by T Campbell
“We’re licked,” said Abra, or, more accurately, Abra’s spirit.
Her spirit was on the astral plane, while her body went limp in Rubberduck’s grip. There was no point to further fighting; she didn’t know where Doctor Hoot was in the building, and already she almost wanted to surrender to him — she could fight that urge, but not well enough to concentrate her magical powers, and Rubberduck and Whirlybird had contained her physical ones. Pig-Iron was barely resisting Chester Cheese now, and they’d both be coming for her in another minute or so.
So she had done what animals throughout history had always done in the face of hopeless odds.
She had turned to prayer.
Zeu stood before her. “You are ready to prove your fealty, then? If I remove Hoot’s influence, do you agree to serve me body and soul, wear my leash in all ways, for all time?”
Abra paused. There was no doubt about the implications of what he was asking, and they weren’t even altogether unwelcome. Even on this exalted plane, the mating urges the carrot had stirred up were still a part of her, and Zeu’s eyes seemed to reach into every part of her. He was the storm god, as passionate and changeable as the weather, and if power was an aphrodisiac, he was power itself.
But it was heroes like Pig-Iron who found their strength in passion. She had always found hers in calm. And it was with calm that she replied.
“The freedom of all living beings depends on it. It would seem that I don’t have a choice.”
“That is not worship. That is not loyalty. I ask again, WILL YOU YIELD TO MY EMBRACE AND MY GLORY?”
“I came here to do that. It’s… it’s no greater sacrifice than giving up my life, which I would do without hesitation for much less than this. Yet… if I did this, I wouldn’t just be sacrificing my freedom. I would be sacrificing the idea that animalkind can make its own way without gods to save it from itself. Hoot is an egomaniac, and his rule will bring nothing but suffering. But so are you, and so would yours. Hoot, at least, is mortal.”
“You are all already in my debt. I made you! I am the father of all!”
“And as our father, you should not have to be bribed to help your children! You are not merely the lover of mortals, you are the father of heroes! Will you stand aside and let Hoot end the age of heroes, make slaves of us all, simply because one female dares reject you?”
“I WOULD END YOUR ARROGANT ANIMAL KINGDOM MYSELF!” Zeu thundered, his winds buffeting her spirit even as Whirlybird’s buffeted her body. His voice was a cyclone, his gestures earthquakes. “You DARE defy me, YOU DARE REJECT ME?! You FOOLISH, HUBRISTIC NECROMANCER? YOU POOR IMITATOR OF HECKATE, THE MOON LOON-GODDESS?”
“I am as you have helped make me. I will defy anyone if the cause is just, for that is the heroic spirit. Look within yourself, my Lord, look into your many aspects, your menagerie of selves. I know the lover in you is furious. But is not the father proud?”
Zeu was power. Zeu was fury. Zeu was…
…changeable as the weather, and he laughed.
“Well argued, child. Perhaps there is more in you of Athene Noctua, owl-goddess of wisdom, than there is of Heckate. And wouldn’t it gall your enemy to hear me say so?”
“Then you’ll help us?” Drowsiness was beginning to steal up on her. Pig-Iron was now sitting on her physical body, which had absorbed about all the physical punishment it could stand.
“I will tell you what I told the one who prayed to me an hour ago, to offer himself in your place: you have put your faith in heroism. Let us see how it rewards you.”
“That’s not really much of a… wait, the other one who offered–? Who…”
Zeu smiled, a bit condescendingly, and all was shadow. Her last word was spoken only to herself.
And then she slept, peacefully, and all was still.
“Let’s see… yep… all still mine!” said Doctor Hoot, looking around as Rex Imperium and Fastback knelt before him, and the White House staffers filed back into the office. Rova Barkitt stood at his side, basking in his reflected glory as she had always done with the rich and famous.
“Oh, take off, everyone!” ordered Hoot. “It’s almost five o’clock, anyway. I’m just going to make the webcast that the world is literally waiting for, and we’ll get down to work tomorrow.”
Fastback, Rex, and Rova hesitated, but Hoot reiterated, “Everyone!” And then Fastback was gone, and Rex began walking, absently, out of the hall.
Rova, though, hadn’t moved. She was still in her civvies, and one could almost believe she really was just an entertainment reporter, despite her almost eager confession of her secret identity. Hoot looked at her just long enough to make her say something in defense of her presence. “Dahling, it’s my job to bear witness. At this point, well, you’re not just the celebrity of the moment, you’re the celebrity of the age. I rather like that. It means I can spend a few years just being a reporter right here instead of always rushing off to chase the latest flash in the pan.”
“The message I’m about to send is going to go out with or without you,” Hoot sniffed. “I don’t think you’ll have much to do.”
“Dearie, for someone who’s conquered the media, you really don’t seem to entirely get this. Pretty much four-fifths of what we do is just repackaging and adding ‘commentary.’ Cast your web, and then I’ll get on and tell everybody what they just saw! This is my gift. You totally need me.”
Hoot tilted his head at her for a long moment.
She gave him her prettiest smile. It didn’t seem to have much effect.
“Oh, heck with it,” she said, and magno-blasted him into the wall.
And then she snagged his leg with her stripes and tossed him down the hallway. As he landed, she pushed her dark glasses up to the top of her face. “Yeah, these are prescription sunglasses, and not my prescription. Gave me a killer headache and kind of wrecked my vision, but hey, if somebody’s probably going to show you a mind-controlling selfie, you kind of want your vision wrecked.”
“Don’t worry, my dear,” replied Hoot, digging around in his pocket until he felt the cube that had the embossed Y.P. on it. “You’ve always lacked vision.”
He hurled the cube at her. Her star-stream intercepted it easily, but as soon as the first star grazed it, it blew outward a pulse of heat and light and electromagnetism. It shot through Rova and Hoot, knocking them both over, but Rova’s own magnetic powers reacted further to it, and she went down, convulsing, her body radiating first blue stripes and red stars, and then a dull, purplish glow. Howling and sizzling was heard from computer workstation and TV monitors throughout the White House.
Hoot got to his feet, making no effort to hide how insulted he was.
“This was your Plan B? This was the last tiny detail you thought I’d miss that would turn things around for you? Have you forgotten how many times we’ve fought each other? Do you think I did not have new contingency plans in case I faced any or all of you in animal-to-animal combat? I’ve been working on an app.”
“Gineh — pluh — please — please don’t–”
Hoot whipped out his death-ray as he stepped forward, smoothly, efficiently, not wasting any time, not giving the Poodle some way to turn the tables. But he couldn’t resist one little statement of his triumph. He wanted to see her face when he extinguished the last of her hope.
“I’ve already made one dog roll over and beg today, Poodle. But you… I think the most fitting thing I can do is leave you out of my new world. Interview denied!”
“‘Don’t… throw me in… that briar patch… B’rer Fox…’ Heh, sorry, that was somethin’… Fastback asked me to say…”
A familiar coldness washed over Hoot’s mind. This was the moment. This was when he was supposed to be putting out his webcast. And he’d hit the Poodle with a localized electromagnetic pulse — powerful enough to short out even shielded computers in the building. He squeezed his death-ray. It didn’t fire.
“You’re still so predictable, Hieronymous, dahling. My own magno-blasts aren’t powerful enough to mess up all the equipment in here. I needed you to hit me with one of your ‘tailor-made solutions.’ And now everyone’s waiting for a webcast you can’t make…”
“This doesn’t matter! I have conquered this nation’s capital! I am well on my way to conquering the world!”
“But ‘your world’s’ not here right now, is it? You sent everyone home. ‘Sjust you and me…”
Hoot charged forward and hauled Rova up into a half-sitting position. “I will choke you with my bare talons!”
“…you and me and the part I haven’t told you yet.”
Hoot’s voice came from everywhere: laptops, cell phones, TV stations. Rubberduck, Pig-Iron, Whirlybird, and Little Cheese, their conflict forgotten, sat together and listened to it in front of the White House. The prime minister of the United Animal Kingdom had it on his desk, as did Vladibear Putin. Lieutenant Commander Magellan and her crew were all tuned in. So were the Whoogle staff. And back at the Z-Building, even Hoot’s captured underlings — Armordillo, Emoticat, and Marmadoge — were listening to it, as Melvin McMole cleaned up around them.
Back when Captain Carrot had given the team the plan, he’d pulled Yankee Poodle aside and told her, “I’ve spotted the Squawker in there with the others. The cat and the dog might indeed be loyal to Hoot, and Armordillo’s a wild card, but the Squawker’s the one we need. And if anyone knows how to motivate her, it’s you.” He held up his phone. “I’m emailing you some notes to give her. They’re from a speech I was working on for Just’a Lotta Animals, and we should be able to repurpose them here.
Thirty seconds later, Rova had been in the garage, speaking to the gagged Squawker and waiting patiently for the look in her eyes to shift from obsessive hatred to opportunistic glee.
And now, the Squawker was on the air, webcasting in Hoot’s voice. The image on the webcast was, of course, the selfie.
“I am Hoot. My demands? Social change. Do something now, today, to make the world a better place. And having done so… let go of your idea of me as your savior. I am a criminal, and should be treated as such.
“Much as you try to dull your brains with trivia and mindless entertainment, I truly believe there is still a spark of scientific curiosity in the world. So why would I seek to extinguish it? I worship science, and science yoked to the belief that you should all take orders from me is not science.
“We are all of us too susceptible to controls. Television and video ads make us want things. Social media make us share things. Our leaders make us believe things. And everyone and everything, it seems, makes us feel things — even a self-portrait that is clearly not an expression of anything more profound than my own ego. There is a virtue to ego. Ego allows us to take on the impossible. But everyone can do something for their fellow animals, and seven billion egos can accomplish more than one. That’s just math.
“Set yourselves free from the tyranny of this image, and seal me away before my next impulse endangers the progress of animalkind again. No matter what I may say later, these should be understood as my only demands.”
If you believed that Hoot was a hero, then you believed Hoot would do heroic things. Nothing was more heroic than sacrificing yourself and the things you had craved most for the good of all animalkind.
The message would never have been taken as genuine, if Hoot had not used the selfie first.
“All of this… everything that happened here? This was all our sideshow,” Rova whispered.
With mounting panic, Hoot dropped her and ran to the nearest window. He saw the Secret Serpents re-converging on the White House, from which he had ordered them away. His technology was useless, but surely he could think of a way out of this; surely this was just a matter of adjusting some variables, and then his world went blue. Fastback was carrying him somewhere, and they were at Mount Crushmore, no, in Califurnia, no, in Rancorage, Alpaca, where the huskies dwelt, and he just barely glimpsed an emaciated Captain Carrot, and then he was in a holding cell, and the Zoo Crewers were gone.
He screamed himself hoarse trying to get one of the guards to listen to him, on the chance that someone outside was still under his control. But no one could hear him.
The cell had originally been designed for the Squawker, and its noise-baffle technology was firmly in place.
The next two weeks were a bit hectic. Not everyone who had seen the selfie had been in place to hear the webcast, so it took some time for things to settle down, even with Alley-Kat-Abra and Fastback using their powers to distribute the webcast as widely as possible. By the time it was revealed as a fake, a consortium of the world’s scientists had determined how to reverse the selfie’s original effect altogether. After tests proved successful, the Zoo Crew were among the first to receive treatment.
“Hooters,” those who followed Hoot because of exposure to the selfie or just because others had told them Hoot was the next Rhesus Christ, would continue to exist for some time, but as Hoot’s location and even whether he was alive or dead remained undisclosed, there was only so much they could do… at least, until the next time Hoot escaped from prison.
But Rodney Rabbit preferred not to think about that.
His twenty-four-hour super-power charge had run out shortly after he’d been imprisoned, so he hadn’t given Fastback much of a fight after being “rescued” from his holding cell, but as the one animal besides Rova who knew the truth about Hoot’s “sudden change of heart,” he’d been immune to the video. He’d tried to pretend it had affected him as it had all the other Zoo Crewers, restoring them to a fair semblance of free will until they could get the real thing, but he couldn’t fool Abra’s soul-vision.
With great reluctance, the team had sent Rodney Rabbit to an asylum (informing BC Comics that he needed sick leave), and kept careful tabs on his numerous escape attempts and actual escapes, which had been as persistent and resourceful as you’d expect from one of the world’s greatest super-heroes. The gas leak escape, where he convinced most of the staff and orderlies that they were the crazy ones, was particularly inspired.
After the true cure was found, of course, the Crew couldn’t get it to Rodney fast enough. Abra took one more cosmic carrot for the occasion, just to be sure. Her eyes sparkled as she saw Rodney’s soul brightening, and she offered him a carrot of his own. The welcome home party was epic enough to suit Pig-Iron’s appetites and Rubberduck’s ability to spend money, although the guest of honor himself could only spend so much time with the team before Abra stole him away for a more private celebration, best left to the imagination.