by T Campbell
In the back row of the Pant-Pantages Theater, Emoticat’s T-shirt also stretched into a smile. A wave of confident euphoria swept across the room, giving the super-villains the confidence they needed to attack the legendary Zoo Crew, and encouraging the Crew members to think they had a chance. Smiles crept into Rubberduck and Fastback’s beaks, and Pig-Iron punched the palm of his hand, murmuring, “Aw’right, now it’s a real scrap.”
Only two animals in the theater seemed more or less immune. One was Rex Imperium, the regal Irish shepherd, who pulled a sword from his armor and quietly cut Whirlybird loose from Yankee Poodle’s stripes with it. “Join us, stripling, and have a fair chance at glory now. You helped set this snare, and youth should not be penalized for its initiative,” he said. “Indeed, I believe the children are the future. That we should teach them well, and let them lead the way.”
Rex was a ruler. Justice was his to dispense as he saw fit. But in this early stage of his career, it was quite useful for him to be seen as fair and just to all. He knew his Niccolo Macalamari.
The other animal who was just about immune to the euphoria wave was Captain Carrot himself.
It was easy to forget, but the Captain had more than just strength, toughness, and leaping power on his side. His ears flopped this way and that, anticipating ambushes that the other Crew members missed, and his super-sensitive eyes pierced the darkness and met Emoticat’s. Assessing the situation, he made an immediate decision that got everyone’s attention:
“Retreat. We gotta rabbit. Abra, get us back to the Z-Building. Right now.”
“Huh?” said Alley-Kat-Abra, feeling a little lightheaded and giggly. “Well, OK, you’re the boss, boss.” She raised Magic Wanda expectantly.
Nothing happened. A few barbed circles twinkled, but they fled from Wanda and settled instead on another villain teleporting into the theater, a stern white horse hovering above the fray, his magnificent wings beating.
“What’s — why can’t I… Wanda? Wanda, say something!” A note of very down-to-earth panic was creeping into Felina Furr’s voice. She wasn’t the creature from another dimension she sometimes pretended to be, not really; she’d grown up on the gritty streets of Mew Orleans, learning martial arts to defend her body and spiritual arts to defend her mind, but she was still vulnerable, still mortal. Sometimes Rodney Rabbit forgot that. Sometimes Felina did, too.
Xiao Liwu, the cutest and deadliest ninja panda in either hemisphere, was happy to remind her. She dropped from the ceiling, and Abra was so distracted by Wanda she was almost the perfect target.
Almost. Felina spun at the last second, met Xiao Liwu’s descending form with a kick, and assumed a classic pose of self-defense. Their eyes locked. The mistress of Kat Fu and the Kung Fu panda began to circle each other, probing for weaknesses.
Now that the other Crew members were looking up, the ceiling was no longer a viable place to hide, so three Salamandroids dropped down from it, affixing themselves to Pig-Iron. Rubberduck tried to pry one loose, but it quickly heated up, and Rubberduck was already using his feet to bandage Yankee Poodle’s back.
So there was no time to do this gently. Byrd reached for one of the Salamandroids’ mouths and stretched his fingers into it — ignoring the electric shocks he was getting, struggling to gum up some crucial circuit somewhere — and a line occurred to him, so good he just had to use it, secret identity or not. “Salamandroid #1, I’m gonna give you some advice — that people gave me a lot when I started my career–“
The ‘droid twitched, and his skin changed from sticky to slippery, sliding off Pig-Iron. With only two ‘droids remaining on him, Pig-Iron was starting to get the edge now, but Rubberduck was still having his moment.
“You suck. Get off the stage.” And Rubberduck whip-cracked the ‘droid at Rex, who half-blocked it and half-rolled with it.
Digger O’Doom was getting ready to pitch a lethal, two-ton beach ball at the stage — the ball was Armordillo, curled up to inflict maximum damage — when something yanked Doom’s eyelids closed. That something was Little Cheese, shrunk down and unnoticed as usual, riding on Doom’s face like a windsurfer until Doom dropped the ball, literally. Armordillo came crashing down on Doom’s head, and Chester leaped away — right into the path of the Squawker’s sonic attack. It’s possible that the Squawker was trying to say something clever, too, but it just sounded like white noise. But Polly Wannacracker was never known for her originality.
“Fastback!” Rodney shouted as he leaped out of the path of Solar Bear’s heat-blast, snatching up Chester’s unconscious body before it could fall. With Abra’s teleportation offline, Fastback was their best shot at escape. But Fastback was already gone.
Two hundred miles out in the Specific Ocean, Fastback and the Cheshire Cheetah were going at it, running on water, dodging each other, clotheslining each other, swimming, launching themselves up from the depths like torpedoes, running on water again. But the Cheetah had made the first move bringing them out here, and he wasn’t letting up. Even if it had been a fair race, though, he’d always be just that little bit faster. The tortoise may have beaten the hare by patience, but the Cheetah could be fast and patient.
Felina’s fight with Xiao wasn’t going well, either. Let’s just leave it at that for now.
Pig-Iron successfully threw the remaining two Salamandroids off him and bellowed in triumph.
Solar Bear bore down on Yankee Poodle, trying to finish his kill. Rubberduck wrapped Rova Barkitt up as tightly and thoroughly as he could, trying to protect her until Pig-Iron could turn the tide. His rubber-like body was somewhat flame-retardant — some, not enough.
The Squawker’s squawks were bringing Pig-Iron to his knees. The Salamandroids were regrouping. Pig-Iron would not be rescuing anyone in this fight.
Whirlybird’s tornado disrupted Captain Carrot’s leap, and he fell into Armordillo, who batted him aside with his tail at the last second. Rex Imperium laid a gauntlet on him before he could get up, sending a megavolt through his body, and after that, getting up wasn’t really on the menu.
Xiao had just about finished with the stunned, bruised Felina. A rib-snapping kick killed the last of Felina’s resistance, and Xiao tore off her hooded cape as a trophy, then picked Felina up and threw her body off the stage and into the left front row…
Just where Whirlybird had been edging this whole battle. She spun her arms and spun her whole body, building and building her whirlwind. The tornado smashed through the roof, and a couple of seconds later Abra’s body was sailing through the hole, while Whirlybird shouted. “Yes! Seventy million for me! Die! Die! Die! Nya-ha-ha-ha evil is great!“
She worried this might be laying it on a little thick, but then Solar Bear said, “Look! It’s a broiled poodleducken!” and she decided she was fitting right in.
Felina fought to stay conscious. No gravity. She was in freefall, was about to hit the pavement outside the theater, but there was something good about this, something–
Out of range.
She felt her connection to the spirits returning. Whatever that horse was doing to her powers, it had a limited range and couldn’t follow her out here. As a hundred bubbly barbed circles broke her fall, she held out her hand. She’d still have to do this without Magic Wanda, whom she’d left dropped on the stage, and she’d have to concentrate despite the broken rib. But who was she? Was she some scared young feline posing as a prophetess and martial arts instructor? Was she simply a winner of a super-power lottery wearing a Howloween mask? No. She was Alley-Kat-Abra.
She stretched out her claws…
…and called her friends home.
Back in his home lab, Doctor Hoot was taking selfies.
But not just any selfies. No, these were selfies with specially adjusted colors, like old Andy Warthog paintings, carefully calibrated with a formula he had developed in his very early days of research, when the Zoo Crew was still appearing on the scene, during their first adventure, in fact. We could get into the details of the paper he nearly published in the Journal of Malology, but it’s really technical, and your eyes would glaze over a bit. Let’s just say that these pictures tended to make animals’ eyes glaze over a bit, too.
“Master,” came the voice of Salamandroid #3. “The Crew has avoided us.”
“Oh, good gracious,” Hoot replied. “The team of veteran super-heroes slipped away from our first strike? How completely unexpected.”
“I said ‘avoided,’ sir. Not ‘escaped.'”
Hmm. Droid #3’s artificial intelligence seemed a little mouthy underneath the obedience conditioning. Still, he was functioning as he should. “Tactical details?”
Number Three gave a detailed blow-by-blow of the fight, which Hoot ate up like birdseed. “Alley-Kat-Abra, Little Cheese, and Yankee Poodle were injured. All other members of the team were nearly overcome, but one of the villains accidentally moved Alley-Kat-Abra out of Force Horse’s area of interference–“
“And she teleported them to safety, yes, of course. Bah. Magic. Still, all unfolds as I expected — losses on our side?”
“No clear losses, sir, although Baxter Barker never joined us, and Randall Boggs’ whereabouts are unknown.”
“Even better than I hoped! I expected them to take down one or two. I’ll look into Baxter, but he was always a risk. He may surprise us yet. And Randall, well, I’d be surprised if he didn’t surprise. All right, then. They’ll probably have retreated to their headquarters, and Marmadoge will be able to smell them when they’ve arrived. Relay this information to him through your brothers in waiting, and then direct the team north. Tell Digger O’Doom he’s up, and make sure our other troops don’t turn on each other. The hunt is on, and soon enough there will be nowhere on Earth-C these heroes can hide–“
His own last sentence reminded him of something. “Put Force Horse on the line, would you? We really should make sure they don’t go hiding somewhere off Earth-C, either.”
“It may take a moment. He is… ‘communing’ with Alley-Kat-Abra’s captured magic wand.”
“This day just gets better and better! Allow him three minutes, then.”
Hoot put the channel on mute and resumed taking selfies. His true plan was about to come together.
Also, damn, but he was handsome.
The handsome visage of Rex Imperium turned to face the new challenge before him. There was dissension in the ranks, and a future ruler could not allow that. Still, he could stand to take the measure of a few of his current peers, so he waited and watched.
“I pledged never to return to the Order of Half-Shadows until I had seen that pretender dead. You would stand between me and my honor?” Xiao Liwu was saying, circling Whirlybird with slow, yet somehow still cute, menace.
“Hey, I just tried to do what all of us were trying to do,” Whirlybird replied, a bit nervously. “You don’t get to call dibs on anybody! That’s kind of the point of — of this little scavenger hunt! Only the ones who can claim the final kill get the cash! I need that money for my college fund… um… the one I’m using to buy bombs and blow up all the nation’s colleges, a-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!“
“Wal, now, that shore sounds raht reasonable, li’l lady,” Armordillo replied. “Or it would sound reasonable, if yuh’d killed her. But ah can’t help but notice that instead, yah just moved her outta this little Ala-Mole so she could make her escape, and pick her compadres outta the lahn of fahr, too.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know that she’d get her powers back on the outside? I thought her powers were gone, and ‘cats always land on their feet’ is just a saying!”
“So is ‘Teggsans are always friendly,’ li’l girl.”
“Actually, I don’t think anybody says that–“
“Bad enough ah have to wait my turn with ol’ Pig-Iron, but if you got them outta our clutches on purpose–“
“Yeah!” added the Squawker. “If you got them out of our clutches on purpose…” she paused, apparently implying she knew how this threat was supposed to end.
“Enough!” shouted Rex Imperium, calculating his timing so that he had spoken just before the first Salamandroid was clearly about to.
“Cease internal hostilities,” said Salamandroid #1.
“The master has pinpointed the Zoo Crew’s whereabouts: their headquarters,” said Salamandroid #2.
“Wow,” said Digger O’Doom sarcastically. “What a genius.”
“The auxiliary team is already on site and awaiting backup,” said Salamandroid #3. “Digger O’Doom’s talents are especially required.”
“Wow!” Digger said, much more sincerely. “I’m specialized labor!”
One would expect a wave of jealousy to hit the group just now. This other team might beat them to the bounty, and one of their number was being singled out. Yet what spread through them instead was a calm sense of purpose, beginning in the quiet cat in the far corner, whose shirt displayed a face with three horizontal lines for the eyes and mouth. The feeling was maybe most pronounced in Solar Bear, who murmured, “Well, well, found them already? Sunny days are here again,” and in the Cheshire Cheetah, who said, “Sooner he gets there, sooner the best of us can get our claws dirty, eh, wot?”
Before Digger O’Doom had time to react, the black-spotted blur of yellow was upon him, and then both of them had left the room, with a pop! as the air pressure changed to mark their departure. It was probably their imaginations that the pop sounded like it had a thick, pretentious Brutish accent.
Force Horse flapped himself down to rejoin the group. “I can bring the rest of us there. This wand… ‘misses’ her last owner — its last owner. Under my influence, it will lead us directly to her, wherever she goes.”
Xiao Liwu batted her eyelashes. “Have I told you how handsome you are lately?”
Force Horse replied, “Never.”
“Then we should make up for lost time!”
Force Horse tossed his head, his horn emitted sparklers that descended among the group, and the villains glowed faintly, then vanished from the theater in the blink of an eye.