Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other. They will dissolve again into their own proper root. For the nature of matter is dissolved into what belongs to its nature.
…There is no such thing as sin.
—The Gospel of Mary; Text from the Papyrus Berolinensis
Daughter of Lightning
PART ONE: THE VESTAL VIRGIN
Against the star-splattered canvas of space, Plutonian listened to the fabric of reality singing. His Siamese cat, Tesla, lay across his lap and purred. This soothed him. He stopped rubbing Tesla’s face just long enough to turn up the volume on the ship’s speaker system.
Tesla opened his eyes. His pupils rolled up lazily to survey his human friend. Tesla did not know what they listened to, but he knew it was unlike anything they had ever heard.
This was no small feat, considering the two of them had listened to every form of music imaginable in their years together. But this sound was something different, something Plutonian could not find words to describe.
Below them smoldered the desolate husk of the Ghost Moon. Only a few months before, this moon had housed the machinery which transformed Patches from an ordinary calico cat into her adorably invulnerable self. But in the wake of the instantaneous reversal of its magnetic poles, it now orbited like a broken thing around its ringed planet. Fully two thirds of the moon had disintegrated and become part of the asteroids circling the planet. Little remained of the moon but a ragged chunk of destruction.
Tears streamed from the corners of Plutonian’s eyes. “I thought we’d heard it all. But this—” With a gesture on the monitor’s touch screen, the Club Assteroid DJ activated a recorder. “We need to record this.” Waveforms sprang into life on his screen.
He cradled his cat in his arms and stood before the window on the bridge. Plutonian scratched the side of Tesla’s face with one hand. He cried like he hadn’t cried since he was a boy. “So beautiful,” he whispered.
If he had been the religious sort, the sound playing over his speakers might have convinced him of the deistic nature of reality. Surely, he thought, this was what the ancient Hindus meant by the sound of Om, that original sonic vibration which caused the universe to spring into being and gave rise to all the forms we know. But he had abandoned deism long ago. He simply heard the music without any expectations. It washed over him and through him and in some way became him.
Only a few days before, Meteor Mags had given him the coordinates of the now-obliterated Ghost Moon. “Knock knock, Mister DJ! What are you up to? Nobody’s seen a trace of you in weeks!” She stood in the doorway of his quarters, her tail swishing back and forth, her eyes shining over the rims of her tinted glasses.
He set down his soldering iron and rested his safety glasses on top of his head. “Mags! So good to see you. Come in, come in.” He stood and opened his arms.
She gave him a friendly hug. “Seriously, dude. What the fuck? People are getting worried.”
“I think I’ve got it. Finally.”
“Come here. Look at this.” He swept his hand in an arc to present the circuits on his workbench. “This is the recording project I was telling you about.”
“Oh! No wonder you’ve been hiding out down here. How’s it coming?”
“It hasn’t been easy. I fried the first dozen circuits. But those capacitors you gave me—wow. Perfect!”
Mags smiled. “Superconductivity at room temperature is something else, isn’t it?” She walked over to his bench. “You don’t even want to know how many motherfuckers I had to waste to get my hands on those. Friggin’ bloodbath! If not for Patches, I probably would have been FUBAR on that little excursion. But I thought we could use them.”
“And how. Mags, these circuits are picking up stuff I never thought possible. Listen.” He flipped a switch. “Hear that? That’s Hawking Radiation coming out of the black holes at the core of the Andromeda galaxy.”
“No way. That’s gorgeous.” She put her arms up, closed her eyes, and swayed. “I could dance to that for a million years.”
“And these are residual wavelengths from a dying supernova.” He turned a dial. “This one here is a pulsar in the same sector.”
“Damn. Did you just get bored of rock and roll or what?”
“I’ll never get bored of that. But, you know, Tesla and I have archived damn near everything humans ever recorded. We thought it would be cool to record some things no one has ever heard before. Stuff technology just hasn’t been up to recording.”
Mags looked her friend up and down. Then she decided something. “Listen, dear. If you’re really into this thing—and obviously you are—there’s a little something I’d be curious to hear. I mean, if you have the time and all.”
Plutonian placed his palms on the bench and leaned towards her. “You name it.”
She laughed. “I don’t know if it has a name. Hell, I don’t even know if it exists.” Mags pulled a pack of cigarettes from her bra and took out a pair of them. She offered one.
He took it and looked for a lighter.
“I got this one.” She produced a lighter for him. “Now listen. Something weird went down this summer, when Patches and Tarzi and I were on the Ghost Moon.” Mags walked around to his side of the bench. She rested her backside on the edge of the bench and puffed leisurely. “Now, you’ve heard the story before, but I still have some unanswered questions. And I’d be willing to bet that whatever we did to that sodding moon has left some interesting traces behind. Maybe radiation, electromagnetic disturbances, maybe some gravity signatures. I don’t know. But,” she said, leaning in closely to him, “I’d be hella curious to find out.”
And so Plutonian had taken the coordinates from her, loaded up a ship with his new recording circuits, and gone in search of whatever he could find.
A soft beeping from the console broke his reverie. He set the cat down in his seat, glancing at the waveforms on the screen. Radar brought him unexpected news.
“Check this out, Tesla.”
Tesla did not check it out. He stretched out his body and rolled over. His claws kneaded the chair’s fabric. He purred.
“These readings. It’s like we’re picking up two distinct signal sources. This one here,” he said, pointing to the screen, “is the remains of the moon itself. That’s giving us some radiation from what’s left of that rock. But this one here—” Tap, tap, tap. “This is something else entirely. A totally different source.”
He pulled up his camera controls and zoomed in. “I wish Mags was here. I can’t even do the math on this. It’s like the carcass of the moon isn’t just orbiting the planet. It’s got some secondary orbit, like a binary star. It’s orbiting something else within that orbit.” Plutonian ran a hand over his face, thinking. He took the camera controls to their limit.
“I can’t see a bloody thing. We don’t have high enough resolution.” He brought the ship in closer to the wrecked moon. “It’s got to be right there, but—”
Then the alarms went off.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“Okay, just give it a little turn, Mags.” In the shop at Club Assteroid, Fuzzlow held a piece of machinery on the workbench. “Don’t over-crank it.”
“I know, I know. Jeez, calm down.”
Donny held a nut in place with a wrench on one side of the machinery. He lacked Fuzzlow’s magic touch with machines, but he had spent enough time repairing mining equipment to have proven quite handy in the shop. The two of them had spent many hours together, tinkering with all kinds of things since Donny had joined the band. “That’s a laugh! The great Meteor Mags telling anyone to keep calm.”
She tightened the bolt from the other side. “What?! I’m as sweet as a little angel!” She cranked it some more.
“Easy there, Magatha,” said Fuzzlow. “Don’t—”
The bolt suddenly snapped in half, clattering down into the guts of the machinery.
“Goddamn fuck!” She whipped her wrench across the shop. It smacked against the wall and fell into the piles of parts stacked there.
“Mags!” Fuzzlow shook his head. “I told you—”
“I know. I know! It was just a little bit loose.”
“Well,” said Donny, “now we gotta drill out that damn bolt and start all over. How about a smoke break?”
Mags’ eyes lit up. “Now there’s an idea!”
“Fine, you two.” Fuzz set the machinery aside. “I’d get more work done in here if I had less help.”
Donny snorted. “Go ahead and hold your own nuts, then!”
“Yeah, Fuzz. Nut holder.”
“Mags, can I just have my wrench back?”
She sighed then searched for the wrench. “So when are you guys recording your next album?”
“What do you mean, you guys? Aren’t you going to be on it with us?”
“Fuzz, you know I can’t commit to rehearsals and sessions and all that. I got cargo to liberate! Lizards to exterminate!” Mags walked back to the bench and handed him his wrench.
Donny offered his pack of smokes. “Come on, Mags. You can’t even do one song?”
“Listen to this guy.” She took the pack. “Then we have to write the bloody thing, rehearse it, record it, decide that take sucked, record it again, do overdubs. It’s never just one song.”
“What if we do it live? I mean, we’ve got a huge show next month. It’s your birthday, for crying out loud. You aren’t going to sing on your birthday?”
Mags thought this over. “You’ve got a point. But I don’t want to be on record doing a cover. So what song goes on the album?”
“Let’s do that one you’re always talking about but we never arranged.”
Mags laughed. “That old thing? Oh, come on. No one wants to hear that.”
“I want to hear it,” said Donny. “What is it?”
“Oh, god. It’s just this thing I used to drive Gramma nuts with. It’s not even a real song!”
Fuzzlow grinned. “Yeah, but it’s got a great title: Stone cold blasted at the edge of infinity!”
“Now I gotta hear it,” said Donny.
Mags rolled her eyes. “Okay. Fuzzlow, dear, would you give me a beat? Something like—” Mags drummed her fingers on the table.
He put his hands to his mouth and beatboxed.
“Yeah, like that. Okay, it goes something like this.”
Stone cold blasted at the edge of infinity!
Mags emulated the sound of a guitar riff.
Duh duh duh DUH nuh nuh nuh nana NUH
You were plastered on the day that you lost your virginity!
Duh duh duh NUHNUH duh duh duh duh dada WEEEER
You were kicked outta house
You were kicked outta school
But you’ll never build a rocket ship
Flogging your tool!
Take me to the stars now baby
Take me to the—
“Mags!” Donny held his belly and shook.
“Donny,” she said, “what the fuck is so funny? Hahahahaha!”
“Mags, that’s some real poetry there.”
She threw her hands in the air. “I told you it wasn’t even a real song!”
Donny laughed and laughed. “No, no. Go on! What’s the rest of it?”
“There was only ever one verse! I was kind of wasted one night at La Plaza and started banging on the piano, belting this thing out. Suddenly Gramma storms in and yells, ‘Maggie, what in the name of god are you doing? It’s three in the bloody morning!’ So, that was the end of that.”
“Gramma put the hammer down.”
“She sure did.” Mags stubbed out her cigarette.
Donny said, “I never would have rhymed infinity and virginity. Were you really plastered when you lost it?”
Mags glared at him. “I assure you it was purely for comedic effect. There’s nothing about me in that line.”
“Oh, quit yanking my chain. A wild woman like you? Dancing naked across the solar system for decades? I bet you have the best first time story of anyone.”
“There’s no story, Donny. Get your mind out of whatever filthy gutter it’s crawled into.”
“Are you trying to tell me that you never, like—you know? Ever?”
Mags put her hands on her hips, looking over the rims of her tinted glasses at him. “As if it’s any of your bloody business, Donald!”
Fuzzlow laughed. “They don’t call this asteroid ‘Vesta’ for nothing, Donny.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Mags asked.
“You know, this crater all around us is Rheasilvia, right?” Fuzzlow leaned against the bench. “That’s from Roman mythology. Rhea Silvia gave birth to twins: Romulus and Remus. And you know who their father was?”
Donny shrugged. “Who?”
“Mars, the god of war.”
“Damn, Fuzz!” Mags furrowed her brow. “Did you read a book or something?”
“Whatever. I read lots of books.”
“Yeah, but I mean one that wasn’t all pictures?”
Donny laughed, but Fuzz slugged him in the arm. “Screw you, Donny.”
“She said it, not me!”
“Alright,” said Mags. “Settle down, numb nuts. What’s your point?”
Fuzzlow ran his hands over his mane of dreadlocks. “Rhea was the daughter of some king or other. And his dickhead brother forced her take a vow of chastity, to be what they called a Vestal Virgin. They were like priestesses or some shit. They never married and never had kids. Instead, they had a duty to guard this sacred fire so it could never go out. And that’s where this asteroid Vesta gets its name: the Vestal Virgins.”
“But you said she did the nasty with the god of war,” said Donny.
Fuzzlow chuckled. “Right. That’s why dickhead threw her babies into the river to drown. But a she-wolf found them, and suckled them, and they survived.”
“You mean they sucked on wolf titties?”
Fuzzlow slapped his forehead. “Yes, Donny. They sucked on wolf titties.”
“That’s awesome. Wait, is that legal?”
“Donny, you are such a tard sometimes,” said Mags.
Fuzzlow picked up his wrench and got back to work. “Legal or not, it must have been some good milk. Those two kids went on to found Rome.”
Celina’s voice came over the shop’s intercom. “Hey! Is anybody down there?”
“Hi, Fuzzy love. Have you seen Mags?”
“I’m right here, Celina.”
“Mags, come up to the club please. Right away. Plutonian’s here, and he’s—I don’t know exactly. But he keeps asking for you.”
“I’m on it. Let me get Patches.”
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Plutonian’s head rested on the table. He slumped over a black box and clutched its handle, his knuckles white with exertion. “The world,” he mumbled. “A sacred instrument.”
Celina sat next to him, resting her hand on his arm. Tesla lay under the chair, whining nervously.
“What’s wrong with him?” Mags asked. Patches dashed past her feet and made a bee-line for Tesla. She licked his face and mewed. “Is he hurt?”
“I don’t know. He seems okay, physically. But when he came off his ship, he just collapsed. I practically had to drag him here.”
Mags pulled out a chair, taking a seat next to the DJ. “Plutonian. Hey. Talk to me, man.”
“A sacred instrument.” His voice slurred. “Can’t control it.”
“Come on, dear. Look at me.” She picked his head up, grasping his hair and supporting his cheek in her gloved hand. “Look at me.”
He opened his eyes without seeing her. Mags inspected them, looking for signs of concussion. Then she said, “The world is a sacred instrument.”
“Yes,” he said. “One…”
“One cannot control it. He who controls it will fail.”
“Yes. Yes! The one who—”
“The one who grasps it will fail.”
“Yes,” he said. “The one who grasps it.” He released his grasp on the black box. The color came back into his knuckles.
Mags slid the box away from him, to the opposite edge of the table. “There you go, dear. It’s going to be okay. You just relax.”
“What are you saying to him?” Celina asked. “Is it some kind of secret code?”
“Hardly. It’s a verse from the Tao Te Ching. It must mean something to him.”
A light dawned in Plutonian’s eyes. He rubbed his hands over his face. “The space between Heaven and Earth. Is it not like a bellows?” He took Mag’s hand and squeezed it.
“Empty, yet never exhausted,” she replied. “It moves and produces more.”
“Empty.” Plutonian shook his head as if to clear it. “Oh, my god. Mags. Celina. I was freaking out, wasn’t I?”
“I’ve seen worse,” said Celina. “What happened to you?”
“Did you go the Ghost Moon? Talk to us, man!”
Underneath his chair, the cats had curled up together. Patches purred, calming her friend.
“I did. And I’ll tell you what happened. But, first. We got any rum in this joint?”
Mags laughed. “I think you’ll be just fine. Let me get some glasses and a bottle.”
“So there I was,” Plutonian began, “just listening to the most wondrous song. It couldn’t have been sound, not in the vacuum of space. But my new receiver was picking it up loud and clear.”
“From where? The Ghost Moon?”
“That’s what I thought at first. And to be sure, that ragged scrap of rubble Mags and Tarzi left behind is kicking out some interesting radiation. But then I realized I had a second signal in the mix. And it seemed to be coming from something locked in orbit with the moon. So I checked it out.” He took a sip of spiced black rum then swished the liquid over the ice cubes in his glass. He watched the way the light made tiny rainbows on the liquid’s surface.
“Well?” Mags demanded. “Did you record it? Is that what’s in this box?” She reached for the box, but his hand grippd her arm.
“Come on! I want to hear it!”
“Wagtail, would you let the man finish his story?”
“Fine.” She slammed a shot of rum. Then she pulled out a pack of cigarettes, passed it around, and lit everyone up.
Plutonian exhaled a puff of smoke. “I got the recording, Mags. And it’s amazing. But I don’t even know if it’s safe to listen to.”
“Is that why you came in all fucked up?”
Plutonian nodded. “Maybe. See, there was something else out there. But it was small. Much smaller than the moon. So I moved in closer. And the sound… Did you ever read Goethe?”
“I read Faust, years ago,” said Celina.
Mags puffed her cigarette. “I hate German poetry. It sounds like a train falling down the stairs.”
Celina laughed. “That’s bullshit. You liked the Rilke I read to you!”
“Yeah,” said Mags. “But Rilke’s cool.”
“Okay, listen. There’s a verse where he describes this sound. ‘As it moves about, there is music without cease. In heavenly tones, it pours out who-knows-what. And while it moves, all is turned to melody now: The pillared shafts, even the triglyph, ring. I think the whole temple sings.’ That’s what it was like.”
“Sounds pretty,” said Celina.
“That’s because it was in bloody English.”
“I mean the sound!” Celina tossed back a shot of rum and slammed her glass on the table. “Go on, Dr. P. Don’t listen to her.”
“As soon as I moved in and got a lock on the signal source, guess who showed up?”
“Don’t tell me,” said Mags. “Those goddamn lizards.”
“You’re both right,” said Plutonian.
Mags pounded the table with her fist. “Fuck! Together?”
“Yeah. Can you believe that?”
She shook her head. “It’s worse than I thought. If those creeps have cut some kind of deal, it ain’t gonna be a happy ending for anyone. Not Earth. Not us. And not anyone in the Belt.”
“You got that right. Now, the lizard’s ship didn’t look like the big one you described. It was about the size of your average MFA patrol boat. And there were two of those. My alarms started going off to beat the band. I figure they all came from my blind spot around the other side of the planet.”
“The MFA never gets out that far. They stick around the Belt, where the smuggling action is. So what the hell were they doing out there?”
“Nothing good,” said Celina.
“Fuckin’ A,” said Plutonian. “I knew I was outgunned. So I decided to get the hell out of there. Except I couldn’t. It was like the ship was frozen in space. I panicked a little right then, but I noticed the other ships weren’t moving anymore either. And then…” Plutonian stopped to sip the last of the rum from his glass.
Plutonian, lost in thought, watched the liquid run over the melting ice cubes. Then he looked into Celina’s eyes, and then to Mags. “I know it sounds crazy, but this music got even louder. And with it, this incredible light. Like every color of the rainbow. No, that’s not right. It was like colors that don’t even exist. Millions of them. And the music kept building and building, and the light got brighter and brighter. I couldn’t see Tesla at all, or anything really. It was like we were engulfed. But it wasn’t scary. I mean, it was at first, but then totally calm. I don’t know how to explain it, but I felt like I wasn’t just listening. I was being listened to. Then I guess I blacked out.”
“I felt like that before,” said Celina.
“Strewth. But it’s been a long, long time.”
Mags chuckled. “We still don’t have any idea.”
“It’s a long story,” said Celina, “but the short version is that once upon a time, me and wagtail went on a little walkabout in the outback. And by the time it was over, I got what I wished for.”
Mags smiled and took another shot of rum. She looked at Celina with loving eyes.
“I wanted to live as long as my best friend here. But that story can wait, Dr. P. You finish yours!”
“Right, right,” he said. “Well, after my blackout or whatever, I woke up. And it was the damnedest thing. There wasn’t anything left of the other ships but some wreckage floating near the Ghost Moon, getting sucked into its orbit. And there in the middle of the cabin, just floating in the middle of the air, was this—this thing.”
“This thing?” Mags asked. “Can you think of a better word, man?”
Plutonian laughed. “No, I can’t. You just have to see it for yourself.”
“Is that what’s in the bloody box already?”
“I didn’t know what else to do, so I just walked up to it with this soundproof box, and closed it in.”
“What difference does it make if it’s soundproof?” Celina asked. “Didn’t you say it was broadcasting in the vacuum?”
“Like I said, I didn’t know what else to do. And it didn’t really stop the music. Not until I turned off my new recording gear. So for all I know, it’s still broadcasting right now.”
“Okay, let’s have a gander at it.”
“Not here in the club!” Celina shouted. “You just want to open Pandora’s Box and let out who knows what the fuck right here in the club?”
“Come on now, convict. I’m not daft! But I bet the ship’s got a recording we can look at.”
“I can do better than that,” said Plutonian. He pulled a small tablet from the side pocket of his cargo pants. “I made a video first.” He touched the screen a couple times then handed it to Mags. “But I’ve never seen anything like it.”
She watched in silence for a moment. “I have. I’ve just never seen one that wasn’t a computer model.” Mags held the tablet so Celina could see, too.
“Oh, wow. That’s gorgeous. What is it?”
“I don’t know,” said Mags, “but it reminds me of a rectified 5-cell. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s more complex. Like a 24-cell. Or more.”
“A rectified 24-cell. See how this thing looks like its spinning? But as it spins, the shapes inside it seem to change? It’s like watching a projection of a rectified 24-cell rotating through 3-D space. You’d never see one in real life, because we can only perceive objects in three-dimensional space. But the bloody thing exists in four spatial dimensions. As it rotates, it looks like—well, it looks a hell of a lot like what’s on this screen right now. Only this thing—this is way more complex. Look at how the shapes seem to become other shapes as it moves.”
“It’s like every shape imaginable is stacked inside that thing, somehow.”
“Exactly. And you think this is the same thing that was orbiting near the Ghost Moon?”
“It has to be,” said Plutonian. “It’s what was making all that sound.”
Mags covered her mouth with one hand and then rubbed her face. “There’s only one thing this can be. This is part of the machine that saved Patches.”
“Bloody hell,” said Celina. “It destroyed an entire moon, and then a bunch of ships, and nearly drove our DJ bonkers—and we’ve got it sitting in a box on the table? Get it the fuck out of here!”
“Relax, dear. I think if it wanted to kill us, we’d be dead already.”
“Still,” said Plutonian, “it wouldn’t be a bad idea to find somewhere else to store it. Wait. What do you mean if it wanted to? Are you suggesting it’s intelligent?”
“We know it works on more levels than just sound. But it seems to be totally chilling in that soundproof box. Maybe it’s cooperating?”
Fuzzlow appeared in the doorway. “Hey! Everything okay in here?”
“We’re fine, Fuzz.” Celina waved him over.
“Are we still on for that test run? Donny and I got everything ready to go on our end.”
“Shit, I nearly forgot.” Mags placed her hand on Plutonian’s shoulder. “Listen, dear. We got a thing we gotta do. What do you suggest we do with your little discovery here?”
“I think Celina’s right. This is no place for it. But it’s too amazing to just toss into space again. Why don’t I take it to an uninhabited asteroid, for starters?”
“Are you sure you’re up for it?”
“Yeah. But do me a favor. Keep Tesla here. And give me the rest of that bottle of rum!”
Mags smiled. “Alright, Mister DJ. But if things get hairy out there, you radio back, okay?”
“Deal. And what are the three of you testing?”
A wicked grin formed on Mags’ face. “My new pets. I’ll tell you all about it when you get back.”
Plutonian knelt down to scratch Tesla’s face, taking a moment to rub Patches’ ears too. “You stay here, buddy. I’ll be back before you know it.” Then to Mags, “Watch out for Tesla for me. And when you’re done with your tests, check out the sound files on that tablet. Just be careful.”
Then he left, carrying his incredible discovery with him.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“Can you hear me up there?”
“Got you loud and clear, willie wagtail. How does the suit feel?” Celina and Fuzzlow watched Mags on a monitor from inside Club Assteroid.
Mags spoke into the microphone inside her protective suit. “It feels like Rick James is grabbing my ass. Hard. But other than that, okay I guess. Better than the first time I tried it on.”
She surveyed the selection of potential victims at her shooting range on the surface of Vesta 4. Three cybernetic eels hovered around her, slowly circling. The Faraday suits she and Tarzi had “liberated” from the asteroid lab on their last adventure had clearly been designed for men, as Mags had discovered to her dismay minutes before taking on a ship full of dragons. But after a few weeks of work in the machine shop, she and Fuzzlow had tailored one of them to her curvaceous specifications, with enough room to tuck in her tail. “Tell Fuzz he needs to learn how to measure a woman’s butt.”
Celina’s voice responded in her earpiece. “He says to tell you to learn how to not slap the shit out a tailor who is trying to measure your butt.”
Mags grinned. “Okay. Let’s do this before I have any second thoughts.” Unlike Tarzi’s seahorse, which had operated under control of a ring, the trio of electric eels was ostensibly controlled by panels on the back of Mags’ gloves. But Fuzzlow had shown her circuitry inside the Faraday suit’s helmet, circuitry unlike anything either of them had ever seen before.
“What the fuck is all this then?”
Fuzzlow had scratched his head. “Can’t say, Mags. But seeing as how it’s in the helmet, I would guess it picks up on mental signals.”
“Great. All I need is my brain fried—again!”
He shrugged. “Worst case is, you give yourself an electric lobotomy. And then you’ll suck at math as much as the rest of us.”
“Ugh. You just make sure Slim has my notes on wireless power if that happens, okay? We’ve come too far on that project to lose it all to an eel migraine from hell.”
“You could always, like, just not try out a totally alien technology you don’t have a clue about, you know?”
“Fuck that. Let’s fire these bitches up, Captain G-Style. I’ve got a war to wage!”
Now she wondered if that was really such a good idea. She had seen what Tarzi’s little seahorse had done to a dragon warship. She hoped a trio of meter-long eels would not vaporize the entire asteroid.
Celina’s voice came through the earpiece again. “So what’s first, Mags? Target practice?”
“Yeah. But not with the eels. Let’s see if they can stay the hell out of my way first.” She took hold of an FN MAG machine gun she had brought from her armory. She had spliced together a few fifty-round belts to feed into it. Pointing it downrange at a rusted van three hundred meters away, she pulled the trigger.
Her eels instantly snapped into a new configuration around her. They stopped circling her to take up positions above and behind her. Their tails crackled, whipping the air as they prowled behind her back.
Mags almost forgot they were there. She riddled the van with bullets. Then she hit the gas tank. The van exploded in a ball of fire.
“Um, whoops? Must have forgot to drain the petrol.”
“Sure you did.”
“When have I ever lied to you?”
Celina chuckled on the other end. “Did you see what the eels did?”
“They got the fuck out of the way.”
“They’re watching your flank.”
“They are, aren’t they? Let’s see how they like this.” Mags picked up a bullwhip. She swung it around and around in a circle above her head, then snapped the handle forward. The whip cracked in front of her. But the eels simply spread out. “They know when to step off. Now let’s see if they can keep up.” Mags grabbed her shotgun and ran towards her targets.
The trio of eels followed her, keeping pace, never advancing beyond her, never falling behind. When her eight rounds were exhausted, the eels resumed their circular swarm around her. She felt a strange thrill come over her. They certainly were paying attention.
She lifted her hand into the air, crooked her finger, and said, “Come let your auntie pet you, ya little freaks.” And sure enough, one of the eels stopped circling, swam in close to her hand, and let her pet it. Mags smiled inside her mask.
“Having fun, Mags?” Celina asked.
“You know what? I am! Now let’s see what kind of juice they can kick out.”
She had set up several targets shaped like dragons. She snapped her fingers and pointed at them. “Eels, electrocute these motherfuckers!”
She did not expect what happened next. Still circling around her, the eels unleashed a barrage of lightning. Electric tendrils surged out of them, enveloping the targets. Inside her suit, Mags felt not so much as a tickle from the current. But the electromagnetic force blasted her backwards. She twisted in mid-air, landing on all fours on the rugged surface of the asteroid.
Electric current assaulted her targets. The lights inside Club Assteroid flickered. Celina said something, but her voice turned to garbled static in Mags’ ears.
“Fuck yeah!” Mags yelled. “Pour it on!” The eels did just that. Her entire field of view turned white. The power ripped apart not just her dragon targets but every target on the range.
Electrons whipped across the jagged plains of Vesta 4. All the bullets on Mags’ table uprange exploded. She dove to the ground and covered her head. The eels savagely cranked the air, their bodies undulating, writhing in the center of a massive ball of lightning. Targets burst into flame. Elements broke down into isotopes as their electrons were ripped away and drawn up into the storm.
Mags looked though her visor in awe. “Bloody fuck,” she whispered. The ground on the asteroid fused into black glass. The glass circle formed below the eels, then spread. Within seconds, it reached a diameter of twenty meters and kept growing. Cracks ran through it ringing out like bullets and thunder in Mags’ ears.
“Stop!” She waved her hands. “Stop!”
Just as suddenly as they had begun, the eels ended their attack. They swarmed around Mags, taking up their circling positions as if nothing had happened. With infinite robotic patience, they hovered around her.
She stood up and held out her hand. One by one, each eel circled around to rub its metallic snout against her open palm.
A vicious smile spread across her face. She heard the static crackle of Celina’s voice in her earpiece again, but she ignored it. She ran her suited fingertips along the length of each eel. Their teeth sparkled in the starlight.
Mags turned off her communicator. She stayed out there for as long as she liked, saying things to her eels no one else would ever hear. Eventually, she went back to the club. Her eels followed her faithfully.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
That night, Meteor Mags dreamed.
In her dream, her headphones’ puffy pads pressed her ears. All of her favorite Kyuss songs played at an utterly unreasonable volume. The singer’s raspy voice called to her, describing her body in song.
“Goddamn sonofabitch,” Mags mumbled in her sleep. She felt the riff not just in her eardrums but on her skin. It moved over her body, caressing her curves. Her back arched. Her hands gripped the sheets.
Then Mags saw a rippling light surround her. The hair on her tail stood on end. She felt herself wet and swollen. One by one, her trio of eels floated around her body in the darkness. Her fingers touched their sleek metal surfaces. She could not hear their electricity, but she felt it humming an electromagnetic serenade all around her. Her hand closed on one of the eels’ rounded snouts.
Mags dreamed another eel nuzzled her cheek. Its chrome tail wrapped around her breasts and cupped them. The third eel ran its metallic face over her thighs. Mags imagined the empires she could topple with such incredible power in her thrall. She envisioned the four of them, together, forging a new era, one electron at a time.
She felt a snout press against her, warming its cold metal against her body. She opened herself to it. The music blared in her ears. She hooked a leg around the eel.
Mags firmly clutched it. She pressed its nose between her legs. She rubbed it in little circles. Then faster, faster—faster than a Kerry King guitar solo. Mags glistened. She eased the eel’s snout into her body. She felt herself stretch to grip its sinewy, cybernetic form.
The eel pulsed and crackled inside her. Her womb glowed red from its electric light. Her body trembled as the eel writhed inside her. “Yes,” she whispered.
Then she cried out, shaking uncontrollably as her womb accepted the eel’s cybernetic seed. She gasped for breath.
The seed took root inside her. The eel’s tail spasmed in her hand. Mags gripped it tighter, squeezed it, and wrapped both of her legs around its tail.
Then she slept, and dreamed no more.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“Thanks for coming with us, Donny. I don’t expect any trouble, but we sure don’t mind having back-up just in case.” Patches bumped Donny’s leg. Mags brought up Coltrane’s Crescent album on the speakers of The Queen Anne’s Revenge. The ship took a course for the asteroid lab she and Tarzi had raided the month before.
Donny kicked back with a beer. He thought Mags seemed especially mellow today. “No sweat. I’ve been curious to check this place out anyway. What did we bring for the little critters?”
“Crabs and polychaete worms, mostly. Yum! I hope they like them.”
He frowned and stuck out his tongue. “Ugh. Who wouldn’t?”
“Give me a break! It’s the best I could do on short notice.”
“That’s right, dear. It wouldn’t be very nice of us to help them all get born and then let them starve out here.” Mags recalled the sight of the decayed bodies in the tanks. Tarzi’s cybernetic seahorse had flooded the asteroid so the baby octopuses could hatch, but Mags knew they had nothing to eat on that rock.
“Congratulations,” said Donny. “Now you’ve got yourself the biggest aquarium in the System! Are you just going to keep dropping in and feeding them?”
“I don’t know what else to do! I feel responsible for them now. But—yeah. They don’t make very practical pets out here, do they?”
Donny shrugged. “You could take them back to Earth, maybe? Or build a giant aquarium on Vesta 4 and charge admission to the octopus zoo?”
Mags laughed. “That’s so bloody ridiculous it sounds fun. Let me know if you have any other bright ideas.” She walked to the bow of the ship and stared into space. She swayed in time with Elvin’s ride cymbal. “Love this tune.”
Donny quietly sipped his beer for a few minutes, letting her enjoy the music. Then he cleared his throat. “Listen, Mags. I just wanted to say sorry about getting in your personal business in the shop the other day. I just—I don’t know. I had you all wrong. I didn’t mean any offense.”
“Donny, you know what I like about you? You may be a grade-A fuck-up, but at least you know when to say you’re sorry!”
Mags sauntered over to hand him a cigarette. “But you don’t owe me an apology. I have seen and heard some shit as a dancer that makes The Psycho 78s’ locker room talk sound G-rated by comparison. You just hit a nerve, that’s all.”
“Good. The last time you were mad at me, I ended up getting shot at and losing my job.” Donny lit her cigarette, then his own.
“Such a gentleman. But that’s all water under the bridge now. You’re a stellar saxophonist, and a big help to Fuzzlow in the shop, regardless of what he says. I’m glad you came on board.”
“So, look. Let me explain something.” She walked back to the window. She took in the sight of the stars, the planets, and the moons, undimmed by atmosphere. Her eyes traced the path of a distant comet. “You know what pheromones are?”
“Yeah, like scents and stuff.”
“Close enough. In mammals, they play a huge role in how two animals decide to get it on. But look at me, Donny.” She curled her tail up into her hand and pet it gently. “Do I look entirely human to you?”
He took a swig. “Now that you mention it, uh, not really? Are you like part cat or something?”
“Who knows? But I do know this. People just don’t smell right to me. I mean, they don’t smell disgusting. But they don’t smell…”
Mags chuckled. “Precisely.”
“I know this is none of my business but—do cats?”
“Ugh, no. As if that’s even physically feasible if they did.”
Donny scratched his chin. “You know, I can’t say I ever met anyone like you Mags. I mean, with the tail and all. If you’re not human, and you’re not cat, then—you’re one of a kind, aren’t you?”
The sparkle left her eyes. She turned back to the window. “Lucky me.”
Donny looked her over as she stood with her back to him. The tip of her tail flicked the air. She wasn’t exactly his type, but he had always found something strangely compelling about her: the way she moved when she danced, the carefree joy she took in displaying her ample yet agile body. But now he felt an unfamiliar sympathy for her. She had friends who loved her. She even had fans who admired her. But he had never stopped to think that the infamous Meteor Mags might feel all alone in the universe.
She stubbed out her smoke in an ashtray. “Anyway,” she said. “Sorry to get all mopey on you. It’s just been on my mind lately.” She walked back to the console and brought up a display. “Let me show you how to track me and Patches when we’re down there, okay?”
“What? I gotta stay on the ship while you two visit the zoo?”
“At least until we scope it out. I’ll have my mic with me. But Donny, last time we were here, Patches and I got our minds merged with the mama octopus, and it was like having your soul laid completely bare. Now, I like you, Donny, but I don’t want you in my friggin’ brain!”
“Fair enough. I don’t think I want to be in your brain either.”
“Hey, doorknob! What’s wrong with my brain?” Mags slugged him playfully on the arm.
“Whatever it is, I don’t want to find out!”
Then she showed him the tracking system, and the two of them chatted about music until the asteroid came into view.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“Okay, Donny. This is as far as you go.” Mags stood at the elevator entrance to the former laboratory. Donny had helped her wheel the shipping crates full of crabs and worms from The Queen Anne’s Revenge to the elevator, but now she waved him off. “Patches and I will take it from here. Just keep an eye on us on the monitor.”
“Uh, you’re welcome?”
“Sorry, Captain Sensitive. Thanks for your help.”
“Don’t mention it. I’ll be helping myself to all your beers now! Good luck.”
Patches stood in the doorway, holding it open as Mags rolled the crates in. Then they descended into the asteroid.
“I don’t know, baby kitty. I hope they’re alright, but who knows what we’ll find down there.” She scratched her cat behind the ears until the doors opened.
Darkness greeted them. Mags switched on her headlamp. Only weeks before, Tarzi’s poor little seahorse had released a flood. His electric storm had killed all the lighting circuits, and apparently every sub-surface system but the GravGens. Mags’ light swept across the lab. Fog diffused it into a misty glow. Water dripped from fixtures and walls. The enclosure had thwarted evaporation. Now everything was damp and dripping.
“Hmpf. How bloody cheerful.” She wheeled the crates out of the elevator one by one, through the foggy laboratory, to the doorway leading to the caverns beyond. “At least we knew about the elevator this time around. Sodding mapmaker had one job to do…”
Patches offered no assistance but stopped to rub her face on every stone and corner along her path. She scampered to the door, meowing ceaselessly until Mags joined her with the final crate.
Mags punched buttons on the keypad, but nothing happened. “Hell. Sparky fried the shit out of everything down here. Time for Plan B, dear. Step back now.”
Patches complained. Mags wheeled the crates along the wall to a safe place.
“Yeah, yeah. You can’t be hurt. I should probably stop yelling at you to get out of the way in firefights, huh? Sorry.” Mags took a few blocks of C4 explosives from her kit. She wired them up to the door. “I guess I still can’t get over it. Cut your auntie some slack, will you?” Mags set the detonator. “But seriously, unless you want to get shot through the air like a cannonball, I suggest you get the hell back now.”
They followed the wall until they were well out of blast range. “Fire in the hole!” Mags pressed her handheld switch. The doorway exploded.
Once the smoke cleared, she wheeled the crates back to the decimated doorway. “Shit, maybe we should have brought Donny down to move these things. At least men are good for something!”
Then she felt a familiar tug on her mind, and so did Patches. “I guess they know we’re here.” She called into the caverns. “Ahoy, krakens and krakenettes! Did you miss us? We brought you some din-din!”
Patches ran out onto the rocky bridge which rose only centimeters above the water filling the cavern. Mags wheeled the crates onto it and looked around for the giant tentacles of the mother octopus, but she saw nothing.
“Mama kraken,” she called out. “Babies! Nom-noms are here.” She aimed her headlamp into the water, searching. Slowly at first, and then in a cephalopodic chorus, tentacles rose from the water. First one, then two, and then hundreds upon hundreds of tentacles waved, swishing the fog that had settled over them.
Mags could hear them. They hummed to her, not in sound waves, but in telepathic communion. She smiled, unfastening the lids of the crates and pulling them off. “Could you all try to not fry my brain this time? I’m still having whacked-out dreams, you know.”
She hummed along with them and felt their approval. She kicked down the locks on the wheels of the first crate. With a generous heave, she pushed it over onto its side. The crate slammed onto the bridge, disgorging its contents into the water, splashing onto the waving tentacles. The octopuses greeted the slop of crabs and worms, crunching open the tasty prizes. Mags felt their excitement tickle her mind.
“There’s more where that came from! Hold on, little darlings.” She dumped another crate onto its side, emptying it on the opposite side of the bridge. Before she could even get to the third crate, their humming grew louder.
Patches ran back and forth. Waves of happiness flowed over both of them, their brains flooding with pleasure chemicals. Mags smiled so hard her face hurt. She dumped the contents of the third crate into the water.
All along the sides of the bridge, tentacles splashed playfully. Mags knelt. Patches rubbed on her leg, purring wildly. Mags reached down to the nearest tentacle. “Do you like that, babies?” The tentacle wrapped around her hand in response.
Then she discovered what happened to the mother octopus.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Something inhuman grew inside Club Assteroid.
Unbeknownst to Meteor Mags, her eel dream had been more than just a dream. But in reality, her eel had not impregnated her. Its technology had removed a single ovum from her uterus to bond with its own synthetic DNA. As she had slept, two of the eels returned to the black box which stored them in her room. The third had forced its way into the club’s ductwork to nest.
While Mags and Donny traveled to the asteroid where it had originated, the eel curled into a ball, motionless, hidden from sight. The eel’s internal machinery spliced Mags’ genetic sample to its own. Fueled by the eel’s electric energy, a tiny zygote quickly grew into a fetus.
The fetus assembled a body using the eel’s metal and machinery within a matter of hours. The eel felt neither pain nor remorse as its components broke down and became something else. The eel merely followed its programming.
By the time Mags was feeding the octopuses, a cybernetic organism the size of a child flexed its newly-formed fingers. It blinked its metallic eyelids and crawled through the club’s ductwork. It smelled machinery, and organic matter nearby. It needed more material to assemble a larger body.
Soon, it would need to feed.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“Don’t be scared.”
Mags heard the voice all around her. With her free hand, she ran her fingers along the tentacle encircling her wrist. The fog glowed white. But unlike her experience with the mother octopus, the white light did not completely envelop her. Sparkles like distant fireflies played over the water’s surface. They could not possibly be real, but Mags watched their movements anyway. They flowed in a non-repeating pattern which calmed her and drew her in.
Patches made a raspy meow showing the tips of her tiny teeth. Then she stretched out beside her friend and purred.
“It’s alright,” said Mags. “I’m not scared at all.”
“Good.” Then hundreds of voices in multi-part harmony said at once, “Mama wanted us to show you something.”
Mags took a deep breath. She sat cross-legged on the barren bridge. “Okay, babies. Show me.” She closed her eyes.
The white light consumed Mags and Patches. They experienced floating below the water’s surface. The light faded to present a scene which had taken place after their last visit to the asteroid. They swept their tentacles through the water—Mags covered in stars, Patches covered in calico, but their bodies now resembling the octopuses. The cold pressed all around them, but they felt no fear. With gentle care, the baby octopuses regulated their neurochemicals so they would feel no distress.
Before them floated the mother octopus. Her giant eyes were cloudy now, and dim. Her babies swam around her, circling her in the pit, conversing with her on the mental plane. In a language composed of images and emotions rather than words, she gave them everything she had learned from the minds of Mags, and Patches, and the researchers who had mutated her. She taught the babies words from the humans’ minds, and their meanings. This knowledge, she made her children understand, would help them communicate with Mags and Patches when they returned.
The mother octopus had neither guarantee nor promise the two of them would return, but she had an unassailable, animal faith in Mags. She told her offspring the story of meeting Mags and Patches, how they had communed with her and kept their promise to help hatch the babies.
The octopuses swarmed around their mother, raising their tentacles in union. They formed an image in their minds of Meteor Mags and Patches as goddesses of the great waters and the vast unknown space which lay beyond. Though they lacked voices, they filled the mental plane with what could only be called singing.
“Bloody hell,” she whispered. “They think I’m some sort of deity.”
“And you too, dear.”
Then the mother octopus gave her final instructions to the young cephalopods, and she sank to the bottom of the pit.
“Oh no,” cried Mags. “We were too late!” She dove into the obsidian depths, joined by Patches and the hundreds of babies. She ran her star-covered tentacles over the gigantic octopus head, hoping against all hope. But there was nothing she could do—nothing but witness the past.
The mother octopus had watched over her unhatched children for years without any food at all. If not for Mags, she knew, she would have starved to death before they were ever born. She had impressed this on her offspring, and also the necessity of the terrible action they must take to survive.
Opening their beaks, the young octopuses fed on their mother’s lifeless body. Mags turned away from the sight, but it was no use. Locked in telepathic communion with the babies, she lived the horrifying feast. Patches swam into her arms.
Mags could taste the mother’s body. She devoured the tentacles and the network of neurons in them. Memories of losing her own mother came to her. She wept into the water. Her heart ached, pounding harder in her chest.
Then she felt the wave of calm again. The octopuses had sensed her stress. They regulated her neurochemicals, soothing her. Her terror subsided. Patches purred in her embrace.
As one being, Mags, Patches, and the baby octopuses consumed the brain of the great mutant octopus. All of the mother’s knowledge became their knowledge. All they had ever felt, they felt together.
As one living creature with thousands of tentacles, the swirling mass realized the mother was not gone at all. She had become a part of them, and they had become a part of her. There was nothing to mourn, as no one had gone away. A hum filled the water. It begged for a melody. The sound turned into white light. It filled everything.
Mags opened her eyes. She scooped Patches into her arms and stood up. She switched off her headlamp and removed her mask. She no longer felt any fear or sadness—only joy, only unity, only love.
The humming rose in volume all around her. Mags wiped tears from her eyes. She felt the minds of the octopuses touching hers, communing with her still. She understood the unspoken question in their hum.
“Of course I will, darlings. Of course I will.”
And there, in the darkened recesses of the asteroid caverns, Meteor Mags lifted her head, began a melody, and led the gathered octopuses in song.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Aboard The Queen Anne’s Revenge, Donny popped the cap off another beer. The dots on the monitor had not moved in several minutes. If Mags and Patches weren’t moving, he reasoned, they might be in trouble. Or they could just be feeding their weird little pets. He decided to give them one more minute.
He looked out the window of the ship. Mags never seemed to grow tired of looking at the stars, thought Donny, but as an asteroid miner he had grown a bit sick of them. It wasn’t like you could touch them. They just hung there, stupidly, probably burned out millions of years ago and nothing but dead husks floating in space. Dead, dying, and death as far as the eyes could see.
Donny frowned. “Getting morbid in your old age, aren’t you, Donald?” Then he hunched over. The bottle fell from his hand. Beer sloshed across the deck. “Ungh!” He dropped to his hands and knees, but he did not see the deck. Instead, he saw death.
Darkness surrounded him, endless wet darkness. His arm struck out, meeting nothing. A giant skull hovered before him. Blood ran from its eyes. Piece by piece, it crumbled into fragments. A horde of smaller skulls descended upon it, devouring it.
Donny stared. “What the—” An unusual thought came to him. “That was metal as fuck!”
Donny’s fear suddenly vanished. The blackness around him faded. His hands found his chair. He pulled himself to his feet.
A song came to Donny. It did not come over the ship’s speakers. It simply came to him, a chorus of voices, a wash of emotions and images, hundreds of singers alive with joy, and love, and unity.
His eyes fell upon the stars. He no longer saw endless death in their distant lights. In fact, he saw them as a child, as if he had never seen them before. The Milky Way Galaxy sprawled before him, as if some god had splashed it on a canvas. It no longer seemed a dull, inhuman thing taunting him from afar. He felt he was a part of it, that he could never leave it, nor ever want to. It sang to him in a star-covered voice.
And the melody, he realized, was led by Meteor Mags.
Later, when he would tell this story, he could never pin down how long this went on. It might have been minutes or maybe hours. He only knew that while he listened, time had no meaning.
Eventually, the song subsided. Mags’ voice came over the speakers. “Donny? Donny? Are you there?”
“I’m here. What’s happening? I swear I thought I heard you singing.”
Laughter chimed over the speakers. “Oh, did you hear that? All the way up there?”
“It was like I heard it in my head. What the hell are you doing down there?”
Donny heard nothing for a minute. Then the speakers came to life again. “I’ll tell you all about it when I get up there. Oh, and Donny?”
“I know what song we’re gonna put on the next album. See you in a few.”
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“Check this out.” Mags tossed him a leather-bound book. “Patches found it.”
Donny caught it. “What was going on down there? I had the craziest feeling up here and—whoa. What is this?” He flipped through the pages. They appeared to contain writing, but in a script he had never seen before. Some pages contained mechanical drawings for parts he did not recognize, machines he had never encountered. But strangest of all, the illustrations depicted some sort of dinosaur.
“I don’t know, but it sure is a trip. Look at it! It’s like a manual to build some kind of spaceship, and a bunch of those bloody lizards!”
“These aren’t lizards, Mags. These are dinosaurs. Look at this page here.” He held up the book for her to see.
“That’s the bastard who chained me up and electrocuted me! If not for Tarzi—”
“This thing chained you up?”
“Yes, dickweed! Or something that looked just like it. He had me chained up and was frying me with those electric rods they carry. It—”
“Mags. This is a Dracorex. It’s been extinct for more than, I don’t know, a hundred seventy-five million years or something. It’s fucking dead.”
Her cigarette fell onto the deck.
“Patches found this?”
Mags picked up her cigarette. She almost took a puff, then looked at it. She walked over to the console and stubbed it out on an ashtray. Then she produced another and lit up. “A Dracorex.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Aren’t you the little paleontologist?” Mags blew a series of smoke rings, staring out the window into space. “Yes,” she said. “Patches found it. We were on our way out and she was sniffing around. As she does.”
Donny looked over at Patches, sprawled on the corner of Mags’ bed. The tip of her tail flicked back and forth. Her face had relaxed into a feline scowl. She rested her chin on one of her legs. Donny was never sure how much of what Mags told him about Patches was real and how much she just made up. “What happened to you two down there?”
Mags laughed. “I got two words for you, Donny. Sentient tentacles.” She strolled over to her portable keyboard, set on a stand by the edge of her bunk. “Those things aren’t just alive and hungry, Donny. They’re intelligent.” She flipped a switch and sat down. Brushing her bangs back from her forehead, she told Donny exactly what she had learned inside the asteroid.
“So that’s what I was feeling.”
Mags arched an eyebrow at him. “What were you feeling?”
Donny looked away, embarrassed. “It was—I don’t know how to say it without sounding like some kind of fucking hippie.”
Mags smiled and leaned forward. “Let me help you, dear. You felt like everything you ever loved had died. And your whole life was meaningless, empty, and dead. And then, all of that melted away. And you felt the whole universe was an endless reservoir of love, and you were a part of everything.”
She knew, somehow. “That’s exactly it, Mags.”
Her lips curled into an evil smile. Then she laughed and laughed. “You fucking hippie!”
Donny could not help but join her laughter. “Fuck you, Mags.”
“Fuck you, too! Do you want me to get your tie-dye and sandals ready?”
“Hahaha. Damn it, Mags! Why do you always have to bust my balls?”
“Cause I like you, ya sodding useless space miner. Now listen. You ever hear that Deftones song Diamond Eyes? Do you think you can get that sort of guitar and bass sound at the end out of your sax?”
“Oh, for sure. Love that album.”
“Good. And maybe keep it going for like thirty minutes like a Swans riff?”
“Now that sounds fun.”
“Good. Because this is the song I want to put on the next album. It’s called Octopus Mother. It goes something like this.” And then, accompanying herself on the keyboard, Mags sang.
Give myself to you
So that you may live
All my everything
All I have to give
See the stars that shine
If they all were mine
They would never fall
I give you my all
There’s no future here
But the one we make
If we can’t have that
Then the one we take
Nothing ever but forever
Nothing ever but forever
Nothing ever but forever
We will all become as one
Donny sat entranced. He had never mentioned it to anyone, but his favorite part of jamming with The Psycho 78s was listening to her sing. She had something so pure, so raw in her voice.
Suddenly, an inbound message lit up the control console. “Incoming! And it’s marked priority.” He stood up and switched on the communicator to play the message.
“Mags,” said Celina’s voice over the cabin’s speakers. “All hell is breaking loose here! There’s some kind of robot running wild and tearing everything apart! Fuzz and I are going to take it on, but we sure could use all the help we can get, wagtail. When you get this, get back to the club. And put the pedal to the metal!”
Mags stormed over to the console without a word. She knew the distance between the club and the ship would mean a delay in the signal, but she opened a channel anyway. “Celina! If you get this, hold down the fort, convict. We’re on our way and ready to bring the noise. Mags out.”
She took her seat. “Strap in, Donny. And get ready to kick some ass.” She looked over her shoulder. “You too, Patches. Celina’s in trouble.”
Patches ignored the command, but she jumped up onto Donny’s lap. He clicked his safety restraints into place. Donny could not have known that Patches now understood every word Celina said. Nor could he have known Mags’ very life would soon depend on her little calico cat. The Queen Anne’s Revenge kicked into high gear and sped back to the club.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
PART TWO: THE LADDER OF LIFE
Hyo-Sonn, Kala, and Suzi sat in Club Assteroid’s garden. The garden provided fresh food for the club. It also indulged Mags’ floral passions. La Plaza Margareta may have ended years ago, but she had moved the statue of her great-grandmother here and surrounded it with magnolia trees. She had bolted a plaque over the garden’s entrance. It read, “Maggie’s Farm.”
When Celina pointed out that Maggie in Bob Dylan’s tune was the villain, Mags had responded, “So what? It’s anti-establishment, it’s got my name in it, and Rage Against The Machine covered it. Close enough!”
The three young women discussed a mural Kala wanted to paint and unveil at Mags’ birthday party in November.
“What about a historical mural?” Kala asked.
“You mean like great women of history?” Hyo-Sonn bit into a peach plucked from a nearby tree. “We could do ones from that book she has, like Annie Besant and all them.”
“She’d rather have pirates,” Suzi said.
Kala laughed. “She so would. Oh, that gives me an idea. We could do a mural of her great-gramma.”
“And her gramma, and her mom,” said Hyo-Sonn. “That way we get pirates and great women of history!”
Suzi chomped on a fresh orange. “And it narrows down how many people we have to paint. Damn, these things are good.”
“You’ve really turned this garden around, Suzi. It was kind of a shambles when we got here, wasn’t it?”
“Ah, it’s no big deal.” She spat out a seed. “If you want farming done right, hire a farm girl!”
Kala smiled. She had never cared for Suzi’s provincial and frankly racist attitude. But she could tell something had changed in the young woman since they were captured and subsequently rescued by Meteor Mags. Kala supposed anyone could change, given enough time and the right setting. “I don’t know if we have enough details to paint all that. Do you think Mags would tell us some more stories?”
Hyo-Sonn laughed. “Oh, you know how Mags is. Every time we try to get her to commit to something, she says the same thing: I’ve got cargo to ‘liberate!’ Lizards to exterminate!”
“Dance poles to lubricate.”
“Ewww! Gross, Suzi.”
“What? I’m just sayin’.”
Above them, unseen, a pair of cybernetic eyes watched them converse. The young cyborg did not understand the conversation, but it sensed the presence of organic material, machinery, and meat. This would be a good place to grow. It flexed its metallic fingers.
Suzi continued, “But seriously, I think it’s a good idea. Maybe we could do like one scene from each of their lives, real big. And don’t forget Patches.”
“No, we can’t forget Patches,” said Kala. “But which scenes?”
“Do you remember that story Mags told us about her ring?” Hyo-Sonn asked. “And then something about the GravGens.”
Kala sketched in her notebook. “Yeah, and that scene where she met—”
Suddenly, the ductwork above them exploded. The cybernetic infant fell through the shrapnel to the ground. Its metallic lips parted in a roar.
The young women fell to the dirt, shielding their faces. Suzi looked over her arm. She had no idea what she was looking at, but it was not good. Kala screamed something, but it only registered as noise. Suzi rolled out of the way. A chunk of ductwork crashed beside her. Her hand closed on a shovel’s handle.
Suzi rose to her feet, growling like an animal. Behind her, Kala and Hyo-Sonn scrambled away from the monster. Suzi gripped the shovel with both hands. She ran at the snarling thing, and with all the force she could muster, swung the shovel like a baseball bat.
The metal blade smashed into the attacker. A shower of sparks and lightning erupted from the point of contact. The wooden handle insulated Suzi from the electricity, but the force pummeled her backwards through the air. She landed on her back in the dirt, knocking the wind from her lungs. The shovel fell from her hands.
But her attack was not in vain. She had smacked the cyborg several meters backwards. As it struggled to regain its footing, Hyo-Sonn’s arms encircled her, pulling her away from the monster and towards the exit. Another chunk of the ceiling fell where Suzi had been gasping just seconds before.
The cybernetic infant stood up. It looked at the trio and hissed. Its metal tongue lashed the air between two rows of sharpened teeth. An orb of sparks crackled around its body and its eyes glowed red. It was not yet as tall as the girls in the garden, but its diminutive stature did nothing to soften its horrifying visage. It charged.
Suzi scrambled to her feet.
Hyo-Sonn released her. “Come on,” she shouted. “Come on!”
Kala had made it to the door already. She stood ready to punch the access button and slam it shut as soon as her friends made it through. But as Suzi and Hyo-Sonn ran towards her, Kala got a good view of the thing attacking them. Her artistic eyes captured its details. And what she saw sent a chill through her soul. For the attacker was not entirely alien. In fact, its face looked incredibly familiar.
Hyo-Sonn and Suzi ran past her. She punched the button outside the doorway. The door to the garden slid shut. Though sturdy, it was not opaque. A Plexiglas sheet six inches thick and set in a metal frame, it gave Kala a perfect view of the monster who pursued them.
The cyborg slammed into the Plexiglas. Kala watched it howl in anger. Its metal fingernails raked the other side of the door. The plastic curled up and fell away in strips. She looked into its red eyes and memorized them.
“What in the fuck is that?” Suzi shouted.
“Let’s go,” said Hyo-Sonn. “We need Celina!”
The cyborg placed its hand on the metal doorframe. A bolt of lightning erupted from its hand, engulfing the frame.
Kala screamed. She fell back from the door.
“Kala!” Hyo-Sonn caught her friend. The doorframe crackled with sparks. The controls smoked and sizzled.
“Fucking hell, let’s go!” Suzi yelled.
They ran down the hall as fast as they could.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Hyo-Sonn pounded her fist on the door again and again. “Celina!”
The door slid open to reveal Celina wrapped in a sheet of cloth. “What in the name of sweet bleeding Christ do you—” Then she saw the horrified looks on their faces. “What’s wrong?” Behind her, Fuzzlow slipped on a pair of boxer briefs.
“There’s something in the garden!”
“And it’s mad as hell!” Suzi added. “Fucking came out of the ceiling and tried to kill us!”
“What is it?” She looked up and down the hall. “Come in, come in.” She motioned for the girls to come into the room.
Celina had adorned her room with tapestries on the walls and pillows for sitting on the floor. Oils dispersed their scents from a pair of oil warmers on her bookshelf. A candle in a glass jar cast a soothing glow below the dimmed electric lights. Tesla quietly napped on a padded chair. But the romantic refuge was about to be shattered.
“I can draw it,” said Kala. She had dropped her pencil and pad of paper in the attack. “Do you have a tablet?” Her hands shook as she took a tablet and a stylus from Celina. “It was like some kind of robot,” she said, sketching on the screen. “But its face… Its face was…” Kala drew quickly on the tablet.
“You saw its face?”
Suzi answered, “I smashed its fucking face with a shovel. And it didn’t do a damn thing to stop it!”
“It had red eyes,” said Hyo-Sonn, “and it growled at us, and it came out of the ceiling and there were sparks everywhere and—”
Then Kala handed the tablet back to Celina.
She stared in disbelief. “That’s its face?”
“It had a face like Mags. Just like Mags. Only metal.”
Fuzzlow looked over Celina’s shoulder. “What in the actual fuck?”
“Look at that, Fuzz. Do those panels and circuit lines look familiar?”
“Hell yes, they do. It looks just like those eels we tested. But that face…”
“Is it still in the garden?” Celina set the tablet down and stepped up to an emergency panel by her doorway. Pushing a tapestry aside, she revealed a panel of screens displaying feeds from the club’s security cameras.
“It was up against the door, clawing its way through the Plexiglas. Then it made these lightning bolts come out of its fingers!”
Celina’s mouth fell open when she saw the video from the garden’s camera. She saw the cyborg scratching madly at the door, tendrils of electricity pouring into the door frame and surrounding circuitry. Circuits tore loose from the wall. They flew through the air, attaching to the cyborg’s body. The monster assimilated the new parts, and it grew. Then the video feed went black.
“Fuck me dead.” She picked up a handset from the panel on the wall. “I don’t know what that thing is, but we aren’t sticking around to find out.” She scooped up Tesla from the chair and handed him to Hyo-Sonn.
“Mew?” Tesla asked, squirming. Hyo-Sonn held him close.
“You girls get to emergency exit three right fucking now and do not stop for anything. Get everyone inside Mags’ private hangar and lock it down! I’ll sound the alarm. Fuzz, you stick with me.” Celina opened the door. “Well? What are you waiting for? Go! Go! Go!”
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Sarah happily hammered her new keyboard in the room she shared with Kala. Meteor Mags had shown her a handful of chords. All week, she had practiced changing from one to the next without breaking her rhythm.
She loved the promotional poster Mags had given her with the keyboard. Printed for the release of The Psycho 78s’ first album, it portrayed Mags viciously screaming Something to Destroy with the band backing her up. Mags gripped the microphone with one hand, snapping a bullwhip into a fierce “S” shape with the other. Silk-screened blood splattered the image and its bold text reading The Psycho 78s: HyperSonicHatred.
Sarah’s parents had told her Meteor Mags was evil. They had told her all kinds of things were evil, even Sarah herself. She believed them for many years. But when her body began to change, Sarah prayed. Sarah prayed between the beatings and the other things she would rather not remember.
In her prayers, she believed an angel talked to her. The angel said Sarah was made of light, the same light that powered the stars. When her family hurt her, and when they sent her to The Clinic where the hurt grew even worse, Sarah silently sang her favorite songs into the light. They made the pain go away, washed it from her mind, and made it fade to nothing. And of all her favorite singers, Meteor Mags was her most favorite of all.
“Come on, Sarah. Sing it for us!” A few of her new friends sat on the chairs and beds in the room with her. Some of them were dancers at the club. Some of them helped staff the parties. Some of them just had nowhere else to go. But all of them loved Mags and Celina, and together they worked to make the club a home.
“Okay, promise me you won’t laugh,” she said.
“Alright, we promise,” said one of the girls.
“But what if it’s funny?” asked another.
What would Mags say? “Fine!” Some of these young women were much older than Sarah and had been at the club far longer than the new arrivals in her group. Yet none of them had ever tried to make her feel bad about anything. “So, Mags showed me some chords, and I wanted to see if I could make a song with them.”
Sarah picked out a D Major chord. Then she switched to an F Major, then back to D, then up to a G Major and back, all without hesitation. She sang.
Voices in my heard, I’m hearin’ ya
You make me feel inferi-a
When you colonize my exteri-a
Get up off my planet, all you bastards
Get up off my planet, all you—
The laughter stopped her.
“You promised not to laugh!”
The laughter continued, then clapping. One of the girls spoke up. “Oh, Sarah! Don’t stop. That’s awesome!”
“You really think so?”
“Oh, my fucking god, Mags will love it. You have to play it for her.”
Her frown relaxed into a smile. She laughed with them. “I thought you didn’t like it. I really don’t want to disappoint Mags.”
“Sarah, believe me. I’ve known Mags for a while now, and the one thing your song will not do is disappoint her. Do you have a name for it?”
“I was thinking about calling it Bastard Virus Plan—”
Celina’s voice blared over the loudspeaker. “Emergency evacuation! Attention! Emergency evacuation! This is not a drill! Everyone to exit number three now. This is not a drill!” Klaxons rang out their shrill pulse. Red LED’s flashed on the walls of every room, and every few meters in the hallways.
The young women looked to each other in shock, then leapt to their feet. They raced from the room, taking Sarah with them.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Next to the video screens for the security cameras, Celina’s tapestries covered the door to her gun safe. She punched in the combination. “We can’t let that thing get loose in the club.”
Fuzzlow pulled on his shirt, pants, and boots in a flash. “Looks like it’s already loose,” he said. “If that thing came out of the ceiling, what’s to stop it from crawling wherever it wants through the ductwork? What if it fried that door?”
“Damn it.” She handed Fuzzlow a laser rifle. “I knew those eels would be trouble.”
“You think they’re to blame?”
“Didn’t Mags say she got them from some genetics lab? Put two and two together, love. That bloody monstrosity is half machine, half Mags. Where else could it have come from?”
“I’ve got an idea. Mags controlled the eels with that Faraday suit. If we can get that suit from her room, maybe we can control this—this Magbot thing!”
“Magbot!” Celina laughed. “You have such a way with words, Fuzzy love.”
He took a pair of holstered revolvers from the safe. “Hey, I don’t get songwriting credits for nothing.”
“I can get us into her room. Even if your idea doesn’t work, at least that suit will keep Magbot from frying us.”
“Just in case, let’s take this bad boy with us.” He grabbed one more weapon from the safe.
“Fuzz! We don’t want to shoot that bloody thing inside the club!”
“You saw what those eels did in the trial run. I’m not taking any chances with Magbot.”
“Word.” Celina quickly recorded a message to Mags and hit send. “We can’t wait to hear back from her. Let’s go.”
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“What the hell? Mags told me she had all these cases locked up in her armory.” He stood over the black case in her room.
“Looks like she made an exception,” said Celina. “Should we open it?”
“Let’s suit up first. I don’t feel like riding the lightning today. That looks like Mags’ suit on the back of the chair there. It should fit you. Let me see if she’s hiding one of the spares in here.” Fuzzlow opened her closet. A pile of clothes a meter high slumped over and fell through the door. He found himself knee-deep in a pile of socks and panties. “Damn it, Magatha. Do your bloody laundry sometime!”
Celina pulled Mags’ tailored Faraday suit over her clothes. “I think she’d rather steal new socks than wash the old ones.”
“You say pirate, I say kleptomaniac. At least we’ve got a spare suit in this mess.” He pulled a Faraday suit from a hanger and got busy pulling it over his clothes.
“Kiss me before we get sealed in, Fuzzy.”
The two of them shared a deep kiss. Then they pulled the suits closed over their faces. Celina stood to the side of the black case, her laser rifle ready. Fuzzlow lifted the lid, slowly, ready to slam it shut.
Inside, two of the three eels lay quietly in their molded housings. But one slot sat empty.
“I guess that solves that,” said Fuzz.
Then the eels’ red eyes began to glow.
“Fuck!” Celina aimed her rifle.
He slammed the lid shut.
“Doesn’t this thing have a lock?”
“Got it, babe.” He set the locking mechanism. “But if it’s electric, couldn’t they fry the lock?”
“Stand back. I don’t want those bastards getting out.” She took the butt of her rifle and smashed the lock’s keypad. Then she pulled on the lid. It refused to open. “There. Best we can do.” She picked up her tablet. A moving dot on the screen tracked the cyborg through the club’s security system. “Everyone’s out of the club except us, Fuzz. Magbot’s heading for the smaller concert room. If we get there fast, we can box her in.”
Fuzzlow followed her into the hall. “Let’s go show this robot why you don’t fuck with The Psycho 78s.”
Celina set the lock on Mags’ door. “Race you.”
The two of them sprinted down the hall.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Magbot had grown to full size after feasting on the metal and circuits in the garden. Now she sat on the piano bench where Meteor Mags enjoyed playing by candlelight late at night. Her fingers pounded the keys, making dissonant chunks of sound that more resembled a demolition than a song. An inhuman, guttural noise issued from her throat.
Celina and Fuzzlow stood outside the entrance to the small concert room.
“What the hell is it doing?” Fuzzlow whispered.
“I’d say she’s trying to play piano.”
“Then she’s not very good, is she?”
“What a godawful racket.”
Magbot grimaced. She felt something like a dim, forgotten memory, a compulsion to make this inert block of wood and wire do—what? Like metal sledgehammers full of fury, her hands beat the keyboard. Possessed by an uncontrollable urge her newly formed mind could not comprehend, she opened her mouth to do—what? Only a wild roar escaped.
“That’s just fucking sad,” whispered Celina. “Are you ready?” She took aim.
He raised his laser rifle to his shoulder. “Let’s take this thing down.” His finger squeezed the trigger.
But the part of Magbot that was cybernetic eel sensed the control circuits in Celina’s suit. She felt them tug at her willpower, and she did not like it. She jumped to her feet. The bench flew back and tumbled across the stage. A barrage of laser beams assaulted her.
Their bright bursts ricocheted off her body. The piano splintered as they smashed into it. Its wires snapped, filling the bandshell with a terrible din. The deflected beams burned smoldering holes in the stage curtains.
The humans advanced, pouring on the lasers. “Don’t let her get away!” They pressed forward, firing round after round of searing light.
Magbot howled. She grabbed the bench from the floor and hurled it at them. Celina ducked. Fuzzlow dropped to the ground and rolled away. Then he pulled a .44 Magnum revolver from a holster at his side. It blasted like a cannon.
The round caught Magbot in the shoulder. The force spun her around.
He fired again and again until the pistol was empty. The bullets smacked Magbot to the ground. “Damn,” he said, eyeing the weapon appreciatively. “Mags was right about this sucker.” He slipped it back into its holster and picked up his rifle. “Celina! She’s down!”
Celina moved in closer to the stage. “How does this bloody suit work?”
“I don’t know! Just think about what you want it to do.”
She furrowed her brow in concentration. “I want it to stop.”
“Rarrrgh,” roared Magbot. She felt the mental signals amplified by Celina’s suit. They tried to tell her what to do. They tried to calm her down. They tried to make her stop. Stop. Stop. The part of her that was eel felt itself submitting to Celina’s will.
But the part of her that was Mags refused. “Eeeyaarrr,” she yelled. She forced herself to her feet. Her skin crackled with electricity. A seething mass of lightning took shape around her.
Celina screamed. The mental feedback from the cyborg pierced her mind. The sharp blade of its resistance stabbed into her skull. She staggered backwards.
“Celina!” Fuzzlow fired his rifle, but it was too late.
Magbot leapt from the stage. Roaring, she fell on Celina, driving the woman to the ground. Her metal hands closed around Celina’s throat in a blaze of current.
Fuzzlow’s boot bashed the side of her cybernetic head, but Magbot held on. She shook Celina like a ragdoll, trying to crush her windpipe.
Celina tried to shout, but she only made a rasping, choking noise.
Fuzzlow drew the other Magnum from its holster with his left hand. He fired it into the side of Magbot’s head, point blank. The force blew a chunk of the cyborg’s metallic hair off. An oily kind of blood spewed over Celina’s suit. He fired again. Magbot’s head snapped to the side. Fuzzlow kicked her in the face as hard as he could. Her grip on Celina broken, she fell to the side.
Fuzzlow fired a third round. “Get out of here!”
Celina, gasping, scrambled to her feet. Nearly blinded by a migraine, she stumbled, turned, and ran for the doorway.
Magbot bared her teeth and hissed. Fuzzlow shot another bullet into her chest. The force racked her body. Then a bolt of energy lashed out from her to engulf his revolver.
It grew hot in his gloved hand. “Shit!” He flung it at the cyborg. The electricity exploded the powder in the remaining bullets. Fuzzlow ducked. In his crouch, his hand fell upon the chunk he had blasted off Magbot’s head. His fist closed around it. Then he ran.
Dented, damaged, and bleeding, Magbot raised her arms to the sky. A scream of pure hate burst from her cybernetic lungs. The tortured sphere of electricity expanded all around her. It scorched the wooden dance floor in the concert hall. The stage curtains burst into flame. The scraps of the piano caught fire.
Reaching the entryway where Celina stood, Fuzzlow asked, “Are you okay?”
She merely waved her hand in the air.
“Then I guess it was a good idea to bring this after all.” He swung up the AA-12 he had slung over his shoulder. “Auto-assault, baby!” Its magazine held eight high-explosive rounds, each with the force of a grenade. “Let’s see how eel face likes a fucking Frag-12!”
The rounds punched through the lightning and exploded all around Magbot. Their concussive force smashed her backwards into a wall. Fuzzlow slammed a second magazine into the AA-12 and shot another eight rounds. The explosions battered her to the floor and cracked the wall. A section of it collapsed, burying her in a pile of rubble. A cloud of dust rose in the rays of light coming through the hole in the wall.
Celina peeled back the helmet of her Faraday suit. “Bloody hell. Remember when I said we didn’t want to fire that thing in the club? I take it back.”
As if in reply, a stone fell from the top of the pile of rubble. Then another.
“Fuck,” said Fuzzlow. “Let’s get out of here!”
They ran for the emergency exit.
Moments later, a faint crackle ended the silence in the bandshell. One by one, chunks of broken concrete fell from the pile and onto the ruined floor. A cybernetic hand shoved its way through the wreckage. A hateful growl emanated from the pile of stone.
Magbot pushed her way free. Her shiny body now blackened with soot, she staggered in the dusty beams of light. She kicked a rock out of her path.
Then the daughter of lightning made her way out to the surface of Vesta 4.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“Are we close enough to talk in real time yet, Donny?”
“Close enough. Bringing up a channel right now.”
“Celina!” Mags called into the microphone. “Celina! Are you there?” No response. “Damn it, Donny!”
“Give her a minute,” said the sax player. “Who knows what’s breaking loose down there?”
She fumed. Then Celina’s voice came over the speakers.
“Mags? Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear. What’s the situation?”
“Everyone’s okay. We’re all in your hangar.”
“Good,” said Mags. “We built it bloody nuke-proof. Have you got hostiles?”
“Just one,” said Celina. “But she’s a doozy! Fuzzlow and I attacked her, but we got our asses kicked.”
“Her? Who is she? I thought you said it was a robot?”
“It is a robot! Or some kind of cyborg. Mags, it’s one of those eels of yours! We checked in your room, and one of them was missing.”
“You went in my room?”
“Yes! We had to get those suits! And that’s when we found one of the eels was missing.”
“You went in my closet?”
“Goddamnit, wagtail! No one gives a rat’s ass about your three-year-old pile of dirty socks! We’re under attack here! But something’s gone wrong. That thing isn’t an eel anymore. It’s got electricity and armor and shit like your eels, but… But it looks just like you!”
“It what now, mate?”
“It looks like you! It’s—Mags, it has your face. It attacked the girls. Then we found it trying to play piano in the bandshell. It damn near killed me! Fuzz blasted it with Frag-12s, caved the whole sodding wall down on it, and the fucking thing still got up and walked away!”
“Fuzz blew up my fucking concert hall?”
“We didn’t have any choice! It was shooting out bolts of lightning and bloody choking me to death!”
Mags sighed. “Are you okay, dear?”
“I’m fine now, thanks.”
“Good. You clear everyone off the landing area in the hangar. I’ll open it from the ship once we make sure there’s no hostiles outside. Okay?”
“Sounds like a plan. Love you.”
“Love you too, ya blasted convict. Now try not to blow up any more concert halls until we get there!”
Soon, Mags brought the ship into the hangar. She strode down the ramp from The Queen Anne’s Revenge. Patches scampered past her to the group of young women, bumping her side against their legs one by one. Donny followed behind.
Sarah ran up to her. “Mags,” she cried out, throwing her arms around the space pirate.
Mags’ face lit up. She scruffed the girl’s thick black curls with a gloved hand. “Heya, kiddo. You doing okay?”
“There’s a monster on the loose!”
Mags picked her up and carried her with one arm. Sarah’s arms wrapped around her neck.
“Don’t be scared, baby.” She kissed Sarah’s cheek. “Your sweet auntie Mags is gonna bring down total hellfire on that thing. Celina!”
“Over here! We’re tracking the cyborg on the surface.”
Mags had a bad a feeling about all this. She recalled her intimate dream with the eels. She had written it off as a pleasant dream, nothing more. But now this had happened. Could it have really been more than a dream? Could her eels have really spawned some kind of hideous monster using her DNA? “Does anybody have a clue how we can take this thing down short of a bleedin’ atom bomb?”
“No, but check it out,” said Fuzzlow. He pulled the piece of cyborg from his pocket. “I got a chunk of the Magbot.”
Mags stared at the scrap of blood-soaked, sticky machinery. “A chunk of the what?”
“The Magbot! The thing that’s—”
She snatched it from his hand. “I bloody heard you the first time! What the fuck is wrong with you? You named it after me?”
“Well, we could call it RoboMags. Or Maggotron, but—”
“Stick it up your ass, Fuzz! I can’t believe this shit.” Mags eyed the chunk in her hand. “Named it after me, you twisted son of a bitch.” She stormed over to the panel of video feeds, cursing a blue streak.
“At least the fire’s out,” said Celina.
On one monitor, Mags could see the fire in the bandshell had been snuffed out by the rubble from Fuzzlow’s grenade launcher attack. On another screen, she could see the cyborg moving across the plains of Vesta 4.
“We could open the hangar,” Celina suggested, “and use The Queen Anne’s missiles on her. But if she could survive sixteen grenade rounds, I don’t really know if that would do any good.”
“Let her go. Better to have her out there than wreaking havoc in the club. Besides, I have an idea. Patches!”
The calico cat’s ears perked up. She came trotting over.
Mags set Sarah down. She knelt to Patches. “This is serious, Patches. Do you remember that nice octopus we met?”
Patches rubbed the side of her face against Mags’ hand.
“Mhm. And do you remember what we learned there?”
“Now it’s time to put it to work. Come with me, dear. Sarah? We could use your help, too.”
“That’s right. Now the rest of you, keep an eye on that sodding cyborg. Sarah, Patches—come with me.”
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Inside the armory of The Queen Anne’s Revenge, Mags opened a panel on the wall. She pulled out a massive black case, sliding it on its wheels into the room. She lifted the lid to reveal the portable genetics lab she and Tarzi had plundered the month before.
“You see,” she explained, “when Patches and I got our minds merged with the octopus, we were exposed to everything she knew. And what she knew included everything she’d picked up from the minds of the eggheads who created her. And that means Patches and I ought to be bloody geneticists by now. But let’s just say it was all a bit much to assimilate at one time. That’s why you’re here, Sarah.”
The young woman stared at the components in the case. “What do you want me to do?”
Mags set the sticky chunk of cyborg in the case. “Do you remember when I heard you singing? And came to rescue you?”
“How do you think that happened, Sarah?”
“I don’t know. I just sang. In my mind. As hard as I could.”
“Mhm.” Mags bent down and placed a hand on Sarah’s cheek. “I think you have a gift, Sarah. A very special gift.”
“That’s right. Now, maybe it was just because I was fresh from bonding with that kraken. Maybe I was just on the right wavelength or something. But I think your mind can reach out and touch other minds.”
“Like a psychic?”
“Whatever you want to call it. So I’m hoping you can help me and Patches sort something, okay?”
“I’d do anything for you, Mags.”
Mags hugged her. “Then help me remember. Patches will be there with us.”
She pulled equipment out of the case and set it up. “This bloody thing will sequence the gene,” she said. “And I’m pretty sure this is the other gizmo we need. Patches?”
Patches rubbed on the machinery. It looked like the bastard son of a microscope and a centrifuge, with plastic tubes protruding from it, wrapping around and through it, and down into plastic reservoirs.
“Mhm. I thought so, too.” Mags lifted a computer from the case and plugged both pieces of equipment into it. She pulled out her boot knife and sliced off the thinnest piece she could from the chunk of cyborg. She placed it in the gene sequencer and turned it on.
“Come sit with me, Sarah.” Mags sat cross-legged on the floor. Patches crawled into her lap, turned around several times, and made herself comfortable. Sarah took Mags’ hand and sat next to her. “Now, just focus on me and Patches together. And sing.”
“Sing the way you sang that day when I first heard you, okay?”
Sarah nodded. “Okay.”
Then Mags placed her hands on Patches, closed her eyes, and tried to recall anything she could about ubiquitin.
Mags had mastered advanced mathematics at a fairly young age, devoting her free time to studying it after moving to the States nearly a century ago. Much of genetics, however, remained uncharted waters for her. This much she knew: When the body decided it was time for a cell to die, enzymes attached a protein called ubiquitin to proteins in that cell. Mags had already decided it was time for that cybernetic monstrosity to die. Now, she needed to know how to synthesize an enzyme that would attach ubiquitin to the synthetic proteins which made up half the DNA of the cybernetic sea creatures she and Tarzi had discovered.
Mags relaxed and focused on Patches, who had been exposed to all this information in the octopus’ mind, too. She hoped that linking their minds again would increase their processing power on this problem, much like computers on a network can contribute processing power to each other. She hoped she had correctly judged Sarah’s talents, and that the young woman could facilitate this mental networking.
Mags heard a beep from the lab equipment. She opened her eyes and marveled at what she saw on the screen. The computer had sequenced the cyborg’s entire genome. Like a forgotten memory returning from a distant time, an understanding of the sequence dawned on Mags. Alongside the four nucleotide bases of adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine, four synthetic bases designed by the original researchers attached in a cybernetic double helix. Now Mags just needed to know how to attack them.
Then she heard Sarah singing in her mind. And with Sarah, she felt Patches, too. Maybe this idea really was crazy, she thought, but she had been called crazy before. And here she was, still alive, outliving her detractors, and ready to rock. Mags surrendered to the white light of Sarah’s song.
On the mental plane, they stood in a circle, joining hands and paws. Sarah’s song held them aloft, like a prayer rising up to heaven. A pair of wings grew from the young woman’s back. Then Patches sprouted a pair of wings, and Mags felt wings grow from her own shoulders. “Sing it, Sarah.”
Mags saw her great-grandmother’s ring hovering above them in the white space, but it was much larger than life-size, meters wide. Then the ring unfolded into a double helix.
On angels’ wings, the three of them flew up into it. Like a giant spiral ladder, it stretched upwards as far as the eye could see. Patches met Mags’ eyes and meowed. “That’s right, dear. Remember.” They sped into the blank oblivion above them, surrounded by the helix.
Suddenly, Mags understood how to engineer the enzyme she needed. She perceived its atomic structure and its folded proteins. She saw them in the white space all around her, attaching to the double helix. They attacked the synthetic nucleotides, unlatching them from their bonds in the genome.
Then the twisted ladder of genetics began to unravel all around her. From top to bottom, it collapsed and fell apart. Gigantic, broken proteins fell from above like girders falling from a shattered crane.
“Keep singing, dear. That’s it. That’s what we need!” Mags opened her eyes. Her fingers flew over the keyboard of the geneticists’ computer. She told it exactly what she needed the enzyme to do, and how to do it. The equipment hummed in response, singing its own mechanical song. Numbers and letters raced up the monitor faster than anyone could read. “Got it!” She squeezed Sarah’s hand.
Sarah opened her eyes. “Did it work?”
“On a wing and a bloody prayer, beautiful. You did great.”
“What was that? It was like a ladder to heaven!”
“That,” said Mags, “was the basic blueprint of all life. And we were inside it.”
Patches meowed incessantly and pawed at Sarah’s leg.
“Patches wants to destroy something, too,” said Mags. She produced a length of string for Sarah. “Here. Play with her. And give me a moment, dear. Auntie Mags needs to find some decent artillery to deliver our love note to that sodding cyborg.”
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Soon, Mags strolled out of The Queen Anne’s Revenge. In one hand she held her trusty Benelli shotgun. She had a pouch slung across her shoulder like a purse. In her other hand, she held Sarah’s. “Go on, dear. Join your friends.”
Sarah ran down the ramp. “Kala! I saw the ladder of life!”
Kala hugged her friend. “You saw what?”
“Listen up,” said Mags to the assembled crowd. “I just want to say you all did a bang-up job. Now you know why we run emergency evacuation drills! This could have been a whole lot worse. And hats off to Celina and Fuzz for leading the charge. Now I want you to do one more thing for me. Just stay here and keep your cool. I got a little surprise for that cast-iron robot bitch, and she ain’t gonna like it one bit.”
“You’re going to take her on all by yourself? She damn near killed me and Fuzz!”
“Yeah, Mags. At least let us help.”
“If you want to help, hand me that Faraday suit,” said Mags. “And then get the bloody fuck out of my way. That monster came out of my uterus, so I’m gonna be the one to send it to straight to hell!”
And with that, Meteor Mags and Patches left the hangar to hunt.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
“There she is, Patches.” Mags set her binoculars down. She lay on her stomach on a low ridge overlooking her shooting range. Below and a hundred meters away, her back facing them, Magbot tore jagged shards of metal from the various household appliances Mags used as targets. The cyborg shoved the scraps into her mouth. Her teeth sparked as she chewed and swallowed. Her body used the metal to heal from the earlier attack.
Patches meowed softly.
“Yeah. Bitch thinks she’s bad as fuck, eating a laundry machine. Well, I got something for her to chew on.” Mags had donned the Faraday suit but left the helmet open, hanging down the back of her neck. Celina had described to her the cyborg’s reaction to the suit’s mental controls. Mags realized she would only be warning the beast of her presence if she tried approaching while wearing the helmet.
She quietly brought the Benelli up to a firing position. “This is just going to piss her off, sweetie. But we need to get up close and personal to finish this. Cover your ears.”
Patches laid her head down on the rock. She placed her paws over her ears and closed her eyes.
Mags brought the cyborg into her sights. The Benelli roared like thunder. Within seconds, eight three-inch Magnum slugs pounded into Magbot’s center mass.
She fell forward into a dilapidated water heater. The bullets hammered her relentlessly. Every time she tried to move, another slug beat her down. Her respite came after the eighth round. She made a blood-curdling howl. A web of lightning bolts erupted from her metallic skin.
Mags beat her own personal speed record for reloading the Benelli. “Gotta have a soft spot in that armor somewhere, you bloody cunt. Come and get some!” As Magbot advanced toward the ridge, Mags aimed for her chest.
Again the shotgun blasted round after round. Finally, a slug caught the cyborg in her mouth. Magbot stumbled, gushing oily blood into the air. She screamed. Electric tendrils raced along the ground up to the ridge.
“If it can bleed, it can die.” She pulled the helmet over her face and sealed it. Then she reloaded the Benelli. She squeezed off another eight rounds, and then the lightning was upon her. Mags dropped the shotgun and tossed the rest of her shells far away from her. Magbot charged the ridge at full speed.
Where Celina had failed by trying to impose her will on the cyborg, Mags simply encouraged her rage. “Atta girl,” she said. “Come and get me!” As Magbot reached the base of the ridge, Mags leapt into the air. Lightning crackled up to meet her, blazing along the exterior of her suit. The sky burned.
“Raaawwrrr!” Mags landed full force on top of her foe. They tumbled to the ground together. Wrestling, they rolled over and over each other. Magbot came out on top. She poured waves of current at the object of her hatred.
From the pouch she had slung across the Faraday suit, Mags pulled out a capsule full of enzymes. She popped the top off with her thumb.
Then the cyborg’s hands closed around her throat. Magbot shook her violently. Mags’ head struck the asteroid’s unforgiving surface. Then again. The pain blinded her for a second. She gasped for breath but could not draw any air.
Then Patches leapt onto Magbot’s face. With her invincible claws, Patches tore at the cyborg’s eyes.
Magbot howled. She let go of Mags to clutch the calico demon with both hands. She tried to crush the cat, but failed. Patches swung her claws furiously. They dug long scratches in Magbot’s metal face. The cyborg clamped its razor-sharp teeth on Patches’ head, but Patches bit back.
Mags saw her opening. She pulled another capsule from her pouch, popped the top, and grabbed a fistful of cybernetic hair with her free hand. Holding tight, she jammed the capsule into Magbot’s open mouth. Then she slammed the flat of her hand into the cyborg’s face as hard as she could.
Magbot screamed. She fell off Mags, then scrambled to her feet. She held Patches prisoner with one hand.
Mags sprung up. She landed a roundhouse kick on Magbot’s ribcage. “Take your meds, bitch!”
Then Magbot unleashed the storm. As the eels had done in their trial run, she generated a massive field. The ground below her fused into glass.
Patches wailed a high-pitched feline scream. Her body thrashed wildly in Magbot’s grip.
“Patches!” Mags dove at the cyborg, tackling her, and took her to the ground. Metal squealed against rock as they slid across the expanding field of glass. The blow loosened Magbot’s grip. Patches’ body skidded across the asteroid, spasming out of control.
Magbot’s hands closed on Mags again, but their grip was weaker now. Mags pulled them away. She picked up a chunk of space rock and bashed Magbot in the face. The cyborg convulsed, its entire body racked with seizures. The enzymes did their work, destroying the cyborg from the inside, on the cellular level.
“Not so tough now, are you?” Mags grabbed her by the hair. She took the jagged point of the rock and drove it into the side of Magbot’s throat. A thick substance like blood and motor oil burst from the cyborg’s eyes and mouth. The tremors of a thousand earthquakes ran through her body. Her limbs flailed helplessly.
“Teach you to threaten my fucking friends!” She stomped the cyborg’s head in a rage, again and again.
Then the lightning vanished. The trembling ended. Mags stepped away. She peeled back the helmet of her suit.
“Right on, Patches. That’s how you take down a—Patches? Oh, no!”
Patches lay as still and silent as a corpse on the barren rock of Vesta 4.
“Oh, baby.” Mags knelt beside her calico cat and cried. She ran her hands over Patches, but she felt not a sign of life. Mags scooped up the still body and cradled it in her arms, rocking it gently back and forth. She looked up to the stars and said a silent prayer.
Then she carried Patches back to the hangar.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Celina, Fuzzlow, and Donny gathered around Mags. They stood at Fuzzlow’s workbench in the shop.
“I sure as hell hope this works,” he said.
Mags stood quietly, wiping a tear from her cheek.
“If Mags is right,” offered Donny, “it can’t hurt to try. If Patches can’t be injured, then she’s just been, like, shut down, you know?”
Fuzzlow agreed. “A massive disruption of the electrical signals in her brain, and to her muscles and organs. But if her organs are physically indestructible, then there’s a chance we just need to turn the juice back on. Are you sure you want to do this, Mags?”
She placed a hand on Patches’ inert body. Where normally she felt purring, Mags now felt nothing. “My baby kitten.” To one of Patches’ forepaws, Fuzzlow had lightly clamped a cable. A second cable affixed to her opposite hind paw. “All wired up like a bloody car battery.” Mags sniffed.
“We don’t have to do this,” Celina said. “We could just—”
“Just what? Give up?” Her face set in a mask of resolution. “Patches would never give up. Let’s fucking do this.”
“Alright. Stand back,” said Donny. “Mags?”
“I heard you.” She joined her friends in stepping away from the bench.
“Okay,” said Donny. “We’ve calibrated the power to that of a human defibrillator, about three hundred joules, and then stepped it back down according to Patches’ weight.” He placed his hand on a lever. “Here goes nothing.”
The lever clicked into place. A stream of electricity poured through Patches’ body. Her hair stood on end.
Suddenly, her eyes slammed open. Her pupils widened, contracted, and widened again. “Mrrrooowwwlll!” Patches sprung to her feet. She thrashed wildly, tugging at the cables.
“Donny!” Mags shouted. “Turn it off!”
Donny shoved the lever back to the off position. Patches furiously tore at the cables.
“It’s okay, kitten!” Mags rushed to her calico cat. She reached for the cable on Patches’ forepaw to unclamp it.
Patches hissed, clawing at the air.
“Chill, sweetie! Relax!”
Then Patches looked around and saw her friends. The last thing she knew, she had been fighting for her life. But now, she was surrounded with love. Patches held up her paw to Mags, who gently removed the cable. Patches shook it off. Then she rolled back on her hindquarters to bite at the cable on her back paw.
Celina laughed. “Feisty as ever!”
“That’s my girl,” said Mags, removing the second cable. She scooped up Patches in her arms. Walking over to Fuzzlow and Donny, she said, “You guys are the best. Thank you.” Then she kissed each of them on the cheek.
Patches meowed loudly.
Mags laughed and scruffed Patches’ hair, rubbing her ear. “Fine, dear! We’ll get you some beef jerky, pronto.” She kissed Patches on the top of her head. “You deserve it.”
“Donny! Good work, my man.”
Donny slapped Fuzzlow’s hand in a hearty high-five. “Shit, man. It was nothing. If you need your heavy equipment jump-started, just call a space miner!”
“Ex-space miner,” Fuzzlow said. “You’re stuck playing sax with us for the rest of your goddamn life.”
Donny grinned. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Mags watched her mates celebrate. “All’s well that ends well, as my adorable nephew likes to say.” Then a cold grimace fell across her face. “But there’s one more thing we need to do. Celina? Would you come with me, please?”
Then she stormed out the door.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
Patches happily chomped on bits of dehydrated beef and kibble at her bowl in Mags’ room. Quite satisfied, she licked her chops. She ran a paw over her face, licking the side of it and running it over her face again from ear to cheek.
“I can’t even imagine how horrible it must have been,” said Celina. “I mean, that cyborg was practically your baby.”
“That fucking monster wasn’t any baby of mine. Let’s finish this job. Cover me.”
Celina stood to one side of the black case on the floor. She held Mags’ Benelli shotgun, loaded with three-inch slugs. “Careful, wagtail.”
“Not a word in my vocabulary, dear.” She brought the back of an axe head down on the lock panel Celina had shorted out earlier. The broken electronics fell to the floor. Mags adjusted her grip on the axe handle and kicked open the case.
As if sensing her presence, the eels’ eyes glowed red.
“Fucking bastards!” Mags swung the axe down, chopping an eel in half. “I loved you!” She swung it again, hacking open the second eel. “I trusted you!” She swung the axe again. The mangled pieces of the eels writhed and sparked. “And this is how you fucking repay me?” She swung the axe again and again with all her might.
At some point, Celina lowered the shotgun. She could tell it would not be necessary. She watched as Mags chopped the eels into tiny chunks, smashing them, obliterating them in a barrage of hatred.
Eventually, they stopped sparking. But Celina knew better than to tell Mags to stop. She let her friend take as long as she needed.
When her rage was sated, Mags turned away, with her back to Celina.
But by the shaking of her shoulders, Celina knew Mags wept. She could not have known what transpired between Mags and her eels in the darkness. But she had known Mags a long time. She knew Mags’ secret loneliness. And perhaps these evil cybernetic weapons, in their own way, had meant something special to her unique and wonderful friend.
At last Mags turned to face her. Without speaking a word, she knew her best friend understood. “Thank you, Celina.” Mags sniffed, then brushed her white bangs back from her forehead. “Now help me wheel this case to the bloody incinerator.”
And that was the last of the eels.
★ ○•♥•○ ★
That night, Celina and Fuzzlow sat next to each other on the bed in her room. Tesla had happily returned to napping on her padded chair. His paws kneaded the fabric.
Fuzzlow strummed power chords on an acoustic guitar. “It’s in F sharp minor,” he said, “but Mags will probably want to sing it in a different key.”
“Sing it for me,” said Celina. “What’s it called?”
“The End of Love.”
“What a cheerful little title.”
“Yeah, but—just listen.”
She had dimmed the lights and set out candles. Shadows and flames flickered on the walls. Fuzzlow closed his eyes and sang, picking the guitar with incessant, driving eighth notes.
Let them burn their bridges
Let them run inside
They can never touch this love of mine
Let them hide in shadow boxes
Hanging from a rope
They can never desecrate our hope
Don’t believe them when they say
This is the end
This is the end of love today
Celina stared into the candle’s shimmering light. She had known Mags longer than anyone alive. She knew her resilient friend would be okay, eventually. But Fuzzlow’s song captured something not many people understood about her friend: that sense of infinite love, yet always tinged with so many loves lost. Celina placed her hand on Fuzzlow’s leg. He sang the next verse, and she smiled.
Make me a promise lover
Make it one you mean
Will you come and watch me while I dream
We are safe together
In our eternal place
We can disappear without a trace
Don’t believe them when they say
Don’t believe them, baby
Don’t believe them when they say
This is the end
This is the end of love today
Fuzzlow stretched out the last line. He ended it by slowly arpeggiating the F sharp minor chord. He let it linger in the candlelight. The vibrations from his guitar soaked into the night and faded away. “So,” he said. “What do you think?”
“I think the next Psycho 78s album is going to be the greatest fucking thing ever recorded.”
“Better than all the Electric Moon albums put together?”
Celina stood up from the bed. “A million times better.” She unbuttoned her blouse and threw it to the floor. “Now. Sing it to me one more time, lover.”
★ ○•♥•○ ★
EPILOGUE: BANNED AND BEAUTIFUL
Kaufman hated calling Earth. He drummed his fingers on his desk. He slapped it with his palm. He stood up to pace back and forth.
The distance between Mars and Earth led to pauses in any real-time conversation as the signals traveled back and forth. Depending on where the planets were in their orbits, a brief conversation could take all afternoon. Kaufman would have preferred to simply exchange data files and go about his business. But even as head of the Port Authority for the Martian Warehousing Zone, he had superiors who demanded his compliance on certain formalities.
The files on his tablet were perfectly clear. Meteor Mags had been moved to the top of the list of known criminals in the System. An amendment to The Musical Freedoms Act had effectively banned her from all locations in the Belt and the Martian Warehousing Zone. The amendment criminalized possession of any images or recordings of her, and it authorized the termination of all violators of this ban. Finally, all citizens had been granted provisional authority to terminate her under any circumstances, with a sizeable reward at stake.
Earth had declared open season on Meteor Mags.
At last, the response came. “Good, Kaufman. So you have read the orders on file and understood them. We need full cooperation from the MWZ on this, and you may need to redirect your resources appropriately. This is priority number one now. Vesta 4 is simply too large a mining opportunity to let it go to waste due to the interference of a known felon. We will no longer tolerate piracy within the Belt. This operation will send a clear message that Earth is willing to fully commit to eradicating such interference. We will be sending a team from the MFA to assist you in all organizational aspects of these orders. Please give the team all due courtesy. Understood?”
A series of beeps signaled the end of the transmission.
Off-camera, Kaufman rolled his eyes. They certainly did like to talk, he thought. Then he sat down at his desk and opened the transmission channel. “Understood, sir. We look forward to having such distinguished guests. The Port Authority is at your disposal. Kaufman out.” He pressed send before returning to his pacing.
Kaufman no longer had any doubts his corrupt superiors were in league with the dragons. The Belt was littered with countless asteroids known to have far more profitable mining potential than Vesta 4. And though acts of piracy, such as the ones his covert tips had helped Meteor Mags carry out these past few years, did place a financial burden on the Martian Warehousing Zone, the cost paled in comparison to that of carrying out a major military strike within the Belt. That left only one good reason for these new orders.
“Very good, Kaufman,” came the response. “Transmission complete.”
He shut off his transmitter. Commander Cragg had not threatened him and his son in months, but the dragons’ activities in the Outer Planets continued unabated. Kaufman’s intelligence network had informed him of several raids the dragons had carried out on Earth, and their buildup of force showed no signs of slowing down. Where then, he wondered, was Cragg? Had the awful beast died in one of the conflicts rumored to have taken place beyond the Belt? Were he and his son finally free of the reptile’s interference in their lives?
Kaufman rubbed the bridge of his nose between his thumb and fingers. Closing his eyes, he thought of the last time he had seen Meteor Mags. She had danced so incredibly. He had woken up more than once dreaming of her star-covered body. She had spoken to him in trust, as a friend, and then single-handedly taken out an entire bar of degenerate space miners. Well, he thought, not single-handedly. She also had that adorable calico cat she traveled with now. And the boy she called her nephew.
Kaufman made his decision. He had to see her again. He had to warn Meteor Mags of the impending attack. But first, he needed to get his son to safety.