Excerpted from The Lost Crew of the Volya IX, Volume Four of the Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches.
“Humans,” muttered Meteor Mags. “How I hate them.” She exhaled a plume of smoke and stared out the window on the bridge of The Queen Anne’s Revenge.
“Gee, thanks,” said Plutonian.
“Relax, dear. I didn’t mean you.”
“Did you have any particular humans in mind?” He held out his hand.
Mags passed him the cigarette. “I sure did. Those sons of bitches who—”
The ship’s alarm interrupted with a jingle Plutonian had not heard in decades.
“Bollocks,” said Mags. “Cosmic rays. We need to hit the storm shelter.” She plopped into her command chair and began tapping her fingers on one of its touch screens.
“The alarm for cosmic rays is the Windows 95 start-up music?”
“Can you think of a better way to announce things are getting completely FUBAR? This won’t take a second, dear. Go get in my bed.”
Plutonian furrowed his eyebrows. “Do what now?”
“Don’t be shy, Dr. P. It’s a cozy place to curl up for a storm, and it’s where the shielding is strongest.” As Mags explained, Plutonian heard the rushing water filling up the reservoirs between the inner and outer walls of the hull.
Silicate-based insulation in a standard ship’s hull kept out normal radiation. But for stripping the high-energy protons off a cosmic ray storm, nothing worked like water. Modern ship design included a storm shelter protected by reservoirs, reducing the need to shield the entire vessel.
“We rotate the ship so one side faces the storm,” said Mags, “and then we wait it out.”
Patches lifted her head and watched Plutonian walk past. She mewed softly.
“Shouldn’t we get her on the bed, too?”
Mags shrugged. “She’ll get up if she wants to. After all the stuff she survived this year, I don’t think a radiation storm will upset her.”
As if in agreement, Patches rolled over, licked her paw, and shut her eyes.
“She’s fearless,” he said.
“Indeed.” Mags knelt down to scratch Patches behind the ears and then dropped herself unceremoniously on the bed beside Plutonian.
“So which sons of bitches did you mean?”
“Oh, right.” From a drawer under her mattress, she drew out a miniature, wooden treasure chest with a Jolly Roger carved into the lid. With a frown, she turned its contents into something to smoke. “Those sodding Soviet space monkeys just reminded me what horrible shite people did to get into space. Did you know the Russians sent up a dog into orbit? Before they sent primates?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. “The first animal to orbit the Earth, and it wasn’t even one of us.”
“Exactly. And you know what they did to her? How they honored her contribution to science?”
Plutonian shook his head, but he knew.
“Murdered her. Sent her right up there into space and then murdered her. Can you fucking imagine?” A tear rolled down Mags’ cheek. “Ungrateful bloody savages.” She wiped her eye. “Up there all alone, absolutely terrified, not even understanding why or what. Just abandoned. Like garbage. Like some unfeeling thing, not even an animal.” Her voice trailed off.
“Thus rewarded are our toils. But Mags, I didn’t think you even liked dogs.”
“I don’t! But that doesn’t mean I want them to suffer. They may be stupid, stinky sods, but their feelings still matter. They feel as much as you, or me, or Patches.” She licked the paper, running a finger along the seam. “Fuck,” she said. “This must be the saddest spliff ever rolled.”
“If it makes you feel any better,” he said, picking up the lighter, “they didn’t murder that dog. She died from overheating.”
“How awful. Cooked alive instead of euthanized.”
“That’s not much better, is it? Sorry.” He held a flame up to her.
Mags puffed. “Damn! Slim showed me his operation, and I still can’t believe the quality he’s getting out of it. Here. Be careful!”
Plutonian accepted, puffing leisurely. “You’re right, though. About humans. We do some pretty awful things. I think about stuff I did before I got out, and it makes me sad.”
“Got out of what?”
He waved his hand in the air. “The whole fucking system, Mags. The war. The lies. Everything. Oh, nevermind. There are probably things you shouldn’t know about me.”
“It’s okay if you want to tell me.” She covered his hand with hers. “Everybody’s got a sad story.”
“It won’t make you think any better of humans.”
“Hey!” She squeezed his shoulder. “Some of my best friends are humans.”
Plutonian chuckled. “Alright, then.” He leaned back, resting against a pillow. “I was in Afghanistan. It must have been about fifteen or sixteen years ago now, just before asteroid mining really took off. Right about the time Tarzi was born, I guess. We’d been sent into the middle of a conflict with more factions, splinter groups, and proxies than anybody could keep track of.
“You’d think in a war you’d know who your enemy is. But it wasn’t like that at all. You’d go through these villages in the middle of nowhere. They didn’t know why we were there. Hell, they didn’t even know who we were! They thought we were the goddamn Russians. They wouldn’t even know who their own government was if we didn’t tell them.
“Of course, we weren’t the Russians. So why the hell were we there? And we’d tell them about the Twin Towers attacks, and they wouldn’t even believe us. How is it even possible for a building made out of glass and steel to be that tall? They’d never heard of such a thing, much less a pair of them being taken out by airplanes. It just wasn’t part of their reality. We’d show them pictures and videos, and they just couldn’t believe it.
“They certainly weren’t the evil enemy we’d been sent to fight. I’m not even sure that enemy existed. These people were just farmers living simple lives, minding their own business until a truckload of men with guns would arrive. Us, the Russians, some warlord, whoever.
“Did they ever fight us? Did they ever attack us? Sure they did. Someone else would come along, give them guns, and tell them unless they attacked us, their whole family would die.
“It made what happened even worse. There was no sense to it. No evil empire to destroy. No one you could punch in the face and make it all stop. There were just these poor fuckin’ people trying to live.”
He puffed and passed.
“Anyway. One evening my patrol is coming back through this village. We’d been there many times, and the people were friendly to us. The kids would come out, and we’d give them little treats like soda and candies. We’d transported our doctors and medicine out there and treated some of the worst cases at the base. We knew these people about as well as two strangers with no business knowing each other really can.
“But this night, we’re rolling through town. Right down the main street, which is pretty much a dirt road with ragged little houses on either side. I’m in the back of the utility vehicle, supposedly manning the gun we’ve got mounted there but really just having a smoke and watching the sunset. It could get so peaceful there. Sunsets were just gorgeous. A man could almost forget he was in a war.
“That’s when the gunfire started. All of a sudden, these kids come running out from both sides of the street. It’s the kids we see every day. Only they’ve got semi-automatic rifles. And I mean like every kid in the village, all at once. They fill the road in front of us. The driver slams on the brakes. Not even seconds have passed, and the transport is getting riddled with bullets.
“I guess I just got scared. Guys like to talk tough, but when you’re getting shot at, you find out real fast that anyone can get scared. I didn’t even think. There wasn’t time to. I just reacted. I shot back.” He hung his head.
“Now, you don’t want to fuck with an MK48. And there was this moment. Couldn’t have been more than a second or two. But time just sort of slowed down. And I was watching these kids, kids I’d seen the day before, the kid I gave a candy bar to, their bodies—”
For a moment, he saw every detail frozen in time, the way the candy bar kid turned into shreds and scraps of things he was not about to describe.
“It didn’t last long. When the driver heard my MK48, he launched that fucking vehicle. It didn’t matter who was in front of him or who got under the wheels. He got us the hell out of there.
“I collapsed on the floor in the back, and I looked up at the sky, and I thought, what in the fuck did I just do.
“Not long after that, after the adrenaline had worn off and we were a safe distance away, I knew I had to get the hell out of there. It wasn’t right. None of it was right. Not that I’d ever been a big flag-waver before going over there. But like a lot of us at the time, I thought we had something important to accomplish. I thought we could do something about it. Find the bad guys. Help the good guys.
“But there weren’t any of either. It was just endless war, chewing up anything decent in its path.”
“There are no sides in war,” said Mags. “Just the people it destroys.”
“And the people it makes rich.”
“Anyway, I didn’t leave that night. We made sure our wounded got back to base and got treated. We had paperwork to do. Always paperwork. People ask me what I think happens when we die, and I tell them paperwork. But I’d made my decision.
“Three days later, I went on a courier assignment and never came back. It wasn’t easy getting out of that country, but it wasn’t impossible if you knew who to bribe. I got far, far away. Got myself a new name. Got good and fucking drunk for two or three years.
“Then I realized it wasn’t making things any better. So, I hooked up with the right kind of people if you want to do the wrong kind of things. And that was that.”
“You sound like such a pacifist sometimes,” she said, but softly. “Done with the war, and all that. It’s hard to believe the first time I met you, you were blasting those MFA losers with buckshot!”
“Fuck the MFA.”
“Aye. But what I have in mind for them won’t be a war. It’ll be a bloody retribution.”
“Mags, you can count me in.”