by T Campbell
“Talk to me, folks. Sergey Bruin is really against the idea of this. He won’t even look at the concepts for it. I want to know if I’m being crazy.”
Hairy Sage, the marmoset co-founder of Whoogle and now its CEO, was standing in front of a short animation. It began as one of Doctor Hoot’s selfies before fading into a version of the Whoogle logo, with Hoot’s eyes serving as both the O’s.
“What’s not to like?” said the audience of designers and engineers.
“In general, I want to spotlight more females and minority or endangered species… but this is important history; this is shaping our world right now. What he’s done to the Zoo Crew could change everything.”
There was very little of the usual discussion beyond that. Within a few minutes, Sage had his answer. “All right, then. Effective immediately, this is our newest Whoogle Doodle. When can we get it up on the homepage, so anyone who uses Whoogle for the rest of today and tomorrow can see it?”
“About five minutes. And you know… we might even consider running it the rest of the week. It’s just so relevant.”
There were general murmurs of agreement.
There were general murmurs of discontent at the Z-Building as the remaining villains paced around their captured territory, uncertain of their next move, and always under the watchful eyes of the Salamandroids, who were starting to feel more like their prison guards than helpful reinforcements.
Whirlybird was starting to notice that her “peers” got along a lot better when Emoticat was around. King Kone and Solar Bear had been ready to fight each other for the bounty, and now they were, well–
“I’m sorry, Stanley,” said King Kone, draping his arm around Solar Bear’s shoulder. “The important thing, really, is that Rubberduck, my old enemy, is finally dead. That’s an occasion for celebration, for beer and ice cream! Would you settle for seventy-five percent of the bounty? It’s just that I do need a few million to start my business, but once it’s under way, I’m sure my genius will make up the rest. It might even be more fun to start with less. More of a challenge!”
“No, no, Garrison,” Solar Bear replied. “You take fifty percent! That’s fair! I may have actually set Rubberduck on fire, but he surely could have avoided my blast if you hadn’t set him up for me! I should have been more grateful about that. I’m sorry. I’m just sensitive, you know. I wasn’t much of a weatherbear. In fact, my forecasts were so bad that somebody made them into a supercut on GnuTube. Everyone laughed at me, and now I feel like I have to succeed at something.”
“You know… what if we were to go into business together? If you could create heat waves in the cities where I was opening franchises — it could triple the effectiveness of my advertising!”
“Why… that is a brilliant idea, Garrison! And at the same time, I’d be doing my part to fight global cooling! That’s a real thing, you know. I can’t believe how many people think climate change is going in the other direction.”
Garrison’s smile wobbled, but just for a second. “…Right!”
The two looked out briefly at the police-dogs (and police-cats and such; police work was getting to be more of an interspecies thing) who had started to gather at the foot of the Z-Building. Law enforcement was not going to make a move for a while, but Kone and Solar Bear didn’t look particularly worried about what might happen if they did.
Yes, Whirlybird reflected, Emoticat was definitely some kind of walking morale booster. But he couldn’t be everywhere. In the Z-Building kitchen, Xiao Liwu was pouting at Unisys. “Come on, baby, find her, find her. She has to be somewhere on Earth, if that was a homing spell. You need this. I need this. Fiiind herrr.”
Also outside the building, Squawker was listening with uncharacteristic quiet to a conversation between Hoot and one of the Salamandroids. Hoot instructed them basically to continue to occupy the structure and turn the force-field on if they could find it. “Attack the heroes if they appear, but otherwise just keep my hirelings in line. The longer you stay, the greater the symbolism of my victory and its promise of social change. Occupy Z Street,” he said with a chuckle as he signed out.
The Squawker just listened. As a journalist, she’d been known for repeating what she heard rather than making any judgments of her own. So whatever she was thinking now was something Whirlybird couldn’t figure out.
Digger O’Doom had apparently gone back to being a tiny mole janitor and was focused on cleaning up the glass outside. She tried talking to him, but he blushed, stuttered, and didn’t seem to know her. She didn’t know what was up with that, either.
And in the garage, Armordillo and Marmadoge were looking pretty chummy. This unnerved Whirlybird, but she thought she’d better try a charm offensive, especially since the Cheshire Cheetah had been gone a pretty long time for someone who could literally finish a fight in picoseconds. That was a shame; she had sort of liked him. But if he wasn’t returning, she might need to build a relationship with someone else to help maintain her cover.
“My, you two are pretty male-looking sitting here in this garage. I could choke on all these pheromones. Whatcha doin’?”
Marmadoge drooled a bit. “wow. such pretty. <3 <3 <3. xoxoxoxo. wow.”
Whirlybird gave him a sidelong, flirtatious smile.
“Not much, li’l bird,” said Armordillo, idly sheathing and unsheathing claws that could cut through steel or concrete, like O’Doom’s. “Just thinkin’ ’bout things.”
“Like what you’ll do after we finish here? If it’s higher education, I promise to blow up your college last.”
“Nuh. Ah’m more of a live-in-thuh-moment sorta feller, ah guess. Ah’m jest thinkin’ how easy it would’a been fer somebuddy with tornady-powers tuh get outta the Buildin’ an’ mess with the Zoo-Cruiser or that rocket ship an’ keep ’em from gettin’ away.”
Whirlybird shrugged and tried not to seem nervous, but she was losing the ability to take her eyes off Armordillo. “I know. I stayed inside way too long. I’m kicking myself.”
“Yuh don’t have to kick yuhself, li’l bird. Ah kin do it for yuh. Say… y’ever play Teggsas Hold-‘Em?”
At the words hold ’em, Marmadoge’s paws suddenly gripped Whirlybird’s wings from behind, pinning them into place at the wrists. She hadn’t realized he’d slipped around behind her.
“I… no, I haven’t… look, this is a mistake! Sure, I’d love to betray you guys, because, you know, I’m evil, so evil, but there’s no point in doing that before the Crew are all dead!”
“Good. Ah mean, it’s good that yuh haven’t played Teggsas Hold-‘Em. ‘Cause yuh prolly wouldn’t be very good at it.” Armordillo’s barbed tail, capable of knocking over tanks, was twitching as he stepped closer.
Whirybird tried to wrench and twist free, then to get a little tornado going with her hands, but Marmadoge’s grips were like iron and cutting off her circulation. “Marmadoge, don’t let him do this to me!”
“much traitor. so hero. crunch death. very squish. ouch. r.i.p.”
Like a duelist in the Old West, Armordillo took another measured step.
“So whussa next step, Byrd?” said Fastback as they raced out of the prison where they’d deposited the Cheetah, Rubberduck still in the form of a backpack on him. “Head back t’ the Z-Buildin’, see if we can pick off one or two more guys ‘fore they know we’re thar?”
“No, we need to regroup if we can. I can’t raise anybody on comms. Cap and Abra should be in space by now, but Rova, Chester, and Pig-Iron were supposed to meet us over the ocean. I need to find out what happened to them.” Rubberduck took out his phone and started Whoogling. “Well, that’s disturbing.”
“They’re using Hoot’s face as the Whoogle logo. Want to see?”
“Naw, that tiny type on phones hurts mah eyes. Readin’ is kind of a special event fer me, anyway. ‘Zit say anythin’ ’bout whar the Zoo-Cruiser is?”
“The good news is they made it to the ocean. The Cruiser went down about ten miles from shore. Hasn’t surfaced even after it lost its pursuer, though, and the Coast Guard is getting worried. We gotta get down there and find ’em, Timmy Joe. I’ll be your scuba tank.”
Timmy Joe Terrapin nodded, and within seconds the two were racing out past the Califurnia coast, approaching the Spar.
That image of Doctor Hoot sure made him look handsome, Byrd Rentals reflected. Hoot was a slightly hunched, early middle-aged egghead, but he’d looked young and hot in that photo, like one of these BC Comics heroes getting a youthful makeover for TV shows like Smellville and Sparrow.
He wondered if, once all this was over, maybe he could play Hoot in a biopic. But that was a conversation for his agent.
“We’ve had this conversation before,” said Alley-Kat-Abra. And it was true. They’d had it not long after Chester Cheese had joined the team as Little Cheese, and at that time, Rodney Rabbit had been more reluctant to share his snacks.
“I just think he needs some extra protection,” Abra had said then. “Your carrot supply is limited, I know, but you’re starting to get a surplus, enough to share here and there. Chester is the youngest of us, the least powerful, and the way he throws himself onto the front lines — I think he thinks of us as his new family, after what happened to his father. It just seems like he’ll get in over his head.”
“Sure, Abra, but there are risks. So far, two animals have eaten a cosmic carrot, and what it did to Melvin McMole kind of gives me pause, you know? He was such a nice little guy before. What if the carrots’ effects are random from animal to animal? They could mess with Chester’s personality, or kill him, or jack up his shrinking powers so much that he gets fried by a photon, or reverse them and make him a giant who accidentally crushes a city block. Plus, he’s like the rest of us — he already has powers that come from radiation. Adding radiation to radiation… what if the carrots give him cancer?”
“We could all get cancer, you know. You and I are the only ones who didn’t get irradiated directly, but we’re kind of close enough. And we’re all still pretty young, even Rova. We’ve got plenty of time for cancer.”
“Yeah, but what if he gets cancer faster?”
“Captain. We’re coming from the same place here. This teenage hero is part of our lives now — we want to protect him, we’re worried he’ll take the wrong risks. But if we want him to listen to us, we have to show him trust. Besides, he got his powers from eating radioactive cheese, and at first he thought he was shrinking down to nothing forever. I think maybe he’s going to be a little cautious about eating anything else that should have a nuclear-power label on it. Most people are, generally.”
“The worrying. It is a little like being parents, isn’t it?”
Abra had given him one of those smiles then that he was never quite sure how to interpret. That wasn’t all his nerdy, clueless fault. She liked to maintain a little mystique.
And now, Abra stared at the carrot just as mysteriously. “What are you feeling?” Rodney asked.
“Curiosity,” said the cat. “Are you sure this is the least-riskiest path we can take?”
“Some of that’s got to be up to you, Abra. No one knows gods like you do. I’m just giving you an option.”
Abra nodded, and slowly took it in her paw. “It seems like the carrots… bring out what’s buried inside someone. And I like to think I’m a good little super-hero, even down deep, but… meditating, sometimes I…” She licked the carrot, tentatively. “OK. Here goes.” She closed her eyes, brought it to her lips, and paused. “No matter what, Captain… don’t let me hurt you.”
She bit. Then bit again. It tasted terrible to her, so she finished it as soon as possible. For a moment, the only change she noticed was that her rib had stopped hurting. Then she said, “What’s that sound?”
“Probably your heartbeat… and circulatory system. That’s the first thing I hear when I eat one and my super-hearing comes in.”
“I… I can see…”
“Yeah, vision, too. Of course, being a cat, you might get less telescopic and more night-vision than I do–”
“…I can see your sooouuul.”
“…OK, that’s new.”
Abra was sitting up now, getting larger and stronger all over, though her physique was less over-muscled than Captain Carrot’s. Her costume, already a magical creation, quietly went up five or six sizes to match. And like the rest of her body except her eyes, it was getting blacker, black as pitch. The yellow bracelets and anklets vanished.
“How do you feel? Think you can try for Earth-C-Minus, or…?” Rodney asked.
“We’re walled off from other dimensions. Some mystic yogi’s made a barrier. Yogi barrier — ha-ha-ha, that phrase never gets old. And this is just a guess, but I’ma say that horse with Wanda did it. We want to drop the barrier, we’re gonna have to drop him.”
“Terrific. I’ll set the ‘hopper for reentry–”
“No need,” Abra said. She seemed to be more shadow than substance by now, almost invisible, but the paw grasping his elbow was real enough. She chanted, “By the power shared between us and the emerald eyes of Zeu, let us stand against base meanness, injustice, just us, we two.”
Their surroundings began to fade to moonlight, and suddenly they were on a mountain peak. Captain Carrot couldn’t be sure, but it looked like one of the Alpos. In any case, it was not the most secure setting for a hero who could leap a lot but could not technically fly. He thought about bringing this up to Abra, but he couldn’t see where she’d gone.
“You have a good soul,” came a chuckling whisper on the wind. And something wet, warm, and sandpapery grazed his cheek.
“You, too,” Rodney replied, trying not to sound too nervous. Felina Furr seemed a little wired. But he had to show her trust.
Their enemies would find them up here, soon enough. For the moment, Rodney looked out over the horizon and admired the view.
It was a beautiful, small world, after all. Worth fighting for.