Here’s a preview of the next short story in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. This is the first of two parts, and it picks up where Hang My Body on the Pier ended in the Omnibus Edition.
In Rings of Ceres, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat return to a decimated asteroid civilization to rescue friends and kick ass, but they get caught up in violent riots between the desperate citizens of Ceres and the mercenary security forces guarding the mining corporations.
A note about the title: Voyage of the Calico Tigress described how rings formed around Ceres after the tornado in Blind Alley Blues destroyed the Ceresian water-processing facilities. The storm shot the water into space to freeze in rings, along with lots of industrial wreckage and human carnage.
PART ONE: THE MASSACRE
November 2029: Svoboda 9.
Patches held the gecko firmly under her forepaw, preventing his escape without squeezing the life from him. It seemed only right that all things smaller than she should die. But his struggles caught her attention. Detachedly observing him, she took a moment to consider his perspective.
Her telepathic merger with Meteor Mags and the mother octopus in September gave the murderous calico the points of view of two additional lifeforms, neither of which was her species. Events of November propelled life forward at a breakneck pace for her pirate crew, but the fearless feline had found ample pause to consider her mortality and her place in the universe.
Was the lizard so different, she wondered. He or his recent ancestors were born on Earth, like her, and transported to the populated regions of the Belt on merchant ships. He, too, found himself farther from the sun than any of his kind. Like her, he wanted so dearly to live. To eat. To run free.
The gecko detached his tail, but the wriggling scrap of meat failed to distract his captor. He changed colors to match the floor’s metal surface in the Hyades’ cargo hold. It granted him no reprieve. In vain, his skin cells sought to mimic the tri-colored coat of the paw pinning him down. Out of options, he ceased struggling and pretended to die.
His heartbeat made a liar of him. Patches felt his life pulsing through her paw pads. She lifted her paw slightly, but his squirming excited her. She pressed him back down, and her invincible claws sank into the deck around him like a cage. His limbs stuck out between the bars.
Then Patches did something she had never done with her prey. She let him go.
He scampered across the deck as fast as he could, ran straight up the wall, and sat huffing nervously at the top. His tiny tongue flicked as quickly as a hummingbird’s. Like a bolt of lightning, he shot across the wall into an impossibly narrow crevice and disappeared.
Patches licked the gecko’s scent from her paw and casually rolled back on her haunches. As for the several hundreds of dragons and humans she had helped Mags terminate since 2027, she felt no remorse. If anything, she felt proud to have ended their lives, not as evidence of her skill as a huntress, but because they had clearly been her enemies.
For the minuscule reptile she had just released, she felt something else entirely: empathy. For a moment, she felt an animalistic kinship, as if he was her cub—something more than a source of food and entertainment.
Her ears flicked back and forth. Whether she heard Mags’ voice or was only aware her best friend needed her right away, she could not say. She shot from the cargo hold like a fur-covered rocket onto the surface of the asteroid.
“You can’t be serious,” said Mags. “An aquarium?”
“Hell yes, tía. Check this out.” Alonso stood with her before a drafting table he had set up by a side entrance to the massive freighter they stole nearly three Earth days ago and relocated to the newly named Svoboda 9. After piloting the ship to the asteroid, Alonso elected to stay with Mags’ new friends: a swarm of telepathic octopuses and an intelligent tribe of macaques descended from lost Soviet space monkeys.
In no time at all, Alonso picked up his guitar and started jamming with this unlikely menagerie through a mental link the octopuses created. But while the interior caverns now looked like a band’s practice space, with posters and empty bottles and cables running in every direction, the area around the Hyades had become a construction site.
Sawhorses, toolboxes, and tables covered with power tools from the Hyades’ maintenance crew proved Alonso’s determination to create. Piles of equipment and supplies lay all about, carried from the Hyades by the monkeys—or, as he liked to call them, the Svobodans, though he included himself and the cephalopods in that.
With a wave of Alonso’s hand, the drafting table lit up and hummed. It projected a three-dimensional model of the Hyades in luminous green outlines floating above the table. With a blue penlight, Alonso highlighted sections of the ship as he discussed them, rotating the model for a better view.
Mags asked, “Where did you get all this stuff?”
“Port Authority’s got everything. Now look. We take the Hyades rec room. It’s huge. We wall it off with Plexi, with a backup layer in case the barrier breaks, and an auxiliary water supply. The unused living quarters can easily be gutted to hold an expanded tank. Then all we need to do is—”
“You are a bloody madman.” Mags puffed on a stolen cigarette. “Then what? Take my baby octos on a musical tour of the solar system?”
Alonso turned his palms upward. “Of course! With the monkeys to crew the ship—”
Mags’ laugh cut him short. “You want to take the little Stalinists with you?”
“Why you gotta hate on the monkeys, yo? They’re solid peeps.”
The smuggler let out a sigh that could have filled the sails of a frigate.
“They fuckin’ love you, tía. I see it in their minds when the octos bond us. You’re like a goddess to them. A red-haired goddess of the conquering motherland, you know what I’m sayin’? With sweet-ass tatts, and a totally fine rack, an’ a ass as big as a—”
“Okay, Lonso.” She sharply waved her hand. “I got it.” Her obsidian irises moved over his face like mysterious moons in orbit. “I have one question for you.”
He patted his chest. “Bring it.”
“If you’re so stoked about making a band out of my octos and astro-chimps, why haven’t you invited me on the tour?”
His smile glowed brighter than the model. “You’d really come with us?”
Mags flicked her ash onto the Svobodan wasteland. “You really think I’d let you out of my sight with my babies? You’re crazier than I thought, ese!” He raised his fist, and she bumped it. “Now,” she said, returning to the model, “Patches and I need to make a few changes.” She plucked the blue penlight from his hand. “Number one, we need a playhouse—here. With scratching posts, and a basket of pillows. Plus a luxury bathroom with multiple shower heads and a jacuzzi, right here. I need a gun safe, and it’ll take a big chunk out of your rec room plans. Then over here…”
Alonso took notes. He enjoyed watching his old friend take over as manager, just like she had on the Sterile Skins’ first two West Coast tours in the days before the Musical Freedoms Act. Auntie Mags, as he had known for years, might have been crazier than a shithouse rat, but he definitely wanted her on his side in a fight.
Touring the solar system would take one hell of a fight.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Mags. “What about weapons? We retrofit the Hyades with these guns I got in the job on—god-fucking-damn-it! What now?!”
Mags pulled a black box the size of a postage stamp from a pocket in her bra and scowled. At the touch of her thumbprint, the device played a message. Her frustration turned to concern.
KZZZT no fucking idea what it was but the shop KZZZTotally destroyed. —eople lying dead in the streets and KZZZTrobably can’t even hear this, Mags. But if you can, we could really KZZZT your help right now. KZZZeet at the—ike we used to. —ove you.
Alonso asked, “Who is that?”
“Tinta,” said Mags. “She’s on Ceres.” The pirate covered her face with one hand. “Curse me for a fucking papist. With everything that’s hit the fan, I forgot about poor Tinta.”
“What did she say about eating at the what?”
“Meeting. Like we used to. Where’s Patches?” But no sooner had the words left her lips than the cat was at her feet, rubbing against her leather boots and leaving strands of indestructible hair like calling cards. Mags scooped her up. “Are you in the mood for adventure?”
Alonso pursed his lips in disbelief and scratched his temple. “Every federale in the System is on your ass! And you want to fly back to a disaster the size of a planet?!”
“Dwarf planet,” Mags corrected him. “And the pigs can kiss my lily-white arse. My friends need me.”
“Word,” said Alonso. “You need some backup, tía? You know I got you.”
“You always did,” the smuggler assured him. “But we’ll be fine.” Patches mewed in agreement. Mags rubbed one calico ear between her thumb and forefinger. “Ceres is in total chaos right now. That’s where Patches and I do our best work.”
“You see any MFA, you put a bullet in their brains for me. A’ight?”
“I’ll aim for vital organs instead. They don’t have a functioning brain cell in the lot of them.” She kissed Alonso on the cheek, pausing so Patches could nuzzle his face before they headed back to Plutonian’s ship.
Mags powered up the vessel as Patches perched on the console to enjoy the view. “Just between you and me, dear, we probably should have taken him up on that offer. Now. Let’s go see what kind of trouble we can get into.”
Patches purred like a thunderstorm rumbling on a desert horizon. The ship they had borrowed carried the felons away from Svoboda and toward the asteroid whose destruction they had both so recently witnessed—and barely survived.
“This shit is beyond fucked up,” said Mags. “Can you believe this?” She aimed a fingertip at the remains of industry and civilization. “That was a water-processing plant. Shit will be jumping off here right quick if they run out of water and clean air.”
She steered through the disgruntled Ceresian atmosphere. Mags thanked the goddess of pirates the vessel had not been described in recent warrants and amendments against her. To the swarm of disaster-relief crews from Earth and various mining colonies, the ship was just another ship. They had enough to worry about on the ground.
But not all the organized activity was benevolent.
Fifty meters below, a crowd pressed against a gate in the center of a fence enclosing private property. Inside the enclosure sat a ship and supply depots. The property belonged to a mining corporation, and the buildings upon it remained standing, hardly damaged.
They owed their survival to the collapse of a factory next door. Its massive pile of twisted debris formed a shelter from the wind and heavy objects the cyclone had picked up and turned into deadly missiles.
CeresIronCorp staffed the facility with a private security force. Corporations liked pleasant phrases such as “private security”. Accountants cheerfully entered them in ledgers as “independent contractor expenses”. But the contractors were far from cheerful or pleasant.
A more disparate group of killers-for-hire could hardly be found anywhere in the Belt. Three things gave them a cohesive group identity: the standard-issue .45-caliber pistols on their hips, in addition to whatever weapons they personally preferred; the blue-black uniforms, each decorated with a patch bearing the white-on-blue CIC logo of CeresIronCorp; and their eyes as cold and firm as day-old corpses.
Veterans of a thousand wars, they rarely served as enlisted soldiers. They earned their livings from the blood of conflicts which had nothing to do with them, serving whichever master paid the most.
More than one hundred mercs controlled access to the CIC facility, including its medical supplies, food, water, and transportation. But the crowd of Ceresian laborers and their families called that control into question.
Some say society is only three days without food from a total revolt. Many people from the destroyed settlements had already gone without food and clean water for two.
Hundreds of injured, starving, and now-homeless citizens stormed the gate, trying to batter it to the ground and climb over. Mags picked up their shouting on the ship’s microphones. It filled the cabin with riotous tumult—until gunfire drowned it out. The mercs had opened fire on the crowd.
Mags arrived in time to see the massacre begin. Though her plan involved moving quietly without drawing attention to herself, anger took her to a different destiny. She cursed with an intensity that invented several phrases the English language had never known. Instead of passing over the melee, she spun the wheel and forced the ship to make an abrupt about-face.
Plutonian’s vessel was hardly armed at all compared to Mags’ Queen Anne, but she had wheeled aboard a gun safe and made a few modifications before leaving Vesta—just in case. At her command, the ship hovered over the mercenaries, but far enough to the side that Mags could aim a weapon into their midst.
While the Queen Anne had a door that lowered like a ramp for wheeling stolen goods aboard, Plutonian’s side door went upwards into a slot in the hull. The result was an open section like the side of a combat helicopter.
Mags popped in a pair of ear plugs and raised the door to reveal an M2 Browning machine gun whose tripod she had bolted to the deck. Her notorious sharpshooting skills were not needed to deal with the security goons below. Grouped in a tight formation, they only required a steady flow of ammunition. The M2 fired .50-caliber rounds at a maximum rate of nearly 600 per minute, making it one of Mags’ favorite tools for taking out the trash.
Mags tossed out a few grenades then sat in the open doorway, straddling the machine gun from behind. She swept the weapon back and forth like a painter filling in the background on a canvas of annihilation. Her sharp eyes took in every detail of the carnage. Armor-piercing rounds rammed into lungs and vital organs, obliterated faces, and sprayed the mercs with the entrails of their comrades.
Mags needed little provocation or sense of justice to fuel her massacre. CeresIronCorp was a subsidiary of GravCorp, and Mags considered anyone associated with GravCorp deserving of execution. After all, the company had stolen what was rightfully hers: the science of gravity control. If the greatest thief in the solar system hated anything, it was having her own things taken.
At the fringes of the clustered mercenaries, a few gathered their wits and returned fire.
“Fuck!” Her antagonists’ bullets ricocheted off the interior walls. Mags rolled back from the doorway and covered her head.
Patches howled in her face, a wrathful noise muted by the earplugs. But the cat’s eyes told Mags everything.
“Go!” Mags yelled. “Tear them a new one!”
The killer calico leapt from the ship into the fray. What torments the mercenaries suffered on the receiving end of Mags’ bullets paled in comparison to the agonies unleashed by her friend.
Patches got personal. She sank her teeth into throats and raged through the mass like a whirlwind, slicing tendons and mutilating genitals so quickly the mercs never knew what hit them. Their delicious blood drove her to new heights of slaughter.
Mags crawled from her hiding place and resumed her position at the Browning. “Fuck yeah, baby kitty!” Knowing her cat could not be hurt by bullets, she fired indiscriminately.
The murderous felines’ assault turned the tide. The Ceresians outside the gate pressed the advantage. Beating down the enclosure, the crowd surged over it like a hungry wave devouring all in its path.
Over the Browning’s fury, Mags shouted, “Patches, get to the roof!”
In her rush to open fire, Mags had ignored one detail: the anti-aircraft gun atop the roof of the CIC building. Now manned, it pummeled the vessel with a barrage of explosive rounds. The weapon roared, and the ship caromed this way and that.
Mags slid across the deck and smashed into a bulkhead. The ship heaved and threw her in the opposite direction. Her head slammed against a wall. “Enough!” Using handholds built into the walls for zero-gravity maneuvers, she pulled herself forward to the cockpit as the vessel was violently tossed about.
At the helm, she steered the ship to hover directly above the gun. With a maximum angle of eighty-five degrees, the offending weapon could not fire straight up. Mags used the reprieve to switch the ship to auto-pilot, stuff its remote control into her bra, and run back to the door. She unsheathed her boot knife and leapt out.
The gunner pulled his sidearm and squeezed off one shot.
Mags’ combat boots met his face. His spine snapped backwards like a dry twig. The impact ripped his head free from the body. A spray of blood from his neck coated the back of Mags’ legs and soaked her skirt.
She landed on all fours. The severed head hit with a splat. It rolled away with a look of surprise.
Brandishing her knife, Mags prepared to spring on her opponent, but the fight was over. She tossed her ear plugs aside. She considered aiming the anti-aircraft gun at the mercs, but the conflict had become a sporadic mix of Ceresians and their oppressors, with no clear targets for a weapon that big.
The crowd swarmed the supply depots, hoping for plunder. The CIC ship on the ground drew the throng with its promise of escape. Until Mags’ aerial assault, the mercs had guarded it while the crew unloaded supplies, but the chaos left it unmanned and unlocked. People clambered aboard the ship, but arguments broke out over who could go. Presented with a means of escape, and cleared of one enemy, the crowd turned on itself to fight over limited resources.
Men punched each other in the face. Adolescents brandished homemade shanks and threatened anyone who got close to them. A woman leapt onto a man’s back. She pummeled his skull with her fists, and blood stung his eyes. Her three children attempted to surge past and board the vessel.
Patches weaved between legs and pressed through the clamorous crowd like it was nothing. Anyone who obstructed her advance got perforated by terrible claws. She dispensed only minor wounds to encourage Ceresians to make way, but opened a dozen mercenaries’ arteries. Blood soaked her fur by the time she arrived at the facility’s main entrance.
She jumped through a broken window and entered the building. Patches sought the stairwell to the roof, and many CIC employees died from her slashing claws before she found it. She ran up ten stories of stairs to burst through the roof’s doors so loudly she made Mags jump.
Heedless of the cat’s gore-covered exterior, Mags scooped her up. They surveyed the chaos. “No, they won’t all fit on that ship. Nor ours, even if we offered.”
“Sure, we could take some. But not all. How do we make that choice?”
Their chat did not last long, for the crowd followed closely behind Patches. Rumbling footsteps in the stairwell alerted the felons, who got a headstart back to the ship. A mob poured through the double doors to the rooftop. Dozens led the charge, and a hundred surged behind them, pushing forward.
Mags pulled the remote from her bra and commanded the ship to descend. She shouted as she ran, cradling Patches with one arm. “No no no no no!”
Patches leapt from the embrace onto the deck. Mags jumped in behind her and whirled about to face the oncoming crowd.
In a flash, she drew a Desert Eagle from her garter holster. She flicked off the safety, chambered a round, and snapped the nearest person into her sights.
Reason halted her instinct. She thumbed the safety into place and holstered the pistol. She sprang for the cockpit like a lioness, and her calico tigress filled the co-pilot’s chair. Mags lifted off the roof as fast as she could.
It was not fast enough. People jumped at the rising ship. They grabbed the edge of the open side and the landing gear. A few found handholds as the vessel pulled away from the building, only to lose their grips and fall to the jagged concrete rubble.
Like the gecko Patches captured hours earlier, the humans wanted so desperately to live. To run. To escape.
Mags cursed them loudly. “The fuck are you doing?! Get off!” Her jaw set in a mask of resolution. Below, bodies struck the ruins and turned into crimson sprays and meat with bones sticking out at tragic angles. “You damn fools.”
Once the ship veered away on its new course, Mags’ façade broke. She smashed her fist on the console. “Goddamnit!” A tear ran from her right eye and traced a path down the curve of her pale cheek.
Patches jumped into her lap to comfort her.
“We can’t let this go on, Patches. These poor fucking people.” She wiped her eye and sniffed. “We need to get them help. This is bigger than you and me. But we need to do something before the mining corps and their piece-of-shit merc squads establish martial law down there.”
Patches stepped onto Mags’ chest and shoved her nose against the pirate’s cheek, marking it with a smear of human blood.
“Love you, too, Patches.” Mags pulled the tiny black square from her bra, pressed her thumbprint to it, and said, “Dial. Rosie.”
Unbeknownst to her crew on Vesta, Mags had been in contact with Kaufman’s secretary Rosalia since before the woman applied for the job. Rosalia’s real mission in the administrator’s office had been to influence his first contact with the smuggler, then keep an eye on him.
Although Rosalia considered Mags a friend, she felt a deeper affection for the underground resistance on Mars. This was, at least, one secret the two women did not have between them. It was the reason Rosalia had agreed to Mags’ request to immerse herself in the bureaucracy governing Mars: to be on the inside and the outside.
The orbits of Mars and Ceres were, that month, close enough for communication between them to experience only a slight delay. It was almost as good as real-time.
Rosalia’s voice came thru the tiny speaker in Mags’ hand. “Ahoy, beautiful.”
“Ahoy, kitten. I’m in the midst of a trauma. Got a minute?”
“Three and a half.”
“Close enough. What have you heard about Ceres and this freak tornado? I don’t mean the garbage on the newsfeed.”
“I heard it was no accident. It was deliberate sabotage of the atmosphere cleaners.”
Mags’ ears perked up. “By locals?”
“Hardly, dear. The smart money expects a statement from a group claiming to be the Martian resistance within thirty-six hours. They’ll take credit for the catastrophe on some ideological basis.”
“Your goddamn resistance almost killed me with that tornado!” Mags strung together a sequence of obscenities like increasingly profane beads on a necklace. She nearly blurted out, “You almost killed Kaufman,” but she stopped.
Rosalia had not mentioned Kaufman. Mags suspected her co-conspirator did not know the official had abandoned his post to join Mags’ merry band of outlaws. “Where the hell is your boss? I need to talk to him.”
“He disappeared,” said Rosalia. “His wanted poster is all over the Belt. I last saw him on Mars, a day before the tornado.”
“You saw him? Doing what?”
“He had a painting delivered to his office in the morning, and he did not seem like his usual self. He left to pick up his son to take a holiday, and that was that.” Rosalia said nothing of how she saved Kaufman’s life only moments before his departure from the red planet.
Mags sensed a partial truth, but she pressed a different point. “Why are your people on Mars fucking about with Ceres? We’ve got plans for Mars. Are they trying to piss me off?”
“There are some people on Mars,” said Rosalia, “who object to the oppression on Ceres and will do anything to end it. They think they need to—”
“What they need to do,” Mags interrupted, “is stop destroying places where people live, and start sending some help to these poor motherfuckers! What were you idiots thinking? I have friends on Ceres!”
“Mags. The people who did this are not the resistance. They’re a radical splinter group.”
“The bloody resistance is a radical splinter group! Whoever fucked those atmosphere cleaners is a fucking maniac! I will beat the life out of them with a rusty shovel if I ever—”
“Mags. Mags! Calm down. I have people working on this. Good people. I won’t let you down.”
“Good,” said Mags. “Good. These people need food and water. Medicine. Shelter. Whatever you can make happen with the resistance or the Port Authority, I would appreciate it.”
“Are you there now? Is it as bad I heard?”
“Worse. Do me a favor, Rosie. Call me every twelve hours until I say otherwise. Leave a message if I don’t pick up.”
“Absolutely.” The line went silent.
A sinking pit formed in Mags’ stomach. Rosalia’s words stank of disinformation, but Mags had not been entirely forthcoming, either. “She’s lying about something, Patches. The only way we’ll get to the bottom of it is a trip to Mars.” She lit up a smoke. “I’d rather drag my vag through broken glass than go to Mars right now. The ‘resistance’ or whoever they really are can sod off until after my birthday.”
Patches plaintively mewed. She showed the tips of her tiny white fangs and pulled back her whiskers in a chatter.
“That’s about the size of it, baby kitty. First, we save our friends. Then we worry about saving the worlds. Let’s find Tinta.”
END PART ONE