.”

The comp says six hours to intercept, including deceleration to match speed and direction of the courier. That’s good. The courier reported he had less than 8 hours of air, which is not a precise number. But air consumption is not a precise measurement, no matter what the engineers say, and add a tiny, undetected leak or two and it’s anyone’s guess.

If the courier is conscious when I arrive and the ship’s hatch is not damaged, then bringing him aboard will take no time at all. If he’s trapped in a can leaking fuel, that will get tricky. 

I spend the first hour checking Control’s intercept calculations. Of course, they’re right, but it’s a good math exercise to run. How often do you get a chance to run real space math and check it against a Control calculation? If you want to pilot a ship, you gotta know your math. Calculations also calm and center the mind.

That task done, I try and take a nap. It’s hopeless, of course. I’m nervous for the courier. I’m terrified for me.

So I do some more math. I plug myself back into the comp and run air, water and food calculations for two people aboard the Doo. AOK.

I run rescue simulations, practicing some extractions with each of my cutting tools. The first run throughs are pretty smooth. Control didn’t send me much for specs on the courier, so I send a message to request those. I get back a set of generic specs on Polity courier ships. I send again, asking for Courier-112’s specs from its own computer. The terse message back says those are classified.

Classified? They want me to run a rescue and not give me the specs? That sounds like the old joke about “military intelligence” being an oxymoron.

“A bunch of morons,” I say to myself.

I spend the rest of the trip checking equipment again and again. And then I check it again.

Before I’m in visual sight of Courier-112, I hail it. The ships already made their electronic handshake. Something in the codes from Control must have authorized the courier ship to do that much. But the courier ship won’t tell me anything about passengers or bio signs. It’s classified, I’m sure.

After three explosions, my hands are shaking.

The courier’s pilot is not responding to my hails, either.

I add fuel leaks to the rescue simulations. Big mistake. After three explosions, my hands are shaking. I unstrap and float to the back to the equipment storage.

Until I was close, I didn’t want him to use up any air talking. I could have just texted, of course. But to tell the truth, I put it off until now because I didn’t want any bad news.

When I reach visual range, it doesn’t look so bad. Courier-112 looks to be in a single piece. It’s riding straight, not spinning out of control, gliding smoothly on course. I let go of the breath I’d been holding in.

The Doo and I go through the docking sequence together. The Doo aligns with Courier-112 and I make the final small adjustments visually. I feel the slight vibration as the ships connect. Textbook docking!

I slump back in my seat, relieved. Ships only make this kind of docking maneuver in cases of rescue or combat. I’d only done it once before with Mom at my side.

The relief doesn’t last long. I still can’t raise a response from the courier’s pilot. I try everything, including the comms built into the Doo’s docking arms connected to the courier.

I’m going to have to go outside. Vac, vac, vac!

I hear Mom’s voice in my head. “Never hurry. Think it through. Make a plan. It’s only the spacers that lose their heads and rush around that get hurt.”

Instead of unlatching, I check my monitors. First, assess the situation. I had set a countdown clock based on 8 hours of air. If the courier’s estimate was good, he should have plenty of air left. But he could still be injured. Unconscious.

I went through my options. Legally, I could report this to Control and stay in my seat. The duty to render aid on a Mayday does not extend to space walks. Legally, all I had to do was wait here until the courier’s pilot climbed aboard or death was confirmed. I could even earn a small commission just giving the ship a push in the right direction for a Halcyon recovery crew.

I run through all my options twice, but the truth is, I’m a spacer. And in space, a spacer renders aid. Because this could happen to anyone. Mom would agree.

I send Control a quick update, half hoping they’ll tell me to sit tight. I get no response. That happens in the Belt. Dead patches run throughout. With shaking hands, I unlatch and climb into my suit. I move slowly and deliberately. I think through every action.

Before I know it, I’m opening the hatch of Courier-112. So far, Control and the ship’s own comp have been so secretive, I half expect red lights and sirens when I pull the inset lever to reveal the wheel. Instead, the wheel begins to turn itself. The pilot told the ship to let me in. That doesn’t mean he’s conscious, I remind myself. He could have set the sequence before passing out.

The hatch opens, revealing the clear film of a gel seal. A courier ship is too small for a separate decompression chamber. Only the seal separates the cabin’s oxygen and open space. Through the film, I see the top of the pilot’s head. He’s wearing a suit and helmet as well. He does not move.

I push my helmet through the film and connect to his helmet.

Both our reflective faceshields open automatically at the connection, leaving clear panes for us to see through. Our suits have synched their own comms.

His eyes are closed. A shock runs through me. I’m too late, I think.

Then he opens his eyes. He has dull blue eyes, almost gray. He smiles slightly as his eyes focus in on mine. Then his pupils open wider as he examines my face.

“You’re just a kid!”

“Yeah, well, I’m the kid that’s saving your hide.”

“Negative, it’s too late for that,” he says. He looks down.

I see a detail I missed before. Small threads of red extend from the chest of his suit, wiggling in the thin air. Blood. The suit sealed itself, of course. Just two small holes, but they’re high on the chest.

And then I see the bubbles of red in the corners of his mouth.

“Are you alone?” he asks.

What a creepy question. That’s my first thought. But it’s an important one. A fair question, I guess.

“Yes, I’m the solo captain-pilot of the Scrappy Doo.”

I see confusion in his eyes.

“I’m a scrapper.”

“Negative,” he says. “Now you’re UPS Courier-112. Get this to Halcyon 5.”

He raises his hand to me, holding a black slip of plastic. A data chip, no doubt.

“Halcyon 8?” I say weakly.

“Negative,” he mumbles, “Halcyon 5. It’s . . . “ He gasps and I hear burbling sounds. “. . . urgent.”


I push my arms through the gel seal and grasp his shoulders, but he’s gone. The data chip floats from his hand and I swipe for it, but my clumsy glove swats it away instead.

Just my luck, or clumsiness.

I follow the floating chip into the snug cockpit where it pings off the forward canopy. This time I corner it with my gloves and gently slip it into my suit pouch.

Small holes in the canopy glass are patched with emergency gel. Blood is splashed across the console. A sealant canister floats nearby. Twin holes are in the back of the seat, ringed by blood droplets which cling to the chair only by surface tension.

What was this Naval courier doing out here in the Belt? Why would he be desperately trying to get back to Halcyon 5 when 8 is closer?

I place my hand on my suit pouch and look at the data-reader in the console.

No, I can’t.

It’s classified.

I take a long, deep breath. But he told me I am UPS Courier-112 now. Belt Control’s team will take this back to Halcyon 8 instead of the Navy on 5. The dead pilot didn’t seem to want that to happen.

I carefully retrieve the chip from my pouch and slide it into the data-reader slot. Video of a ship’s hull, illuminated by spot lights, scrolls past on the display screen. The ship’s name comes into view: UPS Ceyx. Belt coordinates and tracking information follow the video of the dark and silent warship.

I pull the chip and put it back in my pouch. I need to get back to the Doo.

The stale atmosphere of the Doo is strangely comforting as I remove my helmet and slip into my pilot’s seat. The comm light is blinking again. I hesitate, then click the switch.

Scrappy Doo, have you made contact with the pilot?”

“Control, the pilot is dead.”

“Stay on station, a team should be there soon.”

I cut the comms without confirming. “A team” sounded ominous to my ears. Something’s not right. I run my hand through my hair and sit back. I could make a run for 5 with telemetry off, but they already know who I am.

A clank of the docking hatch behind me breaks my thoughts. I turn. A combat suit stands before me, weapon held in my face. An electronically distorted voice crackles:

“Sorry it had to be you, kiddo.”

Kiddo? — “Fram?”

“This wasn’t how you were supposed to repay me,” the faceless soldier says. “Your mom wouldn’t have wanted it this way either, but . . . ”

“I said I would pay you back!”

“Belt Control has me under their thumb. They need the ship to stay hidden for the coming rebellion against the Polity. You’re the scapegoat for the missing courier.”

I can’t believe my bad luck.

“Those shots didn’t come through the canopy did they? They came from behind.”

“You’re smart, kid.”


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

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

Be stellar! 🚀✨

Matthew Cross