I expected to have the next Meteor Mags episode published by now, but its piratical madness spawned two more short stories I want to finish and include when it goes to print. The main episode, though, is basically done and so is the supplemental material like Mags’ guest columns in Asteroid Underground.
So, in the meantime, I’ve been taking scenes to my local authors’ workshops for fine-tuning. I’ve come to value feedback from critique groups so much that I started one of my own. If you’re a writer in Phoenix on a Thursday night, come join us for a group feedback session. And if you’re not in Phoenix, then kick back and enjoy the pre-publication draft. It won’t be here once I get the next book together!
This story has graphic violence, profanity, off-color humor, and cats.
Excerpted from the draft of Voyage of the Calico Tigress, volume six of The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
Crest after endless foamy crest arose, rolled along her rusty flanks, and was lost in the narrowing wake astern. All waters were alike to the Wanderer. Every last one was made to be split and rolled back along rusty hulls. All you needed was the power to do the splitting and, so far as the Wanderer was concerned, that flowed from her engines with the fidelity of the tides.
—Delos W. Lovelace; King Kong, 1932.
Voyage of the Calico Tigress
Our Story So Far
Prologue: The Aftermath
Part One: Radiant Graves
Part Two: Sentient Tentacles
Epilogue: Overlord of Darkness
OUR STORY SO FAR
The smuggler Meteor Mags and her criminal crew survived their suicide mission to Ceres—but just barely. They encountered Mags’ old friend Alonso, a musician from Kaufman’s favorite band. The pirates stole the freighter he worked on and almost killed him, but Alonso was too happy to see Mags to hold a grudge.
The storm on Ceres separated the crew from Kaufman and Patches: the treasonous official and Mags’ practically indestructible calico cat. Patches rescued Kaufman, but not before he took a beating from the tornado. They escaped in his stealth spacecraft.
On Vesta 4, where Mags and Patches swore to reunite, Kaufman’s son Anton awaits his father’s return. At Mags’ request, Sarah promised to show Anton around and take care of him. They help repair damage the club suffered in the cyborg incident.
On Earth, Mags’ “nephew” Tarzi studies a book she found which may reveal the origin of their reptilian enemies. She has also inspired her friend Slim to create a new field of mathematics; and with it, help her create a system to distribute free, unlimited energy throughout the Belt.
But despite their efforts, in the vast darkness of the asteroids and beyond, forces gather which threaten them all.
Prologue: The Aftermath
It was a dark and stormy night on Ceres. Though four and a half billion years had passed since its violent formation, the planetoid had never hosted such a monumental downpour. Compared to the rampaging whirlwinds of Jupiter, this tempest was a small and transient affair, certainly not the boiling cauldrons that churned for centuries on the gas giants. But for Ceres, tonight’s symphony of destruction had set the bar for darkness and storminess to an all-time high.
The monstrous tornado had destroyed much more than the landing zone and administrative buildings of von Zach Division. Relentlessly advancing beyond the warehousing district, it assaulted the Ceresian water-processing facilities.
The asteroid’s once-icy surface and the frozen reserves below its mantle had become the single greatest source of water for human consumption in the Belt. The water also served as radiation shielding and propellant for spacecraft, making it one of Ceres’ chief exports and a centerpiece of the extraterrestrial economy.
But no more. The mega-cyclone pulled the processing stations apart. Their contents spewed into its savage funnels and past the upper atmosphere where, once again, the water crystallized into the solid form it had enjoyed for a million centuries before humanity’s interference. Within a few days, Ceres’ artificial gravity would draw the ice crystals into rings like those of Saturn, peppered here and there with human remains.
The carnage encircling the planet from above paled in comparison to the suffering below. In the driving rain, thousands of Ceresian citizens clambered through the wreckage of their homes, their possessions, and their lives. Once-orderly streets became paths of ragged rubble filled with cries of loss and mourning long after the tornado had exhausted its fury and ebbed into mere turbulence.
Despite the fresh devastation scarring its stony hide, Ceres maintained a cool detachment well-suited to its unimaginably long existence. If Ceres felt anything as it observed the affliction and geologic catastrophe the tornado created, it was a kinship with the tiny cat who had just left the asteroid—a calico who, like Ceres, was destined to outlive every other being who had survived that night.
Immortals, after all, so rarely cross paths.
PART ONE: RADIANT GRAVES
Patches pawed furiously at Kaufman’s tablet. In one of the four passenger seats aboard the man’s tiny stealth spacecraft, she stood over the device and batted at the screen. Its glow illuminated the ragged tufts of fur she had yet to groom since braving the tornado to rescue him.
But instead of responding to her touch, the tablet displayed a cartoon face. Below the icon’s lopsided frown flashed the words: Sorry, we cannot connect right now. Please try again soon.
Patches howled her displeasure at the administrator hunched over the ship’s console. Kaufman held his head in his hands. When he glanced over his shoulder and turned away, her rage redoubled. The sound which issued from her throat shot his heart as full of fear as the sudden scream of a child.
“Patches!” Kaufman shouted. “What is it?” He spun his seat around to face her, searching his soul for the power to stand.
Patches beheld the human wreckage before her. Being blown across the tarmac had transmuted Kaufman’s impeccably groomed uniform into a thing of rags and wisps of thread that wished for anything to hold. Blood soaked the remnants of its blue-gray fabric, staining the tatters a deep maroon of damage and pain. Over this damp mantle laid a crust of regolith and filth the storm had abused him with. Bruises covered his exposed skin and face.
None of it bought him any mercy from another howl. The disgruntled calico hunched her back and raked her claws across the seat again and again. Its cloth and stuffing offered no resistance. They piled up on the tablet as Patches single-mindedly buried it.
Kaufman sighed. The meaning of her gesture was clear, even to someone who lacked Mags’ facility with feline language. The device had proven as useful as a turd to the patchwork princess, and it would be buried like one. But what use could a cat possibly have for a tablet? “Bad kitty, Patches!”
She scowled at his scolding and hissed a warning. Lowering her head, she dug the hole in the seat with even more intensity.
“Patches!” Kaufman pleaded. He pushed himself up from his seat with one arm and reached for the tablet.
Her eyes blazed at him with wild fury.
“Just let me see it, okay?”
She considered his offer before sitting back and licking her paw.
He seized the device. Its apologetic display left him unsurprised. Signals could only enter or exit the ship with his authorization when it was in full stealth mode. Seeing no reason why this should matter to a cat, he set the tablet on the copilot’s chair.
In frustration, Patches leapt onto the console. She peered through the window at the specks of fire burning in the vastness. They shone like radiant graves. Filled with enough mass, they could eventually drag time itself into their gravity and never release it.
Yet they were the furnaces responsible for creating all the matter that composed her body. In their light, Patches saw the beginning and end of everything. It suggested that despite her recently acquired durability, even she might be destroyed by stellar forces.
She had no wish to test the idea. She only wanted to send a message to her companion in all things adventurous: Meteor Mags. Like most cats, Patches had zero patience for anything which denied her will.
Kaufman, too, considered his mortality. His dirty crust formed cement which relieved him, for the moment, of the peril of bleeding to death. But he had wounds he could neither reach nor see, all of which needed cleaning. Some required more serious attention. “This is not what I had in mind for a holiday.”
When she mewed kindly at him, he found the strength to smile with the corner of his mouth—grimly, but with a spark of determination in his eye. He rose and opened the medical locker on the cabin’s wall. “So, Patches. The life of a criminal, is it?”
Her reply sounded so much like an aye from Mags that the administrator almost believed she could understand him.
Patches purred and swished her tail. She more than understood Kaufman. She was thrilled he had mentioned one of her favorite songs: Life of a Criminal by MC Pooh. Since meeting the octopus, she had developed a keen interest in gangster rap, the result of sharing Mags’ memories of the West Coast. Maybe when Kaufman got cleaned up, she thought, he would take her to a bar. Spinning records at the last one had been so much fun.
Kaufman gulped a pair of pain pills from a bottle. He stared at the label, but the letters blurred and smeared together. Disregarding the unreadable warning, he swallowed another pill and drained a canteen of its water. Exhausted by the task, he steadied himself against the wall with one hand, hung his head, and took a deep breath.
Ice packs next, he thought. Keep the swelling down. Might have to elevate the foot. Ow. Definitely the foot. Something’s broken.
They would not reach Vesta for hours, so the man slowly undressed. Wincing, he tugged at his ragged shirt. It peeled away from his body, ripping open freshly forming scabs one-by-one. The cloth fibers embedded in his skin gripped his flesh and pulled it away from the meat. The skin lifted in the shape of a row of tents, staked to the ground yet swelling from an unexpected wind.
Kaufman shuddered. With a groan he made no effort to suppress, he ripped off the remainder of his shirt in a single motion. The pain gave rise to the beast in Kaufman’s soul. Clenching his fists, he lifted his head and roared.
Patches purred with approval. She flicked her ears this way and that at the uncivilized primate song filling the cabin. A movement in the distance caught her eye. Her head bobbed inquisitively, pointing her nose to different spots on the window glass. She saw only a moving speck in the unpatrolled darkness of the Belt. But it grew larger.
Kaufman responded to her plaintive mew. It called him back from a time before fire and language, an era of apes who faced pain not with pills but with naked, animal rage. He hurt, but he felt strong. “What’s wrong now?”
Claws sheathed, she pawed at the window.
Kaufman wished Mags was with him. He thought of the bright red lock of hair that had fallen across her face when she grabbed him by the shirt. It framed her eye and set off its color: a fierce green that reminded him of burning copper. Blazing under thick lashes and her uncompromising black eyeliner, her irises held obsidian stones in place of pupils. Kaufman was certain they were not windows to her soul but to all things deep and black and relentless: the heart of space itself, of night and ocean depths.
He joined her cat at the console. He leaned over the controls and pressed his grimy hand to the window. “We have to be sure no one gets a visual. Warping light is one of the few things this ship can’t do. But the odds of seeing anyone out here—oh, why am I explaining this to a cat?” He looked to Patches, who met his eyes and blinked.
Returning her stare to space, Patches pressed her paw to the window in a gesture identical to his. She meowed insistently.
“You are a handful, aren’t you?” Then he saw it, too. “Shit!” He scrambled away. Stumbling on his injured foot midway to the wall, he smashed into the locker doors. His hand found the dial for the lights and dimmed them until they faded completely. He whispered, “What is that?”
While her crew remained on the bridge, Mags joined Alonso in the operating room aboard the Hyades. Freighters of its class had space for well-stocked medical facilities, plus the crew’s living quarters and a rec room. While the interior of Mags’ Queen Anne felt intimate, like a flying clubhouse, the Hyades more closely resembled a multi-family dwelling.
Mags sat on a padded, bed-length table. She wore only a black bikini bottom and spatters of fresh blood. She had stripped and showered and, despite having been caught in the tornado like Kaufman, presented a far less frightening visage.
“Give me that.” She snatched the bottle from Alonso’s hand. “That, too.”
He passed her the syringe. “Sorry, tía.”
“Don’t be.” She jabbed the syringe through the top of the bottle into the liquid inside. She pulled back the plunger, and the needle filled with epinephrine.
“Easy there. You don’t need to inject so much.”
“Who said anything about injections?” She pulled the syringe free and squirted a stream of pure adrenaline onto her tongue. She shook her head rapidly, frowning and wrinkling her nose. “Holy shit-fire, that’s good. Want some?”
“Nah, ese. Tryin’ to quit. Here’s a chaser.”
She took a bottle of procaine from him, and soon the syringe held a mixture of the chemicals. Mags injected herself multiple times, moving the needle down the line of frag wounds on her ribcage, hip, and thigh. First she stabbed to one side of each wound, then the other. In the worst places, she poked the needle into the center of shredded masses of meat, still bleeding. “Will you get my shoulder?”
Alonso obliged then prepared a needle and thread. “Give it ten minutes.” He set them down by the pliers on a metal tray. “Then we’ll dig out the shrapnel. When did you dye your hair red?”
“You like it? Slim did it a couple nights ago. It’s cute, but I’m thinking of going back to white for my birthday. Or black. I can’t make up my mind.” Her tail, a matching red, flicked indecisively across the tabletop.
Alonso rummaged through lockers as she chatted about her hair and a long list of outfits under consideration for her birthday performance. He made polite noises and pretended to listen. His own stage dress was limited to boots, black pants, and whichever band t-shirt smelled the least rancid on the night of the show.
The amount of thought behind an exotic dancer’s wardrobe was lost on him, though he certainly enjoyed seeing the final product in action. By the time Mags was debating with herself on which boots went best with purple leopard-print stockings, he located something which concerned him far more.
“A-ha! Found it.” He proudly held up a bottle of spiced black rum.
“Mixed with procaine? Are you nuts?”
“Oye, tía. This ain’t for you.” He unscrewed the cap. “This is for Doctor Lonso!” He gulped enough to fill three shot glasses. “Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”
Mags held out her hand and waved her fingers, beckoning the bottle.
Alonso took another swig. “Now who’s crazy?”
“You are, if you keep bogarting the party favors.”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and waved the bottle at her. “You want me to sterilize the wounds?”
“Pour that rum on me, and you’ll have your own wounds to worry about.”
“Same old tía.” Alonso handed over the bottle. Its label displayed a giant kraken wrapping its tentacles around a helpless freighter.
“Aye,” she said. “Older than fuckin’ dirt.” She took one swig from the bottle, then another. For a moment, her eyes looked heavy, and her face drooped. She sat close enough to Alonso that he could hear her sigh, but she might as well have been in another galaxy.
The twinkle returned to her eyes. “You’re coming to the party, right?”
“Is there a choice? You just kidnapped me!”
“If you want to go back to your stupid shipping job, just say so.”
“Maybe you need a guitarist?”
She smiled. “Like I need a hole in the head. Bloody prima donnas! Don’t you want to bash a kit with the Psycho 78s?”
“I’m a little rusty,” he confessed. He took a seat on the stool next to her and picked up the pliers. “I’ve been writing some new stuff on guitar.”
“For real?” Mags took another pull from the bottle. “You gotta play it for me!”
“First, we play doctor.”
“Knock yourself out, doc. I can’t feel my leg anymore. Or anything else.” She studied the rum’s label, and an idea took shape.
A kraken. A ship. Together. She had the perfect solution right in front of her.
Patches recognized the ship as it grew nearer. Two months earlier, she and Mags had boarded a dragon warship of the same class. With the help of Tarzi’s cybernetic seahorse, Mags electrocuted every last reptile inside it. Patches purred at the memory.
Kaufman did not share her pleasure. “We have to get out of here.” He scrambled for his seat. As his hands hovered over the console, he realized his predicament. If he drew attention to his ship by making a hasty exit, the larger ship might track and destroy it. Though invisible to electronic systems, Kaufman’s miniscule vessel was as good as dead if a gunner could spot it with his eyes, be they human or reptile.
As the two ships approached their fateful intersection, Kaufman took a chance. He had been coasting on the invisible propulsion his GravGens provided, but now he fired small bursts from thrusters along the ship’s two wings. The propellants made faint white puffs in the vacuum. Kaufman counted on their being too unremarkable to notice.
They nudged the ship toward an asteroid only four times as large. The stone drifted lazily in the void, bereft of gravity and companionship. If it welcomed the tether Kaufman fired to anchor to the rock, it gave no sign.
This asteroid had once been part of a planet between Mars and Jupiter, but a collision left nothing but fragments. Humans hypothesized about this ancient planet without ever unlocking its secret history, a majestic epoch billions of years old, now all but forgotten by the lonely stone Kaufman pulled closer.
Patches’ pupils expanded until the green rings of her irises nearly disappeared. She smelled Kaufman’s fear, and his racing heartbeat thundered in her ears. Even when the warship’s shadow covered them and filled the cabin with a starless void, she could see his trembling hands. He was, as Mags would say, totally freaking out.
With a scowl, Patches stepped down into the copilot’s chair and tapped her paws on the tablet again. She meowed at Kaufman, baring her little fangs.
He picked up the device, wondering about her strange obsession with it, but nothing prepared him for what he saw on the screen. His earnest companion had typed one simple sentence: be cool nigga.
Her ability to type bewildered him, and her choice of words wrinkled his brow into a map of confusion. But like an ice-cold bath, it granted him clarity. With a hint of steel in his voice, he told her, “We must not be seen out here, Patches. But do you know what?”
She mewed softly.
“In space, no one can hear you hoo bangin’.” He turned up the music, and the speakers blared the deep hip-hop groove of Ice Cube’s Hoo Bangin’. Kaufman cupped his crotch with one hand and swayed his shoulders back and forth.
Patches bobbed her head in a dance, quite pleased with this turn of events. Kaufman seemed like a square when they first met, but he was pretty hip when it came to tunes.
Their mood would have been more subdued if they could see inside the floating city obscuring the stars like a wave of black oil spilling across the sky. Patches had fought in the docking bay on a ship of this class, but she had never explored an entire vessel.
Beyond the bay lived a military colony. The soldiers survived on stores of food and what they could grow aboard the ship; both animal and vegetable. An engineering and maintenance crew devoted all its waking hours to the propulsion system. The ship’s functions and the crew’s lives were the same thing.
Such an operation could not survive indefinitely. It needed restocking, either from ports in the outer planets or the high council’s mega-ship. And the number of these warships had been in steady decline since 2027.
Meteor Mags had destroyed two of them, and one remained unaccounted for. The smuggler and her crew had put a serious dent in Commander Cragg’s plans of conquest. If he were to succeed in taking Earth, she would need to be destroyed, and he would need help from the Earth people who hated her.
She was one of two females on Cragg’s mind as he prowled the hallways of the interplanetary fortress: Mags, and the slumbering dragon at the end of the hall.
Dekarna awoke. Her nictitating membranes rolled away from her eyes, and her pupils contracted in the light. They rolled up and forward to gaze at her commander, now standing before her.
“Major,” he rumbled.
Dekarna’s heart was lightened by his presence, but the reptilian affection inside her found no corresponding feeling on the outside of her body. She sprawled on her belly on a bed not unlike a gymnast’s horse, and when she tried to raise her arms, they were restrained—like her legs and tail—by belts. “Commander. I live.”
“Indeed,” said the old reptile, “but your wounds are extreme. You’ve been restrained so you wouldn’t hurt yourself any further in your sleep.”
“Was our mating successful?”
“The surgeons verified it was.”
Dekarna breathed a sigh of relief, but the air escaping her nostrils gave her no sensation. “I can’t feel anything. Why can’t I feel my body?”
Cragg’s tail stirred, and its tip waved slowly back and forth. “You suffered a trauma to your spine. Do you remember?”
“Yes. That bitch Caldic tried to sever it.”
“She nearly did. The nerve damage was significant, though not as severe as what you did to her. Relish your triumph, Major. Few survive the ritual.”
Dekarna took a moment to recall the end of the combat ritual. Her foes had fallen to the ground, and then she had, too, before Cragg moved over her collapsed form and entered her. But where she should have felt a savage joy and the glow of budding eggs inside her womb, she felt nothing. Not emptiness, not numbness, not anything at all. “Will it heal?”
“Oh yes,” said her commander, and the words slithered off his tongue. “You will do more than heal. You will be stronger and more fearsome than ever. To counteract the nerve damage, I approved an experimental procedure.”
Dekarna growled and tried to shift her body, but the belts held her.
“Be still, Major. You’ll be able to move in a couple days.”
“In time for the invasion of Vesta?”
Cragg’s lips pulled back from his teeth in a mockery of a smile. “Yes. You will be at my side when we crush the smuggler.”
“I was born for war, not for lounging in a recovery room. What was the procedure?”
“The surgeons implanted a device in your spine. It disrupts the flow of pain signals from your body to your brain. You will never hurt again.”
Dekarna’s eyes widened with surprise. “Is that why I feel nothing? What of my other sensations? What of pleasure?”
“They may never return. Regrettable, but necessary.” Cragg felt no unease at this bald-faced lie. In truth, the surgeons had advised him against the procedure. The mammals they had tested it on, driven mad by the lack of sensory information, had injured themselves. One gnawed off a forepaw. One tore out its eye. All had died from self-inflicted traumas. The surgeons told Cragg all this, and they suggested gene therapy to heal Dekarna.
Cragg declined their advice. Instead, he envisioned Dekarna’s future as an unstoppable killing machine, one who could not be dissuaded from her wrath by such a simple thing as pain. Successfully transforming his second-in-command into the most brutal warrior his species had ever known would validate his intentions to transform all his soldiers. Dekarna’s consent to the experiment was of no concern.
“I will never feel the touch of our offspring.” A pool formed in her eye. The surface tension broke, releasing a single tear. It traced the ridges of her scales, travelling down her insensate face to fall to the floor.
“Don’t let it trouble you, Major. The warriors you give birth to will be raised in the shadow of your legend. They will carve our new empire in blood on that blue speck called Earth by the mammals we will rule together. What more could a mother ask?”
Dekarna pondered the price of her species’ future. A crimson stream of hatred coursed through her veins: hate for the mammals who possessed the planet that was rightfully hers, hate for the elder soldiers who wounded her before dying, and hate for the senseless voyage her kin had endured so long to reclaim this solar system.
The emotion gave her strength and focus, something her senses could no longer grant. “We will rule them,” she growled. “And they will serve us.”
“That they will, Major. That, they most definitely will.” He left her chamber. His tail snaked along behind him until it vanished from sight, and then she was alone.
“You see,” said Celina, “Mags isn’t like some people you know.” She tapped the end of her stolen cigarette against the mouth of an empty beer bottle plundered from the Hyades’ larder. The glass caught the red and yellow of the cherry’s smoldering coal, the green and red of the ship’s interior lights, and flecks of stars scattered in splashes of nebulae. “She never learned how to fear.”
Accents from the console’s glow highlighted the creamy brown of Celina’s skin. Her hair, so dark that many people thought it black, draped across her face in a few casual locks, only to be swept into the magnificent up-do she improvised for the ride home. “There’s never a second when she isn’t ready to fight you to the death.”
Donny popped off another bottle cap. “She did hold a gun to my head and say how nice my brains would look splattered all over my ride. But I might’ve deserved it.”
“I see how you can say that,” said Fuzzlow, “but she wouldn’t actually kill me. Or you, baby.” He sipped his beer. “Maybe Donny, but not—”
“Oh, fuck you,” said Donny, laughing. “No, she would totally murder me. And I think she likes me!”
“That’s what I’m saying,” said Celina. “She does like you, mate. Or else you’d be dead.” She snapped her fingers playfully at Fuzzlow. “Hellooo. Pass it!”
“Yeah, nah,” said Fuzzlow. “They don’t grow shit like this across the ditch. I don’t think you could handle it.”
“Imma handle you later, baby. But for now, let the point stand. She might be wrong. Someday, it might even get her killed. But there’s no room in her heart for surrender.”
“I had a cat like that once,” said Donny. “She was a real pretty cat. She had this long, grey hair tipped with white. And these blue eyes.” He took a sip and swirled the contents of the bottle for a moment. “She thought she could take on anything.”
“What happened to her?” After much delay, Fuzzlow finally passed to Celina. He enjoyed her threatening scowl.
“I don’t know,” said Donny. “I saw her fight a hawk. He decided she wasn’t worth losing any more feathers. She outran a coyote. One dog, she chased into traffic and got him killed. I never saw a cat quite like her.” He took a swig. “Until I met Mags.”
“But what happened to her?”
“I wish I knew. I guess one day, she met her match. She never came back. But I do know this. If you follow Mags, you follow her to the death. She won’t stop for anything.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Celina purred.
“To Mags,” said Fuzzlow, holding up his drink. His fellow criminals answered him with hearty agreements, clinking their bottles together before draining them.
“I’m just bein’ real with y’all,” said Fuzzlow. “Mags ain’t the one who scares me. That cat of hers has a hundred percent of Mags’ attitude. But I don’t think anything short of a nuke would slow her down.”
“Maybe not even that,” said Celina.
Donny scoffed. “Are you guys fucking kidding me? Patches is the reasonable one!”
Lulled by the music, Patches curled up on her shredded seat and napped as peacefully as an angel. She appeared unconcerned with the passage of the dragon warship, but she had considered her worst case: the reptiles would see them and blow Kaufman and his ship to smithereens.
Unscathed, Patches would drift into the orbit of Jupiter or perhaps fall into the sun, and who knew what would happen then? In the meantime, she dreamed of a field of catnip where cicadas buzzed and fluttered in her teeth. When she batted the insects, they flittered here and there until she stomped them.
Forty-eight hours had passed since Kaufman last visited Phobos. The small moon only partially eclipsed the sun when seen from his former office on Mars, which it did twice a day. He supposed he might not live long enough to regret giving up that view.
But though he was not so hardened as Mags and her crew, Kaufman possessed his own style of pluck and courage. All of Mars might have his wanted poster now, but the dragon’s warship had not detected him. Perhaps he could return to his hideout unseen, to the one place he knew he could repair himself before facing his son: Phobos.
He raised his hand to speak, but when he saw Patches sleeping, he could not say a word. Kaufman picked up the tablet which had frustrated her so much, and he snapped her photograph.
There, he thought. When they could safely broadcast again, Mags would enjoy seeing this moment.
He set the ship on a course for Phobos and a hot shower.
Once upon a time on Phobos, there lived a pack of rogue space miners, abandoned by crews who had long since left that dull and disappointing moon.
Years ago, gold, silver, and diamonds all showed up in surface samples retrieved from Phobos. They fueled a prospecting boom on the tiny rock. It orbited Mars, which by 2024 hosted the first fully-staffed port in the Belt and a thriving construction industry. Suddenly, an entire planet of investors, engineers, and cheap labor discovered Phobos was rich with precious metals and gemstones.
Speculative mining companies sprang up overnight. The first wave of settlements followed GravCorp’s cooperation. The company agreed to install GravGens in exchange for fifteen percent of the market value of all extracted resources. In 2025, Asteroid Underground reported GravCorp owned three dozen of those mining companies, their vendors, and their venture capital firms. The company had its finger in every piece of the Phobosian pie.
The boom turned out to be a boondoggle. Phobos never had precious metals. The analysts at the laboratory shaved atoms from their wedding rings and contaminated the samples. The deception made the analysts wealthy by driving up the value of their GravCorp stock.
But sudden wealth is rarely accompanied by sudden sense. It more often leads to debauch. After a four-day amphetamine binge and a fifth of bourbon, one of the analysts spilled the beans.
When the truth became public, everyone wanted out—even GravCorp. Knowing the miniature moon’s exploitation would not return any of the expected profit, the company abandoned it and ordered all crews off the rock.
In the hasty exit, mining operations left behind functional transports, fuel reserves, pre-packaged food, and weapons. Every day the workers delayed packing was a multi-billion-dollar loss on GravCorp’s books, and crews were encouraged to leave in a rapid yet orderly fashion.
The encouragement proved a bit too severe to some. They did not enjoy being chained, beaten, mutilated, shot, or dragged across the rugged surface by their wrists. A few workers with otherwise impeccable service records now could be charged with murder and treason, and they had compelling reason to hide on Phobos—to watch their comrades leave the moon and take the ships with them.
Asteroid Underground published a series of profiles on these traitors. The magazine argued the rebels had protected themselves, and their human rights had been violated. The Underground called for sanctions and the dissolution of GravCorp, as if any ruling authority would consider lifting a finger against the mega-corporation.
The company’s counter-propaganda featured a dozen criminals thought to be at large on Phobos. These, GravCorp replied, were the so-called labor heroes: a rogue’s gallery of cruel and demented killers who escaped their confines in the rush to shut down operations.
Both sides of the argument held some truth, as both types of people were left behind in the exodus. Most of the Underground’s “heroes” had been killed by the escaped criminals—and, according to some unsubstantiated accounts, eaten. The same was true of the other escapees. Thirty-two people found themselves abandoned on that grey and godforsaken rock in 2025.
Now, only five remained.
Mars hung heavy in the Phobosian sky, not tiny and remote as the Moon appears from Earth, but oppressively close. It rolled across the jagged horizon like a bulldozer, making mountains look like pebbles. It sank its lower edge into the ground.
Gravel crunched below, in the treads of six wheels, each a meter tall. They kicked up a cloud of regolith as a utility vehicle pulled to a stop. Wind at the crater’s rim blew dust across the topless transport. Built like a monstrous Jeep, it was robust enough to pull heavy loads and mining machinery.
It held a driver and four passengers—all sick to death of seeing the red planet fill the sky. They indulged in their third-favorite pastime, the only thing they liked as much as drinking and poker: intellectual discourse.
Harper set the brake. “If I told you once, I told you a hundred fuckin’ times. Africa ain’t a bloody country.” He pushed himself up to stand in his seat and survey the sky. A hunting knife hung from his belt, and a bandolier crossed the front of his vomit-colored shirt. “Why are you up my arse about it, anyway? Ask Abdi.”
“Fine. Hooker.” Sokulsky slouched on one of two bench seats facing each other in the back. Over her faded black t-shirt, an X-shaped pair of straps displayed a dozen sheathed daggers and throwing knives.
Pipenko curled up against her like a malicious pet, with one leg thrown over Sokulsky’s, running her hands along those blades and anywhere else she pleased. She sucked an ear lobe and tongued it.
Sokulsky kicked Abdi’s boot. “Hey, prick. Where you from again?”
Opaque glasses veiled his eyes. “I’m from three miles west of fuck you.” He sat like a rock, arms folded across his bare chest, with a sawed-off shotgun in his lap.
“Does anybody there take showers?” Lee was on her feet, leaning into the roll bar. It had been modified to hold an MK48. The rusted hardware securing the gun in place matched the hue of her tank top. “Oi! There it is again!”
“I see it.” Harper raised his binoculars. “That’s the same one I saw two days ago. Small. Can’t be more than a six-seater.” He tracked a white vapor trail across the cloudless sky. “No visible guns.”
“Sounds like a suicide box.” The contrail faded from Lee’s sight.
“Fuckin’ tin can with wings.” Abdi spat over the side. “Why didn’t you just jack it last time?”
“Cause he was already jackin’ it.” Pipenko performed a lewd gesture with her left hand. Sokulsky made a similar one in the direction of her mouth.
“Fuck off,” said Harper. “It was kilometers over the horizon. Not like now.” He dropped into the driver’s seat.
On Phobos, no two points were ever far apart—by air. But over its pockmarked surface, cracked everywhere by tidal forces and scarred by thousands of craters, short distances became arduous hikes.
The fastest routes were along the honeycomb network of crater rims, a twisting, turning pathway smashed together by millennia of random impacts. To navigate Phobos in a hurry required a map of these interconnected rims.
With four years of time to kill, Harper created that map and entertained himself driving his six-wheeled beast along the ridges as fast as it would go. “I’ll have us on the rim of Stickney in a minute. Then we’ll see what keeps this arsehole comin’ back.”
Abdi rested his arms on the shotgun. “Maybe he wants a piece of our lesbos.”
Sokulsky grabbed her crotch. “Maybe he gets a Somali bitch boy.”
“Imma stick this boot so far up your—”
Harper revved the engine. “Shut up and hang on!”
The vehicle’s roar swallowed their retorts.
The Limtoc crater sat in the side of the sloping interior of the greatest crater on Phobos: Stickney. Limtoc’s basin, sunk into the larger one, provided the secrecy Kaufman craved.
When the Phobosian boom turned into a bust, Kaufman’s power at the Port Authority served him well. He shipped the components of his hideaway to Phobos, masking their true identity and destroying all the paperwork. Under his orders, one of the last crews to leave the moon constructed the small home deep into Limtoc’s wall.
When the workers returned to Mars, they promptly disappeared. Kaufman also erased every record they had ever been there. It was a clean, thorough cover-up, and Kaufman liked things tidy.
Martian telescopes never spotted the hideout. Its featureless metal door was recessed a half meter into the stone, and the panel to unlock it was hidden in that recess. The sole architectural adornment was a step whose only purpose was firm footing at the entrance.
Twenty meters from it, Kaufman lowered his spacecraft onto the rubble-strewn surface. The ship’s door fell open like a ramp and sent up a dusty cloud. Boot heels trundled down the stairs.
A bushy calico made her way beside them, stopping to rub her face on the freshly exposed metal. She stepped onto Phobos for the first time.
Before Patches could mark the moon as hers, a mechanical growl and crunching gravel caught her attention. Her ears twitched this way and that. She scanned the crater’s rim.
Two seconds later, Kaufman heard it, too.
As the utility vehicle shot over Limtoc’s edge, it lifted into the air. It hung in the sky, suspended in a moment stretched by Kaufman’s fear into an eternity between heartbeats. Then the wheels hit the ground and brought the five felons racing toward him.
Kaufman instinctively ran back to the ship, but his injured foot betrayed him. He fell, colliding with the ramp’s handrail and striking the ground with his face.
Before he could get up, the MK48 strafed the scene. In Lee’s hands, it made a convincing argument to hug the dirt. “Stay on the fuckin’ ground,” she shouted. Behind her, Abdi brandished his shotgun. Sokulsky and Pipenko fired Ak-47s into the sky, enjoying the noise.
Patches could do nothing to get her friend aboard his ship, but she was far from helpless. She scampered up its ramp, leapt onto a wing, and jumped to the top. She howled at the rogues, curling her mouth into a snarl that showed her teeth.
Lee kept the big gun covering Kaufman, but her mates in the back opened fire on the caterwauling calico.
The bullets pummeled her. Patches dug her claws into the spaceship. Twice the shotgun blast struck her, plus a countless stream of battering from the AK-47. As each hit shoved her backwards, her claws raked gouges in the hull. It shrieked its metallic agony through the clang, clang, clang of ricochets.
Harper yelled over the gunfire, “Hit that fucking cat!”
Abdi and Sokulsky shouted at once, “I did!”
Patches wriggled her hind quarters and revved up. Crouching and pointing her nose, she took aim.
She struck Abdi like a bolt of leonine lightning. She thought only of his damnable hand, and its finger on the trigger. In a rage, her teeth found that hand and extracted revenge.
Abdi’s bones crunched in her mouth. Patches snapped her head to one side. Cartilage and tendons tore from bone. The feline had her prize: a severed finger.
She did not stop to play with it, though the taste of meat made her heart race even faster. Up his arm, she stormed like a cyclone full of knives, so quickly the trail of puncture wounds she left had no time to bleed before she was on his throat. Into the tender meat, she sank her teeth.
A scream filled her ears. A spray filled her mouth. Tighter she clamped her jaws and pulled. Skin and fat ripped free from the neck, and the exposed artery spurted liquid jets into the air.
Patches pounced on her next target. Behind her, Abdi grasped his throat and fell out of the transport.
Harper dove from the driver’s side and rolled on the ground. Whatever demon just landed in his transport, he wanted none of it. The man she accompanied was the key. The cowering stranger could get Harper inside that ship, or the metal door in the crater’s side. Anywhere the demon could not follow was good enough.
“Get up!” Harper grabbed Kaufman’s arm and a handful of his thinning hair. “Get the fuck up!”
Kaufman screamed in pain. As Harper pulled him to his feet, the former Chief Administrator lashed out with an uppercut. It caught Harper directly under the chin.
The rogue’s teeth snapped shut on his tongue and severed it. He stumbled backward.
Kaufman, with none too stable footing of his own, threw himself on his attacker.
Not a single bullet assailed him from the MK48. For in the back of the transport, Patches assailed Lee with gusto.
“Eyaaa,” the gunner wailed, “Get it off me!” Her hands sought a grip on the furry devil, but Patches’ claws tore through her eyes and lacerated her face.
Pipenko responded to the threat in her own direct way. She blasted Patches with her AK. “Fucking die!”
Lee obeyed the order. Patches did not.
The roll bar propped up Lee’s corpse against the hail of bullets. When the clip ran out, the dead rogue dropped into the bed of the transport.
Patches landed beside the body and sank her teeth into Pipenko’s ankle. Biting through boot leather, she found the Achilles tendon and penetrated it.
Tearing through the tendon, Patches dropped the Ukrainian. On the way down, Pipenko’s face caught the corner of a bench seat. It snapped her head to the side with a savage crack.
Patches made short work of Sokulsky. Despite her tough talk, the felon’s blades were no match for the cat’s indestructible hide and the five sets of blades in her paws and mouth. Sokulsky’s stream of curses turned to gurgling, and then silence.
Carrying a chunk of the woman’s larynx in her teeth, Patches bounded from the back of the transport, over the driver’s seat, and onto the hood. She wound herself up to spring to Kaufman’s side. But one look convinced her he no longer needed help.
Kaufman’s lunge had taken him and his opponent to the ground. The father’s right hand closed on a chunk of rubble. He swung it at Harper’s head. The man blocked him with one arm.
With his left hand, Kaufman stabbed his fingers into Harper’s right eye. Shoved back into its socket, the eyeball burst like a balloon filled with warm jelly.
Kaufman’s rocky weapon came down again. This time it struck Harper’s temple. Then again. And again.
Soon, the man’s arms fell away from his face, but that did not stop Kaufman. Nothing could stop him now. He did not realize he was screaming. The stone came down like a slow-motion jackhammer, smashing the side of Harper’s skull until the brain showed through, pink and pulsating. Kaufman still did not realize he was screaming when bone and scalp and fat which once could think became an indistinct pâté in the dirt.
Then he was no longer screaming, but hunched over Harper’s body, heaving and gasping for air. His whole frame sagged. The rock fell from his hand. He slumped forward onto his elbows.
Patches’ inquisitive meow brought him back from the brink. He wiped bone fragments and brains off his face with the back of his forearm. Mustering his strength, he raised his head away from his blood-spattered hands and the carnage they contained.
Patches stood two meters away. Her victims’ scarlet torrents had covered her calico coat, revealing only her gleaming green eyes. Behind her lay the bodies of her foes. They would never again raise a hand against her friend. Proud of her kill, she bared her small white fangs to Kaufman.
He panted for breath. “Patches,” he whispered, “remind me to never piss you off.” He knew from her purring that she understood. “You saved my life—again. No wonder Mags refuses to sail without you.”
With the grace belonging to her kind since prehistoric times, Patches approached him. She pressed her fur-covered skull against Kaufman’s hand, scenting it with the glands on the side of her face. She licked blood from his hands, and her durable tongue rasped his flesh.
He jerked his fingers away and shook them. “Ow! I appreciate the thought.” Kaufman pulled himself to his feet above the mangled cadaver of his enemy.
His ship stood nearby, and he went to it. For the first time in his life, the former Chief Administrator understood the rage coursing through the veins of Mags and every member of her crew. He would kill to survive, and he would obliterate anyone who stood in the way of reuniting with his son.
Upon the hull of his ship, he smeared his blood-soaked fingers until the face of a tigress appeared. Finishing the final stripe, he stepped back. “In your honor, Patches, without whom I would surely be as dead as all the stones in the godforsaken Belt, I christen this ship the Calico Tigress.”
Patches purred and rubbed against his boot. She plopped down on the doorstep to his secret dwelling, grooming herself and licking away the gore before it could dry in her fur.
Kaufman unlocked the door and entered his hideout. The familiar surroundings comforted him. Here he escaped the constant scrutiny from false friends and known enemies in the transparent “crystal palace” his life had become.
In the corner, his son’s guitar rested against a table bearing a framed photograph of Kaufman’s late wife. He had left them behind in the rush to gather only the bare necessities for escape in the tiny stealth spacecraft. Now he picked them up and set them by the door.
He went to the loo and started the shower. As the water reached a comfortable temperature, he opened drawers and cabinets to take stock of his medical supplies. He lacked a splint, but he could bind his fractured foot with bandages and save the real job for later.
He set a pair of scissors on the back of the toilet, along with tubes of antibiotic ointments and rolls of gauze and adhesives. A bottle of pain pills joined them. The bottle of liquid disinfectant, he set inside the shower stall on a ledge beside a bar of soap.
Tendrils of steam rose from the streaming water. They undulated like the tentacles of an ancient sea monster. Kaufman frowned. This part would not be fun. It would only be preferable to leaving the wounds uncleaned. He clenched his teeth and stepped in.
Twenty minutes later, the water grew cold. He shut it off and stepped out, favoring his injured foot. Fresh blood drained from his lacerations and swaths of torn skin. He craved the comfort of narcotics but would not take them before piloting his ship again.
Another twenty minutes passed while he dressed his wounds. He went to the bachelor pad’s single bedroom for a fresh change of clothes. He could do little to disguise the cuts and bruises on his face, but at least a clean outfit would hide from his son the worst of the damage.
On the nightstand by the bed, a single red light flashed on the telephone. Only his secretary had the emergency number that dialed a different device, routed the encrypted signal through server after server until it could not be traced, and arrived here. Kaufman pressed a button, and what he heard next forced him to sit on the bed and hold his head in his hands.
“Chief Administrator, sir. It’s Rosalia. I know you’re leaving for holiday, but I thought there might be a chance you would check the emergency line while you were away. There’s something you need to know. Stay away from Ceres. I shouldn’t tell you this, but I don’t know what your plans are, and I’m concerned for your safety. I’ve—”
She paused. “I’ve uncovered a plot to sabotage the atmosphere cleaners on Ceres tomorrow. The exact results are unpredictable, but it could result in a major atmospheric disturbance. The resistance will take credit for the action in a few days. So please, sir. Whatever you do, don’t visit that asteroid.”
To replay this message, press 1. To delete it, press—
“Fuck!” Kaufman’s fist smashed down on the phone. He pressed his fingers to his eyes. “Mags will kill me.” Of all the places he could have led the smuggler and her crew, of all the ports where he could have re-routed the rail gun shipment, he had chosen the one location where death and destruction were inevitable. Was there nothing he could do right?
He rubbed his chin. How could Rosalia uncover an underground plot, unless she was part of it? She mentioned the resistance on Mars, and she had undoubtedly been the shooter who saved his life before he left that wretched planet. Saved it—and then, if she was involved in the action on Ceres, doomed it.
Fortunately, Patches had stayed outside. If she was as bright as he now suspected, there was no telling what she might have understood of that message, and later conveyed to Mags. And if Meteor Mags ever found out—
He dared not complete the thought. Instead, he pushed himself to his feet. With the air of a man sentenced to execution, he dressed. For now, the message remained his secret.
Moments later, he left the hideout carrying Anton’s guitar and a satchel of personal effects. Patches, now squeaky clean, lay curled in a ball on the doorstep, napping without a care in the world. She stirred at his arrival and mewed softly.
Kaufman’s collar felt as tight as a noose, but his diplomatic training kept him cooler than a late autumn breeze. “Patches,” he said with a nod, “shall we get on with it?”
The most outlawed cat in the System stretched lazily beneath the clear Phobosian sky. She scratched behind her ear with one back paw and sprang to her feet.
Together, the new pair of friends walked back to the Calico Tigress.
PART TWO: SENTIENT TENTACLES
Meteor Mags oversaw the unloading of the rail guns from the Hyades onto Vesta 4. Fuzzlow and Donny handled the bulk of the work. Donny’s mining experience made him no stranger to unloading space freighters.
Alonso instructed them on the procedure for taking the massive armaments out of the ship and maneuvering them into place. Most of it was automated, and the guns came out in an orderly fashion. They made their way down a conveyor belt and out to where they could be wheeled across the rocky terrain.
Alonso appeared to be a natural leader, directing the young women of Club Assteroid. They gathered around the weapons and helped steer them into place. One by one, the guns formed a line along the rim of the crater Rheasilvia.
As the work progressed, happiness filled Mags’ heart. They had really done it. Other than her crew, no one in the System knew they had these guns. Fuzzlow had disabled the tracking system on the Hyades, and the Port Authority lacked any reason to suspect Kaufman was in league with her. Their ill-advised caper almost got all of them killed, but it worked out in the end. Now, they were armed to the teeth.
The announcement of Kaufman’s criminal status had surprised Mags, but the tornado’s total destruction of von Zach Division meant Spassky’s murder and Kaufman’s presence on Ceres would not have been discovered by the Port Authority—and might never be. Mags suspected her great-grandmother had something to do with the unexpected turn of events. But for all she knew, it was only dumb luck. Storms were like that.
Sarah and Anton ran up to her. “Mags,” called the young woman. “We’re starting a band!”
Mags took one look at Kaufman’s son and laughed. “What the fuck did you do to his hair?”
Anton frowned, but Sarah giggled. “He’s going to be our guitarist!” The boy’s formerly well-groomed hair stuck out in spikes at all angles, with the tips bleached and dyed every color of the rainbow. Generous amounts of hairspray held the spikes in place, and each was decorated with a skull bead threaded onto the end.
“His dad’s gonna be thrilled.” Mags rolled her eyes. “Can you really play guitar?”
The good cheer returned to his face. “I can play the rhythm part to 100% by Sonic Youth. And Body in the Bayou by the Orwells!”
“Fuck yeah! When did you learn those tunes?”
Anton shrugged. “Dad got me a guitar last year, but we had to leave it.”
“Don’t you worry, darling. I’ll get you a new one. What’s the name of your band?”
Sarah shouted, “Dumpster Kittens! We’re the punk-rock sensation that’s trashing the nation!”
“Or the space station,” said Anton.
“Thrash in the Trash is our album title.” Sarah jumped up and down like her feet were made of springs. “We’re already working on our first song!”
They grow up so fast, thought Mags.
But as she pondered the rapid pace of adolescence, Anton looked around and grew noticeably concerned. “Where’s Dad? Where’s our ship?”
Mags had few regrets in her long and reckless life, but she instantly regretted her carelessness in not finding the boy before the unloading began. Her crew’s activities and the whirring of the machines and conveyor belts faded to nothing in her ears.
She knelt before him. “He’s on his way, Anton. We got separated on Ceres, and frankly we got our arses handed to us by a massive storm.”
Anton’s eyes grew wide. “He’s not here? Is he okay?” Whatever joviality he felt discussing his new band melted away.
“He’s on his way.” The pirate placed her hand on his shoulder. “And he’s okay. Patches is with him, and they have your ship.”
“When will he be here?”
“Soon,” said Mags, though she had no reason to believe it other than her unassailable faith in her felonious feline. “I’m sorry I didn’t come see you first, before we started unloading. I know how much you love him, and how much he loves you, too. We heard your dedication on the radio.”
Anton gave her a self-conscious smile that took all his courage to perform. “Dad loves that song.”
“Don’t worry, Anton,” said Sarah. “He’s coming back. I know it.”
Anton had not known Sarah for even a day, but he trusted her. They had talked about how she just knew things sometimes. Though he did not fully understand her special talents, she had told him in detail of her adventures with Mags and Patches, and her words comforted him like none but his father’s ever had. He wiped a tear from his eye. “I hope so, Sarah.”
“Hope’s got nothing to do with it,” said Mags. “He’s with the baddest bad-ass in the entire System, and there’s no way Patches will let anyone harm a hair on his head. We just have to give them some time.”
Anton had never entrusted his fate to a calico cat before, but Mags’ certainty bolstered his resolve. “I miss him when he’s gone.”
“I know, dear. And I miss Patches. We’ve never been apart for a single day since we met. Did you know that?”
Anton shook his head.
“But she’s coming back. She promised me. And I promise you, your dad will be here in no time. And you know what? We met one of the Sterile Skins on the way home!”
“No fucking way!” Anton’s face lit up.
“Way,” said Mags, pleased with the boy’s change in demeanor. “I’ll introduce you as soon as we get these bloody rail guns unloaded. He’s an old friend of mine.” She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed. “Now you little Dumpster Kittens get back to the club, and tell Plutonian to get out here, okay?”
“I’ll tell him,” said Sarah, and the founders of what would become the hottest teenage punk band in the Belt left the space pirate to finish her job.
Mags and Celina joined Alonso for a smoke break by the time Plutonian found them.
“Plutes, look who we dug up on Ceres!”
“I can’t believe my eyes,” he said. “Lonso from the Sterile Skins!”
“You blew my cover, homie, playing the Skins like that.” Lonso gripped the DJ’s hand. “But it was damn nice to hear us on the airwaves again.”
Mags brought everyone up to speed on the space-monkey situation. “Listen,” she said. “I promised those goddamn gorillas I would take them to a new home, but the Queen Anne is fucked and Plute’s ship is still docked to the only port on that rock. But look!” She swept her hand across the vista to denote the Hyades. “We’ve got the perfect solution right here!”
Alonso agreed. “It’s got enough room for them to live while they get the asteroid set up.”
Celina shook her head. “Of all the crazy things you ever came up with, wagtail.” She surveyed the gigantic freighter. “This one might actually work. But why now, for shite’s sake? Don’t we have enough to worry about?”
“Why now? Because I made a promise, that’s why! I can’t be taking my little octos food every week. Do you want them to starve to death? Someone’s gotta grow food for them, and these bitch-ass bonobos are just the blighters to do it!”
“Macaques,” Plutonian interjected.
“I knooow,” said Mags. “Hello! Those Marxist mandrils have been growing their own food since day one, so they can bloody well grow some for my krakens, too!”
Alonso piped up. “I can show them how the Hyades works and help them get settled in. Take me with you.”
“Done, motherfucker!” Mags held out her fist, and Alonso bumped it. “We just gotta get this thing in orbit and somehow get down to that asteroid to pick them up.”
“Hey, tía, I got everything you need for a spacewalk. We take position, get inside your boy’s ship, and load your monkeys. Then we take them wherever you want to go.”
Mags smiled. “So we got a crew, or what?”
“I’m in,” said Celina. “I wouldn’t miss a chance to see these little freaks you’ve been collecting.”
“You’ll need me for communication,” said Plutonian. “Unless anyone else here speaks Russian.” He held out his open palm.
Mags slapped it. “Fuck yeah! We’re doing it. Just let me make sure the peeps have everything they need to get these bastard rail guns in place. Then we’re on our way.”
“I need to say ‘bye’ to Fuzzy,” said Celina. “You bloody psycho-maniac.”
“Look who’s talking. Oh, and Lonso? There’s someone I need you to meet before we take off.”
“Anton seems like a nice kid.” Alonso’s hands moved over the controls and set the ship’s auto-pilot, guiding the Hyades through the cold vacuum of space. “But how did you hook up with his old man?”
Plutonian chimed in. “The Chief Administrator of Mars in your back pocket. How did that happen?”
“He ain’t the Chief Admin anymore.” Mags cracked open a beer. “We fucked up that little arrangement.”
“And I thought we didn’t have any secrets between us.” Celina held out her hand.
“Don’t get butt-hurt about it. A smuggler’s gotta have her sources.” She handed over the beer and grabbed another. “He was one hell of a source, too. I’m happy to have him in our crew, but we just lost a major informant. Celina and I saw the wanted poster.”
“Presented to us by one—what was his name?—Lieutenant Spastic.”
“Right.” She tipped the neck of the bottle in a casual salute. “Lovely bloke. Until you hit him with a frag.”
“Point is,” said Mags, “Kaufman isn’t Port Authority anymore.”
“Now he’s one of us.”
“Aye. A criminal, through and through.”
Alonso added, “I hope he’s got the cojones for it.”
“We’ll find out,” said Mags. “One way or another.”
At their destination, Alonso adjusted the Hyades’ position with brief bursts from its radial thrusters. He dialed the ship’s GravGens to account for the additional gravity generated by the ship’s spinning. In the viewport, Plutonian’s ship began to line up with the monstrous freighter.
It was a complex process for anyone who had not completed Port Authority flight training. Alonso found it relaxing. “You done this before, right?”
“Spacewalk?” said Mags. “Oh, yeah. All the time.”
Celina laughed. “You are so full of shit sometimes.”
“What?!” Mags glared. “I’ll have you know I spacewalked the fuck out of the job on Valentina 6, and I singlehandedly captured a freighter as big as the bloody Hyades after spacewalking from the Queen Anne.”
“You mean the freighter you brought back to Vesta, only to find all its cargo had been unloaded before you ‘captured’ it?”
“Yeah, but I still captured it.”
Alonso interrupted. “What about you, chola? You ever do the walk before?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Celina. “All the time.”
Mags exhaled a puff of smoke from a stolen cigarette. “She ain’t mestiza, amigo. This little hell-raiser’s a hundred percent pure Aussie.”
Alonso furrowed his brow. “Ozzy? Like Osborn?”
“Not Ozzy, dipshit. Aussie.”
“She don’t eat no heads off no fuckin’ bats?”
“Imma eat your fuckin’ head.” Celina placed her hands on her hips. “Are we lined up yet?”
“I got you covered, Ozzy.” Alonso locked the ship’s flight computer on an orbital trajectory. Slowly the Hyades aligned with Plutonian’s ship and the mining station. “See, a maneuver like this means you need to account for the field the Hyades’ GravGens pump out, the lack of that field on our target asteroid, and the field that old mine creates by spinning on its axis. It sure as shit ain’t easy. Look there.”
Alonso pointed through the viewport. A ragged scar tore its way across the asteroid. The mark stretched for a kilometer before ending at the mine’s generators. “Some stupid bastard learned the hard way. That is the mark of someone who don’t know how to land a ship in a set-up like this.”
“Stupid bitch.” Mags stubbed out her cigarette. “Not bastard.”
“What’s wrong, tía?”
“I mean I’m the dumb-ass who made that landing.”
“You really fucked that up.”
“Tell me about it,” said Mags.
“Nah. But I’ll tell you a few things about a spacewalk while you get suited up. You know. A refresher course for you two experts.”
Celina swept her hand in the direction of the hallway to the airlock. “Lead the way.”
After the women pulled on the lower halves of their spacesuits, Alonso snapped cables into place along their belts. “We tether you two together, ‘cause spacewalkers never go alone. We got a buddy system in case the shit gets real out there. A’ight?”
Celina added, “Except when Mags wants to capture a ship with no cargo.”
“Oh, please,” snapped the smuggler.
Alonso gave her a look. “You’d have to be suicidal to go out there alone.” He did not wait for a reply. “Spacesuits got seven layers in them. That’s in case some little particles of space shit come along and rip the outer layers.”
“Micrometeoroids,” Plutonian offered.
“Yeah. Micro-shit.” Alonso hooked a tether from the wall to Celina’s belt, and then one to Mags. “If the suit gets ripped open, then it depressurizes faster than a gangbanger runnin’ out a liquor store. And when that happens—”
Celina said, “This is my favorite part of the lesson.”
“And when that happens, all the gases trapped in your body fluids try to expand. Your blood boils inside your veins. Even the piss in your bladder. Your sweat. The liquid in your eyes, yo. If you’re pregnant, then the—”
“I get the picture, Lonso. Can we just get these suits on?”
“If you say so, tía. I’m just saying you do not want to rip your suit. It could be micro-meteor shit, but it could be torn on part of a ship, or a corner, or like a tool you have, whatever. Any sharp object. Be careful.”
“You mean like this?” Mags reached inside the left leg of her suit. She pulled out a knife, flipped it in the air, and caught the tip of the metal blade. She handed it to Alonso.
“Sí. Just like that.” He tucked the weapon into his waist band.
“What about this?” Celina reached into her suit and pulled out a snub-nose .38 revolver.
“Oh, right.” Mags pulled out a Smith & Wesson 64-6. “I got one like that, too.”
“Damn, girls!” Alonso took the weapons and stuffed them into his pockets. “You tryna get yourselves killed out there. What else you got?”
He soon found out. The pirates unloaded their secret arsenals into his hands, until Plutonian needed to join him to help hold everything.
Eventually, the founders of Club Assteroid were suited and ready to go. Mags held out her gloved hand to Celina, who took it. The airlock depressurized, and they entered the void.
“Curse me for a papist,” said Mags. “Of all the bloody—”
“What’s wrong?” Celina’s voice came through the helmet’s speakers.
“I’ve got liquid in the suit.”
“Did you not take a leak before we left?”
“It’s not funny, convict! My tits are floating in here.”
“How does that happen?”
“I don’t know!” Mags punched a button on the arm of her suit. “Lonso! Lonso!”
“What up, tía?”
“I’m up to my—this—goddamn—”
Mags spluttered above the pool of water rising in her spacesuit. “Fucking drowning out here!”
“Fuck! Listen. It’s gotta be the ventilation system sprung a leak. Hold your breath, and get to Dr. P’s airlock. Hear me? You’ll be there in two minutes. Let it pressurize, then get out of that helmet!”
Mags did not waste energy gurgling a response. The liquid rose above her chin. She expelled all the air from her lungs and drew a deep breath through her nose. Then the watery shroud covered her nostrils.
Aboard the Hyades, Plutonian’s hand gripped Alonso’s shoulder. “Can she make it?”
“She has to.” Alonso switched off the mic. “Most anyone can hold their breath for half a minute. About a hundred years ago, the record was three. Guys that practice can go longer. I knew a guy who could do fifteen, but man was he fucked up after that.”
“No joke, ese. Problem is, your blood turns to acid after that long. It all goes to your brain, ‘cause your body figures you can survive losing a limb or two. But the real shit goes down when your lungs explode.”
Plutonian’s eyes pierced Alonso like needles. “Explode?”
“They fuckin’ rupture, yo.”
“You’re just full of fun facts, aren’t you?”
Alonso shrugged. “They teach you this shit in Port Authority, homie. Now shut the fuck up about it, ‘cause our girl needs us out there.”
The sharp reply galvanized Plutonian. He bent over the mic on the console. “Patch me in.”
The former Sterile Skins drummer obliged. He had no need to argue with the DJ. He could see the concern written on Plutonian’s face as clearly as he could have heard a baby’s cry.
He had seen that look before on men’s faces when they watched Mags dance, but something about this man struck him. Alonso realized Mags was more than a co-conspirator to the DJ, and more than an object of animal desire. It was like his life depended on her.
“Mags, you’ll be fine.” Plutonian gripped the microphone in his fist to steel his own nerves. “Focus on that airlock. I’m opening it from here. All you need to do is get there.”
With his free hand, he punched his tablet. The touchpad sent a signal to his ship, and the airlock’s handle spun as if by magic. In seconds, the door opened, casting a cold, fluorescent light into space. He spoke again.
The water inside Mags’ suit rose above her eyes. The ship would not come into focus. She released a puff of breath, expelling carbon dioxide to force oxygen into her cells. Though she heard Plutonian’s voice, and Celina’s, she could not make out the words inside her shell.
For a moment, Meteor Mags felt today would be just as good a day to die as any other. In a radiant graveyard of stars, surrounded by friends, she could find the peace which had eluded her all her life. She could finally let go.
But she thought of Patches, and she wanted nothing more than to see her baby kitten one more time. It would be too easy to surrender. Her mother never surrendered. Never.
In the eternal funeral of space, bathed in the light of stars which died billions of years before, Mags made her breath a prisoner inside her.
It was silent then. The water completely filled her suit. In her mind, Mags reached out for her calico companion. She wanted to hold her pet, to whisper she loved her and stare into those green eyes with an understanding denied those who were purely human. In that reach, her fingers found the edge of Plutonian’s airlock.
Celina tumbled past her into the interior. She spilled across the floor, pulling Mags inside by the tether connecting them. “Shut the fucking airlock!” Not waiting for Plutonian to do it, she leapt to her feet to close the hatch.
He beat her to it. “Done!”
The airlock door sealed, and the room started to pressurize. Before it was complete, Celina’s hands were on the fasteners holding Mags’ helmet in place. She pressed her helmet to Mags’ and screamed, “Don’t you die on me now, goddamn you!”
The shout came through Mags’ helmet as an indistinct hum. But through the glass, she saw her friend’s face above her.
Then she blacked out.
Celina tore her friend’s helmet away, releasing a gush of water that splattered on the floor. Mags sprawled in the puddle, motionless.
Celina grabbed a fistful of Mags’ hair to support her head. Grasping the rim of the suit where the helmet had attached, she pulled her friend’s torso upright. “Wake the fuck up!” She shook the smuggler. “Daughter of a whore! Wake up!” Celina pounded Mags on the back with the ball of her fist.
Mags vomited a plume of water across the floor. She gasped and coughed and gasped again. With the back of her glove, she wiped a stream of snot from her face. “Celina?”
“Yeah, baby!” Mags’ partner in crime gripped her in a bear hug.
Mags coughed again. “I love you. But if you ever talk shit about Mama again, Imma fuckin’ kill ya.”
Celina’s laughter echoed from the walls like the ringing of a hundred luminescent bells. “You can try!”
Mags laughed too, then coughed. She ejected a fresh glob of water-logged mucus onto Celina’s suit. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. What’s a little biological warfare between friends?”
Mags sighed and shook her head. “This bloody day.” She pushed herself up to peel off her suit. “I’m soaked to my socks.” A pile of wet clothing and spacesuits formed on the floor. Mags stripped to her underwear, then threw it on the pile, too. “So. Ready to meet some space monkeys?”
What they saw next stopped them in their tracks. On the other side of the airlock, inside Plutonian’s ship, Karpov and his crew raised their tiny fists in salute. They had noticed the Hyades’ arrival, known it could only mean the return of Meteor Mags, and gathered to welcome her.
Behind the macaques, mounted on the wall, hung a board two meters tall and almost as wide. Painted in brilliant red, the same hue as Mags’ current hair color, it depicted her in the dance she had performed on her last visit. The portrait showed her with arms raised and folded behind her head. Her face was tilted slightly down in a gesture at once seductive and supremely confident.
In black, the monkeys had painted her vast array of star tattoos and the word anarchy across the top of her breasts. Behind her image rose a ringed planet in a black field salted with gleaming white stars.
Celina whispered “Damn.”
Mags raised her fist in salute. “Fuck yes.” Her smile curled into a vicious curve. “That’s going on our next album!”
Celina also made the salute. “That’s beautiful, Mags.”
“I’ll say.” The smuggler tried to recall Russian words Plutonian had used, but only one came to mind. She met Karpov’s expectant gaze. “Tovarisch.”
The word of friendship pleased the monkey to no end. He stepped up to her, chattering rapidly.
When last she had spoken to the crew, Mags had been under the sway of the triglyph’s mysterious power. Without it, the language barrier remained between their species. But the meaning of his approach was clear. Mags knelt before the monkey, and she wrapped her naked arms around him. “I love it,” she cooed in his ear. “Well done, my little comrade.”
The lyrical tone of her speech told Karpov all he needed to know. The flame-haired goddess had accepted his crew’s gift, and she was happy with it. Her embrace filled him with a glow not often felt in his crew’s long, lonely stay on their nameless asteroid. Had he been the sort of primate who shed tears, he would have shed one then.
“It’s time, dear. Are you ready to sail?”
Karpov understood the meaning. He barked orders to his crew, who quickly dispersed.
“What are they doing?” Celina asked.
“I’m guessing they’re gathering the females. Their micro-society is sort of divided between the males and females. The two groups like each other well enough, but they keep to themselves. It’s a macaque thing.”
“I see,” said Celina, not really seeing at all. “Who taught them how to paint?”
Mags stood and put her hands on her hips. She admired the artwork before her. “I’d say the little blighters worked that out for themselves. Then again, I heard them sing folk music last time I was here, so I wonder if they haven’t preserved more culture than we realize on this godforsaken rock.”
The piratical pair made its way to the helm of Plutonian’s ship and prepared it for spaceflight. In no time at all, Karpov’s crew returned with the females. The ship filled with the hustle and bustle of macaques finding places for the personal possessions they had chosen to take with them.
The matriarch of the crew came up to Mags and planted a kiss on her cheek. She gestured through the viewport and said something the smuggler wished Plutonian was there to translate.
“I think the old bird likes you,” said Celina.
“Aye,” said Mags. “Let’s hope she likes her new home, too.” She sealed off the ship and started to undock. “We’ll park in the Hyades, and then we’ll be on our way.”
Within the caverns of an uncharted asteroid, an inhuman mind meditated upon the nature of time, the fates of stars, and all it had learned in the past two months. To assign an identity to this mind would be problematic indeed, for it was composed of hundreds of beings, each with eight neuron-filled tentacles.
The group mind of Mags’ mutant octopuses included the mind of their mother, who had merged with them. And the mother’s consciousness had been expanded to include the scientists who created her, plus all she had learned in her union with Mags and Patches.
In the cool water filling the cavern swarmed a synthesis of all these minds. Food concerned it on a basic, biological level, but the goddesses had promised more food, and the mind believed this promise with a faith both animal and religious. Direct communion with the goddesses left no room for doubt.
But the cephalopodic group mind was not so simple as to petition its goddesses with prayer. Those who lived beyond the water had their own agendas. They required no worship. They only loved with all their hearts, and it was joy enough for this mind to bask in that love’s radiant beauty—and return it.
In honor of the star-covered object of their love and her calico companion, the meditating octopuses began what could only be called a song. Instead of vocalizing, they sang in silent, electric impulses flashing between their synapses.
For structure, they plundered Mags’ vast musical memory. The raga and tala of India’s classical music formed the basis for drone, melody, and rhythm. From Patches’ memories, the octopuses took bird songs, buzzing insects, and the whispered symphonies the wind writes with leaves and the water lapping at the riverbank.
At will, the group mind could summon any sound it had ever known, and shape it. Saxophones and jet engines wove through a tapestry of human voices—from Mags’ first cries as a baby, to the Latvian women’s choir. Mags’ awareness of twelve-tone composition informed the singing as much as her mastery of James Maxwell’s equations. To the octopuses, knowledge existed all at once and everywhere, without conceptual boundaries.
Humans have often said music is the universal language. But to the swirling mass of mental power in the asteroid cavern, music was the very substance of the universe. The octopuses sang, and they waited without hurry or expectation, creating an object of unparalleled wonder for their feline goddesses of creation and destruction.
Then they felt one growing nearer.
“Man, am I glad to have my gear back,” said Plutonian. He and Mags sat in the Hyades’ cabin. Celina and Alonso played with the macaques in the next chamber, getting to know them despite their language barrier. “So, what are you going to name this odd-ball aquarium of yours?”
“How about the Think Tank?”
“Why don’t you ask your furry friends what they think?”
“What is your problem with them, anyway?”
“Bloody simian Stalinists.” Mags lit a smoke. “I mean, they’re nice and all. I love the painting they made me. I just hate the government they remember so fondly. They remind me of the communist fucks who killed Mama.”
Plutonian searched her face. “Sorry. I didn’t know.”
“I’ll tell you all about it sometime.”
He changed the subject. “Let’s give them a chance to see it first.”
“Whatever you say, dear. I just—” Abruptly, she stood. She stared out the viewport, entranced. Her crimson tail flicked twice before settling, until only the tip waved slowly back and forth.
“What is it, Mags?”
“You don’t hear that?”
Mags closed her eyes and gripped the bridge of her nose between her thumb and forefinger. “I hear you, babies.”
“Are you okay?”
She was silent for a moment, then she hummed a single note. She hummed it again, then two notes, and three, and five, and eight. The fragments became a melody.
Alonso walked into the cabin. “You writing a song, tía?”
“No,” she said. “They are.”
“Who, the monkeys? They’re just showing Celina some kind of Russian dance back there. Pretty chill little vatos, if you ask—”
“Not them, damn it. My octos!”
Alonso raised his eyebrows and looked inquisitively at Plutonian. He jerked his thumb towards Mags then spun his finger in a circle near his temple in a universal gesture for insanity.
Plutonian stifled a laugh and quietly waved his hand. “You can hear them?”
“Listen.” She continued the unusual melody. It always came back to the same note, then repeated everything before adding a new string of notes and starting over.
“Sounds kind of repetitive,” said Alonso. “Does it got a chorus or something?”
“It’s a pattern,” said Plutonian.
Mags faced her friends. “A simple pattern. It’s the Fibonacci sequence. They’re increasing the number of notes in the melody by adding the numbers of the previous two statements.”
“Trippy,” said Alonso. “But if you do that, then pretty soon you got a fuck-ton of notes that go on forever.”
Plutonian’s eyes lit up. “We’ve gotta record that!”
A lusty fire filled the smuggler’s eyes, and her teeth showed between the black of her painted lips. “Oh, hell yeah, we do. But it’s not even sound, it’s like—” Suddenly, she fell to the floor. She held both sides of her head and moaned.
Celina ran into the cabin. “What the hell is going on in here? Mags!” She got on the floor with her friend and cradled her. “Maggie!”
The pirate’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she groaned like an animal in pain.
“The fuck is happening?!” Celina demanded, holding Mags to her breast.
Alonso held up his hands. “Hey. She said they’re making a song, and then she totally freaked out!”
“It’s her pets,” said Plutonian.
“I’ll fucking pet you,” Celina said. “What did you—”
Mags cried out again, and the sound sent chills up and down their spines. Tears streamed across her face. She convulsed in Celina’s embrace. Her body went rigid, and she gasped for breath.
“Mags!” Plutonian was on his knees beside her. He clutched her hand.
Alonso witnessed what very few people outside that cabin ever had. In the early days of the Sterile Skins, they had played extremely rough joints, and Mags was the band’s de facto tour manager. Alonso had watched her dismember a room full of criminals with her bare hands, and she had writhed on stage next to the band in the most provocative dances he had ever seen. But he had never known her to do what she did just then.
Meteor Mags shuddered from her head down to her toes, and she let loose the painfully ecstatic shouts of a woman in orgasm. At the entryway to the cabin, the macaques gathered to see the commotion.
“It’s okay, Maggie,” said Plutonian. “It’s—”
Her eyes fixed on the cabin ceiling. They flared a green, burning light like copper caught in a flame. “It’s the Mersenne primes.” She wiped away tears. “They cracked it!”
“You’re the one who’s cracked, tía. You just got your brain deep-fried by your own calamari!”
Mags glared. “Don’t you even joke about eating my little squidlings!” She peered into Celina’s eyes. “Thank you, dear.”
“Wagtail, you’ve got to slow the fuck down. You’re scaring the shit out of me!”
The smuggler freed her hand from Plutonian’s grip, placed it on the cabin floor, and pushed herself up. “Fibonacci was just a warm-up. They wanted to show me they cracked it. I can’t believe they did it so fast.”
Plutonian asked, “What’s a mursin prime?”
“Mersenne,” she said. “A prime number that is one less than a power of two. This morning, I worked out a proof about them. I only got as far as showing the minima and maxima for the thousandth one. But those little eight-armed bastards, they just sang it to me. The exact number. Then they sang me the millionth one! That number’s so big you couldn’t write it out if you dedicated your entire life to it.”
Celina scowled. “The hell are they doing on that rock?”
“Math.” Mags smoothed her hair into place. “Math, and music. They don’t see the difference. They—” A wave of tension and release ran through her body like an aftershock. “They’re beautiful,” she whispered.
She didn’t say another word, staring into the limitless depth of space. The stars glittered like a sea of jewels and undiscovered futures. Splashed across the blackness, they reached back to the beginning of time itself. They extended farther than anyone could travel in a billion lifetimes.
Though Meteor Mags believed the sky belonged to her, she also believed that beyond the sky awaited things no human mind could comprehend or even hope to encounter.
At least, not alone.
Soon, the Hyades rested near the entrance to the asteroid’s subterranean laboratory.
“Let me go first,” said Mags. “You all can take the elevator down, but I need to have a word with my babies.”
Alonso called out, “Company’s coming!”
“Aye. And we don’t need a bloody mind-meld right now. Just let me tell them to chill for a bit, before we all get our circuits completely blown.”
“Might be a little late for some of us.” Celina waved good-bye.
“You’re a real riot, convict.” With a flick of her tail, Mags stormed off to see her cephalopods.
Down the elevator, through the hallways of the empty laboratory, Mags whistled fragments of the Fibonacci melody. She came to the hole she blasted in the wall on her last visit, where once a locked door had separated the lab from the caverns beyond. Now, a shimmering light like a borealis shone through the ragged portal. Whether it was bioluminescence or just the octopuses playing tricks with her mind, Mags could not be sure.
She stepped through.
While Mags was engaged with her eight-armed admirers, her crew and the macaques took the elevator in groups down into the asteroid. They gazed in awe at the massive machineries filling the lab: the shattered tanks where sea animals had endured genetic experiments, the consoles where scientists controlled the environment and compiled their data, and the extravagant networks of plumbing and electrical lines rising up the rough-hewn walls and across the ceiling like a mechanized cathedral. The primates ran here and there, touching and smelling everything, chattering excitedly in their native tongue.
Mags joined them fifteen minutes later. She dripped water from her disheveled hair, and the fur on her tail was sopping wet. She had three distinct sucker marks on her neck, a trio of purple bruises.
Celina looked her up and down. “The hell were you doing in there? Having a swim?”
“Don’t ask.” Mags squeezed a handful of water from her tail. The droplets spattered on the carved stone floor. “I think they’ll be cool, but be careful around them. They aren’t used to visitors.”
The matriarch and Karpov reached a decision about the surrounding wonders and the potential this new home held for them. The elder female spoke to Plutonian.
The DJ replied in her language before sharing the macaques’ wishes with his crew. “Svoboda,” he said. “It means ‘freedom’. In honor of their ancestors’ ship, they want to use the number nine.”
“Svoboda 9,” said Mags. “It has a nice ring to it!”
Alonso gave a thumbs-up. “Way better than Octopus Garden.”
“Fuck the Beatles. Are we ready to head home?”
“Nah,” said Alonso. “I’ll stay here with the monkeys, if you don’t mind.”
“What? We just reunited, and now you’re gonna bail?”
“I needed time off anyway, to jam out some new songs. Maybe your cosmic calamari can help me come up with ideas. And who knows the Hyades better than me? I can help your monkeys get settled on their new tour bus from hell while we fix this place up.”
“Kaufman will be disappointed he didn’t get to meet you.” She threw her arms around him and kissed his cheek. “I’ll miss you, dear.”
He squeezed her tightly. “Don’t you worry, tía. By the time you get back, I’ll have the little vatos jamming out a metal version of the Soviet national anthem. It’ll be chill. You’ll see.”
Plutonian watched their embrace with no small amount of jealousy. He knew it was a foolish feeling, but he could not help himself. Mags had many male friends, and she could be just as affectionate as she was murderous. But the sight of her in another man’s arms rubbed him the wrong way.
He distracted himself by chatting with Karpov and the matriarch about what supplies the simian crew would need. He made a list on his tablet: breeding stock of crabs and other sea creatures, various tools and electronic components to rebuild the laboratory, cleaning supplies, and replacements for all the aquarium components damaged months ago in Mags’ and Tarzi’s adventure here.
Most of the comforts of home the macaques desired could be plundered from the Hyades, but Plutonian found it easier to list everything they could imagine. It was better than watching Mags and Lonso fawn over each other.
His feelings were no mystery to Celina. She saw them in his eyes every time he looked at her best friend. She had tried to warn him, but she knew the heart followed its own path, one that largely ignored reason. She shook her head. Then she had an idea.
“Be right back!” While the others conversed, she stole aboard the Hyades and found Alonso’s baritone acoustic guitar. She returned to the gathering and presented the instrument. “Hey, Lonso. How about a song before we go? For old times’ sake?”
The last surviving member of the Sterile Skins plucked it from her hands. “Only if tía sings it with me!”
“Right on!” Mags exclaimed. “Call the tune, maestro.”
Alonso strummed a slightly out-of-tune chord, adjusted the tuning knobs, and strummed again. “I got one. You know Galaxies’ Lament by Snail?”
“Awww yeah!” The space pirate’s smile lit up the cavern. “Fuckin’ love it!”
“Then let’s show these monkeys how we do it, ese.”
“I got the beat!” Celina drummed with her hands on a broken console.
“Let us in on this.” Plutonian spoke to Karpov and clapped his hands where the snare beats belonged. Karpov barked at his mates. They clapped in unison while Alonso repeated the opening guitar riff.
“That’s it,” said Alonso. “Keep it going!”
Meteor Mags launched into the first verse. Her voice resonated in the cavern. She sang about galaxies weeping, and the hearts of protons, of dreams and solar eclipses.
Alonso banged his head to the ferocious riffs, and he joined her singing at the first chorus. But at the second chorus, an unearthly harmony filled the minds of the humans and the macaques.
Mags closed her eyes and tilted her head toward the ceiling. The harmony told her the octopuses were singing, too, from the next cavern. In a state of sonic rapture, she sang for all she was worth—which, at that moment, was a considerable amount.
Alonso improvised a big finish to the song. Without missing a note, he jumped onto the console where Celina kept time. Chopping the air with his guitar, he conducted the group in four pounding beats, all in unison. He leapt off the machinery, furiously strumming a final chord.
Mags laughed and clapped her hands. The crew of Svoboda 9 joined her applause. She gave her old friend a high five. “You’re fuckin’ amazing. Damn, it’s good to see you again.”
“We still got it, yo.”
“And they’ll never take it away.” She kissed him again.
Deep in the rocky chambers of the once-abandoned asteroid, a swirling, molluscan mind understood its new friends would be a uniquely stimulating experience. It stirred the water with hundreds of tentacles, and their colors changed and undulated with patterns no octopus had ever made.
Music would be its future. Music, and life. It hummed with anticipation.
“You’d better have a talk with your boy,” said Celina. She and Mags occupied the loo aboard Plutonian’s ship. They brushed their hair and fixed their make-up in the wake of the day’s events.
“What boy? You mean Anton?”
“Not that boy, wagtail. Dr. P.”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“You are so clueless sometimes. Don’t you see the way he looks at you? That poor bastard’s so in love it hurts.”
Mags sighed. She drew fresh black lines around her eyes then handed the eyeliner to her friend. “He’s a cool guy.”
“He was cool. But he just about lost his shit when you were all over Lonso.”
“What? Lonso’s my buddy! We were rocking the stage years before the MFA fucked everything up. We’ve been through some shit together!”
“I know that. And you know that. But does Dr. P?”
Mags made a pout with her lips and decorated them with a fresh coat of black gloss. “I’ll straighten him out later.”
Celina slammed the eyeliner on the sink. “I’ll straighten you out! You go talk to that man right now.”
Mags huffed. “Fine.”
“Go on, now.” Celina waved her off. “I’ll message Fuzzy or something. Go!”
Mags sauntered into the cabin. She plopped down in the co-pilot’s chair next to Plutonian. “Whatchya doin’?”
He stared at the tablet in his lap, not meeting her eyes, moving his fingers over the screen. “A little research. Maybe if I can get my new gear tuned to the electrical frequencies of your octos’ brain waves, we could record their songs.”
“Can you imagine how many minds we’d blow if you did that? We’re talking about a major shift in human consciousness! We could revolutionize the entire System!”
“Mhm.” He mumbled without enthusiasm.
“Listen, dear. Lonso’s an old friend of mine. I booked the Skins’ first two tours on the West Coast and kicked a lot of arse with him and the boys along the way. He’s like a brother to me. Mi hermano.”
“Damn it, Plutes.” She snatched the tablet from his hand and tossed it onto the console. “Will you look at me?”
He met her eyes in silence.
“You can’t go getting all weird on me, man. You and I are partners in crime! It’s you and me and our bloody shotguns against the entire MFA!”
“So we’re just shooting buddies, then.”
She threw her hands up. “See! That’s what I mean. You can’t get all hurt over our friendship. I need you by my side—cocked, locked, and ready to rock. Not moping around every time I give someone a peck on the cheek.”
“You need me?”
“Damn right, I do! Where the fuck else can I find a DJ like you?”
He forced a smile. It was not the compliment he wanted, but it would have to do. He held out his hand. “To friendship, then. And the revolution.”
“That’s what I’m talkin’ about.” Mags gripped his hand firmly, wrapping her fist around his thumb. “To friendship.” She let go of his hand and stood to face him. “I’m glad that’s settled.”
Then without warning, she straddled him and dropped into his lap. “Now,” she said. “Kiss me like you mean it.”
Back on Vesta 4, Mags kicked her feet up on a table in the concert hall and caught up with her messages. Following her instructions, Sarah and Anton moved furniture into place for the banquet to celebrate the day’s accomplishments. The pair of new friends joined tables end-to-end until they stretched in one unbroken expanse across the room.
Friends arrived in small groups until the young women of Club Assteroid filled the hall. Hyo-Sonn interrupted Mags’ typing to report the rail guns were all positioned in the defensive line Mags and Alonso had demarcated along the crater. It would take another day’s work to finish bolting them to the rim. Mags wanted to review them first, so the exhausting day was done at last.
But the dinner party was not yet complete.
“Mags!” Celina ran into the concert hall. “Guess who’s here?”
“Patches?” Mags tossed her tablet aside and leapt to her feet.
From behind Celina, Patches charged her, and the pirate scooped the cat into her arms for a vigorous snuggle.
Patches chattered non-stop at Mags, who replied to the high points of the narrative her kitten spilled out.
“Oh, really? How many? Good girl, Patches! He did? That was nice of him.” Mags got down on the floor to romp with her favorite feline. They batted each other and rolled over until Mags stretched on her back and held Patches above her head. She stared with love into Patches’ eyes. Two pairs of green orbs reflected each other like mirrors.
The image was not lost on Kaufman, who limped into the room with less vivacity than the playful calico. Kaufman suddenly understood the cat who had saved his life with the utmost courage, dispatched his enemies with ferocity, and shown him nothing but tender affection—all as if it were perfectly natural. He knew then his judgement of Mags by purely human standards had always been incomplete.
He had little time to ponder the revelation. His son ran to him, and the force of the embrace made him stagger.
Kaufman clutched the young man. “Anton. Dear god, how I missed you.”
Tilting back his colorful mess of spikes and beads, the boy looked up. His father’s injured face stared down at him with shock. At the same time, they both said, “What happened to you?” They laughed at each other without letting go.
“I brought your guitar,” said Kaufman.
“Dad, you rule! We totally need it! Sarah and I are starting a new band. We’re gonna be Dumpster Kittens!”
“Be what now?” Kaufman held his life’s one true joy as tightly as he could. “I don’t know what that means, Son, but I’m sure it will be amazing.”
“Did you hear my dedication on the radio?”
“It was perfect.”
“Oh! I met Alonso from the Sterile Skins!”
“How in the world—”
Anton told him all about it, while Celina and her helpers brought out the feast.
Mags took her spot at the banquet table’s head. Patches leapt onto it beside her, prancing and purring like she was the queen of the universe. Mags rapped a knife against the edge of her glass. “Listen up, crew. This has been an awesome day, despite bad weather, drowning in space, and all hell breaking loose on Ceres. But you have been absolutely incredible through it all, and I thank you for your dedication and hard work. You are the best.”
“Hear, hear,” came the response, along with “Fuck yeah,” “You know it,” and a wash of indiscriminate noise. It brought a surge of pleasure to the heart of the System’s most hated smuggler.
“Now,” she continued, “I have some announcements. So fill your glasses and shut the fuck up for a minute, because your dear old auntie is in the mood to celebrate.”
A chorus of cheers filled her ears.
“First off, we’ve got the biggest guns in the Solar System guarding this rock now, and we owe it all to our new friend: the recently outlawed and former Chief Administrator Kaufman.” She raised her glass in salute. “Welcome to the baddest crew of criminals to ever violate the Milky Way, you scurvy son of a bitch!”
Kaufman sheepishly raised his glass. A host of glasses instantly clinked around it in a mob, spilling half its contents. Many in the crew took a swig.
“Hey, dillweeds! Don’t drink yet! I’m not finished!” Mags glared down the table. “Fuzzlow, I saw that. I’d also like to toast our new friend, Anton, whose hair you bloody Dumpster Kittens so lovingly redecorated while I was getting my arse kicked in a tornado.”
The liquid in Anton’s glass crashed like waves in response to the hearty battering from his new mates.
“And let us not forget our little comrades the space monkeys, and my octo babies, and their new best friend Lonso who could not join us tonight!”
More spilling ensued, and more unauthorized drinking, until everyone had to refill their glasses before Mags could continue.
She wagged her head in mock disapproval. “Have some goddamn etiquette, people!” She chugged her own drink and gestured for a refill. “Plus, I just got a message from my adorable nephew, and he’s solved a huge part of the mystery of the scum-sucking lizards that have been bothering us. Let’s hear it for my favorite little anarchist.”
She waited until the applause died down. “Last but not least, ten minutes ago I got word from our pal Slim at Below the Belt. He finally beat the problem we’ve been working on for years. We are about to change the way everything gets done out here in the Belt, and maybe even on Earth. But I’ll tell you all about it later. For now—let’s fuckin’ party!”
A roar erupted from the gathered pirates, dancers, outlaws, and rebels with nowhere else to go. Over the din, before draining her glass and reaching for the bottle, Meteor Mags shouted, “Vivan las anarquistas!”
Her party continued long into the night. But little did she know, on that very day, her crew had sown the seeds of its own destruction.
Epilogue: Overlord of Darkness
“Bye, Mum! Bye, Dad! Love you!” Tarzi waved until his parents’ car disappeared from sight. He walked back into his house and shut the door. “Alone at last.” He turned on the stereo system and brought up The Glowing Man by Swans. Adjusting the volume to an earsplitting level, he felt a sense of peace wash over him. “That’s how you make a fucking album.”
From the closet in his room upstairs, he gathered his tablet, a 22-ounce bottle of beer, and a pack of stolen cigarettes. He set them all on the coffee table in the living room as the final album from his favorite band vibrated the walls.
For a moment, he considered waiting to make sure his parents weren’t coming back for something they’d forgotten. He chugged half the beer and lit up. The nicotine and alcohol entered his bloodstream, and he no longer cared. “They won’t notice if I only smoke one inside.”
He was correct, but not about the reason why. He expected they would be gone for three weeks. Tarzi did not know he had just seen his parents alive for the last time.
Oblivious to this unpleasant future, he immersed himself in the ancient past. As Swans droned their crushing beats into his skull, he slowed his breathing and focused on the sonic pulse. Farther and farther apart the beats grew as Tarzi entered into what Mags called “his trance.” This meditative talent slowed time for the young man. It allowed him to process months of information in a matter of minutes.
He needed it. The scans Donny sent him yesterday held a treasure trove of the dragons’ history and their secret origins—all in their unfamiliar language. Bit by bit, the adolescent broke the linguistic code.
It told how the reptiles had begun as dinosaurs, discovered the technology for space travel millions of years before humans, and set about enslaving or persecuting other species until they gained control of what was now Central America. It was the same location where his parents had been summoned.
Tarzi shuddered. This must be the ancient civilization the mining company had unearthed, though “civilized” seemed inappropriate. The dragons had paved their way to outer space with genocide and torture.
This history became clear as the sun set and stars twinkled in the sky, but parts of the book remained inscrutable. With Mags’ help, Tarzi had developed a thorough understanding of trigonometry in the past two months. But now, he confronted theoretical explanations of spacecraft construction and propulsion systems, all written in advanced mathematics instead of words.
He could make neither heads nor tails of them. Swans’ double-disc album finished, and he was ten minutes into Radio Birdman’s Radios Appear before he gave up. He set his tablet beside him on the couch, lit another cigarette, and sent a message to Mags.
curryandchaos: you around? i got some work done on what you sent me
flagofnonation: the book we found? what the hell is it
curryandchaos: the history of the lizards. and a bunch of crap i don’t understand about their science
flagofnonation: no fukn way
curryandchaos: srsly. i’ll get a translation typed up for you of the parts i can make sense of. what’s up with you and patches? i heard about some tornado thing on ceres and it sounds like all fuck is breaking loose in the belt
flagofnonation: she’s on her way home. i’m sure of it. don’t worry about my little calico. i’m a bit pissed because she hasn’t pm’ed me from her thirdlife account or anything
curryandchaos: thirdlife? are you kidding me? that shit is so lame
flagofnonation: whatever dillrod! patches has a bomb-ass thirdlife account. her screen name is calicorca resident
curryandchaos: the fuck is a calicorca
flagofnonation: it’s like a killer whale but with splotches of brown like a calico. get it? her profile description says death panther overlord of darkness
curryandchaos: lol! you two don’t actually play there together
flagofnonation: fuck yes we do! my account is daisyflower resident. you should log in with us sometime and check it out
curryandchaos: why daisy
flagofnonation: in bulgaria, the name mags is margaritka. the daisy. i have a cat avatar lol. we’re thinking of starting a virtual reality just for cats and calling it ninthlife
curryandchaos: cats already have nine lives duh. it should be tenthlife. for an extra one
flagofnonation: you’re so smart. hey we never finished our top ten list of drum fills
curryandchaos: add that screaming trees cover of freedom by buffalo. that part at 8:40 where the drums go nuts is fukn sweet
flagofnonation: that’s not a fill lol. it’s a while solid minute of drum stuff
curryandchaos: whatever auntie. awesome doesn’t have a time limit. when are you picking me up for your birthday party
flagofnonation: ugh i can’t. i crashed the queen anne
curryandchaos: wtf? nice job dorkwad
flagofnonation: i suck. but i got you covered nephew. my old pal ryder says he can give you a lift
curryandchaos: is he some kind of psychomaniac
flagofnonation: nah he’s cool. not very hip about music but you’ll like him. he’s got great stories. i’ll have him meet you at our secret rendezvous
curryandchaos: won’t be much of a secret then will it
flagofnonation: don’t you worry about ryder. he’s got bigger secrets than that locked in his head
curryandchaos: like what
flagofnonation: wouldn’t be much of a secret then would it? ok i gotta run
curryandchaos: say hi to patches for me
flagofnonation: ok ❤ love you =^.^=