This scene is a postscript to the sixteenth Meteor Mags adventure, Rings of Ceres. All adventures so far have built up to Mags’ birthday party in 2029, in a story to be titled The Battle of Vesta 4. While organizing my 12,000 words of chaotic notes and half-written scenes for BoV4, I felt I was missing a quiet, character-driven scene where Mags shows three teenagers a few things about music to help them with their new punk band, Dumpster Kittens.
As usual, even a quiet scene with Mags ends up being pretty loud.
Meteor Mags: Jam Room
The day before her 106th birthday, Meteor Mags showed off her drum set to the new girl, Jinx. The two convened in the jam room Mags set up so Sarah and Anton could practice and work on songwriting. Patches stretched out with her eyes closed, resting her fuzzy face on one outstretched limb atop a tube head on an Orange amplifier.
“It’s a beautiful kit,” said Jinx.
“Bird’s-eye maple,” said Mags. “Custom-built on Mars. But if I had it to do over, I’d go with mahogany. Not as pretty, but a heavier sound that could kick a god in the balls.”
“Can I play it?”
“Anytime you want, dear. But if you fuck it up, you’re paying to fix it. Deal?” Mags held out her hand, enclosed in a fingerless biker glove.
Jinx slapped her hand into the older woman’s leathered grip. “Deal.”
Mags eyes twinkled like stars in a telescope’s glass. “Check out this bass pedal. I keep tweaking the action on it, but I think I got the right tension now.”
Bronze cymbals glowed in the jam room’s light. They perched atop polished chrome stands and hardware. The bass head bore a ring of skulls. Mags sat on the drum stool. Her ample backside and swishing, fluffy tail enveloped it.
Jinx said, “I thought you’d play with a double kick.”
Mags scoffed. “Batalla plays a double kick for the 78s, but I prefer the old-school approach. One foot for the bass, and one for the high-hat.” She gave the high-hat an expressive flourish, demonstrating its glistening sound closed, open, and in a half-dozen states in-between. “All about that high-hat.”
Corrugated foam panels lined the walls to reduce the ambient, reflected noise of the kit and the various stacks of amplifiers around it. A hint of jasmine piped through the air vents to mask the stale scent of recycled air. Tattered couches and love seats along the walls sat so close to the array of instruments that ear damage was practically guaranteed, but they gave the close quarters a lived-in, homey feeling.
On one couch, Tarzi reclined with his feet up on an armrest and his head smushed against a pillow on the other. He had arrived a few hours ago, after spending his morning in a spacecraft with Ryder. The older man’s conversation left him with a need to immerse himself in George Orwell’s book, Homage to Catalonia. He lifted an eyebrow to gaze over the top of the memoir. “John Bonham didn’t need two kick drums.”
Mags pointed a drumstick at the adolescent she affectionately called her nephew. “Right on, T-man. All in the wrists? All in the ankle, too. Speed, precision, lightness, power.” Mags pounded the bass pedal with her right foot and made it fire as rapidly as a machine gun.
Jinx took note. “How do you get it to go so fast but still keep time?”
“Come here and watch.”
Jinx stepped behind the kit and observed.
Mags blasted another staccato bass burst. Then she rested her sticks on the snare head. “Stay loose. You can’t tense up. But you need to stay firm, too. Don’t get all flabby. When you find that balance, you can do anything. I don’t just mean with a drum. I mean anything in life.”
Jinx did her best to absorb this advice. “When my ankle gets better, I’ll be all over it.”
“That’s the spirit.” Mags twirled the drumsticks in a blur. “Sarah and Anton could use a drummer, and you seem like you have the right attitude. Why don’t you show me what you got, but without the footwork?” Mags held out the sticks.
Jinx grabbed them. As soon as Mags slipped off the stool, Jinx filled it. She adjusted the tilt of the crash and ride cymbals, brought the high-hat in a little closer, and executed a brief roll across the three rack toms from smallest to largest, ending with the floor tom. “You’re taller than me,” she said. “But I can work with this.”
Tarzi called out, “Drum solo!”
Jinx twirled her sticks with almost as much panache as Mags, tossed one into the air, and caught it. “You’re on.”
Mags lit a stolen cigarette and appraised the girl’s technique and timing. Jinx blasted into a speedy 4/4 punk beat then stretched it out into a flurry of syncopated, off-beat fills—not with the facility of a seasoned New Orleans drummer, but showing solid ideas and spontaneity.
A knowing smile crept across the smuggler’s face. Jinx, she thought, was not yet a percussion expert, but she would be just what Sarah and Anton needed to jam out their tunes and kick some arse. Straight-ahead rock beats, with a generous amount of creativity to help their songwriting and improvisation. She made a mental note to thank Tinta for the introduction.
Sarah ran into the room, dragging Anton behind her as she had nearly every hour of every day since the boy’s father brought him to Vesta. His embarrassed expression of the first few days had disappeared, and a newfound contentedness shone on the face of the boy who had so recently lived under the threat of terror on Mars.
Mags said, “Now this jam session can officially start.” No one heard her over Jinx’s drumming.
Jinx saw the founding members of Dumpster Kittens and stopped playing. She didn’t smile at them, but she lifted her head in a gesture of recognition.
Sarah said, “That would be a cool beat for Agents of Cruelty! Are you feeling better?”
“Fever’s gone,” said Jinx. “Ankle is damned useless right now, but at least it isn’t throbbing.”
Mags introduced Anton to Tarzi, and a comfortable chatter filled the room.
Ryder showed up to see what all the racket was about, and another round of introductions followed.
Mags said, “This is the guy who planned the Yeltsin job.”
“I’m retired,” Ryder lied. “Now I’m just a chauffeur to Mags’ teenage sidekicks.” He plopped down on the edge of Tarzi’s couch.
The young man held out a hand and received a hearty slap on his open palm. “Thanks for the lift.”
Mags asked, “Are you two friends now?”
Tarzi said, “You were right about his having shite taste in music but awesome stories.”
“Dude,” said Ryder, “I played you the good stuff.”
“Sweet bleeding fuck,” said Tarzi. “It was like eight hours of Ted Nugent.”
“That reminds me,” said Mags. “Drum fills! Some of the all-time greatest are in Stranglehold. We need to add that to our list.”
Tarzi said, “I am not putting that right-wing jackass on our list.”
“Then I am,” said Mags.
Anton piped up. “We could do a jam on it. The riff is pretty easy.” He lifted a Gibson SG from its stand and tuned it.
Tarzi returned to reading. “All hope is lost.”
Sarah said, “I don’t know the words.”
“I got you covered.” Ryder snatched up a pencil and paper. He recited the words as he wrote, until he came to the second verse. “The road I travel’s a—” He raised his head. “Mags.”
“She’s just a little girl. Are you sure you want her singing this?”
“Because it says bitch? Jesus, Ryder, you’re getting soft in your old age. This girl’s seen some shit you don’t even know about. Sarah, what’s a bitch?”
A pair of sweet, angelic eyes met Mags’. “It’s a female dog. Or, in prison, a person who performs sexual favors in exchange for protection from gang violence.”
Mags pointed a drumstick at Ryder. “See?”
“Oookay. Bitch it is.” He completed the line on the paper. “And if your house gets in my way, baby—”
Tarzi barely lifted his eyes from the pages. “We’ll get sued for this, you know. Quoting song lyric without permission.”
Mags laughed at him. “The Nuge was assassinated when he ran for President in 2016. Nobody’s suing us over Stranglehold. And if they do, I’ll kick their arse.”
Sarah asked, “What’s the melody?”
Ryder sang a few lines for her.
Celina appeared in the doorway. “For fuck’s sake, Ryder. Sing it in the right key!”
“Celina!” He descended on her like a storm and crushed her in a hug, causing her drink to slosh over her hand. “Goddamn, is it good to see you again!”
Celina slapped his bum. “You too, you lousy felon. Now let go before I suffocate.”
He released her, but his eyes were still held captive, and his smile faded not one bit. “What’s a key?”
Celina rolled her eyes and wiped her wet hand on her jeans. “Let me do this.”
Sarah listened intently to the older woman’s singing. “I can do that.” She stepped up to the mic. “Who starts?”
Mags aimed a drumstick at Kaufman’s boy. “Anton. I’ll count it off.” She smacked the sticks together crisply four times, establishing the tempo.
The young man began the riff, looking to Mags to make sure he had it right.
She gave him a wink and a smile and four extra bars to get settled. Over the blaring guitar amplifier and its crackling distortion, she shouted to Sarah. “Ready?”
Sarah stepped up to the mic and closed her eyes. Anton’s riff was a warm liquid, a comforting bed of fuzz, a sound as soothing as a city being bombed off the map.
On Anton’s eighth time through the riff, Mags exploded a drum fill on snare and bass. It shook the room so hard the building seemed in danger of falling off the asteroid into space. The precise, sharp sting of her snare made Ryder jump. He’d almost forgotten what a musician his partner in crime was.
The twelve-year-old Sarah launched into the first line. She didn’t really know how a dog in heat felt, but she was pretty sure it felt like kicking ass, and freedom to say anything, and desire for something immediate and personal.
Celina sipped Kraken black rum, completely nonplussed by the wave of sonic annihilation rolling over her. She tapped her foot as if the ear-splitting racket from the speakers was the most natural thing in the world. With cool detachment, she noticed the new girl’s eyes never left Mags for a second.
As Sarah’s vocal chords ripped into the verse about bitches and houses burning, Celina considered Jinx. Many of the young women the Australian had worked with in the club over the past few years were basically nice girls who had survived terrible events. But this newcomer had a good helping of the antagonistic, punk-rock attitude Mags exuded. It was a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, it showed an inner anger and strength. On the other, it might be a guard against a deeper, overwhelming sadness. Rage was a wall, a barrier, and Celina wondered what unspoken torments Jinx carried with her. Would they destroy the young woman, or was she strong enough to conquer them? Celina decided to keep a watchful eye on her, lest inner turmoil lead Jinx and her new friends to destruction.
In the manner of a woman who has dealt with immeasurable sadness for too many years, Celina relegated all these thoughts to a space she held inside her, and returned to the joy of the moment. It was time for the guitar solo.
Mags backed off the over-clocked assault on the drum heads and let the band bring it down a bit. Anton was no Ted Nugent, but he took a credible turn at a solo. He’d been influenced by his father’s illegal Sonic Youth records, so he eschewed Nugent’s shred style for a more atmospheric, textural romp. He put the headstock of his guitar against the amp. A wailing cascade of feedback poured out like a lake from a broken dam.
This raucous, flowing noise excited Patches. She leapt down from her perch on Anton’s amplifier and shoved her face between the microphone and the speaker’s tweed cover. With her ears pressed flat against her tri-colored head and her whiskers shimmering in the soundwaves punching out from the speaker, she howled into the crisscross pattern of the microphone’s metal head.
The guitar solo gave way to a caterwauling that nearly paralyzed her friends. The criminal calico filled the room with noises that spoke of her prehistoric ancestors. The fury of a smilodon sinking its teeth into a cave bear. The iron flavor of a mastodon’s blood in her mouth. The despair of watching spear-wielding primates robbing a continent of its massive, deliciously mammalian fauna.
No one in the room would forget that cry, but only Mags understood it on a primal, genetic level. The smuggler shut her eyes and saw in Patches’ song a place of bestial beauty and torment. A place of perfect belonging and never-ending loneliness. It smelled like Earth and rain and matted fur.
Mags’ drumsticks smashed into the tom heads like they called out for war. She attacked the crash cymbal repeatedly with the force of a lioness’ killing bite to the back of a zebra’s neck. Something inside her released a forlorn, unearthly howl in duet with her kitten.
Again, Mags backed off the percussive assault to let the band in. Sometimes, she thought, you gotta start low.
Sarah sang the pirate’s thought, and her voice led the group to the finale.