by T Campbell
President Barack O’Llama drummed his hoof on the desk.
“And you’re sure the effect is universal? Just about anyone who sees this image becomes… shall we say… enlightened to the notion that Doctor Hoot knows what’s best for the United Species and the world?”
“Indeed, sir,” said the president’s special adviser in these matters. “It’s not like straight-up mind-control. It doesn’t really affect their free will otherwise, and what each animal does with that idea and how long they resist it depends on their personalities.”
“Well… that’s awesome! How soon can we expose everyone in Congress and the FCC?”
“Everyone in Congress meets in two rooms, so that won’t take long,” said newly appointed special adviser Dr. Hieronymous Horton Hoot. “The FCC is irrelevant. Television and websites are already showing the image on their own initiative.”
“Can anything reverse the effect?”
“Not as long as people can see.”
“We should probably look into air-dropping fliers into the more rural parts of the country, to help spread the message there. That will doubtless cause some panic. As you know, animals tend to resist change.”
“Price we pay for a better world, Hieronymous. I’m just glad we can trust you to bring us there. Yes we can.”
“Randall Boggs is a sadistic alien throwback to the days of the flesh-eaters, and for what he did to Peter, he deserves to be locked in an echo chamber with an endless loop of Justin Blubber songs,” said Yankee Poodle, “but I trust him when he says we’re not Hoot’s highest priority.”
Captain Carrot snorted. “Come on, Rova! You’re saying all of this was a sideshow?”
“Well, he’s be-dee-be-dee-be-dee done sideshows before,” stuttered Peter Porkchops. “This is a guy who staged super-villain attacks in eight separate countries in two different dimensions just so he and Feline Faust’d have a clear shot at the United Nature building.”
“Yeah, he’s brilliant,” nodded Rubberduck, a bit manically. “We shouldn’t put anything past him. He wants the whole world, and who’s to say he wouldn’t do a better job with it than the politicians we’ve got? I mean, have you watched C-SPIN lately? Of course you haven’t — no one has — because nothing happens on there, except when things get slowly suckier.”
“He wants the world,” nodded the Captain slowly. “Attacking us helps him get that, somehow; he invested a lot of time into hiring all these free agents to send against us…”
“He produced, but he didn’t direct,” said Yankee Poodle. “And Hoot, there’s no way he’s going to be satisfied with just a producer credit. He’s brand-building, and using that brand to fuel some other project–”
The Captain picked up the thread. “But if he doesn’t even care whether or not we survive, it has to be something he can pull off fast — some decisive move that puts him in control, somehow.”
“He’s a natural leader,” agreed Rubberduck. “Look, I really think you guys should Whoogle him just to, you know, get a full understanding of the situation. I’d do it myself if my phone weren’t waterlogged.”
“Y’all said that thrice now, R.D.,” said Fastback. “It’s gettin’ a li’l creepy.”
“Still, it couldn’t hurt,” said the Captain, pulling out his own phone.
Not participating in this conversation was Little Cheese, whose hearing was returning but still not enough to follow talk, and Alley-Kat-Abra, who was normally a voice of reason but now seemed to have taken over Pig-Iron’s role as the bored, restless malcontent. After staring at Chester Cheese for a few minutes and giving him feelings he was pretty sure he shouldn’t be having, she had levitated off the ship and gotten closer to the coast, there to see the pretty, pretty souls dancing like gems in her eyes.
Chester checked his own phone, only to realize it had been blowing up. Texts had been coming in from his old high school friends, his Aunt Chedda, and friends of his father. Most were urging him to check out this cool image link of Doctor Hoot, but a few were urging him not to, because–
“No!” Chester leaped and shrank, hurtling through the air and affixing his body to the Captain’s phone just as it brought up the Whoogle homepage.
“Chester, what in–?” Rodney Rabbit held the phone up as Chester clung to it with his body, blocking the screen from anyone else’s view.
“I saw it. I saw it. Oh, cripes, oh, cheese. You guys gotta go now. Hoot’s in Wartington, D.C., in the White House. He practically is the White House. Don’t look at any websites, don’t watch TV, don’t even look at billboards on the side of the road, or you’ll be next, d’you understand? You’ll be next!”
“CHESTER,” the Captain yelled to compensate for Chester’s hearing, “I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND A WORD OF THAT AFTER ‘HOOT’S IN THE WHITE HOUSE.’ WHAT IS GOING ON HERE?”
Chester heard and took a breath to explain, but the answer didn’t come from him.
A giant yellow fist smashed into the back of the Captain’s hand and smashed Little Cheese into the Captain’s face, knocking Cheese cold and knocking the Captain off his feet.
“I’m so sorry, guys, I really am,” said Rubberduck, turning his whole body into an obstacle course, tangling up Yankee Poodle’s paws and Fastback’s feet. “But I know you’d never understand! We have to put him in charge! All the hunger, the environmental damage, all the wars… we have to save the world, and this is how we save it!”
Captain Carrot heard the sounds of guns being cocked behind him. Lieutenant Commander Magellan and some of her crewmates were standing there. Magellan was the only one unarmed. “Captain,” she said, firing off a quick salute. “You have to be shown this image. It’s a matter of national security. Please don’t make this any more difficult.”
But before things went any further, the Zoo Crew, all save Rubberduck and Little Cheese, blinked out from the ship. They reappeared in the air, as Abra levitated them all on a flight path approaching the coast. When she spoke, it was with most of her old sobriety.
“Sorry, guys, but there’s nothing we can do for Rubberduck or Little Cheese right now,” said Abra. “I was looking at all the souls on the coastline when I saw it. It’s spreading fast. It has Rubberduck and Magellan in its grip already, and it’ll get Cheese before he wakes up.”
“Saw what?” said several members of the team, almost at once.
“They’re dimming, my friends. By the thousands, probably by the millions, the souls of this world are being dimmed.”
How dim could Rex Imperium have been?
He watched the line of protest signs that had now joined the increasingly disorganized police cordon in front of the Z-Building. The essence of their demands was uniform: PUT HOOT IN CHARGE, PRESIDENT HOOT, EMPEROR HOOT, VOTE HOOT AS YOUR NEW GOD. Rex’s infrared and telescopic sensors confirmed that the Salamandroids, Hoot’s creatures, had subdued everyone else in the tower, using melted auto parts to secure Armordillo and Marmadoge, and mere electrical wire for the Squawker and Emoticat. Doubtless Hoot felt he had no further need of them.
Rex had taken Hoot for a common wastrel with overweening ambition… as Hoot had clearly intended him to. And in return, Hoot had taken Rex’s goal from him — not only dominion over the beasts of the Earth, but also their love.
No. Hoot had been a wanted, hated criminal just this morning. Hammerican culture was fickle, but not this fickle. Some sort of mind-control was clearly at work. Viral and broadcast, no doubt, which meant time was of the essence.
I will not be denied my birthright by this nest-fouling cuckoo, Rex thought. He identified three sets of bio-signs that had recently fled the structure, even as he noted the Zoo Crew returning to the structure.
He fired the booster-thrusters in pursuit of the fleeing villains. This would be his hour, whether to sit up tall on his future throne, or to roll over, show his belly, and beg.
“No, no, no, come on, come on, come on! Faster!” begged Rubberduck as he massaged the controls of the Zoo-Cruiser, which was back in the air. “They’ve got Abra to teleport them there — we’ve got to get up to speed here!”
“Relax, Byrd,” said Little Cheese, who had mostly regained his hearing but lost his fear of Hoot in the White House. He understood now. “Hoot will see them coming. He’s awesome like that.”
“Oh, teenagers,” Byrd said, rolling his eyes. “If only ‘being awesome’ were enough. Then we could have utopia! But the Zoo Crew finds a way; they always find a way!”
“Hey, that is not what the Captain taught us! He taught us that justice finds a way! And we’re the Zoo Crew, too, you know. We’ll get there. And we’ll help our friends see the light. Come on, duck, where’s that super-confident face I see in your movies?”
“He’s a rubber mask, kid. You might as well learn this now: all the adults you think know everything you don’t? Down deep we’re all scared kids, doing dumb things so nobody finds us out.”
“So the playing field’s level, then.”
“Not really! Even if the Crew doesn’t get Pig-Iron his powers back in the next few minutes, which is totally going to be their next move–”
“See, you’re anticipating their moves! This is good!”
“I stretch and you shrink. Fastback is too fast for us to stop, Abra and Rova have too much range for us to get close, and then there’s Cap. And probably Pig-Iron. We’re… outclassed.”
“Maybe not,” said Chester, reaching into a small pocket in his suit. “Cap gives me something every few weeks — a last resort, only to be used in the face of otherwise certain death… or if the fate of the world is at stake. I think this meets the second criterion.”
Chester took out the cosmic carrot, pulsing with the promise of power.
The cosmic carrot was thundering through Felina Furr’s veins, filling her with physical power, but making it hard to think, hard to concentrate, as the team approached the Z-Building in her levitational grip. Moving the team around with levitation or teleportation always put more of a strain on her than she liked to show, which led Rodney to overestimate her, and he’d always ask for a little bit more and a little bit more, in his nerdy, fixated way, and shut up Felina, this wasn’t Rodney’s fault; she had to stop blaming him already.
The real issue was that Magic Wanda didn’t like Felina much when she was on this carrot kick — and she didn’t like herself much on it, either. There was nothing wrong with playfulness, but there was a time and a place, and everything she normally repressed had been coming out in all the wrong ways.
The Z-Building was up ahead, looking unfinished with its windows and garage door blown out. Four Salamandroids looked up from their captives, ready to engage the Zoo Crewers on their own.
“Set me and Peter down a spell, Abra!” called out Fastback. “Ah’ll take it from thar!”
Abra released them, Fastback grabbed Peter, and in less time than it took to tell it, Peter was in his room, holding the talisman in his hand that should restore him to full Pig-Ironiness.
And then nothing much happened.
For twenty whole seconds.
“How, uh, long this gonna take?” said Fastback. “Ah mean, Hoot’s prob’ly been workin’ on Wartington time…”
“Golly, I don’t know, T-Timmy Joe. I just… I can feel my body tingling, like it wants to change, but, but… m-maybe that chameleon took something else out of me. M-maybe you guys should go on without me…”
Footsteps echoed through the hallway now, in a quick 13/16 beat. The Salamandroids were getting closer.
“Aw, rowrbazzle. Those ain’t the droids anybody’s lookin’ for. Hang tight, Pete, we gotta go–”
“No!” said Peter, and hit Timmy Joe in the kneecap as he approached. Peter didn’t seem any bigger or stronger, but the punch stung, really stung. “We’re not going until they go first. This is our home — I’m not getting chased out of it again!”
“Uhhh, OK. Ah’ll call the others. We’ll be four ‘gainst four. We can handle those odds.”
“No. They’re mine,” said Peter, in a voice that brooked no argument.
The footsteps were getting close enough that there was barely time to argue in the first place.
“Pete–” Fastback said, then stopped. That other version of the Br’er Rabbit story, the one with the reverse psychology, flashed through his head for some reason, and then without quite knowing why, he said, “Ah dunno, Pete, even when y’all were fully powered up, four of ’em was ‘nough to give y’all some trouble.”
“I said–” said Peter.
The first of the Salamandroids broke into the room.
“They’re–” said Pig-Iron.
The Salamandroid seemed to hesitate slightly, then stepped forward.
“MIII-III-IIINE!” and Pig-Iron’s fists slammed onto the floor, sending a shockwave through it that knocked Fastback and the ‘droids off their feet. By the time Fastback got up, Pig-Iron’s fists had pounded two of the Salamandroids into sparking carpet, and he was decorating the walls with a third, smashing it into wall, ceiling, wall, ceiling, other Salamandroid, floor, ceiling, floor, wall, wall, floor.
“Aw, yeaaahhh,” said Pig-Iron. “I love this! I love this! This is love, baby, right here!”
The last standing Salamandroid, #3, looked at Pig-Iron as Pig-Iron’s shadow loomed over him. It was illogical to delay the inevitable, but still he was compelled to ask…
“What is love?”
Pig-Iron paused. “Well… huh. Never really thought about it. I guess… love is just doin’ what’s in your heart!”
And then he punched Salamandroid #3’s head so hard that it collapsed into the sternum. The droid fell forward, chest first, onto the floor.
Fastback showed up at his side, talking into his communicator. “OK, Abra, pick us up. Pig-Iron’s back.”
“All the way back, baby!” shouted Pig-Iron, striking several flexing poses. “All the way!”
“Y’all shore ’bout that?” asked Timmy Joe. “Y’all shore y’ain’t got some kinda post-traumatization t’worry ’bout?”
“I’m a simple guy, T.J.,” said Pig-Iron, smiling. “Best thing for me is always a little aggression therapy.”
“Aggression therapy,” repeated Fastback, looking around at the carnage. One of the other Salamandroids’ heads fell off and rolled down the hall with a clatter-clatter-clatter-clunk. “Gawrsh. Y’all must be the best-adjusted guy ah know!”
“Tell me about it,” laughed Pig-Iron as they levitated out the window.
Melvin McMole walked into the hallway as they left, saw the remains of the Salamandroids, and sighed.
Pig-Iron and Fastback’s friends were on the ground, facing four more villains on their front lawn. They didn’t even look surprised by it. It was that kind of day.