The following scenes are from Part Three of the next Meteor Mags adventure, The Battle of Vesta 4. They conclude our sneak peek at the as-yet unpublished tale which should be available by the end of the year.
At this point in the story, most of Mags’ crew has been split up to engage the invaders in different locations. Mags dons the suit Tarzi and Celina gave her for her birthday, a body suit woven from Patches’ indestructible hair. Over it she wears a Faraday suit which protects her from electricity, because she has revealed that she secretly kept another trio of the cybernetic, bio-electric sea creatures we encountered in Red Metal at Dawn and Daughter of Lightning.
If you haven’t joined Mags’ merry band of interplanetary outlaws yet, you can pick up the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition and Rings of Ceres absolutely free as ebooks from Smashwords until the end of July 2018.
“Lonso,” Mags shouted into the small black square in her hand. “Lonso! Pick the fuck up!”
“Tía, is that you? Kind of busy here.”
“Keep it that way. I can see you from down here on the rim.” When nothing but a crackling static answered her, Mags smacked the phone twice against her palm. “Are you there?”
“Are you trying to bash my eardrums in? Jesus! I hear you fine.”
“Excuse me for living! Lonso, kill as many of these fuckers as you can. But stay the hell away from the main ship in orbit. I’ve been on one before, and they’ve got you outgunned. Understand?”
“Not really. You got some kind of plan?”
Mags considered what she intended, and even the System’s most reckless pirate would have been hard-pressed to consider it much of a plan. “Just take care of the small ships. I’ll handle the—”
An explosion cut her off. Her phone went silent. Fuming at the bright battle above her, she stuffed the square into her bra. She sealed the calico body suit over it and pulled down the Faraday mask. “I guess it’s just you and me now. You ready?”
Her cybernetic mantas circled around her and sliced the Vestan air with their tails. If they felt any emotion, it was too deeply encoded in their circuits to show.
Inside her mesh helmet, Mags sensed their agreement. “We’ll fly over those fuckers on the ground and give them something they’ll never forget. Who wants to give me a lift?”
One manta broke formation and hovered within arm’s reach. Mags beckoned it closer and lower. She crawled up and laid on top of it. Her belly pressed into the manta’s back. Her hands found a firm grip where its wings met its head. “Manta Force, let’s ride.”
The foursome took to the air. The mantas made an inverted V formation. Like an arrow, they flew away from the hangar. The ground dropped away, and the arrow changed course to sweep past the fallen club. Mags scowled, but she spoke not a word.
Alonso’s hastily assembled fighting force had drawn the aerial battle to the opposite side of the crater. Explosions remained visible above the scarred landscape. Fiery trails traced the final descent of friends and foes alike. New craters formed where ships crashed and exploded.
Following Rheasilvia’s curve, the mantas approached the landing zone. There, a dragon squad placed explosives to destroy any ships left on the ground. Mags pulled herself forward into a crouch and prepared to leap. At her mental command, the lead manta swooped toward the dragons.
Mags dropped as silently as a lioness from the sky. Her mantas dived after her. Two insulated heels caught a dragon in the shoulders and smacked him face-first into the dirt. Mags rolled away and sprang to her feet. With a roundhouse kick, she smashed the nearest reptile in the ribs. “Mantas,” she shouted, “fry these motherfuckers!”
A swirling cloud of electric power erupted. Within a diameter of three meters around the pirate, her enemies danced like puppets on a madman’s strings. White tendrils outlined in fiery blue consumed them and charred them to cinders inside their armor.
A savage smile blossomed on the smuggler’s lips. Lightning coursed around her Faraday suit. “I will take you all to hell! Manta Force, let me in!”
The storm ceased. Mags raised her Benelli shotgun to her shoulder. It blasted eight times in half as many seconds. Each slug tore through a different target’s armor. Sprays of reptilian blood splattered across the rugged landscape. “Reloading,” she shouted. “Get back to killing!”
Her mantas responded. But in the smuggler’s frenzy, she had underestimated her opponents. At the edge of the fray, a dragon ran higher up the slope. He leapt from the rocky crater with a shriek of rage. His hands gripped the reptiles’ weapon of choice: the electric rod which had tortured Mags more than two years before.
The implement crackled with power. Its display rivaled Mags’ cybernetic creatures. The monster drove it into a manta from above.
The resulting explosion blasted Mags off her feet. Her head struck stone. White light filled her eyes. Pain stabbed her brain like a red-hot needle. Shards of dragon and manta pelted her like a rain of meat-covered metal. They tore the mesh of her Faraday suit and bruised her skin beneath the protective covering of her calico-hair armor.
In her mind, she felt the two remaining mantas circling her. Mags raised her hand to wipe her hair from her eyes, but the gesture made no difference inside her suits.
She stumbled to her feet. “Bloody bastards!” One hand shoved three-inch slugs into the shotgun.
Above her, two dragons caught onto the idea of the attack and tried to replicate it. Mags blasted one with three rounds to the torso. As his body fell to the ground, the other succeeded. His electric rod pierced a second manta’s metallic skin even as his blood boiled and his organs cooked.
The rod’s electricity exploded the manta into oblivion. Pain disabled Mags. She fell backwards onto the unforgiving surface.
Dozens of remaining dragons descended on her. Before blacking out, she thought: that was a damn good run.
A reptile poised above her. He raised his lance into the sky and prepared to bludgeon her. Even if he could not pierce her armor, the weapon could beat her to a pulp inside it. The dragon unleashed a roar of conquest.
It was cut short by an equally ferocious howl.
From the edge of the battle leapt a demon garbed in black, brown, and white. Patches caught the attacking dragon in the throat. She buried her front claws in the soft tissue exposed between his helmet and chest plate. Impervious hind claws raked his armor until they found the tender meat below and shot blood into the air.
The dragon hit the ground.
Patches stood over Mags’ motionless form. Her tail snapped this way and that like a whip. Static rippled around her bushy coat and made every hair stand on end.
Mags stirred inside her armors. Her world changed from an indistinct blur into a picture of her calico companion facing down her enemies. Mags’ hair and sweat nearly blinded her, but she could make out the reptiles congregating on her position. Before she completed the sentence, “Destroy these bastards,” Patches was airborne and assaulting the next target.
Mags pushed herself to her feet. A fist to her face interrupted her. She sprawled on her back. A reptilian scream filled the atmosphere. Mags raised her shotgun and fired. A slug ripped a hole in the dragon’s center mass and destroyed his lungs. Mags fired again. The attacker fell on her. She shoved the carcass aside.
Blood streamed down her mesh Faraday suit. A dozen reptiles remained. Mags chose the nearest one and pulled the trigger. “Manta! Kill these sons of bitches! All of them!”
The last remaining manta responded to her command. A ball of lightning expanded from its core.
Fearing her torn suit made her vulnerable to the current, Mags scrambled backwards.
Patches remembered fighting an electric cyborg made from Mags’ DNA little more than a month before. She bounded clear of the coruscating energy. It devoured everything in its path.
As the manta circled, a fallen dragon held fast to his electric rod. He thrust it into the air and intercepted the manta. For a third and final time, as the dragon’s comrades roasted alive in their scales and battle gear, a pain like a thousand migraines drove Mags to her knees. She screamed. The manta burst into a shower of brilliant light and sharp fragments. They ripped through Mags’ Faraday suit before striking the asteroid’s surface.
Seven dragons outside the perimeter of destruction gathered their senses and closed in. Patches bolted up one of their legs, seeking the vulnerable meat below the armor. Her claws left gouges in their wake.
As her victim fell, Plutonian appeared, at last catching up to the fleet-footed calico. With a shotgun identical to the one Mags held, he advanced. His slugs ripped open first one dragon’s helmet, then three more. Reptilian brains scattered in chunks across the Vestan tableau. When a dragon stumbled toward him, the DJ emptied his last bullets into it.
His surprise attack left one enemy standing. As the beast descended on him, Mags appeared behind it. She raised the shotgun barrel to its head and squeezed the trigger.
A torrent of blood splashed Plutonian. He did not flinch. He stared death in the eye and did not fear it. Though he would never tell Mags or Patches, he had, for a moment, welcomed it.
Mags pulled back the Faraday helmet and calico-hair face mask. She scooped up Patches. “Hell yeah! I’ll teach a reptile to fuck with my friends!”
Patches batted playfully at her, speaking words only Mags or another cat could understand.
“Does their blood really taste like that? Gross!” Lifting Patches above eye level, Mags spun in a celebratory dance of the violence they inflicted. “Who are the baddest of the bad?!” She kissed Patches on the nose. “That’s right, sweetie. You and me.” With her adrenal glands still working overtime, Mags laughed and cuddled her kitten. “Bring it on, bitches.”
Plutonian stood quietly over the carnage, knee-deep in mangled reptilian bodies. He lowered the shotgun like a flag at half-mast. His shoulders slumped forward, and a dark cloud passed over his face.
Mags stopped rubbing her face against Patches. “What’s wrong?”
Patches answered first.
Mags whispered, “Tesla? Oh, no!”
“Yeah.” Plutonian’s eyes did not meet hers. They fixed on the ground without seeking to understand its rugged formations and lifeless colors.
Mags set Patches down and hugged him. With one hand, Mags held the DJ’s head against her shoulder and let him tremble in her embrace. “We will have a ceremony for him. For everyone we lost tonight. But right now—”
He stepped away and reached into his pocket for more shells. “Right now, we have a whole lot more of these motherfuckers to kill.” He made no effort to dry the tears on his face.
“My thoughts exactly, lover.”
Her choice of words stunned him. She had never addressed him that way before.
“Follow me,” Mags ordered. “We’re going to my hangar.” She stormed off.
He caught up and stopped her with a hand on her arm. “You know what it’s like, Mags?”
She faced him. “What what’s like?”
“It’s like everywhere I look, the solar system is hideous, except when you’re in the picture. Then it’s awesome. All of it.”
“Young man, that might be the nicest compliment I’ve heard since 1938.” She resumed her journey up the ragged Rheasilvian slope. “In case you’re wondering, I do and don’t feel the same way. It’s true, things are pretty fucked up. But I see awesomeness everywhere I spend a second with Celina, and Tarzi, and—”
Patches, having scampered ahead, stopped to look over her shoulder and howl at Mags.
“Baby kitty!” Mags laughed and laughed. “The only reason you weren’t listed first was because things aren’t anywhere near awesome with you.”
Patches twitched her ears and scowled.
“They’re way beyond awesome. Nothing even comes close.”
Patches rubbed a paw over one eye and shook her head in a miniature flurry. She dashed across the rocks faster than the humans could follow, scouting for danger.
Mags raised her eyebrows. “See what I gotta deal with?”
Plutonian could only laugh.
Mags continued her trek. “Plutes, I don’t want to kid you. Patches will outlive me, for sure. That’s sad for her, because she’ll miss me. We talked about it. But it’s the same thing with you and me. Sooner or later, it hurts as much for me to watch you go as it does for you to say good-bye. I just—I don’t know.”
Plutonian labored to keep up with her nimble advance. “What do Celina and Fuzz do about it?”
“They talked, I guess. He knows she’ll outlive him. Assuming natural causes.”
“And what? Even before what happened to us in the Dreamtime, she’s known love from everyone she meets. How could she not? Have you met her? You know what she’s like. Tell me you haven’t thought about it.”
“Fine. I thought about it. Celina and I totally hook up and live a life in paradise—absolute paradise—for eternity.”
“Then you know. You can’t meet her and not feel that. She’s like magnetic or something. She never had a problem finding lovers.”
He paused below her on the crater to catch his breath and kick aside a pile of stones. “What are we even talking about, Mags? My dying first? I was on the MFA’s death list before you were, if we’re keeping score.”
She held out her hand from above, and he gripped it. “Right on, Dr. P. You’ve got great taste in music, and you’re aces with a shotgun.” She pulled him up. “What do you say we kill as many fascists as we can before we die, and make this godforsaken System a place where people can rock the fuck out again?”
“If that’s all you wanted, why didn’t you just say so?”
“I’m pretty sure I did.”
Vestan wind carried away his grim chuckle.
Inside Mags’ private hangar, Donny and Fuzzlow worked shoulder-to-shoulder to get the Queen Anne combat-worthy.
Fuzzlow asked, “What’s that on your tool cart?”
“Just a little something I’ve been working on in my spare time.” Donny tightened a bolt with his pneumatic wrench. “A plasma cannon.”
Fuzzlow clamped two wires together and soldered them. “You can’t be serious.”
“Plasma’s the wave of the future,” said the former space miner. He set down his tools and leaned his back against the hull of the Queen Anne. “When we were kids, we were all in love with laser guns. Stupid fuckin’ movies.” He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. “Lasers ain’t shit. Plasma’s where it’s at. If we get it under control, we’ll tear the whole System apart with it.” Donny grabbed a bottle of rum by the handle and chugged four shots’ worth. “Next?”
“Donny, take it easy, man! We need to get this ship ready to fly.”
“Fuck it.” Donny pressed the bottle into his bandmate’s hand. “I don’t want to die sober.”
Fuzzlow considered the dark liquid. “Neither do I, mate.” While Donny laughed, Fuzzlow matched him ounce for ounce.
Donny tilted his head in response to the music playing on the shop’s speakers. “Hey. Is that the Aussie band doing that sunrise song?”
“Yeah,” said Fuzz. “Powderfinger. And it’s Sunsets. Damn, I love this jam.” He rested the rum against his leg, and his eyes watered over. “We should cover this sometime. It always makes me think of C.”
“You and Celina seem pretty tight.”
“You could say that.” Fuzzlow sang along for a moment. His deep bass voice formed a harmony that perfectly complemented the jam. “Donny?”
“I love that woman so much it hurts.”
“I hear you, brother. She’s something else. More than a bangin’ bod. She’s got soul like you wouldn’t believe. And she’s great with the kids here.” Donny swiped the rum from his bandmate. “You two ever think of getting married?”
While Donny gulped a few more shots, Fuzzlow said, “I think we already did.”
Donny spat a spray of alcohol. “What?! You didn’t ask me to be your best man?”
“Not like that, dog. Not officially. I just can’t imagine being with anyone else. It’s pretty serious.”
“I know what you mean, bro. I felt that way about my second wife.”
“Where is she now?”
The saxophonist scowled. “Rotting in hell, if there’s any justice.” Donny picked up his wrench and looked at its scratchy silver surface like an old friend he’d almost forgot. “What do you say we fix up this ship, so Mags can ram it right down the lizards’ goddamn throats?”
“Hand me that transistor. I almost got the guidance system done.”
Mags and Plutonian barged in. Patches followed leisurely, marking everything in her path with the scent glands in her cheeks, clawing a corner here and there.
The pirate announced, “I heard that!”
Donny said, “I swear you have the hearing of a cat.”
Fuzzlow set down his soldering iron. “Mags! Is Celina okay?”
“Right as rain, last I saw. She and Tarzi are cocked, locked, and ready to fuck up some reptiles. She has her phone with her, dude.”
“Shit. Listen, when the Queen Anne is ready to fly, take Donny and Plutes and go give her crew some back up. I took out the ground forces, thanks to these two. All we have now are those creeps in the tunnels and that floating monstrosity in orbit.”
“She’s ready as she’ll ever be,” said Donny. “Power’s up. Flight systems are go. The landing gear is still fucked, and the hull isn’t 100 percent.” Donny pointed to irreparable sections as he spoke. “Massive body damage all over. Weapons systems are not all online. But you don’t want to engage the bigger ship in a gunfight anyway. To fix everything, we need tools we don’t have here.”
Fuzzlow said, “I don’t even know how you got her home in the shape she was in.”
Mags said, “Alcohol helped. Can we get airborne, or what?”
“That she can do,” said Donny.
Fuzzlow said, “We’d need to take her to Mars to do it right. Get her into one of their shipyards. I don’t have the faintest idea how we’d make that happen.”
Mags set her hand on his shoulder. “Don’t worry about that. She won’t make it to Mars. Or anywhere else.” Before the full gravity of her statement could sink in, she continued. “But we do have a trip to Mars in our future, because I’ll need a new ride after this caper.”
Plutonian looked concerned. “What do you have planned, Mags?”
“Just what Donny said. Ram this ship right down their goddamn throats. I will bring these reptiles a rain of slaughter like they’ve never seen before. Any of you blokes have a fag for your favorite auntie?”
Donny reached into a drawer in his tool cart and tossed her a pack.
“Thank you, dear. Let’s fire it up.” Mags boarded the ship and ran a systems check. Donny was correct about not everything being online. The control console showed more blinking red lights than steady green. Mags considered the job she had planned. She shook her head and rejoined her friends. “Close enough. Thanks, guys. Did I ever tell you how much I love you?”
Fuzzlow said, “Once. When you were drunk after the gig on Varuna 19.”
“Oh, god,” said Donny. “You were so hammered that night.”
Mags exhaled a plume of smoke. “We played Varuna 19?”
Fuzz opened a cooler and handed her a beer. “It’s one of our most popular bootlegs. But, yeah. You told us you loved us. You even let Donny touch your boobs.”
“What?! I did not!”
“You totally did,” Donny lied.
“You guys are yanking my chain. But you know what? I love you anyway.” She hugged them both. Tears glistened on her cheeks. “I mean that, you scurvy pirates.” Then she pulled Plutonian into her embrace and gave him a kiss that lasted several minutes.
Donny and Fuzzlow exchanged questioning glances. They had never seen their exhibitionistic friend accept any intimate contact. She appeared disinterested in humans in that way.
Donny said, “Damn, dude. Let’s have a beer and watch the fireworks.”
“You can if you want,” said Fuzzlow, “but I’m finding Celina.” He gathered up his things and left the hangar with Donny right behind him.
Plutonian caught up a few minutes later.