by T Campbell
Please don’t take this the wrong way, Earth-C, thought Captain Carrot as the Starhopper‘s engines went silent, and it settled into geosynchronous orbit. You’re great, really. I just need a little space.
Times like this, it was good for his overall mental health that he could make himself chuckle.
Fleeing the planet when his team and his world needed him went against every instinct Rodney Rabbit had, but they weren’t going to win this one by following their instincts. Doctor Hoot had done his homework on them; he knew how they fought, how they thought.
So he’d jammed his super-powerful self into the Starhopper, which could get up to four Gs if he pushed the engines at launch, far too much for a normal animal’s body to take, especially one with a broken rib. And now that he was in space, if he and Alley-Kat-Abra understood her homing spells correctly, she could follow at any ti–
At that moment, Felina Furr fell forward, face first into his chest. “Murfle? Murfle.”
Reflexively, Rodney jerked his seat back, and Felina slumped to kneeling on the floor. “Sorry,” she said with a sleepy smile. “I was thinking of your chest, um, symbol — your chest symbol — when I homed in on you, all that red on orange on yellow, and I guess the spell got me as close to that as it could.” She laughed a little awkwardly, which terminated in a small coughing fit.
Even before the coughing, Rodney had been looking at her with growing concern. “You’re hurt,” he said with woeful understatement. Felina had looked pretty rough when he’d left her, and now it looked like she’d climbed back into the wrestling ring to go a few rounds with a steamroller.
“Yeah, but you should see the other female. Seriously, you should see her. She doesn’t have a scratch on her.”
Rodney turned her over to lie on her back, as gently as he could, and started untangling her legs. “I was hoping we could get you out and healed before you had to fight anyone else. There’s no way you can open any doors to other dimensions in this condition. Healing spell or not, you need to meditate. You need to sleep.”
“Saw a chance to get Wanda back. Had to take it. But he’s got her leashed, Rodney. I couldn’t make her come to my paw… and this panda, Xiao Liwu, she’s so much faster and better than me. I’m a tenth-dan black belt, and she makes me look like a kitten fumbling for a grip on a tree branch.”
“Hang in there, baby. I mean, Abra. I mean… Felina.”
She looked at him as he finished freeing her legs, then picked her up gently. “‘Sall right, baby. You can call me ‘baby’ when we’re alone, if you’re gonna put me to bed.”
“Now I know you’re a little punch-drunk.”
Felina laid a trembling paw on his wrist. “I’m not, Rodney. Everything’s clear. I… almost died out there. If not for a fluke, I wouldn’t have escaped at all.”
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have–“
“Shush. I feel like I’m screaming these things sometimes, but I have to remember that you don’t see yourself the way I see you. You remember how you asked to take some trinket of mine, like my mask or my belt, to focus the homing spell, and I said ‘don’t worry about that — we don’t have time’?”
“I didn’t need you to take anything of mine, Rodney, because you already have something of mine. I can use the homing spell on you because you’re my home. You have been since the day we met. And I didn’t want that to go unsaid before I died, or before I had to… do something…”
He laid her on the bed of the Starhopper‘s group sleeping quarters. She felt too weak to lift her head, but the two of them squeezed each other’s paws for a long moment, and it was as significant as anything else they could have done.
“We’ll beat this… b-baby. Even if Hoot managed to find one of the five creatures on Earth-C who can outfight you and maybe the only one that can out-magic you, you have friends… allies. We’ll switch opponents next time.”
“Allies. Rodney… there’s something I have to tell you.”
If Felina hadn’t just said what she’d said, Rodney would have read that tone as the beginning of a let’s just be friends speech. She seemed upset and fearful of his reaction. So he steadied himself. “Go on.”
She babbled a bit, not sure how to talk about the worst of it. “When Zeu appeared, I… I pledged myself to him. I thought that meant just invoking his name here and there, as we encountered powerful things. ‘By the emerald eyes of Zeu!’ But we’re overwhelmed here, Rod, and we don’t even know what Hoot himself is up to this time. And we were counting on me to try to get reinforcements from Earth-C-Minus, Oz, or Wonderland — that was the whole point of getting me somewhere that horse probably couldn’t follow, somewhere so quiet I could maybe focus without Wanda, but I’m too tired, and it’ll take hours for me to recover… hours that Earth-C may not have…
“I may have to… ask for Zeu’s help. And in return… in return, he may ask me for… more.”
A hero was basically just someone who thought of others a little bit more than others thought of others. A boyfriend — and that was a title Rodney at least aspired to — thought of his girlfriend before himself, even when he heard something upsetting. And this wasn’t really about him, was it? He purposely focused on what it must have cost her to tell him this, and what it must be costing her to consider it. And once he did that, everything was clear.
“As long as we’re laying all our last-ditch options on the table. There’s another way for you to shortcut the healing process further and get back in the game. It’s risky, and I’d rather not offer it. But it might be less risky that putting yourself in debt to an immortal of questionable character.”
He took one of the cosmic carrots from his belt, held it, and looked at her.
Harvey Hugo “Hungry” Hippo sat in his easy chair, watching footage of the assault on the Z-Building in a laptop that barely fit on his lap.
“This’s what happens when you put a llama in charge of the White House,” he muttered. “Politicos. They don’t care about us. Alla buncha insiders. They need t’get somebody real in charge. This Hoot guy, he looks like his head’s screwed on right. I mean, sure, he’s an owl, so he can turn his head almost 360 degrees, but you know whu’m sayin’.”
Henrietta Hippo, on the nearby sofa, did know what he was saying. And she wanted to disagree, not because she had strong political leanings, but because she picked apart every single thing he said, and he did the same to her, and this was their marriage; this was their lives now. But she found she couldn’t criticize him this time. Ever since she’d seen the picture of Hoot on her Grazebook feed, she’d thought more and more that Hoot would know best for Wartington, D.C. For the first time in years, Harvey had voiced something that made Henrietta feel better, even reassured.
She hoped like hell that didn’t mean she was falling in love with him again.
Falling. The Zoo-Cruiser was falling. Gravity was lighter, almost suspended, as the water got closer and closer.
Little Cheese leaped from Pig-Iron’s glove, growing to his full size as he hurtled through the air toward the controls. There was no time to be gentle as he shoved Yankee Poodle’s slumped body out of the way and switched the Cruiser to aquatic mode. The watertight seals fell into place: Chester Cheese saw a light confirming this, though being deaf meant he couldn’t hear the reassuring clack. He picked Yankee Poodle back up as best he could, just in time to shield her from the worst of the jolt as the Cruiser hit the water.
It seemed like her lips were moving as he set her back down, but, of course, he didn’t know what she was saying. Something sardonic and/or showbiz-related? It seemed likely, statistically speaking.
For long minutes, Chester worked the controls, righting the Cruiser before it hit the ocean floor or any aquatic life, and then setting course for a familiar boat shape, sending out a general Morse-code SOS.
On the surface, Rex Imperium followed, tracking the Cruiser by sonar, occasionally strafing the surface — until a single gunshot struck his armor, eliciting an embarrassing, startled yelp.
“Attention, unidentified flier,” came a voice through the loudspeakers of a large United Species Coast Guard cutter ship. “This is Lieutenant Commander Magellan of the USCGC Spar. That was a warning shot from our sharpshooters. We have six machine guns trained on you and will absolutely open fire if you do not begin your descent to surrender in thirty seconds. So please, remain where you are and pretend you didn’t hear anything so we can shoot you.”
Lieutenant Commander Magellan was a mixed-breed dog, black with a white muzzle and collarbone, with years of distinguished service. She well knew the general rule that local armed forces and law enforcement should keep clear of super-villains as a simple matter of jurisdiction. Who knew what powers this armored figure had? Grazebook and Tweeter were saying the Zoo Crew had fought a god just this morning. But the Crew who had saved the whole world repeatedly was now calling for help, her help, and she’d be damned if her crew didn’t answer.
Rex assessed. His armor could probably cope with that much machine gun fire, but probably was not definitely (his boot jets were somewhat vulnerable), and destroying the cutter ship might leave him too low on ammunition to face whoever was in the Zoo-Cruiser.
Niccolo Maccalamari said it was better to be feared than loved, but I must wonder if that was sour grapes on his part; certainly no one ever described him as lovable. I can hear the passion in this officer’s voice as she puts her life between me and my goal. The Zoo Crew commands such loyalty, even among those whom it risks making redundant. There is a lesson here. Free Valentine’s Day cards for all my future subjects? No, no, something on a larger scale.
“Oh, hey, thirty seconds went by, and he didn’t descend. Sergeant, prepare to catch me in case I faint from the surprise. Everyone else, open fire.”
“Ship’s guns and sharpshooters, ma’am?”
“Knock yourselves out.”
An upward hail of bullets cut off Rex’s ruminations, and he fled the scene to strike anew when the time was right.
Back underwater, in the Cruiser, Chester spotted the blip representing Rex beating a hasty retreat. He fumbled with the controls a little, trying to figure out how to surface the Cruiser.
And then, for the first time in hours, he heard something. The sound was very faint in his ears, but unmistakable, which meant it had to be ear-splittingly loud in anyone else’s.
It was a scream.
He turned to confront a scene from somebody’s nightmares — Pig-Iron’s nightmares, from the looks of it. Pig-Iron had shrunk and lost his metallic covering; what remained was a naked pink pig actually smaller than Chester when Chester was full-sized. Pinning this pig to the wall was a nude chameleon with a mass of grinning, jagged teeth and a purple hue like the one Pig-Iron had lost. In the chameleon’s hand was some kind of device that seemed to be not only frightening Pig-Iron, but actually drawing screams out of him.
Chester leaped, this time shrinking and condensing his mass, hoping to strike with his full weight on the chameleon’s temple. The chameleon saw him coming inches away — might as well have been a mile — and went transparent, then invisible, dropping his weapon and slinking out of the way, leaving Chester to tuck, roll, and rebound off the far wall of the cockpit. Pig-Iron stopped screaming, but just stared at Chester like a glaze-eyed ham.
So what’s the game plan here, Coach Cheese? Chester thought. Rova’s stunned and rambling, Pig-Iron’s powerless and traumatized, and I can’t surface the Cruiser to get the Coast Guard’s help. Can’t even use my “emergency rations” without putting my teammates at even more risk. It’s just me and my oh-so-impressive ability to be a smaller target, against an unknown enemy I can’t see or hear.
He raised his fists. So I guess that’s just the way it is, then.
Good pep talk, Coach. Good pep talk.