by T Campbell
Fastback was running…
…and running and running and running and running…
…and it was clear he wasn’t going to be fast enough.
As he rocketed through the rainforest, Fantastidrake was always right behind him, always throwing green fists or star-spangled power blasts in his way, and it seemed like every time Fastback dodged, the attack was a nanosecond nearer.
But he’d been dodging a long time. For all his borrowed speed, for all his intelligence, Fantastidrake hadn’t practiced thinking at hundreds of miles an hour. It was taking time, and something was good about that. Something was…
Stripes shot past him on his left.
Aw, c’mon, please, purty-please, fer once in mah dadgum life let me be able t’ think clear-like!
Patience. Fantastidrake was losing patience. And if he lost his patience, he might get sloppy, and let Fastback…
A green explosion scorched Fastback’s boots, but it didn’t hit him, and Fantastidrake cursed.
It wasn’t a great plan. But it was the only one he had.
“Y’all call thet shootin’? Mah grandmaw could hit better’n you! Y’all musta absorbed th’ slowness-power o’ th’ world’s slowest jackrabbit!”
Gritting his teeth, Fantastidrake let out a green pulse wave, flattening everything in the rainforest for a square mile — except Fastback, who vibrated his molecules through the blast.
Fantastidrake tried a few more blasts of various types. He tried vibrating his own sledgehammer hands at the same frequency as Fastback, but Fastback kept shifting frequencies on him.
“Haw-haw-haw! Y’all are whacked.”
Fastback couldn’t keep vibrating like this forever, or even for long. He hoped he wouldn’t have to. Fantastidrake looked frustrated enough to do something stupid, he hoped. ‘Cept Fantastidrake is superintel-lect-ual, yew idjit! Whut kinda moron are yew, Fastback? Aw, no. Aw, no, he’s smilin’ at me…
Fantstidrake was smiling. He reached into his belt and pulled out a green cylinder shaped like a test tube. Chester Cheese was inside it, pounding furiously, trying to warn Fastback not to trust Fantastidrake.
“Now, my little half-shelled half-brain, one of two things will happen. I look forward to learning which one it will be. One, you will stand there, vibrate, and watch me crush this tube with your teammate inside it. Two, you will surrender, and I will drain your power with this ring, and then I will kill you.”
Now that both adrenaline and residual magic had worn off, Zap-Panda and Alley-Kat-Abra were getting a bit worse before they got better. They sat on the ground, slumping a bit in the sunset. Rodney Rabbit did his best to watch over them without hovering too much.
Abra rewarded him with a smile. “You’re being very mature about this.”
“I’m being a coward,” Rodney replied. “I can’t even let myself think about her. And I think about her for a living.”
“Well… it’s not like we see the Just’a Lotta Animals every Tuesday, even if it does feel that way,” said Felina Furr, shrugging. “Maybe we should just… explain things… to her. If you’re ready to commit to that.”
Zap-Panda snorted again.
“It could have been under water,” Aquaduck muttered. “This ‘lab.’ In my domain. The ocean covers seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface. Have I mentioned that lately?”
“Constantly,” sighed Stacked Canary.
“Actually, on this world, it’s probably more like seventy-four percent. The Menagerie is doing all kinds of very bad things to the environment…” Rodney stopped talking and blinked. “At least,” he finished, “I imagine they are.”
Zap-Panda twitched. And turned. Suddenly she was looking at Rodney very, very carefully.
“God,” she said. “S’tahw ni ruoy head?”
“Pardon?” said Rodney.
“I said, ‘Dog, what’s in your head?‘”
“Fur? A skull? I’m afraid I don’t get the question.”
Abra blinked. “Nothing there out of the ordinary.”
Zap-Panda stood. “You mean he’s like this all the time? His imagination… there are whole worlds in there! Ours, yours… and fragments of others — he can see them just in the corners of his eyes; he’s like a radio antenna…”
Now Abra was staring at him on the left while Zap-Panda was staring at him on the right. Aquaduck and Stacked Canary looked on, interested. Rodney felt like a laboratory specimen.
“Imagination is the foundation stone of magic. But you’re right; I haven’t scanned his aura in a long time. It felt a little like violating his privacy.”
“But now that he is naked in front of you…” began Zap-Panda a bit mischievously.
Abra pretended not to notice. “We might be able to use his mind to home in on our counterparts… mine and his.”
“Abra,” asked Rodney, as quietly as he could. “What’s going on?”
She took his paw in hers. “I’m going to have to ask you to share your dreams with me, Ro… Rodney.”
This time, when Zap-Panda snorted, she also smirked.
Green Lambkin’s ring had finished scanning Califurnia and most of the western states, and Lambkin and the Martian Anteater were headed toward Mew Orleans.
“Maaa-aaa,” bleated Lambkin. “They really do all look like ants from up here.”
“Please stop saying that,” said the Martian, clutching his forehead.
“Sorry, T’rom. Even after all these years, and all the worlds I’ve visited, it’s still incredible to see another alternate world,” said Wool Jargon. “It’s still amazing to me that there’s a whole alternate universe that, because I look like Power Ram, hates me and doesn’t even know me.”
A gigantic beam of yellow energy slammed into them both, knocking them out of the sky. As they fell, T’rom B’onzz, alias the Martian Anteater, barely had time to send out a mental distress call, and Green Lambkin barely had time to say, “Make that two alternate universes…” before their bodies smashed into buildings, and they passed out.
Samantha Drake watched them fall, fired up her rocket-pack, and went after them.
She had been planning this for months, since the day she had met — and fallen in love with — Earth-Reverse-C’s greatest hero. He had been as gentle and generous with her as he had been with the world, and had shared everything with her — his dreams, his equipment, and his information.
She knew that Swanky Poodle had set up a system that would reveal the Nasty Menagerie’s weaknesses upon her death.
She knew that Doctor Hoot, bless his soul, would never find it in his heart to kill the Poodle.
She knew that those secrets were the world’s last hope.
And she knew that the Poodle had a white afro, white fur, and a green power ring. Whatever reason she was dressed in drag, whoever her latest traveling companion was, whatever Doctor Hoot would say if he saw her now, none of it mattered.
Swanky Poodle was before her. And Swanky Poodle had to die.
She opened her mouth to scream.
Pig-Iron opened his eye, cautiously.
“Mr. P! P.I.!”
He was in an oubliette inside Fantastidrake’s laboratory, a lab that was now housed in the Z-Building’s garage, having been transported from the Menagerie Cage in their world in case they needed to beat a hasty retreat. The oubliette had been designed to hold the Iron Pig. Pig-Iron couldn’t stand up properly and could barely look around, and the high-tech gizmos he saw, he didn’t begin to understand. Little Cheese was below him, six inches tall and wearing rags.
“Chess? You OK, li’l buddy?”
“Yeah, fine! I’m better than fine, actually! I got to ride on Katastrophe’s back till she went to sleep, and I gotta tell you… whoo! It was better than sex!”
Pig-Iron peered at him. “You’ve had sex?”
“Uh… no, no. Not really. I just like to pretend. But I’m sure this was better.”
“Where’s your costume?”
“Ditched it. Katastrophe said she could scan for Little Cheese, but I figure she might not know to scan for… Chess Cheese. Listen, I don’t have much time here, but I wanted to, I don’t know, support your morals or something like that. Were you scared?”
“What, of them guys? Buncha pansies.”
“C’mon, you can tell me.”
Big Cheese’s plan was this: get Pig-Iron to admit weakness in front of him, then laugh at him for it and use it to add to later tortures. For a second it looked like it was working. Then Pig-Iron shrugged.
“Nah. They’re all just a buncha bullies and cowards. They don’t have any of the real stuff… the stuff you get on the inside, not the stuff you get from meteors and stolen powers. Especially your opposite number, Chess. Boy, what a wimp. He was the first one outta the fight, an’ all he got were a couple of black eyes… just like the ones you got, Chess. Boy, what a funny coincidence, huh?”
Big Cheese heard roaring laughter coming from the kitchen. Iron Pig. Iron Pig, the lowest in the pecking order, was laughing at him.
He ran back out of the garage, growing as he went.
Pig-Iron called after him. “Thanks for the moral support, Chess. Really made me feel good!”
He ran up the stairs, and into Ultra-Rabbit, who had been observing along with the Iron Pig — and was laughing with him, too. Cheese clenched his fists and ground his teeth.
“I have to say,” said Ultra-Rabbit, still chuckling, “I was surprised when the Pig told me you said you could make yourself six inches tall. But that ability pales in comparison to your ability to make yourself into a laughingstock.”
Finally, Big Cheese started laughing, too. Not because he wanted to, but because it made the whole thing just a little less humiliating.
Ultra-Rabbit grabbed Cheese’s throat in mid-chuckle. “Now,” said Ultra, “let’s talk about this business about withholding information about your powers from your superiors.”
Ultra wasn’t laughing any more.
Fastback laughed. “Thet ain’t Li’l Cheese!”
Fantastidrake fought to control his temper and wasn’t entirely successful.
“Of course it is, you little idiot. What kind of drugs have you been taking to make you so stupid?”
“He’s all green, from top to toe! He’s just some little sculptoor y’all made with thet fancy-pants ring o’ yours! An’ y’all got th’ whiskers all wrong! His whiskers ain’t thet big on him yet! He jest started shavin’!”
Fastback’s eyes met Chester’s. There are moments when two good friends look at one another, and each understands the other, as if by telepathy. Chester knew what Fastback needed him to do. He swallowed, hard.
The test tube grew tentacles from the inside. They grabbed his hands and feet, and stretched him, and the test tube became a rack, still tightly holding Chester’s arms and legs, but no longer airtight, no longer a sealed environment.
And Chester Cheese vanished.
And as soon as he did, in the second that Fantastidrake stared at his hand, Fastback vanished, too.
Fantastidrake looked around, confused, for one more second. By the third second, he might have figured it out.
At the end of the second second, Little Cheese reappeared two feet over his head — and fell, bringing his entire weight to bear on top of Fantastidrake’s magnificent brain.
Fantastidrake was already unconscious when Fastback, having run all the way around the world, plowed into him from behind.
“I can’t believe I did that!” panted Little Cheese. “I can’t believe I did that!”
“Shucks,” said Fastback. “Ah never doubted y’all would.”
Five minutes later, Fantastidrake was in a South Animerican jail. His body had been tied into a solid ball of 5,813 knots. Even his mind would take days to figure out how to untie himself, and since he’d drained Swanky Poodle’s and Slashback’s powers with the ring, not with his technology, their powers had left him when Chester had taken the ring from his finger.
Meanwhile, Fastback and Little Cheese were racing up the Animalantic Ocean. Cheese slipped the ring onto his own hand.
“General protection fault,” said the ring in a nasal voice. “User is insufficiently evil. Abort, retry, fail?”
“Geez, it’s like the exact opposite of Magic Wanda,” muttered Chester, tossing the ring into the ocean.
“We don’ need it, Chester. We got brains, we got guts, we got a fix on R.D. an’ Y.P.’s last known whereabouts… an’ we got this one in the bag. Let’s win it.”
The fourth dimension:
Rova Barkitt striped up Katastrophe’s leg, tried to pull her off balance, almost succeeded, then barely ducked a flying kick.
Doctor Hoot just started preparing the return portal home. If the Zoo Crew won, they could take Katastrophe back to Sting Sting; if they lost, one or two might escape.
And the Time-Keeper…
Byrd Rentals wrapped himself around her head, blinding her. Samantha Drake’s vocals slammed her into the sky, and Rova’s stars slammed her back into the ground. Sam and Rova double-teamed her then, pinning her to the ground, and Rova shot out stripe after stripe, binding Katastrophe, hogtying her, mummifying her, in bonds stronger than steel.
And the Time-Keeper…
Finally, the girls stopped their barrage, and Byrd wrapped himself around the rest of Katastrophe’s striped-up body, reinforcing Rova’s work as thoroughly as he could. Strong as Rova’s bonds were, it still felt like the cat would tear loose and break free any second — she was hideously strong — but Byrd had cut off her air supply, and gradually, gradually, her struggles slowed, sagged, and stopped.
And then she teleported out.
Byrd didn’t even have time to look up before the power bolt struck him in the back, and suddenly his bones seemed made of broken glass.
“Infidel!” screamed Katastrophe. “No mortal animal may touch me!”
The second blast nearly decapitated Rova, and tore her costume to shreds. The third caught the Siren Belle directly, and she went down, shrieking wildly and flashing blue. Hoot leaped through the return portal. But Bast-Felina’s black flames ignited on his back before the portal closed behind him. Rova raised her right hand, but she’d exhausted herself tying Katastrophe up earlier, and her stars twinkled out in the breeze.
And the Time-Keeper…
“Don’t just stand there,” shouted Rova. “How can you just stand there?”
The Time-Keeper didn’t respond. He seemed frozen in time himself. Or nearly frozen. He finally got out a single word.
“Lambkin and Anteater have a minor emergency,” came Super-Squirrel’s voice. “Wabbit, Batmouse, Crash, and I are converging on their position. Stay put; we’ll come to you.”
Stacked Canary nodded to her wrist radio. “We may have found another way to Earth-C — hello? He cut me off! How rude.”
Rodney Rabbit’s eyes were gone. There were stars where the eyes used to be. Alley-Kat-Abra had his head in her hands, looking deep into the eyesockets. Zap-Panda kept throwing rose petals around them both.
“Ees flesruoy,” chanted Zap-Panda. “Ees ruoy other fles…”
The stars in Rodney’s eyeholes were replaced by haze. “Abra, what’s happening?”
The haze was replaced by… checkerboard.
“What’s happening?” asked Felina Furr, unaware she was repeating Rodney’s question. “Why am I in the fourth dimension? What’s… oh, spirits of Kal-Kan… I’m killing them!”
“Don’t go too deep, too fast!” said Aquaduck. “I see new swimmers doing that all the time! Make sure you can handle the pressure.”
“Rova!” Felina screamed. “No! No, no, no!”
Felina flashed bright and yellow as the sun, turning into a barbed circle, disappearing, gone.
“Felina?” Rodney called.
The fourth dimension:
A final electric jolt from Katastrophe’s hands swept over Rova, and when she stopped screaming, she stopped moving.
“Blasphemers,” spat Katastrophe. “How dare you oppose Ra, your creator and destroyer, your beginning and your end? Through him all things were made, you ungrateful wretches.”
“I-I’m a god, too,” stammered the Time-Keeper.
Bast-Felina turned, noticing him for the first time. “Really?”
“Yes. God of Time. All this… all this is my domain. You’re welcome to… share it with me… if you so incline.”
She cast around a bit with her sixth and seventh senses. “What does a god want with a matchbox cover collection?”
“There are things about gods which mortals were not meant to know.”
“I am a goddess.”
“Of… of course you are.”
The Time-Keeper was just considering going back in time ten seconds to have this conversation again when he got one of the very few surprises in his life. A glow came from the mists, a sun burst into view, fanning out into a barbed circle before cooling and condensing into… into Alley-Kat-Abra, his goddess.
“Katastrophe,” she said, with eerie calm.
Katastrophe hissed, puffing herself up to look half again her size.
“So it comes down to single combat after all,” Abra went on. “But doesn’t it always? We’re all of us alone when we face our second selves. No one can fight the fight for us.”
She kept talking, and her own words gave her courage.
“You know, I almost pity you. You’re stronger than me, faster, deadlier, a more skilled magician. All I really have is prayer… to gods and spirits a bit more enlightened than yours. All I have is prayer… but I think… that’s going to be… enough.”