Continued from Part 3.
Part Four: End Game
Mags and Patches arrived at the hub to find it locked down. Between the two of them, they made short work of the lobby door, ignoring the alarms they set off and the dead bodies they encountered. When they found the elevator required a code, Mags put a couple dents in it with her stolen steel-toed boots.
The criminals destroyed a different door and took the stairs instead. With pauses to catch her breath and clutch her ribs, Mags grumbled the whole way.
When they arrived at the entry to the room Tarzi had invaded, gunshots greeted them. Mags stopped beside the door and took cover behind its frame. She said, “Take the point, tough girl.”
Patches burst into the room. She leapt onto the helmeted face of one of Rosalia’s goons who was shooting at Tarzi. She howled as she destroyed him.
Mags stepped in. Her bullets sent the last of the grey-clad enemies to their graves.
Tarzi shouted, “Mags! Patches!”
The smuggler ejected a magazine and slammed a fresh one into place. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine.” He paused to observe her blood-soaked, shredded Port Authority uniform. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Nothing a little murder can’t solve. Jesus tapdancing christ. Is that Rosie?”
“Yeah,” said Tarzi. “Mags, I didn’t—”
“You traitorous bitch!” Mags knelt beside the corpse. She gripped it by the collar of Rosalia’s uniform and pulled the lifeless, shattered face close to hers. “Don’t you ever fuck with my cat!” A cascade of vulgarities went unnoticed by the single ear still attached to Rosalia’s head.
Mags released the collar and let Rosalia fall to the floor with a thud. “Where the hell is Shondra? When I get my hands on her—”
“What do you mean? The last I knew, she was on her way to set you free.”
Tarzi filled her in on the events of his imprisonment and release.
“Holy crap,” said Mags. “If she didn’t make it to my cell, then where is she?”
Mags considered the new information for half a minute, pacing back and forth and cursing under her breath. “Alright, T-man. Let’s put this high-tech hub to use and call her.”
Mags no longer had her phone, but she was not one to forget anything numeric. She switched on a console and entered Shondra’s private number.
Shondra’s face filled a two-meter-wide screen with a pleasant smile. “Hello, kitten.” Her eyes drifted over Mags’ shoulder to Tarzi, then past him and around the room. “Looks like you have it all under control. The hub is secure? Are we plugged in and ready to take control?”
Mags slammed her fist on the console. “Goddamnit, Shondra! You told Tarzi I was delusional! A psychotically delusional bitch from hell!”
“Are you disputing that fact?”
Mags frowned. “You could have said it more nicely.”
“I’m sorry, Maggie. You are an astoundingly beautiful and musically gifted… totally delusional, psychotic hell beast! You’re practically feral!”
Mags purred. “That’s more like it.”
While Mags and Tarzi focused on the video call, Patches wiggled her butt and leapt onto a machine in the corner. Quietly tapping its screen, she set up an encrypted group message that included Celina, the Dumpster Kittens, and anyone else’s address she remembered. An extended claw softly clacked on the glass while one paw pad typed a message.
sup niggaaaz. chillin lika villin on marz. Patches snapped a photo of her fuzzy face in extreme close-up, framed by blood-smeared walls and corpses behind her. how u like me now. She tapped “send”.
Patches sprawled before the monitor as dozens of messages lit up.
sall good, she typed. back n da crib soon. xox. Despite the flurry of replies, she rested her chin on one paw and closed her eyes. Her whiskers twitched as she listened, with her mind half asleep, to the call with Shondra. Patches liked her human friends, but people failed to understand the importance of frequent napping. They were all so busy. Except maybe Donny.
“Listen,” said Shondra. “That’s how it needs to be. You don’t get to pay the cost to be the boss. I already paid it. What you get is a friend on Mars who agrees that Earth can fuck right off.” Her eyes followed a few flicks of Mags’ tail. “You and I need to work together, not against each other.”
Mags stamped her foot. “Everyone gets access to the free-energy system. But we keep the K Drive between you and me. No one else gets that tech.”
“And I can come and go as I please on Mars without fake passports and all this sneaking around like a common criminal! I want a full pardon from the New Martian Coalition. That goes for my whole crew, too.” She swept her arm as if they were all there with her.
“Mags.” Shondra leaned in. The camera went out of focus for a second before she snapped into place as sharp as ever. “Don’t think so small. I’m prepared to sign a treaty with Ceres and officially recognize whatever weird social experiment you have going on there. Now will you quit fucking around and go install the rest of your system? If we want to light up this planet, let’s not take all goddamn day!”
Mags shouted, “Fine, Shondra! I’ll do it! Fuck!”
“That’s great. We need to put out a broadcast about it. How long will it take?”
“It takes as long as it takes! We’ve gotta go halfway around the twatting planet!”
“Call me when you’re done, then. I’ve got places to go. People to execute.”
“You took my phone!” Mags kicked a rack of servers so hard that sparks flew. Shondra’s face flickered. “Me voy a mear en los hoyos! You’re lucky I have a backup on my ship! Four hours,” said Mags. “Four fucking hours! Then I’ll call you.”
“My favorite words.” Shondra leaned closer to press a button, and the screen went black.
Mags put her hands on her hips. “I swear, Tarzi, that woman will be the death of me. Let’s hope she doesn’t run this planet like a dominatrix.”
Tarzi said, “Didn’t you do that for a while?”
Mags waved one hand in the air with too much energy to be convincingly dismissive. “Lies! All of it lies.”
“What about Madame Meteor’s House of Humiliation?”
“That comic book was completely unauthorized!”
“The art was pretty good.”
Mags broke her rage to smile. “The art was stellar. So were the outfits.” She racked a bullet into the chamber and holstered her stolen pistol. “Come on, Patches! Time to go.” Mags could not see where Patches was napping, but she followed her nose. “Wake up, lazy butt! We’ve got a planet to power!”
Patches opened one eye halfway. Her nictitating membrane covered most of it.
Mags saw the messages on the monitor. “Oh, shit!” She scrolled up to glance through them all. “Everyone at home is freaking out!”
Home, thought Tarzi. Funny she should use that word for Ceres. As Mags’ fingers flew across the touchscreen Patches had used, Tarzi said, “Please tell me she encrypted that message.”
Mags snapped at him. “She’s not stupid! Even if her spelling sucks.”
“I think she does it on purpose. How many people did she call ‘nigga’?”
“Good girl, Patches.” Tarzi rubbed one tuft-filled ear between a thumb and finger.
Patches purred and slowly swept the tip of her tail across her throne.
“You are such a bad influence on her.” Mags finished an update to everyone on the calico’s distribution list. A parade of celebratory emojis marched up the screen as replies came in. Donny sent an eggplant and a trio of water droplets.
Mags slapped her forehead. “We have the most advanced extraterrestrial communication system in history at our fingertips—and Donny is sending icons about ejaculating!”
“At least he seems happy.”
“If he were any happier,” said Mags, “I’d have him euthanized.” She drew herself to her full height. “Let Shondra’s people clean up this mess. Are you two ready to go?”
Aboard the Bêlit, on the way to the installation site, Mags changed outfits. She stripped off her ragged, filthy Port Authority uniform and tossed it aside. “I need a skirt,” she said. “Here’s the problem. The Martian north and south poles are covered in ice caps, and we’ve got reason to believe there’s a massive subterranean lake under the south.”
She rifled through drawers and flipped through clothes on racks in her trio of closets. “If we install a SlimRod there, we potentially interfere with water-mining in the region. Or the miners might break the damn thing. We don’t want to mess with all that. Besides manufacturing, water mining is the next big moneymaker. Ceres is back to making trillions, but we haven’t even come close to tapping the full market potential.”
Without deciding on an ensemble, Mags returned to the console to bring up a pair of digital maps. She swept a hand across them. “Point is, Shondra found two other permanent locations that can work. One of her crews installed the first unit to the north. That leaves the second for us. We’re en route to the Leibnitz mountains on the rim of the Aitken base—far enough from the glacial ice to relax for a few years, but close enough that the math wasn’t total brain surgery.”
I was typing a message to Hyo-Sonn. “That’s nice.” I didn’t give a donkey’s fuck about where we were going. I just wanted the day to be over.
Mags found legwear to match her skirt and plopped on the edge of her bunk to pull on her stockings. “Tarzi, we’re talking about the oldest known meteorite impact in the history of the entire solar system! Aren’t you even the least bit excited?”
I set my tablet in my lap. “Thrilled.”
Mags picked up a mirror from her bedside and started fixing her makeup. “I know this isn’t how you planned to spend your birthday. Shit, my b-day last year sucked so fucking much I can’t even believe it. How many of our friends were killed? And they died on my watch.”
She slammed down her eyeliner and applied black and bright-red lipsticks until the center of her colorful pout was accentuated in scarlet. “I promise I will make it up to you. Someday, a few years from now, you’ll realize this was one of your most important birthdays. We’re in the center of it all, making it happen. Or trying to, at least.” She stood and swished her tail. “Let’s make history.”
“I’m sorry to be a downer. This is all just so fucked up.”
Mags set a hand on my shoulder. “I’m sorry about Rosie. She was my friend, too.”
I never could stay mad at Mags for long. How many times had she nearly gotten me killed? But there we were. I set my hand on hers. “I didn’t have a choice.”
“I know,” she said. “But you did have a choice. And you made the right one.” She squeezed my shoulder. “Being right doesn’t make life any easier. But it’s better than being dead wrong.”
When I didn’t answer, she reclined in the captain’s chair and fidgeted with the straps and buckles on her thigh-high boots like I wasn’t even there. I loved that about Mags. She had a way of letting me know she’d always be there for me, but she would totally fuck off if I needed time to myself.
“So,” I said, “tell me more about this bloody awesome mountain range. Sounds like it’s freezing.”
No matter that I’d been on Mars for half a year and studied files on every crack and crevice of its known geography. Patches jumped into my lap and purred. I pet her while Mags told me what I already knew.
Sometimes it’s just nice to be with friends.
We ended up outside on the ice, and I can’t even tell you how cold that mountain was, or how insane Mags was for wearing a skirt. The wind was like a frozen steel blade cutting me from every direction.
Not that it mattered to Patches. She frolicked like we’d been dropped onto Tahiti or something. I love Patches, but how does she do that? Meanwhile, my bollocks were clinking together like ice cubes in a cocktail, and my cocktail was rapidly shrinking to a shot glass.
Mags hammered her SlimRod into place, shooting sparks in every direction across the snowy iron dust all around us. I knew the song she sang to keep a beat while hammering, but I never thought I’d see a planet liberated to it.
When Mags finished, she invited Patches to step up and turn it on. The fate of a planet—maybe the entire solar system—relied on a single cat’s decision to interrupt her winter wonderland and flip a switch.
Patches yawned. She stretched in the snow. Her fluffy paws allowed her to walk on the surface like a lynx. She sniffed the SlimRod and bobbed her head up and down, never quite touching the object. Patches wrinkled her cheeks and held her mouth open slightly, pondering the scent with the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of her mouth.
Springing onto her hindlegs, Patches gripped the switch in her forepaws and pulled it toward the ground. She activated a system that changed Martian history forever. The planet broke its ochre silence and hummed an unfamiliar tune.
Mags shouted, “Hang on, Tarzi,” with no indication of what I should hang on to. The hum built to a roar. A shockwave smacked the planet. All three of us fell into the snow.
Like an orchestra tuning up before a performance, the shockwaves aligned on the perfect pitch—the perfect note to power a planet.
Two seconds later, I didn’t hear it at all. The note propagated through Mars and became a part of it, an invisible character in the background. A ghost.
A ghost that would power everything.
Mags got to her feet and snapped a photo of Patches sprawling on the ice and flecks of red stone at the base of the SlimRod. She sent it to Shondra. Mags spoke a message for the voice-to-text translator. “All plugged in here. Just in time for your little speech.”
She put the phone up her skirt. A flash went off. I did not even want to know. A second later, she said, “Let’s go watch her on the big screen.”
Aboard the Bêlit, I dropped into the co-pilot’s chair. Patches filled my lap. Mags switched on the pair of meter-wide monitors atop the console and adjusted the volume.
Two identical portraits of Shondra filled the screens. Mags handed me a beer, cracked open one for herself, and kicked back in the captain’s chair.
“People of Mars,” Shondra began. “My fellow Martians. Today is the end of history and the beginning of a new era. From now on, Mars will govern itself. Our laws will be our own. Our economy will be our own. Our pride as the number-one extraterrestrial producer of goods will be our own. We will be one planet. One people. One victory.”
Mags adjusted her glasses on the bridge of her nose. “Good slogan.”
“Forces,” Shondra continued, “loyal to corporations on Earth, butchered some of the leaders of our revolution. Those forces have been dealt with, and we will no longer tolerate such interference from Earth, nor from her corporations. But I beg you to learn to live in peace with your neighbors, regardless of former loyalties. Now is the time for Mars to become one planet. One people.”
“And,” I said, “one hell of an energy source.”
Mags said, “She’ll get to that.”
“We are not,” said a pair of massive Shondra faces, “merely equal as Martian citizens. We are equal in power. Within twenty-four hours, the new administration will begin distributing a new technology. This tech is a simple piece of electronics you can install in your house or on your land, and it taps into a global energy system you can access for no cost. It can power a home or a farm or a mine, using an open-source converter.
“Our government will provide hands-on support for both personal, home installations and larger commercial applications. But make no mistake. We intend to bring free energy to everyone on our planet, and our projections show this is an achievable goal within half a Martian year.
“The local offices of the Port Authority and the Passport Command are now under the control of the New Martian Coalition.”
Shondra’s eyes went up and to the right, as if she were trying to remember. I’m sure it was unconscious that she licked her lips while thinking.
“Oh. My name’s Shondra. You might know me from the shipyards. I’ll be in touch every twenty-four hours until we get this sorted.” Her playful smile disappeared, and she raised a fist. “Long live the resistance.”
The broadcast ended. The screens went black.
Mags laughed and shook me by the shoulder. “Is that it? No love for the brave defender of freedom and his felonious feline friends?”
She stood before I thought of a comeback. “What a fucking rip-off!” Mags faced the blank monitors with her hands folded behind her back, and her tail whipped everything in its reach. Eventually, the whip settled, and her fingertips rested on the console. She took a deep breath and let it out. “Tarzi, I’ve got a two-room suite booked in a hotel that Shondra doesn’t know about. They’ll cook us anything we want, even late. I mean anything. Are you hungry?”
I said, “Starving! I could eat a slow-roasted maggot off a whale dick.”
“It might be on the menu. How about fish and chips?”
“That,” I said, “sounds perfect. Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Epilogue: The Cake
5 July 2030.
“Happy birthday, T-man!” Mags strolled into the master suite with a chocolate-swirled cheesecake in a chocolate crust on a platter. Lines of caramel glaze and walnut pieces adorned the top. “I heard this was your favorite.”
“Oh, fuck yes,” said Tarzi. “How did you get that at three in the morning?”
“Get it? I fucking baked it for you!” She set it on a table between two chairs.
“I have friends in the kitchen.”
“Where are the candles?”
Mags laughed. “You are so demanding! Check this out.” From a pocket on her skirt, she pulled three joints. “Why blow out candles when you can light one up?” She gave him a doob. “Make a wish on that, motherfucker. One for Patches, too.”
Patches leapt onto the table, snatched up a joint in her fuzzy jaws, and jumped to the floor. She ripped into the spliff and chomped with wild abandon, rolling on her back in the debris and trapping green flecks in her tri-colored fur.
Mags pulled something else from her pocket. “Forks!” She stabbed hers into the cake. “To Mars and her stupid revolution, I say ‘Fork you, bitch.’”
Tarzi plunged four plastic tines into the cake. “This whole forking planet sucks.”
“You don’t like it here?” Mags held out a lighter and lit his joint, then hers.
“Fuck no.” Tarzi took a deep inhale, held it, and released it. “Oh, that’s some good shit.”
“Have I ever given you anything that wasn’t?”
“Not even once. But Mars can sod off. I am so sick of paperwork. I want to go home.”
“Not Earth. It hasn’t been home since my parents died. I did talk to their lawyer, though. Signed some papers. I own the property and the rights to their publications, and they had a solid life insurance policy. That’s nice, don’t get me wrong. But do you know what I want?”
Mags leaned in. “Tell me.”
“I want to be closer to Hyo-Sonn.”
Patches shredded the carpet.
“And you and Patches, too! I mean, thank you for setting me up on Mars. It definitely helped me get my head together after all the shit that happened last year. But my future isn’t here. It’s with you and my friends.”
Mags sat back in her chair and flicked ash on the carpet where it charred a black scar then burnt out. “Tarzi, you and I have a lot in common. We both had to grow up way too soon and deal with shit no kid should ever deal with. But you know what?” She took a puff.
“You dealt with it. I’m proud of you, little man. But I don’t think it’s nearly as proud as I could be.” She scooped a chunk of cake and paused before shoveling it into her mouth. “This is just the beginning. Happy birthday.”
Tarzi lifted a mountain of sugary calories. “Does that mean you’ll take me back to Ceres?”
Mags swallowed her mouthful and stabbed the dessert again. “Tarzi, I will take you to Ceres or anywhere else you need to be, and I will stand by your side as far as you want to go in this life. May the goddess have mercy on anyone who gets in our way. You’ve kicked more arse than anyone your age should need to, and I love you for it. Always have.”
“Thanks for saying that, Mags. I love you, too.” Tarzi took a bite. “Oh, fuck, that’s good. Did you bring any rum?”
 Patches has been a huge fan of gangsta rap ever since she merged minds with Mags in Red Metal at Dawn. She also loves texting her friends—especially Tarzi—since no one but Mags can understand her when she talks.
 Spanish for, “I will piss in your eye holes!”
 Madame Meteor’s House of Humiliation first appeared in print in the Asteroid Belt in 2026. Mags publicly disavowed any involvement with its production.
 One of the main Ceresian exports is water extracted from the pockets of its sub-surface ocean, purified, and sold to various interests in the system. The 2029 super-tornado destroyed many of the water-mining facilities, but the reconstruction of Ceres in 2030 restored most of them to capacity.
 Mags quotes the 2004 song Let’s Make History by The (International) Noise Conspiracy. On her favorite album, Armed Love. Örebro, Sweden: Burning Heart Records.
 Mags likes to sing John Henry when she installs the SlimRods. The first verse is:
John Henry, when he was a baby
sittin’ on his mama’s knee,
picked up that hammer in his little right hand,
said, “Hammer’ll be the death of me, me, me.
Hammer’ll be the death of me.”
The song is a traditional ballad about the U.S. folk hero John Henry, a railroad steel-driving man who challenged an early steam drill to a contest and won—but died in the process.
 A Martian solar year is 687 Earth days. Shondra is promising planet-wide access to the new energy system in roughly one Earth year.
 Tarzi was contacted about his late parents’ estate via voice mail by their lawyer in Hunted to Extinction.