by T Campbell
Twenty seconds earlier, at the Z-Building, Earth-C:
Fastback served out his famous spicy gumbo to Chester Cheese and himself, then gave the rest of the steaming pot to Pig-Iron, who tipped it back and started guzzling.
“So whaddaya think about th’ world sitchewashun, Chess?” Timmy Joe Terrapin asked, then listened raptly for Chester’s answer.
And then the sky cracked open, and the world situation changed.
The Nasty Menagerie descended like angels from some harsher, elder god — Ultra-Rabbit’s eyes alight with hatred and heat-vision, Swanky Poodle crackling with red, white, blue, and green power, Katastrophe radiating magic that was black but still blinding, Big Cheese, grown to the size of the Z-Building, Fantastidrake, stretched nearly as tall with arms sweeping in all directions, the Iron Pig, stomping foot-deep hoofprints into the earth as he walked, and Slashback, a swamp-green streak of death. The silver troopers dropped to the ground below them.
“Oh, my Dog!” Pig-Iron had seen a lot with the Zoo Crew, from giant robots to psychokinetic aliens, but this… this… “Oh, my Dog! Oh… my… Dog…” His eyes narrowed. “My… Dog. They actually think they can do this. They actually think we’re gonna let ’em get away with it.”
Fastback was moving so quickly when he signaled Byrd Rentals and Rova Barkitt that he could see the radio waves come wiggling out of his wrist, travel through the air, and get themselves sucked, one after another, into a jamming device on Fantastidrake’s belt. He thought about this for what felt like just a second, and turned to Pig-Iron. But Pig-Iron was already out the door.
The Z-Building had some defenses of its own, though they weren’t perfected. Using those to fight a defensive battle might have been the smart thing. But it wasn’t the Pig-Iron thing.
He charged out the door, swiped aside silver troopers left and right, charged past the Big Cheese’s grasping hand, ignored Swanky Poodle’s magno-blast, and made for Ultra-Rabbit.
Fastback ran out of the Z-Building, up Big Cheese’s arm, and right in front of his eyes. He moved in strobing patterns in front of Cheese, leaving the giant so dizzy as to be helpless for the next few minutes, then punched the eyes black for good measure, ran back down, and started rounding up silver troopers.
Ultra-Rabbit just smiled at Pig-Iron’s charge. Let the poor brute come. He’d learn the same lesson that his double learned last year. He puffed out his chest and waited for the punch.
Pig-Iron didn’t make one. He leaped, balled himself up, and cannonballed right into Ultra-Rabbit, and he weighed so much, and leaped so desperately, that he actually knocked the wind out of Ultra — and dropped him.
The rest of the Nasty Menagerie began to converge on them. But no one except Katastrophe was moving all the way in to help Ultra-Rabbit yet. First, he had to prove he deserved the help.
“So ya think yer tough, huh? Ya think ya can take us, do ya?!” Pig-Iron tried to follow up with a haymaker to Ultra-Rabbit’s jaw, but Ultra caught the punch, grabbed the arm, and punted Pig-Iron like a football.
On the bright side, Pig-Iron managed to land on a few silver troopers. On the not-so-bright side, he couldn’t get up. He could barely lift his head enough to see green tentacles restraining him like Gorillaver in Gorillaver’s Travels. Fantastidrake was tying him down, pressing on the joints with scientific precision, but a giant blue missile picked that moment to crack against the rubber skull of Fantastidrake, who went limp as uncooked spaghetti. The missile, Fastback, streaked after Swanky Poodle.
Pig-Iron saw Ultra-Rabbit preparing to leap into flight, and pounded the Earth in front of him, knocking Ultra off-balance. Ultra-Rabbit’s heat-vision fired wildly, scorching the already-blinded Big Cheese.
The porcine powerhouse saw Katastrophe flying in from the right and hoped that he was as proof against her magic as he was against Alley-Kat-Abra’s.
He never found out.
Katastrophe kicked him hard in the jowls, snatched his wrist, and threw him into the Earth. Then she was on him, clawing at the small patch on his chest that covered his heart, leaving scratches on his metal skin. Then she looked up at a shadow that was gathering over them both, cursed, and vanished — just in time for the Iron Pig to drop on top of Pig-Iron and start beating on him in turn.
Ultra-Rabbit touched down in front of the brawling pigs and folded his arms, watching. There was nothing quite like seeing a creature destroying itself, and that’s just what the Iron Pig was doing. Ultra’s sharp eyes could see tears in the Pig’s.
Fastback had just about zigzagged his way through Swanky Poodle’s defenses when his right leg stopped working. He dropped, rolling, trying to understand why this should be, and glimpsed Slashback — Slashback, holding a knife… with blood on it.
Slashback had severed his hamstrings. And he was coming in again, almost faster than Fastback could see, and faster than he could stop.
How c’n this be happenin’?! Fastback asked himself as his left leg went dead. He’s got mah powers, an’ th’ Crash’s, but since th’ Crash’n me both got th’ same amount’a speed, he shouldn’t be any faster’n me! Unless… ‘less he got mah powers plus th’ Crash’s? Multie-plied by th’ Crash’s–?!
Fastback pulled in his other limbs and head before Slashback went in for the kill, but he knew even that wouldn’t save him long. Swanky Poodle was advancing on him, smiling like the sadist she was, her hands spheres of magnetic force. She panted in anticipation…
…and the Carrotmobile ran her over.
Little Cheese laughed a little hysterically in the driver’s seat. He was terrified, all right, but no way, no way, was he going to hide like a… mouse… while two great guys were getting their geese cooked.
“Kids these days!” he yelled, forcing Katastrophe into an aerial retreat. “Give us a car, and we just go nuts! Ha-ha-ha!“
Slashback took almost a full second to slash the Carrotmobile’s tires. That was all the time Timmy Joe Terrapin needed for his last-ditch escape plan. Lying on his stomach, he pinwheeled his arms, creating a tornado underneath him, a tornado that carried him up, up, and out of the battlefield, toward the coast of the Specific Ocean. Until an agonizing power bolt from Katastrophe caught him in mid-pinwheel, and he fell into the ocean, Slashback racing after him.
The Carrotmobile was fishtailing badly, but Chester still had enough control to steer it at the Iron Pig, who was still pounding away at Pig-Iron. It crashed against the Pig and collapsed into a hunk of twisted metal. The Iron Pig was barely distracted. He didn’t even turn around. And so he didn’t notice that Chester had vanished.
He was distracted long enough, though, for Pig-Iron to land his last, best punch on the Iron Pig’s weakest point — his flesh-covered nose. The blow staggered the Iron Pig, and he nearly fell.
Pig-Iron stared at him, even as he raised his fists in a boxing pose. There was no spark in the Iron Pig, no fighting spirit, no will to win. It was horrible for Pig-Iron to watch, this other self of his that was so broken.
Of course, getting the stuffing kicked out of him kind of sucked, too. And that’s pretty much how the rest of the fight went. Ultra-Rabbit, Iron Pig, Katastrophe, and the recovered Big Cheese made a ring around him and unconsciously re-enacted the Rodney Kingsnake video, which is to say they beat him simultaneously and mercilessly, up to some time after he had stopped moving.
Meanwhile, Slashback had been circling the Specific Ocean coast for the last five minutes, running over water as well as land, and finding neither hide nor scale of Fastback. He just wasn’t to be found anywhere on the surface.
Slashback wondered a bit about the tornado Fastback had made, just by doing something with his arms. Could he do that? What would he have to do? He fanned his hands experimentally, but the best he came up with was a stiff breeze. He tried a few of Katastrophe’s magical gestures, then a few of Swanky Poodle’s obscene gestures. Nothing worked, and it made his head hurt, so he gave it up.
Then he wondered, just a little, whether being super-fast made you drown faster than normal, too. But even if it didn’t, Fastback was certainly drowned by now.
Enuff with th’ thinkin’, already. Ah ain’t paid t’ think. Ah’m paid t’ cut stuff up. An’ that’s a lot more fun, on th’ whole.
He raced back to the others, finding them in the middle of a discussion.
“–really think we should just go ahead and kill him,” Fantastidrake was saying.
“Ordinarily, I would do just that,” said Ultra-Rabbit. “But do you remember how the others behaved?”
“Yeah, like idiots.”
“And what was so idiotic about them?”
“They could have run! Little Cheese could have hid under a rock and delayed the inevitable, and Fastback could have run away and at least had a one-on-one with Slashback. But they joined that pig as soon as he made the obvious mistake of thinking he could beat you,” he said, putting just a little weight on those words.
Fantastidrake continued, but he began to slow down, thinking about the meaning of what he was saying. “As soon as he did that, the others protected him like they were… like they were looters protecting their loot…”
Ultra-Rabbit smiled. After Bast-Felina, Fantastidrake was the easiest of the Menagerie to work with. He might not respect Ultra’s soul, but he did at least respect a good idea, and Ultra’s ideas generally were good.
Swanky Poodle stirred. The power ring had protected her from serious injury when the Carrotmobile ran over her, but it hadn’t protected her from aches and pains, or from the motor oil now covering her. She ringed herself up a bubble bath, right there in the middle of the lawn, stripped naked, and hopped in. The others mostly ignored this, though Big Cheese kept sneaking glances at her.
“Like they were protecting their loot,” Ultra repeated. “And I don’t think they’re unique in this Zoo Crew. You remember the dimension-vision images you showed me? They seem almost more protective of each other than they are of themselves.”
“Well, let’s not get crazy, here,” Fantastidrake replied.
“I did say almost. For that reason, a hostage may be valuable. And since we’ve killed Fastback, and Bast-Felina can’t locate Little Cheese…”
“He is… near, bright one,” Katastrophe said, a slight twinge of fear in her voice. “Every time I turn around, I can almost sense him… Please, do not be angry with me.”
Ultra-Rabbit put on a stern look, sterner than he really felt. Though he wanted to make a clean sweep, Little Cheese didn’t seem nearly as dangerous as any of the others. But Ra would not see it that way. “In light of your record, I can overlook this failure — this time. But you will continue your efforts.”
“O-of course, my love and Lord.” She turned away, pulling her cape around herself in shame.
Ultra straightened, proud of his power, but felt a little queasy at the same time. She would be so easy to hurt… Dreams, that’s all they were — meaningless dreams. He had goals to reach.
“She has located three others: Doctor Hoot, Rubberduck, and Yankee Poodle, over at Sting Sting.”
“Oh, yeah, the prison,” snarled Big Cheese, who’d lost a few of his best associates in crime over there, back in his days as a simple mob boss. “What is it on this world? A church?“
“Actually, Katastrophe’s impressions suggest it’s a prison on this world, too.”
“Huh. Guess they’re handing out flowers to the prisoners…” Big Cheese said, and then he trailed off, because Swanky Poodle was getting back out of the bath.
Meanwhile, Ultra-Rabbit was thinking ahead. A prison could help him kill two birds and two dogs with one stone.
“Abra and Carrot are still MIA, and I don’t like that. They could be planning a surprise for us; it’s what I would do. So Bast-Felina, Big Cheese, the Pig, and I will stay here,” he said, looking up at the Z-Building, “in this architectural atrocity. And we’ll get to know our hostage. You’ll like that, won’t you, Pig?”
Everyone knew what the Iron Pig had no choice but to say. And he gave in almost immediately. “Y-yeah. Yeah. I’m gonna have fun breakin’ him down.”
“Fantastidrake, Swank, Slashback, you head over to the prison and finish those three off. Fantastidrake, keep your eyes open. The place may represent an opportunity. There must be all kinds of interesting prisoners in there.”
As Ultra-Rabbit spoke, he locked eyes with Fantastidrake, then let his gaze flicker over to Swanky Poodle, then back to Fantastidrake again.
Only the superintelligent Fantastidrake could catch the gaze and recognize what it meant. Swanky Poodle, as she never tired of reminding others, had set up a system that would reveal all the Menagerie’s secrets in the event of her death.
However, her imprisonment was another matter entirely. And if she happened to fall in battle, in one of the few prisons on this world that would be capable of holding her… Ultra Rabbit would be pleased, and so would most of the Menagerie, for that matter.
Big Cheese rubbed his sore eyes.
Slashback cracked his knuckles.
The Iron Pig looked at the concrete.
Swanky Poodle walked up, fully dressed and smirking like she didn’t have a care in the world.
Bast-Felina couldn’t shake the feeling that Little Cheese was near.
And Little Cheese clung to Bast-Felina’s tunic, under her cape, and wondered what on Earth-C he was going to do now… other than keep clinging, eventually fall off, and die.