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METEOR MAGS: THE HIVE

©2020 Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.

The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. Episode 25.

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

🐝

PART ONE: LIBERATED

Sarah’s Prayer

June 2030. Ceres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah mourned.

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

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

<Sarah.>

Octos? What are you doing here?

<So much sadness.>

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

<The whole planet feels it with you now.>

Oh, my god! I am so sorry. I’ll stop.

<You broadcast. Like a radio.>

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

<Yes.>

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

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

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

<The sharing is hurtful?>

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What? Why do I need a shield?

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

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

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

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

<Exposed.>

Yeah.

<Vulnerable.>

Exactly.

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

The shield?

<Yes.>

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

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

Like, right now?

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

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

☠️

Hyo-Sonn’s Letter

Dear Tarzi,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Celina promptly put me and Kala in charge.

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

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

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

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

Hugs and Kisses,

Hyo-Sonn

☠️

Tarzi’s Letter

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

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

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

Love you,

Tarzi

☠️

Mags’ Hammer

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

Donny took a step back.

Fuzzlow didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clang!

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

“Fuckin’ do it,” said Fuzzlow.

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

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

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

Clang!

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

Clang!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Any day now,” said Fuzzlow.

A feline scowl answered him.

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

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

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

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

“Here it comes, baby!”

Patches leapt into Mags’ arms.

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

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

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

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

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

“Power to Ceres,” said Fuzzlow.

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

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

Patches flopped onto their feet.

“Who’s next?” Fuzzlow asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

☠️

Tarzi’s Presents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kala said, “That’s my cue.”

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

Tarzi said, “Bring ’em to life, too.”

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

Hyo-Sonn said, “Love you, baby.”

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

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

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

“Yes, she is. Do you fancy her?”

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

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

Kala eventually joined them.

☠️

Kala’s Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

☠️

Kala’s Mural

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mags cried the first time she saw it.

☠️

Mags’ Speech

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

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

“As if I am,” said Mags.

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

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

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

“Whatever.” Mags flicked her tail.

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

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

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

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

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

PART TWO: IMPRISONED

Alonso’s Friends

June 2030. Below the Belt Strip Club.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patches arched her back and purred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just practicing! You brought some friends.”

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

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

“Sup, Jinx!”

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

“Oh shit, you’ve been practicing.”

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

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

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

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

Jinx scowled. “They got names?”

Alonso nudged the closest one. “Say hi.”

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

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

Jinx said, “I like them already.”

Anton answered with a raised fist.

Sarah asked, “What instruments do you play?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mags!”

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

Alonso said, “Security is on point.”

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

Dmitri raised his fist.

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah said, “Mine’s Katja Kitten.”

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

“Stormy Kitten,” said Anton.

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

“I like Koshka,” said Dmitri.[19]

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

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

Nothing could have made the monkeys happier.

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

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

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

The Dumpster Kittens almost made it through three songs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She proved to be too tough.

☠️

Jinx’s Escape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

☠️

The Wasps’ Origin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

☠️

The Wasps’ Hive

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

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

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

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

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

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

☠️

The Larva’s Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She received no response.

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

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

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

Sarah thought the unfamiliar word.

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

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

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

She received an echo. Another ripple. Good.

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

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

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

<Fly.> The monster knew that word.

Sarah pursued. “Fly. Help.”

<Help.>

“Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now,” she said. “Help my friends.”

☠️

Patches’ Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Only one of them survived.

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

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

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

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

Patches frowned. She took a moment to survey her surroundings and licked one forepaw while she considered.

Without warning, she snapped to attention. Her pupils dilated. Her tri-colored ears pressed flat against her head.

She leapt onto a rock at the base of the canyon. A second later, she was climbing the wall, sinking her claws into solid stone.

Patches scurried upward. Paw over paw she climbed. Anger fluffed her fur until it stood on end, and she snapped her tail back and forth like a whip.

Nothing could stand between her and her friends. Least of all, some goddamned insects.

☠️

Sarah’s Burden

Sarah gripped the larva in its broken egg sac and stumbled from cell to cell. Mags, she thought. Mags first. There was Donny below her, and Anton, and Koshka. All her friends.

She lost her footing and fell. Sarah cried. She bled from her knees and her hands.

Then she stopped weeping. “Fuck this. I can cry later.”

She rose with her grotesque bundle. The narrow stone walkways between cells were hexagonal, and she struggled to find a path. Focus, she thought. Find Mags first.

From cell to cell she wandered, clutching the larva. The gel inside the egg spilled onto her through the punctures the larva had made in the egg sac to inject her. The unborn monster was dying. It could not survive without its egg.

Sarah talked to it. Sarah lied to it. She told beautiful lies. Sarah told the larva it would live forever, and it had no reason to worry. It only needed to do one more thing for her.

She fell again but did not pick herself up. She had arrived at Mags’ cell.

Her story might have ended there, had everything been business as usual in the hive. But Sarah’s quest went unnoticed by the wasps which should have been patrolling the cells. Those sentries had more immediate concerns at the cavern’s entrance. An uninvited guest was sending as many of them as possible to an early death, and it was all they could do to keep the caterwauling calico away from the Queen.

Sarah could not clearly see the action, but Patches’ unmistakable battle cries filled her ears. Below her, under the weight of a larva, Mags slumped face-first into a wall. Sarah had never seen the smuggler so helpless. “Mags,” she said. “Mags, wake up!”

But Mags did not. Tears made her eye makeup run down the sides of her face in black rivers, and her lipstick was smeared in puddles of drool. Her hair was a clump of dirt and chaos.

Sarah said things she had only heard Mags say before. They involved private parts in unpleasant situations. She shouted. “Mags, wake the fuck up!”

Raising her voice did no good. Lying on her belly, Sarah lowered her larva into Mags’ cell, head-first. Help, she told her mental slave. Help her fly.

The larva sank its mandibles into Mags’ neck.

☠️

The Wasps’ Song

Mags gripped the top edge of the cell and pulled herself up. Once free, she wiped blood and gunk from her eyes. She hardly acknowledged Sarah. Mags’ first thought was not the layer of slime covering her, nor the offending larva she tore from her back and stomped to death without even thinking about it. She heard her kitten.

Mags shouted, “Patches? The fuck is this thing! Show me who to kill!”

A clamor of clattering mandibles in the insect prison answered her, but only one voice pierced the chaos to direct her attention.

From the edges of the fray, Patches flung the head of an insect from her mouth and raised a howl no cat had ever made before. She cornered the hive’s leader and called out the location.

Mags pounced in that direction and landed on the Queen. “Worthless cunt! Stay the fuck away from my friends!”

The empress of a thousand generations smacked her away with giant wings.

The Queen’s throw would have smashed anyone else against the rocky walls, but Mags landed with feet pressed against the vertical cavern surface. She launched herself back from the wall as if her legs were made of springs. She landed again on the Queen.

Mags sank her teeth into soft spaces between segments of the monster’s carapace and swung her fists like hammers. Guttural growls gave way to a shriek. She pulled away pieces of the insect’s armor with her leather-gloved hands.

Only the killing mattered.

Mags reared up and tore off the Queen’s antennae, one at a time. She punched her fist into the Queen’s compound eye. “Die, you whore!”

The eye gushed a spray of gel. Mags struck it again. Her fist penetrated the crystalline membrane and the sticky mass beneath it. “I will rip out your fucking brain!”

Her fingers closed around soft, fatty tissue. Mags pulled it out, flung it away, and plunged in for another handful.

The beast gave her a wild ride, bucking and buzzing its wings. Its hate and rage at losing its babies were palpable things Mags felt in her hand. She gripped them in her fist and tore them out. “Here’s all your fucking memories!”

They were nothing but handfuls of fat, once full of thoughts and impulses traveling by electric current. The beast slumped beneath her. Its face smashed into stone.

Mags rolled off the wasp’s back and landed on her feet. Gore from her triumph streamed down her arms and legs. “I’ll teach you to fuck with my friends!” She spat on the insect’s carcass and stomped it with her boot again and again. “Useless cunt! Fucking slag! Who’s next? Anyone? Anyone?!” She seethed. Her shoulders rose and fell several times in the silence.

Patches mewed at her side, standing close by and prepared to form a defensive perimeter all by herself. The wasps gathered around them.

“Come on, then, motherfuckers.” Mags raised her fists and growled. “I will take you with me to hell.”

The insects formed a circle around her. Their wings beat against their bodies. They crouched low against the rocky surface, like supplicant dogs. The buzzing reached a resonant rhythm and grew in volume.

Mags wiped spit from her lips and snot from her nose. All around her, the wasps formed concentric rings and bowed.

Mags understood. She had killed their queen.

Long live the Queen.

“Sarah.” Mags beckoned the young woman to her side. “It’s okay. You did great. Come here.”

Sarah gripped the pirate in a hug.

Mags held her. “Help me talk to them.”

Mandibles clicked with precision. Venom-filled abdomens and stingers pulsed and quivered in a rhythm.

Sarah said, “They’re singing to you.”

“That much, I can hear. Help me understand it.”

Sarah gripped Mags’ gloved hand. “They think like a hive, you know. The words, the concepts are all—”

“We’ve been in a group-mind before,” said Mags.[24] “Hook me up, angel.”

“Right.” Sarah closed her eyes and joined Mags’ mind to theirs.

Mags fell to her hands and knees on the jagged ground. She let loose a scream that chilled Sarah’s blood. Even Patches flattened her ears.

Sarah dove onto Mags, trying to shelter her from the psychic feedback. The wasps closed in. Patches bared her teeth.

Embracing Sarah, Mags rose against the fearsome noise ringing in her skull and all around her. She set down the young woman and stepped up to the nearest wasp. When she held out her hand, her former enemy placed its head below the hand and held still.

Mags lightly stroked the insect between its antennae. What she told the malevolent monster and all its comrades in their inhuman language, transmitted directly from her mind to theirs, caused them to bow again before her in total silence.

The wasps accepted Mags as their new queen by rite of combat, but she felt nothing like a victor. She fell away from Sarah and stumbled for a handhold. One hand found a protrusion on the cave wall. She pulled herself upright and wiped her eyes and nose with the back of her hand.

Mags clenched that filthy hand into a fist and shouted. “Are we all sorted, you pestilent motherfuckers? I will crush you anytime I want! Who do you belong to now?”

The buzzing song answered her, low to the ground, beating the cavern floor, submissive to her will.

She took a deep breath and released it. “Good.” She stretched out the vowels in a rumbling purr. “Good. That’s fuckin’ purrfect.”

Mags brushed a lock of hair away from her face. She was taken aback by how easily the wasps accepted the idea of death in her service. They hugged the asteroid at her feet. The closest ones dared to stroke her with their antennae.

She swatted them away. “I love you, too, you parasitic cunts. Now piss off before I fuck you up!”

While they retreated into the hive, Mags scooped up Patches and nuzzled her kitten. “It’s alright,” she said. “I have a job for them on Earth. Let’s help our friends.”

☠️

Sarah’s Prayer

Thanks to Sarah and her communication with the larvae, the crew escaped the cells and regained control of their bodies. Bruised and bleeding from their rough capture, they left the hive. Mags summoned her ship, saving them the arduous trek through the asteroid wilderness to the wreckage of the club. She gave orders to the wasps to wait for her return. If they tried to birth a new Queen in her absence, she would just need to kill it when she came back.

The crew stopped at the club to gather those who died in the attack. The dead would receive a proper burial on Ceres. The living would clean and bandage their wounds, and more than a few would try to drink away the horror before they could sleep.

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

In the surrounding cities, people settled into pleasant dreams. Sarah’s song entered their subconscious minds and shaped their sleeping fantasies. But their dreams were not, as before, nightmares of loss and suffering.

Sarah’s song acknowledged sadness, but she celebrated hope. No tragedy was too great, no prison so strong, that they could not overcome it together. Every sunset was followed by a sunrise. Calm followed every storm.

Sarah briefly wondered why her new mentors, the octopuses, did not help her when she was in the cell. But as she prayed, she felt them watching her and realized they had been watching all along.

If they had helped, she would never know for sure if she could have escaped on her own. But she did, and she found a new strength within herself. Strength, and hope.

Always hope. Always a light shining in the center of the darkness. Then many lights, joined together.

THE END


[1] The rescue happened in Red Metal at Dawn.

[2] For the story of how Ceres got rings, see Blind Alley Blues and Voyage of the Calico Tigress.

[3] Toby appeared in Small Flowers.

[4] As detailed in The Battle of Vesta 4.

[5] If you don’t know who the octopuses are, you’ve got some catching up to do! Meet them for the first time in Red Metal at Dawn.

[6] In Daughter of Lightning and The Crystal Core, respectively.

[7] As the octopuses demonstrated in The Crystal Core.

[8] As detailed in The Ryderium Caper and many subsequent stories.

[9] Patches turned on the first system in Small Flowers.

[10] Donny refers to events from Small Flowers.

[11] As told in more detail in Red Metal at Dawn.

[12] “My little kitten.”

[13] The monkeys met Patches in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX.

[14] As he did in an opening scene of The Battle of Vesta 4.

[15] Vato refers to a Mexican gang member.

[16] “Same shit, different day.”

[17] “My close friends.”

[18] A brief summary of the climactic moment in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX.

[19] Koshka is Russian for “cat”.

[20] Mags can’t resist teasing the monkeys about their former ideology, despite the changes they’ve been through with the octopuses and Alonso since she first met them in The Lost Crew of the Volya IX. Her mother was killed by a communist death squad, so she has a chip on her shoulder about that. See Curtain of Fire.

[21] Slim died in The Battle of Vesta 4, and Mags re-opened his club under Kaufman and Anton’s leadership in Small Flowers.

[22] The Draco were an intellectually advanced Dracorex species of dinosaur who later returned to invade the solar system and caused trouble for Mags for quite some time—until she killed most of them in 2029 and mentally enslaved the rest in 2030.

[23] As detailed in the stories Red Metal at Dawn, Daughter of Lightning, The Battle of Vesta 4, and Small Flowers.

[24] Mags, Sarah, and Patches joined their minds together in Daughter of Lightning, and Mags has had many other experiences with the octos since then.