the ryderium caper

mags 35v2 - 5x7crop - Small Copy

This story appears in the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition.

What new element before us, unborn in nature?
Is there a new thing under the Sun?

—Allen Ginsberg; Plutonian Ode, 1978.

March, 2029. Below the Belt Strip Club.

Slim popped the tops off two bottles of beer and set them in front of the couple. “Would you like a more intimate room in the back of the club?”

Meteor Mags snatched up a bottle. “That would be perfect, dear.”

“Right this way,” said Slim. “Sir?”

The man across from Mags picked up his bottle and slid out of the booth. “A private session with the ‘solar system’s number one dancer’. Be still, my beatin’ heart.” At age fifty-five, his grey hairs outnumbered the darker ones. Though he lacked the rough hands of an asteroid miner, the scars on his knuckles and a hard look in his eyes said he was not afraid to fight.

Slim knew who the man was, but he also knew discretion. The jovial criminal led them into a dimly lit hallway that ran behind the stage. Doors lined the corridor. “This will do,” he said, opening one. “You won’t be disturbed. Take as long as you like. Mags—come see me before you go?”

“I’ll even bring you a treat.” She shared a smile with him before the door shut.

“I can’t believe you’re still stripping,” said her companion. “At your age?”

Mags laughed. “Sit the fuck down, Ryder. We don’t put my age on the flyers.”

“Hug me first, you scurvy pirate.”

Mags squeezed him close for a second then let him go. “Look who’s talking.” She took a seat on the L-shaped couch.

Flanked by two end tables, the couch sat in the corner of a room which only Slim, Mags, and a handful of their closest associates had ever entered. Unlike the private rooms available to the rest of the club’s dancers and clientele, this one belonged exclusively to Meteor Mags.

She furnished it with a writing desk and a round table at which a quartet could play poker as comfortably as it could plan a caper. Mags had shown up one day with her power tools, cut a hole in the wall, and built a mini-bar into it. She added three generously padded barstools and the Belt’s finest selection of rum.

Slim had installed a security system that blocked all communication signals and made the room one of the most private in the System. The pair of criminals had also “liberated” two original Jackson Pollack paintings which now took up most of two walls. Surround-sound speakers mounted in the room’s corners complemented the art with a steady stream of punk rock and post-bop.

Ryder pointed to the mini-bar. “You mind?”

“Help yourself. Get me one, too.”

He poured one neat and one on the rocks. “Did our little scam work out on Rebbeck 13?”

Mags took the glass he offered and swished the ice cubes. “You better believe it. Those superconductors are just what I needed. Plus, I made a new friend.”

Ryder held out his glass. “Cheers.”

“Cheers, mate. Cutest little calico cat, too. Goddess knows what she was doing in that spaceport. What did you bring me?”

“Tell me what you wanted the superconductors for.”

Mags chuckled. “You know what your problem is, Ryder?”

“I’m out of cigarettes?”

“No, you idiot. You’re too curious about everything. They’re behind the bar, by the way.”

“I could stop being curious about supply runs from Earth.” He paused in awe of the packs he discovered.

“Like that’ll ever bloody happen.”

“Okay, I’m taking a carton for myself, thank you very much.”

“Enjoy, thief. They’re real Turkish. Not that blended crap from the States.”

He lit one up and handed it to her.

“Such a gentleman. Now tell me what you got.”

“You’re gonna love this. Better than the job we pulled on Yeltsin 17.”

“Wading through barbed wire covered in dingo shit would be better than the Yeltsin job.”

He sat beside her. “You’re only saying that because you were the one in prison.”

“That might have something to do with it.”

“But did we make bank or not?”

“Oh, sure. About 800 bodies later, and I was richer than a Rockefeller. If you forget I almost died twice, it was awesome.”

“This is even awesomer. Check it out.” He pulled three sheets of paper from his pocket. They were folded neatly into quarters, but the wrinkles showed they had been crumpled up like rubbish and flattened out again.

Mags snatched them from his hand. She set her cigarette in the ash tray and unfolded the papers. She studied them for a moment. A vicious smile formed on her lips, and her eyes met Ryder’s.

“I told you it was good.”

“Darling, I think this calls for another round. Maybe you should bring the bottle over.”

Ryder stood. “People will talk, you know. You and me being alone back here for so long.” He grabbed a bottle of Kraken rum, twisted off the cap, and took a swig.

“People always talk. Did you see the new anime where I bang a cow with six tits?”

Ryder spat his rum into the air. “What?!”

“Yeah. With a strap-on.”

He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You should do your own publishing, Mags. The Belt is littered with these penny dreadfuls of you, and you don’t make a goddamn credit off any of it.” He refilled her glass.

“Listen. If the fans wanna make fan fic, I’m not gonna stop ’em.”

“It’ll bite you in the ass someday.” He sat back down. “You can’t be famous and be a criminal. It doesn’t add up.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” She slapped the papers onto the cushion between them. “Now, if these emails you’ve intercepted are for real, that means they’ve got it. They’ve discovered the element I need, and they know how to make it. The bastards just don’t know what to do with it.”

“What do you think they should do with it?”

Mags reached for her cigarette, but it had burned out. She gestured with two fingers, beckoning another from his pack.

She drew smoke through her nose and exhaled. “Listen, Ryder. If I let you in on this, it’s all or nothing. If anyone knows what you know, you’re a dead man. I mean that. They cannot afford to let you live. Frankly, there’s a chance I couldn’t afford to let you live if something happened.”

“Mags, how long have we been friends? You don’t tell me everything, and that’s fine. But if you don’t tell me what I need to know to find good leads, that doesn’t help either of us. Christalmighty! Margareta trusted me more than you do.”

“You don’t want to make this about Gramma.”

“Yes I do. She took care of me when I was locked up. And she made sure I got out and had a good life. You think you learned some shit from her? Who do you think did the dirty work for her lawyers?”

“You think I don’t trust you.”

Ryder sat back and sank into the cushion. “Yeah.” Aimlessly, he swirled the melting cubes in his glass. “Nah. That’s just bullshit. An old man blowing off steam. I would have died for her.”

Mags took off her tinted glasses and set them next to the ash tray. With one finger, she wiped a tear from her eye. “Ryder,” she sighed, “so would I.”

“Cheers.”

She clinked her glass against his and took a sip. “Free, unlimited power.” She smacked the glass onto the end table and got up. “Do you know what this painting is called?”

“It was one of her favorites, though I can’t say why.”

“I can.” Mags stood with her back to him, admiring the Pollack on the wall. “Blue Poles. They always quote Jack about not denying the accident, but that was just some bullshit Greenberg made up. Jack made accidents beautiful. And so did Gramma.”

The smuggler faced him. “She found Tesla’s notes on wireless power. They were boxed up in some old trunk of junk she won in billiards. They’d been burned, or been in a house that was on fire, or something. Hardly any full pages survived. I spent five years trying to reverse-engineer the results of those equations. Then we had that thing with GravCorp.”

“Fuck GravCorp.”

“Aye, mate. Long story short?” She shrugged. “I got it.”

“You—” Ryder ran a hand through his thinning hair and down the back of his neck. “Did she know?”

“Of course she fucking knew.”

“And she never told me?”

Mags left the painting to stand before him at the couch. In her heels, she stood just under two meters tall. She had stopped using scales once they weighed her at more than ninety kilos. Mags had not cast a small shadow on the world since her adolescence nearly a century ago. “And she never told you.”

Ryder lowered his head and covered his face with his hands. He sat quietly in her shadow.

Mags scruffed his hair with one hand. “She liked you, mate. It’s why I put up with your shit.”

Ryder laughed. “You’re all heart, Mags.”

“Hahaha!” She plopped down beside him on the couch. “I’m serious. That’s why you never knew. If you did, you were a dead man.”

“And you just told me.”

“You insisted. Unlike Gramma, I don’t like you.”

“I don’t like you either. You’re a lousy dancer.”

“Oh, sod off.”

“It’s the stretch marks.”

“I’m going to feed you to the bouncers once I’m done grilling your carcass.”

“Mags?”

“What.”

“Thank you.”

She assessed him with the focus of a lioness stalking a pack of antelope to see which one should be separated from the herd. “I was going to tell you—eventually. She would have wanted me to.”

Ryder sat lost in thought, staring at the canvas across the room.

“We’ll take two rods,” said Mags. “We drive one into a planetoid’s north pole and one into the south. Then we switch on the system. It sets up a wave between the poles that is in perfect resonant frequency to bounce back and forth between the poles for-fucking-ever. Anyone who wants to tap into that wave drives their own rod into the planet, and voilà. Power.”

“I am so dead.”

“I tried to tell you, but noooo. Captain Fuckin’ Curious has to know what kind of information he’s stealing.”

“If you put free energy on Earth, the multinationals will collapse.”

“Those are the stakes, Ryder. The value of your life being suddenly and violently ended is now in the quadrillions of dollars.” She puffed out three smoke rings, blowing the final one through the first two. “By a rough estimate. Happy now?”

“Thrilled.”

“Good. Then let’s plan this caper.”

“Okay. First, you need to penetrate the most highly-guarded research lab in Japan. Then you kill everyone inside—about 350 people. Next, you descend on a rope into a vault 400 meters below sea level. It’s a death trap with lasers and poisonous gas, on a triple-redundant system that makes it impossible to—”

“Wait a minute. Why do I have to kill all 350 people?”

He shrugged. “I just thought it would sound more exciting. Should I add a motorcycle stunt?”

“Ryder, you fuck.” She slapped his arm.

“Alright, alright. You only need this one guy, Aoto Bunshi, and he knows the whole process. He’s the project manager, officially, but he’s one of the top theoreticists in the field.”

“What else do we know about the lovely Mister Bunshi?”

“For one, he has a pet octopus named Cedric. Two, he spends a lot of money on white girls with big, fake tits.”

“Casino call girls?”

“Streetwalkers, mostly.”

“Aoto likes to keep it real.”

“You could say that.”

“How does he feel about lousy old dancers with stretch marks?”

“I’d bet he is all about that shit.”

“Gramma probably would have married you, if you didn’t have such a potty mouth.”

“What she actually said was, ‘If you could wait until my sociopathic granddaughter moves out, that’d be great.’”

Mags stubbed out her cigarette. “How often does Bunshi have his hook-ups? Weekly?”

“Monthly.”

“See if you can narrow it down for me. I can get a week’s worth of Port Authority clearance codes, but I can’t get the bastards every single week.”

“Mags.” He presented her with a photograph. “In case you were thinking about killing the egghead.”

She held it by the corner to examine it. The scientist held a cat in his arms. “Anyone who likes cats can’t be all bad. But who said anything about killing him? I just asked for a date.” She handed back the photo. “A little dancing. A little nudity. A little drugged interrogation, and a pat on the bum in the morning. Or sooner.”

Three weeks later, in Japan.

“Aoto?”

“Mmmff.”

Mags rested her backside on the edge of his desk and casually crossed one foot over the other. Aoto lay naked, just two meters away on his bed. But the papers in her hand held her attention. “I wish all my dates could satisfy me like you.”

Aoto murmured something unintelligible.

She set the entire file back on the desk. “See, I love you for your mind.” Mags sat beside him on the bed and plucked a pack of cigarettes from the nightstand. She wasn’t worried he would touch her. Not with his wrists and ankles secured to the bedposts, and certainly not for a few more hours until the drugs wore off.

But he had wanted to.

It was funny, she thought. When Celina first introduced her to the idea of taking off her clothes for money, the whole thing sounded so degrading. What would Mama have thought? But eventually, Mags realized the full potential of it. If you could get men to willingly part with their money by dancing and being beautiful, imagine what other goods you could “liberate” without ever firing a single shot.

She leisurely puffed then picked up a pillow. “No offense, dear. But I’m trying to think.” She placed it over his crotch.

The wall safe had been difficult in Aoto’s drug-induced stupor, but the contents were worth it. The file contained all his research on the new element, and a generous stack of theoretical notes. What troubled Mags was the lack of any feasible manufacturing process. Her “date” could reliably produce the element in a particle accelerator, but only a few atoms at a time. He had no idea how to create a sizeable, stable amount.

Mags stubbed out her cigarette without reaching any insight of her own. She snapped the charm from her necklace. With it, she photographed each page in the file. Then all the papers went back in the file, and everything went back in the safe. As her hand rested on the edge of the safe door, the neatly stacked piles of cash inside caught her eye.

Aoto Bunshi was not the typical low-class roughneck she dealt with in the Belt on a regular basis. His work bordered on genius, and he had been polite to her, almost gentlemanly—when he was conscious. The cash likely represented his emergency fund, and even the smuggler’s covetous heart could not be moved to despoil him of all his savings.

But looking over her shoulder at the man on the bed, she licked her lips. One at a time, she peeled a few hundred dollar bills from the top of a stack. “Oh, a tip for me? How thoughtful!” Mags tucked the bills into her panties. In her hair, she wore a matching bow, black satin covered with white, five-pointed stars.

Standing at the foot of his bed, she undid the bow and tossed it at him. Her white hair spilled down her back. She shook it out. “You deserve something special.”

That night, Meteor Mags performed a routine no human eyes had ever seen. Aoto, in his realm of tranquilized fantasy, saw an angel made of stars. This angel had a tail and swished it back and forth. Back and forth, like a hypnotist’s pendulum.

As the angel danced, her hands left trails of light behind them. They formed glowing equations and faded away. Diagrams appeared around her and turned into ghosts.

Just before he lost consciousness completely, Aoto visualized a profound solution to manufacturing large, stable quantities of his newly discovered element.

Mags let herself out and left the planet before dawn.

April, 2029. Below the Belt Strip Club.

“That sounds pretty easy,” said Ryder. “All we need is a particle accelerator the size of a city—and a million years to make the stuff.”

Mags looked to the ceiling and furrowed her brow. She cradled Patches in her arms and scratched the tufts of fur around the calico’s ears. In the background, UK punk singles played over the speakers. “More like ten trillion.”

“Will the sun last that long?”

“Fuck.” She sat beside him and poured Patches onto the couch. “This needs to happen now. Like, yesterday.”

“You know what your problem is, Mags?”

“Gramma’s boyfriend keeps stealing all my fags?”

“Have you got any more?”

“Don’t tell me you smoked that whole carton already.”

“What if I did?”

With a sigh, Mags pulled open a drawer on the end table to reveal packs of the same Turkish cigarettes she gave him last time. She tossed him one. “I’ll give you a good price on five hundred cartons, if you want to make a few bucks. So. What’s my problem?”

He lit a stolen cigarette and passed it to her. “Patience.”

“I don’t have any.”

“My point. Look, we can’t manufacture it now. But this is cutting edge! What about next year? What if we could do it in five?”

“I want a working prototype on Vesta next year. You keep an eye on Bunshi. He’s onto something, even if he doesn’t know what it is.”

“Maybe we can convince him to work with us.”

“What’s in it for him? He has a solid team with generous funding and all the equipment he needs. There’s no particle accelerator in the Belt.”

“He can spank it to his accelerator for the next trillion years and not be any closer to what we need.”

“True. Let’s say you’re right. What do you propose we do?”

“If we blackmail him, he won’t be our friend. If we put him on the payroll, it only proves he can be bought. We need him to want to solve the problem, in secret, in such a way that we get his results—either with his knowing or without.”

Mags exhaled a puff of smoke and frowned. “Remember when piracy was all about getting wasted and shooting cannons at strangers for money?”

“Goddamn. Those were the good old days.”

“Keep thinking about it while you watch him. Buying Bunshi isn’t such a bad idea, if it comes to that. But maybe you can think of a better one.” Mags stubbed out her cigarette. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to put on a little show, and then meet a guy who ordered some records.”

“You’re still smuggling music for these geeks in the Belt? Is there even any money in that?”

“It’s for a guy who knows a guy in the Port Authority.”

“I see.” Ryder gulped down the last of his booze and set the empty glass near the ashtray. “I’ll let you get down to business.”

“My nephew’s here tonight. You should meet him and hang out for a bit.”

“You know I can’t watch you dance.” His eyes traveled up and down her body. They shone with something besides what Mags usually saw in lingering stares. “You remind me too much of her.”

“You’re a romantic old pirate sometimes.” In the mirror behind the mini-bar, she touched up her lipstick and quickly ran a brush through a few of her curls.

Ryder gave her a grim smile. “Don’t go telling anyone.”

“It’s our little secret.” She offered her hand. When he took it, she pulled him into a firm hug. They held each other in silence. Mags kissed his cheek and released him.

Opening the door, she said, “Patches? Hang out backstage while I’m dancing, dear. And try to stay out of trouble.”

Patches dashed past her into the hallway connecting all the private rooms, and Ryder followed her out.

Mags locked the door. “You too, mate.”

“You know it.” He gave her a confident wink and disappeared into the night.

August, 2029. Japan.

“Remember when I said ‘come up with a better idea’?” Mags shoved another clip into the pistol. “This isn’t what I meant!”

Ryder slammed home a fresh clip. “It wasn’t my goddamn idea to start shooting!”

Mags holstered her weapon and pulled a key ring from the pocket of her long, white lab coat. “It’s over here.” She ran across the parking structure’s top level.

Ryder followed. He wore a matching lab coat. Until three minutes ago, the coats effectively camouflaged the duo as research scientists in Bunshi’s facility. Ryder peeled his off and threw it to the ground beside the motorcycle. “What did that guy say to you, anyway?”

“Nothing,” Mags lied. “It doesn’t matter. We got it.” She patted the pocket on the leg of her black pants. “Now tell me what a wonderful idea it was to stash this bike.”

“I hope that hard drive’s—”

The door behind them crashed open, and a dozen armed guards stormed out.

Ryder emptied the clip in their direction, halting their advance long enough for Mags to mount the motorcycle and fire it up.

For months, the criminals had followed Bunshi’s progress. In the wake of Mags’ visit, the scientist made significant advances in solving his problem. Infiltrating the lab and stealing his work became the clear choice once Mags and Ryder realized that without their intervention, Bunshi’s solution would end up in the hands of Earth’s multinationals.

The cycle’s engine sputtered and growled. Ryder jumped on. To his surprise, Mags did not head for the ramp leading down through thirty parking levels to the exit. Instead, she sped straight for the meter-high concrete wall on the farthest side. “Hang on!”

Mags pumped the throttle and popped the clutch. The front tire lifted off the concrete, and the bike reared like an angry mare.

Ryder threw his arms around her. “What the fuck?!” Bullets whistled past his ears.

Mags’ forethought on this caper included more than the motorcycle. At the wall awaited her surprise: a ramp. The bike hit the ramp, and then it was over the wall with nothing but thirty stories of emptiness and a traffic jam at the bottom. The cycle sliced a graceful arc in the air, not unlike the arc of Mags’ smile when she heard Ryder screaming bloody murder behind her.

Across the seven-lane street stood an office building with a glass exterior. Its wide expanse of window after rectangular window reflected the sun, the sky, and the thieves falling towards it. Then the reflection and the motorbike rushed to meet each other.

With one hand on the throttle, Mags pulled a pistol from her side holster and sent a trio of .50-caliber slugs into the window. The bike followed the bullets. Glass exploded into the building’s interior.

The tires smashed onto carpet. The cycle bounced and dipped to one side, then wildly jerked to the other, then back again.

Office workers dove to either side, seeking shelter in their padded cubicles. They left behind a flurry of papers and file folders filling the air.

A stack of TPS reports smacked Mags in the face. She shook them off. “Fuck outta the way!” She aimed at the glass at the far end of the corridor.

A secretary stood stunned before the window. He held a Styrofoam cup of coffee that appeared as frozen to his hand as his feet were to the floor.

“Bitch, get down!” Mags fired a round over his head. The bike wavered like a drunken soldier.

The secretary dove out of the way. His coffee cup carved a slow-motion path spinning through the air and spilling its contents across the hallway. Before a drop of liquid hit the carpet, Mags put a round into the cup. The bullet continued through the window.

They crashed through glass again. A thousand broken mirrors pierced the sky, framing Mags and Ryder in a splintered halo.

“Maaags!” Gripping her torso, Ryder ignored the shards in his hair and the cuts on his face. When he opened his eyes, the street below opened its mouth like a hungry dragon.

Their tires bashed the concrete surface of another parking structure. They ran a gauntlet of cars parked to either side.

Mags squeezed the brakes and steadied the bike with her feet. The soles of her boots melted, smearing black arcs on the concrete. They traced twin curves following the path of the cycle’s rear wheel, which slid to one side and around until the bike faced the direction it had come.

“Motherfuckers.” Mags spat. “I make my own exit!”

Ryder shouted, “Get to the bloody street before you kill us!”

They rocketed back down the gauntlet to the exit. But before Mags could turn, gunfire strafed her path. Jagged concrete chunks blasted from the wall.

Mags swerved away from the exit. Into her field of vision sank a helicopter. A machine gun mounted on its side spewed a stream of cartridge casings into the sky.

“Fuck me sideways,” said Ryder.

A second chopper descended beside the first. Below them stretched not more streets but the ice-blue waters of the Chikugo river.

Mags was not especially fond of being shot at, but in her line of work, it came with the territory. What moved her in that moment was not the sight of the machine guns coming to bear on her and Ryder, but the accursed logo emblazoned on the side of each chopper. “GravCorp,” she hissed. “Hang on!”

It was fitting. GravCorp’s agents had stolen her and Gramma’s work on gravity control decades before. Now here they were, trying to stop her from stealing someone else’s. Before Gramma’s death in 1999, Mags had promised to not declare war on GravCorp for ten years. Gramma felt enough blood had been shed, and Mags was rarely inclined to refuse her grandmother anything.

But the statute of limitations had long since expired on that promise.

Mags hit the gas. Lacking a ramp, she popped a wheelie and kicked the concrete with her feet. The motorcycle jumped over the low wall enclosing the parking structure. Halfway between the building and the chopper, at the peak of the cycle’s final performance, Mags thrust away from it, taking her and Ryder falling to the water below.

The cycle’s front tire smashed the gunner’s face, and then fire. The second helicopter ascended, dodging the debris from the explosion. Even as she fell with Ryder’s arms locked around her, the smuggler never took her eyes off that second chopper.

Meteor Mags often thanked her departed ancestors she was not born with pupils exactly like a cat’s. As long as she had her tail tucked into her clothes, you could look her in the eyes and never know she was something extra-human. But those eyes took in every detail with extreme clarity. From the individual hairs in your eye lashes, to the threads in your shirt, few things escaped her.

This clarity remained over great distances and in dim light. Mags, if she had any interest in accolades and prizes, could have won every sharpshooting award on Earth and become highly regarded in her time. Instead, she had chosen less socially approved activities.

The tinted glasses she favored had nothing to do with correcting her eyesight. Mags wore them to keep the glare down, and the polarized, shatter-proof lenses protected her sensitive pupils. Sunny days made them especially useful—as did explosions.

She chose the first target in the surviving helicopter. The pilot’s head snapped away in a splash of crimson. Mags focused her rage on the gunner.

She destroyed him, too.

Her friends at the club knew the smuggler’s tender side. She was the singer who performed their lullabies, the shoulder they cried on, and the hand which touched their face to let them know everything would be okay. But when Mags had a gunfight on her hands, she carried ice in her heart.

As she fell from the sky, a strand of bullet holes decorated the chopper like the jewels of a tragic necklace. The perforations in the metal reached the fuel tank. The helicopter exploded in a fireball, shooting parts of people and propellers through the air in great gouts of black smoke.

“Maaags goddaaammit!” Ryder’s voice blazed a trail towards the river until, at the last moment, he let go of her and sucked in his breath.

SpSplash! Two bodies hit the water. Their momentum carried them down into the river’s frigid embrace. It wanted to devour them, but the criminals kicked with all their might.

A minute later, Mags broke the surface. The underwater descent had stripped her glasses from her face. She looked this way and that in the two seconds it took Ryder to pop up beside her, gasping for breath.

Mags swam as hard as she could for the riverbank, and it was all Ryder could do to keep up. The smuggler clambered onto the adjoining parkway running alongside the river. She offered her hand and pulled Ryder to his feet. “This way!”

He caught up with her in the middle of the road. “There,” he called to her, pointing ahead of them. Ryder ran to the first car at the stoplight. The driver’s side window was down. Ryder’s left hand closed on the driver’s shirt. “Fuck out now! Out! Out!”

The pistol in his right hand backed up the order. Had Ryder been less amped on adrenaline, he would have heard the driver shouting okay okay Jesus Fucking Christ okay!

Mags shot out the rear passenger window, reached in, and pulled open the lock on the front door. “Dickface! Get the fuck out!”

Ryder ripped open the door. The driver lunged onto the pavement. Before Ryder could get in the seat, Mags filled it.

“I’ll drive!”

“Fuck!” Ryder scrambled around the front.

Just before the light changed, Mags stomped the accelerator to the floor.

“Relax! We lost them already!”

With a pang of disappointment, she eased off the gas. “Sorry. I got kind of stoked about the carjacking. It’s been a few years.”

“Stealing spaceships ain’t enough anymore? Oh, look at this.”

“Whatcha got?”

“This guy must have been coming home from the store. And he has good taste in beer.” Ryder reached into the back seat, tore open the cardboard top of a twelve-pack, and pulled out a bottle of ale. “Shit’s got like eleven percent alcohol.” He popped the top with a disposable cigarette lighter.

“I’ll take two.”

He handed her the open bottle and reached for another. “You get the second if you get us out of this town without another gunfight.”

Mags took a swig. “Spoilsport. Damn that’s good. How about a fistfight?”

“Fuck it,” said Ryder. “Kill anyone you want. I’m drinking.”

“You’re such a lush.” She chugged the rest, keeping one eye on the road. Then she tossed the empty over her shoulder into the back seat. It landed among the groceries that would spoil and fill the car with their stench until the police found the vehicle three days later, eighty-four kilometers away.

Mags calmly observed traffic laws, and the city faded from sight in the rear view mirror. Eventually, she pulled off the highway at a scenic view. “It’s about ten minutes to the Queen Anne. Let’s enjoy the sunset.”

Stretched out before them like a painter’s canvas, the sky dripped orange and red across the horizon. Under the sun, the five volcanic peaks of Mount Aso soaked up the solar pigment until their white plumes of smoke also turned the colors of blood and fire.

Ryder helped himself to another beer before leaning against the metal handrail at the edge of the vista. “What you intend to do,” he said, “amounts to declaring war on Earth.”

Mags lit up. “Darling, you have a keen grasp of the obvious. Would it make you feel better if I name this new element after you?”

“Sure. Just pin my name on it and let everyone know I’m the bastard they want to hang for your crazy plan.”

“But ‘ryderium’ has a nice ring to it.”

“You know? It does. Cheers.” He drained half the bottle. “Listen. I know you’re a scrapper, but do you realize what you’re up against? It’s an entire planet full of twelve billion people.”

Mags fell silent for a moment. A cold wind swept up from the landscape to make her damp hair twist and spiral with its song. She faced him. “No, you listen, Ryder. Earth might own the Belt now. But they’re about to find out who’s the queen bitch of this solar system—even if a whole lot of them have to eat a bullet first.”

Mags jerked her thumb at her chest. “My great-gramma ruled the oceans. Gramma owned a continent. But the sky?”

She swept her hand across the sunset. “That belongs to me.”