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Continued from Part 2.

Part Three: Sacrifices

The Cell

Meteor Mags awoke in pitch blackness and felt herself for injuries. She discovered every item of her clothing had been removed. The tape around her ribs was gone. She touched one ear lobe then clasped a hand to her chest, just below the neckline. Her fist closed on nothing. Even her jewelry was gone.

“Son of a bitch!”

Reflexively, she put one finger to the bridge of her nose to adjust her glasses. They were gone, too.

“Fuck me dead.”

The phone stashed in her bra, the knives strapped to her calves and forearms, three small-caliber pistols hidden along her curves, and the circuitry in her jewelry—all of it gone. No way to contact Tarzi, no way to summon her ship. No way to—

“Where the hell is Patches?!”

Mags comforted herself by turning her ring around her finger, then holding it in place. “The only way they’d take you is by chopping off my goddamn finger.” She considered the fact. “Shondra must have strip-searched me. Rosie would have definitely chopped the finger. That fucking whore.”

Mags cradled her forehead in one palm and shook her head. “I can’t believe I trusted that cow!” She sobbed once, and again, then filed away the emotion to be reviewed later—or maybe never. Mags pulled herself to her feet and slumped against a brick wall that offered all the warmth of a glacier. “Shondra,” she said, “what’s your game?”

She smacked the wall with her open palm, made a fist, and shook it in the darkness. “You cunts! If you hurt Tarzi, I will end you! Do you fucking hear me?!”

No one answered.

In a darkness where not even her catlike eyes could gather light, Mags began running her fingers over every centimeter of the enclosure. She pressed her nose to within a millimeter of the surface, seeking any scent she could find. At first, the only sounds her ears picked up were the pulse of her heart, the flow of her breath, and the barely perceptible padding of the balls of her feet as she made her way around the room. Beyond that, past the edge of human hearing, the electromagnetic hum of her prison whispered to her above the dull roar of the city.

She felt her way around the frame of the only exit. Her side of the door held no hinges and no hint of the locking mechanism. Just a slab.

By her estimation, to claw through the miniscule crevice around the edge of the door and pry it open might take two-hundred years—assuming they fed her enough calcium to keep her nails growing.

If they didn’t give her food or water at all? No more than ninety-six hours before total, catastrophic organ failure. For cats, at least.

“Fuck.” Mags abandoned her probing and sat cross-legged on the floor. She pressed her palms together and the tip of each finger to its opposite. She tried to focus on Sarah. “Angel, can you hear me?”

She reached only silence.

“Octos? Are you there?”

Nothing.

“Pick up!”

Still nothing.

“Unreliable sons of bitches!

Immediately, she felt bad for saying it. She was, after all, one of their three mothers.[1] No one understood more than Mags that sometimes a person, or a fucked-up mutant cat hybrid type of person, or even a cephalopodic groupmind needed to wander off for a bit without being disturbed. “Sorry, babies. But if you get this message, call me. Shit just hit the fan on Mars.”

While she waited, Mags cursed the unresponsive door until she was hoarse. Then, like any sensible feline, she curled in the corner for a nap. Her stream of consciousness became non-verbal. Something like a movie made of emotions, memories, and fantasies played in her mind.

One eye remained half open. In her sleep, her ears twitched, alert as radar dishes—searching, hoping for a signal.

☠️

The Basement

Through a pair of metal doors, Shondra burst into the garage below the ground level of Tarzi’s prison. She ran down a concrete ramp. “Get ready to roll!”

Twelve of her elite awaited her. They snapped to attention and disappeared, four at a time, into three armored vehicles arranged in a line like a convoy. Only Shondra’s driver remained outside her vehicle, saluting.

Shondra shouted, “Let’s go!”

“We got a problem, boss!” Despite her warning, the driver obeyed Shondra’s command, climbing into her seat and starting the engine.

“Make it quick!”

“All the blocks from here to prisoner extradition are a fucking war zone. The radio’s lit up with reports of fires and buildings collapsing in the streets. There’s no guarantee we can get through.”

“Fine,” said Shondra. “We do it anyway. We have a political prisoner to free, and a couple of flaming speedbumps are the least of our worries. Move out!”

The driver gave the order.

Powerful engines built in the finest shipyard in the solar system roared to life. The convoy sped to the garage exit. The wide metal door, half a meter thick, raised at a coded electronic signal from Shondra’s driver.

Here we come, kitty. Shondra opened a panel on the dashboard, found a box of ammunition, and began refilling her empty magazines. Hang on.

As Shondra’s vehicle reached the exit, a blast with the light of the sun pulverized the wall above the garage door. Stone and cinder block pelted the transport in a torrential sheet so dense it stopped the forward motion and buried Shondra alive, along with everyone else inside.

She gripped her driver by the shoulder and shook the senseless body. Blood ran from its forehead. “Damn it!” Shondra lowered the window on her side. An avalanche of dust and rubble poured into her face, onto her lap, and down around her feet.

Shondra choked and coughed. To the survivors in the back seat, she shouted, “What the hell are you waiting for? Dig!”

Sunset came to Mars. It gilded the stone above Shondra’s crew with a fiery glow before vanishing into blackness. By the time the crew got free and dug out the lead vehicle, Shondra was far too late to save Mags.

☠️

The Captain

“Passengers of Tycho Airlines, flight two thirty-six, this is your captain speaking. Thank you for joining us this evening. We’re on the final approach to the city of Hevelius. Please stow all carry-on items in the overhead bins or beneath your seats and return your seats to their upright positions.

“We’ll be encountering a bit of social unrest on the ground. We have reports of mass looting, urban riots, and armed insurrection. I see—fires. Fires everywhere. What the—

“Folks, we don’t know for sure what’s happening, but please remain calm. Flight attendants will come by in just a second to collect your—

“What the fuck? Is that a rocket from the surface? It’s coming right at us! Mayday! Mayday! Two thirty-six to tower, requesting emergency—

“Get the hell off me and fly, motherfucker! Mayday!

“What? My mic is still on?”

☠️

The Station

Oblivious to her trajectory, an unconscious Patches smashed into an airplane. Her body punctured the hull, and the collision killed everyone aboard—some upon impact, some who were sucked out of the plane into the sky, and others when the wreckage screamed down to the ground and exploded.

Members of Patches’ human crew had called her a living weapon. But they had never seen her become a lifeless projectile, nor imagined the damage she could do in that state.

Patches would never know about the plane, but it slowed her ascent. She reached the apex of a graceful arc, fell under the spell of artificial Martian gravity, and rocketed back to the surface.

Hevelius was the largest city on Mars. Where Patches landed was a matter of luck. She could have crashed into multi-family housing, or the commercial district, or a park. Instead, she plummeted into a power station.

The force of impact shattered the generators’ metal housings and sent a fiery sphere of shrapnel expanding in every direction. It destroyed a city block and shut off the power to dozens of neighborhoods.

In the crater, a web of electrical wires still connected to subterranean backup generators cradled Patches. Where the explosion severed them, arcs of lightning sprang to life, crackling white, outlined in blue. The energy leapt across her fur, overcame its carbon-based resistance, and lit up the calico cat from the inside.

The surrounding neighborhood was fortunate that annihilation came first, because the caterwaul Patches unleashed would have made a grown person wish for death. Nothing of its kind had been heard on Mars nor anywhere else in the solar system.

A ball of lightning held Patches in its center. Her body levitated as she screamed, and all her mental faculties and her heartbeat clawed at the door of oblivion. Her neurons fired erratic signals. She convulsed in the air with her eyes as wide as two black planets in twin halos of green, and her limbs thrashed like swords in a cyclone without sense or reason.

Circuit breakers kicked in. The lightning ended. Patches fell through the cables and tumbled into the crater’s dark heart.

She landed on her feet.

From Patches’ point of view, Rosalia’s betrayal took place only a second before. Fresh hate filled her heart. Patches scrambled to the surface, leaping from one dead wire to the next, sinking her claws into plastic sheathing, relentless and unstoppable.

When she got to the surface, she ran a paw twice over one ear. For a golden moment, she allowed the sunset to grace her whiskers. Then she broke into a run.

The fading sun cast a rusty orange glow in the final moments before dusk. It drew a cat-shaped shadow on the streets. The shadow turned into a blur and vanished into the complex crevices of Hevelius.

☠️

The Subway

Patches rubbed her cheeks against a building’s corner—first one cheek then the other with increasing intensity until the flesh beneath her fluff smashed into the brick. To an outside observer, the ritual would have looked painful, but Patches loved it.

Pain had not troubled Patches since July 2029. Back then, on the brink of death, she awoke in a tank of bubbling energy that channeled the entire power of a planet-sized moon into her.[2]

She had neither requested nor desired that fate, but it was hers, and she accepted it. What did any cat need to deal with but the present moment?

She never mourned the absence of pain. If Patches had been born as any mammal except a cat, she might have found a reason to be thankful she could still feel pleasure.

But rather than feel grateful, Patches assumed that pleasure was her due, that objects and sentients who brought her pleasure simply did what the universe had declared to be her birthright, and no one should take those pleasures from her.

Patches worked herself into a frenzy, biting the spot she scented with the glands in her face, standing on her hind legs to carve long gouges with her foreclaws. All around her, war blossomed into being.

Looters plundered Hevelius. A rocket launcher turned a storefront into a fireball. Lights and gunfire and propeller noise from overhead battled small-arms fire, Molotov cocktails, and chanting, surging crowds. Bodies in Port Authority uniforms, ship-builder’s gear, and makeshift guerilla outfits fell from windows and dropped from aircraft. Mutilated corpses littered the streets.

No matter.

War, as far as Patches could discern, was humanity’s natural state. She assessed the tableau of destruction and suffering. She might as well have been observing a cloud or the erratic motions of a butterfly in the wind. They were not things she could affect nor cared to, merely natural objects to be avoided on the way to her purpose.

Patches folded back her ears and ran at top speed through the chaos. The buses had stopped running, but many trains still ran. Patches followed the signs to a platform underground. She had only three seconds to study the subterranean maps before an explosion from above shook the station.

Chunks of the collapsing ceiling fell around her. The dust rendered everything invisible—everything but the light of an oncoming train.

Seeing the station falling to pieces, the train’s engineer decided to skip it and keep moving. The train smashed debris to the sides, denting its hull and sending up a shower of sparks and flame as metal and stone crashed together against the sides of the tunnel.

Patches waited at the edge of the platform, but the train did not stop. Her eyes narrowed to slits in the incoherent light and murky dust clouds. As the train sped past, she launched herself, dug her claws into its metal exterior, and held on.

The tunnel walls slammed past her. She pulled herself closer to the hull. In the narrowest of passages, her indestructible hair and spine carved a groove into the concrete wall. Darkness swallowed her and the steel monster she rode, but she held fast.

Unseen from her underground vantage point, towers sprang onto the horizon: the Port Authority building where she had been captured, the surrounding structures which made up its prisons, and—though Patches did not yet know it—the communications hub that would be Tarzi’s destination.

Once the train passed the obliteration of the station where Patches boarded, she focused on the station markers. The train stopped at none of them and continued its frightful course without regard for a schedule. Patches chattered. The wind whipped away her voice. When she saw the stop for the Port Authority buildings approaching, she prepared to jump.

She hit the ground on all fours, but the momentum rolled her head-over-heels until she smashed into a monolith. Upon its surface were engraved three large words: Port Authority Administration. Patches arched her back, bared her teeth, and hissed.

She sniffed the ground for Mags’ scent in an ever-widening circle until she picked up the trail. She picked up Tarzi’s, too.

Patches had never known the love of biological brothers and sisters. At birth, she was separated from the other kittens in her litter. But to the extent that she realized Mags thought of her as a cub, then Tarzi must also be Mags’ cub. That meant they were nestmates, cubs from the same litter.

She lost his trail. It led away from the Port Authority building then vanished into the unknown.

But Mags’ scent was as plain as day.

Patches licked a paw between each of its claws. She weighed Tarzi’s life against every living being—human or otherwise—on Mars. Three times, she ran the paw over one ear.

She made her decision. If anything bad had happened to Tarzi, Patches intended to soak the red planet in the blood of her enemies until it drowned.

Some sins could never be forgiven. Some things broke so badly they could never be fixed. But Patches anticipated some small satisfaction to be gleaned from murdering every last person who had fucked things up.

She knew Mags would feel the same way.

Such were the thoughts of a rather large and fluffy calico cat as she followed her best friend’s trail and pondered the fate of a faithless planet.

☠️

The Door

Mags’ captors had not imprisoned her in the same building as Tarzi. Her impregnable cell occupied a ten-story monolith near the spaceport favored by visiting officials from Earth. It was a convenient location for the Port Authority to hold those prisoners who required extradition to Earth for legal or political reasons.

The criminals inside could only hope for one of two ways out: deportation or death. No one had ever broken into the prison. No one had ever escaped.

No one had ever told Patches.

All through the prison’s hallways, alarms blared like klaxons and flashed lights from their perches on the walls. Along one path through the facility, a stream of blood spread until it met the walls and pooled at their edges. At the head of the crimson river ran an especially purposeful cat.

Mags awoke to the screech of tortured metal. She sprang to her feet. Every hair on her body stood straight up.

Like nails on a steel chalkboard, Patches’ claws tore at the cell’s metal door from the outside.

After the initial shock, Mags pounded on the door. She could not see nor smell her kitten, but she knew. She shouted, “Patches!”

A howling whirlwind scaled the door and ripped apart its lock and hinges. They fell like dead birds to the prison floor. Their gleaming reflections caught Patches’ eyes, and she pounced on them.

She sprang away as the steel slab flew from its frame, over her head, and down the hallway. It slammed to a stop against a wall. From the empty doorway, Mags’ naked left leg extended, parallel to the floor.

“Motherfuckers!”

Patches sauntered to Mags’ side, rubbed against the leg planted firmly on the floor, and arched her tail. She sought Mags’ eyes and mewed.

“Baby kitty!” Mags scooped her calico into the cradle of her arms and rubbed her face into mounds of fluff. She listened as Patches rapidly chattered about her adventures across the Martian landscape.

“You did great, kitten. Where’s Tarzi?”

Patches told everything she knew.

“I have an idea where he’s headed. Did you kill anyone my size?”

Carrying her cat, Mags followed the trail of blood that led to her cell. She inspected the leaking bodies one-by-one until she found a reasonable match. She set down Patches and stripped clothing from a corpse. “One thing I love about the Port Authority,” she said. “They hire a lot of women. This one’s almost my size.”

Mags dressed in a dead woman’s clothes and tugged them into place where they didn’t quite cover her generous curves. Blood and gashes ripped by Patches’ claws marred the grey, woolen cloth. Mags struck a pose. “How do I look?”

She purred at the response. “Then it’s just you and me.” Mags plundered the dead for weapons and ammo. Racking a bullet into a stolen pistol’s chamber, she said, “That’s more like it. Let’s descend into the maelstrom.” [3]

They set off to find Tarzi and racked up a double-digit body count along the way. Thirty minutes later, smudged with soot and rust-colored dust, splattered with blood and bits of strangers’ organs, they arrived at the base of the communications hub.

Tarzi’s scent told them they had found the right destination.

☠️

The Bargain

Tarzi hoped to meet Mags at the hub. Instead, he confronted Rosie and her elite personal bodyguards, all heavily armed. The young man withdrew around the doorframe and shouted. “Don’t shoot! It’s me, Tarzi!”

They shot anyway.

“Will you bloody stop and listen for a minute? Rosie!”

She shouted back. “What do you want?!”

“I want to help,” said Tarzi. “I want to help you take over Mars.”

“I already have. Get lost!”

“Not even close. You need me. I’ve been on the streets, and this whole thing is turning into a disaster! It’s a disaster I can help you with. But,” said Tarzi, “the whole deal is contingent on freeing Mags.”

Rosie said, “Not a chance.”

“You can’t send Mags to her death and expect any of this to work. The riots aren’t shit. You’re asking for all-out war with Ceres and every outlaw in the Belt—without much help from Earth.”

“We can handle a few pirates.”

“Not these ones. And definitely not Patches.”

Rosie shouted, “Your little cat is gone! Don’t be stupid.”

“If you think you got rid of Patches that easily, you’re so fucked in the head that your IQ might go up when she eats your skull. You should be crapping your pants right now, wondering how soon it will be until she—”

“Tarzi! If I set Mags free, the first thing she would do is come to kill me. She isn’t one to forgive and forget.”

“She’ll never do either. She’ll never agree with you about your deal with Earth. She will hate you ’til the day she dies.”

“That makes me feel a whole lot better. She stays locked up.”

“Rosie, Mags hates the idea on principle. She likes to talk real loud and make a scene about her ideals. But if you show her a profit opportunity, all that goes out the window. You will never have her love. But you can appeal to her greed.”

“Why would I give her anything?”

“The free-energy system. She wants it. You need it. It’s a bargain.”

“I’ll get Shondra to make it.”

“The fuck you will,” said Tarzi. “Who do you think let me out of my cell?”

“What?”

“Shondra hates your fucking guts. She sent me here! Shondra plans to kill you and take over. If you want the energy system, you need Mags.”

Rosie pondered.

Tarzi pounced on the silence. “You want the economic boost from trading with Earth. But if you can provide free, unlimited power to any rock you want, think what that means for the future of mining and manufacturing! If you let Mags do this one little thing she really, really wants to do, then you create a space-based economy with unlimited resource potential. Do you want to rule Mars, or do you want to rule the entire bloody solar system?”

“She’ll still want to kill me.”

“Undoubtedly.”

Rosie said, “Will you talk to her?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you! What do you plan to say to Mags to convince her to go along with this plan of yours?”

Tarzi paused. “Let me think for a minute.”

He seized the lull in conversation. Tarzi slowed his breathing and imagined his favorite Swans album playing at top volume.[4] The brutal rhythms calmed him. Time stretched out. In what would look like a blur to the human eye, he stepped into the room with his pistol raised and put a bullet into the helmet of the nearest guard.

The guard’s head snapped back in slow motion. Individual bits of shrapnel and drops of blood began to break away from the helmet. The fragments and splatters barely expanded before Tarzi fixed the next guard in his sights. He fired again. A bullet pierced the second guard’s faceplate. Tarzi shot a third time.

Rosalia and her remaining guards pulled their triggers. Millimeter by millimeter, fingers squeezed. Bullets entered the air and slowly, deliberately, advanced on paths to where Tarzi no longer stood.

He dove for cover, but not before he sent one more bullet to its destination.


[1] The octopuses’ biological mother was an octopus also, but because Mags and Patches were present for their birth and merged minds with them and their mother, the octopuses consider the felonious felines to also be their mothers.

[2] In Patches the Immortal.

[3] Mags quotes a song title that belongs to both Radio Birdman and Wo Fat.

[4] The Glowing Man, by Swans.