JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 15: A NEW PRIMA DONNA
Chirops trembled as he slipped out of the stream. In a flash of dissipating magical energy, he entered Urbanopolis. The jagged rubble gouged his feet, and the cool air made his fur stand on end. It had been many ages since he’d been here.
All things considered, not much had changed.
The demoniac wasn’t hard to find. Near a collapsed building, he stood, perfectly balanced on the tips of his toes, on the top of a broken wall that now leaned at a forty-five degree angle. Blood and dust streaked his cheap suit. He gazed at the full moon, his back to Chirops. But soon after the bat appeared, the demoniac, with the sound of popping vertebrae, twisted his head around backwards. His mouth spread into an impossibly wide grin, revealing sixty or seventy sharp, crooked teeth. He flexed long, bony fingers, which at their tips had six-inch, razor-sharp claws.
Chirops winced and covered his face with a wing. “Oh! Oh, don’t do that! It’s just too creepy!”
The demoniac’s lower jaw separated from his upper, and his mouth grew into a black, gaping pit. From that pit poured a voice deep as thunder, yet it had an underlying tinniness, as if it came from cheap speakers.
He boomed, “Your mother chucks rocks in hell!”
“My mother … what?”
With a series of cracks and pops, the demoniac bent backwards into a crabwalk and lifted his pelvis high into the air, his head still turned around wrong. Lightning-quick, he crawled like a spider down the pile of rubble and seized Chirops by the throat.
“Little winged rat,” he hissed as he lifted Chirops into the air, “why don’t you die?”
Chirops weakly clawed at the hand gripping him. “No!” he gasped. “Don’t! We’re on the same side!”
“Side?” The demoniac licked his lips with a pointed, blood-red tongue. “What makes you think I have a side, little rat?”
Chirops’s vision turned gray. He kicked his legs. “I … I serve … I serve Lord Shadow!”
The demoniac’s grip loosened. He wagged his head back and forth. His yellow eyes bulged. “Lord Shadow? Yes … yes, that is one of his names.”
He dropped Chirops to the ground and, with further sickening cracks, raised himself up onto his feet. Instead of twisting his head around the right way, he merely bent his knees backwards and yanked his shoulders around. His long tongue dangled from between his fangs.
Panting, the bat sat up and rubbed his throat.
The demoniac cocked his head. “Aren’t you going to get upset that I said your mother’s in hell?”
“Well, of course she is, the old bat!”
The demoniac snorted. “I will spare you for now. The time has not yet come for the greater servants to devour the lesser.”
He stepped away and again gazed at the moon. “You are no Master. You are a slave. Who rules you, rat?”
“I serve the Dark Queen herself,” Chirops said as he rose shakily to his feet. “She is mistress of all who—”
The demoniac cut him off with a loud laugh like the giggle of a little girl amplified and warped into something perverse. He pranced in the street. “The Dark Queen? The Dark Queen? So it is her turn, is it?”
“She commands you to come with me to assault a human shelter—”
“Fool! The shelters are warded! Does your Queen know nothing of the city’s defenses? I am imprisoned: I cannot cross the ley lines that intersect here, and neither can you. Now you are trapped with me, and the two of us together shall await a human wench who will talk of friendship and purity and other disgusting things—and bring our death!”
Chirops sucked air until he was able to stop panting. “I can cross the ley lines.”
The demoniac stopped dancing. He paused, balanced on the pointed toes of one foot with his other leg high in the air. He turned his head up to the moon again. “Can it be?”
“All the servants of the Dark Queen are free of the Curses of Ebal.”
“I swear by Lord Shadow.”
The demoniac was silent for a long minute. Then he chuckled quietly. “Well, well … perhaps the Queen is more formidable than we had supposed. Even my Lord Astaroth thought her of no account.”
Chirops raked his claws through his fur as he rose to his feet. “Lord Shadow entrusted her with this. He has faith in her.”
“Lord Shadow has faith in no one, little rat. He has only tools, which he uses and then breaks. Do you not know? The universe is a tomb: once the stars fail and darkness covers all, Lord Shadow will sit enthroned over the sepulcher of the dead cosmos. But he will sit alone.”
“You’re wrong. He will reward his loyal soldiers.”
“Comfort yourself with such lies. The greater servants have no need of them.” The demoniac licked his lips again and rubbed his hands together.
After half a minute, Chirops extended a wing and drew a claw down his bicep, raising dark red beads of blood. “I can anoint you, and as long as the mark remains, you can pass through the city’s defenses.”
Dipping his claw in the blood, Chirops drew a circle on the demoniac’s forehead. Inside the circle, he drew a five-pointed star.
“What are you to the Dark Queen, rat?” the demoniac murmured. ‘A lover, perhaps?”
Chirops laughed. “I am much, much more than that, demon. I am her familiar.”
The demoniac nodded. “I suspected as much. I will admit to you, your mother’s not actually in hell.”
“She was there for a while, certainly, but she got out quite quickly.”
Chirops blinked. “You mean, like a bat out of—?”
“Don’t say it,” the demoniac hissed, his eyes glinting dangerously. “Don’t say it or I really will kill you.”
The shelter was as bad as Andalusia had described it. Since she was dead and there was no longer an exorcist in the area, the military had taken over and put the shelter on lockdown. Men in fatigues, armed with FN P90s and F2000s, flanked the heavy steel doors that led to the surface, as well as the smaller doors that led into the mole tunnels. The shelter contained little besides a series of narrow bunk beds and a shelf of MREs, which was also under guard. The toilet was a “squatter,” that is, a porcelain-lined hole with no seat, ostensibly designed for better hygiene. No partition separated it from the rest of the room, so anyone using it was in full view. There were narrow air vents, but the fans in them were still. The lights weren’t working, but electric torches hung from the ceiling and the thick support pillars. Children cried. Old people muttered and groaned. Young men swore and laughed. The room stank of stale body odor and urine.
Forget zombie infection, thought Jake as he wedged himself behind a pilaster in a corner near the door and slid down the wall into a crouch. I’m more likely to get TB in here.
Someone coughed on a bed nearby.
Jake stared at an unidentifiable stain on the concrete floor and thoughtlessly fiddled with the monitor on his wrist. It was pointless to ask to the guards to let him back out. He was stuck until this was over. He wondered what Pretty Dynamo was doing.
Probably having herself some goulash in Little Europe.
His stomach growled. It was pointless to ask for an MRE, too. The soldiers would distribute those on a schedule, no exceptions for latecomers.
He touched his face briefly and found that his cheeks were wet with tears. Andalusia’s blood still coated his hands. He could feel his fingers buzzing. The scabs over the scrapes and cuts on his wrists and arms were crumbling, revealing new, pink skin underneath. Her blood was magical, after all. It was accelerating his healing time, though it hadn’t been enough to save her.
A formless shadow of guilt rose up and hung over him like a brooding vulture. He pushed it back, but barely. He could wallow in it later, when this was over.
She’s dead because of me—
Somewhere in the room, the radio crackled and uttered its updates:
“Demoniac found in New Chad … exorcism completed … New Beijing declared clear … Juban declared clear … explosions in Little Europe near New Berlin … Dhulikhel declared clear … fighting hot in Massenya …”
Juban clear. That was good. Juban was always on the outskirts of things. He wondered what Little Europe’s explosions meant. They could mean Dynamo was fighting. They could mean Dynamo was dead.
His stomach clenched, and the shadow reared again. The tears ran faster down his cheeks. He didn’t know why, but he knew that, if Dynamo died, he’d blame himself.
The coughing came from the nearest bed again. The air was rank.
I’m gonna get sick with something in here, even if it’s not TB—
“Charles?” It was an elderly woman’s voice. “Charles, what’s wrong?” The woman was in her seventies, kindly-looking and plump. She had a full head of white, curly hair. She sat on a bunk with one hand on the back of an old man with heavy jowls. He leaned over, clutched his stomach, and coughed and hacked into his hand.
“Charles?” the woman said, her voice now tinged with panic. “Charles?”
Jake’s heartbeat quickened. A sense of expectation surrounded him and prickled his skin, as if the air had become ionized. He slowly slid back up the wall until he was standing, and he balled his hands into fists.
The man stopped hacking. He leaned toward the woman as if to kiss her. Then he opened his mouth wide and clamped his teeth down on her throat.
Her scream echoed off the low ceiling. Then others screamed and shot from their bunks. There were loudly shouted but incoherent orders, and then there were other shouts. People rushed to the far end of the room. A child wailed. A young boy fell, and six people stumbled over him, trampling into the floor. Blood spread out against the concrete—
The sick man wrenched his teeth away from his wife’s throat, a chunk of dripping flesh locked in his jaws. She fell from the bunk and tumbled wetly to the floor. She gurgled as her legs and arms twitched like a flopping fish.
Wedged as he was into a corner, behind a support pilaster, Jake was out of the way of the stampede. His first impulse was to run to the dying woman and squeeze shut her spurting jugular vein, but he had been through a lot in the last few days. His head knew he couldn’t save her even if his heart didn’t.
His head won. He stayed put, away from the shrieking mob, away from the dying. People shoved one another, crushed one another, knocked one another against the steel posts of the bunk beds. The electric torches swung on their wires. Crazy, tortured shadows undulated on the walls in a savage bacchanalia. The stench of blood mingled with the stink of sweat and piss.
I’m in hell. I died with Dana back in the convenience store, and the Moon Princess didn’t take me. I’m in hell—
The elderly man, blood staining the front of his simple dress shirt, rolled from the bunk and dropped to the ground. His legs collapsed under him and he fell on his face, but he pushed himself up with his hands and opened his blood-rimed mouth in a low snarl.
Belatedly, a monitor on the man’s wrist buzzed. The noise was low, steady, and strangely anticlimactic.
The man turned and looked straight at Jake. Tucking himself into a corner had saved him from the mob, but it had also trapped him with a zombie.
The zombie took a step forward. His thick tongue worked back and forth behind his red-stained teeth.
Over the din of screaming and crying, Jake heard a rough voice: “Get the doors open!”
The soldiers stood against a wall and beat back the panicked mob with the butts of their rifles. But one had enough presence of mind to follow orders, twist the heavy dog of a round mole-tunnel door, and heave it open. It was three feet of solid steel, and it turned cumbersomely on its hinges.
From down the tunnel came more grunts and snarls. With a curse, the soldier raised his F2000 to his shoulder and unleashed a volley before he leaned against the door to shut it again. He closed it on a groping human arm, which the heavy door easily crushed into red pulp.
Zombies in a tunnel … and the tunnels connect the shelters … that means everyone in the next shelter over is dead—
A chill ran the length of Jake’s spine. The elderly zombie staggered toward him, arms outstretched. Jake groped with his hands, but met nothing except the rough concrete of the walls. He had no weapon. He had nothing at all.
A man in fatigues half-jogged toward him and, in a businesslike manner, pulled a pistol from his belt. He yanked the slide back, yelled, “Cover your ears!” and put two bullets in the zombie’s head.
Jake slapped his hands to his ears, but they still rang.
The soldier turned to the woman still gasping on the floor. He capped her twice, and her head burst open, spraying red goop across the floor. The blood ran in rivulets toward a small, rust-coated drain.
Jake’s stomach lurched. She would have been a zombie in a few minutes, of course. He knew that. He understood what the soldier did. But still—
The soldier’s eyes met Jake’s for only a moment. In the gloom, Jake didn’t see either his nametag or his rank. The soldier merely pointed toward the big door, the one that led up to the street, and said, “Open that.”
Jake’s eyes slid from the soldier’s face to the round doorway. The men who had flanked it earlier were no longer there.
Mechanically, Jake obeyed. He walked to the door and clutched the dog. It was so thick, he could barely wrap his fingers around it. Straining, his biceps aching, he leaned into it. It shrieked in protest, but finally turned. He could hear the heavy bolts sliding in their locks. There was a boom, and he could tell in spite of its weight that the door would turn. He pulled, his lower back screaming, and the door came with him as he walked backwards into the room.
The soldier was right behind him. He clapped a hand on Jake’s shoulder and spoke two words.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, he understood. It was an evacuation order. Most of the shelter’s occupants were killing themselves in mindless fear, but the soldier was saving whomever he could.
Jake looked behind. Blood poured in tiny streams toward the floor’s many drains. Men and women scrambled over one another, no longer even aware of what they were reaching for. The old and the young fell under their feet, pressed into the unyielding floor. The soldier gave Jake a hard shove and sent him reeling into the steep stairwell.
He paused for only a moment before he put a sleeve over his eyes to quell the tears and half ran, half stumbled up the stairs.
His legs throbbed. He limped. Yet the air grew sweeter as he rose: he could breathe again. Leaving the shelter behind, he came out into the rubble-strewn street beneath the stars and took in huge gulps of the fresh, cool nighttime air.
In his stomach, guilt burned like fire.
He spent the night staggering through a wasteland. He knew where he was, and he knew which way to go to get home. Getting home was all he could think of.
His mouth was sticky. His legs burned. He could only walk very slowly, but he had twenty miles to cover.
He kept to the shadows. He occasionally saw people moving in the dark streets. He assumed they were zombies and stayed hidden until they passed. He didn’t see any more Robosaurs except the hulking wrecks that magical girls had already struck down. He saw a lot of auto-turrets standing on towers or peeking from niches in walls. Their barrels silently followed him as he passed, but none of them fired.
Afterward, he remembered little of the journey, though he recalled that the walk up the foothills into Juban was an especially exquisite agony. By the time he reached the edge of the district, he had started to hallucinate. He saw Pretty Dynamo dancing in a ballet, floating slowly as if underwater. Her skirt unfolded trembling petals as it transformed into a blue cornflower.
As the sun rose and bathed the city in vibrant, orange light, he collapsed onto his own front porch. He was only dimly aware of it when his father leaned over him and pulled the tattered remains of the paper jumpsuit from his body. He picked him up as if he were still a small boy, carried him upstairs, and put him to bed.
He slept most of the day. When he awoke, his mother fed him a bowl of warm broth, and he cried on her shoulder like a little child.
Then he slept again.
His dreams were vivid but confused, full of grinning beasts and staggering zombies with blood running from their open throats. Andalusia died. Then she died again. Then he died in her place while she watched, her face stoic and blank, as blood welled from his chest. Pretty Dynamo pointed at him and laughed and laughed and laughed. Then she was Dana, and Velociraptors ripped her apart as she screamed. Tesla sat on Jake’s shoulder, wiped his glasses, and explained in the calm voice of an academic that this was necessary, all necessary. And the Moon Princess nodded her regal head and bestowed her blessing while Dana died.
Once she was dead, she wasn’t Dana anymore. She was Card Collector Kasumi. Grease Pencil Marionette sat beside her and wept before she stabbed her pencil into Jake’s heart and the blood welled out again.
When he awoke for the second time, sweat had soaked through his bedsheets. The light had once more turned orange, for now the sun was going down.
He sat up, carefully lowered his feet to the floor, and tried to stand. Pain shot up his left leg. Sucking in his breath, he sank back onto the bed. His ankle was purple and swollen.
His mother knocked once and walked in. She sat beside him. Her eyes were red and puffy.
“The hospitals are full,” she said. “They said not to take anyone there unless it was an absolute emergency. I wanted to take you anyway—”
Her voice trembled.
“I’ll be okay, Mom. I think I should put some ice on this ankle, though.”
“The power’s back on, but there’s no ice yet.”
She wrapped her arms around his shoulders, pulled his head down to her breast, and rocked him. He let her.
“My baby,” she whispered. “My poor, poor baby.”
He could hear the noise of the television coming faintly from downstairs.
“When did they sound the all-clear?” he asked.
“This morning. About six. Did you hear? They napalmed several shelters downtown. All those people. A lot were dead already, but some must have been alive—”
“What happened in Little Europe?”
“I don’t know. They might say on the news. Can you walk?”
He nodded and, wincing, rose to his feet. He favored his left leg, so his mother held him up as he made his way downstairs to the great room, where he collapsed onto the sofa next to his father.
As usual, his father leaned toward the television while its light played against his glasses. Some talking head droned about the extent of the devastation while a montage of images showed damaged buildings, downed Robosaurs, dead bodies lying in the streets.
The talking head said, “At present, the number of confirmed dead is seventeen thousand, three hundred and twenty-six … and counting.”
“My Princess,” Jake whispered.
“The last few days,” the talking head continued, “may go down in history as Magical Girl Pretty Dynamo’s greatest failure.”
Jake’s stomach tightened in a knot.
“Apparently too interested in her alleged boyfriend to fight with her usual zeal, she failed to eliminate the Robosaurs before the Temple resorted to the Weapon, and she failed to make a significant impact on the consequent zombie invasion.”
Interspersed with the montage was an image of Jake sitting next to Pretty Dynamo under the canopy at the detox station. He had his hand on her forearm.
Jake pounded his fists against his knees.
“But let’s go now to New Beijing where Barbara is on the scene with our city’s newest and most effective magical girl. Barbara?”
The image changed to one of a woman in a red windbreaker, her blond hair perfectly coiffed, standing in a street. A rowdy, motley mob of people milled around behind her. The woman brought a microphone to her mouth and said, “Thanks, Tom. I’m here now with the true heroine of this latest attack. And no, as you said, it’s not Pretty Dynamo. Meet Urbanopolis’s new rising star: Magical Girl Sukeban Tsubasa, who already has a competency rating of 8.3 from the Threat Assessment Board.”
Jake started in surprise when his father snorted and then muttered under his breath, “Absurd. No zombie has a threat level that high, and those Robosaurs didn’t, either.”
The camera panned sideways to show a slim but well-muscled teenage girl, built like a track star, with her lips pulled back in a cocky, lopsided grin, a grin much like Dynamo’s. She raised two fingers in a “V for victory” sign—much like Dynamo’s. Jake couldn’t see her lower body, but she wore what appeared to be a sports bra made out of white plastic and edged with black lace. On her head was a white bike helmet, under which her pink hair was short, boyish, and spiky.
“Hey, yo, yo!” she called.
“Sukeban Tsubasa, would you mind telling our audience how you cleared New Beijing of zombies and Robosaurs in a mere three hours?”
“Pfft. Weren’t nothin’. I gave ’em some o’ da boom, some o’ da badda-bing, an’ den bzzzt! Cha-ching! Know what I’m sayin’?”
Barbara blinked in apparent perplexity, but nodded. “Of … course. Anyway, I understand you’re wearing a mecha battle suit of extraterrestrial manufacture. Could you describe your arsenal for our viewers?”
“Chicka-rikka, I got more guns den a Navarone thrift sale. Check it out, yo.”
Tsubasa raised her right arm and clenched her fist. She wore a fat white bracelet, which with a click expanded into a tube covering her whole forearm. A little trapdoor opened in it, and out of it unfolded a cruciform rack from which hung six red-tipped missiles.
Tsubasa flashed her pearly whites. “I call dis the ‘ka-powie maker.’ You dig?”
Sweat ran from under Barbara’s perfectly delineated hairline. “That’s very nice …”
“You like dat? You like dat? Take a look at dis bad boy!”
She raised her left arm. A second bracelet expanded and released what looked like a security camera mounted on a gimbal.
“Meh heh heh. Dis bad boy is da ‘laza blaza.’”
With a series of clatters and clicks, the weapons folded back into Tsubasa’s arms. She put her hands behind her head and stretched.
“Oh, and speakin’ o’ bad boys, now dat da fat lady is singin’ on da fightin’, I’ma get togedder wit’ some trashy guys, capiche? I tink mebbe we do some really bad stuff. Might share a beer, might smoke a cigarette behind da bushes, might spray-paint rude words on a wall—”
Barbara put a hand to her breast and staggered backwards. She almost dropped the mike.
Immediately, the interview cut to an elderly lady. Around her neck was a string of pearls, which she fiercely clutched in arthritic fingers. Text appeared at the bottom of the screen: “Juanita Vela Zamorano, former Magical Girl Swansong Juanita.”
“Back in my day,” Juanita said in a creaky voice, “magical girls limited their questionable behavior to wanton violence, public nudity, and Saphism. But these modern magical girls are just out of control!”
Then the program cut to a commercial for toothpaste.
While a smiling cartoon character sang happily about the dangers of dental caries, Jake’s father solemnly shook his head. “That Sukeban Tsubasa is a menace!”
Jake scratched the back of his head, leaned his elbows on his knees, and stayed silent. He’d never known his father to criticize a magical girl.
Even more shocking, his father picked up the remote and turned off the television of his own accord. Then he turned to Jake and placed an arm on the back of the couch. He cleared his throat.
Jake hung his head. He knew what this posture meant. He and his father were about to have a “man-to-man” talk. A feeling of dread settled in his stomach like a stone: the last man-to-man talk had included an hour’s worth of exacting details about the symptoms of several social diseases, and he had no desire to repeat that experience.
He started in surprise when he felt his mother’s hands on his shoulders. She stood right behind him.
Oh no, it’s not a man-to-man talk. It’s a two-parent pile-on. That’s very, very bad. I must be grounded for a month, at least—
“Jake,” his mother said in a quavering voice, “we want you to understand something.”
“Your mother and I have been talking about this,” his father added unhelpfully.
“We want you to know,” his mother continued, voice breaking, “that even though we may not approve of your lifestyle choice, what’s most important to us is that you’re happy.”
His father shook his head and sighed. “I should have seen this coming, really. I should have seen, but I didn’t want to see. I’ve always known my son was a little, well, you know—”
Jake blinked. “What in the actual—?”
“Please understand that you and your partner will always be welcome in this house,” said his mother.
“Hold on just a minute,” said Jake. “Why are you—?”
“Jake, be honest with your mother.” She leaned down and said into his ear, in a low voice, “Are you … a sidekick?”
Jake jumped to his feet and then sucked in his breath when his ankle gave him a fresh shock of pain. “Mom, Dad, no. I am absolutely not a sidekick! I’ve never kicked a side in my life, I swear!”
His mother crossed her arms. “We hoped you were in the shelter at school, but you weren’t, were you? You were out fighting monsters with Pretty Dynamo.”
“No! Well, okay, yeah, I was. But there were reasons!”
“Well, I mean, she grabbed me and took me with …”
He trailed off.
Oh my Princess.
His mother sighed deeply and rubbed her temples. “I’ll fix dinner. I know you slept most of the day, but you should go to bed soon anyway. They’re reopening the schools tomorrow.”