fiction, meteor mags, music, Patches, science fiction, short story, writing
Meteor Mags: Solo Tour
© 2023 Matthew Howard. All Rights Reserved.
Episode 39 in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
Mags takes Patches and two of her closest friends on a tour of the Asteroid Belt to promote her second solo piano album, unaware that her enemies have planned to kill her.
Anger is a gift.
—Rage Against the Machine; Freedom, 1992.
The cyborg gripped Timothy’s throat with cold titanium fingers that promised to crush the life out of him before it had time to flash before his eyes. The teenager thrashed as hard as he could. The back of his skull found the club’s concrete floor and was far from happy about it. He couldn’t scream, but plenty of people around him were taking care of that. If his brain had not been preoccupied with its imminent demise, he might have second-guessed just how far he was willing to go as a fan.
Five hours earlier, Meteor Mags landed her ship on the asteroid Nemesis 128, a carbon-rich chunk of rock not wider than 178 kilometers in any direction. The corporation which first claimed Nemesis had filed for bankruptcy the previous year and abandoned all the equipment and sub-par hovels constructed for the mining families, along with the GravGens that pumped out an artificial gravity field approximating that of Earth’s. Like so many workers in the Belt in 2033, the residents of Nemesis owed their survival to a rugged determination and support from Mags.
She stepped out of her ship and planted her combat boots in the middle of a dingy, dreary spaceport. “Fucking hell,” she said. “I love what they’ve done with the place.” What light bulbs worked at all flickered incompetently and sprayed her shadow intermittently across the hull behind her in oblique angles.
Her sound engineer, Dr. Plutonian, poked his head out the door of the Bêlit. “Jesus, Mags. Do they even have enough electricity to power our equipment?”
“Leave that to me.”
Mags’ calico cat Patches bounded from the ship, pressed her ears backwards and flat against her bushy head, and howled.
Mags said, “We’ll get ’em sorted.”
The final member of her entourage appeared in the ship’s doorway. “I’m assuming this isn’t the scenic view you promised?”
“It’s one of them, Sarah. Would you help Plutes unload for a minute? Patches and I need to fill out some paperwork.”
Sarah was hardly old enough to drive a car on Earth, but ever since Mags had rescued her from being eaten by aliens in 2029 and taken the young woman under her wing, she’d formed her own band as the singer for the punk-rock sensation Dumpster Kittens, and she was no stranger to loading and unloading. “Get on it, then. We only have five hours ‘til showtime!”
Mags departed with a flick of her tail and lit up a smoke. Patches followed suit, stopping every so often to sniff random objects and scratch them with her impervious claws to let everyone know she had been there.
Plutonian said, “I guess this is why we get paid the big bucks.”
Sarah laughed. The sound was brighter than any light ever seen in that decrepit port. “I always knew you were only in this for the money.”
His eyes following Mags told a different story, a story Sarah knew all too well. She was, after all, a telepath.
Mags returned longer than a minute later and found all the equipment unloaded. “Listen,” she said. “They’ve had some problems with power, and I’m going to fix them. I need a couple hours to install our energy system at this rock’s poles. Patches is coming with the two of you as security. I can’t have my band wandering this godforsaken rock without a bodyguard. If anything goes horribly wrong, call me.”
Plutonian said, “We’ll make it to the club. Just make sure we have time for a proper soundcheck.”
Mags kissed his cheek. “I doubt anything about this tour will be proper.”
Patches leapt onto the black box containing Mags’ piano. She stretched out, licking one paw and rubbing it over one ear.
Sarah said, “Your chariot awaits.”
The first time Timothy heard Meteor Mags in 2030, he was thirteen years old, and he pleaded with his best friend Brian to turn off the music. In the storage closet that passed for Brian’s bedroom in the dilapidated shack Brian’s parents called home, a tattered boombox blared.
Now I ain’t your little girl
Now I ain’t your toy
Your life don’t mean shit to me
Something to destroy
“You don’t like it?” Brian’s parents were both working in the mines on the same shift, and he was enjoying a rare free hour to listen to music as loud as he wanted—or at least as loud as his limited equipment could handle.
“God no,” said Timothy. “It’s bloody awful!”
“It’s Meteor Mags,” said Brian, “with these guys called the Psycho 78s.”
“It’s a lot of screaming and bashing. Can we listen to something else?”
Timothy was not yet a fan.
The week his parents lost their jobs in 2032—along with every other miner on Nemesis when the corporation went belly-up—Timothy hardly slept at all. Unlike Brian, he didn’t have a closet to sleep in, only the couch in the scant few meters that served as both living room and kitchen. He didn’t even have room to stretch out his legs.
His parents, still on erratic sleep schedules from their mining shifts, woke him up at random hours by plopping on the couch next to him to fight over which video to watch and careening recklessly toward the end of their final paycheck by converting it to booze and cigarettes.
It was like he was a ghost, so he left the shack without saying a word. He walked alone for hours, and all he had to listen to was the music on a small drive Brian gave him. In his earpods, the Psycho 78s blasted their single Whipping Boy, with Meteor Mags on vocals. She sang about being so angry about being beaten down that you’d want to take up arms against your oppressors and keep on killing until the killing was done—or at least, that’s what Timothy could decipher amidst all the screaming and bashing.
The music wasn’t all that different from what he’d heard two years before, but it made a new kind of sense to him. He’d seen his parents turn from hopefulness to hopelessness on the cruel frontier. He’d lost hope himself and felt it replaced by a constantly churning frequency that felt like rage boiling under the surface of every minute of every day.
Somewhere in that mess of noise in his ears, he heard his rage reflected, focused, and redirected. And the fact that these people, these Psycho 78s he had never known or even met, had captured his feeling and brought it to life made him feel like maybe, just maybe, anything was possible.
Head-down in his hoodie and singing along as if no one could hear him, Timothy was well on his way to becoming a fan.
Ninety minutes before the show, Meteor Mags checked her phone. “Bloody hell. What’s a bitch gotta to do to get a few bars out here?” She shoved the tiny black box back inside her bra and positioned the second rod on the rocky ground before her. Holding it steady with one hand, she lifted a hammer above her head. Then she brought it down, again and again, until the rod was firmly embedded in the asteroid.
Nemesis was not the first asteroid where she’d installed her free-energy system, an engineering triumph made possible by her late friend Slim’s mathematical genius and Shondra’s manufacturing expertise on Mars. But it was certainly the first hunk of space rock she’d lit up just so she could play a concert there.
Nemesis was on the first leg of her tour in support of her second solo album, 88 Light Years. And if the pathetic asteroid needed a boost, then she was damn well sure she was the one to make it happen.
As the clock ticked ever closer to showtime, Mags pounded the SlimRod one, two, three more times then slipped her hammer into a belt loop. A stolen cigarette found its way into her hand, and she knelt to flip the switch that would send a wave of energy from the north pole of Nemesis to its south pole, then back again in an endless wave that anyone with open-source equipment could tap into. And she’d made damn sure her concert equipment could tap into it.
She took a drag and let it leisurely escape her lungs below the star-splattered sky that hardly twinkled in the human-made atmosphere.
She said, “Power to the people.” A shockwave made the asteroid tremble as if from the notes of a bass guitar. The blast ruffled her skirt and caused a single lock of hair to fall over her face.
She smiled a wicked smile and finished her smoke before starting up the vehicle she had borrowed without asking from the spaceport. She was pretty sure she remembered where the club was.
The day Timothy became a true fan, three ships from Mars landed on Nemesis. He had nothing to eat in the last five days except protein powder. He was one of the lucky ones. Many others died in the food riots following the mining corporation’s hasty exit. More had overdosed on heroin and fentanyl in their untidy hovels rather than face the future. Some died with lit cigarettes in their hands. Fires broke out and consumed what passed for Nemesian neighborhoods.
If his parents were still alive, Timothy had little hope of seeing them again. The last time he saw them was at the end of a hallway on fire, brighter than he could ever remember seeing anything before, so bright the paint peeled from the walls and bubbled like blisters. Heat choked his lungs and turned his skin red, and he fled.
It wasn’t a picture he wanted to see again, and hunger wasn’t doing anything to deaden the screams he couldn’t forget.
When the ships landed, he ran for them—just like everyone else. He didn’t stand a chance of getting close, of touching them. All around the ships was a crush of bodies, a tuneless song of shouting and weeping. A breaking of human waves.
The noise was nearly deafening. Drowning.
Timothy tried to retreat, but his feet and the ground had lost contact. A crowd surge drove him forward on a mass of elbows and grease and stink. He balled his hands into fists and used them to cover his face.
Volume challenged the crowd. It came from the middle ship of the Martian trio, a boxy ex-cargo ship called the Hyades. It looked like a semitruck trailer got fucked up on methamphetamines and crashed into a trailer park before being covered in graffiti—but a thousand times bigger.
“Listen,” said Mags.
The ship’s loudspeakers blared. The riot continued.
Mags covered the mic. “Dude, this is never gonna work.”
Alonso leaned back in the pilot’s chair and threw his feet onto the console. “It’s bulletproof, tía. Just give them a minute. They’re probably so hungry they’d eat the assholes out of a chicken coop. Just talk to them.”
“Listen,” said Mags. “I brought some friends to—”
“My mistake. I think they’re killing each other.”
“Guys! I said—”
“Puta madre.” Alonso sat up and switched off the microphone. “Tía!”
“I got a better idea. Sing.”
She flicked her tail. “Sing?”
“Sing, you know?! Sing a song to last the whole day long? You motherfuckers’ll sing someday? Do you know what I’m—”
“Count it off.”
He switched on the mic. What the Hyades lacked in aesthetics, it more than made up for in sonics.
Still, it was not Mags’ proudest moment. Fifty-three people died in the riot before the mob calmed the hell down and the people aboard the ships were able to begin distributing food, first-aid supplies, and emergency medical care.
Despite the bumps and bruises, Timothy survived. In fact, he ate better than he had eaten in weeks, even when his parents had been in charge of feeding him. At one point, he made it through a queue to a long table where volunteers handed out plastic bags containing soap, a washcloth, toothpaste and toothbrush, aspirin, and snack packs.
Timothy accepted a bag from a teenage girl on the opposite side of the table. Her long black hair had been woven into cornrows and bundled at the back into a ponytail. If Timothy’s ragged, filth-covered appearance distressed her in any way, she showed no sign—only a radiant smile followed by the words “If you need a doctor, we’re setting up a temporary facility just over there.”
Maybe, he thought, I should see someone about my burns. And all that smoke I breathed. He said, “I’m sorry, where?”
She stood to better point out the location. “Just past the—”
Mags interrupted by slamming a cooler onto the metal table. “I got an Esky full of fresh sangers, bitches! Hooooo!” She unlatched the lid, pulled out a sandwich sealed in plastic, and handed it to Timothy. “You need anything else, Sarah?”
“I was just going to show this guy where to find the doctors.”
“You okay, kid?”
Timothy recognized Mags from photos and wanted posters. She’d been singing in his earpods for days about all the things that made her sad or angry, with the insistent conclusion that she was strong enough to overcome anything life could throw at her. He stumbled over his words and failed to say anything.
Mags put her hand on his shoulder. “It’s alright, mate. Sarah will show you. Sarah? You want to take a break? I can cover this station for a bit.”
“Sure thing,” said Sarah. She climbed onto the table and slid off it next to Timothy. “What’s your name?” She already knew.
Mags and Sarah had just made a fan for life.
Thirty-two seconds before concert time, Mags showed up with a sorely depleted bottle of rum in one hand and a hammer hanging from a belt loop on her skirt. “Sorry guys. I ran into some fans. Did we do a sound check?”
“We as in me and Sarah,” said Plutonian. “Are you ready to go?”
“I was ready three days before I was born. Let’s kill it.”
Plutonian made his way to the soundboard, Sarah got comfortable behind her keyboard and microphone, and Mags took center stage at her piano. The smuggler unleashed a flurry of black and white notes as if she were brandishing a weapon before a fight. She said, “What is up, Nemesis? How the hell are ya?”
During the cheers and applause, Mags put one hand to her forehead like a visor and scanned the crowd. “Has anybody seen my cat? No, that’s not the first song. Patches!”
The fluffy calico had made herself at home atop the bar at the back of the venue where she graciously accepted petting and ardently dissuaded anyone who tried to shoo her off her throne.
Mags said, “Oh, there you are. Tonight we’ll be playing songs from my new album, 88 Light Years. Eighty-eight because that’s the number of keys on a piano.” Again, a flourish. “But this wasn’t a solo thing at all. Put your hands together for Sarah, from my favorite band, Dumpster Kittens!”
The audience exploded in a raucous response.
“That’s right,” said Mags. “Sarah did the harmonies and gorgeous keyboard work on my album, and we got your favorite pirate-radio DJ Doctor P rockin’ our sound tonight, so give it up!”
Without further preamble, Mags launched into Gun Yourself Down, a hard-edged ballad that despite its morbid title encouraged the listener to ignore the haters and keep pushing forward.
She didn’t recognize the teenager who stood front and center at the edge of the stage, bobbing his head and swinging his long brown hair in time with the music. The last time she’d seen him, he was covered in dirt and smoke, half-burned and starved nearly to death.
In the year since Mags’ humanitarian visit, Timothy had—like so many survivors on Nemesis—pulled himself together and got on with life. He’d never found any evidence that his parents survived, nor any that they had died, and he’d struggled to cope with that ambiguous loss, never knowing if he should let himself grieve or hold onto one last shred of hope. Gun Yourself Down had become his personal anthem. He raised a fist in the air and sang along.
Then everything came to a screeching halt.
Twenty-three minutes before showtime, a cyborg landed on Nemesis. He arrived in a small ship that did not use the spaceport Mags had encountered, and he strode through the regolith with a singularity of purpose: to destroy Meteor Mags.
Much of his body had been replaced with titanium and machinery to render him super strong and impervious to most kinds of harm. And because Mags had been known in recent years to tour with a bevy of telepathic space octopuses, he wore one of Earth’s most devious inventions: a helmet to block telepaths.
The cyborg followed pre-programmed map coordinates to the club. Asteroid dust surrounded him in a cloud that grew with each metallic footfall until he approached the door.
Two guards drew their pistols and shouted orders, but the cyborg only granted them as much attention as was required to grip their skulls and fling them away like ants in his path. They did not survive the encounter.
He ripped the door from its hinges, tossed it in the direction of the two fresh corpses, and charged inside.
Mags had her eyes closed as she sang. The noise caught the attention of her sensitive ears. But if anyone was faster than Mags, it was her cat.
Patches leapt off the bar and bounded from tabletop to tabletop, spilling drinks and ashtrays every which way until she was in range of the cyborg. She launched herself at the monster, but he was faster and stronger than any human foe.
His backhand slap knocked Patches out of the air. She hit the concrete floor and slid backwards until she smashed into a table. Its drinks and ashtrays went flying, and the people sitting at it screamed and rocketed to their feet—as did everyone else who had been seated.
In the chaos, the cyborg stormed the stage.
Plutonian rose from his stool behind the soundboard and brought his Benelli shotgun to bear on the menace. But he hesitated to fire, because some crazy kid in the general admission area right near the stage had decided to pick a fight with the intruder.
Plutonian still had every intention of blowing out the cyborg’s brains or whatever combination of neurons and circuitry served the same function. He scrambled through the screaming and overturned tables and people smashing against him as they ran for the exits.
For the sin of interfering with its holy mission, the cyborg gripped Timothy’s throat with cold titanium fingers that promised to crush the life out of him. As the teenager thrashed as hard as he could, the back of his skull found the club’s concrete floor and was far from happy about it. He couldn’t scream, but plenty of people around him were taking care of that.
When asked about it later, Timothy couldn’t explain why he’d stepped into the cyborg’s path and confronted it. He’d think about listening to Mags’ music with his best friend Brian, and how after 2032 he’d never seen the boy again. He’d recall lonely days where he could hardly put a thought together because he was so hungry. He’d remember Mags putting her hand on his shoulder and giving him something to eat. But all those moments were merely snapshots, photographs of a life he would not fully understand until decades later when he wrote his memoirs.
In the moment, he only knew that something awful was trying to take something beautiful away from him, and he reacted without even thinking.
His valor won Mags several seconds, and that was all she needed. As the cyborg choked the young man, Mags brought a mic stand down on its head. Three times she struck in quick succession.
That got its attention, and it dropped the boy. In the half second as the monster raised and turned its head toward her, Mags grabbed her hammer and introduced it to the cyborg’s face.
Blood spurted from the wounds. The cyborg bellowed its rage and pain. Intent on Mags, it forgot about Patches—a fatal mistake.
Mags shouted, “Get through his helmet!” She and her cat had seen a similar device before, when Earth had sent an assassin to kill them at the final Small Flowers concert.
Patches landed on the cyborg’s head and set her invincible claws to work. In a flurry, strips of metal flew away from the combatants. The cyborg grabbed at Patches to dislodge her and finally succeeded. He flung her away. But the damage was done.
“Sarah,” Mags shouted. “Fry his brain!”
Sarah wanted to be a nurse when she grew up. She dreamed of a life where she could help people overcome pain and lead them to healing. She was, unlike Mags, a kind and gentle soul. But she had seen what their enemies could do, and—like Mags—had reached a point in her life where she would do anything to protect her friends.
The young telepath focused on the cyborg’s exposed and all-too-human mind, and she blasted it with all the force of the rage that fueled her music in Dumpster Kittens.
The cyborg gripped both sides of its head and made a noise no one who heard it ever hoped to hear again. It crashed against the edge of the stage and bashed its face into the structure. Then it reared up to its full height, went rigid as a stone, and fell to the floor.
“Good job, Sarah! You okay?” Mags didn’t wait for a response before she was cradling Timothy in her arms. Patches and Plutonian gathered around her.
Mags said, “Hey, kid.” She set the palm of one hand against his face. “You alright, mate? Talk to me.”
There she was, his favorite singer, right in his face. Timothy coughed and rubbed his throat. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay. Mags?”
“I’m right here.”
He placed his hand over hers and held it. “Is that the best they can fucking do?”
Mags helped him to his feet.
 Sarah’s talents and courage were crucial to the crew’s overcoming a cybernetic mutant monster in Daughter of Lightning and a swarm of vicious space wasps in The Hive.
 This humanitarian mission happened after Mags had released her remaining octopuses on Earth, as shown in Farewell Tour and Pieces of Eight. Otherwise, they would have been happy to use their telepathic powers to pacify the crowd from the safety of the massive tank they lived in aboard the Hyades while on tour with Alonso and the space monkeys as Small Flowers.
 Alonso paraphrases both Sing by the Carpenters (1973) and Sing by the Dresden Dolls (2006).
 As told in Farewell Tour.