Continued from Part Two.
Part Three: Death Underwater
When Patches landed on the spikes, they did not impale her. But they made it impossible to gain her footing. She contorted her body, twisting one way then the other in a fury, striking out in every direction, to no avail. She bared her bright white fangs and howled her displeasure.
Then came the fire. The torches tossed in Patches’ pit did not burn her, but they set the wooden spikes ablaze. The reptiles, shrieking in their own language, backed away from the rising heat and churning clouds of smoke.
They ran to answer their mother’s call. Patches picked up their diminishing footfalls until the thump thump thump faded in the roaring, crackling chaos all around her. Flame hid everything else from sight.
Unseen by Patches, the spikes rapidly turned the color of charcoal. They weakened until they snapped and splintered under Patches’ thrashing. The collapse stoked the fire higher and brighter. The heat became a sun burning in the earthen pit. At its core raged one very unhappy calico.
At the bottom, she found her footing. She scrambled through burning wood until she bumped into the wall. Months before, she had escaped an asteroid cavern by scaling the walls. But the rocky asteroid had offered a firm surface to sink her claws into. The pit gave no such luxury.
Patches clawed the dirt in an attempt to climb. Earth crumbled under her paws. Seeking a more direct route, she leapt as high as she could. Where she failed to reach the rim, she tried to kick away from the wall for a boost. Success would have taken her over the edge.
She only gouged the dirt and kicked clumps of it into the fire. She fell again.
Patches landed on her feet.
Hell engulfed her, but its fuel was rapidly depleting. Patches helped it die by attacking the dirt. As she kicked and clawed the pit’s wall and floor, the dirt bath smothered the fire, bit by bit.
A scream pierced the jungle.
Patches knew the voice, but in the years since she first met Mags in 2027, through all the torments they had endured, she had never heard it in so much pain, tearing open the sunlit sky like a red, raw wound.
Patches flattened her ears against her head and screamed as loudly as her tiny larynx allowed.
Two leaps was all it would take. She knew. She could see the edge of her pit.
Failure did not dissuade her from trying a second time to make the jump. Nor a third, nor a fourth. Nor a fifth.
In 2026, Patches met the feline goddess of death. A skull had formed over the face of the moon and descended into the hiding place where the kitten shivered and trembled from fear. The stars gave her no warmth. But the skeletal goddess came to Patches, in her shallow spot dug in the dirt amongst tree roots and fallen leaves. The ghostly cat emitted a deep, rumbling purr like a mother to her nursing cubs, and licked Patches’ face.
Since that night, Patches had not once feared death, not even in the years before her transformation. Death became her ally. Death remained her friend.
That day on Isla Salida, as Patches failed time after time to escape, she paused in frustration at the bottom of the pit and lifted her scowling eyes to the sky. She glared into the sun overhead, knowing it could not blind her.
In its brutal, life-giving radiance, she once again perceived the great, grinning skull. The black hollows of its eyes appeared on the sun. The skull expanded until Sol was only a pupil in one of its eyes, and the nuclear-powered furnace merely cast highlights and shadows on the bony enclosure.
The vision parted its rows of naked teeth. What it said in its unearthly language was meant only for Patches’ ears. Other island animals noticed a chill on the wind, a momentary shroud of fear, an eclipse that passed over them as soon as it arrived.
She tried again.
Months before, Mags had battled the queen of a hive of giant, genetically altered wasps living on an asteroid. In a display of savagery, she killed the beast with her bare hands and teeth. In the aftermath, the remaining insects accepted her as their new queen by rite of combat, and Mags’ friend Sarah helped her establish telepathic communication with them. Though all the wasps died protecting Mags’ during her ill-fated mission to Mali, a vestige of that mental link survived, a latent ability of which even Mags was unaware.
As the reptiles tormented the delirious pirate, and she cried out for her goddess to save her, she unwittingly broadcast her anguish on frequencies unknown to humans.
Her agony did not go unheard.
Forty meters away, hidden in the jungle shadows, a wasp nest hung from a tree. Within its muddy, papery caves, hundreds of six-legged inhabitants raised their antennae. Their frenetic labor paused. As surely as if their own queen had summoned them, they responded to the distress call.
A stream of wasps flew from the hive’s exit and gathered in a malevolent cloud of rage and purpose. Like a single entity, it flew.
One of Dekarna’s younglings gripped Mags by the ear and prepared to slice off the organ. His blade bit into her flesh and drew blood.
Intent on mutilating their enemy, the reptiles did not heed the approaching buzz of the wasp army. The hive’s warriors erupted from the vine-entangled trees and attacked.
Dozens of wasps swarmed on the youngling’s face. Stingers plunged into his soft eyes. When he shrieked, he gave them ingress to his mouth and the sensitive tongue inside. Beset by pain, he dropped his blade and tried, without success, to swat the wasps and spit them out.
The other reptiles met a similar fate. In the ensuing chaos, a thick coating of wasps landed on Mags and gathered on her bound wrists until her flesh was hidden. She feared the worst, but not a single stinger pierced her. Instead, a flurry of mandibles assaulted her bonds to slice through the plant fibers holding her captive. As she realized what was happening, the impulse she felt to struggle against the insects disappeared.
She did not, at the time, understand that the wave of calmness sweeping over her was pheromone-based. The swarm crawling all over her hands and forearms talked to her in its own language, one of scents and chemicals rather than words. Only another wasp could have understood it.
Even in her state of distress, Mags understood. As the wasps covered her calves and ankles and chewed at those ropes, too, Mags understood. The pressure on her wrists weakened. With all her might, Mags pulled her wrists away from each other.
The ropes split. Her hands found freedom. A moment later, amid the screaming from the reptiles, the ropes around her ankles weakened. Gravity finished the job.
Mags fell to the ground. The insects covering her limbs lifted away and chose new targets among her tormentors.
Mags struggled to her feet. Blood burned her eyes, but she had no trouble discerning Dekarna. The mother reptile grasped a smoking branch from the fire and swung it in an attempt to repel the relentless swarm.
Like a calico missile, Patches shot from the undergrowth. She launched herself onto the face of the nearest juvenile, who was already coated in wasps. The attack took him to the ground, and he could do nothing to escape.
Mags did not spare the breath to yell to her kitten. She barreled into Dekarna. With an inhuman shout and the full force of her weight, Mags tackled the reptile. She drove her enemy backward.
Dekarna stumbled over her own feet then lost them.
Mags clamped her arms around her prey. The charge took them through the scant meters of forest obscuring, until the last moment, Mags’ view.
In the fraction of a second before the pair plummeted from the air, Mags realized she had been held captive on a high point of the island, atop the towering cliffs.
The ocean punched Mags and Dekarna as hard as it could.
It failed to separate them. Locked in a grip of mutual doom, the combatants plunged into the sea. Both the reptile and the tortured mammal were stunned nearly senseless.
The weight of their hate bore them down. They sank like boulders, two victims of gravity, each trying to kill the other.
Mags went for the throat. She sank her teeth into scales but failed to draw blood.
Dekarna flung her tail across Mags’ back. The two were so close that Dekarna could not pry away her opponent.
Mags slammed her fists into the reptile’s abdomen. Her blows fell with diminishing strength. She had been through too much to hold her breath any longer.
Dekarna’s hands closed around Mags’ throat to choke the life out of her.
Mags inhaled water. Her eyes widened. She went limp in the reptile’s grip.
Before Dekarna could swim with her trophy to the surface, a massive shadow swelled below her and, in an instant, snapped her in half. Relieved of the weight, Dekarna’s head and upper body shot toward the surface. Her lower torso, legs, and tail disappeared into the ichthyosaur’s mouth, never to be seen again.
The prolonged lack of oxygen left Mags disoriented, unable to determine which way was up. Stars formed in her eyes in the lightless depths.
Before she drowned, the ichthyosaur rose beneath her. He buoyed her with air bubbles from below, pushing her upward. He caught her atop his enormous snout and lifted her out of the dark death surrounding her, into the sunlight.
She sprawled face down on the snout like it was a raft. Mags gasped for beath. Her monster gently paddled around the island, back to the shallow lagoon.
Mags clambered off and fell to her hands and knees in the warm water. She spat and wiped blood and snot from her face, swept wet hair away from her eyes. “Ichthy! What the fuuuck!” Panting, she rose to her feet and placed a hand on his face. With soft undulations, he hovered at the water’s edge. “Fuck yeah, buddy. Good save.”
In response, a shower of lights glowed above his surface, like a tiny galaxy.
“Good boy, ichthy.” Mags kissed the side of his face and nuzzled him. “Good boy.”
In the preceding year, Mags had experienced telepathic linkage with so many different cybernetic sea creatures that even without her octopuses’ help, she touched the ichthyosaur’s mind, and he touched hers.
He sent her the mental equivalent of snapshots from his travels, memories of what he had seen and smelled in the vastness he explored.
“That’s beautiful,” said Mags. But she sensed more than sharing. She felt a question. Mags understood its wordless meaning. She pet his metallic hide.
“Go,” she said. “Be free. There’s nothing left on this island for you to worry about. My little experiment is a bust.”
A second question.
“You’re sweet. But I can’t go with you. I’ve got things to do. Stuff to steal.” Mags held one palm flat against him and lowered her voice. “We can’t always be together. But you swim with me wherever I go.”
The king of oceans rested with her one final moment. His light display turned to warm hues of red and orange. With the smallest muscular movement, he drifted into deeper water. His tail flicked, and he oriented himself away from the island and toward the rest of his empire. He sank below the waves, became a shadow, and disappeared.
“If you see any ships with the GravCorp logo,” said Mags, “sink those bastards.”
She made her way to the shore.
Patches charged her from the tree line.
“Baby kitty!” Saltwater burned in Mags’ wounds, but she scooped up her calico. The two of them rubbed their faces together.
“How many are left?” Mags sniffed the air. “Nevermind. I smell them.” Mags pet her cat and considered what to do. “Don’t kill them. Leave them be.” She raised her voice to the trio of dragons unseen in the shadows and overhanging leaves. “Listen up, you little bastards! Scarper off! Your mum is dead, and unless you want to end up the same way, then leave us the fuck alone!”
Rustling from the jungle answered her. The juveniles backed away, but their scent remained nearby.
“Close enough,” said Mags. She set Patches on the sand. “I know, baby. I’m becoming a sentimental bitch in my old age. Now help me dig a grave. Before I fuckin’ pass out.”
The two of them got to work.
From the Letters of Meteor Mags.
Patches and I are on our way home to Ceres. I cleaned my wounds as best I could in the shower aboard the Bêlit. Hurt like a sonofabitch. I’ve got missing swaths of skin that will definitely require surgery, maybe a couple of grafts, and a headache that won’t quit. My reflection in the mirror looks like a steak someone tenderized with a hammer.
I bandaged what I could, took too much morphine, and started an IV for the blood loss. At least we’ve got tunes.
In case you couldn’t tell, my escapade did not go according to plan. All the octos I took to Earth are dead, and I buried some lizards I thought I could turn into allies. We never found the rest of their mama. The ocean took her.
The sun was setting before we left. A dark, blue-grey cloud lit around the edges by shades of peach and lavender pummeled the outer curve of the island with rain. Wind whipped the leaves of tropical trees and bent them to its will. Lightning blasted one into splinters.
On the edge of the storm, after what felt like bloody hours of digging a grave with Patches in the rough terrain beyond the lagoon—a tomb I’m sure she peed in—I gave a eulogy.
Here lie warriors so fierce they almost ended me—and that’s saying something. Their mother loved them as much as any reptile could. Maybe more. She would have done anything for her cubs, and I’ve always felt the same way.
Dekarna, I was wrong to underestimate you. May your babies find the peace you never found. May they sing the songs you never got a chance to sing.
May the goddess forgive us all.
I covered the grave with dirt and sand.
Epilogue: Born into a Mess
Life for baby octopuses is a journey fraught with peril. Few survive. The tiny hatchlings, no bigger than a grain of rice, drift in the ocean and become part of the plankton soup consumed by larger creatures. Swept into the baleen strainers in the jaws of whales, most young octopuses become food for less intelligent forms of life.
When Dekarna died, she left behind several clutches of octopus eggs she intended to eat. The denizens of her underwater larder went on without her.
In September 2030, a hybrid species explored Earth’s waters for the first time. Hundreds of descendants of the genetically altered octopuses burst from translucent eggs, changing colors as they swam.
Their mixed parentage, consisting partially of unaltered, earthly cephalopods, diluted that generation’s mental abilities. But they were not born without talents of their own.
Even as embryos in the warm seawater surrounding Isla Salida, their minds found each other and connected. When they escaped their eggs to live among the ocean currents, they maintained a tenuous link. When predators threatened, they joined minds and persuaded other animals to leave them alone.
South Pacific cetaceans suddenly found good reasons to abandon swarms of krill and plankton in favor of swimming and swallowing elsewhere.
The baby octos survived. But it would be years before their offspring spread throughout the seas, and even longer before they attempted to conquer Earth.
By then, everyone had forgotten them.
Everyone, that is, except Meteor Mags and Patches.