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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”