Rings of Ceres: Part Two

What follows is the draft of the conclusion to the 16th episode in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. It’s called Rings of Ceres, and if you were irresponsibly slacking on keeping up with this saga, then go read the bloody first part right now.

PART TWO: THE TUNNEL

The day of the tornado, Tinta and Jeremy closed their tattoo shop to take lunch down the street at Basket Brew, which the locals called Casket Crew on account of the sleeping arrangements the establishment provided. Above the ground-level café rose three stories filled with the Belt’s inexpensive answer to hotel rooms: slotboxes.

Jeremy had rented one before he met Tinta, and hoped he would never spend another night in the tiny enclosures. Barely large enough for their occupants to sit up straight, slotboxes were efficient without being comfortable, affordable without being humane, and generally a sign of the economic despair awaiting anyone who did not own a shop or a stake in the mining corporations. Their nickname “caskets” owed as much to their coffin-sized spaces as it did to the high rate of suicide among their occupants.

Still, the coffee at Basket Brew was the best in the neighborhood, and the shop’s Vietnamese hot and sour soup was legendary among laborers: tasty, filling, and remarkably cheap. Jeremy and Tinta often split a quart for lunch.

“Not as good as Slim’s at Below the Belt,” said Tinta, “but still the best damn meal on Ceres.” She poured half the quart into Jeremy’s bowl. The scent of garlic and chili rode the warm steam.

“A million times better than the greasy slop at Red Hot Rod’s,” Jeremy commented. The young man did not recall his former employer fondly, and not a day went by without his offering a silent prayer of thanks to Meteor Mags for murdering the bastard.

Tinta slurped a bit of soup from her spoon, testing the heat. “Their turducken wings were pretty awesome though.”

“Don’t even get me started on those goddamn things.”

“Hate much?”

“Only when I’m conscious.” He was about to take a sip of coffee when the klaxons went off. The mechanical scream startled him. He dropped his cup.

As it fell to the floor, Tinta sprang to her feet. The cup shattered into dozens of porcelain fragments, punctuating her exclamation. “We’ve got to get out of here! Come on, Jeremy!” She ran for the door and flung it open. What she saw stopped her cold.

Panic among the patrons turned the restaurant into a mass of chaos. Jeremy pushed through to join Tinta just outside the doorway. The sky’s sickening green darkened into blackness on the horizon.

The temperature dropped along with the air pressure. Jeremy’s stomach churned, and his ears popped. His hand found Tinta’s shoulder. “What the fuck is that?” The vague darkness swirled into a well-defined funnel, then a whole series of them.

“Tornados,” Tinta shouted. “We need to take cover!” She grabbed his hand and pulled him through the sea of escaping bodies and back into the café. Just as one of the funnels hit the building, they dove under the bar. “Cover your head!”

If she said anything else, the next few moments’ loudness prevented Jeremy from hearing. Jeremy’s life on Ceres had been one of constant abuse, and his coworkers at Rod’s had yelled in his face more times than he cared to remember. But nothing compared to the roar which filled his ears, its humiliating reminder of his smallness, and its judgment of him as less than nothing.

Only Tinta’s quick thinking and choice of hiding spot saved the couple. The tornado devastated the building like it did every other building on the street. Few of the sleepers in the slotboxes awoke in time to seek shelter. Trapped in their pre-made coffins, hundreds died when the tornado brought the building to its knees and bludgeoned it into submission. Their corpses filled the rubble which came crashing down around Tinta and Jeremy.

Those patrons who made it into the street fared no better. The monstrous storm picked them up, tore them to pieces, and scattered their remains across the Ceresian wilderness where it continued its advance.

In the wake of the funnel’s passing, silence fell. Here and there, it was broken by groans and screams of the few it had not slaughtered. These agonies filled Tinta’s and Jeremy’s ears as they dug themselves out from under the bar. It was no small task, and Jeremy could not track the hours it took. Like a threatened animal, he lost all sense of time and only thought of survival. Tinta’s reassurances kept him digging.

By the time the two emerged, Jeremy’s adrenaline wore off, and he felt little fight left in him. But as soon as she made sure the young man was relatively unhurt, Tinta was on her feet, rushing to each body in the pile of debris. She checked for any sign of life. Where she found it, she promised the suffering people she would get them help.

It was the last thing most of them would ever hear.

Jeremy followed her lead. Together, they pulled half a dozen people from the rubble. The dead surrounded them, accompanied by whimpers of those too weak and broken to walk. Despair took root in Jeremy’s heart. If not for Tinta, he would have succumbed to it. Her hand was on his shoulder.

“We can help the survivors,” she said. “Come on. We’ve got to get back to the shop.”

She took his hand, and they made their way down the street. They climbed over jagged masses of concrete and steel fallen in the road. Small fires burned in abandoned vehicles and shattered storefronts. Twisted carcasses wedged in debris stared at them with bulging eyes. Jeremy had never believed in hell. Until then.

Eventually, they stood before a broken sign sticking out of the crumbling remains of her tattoo and body modification shop. Half the sign read, in elegant script, Tinta. The other half, all but obscured by regolith, read Extraterrestre.

Alien Ink. Her dream of opening the shop sustained Tinta through four years of rebuilding her spirit and her life. Penniless and friendless at age seventeen, she trained as a dancer for two years with Meteor Mags on Vesta. She transferred to Slim’s club where she saved her money to open her own shop. Tinta Extraterrestre afforded her a comfortable, though not luxurious, income for two years.

Jeremy joined her in early 2029 after his encounter with Mags left him with a dead boss and a pocket full of stolen cash. He originally hoped Tinta would fill in the unfinished star tattoos on his arms. He never dreamed she would offer him an apprenticeship, nor that she would become his closest, if not only, friend.

Such were their memories as they beheld the wreckage of their home. Jeremy wanted to bury his face in Tinta’s embrace, but had she not lost so much more than he?

“Tinta,” he said.

She wiped away fresh tears. Tinta had not known such utterly bleak circumstances since she first met Mags in 2025. Jeremy’s voice pulled her from a reverie which could only spiral downward into hopelessness. “Jeremy,” she replied, as if his name were enough. She turned away from the pile of crushed ambitions to hold him.

Six years his senior and quite a bit taller, Tinta held him. She trembled for a moment unmeasured by any clock or human reckoning. Then she sought his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I’m—I don’t know. Of course not.” He felt ashamed for being frightened. “Are you?”

“Not really.”

“Tinta, what the fuck happened? I haven’t seen anything like that since my parents dragged me off Earth. Rest their souls.”

“Neither have I,” said Tinta. “This shit is beyond fucked up.”

“It’s all destroyed,” said Jeremy. “We lost everything!” His composure crumbled.

She took his hand in hers. “Not everything.”

Above the man-made atmosphere, the artificial Ceresian gravity spun the funnels’ ejections of water and wreckage of the asteroid civilization into rings no human eyes had ever beheld. Ice crystals formed a monumental, gleaming crescent in the sky. Jeremy knew exactly what she meant.

“No,” he said. “Not everything.”

That was the first time they kissed.

Coughing from the shop’s remnants interrupted them, followed by a weak, “Help. Help me.”

Tinta pulled away from Jeremy. “Someone’s trapped in there. Come on!” She ran for the pile of stones and metal. “I hear you,” she called out. “Keep talking so I can find you!”

“There’s a beam on top of me. I can’t get out!”

“Keep talking,” Tinta ordered. “I need to find you.”

Jeremy tossed aside any piece of rubble he could lift. “Under there!” He pointed to a wooden beam sticking out from a ragged heap.

The coughing came again.

“Cover your face with something,” Tinta shouted. “Don’t breathe the dust! Use your shirt if you can.”

“My leg is pinned! I can’t move!”

“We’ll get you out. Hang on.” Tinta and Jeremy continued digging. “Careful, Jeremy. We don’t want this heap to collapse.”

Their efforts revealed a girl huddled in a black leather jacket with her hands over her head and her shirt pulled up to cover her nose and mouth. She was as grey and brown as the Ceresian landscape, covered in regolith and dust from the building’s destruction. A piece of the collapsed roof created a tiny shelter protecting her from the fallen wreckage.

Jeremy raised his voice. “I see you! Can you move now?”

“My leg,” the girl replied. “I can’t get it free!”

Tinta called down into the rocky alcove. “Are you hurt?”

“Like a motherfucker! I think my ankle’s broken. It’s trapped under this goddamn beam!”

Tinta and Jeremy kept removing rubble until the girl was pinned only by the beam and a massive chunk of the wall holding it to the ground at its base.

“Fuck,” said Jeremy. “How are we supposed to move that?”

“Let me think.” Tinta covered her face with her hand and closed her eyes for a moment. She rubbed her forehead in concentration. Silently, she asked herself, “What would Mags do?”

Shooting people and blowing things up did not seem like useful options. But the young woman had studied mathematics under Meteor Mags, and no one could ask for a better teacher in that field. “I know what we need. ‘Give me a place to stand and lever long enough, and I can move the fuckin’ planet’. Archimedes.”

“Arka what?”

“Just help me find something we can wedge under that rock. Something long and sturdy.”

The young man sifted through the rubble until he found a wooden 2×4, three meters long, that was once part of the shop’s interior wall. He pried it free and presented it to Tinta. “How’s this?”

“Perfect.” Tinta moved a stone into place, reconsidered its location, and moved it again. “This is your fulcrum. Wedge the end of your 2×4 under that chunk on the end of the beam, then rest it on the fulcrum. When I give you the word, pull down as hard as you can. I’ll take care of moving the beam.”

Jeremy did as she instructed, but the trapped girl was not so confident.

She yelled, “Don’t you drop that fucking thing on me!”

“We’ll do our best,” Tinta replied. “Cover your head just in case.”

“That is so reassuring.”

“What’s your name, dear?”

“Jinx.”

“I’m Tinta. Jeremy’s helping me. Now please, cover your head and don’t move until you feel the weight come off your leg. Then get the hell out from under there.”

“You’re not going to kill me, are you?”

Jeremy said, “Not if we can help it. Get ready!” At a cue from Tinta, he pulled down on his lever as hard as he could.

His skinny muscles bulged. He clenched his jaw. His face contorted in a mask of frustration. The stone refused to move.

Tinta called out, “Put your back into it, Jeremy!”

“It’s too heavy!”

“No, it isn’t!” Tinta cursed under her breath. “Are you going to let that piece of shit tell you what’s possible? Or me? You can do this!”

Jeremy stepped away. He rotated his neck and cracked several vertebrae into place. He slapped his palms together and rubbed them vigorously. He stepped up to the lever and again gripped it with both hands.

Jeremy had spent most of his life being picked on, so much so that he had, for years, believed the insults and degradations people heaped on him. Until he met Meteor Mags and Tinta, no one ever believed he would amount to anything. Confidence was not his strong point.

But in that moment, at Tinta’s command, he reached a decision. I can do this, he thought. No one can stop me.

He pulled the lever down with all the strength he could muster. When it was not enough, he thought of the anger he bottled up his entire life. He imagined his years at the restaurant, and the abuse from his boss, coworkers, and customers. He thought of everyone who told him he was worthless and insignificant.

The savage roar from his throat might as well have come from a wild animal. The rock moved a centimeter, then two, and Jeremy’s hateful noise blasted the Ceresian street. Suddenly, the rock tumbled away as if it were nothing.

As quick as lightning, Tinta lifted the beam.

Jinx scrambled for freedom. She pulled herself along the dusty shop floor by her arms. “I’m out!”

Jeremy kicked the lever away from its fulcrum. “Bitch,” he said to it, wiping his face with the back of his sleeve, “don’t ever tell me what I can’t do.”

Tinta released the beam. It fell back onto the stones in a puff of regolith. “That’s the spirit.”

Jinx pulled up her pants leg to reveal her ankle. “Oh, fuck.” It was swollen to twice the size of the other, covered in a bruise that extended up her shin. She tried to get to her feet, but when she put weight on that leg, she cried out in pain.

Tinta was instantly at her side, supporting her and lowering her to a seated position. “Let me look at it.”

“Don’t touch it,” said Jinx. “Goddamn, that hurts.”

“I can’t tell if it’s a broken or just badly sprained. Jeremy, can you find something she can use as a crutch?”

“On it.”

“We need to do something before it gets infected,” said Tinta. “What happened to you?”

“I was outside your shop, waiting for it to open, when the tornado appeared. I smashed out the window and got inside. Then the building started falling apart. I got knocked off balance, and everything came down on me.”

“Sit tight for now.” Tinta put her hands on her hips. “There’s a safe place we can get first aid supplies, but the door is buried.” She picked a spot on the ground and began digging.

Jeremy brought the girl a shorter 2×4 and wrapped his shirt around one end. “Best I can do.”

Jinx eyed it skeptically, until his tattoos drew her attention. “You got a lotta stars, dude.”

“Yep.”

“You, uh, you ever hear of Meteor Mags?”

Jeremy laughed. “Are you a fan?”

Jinx brushed the dust from the front of her leather jacket to reveal a Psycho 78s patch. “What do you think?”

“Right on.”

“I’m gonna be in band, too, some day.”

“Yeah? What do you play?”

“Drums. I haven’t had a decent kit since landing on this hell hole. Just a pad. Pots and pans. A frickin’ bucket. Whatever I can practice on, you know?”

Tinta called Jeremy over to help. Together, they unearthed a door in the floor.

Jeremy asked, “How did I never notice this before?”

“It was under the rug. My little secret.” She brushed regolith away from a panel and placed her palm flat against it. She pulled open the door to reveal a dimly lit entrance to a subterranean tunnel. “Can you help lower Jinx? I’ll go down the ladder first and help from inside.”

“Ladder? Where does this go?”

“Down,” she said. “I’ll explain on the way.”

Together, they lowered Jinx into the tunnel’s interior. Jeremy shut the door behind them. An electronic lock sealed it. Strips of LEDs on stone walls offered the only cheer in the dusty gloom.

“Looks real nice, for a tomb,” said Jinx. “Fire the decorator.”

“For real,” said Jeremy. He supported Jinx with one arm. Together, they awkwardly limped behind Tinta.

“It gets better,” Tinta promised. “Just ahead is a room with everything we need: food, water, first aid. Most importantly, a broadcaster.”

Jeremy was too grateful to be offended she kept this secret from him. He gently teased her anyway. “How come you never told me about your hobby of planning for the zombie apocalypse?”

Tinta laughed with a little snort.

“Made you snort.”

“Shut up, you. A lady’s allowed her secrets, especially when she associates with known criminals.” She swept her hand through the stark white glow which hung in the air. “Mags had all this built after the concert riots in 2027. If I had to guess, I’d say she’s got a ton of hideaways scattered through the Belt. Not that she’d tell anyone. But this isn’t our final destination.”

They came to a door set into the wall. Tinta pressed her palm and fingers flat against a panel, and the door swung open. “Make yourselves at home.”

Jinx plopped down on a thin mattress supported by a metal frame. “What’s there to drink?”

Jeremy opened the refrigerator. “Holy shit.” Bottles of Kraken spiced black rum filled most of the top shelf, with an assortment of canned fruit juices. Gallon jugs of water filled the middle shelf. “Looks like we got water and piña coladas.”

“I’ll take one of each,” said Jinx.

“Same here,” said Tinta. She sat at a console which took up the better part of one wall.

Jeremy took bottles, cans, and jugs to Jinx, set them on the mattress beside her, and sat so the drinks were between them. He cracked open a can of pineapple juice.

Jinx eyed him disparagingly. “Dude. Glasses?”

“Right.” He got up and opened a pantry door which rose from floor to ceiling. It held a shelf of glasses and plates, and multiple shelves of dried and canned food. He took a glass to Tinta first.

“Dude,” she said. “Ice?”

Jinx said, “Your boyfriend doesn’t host a lotta parties, does he?”

“He learns fast. Jeremy, we need ice for her leg, too. See if there’s a bucket we can fill.” While Jeremy got the drinks together, Tinta turned on the equipment and brought up a display on a monitor. The split screen showed feeds from two cameras: one inside a cave, and one outside pointed at the cave’s entrance.

Jeremy handed her a glass full of ice, rum, and juice. “What is that?”

“It’s how we’re getting off this rock, I hope. Mags uses this cave as a hangar when she comes here on ‘business’. It’s past the edge of the city. Hopefully it wasn’t buried by the tornado.” As her fingers moved over the controls, the cameras swept their scenes. The external one revealed little to Jeremy, since a holographic projection masked the cavern’s entrance.

Tinta knew what she was looking for. Boulders partially blocked the hidden entrance, but they left room for a medium-sized ship such as the Queen Anne. “It looks clear enough,” she said. “Let’s put out the distress call.”

She gripped the microphone. “Mags, some kind of freak storm hit Ceres. I’ve got no fucking idea what it was, but the shop is totally destroyed. There are people lying dead in the streets, and the cities are leveled. When you get this, Mags, we could really use your help. Meet me at the cave like we used to. Love you.”

She released the microphone. “It could be a while before she gets that. In the meantime, we’re not sitting here with our thumbs in our asses. Jeremy, gather those canned goods. As many as you can carry. We’re headed back to the surface.” Tinta did not lose a second piling medical supplies into a backpack.

Jeremy watched her in amazement. “Headed back?” Like a vehicle on autopilot, he pulled cans from the shelves and stacked them in a crate.

“That’s what I said. Jinx, I found some antibiotics and pain relievers.” She handed the girl two plastic bottles. “They’ll have to do for now. Jeremy and I will be back soon enough.”

“What if you aren’t?”

Jeremy wondered the same thing, but he kept filling the crate. He discovered, in the bottom of the pantry, a box of grenades, pistols, and ammunition. He considered Tinta’s aversion to firearms as he picked up a grenade and read the text printed on it: Grenade. Hand. Offensive. MK3A2. That sounded useful. He quietly slipped one into each of his pants pockets.

“Then go on without us,” said Tinta. “Follow this tunnel to the end. When you meet Mags, tell her what happened.”

“I want to meet her,” said Jinx, “but not like that.”

Tinta set down her backpack and took the girl’s face in both hands. “We’ll be fine,” she said. “But if we aren’t, then we need Mags’ help. Will you do it for me?”

The fear in Jinx’s eyes solidified into resolve at Tinta’s touch. “Yes. And goddess forgive anyone who gets in our way.”

Tinta kissed the girl’s forehead. “I couldn’t have said it better myself. We’ll be back before you know it.”

***

For the second time since the tornado hit, dusk settled on the road between the café and the shop. At the far end of the street, half a kilometer past Basket Brew, a four-wheeled utility vehicle rumbled to a stop. The driver said, “Looks like wreckage all the way from here. We need to go on foot.”

Of his two companions, the male spoke first. “Rhys, what the hell do ya think we’ll find out here, anyway? It’s all blown to hell and back.”

“Fer fuck’s sake,” said Layla. “Quit yer bitchin’, Owen. I knew we should have left ya behind.”

“A right cunt is what you are. Of all the people who had to survive that shitstorm—”

“Mates,” said Rhys, snapping the bolt on his rifle into place, “as much as I enjoy your witty repartee, please shut the fuck up. There’s gotta be something out here we can salvage. Water, propane, anything. We won’t find it sitting on our arses at HQ, will we?”

“What’s left of it,” said Layla. “Oi, I know this place up ahead. Casket Crew. Shite restaurant with slotboxes over it. They’d have food and water. Maybe fuel.”

Rhys said, “Let’s do a little shopping.”

He led the party through the devastation to where the café once stood. With weapons drawn, each of them poked through the ruins.

“I got a live one,” called Owen. “Over here.”

An elderly woman lying in the rubble stretched out her hand to him. “Help me.”

“Aye, ya old bint. We came all this way just ta help yer sorry arse.”

Layla stepped up and shoved a rifle barrel in the woman’s face. “What do ya got? Food? Anything to eat?”

A wide-eyed look of horror was the woman’s only response.

“Speak up, slag! We don’t got all night!”

“She don’t know nothin’,” said Rhys. He placed his rifle to her chest and pulled the trigger. “Useless slut. Let’s dig around.”

They did, until the crunch of boots on crumbled stone alerted them.

“Someone’s coming,” Owen whispered.

Atop a pile of rubble, Tinta and Jeremy appeared.

“Hold it right there!” Rhys sprayed the air over their heads with a burst of semi-automatic rifle fire.

Tinta and Jeremy dropped to cower on the stones.

“Come on down nice and easy,” Rhys hollered. “No one needs to get hurt.”

Layla said, “They don’t look armed. What have they got?”

“We’ll find out right quick.” Rhys called to the couple, “Nice and easy, mates! That’s right. Come on down where we can see ya. There ya go.”

Jeremy carried his crate of supplies and food. Tinta kept her hands in sight until she saw the elderly woman’s body.

“What did you do?” She raised her voice. “We came to help! What did you do?”

“Now, now,” said Rhys. “No use cryin’ over that old bird. We just put her out of her misery is all.”

“You fucking animals!”

Layla’s rifle trained on Tinta’s central mass. “Keep a civil tongue in yer head, dearie. Lest ya wanna join her. Now hand over that backpack.”

Rhys ordered, “Owen, get this laddie’s box of goodies.” As his crew relieved Jeremy and Tinta of their crate and backpack, Rhys asked, “Ya mind tellin’ us where ya got all this?”

“It’s everything we have,” Tinta lied. “We came to help. I promised the survivors—”

“Promises, promises,” said Rhys.

“If it’s all they have,” said Layla, “let’s just ice ‘em right now.”

“Wait,” said Jeremy. “I used to work here. I still have a key to the storage cellar.”

“That’s right helpful of ya,” said Rhys. “Why don’t ya hand it over to me lady, then?”

Owen held Jeremy’s crate with both hands. Layla stepped up but kept her rifle barrel out of Jeremy’s reach.

“It’s right here,” said Jeremy, easing his hand into his pants pocket. “Just don’t shoot me!”

Layla scoffed. “He’s a nervous little git.”

Rhys said, “I think the boy’s sweet on ya, Lay. Get the goddamn keys.”

Without breaking eye contact with Layla, Jeremy pulled a grenade from his pocket and yanked the pin. “Here you go.” He tossed it underhand. It landed in Owen’s crate.

Jeremy tackled Tinta. They hit the ground a second before the explosion.

The MK3A2 differed from a typical frag grenade. It killed with concussive force, not shrapnel, and its lethal range rarely exceeded two meters. It made short work of the crate and blasted Owen to kingdom come. It knocked Layla to the ground and inflicted wounds she would die from momentarily. It scared the hell out of Rhys, whose random blasts of rifle fire echoed down the street.

Under cover of smoke and confusion, Jeremy and Tinta scrambled to their feet and ran. Behind them: screams and gunshots. The couple found cover in the urban hellscape.

Tinta said, “Jeremy, where did you—”

“Stay down,” he snapped at her. “I’ve got one more!”

He took out the second grenade, pulled the pin, and threw it.

Silence followed its explosion. No gunfire. No shouting.

Jeremy panted for breath. His heart pounded. “I found them in the pantry.” He stammered. “I—I didn’t want to say anything. I know you don’t like—”

Her hand found his cheek. “Jeremy. It’s okay.”

He trembled. “I killed them, Tinta.”

“It’s okay, Jeremy.”

He took a deep breath, and another, but his heart kept racing. “Right. I just—”

He pulled away from her and rose to his full height. He faced the direction in which he had thrown the second grenade. In a voice Tinta had never heard him use before, the young man yelled down the street. “You want a fuckin’ piece of me, motherfuckers?!” He beat his chest with one fist. “I will fuck you up!”

Only a silently swirling cloud of regolith answered him.

His chest heaved. He clenched and unclenched his fists.

“Jeremy, relax. It’s over.”

His eyes darted this way and that until he felt calm enough to meet hers. “I’m sorry, Tinta.”

She gave him a smile and mussed his hair. “Little man? You surprise me sometimes.”

He flashed an embarrassed grin she found oddly endearing. “I blew up all the shit we brought to help people.”

“That you did. Why don’t we head back? This mission is a wash. Are you good?”

He considered. “You know?” He attempted to brush his front clear of dirt and dust but only left sweaty, gritty streaks all over himself. “I am.”

They made their way back to the tunnel’s entrance without incident and descended the ladder. The door crashed into place above Jeremy and spilled a cloud of grey dust. Jeremy coughed. “My fucking lungs.”

In the underground bunker, Jinx’s condition had not improved. She sprawled listlessly on the mattress. Her injured leg dangling over the side, soaking her ankle in a bucket of mostly melted ice.

“She really should have that ankle elevated,” said Tinta. “Let’s pack a few things before we wake her. We’ve got a ways to go, and I don’t know when Mags will get that message.”

They found a pair of backpacks and loaded them with food and water. Jeremy stuffed a bottle of Kraken rum into his.

“Jinx,” he said, lightly shaking her shoulder. “We need to get moving. Can you stand?”

Her eyes opened. She waved him away. “I can do it.” She grasped the makeshift crutch and forced herself up. “Fuck. Tell Mags to put some proper crutches in her secret zombie bunkers. How did it go up there?”

“Not good,” said Tinta. “It’s only getting worse. Jeremy did great, though.” She patted his shoulder.

The trio slowly made its way down the tunnel. LEDs mounted every meter on each side of the wall lit the way. “Power’s out all around us,” Jeremy observed. “We’re lucky.”

“Hardly,” said Tinta. “Mags doesn’t believe in luck, and she’s all about getting off the grid. She wouldn’t settle for anything less than a totally independent power source.”

Jinx asked, “How far do we have to go?”

“It’s about six kilometers,” said Tinta.

“What the actual fuck!”

Tinta shrugged. “It’s why the landing point is so choice. When Mags wants to go incognito, she doesn’t fuck arou—”

An explosion obliterated her sentence. All three of them fell to the floor. With hardly a pause, a second blast rocked the tunnel. Shards of the stone ceiling crumbled and fell. Darkness enveloped the trio.

Tinta called out, “Are you okay?”

Jeremy groaned. “My knee. Goddamnit!”

“Lost my crutch.” Jinx felt around for it in the dark. The lights came on, then went off, then flickered weakly as if they could not make up their minds. “The fuck was that?”

“Sounded like a bomb going off,” said Jeremy.

“Could be petrol tanks exploding,” said Tinta. “Or a building collapsing.”

The trio huddled in the flickering dust clouds, coughing and covering their faces.

“Maybe it’s more corporate death squads,” said Jeremy, “like the one we ran into.”

Jinx asked, “You ran into what?!”

“They weren’t very organized,” said Tinta. “Just random scavengers. Please be calm.”

Jinx pulled a plastic bottle from her jacket pocket. “I’m as calm as a fucking cucumber on a morphine drip.” She swallowed a painkiller.

The lights came back on and stayed steady. Jinx found her crutch and dragged herself to her feet. “Can we just keep going?”

***

Plutonian’s ship entered the cavern through the holographic wall and settled on a flat spot. Mags stepped out. Patches, fresh from grooming her coat clean, leapt down beside her.

The smuggler gathered Tinta in her embrace. “Got your message, dear. And Jeremy. Just look how you’ve grown.” She practically crushed the young man in a bear hug. “Tinta told me you joined her shop.”

“I took your advice,” he said. “Got away from Rod’s and found a way better job.”

“Best job you could have on this bloody asteroid, little man. I see you got your star tatts filled in.”

“Tinta helped.”

“She does brilliant work. Who’s the new kid?”

As if waking from a dream, Jinx said, “Meteor fuckin’ Mags. I can’t believe it.”

“Live and in the flesh.” Mags struck a pose with her arms outstretched and a wide smile. “What’s your name?”

“Jinx.”

“Lucky name.” Mags knelt before the huddled girl and offered her hand. Jinx grasped it. “Love your jacket. Just call me Mags. This little firebrand is—”

“Patches,” said Jinx. “She was on your poster for the Ceres concert.”

“Goddamn right!” Mags’ eyes twinkled. Her calico companion scratched gouges in the stony cavern floor. “Glad to know someone’s been paying attention.”

“Are you okay?” Tinta asked. “You’re covered in blood!”

“Ah, it isn’t mine. Are you ready to blow this hell hole?”

“Yes, we’re leaving,” said Tinta, “but I’m coming back with a ship and supplies. People are wounded, starving, their homes destroyed and—”

Mags set her hand on Tinta’s shoulder. “Listen. We will get help for them. I’m already working on it. But we’re not sending anyone in an unarmed ship like this one. Patches and I came straight here from a bloody riot! People are raging out there. They’ll tear you apart if you just show up with transportation. You need crowd control.”

Tinta glared. “I’m not shooting people.”

“Who said anything about shooting them? I’m talking about your safety. You don’t want to end up like Holly.”

“Who’s Holly?”

Mags pulled out a pack of stolen smokes and slapped it against her palm three times. “Holly was a friend of mine on Earth. She had her own construction business. When Hurricane Katrina fucked up New Orleans, she went to help rebuild. You know what happened to her?”

Mags lit a cigarette in the silent response and exhaled tobacco smoke into the cavern. “She ran into some looters, and they shot her in the head. Splattered her brains all over the fuckin’ sidewalk—and that was the end of Holly. Don’t think for a second your altruistic motives mean a goddamn thing to people driven mad by desperation. They will kill you just as soon as someone who deserves it.”

“I’m sorry about your friend,” said Tinta.

“Me too,” said Mags. “I miss her every day. As much as my heart breaks for these people, I’m not sending you back here on a suicide mission. You won’t be helping anyone if you get yourself killed.”

“Let’s just go,” said Tinta. “Jinx?” The young woman found her new friend had drifted off to sleep. “She’s been through hell. Jeremy, can you help me get her on the—”

“I got her,” said Mags. She scooped up Jinx in her arms. “Is she sick?”

“She might have an infection,” said Tinta. “Her ankle is all kinds of fucked up.”

“I’ll put her in Plutonian’s cabin,” said Mags. “She can sleep there.” Mags cradled Jinx, who radiated a feverish heat. “You poor thing. Let’s take you home.”

***

Mags steered the ship until the Ceresian atmosphere faded and stars blossomed in the sky. Through the portal, the rings of Ceres came into stark relief, highlighted by the distant sun and framed by the endless blackness of the Belt. They carved a wide, circular swath around the dwarf planet, and their orbit held more than ice.

“Just look at that.” Mags’ chest bounced with laughter. “It’s bloody beautiful!”

But it was a horrible beauty. The tornado two days prior shot all the debris and content of the Ceresian water processing plants far above the artificial atmosphere, where the asteroid’s human-made gravity forged them into a crown of crystals. Woven through the jagged jewelry, broken pieces of human beings and their civilization caught the solar rays and twirled in a display of permanent torment. It would have pleased Hieronymus Bosch.

“How can you say that?” Tinta leaned forward in her seat. She slapped the armrest with a single, angry palm. “It’s horrible, Mags! This is the worst catastrophe the Belt has ever seen! And you’re just laughing at it!”

Jeremy squeezed her hand. His eyes implored Tinta to calm down.

But Mags and Tinta had been friends ever since the smuggler found the young lady four years prior in one of the earliest ghettoes in the Belt—a slum which housed adolescents who slaved in mines and bedrooms for the corporate pigs who first established the interplanetary beachheads of commerce. Mags considered few things unquestionable, so far as any of the women she trained as dancers on Vesta were concerned. After all, question everything was one of the first lessons she taught them.

The pirate raised a hand with her index finger extended to mark her points. “I’d say the worst tragedy to hit the Belt is those arseholes at GravCorp, followed closely by the incompetent dickweeds at the MFA, and then this fucking tornado. I was on the ground when it hit, and the goddamn thing almost killed the entire crew! It was awful. It still is.”

She lit up a smoke as the ship drew closer to the ice rings. The dismembered bodies they held, and the shattered remains of those bodies’ homes and possessions, came into sharp focus. “But Great-gramma taught me all of life is suffering, and the only escape from it is death. So, I don’t see anything unusual here. People suffered. They died. It’s the same thing that’s been going on since before your ancestors climbed out of the trees.”

Your ancestors,” said Tinta. “You are the most speciesist—fucking—whatever you are!”

Mags flicked her tail laconically. “Fine. And mine. Ours. But look, dear.” She exhaled a smoke ring and blew a smaller one through it. “Do you see the way the sunlight glints off that curve up there?” She jabbed the cherry of her cigarette at a graceful arc reflecting the sun so brightly they squinted to see it. “That’s our silver lining. The bright side. This whole thing works out to our benefit.”

Tinta did not hide her disgust. “You see this, and you think of how it benefits you.”

Patches jumped into the smuggler’s lap and pushed her paws into Mags’ legs like she was making a nest. Mags rubbed her thumb over one of the cat’s eyes. Patches purred and shoved her nose into her friend’s hand.

“Of course, Tinta. You know me.” Mags steered into a steep ascent along the rings, filling the portal with all their gory glory. “If I can get something out of it, then it isn’t a total loss. This horrifying disaster is exactly what we need right now.”

A severed head drifted towards the viewport and bounced off the thick, space-proof glass. Had it not been frozen, it would have left a scarlet smear.

“All this uproar on Ceres,” said Mags, “draws attention away from my birthday party! You’ve got relief crews, security forces, humanitarian aid, the mining corps—all of them freaking out over the ungodly hell unleashed here. But guess what?”

Tinta did not answer.

“I’ll guess.” Jeremy spoke up. “Fuck ‘em. Fuck them, fuck their shitty amendment, and fuck their piece of shit manhunt.” He pounded his fist on his armrest. “You know why?”

A sinister smile crept over Mags’ face. She raised one eyebrow in a wicked arch. “Why?”

“Because while they’re busy, we’ll be throwing the most bomb-ass party the Belt has ever seen!”

Mags leveled her stare like a rifle at the young man. “You know what, Jeremy?”

He shrank from her, afraid he had said something to set her off. “What?”

A rumbling purr filled the cabin with a determined vibrato. “I’ve been thinking. I’d like to get my face inked. Maybe a flower under each eye.”

“What kind of flower?”

“A black rose. The black rose of motherfucking anarchy. Maybe two. Have you learned enough this year with Tinta to hook your auntie up?”

Tinta gave Jeremy a look that said, without a word, “You could totally do that, despite it being absolutely crazy.”

The young man caught every nuance and decided he was crazy enough to do the job. It would be a dream come true, inking his favorite musician of all time. “Mags, I would be honored. I will totally hook you up.”

“Good,” she said. “Now. We’ve had our scenic view. Who wants to go home and open a bottle?”

On that, everyone in the cabin could agree.

EPILOGUE: THE MURAL

Kala stepped back to assess the work so far. In the main concert hall of Mags’ club on Vesta, the young women in Kala’s drawing group spread out before the large wall forming one side of the room. Some worked on scaffolding, some on step ladders, and some on the floor. They had finished roughing out the basic shapes and now painted the first layers of color on an ambitiously massive mural.

“I hope she likes it,” said Kala.

Hyo-Sonn took her hand. “You worry too much. She will love it.”

“She loves us,” said Kala. “She’ll probably say it’s great even if it isn’t. But I want her to really like it.”

“What’s the difference? When a daughter makes something for her mother, it touches her heart. Asking whether it’s good or not misses the point.”

“She’s not our mother.”

“Sometimes I think you don’t understand Mags at all. Here. Hold still.” She wet her finger with saliva and rubbed a blotch of paint from Kala’s forehead.

“I’m a mess.”

“You’re beautiful.” Hyo-Sonn’s eyes shone with love.

Their sparkle embarrassed Kala. She searched for words but could not find them.

She was rescued by Suzi, who called down from the scaffolding, “Hey! Are we doing Mags’ hair in white or black or what for this thing? Is it red now?” She leaned over the scaffolding’s edge, and a splash of black paint fell from her brush. It landed on the arm of a girl below her.

“Watch what you’re doing,” the girl shouted up.

“Fuckin’ sorry,” Suzi called down. “Take a pill.”

“Eat me,” the girl replied.

“You wish, lesbo!”

“Whatever, trailer trash!”

“Proud of it,” said Suzi.

Kala raised her voice. “White,” she said. “Your favorite color! And, could we try to get along?”

“Aw, man.” Suzi dropped her paintbrush in a bucket. “We were just joking.” She cracked open a can of white and grumbled to herself.

“Kala,” cried the youngest of the girls. “I need help.”

“I’ll be right there!” Kala sighed. “I’m so not good at this.”

Hyo-Sonn squeezed Kala’s hand. “You’re doing great. This thing already looks fucking epic.” She gave her friend a nudge. “Go to it, commander.”

Hyo-Sonn’s eyes lingered on the way Kala moved—from her walk, to the way she showed the girl how to hold a brush and control it. Kala had lovely hands, and the art they produced touched Hyo-Sonn in a way she could not verbalize. Though she knew Kala would always be her friend, Hyo-Sonn could not stop herself from feeling something more.

She smiled the smile she wore when she didn’t want anyone to know her thoughts. She returned to her section of the mural. As Kala had instructed, Hyo-Sonn filled in the brown, black, and white of Patches’ fur. She thought of the calico who had easily made friends with her group only moments after brutally slaying their reptilian captors in September.

Was Patches so different from her partner in piracy? Hyo-Sonn originally thought Mags was crazy. But the longer she lived at Club Assteroid, the more she realized “crazy” was too simple an explanation.

Mags wasn’t like anyone she had ever met, not like Hyo-Sonn’s parents and certainly not like the people who had drugged and abused her at the Clinic. Mags was more like Patches: feline and furious, just as unhesitant to love as she was to rage. These thoughts absorbed Hyo-Sonn as she filled in the basic colors of Patches’ coat.

She was not alone. Every young woman working on the mural had similar thoughts which consumed them. Mags had rescued them from fates worse than death, and every brush stroke was guided by their love for the smuggler who earned the enmity of the System’s authorities and institutions. If the young women had put down their brushes at that moment and walked away, the mural still would have glowed with a light that was the result of more than paint, more than pigment, more than composition and their labor.

Sarah ran into the room, practically dragging Anton behind her by one hand. “We wrote our first song,” she shouted. “For Dumpster Kittens!”

Hyo-Sonn said, “Congratulations! What’s it about?”

“It’s about the asteroid mines,” said Sarah. “They suck!”

Hyo-Sonn brushed back a strand of black hair and grinned. “Will you play it for us?”

Anton said, “We worked out the basic guitar riffs and the melody. I don’t know if—”

“You need a drummer,” said Suzi, filling in the white hair on Mags’ tail and head “A band’s only as good as its drummer.”

“Don’t worry,” said Sarah. “Mags found one.”

“Yeah?” Hyo-Sonn asked. “How do you know? Where is Mags, anyway?”

“On Ceres,” said Sarah. “But she’ll be home soon.”

The young women were growing accustomed to Sarah’s odd pronouncements about things she could not know, but most of them believed the sweet little girl had a few screws loose.

Before the silent response became awkward, Celina appeared in the doorway. “Looking good, girls!” A chorus of voices greeted her.

Celina swirled a glass of stolen rum in her hand and surveyed the mural. From left to right, in chronological order, it depicted Mags and her ancestors: Magdalena the pirate, sailing boldly at the helm of a ship flying the flag of no nation; Gramma Margareta, conquering Europe with a billiards cue; Mollie, supplying Spanish anarchists and fighting by their side; and Mags and Patches laying waste to fascists and corporations who claimed the asteroid belt as their own.

The older woman approached Kala and placed a hand on her shoulder. “Bloody hell,” she said. “This is amazing work.” She took a generous swig of rum and, lifting her voice, told the group, “You lot should be proud of yourselves.”

“Do you think she’ll like it?” Kala asked.

“No,” said Celina. “She won’t like it at all. She will absolutely love it. And so do I.”

Rings of Ceres: Part One

Here’s a preview of the next episode in The Adventures of Meteor Mags and Patches. This is the first of two parts, and it picks up where Hang My Body on the Pier ended in the Omnibus Edition.

In Rings of Ceres, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat return to a decimated asteroid civilization to rescue friends and kick ass, but they get caught up in violent riots between the desperate citizens of Ceres and the mercenary security forces guarding the mining corporations.

A note about the title: Voyage of the Calico Tigress described how rings formed around Ceres after the tornado in Blind Alley Blues destroyed the Ceresian water-processing facilities. The storm shot the water into space to freeze in rings, along with lots of industrial wreckage and human carnage.

***

PART ONE: THE MASSACRE

November 2029: Svoboda 9.

Patches held the gecko firmly under her forepaw, preventing his escape without squeezing the life from him. It seemed only right that all things smaller than she should die. But his struggles caught her attention. Detachedly observing him, she took a moment to consider his perspective.

Her telepathic merger with Meteor Mags and the mother octopus in September gave the murderous calico the points of view of two additional lifeforms, neither of which was her species. Events of November propelled life forward at a breakneck pace for her pirate crew, but the fearless feline had found ample pause to consider mortality and her place in the universe.

Was the lizard so different, she wondered. He or his recent ancestors were born on Earth, like her, and transported to the populated regions of the Belt on merchant ships. He, too, found himself farther from the sun than any of his kind. Like her, he wanted so dearly to live. To eat. To run free.

The gecko detached his tail, but the wriggling scrap of meat failed to distract his captor. He changed colors to match the floor’s metal surface in the Hyades’ cargo hold. It granted him no reprieve. In vain, his skin cells sought to mimic the tri-colored coat of the paw pinning him down. Out of options, he ceased struggling and pretended to die.

His heartbeat made a liar of him. Patches felt his life pulsing through her paw pads. She lifted her paw slightly, but his squirming excited her. She pressed him back down, and her invincible claws sank into the deck around him like a cage. His limbs stuck out between the bars.

Then Patches did something she had never done with her prey. She let him go.

He scampered across the deck as fast as he could, ran straight up the wall, and sat huffing nervously at the top. His tiny tongue flicked as quickly as a hummingbird’s. Like a bolt of lightning, he shot across the wall into an impossibly narrow crevice and disappeared.

Patches licked the gecko’s scent from her paw and casually rolled back on her haunches. As for the several hundreds of dragons and humans she had helped Mags terminate since 2027, she felt no remorse. If anything, she felt proud to have ended their lives, not as evidence of her skill as a huntress, but because they had clearly been her enemies.

For the minuscule reptile she had just released, she felt something else entirely: empathy. For a moment, she felt an animalistic kinship, as if he was her cub—something more than a source of food and entertainment.

Her ears flicked back and forth. Whether she heard Mags’ voice or was only aware her best friend needed her right away, she could not say. She shot from the cargo hold like a fur-covered rocket onto the surface of the asteroid.

***

“You can’t be serious,” said Mags. “An aquarium?”

“Hell yes, tía. Check this out.” Alonso stood with her before a drafting table. He had set it up by a side entrance to the massive freighter they stole nearly three Earth days ago and relocated to the newly named Svoboda 9. After piloting the ship to the asteroid, Alonso elected to stay with Mags’ new friends: a swarm of telepathic octopuses and an intelligent tribe of macaques descended from lost Soviet space monkeys.

In no time at all, Alonso picked up his guitar and started jamming with this unlikely menagerie through a mental link the octopuses created. But while the interior caverns now looked like a band’s practice space, with posters and empty bottles and cables running in every direction, the area around the Hyades had become a construction site.

Sawhorses, toolboxes, and tables covered with power tools from the Hyades’ maintenance crew proved Alonso’s determination to create. Piles of equipment and supplies lay all about, carried from the Hyades by the monkeys—or, as he liked to call them, the Svobodans, though he included himself and the cephalopods in that.

With a wave of Alonso’s hand, the drafting table lit up and hummed. It projected a three-dimensional model of the Hyades in luminous green outlines floating above the table. With a blue penlight, Alonso highlighted sections of the ship as he discussed them, rotating the model for a better view.

Mags asked, “Where did you get all this stuff?”

“Port Authority’s got everything. Now look. We take the Hyades rec room. It’s huge. We wall it off with Plexi, with a backup layer in case the barrier breaks, and an auxiliary water supply. The unused living quarters can easily be gutted to hold an expanded tank. Then all we need to do is—”

“You are a bloody madman.” Mags puffed on a stolen cigarette. “Then what? Take my baby octos on a musical tour of the solar system?”

Alonso turned his palms upward. “Of course! With the monkeys to crew the ship—”

Mags’ laugh cut him short. “You want to take the little Stalinists with you?”

“Why you gotta hate on the monkeys, yo? They’re solid peeps.”

The smuggler let out a sigh that could have filled the sails of a frigate.

“They fuckin’ love you, tía. I see it in their minds when the octos bond us. You’re like a goddess to them. A red-haired goddess of the conquering motherland, you know what I’m sayin’? With sweet-ass tatts, and a totally fine rack, an’ a ass as big as a—”

Okay, Lonso.” She sharply waved her hand. “I got it.” Her obsidian irises moved over his face like mysterious moons in orbit. “I have one question for you.”

He patted his chest. “Bring it.”

“If you’re so stoked about making a band out of my octos and astro-chimps, why haven’t you invited me on the tour?”

His smile glowed brighter than the model. “You’d really come with us?”

Mags flicked her ash onto the Svobodan wasteland. “Do you think I’d let you out of my sight with my babies? You’re crazier than I thought, ese!” He raised his fist, and she bumped it. “Now,” she said, returning to the model, “Patches and I need to make a few changes.” She plucked the blue penlight from his hand. “Number one, we need a playhouse—here. With scratching posts, and a basket of pillows. Plus, a luxury bathroom with multiple shower heads and a jacuzzi, right here. I need a gun safe, and it’ll take a big chunk out of your rec room plans. Then over here…”

Alonso took notes. He enjoyed watching his old friend take over as manager, just like she had on the Sterile Skins’ first two West Coast tours in the days before the Musical Freedoms Act. Auntie Mags, as he had known for years, might have been crazier than a shithouse rat, but he definitely wanted her on his side in a fight.

Touring the solar system would take one hell of a fight.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said Mags. “What about weapons? We retrofit the Hyades with these guns I got in the job on—god-fucking-damn-it! What now?!”

Mags pulled a black box the size of a postage stamp from a pocket in her bra and scowled. At the touch of her thumbprint, the device played a message. Her frustration turned to concern.

KZZZT no fucking idea what it was but the shop KZZZTotally destroyed. —eople lying dead in the streets, and the cities are KZZZT you get this, Mags, we could really KZZZT your help. KZZZTeet at the —ike we used to. —ove you.

Alonso asked, “Who is that?”

“Tinta,” said Mags. “She’s on Ceres.” The pirate covered her face with one hand. “Curse me for a fucking papist. With everything that’s hit the fan, I forgot about poor Tinta.”

“What did she say about eating at the what?”

Meeting. Like we used to. Where’s Patches?” No sooner had the words left her lips than the cat was at her feet, rubbing against her leather boots and leaving strands of indestructible hair like calling cards. Mags scooped her up. “Are you in the mood for adventure?”

Alonso pursed his lips in disbelief and scratched his temple. “Every federale in the System is on your ass! And you want to fly back to a disaster the size of a planet?!”

Dwarf planet,” Mags corrected him. “And the pigs can kiss my lily-white arse. My friends need me.”

“Word,” said Alonso. “You need backup, tía? You know I got you.”

“You always did,” the smuggler assured him. “But we’ll be fine.” Patches mewed in agreement. Mags rubbed one calico ear between her thumb and forefinger. “Ceres is in total chaos right now. That’s where Patches and I do our best work.”

“You see any of those MFA scumbags, put a bullet in their brains for me. A’ight?”

“I’ll aim for vital organs instead. They don’t have a functioning brain cell in the lot of them.” She kissed Alonso on the cheek, pausing so Patches could nuzzle his face before they headed back to Plutonian’s ship.

Mags powered up the vessel as Patches perched on the console to enjoy the view. “Just between you and me, dear, we probably should have taken him up on that offer.” She took out her little black box again, pressed her thumbprint to it, and said, “Reply. Tinta, I’m on my way.” She slipped it back into her bra. “Now. Let’s go see what trouble we can get into.”

Patches purred like a thunderstorm rumbling on a desert horizon. The ship they had borrowed carried the felons away from Svoboda and toward the asteroid whose destruction they had both so recently witnessed—and barely survived.

***

“This shit is beyond fucked up,” said Mags. “Can you believe this?” She aimed a fingertip at the remains of industry and civilization. “That was a water-processing plant. Shit will be jumping off here right quick if they run out of water and clean air.”

She steered through the disgruntled Ceresian atmosphere. Mags thanked the goddess of pirates the vessel had not been described in recent warrants and amendments against her. To the swarm of disaster-relief crews from Earth and various mining colonies, the ship was just another ship. They had enough to worry about on the ground.

But not all the organized activity was benevolent.

Fifty meters below, a crowd pressed against a gate in the center of a fence enclosing private property. Inside the enclosure sat a ship and supply depots. The property belonged to a mining corporation, and the buildings upon it remained standing, hardly damaged.

They owed their survival to the collapse of a factory next door. Its massive pile of twisted debris formed a shelter from the wind and heavy objects the cyclone had picked up and turned into deadly missiles.

CeresIronCorp staffed the facility with a private security force. Corporations liked pleasant phrases such as “private security”. Accountants cheerfully entered them in ledgers as “independent contractor expenses”. But the contractors were far from cheerful or pleasant.

A more disparate group of killers-for-hire could hardly be found anywhere in the Belt. Three things gave them a cohesive group identity: the standard-issue .45 caliber pistols on their hips, in addition to whatever weapons they personally preferred; the blue-black uniforms, each decorated with a patch bearing the white-on-blue CIC logo of CeresIronCorp; and their eyes as cold and firm as day-old corpses.

Veterans of a thousand wars, they rarely served as enlisted soldiers. They earned their livings from the blood of conflicts which had nothing to do with them, serving whichever master paid the most.

More than one hundred mercs controlled access to the CIC facility, including its medical supplies, food, water, and transportation. But the crowd of Ceresian laborers and their families called that control into question.

Some say society is only three Earth days without food from a total revolt. Many people from the destroyed settlements had already gone without food and clean water for two.

Hundreds of injured, starving, and now-homeless citizens stormed the gate, trying to batter it to the ground and climb over. Mags picked up their shouting on the ship’s microphones. It filled the cabin with riotous tumult—until gunfire drowned it out. The mercs had opened fire on the crowd.

Mags arrived in time to see the massacre begin. Though her plan involved moving quietly without drawing attention to herself, anger took her to a different destiny. She cursed with an intensity that invented several phrases the English language had never known. Instead of passing over the melee, she spun the wheel and forced the ship to make an abrupt about-face.

Plutonian’s vessel was hardly armed at all compared to Mags’ Queen Anne, but she had wheeled aboard a gun safe and made a few modifications before leaving Vesta—just in case. At her command, the ship hovered over the mercenaries, but far enough to the side that Mags could aim a weapon into their midst.

While the Queen Anne had a door that lowered like a ramp for wheeling stolen goods aboard, Plutonian’s side door went upwards into a slot in the hull. The result was an open section like the side of a combat helicopter.

Mags popped in a pair of ear plugs and raised the door to reveal an M2 Browning machine gun whose tripod she had bolted to the deck. Her notorious sharpshooting skills were not needed to deal with the security goons below. Grouped in a tight formation, they only required a steady flow of ammunition. The M2 fired .50 caliber rounds at a maximum rate of nearly 600 per minute, making it one of Mags’ favorite tools for taking out the trash.

Mags tossed out a few grenades then sat in the open doorway, straddling the machine gun from behind. She swept the weapon back and forth like a painter filling in the background on a canvas of annihilation. Her sharp eyes took in every detail of the carnage. Armor-piercing rounds rammed into lungs and vital organs, obliterated faces, and sprayed the mercs with the entrails of their comrades.

Mags needed little provocation or sense of justice to fuel her massacre. CeresIronCorp was a subsidiary of GravCorp, and Mags considered anyone associated with GravCorp deserving of execution. After all, the company had stolen what was rightfully hers: the science of gravity control. If the greatest thief in the solar system hated anything, it was having her own things taken.

At the fringes of the clustered mercenaries, a few gathered their wits and returned fire.

“Fuck!” Her antagonists’ bullets ricocheted off the interior walls. Mags rolled back from the doorway and covered her head.

Patches howled in her face. Mags’ earplugs muted the wrathful noise, but the cat’s eyes told Mags everything.

“Go!” Mags yelled. “Tear them a new one!”

The killer calico leapt from the ship into the fray. What torments the mercenaries suffered on the receiving end of Mags’ bullets paled in comparison to the agonies unleashed by her friend.

Patches got personal. She sank her teeth into throats and raged through the mass like a whirlwind, slicing tendons and mutilating genitals so quickly the mercs never knew what hit them. Their delicious blood drove her to new heights of slaughter.

Mags crawled from her hiding place and resumed her position at the Browning. “Fuck yeah, baby kitty!” Knowing her cat could not be hurt by bullets, she fired indiscriminately.

The murderous felines’ assault turned the tide. The Ceresians outside the gate pressed the advantage. Beating down the enclosure, the crowd surged over it like a hungry wave devouring all in its path.

Over the Browning’s fury, Mags shouted, “Patches, get to the roof!”

In her rush to open fire, Mags had ignored one detail: the anti-aircraft gun atop the roof of the CIC building. Now manned, it pummeled the vessel with a barrage of explosive rounds. The weapon roared, and the ship caromed this way and that.

Mags slid across the deck and smashed into a bulkhead. The ship heaved and threw her in the opposite direction. Her head slammed against a wall. “Enough!” Using handholds built into the walls for zero-gravity maneuvers, she pulled herself forward to the cockpit as the vessel was violently tossed about.

At the helm, she steered the ship to hover directly above the gun. With a maximum angle of eighty-five degrees, the offending weapon could not fire straight up. Mags used the reprieve to switch the ship to auto-pilot, stuff its remote control into her bra, and run back to the door. She unsheathed her boot knife and leapt out.

The gunner pulled his sidearm and squeezed off one shot.

Mags’ combat boots met his face. His spine snapped backwards like a dry twig. The impact ripped his head free from the body. A spray of blood from his neck coated the back of Mags’ legs and soaked her skirt.

She landed on all fours. The severed head hit with a splat. It rolled away with a look of surprise.

Brandishing her knife, Mags prepared to spring on her opponent, but the fight was over. She tossed her ear plugs aside. She considered aiming the anti-aircraft gun at the mercs, but the conflict had become a sporadic mix of Ceresians and their oppressors, with no clear targets for a weapon that big.

The crowd swarmed the supply depots, hoping for plunder. The CIC ship on the ground drew the throng with its promise of escape. Until Mags’ aerial assault, the mercs had guarded it while the crew unloaded supplies. The ensuing chaos left it unmanned and unlocked. People clambered aboard, but arguments broke out over who could go. Presented with a means of escape, and cleared of one enemy, the crowd turned on itself to fight over limited resources.

Men punched each other in the face. Adolescents brandished homemade shanks and threatened anyone who got close to them. A woman leapt onto a man’s back. She pummeled his skull with her fists, and blood stung his eyes. Her three children attempted to surge past and board the vessel.

Patches weaved between legs and pressed through the clamorous crowd like it was nothing. Anyone who obstructed her advance got perforated by terrible claws. She dispensed only minor wounds to encourage Ceresians to make way, but opened a dozen mercenaries’ arteries. Blood soaked her fur by the time she arrived at the facility’s main entrance.

She jumped through a broken window and entered the building. Patches sought the stairwell to the roof, and many CIC employees died from her slashing claws before she found it. She ran up ten stories of stairs to burst through the roof’s doors so loudly she made Mags jump.

Patches wailed.

Heedless of the cat’s gore-covered exterior, Mags scooped her up. They surveyed the chaos. “No, they won’t all fit on that ship. Nor ours, even if we offered.”

Patches whined.

“Sure, we could take some. But not all. How do we make that choice?”

Their chat did not last long, for the crowd followed closely behind Patches. Rumbling footsteps in the stairwell alerted the felons, who got a headstart back to the ship. A mob poured through the double doors to the rooftop. Dozens led the charge, and a hundred surged behind them, pushing forward.

Mags pulled the remote from her bra and commanded the ship to descend. She shouted as she ran, cradling Patches with one arm. “No no no!

Patches leapt from the embrace onto the deck. Mags jumped in behind her and whirled about to face the oncoming crowd.

In a flash, she drew a Desert Eagle from her garter holster. She flicked off the safety, chambered a round, and snapped the nearest person into her sights.

Reason halted her instinct. She thumbed the safety into place and holstered the pistol. She sprang for the cockpit like a lioness, and her calico tigress filled the co-pilot’s chair. Mags lifted off the roof as fast as she could.

It was not fast enough. People jumped at the rising ship. They grabbed the edge of the open side and the landing gear. A few found handholds as the vessel pulled away from the building, only to lose their grips and fall to the jagged concrete rubble.

Like the gecko Patches captured hours earlier, the humans desperately wanted to live. To run. To escape.

Mags cursed them loudly. “The fuck are you doing?! Get off!” Her jaw set in a mask of resolution. Below, bodies struck the ruins and turned into crimson sprays and meat with bones sticking out at tragic angles. “You damn fools.”

Once the ship veered away on its new course, Mags’ façade broke. She smashed her fist on the console. “Goddamnit!” A tear ran from her right eye and traced a path down the curve of her pale cheek.

Patches jumped into her lap to comfort her.

“We can’t let this go on, Patches. These poor fucking people.” She wiped her eye and sniffed. “We need to get them help. This is bigger than you and me. But we need to do something before the mining corps and their piece-of-shit merc squads establish martial law down there.”

Patches stepped onto Mags’ chest and shoved her nose against the pirate’s cheek, marking it with a smear of human blood.

“Love you, too, Patches.” Mags pulled the tiny black square from her bra, pressed her thumbprint to it, and said, “Dial. Rosie.”

Unbeknownst to her crew on Vesta, Mags had been in contact with Kaufman’s secretary Rosalia since before the woman applied for the job. Rosalia’s real mission in the administrator’s office had been to influence his first contact with the smuggler, then keep an eye on him.

Although Rosalia considered Mags a friend, she felt a deeper affection for the underground resistance on Mars. This was, at least, one secret the two women did not have between them. It was the reason Rosalia had agreed to Mags’ request to immerse herself in the bureaucracy governing Mars: to be on the inside and the outside.

The orbits of Mars and Ceres were, that month, close enough for communication between them to experience only a slight delay. It was almost as good as real-time.

Rosalia’s voice came thru the tiny speaker in Mags’ hand. “Ahoy, kitten.”

“Ahoy, beautiful. I’m in the midst of a trauma. Got a minute?”

“Three and a half.”

“Close enough. What have you heard about Ceres and this freak tornado? I don’t mean the garbage on the newsfeed.”

“I heard it was no accident. It was deliberate sabotage of the atmosphere cleaners.”

Mags’ ears perked up. “By locals?”

“Hardly, dear. The smart money expects a statement from a group claiming to be the Martian resistance within thirty-six hours. They’ll take credit for the catastrophe on some ideological basis.”

“Your goddamn resistance almost killed me with that tornado!” Mags strung together a sequence of obscenities like increasingly profane beads on a necklace. She nearly blurted out, “You almost killed Kaufman,” but she stopped.

Rosalia had not mentioned Kaufman. Mags suspected her co-conspirator did not know the official had abandoned his post to join Mags’ merry band of outlaws. “Where the hell is your boss? I need to talk to him.”

“He disappeared,” said Rosalia. “His wanted poster is all over the Belt. I last saw him on Mars, a day before the tornado.”

“You saw him? Doing what?”

“He had a painting delivered to his office in the morning, and he did not seem like his usual self. He left to pick up his son to take a holiday, and that was that.” Rosalia said nothing of how she saved Kaufman’s life only moments before his departure from the red planet.

Mags sensed a partial truth, but she pressed a different point. “Why are your people on Mars fucking about with Ceres? We’ve got plans for Mars. Are they trying to piss me off?”

“There are some people on Mars,” said Rosalia, “who object to the oppression on Ceres and will do anything to end it. They think they need to—”

“What they need to do,” Mags interrupted, “is stop destroying places where people live, and start sending some help to these poor motherfuckers! What were you idiots thinking? I have friends on Ceres!”

“Mags. The people who did this are not the resistance. They’re a radical splinter group.”

“The bloody resistance is a radical splinter group! Whoever fucked those atmosphere cleaners is a fucking maniac! I will beat the life out of them with a rusty shovel if I ever—”

“Mags. Mags! Calm down. I have people working on this. Good people. I won’t let you down.”

“Good,” said Mags. “Good. These people need food and water. Medicine. Shelter. Whatever you can make happen with the resistance or the Port Authority, I would appreciate it.”

“Are you there now? Is it as bad I heard?”

“Worse. Do me a favor, Rosie. Call me every twelve hours until I say otherwise. Leave a message if I don’t pick up.”

“Absolutely.” The line went silent.

A sinking pit formed in Mags’ stomach. Rosalia’s words stank of disinformation, but Mags had not been entirely forthcoming, either. “She’s lying about something, Patches. The only way we’ll get to the bottom of it is a trip to Mars.” She lit up a smoke. “I’d rather drag my vag through broken glass than go to Mars right now. This ‘resistance’ or whoever they really are can sod off until after my birthday.”

Patches plaintively mewed. She showed the tips of her tiny white fangs and pulled back her whiskers in a chatter.

“That’s about the size of it, baby kitty. First, we save our friends. Then we worry about saving the worlds. Let’s pick up Tinta.”

CONTINUE TO PART TWO

now in print: Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition

Get ready for asteroids, anarchy, and excessive ammunition, because Meteor Mags and Patches are back—bigger, badder, and louder than ever!

On the asteroid mining frontier of the near future, a hell-raising space pirate and her indestructible calico cat rage against the forces of law and order, “liberating” cargo and racking up a massive body count—until they come face-to-face with an alien invasion!

Join Meteor Mags and her criminal crew, the hard-rocking Psycho 78s, in fifteen tales of interplanetary piracy and total destruction. Run for your life in the tornado that wipes out Ceres! Thrill to the savage mating rituals practiced by the evil space lizards! Learn how to smuggle cigarettes and shoot pool with the solar system’s number one dancer! Witness the unearthly energies of the machine that transforms Patches the cat, and merge your mind with a telepathic space kraken!

From rescuing a pirate radio DJ in a hail of bullets to dancing naked with a tribe of Russian space monkeys, Mags and her outlaw friends rock the Belt. But how long can they survive when everyone on Earth wants them dead?

Now Available on Amazon as a 588-page paperback featuring black-and-white art plus Asteroid Underground articles and interviews with the crew. Also available in a text-only version for Kindle for $9.95, or get the Kindle for free when you buy the paperback.

Also available for iBook, and on Barnes & Noble in paperback and Nook Book. The sixth volume collects and updates all the material from the first five volumes, plus three new stories. 183,000 words.

 

Hang My Body on the Pier

This story now appears in the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition.

ABOUT THIS STORY

The fifteenth story in the Meteor Mags series presents scenes from her Great-gramma Magdalena’s early life, from when she was found orphaned, through early days pretending to be a boy and sailing with pirates, to her eventual rise to power as a pirate queen.

Central to the tale is her relationship with the man who found her and took her to sea, a man she calls Father. Combining third-person narration with excerpts from Great-gramma’s memoirs, this tale reveals the years which shaped her relationships with death, crime, the sea, and a male-dominated world of power.

Mags was named after her great-grandmother and worships her. By this point in the series, readers have discovered amazing things about Great-gramma. Though she died before Meteor Mags was born, she visits the space pirate to give her guidance in dreams and visions, and she may be influencing events in the stories. She created the magic ring Mags wears. The ring extends Mags’ lifespan to 200 years, just as it did for Great-gramma. The story of its creation has yet to be told.

This tale includes a framing sequence in the series’ “current day” of 2029, featuring characters who will be unfamiliar to new readers, but who have been central to the past seven episodes. Mags sings a song with these new friends she’s made in the asteroid belt—a song with origins in Great-gramma’s untold past on Earth.

This story now appears in the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition.

voyage of the calico tigress

meteor mags 32v2 - Small Copy

This story now appears in the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition.

OUR STORY SO FAR

The smuggler Meteor Mags and her criminal crew survived their suicide mission to Ceres—but just barely. They encountered Mags’ old friend Alonso, a musician from Kaufman’s favorite band. The pirates stole the freighter he worked on and almost killed him, but Alonso was too happy to see Mags to hold a grudge.

The storm on Ceres separated the crew from Kaufman and Patches: the treasonous official and Mags’ practically indestructible calico cat. Patches rescued Kaufman, but not before he took a beating from the tornado. They escaped in his stealth spacecraft.

On Vesta 4, where Mags and Patches swore to reunite, Kaufman’s son Anton awaits his father’s return. At Mags’ request, Sarah promised to show Anton around and take care of him. They help repair damage the club suffered in the cyborg incident.

On Earth, Mags’ “nephew” Tarzi studies a book she found which may reveal the origin of their reptilian enemies. She has also inspired her friend Slim to create a new field of mathematics; and with it, help her create a system to distribute free, unlimited energy throughout the Belt.

But despite their efforts, in the vast darkness of the asteroids and beyond, forces gather which threaten them all.

 

the ryderium caper

mags-35v2-5x7crop-small-copy1

This story now appears in the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition.

ABOUT THIS STORY

The eleventh story in the Meteor Mags series reveals the smuggler has been up to much more than just shooting people and breaking stuff in 2029. No one in her crew except Slim knows what she has been secretly working on with an old friend of the family. She has big plans she gradually reveals in the next three stories set in November 2029.

In The Ryderium Caper, Mags and her partner in crime, Ryder, discuss Gramma Margareta. Readers met Gramma in The Weight of the Universe, and Mags has talked about her in an Asteroid Underground interview. Readers know Gramma made a ton of money in billiards in Europe in the 1800s; and after the estate she and Great-Gramma built was bombed in WWII, Mags and Celina helped her rebuild it as a home for female refugees displaced by war.

This matriarchal utopia grew into a micro-society that was responsible for developing the principles of gravity control; and along with her mother’s fierce devotion to anarchist uprisings and her great-grandmother’s penchant for piracy, it has informed our villainous leading lady’s ethics and sense of justice—and her own aspirations to shape the future of humanity.

Astute readers will notice the scene in April 2029 is the same night seen from another point of view in Part One of Mountain Lions Forever.

This story now appears in the Meteor Mags Omnibus Edition.

 

patches in the tank

Patches In The Immortality Machine, by Matthew Howard

From Patches the Immortal.

This illustration appears in the paperback edition of the Meteor Mags Omnibus.