JAKE AND THE DYNAMO
CHAPTER 17: FLASH IN THE PAN
Magical Girl Grease Pencil Marionette remembered.
She lay, as she often did, with her head in the lap of the Moon Princess. She stared at the ceiling, face expressionless, saying nothing, as the Princess ran delicate fingers through her silver hair.
“My pet,” the Princess cooed in a gentle singsong. “My pet, my pet, my darling Marionette.”
They were in the Moon Base, the Princess’s secret lair hidden beneath an antiquities museum in the heart of the city. The Princess sat on a divan between two marble pillars, and Marionette sprawled on the divan like a carelessly dropped toy.
Across the room, Sentinel, the Princess’s supercomputer, quietly thrummed as it communicated with its satellite network, which scanned the Earth, near space, and proximal alternate dimensions for significant threats. Around the room, screens showed satellite images of the world, or shots of stars or the moon. Other screens displayed scrolling text.
Nestled in an egg-shaped antigrav hover chair, Ice Queen watched the monitors. She was on duty tonight, and she sometimes whispered into a throat mike, ordering magical girls to rendezvous at any place where a monster appeared, an alien spacecraft betrayed itself, or a supernatural phenomenon manifested.
In the center of the room, surrounded by thrown bones, candles, cards, amulets, and other esoterica, Magical Himiko sat cross-legged and gazed into a crystal ball. Although she appeared to be meditating, every once in a while she glanced toward Marionette and the Princess with a deep scowl.
Against a wall, near the computer bank, Hatchet Harridan lay on a bench with one arm carelessly draped across Sister Slicer, who sat on the floor and leaned against her. Lying on her stomach nearby, Whip Witch idly kicked her feet and perused a fashion magazine.
“Sector nine,” Ice Queen muttered. “Who’s available? Flame Warden, progress to block A, engage kaiju. Murder Mistress, patrol sector seven.”
“When we gonna get some action ourselves?” Hatchet Harridan complained. “I wanna cut somethin’.”
“Amen to that,” said Sister Slicer with a chuckle as she rolled a cigarette.
“Patience, my darlings,” said the Moon Princess. “There is a time for everything.”
At the far end of the room, a great portal, resembling that of a bank vault, groaned open. Hell’s Belle marched in, her leather boots pounding against the black marble tile of the floor. “Darn it! Heck and darnation!” She spun and planted her mace in the door, puncturing the thick steel and leaving the weapon hanging, its hilt quivering and humming like a tuning fork.
She stomped toward the Princess. “Four people!” she shouted. “Razor Urchin just cut four people in half! In half, Your Majesty! Right in the middle of the gosh-darn park! Didn’t even know what she was doing! A six-year-old girl shouldn’t have that kind of power!”
The Moon Princess’s hand paused in Marionette’s hair. “Did you collect their souls?” she asked.
Hell’s Belle stopped in her tracks. She crossed her arms and looked away. “Yeah,” she muttered. “I did.”
“All is well, then.”
“Y’know, I won’t always be here to be your psychopomp.”
“I won’t always be here either.” Gently, the Moon Princess pushed Marionette’s head from her lap. She stood, and her silken gown flowed around her legs like water as she walked toward the center of the room.
“Don’t you care?” Hell’s Belle snarled. “Don’t you care that people in this city are dying left and right? Why are you so darn calm?”
Himiko put down her crystal ball and jumped to her feet. With a series of loud clicks, her long naginata unfolded out of the empty air and settled in her hands. “You can’t talk to the Princess like that!”
“Like heck I can’t.”
Himiko swung the blade, but Belle caught it in her gauntleted fist. They glared at each other silently.
“Girls,” said the Princess calmly, “if you wish to kill each other, I must ask you to take it outside. This floor is hard to clean. But I’d rather you found a different outlet for your frustrations—good help is hard to find.”
Whip Witch rose. With generous hips swaying as she crossed the floor in her stiletto heels, she purred, “Mmm, are you being naughty again, Hell’s Belle? Perhaps you just need a little discipline. I’m sure I could teach you to be more … hrmmm … submissive.” She licked her lips and ran her red-painted nails under Belle’s chin as she passed.
Belle seized her hand and bent her fingers backwards. Whip Witch only giggled at the pain.
“I thought I told you to keep your paws off me,” Belle hissed. She looked toward the Princess. “Is there a reason you brought this wench into our circle?”
“My pentagram must have five points,” the Princess replied. “You know that.”
Belle pointed her chin toward Marionette. “Couldn’t you use her?”
“Marionette has a different task, and you know very well what she is. But I must tell all of you, I have a new message from the Keepers of the Seas of Glass. They are impatient to begin.”
Himiko turned toward the Princess and lowered her eyes. “How much time do we have?”
“I’m afraid I do not know. The Keepers are reticent, even with me. But we have very little. It is vital that the six of you learn to trust one another: if these conflicts continue, my spell will die—and the world with it.”
Himiko flicked one wrist, and her naginata folded in on itself, shrinking until it disappeared up her sleeve. Then she walked to the Princess and leaned her forehead on her shoulder. But the Princess did not embrace her.
“Dear Himiko,” the Princess said. “Dear, dear Himiko. I fear I am asking too much of you. Your task is harder than that of the others.”
“I would follow you into hell itself, Your Majesty.”
“Where I go, you cannot follow now. You are ready to die with me, Himiko. This I realize. But it is not enough. I am asking more of you than that.”
“I am ready for anything.”
“You do not know what you are saying. Can you drink the cup I drink?”
“I can.” Her head still on the Princess’s shoulder, Himiko again cast a narrow-eyed glance toward Marionette, who still lay unmoving on the divan, her synthetic eyes silently recording the scene. “And what of her?”
The Princess replied, “If I will that she tarry until I come, what is that to you?”
Himiko wrapped her arms tightly around the Princess’s waist. “If we complete this spell, Your Majesty, will you finally give me what I want?”
The Princess stroked Himiko’s hair. “Dear Himiko, there will be nothing left to want. I believe I can promise you that much.”
They were silent for a few minutes, and then the Princess said, “How is your sister?”
Himiko stiffened. “She is … she is fine.”
“She is happy in her post?”
“She is a powerful shrine maiden. As your twin, she shares your magic.”
Himiko trembled and pushed the Princess away. “Am I replaceable to you?” she cried.
“Your sister,” said the Princess coolly, “would serve me just as well, if not—”
Himiko spun around and buried her face in her hands. She released a single, wracking sob.
“You see, Himiko?” said the Princess, laying a hand on her shoulder. “You are not yet ready. After all this time, your emotions still betray you. I need a loyal servant, yes, but not a sycophant. You must control yourself, or the Shadow is ready to take you. If you think I am a harsh mistress, I promise you, he will be a much harsher master.”
Half a minute passed, and then the Princess lifted her hand from Himiko’s shoulder. “I need all of you now. I intend to summon.”
“It was your summoning,” Hell’s Belle said quietly, “that got us in this mess in the first place.”
“I am well aware,” the Princess replied, “and guilt has seared my conscience like a branding iron. However, I have learned what none of you have, but all of you must: I have learned tranquility.”
She walked toward a small portal. It dilated open. When she gestured toward it, the girls, without a word, filed in.
“Come, Marionette,” the Princess called. “I want you to witness.”
Marionette silently rose from the divan and followed where her Princess commanded her.
The Princess’s summoning chamber was round, and a domed roof covered it. The walls were a washed violet. Five high, golden censers stood around the room, each full of incense, sulfur, and anvil dust. Within the circle of censers, marked on the floor in thick lines of chalk, lay a pentagram, surrounding which was the image of a snake eating its tail—the sign of the Worm Ouroboros. Himiko walked silently around the room to check the chalked symbols for flaws or breaks. Once she was satisfied, she stepped into the pentagram’s center.
The other five magical girls took up their stations in front of the censers while the Moon Princess walked into a chalked triangle near the door.
Marionette, without a word, slumped against the wall and watched.
When the Moon Princess raised a hand, flames appeared in the censers, and black smoke curled toward the dome overhead. Each of the girls raised her hands before her face and wove them back and forth in complex patterns that imitated the non-Euclidean geometrical shapes that the Princess had glimpsed during her meditations. At the same time, Himiko reached into her generous sleeves and pulled forth bones, leaves, and nutshells. She cast them around herself. When these magical objects struck the floor, they began to spin and hum.
The Princess raised her chin and opened her mouth. Polysyllabic words poured forth, but they were not English, nor her native Japanese. She spoke the Language of the Birds, the primordial tongue that holds the true names of all things.
As she spoke, the black smoke overhead coagulated into a definite shape: colored like ivory and glowing faintly, it was a writhing mass of tentacles, like a squid’s, surrounding a simple white sphere. Slowly, the shape solidified until the dome became invisible behind it. From that shape came a deep voice, so powerful it made the tiles in the floor hum.
“Why have you called me up?”
“I must have more information,” the Princess replied.
“You have acquired an impressive amount of power in a short time, Princess, but you still have not learned the first rule of magic: do not call up that which you cannot put down.”
“Do not underestimate me. I am a goddess.”
“You are a child, and you have picked up weapons too dangerous for you, which you mistake for toys. Lord Shadow noticed you once, and your world lies in ruins. Beware lest he notice you again.”
“I want him to notice. That is the plan, is it not? I have attained so much! By my own hand, I slew the Bugmen of Arcturus, who had the power to move planets—”
“Do not call up that which you cannot put down, Princess.”
The Princess chewed her lip. “I am not yet ready to complete my spell.”
“The time is short. Lord Shadow does not rest, and therefore we may not rest.”
“I know this, but I cannot do what is not in my power.”
“The time is short. The Great Wall is breached.”
The Princess paused. Her eyes went to each of her girls before she said, “I do not understand.”
“The Shadow has overcome the Coma Supercluster. The suns of three thousand galaxies went nova simultaneously.”
“In the time we have been speaking, Princess. The light of the destruction will not reach your world until your own sun is near death.”
The color drained from the Princess’s face. “How many—?”
“Five hundred and sixty-seven super-civilizations, each with over eighty trillion citizens.”
The Princess paused. She swayed on her feet.
“Do you still think yourself Lord Shadow’s equal, Princess?”
Several more seconds passed before the Princess answered, “We will proceed with the plan, but the spell will not work without the Sea of Glass—”
“The Keepers launched the Sea more than seven thousand of your years ago. The time of arrival is already fixed.”
On the wall opposite the Princess, a panel opened to reveal a computer screen. Sentinel silently displayed a star map showing the Sea’s trajectory from the M4 globular cluster. A countdown clock appeared, estimating the time until it reached the Earth.
“How is this possible?” the Princess whispered.
“Time does not move for us as for you, Princess.”
Hell’s Belle cursed under her breath. The Princess shot her a sharp glance.
“Your efforts,” said the writhing mass of tentacles, “are doomed to fail, for that is the fate of all who oppose the Shadow. Every attempt to produce order only increases entropy. There are those who serve the Shadow willingly, and there are those who serve unwillingly. But there are none who do not serve.”
“I don’t believe that,” the Princess said, her voice hoarse.
“You have had the vision, the same vision granted to all who attain the Power: in the end, the stars will fail, and lifeless cinders will float between the black holes. Then time itself will die. Above it all, Lord Shadow will sit in darkness, and laugh.”
“The universe is a tomb.”
“No! We will follow the plan, and we will win!”
Overhead, the tentacles slithered in silence.
“As you wish. The Sea is launched. Proceed with the plan. But do not dawdle, or you will not be ready when the time arrives.”
With a snap, the image in the smoke disappeared.
The flames in the censers sputtered, choked, and died. The foul smell of sulfur and singed iron grew oppressive. Some of the girls coughed violently.
“Darn it,” Hell’s Belle hissed. “Gosh darn it all to heck! Those mother-huggers lied to us!”
“Calm down,” the Princess said, her tone uncharacteristically sharp.
“Don’t you get it, Your Majesty?” Belle shouted. “They’re using us! We’re just tools! Time moves different for them? Like heck! They planned this!”
“I said calm down,” the Princess snapped, but her voice quavered.
Hell’s Belle marched toward her. “Call it off. Tell them the deal is off.”
“No. We finish the spell. An ocean of dark matter is heading for our solar system. What do you think will happen if we are not ready when it comes?”
Belle’s shoulders slumped. She shook her head. “The whole world, Your Majesty. We’ve killed the whole world, and for what?”
The Princess didn’t answer. Instead, she walked to Ice Queen, grabbed her by the arm, and shoved her fiercely. Ice Queen stumbled backwards and fell against Belle, who caught her around the waist.
“You’ve always been a hothead, Hell’s Belle,” the Princess said. “You need to cool off.” With that, she waved a hand at the portal, which dilated open for her. She left.
In the sulfur-filled haze, the girls stared at one another.
“I’ve never seen her so rattled,” murmured Sister Slicer.
Himiko had tears in her eyes. “That … that wasn’t the Princess. That—”
“Oh yeah it was,” said Hatchet Harridan with a chuckle. “She’s human, or have you forgotten?”
Himiko drew herself up, tucked her hands into her sleeves, and swallowed once. Her chest rose and fell as she struggled to control her breathing. “In any case,” she said, “she gave you an order, Belle. Cool off. You and Ice Queen are on leave until further notice.” She marched toward the portal.
Ice Queen snorted. “What did I do?”
Hatchet Harridan walked over to Marionette, who still sat motionless against the wall. She leaned down and tapped a hand to the side of Marionette’s head. “Hey, robot, you get all that? You record it for posterity? Cuz this was one for the history books, I’m sure.”
Marionette had indeed got all that. It flowed through her mind now as she leaned on the wall between the paintings of Kasumi, her forehead slick with lubrication that imitated sweat.
“Takumi,” she gasped, “I choose you.”
The hologram of her simulated familiar appeared in the air. “Hi, I’m Takumi! You can ask me anything!”
Her gut contracted with a surge of pain, and she slumped down the wall.
“It looks like you’re moping over a boy,” Takumi said. “Would you like help with that?”
“Takumi, something’s wrong. I need an independent diagnostic.”
The propeller on Takumi’s beanie cap spun. He pulled his knees to his chest and floated in a lazy circle. “Running program … no problems detected.”
“Deep scan, Takumi.”
Takumi turned several more circles, his propeller making a cartoonish php-php-php-php.
She struggled to sit still while he ran the diagnostic. She was embarrassed, and she was agitated, and she was mad. Although her father had designed her to imitate a human, complete with a human’s complexities, she had long ago memorized most of her own code, so she rarely did anything that she herself did not expect or understand.
But she didn’t understand her behavior tonight. She hadn’t known, until the words were coming out of her mouth, why Jake irritated her. She hadn’t expected to force a kiss on him. And she didn’t comprehend why she was so angry that he had walked out on her.
As Takumi spun in the air, he flickered. It was subtle, but it was enough to make Marionette’s simulated breath catch in her throat.
“Scan complete,” Takumi said. “No problems detected.”
Marionette’s gut tightened again. She doubled over, and tears streamed from her eyes. Her hands shook. Takumi merely smiled.
Almost a full two centuries ago, in spite of Takumi’s stern warnings, Marionette had hacked herself.
After jacking into Sentinel, she had used the supercomputer’s powerful processors to search through the labyrinth of her complex software until she found her sexuality algorithms. Then she shut them down.
She knew she was weakening herself in the process, as her magic power came from unfulfilled desires.
But some desires were just too painful.
She had spent a fortnight mooning over a boy. She had written him sonnets. She had painted his portrait. She had lain on her bed for long hours, contemplating the memory of his face. Once, she had even slept on the cold ground outside his window—she was, after all, an emulation of an artist, so she loved like one.
Then came the day when she artlessly confessed everything to him. She felt her synthetic heart sink as she watched the expression on his handsome, youthful face transform from bewilderment to amusement to disgust.
“I don’t date toasters.” That was all he said. He turned and walked away, and the sight of his broad shoulders growing smaller with distance was the second to last sight she ever had of him.
The last sight was of him laughing with another girl who fawned over him and leaned against his strong chest, her bleached hair shrouding half of her heavily painted face.
Then the universe Marionette thought she understood shattered like glass, and its many pieces came back together in a shape she didn’t recognize. That very night, she broke into her own software.
After all, she told herself, this was her duty, even if it subtracted from her power. The human race was dying. Year by year—in spite of welfare incentives, in spite of the bachelor tax and the small family tax, in spite of several lowerings of the legal marriage age—the citizens of Urbanopolis could never quite manage to keep the population growth above replacement rate. The monsters were killing them off, albeit slowly.
So the man she loved was right: in a world like this, nobody could afford to date a toaster. It was bad enough that the city had to make a fighting force out of young females who hadn’t had the chance to bear children.
Keeping all of this in mind in order to quiet her conscience simulation software, she found the program that tormented her and killed it dead.
But now, after all this time, it was back.
And it wanted revenge.
She sat on the floor, forehead against her knees, and sobbed. For the second time, a boy had walked out on her.
She simply could not understand her own behavior: Jake was not unpleasant to look at, but he was not particularly handsome. He was athletic, to be sure, but he possessed nothing of the overwhelming masculinity of her former lost love. He was boyish, and she didn’t even like boyish men. He was just an average teenager, remarkable only in his unremarkableness.
But for the past few days, the memory of his warm kiss had played through her artificial mind in an endless loop no matter how many times she tried to delete the file, and it had awakened the algorithmic simulations of hot passions she thought she had long since deactivated.
Yet Takumi told her nothing was wrong. Nothing. Nothing.
But he flickered when he said it, though nothing was disrupting his projector beam.
Takumi didn’t flicker like that.
Not unless something was very, very wrong.
In the back of her mind ran an endless stream of information gleaned from the citywide web. Her low-level consciousness constantly monitored news broadcasts, weather information, satellite data, gossip blogs, and a host of other sources.
She waved her hand and shut off her internet connection. Suddenly, the room seemed much smaller, much quieter. A strange sensation almost like peace flooded through her mind, though it was destined to be temporary.
She swallowed hard and, with a rasp, said, “Takumi, initiate protocol 42-B. I’m compromised.”
Takumi lowered himself until he hovered directly before her face. He smiled again, but this time the smile looked wrong, fake, a grin hiding sinister intent.
“I’m sorry, Marionette,” Takumi said slowly. “I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
The artificial sweat on Marionette’s forehead suddenly increased in volume. Simulating muscle, the electroactive polymer in her throat constricted, just as it was supposed to do whenever her emotional subroutines replicated fear.