by T Campbell
“Today, the enemy of your enemy is your friend,” pronounced Rex Imperium. “And we have a common enemy… friends.”
“Hoot,” summarized Captain Carrot, sizing these potential “friends” up. “In the White House. He’s been getting an image out on TV and major websites, and seeing it makes everyone think he’s the coolest thing ever.”
Rex stood tall and confident, with an alpha’s charisma; Rodney felt like a gangly high schooler again just looking at him. Solar Bear and King Kone stayed close behind him, looking intimidated. But Whirlybird stood clear of the others, looking the Crew in the eyes with surprising forthrightness.
“None of us want Hoot to own this world,” Rex went on. “It is self-evident he has no intention of paying the bounty he issued on you, nor leaving any of us free to oppose him. Even his most loyal underlings, Armordillo, Emoticat, and Marmadoge, are now in your garage, imprisoned there by his robots, along with the Squawker. Such appalling dishonor. A conqueror’s word is a valuable asset: it encourages useful alliances. It is not to be squandered, even when one has mind-control at one’s disposal.”
“He was pretty clear he wanted to be notified if any of you guys were dead,” said Whirlybird. “I think we can assume he’ll assume you’re all alive, except–”
“Well, now, let’s not waste energy talking about anyone who’s here or not here,” said King Kone, who seemed to be sweating in his refrigerated costume. “I mean, who’s to say where someone like Rubberduck could be? Maybe he’s recovering somewhere! Or maybe he just took a break, you know?”
“My friend makes a salient point!” said Solar Bear, stepping in front of the burnt grass where the Carrotmobile had exploded. “Really, his location is completely unpredictable — like the weather! So let’s end this silly talk of murder charges and life imprisonment and lifelong vendettas before it starts–”
“Uh, nobody’s–” began Fastback.
“–before it starts, and get down to the business of saving the world!”
With some difficulty, Alley-Kat-Abra had coaxed Magic Wanda into restoring Pig-Iron’s costume, and it appeared on him now as he spoke. “I’m always up for a scrap, but this is one o’ those subtle problems I hate. Hoot’s got millions’a animals under his wing already, and we got no idea how we gonna break ’em loose! And even if we threw ‘im in jail now, the guards — or the president — would have him back out in hours. It’s a toughie.”
Abra interrupted, “Your soul is pure. Why do you stand with these others?”
“Needs must, where the Tasmanian devil drives,” Rex sighed. “In time, I hope to be recognized as–”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Abra sniffed, rolling her eyes at Rex before returning her gaze to Whirlybird.
“All right, I guess the game’s up,” admitted Whirlybird. “I don’t think of myself as a ‘super’ anything, really, but my powers manifested after an archaeological dig found some magical artifact, and I don’t believe in doing nothing, either. You know how the last couple of hurricane seasons have been pretty mild? Yeah, that was me.”
“That was you?!” shrieked Solar Bear. “They never laughed louder at me than when I did hurricane reports! They called me ‘Chicken Little!’ I can’t believe this! I’ll kill you–” Solar Bear froze for a second before adding, “–with… congratulations!” He followed it up with a smile so forced, one could almost hear the creaking. “Truly… an… unforgettable… achievement.”
“The government has known about me for a while and quietly approved,” Whirlybird went on, “but a few months ago they asked me to go deep undercover as a super-villain for a bit. Mostly because they were worried about something like this happening. You guys don’t exactly keep a low profile.”
“And if we’re going to find out how to reverse this effect,” mused the Captain, “I think we’re going to have to.”
“You know Hoot’s mind better than anyone here, Captain,” said Rex, in suspiciously graceful concession. “I presume you have a plan?”
“Sure, I mean, assuming it’s even worth–” he replied, then cut himself off sharply for a second. Then he gave them the plan, quickly. Rova Barkitt nodded, uncharacteristically subdued, and started walking toward the Z-Building to begin her part of it. Fastback looked very warily at Solar Bear as the two of them followed her.
“Sound strategy indeed, Captain,” Rex said, clapping him on the shoulder. “You may count on me to play my role.”
“But where’s yer role, Cappy?” asked Pig-Iron. “Ain’tcha gonna be in the thick of it with the rest of us? Or didja finally go as yella-bellied as yer uniform?”
The Captain hesitated to respond, but Rex was faster. “Think it through, porcine poltroon! At any moment, Hoot may show us the image that has already beguiled your nation, if not the world! Mere minutes after he does so, we will be in his–” He paused and gnashed his teeth in distaste. “His service, imagining it is of our own free will! If this happens to any of us, the Captain’s whereabouts must remain unknown even to us, so that he may plan one final surprise that may decide between our victory and our defeat!”
After a pause, the Captain nodded. And after another, Pig-Iron smiled and put up a hand. “Eh, I’m just playin’, like I play.”
“There’s one person I’ll risk telling, though,” the Captain said, smiling despite himself at Pig-Iron being Pig-Iron. “If you all will give me and Abra a moment?”
They walked out of the others’ earshot, Abra reluctantly, looking at the ground. Rodney could tell she already knew what he was going to say, that he was going to admit a weakness he didn’t want to upset the others by showing. He suspected Rex knew, too, but if so, he trusted Rex, as much as it was possible to trust a villain, to keep the secret.
“Abra, look at me.”
She chuckled. “It’s not often you even have to ask me to look into those big brown eyes…”
“How’s my soul doing?”
“It’s… bright! It always shines so brightly; any minor fluctuations hardly matter–”
“We don’t have time for denial, Abra. It’s starting to dim, isn’t it? I glimpsed the image of Hoot before Chester threw himself in front of it. I thought it wasn’t enough of a dose to affect me, but now I’m catching myself thinking the wrong thoughts. Like ‘maybe we could just let him run things long enough to fix a few big problems,’ or ‘he kind of looks like Aquaduck if you squint.’ I need you to put me in a holding cell until this is over.”
“No, no! You can fight it — you can beat it! You’re the best of us, Rodney! You know how I know? Because these carrots really do turn a personality inside out. Since I ate one, I’ve had to use every meditation technique I know, just to stay serious, just to keep sheathing my inner kitten’s claws. But Roger Rodney Rabbit is a great guy who is hiding nothing on the inside but an even greater guy. You don’t have to fight what the carrots do to you. You can embrace it. And you can beat this.”
“Maybe I can, and maybe I will, but we can’t take the chance you’re wrong, Felina. I have to do the responsible thing.”
Before she could stop herself, Felina Furr was pouting. “Always so responsible. It wouldn’t be so bad, if I had to fight you… wrestling, tangling up your long, strong legs in mine–” She slapped a paw over her mouth.
“We’ll have time to be irresponsible after this,” Rodney said, blushing and stroking her paw, just once. “I promise.”
“You — you don’t get to promise that, not when your big secret strategy is to sit on your cottontail and mope! You’re the one who believed in us, who taught us we could do this hero thing! And now, with the whole world against us… we can’t do it without you! I can’t do it without you,” she finished, limply.
“I believe in you now… Abra. So I believe you can. And we’re out of time. Do it now, or don’t do it at all… I… I mean… Abra, do it.”
She was silent. She slowed her breathing and found her center, fragile and wobbly, but still something she could hold, and she held it steady. She raised her wand and chanted, a bit acidly, “Wanda, where most huskies dwell, lies a frozen holding cell. Though this plan has little merit, please imprison Captain Carrot.”
She shut her eyes until he faded from view. She contemplated keeping them shut a while after that. But no. There was still work to be done.
GENIUS AT WORK (DO NOT DISTURB) read the sign in front of Doctor Hoot’s new White House office. After an hour or so of fawning from the Washington pols had gone from gratifying to grating, he’d found the sign necessary to keep his out fanboys and fangirls, who would swarm him like wasps. Even with it, he could hear them buzzing about him from what they thought was out of earshot. He returned to his spreadsheet of priorities and tried to focus. His followers would be tuned in to his webcast channel tonight, and he had to give his orders.
World hunger first, I suppose. We have enough G.M. food to feed everyone, though it may require precautions against the resulting population explosion. As important as the environment is, that’s a long-term fix, and immediate, tangible results score more political points.
No, no, I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I’ll have to prepare them for the bad news. I’m afraid there will be civil war — a limited war against a backward-thinking section of the populace, but backward-thinkers often make the best terrorists. I should have tried to engineer a more delayed reaction to the selfies, something that could spread further without causing panic, but that’s what they say about inventions: they’re never finished, only abandoned.
O’Llama is spreading the selfie to other major world leaders, but their nations will likewise present resistance. The churches will be extra stubborn. No, independent thought will not die out quietly. It could take a week, even two, for things to settle down.
Also, the Zoo Crew is largely unaccounted for, and the Salamandroids missed their last check-in. I don’t think that was because they stepped outside for a smoke.
But I should move ahead on world hunger in the meantime. Good public relations. Maybe I can give some “food incentives” to the nations who welcome my rule the most.
So many were now his responsibility. Millions — billions, really — hanging on his every word. It was what he’d always wanted, wasn’t it? Everything?
Well, they’d all be happy under him eventually. And if not, that was what the pocket death-ray was for. Perhaps he should start calling it the argument ender.
A determined clacking of high heels in the hallway was quickly getting closer, cutting through the chatter of the pols. It was a purposeful stride, headed right for him. Hoot palmed his pocket death-ray. The possibility of an assassin had certainly occurred to him already. He was being paranoid, he knew; the selfie was on television screens throughout the offices — some networks had used it to replace their station logos in the screen’s bottom right corner — and the Secret Serpents would have demanded she look at it when she come in the door.
The owner of the heels swung into his office, and Hoot relaxed. She wore dark sunglasses and a lawyer’s gray blouse and skirt, and held her phone close to her lips, apparently using a microphone app. She vaguely resembled Yankee Poodle in color, species, and height, but she seemed a bit older and more out of shape, and certainly didn’t carry herself like any kind of hero.
“Dr. Hoot, I presume? Rova Barkitt. Celebrity journalist. And, dahling, you are the celebrity of the moment!”