JAKE AND THE DYNAMO Chapter 11

JAKE AND THE DYNAMO

CHAPTER 11: MARIONETTES

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Magical Girl Grease Pencil Marionette remembered.

She remembered everything, and she could recall it with crystal clarity.

After all, she had a solid-state hard drive where her hippocampus should be.

She remembered the moment when she walked out of the flames with the micro-arrays of semi-selective chemical detectors in her nostrils full of the acrid stench of charring wood and burning alkaloids. The haptic sensors in her feet returned signals that the tactile sensation simulators in her positronic parietal lobe interpreted as the roughness of hot concrete. Her internal temperature gauge complained that she was close to overheating, so her fans whined, and the vents under her shoulder blades dilated open, making her look hunched.

She was naked, but in one hand she carried a torn and charred scrap of cloth, formerly white but now black from soot. It was a piece of what had once been a lab coat. In her other hand, she carried her grease pencil, its point dripping from the heat.

Wisps of smoke still rose from her synthetic skin as she staggered down the dark streets. People screamed when they saw her. Children cried. Mothers snatched up their toddlers and ran. She didn’t know where she was going, but something drew her on as she made her way through the narrow, labyrinthine roads of deep Urbanopolis. Rats and cockroaches scurried away from her bare feet. Overhead, a few stars twinkled in a purple sky, and the moon shone full and bright.

At last, she found the vast rose garden at the city’s center, on the spot that would later hold the Temple. It was a serene park of gently rolling hills, babbling brooks, tumbling waterfalls, lush grasses, and fragrant flowers. The roses bobbed in a faint breeze, and their leaves rustled. The tulips and hibiscus had shut up their buds for the night. Sound detectors in Marionette’s ears registered the rhythmic chirp of cicadas.

In the center of the garden rose a round platform of marble, its surface etched with a pentagram. On the platform stood six of the magical girls, the Moon Princess’s inner circle: their uniforms were those of Urbanopolis’s school districts, augmented with embroidery and jewels, or with plate armor, or with unnatural materials whose properties Marionette could only guess at.

Ice Queen was there. Fists on her hips and a haughty glare on her face, she wore Enma High’s dark blue winter fuku. A sea-green obi at her waist held a katana and wakizashi, each with a delicately carved and jewel-encrusted tsuba. Her long, straight hair was teal, and her eyes were frozen fire.

Beside her, with an arm across her shoulders, stood Hell’s Belle. She wore the red skirt, red tie, and fitted jacket of the prestigious all-girls’ T&A Academy. A spiked plate covered her right shoulder, and a gauntlet enclosed her left hand. Her bright pink hair stood up in a Mohawk. She had a claymore across her back, and she gripped a heavy mace. Tattoos depicting skulls, flames, and snakes ran down her neck.

Nearby, with arms crossed and a contemptuous sneer on her blood red lips, stood Hatchet Harridan. She had cut the blouse of her sailor fuku from Juban High to expose her midriff, and she wore fishnet stockings on her legs. Numerous studs pierced her lips, ears, and nose. Her hand axes, their blades sporting dried blood, hung in a leather belt at her hips.

Crouching beside her was Sister Slicer, her green hair in a ponytail. She wore the sweater vest, plaid skirt, and necktie of St. Joan’s Catholic. She had sewn loops into her clothes, and from those loops hung her throwing knives and shuriken. She had a tanto slung across the small of her back.

Somewhat apart from the others stood Whip Witch. Her outfit was of tight black leather, but cut to resemble a uniform, with a wide collar and a red neckerchief. On her left hip hung her razor chain whip, and she held a riding crop in her hands. A pointed cap with a broad brim sat on her head. Her long hair was dark purple, and her full lips were bright green. Framed in black eyeliner, her violet eyes shone with febrile intensity.

The only one who did not wear a school uniform was Magical Himiko, the girls’ leader: instead, she wore the white haori of a shrine maiden, but had traded the traditional hakama for a pleated red miniskirt. She leaned on a naginata, and its curved blade gleamed in the moonlight.

These girls were young, but their mouths were stern and firmly set, their eyes cold. Their long, slender legs were full of stringy muscle and marked with bruises. Their clothes were dingy, frayed, stained, and in some cases singed. They were not schoolchildren. They were soldiers. Their hard eyes focused on Marionette as she stumbled toward them. They said nothing. Hell’s Belle spat.

Though Marionette’s positronic brain automatically registered these girls and analyzed every detail of their faces, their postures, their uniforms, and their equipment, the magical girls could not hold the attention of her conscious mind—for she was there, standing in their midst. The angel. The goddess.

The Moon Princess.

Like a willow, she was slender, graceful, and tall. Her disheveled, golden hair, glistening like dew, hung almost to her feet. Her long gown glowed like the moon, and on her brow sat a tiara made of stars. Her eyes were as blue as the ocean, and as deep. Her face was calm, her gaze full of kindness. Not a single line marred her cheeks or forehead.

The Princess had just returned from her latest battle. The green-eyed Bugmen from Arcturus had planned an especially devious attack: they had used tractor beams to realign the planets of the Solar System in order to activate an otherworldly portal Alexander the Great had left in the Caucasus. Had they succeeded, they would have unleashed a horde of hellish abominations from beyond the walls of space-time.

While her faithful magical girls had found and smashed the portal, the Princess had personally struck down the Bugman fleet. Green gore still mottled her naked arms and coated the hem of her gown. In one fist, by its long antennae, she held a Bugman’s severed head.

“What is this?” she asked, her voice as sweet and playful as the brook running through the garden. A gentle smile touched her lips as she leaned down, put a begrimed hand to Marionette’s chin, and looked into her eyes. “It is a strange gift, one even I had not foreseen. What is your name, child?”

Marionette looked away as her emotion-simulating subroutines mimicked bashfulness. Her etiquette program advised her to kneel, so she did. “I have no name, Your Majesty. I am only a marionette.”

“A marionette? A plaything? Would you have it so, child?”

“It is so, Your Majesty.”

“You have sought me, and you have found me, so what do you wish of me?”

“Your Majesty, I wish to be a real girl.”

Briefly, the Princess again touched Marionette’s face. Then she gestured toward her warriors. “These others have made the same request, yet I could not grant it.”

“I do not understand, Your Majesty.”

“Do you understand what it is to be a magical girl, little marionette?”

Marionette’s eyes moved back and forth among the gathered girls. “I … I am a fully functional, combat-ready magical girl simulation sys—”

The Moon Princess cut her short with tinkling laughter. “Oh, poor, poor man. If I had known what he was attempting, I could have saved him. Your poor inventor. He need not have died.”

Marionette dropped her eyes again and stared at the cloth she still clutched in one hand.

“I will give you a choice, little marionette. You may, if you wish, live well in this my fair city. You may have every comfort—but remain always a marionette. Or you may live as a magical girl.”

“I was designed—”

“Your designer, I’m afraid, did not understand. Will you serve me, marionette?” She held out one fine-fingered hand to reveal her ring, which bore her sigil, a crescent moon encircling a pentagram. “Will you swear yourself to me, as these have? Will you serve me always? Will you daily take up your wand and follow after me?”

Marionette’s visual sensors analyzed the signet ring in silence.

“Most of my girls will end their service once they leave childhood behind them. Then they will live normal lives … if they can. But you, I’m afraid, must give me more. Your service will be long, and it will be hard. But there is a chance—I make no promises—that when it is at last over, you may break free from your synthetic shell as a butterfly breaks from its cocoon. Then, like these, you will take your place at my side. Little marionette, I offer you the hope—such slender hope!—of a soul.”

“But I do not—”

“Before you answer, I ask you again: marionette, do you know what it is to be a magical girl?”

This time, Marionette merely shook her head.

Now the Princess leaned down until her cool breath tickled Marionette’s ear, and she whispered, “To be a magical girl is to suffer.”

 


 

Marionette finished her search. Her small, deft fingers tied up the laces on Card Collector Kasumi’s corset and pulled Kasumi’s minidress back over her shoulders. For several minutes, Marionette sat in a silent wake.

“I’m sorry, Kasumi,” she murmured. “In the end, I couldn’t protect you.”

Briefly, she touched Kasumi’s closed eyes. Then she gathered the cards she’d discovered into a small pile and unbuttoned her jacket. Kneeling on the floor beside the body of the closest friend she had known in over a century, Marionette sighed deeply as she touched her own chest and opened a portal there. A bright glow, like the fire of a miniature sun, filled the room.

 


 

The car was locked. Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo walked around it, tried the door handles, tried the trunk, and finally punched a fist through the driver’s side window. The car alarm blared.

“Ah, cmon!” Jake yelled. “You can’t just break other people’s stuff like that!”

“I break other people’s stuff all the time.” She reached in and pressed the button to disengage the locks. Then she threw open the driver’s side butterfly door, almost whapping Jake in the face with it. When she reached under the dashboard and yanked something, the alarm stopped.

“How’d you know how to do that?”

“I can feel electromagnetic fields.” She walked around to the passenger’s side. “Get in.”

“Am I driving?”

She glared at him. The car was low enough, even she could look over it. “Of course.”

“Can’t you drive?”

“I’m eleven!”

“You said you could hotwire this!”

“Yeah, hotwire it, not drive it! She closed her eyes and leaned her forehead on the side of the car. “Let me guess. You can’t drive.”

“I’m only fourteen.”

“You’ve never driven before?”

“Well, I have—”

“Good. Get in.”

“Yeah, but it’s just—”

“Get in!” She pulled up the door on her own side, jumped into the leather bucket seat, and slammed the door shut.

He climbed inside. For a moment, he stared in confusion at the steering wheel: it was not a round wheel, but instead had ribbed grips located at ten and two. Between them was a complex array of knobs and buttons, all brightly colored but none clearly labeled.

Great.

He pulled the door down and said, “Seat belt.”

“Oh my zappin’ Princess, are you serious?”

“This car isn’t going anywhere until you buckle up.”

“Sweet mother of the Moon, what are you, my grandma?”

“Do you want to argue, or do you want to fight robot dinosaurs?”

She grabbed the seat belt with a snarl and fiddled with it for a moment before she got it to catch. “There! Are you happy? You can’t hurt me with this zappin’ car anyway, but I buckled my seat belt!”

“Good girl.” He buckled his own and tapped his fingers on the wheel for a few seconds. “Okay. Now, um … hotwire it.”

She chewed her lip. “Yes, I would like to hotwire it. I would very much like to hotwire it. But to do that, I have to get over there, which means I need to undo my seat belt!”

With an inarticulate yell, she threw the seat belt off, vaulted over the stick, and pounced on him.

“Hey!” he shouted as he tried to fend off her knees and elbows. “No roughhousing! This is not a rumble seat!”

Tesla tapped a forelimb against her forehead. “Dynamo!”

“Oh, for the love of all things lunar!” Dynamo splayed across Jake, squirmed, smacked him a few more times for good measure, and finally twisted around so she was sitting in his lap with her heavy boots on the dash, on either side of the steering wheel. “There’s no room in this darn thing!”

“You’re the one who picked it,” said Jake, wincing. “And you’re heavy.”

She reached back over her shoulder and tweaked his nose. “Never call a girl heavy!”

“Ow! Ow!”

She put her hands on the wheel and shoved herself backwards to dig her armor plating into his ribs. He gasped.

She grumbled, “Why didn’t you wait ’til I was done with this before you got in?”

“You told me to get in!”

“Whatever. Shut up.” With a casual swipe of one hand, she ripped the plastic cover off the steering column and threw it behind the seat.

“Ah, c’mon, Dana!”

“What? You want me to hotwire it, don’t you?”

“Can’t you just, I dunno, pull some wires out from under the dashboard—?”

“Only in movies, idiot. Now put it in neutral and press the clutch.”

He did. She leaned down and bit through a wire with her teeth.

“You’re gonna electrocute yourself.”

“I’m electricity-proof. Stop nagging.”

“You’re gonna break a tooth, then.”

“Rrrgh! How can you be a backseat driver from the driver’s seat? Shut up and let me work!”

She bit through a few more wires and then spliced a couple together. When she touched her fingertip to the starter wire, the engine turned over with a low rumble.

She climbed over the center console and back into her own seat, kicking Jake in the chin in the process. “Let’s roll.”

He winced as he rubbed his jaw. “Seat belt.”

Dynamo pounded the back of her head against her headrest, but she buckled up without further argument.

Jake rubbed his hands together. “All right, here I go—”

He disengaged the parking brake and popped the clutch. The car lurched suddenly and then rocked back and forth with a faint creak. The engine stalled.

Dynamo crossed her arms and stared out the windshield. “What the heck was that?”

“I’ve never driven stick.”

After half a minute of drumming the fingers of one hand against an elbow, she said, “You are never going to get a girlfriend.”

“I have a girlfriend!”

“Has she seen you drive?”

“No, because I’m fourteen!”

Tesla cleared his throat. “I may be able to help.”

Dynamo rolled her eyes up to peer at him as he leaned over her forehead. “You can drive?”

“Not a vehicle this large, obviously, but I have already intuited the functions of these simple controls. Remember, Dyna, I used to be a pilot.”

“A pilot?” said Jake. “Wait, what are you? Aren’t you a spirit guide or something?”

Tesla laughed. “No, young man, I am not. Quite a lot of the familiars are flesh and blood just like you. I am an Elektronian from the planet Elektron.”

“I should have guessed.”

“To your primitive eyes, my world would no doubt appear extraordinarily advanced, as all of our technology runs on a powerful force we call electricity.”

“You don’t say.”

“I just did say, young man. Pay attention. This is why you’ve been held back in school.”

Jake muttered under his breath, but didn’t answer.

“Dyna,” said Tesla, “I suggest that we have your lackey here operate the controls while I give him instructions. Agreed?”

Dynamo shrugged. “Sure, whatever. Zap, but I want my Board back.”

“Patience, Dyna. Patience is a virtue, and magical girls must be virtuous. If you’re not, they’ll stop asking you for autographs and interviews, and you won’t be invited to make any more appearances at school assemblies to give pithy advice about dental hygiene.”

“Can we get a move on here?” Jake said.

“Certainly. Dyna, start the engine again. Now, young man, this time—”

 


 

Slowly and fitfully, with many starts, stops, and engine stalls, they made their way downtown while Jake learned how to drive a stick shift. Pretty Dynamo squirmed and fidgeted in her seat. She played with her window, with the sun visor, and with the glove compartment until Jake yelled at her to stop. Then she pouted in silence.

They wound their way out of the hills until the houses gave way to apartment complexes, and then the apartment complexes gave way to motley, shared-wall buildings, most of them shops with loft apartments. The architecture grew less uniform, and the buildings began to show the signs of decay, destruction, and hasty rebuilding that characterized deep Urbanopolis.

They entered the part of the city informally known as Little India, one of several quarters, constructed in the city’s early days, that had retained a unique character instead of falling prey to the generic Japanese-American hybridization of the newer districts.

Many of the buildings in Little India displayed the rounded corners, tapered pylons, and porthole windows of Streamline Moderne, the preferred style of the city’s earliest phase, when its new inhabitants had imagined that Urbanopolis would be a shining city on a hill, like something from an old-time science fiction movie, instead of a perpetual war zone. In Little India, architects had blended Streamline Moderne with such features as domes, ribbed vaults, broken arches, and intricate tilework, creating a hybrid style called Streamline Mughal, which the city had adopted for many of its public buildings.

Jake brought the car to a halt in front of a smoking pile of debris. Buildings on either side of the street had collapsed, blocking the road with brick and concrete.

“I can back up and try a different route,” he said, “but I don’t know if we can get around this. Looks like they hit this area hard, and if there’s anything in the road at all, I can’t drive over it. You could high-center this thing on a pebble.”

Pretty Dynamo grunted. “Let’s get out.” She threw open her butterfly door, rolled out onto the pavement, ducked low, and sprinted for the rubble pile. Jake scrambled out and followed.

She lay down against the pile and put a finger to her lips. He crouched beside her.

From the other side of the heaped debris, he heard loud, high-pitched, discomfiting laughter, the sound of a man giggling like a child.

“That doesn’t sound like one of those dinosaurs,” he whispered.

Dynamo shook her head. “No, it doesn’t.”

A trickle of sweat ran from her temple to her cheek.

Deftly and silently, she scrambled to the top of the pile and peeked over. As quietly as he could, he followed and muttered oaths to the Princess whenever loose bricks slipped from beneath his feet or a sharp piece of rebar banged his knee.

The opposite side of the rubble looked like a scene from hell. Some buildings still stood, but most had crumbled. A few fragmented concrete walls stood by themselves with twisted rebar reaching out from them like gnarled fingers. Bricks littered the cracked asphalt. Bodies stretched across the pavement, and sprayed blood surrounded them like the guts of a bug splattered on a windshield. Above them in the air hovered a thin man, probably in his mid-thirties, wearing the tattered remains of a tweed suit and a lime-green tie. He drifted back and forth, his head tilted back with his mouth open toward the sky. Wild shrieks of laughter poured from his throat.

“Zap,” Dynamo hissed.

“Retreat,” said Tesla quietly.

A chill ran down Jake’s spine as the bodies in the street twitched, groaned, and with much creaking and many sickeningly wet noises, slowly shambled to their feet.

Dynamo slid back to the bottom of the pile, and Jake slid down after.

“What the heck was that?” he whispered as they ran toward the car.

“They warned us at the Temple. The Weapon opens a gate to hell. Sometimes, stuff comes back through.”

“That floating dude—”

“He’s possessed.”

“Holy Princess, are you serious?”

“I might be able to kill him, but that’s all I could do, and that wouldn’t help anyway.” She shook her head. “I don’t have any exorcism spells. This is a job for Voodoo Queen Natasha, or Nunchuk Nun, or Magical Miko Kiyoko, or Lady Paladin Andalusia—”

“Hey, Tesla,” Jake whispered, “you’re her familiar. Can’t you give her a new item to fight demons?”

“Sorry,” Tesla replied. “Pretty Dynamo is more of a sciencey sort of magical girl.”

“You said you gave her powers by calling on the gods of thunder.”

“I did. And it was an entirely scientific process.”

Jake had parked the car next to a small heap of crumbled stucco. As they neared, the stucco shifted, and pebbles clattered into the road. With an animal-like snarl, a man rose out of the heap. Gray dust covered him, and dried blood streaked his green kurta.

“That guy needs help,” said Jake.

“That guy’s already dead,” said Dynamo. “Lightning Rod.”

She had her wand out. It expanded into a spear, but then immediately shrank into a wand again.

She blinked and, mouth open, turned the wand over in her hand.

Grunting and groaning, the man stretched his hands out as if feeling his way through a dark room. He stumbled toward them.

Dynamo swallowed. “Uh, Jake, you got any open sores or cuts or—?”

“Yeah. Thanks to you, I got lots of ’em.”

“Oh zap. Okay, don’t let these things touch you and don’t get any of their, uh, juice on you—”

“What are you talking about? Shouldn’t we help this guy?”

Tesla’s antennae wiggled. “What Dyna is trying to say is, the man approaching us is actually a corpse reanimated by infernal powers. These ‘undead,’ as you quaintly call them, are notoriously infectious.”

A lump formed in Jake’s throat. “Oh no.”

“Lightning Rod!” Dynamo yelled.

Her wand didn’t change.

She held out a palm. “Ball Lightning!”

Nothing happened.

“Tesla, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. You should be fully charged.”

Jake took a step back as the shambling corpse drew nearer. “Can you kill zombies?”

“Of course I can,” she muttered through clenched teeth. “Anyone can. You just hit ’em in the head—assuming I can get something to hit ’em with. C’mon, Lightning Rod!” She slapped her wand in her palm several times.

Jake found a brick near his feet. He picked it up, hefted it to test its weight, and threw. His shoulder complained, but the brick hit the zombie full in the face. The creature dropped.

“Make for the car!” he shouted. After a few bounds, he threw open the car door. Above the lip of the rubble pile, several ashen faces appeared, and the possessed young man floated into the air above, his unfashionable tie flapping in the wind as his maniacal laughter continued.

“Ah, darn it!” Dynamo yelled as she slid over the hood and threw open the passenger door. “We gotta at least get away from that guy!”

She started the engine.

“Okay,” said Jake, “seat belt.”

Dynamo clapped a hand to her face.

“Hurry up!” Jake shouted.

“Oh, for—!” Cussing an electric blue streak, Dynamo grabbed her seat belt and rammed it into its slot.

Jake said, “That’s no way for a magical girl to talk.”

“Would you shut up and drive?”

He threw the car into reverse, hit the gas, turned the wheel hard as he backed up, and spun the car around. “All right, let’s see what this baby can do!”

He grabbed the stick, popped the clutch again, and killed the engine.

Dynamo glared. “You idiot.”

Snarling like a mad dog, a zombie threw himself across the windshield and pounded a broken fist against the glass.

Dynamo reached over and touched the starter wire. The car began idling again. “Get us out of here!”

This time, Jake did it right. The car started moving, but the zombie still lay on the windshield. Squirming like a landed fish, he flopped onto the top of the cab and clawed at the sunroof. Another zombie, this one a young woman in the tattered remains of a sari, leapt onto the trunk.

Jake got the car into second gear without making it lurch. He could feel sweat seeping through his shirt. Something clumped against the driver’s side door. He looked over to see a bloody, gray hand reaching through the hole Dynamo had made in the glass.

“Gyahh!”

He floored it. The car jumped forward. With a wet splat, the zombie on the trunk fell off and rolled across the pavement. Groaning, the zombie on the driver’s side also fell away, but his hand stayed there, stuck in the window. Its rotting fingers reached toward the bandage on Jake’s cheek.

“Dynamo! Do something about this!”

“What? I’m not touching that thing!”

“Aren’t you immune to zombies or something?”

“Yeah, but that thing’s gross!”

“Wait!” Tesla shouted. “Neither of you touch a zombie until I run a diagnostic!”

Dynamo’s goggles dropped over her eyes, and text scrawled across her lenses.

Tesla grunted. “That’s what I thought. Dyna, it’s that sweater. I assumed its powers were aesthetic or perhaps aetheric, and therefore unlikely to harm you. I’m afraid I made an error: the fibers are crawling with nanobots, which can apparently sap energy. If you don’t get that sweater off soon, you’re going to need another juice box.”

“Darn that Sword Seamstress!” Dynamo smacked a fist into a palm. Then she stared at her hands, blinking.

Jake leaned as far as he could to the right to escape the grasping hand. “How does this affect her powers?”

“Not entirely sure,” Tesla said, “but she certainly shouldn’t attempt to engage the enemy in any fashion until we remove the sweater. At the very least, she can’t call any spells.”

“That hurt,” Dynamo mumbled.

“What?” said Jake.

“That hurt. Just now. When I hit my hand.”

She hesitated a moment, but then slammed a fist into the glove compartment. Sucking her breath between her teeth, she squeezed her hand between her legs.

“That hurt! Tesla, what’s wrong with me?”

“Calm down, Dyna! We just need to get that sweater off!”

With a loud crack, glass rained into the cab, and the zombie up top shoved a hand through a new hole in the sunroof, getting most of his forearm into the cab before he got stuck. Dynamo shrank down in her seat and Tesla jumped from the top of her head into her lap.

Now with zombie hands groping for him from two directions, Jake leaned down low over the center console. Something wet and warm slid down the back of his neck.

Oh my Princess, that thing’s bleeding on me!

He rammed down the gas pedal and made a hard right around a blind corner. The tires squealed as the car slid, but the zombie on the roof tumbled off. Unlike the last one, he took his arm with him, leaving only a few ragged strips of flesh behind on the broken glass as he rolled across the pavement.

“Oh, sweet Princess in heaven.”

Only a block away, a horde of fifty or more zombies headed toward them. Some had limp, swinging arms hanging from their shoulders by nothing more than threads of stringy flesh. Some dragged shattered feet. Some had eyes dangling from their sockets or broken jaws dangling from their skulls. Some had blood still seeping from recent fatal wounds. But when they saw the car, all released savage, animal-like moans and broke into what, for the undead, passed for a run.

Tesla hopped onto the dashboard. “Mow through them! Mow through them!”

Jake floored it again. The car rocked as bodies struck the bumper, smashed into the windshield, and rolled over the cab. The windshield cracked, and blood sprayed across it.

“I can’t see!” Jake shouted.

Everything shook. The arm stuck in the window jiggled loose and tumbled between the door and the seat. Jake fell forward against his shoulder strap, and the airbag exploded into his face.

He slammed back into his seat as the car came to a sudden halt. “Oh no! Dana! Dana!” He reached toward her.

That kid’s still small enough for a booster seat, and I just—

“I’m fine, idiot! Stop touching me!” She slapped his hand away.

“I bet now you’re glad I made you put on a seat belt.”

“Whatever. Shut up.” She tried to yank the door open. She threw a shoulder against it. “Zap, it’s stuck.”

“I’ll try my side.” Jake pulled up the handle and shoved. The door didn’t want to move, but he pushed. It creaked, and finally it lifted. He tumbled out onto the rubble-strewn street.

As he had suspected, he’d crashed into another toppled building, a jumbled mass of concrete and rebar blocking off the road. The front of the car had crumpled, and steam spurted from the ruptured radiator.

“Zap it!” Dynamo crawled out after him, holding Tesla to her chest. “I liked that car! I was thinkin’ of calling it the Dynamobile—”

“You can’t just keep it!” Jake shouted.

“Better than what you did to it, moron!”

Something tightened painfully around Jake’s left ankle. He looked down to see the severed arm holding him in a death grip. “Yah! Get this thing off me!”

Tesla leapt out of Dynamo’s arms and flew a tight loop through the air. “No time! Here they come!”

The car had cut a bloody swath through the zombie horde. Shattered torsos and broken limbs flopped in the street, and long smears of blood coated the asphalt, but most of the zombies were still upright. They turned toward the car, reached out with their bloody fingers, and roared.

“All right,” said Jake, “we can always outrun them, and I bet they can’t climb.”

“They can climb,” said Tesla, “but they take a while. On the plus side, we seem to have lost that demoniac, but we need to find an exorcist magical girl as soon as possible, or he’ll just keep making more zombies.”

Jake leapt, grabbed a piece of rebar jutting from a collapsed wall, and hauled himself up to the top of the ruin.

Dynamo tried to jump after him, but she rose only a few inches off the ground, missed the rebar, and collapsed onto her backside.

“Ow!” she cried.

The zombies were only twenty feet away. A note of bloodthirsty delight mixed with their snarls of rage.

“Holy Princess!” Jake jumped down and hauled Dynamo into his arms—but now he couldn’t jump back up.

“Jake! This way!” Tesla waved frantically toward a spot to the left where the rubble was lower, and where a chrome grille from the building’s façade formed a makeshift ladder.

He took off, and pain spiked into his ankle. The severed hand tightened. He clenched his teeth and ran anyway. With a rabid screech, a zombie lunged at him, reaching a twisted claw for his face. He threw himself aside, slipped in loose gravel, and fell hard against the collapsed wall. A sharp piece of rebar dug into his side. He gained his feet again and scrabbled up the grille. It slid downward, but he sprinted as hard as he could, struggling to keep atop the crumbled concrete as it clattered under his feet. He felt more zombie fingers against his calves—

But then he crested the pile. On the other side, the street stretched on. Storefronts had blown out, and the blackened shells of a few burnt-out cars belched evil-smelling smoke. But he saw no zombies.

The undead howled in frustration and rage as he disappeared from their view.

 


 

“Tesla, I feel sick.”

Pretty Dynamo’s pale face was clammy. Jake could feel her body heat even through the thick sweater. She had a raging fever.

“She’s not infected, is she?” Jake asked.

“I’ve lost access to her diagnostics,” Tesla said as he landed on Jake’s shoulder. The feel of his little limbs made Jake’s skin crawl. “But I don’t believe so. I think it’s the sweater.”

“How do I get it off?” Dynamo gasped.

Tesla adjusted his glasses. “I really don’t … oh, goodness … well, it’s possible that it might disintegrate if you transform.”

Dynamo’s eyes narrowed. “Seriously?”

“Your transformation process produces powerful garment-dismantling rays, which are necessary to—”

“That is not a real thing,” said Jake.

Tesla cleared his throat. “Garment-dismantling energies are the exclusive study of a highly specialized branch of the physical sciences, and they are absolutely vital to the intricate processes of magical girl transformation. Do not blame me, young man, if you do not understand them.”

“Then do it,” said Jake. “We’ve got nothing to lose now.”

“Put me down first,” Dynamo said.

“No, we’ve gotta keep moving—”

“She weakly pounded a fist against his chest. “You just wanna touch me, you pervert!”

“Stop being a baby, Dana.”

She didn’t answer, but simply turned her face from him. However, after a few seconds, her armor, her skirt, her boots—and the sweater—evaporated in a flash of light. Her school uniform quickly materialized in their place.

She reached a hand down and patted herself. “It’s gone! Put me down! Put me down!”

This time he did. He jumped away from her and crouched, breathing hard.

She raised a hand into the air and shouted, “Shock my heart!”

Nothing happened.

“Shock my heart! Shock my heart!”

Dana trembled, and tears appeared in her eyes. Slowly, she collapsed to the street and burst into sobs.

Jake scooped her up again, and this time she weighed nothing at all. She beat her fist on his shoulder, but otherwise didn’t resist.

“Hush,” he said.

He found a small convenience store and carried her inside. After a quick check to make sure no zombies were lurking in the corners, he pushed the door shut and, with his shoulder, shoved a shelf full of packaged henna in front of it. Then he carried Dana to the back and ducked behind the counter.

“Could the zombies trace us here?” he asked.

“Well,” said Tesla, “the human nose and human ear are not particularly keen, and I shouldn’t think that death would improve them … but I admit these are things outside my knowledge.”

“What, no zombies on Planet Elektron?”

Tesla chuckled. “Young man, there are many powers in the universe. You have powers you could not explain to a lower creature, and I have powers I could not explain to you, which you might as well call magic. But we are now dealing with powers that are magic even to me.”

Jake nodded. He stared at the poorly blockaded door and tried to think.

Dana pulled her knees to her face and wept.

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