JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 3: THE SECOND TEST
Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo ran to the mouth of the alley as Jake hunkered behind the rubbish bins. Around her waist, above her poufy skirt, she wore a utility belt. From it, she pulled a blue rectangle with rounded corners, a gadget Jake at first assumed was a cell phone. Throwing it, she shouted, “Circuit Board!”
The rectangle hovered an inch above the ground and split in half. The two halves shot apart, leaving between them a sheet of what looked like blue-tinted glass full of shimmering gold circuitry. The two ends curled up to form a sort of narrow, futuristic snowboard.
Dynamo leapt onto the board, kicked against the ground, and shot into the air, leaving a trail of blue glitter behind her.
Down the alley, Jake spotted a rickety fire escape. He sprang toward it and leapt. Its bolts creaked and rattled ominously as he scrambled up six stories to the top of a cinder block apartment building, where he dragged himself onto the dilapidated roof.
“Oh my Princess,” he whispered.
In the distance, Pretty Dynamo’s contrail was a streak of sparkling blue. Behind her stretched a sky touched with coral where the sun made its downward trek toward the surface of the tranquil bay. But between the magical girl and the distant sun stood a monster: covered in green scales, at least twenty stories tall, it towered over the apartment buildings. On the ends of its arms, instead of hands or claws, it had wickedly curved swords of bright steel.
That’s at least a level seven. Is Pretty Dynamo up for that? What did Ralph say she had? Some kind of lightning bolt?
For a few seconds, he marched back and forth on the tar-shingle roof as he nervously rubbed his hands over his neck in indecision. At last, he took off running: the next building was only a few feet away, and he was sure he could jump the gap.
Criminey, if I don’t do something, that little runt’s gonna get herself killed!
Jake had long muscles, endurance, and a light frame. He scrambled up ladders, sprinted across roofs, and picked his way between cell antennas. Even when the roofs were too widely separated to jump, he often found hastily constructed walkways of plywood or corrugated steel. Maneuvering through the city this way was easier than he expected: a lot of magical girls couldn’t fly, so perhaps some of them had set up these makeshift bridges.
He lost count of the buildings he crossed. So focused was he on finding his way across the rooftops that he forgot to keep track of the monster. He looked up to see it only five blocks away: lumbering down a broad avenue, it crushed cars and helpless, screaming citizens under its feet as it smacked its huge swords into the brick low-rises. Each building it struck crumbled to the ground in an enormous cloud of dust and made a sound like distant thunder as it fell.
Holy Princess, it must be killing hundreds of people!
Death by monster was common in Urbanopolis, but Jake usually only saw it on the news. Typically, he heard the police and fire truck sirens from a distance, as a lonely wail rising from the inner city. This was the first time he had seen a monster this size up close. Dozens of families must have been in each of those collapsed buildings—many dead, many buried alive.
Pretty Dynamo zipped around the beast like an obnoxious fly. It swatted at her with a sword. Her faint voice reached Jake on the evening breeze as she shouted, “Ball Lightning!”
A sizzling sphere of white-hot energy shot from her hand and hit the monster in the chest. Its roar rose an octave, and the swing of its swords grew frantic.
Yeah, she hurt it! She hurt it! Maybe she really can—
The monster opened its reptilian jaw. A red glow rose from its throat, and then it coughed up a huge sphere of what looked like molten lava. The sphere burst from the thing’s mouth and arced through the air, trailing black smoke.
Oh my Princess, it’s got fiery hairballs!
The glowing sludge struck the corner of the brownstone on which Jake stood. Heated air stung his eyes, and a sulfurous stench stung his nose. He turned to run, but the roof cracked with a sound like all the world tearing apart, tossing up splinters of wood and shingle.
The previously flat roof tilted at a forty-five degree angle. Windmilling his arms, he slid backwards. Then the roof gave way completely.
His life did not flash before his eyes. There wasn’t time. There wasn’t even time for a complete thought to cross his mind. He knew only that he was in the air and that he was about to die.
Something hard smacked him in the ribs and took his breath away. His legs whipped out to one side, carried by inertia. He reached toward his stomach, and there his hands met something hard, round, and cold. He looked down to see Pretty Dynamo’s left vambrace. She had grabbed him out of the air, and now she had him around his middle, holding him tucked under her arm like a football as she zipped up the street away from the monster.
“Baka!” she shouted.
It took him a moment to process what was happening, but then he kicked his legs and yelled in fear. More fiery blobs, filling the air with their hot stink, flew past.
“Hold still! Hold still or I swear to the Princess I will drop you!”
By twisting his legs, he turned his body in her grasp so that he faced her. Still yelling, he wrapped his arms around her waist. She rocked precariously on her Circuit Board as she dodged yet another sphere of flaming goo and banked hard to fly back toward the huge creature.
She slapped him on the top of the head. “Ecchi! Watch the hands!”
He hadn’t noticed before, but between her cuirass and her utility belt, her outfit left bare about four inches of her midriff, which, in mindless fear, he was now manhandling. His left hand slid across her belly, and he frowned when he realized she didn’t have a navel; her stomach was completely smooth.
She smacked him in the head again, harder this time.
“What are you doing?” he shouted.
“We gotta get closer to the monster!” she shouted back.
Another glob shot by, whistling and crackling as it went. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “So we’re too close for it to shoot any more of that stuff, that’s why! The more it focuses on us, the fewer people get killed!”
“We might get killed!”
“Better us than them!” She rubbed her knuckles into his scalp. “Ya wanna stand on rooftops instead of going to a shelter? Then you can join me for this run!”
She ramped up her speed and shot low, down to street level. The monster faced them squarely, flexed its biceps, and vomited more lava blobs. Dynamo bobbed and weaved as the heavy lava overturned cars, dug deep pits into the pavement, shattered storefronts, and crushed unlucky bystanders.
Two circular discs detached from her tiara, turned transparent, and lowered over her eyes. Rubber rings expanded from their undersides and sealed them against her face.
Glasses? No, goggles!
She zoomed straight between the monster’s legs, but somersaulted backwards to dodge its swinging tail.
Nausea rose in Jake’s gut. He felt a muscle in his shoulder wrench.
Oohh, I was never good with roller coasters—
She reached her right hand across her torso, and her fingers probed near his groin.
“Hey, whoa, whoa!” Jake yelled. “You watch the hands!”
“Hentai!” she shrieked.
Her fingers found what they were looking for: from her belt, she pulled her thick wand, the one with the heart and lightning on top.
The wand changed shape. Its lower end bent down and morphed into a pistol grip. The rest of the wand flattened, and crosspieces shot from its sides. It looked vaguely like a crossbow. “Zap it all,” she hissed between clenched teeth, “where are you, Tesla?”
Crouching low on her Circuit Board, Dynamo flew in around the monster’s right side. She crossed its belly and dived under its left arm.
With a loud buzz like a riled-up hornet, something flew past Jake’s face. He turned his head to see a huge, brown beetle, as large as a cat, zipping around him and Dynamo.
“Yah! Another monster!” He flapped his arms.
Dynamo slapped him again. “Stop it! That’s my familiar, you idiot! Tesla, where have you been?”
The beetle hovered in front of her with wings flitting like mad. Perched before its bulbous compound eyes was a pair of glasses, which it adjusted with a forelimb. “I came as quickly as I could … good heavens, Dyna,” it said as it peered at Jake, “do you know you have a stowaway?”
“Thanks, Tes. I noticed. How ’bout you do your job?”
“Hmph. Calculating …” The beetle put his forelimbs to the sides of his head and squeezed his eyes shut. “I believe thirty thousand amperes should do it.”
He waved a limb over her crossbow. A little trapdoor opened in its top and disgorged a fletched bolt—but one with a thick cylinder immediately below its wickedly sharp point. Printed on the cylinder was a red line.
Dynamo grinned. “Thanks, Tes.”
“I’m patching into your heads-up display, Dyna. Follow the crosshairs.”
With a fresh burst of speed, Dynamo rose until she was above and to the monster’s right. She turned sideways on the board and banked. Moving rapidly in a dizzying arc, so fast that Jake’s vision turned gray at the edges as wind whistled through his teeth, she took aim and fired. With a hiss and a faint trail of blue glitter, the bolt shot down and lodged just behind the monster’s right pectoral muscle.
“Boom,” she said, accompanied by a fist pump.
Through the whole maneuver, Tesla kept pace, buzzing around Dynamo with the sudden twists and turns of an insect. “Here comes the second,” he said. “I’m calculating to correct for the electromagnetic field of the first. Of course, it would help if you held still—”
“Not gonna happen, Tes.”
A new bolt arose from the crossbow’s insides; on this one’s cylinder was a red plus sign.
Now Dynamo dived, and Jake’s stomach lurched. He flailed his arms again and pulled his knees up against her back.
“Stop moving!” she yelled. “Stop moving, you stupid—!”
She cut herself off and dropped twenty feet to duck the backhand swipe of the monster’s swinging sword. It whistled past an inch above her head.
“My goodness!” Tesla cried.
Jake groaned. “Let me off! I don’t care where, just let me off!”
“Shut up!” shouted Dynamo.
The sword struck the front of another brick apartment complex. With a rumble, the wall disintegrated, though Jake noticed with some curiosity that some of the window frames kept their shapes as they fell. Dynamo drew close to the collapsing building—too close.
“Here comes the fun part!” She whooped, spun in a corkscrew, and, with Tesla still flying orbits around her, shot in amongst the falling debris. With an intricate combination of ollies, corks, and half cabs, she weaved in and out amongst tumbling bricks and wooden beams. Jake squeezed his eyes shut and coughed as he choked on dust.
At first, he assumed she was just hotdogging, but then he opened his eyes to see that much of the building was still intact: he was looking into apartments, now with only three walls, which filled the remaining structure like chambers in a honeycomb. Dynamo sped toward an elderly woman crouching and screaming in the corner of what used to be a kitchen.
“Almost,” Dynamo muttered, “almost—”
With an enormous crash, the ceiling gave way. Wood and brick tumbled onto the hapless woman and buried her. A burst of blood, like ketchup from a dropped bottle, sprayed across the cheap linoleum floor.
Jake’s gorge rose. He was afraid he was going to be sick on Dynamo’s skirt.
“Zap,” she hissed. It sounded like a curse word. She veered away from the collapsing building, back into the open air. What remained of the structure gave way, crumbling and tumbling like an avalanche.
He looked up into her face. A moment before, she had worn a lopsided grin, the smile of an athlete or adventurer doing what she loved. Now her look was hard, the expression of a soldier doing what had to be done.
He felt a twinge of relief. Dana was a weird, antisocial kid. Seeing her react to a horrific death—even if it wasn’t the typical reaction of a little girl—made her more human.
Three tiny tots, each about five years old by her appearance, surrounded them. One wore a pink dress, one a blue, and one a yellow. Each had hair colored to match. They had rapidly fluttering butterfly wings on their backs.
“Magical Girl Bubble Princesses!” the pink one said sweetly as she circled Dynamo’s head.
“About zappin’ time I got some backup!” Dynamo shouted.
“Do you want help with the monster?” asked the blue one.
“That’s under control. Start search and rescue. And send out the signal—I want ambulance, I want fire, I want cops!”
“Want us to take him?” the yellow one asked, pointing at Jake.
“Nah.” Dynamo slapped the grip of her crossbow against his head. “I’m teachin’ hero boy a lesson. Get a move on!”
Once the Bubble Princesses sped away, Tesla sniffed. “Amateurs.”
“Yes, yes … uh, follow the crosshairs.”
She fired again, this time pointing the crossbow back over her shoulder. The bolt curved sharply in the air and headed toward the monster as if drawn by a magnet, at last lodging between two ribs on its left side. The monster squealed.
I’ve seen this before, Jake thought. It’s like a defibrillator’s pads … is she trying to shock its heart?
“What completes the circuit?” he yelled.
Her toothy grin returned. “It’s not a circuit!”
Tesla adjusted his glasses. “Young man, each bolt contains a supercharged carbon aerogel, around which is an insulator with high dielectric strength, so the monster’s whole body becomes a capacitor once the negative and positive bolts are in place.”
“What?” Jake shouted. “What does that mean?”
Dynamo laughed. “Next, I break down the insulators—like this!” She pressed a button on the side of her crossbow’s grip.
With a deafening crack of thunder, a bright light flashed across Jake’s eyes. He sucked in his breath as the monster flailed its arms and smashed everything around into rubble. Dynamo went into a new set of deft maneuvers, and Jake went into a fresh bout of terrified screaming.
Still, the creature lived. It wailed so loudly that Jake thought his eardrums would burst.
Dynamo whistled. She again smacked him with her crossbow. “Lightning in a can. Don’t try that at home, kids.”
“It appears the charge was insufficient for a fibrillation, Dyna,” said Tesla. “Do you want a second volley?”
“We’re switchin’ tactics, Tes.”
Spinning in a tight corkscrew, she shot upward. As she did, her crossbow transformed back into a wand. The air grew colder, and soon they were passing through translucent clouds as wispy as the gauzy frills of a wedding dress lying against blue silk.
Tesla said, “I’m bringing the plasma actuator online, Dyna.”
Jake’s teeth rattled. He looked down. Vertigo overwhelmed him as he saw all of Urbanopolis spread out below. The great skyscrapers near the bay gleamed like mirrors. The slums were burnt out and black. The wealthy suburbs shone like jewels in the forested hills. Directly below was a circle of devastation, like the aftermath of an earthquake.
A wide grin broke across Dynamo’s face, showing glaring white teeth. Her blue pigtails snapped in the wind like whips. “You like to skydive?” she asked.
“Never done it—”
“First time for everything.”
She let him go.
For a moment, Jake didn’t scream. It took him a second to realize what was happening, but once it finally registered, the first words from his mouth were, “You little brat!”
Then the real screaming started. His voice, he realized, had a higher pitch than he liked. His scream was incoherent, but in his mind, he offered the first sincere prayer he had made since he was nine—
Sweet Moon Princess, I don’t wanna die!
He flailed, but that made it worse. He flipped end over end as the wind pummeled him. Spots appeared in his eyes. Everything faded in and out.
Pretty Dynamo shot past. Her Circuit Board was gone. Her wand gripped in both hands, she pointed her arms straight down and cut through the air as if she were diving into a lake. Still keeping pace, Tesla zipped around her feet.
As she streaked toward the ground, Jake heard her voice, carried upward on the wind: “Lightning Rod!”
Her wand unfolded into a long staff. The heart on its head split open to reveal a bright spear point.
The ground was growing closer. The buildings reached up like fingers, the monster’s gaping maw was just below. Dynamo drew her arm back and hurled the spear. The throw sent her flipping end over end, but she quickly corrected.
The spear shot straight into the creature’s mouth. Almost instantly, with a piercing death scream, the monster turned gray and crumbled, transforming into sand.
Dynamo spread her arms and legs in a box man position. She tilted toward Jake, grabbed him around the middle, and matched his wild spin.
She tossed the blue rectangle from her belt.
The board, also spinning, unfolded. She caught it with her boots. She had one arm under Jake’s shoulder blades and the other under his knees, holding him like a groom carrying his bride over the threshold.
Another humiliation. If the Moon Princess wants to do this to me, why not just cut my balls off and get it over with?
Still they hurtled toward the ground at breakneck speed. They shot past needle-tipped skyscrapers, between the brownstones, and down toward the street. Only a few feet above the asphalt, Dynamo leveled off and bent her knees like springs to absorb the shock of the sudden change in direction. She turned her board sideways and leaned back as if braking against invisible powder. A fire truck, siren and horn blaring, turned a corner and sped down the road toward them. Behind the windshield, horror filled the driver’s face. The truck’s tires squealed as they locked up.
The world spun. Jake thought his head might snap from his neck as Dynamo leapt and twisted. She executed a perfect triple cork over the truck and landed behind its rear bumper. She banked hard and turned in an increasingly tight spiral in the street. At last, she was twirling in place like a figure skater. Then, finally, she mercifully came to a halt.
Even after she stopped, the world spun.
“Ain’t no thang,” she said. She dropped Jake to the ground. The asphalt banged his elbows and made his arms go numb.
Tesla alighted on her shoulder, adjusted his spectacles, and crossed his forelimbs. His little antennae twitched, giving Jake the distinct impression that he was looking down his nose at him.
Dynamo leaned down and stuck a finger in Jake’s face. “Hey, you. Are you zapping stupid? When you see a monster, you run away from it, not toward. Got it?”
She waited. For a moment, he thought of answering, but then he noticed her upper right arm, the spot where he had grabbed her by the basketball court. He could see it, since her plates covered only her back, chest, forearms, and lower legs. This combination of armor and bare flesh made no sense to him, but nothing about the magical girls made sense. Printed into her pale skin were four purple bruises shaped like fingers. He reached out to touch them and found that they matched the spread of his hand.
He mumbled, “I’m sorry.”
Once again, that deer-in-the-headlights fear appeared in her green eyes. She looked different as Dynamo, and the way she talked was different. Her hair was a different color, and her freckles were gone.
But it was definitely her. She had the same eyes.
She slapped his hand away. “Shut up. Did you hear what I said?”
She knocked the heel of her hand against his forehead. “Then do it.”
She turned around. As she did, Tesla sniffed and opened his shell to show Jake his bulbous rear end, which glowed a bright yellow.
Oh, I get it. He’s a lightning bug … wait, did he just moon me?
With Tesla buzzing around her shoulders, Dynamo sped off. She performed a double cork as she shot over the buildings and out of sight.
In the next instant, reporters surrounded him. Flashbulbs left afterimages in his eyes, and microphones pressed against his face. Crowding him so he couldn’t breathe, the reporters shouted questions over one another.
“How does it feel to be saved by Pretty Dynamo?”
“Did you see the monster?”
“What’s your relationship to Pretty Dynamo?”
“How would you describe the monster?”
“Did you see any of Dynamo’s signature moves?”
Jake’s head swam. His vision blurred. He rose to his knees, but then fell forward onto his hands. He thought for a moment that he might kiss the earth in gratitude.
He threw up instead.
In the chamber of her witch-seer, the Dark Queen paced and brooded. In her hand, she held a glass of rich red wine. She swirled it and stared at her own reflection in its blood-red surface as if she meant to scry the answers to her dilemma.
Matilda the witch waved a gnarled, clawed hand over her computer console and coaxed it with arcane spells to reveal the secrets for which her mistress thirsted.
“Dynamo,” the Queen muttered. “Now she’s even killed Bigassica, one of my most powerful monsters. Fah! If it were not for that accursed Pretty Dynamo, Urbanopolis would already lie in ruins, its magical girls butchered and its last surviving inhabitants serving as my slaves or as food for my servants!”
She sipped her wine and rolled it in her mouth.
“Urbanopolis is the one barrier between us and the Moon Kingdom. As long as that city stands, we cannot take our war into heaven.”
“See here,” Matilda rasped. She had a voice like the croak of an old toad. “Perhaps this is the answer.”
She had tapped into the city’s news footage. After every monster attack, reporters swarmed like locusts and then gleefully broadcast images of the devastation. Here, some cameraman had zoomed in on Pretty Dynamo as she bent over a wiry teenage boy with unkempt hair. Dynamo stuck a finger in his face.
The Queen took another sip. “What is this? Do you show me my enemy to mock me, crone?”
“No, Your Darkness!” Matilda gasped. “See the boy! Look closely!”
The Queen peered at him for a moment and snorted. “That skinny, unremarkable youth would hardly even serve as one of my harem slaves. Perhaps I’d make a eunuch of him and put him to work in the salt mines.”
“Ah, Your Darkness, forgive me—”
“Although, on the other hand, he is kind of cute.”
“Um … Your Darkness, look more closely still. Watch his hand. Watch his eyes.”
Matilda waved her gnarled claws over her machine. The image on the screen came to life. The boy moved his hand toward Dynamo’s arm, and their eyes met. Dynamo’s hard expression slipped away.
“Freeze,” the Queen said, and Matilda obeyed. The image hovered in space above the console. In it, the boy’s fingers almost touched Dynamo. It was very nearly a caress.
The Queen took another, deeper drink, and a mirthless grin formed on her mouth. “They know each other.”
“Indeed, Your Darkness.” Matilda ran a purple tongue over her scabby lips. “I daresay they know each other … and I daresay they are more than friends.”
The Queen laughed. “This is the girl who once said on citywide television that all boys are dumb.”
“Ah, but she is of the age when such opinions change.”
Again the Queen stared into her glass as she swirled the wine. “He looks too old for her—”
“But it is not strange for a young girl to develop a crush on an older boy. Nor is it strange for a teenage boy to become starry-eyed over a magical girl.”
“Hm.” The Queen took another drink. “Very well, Matilda. Let us test this theory. Find the boy. I want his name. I want his address. And then … I want him to feel pain!”
On this final word, she crushed the cup in her hand, sending wine and shards of glass spraying around the room.
Matilda turned to the Queen, a questioning look in her eyes.
“Also,” the Queen said after a faint clearing of the throat, “get me a plaster or something. I think I just cut myself.”