Revealed at Last: The Secret of the Perpetual Motion Comics Machine

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Today, after nearly nine years of blogging, I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone before.

Once upon a time, I reversed entropy.

In the early years of this blog, I sometimes mentioned my “top secret fifty-cent rack” where I got ridiculous deals on vintage and contemporary comics. I mean, they were ridiculous. For example, someone would dump Grant Morrison’s entire run on Animal Man, immaculately bagged and boarded in VF+ to NM condition. At fifty cents an issue, that find cost me $12.

If you’ve recently tried to collect that run, then you understand what I mean by ridiculous deals.

Or I’d find half of the Lucifer series, or an uninterrupted chunk of Sandman issues I was missing. Or, on two separate visits, I’d piece together the entire hologram cover series from a 1990s X-Men crossover. Then I’d find near-mint copies of complete story arcs from the Ultimate X-men series, plus random underground comix from the 1970s, current indie publishers I’d never heard of, and a staggering pile of colorful vintage awesomeness.

Don’t get me wrong. Nobody was dumping Fantastic Four #1 from the 1960s. I wasn’t getting bloody rich at the fifty-cent rack. But I discovered so much there and did quite a bit of collecting. It was the best time to love comics.

Then it went away.

Forever.

Since it is gone for good, and the sacred secret no longer has any power over my destiny, I will divulge to you the fountain of comic book infinitude that fueled the early days of Mars Will Send No More.

Drum roll, please.

It was the Bookmans Book Store at 19th Avenue and Northern in Phoenix, Arizona.

Now, don’t be sad for the store. It did not die in a cataclysmic Crisis on Infinite Crossover Wars event. It is still there, selling second-hand books, video games, movies, toys, and musical instruments. You can take stuff in, and they offer you cash or a significantly larger store credit. You can also drop in empty-handed to shop for decent deals on slightly used stuff.

But several years ago, the top-secret rack died. And it died without a warning.

I had no idea until one day I walked in and discovered the horror they had made of my paradise. The shelves were moved to a different location and changed to a dollar rack. The quality of the comics decreased, the shelf size decreased, and the price went up.

A golden age had ended.

The epic was over.

But I recall when the golden age began. At a friend’s invitation, I visited Bookmans for the first time. It did not take her long to wonder what horrifying hell she had created for herself. The comic book rack was a huge set of shelves with not just hundreds but thousands of books. I spent hours looking through them all! Every single one! My friend told me it was okay and went to one of the posh reading corners to enjoy a book.

But just between you and me, she never invited me there again.

I’m just kidding. We went back there a bunch of times together. And I got hundreds of comics from that place. Stacks of hundreds at a time. Every couple of months, for years.

It was not merely a fifty-cent rack. If I brought in comics to the “trade counter”, and the books were in reasonable condition, Bookmans gave me twenty cents of store credit for them.

Do the math. If I have old comics I don’t want to read, then I take them to Bookmans and get twenty cents credit per book. But all I am there to do is buy their fifty-cent comics. With my credit, those now cost only thirty cents. If I come back and trade a stack of comics I picked up on my last visit and paid an effective rate of thirty cents for, and I get twenty cents credit for them again, then they only cost me ten cents in the long run.

If that sounds like a perpetual motion scam, then realize that the thermodynamic friction in the system was that I loved a ton of the books I found there, and I kept them.

Also, friction means, “You must work for it.” You need to feed energy into any system to power it. Every system is always losing energy through friction, expressed in terms of heat loss, which is called entropy. If you don’t add work to a system, it eventually stops.

So, I looked for ways to feed into the system for the lowest cost. Three things proved especially effective.

One, I scoured the city for “quarter” bins, especially where you could get five for a dollar. If I could get five for a dollar, then they cost twenty cents each, which was exactly how much store credit I could get for trade-in at Bookmans. I got some things worth keeping and re-reading from those bargain bins, and I traded in the rest of it for even better stuff at Bookmans. As a bonus, the stuff I traded in was fun to read and discover. It was not always material I wanted to keep, but it was something I was glad I had a chance to see, and occasionally would sell on eBay for more than I paid for it.

In another attempt at perpetual energy and comic books forever, I bought a collection from a friend, cleaned it up, sold a few things on eBay, kept a few gems, and traded in the rest. I did slightly better than break even on that venture, minus a little time and elbow grease, plus a few cool vintage things for my collection, and a bunch of fun stuff I scanned for this blog before parting with it.

But of all the perpetual motion schemes I tried, one remains unmatched in all of time and space. It was like I had broken the laws of physics and economics simultaneously. Anything and everything seemed possible.

Acting on a tip from a friend of a friend, I bought several long boxes at a pawn shop for a stupidly low cash price. I threw maybe $20 or $40 at this purchase, max.

I am such a social retard that I spent a couple hours in the parking lot behind the place, doing what I had to do to get the collection in order. Any civilized person would have fucked off and done his work in private. But to be fair, I did ask the shop if I could park in back and go through the goods. And they said yes.

They just didn’t realize I meant for maybe all afternoon.

In a dirt alley parking lot with a beat-up old truck I later sold at a loss after some drunk driver totaled it, I cleaned up the collection, took stuff for myself, threw out damaged worthless issues, and organized other issues into runs that belonged together.

I picked out a couple things that sold on eBay for just enough to cover the entire cost of the long-box purchase. I broke even on the purchase through eBay sales, and still got twenty cents of store credit at Bookmans for a couple boxes’ worth of stuff I didn’t want. Hundreds of dollars of credit.

Take that, Isaac Newton. For one glorious moment in time, I stumbled upon a perpetual motion machine of comic books that generated pure profit and excess reading enjoyment.

That is how I reversed entropy, cheated thermodynamics, and ended up with forty short boxes of comic books lining the walls of my former office.

For a few years, it was comic book heaven. At one point, I took bagged and boarded comics and nailed them to the walls in orderly rows and columns—not through the book, just the bag and board. For a couple years, I changed the display every few months. One month my office would be nothing but Wolverine covers. Two months later: four walls of seven stripes in the colors of the rainbow, one color per stripe. Next, two walls of covers featuring awesome solo shots of my favorite heroines, and two walls of dinosaurs.

I went through a fuck-load of nails, bags, and boards.

But every single day, it was geek heaven to walk into that office to get some work done.

Yes, I miss it. Life happened, and I needed some cash, so I sold about thirty boxes from that collection. Though I didn’t get rich, and it was a desperate attempt to break even, I made a small profit when all was said and done. I took the profit I worked my ass off to get and immediately spent it on rent.

For my efforts, I was left standing with a few short boxes of my favorite comics.

As the old song goes: “Regrets? I’ve had a few.”

Until recently, I regretted selling off some of my treasures. But in the last couple of years, thanks to this blog’s readers, I’ve reacquired editions of the most awesome stuff, the stories I consider indispensable and love to read and re-read, even if they come back to me in an Omnibus or TPB format instead of the original issues. I got a hell of a bargain on them the first time around, and now this blog’s readers support me in getting a second chance.

Along the way, we discover new treasures.

Thank you.

Big Box of Comics: Runaways Omnibus

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The Runaways Omnibus is the latest treasure I got thanks to this blog’s readers who help me earn store credit at MyComicShop.com when they click through my affiliate links to find the books they want. My big box of comics series aims to bring the love full circle by sharing those treasures with you.

Once upon a time, I had all the single issues of the first and second Runaways volumes. But they took me a few years to collect, and I read a bunch of them out of order at different times. So, it was great fun to finally kick back and read the entire Brian K. Vaughan run in its original reading order with this Omnibus.

Teenagers are the stars of this series and, it’s fair to say, the target audience. I don’t read many books like that anymore, and most of the “young adult” category of fiction is lost on me. If I never hear another thing about Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter, it will be too soon. But author Brian K. Vaughan lists Harry Potter as one of the influences on this series, according to the original proposal included in the Omnibus. So, what about this foray into overtly young adult superhero fiction appeals to me?

My favorite thing is the character interaction. The dialogue is PG in terms of cursing, but our teenage heroes fling savage insults at each other when they aren’t getting along. Their reckless insensitivity seems authentically adolescent, and it acts as a foil to the intentional diversity of Vaughan’s cast. One of the characters, for example, uses the word “gay” as an insult—as in “superhero costumes are gay”—which creates tension because one of the characters is a girl who likes girls. One character is repeatedly ridiculed for being chubby, and one endures transphobic insults for being a gender-switching alien. One encounters casual racism for being Asian, and a cyborg is constantly reminded that machines are soulless, unfeeling, and less than human.

I love a diverse cast of characters, but sometimes authors shy away from the conflict that naturally arises when you put wildly different people together on the same team. And when I say “natural,” I mean it is so prevalent that we even studied this conflict in my graduate-level management classes. Globalization means we often work on teams of people with a vast array of cultural, ethnic, and gender identities, and Vaughan mines that situation for dramatic conflict. But along the way, Vaughan imbues each character with depth and humanity, contrasts that with the way people flippantly dehumanize each other for being different, and ultimately makes the experience rewarding by showing how these characters grow to accept their differences, work together, and form bonds of true friendship—even love.

Another thing I love about Runaways is that while it isn’t about a dystopia like Hunger Games and a zillion other young adult novels, you could say that the real dystopia for these characters is adulthood. The kids become disillusioned and distraught about grown-ups when they find out their parents are all child murderers who are sacrificing the souls of other kids in a weird pact to bring about the end of all humanity (except for six survivors). If that doesn’t breed a severe distrust of adults, I don’t know what would. The other adults in this series—from Marvel’s Avengers to two warring alien races who cannot make peace, from parents to the police—continually reinforce the Runaways’ conviction that adults suck.

Even as the characters grow up and mature throughout the series, they express disgust at the idea of adulthood. One of the worst ways one Runaway can insult another is to say, “Now you sound like our parents.” And when one character turns eighteen, someone asks if he should even be included in the group anymore. That same eighteen-year-old, now legally an adult, embarks upon a mission that tempts him to become a killer just like his parents, driving home the point that adults can’t be trusted.

That story arc expresses a major concern shared by many young people. We all tend to become more like our parents when we age, but does that mean we are doomed to make the same mistakes as them? How many people in their thirties or forties have had a moment where they realized they sounded or acted just like their mother or father, despite their youthful determination to never let that happen?

I like how Vaughan explores this tension, and I love the way the artwork brings the characters to life. The Omnibus is an excellent reproduction of the original issues and their gorgeous covers. Upon re-reading the forty-two issues collected here, only a few flaws nagged at me.

First, the dialogue relies heavily on pop culture references—even ones that seem oddly out of place, like kids born circa 1990 quoting lines from “classic” rock songs from the 1960s and 70s. Similarly, much of the slang might have been relevant to teenagers at the time but is already beginning to feel dated. I see it all the time in novels and comics that are trying to be “relatable” to today’s young audiences by trying to sound current or hip. Maybe that helps sell more books at the time, but it tends to distract from the quality of being timeless.

The other flawed aspect of these stories is the mystical evil beings called the Gibborim. They have a stupid, nonsensical plan for world domination, and their power levels and abilities make no sense either. They say they need a sacrifice of one innocent soul for twenty-five consecutive years to bring about the end of the world. What? Why not get all twenty-five souls at once then, and get on with the apocalypse? Or, if they can appear on Earth, why not kill the kids themselves instead of hiring six married couples to do it? Evil plans should at least make some sort of strategic sense.

Later in the series, the Gibborim have been banished to a kind of limbo where they need to eat another innocent soul to escape. But they didn’t seem to be doing anything about that until the plot allowed one of the Runaways to find them in limbo. So, these beings who are powerful enough to end humanity are… totally impotent? Pick one!

The only way I can see to resolve this problem is to assume the Gibborim were lying to the Runaways’ parents from the beginning, that they never had the power they claimed to have, and that the parents bought into a total scam due to their own greed and stupidity. I doubt that is what Vaughan had in mind, but it’s the only explanation I can think of that is consistent with the plot and fits with the theme that adults are bad.

Finally, I would gladly trade the “bonus material” in the Omnibus in exchange for the six-issue story by Joss Whedon that finished the 2005 series. I recall it as a good coda to Vaughan’s run.

Despite these minor problems, the Runaways Omnibus is a terrific read with great characters who have some wild adventures while dealing with the conflicting emotions and traumas of adolescence, struggling to create new identities for themselves after all that was familiar and secure about their childhood has been torn away.

Collector’s Guide: Runaways Omnibus, Marvel, 2018. Collects #1-18 of the original Runaways (2003) and #1-24 of Runaways (2005). The Omnibus is also on Amazon. For a less expensive digital version, you can now get a $55 edition for Kindle/Comixology called Runaways: The Complete Collection, a four-volume set with everything in the Omnibus plus the continuation of the Runaways series after Vaughan left.

My Favorite Explosion: An Akira Memoir

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Akira kicks so much ass that everyone who reviews comic books and animated movies has already been there. But let me add a personal postscript, because Akira and I have a history.

The film version of this monstrous manga wasn’t released in every major theater at once. It opened in a few U.S. cities, then a few more, then a few more. In the pages of the original Epic printings of this translated and colorized version, the film showings were announced in each issue. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, without Internet or social media, this film became legend.

My friend Dave took me to see it at a theater in downtown St. Louis, Missouri in what must have been its first run in U.S. theaters. The venue was known for showing independent and avant garde films we didn’t see in the suburbs back then. I was 17 or 18 at the time, and 17 with an ID got you into the theater. I’m fairly certain this was the Tivoli Theater, which has since closed and re-opened. The old Tivoli showed some non-rated and NC-17 films such as The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, but I never saw them. I was only there for Akira, and Akira fried my brain.

I didn’t even know what the hell to think when the credits rolled. I thought I kind of maybe understood… something? But I loved the experience.

Later, I watched Akira a second time on video and realized what was happening, and I’ve watched it about a half dozen times since. The crazy thing is that the original manga is way more complicated and drawn out than the film, and even more epic in scope.

In print, the series takes a while to pick up steam, but my favorite issue rolls around when all the tension is set to explode. It explodes in the form of a bullet that kills one of Akira’s freaky little friends. Until then, for hundreds of pages, Akira was hardly more than a MacGuffin in child form. He never had any agency since being introduced. Characters told us we should fear him, but we as readers had never been shown a reason to.

But when Akira’s buddy is shot in the head, the mysterious title character freaks the fuck out and sets off a massive explosion on the scale of a nuclear bomb.

And creator Katsuhiro Otomo gives Akira an entire issue to blow it up!

BOOM.

Collector’s Guide: From Akira #16, Epic Comics, 1990. Story and Art by Katsuhiro Otomo; Coloring by Steve Oliff.

You’ll never find the entire series in stock on MyComicShop, though you might get lucky and see it on eBay as a full run for about $150.

For $180, you could own the 35th anniversary boxed set edition on Amazon. It isn’t fully colored like the Epic edition, but it restores the original back-to-front layout of the original Japanese editions.

If you prefer a digital and low-cost edition in English that reads front-to-back, Kindle in 2020 released the Akira series in a four-volume, black-and-white, “deluxe set” for about $16 ($4 per volume). Considering that the single issue featured in this post will cost you more than that in print, the digital edition is one hell of a buy and fun to read!

Come on and Give It to Me: A Ragman Memoir

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When I was a kid, Dad had a term for people who looked disheveled and messy: Rag-picker Joe. Eventually, I discovered it was a mild version of “Joe Shit the Rag Man”. Maybe Dad picked it up in the Marine Corps. It’s listed on a site of Marine slang, and Dad was a Drill Instructor in the early 1970s, when this phrase seems to have been at the peak of its popularity.

Rag-picker Joe made regular appearances in my childhood: sometimes as me when I couldn’t get my shirt tucked in or my cowlick to lie down, and sometimes as random people on the street seen from a car window, or someone in a retail store. Rag-picker Joe was everywhere.

In the summer of 2019, while looking through my late father’s personal effects, I found papers about a family tree that seemed to be the work of Dad’s mom—my grammy, who died in 2005. I’m sure it was her distinctive handwriting.

Back in the mid-1980s, I asked both sets of my grandparents for any information they could contribute to my junior-high genealogy project. They gave me next to nothing to go on, so I suspect Grammy gained additional information over the years.

Reviewing her notes was how I learned that Rag-picker Joe was not just a bit of slang. He was one of my ancestors.

I forget his last name, but his first name was Joseph, and he was from enough generations ago that I didn’t even bother to figure out the great-great-great or however many greats it was. His occupation of record? Ragman.

If you don’t know what a ragman is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t know either, and I had to look it up. A ragman collected what we might think of now as junk or scrap, and even bones. I don’t know why people would buy bones, but I assume it was either for their nutritious value (soup stock, perhaps?) or for their household utility as material for buttons and knife handles.

The cousin of Joe Shit the Ragman was the Bone man, and these nearly extinct characters from more than a century ago went from town to town, supporting themselves on what meager coin they could make from selling other people’s cast-offs and throwaways.

Bleak as it sounds, the rag-and-bone man was a mobile thrift store and scrap yard, and he was “upcycling” before any of us invented hipster words for re-using old garbage. I imagine that being a ragman required Joe Shit to be a salesman, and no song expresses that rag-selling energy as well as Rag and Bones by the White Stripes.

Sell me that old junk, baby. Come on and give it to me!

In the fifteen months that passed since discovering the ragman of my childhood was part of my family, I have often wondered if Dad ever put that connection together. I wonder if he knew Rag-picker Joe was his great-grand-uncle or whatever it was. Did he know this bit of information when I was a kid, when he used Joe as an insult on a regular basis? Or did he, like me, have an epiphany about Joe when he saw Grammy’s research?

I also wonder about things the genealogy documents didn’t tell me but seem apparent from reading between the lines. If you go back just a generation or two beyond my grandparents, my family tree is full of immigrants who came to this country and survived in abject poverty, somehow, even if it meant carrying bones and rags from town to town in a fucking wheelbarrow.

It upsets me to see our national attitude and policies becoming so obviously anti-immigrant and anti-poor. But this isn’t the first time. This always happens in our country whenever our economy is disastrous or when people feel threatened. Anti-immigrant and overtly racist attitudes flourish in times of economic trouble. The rich pit the middle-class against the poor as enemies, and the rich get richer. These aren’t mysterious ideas any longer; they are statistical conclusions verified with data from more than two centuries of U.S. history.

I only bring it up because I think of Joseph, my distant relative, a man who died long before I was born. A man who died before he became a piece of slang in the urban dictionary. A man whose station in life was used as an insult, even though he was family. A man who must have lived at the absolute ass-end of society, but somehow survived to be listed in my family tree.

In memory of Rag-picker Joe and Joe Shit the Ragman, I’ll share with you the complete issue of The Brave and the Bold #196, where Batman teams up with Ragman.

I had this comic when I was around seven years old. Coming back to it forty years later reveals why I loved it so much. The prose from Bob Kanigher could use a little editing for adult readers, but his captions are more fun than most prose I see in novels these days, and Jim Aparo’s artwork is in fine form here.

This is obviously a comic for boys and, though I was a boy once, I would not recommend it to adult women due to the short shrift the women characters get here. None of them pass the Bechdel Test. They only exist as motivating plot points for male action.

This issue also has some too-convenient plotting in the way that serious injuries take exactly as much time to heal as the plot requires. Is that how it works when falling out of a window? I should fall out of the motherfuckers more often. In spandex.

Also, the re-cap of Ragman’s origin is pointless filler and stupid. Getting electrocuted with other people does not give you their traits. That’s the lowest rung of idiocy on the ladder of superhero origins, right below “Holy shit, gamma-ray exposure makes me bad-ass!”

Actually, gamma rays kill you. I’d prefer that authors stop insulting me with bogus reasons for powers, and instead tell me a story about an awesome character who has powers.

For these reasons, I wouldn’t put this issue in my list of all-time favorite comics, but it’s a cool time capsule from the late 1970s at DC, and it stars one of my ancestors.

Now let’s see how my great-great-grand-uncle Joe Shit the Ragman teams up with Batman to kick all kinds of ass.

Collector’s Guide: The Brave and the Bold #196; DC Comics, 1983.

Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell – now in print

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Five action-packed, cosmic episodes span time and space from 2.2 billion years ago to the end of the Milky Way galaxy!

Available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.

The Crystal Core: After the events of Small Flowers, Mags and her pirate crew discover some of her telepathic octopuses are missing, things in the outer planets are completely messed up, and it’s all Mags’ fault.

The Hive: Everything goes swimmingly on Ceres, until the crew is attacked by predators who want to feed Mags and her friends to their babies.

The Singing Spell: Celina’s memoirs recall some of her earliest adventures with Mags, including how Mags got into dancing, how Celina corrupted and encouraged her, and who they built a grave for after building their club on Vesta. This tale of love and friendship spans more than a century and more than one reality, revealing at last how Celina has lived an exceptionally long life alongside her favorite cranky kitty.

A Distant Light: Join the space monkeys of Svoboda 9 as they say farewell to their beloved leader.

Antipodes: Meteor Mags and her crew descend to Earth to bring free energy to the people, but they find themselves in the middle of an intercontinental war.

Might be unsuitable for children or carbon-based life.

postcards

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Two fun postcards arrived in September. The first was a print of “Balladeer” by Jose Guadalupe Posada. My pen pal claims to have carried it around for more than twenty years before mailing it! I wonder if the guitarist was still alive back then…

The second postcard comes from the Tellus Science Museum I visited last year. It’s a lenticular print, meaning the image changes depending on the angle, and it has not two but six different images representing stages of continental drift.

Mom did not know when she sent it to me that I had been working on a story that involves continental drift, and the postcard made me realize I got something wrong in my story, despite all the research that went into it. The original draft got the date wrong about when Australia completely split from what is now Antarctica, and the error was off by about 470 million years. I’ve since made the correction. Thank you, educational postcard!

Here is a brief time-lapse video showing a few billion years of continental movement.

hot sauce: take one

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It’s been a while since we had a post about food, not because I don’t enjoy chronicling my culinary experiments but because my camera sucks so bad—and what’s a food post without great pictures? But other than an amazing crockpot chicken satay with serrano peppers, red curry sauce, and tahini instead of peanut sauce, you haven’t missed much this season. Today, however, we break the dry spell with a simple but delicious hot sauce I improvised for fun this weekend.

I’m more of a salsa guy than a hot sauce fan, because I love the robust substance of spoonfuls of tomato-based sauce or a chunky salsa fresca. Most hot sauces seem to be more about heat than flavor, with just a tiny bit being enough to set your mouth on fire. I like something I can dip my tortilla chips in and get a big burst of flavor, or drown my tacos in, with the heat amplifying the taste rather than overpowering it. So, Sunday night, after doing some research on peppers, I decided to give hot sauce a try and see if I could find the right balance.

The inspiration came from watching Hot Ones, a fairly popular interview show on YouTube that disrupts the typical “talk show” format by having the guests eat ten consecutively hotter chicken wings—or vegan “wings” for the vegetarian guests. The defining elements of Hot Ones are how impressed the guests are by the deeply researched and often thought-provoking questions, only to violently curse interviewer Sean Evans as the sauces’ Scoville ratings become increasingly ridiculous and pain-inducing. It’s a fun show that features some wonderful musicians, comedians, and actors.

Hot Ones also did a great segment about how hot sauces are made, and just how easy they are to create from scratch in your own kitchen. After seeing that, I had to give it a shot. I’ve made my own salsas, salsa fresca (which is basically salsa with chopped ingredients but not pureed), gazpacho (which is basically salsa eaten as a soup), and spicy tomato-based pasta sauces before, so the key difference seems to come down to one simple ingredient: vinegar. Vinegar preserves the sauce, which is why you typically don’t refrigerate hot sauces but need to refrigerate salsa or marinara. Other than balsamic vinegar in salad dressings, I’m not so crazy about vinegar in food—I use it more often as a household cleaning product! But what the hell. Let’s see if we can make something tasty from it.

So, one trip to Sprouts later, here are the victims I chose, all lined up on the cutting board to be sliced and roughly chopped before the puree.

I did zero fermenting, no heating or boiling, and I did not heat to 185 degrees Fahrenheit before bottling. This was simply a quick-and-easy, totally raw sauce in a small batch meant to be finished off in three or four days.

We’ve got two shallots, two huge cloves of elephant garlic (which I like because there is less peeling involved than regular garlic) two tomatillos (which are the base for salsa verde), a few ounces of mini tomatoes from Mexico (which I have never tried before but just looked so cute and colorful), five Fresno peppers (which are a medium heat), and one serrano pepper (which is hotter than Fresno, for a little kick).

For vinegar, I used 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar and 4 tablespoons of basic white vinegar. White vinegar just seemed too boring, but the Hot Ones instructional video included apple cider vinegar in one recipe, and I had some in the fridge. I wasn’t sure those amounts of vinegar would be enough liquid to get a good puree with my immersion blender, so I threw in a tablespoon of olive oil to lubricate everything, and figured I could add more vinegar later if necessary.

I added a little bit of sea salt (a special blend I’ve used for years, with kelp flakes and sesame seeds in it, and it is my all-time favorite salt), some ground black pepper, and maybe a tablespoon of dried cilantro.

I had a couple serrano peppers I held in reserve, just in case this mix wasn’t hot enough, but I learned my lesson last year about how easy it is to go overboard on serranos. The two backup serranos proved to be unnecessary, as the flavor and heat levels of this sauce came out perfectly matched to my taste. I’ll find something else to do with them! I love serranos, but they are like a cat who invites you to pet it, then at some point freaks out and claws your hand to ribbons. There is a serrano sweet spot, for sure, and beyond that point… abandon all hope, ye who pepper. But the same is true for hatch chiles, poblanos, and habaneros, all of which I’ve learned the hard way. They’re all fun and games until you cross a line, and I guess the trick is just finding that line for yourself.

The Fresno peppers, I could probably slice and eat raw or put them on a burger. That’s a comfortable heat level, and now I wonder where they have been all my life. Thank you, Hot Ones and Sean Evans for inspiring me to research peppers and try something new.

Anyway, here’s a crappy cell phone pic of the final product.

I lucked out and got what I consider the perfect consistency: thicker like a sauce, not watery but easily poured in controlled doses. My handheld immersion blender didn’t puree the seeds, and they’re visible upon inspection, but it did a great job liquefying everything else. You can also see the cilantro flakes in there, or maybe pepper skins. It looks prettier in person, but hey. Such is my camera situation.

I was almost scared to pour some on a tortilla chip and test it, but amazed when it came out perfect. I was like, Ooooh shit, get me a bowl of chips and let’s pour it on! The tomatillos give it a zesty tang, and there’s plenty of time to revel in the flavor before the heat comes through. When the heat arrives, it’s a friendly level of warmth, not a scary one. Eating it in quantities more appropriate to a salsa will make the eyes water and the nose run, along with a lingering endorphin buzz, but a few dabs of this gives a pleasant warmth. The warmth lasts for quite some time, and the garlic flavor stays around even longer. If you freak out over a few jalapeno slices on a hot dog or pizza, then your tolerance is lower than mine, so adjust accordingly. I think that without the serrano, this would be a somewhat mild sauce, and I’d rate it at medium with the serrano. It would definitely be hot if I had put in the backup serranos. 

I put some in a little jam jar after pigging out on it over chips.

My next plan was to put it on a burger for dinner. Mission accomplished. The burger was a bleu cheese and onion burger from Sprouts, pan fried in some olive oil with two toasted slices of Italian bread and some shredded Mexican-style cheese and not a single other condiment or dressing. Not to brag, but it might be the best burger sauce ever created. Though I didn’t snap a photo, I probably used half a cup of the sauce, slathering it on and adding some to every bite. It was warm, it was tasty, and it was a flavor explosion. I’m calling this experiment a resounding success, and I look forward to making more hot sauces.

Meteor Mags: The Singing Spell

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METEOR MAGS: THE SINGING SPELL

© 2020 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Episode 26 of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.

Description: Celina’s memoirs recall some of her earliest adventures with Mags, including how Mags got into dancing, how Celina corrupted and encouraged her, and who they built a grave for after building their club on Vesta. This tale of love and friendship spans more than a century and more than one reality, revealing at last how Celina has lived an exceptionally long life alongside her favorite cranky kitty.

Word Count: 9K.

Seven sisters walk across the land,
singing creation, hand in hand.

Softly singing fish into the sea,
songs unfolding into you and me.

Sacred sisters, daughters of the sky,
springing into life the birds who fly,
shining brilliance, watching time go by.

Sister Moon; Pleiades, 2020.

PART ONE: BEST FRIENDS

Snacks

In the early days of asteroid belt mining, back when Mags and I were building the club on Vesta, entrepreneurs opened bars to serve the rough and rowdy blue-collar workers. Gambling, prostitution, and fighting were the chief forms of entertainment, giving the miners a chance to blow off steam in a fog induced by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol.

Few musicians had made their way to the Belt in 2025, and those who did were in constant demand. But not all the Belt’s inhabitants were fans of that first wave of sonic settlers and their crowd-pleasing selections.

Under the table at her booth, Mags squeezed the handle of the .50 caliber pistol in her garter holster. “This music is bullshit!”

With a red plastic straw, I swirled the ice cubes melting at the bottom of a gin and tonic. “Some people are sentimental about these old songs.”

“Fuck them,” said Mags. “They’ve been playing the same top-forty garbage for more than fifty years.”

“Sod off, Magpie. I like this song.”

“Are you kidding me? I’d rather drag my vag through broken glass than hear REO Speedwagon again.”

“Oh yeah? I’d rather shove my face in a fuckin’ meat grinder.”

“I’d rather chop off my head, shove it a fuckin’ meat grinder, and have the brain sausage jammed down the gaping hole in my neck with a broom handle!”

“So? I’d rather eat that sausage after you pooped it into a champagne glass.”

“Celina! What in the actual fuck is wrong with you?!”

I drained my glass. “You started it.”

“I did not!” Mags polished off a pint glass of rum and reconsidered. “Okay. I did. Wanna dance?”

“Not with you. You can’t even be nice!”

“Celina, are you shitting me? After all these years—”

“Yes, I am totally shitting you. You’d realize that if you weren’t wasted, you fucking cot case!”[1]

“I will kill this band.”

“Dude,” I said, “I believe it’s time for you to fly.”[2]

“Fuck yes, it is.” Mags snorted. “I take it on the run, baby.”

“Mhm. Cause that’s the way you want it, baby.”[3]

“So, I can kill them?”

“If you like,” I said. “But save the last dance for me.”

Mags squeezed my hand. “Let me see about these tunes.”

“The fuck you will. Sit down. I need snacks.”

“Snacks?”

“Snacks, you furry harlot! You are not starting a riot before we get something to eat.”

Mags sat back in the booth and sulked. “I am kind of hungry.”

“Then will you shut up and try not to kill anyone?!” I got up from the booth. “Do you want regular chips? They have yam chippies, and a salt and vinegar type—”

“I want chips,” said Mags, “made from a bloody potato!”[4]

I leaned my hip against the table. “We could get them made from grub worms. They’re high in protein.”

“You can’t get high on protein. I tried.” Mags squinted. “Do you know what I love about you?”

“Yes,” I said. “You know that if this band plays one more geriatric rock hit, I will lop off their bits and serve them to the bouncers. Grilled.”

Mags reared back in a laugh that rivaled the volume of the concert. “That’s a damn good reason.” She smacked her hand on the tabletop. “You fucking love that REO song, though!”

“What if I do? Now stay put. I’ll buy us another round and see what they can do about munchies.”

Mags drummed her fingers on the table.

I’d known the bartender for thirty-seven years. He understood my signal to make something special for Mags.

She lost consciousness on the floor of the club, leaving me to gather up the clothes she’d strewn about the place and tip the staff well enough that we might be welcome back someday, despite the broken chairs. When she awoke in the bedroom of my flat, things did not, at first, go well.[5]

Then they did.

☠️

Maggie Maid

Anyone who knows Mags knows she loves to dance naked. She’ll do it for tips, she’ll do it for free. She’ll do it completely pissed at the most inappropriate moments.[6] But she wasn’t always like that.

The first time I met her in 1938, she was in a fistfight with a bunch of blokes on a dock in England. They were trying their damnedest to prevent her from boarding a ship which, among other things, carried stolen goods I planned to deliver to the States.

I’m sure that little sheila could have killed them all if she had to. But I needed their services, not their corpses. On the other hand, I didn’t like seeing a bunch of drongos beating on a girl my age. Especially when they worked for me.

Then I saw she had rescued my lost cat, who bounded into my arms and just about had me in tears. I thought maybe that feisty cunt beating the fuck out of the hired help might make a good mate.

I broke up the fight and paid the lads several weeks’ worth of wages in a roll of cash before ushering a bruised and filthy Mags into my private cabin, which was hardly big enough for me, let alone the two of us and my cat, Starry.[7]

That’s where we had our first fight.

It wasn’t right away. We sailed at least a week before I explained the situation we were sailing to. When Mags heard what kind of club awaited us, she lost her shit.

I chalk up her destruction of most everything that wasn’t nailed down in my cabin to one simple thing, one thought that consumed that furry head of hers: What would Mama think?

My oldies were straight-up smugglers and criminals, and Mum was indigenous. Their marriage wasn’t even legal. In those years, many girls my age and younger were being kidnapped and sent to “re-education” facilities to be forcibly trained in English and get beaten and abused until they were stripped of all our culture and history. The white government didn’t even remotely consider native people to be Aussie citizens until the 1960s.[8] Even then, people called us stupid shit like “Abos”.

So, it wasn’t like I came up ignorant of violence, racism, and oppression. But Mags’ mum—as I discovered in many stories over the next year—had ideas about race, class, labor, and feminism that her daughter absorbed, but for which most of society did not yet have words.

In my cabin, I was treated to some of that maternal wisdom at great length and considerable volume. Little of my dinnerware survived.

I held Starry in my arms while Mags went into her little tornado. Eventually, I had enough of her bullshit. “Pipe down, willie wagtail! It was just a suggestion. You can do whatever the bloody fuck you want once we get off this boat!”

She set a plate on the tiny kitchen countertop instead of slamming it on the floor. “Anything I want,” she said. It was like she never heard the phrase before. “I can, can’t I?”

“Hell,” I said, “you can jump into the goddamn ocean right now, and no one could stop you. Do whatever you want. I was just trying to prepare you.”

“Anything I want,” said Mags.

I didn’t know if it was a question or not, so I said, “What’s on the list? Do you want to have a hug first? Then maybe clean up this fucking mess? It looks like a dog’s breakfast in here.”

She hugged me and Starry. He licked her nose. She kissed him and, without a word, got to work tidying up the disaster she had created. I took Starry on deck, and when I came back, the place was immaculate.

Funny thing about Mags. She likes to put on a show. That whole plate-smashing and screaming routine was a performance. But all I had asked her to do was think about performing on stage for an audience.

That would be at Bert’s place, our destination in the States. Bertrand hated it when I called him “Uncle Randy”. He hated it when I walked in like I owned the place and said whatever I pleased, and he probably hated the mountains of cash he raked in thanks to my parents’ black-market dealings with him.

I’m just busting his bollocks. Bert acted grumpy, but he was a sweetheart—at least, the closest thing you’d find in a seppo in the 1930s.[9] Fuckin’ savages.

On the other hand, the spastic sheila with a tail I had just picked up was more savage than any of them, and I figured she could handle herself.

One thing was clear. She would never dance the way I did.

Eventually, we got to the States, where I had a natter with Bert about my new friend.[10] The club was closed, so Mags amused herself on the stage while I told Bert what little I knew of her story.

When he first saw her, Bert just about shat his pants. Mags in all her underage glory paraded about his stage, doing Spanish dances her mum taught her, and her tail swished this way and that below her ragged, ill-fitting skirt. Once Bert collected himself, we arranged for her to stay with me and clean the place after hours to earn her keep—just so long as she kept the tail hidden and dressed like a boy.

At first, I found those conditions insulting. Then I realized they were for the best. If people had seen her as she really was back then, especially the type of people who wandered into Bert’s place for drunken entertainment, then goddess only knows what unspeakable hell would have been unleashed in that club. Someone would have tried to put his hands on her, and a whole mess of people would have died.

But I liked that about her, and I decided to keep her around.

Who am I kidding? We were inseparable. She was a good mate. The best, that crazy cunt. Sometimes I thought she’d get me killed, but I never doubted she would have died for me, too—or at the very least, come up with a plan that didn’t involve one of us dying.

Don’t tell her I brought this up, but she cleaned the fuck out of Bert’s club. That’s right: our little Maggie Maid. If you call her that to her face now, she’ll cut you. But she scrubbed and tidied and fixed things with a military precision we didn’t normally see in the hired help.

I didn’t get it right away. I just thought she was intense about a few things. I didn’t piece it together until the first time I saw her clean a rifle. She did it quickly, thoroughly, and accurately. Mags cleaned a weapon like her life depended on it. From what she told me, it often had.

You might think of her as a party girl these days, but Magpie was serious as hell back then. It’s how she was raised.

The better part of a year went by. I came and went on a few voyages to oversee my oldies’ business, and everything was fine, at least for a planet that was about to be plunged into the most gruesome war it had ever known.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mags started to fill out. Christ, she was a skinny runt when I met her, and look at her now. She also discovered, in the wee hours when the club was closed, that she enjoyed being onstage.

After hours, in the spare time she created by making a military operation out of her chores, the club stage belonged to my fuzz-tailed friend. She pretended to dance for people in the empty seats. Then she’d get caught up in the fantasy and lose herself in the performance.

She wasn’t as good as she is now, but she threw herself into it.

Some nights, she’d sing.

I had a list of things to teach her: better moves, ways to talk to the customers, how to get the most money out of someone while giving up the least of yourself. How to stay safe.

But at the top of that list was job number one. We needed to go shopping!

☠️

Jack’s Grave

In 2026, Mags knelt at a grave on Vesta. No physical body occupied it. Below the marker lay nothing but solid Vestan stone. The headstone sat 300 meters from the crater base at the south pole. Atop the rim of the crater, overlooking the tallest mountain in the solar system, our newly constructed Club Assteroid reigned. The lights in its windows and along the curved path from its parking lot shone below a clear atmosphere splashed with a million stars.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Mags.

I rested a hand on her shoulder. “Just say what you feel. I could leave.”

Mags set a hand on mine. “Stay with me. Please.”

“Take your time.”

Mags clutched a pendant. She had owned it since January 1938, when a boxer named Jack gave it to her. Jack took her in and fed her when she was alone and friendless, and the only reason she left him was to rescue a lost cat from some hooligans. Lucky for me! Turns out that was my cat, and although Starry’s been gone for nearly a century, he brought us together. [11]

Anyway, at a house on Meteor Street in London, half a year after her mother was killed, Jack showed Mags the basics of boxing and set her on a lifelong path of being a fearsome fighter. She never forgot him.

“Jack gave me this,” she said. “It’s a stone from Australia, where he’d gone for a few boxing matches. I didn’t even know where Australia was. He thought I was fuckin’ crazy.” Mags laughed. “He said the stone was a meteorite from a place called Vesta, and I told him I wanted to go there. He laughed at me. I didn’t care.”

Mags turned the pendant in her hand. The simple grey stone, sliced into a triangular shape and filled with chunks of minerals in brown, black, and yellow, was polished so finely that it caught the distant sunlight and gleamed. Years before, Mags had it mounted on a silver chain and wore it as a necklace ever since. “I promised Jack that if I ever made it to Vesta, I’d return this to its origin.” She wrapped her fingers around the rock. “Here we are, Jack. We did it. Celina’s here with us. I never could have built this club without her. I met her just days after I met you. So much has changed since then.”

Mags placed the necklace at the base of the marker. “I love you, Jack. Welcome to my new home. Hope you like it here.” She wiped tears from her cheeks with the back of one leather-gloved hand.

I said, “He gave you your name, didn’t he?” No matter that I had heard the story many times, or that Mags didn’t remember most of them. She loved to tell that story.

“He did. My ‘fighting name’, he called it. Meteor Mags.”

“And that’s the meteorite?”

“Yeah,” said Mags. “A tiny fragment of this huge rock we’re on right now.”

“Should we bury it?”

“Nah.” Mags wiped her nose. “Maybe it stays here. Maybe it falls again to Earth. I think it should be free.” She rose to her feet.

I asked, “What if it gets lost?”

Mags hugged me. “All of us are lost. Aren’t we?”

I squeezed her even tighter. “I never feel lost with you.”

She nuzzled my neck and kissed it. “We should get a cat.”

☠️

The Hosier

In 1939, I took Mags shopping. Europe was getting fucked by the Nazis. Poland, Czechoslovakia. Millions died.

The States wouldn’t join the war for two more years, until after the attack on Hawaii. In ’39, most of the country hadn’t recovered from the so-called Great Depression.

Believe me, it wasn’t so great.

Government tried, and citizens tried, and none of it amounted to a pint of piss. It took another world-wide war to pull the Yanks out of their mess.

Even then, plenty of stateside companies made huge profits by selling goods to the Third Reich. Prohibition of alcohol sales had ended by then, too. But before that was over, the eighteenth amendment created an underground criminal empire with connections, wealth, and power. The whole situation was a lit stick of dynamite.

I thought Mags had a bit of dynamite in her, too, and I didn’t think twice about throwing her on the pile of explosives. Hell, I was curious.

Mags grew up in the middle of armed urban warfare when most of the piss-ants in Chicago were still trying to sort how to chop off a toe or beat a few helpless teenage girls into hooking for them. I wasn’t any stranger to the underworld, but my impression of most people I met was—not good.

They lacked guts. They lacked conviction. Even the ones I liked seemed a bit dense. A snag short of a barbie, for fuck’s sake.[12]

I always knew I was smarter, but they had muscle. A ton of muscle, on a huge payroll.

Not that I thought of Mags as muscle back then. She was my friend, and—

Oh, fuck it. I totally thought of her as muscle, and I hoped she could help me make a few bucks. I had a list of people I’d love to exterminate to take over their rackets, and she was exceptionally qualified for the job. Agile, intelligent, and absolutely ruthless. Plus, she liked me.

It sounds mercenary, but we had fun. She was like a kid in a candy shop with all the American goods in those days, things you couldn’t get so easily outside the States, and it made me happy to see her happy. Trying on different things. Preening and posing in front of mirrors.

Even in her youth, Magpie had her moods. But when my little cyclone of destruction was pleased with something, she lit up like a star. You should have seen her.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I took Mags for a long walk through the streets of Chicago. She’d lived a rough-and-tumble life of poverty and violence before I met her, and nice clothes weren’t something she ever thought of as her reality. Those things always belonged to someone else—someone more privileged. Someone wealthier. I steered us through the commercial district until she stopped dead in her tracks.

Mags was entranced by a hosier’s window display. Plastic mannequin legs strutted in a variety of socks and stockings. I said, “See something you like?”

“All of it.” She pressed her hands to the window, and her breath made a patch of fog on the glass. “When we were in Spain, finding clean socks was nearly impossible. Mama had to steal them for soldiers.”[13]

“Let’s not steal these ones,” I said. “We can go inside and try them on.”

“Try them on?”

“Mhm.” I brushed a stray lock of hair away from her face. “See if you like them before we buy them.”

“I like all of them.”

“Why don’t we pick a few you like best?” I offered my hand, and she took it. We went inside.

Honestly, you couldn’t try on shit in that store, but I knew the owner. I had a chat with the girl at the sales counter, and I let her know I’d pay for whatever we needed. Mags must have cost me a month’s worth of tips trying it all on.

One pair of white, thigh-high stockings really caught her attention. They had tiny white hearts sewn into the lace, and a ruffle around the top. Mags pulled them on and wiggled her toes. She sprang to her feet. “These make me feel like dancing!”

She danced all over the bloody store. Up on the benches, in front of the windows. I couldn’t keep her off the sales counter. Eventually, I gave up and joined in.

Mags was about fifteen, not quite sixteen. Even then, she had infectious energy that swept you into whatever party was happening in her mind.

I bought those stockings and a dozen other pairs. Then we needed to find matching shoes and skirts and garters. I guess you can blame me for Mags’ obsession with legwear. I created a monster—but one with exceptional taste in socks.

She liked them so much that she started dancing at Bert’s club that weekend, and the solar system was never the same.

Sue me.

PART TWO: FOREVER

The Highway

In 1942, Mags and I were proper pissed without the foggiest clue where we were other than a stretch of barren, sunbaked trail in the wasteland of Western Australia.

We’d arrived by boat the week before in Fremantle Harbour and, after visiting with my oldies, liberated a 1942 Chevy RHD for the drive. It had been shipped from the States as part of the Allied support for my country, which had been suffering from attacks along the coast by the Japanese. Damn decent of the seppos, and I almost felt bad about nicking it.

The ute resembled a Jeep, built like a brick shithouse with sturdy tires I hoped could handle the rough terrain, wheel ruts, and patches of sand along what would one day become the Great Northern Highway. [14]

Back then, it wasn’t so great.

At first, the Chevy did pretty well! But long after we’d passed Yalgoo and entered the outback proper, where there isn’t fuckall but scrub, red dirt, and stunted trees, the damn thing sucked up the last of the petrol. It sputtered and rolled to a stop.

Were we even halfway there? Fuck if I knew. The gauges were broken.

Mags said, “The last of the spare gas cans better get us there.”

I said, “That was the last can.”

Mags pounded her fists against the steering wheel and called it a string of creative names.

I said, “That isn’t helping.”

“It’s helping me!”

“Fair enough. Welcome to Bandywallop.”

“That’s a place?”

“Sure,” I lied. “It’s just outside of Woop-Woop.”[15]

“What the fuck are you talking about?” She popped the hood and got out to check underneath, but that was pointless. The ute was fine, just empty.

I reckoned we’d be about the same in a few hours. “The middle of nowhere, Magpie. East Bumfuck. Have a nice day.”

“Do we got any beer left?”

“There’s a box in the boot.[16] Warm as goat piss by now.”

“Good enough.” Mags wiped her brow with the back of her forearm. The sun was a circle of hate directly overhead. She opened the boot to reveal the last of our supplies: twenty-four bottles of Swan Lager, courtesy of the brewery in Perth. We’d already murdered a couple of boxes. She handed me one and split open a longneck for herself, prying off the top with a ciggie lighter.

I smacked mine against the edge of the passenger-side door with one hand. The cap fell to the cracked, rust-colored earth and bounced once before lying still as death on the dirt. “Cheers!”

“Cheers.” Mags gulped half the bottle. “Let’s get to walking, then.”

“Might as well.”

She hoisted the box onto her shoulder and pushed her sunglasses back to the top of her slippery, sweat-covered nose. “You’re sure it’s this way?”

“Generally speaking.”

Mags frowned. “I am absolutely dumbfounded by the lack of confidence you inspire!” She drained the rest of her bottle and whipped it into the sparse scrub at the roadside.

I sipped from mine and trundled along beside her. “It could be worse, you know.”

“Sure,” she said. “We could be attacked by giant scorpions. Get our fuckin’ eyeballs and brains torn out. Have our flesh eaten by bacteria while we’re still conscious. We could—”

“You know what, Mags? Forget I mentioned it.” I took a sip. “You don’t regret coming out here with me, do you?”

“Nah,” she said. “Worst case, we totally fuckin’ die. But there’s no one I’d rather die with, if it comes to that.”

“We won’t die.”

“You seem awfully sure.”

“I had a vision.”

Mags laughed. “Celina, you crack me up. Remind me why I agreed to this in the first place.”

“Because you love me.”

Mags stopped in the middle of the old goat path that wanted to be a road. “Give me a hug.”

I held her for a long time. The sun abused us. The outback stretched before us with no end in sight. When she finally let me go, she said, “These beers will run out before sunset.”

“If you keep pounding them like that, they will.”

She let loose that psychopathic laugh of hers and set off in what vaguely seemed like the right direction.

I don’t know how we made it. The sky and the booze and the flat, dark-ochre ground all melt together in my memory. The sun rose and set at least once, and we stopped to sleep beside a meager campfire for a few hours. But we pressed on.

Eventually, we stumbled onto the spot: Yarrabubba. It’s one of the oldest asteroid collisions on Earth. The impact site is 70 kilometers wide, and it goes back 2.2 billion years. That sounds dramatic, but all there was when Mags and I got to it was a hill, a little red hill to mark the crash.

We climbed it.

We were out of beer by then, and the soles of our shoes were worn down to our blisters. Reasonable people would have died, but we weren’t them.

Besides, the fortuneteller told us we would make it.

☠️

Mags’ Ring

Money, boyfriends, empires. I used to think they meant something. I thought they were things you accumulated to prove you had power over your life.

Then I met Mags. Her raggedy arse didn’t have shit. She had the clothes on her back, and they were falling apart. But none of that seemed to bother her.

One night, when we were cuddling in our room upstairs at Bert’s club, I asked about her ring. I’d never seen her without it. With her hand in mine, she told me.

Imagine finding out your best friend will outlive you by at least a century.[17]

Sure, I felt bad for myself. Give me a break. I was barely twenty, and Mags couldn’t have been more than seventeen. At first, all I could think about was getting old and watching her go on without me when there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do about it.

I turned her ring around her finger. You couldn’t take it off, and I’d tried a few times to test that theory. It was like once she put it on, it was on for life. Mags wore it like a wedding ring on her left ring-finger. I asked if she ever thought about fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty years down the road.

“All the time,” she said. Her tail moved along my waist and hips like a feathered hand caressing my curves. “Someday, I’ll say goodbye to you for the last time. Same with all my friends, family, and any pets I ever have. It isn’t a happy thought.”

“I’d like to live with you forever.”

Mags wrapped her arms and legs around me in a full-body hug. “Forever’s a long time,” she said. “Too rich for my blood. How would you feel about the next 180 years?”

She was joking. Mags didn’t think anything of it, and she fell asleep next to me. For hours, I laid next to her, watching her tail occasionally flick and twitch while she dreamed. I thought about how nice her last sentence sounded.

That’s a long way of saying how we came to be at the fortuneteller’s table.

☠️

The Fortuneteller

Mags took a seat in the fortuneteller’s shop. “Are you a gypsy?” Even at eighteen, she was a paragon of tact.

“Mags,” I chided, taking a seat of my own.

“What? Isn’t that the word?”

The old woman across the table neither frowned nor smiled. Even in the dim light, her colorful shawl and the Indian print on her flowing dress spoke of sensuality and joy, but I suspect she was reserved when confronted with strangers and possible fools such as we were. Mags’ bluster didn’t make a ripple in the pool of dusky calm. “We prefer the term Romani.” The fortuneteller lit a cone of incense and set it in a pewter holder. The pewter had been shaped into a network of vines, all interwoven, and a pleasant blue-grey smoke drifted through the openings between their leaves. “What can I do for you?

I said, “We’re searching for magic.”

At that, she smiled. Her eyes sparkled in the candlelight, and the silver rings on her fingers did, too. Despite her age, I thought she looked quite beautiful and alive. Playful, in a quiet way, seasoned by decades. “Magic is everywhere. I can point you to it, but you need to see it for yourself.”

Mags lit a fag. “That sounds about right. We’re looking for a spell, but I don’t think it exists anywhere on Earth.”

The fortuneteller set a deck of cards on the table, facedown. “Where do you think it is?”

“The dreamtime,” I said. “We were hoping you could point us in the right direction.” I laid a trio of gold coins on the red velvet cloth. “If you would be so kind.”

At that, the woman raised an eyebrow. Without looking at them, she swept the coins off the table and into a brass bowl where they landed with a clink, clink, clink. She set the bowl on a small, circular table next to her, in a clear spot surrounded by strange bones, bundles of dried herbs, and a few piles of books. “That’s an odd place to search for a spell. Why don’t we start with a three-card spread?” She fanned the cards, still facedown, and swept the back of one withered hand across them. “Point to three cards.”

Mags reached to pick up one of them, but the fortuneteller’s hand blocked her. “Don’t touch them. Just point.”

Mags acquiesced then let me choose the next two.

The fortuneteller flipped one over. “The first card,” she said, “is where you start on this journey. This is the Two of Cups. It shows a partnership, perhaps even love between two soulmates. The universe has positive energy to send you, but you must find balance and harmony to receive it. The two people pictured here seek a deeper commitment.”

The old woman’s skeletal fingers moved to the second card and turned it over. “This is the next stage of your journey.”

“Oh, great,” said Mags. “He looks like he’s been stabbed to death.”

“I suppose. The Ten of Swords can be read a few ways. One possible message is that the dying person failed to listen to her own better judgment, and her lapse is responsible for her suffering.”

Mags flicked the ash from the end of her ciggie. “We’re fucked.”

I said, “Shush, Magpie. What’s the other interpretation?”

“The death of the ego. Next to the Two of Cups, it might mean that these two who seek unity must give up their idea of being two different people—the idea that they are individual egos.”

Mags purred. “I like that one better.”

I patted her knee. “Go on. What’s number three?”

“Four of Wands,” said the old woman. “Is one of you having a birthday party?”

Mags and I laughed. “Not yet,” I said, “but there is a question of birthdays. Who are these four women dancing?”

“The elements: earth, air, fire, and water. Here, they dance in unison, celebrating. They share their joy with each other.”

I said, “That’s exactly what we had in mind.”

Mags leaned in. “You’re saying these lovers need to have their separateness destroyed, but after that, they dance in a field of joy?”

The fortuneteller said, “That’s one way of looking at it.”

I kissed Mags on the cheek. “It’s a happy ending!”

She put her arm around me. “I’m a bit concerned about getting stabbed to death, but I do like the after party.” She nuzzled me, then asked the old woman, “How do we get there?”

“I’m afraid the cards won’t tell you that.”

I took a few more coins from my purse and placed them on the table. “We understand. But we’d like to hear your opinion.”

Again, a hand that looked like tree branches wrapped in wrinkled leather swept the coins into a bowl. Clink, clink, clink. “I see you two young ladies are serious. Give an old woman a moment.”

She pressed her palms on the table and rose from her chair. I’ve never seen anyone move so slowly. She made her way to the bookshelf that took up the entire wall behind her. The lights weren’t so good—just a few candles near the card-reading table—so I couldn’t see what she picked up until she came back, step by eternal step.

She set a brass stand on the table. The metal picked up every sliver of light the candles cared to throw at it. She set a glass globe in the stand. Freed from her hands, it also reveled in the candlelight. I swear I saw a million stars inside.

I didn’t notice how long it took the fortuneteller to regain her seat, and the only thing that snapped me back to the present moment was Mags squeezing my hand.

Clouds of incense drifted through the dusk and surrounded the crystal ball. They swirled for a moment, then buggered off to parts unknown.

The woman said, “The magic you seek is older than humanity.” She extended a bony finger toward Mags. “But you wear this magic now.”

“Damn right,” said Mags. “Great-gramma’s magic.”

“Not just hers. She harnessed what came before.”

“Before what?”

The fortuneteller ignored Mags’ question and closed her eyes. She placed both hands on the glass orb.

Mags gave me a look that said, What the fuck? But I raised one finger to my lips.

The fortuneteller spoke ten words that would forever change my life. “The red hill,” she said. “You must go to the red hill.”

☠️

The Red Hill

“Here we are!” Mags fell onto the hilltop and laughed. “This legendary Barlangi Rock can kiss my fat white arse! Can’t even get a burger out here.” She sprawled. “Goddamn, I’m tired.”

I curled up beside her in the red dirt. It glittered with shards of quartz, though most of the surrounding outcrops were granite. “Shush, Magpie. I’ll sing a song, and you sing with me.”

It was all I could do to maintain a singing voice. In forty-eight hours, I’d only had a dozen beers while stumbling down that piece of shit road. The Swannies dehydrated me, but they also numbed me to that fate.

Mags whispered between cracked lips. “That old woman didn’t know dick. We’re gonna fuckin’ die out here.”

“Probably,” I said. “But as long as we’re dying, sing this one with me.”

Mags held my hand. “You start.”

In the stories Mum used to tell, the ancestors sang the world into being—the Earth and all the plants and animals, even the First People. The Hindus have a similar idea: Om, the primal sound, a vibration that kicked the universe into being. I like that idea, that everything we are and touch is music.

Mags likes it, too. You know how she is. If there’s anything she loves more than kicking arse and liberating cargo, it’s music.

If the ancients could create the world through song, then it made sense that we could contact them by singing. We just needed to speak to them in their language, right?

Back in ’42, Mags hadn’t mastered as many instruments as she can play these days, but she was off to a good start, and she had a beautiful voice. I think about times I used to eavesdrop on her singing after hours at the club, and it makes me cry. Not a sad cry, just overwhelmed. That feeling you get when someone touches your heart, but it’s too much, and it all spills out of you.

Atop the red hill at Yarrabubba, we sang together. I started with a tune Mum sang at bedtime. She claimed it was the song that sang the moon and stars into being. Overhead, the sky faded from bright blue to black. Every star in the southern hemisphere sprang to life, and the moon rose over the horizon like a bride in a glowing white gown.

We entered the dreamtime.

☠️

The Crash

More than two billion years ago, a meteorite smashed into what is now Western Australia. I remember it well. I was there.

Mags and I were singing, lying on our backs in the rusty dirt, when the moon and stars came out. Another light twinkled into view. Within seconds, it grew so bright it outshone the moon.

Mags gripped my hand, but she didn’t stop singing. I reckon she knew, as well as I did, that it wasn’t a star, and there was no way we could run far enough away to survive before it hit.

You might imagine the sound of an incoming meteor as many different things: a whistle like a bomb dropped from a plane, a scream of increasing volume, a roar. But what struck Yarrabubba that night began as a harmony, a three-part harmony between me and Mags and that wayward stone. I took the alto, as low and sultry as I could manage. The meteor took the energetic tenor. Mags belted out a soprano I didn’t know was in her range. The fourth harmony, the bass, was the explosion of that massive space rock slamming into Earth.

But a couple billion years ago, Straya wasn’t even Straya. It was just a section of one massive super-continent where all the places we know today were a single land mass, surrounded by one sea. Australia didn’t completely split from what’s now Antarctica until 30 million years ago.

Still, the asteroid impact shook the continent down to Earth’s mantle. The land it shot into the sky changed the weather. The tsunamis it generated reshaped coastlines around the planet. The fire it started burned for years.

As for me and Mags? It blasted our bodies into atoms and scattered them through wind, water, and earth, all across the globe.

We were proper fucked.

☠️

The Song

I can’t say for sure how long it took for me to realize what had happened. On a geologic scale that big, little things like years don’t seem so bloody relevant. But at some point, I heard a song, faintly flickering at first, like the light from a candle on a peak past the horizon. I felt drawn to it, but I couldn’t move. Hell, I didn’t even have a body. I was just one little atom spinning in the darkness.

Then I realized it was Mags. Her voice, though far away, came from all around me. I tried to say something, but I had no mouth. For what might have been a hundred million years, I tried to move closer to that song, wherever its source might be.

That was a dumb idea. Eventually it sank in. I wasn’t in one place any more than Mags’ voice was. I was all over the place. I wasn’t just one atom, but all my atoms, strewn across the bloody planet. And if that was true, I reckoned, then it was probably true for Mags, too.

I felt like giving up and drifting on the wind and waves.

But I don’t know if you’ve heard Mags sing before. Maybe you’re not a fan of the Psycho 78s or her solo album, or the stuff she’s been doing with Small Flowers lately. Or that new B-side she did with Dumpster Kittens. But I am, and it’s because when Mags sings, everything makes sense to me. Even when she sings about how senseless and stupid everything is, it’s like she’s singing just for me, lending her voice to what needs to be said, even if everyone else is afraid to put it into words.

So, I did what any sensible sod would do. I sang along.

Fragments of me recalled how Mum’s people thought of Straya in terms of songlines: a musical geography of the landscape and the stars above, rich with our history and destiny ages before the written word or printed maps of any kind.

After a moment that might have been seconds or millennia, Maggie’s song came closer, or I came closer to it.

Then it stopped.

“Celina? Celina, can you hear me?”

They were the first words I’d heard her speak in eons. “Magpie! What is happening to us?”

“I miss you.”

If I had a face, I would have smiled. “No, you don’t. You hit me right on target, every time.”

Laughter followed. “I think I sang a trillion verses!”

“Me too.”

“Keep singing with me. It’s got to be our only way out of this.”

I agreed. “You take the melody. I’ll harmonize.”

From all around me, a purr. “I almost got my hands back. It’s all about the vibration.”

“Then let’s vibrate, baby. Take it away.”

She did.

Over the next few hundred million years, we improvised. With time to spare, we harmonized every possible combination of the twelve-tone scale in every imaginable rhythm. Then we started in on semitones and microtones. Together we wove incessant song while continents split apart and drifted into place. As the world began to take its current shape, so did we.

No longer scattered so thin, my atoms gathered together. Looking back on it now, I realize that the waves of our song rippled across the planet, and our atoms rode those waves, like when you shake a blanket across a bed to bring it into shape. We shook the entire Earth, and tiny pieces of us began to coalesce into coherence.

That’s not to say it all went smoothly. I witnessed multiple mass extinctions, even more asteroid collisions, and the death of countless species. But life always came back, in all its myriad forms, in the oceans, air, and on the land.

I know it’s selfish of me, but despite all those deaths and rebirths, there was only one life I cared about, and she sang with me through it all.

If you ever wonder why my cranky kitty and I are inseparable to this day, keep in mind that for a couple billion years, all we tried to do was get back together.

Eventually, the shreds of my body realigned. The same happened for Mags. All the time singing. Then there was the two of us, and I slipped my hand into hers in a gesture that must have taken an epoch or two.

“Celina,” she said.

“Maggie.”

No other words were needed.

How long that moment lasted, I can’t say. But we weren’t done yet. We had not met the rainbow serpent.

Goorialla, some tribes called him. He’s credited with many things. Some are true. Some are not. But one thing is for sure. That motherfucker is gigantic!

The enormous snake appeared, and he must have been a kilometer of scales, rippling in iridescent colors, slithering around us until we were enclosed within his coils.

Above that spiraling cage, he reared his head. I was sure we were done for. His tongue flicked in and out of his mouth, smelling us. Mags held me close, and the reptilian tongue whipped us both, taking in our scent. I did not let go.

The serpentine face withdrew to a great height above us, like a mountain, but the voice emanating from its open jaws felt as near as anything I’d ever felt, like the way Mags’ song had come from everywhere at once and nowhere in particular. The monster god spoke four words. “Why are you here?”

Mags almost answered first, but I put a finger to her lips. “We want to be together.”

“You are in the space of sacred songs. What makes you mortals think you have the right?” The tongue flicked at us again, smelling us and rudely slapping us about.

It stunk like hell, and I couldn’t think of anything clever to say. I clung to Mags.

She smacked the giant tongue. “Hey, fuckface! You call the tune, and we’ll sing it. We got a couple billion years of practice, so bring it on!”

That wasn’t the nicest thing to say to an ancient ancestral deity, and I was sure he would swallow us whole and shit us out onto some ethereal landscape as amorphous globs of snake poo.

But he just laughed, if you can imagine a snake laughing.

Mags gave me a squeeze and raised her voice. “Listen, you legless freak! We were just getting warmed up. Now call the tune!”

Maybe he was amused that a tiny mortal considered herself the equal of gods. But his coils undulated around us, and he called the tune. It was that tune—a song without a proper name but older than time itself—that welded the magic of Mags’ ring to me. And believe me, we sang that tune like it was the last one ever written.

For as many years as we had spent trying to reunite, nothing prepared me for the moment where our bodies and souls merged into one person wearing the same ring. It was like Mags and I were overlaid on top of each other, and for just one second, my ring-finger and her ring-finger shared the same space and time, enclosed by the silver band her great-gramma made. The rainbow serpent encircled us, and his scales turned the same silver color as Mags’ ring. The magic that promised to keep Mags alive for two hundred years became a magic I shared.

Then the serpent opened his mouth, and his fangs were also gleaming silver. Beyond them, only blackness. In a strike as swift as lightning, he swallowed us whole. The darkness was everywhere and everything, with nothing beyond its edges.

☠️

The Waterhole

We awoke at night in a pool of fresh water near Perth, sputtering and wiping our faces. I knew it was near Perth because I saw the lights of Fremantle Harbour, from which I’d sailed a dozen times.

Mags said, “Where are we?” She found a handhold on the side of the hole and pulled herself to dry land. She held out one hand for me.

I grasped it and followed her up. “Goorialla is the god of waterholes. He travels between them.”

“Gooey who?”

“Goorialla. That giant snake you just cursed out.”

Mags’ tail snapped every which way to rid itself of water. “That fuckin’ guy.”

“We’re lucky he didn’t eat us.”

“He’s lucky I didn’t eat him! But I will say this.” She scooped a handful of water from the pool and lapped it up. “Damned decent of him not to puke us up on that bloody crater in the middle of nowhere.”

“He’s not all bad.” I practically inhaled water from my cupped hands.

We sated our thirst. “Mags? My oldies’ place must be just a klick from here, right over that hill. Why don’t we stop in for a cuppa and a lie down?”

Mags collapsed on the rock. “I’m so buggered, I could pass out right here.”

“Me too. Or we could enjoy some cozy pillows and curl up next to each other. Maybe sing ourselves to sleep.”

Mags lifted her prone figure onto one elbow. “I’ve had about enough of singing for the next ten trillion years,” she lied. “But let’s go cuddle.”

☠️

Gratitude

In Mum’s native language, people don’t say please or thank you. The words don’t even exist. It’s true that I think a few polite words go a long way toward helping everyone get along without killing each other, but I also see the wisdom in not relying on words alone.

Mum’s family didn’t omit those words out of rudeness, but because they felt gratitude should be demonstrated. If someone did something nice for you, then you bloody well did nice things for them, too! That was how it worked. You couldn’t just say thanks and expect that to be the end of it. You had an obligation to help those who helped you.

Mum and Dad lived that idea. By modern standards, they were rough and inelegant with each other in the way they spoke. But not a day went by without one of them demonstrating love. It might have been Mum reserving the best cut of meat for him, or Dad brushing her hair by candlelight after dinner. It might have been the way she never pressed him to talk about what was troubling him, or the way he always told her everything once he simmered down.

It was the opposite of the powers from Europe who dressed up their actions in pretty words on their mad quest to conquer the world. They liked flowery speeches about nobility and liberty, but Europe’s hearts were filled with greed, not love, and their words rang hollow.

Mags and I always saw eye-to-eye on that. She’ll never have a career as a diplomat. She prefers abusive language. But she always understood that gratitude isn’t a word, but an action.

After our experience in the dreaming, we had no debate over whether we should do something. It was only a question of what we could do to show our gratitude. The spirits of the dreamtime had granted our wish, and though we were a bit too young to understand all the implications of that gift, we knew we needed to repay the ancients who gave it to us.

It took a while to get it sorted. In fact, it took nearly two years. But in 1944, Mags and her gramma reunited in the wake of the Allied Operation Overlord. Magpie traveled to France and saw firsthand the destruction of not just the country of her birth, but of her gramma’s estate.[18] She resolved to make a new home for women displaced by war, and she wrote to me in the States to ask if I would join her.

I didn’t even finish the letter before I knew I was in. We were still a couple of hot-headed young sheilas, and rough as guts back then. But we had an opportunity to create something new in a place where all hope had been lost. And maybe—just maybe—we could make enough difference in the world to show our gratitude to the powers who brought us together.

I booked my ticket overseas, and a new chapter began.


[1] “Cot case” meaning an insane person, presumably for occupying a cot in a primitive mental hospital. Also used as a derogatory term for any inebriated or otherwise mentally incapacitated person.

[2] Richrath, Gary Dean, et. al. (1978). Time for Me to Fly. On You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tune a Fish. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).

[3] Richrath, Gary Dean. (1980). Take It on the Run. On High Infidelity. Nashville: HoriPro Entertainment Group (acquired in 2019 by Mojo Music & Media Group).

[4] “Chips” are known as French fries in the States.

[5] “Flat” meaning apartment.

[6] “Pissed” meaning drunk, not angry.

[7] Celina is recounting events from the end of Curtain of Fire, from her perspective. That story also introduced Bert and his club, and his scene which Celina retells here. Celina was 17 in 1938 when she met Mags, despite lying about her age, and Mags was 14, turning 15 that November.

[8] The Australian government did not recognize indigenous people as citizens until 1967, with the passage of the Constitution Alteration (Aboriginals). Even then, nothing about the law gave the First People full rights of citizenship, such as suffrage. The constitutional change merely granted the Australian government the power to make laws regarding indigenous peoples and count them in the national census.

[9] “Seppo” meaning people of the United States. Historians disagree over whether the term derives from “separatists”—because the USA separated from England—or because seppo is short for “septic tank”, which rhymes with “Yank” as in “Yankee”. As to why Australians and people in the UK use rhyming slang, that’s an entirely different subject.

[10] “Natter” meaning a chat.

[11] Celina is summarizing events told in more detail in Curtain of Fire. Mags next recalls a conversation she had with Jack in that story.

[12] “A sausage short of a barbecue”, much like the saying “not playing with a full deck”. In other words, mentally deficient.

[13] Mags is recounting experiences mentioned in Curtain of Fire. The difficulty of finding decent socks during the anarchist uprising in Barcelona in the 1930s is documented in George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. Socks might not sound like a big deal, but a lack of clean socks contributed to horrifying foot diseases.

[14] “Ute” meaning a utility vehicle, which could be anything from a Jeep to a light pickup truck.

[15] Bandywallop and Woop-Woop are remote, imaginary towns, similar to “Hicksville” in the States.

[16] “There’s a 24-pack in the trunk.”

[17] See Great-Gramma Magdalena’s explanation of this phenomenon in Curtain of Fire.

[18] Weight of the Universe shows this moment in a flashback and tells a story about life at the home Mags and Celina helped create.

seven short poems

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These seven seven-line poems go with a new short story called The Singing Spell, which should be ready to share soon. The subjects relate to the story, and the first letters of each line spell out the poem’s title. It’s not a form I usually work in, but I thought it would be fun to try something different.

PATCHES

Pressed close to the ground,
a solitary huntress hungers
to taste what scurries and forages unaware.

Calico colors—brown, black, and white—
hide her in the sun-dappled forest floor.

Everything comes down to
survival.

BILLION

Before history,
I knew you
like a light or a
lyric or the
iridescence of a hummingbird.

Only now,
nothing separates us.

NEBULAE

Nurseries of infant stars,
expectant giants and
black holes hungering for birth,
ushered into a theater of
light and violent gravity where
all who ever lived await
eternity’s epilogue.

MINERAL

Maybe next time,
I come back a stone.
Nowhere to go or
escape, just
rock.

Alabaster.
Limestone.

SERPENT

Sometimes you need to shed
everything to find the
right skin.

Pent-up explosions
emerge as something new.

No one ever mourned
the cell she escaped.

FORTUNE

Fate remains silent,
only speaking in unsolved mysteries.

Road signs vanish, and
travelers lose their way
until that unexpected
night, when
everything at last makes sense.

HIGHWAY

How we got here
is less important than why.

Go as far as your
heart can take you, and
when you reach the
arid edge of time,
you will find me.

indie box: Fran

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Fran is the female counterpart to Jim Woodring’s Frank, a somewhat traditional “funny animal” cartoon character who lives in a completely untraditional world of mayhem, magical beings, mysterious objects, and massive acid trips. It’s a world where even when Woodring shows you exactly what is happening, you still wonder what the hell is happening! Frank stories are unpredictable and open to interpretation, and the Fran graphic novel is no exception.

Things start out simply enough. Fran and Frank are living in apparent marital bliss, where a morning of play fighting and teasing is just an expression of their mutual affection.

But when Frank and his pet chase down a creep who stole Frank’s sketchbook, they unearth a hole that leads to a subterranean cavern filled with presumably stolen wonders. Frank, being amoral or at least morally ambiguous, loots the cave and takes home the booty.

One of the treasures is a projector that, when worn on the head, projects the wearer’s memories like a movie. When Fran refuses to put it on her head, Frank loses his temper and screams at her.

As a result, she leaves him. When Frank realizes she’s gone, he is heartbroken, and beats himself up for being such a jerk.

The rest of the story primarily concerns Frank’s quest to follow Fran’s trail into the psychedelic wilderness and reunite with her. But there is more to Fran than meets the eye, and we discover several things about her that suggest she had good reason to not want her memories exposed to Frank via the projector. She violently slaughters some creeps who assault her, shacks up with a guy with a freaky face, and ultimately uses a shape-shifting deception to ditch Frank once again.

Frank doesn’t take it well. He lets loose a howl that brings down the heavens… or something!

From there, things get really weird. Frank’s journey takes unexpected twists and turns through a deranged cosmos loosely governed by cartoon physics and hallucinatory horror. Like the previous novel-length Frank adventures in Weathercraft and Congress of the Animals, Fran will keep you guessing about what could possibly happen next, and leave you pondering what it all means at the end.

Collector’s Guide: The 2013 hardcover edition of Fran is usually available at MyComicShop and on Amazon for about $20, and comes in a Kindle/Comixology version, too.

indie box: Patience

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Patience is my favorite work by Daniel Clowes. It tells a relatively (for Clowes) straight-forward yet suspenseful science-fiction tale. Having deconstructed the superhero genre in his previous work, The Death-Ray, which was a pastiche of multiple comic-strip conventions, Clowes gave us Patience in a more traditional narrative style. Despite that, this book subverted my expectations many times, and I love that about it.

The story begins with the quiet slice-of-life drama you might expect if you’ve read Clowes’ Ghost World or Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. Humdrum everyman characters encounter mostly typical problems while filled with a persistent existential malaise. I usually find stories about average people to be quite tedious. Real life is average enough for me, thanks. So, I began to wonder what all the hype was with Patience, because there are about twenty pages of this stuff before the story really kicks off.

But after an unexpected tragedy, the story shifts tone and becomes a mystery, and I began to wonder just what kind of book I was reading. Then the story jumps into the year 2029, which has been one of my favorite years for science-fiction tales since the first Terminator movie came out, and the tone radically shifts again. About forty pages in, our humdrum everyman has undergone a dramatic emotional change as he sets eyes on the catalyst for the rest of the tale.

Okay, now we’re into exciting territory! A force of nature! But the problem for the protagonist is that despite his delusions of grandeur, he is still a bumbling, incompetent lunkhead. Full of raging desire to set the world straight by exacting his revenge, he only makes more of a mess of everything. His bungling ineptitude reminds me of the 2007 film Timecrimes which, if you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend watching without reading about it or seeing the trailer first.

The visual style of this book feels like an homage to the brightly colored pulp comic books of a bygone age, the kind of books Clowes also paid tribute to in David Boring, which included excerpts from an imaginary superhero comic about The Yellow Streak. But there’s one convention he repeatedly messes with: He places all or most of many speech balloons outside the panel borders, cutting off their edges so the dialogue is incomplete. The result is a sense that the dialogue is less important than the protagonist’s relentless interior monologue as he narrates the story in captions which are never cut off.

Throughout the adventure, the hero becomes increasingly deranged, experiencing wild moods swings and psychedelic visions. These are shown in a style that feels more like the trippy underground comix of the 1970s than their pulp predecessors.

While Patience employed some common science-fiction tropes, it excelled at keeping me guessing about what would come next and how it would all play out. Several times I thought I might have it all figured out, only to be proven wrong. And that’s the fun. With all the plot twists and turns, gradual character reveals, and the tonal and stylistic shifts, Patience kept me riveted to the page.

Collector’s Guide: Patience is usually out of stock at MyComicShop, but you can get it on Amazon for about $22.    

Meteor Mags: A Distant Light

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METEOR MAGS: A DISTANT LIGHT

© 2020 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

Episode 27 of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.

While working on the next two episodes this summer, I realized a short vignette needs to come between them. It concerns the space monkeys who first appeared in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX and have since joined with Alonso and the telepathic octopuses to become the interspecies band Small Flowers. At 800 words, it’s the shortest episode yet, but I felt it said what needed to be said.

🐒

The Matriarch was dying. She doubled over in agony, gritted her teeth, and straightened herself to her full height. She rested her weight against a cane. It was time.

She summoned a few of the younger females to her side. Speaking in her native Russian, she told them to gather the rest of the tribe. Then she made her way to the jagged depression in the heart of the asteroid Svoboda 9 where the octopuses had been born.

More than a hundred swam there. Outside the entrance to the cavern, where her comrades had held many drum circles since their arrival eight months prior, she rested her back against a giant coal-colored stone and sank to ground. She landed on her haunches and brought her knees to her chest.

Macaques have a shorter life expectancy than humans. In captivity, some live more than thirty years, and few had matched her longevity at forty. It was, she decided, a good life. She had led her tribe through decades of isolation and accompanied them on their recent adventures since meeting Meteor Mags. They discovered social and musical wonders they never knew existed and, as members of the band Small Flowers, shared those discoveries with others.

Karpov arrived first. He sat beside her and took her hand. “Mother.”

She caressed his cheek. She stroked the fur on his face and peered into his dark eyes.

He said, “The others are on their way. They will be here soon.”

“I can feel them. Karpov?”

“Yes?”

“Will you make sure they do not mourn? I couldn’t bear to see them sad after all this time.”

In their life before Svoboda, when the space-born macaques were more severely split along gender lines, Karpov led the males, and his previous ideas of what best suited the tribe rarely aligned with hers. “Of course,” he said. “We will not mourn. We will celebrate.”

“That,” she said, “sounds perfect.”

“Here they come now.” He leaned in and kissed her forehead. “You will always be with us.”

She smiled. “I know. The octopuses told me.”

A riotous noise filled the cavern, and the macaques who had exalted her for decades arrived. One by one, they approached to lay their hands on her and kiss her goodbye.

But one of the attendees was not simian at all. Alonso knelt beside the Matriarch and pet her head. “Mama,” he said. “Mags called. She needs me to drive. We’re about to bring free energy to Earth.”

“Go make it a better place,” said the Matriarch. “Her mission can’t wait for me.”

Alonso bowed his head. “I’ll do whatever it takes, madre de mi corazon.”

The Matriarch wiped a tear from his hairless face. “Don’t be sad. I’ll be here when you get back. The octopuses will see to that.”

Alonso kissed her cheek. “Vaya con Dios. You’ll always be with me.” He pressed her hand to his chest then hugged her wordlessly for a long minute. On his way out, he paused to salute Karpov with a raised fist. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

In his wake, the monkeys gathered around their queen, each with a percussive instrument, each as silent as the space between stars, each awaiting a signal from Karpov to begin one final jam.

Karpov picked up a djembe and raised one fur-covered hand to the sky. Then he brought it down. His palms and fingertips connected with the drum and established a rhythm. The macaques in the cavern joined him.

The Matriarch sank against the stone at her back. All around her, the children she had raised alone in space for decades created something new and beautiful for her, a song no one had ever heard before.

Undulating and changing colors in their subterranean lake, the octopuses helped. They touched the Matriarch’s mind and all the gathered minds. They reached into her and recorded all she had ever known, every thought and feeling, every experience, every moment of love and regret, each failure and triumph, every isolation and connection, and all her hopes for her tribe.

In a sonorous cacophony of drums, she let go of her life.

She was no longer with her children, but neither was she separate from them. The telepathic bond with the octopuses assured that. Her consciousness joined the group mind swirling in the asteroid cavern, and it was nothing short of heaven.

Some time later, after the drum circle died down, her comrades carried her body to the Svobodan surface. They dug a hole in the iron-rich rock and covered it with a cairn of stones. Above the gathering shone a million stars. In the sky glowed a distant light, faintly colored blue. It was Earth, the planet of her birth, and as far away as it was that night, her tribe knew it shone for her.

🐒

indie box: Action Philosophers

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Action Philosophers uses humor, exaggeration, and sight gags to spice up a subject that many people avoid just because it’s too damn boring. Writer Fred van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey bring much-needed life to the topic in their irreverent yet educational takes on many of the most influential philosophers, from ancient times to modern.

Consider Bodhidharma, an important figure in the development of both Zen and martial arts. Did you think a lesson on Zen was going to be a bunch of boring monks sitting around meditating? Think again!

Then there’s Isaac Luria, portrayed in an homage to the sorcerer Dr. Strange of Marvel Comics fame.

In their quest to make philosophy exciting, the creative team pays other tributes to action-packed comic book styles, including Jack Kirby’s pulse-pounding visuals.

Pop culture references abound, such as imagining David Hume using the old Saturday Night Live catchphrase, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” I’ve read Hume before, and it was nowhere near as fun as this version.

The conventions of comic book art lend themselves to illustrating some abstract concepts, like this page where objects and people disappear because the philosopher isn’t thinking about them.

And why suffer through tedious history books about Francis Bacon when a handy infographic does the trick?

This is a fun series, and I thank reader Ergozen for recommending it a few months ago. The Tenth Anniversary “uber-edition” collects all the material so that the philosophers appear in chronological order, but it’s often out of stock or exorbitantly priced. However, you can find a similar complete collection on Amazon at a reasonable price.

You can also explore more fun and educational works at Ryan Dunlavey’s site, including a lengthy sample of his history of comic books.

Reflections on Writing The Crystal Core

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I haven’t officially published The Crystal Core yet, but you can read it for free on this blog until I have enough new stories to collect into a book. Here are some personal reflections about writing the story.

Some of Mags’ adventures began as basic plot ideas, some grew out of an idea for a scene or a piece of dialogue, and some started as a concept about an object or situation I thought it would be fun to write about. The Crystal Core is an example of all three of these possibilities combined.

The plot inspiration goes back to The Battle of Vesta 4, where I realized I had given my pirate crew a too-powerful object: the multidimensional “triglyph”. If I had included the triglyph in that story, the conflict would have been far too easy for the crew to overcome. Rather than address the situation, I decided to ignore it for a while and come back to it later—hopefully with a plausible explanation. Along the way, I wrote 1,000 words of notes on possible narrative paths to take with the triglyph.

While writing Small Flowers, I planted the seeds for the triglyph’s return. Plutonian questioned Mags about why she didn’t use it, and she revealed she had forgotten about it. The epilogue ended on a minor cliffhanger. Mags discovered the triglyph was missing from her armory where she placed it at the end of The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. By then, I’d reworked my original notes into an idea to use the triglyph to terraform Titan.

But as I mentioned in my reflections about Small Flowers, I watched a ton of documentaries that influenced that story and the shorter pieces published with it. I’ve been reading about space, stars, and black holes since I was in third or fourth grade, but I don’t recall learning about the diamond cores of white dwarf stars until early 2020. My mind was blown by the idea that these huge diamonds are burning in outer space, but I didn’t know what to do with that concept. So, I asked a friend what she would do with a huge crystal from space.

She said, “Build a radio.”

That was the moment my plot ideas and my “high concept” intersected, and I knew I needed to write that story. I started cranking out more notes and scenes around the concept, but I was confused by some aspects of crystal radios.

Fortunately, a member of my writers’ workshop (the illustrious Jeff Duntemann) is a ham-radio enthusiast, so I called him. He cleared up my misconceptions, enlightened me about a few missing pieces of the puzzle, and showed me where I needed to patch up the science to achieve some minimum standard of plausibility.

This is one of the best things about having writers, artists, and musicians as friends. I can call them unexpectedly and, without much preamble or small talk, say crazy things such as, “Can you help me build a giant crystal radio from a star core?” That’s how I end up having intriguing and educational conversations for an hour or more about things most people never think about.

The Crystal Core became a unique episode in Mags’ adventures. It has long passages of narration about terraforming Titan and building the giant space radio, scenes where I flexed my prose muscles to see if I could write about science but keep it poetic, beautiful, and interesting. Those scenes alternate with discussions that focus on dialogue and character interaction.

But I wanted to do something even weirder with the story: use multiple narrators. I wanted to get inside the characters’ streams of consciousness when they encountered the new rulers of Titan and got their minds messed with, telepathically.

I’ve read a ton of science-fiction prose and comic books that did similar things, but I sometimes find them difficult to follow. I like challenging narrative techniques in prose and film and comics, but I don’t like it when I feel the author is wanking instead of clearly telling a story in the most effective way possible. As I’ve written before in essays on narrators and points of view, the choice to get creative with narrators or structure needs to be more than a demonstration of how clever the author is. I’m not impressed by being incomprehensible. I’m impressed when the choice of a narrator or structure is perfect because any other choice would not tell the story as effectively.

You can judge for yourself how well I lived up to my own standard. Sometimes my reach exceeds my grasp, and that’s a normal part of growing and improving as a writer. Much of my writing in Mags’ adventures is a journey toward being able to live up to my own expectations about what makes a good story, or what makes beautiful prose, or what is entertaining to read. I feel I get closer to my ideals as the series progresses and, like most writers, I’m sometimes frustrated that I didn’t quite have the “chops” to do justice to some of my earliest stories. But with each story, I work on improving everything from descriptive language to comedic timing, from plotting to character development, and the myriad other things that make up a great story.

The Crystal Core continues a trend that began in the opening scene of Blind Alley Blues, which is a diary entry from Mags. In Small Flowers, I incorporated the idea that Mags writes letters to her somewhat-deceased great-gramma, which gives Mags more opportunities to narrate events in her unique voice. These letters have often been “behind the scenes” projects that never saw print. I wrote a good letter for Voyage of the Calico Tigress, but it didn’t quite fit the overall structure, so I cut it from the final version. With Small Flowers, I tried to weave the letters into the story in integral ways, and The Last Patches Story completely hands over the narrative reins to Mags so she can tell an imaginary bedtime tale about Patches. (One of my original ideas for that story involved using Patches as a first-person narrator, but I didn’t care for how that played out.)

With The Crystal Core, I wanted to extend the boundaries of what was possible with using other members of the pirate crew as narrators, too. Other than Hang My Body on the Pier, which featured excerpts from Great-Gramma’s memoirs, Crystal Core is the first story where anyone but Mags gets a shot at narrating. Dr. Plutonian narrates a scene and, like the scene of Mags’ narration that follows it, it takes place while the telepathic octopuses are disassembling his mind. I set myself the challenge of showing this confusing state of mind while making it absolutely clear to the reader who was talking, what was happening, and why.

I feel like it worked, and initial feedback told me it worked, so I considered why it worked. The text contains details that help, such as Mags’ straight-up telling the readers exactly what she thinks is happening to her mind. But in terms of remaining true to a character’s unique voice when slipping into first-person internal monologue, I think the key to success was the amount of time I have spent living in these characters’ heads for more than half a decade now.

They might have started out as comic-book caricatures, but over the years these characters have become more complex and real people to me. I suspect any writer who spends a serious amount of time on long-form stories will tell you the same thing. When you, as an author, share and invest so much of your life and your thoughts and your feelings with your characters, they undergo what I think of as the Pinocchio Effect. At some magical point or phase in the journey, the characters stop being puppets on your strings and become real to you. They take on a life of their own. They place demands on you. They help you understand yourself in relation to them. You know they are mere fictions, but like the golem of Jewish mythology or the monster of Dr. Frankenstein, they become imbued with their own lifeforce, their own desires, their own path in this world.

I’m lucky, compared to some novelists. Many novelists go through the pain of creating and bringing to life a set of characters that will never be seen again after the novel’s final page. But because I am writing an open-ended, ongoing series with roots that stretch for hundreds of millions of years into the past, and branches that extend beyond the end of our universe, I don’t feel any need to finish working with my characters or close the final page on them. I have all the time in the world to get to know them—or at least, all the time I have remaining on this planet.

By the time I got around to giving Plutonian a scene to narrate, I had spent so many years with him that I felt confident I could write in his voice. He delivered an extended monologue in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX where he told Mags about an event in his past. That was the first scene I ever workshopped, about four years ago now. I love a good monologue, but that’s different from being inside the character’s head, which is what happens in The Crystal Core.

I didn’t know for sure how The Crystal Core would end when I started drafting scenes, but my workshoppers will attest to the fact that I am a big believer in writing the ending before the story is finished. As a writer, I’m not interested in taking a mysterious journey into the unknown by simply starting with the first page of a story and writing until it feels finished. The mysterious journey is the reader’s experience, not the writer’s.

People who write by the seat of their pants often encounter the same problems over and over again: not knowing where they are headed when they are in the middle of the story, and therefore not knowing what scenes or moments of character development matter, or how to advance their plot. They often arrive at unsatisfactory endings, assuming they don’t give up in frustration halfway through—something that’s happened to many writers I know.

My advice? Once you are clear on the characters and their motivations and central conflicts, write an ending! Know where you are going! Writing without knowing how your story ends is like trying to play a game of darts while wearing a blindfold. You might hit the bullseye out of pure chance or luck, but it’s doubtful. If, instead, you draft the ending earlier in the process, then you know what you are aiming for, and you can construct a story that inevitably leads to that conclusion. Yes, the ending might need to be revised by the time you finish the rest of the story, so don’t sweat too many of the little details. A draft of the ending is only there to give yourself the gift of direction and purpose.

For The Crystal Core, I had about half of it drafted before I tackled the ending, but I knew I needed a firm finish to guide me through the middle. I asked myself, “What would be the most logical and consistent ending for a quasi-intelligent and supremely powerful object, especially after it encountered my octopuses?”

The ending is influenced by my love of science-fiction comic books where the fate of the entire universe (or even the multi-verse) is at stake on a daily basis, and it’s a logical development of my push to constantly expand the scope of possibilities within Mags’ adventures. The Crystal Core, like The Last Patches Story, is an attempt to connect the lives of the pirate crew to huge, cosmic-level events.

It was a fun story to write. I enjoyed expanding the boundaries of what I could do with these characters and their universe, connecting the cosmic experience to the personal stories, and seeing how big I could go in fewer than 8,000 words.

My only question is, “What’s next?”

What Are You Building? Ten Years of Inception

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July 2020 was the tenth anniversary of the theatrical release of Inception, and the movie generated so many discussions and theories that I doubt anything I say will be new. But it’s one of my favorite films, and upon watching it for the zillionth time this week, a few things came to mind.

The previous time I watched Inception, last year, I put the sound on my little desktop speakers. This time, I put it in my headphones. I’d forgotten how awesome this film originally sounded in the theater when I first saw it with my sister ten years ago. The score by Hans Zimmer is integral to the movie. Like Zimmer did for the more recent Nolan film Dunkirk, he often overlaps multiple scenes with a single piece of music that establishes a thematic unity across the scenes, tying everything together emotionally through sound.

The final scenes of the movie are unified by Zimmer’s piece called Time, the song that begins when Mr. Cobb apparently wakes up on the plane. The song continues until the very last second of the film. Over the years, I’ve come to feel this song is inextricably linked to those scenes. It begins sparsely and quietly. It’s gloomy and melancholy, but it adds layers and a swelling orchestral treatment that sounds to me like triumphant sadness. It doesn’t sound like a happy ending, but neither does it sound like total defeat.

It’s an odd emotional combination, but it makes complete sense for the film’s ending. Why? Because that’s exactly what happens to Cobb. The triumph is that Cobb at last is reunited with his children he loves so much. The sadness is that those are clearly not Cobb’s real children, and he has not returned to reality to be with them. He’s still dreaming about them and has given up on returning to reality so he can experience the happiness of being with them in the dream world. As a writer of fiction, I can relate to that a little too much.

When I first saw the film in the theater, I loved the ambiguous ending. I felt like the film was leaving it up to me to decide whether Cobb was still dreaming or had truly achieved his desire in the real world. But, after repeated viewings, I no longer sense any ambiguity at all. The entire ending is clearly a dream.

Here’s why. First, the kids are in the States, and Cobb is greeted at the airport in the States by the Michael Caine character, Miles. But we know that Miles was in Paris, France the last time we met him. Why is he in the States? Answer: He isn’t. Second, the kids appear exactly as they did in all the times Cobb saw them in dreams—the same poses, the same clothes—only this time, he sees their faces. But if Cobb were in reality, wouldn’t the kids have on different clothes and be older than he remembers them? Third, Cobb asks the kids what they are doing, and they tell him they are building a house on a cliff. Building is something associated in the film with building worlds inside dreams, and the film shows us Saito’s house on a cliff in the previous scene. These aren’t real kids in a yard. They are only dream children.

The music tells us this is both a sad and a happy moment. It’s the sonic equivalent of getting everything you ever hoped for, yet failing to get it at all, because it’s an illusion. Cobb has both abandoned his struggle to truly reunite with his real kids and escaped the fate of becoming “an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone.” Cobb achieves wish fulfillment, but it’s just a dream, not the real thing.

While I no longer feel the ending is at all ambivalent, it does leave me with two questions. First, how much of the film is a dream? Others have speculated that the entire film is a layered dream, and the scenes in Mombasa support that theory, most notably in the way the walls of the city become impossibly narrow passages Cobb must squeeze through only to emerge at a too-coincidental rescue by Saito.

Second, what happens after the film’s ending? Since Cobb is still dreaming, his top will continue spinning after the final frame. But what happens when he returns to the room with the table where he left the top, then finds it is still spinning because he is dreaming? I don’t want to see an Inception II sequel, but I like to imagine the possibilities of what comes next. Will Cobb find the top spinning and lock it away in a safe to preserve the dream’s “reality” like his wife Mal did when they were trapped together in limbo? Or will Cobb see it spinning and decide to wake himself up to pursue fulfilling his desires in reality?

Perhaps the final scene with Saito as an old man in the house on the cliff provides the answer. Saito’s final physical act on camera is reaching for a pistol. But we never see what he does with it. Maybe he put it to his head and pulled the trigger, killing himself in the dream to awake in the real world, leaving Cobb to face the decision to return the same way or simply sink into the fantasy fulfillment of the dream. Given Cobb’s established penchant for self-deception, always pretending that he has things “under control” when he clearly doesn’t, it seems likely that he chose the path of fantasy fulfillment within the dream. But I think that when Cobb finds that still-spinning top on the table, he will need to make a choice about either maintaining the easy lie or returning to the difficult truth.

That choice will define his life from then on. Who knows? Maybe Saito really can do what he promised and reunite Cobb with his real children. Maybe he can’t.

So, do you want to take a leap of faith? Or become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone?

Maybe you have a third choice.

Big Box of Comics: Cartoon History of the Universe and More

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My love for Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe goes back almost as many years as this blog, when I first discovered scans of it and later collected many of the original nine single issues. Cartoon History won my heart with a first issue that features some of my favorite topics: the origin of spacetime, the lives of dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals and birds. From there, the series leaves behind the “universe” to tell the stories of human civilizations throughout Africa, India, China, Greece, Rome, and Europe. It’s a monumental tour de force with a great sense of humor, and it’s way more fun than most history classes.

So, this Spring, thanks to this blog’s readers, I expanded my Cartoon History collection with a few collected paperbacks. Three large paperback volumes collect issues 1–7, 8–13, and 14–19 in almost 1,000 pages of awesomeness that start with the Big Bang and end as Columbus sets sail from Spain in 1492.

On top of that, a paperback collection of nearly 400 pages offers The Cartoon History of the United States, which was originally published in two smaller volumes. Gonick adroitly strikes a balance between giving us history’s broad brushstrokes and revealing some of its complex nuances. For example, most Americans might tell you, “Lincoln freed the slaves,” but the reality was not so simple. Gonick tackles complex topics like this without ever being dry and academic about it.

He also succeeds in unraveling such complexities in a way that someone in sixth grade or junior high school could read and understand, and it’s a shame that these books are not used as textbooks in high school courses—or even college. Stylistically, this collection shows a departure from the crisp panel layouts and inking style of the “Universe” series, with Gonick abandoning his prior preferences for panel layouts in favor of a more open style and adopting a rougher inking technique that incorporates prior period-specific artwork in some of its panels. This style still works; it’s just noticeably different from what came before.

You’d think that after all that history, we might be done. But I also picked up Gonick’s collaboration with Mark Wheelis: The Cartoon Guide to Genetics. Visually, this book looks more like the volumes of United States history, and the material is more scientifically complex. It adeptly delves into not just the history of genetics pioneers such as Gregor Mendel but into the molecular structure of DNA and the inner workings of cells. I’ve read more detailed books on cells, such as the masterful The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell, but this is a book that even your average high-school student should be able to read and understand. It isn’t quite as funny as the “Universe” series, but it’s an enjoyable and informative read that will give you a strong foundation for understanding this topic.

Larry Gonick has done more books than these, but that’s where my store credit ran out! After working my way through all these volumes, I’m left with a profound admiration for his skills at using cartoons as a teaching method, for his ability to discuss complex aspects of history and science in way that renders them comprehensible without sacrificing an awareness of their subtleties, and for his use of humor to turn what could be rather dry reading into an enjoyable and memorable romp through history.

Collector’s Guide:

The original nine single issues of The Cartoon History of the Universe; Rip Off Press, 1978.

The Cartoon History of the Universe volumes 1–3, paperback collections; Doubleday, 1990. Also available on Amazon.

The Cartoon History of the United States, paperback collection. HarperCollins, 2005. Also available on Amazon.

The Cartoon Guide to Genetics; HarperCollins, 2005. Also available on Amazon.

Larry Gonick’s website, with many more books to explore.

Big Box of Comics: Mister Miracle by Jack Kirby, Expanded TPB

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For a few months in 2013, I had a complete collection of all the individual issues of Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle series. When I sold it as a set on Ebay, I knew I would miss it. But thanks to this blog’s readers, I was reunited this summer with this classic series in the form of a full-color, collected edition. Many other reviewers have focused on the dynamic art and the high-energy storytelling that characterize this and other “Fourth World” Kirby stories, so I’d like to discuss a few things that don’t get talked about very much.

But first, this collection is a great way to own all eighteen of the original Kirby issues. It’s complete, compact without reducing the page size, and “remastered” so that the art, ink, and colors are crisp and perfect. It includes all the original covers, which are brilliant works of art on their own, and all the back-up stories about the title character’s childhood. Kirby did amazing double-splash panels for this series that unfortunately get their centers lost in the gutter in a paperback-bound book, but I scanned some of the originals for you way back when.

If there’s one thing that bugs me about owning the series in this format, it’s that same perfection. When I collected the single issues, I settled for many low-cost VG+ and Fine gradings where the paper was severely yellowed (which affected the colors), and the covers had a worn, tattered look with folds and even bits missing around the corners and spines.

Only a complete maniac would claim that as a plus. But I enjoyed it. Having Mister Miracle in its original but degraded printings felt like I was unearthing some prehistoric fossil of primordial comic book awesomeness. In pristine form, it feels more like a current book that should be judged by current standards.

But current standards aren’t quite the right lens to look through for this book. In terms of the garish colors, modern mainstream comics now employ far more sophisticated coloring techniques in even the most run-of-the-mill titles. But in the 1970s, due to the pulp-quality paper, using super-bright primary colors made a whole lot of sense. Many online reviewers praise the bright colors of this collection, but sometimes they seem a bit too bright for the darker, more sinister aspects of life under Darkseid’s fascist reign explored in this series.

A scan from the original series. “Get back to your hovel!”

Also by current standards, Kirby’s treatment of “hip” slang, female characters, and “ethnic” characters might seem clunky and awkward to modern, younger readers. But it’s important to consider the standards of the day and realize Kirby was making a serious effort to be inclusive and progressive in the mainstream. When Mister Miracle began in 1971, it was three years before women in the United States could have credit cards in their own name without a husband co-signing for them. It was four years before the TV show The Jeffersons broke media stereotypes to portray a financially successful black family and their interracially married friends.

In the pages of the Fantastic Four, Kirby had already created Marvel’s first black superhero: the Black Panther. And from his editorial columns in his comics—including his 70s work at Marvel on Devil Dinosaur, the Eternals, and 2001—we know he was genuinely interested in scientific and social trends and in creating stories that reflected not just the current culture but its progress and potential.

Kirby’s idea of an African king as a technologically advanced superhero resonated with movie audiences in recent years. Wyatt Wingfoot, mentioned here, is a Lee/Kirby creation based on Native American Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe.

For me, the standout character of Mister Miracle isn’t the lead, but Big Barda. She is lightyears apart from the Sue Storm character in the early Lee/Kirby issues of Fantastic Four, who was constantly talked down to for being female. Sue was a weakling whose biggest power was to go away, at least until John Byrne wrote the series in the 1980s and changed the Invisible “Girl” into the Invisible Woman whose power became formidable.

In contrast, Big Barda totally owns her scenes through force of character. Where Sue Storm was originally a shrinking violet to be protected by the males in her group, Barda is never less than a total bad-ass. She might have a soft spot for the title character, but she never hesitates for one second to beat some ass or carve a path of destruction through her enemies, and she has zero qualms about assuming leadership and telling other characters exactly how shit will go down on her watch.

A scan from the original series. “You kill-crazy she-wolf!”

Barda also has a somewhat evil all-woman crew of warriors — the Female Furie Battalion — with hilarious names like Bernadeth, Gilotina, Lashina, and Stompa. They deal damage in ways you can guess from their names. They’ve got sweet costumes and boss weapons, and they read less like villains and more like your favorite all-girl roller-derby team starring in a modern movie.

A scan from the original series. Just a typical day for the Furies!

Barda is so awesome that I even forgive Uncle Jack for giving her a gratuitous bathtub scene. You know your writer is male when he puts a female character into a naked bathing scene for absolutely zero plot-related reasons. As a male reader who thinks Barda is the greatest thing ever and would bet money that she could even kick Conan’s naked ass, I vote that we give a pass to Kirby for this one. And a pass to me for enjoying it.

A scan from the original series. “I find this kind of moment tranquil and soothing!”

It’s that kind of tension between “great female lead” and “gratuitous female bath scene” that marks this run. Kirby was both a product of his time and way ahead of his time. Mister Miracle stands on the cusp of American history in the 1970s where society was in the midst of a massive and progressive cultural shift, one that even today we have not yet fully realized. I like the direction Kirby was trying to push that shift.

A scan from the original series.

Kirby was a soldier in Europe during World War II, and his portrayal of the oppressive, fascist society on planet Apokolips might be read as a simple indictment of the Third Reich. But Kirby was no stranger to discrimination in the States, having changed his name from the Jewish “Kurtzberg” to “Kirby” to improve his chances of being accepted and making a living.

He was the son of two Austrian-Jewish immigrants in New York in a time when anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and anti-semitism abounded in America. While the Third Reich turned those ideas into a massive extermination program, the Nazis did not invent those ideas, and they had many adherents in the States. Sadly, that is still true today. When I read Kirby’s 1970s works, I sense a subtext that he saw fascism and discrimination not as merely “foreign” problems but ones that troubled many nations, including his own.

A scan from the original series.

It’s easy to read Mister Miracle as a series of simple adventure stories full of gadgets and gimmicky escapes, and Kirby clearly wants us to be entertained, first and foremost. But we would do him a disservice if we didn’t acknowledge the socially progressive ideas he wrapped in that cloak of entertainment. Kirby didn’t finalize his ideas about humans and our place in the universe when he was a young man. He continued to explore new ideas and grow. He saw our knowledge of science, humanity, society, and ourselves as an ever-expanding field that had no lack of new horizons to explore.

And where there’s an unexplored horizon, there’s a kick-ass story waiting to be told.

Collector’s Guide: Mister Miracle by Jack Kirby, Expanded TPB; DC Comics, 2017. Also available on Amazon. Or, get the original issues.

Big Box of Comics: Conan Chronicles 1 to 3

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Thanks to this blog’s readers, I was reunited this year with one of my all-time favorite comic book runs: the first fifty issues of the Conan series by Dark Horse. These stories have been reprinted in so many formats and mini-collections that you might want to throw up your hands in despair rather than try to collect them all in chronological order. But before you give up hope, the Conan Chronicles comes to the rescue.

Despite the Marvel banner across the top, the first three volumes are high-quality reproductions of the Dark Horse series, complete with the original covers, variant covers, sketchbook pages from the artists, and the original forewords and introductions by authors and artists from the collections. There’s a fourth volume to the series, too. It continues into the next phase, when the title changed from Conan to Conan the Cimmerian after issue fifty.

These editions also include pages that reproduce the unique wrap-around covers from the various mini-collections. That’s a thoughtful bonus, even if the original cover size did get reduced to fit on one page. It would have been fun to also see the comic strips about the life of young Robert Howard that appeared on the original letters pages, but that’s a minor nitpick in a flawless and beautifully designed collection.

Also, these reprints do not include the recalled cover that showed full frontal female nudity. The only bare boobs you will see in this collection are Conan’s, since he rarely wears more than a loin cloth and a pair of moccasins while decapitating and dismembering his way through brutal, blood-soaked battles on every other page.

Conan is like the male flipside to the hyper-sexualization of women in mainstream superhero comics. He flexes and poses through the most insane adventures, nearly naked the entire time, and he’s got a totally ripped, massively muscular body it would take a regular guy 100 lifetimes of body-building, cosmetic surgery, and laser hair removal to come close to matching.

That’s part of the fun of the character. Everything about Conan is over the top and larger than life, from his physique, intellect, and attitude, to the landscapes and enemies he encounters. There’s nothing small or timid about this hero. He isn’t your average dork with tedious concerns trying to live a normal life. He starts off as an all-around bad-ass who wants to see the world and plunder her cities, and he charges headlong into trouble just because he likes a fight. Though he often succeeds or at least survives, his arrogant attitude constantly trips him up.

Throughout the stories in the first three volumes of the Conan Chronicles, he learns many lessons the hard way. By the end of those volumes, Conan has matured from a careless, hot-headed youth into the kind of man who can unite and lead a kingdom. Along the way, he kicks the most ass I’ve ever seen kicked in a single series—from demons and wizards to hordes of undead soldiers and anyone who ever messed with him in a tavern.

Collector’s Guide: Conan Chronicles; Marvel Epic Collection, 2019

Although these volumes reprint the Dark Horse series, they were published by Marvel, continuing the back-and-forth publishing deals the two companies have had with Conan licensing for many years. Note: Don’t confuse this series with The Chronicles of Conan, which was Dark Horse reprinting the 1970s series by Marvel!

july ebook giveaway

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During July 2020, all ten of the books I have on Smashwords are FREE. You can download epub and mobi versions (and a few other file types) of these books, which include the Meteor Mags Omnibus and The Battle of Vesta 4, some poetry books, a few short stories, and more.

Just go to my profile page there and you’ll see the available books. Enjoy! https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/matthewhoward

Want more free entertainment? On this blog, I’ve posted two new adventures of Mags and Patches: The Crystal Core and The Hive. They’ll probably stay posted until I finish enough stories to collect into a new book. And if you’d like to jam some tunes while you read, rock out to the new music mixes I posted this year.

Meteor Mags: The Hive

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METEOR MAGS: THE HIVE

©2020 Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episode 25.

Everything goes swimmingly on Ceres, until the crew is attacked by predators who want to feed Mags and her friends to their babies. 12K words.

🐝

PART ONE: LIBERATED

Sarah’s Prayer

June 2030. Ceres.

Sarah prayed. She sang her prayers silently, in her head. Unlike many prayers, they did not address any specific deity.

By age thirteen, Sarah had abandoned the religion of her abusive parents, having seen it for what it was: a thin veil of holiness draped over evil. When Mags rescued Sarah and her friends in 2029, the young woman entered a world of crime and debauchery, a world that gloried in apparent evil, but where people treated Sarah with kindness and respect, and where they celebrated a lusty joy for life, liberty, and song.[1]

Mags’ criminal crew was a heathen lot, but Sarah discovered many of the pirates held religious beliefs she had never encountered. Her new friends at the club on Vesta—and, after the battle on Vesta, their new home on Ceres—came from families or cultures who were Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Mormon, Anglican, and otherwise. Even the godless criminals in Mags’ inner circle held on to superstitions, faith in lucky objects or omens, prayers of their own. Mags, who despised religion in general, often referred to “the goddess” and prayed to the spirit of her great-grandmother.

Sarah decided she didn’t need a religion to pray, and she didn’t need to pray to anyone in particular. She was satisfied that it made her feel better, and she was content to sing.

Singing with Dumpster Kittens was the best feeling Sarah ever had. But the band’s songs were angry, off-color vehicles for teenage rage, and Sarah liked to sing pretty songs, too. In her prayer, she sang about the Ceresian sunsets where shades of peach and lilac painted the clouds, and the icy rings formed in 2029 sparkled with blinding brilliance for a few seconds every evening when the sun struck them at just the right angle.[2]

But life was not always beautiful. Sarah attended many bedsides during the reconstruction of Ceres. In the city of tents where the sick and wounded recovered before the hospitals re-opened, Sarah visited thousands and made friends with most. Their suffering was so intense, so raw, and Sarah felt every minute of it. She wanted to help people, for she knew what it was like to suffer, but her young mind had no defenses, and she suffered with them. It took a toll on her.

Sarah spent her thirteenth birthday holding the hand of a boy her age while he died. She felt his life slipping away, his consciousness fading, and his animal urge to hold onto life defeated. His name was Toby, and he did not live to see the arrival of Mags with staff and supplies for a newly built hospital.[3]

The smuggler arrived one morning with a ship full of surgeons, supplies, equipment, and the latest medical technology. When Celina asked where it all came from, Mags said, “Business has been good. I bought a hospital.” And the doctors and nurses? “Oh, they didn’t all come along, but the ones who did got a major pay raise. Come help me organize the security detail. This building is now under my personal protection.”

Personal protection. Mags had been using those words a lot in recent months. Later, when the ship was fully unloaded and the newly constructed hospital fully supplied and staffed, Mags told Sarah the real story.

Sarah sang about her friends who died on Vesta. She sang a blessing for Suzi, who had survived the escape from the Clinic with Sarah and their capture by the reptiles, only to fall in battle during Vesta’s invasion.[4]

Sarah mourned.

In the surrounding cities of Ceres, citizens struggled in their dreams. Sarah’s song sank into their subconscious minds and shaped their sleeping fantasies into nightmares of loss and pain and tragedy.

Such was Sarah’s prayer, and in her deepest, most meditative state, a place where silence spontaneously blossomed into song, the octopuses answered her.[5]

<Sarah.>

Octos? What are you doing here?

<So much sadness.>

I can’t help it. It’s overwhelming. I don’t know what to do.

<The whole planet feels it with you now.>

Oh, my god! I am so sorry. I’ll stop.

<You broadcast. Like a radio.>

No, I didn’t mean to! I was praying. Did I really—

<Yes.>

Tears welled in her eyes. I didn’t mean to make anyone sad. I’m sorry! She curled into a ball, and her sobbing shook her body.

<Emotions are to be shared. What one cannot carry alone, many will carry easily, together.>

No, that’s not right. I don’t want to hurt people. I don’t want to make them feel worse just because I feel bad. Everything’s terrible enough already.

<The sharing is hurtful?>

Yes.

The octopuses did not understand. They privately conferred. They had known tragedy. Their mother and a few of their siblings had died.[6] They were in contact with other minds who knew sadness: Mags and her crew, the people of Ceres, Alonso and his simian friends.

But the octos, despite their alacrity with mathematical problems and musical composition, despite the massive processing power and creativity in their group mind, they had always found the mental and emotional isolation of other beings to be nearly incomprehensible.

The octos did everything together, learned everything together, and felt everything together. To experience life alone, as an individual, without anyone sharing your thoughts and feelings? The octopuses had touched the minds of sentient beings who lived that way, but they never felt like that themselves.

In a sense, there was only one octopus. Referring to them plurally was merely a convention of language—or, more accurately, a convention of electronics, for the thoughts and sensations coded as electrical impulses in each octo’s extensive neural network acted like a circuit in parallel with all the other octopuses, with the signal flowing through multiple channels at once. Every channel was linked to the others, never separate, never one at a time.

On the other hand, they knew a thing or two about sheltering their thoughts and feelings from other sentients. They were transparent to each other, but sometimes it served their purpose to be opaque to anyone outside their group mind.[7]

Opacity, they realized, was the nature of Sarah’s problem.

<Sister. Be not sad. We will help you build a shield.>

What? Why do I need a shield?

<For your mind. To think and feel, but so no one else can share. To prevent the hurt of others.>

You mean I can turn it off? This—this broadcasting? How am I even doing that?

<Your mind, always strong. But as you grow, your power grows. Have you not noticed your power increasing since you reached sexual maturity?>

It started getting bad after I got my first period. My parents never told me anything about it. I thought I was fucking dying, so I told Kala. She laughed for a second, until she realized I was serious. Then she hugged me for a long time and told me how our bodies work. After we met Mags and Celina, they spent a lot of time answering questions, too. But the telepathy part of it isn’t normal. This doesn’t happen to anyone else. I could always kind of feel what other people were feeling, but now I can’t shut it out or make it go away. I feel like a—I don’t know what the words are for what I feel like.

<Exposed.>

Yeah.

<Vulnerable.>

Exactly.

<But now your power is so strong you do not only receive, you broadcast. We can teach you. Keep the outside pain outside. Keep the inside pain inside. The shield.>

The shield?

<Yes.>

I don’t really know you. Would Mags think this is okay?

<The goddess-mother is aware. She dreams about you right now. She feels your broadcast. She wants to protect and nourish you like a cub. But if you wish to know us, then we have no secrets from you.>

Like, right now?

<When is now? Do we have any moment but the present?>

Sarah uncurled from her huddle on the floor. She stretched for a moment then lit more candles. She made a nest of pillows around her and got comfortable, kneeling in the center. Okay. Show me.

☠️

Hyo-Sonn’s Letter

Dear Tarzi,

How is life on Mars? Did you stop smoking yet? Kala and I miss you. She says hi. Sorry I haven’t written more often, but we have been crazy busy here. Now that most everyone on Ceres has food and shelter and medical care, Mags and Celina have been trying to organize the rest of society. With the water mines re-opened, farms are springing up all over the place. The electric trains are running again, now that the railways are re-built.

I’d say things are going back to normal, but people who lived here before the tornado say this is not at all how things used to be. Workers run the mineral mines now, not corporations. Mags loves it, but it seems chaotic to me. One of the mines was closed for two whole weeks over some argument about how things should be done.

I asked Mags why she didn’t go in and start beating ass and get it re-opened. She said it was the growing pains of an anarchist workers’ society, and it was important to let them work out solutions in their own ways. Otherwise, we’d be just like the corporations.

Then she went on for quite a bit. You know how she gets.

But she had a point about giving people time to solve things without always telling them what to do. I try to do that in my classes now. I’m teaching basic algebra again, but I hope to start teaching trig, too.

I used to hate math, but now I think it just wasn’t being taught very well. Equations are puzzles, and I like how they always have solutions. They always follow rules, and you just need to know how to apply the rules for everything to make sense.

After all the senseless chaos of the last year, it’s nice to work with orderly, predictable numbers then solve real-world problems with them. Once you understand the math, you gain power over the world.

That sounds like one of your super-villains talking! But that’s what it’s all about to me. The power to bring order to chaos, predictability to mystery. I discovered that a lot of kids on Ceres—hell, even the adults—didn’t get far in school, if they ever went at all. Most of them were slaves in the mines before, or in the towns.

Sometimes in class I stop the lesson and let them talk about their experiences. If Mags can let a mine close for two weeks so people can work things out, I guess I can stop with the numbers for an hour or two. It must be the only math class in the history of the System where we have group hugs.

Not that the hugging was my idea. It was Kala’s. I’ve been to her art classes, and I swear they don’t do anything but talk half the time. One day, we spent the whole class meditating!

At first, I wondered if she was teaching anything about art. Then one day this kid brought in a painting, and he read a poem about how he was sold as mining labor when he was seven years old. He was taken from Earth and never saw his parents again. And what happened to him next?

It was the saddest thing I ever heard. But at the end, he had verses about how the tornado swept away the old darkness and revealed a light in which he could see all the possible futures opening for him.

A whole bunch of kids hugged him, and I realized they’d been through similar experiences. Kala told me later that technique is important—you know, the kind of stuff I was expecting her to teach—but the best art comes from the heart, and you need to be in touch with yourself and your feelings to make that happen.

Then she gave me a hug. Always with the hugging! But it made me feel good, and I realized that as smart as I might be at math or whatever, Kala’s always been way smarter with people.

So, I started doing that in my classes, too. Equations can wait.

Kala’s planning another mural like the one we had on Vesta. I’ve seen sketches of what she has in mind, and they’re gorgeous. She’s so talented. It makes me jealous. Then again, she asks me for help with math, so I guess we’re even.

She wants to put the mural in the new community center. The center was Celina’s idea. Mags was going on about how we needed a new club. You know, like the old one on Vesta. Gambling. Nudity. Bands. Booze. But Celina was like, shouldn’t we have something a little different for the kids and people who aren’t into partying and getting trashed all the time?

Which was pretty funny, coming from Celina, but a bunch of us wanted something like that, too.

I question a lot of Mags’ decisions, but she has a hard time refusing anything “her girls” ask of her. (That’s what she always calls us.) She said that as long as Celina would manage it, then we could have anything we want.

Celina promptly put me and Kala in charge.

Not like the construction crews and stuff. Celina handled things that were out of our league. But we got to make some designs and come up with a plan, and we got our classes involved. How much fun could we fit under one roof? It ended up being a problem that called for both art and math, and it took longer than I expected, but our classes put their minds together and came up with something amazing.

Long story short, it’s opening next week. Kala’s classes are painting it.

I guess it might be open by the time you get this letter. Maybe I should email you because it’s faster, but I hope you like getting real stuff in the mail now and then. I put a couple of Patches’ whiskers in the envelope, and a drawing of you I did last week in Kala’s class.

Anyway, if you can, you should come to the grand opening of the center! We’d love to see you again.

Hugs and Kisses,

Hyo-Sonn

☠️

Tarzi’s Letter

Hi, Hyo-Sonn! Thanks for the invite. I’ll be there!

Love the drawing. You’re getting really good! Trig sucked until Mags showed me it was simple algebra about triangles mapped on a circle. Sometimes people just need things explained to them in a language they can understand.

Hugs to you and Kala. I heard Sarah’s new demos with Dumpster Kittens, and they sound AMAZING! Please tell her I said so. And give Patches a belly rub for me.

Love you,

Tarzi

☠️

Mags’ Hammer

At the magnetic north pole of Ceres, Meteor Mags held aloft a massive hammer with both hands. The insulated rubber grip deformed under the pressure with which she squeezed it, but its stainless-steel head gleamed with reflected light from the sun.

Donny took a step back.

Fuzzlow didn’t.

Neither did Patches. The calico fluffball napped in the regolith not a meter from Mags’ feet. Unlike Donny and the rest of the crew, she was neither mortal nor vulnerable. The cat lounged with the confidence of a beast who knew she could kill anyone who disturbed her.

“Mags,” Donny said. “We could build a machine to do that.”

The hammer paused above Mags’ head. She arched one eyebrow. “Scared?”

Fuzzlow snorted. “Sane is more like it. But pound away there, mighty Thor. Get your Mjolnir on.” He cracked open a beer and handed it to Donny, then grabbed one for himself from the cooler. “We don’t have all day.”

Donny adjusted his safety goggles, steeling himself against the imminent blow. “Just go.”

Mags brought down the hammer on the two-meter long rod set in the ground. With a loud clang and a shower of sparks, it sank several centimeters into the ground.

Clang!

“Get it, Mags.” Donny saluted with his beer.

“Fuckin’ do it,” said Fuzzlow.

Mags’ black-painted lips twisted into a smile. She raised the hammer over her head then struck again. And again.

In the shower of sparks, Fuzzlow stepped back, too. “Damn! She’s tryna fuckin’ kill us!”

Donny laughed. If Mags had wanted him dead, it would have happened years before. Donny might have given her hell every chance he could, but he enjoyed the ruckus. Compared to his former life as a space-miner, life in Mags’ crew was a laugh a minute.

Clang!

A spray of metal shards landed on Patches, resting in her fireproof fur. They glowed red like embers, forming a cat-shaped constellation never before seen by human eyes. Like most stars, they eventually burned out. Were their mere seconds of existence any less beautiful than star clusters which lasted for eons? Patches licked hot metal from her tri-colored coat and purred.

Clang!

“Jesus,” said Fuzzlow. “You’ll wake up the entire asteroid!”

“Dwarf planet,” said Mags. She wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her forearm. “Watch me now.”

Mags pounded the top of the rod, driving it like a farmer might drive a fence post into the ground. In a sense, she was a farmer. She had a garden she wanted to grow, and crops she hoped to reap. But hers was no simple fence.

The rod was a component of her free-energy system, built from an element she helped design and manufacture, with a bit of thievery.[8] It represented her dream: free power for the people. Earlier that February, she installed the first of her free-energy systems on the asteroid Vesta. Since she and her girls had taken refuge on Ceres and helped the planet rebuild, the dwarf planet was the next logical candidate for pure, unlimited energy for everyone.

“How much farther?” Sweat covered Mags, and the charred remnants of hot, metallic sparks stuck to her skin.

“About twenty-three centimeters,” said Donny. He studied the device in his hand. “Maybe twenty-five.”

“Close enough,” said Mags. She sang lines from a folk tune about a man named John Henry from the early days of the American railroad. “Before I let this steam drill beat me down, I’ll die with a hammer in my hand.”

With the final blow, she said, “That’s it. Patches gets to turn it on.”

In the months after Patches first met Mags, loud noises disturbed the feline. She had covered her ears during more gun battles and jam sessions than she could count. Mags’ noise no longer bothered her, and her closed eyes betrayed her obliviousness to the hammering, chatter, and commotion.

But at the sound of her name, Patches stirred from her leisure. She ran her paws over her ears several times and licked them between each pass.

“Any day now,” said Fuzzlow.

A feline scowl answered him.

“Don’t rush the mistress of ceremonies,” said Mags. “You want to light up a planet, baby kitty?” Mags swept one hand in a gesture of invitation.

Patches stepped up to the machinery beside the rod, the generator that would activate a wave resonating through the entire planet, for anyone to tap with a similar rod. Just like she had on Vesta, Patches wrapped her forepaws around the lever and pulled it toward the ground.[9]

How many more times Mags would ask her to take part in that ritual was, at the time, a mystery to the fluffy calico, and she didn’t much care how the mystery turned out. She liked Mags, and she liked Mags’ totally psychotic adventures into Murderville. Pulling a lever or two was the least she could do. She rolled back on her haunches and licked her paws.

A low hum emanated from everywhere on Ceres. The vibration shook the rock and regolith, sending clouds of asteroid dust into the sky.

“Here it comes, baby!”

Patches leapt into Mags’ arms.

Mags and her mates had already planted another rod at Ceres’ magnetic south pole. The newly planted second rod, activated by Patches, completed the circuit.

The energy wave propagated through Ceres and lit up every device connected to it: the electric rail trains, the rebuilt homes, hospitals, farms, mines, and household equipment hooked up to open-source power converters.

The initial vibration settled into wisps of dust. The planet’s energy wave reached its resonant frequency.

Fuzzlow blew the debris off the top of his beer can and raised it alongside Donny’s.

Donny smashed his into Fuzzlow’s so they spilled and soaked the Ceresian surface. “Looks like we just got off the grid forever.”

“Power to Ceres,” said Fuzzlow.

Mags raised her fist. “Power to the people. Gimme a beer! And one for Patches. Vivan las anarquistas!” She set a personal speed record for chugging twelve ounces and whipped the can at the ground. Her mates’ cans hit the ground a second later. Patches simply watched her share land beside her, bounce, and roll away. But she appreciated the thought.

Mags tossed aside the hammer and wrapped her arms around Fuzzlow and Donny. “People used to say the sky’s the limit.” She scruffed their hair. “I don’t believe that for a second.”

Patches flopped onto their feet.

“Who’s next?” Fuzzlow asked.

“Earth,” said Mags. “You guys wanna come along for the ride?”

“Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” said Donny. “How many people do we need to kill?”

“A fuck-ton,” said Mags, “and a half.”

Fuzzlow shrugged. “Sign me up. Celina already said she was going.”

Mags said, “Ceres can live without her for a couple days.”

Donny furrowed his brow. “Your first station on Earth was in the South Pacific. Where the hell do we put the other one? Alaska?”[10]

Fuzzlow asked, “Who the hell can we find to guard it in some godforsaken Arctic wasteland?”

Mags laughed. “Haven’t a bloody clue! But your geography is way off. The opposite of the South Pacific is more like Mali or something. But we’ll get it sorted. My octos can’t survive there, and I’m not sending my baby space lizards without them. So, either we leave that power station unattended, or—” Mags snatched another beer from the cooler. “Or, I don’t know what the fuck. Cheers!”

☠️

Tarzi’s Presents

Hyo-Sonn threw her arms around Tarzi and squeezed. “You made it!”

He held her close and planted a kiss in her jet-black hair. “Of course! I even brought presents. For both of you. Kala!”

Hyo-Sonn stepped away for Kala to give the young man a hug, too. He didn’t kiss Kala, but he asked how she was.

Kala said, “We missed you! Oh, look at your bracelet. I love it.”

Tarzi held out his wrist and rotated it back and forth to display the jewelry. Sparkling in the light, its thick silver bands held a dozen polished stones, black as obsidian. They, too, caught the light. “They’re trilobites. You can see the ridges in their shells. The outlines of their little faces.”

Kala held his hand and brought it to eye-level. “Beautiful.”

“They’re just like mine,” Hyo-Sonn said. “But smaller.”

Tarzi said, “They’re exactly like yours. I got them from the same rock.” The first time he ever talked to Hyo-Sonn, he gave her an unpolished stone in which two trilobites nestled against each other like the two halves of the yin and yang diagram. With a laser, he had sliced it from the interior of a mysterious asteroid only hours before meeting her.[11] “Mags and I talked about going back and mining fossils from it, but shit happened. Anyway, I shuffled some paperwork on Mars and got a few miners out there. We’ve been making custom jewelry and carvings and selling them on the side.”

Kala said, “I thought you worked for the Port Authority now.”

Tarzi shrugged. “I need something to do after I finish two weeks of paperwork in forty-five minutes. Check this out. For you, Hyo-Sonn. And Kala, for you.” He handed each of the young women a small jewelry box. “I hope you like them.”

Tarzi’s gifts were more than objects. They were symbols of something he understood about the young women. Though he had much to learn in the life that awaited him over the next two centuries, he was not naïve at age fifteen. What naïveté survived his childhood had been swiftly eroded by his adventures with Mags since 2028.

The love between Hyo-Sonn and Kala was no mystery to him. The only mystery was how that fact did nothing to diminish his feelings for Hyo-Sonn—nor her feelings for him.

He savored the looks on the girls’ faces when they opened the boxes. The way their hands moved to touch the wonders inside. How they looked at each other first before returning their attention to him. The two of them were beautiful together, like a pair of candles lighting the darkness.

Each of the jewelry boxes held four things: two silver earrings, a matching necklace with a pendant, and a bracelet. The bracelets resembled Tarzi’s, though more slender and feminine. Each piece of jewelry held polished, black trilobite fossils: as stones set in the earrings, pendants dangling from the silver necklace chains, and arrayed in the bracelets.

Tarzi swept back his mohawk with one hand. “We’re working on rings now, and ankle bracelets. It’ll be a complete set, someday!”

“It won’t be complete without piercings,” said Kala. “Are you planning to make nipple rings?”

“I, uh—” The question caught Tarzi off guard. “Did you need those?”

Kala smacked him in the arm. “Not yet.”

Hyo-Sonn turned her back to him and held up the ends of the necklace behind her. “Will you get that for me?”

His hands touched hers. He took the clasp from her grasp and hooked it to the other end of the silver strand. “There. Kala?”

Kala let him clasp her necklace while Hyo-Sonn took off her earrings and replaced them with Tarzi’s.

Hyo-Sonn slipped on the bracelet and faced him. “What do you think?”

The young man who never found himself at a loss for witty repartee on Mags’ adventures was struck speechless.

Kala laughed. “Now we match.” She held up her bracelet to where it, too, caught the light. “Thank you, T-man.”

Tarzi said, “Now we match. All three of us.”

Hyo-Sonn took him in another embrace. She did not release him so quickly as before.

The loudspeaker interrupted. Mags’ voice blared in their ears. “Ceremony in three minutes! Gather round!” Her drunken slur was not yet so bad that it obscured her meaning.

Kala said, “That’s my cue.”

Hyo-Sonn kissed her. “Knock ’em dead.”

Tarzi said, “Bring ’em to life, too.”

Kala studied their eyes for a moment, then their faces and stances and the folds in their clothing as if she were capturing the image for a portrait.

Hyo-Sonn said, “Love you, baby.”

Kala placed one hand against her friend’s cheek. “Love you, too.” Before she walked away to the podium, she said, “You too, Tarzi. Thank you for the jewelry.”

“Don’t mention it.” But as she walked away, Tarzi knew the mentioning meant everything.

As Kala gave her speech, Hyo-Sonn’s hand clasped his, and he gripped it. Tarzi whispered, “She’s amazing.”

“Yes, she is. Do you fancy her?”

“Not like that.” He held her to him, embracing Hyo-Sonn from behind and pulling her closer until he could bury his face in her wisps of hair and the curve of her neck. “I love that she makes you happy. That’s all that matters.”

During the DJ set that followed, Tarzi and Hyo-Sonn danced together.

Kala eventually joined them.

☠️

Kala’s Speech

I’m not so good at speeches, but welcome to the new community center! We’ve got a pool, a roller derby rink, a cafeteria, and so much more. But as fun as all that is, what we’ve really got is each other. I want to thank the kids from our classes who worked so hard on this and came up with so many great ideas.

Thank you, Hyo-Sonn and Celina, for the amazing leadership you brought to this project. The list of workers I should thank would take all night to read, but we have a plaque in the lobby. Okay, it’s not really a plaque. It takes up a whole wall! But I hope you stop by and take a few minutes to appreciate just how much of a group effort this was.

If you’re in this room, then you saw the new painted mural in our lobby, too. I don’t think it needs any commentary from me, but the people who worked on it asked me to say a few things.

First, it’s a triptych—a fancy name for a painting that has three panels. I got the idea for it one night when Mags told us a story about Patches. I took notes and made sketches.

Some of you know that we worked hard on a mural about Mags’ adventures back at the club on Vesta, and that mural was blown to bits in an invasion the same day we unveiled it. For a little while, we talked about painting the same thing here.

But after a few discussions in my art class, we decided that instead of recreating the past, we should roll with the punches and make something new.

My family comes from India, and the three panels represent three different Hindu goddesses. We made every one of them a depiction of Mags, with each panel saying something about who she is and what she means to us.

☠️

Kala’s Mural

Though she had left her family on Earth, Kala remembered her roots. Her name meant “art” in Hindi, though it had a different connotation in India, not “fine art” as someone from the States would understand it. The word included domestic arts, too—a long list of skills that suited a traditional wife. Kala thought it all a bit sexist from a modern perspective, but she felt the skills would suit anyone, and she decided to share what she knew.

The more she taught, the less she thought of herself as a teacher. She considered herself a student, one who shared her journey of art with other people on similar journeys, walking with them side-by-side. If she could help them, guide them, or show them something she had learned, then great. But she learned from her students as often as they learned from her. Supporting each other was far more inspiring to Kala than leading the charge.

The charge was best left to Mags. Mags reveled in combat. If there wasn’t a fight happening, she would look for one. When Kala realized that, and articulated it, the new mural was born. Kala considered Mags and her contradictions and decided on three ancient goddesses who embodied those traits.

The first panel portrayed Mags as Durga, the goddess of combat. Durga’s familiar was a lion, a beast of strength and ferocity, of indomitable spirit. Kala changed the lion to everyone’s favorite calico cat. Durga had additional arms, so Kala fashioned them out of octopus arms, with an octopus head in place of Durga’s helmet. Like a puma with cubs, Durga was a protective mother who would fight to the death for her little ones. She was strength coupled with compassion.

The second panel portrayed Mags as Lakshmi, and Lakshmi’s wealth well-suited the criminal’s avarice and uncanny ability to get her hands on damn near anything she wanted. Lakshmi embodied power and beauty. Sovereignty was also her realm, and though Mags had no love for monarchists, she tried to model for her girls the idea that every person was sovereign unto themselves, an inviolate nation of one who insisted on being recognized. Lakshmi’s familiars were an elephant and a swan. Based on notes from the bedtime story Mags told about Patches’ visit to prehistory, Kala made her familiars a Baluchitherium and Mags’ ever-present kitten.

The third and final panel depicted Saraswati: Mags as the goddess of music, with a veena. She plucked her stringed instrument in the center of a giant lotus flower. Patches replaced a swan, and a flock of magpies replaced a peacock. The musician’s four extra arms became octopus arms.

Mags cried the first time she saw it.

☠️

Mags’ Speech

In a rare moment of embarrassment at Kala’s accolades, Mags took Celina’s hand and whispered, “That’s bullshit, though. You’re needed here as much as I am. Hell, you deserve your own mural.”

Celina squeezed her hand. “Bloody oath. But who do you think encouraged all this? If I wanted a monument, I’d have it. I’m not in this for glory.”

“As if I am,” said Mags.

“That’s not what I meant. I just mean you make a better target than me!”

Mags laughed. “Thanks for nothin’! Let me draw all the fire.”

“But you’re so good at it! Might as well paint a bullseye on that big old arse of yours.”

“Whatever.” Mags flicked her tail.

“But you know what? When the law aims at you, they don’t see me in the shadows. I got your back, girl.”

Mags purred. “You always did.” She kissed Celina’s cheek.

From the lectern, Kala asked Mags if she would like to say anything.

Celina said, “Go on,” and patted her bum. Anyone else attempting that move would have lost a hand.

Mags bent over the mic to address the crowd. “I had a speech prepared,” she lied, “but fuck that. I just want you all to know I love you. I love you, Celina, and I love my girls. I love what you’ve done with this place. I fuckin’ love the mural! I mean it. Thank you. Most of all, I love what you’ve accomplished on Ceres this year—all of you. The survivors. The people who showed up to help us. The new friends we made, and the old friends we treasure. You lot make me proud. And if I keep going on like this, I’ll probably cry again. So, is the bar open, or what? Let’s party!”

PART TWO: IMPRISONED

Alonso’s Friends

June 2030. Below the Belt Strip Club.

Six months had passed since Mags put Kaufman and his son Anton in charge of Below the Belt. She dropped by now and then to check on them, but the former Chief Administrator found running the place was less stressful than his work in the Port Authority on Mars. He discovered a newfound peace in menial tasks, from changing the grease in the fryers to polishing the bar top until it gleamed. Unlike his old office job, the club gave him time with Anton, hours every day, working side-by-side.

They considered changing the name, but Below the Belt was a household word to legions of space miners, and the dancing beauties that graced the stage drew crowds. Plus, Kaufman enjoyed the spectacle.

Live music had become a regular event at Below the Belt, and Anton’s teenage friends in the band performed and recorded there. One afternoon, while the Dumpster Kittens rehearsed for a concert of new material for their closest friends, Alonso and two of the Small Flowers paid a visit.

Before he could pass through the curtain to the Kittens’ green room and practice space, Alonso faced the most fearsome sentry in the solar system, lying on the floor before him. He knelt before her majesty and held out one hand for her to sniff. “Sup, Patches? You on guard duty tonight?”

The lazy calico rubbed the sides of her mouth against his fingers, first one side, then the other. She rose to her feet and put her butt in his face.

He scratched the base of her tail. “Gatita mía.”[12]

Patches arched her back and purred.

After a time she deemed suitable for worship, and more sweet words from Alonso, she stepped up to the curtain and batted it with one paw.

Alonso stood. “Good to see you, too, kitten.” He flung aside the curtain.

Patches paid no heed to the two monkeys who followed him. She flopped on her side and licked her fur. The macaques, she had met many times before. She tore up a few of them the first time they met, but they had attacked her first. [13]

Patches rubbed a paw over her ear. The monkeys had since achieved a status somewhere between friendship and tolerance, but she didn’t need them petting her. She liked Alonso, though. He sometimes recited poetry to her in Spanish.[14]

“Lonso!” Sarah’s voice came through a PA cabinet. “Yeah!” Not leaving her place at the mic, steadying her bass with one hand, she waved him over.

Alonso stepped up to the young man on her left. “Sup, Anton?” He held out one hand, and the fourteen-year-old guitarist gripped it.

“Just practicing! You brought some friends.”

“Yeah, they wanted to meet you vatos.[15] Sup, Sarah!”

The young woman wrapped her arms around him. She didn’t say a word, but her bass raised a hellacious noise between them. She laughed and turned the volume knob all the way down.

“Sup, Jinx!”

The drummer held out her hand between the crash cymbals. “Misma mierda, diferente día.”[16]

“Oh shit, you’ve been practicing.”

“Slaying these fuckin’ drumheads, too. What’s with the entourage?” Jinx was the oldest member of the band, older than Anton by barely a year and Sarah by a little more than two. She aimed a drumstick at the monkeys.

Mis compadres.[17] We’ve been jamming in the Small Flowers for a while now, but they wanted to get into a tighter thing. Small Flowers, you know, we get way fuckin’ out there sometimes. It’s not even what some peeps think of as a song anymore.”

“It gets kinda abstract,” said Anton. “I mean it rocks, but—”

“But where’s the song?” Alonso swept his hands before him. “I told them it was right here. The Kittens have been cranking out straight-up punk jams, right? I thought my funky monkeys might fit in.”

Jinx scowled. “They got names?”

Alonso nudged the closest one. “Say hi.”

One of the macaques stepped forward. Her fur was a white basecoat darkened with a topcoat of grey. A pure white stripe adorned her nose, framed by two on her cheeks, and white paws. “Svetlana,” she said. “And my brother, Dmitri.”

The second monkey raised his fist in salute. “Dumpster Kittens for life!”

Jinx said, “I like them already.”

Anton answered with a raised fist.

Sarah asked, “What instruments do you play?”

“They fuckin’ rock on drums,” said Alonso, “but you got that covered. Svetlana here plays a killer bass, though, and you could use a little oomph on the bottom end. No offense, Sarah.”

“I’d rather have my keyboard anyway,” she said. “We totally need a bass player.” Sarah pulled the bass over her head and offered it to Svetlana. “Wanna give it a shot?”

The macaque accepted. She held the bass against her like a lover, caressed its wooden curves, and played.

After four explosive measures that stunned the Kittens into silence, she stopped. “Dmitri plays balalaika. Can we play a song for audition?”

Mags threw aside the curtain to the room. “Who’s having auditions?!”

“Mags!”

“I heard you all were up to something back here.”

Alonso said, “Security is on point.”

“Yes, she is.” Mags purred. “I found a fuckin’ balalaika in the hallway! Does this belong to anyone?”

Dmitri raised his fist.

“Word.” Mags handed him the instrument. It had three strings and a wooden, triangular body. An electric pickup had been bolted into the soundhole. Mags plugged it into an amp.

What followed was the most rousing rendition of the Russian folk tune Kalinka that Mags had ever heard. She knew the tune well. She sang it the first time she met the monkeys on their deserted asteroid.[18] They had followed her ever since.

But Svetlana and Dmitri turned the song into punk rock, keeping the tempo changes but ripping it out with aggression, as if they did not care whether they tore the strings off the instruments.

Jinx responded with a measure of drum fills that rocked the room. Spurred to action, Sarah and Anton joined in.

One minute and forty-five seconds later, Jinx’s drum line devolved into chaos. She laughed from her throne until everyone stopped playing. “That was awesome! Ahahaha! But seriously. We’ve been thinking about having aliases. You know, like the Ramones, but kitten-themed names.”

Sarah said, “Mine’s Katja Kitten.”

“Saaya Kitten here,” said Jinx. “It means ‘shadow’.”

“Stormy Kitten,” said Anton.

Svetlana considered. “I would like to be Kitti,” she said. “It’s Russian for kitten. Dmitri?”

“I like Koshka,” said Dmitri.[19]

“Fuck yeah,” said Mags. “You little Stalinists are alright.”[20]

Sarah asked, “Do you want to play a few songs with us tonight? Just to get in the groove?”

Nothing could have made the monkeys happier.

That night, Sarah took the mic. “Hi! I just want to say thank you all for coming here tonight to party with us. A couple friends came by to kick things off. They promised to destroy your degenerate minds, and I said that sounded like a wonderful idea! So here they are, straight out of motherfucking Siberia. Welcome my newest comrades, Kitti and Koshka!”

The band launched into the first song. An enthusiastic crowd of friends cheered them on. At a table at the front and center of the stage sat two couples: Mags and Plutonian, and Celina and Fuzzlow. Patches sprawled on the tabletop amongst the bottles, glasses, and ashtrays. Moments after the first song started, Patches had the table to herself as the couples got up to dance.

Around her, close friends of the band joined the dance: Hyo-Sonn and Kala, the guys from the Psycho 78s and Alonso, and a couple dozen of the crew from the old club on Vesta. Kaufman tended bar, and he was all smiles as his son Anton rocked the house. A smattering of regulars completed the crowd, customers the club had regained since re-opening after Slim’s death on Vesta.[21] It was an intimate and supportive audience.

The Dumpster Kittens almost made it through three songs.

Patches sensed the trouble first. The humans could not distinguish the approaching sound from the noisy rock music blaring from the PA system. But Patches heard it. A hum in the distance, like a hundred giant wings buzzing, grew in volume. Patches’ hair stood up all over her body. Her ears twitched. She howled and leapt to her feet to give a warning, but only Mags understood. Anyone else who noticed the cat assumed she was getting into the show.

The club trembled as if hit by an earthquake, and the roof was ripped away into the sky and out of view. The only signal of its fate was the crash it made on the ground outside the club.

Between the concert crowd and the stars above flew a swarm of wasps, each as big as a full-grown human, with wings two meters long. The wings vibrated like a mad symphony, punctuated by the clattering of shiny black mandibles and the crashing debris from the club structure.

Stone filled with sharp teeth of rebar smashed onto the stage, obliterated tables, and slaughtered people in the booths and dance floors. Mags, Celina, and the 78s drew their pistols and fired upward through the dusty haze. Several patrons joined in. The ricochet from drunkenly fired bullets was just as deadly as the collapsing sections of the building falling into the club.

Many ran for the front doors. Outside, no kinder future awaited them.

Encircling the club, the wasps snatched up the humans from the ground. From above, wasps plummeted through the gunfire to grab those in the club’s interior. Each captive met the same fate—each one but Patches.

She proved to be too tough.

☠️

Jinx’s Escape

The first thumps of the wasps landing on the roof drowned out Jinx’s bass drum. Even the drunkest patrons stirred from their lethargy, and the more alert ones leapt to their feet or cowered in their booths.

While Mags, Celina, and the guys from the 78s drew their pistols and fired, Jinx threw down her drumsticks and yelled to her bandmates.

Masses of stone and metal fell from above and crushed the people scampering for the fire exits and the front entrance. The roof’s central beam was all that saved the Dumpster Kittens and their new friends on stage. Rubble crashed around them. Jinx screamed to the band. She threw open the door to the rooms backstage. “This way! Come on! Come on! Go, go, go!”

Jinx led her friends through the backstage hallway, past the private rooms that had been converted to tattoo studios, a practice space, and apartments. Down the dark hallway they ran to the dim light shining through the double doors at the rear of the club.

The Kittens burst into the club’s exterior, safe from falling debris. Jinx crashed through the door first, then grabbed it before it slammed shut. She screamed, “Come on! Come on!” Sarah ran through the doorway, then Anton, then Kitti and Koshka.

But as safe as they were from the club’s destruction, Jinx had led the Dumpster Kittens to a far more horrible fate.

Wasps snapped up Jinx and her friends. Struggling against the insects was futile. The wasps’ six arms and aerial mobility gave them total advantage. The struggling did not continue for long. Each wasp injected its captive with a stinger the size of a railroad spike. The cruel weapon pumped each prisoner full of venom, a neurotoxin that caused paralysis in seconds.

With each neutralized victim, a wasp flew off to the horizon, one after the other. Their destination: the hive.

☠️

The Wasps’ Origin

In the late Cretaceous, the Draco sought to expand their terrestrial empire into outer space.[22] They enjoyed conquest for conquest’s sake, but expansion was also a matter of survival. Their advancements in telescopes and mathematics gave them foresight into the asteroid collision that would end most life on Earth, and the Draco did not want to end.

Once the Draco developed space flight, they targeted the asteroid belt. From there, they hoped to study more directly the swarm of rocks that occasionally broke free from orbit and plummeted toward Earth. The Draco did not “colonize” the Belt in the way we now understand colonialism, for the entire expanse was empty of life and the conditions to make life possible.

Throughout the rocks that spun in songless night between Mars and Jupiter, the Draco established research stations run by the warrior-scientists who dared the earliest voyages. The explorers took samples of lifeforms from Earth, hoping to adapt them to the conditions of the void between stars and planets.

Millions of years before the emergence of humans, the cruelest animal experimentation spread throughout the System. Vivisected in the name of advancing the agenda of a single species, countless organisms suffered and died at the Draco’s hands.

The research labs remained unknown to humans until the early twenty-first century, when exploration of the belt once again became a concern of the most powerful rulers of Earth. Corporations and governments sent teams to the remains of labs they discovered, and those teams attempted to pick up where the Draco left off, continuing the experiments to create new lifeforms that could survive in space.

Meteor Mags and her crew had encountered more than one of those abandoned labs in the Belt, and also on Earth. They discovered various creatures, and Mags made a habit of employing the genetically altered, cybernetic beasts in her retinue to serve her own purposes: Tarzi’s seahorse, who fought and died at Mags’ side in a rescue mission; her eels, who had betrayed her by spawning a monstrosity in her image; her mantas, who helped win a decisive battle during the invasion of Vesta before being slaughtered by attackers; and her ichthyosaur, who patrolled the South Pacific waters at her bidding and guarded the first of two sites intended for her free-energy system.[23]

At a major research lab in the Belt, the reptiles started with one of the smallest but most ruthless, vicious insect genera: wasps. The Draco transformed wasps into space-faring weapons of enormous size, as large as a full-grown human.

Following an ancient asteroid collision that destroyed their lab and set them free, those weapons thrived in the Belt for eons, undetected by Earth’s astronomers. The wasps built nests in frozen rocks. They evolved to create nests from minerals rather than cellulose. They survived not on the sweet nectar of flowers but by absorbing solar energy with their wings and carapaces.

History obliterated the names of the wasps’ creators. But the passage of time did not diminish the animal instincts focused, perfected, and engineered.

☠️

The Wasps’ Hive

The Queen of Wasps awaited the swarm. She stood guard in the entrance to an asteroid cave, scanning the horizon with her compound eyes the size of a human head. The front pair of her six shiny black legs groomed her antennae for longer than was necessary, an action that soothed the hive’s matriarch. Then she busied herself cleaning the entrance, clearing away any loose rock, every stray pebble.

Her precise, rapid movements would have appeared nervous or frenetic to a human observer. But that impression would be wrong. Calm, alert, disciplined: these were not “values” in the human sense, but every member of the hive embodied them. Those who did not had been torn to pieces and eaten.

The Queen ceased cleaning. Specks appeared above the distant hills, followed by a song of wings as the specks grew larger. The Queen beat her wings against her body in a greeting. Her inhuman emotions resembled those of a mother welcoming her children and a general reviewing his troops. She noted the orderly formation of their flight, and she was pleased to see each wasp carried prey.

She stepped aside, back into the cavern. As each of her soldier-children landed and entered, one-by-one, she brushed their antennae with hers. She learned more of their foray from pheromones than simple words could express.

The prey was motionless. The predators placed each prisoner into a hexagonal cell in the hive. Earth’s wasps built from wood pulp, but the space wasps built their hive with minerals. The solid stone cells extended downward, vertically. Into each cell went a human—some feet first, some headfirst, all immobile.

Over each cell, the Queen squatted. One-by-one, she released eggs. The soft, translucent shells filled with life settled on the prey. Inside every egg squirmed a larva, waiting to be born. When the young wasp broke through its nutrient-filled egg sac, it would have a live meal waiting for it, a meal that could not move but was alive and conscious. A meal that suffered.

☠️

The Larva’s Language

The egg on Sarah’s back weighed heavily upon her. Paralyzed by venom, she slumped against the wall of her cell, without enough room to fall to her knees and crouch. Though she could not move, Sarah felt the motions of the nameless thing inside the egg. She wanted to vomit, but her body could not.

Sarah calmed her mind. She remembered what the octopuses taught her about focus. About peace.

At least I can still breathe. The thought was no comfort to her. If she was breathing, she reasoned, then when the monster in the egg hatched and began to eat her, she would be alive. Will I feel everything? The teeth and the tearing and the—

Sarah erased the thought from her mind. Breathing deeply, regularly, she imagined her thoughts as words appearing on a board. She didn’t worry about them, just erased them one by one until at last they stopped, and the board was blank.

She stared at the empty surface in a trance. Her heart rate slowed to a crawl. Stillness. A pond untouched by wind or stones or insects. Water without a ripple.

Sarah imagined she drew on the board. First, an egg. A simple curve, not with lumpy rings covered in sticky mucus like the thing in the cell. A simple curve, narrower at one end and rounder on the bottom. Egg.

Sarah didn’t let the curve make a ripple. Calm, centered, and still.

She held an imaginary fingertip to the board. Inside the outlined egg, she drew the creature inside. Not a fully developed wasp, the larva resembled a fat, segmented worm with mandibles. Rather than eyes, a pair of crude, black, light-sensing organs straddled its face.

A chill ran down Sarah from her head to her toes. It rippled. She calmed it.

Focusing on her depiction of the beast she was enslaved to, she said, “There you are. I see you. Can we talk?”

She received no response.

Sarah reached out to its mind and looked for similar words in its language. She discovered thoughts in a form completely alien to her. “Can” had no equivalent. What passed for verbs in the larva’s language did not express possibilities. Events either definitely happened or they did not—whether past, present, or future.

“We” was difficult, too. The wasp concept of a plurality included only members of the hive, the only possible collective subject. Nothing and no one outside the hive could be included in “we”.

Sarah settled on the closest linguistic unit to “we talk”. It was a clicking, clacking noise the adult wasps made with their mandibles when they wanted to chatter with each other. The adults made the same sound above the cells of the larvae to signal their presence when they brought construction materials or nutrients.

Sarah thought the unfamiliar word.

She received an echo. The larva thought the same word in response.

Sarah allowed the smallest ripple in her still waters, a smile whose energy warmed her in the cold, rocky cell. Good, she thought. What next? She searched the larva’s memories for times the adults had spoken to it. After each of their rackety greetings, the older insects always said the same thing.

Sarah pondered the statement for a long time. Her imaginary finger made notes on the board. She realized it could have only one human meaning. Sarah said, “I love you.”

She received an echo. Another ripple. Good.

What is the word one wasp uses when urging another to take action? Sarah searched. The wasps’ imperative way of thinking did not lend itself to polite requests. She broadcast, “Do something for me.”

She had the larva’s attention. “Heal me. I need—” Sarah considered her next words. What is wasp freedom? She puzzled over it for long minutes. The larva had only ever known its cell. But on an instinctual level, it knew its future. Its fate was genetic.

Freedom. Sarah practiced once and wrote it on the board.“I need to fly.”

<Fly.> The monster knew that word.

Sarah pursued. “Fly. Help.”

<Help.>

“Yes.”

<Yes.> Whether or not it might help Sarah was not a decision for the larva. An adult had spoken to it, loved it, and given an order. It acted without hesitation, though the solution took much longer.

It synthesized an antidote to the paralyzing venom. Each member of the hive was immune to the sting of any other member, and the larva was no exception. It generated the antibodies from its own tissues for Sarah.

Without warning, it sank its mandibles into her neck, piercing the safe membrane of its egg to deliver the lifesaving anti-venom.

Sarah fell to her knees and threw up. She screamed. Her hands clutched the mandibles on her neck in a struggle to pry them loose.

The larva’s comforting song reached her thoughts. She relaxed and let the antidote flow through her veins.

The pain was a healing pain. Blood streamed from the puncture wounds in Sarah’s neck. Her body felt like it was on fire. One by one, she stretched her fingers, toes, and limbs. She tried to stand but collapsed. Breathe, she thought. Breathe. From her hands and knees, she pushed herself to her full height.

The egg slid off her back and plopped on the floor. The larva inside wriggled and convulsed.

Sarah said, “I love you, too.” She scooped it up and held the gelatinous mass in her arms. Dying without its egg sac intact, it writhed. The egg’s liquid nutrients splashed Sarah’s eyes and coated her body in the struggle.

Her stomach heaved again. It was empty. She spat, but the taste did not leave her mouth. She ignored the screaming in her mind. Sarah focused on the one thing that mattered. She swept away pity, fear, and rage. Standing as tall as she could, lifting her burden over her head, she pushed it up and over the top of the cell.

Sticky fluids dripped into her hair and on her face. She was not tall enough to push the larva all the way, so she jumped. It slid onto the surface above.

Sarah could not reach the edge even standing on her toes, so she jumped again. Her fingers made it to the top of the cell, but the larva’s slime resisted her grip. She fell and cursed herself. Taking a position on the opposite wall of the hexagon, she tried again. Her fingers found the edge, and she pulled herself up. Her knees and elbows smacked the stone as she fought to get out. Pain shot through her limbs like electric shocks leaving behind persistent, throbbing aches.

Once outside the cell, she lay flat on the cold rock and panted for breath. But the larva did not have much time. Sarah pushed herself to her feet and scooped it up again.

“Now,” she said. “Help my friends.”

☠️

Patches’ Journey

Patches howled. Six clawed hands like hunting traps imprisoned her. She swiped a paw and sliced through one of them. The claw clung to her, but both severed ends oozed a substance like mammalian blood but green. Patches swung again.

The wasp holding her met only with frustration. Its stinger could not penetrate the prey. It stabbed its small but thrashing bundle repeatedly to no avail. It lost another hand.

Without regard for its own life, the wasp flew away from the club, taking Patches with it.

Patches flailed her claws, trying to tear open the monster’s underside and spill its guts. She did not connect. The beast’s arms were too long.

The stinger tried to stab her again. Patches sank her teeth into it and tore it off. A spray of green fluid coated her face. The wasp veered toward the ground, then pulled up.

Patches gained a hold. She clambered onto her assailant’s back and took the base of one wing in her mouth. She clamped her jaws and ripped away the wing.

Victory was not won so easily. The mangled wasp arrived at its destination, above a dark crevice where it intended to drop the troublesome mammal. It smacked Patches away with its remaining wing, but it no longer had control and was losing blood rapidly.

Together, the screaming calico and the one-winged wasp plunged into the chasm below. They smashed into the sides of the rocky arroyo and tumbled to the bottom.

Only one of them survived.

Patches felt no pain when she hit the cavern’s bottom. The impervious kitten sprang to her feet. To either side, relentless walls and crags rose into the sky. Stars filled a dim slit a kilometer above her, splashed across her only exit.

At her feet lay piles of bones, and unearthly arthropods fed on them. With a crunch, her paws sank into the calcium graveyard, and she sent several scavengers to their deaths before the rest backed away. The dead wasp’s blood and scent drove them mad, but not so mad they would brave the hellish beast who had dropped into the cavern with it. The bringer of death. The scavengers scampered into shadows, chittering amongst themselves then falling silent. They could wait until she left.

Patches was not a detective. She did not ponder the people who once owned the bones around her. She paid no mind to the simpering scorpions she had driven away. She studied the sky.

The wasp intended to drop Patches where she could do no harm. But doing harm was exactly what Patches wanted. She had been as happy as possible only moments before, hanging out with her crew. Then the monsters went and fucked it all up.

Patches frowned. She took a moment to survey her surroundings and licked one forepaw while she considered.

Without warning, she snapped to attention. Her pupils dilated. Her tri-colored ears pressed flat against her head.

She leapt onto a rock at the base of the canyon. A second later, she was climbing the wall, sinking her claws into solid stone.

Patches scurried upward. Paw over paw she climbed. Anger fluffed her fur until it stood on end, and she snapped her tail back and forth like a whip.

Nothing could stand between her and her friends. Least of all, some goddamned insects.

☠️

Sarah’s Burden

Sarah gripped the larva in its broken egg sac and stumbled from cell to cell. Mags, she thought. Mags first. There was Donny below her, and Anton, and Koshka. All her friends.

She lost her footing and fell. Sarah cried. She bled from her knees and her hands.

Then she stopped weeping. “Fuck this. I can cry later.”

She rose with her grotesque bundle. The narrow stone walkways between cells were hexagonal, and she struggled to find a path. Focus, she thought. Find Mags first.

From cell to cell she wandered, clutching the larva. The gel inside the egg spilled onto her through the punctures the larva had made in the egg sac to inject her. The unborn monster was dying. It could not survive without its egg.

Sarah talked to it. Sarah lied to it. She told beautiful lies. Sarah told the larva it would live forever, and it had no reason to worry. It only needed to do one more thing for her.

She fell again but did not pick herself up. She had arrived at Mags’ cell.

Her story might have ended there, had everything been business as usual in the hive. But Sarah’s quest went unnoticed by the wasps which should have been patrolling the cells. Those sentries had more immediate concerns at the cavern’s entrance. An uninvited guest was sending as many of them as possible to an early death, and it was all they could do to keep the caterwauling calico away from the Queen.

Sarah could not clearly see the action, but Patches’ unmistakable battle cries filled her ears. Below her, under the weight of a larva, Mags slumped face-first into a wall. Sarah had never seen the smuggler so helpless. “Mags,” she said. “Mags, wake up!”

But Mags did not. Tears made her eye makeup run down the sides of her face in black rivers, and her lipstick was smeared in puddles of drool. Her hair was a clump of dirt and chaos.

Sarah said things she had only heard Mags say before. They involved private parts in unpleasant situations. She shouted. “Mags, wake the fuck up!”

Raising her voice did no good. Lying on her belly, Sarah lowered her larva into Mags’ cell, head-first. Help, she told her mental slave. Help her fly.

The larva sank its mandibles into Mags’ neck.

☠️

The Wasps’ Song

Mags gripped the top edge of the cell and pulled herself up. Once free, she wiped blood and gunk from her eyes. She hardly acknowledged Sarah. Mags’ first thought was not the layer of slime covering her, nor the offending larva she tore from her back and stomped to death without even thinking about it. She heard her kitten.

Mags shouted, “Patches? The fuck is this thing! Show me who to kill!”

A clamor of clattering mandibles in the insect prison answered her, but only one voice pierced the chaos to direct her attention.

From the edges of the fray, Patches flung the head of an insect from her mouth and raised a howl no cat had ever made before. She cornered the hive’s leader and called out the location.

Mags pounced in that direction and landed on the Queen. “Worthless cunt! Stay the fuck away from my friends!”

The empress of a thousand generations smacked her away with giant wings.

The Queen’s throw would have smashed anyone else against the rocky walls, but Mags landed with feet pressed against the vertical cavern surface. She launched herself back from the wall as if her legs were made of springs. She landed again on the Queen.

Mags sank her teeth into soft spaces between segments of the monster’s carapace and swung her fists like hammers. Guttural growls gave way to a shriek. She pulled away pieces of the insect’s armor with her leather-gloved hands.

Only the killing mattered.

Mags reared up and tore off the Queen’s antennae, one at a time. She punched her fist into the Queen’s compound eye. “Die, you whore!”

The eye gushed a spray of gel. Mags struck it again. Her fist penetrated the crystalline membrane and the sticky mass beneath it. “I will rip out your fucking brain!”

Her fingers closed around soft, fatty tissue. Mags pulled it out, flung it away, and plunged in for another handful.

The beast gave her a wild ride, bucking and buzzing its wings. Its hate and rage at losing its babies were palpable things Mags felt in her hand. She gripped them in her fist and tore them out. “Here’s all your fucking memories!”

They were nothing but handfuls of fat, once full of thoughts and impulses traveling by electric current. The beast slumped beneath her. Its face smashed into stone.

Mags rolled off the wasp’s back and landed on her feet. Gore from her triumph streamed down her arms and legs. “I’ll teach you to fuck with my friends!” She spat on the insect’s carcass and stomped it with her boot again and again. “Useless cunt! Fucking slag! Who’s next? Anyone? Anyone?!” She seethed. Her shoulders rose and fell several times in the silence.

Patches mewed at her side, standing close by and prepared to form a defensive perimeter all by herself. The wasps gathered around them.

“Come on, then, motherfuckers.” Mags raised her fists and growled. “I will take you with me to hell.”

The insects formed a circle around her. Their wings beat against their bodies. They crouched low against the rocky surface, like supplicant dogs. The buzzing reached a resonant rhythm and grew in volume.

Mags wiped spit from her lips and snot from her nose. All around her, the wasps formed concentric rings and bowed.

Mags understood. She had killed their queen.

Long live the Queen.

“Sarah.” Mags beckoned the young woman to her side. “It’s okay. You did great. Come here.”

Sarah gripped the pirate in a hug.

Mags held her. “Help me talk to them.”

Mandibles clicked with precision. Venom-filled abdomens and stingers pulsed and quivered in a rhythm.

Sarah said, “They’re singing to you.”

“That much, I can hear. Help me understand it.”

Sarah gripped Mags’ gloved hand. “They think like a hive, you know. The words, the concepts are all—”

“We’ve been in a group-mind before,” said Mags.[24] “Hook me up, angel.”

“Right.” Sarah closed her eyes and joined Mags’ mind to theirs.

Mags fell to her hands and knees on the jagged ground. She let loose a scream that chilled Sarah’s blood. Even Patches flattened her ears.

Sarah dove onto Mags, trying to shelter her from the psychic feedback. The wasps closed in. Patches bared her teeth.

Embracing Sarah, Mags rose against the fearsome noise ringing in her skull and all around her. She set down the young woman and stepped up to the nearest wasp. When she held out her hand, her former enemy placed its head below the hand and held still.

Mags lightly stroked the insect between its antennae. What she told the malevolent monster and all its comrades in their inhuman language, transmitted directly from her mind to theirs, caused them to bow again before her in total silence.

The wasps accepted Mags as their new queen by rite of combat, but she felt nothing like a victor. She fell away from Sarah and stumbled for a handhold. One hand found a protrusion on the cave wall. She pulled herself upright and wiped her eyes and nose with the back of her hand.

Mags clenched that filthy hand into a fist and shouted. “Are we all sorted, you pestilent motherfuckers? I will crush you anytime I want! Who do you belong to now?”

The buzzing song answered her, low to the ground, beating the cavern floor, submissive to her will.

She took a deep breath and released it. “Good.” She stretched out the vowels in a rumbling purr. “Good. That’s fuckin’ purrfect.”

Mags brushed a lock of hair away from her face. She was taken aback by how easily the wasps accepted the idea of death in her service. They hugged the asteroid at her feet. The closest ones dared to stroke her with their antennae.

She swatted them away. “I love you, too, you parasitic cunts. Now piss off before I fuck you up!”

While they retreated into the hive, Mags scooped up Patches and nuzzled her kitten. “It’s alright,” she said. “I have a job for them on Earth. Let’s help our friends.”

☠️

Sarah’s Prayer

Thanks to Sarah and her communication with the larvae, the crew escaped the cells and regained control of their bodies. Bruised and bleeding from their rough capture, they left the hive. Mags summoned her ship, saving them the arduous trek through the asteroid wilderness to the wreckage of the club. She gave orders to the wasps to wait for her return. If they tried to birth a new Queen in her absence, she would just need to kill it when she came back.

The crew stopped at the club to gather those who died in the attack. The dead would receive a proper burial on Ceres. The living would clean and bandage their wounds, and more than a few would try to drink away the horror before they could sleep.

The next night, Sarah prayed. She sang her prayers silently, in her head. Unlike many prayers, they did not address any specific deity.

In the surrounding cities, people settled into pleasant dreams. Sarah’s song entered their subconscious minds and shaped their sleeping fantasies. But their dreams were not, as before, nightmares of loss and suffering.

Sarah’s song acknowledged sadness, but she celebrated hope. No tragedy was too great, no prison so strong, that they could not overcome it together. Every sunset was followed by a sunrise. Calm followed every storm.

Sarah briefly wondered why her new mentors, the octopuses, did not help her when she was in the cell. But as she prayed, she felt them watching her and realized they had been watching all along.

If they had helped, she would never know for sure if she could have escaped on her own. But she did, and she found a new strength within herself. Strength, and hope.

Always hope. Always a light shining in the center of the darkness. Then many lights, joined together.

THE END


[1] The rescue happened in Red Metal at Dawn.

[2] For the story of how Ceres got rings, see Blind Alley Blues and Voyage of the Calico Tigress.

[3] Toby appeared in Small Flowers.

[4] As detailed in The Battle of Vesta 4.

[5] If you don’t know who the octopuses are, you’ve got some catching up to do! Meet them for the first time in Red Metal at Dawn.

[6] In Daughter of Lightning and The Crystal Core, respectively.

[7] As the octopuses demonstrated in The Crystal Core.

[8] As detailed in The Ryderium Caper and many subsequent stories.

[9] Patches turned on the first system in Small Flowers.

[10] Donny refers to events from Small Flowers.

[11] As told in more detail in Red Metal at Dawn.

[12] “My little kitten.”

[13] The monkeys met Patches in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX.

[14] As he did in an opening scene of The Battle of Vesta 4.

[15] Vato refers to a Mexican gang member.

[16] “Same shit, different day.”

[17] “My close friends.”

[18] A brief summary of the climactic moment in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX.

[19] Koshka is Russian for “cat”.

[20] Mags can’t resist teasing the monkeys about their former ideology, despite the changes they’ve been through with the octopuses and Alonso since she first met them in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. Her mother was killed by a communist death squad, so she has a chip on her shoulder about that. See Curtain of Fire.

[21] Slim died in The Battle of Vesta 4, and Mags re-opened his club under Kaufman and Anton’s leadership in Small Flowers.

[22] The Draco were an intellectually advanced Dracorex species of dinosaur who later returned to invade the solar system and caused trouble for Mags for quite some time—until she killed most of them in 2029 and mentally enslaved the rest in 2030.

[23] As detailed in the stories Red Metal at Dawn, Daughter of Lightning, The Battle of Vesta 4, and Small Flowers.

[24] Mags, Sarah, and Patches joined their minds together in Daughter of Lightning, and Mags has had many other experiences with the octos since then.