by T Campbell
“It beggars the imagination,” murmured Rex Imperium, the next day. “The world saved, not by a hero, not by a ruler, but by one of the pettiest and least successful ‘villains’ in Hoot’s venal entourage.”
Rex had retreated to his lair in T’Bet, where the monks who served him repaired his armor and, with prayers, soothed his bruised ego. A ruler must not allow himself to be consumed by revenge. But if Doctor Hoot were to surface again, there would be a certain… political value, perhaps… in demonstrating, decisively, which of them was the more dangerous — and which of them could built a more aptly named death-ray.
Thoughts of humbling the Squawker were also tempting… but Polly Wannacracker had always been her own worst enemy, and over time, her insolence would take care of itself.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve been takin’ gooo-oood care of myself,” laughed Polly, the power dampener giving her voice a slight tinniness. “Funny how things work out, isn’t it, Rova?”
Even with a lifetime of practice, Rova Barkitt almost let her smile turn visibly nasty. “Hi-lar-ious, dahling! Why, two years ago, you were a celebrity journalist like myself… then you were a super-villain fighting Yankee Poodle and swearing to kill me… and now, you’re the savior of free will for animals everywhere! But as you know and I know, there’s nothing the public loves like a second-act turnaround… just look at Robin Downey, Junior… and one moment of glory can buy you a lot of trust!”
“Buy me a lot of trust, buy me a lot of trust!” repeated Polly. “Didn’t buy me all your trust,” she went on, raising her cuffed hands to point at the power dampener around her neck, and nodding to the armed guard at the edge of the swimming pool. “Not that I blame you. That whole lifelong vow to destroy you… but I have a new perspective on that whole thing now. Maybe you beat me to the best interviews, but how many planets have you saved lately? My only rival for glory in that department is Yankee Poodle, and you’re no Yankee Poodle!”
Rova froze a couple of seconds longer than she should have, but Polly didn’t seem to notice until Rova picked up the thread again. “Does Y.P. still need to worry, then?”
“Ha-ha-ha-ha, no, going after super-heroes is a lose-lose, and I can’t keep parroting my old self forever. I’m gonna do something Yankee Poodle would probably never dream of doing, just to make sure I never feel jealous of her and go back to old habits! I’m going Follywood!”
“Yeah, I’ve got a biopic in the works, something Grizzly Studios wants to turn around quickly.” Rova could believe that, especially the turn around quickly part; Polly’s shtick was the sort that everyone made into a meme on Tuesday, but would start to get tired of by Friday. It reminded her of Andy Warthog’s claim that, in the future, everyone would be famous, but only for fifteen minutes.
Polly was still talking. It was easy to forget that. “And I think I’ve found another application altogether for my vocal powers. I’ve been writing some songs! You won’t get the full effect with this power-collar on me, but have a listen…”
And with that, Polly pulled out a theremin, and Rova began to wish Polly would just actually lunge at her and knock her unconscious and toss her into the pool. It would be more merciful.
“DARRRRkness FLUUUUtters over my SOUUUUUL. ECHHHHHoes DEEEEEEP, nothing fills the HO-O-O-O-O-OLE…”
Alley-Kat-Abra emerged from the darkness in Chester Cheese’s room, and called out his name.
“Gnah!” responded Chester, sitting bolt upright in bed, wearing nothing but a T-shirt and briefs, the latter of which he quickly concealed under some blankets. “I… you… at least knock next time, wouldja, Abra? It’s ten A.M. on a Sunday, and I’m a teenager. If I’m in here, there’s a pretty good chance I’m sleeping, or… or doing something else!”
“Sorrr-ry,” Abra said with a mischievous lilt, then seemed to catch herself. Only her eyes were consistently visible in the unlit bedroom. “Sorry. I’m… still a little headrushy from that last cosmic carrot. Barring a life-threatening emergency, it’ll be the last carrot I ever eat. And that’s actually what I wanted… to talk with you about.”
“Well… well, that does sound serious.”
“Good. It’s hard to sound serious with this thing in my veins. It brings out the underside of anyone who eats it. Makes us show our bellies. And most of the Crew are like Pig-Iron. We have brave outer faces that get the job done, but on the inside… very few people, in general, are the heroes we want to be when the masks come off.”
“You’re saying if Pig-Iron had a carrot, it’d just turn him into ‘Peter?'”
“At least mentally. I respect Byrd and Rova more than they think I do, but down deep, they’re bundles of barely concealed insecurities like most animals in the entertainment business. Timmy Joe I love like a little brother, and he has a good and generous soul, but he’s a speedster who wants to take life slow. A carrot would work against all of them as much as it would work for them.”
Chester scratched behind his ear with a puzzled frown. “I don’t know where this is leading, Abra. I actually took the carrot, and it sure made me ‘show my belly.’ I spent the whole twenty-four hours terrified of pretty much everything.”
Abra tried to maintain her air of dignity and reserve, failed, and broke into peals of laughter. “They never see! They never see it!”
“Abra, are you all right?”
“You’re all right, Chester. You’re all… ‘right.’ When I use these carrot-given powers and look into your soul, it’s not the fear I see. It’s the courage. And if we ever get close to total defeat, and all that remains of the Zoo Crew is you, or you and a cosmic carrot… I want you to know that I believe you have it in you to surpass us all. That one day — perhaps after several of us have aged out of the field — the team might be following you, instead of you us.”
The mouse regarded the cat, the teenage male regarded the mature female, the young hero regarded the mystic adviser, with fascination and, yes, a little fear. And yes, Abra was not above enjoying his discomfort. But her words had come from her better side, and her better side asserted itself to break the tension.
“Get dressed. Timmy Joe’s making flapjacks.” And then she was gone, almost like a fading dream.
But her words had planted a seed. Seven years later, during the Invasion of the Hunters, at a crucial moment for all of animalkind… Chester would remember them.
Today, though, he only blushed awkwardly. He would be a few minutes getting ready.
“Get ready to surrender all your valuables! The Temperamental Temperatures are here… and you wouldn’t like us when our tempers run hot… or cold!” Solar Bear snarled threateningly at the bank tellers, but there was a note of glee in his voice, too.
King Kone, back in his old refrigerated armor and ice-cream-themed weapons, his back to Solar Bear’s back, was even more enthusiastic, waving to the bank patrons, who had already hit the deck. “Lay down and rest easy, everyone! The money we, oo-hoo-hoo, acquire today will be making a lifelong dream come true!”
A security guard turned a corner to confront the scene. He raised his gun.
Solar Bear fired a warning shot of concentrated one-thousand-degree fire, melting the gun.
King Kone’s armor, too close to the fire, immediately overheated and exploded, covering both him and the Bear in thirty-one flavors of ice-cold humiliation, and neutralizing Solar Bear’s powers long enough for the guard to tase them both into submission.
As Kone went down, he murmured, “I knew we should have just tried Quackstarter.”
Quacking laughter filled the Z-Building. Byrd Rentals and Pig-Iron had returned from an all-night shoot at the film studio. Timmy Joe Terrapin’s flapjacks would be a late breakfast for himself, Rodney Rabbit, and Chester (and leftovers for Felina Furr, who’d retired to meditate) but a bedtime snack for Byrd and Pig-Iron. That explained why Pig-Iron hadn’t yet threatened to eat the plates, or pounded the table and shouted, “Hungry hungry hoggo!” the way he thought was so funny.
“So… weird, playin’ this guy, y’know?” Pig-Iron said instead to Rubberduck. “Sometimes it’s like he’s exactly me, we’re like litter mates or somethin’, an’ other times I’m just like, quitcher mopin’ already! Yer blind girlfriend’s awesome! Hey, when’s our movie comin’ out, anyway?”
“Oh, Hoot knows — I mean, who knows?” asked Rubberduck, glancing in Rodney’s direction. “These days, the first step to getting one is getting our own comic-book–”
And just like that, everyone in the room was looking at Rodney.
“You guys wouldn’t want that,” he said as Chester entered. “I mean, every embarrassing little detail of your private lives would be out there for the world to see…”
“Cappy, what th’ heck ‘private lives’ do you think we got? We all live in the Z-Building, pretty much, an’ we do our work in the streets. Ya really think it’s a secret that Abra an’ Rova get inta arguments sometimes? Are ya worried someone might find out that T.J. has an accent?”
“Well, it’s just — reality shows always seem to make their stars look bad, and I thought…”
“We’re not the Just’a Lotta Animals, Rodney,” said Chester. It was the first time Chester had ever called him that. “We can’t be, and we’re not trying to be. Yeah, talk-show hosts are probably going to jump on something that happens in this comic and say ‘see how irresponsible our so-called heroes are?’ But they’re gonna do that anyway with something we do, no matter what. The J. Jonah Jackals of the world are just like that. So, if I’m gonna have my life shown to the public, I’d rather it be you who does it first, you know?”
“They’d be like benevolent selfies,” concluded Rubberduck.
Rova was next to wander in, rubbing her temples gently and groaning, “Good morning, dahlings… my ears may never know pleasure again… I need coffee, tea, grapefruit… ooh, flapjacks…?”
“Rova,” Rodney said, “I think I owe you an apology.”
“WHAT?” Rova shouted. “DEARIE, YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO SPEAK UP. I JUST FINISHED INTERVIEWING POLLY WANNACRACKER, AND SHE SAMPLED HER NEW ALBUM AT ME. I’M NOT ENTIRELY SURE THE CAMERA CREW SURVIVED THE EXPERIENCE.”
“IT CAN WAIT,” Rodney replied.
“ICH BIN EIN WHAT?”
“The Captain just wanted to tell you you were right about everything,” said Byrd.
Rova’s ears perked up immediately at the sound of her favorite sentence of all time. “Don’t mention it, dearie, that’s what I’m here for.”
Rodney looked from one showbiz super-hero to the other. “Years of thinking through what it would be like to run a super-hero team, and I never learn to anticipate you guys.”
“Well, it’s like thet speech y’all wrote fer the Squawker, th’ one that freed everyone up from Hoot’s bamboozlin’,” Fastback replied. “Even the best of us cain’t quite outsmart all of the rest of us, raht?”
“That’s not quite how I put it… in fact, that is actually better. But, y’know, I wanted something in a more traditional ‘super-villain voice,’ something that sounded like it could’ve come from Hoot. I think the Squawker mixed in a few actual quotes from Hoot that were floating around online… well, whatever, we got it done.”
“Yeah. Ah jes’ got one li’l question,” Fastback said. “When y’all were still a Hooter, an’ we were tryin’ ta fix y’all — howcum y’all never said, ‘Hey, thet Doc Hoot message is bogus, an’ I know, ‘cuz I’m the one whut wrote it?’ Even in all those escape attempts, y’all never tried thet, did y’all?”
“I… I don’t know.”
“Well, see, ah ask ‘cuz ah been workin’ on a theory. Ah think some part o’ y’all was still fightin’ for freedom. Y’all know what ah mean, right? Ah mean, fightin’ for everyone’s freedom. Hoot’s picture couldn’t quite hornswoggle you completely. Heck, mebbe even those escape attempts would’a worked better, if some little part of y’all hadn’t wanted them to fail.”
“I… maybe, Timmy Joe. Maybe. No offense, but that’s deeper thinking than I would’ve expected from you.”
“Abra’s been gettin’ me inta tran-scen-den-tal meditatin’.”
“…Tell me more about that. I’ve got to get the script for this Zoo Crew story going, and something tells me that’d be an interesting place to start.”
And Doctor Hoot was right back where he had started.
Uninspired, that is. Not in prison. Where he was was immaterial so long as he had food and water. He had set events in motion to guarantee his escape as soon as his next idea was ready…
And maybe that had been the problem. Had some part of him expected to fail?
No, no. Preparing for the unexpected was simply good planning. And yet… there was a certain comfort in failure. Failure was the world he knew. Success would have meant living up to his expectations, fixing the world, and keeping it fixed forever.
No, no, no. He was more than equal to such a task. The Zoo Crew were the problem; they had always been the problem. He had to get them, or at least their leader, off this world before he could truly seize control of it.
The words transmatter hutch flickered through his mind. Hadn’t he read about a transmatter knothole that trapped Super-Squirrel in another dimension, in an old JLA comic-book? On some level, Hoot knew the words were a distraction. But they were a distraction that continued to gnaw at him until he finally embraced it. A new project. Like Nikoala Tesla, like all great scientists, like science itself, Hoot would keep experimenting until he got it right.
He paused to examine his reflection in the burnished steel. He posed, and admired his pose.
It was, of course, flawless.