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Here is the first part of my pre-publication draft for a new Meteor Mags story.

Episode 29 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
© 2021 Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
16K words. Science Fiction > Action > Adventure.

Torn between conflicting factions in the Martian Resistance, Mags’ unofficially adopted nephew Tarzi spends his sixteenth birthday in a struggle to survive. Betrayed and imprisoned on Mars by people they once thought were friends, Mags and Patches vow to soak the red planet in blood if that’s what it takes to rescue Tarzi and change the political structure of the solar system. But not everyone is who they pretend to be.


Though my soul may set in darkness,
it will rise in perfect light.

I have loved the stars too fondly
to be fearful of the night.

—Sarah Williams; The Old Astronomer to His Pupil, 1936.


Prologue: Sixteen Bullets

4 July 2030. Tarzi.

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me. Happy birthday, dear Tarzi. Happy birthday—

You know, some small part of me hoped for a cake with sixteen candles. Maybe a chocolate cheesecake. A pineapple upside-down with cherries. Even a lousy white cake with cream-cheese frosting would do.

Instead, I got a nine-millimeter pistol with fifteen armor-piercing rounds in an extended magazine.

The sixteenth bullet waited in the chamber when I slammed a fresh magazine into place, but not anymore. It took out the first guard. I think I got two more. Then there’s the round lodged firmly inside the skull of my former boss, Rosalia—unless it exited the back of her head.

It’s hard to say for sure. She fell behind a server rack, and I can’t see much from here.

That was one hell of a lucky shot.

It helps that I can slow time. It does not help that half a dozen rough motherfuckers keep shooting at me with semi-automatic rifles. I hug the ground and listen. They don’t seem to mind wasting ammo. If they aren’t careful, they’ll shoot this room to bits. Then we’re all fucked.

I count the bursts of rifle fire and try to anticipate when they pause to reload. The console I’m hiding behind should buy me a few seconds.

After that?

Probably the end of my last birthday.

Fuck this noise. I can take a few of the bastards with me.

To a merry life, then.

And a short one.


Part One: Opening Moves

The Arrival

3 July 2030.

Meteor Mags and Patches arrived on Mars in the Bêlit. The Puma Broadcasting Network played Jerk of All Trades by Lunachicks.[1] Mags said, “That’s my jam!” She raised one hand to make the sign of the devil and danced beside the captain’s chair until the song finished.

Patches sprawled on one side in front of the exit. Her eyes narrowed to slits. Her bushy torso rose and fell in a rapid rhythm.

Mags said, “Are you excited to visit the birthday boy? He’ll be happy to see you.” She adjusted her hair and touched up her makeup in a mirror. “Can’t have Shondra seeing me looking like a dog’s breakfast.”[2]

But no amount of makeup could hide the bruises from her failed mission to Earth, nor the stapled laceration that ran through one eyebrow and past her hairline. She squirted liquid morphine on her tongue to dull the ache in her cracked ribs.[3] A slow warmth crept through her veins.

Patches mewed.

“Whatever, baby. Not all of us are invincible, and that shit hurts.”[4] Mags knelt beside Patches and scratched both sides of the fuzzy calico face. “Let’s go meet Shondra. It’s the middle of the bloody night here, but we’ll have lunch with Tarzi tomorrow. Maybe we can get some kisses before bedtime.”

Mags grabbed a passport for Margaret Reid and tucked it into a zippered pocket on her military-issue tactical pants.[5] They weren’t the sexiest thing to meet Shondra in, but they were comfortable and functional. After getting nearly blown to bits in Africa twenty-four hours earlier, Mags craved comfort.

The pair of feline adventurers locked down the ship and went to find their hostess in the Martian shipyards. Patches scampered ahead, sniffing here and there, chasing bugs and clawing a few pieces of Shondra’s property that would never recover. She looked over her shoulder to see if Mags was keeping up, then bolted to the other side of the street.

“Wait up!” Mags paused and held an arm against her ribs. “Goddamnit, I’m getting old. Wait up!”[6]


The Sleepover

As the owner of the Martian shipyards, Shondra easily afforded several apartments on Mars. Some she used to entertain customers. Some she kept secret between her and various lovers. Some were quiet places to get away from it all, purchased under aliases and known only to her. None of them was quite so luxurious as her private quarters within the shipyard.

Mags held a rocks glass filled with rum and settled onto a red velvet chaise lounge. Patches jumped up beside her. “Shondra, you live like a queen! Sorry about the cat hair.”

Shondra said, “Patches doesn’t shed half as bad as you. Every time you come around waving that tail of yours, it takes the maids an entire day to vacuum.”

Mags patted the lounge beside her. “That’s not even true. Come sit with me.”

Shondra finished at the mini-bar, and her silhouette strode across the massive windows overlooking the shipyards. For a silent moment, she turned her back to Mags and took a sip while enjoying the view of her empire. Below, the nightshift workers toiled in sprays of sparks from arc welders and the glow of halogen lamps. Above, the gleaming stars.

Eventually, she sat on the edge of the lounge and clinked her glass against Mags’. “To empires.”

“So long as they belong to us.”

Shondra took a sip. “Do you like it on Ceres?”

“Shondra, I love it! It sucked so bad when the old place on Vesta got wrecked, but my girls are doing amazing things on Ceres. It’s a dream come true.”

“I’m happy for you.” Shondra ran her fingertips up and down Mags’ thigh.

“What about you? It seems like you’ve got it all on Mars.”

Shondra’s eyes sparkled in candlelight thrown from the end table next to the lounge. “Not everything. There’s a certain kitty I wish would visit more often. But I make do. I’m a firm believer that you can have it all in life. You just can’t have it all at the same time.”

“Words to live by.” Mags took a gulp and laid back on the lounge, balancing her drink in her lap between her crossed legs. “Something is missing, though, isn’t it? I can tell just by looking at you.”

“Can’t sneak anything past those bright green eyes of yours.” Shondra took a drink. “The truth is, Mars is my dream come true. But the dream is tainted. I’m sick of our laws and government being controlled by Earth. Mars can govern itself. I won’t be happy until she does.”

“Cheers,” said Mags.


Mags said, “I’m here for Tarzi’s birthday tomorrow, but you know I am down with the Martian liberation. It’s been on my mind a lot this year. It’s the next big step to system-wide freedom from Earth’s interference. Let’s make it happen. You and me. Rosie can help.”

Shondra held out one hand. When Mags set hers in it, Shondra ran the backs of her nails over Mags’ wrist. “Are you ready for a revolution?”

Mags shivered. She smiled and raised an eyebrow. “Do you remember that Danko Jones song? Revolution—and Then We Make Love.”[7]

Shondra slid onto Mags. “Why wait?” She kissed the smuggler’s neck.

Mags winced. “Take it easy! I fucked up my ribs yesterday. Look, they’re all taped up.”

“I’ll be gentle,” said Shondra.

Mags set her drink on the end table. “Alright, then.”

Patches leapt off the lounge. She sauntered into the kitchen where Shondra had set out a pair of bowls. She was well-fed and napping on the bed for two hours before Mags and Shondra finally snuggled under the sheets and went to sleep.

Sunrise came early.


The Lunch

4 July 2030.

Kepler Mall sprawled across the Martian landscape. It shared one border with the rest of Hevelius, and the Port Authority considered it to be legally within city limits. But the three sides jutting from the city’s eastern-most boundary drew on the map a jagged explosion of commerce the local government struggled to keep up with.

Shoppers relied on global positioning data from the Martian Satellite Network to navigate the labyrinth of shops rising two hundred and fifty stories into the sky at its highest point. Wrapped around the peak in loops and dips, a roller coaster offered Mars’ bravest tourists a ride they never forgot.

In 2029, shopping in the mall without MSN data became a fad. After three months of people dying of starvation and thirst in obscure corridors, the Port Authority put a brutal end to that past-time. Much of the video was suppressed, and many of the bodies were never found. Within two weeks of the crackdown, the mall once again became a cheerful place that pleased its shareholders.

Mags and Patches met Tarzi on the scenic balcony of the Crimson Crane, a restaurant on the top floor serving breakfast twenty-five hours a day. Even after the installation of artificial gravity and a manufactured atmosphere, Mars retained its red tint. The planet’s iron burnished the underbellies of clouds, blazed on mountains in the sun, and frothed in ice-cold rivers running from the polar ice caps into once-forgotten stream beds.

Mags switched off her satellite connection and stuffed her phone into the pocket inside her bra. “They’re tracking us.”

Across the table, Tarzi slid a palm-sized disc onto the surface between them. “They were.”

“Nice.” She leaned back in her café chair and relaxed. “Did you ever think about what it would take to assume control of a massive building like this?”

“I always think about that over breakfast,” Tarzi lied. “But control what? The perimeter so no one can get in or out? The people inside so chaos won’t erupt? Buying the politicians and corporations who really control the thing?”

Mags purred. “Now you’re asking the important questions.” She lowered her voice as their waitress approached for the second time. “Don’t forget about the flow of information. In a system like this, data and media are your main weapons. If you control communication—”

The waitress sidled up to the table with three plates and a smile for Mags. “You had four eggs over easy and three slices of raw ham?”

Mags took one plate. “Thank you, dear. The dish of liver, you can set on the floor. It’s for my cat.”

Tarzi claimed the third plate of beans, bangers, eggs, and toast. His black cup of coffee stood in contrast to the sugary beast Mags ordered, topped with a mountain of whipped cream and cinnamon. When the waitress was out of earshot, he said, “Probably a plant.”

“Definitely a plant.” Mags sipped the hot espresso and wiped the whipped cream from her upper lip with the back of one hand. “Every business owner and employee in this mall is Port Authority, whether directly employed or financially backed. Kind of makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

“I was wondering,” said Tarzi, “if Patches could make eating liver sound any more disgusting. What is she doing?”

“She isn’t rolling in it, is she?” Mags checked. “Liver’s gross, but it has massive nutrients. Along with the heart, it’s one of the first organs a cat eats when she takes down prey.”

“Right,” said Tarzi. He eyed the chunk of sausage on the end of his fork, then set it down.

“Happy birthday,” said Mags. She raised her cup. “To my favorite nephew.”

Their glasses clinked together. “I thought Anton was your favorite.”

“He’s definitely Sarah’s. Do you remember what it was like to be his age?”

“Sure,” said Tarzi. “The day I turned fourteen, I met a homicidal pirate who whisked me away on a series of random space adventures. Ever since then, it’s been a blur.”[8] He savored a sip. “Great kids, though. The stuff they’re doing in Dumpster Kittens totally slays.”

“Did you hear the Toilet Gator single?”

“Dunny Croc,” he quoted, “lives in a secret place.”

“It’s the kind of place that you can’t escape!”[9]

“Hell no, it isn’t. You need to market that. If I can’t have a Dunny Croc t-shirt by next week, then what the fuck are we even doing out here?”

“That’s what I’m saying!” Mags shoveled an entire slice of ham into her face, chewed three times, and swallowed it nearly whole. She sat back and crossed her arms behind her head. “You wouldn’t want to manage the entire publishing catalog of Two Black Roses Records, would you?”

Tarzi laughed. “Not in a billion years! Who is your second choice?”

Before Mags could reply, a drone interrupted. Like a miniature helicopter, it flew up and over the balcony railing and zoomed straight for the table.

Mags drew a pistol from inside her leather jacket before Tarzi even moved. But before she pulled the trigger, a familiar voice stopped her.

“Hi!” said Rosalia. “Happy birthday!”

Tarzi said, “Thanks, boss. How are things?”

“Great,” Rosalia replied from kilometers away. Her voice came through the drone’s speakers, and the drone’s camera sent video to her of Mags and Tarzi. “Listen, I hate to bother you, but can you come to the office for a minute?”

Mags holstered her pistol. “Give it up, Rosie. It’s the kid’s birthday!”

“I’m really sorry,” said Rosalia, “but I have a gift for you, and I want you to have it before I go away. Something’s come up, and I need to leave the planet in an hour. If you come in for a few minutes, you can have the whole rest of the week off!”

Mags frowned.

Tarzi said, “You drive a hard bargain. We’ll be over on the next shuttle from the mall. Alright?”

“See you soon.” The drone disappeared over the edge of the balcony.

Mags said, “She’s got some nerve, calling you in on your day off. We had plans!”

“Relax,” said Tarzi. “She’s awesome to work for, and she’s giving me a week off. It’s like five minutes from here on the shuttle.”

“Fine,” said Mags. “Let’s go visit the wicked witch!” She shoved another slice of ham and a couple eggs into her mouth and washed them down with half of the sugary, caffeinated monster on the other side of her plate. She tossed a wad of cash onto the table and waved to their waitress on the way out.

On the way to the shuttle, Mags and Tarzi cracked sarcastic jokes and laughed at recollections of their adventures over the past two years: the first time they met Donny and he tried to kill them, the time they fell into a cavern full of octopus eggs, the time Tarzi made fun of Mags and she repaid him by pretending to be permanently disfigured.[10]

Settling into her seat, Mags said, “Good times.” Patches crawled into her lap.


The Conspiracy

Rosalia’s office on the forty-fifth floor of the Port Authority Administration building had expanded since 2029. Back then, in a government post Mags’ bribes had helped her acquire, she was the secretary to the Chief Administrator, and she reported directly to Kaufman. But after Kaufman abandoned his post to join Mags’ pirate crew—an endeavor Rosalia assisted—a much more pliable man replaced him.[11]

That was no surprise to Rosalia. She had planned on it for years, played no small role in making it happen, and exploited it to her every advantage. Besides manipulating the Port Authority to the benefit of the underground resistance, besides leaking whatever information she felt would be useful to her for Mags to know, Rosalia redecorated. She knocked out walls between offices until she had the space of half a dozen rooms to herself on one corner of the forty-fifth floor. To maintain the new Chief’s feeling of superiority, she had his office re-done the same way, but with twice as much space.

The palatial results were an obvious waste of the PA’s budget. But who was there for anyone to complain to? Certainly not the Chief and his right-hand woman who had a knack for keeping him fat and happy with the spoils of power. And the government on Earth? In 2030, humanity’s home planet had enough troubles of its own, and a few hundred million dollars siphoned by corruption was the least of its worries.

When Mags arrived with Tarzi and Patches, they stepped into the second most opulent office in the Martian government.

“Damn, Rosie! I love what you’ve done with the place!” Mags admired the oil paintings on the walls of the foyer, any one of which could have paid a miner’s pension for generations, and the largest of which cost more than the gross domestic product of some Earth nations.

Rosalia hugged her. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to sell me Blue Poles?”

Mags laughed. “Not a chance. That piece has sentimental value. I can get you a good deal on a Monet, though. What’s with the goon squad?”[12]

Half a dozen guards stood silent, three on each side of the doorway.

“Don’t mind them,” said Rosalia. “Something’s come up, and I could use the extra security. Tarzi! Happy birthday!”

“Thanks, boss.” He held out his fist for a bump, and she met it. “How’d you find us at the mall? I had a signal blocker with me.”

Rosalia raised a finger in a fake scold. “That’s illegal.”

“What isn’t?”

“True enough. I sent my drone to the floor where there was a signal void. Your sitting on the balcony was luck.”

Mags said, “We like to dine in style. Is Shondra here?”

Rosalia’s amiable façade cracked for a fraction of a second. “How did you—”

“She has a unique scent. Now I know something is up. Why don’t you tell us what’s really happening?”

Rosalia said, “Follow me.” She led them from the foyer to the corner of the building, where a rosewood desk bigger than a coffin awaited. Behind it, two walls of windows overlooked Hevelius.

Near the far corner of the desk, Shondra reclined in a chair. She filed her nails with an emery board as if she had not a care in the world. Her face lit up. “Maggie!”

“Long time.” Mags gave her a peck on the cheek. “Do you mind telling me what’s so important that you had to interrupt my breakfast?”

Rosalia sat behind her desk and clacked her painted nails on its lacquered top in a staccato rhythm. “The Chief Administrator is dead.”

“Dead?” Tarzi stopped behind a seat. “What happened?”

Rosalia said, “You want to sit down for this.”

Mags sat directly across the desk from Rosalia, with Shondra on her right and Tarzi taking the spot on her left.

Patches rubbed her cheeks on the corner of a cardboard box on the carpet below one window. Satisfied with the packaging, she climbed in and made herself at home. She curled into a nap. Her fuzzy tail covered her nose.

Rosalia said, “An hour ago, I killed him. The body’s still in the office, but let’s just say the Chief isn’t taking any calls right now.” She relished a rare pause where both Mags and Tarzi were stunned into silence. “In other news, I’ll be moving into a bigger office.”

Mags broke into laughter. “Rosie, what the hell were you thinking? Hahaha! Don’t get me wrong. I thought about taking him out myself. But to what end? There’s no guarantee that you get promoted into his position. Not with the old-boys network in the PA.”

Rosalia rested her elbows on the desk and leaned forward. “That’s where you’re wrong. I’ve gained the support of people in high places. The resistance will take care of any local opposition. A majority of the Martian people want me in that position, and Earth’s authorities will back me up.”

Shondra said, “Rosie’s been busy.”

“I guess so,” said Mags. “Still, I’m a bit peeved that all this happened without talking to me first.” She lit a stolen cigarette. “Any deal with Earth is probably fucked. The last thing they want is the Martian independence we’ve been working on for years.”

“No, they’re on board with the plan,” said Rosalia. “Earth is prepared to sign a new trade agreement with Mars once I take over.”

“Oh, Jesus,” said Mags. “You’re not making a treaty with them, are you?”

Rosalia said, “That’s exactly what I’m doing. Earth will retain control over some things. Shipping. Trade. Interplanetary policy.”

“Fuck,” said Mags. “Basically everything? Fuck those arseholes! Earth needs to stay the hell away from Mars! You can’t trust any of those warmongering, baby-raping idiots! What are you—”

Shondra interrupted. “Mags, relax. This deal means a hell of a lot more money.”

“Fuck that,” said Mags. “If we want to get rich, then we put a boot in Earth’s arse and do things ourselves!”

Rosalia’s smile disappeared. “I knew you’d feel that way. That is why you’ve been chosen to be our representative to Earth. Our negotiator.”

Mags choked on a puff of smoke. “What? I’m the most wanted felon on Earth! They only want me dead or in chains.”

Rosalia said, “Precisely. But I solved that, too.”

“How? With a pardon?”

“Not quite,” said Rosalia. “Let me show you.”

In later years, Meteor Mags could never put her finger on exactly what prompted her to spring into motion. Was it, she wondered, something about Rosalia’s scent or inflection? The unexplained presence of the guards? The interruption of her meal? Sheer instinct?

Mags was out of her chair and lunging over the desktop toward Rosalia when the first tranquilizer dart hit her. Fired by a guard behind her, its metal tip sank into her backside and spit poison into her veins.

In the same moment, Rosalia’s fist smashed a button atop her desk. It sprang a trap for Patches. Two halves of a transparent sphere erupted from the floor, supported by metal arms that slammed the halves together, enclosing the calico’s cardboard box.

Mags’ hands went for Rosalia’s throat.

Rosalia kicked her chair backward. On her way to the ground, she fired a second dart that caught Mags in the meat below her collarbone. The back of the chair smacked into the floor. Mags’ trajectory took her over Rosalia to smash into the window behind her.

Mags struck the glass but landed on her feet. The sedative made her stumble. Before she could resume her attack, the office lit up like a lightning storm.

Inside the transparent sphere around Patches, a fury of electric current seized the cat with tendrils of white outlined in blue. Patches swung her claws until they shredded the remnants of the box trapped with her. Levitating in the center of the sphere, she could not reach its perimeter to destroy it.

Her feline howls drowned out all but the roar from Mags’ throat. The smuggler pounced on Rosalia.

Tarzi tried to leap to his feet, but he was tackled by a guard and taken to the ground. A stranglehold ended his shouting.

Mags straddled Rosalia and swung her fists. The blows fell without her typical strength. “I will kill you!” She took punches from Rosalia to her stomach. Though her eyes flashed with fire, Mags’ body betrayed her. She slumped forward and fell face-first onto her opponent.

Rosalia rolled the body to one side, cursing with the effort. She gripped a fistful of Mags’ hair and held the brigand’s head to the light surrounding Patches.

Spit streamed from the sides of Mags’ mouth and down her chin. Her eyes blazed, but she could not move or shout.

Rosalia said, “Thank your so-called nephew for this. He told me how Patches got deactivated last year by electricity.” [13]

Patches contorted within the ball of energy. Her legs struck out at unnatural angles. Her hair stood on end. Patches’ scream made Mags’ blood run cold in her veins.

Light and shadow performed a twisted ballet across Rosalia’s face, mirrored on Mags’ pale skin. “You should have joined us. You should have taken the deal.” She held Mags’ head firmly in her grip and forced the pirate’s green eyes to meet hers through the tears. “You brought this on yourself.”

Patches’ struggling came to an abrupt stop. A cylinder rose from the floor and swallowed the transparent glass bubble around her. Rosalia released Mags and assumed a place at the window, which she opened with the touch of a button.

The cylinder shot Patches into the sky.

“So much for your familiar,” said Rosalia. “She’ll soon be in orbit—far, far away. And you will be on Earth. A price for peace.”

Tears ran down Mags’ cheeks. She could not curse Rosalia, but Tarzi did. The young man wished unspeakable things upon Rosalia and her ancestors—until a soldier choked the sound out of him.

“Strip-search her.” Rosalia indicated one of her guards with her finger.

“I’ll do it.” Shondra set down her emery board on the arm of her chair for the first time since the confrontation. “I know her tricks. You do not want to try to disarm that bitch, even passed out.”

On the floor, before Tarzi’s eyes, Shondra removed all of Mags’ clothes and her hidden weapons. She said, “Let me take the boy. He knows things about her crew that can help us.”

Rosalia said, “You can have him. Get me something useful.”

Both Tarzi and Mags were carted off in chains—one struggling the whole way, and one completely unconscious.

Patches was nowhere to be found.

[1] From their 1995 album of the same name on Go-Kart Records: New York.

[2] “Dog’s breakfast” is Australian slang for an absolute mess.

[3] Mags was injured in Antipodes, which took place on 2 July 2030.

[4] Patches became indestructible in 2029, in Patches the Immortal.

[5] Mags has a huge collection of fake passports under aliases that are variations on her name in several languages. Mags’ great-gramma often used this same alias.

[6] Mags turned 106 years old in November 2029. Due to her magic ring, her expected (though not guaranteed) lifespan is 200 years. When she says she is getting old, she means really frickin’ old.

[7] On Wildcat. 2017, AFM Records: Schwalmstadt, Germany.

[8] Tarzi’s fourteenth birthday is the first scene in Old Enough.

[9] The complete lyric to Toilet Gator, which Mags and Tarzi quote here, appears in Small Flowers.

[10] These events were chronicled in Old Enough and Red Metal at Dawn.

[11] See The Lost Crew of the Volya IX for details of Kaufman’s desertion and Rosalia’s assistance in his escape.

[12] Mags’ ownership of and sentimental attachment to Jackson Pollack’s Blue Poles appears in The Ryderium Caper. It was a favorite of Gramma Margareta’s, and the poles inspired Mags’ free-energy system.

[13] As told in Daughter of Lightning.