JAKE AND THE DYNAMO Chapter 23

The Beach Episode of Darkness: Can Marionette win a battle of wills against the enemy within her own mind?

JAKE AND THE DYNAMO

CHAPTER 23: THE BEACH EPISODE OF DARKNESS

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On the desolate slope of a craggy mountain where no snow fell and no flowers grew, a high castle of black basalt stood resilient against the biting, howling wind. Deep in the castle’s bowels, the Dark Queen, mistress of all that is base and wicked, sat upon her throne of black obsidian, tapped the six-inch stiletto heel of one of her onyx-encrusted pumps against her footstool, and read the newspaper.

For several minutes, she read in regal silence. Then, at last, she slowly and with great dignity lowered the paper to her lap.

“Darn it!” she shouted. “I can’t take it anymore! Somebody bring me a lamp! A lamp with one of those full-spectrum daylight bulbs! And cute cartoon characters on the lampshade! And make sure it’s an incandescent or an LED bulb, too, not that other kind! I don’t need mercury poisoning to go with the bad eyes!”

An enormous, wart-covered troll, its skin rough like weathered limestone, crouched near her throne. He cleared his throat and waved a stubby hand. “Erm, beggin’ Your Darkness’s pardonation, but t’ain’t no lights allowed in ye royal throne room. Tis ye strictest orders, y’see.”

She tapped the paper against her thigh and tapped long fingernails on an armrest. “Says who?”

He cleared his throat again. “Um … royal decree number six hundred and twenty—”

“Oh, what-ev-er! I’m the Dark Queen, I make the decrees, and I say I need a freaking reading light! Do you want to see your Queen sitting up here in Coke-bottom bifocals because she’s ruined her eyesight with all this bloody darkness? Oh, I’m sure that will be good for the ambiance around here! That’ll really have the scary throne room effect! ‘Behold, denizens of the Earth! Bow down and tremble before the Dark Grandma, evil nerd girl, and despair!’”

With many apologetic mutterings and much scraping, the troll rose clumsily from his haunches and hastily lumbered off.

The Queen leaned back in her throne and rubbed her forehead. “Ugh, I’m getting another headache. Where in the world is that useless—?”

With a flash of white light and the sound of tinkling bells, Chirops appeared in midair. His pale eyes widened in surprise, and he flapped his wings furiously, but he tumbled gracelessly to the floor in a heap anyway.

The Queen squeezed her eyes shut and sighed. “Speak of the devil. What kept you, Chirops? Did you stop for a cup of coffee on the way?”

Chirops picked himself up and brushed off his wings. “Well, I took a wrong turn in the stream, Your Darkness, and I, erm, sort of ended up on a space station orbiting Betelgeuse … and they did have a coffee shop—”

“Oh? And how’s the coffee on Betelgeuse, Chirops?”

“It’s out of this world, Your Darkness.”

She tapped her fingers on an armrest again for half a minute while Chirops nervously fidgeted.

“All right, come here, Chirops. I want to hear about your brave exploits in man’s last city.”

Chirops stared down at the basalt pavement while he twiddled his claws. “Well, Your Darkness, to be honest, I, um—”

“Come here, Chirops.”

Chirops swallowed loudly and, trembling, waddled toward her. “Yes, Your Darkness?”

“A little closer, Chirops.”

Whimpering, he stepped up onto the dais, walked to the right side of the throne, and meekly peeked over the armrest. “Your Darkness?”

The Dark Queen took a series of deep, calming breaths as she carefully rolled the newspaper into a tube and whacked him over the head with it.

He squeaked.

Unfurling the paper with a snap, she pointed a sharp fingernail at the front page, where a gigantic photo depicted Chirops flapping in the air above a demon-possessed madman squaring off against Sukeban Tsubasa. The headline screamed, “WHO’S BAD? NOT EVEN DEVIL BAD ENOUGH FOR MAGICAL BAD GIRL!”

“You failed!” the Queen shrieked.

Chirops’s ears drooped.

“Do you think there is room in my kingdom of uttermost darkness for failures?”

Chirops gave a hesitant glance toward the slavering minions peeking out of the chamber’s many shadows. “There must be,” he muttered.

She whacked him with the paper again. “I asked you to kill Barfing Boy, and you’re telling me you couldn’t even do that one simple thing.”

“Actually, you asked me not to kill him. You said to—”

She whacked him a third time. As he rubbed the top of his fuzzy head and blinked away tears, she opened the paper to expose the second page, which featured a photo of a bewildered-looking teenage boy, tall and broad-shouldered but somewhat gangly as if his limbs didn’t quite fit together properly, in the midst of a milling crowd. Beneath the photo, the headline ran, “MAGICAL CAT FIGHT: MYSTERIOUS ‘BARFING BOY’ IS MAGICAL GIRLS’ MOST WANTED!”

“Do you see this, Chirops? Do you see it? I wanted this boy humiliated, ruined, destroyed! Instead, he’s a celebrity, and now the magical girls are squabbling over which one gets to wield his wand!”

Chirops whimpered.

She took another deep breath and rubbed her temples. “Ugh. Seriously, this has been a really rough week.”

“Oh, I know,” said Chirops. “But even with all the setbacks, we’re making progress. After all, the Crystal—”

“I need a break. Yes, that’s it. A break.”

The Dark Queen rose slowly and majestically from her throne, being sure as she did to allow her loose, gauzy garments to tumble alluringly around her voluptuous hourglass figure. Once she stood at her full six feet, six inches (counting the heels), she raised her voice and called to her sycophants, “I shall be in my reverse harem until further notice! Unless it is extremely important, I am not to be disturbed.” Holding her back stiffly and lifting her chin in a show of haughty grandeur, she sniffed once and added, “So hold all my calls.”

Her heels echoed against the basalt as she stepped down from the dais. “Come, Chirops.”

Chirops slumped. “Aww, are you gonna make me run the tiki bar again?”

“You’re the only one around here who can mix a decent Mai Tai. Come, Chirops!”

 


 

Below the black castle ran an extensive series of dungeons full of pitch-black cells in which snakes slithered and rats skittered and squeaked. Cobwebs hung from the ceilings, and moldering skeletons hung from heavy chains. Deep in the darkest and dankest of these dungeons stood a heavy door of oak, its surface dented and splintered. It had a single iron ring exactly in its center, above which sat a tiny, barred window of opaque, leaded glass. The door was utterly nondescript, and anyone seeing it in this miserable place of rough-cut stone and scattered straw might assume that it led into some chamber of unspeakable tortures where lurked a thickset man with a bare, oiled chest and a black hood that showed nothing of his face except wild, bloodshot eyes.

The Dark Queen, holding an oil lamp aloft, with Chirops in tow and the newspaper tucked under one arm, crept to this door. She carefully set down the lamp, removed her shoes, took another deep breath, and put a hand to her breast to calm a fluttering heart. Then she threw that door open, and the bright light of a noonday sun blazed in. With the light came a fresh breeze on which wafted the scent of salt and sea spray as well as a delightful array of tropical fruits: banana, pineapple, coconut, and papaya. It was like a particularly expensive air freshener.

Once they stepped through the door, their feet dug into clean, white sand. The sun shone overhead in a clear blue sky, and the waves of the ocean crashed rhythmically against a stretch of beach. Palm trees hissed as their broad leaves waved in the tropical breeze. High, brown cliffs enclosed this narrow, sandy strip, but a lonely lighthouse, its white sides turned blue by haze, stood vigil in the distance.

On the beach sat a modest, square hut of bamboo and thatch, beside which lay a wooden deck full of tables to which broad umbrellas offered shade. Several well-tanned and tautly muscled young men, barely more than boys, frolicked in the sun: a few played volleyball, and a few splashed each other in the water. One sat on a beach towel under a parasol and read from a thick book. Another lounged on the deck and toyed with a drink.

The Dark Queen took a deep breath. “Ah, I love this room. It’s amazing what they can do these days with holographic technology.”

Chirops scratched himself behind the ears. “You know this is the reason our electric bill is so high.”

“Stop being a killjoy. I need this place.” She snapped her fingers, and her usual outfit—a black peekaboo dress with a low V-cut neckline and a slit up the side—instantly evaporated. In its place, in a flash of light, appeared a tiny string bikini barely able to constrain her generously proportioned figure. With another snap, a bright yellow wraparound skirt encircled her waist, sunglasses dropped over her eyes, and a broad straw hat lowered itself onto her head.

“Finally,” she said with a spread of her hands, “I feel free!”

Chirops’s mouth dropped open. He stared for almost half a minute until blood dribbled from his snout.

He quickly turned away and scrabbled at his face. “Erm, I, um … I get spontaneous nosebleeds! It’s a medical thing! They don’t mean any—”

“All right, Chirops,” said the Queen with her hands on her wide hips, “you’re running the bar, and you know what I want.”

“Well, okay,” he said as he wiped a wing across his nose, “but before I can mix a Mai Tai, it’s gonna take me a while to make the orgeat syrup.”

She sighed. “There’s always something. Say, have I properly introduced you to my reverse harem?”

“Well, I think you—”

“I haven’t been down here in forever. Come on.” She marched toward the bamboo building, and Chirops waddled after. When they arrived, the Dark Queen threw herself down next to a skinny blond boy languishing on a stool. The boy wore bright orange swim trunks and a pair of flip-flops, but he wore no shirt, so Chirops and the Queen had a full view of his bronzed but decidedly bony and largely hairless torso. Around his neck, he wore a metal collar on which a bright red light glowed steadily. This was his hypnotism collar: all the members of the reverse harem were former residents of Urbanopolis whom the Queen had selected, abducted, and then fitted with collars to ensure their pliability. The boy’s long pianist’s fingers played with the toothpick holding the olive in his martini. He grinned a sickly grin.

Chirops scratched one ear. “Is he getting enough iron? He looks kind of—”

“Your Darkness,” the boy said, dipping his head slightly in her direction, “I don’t usually hobnob with the commoners, but for one of your beauty, I believe I could make an exception.”

Chirops gasped. The Queen, however, looked entirely unoffended. She grinned and rubbed her hands together. “Ah, Chirops, this is Tamaki. He’s my ‘spoiled rich’ type. One of my all-time favorites.”

“That bikini,” Tamaki said with a curled lip as he sipped his drink. “Off the rack, I take it?”

Chirops squeaked and slapped his claws over his mouth, but the Queen merely giggled.

With a faint clink, Tamaki lowered his glass back to the table. “Would you like something, Your Darkness?”

“Oh, yes. Of course.”

“Then send your footman there to fetch it. Serving others is beneath me.” He leaned his chin on one thin hand and looked away from her, apparently bored.

She put her hands to her face, and a blush formed in her cheeks.

Chirops shook his head. “I … I don’t get it.”

“You can’t see the appeal of this one? No? Hm. Come, I have others!”

She rose from her stool and walked back out onto the hot sand. With Chirops waddling along behind, she approached the boy lounging on the beach towel. He looked up, pushed his glasses up his nose, and said in a surprisingly deep voice, “I hope you’ve not come to ruin my concentration with girlish prattle, Your Darkness. I am examining a tome explicating a mathematical model of quantum tunneling, and I must employ my full intellective faculties if I am to appreciate it properly.”

The Queen blushed again, leaned down, and whispered to Chirops, “That’s Ryuji. He’s my ‘intellectual’ type.”

“I figured that out.”

“Let’s not bother him. He looks absorbed.”

“What? But isn’t he there to be your—?”

She strode toward the beach volleyball game. When she drew near, one of the young men paused as he was about to serve. He stared at the Queen for a few seconds, but then looked away and clucked his tongue.

“Ohayou, Aki-kun!” the Queen called with a wave.

“Whatever,” he said sullenly. “I hate you. You’re fat. I can’t believe you actually looked at another guy.”

This time, the Queen’s whole face turned crimson, and she squealed like a little girl. “Oh, Aki is my ‘tsundere’ boy! I just love tsundere boys!”

“So, these guys,” said Chirops, “do they just insult you all the time, or what?”

“Poor Chirops.” She patted his head. “You can’t possibly understand a woman’s heart.”

“That’s for sure.”

“But enough of all that.” She snapped her fingers, and immediately the four boys playing volleyball ceased their game and ran to her side.

“Aki,” she said, “get me a chair and an umbrella.” He sprinted away and quickly came back with a beach lounger of woven grass on a lacquered frame. He set it in the sand and planted a beach umbrella next to it. The Queen lay down and pointed at another boy.

“Hachiro, fan me.”

Hachiro rapidly produced a poufy ostrich feather and waved it over her.

“And finally,” she said, “Gyukudo, just stand there and flex.”

The tallest and most heavyset of the boys, his chiseled face grave, gave her a single nod. Then he quietly and slowly moved through a series of poses to show off his well-formed biceps and the taut muscles of his broad chest and flat abdomen.

The Queen sighed deeply. “Oh, wow. Gyukudo-kun is my ‘strong silent’ type. He’s almost too much man to take.”

“I’m not sure I can take it,” Chirops muttered before he stuck a claw down his throat.

“This is the life,” the Queen said as she languidly stretched her arms over her head. “This is all any girl really needs: sun, sand, and shirtless muscle boys. Don’t you think so, Chirops?”

“If you say so, Your Darkness.”

A girl in probably her late teens, wearing a one-piece bathing suit, ran over with a plate of assorted fruits in her hands. She knelt at the Dark Queen’s side, and the Queen plucked a grape and put it in her mouth.

Chirops scratched his head. “Why is she—?”

“This is Aoi-chan,” said the Queen as she chewed. “Every reverse harem should have one girl, just in case someone’s into that.”

“But you’re the only one who comes down here, so—”

Aoi put the loosely curled knuckles of one hand to her lips, hunched her shoulders, and looked away. “Oh, Your D-Darkness,” she said in a soft, shy voice, “it seems the five-star hotel we’re all staying in made a mistake and didn’t get us enough rooms. But I guess I d-don’t mind sh-sharing a bed with you … if you don’t mind.” As she spoke, her voice fell to a whisper, and pink filled her cheeks.

Chirops’s jaw came unhinged, and his snout leaked blood again.

“You see, Chirops?” the Queen said as she spread her hands. “I have almost every type down here. There’s only one missing! Only one kind I do not yet have in my collection! Can you guess what it is?”

Chirops smeared blood over his face as he wiped in vain at his nose. “Um … a guy who doesn’t insult you?”

She still had the newspaper, so she pulled it out and slapped him over the head with it. “No, you idiot! I am missing only the plain type, the ordinary type, the cute-but-not-remarkable type! The type that stays faithful because he knows he’s got a good deal! The type that makes you feel good about yourself because you’re slightly out of his league, but not so far out of his league that you find him completely unattractive!”

Chirops gasped. “You mean—?”

“That’s right, Chirops! I’m missing … the ‘boy next door’ type!”

Chirops’s shoulders shook. He ducked his head and twiddled his claws. “Um, gosh, Your Darkness, y’know, you might be able to find one like that … erm … if you just looked—”

“I have looked.” She unrolled the paper, opened to the second page, and pointed at the photograph. “And I’ve found him! This is what the magical girls are after! This is what Pretty Dynamo wants to keep for herself! This is what I must have!”

Chirops blinked. “Him? You think—?”

“Exactly! Why would magical girls fight over him?”

“I don’t know. He seems kind of—”

“Plain? Ordinary? Precisely! He’s downright dull! And that’s why he’s so desirable, Chirops!”

Chirops scratched his ear again. “That doesn’t make any—”

The Queen rolled her eyes. “Chirops, you really don’t understand a woman’s heart.”

“I’m coming to realize that, yeah.”

She ran one hand over Barfing Boy’s photograph and gazed at it with a small smile. “They want him, so I’m going to have him. Hurt him? Maim him? I was a fool to think that. No, there is a better way to avenge myself on my enemy: I’m going to make this boy mine … and Pretty Dynamo is going to watch.”

“You think she’s into that?”

“That’s not what I mean, idiot. No, I’m going to take him away from her, and I’m going to do it just because she wants him. Then Pretty Dynamo will be destroyed—and my reverse harem will be complete!”

She released a loud, menacing cackle that echoed from the vaulted stone ceiling hidden above the holographic sky.

“Ah,” she said with a sigh as she stretched her hands above her head, “I knew I’d feel better if I came down here.” She tossed the newspaper into Chirops’s face. “Cut that photo out and frame it.”

After peeling the paper off his snout, Chirops stared down at the picture and twisted his mouth.

“When you’ve captured him,” the Queen added, “have him bathed and then send him to my chambers.”

“When I’ve captured him?”

“Is there an echo in here?” the Queen asked with the lifting of an eyebrow. “An echo that changes pronouns? Yes, when you’ve captured him, send him to me. And try not to take a detour to Betelgeuse this time.”

Chirops swallowed audibly. The paper crackled as his claws shook.

“What are you waiting for?” the Queen snapped. “Do it! Shuffle off, now.”

“What about your Mai Tai?”

She tapped her chin for half a minute. “Never mind that. Boys before booze. Get to it!”

She waved him away and then snapped her fingers. “Gyokudo, come here! Rub my shoulders. Queenie needs to release some tension.”

 


 

Chirops waddled back toward the oak door, which, thanks to the holographic illusion, stood by itself in the middle of the beach with no visible wall behind it. He stared down at the rumpled paper in his claws, at the blurry black-and-white photograph of a foolish-looking teenage boy.

“I think she could find a much better plain, ordinary guy,” he mumbled. “If she really wanted to. If she really, really looked.”

Before he was quite out of earshot, he barely heard the Dark Queen mutter to herself as she relaxed under Gyokudo’s ministrations, “I’ll show that city. I’ll show them all. Teach those fools to betray me …”

As her voice dropped into inaudibility, Chirops paused at the door and brushed away a fresh tear. “Oh, Queen,” he whispered, “is all this really worth it?”

 


 

Magical Girl Grease Pencil Marionette remembered.

The Moon Princess and her team had just fought another victorious battle. The city’s west end, which would one day be New Oslo, lay in ruins. Smoke filled the sky, and the sun was a blood-red disc. In the center of a street littered with twisted I-beams and scattered chunks of concrete, the Moon Princess stood atop a pile of rubble, and a wind from the sea whipped her long, golden hair. Her enemies, charred and mangled beyond recognition, lay around her, scattered like discarded toys. In her left hand, she held her wand, a four-foot length of ivory topped with a crescent moon carved from diamond. In her right hand, she held her sword. Her arms, up to the elbows, were smeared with blood again.

Marionette sat at her feet and held her grease pencil in her lap. She stared at the pencil’s tip, unblinking, unmoving, like a puppet waiting for its master to make it dance. But her mechanical senses recorded everything.

Other members of the Princess’s team soon reported in. Snapping their hands to their foreheads with middle and index fingers spread, they made smart salutes and awaited further orders.

Magical Himiko walked up to the base of the rubble pile and made a salute herself. “Everyone’s here except Ice Queen, Your Majesty, but I spoke with her over the com five minutes ago. I expect her soon.”

The Moon Princess nodded. “Very good, Himiko. You’ve served me well.”

Himiko blushed.

Ice Queen arrived. She ran into the street, her teal hair tangled and swishing across her face. Tears had streaked her eyeshadow, and blood had speckled her uniform. Her miniskirt was ripped.

“Your Majesty!” She ran to the base of the rubble pile, clutched her knees, and caught her breath.

The Princess turned her clear blue eyes to Ice Queen, smiled warmly, and waited.

“Your Majesty,” Ice Queen gasped, “I saw him!”

“Him?” the Princess asked.

Ice Queen’s pale cheeks displayed an uncharacteristic hue of red. She swallowed and toyed for a moment with the tsuba of the katana at her waist. She brushed some of the loose hair out of her eyes.

“He fell from a window during the attack,” she said, her voice wavering slightly. “I caught him—”

“You saved a man’s life?” the Princess asked, her smile growing slightly larger. “Well done. You have done your duty.”

“No, it’s not that, Your Majesty! I mean … I mean, well, I had to put him down to keep fighting, and I didn’t get his name, but his eyes—”

She lowered her head and clapped a hand to her face. Her shoulders shook.

Hatchet Harridan released a sharp, derisive laugh, almost a bark. “Well, well, well. Ice Queen interested in a boy? Now I’ve see everything. Whatsamatta, Icy? Hell’s Belle not doin’ it for you anymore?”

Nearby, Hell’s Belle stood with her arms folded and stared at the sky, pretending lack of interest. But she shot Hatchet Harridan a single, sharp glance.

“I think it’s delicious,” Whip Witch said with a purr.

“Are you making a request of me?” the Princess asked calmly.

Ice Queen took a deep breath and said, “Sentinel. If I described him to Sentinel, the computer could make a model of his face and match it against the database—”

Her voice trailed off when the Moon Princess shook her head.

Himiko cleared her throat. “Ice Queen, Sentinel is not for spying on the citizenry.”

“I wouldn’t spy! I just—”

“It ain’t for stalking, either,” Hatchet Harridan said with a chuckle.

“But—!”

Himiko stepped up to Ice Queen and pointed a finger in her face. “Drop it. I already told you—”

“But—”

“Drop it!”

Hell’s Belle unfolded her arms, walked to Ice Queen’s side, and clapped her gauntleted hand on her shoulder. “Himiko, step back.”

“Excuse me?”

“Step back. You’re in Ice Queen’s space.”

“I’m getting tired of your insubordination, Hell’s Belle—”

“And I’m getting tired of your attitude.”

Himiko held out a hand, and her naginata unfolded from her sleeve.

Hell’s Belle snorted. “That’s your answer to everything, isn’t it?”

“One of these days, Hell’s Belle,” Himiko hissed, “I am going to put you in your place.”

“If you want a go at me, Himiko, we can do it right here.”

She hauled her claymore from its sheath and swung. Himiko blocked the blow and leapt back.

With her supernatural strength, Belle could wield the massive, two-handed weapon as if it were a short sword, but Himiko was just as deft with her polearm. For half a minute, steel rang against steel as the two slashed, thrust, and parried, until finally the Princess raised a hand and said, “Enough.”

Belle immediately lowered her blade, but Himiko, with a snarl, swung the naginata in a vicious swipe. Hell’s Belle slid backwards, but the tip of the blade caught her right cheek and raised a line of blood.

“I said enough.” The Princess was still calm, but her voice now held just the faintest edge of controlled anger.

Himiko snapped her wrist, and the naginata collapsed into her sleeve.

Hell’s Belle wiped the back of her hand across her cheek, producing a red smear that stretched to the tattoo on her neck. “I won’t forget that,” she said.

Marionette rose to her feet, and the others stared at her. It was rare to see Marionette move on her own, without instructions.

“Describe him to me,” Marionette said.

Ice Queen blinked. “What—?”

Marionette lowered the point of her pencil to the pavement. “Describe him.”

Punctuating her words with hesitant glances toward the other girls, Ice Queen described him: his hair, his eyes, the shape of his face. As she did, Marionette sketched. After several minutes of drawing, Marionette bent down, stuck her hands into the pavement, and pulled out a human head.

As she handed this macabre object to Ice Queen, Marionette said, “You don’t need Sentinel. Ask around. Someone in the area should know him.”

Cradling the head in her arms, Ice Queen whispered, “Thank you.

When Marionette turned around, Himiko grabbed her lapels and got in her face. She had to bend down to do so; Marionette was tall, but at six feet, Himiko was still taller.

“Never contradict me, robot,” Himiko hissed.

Unlike humans, who never have complete control over their bodies, Marionette could shut off the current to the electroactive polymers she had in place of muscles. When she wanted, she could close down the signals that created her facial expressions, and could thereby maintain a perfect poker face. She did it now as she met Himiko’s gaze, returning her fierce anger with the blank mask of a doll.

“I did not contradict you,” Marionette said in a flat voice, and Himiko, though she opened her mouth for a moment, gave no answer.

 


 

Later that evening, as was her wont, Marionette sat, unmoving, against a wall, her torso sagging to one side like that of a dropped mannequin.

She was in Ice Queen’s room, and Ice Queen bent over her. Marionette moved not at all, but still her senses recorded everything. Ice Queen’s room was spare: a bed, a desk, a poster on the wall, a computer. A wire snaked from the computer to Marionette’s head.

Hell’s Belle, arms folded, walked into the doorway. Ice Queen didn’t look up, but her shoulders slumped.

“Are you mad?” Ice Queen asked.

Belle grunted. “I think we both knew this wasn’t gonna last forever.”

Ice Queen straightened and rubbed her temples. “Oh, Belle, I just wanna be normal—!”

“I don’t think normal’s in the cards for any of us.”

“I know. I know that, but I have to try—”

“Hey, I understand.” Belle walked in. “So just who is this guy, anyway?”

“I don’t even know. I’m being stupid.”

“Well, you go ahead and find him, and if he doesn’t treat you right, tell me. I’ll rough him up for you.”

Ice Queen smiled wanly and laid her head on Belle’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

They held each other for a moment before Belle pointed her chin toward Marionette. “What’re you doing, anyway? The Princess’ll be pissed if she catches you messing with her favorite toy.”

“I’m just trying to figure out how she works, but she’s sealed up tight. Her ear comes off, but that’s about all I’ve discovered.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, she’s got several ports under there, but they don’t do much good. She’s got a firewall like you wouldn’t believe.”

Belle shook her head. “You and your computers. You know I don’t understand that stuff. Maybe you should just talk to her instead.”

Belle walked to Marionette and rapped her knuckles against the side of her head. “Robo-witch, you in there?”

“Belle, don’t talk to her like that.”

“Why not? She’s a machine.”

“Well, maybe, but she’s got feelings.”

“Hey, you’re the one ripping her ear off.”

Ice Queen growled. “Just be nice.”

Belle grunted. “Robot—”

“She has a name, Belle. Don’t call her a robot.”

Belle looked back over her shoulder. Ice Queen interlaced her fingers and fidgeted.

“Marionette? That’s not a name, Icy.”

“It’s better than ‘robot.’”

“How? How is it better?”

“Oh, just … just be nice, will you?”

Belle shrugged. “Marionette?”

Marionette reactivated the electrical signals to her facial muscles, and she smiled. “Yes, Hell’s Belle?”

Belle jumped. “Dang! She’s creepy. It’s like a doll suddenly turning into a person. Marionette?”

“Yes?”

“What do you do when the Moon Princess takes you into her chamber at night?”

“Belle!” Ice Queen snapped.

Belle waved her off.

Marionette cocked her head. “That information is not classified. Her Majesty uses me as a sleeping aid.”

Belle rubbed her chin. “Huh. Sounds kinky—”

“She asks me to talk to her and sing her lullabies until she falls asleep. Sometimes I rub her shoulders.”

Belle pointed at her and turned back to Ice Queen. “Where can I get one of these?”

Ice Queen sighed and shook her head. “Belle, be serious. We need to talk about Himiko.”

Belle cracked her knuckles. “With this thing? She’s recording everything you say, you know.”

“As soon as the Moon Princess starts her spell, Himiko’s going to be the one in charge of this whole shindig.”

“Yeah, of course, but we’re not going to be here to—”

“Belle, this is serious! We could die! The whole world could die! If any of those Crystals are destroyed—”

“Icy, I know. I know the plan.”

Ice Queen waved toward Marionette. “Marionette, tell her.”

Marionette returned her face to an emotionless mask, but she spoke: “Magical Himiko is unstable. Obsessive fixation with the Moon Princess. Possible monomania. Recommend removal from post and professional psychological evaluation.”

Belle whistled through her teeth. “This thing is scary. Marionette, the Princess chose Himiko to be in charge, so—”

“The Moon Princess intends to make me field commander to the magical girls during her absence,” Marionette replied. “Magical Himiko hates me because she believes I have come between her and the Moon Princess. I will have to report to Himiko if she is caretaker of the Crystals. Therefore, it is in my best interests, and in the best interests of Urbanopolis, if Himiko is replaced as soon as possible.”

Belle chuckled as she put her hands behind her head and stretched. “So you’re in here pretending to be curious about computers, but you’re actually planning a mutiny. Nice.”

“Belle,” said Ice Queen, “you don’t exactly get along with Himiko. You have more trouble with her than any of us.”

“Yeah, but the Moon Princess needs her magic. Who else is going to watch over the Crystals while we’re in suspension?”

Ice Queen dropped her voice. “Don’t you remember? Himiko has a twin sister.”

“So you wanna recommend to the Princess that she bring in Kameyo to replace her?”

Ice Queen shook her head. “Himiko and Kameyo might be twins, but they’ve always been rivals. Kameyo is jealous of Himiko’s position.” She dropped her voice still further. “And believe me, they’re identical. Same face, same build, same magic. You put them next to each other, it’s impossible to tell them apart.”

A grin formed on Belle’s mouth. “Exactly what have you two been planning in here?”

Ice Queen leaned toward Belle and whispered in her ear, but the whisper was loud enough for Marionette’s sensitive microphones to hear. “Hell’s Belle, we could replace Himiko with her sister, and the Moon Princess wouldn’t even have to know.”

Belle seized Ice Queen around the waist and drew her close. “I like it when you talk dirty,” she murmured. “It’s too bad you’ve decided to crush on a guy, Icy, because right now, I’m finding you hot as hell.”

With that, she held out one hand, and in her palm, a bright flame burned.

 


 

It had been a Sunday afternoon in early spring. The weather was at last warming up, so Marionette’s drafty attic was comfortable again after a terrible winter. Although her joints didn’t stiffen up in cold as readily as a human’s, and though she couldn’t suffer frostbite or pneumonia, she could still feel miserable. She had spent much of the winter warming her fingers over a small cast-iron stove and painting a few strokes at a time before needing to warm her fingers again.

Now down to shirtsleeves and her green shorts, she spent a lazy Sunday lying in her cot. The paint-flecked bedclothes were in a tangled mess, partly over her and partly under.

Kasumi Sugihara, down to a sports bra and boxers, lay beside her and smoked a cigarette. In her magical form, she was Card Collector Kasumi, but for the moment, she was merely an ordinary fifteen-year-old girl. They had wiled away the late morning and much of the afternoon reading magazines, talking about TV dramas, discussing battle tactics, and gossiping about which boys they hated.

Marionette held, balanced on her stomach, a crystal Pontarlier glass of milky white absinthe louche. She gazed at it for half a minute, raised her head, and took a sip. A faintly bitter scent of blended herbs met her olfactory sensors, and the drink slipped smoothly down her synthetic throat.

Kasumi sighed out a long, curling stream of smoke. “You drink too much,” she said.

“You smoke too much,” Marionette replied, and she sipped again. “And it doesn’t matter how much I drink.”

Kasumi snatched the glass from her hand and took a long pull. When she lowered it, she stuck out her tongue. “Blech.”

“Your cigarette’s ruining the taste, and don’t drink it like that.” Marionette tried to take the glass back, but Kasumi, with a faint giggle, rolled onto her side, forcing Marionette to reach across her.

“I just don’t like licorice,” Kasumi said.

“You’re gonna be drunk in a second after a gulp like that. Give it here.”

Marionette took the glass back and tipped the rest of the contents into her mouth.

“Look who’s talking,” said Kasumi.

“I’m just keeping it away from you. And I can’t get drunk.”

She flopped back onto her pillow. “But sometimes I wish I could.” Turning the glass over in her hands, she watched the light from the window glint off its surface. “Even though it doesn’t affect me, I have a taste for the stuff. It’s another of my father’s jokes.”

“You don’t have to do what he programmed into you, do you?”

“No, but I like to. It relaxes me.”

“I wish I could relax.” Kasumi sat up and stretched her arms over her head before she stubbed out her cigarette in the tray on the nightstand. “I can’t believe I’m gonna be doing this for another three years.”

Marionette’s ocular sensors traced the lines of muscle in Kasumi’s back. She was lithe and firmly knit, like a gymnast. The exertions of the magical form always had their effect on the normal body, so most magical girls turned out small and wiry.

She wondered if that was why her father had designed her to look so boyish. Art imitating life.

“Is it really so bad?” Marionette asked.

Kasumi kept her back to her and stared at the wisps of smoke rising from the ashtray. “You wouldn’t know, would you? You were designed for this.”

“I was designed to want to leave it behind, just as you do.”

“For what?”

“Family. Art. What do you want to leave it for?”

Kasumi sighed. “Why are we like this?” She reached behind herself and, for a moment, clumsily ran a hand over Marionette’s waist. Then she pushed her hand upward—

Marionette took her fingers, interlaced them with her own, and kissed them. “You know I shut off my sexuality program.”

Kasumi grunted as she stuck a fresh cigarette in her mouth and flicked her lighter. “You keep saying. If that were true, how could you paint?”

“I don’t know how it is for real humans, but for me, my artistic impulse is in a separate subroutine.”

Kasumi chuckled quietly. “You’re harsh. You know most of the girls have a crush on you.”

“Some. Not most.”

“Still.”

Marionette sighed. “It’s because I’m more experienced, because I’m in charge, because I look like a boy, and because they’re under a lot of stress. Most of them grow out of it.”

After a few deep pulls that quickly created half an inch of ash, Kasumi stubbed her cigarette out again, leaving it unfinished. “I won’t. I won’t grow out of it.”

“You will. Give it time.”

Kasumi flopped back down onto the bed and pushed against Marionette’s side. “No, I’ve already decided. I’m never getting over you.”

“I’m a machine, you know.”

Their fingers were still intertwined, so Kasumi squeezed her hand. “Then I’ll be your heart.” She tapped her own chest. “You’re alive here, if nowhere else. You live in my soul, Marionette. Whether you live anywhere else doesn’t matter to me.”

Kasumi started nuzzling her neck, so Marionette sat up. “I need another drink.”

“You haven’t had enough?”

“You’ve been smoking like a chimney. I’m trying to keep pace. Besides—”

“I know, I know. It doesn’t do anything to you.”

“It’s got a lot of water. Just this afternoon, I’ve stored up enough deuterium to last me for three months.”

She climbed off the cot, snatched Kasumi’s lighter from the nightstand, and walked to her kitchenette. There, she performed the elaborate ritual of a Bohemian pour. She laid a perforated spoon across the mouth of the glass and set upon it a single sugar cube. Then she poured emerald green liquor over the cube until the spherical bulb in the bottom of the glass was full.

After that, she lit the sugar on fire and watched it burn a faint blue.

Sitting on the counter atop a narrow stand was a drip fountain full of ice water. Once the sugar began to sizzle and bubble, Marionette moved the glass under the spigot and let the water snuff the flame. As the water pitter-pattered into the glass, the absinthe changed from a clear and emerald green to a murky and cloudy yellow. After most of the sugar had dissolved, Marionette took up the spoon and stirred, at last shutting off the spigot when the glass was nearly full.

Taking a sip, she contemplated for a moment and nodded in approval.

“Is that fun?” Kasumi asked from the bed.

“Yes. The Green Lady, they call her, muse of many an artist. They say the wormwood gives the mind clarity and insight.”

“It tastes gross, but I admit I’m pretty calm.”

“I’m not surprised. It’s supposed to give you a very mellow drunk.”

“You wouldn’t know.”

“No, but I like the look, the smell, the pour, the history. And unlike you, I like the taste.”

Kasumi giggled. “Couldn’t I be your muse instead?”

“Sorry, but I already have my lady.” She sipped again. “Hey, you figured out those new cards yet?”

Kasumi groaned and rolled over onto her stomach. “Do we have to talk shop?”

“Come on, tell me.”

“I don’t like them. I’d rather just stick with my starter deck. I mean, all these cards showing up … I hardly know where to put them all.”

“You’re powering up, Kasumi. That’s a good thing. Some magical girls have to fight for years without getting a power-up.”

“But I get them all the time! Like, I get up one morning, and Marie Laveau’s long-lost deck of cursed Tarot cards is just sitting on the front porch. It freaked me out. Don’t try to tell me that’s normal.”

“Normal’s not in the cards for any of us.”

With a grunt, Kasumi said, “I think you need to adjust your humor program.”

Marionette laughed. “Kasumi, you’re the Card Collector. Magic cards are attracted to you. There’s no reason to fight it. Just accept it.”

Kasumi squirmed. “These new ones, though … they look like regular playing cards, but they’re … they’re powerful. I can feel their power. I’m afraid I’ll hurt somebody.”

“Hurt some monster instead. You’re always complaining that your starter deck is weak—”

Kasumi flopped onto her back again. “Hey, it’s not like I have a familiar to help me out. I just had some ghost wizard show up and tell me I have to collect cards, and then he disappeared. It sucks.”

“So this latest deck, what is it?”

“The cards contain elements, and each element is tied to a time of day … I can explain it all later if you’re really interested. Not right now.”

“I’m interested.”

“I’m afraid, Marionette.  I could hurt a lot of people with these if I use them wrong.”

“Tell me.” She sipped her absinthe again. “You might inspire me.”

Kasumi sat up and pushed her hair out of her eyes, as if arising from sleep. “Maybe I could find a different way to inspire you.”

Marionette turned the glass in her hands, now watching the light play across the surface of the louche. “Is that so? Then let me paint you,” she murmured.

Kasumi smiled; it was a faint smile, enigmatic, with a hint of melancholy. “You’ve asked me that several times.”

“I meant it every time.”

“Is it me you want, or the magical girl?”

“Both. What I have in mind will have to be a composite.”

“Why?”

Marionette returned her faint, sad smile. “Because, like you, I want to remember. I want things to live on, just like this. But you’re going to grow up, Kasumi, and you’re going to leave me behind. They always do.”

Seated on a corner of the cot, Kasumi turned and looked out the window. Faint noise still rose from the street below. She pulled her sports bra up over her head, and then pulled her long hair down across her chest. Looking back over her shoulder, still wearing that enigmatic smile, she said, “Better set up your easel.”

Marionette gazed at her for half a minute. After another swallow, she slowly and carefully set her glass down on the counter. It made a faint clink.

 


 

Once again down to shorts and shirtsleeves, Marionette lay in bed. She was running deep diagnostics, and to pass the time, she painted.

Propped up on several pillows, she had an easel straddling her lap. She paid no attention to the paint she slopped on herself or on the sheets. Every few seconds, she held up a hand mirror and checked it.

Because a sufficiently pernicious virus could potentially activate any of her wireless devices without her knowledge and transmit sensitive information, she had physically removed them: this she had done by detaching her left ear and reaching into her skull with a pair of plyers to pull out the card containing her Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, cell, and FM radio chips. Her father had designed these to be removable partly for the sake of security, and partly in anticipation that Marionette would need to upgrade her wireless technology over time. But technology in Urbanopolis was stagnant: most innovations were merely increases in efficiency. Marionette herself had been the only substantial breakthrough, and that technology was lost.

Having detached herself from the city’s networks, she felt strangely quiet, serene. It was almost trancelike. The traffic from the street outside was muted, and the room was otherwise nearly silent aside from the soft scrape scrape of the brush upon the canvas. Normally, her mind monitored radio stations, police scanners, and news and gossip websites; this was partly to keep abreast of crime and monster attacks so that she might do her duty as a combat-ready magical girl simulation system, but it was partly to mimic the clutter and inattentiveness of the human mind. Now that the background noise of the city’s communications was gone from her positronic brain, her thoughts had become simple and singular. Her mental software went through its operations in an orderly fashion with no more new input than what her five sense emulators could give it.

The removal of her ear also exposed her ports. Into one, she had plugged a wire connected to a computer containing her more advanced diagnostic utilities. That computer, its fan whirring faintly, now scoured the labyrinth of her complex algorithms. The scan would take days to finish, during which she had little choice except to lie where she was, isolated from the world, and paint.

She had a glass of absinthe on the nightstand. She paused in her painting to take a sip. Then she checked her mirror. Then she added more strokes.

It was a self-portrait depicting her as she looked right now, lying on a musty cot marked by paint stains and cigarette burns, with a glass of absinthe at her elbow and a wire snaking out of the left side of her head. She painted it with unusually bright colors and thick impasto strokes, having already decided to entitle it Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear.

It amused her to consider giving her detached ear to Jake, but she wouldn’t. She didn’t have many spares.

“Marionette.”

She paused as that one word entered the vast expanse of her clear and peaceful mind. It was her moniker, in a sense: her father had chosen to call his creation a marionette, but the Moon Princess had made it a proper name.

“Grease Pencil Marionette.”

Marionette knew that a normal human would have cause to doubt his own sanity if he heard voices in his head. But her mind was different; she could potentially glitch or crash, but she could not, strictly speaking, be psychotic or schizophrenic. Once she had removed her wireless chips, an intrusive voice like this could come from only one source.

She didn’t bother to answer the voice. Speaking aloud would be pointless unless it had already hacked into her aural sensors. She could think at it, but even that might not work, depending on how much of her mind it had infiltrated. Then there was also the question of whether it was sophisticated enough to respond to her anyway: possibly, it was simply playing a recorded message.

“Grease Pencil Marionette, can you hear me?”

She considered. Communication with it could potentially open up new avenues of exploitation. Perhaps it was only contacting her because it hoped that the software generating her consciousness might betray a vulnerability. However—

What do you want? she thought. If she could engage it in a conversation, she might learn its origin. It was worth the risk.

“You,” it replied.

Marionette felt the faint simulation of a frisson running the length of her graphite spine. So it could respond to her. That didn’t mean it was conscious, of course; it might have only limited responses, or it might be a sophisticated Turing machine.

“You for now,” it added. “For now, that is enough. But I won’t stop with you, dearie. Oh no, I have bigger aims.”

Marionette didn’t have to ask, but because she knew what the virus meant, the thought popped into her head unbidden.

“That’s right,” the virus purred.

You’re out of luck, Marionette replied. She added another dab to her canvas. She held up her hand mirror, which showed a furrow in her brow that hadn’t been there a minute before. I don’t have access to Sentinel anymore.

“Because you used it to hack yourself. Yes, I know. Do you realize what a mess you made in here when you did that? It’s a miracle that you work at all. If your designer hadn’t built in triple redundancy, you probably wouldn’t. I’ve been debugging your code for days.”

Marionette chuckled aloud and added a few quick brushstrokes to the painting of her face, brushstrokes that turned up the corners of her mouth and brightened her eyes in a display of amusement. If the virus was undoing her hack, that would explain why her sensuality program was back on.

It’s an odd sort of virus that fixes problems, isn’t it?

Now the virus chuckled, which sent another frisson up Marionette’s synthetic spine. So it had a sense of humor, or at least could fake one.

“I want you in tip-top condition when we infiltrate Moon Base, dearie.”

She shook her head. With a few more flicks of her brush, she tipped her painted self’s eyebrows downward to display her impatience. I just told you, I don’t have access. Sentinel is air-gapped, in a Faraday cage. You’re not getting in.

Now the virus released a long, low laugh that echoed in Marionette’s skull. “It’s a computer, sweetie. It can be hacked. Any computer in the world can be hacked. I’m writing the program right now.”

Another tingle in her spine. This virus was sophisticated. The lubricant simulating perspiration appeared on her forehead. Marionette was bluffing, and the virus knew it: Sentinel had extraordinary security, but it wasn’t invulnerable. It couldn’t monitor near-Earth space, several higher dimensions, the nether regions, and a handful of parallel universes if it were invulnerable. Data had to stream into it, just as data streamed into Marionette—and in her case, a virus had streamed in with it.

In the old days, the Moon Princess and her team had used Sentinel freely, but after the Ascension, the High Priestess had ordered a tightening of the computer’s security. Now only one man had direct access to the whole system, a shadowy figure that magical girls knew as “the boss.” The military selected him and recommended him to the Mayor, who personally appointed him. Only the Mayor, the High Priestess, and some of the top brass knew who he was. None of the girls did, including Marionette.

“Here’s an interesting thing, Marionette,” the virus purred. “You know the real identities of so many magical girls. Oh dear, did it never cross your fake mind what someone could do with that information? Someone like me?”

With a snarl, Marionette reached for the nightstand and snatched up the card holding her wireless chips. She crushed it in her palm.

“A futile gesture, dearie. That will delay me only a little.”

She closed her eyes for a moment and took a deep, albeit simulated, breath. Then she looked at herself in the mirror again and resumed painting. After a few more quick strokes, the face on the canvas looked pensive.

“How long do you think it will take me to take over your motor functions, hm?”

“I’m going to have you out of there before then,” Marionette answered aloud.

“Oh, yes. I see your antivirus program. How … quaint.”

“If that doesn’t work, I have others.”

“Do you, now? Do you even understand what you’re doing? You’re an artist, not a software engineer.”

Marionette didn’t answer.

“I’m surprised you haven’t got on the telephone and called for help. I figured that, by now, you’d be strapped down in a lab, surrounded by analysts and diagnosticians. That would have made my work slightly more difficult.”

Marionette continued to paint.

“Why, Marionette? Aren’t you a magical girl, or at least a passable imitation? Don’t you believe in friendship? Why are you alone?”

Marionette held her brush near her face and looked in the mirror again. “Yes, I believe in friendship. I fight for friendship. My whole existence is friendship. But—”

“Yes?”

“For every magical girl, there is a test, a last challenge. A final boss, if you will. That, she faces alone.”

“Is that so?”

“It’s so. In the end, everyone is alone.”

A pause. Her mind returned to its simple clarity, and the traffic hummed outside.

“What are you trying to prove, Marionette?”

She made a few more brushstrokes.

“More importantly, what are you trying to hide? Is there something in here, some memory, you wouldn’t want a technician to find? Hm?”

Marionette paused for a moment in her painting, but then resumed. She made no answer.

“Card Collector Kasumi died alone, didn’t she? You weren’t there when she fell. You weren’t there to hold her hand in her last moments. She was terrified, in pain, tumbling from the sky, but you weren’t—”

The brush snapped in Marionette’s hand.

“You can face me alone if you wish, but that won’t redeem you.”

She tossed the halves of the ruined brush. They clattered across the hardwood flooring, leaving streaks of pinkish paint. With her hand now free, she reached for the absinthe.

“Speaking of Kasumi, Marionette … why don’t we talk about the interesting objects you’re keeping in your chest cavity?”

In spite of herself, Marionette released a gasp. Her hand shook. Dumbfounded, she watched as the Green Lady slipped from her fingers and, with a crash and tinkling of glass, turned into an expanding puddle on the floor.

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  • Roffles Lowell

    Wowzers that was dark… Even the comic relief bad guy has a secret stable of kidnapped youngsters hypnotized into being her sex slaves. Whatta world. I liked your hypothesis on the Tenchi Effect though. Worth expanding on someday

    • She’s trying to wipe out humanity just to get to the Moon Princess, and you’re surprised that she has a harem of muscle bois?

      As for the Tenchi Effect, I stole that from Homestar Runner, in which Strong Bad’s ideal is a “modestly hot girl … the kind that is only sort of hot so she doesn’t mess around with other guys.”

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