Simon Barber Passing the Torch: A Not-So-Tiny Toons Christmas Special 27

Chapter Five

Shirley wasted no time, and web-footed through the snow to her family home. She waved. "Like, hi Mom!" She spotted her mother packing away a folding sacrificial altar. "Visitors dropped by?"

"Yes, dear. An avatar of that nice Babylonian god Marduk called round. You remember him from your incarnation in Ur of the Chaldees?" Melicent McLoon smiled. She was on first-name terms with divinities and daemons of several pantheons; often the divinities of one bunch were labelled daemons by their rival religions irrespective of their true natures.

"Fer sure." Shirley nodded. "Back then I was High Priestess to Ishtar, but Marduk dropped in to like, commune with her sometimes. Not mondo often. Didn't like all the burning aromatic herbs and resins at our temple." Even after all these years, she loved the scent of sandalwood joss sticks.

"Some deities don't. Try it in their temple and they get highly incensed," Melicent agreed. She looked appraisingly at her daughter; Shirley was standing uncomfortably, shifting from one webbed foot to the other, very unlike her normal balanced poise. "What's on your mind?"

Shirley winced. "Brandi and Candi."

Her mother held up a feather-hand. "Not your department, dear."

Two loons stood facing each other for a few seconds. Shirley sighed. "And it's totally not my idea. Colonel Fenix laid down these way heavy orders, 'kay, Mom? And while I'm in this uniform…" She looked down sourly at the traffic warden's black jacket and high-visibility orange vest.

"Mmmm. That is a problem. Cup of tea, dear?" Melicent nodded, conjuring a pot of steaming oolong and two porcelain cups. "Dear Hal gets his orders too. Straight from General Snafu."

"And he gets it from that grody President Hitcher dude," Shirley said sourly. "Who is ultimately my boss too. Mega bad karma."

"I knew Private Snafu, even before he enlisted," Melicent reminisced. "He was a cheerful Toon back then. And he stayed that way despite everything, right till the end of the War, when he had his little accident trying to finesse the paperwork to get demobilised early so he could marry his girl. She's Mitzi Avery's maiden aunt, you know – and she's still waiting." She paused. "Dear Snafu always was popular with some lovely ladies; it amazed a lot of folk."

Shirley's beak twisted. "Colonel Fenix told me all about him. Lots of people want to stay in the military, but get the push anyway. He screwed things up SO bad he can't even get fired. That does not give me mondo confidence in our Commander."

Melicent poured the tea, passing her daughter a cup. "Now. My grand-daughters." She smiled fondly. "They're quite sweet in their way. Even if their way is about as direct as a hungry shark in mid-ocean." She sighed. "I do wish you'd left them alone, dear. History took rather a blow when you erased everything Plucky was meant to give them."

Shirley's bill wrinkled. "Like, all 27 of his major character flaws?"

We counted them one weekend, her aura said grimly. Laid out a harmonious 77-step plan where he could start fixing them. But did he do it?

Melicent looked steadily at her daughters. "That boy really loved you, Shirley."

Shirley winced. "He even insulted your hairdo, Mother – called it after some major uncool jet bomber."

Melicent raised an eyebrow, reaching up and patting her towering piled head-feathers. "A B-52, maybe? He's absolutely right, there – when I was young that's just what the style was called." Seeing her daughters (both solid and astral) recoil in shock, she pressed her attack as if setting up for a bombing run. "In fact, there's a prophecy about Brandi and Candi."

Shirley rolled her eyes in disgust. "Another prophecy? I am SO sick of those things. So, it's another totally obscure, ambiguous doggerel brewed from, what was it, 'the raving shrieks of madmen, the visions of inspired dreamers and the latest fashionable theories of modern cosmologists'?"

Her mother shook her head. "Actually, Marduk told me himself. You're going to get one chance at this. The prophecy was very plain and clear for once."

Shirley waited, till her astral self started impatiently tapping an ectoplasmic webbed foot. "And?" She queried.

Melicent sighed. "And you're not allowed to know what it is. That would make things too easy."

"Then why even tell me?" Shirley asked, exasperated.

"Because I can tell you – where and when you need to be. In the clearing where the two power lines cross, by Lake Acme, in thirty minutes time." Melicent smiled. "Just enough time to finish your tea."

Shirley and her aura gave a synchronised sigh. It must be something rubbing off from all her daemonology, Shirley tight-beamed to her sympathetic twin. At times, Mom can be damned annoying.

Just outside in the yard, in the shade of the gothic spires of the loon household, the gothic graduates of Addams Academy were relaxing in Angelina's trailer, admiring the décor of holographic screaming skull wallpaper and looking over briefing notes for their next mission. Playing in the background was Addams' Academy's school song, the low, sinister organ chords seeming to echo from hidden crypts of eldritch terror. 'Ambient gloom' was a big thing at their old school.

"Ah. Working over the Christmas holidays. No rest for the wicked, or even for us," Calgari sighed. Pulling out his air guitar, he strummed and sang an ancient ballad loosely attributed to Saint Thomas of Lehrer:

"Kill the turkeys, ducks and chickens! Spike the punch and rubbish old Dickens

Even through the prospect sickens, brother, here we go again…

On Christmas day, we all get sore, our fellow Toons we just abhor

And vow to rob them tenfold more, the other three hundred and sixty-four…"

His comrades chuckled appreciatively, as they scanned through the written notes.

"It says here, there's a new Japanese process to make endangered-species whale meat look and taste just like organic tofu," Angelina noted. "It'd be fun to feed that to Shirley, just to see the look on her face when you tell her the next day."

"We'll try it on the trip, pencil it in under 'in-flight entertainments,'" Calgari said. "Not for her, of course, but for us."

"Mmm," Angelina smiled, her sharp beak open hungrily in anticipation. "But first, there's a big new section on official military stuff, I see."

"Yes, I've read it. The Japanese Self-Defence Force aren't happy with modern tactics," Calgari said. "They want more style, you know. Glorious Mecha charges, with the final battle decided between the giant Mecha-riding champions of each army squaring off and slogging it out with their forty-foot power swords in front of the paused battle ranks."

"Full-on Samurai slugfest, take out whole cities in collateral damage!" Tlalocopa enthused. "That's more like it. More film-worthy."

"It takes two sides to agree to battle that way," Angelina observed. "We can wish them good luck with that."

"And they're leading the world in Unconventional warfare," Calgari noted. "They have a special Zen unit, specialise in what they call 'Wu Wei' – 'Doing by not doing.' Everyone expects military units to go for the obvious targets – not them." There was a picture of the special forces unit parachuting onto an entirely different continent than the actual target, and Not Doing a whole host of things, precisely timed to the split second. "The Chaos Butterfly effects can be devastating."

"That's Unconventional for you!" Angelina nodded appreciatively.

"And we might be there next month, si!" Tlalocopa grinned. "I study the file on this Wasawara Corporation. Muy modern! First company in Japan to be run by Artificial Malevolence construct! Sure we get along with it fine. Maybe plug Shirley into mind/machine direct communion, see who go mad first."

"Maybe she'll break it. Maybe it'll break her. Maybe they'll wipe each other out." Calgari paused, considering. "You know, I don't see a down-side anywhere."

"Should be good. Things are looking up all round for the new year. Even the food's improving. Tlalocopa here already has proper goat's blood MRE rations, and we just might get some Corvid ethnic entrees next," Angelina said. "These regular issue meatballs in gelatine aren't bad, but nothing like real eyeballs." She looked at the Quartermaster's newsletter on her military T-pad; amongst the new season's range of ethnic MREs was one for those of adopted French culture, officially titled 'Ze stinky garlic Spam.'

"Yes, it's almost that time of year again. I've got Shirley's present wrapped and ready for tomorrow," Calgari said. "It's a useful book, '101 cool new games to play on the subway tracks'. "

"Neat! I got her a handy book too – 'Explosive Ordnance Disposal for Dummies.' Bought it remaindered. Maybe that edition has a few little printing errors, they missed out the word 'Don't' a few times," Angelina nodded. "But hey, I'm sure it won't matter much."

"Mmm. She might end up making good use of her donor card either way, if we're lucky." Calgari smiled. "The much, much better one we upgraded for her." He hoped the conscientious loon had not checked her card recently – the one he had telekinetically swapped it for looked almost identical, but now read 'Doner Card.' After all, he mused, if it was ever needed Shirley would have no further use for her material body, and the Fraudulent Lebanese Takeaway next door did an inspiring range of grilled meat Doners and other kebabs. "Waste not want not", he reflected. "Shirley surely approves of wholefoods, and of organic recycling. With her ethically strict diet she qualifies as a free-range wholefood in her own right!"

"Organic and free-range poultry, fer sure," Angelina agreed. "Humanely culled? Well, no need to go that far."

"I got her a President Hitcher T-shirt for Serial Killer Pride Week. It say 'Some people are axe-murderers. Get over it.' Shirley say she into Respect, it good to see her wearing it Christmas. And after Japan, what say we take some leave, go see New York?" Tlalocopa suggested.

"President Hitcher is a modern, broad-minded cosmopolitan leader," Calgari said proudly. "Our Chief of Staff. An axe handle probably counts as a staff, anyway. He's unprejudiced all the way." He paused, and winked. "Except against freaks, deviants and weirdos, of course."

"Got to have some standards," Angelina agreed. "And hey, he's into balance and harmony, just like our dear loopy loon. Really. Like if you always cry at weddings, make up for it by giggling at funerals."

"New York sounds good," Calgari said. "There's plans to modernise some of the old tourist attractions – like the one they're renaming the Vampire State Building."

"Not been there since incarnation in 1920's," Tlalocopa reminisced. "Fun time to be there, the Wall Street Crash! It raining stockbrokers, out the skyscraper windows. I sat and watched for hours. More fun than a train wreck."

"Happy days," Calgari smiled, a far-away look in his eyes.

Angelina's eyes gleamed. "I'd love to have seen that. Let's see if we can hack the financial news channels, make it look like it's all happening again." She winked. "And this time, we'll have web cameras all set up and ready."

"A fine plan," Calgari nodded, considering it. "We can set up a pay-for-view channel on Dark ToonTube, call it the 'panoramic pavement pizza parade.' Make a fortune."

Just then, their feathers (and whatever the unknowable chupacabra had) bristled as with a huge static charge. Angelina's beak opened wide in surprise. "Well! Something big's firing up, high-energy sorcery style. Let's see if we can get a piece of that action."

"Right!" Calgari pulled out his regulation issued Mil-spec divining rod, though the divinities he had ritually consecrated it to were somewhat non-regulation. Studying the directional bearing, he nodded abruptly. "That way!"

Swallowing her tea as fast as was harmonious, Shirley McLoon had bid her mother a hasty farewell and hurried out through the snow. Memories of her dream kept surfacing, of her daughters pressing a hidden cosmic reset button – much as Plucky had accidentally done on his NumbMindo console the only time he ever reached the final level of Star Wing Commander XV. The egotistical mallard had been complaining for hours about that – speculating the game state must have gone 'somewhere' and someone else would get to find and steal the results of his skill.

It's not like that, her aura said flatly. Where does the light go when it's out? Same place.

"And… I can feel a huge power surge building in the Farce." Shirley's feathers were bristling with static charge even before she entered the clearing – the open space where the State's main two power lines crossed, having built right over an ancient ley line and an Indian burial mound just for good measure (the Indian involved, a Mr. Chandra, had come to California from Bangalore to work building the railways in the 1870's). She skidded to a stop, recognising two loon chicks standing in the middle of a dome of glowing energy.

It can't be them! They're far too old to be our hatchlings! They should only be about six, not ten! Her aura gasped, her ectoplasmic form flickering violently in the waves of force already emanating from the spell.

"It's them, fer sure," Shirley whispered. "While we were away, they must have gone back to that fast-running time-stream they were hatched on. A coupla months over there would do it." She recalled the prophetic dream with a shudder – on waking she had tried to reassure herself that even if it someday threatened to come true, she would have years to prepare herself. She had been wrong. "It's all going down right now."

Just as in her dream, two pairs of eyes turned to lock in her direction, and Shirley winced as a mental probe more powerful than anything she had ever experienced drilled right through her psychic barriers. She felt her mind being dispassionately read. As she opened her bill to protest, a wave of power held her body locked rigid.

"It too late now." Candi said flatly. "We already started."

Shirley's aura went rigid in shock, tracing the spell. Already the power cables above were fuming and dripping – the liquid air freezing on their ultra-cold surface and dropping off to the ground below. Mondo chain reaction! It's going to totally go down – and I can't stop it!

"You don't have to do this," Shirley pleaded. "Fer sure, the world's a mess, but… totally hitting the reset button isn't the way."

"It will work." Brandi locked an icy gaze at her biological mother. She narrow-cast an image of sprawling parking lots, poisoned lands of industrial dereliction, freeways and tract housing – and then showed a clean, empty world, with a few tribes wandering out of the Amazon and the Australian outback happy that the world was suddenly a quieter place. "It is right. So we do it." She transmitted a view of the plan – a self-sustaining spell would drop the temperature of power lines to superconducting temperature, and used the saved energy to spread out around the world, freezing open relays in position before anyone could shut them down. For an instant the world would be one net of enormous energy – which would flow straight back to power the main spell, right there in the clearing.

Shirley hesitated. She had spent most of her current incarnation complaining about exactly the kind of things her hatchlings proposed to put right. The prophetic dream she recalled – and realised it was not the first time she had seen the end of a world. An idea suddenly sprang to mind. "You can do – better!"

"How?" The twins demanded, in perfect sync, while all around them the power lines hissed and crackled with solid oxygen and nitrogen now sheathing the cables cooling to absolute zero. A dimensional portal was opening, and a pre-set incantation they had learned at the MiskaToonic triggered.

Shirley took a deep breath, brought to mind the earliest remembered incarnation she had ever had, and broadcast the view – of a very different world, three American billion years in the past. "Like fixing this!"

The skies of Ancient Phaeton were red-brown, a natural colour to all its inhabitants making their living under the cloudy skies, It was a primal, fertile place of towering mountains, pristine rivers and lakes – but the 'waterfowl' swimming happily across the teeming lake did not breathe oxygen-rich air or drink water like her aeons-later incarnations. On Phaeton the mountains were deep-frozen water ice – the rain and sea were liquid hydrocarbons, raining from a methane and ammonia sky like the Saturnian moon Titan would do someday. When the clouds cleared, sometimes the locals would look up at the distant young sun and marvel at the sight of the close and colourfully banded gas giant Jupiter, still to gain its distinctive red spot. Further out were lesser lights – the green and red world of primal Mars where Marcia's ancestors were starting to crawl out of the cold, salty seas. Further sunwards, a remote blue speck someday to be known as Earth had only evolved lowly life forms such as bacteria, blue-green algae and politicians.

Shirley's early form was nothing remotely like a bird, but she both swam and flew, and her morphic resonance echoed that basic form throughout all her many lives. One of them had seen the first alien visitors arriving on the world – to be welcomed. Which was the last mistake that peaceful, harmonious civilisation ever made.

"Careless Bruins," Shirley's grim thought appeared like a sub-title to the memory. "The first time they visited our Solar System. They'd come from another, older Universe, after it had a 'little accident' and spacetime totally collapsed. Not their fault, they said."

And we believed them – then. Her aura commented sourly. No telling if that doomed dimension was even the one they started in.

Brandi and Candi looked on, stone-faced as the friendly, helpful-seeming tourists wandered around, taking souvenir photographs and sizing the place up. Then, in gratitude for their kind welcome, they offered to show the kindly natives some cultural traditions of their own home world. Shirley's incarnation had been there, watching with interest as a fuzzy bear set up a party-sized barbecue set by the shores of a petrol lake – and lit a match. The word 'Boom!' was an understatement, to put it mildly.

That shouldn't have been possible, her aura said flatly. Fer sure, the air's methane and the rain's petrol – but there's no oxygen, the planet shouldn't have blown up like it did!

"We see how they did it," Candi said, her feathers bristling. "They bring their own Universe reality with them."

"It leaks," Brandi agreed. "Spreads."

"And most of the pieces got totally swallowed by Jupiter in a few million years, just some minor bits left as asteroids," Shirley said, special-effect sweat beading on her forehead despite the cold (and despite avians not having sweat glands) as she thought desperately hard about her next line. "Most Earth astronomers don't even believe Phaeton was ever there." She paused, looking up.

This planet is hurt, fer sure, her aura pleaded It can recover.But that one – is gone. Only you can fix it. She broadcast the exact spot in ancient time and space when History had turned and the first of the Sun's planets to evolve intelligent life had been the first to lose it. There was just one point where the decision tree had branched.

Brandi and Candi looked at each other, recalculating their spell.

"We can do it." Candi said, "But it take all our power."

"Can only do this once," Brandi said, looking up at the crackling power lines. Liquid air was now falling like a cascade, a stream of dense super-cold air whipping the pine branches up and frost forming on their feathers.

"I'll help! Take all the mana from me you have to!" Shirley said, desperately. She recalled the Spirit Tap spell she had performed last year on a willing swan girl, draining Ida's energies in a good cause. Now it's my turn - what goes around comes around, she thought fleetingly.

Brandi and Candi looked at each other wordlessly. This may finish us. Burn us out. But it is right to do. The thought was shared dispassionately, and as the world power grid linked and its energies coalesced as one, they triggered the final spell.

The mana flash lit up several dimensional planes – and somewhere far off, it was noticed. And not welcomed by all.

Some time later, Shirley awoke, lying in the snow with the stink of scorched feathers around her. She moaned, checking her aura – who had taken the worst of it, and lay by her side as a faint, flickering shape. She summoned her last strength and rolled over to overlap with her astral twin, whose comatose form shape soaked into hers like water into a sponge, sharing energy.

A strange thought surfaced from the random static crackling that filled her head. Those Addams Academy toons were right. Wierdsville. They said if I ever quit this job, something would have shown up that only I could have handled. And it just did. She paused. At least – things can't get any worse.

Just then, the air crackled and a burst of infra-pink light washed over the clearing.

"No. Not them." Shirley gasped. "Not now." She turned her head and saw what she had feared – one of the cute, cuddlesome and highly marketable creatures who she had just shown introducing ancient Phaeton to beach barbecue culture.

The Careless Bruin shook its fuzzy, adorable fist, its normally cuddlesome features contorted in rage. "We saw what you did! Wasted all our hard work! We'll get you for that – yes, and your little aura too!"

Shirley sobbed in exhaustion, helplessly drained. Looking around she saw Brandi and Candi in the snow, out cold in more ways than one. Her aura flickered dimly, punch-drunk from the psychic feedback of the massive spell. She realised she was defenceless, too weak to even stand as the cute but evil bruin approached, its chest-rune glowing as it powered up an attack. Even had she been fully powered up, she knew her most potent force bolt would have gone right through without doing any damage to a creature that could slip between astral franchises. Careless Bruins survived when the worlds they played with did not; their fuzzy forms were grandstanding from dimensions mere earthly forces could not touch. Their very particles were the alien Cuterons and Cuterinos.

Just then, there was the mirage-like distortion Shirley recognised as a portable hole opening up. Three figures dropped down into the snow, armed with classic comedy slapsticks – the heavy, military grade models. One of them carried a military Kawaiionising Radiation detector that had guided them to their unearthly target.

"Fore!" Angelina called out, taking a full golfing swing with the slapstick and connecting with the Careless Bruin's fluffy rump with a snap like a whip-crack. The small bear yelped, not just at the impact, but with the shock of realising it could unexpectedly take real damage on this plane.

The weak comedic force! That and gravity are the only ones from this universe they interact with! Shirley's aura separated and stood open-beaked in shock, looking on. They can hit them.

"Five!" Calgari swept his slapstick as the cute but evil furball descended, sending it spinning into the air again.

"Feliz Navidad! It's piñata time!" Tlalocopa enthused, her slapstick swatting it in a high arc before it vanished into an almost imperceptible rift in EinsToonian space. "Now we lock the door shut so he no come back that way."

Angelina's black-glowing astral planar claws popped into existence on her left hand, and she pouted (a difficult thing to do with a beak.) "Too soon! You should have passed me the ball back. I wanted to see if these seam-rippers work on plush from his dimension."

"Oh, I'm sure they'll be back. And I think they've got Shirley's number. Stick around her, we're in for a lively time." Calgari said. "See? She's useful for something besides a psychic piñata."

Shirley watched, amazed as the Addams Academy trio conjured up a blue-white fireball of psychic energy channelled via Angelica's glowing claws, seam-welding the rift in the universe shut.

Shirley looked at the dire trio open-beaked in shock. "You're … helping for once? But why?"

Calgari smiled. "Perhaps it's our Christmas present to you."

Shirley's aura blew an astral raspberry. Like, totally no way.

The raven shrugged. "Or possibly we've decided being nice and helpful, putting you in our debt will collapse your psyche into a conflicted, gibbering wreck, with – who knows? That exquisite pop as a Toon's sanity shatters forever. Which would make a great phone ring-tone." He paused, considering. "Did I say that out loud?" He shrugged, philosophically. "Oh well."

"Besides," Angelina said. "Do you really think we'd let anyone else mess with you, our very own exclusive designated psychic punch-bag and Comic Relief character? No way."

They looked up at the clear skies; Calgari pulled an electronic telescope from his Hammerspace pocket and scanned eagerly. Close to Jupiter there was an unfamiliar dot, which with magnification showed as a red-brown planetary disc. He smiled, passing the device to Angelina. "Of course, this is going to make a lot of people very shocked and unhappy."

"Si! Is always an up-side," Tlalocopa agreed. "NASA spent billions last year on probes to see asteroids, and now no asteroids. Were never there. Despite everyone remembers them."

"Yes. I imagine Doctor Wyrdbeard's Clinic for the Clinically and Comically Insane will get plenty of custom, once the news gets out," Angelina said. "All those astronomers and cosmologists suddenly spot the Solar System just radically changed, for no possible scientific reason." She paused, her head tilted to one side as if listening intently. "We should head out to the NASA Vandenberg launch centre, and their main offices. Soon we'll hear that exquisite popping sound of shattering sanity, and the sound of millions of cherished textbooks being torn up."

"That's my kind of Christmas present," Calgari smiled. The two corvids rubbed beaks affectionately.

Like, mondo eww, Shirley's aura complained, looking at the pair aghast. Makes me feel way nauseous. In fact... The astral shape turned a sickly greenish colour. Gangway! She staggered off to the edge of the clearing, and loud retching sounds echoed around the astral plane.

Tlalocopa had been observing with interest, and a minute later the chupocabra strolled back with a smile on her face. "Live and learn, si! Now I know astral spirits throw up ectoplasm. Never get to see that, watching Disney channel!"

"Wierdsville." Shirley frowned. "She never gets sick. Low in energy, fer sure, but never – sick. Neither did I – apart from morning sickness, when my eggs were on the way. And that's just natural." She paused, looking pointedly at her astral twin.

Her aura looked even greener than before as she picked up Shirley's thoughts. You think… no! Totally no way! Her eyes were wide in shock and horror. It can't be!

"Wonder what she's been getting up to on the sixth astral plane, all the time dear Shirley here's been fast asleep, dreaming the sweet dreams of the just?" Angelina put in knowingly, the magpie's long tail feathers twitching. She bent down to offer Shirley a feather-hand up out of the snow.

"Mondo thanks," Shirley said, too drained to argue. She accepted the magpie's feather-hand, and as she did so felt a strange frisson, as if her body was responding at some deep level to the touch. Belatedly, she recalled this was the hand that wore the (now-retracted) claws. She got to her feet, shuddering at the reaction, and went to check on the unconscious Brandi and Candi.

Calgari was looking at the starry skies. "You know, with a sorcerous energy flare that size, the astral plane's going to be ringing like a bell. All sorts of things that would normally be quite impossible are going to borrow that potential energy and… buck the odds."

Down at the boathouse on the frozen Lake Acme, the lakeside had been built up with banked snow and two hundred seats borrowed from Acme Looniversity's sports arena, that hosted baseball (and its new upgrade, extremely base-ball) matches in warmer weather. The scent of chlorine bleach from the bleachers was noticeable.

"Some crowd!" Babs said, waving to her mother and siblings. "Looks like anybody who's anybody's here." She paused, casting a sly glance at Variola. "And some Perfectos, too."

Variola gave a contemptuous sniff, but said nothing.

Clara squeezed the rat's paw affectionately, and looked fiercely across at Babs. Her two-tone tail twitched dangerously, her feet stamped and there came a mephitic waft as her scent glands armed. "You need a better class of worm if you're going fishing, rabbit – this girl's not rising for the bait."

"Expensive worms. Sums up the Perfectoids perfectly, I always thought," Babs said innocently, mentally preparing a fast spin-change into an NBCC-suited form should Clara's tail point her way. "Still, it's good to see everyone else here." She waved at Calamity and Marcia sitting over in the next row; the Martian girl was wearing only a thin cloak above her skimpy bathing costume, enjoying the night-time temperatures which were dipping towards midsummer conditions on her home world. To her, an Earthly snowdrift was as comforting to relax on as sun-soaked sand dunes to most Earth Toons.

"Mostly everyone. Pity Fowlmouth and the band are out of town touring over Christmas," Buster said. "It'd be good to meet up. Not all our class finished up in films, but at least they're in Show Business." From somewhere ill-defined came a burst of the classic song 'There's no business like show business!'

"That's right!" Babs said brightly. "Fowlmouth on vocals and supersonic combustion Flugelhorn, Furball on strings, Mitzi Avery on keyboards and Dizzy on concussion instruments."

Clara blinked. "Don't you mean percussion? Concussion is a sort of brain injury."

The bunnies exchanged meaningful glances. "I take it, Clara hasn't heard their music," Buster deadpanned. "And visually they're pretty stunning too. Some guys need mil-spec optical filters when Mitzi Avery dances, or they're knocked out cold for the rest of the gig." Liking extreme musical styles was not just a student thing, he reflected – one of their own former tutors was known to his class these days as Professor "Speedcore" Gonzales.

"I've seen a video of them play," Rhubella said. "It's impressive. Not too suited to cramped indoor gigs though - the flugelhorn exhaust needs a proper water-cooled flame trench, and Furball's electric violin takes as much current as most aluminium smelters!"

Down on the lake, the improvised curtains swished open and the lights around the seating went down.

"Hush. The show's starting." Babs settled down, accepting the popcorn bowl her husband pulled out from his Hammerspace pocket. She put away her annoying-noise-cancelling smart headphones (handy settings included 'aircraft engines', 'elevator muzac' and 'Professor Elmer Fudd') and watched intently (or even in-boathouse-ly). On the back wall was projected an eerily glowing title:


Over on the ice-floored stage, a warmly clad Mortimer skated out onto a backdrop of wild, dramatic mountain scenery. "It was a dark but definitely not stormy night!" He announced. "And it was just this time of year, when Chad and Janice's trip to the annual Straight Arrow convention… took a turn that neither of them expected. A night that they would both remember – for a very, very long time. And, struggling through the snow… I think I can hear them now." Mortimer stepped out of the way to the corner of the stage, as from the other side Marie-Sioux and Gene Ericson came staggering in, as if ploughing through knee-high snowdrifts. It was a tricky manoeuvre on ice-skates.

Janice (Marie-Sioux):" You know, dear, that was really strange. Your car breaking down just like that. Not what you expect from a brand new Beamer, freshly serviced. Who'd have thought it?"

Chad: (Gene Ericson.): "Yes… and I filled it up with plenty of unleaded gas at that last service station."

Janice: "Petrol? Didn't you tell me it was a diesel?"

Chad: "Petrol is cheaper, dear. And we're saving for our engagement ring, remember."

Janice: "Oh! Of course." (Pauses, looking around.) "You know… I don't think we're in Kansas anymore."

Chad: (Looking shocked) "You shouldn't say things like that! What if a studio lawyer's listening?"

Janice: "It's all right, I checked. We can quote that old film phrase, it's out of copyright now. Anyway… I really do think we're not in Kansas."

Chad: "Why?"

Janice: "Well, the rugged mountain chain with all the European style castles was a bit of a giveaway." (Pauses) "There's still no signal on your phone?"

Chad: "None. But hey! I forgot, the GPS I got yesterday! It was going to be your Christmas Present… but we need it now. This should tell us exactly where we are." (Rummages in his pockets and pulls out a cheap-looking gadget, resembling an old calculator.) "All I have to do is press the button and… oh!" (His eyes go wide in surprise).

Janice: "What does it say, dear?"

Chad: "It just lights up and says 'YOU ARE HERE.'" (Pauses) "I did wonder what standard of GPS they were selling in that dime-store." (Shrugs.) "Still, better than nothing."

Janice: "Well, so we're here. In a snowdrift, and it's getting dark. There's no way we'll get to the convention centre at Statistically Average Rock, Kansas tonight. What about trying over there? That nearest castle on the mountaintop… there's lights on. Maybe we can use their phone."

Chad: "Or at least, they can tell us what part of the perfectly normal Kansas backwoods this is. Come on, let's go!"

(Exit, Stage Right).

Mortimer skated out onto centre-stage as the hapless pair struggled out of sight. "And so it was that they approached the castle. And their arrival had not gone unnoticed within…"

(He steps back and the backdrop changes, to that of a classical laboratory, with abundant high-voltage machines whose main function seemed to be throwing electric arcs and plasma discharges around the place. Two white-coated scientists are revealed, watching Chad and Janice approach on a giant display screen linked to a huge array of mysterious sensors. The whole setup with its tangle of cables appears to be running off an elderly Atari games console.)

Doctor Wittling (Granville Laverne): "So! More candidates arriving, no doubt. What vacancies do we still have, Doctor Gruber?"

Doctor Gruber (Gibson Goat): "Well, Doctor Wittling. Quite a few, if the Master is to complete his great project. We're short of all grades of scientists, from lowly wonks and boffins, right up to senior tech wranglers and gurus."

Doctor Wittling: "Well, as long as they're Forbidden Science certified – we can find a position for them."

Doctor Gruber: "Really? We're going to offer them a job just like that? What if they're no good?"

Doctor Wittling: "Then their position, will probably be… briefly dangling by their fingertips, over the pit where we throw people to the… to the… (Blinks, looking round absent-mindedly for a few seconds) oh, you know, those hungry things we have people thrown to."

(Both laugh wildly.)

Doctor Gruber: "Not too hungry, I hope. Don't want it to be too quick."

Doctor Wittling: "Oh, no. That would never do. Bolting your food is so bad for the digestion."

The backdrop changed, to become the main doorway of a classic castle, complete with drawbridge and portcullis poised above the doorway. It creaks ominously. Chad and Janice are seen, walking up to it.

Chad: "Here we are, honey. There were lights on, so I reckon somebody's home."

Janice: "I don't know, dear – I have a bad feeling about this."

Chad: "Hey! What could be more natural than finding an intact medieval castle in the craggy mountains of… unknown Kansas?"

Janice. "Well, since you put it that way…"

Chad walks up boldly to the door. Just as he is about to knock, it creaks open. Standing in the doorway is a tall, austere figure in a slightly decayed butler's uniform.

Slightly decayed Butler: (Cassandra Bloode, in a deep, grave voice) "Yes?"

Chad: (Extending friendly hand in greeting, which is ignored.) "Hello there! Our car broke down, and we wondered if we could take the opportunity..."

Butler: "That password is correct, Sir. Come right this way. The Master is expecting you."

Chad: (To Janice) "Password? Did I accidentally hit on a password to something?"

Janice: "Funny how that sort of thing keeps happening, isn't it?"

(They enter the castle. The door slams ominously behind them.)

Mortimer skated back onto centre stage, and waved at the closed door. "And so, by a coincidence hard to believe, they gained entrance to the castle. Where many strange and terrible things awaited them…"

(Scene change back to the laboratory; the Butler shows Chad and Janice in, then departs.)

Doctor Wittling: "Welcome, soon-to-be-colleagues! It's a cold night out there."

Chad: (Strides forward determinedly, and shakes his hand.) "Yes, Sir. But what we really wanted first, was just to use your telephone."

Doctor Wittling: "Ah! If you'd asked for anything else… we have radio telescopes here that can spot a radio sitting on a Martian bedside table… we have detectors that can investigate the Plot Hole at the centre of distant galaxies but…"

Janice: "No telephone?"

Doctor Gruber: "The Master is really worried about people leaking stories to the Press."

Doctor Wittling: "And he forgot to play the phone bill." (Shrugs) "Even a super-scientist can't think of everything."

Chad: "Aren't you in charge?"

Doctor Wittling: "Us? We're just humble researchers, brought in like you, for the final stage of the Great Project ™. The man in charge – He's the last word in Unrestrained science."

Doctor Gruber: "Well, with enough of a budget he'd be the last word. At least he's the last letter. They call him Doctor Z. Pronounced ZED, not Zee."

Chad: "Zed? He's English?"

Janice: (Looks around nervously) "Must be evil, dear. A hundred Hollywood films can't be wrong."

Doctor Gruber: "The Great Project ™ needs only the best qualified boffins, and that's the only place boffins are trained."

Doctor Wittling: "Ah! A great scientist indeed, but never appreciated. A familiar story in our trade. Rejected by the mainstream, he was left to his own devices." (Pause) "And some of the Devices in this castle are really something! He's got a transformer that can change all that old, foggy energy into the new, clear sort."

Doctor Gruber: "A great boon to Toon-kind."

Doctor Wittling: "It's a good thing you found us, and you didn't call at the next castle on the ridge. The Count lives there, and he's not so friendly."

Chad: (To Janice) "Remember, honey? Seeing that industrial-looking hazard sign we passed on the road? Like the 'Danger of Death' signs around power cables, but saying 'Danger of Undeath'?"

Janice: "Count Dracula? He's living – or something - around here?"

Doctor Gruber: "Not Count Dracula – Count Cohen. He's had no choice but to drink blood every night to survive, since he was made a vampire in the 18th century." (Pauses) "Been forced to break kosher non-stop for three hundred years, and oy, is he in a mean mood!"

(Enter Professor X, stage Left. She wears a white laboratory coat over incongruous sea-boots. What looks like a cutlass is sheathed at her waist.)

Professor X: (Lucretia Darke) "Hail, fellow savants! More cannon-fodder for the crew, I mean valued new recruits?"

Doctor Wittling: "Just arrived! There's snow fresh on their boots."

Doctor Gruber: "And they're still wet behind the ears, it appears."

Professor X: "What's your speciality?"

Chad: "I'm a junior deputy intern, third class. Sure, the hours are long, the work terrible and there's no pay, but on the other hand… looking on the bright side…"

Professor X: "Yes?"

Chad: "Sorry, I can't think of anything."

Professor X: "And what about you, little lady?"

Janice: "Oh… I'm only starting my training for that job. In a few years, maybe I'll be a part-time junior assistant intern. If I qualify."

Doctor Gruber: "Ah! Non-specialists! We have a couple of posts for people like that."

Professor X: "Nice spruce ones, against a wall in a courtyard out the back. "

Doctor Wittling: (Nervously): "Ha, ha. Just her little joke. She doesn't do that… any more. She's been working on Unrestrained Science projects since… way back. Or even further."

Professor X: "Ah, I remember when it all began. It was back in the 1940's, and I was working for…" (She looks round, nervously). "A… certain European regime."

Janice. "Oh well. Better than an Uncertain one."

Chad: "Well said Janice!"

Janice: "Just who did you work for?"

Professor X: (looking uncomfortable) "A regime who are currently a bit out of fashion."

Chad: "What goes around, comes around."

Professor X: "Quite. But they did Monstrous Physics and Forbidden Science like you wouldn't believe! Oh, that scalar physics!" (Pauses) "But saying any more would be… troublesome."

Janice: "As in 'real can of worms' troublesome?"

Professor X: "As in 'a whole worm can cannery' of trouble."

Chad: "You were working in the 1940's? You don't look old enough."

Professor X: "Believe me, when you're playing with a space-time that isn't remotely EinsToonian… and my, um, former employers Definitely didn't approve of EinsToon, anything can happen. (Looks wistful.) "Oh, that scalar physics! Non-linear math to die for – and many did."

Chad: "You fell into a time warp?"

Professor X: "Several times. I'd do that same Time Warp again, and again… but I ended up here and now."

Janice: "Things are always now."

Chad: "Why did you work for, um, them, in the first place?"

Professor X: "I'm an innocent victim of fashion. Can I help it if I look good in black?"

Doctor Gruber: "We're all specialists here, in our various fields. I was recruited for my medical skills. It's a hard life, being a surgeon. Persecuted, and no respect."

Chad: "Really? Why's that?"

Doctor Gruber: "Well… imagine, if you're an amateur conjurer, you can be the real life and soul of the party practicing on your family, friends and neighbours."

Chad: "Sure. A great way to hone your skills."

Doctor Gruber: "And that's just what I did. But nobody appreciates it… when you're an amateur brain surgeon."

Doctor Wittling: "He's the best darn brain surgeon in these here parts." (Pauses.) "Drunk OR sober!"

Professor X: "Live patients are so… unappreciative."

Doctor Wittling. "Ain't it the truth." (Sighs.) "I worked for a chemical company, we made bleach. The trouble was, cubs would drink the stuff – it tasted terrible, and was really poisonous. Until I hit upon the perfect answer."

Chad: "Cub-proof caps on the bottles?"

Doctor Wittling: (Scornfully) "That's hardly innovative. Think outside the box, young man! No, I produced a cherry-flavoured bleach! Solved half the problem at a stroke. But did they appreciate it?"

Doctor Gruber: "I could have been famous. I had a patient with symptoms unknown to science. I was going to have the disease named after me; it'd be Gruber's Syndrome in all the textbooks! But before the medical panel came to assess the patient… he got better."

Doctor Wittling: "Ingrates, the lot of them."

Janice: "You really are mad scientists, aren't you?"

Doctor Wittling: "Well? So are you, or you wouldn't be here."

Doctor Gruber: "Think of us all as 'don't-get-mad, get even' scientists. And if you can't get even, get odd."

Professor X: "And I did – all those years ago. It was like this:" (She clears his throat and sings, her voice ringing out clearly across the boathouse)

"Well, there I was, constructing this hole

A wormhole in space, so good and really ace it was

When up drives a fellow in a panzer,

He pops the hatch and scratches his head

He looks down the 'ole, poor demented soul, and he says:

"Don't warp there, suspended in the air

It's all hypercubic and it ought to be square

The entropy's wrong, it's warped too strong

And you can't link a wormhole anywhere wrong."

I said, "I just couldn't bear to warp it elsewhere

It's Reich approved physics so it's all fair and square

And if you disagree, it doesn't bother me

'Cos that's just the way of an 'ole's geometry."

So there I was, craftin' this 'ole, worm 'ole in space, nothin' out of place it was

And there was 'im, standin' up there all brutally efficient with 'is 'and in the air

It's not there now, 'cos Space-time's flat

And outside it is that nosy bureaucrat!"

Doctor Gruber: "So perish all enemies of Science! And it's a project she's been working on it ever since."

Janice: "I expect it's much easier these days, with modern equipment and computers and everything."

Professor X: "I wish! My original designs used materials you can't get now. The insulators alone are a real headache." (Pauses.) "You just can't get proper ersatz rubber these days. And there's no real substitute."

(Enter butler, stage left, with a strange shuffling gait.)

Butler: "The Master will see you now. Please walk this way."

Doctor Gruber: "I don't think my leg joints will let me walk that way…."

Professor X: (Sighs.) "One of these days I swear we're going to have you thrown to the... to the…" (Pauses, absent-mindedly.) "Well anyway, have you…Thrown."

The curtain fell on the first act, and the lights went up on the audience.

"Not bad. Not bad indeed!" Babs whispered to her husband as the curtain fell on the first half.

"So farce, so good," Buster agreed. "And that first act is a hard act to follow."

"Naturally. And it is natural; we can't show any unnatural acts on stage and keep our PG-rating," Babs smiled. She rummaged in her Hammerspace pocket and pulled out a pawfull of snacks which she offered around; mostly Fig Newtons with some Date Keplers and a Chocolate Copernicus.

Two pairs of keen and highly directional rabbit ears swivelled as they picked up angry tones from the best seats in the boathouse, where the Looniversity staff and the Studio team were sitting.

"There's half a ton of red wolf with a face like thunder and a voice like acid rain," Buster relayed for his less super-sensed friends. "Ow! He did not like Mortimer's play. Says if it doesn't get better next act, all rabbits round here are going to go back to the end of the… something." his ears twitched, trying to make it out.

"Back to the far end of the unemployed queue?" Variola asked.

Babs grimaced, having heard. "Back to the end of the food chain. The low end."

"Not that he doesn't like rabbits. He likes them – in the worst possible way." Buster said. "Fried, stewed, fricasseed…"

"Even President Hitcher's not so prejudiced," Rhubella shivered. "Not like that guy on the East Coast, only targeted fish folk. The Boston Angler, they called him."

"Difference is, this Mister Hackensaw ended up in charge of Cartoon development," Buster said, his ears drooping. "There was a time when the holy Saints Clampett, Jones and Avery ruled the creative side in the studio – but modern times have 'moved on'. Or that's what they call it."

Babs spin-changed to a Jimmy Durante clone. "What a revoltin' development," she growled.

Fifi shook her head, looking at the assembled Sons of Schlesinger. "Eet is just as DEVO said all those years ago," she murmured. "De-Evolution, eet ees zo real."

"DEVO. They really were right about everything. All happening now," Rhubella confirmed. "Those guys are going to give Acme Loo some savage cutbacks, if they get their way. A really brutal hare-cut, even." She spotted Fifi's old Professor Bunny, and waved. The grey hare had other things on his mind at the moment.

"What do you think of the show so far?" Rhubella asked her sister. "Not the kind of thing we used to put on." Perfecto had been known to commission troupes of mimes – not for their own premises, but sent into the streets to shock and horrify the good Toons of Acme Acres while the Perfectoids sat back at a safe distance smirking.

Variola sniffed. "It's somewhat like you'd expect from a classic Porter stage production."

Babs' ears twitched in surprise. "Praise, from you? You really think it's as good as the famous Cole Porter?"

Variola smiled superciliously. "Not THE Cole Porter. More like something penned by A coal porter, actually."

Babs blew her an unladylike raspberry.

Behind the scenes, Mortimer felt like a Weenie-Burger chef left alone with a restaurant full of hungry customers and the phones for take-away ringing non-stop. Being a Director, he thought fleetingly, was to be pulled in every direction. Just as well I'm not a pig, I'd be pulled pork by now, he thought fleetingly.

"Right! That went about as well as can be expected," he declared, handing out the last-minute script revisions to his cast. "Curtain rises for Act Two in ten minutes. Get ready for your cues. Got it, Bubba?" He winced inwardly, staying well clear of the brutal bull.

"I have it." Bubba was sat in a designer chair he had brought with him; the only one in the room that would actually fit him. The bull's voice was surprisingly high-pitched and squeaky; a reason he usually preferred to make actions speak louder than words. Right now he was wearing a small pair of round-framed reading glasses as he scanned the script; on a table next to him was the Christmas edition of 'Thug Life'. Its front cover declared it held abstruse and scholarly articles such as 'The size 12 boot and its bodily application for pleasure and profit' by A. J. Raffles Esq, modern descendant of the genteel thug of a century before.

Marie-Sioux frowned, tapping the script. "Why change things this late on? It's a bit of a surprise. We haven't even rehearsed this bit."

Mortimer gave a harassed grin. "I'm the Director! This way is more – Direct." And it's like when the military find their plans got leaked to the enemy – they change them. Fast. He thought, eyes narrowing slightly. Marie-Sioux had given away the original ending; the new one was something the Sons of Schlesinger would not be expecting.

"Yeah. He has to think on his feet. That's why there's a rabbit and not a human doing his job – bigger, better feet. Lucky rabbit's feet, too," Lucretia grinned up at Marie-Sioux. "Nobody ever said a human had cute toes."

While the theatre-goers mingled in the interval, a mile away in central Acme Acres Margot Mallard was holding court in a hired corporate suite to which some very distinguished toons were invited. She was alone for the moment, and took the opportunity to check her reflection carefully in the antique ormolu mirror on the wall. She had selected a severe business skirt-suit, of utterly simple design but exquisite midnight blue fabric that did not brashly scream 'money' – it whispered it in very seductive tones. As she moved, she appreciated what the outfit artfully concealed – her lingerie was very black silk, reinforced with structural Kevlar, graphene fibre and titanium wiring to hold her figure in perfect poise.

As she moved, she jiggled experimentally, pleased at the effect of her new bra, specially ordered from a specialist boutique in Switzerland. "Eine bustenhalter," she murmured, appreciating her silhouette. "And once it gets moving, this bust takes quite some halting…"

Just then the clock chimed six. Margot looked outside at the snow-covered landscape outside, and nodded. Time for business, she thought, and pressed a button on the desk. The door opened to admit her guests. "Good evening, gentlemen."

Three toons walked in, keeping a wary distance apart. One was a dove in a Government-issue executive grey suit, who looked around cautiously. One was a tall hawk in mirror shades, whose black suit bulged in some places that did not necessarily reflect his anatomy. The third was a familiar purple skunk, who she had last seen a few hours earlier heading out with Fifi and Rhubella to, presumably, explore International Relations with them.

Margot smiled, looking from one face to the next. She had left Plucky at home, getting to grips with his new TeX-box games console * and discovering its undocumented limitations. She looked at the three Toons. "Please be seated. I know who you are, gentlemen." She addressed the dove in the grey business suit. "Chief of the WashingToon Bean-Counting Department. You want our ultimately offshore Phobos bank so nobody else gets to use it. Closing a financial Black Hole in financial space." She turned to the hawk, in the black suit and mirror shades. "A representative of Certain Undisclosed Military Departments, you want somewhere to stash your ultra-black budget where nobody can ever find it, particularly WashingToon bean-counters." Lastly she looked the distinguished skunk male over, and nodded. "Not many folk in this town can tell a LiechtensToon accent from a Swiss one – but I am a Perfecto graduate, you know."

(Editor's note: a reaction to all the NumbMindo consoles and such being manufactured in the Far East, the TeX-Boxes were assembled in the Wild West. They suffered from a few flaws, such as being heavily overweight and incompatible with anything but Cowboy-themed games…)

The skunk clicked his heels smartly (a difficult feat barefoot) and bowed from the hip. "Indeed. I noticed that when we met, even had your dossier not mentioned it. Your reputation precedes you, Madam."

Margot grinned, looking at the three Toons. "Well, gentlemen, I hope you've all brought your cheque books. You all want this for your own department. Don't you? And happily, there's one way we can settle this really quickly. And you can end the threat to Earth's economy from your rivals, if you want it bad enough." She savoured the moment, looking from one expectant face to the other, and spoke the dread words that had them gasping in horror; "Dutch Auction!"

"No!" The dove from the Treasury stepped back a pace.

Klaus von Schellenberg merely nodded, the European apparently less surprised than the two American avians by a Dutch technique.

"Oh, yes." Margot's eyes narrowed. "Starting price, all the gold in Fort Knox, or equivalent value. No coupons or I.O.U's accepted." She looked around at three suddenly sweating figures. "No takers? Counting down, then. Next bid, all the gold minus one bar."

"That's a lot to ask for one bank," the hawk in the mirror shades objected. "How do we know it's worth it?"

Klaus smiled at him knowingly, having previously taken an electron microscope to the small print. "It is not only for the one bank. You might buy the First Phobos National Bank cheaper, yes – and tomorrow she launches its Second National Bank in competition, and we are at square one again. This is, as you say, playing for all the marbles. For all the offshore Phobos commercial rights."

"It's all in the fine print," Margot nodded graciously to him. "Counting down, first bidder gets all, no second chances." She looked around in triumph as the three Toons grabbed phones and started panicked calls for authorisations from headquarters. "And no need to rush, gents – believe me, I've got all night."

Twenty minutes later, two depressed and one elated (but corporately much poorer) financier Toons had left, two to tell their WashingToon masters about their abject failure and one to take advantage of the holiday airport closure to celebrate with friendly locals. A certain rat and skunk were expecting him that evening.

As she returned home and hugged her mallard mate, Margot smiled inwardly imagining the hawk and the dove's reception when they got back to their WashingToon offices with the bad news. If this was in Japan, they'd probably be ordered to throw themselves on their swords – or more likely letter-openers, in atonement for such failure. Of course, top managers these days learn to delegate all that kind of thing to their junior staff…

Margot glanced at the hall table and the last post deliveries that had arrived before Christmas; she recognised the discreet catalogue of intimate rubber goods and PVC evils that she would look through later. She smiled to Plucky. "Well. That was a successful business meeting. But business is over for the holidays. I've had four adult places laid for Christmas dinner tomorrow, plus high chairs for the fledglings. Gladys and Gracie asked if we could make it five adult places."

"Five?" Plucky blinked.

"They were really taken by that sweet girl Skylar" Margot said. She snickered. "Several times, as I recall. And visa-versa." It had been quite an experience all round, she reflected – getting to know the petite maid, who with not only a different body but brain chemistry as well, had a different character from Plucky in many ways. There were many delightful aspects of that still to explore.

Plucky blushed. "They want to meet her again?"

"Mmm." Margot relaxed. "I've told them she won't be available Christmas day. You can't have everything. At least, not all at once."

Plucky looked around nervously. "And… do you want her back?"

Margot looked at her husband levelly. She took his feather-hands in hers. "Dear Plucky. I married you for who you are. Having… occasional Skylar potential is just the icing on the Christmas cake." She paused. "I don't want Christmas cake every day. But when I do, it'll be… memorable. Something to look forward to." Her eyes gleamed. "Hopefully a bit more than once a year, that should keep things lively." She did not mention Gladys and Gracie's whispered ambition to put a matching stork feather necklace on the new maid's green feathered form.

Plucky nodded. "It's going to be a big year. Three new hatchlings in the house!" He gulped, recalling pure-bred avians sometimes had a whole clutch of eggs. In the wild, Gladys and Gracie's ancestors might have filled their nests with half a dozen eggs apiece. "Or… more."

Margot nuzzled his bill with her own. "More mouths to feed. It's a lot of work for me, but – I'll do my very best." She gave a mock sigh. "Looks like I'm just going to have to eat more chocolate and cheesecake. And I never gain any weight. It's a hard life."

Plucky gave an embarrassed wriggle, and his eye caught sight of a magazine awaiting him on the hall table. "Whoo-hoo! This made it here for Christmas. Special holiday season edition!" He opened it and the built-in sound chip began to play a merry jingle; Weird Al Yankowitz' festive track 'Christmas at ground zero.'

Margot noted the cover of her husband's latest distraction, and smiled inwardly. The Christmas Special issue of 'Re-entry vehicles in heat' was something she had already skimmed through – there had been a handy pull-out brochure of technical terms, described as 'Now! Get to use cool-sounding high-tech terms like 'enthalpy', 'Delta V' and 'Reynolds Number' as if you knew what you were talking about!'

"Look! In the letters column, they've printed my T-mail I sent them, which second-generation bird has the coolest design features," Plucky said proudly. "Everyone knows it's the Atlas D. Oh, those gimballing engine nozzles…"

"Radical hobbies are the big thing these days, it seems." Margot had seen the magazine's sister publication, 'Extreme Ironing.' which had elevated a household chore into the realms of daredevil crease-slaying. Not content with dragging their ironing boards and steam irons up cliff faces and radio masts, according to the cover one participant was surfing down from orbit on a customised ironing board, steering the board and heating the iron by sticking out the iron like a rudder into the hypersonic airflow.

"Mmm. The Chinese are putting solid oak-wood heat shields on their re-entry vehicles. Classic or what?" Plucky turned the pages, entranced. "And oh, that hot Atlas D... there's a full-colour close-up of the gimballing engine nozzles! Look! You can see right up the thrust gimbal mountings!"

"If they have a Christmas issue, they should do Spring greeting cards on the same lines. Makes a change from gambolling lambs, gimballing engines," Margot said lightly. "Thinking of high tech, I've got an early present for you. Here's the plot summary of your next blockbuster hit," She passed her husband the T-pad. "Just arrived from the studio – if you want the star role, it's all yours." The original script had been written as a tender romantic comedy, but revisions had added new characters, zombie bashing, helicopter chases and four-wheel drive vehicles doing parkour between rooftops of burning skyscrapers. A far better 'vehicle' for her husband's talents.

Plucky skimmed through the script, and a manic grin spread across his bill. "This is great! Way better than that Bollywood all-dancing thing Buster and Babs are down for next year – some lame costume drama, 'Who's sari now?'"

Margot smiled. She had enquired about getting that one for Plucky, but decided any tale of the life of Hare Krishna was best left to the jackrabbits who were technically hares themselves.

"Oh boy." Plucky's eyes went wide, as he read on. "My super-hero character gets his trademarked amazing powers when he has experimental laser eye surgery."

"He gets miracle 20:20 vision?" Margot asked innocently. As to innocence, she had an excellent memory.

"Better! He gets experimental laser eyes! That's my kind of script! And he leads Fowlmouth and his band in a rock 'n roll rumble, up against a real villain, the Audiophobe!" Plucky enthused as he flicked through the pages. "And I get to play alongside Dizzy Devil – when they lay down Extratone tracks at a thousand BPM, he's the only drummer in the business who can play it by hand."

"Sounds like you're in luck with the scripts again." Margot hugged her husband fondly, mentally reviewing what it had taken to get him that. Not that he would ever know. "Now you can practice your heroic, super-penetrating gaze."

"And look at that!" Plucky's eyes lit up as he skimmed through the script. "Final scene, the Big Boss fight, I take on the Audiophobe. The band come in behind me to take out the henchmen but – it's just the Big Boss and me with my set of afterburning Assault Bagpipes." He blinked, imagining the scene as he mentally rehearsed his steely expression in an extreme close-up, switching the skirling pipes from 'stun' to 'kill'. "This is going to be SUCH a blockbuster… the nearest intact block will be on some other crummy continent nobody cares about anyway. It's like it was written just for me!" A page of the storyboard had been included; it showed a dashing avian hero descending from the skies in righteous jetpack-borne wrath balancing on the white-hot exhausts of the bagpipe drones while aiming the chanter like a bazooka.

"Well, how about that. Some people are born lucky," Margot said, as she looked her drake up and down fondly. True, in the argot she and Rhubella used to converse together in their Perfecto second-year, her husband was 'Ot-nay oot-nay ight-bray' – but she had what she had never expected, a mate she could actually trust. Perfectos who married each other generally only stayed that way till a better deal came along – and hedged each other in with pre-nuptial agreements dripping with envenomed penalty clauses. Being married to, say, Danforth Drake would have been a very different story; she would have spent much time and effort on contingency plans against the day he potentially turned on her and had the luck and inspiration to make it stick. She realised she had the mate she always wanted without any of that, just the way she wanted him. And he was happy with that.

"It's a great Christmas present. The greatest!" Plucky paused. "Except for you, of course. You're the best. Hey, and all my Acme Loo pals used to be really down on you Perfectos, can you believe that?"

"Do tell," Margot smirked.

"They used to go on about you exploiting the poor and the weak. But I know you don't do that anymore," Plucky continued, his gaze locked on his adored wife. "Ain't it so?"

"It certainly is," Margot affirmed. "What with my exclusive Corona project, the first entirely new vice in a century and priced as high as any market can bear. I've quite moved over to exploiting the extremely rich instead." After a lot of cost/benefit analysis they don't teach you at Acme Loo, she reflected. Lifting a million dollars out of a pocket is a lot harder than lifting just one… but it's still easier than lifting one dollar apiece from a million pockets… and the best scam of all is when the mark thanks you for doing them the service!

Back at the lakeside theatre, Babs and her friends resumed their seats, adjusting mittens and ear-cosies. It was getting colder.

Buster nodded over to where Marcia and Calamity were sitting. Marcia had peeled off down to her bathing costume, and was happily piling snow around herself as cushioning on the rather hard wooden seats. "There's one girl who won't catch cold."

"Quite the opposite," Babs agreed. "She always used to go down with Earth-type bugs – and I don't mean our Principal – in summer. Not the usual ones, what with her Martian biology."

"We get flu shots, she gets potato blight shots," Buster said. "Remember in the third year? She went down with tobacco mosaic virus." He paused. "Really unfair that, she doesn't even smoke!"

"And we have a strict no-smoking policy in class," Babs cast an eye at Rhubella. "Unlike some."

"Marcia doesn't smoke, but she steams a bit sometimes…" Buster noted. "Acme Acres in Summer isn't just sub-tropical to her. It's super-tropical."

"Hmm." Babs looked thoughtful. "It's interesting how it's all turned out, isn't it? Who'd have guessed it, when we were sitting in class a couple of years ago? And – a few changes in the script back then… who knows where the plot would have ended up?" *

"Who knows, indeed?" Buster mused, catching a glimpse of parallel timelines, a legacy from his and Babs' stay in the sixth dimension. "Though it was probably very, very silly."

(And at that instant on a crossover franchise far, far away, the Babs Bunny of Earth 103 ¾ hesitantly approached the centuried marble tomb on which lay the holy relic she sought. She bowed reverently to the statue of the tomb's occupant – a plain featured, monkish-looking human who had been the saviour of the world against an evil tide of tiny silly-hatted daemons who had horrifyingly reappeared in the twenty-first century. The statue stood in a protective stance with a spell-book in one hand and the other resting on the haft of his sacred weapon.

"The world won't see his like again," the Buster Bunny of Earth 103 ¾ said in hushed tones, holding up the flaring torch to read the inscription on the stone. "Multi-classed Warrior/Sorcerer/Cleric, 18 on 3D6 in all dice rolls, with (+6) bonuses all over the place. And he needed to pass every single Saving Throw, against a foe so monstrous and silly-hatted."

"Once the world was saved from blue squeaky Evil, folk decided triple multi-classed characters like that were WAY over the top. There's still an international treaty against it." The Warrior/Comedienne Babs nodded, skirting the smaller tomb of the hero's little cat, and bowed her head as she stood before the white marble slab shrouded with the dust of centuries. She took a deep breath, and grasped what lay untarnished on top of it, protected by its absolutely stupid levels of To Hit and Damage bonuses – SmurfSlayer, the legendary Sledgehammer of Splattering….)

Just then the lights went down again, and the audience hushed.

(Scene: Another laboratory. This one contains a giant vat, with crackling electrodes discharging into it. We see Doctor Zed standing by the edge, rubbing his hands gleefully as he peers into its murky depths. Enter Chad, Janice, Professors X, Gruber and Wittling. Led by the butler, who then departs.)

Doctor Zed: (Henry Smith): Welcome, welcome! You arrive just in time! My Project is successful, under budget and well ahead of schedule!" (Aside) "You can tell THIS isn't a Government contract, can't you?"

Doctor Gruber: "So soon?"

Doctor Zed: "Yes! The final stage is almost complete!"

Professor X: "Ohh… then we won't need these two extra bodies." (She gives an evil chuckle.) "I have a few Fascinating Experiments I've been awaiting… test subjects for."

Doctor Zed: "But first! Witness the awakening of my creation!"

Janice: "That Jacuzzi looks like it could use a good cleaning."

Doctor Wittling: "Jacuzzi? Well… we did buy it as one, good deal on T-bay. But now it's the home birthing tank for the Great Project ™!"

Doctor Zed: "For years I toyed with the problems of reanimating dead chromoplasm."

Professor X: "Well... who doesn't? That's hardly Forbidden Science these days. It's scarcely 'I really rather you didn't' Science."

Doctor Zed: "But the tiny details of the organism were so hard to work with. And then I had my breakthrough! I would solve the intricacies of my creation by building it bigger! But then there was the problem of obtaining enough raw material."

Chad: "I thought mad scientists dug up graveyards?"

Professor X: "A splendid old tradition. You can't do too much recycling, you know."

Doctor Zed: "But with Toons, there's a problem there. We live forever, unless we're hit with Dip or just fade away, forgotten by the audiences till no living mind remembers us. Either way – nothing left to dig up. Those graveyards in the films are just scenery – and of course they create important ecological habitats for Goths to lurk in."

(A burst of the classic track "I ain't got no-body" plays from off-stage)

Doctor Wittling: "A mad, I mean an Unrestrained Scientist's life is no bed of roses."

Janice: "Personally, I never thought making a bed in a rosebush ever sounded very comfortable."

Doctor Zed: "A thorny problem, either way. But one day I was dining at my favourite sushi restaurant… and looked out of the window into the alleyway behind. I noticed the cook heaving a bag of seafood offcuts into the bin – and then I realised! With sushi…"

Doctor Wittling: "Sashimi, technically..."

Doctor Zed: (Looks at him, annoyed.) "Ah. With sashimi, all the material is raw. And the amounts they were throwing away – inside a month I had, ah, recycled a ton of it to my laboratory freezer. And then. Ah, and then!" (Rubs hands gleefully.)

Chad: "A really big paella?"

Doctor Zed: "No! Revived and living chromoplasm material just ripe for the project. I drew on the techniques from Doctor Gene Splicer's Ignoble-prize-winning research, and soon it was a vat of formless, seething Toon matter just waiting to take form. And then, and then…"

Janice: "And then what?"

Doctor Zed: (Embarrassed) "You know how writers get Writer's Block sometimes? I got Unrestrained Scientist's Block. What to do with it? So many possibilities."

Professor X: "Then he bumped into me by pure chance, at the CrudeEssen. We'd been to the MiskaToonic U together. Hadn't seen each other for years!"

Chad: "CrudeEssen?"

Professor X: "My research funds had run out. I couldn't afford to eat at a delicatessen." (Pauses.) "I even had to sell my beloved toolkit, down to the last tool. And that was a real wrench, I can tell you." (SFX: Comedy drum roll.) "Happily, the good Doctor gave me a job here. Before that I'd worked part-time as a High Priest of the F.S.M. – which I still do; it proved inspiring to us all."

Doctor Zed: "We all joined his church immediately. It's THE religion for a true scientist!"

Janice: "If I ask who or what the F.S.M. is, will I get a half hour discourse and a handful of pamphlets?"

Chad: "Very probably."

(Professor X reaches down to a locker and dresses in ceremonial vestments. These comprise a Pirate-style eighteenth century coat, a black eyepatch and on her head, a domestic colander.) "All hail!"

(The other scientists pull out pewter tankards of grog and raise them in salute as they chant.)

"All hail, sleet and cold snow!

OUR religion has a beer volcano!"

Doctor Zed: "When I joined, the teachings of the FSM made sense of so many mysteries Science has long tried to understand. Like, the laws of Gravity make no sense if most of the expected mass of the Universe is missing."

Janice: "Have you looked under the sofa cushions? My missing keys and pocket change always end up there."

Doctor Zed: "I'd already accounted for most of it – you may not know it, but heavy virtual particles surround us in Hammerspace, just waiting to be given reality. And I even found a way to reveal them. Behold!"

(He strikes a dramatic pose.)

(Special effects: using a back-lit projector, on the wall behind them is shown a blizzard of shadowy anvil-shapes that seem to be passing through everything and everyone without interacting.)

Professor Zed: "And they called me mad. The fools! I showed them most of the true missing mass of the Universe – Weakly Interacting Massive Particles. And the other scientists, what did they call them? WIMPs, they said. Not good enough, eh? And so I swore l'd show those fools! I'd destroy them! I'd destroy them all! And then we'll see who's mad!" (Laughs wildly.)

Doctor Gruber (In aside, to Chad: "He's brilliant, you know."

Chad: "You said most of the mass? What about the rest?"

Doctor Zed: "Ah!" (He accepts a proffered colander from Professor X and reverently puts it on his head). "When I looked past the virtual anvils I saw, on a higher dimensional plane still, a being. And he communed with me, and revealed the truth."

Chad: "And?"

Doctor Zed: "Imagine. Acting on a higher plane for unknowably high motivations, there is one who benevolently holds us onto the planet. Pressing us safely down all the time, although most Science never knew it. One who is caressing us forever with his noodly appendages, unseen and un-felt. It explains why there isn't enough mass in the universe – gravity's not the only thing holding us down.""

Janice: "Noodly? Sounds more like one of those Anime demons."

Professor X: "They just have a bad press, undeservedly. Like Pirates, who, oddly enough, were the first to discover the truth of the F.S.M, a fact long suppressed. And now it can be told – the truth about the Creator of the Universe, Flying Spaghetti Monster!"

(Long pause.)

Chad: (To Janice, sotto voice) "He really is mad, you know."

Janice: (Alarmed) "Dear… I think you really should look behind you."

(Special effects: where the falling anvils were projected on the background, there is now a sinuously writhing silhouette. As if a bowlful of living spaghetti wrapping two giant meatballs had come to life and popped out a pair of googly eye-stalks to view the world.)

(Chad and Janice jump back in surprise.)

Professor X: "A-harr! Avast, me buckoes!"

Doctor Zed: "And inspiration struck, like a Pirate's broadside. What shape to give my creation? In a homage to the Sphagedeity him, her or itself, I'd… get the closest I could." (Points to the writhing shape) "That's merely the 3-D shadow it casts on our EinsToonian spacetime – its full form in N-space is beyond most mortals' understanding."

Professor X: "Except for a few particularly short people."

Janice: "Really? Why short people?"

Professor X: "Short people are the most blessed in his sight, and now we can prove it. Our stature is the natural result of being pushed down more than other folks by the caring, noodly appendages."

Chad: "And what's with all the Pirate gear?"

Professor X: "Pirates were attracted by the religion's moral codes. Luckily, they were the ones they'd been following anyway. It's always nice to find folk agreeing with you."

Doctor Gruber: "Unless of course it's when you're running round in panic shrieking 'Help! Help! We're all doomed!'"

Doctor Wittling: "Quite."

Janice: "I'm surprised Scientists would go for it at all. Don't you generally prefer evolution? More logical?"

Professor X: (Looks embarrassed.) "Well – logically, it's a safer bet to believe in some Deity. If it turns out you were wrong and they don't exist, you've lost nothing much. If they DO exist and you didn't pay your dues – when you find out it'll be too late."

Doctor Zed: "And why the Sphagedeity? It explains so many things Evolution and other religions don't. Like the duck-billed platypus."

Chad: "No, I never did like it. I always thought those things were a silly idea."

Doctor Zed: "Exactly! Would a being of Infinite Wisdom choose to create a thing like that by design? Not likely. Would Evolution refine millions of hard years of survival of the fittest and end up with that as the answer, beating all possible competition?"

Chad: "Hmm. I'm beginning to see the point."

Doctor Zed: "Ah! It's perfectly logical. If it could not have been Evolved, then the only sort of Deity that would create such a lash-up was… a not very bright one. Perhaps also a little too fond of 'quality testing' the holy bounty of the Beer Volcano it had created earlier – well, that all points in one direction. This is the only religion that allows for Unintelligent Design."

Chad: "It does explain a lot…"

Professor X: "And it takes an Unappreciated Scientist with nothing to lose, to see the bold picture. Unappreciated we are! As a Pastafarian with hidden Pirate knowledge, once I was invited to work as technical advisor on a fan re-make of the classic "Treasure Island". Of course I updated the Pirate ships with guided missile launchers! Real Pirates would, given the chance. But the Director threw a hissy fit – and threw out all my nice upgrades."

Chad: "Too high-tech?"

Professor X: "No. He said it was just plain non-cannon."

Janice: "No wonder you were fired."

Doctor Zed: "And now – it is time! Rogi, throw the switch! The BIG switch!"

(Enter Rogi, a reverse Igor in stained off-white laboratory coat, walking backwards towards the vat. She grabs hold of a six-foot lever like in an old train signalling box, marked 'Do not touch under ANY Circumstances' and throws it.)

Rogi (Nootka Umniaaq): "Yes, Master."

(SFX: The lights dim, save for a few LEDs winking on the instrument panel next to the vat. Then something huge can be seen rising out of the vat on a platform like a car hoist, indistinct in the shadows. Suddenly patterns of bio-luminescence start to lights up with flashes of blue-green light across its surface. The lights slowly brighten; we see it is a mollusc of enormous size. One tentacle starts to twitch, then a pair of eyes rise up on willowy stalks. Their resemblance to the FSM is striking.)

Doctor Zed: (Rubs hands together gleefully.) "It's alive! It's ALIVE! Ha ha ha!" (Aside to the audience) "Never mind those dusty old Nobel prizes, kids – this is what being a scientist is Really all about."

Rogi: "Shall I connect the speech interface, Master?"

Doctor Zed: "Yes! Let us speak with our new creation. And hear the words it brings to the world of the living, from… Beyond."

(Rogi attaches a pair of taped electrodes to the monster's shell, and plugs in a flat-screen. We see words forming on the screen.)

Monster (Shelley) I. DESIRE….

Professor Zed: "Now we shall learn – just what such a thing thinks of as important – in its first minutes of life."


Doctor Zed: "Now, that IS odd."

Doctor Gruber: "It's remembering things from the last moments of its previous life. Lives, I mean. At a Sushi restaurant."

Doctor Zed: "I'm surprised it's a vegetarian, eats vegetables." (Pauses, looking pensive.) "Still, it should be cheap to feed. Not like it was a Humanitarian."

(The chains holding the monster release, and still on its levitation platform it rises slowly out of the tank and settles down on the laboratory floor in the midst of the excited knot of scientists, who gather round measuring and probing with cameras, stethoscopes and patented 'Machines that go Beep'.)

(Janice and Chad walk off to one side.)

Janice: "Oh, Chad… it's so horrible. We have to stop it somehow."

Chad: "Well, it beats the usual 'stitching up the bodies', routine, you have to admit. And – I suppose it IS all good recycling. 'Zero waste to landfill', you know."

(Tableau: Curtains close.)

Mortimer skated onto centre stage, and struck a dramatic pose. "And so, having no working phone to order a rice and vegetable takeout, the Master sent his trusted Rogi down the mountain on the castle's Nearly_All_terrain_Vehicle, down through the snows to the quaint peasant village in the valley. While Rogi headed over to the Chinese Restaurant, a sinister figure who had stowed away in the back of the vehicle slipped out and left silently on quite another errand…"

(Scene change: a standard medieval style tavern, with low-beamed ceiling, ancient wide hearths on which an ox is roasting over a log fire, rustic wooden furniture and quaintly costumed peasants drinking ale out of earthenware lidded steins and pewter mugs. Just a standard quaint peasant tavern in Kansas, apparently drawn without reference material. [Mortimer: Note to myself, leave that last line out])

Janice: "Oh, thank heavens! I've escaped from that terrible castle on the hill. I have to warn you – warn the world, what they're doing up there!"

Quaint Peasant #1: (Cassandra Bloode, having changed costume in record time. [I hope. Mortimer].) "Arr? Ye means the Castle in the mountains hereabouts where that millionaire pop star and his entourage do…" (Hushed voice) "Things… terrible things, they do say. The parties they have… no mortal Toon should be a party to that."

Janice: "No, not that one."

Quaint Peasant #2: (Nootka Umniaaq, ditto) "Ye means the castle where the undead Count Cohen drains the blood of stout travellers – and excess unsightly fat too?" (Aside):" It's a liposuction like they'll never forget!"

Q.P. #1: "Funny thing is, there seems no lack of stout tourists arriving at his door – coach parties, even. They all come back fifty pounds slimmer – and I've never heard any of them complain."

Q.P. #2: "Arr! Funny, that."

Janice: "No! I mean the castle where they're building a monster – a hideous slimy thing with lethal sting and a body that could swallow a Toon whole!"

Q.P. #3: (Bubba Leboef) "Oh, we heard. Good customers, those scientists. They keep our village ACME wholesaler in business. Not many places this size can support a 24-hour express delivery warehouse like that."

Janice: (In desperation) "But… you don't understand… their leader – he's En… no, it's too horrible. I can only say… he's Not From Round Here!"

(Pause. Locals look at her in shock.)

Q.P. #3: (Taking handy pitchfork down from the wall, clearly an everyday item in modern agro-business) "So I say we take our pitchforks and torches and … burn them!"

(Q.P. #1 waves a small LED torch valiantly. Realises it looks very silly, hides it behind her back with an embarrassed grin, and grabs one of the flaming wooden ones from the wall instead.)

Janice: (Picking up a scythe and brandishing it. [Mortimer: memo to myself; they say those things are hard to get used to swinging. Hope she doesn't cut anyone's tail off!]) "That's right! Follow me, everybody!"

(All exit, yelling.)

(Scene change: meanwhile, back at the castle… we see Chad being led down dusty stone corridors by the butler.)

Butler: (Cassandra Bloode, having spin-changed at record speed) "The Master's guests will be celebrating tonight, Sir. He instructed me to show me to your chambers."

Chad: "That's peachy. I just wish I knew where Janice had gone to."

Butler: "No doubt the young lady will reappear in time, sir." (Aside) "In this place, she could end up at any time in history!"

(The Butler opens the door, and ushers Chad into the room, before locking him in and departing. The room is a classic Castle one with gloomy drapes and a huge four-poster bed.)

Chad: "Well. I've been to worse Motels. I'd give it a one-star." (Checks the pillow of the four-poster bed, picks up a little wrapped chocolate mint and holds it up, a satisfied expression on his face. "Maybe even a two-star. I wonder if they have cable TV?"

(SFX: strange liquid slurping noise. [Mortimer: try pouring a helping of the Looniversity Cafeteria's 'daily special' from one jar to another. You know, the sort that lands on your plate with a 'splut' sound])

Chad: "Sounds like… it's coming from over there. I'll take a look." (Explores one wall of the room; pulls back drapes to reveal a bolted inner door, evidently to an adjoining room. The bolt is on his side.) "Hmm. I could maybe ignore it and get a good night's sleep; no doubt we'll be able to get back on the road tomorrow. Or – I could open the door. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?"

(Stands poised in thought for a second. And opens the door. On the far side we see the Monster, taking an industrial-sized shower, a scrubbing brush held in her stinging tentacle.)

Monster: (Does classic – 'surprised in the shower' Take, flinches back in panic and eyestalks extend in alarm. [Mortimer: Never mind the fact she doesn't wear anything to start with, this is a classic and I'm going to use it!]) Monster writes on steamed-up shower stall): EEP!

Chad: "Umm – sorry, Sir – or is it Ms? I didn't know you were there."

Monster: (Coyly dipping eye stalks, before writing in the condensation): IT'S MISS. (Pauses) YOU MEAN YOU REALLY CAN'T TELL?

Chad: "We didn't do Marine Biology in my school."

Monster: (Extending eye-stalks towards him, looking him up and down): PITY. I HAVE VERY… MARINE BIOLOGY. (Pauses) WHY DON'T YOU COME ON IN AND… I'LL SHOW YOU?

(Fade-out. Backing curtain falls.)

Mortimer skated out onto centre stage, and addressed the audience. "And while Chad endured the monster's embrace, later on that night high in the castle, things were happening...)

(Scene change: the laboratory we saw first, with the big display screen.)

Doctor Wittling: "Oooh, look, there's a torchlight procession heading up the valley towards us. Maybe it's some quaint folk festival, you know, symbolic fires to bring back the returning sun after the Solstice, all that sort of thing?"

Doctor Gruber: "Or maybe there's an angry mob of villagers with torches and pitchforks coming to wipe us out?"

Doctor Wittling: "Could be. It's an occupational hazard, in this profession." (Aside) "You wouldn't believe our Insurance premiums!"

Doctor Gruber: "Better call the Chief scientist, Doctor Zed."

Both: (Shouting) "The Chief Scientist Doctor Zed!"

(Doctor Zed appears, apparently teleporting in. [Mortimer: check our SFX budget for this!])

Doctor Zed: (Looking at screen) "Ah. It's angry mob season. Happens a lot, round here. Better get our guests up to watch the show."

Rogi (walking across stage) "Yes, Master." (Aside) "Some token ethnic actors get cool lines like 'opening hailing frequencies, Captain' but oh, no, not me…"

(Enter Chad and the Monster together. The Monster has her stinging tentacle resting companionably on Chad's shoulder.)

Doctor Zed: "I trust your evening is proving... enlightening."

Chad: (Embarrassed) "Uhh... we were just... sharing that Chinese takeout. Yes, that's all we were doing. Honest!"

Doctor Zed: "Right. I'll believe you, thousands wouldn't. And now – another educational experience, perhaps." (Takes centre stage, faces audience.) "You know… it's hard to believe that highly qualified scientists just keep getting caught by surprise like this – as if we're so focussed on our projects we don't even think about the world outside us."

Doctor Wittling: "Well, you DID forget to pay that phone bill…"

All: "Shhh!"

Doctor Zed: "And there's a good reason a lot of our most – daring – work gets done in hilltop castles. Hello, is anyone picking up a theme here? Isolated site on high ground, with major natural and Toon-made defensive systems? They were tough enough targets when they built them, back in medieval times!"

Chad: "In Kansas?"

All: "Shhh!"

Doctor Zed: "I could have set up shop down in the village, handy for the bus stop, the Mad Science Thrift store and the ACME parts wholesale warehouse. Just because we may be geniuses, no reason why we should be stupid about it."

Doctor Gruber: "But there's a Raging mob out there! They have… pointy wooden things! And all that's between us and them is a three-yard thickness of tall granite walls… the six-inch thick face-hardened steel on all the doors … and all those high-tech surprises you've been building in for the last few years." (Pauses, looks contemplative.) "Now I think about it… yes, I see what you mean."

(SFX: distant explosion.)

Doctor Zed: "Ohh… looks like they're exploring my little outdoor experimental art installation. A fully interactive, multimedia Art experience, it's the latest thing. A high-energy extravaganza of light and sound, all interactively stimulated via by each individual viewer's stimulus!"

(SFX: many distant explosions).

Professor X: "I call it having an unlabelled minefield in the castle garden."

Doctor Zed: "Ha, ha. I call it a brave, futuristic piece of high-energy Avant-gardening. Self-destroying art pieces, that's very Dada you know, some very surrealist irony in there." (Pauses) "And as it's mine own field, I should know."

Chad: "Isn't that cheating?"

Doctor Wittling: "We can lend you a pitchfork if you like, if you want to go down and take the mob on at their own game? You're only outnumbered 50 to one, after all." (Pauses.) "47 to one, now."

Chad: "Hmm. I think I'll pass on that."

Doctor Gruber: (looking out of window, pointing) "Look – the survivors took refuge. In that burning windmill." (Aside). "Is that a classic, or what?"

Chad: (Puzzled.) "I see an old windmill over on the next hill. But it's not burning."

Doctor Zed: (Holds up big remote control with a prominent red button on it.) "Want to bet?" (Presses button.) "Main engine start! We have lift-off!"

(SFX/Animation: windmill imitates a supersized firework rocket, vanishing skywards. There is a classic starburst firework explosion.)

Professor X: "And to think, boring suburbanites have to make do with lawn deer and garden gnomes in their gardens."

Monster: (Holds up coyote-style scribbled sign-boards, one word at a time): THEY. BELONG. DEAD.

Doctor Zed: (Bowing) "And that's all, dear scientist folks!"

(Curtain closes.)

The improvised theatre suddenly rang with cheers and applause from the Acme Looniversity side of the audience, plus their friends and relations. The other part of the crowd sat in stony silence.

"That's the last straw! They had the heroine lose, and the villain win!" Hiram K. Hackensaw stood up, outraged. "The English guy was supposed to take the fall!"

"Sir – the play seemed to at least – hang together?" The peccary girl who was working as unpaid intern to the studio offered hesitantly. Unlike other employees, while she could be fired she at least had no worries about getting her pay docked for asking unapproved questions. "Why did he have to be the villain?"

The red wolf snorted. "They just are. Everyone knows that. Ask any of the movers and shakers who really run Hollywood."

(And in a well-appointed office in Burbank, three toons looked at a blacklist of comedy writers in front of them.

Mr. Weinstein: "That English guy looked good till the interview – when I told him 'show me the Funny!' He came up with a joke with a punchline about having to 'check a Czech cheque'."

Ms. Meier: "We can't use that. Doesn't the guy own a dictionary?"

Mr. Weinstein: "He had his own right with him, showed me the spelling. It works better than our version, so help me! I could have either argued with him, or just made sure he never works in this town again."

Mr. Goldman: "He'll never work in this town again!")

"It's as bad as the last job I had to deal with so-called 'creatives'", Hiram K. Hackensaw snorted. "I had to pull the finances on half the small-press comics in the business. Why, the first time I went to one of their conventions I found the whole business was full of Reds and subversives!"

(And in a nearby hotel complex on the exact anniversary of that occasion, two hotel employees were taking down the posters of the previous weekend's convention bookings…

Drudge 1: "Don't you find it confusing, this weekend every year we host ComicCon and CommieCon in adjoining suites?"

Drudge 2: "Gee, I never thought of that…)

"It's just as bad, we've got a Studio supported school promoting some weird spaghetti cult. This is California, not Italy!" Another of the Sons grumbled. "We do westerns, not art-house cult films."

From somewhere ill-defined an eerie burst of recognisable Spaghetti Western music echoed through the building.

"Sir! Don't the Studio rules say we definitely can't mock folks' religions?" The aide asked worriedly.

"We got an exemption right here. For weird cults and stupid, made-up ones, we can. Nobody ever got sued for laughing at a Jedi." Hiram K. Hackinsaw tapped the ever-present folder of Studio Regulations he carried – the twin of that which Professor Bugs had lent to Mortimer to help write his script. "Pastafarians? A bunch of morons with stupid colanders on their heads."

One of the other Sons of Schlesinger nodded approval. "Easy to see why Acme Looniversity is beyond saving. Why, nearly half of the entire student body are sub-average!"

Professor Bugs shook his head in disbelief, and stepped well clear of them. "Eeeh… a word to the wise, youse guys. If I was you, I wouldn't diss da Pastafarian." He pulled out a rare breed purple carrot and munched it ironically. After so many years of practice, he could do practically anything ironically. He could be ironic with a table and chair.

Hiram K. Hackensaw snorted. "Well, it's just as well you're not me. Because this is the last straw, and the last cheap laugh that's coming out of this Looniversity. You're all fired! And you, rabbit, are going off the payroll right now and back to the backwoods you came from. Just in time for rabbit hunting season."

"Bad luck with that, bunny" one of the other Sons of Schlesinger said nastily, turning to his comrades. He winked. "Looks like Hasenpfeffer's back on the menu, boys!"

Professor Bugs noticed a less expensively dressed peccary girl standing to one side of the group, and noted her expression of distaste. "Best stand somewhere well away, Miss. I gotta bad feelin' about dis…"

The intern nodded and hurried away, ostensibly to find a rest-room. She had been on her feet all day and a few minutes resting on a soft couch strongly appealed. Besides, she had seen live webcam footage of Dis, an Infernal City on the Sixth Circle of Hades, and had a bad feeling about it on sight. The (now cancelled) all-Dante Channel used to have a daily Divine Comedy hour.

Bugs went down on his knees in a dramatic pleading pose. "Chee, youse guys… you can do what you want with dis old grey hare, but don't take it out on those good kids!" A mischievous gleam in his eye went unnoticed by the Sons of Schlesinger.

Hiram K. Hackensaw waved dismissively. "They can see if Weenie-Burger's hiring. As soon as we get back to the Studio, Acme Looniversity is history."

"And shortly after… it's geography. A valuable parking-lot," another snickered. "After all these years, we've got the last 'bugs' out of the Studio system."

The rabbit in question sniffed a stage tear back. Nobody noticed the mischievous smile as he prepared a souped-up version of his ancestor Brer Rabbit's 'do anything to me, but please don't throw me in that terrible bramble patch!' gag. "You kin do all of that… but please, please don't say them terrible things about them good Pastafarian guys!"

Hiram K. Hackensaw grinned. "Oh? I can't, can't I? Well, just you listen here." He cleared his throat and looked up at the starry skies above. "You hearin' me out there? If there's any such thing as a Flying Spaghetti Monster… let's see you. Come on, manifest to your worshipper over there, right now! And I forever renounce…"

"WE renounce, corporately," one of the other Sons of Schlesinger added. The rest nodded in heartfelt assent.

Hiram K. Hackensaw smiled, nodding in satisfaction. "We renounce, we reject, we defy it and all its works." He called out loudly to the Universe. "Whatever it may have done for us before – it can stop doing, now and forever. Right now, you hear me?"

All around, the Toonier characters' fur bristled with an imminent static charge as of rapidly building energies. Closing the Looniversity would invoke the basic law of the Conservation of Comedy; comic energy could not be created or destroyed, and releasing decades' worth of accumulated humour from a shut Looniversity meant it had to go somewhere.

Professor Bugs had turned tail and was by this time a hundred yards away, sprinting at top rabbit speed as if a Hunter's Convention had arrived in town with members more competent than Elmer Fudd (not difficult). "Don't look, kids," he warned. "Dis could be kinda messy."

The Acme Looniversity students and graduates dutifully put their paws over their eyes, then peeked between their fingers in the best film narrative tradition. Just in time.

Something arrived – or rather, something was now visible that had always been there unseen, as if the film had switched to infra-red footage that let it suddenly show up. There was a gasp and a shriek of unutterable terror from the assembled Sons of Schlesinger – "No! No! Anything but that…. the noodly appendages!" Their terrified cries suddenly receded into the far distance, followed by a sonic boom as of a dozen less than streamlined shapes hitting Mach One, Direction Stage Up.

"Now, there's a sight you don't see every day", Babs marvelled, waving farewell. "Unless maybe you're at the MiskaToonic."

"A bit of a Deus Ex Machina," Buster commented. "I wonder how they arranged that."

Professor Bugs Bunny strolled over, greeting his ex-students. The grey hare glanced up at the outward-bound executives. "Eeh, did somebody ask for an exposition?" He grinned mischievously. "As Principal, I read what's in everybody's file, see? An' I remembers it, too. Henry Smith, he don't just play a Pastafarian on the set – he really IS one. Ordained priest, too. I got his okay to spill the beans 'bout dat, then made sure to tell your brudda all about it, an' Mortimer put it to good use. He gets a Grade A."

Babs' eyes lit up. "So the whole play was one big setup? To summon a deity who's got a sense of humour?"

"Not many of those around," Buster said, impressed. "Good choice." Mortimer had done a fine job, he reflected – imagining his brother-in-law being ceremoniously welcomed back to Comedy Scriptwriting classes the first day of next term by the entire grateful staff lined up with a formal twenty-one pun salute.

"Hmmm." Babs looked thoughtful for a brief and rare beat. "Good casting, too. Mortimer tells me Henry's shtick is 'instant karma' – so when the Sons of Schlesinger got all gratuitous about his Deity…"

"And lo, they shall be cast unto the outer darkness, eternally denied the caring complex carbohydrate caress…" Buster spin-changed into a vicar's vestments, adding a Pirate hat to complete the outfit. He gave a Papal-style benediction gesture, which he turned into a twisting motion as if wielding a sacred pasta fork. "Forever and ever. RAmen."

His mentor waved skywards. "I been askin' 'What's up, Doc?' for a lifetime. Kinda nice to find out, after all dis time. Dey are."

A mile and a half away, a waterfowl pair walked out into the open air. Christmas Eve was here, the starlight glittering in the frosty air, and the trees glittered with fresh snow. A distant thundering sound made them turn their ear-holes in the direction of Lake Acme.

Margot looked genuinely surprised, a rare thing for her. She pointed towards the sky above the lake, visible through the trees. "That's the first time I've ever seen meteors going upwards."

"Say what? Hey, you're right!" Plucky looked up at a cluster of brilliant white streaks sprinting starwards. "How about that? Looks like someone fired a bunch of Sprint missiles, maybe one of those cool Historical re-enactment groups. Look at 'em go! Pulling a hundred gravities acceleration, right off the pad! Shining white-hot with air friction!"

"Rising like shining stars over the land…" Margot nodded appreciatively, the phrase somehow seeming to fit.

"Looks like they're heading for space," Plucky said appreciatively. "Single stage to orbital departure. How cool is that?"

Cool? Quite a few thousand degrees, I'd have thought, Margot thought lightly but said nothing.

Back at the Loon family household, the unconscious Brandi and Candi were put to bed warmly by their grandmother, who shooed Shirley away with the advice that she had done her part of the prophecy. Margot and Plucky had been phoned and given updates, and once assured the twins were in good feather-hands seemed fairly unworried by the situation. Then, their first fledglings had taken down charging Kodiak bears in the wild using telekinetic 'slice and dice', and neither wanted or needed much in the way of nurturing any more.

The Addams Academy Toons had, of course, seen all this. "And she still won't tell you what the prophecy was?" Angelina asked, apparently sympathetic. "Figures. Then, I kinda get the feeling you don't want to know a lot about what your dear mother gets up to. She's got all those cool sub-basements under the house, and those neat-o books held down for safety with cold-forged chains of meteoric iron."

"Si! And that just the Romantic Fiction shelves!" Tlalocopa said eagerly.

"She's like, always been into experimental Magic," Shirley admitted. "You wouldn't think someone who was a hippy would go into Necromancy and Demonology that way."

"Hey! We're all hippies here!" Angelina objected. She gave an inverted peace-sign. "War and hate, man."

"An entity remains itself, even in a mirror," Tlalocopa said. "Two sides of a coin – but same coin. Light sabre, Dark sabre… all cut just same." She unsheathed her Dark Sabre, activated its blade and made a few kata practice moves with the blade of focussed, coherent darkness (extracted by special pumps from the forbidden mines beneath Addams Academy).

Mother is nothing like you, Shirley's aura snapped. Nothing.

"Oh, I don't know." Calgari mused. "If you look hard enough, there's some blatant dark-side magick-using clues in the music of the hippy era."

Like what? Shirley's aura asked sourly.

The raven unslung his air guitar and strummed a few lines from a track the Beatles had covered:

'It rolls like a train that's comin' on down the track

Roll over Beethoven and we'll get Tchaikovsky back!" *

"That's right!" Angelina nodded. "Tchaikovsky died in 1893. The Beatles were singing sixty years later. If they weren't going to use some pretty industrial-grade Necromancy, just how do you think they were going to 'get him back'?"

"Like, ewww!" Shirley's lower bill hit the floor in an extreme 'Take'.

Hate to admit… I can't argue with that one, her aura transmitted, glumly.

Angelina raised a virtual glass in mock salute. "May your Horror always be… Exquisite," she toasted. "Season's greetings, Shirley."

"And it's all true. I swear it by Saint Crowley and Saint LeVay." Calgari looked at the downcast loons. "No need to be so sad. Remember we're here for you. We're on your side." He paused. "Well, I mean we'd like to get you on our side, but it's all the same thing in the end, isn't it?"

Shirley cast him a dirty look. "You want me on your side? Fer sure. You and your grody Master."

Calgari nodded earnestly. "Oh, you wouldn't believe how much he wants you. He's waited a very long time." And he just loves the flavour of a spoiled saint; a self-righteous Torquemada is far tastier than a simple murderer or jay-walker, he thought gleefully, aware now what Shirley had done to her daughters for what she had thought was good and righteous reason. The road to his mansions are paved with Good Intentions like those.

"It good to be wanted, no?" Tlalocopa said slyly. "Even as our 'Dream-team Scream Queen.'"

"Unlike you, we already know exactly what a Dark Side Shirley the loon looks like; she helped us out for six months, before heading home to her sexy vampire boyfriend she missed so much. You know, the one you killed SO thoroughly. Oopsie!" Angelina said, a sly smile on her face. "She enjoyed her life here. And ask our honest Colonel who was better at her job – her or you. Go on, I dare you."

"And si, she plenty hot on the nest!" Tlalocopa nodded.

"All those reincarnations, Shirley – you're like the ultimate draft-dodger, you must have quite an outstanding bill. And I don't mean the one on your face you eat your free-range tofu with." Angelina nodded. "He really wants you, so very bad – and he's got the original patent on Bad. Wants you in every possible way, including sideways!"

"Heh." Calgari elbowed the magpie sharply in the ribs, a broad grin of hard-to-biologically explain teeth showing on his sharp beak. "She's only kidding. You know I'm a devout and God-fearing Toon." He paused. "For very good reasons."

"Sure. It's not like you were….an atheist, or some junk," Angelina smiled.

Shirley's feathers drooped. "What a bum Christmas. I am so totally stuck forever with this job, as much as General Snafu. Worse, I'm stuck with you – and we're all under the orders of President Hitcher, who is mondo crazy."

"Well," Calgari said, helpfully. "He's the elected President of a nation of Loony Toons, so of course he reflects that, he represents the average voter, and we all know how smart and well-adjusted they are." He winked. "Isn't democracy wonderful? Anyway – even if he is maybe a little crazy – it's only in the head."

"This is the American Dream, where life meant to be just like a movie," Tlalocopa said. "Si, and we all like slasher films. President Hitcher, he the one with the axe and mask the audience really go to see. Not wimpy expendable hero."

"Look on the bright side!" Angelina said brightly. "We probably live in the best of all possible worlds."

That… Shirley's aura turned a particularly nauseous shade of green. Is just what we're afraid of.

(* Editor's note: Shirley worried about this for the next few days, then came storming in to find the Addams group enjoying their ill-earned rest. "That is so NOT what the song says! *" She snapped, angrily refusing the proffered pickled eyeballs and goujons the corvids were enjoying as festive fare. "It says, 'we'll tell Tchaikovsky the news'!" Calgari smiled, opened up his T-pad and pointed to proven websites showing his version correct. "In your original time-line, maybe. But, consider – when we brought you back from six months in Los Diablos, did you really get back to EXACTLY the one you were born on? Or did we even get the right version of you? Maybe the real Shirley McLoon is still enjoying the mean streets of San Judas?" As a loon left wide-eyed with her head spinning in shock, the three dark- side Toons high-fived and grinned triumphantly. "Merry Christmas, Calgari," Angelina said, pulling off the cyberspace goggles where she had just hacked the music lyrics section of WickedPedia as well as persuading Wall Street to start opening the fortieth-storey windows and take up free-style base-jumping. [Hacking hardware and software loaned courtesy of "Computers for Malign Causes", the only charity they all subscribed to.])

(Editor's note to note – Calgari was fibbing about it being a Beatles track but that IS a line, near enough, in the 1983 hit by ELO, "Rock and Roll is King." So there.)

The play and the Sons of Schlesinger being both decisively finished, everyone at the lakeside got ready to go. Alone of the Acme Looniversity crowd, Calamity Coyote had looked unhappy as a dozen radically Doppler-shifted screams faded skywards. The young scientist had his pocket blackboard set up, and was rapidly scribbling calculations with a stick of heavily overclocked chalk. The chalk's cooling fins glowed bright orange in the Winter night. How did that actually work? Even if gravity lost hold on someone, it should throw them out with only the Earth's centrifugal force – maximum speed, about 400 metres a second at this latitude, his sign complained Not a hundred gravities acceleration!

"Hmm." Marcia looked up, calculating. "But if gravity became anti-gravity to them, not only the Earth's mass would repel them. The Solar System's, the Galaxy's, the Local Galactic Cluster… the combined vector of all that mass pushing outwards…"

Would be colossal, yes, Calamity nodded as he calculated a ballpark figure and watched the Sons of Schlesinger booted out of the gravitational ballpark in a Home Run for the Acme Looniversity team. As soon as they renounced the Noodly Appendages that were the last thing holding them in place… A coyote frowned. But I'm not happy with this. Are we going to keep having bogus Deities showing up and making a mess of Science? That could ruin everything!

"If it looks stupid and it works, it's not stupid. Or bogus either. And if it gives reproducible results it's Science. Albert EinsToon didn't LIKE what QuanToon physics said when he found it, but he got over it," Marcia said firmly, pulling out a pair of colanders from her Hammerspace pocket. She put one on her head and offered the other to Calamity. "Successfully reproducing that experiment would be a most unfortunate thing for us, were we the test subjects."

Calamity sighed, and clapped the other colander on his head, helmet style. Looking up, all he could see was a fading ion trail in the upper atmosphere; evidently the departing group were now moving fast enough to strike X-rays from the near vacuum.

"Fear not for the fate of Toon Science, my dear ex-pupils," came a deep, cultured voice from behind them. They turned to see their ex-teacher and mentor, Professor Wile-E Coyote. "This may well be proof of hidden Toon law more fundamental than any – one at the very frontiers of knowledge."

Sir? Deities are showing up and breaking all the laws of physics! Calamity protested. That's a disaster!

The senior coyote nodded magisterially. "But not at the level of the Fun-damental humour Laws. Those Sons of Schlesinger were about to ban all teaching of Theories. Including that of Gravity. Calculate certain catastrophically comic cosmic consequences, chér Calamity."

Calamity and Marcia thought hard. They recalled the sad tale of the local School Board that had banned teaching traditional European history as irrelevant to local modern life, ignorant of the deep-seated law 'those who refuse to learn from the lessons of History are doomed to repeat them'. They had been overrun by invading Romans, Vikings and Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes with fire and sword, then personally experienced the medieval Black Death and the Great Plague of London in precise historical detail, exact to the most trivial touch. Looking up at the distant accelerating specks, Calamity realised that Physics and not just History liked to have the last word.

"He denied the theory of Gravity as modern Science knows it. And he lost its protection, became vulnerable to… alternative memes, which he then rejected as well," Marcia said, thoughtfully. "Is there an actual Toon law called 'they were just asking for it!'?"

"Much speculated upon, but as yet unproven. That may be an excellent subject for postgraduate work," Professor Coyote said thoughtfully. "Doctorate or PhD level, certainly. Should you wish to apply for a further research grant, I shall support it."

"And they shall deny the ones who hold them down! And they will rise forever and ever!" Cassandra Bloode pronounced smugly, turning to her classmates. "I told you so."

A dangerous place, this surface world, Shelley's telepathic broadcast rang out. It was risky enough when I fell off the top of the ocean. This is worse.

Mortimer smiled, looking at his gastropod girlfriend. "I'm glad you made the trip, though."

Shelley's eye-stalk dipped slightly. So am I. Though I'm not sure about my part in that play. Me, being assembled from food scraps?

Mortimer blushed. "Sorry. Best way I could think of getting a ton of protoplasm to a cash-strapped scientist."

"At least she won't say 'hey, what am I, chopped liver?'" Henry Smith murmured. "Seafood scrapple, maybe."

There came the telepathic equivalent to a sniff. Back home, my people believe we're made in the Universal Creator's image. She's the ultimate mollusc. Her eyestalks see all, and her stinging tentacle irresistible.

"Well, I didn't like it," Marie-Sioux frowned. "The original ending was much better. And isn't it awful, what happened to the Looniversity's studio superiors?"

Lucretia grinned up nastily. "Oh, I don't know. I've heard of leaders voting themselves a raise. Our Studio heads just got themselves the biggest raise ever... and they're still going. Talk about executive high-flyers!"

"And another thing," Gibson Goat noted. "The play was called Frankenstein's Monster Mollusc. But there was no Frankenstein reference in it anywhere."

"That was all explained in the original ending. It got lost when I edited it in a hurry – can't think of everything," Mortimer said, waving the hastily scribbled revisions.

Granville Laverne scratched his head, recalling one of his lines. "This 'N-space' the FSM lives in. I meant to ask – what's that short for?"

"Noodle," Mortimer admitted. "I was in a rush, you know."

Lucretia snickered, pointing vaguely upwards. "Not as much as they are."

"Oh." For a second Granville's clockwork and spring steampunk accelerometer registered a surge as if a gravity wave from deepest space had swept by – or just possibly, as if the entire cast was benevolently pressed down by the touch of something unseen.

"A fine show!" Buster applauded as everyone rose for the new official State anthem, 'California Uber Alles.' "A great start for Mortimer. As a Director, he's pretty direct. That's a play with real heart."

"Heart, liver, spleen and gall bladder too!" Babs agreed. "So educational. And the whole family got to see it."

"That's quite a crowd," Buster nodded appreciatively. "Then – your family is a couple of football teams' worth on its own. Plus friends and relations."

"And a few who are having friendly relations," Babs cast a knowing glance at Henri D'Aromar, the 'skunk-hunk' who was escorting her third-eldest sister Bonnie Bunny. Bonnie's engagement ring sparkled in the streetlights, as did the virtual daggers Katy and Jenny were looking at her.

The party grabbed coats and ear-muffs, waved to the cast and headed back through the snows, most of them headed towards the warm carrot-scented haven of the Bunny family burrow. Sleeping cubs were checked on; the thick-walled crèche had been looked after by various rabbit cousins who had not fancied playing snowshoe hare a mile each way to the lake, for the sake of a play.

"Tres interesting," Fifi commented, as she watched Babs change her son's diaper. "'Your son eez ze only petit rabbit 'ere with ze belly-button."

Babs raised her blouse slightly to show the unbroken white fur at her midriff. "I haven't got one either – none of my sibs have. Mother always went the stork route. With this many siblings, it's just as well. Our little Blitz here – arrived the hard way."

"Ah. I know zat way, eet got us our Victor L. Lafume (*)" Fifi said ruefully. She smiled down at her sleeping son and daughter. "Mon Ruby 'ad petite Gigi brought 'er by ze stork."

(* Editir's note: Fifi's black-and white furred son's full name was Victor Ludorum Lafume. Unlike Calamity Coyote's ill-advised parents, Rhubella and Fifi wanted to give their firstborn a sporting chance.)

"That time I did," Rhubella said, hugging her skunkette wife. "Maybe next time it'll be the other way round. And… with any luck, next time might be starting soon. We've got some friendly company staying with us, till the airport opens." She gave a happy sigh. "If it keeps snowing and there's no outbound flights for a week, this time I won't complain." If this was the last 'skunk-hunk' to show up before an outraged shtick vanished forever, Rhubella and Fifi had every intention of making the most of him.

Babs grinned, recalling the scent of healthy adult male skunk she had noted in the burrow annexe before the play. "You'll have a captive audience! And I'm sure the guest you're entertaining will be… entertaining."

Fifi kissed her wife's nose. "Maybe zis time mon Ruby will 'ave ze bump, and lucky Fifi ze stork feather. Zo much lighter for moi to carry, certainment!"

"Mmm. Thinking of girls who might end up getting each other a stork feather, what did you think of Clara?" Rhubella asked, looking at the couple tagging along at the back of the Bunny family group, out of earshot.

Fifi smiled. "Skinny, mais… for a Perfecto, your sister she 'as ze excellent taste."

"They're generally fussy that way," Buster said. "Their idea of an evening out is generally 'fine whining and dining' – and not just at Weenie-Burger, where they'd have a real excuse."

Rhubella gave an embarrassed grin. "We don't 'do' praise. Fine whining really is an art form with us. The more you complain, the higher your standards look. Which is good. To another Perfecto, anyway."

"Hmm. Variola's got excellent taste, eh? Does it break our ratings if I say, 'I'm not even going to say, you'd have to ask Clara about that'?" Babs asked in innocent tones.

"Certainment," Fifi said firmly.

"Oopsie." Babs gave an embarrassed grin. "So… good thing I didn't really say it."

"Tough lady, Clara. A lover AND a fighter, I'd say" Buster commented. "Perfectos just set their lawyers on each other – she's likely to either skunk spray you or just swing and knock your block off."

"Or both," Babs agreed. Variola just might convince the Perfectoids Clara's her bodyguard, could save trouble, she thought fleetingly, then chuckled. Looks like Clara's already guarding that girl's body pretty well! "I'd just love to be the fly on the wall when some sneering Perfectoid calls Clara 'poor white-and-black trash' – their school medic will spend all morning trying to find all the Perfectoid pieces."

They returned to the warmth of the main burrow, where the party was getting ready to start. Babs' ever-ready camera clicked like a Giger Counter on GlowinDark Flats as she recorded the well-timed (and highly dramatic) arrival of a pair of handsome and absolutely identical fox brothers, and her sisters Jenny and Katy's priceless expressions.

Buster accepted a bowl of carrot salad from one of Babs' younger sisters, and cautiously sampled it. The youngest two litters were adventurous chefs, and not averse to experimenting with fresh asafoetida, or 'Carolina Reaper' military-grade chillies in search of a memorable dish. His ears went right up. "Nice! Rare-breed purple carrot livened with those small, bitter salad herbs. It's so hard to get the proportions just right. Quite some calculation needed. But they've done it."

"Naturally," Babs smirked. "This family has talent, in all directions. Film stardom OR Rocket Science."

Buster nodded, recognising some of the other guests he rarely saw these days. There was the Boy Bunny Next Door, Duncan Potter, who had set aside his usual 'Don't call me Harry!' T-shirt for the party and donned a sharp-looking tuxedo. Buster smiled, watching as the youngest litter nudged and shoved what was apparently the shyest and cutest of their sisters onto the dance floor with Duncan. "Looks like poor Terry really ended up catching that old Anime meme. Cutest girl in class… isn't one. What a drag for him." (*)

(* Editor's note: As they had learned in Professor Bugs' Tropes and Memes Masterclass, Terry/Terrie's predicament ticked the boxes of at least three classic memes:

Meme 131 – "If any character is forced for any reason to appear in drag, they will appear FAR more attractive than if they'd tried it deliberately."

Meme 132: "Having done so, they will attract a lot of eager suitors from the (apparently) opposite sex. Especially if it embarrasses them."

Meme 133: "This will cause whoever forced them into it substantial romantic complications. Turnaround in this case IS fair play.")

"Quite a crowd!" Babs agreed. "It's a pity Mary's not here, that's all. I invited her, of course. But she's spending Christmas with her family; her parents and Jack's parents. Turns out Mary and Jack, their mothers know each other from way back!" Babs said. Jaggi's parents were far away in Even Bolder, Colorado, where Mary and family were heading to meet them at Easter along with Jaggi DiSpeckle' s sister Denoise. Mary had confided to Babs she wanted Jaggi's zebra stripes on her next foal – unless somehow the plot dictated otherwise.

"Small world," Buster agreed. "Then – back at Acme Loo, they did teach us the Law of Conservation of Characters. Travel to the remotest spot on the map, and you'll probably meet someone you know. For plot reasons. Saves work for the guys in Central Casting, and the Character Design artists, too." He smiled, remembering a first-year trip with Babs to Hawaii where the entire cast 'just happened to be' working in holiday jobs there when they arrived.

"Mmm. That Law gets me thinking of one they taught in our final term, the 'Finish on a Flash-Forward'," Babs mused. "Before you end a long-running series, have a look a few years down the road at how things might carry on – so the fans don't pester you so much for endless sequels, if they've had a look already."

Buster looked at his wife's mischievous expression. "And you were thinking…?"

Babs spin-changed into a now rarely seen form, the fairy Tinker-Bunny, airily waving a golden wand as she pirouetted gracefully in her tutu. "Look, and you shall see!" She declared in simpering tones, a special-effects sprinkling of golden sparks filling the room. "Next summer, Mary Melody, fearless news reporter, goes undercover again working as a cowgirl at a desert rodeo ranch, investigating reports of animal cruelty. Her husbands Jack and Jaggi have taken supporting-cast roles as stable-hands."

"Good casting call. Jaggi's real solid, as stable as they make them; she's always in good stable hands there," Buster commented, pulling a container of fresh popcorn from his Hammerspace pocket and offering it around as the burrow wall suddenly transformed into a 3-D cinema screen. The handsome zebra had accepted a film role as the hero's henchman next year in the forthcoming gritty action thriller 'The Vienna Connection', not the style of movie the Looniversity generally trained its graduates for. A special gravel pit outside Vienna had been required to supply the necessary quantity of grit.

"And nevair mind what 'Ollywood says, many of ze real Nineteenth Century cowboys were Afro-Americans," Fifi said. "Not only ze 'buffalo soldiers', ozair species aussi."

"Not just the cowboys, the whole Ninth and Tenth Cavalry were Afro-Americans, every single trooper of them," Buster confirmed.

"The single ones AND the married ones too!" Babs put in brightly. "But you never saw Hollywood calling on them to heroically save the day, in the classic cowboy films."

"Zo unfair," Fifi nodded. "Maybe some of Mary's ancestors rode with zem, why not?" Her voice faded as the scene swam fully into view.

The backdrop was a modern Dude Ranch seen about half a mile from the camera, with covered stadium seating shading any paying customers from the blazing sun as they would sit and cheer rodeo clowns getting trampled and cowpokes getting their construction lines kicked loose. There was a distant crash, and a grizzled cowboy came up through the roof of the stand, a minute in free ballistic flight before impacting the desert sands, a pair of hoofmarks stamped conspicuously on his backside. He rose out of the crater, grumbling "Ah quits!" and swaggered off in the direction of the sunset.

Inside the rodeo, an eighteen-hands-high jet-black bronco was being more-or-less held by half a dozen sweating cowpokes on restraining ropes. The horse snorted, pawing the ground, special-effects flames in his nostrils. An older, fatter and more elaborately dressed cowboy was standing looking on in disgust, fingers tapping the butts of a pair of mother-or-pearl inlaid revolvers at his belt. "Well, boys, looks like there's nobody as can ride ol' Hacksaw after all. That's five of my best hands still stuck in high polar orbits, and you just bet ah'm docking their wages till they gets back. Looks like it's off to France and the gourmet steakhouse for that no-count Roughneck."

Just then there was a quiet cough behind him. He turned, to see Mary Melody dressed in a classic, practical Western outfit – fringed buckskin jacket over a linen shirt, and long fringed leather chaps over non-designer denim cut-off shorts. Unlike the rest of the cowboys, her boots had no spurs. "May I try?"

The ranch owner's eyes narrowed for a second as he looked over the City Slicker who had been making such a fuss over the traditional role of cattle prods and Foulplay ™ genuine Rhino-hide whips on his extra-traditional ranch. Then a wicked smile came to his face, and he laughed. "Why sure, lil' lady! Tell you what – you stay on Roughneck's back one minute and – he's yours to keep."

"Thank you." Mary smiled. She looked around. "No saddle?"

One of the cowpokes scratched his head, a little embarrassed. "Nobody ever got close enough to 'zactly measure him for one, Ma'am." Unlike the normally placid cows, this horse when prodded, poked back.

Mary nodded quietly. At her gesture the other cowpokes let slip the ropes and scrambled to safety over the high timber walls of the arena. Mary vaulted over in the other direction, standing alone in the arena with a large and very unbroken bronco. Entirely so, and obviously what someone into Horsiculture would class as an 'Entire', indeed.

Roughneck noticed at first only a target figure in the hated Western costume. He reared, snorted and charged full speed, ready to trample the intruder flat or kick them clear into the next state – then suddenly screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust and confusion. His nose was telling him this was someone he wanted to impress.

The scene: Mary standing in the arena, looking up at the ebony bronco's muzzle, six inches from her face. "Boo," she said lightly, blowing her scent into the flaring nostrils. Roughneck shivered, his upper lip rolling back in the distinctive equine grin. She smiled, stroking his muzzle gently. "Pleased to meet you, sir." With that, she grasped a handful of mane and lightly sprang up to his back, guiding the now sweating and prancing horse around the ring bareback for two minutes.

The boss frowned as Mary slid down off the bronco. He opened the arena door and swaggered in. "Wall, if'n I'd a known it was going to be THAT easy… I can do that mah self, if'n I..."

He did not get the chance to complete the sentence. There was a special-effects sound as of a football being kicked, but hugely magnified, and a figure soared into the air heading for the stratosphere and the distant state boundary, leaving a thin trail of smoke from air-friction scorched denim.

Mary shook her head, patting Roughneck's flank and leading him out of the arena amongst a dozen jaw-dropped ranch hands. "All done with kindness," the humanmare said, Roughneck trotting willingly at her heels...

Suddenly the scene dissolved, as an infuriated Fifi slapped Tinker-Bunny around the muzzle with a large wet fish. Many folk had wanted to do that to Tinker-Bunny for years. "Babs! Remebair what 'appened when Margot she 'ad 'ze 'ideas' for Mary! It came true! Mary, she ees… prone to ze Narrative changes of Fate." Many Toons suffered from similar conditions such as Nominative Determinism where their names affected their fates – as Calamity Coyote could ruefully confirm. Just what their (presumably) loving parents had been thinking to give them such ill-fated names, was a source of unending wonder and many amusingly dysfunctional families. Jerry Springer had run several high-impact episodes feasting on the fallout.

"Where did she get the fresh fish from?" Clara asked, blinking. "I could use that skill." She looked on a little hungrily as Fifi returned the slightly battered fish to her Hammerspace pocket. It would keep fresh; Hammerspace had tightly coiled spatial but no temporal dimensions, so elapsed time stopped in there as it did for an unused spin-change form.

Buster shrugged, and grinned. "It's a Toon Thing."

"And so is saying that," Rhubella pointed out. "Recursive, or what?"

Babs spin-changed into a drier and less fish-scented form. "Hey! It was a perfectly innocent flash-forward. And Roughneck? Maybe Mary can ride him out into the sunset and set him loose, to roam forever free on the wild ranges. That'd make a good end-of-film scene, and completely PG-rated. Nothing that Disney wouldn't do."

"Disney; zey do not 'ave ze 'umanmare characters," Fifi said meaningfully. "'Oo 'ave ze equine 'usbands and ze foal already."

"Well, excuuuuuse me," Babs sniffed, her adorable nose twitching upwards haughtily. "Honestly! What did you all think I was going to have them do?"

From somewhere there was a sound as of streets' worth of plate-glass storefronts shattering simultaneously. Babs recalled that time Calamity had pulled the 'I wonder what THIS button does?' gag and his new ACME convertible car accidentally fired two gigawatts worth of interstellar overdrive, surprisingly converting into an undocumented starship mode in the middle of downtown traffic. The button was now labelled 'In-Car Entertainment'; just as a previous generation of loudspeakers had been called 'ghetto blasters', this could take out not just the ghetto but most of mid-town.

"So THAT'S what an 'R' rating sounds like when it breaks," Variola mused. "And it can read Toon minds, too. The things I learn, hanging out with you Acme Loo grads."

"Honi sot qui mal y pense," Babs quoted quaintly. "Meaning 'Evil to those who think evil', not that Honey Bunny's a sot and drinks too much." She paused. "Though I did hear about that staff party when she downed a whole bottle of green chartreuse. Went around looking green for days…"

"Even so… you might want to finish on a better note," Buster suggested. "Something that won't ruin our rating forever and ever, amen." He could feel Dramatic Tension building up after Babs' invocation of that potential future; if it was not quickly used on something else Mary's home life was liable to get even more complex than it already was. "Mary gets enough jokes already about her being a humanmare in a 'stable' relationship."

"Hmm." Babs thought hard, then smiled. "How about, instead… far out on the old GlowinDark Flats testing range, a certain greedy human Toon is laughing maniacally as he digs at the spot marked X on the old treasure map he found in your locker. And stole. Not knowing you'd planted it there just so he'd do exactly that."

"We could star that guy from class who was a pain in the tail for five years. What was he called? Nebraska Norbert, something lame like that," Buster mused. "He always wanted to be the star."

"We are stardust…" Babs sang, quoting the old hippie-era track. "And hey! He can be stardust too." She said brightly. "Well, something involving nuclear fusion debris."

"I can see ze gaping Plot 'ole 'ere, Bustair. We are not in class with 'im any more," Fifi pointed out. "Why would 'e wait till now for zis? Two years ago, pas de problem."

Buster paused, considering. "Maybe he can use that Plot Hole to hide the excavated earth from the secret tunnel he's digging."

His pink-furred wife nodded, her eyes going dreamy. "He THINKS he's stolen an 1850's map to a lost gold mine. But it's really a 1950's test range guide. Shot Hole Nineteen, the last in the Project Sun-Ray underground high-energy gag test Series; folk tried to remotely trigger it in 1959 but it never went off."

"And like they always say, kids – if a lit firework doesn't go off, never go back to it. Way too dangerous," Buster advised, recalling the High-Energy Gag testing range and its many hazards, which Professor Sam had often demonstrated very personally. "So they just filled the hole in and walked away whistling nonchalantly… I mean, sure it'd be safe forever down there, who'd be stupid enough to tunnel down a hundred feet to hit the nose fuze with a pickaxe, laughing 'gold, gold! Mine, mine, mine!'?" His eyebrows wiggled in Groucho Marx homage. "Who'd do a thing like that?"

"What a shame he cheapskated and got an ACME metal detector," Babs added, building on the scene. "Sure, it's registering a mass of something with a really high atomic number. But the bargain-bucket models can't tell gold from pluToonium. It says he's hot on the trail – and he's about to get a lot hotter."

"I scent Karma," Clara observed. Skunks had a surprisingly good sense of smell, merely having a 'blind spot' that filtered out their own aroma. "But how will we know if it works?"

"We'll know." Buster winked. "Back outside, anyone who wants to see the show!" Clara and Variola followed him and Babs up to the burrow entrance. "Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord – and what's-his-face, Illinois Igor, stole the plan to the mine. We'll see how that works out for him."

"Some kinds of mine you dig – others you step on," Babs agreed. "And it couldn't happen to a more deserving Toon than… wimpy Wyoming Wally, whatever."

"Will the crooked gold miner hit pay dirt? Or payback?" Buster mused. "Watch this space for details."

Babs waited the appropriate number of comedy beats; an Acme Looniversity graduate needed to demonstrate perfect timing. "Just about… now." She pointed eastwards.

They all turned to watch appreciatively as the distant mountainsides briefly lit up with brilliant white light from somewhere far over the horizon, as the much-cratered GlowinDark Flats added to its traditions. The Toons applauded, feeling the Dramatic Tension explosively released (and quite harmlessly, at least for anyone who mattered).

Clara frowned, and scratched her head-fur. "How do you Acme graduates do that? Write a script and have it just happen?"

The bunnies merely shrugged. It was 'a Toon Thing ™.'

"And wasn't it a bit – gratuitous?" Clara asked. "Surely he can't be all bad, whoever he is."

"Is? Was." Babs grinned.

"Well, I suppose what's-his-face did run a charity, once," Buster reminisced. "Sure, it was for tax reasons – collecting tainted meat and blown tins for the deserving poor." He paused. "To his view of 'deserving.'"

Babs gave a mock sigh. "And he always complained our stories didn't give him his rightful place in the sun." She paused. "He got it now! Courtesy of Project Sun-ray!"

"A place in the sun? Close enough, temperature-wise," Buster nodded. "Maybe not for very long – but it's years since they used to say everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame. Not any more. So many more people these days, less screen time."

"How does that work?" Clara asked, scratching her head.

"And isn't it a lot of plot work to get someone, miles offstage who most of us haven't even met?" Variola asked curiously. At Perfecto they studied the Laws of Conservation of Financial Energy; a Perfecto student would never do anything so elaborately sneaky or underhanded – unless, of course, it in some way profited or amused them. Or for practice, of course.

"No." Babs and Buster chorused, holding paws as the light in the East faded. A minute later a distant boom swept past with a hot wind, turning the scene with its snow laden trees briefly into a shaken-up snow globe. Babs sighed happily, looking Eastwards at a richly deserved denouement. "But anyway… I know I've said it before. But really, really – I just can't help myself."

Not a mile away, Margot and Plucky were watching the light show too. It seemed that Christmas Eve was joining New Year as a suitable occasion to light up the skies. Margot made a mental note to check the share prices of firework companies. "Christmas eve," she said, reflectively. "Tomorrow's a big day. Their first Christmas for our dauntless Douglas, Millie and Molly." The three would be having new sisters and possibly brothers in the coming year, she reflected – it would be interesting to see who they resembled. Medical chromoplasm tests were not something one big, happy family needed to complicate matters with.

"Sure! And rather than going to a fake Santa Clause in some store, I can change into a genuine super-hero to hand out their presents," Plucky enthused. "Bat-duck, maybe."

Margot's eyes sparkled mischievously. "Or even your film-star Captain W, the one with the amazing wombat-like powers," she suggested. "Then later we can have a private command performance, just you and me. You can show me some of his… wholly authentic marsupial traits they didn't show at the cinema." She winked. "I've heard a few things about marsupial males. Some… fascinating possibilities."

"Heh" A green-feathered mallard blushed red; an interesting sight. "Say, Margot ? I've got this funny feeling… It's like we're being watched. You know, back at Looniversity, the big thing was, everybody ended each show on a punchline." Plucky looked around nervously; many of his had been knock-out punch lines delivered by falling anvils or pianos, but the clear December skies seemed clear of any downward-slanting re-entry trails for the moment.

Margot also looked around, but there was nobody to be seen. Pulling out her bug detector, she swept the area for any listening microphones; it was a Perfecto issue model so sensitive that it scanned for everything in a mile; in the woodlands the only bugs it detected were some slumbering cicadas burrowed underground beneath the snow and leaf mould. "Mmm? You think we should do one? I've not had your training, but I'm sure I'll manage." Margot relaxed, pressed companionably against her drake. She noticed him staring off to one side, and laughed. "Oh. I remember. You Looniversity types are 'fourth wall believers'. Is there some particular sacred direction we should be facing?"

"This way." Plucky turned them both to face a notional camera. He cleared his throat. "Say – now you've scammed half the planet's pocket change with that Phobos bank scheme – what are you going to do next year? How do you beat that?"

Margot smiled, taking a deep breath. "Well, dear Plucky. Mars has two moons, you know. We just didn't mention Mary is Queen of both." She winked and paused, waiting for the crucial comedy beat. "Just wait till folk find out what we're going to do on Deimos!"

The End

(Unless someday we just happen to come across a little secret file leaked from Colonel Fenix's archives, a co-operative mission with the Japanese Pre-emptive Self-Defence Force provisionally titled "There's No drama like Noh Drama.")

(Danger! Blooper reel ahead!)

Far away on a Cuteness-blasted suburban battlefield, the Very Metal band Def Mettle Foundry (led by lead singer Frank Sikosis) paused with their task of replacing the reactive runic armour panels expended a desperate street-fight. Some of the streets had been desperate indeed; the high-dourness steel bulk of their vehicle still glowed pink in places where the optically focussed K-blasts had hit. One particularly pink dent on the turret showed where they had barely escaped Fluff Assimilation by seconds, saved only by turning the turret at the last instant to take its impact on the sole frontal Aleph class rune.

Frank felt the gaze of an unseen camera and called over to Drogo De Vere, the neo-hippy loon busy casting warding spells on the glacis plate. Both of them looked annoyed as they noticed no sound coming from their mouths; the sound-track had been replaced by rolling credits. He frowned, and beckoned the crew of the GRAVVS METALLICVS into camera shot to pose while he rapidly scribbled on the side of an empty ammunition crate. Holding it up, the message read; WHAT, THEY MISSED US OUT OF THIS EPISODE?

Drogo nodded, his mouth opening and closing soundlessly as he wrote a reply. Just before the picture faded and the commercials came on, he held it up in camera shot; LOOKS LIKE IT JUST WASN'T OUR SORT OF PLOT. He shrugged. THERE'S ALWAYS NEXT TIME.