Chapter One

Being the 4th in the increasingly inaccurately-named Teen Toons Tales Trilogy, following on from 'Spring Fever', 'Loonquest' and 'Seven Brides for Seven Bunnies'. Now read on…

December snow was falling on Acme Acres. This caused less surprise to its residents than it probably should have; the mere geographical fact of their fair city being set in supposedly warm Southern California was more than balanced by the fact that some plotlines needed wintery scenes. So without any further argument from puzzled weather experts more used to predicting global warming, snow was most certainly falling. (So there.)

"It's a Toon Thing." Babs Bunny, rising young film star just returning from her latest Hollywoodtriumph, cast her coat hood back to let a few lucky flakes land on her warmly pink furred ears. She paused at the exit to Acme Acres Airport, where her aircraft had just landed from Hollywood.

"It's certainly fair. You don't get much snow in fall, but you do get a fall of snow." Buster Bunny stood by the side of his wife looking at the familiar landscape, before rummaging in his Hammerspace pocket for a notebook and pencil. "Hmm. Not a bad line, that, but it still needs some work. Viewers watching in Maine or Alaska in November might have a quibble with it. A quibble or a quarrel, even."

"Oh, you. You always say everything needs more work." Babs gazed at her blue-furred buck lovingly.

"Well, at least we don't. Not right now. We've been living on stage sets and around the studios for three months solid. We're both due some time off." Buster winked. "Especially now the money's starting to roll in. Writing and acting both – ka-ching! Sweet deal." From somewhere not clearly defined, there was the special-effect sound of an old-fashioned cash register ringing up a sale.

Babs nodded, her eyes sweeping the airport lounge to see if any of their friends had made it through the drifts to meet them. "The studios have been busy. They'll be in post-production till January. Who'd have thought they had to make so many posts?"

"You could put a twin-row picket fence round Texas with them," Buster agreed.

"Anyway, you've written and sold your script, they made the movie with it and I've starred in it. Couldn't be neater." Babs' eyes grew misty for a second. "And who'd have thought you could take an old one-minute battery commercial and develop it into a three-hour Action Romance Blockbuster spanning nine continents? With prequels and sequels lined up?" *

(*) (Editor's note; the extra continents were specially designed and added to the film using cutting-edge CGI.)

Buster grinned in embarrassment. "Pink bunny. With a battery that won't quit. Keeps going on and on. Type-casting maybe, but it fits my dear pink wife so why not? Hey, I just picked up the ball and ran with it."

Suddenly Babs waved. "Well, look who it isn't!" Mary Melody, here to meet and greet." She smiled slyly, took a deep breath and gave her trademarked yell. "I'm heeeerrreee!"

"You lucky, lucky people," Buster added dryly.

Mary Melody made her way through the crowd, dressed in a stylish green business skirt-suit that certainly cost more than a junior reporter could pay. "Babs! You're back!"

Babs cast a glance over her shoulder to her cottontail. "My back – my front, too. I brought them both along." She snickered. "Great to see you. You're not carrying the camera and microphone today?"

"Oh – there's a reason for that." Mary nodded significantly. "You might say I've gone up in the world. But I'll tell you later. Things have changed. Come on, Jaggi' s waiting outside with MTV."

Babs posed. "I'll have to talk to my agent about that. We're under studio contract, you know."

Mary smiled. "Not that MTV. It's in the parking lot."

"The plot thickens, already" Buster said. "And we only just got here."

As they picked up their luggage, an equine couple next to them suddenly began to sniff the air curiously and look around, evidently not seeing something their noses were telling them should be there. The male, a standard Toon donkey, flicked his ears and curled his lips back showing his teeth in an equine grin. His wife dipped her ears right back against her head, pulled out a large Toon mallet and flattened him.

Babs and Buster followed Mary out through the airport to the parking lot where a familiar zebra was waiting by a large six wheeled off-road vehicle.

"Nice ride," Buster commented. He grinned. "Let's guess. You had a Some_Terrain_Vehicle before. This is the next model up – a Most_Terrain_Vehicle?"

"Bang on!" Jaggi DiSpeckle applauded. "This is MTV. We're borrowing it while we're on this job. Did Mary tell you?"

"Not here," Mary said firmly. "Let's get inside."

They piled into the vehicle, and pulled away into the traffic. "So, what's the big secret, then?" Babs asked. "You're working top-secret for the Toons In Black ™ now?"

Jaggi grinned. "Nearly. You know that bunch Shirley's joined, Unit Four Plus Two? They want independent reporters along all the time to do their live shows. Embedded, that's the phrase."

Buster scratched between his long blue ears. "Top-secret ultra-black Ops. Live shows. Hmm."

Mary smiled. "We get to go along and report on everything they do – it's broadcast to worldwide satellite, no cuts. And at the end I get to look straight into the camera and say 'this is a true, unedited account of your Black-Budget Tax dollars in action. That's all, folks.' Nobody believes it."

"I can see how that would work," Buster mused. "All the conspiracy-chasers spend their time looking for hidden things that nobody ever talks about. The harder you try and get people to believe you – the less they really do. As if any real secret unit would talk about it, let alone broadcast."

Jaggi's long head nodded. "Mary's getting famous as a comic and horror host presenter – as far as the public think. They keep asking who writes the scripts and does the special effects, whenever something from Beyond breaks in and we film it live – or Undead, whichever. Serious Toons who know the real score just watch how well she does, knowing it's really just straight reporting."

"And the Toons who know how difficult that is, know how well you're working the camera and sound, Jaggi," Mary tapped her fiancé's broad shoulder. "It takes two of us."

In twenty minutes the MTV reached Acme forest, and the new but little-used burrow that Babs and Buster had dug at the end of Summer. Babs stretched, wriggling her cottontail and smoothing out her ears. "Home sweet hole! How I've missed you." She pulled out a key, found the inconspicuous keyhole in a nearby boulder, and turned it. The ACME surplus missile silo door slid aside with a quiet rumble, pushed-aside snow piling up in a steep mound.

"We knew you'd be coming straight from the airport," Jaggi said "So we got a trunk-full of supplies, saves you wading through the snow to the store. Everything carrot-based. Hope you like it."

"Why, our very favourite! How DID you guess?" Babs waggled an eyebrow. As Jaggi and Buster started to unload, she hopped down into the burrow in a single bound while Mary made a more sedate arrival down the spiral stairs.

Babs looked around slyly, and winked at Mary. "So, how's it going? You and Jaggi?" She patted a well-stuffed sofa, and the two friends sat together.

Mary sat next to her. "We're making progress. Things are certainly starting to happen for me."

"Oh? DO tell. In all the messy, exciting details." Babs' pink nose twitched eagerly.

Mary shrugged. "Well. This time last year at Acme Loo, the casting sheets always listed me by species as a 'humanmaid'. Since Spring, what with me and Jaggi I've left off being a maid, as in maiden. No complaints there."

"At the Loo we earned enough qualifications – that's one you can afford to lose." Babs said.

"Yes. That's not the only change. It's only natural. If you work out in a gym every day, you're telling your body that's the way it ought to change to suit what you're doing now – and it does. You get toned and fit. Being with Jaggi – it's the same sort of thing." Mary closed her eyes, contemplating. "Though it's nothing that really shows, to look at."

Babs' eyes went wide. "You were a humanmaid, before. You're becoming a – humanmare?"

Mary nodded. "Jaggi says I smell like an equine girl. My chemistry's changing. So is my… calendar, you might say. It's an equine thing."

"Ooooh! So, it won't be just Christmastime you'll be able to offer him 'season's greetings.' Pretty soon, I guess?" Babs sniffed discreetly. She doubted Mary could spot it herself; Toon humans had very poor senses of smell, but a bunny nose definitely detected a perfume that Mary had not bought at the Acme mega-mall.

"I hope so. And then – we'll see what develops. I won't develop stripes or a tail – I'll look forward to seeing those on our foals, though." Mary looked her friend up and down. "How about you? You look great." Privately Mary thought Babs was looking a little tired, but she had just been through an air journey.

Babs grinned. "Oh, same old, same old fame and fortune. But this biological bunny? The only thing me and Buster have 'in production' so far is the big movie we're in. We've done all our bit of it; the last scene of us they shot was three days ago." She hesitated. "We've got the option of shooting an all-action sequel next year. I'm thinking about it. It's a good career move, it's what we trained for all those years, but…" she cast a glance towards the unfinished corridor at the end of the burrow. Rabbit burrows were planned with almost endless expansion in mind.

Mary followed her gaze. "That's always going to be a problem – filling up the cinemas with fans, or the burrow with kits. They're both good, but doing everything at once is tricky." Her eyes suddenly widened. "But – you said Buster wrote the script for your film – and fitted it to you?"

"He did. He fitted it to me like a Paris costumier's finest creation." Babs twirled elegantly.

"So… see if Buster can write a script that needs a star who doesn't need special effects or expanding costumes to finish the film with kits? Schedule the scenes over a few months to use all that… authenticity. You can put the script on the shelf, and take it off when you need it." Mary said.

Babs slapped a pink forehead dramatically. She looked around for any lurking trademark lawyers, and moaned. "This doe says… D'oh!" Her whiskers twitched. "How could I not spot that one? It's elegant. Of course Buster can fix the problem – and he should, after all, it'll be him causing it. How things change. I remember back in our first Summer vacation, it was just his water pistol he was – squirting me with."

Mary blushed, her toon aura standing an inch clear of her actual body.

Babs winked at her embarrassment, raising an imaginary glass. "Ah. To bucks. The cause – and solution – to most of life's little problems." She looked up, contemplatively. "Maybe Buster can write a WashingToon based story about a talented, adorable young Economist dealing with inflation – and not just the nation's. Hers too. We can maybe call the movie 'Ain't she Swell?'"

"May all your troubles be little ones," Mary quoted. For a second she relaxed, and then heard the cargo lift start up as Buster and Jaggi descended with crates of carrot-based comestibles, and even some food.

Babs nudged Mary, gesturing upwards with her ears. "Ah, boys. What's the betting they wasted their time talking about football? Not as if they have anything – important to think about. Unlike us." She yawned, stretching as she relaxed on the sofa. "It's so good to be home. Anyone else back for the holidays?"

Mary looked at her friend. "Oh, yes. When you drop by your old burrow – I think you'll find out."

As Mary Melody knew well (having met them at the airport), over in the new annexe to the burrow Babs had grown up in, there were some more graduate Toons who had returned to Acme Acres after a long time away. They had arrived early that morning, after a long-haul flight that had left them jet-lagged and definitely travel-stained. While there was no immediate cure for jet-lag, their other problem was easier to solve – and that minute they were working on it.

Rhubella Lafume swished her tail with relief, as she stepped into the shower with her skunkette bride. "Ah, at last. I've looked forward to this the last twenty hours. We should film this for the Japanese anime market. It must be a rainy climate, over there. Nothing but showers, looks like. They can't even do a weather report without a gratuitous shower scene or three." She turned on the water, turned and posed invitingly under it, slowly turning to let the hot spray soak her fur. "All good clean fun."

"Japan was tres cool, non? And meeting up with chere Merumo aftair all zis time. And 'er 'usband, ze Legendary Overfiend. Just back from zeir 'oneymoon in ze Warp – wherever zat ees." All her friends had souvenir postcards the former exchange student had sent them from her husband's homeland; at least, they resembled postcards in that they were two-dimensional, even if neither of the dimensions used were those normally accessible in EinsToonian Space-time.

"Still. It's nice to get back to Acme Acres. It feels like home. And since Mrs Bunny put the extra shower in this bit of the burrow – we can take our time." Until the holidays began the week after, Babs' siblings were busy with school or college and the Bunny family main burrow in the morning resembled an underground station with a rush-hour that never stopped till the last one was out the door, carrot-filled lunch box and all.

"Mais oui!" Fifi's eyes went wide at the sight of her wife's back stripe. Rhubella had chosen to have her model sheet permanently altered; her statement to the world that she wanted her family future to be skunk-patterned. To a non-Toon, the equivalent would have been germ-line bioengineering. She ran her finger down that stripe, and shivered with excitement. "Ze drowned rat, eet eez not ze sexiest idea – but ze wet-look one – ooh, la la." Her clothes joined Rhubella's on the bathroom floor. There was a quiet pop as she 'unconcealed.'

Rhubella LaFume smiled, running soaped paws down her fur. "I'm glad you like the view. Just you and me – plus our little additions." Her pristine white stork's feather had not left its gold chain since that day in Summer when it had arrived – it never seemed to pick up any dirt or moisture, to her amazement. In Fifi's case some things had changed – much for the better, Rhubella thought. "Mmmm… you look amazing." She ran a finger down Fifi's front, between the skunkette's breasts to the slight bulge at her belly. "I'll never tire of this." She turned to pick up the soap, before standing nose to nose again. "This is a life of luxury – and I don't mean these gold-plated bath taps." She had happily paid for the Bunny family to install a gold-plated shower; it had been a purely practical move seeing what Fifi's corrosive musk did to chrome and stainless steel when her passions were roused.

Fifi's tail instantly began to fume, as her hard-wired reactions took over at the sight of Rhubella's back stripe. Her eyes crossed as she looked down to where Rhubella's paw rested lovingly on her tummy-fur. Suddenly she giggled. "Ruby, you 'ave ze – bump-envy?" Rhubella's figure was much as it had been a year ago, with no sign but the feather that she was expecting a stork's little bundle.

"Well. I'm the first one in my family to go the stork route. You're much Toonier than me. That stork's scheduled to find me sometime in early March – generally whenever least convenient, so I'm told." Rhubella kissed her wife's broad pink nose. "Considering I'm 'expecting' – this isn't quite the way I expected it."

"Zat makes two of us. For Fifi, May time it eez for ze 'appy event." Fifi kissed back. "Zo rare, to 'ave ze Toon babies by la route biologique. 'Oo evair saw une femme enceinte, in ze classic cartoon films?" She gently pressed against Rhubella's paw. "I love your figure, zo athletic, Ruby mon champion – but poor Fifi, she eez now only ze world champion at ze tossing of ze cookies."

"Mrs Bunny – I mean, Babs' mother – I asked her about that. She said she never got that problem, but she always went the stork route – not that anyone really gets the choice which way it happens. Rabbits must get discounts; I bet she earned that stork frequent flyer miles. Twenty-six children in six litters, oh my." Rhubella's eyes went wide. "Makes you wonder if Babs is planning on carrying on that tradition." The meme needed an active host, and Mrs Bathsheba Zoe Bunny would be passing it on sometime, presumably to someone in her family. Considering the family alphabetically indexed their children by their middle names, with a name like Zoe, being from the twenty-sixth litter Babs' mother had evidently been very familiar with that meme. As had her grandmother.

Fifi giggled. "Babs, she is working 'ard, wanting to be big in 'Ollywood. Moi, I will at least be – big." She lovingly soaped Rhubella's fur, running her fingers down the smooth rat tail. "She 'as 'er loyal fans already. She ees keeping zem 'appy, with ze films."

"Yes. It's important to give good fan service," Rhubella agreed, her tail twining with Fifi's as they pressed close under the hot spray. "I might not have gone to Acme Looniversity but I've picked up a few ideas about that."

Fifi gave a sigh, as she relaxed against the tiles of the shower wall and enjoyed Rhubella's tender massaging. She gestured at her wife, respectably dressed if only in wedding ring, stork feather and soap-slick fur. "Eet eez a good thing Babs and Shirley, at least zey are ze film stars; zey are putting ze Looniversity training to good use." She gave a Gallic shrug, standing with the soapy water running down her slick fur, her tail starting to fume invitingly as her wife knelt and caressed her. "'Oo would evair pay to see a film of 'zis?"

About a hundred and ten miles away from Acme Acres, the scenery was wilder with steep river valleys winding up into the mountains. That was so even in the 'civilized' timeline; although the mountains were the same, on a timeline where civilisation had somehow never caught on, there were far fewer people around to see it.

"Four years." Plucky Duck looked around the primal, unspoiled landscape of what only he and Margot knew should be called Northern California. Snow lay on the peaks to the North. "We've been castaways in time four whole years now. I wonder what the world's like by now, back home."

Plucky and Margot Duck stood outside a substantial timber and turf hut, built on a commanding bluff above a wide, shallow river that sparkled in due season with migrating salmon, as well as the occasional glint of gold in the gravel. They wore little except their bare feathers most of the year, but now were warmly clad in thick grey direwolf fur jackets as they looked out at the sunset.

"Whatever it's been doing without us - we've not exactly wasted our time." Margot stood and stretched. "Brandi and Candi are a fine pair of girls. And this is an interesting development." She ran her feather-hand over her round belly. "No storks to make the deliveries around here, seems like. Still. Who needs them?"

Plucky nodded. "But our daughters are missing out on so much. And we'll be left behind. I bet some world-class gaming geek in Japan or South Korea's already beaten my top score at Retro Rocket Rumble." He turned to his white-feathered daughters, reminiscing. "You should have seen me win the international prize at GameCon! I was a dead shot mega-scoring ace with a first or second-generation ballistic missile. I could bang that Corporal or Sergeant missile warhead slap bang on target every time – plus or minus a mile expected deviation but hey, that was the tech standard of the time." His expression was sorrowful. "Living here away from civilisation, our kids won't even know what I'm talking about."

"You went to a lot of conventions?" Margot asked, interested. She had sat back and listened for many long dark evenings while Plucky told science-fiction stories to their chicks – many of them somewhat skewed versions of the classic Star Disputes and Cattle-car Galactica that he had tweaked to give himself the starring roles in. She liked best the tales of the indefinitely continuing mission of the starship whose pre-launching party had been so drunken that the next day the hung-over crew had forgotten to engage the navigational computers before engaging their craft's totally-warped drive. Start-Wrecked, that was the name of the series, she mused. They were now hopelessly Lost In Space ™, their ship's lawyers frequently in expensive special-effects deep-space battles with the lawyers of the sci-fi franchise of that name.

"Sure! That's another thing I miss. Hotel room parties, staying up till dawn, weekends living on crottled greeps, the number one sci-fi Convention food. It's a classic." The green duck's eyes went misty. "It was educational, too. Seeing how they crottle a greep. They'd rigged up two big old 1960's Westinghouse 20 megawatt nuclear reactors running in series, on loan from Acme Atomics. That's what it takes."

"It's not all bad, being away from our time" Margot cast her husband a sly glance. Many would have found him more annoying than amusing, but not her. "It had its dangers as well as treats. They might have already had that Class Four Zombie Apocalypse you kept planning for."

The green mallard's face fell further. "The Zombie Apocalypse. Pivoting point of History. Time of great heroes and adventure. Chainsaw warriors in Hillbilly armour. Desperate struggles in the ruins of grand public buildings. The one percent who survive inherit all the world's inedible treasures. So much neat stuff. And I'll have missed it all?"

Margot raised an eyebrow. "In case you hadn't noticed, around here we already get sabre-toothed tigers, direwolves and mountain lions all trying to eat us… I think that'll do to be going on with, on the duck devouring lines. And unlike fighting off the local wildlife, you can't eat zombies even when you win." She patted the hides they were lying on.

"Eww. Even Dizzy Devil wouldn't want to." Plucky shivered. "And he eats anything."

"At least Brandi and Candi are getting an education, and just the kind they need out here. Running Bare is a good teacher, for talents like theirs." Margot smiled at the thought of the scantily dressed Native hawk shaman whose nomadic tribe they had spent Spring and Summer with on the coast far North in what someday would be Oregon. "I can teach them to hunt with the bow, and we can teach them a lot more from our old world – but psychic powers, aren't our thing."

"They'll never need to struggle with lighting a fire rubbing two sticks together, that's true" Plucky agreed. "Pyrokinesis. Telekinesis. They hardly need a bow for hunting. Whoo-hoo! Real horror-show, what they did to that bobcat that wanted to invite them for dinner, his way. They're Early Achievers!"

"Yes." Margot nodded thoughtfully. The loon chicks could levitate a rock the size of their heads already – but throwing it that way was a very inefficient use of their energy when it came to defending themselves. She had cut up the bobcat for dinner, of course, and found nothing her limited medical knowledge recognised as to what killed it. But the chicks were familiar with razor-sharp obsidian blades the family had traded some metal for with the locals – and it was a fairly simple progression to imagining the chicks projecting a psychic version of one held steady in space, slicing inside the charging predator's brain. "Maybe it's just as well they're out here, with powers like that. There are advantages with the simple life. Everything's friend or foe, and there's no need to ever pull any punches." She suddenly snickered. "I imagine if they ever went to a playground, doing that to a bully just might be frowned on. Just a little bit over the top."

"Overkill. That's your new word to learn for the day, kiddies," Plucky smiled, and bent to pat the white head-feathers of his daughters. "Over-kill. Doing something twice as amazingly well as lesser Toons without your amazingly talented ancestry might have. Like that hot film star Mae West said in the 1930's, 'too much of a good thing is simply wonderful.'"

Evening fell, and they retired to their hut out of the increasingly chilly wind and barred the wickerwork door. The traps were set outside, woven matting suspended over seven-foot deep pits with sharp surprises at the bottom. Twice that Summer, invading predators had found out about those the hard way, and their hides now helped furnish the nest.

"It's definitely getting time to move South again, and out of the hills" Margot turned the freshly-caught salmon on its skewer over the fire-pit; the air was filled with its aroma. "The salmon run's almost over for the year. It's a close thing with the snows."

"Snows, shmoes," Plucky waved a feather-hand dismissively. "We've got a month's supply of dried fish and jerked meat. And you're Olympic class in the bag-a-deer-for-dinner event, with that bow."

"Mmmm. I have been, yes. But I'm not quite at my athletic peak right now – or hadn't you noticed? And that'll get worse before it gets better. Right in the middle of winter, too." Margot relaxed on the furs, stroking her rounded belly. She snickered. "I never thought I'd get turned into a housewife. Hut-wife, even. I'll be fine for cooking and fire-tending at midwinter, certainly – but not for running down any more deer."

"Oh. There is that." Plucky rested a feather-hand on his wife's bump, looking lovingly into her eyes. "Still. We'll have weeks yet before we have to head for the coast. This valley's great! I keep finding lovely, sparkly nuggets. Look at this one I grabbed today!" With a flourish, he pulled out a rounded pebble of gold-banded quartz that weighed an ounce, and held it up to the firelight. "How about that?"

Margot smiled. "Very nice. But right now I'd trade it for an evening in a hot tub. The nearest natural ones are probably down in Monterey – or the place it's going to be."

"Next year! We can head there next Summer. Something to look forward to. Brandi and Candi should be flying soon." Plucky hesitated. "It's a pity you can't fly. It's a long walk."

Margot shrugged. "Pros and cons. Not having hollow lightweight bones makes me stronger. And tail-feathers tend to get in the way – for some things. Besides… would you really have wanted to have to throw up your meals to feed the chicks for a couple of years, natural bird style?"

"Eww." Plucky shivered. Not for the first time, he thought about exactly what Shirley had landed him with, exiling him so far from a corner mall. Had she simply taken off and dumped him with her eggs, leaving him in Acme Acres while she while she ran away for a wonderful life of film stardom and elite military action combined – at least he could have fed them with infant formula and hired the occasional babysitter. "I think for once in my life – having you here, my luck's finally turned."

"Oh? Stuck here struggling to survive, without as much as an old Weenie Burger cup to drink out of?" Margot paused, contemplating. "Still - you've got as much tax-free raw gold as you can carry, and you own this version of Hollywood – as much as anyone does." She relaxed, lying back on the somewhat smelly pile of poorly tanned hides – not exactly five-star comfort, she mused, but far better than lying on the bare ground. She had done plenty of that in the past few years.

Plucky kissed her. "I've got you. And I'd trade any version of Hollywood for that."

Margot kissed back, fiercely. "You're right. I've got the hottest film star in the business, all mine." She wrapped her feather-arms around him, her bill stroking her husband's.

It was another long late Autumn evening, as the fire in the hut slowly died and the mallard family drifted off to sleep. Outside, just after midnight, un-seasonally heavy snow began to fall.

"Oh, crab-cakes." Plucky opened the door the next morning and looked out on a white world. The snow was knee-deep and still falling, with heavy clouds filling the valley blotting out the view beyond a hundred yards. "This'll take some time to melt."

Margot joined him and they looked out. The eight feet of ground inside their hut was the only snow-free spot in the valley. "This is trouble," she said flatly. "It's weeks earlier than last year."

"Hey, so it's not like we've not seen snow before," Plucky shrugged. "We've got plenty of food to see us through till it melts. Then it's five, six days down to the coast."

Margot's bill twisted in worry. "It might not melt. Not before Spring. Last year, once the snows came they stayed, but then we were watching them from the coast. We haven't got a Winter's worth of food. And we don't have three cords of dry firewood stacked up, like we'd need – we don't have three days' worth. That's a problem."

"We can carry Brandi and Candi through the deep bits - or rig up a sledge. That'll do it! Hey kids, how about a sleigh ride? That'll be fun!" Plucky's optimism had a slightly forced note to it.

"Mmm. The sleigh's a good idea," Margot mused. "We'd better take all the food we can carry. And leave anything heavy."

Plucky's feathers turned a sickly shade of green. "All that gold. All that lovely gold."

Margot wrapped a feather-arm around him. "I know, Plucky. But it'll keep. We can bury it under the hut and dig it up when we come back here next Spring. First – we have to make sure we'll BE here next spring."

Plucky nodded. He sighed, shrugged on his direwolf-hide Winter jacket, and picked up the stone axe he had traded with Running Bare's tribe for a perfect mirror that only he and Margot knew was a Russ Meyer DVD. "Off to the woods to get some green timber, before it's all snowed under. Looks like we've got a sledge to build."

For two long days the snow kept falling. Every day Plucky and Margot looked up hopefully with the grey dawn, hoping to see some break in the weather. Soon it was waist-deep, a soft sticky snow that clung to the newly built sledge's runners despite their being well lubricated with bear-grease.

"This isn't a sledging contest – it's a ploughing contest!" Plucky dragged the sledge back after another test run, angrily kicking at a hundred pounds of wet slush clinging to it. "If it would only freeze hard and crust over – you can't sledge through porridge!"

"We can't wait much longer," Margot looked out at the snowdrifts. "When the firewood runs out, we've got to go, ready or not. We can't get any more dry wood, with knee-deep snow in the forest. The longer it snows, the longer it'll take to melt. This time of year – you don't get that much melting. This is full-on Winter, a month early."

"Yipes." Plucky's head-feathers bristled. "We're in trouble."

Margot nodded silently. She helped Plucky off with his jacket. "Right now – at least we can have a good meal. We've the last of the fresh salmon to eat up. And there's plenty – so we'd better dig in." She looked around the hut; a Summer's daily work had got it as comfortable as the available materials would allow. "After we leave here, the next few days at least we'll be eating in the snow."

The two mallards sat around the fire that evening, savouring the scent and taste of the salmon – the snow had been a blessing in one respect, keeping the gutted fish stored outside in it more or less fresh.

"Eat up, kiddies," Plucky handed Brandi and Candi a second portion. "And sleep warm tonight!" He winced inwardly; the next few nights were likely to be anything but warm. This hut was never meant to be a winter retreat, but it was cosy enough while the firewood lasted. He judged they had enough for the night and a final hot breakfast.

"Story, daddy?" Candi looked up at him as she finished her fish.

Plucky relaxed. He patted the mound of hides when everyone had finished eating, and his mate and daughters snuggled close. "Oh yes. Where was I, last night? My heroic adventures back in our home-world."

"You were chasing the Mad Doctor XXy, last time I heard it?" Margot reminded him, amused.

"Oh yeah! That was it." Plucky took a deep breath, and his eyes went distant. "With my amazing detective powers I'd tracked him to the airport. That's… a bit like the big pond by the coast, where the wild birds take off and land. But it's smooth rock, and the birds are metal. Toons ride them."

Brandi and Candi nodded, their eyes bright.

"So. I was only just in time. Doctor XXy was ready to launch. I got to the runway just behind him as he started spooling up his afterburning scramjet engines and slowly began to taxi forward, his plane heavy with the weight of two Universe-Destroyers he'd just built. He was going to use them and claim the insurance on everything. I mean, Everything."

Brandi frowned. "One could bust the whole Universe?"

Plucky patted her white head-feathers. "Sure thing, sweetie. That's the calibre of foe the Toxic Revenger is matched against!"

"So – if one can destroy the Universe… why have two?" Candi put in. "What the other one for? And how he claim anything afterwards?"

"And why bother moving them anywhere? Wouldn't it be all the same if he set it off sitting on it?" Brandi asked.

Plucky hesitated. "Because… because... hey, they didn't call him a Mad Doctor for nothing!" He grinned triumphantly. "That's the kind of thing they do. But that's the kind of foe the Toxic Revenger defeats! Anyway, using my amazing stealth powers, craftily I sneaked up on him…."

Margot snickered to herself, as Plucky's tale of Hollywood-starring heroics grew wilder with each telling. If we ever got back, she reminded herself, there's a mallard who's got a lot to live up to.

Dawn hardly came at all the next day, and it was in a dim half-light that Margot fed the last scraps of wood onto the fire. Outside, the snow fell thicker than ever.

"What I wouldn't give for a hot, strong, unsustainably sourced, unethically traded FoulPlay coffee right now," she said, looking into the meagre flames. "Plucky? Wake up. Better get the chicks dressed. In about half an hour this hut's going to start cooling down all the way."

Plucky stuck his bill out of the hut, and sneezed. His eyes went wide in alarm. "Yipes! It's snowed another foot in the night."

Margot nodded, heating water in the birch-bark bowl that Running Bare's tribe had shown her how to build. Getting the wooden tongs out and dropping red-hot pebbles in from the fire-pit was a laborious process without burning the tongs or bark container, but it more or less worked. In the last few years she had wished for many things, but a plain metal cooking-pot most of all.

"Breakfast, kiddies!" Plucky sniffed the heated water. "Ah. Reconstituted jerked deer flesh. What a joy. Eat up; we've a long way to go."

"Mmm. And we can't carry everything." Margot looked pointedly at her mate's collection of gold nuggets. "Time to bury the loot."

Plucky sighed, and nodded. He pulled out a fire-hardened digging-stick and began to excavate.

An hour later, they were looking at the dying embers of the fire, four waterfowl bundled up in their warmest furs.

"So long, hut sweet hut," Plucky wiped a tear from his eyes. "Look after our all our lovely gold. We'll see you again in the Spring."

Margot finished strapping the last of the food bags onto the sledge. She took a look around the inside of the hut. "It's a pity your Toxic Revenger form can't carry us all, any more. That's the trouble with Toon shticks; they're so – cultural. They lose their power when they're away from their milieu."

"Yeah. Professor Coyote said something about them tapping into something like that. He also said 'you only get steam-engines when it's steam-engine time.' Calamity always quoted that." Plucky briefly spin-changed into his pollution-busting Superhero form, which now was just a fancy-dress costume. It had gradually lost its powers in a world without pollution, and he had not wanted to experiment and see if starting a few smoky forest fires would re-charge it. "I coulda flown to the coast with the kids, then come back for you."

"Leaving Candi and Brandi fifty miles away on their own to become some predator family's duck dinner? I don't think so." Margot shook her head. "Back at Perfecto in our first year, they set us a puzzle like that – ferrying a fox, a goose and a bag of grain over a river with a very small boat that can only carry one at a time. Leave the goose alone on one side with the grain, the grain gets eaten. Leave the goose with the fox, the goose gets eaten."

"Erk. Good point." Plucky blenched. He took a deep breath. "Well, this is it. Off we go, to the sunshine!" He took the strain on one towing-rope and Margot took the other, Brandi and Candi on the sledge snuggled in between the food bags with a fur rug over them. "And now – waggons roll! Next stop the beach!"

Eight hours later they were back, panting with exhaustion and worried looks on their bills. The powder snow had been more like waist-deep water; even broad waterfowl feet sank in deep, and they had ploughed a trench through it rather than pulled the sledge over the top. That had not been the worst of it.

"Avalanches. Who'd have thought it?" Margot groaned. "This early in the year?" As if to add a perfectly timed sound effect, the air shook with the distant rumble of another big slide a few miles down the valley. The way to the coast was closed.

"We can't get out. Not with snow like this." Plucky sat down disconsolately, while Margot shook the snow off the hides on the sledge and brought the chicks inside to a cold hut. "The valley bottom's the only way we can get the sledge through. The rest's solid trees." He cast his mind fondly back to the Acme Forest he had known in his home timeline, where even in the wildest parts there were trails and firebreaks in all direction. A trackless wilderness was just that.

"We'll have to wait it out. At least we've got food," Margot shrugged. "If it won't melt, it might at least freeze up, in a few days." She unpacked the supplies. "Raw dried fish."

Plucky gave an embarrassed grin. "Just think of it as lightweight sushi."

Margot hugged him, inviting their chicks to share warmth under the fur robes. "It's certainly getting colder." Outside, night was falling.

"Story, Daddy?" Candi looked up at Plucky, her white feathers fluffed up.

"Sure, sweety." Plucky nodded, eager for any distraction from the chilly evening. He handed out the dried fish, looking sadly at the grey ashes in the cold fire-pit. "I remember it well, from my days on the retro Rocket Force… we'd take on all evil-doers, and we had a zero-tolerance policy."

"Zero tolerance to what, exactly?" Margot asked, intrigued. How Plucky ever managed to put himself as the heroic central figure of what she knew were arcade video games, always surprised her. Retro Rocket Rumble was almost the unlikeliest possible game to compose character-based fan Fiction for, with the possible exceptions of Pong ™ and Tetris™ *.

(Editor's note: strange though it may seem, both Tetris and Pong Fan Fictions really do exist.)

Her mate waved a green feather-hand dismissively. "Just… zero tolerance, in general. Anyway, I was out with my squadron, picnicking amongst our Atlas E silos… like great long big stone boxes lying on their sides, long enough to hold the trunk of the biggest fallen forest tree you ever saw."

Brandi and Candi nodded, eyes wide in rapt attention.

"Then the call to action came in. Heroically I picked up the telephone! With the speed of a sprinting stenographer my brave decoding crews filled in lots of random code letters in their notebooks and skilfully compared them! With breath-taking precision I turned the keys! And then… there's a reason I always played, I mean used the Atlas E, kiddies. Style, that's what it's all about. Retro style. They called them 'coffin birds' for a reason, we stored the missiles horizontal buried in sand. It was quite a sight to see – the long doors opening, the sand pouring away and those great gleaming shapes steadily coming upright on their erector launchers..."

Margot suppressed a snicker; she had that image quite clear in her mind. In more ways than one, Plucky had never seen it.

"Daddy?" Candi nudged her father. Plucky was staring, his expression far-away as he thought nostalgically of paper-thin balloon fuel tanks and gimballing engine nozzle slip-rings.

Suddenly Plucky grabbed the digging-stick from the unloaded tools and stores by the door, and began frantically to excavate the floor of the hut.

Margot raised an eyebrow. "Do finish the story, Plucky. We've got all night. The gold will still be there, and it's not going anywhere in a hurry. Neither are we." She wished now they had grabbed the chicks and headed out the first morning the snow had fallen; they might have got away in time then.

"It's not that – well, mostly not that," Plucky panted. "A-ha!" He reached down, and picked up a dirt-encrusted crystal from the hole. "I'd forgotten these. Remembering the Atlas E's coming out of the earth reminded me.""

"Mmm. Another souvenir of home. For what good it'll do us." Margot remembered the crystals that Shirley had planted under their original nest; she had had strange dreams about them. They had been buried under the Summer hut two years ago, and almost forgotten.

"As we used to say when we fired off our heroic Atlas E's towards the evil empire outpost at Paris Euro-Dingy, it's a long shot. It's a long shot, but it just might work." Plucky scraped the dirt off four pencil-sized crystals, and handed one apiece to his family. "Trust me; I saw this work on TV once. And now's the time we really, really need it to work." He pulled out the rawhide sack of gold nuggets from the hole, strapped it onto his back and wrapped his arms around his family. "Margot – think of Acme Acres, the good bits – and think hard – 'there's no place like home.'"

Margot shrugged, but as she took the crystal the memories of those dreams came back to her. She imagined the wonderful taste of an unsustainably sourced FoulPlay Skinny Latte – or better still, a Morbidly Obese Mocha. She closed her eyes, holding onto Plucky and their chicks tight, and thought, with all the power and determination she possessed.

Far away on an exotic, improbable timeline with laws of physics whose finely-tuned universal constants permitted the eventual rise of video games and fan fiction writers, Lieutenant Shirley McLoon was returning from another mission with Unit Four Plus Two, her Unnatural Forces taskforce. It was a tough job but a rewarding one; her team of Combat Mystics had never yet failed to save the world from destruction. Tonight they were returning to base after a week away in San Francisco tackling a renegade cult of New-Age holistic assassins. *

Shirley yawned. "Like, total bummer, man, these cross-country trips are mondo stressing out my biorhythms." She looked around the insides of the dimly lit bus; almost all the team were asleep already.

She relaxed, smoothing her jagged brain-waves into more harmonious forms as the Number 51 Assault Bus motored steadily through sleeping suburbs. Suddenly her aura felt a great disturbance in the Farce, as a powerful spell broke the boundaries between realities.

"What's going on?" Shirley asked the blue-glowing figure. Recently she had been growing more estranged from her aura, since discovering it was not a part of herself as much as she had always believed.

I recognise that spell. So should you. You cast it, then like put it on Plucky's shelf, waiting for it to be triggered. Remember enchanting those power crystals we put under our nest? The Oz tech Red Shoes 'no place like home' spell? Her aura raised an aetherial eyebrow.

A white loon's head feathers stiffened in surprise as she understood. "Like wow. Fer sure. Plucky, our chicks and Margot– they're back."

(*) The average citizen usually looked in the phone book to hire an assassin to make some problem person permanently stop troubling them. Holistic assassins not only terminate the target they're given – they make the customer's whole problem go away…

End Chapter One