While I work on finishing Episode 37, enjoy this draft of the much shorter Episode 38. Despite being only 2,500 words, it is an important bridge to what comes next for our criminal crew.
Meteor Mags: Reborn
© 2022 by Matthew Howard.
Episode 38 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
Mags assembles a genetic research lab in her old hangar on Vesta. Her first experiment is a complete disaster. After much bloodshed, she tries again.
As for the fish of the sea, their names dispersed from them in silence throughout the oceans like faint, dark blurs of cuttlefish ink, and drifted off on the currents without a trace.
—Ursula K. LeGuin; She Unnames Them, 1985.
In April 2032, Meteor Mags flipped a switch and turned on the lights. Patches ran past her feet. The hangar on Vesta had stood dark and unattended for the better part of two years—but not silent. The recently re-named Planetary Broadcasting Network played over the speakers non-stop, powered by the free-energy system Mags installed on her test run in 2030.
Mags turned up the volume. “Baby kitty?”
Patches scampered here and there, sometimes stopping to listen and smell the faded traces of once-familiar scents, sometimes to carve gouges in the furniture with her indestructible claws.
For a moment, the weight of memories overwhelmed Mags. Her shoulders slumped forward as she removed her glasses and polished the lenses unnecessarily. She remembered the hangar filled with the survivors of the invasion that destroyed her club, killed so many of those dear to heart, and almost ended in her death.
But even in the aftermath, her crew had found ways to celebrate the fact that they were still alive. To celebrate each other. Mags recalled the impromptu drum circles and singalongs.
She lifted her head and got down to business.
After the invasion, Mags protected Vesta by installing a killer satellite network built by her friends on Mars. But she had never decided what to do with the lonely asteroid. Ceres kept her busy.
The experiments she had in mind required privacy and distance. If they went wrong, Mags didn’t want them happening anywhere near a Ceresian city. The more she thought about it, the less she wanted them on Ceres at all.
With one leather-gloved hand, she brushed the dust off an old console. Mags had often bragged that her private hangar was nuke-proof, but nothing could conquer an asteroid’s constant dust. Lights flickered below her fingertips, then shone brighter as she wiped them clean. She typed instructions to check all the systems.
A howl came from a far corner.
“Be right back.”
Mags returned not once but three times pushing a pallet jack loaded with stacks of crates. She wiped sweat from her brow and lined them up against the wall.
Patches, content with her scouting and marking, sprawled on the warm green lights of the console. She licked a forepaw and laid her chin on it.
Mags uncrated a few things, plugged a storage drive into a machine, and lit a smoke. She raised her hands above her head. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the new headquarters of GenetiCorp!”
Patches typed the word into a search engine on the touchscreen beneath her. She mewed.
“What do you mean, ‘It’s already taken’?” Mags frowned. “Way to ruin my big moment.” She paced back and forth, and the sharp smack of the soles of her combat boots against the floor echoed in the empty chamber. “Weyland-Yutani? SkyNet? Omni-Consumer Products Corporation?”
She interrupted Patches’ typing with a hand on the bushy calico’s torso. “I was just kidding. Those are definitely taken. Oh, well. Fuck the name for now. Scoot over. We have work to do.”
She cracked open a bottle of rum, took over the typing, and posted several jobs on darkweb.
Four months later, the lab was in full swing. Fifty staff members had joined, all individually vetted by Mags, and paid for with the interest she was earning by loaning her ill-gotten fortune to Solana’s central bank on Ceres to be loaned out again to start-up companies.
The staff lived in newly constructed apartments built by a Ceresian company Mags partially owned. Though small and decidedly functional, the residences were posh by the standards of the asteroid belt. Mags knew the accommodations weren’t as much fun as the former club, but they got the job done.
Her net worth, by her closest estimation, had ballooned to more than seven trillion dollars, not counting the value of Vesta itself.
Not that she ever filed taxes. That was the least of her crimes.
In August 2032, on an asteroid rarely visible to the naked eye on Earth, and only then under the darkest conditions, Mags made a poor decision.
She set a hand on her lead technician’s shoulder. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s do it.”
Her staff got to work.
Cloning is never an easy process. To grow an animal from a pair of cells or a strand of chromosomes requires a womb. At some point, the blastula becomes an embryo and needs a mother in which it can grow.
Mags’ lab workers had settled on Komodo dragons. The scientists believed the reptiles’ robust and occasionally parthenogenetic reproductive systems resembled the ancient wombs that first gave birth to the ancestors of the dinosaurs Mags intended to bring to back to life. Plus, the massive monitors tended to mate between May and August, giving birth in September. The timing seemed fortuitous.
Mags visited her dragons several times each week and joined them in their pen which mimicked the dry, open grasslands and low tropical forests they preferred. She knew she was committing an unspeakable act upon them, but she pet the fearsome beasts and spoke to them in soothing tones only they could understand. They trusted her. They welcomed her touch. They laid eggs.
The first birth began when Mags was away. A leathery, reptilian egg cracked open, and something the solar system had never seen before shoved its face through the shell and screamed. The infant clawed the atmosphere in a rage.
The scientists called Mags. That did not save them.
They had placed an embryo cloned from Odonata’s genes into one of the dragons to see what would happen. Unfortunately, all of them saw what happened.
Mags set the Bêlit on the rocky Vestan surface and called out, “Patches!”
The lazy calico groomed herself. Humans, she had long since decided, had a knack for turning every event into an emergency. Surely there was nothing on Vesta she could not kill.
Still, she loved her best friend. She appeared at Mags’ feet and loudly mewed while showing her fangs.
“About time,” said Mags. “Everyone on this rock is apparently dead—everyone except one malevolent arsehole.”
Patches chattered as if she had seen a bird through a window.
“You and me both. Let’s send this motherfucker to hell.”
Patches rubbed both sides of her face against the smuggler’s boots.
“Alright,” said Mags. She pressed a sequence of numbers to open the side hatch on the Bêlit. “You go first.”
Most of the Vestan experiments had gone well. Besides fully sequencing the alien genes of the methane-based microbes Mags brought back from Titan, they showed quite a bit of promise for resurrecting Mags’ unusual space pets, including her cybernetic mantas and the reptiles she had once abandoned on Earth.
Sadly, for the fifty dead members of the laboratory, Mags had underestimated the human cost of bringing one particular alien species back to life. She and Patches encountered a monster who grew out of control with a single-minded focus on destroying everything it encountered.
The unnamed clone had been born with six limbs. It sprouted more in its personal torment. Eyes spread across its face and sprang into existence up and down its limbs and torso until they defied counting. Spasms wracked its body. It dripped with the blood of those it had killed. The flesh it had consumed fueled its growth. Already a meter and a half tall, it grew with every passing second.
Mags introduced it to a spray of .50-caliber hollow-point rounds from a Desert Eagle. Like a mosquito in a camping tent, the beast took to the air on a chaotic path and evaded death. Mags shouted, “Patches! Can you take him down?”
Borne on four diaphanous wings like a dragonfly, the monster sliced through the air and divebombed Patches. But to the cat, it was merely a game. Her claws rebuked his attacks. His violence was met with even greater violence in a white and coffee-colored blur.
Mags holstered her pistol. The Benelli shotgun slung over her shoulder flew into her hands. “Go for the wings!”
Patches launched herself into the air and shredded every part of him she encountered. A whirlwind of destruction, she swarmed over his head and dug her claws into his back. Once she broke his wings, he plummeted to the floor. Patches landed on her feet and pounced on him. She howled her triumph. The nightmare struck out with flailing limbs and sent her sprawling.
Mags stepped up with the shotgun and blasted the monster in the face and chest until she ran out of buckshot. The clone’s brains and blood and shattered carapace decorated the floor and walls. Even in death, its remnants writhed and grew new organs. Mags stomped it without a shred of mercy.
“Motherfucker!” Mags swept a sticky lock of hair away from her spattered glasses and spat on the corpse. “Don’t you ever touch my fucking cat!” She knelt and held out one hand. “Are you okay, baby kitty?”
Patches rubbed a paw across her face and demanded petting.
Mags scratched the fuzzy face. “I guess it was a rhetorical question.”
Patches flopped onto her side with no regard for the rapidly expanding pool of green blood below. She licked her fur. It made no difference to the tufts of her unruly coat. Her enemy was dead. Her friend was alive. Her bowls were empty.
Such was life.
Mags filled Patches’ bowls and scrubbed the hangar without any help from her friends. She did not want them to know what had happened. After the remains of the alien clone were taken outside and burned to ash on the unforgiving Vestan surface, bleach water destroyed all the errant DNA in the lab. Mags mopped every centimeter of the floor three times, wiped down every other surface, swept up broken glass, patched bullet holes, and deleted several terabytes of incriminating audio and video evidence.
She collected the bodies of the slaughtered humans and Komodo dragons, stacked them on pallets as best she could, and took them outside for a proper burial attended only by her and Patches. Through her friend Solana’s bank on Ceres, Mags paid out fifty generous pensions to next of kin who electronically signed non-disclosure agreements, per the staff’s original contracts.
The process took three days, and she almost ran out of rum.
Then she posted some job listings on darkweb.
One month later, Mags’ new employees began what they believed to be their first project. Neither Mags nor Patches disabused them of that notion. Using the cells Mags had harvested from the remains of her cybernetic mantas, they created embryos they injected into rays imported from Earth.
The scientists supplemented the mother mantas’ diets with minerals they hoped would support the development of the metallic and electric components that defined Mags’ original mantas. The animals grew not from DNA but from a similar chemical spiral that had replaced one of our mammalian nucleobases.
That unfamiliar structure was the blueprint for the clones, and the main problem for the staff was providing raw materials for construction.
The mother rays floated at first in narrow glass tubes that rose from floor to ceiling. Mags decided that was unacceptable and ordered the construction of a gigantic tank to hold them all. On more than one occasion, she dove into the tank to have words with them.
Those words were not anything another mammal would have understood. But after three years of telepathic bonding with an odd assortment of species—from the normal to the mutated, from the cybernetic to the prehistoric—Mags had become adept at talking to more animals than just humans and cats. She swam and cursed and conversed like a space-age Doctor Dolittle with a penchant for profanity.
The rays understood. They spoke to her about their lives in Earth’s oceans, gossiped about their simpleminded yet effective cousins the sharks, and spun poetry about what it was like to be a beast made of wings and cartilage. They told her secrets no mammal had ever heard, oceanic mysteries much older than humanity. They whispered legends mantas had passed down to their children since unrecorded eons, and the meaning their species had found below the surface of the seas.
Mags listened, learned, and told them secrets of her own.
Manta ray gestation takes about a year before—unlike their egg-laying cousins the skates—they give birth to live young. In September 2033, Mags and Patches attended the birth of a new generation.
Mags stood before the massive tank. Mantas swam in oddly geometric patterns that conveyed meanings to her but not to her staff. She would explain later.
Some of the mother mantas possessed wingspans greater than three meters, but their newborn pups were much smaller. Such tiny things, born alive.
Mags said, “Come to me.”
She had not controlled a manta in nearly four years, not since she summoned them to help her during the attack on Vesta. Still, the baby mantas responded. They swam to the top of the tank.
“Come to me.”
One by one, they broke the surface and breathed air for the first time. They survived.
Mags held out her hand and beckoned them, curling her fingers toward herself until they formed a fist. “Come to me.”
One by one, the baby mantas descended and gathered around her. They swarmed in the air, swimming in the atmosphere as gracefully as their mothers swam in water.
Patches batted them with her paws, but her claws remained sheathed. As if she were gathering her own kittens toward suckle and shelter, she herded them into a ring around Mags.
Mags said, “Show me what you got.”
The shiny, silvery mantas crackled with electricity that threatened to destroy the laboratory. Lightning bolts cascaded across every surface. The employees dove for cover below their desks.
In a storm that lit up her face in a stark relief of light and shadow, a sinister smile spread across the smuggler’s black-painted lips. She produced a cigarette and lit it on the hot, sparking wing of the nearest manta.
Mags took a puff. The tip glowed as red as a dying star.
“Bloody hell,” she said. “It’s good to see you again.”
Her mantas agreed.
“Earth,” said Mags.
“Get the fuck out,” said Celina. “You can’t conquer a planet with only a handful of your fucked-up pets.”
“No?” Mags stretched out on the bed and crossed her arms behind her head. “Watch me.”
Celina brushed her hair in a mirror and thought about that. “You do realize it’s just you against thirteen billion people?”
“Fourteen. And fuck them,” said Mags. “Their nations have been at war for thousands of years and caused more suffering than anyone can comprehend. I’m fucking sick of it.”
“So am I, magpie.” Celina set down her brush and turned away from the mirror to face Mags directly. “But we always made a lot of money on those conflicts.”
“We did,” said Mags. “We absolutely did.” She lit a stolen cigarette. “But now, we can end it.”
 See Small Flowers for the test run. The PBN was renamed in Infinite Spaces.
 As told in The Battle of Vesta 4.
 As seen in Hunted to Extinction.
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