Margherita smiled, raised her hands in the air, and spun on one foot. “Evildoers beware, for I toss the dough of justice—and justice is never half-baked! Saucy, spicy, and a little bit sweet, I am Magical Girl Space Princess Pizza Margherita!”

Nothing happened. Lowering her eyes and primly interlacing her fingers, she continued, “I used to be a magical girl, but that’s been a couple of years ago now. Soon after I enrolled in high school, I started working part-time at a pizza parlor. One night, when I was closing shop, I saw a poor little dog in the alley out back. He looked terribly hungry, so I fed him a stick of pepperoni. As it turned out, he was an alien from the planet Italia. In thanks for the food, he anointed me princess of his distant world, and he granted me the Power of Pizza. Back then, the greatest threat to the city was an army of carnivorous vegetables called the Salad Soldiers. Their caesar, King Tosser, became my archenemy—for, as you know, salad is always trying to muscle in on pizza.”

“I see,” said Jake.

She sighed. “I finally destroyed him just before my eighteenth birthday. But sometimes I wish—”

Marionette clapped a hand to her shoulder.  “Don’t worry about it, Marge.  You served your time, and you did good: without you, Urbanopolis would have fallen prey to man-eating heads of cabbage, and it would lack several exciting pizza recipes.”

“Still, I miss the power. I miss zipping over the city on my flying pizza, the Pie in the Sky. As you’re well aware, Marionette, the pizza is strong in my family: my many-times-great grandfather, Benito Mozzarella, made the harrowing journey from Naples to New York in Old America to make the New Yorkers a pizza they couldn’t refuse. From there, his children moved to Chicago. Thus, the Mozzarella family created both New York and Chicago-style pizza—and they also created both New York and Chicago-style crime syndicates.”

“That’s amazing,” whispered Miss Percy. “You must be very proud.”

“Oh, I am. I am indeed.” Her smile collapsed, and she buried her face in her hands. “But these days, I can hardly set foot in a pizza parlor. They all have salad bars! Why? Why do they do that?”

Marionette put her arm around her. “Shh, it’s okay, Marge. Don’t think about it—”

“But it’s horrible! Why would anyone eat salad when there’s a cornucopia of pizza—?”

Jake tapped a fist to his mouth and cleared his throat. “Well, salad bars aren’t all bad. Sometimes they have sliced jalapeños, and those are pretty good if you put them on a Hawaiian—”

Margherita shuddered. She raised her eyes, and the ferocity in them made Jake step back.

“Hawaiian?” she whispered.

“Uh …”

“Hawaiian pizza?”

“Yeah, it’s my favorite—”

She pushed Marionette aside and, breathing heavily, stalked toward him. “I suppose you like it with pineapple.” She practically spat the word.

“Well, that’s what goes on—”

“And ham?”

Behind Margherita, Marionette rapidly shook her head and drew a finger across her throat.

Jake considered for a moment, but then said firmly, “When it’s on my pizza, I call it Canadian bacon.”

“So you call it Canadian bacon on your Hawaiian pizza?” shrieked Margherita. “In what parallel universe does that even make sense?”

With fingers curled into claws, she leapt for him, and he staggered back. It took both Marionette and Rifle Maiden to hold her as she writhed and kicked.

“Defiler of pizza!” she screamed. “I kill you! I’m gonna stuff a whole pineapple down your throat and use its spiny exterior to savage your insides, you citrus-eating freak!”

With a grunt of impatience, Marionette said, “Barfing Boy, when Margherita Della Mozzarella of the fabled Mozzarella crime family asks if you like Hawaiian pizza, you say no.”

“You know,” Jake said through clenched teeth, “I have a name, and it’s not Barfing Boy—”

A ululating alarm, like the song of a lonely whale, echoed across the city. Everyone paused and looked up. Margherita even stopped foaming at the mouth.

“What is that?” Jake yelled.

“The Warning Call,” hissed Marionette. “I haven’t heard it for over sixty years—”

“Oh my Princess,” Miss Percy gasped. “The Temple is firing the Weapon! Things can’t be as bad as that—”

“Normal humans,” Marionette said, “get underground right now and stay there. Magical girls, hunker down; we’ll regroup and organize our hunt as soon as the Weapon’s discharged.

Jake grabbed Marionette’s shoulders. “Marionette, if Dynamo’s still inside that ship—”

She took his hands and peeled them from her gown as she said calmly, “She might not hear the Call.”

“Then we have to go get her!”

“We have five minutes. Tops.”

“Take me up in your plane, and we’ll—”

“Dynamo knows the Call. She’s brave, but not stupid. If she hears it, she’ll get out. If she doesn’t, she won’t be the only magical girl to die for the city today.”


Now Marionette grabbed his collar and brought her nose against his. “This is total war! Every darn day, humanity faces extinction at the hands of monsters or aliens or eldritch abominations, and we are the only thing standing in the way! I will not have some mere civilian making a futile gesture and getting killed trying to save just one magical girl!”

She released him, but poked a finger hard against his chest. “You’re just a boy. You can’t save her. Now, you’re going to get in a shelter and stay safe, and then you’re going to grow into a man, get married, have lots of children, and perpetuate the human race!”

She gave him a hard shove and sent him reeling into Miss Percy, who caught him around the waist.

Marionette walked away. “Calm your instincts,” she said, her back to him. “Urbanopolis can’t afford chivalry. There can be no princes rescuing princesses, not in this city.”

He clenched his fists, and his voice quavered as he said, “How can I grow into a man if I can’t act like one?”

She didn’t answer, so he shouted, “Aren’t you the one who told me to watch out for Pretty Dynamo?”

“Darn it.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Rifle Maiden, get him out of here.”

In a flash, Rifle Maiden snatched him out of Miss Percy’s arms and put him in a painful thumb hold, grabbing his left hand and forcing his palm toward his wrist. He sucked his breath through his teeth and went up on his toes.

Rifle Maiden whispered in his ear, “I like ya an’ all, but Marionette’s right.” She pushed him toward the school, and his body followed her directions of its own accord. With his free hand, he tried to peel her fingers away from him, but he might as well have been trying to bend a crowbar. Whenever he resisted, she applied more pressure and brought him up on his toes again. When he stopped resisting, she took the pressure off, allowing him to drop back onto his heels and even slouch an inch. He relaxed as much as he was able.  He hung his head and sighed. Her grip loosened.

Then he rammed his leg behind her knee and grabbed her crotch.

He knew he had no chance of hurting her, but he counted on surprise, and it worked: he snapped his hand out of her grasp and jumped away. Back arched, head high, and fingers pointed, he sprinted at full speed up the street toward Marionette’s biplane. The hard pavement sent shocks up his legs as his feet pounded it. The plane grew steadily closer, closer …

The world flashed blue. The next thing he knew, he was eating pavement: his body went limp, but momentum threw him forward, and he fell like a sack of flour. White sparks jumped in his eyes when his head cracked against the asphalt. His face slid along the ground, and gravel dug into his left cheek.

For a long moment, he lay in a twisted heap, one cheek pressed to the road. A boot nudged his shoulder, and he flopped over like a dead fish. Overhead hung the black mothership, the cold lights on its belly shining brightly as the ruddy daylight faded. Streams of sparkles—the contrails of the retreating magical girls—dropped away from it like shooting stars.

Her coat fluttering, her sheriff’s star glistening, and her Stetson casting a shadow across half her face, Rifle Maiden stood over him and blew a faint stream of smoke from the muzzle of her rifle.

“That was a stun blast,” she said. “You’ll be fine in a few minutes, assumin’ ya didn’t break yer neck.” She slid the rifle into its sheath, bent down, and heaved him over her shoulder.

As she marched back toward the others, the jovial note re-entered her voice. “I hope ya know, after the move you just pulled, you’ll hafta marry me.”

Then, more quietly: “I know you’ll be sore ’bout this, but Marionette is right. Ya done the best ya could, so don’t go worryin’ that ya shoulda done more.”

The blast had numbed him, but after a few seconds, he felt pins and needles in his hands and feet. His arm stung where he’s scraped it on the roof, and his face stung where he’d scraped it on the road. His legs were sore, as if he’d run several miles.

The Klaxon stopped wailing, and everything fell silent. Even the breeze stopped. The air grew thick and hot, as on a summer’s midday. Jake felt something heavy and painful in his chest, as if his insides were filling up with lead.

“Well,” said Rifle Maiden, “shoot.”

She swung him from her shoulder and threw him hard to the ground, knocking the wind out of him. Then she landed on top of him and covered him with her duster. His chest ached. He felt a brief moment of panic as he struggled to breathe. Each breath burned like a dagger digging into his ribs.

She tucked her head down next to his, but she didn’t quite cover his face completely. With his left eye, he could still see the sky: in an instant, a raging fire, black and orange like a gasoline explosion, stretched from horizon to horizon. It roared like a freight train, and all the windows shook. The spaceships soared upward and burst into fireballs as their fuel ignited. Black fragments of debris whizzed away from them, but the flames sucked those up, too, and then the sky was nothing but an endless, unbroken stretch of seething, roiling red. It was as if a limb of the sun had swept close to the Earth—or as if someone had ripped the lid off hell. Jake felt a horrifying vertigo: for a moment of pure terror, up was down, and he was sure he was about to fall straight into the inferno.

A few feet away, Marionette had pushed Miss Percy to the ground, and Natasha held down Margherita. He heard Miss Percy whimpering, “My grandmother told me, when she was very young, a dragon came, and it filled the whole sky. Twenty magical girls fell at once when its breath touched them. They fluttered to the ground, like paper dolls on the wind. One struck not far from her house—she cracked the earth, and the magic in her blood made flowers grow. They used the Weapon then, the sky was full of fire—”

“I remember,” whispered Marionette. “Those twenty were my friends, and I knew them each by name.”

Heat stretched across Jake’s exposed skin, and his eye throbbed. He found he could move his hands again, so he took hold of the collar of Rifle Maiden’s coat and pulled it over his face.

He thought about the classroom, about the desk between him and the window. Whenever school started up again, that desk would be empty.

Tears ran from his eyes. The pain of breathing intensified as his chest heaved.

It was less than a minute, but felt like hours. Miserable and in pain, Jake didn’t even think to enjoy the new sensation of having a girl on top of him. At last, with a faint groan, Rifle Maiden pushed herself off and rolled to her feet. Overhead, the fire was gone, and so were the ships of the Robosaurs. The clouds were gone, too. All that remained was a stretch of blue now darkening to deep purple as the sun dipped to the surface of the bay.

Rifle Maiden offered him a hand. He took it, and she pulled him to his feet. He wobbled, but didn’t drop again.

“You’re a good guy,” she said. “I’d gladly fight at yer side, if’n you was a girl. What’s yer name?”

“Jake. Jake Blatowski.”

She patted him. “I meant what I said ’bout that sarsaparilla, but I figger you’ll be sore at me for a few days. Get in the shelter so’s I don’t hafta shoot’cha again, an’ maybe I’ll see ya ’round.”

She walked to her cow, who patiently chewed her cud as if nothing had happened. Rifle Maiden swung a leg over the cow’s back. “Giddyup, Bossy. Time t’ hunt fer some more evil robots.”

“Moo,” Bossy replied.

Rifle Maiden looked over her shoulder at Marionette, who was helping Miss Percy off the ground, and added, “No offense.”

“I’m not programmed to take any,” Marionette replied as she dusted off her gown. She walked near to Jake and paused at his shoulder, looking past him instead of meeting his eye. Under her breath, she said, “When I asked you to watch out for her, I meant … I meant when you could. There are things you can’t do, and there are places you can’t go. I’m sorry.”

Her biplane had melted into a puddle of grease, so she pulled the pencil from her back, spun it in her hands, and brought the sharp point down to the surface of the road. “By the power of imagination! From my mind, through my hands—to reality!”

As she spoke, she sketched. Once she finished, she reached down and, from the pavement, peeled up a beanie with an oversized propeller. After she took off her aviatrix cap and slapped on the beanie in its place, the propeller spun and lifted her into the air.

Jake heard a faint screaming—a single, steady note. It sounded like a young girl.

He looked around, trying to pinpoint the source. “That voice. I know—”

The scream grew steadily louder, and then a blue streak shot out of the sky and smashed straight into Marionette. She plummeting to the ground, where she rolled over three times and lay still. The streak continued on until it crashed into a corner of the school and brought down a hail of brick and broken glass.

Jake ran toward it.

“Wait!” Miss Percy called. “That could be another—”

A pair of blue pigtails rose out of rubble, and Pretty Dynamo’s irritated voice said, “Zappin’ A! That hurt like a motherboard!”

She stood up, coughed, and brushed the brick dust from her arms. Jake grabbed her, pulled her out of the pile, and hugged her to his chest.

“Whoa, whoa! Hands off, pervert!”

“You’re alive!”

“What? Oh. Yeah …”

For less than a second, the tension left her, and she went slack in his arms, but then she roughly shoved him back.

“How did you get out?” he asked.

“Of what? The ship? Eh, I was already outta that thing.” She kicked a chunk of brick. “I wanted to find the engine room, you know? We were tracin’ the electromagnetic fields of their wiring, but I got led off by secondary systems. I fried what I could, but they kept sendin’ robots at us. I got behind a door an’ arc-welded it shut with my finger to block ’em off, but … anyway, I blew out another airlock.”

She shrugged.

“What about the Weapon?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “I heard the alarm goin’ soon as I got outside, so me an’ Tesla dropped fast, but kinda caught the edge of it.”

Her eyes widened, and she quickly dived back into the pile of debris. She dug frantically, pelting Jake with chunks of brick. He raised his arms and stumbled back.

At last, she brought up the lightning bug. One lens of his glasses was cracked. He quivered in her hands, but she prodded his abdomen until he coughed loudly, opened his eyes, and said, “Ah, Dyna … that was a jolly good kip.” He opened his shell, extended his wings, and fluttered to her shoulder. “Shame about these, though,” he added, sniffing as he pulled his glasses off and vainly wiped them with a tiny kerchief.

Dynamo sighed in relief.

She dug into the debris again until she came up with what was left of her Circuit Board. She only found half of it. Cracks veined the blue glasslike material, which ended at a charred, jagged edge.

“Well, zap.”

“That’s going to take at least two weeks to regenerate, Dyna,” Tesla said. “You still have your wand, don’t you?”

“Yeah, I got it.” She patted the wand at her hip. “Looks like we’re gonna be ground-bounders for a while.”

She tried to rise to her feet, but, with a look of shock on her face, sank slowly back to her knees. From her tiara, her goggles dropped over her eyes, and pink text scrolled rapidly across their lenses.

Tesla said, “You’ve overexerted. One moment—I’m patching into your diagnostic utility. Hm … yes, status of electronic and mechanical components is nominal, but I’m afraid I can’t say the same for organics. Your musculoskeletal system is at its limit. Bedrest indicated. And dinner, and maybe some Epsom salts.”

She pounded a fist against a brick. “Zap it all, we didn’t get anything done!”

“Dyna, you did single-handedly storm the—”

“So what? They used the Weapon! That whole trip was a waste!”

“You fought well.” Tesla rubbed a forelimb against her cheek, perhaps to calm her down. “In any case, you’re finished for now.”

Jake held a hand toward her. “Grease Pencil Marionette is giving me a time-out in the shelter for not playing well with others. So, wanna join me inside a dark room in the school? It’ll be like old times.”

“Zap you, Jake. I’m not through yet. Tesla, activate my backup.”

“Absolutely not,” Tesla answered.

“Pretty Dynamo! Jake!” Miss Percy yelled. “We have a problem!”

Jake turned around to see Margherita and Miss Percy kneeling over Marionette, who lay spread-eagled in the road.

“She’s not breathing!” Miss Percy cried.

“Well, she doesn’t have to breathe,” said Margherita. “But she’s definitely deactivated.”

Dynamo put her hands to her head and pressed her face to her knees. “Oh no, no, no! I broke Magical Girl Marionette—!”

“Don’t you have, like, electrical powers?” Jake asked. “Can’t you jump-start her, or—?”

“She’s not a car, you zappin’ idiot!”

“I think I can handle this,” Margherita said as she cracked her knuckles. “Once, when King Tosser had struck her with the Tongs of Infamy—”

Natasha bent into a low crouch, raised her head, and sniffed the air. “I apologize for interrupting your reminiscence of your glory days, Miss Mozzarella, but the Loa are warning me.”

“Of what?” Miss Percy asked.

“Bad juju,” Natasha replied. “Very, very bad juju.”

Her hands moving so fast that they blurred, Rifle Maiden pulled her rifle and fired. With a red flash and a rain of nuts and bolts, something heavy fell from the school’s roof. Spinning the rifle to cock it one-handed, she sprinted over and leveled the gun at a quivering mass of metal. It was silver in color, like the other Robosaurs, but it bristled with jagged, razor-sharp fans that Jake realized, after staring at them for a moment, were metal feathers. The thing lay on its side on the school lawn, but would probably stand three feet tall when upright. It had long arms, each ending in three fingers tipped with sharp claws. Useless, vestigial wing feathers drooped from its wrists. Its long, stiff tail ended in a gaudy fan. Each of its legs ended in thick feet with three toes. Adorning the innermost toe of each foot was a claw shaped like a sickle.

The thing lifted its reptilian head and hissed. Jaw set, Rifle Maiden, with a deafening boom, blasted its skull apart.

“What was that?” Margherita called.

Jake swallowed. “Velociraptor.”

“It’s a scout,” said Rifle Maiden, spitting the piece of straw out of her mouth and cocking her rifle again. She walked toward the sprawled Marionette. “We gotta get to—”

“It is too late, my friend,” said Natasha. From her crouch, she gestured at the surrounding rooftops. Six or more Velociraptors stood on top of each of the houses and silently watched the street below, their fingers twitching and their clawed toes flexing. One opened its mouth to display its many sharp teeth, and it released a long, low snarl.

“Welp,” said Rifle Maiden, a wide grin revealing her buckteeth, “now the fun really begins.”