by T Campbell
Twenty-one seconds after the thunderclaps started, the last wall of the trailer finally blew off, and Pig-Iron and Rubberduck came face to face with Zeu. But not the same Zeu.
What Rubberduck saw was a swan whose skin gleamed like opal and alabaster in his three-piece suit, an icon of the grace of early movie stars — Clark Sable, early Marlin Brando — the kind of grace and easy handsomeness that Byrd Rentals was never going to get right, not if he spent three weeks reshaping his facial features.
“I am the father of all. I came to each of the races of ancient Geese in turn — to Leda as the swan, to Alcmene as the elephant — and fathered heroes that enriched their genestock. Everyone was very happy with the arrangement, believe me. But in no time at all — what, two-and-a-half-thousand years? — you’ve forgotten me. And, folks… that just won’t do.”
What Pig-Iron saw was a warthog, his thick, powerful, natural muscle bursting out of his jean coveralls. There was a sweat-smell to him Pig-Iron could pick up even through the sulfur-odor from the lightning bolts. “Youse been disrespectin’ me,” he was saying, his regal beard quivering with every word. “Youse males a’been gettin’ jealous, youse females a’been gettin’ cold. Now I’ma disrespect you. With my lightning balls.”
“Look, I’m sorry!” Miranda Bear was saying. “You seem like a really nice bear when you’re not trying to kill everyone with lightning bolts! Maybe we could get some coffee–“
Zeu saw him coming and hurled lightning at him, enough to power several skyscrapers, blowing apart his Bling costume into a flaming mini-meteor shower. Had he hurled such lightning at Fastback, Fastback would have instinctively vibrated through it a bit (Fastback was always smarter when he relied on his instincts). Captain Carrot would’ve rolled with it, exchanging the humiliation of being knocked over for the avoidance of serious injury.
Pig-Iron, naturally, simply took it. It staggered him a bit, but that had to be the guy’s best shot and not just a warm-up or somethin’, right? The thunder was louder than ever as Zeu drew back his hoof, and it began to shine blue.
“We have forgotten you, haven’t we?” came a familiar voice. And Alley-Kat-Abra faded into view, directly between Pig-Iron and Zeu.
“Abra, y’wanna get outta the way?” Pig-Iron shouted. He was affecting annoyance and bravado, but Abra could also hear the fear in his voice, fear not for himself but for his friend. “This guy is stupid powerful, an’ he needs t’be taught a–“
“Silence,” hissed Abra, hating herself as she did it, but there was no time to make Pig-Iron understand properly. “Is this how you speak in the presence of gods? Show respect!”
Pig-Iron had no respect whatsoever for gods of any kind, except of course for Rhesus Christ and Dog his Father, but he respected Abra, and her unexpected show of anger bought her enough silence from him to continue. She turned back to Zeu, who in her eyes was a nude cat so black he seemed to be made of shadow, with compelling green eyes and narrow eye-slits. Hypnotic, but Abra resisted the urge to bow and met his gaze.
Baxter Barker, the stuntwolf-turned-pro who was playing Dogtor Doom, which wasn’t much of a stretch because he was an actual super-villain, grinned. Doctor Hoot had ordered him not to engage any members of the Zoo Crew until it was time, but there was nothing wrong with making a preparation or two while three Crew members were so thoroughly distracted. He’d only taken this job to get within sabotaging distance of Pig-Iron: getting an angle on Alley-Kat-Abra and Rubberduck, too, was an irresistible bonus.
Baxter’s gimmick was gimmicks — little tricks, little traps. Nothing too fancy, but nothing expected. All he needed now was a rubber band and three of his little bugs. He slingshotted one into Abra’s cape, and one onto Pig-Iron’s shoulder.
Not even Zeu noticed. Abra had his full attention, for some reason.
“You know who I am, don’t you, Zeu? You have always taken an interest in the heroes of this world. In some ways, we are all your children. I don’t think it was a coincidence that you found yourself fighting us here. To the peoples of Earth-C now, super-heroes, celebrities, are very like gods. I have honored many gods in my time as a heroine: the nourishing spirits of Kal-Kan, the mysterious F’elixx, the wiles of H’eethklif, the meditative calm of Gharf’eelde. But if you can find it in yourself to spare these blasphemous wretches, O Zeu, god of electricity, god of power… then my first loyalty will go to you and only you. I am the most famous magician of this age. My praise matters, even to gods.”
She noticed him glancing at Miranda Bear in unmistakable, mortal frustration. This was not unexpected: from the myths, describing Zeu as a horndog was not unfair, and calling him pre-feminist was downright charitable. She decided to risk an additional offer. “I will also introduce you to Internest dating.”
He looked back at her then, with something more than mortal in his eyes. “You will soon have a chance to prove your fealty,” he said.
He vanished then, in a flash.
You would not expect Rubberduck to have noticed anything else at the moment a Geek god vanished before him. You would not expect him to have noticed something like a bug landing on his shoulder at all — super-heroes were tough, right? Their skin wasn’t that sensitive, was it? But Rubberduck’s skin was pliable, and far more likely to roll with impact, to react to it, than even Little Cheese’s or Yankee Poodle’s.
Spinning, he lanced his arm out twenty-five feet to catch Baxter Barker by the snout. Baxter almost panicked, but remembered his taser-glove under the Dogtor Doom costume, took off the gauntlet, and zapped Rubberduck’s fingers before they could finish closing around his face. The arm went rigid, then limp, long enough for him to wriggle loose.
Baxter took out a smoke bomb for a quick escape, but caught a mystic force bolt in his solar plexus. That probably would have taken him down even if Pig-Iron hadn’t chucked the trailer door at him three seconds later. “I just wanted ta make sure,” Pig-Iron said, shrugging, as Baxter faded into unconsciousness. Byrd plucked the bug loose from his body, studying it.
“Do we know this one?” asked Abra. “I have a… feeling about him, like he’s connected to something larger… I don’t think it’s precognitive, unless it is…”
“O’ course we know him!” shouted Pig-Iron. “He’s Dogtor Doom! Honestly, Abra, you gotta read somethin’ that isn’t a religious scroll sometime.”
Unisys read from the spell book and whinnied. He was a tall and strong horse with an old-world tunic, huge, powerful wings, and a wand-sized horn that now began to glow.
Something was already disturbed about the city of Los Antelopes — Unisys had heard the thunder, and felt the reverberations of a force so vast, he wasn’t sure he even understood what it was. He briefly considered retreating, to contemplate this situation, but chaos was opportunity, and he would never have a better chance to set a snare for the hated Alley-Kat-Abra. Prancing like she did upon the television and the Internest, the foul magics of the modern age; celebrity could not coexist with mystery. Magic should be done in secret. Showmanship was… an abomination.
Soon enough she would learn, though. Soon enough, the folly of advertising herself would be made clear to her. He heard cries of alarm rising from the Pant-Pantages Theater on Follywood Boulevard as he completed his spell. The ley lines bent and realigned around his horn, sending an electromagnetic charge into the air.
Rova Barkitt could smell it.
It was a sour, staticky kind of magnetism, like rotten eggs, and it was the final nail in the coffin of her earlier good mood.
She hadn’t been that far from Follywood Boulevard before Rodney Rabbit’s second call had come in, warning her not to respond to Byrd’s distress call (at least not yet). It seemed that Abra was all they needed to take care of this one. Her lip had curled while thinking about that, and now she was eager for something, anything, to prove she was every bit as valuable as that stuck-up, leotard-wearing little… gloryhound? No, glory-hog? No… ceiling cat.
Idioms were hard sometimes.
The Pant-Pantages Theater was up ahead, and something strange was happening to it, maybe related to that electromagnetic disturbance. The ceiling looked like it was about to collapse — upward.
Rova’s comm chirped. It was Rodney again. His irritation with Rova had completely disappeared, which, oddly, just made Rova more irritable. “Hey, Rova, the Crime-Puter alarm’s spotted some serious APBs right in front of you. Looks like two villains on site, at least. Little Cheese and I have met up with Fastback, and Abra’s team is wrapping up their thing–“
Abra’s team, her mind growled.
“–so do you need assistance?”
Rova snapped, “Maybe you need assistance!”
“…How does that make sense?”
Rodney’s question went unanswered.
Inside the Pant-Pantages Theater, what had been an old Bruteway show of Cats was now a nightmare of indoor tornadoes. Whirlybird, a magenta roadrunner with long wings and small hands, and the Cheshire Cheetah, a grinning, gap-toothed blur of black spots on yellow, were causing general mayhem, sending actors and patrons flying every which way. There had been remarkably few injuries and no fatalities — both villains, it seemed, cared more about collateral damage than some of their peers.
Cheshire Cheetah disappeared for an instant (he was a speedster, not just a wind-master like Whirlybird) and returned with fistfuls of twenty-dollar bills. “I found the till!”
Whirlybird looked at him and tried to keep her poker face. She had reasons of her own for joining this plot of Doctor Hoot’s, reasons she couldn’t let anyone guess, so she was compartmentalizing, treating this whole thing as if it were no more extraordinary than a day at the beach. “There’s not much there.”
“I know. Most blokes pay electronically these days. But it still seemed like the touristy thing to do.” The Cheetah briefly took off again, attacking a few patrons who had been creeping up behind Whirlybird, then returning to her side with a winning smile. “Want half?”
She accepted, and her smile was not entirely forced. “This is pretty much your ideal first date, isn’t it?”
With perfect timing, a shower of blue stars slammed into him, knocking him off his feet and into the wall. Whirlybird turned to look at the source, and suddenly all she could see was red and white. Something was covering her eyes. She brought her hands up to remove it, but as she touched it, something else covered them and fixed them to the sides of her face. Now she couldn’t use her tornado powers without wind-blasting her own head.
“Please hold your applause until the end of the pahformance!” came Yankee Poodle’s voice, and the crowd’s screams were turning to cheers. “They always go for the blindfold.”
No. This wasn’t the plan. Whirlybird couldn’t go down this early. But now her legs were sticking together, too, and she tottered, then fell, right onto her own beak.
“I mean, I undahstand it,” Rova went on, walking forward, securing the Cheetah against the wall with her star-stream, and growing satisfied that this magenta super-villainess was no longer a threat. Her struggles were too panicky for her to be playing possum. “We live in a visual culture. Sight’s very important to us, even those of us who’ve got sharp noses and ears. I’m just sayin’, predictability. Makes my job easier.”
The Cheetah grinned. “Surprise.”
He began to vibrate, faster and faster. He hadn’t quite mastered the vibrate-through-walls trick, but sending the vibrations into the wall was shaking up the already-compromised structure. He could bring it down on top of their ears to free himself. The patrons and actors grasped this basic situation, and all who hadn’t already fled started to clear out — all but a few.
Rova increased the power of her star-stream to dampen those vibes, and tried to shoot some stripes onto the Cheetah’s face, hoping to cut off his air supply. His head was vibrating, too, making it hard for the stripes to solidify fully before he shook them off. But she pressed on, advancing on him, and she might have succeeded…
If, at that moment, she hadn’t been hit by a broiling heat-blast.
The patrons. Rova hadn’t looked closely enough at them. There was tiny Melvin McMole, taking a fresh dose of Hoot’s serum and growing, shredding his clothes to become the furry, feral Digger O’Doom. An Irish shepherd in bronze armor and a purple cape, whom Rova didn’t recognize. And Solar Bear, the one who’d blasted her, wearing a variation on his old costume with more reds and whites.
There might’ve been others, but Rova couldn’t look around her any more before closing her eyes in pain– those burns really hurt. She got the point, though. This had been a sting all along, and they’d assembled a whole team, the first villain team on this scale in months, whose first real job was going to be killing her. And all she could think, as she started to black out, was how flattering that was.
But she held on, long enough to see a familiar, and for once not unwelcome, yellow radiance bathe the room. A barbed, quartered circle appeared, spun around and swelled to fill the stage, and suddenly all her friends were around her, the whole sweet Zoo Crew, with powers that had turned back at least three alien invasions and humbled a god of time.
But the villains were still smiling.