Albert Einstein peers reflectively in this black and white drawing created with Micron 05 fine-point pen and Sharpie marker. From a 300 dpi scan.
THE WEIGHT OF THE UNIVERSE
O, gravity, weighing on my soul
Keeps bringing you round back to me
Like dirt to a stone
O, gravity, don’t you ever go to sleep
You might wake up one morning
Find her gone from your reach.
“So, Mags, can I ask you a personal question?”
“Oh god, this is going to be good,” laughed Meteor Mags. “What’s on your mind, Captain Inquisitive?”
“Well, it’s just – you seem pretty human, you know?”
“Gee, thanks, dear. It’s part of my image.” Mags lit a cigarette and stood up. “Tarzi,” she said, exhaling, “is this about my tail?”
“Busted,” sighed Tarzi.
“Rekt! You are soooo easy to read sometimes.” Mags leaned back against the console, her skirts spilling over it. She curled her tail up and around her right wrist. She pet it lightly a few times with her left hand, taking care not to singe the fur with her cigarette.
“Hey, I mean it’s cool and all, it’s not like…”
Mags leaned forward and eyed Tarzi mischievously. “Are you saying you LIKE my tail, young man?”
“LOL yeah, I guess. But I mean, how do you get something like that? I mean are you part cat, or… Oh, bollocks, I don’t even know how that would work!” Tarzi fished about in his jacket pocket for a pack of smokes. Mags held out her pack to him.
“Before your imagination runs wild, dear, I am going to tell you a little secret. No one knows WHAT the fuck I am! Ha ha ha!” Mags shook her curls into place and stood up to look out the window. “You see, Tarzi, my mother was human, and so was my dad. Neither of them had tails. And frankly, it was not always the funnest thing in the world being the only girl in town with a tail!” Mags took a drag and looked out to the stars.
“See,” she continued, “the eggheads never figured out just what I am. They had their theories, but… well, I had them working on other things, and it just never got sorted.”
“You’re saying you hired scientists to figure out… what you are?”
“Not exactly. I hired them to create anti-gravity! The genetics was a bit of a sideline.”
Tarzi leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. “Anti-gravity?”
“Auntie Gravity! LOL. That’s what some of them called me, anyway. They were working on it for so frickin’ long, we were like family.”
Tarzi chuckled. “You totally look my dear old auntie, Mags.”
“Ha ha ha! I am sure I look nothing like her.” Mags turned and pointed her finger at Tarzi. “But YOU are old enough to be my nephew!”
“Don’t start with me!”
Tarzi leaned back and smiled. “Auntie! Face it, it’s your new nickname.”
Mags laughed ruefully. “You are so wrong. In so many ways! But listen, do you have any idea who really invented the GravGens?” Mags looked intently at Tarzi. “Or do you just know the official version?”
Tarzi met her gaze. He peered into her eyes, visible over the rims of her glasses as she leaned her head forward. Tarzi had not yet learned how to tell when she was pulling his leg or not. “Mags, if you invented the GravGens, what are we doing ripping off shipping lanes and selling fags to the poor blighters in the Belt? You should be bloody rich and retired by now!”
“How charmingly bourgeoisie of you! Can you imagine me sitting around all day on a pile of money with nothing to do?”
“Ha! I guess not. But…”
“Listen,” said Mags, glancing over the navigation panel. “We got a couple hours to kill before there’s any action. Why don’t we start at the beginning?”
“Damn right. So,” said Mags, taking her seat once more and kicking her boot heels up on the console, “once upon a time, in 1965, I had this idea to throw a party.” Patches mewed and jumped up into Mags’ lap.
“Okay wait,” Tarzi interrupted. “1965? That was like… Mags, just how old are you anyway?”
“You are NEVER going to get a girlfriend if you keep asking questions like that!”
“Sorry.” Tarzi rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“Fact of the matter is, my darling nephew, I am a hell of a lot older than you think! Now shush and listen.” Mags brushed her bangs back from her face. “Auntie Mags is going to tell you a story about how I got the idea for the GravGens. And it starts in France, in 1965, when me and my dear friend Celina decided to throw a party at Gramma’s house. Once upon a time…”
FRANCE: July, 1965
“Hey, guys!” Meteor Mags skidded to a stop a meter from the four musicians. She turned the tip of her roller skate to the ground and stretched out her arms. “Welcome to France!”
The musicians looked up from their bags and gear on the landing strip. Mags stood before them in her custom leather skates that reached up to her knees. Above their polished black shine, her thigh-high socks alternated thick black bands with sets of smaller bands made from all the colors of the rainbow. Her black skirt shimmered lazily in the breeze. A rainbow-striped shirt exposed her mid-riff. It did little to hide the cascade of black stars tattooed over her arms and chest. The sun seemed to shine brighter behind her. The musicians turned their heads to look at each other. Who is this girl? And – does she have a tail?
Mags shook her mane of black curls, smiling her biggest smile and happily chomping on bubblegum. To the cab driver on the other side of the band, she said, “Hey, hang on a minute. I gotta talk to these guys.” The driver took one look at her and continued loading the bags into his car.
“Hey, I said cool it, cabbie!”
Just then, Celina rolled up besides Mags. She planted her skates firmly and elbowed Mags in the ribs. “Be nice!”
“Cut it out, convict!” laughed Mags, slapping at Celina’s arm.
“Tell them about the party!”
“Oh yeah! Monsieur Coltrane. Messieurs Jones, Tyner, and Garrison. Welcome to France! Will you come and play at our party?”
“Trane, who is this chick?” asked Tyner.
Coltrane set a bag back onto the concrete and slowly stood up. “Well, let’s find out. Hi. My name is John. Comment ca va?”
“Bien, merci,” beamed Mags. “It really is an honor to meet all of you. My name is Mags, and this is my best friend, Celina.”
Celina smiled and waved. “We’re huge fans,” she said.
“A pleasure,” said Coltrane. The members of the band nodded and smiled, still not sure what to think of the rainbow roller girl and her friend.
“Listen,” said Mags, “we know you have a couple free nights before the Antibes show. And I know you’d love to take the night off, but if you come and play for us tonight, you can all stay on my Gramma’s estate. You get your own rooms, we have a kitchen staff on call twenty-four hours a day, and, well, not to brag or anything, but it’s a pretty awesome pad!”
Coltrane rubbed his chin with his fingers, considering, and turned to look at his band mates. “Trane,” said Garrison, “we already have our rooms booked at the hotel.”
“Got a lot of shows to play, already, too,” said Jones.
“Don’t worry about the rooms, guys. Gramma owns that hotel. We will get them sorted. Believe me, the rooms at Gramma’s are…”
“Your gramma owns our hotel?”
Mags smiled. Celina added, “Did Mags mention we were offering to pay you for playing for us? In addition to putting you up for a couple days.”
“How much?” asked Tyner.
“Well, the girls and I pooled our money, and we came up with ten thousand dollars. Would that be enough?”
Trane squinted his eyes and appraised Mags for a moment, quietly.
“Guys, I got the nicest estate in France and it’s filled with jazz-crazed young ladies that are dying to throw a party for ya. You don’t gotta do anything you don’t want to do, and no one is going to hassle you.” Mags blew a bubble and popped it. “What do you say?”
The cabbie had grown impatient with this garish hippie who appeared to be stealing his passengers from him. Still loading bags into the car, he sternly told her, “Cesser d’importuner mes clients! J’étais ici en premier!”
Mags waved her hand in the air and did her best to answer. “Ne pas obtenir vos… vos culottes… vos culottes dans une torsion, chauffeur!”
The cabbie frowned and dropped the bags. He placed one hand on his hip and shook his finger at her. “Fermez votre bouche, hippie putain!”
“What did you just call me?” Mags asked furiously. “Aller… aller…” She stammered. Mags had never mastered French the way she had Spanish. “Aller avaler une bite! Vous abusez des chèvres à naître!
“Mags!” Celina interrupted. “We are making first impressions on visitors!”
“Oh yeah,” chuckled Mags. “Can you get this guy sorted, Celina? I am SO flying right now.”
“Me too,” laughed Celina. “Holy shit! I can hear the sun shining. Is it always like that?”
Mags drew a star in the air with the tip of her finger. “If it isn’t, it should be. It’s beautiful.”
Celina skated over to the cabbie and talked to him softly. The four musicians talked in quiet voices, with Coltrane listening and nodding. Jones looked towards Mags and asked her, “You’re talking about Margareta’s estate, right?”
“Yes, sir,” said Mags, gently swaying in her roller skates and watching the sky. “It’s only a short drive from here. Come check it out! If you hate it, we can send you back to the hotel. But you won’t hate it.”
She watched the musicians briefly discuss. Coltrane turned towards Mags and asked, “Would you be able to get fresh reeds for my horn before the festival dates?”
Mags laughed softly. “Mr. Coltrane, we’ll chop down a tree and build a new piano for Mr. Tyner if you want.”
Coltrane smiled. “Alright, then. You just hired yourself a quartet.” He held out his hand to Mags, who shook it and smiled.
If Meteor Mags seemed short-tempered with the cabbie, she was in an absolute rage earlier that morning. “Fuck,” she yelled, sweeping her notes and books and pencils off her desk and onto the floor in one angry motion. “Why can’t I GET this?” She kicked her desk. Her steel-toed boot lifted it off the floor and sent it crashing into the wall.
“Mags!” Celina threw open the door to Mags’ room. “Take it easy, willie wagtail!”
Mags unclenched her fists at the sight of her friend. “This shit is driving me crazy, Celina! Why can’t I get it?”
“Alright now, take it easy.” Celina took Mags in her arms and hugged her. “What’s bothering you, Mags?”
“Gravity.” Mags hugged Celina back, resting her face on Celina’s shoulder.
“Oh, is that all?”
“Yeah,” chuckled Mags. “Just the weight of the universe is all.”
Celina looked over at the notes scattered across the floor. Celina was no slouch at math, but the equations in Mags’ handwriting meant nothing to her. “Is that calculus?” she asked.
“Ricci calculus, some of it. Mostly Lorentz equations and tensors. They aren’t getting me anywhere. Dad probably could have done them in his head.” Mags gathered up her papers and the scattered mess. “Wherever the answer is, it aint in here.”
“You’re trying to figure out how much the universe weighs?”
Mags laughed and shook her curls. “Ha! No. That would be too easy.” Her tail flicked this way and that, impatiently. “I’m trying to make it weigh anything I want.”
Celina looked at Mags for a moment, considering. Then she said, “The hotel called. The band is supposed to arrive at the airport this afternoon. Remember?”
Mags perked up. Her eyes sparkled. “Oh, yes! We gotta get ready to meet them!” She took Celina’s hand. “Help me pick out something to wear!”
“Let’s roller skate there!”
“Idea! Wow, the girls are going to be so excited if they come play here.” Mags threw open her wardrobe and started flipping through tops and skirts.
“Can you believe how big they’ve gotten? Cheri turns thirty this year, and little Mercedes is already twelve.”
Mags looked over her shoulder. “Twelve? Celina, I remember when we brought her in as a baby! Now she’s almost as old as I was when we met.”
“Yes, but not nearly as much trouble! Then again, who is?”
“Hey! Look who’s talking!” Mags threw everything with rainbows onto the bed. “Have you tried the new batch yet?”
“Oh, I haven’t,” said Celina. “But the girls assure me it’s the best batch yet.”
“Well, in that case,” Mags said with a wry smile, “we should go test some before the party. Let’s go!”
Celina had made friends with the cabbie and enlisted him, for a sizeable bonus, to drive the band to the estate. Mags and Celina skated home on their own, laughing at everything they saw. It was a good day to be alive.
The Coltrane Quartet, somewhat tired from their flight, talked quietly on the brief drive. They had heard of Margareta, of course, but nothing prepared them for the beauty of her estate. Flowering trees rose above the iron grates surrounding the garden. A breeze blew their petals over the car and across the street. “Magnolias,” said Coltrane, taking a deep breath.
“Can you believe this place?” said Garrison. He could catch only glimpses through the sections of iron grating in the brick wall surrounding the estate. He saw flashes of the mansion, barns, and sprawling complex of living quarters on the grounds.
“They say she’s got more money than God himself,” said Jones.
Tyner chuckled. “I don’t know about you guys, but I’ll take this over a hotel any… oh, wow. Will you look at that?”
Having checked in with the guard at the gate, the cabbie came to a stop in a circular driveway at the main entrance to the mansion. There, across the circle from the mansion’s doors, a marble statue stood in a small alcove of trees. It portrayed a female pirate standing proudly with her saber drawn. Two marble pumas stood to either side of her, one surveying the landscape and one with its head lowered in a growl. A black granite fountain bubbled beside her. Magpies sang in the great magnolia trees whose branches arched gracefully around the display.
Getting out of the car, Coltrane walked over to the statue. He admired the sculpture, and the regal bearing of the woman. Coltrane leaned forward to read the inscription on the statue’s base. He chuckled to himself, shaking his head.
“Who is it, Trane?” asked Tyner, stretching his legs.
Coltrane walked back. “I don’t know, McCoy. All it says on the base is ‘pumas toujours.’”
“The hell does that mean?” asked Jones, scratching his head.
Just then, the doors to the mansion opened and two girls came down the stairs to help gather the bags. A third girl, not even a teenager yet, greeted the musicians. She dressed all in black from neck to toe. “Welcome to our home,” she said, with a slight bow. “My name is Mercedes.” She offered her hand in a business-like gesture to Coltrane and then to each member of the band. “Let us get your bags, sirs, and I will show you to your rooms. You must be famished.”
The serious young lady paid the cabbie. Despite his unhappiness earlier, he left quite pleased with the situation. He drove to the nearest bar, parked the car for the rest of the day, and proceeded to get drunker than he had ever been, before or since.
Mercedes led the quartet into the mansion. Two ramps flanked the sides of the spacious foyer. “We had the stairs covered with ramps so Mags could skate up and down them,” she explained. “She hasn’t quite mastered getting up them yet, though I’m sure she will eventually.”
Up they went, into a long hallway. The musicians peered into rooms that each seemed larger and more lavish than the last. Windows let sunlight into every room, and skylights brightened the hallways.
Here and there, pairs of girls busied themselves with cleaning, moving things from room to room. They laughed and chatted as they worked. But, as the musicians walked past them, the voices turned to whispers. The girls watched the entourage pass in silence, some smiling, some looking away shyly. They ranged in ages from pre-teens to women in their thirties.
Coltrane cleared his throat nervously. The silent stares made the quartet a little uncomfortable. “Mercedes, how long have you – how long have you worked here at the estate?”
Mercedes continued her brisk walk but laughed. “Work here? Mr. Coltrane, I live here! We all do. I’ve lived here since I was a baby. But yes, working hard comes with the territory. We have quite a lot of work to do!”
“It’s a beautiful home,” offered Jones.
“Why, thank you, Mr. Jones. I am lucky to call it home. We all are. Ah, here we are.” Mercedes stopped and opened a door. “This and the next three rooms are all yours. Mags asked me to see that you were comfortable until she can give you the full tour in a little bit.” She left the door ajar. “You can come and go as you please. The gardens are lovely if you want to step outside or walk around. If you need anything, just ask any one of us, please.”
Mercedes excused herself to help with the party preparations, and the four musicians took a look around the room. Garrison plopped down on the chaise lounge and kicked off his shoes. “What a place! Did you see the Gauguin in the hallway?”
“No,” said Tyner, “but I saw the Steinway. What I didn’t see was a single boy or man! What is this place, anyway?”
Coltrane sat down on the bed and picked a pack of cigarettes off the night stand. He hadn’t smoked regularly in years, but it had been a long flight and he was tired. “It is… a home,” he said, “full of industrious young women. They started it after the war, from what I heard, taking in orphaned girls. Refugees.” Trane sparked a match and lit a cigarette.
“And they have their own school here, and a farm. It’s a small city, really.” Jones took the pack of cigarettes Coltrane offered him. “Now, does someone want to tell me how high that Mags girl is right now?”
Garrison said, “That girl – ha! Is she for real? She was flyin’, man!”
Just then, a string of Spanish curses reached their ears, followed by a series of thumps. “That must be her,” said Coltrane, exhaling a plume of smoke. “Hide the breakables!”
FRANCE: AUGUST, 1944
Meteor Mags stood with her gramma Margareta, surveying the piles of rubble.
“It used to be so beautiful,” Margareta said softly. “Now look at it.”
The estate that she and Magdalena had built with their fortune now lie in ruins. The war had not been kind to Europe. Mags had reunited with her Gramma for the first time since she was a child. She contacted Margareta through the French Resistance. The two of them had spent the summer leading up to the invasion of Normandy getting to know each other as, together, they destroyed railways, power stations, and telephone lines.
“What are we going to do, Gramma? We’ve got maybe ten francs between us. And just look!” Mags swept her arm across the decimated landscape. Bombs had carved great holes in the ground. Charred trees haunted crumbling buildings. In one skeletal grove of trees, a pile of broken marble surrounded a pedestal. A pair of marble boots, broken off at the shins, stood where a statue used to be.
“My mother,” said Margareta firmly, “never taught me to surrender.”
“Neither did mine,” said Mags.
Margareta smiled. “No, Mollie never was one to back down from a fight. Even if it was with me.”
Just then, Mags heard sobbing. She ran to one of the crumbling buildings. Inside, a girl not more than five years old huddled in the shade of some broken boards. She looked at Mags with wide, fearful eyes.
“Oh, you poor thing,” cried Mags. She crouched beside the girl and held out her hand, palm up. “Are you okay, dear? Comment ca va?”
The girl reached out wordlessly for Mags’ hand. She trembled as she touched it, and then flung herself into Mags’ arms.
Mags held the girl tightly and stood up. She turned towards Margareta, who now stood in the shattered doorway.
“Gramma,” she began. Mags remembered all too clearly the day her mother Mollie died in Spain. All the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness came back to her at once. She remembered escaping Spain in a horrified daze, all alone. A tear gathered in the corner of her eye and ran down her cheek.
“Gramma. There are so many of them. All over Europe! We can’t just abandon them.”
Margareta nodded. “What do you suggest we do, Maggie?”
“We have to rebuild the estate! We can bring them here and… and…” Mags held the girl, who squeezed her arms tightly around Mags’ neck.
“And make a home for them,” said Margareta.
“Yes!” Mags smiled through her tears. “A home,” she whispered. “Celina will help! I know she would.”
“It’s going to be a lot of work, Maggie. And we don’t have a franc to start with. Do you know what that means?”
“What?” asked Mags.
“It means, first, we find this young lady something to eat. And then…” Margareta cracked her knuckles and smiled. “And then, we find us a game of billiards.”
“Hey, you guys! Like your rooms? Oh, can I have one of those?” Mags stood in the doorway, her eyes sparkling as she spied the pack of smokes in Jones’ hand.
“Help yourself,” said Jones, offering the pack to her. Mags skated into the room and took a cigarette from the pack. Jones obligingly struck a match and lit it for her.
“Such a gentleman!” She puffed and blew little smoke rings. “So, do we have to take you back to the hotel? Or would you like to have some sandwiches in the kitchen?”
“Let’s eat!” said Tyner. The band all nodded their heads enthusiastically.
“Alright, follow me!” Mags spun and rolled out of the room. “Oh, you have to see something first!” She zipped down the hallway to the last door on the right.
The musicians joined her inside the room. They discovered a room full of hundreds of tuxedos, some hanging on mannequins, some on hangers in massive wardrobes. Mags rolled open a sliding, mirrored door to reveal dozens more hanging in a closet. “If you guys want a fresh suit for the show, you can pick out anything you want here, okay?”
Garrison laughed as he inspected a black suit with a red vest hung on a mannequin. “This one is just my size! Where did you get all these, Mags?”
“Let’s just say that when Gramma Margareta wants a suit, she buys the whole tuxedo factory! We teach the girls how to tailor them, and make a little cash selling them. Take one. Take two!”
“Take five,” said Tyner.
“Great song!” Mags happily whistled Paul Desmond’s melody. “Okay, but sandwiches first! Follow me.”
“Gramma’s into herbs,” Mags told her guests, showing them around the kitchen. She brushed her hands across bunches of rosemary, inhaling their crisp scent.
“Herbs for healing?” Coltrane asked.
“That’s right,” said Mags, waving. She enjoyed watching her hands glowing, flowing effortlessly though the air, trailing little sparkles behind them. “And food, too. Look, we just made this ghee, fresh today.” She pulled the lid off a large pot sitting on an unlit burner and wafted the scent towards her nose.
“Ghee?” asked Jones.
“Yeah, clarified butter. You heat it until the cream floats, skim off the cream, and use the oil to cook.”
“It’s Krishna food,” said Coltrane.
“Ding ding ding! Right you are, sir.” Mags opened another refrigerator. “I just have to warn you. You can have anything you want, but you see this big jar of pink lemonade?”
The musicians looked over and nodded.
“Don’t drink that unless you want to trip your fucking balls off, okay? We just made it this morning and it’s quite – electric!”
“Say what?” asked Tyner.
“LSD. Lysergic acid diethylamide. We got the recipe from our friend in Switzerland.” Mags closed the door. “Just letting you know! We don’t want you blowing your circuits without consenting first. We believe in informed choice.”
Mags surveyed the shocked looks on their faces. “Ooooo-kay. Moving on, we have… Oh, look.” Mags clicked on the gas range and a flame burst into being. She stuck a little sausage on a fork and placed it into the fire. She swayed as if to some unheard music. “The gods of hunger demand sacrifices!”
“Offerings,” said Coltrane softly.
“Mhm.” Mags looked at him over the rim of her glasses. “Ablations.”
Coltrane nodded slowly, several times.
Mags popped the sausage, charred on the outside and still cool in the middle, into her mouth. “I can’t stand overcooked meat,” she said. She closed her eyes, chewing slowly. The musicians watched her for what seemed like several minutes, as she swayed in a trance.
“Mags,” said Coltrane. “Will you pray with me? Before the concert?”
Mags opened her eyes to fix her gaze on Coltrane. She furrowed her brow, then relaxed. “My mother had a favorite saying, Mr. Coltrane. ‘The only church that illumines is a burning church.’”
Mags looked him over, letting this sink in for a moment. “But,” she said, “I can see inside you, Mr. Coltrane. I’d be happy to pray with you.”
Coltrane smiled. “It isn’t about a church, Mags. It’s about the universal.”
“And that, my dear man, is why we will pray.” She set out a couple loaves of bread and four plates. “Come, we have a library in this wing where no one will interrupt us for a bit.” Mags skated towards the doorway to the hall. She turned. “Coming?”
Coltrane stood in thought for a moment. He smiled and said, “Mags, might I have a glass of that lemonade first?
It gave me an inner joy, an open-mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes, and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation. …In human evolution, it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.
“We have a wonderful collection of your albums, here, Mr. Coltrane.” Mags led Coltrane into her gramma’s library. Much smaller than the main library of the estate, this had been Margareta’s place to enjoy quiet moments.
A fireplace sat unlit, but full of candles. Two Victrola cabinets and a collection of smaller Gramophones sat by several crates of 78 rpm records. A sheet in the corner of the room covered what must have been a snooker table. Racks of pool cues alternated with shelves of books all along the walls. Coltrane realized this was the first room on the estate he had seen with no windows.
Mags gestured towards a pair of plush red chairs on a large rug by the fireplace. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you. And please, call me John.” Coltrane took off his shoes and sat cross-legged on a large blue pillow on the rug.
“John.” Mags smiled. She unlaced her roller skates and pulled them off. Coltrane saw the bands of black and rainbows extended all the way to the tips of her toes. Mags wiggled her toes and said, “How fun are these?”
“Mags,” asked Coltrane, “Do you believe in a higher power?”
“John,” asked Mags, “who else would we be praying to?”
Coltrane smiled. Mags got down on the floor beside him on one of the pillows, kneeling.
“Can we say it silently?”
Coltrane nodded, and closed his eyes. “Our father, who art in heaven,” he began silently to himself. “Om namah Shivayah. Om Shakti sri para adi Shakthi. Hallowed be thy name.”
Coltrane asked for strength for his mates for the three days of concerts ahead of them. He said thanks for the opportunity to bring his music to so many people. He said thanks for his strange new friend Mags. Coltrane said a blessing, quietly, for all the girls of the estate. He asked for guidance tonight. “Not my will be done. But thine. Forever. Amen.”
Coltrane repeated his mantras for some time. Without his realizing it, time slipped away from him. He forgot he was even saying them. A glowing white light formed a sphere around his body, but he hardly noticed. In the silence, he could hear the universe singing.
Then, he realized it was Mags. “I know,” she sang softly. “I know. Yes, mama wanted me to tell you that.” She laughed. “How she thought you didn’t know was beyond me. But I promised.”
“Mags?” whispered Coltrane.
He felt her grip his hand. “John,” she said. “John. It’s my great-gramma, Magdalena.”
Coltrane did not open his eyes. He had no need. In the blackness before him, he clearly saw the figure of the woman whose marble statue he had admired earlier. She smiled at him, but fiercely, like a big cat surveying her domain. “I see her, Mags.”
“You do?” Mags squeezed his hand tighter. “Great-gramma,” she said, “this is my new friend John. He and his friends are going to play for us tonight. Can you stay and hear them?”
Both Mags and Coltrane saw the ghostly woman shake her head. Then, she drew in the air with her finger. She traced a sine wave in the air, three troughs and three peaks. It floated in the air before her, glowing a pale blue light. She traced a second sine wave in the air with her other hand. It glowed pale red, suspended in the air.
Tears rolled down Mags’ cheeks as she watched. Her great-gramma gestured like a conductor, and the sine waves moved towards each other. As they began to overlap, they broke into shades of purples and waves of more complex shapes. And then, they vanished.
“What does it mean?” Coltrane asked softly. “It looks like sound?”
“I don’t know,” whispered Mags. “Great-gramma?”
The figure of Magdalena held up her hands and drew a heart in the space before her. It glowed red in the black expanse. “I love you too, great-gramma,” whispered Mags. She sniffed as the figure faded slowly from sight.
Mags and Coltrane sat in silence for a moment. They opened their eyes and turned to each other. Mags’ cheeks were wet with tears. “There’s so much I wanted to say to her!”
“It’s okay, Mags,” said Coltrane. “I got the feeling she already knows.”
Mags laughed and wiped away her tears. “You are so right.” She sniffed. “It’s just that I like to tell her anyway.”
Coltrane put his arm around her and hugged her gently. “Tonight, Mags…”
“Tonight,” said Coltrane, “we will play something special for your great-gramma. Something we’ve never played for anyone before.”
A wide smile broke out across Mags’ face. She threw her arms around the startled saxophonist. “John! You are the sweetest man on Earth! Thank you so much for coming tonight.” Mags kissed his cheek.
She stood up and offered her hand. Coltrane took it and pulled himself up beside her.
“This is a special night, John.”
“Yes, yes it is.”
Coltrane began to chant slowly, aum. Aum. Aaauuummm. Mags joined him. The vibrations seemed to emanate from them in ripples, in soothing waves. How long they chanted, neither of them could later say.
Christ that the Vedas ordained, and the rituals taught by the scriptures
All these am I, and the offering made to the ghosts of the fathers
Herbs of healing and food, the mantrum, the clarified butter
I, the ablation, and I, the flame into which it is offered
I am the sire of the world, and this world’s mother and grand-sire
I am he who awards to each one the fruits of his action
I make all things clean
I am Om.
“Citizens of La Plaza Margareta,” Celina addressed the crowd. “Tonight we have the pleasure of presenting to you the leading band in the new sound of modern music, a band that has virtually redefined the word jazz. Won’t you please join me in welcoming…” Celina waved her arm, and a gentle spotlight fell on the band. “The John Coltrane Quartet.”
The small concert hall broke into thunderous applause. More than one hundred and fifty women and girls had joined the party and filled the hall. It boasted a large wooden dance floor, enough space to dance freely. The hard-working young women who had stared so silently at the musicians earlier now greeted them loudly.
A small serving bar in one of the back corners stocked water and refreshments. The lemonade, Mags had told Coltrane, was off-limits to anyone under sixteen, but the party was open to all. Two women sat quietly near the bar, each breastfeeding a child. A few girls lounged on the couches flanking the bar. But near the stage, the girls had donned psychedelic clothing, everything from go-go outfits to bathing suits. One wore an cosmonaut helmet. One wore nothing but day-glow paint. All of them cheered loudly for the band.
Garrison began bowing a single bass note long before the applause faded away. Coltrane stepped forward, looking into the smiling faces, and nodded appreciatively. He held the tenor saxophone to his mouth and began to blow in unison with Garrison’s bowing. His cheeks puffed and he began to sweat as seconds stretched into a minute, then two, without a single break in the note. He breathed in through his nose, forcing air over the reed at the same time. Jones began a series of light rolls on the cymbals, louder, then softer, then louder.
The girls stood transfixed by the drone. Some of them began to sway, lifting their hands towards the ceiling. Then, without a pause, Coltrane played the melody to Afro Blue at a smoldering pace over the drone. Once, twice, and then, with a sharp crack of the snare drum by Jones, the band launched into the tune with a vengeance.
A cheer, and the girls began dancing wildly. Coltrane stepped back as Tyner took the first chorus. Tyner looked at the dancing crowd and smiled. His fingers flew over the keys in a blur. His left hand relentlessly pounded a cluster of bass notes. His right hand told stories.
Celina found Mags in the middle of the dance floor and joined her. Their bodies swayed together to the driving swing beat. Celina and Mags had danced together for more than twenty years now. Coming up as dancers during World War Two, they had quickly learned to stick together. Though they could not be in a safer place at the moment, having each other’s back was the only thing that had kept them alive more than once.
Mags swung her hips and pumped her hands in the air. “Celina,” she thought. “My dear Celina.” Mags closed her eyes and let the music wash over her. “So free,” she thought. Each instrument became a color, and the notes broke up the colors into kaleidoscopic shapes. The cymbals shimmered. The bass undulated. The piano poured like a waterfall, carving gullies in the ever-changing patterns.
Coltrane began his choruses with a high, wailing note. He sustained its tension and then shattered it. A stream of arpeggios cascaded from the bell of his horn. Faster and faster he ran through the arpeggios, altering them, twisting them out of shape, turning them inside out. With his eyes closed, Coltrane bent forward, hunching over his horn. His fingers clicked the keys faster than the eyes could follow. Then, he locked onto a single note and began to blow fiercely.
The note screamed and began to shimmer with overtones. Trane heard the overtones, as if someone else was playing them, and he merely stood witness to the event. All around him, the overtones broke into chords, chords he had never heard before.
“Yes!” someone shouted. Whistles and calls rose from the group. “Go! Go! Go!”
Trane returned to his arpeggios. Only this time, he over-blew all of them. Celina heard the sound of a baby crying, and stars being born. She heard every bird on earth singing at once. She flung her head wildly, tossing her mane this and way and that. Celina heard the air bursting into flame. She heard lions roaring.
Then the melody came back crisp and clear, and the band brought the tune to a thundering close. The women clapped and cheered. Coltrane took a moment to wipe his brow and adjust his mouthpiece. He approached the edge of the stage.
“Thank you,” he said. As the wave of applause faded, he repeated, “Thank you.” He introduced the band, one by one, to fresh rounds of cheering. “Tonight we’d like to play for you something we never played in concert before. We’ve been waiting for just the right moment to play it. And that moment is now, here, with all of you. We hope you like it.”
He nodded and stepped back from the edge. And with that, in a glimmering wash of cymbals, Coltrane began the opening melody to Acknowledgment.
Mags opened her eyes and stared up at the ceiling of the concert hall, but she didn’t see any of it. Instead she saw a void. A pair of lights appeared as she stared, swaying to the music. One of the lights began to send out a pulse. Concentric circles, like ripples, spread out beyond the field of Mags’ vision. Steady, steady, in time with the music.
Then, the second light began to send out waves, too. Where they met the first set of waves, a strange pattern began to form. “They cancel each other out,” Mags whispered. She found Celina’s hand in hers and squeezed. “No, there they make each other stronger.”
Coltrane began to sing. “A love supreme. A love supreme.”
Mags heard Celina singing next to her, “A love supreme. A love supreme.”
The women of La Plaza Margareta picked up the melodious chant. Together they sang as one, “A love supreme. A love supreme.”
Then, Mags realized what her great-gramma was trying to tell her. Two sets of waves. When they were both weak, in troughs, they remained weak. When one was at a peak and one at a trough, they cancelled each other out. And, all the places where both were in-between created a gloriously complex pattern. This pattern was neither the first wave nor the second, but something entirely unique.
Mags focused her mind on the lights. She concentrated on making them pulse at different speeds. By manipulating one or both, she could dial in different interference patterns. She lost herself in the patterns until she felt like she was flying. “Nothing,” she whispered. “I don’t weigh anything at all.”
Mags imagined she rose into the air, higher than the concert hall, high above the estate. The stars came into view, and a tear rolled down her cheek. “You,” she said. “You and me. Together.”
She reached out her hand towards the nearest constellation and touched it with her fingertips. “Mine.”
She heard Celina again and felt her hand. Mags opened her eyes. “Celina! I got it!” She threw her arms around her friend. “I finally got it.”
“Well, don’t give it to me,” Celina laughed.
“No, silly. Not that.” Mags whispered, “Gravity.” She kissed Celina’s cheek. “I love you so much, Celina.”
“I love you too, Mags. You little wagtail!”
“Don’t start, convict!”
The two of them danced in the center of the gathering, and all around them the women of La Plaza Margareta danced joyously to the music. How long the concert lasted, no one could ever quite recall, though several of the girls would later swear Mags’ feet did not touch the ground again for the rest of the night.
I’ll continue to look for truth in music as I see it, and I’ll draw on all the sources I can, all the areas of music, all the things there are in the world around us to inspire me. It takes many people to effect a complete change in any system.
—John Coltrane: September, 1965 interview, Esquire magazine
Patches purred lazily in Mags’ lap. She flicked the tip of her tail as Mags scratched around her ears.
“So I don’t get it, Mags,” said Tarzi. “What do these shimmering hallucinations have to do with gravity?”
“Well, imagine rain falling on a puddle. One drop at a time is easy enough to imagine. But think how quickly it gets complex when more drops start hitting the surface.”
“Okay, I can see that,” said Tarzi.
“That’s an interference pattern. Now imagine gravity as a wave form.”
“Isn’t gravity caused by mass?”
“Now you are asking the important questions, dear!” Mags took off her glasses and rubbed one of the lenses with her skirt. “That night, I realized if we could create two sources of gravity waves, we could dial in their waveforms, and determine the interference pattern. By adjusting the waveforms, we can pick any gravity we want, expressed as the strength of the resulting interference pattern.”
Mags placed her glasses back on. “That much of the theoretical problem was easy. The hard part was working out how to generate these waves without using some massive object. Otherwise, our GravGens would have to be the size of a planet to generate that much gravitational force on a ship, or in a warehouse, or a mining operation.”
“So, how did you manage that?” Tarzi asked.
A green light began flashing on the console, and Mags sat up. “We’ll have to save that story for another day, dear! That cargo ship we’ve been waiting for is moving into position.”
“Time to rock and roll!” said Tarzi. “But what happened to Coltrane and the guys?”
“What a wonderful man he was,” sighed Mags. “He and Alice had a son the very next month, and they sent us such a beautiful photo of them together. You know, two days after our party, at the festival, they gave their only public performance of A Love Supreme. Well, the only one the history books remember.”
Mags winked at Tarzi. “But we know it was really the second,” she continued. “You should check out the recording from the festival. For a long time, no one had anything but a partial recording. We got them sorted on that, though.”
Tarzi got up, checked his laser pistol, and sat down beside her at the console. “You still haven’t told me why your name isn’t on the GravGens. I mean, everybody knows the company that makes them is…”
“No time for that, now, Tarzi. Here comes the cargo ship!”
Mags watched with glee as her prey came into view. It was true, she thought. She had lost the patent rights to the GravGens years ago, much of her Gramma’s fortune had been lost, and here she was now: ripping off warehouses and cargo ships to make a buck. It reminded her more than a little of 1944. But, Mags knew she didn’t really need the money. She just liked her job. In fact, she loved it. She supremely loved it, and that was all that mattered.
1965 tour dates, performance descriptions, interviews, and historical notes from The John Coltrane Reference by Lewis Porter.
Gestaltung, umgestaltung, des ewigen sinne ewige unterhaltung; um schwebt von bildern aller kreatur…
“Formation, transformation, the eternal minds’ eternal recreation; images of all creatures float, portrayed…”
PATCHES THE IMMORTAL: PART THREE
As Patches lay dying, her life did not flash before her eyes. It bled.
Patches was bleeding on the night she met Meteor Mags. A single drop of blood had fallen from her lacerated ear. It fell past the narrow girders on which she hid near the ceiling of the tiny storage room. The drop of blood fell a meter through the air and splattered on the lens of Mags’ glasses.
Mags inhaled sharply at the unexpected splat. A sticky mess of her own half-dried blood, sweat, and dirt caked her forehead and the side of her face. She pressed her back against the wall of the storage room behind her. She had remained hidden there for twenty minutes or more. The bleeding had slowed from the gash in her scalp, but a steady trickle of dark red flowed from her white hair, over her eyebrow and cheekbone, and down the side of her neck. She instinctively looked up at the source of the sudden splatter.
Patches lay in a low, narrow crouch on a single skinny girder above her head. At first, Mags felt pity for the little cat. It looked like a laser pistol had vaporized the tip of her right ear. So much dirt covered Patches that Mags could not see her calico markings at all, just a grey and black blob in the shadows. “Just what I need, lol,” she thought. “A black cat crossing my path.” But Mags saw something in Patches’ eyes. She saw something burning like defiance, but also cold and hard like a steel blade. Mags raised a single finger to her lips, pursing them as if to say, “Shhhhh,” without making a single sound. Then she pointed over her shoulder towards the sound of footsteps approaching in the hallway outside.
Mags knew that the patrol, if they cornered her in this small room, would shred her to bits with laser fire in less time than it takes to tell. Mags stood against the wall so that she would be behind the door if it opened, out of sight for a moment at least. Maybe it would even be enough to shield her from the eyes of the patrol if they looked inside. The space port was crawling with patrols now. Even if she could get out, they had posted patrols outside The Queen Anne’s Revenge, and she was seriously outgunned until she could get aboard that ship.
Then, she saw Patches rise up from her crouch and dart along the narrow girder. Patches moved quickly, but Mags detected a limp in her rear leg. “Poor thing,” she thought. Patches stopped, then tried to work out how to turn around. Her injured leg slipped off the girder, and the loss of balance made her other back leg fall off, too. The girder made a metallic wobbling sound, like sheet metal flexing. Patches pulled her back feet up, swaying on the metal as it settled. She looked down at Mags, and winked.
The footsteps stopped outside the door at the sound. Mags held her laser pistol ready. The door creaked open, slowly. “ROOOOOOWWWWRR!” Patches hurled herself, howling, at the patrolmen. One had advanced to open the door, and the second one knelt behind him, covering the doorway with his pistol. Patches caught the second one square in the face and started swinging her claws.
Patches’ howl galvanized Mags into action. She kicked the door as hard as she could. It slammed on the first patrolman’s arm. Mags slammed the door again with the sole of her boot, crushing it closed on the exposed arm. She put a laser round into its hand, and then another round to vaporize it in a spray of blood. The patrolman it belonged to screamed. Mags threw the door open and put three quick rounds into the patrolman’s chest. His body fell backwards and tumbled over the body of his companion, who, still kneeling, tried in vain to pull Patches off his face.
When the bodies collided, Patches leapt clear. She scanned the hallway in a flash as Mags fired her pistol into the face of each patrolman. Patches looked over her shoulder and mewed at Mags. Then she bolted down the hallway.
Mags did not really know why she followed, but Patches seemed to know where she was going. She saw Patches speed around a corner, and hurried to catch up. She dashed around another corner, then another. Just as Mags turned the third corner, she heard shouting.
She tried to stop herself, but her momentum carried her around the corner. She stood face to face with The Queen Anne’s Revenge, not twenty meters away. Patches had taken her to the edge of the landing spot the patrols now guarded. But, Patches had also captured their attention. She howled like a demon from hell running full-speed through the ranks of the patrols. They raised a hateful yell and all turned towards her. Without a second thought, they began chasing the dirty grey cat across the open landing spot, towards the cargo crates on the other side.
Mags could not have known that Patches had stalked this space port for two whole months. She had crept aboard a ship looking for food, and found herself whisked off the planet and parked on this miserable moon. She spent her days stealing food from these patrolmen, destroying their furniture, and defecating in their beds. Patches wanted a ride off this godforsaken mud ball. But as long as she was stuck here, she felt compelled to make the patrolmen regret they ever knew her. Hunting the angry cat with laser rifles had become a daily sport for them, one they pursued with much enthusiasm.
Mags ran aboard The Queen Anne’s Revenge, straight into the small armory she kept there. From a case on the floor she pulled out an old-fashioned favorite of hers: the Negev SF machine gun. Hers had a bipod and a 200-round supply of bullets in a belt clipped to the magazine housing. She grabbed a few extra belts just in case. Mags ran to position herself in the doorway of the ship. Lying down on the floor just inside the doorway, she pointed the Negev at the mass of patrolmen on the other side of the dock. They ran this way and that, trying to corner the little cat darting between the cargo crates as fast as she could.
“KITTY!” yelled Mags. “Get the fuck down!” Mags pulled the trigger on the Negev and poured round after round into the group of patrolmen. The bullets slammed into their bodies to send them sprawling against the cargo crates. Those that dove to the ground, Mags sprayed with another hail of bullets. “Die, you fuckers,” she shouted. A small group to the side had pulled themselves together and began returning fire. Mags mowed them down in one, two, three quick sweeps of the machine gun.
From the other side of the crates came a grey blur heading straight for Mags. Patches hated the sound of gunfire, but she knew a ride off a planet when she saw one. Mags saw her coming and laid down suppressive fire throughout the room. “Let’s GO!” Mags slammed the ship’s door shut behind them as a fresh wave of patrolmen poured out of every door in the space port. Laser rounds pinged off the hull of The Queen Anne’s Revenge as Mags brought her up to full power. “Bloody fuck!” she said to the panting, filthy animal beside her. “We gotta get off this rock NOW. Hang on!”
And that was how Patches and Meteor Mags became friends.
Tarzi opened the manual and flipped through a few pages. “Well, this is obviously broken into chapters, and this word repeats in every heading of those chapters. So it probably means ‘chapter.’” Tarzi ran his finger down the text on the page. “And see here? This is obviously steps to activate the machine, and the characters in the list also appear in the chapter headings. So, we can safely assume these symbols are numbers, in a numbered list.”
Mags smiled. “You’re so smart! What else?”
Meteor Mags would never mention to Tarzi that she had blacked out too, if only for a moment. When she came to, The Queen Anne’s Revenge had settled into a shallow but steady climb. Mags took her up into a gathering of clouds. The heat from the hull scorched the clouds and began to evaporate. Mags slowly cruised through the clouds, cooling the hull, and trying to track the radio signal.
The screen on the console showed the source as a yellow dot growing closer and closer. Mags brought The Queen Anne’s Revenge down from the clouds. The buildings of the Ghost Moon’s lost cities glowed with a pale, green light. “Someone built a power grid to last,” Mags said to herself. “Maybe it’s solar. Tarzi will love that.”
She landed the ship in a clearing just down the street from a two-story building. Though many of the buildings along the street had all or partially crumbled, this one held something of its former glory. A dome covered with ornate geometric patterns carved into it sat atop the second story. At each of its four corners, a pillar rose from the ground to another story higher in the air. They seemed to be covered in smaller, more detailed carvings. Mags examined them through her sniper scope. It looked a lot like calculus, but she could not make any sense of it.
Mags checked to make sure Tarzi and Patches were secure before she ventured out. She saw only sparse signs of plant life, and a few insects she did not recognize. No birds, no mammals, and certainly no people. The building looked abandoned, but she held her pistol ready just in case. A chain wrapped around the door handles would not keep her out. Her pistol’s torch setting could melt through it in seconds. Still, she cautiously approached the side of the building and looked in a smashed-out window. Then, she heard the voice from the radio again.
“…well. Thus, I conclude my greatest triumph, sadly, with this final record of my life’s work. Here in my lab stands the immortality machine. It can heal all manners of sickness and disease. It will banish death. And for that, they will come soon to kill me. I leave only this testament, and my regrets. It must fall to someone else to use it for the first and only time it can be used. Farewell. Thus I conclude my greatest…”
The message began to repeat, but Mags had heard enough. She torched her way into the building and ran through its pale, glowing hallways towards the voice. There. Down the hall. She ran through an open doorway, barely noticing the door sat not on its hinges but on the floor near the opposite wall. Then, Mags stood face to face with the speaker of the voice. She looked into the image of his eyes on the monitor set into the wall as his message repeated again.
Machinery filled the room: a battery of microscopes, massive coils of wire, and banks of dimly lit consoles. A tube two and a half meters tall stood vertically, set into one of the console banks at the far end of the room. Darkened splashes that might have once been blood decorated parts of the walls and floor. And there she found, on a small desk, written in an utterly incomprehensible language, the operator’s manual.
She ran back to the ship.
“Okay, look at this word.” Tarzi pointed to the page. “It appears again here… and here… and here.” His finger moved across the pages. “Based on where it appears, I am thinking it functions in the predicate. And if it’s a verb, that means… Oh, wait. Wait.” Tarzi sat down on the chair behind him and furrowed his brow. He flipped forward a few pages, then back again. “Oh. I see.” Slowly, he began flipping through one page at a time.
Mags tapped her foot. “Well? What do you see? What is it? Does it make any sense? Can you actually…”
“Auntie!” said Tarzi sharply. “Do you mind? I am trying to read over here!”
“Well, EXCUSE ME FOR LIVING!” Mags frowned. “Sorry, dear. I am so stressed right now.”
“Me too!” said Tarzi. “So can you keep it down to a dull roar for a minute LOL?! Listen, have you got any cigarettes?
“How can you smoke at a time like this?” shouted Mags.
“How can you NOT smoke at a time like this? Come on, Mags, I’m all out, and I left in a hurry!”
Mags said, “Alright, but figure out what that book says! I don’t have any on me, but we have like ten cartons on The Queen Anne’s Revenge.”
Tarzi’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Ten cartons? Well, bring me a couple of those, then! Please?”
“Anything for my nephew, the genius,” said Mags. “I’ll be right back. Now figure out what that book says!” Mags walked off to her ship, leaving Tarzi to work on sorting out the manual.
Mags could not have known that Tarzi had already worked out the unfamiliar language. He struggled not with its structure and meaning but with a cold fear that gripped him as he read. Tarzi pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. He had a couple left. Sure, he had lied about being all out. But he knew Mags needed something to do, something to focus on, and he needed to think.
Tarzi read the words as easily as you or I can read this page. He read all about how to operate the machine. But, he did not understand everything the machine could do. That part had been partially ripped out. The torn edges of the missing pages made him wonder why someone would remove that part. As he read a description of the fearsome procedure, he wondered how they could possibly risk turning it on.
“Well, did you get it – Hey! I thought you said you were out!”
Tarzi jumped out of his chair at the sound of Mags’ voice. “Auntie, I… I was just… I found a… Oof!” Tarzi broke off his fumbling apology to catch the two cartons of smokes Mags tossed to him.
“Never mind all that, Captain Black Lung! What does the book say?”
Tarzi took a puff, held it deeply, and exhaled twin tendrils of grey smoke from his nostrils. “It says it only works one time, so let’s hope it has never been used before. It tells me exactly how to turn it on. It runs through a cycle automatically, and shuts down when it’s over. Which is all well and good I suppose. Except…”
“Can it save Patches?” Mags asked.
“I don’t know. The energy conversions are off the chart. The equations for power conversion should not even be possible. It’s like… It’s like instead of stepping up voltage, like a transformer, they actually step up power. But that’s impossible. You can’t increase the overall power in a system without doing more work, over time. I mean, it runs against everything we know about the laws of thermo…”
Beep beep beep! Beep beep beep! “What the hell is that beeping?” asked Mags. “Oh my god – Patches!” Mags ran into the next room with Tarzi right on her heels. They had wheeled the stasis unit into the room with the machines. Everything seemed fine until Mags saw the timer.
“Oh no! Look,” said Mags. “The bloody timer is down to two minutes! She’s only got two minutes left in the stasis unit, Tarzi!”
“I thought it said we had like five hours?”
“It did! Damn this old junk!” Mags kicked the machines with her boot. “Come on! We’ve got to get Patches into that other machine and turn it on. Now!”
“But auntie, I’m trying to say we don’t have any idea what will happen. There’s no way that the machine could possibly do what it does! We can’t just…”
“Damn it, Tarzi! We know what WILL happen in ninety seconds if we DON’T use it. Patches is going to die!” Mags pulled Patches’ limp body from the stasis unit. “We’re out of choices, Tarzi! Do it!” Mags laid Patches’ body in the bottom of the shatterproof glass tube of the strange machine. “Oh, my little kitty,” she said softly. “My poor little kitty.”
Tarzi began flipping switches and pulling levers. Lights came on. The console began to hum fiercely. “Mags,” he shouted over the low rumble. “See that little mask? It’s supposed to fit a human. You’ve got to fit it onto her face somehow. It’s the only way she can breathe when that chamber fills up!”
“Fills up? Fills up with WHAT?” Mags adjusted the mask to Patches’ face, fitting the tiny plastic tube into her mouth and pulling the straps tight. She ran her finger along the edge, making sure it fit snug against Patches’ fuzzy face.
“Auntie,” said Tarzi, “I only wish I could tell you. Now close that chamber and step back!” Tarzi flipped a series of switches. “I mean it! Stand back!” He grabbed one final lever. “This is it!” With all his might, he pulled the lever down.
As it slammed into place, the entire moon fell instantly into darkness.
Science Officer Baston held his greatest triumph up to the light and smiled. He felt a calm, quiet joy on this, the last night of his life. He had already recorded a final statement. Soon, they would arrive to kill him.
Baston had achieved three truly great things in his life. First, he devised a new set of equations for understanding electromagnetic force. Certain applications proved practical in the military sector. Though this brought funding for his research, many on the Science Board dismissed his equations as utterly ignorant of basic principles of thermodynamics. Still, he continued.
Baston’s second great triumph had brought him to tonight’s unfortunate circumstance. He had modeled an incredible machine for drawing power from the magnetic field of a planet. When activated, the machine generated a field in the core of the planet. Manipulation of this field would induce the reversal of the planet’s magnetic poles. Baston’s equations treated the force of this reversal like a river turning a water wheel. The reversal would turn the crank, so to speak, and provide an unimaginable amount of power in return.
When the Science Board realized what Baston had modeled, they ordered him to desist. The geologic catastrophe that would result from instantly reversing their planet’s magnetic poles would destroy everything. Mountains would come crashing down. Continents would tear free, adrift on seas that surged into waves as tall as the sky. Volcanos would tear the planet asunder as the atmosphere burned off in a stinking cacophony of sulphur. Still, he continued. When Baston ignored the Board’s order to desist, they ordered his arrest.
Baston looked again at the object he held up to the light. From one angle, he saw a solid rectangle, like a card. When he turned it slightly, however, he saw a lattice of triangles and squares that all shared sides but never seemed to complete. As he turned it again, his eyes beheld a polyhedron made of every other possible polyhedron, fit together like blocks. As he held it nearer or farther from his face, the shapes shifted like a kaleidoscope.
Baston had already burned the pages he ripped out of his notes on the machines. They described the reason he had continued his work. Baston had modeled more than just the mechanism of power. He had created a transformer to convert the power into a form the human body could absorb. Baston believed this would transform a human to the level of a god. Baston had so wanted to be a god.
The power conversion, however, required Baston’s third and final great achievement. The core of that transformer required a physical object that a mere four dimensions could not adequately describe. Describing the physical core took nine mathematical dimensions. Baston had manufactured, in secret, the only set of tools to ever exist that could create physical objects from such complicated specifications. If he had the sympathy of the Science Board, perhaps Baston could have ushered in an era of profound advancement with his impossible equipment.
The sound of footsteps in the hall broke Baston’s reverie. He walked over to the control panel of his machine, opened up a door, and fit the multi-dimensional core into place. Only he would ever witness its strange, geometric beauty. Baston knew he could get into the chamber, slip on the mask, and dare the transformation before the people outside broke in. But who would pull the lever? He did not even have time to rig something up with a cable or rope… no time at all.
A boot kicked in the door, sending it flying off its hinges and crashing into the back wall. An armored figure stepped into the room. “There he is!”
Drawing his laser pistol, Baston turned his body sideways to present a thin profile. He squeezed the trigger. A spray of bullets lifted him off his feet and smashed him to the wall.
The enormous bureaucracy of the Science Board ordered all of Baston’s equipment and research destroyed on the third following day. Two days later, a virus broke out on the moon. It killed every last man, woman, and child in less than 37 hours. Their architecture would outlive them, a ghost town the size of a planet. Baston’s curious machines sat untouched, intact but abandoned, for many, many years.
WHOOOM. WHOOOM. WHOOOM.
“Tarzi! What did you do?” Mags and Tarzi stood in shock in total darkness.
“I don’t know! I just…”
WHOOOM. WHOOOM. WHOOOM.
“My god,” laughed Tarzi. “That’s almost the same sound my scooter makes when the battery is low and you have to kickstart it to…”
WHOOOM. WHOOOM. WHOOOM.
Magnetic force ripped through the entire moon in an instant. Mags and Tarzi shouted as they found themselves hurled against the wall. The floor rose up to punch them in the face. “GAH!” yelled Tarzi.
“OW! What the…” Before Mags could finish her sentence, a bright blue light with a white core burst from the chamber where she had placed Patches. Patches had floated up from where Mags laid her, now suspended in a bubbling, frothing light. Wild tendrils of blue energy coalesced around her. They grew to fill the room. A swirling miasma of black orbs outlined the brilliant energies as they spilled into the hallway.
Mags and Tarzi crouched, wide-eyed. All the hair on their bodies stood on end. A static crackle moved along the surface of their exposed skin. Patches’ body begin to shake violently in its chamber.
“Patches!” screamed Mags. Patches’ arms and legs flailed in all directions through the glowing blue liquid. She convulsed, striking out. She grew rigid, then struck out again.
Mags threw out her hand and yelled, “Patches! No!” She ran to the chamber and pounded her fists on the glass. “No!” Tears poured down her face as she struck the glass again and again. “Tarzi! Turn it off!”
“I can’t!” Another earthquake struck the station. It sent the two of them to the floor again. “The moon is tearing itself apart!” Tarzi shouted. The blue tendrils and their strange bubbling blackness seethed throughout the room. Tarzi looked towards Patches in the center of it all. And then, her eyes flung open wide. “Oh my god!”
“Patches!” Mags pulled herself up and ran for the chamber. She tore the door open to take Patches in her arms. Patches nuzzled against her as Mags removed the oxygen mask. She pulled herself close to Mags’ face. Patches licked her cheek again and again, purring.
“Patches, you little fucker!” laughed Mags, wiping away her tears with one hand. She sniffed. “You made me cry.” She held Patches closer. They rubbed their noses together as Patches purred and purred.
“Welcome back to the land of the living, Patches! Yes!” As Tarzi pumped his fist in the air, a tremor ran through the station. “Girls, we gotta get outta here! To the ship!”
Mags took off, still carrying Patches. Tarzi ran through the door to the outside with Mags and Patches right behind him. Patches kicked away from Mags, squirming out of her arms to run on her own. “Look, Tarzi,” said Mags. “Her limp is gone!”
Tarzi turned for a second. “Well, what do you know? Even that little tip of her ear grew back. What the hell?” Something crashed. “Come on!” he shouted.
Mags took off after him. Patches ran, too, then stopped. She sniffed the corner of a wrecked building. She squatted down. “Patches!” called Mags from the doorway of the ship. “Now is NOT the time for potty breaks!”
Just then, the building erupted in a hail of cinder blocks and metal. A stream of lava burst through the chaos. It caught Patches full in the face. It swallowed her up. Thick sprays of lava flowed across the path they had just taken. The ground began bursting into flame.
Mags screamed. She fell to her knees in the doorway of the ship. “Oh, Patches. No… not after all this.” Tears welled up in her eyes. She felt Tarzi’s hand on her shoulder. “Mags,” he began.
A bolt of calico lightning stopped him. Patches sprinted straight at them, shooting out of the flames in a white and coffee-colored blur. Not a hair on her head was burnt. In seconds, she sped past them and into the belly of The Queen Anne’s Revenge. She turned to face them, cocking her head as if to say, “Are we leaving, or what?”
“Tarzi, how did she – didn’t you see that lava hit her?” Mags looked from Tarzi to Patches, back to Tarzi, and back again. “What is going on?”
“I don’t know, but we aren’t going to sit here while the moon falls apart! Come on!” Tarzi jumped into his seat. Mags took up her spot at the console. She brought The Queen Anne’s Revenge up from the surface of the dying moon. New volcanoes obliterated the site of the station. The whole side of the moon caught fire. When they got to a safe distance, Tarzi and Mags stopped to watch it burn.
“Tarzi,” said Mags in a whisper. “It’s like… It’s like we killed a whole planet.”
“You’re right,” said Tarzi, as the blaze below them shone in his eyes. “It’s like the machine sucked the life right out of it. And somehow, that machine turned it into energy for Patches.” Patches leapt up on Tarzi’s lap and began kneading his leg. She turned around a few times trying to get perfectly comfortable, and plopped down.
“I guess that’s why the equations made no sense,” he continued. “All the missing power in them… It was going to come from the planet itself. No wonder it could only be used one time.” Tarzi scratched the side of Patches’ face. She squinted her eyes. “And you know what, Patches? I’d rather have you than some ugly old moon any day.”
Patches purred. This time, she had not crawled away from the fire in fear. She had run right through it. This time, she had gone swimming not in a river but in some other strange, blue liquid. It, too, had carried her far away from harm. Patches knew, somehow, that she never needed to fear anything ever again.
She did, however, have a serious craving for beef jerky.
PATCHES THE IMMORTAL: PART TWO
As Patches lay dying, her life did not flash before her eyes. It swam.
As the last, dim spark of light faded from her shattered body, Patches remembered the first time she swam. In her first year on planet Earth, Patches had grown from a tiny, trembling kitten to an agile young huntress. The sunlight gleamed in the luster of her soft white fur between the blotches of coffee and chocolate colors in her calico coat. She had grown large enough to take down a bird from time to time. Anything smaller than her on the ground was child’s play.
But lately, the birds had found less fatal places to eat besides her hunting ground. So, she began scouting small human encampments. She smelled meat. Patches had no idea her forest, the same one she had crawled to from the wreckage so long ago, bordered on a State Park. But, she knew meat when she smelled it. Campers always brought food.
The scent of dogs nearby held Patches low to the ground, and still. The group of humans under her watchful eyes today had all kinds of food. An aromatic feast called to her. Scanning the campsite, she found all the humans gathered at a small fire a few meters past the far side of a picnic table. Between Patches and the picnic table stood only a couple meters of flat, grass-covered ground. It looked like an easy run, but for a moment she would be in plain sight and unprotected. She could make it.
She lifted her belly only slightly from the ground, quickly wiggled her hindquarters three times, and shot into the clearing. One meter. Clear. Two meters. Jump! Onto the top of the picnic table she jumped, landed, and skidded to a stop. So many scents! A plate of raw chicken marinated in lemon and garlic. Stale beer in an open can drew tiny gnats and flies. Patches snapped up an entire package of beef jerky in her teeth and turned to face the forest again.
At the sound of her skidding on the tabletop, a large dog perked up his ears. Past the humans at their fire, his head shot up from a clump of bushes. His eyes grew wide when the calico cat on the picnic table came into focus. He barked the instant Patches leapt off the table.
Patches hit the ground running. The dog bolted past the humans. Patches had a good lead. One meter. Clear. Two meters. Clear! Into the forest she ran as fast as her legs could carry her.
But the hound kept on running, too. Patches heard two more barking voices join the fray. The startled sounds the humans made drifted quickly into the distance, but the barks grew closer with every meter.
If Patches had stopped to think, she would have died. But she did not think. She ran. She ran like hell. And then, she almost ran out of forest. Directly in her path stood a tree. It had grown at an angle, like a ramp, twenty meters into the air. The tip of its main trunk extended out and over an enormous river running perpendicular to Patches’ path. Patches could turn either left or right and follow the river. Or, she could stay full speed ahead.
As Patches’ front paws fell to meet the trunk of this questionable escape route, teeth gripped her left back leg and yanked her into the air. Bash! Her head struck the ground as a tooth scraped the bone in her leg. Her claws sunk into something soft and the dog opened his mouth to howl. His two companions had closed in to just a couple of meters.
Thick bulbs of blood welled up from the lacerations in Patches’ leg. As she regained her footing, a sudden gush of adrenaline poured into her system. She felt nothing but keenly alert. The dog lunged at her again as her world came into sharp focus. In one jump, she scooped up the bag of stolen beef jerky in her mouth and hit the tree trunk running.
By the time the dog had turned around, she was meters up the trunk already. Like a white and cocoa blur, she ran until there was no tree left to run. Then, she leapt into the air.
The river looked up at her from twenty meters down and foamed. It watched her paws kick wildly as if she tried to fly, and it laughed. She hung like a cloud for the smallest part of a second. Then, the river swallowed her up.
It bashed her into a rock. Patches kicked out wildly towards what she hoped was the surface. She gasped a breath of air before plunging down again. She held her breath until white stars begin to explode before her closed eyes. For a second or two, before she lost consciousness, she calmly watched this imaginary light show floating with a strange detachment.
Then, the river spat her up. Patches found herself in the midst of a wide but calm stretch of the river, far around the bend, out of earshot from the dogs. Only seconds could have passed, but the river had sped her far, far away. And to her surprise, the bag of beef jerky popped up right beside her on the water. She snapped it up and paddled towards the shore.
Once out of the cold water, the pain in her leg began to howl. Limping, she dragged the bag of meat to a small cavern of roots and dirt by the shore. She held the plastic bag down with one paw and ripped it apart with her teeth.
Water. She knew it could kill her. It also carried her away to safety, like some magic power. Patches thought of other things she feared. She wondered if everything scary had some kind of magic power, too. She had learned to thrive on land. She had dared water and come out on top. What else could one cat possibly conquer on this planet?
Patches lifted her head, peering into the boundless blue sky above her.
As the gravity of the Ghost Moon pulled in The Queen Anne’s Revenge, Meteor Mags kicked free from her seat. “Hang tight, Tarzi,” she shouted from across the cabin where she landed. “You don’t want to slam into something when free fall is over.”
Patches’ body lifted off the ground like a specter. Mags scooped her up. “Take Patches and get ready to bring her to me.”
“Got her.” Tarzi held Patches close as Mags kicked off again, crossing the length of the cabin. She brought her arms together over her head in a diving posture. Tarzi watched her fly to the armory in the back. “What the hell do you mean we hit them with the GravGens, anyway?”
The walls of the ship had rails and handholds placed in strategic places for getting around in zero gravity environments. They never got used when the GravGens were running. Mags gripped one tightly in her left hand at the door to her armory.
She pulled open a panel on the wall with her right hand. Without any power running to the electronic entry, Mags accessed her armory with a manual combination lock. She quickly spun the wheel of the lock first one way and then the other. “They took out our weapons power, so I got more power. And the only place to get it was the GravGens. How do you think they generate the gravitational field on the ship so we’re not always upside down or floating around?” Mags ran the combination through the first ten prime numbers in the repeating decimal of pi.
“I barely know how an electric car works, auntie!”
“Well, when I spliced those cables, we hit them with all the charge in our batteries plus all the gravity waves the damn things could generate in one pulse. We’re lucky we’re not in the middle of a black…” The Queen Anne’s Revenge suddenly began to accelerate. “Damn it, we’re going into this upside down! Get ready to bring me Patches.”
Mags pulled open the armory door. She pushed herself away from the wall towards the back of the armory. Mid-flight, the increasing acceleration slammed her into back wall. She slid down the wall towards the inverted ceiling. “Oof! Now or never, Tarzi!” Steadying herself with another handhold, Mags flipped three latches and yanked open a panel on the wall.
“Here we come!” Tarzi cradled Patches’ limp body in his arms as he bolted across the ceiling at his feet. “Let me grab on here,” he said, standing next to Mags. Then his eyes grew wide. “Mags, where did you get that?”
“Fuckin’ nice, isn’t it?” From the open compartment on the wall, Mags slid out a large chamber on a rack. The chamber looked much like an iron lung.
“There’s only twelve people in the system who can afford a stasis unit.” Tarzi had read about them but never seen one in person.
“That’s why I didn’t pay for it, LOL! Now help me get her in there before we catch fire.” The stasis unit was a cylinder, with half of it opening on a set of hinges on the longest axis. Mags pulled it open by a handle.
“Catch… what? That’s the plan?”
Taking Patches from Tarzi, Mags strapped her in place inside the stasis unit as gently as she could. She stood with her back to Tarzi as she explained. “I have an emergency backup, but we’re going to have to unsplice those wires, hook up the GravGens and the power right, and give it about five minutes to charge.”
“And we’ve got time to do all that before we turn into a blazing fireball?”
“If not, then we’ll die like dogs. With blood on our teeth and hate in our eyes.”
Tarzi stared at her for a moment. “Auntie… did I ever tell you how much I admire your sensitive way of saying things?”
Mags’ hands tensed their grip on the chamber for a second, and then she chuckled. “STFU, you idiot.” She sniffed and wiped a tear from her eye. It fell from her glove and dropped to the ceiling at her feet.
Tarzi put his hand on her shoulder. “I read these units can keep someone on the edge of death for as long as five years. If there’s anything we can do for her…”
Mags crossed one arm in front of her and brought her hand up to rest on Tarzi’s. “I’m sorry, dear, but I haven’t had time to charge this one since I… well, picked it up off a mean old geezer who won’t be needing it.” Mags closed the unit and began flipping latches into place all down its length. “She’s got more like five hours.” Mags pressed a button, and the chamber, running on its own battery, came to life with a low hum.
“There,” she said. “Now, let’s see if we can get out of this without dying.”
As Mags and Tarzi began rewiring her impromptu gravity laser, the crew of the slaver command ship had its talons full as well.
“Seal off the damage!” ordered Commander Cragg. The blast had spared him and the officers on deck, but had decimated the ship. It turned them head over heels again and again.
Major Karn called out, “Commander, it’s more than a third of the ship.” He struggled to read the numbers on the screen before him as the ship hurtled away from the Ghost Moon end over end. “Safety airlocks engaged, but we have failures in sector… sector…”
“Nevermind! Do we have engine power?” asked Cragg.
“We have backup power to essential life support! Engine control may have been knocked out by that blast. Trying to get them online, sir!”
Cragg hissed and seethed. “Curses!” He dug his talons into his seat. Though his ship spun out of control, he knew he would survive. If they could seal off the damaged wreckage, the vacuum of space would extinguish the fires. Another ship would come to find them. But, Cragg also knew the High Council would not take the loss of his command ship lightly.
“Damn you, Meteor. Damn you to hell.”
The Queen Anne’s Revenge began to burn. “Do you have it reconnected?” asked Mags.
The ship’s angle had turned. They hurtled through the upper atmosphere of the Ghost Moon on their side. “I think so!” Tarzi smacked his head into a panel. “GAH! This would be hard enough right side up!”
Mags reviewed Tarzi’s attempt to reconnect the power cables in the GravGens. “Looks good! I got the main power lines and weapons spliced back together.” Mags grunted with exertion as she slammed the levers back in place. She wiped the back of her glove across her forehead. “Damn, it’s hot. Get back in your seat!”
Tarzi scrambled for his seat. He jumped as it jutted out at a 45-degree angle from above him.
“Let me help you.” Mags got under Tarzi and pushed him up towards the seat. Out the front window of The Queen Anne’s Revenge, a white hot fireball blazed as the outer hull screamed through the stratosphere.
“Strapped in!” Tarzi held down a hand to Mags. She took it and steadied herself as she climbed up into her seat.
Mags whispered. “Either that backup battery completes a charge cycle or we cook alive, dear. Let’s hope it’s not the…”
KZZZT. KZZZZT. The ship’s radio crackled.
“What the…” Tarzi turned the volume dial. “We must be picking up something on the passive antenna. Listen!”
Mags shielded her eyes from the blinding flare of fire outside as the acceleration pushed them back into their seats.
“Four minutes! Hang on!”
KZZZT. KZZZZZT. Through the static came a voice. “final record of my li…. ..ab …is machine can heal… all manner of… it can end… KZZZT.”
“What’s it saying?” asked Mags. “There can’t be anybody down there. Who is that?”
KZZZT. The radio buzzed. “…al record of my life…”
“No, listen,” said Tarzi. “It’s like a looped message. He just said that.”
KZZZZZT. “…this machine can heal … anners of sickness and disease…. KZZT.”
“Did you hear that Tarzi? It’s about some medical machine! Maybe there is a hospital on the surface with some equipment that still works. We have to check it out.”
“Based on someone’s ten thousand year-old voice mail? Jesus, auntie, talk about a long shot.”
Mags grabbed a handful of Tarzi’s shirt at his shoulder. “By the time we pull out of this and get anywhere, that stasis unit is going to run out of time! We have to do anything we can to save Patches! We have to!”
“Okay, okay! Just let me… OW!” Tarzi pulled back his hand from the console. “We’re burning up in here Mags. I can’t even touch anything!”
“Give me your shirt. Do it!”
Tarzi peeled off his shirt and thrust it at Mags. She wrapped it around the main control wheel. “There! At least when the engines kick back on, I won’t cook my hands like a steak. Hang on, Patches.”
The Queen Anne’s Revenge carved a blazing trail through the moon’s sky. Had anyone been alive to see it, they might have made a wish on it like a shooting star. But, no one at all lived on the Ghost Moon – not even the owner of the distant voice crackling over the radio again and again, repeating its litany about some strange machine.
Tarzi felt an elephant standing on his ribs and organs. The skin on his face pulled into an involuntary grimace. I am going to die, he thought, I am going to die. He fought to close his eyelids against the inferno raging mere meters from his face. The acceleration only intensified, pulling his eyes wide open. He stared against his will into the heart of a sun. His pupils ached from constricting against the glare. The speed whipped the tears from his eyes. He screamed back into the face of hell.
KACHUNK! The LED’s on the control panel blinked on, then off, then back on. The computerized systems whirred as they began booting up. Tarzi only heard the sound of his scream. He stopped, but the scream kept going. “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!” He looked out the corner of his eye. Mags’ grey eyes behind her sunglasses stared involuntarily ahead. Her lips stretched back from her teeth in a terrible snarl, the side of her face caked with blood and streaked with tears. And then, he realized she was laughing.
Pulling herself forward by her grip on the control wheel, Mags leaned towards the control panel. She let go with her right hand, flinging it at the lever to bring the ship’s engines up to full power. The engines roared to life.
Tarzi screamed again as Mags poured on the power and accelerated into their descent. She knew she could never brake in time, so she steered into it. Mags wrestled the controls to level out the ship as Tarzi felt himself crushed even further into his seat. The Queen Anne’s Revenge began to settle into a smooth curve. It slowly pulled up, up, up from its nightmarish descent. Tarzi saw white lights exploding in a black sea before his eyes and knew he was losing consciousness.
The next thing he knew, Mags was shaking him gently. “Tarzi. Tarzi. Wake up. Wake up.” Mags snapped her fingers in front of his face.
Tarzi swatted her hand away. “Ugh. Are we dead yet? I certainly hope so.”
“No,” Mags laughed, “but you are never going to believe what I found down here. Come have a look.”
END PART TWO
These 5×7 greeting cards made from a scan of the acrylic painting Guitar #15 came out very pretty. With the gloss finish on the card, the colors seem especially brilliant. You can buy your own and put a message inside. We picked a quote from Albert Ayler, a ‘free’ jazz saxophonist that blew Coltrane’s mind back in the day: “Music is the Healing Force of the Universe.”
Okay let’s see what’s in the sketchbook files today. These are in-progress photos of some ink drawings we’ve been working on for the Meteor Mags series. Ink still seems magical to us. The transformation from a pencil rough to bold black lines is like a form of entertainment for us, so we snap a few pics along the way.
The one above got messed up in the ink phase, but we liked the pose so much we kept going and finished her figure. We patched up the stray ink lines with some white gel pen, thinking it might still work out as a digital image if we scan it and touch it up. That’s the funny thing about ink – you don’t really get second chances with it. Screw up, and your hours of work are dead in the water. It’s quite intimidating at times!
Below, a few more shots of Mags in progress in various poses, and of course above you see Patches in progress for the “cover” illustration to her story Patches the Immortal.
PATCHES THE IMMORTAL: PART ONE
As Patches lay dying, her life did not flash before her eyes. It crawled.
Her life began with crawling. She first remembered crawling away from the flames as a kitten. The mangled wreck of a train behind her had begun to burn. The heat singed her fur. Embers fell all around her, charring the grass. She coughed weakly between mews, but no one heard her.
The sounds of human screams and the shriek of metal ripping and falling apart meant nothing to her young ears but noise. Noise and hurt. Patches pulled herself through the grass to the dark edge of the forest without really knowing why. She only knew its cool shelter in contrast to the excruciating noise and the bright, bright burning.
In the gnarled roots of a tree, the tiny kitten curled into a trembling ball. For how many hours the screams and the burning lasted, she did not know. Eventually they quieted down, but other sounds and lights arrived in waves. At some point, those stopped, too.
Too weak to mew any longer, Patches shivered until she fell asleep. That night, she dreamed she saw the skull of another cat. The skull faded into sight from the pure black night. It grew until it filled the sky, and the moon sat in place of an eye. Tiny Patches had no word for death, but she understood the magnitude of what she saw.
The skull cat looked down from the sky at the wreckage in the pale moonlight. Patches saw its mouth fall open. From the wreckage of the train, the ghosts of dead cats began to soar up, up, up into the open mouth. Did she know any of them? Patches wondered. From here, she could not tell.
Then, Patches dreamed her own ghost began to pull free from her body. She struggled to hold onto it. She twisted and shuddered in her sleep. Her limbs struck out wildly. A low, moaning growl built up inside her. She growled her refusal at the monstrous cat skull. Its single lunar eye turned to look at her.
As the eye of death moved over her, examining her, Patches shook as if she had been thrown in subzero water. She growled her refusal to give up her ghost to this icy, grinning horror. She growled for all she was worth. Then she saw the eye wink at her. She heard a low purr and felt a raspy tongue comb the side of her face once, and then again.
When she awoke all alone, she killed and ate the first bug she saw. Ten minutes later, she made a breakfast out of a small lizard. The finches in the bush chirped away loudly. She did not catch a bird that day. But she would.
She would not give up easily.
The Queen Anne’s Revenge held a position just outside the orbit of one of many moons around the great ringed planet. Meteor Mags called this moon the Ghost Moon. She had heard rumors of an ancient civilization on its surface. Tarzi had joined her for a leisurely weekend of hunting for relics, salvage, or anything else of value they could resell on the black market. They planned to begin their exploration the next morning. But first, they had important business to settle.
“Alright, dear, let’s see what you got!” said Mags. “One… Two… Two and a half lol… Three… Go!” As Mags pressed the button on the timer, KA-CHAK! KA-CHAK! KA-CHAK! Tarzi dismantled the barrel of the laser pistol in three loud snaps.
Mags liked to brag about her personal record: She could field strip, clean, oil, and reassemble a laser pistol in seven and a half seconds. Tarzi refused to acknowledge this record, as they had both been pretty high when it happened. But, Mags had repeatedly shown him in more sober moments an easy twenty-three seconds.
BAM! BAM! BAM! Tarzi dealt out pieces of the laser housing like cards, smacking the table top. In addition to components resembling the barrel of a semi-automatic handgun, a laser pistol had additional pieces. Instead of a clip of bullets, the pistol generated its own “rounds” in a series of chambers. These chambers could be disassembled and all their moving parts cleaned.
Mags glared at the timer. “You’ll never beat the record! Give it up! Give it up, POSER!” Mags took an evil satisfaction in the scowl that passed over her nephew’s face. “Don’t get all upset, poser! The battle rages around you! It’s loud! It’s noisy! You can’t even think straight!” Mags waved her hands in the air, her black gloves tracing paths of imaginary ships and bombs speeding over their heads. Patches jumped up on the table where Tarzi dealt out the pieces of the pistol. She meowed loudly, plaintively, pawing the air. Mags laughed at her and continued her rant.
They faded to less than a whisper in Tarzi’s ears. He only heard his favorite band, The Swans. Tarzi imagined them bashing a massive, droning chord from their guitars and drums in unison. Over and over again they droned this monstrous chord. Tarzi found that by focusing on that pulse, he could slow it down. In his mind, the spaces between the hammering beats grew wider and wider. He had begun speed-reading all of his school books in this meditative state, absorbing thousands of pages in a matter of hours. His hands flew over the parts of the pistol.
He sprayed solvent over each component. The solvent came from a small tube that fit in his holster, just like Mags wore on hers. She insisted they have the resources to keep their weapons in perfect condition no matter where they went. Each holster, therefore, included a small field kit. Tarzi grabbed the bristle brush and ran it through the barrel and pieces from the laser housing. The brush caught and flew out of his hand, rolling meters away from the table.
“Take it easy, poser!” Mags taunted mercilessly. Tarzi’s hands became a blur as the pieces of the pistol seemed to fly back together all by themselves. CHAK! CHAK! CHAK! Click click click KA-CHAK! Tarzi clicked the laser power back on as he brought the pistol up to eye level and set his thumb at the safety. “GO!” he barked.
“Whoo-hoo!” Mags jumped out of her chair. She had let her hair down, and a sea of white curls spilled across her shoulders and down her back. Her black leather boots smacked onto the deck of The Queen Anne’s Revenge. “Tarzi!” She ran to her nephew’s side and held the timer up for him to see the display.
A wide smile formed on Tarzi’s face. Then, he squinted his eyes and peered at Mags. “You totally added that half second on there, cheater.”
“What?! I did not! That’s twenty-three and a HALF seconds, fair and square!” She scruffed his hair with one black-gloved hand. “You’re almost as good as me, little man. But you’ll never beat my record.”
“Whatever,” said Tarzi. “You are such a cheater. And a poser, too!”
“Ha ha ha! Now I’M a poser, is it?”
“Auntie,” said Tarzi, holstering the pistol and setting it on the table, “you don’t even know what the name of your own house band means. Total poser.”
“Who? The Psycho 78s?” asked Mags. “The hell I don’t! I know ALL the words to that song.” Mags pulled the black tinted bangs down from her white mane of hair into an impromptu devil lock. “Too much horror business, driving late at night!” she yelled.
Tarzi pumped his fist in the air and shouted with her, “Psycho seventy eight!” They thrashed about the deck of the ship. “You don’t go in mah baaaaath-room – WITH ME!”
Patches leapt down from the table and ran in mad circles. “Psycho seventy eight! Twelve o’clock don’t be late!” She howled along as Mags and Tarzi sang. “I’ll put a knife – right in you! Warnin’ You! I’ll put a knife – right in you!” Tarzi fell out laughing. Mags plopped back in her chair. “Ha ha ha ha! Call me a poser will you?”
“Yeah, but auntie, you don’t even know what movie that song is based on.”
“A movie?” asked Mags. “Who’s ever got time to sit still for two hours?”
Suddenly, an impact sent them sprawling across the cabin floor of The Queen Anne’s Revenge. The hull reverberated with its echo. Mags and Tarzi scrambled to regain their seats as the slaver command ship came into view.
Then, it fired again.
Commander Cragg crushed the tiny mammal in his grip. Its eyes bulged wildly from its head, held in place to stare into Cragg’s reptilian eye. The beast thrashed as best it could. Then, its life popped like a startled bubble and vanished. “What is it, Major?”
Major Karn stood at attention before Cragg. “We found her, Commander. And the situation has changed in our favor.”
“Tell me the good news,” hissed Cragg. He tossed the dead mammal into his open mouth and gulped it down.
“The pirate has now become a military target, sir. With the death of the local shipping magistrate and destruction of his port, the Council upgraded her from a shipping nuisance to a military target. It’s out of shipping’s hands now – and into ours.” Major Karn reported this news with pride. He had kept a watchful eye as events unfolded. Karn knew his commander obsessed with this pirate, though he did not know why.
Karn could not have known that Cragg had engineered this occasion. His spies had taken up positions in that port with the express order to create security gaps. These same spies, through their network, tipped Meteor Mags to the lax security schedules. Cragg calculated that if the dock patrols could not kill her, he could seek her reassignment as a military target. The annoying little pirate had taken care of that herself.
Cragg’s scaly lips peeled back in a grin that showed off a mouth full of daggers. “Excellent news, indeed, Major. Let us give those idiots in shipping a lesson in pest control, shall we? Request the assignment for our Command Ship.”
“Done, sir! And easily enough. We are the closest ship and the best equipped. The mission is ours. We have been tracking her, and will arrive at her current position in three hours.” Karn stood tall. Though harsh and utterly unforgiving, Cragg rewarded those who helped him achieve his ends.
“You please me, Major. I haven’t heard such good news in…” Cragg smiled to himself. “In quite some time. Have the galley bring a crate of these furry little things up to the bridge. All the officers should have time to eat before we intercept her.” Cragg took a moment to groom himself as his Major saluted and left the room.
The computer showed Cragg their trajectory. They would approach Meteor’s position from the opposite side of the ringed planet, where she sat unprotected just outside the orbit of one of its moons. They would slip out of the shadow of her blind spot to be on top of her before she knew it. Then, she would die for what she had done.
And Cragg knew so, so many things she had done.
As the slaver command ship’s second salvo shook The Queen Anne’s Revenge, a panel exploded inside the cabin. It smashed into Patches. It flung her across the room, pinning her body against a wall on the opposite side of the deck. “Patches!” yelled Tarzi. Tarzi, also sent flying into the wall by the blast, fell to the floor.
“Patches!” Mags turned, but could not see Patches at all. Mags ran across the cabin and lifted the exploded panel. Her gloves protected her from its sharp edges. She saw Patches lying on the ground. Blood seeped from her ears, nose, and mouth. One of her paws stuck out at the wrong angle. “No!”
Tarzi held a hand to his head and looked out the window. “Fascists! They’re going to fire again!” Tarzi leapt into his seat and tried to bring up the main weapons. “Mags! The guns are down!”
Tears streamed from Mags’ eyes. Kneeling on the floor, she picked up Patches’ body and held it to her chest. She could not feel Patches breathe at all. Mags held Patches close as a mask of rage fell over her face. “Motherfuckers!” Setting Patches down, she ran to the hole in the wall where the panel once hung. “Get us out of their line of fire NOW, Tarzi!”
Tarzi had already begun to pull The Queen Anne’s Revenge away from the slaver command ship. Mags reached her entire arm into the smoking, crackling circuits on the wall. Then, she pulled. She drew two cables from the wall. Mags flung open a door on a nearby panel and drew two thick cables from it, too. A flash of light illuminated the cabin as the next shot from the command ship streaked by just meters from them. “Nice flying, ace! Keep it up!”
“We’re sitting ducks out here, Mags! That thing is huge.” Tarzi wiped the sweat from his forehead where a bruise had begun to form.
“Keep me alive five more seconds, dear,” whispered Mags. Blood and tears stained her cheeks. The black smoke from the weapons panel dirtied her hair and the side of her face. She did not recall getting cut, and she did not care. Mags took two couplers and connected the second pair of cables to the first. She screwed the couplers tight as they cut through the cables’ shielding and spliced the wires inside. Mags jumped to her feet, kicked them aside, and pulled two levers in the smoking weapons panel.
“If they hit us again, we’re dead meat, Tarzi,” she said, slamming down into her chair. “Can you get a lock on them now?”
“But the weapons are…”
“Can you get a lock on them now!” shouted Mags.
Tarzi’s hands flew over the controls for a second. “Yes! Got them.”
“Then strap in!” Mags locked her seat strap in place. “This is for Patches, you sons of…” Mags slammed her fist down on the firing control. An unbelievably brilliant blue light engulfed The Queen Anne’s Revenge. It shot from the ship’s main cannons, searing the gulf of space between her and the slaver command ship.
Tarzi shielded his eyes. He could not see, but the light smashed into the command ship, shearing off a third of it into a mist of shrapnel. The force sent the command ship hurtling away from them into space. It also sent The Queen Anne’s Revenge in the opposite direction, into the gravitational pull of the nearby moon. “Take that, you reptilian fucks!” shouted Mags.
“What the bloody hell was that, auntie? I got nothing here!” Tarzi tried in vain to pilot the ship, but the controls would not respond. He felt his guts churn as they went into freefall. The moon spun into Tarzi’s view as he forced his lunch back down.
Mags grabbed the front of Tarzi’s shirt and pulled him towards her. “Keep it together, Tarzi! We just hit them with our GravGens, do you hear me?”
“The GravGens? That’s not even… That shouldn’t be possible.”
“It IS possible. It’s just suicide! We’ve got no gravity, no weapons, and no power. Now you’ve got to help me with Patches!” Mags looked into Tarzi’s eyes, watching them flash from confusion, to terror, and, at last, resolve.
And then, The Queen Anne’s Revenge began to fall from the sky.
END PART ONE
song lyric credits:
The Misfits, Horror Business
We have some large canvases to do more paintings in our guitar series. But, we also have all these used student-level canvases and almost empty tubes of paint from our other projects. So, let’s see if we can make something pretty for our walls out of them.
Our art teacher had given us a tube of magenta to try last year, and its become one of our favorite colors to paint with. This was a somewhat sad occasion, as we used up the last little bit of that tube on this canvas. But we like space and cosmic stuff, so we imagined the creative forces: nebula and star formation and supernovae giving birth to the molecules of everything we are. Bob Ross liked to make worlds on his paintings. We like making universes.
The colors really pop out with a glossy spray-on lacquer finish in outdoor light.
Starving! Time for a sandwich. Since we are so into pumas, we decided to try eating deer. A nearby store carries frozen ground venison. We have had some wild deer meat in Michigan, courtesy of the deer hunters there, but this stuff must be farm-raised. It’s nearly indistinguishable from beef and makes delicious puma-power sandwiches.
The next painting used up the last of our art teacher’s yellow tube of Liquitex paint and the rest of a very lovely Van Dyke Brown made by Holbein. Also in the mix: mars yellow (a kind of brownish yellow) and violet.
Even after a pretty background of copper, black, and van dyke brown, this one said to add more layers. How about a black wash, sprayed with rubbing alcohol several times as it dries, to make hole where the colors underneath show through?
It looked sort of muddy indoors at this point, so we took it outside. Suddenly all the colors popped out.
Oh look, some new white gel pens arrived! We have been looking for something to draw in white combined with drawing in black in Sharpie. These came to us recommeded by a sketch artist on Reddit.
Let’s see if the pens work on a painted canvas.
The colors dont stand out so brilliantly indoors, but it’s a lot nicer than the old painting on it from a year and a half ago. That’s the great thing about student-level canvases. You can feel free to experiment and explore. And if you hate the results, just paint over it with white and start again!