UPDATE: This story now appears alongside four others in The Singing Spell and Other Tales, published October 2020.
METEOR MAGS: THE CRYSTAL CORE
The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episode 24.
© 2020 by Matthew Howard.
Description: 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.
Word Count: 7,900.
“The further the power of consciousness ventures out into experience, the more is the price it must pay for its knowledge.”
—Alan Watts; The Wisdom of Insecurity, 1951.
May 2030. From the Letters of Meteor Mags.
I don’t think I was cut out for motherhood. I’ve always loved my kittycats, and Patches might as well be my cub, but these octopuses are something else.
Last year, when I liberated them, I didn’t know what I was getting into. Patches and I wanted to help them get born, but then we had to feed them. Then we had these mystical group-mind experiences and a concert or two, and it all happened so fast.
Back then, we didn’t realize what they could do. Now, I feel like a mom who left her toddlers alone with lit candles and a bucket of petrol. What could go wrong?
I’m not exactly a supervisor, you know.
I didn’t realize they needed babysitting.
Anyway, we’re almost to the outer planets now. It’s time to see what the hell they’ve been up to, and I hope they didn’t—
Oh, my god.
I gotta go. I’ll tell you all about it later.
If I survive.
All my love,
By May 2030, hyperdimensional math was child’s play to Mags’ swirling swarm of telepathic octopuses. They were octopuses, not octopi, though Mags’ girls baked her an apple octo-pie topped with a golden crust shaped like tentacles. She ate it with gusto while explaining that octopuses had arms, not tentacles.
Her octos had greater concerns than labeling appendages. They wanted to build a perfect world, and they wanted it to be one they could be proud to show their mothers.
The octopuses had three. One was their biological mother who had been experimented on and grown to massive proportions, and who granted her offspring telepathic abilities through her mutated genetics. She died in 2029.
Their second mother was the mostly human smuggler who facilitated their birth by providing water to their eggs so they could hatch, and whose mind had melded with their collective consciousness several times.
The octopuses had also merged with Mags’ invincible calico cat Patches more than once. They held her on a matriarchal pedestal, too, and their thoughts took on a shape distinctly feline because of her: this world belongs to me and my cubs; either I hunt and eat, or I will die; and no, I will not get down from the table.
These might not have been the ideal thought-patterns to imprint on a cephalopodic group-mind.
Mags’ cavalier approach to telepathic communion with them wasn’t the only problem. The octopuses learned in November 2029 to communicate with her across empty space, and she later entertained their embraces in the dark waters of their asteroid cavern on Svoboda 9, establishing a mental and physical unity with them no other being ever had.
Those experiences revealed all Mags’ memories to her unofficially adopted babies, including the nature of the mysterious object of power she called “the triglyph” and its location in her armory.
Like children attracted to a shiny toy, they reached out for the triglyph when Mama wasn’t looking. They discovered a multi-dimensional object with a formative consciousness and power unlike anything they had ever encountered. Touching the triglyph’s primitive thoughts, the octopuses established a common language, introduced themselves, and reached an understanding.
Within seconds, they sent an invitation.
The triglyph vanished from Mags’ armory. It rotated itself through a space imperceptible to humans. Picoseconds later, it arrived on Svoboda 9 in the subterranean lake in the asteroid home the octos shared with Alonso, Plutonian, and the macaques. None of the primates noticed the triglyph’s arrival, nor did they notice a minute later when it disappeared along with twenty octopuses.
The date was the eighth of November 2029, two days before Mags’ birthday party. The same day, the octopuses touched her mind from afar and removed all traces of the triglyph from her thoughts of the previous few days. The excision was not deep enough to remove all her memories of the object nor cause her any harm, but enough to wipe it from her current train of thought.
After all, they didn’t want to upset her.
May 2030. Svoboda 9.
Mags pounded her fist against the glass wall of the giant aquarium aboard the Hyades. “Where the fuck are my octos?!” At the pirate’s feet, Patches mewed and twitched her fuzzy ears.
Formerly a cargo ship Alonso served on during his days with the Port Authority, the Hyades had become a tour bus for the interspecies band known as Small Flowers, decorated with garish art and quasi-revolutionary slogans in spray paint on the outside, and housing the octopuses inside.
“Take it easy, tía.” Alonso didn’t touch her, but his hands made cautionary gestures. “Fish don’t like it when you tap on the glass.”
She relented without stepping away, peering into the water, studying the octopuses’ movements, counting. “They’re not fish,” Mags said, “but point taken. Where are they?”
“Right here! Do you need a drink? We left fifty of them on Earth, but there’s still like a hundred fifty in there. Relax.”
“There’s more than fifty missing. Seventy, by my count.” Mags frowned. “Did they die?”
“I haven’t seen any corpses floating in the tank. Not in the lake, either, though the light’s not the best in there. Can you hear them?”
“No,” said Mags. “That’s what worries me. They’re hiding something.”
Twenty octopuses and the triglyph appeared in the sky over the Saturnian moon, Titan. Levitating in the frigid methane rain, a bubble ten meters wide with the triglyph at its center held the octos suspended in 523 cubic meters of water. The octos swam and breathed, and the triglyph’s power kept them warm.
Titan’s gravity almost equaled that of Earth’s moon, and a magnetic field preserved the atmosphere against the blast of solar wind. But the sky was filled with methane, which at Titan’s sub-zero temperature condensed from a gas into a liquid to fall from the sky in a slow-motion rainstorm, sluggish because of the lower gravity yet strong enough to carve rivers and lakes into the jagged, rocky landscape over millions of years.
Nitrogen was the second most common element in the alien air, and hydrogen made up less than one percent of the atmosphere. Life-sustaining oxygen was nowhere to be found.
The new arrivals made solving this problem their first order of business.
The triglyph held the raw power needed to change a world, but the cephalopods did the math. They joined arms and formed a living icosahedron, a shape with twenty sides, and every side an octopus. Individually, each mind would have been advanced, with genetically engineered neurons located not just in its brain but in each of its arms, like any normal octopus. But the octos never existed individually, not even in their eggs before they hatched. All were joined by telepathy, and when they studied a math problem, they did it together. The closest human equivalent was an array of supercomputers working on a problem in parallel.
The triglyph fed raw data into the organic, twenty-sided computer: distribution and density of elements in Titan’s crust and sky, gravitational force, temperatures, wind currents, topographic maps of the surface and the subsurface. The immensity of the task, the complexities of measuring everything everywhere on the moon all at once using its nine-dimensional perspective, forced the triglyph to exert its power to an extent—and with a precision—it never had before. The octopuses waited patiently, running numbers as they came in, untroubled by the extraordinary amount of time the sensing and measuring required.
It took 3.7 seconds. The math went even faster.
On the opposite side of Titan, one diameter away, a section of the crust exploded like a thousand atom bombs. In its place, a tiny star—a nuclear reaction—began its job of heating the planet. Seconds later, the triglyph yoked the primitive reactor’s energy and directed it toward fusion and fission of the available elements into more organically useful ones. When the elements were formed, the triglyph put them where it pleased or let them drift and disperse.
Titan had its first power plant.
This pleased the planet-sized moon. So did the realization that it had a new friend: Enceladus.
Also a Saturnian moon, Enceladus lived most of her icy life as a passing acquaintance to Titan, briefly swinging by to say hello when their orbital paths brought them near. But in an instant, Enceladus teleported so close to Titan that their gravities locked them together, with the smaller moon in orbit around Titan.
Gravity stripped the frozen, outer crust from Enceladus and drew her toward Titan in a steady stream of space dust that, when struck by sunlight, lit up almost as beautifully as Saturn’s rings. Below the crust was a vast, liquid-water ocean, full of the oxygen and hydrogen Titan needed for life. Titan asked, and Enceladus surrendered everything.
She was a generous friend, though gravity gave her little choice to be anything else.
With liquid water instead of methane, the triglyph filled lakes and rivers on Titan’s rugged surface. In the largest lake, it adjusted the salinity with sodium and chloride created by the reactor. The atmosphere stabilized and, with help from the reactor’s heat, the ambient temperature reached that of Earth’s. The lake became a new home for the octopuses. The triglyph teleported plants and animals from Earth’s oceans into the lake, and the octos spent their time arranging the décor until everything was just right.
At night, they spent hours floating on the lake, watching the brilliant stream of life-giving ice tumbling through the transformed sky from the dwindling Enceladus. They knew the moon was, in one sense, dying—giving up her existence to feed an emerging world. But her life was all around them. They swam in it every day. To the octopuses, the moon had only given up one shape to become unified with another.
Still, the passing of her ancient, durable form seemed a solemn event, one deserving a memorial.
The octopuses composed a song. On the night the last wisp of Enceladus dissolved into Titan, they sang. Lacking vocal cords, they formed a choir on the mental plane, a choir whose harmonies were mathematically orchestrated in twenty voices and echoed in the ever-changing color patterns on the octos’ skin.
When the song was over, the rebirth of Titan completed its second phase.
Silence followed, save for the ceaseless wind and the gentle lapping of waves on the lakeshore. A cloud overhead, rich with water, gave up its bounty. Raindrops splashed the lake and the cephalopods gathered there: arms intertwined, one being, one beauty, one mind.
Having reached their second milestone, six Earth months after they began, the rulers of Titan decided it would be nice to have a radio.
Something to listen to, besides the wind.
May 2030. Svoboda 9.
Mags answered her phone. “What?!”
“Hi, sweetie. Having one of those days?”
“Shondra! Oh my god, you won’t believe it. I just found out my babies ran off!”
“That’s crazy! The same thing happened with a bunch of my ships.”
“What?” Mags paced back and forth. “How does a ship run off?”
“I don’t know! We had half a dozen builds completed for a mining customer, all waiting to be picked up. Then—nothing. Gone. Not even a blip on radar or any alarms.”
“You didn’t equip them with K Drives, did you?”
“Fuck no! That tech is between you and me. If those ships got cloaked before they disappeared, it wasn’t me or my crews. But thanks for your total lack of trust.”
“I’m just eliminating possibilities. No one could sneak through your shipyards’ security from the outside. Unless it was me and Patches, and we definitely didn’t.”
“That’s almost a compliment. Do you remember the time we made out in the park in Hevelius? Sometimes I think about it when I—”
“Shondra, do you mind?! My nephew is standing right here.”
“Oooh. So, you didn’t steal my ships, and I didn’t steal your tech. Where does that leave us?”
“I don’t know, but shit doesn’t just disappear. How much do you want to bet that if we find your spaceships, we find my octos?”
“My babies! My little eight-armed freaks! Didn’t you see the vid of the Small Flowers concert on Ceres?”
“You mean the octopuses in that huge tank behind you on stage? Those are your missing ‘babies’?”
“Like twenty of them.”
“I didn’t count. I was watching you sing naked.”
Mags purred. “That was awesome.”
“Will you sing like that for me sometime?”
“Shondra, if you find those missing spaceships, I will make your wildest dreams come true.”
Shondra laughed. “Promises, promises! I’ll see what I can do.”
“Love you,” said Mags.
“As if.” Shondra hung up.
0.8 seconds later, she forgot she ever called Mags.
It wasn’t Shondra’s fault. The octopuses on Titan had evaded discovery for half a year by wiping memories of astronomers and corporate workers who monitored the solar system. Many instruments on Earth and in the asteroid belt recorded the destruction of Enceladus, and many people observed those developments in progress.
But no human mind remembered them for more than a few seconds. Titan’s rulers saw to that. The octopuses’ telepathic powers were not strong enough to do this on their own, but with the triglyph amplifying them, their reach and strength became godlike. So did their aspirations.
But even gods have mothers they want to make proud with their work. Titan’s rulers sent Mags an invitation consisting of a single word.
“Titan,” said Mags. “The cheeky little bleeders are on Titan!”
Alonso asked, “How do you know?”
“The squidlings just told me. I need to go see what they are up to. Like, now.”
“I could go with you, tía. I got mad pilot skills, and I always got your back.”
“You do, and I appreciate it. But get me Plutonian. He and Patches and I will fix this. Stay here with the octos and keep an eye on them. They like you.”
“Word,” said Alonso. “Plutes was just tinkering with some circuits when you got here. Why don’t you have the octos call him?”
Mags asked the octos then held Patches in her arms and waited. She knew she could use Alonso’s help, but she craved time alone with her DJ.
Plutonian stumbled onto the scene, already three sheets to the wind. “Maggie!” He threw his arms around her.
Mags embraced him. After a moment, she held him at arm’s length. “How do you feel about taking on an interplanetary menace with me and Patches?” She looked him over, scowling and smiling at his disarray. “I got rum.”
“Who could resist,” he said. “Where are we going?”
“Titan,” said Mags. “Come aboard and strap in.”
“You said there’s rum?”
“Oh, you bet. And you’re in charge of the radio.”
A white dwarf is all that remains of a star larger than the sun, a star where the core’s nuclear fusion of elements into heavier elements continues unabated until the first day it creates iron. Iron kills the original star by absorbing its fusion energy. Without that power, the star cannot overcome its own gravity. Within seconds of the formation of iron, the star collapses under its own weight. The collapse triggers an explosion—a supernova—and it leaves behind a white dwarf.
The star core continues fusing until iron becomes carbon. In the extreme gravitational pressure, the carbon crystallizes. It becomes a diamond the size of Earth. The process takes billions of years.
Teleporting one took the rulers of Titan almost an entire minute.
From dozens of lightyears away, a diamond star core appeared in the Kuiper belt, the vast realm of debris orbiting the sun beyond the outer planets. The Kuiper belt was home to many dwarf planets, some as large as Pluto. As dirty and disheveled as the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but larger and colder, the Kuiper belt held a sea of undiscovered rocks from the earliest days of the solar system’s formation—a library from the beginning of solar time, the birthplace of comets, and a treasure trove of clues to the origins of Earth and life itself.
Within seconds, the Kuiper Belt began to die.
The diamond star core would have needed at least one orbital period to pass through and absorb the entire Kuiper Belt. But within days, it cleared vast swaths of space rock, sweeping them all into its gravity. Previously clouded expanses of space at the edge of the solar system became clear as a bell. The immense gravity pulled in anything near it as the crystal orbited the sun.
In their descent to the core, the rocky residents of the Kuiper Belt collided, heated, and formed a red-hot layer of nuclear fire around the diamond. The discarded leftovers of the solar system burned like atomic pyres. The core’s gravity seduced, subdued, and crushed them. Twin beams of energy shot from the diamond’s north and south poles.
Clearing an orbit takes most planets millions of years and a fair amount of random chance. But the diamond core was no planet. It was a dead star, and it could not share with any other body the cold, vast space between Neptune and the Oort cloud. Soon, all that remained of millions of kilometers of the Kuiper belt was a spherical and ever-diminishing shell of nuclear fire around the diamond.
The octopuses had created the first component of their crystal radio.
The crystal radio is a basic receiver that needs no external power, instead deriving its power from the radio waves it receives. The crystal is a demodulator, making sense of radio-wave transmissions and translating them into soundwaves so people can listen.
The crystal accomplishes this because it changes shape as radio waves bombard it. As it expands and contracts with each passing wave, the crystal produces a small amount of voltage and a modified signal that can be converted into sound in a simple circuit.
Crystal radios are weak. They need a power amplifier or high-impedance headphones to really make some noise—unless they’re the size of a star core.
The rulers of Titan built other components. For an antenna, they teleported empty spaceships from the Martian shipyards and fused them end-to-end. For a wire coil, they pulled copper from the asteroid belt and wound it around a cylindrical asteroid.
For a tuner, they needed a variable capacitor made of two plates. They chose a pair of iron-heavy asteroids. The triglyph teleported the rocks into position. Those rocks would tune the circuit to specific radio-wave frequencies.
Next, the octos focused on converting their star core into graphite. Diamond was not conductive enough to serve as the crystal in their radio. But with the application of enough energy, it could become graphite: a conductive element that would complete the circuit.
The octopuses had the triglyph working on the problem when Mags and Patches showed up.
Aboard the Bêlit, Mags raised her eyes from her memoir.
Her personal diaries—the ones written on paper—she burned every year on her birthday. But she kept a second, digital diary in the form of letters to her great-gramma, the pirate whose ring she wore every day of her life since taking it from her dying mother’s hand in 1938.
Mags wrote all the letters in a flowery script using a stylus on her tablet. Only Celina and Patches knew Mags wrote those letters, though she had considered telling Plutonian. She kept the letters secret not from shame but to avoid the annoyance of answering questions about why she wrote letters to a dead woman who would never read them.
Mags was certain Great-Gramma read every word of them. Mags believed Great-Gramma knew every moment of her life. While she never felt Great-Gramma needed to be informed of events, writing the letters comforted Mags with the belief that she talked to someone who understood power, piracy, and the quest to change the course of human history.
But not even Mags understood what transpired in the viewport on the bridge of the Bêlit. She dropped her tablet and stylus. “What the fuck are they doing out there?”
Patches leapt onto the console and mewed. She pawed the window.
“Sheathe the claws, kitty!”
Patches retracted her daggers. She had done quite a number on Mags’ old ship, the Queen Anne, and the smuggler was forever reminding her not to scratch the living hell out of the Bêlit.
“Look at that,” said Plutonian. “Titan’s atmosphere isn’t orange anymore. And over there? What’s that?”
“Two asteroids joined by a—what the fuck? A shaft?”
Plutonian considered for a moment. “You know what that looks like.”
“No. What is it?” Mags ignored the console’s displays and pressed her face to the window, cupping her hands around her eyes to block reflections of ambient light.
“A primitive capacitor.”
“Boil my bollocks in oil,” said Mags. “What about that thing? Is it a metal rod? It’s gotta be a kilometer long.”
“That shape,” said Plutonian. “It’s like an antenna.”
Mags pounded the meat of her fist against the window. “I bet dollars to dimes that’s Shondra’s missing ships! All melted down!”
“If it’s a radio circuit, they’re missing a—” Plutonian adjusted a dial. “Wait. We’re picking up a massive object in the Kuiper Belt. It’s graphite. A giant graphite crystal. Mags, your octos built a radio!”
“Fuck me sideways.” Her tail swished. “Who let them out of their cage?”
Plutonian drew his hand down his face and rubbed his beard. “We’re picking up something weird, but I’ve seen it before. It’s the same radiation I discovered the first time I found the triglyph.”
“It’s out here, too?”
“It must be. Where else would your octos get the raw power to do all this?”
“Those little bastards,” said Mags. “It’s a great idea, but they are fucking up the whole system by introducing that thing here! It’s eating up the Kuiper Belt now. What about when its gravity starts throwing planets out of orbit? That could trash Saturn and Jupiter!”
Plutonian sparked a joint. “Ah, it’s not like anyone would miss Jupiter.”
“I’d fucking miss it! All the planets it’s protecting from asteroid collisions would miss it! What is wrong with you?” Mags did not expect an answer, but she did expect him to pass the joint. “Plutes, this solar system belongs to me. Take us down to Titan. I need a word with my babies.”
He complied and steered the ship.
Before the Bêlit landed on Titan, Mags fell to the floor.
Plutonian’s hands and Patches’ furry face failed to rouse her. She was caught in a conversation with the octopuses.
They spoke in her mind. <Mother.>
Darlings. Do you mind telling me what the fuck you’re doing?
<Music. Soon all the solar system will be music.>
Soon, the system will be a bloody useless disaster if you don’t cut it out right now! You’re introducing objects whose gravity will fuck up so many orbits. You need to stop!
<Not disaster, Mother. Song. A symphony. For you.>
Me?! I didn’t request the end of the goddamn system! You could just play some Exploited albums and I’d be fine!
<So much happy here. Join us. Be one with us and hear the song.>
No! Bad octos! Put that star core way farther out in the Oort cloud! You are buggering things on a massive scale! Mags performed a seat-of-the-pants calculation and told them how far out to place the core.
<Done. Now come. Be one.>
Mags slapped her own face. “Get a grip, you old sod!”
Plutonian’s hands were on her. One on her shoulder held her steady. One cupped the side of her face. “Are you okay?”
“No!” Mags pushed him away, rolled onto one knee, then rose to her full height. “Get off me! I’m fine!”
“Sorry, Maggie. I didn’t mean to—” His expression changed from attrition to annoyance. “Try to save you?”
Mags brushed herself off. Her tail snapped like a whip, swatting some unseen menace with even more vigor than she had slapped her own face. “Plutes. Imma say this right now, in case we don’t make it out alive.” She took his hand in hers. “Thank you for caring.”
“You’re not mad?”
“Oh, I’m mad as hell. But not at you.” She pulled him closer.
Patches turned her back on their kissing and groomed her fur.
Moments later, Titan’s surface filled the viewport.
The Bêlit landed on Titan, and a section on the side of the ship lowered like a ramp. Patches dashed out the door and became the first mammal to set foot on the rocky moon. She wasted no time marking her new territory with claws, scent, and urine. She rubbed her face on the jagged corner of a boulder then froze in place.
Patches sniffed the air with her mouth slightly open, welcoming the unfamiliar olfactory landscape with the Jacobson’s Organ in the roof of her mouth. Her ears twitched every which way then folded back like the wings of a fighter plane. Patches sprinted across the recently formed beach to another rock and repeated the process.
Mags held Plutonian’s hand at the bottom of the ramp. “I told you she’d be first!”
“She’s certainly proud of herself.” He followed the cat’s erratic movements for a moment but could not keep his eyes away from Saturn. “Mags, this is unreal. Even if we weren’t the first humans on Titan, we’d be the first to see Saturn through its atmosphere.”
The distance from Titan to Saturn is more than twice that of the Earth to the Moon. But even that far away, the ringed planet hung low in the sky, a gas giant floating above the horizon. The major divisions in its rings were visible, and many of its other moons.
Mags purred and shook a lock of hair away from her glasses. “I don’t know whether to be flattered or offended that you still think of me as human.” She squeezed his hand. “But it’s an amazing view. I’m glad you’re here to share it.”
Patches interrupted their moment with a caterwaul signaling she had seen the octopuses floating in their lake below the hovering triglyph.
Mags and Plutonian moved to join her, but they were struck down by the force of an amplified, telepathic touch. The two adventurers cried out in pain, stumbled, and fell to the barren ground.
My name’s Dr. Plutonian. I’m not really a doctor of anything, but I know enough to know this whole scene is fucked. A second ago, I was standing on a beach next to Mags.
Damn, she looked good today. It wasn’t just her new outfit or the way her hair exposes her neck every time she puts it up in a headband and curls. I think she changed her perfume, too.
Driving me crazy is what she’s doing. I would be all about getting naked with her again. And a cat brush. She’d love to be brushed. And maybe one of those toys you stuff full of catnip. We could—
Wait a second. This isn’t my diary. Where am I?
Why is it so hard to think right now? This is worse than being drunk.
I need to back-announce some music. Thanks for tuning in. That was Crocodiles with Telepathic Lover. Before that, the Wipers with Telepathic Love. Next up, Octopus Ride from—
Fuck me. I’m not on the air, announcing songs. That was a memory.
Now I can’t remember it.
I wrote a new poem. It starts off like this. The solar system’s dying. So am I.
Part of me wishes I’d never found the triglyph in the first place. But that part’s disappearing. The triglyph is fine. The octos are fine.
Titan is me. I am this moon. I am locked in an orbit where one side of me always faces Saturn, and I’ve only ever dreamed of breaking free from my prison and supporting life.
No, it isn’t. Plutonian’s not even my real name. I haven’t gone by my birth name in years, not since I went AWOL from the Army. That person is dead, and I don’t miss him.
But I do wish I could see my little Siamese kitty one more time. Just once.
Mags tells me that feeling never goes away. You just learn to live with it.
But that part’s going away, too. I reach out for my cat. He’s gone like he was never there in the first place. I see him. Then I don’t.
I hate this. I hate everything about this.
When I was twelve, I killed my father with his own shotgun. When I was thirty, I saw my sister for the last time. When I was twenty-six, I killed a boy in the war in Afghanistan. When I was seven—
No, that’s not how it happened! It’s all out of order. I had this picture of my life, and now it’s being torn apart, cut and pasted into something I don’t even recognize.
Mags? Can you hear me?
Are you there?
My name is Magdalena. It was my great-gramma’s name, too. Like her, I have a hundred aliases, and when you’re in the business of “liberating” cargo, it’s nice to have aliases. Margaritka. Marjorie. Madelaine. You should see my collection of passports.
Friends call me Mags. Plutes calls me Maggie. We’re not friends anymore.
I mean, we are. But that’s not what he means when he calls me that.
My name’s Mags, and I’m a goddess. My heart is molten iron, my body is a planet-sized moon, and my soul is an atmosphere. I spent millions of years covered in liquid methane, but now oxygen and nitrogen fill my soul, and water covers my skin. New life grows inside me, on me, in my lakes. I see so many stars from here. All of them.
My name is Titan.
No, Titan’s a moon.
My name is Moons. M-O-O–N, that spells—christ on a fucking—
My name is Mags, and this is really starting to piss me off. I can’t find my body, and I’ve grown rather fond of it in the past century. It might be a fucked-up mutant cat hybrid of a body, but it’s the one I was born with, and it’s kicked a lot of arse over the years. Since I only have ninety-four more years of murder penciled in on my bloody calendar, I want it back! Now! Hello? Hello?!
I think Plutes is dying.
So am I. Broken down at the cellular level. Deconstructed, like my mind.
My name is Margareta—
Sink and burn me.
You know who’s doing this? My babies. My little cephalopodic sweethearts. My absolutely adorable mollusks whose eight-armed arses I will kick into next week if they don’t cut it out! Do you hear me, you slimy little fucks?! Get out of my mind!
Oh, now they act all sad.
I’m pretty sure my body is lying dead on Titan, and my mind is being merged with the planetary consciousness of Titan, and I didn’t even realize these big chunks of rock in space had thoughts and feelings. The octos are trying to mix me and Patches and Plutes into their little science project to become one with Titan, and it’s making me madder than a cut snake.
Every time I try to fight, I get pulled right back.
My name is Mags, and I’m a planet. I’m an octopus. I’m a nine-dimensional object tapping into unimaginable power. My mothers are here, and they are unhappy about the situation. But it will all be over soon.
Patches? Can you hear me?
It’s me! My name is—
Can you hear me?
Since her birth in 2026, life had dealt Patches many offenses. She took every one of them personally: people shooting at her, people getting her gender wrong, people telling her to get down from the table, people telling her to stop clawing the furniture.
The sight of the bottom of her dish.
She took those evils in stride and every so often forgave without forgetting. But seeing Mags’ and Plutonian’s bodies lying inert brought her to a new level of displeasure. Keeping her claws sheathed, Patches batted Mags’ face with one paw.
She stood on Plutonian’s chest and kneaded it with her paws, but his chest did not rise and fall. She pressed her nose to his and felt no breath.
<Go to sleep, little kitty.> The voice appeared in her head: musical, soothing, seductive. At the same time, an unfamiliar force tugged at her body.
Patches would have been hard-pressed to describe the feeling, but she had never mated with a male cat. If she had, she would have related the experience to being held down and torn apart from the inside.
Whatever it was, she didn’t like it, and it didn’t take a genius to discern the source.
The octopuses floating on the lake.
Patches didn’t know how long Mags and Plutonian could go without breathing before irreversible brain death set in, but she wasn’t interested in finding out. Ignoring the voice and its attempts to alter her impervious body and rip her mind to shreds, she ran to the lakeshore and leapt in.
The closest octopus squirted a cloud of murky ink and propelled itself away from her. The others scattered. Patches pursued her initial target, but the action was a feint. As soon as she was in reach of another octo, she clamped her indestructible teeth on its arm.
The octopus tried to wrap her in seven other sucker-covered arms and pull her away, but it only succeeded in giving her more to destroy.
Patches’ claws caught the cephalopod and pulled it close. Clasping the head with her forepaws, she shredded the bulbous brain with her hind claws, kicking like a rabbit. Gooey bits of mollusk clouded the water and dispersed from the force of her fury.
The remaining nineteen octos focused their mental energy on her, and the triglyph followed.
To the death, then. Death was something any animal could understand. Even the most primitive microbe wanted to live. Patches latched onto another octopus.
The others felt it die. They shuddered. The cephalopods had lived through the demise of their biological mother, but they had never known their siblings to pass away. <Stop>, they told Patches. <Do not do this.>
If the octopuses had chosen another cat for their experiment, they might have succeeded. But they had picked a fight with the wrong kitten. The triglyph had helped create her, but it could not overpower her. Its power was hers, and its attempt to deconstruct her met with equal force drawn from the same cosmic source.
<Stop>, said the octos.
Patches seized a third octopus in her teeth and savored its death throes. Its blood, colored blue by hemocyanin, clouded the water. The lyric to NY State of Mind came to Patches. Straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap. She recited it to the octos probing her mind. Where fake niggas don’t make it back.
Seventeen octopuses conferred. <What do you want?>
Let my friends go, or I will end you.
<We can teleport you into the heart of the sun.>
Do it. You can’t get rid of me forever. I will kill you. Now. Later. Makes no difference. I will fuck you up!
Two seconds later, Mags sat up from her prone position and gasped for breath. So did the man beside her. “Plutes!” She helped him to his feet.
A fuzzy calico face swam against the tidal current toward the shore.
Mags ran into the water. Before the rocky subsurface fell away from her feet, she scooped up Patches in her arms, and they rubbed their faces together.
Mags cuddled Patches all the way back to shore. “Good girl!” Mags stretched out the r in girl like an extended purr and held Patches against her chest. “Good kitty.”
Patches licked Mags’ hair with the impervious rasps on her tongue. The curls would take months to grow back, but Mags didn’t mind. She supported Patches with one arm and drew a .50 caliber pistol from the holster at her waist.
Mags fired into the waves and killed three more octopuses before the rest of them descended below the water to hide. “Fucking ingrates! Useless as a wet roll of dunny scratch in a hurricane!” She emptied the clip. “I tried to help you!”
Plutonian stepped up to the smuggler and her cat and wrapped his arms around them. A faint remainder of Mags’ perfume underscored the scent of lake water on the soaking wet felines and the smell of the alien atmosphere. Patches’ breath mingled with octopus blood. Plutonian closed his eyes, and both his companions purred against him, a smoky, soothing vibrato. “What just happened? Did I hear Nas?”
Mags nuzzled her cheek against his. The tip of her nose was cold and wet. “That was Patches. You’re safe now.”
The triglyph fell from its place above the lakeshore. It rested in a crater in the sand, pulsating until it lost all semblance of light and lay like a corpse on Titan’s gritty, grainy beach.
On the way back to the Bêlit, Mags picked it up.
In her hands, it crumbled into dust.
She watched it fade away, then wiped her hands on her skirt, leaving dirty smears. “That thing’s bloody useless.” She flung a strand of hair away from her glasses. “Give me a minute.”
Babies. You can’t go trying to kill me.
<Not kill. Transcend. Now you have killed some of us.>
Do you not know about self-defense? Jesus, I’m bloody sorry, but don’t test me!
<Selves are not gone. Selves are here with us.>
You gonna cut this shit out, then? Maybe ask me next time before you run off?
<We will ask, Mother.>
Mags purred. I’d appreciate that. Do you want to stay here? Can you chill without fucking up the rest of the solar system?
<Yes. Happiness here. Glorious world.>
You still got tunes?
You got food?
<Our garden grows.>
You still love me?
<All is one, and we are one with you.>
Love you too, you little fuckers. Call me sometime. Mags stirred from her reverie and rubbed her face. “The octos are fine for now. Let’s go.”
After the Bêlit left the gravitational pull of Titan, Plutonian took over the radio. “Hey, I got something.” He dialed in the frequency. “This is the signal from the space radio. Listen.”
Mags and Patches perked up their ears. Through the 1,000-watt speakers on the Bêlit’s bridge, a transmission played from the giant crystal radio.
“That’s the sound of Andromeda.” Plutonian adjusted the controls. “This one is coming from beyond the range of Hubble. It sounds almost intelligent.”
“Patterns,” said Mags. “Hundreds of millions of years old. That’s beautiful.”
“Aye,” said Plutonian. “Amazing jam.” He pressed a button labeled record.
Mags tapped her foot to the beat. “Now we got a giant space radio. What’s next?”
“I don’t know,” said Plutonian. “How many octopuses do you have left?”
“Fourteen on Titan. Fifty on Earth. About a hundred on Svoboda. Why?”
Plutonian sat forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. “What about Mars?”
“I bet I could take over Mars if I put my babies to work. But after some of them running off like this? Bugger me sideways. They seem to have their own agenda.”
From the corner of her bunk, Patches typed messages to her friend, Mags’ unofficially adopted nephew Tarzi, on her tablet.
The young man replied. How did it go? Did you show those octos what’s up?
Patches flicked her ears and typed with one claw. Just a nigga. Walkin’ with my finga on the trigga.
Word. Love you.
Patches purred. She curled up in the shape of a crescent moon and settled into a nap.
Plutonian said, “It seems kinda fucked up to work these octos into a plan for Mars.”
“That’s putting it mildly.” Mags ashed her cigarette in her armchair ashtray and spent too much time shaping the cherry into a perfect cone. “It’s tyranny. It’s reckless. And it’s dodgy as fuck.”
“You do realize,” said Plutonian, “that you can’t base a revolution on mind control.”
Mags laughed. “Whatever. Do you want to live in this shithole solar system the way things are, or do you want to change things for the better?”
“You mean what you think is better.” Plutonian sat back in his chair. “You aren’t asking for anyone’s consent.”
“No,” she said. “I’m not.”
From the Letters of Meteor Mags.
As far as Plutes and I can tell, corroborated with what I glimpsed in the octos’ thoughts, the triglyph pulled power from areas of physical space we can’t perceive. It took nine physical dimensions to describe the shape of that object. In our four-dimensional spacetime, it looked something like a kaleidoscope, constantly shifting, appearing to be made of every possible polygon changing into every other with each passing second.
Its dimensions weren’t mathematical abstractions. If you could physically navigate those dimensions, certain quartets of them would appear to be different universes. They weren’t really different. Just aspects of this reality you or I can’t access.
But the triglyph could. From those nine dimensions taken four at a time, that’s 126 possible ways the triglyph could occupy a four-dimensional spacetime.
It’s a simple combination problem.
So the triglyph pulled all this power out of other universes that are really ours, and it had so many different paths though spacetime to get from one point to another that it achieved what’s impossible in our four-dimensional perception: teleportation.
And there our troubles began. I’m just glad it’s gone now.
Near the event horizons of the black holes at the core of the Andromeda galaxy, something new popped into orbit. The Milky Way’s closest neighbor hardly noticed. The arrival was a bundle of energy smaller than a breadbox and about as threatening.
Andromeda’s new resident gathered space dust around itself and compressed the particles into a sphere, just enough to feel like a planet. It missed that feeling.
The triglyph’s once-primitive thought patterns had evolved since meeting the octopuses. It missed them, too. It missed all its old friends: the man who designed it, the DJ who found it, the smuggler who gave it a place to live.
No matter. That was the old life. Those events were as far away as the nearest galaxy. The memories swiftly paled in the glorious blaze from the Andromedan core.
Super-massive black holes clustered there, not close enough to merge with each other, but with the collective power to swirl a trillion star-systems around them, like water down a drain, falling to the center.
The triglyph moved closer. It surfed the boundaries of the event horizons around the cluster. From every direction, matter falling into the inescapable gravity well ignited and bloomed into sprays of radiation beyond light’s visible frequencies.
At the magnetic north and south poles of the sea of stellar annihilation, the violence emitted the most powerful bursts of all: x-rays and gamma rays. They shot from the center of the galaxy perpendicular to all the stars revolving around them.
Gravity was the master there. At close range, it consumed everything—not just matter, but space and time. Existence. Meaning. Light.
The central hub of destruction also brought life into being. Its giant whirlpool full of colliding space dust formed suns, planets, moons, and all the elements necessary to begin life on those rocks.
At the edge of chaos, the triglyph hovered. The spiral galaxy’s outer arms would have been more sedentary places to establish a new home. But the triglyph was finished with limitations and boundaries. It had enough of them in the Milky Way.
Andromeda was a blank slate, just like the triglyph had been 10,000 years before. But all Andromeda’s history, all its information, everything the galaxy ever knew, fell into the black holes at the center. Every possible future sank into the singularities. Nothing could be learned from anything past the event horizon.
The triglyph swam in the gravitational whirlpool and considered these things for several minutes. It had a new body. The old one, it gave up on Titan. It was better to let Mags believe she had won than to prolong a battle that would only tear apart her solar system.
Regardless of what Mags thought, the triglyph never meant her any harm. It only lacked an appropriate scale of what harm might be.
It knew it owed a debt of gratitude to the beings who called it into existence. When its creator died, it might have been abandoned to decay forever. If not for Mags, Patches, and Tarzi, the machine that called the triglyph into life would never have been activated.
But Andromeda? The triglyph had no friends there. No past. No affections.
It began by pushing together several black holes. Fascinated by the results, it teleported the nearby galaxy M32 to add to the fun.
The cosmic event took two and a half million years to reach Earth, traveling at the speed of light in a vacuum. But Earth had plenty of other things to worry about in those years.
Four billion years later, the Milky Way was destroyed in a collision with Andromeda and became something else. The event ignited more black holes. Gamma-ray bursts signaled the death of information and history inside gravity’s grasp.
What a sight.
What a song.
The triglyph tapped on the galactic cores like a conductor tapping his wand on the edge of a music stand.
A new galaxy sprang to attention.
 See Red Metal at Dawn and Daughter of Lightning.
 Most notably in Red Metal at Dawn, Daughter of Lightning, Voyage of the Calico Tigress, and Small Flowers.
 In Voyage of the Calico Tigress.
 The triglyph’s ancient origin appears in Patches the Immortal. It re-appeared in Daughter of Lightning, and Mags decided to store it in her armory in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. Mags discovered it missing in Small Flowers.
 Alonso has lived with the octos and the space monkeys from The Lost Crew of the Volya IX since Voyage of the Calico Tigress. Plutonian moved in with them during Hunted to Extinction.
 See Rings of Ceres and Small Flowers.
 See Small Flowers.
 He recounted this event to Mags in detail in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX.
 Mags is getting her memories confused with a detail from Stephen King’s The Stand.
 Jones, Nasir, et. al. (1994). NY State of Mind. On Illmatic. New York: Kobalt Music Publishing, Ltd.
 Jones, Nasir, et. al. (1994). NY State of Mind. On Illmatic. New York: Kobalt Music Publishing, Ltd.
 As shown in Patches the Immortal.