by T Campbell
It began with a Whoogle search and a quiet whimper of despair.
Doctor Hoot was out of ideas.
The mad orange owl’s laboratory was a monument to his disappointments. Blueprints for demolished giant robots lined the small eat-in kitchen. The snapped remains of his mind-control leashes sat in the far corner, a reminder not to underestimate his enemies’ minds. The freeze-ray technology he’d looted from Cold Turkey’s hideout still sat on a table, daring him to do something more constructive with it than Cold Turkey ever had. And he still hadn’t cleaned up the beakers and test tubes he’d used to cure avian flu, back when he had “turned over a new leaf” shortly after the Crisis just to get the Zoo Crew to drop their guard and trust him. He’d come very close with that gambit, but Yankee Poodle’s suspicious mind and Little Cheese’s ability to shrink out of almost any trap before it closed had proven his undoing. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: This is an untold story.]
He’d escaped prison time and again, but could he escape this prison, the prison of inventor’s block? Oh, Dog, even his metaphors were clichéd now. He buried his eyes in his feathered hands, but his night vision meant the gesture gave him scant relief.
This was what he had been reduced to, the ultimate failure of imagination: typing “How to kill the Zoo Crew” into Whoogle.com on his iScratchPad. Once he wouldn’t have been caught dead using a computer someone else had designed. But ever since the Crisis of Infinite Animals, everything seemed newer and more futuristic now, though no one quite knew why. Everyone just had the strange sense that they’d been “updated” for more modern times, and continuity be damned. Of course, the sense of newness to everything in the first couple months since the Crisis soon passed, and everyone just got on with their lives in this brave new world. (*) He paused, masochistically savoring this wretched, bottom-of-the-food-chain feeling, and then pressed Enter.
[(*) Editor’s note: All will be revealed in our epic BC Universe: Crisis of Infinite Animals crossover story, if we ever get around to finishing it! Suffice it to say, Earth-C no longer takes place in the 1980s, boys and girls — it takes place in the present!]
Before he could see his search results, a window popped up with the Whoogle logo, saying, “Super-villainy is not the answer. If you or a loved one are having super-villainous thoughts, please contact one of the following hotlines. This message sponsored by Whoogle.” With an irritated fluffing of his neck feathers, Hoot pressed ignore, then started sifting the results.
After filtering out the usual message-board inanity, stand-up comedy routines, and “Who Would Win: Super-Squirrel or Captain Carrot” articles, he found one that actually seemed to have put some thought into the Crew’s weaknesses and began reading. It was a listicle on BuzzardFeed.com. As per usual, there were far too many images, and not enough text, but one had to start somewhere.
You’ve really got to keep them from helping each other. They’re a pack, almost a swarm, and they cover each other’s backs. It’s their nature.
“So far, so good,” Hoot murmured.
1. CAPTAIN CARROT’s weakness is right there in the name. His powers come from the carrots, and he tends to run himself down, especially if he stays up late. Also, Rova Barkitt and Parrotz Hilton have noticed he’s been getting a little closer to Alley-Kat-Abra these days, so the strike-at-you-through-your-loved-ones tactic is also valid.
“Abra is more dangerous than he is, you sexist moron! At least his powers are quantifiable! When she has enough time to prepare a spell, I don’t even know what I’m up against!” But Hoot kept reading.
2. ALLEY-KAT-ABRA does seem to have a vast range of powers, but she’s also got some serious control issues, especially if she can be kept from concentrating.
Frowning, Hoot checked the date of the article after reading that. It wasn’t complete bull droppings, but it was largely an out-of-date assessment. In the Crew’s early adventures, yes, Abra had seemed completely ineffective about half the time, but by the time he had faced her in an alternate New Yak City, she had grown fairly adept at concentrating in the fog of combat. Thoughts of Abra left Hoot especially depressed: all this magic. He didn’t come close to understanding it, and it left him feeling he’d picked the wrong major.
He scanned through the rest of the listicle, finding few surprises. There was something vaguely interesting about the difference in powers between Yankee Poodle’s left and right hands, but it hardly seemed worth remembering. Yes, Pig-Iron was vulnerable to rust and ice, and sometimes his own mass; yes, Fastback’s brain didn’t always keep up with his feet; yes, Little Cheese only had the strength of a four-foot mouse whether or not he was a six-inch mouse; yes, Rubberduck had an ego. Seriously, that was the whole observation: he had an ego. Maybe Hoot was meant to grab the ego and beat Rubberduck with it, like it was a tire iron?
Besides, ego wasn’t a weakness. Ego was the thing that made these fool “heroes” think they could protect the world, and what made Hoot know that he could rule it. If they didn’t have egos, they wouldn’t bother opposing him in the first place.
This was a waste of his time. The entire Internest was a waste of his time. It was a vague cerebral stimulant designed to make one think one was being productive, but there was nothing in this article to…
Wait a minute. What if–?
No, it was nothing. That didn’t even make sense. No one could…
And suddenly he had it. An idea. No, a plan. No, the plan. This was it, this was the one. He was Isaac Newt after being hit on the head with the apple. He was Albert Einswine after thinking, “If a pig falls freely, he will not feel his weight.” He heard music. He wanted to publish this idea in a scientific journal. He wanted to call up his high school sweetheart and ask her to marry him. He wanted to strip off his clothes like some primitive raptor and caw his victory from the highest rooftop he could find.
But he just sat, steepling his fingers, letting the excitement wash over him. A laugh began to escape his beak, low at first, but rising quickly in pitch and volume:
“Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo… Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo… HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO-HOO–”
“Hoo-ee,” said Timmy Joe, softly. “Thass somethin’.”
The sun was crowning the mountaintop over Los Antelopes, casting everything in gold, and some unusually fresh air was wafting in from the seashore. Timmy Joe Terrapin — Fastback — felt the chill breeze through the neck-hole in his shell, and the icy rooftop of the Z-Building on his tail. But Alley-Kat-Abra had a much more summery costume than his, and the cold didn’t seem to bother her at all as the two of them sat cross-legged and waited for the sun to finish joining them.
She smiled at him, then stretched, the stretch traveling all the way up her spine until it ended in a toothy yawn. “I appreciate your getting up this early, Timmy Joe. I usually find this is the best time of the day to get some peace.”
She tossed her head, rolling it around on her neck, and Timmy Joe felt a twinge of envy. He’d thought he was laid-back, but she carried herself with a peace that made her seem beyond them all — somehow… above them, even when she wasn’t levitating. He wasn’t sure he’d ever really get it. But that was no way to think. After all, he was here to learn.
“Breathe,” she said simply. He did — that was easy enough.
After a pause, she added, “And breathe.”
And after a bit longer, once again: “And breathe.”
And so on. After a few more minutes of this, Abra added, “Relax.” The word seemed to be its own magic spell; Timmy Joe was already relaxed, but now felt like he’d been dipped in a hot tub.
“No thought,” Abra went on. “Empty your mind.”
Timmy Joe perked up a little at that. “That hain’t never been hard, Miz Abra. Ah always think slow. Ah was hopin’ y’all’d teach me how t’ con-cen-trate.”
“That will come, my friend. But don’t be so self-conscious. There are no judgments here.” Abra had levitated off the rooftop, ever so slightly. “I want you to think of the favorite place you told me about. That fishing hole, in the swamp. Can you see it?”
“Wahl… no, ah mean, it’s thar, and ah’m here. Ah cain’t.”
“Close your eyes, Timmy Joe.”
Timmy Joe did his best. And he got flickers in his mind, glimpses of the way it had been, back in the fishing hole, back when his life was still truly carefree, back before he felt like he had joined a race against the whole world. The way the sunlight glinted off the marsh water. The smell of the mud on his boots. The dragonflies.
“Enjoy this moment. Savor it. Let it stretch.”
Timmy Joe sat, seemingly as contemplative as the Bruddha. Abra (she was trying to get her friends to call her Felina, but only Rodney seemed to be taking the hint) eyed him with the satisfaction of the sensei seeing poetry in the moves of the student.
Her satisfaction was dimmed only slightly as Timmy Joe slumped over and began snoring.
“It’s a peaceful sleep,” she murmured softly. “That’s a start.”
They were “startup clothes,” Hoot told himself. The baseball cap, black T-shirt, and blue jeans, contrasting badly with his orange feathers, made him feel like he’d lost about fifty IQ points. Not that he didn’t have them to spare, but still. As he sat at the train stop at 3:20 A.M., he looked like some kind of unemployable loser.
A regrettable necessity when traveling in the open, he reminded himself. I am a celebrity, and celebrities must disguise themselves. And I am founding a startup of sorts, and tech geniuses who found startups should always wear common, animal-of-the-people clothes. After all, we wouldn’t want the mouth-breathing morons in my employ to say that I thought I was better than they were.
He’d been waiting for half an hour with no sign of movement when a voice came from the other side of the bench he sat on, spreading across its seat like spoiled milk on a tabletop.
Hoot fluffed his neck feathers slightly, reflexively, but otherwise showed no sign of disturbance. “It is.”
“Your world has hot summers compared to mine, but the nights… well, I’ve always done my best work at night.” Calmly, a pair of beady eyes — slightly nearsighted, but undeniably ruthless — materialized at the same level as Hoot’s. “They tell me you’re the one to see about inter-dimensional travel.”
“It is one of my accomplishments,” Hoot blithely exaggerated. He was hardly the first research scientist to gloss over the assistance of his peers when it came time to accept accolades.
“I need a door back to my world. Preferably the offices of Monsters, Inc. If you can arrange that, I’ll kill all the heroes you want.”
“Don’t oversell yourself, my concealable confederate. I’m treating this as a war, and following the Owl Doctrine, which mandates decisive, overwhelming force against the enemy. Your obvious talent is valuable to me, or we wouldn’t be speaking, but you’ll have allies. There’s a cat who owes me a favor, who can control emotions–”
The chameleon laughed. As he did so, a semicircular disc of jagged, rocky teeth materialized to half-surround his eyes. “Controls emotions? There’s only one emotion worth controlling, Hoot, and that’s fear.” With his last syllable, the chameleon finally made himself visible. Hoot made a supreme effort not to widen his eyes in shock, and he wasn’t quite as successful as he believed he was.
The creature’s spine was twisted like no Earth-C animal Hoot had ever seen. He shifted as he moved, like some kind of fish or worm, and his arms and legs ended in distended talons. And he wore nothing at all, a fact that sent Hoot’s mind racing to convince himself he was actually wearing some kind of bodysuit; only mythological creatures and the truly insane went naked, and surely this chameleon was neither of those — was he?
“Fear’s the source of power on my world. I’d go so far as to say it’s the source of power everywhere.” Randall Boggs let the moment stretch to three moments, then went into his relax-we’re-all-friends mode, which was still unnerving, just on a different frequency. “But, hey. You’re the boss. Get your band together. Let them draw the Zoo Crew’s attention, wear ’em down a bit. I’ll be right there on the sidelines, waiting.”
“We have a deal, then,” Hoot said, eager to conclude. He handed Randall a crumpled piece of paper, which Boggs immediately cloaked in his fist. “I’ll expect you at these coordinates in three days. If you kill one Zoo Crewer, I’ll send you home. If you kill more than one, the price is the same as it is for everyone else on the team — $70 million a head. Verified kills only, please: I want to see bodies, not hear anyone say, ‘But they couldn’t possibly have survived that!‘”
“I’ll be waiting,” Boggs said again.
“Until then,” Hoot said, and stood, then briskly walked out of the station. He looked back just once, saw Boggs was gone, and kept walking.
He had just reached the front door of the station when he felt ice-cold breath on his neck and heard a low, intense whisper:
“I’m always waiting.”
Hoot gave an embarrassing yelp of alarm, whipped out his pocket death-ray, and blew a hole in the roof. But he had clearly missed Boggs. Realizing he had blown his cover, Hoot scrambled out of there, cursing himself.
Randall retreated invisibly in another direction, but made his face visible — just for a few seconds — to admire his face in a mud puddle on the way out. He gave a low chuckle.
“You still got it, Randy.”