[In the not so distant future, a unique young woman struggles to defend her home against a militant attack.]

Molly’s heart pounded wildly. Each beat reverberated, fast and hard, from her scalp to her toes. She sucked in a ragged breath and willed her body to calm down as she closed her eyes and counted the seconds. One, two, three, fo-… BOOM!

A sudden explosion overhead sent a smoldering storm of bark and leaves raining down and Molly scrambled from her hiding place in the Great Tree’s cavernous roots. Thick, greasy smoke stung her eyes and triggered an ache inside her lungs. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she crouched to the gravel, trying to see a way through the wreckage. Craters peppered the dirt around her and broken branches, their splintered ends sharp as pikes, stabbed through the smoke. Another explosion rocked the ground and Molly lost her balance and fell, bloodying her knees.

“THAT’S IT!” she snarled, snapping open her wings and rocketing into the air. She knew it was a risk, and directly against the General’s protocol, to fly during an aerial missile attack but she couldn’t stand to waste anymore time on the ground. Her massive gray wings, rounded like an owl’s and dappled with cream and black, pushed her above the rolling smoke and she greedily gulped the cleaner air. For a moment she stayed suspended and surveyed the landscape.

The Great Tree, an ancient redwood that towered over 500 feet and was as wide as a freeway, had long served as Molly’s safe haven and was on the verge of collapse; it had been hit repeatedly and deep, ugly cracks snaked the length. Through the rising haze, Molly could see the ruins of her life. Her once beautiful treehouse was reduced to rubble, hand-braided hammocks and rope bridges were burning, and the platforms she’d learned to fly from were all but gone. The Great Tree, her home, would not survive much longer.

Molly winced as another hit sent several car-sized limbs crashing to the ground. She gritted her teeth and raced toward the source of the shot, weaving and bobbing around the lower trees as she angled back toward the earth. Perching within the boughs of a gnarled oak, she spotted her target: a gunner’s blind nestled across a clearing. The blind, made of environment-reflective tech canvas, all but disappeared into the landscape. Without her extensive training, Molly would have never noticed the near imperceptible shimmer that gave away its location.

Gliding deftly toward the blind from tree to tree, her silent wings performing just as they’d been bio-engineered, Molly saw the unmistakable barrel of a Hyperion cannon emerge and fire another devastating sonic round. She growled as it streaked across the sky and bombarded the Great Tree’s base, leaving a gaping hole a quarter acre deep. More shots echoed through the trees and Molly fumed as more holes were punched into her world. Their shots were getting stronger and she knew she was running out of time. If she didn’t end this quickly, the Great Tree would be nothing more than a mountain of firewood and she would have nothing left.

Landing in the tree behind the blind, Molly tucked her wings tightly between her shoulder blades. The familiar weight and warmth bolstered her as she clambered up to the canopy and found her angle of attack. She waited motionlessly until the nose of the cannon appeared again and then launched herself toward the blind’s open window. She shot through the darkened gap like a bullet and popped her wings open, hoping the chaos of her ten-foot span in the cramped space would give her the advantage, but as soon as she found her footing a shock at the back of her neck immobilized her. She watched, helplessly, as a dark figure moved in front of her and pulled off his mask.

“What have I told you about using your wings like that?” The General’s face was pinched with disappointment and Molly felt her failure dripping like sweat down her back. He held a controller tightly in his fist and jammed a few buttons with his thumb, never taking his eyes off of her. The world around them blurred, like oil skating across water, and started to change.

Within a moment, the blind had disappeared and they were standing in the clearing. Crossing her arms as the temporary paralytic faded, Molly watched as the sky flickered and the colossal high-tech glass dome of the Aviary reappeared nearly a mile above their heads. In the distance, the Great Tree stood unharmed. Molly could just barely discern the glinting of her windchimes hanging outside the treehouse.

“Your wings are a last resort. Not only did you fly during an aerial attack, but that stupid trick you pulled left you vulnerable; I could have ripped them off your back in an instant. Use your training, not your instinct. This was designed to test your tactical response while under emotional distress. You should have formulated a plan, and made calculated advancements. Instead, your emotions took control and you allowed yourself to be captured. You failed the simulation.” The General sighed and put a radio to his lips.

“All teams reset.” He paused as the teams responded. “Initiate scenario ‘Omega Chi’ starting in T-minus-twenty. Go on my mark.” He pocketed his radio and spoke sharply. “Training, not instinct. Got it?” Molly nodded and stretched, ready for the next round. The General pulled a starting pistol from his jacket pocket and raised it straight up to the sky. He locked eyes with her one last time. Three, two, one.

As the pistol fired, the world blurred again. When it settled, Molly was alone and the Aviary was dark as midnight. She was standing in a swamp and a chorus of cicadas crescendoed through the suddenly heavy, warm air. A startled heron took flight behind her and Molly dropped just as a bullet whizzed overhead.

“One of these days I’m gonna break out of this goddamn bird cage,” she muttered, and wiped the mud from her chin.

This was my submission for round two of NYC Midnight’s Flash Fiction Challenge. My assigned prompts for this round were:

Genre: Sci-Fi
Location: Aviary
Object: Starting Pistol

We’ll get our score/placement results in the next few weeks, and the combined scores from rounds one and two will determine who moves on to the next tier of competition. I placed eighth in my group during round one, so I’ll need a pretty high placement in this round if I have any hope of advancing.

Thank you for all of the support and feedback; it’s unbelievably appreciated!

Wish me luck! xo

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