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This is the opening scene to the next Meteor Mags adventure, The Battle of Vesta 4. If you haven’t joined Mags’ merry band of interplanetary outlaws yet, you can pick up the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition and Rings of Ceres absolutely free as ebooks from Smashwords until the end of July 2018.

***

10 November 2029: Vesta 4.

“China’s our new best friend,” said Meteor Mags. She pressed the cherry of her cigarette into the globe until the word China blackened. It grew tendrils of smoke that curled around her glossy black nails and drifted along her pale fingers in her club’s private lounge. The speakers in the room purred with the psychedelic rock riffs of Hell Camino’s debut album.

“When you’re done playing pyromaniac,” Celina said, “maybe you could send them a thank-you note.”

“Dear China,” said Fuzzlow. “Thank you for declaring war on basically everything, so we can throw a party. P.S. Fuck your fascist government.”

“I’d sign that letter.” Mags held the hot end of the cigarette to the globe a moment longer and enjoyed how the surface burned and the coating peeled away in plastic fear from the heat. “May the goddess have mercy on sweet mother Africa.” She discarded the butt and pulled a fresh pack from her bra.

“That country’s gonna get royally fucked,” Donny offered. “Can’t we help?”

“First of all,” said Mags, “Africa isn’t a bloody country. Second of all, where the hell is Batalla?”

“He’s on the way,” said Fuzzlow. “He’s—I don’t know what he’s doing. You know how he is.” Fuzzlow met Mags in 2026 through her ad on darkweb for a sound engineer for her solo piano album. The two of them agreed on music and gave each other hell about everything else ever since.

Celina sank deeper into the padded sofa and rested her head on Fuzzlow’s shoulder. As he kissed the top of her head and pressed his face into her long, dark waves of hair, she said, “It isn’t your usual war, Donny. Not nation against nation. China’s after one thing and one thing only. A bloke in your line of work shouldn’t need to think too hard about what that is.”

Donny used to sell drugs to supplement his income as an asteroid miner. He and his sorry excuse for a crew sold anything Meteor Mags could steal for them to redistribute to miners in the Belt, until one night when his guys said something mean about cats, and Mags killed most of them in retaliation.

Donny was one of only three of his crew to survive. The debacle cost him his mining job plus a few months’ recovery from getting shot. Since he made peace with Mags and joined her merry band of criminals, his life became a mix of interplanetary piracy and rock’n’roll rebellion as the baritone saxophonist of the Psycho 78s. “My line of work is raising hell and killing as many people as Mags can line up for target practice.” He took a deep draught from his bottle. “But if you mean my previous line of work, I totally get what China’s after. Mining.”

“Damn right,” said Mags. “The only thing they’re missing is resources. China’s become Earth’s manufacturing powerhouse over the past 50 years, but you know what? Making stuff takes raw materials. Who has more untapped mineral wealth on Earth than Africa?”

“I’ll tell you who,” said Fuzzlow. “The multinationals who control the rights to exploiting the entire continent.”

Mags blew a smoke ring through another smoke ring. “The same corporations who came in with a promise to end civil wars, and instead solved their problems with massacre.”

“Genocide,” said Celina. Not a soul in the solar system knew Mags longer than her best friend from Australia. If Mags considered anyone indispensable to her happiness in 2029, it was her cat Patches and the woman she’d known since 1938.

“Aye,” said Mags. “Here’s what will happen. China moves against the multinationals. The governments of Earth take sides and sort who to sell weapons to, and millions of people get murdered until the dust settles. Then everyone declares a winner.”

“Sounds lovely.” Donny passed a freshly rolled joint to Celina. “So why is China our new best friend? You’re just down with the mass-murdering sickness or what?”

Mags arched a brow and met Donny’s eyes. “Listen, dear. You humans have—”

“Oh, here we go,” Celina interrupted. She released a plume of smoke. “Now you’re making it about species.”

Mags turned her palms upward. “What other species is killing bazillions of its own each year?” The tip of her tail snapped sharply back and forth.

Fuzzlow coughed and passed her the joint. “I think you were making a point once.”

Mags puffed on it twice. Anyone who knew her at all understood she objected to the wars and suffering perpetuated on Earth for all 106 years of her life. She did not lack empathy.

She only knew Earth’s events were beyond her control. They predated her, and they were entrenched. Mags held no more hope for the planet of her birth, but she had high hopes for the Belt. On that morning of her 106th birthday, she believed her free-energy system could change the future. “My point was: all fuck is about to break loose on Earth, and the governments and mega-corps will have such a shit-storm on their hands they’ll be too busy to fuck with us. Which means—”

Celina hoisted a glass. “We can party like there’s no tomorrow!”

Fuzzlow and Donny clinked their drinks against hers and Mags’. With a stream of profanities, they blessed the solar system’s most nefarious smuggler with a long and happy life—and one hell of a party.

“Now.” Mags peered over the rims of her tinted glasses at her crew, and her eyes smoldered like green embers. “The only question is: how many more people need to die for me to have my little soirée?”

Celina settled back in place against her boyfriend. “As many as it takes.”

“Maybe,” Fuzzlow added, “a few more, just to be sure.”

“I know it’s a bit early to be doing prezzies,” said Celina, “but there’s something the girls want to show you before everyone gets here tonight.”

Mags refilled her glass. “Do I finally get to see this big secret of yours? You haven’t let me in the concert hall for days.”

“That’s right.” Celina swept her hand to indicate the men. “And not these loudmouths, either.” She wagged a finger at the smuggler. “And Patches better not have told you anything, or I will spank her fuzzy little butt.”

Mags scoffed. “The last person who tried to spank Patches is now missing an arm. But you’ll be glad to know I couldn’t get a peep out of her. I’m thinking you bribed her with treats.”

“Do you want to get her? Where is she?”

“I sent her with Kaufman to pick up Lonso. Couldn’t send him without some backup.” To Donny and Fuzzlow, she said, “Come on, mates. You might as well see what all the hush-hush is about. Bring the weed.”

Celina called Kala from her tablet on the way to the concert hall. Fuzzlow and Donny followed behind, making off-color jokes, laughing and punching each other like a couple of kids. They fell behind for a minute when Fuzzlow put Donny in a headlock.

Mags said, “You know, Celina, I don’t have a clue how you keep this madhouse under control when I’m gone. But I can’t thank you enough.”

Celina swept back a lock of hair. “No, wagtail, you really can’t. But you don’t need to. This was our dream, remember?”

“Goddess, do I ever. From building our own ships to get away from Earth, to stealing all the shit we needed to build this place. Then our first round of hiring staff. And helping Slim get his club off the ground. Can you believe I sometimes thought it would never work?”

“Yet here we are.”

“Yet here we are,” Mags shouted. “World class and kickin’ arse!” She raised her arms above her head in a triumphant gesture, drawing power from the building itself and her friends.

“If you think you love this place now, wait until you see what Kala and her crew made you.”

They stopped at an intersection in the hallway to let a stampede of young women run across their path. Someone shouted, “Don’t let her in yet!”

Celina held out her arms in front of the band, like a gate. “Orders are orders,” she said. “They all want to be there.”

Mags rolled her eyes and sighed, but with a smile. “Can’t even walk around my own bloody club.” She snapped her fingers twice at Fuzzlow.

The four friends smoked a joint in the hallway as stragglers caught up and ran past them. A few minutes later, Celina’s tablet chimed with a message saying the coast was clear. She led the way to the concert hall.

Inside, a huge curtain hid an entire wall. The young women of Club Assteroid gathered in two groups, one on each side of the curtain. Mags raised an outstretched arm and wrapped her hand into a fist. “What it is!”

The girls pumped the air with their fists in return and shouted, “Mags!” All of them but Kala, who stood at one side of the curtain, gripping Hyo-Sonn’s hand. In her other hand, she held a notecard.

Mags read Kala’s body language. Before the smuggler could say a word, Celina nudged her and said, “Kala has a few words she prepared.”

Hyo-Sonn squeezed Kala’s hand and whispered in her ear, then let her go.

Kala took a step forward and pushed a strand of her long, back hair behind one ear. “Mags, all of us want to wish you the happiest of birthdays. We wanted to give you something that would do more than express how much we love you. We wanted to give you something that speaks about all the things you love, too. None of us would be here if not for you and Celina. And Patches. Most of us wouldn’t even be alive. Words can’t say how much we owe you, or how awesome we think you are. So, we decided to say it with images.” She pulled a braided rope.

The curtain parted. It revealed a massive, wall-sized mural—a painting orchestrated by Kala and executed by everyone who lived at the club.

Mags beheld three generations of her female ancestors and their cats, and herself and Patches, all come to life as if drawn straight from the pages of her memories. Her great-grandmother stood at the wheel of a pirate ship on a tempestuous ocean. Her grandmother bent over a billiards table, poised to conquer a challenging shot. Her mother rode a stallion which reared on its hind legs and kicked the air. Mags’ portrait wielded a shotgun, while a painted Patches bristled and showed her teeth.

In silence, Mags approached the gigantic work of art. She held out a hand and ran her fingertips over the mural’s colorful brushstrokes. Every ridge in the acrylic paint felt like a signature, a record of her girls’ efforts, a time capsule.

Kala suppressed the urge to ask if Mags liked it. Even Donny and Fuzzlow stopped their shenanigans and held their tongues.

Mags stepped back from the mural like she was resisting a magnetic pull from its surface. “Holy shit!” She wrapped her arms around Kala. “This is bloody beautiful! You are so amazing.” She sunk her face into Kala’s hair and purred. “You! You are fucking amazing!

A moment later, Mags released her. “Girls,” said the pirate, “this is the most awesome thing I could ever hope for. You didn’t just do it. You nailed it! Give yourself a hand.” Mags clapped, and the group erupted into applause. Mags shouted over the noise, “Someone get my girls a drink!”

Celina was happy to oblige, but Mags stopped her on the way to the bar. “I got this.” The pirate slammed down shot glasses on the mahogany bar top, one after the other. “Curse me for a papist. Do we even have enough?” Her friends lined the bar, two and three bodies deep, as Mags set up four dozen glasses.

Club Assteroid had neither a top shelf nor a bottom shelf for rum. It stocked exactly one brand: Mags’ favorite, Kraken spiced black rum. She filled glasses to their rims and cracked open a fresh bottle when the first ran out. With a wave of her fingers, Mags beckoned Kala for the first shot. Once the young woman had her glass, Mags shouted, “Come and get it!” She drank from the bottle as Suzi, Hyo-Sonn, and many more snatched their share from the bar.

But when Sarah and Anton stepped up, Mags wagged her finger. “Just one, now, you little Dumpster Kittens. Or maybe two.” She leaned over the bar and said, “Anton, is being an honorary member of my girl gang driving you crazy yet?”

“Nah,” he said. He cast his glance to the floor, then met her eyes. “I like it here.”

Mags held out a fist to him. “Good.”

He gave her a gentle bump with his fist.

Mags poured a few more until everyone had their hands full. She raised her shot and said, “To the best friends in the System. Vivan las anarquistas!”

A unanimous cheer answered her. Mags slammed the bottle down with a resounding smack. “The bar is now open! Help yourselves. I need to keep a couple appointments before the party. Bring your earplugs.”

On her way out, Mags paused before the mural. Again, she touched her fingers to the portraits of each of her ancestors. In a low voice no one could hear, she said, “Goddess be with me.”

Then she was gone.