by T Campbell
Sting Sting Prison, Ow-Stinging, Gnu York, Earth-C:
The Siren Belle sucked in deep breaths. Rova Barkitt massaged her forepaws. “How much more power is it going to take, dahlings? We aren’t hydroelectric plants, here, you know.”
“We’re done,” murmured Doctor Hoot of Earth-Reverse-C. “But I’d advise waiting a bit.”
“Yeah,” continued Byrd Rentals, “it’d be smart to get your strength back in case…”
“In case unfortunate circumstances arise,” finished Hoot.
The guards had finally joined the group and secured the prisoners. Byrd had explained the power drain to them, but they took no chances. They’d caged Slashback in the Cheshire Cheetah’s old cell and fitted Swanky Poodle with a power collar. Rova cast a glance at it, then back at the guard who had fitted it.
“Should I wonder,” asked Yankee Poodle, “just why you had a collar handy that’s designed to remove powers that are identical to mine?”
The horse guard looked away, whinnying uncomfortably. Finally he said, “We have to be prepared for… everything. Rova Barkitt did a report on you guys a while back. She said Pig-Iron could have turned out to be a villain, but kinda changed his mind at the last minute. One of you could change again. Animals change.”
“That’s true,” said Samantha Drake.
Byrd looked away. Hoot studied the situation. Yankee Poodle looked witheringly at Samantha.
“Look,” whinnied the guard. “Don’t tell the press about this, OK? I don’t want us to look unpatriotic.”
“Oh, absolutely,” said Yankee Poodle evenly. “If Barkitt does an expose on this interesting practice of yours, it won’t be because we told her about it.”
“Like you could (censored) stop them,” hissed Swanky Poodle as the guard took his leave. “On our world, we have a (censored) word for (censored) working-class (censored) like you. We call them prey.”
“She doesn’t need your support,” said Samantha.
Rova whirled. “And I don’t need yours!”
“Y’all oughtta be makin’ allies somewhar,” called out Slashback.
“Allies like yours?” said Byrd coolly. “The kind who drain you dry and then leave you in prison to rot? With allies like that, who needs enemas?”
“Wail, leastways he din’t leave me alone with folks who’d kill me, lahk y’all did with Fastback.”
For a few seconds, nobody spoke. Rova actually looked stunned. Finally, a low voice came from Byrd’s throat. “What did you say?”
“Ah killed him daid. Sliced up them legs a’ his lahk they was fried mackerel.”
Rubberduck stepped forward. And stepped forward again. And again. Again. And from there, his neck stretched the rest of the way, bringing him eye to eye with Slashback. “If Fastback is dead…” he squawked, “…you’re dead.”
Swanky Poodle sneered, “Yeah, r–”
And then she stopped, remembering something — something that made her untouchable to the Nasty Menagerie, but really didn’t matter to the Zoo Crew. She stammered as she went on, “R-right. You’re like Hoot over there, (censored) his (censored) soul. You’re ‘better than we are.’ You wouldn’t kill a fly.”
Byrd retracted his neck and repeated quietly, “If Fastback is dead, you’re dead. You’re both dead.” And he turned on his webbed foot and walked back to the machine.
Rova had had to remove her mask, but had her paw over her eyes.
Samantha turned to Hoot.
“We did join the good guys, right?”
Batmouse rode the Crash’s back as he raced through the devastated New Yak City landscape. The Nasty Menagerie, like the Zoo Crew, had lived here once before they founded their seven capital cities across the former United Species. They’d fought their early battles here. And they’d left their mark.
The destruction hadn’t been confined to a couple of skyscrapers; not on this world. All the landmarks — the Whirlibird Trade Center, the Statue of Libirdie, Times Nest, Bruteway — everything that might have offered inspiration to the New Yakkers, or the Animericans, or the world, was gone.
The Crash raced through rubble, down city streets, into animals’ homes, into sewers, up the still-standing skyscrapers, anywhere and everywhere, trying to locate the laboratory. And every time Batmouse opened his eyes, there was some new horror — a drunken skunk, an obstinate street gang of buffalo, monkeys reduced to dancing on the streets for change — like his own Gottham City, only so much worse, until finally, even his iron will could stand no more.
He thwacked the Crash’s back, and the Crash stopped.
“We can’t do it, Barry.”
The Crash set Batmouse down and looked at him. Batmouse’s mask whited out his eyes, and his reserve masked the rest of his face. But Barry Shellen, the Crash, still felt he could read desperation in his old friend’s tone. “Can’t do what, Batmouse?”
“We can’t just send the Menagerie back to this world,” said the Batmouse. “Not even in chains. Too great a risk they’ll break loose somehow. That happens with our villains all the time, but we’re there to stop them. No one on this Earth will ever stop the Menagerie.”
“Batmouse,” said the Crash, who was beginning to see where this was going, “where is this going?”
“I’m saying we need to consider another solution to the Menagerie problem.”
“Bruce, where is this going?”
“A permanent solution,” said Bruce Weaned.
Dr. Doug Slother was easily the fastest tree sloth ever to work in medicine, and even better for Fastback, he spoke fluent Henglish. He finished fitting Fastback with what looked like a large exoskeleton from the waist down.
“I’ve tried to make allowances for your healing abilities,” Dr. Slother said. “Normally, for instance, we use splints, but your muscles repair themselves so fast that splints would make you stiff. We actually had to re-tear a few ligaments which had healed in all the wrong places.”
“So when kin ah run again, Doc?”
“Not can, should. You can run now, but I’d advise staying off your feet for… six more hours. There’s so much we don’t know about how your body–”
The wall exploded.
Fantastidrake came through it, green fire flowing over his green feathers, his eyes as removed and amused as if he were watching a low-grade slapstick picture.
Fastback tripped, slapstick-fashion, over his own exoskeleton, somersaulting and landing on his back, just in time to avoid a star-spangled blast from Fantastidrake.
“Sorry, Doc,” he said, as Dr. Slother helped him to his feet. “Ah think this guy’s got a second opinion.”
Ultra-Rabbit looked at the room in total befuddlement, trying to understand just what he was seeing, and what his cretinous counterpart could possibly see in this place.
There was no throne, no chains in the walls, no carrots in the architecture. Nothing to suggest this room belonged to one of the greatest villains… no, heroes. Ultra had to keep reminding himself that the heroes of this world had some strange good luck charm that kept them from becoming prey. But even heroes enjoyed some glory, right? They lived in a building shaped after their name, after all.
There was a chair there with three legs and wheels. Ultra-Rabbit sat in it, and sure enough, it was just as uncomfortable as it looked. The poor lighting, the pencils, the slanted board, all suggested some kind of slave labor. Did he torture himself in here? Was this some kind of masochistic game, like the one Ultra was playing with Bast-Felina?
On the slanted board was a piece of poster board. There were drawings on the poster board, some kind of storyboards for a violent movie.
But the pictures were all different sizes. They fit together like pieces of a puzzle, in an architecture far more elegant than this ramshackle piece of slanted concrete. The story could be followed by reading the pictures left to right, then top to bottom, then left to right again.
A repeating Z-pattern.
It was about… about Ultra-Squirrel, only it wasn’t quite Ultra-Squirrel. He was struggling, trying to break free of chains, a dozen little moles reaching for him to pull him down into a fire-drenched machine.
And reading the page, Ultra-Rabbit felt like he was watching this occur, not to Ultra-Squirrel, but to himself.
What was happening to him?
For the record, Little Cheese had a super-power that he only told his fellow Zoo Crewers about.
He could shrink down very small — invisible to the naked eye — and ride the air currents.
He had once used this power to make his way through the Z-Building in his first adventure, disappearing before the eyes of Rodney Rabbit, then Rubberduck, only to reappear in another room nearby. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Of Mice and Menace,” Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #12 (February, 1983).]
Of course, this power wasn’t doing him a lot of good in Fantastidrake’s test tube. The tube seemed to reoxygenate his air supply, but it was itself airtight.
So, basically, right now, it represented just one more way that Chester Cheese was totally powerless.
Supersonic flight. Telescopic vision. X-ray vision. Super-hearing.
Super-Squirrel’s powers allowed him to scan entire nations in minutes. But it was taking longer than usual, partly because this world was a lot less pretty to look at than his own. But there was another reason flying beside him.
He kept glancing in Wonder Wabbit’s direction as they flew paw in paw, just under the cloudline. Her eyes were tearing up because of the wind… well, probably just because of the wind… well, probably mostly just because of the wind.
Super-Squirrel sighed. It was hard enough playing the role of that weakling Clerk Scent on a daily basis, but now he was going to have to be sensitive again, wasn’t he?
“Hold up,” he said, and led her down to a blasted, uninhabited landscape in Afghanhoundistan. Martian Anteater, he thought, can you give us a few minutes of privacy? We’ll be right back with you. And the faint breathing in the back of his mind went quiet. He turned back to Wonder Wabbit — Diana Prance — who was holding herself and looking out over the ruins.
“You know you can tell me anything, Diana. I know we’re not exactly… what I’d like us to be to each other. But still, I’m here.”
She took her time answering. “I hate being so selfish.”
“Look at all those animals, Super-Squirrel. The United Species has it the worst, but everywhere in the world, they’re so much more hopeless than on ours. We all have demons and bogey-beasts in the dark corners of our minds. But in this world, the demons are flying overhead. These animals… they’re crying out for our help…
“And all I can do,” she went on, “is wonder why Rodney won’t talk to me.”
“Well… he is kind of a kid. I know you like to mother him…”
“No. No, he’s not a kid at all. He hides it when he’s powered down, but… he’s more of a male than I’ve ever seen. Anywhere.”
Super-Squirrel coughed. “Well… you know…” He patted his own chest emblem. “I’m not exactly…”
“I’ve been having dreams. There was this really weird one a few nights ago where he fought his way past another super-animal to be with me — oh, that poor klutz didn’t have a chance — then we were throwing eggs together. (*) Eggs are fertility symbols, right?”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Roquat’s Red Glare,” The Oz-Wonderland War #2 (February, 1986).]
“You know what I said just now, Wonder Wabbit? How you could tell me anything?”
“I didn’t mean it.”
They flew on.
The Iron Pig looked up slowly. Big Cheese had a very weird expression on his face. It was a smile, but it didn’t look like a dangerous smile. It looked kind of… nice.
“We got a lot in common, you know that?”
The Iron Pig considered this. “Well, we both got names that rhyme with fig. Kinda.”
Big Cheese laughed. “Rhymes. I like that. You’re a funny guy, you know, Pig. But I meant we’re both the guys who haven’t gotten any power boosts. We’re always the guys who get called last when it’s time to divide up the loot. There is a pecking order here, my friend, and you and I are on the bottom.”
The Iron Pig knew that Big Cheese was not his friend. But even so, no one had called him a friend in so, so long…
“I’m thinkin’ maybe we don’t have to take it anymore.”
Iron Pig looked at him. “How you figure? F.D.’s tougher than ever, and I don’t see Ultra or Katastrophe gettin’ any weaker.”
“Yeah, but life’s funny. Two days ago, if you’d told me we were about to get rid of Swanky Poodle, I’d’ve said you were crazy. But ever since we’ve gotten here, things haven’t been going accordin’ to our usual pattern. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Ultra seems different lately. Kind of unfocused, like he’s about to crack.”
“What makes you think I can trust you?”
Big Cheese’s grin got bigger. “Glad you asked. I’m gonna make you trust me… by trusting you. There is a secret power I have. One I’ve never shared with anyone. But I’m gonna share it with you, and you can watch me bully the other Pig with it. And maybe you’ll remember how much more fun it is to bully someone else than to get bullied by folks who think they’re better.”
He extended his paw to the Pig’s fingers. “Shake?”
The Pig shook.
“Why exactly did you think I was your special friend?”
The Time-Keeper looked drowsy and cranky, having been woken from hibernation. That was normal. By his own account, the slumbering bear napped through most of his immortal life in the fourth dimension.
And the fourth dimension was the kind of place that would put just about anyone to sleep. A checkerboard grid extended in all directions, broken only by the occasional tree and the Time-Keeper’s Mausoleum o’ Memorabilia. The trees grew huge, oversized fruit shaped like melted watches. And the Mausoleum, by far the most interesting part of the landscape, defied easy description. It was like something from a Salvador Doggi painting.
The interior was huge, and like a giant warehouse, yet every square inch of it was covered. There was a wall of matchbook covers, of illuminated manuscripts, commemorative coins and plates. If you looked more closely, you’d notice that some of those plates commemorated events that had not yet occurred. But you’d have to look quickly, because the place was constantly shifting. One second, for example, a wall would feature the comic-book series The Amazing Spider-Ham, issues #1 to 600, the next, it would feature collectible holograms of future baseball stars.
Samantha Drake’s breath was taken away. She’d left her thieving days behind, but she couldn’t help but bask in the reflected glory of all these riches. Doctor Hoot observed the place carefully, looking for patterns in its shifts. But Byrd Rentals and Rova Barkitt focused on the Time-Keeper as he led them back outside. They knew how dangerous it was to cross him, and he already looked a bit cross.
“We left on good terms last time, remember, Keeper?” said Byrd. “You seemed pretty happy that we’d turned you on to all these wonderful toys. You even thanked us.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Watch Out for the Time-Keeper,” Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew #9 (November, 1982).]
“Not quite true. I thanked Alley-Kat-Abra. My beloved. Who, I notice, is not here with you now.”
“Well, we’re very close!” emphasized Rova.
“Oh, yes, you are, Poodle. Too close to let me at her, that’s for sure. We would have lived happily ever after if she hadn’t been all ‘you turned my friends into infants’ this, and ‘you stranded my friends in the past’ that. As it was, at this point in your history, she’s deciding whether or not to commit to a life with your lapine leader loser. I can’t tell you how much fun I’m having, watching that little drama unfold over and over throughout eternity.”
“So… so they’re actually going to be an item?” Byrd asked, amazed. “Hot dang! Score one for the rabbit kid! I never thought he had it in him!”
“He doesn’t,” snarled the Time-Keeper. “And I just said she was deciding; maybe she’ll wise up and dump him instead. Why should I tell you? Why should I do anything to help you?”
“Perhaps I could persuade you,” said Samantha, a bit musically.
The Time-Keeper looked at her as if she were at a small child. “You sing quite charmingly, my dear, but your songs only move at the speed of sound. My lovely Felina sang a timeless song, just by her very existence.”
“Well, dahling, you did kind of put us through the wringer last time,” said Rova. “I think you owe us something.”
The Time-Keeper considered. “I will give you a little something. A warning about a danger you will face in the near future.” He paused. The pause stretched.
“Well?” said Hoot.
“Duck,” said the Time-Keeper.
“Yes?” Byrd replied.
“It would be wise for you and the others to lower your heads, very fast, right now.”
They did. Just in time. Withering black lighting coursed over their heads and set nearby trees on fire.
Katastrophe was behind them. Hoot’s mind shrieked at the thought. Katastrophe was behind them, she had tracked them, tracked them here to a place where her magic was more powerful than ever, oh, oh, no…
The Time-Keeper cupped his hands to his lips and shouted, “We’re even!”