Chronologically, this episode comes before the one I posted earlier this week. It just took a bit longer to get everything sorted.
Meteor Mags: Gods of Titan
© 2022 by Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Episode 37 of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
Mags, Patches, and Alonso travel to Titan to check on her errant octopus babies, only to discover their eight-armed friends have other plans.
Now all you merry blacksmiths,
a warning take by me:
Stick to your country horseshoes
and your anchors for the sea.
When the gods of war come calling,
promising you gold,
they’ll take your hammer,
take your anvil,
take your very soul.
—The Longest Johns; Hammer and the Anvil; 2022.
March 2032. From the letters of Meteor Mags.
Lonso and I had a blast partying on Isla Salida with the friends we left behind. Patches did, too, but she seems to have fun no matter where we go. She couldn’t give a single fuck, so long as no one lets her dishes go empty.
I’m convinced she doesn’t need to eat anymore—or drink, or breathe. I think she just does those things because cats prefer routines, and maybe she finds comfort in familiar things that make her feel normal instead of like some kind of freak. I know what it’s like to be thought a freak. But maybe she just likes screaming at her bowls to remind everyone we exist to serve her.
It took so long to get to Titan that Lonso and I weren’t even hungover anymore. In fact, we’d had a few too many hairs of the dogs that bit us, and we were a drunken mess by the time the Saturnian moon came into view. We’d been listening to my massive collection of chanteys—what some people call “sea shanties” without realizing that every bloody chantey is a sea shanty by definition. Most of the damn things are older than me, and that’s saying something.
Lonso especially liked a tune that warned blacksmiths about working for the war machine. We listened to a bad-ass rendition in a minor key about five or six times in a row, and I knew why he liked it. Lonso was just a kid from the hood when I met him, and after the fascists slaughtered his bandmates, he got a fake identity and went to work for the interplanetary Port Authority.
Whenever he talks to me about those days, he makes a show of how he got all this awesome pilot training and combat skills, and so many high-tech toys to play with. He’s quick with a story about his drunken brawls, black-market entrepreneurship, and breaking all the rules.
But like most guys, he’s not so quick to talk about the emotional pain behind the funny stories. He doesn’t talk about how it was eating him from the inside out to be working for the man after so many years of rebelling and playing kick-ass rock. He doesn’t mention how serving the war machine and the incompetent bureaucracy that killed his friends took something away from him every day of his life.
Not that I want to paint a picture of Lonso as some sort of broken soul or wounded warrior. Fuck that noise. He’s right as rain these days. In ’29, I accidentally rescued him from all that Port Authority bullshit, and the time he spent rocking out with my telepathic octos did him some good. Hell, that kid’s way more level-headed than me and far less cynical. Lonso’s happy to be alive, doesn’t sweat the small shit, and seems to make friends everywhere he goes—even in places where I’d make enemies.
But he did cry a little at that blacksmith song. I gave him a hug and another can of ale.
I’m an only child. I never had sisters or brothers. But even though Lonso still calls me tía after all these years, he’s the closest thing I ever had to a brother. I’d move heaven and Earth for that kid, even if he’s nearly fifty now. Even if he found my microphone and is drunkenly screaming along with the Dead Weather album Horehound.
Curse me for a papist. Patches is howling along with him now. She doesn’t even know the words.
What an ungodly racket.
I guess I better join them.
Our space-bound karaoke trio had exhausted most of Jack White’s side projects and all but the last bottle of rum when we landed on Titan. The last time I’d been there with Patches and Plutes, a faction of twenty octopuses had teamed up with an object of unimaginable power we called the triglyph, and they’d merged their mental skills with its god-like abilities to terraform Titan, destroy Enceladus to get its water, and build a monumental radio from a star core and materials they found in space.
Don’t get me wrong. The crazy shit they started broadcasting is awesome, and I still tune it to years later thanks to Plutes playing a couple of hours of it every day on his radio station. It’s the sound of the cosmos. But we had a bit of a misunderstanding last time, when the octos tried to dissemble me and Plutes and Patches to join a group mind and leave our bodies to die.
I don’t love any radio station enough to die for it, unless it’s the PBN. Fortunately, Patches showed those unruly octopuses who was boss, killed a few of them to make her point, and saved the day. We figured they’d be up to typical octopus things when we visited again.
We were so very wrong.
Listen, I’ve heard all the criticisms about how I should have known about this shit earlier. Get off my bloody case. I had a lot going on the past few years, and this shit on Titan wasn’t even on my radar. Why would it have been? When you have telepaths doing whatever they want, they can easily hide it from you.
We set down on the shore of nowhere, on a lake no one had ever named—not even its creators.
The whole reason we went to Titan was that the octopuses living there had been members of the batch of genetically altered babies I helped get born and liberated back in ’29, and all the other members were approaching the ends of the lives. Lonso and I got the rest of my babies sorted on Earth, but we’d been out of touch with Titan for a couple of years. In ’32, I didn’t want them dying on me, either.
Lonso, who insisted on driving long past the point where he should have been in control of a space vessel or even a bloody tricycle, set us down on a flat spot near the beach. We came to an abrupt halt as the Hyades rocked back and forth from her off-kilter landing and settled onto the rock. I accused Lonso of trying to kill us. He pretended that was his plan.
He’s lucky I love him.
We were hardly out of the ship before the octos contacted us. It’s hard to explain what it sounds like when telepathic space octos get inside your brain. It’s like a language made of math and music, sensation and emotion. You feel yourself dissolving into that weird group mind they have. But somewhere in the center is something you still consider yourself.
I’m pretty sure it would melt your circuits and give the octos total control over your thoughts and feelings, but me and Lonso and Patches had been dealing with that shit for years. We knew who we were and what to expect.
What we did not expect was the society my errant babies had created.
<Welcome, friends.> The octos spoke directly into our minds.
Thanks to the telepathic group chat, I knew Patches was offended they didn’t call us “mothers”. She had helped them get born just as much as I did. But she let it slide.
<We have been waiting.>
“For what?” I surveyed the sandy beach and the species of crabs, anemones, and the empty shells of lesser mollusks populating it. Strands of kelp lie strewn above the waterline. I picked up a sand dollar and held it in my hand. It was still alive. Tiny hairs around the opening in its shell struggled to bring food to its mouth. I whipped it back into the saltwater. It skipped along the incoming waves and disappeared.
Patches and Lonso were checking out stuff in their own ways. Lonso said, “Are we even on Titan? Because this beach is like the ones in SoCal.”
“They changed it.” Patches ran to my side and bared her little fangs. “They changed the entire moon. They used the triglyph to teleport some décor from the oceans of Earth so they could have a home. This is the result.”
“Trippy,” said Lonso. “Is that lake, like, real water or some kind of methane bullshit?”
“It’s water they got by destroying Enceladus. They salinated it using the triglyph to create a miniature sun on the far side of Titan—an energy source they used to fuse elements they needed to transform the atmosphere, raise the temperature, and do damn near anything else they wanted.”
“Sweet,” said Lonso. He stripped off his clothes. “I’m going for a swim!”
“Lonso,” I said. “We don’t—”
But he was already in the water.
Patches jumped in after him.
From the beach, I watched them frolic and splash in water that shouldn’t even exist in liquid form that far out in the solar system. I must be getting old, because there was a day when I would have been the first one in. I stripped off my combat boots and arranged the rest of my stuff in a pile on the sand before plunging in.
From every direction, octopuses swarmed me. Their suckers gripped my skin, and their arms embraced me. The added weight pulled me down, but upon sensing my distress, they brought me to the surface for air. Lonso and Patches bobbed above the waves beside me.
I sputtered and flung wet strands of hair away from my face. “You bloody bilge rats! I can’t breathe underwater!”
<Apologies. Everyone here lives in water.>
“How do you forget something like that? After all we’ve been through?!”
<Apologies. But we have never met before, though our grandmothers are legends among all the tribes of Titan.>
“Grandmothers? What the—” Then it hit me. Those little squidlings weren’t my babies at all, but their sons and daughters. If that were true, it could only mean one thing.
The octos followed my train of thought as fast I could think it.
<Their final thoughts were of you. As the light of life dimmed inside our parents, and we were tiny things taking shape inside our eggs, they communicated their knowledge and history to us.>
Patches had made herself at home, curled up and purring on the squishy, bulbous head of an octo who appeared perfectly content to be her throne. She let out a polysyllabic mew.
<Yes, even your languages.>
“What about math?”
<Would you like to hear our proof of the Riemann hypothesis?>
Hell. Even I hadn’t cracked that one, and I’d made a hobby of proving or disproving unsolved math problems. The Riemann hypothesis proposes that the non-trivial zeroes of the zeta function—oh, bloody hell. I’ll explain later.
I said, “Of course I do. But something like that could take hours. Maybe we should—”
<No. It’s simplicity itself.>
They sang me the solution. Objectively, it took no time at all. Subjectively, it was fucking epic. Imagine you took every Beethoven symphony and compressed them all into a single second, and you’ll have an approximate idea of what I experienced.
Poor Patches and Lonso. They got hit with it, too, and neither of them has my understanding of higher-level math. We’re lucky they didn’t get their brains burned to a cinder.
The solution itself was gorgeous. Intricate, complex, and rigorous, it involved a kind of math no one on Earth had ever seen before, even the nerds working on Monster set theory and higher-dimensional topology.
But the way the octos laid it out, from the basic premises to their surprising ramifications, it all made perfect sense. Compared to Beethoven it was, to my mind, even more rapturous—a beautiful re-imagining of how the universe works, a million melodies intertwined, a fundamental re-thinking of math itself that at first felt like gazing into the sun until you go blind. Then everything came into focus again, with crystal clarity and the last echoes of a symphony lingering in my ears.
“Curse me for a papist,” I said. “When did you come up with that?”
<Ten minutes before you landed. We sensed your approach and felt we should have an appropriate gift for our grandmothers.>
“Right, then.” They did all that in ten minutes? The Riemann hypothesis had stumped everyone for two hundred years! “I don’t even know what to say. That was—that was perfect. Perfect in every way. You should be proud of yourselves.”
Lonso looked like he had been hit by an eighteen-wheeler. I think if my babies—sorry, my grandbabies—hadn’t been holding him afloat, he would have sunk to the bottom. “Tía,” he said, “what the fuck was that? I saw fractals and crazy shapes and colors, and all this music and—”
“I’ll explain later,” I said, “but that’s what it’s like when they’ve solved a math problem.”
“I saw the music. I tasted it. That was math?”
“That was brilliance.”
“Whatever the hell it was, it was fuckin’ rad. Made LSD look like a cup of coffee.”
Patches meowed her agreement. Not that she’s ever taken LSD. Not that I know of.
But something my grandbabies said raised a question. “You said ‘the tribes of Titan’. Who are these tribes?”
<Would you like to meet them? We wanted to introduce you, but we forgot you would drown.>
Lonso said, “Hey, I got an idea. We got some spacesuits on the Hyades. There’s no reason we couldn’t use them for an underwater dive. I mean, except for Patches. We don’t have a cat-sized suit.”
“Something tells me she’ll be fine. Baby kitty?”
She squinted at me a couple of times to show she was totally fine with the idea.
That’s how the three of us became the first mammals to explore Titan’s lakes.
Titan had lakes long before the octos arrived. The lakes were made of liquid methane and, in some cases, ethane. Titan had, for millennia, possessed clouds that produced rain and snow, too—a complete “water” cycle like Earth’s, but with elements made from hydrogen and carbon instead of hydrogen and oxygen.
The largest of Titan’s ancient methane lakes dwarfed Earth’s largest inland, freshwater seas—at least as far as surface area goes. On the other hand, many of them were incredibly shallow, only a few meters deep. The deepest was about 170 kilometers to the bottom. All those lakes had familiar forms around them: tributaries, gullies, deltas, fjords. Some contained islands.
But the giant lake basins were not carved by glaciers. Instead, they formed from underground gas explosions, sort of like volcanic crater lakes you might have seen before.
No one could dispute the natural beauty of those lakes, but they were unfit for life from Earth’s oceans. When the octos and the triglyph had their terraforming adventure, they filled in dry lake beds and depressions in the surface with good old dihydrogen monoxide—H2O. They also made their fusion factory work overtime to convert the atmosphere, because what’s the use of having some nice saltwater to swim in if methane is just going to rain down and poison it?
I explained all this to Lonso as we suited up and prepared for our dive. Some of it I knew from my own research, and the rest I gleaned from my babies’ group mind on my previous visit.
Soon, we were soon ready to go exploring with my little grand-mutants. The only delay was coming up with a harness and tether to connect Patches to my suit. I mean, she can swim just fine, but we decided it would be easier if she wasn’t constantly struggling to stay submerged and could just swim at my side—or, you know, be a total lazy butt while I handled the swimming.
Finally, I needed suitable weapons to strap to the suit. I had no idea what we might encounter, but I wasn’t going into the unknown unarmed. The problem was that the fingers of my suit were too bulky to handle the trigger on a standard pistol or rifle. I settled on knives, grenades, and a sawed-off semi-auto I’d modified for use with a spacesuit.
I got a machete and grenades for Lonso, and we were ready for a night on the Titanic town. We locked up the Hyades and waded into the lake where the octos waited.
On the way down, we discovered there were way more than the original twenty octos I’d left behind. Octopuses lay anywhere from hundreds to thousands of eggs. On Earth, most of those babies are eaten by natural predators. On Titan, they had none.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But if nobody is culling your species, then food becomes a major problem. After all, octos need to eat, and if no one is eating you, then you either need to get smart right quick about raising food or die from starvation.
They chose the former.
As the octos guided us down through the Titanic waters, they introduced us to gardens of meat. They had become farmers of the lifeforms they needed to survive: crabs, polychaete worms, clams, and other basically brainless animals they loved to snack on.
All up and down the craggy slopes below the surface of Titan’s new seas, thousands of octopuses tended their gardens. The aquaculture extended far beyond my field of vision, beginning in the light from our headlamps and stretching into blackness that might as well have been eternal. Hunger knows no bounds.
Lonso and Patches wanted to make sushi. Not that I blame them. But I had a bit of a problem with the idea of mind-controlling every species in sight just to make them into food. I mean, it was a crazy efficient idea, but was it right?
We dove deeper.
I checked my oxygen to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating. I called out, “Patches? Lonso?”
Lonso responded in my helmet.
Patches drifted by my side. I sensed all the seafood was making her hungry. Iridescent scales of a thousand colors dashed around us in a living rainbow constantly shifting and reorganizing into something never seen before. I reached out a hand and almost touched the beauty before it sped away.
My grandbabies explained that we had entered the zone of fish they did not eat. They had tried to teach telepathy to those fish, with mixed results. Most fish, despite their ability to feel emotion and pain, are not intelligent enough to maintain telepathy on their own.
But the octos, in the years I’d been away from them, had discovered the fish could achieve a rudimentary group mind with the proper support.
Debate about that development had gone on for some time. It would have taken you and me several years. But when you are dealing with telepathic octos, it only takes a few minutes. The speed of thought is an amazing thing.
The short version is: They left the fishes alone to cohabitate in all their colorful glory and decided against extending their telepathic gifts to the species they needed to eat. None of the octos had the stomach to grant self-awareness to their food.
Lonso, Patches, and I descended past the coastal farms and the deeper realms of those independent tribes the octopuses allowed to survive. All those organisms were known to us. Then my grand-squiddos revealed their biggest surprise.
They presented me with a single glass bottle. Where the hell did they get glass on that godforsaken rock? It must have been something they crafted in those brief days when they had the triglyph at their beck and call to make anything and everything they imagined.
Even more mysterious was the horde of tiny microbes inside the vessel. I have better eyesight than most, but I couldn’t see them without the octos zooming in my vision and telling me just what the hell I was looking at.
Inside their little vial swam hundreds of thousands of single-celled organisms. Every one of them thrived in a methane-rich environment that would have instantly killed any organism on Earth.
Those little bastards. My octos had discovered an entirely new lifeform, and they hadn’t even bothered to call me.
“Lonso,” I said, “check this out.”
He said, “Is that methane?”
“Nothing can survive in that.”
“No,” I said, “it can’t.”
He drew closer. Patches seemed unconcerned. I guess when you can survive in any environment, evolving to survive on Titan probably isn’t a big deal.
But it was a big deal to me. “Babies,” I said, “where did you find this?”
I’ll spare you everything they told me. Cephalopods are notoriously long-winded. The short version is: Their parents discovered native life on Titan in the form of unicellular animals. Before the triglyph buggered off to parts unknown, they preserved a handful of specimens.
A tentacle full? Whatever.
Even after the triglyph disappeared, my babies reached out with their minds and contacted a million billion organisms living in the methane lakes around them. It wasn’t the easiest telepathy. Imagine trying to teach kindergarteners about calculus.
But the octos were nothing if not patient, and far more patient than I’ll ever be. They tried to connect my mind to those methane microbes, but it wasn’t really working for me. It was like trying to explain Jackson Pollock to a cockroach. Or chess to an ant.
Lonso, however, was undaunted. He said, “Micro bros, what the fuck? How long you guys been living here?”
They gave him an answer that compressed hundreds of millions of years into the present moment and just about fried his circuits. I grabbed the shoulder of his dive suit and shook it as hard as I could while screaming at him.
His eyes sprang open.
I locked my eyes on his. “Puta madre! Look at me!”
His pupils bounced back and forth for a second before he locked onto my gaze. “Tía,” he said, “we gotta save them.”
Fuck. I was afraid he’d say something like that.
The problem with the brilliant new lifeform was that it had evolved to live in methane lakes. Other than inspecting the tiny sample I held in my hand, my grand-octos hadn’t studied the animals other than telepathically, at a distance from a lake beyond the horizon behind jagged peaks and unconquerable terrain.
To make matters worse, microbes have never been the best conversationalists.
The octos worried that the long-term effect of interfering with the hydrocarbon “water” cycle would result in Titan’s first extinction. H2O would completely replace methane in the atmosphere and bring an end to native life on Titan.
They had set out to create a utopia, but they had begun a genocide. The octos appealed to me to do something about that tragedy.
The only solution was for us to take a large supply of the methane “water” containing those organisms so I could sequence whatever crazy strands of chemicals they used instead of DNA, record their biological processes and structures, and preserve the endangered animals.
I admit I wasn’t thrilled about the idea. But Lonso wouldn’t let it go, so we did it anyway.
Lonso removed his helmet and set it on the pilot’s seat inside the Hyades. “We can do it, you know.”
I said, “We need a way to transport a bunch of methane, cooled to a liquid state. Maybe we could convert the old octo tank?”
“Word,” said Lonso. “I got an idea.” He picked up the journal I had lying beside my bed.
“Don’t touch that.”
“Just look.” He sketched out his idea in pencil.
The diagram made a lot of sense. I spent a moment in thought with other questions. What would happen if anyone else found about this? What kind of scumbags would start going to Titan to exploit these animals? How the fuck did those things make chromosomes without any phosphorus?
“Lonso, how many hours will it take for us to build this?”
“Depends on how much Anarchy Ale we’re hiding on this tub. The real question is: How much is it worth to you to get in on the ground floor of a whole new lifeform?”
I took a seat beside him on my bed and snatched my journal from his hands. “Don’t ever touch that again. I need a lab, and a fuckton of staff.”
“That sounds like a yes.”
Patches leapt into my lap. “Fine. Will you tell the octopuses?” I brushed a stray lock of hair away from my face. “Nevermind. They already know.”
Lonso said, “It’s funny. Most people think of you as a killer. Look at you now.”
I rubbed my eyes. “Lonso, I never wanted kids. But somehow, I ended up being a mother to all these goddamn species.”
“Life’s fucked up, tía.”
“Ain’t that the truth.”
We smoked a joint then got to work.
“Puta madre,” said Alonso. “That was the last of the rum.”
“No worries,” said Mags. “We’ll be at the Jolly before you know it.”
“I hope so.”
In the vast darkness between planets, Mags lit a candle and placed it in a candleholder. She set it on the back of her keyboard. She played a couple of chords, adjusted the volume and EQ, then played the chords again. Satisfied, she closed her eyes and sang.
On Earth, stars twinkle in the atmosphere. In the vast emptiness of space, they stare unblinking at everything in the reach of their ancient gaze. They never flinch.
Alonso wiped tears from his face. On the last chorus, he joined his oldest living friend in harmony. He lent a rich baritone to her soprano, and though she had intended the performance as a solo piece, she could not have been happier that he was there to create a moment with her.
Titan faded into the distance. Saturn faded into the distance.
Mags felt closer than ever to her friends.
 Mags refers to the events of Pieces of Eight, which immediately precede this story.
 A very general summary of events in Blind Alley Blues and subsequent stories such as Small Flowers and Farewell Tour.
 As recounted in The Crystal Core.
 Mags refers to the “far side” of Titan as the one that permanently faces away from Saturn. Titan is tidally locked with Saturn, so one side of Titan is always facing the ringed planet—which appears quite a few times larger in its sky than Earth’s Moon does on Earth.