by T Campbell
“–celebrity of the moment!” came Rova Barkitt’s voice from Rex Imperium’s armor.
Alley-Kat-Abra sat with him and listened, while Pig-Iron noshed on the broken glass at the side of the building, and the others trained to work in concert. Teamwork didn’t come so naturally to them. Rodney Rabbit could’ve helped with that, but Rodney couldn’t be here, now could he? In the meantime, she had to concentrate on this interview. Doctor Hoot’s voice just droned on and on and on and on, though, for well over an hour.
Rova was inflating Hoot’s ego, as redundant as that sounded, and making him more likely to slip up and reveal some weakness. Abra had, of course, teleported Rova into one of the females’ bathrooms of the White House minutes ago. If the Secret Serpents discovered she had gotten past them, that could be trouble, but they were too desperate to care at this point.
“I’ve always known, always, that I was the oddest of birds. I sold a program to Steer Jobs when I was not much older than a hatchling. I made several breakthroughs in inter-dimensional travel and cartography. But inventing is like gambling in Las Vapors with your whole life in your wallet. Only one out of five thousand inventions become successful. Even Thomas Alva Elephant had a few failures, and he also outright stole ideas from more deserving geniuses like Nikoala Tesla.”
“There’s a saying in show business,” Rova replied. “‘What’ve you done lately?‘ Of course, since your latest invention is kind of a perpetual success machine, it sort of changes the rules.”
“I suppose!” Hoot laughed. “It’s true that the pressure to succeed is a bit greater now that all eyes are on me than it was when I was merely the Zoo Crew’s ‘bad guy.’ But soon all the greatest minds of the world will be in service to mine, and who knows what we can accomplish together?”
“Is there anything that worries you? Any way these gains could be reversed?”
Hoot paused. “The sightless will be an issue, of course. I should, perhaps, develop an auditory version. And there is an untested theory that a truly blinding flash — one that made someone effectively sightless — could undo the effect of the selfies.” Hoot paused again. “Perhaps that shouldn’t go on the record, you know, as a matter of global security.”
“Oh, of course, dearie,” lied Rova with practiced ease. “It will never leave this room.”
Hoot still didn’t feel quite right about it, though. Something about her manner — or maybe he was just prejudiced against white poodles — but just to be sure of himself, he turned the monitor of his office computer toward her, putting the image of the selfie squarely in her line of sight. “Look at it. Isn’t it inspiring?”
Rova didn’t yelp, didn’t flinch, didn’t even stop smiling. She had her part to play in the plan, and the others had theirs, and by the end of the day, they’d all be free, or none of them would. “It’s like looking into the future,” she lied again, pleasingly. There were only two or three animals in the world who knew her well enough to know her tells.
But one of them was Abra, who couldn’t see Rova’s soul from here, but could hear the small, fearful catch in her voice. “He’s got her,” Abra said. “In minutes, she’s going to start telling him everything.”
Rex clenched his fist. “Then we have minutes to strike. But he has confirmed our theory.” He raised his fists above his head then, and his booming voice rang out, commanding the full attention of everyone present:
“Allies! We march! Prepare for our journey, and when we arrive, let nothing stop you! Today we fight not for heroism or villainy, but for the very meaning of our lives! Whether our goals are profit or self-respect, struggle or peace, a place in the shadows or one in the sun, our very ability to pursue those goals is at stake! Shall Hoot hobble you, pen you up, cage you? Shall he clip your wings? No! Stand tall! And storm his evil ambition with the force of a vengeful god!”
He nodded to Abra, who murmured a quick rhyme and got them onto the White House lawn. That was it for her and teleportation for a while; Magic Wanda was already sulking. Levitation spells were the most Abra could hope for.
As the Secret Serpents raised their firearms, Rex gestured like Ludwig von Baithoven conducting an orchestra.
Whirlybird whirled, and Fastback whirled around her. Abra lifted King Kone into the air, and he shot his cold-gun down at the top of the spiraling winds, while Solar Bear melted any small-arms fire aimed at them, with the side effect of building up a huge mass of hot air. The resulting team-inspired tornado bore down upon the lawn and cracked the White House wall like an eggshell.
There were roughly four-hundred employees in the White House, and evacuating them all in as orderly a fashion as possible would allegedly take about fifteen minutes. Besides, you know the government: when have they ever lived up to an estimate that required them to be efficient? They’d probably still be stumbling out of there after thirty. In three seconds, Fastback had evacuated everyone not in Hoot’s office, leaving President Mallard Fillmore to stare at the Secret Serpents in confusion.
But something other than the usual debris was blowing around in all this wind now, something that chilled the blood of all seven combatants, even though Fastback’s was already cold, what with being a reptile and all.
It was a rain of fliers with Hoot’s face on it. The selfie.
They had all been exposed.
But there were still minutes. Fastback ran forward, around the billboard, heedless of anything else. He knew where Hoot was already by process of elimination; he reached the front door of his office…
And then his world exploded into a fireworks display of stars and stripes as he opened the door and released a telekinetic storm Rova had been building up in anticipation of his arrival. He landed flat on his back, always his most vulnerable position. Rova, now heedless of her secret identity, gagged him with her stripes, then star-stream-slammed his head onto the floor.
A tiny object, moving too fast to identify clearly, attacked the others in rapid succession, stunning most of them. Rex Imperium got the worst of it: his upper armor cracked in half, and he fell back into the dirt.
Abra got cracked across the jaw. She almost dropped King Kone and started to lower them both to a safer altitude. She was realizing, too late, that keeping Kone airborne limited her ability to melt into the shadows.
Pig-Iron ran forward, but the tiny object hit him in the gut like a bullet with the force of a cruise missile. He staggered back a half-dozen paces, almost collapsed, as the object kept pushing against his belly. He reached down to grab whatever it was, and it expanded.
It was Little Cheese, but not as Pig-Iron remembered him. Now he was more like a Mighty Mouse — no, a Maximum Mouse — almost as muscular as Pig-Iron, and pushed against him with strength nearly equal to Pig-Iron’s. Chester Cheese’s usual costume was in shreds, and even the Super-Squirrel costume he’d been wearing underneath it was torn, but he didn’t seem too affected by sartorial embarrassment. And the Super-Squirrel costume was kind of a good look for him, since he could now, apparently, fly. He had been the one to drop the fliers, Pig-Iron realized, and if he had gotten here, that meant Rubberduck had to be around.
“Come on, Chester, lemme in there! We need ta stop this nut-job! Don’t make me get rough with ya!”
“Is-is-is that supposed to scare me, ‘Peter?’ If so, good job. Since I ate that carrot, everything scares me, like, times infinity. But nothing, nothing, nothing scares me more than the idea of failing here today. Think about what you’re doing, wonder-warthog! Taking over the government by force?”
“S’better’n takin’ it by mind-control–” Pig-Iron was driving Chester back, but too slowly. He tried to knock Chester cold with a quick punch behind the ears, but Chester wasn’t having it; he blocked and dodged and blocked again.
From the sky, King Kone iced the ground underneath Chester’s feet, but all that did was prove that, yep, Chester could definitely fly now, as he lifted himself over the ice and continued to grapple Pig-Iron.
“It’s not mind-control, it’s enlightenment! Look, you’ll get it in a few more minutes!”
“No, you’ll be getting it now!” shouted Solar Bear, and he hit everyone present with a blinding flash. It affected Alley-Kat-Abra badly — that was the downside of super-night-vision, her eyes were already a bit photophobic — but Chester also looked dazed, confused, as if he were waking up from a dream.
“Chess?” said Pig-Iron, blinking the stars out of his own eyes. “You back with us, buddy? C’mon, mouse, we’re gonna need that courage an’ power o’ yers now. It’s save-the-world time!”
“I know.” And then Chester flew around and crashed into the side of Pig-Iron’s head, knocking him over.
A blinding flash did not reverse the selfie’s effects.
Hoot had lied.
Alley-Kat-Abra dropped out of the sky with King Kone in tow, and just had time to hear Kone shriek in surprise before she crashed into a green-and-yellow hang-glider, Rubberduck, who promptly wrapped his limbs around her extremities and stuck to her like taffy. Even with the cosmic carrot in her system, she’d be a few minutes prying him off, minutes she didn’t have. It rattled her concentration enough that she dropped Kone onto the ground.
“Stay back, ghost!” Kone yelled as he fell. “I didn’t mean it — it was all Solar Bear’s fault! Please don’t tell my parole officer — OOOOOOF!”
Any landing you could walk away from, they’d say, was a good one. For Kone, this was a bad one.
Whirlybird was aiming a tornado in her direction, which may have been meant to get Rubberduck off her, but only succeeded in making her drop Wanda. Did Whirlybird think Abra was so powered-up that she didn’t need to breathe?
No, Whirlybird was already playing for Hoot’s team. Abra would have bet her last dollar on Solar Bear or King Kone being the first to succumb to the selfie, but no. Irony of ironies, Solar Bear was actually trying to fight her.
Unfortunately, he hadn’t picked this moment to start succeeding in life. Even though she had split her attention, one of Whirlybird’s wings was enough to keep Abra rattled, and the other was enough to blow out the Bear’s flame powers like a candle. With her enhanced physique, Abra might last long enough to struggle uselessly a few more minutes, but her part of the fight was basically done.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Hoot had beaten them, beaten them all.
Rex Imperium blasted forward, his boot-jets flaming. His will was iron as he searched through the White House, through the halls of Hammerican power. He spotted the unconscious Fastback and avoided Rova’s first and second magno-blasts.
But not her third. His remaining armor cracked and shattered under the assault, leaving only his body, in peak physical fitness but still a poor match for Rova’s powers. Yet he pressed on several paces in the face of her star-stream, propelled by sheer determination, got within two paces of her, took another impossible step, reached up for her face…
And a death-ray blast aimed at the ceiling above him brought a shower of plaster and concrete down on his head and ended all hope. He fell, tried to rise, fell again.
Hoot stepped forward, passing Rova. “It’s almost a waste to use a death-ray to stop someone without killing them,” he said with a conqueror’s calm. “But you, Rex… there’s no way I could deny myself the pleasure of your company in the new world order. Ever since I met you, your pretentions have been transparent. But I know you fancy yourself an honest dog, so look around you, and tell me honestly: who has triumphed? Who is the ruler of this world? Who is your master, now and forever? Who? Who? Who?”
Quietly, pinned in the wreckage and succumbing to exhaustion, Rex said, “Hoot.”
“Heel,” Hoot went on, presenting the heel of his foot near Rex’s muzzle. A thought flashed through Rex’s mind of biting the heel, of giving Hoot a limp for life, one final gesture of defiance.
Yet, somehow, he licked the heel instead.