the octopus murder ballad

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They say that truth is stranger than fiction, and perhaps that statement is never more true than in the animal kingdom. In June, I posted a story that involved a woman and a wasp attack. A couple nights ago, my sister called and told me an equally harrowing tale about how she had recently been attacked by a swarm of bees that came out of the ground! I knew some bees lived in the ground, but not massive hives of them.

In the same story, the narrator explained some of the more gruesome aspects of octopus reproduction—aspects I was unaware of when I first started writing octo stories back in 2015 or so. It turns out that in many cases, while the octos are getting their groove on, the female decides to strangle the male to death and eat him. That’s also her last meal, because she stops eating once she lays her eggs, and she dies around the time they hatch.

Nature is brutal!

Anyway, that should explain this poem whose title and lines are all eight syllables.

The Octopus Murder Ballad

Understand that with my three hearts,
I will love you three times as much:
passion signed in triplicate,
so you will always be with me.

You have all I long desired:
perception, beauty, daring, strength.
You outshine others like a star,
a blazing sun to stay with me.

You give me life and then you won’t
stop struggling. I thought you loved me.
I thought you wanted me. Husband.
Lover. You promised to help me.

Become this. Become us. We will
fill the ocean with our children.
You will die and I will eat you,
and we will never be apart.

it’s a dry heat

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After twenty years in Phoenix, I thought I had seen it all. The monsoon season that peaks around August in Phoenix had done some terrible things to me. Once, I got caught on my bike in pitch-black night in a combination dust storm and rainstorm that was like a sheet of mud pouring right out of the sky.

Another time, I was trapped on my scooter in the middle of flooded streets, and cars and busses were trying to get past me in the dark, splashing massive waves against me, and I was pretty sure I was going to die before I got back to my lightless, powerless apartment to see if my cat was okay.

I guess at some point you just accept death as an option and keep going.

Tucson’s monsoons this year started earlier than I recall those in Phoenix rolling in, but they are no less violent. Last week, I got caught walking home from the store by a dust storm that turned the entire sky brown. Two days later, I got caught walking in one of the most insane rainstorms I have seen in twenty years. The big drops of sprinkles started in, and it wasn’t even minutes until I thought I was going to be knocked off my feet by the wind and drowned in the deluge at the side of the road. Cars and busses were pulling over because drivers couldn’t even see. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot.

So, Tucson monsoons surrounded by mountains and lightning, here is a poem for you. Now please stop trying to kill me.

The Flood

Grey mountains perforated the
underbelly of a great cloud
that admitted no horizon,
until nothing held back the rain.

City streets drowned, and vehicles
lost their way, taking with them
drivers, children, and families,
until no one held back the rain.

The entire valley filled with
rolling, churning torrents darkened
by earth and history of earth,
until no rim held back the rain.

No mortal knows what lies beyond,
where only floodwaters venture.
The deluge keeps her secrets well,
and she never forgets the rain.

Reflections on Writing Dekarna Triumphant

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In the recent stories Antipodes and The Martian Revolution, things have not gone according to Mags’ plans and desires. In Dekarna Triumphant, she runs into trouble at the South Pacific station she founded back in Small Flowers. Mags thinks she has the situation all under control and expects Dekarna and the baby reptiles will be part of her personal army, but that rug gets pulled out from under her, and Mags must battle a fearsome nemesis whose rage is completely justifiable.

The resultant story is an ass-kicking freakshow full of brutality, but with moments of descriptive natural beauty.

With The Martian Revolution, I had an absolute blast returning to the heart of the series by featuring Mags, Patches, and Tarzi in a series of violent, vulgar, comedic action scenes. But after that, I felt emotionally drawn to the plight of my evil space lizard and how she rages against it.

I love how Dekarna is so remorselessly evil but is all about her babies! I love how she would stop at nothing to protect and feed her young, but she is the last reptile you want to mess with.

I think that’s why she makes a good villain for Mags, because Mags is the same way—just a more mammalian version. Mags would happily bulldoze a billion people into a ditch if she thought it would save her cat. Dekarna would do the same for her babies.

Finding that heart of the heartless reptile really brought her to life for me. I also empathize with Dekarna’s quest to be free and happy. She has been used and abused by everyone in her life—from her former commander to Meteor Mags—and every time she almost achieved freedom, some other asshole came along to enslave her. It reminds me of trying to make a living in my twenties. All I wanted was to be free.

That’s Dekarna’s life in a nutshell, and I wanted to give her a story where she was, at last, completely free. Free, unleashed, and totally fucking evil.

In the confrontation, Mags faces defeat. While I love it when everything goes Mags’ way, struggling against overwhelming odds and sometimes failing makes for a more compelling story, especially in an ongoing series. I’ve often felt that many of the early stories in the series made it too easy for Mags to get what she wanted. Though they are fun adventure tales, the dramatic tension isn’t very heavy. It wasn’t until the tornado in Blind Alley Blues that Mags really began to confront enormous, high-stakes problems she couldn’t entirely overcome. And that is where, in my opinion, the series began a major improvement.

So, I was a bit shocked by the reaction when I told a member of my workshop group that Mags would be totally defeated in this episode. The response was, basically, “You can’t do that!” I have never in my life heard anyone get so angry over one of my plot decisions.

It didn’t upset me or sway me, though. I mean, The Empire Strikes Back would have been a much less significant film if everything went great for Luke Skywalker at the end. Instead, his secret base is destroyed, his training is interrupted before he gets any real skill, his best pal is kidnapped and frozen, his scumbag nemesis turns out to be his dad and kicks his ass, he gets his frickin’ hand chopped off, and he falls to his doom.

Now that’s a story!

So, no, I didn’t change my plans for Mags’ defeat. But the angry reaction to those plans made me happy. It made me happy to know that someone else in the universe loves Mags so much that merely the thought of her being defeated would upset them! Because you know what? It upsets me too. Every time I throw a dramatic monkey wrench into Mags’ plans or write her into awful situations where she suffers pain and loss, it upsets me.

I think it was Alan Moore who said that no matter how much you love your characters, you must do horrible things to them. But that advice doesn’t make it any easier to do. I go through a whole range of emotions when writing about Mags’ struggles, including anger and sadness.

The emotional payoff for me comes when she triumphs, or is rescued by her friends, or maintains her (mostly) unshakeable attitude of rage and defiance even when the odds are against her. I like seeing what she’s made of. I admire her strength—not just her physical strength, but her emotional and intellectual strength—and I believe her qualities are best illuminated when she faces the greatest challenges.

I confess that in this episode, I intentionally “painted myself into a corner” by writing Mags into a situation she could not possibly escape. I did it on purpose, to make things more dramatic, but it was not a decision that made the writing any easier! That was okay because both Mags and I needed a challenge. But the result was that I eventually had the entire story written except for half of one scene, because I didn’t have a clue about how to get Mags out of what happened to her.

One of the recurring themes in the series is how Mags’ rash and reckless overconfidence gets her into trouble she can’t escape without the help of her friends. So, confronted with an insurmountable obstacle in writing this episode, I asked a friend for help. I explained the situation to her, and we brainstormed ideas for about half an hour. At the end, we had come up with an idea so bonkers, so absolutely insane, that I knew I had to write it. Even though I had my doubts about the idea, I couldn’t not write it!

Anyway, I wrote it, loved it, and the rest is future history. But like Mags, I needed the help of a good friend to make it happen.

Dekarna Triumphant is a kind of Empire Strikes Back ending to what will be the second omnibus collection of stories. It concludes a story cycle that began after The Battle of Vesta 4. In my reflections on Battle, I explained how that story essentially wrapped up all the ideas I originally had for the series when I first started writing it seven years ago. I mentioned how completing that story left me with a solar system where anything was possible, and I was looking forward to indulging my imagination with subsequent tales.

The twelve episodes from Hunted to Extinction through Dekarna Triumphant represent three or four years of playing in those fields of imagination, taking characters in directions I never originally planned, incorporating different narrators and narrative techniques, exploring the consequences of what the early stories established, introducing new concepts and characters, and bringing additional depth and growth to old ones.

And you know what? I loved every minute of it. I had a lot going on in my life that I was unhappy about, but writing the adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches was always a pleasure. I hope you enjoy their stories as much as I do, and I look forward to writing more. In the meantime, I’ll be putting together the second omnibus.

Bikinis, Beasts, and Bloodshed: Frank Cho’s Jungle Girl Omnibus

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I used to have a few of the single issues of Frank Cho’s Jungle Girl from Dymanite, and I admit they were a guilty pleasure. There is so much wrong with the classic jungle girl trope that I hardly know where to begin. On the other hand, how can I not love this idealized, bikini-clad beauty punching a pterodactyl in the frickin’ face—with a crowbar!

So, what the hell. Last month, I got the Omnibus edition that collects all three “seasons” of the series, and I was not disappointed by the lush depictions of savage dinosaurs, giant sea krakens, and other monstrosities in physical combat with Jana the jungle girl. I like heroines who kick major ass, and Jana kicks countless miles of ass in a non-stop adventure that takes her from one peril to the next in fast-paced action.

In fact, she fights so hard that her bra almost comes off, and that tells you just about everything you need to know about the vibe of this series.

Early on, the creative team lampshades their pandering to the male gaze by showing the screen of a video camera held by one of the male supporting characters. The screen is filled with Jana’s boobs in one panel, then her butt in the next. It’s a tongue-in-cheek self-reference for a series that clearly indulges the readers’ desire to look at Jana in all her unattainable glory, and I would be surprised to discover that any of those readers are women.

Despite the gratuitous yet awesomely rendered cheesecake, I can’t see this series as sexist or inherently degrading. As a character, Jana possesses a keen intelligence and a deep knowledge of the flora and fauna in her environment, even if she is ignorant of technologies and terminology of “the outside world”. She holds the moral high ground, proving herself ethically superior to the scumbags she encounters. Jana is strong both physically and in terms of her unassailable will power and confidence. Other than her portrayal on the cover, she is never really a “damsel in distress”, even though she does get into some jams—as every hero should. Jana is kind and loving to those who earn her trust, yet absolutely ready to end any human, animal, or monster who messes with her. Jana is both a protector and a destroyer, and though she parades through these pages in pin-up poses, she gives readers many reasons to respect and admire her character. She is like a female Conan.

The creative team, helmed by Frank Cho who draws the covers and co-plots the series, leans hard into the typical aspects of a jungle girl trope. Jana is a white girl in an animal-print bikini who has hairless legs and armpits despite never shaving, and picture-perfect, dirtless feet despite constantly traveling over rough terrain in her bare feet. Let’s not even discuss how she never has a stray pube despite the total lack of bikini waxing in her jungle. The bikini trope is leaned into so hard that Jana reveals she has various bikinis stashed in secret caches across the landscape, sometimes pausing the plot to change into a new animal print for no good reason.

As the series progresses, it incorporates other classic tropes and concepts dating back to around a century ago when the jungle girl became a mainstay of American fiction. The series has been compared to earlier “Lost World” stories, and the second and third seasons are rife with Lovecraftian beasts. Jungle Girl is like a story from 100 years ago, but produced with modern, high-quality artwork.

I agree with other reviewers who had “WTF” moments with the third season. For the entire third season, Jana ditches her bikini and wears a full-body wet suit after a dive, which makes sense, except that the other characters who needed wet suits lose them almost immediately. The plot veers from the absurd into the completely nonsensical, and it ends on a nearly incomprehensible note. It’s a weird stew that gives the impression that the creators wanted so much to incorporate all the vintage tropes that they forgot to have it make sense. I would say that Jungle Girl “jumps the shark” at a certain point, if not for the fact that the entire series consists of shark jumping.

While the Jungle Girl Omnibus: The Complete Collection will never be considered one of the great literary works of our time, it’s an action-packed ride for readers who want to see an ass-kicking beauty ride a mammoth, spear a T-Rex, fight a giant octopus, and bash the living daylights out of hordes of creepy weirdos. What it lacks in terms of plot coherency is made up for with dinosaur stampedes. What it lacks in sensitivity to female readers, it mostly makes up for by giving Jana such an admirable characterization that she is more than mere eye candy.

Though there’s plenty of that, too.

Collectors Guide: This Omnibus collection is easily found on Amazon in print and digital formats, and often in stock at MyComicShop.

Thus Rewarded Are Our Toils: The Unhappy Tale of Laika the Canine Cosmonaut

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I was thrilled last month when I read that NASA is sending squids into space. I’m a space-octopus enthusiast, so squids in space is something I can get excited about. But the article dashed my dreams with a cold dose of reality. After serving as research subjects, the helpless squids will be returned to Earth—frozen.

Their fate brings to mind another tragic tale: that of Laika, the canine cosmonaut. She was an abandoned puppy who became the first dog in space, but she was also abandoned a second time, in orbit. Though the details of her demise were obscured at the time, it’s now widely accepted that she died from overheating. She got so hot that it killed her. Think about that for a second. I don’t even like dogs, but that’s not a destiny I would wish on any of them.

Nick Abadzis tells her story in his graphic novel, Laika. Though he portrays her as an adorable and loving companion, and certainly the main character, Abadzis resists the urge to anthropomorphize her. He tells compelling, human tales about the researchers who worked with her, trained her, and tested her, but Laika remains resolutely canine.

The one artistic decision that bothers me is the author’s tendency to wax poetic as Laika orbits the Earth. While the decision lends the moment an inspirational grandeur befitting its place in the history of space exploration, I could not help but feel sad and angry knowing that the reality for the animal was intense suffering in her final moments, alone and without comfort inside a metal cage, tortured for a purpose she could never understand nor even desire.

But Abadzis knows these harsh facts, and he shows more than the public backlash from the world’s discovery that Laika died. He shows the grief on a personal level in the reactions of the woman who worked with Laika and built a bond of affection and trust, despite the experiments she oversaw that must have been absolutely terrifying for the animal.  

We as a species need to reconsider our choice to send intelligent, feeling animals into space to die. As much as we have benefitted from space exploration and research, the time has come to stop treating animals like disposable garbage in the pursuit of new horizons.

The inscription on the Soviet Monument to the Conquerors of Space speaks of the “reward for our toils”. Though the sentiment is noble, the reward for animals we send to space is not noble. It is only nightmare, or death.

And thus rewarded are our toils,
That having vanquished lawlessness and dark,
We have forged great flaming wings
For our
Nation
And this age of ours!

Monument to the Conquerors of Space, 1964.

Collector’s Guide: Laika is available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle ebook. Her name appears on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space.

Around the World in Eight Arms: Traveling with Your Octopus

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Despite what my recent posts might lead you to believe, not every book I enjoy is full of brutal, blood-soaked dinosaur fights. I like some cute and lighthearted stuff, too! My summer reading list includes 2015’s charming and exquisitely illustrated Traveling with Your Octopus by Brian Kesinger. It’s a flight of pure fantasy where a woman and her octopus go on a round-the-world series of adventures without any regard for the realities of octopodal biology, a journey that takes them to deserts, islands, through the air, and even into space.

Traveling with Your Octopus is not a traditional narrative with prose. The focus is on the illustrations, with one full-page picture on the right-hand side depicting the travelers, accompanied by a facing page that contains only one or two sentences of humorous travel “tips” for that locale. As fun as it might have been to have a proper story, the pictures contain so much detail that they suggest a larger tale for each location and invite you to imagine your own story.

Victoria’s name matches her Victorian, steampunk-style world, a place simultaneously retro and futuristic. The globe-trotting Victoria always has a unique and fun outfit for each setting, even a dress embroidered with octopuses she wears for a Japanese tea ceremony, and she has no shortage of vehicular and animal-based transportation, from a submersible to a blimp to a stubborn camel. Victoria truly is a woman who has it all—and who better to share that with than her octopus friend!

In one of my short stories last year, I described a painting of the lead character done in the style of a multi-armed Hindu goddess, with an octopus supplying the extra arms. I thought that idea was pretty clever, but I discovered later that Victoria and Otto beat me to it years ago! Yes, I am jealous, but I will be looking for a print of this masterpiece. Here it is on a flyer for the original book release party.

The book is a quick read, but a quick read misses the point of savoring the delightful illustrations and letting them fuel your imagination. And if you find you can’t get enough of Victoria and Otto, you’ll be happy to know this is but one book in a series that involves more fun things to do with your pet octopus, from playing dress up to traveling through time, and even a coloring book!

Collector’s Guide: The Internet tells me that Kesinger has an Etsy site and his own website, but they do not appear to exist anymore. So, check out his entire octopus series on Amazon! (That link doesn’t include the 2020 time-travel book yet, but you can find it here.)

Skreeeeonk! Godzilla in Hell!

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In 2016, IDW answered my long-unheard prayers for a Godzilla story that cut out all the stupid human parts, made my favorite radioactive lizard the main character, and gave him the task for which he above all other creatures is best-suited: destroying the ever-loving shit out of everything in his path! The five issues of Godzilla in Hell are my favorite Godzilla story so far, beating the original 1970s Marvel stories I loved as a kid and topping the monumental, manga-style Dark Horse mini-series from 1988. Let’s take a look inside.

The first issue begins with Godzilla falling through a hole into the wastelands of Hell. It offers zero explanation about how or why this fate befell our hero, and that is a solid artistic choice. You are either all-aboard with this insane premise or not, and no amount of pseudoscience, mysticism, or tedious exposition will sway your opinion. So, why bother?

Each issue has its own creative team with its own visual style, and issue #2 is the only one that has narrative captions. Otherwise, the series has little use for text beyond monstrous screaming. I get the impression that each team received minimal instructions, something along the lines of “Godzilla encounters various horrors and monsters on his way to the end of the issue, where he will descend into the next level of Hell.” The plot is as simple and direct as Godzilla himself, who meets each foe head-on with primal ferocity and unbridled rage.

This is what Godzilla is all about to me. He’s a force of nature like a waterfall or a late-period John Coltrane improvisation. It never occurs to him to slow down, run away, or give up. And when he meets, in the third issue, a weird entity that attempts to convince him to join the forces of peace and submit to its will, Godzilla ain’t tryna to hear any of that bullshit. Peace is for beings of lesser fury.

Godzilla’s path, as he demonstrates with unrivaled brutality, is one of pure destruction. In some ways, his portrayal in this series reminds me of the unstoppable Itto Ogami in Lone Wolf and Cub. No matter what you throw at him, he’s on a mission of annihilation. Skreeeonnnnnkk!

Along the way, Godzilla murders every freakish monstrosity and classic kaiju Hell can throw at him. Yet his triumphs are short-lived. He is doomed at the end of each issue to go to another hellish level, like Dante’s Inferno but with way more ass-kicking.

In the final issue, the king of all monsters is eaten alive and completely destroyed by a swarm of flying scumbags who are little more than mouths and wings and hate. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it is a pitch-perfect finale that expresses Godzilla’s true essence in a way no movie or comic book ever has, before or since. If you want the best Godzilla story ever, then the solution is simple: Go to Hell!

Collectors’ Guide: It’s hard to find the original single issues in print or TPB, but this five-issue series was collected along with two other mini-series in Godzilla: Unnatural Disasters, which is easy to find for about $20 on Amazon in TPB format or Kindle/Comixology format, and also at MyComicShop in TPB format.

Learning to Love the Monster: Tadd Galusha’s Cretaceous

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The Cretaceous graphic novel is the most recent addition to my collection of pure dinosaur comics, and it is non-stop awesome. Like Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles series, it is a wordless dino adventure, though Tadd Galusha does drop in the occasional text-based sound effect or growl. Cretaceous delivers a wildlife documentary from hell, with nearly every page being full of brutally violent dinosaur fights and dinos eating other dinos. This tale of carnage and mayhem is not a cute book for toddlers!

If you’re like me, you wish that Godzilla movies and comics would just get rid of all the stupid human parts and show more monster battles. Galusha—who worked on some Godzilla comics for IDW—must feel the same way, because Cretaceous is all killer and no filler. Early on, I wondered if the book even had a plot, or if it was just an endless stream of savagery, with different dinos weaving in and out of each other’s lives on the way to their doom.

Although that’s a fairly accurate statement about Cretaceous, a plot does emerge. The protagonist is an adult male Tyrannosaurus Rex, a fearsome monster who, in the first scene, attacks a herd of Parasaurolophus and slaughters one of them. He carries the fresh corpse back to his home, where the meat feeds his juveniles first and then his wife. The mother Rex waits patiently while the children feed, and this detail of her characterization takes us on the first step down the path of learning to love these murderous beasts. Yes, they are killers, but within their family unit is affection, devotion, and tenderness.

But not even these rulers of prehistory can escape the eat-and-be-eaten web of life, especially when smaller predators have developed the skill to hunt in packs and accomplish what a lone individual cannot. Tragedy befalls the Rex family, and the remainder of the book resembles an old-fashioned revenge tale. A classic Western, almost.

The daddy Rex hunts his enemies and searches for his surviving child. The perpetual horror he encounters earns him our sympathy, and his mastery of unarmed combat earns him our respect. Step-by-step, as we follow him through the forest primeval and other resplendent landscapes brought to life by Galusha’s pen and colors, we learn to love this monster.

The environment is so much a part of the action that it’s practically a character itself. Galusha doesn’t just draw pretty backgrounds. The earth, the trees, the fog, the ocean—they are all more than mere settings. They are both friends and foes to the dinosaurs, often at the same time. Plus, their visual splendor is a counterpoint to the sheer terror that drives Cretaceous. And is that any different from our real lives? We are fragile creatures, even the toughest of us, inhabiting a beautiful universe where life often feels like a relentless string of one ugly event after another.

Yet life goes on, and though we know exactly how all our stories will end, we persist. By boiling down the dinosaurs’ lives into their most primal aspects, Cretaceous seems to comment on our human lives. Galusha presents an unflinchingly brutal vision of life and death, a narrative of ceaseless struggle illuminated occasionally by the moments of hope, triumph, and even love that keep us going—despite knowing all too well the cards are stacked against us. We come to love the monstrous Rex, because the monster is us, and everything around us. His quest is ours.

Cretaceous blew my mind and earned a spot among my all-time favorite dinosaur comics, a pantheon which includes Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles, Steve Bissette’s Tyrant, and Jim Lawson’s Paleo and Loner.

You can find Cretaceous on Amazon in paperback or Kindle/Comixology ebook formats.

black-and-white art from Illustration Age’s Tadd Galusha page.

Dekarna Triumphant: Part 3 of 3

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Continued from Part Two.

Part Three: Death Underwater

When Patches landed on the spikes, they did not impale her. But they made it impossible to gain her footing. She contorted her body, twisting one way then the other in a fury, striking out in every direction, to no avail. She bared her bright white fangs and howled her displeasure.

Then came the fire. The torches tossed in Patches’ pit did not burn her, but they set the wooden spikes ablaze. The reptiles, shrieking in their own language, backed away from the rising heat and churning clouds of smoke.

They ran to answer their mother’s call. Patches picked up their diminishing footfalls until the thump thump thump faded in the roaring, crackling chaos all around her. Flame hid everything else from sight.

Unseen by Patches, the spikes rapidly turned the color of charcoal. They weakened until they snapped and splintered under Patches’ thrashing. The collapse stoked the fire higher and brighter. The heat became a sun burning in the earthen pit. At its core raged one very unhappy calico.

At the bottom, she found her footing. She scrambled through burning wood until she bumped into the wall. Months before, she had escaped an asteroid cavern by scaling the walls. But the rocky asteroid had offered a firm surface to sink her claws into. The pit gave no such luxury.

Patches clawed the dirt in an attempt to climb. Earth crumbled under her paws. Seeking a more direct route, she leapt as high as she could. Where she failed to reach the rim, she tried to kick away from the wall for a boost. Success would have taken her over the edge.

She only gouged the dirt and kicked clumps of it into the fire. She fell again.

Patches landed on her feet.

Hell engulfed her, but its fuel was rapidly depleting. Patches helped it die by attacking the dirt. As she kicked and clawed the pit’s wall and floor, the dirt bath smothered the fire, bit by bit.

A scream pierced the jungle.

Patches knew the voice, but in the years since she first met Mags in 2027, through all the torments they had endured, she had never heard it in so much pain, tearing open the sunlit sky like a red, raw wound.

Patches flattened her ears against her head and screamed as loudly as her tiny larynx allowed.

Two leaps was all it would take. She knew. She could see the edge of her pit.

Failure did not dissuade her from trying a second time to make the jump. Nor a third, nor a fourth. Nor a fifth.

In 2026, Patches met the feline goddess of death. A skull had formed over the face of the moon and descended into the hiding place where the kitten shivered and trembled from fear. The stars gave her no warmth. But the skeletal goddess came to Patches, in her shallow spot dug in the dirt amongst tree roots and fallen leaves. The ghostly cat emitted a deep, rumbling purr like a mother to her nursing cubs, and licked Patches’ face.

Since that night, Patches had not once feared death, not even in the years before her transformation. Death became her ally. Death remained her friend.

That day on Isla Salida, as Patches failed time after time to escape, she paused in frustration at the bottom of the pit and lifted her scowling eyes to the sky. She glared into the sun overhead, knowing it could not blind her.

In its brutal, life-giving radiance, she once again perceived the great, grinning skull. The black hollows of its eyes appeared on the sun. The skull expanded until Sol was only a pupil in one of its eyes, and the nuclear-powered furnace merely cast highlights and shadows on the bony enclosure.

The vision parted its rows of naked teeth. What it said in its unearthly language was meant only for Patches’ ears. Other island animals noticed a chill on the wind, a momentary shroud of fear, an eclipse that passed over them as soon as it arrived.

Patches understood.

She tried again.

☠️

Months before, Mags had battled the queen of a hive of giant, genetically altered wasps living on an asteroid. In a display of savagery, she killed the beast with her bare hands and teeth. In the aftermath, the remaining insects accepted her as their new queen by rite of combat, and Mags’ friend Sarah helped her establish telepathic communication with them. Though all the wasps died protecting Mags’ during her ill-fated mission to Mali, a vestige of that mental link survived, a latent ability of which even Mags was unaware.

As the reptiles tormented the delirious pirate, and she cried out for her goddess to save her, she unwittingly broadcast her anguish on frequencies unknown to humans.

Her agony did not go unheard.

Forty meters away, hidden in the jungle shadows, a wasp nest hung from a tree. Within its muddy, papery caves, hundreds of six-legged inhabitants raised their antennae. Their frenetic labor paused. As surely as if their own queen had summoned them, they responded to the distress call.

A stream of wasps flew from the hive’s exit and gathered in a malevolent cloud of rage and purpose. Like a single entity, it flew.

One of Dekarna’s younglings gripped Mags by the ear and prepared to slice off the organ. His blade bit into her flesh and drew blood.

Intent on mutilating their enemy, the reptiles did not heed the approaching buzz of the wasp army. The hive’s warriors erupted from the vine-entangled trees and attacked.

Dozens of wasps swarmed on the youngling’s face. Stingers plunged into his soft eyes. When he shrieked, he gave them ingress to his mouth and the sensitive tongue inside. Beset by pain, he dropped his blade and tried, without success, to swat the wasps and spit them out.

The other reptiles met a similar fate. In the ensuing chaos, a thick coating of wasps landed on Mags and gathered on her bound wrists until her flesh was hidden. She feared the worst, but not a single stinger pierced her. Instead, a flurry of mandibles assaulted her bonds to slice through the plant fibers holding her captive. As she realized what was happening, the impulse she felt to struggle against the insects disappeared.

She did not, at the time, understand that the wave of calmness sweeping over her was pheromone-based. The swarm crawling all over her hands and forearms talked to her in its own language, one of scents and chemicals rather than words. Only another wasp could have understood it.

Even in her state of distress, Mags understood. As the wasps covered her calves and ankles and chewed at those ropes, too, Mags understood. The pressure on her wrists weakened. With all her might, Mags pulled her wrists away from each other.

The ropes split. Her hands found freedom. A moment later, amid the screaming from the reptiles, the ropes around her ankles weakened. Gravity finished the job.

Mags fell to the ground. The insects covering her limbs lifted away and chose new targets among her tormentors.

Mags struggled to her feet. Blood burned her eyes, but she had no trouble discerning Dekarna. The mother reptile grasped a smoking branch from the fire and swung it in an attempt to repel the relentless swarm.

Like a calico missile, Patches shot from the undergrowth. She launched herself onto the face of the nearest juvenile, who was already coated in wasps. The attack took him to the ground, and he could do nothing to escape.

Mags did not spare the breath to yell to her kitten. She barreled into Dekarna. With an inhuman shout and the full force of her weight, Mags tackled the reptile. She drove her enemy backward.

Dekarna stumbled over her own feet then lost them.

Mags clamped her arms around her prey. The charge took them through the scant meters of forest obscuring, until the last moment, Mags’ view.

In the fraction of a second before the pair plummeted from the air, Mags realized she had been held captive on a high point of the island, atop the towering cliffs.

The ocean punched Mags and Dekarna as hard as it could.

It failed to separate them. Locked in a grip of mutual doom, the combatants plunged into the sea. Both the reptile and the tortured mammal were stunned nearly senseless.

The weight of their hate bore them down. They sank like boulders, two victims of gravity, each trying to kill the other.

Mags went for the throat. She sank her teeth into scales but failed to draw blood.

Dekarna flung her tail across Mags’ back. The two were so close that Dekarna could not pry away her opponent.

Mags slammed her fists into the reptile’s abdomen. Her blows fell with diminishing strength. She had been through too much to hold her breath any longer.

Dekarna’s hands closed around Mags’ throat to choke the life out of her.

Mags inhaled water. Her eyes widened. She went limp in the reptile’s grip.

Before Dekarna could swim with her trophy to the surface, a massive shadow swelled below her and, in an instant, snapped her in half. Relieved of the weight, Dekarna’s head and upper body shot toward the surface. Her lower torso, legs, and tail disappeared into the ichthyosaur’s mouth, never to be seen again.

The prolonged lack of oxygen left Mags disoriented, unable to determine which way was up. Stars formed in her eyes in the lightless depths.

Before she drowned, the ichthyosaur rose beneath her. He buoyed her with air bubbles from below, pushing her upward. He caught her atop his enormous snout and lifted her out of the dark death surrounding her, into the sunlight.

She sprawled face down on the snout like it was a raft. Mags gasped for beath. Her monster gently paddled around the island, back to the shallow lagoon.

Mags clambered off and fell to her hands and knees in the warm water. She spat and wiped blood and snot from her face, swept wet hair away from her eyes. “Ichthy! What the fuuuck!” Panting, she rose to her feet and placed a hand on his face. With soft undulations, he hovered at the water’s edge. “Fuck yeah, buddy. Good save.”

In response, a shower of lights glowed above his surface, like a tiny galaxy.

“Good boy, ichthy.” Mags kissed the side of his face and nuzzled him. “Good boy.”

In the preceding year, Mags had experienced telepathic linkage with so many different cybernetic sea creatures that even without her octopuses’ help, she touched the ichthyosaur’s mind, and he touched hers.

He sent her the mental equivalent of snapshots from his travels, memories of what he had seen and smelled in the vastness he explored.

“That’s beautiful,” said Mags. But she sensed more than sharing. She felt a question. Mags understood its wordless meaning. She pet his metallic hide.

“Go,” she said. “Be free. There’s nothing left on this island for you to worry about. My little experiment is a bust.”

A second question.

“You’re sweet. But I can’t go with you. I’ve got things to do. Stuff to steal.” Mags held one palm flat against him and lowered her voice. “We can’t always be together. But you swim with me wherever I go.”

The king of oceans rested with her one final moment. His light display turned to warm hues of red and orange. With the smallest muscular movement, he drifted into deeper water. His tail flicked, and he oriented himself away from the island and toward the rest of his empire. He sank below the waves, became a shadow, and disappeared.

“If you see any ships with the GravCorp logo,” said Mags, “sink those bastards.”

She made her way to the shore.

Patches charged her from the tree line.

“Baby kitty!” Saltwater burned in Mags’ wounds, but she scooped up her calico. The two of them rubbed their faces together.

Patches chattered.

“How many are left?” Mags sniffed the air. “Nevermind. I smell them.” Mags pet her cat and considered what to do. “Don’t kill them. Leave them be.” She raised her voice to the trio of dragons unseen in the shadows and overhanging leaves. “Listen up, you little bastards! Scarper off! Your mum is dead, and unless you want to end up the same way, then leave us the fuck alone!”

Rustling from the jungle answered her. The juveniles backed away, but their scent remained nearby.

“Close enough,” said Mags. She set Patches on the sand. “I know, baby. I’m becoming a sentimental bitch in my old age. Now help me dig a grave. Before I fuckin’ pass out.”

The two of them got to work.

☠️

From the Letters of Meteor Mags.

Dear Great-Gramma,

Patches and I are on our way home to Ceres. I cleaned my wounds as best I could in the shower aboard the Bêlit. Hurt like a sonofabitch. I’ve got missing swaths of skin that will definitely require surgery, maybe a couple of grafts, and a headache that won’t quit. My reflection in the mirror looks like a steak someone tenderized with a hammer.

I bandaged what I could, took too much morphine, and started an IV for the blood loss. At least we’ve got tunes.

In case you couldn’t tell, my escapade did not go according to plan. All the octos I took to Earth are dead, and I buried some lizards I thought I could turn into allies. We never found the rest of their mama. The ocean took her.

The sun was setting before we left. A dark, blue-grey cloud lit around the edges by shades of peach and lavender pummeled the outer curve of the island with rain. Wind whipped the leaves of tropical trees and bent them to its will. Lightning blasted one into splinters.

On the edge of the storm, after what felt like bloody hours of digging a grave with Patches in the rough terrain beyond the lagoon—a tomb I’m sure she peed in—I gave a eulogy.

Here lie warriors so fierce they almost ended me—and that’s saying something. Their mother loved them as much as any reptile could. Maybe more. She would have done anything for her cubs, and I’ve always felt the same way.

Dekarna, I was wrong to underestimate you. May your babies find the peace you never found. May they sing the songs you never got a chance to sing.

May the goddess forgive us all.

I covered the grave with dirt and sand.

Epilogue: Born into a Mess

September 2030.

Life for baby octopuses is a journey fraught with peril. Few survive. The tiny hatchlings, no bigger than a grain of rice, drift in the ocean and become part of the plankton soup consumed by larger creatures. Swept into the baleen strainers in the jaws of whales, most young octopuses become food for less intelligent forms of life.

When Dekarna died, she left behind several clutches of octopus eggs she intended to eat. The denizens of her underwater larder went on without her.

In September 2030, a hybrid species explored Earth’s waters for the first time. Hundreds of descendants of the genetically altered octopuses burst from translucent eggs, changing colors as they swam.

Their mixed parentage, consisting partially of unaltered, earthly cephalopods, diluted that generation’s mental abilities. But they were not born without talents of their own.

Even as embryos in the warm seawater surrounding Isla Salida, their minds found each other and connected. When they escaped their eggs to live among the ocean currents, they maintained a tenuous link. When predators threatened, they joined minds and persuaded other animals to leave them alone.

South Pacific cetaceans suddenly found good reasons to abandon swarms of krill and plankton in favor of swimming and swallowing elsewhere.

The baby octos survived. But it would be years before their offspring spread throughout the seas, and even longer before they attempted to conquer Earth.

By then, everyone had forgotten them.

Everyone, that is, except Meteor Mags and Patches.

Dekarna Triumphant: Part 2 of 3

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Continued from Part One.

Part Two: Reign of the Reptile

August 2030.

When Mags and Patches stepped out of the Bêlit and set foot on the beach, a formation of reptiles awaited them. Dekarna stood at attention to one side, and the younger warriors stood in two ranks of three. The blunt ends of their spears were planted in the sand. The stone tips gleamed in the sunlight. The youths resembled a military squad summoned for review by its commander, and the effect was not lost on Mags.

The smuggler raised a fist in salute. “Long live the resistance! You lot are looking top-notch! Sorry I’m late, but I brought prezzies.”[1]

Patches relieved herself in the sand and kicked it into a pile to cover her waste. Busied with the task, she did not notice the grimace that clouded Dekarna’s face.

Walking back and forth in front of the juveniles, Mags assessed her troops. “I see you don’t have any problem making weapons. Those knives are to die for! You gotta make one for me.” She clapped her hands together once with a resounding smack. “Now, my little angels, are you ready for something in a higher caliber?”

Dekarna struck with her spear.

It would have impaled a normal human, but Mags’ reflexes were faster. The spear tip sliced open the skin on the back of her head and ripped out chunks of her hair on its way through.

With even more speed than she had moved underwater to kill the octopuses, Dekarna pulled back the spear and struck again.

Mags dropped into a crouch to avoid the strike. Her fingertips plunged into sand. Adrenaline pumped into her blood, counteracting the disorienting first blow.

The juveniles stormed her. They toppled her and rolled her into the water, screaming battle cries in their mother’s native tongue.

Patches joined the fray. She sprinted after the troop and leapt onto the back of a young reptile’s head. Her claws sank into his scales.

He stumbled under her weight and fell face-first into the wet sand at the lagoon’s edge. The force drove him a meter forward, carving a wet gouge into the beach and scraping away his facial features.

Before the rut could fill with water, the fallen warrior’s siblings abandoned Mags and focused their rage on Patches. They formed a semi-circle around her, brandished their spears, and squawked at her in a challenge no ears on Earth had heard in more than seventy-five million years.

With the chaotic precision of a flock of birds, they ran from Patches, past their mother, toward the tree line, and into the jungle.

Mags rose from the lagoon. “Patches!” She spat through the saltwater clogging her airways. “Patches! Take the little ones!”

The angry calico gave chase.

With the back of one hand, Mags wiped snot from her face and flung it into the water. “Leave the boss bitch to me.”

☠️

Patches pursued the reptiles into the jungle. She had eaten lizards before, and her overgrown assailants meant little more to her than fast-moving snacks on legs. The tropical underbrush whipped her face. She ignored it.

Cats are ambush predators, no strangers to single-minded patience when hunting. Although Patches had herself been ambushed by the juveniles, her relentless focus remained undaunted even by the tangled plant life and insect swarms she plowed through.

The scent trail and thumps of running footfalls led her out of the chaotic undergrowth and onto a hunting trail trampled flat by months of use. Her speed increased on solid ground. The scents grew nearer. The sounds grew closer in her tuft-filled ears. Patches poured on the speed like a miniature cheetah, like a lioness chasing down a larger animal to feed her cubs.

Without warning, Patches’ world fell out from under her. The trail gave way, and she plummeted into a trap.

☠️

When Meteor Mags first battled Dekarna on Tannis, the pirate was armed to the teeth, including tear-gas grenades and her favorite Benelli shotgun, and encased in two layers of armor—one of which was her indestructible bodysuit woven from Patches’ hair.[2] In that fight, the newborn sextuplets had been too young to pose any threat, so Patches teamed up with Mags and focused her ferocity on Dekarna, too.

On Isla Salida, Mags stood alone, up to her thighs in water, with the sun in her eyes, and severely under-dressed for the occasion. Still, she had not left the relative safety of the Bêlit unarmed. From twin holsters on her hips, Mags pulled her pair of custom Desert Eagles, one in each fist, and fired.

Tumbling through the gritty seawater had not been kind to the pistols. Both misfired.

Mags tried a second time. “Fuck!” Without releasing her grip on the pistols, she glared at Dekarna. “Bring it, you crust-filled cunt! You and me!”

With a roar, Dekarna hurled her spear.

Mags dodged it. The evasion cost her a second—just enough time for her enemy to charge first. Mags ran to meet Dekarna head-on, but the water slowed her advance.

The two combatants collided with a force that knocked them off their feet.

Mags struck with her pistols, like clubs. But Dekarna outweighed her, and the reptile had months of experience hunting in that environment. Mags choked on seawater under the onslaught. Her fury was no match for her opponent’s.

Dekarna’s tail wrapped around the smuggler’s torso and pinned her tattooed arms to her sides. Tighter and tighter it squeezed, compressing Mags’ rib cage, making it hard to catch a breath.

Dekarna landed a savage blow on Mags’ skull.

The pirate’s world became a blur, then blackness.

Dekarna could have killed Mags then and there. The death would have given her some satisfaction. But a quick, unconscious dying would have brought no suffering to her prey.

As Dekarna dragged Mags’ motionless body ashore, she fumed over her memories. Too many in her life had used and abused her, including her former commander. Every time she came close to achieving freedom, someone else came along to enslave her.

She chose the mammal she had captured to pay the price for those injustices. Dekarna intended to make Mags suffer until the final agonies of her dying breath, and to prolong that moment for quite some time.

☠️

The juveniles’ trap for Patches resulted from of a month of planning with their mother. Dekarna knew the seven of them together could never defeat a well-armed spaceship. Instead, she constructed the ruse of remaining under the octopuses’ control and loyal to the smuggler—until Dekarna’s prey was drawn out of the ship and lulled into a false confidence. Then, with her primitive weapons, she could win.

Dekarna never believed she could kill Mags with one unexpected blow. She and her brood built a plan—a plan to catch the mammals off-guard, separate them, and exterminate them.

Her plan went well. She had not attained the rank of Major for nothing.

Dekarna’s children led Patches down a pre-determined path. They knew the well-worn hunting trail like the scales on the backs of their hands.

Dekarna helped them dig the trap three meters deep. She showed them how to carve branches into sharp sticks and plant them vertically in the bottom of a pit so the spikes would impale any animal who fell. She taught them to cover the pit with leaves fallen from the tropical canopy, so a foe would not detect it in a chase.

Seconds after Patches fell in, the young reptiles emerged from leafy shadows to stand around the hole, raise their spears, and chant a raucous, birdlike chorus that could not be translated into human speech, except for the word victory. They lit torches and tossed them into the pit.

Their celebration reached Dekarna’s ears. She called her children to join her.

☠️

Mags.

Where the fuck are my octos? It’s my first thought when I wake up.

Next: I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be staring at a strand of skinless, barbecued rats right in the bloody face. Christ, there’s more of them. Roasted rats on ropes and smoked serpents hanging from the—

Wait. Why are the trees upside down?

Nevermind. It’s just me.

That’s why there’s blood dripping into my left eye from my split lip. I don’t even want to know how bad it is. When I probe with my tongue, the teeth behind the lip feel loose. Without thinking about it, I try to wipe my eye.

Jesus bloody fuck. I can’t move my arms. They’re bound by rope, and rope connects them to my ankles. More rope has me dangling from a tree branch. The ground’s a meter from my head. “Patches!”

My kitten doesn’t answer. Instead, my captor steps into view. That fat fucking cow.

“You stupid snake! You slimy, overgrown pile of frog shit! Let me the fuck down! I will rip off your arms and piss on the stumps!”

She doesn’t like that. Nope. Not one bit. She hits me with a well-carved staff I don’t have time to admire before it’s leaving bruises on my legs, belly, and arms. Whose idea was it to weaponize these lizards, anyway? “Gah! Stop, you whore! Puta madre! Fucking stop!”[3]

She does.

The blood’s been rushing to my head for I don’t know how long. It’s still light out, and not just from the bonfire. The burning wood chokes me. Heat singes my tail.

Judging from the sun’s position—which is right there, yeah?

Nope. It’s over on that side.

It’s all over the place.

Fuck me running. I feel like a drunk bitch who can’t focus on what’s in front of her face. The surrounding jungle is a buzzing blur. The ground and the sky spin so fast I can’t tell which I’d rather puke on.

Maybe both. My guts give it their best shot.

The shit gets in my nose. I gag and cough.

With one hand, the lizard brings me to a halt. The world keeps spinning around her.

She says some shit to me. I know by the inflection. I can even make out some of the words. I’ve touched her mind briefly, thanks to my octos. My babies had the ability to translate any language, human or otherwise, to any mind they included in their weird experiments. I guess I picked up a few things.

What I think she’s telling me is that she killed my fucking octos! She’s bragging, strutting back and forth, yelling at me, and I think how nice it would be if she did one of those villain monologues while I sort a way out of this mess.

She doesn’t.

That slut wasn’t born yesterday. For all I know, she’s older than me. Nobody knows how long these lizards live. It could be hundreds of years, like a tortoise.

For a moment, while she picks up the knife, my blood-addled brain recalls the missing member of my island entourage: the ichthy.

Last time I was here, I set free a cybernetic ichthyosaur, and he was supposed to be working with the octopuses to keep the island safe from intruders. Yes, the same useless octos I can’t hear at all anymore. What the hell happened here?

The lizard pinches a patch of skin on my upper arm like she’s testing it for something. Her claws draw blood. She holds firm. She slides an obsidian blade into my skin, like she’s slicing a roast, or peeling an apple, and I can’t help but scream.

I thrash and try to kick.

She snaps her tail around me and holds me in place.

I hate her so fucking much. What is she doing to my arm?

She steps away and holds a trophy to my face. Something wet slaps me, and I can’t make it out until she pulls it back.

My skin.

I know it’s mine because it has three of my star tattoos, and on the other side it’s raw and red and dripping, and my arm is screaming like a cat caught in a Cuisinart. I might be bleeding to death.

She holds the skin to her teeth and rips it in half. She chews it twice with her open mouth and swallows.

“Bitch! You are fucking dead! Do you hear me?” But I can’t move, and I can’t even tell if the words make sense anymore.

She eats the rest of it.

I barf again on my own face, but only bile.

Those dickheads Patches was chasing step out of the forest. Where the fuck is Patches?

I only see a couple of them, but I smell and hear the rest. They stand around the fire, chattering, like they’re blessing their blades in the flame. Where the hell did they pick that up?

I don’t know if they understand the curses I hurl at them, but I know the looks in their eyes. They surround me. They stink like rotten meat. Dekarna grabs my tail and pulls it. Hard.

They go at me with the knives, and the pain is even worse than before.

Goddess help me.


[1] “Prezzies” meaning “presents”.

[2] The bodysuit was a gift from Tarzi and Celina on Mags’ birthday in 2029. See The Battle of Vesta 4.

[3] “Puta madre” literally means “prostitute mother” but is typically translated as “motherfucker”.

Childhood Reading: A Memoir

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A month ago, I mentioned the reading group I joined in kindergarten. Mom recently saw that post, and we compared memories.

One reading program I recall with mixed feelings. It was part of the St. Louis County Public Library’s summer schedule, and I participated at the Daniel Boone Branch where I later held one of my first jobs as a “page”, sorting returned books and putting them back on the shelves.

That job was noteworthy in my teenage years not only because I worked with one of my best high-school friends, but also for being the time when I met Pete the janitor. Pete was also the library’s bouncer from time to time, since he was one of the few male employees in a sea of middle-aged and elderly ladies, and he wasn’t afraid to step up to disruptive patrons and tell them to knock it off or get the hell out.

As a page, I often stayed late after the library closed to chat with Pete in the parking lot. He must have been twice my age, and he turned me on to all kinds of 1970s rock bands. Some I couldn’t find in the library’s collection of vintage, vinyl records, so he let me borrow them from his personal collection. They blew my mind.

Pete was one of two guys I knew like that as a teenager. The other was Jim, who worked as a waiter on the same graveyard shift at the Denny’s restaurant where I got a job as a dishwasher right after graduating. Jim was a huge Led Zeppelin nut with an impressive collection of bootleg concerts on vinyl he let me borrow. For a brief time, I got into going to record conventions because of him and discovered all kinds of awesome live bootlegs for Zep and other bands.

But years before all that, the library had a summer reading program where kids would commit to a goal of reading 100 or more books, enter the authors and titles on a postcard-sized paper, and take it in to get a stamp or a star sticker. Staff tracked every kid’s progress on larger cards that were on display, and there was some reward for kids who read the most books.

I don’t recall the prize because I never once won that contest. After a while, I realized it was impossible, despite my voracious reading habits. I was competing against kids my age who were reading books entirely chosen from the youngest reading levels in the library, short books about Seeing Spot Run and other engrossing topics.

Meanwhile, I chose books from the adult-level science fiction shelves and college-level nonfiction books about animals, space, and history. They took a lot longer to read! So, if you looked at the cards in the library, I was a total loser. I accepted that as my fate and kept reading what I wanted to.

In sixth grade, my teacher created an advanced reading group for a handful of students in his class. I don’t recall all the kids’ names, but we read stuff way beyond a sixth-grade level, including Mutiny on the Bounty and at least the first two books in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. If I recall correctly, we ran out of time to finish Second Foundation, but I read it on my own.

That teacher was James Schwab. The group was one of the best things to happen to me in elementary school, and Mr. Schwab remains one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He knew I needed more advanced material to engage my mind, and he provided a supportive environment in the reading group, clarifying things, answering questions, and helping us find our own answers in the adult-level books.

Mr. Schwab was one of the kindest, most trustworthy adults I ever met, and I constantly asked him questions about how the world worked. For example, I noticed that if I had salt crystals on a metal spoon and breathed on them in the cold, my breath fogged up the spoon except for tiny circles around the salt. Why did that happen? What was going on? Who could I ask but Mr. Schwab?

It turns out he didn’t know the answer, and he told me so. He also suggested we do some research on it.

I was accustomed to adults who always acted like they had all the answers, and even by sixth grade I had come to suspect that many adults had no idea how anything worked. They only wanted to preserve the illusion of their authority. Mr. Schwab was one of the first grown-ups I ever met who would just flat-out admit that he didn’t have a clue about something but would also take an interest in discovering with me what the answers were and could guide me in my quest to learn.

Somewhere around that time, the school district contacted my parents to inquire about having me skip a grade, based on my test scores. My parents declined the offer. For many years, I was angry about that decision. I was beyond bored with lessons targeted at my grade level, and I believed that skipping a grade would have put me in more intellectually challenging classes where I would feel more engaged.

Later, Mom explained to me that she felt I was mentally ready to skip a grade, but not socially. I’ve never been happy about that, but she might have been right. I would have been in classes with people hitting puberty a year before me, with all my elementary-school classmates a year behind me. My social skills were admittedly underdeveloped at that age, and they have always lagged behind my other skills.

On the other hand, maybe being in a grade that better suited my early cognitive development would have also improved my social development, since I might not have been so bored and angry about being bored in every single class all the time. We’ll never know, will we? What I do know is that I absolutely hated high school, even in the “advanced college placement” classes I took in my later teens, and I was perpetually getting in trouble for my rebellious attitude.

My high-school experience totally turned me off from college after graduation, even though I could have received a scholarship for a free ride to at least one university just based on my test scores. By high-school graduation, I had more than enough of dim-witted adults trying to force me into their molds and make me memorize meaningless stuff, then write nonsense about it.

Not all my teachers were bad. Mrs. Michelle Rodgers, my first guitar teacher, is forever an angel in my mind for demystifying music in general and the instrument that would become my reason for living for more than twenty years. Mr. Dave Jenkins, my speech-and-debate team coach, was so awesome that I have always considered him more a friend than a teacher. Mrs. Judy Buschmann and I had such great conversations about literature after her class that I was constantly late to my next class. I gladly ignored all scolding for being tardy if it meant I could talk to her about art and writing and critical thinking for a few minutes longer.

Mrs. Buschmann also founded my high school’s first Writing Center, a room full of computers in the late 1980s equipped with WordPerfect software. She enlisted me to be her assistant to help kids my age brainstorm, compose, and write their papers for various classes. It was so long ago that I don’t even bother putting the experience on my résumé anymore, but it undoubtedly informed my future as a freelance editor who helps people develop and publish their books.

So, thank you to the teachers, librarians, and other adults who helped me expand my literary and musical horizons at a young age. Life ends up being about so much more than what you expect as kid, or your standardized test scores in school. Sometimes it boils down to what inspired you and who encouraged you along the way to discovering your future.

Trim, the Cat Who Circumnavigated Australia

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Matthew Flinders was a sailor, explorer, mapmaker, and navigator who served in England’s Royal Navy and once sailed with William Bligh after the events recounted in Mutiny on the Bounty. History remembers Flinders as the man who gave Australia its current name, and for completing the first circumnavigation of that island continent.

But history also honors the cat who made that voyage and many others with Flinders. If you visit the Mitchell Library in Sydney, you will find a statue of Flinders and, very near to it, a plaque and statue of Trim, the black-and-white feline adventurer who was born on a ship at sea and enjoyed waging war against one of the true terrors of nautical life: the pestilent vermin who sought to eat the sailors’ food.

The first time I read about Trim, it was in the hilarious and detailed history of Australia, Girt by David Hunt. Today, I was reminded of Trim while reading the small but delightful 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization by Sam Stall. Each short chapter tells the tale of a noteworthy cat, from the first known cat to be named thousands of years ago to exceptional cats of the current century, from cats of well-known authors and heads of state to cats in recent popular culture. Trim’s chapter is the second to last.

I highly recommend both Girt and 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization, but their summaries of Trim’s life pale in comparison to the affectionate memoir penned by Flinders himself. You can read it for free online at The Flinders Papers.

With a little exaggeration, as cat lovers are prone to make, and a great deal of love and respect for his sea-faring companion of many years, Flinders describes Trim’s travels, travails, and triumphs. I sometimes worry that my fiction stories involving a space-traveling cat living with interplanetary rogues and brigands will strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. But when reading Trim’s story in Flinders’ own words, and the stories in 100 Cats, I am reminded of the great variety of character and capability to be found among felines, many of which defy our stereotypical ideas about what cats can do, and feel, and accomplish.

Flinders’ memoir about Trim ends with an epitaph. Here are its final lines:

Many a time have I beheld his little merriments with delight,
and his superior intelligence with surprise:
Never will his like be seen again!
Trim was born in the Southern Indian Ocean, in the year 1799
and perished as above at the Isle of France in 1804.
Peace be to his shade, and
Honour to his memory
.

—Matthew Flinders, 1809.

KDP: Hardcover Beta Review

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In case you missed my post from last month, I was invited by Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) to participate in the beta version of their new program for producing print-on-demand hardcover books. I promised you an update when the first, physical proof arrived. Guess what came in the mail today!

All I can say is that the book looks and feels amazing. It’s sturdy and way more substantial than I expected for a smallish 150-page book. The print options I chose were for white paper and a gloss finish on the cover.

Some folks believe you should use cream paper for fiction, but I have produced books in both cream and white, and the white paper looks and feels better to me. I also find the high contrast with black text makes white paper easier to read. I’ve produced books with both matte and glossy covers, and I tend to prefer the shiny gloss that really makes the colors vibrant. But matte finish is also nice, and I’ve gone with that several times when it felt right.

The binding is beautiful inside and out, and I love the way that about a quarter-inch of the cover color and design is visible inside the book when opened, where the cover wraps around the edges.

I think authors will be pleased when this hardcover option is available to everyone. I already feel the urge to make hardcover editions of about half a dozen of my books. I’d love to release the first Meteor Mags Omnibus in hardcover, but at more than 580 pages, it exceeds the maximum page count of 550 for a KDP hardcover.

Besides page count, authors will want to consider price points and profit margins. My paperback edition of The Singing Spell has a wholesale printing cost to me of less than USD $3. But the printing cost for the hardcover is $7.28. (Again, this is for a 150-page book. Longer books will cost more.) To sell the hardcover and make a reasonable per-unit profit on Amazon, I needed to price it at $14.95, as opposed to the $6.95 price for the paperback and the $2.99 bargain price for the Kindle ebook edition.

This doesn’t make much of a financial difference to me, since I design my own books, but authors who need to pay a designer to format the cover for a hardcover edition will want to consider whether they can recoup the additional expense with hardcover sales at a higher price than the other editions. Will their target market be willing to spend the extra bucks for a hardcover? It’s a question I can’t really answer for anyone without market research.

Either way, I expect my fellow authors and readers will be impressed with the quality of these hardcover editions, and I’m looking forward to the day when this program is no longer in beta testing but available to all self-publishers using the KDP platform.

Update: The hardcover edition of The Singing Spell is now available on Amazon.

Dekarna Triumphant: Part 1 of 3

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Here is a draft of a new Meteor Mags story, in three parts.

METEOR MAGS: DEKARNA TRIUMPHANT
Episode 30 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
© 2021 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Held against her will on a South Pacific island, the last surviving soldier from a race of evil space lizards reclaims her mind from her tentacled, telepathic captors, trains her children as warriors, and triumphs over her greatest enemy: Meteor Mags.

☠️

For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

—Henry Beston; The Outermost House, 1928.

☠️

Prologue: Into Their Graves

August 2030. From the Letters of Meteor Mags.

Dear Great-Gramma,

Patches and I are on our way back to Earth. The last visit didn’t work out so well, but at least my ribs healed since then.[1] Back in May, I promised to supply the reptiles on Isla Salida with weapons, food, and whatever else they need to become my personal death squad under the control of the octopuses I left to watch over them.[2]

Before I left, I ran into Fuzzlow and Donny. They don’t talk much about losing their drummer and our good friend, Batalla, in that colossal clusterfuck on Vesta last year.[3] But they’ve kept busy on Ceres, helping with the reconstruction, getting in Celina’s hair, and composing new songs.

Lonso invited the guys to join his interspecies band, but Donny and Fuzz don’t want anything to do with jamming in a cephalopod-controlled groupmind. I explained to them how awesome it was to play with Lonso’s traveling freakshow on Ceres, but I suspect the boys think I am too mentally unhinged to be a reliable source.[4]

They might be right. Not everything has gone according to plan with the octos. Besides the weird states of mind I’ve experienced since mentally merging with their mama last year—goddess rest her soul—some of them tried to kill me and Patches and Plutes on Titan a couple of months ago.[5]

I chalked it up to a misunderstanding and moved on, especially since no mind like theirs has ever existed, and they are still, in so many ways, like children: haphazardly learning, making mistakes, taking some lumps, and getting sorted about their place in the universe.

Donny and Fuzznuts are less inclined to forgive my tentacled toddlers. And I get that. Everybody’s baby is someone else’s monster.

I wasn’t shocked when the boys brought up recording another album as the Psycho 78s. You know how they are. “Come on, Mags! It’ll be great!” Nevermind that I have a million things to do right now. Fuzz said, “When are you not busy?”

I was like, “I’ll be free about four days after I’m dead.”

“Fuck that.” Donny tossed me a beer.

They’re good guys, as far as guys go. A good beer, too. I didn’t recognize it. Definitely not one of the brands I stole by the shipload to keep our cozy dwarf planet stocked. Not one I ever drank in the Belt, either—and I’ve been to every bar in the System. I asked where they got it.

“We made it,” said Fuzz.

“Get out.”

“For real,” said Donny. “We’re thinking of opening a brewery and music venue here.”

The conversation turned to who would play there, and all the Ceresian bands that have been inspired by Dumpster Kittens, and how the new community center is nice but maybe not rowdy enough for our taste. Pretty soon, they had me agreeing to appear onstage.

What can I say? I love those guys, even if I give them hell. I’d never say it to their faces, but I expect to outlive them, and I’d like to jam with them as many times as possible before I end up shoveling dirt into their graves.[6]

If I’ve learned one thing about life in one hundred and six bloody years of existence, it’s that you need to enjoy the people you have while you have them, because you never know when they’ll be gone for good.

Anyway, I think I made them happy. They gave me and Patches a case of bottled homebrew for the road, and I hugged them and kissed their cheeks.

Then it was time to go. What with all the nonsense of the last month and that mess on Mars, I’m way behind on my promised visit to the island.

But I’m sure my octos have it all under control.

Love,

Maggie

xoxox

☠️

Part One: The Fall of the House of Octopus

May–July 2030.

One hundred and forty million years before humans first walked the Earth, octopuses lost their shells. Without the stiff enclosure that protects other mollusks, the eight-armed marvels could squeeze their bodies through any tube or crevice larger than their beaks.

This ability helped octopuses find shelter from predators. But given their innate curiosity, it also got them into plenty of trouble. Still, they survived, adapted, and evolved into hundreds of species. It wasn’t until 2029 that a new stage of octopus evolution introduced another survival advantage that also allowed them to get into all kinds of unimagined trouble: telepathy.

When Meteor Mags—with help from Patches and Tarzi—assisted the hatching of that first generation of genetically altered baby octopuses in an abandoned asteroid laboratory, she inadvertently changed the future of marine biology. But the change did not happen overnight. During their first year, Mags’ “babies”, as she liked to call them, met other members of the space pirate’s crew, started a rock band, gave concerts and influenced societies on Ceres and throughout the Asteroid Belt, and terraformed Titan with the help of a mysterious, multi-dimensional object.[7]

In May 2030, Mags took fifty of her babies to Earth for the first time. She enlisted them to control the mind of one of her enemies who recently had babies of her own: Dekarna, the former second in command of the forces of space lizards Mags fought so many times. Mags intended for the reptiles to become her private warriors and the guardians of one of two installation sites planned for the free-energy system she wanted to bring to Earth.[8]

The mission’s fifty octopodal volunteers had a second motivation. They knew their lifespans were short, and their identity as a groupmind would die without a new generation to carry on their unique lineage. Only in Earth’s oceans could they find potential mates to spread their genes far and wide, and, through telepathic instruction, perpetuate their identity and all they had learned about the universe.

In June 2030, the cephalopodic swarm began courting the local octopuses in the South Pacific waters surrounding their adopted island home of Isla Salida. Competitors could not match their hypnotic songs, transmitted from mind to mind. Potential mates swooned, in their gelatinous way, seduced by the allure of higher intelligence and the survival advantages it offered.

But octopus reproduction does not end well for the parents. Males who offer sperm are often strangled to death in the process or eaten soon thereafter by the females. Mothers live longer, laying hundreds of eggs and watching over their clutches until the hatching.

Even then, a female octopus abandons eating during her single-minded attention to her eggs. She begins a time of starvation and senescence that reduces her focus, clarity, and mobility. Her aquatic world fades around her as she uses what little energy she has left to tend to her unborn descendants. Their birth signals her death.

Mags failed to account for these realities in her plans. She did not consider how the reproductive imperative encoded in her octos’ genes meant they would be diverting their attention and ending their lives.

In July 2030, thousands of fresh octopus eggs piled up on the stones and coral around Isla Salida. As the male adults died off, and the expectant mothers ignored their task of controlling Dekarna, Mags’ plans came undone.

☠️

July 2030.

Dekarna crouched on the rocky edge of a cliff high above the outer edge of Isla Salida. Her clawed, naked feet gripped the stone. Her prehensile tail was straight and stiff for most of its length, balancing her body weight in her hunting stance. Only the tip of the tail slowly swept the air, back and forth.

Her right hand held a wooden spear. Dekarna had shaped one end to a lethal point using fragments of rocks beaten to a sharp edge with other rocks. Her children lacked her skill with making weapons from the island landscape, but they were learning.

The thought of her offspring brought what passed for a smile among reptiles: scaly lips pulled back ever so slightly, formidable teeth exposed, and a forked tongue flicking in a delicate dance.

The tongue, like a snake’s, picked up the scent of prey. Mammalian megafauna had never colonized the island, but rodents flourished, along with many species of birds accentuated by seasonal colonies who temporarily nested on the cliffs to lay delicious eggs and hatch easily devoured younglings.

The island also provided a steady supply of smaller reptiles who basked on its sunbaked stone, snakes who stretched up to five meters in length, and hordes of scurrying, skittering insects who often exceeded the size of a human hand and provided protein for Dekarna’s brood. Combined with the bounty of fish, eels, and mollusks in the adjacent waters, the island’s biodiversity made it a predator’s paradise. Dekarna and her children ate well, ate often, and thrived.

Dekarna allowed the sun to heat her blood. It charged her like a battery. She was not exothermic like the island’s native reptiles. She generated her own warmth. But even a monstrous reptile from space could enjoy a beautiful day.

Her tongue flicked again to taste the salty spray of seawater as it bashed against the lithic boundary between island and ocean.

All her life, she had dreamed of such moments. Born in outer space and conscripted into military service, she rose in the ranks due to her courage, ferocity, intellect, and dedication to the cause of reclaiming Earth for her species, to making a new home of the blue planet they had left for the stars so many millennia before.

Her dream drove her onward, from boot camp to battlefield. No matter what hardship or humiliation she encountered, she held the dream of a home planet in her teeth and would not let it go.

Her commander had destroyed her dream through his incompetent obsessions, and she had only come to Earth through the machinations of the space pirate known as Meteor Mags.[9]

Dekarna flicked her tongue again. A low, rumbling growl escaped her throat. She had not thought of her commander nor his nemesis in—how long? Her pupils expanded and contracted. How long?

She struggled to remember. She shut her eyes and let the awareness overtake her.

The accursed smuggler! Behind closed eyes, Dekarna saw flashes of her military career, her long-dead commander and how he inseminated her fallen form on the battlefield. How he almost got them both killed. How Meteor Mags—

The dragon roared. Dekarna gripped the spear in both hands and crushed it in her grip. She bent it until it broke and shot splinters in every direction.

The smuggler. The smuggler and her octopuses. The degradation at her hands. The mental slavery—not just Dekarna’s, but the only creatures she had ever loved: her children.

Dekarna hurled the broken pieces of her weapon to the ground. She did not, at first, realize her insights into her situation were the result of the octopus matings and the subsequent loss of control. She was too busy racing down the rock formations, crashing through the tropical forest below, trampling everything in her path and screaming orders to her offspring to meet her.

Had the smuggler wanted a death squad? Fine, thought Dekarna in her native tongue. She will have one. But the death will be hers. The reptile crashed through the underbrush onto the beach.

Dekarna’s children gathered around her. She told them the truth, and she saw in their eyes they also were free from mental captivity. She guided them, and they helped her make weapons to destroy their captors.

☠️

Dekarna plunged into the sea. Her tongue thrashed the saltwater in search of only one scent: octopus. Her tail propelled her. In one fist, she held a new spear. Strapped by animal skin and handmade rope to her forearms and upper legs, blades knapped from shards of volcanic obsidian caught the sunbeams penetrating the shallows. They went fully black as the light faded.

In a matter of minutes, Dekarna found the first clutch of eggs.

When the mother octopus sensed the reptile’s approach, she squirted a blast of ink. Octopus ink is meant to do more than obscure a predator’s vision. The substance contains scents intended to fool a beast into thinking it has suddenly found food rather than a murky cloud.

Dekarna was not fooled. Her muscular swimming carried her forward, through the cloud, to her target.

Near the nadir of her lifeforce, the mother octopus moved too slowly to put up a fight or escape. The photoreceptors and color-changing cells in her skin camouflaged her, making her nearly indistinguishable from the surrounding stone. The precaution did not save her.

Dekarna’s spear struck like a lightning bolt. The pointed tip pierced one of the octopuses’ three hearts and its central brain.

Dekarna ripped the spear from the gooey head and struck again. When she drew the weapon toward her mouth, the impaled octopus came with it. Frantic motions of eight independently thinking arms waved away the monster in a final attempt to protect the clutch.

Dekarna snapped the arms into her jaws and destroyed them. The remaining hearts and eyeballs burst in her mouth. She spat out the beak.

The eggs offered no defense against her attack. Dekarna speared them, smashed them with her tail, and—anchoring herself with one hand gripping the underwater rock formations—stomped them into a gel that dispersed in the agitated sea.

Flush with satisfaction, Dekarna sought her next target. She made her way around the island’s perimeter. The infanticide repeated itself dozens of times, punctuated only by the reptile’s need to rise to the surface for air. She gorged herself on her kill as she carried out her mission.

Before she was through, she considered an alternative. With the fresh taste of octopus in her mouth, she decided to let a few clutches survive. The eggs would not hatch immediately, so why not save a few for later, as a treat for her children? They could eat the embryonic octos raw or cook them over fire on the beach. What greater pleasure could life offer than feasting on one’s enemies?

Dekarna snatched a mouthful of eggs but did not swallow. She carried them to the surface and climbed onto land. After shaking herself like a dog ridding its fur of water, she squatted in the sand and urinated to mark the location of her larder.

She took her dinner home.

☠️

Kilometers away, a monster roamed the ocean. Twenty meters long and with enough electrical power to sink a fleet of manmade ships, the cybernetic ichthyosaur feared nothing.

Before he met Mags, he spent countless years in isolation, imprisoned underground in a tank fashioned by his captors and creators, with nothing to keep him company but the decaying corpse of his mate.[10]

The parts of him that were biological rather than mechanical remembered the seas by instinct. But his ancestors had died out millions of years before, and the shapes of seabeds and coastlines, even the positions of continents, had changed so much since prehistoric times.

He propelled himself through a herd of a hundred hammerheads. They scattered and gave him a wide berth. Hammerhead sharks hunted with electrical receptors in their flattened snouts. But the electricity from the ichthyosaur signaled something too large to eat, something that could only mean their deaths if they interfered. Sharks had not survived multiple mass extinction events by being foolish.

The ichthyosaur ignored them. The waters near Isla Salida gave him plenty of opportunity to study their species. His curiosity about what else swam in his new kingdom led him farther and farther from the island.

Undeterred by the greatest, coldest depths, and capable of producing his own light, he cast his enormous eyes on sea floors never seen by humans. Strange creatures thrived in the sunless terrain. Nearly one hundred percent of the energy required for life comes in one form or another from the sun. But a tiny fraction capitalizes on energy from below, from the planet’s brutally hot, metal core and the magma surrounding it, boiling, churning, bursting through the crust.

The ichthyosaur discovered multicellular civilizations with no central brain. He studied geothermal vents where raw, savage chemistry assembled itself into the fundamental proteins for new life: the same processes responsible for his most distant ancestors’ creation.

The ocean revealed her secrets to her king, and he was pleased. He set off spectacular lightshows as he rose from the depths, bringing illumination to the eyes of species that had never seen the sun.

He didn’t feel angry like Dekarna. The octopuses subjected him to far less severe mental control. Truth be told, he adored Mags and required little encouragement to help her. If not for the smuggler, he would have remained trapped in the tragic crypt where he was made.

Still, the octos had kept him on a leash. As their influence faded, the invisible leash grew longer and longer. Eventually, he found its breaking point.

Then he was gone.

The ichthyosaur broke the waves to splash the surface. His massive tail, beating side to side, shot him out of the water. His metallic skin caught the sunlight. A trillion beads of water sliced the silver reflection into gleaming diamonds. A spray like stars exploded then fell from the sky.

He missed his friends on the island. He had lived without anyone to play with for a long, long time, and the mollusks and the mother reptile were good company.

Flocks of a dozen bird species caught his eye. He had never seen their kind before. They divebombed the surface to plunder a frenzied school of herring, a bait ball herded by air bubbles and driven toward the sky by dolphins in a sophisticated hunting maneuver.

The ichthyosaur swam closer to observe the conflict in detail. Leaving vortexes in his wake, he resolved to pay a visit to his old friends.

But first, he had more empire to explore.

☠️

August 2030.

Isla Salida’s August weather brought nights a bit too cool for the reptiles’ liking, but daytime in that dry season offered uninterrupted hours of direct sunlight. The sun kept the island warm at an average high of twenty-five degrees Celsius, like a pleasant Spring day, and made the surrounding waters just as balmy.

Dekarna’s youngsters frolicked in the surf at the edge of the black-sand lagoon lining the inner curve of the crescent island. Though not yet as tall as her, each one had reached at least one meter in height. From the shore, while carving a tree branch into a strong, smooth staff, Dekarna admired the half-dozen lives she had brought into being.

Like kittens, they played at battle to sharpen their skills. Some hunted the silvery, darting fish in the shallows. Their shrieking and chirping amused their mother, until a dark spot appeared in the sky and grew larger.

Months before, on Tannis, Dekarna saw a similar speck descend from the stars. She had been soundly defeated at the hands of Meteor Mags, and that defeat led to her enslavement on the island.[11]

Dekarna raised her sword-filled mouth and roared a warning. All across the island, from one crescent tip to another, echoes of rage called her warriors to attention.

Never again would they be enslaved by the smuggler.


[1] For Mags’ disastrous previous visit to Earth, see Antipodes.

[2] As detailed in Small Flowers.

[3] See The Battle of Vesta 4.

[4] Mags performed on Ceres with Alonso’s band in Small Flowers.

[5] As shown in The Crystal Core.

[6] Mags’ expected, though not guaranteed, lifespan is 200 years thanks to the magic ring she inherited from her great-gramma.

[7] As told in Red Metal at Dawn and subsequent adventures such as Small Flowers and The Crystal Core.

[8] See Small Flowers for more detail. Mags’ failure to install the second unit appears in Antipodes.

[9] For her commander’s folly, see Red Metal at Dawn and The Battle of Vesta 4. For Mags’ machinations, see Small Flowers.

[10] See Hunted to Extinction for the ichthyosaur’s backstory, and his liberation at Mags’ hands in Small Flowers.

[11] See Small Flowers.

Reflections on Writing The Martian Revolution

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My recent story about the Martian revolution in 2030 is a fairly quick read at only 16,000 words, but it took six months to finish. I’ll tell you a bit about what happened along the way—both the challenges and successes—but let’s start with the two main lessons I learned.

First: The more moving parts you have, the longer it takes to assemble the machine. When plotting a story with two or three characters in a limited setting, you have fewer things to keep track of. Seven years ago, I used to crank out first drafts over a weekend, from 5,000 to 15,000 words long. They took a lot longer than that to revise, but most of the first drafts went quickly.

Those were simpler times in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episodes had only three to six main characters in only one or two settings. Plus, I was free to make up things as I went along, because so much of the “universe” was unexplored, and I could invent unresolved plot threads on the fly to set up stories I wanted to tell in the future.

As the series progressed, it encompassed many more characters and settings, and those dangling plot threads needed woven into the fabric of everything we already knew about Mags’ life and her solar system. When writing about any event or character, I needed to bring my internal continuity editor on board to make sure I hadn’t contradicted any previous facts in the more than 300,000 words of established history.

Plus, I chose more ambitious settings as I went along. I started with what you might call “stock footage” for the early stories: things I’d seen in movies and comics that I basically stole or used as blueprints. But after boiling those stolen bits in my own kettle of ideas for a few years, they became a stew with a flavor all its own.

As a result, I sometimes needed to step back from writing the story and return to planning—which leads me to the next lesson. The suggestions I’ve given other writers for years once again proved their usefulness. Finding renewed success with so many of my basic methods reinforced my confidence in publishing them for a wider audience.

In My Life as an Armadillo, my recent book about writing and workshopping, I assert that writer’s block is a myth, because you can always write something—and I give suggestions about the fundamental, foundational pieces of writing you can do behind the scenes to overcome any feeling of being stuck.

I needed to take my own advice a bunch of times for The Martian Revolution. I reached points in the narrative where I realized I had not fully developed my own understanding of a setting or character. I needed to step back and write about those things “off the record”, behind the scenes. That empowered me to come back to the main narrative and write through several scenes and character-driven moments from a deeper understanding and keep moving forward.

Not that I wrote it all in order, from start to finish. Instead, I started from a series of scene synopses built from several thousand words of notes I’d compiled while writing earlier stories that led up to these events. From the scene summaries, I picked whichever I felt most emotionally drawn to when it was time to write.

The challenge of that approach is that you end up whittling down the unwritten scenes to the ones you feel the least emotionally involved with. But that helped me discover, as it has in the past, what it would take to get me emotionally involved in those scenes. After all, if I am not captivated by a scene as the writer, what hope is there of involving any readers?

To get to the emotional core of some things, I did a ton of exploratory writing and description of characters—not just physical descriptions, but about their true motivations, their likes, dislikes, strengths, flaws, histories, relationships with and feelings toward each other, even things that remain unspoken in the narrative but formed a subtext for my own understanding of these characters.

All of that takes time, and no one really gives you credit for doing it as a writer, just like no one gives you credit for studying an instrument for years and practicing for untold hours after giving a great concert performance.

But it wasn’t like I spent every day of six months working on one story. I published the previous collection (The Singing Spell) in October 2020, but then I needed to move at the end of January and didn’t have a place lined up. So, I packed all the stuff that would fit into a rented 10×10 U-Haul truck, threw out everything else, and drove to another city a couple hours away. I hoped for the best, but total disaster was also a possiblity.

The resultant upheaval of my life made it difficult to focus on my story, so I decided not to worry about it. I found solace in writing about something every day. During my week in a hotel, I used my mini-tablet and wireless keyboard to type thousands of words of ideas for the next couple of episodes. During the subsequent saga of three weeks with no Internet in my new place, I revised and edited the collection of essays about writing and workshopping that became the book I published in March 2021. Sometimes I just wrote letters to friends to gather my thoughts.

Plus, my neglected blog needed a shot in the arm, and I had a million things to do to get my new life started and reconnect with my clients. In the meantime, I let The Martian Revolution simmer on the back burner of my mind, and every now and then I felt inspired to make more notes about it or write a scene. Those notes and the extra time proved helpful when I got around to finishing the first draft in mid-March 2021.

I never saw this as being “blocked” as a writer. It was more of a question about where to direct my writing and editing energies on any particular day during a series of life challenges that disrupted my groove. It helped that I had multiple ongoing projects to choose from, some of which were more analytical, some of which were more creative and free-flowing, and all of which were in various stages of development from brainstorming to hammering out a final draft.

Maybe that is the third lesson. I often meet writers who are struggling with a single work, and they feel disheartened when they run into obstacles in their life or with the story itself that prevent them from making progress. But if you have a few irons in the fire at the same time, you can usually find one that strikes your fancy on any given day. Not everything in the universe depends on your finishing your current novel or short story when you have a few of them to tinker with at once. Having options gives you freedom, and having options you truly care about means you can always find something to write.

glass octopus

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My sister sent me a couple of octopus-related housewarming gifts after I got to Tucson a few months ago. One is this adorable glass octo from the Ukraine or something. The packaging had Cyrillic writing all over it. Basically, it’s the same letters in the Russian alphabet, which is fitting because the telepathic octos in my fiction series started a band with a tribe of lost Soviet space monkeys. This glass octo now lives under the monitor for my work computer, next to the cute Patches memento my art teacher made for me back in 2013. Yes, there is a solar system where mutant octopuses, space monkeys, and outlaw cats can all be friends and rock out in a band—at least for as long as I have anything to say about it.

Update: My sister says you can find the creator of this glorious glass octopus and many other creatures at etsy.com/shop/miniatureglass

Three Changes at Kindle Direct Publishing and Amazon for Self-Publishers

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Three changes are taking place this month at Amazon’s platforms for self-publishing. Two involve Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and one is happening at the Media On Demand platform that replaced the old CreateSpace function of selling compact disc albums.

Media On Demand is terminating compact disc sales, apparently due to a lack of demand and the increasing market preference for digital streaming and downloads. I’m sad but not surprised. Although my wholesale cost for each of the two music albums I made available on CD was only $4.99, I felt the retail price where I could make a decent per-unit profit was too expensive at $17.95. CDs are nice, but that price always seemed unrealistic to me. On June 4, CDs will no longer be available from Media On Demand, including wholesale copies to the creators, so creators will need to stock up if they want copies before then.

Next, KDP has begun offering print-on-demand paperbacks in Australia. This requires authors to adjust the pricing of each of their POD books for that market. That’s an easy process inside your KDP account, but since I have around thirty books in print, it took me about an hour to make all the adjustments. Still, I’m excited about this development.

Finally, KDP is currently running a beta version of the ability to make print-on-demand books available in hardcover! (Note: The linked pages for this program might only be currently available to KDP authors who have been invited to the beta program and are signed in to their account.) While not available in all international markets, they will be available in the USA and a few other countries. Many of my fellow authors will be excited if this works out, because my self-publishing customers often ask about hardcover editions.

The new hardcovers won’t be the kind with dust jackets. Instead, they will be “case laminate” hardcovers. Casewrapping is common for specialty books and textbooks, where the image is printed on a material that is wrapped onto the hard binding and glued in place, not a removable paper sleeve.

From a technical perspective, this new format will require some graphic design software skill, because formatting a cover for the casewrap is more complex than just clicking a button! Compared to a paperback cover, the casewrap cover must be created at dimensions both wider and taller so the printed image can be wrapped around the hard binding. It also means there is extra width to account for the “folded” area on each side of the spine. To help cover designers implement these changes, KDP provides a cover dimensions calculator which will also generate a PDF or PNG template to use as a guideline, and the templates are created specifically for your book’s trim size and page count. That is handy!

I spent a couple hours tonight re-doing the cover to Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell and Other Tales, getting a new ISBN and barcode for the hardcover edition, uploading and reviewing the files, and ordering a physical proof copy. I will update you on how it turns out, once the proof arrives. My understanding is that “author copies” will not be available for hardcovers. Those are the copies an author can order at wholesale price, which you already know if you have a POD paperback with KDP.

So, goodbye compact discs and hello hardcovers! And hello to Australia! Feel free to share your experiences with these changes in the comments on this post.

The Martian Revolution: Part 4 of 4

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Continued from Part 3.

Part Four: End Game

The Rendezvous

Mags and Patches arrived at the hub to find it locked down. Between the two of them, they made short work of the lobby door, ignoring the alarms they set off and the dead bodies they encountered. When they found the elevator required a code, Mags put a couple dents in it with her stolen steel-toed boots.

The criminals destroyed a different door and took the stairs instead. With pauses to catch her breath and clutch her ribs, Mags grumbled the whole way.

When they arrived at the entry to the room Tarzi had invaded, gunshots greeted them. Mags stopped beside the door and took cover behind its frame. She said, “Take the point, tough girl.”

Patches burst into the room. She leapt onto the helmeted face of one of Rosalia’s goons who was shooting at Tarzi. She howled as she destroyed him.

Mags stepped in. Her bullets sent the last of the grey-clad enemies to their graves.

Tarzi shouted, “Mags! Patches!”

The smuggler ejected a magazine and slammed a fresh one into place. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” He paused to observe her blood-soaked, shredded Port Authority uniform. “What the hell happened to you?”

“Nothing a little murder can’t solve. Jesus tapdancing christ. Is that Rosie?”

“Yeah,” said Tarzi. “Mags, I didn’t—”

“You traitorous bitch!” Mags knelt beside the corpse. She gripped it by the collar of Rosalia’s uniform and pulled the lifeless, shattered face close to hers. “Don’t you ever fuck with my cat!” A cascade of vulgarities went unnoticed by the single ear still attached to Rosalia’s head.

Mags released the collar and let Rosalia fall to the floor with a thud. “Where the hell is Shondra? When I get my hands on her—”

“What do you mean? The last I knew, she was on her way to set you free.”

“What?!”

Tarzi filled her in on the events of his imprisonment and release.

“Holy crap,” said Mags. “If she didn’t make it to my cell, then where is she?”

“Couldn’t say.”

Mags considered the new information for half a minute, pacing back and forth and cursing under her breath. “Alright, T-man. Let’s put this high-tech hub to use and call her.”

Mags no longer had her phone, but she was not one to forget anything numeric. She switched on a console and entered Shondra’s private number.

☠️

The Treaty

Shondra’s face filled a two-meter-wide screen with a pleasant smile. “Hello, kitten.” Her eyes drifted over Mags’ shoulder to Tarzi, then past him and around the room. “Looks like you have it all under control. The hub is secure? Are we plugged in and ready to take control?”

Mags slammed her fist on the console. “Goddamnit, Shondra! You told Tarzi I was delusional! A psychotically delusional bitch from hell!”

“Are you disputing that fact?”

Mags frowned. “You could have said it more nicely.”

“I’m sorry, Maggie. You are an astoundingly beautiful and musically gifted… totally delusional, psychotic hell beast! You’re practically feral!”

Mags purred. “That’s more like it.”

“Where’s Rosie?”

While Mags and Tarzi focused on the video call, Patches wiggled her butt and leapt onto a machine in the corner. Quietly tapping its screen, she set up an encrypted group message that included Celina, the Dumpster Kittens, and anyone else’s address she remembered. An extended claw softly clacked on the glass while one paw pad typed a message.

sup niggaaaz. chillin lika villin on marz. Patches snapped a photo of her fuzzy face in extreme close-up, framed by blood-smeared walls and corpses behind her. how u like me now. She tapped “send”.[1]

Patches sprawled before the monitor as dozens of messages lit up.

sall good, she typed. back n da crib soon. xox. Despite the flurry of replies, she rested her chin on one paw and closed her eyes. Her whiskers twitched as she listened, with her mind half asleep, to the call with Shondra. Patches liked her human friends, but people failed to understand the importance of frequent napping. They were all so busy. Except maybe Donny.

“Listen,” said Shondra. “That’s how it needs to be. You don’t get to pay the cost to be the boss. I already paid it. What you get is a friend on Mars who agrees that Earth can fuck right off.” Her eyes followed a few flicks of Mags’ tail. “You and I need to work together, not against each other.”

Mags stamped her foot. “Everyone gets access to the free-energy system. But we keep the K Drive between you and me. No one else gets that tech.”

“Agreed.”

“And I can come and go as I please on Mars without fake passports and all this sneaking around like a common criminal! I want a full pardon from the New Martian Coalition. That goes for my whole crew, too.” She swept her arm as if they were all there with her.

“Mags.” Shondra leaned in. The camera went out of focus for a second before she snapped into place as sharp as ever. “Don’t think so small. I’m prepared to sign a treaty with Ceres and officially recognize whatever weird social experiment you have going on there. Now will you quit fucking around and go install the rest of your system? If we want to light up this planet, let’s not take all goddamn day!”

Mags shouted, “Fine, Shondra! I’ll do it! Fuck!”

“That’s great. We need to put out a broadcast about it. How long will it take?”

“It takes as long as it takes! We’ve gotta go halfway around the twatting planet!”

“Call me when you’re done, then. I’ve got places to go. People to execute.”

“You took my phone!” Mags kicked a rack of servers so hard that sparks flew. Shondra’s face flickered. “Me voy a mear en los hoyos![2] You’re lucky I have a backup on my ship! Four hours,” said Mags. “Four fucking hours! Then I’ll call you.”

“My favorite words.” Shondra leaned closer to press a button, and the screen went black.

Mags put her hands on her hips. “I swear, Tarzi, that woman will be the death of me. Let’s hope she doesn’t run this planet like a dominatrix.”

Tarzi said, “Didn’t you do that for a while?”

Mags waved one hand in the air with too much energy to be convincingly dismissive. “Lies! All of it lies.”

“What about Madame Meteor’s House of Humiliation?”

“That comic book was completely unauthorized!”[3]

“The art was pretty good.”

Mags broke her rage to smile. “The art was stellar. So were the outfits.” She racked a bullet into the chamber and holstered her stolen pistol. “Come on, Patches! Time to go.” Mags could not see where Patches was napping, but she followed her nose. “Wake up, lazy butt! We’ve got a planet to power!”

Patches opened one eye halfway. Her nictitating membrane covered most of it.

Mags saw the messages on the monitor. “Oh, shit!” She scrolled up to glance through them all. “Everyone at home is freaking out!”

Home, thought Tarzi. Funny she should use that word for Ceres. As Mags’ fingers flew across the touchscreen Patches had used, Tarzi said, “Please tell me she encrypted that message.”

Mags snapped at him. “She’s not stupid! Even if her spelling sucks.”

“I think she does it on purpose. How many people did she call ‘nigga’?”

“Fucking everyone!”

“Good girl, Patches.” Tarzi rubbed one tuft-filled ear between a thumb and finger.

Patches purred and slowly swept the tip of her tail across her throne.

“You are such a bad influence on her.” Mags finished an update to everyone on the calico’s distribution list. A parade of celebratory emojis marched up the screen as replies came in. Donny sent an eggplant and a trio of water droplets.

Mags slapped her forehead. “We have the most advanced extraterrestrial communication system in history at our fingertips—and Donny is sending icons about ejaculating!”

“At least he seems happy.”

“If he were any happier,” said Mags, “I’d have him euthanized.” She drew herself to her full height. “Let Shondra’s people clean up this mess. Are you two ready to go?”

☠️

The Installation

Tarzi.

Aboard the Bêlit, on the way to the installation site, Mags changed outfits. She stripped off her ragged, filthy Port Authority uniform and tossed it aside. “I need a skirt,” she said. “Here’s the problem. The Martian north and south poles are covered in ice caps, and we’ve got reason to believe there’s a massive subterranean lake under the south.”

She rifled through drawers and flipped through clothes on racks in her trio of closets. “If we install a SlimRod there, we potentially interfere with water-mining in the region. Or the miners might break the damn thing. We don’t want to mess with all that. Besides manufacturing, water mining is the next big moneymaker. Ceres is back to making trillions, but we haven’t even come close to tapping the full market potential.”[4]

Without deciding on an ensemble, Mags returned to the console to bring up a pair of digital maps. She swept a hand across them. “Point is, Shondra found two other permanent locations that can work. One of her crews installed the first unit to the north. That leaves the second for us. We’re en route to the Leibnitz mountains on the rim of the Aitken base—far enough from the glacial ice to relax for a few years, but close enough that the math wasn’t total brain surgery.”

I was typing a message to Hyo-Sonn. “That’s nice.” I didn’t give a donkey’s fuck about where we were going. I just wanted the day to be over.

Mags found legwear to match her skirt and plopped on the edge of her bunk to pull on her stockings. “Tarzi, we’re talking about the oldest known meteorite impact in the history of the entire solar system! Aren’t you even the least bit excited?”

I set my tablet in my lap. “Thrilled.”

Mags picked up a mirror from her bedside and started fixing her makeup. “I know this isn’t how you planned to spend your birthday. Shit, my b-day last year sucked so fucking much I can’t even believe it. How many of our friends were killed? And they died on my watch.”

She slammed down her eyeliner and applied black and bright-red lipsticks until the center of her colorful pout was accentuated in scarlet. “I promise I will make it up to you. Someday, a few years from now, you’ll realize this was one of your most important birthdays. We’re in the center of it all, making it happen. Or trying to, at least.” She stood and swished her tail. “Let’s make history.”[5]

“I’m sorry to be a downer. This is all just so fucked up.”

Mags set a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry about Rosie. She was my friend, too.”

I never could stay mad at Mags for long. How many times had she nearly gotten me killed? But there we were. I set my hand on hers. “I didn’t have a choice.”

“I know,” she said. “But you did have a choice. And you made the right one.” She squeezed my shoulder. “Being right doesn’t make life any easier. But it’s better than being dead wrong.”

When I didn’t answer, she reclined in the captain’s chair and fidgeted with the straps and buckles on her thigh-high boots like I wasn’t even there. I loved that about Mags. She had a way of letting me know she’d always be there for me, but she would totally fuck off if I needed time to myself.

“So,” I said, “tell me more about this bloody awesome mountain range. Sounds like it’s freezing.”

No matter that I’d been on Mars for half a year and studied files on every crack and crevice of its known geography. Patches jumped into my lap and purred. I pet her while Mags told me what I already knew.

Sometimes it’s just nice to be with friends.

We ended up outside on the ice, and I can’t even tell you how cold that mountain was, or how insane Mags was for wearing a skirt. The wind was like a frozen steel blade cutting me from every direction.

Not that it mattered to Patches. She frolicked like we’d been dropped onto Tahiti or something. I love Patches, but how does she do that? Meanwhile, my bollocks were clinking together like ice cubes in a cocktail, and my cocktail was rapidly shrinking to a shot glass.

Mags hammered her SlimRod into place, shooting sparks in every direction across the snowy iron dust all around us. I knew the song she sang to keep a beat while hammering, but I never thought I’d see a planet liberated to it.[6]

When Mags finished, she invited Patches to step up and turn it on. The fate of a planet—maybe the entire solar system—relied on a single cat’s decision to interrupt her winter wonderland and flip a switch.

Patches yawned. She stretched in the snow. Her fluffy paws allowed her to walk on the surface like a lynx. She sniffed the SlimRod and bobbed her head up and down, never quite touching the object. Patches wrinkled her cheeks and held her mouth open slightly, pondering the scent with the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of her mouth.

Springing onto her hindlegs, Patches gripped the switch in her forepaws and pulled it toward the ground. She activated a system that changed Martian history forever. The planet broke its ochre silence and hummed an unfamiliar tune.

Mags shouted, “Hang on, Tarzi,” with no indication of what I should hang on to. The hum built to a roar. A shockwave smacked the planet. All three of us fell into the snow.

Like an orchestra tuning up before a performance, the shockwaves aligned on the perfect pitch—the perfect note to power a planet.

Two seconds later, I didn’t hear it at all. The note propagated through Mars and became a part of it, an invisible character in the background. A ghost.

A ghost that would power everything.

Mags got to her feet and snapped a photo of Patches sprawling on the ice and flecks of red stone at the base of the SlimRod. She sent it to Shondra. Mags spoke a message for the voice-to-text translator. “All plugged in here. Just in time for your little speech.”

She put the phone up her skirt. A flash went off. I did not even want to know. A second later, she said, “Let’s go watch her on the big screen.”

☠️

The Broadcast

Tarzi.

Aboard the Bêlit, I dropped into the co-pilot’s chair. Patches filled my lap. Mags switched on the pair of meter-wide monitors atop the console and adjusted the volume.

Two identical portraits of Shondra filled the screens. Mags handed me a beer, cracked open one for herself, and kicked back in the captain’s chair.

“People of Mars,” Shondra began. “My fellow Martians. Today is the end of history and the beginning of a new era. From now on, Mars will govern itself. Our laws will be our own. Our economy will be our own. Our pride as the number-one extraterrestrial producer of goods will be our own. We will be one planet. One people. One victory.”

Mags adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose. “Good slogan.”

“Forces,” Shondra continued, “loyal to corporations on Earth, butchered some of the leaders of our revolution. Those forces have been dealt with, and we will no longer tolerate such interference from Earth, nor from her corporations. But I beg you to learn to live in peace with your neighbors, regardless of former loyalties. Now is the time for Mars to become one planet. One people.”

“And,” I said, “one hell of an energy source.”

Mags said, “She’ll get to that.”

“We are not,” said a pair of massive Shondra faces, “merely equal as Martian citizens. We are equal in power. Within twenty-four hours, the new administration will begin distributing a new technology. This tech is a simple piece of electronics you can install in your house or on your land, and it taps into a global energy system you can access for no cost. It can power a home or a farm or a mine, using an open-source converter.

“Our government will provide hands-on support for both personal, home installations and larger commercial applications. But make no mistake. We intend to bring free energy to everyone on our planet, and our projections show this is an achievable goal within half a Martian year.[7]

“The local offices of the Port Authority and the Passport Command are now under the control of the New Martian Coalition.”

Shondra’s eyes went up and to the right, as if she were trying to remember. I’m sure it was unconscious that she licked her lips while thinking.

“Oh. My name’s Shondra. You might know me from the shipyards. I’ll be in touch every twenty-four hours until we get this sorted.” Her playful smile disappeared, and she raised a fist. “Long live the resistance.”

The broadcast ended. The screens went black.

Mags laughed and shook me by the shoulder. “Is that it? No love for the brave defender of freedom and his felonious feline friends?”

She stood before I thought of a comeback. “What a fucking rip-off!” Mags faced the blank monitors with her hands folded behind her back, and her tail whipped everything in its reach. Eventually, the whip settled, and her fingertips rested on the console. She took a deep breath and let it out. “Tarzi, I’ve got a two-room suite booked in a hotel that Shondra doesn’t know about. They’ll cook us anything we want, even late. I mean anything. Are you hungry?”

I said, “Starving! I could eat a slow-roasted maggot off a whale dick.”

“It might be on the menu. How about fish and chips?”

“That,” I said, “sounds perfect. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

☠️

Epilogue: The Cake

5 July 2030.

“Happy birthday, T-man!” Mags strolled into the master suite with a chocolate-swirled cheesecake in a chocolate crust on a platter. Lines of caramel glaze and walnut pieces adorned the top. “I heard this was your favorite.”

“Oh, fuck yes,” said Tarzi. “How did you get that at three in the morning?”

Get it? I fucking baked it for you!” She set it on a table between two chairs.

“Yeah, right.”

“I have friends in the kitchen.”

“Where are the candles?”

Mags laughed. “You are so demanding! Check this out.” From a pocket on her skirt, she pulled three joints. “Why blow out candles when you can light one up?” She gave him a doob. “Make a wish on that, motherfucker. One for Patches, too.”

Patches leapt onto the table, snatched up a joint in her fuzzy jaws, and jumped to the floor. She ripped into the spliff and chomped with wild abandon, rolling on her back in the debris and trapping green flecks in her tri-colored fur.

Mags pulled something else from her pocket. “Forks!” She stabbed hers into the cake. “To Mars and her stupid revolution, I say ‘Fork you, bitch.’”

Tarzi plunged four plastic tines into the cake. “This whole forking planet sucks.”

“You don’t like it here?” Mags held out a lighter and lit his joint, then hers.

“Fuck no.” Tarzi took a deep inhale, held it, and released it. “Oh, that’s some good shit.”

“Have I ever given you anything that wasn’t?”

“Not even once. But Mars can sod off. I am so sick of paperwork. I want to go home.”

“To Earth?”

“Not Earth. It hasn’t been home since my parents died. I did talk to their lawyer, though. Signed some papers. I own the property and the rights to their publications, and they had a solid life insurance policy.[8] That’s nice, don’t get me wrong. But do you know what I want?”

Mags leaned in. “Tell me.”

“I want to be closer to Hyo-Sonn.”

Patches shredded the carpet.

“And you and Patches, too! I mean, thank you for setting me up on Mars. It definitely helped me get my head together after all the shit that happened last year. But my future isn’t here. It’s with you and my friends.”

Mags sat back in her chair and flicked ash on the carpet where it charred a black scar then burnt out. “Tarzi, you and I have a lot in common. We both had to grow up way too soon and deal with shit no kid should ever deal with. But you know what?” She took a puff.

“What’s that?”

“You dealt with it. I’m proud of you, little man. But I don’t think it’s nearly as proud as I could be.” She scooped a chunk of cake and paused before shoveling it into her mouth. “This is just the beginning. Happy birthday.”

Tarzi lifted a mountain of sugary calories. “Does that mean you’ll take me back to Ceres?”

Mags swallowed her mouthful and stabbed the dessert again. “Tarzi, I will take you to Ceres or anywhere else you need to be, and I will stand by your side as far as you want to go in this life. May the goddess have mercy on anyone who gets in our way. You’ve kicked more arse than anyone your age should need to, and I love you for it. Always have.”

“Thanks for saying that, Mags. I love you, too.” Tarzi took a bite. “Oh, fuck, that’s good. Did you bring any rum?”


[1] Patches has been a huge fan of gangsta rap ever since she merged minds with Mags in Red Metal at Dawn. She also loves texting her friends—especially Tarzi—since no one but Mags can understand her when she talks.

[2] Spanish for, “I will piss in your eye holes!”

[3] Madame Meteor’s House of Humiliation first appeared in print in the Asteroid Belt in 2026. Mags publicly disavowed any involvement with its production.

[4] One of the main Ceresian exports is water extracted from the pockets of its sub-surface ocean, purified, and sold to various interests in the system. The 2029 super-tornado destroyed many of the water-mining facilities, but the reconstruction of Ceres in 2030 restored most of them to capacity.

[5] Mags quotes the 2004 song Let’s Make History by The (International) Noise Conspiracy. On her favorite album, Armed Love. Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.

[6] Mags likes to sing John Henry when she installs the SlimRods. The first verse is:

John Henry, when he was a baby

sittin’ on his mama’s knee,

picked up that hammer in his little right hand,

said, “Hammer’ll be the death of me, me, me.

Hammer’ll be the death of me.

The song is a traditional ballad about the U.S. folk hero John Henry, a railroad steel-driving man who challenged an early steam drill to a contest and won—but died in the process.

[7] A Martian solar year is 687 Earth days. Shondra is promising planet-wide access to the new energy system in roughly one Earth year.

[8] Tarzi was contacted about his late parents’ estate via voice mail by their lawyer in Hunted to Extinction.

Of Mars and Moms: A Memoir

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It’s the week of Mother’s Day, and I’m currently working on a new story about a couple of moms, so this seems like as good a time as any to tell you that Mom occasionally drops by this blog to see what I am up to.

No, she doesn’t much care about comic books, experimental poetry, or the violent, profane fiction I torment the rest of you with on a regular basis. But she does care about her boy who has long since outgrown boyhood and is rapidly approaching his 49th birthday. So, I’d like to give some credit where credit is due.

This blog wouldn’t exist without Mom. Besides the fact that I wouldn’t have been born without her, she helped me get a jumpstart on reading at a young age. I was way into superheroes and dinosaurs by the time I hit kindergarten, and if not for Mom’s infinite patience with reading dinosaur books with me when I was a child, I wouldn’t have been conversant about stegosaurs and pachycephalosaurs while I was still in pre-school.

As a result, my kindergarten teacher must have thought I was some kind of child prodigy, because I was enlisted into an advanced reading group that deciphered complexities of the English language such as “See Jane run” while the rest of the class had nap time. Let me assure you: I was no prodigy. I only had some advanced reading comprehension, and a decent memory of things I’d read—both of which eventually served me well in slacking my way through high school.

Besides dinosaur books and basically any book about animals, space, or history, I had a youthful passion for comic books. That love did not diminish in my teenage years! But by then, times had changed.

In the mid-1980s, comics experienced a cultural shift. No longer were they relegated to the magazine racks of convenience stores and drug stores. Shops dedicated entirely to comics appeared, and the publishing industry responded by creating “direct market” titles meant solely for distribution to those shops. You might take comic shops for granted now, but they were a pretty big deal at the time.

When I was old enough to legally have a job, I picked up a gig as a golf caddy on the weekends to make a few bucks. The work itself truly sucked on a Saturday morning, but some of the old golfer guys tipped me nicely, and I’d leave the place with cash in my pocket. I wasn’t old enough to drive, so Mom would pick me up.

Our first stop? The comic shop. While Mom patiently waited, I discovered series and back issues that to this day remain among my all-time favorites.

Those reading experiences undoubtedly shaped me and influenced my future as a writer, editor, and that apex (or possibly nadir) of human evolution we call a comic-book blogger.

Mom, if you’re stopping by today, thank you for putting up with learning how to pronounce all those dinosaur names back in the 70s, for making sure I always had plenty of books and comics to occupy my mind in the 80s, and for encouraging me to keep exploring my creativity all the way into the 2020s.

You rock!

The Martian Revolution: Part 3 of 4

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Continued from Part 2.

Part Three: Sacrifices

The Cell

Meteor Mags awoke in pitch blackness and felt herself for injuries. She discovered every item of her clothing had been removed. The tape around her ribs was gone. She touched one ear lobe then clasped a hand to her chest, just below the neckline. Her fist closed on nothing. Even her jewelry was gone.

“Son of a bitch!”

Reflexively, she put one finger to the bridge of her nose to adjust her glasses. They were gone, too.

“Fuck me dead.”

The phone stashed in her bra, the knives strapped to her calves and forearms, three small-caliber pistols hidden along her curves, and the circuitry in her jewelry—all of it gone. No way to contact Tarzi, no way to summon her ship. No way to—

“Where the hell is Patches?!”

Mags comforted herself by turning her ring around her finger, then holding it in place. “The only way they’d take you is by chopping off my goddamn finger.” She considered the fact. “Shondra must have strip-searched me. Rosie would have definitely chopped the finger. That fucking whore.”

Mags cradled her forehead in one palm and shook her head. “I can’t believe I trusted that cow!” She sobbed once, and again, then filed away the emotion to be reviewed later—or maybe never. Mags pulled herself to her feet and slumped against a brick wall that offered all the warmth of a glacier. “Shondra,” she said, “what’s your game?”

She smacked the wall with her open palm, made a fist, and shook it in the darkness. “You cunts! If you hurt Tarzi, I will end you! Do you fucking hear me?!”

No one answered.

In a darkness where not even her catlike eyes could gather light, Mags began running her fingers over every centimeter of the enclosure. She pressed her nose to within a millimeter of the surface, seeking any scent she could find. At first, the only sounds her ears picked up were the pulse of her heart, the flow of her breath, and the barely perceptible padding of the balls of her feet as she made her way around the room. Beyond that, past the edge of human hearing, the electromagnetic hum of her prison whispered to her above the dull roar of the city.

She felt her way around the frame of the only exit. Her side of the door held no hinges and no hint of the locking mechanism. Just a slab.

By her estimation, to claw through the miniscule crevice around the edge of the door and pry it open might take two-hundred years—assuming they fed her enough calcium to keep her nails growing.

If they didn’t give her food or water at all? No more than ninety-six hours before total, catastrophic organ failure. For cats, at least.

“Fuck.” Mags abandoned her probing and sat cross-legged on the floor. She pressed her palms together and the tip of each finger to its opposite. She tried to focus on Sarah. “Angel, can you hear me?”

She reached only silence.

“Octos? Are you there?”

Nothing.

“Pick up!”

Still nothing.

“Unreliable sons of bitches!

Immediately, she felt bad for saying it. She was, after all, one of their three mothers.[1] No one understood more than Mags that sometimes a person, or a fucked-up mutant cat hybrid type of person, or even a cephalopodic groupmind needed to wander off for a bit without being disturbed. “Sorry, babies. But if you get this message, call me. Shit just hit the fan on Mars.”

While she waited, Mags cursed the unresponsive door until she was hoarse. Then, like any sensible feline, she curled in the corner for a nap. Her stream of consciousness became non-verbal. Something like a movie made of emotions, memories, and fantasies played in her mind.

One eye remained half open. In her sleep, her ears twitched, alert as radar dishes—searching, hoping for a signal.

☠️

The Basement

Through a pair of metal doors, Shondra burst into the garage below the ground level of Tarzi’s prison. She ran down a concrete ramp. “Get ready to roll!”

Twelve of her elite awaited her. They snapped to attention and disappeared, four at a time, into three armored vehicles arranged in a line like a convoy. Only Shondra’s driver remained outside her vehicle, saluting.

Shondra shouted, “Let’s go!”

“We got a problem, boss!” Despite her warning, the driver obeyed Shondra’s command, climbing into her seat and starting the engine.

“Make it quick!”

“All the blocks from here to prisoner extradition are a fucking war zone. The radio’s lit up with reports of fires and buildings collapsing in the streets. There’s no guarantee we can get through.”

“Fine,” said Shondra. “We do it anyway. We have a political prisoner to free, and a couple of flaming speedbumps are the least of our worries. Move out!”

The driver gave the order.

Powerful engines built in the finest shipyard in the solar system roared to life. The convoy sped to the garage exit. The wide metal door, half a meter thick, raised at a coded electronic signal from Shondra’s driver.

Here we come, kitty. Shondra opened a panel on the dashboard, found a box of ammunition, and began refilling her empty magazines. Hang on.

As Shondra’s vehicle reached the exit, a blast with the light of the sun pulverized the wall above the garage door. Stone and cinder block pelted the transport in a torrential sheet so dense it stopped the forward motion and buried Shondra alive, along with everyone else inside.

She gripped her driver by the shoulder and shook the senseless body. Blood ran from its forehead. “Damn it!” Shondra lowered the window on her side. An avalanche of dust and rubble poured into her face, onto her lap, and down around her feet.

Shondra choked and coughed. To the survivors in the back seat, she shouted, “What the hell are you waiting for? Dig!”

Sunset came to Mars. It gilded the stone above Shondra’s crew with a fiery glow before vanishing into blackness. By the time the crew got free and dug out the lead vehicle, Shondra was far too late to save Mags.

☠️

The Captain

“Passengers of Tycho Airlines, flight two thirty-six, this is your captain speaking. Thank you for joining us this evening. We’re on the final approach to the city of Hevelius. Please stow all carry-on items in the overhead bins or beneath your seats and return your seats to their upright positions.

“We’ll be encountering a bit of social unrest on the ground. We have reports of mass looting, urban riots, and armed insurrection. I see—fires. Fires everywhere. What the—

“Folks, we don’t know for sure what’s happening, but please remain calm. Flight attendants will come by in just a second to collect your—

“What the fuck? Is that a rocket from the surface? It’s coming right at us! Mayday! Mayday! Two thirty-six to tower, requesting emergency—

“Get the hell off me and fly, motherfucker! Mayday!

“What? My mic is still on?”

☠️

The Station

Oblivious to her trajectory, an unconscious Patches smashed into an airplane. Her body punctured the hull, and the collision killed everyone aboard—some upon impact, some who were sucked out of the plane into the sky, and others when the wreckage screamed down to the ground and exploded.

Members of Patches’ human crew had called her a living weapon. But they had never seen her become a lifeless projectile, nor imagined the damage she could do in that state.

Patches would never know about the plane, but it slowed her ascent. She reached the apex of a graceful arc, fell under the spell of artificial Martian gravity, and rocketed back to the surface.

Hevelius was the largest city on Mars. Where Patches landed was a matter of luck. She could have crashed into multi-family housing, or the commercial district, or a park. Instead, she plummeted into a power station.

The force of impact shattered the generators’ metal housings and sent a fiery sphere of shrapnel expanding in every direction. It destroyed a city block and shut off the power to dozens of neighborhoods.

In the crater, a web of electrical wires still connected to subterranean backup generators cradled Patches. Where the explosion severed them, arcs of lightning sprang to life, crackling white, outlined in blue. The energy leapt across her fur, overcame its carbon-based resistance, and lit up the calico cat from the inside.

The surrounding neighborhood was fortunate that annihilation came first, because the caterwaul Patches unleashed would have made a grown person wish for death. Nothing of its kind had been heard on Mars nor anywhere else in the solar system.

A ball of lightning held Patches in its center. Her body levitated as she screamed, and all her mental faculties and her heartbeat clawed at the door of oblivion. Her neurons fired erratic signals. She convulsed in the air with her eyes as wide as two black planets in twin halos of green, and her limbs thrashed like swords in a cyclone without sense or reason.

Circuit breakers kicked in. The lightning ended. Patches fell through the cables and tumbled into the crater’s dark heart.

She landed on her feet.

From Patches’ point of view, Rosalia’s betrayal took place only a second before. Fresh hate filled her heart. Patches scrambled to the surface, leaping from one dead wire to the next, sinking her claws into plastic sheathing, relentless and unstoppable.

When she got to the surface, she ran a paw twice over one ear. For a golden moment, she allowed the sunset to grace her whiskers. Then she broke into a run.

The fading sun cast a rusty orange glow in the final moments before dusk. It drew a cat-shaped shadow on the streets. The shadow turned into a blur and vanished into the complex crevices of Hevelius.

☠️

The Subway

Patches rubbed her cheeks against a building’s corner—first one cheek then the other with increasing intensity until the flesh beneath her fluff smashed into the brick. To an outside observer, the ritual would have looked painful, but Patches loved it.

Pain had not troubled Patches since July 2029. Back then, on the brink of death, she awoke in a tank of bubbling energy that channeled the entire power of a planet-sized moon into her.[2]

She had neither requested nor desired that fate, but it was hers, and she accepted it. What did any cat need to deal with but the present moment?

She never mourned the absence of pain. If Patches had been born as any mammal except a cat, she might have found a reason to be thankful she could still feel pleasure.

But rather than feel grateful, Patches assumed that pleasure was her due, that objects and sentients who brought her pleasure simply did what the universe had declared to be her birthright, and no one should take those pleasures from her.

Patches worked herself into a frenzy, biting the spot she scented with the glands in her face, standing on her hind legs to carve long gouges with her foreclaws. All around her, war blossomed into being.

Looters plundered Hevelius. A rocket launcher turned a storefront into a fireball. Lights and gunfire and propeller noise from overhead battled small-arms fire, Molotov cocktails, and chanting, surging crowds. Bodies in Port Authority uniforms, ship-builder’s gear, and makeshift guerilla outfits fell from windows and dropped from aircraft. Mutilated corpses littered the streets.

No matter.

War, as far as Patches could discern, was humanity’s natural state. She assessed the tableau of destruction and suffering. She might as well have been observing a cloud or the erratic motions of a butterfly in the wind. They were not things she could affect nor cared to, merely natural objects to be avoided on the way to her purpose.

Patches folded back her ears and ran at top speed through the chaos. The buses had stopped running, but many trains still ran. Patches followed the signs to a platform underground. She had only three seconds to study the subterranean maps before an explosion from above shook the station.

Chunks of the collapsing ceiling fell around her. The dust rendered everything invisible—everything but the light of an oncoming train.

Seeing the station falling to pieces, the train’s engineer decided to skip it and keep moving. The train smashed debris to the sides, denting its hull and sending up a shower of sparks and flame as metal and stone crashed together against the sides of the tunnel.

Patches waited at the edge of the platform, but the train did not stop. Her eyes narrowed to slits in the incoherent light and murky dust clouds. As the train sped past, she launched herself, dug her claws into its metal exterior, and held on.

The tunnel walls slammed past her. She pulled herself closer to the hull. In the narrowest of passages, her indestructible hair and spine carved a groove into the concrete wall. Darkness swallowed her and the steel monster she rode, but she held fast.

Unseen from her underground vantage point, towers sprang onto the horizon: the Port Authority building where she had been captured, the surrounding structures which made up its prisons, and—though Patches did not yet know it—the communications hub that would be Tarzi’s destination.

Once the train passed the obliteration of the station where Patches boarded, she focused on the station markers. The train stopped at none of them and continued its frightful course without regard for a schedule. Patches chattered. The wind whipped away her voice. When she saw the stop for the Port Authority buildings approaching, she prepared to jump.

She hit the ground on all fours, but the momentum rolled her head-over-heels until she smashed into a monolith. Upon its surface were engraved three large words: Port Authority Administration. Patches arched her back, bared her teeth, and hissed.

She sniffed the ground for Mags’ scent in an ever-widening circle until she picked up the trail. She picked up Tarzi’s, too.

Patches had never known the love of biological brothers and sisters. At birth, she was separated from the other kittens in her litter. But to the extent that she realized Mags thought of her as a cub, then Tarzi must also be Mags’ cub. That meant they were nestmates, cubs from the same litter.

She lost his trail. It led away from the Port Authority building then vanished into the unknown.

But Mags’ scent was as plain as day.

Patches licked a paw between each of its claws. She weighed Tarzi’s life against every living being—human or otherwise—on Mars. Three times, she ran the paw over one ear.

She made her decision. If anything bad had happened to Tarzi, Patches intended to soak the red planet in the blood of her enemies until it drowned.

Some sins could never be forgiven. Some things broke so badly they could never be fixed. But Patches anticipated some small satisfaction to be gleaned from murdering every last person who had fucked things up.

She knew Mags would feel the same way.

Such were the thoughts of a rather large and fluffy calico cat as she followed her best friend’s trail and pondered the fate of a faithless planet.

☠️

The Door

Mags’ captors had not imprisoned her in the same building as Tarzi. Her impregnable cell occupied a ten-story monolith near the spaceport favored by visiting officials from Earth. It was a convenient location for the Port Authority to hold those prisoners who required extradition to Earth for legal or political reasons.

The criminals inside could only hope for one of two ways out: deportation or death. No one had ever broken into the prison. No one had ever escaped.

No one had ever told Patches.

All through the prison’s hallways, alarms blared like klaxons and flashed lights from their perches on the walls. Along one path through the facility, a stream of blood spread until it met the walls and pooled at their edges. At the head of the crimson river ran an especially purposeful cat.

Mags awoke to the screech of tortured metal. She sprang to her feet. Every hair on her body stood straight up.

Like nails on a steel chalkboard, Patches’ claws tore at the cell’s metal door from the outside.

After the initial shock, Mags pounded on the door. She could not see nor smell her kitten, but she knew. She shouted, “Patches!”

A howling whirlwind scaled the door and ripped apart its lock and hinges. They fell like dead birds to the prison floor. Their gleaming reflections caught Patches’ eyes, and she pounced on them.

She sprang away as the steel slab flew from its frame, over her head, and down the hallway. It slammed to a stop against a wall. From the empty doorway, Mags’ naked left leg extended, parallel to the floor.

“Motherfuckers!”

Patches sauntered to Mags’ side, rubbed against the leg planted firmly on the floor, and arched her tail. She sought Mags’ eyes and mewed.

“Baby kitty!” Mags scooped her calico into the cradle of her arms and rubbed her face into mounds of fluff. She listened as Patches rapidly chattered about her adventures across the Martian landscape.

“You did great, kitten. Where’s Tarzi?”

Patches told everything she knew.

“I have an idea where he’s headed. Did you kill anyone my size?”

Carrying her cat, Mags followed the trail of blood that led to her cell. She inspected the leaking bodies one-by-one until she found a reasonable match. She set down Patches and stripped clothing from a corpse. “One thing I love about the Port Authority,” she said. “They hire a lot of women. This one’s almost my size.”

Mags dressed in a dead woman’s clothes and tugged them into place where they didn’t quite cover her generous curves. Blood and gashes ripped by Patches’ claws marred the grey, woolen cloth. Mags struck a pose. “How do I look?”

She purred at the response. “Then it’s just you and me.” Mags plundered the dead for weapons and ammo. Racking a bullet into a stolen pistol’s chamber, she said, “That’s more like it. Let’s descend into the maelstrom.” [3]

They set off to find Tarzi and racked up a double-digit body count along the way. Thirty minutes later, smudged with soot and rust-colored dust, splattered with blood and bits of strangers’ organs, they arrived at the base of the communications hub.

Tarzi’s scent told them they had found the right destination.

☠️

The Bargain

Tarzi hoped to meet Mags at the hub. Instead, he confronted Rosie and her elite personal bodyguards, all heavily armed. The young man withdrew around the doorframe and shouted. “Don’t shoot! It’s me, Tarzi!”

They shot anyway.

“Will you bloody stop and listen for a minute? Rosie!”

She shouted back. “What do you want?!”

“I want to help,” said Tarzi. “I want to help you take over Mars.”

“I already have. Get lost!”

“Not even close. You need me. I’ve been on the streets, and this whole thing is turning into a disaster! It’s a disaster I can help you with. But,” said Tarzi, “the whole deal is contingent on freeing Mags.”

Rosie said, “Not a chance.”

“You can’t send Mags to her death and expect any of this to work. The riots aren’t shit. You’re asking for all-out war with Ceres and every outlaw in the Belt—without much help from Earth.”

“We can handle a few pirates.”

“Not these ones. And definitely not Patches.”

Rosie shouted, “Your little cat is gone! Don’t be stupid.”

“If you think you got rid of Patches that easily, you’re so fucked in the head that your IQ might go up when she eats your skull. You should be crapping your pants right now, wondering how soon it will be until she—”

“Tarzi! If I set Mags free, the first thing she would do is come to kill me. She isn’t one to forgive and forget.”

“She’ll never do either. She’ll never agree with you about your deal with Earth. She will hate you ’til the day she dies.”

“That makes me feel a whole lot better. She stays locked up.”

“Rosie, Mags hates the idea on principle. She likes to talk real loud and make a scene about her ideals. But if you show her a profit opportunity, all that goes out the window. You will never have her love. But you can appeal to her greed.”

“Why would I give her anything?”

“The free-energy system. She wants it. You need it. It’s a bargain.”

“I’ll get Shondra to make it.”

“The fuck you will,” said Tarzi. “Who do you think let me out of my cell?”

“What?”

“Shondra hates your fucking guts. She sent me here! Shondra plans to kill you and take over. If you want the energy system, you need Mags.”

Rosie pondered.

Tarzi pounced on the silence. “You want the economic boost from trading with Earth. But if you can provide free, unlimited power to any rock you want, think what that means for the future of mining and manufacturing! If you let Mags do this one little thing she really, really wants to do, then you create a space-based economy with unlimited resource potential. Do you want to rule Mars, or do you want to rule the entire bloody solar system?”

“She’ll still want to kill me.”

“Undoubtedly.”

Rosie said, “Will you talk to her?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you! What do you plan to say to Mags to convince her to go along with this plan of yours?”

Tarzi paused. “Let me think for a minute.”

He seized the lull in conversation. Tarzi slowed his breathing and imagined his favorite Swans album playing at top volume.[4] The brutal rhythms calmed him. Time stretched out. In what would look like a blur to the human eye, he stepped into the room with his pistol raised and put a bullet into the helmet of the nearest guard.

The guard’s head snapped back in slow motion. Individual bits of shrapnel and drops of blood began to break away from the helmet. The fragments and splatters barely expanded before Tarzi fixed the next guard in his sights. He fired again. A bullet pierced the second guard’s faceplate. Tarzi shot a third time.

Rosalia and her remaining guards pulled their triggers. Millimeter by millimeter, fingers squeezed. Bullets entered the air and slowly, deliberately, advanced on paths to where Tarzi no longer stood.

He dove for cover, but not before he sent one more bullet to its destination.


[1] The octopuses’ biological mother was an octopus also, but because Mags and Patches were present for their birth and merged minds with them and their mother, the octopuses consider the felonious felines to also be their mothers.

[2] In Patches the Immortal.

[3] Mags quotes a song title that belongs to both Radio Birdman and Wo Fat.

[4] The Glowing Man, by Swans.