by T Campbell
Even super-animals needed to sleep, sooner or later.
Ultra-Rabbit and Katastrophe were sleeping now. Ultra (who never called himself Roger or Rodney anymore, not even in his thoughts) had his arms around Katastrophe, in a gesture about as tender as gestures on Earth-Reverse-C ever got. His nose twitched, and he dreamed.
His dreams drifted. They began with some old favorites: Bow-Zar the Barkbarian fighting atop a literal mountain of zombies; Cerebral the Aardvark, hacking his way through a swarm of warrior cows; himself, fitting a chained-up Swanky Poodle with a leash that would electrocute her if she barked out a single (censored) swearword.
Then they got stranger. He was in a large auditorium in space, surrounded by super-villains like himself. Some were more powerful than he was, and none of them needed him much, not like the Menagerie. Yet he wasn’t afraid of them, and not just because of the odd disconnectedness of dreams, where sometimes you didn’t feel anything at all. He felt warm, safe.
Finally, he dreamed of Katastrophe.
She was different — weaker, hesitant, uncertain, all her lesser emotions on the surface and her passions restrained. Hardly worth his desire. The kind of animal that Ultra loved to torture on lazy Sundays. And she would be so easy to hurt. So easy.
Why didn’t he want to?
As dreams sometimes did, this one focused, until he was awake, looking at her. She slept with the relaxed enjoyment of cats on every world. He had no words for what he was feeling.
Gradually he became aware that he couldn’t feel his left arm. It had gone to sleep under her weight. The sane, normal thing to do would be to move it, and yet he didn’t want to.
His arm was shrinking.
He had slept through his alarm, and his arm was shrinking — oh, no, oh, (censored), he was shrinking all over — any second now Bast-Felina was going to wake and see her beloved, almighty Ra looking about as almighty, and as lovable, as a naked skeleton. Which is all he would be after she got done with him.
He pushed the panic down. Panic was weakness. Carrots. He needed his belt. His powerful (but rapidly, rapidly decaying) eyesight swept the room.
The Ultra Bedchamber was baroque enough to make King Louie the Fourteenth feel right at home, if Louie had had a thing for carrots: there were carrot bedposts, carrots in a ceiling design, and two crossed carrots barring the door. (No belt there.) The bed, itself a variation on the carrot shape, was made from perfumed down feathers, plucked from the Menagerie’s more attractive slaves. (No belt under the sheets.) The bedframe was made of solid brass except for the headboard, an oaken bas-relief that showed an iconic rabbit head and a dozen smaller rabbit heads around it, a tribute to rabbits’ legendary reproductive potency. In a compartment behind the headboard, Ultra-Rabbit kept a few toys, but his belt wasn’t there.
His shirt was on the headboard, under her toga, their tunic and pants were under the bedsheets somewhere, her helmet was on the floor, and so was her cape, and he thought he saw a little of the red of the belt under the red of the cape, but his eyes were blurring now — no, no, no, it had been so long since this had happened. He’d forgotten how weak and scrawny and pathetic he was.
“Good morning, dahling,” came Swanky Poodle’s voice on his belt communicator. “Feeling more like your (censored) self again?”
Was there a camera in this room? Did she know? The thought added to his terror, but by calling him on the belt communicator, she had confirmed its exact location.
He lunged, and was jerked back by his trapped arm. He lunged again, yanking, yanking, desperately thrashing his way free.
Bast-Felina murmured, yawned, stretched, opened her eyes.
Almighty Ra stood before her, eating a carrot. He seemed to grow even more powerful before her as her eyes came into focus, his supple muscles hardening to the consistency of stone.
She smiled, closed her eyes, and drifted back off for twenty more minutes of sleep.
Sometimes things just go wrong.
You make a foolproof plan, and then you make contingency plans in case the plan isn’t foolproof after all, but every so often the universe slams a custard pie right in your face, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The Just’a Lotta Animals Satellite was relaxed and congenial at the moment, as most of the group waited for Alley-Kat-Abra and Zap-Panda to finish their preparations. Dimensional travel was a risky affair, and Abra insisted on doing it carefully this time.
“So they’re evil versions of you?” Super-Squirrel was asking the Captain.
“I just have one question.”
“How do we tell the difference?”
“Oh, thanks a lot, Super-Squirrel. That means so much to me.”
Super-Squirrel stared at him, then made a pfft noise. “I don’t think you’re evil, little fella,” he said, petting Rodney between the ears as if Rod were three years old. “I just think you’re a little amateurish, is all.”
“OK, fine. The costumes have different color schemes, except for the Iron Pig’s, but even he sounds different — more squealy. Maybe he could fool you for a minute, but not for long.”
“There. See? Simple question, simply answered, without any backbiting. That’s how the pros do it.” Super-Squirrel gave a reassuring grin.
Rodney Rabbit just gave up and nodded. Then he saw Wonder Wabbit heading in their direction, and he quickly walked over to the Crash and Green Lambkin, making up an excuse to talk to them as he went.
It seemed to Wonder Wabbit that Rodney was avoiding her. She had no idea why. They’d hit it off really well before. Of course, they’d each had to go back to their worlds in the end, and the first night after he’d gone back had been the hardest of her life. But seeing him again so soon, she was wondering (ha-ha) if the gods weren’t trying to tell her something, in their own maddeningly subtle way.
“So who is he?” asked Zap-Panda.
“Who is who?” said Abra.
Zap-Panda smiled, knowingly and condescendingly. “You see that reddish tint in your aura when we work the spells? It means you’re involved with someone.”
Abra quickly decided that a flustered denial wasn’t going to get her anywhere. “Someone. It’s touch and go right now. Can we talk about something else?”
“Sure. Just don’t let him break your heart.”
Abra started to weave another spell, then stopped. “That’s a little judgmental, don’t you think? All you know about him is that he’s male.”
“Well, I know there are good guys out there, but I don’t seem to meet any of them. Well, I guess that all the guys I work with are, technically, ‘good guys,’ but that doesn’t necessarily make them good guys, if you know what I mean.”
“Don’t just take my word for it. Hey, Canary!” Zap-Panda waved Stacked Canary over to where they were. “Tell her about Green Sparrow.”
Canary flushed. Mynah Glance seemed to want this conversation even less than Abra did. “Well, Ollie was… he is… a real little chick who never grew up. He was always just irresponsible enough to be really, really attractive…”
“Oh, come on! Tell her how that little peeper dumped you! How he ran around and had a kid of his own, and how you caught him kissing your secretary! Tell him how Oliver Quill is a worthless bag of molted feathers who ought to be dropkicked out of this satellite and burned up on re-entry! Like you told me the last time we talked about it!”
Stacked Canary opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again, held it open for a moment, finally blurted out, “We hooked up again last Tuesday,” and walked away, quickly.
Zap-Panda cradled her forehead. “To quote Lex Lemur, ‘Why am I surrounded by all these incompetent fools?'”
The Martian Anteater ran past, yelling, “Ow! Oo! Fire ant! Ow! Burned my tongue! Ow! Oo! Fire ant!”
This failed to disrupt Batmouse’s concentration. Almost everything failed to disrupt Batmouse’s concentration, especially when he was facing as large a problem as he was. From the Captain’s description, the Nasty Menagerie sounded tough, but not invincible. They were only part of it. The real problem was the increasing number of invasions from other dimensions they were facing. If the barriers between the dimensions were weakening, who was to say that next month they wouldn’t be invaded by giant carnivorous cartoon cats, or human beings, or worse?
While Batmouse sank even deeper into gloom than usual, the Captain tried to explain to Wool Jargon again why he was about to be replaced first by a black sheep and then by a whole Green Lambkin Flock in the comics on Earth-C.
“No, the comics writers on my world don’t hate you, exactly. It’s just sometimes hard to write about an animal without fear… though, come to think of it, Frank Muler did some of his best work with Deerdevil.”
And then they were ready.
Super-Squirrel gave a short pep talk. Captain Carrot, despite himself, had to admire it. It was as inspirational as he usually tried to be with his own, and ended with the words, “I have as much faith in you as I do in myself, and that’s saying a lot. We will beat them in the skies, we will beat them underground, in the cities, in the cul-de-sacs, and in the treetops. We will beat them here and there. We will beat them everywhere.”
“And hopefully,” muttered Aquaduck a bit sourly, “we will get to do some of that beating in large, large bodies of water.”
Alley-Kat-Abra’s Magic Wanda glowed.
“Rood nepo,” chanted Zap-Panda, antiphonically. “Rood nepo, rood nepo, rood nepo…”
But sometimes things just go wrong.
Though the JLA had no way of knowing it, they were trying to get into Earth-C just four seconds after the Nasty Menagerie had — after another doorway to Earth-C had already been opened, and just before it closed.
Indescribable coruscations rocked the heroes and the satellite, and Wanda was shrieking, and Abra was asking her what was wrong, and Zap-Panda shouted, “It’s–”
And then they were gone.