by T Campbell
The Starhopper tore out of the Z-Building like a runaway rocket. Which it was. So that made sense.
The force-field had dropped about ten seconds earlier, to everyone’s surprise — everyone’s, that was, but Rex Imperium’s. The Irish setter knew a thing or two about asymmetrical warfare, and retreat was clearly the Zoo Crew’s only option. But it would be strategically most valuable to them to retreat in as many different directions as possible. He ran back outside, leaving the interior to Whirlybird and the Cheshire Cheetah.
The Carrotmobile launched itself from the garage, Rubberduck’s visor glinting behind the wheel. King Kone iced the road in front of it, and Solar Bear superheated the engine. Their efforts worked against each other a little, but the end result was acceptable: the car skidded off-road and rolled downhill, exploding as it went, rolling like a snowball of fire before at last crashing to a stop. Nothing living remained within, and a vaguely avian figure dribbled out from the driver’s seat like superheated tar. Kone oohed and aahed at the sight in disbelief, then pounded his chest in triumph.
“I got him!” yelled Solar Bear. “I got him! Ha-ha-ha, he’s burning rubber on the road! I got him!”
“We got him,” corrected King Kone. “Half that bounty is mine, fool!”
“Oh, really? Oh, really? All you did was send his car out of control! You think that was any kind of threat to him? He could be his own airbag! And don’t call me fool, fool!”
Rex Imperium activated his boot-jets and rose above this squabbling.
The Zoo-Cruiser emerged next from the far, high end of the Z in the Z-Building, streaking through the sky like a boxy jet fighter. But Force Horse was there to intercept it. He waved his hooves at it briefly, and seemed to extract some kind of magical energy, but not the kind he was looking for, apparently: he seemed disappointed.
The Squawker shrieked and shattered every window in the beleaguered structure, then ran to safety as she realized she’d rained glass down on herself with her usual lack of foresight. Force Horse abandoned pursuit of the Cruiser and went into the building instead.
That left Rex the only one free who was capable of following the Cruiser, and follow he did.
Inside the Z-Building, Cheshire Cheetah was rifling through everyone’s private quarters, the gym, the art studio, the meditation center, the sauna, looking and looking for any straggling Zoo Crewers. He had a particularly sharp eye out for the blue of Fastback’s costume — and so didn’t expect it at all when a green turtle emerged from the entertainment center to punch him in the face and run him over.
Cheshire recovered quickly, though. So the turtle had elected to disguise himself by removing his disguise, by fighting in his secret identity? Well, that would hardly save him. Fastback ran back up the elevator shaft, and Cheshire Cheetah was close behind. Fastback launched himself down the hallway, tucking his arms, legs, tail, and head into his shell as he went. Cheshire ran along the wall behind him, almost bored.
Fastback’s now-green shell smashed through the shattered remains of a window and went hurtling out twenty stories up. Cheshire Cheetah followed. Let them go to Meggsico, Yakraine, the Auktic Ocean. Wherever Fastback went, Cheshire would follow, grinning, waiting for Fastback to tire first, as he always did. A turtle in a contest of speed was a joke — a dumb joke.
Back in the Z-Building, Unisys (Force Horse) looked around the medical bay. Alley-Kat-Abra was close, Unisys knew, but even with Magic Wanda’s murmurings at his command, he couldn’t quite seem to pinpoint where she…
Borrowing a trick this gang of super-villains had used recently and combining her martial arts skills with what levitation she could manage, Abra dropped from the ceiling, throwing her arms around Unisys’ neck in a flying tackle.
“Give me back my wand!”
No matter how Unisys bucked, Felina Furr wouldn’t let go, breaking him for the saddle. She spotted Wanda nestled in his hoof, and an understanding passed between the two of them. With growing desperation, Unisys beat his mighty wings and slammed her into the ceiling, again and again. Felina still refused to yield or even slacken her grip, and then her fingers found a nerve in his neck that turned his world a cloudy shade of gray when she pinched it. She struck at the nerve once, twice…
And then Felina felt something encircle her own neck. It was a kusarigama, a length of chain attached to a weight on one end and a sickle on the other. Xiao Liwu, having evaded the building’s defenses with a ninja’s invisibility, yanked Felina back with the chain and raised the sickle. Felina pulled the chain off her and rolled over, but she couldn’t quite avoid the sickle’s flat end as it came down. Unisys lay on his hooves and knees, but Felina couldn’t rise, either.
“This is ‘your wand’ now,” said Xiao Liwu, raising the sickle again, and impossible as it may sound, it was still the cutest thing ever. Look how she’s holding it, like a little cub just learning to hold things! Adorbs. “Just keep her magic out of this, sweetiepie. I’ll do the rest.”
The sickle fell four more times, and darkness closed in.
And in the Zoo-Cruiser, Yankee Poodle’s inexperienced paws ran over the controls while Little Cheese and Pig-Iron watched. Yankee Poodle spotted a bogey on her tail (Rex Imperium) and zigzagged like she was using her own powers, trying to shake him off. Pig-Iron felt weird, a little sick to his stomach, but now wasn’t time for belly-achin’, was it?
Actually, it was. It really was. Pig-Iron, like all the members of the Zoo Crew, owed his powers to radiation — but unlike the rest of them, he’d once lost them and then regained them by magic. It was that magic that Force Horse had drained out of him now. Slowly, Pig-Iron was getting smaller and weaker. But he, Little Cheese, and Yankee Poodle were too preoccupied to notice.
They also didn’t notice a pair of beady eyes and jagged teeth appear in one of the Cruiser‘s empty seats, then vanish.
Randall Boggs, the stealthy chameleon who was Doctor Hoot’s first hire, had been hiding in the building for hours, undetected, awaiting his moment. Now he had hitched a ride, and nobody would know until it was far too late.
It was too late for Baxter Barker, far too late.
He’d woken up in a detention cell wearing an orange jumpsuit, his Dogtor Doom costume long gone, all his extra gadgets picked out of his fur. They’d even found the sleeping pills he’d kept under his floppy ears. Gone were his chances at the $70 million, gone were his dreams of running with the big dogs.
He licked his chops, activating the one device they’d missed: the trigger for his bugs hidden inside his false tooth. Perhaps activating them would at least have some little influence on the battle against the Zoo Crew. But no one would ever realize he’d done it.
No one would even know his name.
“Most of you know my name. After today, you all will. I am Doctor Hoot. I am the one responsible for the assaults against your ‘heroes,’ the Zoo Crew, those charmingly multi-ethnic preservers of the status quo. They are not fit to decide what happens to this world — not mentally, and, as should now be clear, not physically.
“You will hear my demands, when appropriate. For now, I’m just here to set your minds a little more at ease. 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. You see something terrifying happen and you wonder, ‘why?’ And then, when you realize it is because someone wanted this, you wonder, ‘who?’ I am the answer to your query. I am why. I am who. I am Hoot.”
The audio recording arrived with half-a-dozen selfie JPGs to every major news outlet within three minutes. In fifteen more, most outlets were broadcasting both. Curiously, the pictures of Hoot, who had hardly been a reclusive public figure before this, generally commanded higher ratings than even the pictures of the damaged Z-Building and the amateur footage of the Zoo Crew’s ongoing attempts to escape.
“No escape now,” squeaked Xiao Liwu, wrapping Felina’s legs in her kusarigama’s chain. Felina was vaguely aware of her legs stiffening in the bonds, but the inside of her skull felt like Yankee Poodle’s stars and stripes had been zapping it forever. Unisys, still on all fours, looked almost as groggy as she felt, but that wasn’t much consolation.
“And it was so easy, so quick. You disappoint me.” And then Xiao pouted. D’awwww.
“However, we may have a few minutes before we’ll be spotted in here. I will not let you die by any paw but mine, but perhaps those few minutes, and whatever I can find in this medical facility, will be long enough for my tortures to prove you are a coward as well as a weakling.” And then she reached for Felina’s arm, bending it back painfully to chain it up, too, and smiled. Yaaaay!
Suddenly, there was a sound like something exploding in Xiao’s robes. Xiao looked at the robes in momentary confusion. There had been nothing in there but Abra’s cape that Xiao had earlier claimed as a trophy… and Baxter’s bug, which had gone off as a flashbomb in total darkness, folded up as it was within the cape and inside Xiao’s shozoku. It might as well have been a noisemaker.
Felina didn’t understand what had just happened any more than Xiao, but she knew it was a few seconds’ distraction, and the only one she was going to get.
She rolled out of Xiao’s grip, hooked out an arm, and swept Xiao’s feet, knocking Xiao off-balance. Xiao instantly dropped to a combat-ready crouch, but Felina wasn’t targeting her. She did a one-arm handstand, stretched out her bound legs like a lance, and aimed them right at that same nerve on Unisys’ neck just as he finally began to rise. She threw everything she had into it and slammed Unisys’ head against the wall. He collapsed.
Felina was sprawled on his body now, almost too spent to move. She didn’t even have the strength to collect Wanda. Xiao Liwu had launched herself into the air and was seconds away from snapping at least one more of Felina’s ribs.
Felina shut her eyes and thought of fire colors: red, yellow, orange. And with Unisys unconscious, she could feel her magic again, faint but there, and the homing spell she had set up earlier was free to activate. She twinkled out of existence, and Xiao’s feet struck bare floor.
Now Xiao Liwu was a sad panda.
“Ouch!” said Pig-Iron as the bug on his shoulder sparked a bit. At full strength, he might not have even noticed it. As it was, he flicked it off.
It landed on Yankee Poodle, delivered a powerful electric shock, and she yelped, “Wai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-ai-owww!” then fell unconscious face-first into the controls of the Zoo-Cruiser, which started to tip down into a collision course with the ocean. Rex Imperium, still following the Cruiser, poured on the speed.
“Oops,” said Pig-Iron.
“What?” shouted the still-deafened Little Cheese.
Unheard beneath Little Cheese’s shouting, Randall Boggs couldn’t help muttering, “Seriously?”
The Cruiser plummeted.
Oceans, deserts, valleys, tundra — it all went by so fast that even the Cheshire Cheetah found it kind of a blur. Fastback was still battered from their last go-round, though, and he was stumbling now and again. It wouldn’t be long now.
The Cheetah grinned as they reached his favorite destination: Loondon, the United Animal Kingdom. Big Hen was chiming. Home sweet home, the perfect place to hand his rival his final defeat. He found he was actually looking forward to watching Fastback fall more than getting the $70 million (or roughly 51 million euro). Maybe there was something to this “living for revenge” thing other villains seemed to do. Maybe there was more to life than money.
Well, there were also females, whom you impressed with money. Cheshire made himself a mental note to steal Whirlybird some diamonds.
Fastback stumbled again, for the barest of split seconds, and Cheshire struck, aiming for the soft fold of Fastback’s neck outside his shell. Fastback dodged a bit, but Cheshire’s fist still struck the shell directly, and at the speed they were going, that had to still hurt.
But… his fist…
His fist was stuck to Fastback’s shell.
“So, tell me, Chesh,” Fastback said, now running backward with an alarmingly casual air, “did y’all ever hear tell about the Uncle Rhesus story with Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby? Seems Br’er Fox made this li’l ol’ statchoo out of tar, so lifelike that Br’er Rabbit took it for a real critter of some sort…”
Fastback wasn’t running backward at a tenth of his normal speed, but Cheshire Cheetah was still struggling to keep his balance as he was dragged along for the ride. He tried to vibrate loose, and Fastback’s shell seemed to ripple in response.
“…So, anyway, Br’er Rabbit took offense at the way the Tar Baby seemed to ignore all his greetin’s, an’ jest got madder an’ madder as this went on, an’ finally hauled off an’ hit ‘im. But ‘is fist, well, it jest got stuck in the tar…”
Cheshire Cheetah tried to push himself free with his other paw, but that just stuck to Fastback’s shell, too. Fastback shrugged, nonchalant.
“…an’ he yelled, ‘Lemme go or ah’ll hit you agin,’ an’ o’course, the Tar Baby didn’t let go, so soon Br’er Rabbit had ‘is other fist stuck in thar. So Br’er Rabbit tried to kick ‘is way free, then headbutt ‘is way free, but nothin’ worked, an’ he jest got stucker and stucker…”
The Cheshire Cheetah tried to pry himself loose from the shell with his feet. He was unsuccessful. He didn’t attempt a headbutt, but he strained and stared in disbelief as Fastback’s green shell seemed to move and shift to keep his extremities rooted to it. Fastback, still running backward, picked up the pace as he reached the Henglish Channel.
“This can’t be happening!” shouted Cheshire.
“…an’ once Br’er Rabbit was completely confusticated an’ couldn’t move at all, ol’ Br’er Fox leapt outta the bushes an’ said, ‘Well, well, what have we here?’ and grinned an evil grin…”
The shell was swelling, swallowing up Cheshire Cheetah’s limbs like some amorphous blob from a horror film, or Pork Grind AKA Venom from the Spider-Ham stories. It reached Cheshire’s torso, approaching his face.
“Wait! No! Stop! I… I was wrong! You’re the fastest — you’ve always been the fastest! I’m just a bloody pretender! But, but I’ve never killed anyone! I was always just in this for the loot and the lulz! I’m practically a super-hero myself, ha-ha-ha-ha! Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me!”
“…An’ then Br’er Fox cooked ‘im an’ et ‘im up. The… end.”
The green-enveloped Cheshire Cheetah had turned black. He tried to vibrate, but it was like being in Shell-O gelatin: all the vibrations just came back to him tenfold, shaking him senseless before he could do any damage. And once he stopped shaking, he was still.
Rubberduck peeled his body off Timmy Joe’s green shell, where he’d camouflaged his green costume, and released the passed-out Cheetah from his chest. They were in Parrots, Fur-rance, as evidenced by the sight of the Eyeful Tower. “Well, that was an unusual role for me. Usually I play the guy who fights the formless monster.”
Back at the Z-Building, Emoticat was cooling down Solar Bear and King Kone before they came to blows. The remains of Rubberduck’s wire-and-rubber “stunt double” continued to drip out of the crashed Carrotmobile, which had recently been equipped with Whoogle’s self-driving car technology.
“Ah shorely do ‘preciate it, Byrd,” said Fastback, changing back into his blue suit and watching the Cheshire Cheetah closely, making sure he was neither faking nor in serious medical danger. “Even if he breaks outta prison agin, this’ll keep ‘im outta my grits fer quite a while. Ah mean, thass assumin’ we can beat back the other eight or so bad guys that jest took over the Z-Buildin’, but y’all gotta hope for a rainbow after the storm, am ah right?”
“There’s more than eight of — no, you’re right, we gotta win here, we gotta think like winners. By the way… you do realize that story of yours is all kinds of politically incorrect? There’s the cannibalism, and there’s the–”
“Welll, there is another version of it with a briar patch. Mebbe I’ll share thet one with y’all some other time.”