Chapter One

"You know," Buster Bunny mused as his family strolled in through the main entrance to Acme Acres' airport, "it generally all starts with a scene with us arriving here on holiday, not heading out. Still, a month back home was good." Early February was a good time to be elsewhere than Acme Acres, after the excitement of Christmas and New Year had faded into the slushy snows. Preferably somewhere with a sunnier climate. Not by pure chance, that was exactly where the rabbit family was headed.

"Bollywood misses us!" His pink-furred wife declared dramatically. "But Japan is on the way there. How convenient! Like the old saying, Go West, young Rabbits! And as we're in California anyway…" she expansively gestured Westwards. "It's our turn to be inscrutable Orientals over there."

"So, you've got a few weeks break before starting on your next film?" Mary Melody asked, the humanmare having helped Babs and Buster carry their luggage to the airport. Her husbands Jaggi and Jack were waiting in the Most_Terrain vehicle in the car park outside.

"That's right. 'You'll be Sari!' starts shooting next month. This one's quite an action drama. My character gets a great scene where she thinks she's accidentally slain her dear husband in a picnic food-fight." Babs spin-changed into costume and struck a tragic pose. "Oh!" She wailed. "I didn't know the baked potato was loaded!"

Mary smiled. "I'll try and see that one. And give Merumo my regards when you see her. We got on really well, that year she was over here."

"Yes, we're staying a week in Neo-Tokyo with her family. A real hard-working girl, Merumo. I remember her getting that Summer job when she was an exchange student here; most toons would have been hanging about relaxing", Buster mused. "She worked at the town's main twenty-four hour store supplying the beach-wear dance scene."

"You know the place. The non-stop crop-top 'n' flip-flop, hip-hop top shop!" Babs nodded brightly. "That was before hip-hop went out of style and everyone got into the Low-Energy Sound. More ecological."

"Yes. One beat every few minutes – and you never know just when. Based on the old Chinese Water Torture." Buster said. "Drip-drop."

Babs spin-changed into her Clubbing form; where once Rave parties had glowed with light-sticks, she wildly waved a symbolic cocktail umbrella against symbolic drip-drops. Her stylish Club was ready for instant use on a quick-release holster in her Hammerspace pocket. "This is all the rage fifteen years from now!"

Mary blinked. "You've been to the future?" The Bunny family had recently dropped out of sight for a week, and it was odd for Babs not to stay in touch.

Babs gave an equivocal paw gesture. "We went back to the Grand Unified Field. It's got six dimensions. One extra space-like, one extra time-like. I like it. It's a grand field."

"We didn't exactly GO to the future," Buster clarified. "But you can see it from there. The same way Hammerspace dimensions uncoil in the Unified Field, letting you see what's stored in there."

"It's hard to explain without going there," Babs said. "And – in six dimensions there's a lot of keen things you can get up to that just don't work here in 4-D." Her pink paw squeezed her athletic buck's cottontail fondly. "We 'Unified' a lot there the first time we visited, even for rabbits. That's where we got little Blitz, and he got his abilities." She cast her loving gaze at their cub, currently asleep in the carrier on Buster's back. "And maybe his siblings will, too. After our – second visit." She put her paws behind her back and wriggled sinuously in belly-dancer mode, a look of contentment on her muzzle.

"So, if you've seen the future… you're off to buy surprise high-performing shares, particular lottery tickets and bankrupt a few bookmakers on long-odds bets?" Mary asked.

"Eeh… laws of Toon Physics stop that working." Buster hesitated. "You can't do anything useful with the information without tearing a Plot Hole in the cosmic script. Which we try and avoid." Some things had not changed over the years; he had seen a future copy of the ACME catalogue still offering explosive-tipped boomerangs, leaky bottles of Universal Solvent and home brain surgery kits with mirror attachments for real do-it-yourself fanatics.

"But we can drop some hints," Babs grinned wickedly. "Fifteen years on, we've seen Toon Trek, The Next Generation ™ in class! Would you believe Elmyra's produced the Best and Brightest of the whole bunch?"

"Hard to believe, but it'll happen," Buster nodded. "And it's not because the rest of the class are mouldy rutabagas."

Mary nodded, contemplating the facts of Toon life. "If it's Funny, it'll happen," she said. "Probabilities and genetics can go take a long walk off a short cliff, if Comedy pushes them."

"Too true! Neither Elmyra nor George reached double IQ figures on their best day," Babs mused "stands to reason Nature was saving it all for later. Not spending many points on that generation so there'll be plenty left for the kids. Four-figure IQs, even."

"Prof Calamity thinks so," Buster said, recalling their old classmate, seen teaching the next generation. The older coyote permanently looked as if he had just crawled out of a train wreck, a consequence of teaching so many crash courses. "Elmyra's son George Junior went straight from kindergarten to Harvard Law School, aced it in two years and did the same at M.I.T. before starting at Acme Loo. Oh, and he's the School's junior Pro Wrestling champion too. Got his father's body, but this one has a brain in it."

"Who'd a thunk it?" Babs asked brightly. "A buck who can tie you in knots in a courtroom tussle AND in the wrestling ring!"

"Insult and injury combined," Buster nodded. "In one extra-large package."

"Law, Physics and Comedy? You wouldn't think there's much overlap," Mary marvelled.

"He managed it. Will manage it. Our past, his future. Anyway. Ten years from now, Acme Metropolis brings in super-accurate motoring speed trap cameras on the freeway." Buster said. "They can measure your speed to thirty decimal places! But QuanToon Physics says the more accurately you measure an object's velocity, the less certain its position. George Junior persuaded the jury there was 'reasonable doubt" that those motorists getting snapped were even in the same state as the camera, let alone county."

"And probably right out of the traffic cops' jurisdiction," Babs nodded. "Score for the Acme team! His sister's just as bright – but sorta weird."

"A human mother, a rabbit father… I hardly dare to ask," Mary said. "Just what did she get in the mix?"

Buster grinned. "She's a classic Playboy bunny-girl. Natural version, not a costume. Mostly Human, but the bunny ears and tail are 'all her own work.' She's got a set of human ears too, like your daughter Jenny; that's two girls in class with quadrophonic hearing. Just pity anyone who thinks it's just a costume, tries to take them off. She can go bunny-ballistic, kick-boxing style."

"Those high-heeled feet are something else!" Babs added brightly. "You go, Tae-Kwon-Doe!"

"And they're both red haired and red-furred, taking after Elmyra. Which is kinda weird; Babs tells me Elmyra didn't have a single hair on her body, any colour" Buster said. He paused, thinking hard. "Maybe she had red haired genes somewhere and some other genes telling them to shut up about it – and the next generation left the baldness genes behind."

"But kept the hair for their hare heirs" Babs added.

Mary blinked. "So, one sibling's a hunky wrestler and the other a beautiful martial arts star, and they're both super-smart as well? Is that even allowed under the Mary-Sue laws? Plot balance and everything? They must have some really crippling flaws to make up for it."

Babs considered the matter. "Apart from having Elmyra as Mom? Well, they DO wear glasses on camera, even though I'm sure they don't need them. I could tell those 'lenses' are just flat glass."

"So George Junior can play 'mild-mannered reporter' if the plot needs it. And Rymela Junior, she can take hers off at a critical moment and swish her suddenly unbound hair in a slow-motion 'take' as everyone gasps in her suddenly revealed beauty," Buster said. "The old gags still work!" Being the future, there had naturally been a token slightly mechanical-looking girl in class named Ann Royd * who for 'some mysterious reason' vanished towards the Looniversity's power junction box at meal breaks. That nobody in class had yet worked it out was in accordance to Meme 19, Everyone Missing the Bindingly Obvious. The Chicken Boo School of method acting taught it as a main course module.

* (Editor's note: the slightly too smooth-looking Ann Royd's middle initial was of course "D". Oddly enough, her 'half-brothers' Matt and Otto Mattick were at Perfecto, studying Creative Accountancy.)

"Oh, there's a Martian Prince sitting in class too, Queen Tyranee's son." Babs noticed Mary's shocked expression. "Yes, I know Martian biology isn't meant to work like that. He came as quite a surprise to everyone. Got exiled to Earth while the Martians try and work it out. Martian biology doesn't 'do' a male version of the Queen Type Eights."

"At least – that's what everyone thought," Buster said. "The Queen included." Martian biology having seventeen and two thirds genders had naturally evolved to fit the planet's ultra-harsh conditions. Making that eighteen and two-thirds would obviously make things complex.

"There are legends, from the earliest Green Time on Mars," Mary said thoughtfully. She smiled. "Maybe I'm due to lend Queen Tyranee Jack and Jaggi again sometime. In the spirit of closer Interplanetary relations, of course."

"I remember. The Queen of Mars found out she liked having – Diplomatic Relations with them," Buster deadpanned. "Maybe there'll be productive outcomes, and I don't mean treaties."

Mary nodded. "So, everyone's kids are in class and Calamity ends up teaching in the School of Hard Knocks. Anyone else we know wind up teaching at the Looniversity?" Calamity was in the news that week, having won a prestigious Physics Prize for his work on extending the Grand Unified Theory to yet grander levels. Explaining just how peer pressure and cussedness fitted in along with gravity, the Electro-weak force and Murphy's Law had been an epoch-making event for Toon Science.

Buster grinned. "We saw that rich kid trying to get a job … ex rich-kid. He needed a job after the IRS cleaned him out, down to the last nickel."

"How we laughed! Shall laugh. Will in the future have laughed," Babs said brightly. "What was he called? Minnesota Munchkin or something?"

"I can never remember his name either," Mary shrugged. "Nobody seems to."

"Well, he went for the Super-Hero tutor post, claimed he has amazing luminous properties. But glowing in the dark isn't an approved Super-talent, he's just radioactive. Had to wear sunglasses for years just to get any sleep, the way he shines." Buster's ears twitched gleefully. "That's the only time anyone's ever called him bright."

"Principal Bugs told him a chunk of PluToonium from the Acme Catalogue could do that cheaper, and be less toxic sitting in class," Babs added. "Sent him off with a flea in his ear and a jar of itching-powder down the pants. The ol' grey hare has still got it!"

"Quite a class he's picked that year. Plenty of drama potential built right in. Having a traditional Hollywood Red Indian sitting next to an authentic Native American – well, the feathers will fly." Buster said.

"Arrows and tomahawks too!" Babs put in brightly.

"There's a vegan wolf and a carnivorous mutant sheep sitting right next to each other as well – that's another daily drama just waiting to happen." Buster looked at the clock on the wall of the terminal building. "Time we were making tracks," he suggested.

"And I don't mean tracks for a tank factory!" Babs chimed in cheerily. "Not to be a back-burrow driver Buster but – make sure we get the right Japan. The Anime one, not the cyberpunk one or the historical one."

"Natural blonde girls with four-inch blue eyes, check," Buster nodded. "Anime humans with cute tails and cat-ears, check. Others with bunny ears."

"Elmyra can tell you just how their mothers arranged that," Babs smiled knowingly. "An all-natural, cruelty-free fur coat, even. The gift that keeps on giving."

"Do you think you'll meet Gogo Dodo over there, even without looking for him?" Mary asked. "I know it's a big country, but the Law of Conservation of Characters is international."

"Expect so," Buster said. "I've heard he's really gone Native. Assimilated."

"Not that big a change for him, Japan has a high ambient Weirdness field; he needs one" Babs said. "He's just gone from one Wacky-land to another, sure he'll blend right in. Like that snake-haired girl we met in Wacky-land last trip; she's from Greece but assimilated here. Gosh-darn proud of it, too." Her long ears writhed sinuously in parody of the girl's scaly hairstyle, and she struck a Statue of Liberty pose. "There's always a USA in MedUSA!" She proclaimed, and hugged Mary farewell.

Buster settled the cub-carrier on his shoulders; the ludicrously fuzzy ears of their son just poked out. Fortunately little Blitz was fast asleep, which meant his Circular Area of Probability fitted inside the carrier *. "Got to go. Japan's so many time zones away it's probably next month there already."

* (Editor's note: a rabbit of sufficient fuzziness, such as a young cub, cannot be said to have an exact position. QuanToon Uncertainly can at best only assign a reference point and a 90% chance they will be within a certain distance of it when not observed. It makes designing playpens an interesting job.)

"See you in the movies!" Mary waved as the bunnies walked out onto the airfield – spun up to full rabbit drilling speed then vanished Westwards as a double-width furrow of displaced earth. After all this time, she reflected, Buster still hated flying. They could have started tunnelling from anywhere, of course – but heading out overseas from an airport was too strong a trope for any Toon to ignore.

Back across Acme Acres that afternoon, an army-surplus shop had a "Help Wanted" sign in the window. But it was not a sales clerk well versed in the variants of genuine unissued Marine Corps M1956 pattern lingerie that the store's backroom inhabitants were seeking. There was a long queue of Toons being interviewed for some rather different vacancies.

In the back room, Colonel Hal Fenix sat at a desk with Shirley McLoon and the other three Third Lieutenants of Unit Four Plus Two. On the desk were a pile of military personnel folders, and in front of the desk the latest candidate for a job.

Shirley looked very carefully at the Toon standing in front of the desk wearing insignia-free military-style clothing. He was a brown-feathered waterfowl of medium build with a sharp, medium length beak unlike her own flat bill, and looked emaciated. A Northern Rail, she thought, skimming through a mental list of water birds "Like, there's a familiar face. I've seen you around here." Suddenly her eyes widened as her memory triggered. "You used to work across the street, right opposite. That grody 'Tattoo Parlour and Laser Removal' place that shut down last week."

"I used to." The rail said sadly. "That was my old unit; I'm the sole survivor. Dangerous game. Unit got disbanded."

"Tattooing is a dangerous business?" Shirley said incredulously. "Since when?"

Colonel Fenix gave a slight cough. "Like us based at the Military Surplus shop, his unit hid in plain sight – they were a 'Nineteen percent more Special than those so-called Special Forces dudes over there' Unit; unfortunately their last overseas Laser Removal mission went extremely wrong. The 'laser' they went after, wasn't. It was a Dip Particle Accelerator Beam instead."

"And that, we couldn't handle," the rail said. "We got handed bad intelligence."

"Poor preparation; it happens," Colonel Felix nodded sympathetically. "I was sent out on an Antarctic mission once that ended as badly. We'd been issued Arctic camouflage. Stood out like a sore thumb, of course." He paused. "As to the vacancy, we'll let you know."

As the rail left the room, he picked up what he had left at the door in Corporal Barnes' care – a bulky, sci-fi looking rifle with electrical coils wrapped round the barrel, the whole thing wired to a backpack.

"Nice hardware," Angelina nodded. "That's not standard issue."

Colonel Fenix cast a professional eye that way. "He has what's standard for the species," the phoenix deadpanned. "He's rail-thin, and carries a railgun."

Shirley groaned.

Hal picked up another folder, opened it and frowned as he skimmed it. "Not this one." He put the folder down, shaking his head sadly. "I knew him; he used to be good. Retrieved the only known piece of Cosmic String on the planet. Of course, it'd been found years ago and mistaken for ordinary string. Ended up at the core of the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota, with tourists driving for miles to see it, He managed to untie and extract it without anyone noticing."

"Like, sounds our kind of Toon, dude sir," Shirley said cautiously.

Hal sighed. "I'm afraid not. Dangerous missions take their toll. Never was the same again, since that zombie ate his brain."

Calgari looked at the remaining papers. "Sir. What about this one, the goat girl with the skull for a head? She'd make a great Media Liaison officer. The smiling, public face of our Unit. Grinning, even."

"Si! Mucho sexy, too," Tlalacopa enthused. "Also, bare skull can tell REALLY bare-faced lie. Is perfect for Media toons."

"And what a poker face!" Angelina marvelled. "I'd love to play with her as a partner." She winked. "And at cards too."

Shirley's normally pale plumage went even paler as she looked at the photograph. "Like, mondo eww. How does that even work?"

The phoenix gave a wry grin. "Lieutenant McLoon, in this business we just get on with it and let our unit's Embedded Philosopher worry about the how and why."

"And that's another post still vacant, Sir," Calgari said hopefully. "May I apply, Sir?"

"Yes, you may apply. As you did for the Chaplain's post, and the Public Relations post. And you will be considered fairly, on your merits." Colonel Fenix said. He paused, and cast the raven a wry grin. "Sorry, you didn't get it. Next candidate please!"

Shirley shook her head ruefully. She remembered Colonel Fenix describing how Unit Four Plus Two had started, in the aftermath of The Peoria Incident (an event so classified that even those involved were not cleared to know about it.) Suddenly the room shivered and blurred, as she felt a flashback starting.

The scene: a military office, mostly filled with a large and battle-scarred desk. It held a unit pennon, a desk sign reading "Gen. Snafu, 2 ½ Star) and a part-corroded rubber bath duck toy about which it was best not to speculate. The General was a plain-featured human Toon with a grumpy expression, who was standing behind his desk facing a rather younger Phoenix, wearing Major's insignia.

General Snafu snorted. "That was a fine job, Major - keeping the lid on in Peoria. We can only hope the world will never find out the truth."

"Yes, Sir," the younger Hal Fenix said soberly. "A double event of such magnitude it drove all the witnesses insane – twice over. Fortunately the second shock drove them sane again, and none of them now remember." Being driven round the twist was, medically speaking, a 180-degree manoeuvre and another half turn of the dial would take a Toon 360 degrees, back to where they started from.

The General paused, and sat down. "I can see how we need a force like you have in mind. But the Army doesn't much go for mages, wizards and psychic talents. I have to sell the idea somehow to the General Staff. Suggestions?"

The phoenix smiled. "We could downplay calling our talents those names. And say we have troops trained for 'Operating in a harsh Triple-P Environment' That's a bunch of buzz-words they might like. We invent a special Classification so high that only Toons who already know can be told."

"Could work," the general mused. "And 'Triple-P'"?

"Psychic, Psychological and Psychiatric," the phoenix said smoothly. "Not that we ever come out and say it. I have a suggested name, too. 'Unit Four Plus Two.' It comes with 'inbuilt Psychiatric Warfare intrusion defence'. Which will tick plenty of boxes in the official buzz-word bingo games, in its own right."

The general checked the 'Card, Terminology Buzzword M1983 Special Forces Issue' on his desk, drew a line and raised an eyebrow. "Unit Four Plus Two. What does that even mean?" He demanded.

"It means absolutely nothing, Sir." Hal Fenix winked. 'That's the Psychiatric anti-intruder bit. Any hostile Toons trying to crack it… it'll drive them nuts trying to work it out!"

The flashback faded.

The current Hal Fenix stood up. "Getting reinforcements, that'll have to wait till we get back. It was too much to hope we could get someone so easily. Now, Sergeant Gander – fire up your travel shtick, and find us something fast. We have to get to Japan!"

Ten hours later a sleep-deprived and frazzled Shirley set her webbed feet on the concourse of Neo-Tokyo's main airfield. She had not enjoyed her flight across the Pacific, and was not at all sure the aircraft's engines burned wholemeal non-genetically modified soybean oil, holistically farmed and hand -pressed by ethnic crafts persons. 'Somehow' her easy-listening supply of harmonious whale song she had picked for relaxation on the flight had been substituted for a triple album of 'Extreme Grindcore ear busters!' A certain Addams Academy trio were looking smug, but these days they often did. Her carefully chosen travel book on Sacred and Holy sites of Japan had similarly been swapped with an extra-lurid guide to the Accursed and Profane ones.

"Like, that is so NOT my idea of harmonious transport," Looking out of the concourse window she spotted her ride rolling on the runway, already turned round and ready to depart. It was a classic 1950's model, and she winced as she recalled where she had seen it before, in Plucky's radically uncool military aircraft books. A sleek needle-nosed delta-winged bomber, four engines hung on pods under the wing, and a big streamlined pod faired under the fuselage now converted to basic passenger accommodation. Unlike the Mach 2 bombers in the old photographs she had seen, this one was painted bright orange and prominently bore the company logo 'Oodles of Poodles! Emergency express poodle delivery worldwide!' Clarke Gander's Travel shtick had an option for Deniable travel, it seemed.

"Well, a slow boat sailing on the trade winds to China may be eco-friendly but TOO slow," Colonel Fenix pointed out. "Even if Japan isn't quite as far. Besides, flying by Conv-Air has a certain style."

"Oh yes!" Angelina Angelique's eyes gleamed. "I loved that full-power flyby we did over Beverley Hills at palm-top height. Trailing that awesome supersonic shockwave over the suburbs was quite some 'shock and awe!' Livened everyone's day, fer sure."

"Never seen all the water jump out of a swimming pool before," Calgari mused. "And the bathers with it. You'd pay a fortune for a wave machine that energetic. Aren't we generous?" He waved farewell as their totally, obviously civilian transport lit all four afterburners, streaked down the runway and blasted into the sky to rendezvous again with the 'innocently civilian' refuelling tanker awaiting it West of Hawaii. "There he goes, Conv-Air Deniable airlines flight B58. He's really hustling and bustling along."

Shirley looked at the trio as they changed out of their nondescript travel clothing into more elaborate outfits, Angelina sliding a garish party dress over slick black and white feathers. "I thought we were meant to like, blend in with the crowd. We're on a mondo deniable mission, or some junk?"

"Hey, this is part of my civilian disguise." Angelina patted the hat; it had a large bulge on top, shrouded by an opaque cloth cover. "I've been studying high fashion design," she said conversationally. "I'd never imagined the possibilities before."

Shirley looked on sourly. "You're into high fashion? There is totally nothing you uncool types can't twist to the Dark Side, fer sure."

"Oh, we try our best," Angelina said modestly. She tapped a random tourist on the shoulder, and held the hat out invitingly. "Hey, salary-man-san! What do you think of my new look?" She pulled the cover off.

The tourist, a stout panda, turned to look. His eyes grew wide, and his jaw hit the ground with a clang in a Horrified Astonishment Wild Take (#26 in Professor Porky's book, Shirley recognised.) With a muffled shriek he backed away in terror, dropping his luggage – then turned tail and fled, still screaming.

"Nice," Calgari nodded appreciatively, as the magpie re-shielded the advanced fashion feature. "Not seen one of those before. They could really catch on. There'd be some real yowling on the catwalks."

Angelina winked. "I'm thinking of patenting it. Got the idea from a clothing accessory they put on fancy hats, called a 'fascinator.' I used the same technology to make a 'horrifier.' Neat or what?"

Shirley turned away, shuddering. Just then she noticed a familiar shape in the crowd, and cast a tight-beam thought to Colonel Fenix. It's your like opposite number, dude Sir.

Colonel Fenix turned and waved, recognising a familiar silhouette. "Konnichi-wa, Major Terata! It's good to be back." He bowed to the JPSDF (Japanese Pre-Emptive Self Defence Force) officer.

"Now there is someone who REALLY believes in 'two heads are better than one'" Calgari nodded, impressed. "Practices what he preaches, too."

"Yes, but just think of getting a stereo headache!" Angelina whispered back.

Tlalocopa looked around hopefully. "No see any of his clowns with him," she complained. "Last time we worked well with them and Beautiful Mutant Battalion."

"Shame. Clowns are SO sexy, don't you think?" Angelina's expression was dreamy. "And mimes. Aren't they just adorable? Whenever I see a mime, I start imagining dragging him off the street for 'a quiet night in', if you know what I mean?" She nudged Shirley knowingly. "Who doesn't love the strong, silent type?"

"It's the white painted faces. Very Gothick," Calgari said. "Though over here that's not what it means, traditionally. Though there are real Japanese goths as well; it's a civilised country." There were also Baroques and Rococo styled Toons, and over by Duty-free he had spotted a Romanesque.

"I like it. Oh, those Anime types. The eyeballs! I'm starving hungry every time we're here." Angelina licked her sharp corvid beak hungrily. "Eyeballs, eyeballs everywhere – nor any one to eat." She paused, cocking her head aside. "At least you get whale on the menu, though – that's something."

Shirley turned away and studied a canine girl in Major Terata's group who wore a tightly sealed bright yellow hazmat suit in the classic DEVO style and a surgical face-mask with goggles that left none of her fur showing. It looked very hot in there. "She doesn't look like a mutant," Shirley observed. "More like a regular Labrador, fer sure."

Major Terata flashed a pair of tight smiles. "Her mother is, yes. Father is poodle. But she is – different to usual mix. Counts as mutant."

Angelina shrugged. "What's the use of a Labradoodle in our business? World's soppiest dog, that's official in the Guinness Book of Records," she yawned. "Bred to be hypoallergenic, for Toons who can't take dog fur."

The twin heads nodded in sync. "Not her. One percent of such are Poodladors. Very different." He pulled out a laptop and showed a security camera film of the canine facing a rioting crowd alone. Her mask and suit shed on quick-release catches as she charged towards them – before she even touched the rioters they were scythed down almost as if hit by a Toon skunk's scent weapon. Some were breaking out in instant Technicolor™ blotches, keeling over racked and sneezing convulsed in third-degree hay fever or with some extremities ballooning out in instant allergic shock.

"Hyper-Allergenic. I like it!" Angelina declared. "And – if she's a reverse Labradoodle… I bet she's got the personality of a starved pit bull who hates everyone personally?"

"She's our Evil Liaison Officer," Major Terata said. "Was type-cast."

"You know the trope, Lieutenant McLoon," Colonel Fenix said. "Most Anime films, you have to talk to the man from the government – sharp suited, broad shouldered, sunglasses, cigarette, ironic and cynical attitude. You've seen him. Makes sense to have someone in your unit tapped to deal with him – and with Evil Mega-Corporations too."

"On this mission," Shirley nodded thoughtfully, recalling just who Gogo Dodo currently worked for "That will be – mondo useful."

Meanwhile back at the ranch, or rather in the snowy woods at the side of Mount Acme, someone else was preparing to travel. In the hallway sat a carefully packed set of Assault Bagpipes, safely deactivated and pre-sealed for air transit by Customs, ready to be collected. The bagpipes' pyrophoric tri-ethyl borane fuel was ready awaiting at its player's destination; airlines made such a fuss about carrying such things in carry-on luggage.

"Whoo-hoo!" Plucky enthused as he took a last look at the extra-wide TV set in his family's living room. "I get to jam again with the band, on film! Fowlmouth and the guys are touring in Japan and we get to shoot the film there." He pointed at the lively performance on the screen. "Since their last gig they've upgraded the Flugelhorn. Look, you can tell." The 485mm Advanced Flugelhorn's white-hot exhaust was blasting into the concert hall's flame trench, with hundreds of gallons of water a second sprayed in to delay the stage melting till the final track. "See that dark band at the start of the exhaust plume? They feed cooler turbo-pump gases into the chamber, cools the nozzle."

"Mmmm." Margot relaxed on the couch. "We'll all miss you. Have fun with the band over there. Tell Mitzi Avery congratulations from me on her happy news. My own little bundle of joy shouldn't be arriving till you get back. But with storks – who knows?" She sensuously caressed the stork feather that sat in her considerable cleavage as she finished off the box of chocolates she had been munching through; in the Crowninshield Mansion nursery there were three ducklings to feed, and the calories she ate never stayed in her long enough to change her stunning figure. It was a hard life, she reflected as she rang her ever-attentive maids Gladys and Gracie for more gateaux.

"Sure!" Plucky posed triumphantly. "They're filming on location in Neo-Tokyo. We get to shoot the whole thing on location, up against the evil Audiophobe and his tone-deaf minions. It'll be better than anything the Radioactive Teenage Samurai Slugs ™ ever did! And there's nobody I know over there. What can possibly go wrong?"

"What indeed?" Margot's eyebrow rose. "Have fun, dear." She kissed her husband farewell, waved as the taxi departed in a flurry of snow-chains a few minutes later, and returned to her warm boudoir.

"Has he gone, Margot?" Gracie asked, pausing in her dusting. As always, she and her partner wore the top parts of traditional frilled maid outfits, lovingly crafted and sewn by each other.

Margot gave a heavy sigh, but there was a twinkle in her eye. "My dear husband – his Duty to fame and fortune calls him away, earning a meagre crust to support his poor wife and hungry hatchlings. My bed will be cold and lonely all Winter. Which at least gives my poor body time to recover from all the outrageous demands I can't deny my lawful husband. No matter how strange." She sat down heavily, in a tragic pose she had lifted from her acquaintances who had studied at Acme Loo. "Left abandoned at home, no life beyond the kitchen and bedroom, kept barefoot and pregnant."

The two maids exchanged glances. "But you're the one with all the money," Gracie suggested hesitantly. "And all the… exotic ideas."

"If anyone 'wears the pants' around here, it's you," Gladys pointed out.

"Well, there is that," Margot snickered, patting the sofa seats on each side of her. "I do my best to provide," she said conversationally. "Now. Household. Is there anything you need? How's the custom incubator working out?" She cast a glance over to the lovingly hand-woven nest in the corner of the room, where two large plain light blue duck eggs sat under a carefully monitored set of heat lamps with emergency backups available.

"It's fine. On our own we couldn't have afforded even the ACME one – and we wouldn't want to risk it if we could. I've heard things about that model." Gladys shuddered. "One of us would have had to quit work and sit on the eggs full time."

Margot nodded; she kept quiet about the report she had read about the ACME 'hatcher's handy helpmeet' on Page 19 of the catalogue whose controls included undocumented settings for poached, hard boiled and 'over easy.' A thought struck her. "How do you tell those eggs apart? I can't, and I've looked."

"We don't," Gracie said firmly. "They're not 'one's mine the other's Gladys', they're ours between us. That's all that matters."

"All one big, happy family," Margot smiled. The maids' firstborn hatchlings Millie and Molly slept in their cots in the next room, along with her young Douglas 'Dauntless' Duck. Brandi and Candi were happier in the igloo they had made out in the forest, when they were not at their grandmother's house rapidly learning to read from dread volumes of forbidden lore that most Toon researchers needed surgically modified minds to understand.

"Yes. Thank you, Margot – for Everything." Gladys nestled closer to the taller mallard. "We've everything we always wanted – thanks to you. We never expected eggs. We'd have been happy if it was just by the stork – we didn't even get that till we met you. "

"Mmm. Glad to help." Margot's eyes twinkled wickedly in a special-effect most film stars would have envied. "It's just a matter of a little knowledge in the right place, and a little – application. And I do so enjoy – applying it to you both." And will again, I think, she thought lightly. At New Year she had asked Gladys and Gracie to tell her when they had enough hatchlings, which they had not – and until they did so – anything goes.

"Things like fertility hospitals and doctors just won't work on Toons who want an egg," Gracie sighed. "Not that we could have afforded it anyway. Clinics and equipment, that kind of thing just wouldn't help." Simply being a happily loving couple for years, even if one of them had been male, had small chance of signalling a stork to call for them, and she and Gladys had worried their nest would be forever empty.

"Oh, I don't know…" Margot's gleam intensified. "The right kind of science, in the right – situation. Tubes and a big plunger involved, certainly. It just has to be extreme enough. Something like this…" she summoned her will and projected a scene not unlike the Christmas play Babs' brother Mortimer had directed a few months earlier.

"The hapless heroine, abducted the very day of her wedding… becomes the test subject of the Relaxed Sanity Scientiste's latest, greatest 'Fascinating Experiment ™'," she proclaimed as the scene unfolded. "Trapped in the coils of the sinister Device while the big display timer counts towards zero and the handsome hero fights manfully through the castle's deranged defences."

To Margot's left and right there was the stereo effect of slight popping sounds as two toons 'unconcealed,' music to her ears.

Gladys wriggled, and riffled through the ACME catalogue's Adult supplement on the coffee table next to her. "Something like – page nine – and she could use... page twelve, and sixteen too?"

"You really are learning, dear." Margot's voice was an almost feline purr as she held the scene in visualisation. "And so is the hapless heroine." She snickered. "Back at Perfecto, we'd say anyone who let themselves ever be that helpless, deserves everything they get." She paused, turning from one face to another. "I'd be interested to see what you'd do with the scene."

Gladys looked up, as the dashing hero struggled to free his bride-to-be from glistening tubes and coils. "The countdown is still at forty seconds, he thinks he's got plenty of time. What they don't know is, the lady Scientiste is so much smarter than the hero. It triggers when the clock reads twenty-nine, not zero."

"Which turns out to be… five seconds too late to be rescued." Gracie said breathlessly. ""The big plunger – plunges. Tubes bulge. Oh wow." She wriggled her tail, eyes wide. "It'd be even worse – and work better – if the heroine found out she – secretly likes that sort of thing."

Margot nodded. "And that is exactly the kind of thing that would work – especially if they marry in church the next day and think it's all over – until they and the midwife get rather a shock a few months later. Non-Toons evolve through Survival of the fittest. We don't need to; we survive anyway, Dip aside. To Multiply by Melodrama, is more our style."

"I was reading in the ACME News last week," Gracie said, a puzzled look on her bill. "There's the list of local births for the past year. It's only about a dozen, all over town, for a hundred and twenty thousand people." She paused. "I know all these names! It's like there was a quota, and the people we know who went to Acme Loo and Perfecto got the whole city's stork ration!"

"Mmm." Margot relaxed, sitting back as she unbuttoned her blouse to her maids' delight and they pressed closer. Having her husband away for months at a time was a great strain, she thought, but she 'somehow' managed to cope. "Who knows why? Maybe we were all at the same party when that meme strolled into town. As they always said at Acme Loo – 'it's a Toon Thing.'"

Three hours later, Plucky Duck was relaxing in the first-class cabin of the flight from Acme Acres to Neo-Tokyo, flicking idly through the onboard cable TV channels – there was no wireless, the airliner being strictly fly-by-wire.

"Crummy commercials. Middle of the Pacific Ocean, and they still find you", the duck groused. Then one caught his eye. A familiar sort of scene; evidently a film shoot on location, some distant island paradise like Bikini Atoll. A harried Props toon was standing dejectedly in front of a domineering type who sat enthroned in a Director's chair.

"Sir – it's the petting-zoo scene." The Props toon shook his head sadly. "These rabid mutant wolverines just aren't working out. Nearly as bad as the starving honey badgers. Who'd a thought it?"

The Director sat a moment in thought, then a special-effects lightbulb sprang into existence above his head. "So, skip the wolverines. What we need for this scene is – poodles!"

The Props toon looked round the distant island, evidently far from the shopping malls and delivery trucks of Civilisation. "But we have to finish shooting the scene today. Where are we going to find three hundred trained poodles around here, right now?"

Everyone froze as their scene suddenly became a static 2-D backdrop and a wolf in a sharp business suit strolled confidently across front stage. "Yes, where indeed? Only at –" he stepped back as a glowing company logo materialised centre screen "Oodles of Poodles! Your number one choice in express worldwide poodle delivery!" There was a roar of engines as a bright orange fleet of repurposed jet bombers thundered low overhead. Open bomb bays poured out streams of small parachutes, each with a curly-coated, fuzzy passenger yipping excitedly. "That's where!"

"Ha! As if." Plucky scoffed, flicking channels. "Whoever believes that kinda advert? They can't fool me." He looked out of the window, and blinked at the sight of a bright orange Convair B-58 streaking back Eastwards towards California with afterburners lit, perhaps to pick up another urgent poodle resupply. On its tail fin was a commercial logo he had just seen. His bill fell open in astonishment. "Well, whaddya know? They really do."

Just then, an oriental vixen walked past his seat and stopped, her eyes wide. "Excuse, Sir – are you Plucky Duck? Film star? Hero Captain W with amazing Wombat powers?"

Plucky cast her his most winning smile, his hard-to-biologically-explain teeth gleaming. "Why yes! I have that honour. And forthcoming rock legend of the year." A pen appeared in his feather-hand. "An orderly queue for autographs, please."

The vixen smiled back, her tail flicking so fast Plucky could almost swear there was more than one of them. "Thank you. But we are in rock band as well. PluToonium metal band, heading out on tour. Band name Ore of Boron."

For the second time in a minute the duck gaped in astonishment. "You're our support band! Fowlmouth told me there was a Japanese one this trip. You're heading for Neo-Tokyo too?" Fowlmouth's band had toured with many of Plucky's favourite indie bands – Skabbi Kittn, the Drilltones and 'FOOOF is Satan's Kimchi'.

"Yes, Plucky-san," the vixen bowed politely. "I am Michiko, lead singer. Want to meet band?" She gestured back towards Economy Class. "We all on row eighty-seven."

Plucky glanced at the crowded seats where non-film-stars squeezed in like sardines. "Bring them all over!" He waved magnanimously at the empty first-class seats around him. "Upgrade. My treat."

A minute later, Michiko was back. With her was what Plucky thought was a mutant raccoon * who was introduced as Shinobu their lead guitarist, and a strange grey scaled, winged girl called Naoko, the drummer. Her figure was statuesque, with a skin texture resembling finely polished granitic concrete.

* (Editor's note: Plucky never paid attention in any class not taught by his idol Professor Daffy. He wouldn't have recognised a Japanese Tanuki if one lap-danced for him wearing a 'Miss Tanuki of the year' T-shirt.)

Plucky scratched his head, puzzled. "Are you some kinda dragon?"

Naoko smiled. "No, Plucky-san. I am gargoyle. Have stone based chromoplasm."

Plucky shrugged, and smiled back. "Hey, that's great! A gargoyle? So, you're a real heavy Rock chick!"

Naoko giggled, the sound seeming odd from the very solid figure. "Hai, Plucky-san. Play drums in band. Steel chemical drums."

"Hmm. Steel drums, lead guitar and a metal singer," Plucky nodded. "Sounds like you'll fit right in."

"Hai, Plucky-san. We so heavy metal, always charged excess baggage." Michiko's ears drooped. "Never afford first class before."

"Well, you're with me now. Enjoy the ride!" Plucky patted the luxurious seats next to him as he signalled the stewardess to make the arrangements. Sitting in first-class with an all-girl Anime metal band hanging on his every word, he thought – life just doesn't get better than this.

"Plucky-San," Michiko asked, looking him over. "In band. What you play?"

Plucky's grin spread. "I used to play plain bagpipes, back in school. Now I've a fancy set. It even keeps up with our band's flugelhorn. Now, that's some instrument."

"We hear. All Hokkaido hear when it plays," Shinobu chimed in musically. "They say … it rebuilt from rocket engine?"

"You're talking to the right mallard about that." A mallard sat back, basking in the attention, sure as ever that his hours playing Retro Rocket Rumble had been as useful an education as anything at Acme Loo. "Years ago in the Apollo moon rocket days, folk worked out the blast of the main engines at launch pumped out enough acoustic energy to break every construction line in a Toon's body, out to three hundred yards from the launch pad. Lots of rock groups read about that and went 'cool! Want one like that in our band!' "

Michiko nodded happily. "Hai! Is High-Energy sound! Like you play with flugelhorn."

"Sure!" Plucky enthused. "And have we got one! It's a souped-up, air breathing descendant of that project. You'll love it." He idly passed over the story Fowlmouth had told about the gig where the windows of the concert venue were sealed shut, and their main instrument's voracious air inlet had sucked all the air out of the building, leaving everyone floating weightless in the vacuum holding their breath while doing bulging-eyeball gags. Exactly where the gravity had gone was an interesting question, but deep space conditions traditionally went together with weightlessness, and presumably it was a 'meme thing.'

"This will be our first film," Shinobu said, looking at Plucky awe-struck. "And they say, you starring again as Captain W." A Wombat-themed hero was not so amazing, seeing as all the more obvious animal super-heroic powers such as bat, spider and aardvark had been registered and heavily trademarked years ago with dire legions of ferocious lawyers hungrily scouring the world for any scent of copyright infringement.

"A star's a star," Plucky said proudly. "You'll love this. Everyone will, but you get to see it first. Lucky you." He looked round conspiratorially. "This film starts with a flash-back to where I got my astounding powers. I'm exploring in the Australian outback, and these Aborigines mistake me for a non-sentient duck." He blocked the uncomfortable memory of various exam results back at Acme Loo that had suggested the same. "Anyway – I get bitten by this radioactive shaman! Last meal he ate was a wombat, so…" he broke off, grinning. "But hey, I'll leave you some surprises!"

Babs and Buster tunnelled out of Hammerspace into a world slightly less chilly than Acme Acres – but not by much. Next to Neo-Tokyo's airport here was a grove of cherry trees just about to flower, with snow on the ground and a distant view of temples and skyscrapers. Naturally, they had emerged at the airport but outside the inner security barriers – there was no point in travelling by rabbit-hole (the tiny maximum size of space physicists' famous wormholes only suited their small friend Bookworm) just to have the hassle of security and passport control at the far side.

"Looks like we came to the right place," Buster mused as he looked about the public side of the airport "they even used reference material this time!" Evidently they had arrived at the right version of Japan; in the Realist and Cyberpunk alternates there would not be fully costumed Ninja walking around in broad daylight without attracting any comment. It was always easier tunnelling West rather than East from Acme Acres – the further they got from the mysterious Bermuda Triangle style Hammerspace distortions around Albuquerque, the better.

"Only the best for guests." A voice from behind them was one they recognised. They turned to see Merumo, there to meet and greet. She was a tall Anime human girl with typical Japanese features such as three-inch wide blue eyes, naturally pink hair and a nose whose geometry somehow seemed inconsistent in front and side views. "Babs-san! Buster-san! Welcome to Japan!"

"'Babs-san' sounds like a feminine hygiene product…" Babs winked "but hidy, Merumo! It's been ages!" The girls embraced. "Last time we met, we were both single."

"And now Babs is available in money-saving six-packs!" Buster quipped. "Only time Mrs High Maintenance here ever saved anyone money."

"Oh, you," Babs glanced back at him fondly. "Where's your husband, Merumo? I've never met the Legendary Overfiend."

Merumo looked downcast for a second. "We not see him this trip. Cannot stay on Earth till the Stars are Right."

"Ohhh... I remember now. You T-mailed me about that." Babs turned to Buster and winked. "It's a MiskaToonic Thing. Her husband lives off somewhere called the Warp."

"Sounds a bit like the Grand Unified Field. Adds a whole new dimension to honeymooning," Buster deadpanned. "Several, even."

Babs nodded. Suddenly she noticed her pink-furred paws were muddy, a common penalty of burrow travelling. "Just a second! Must freshen up." She stepped into the Toonettes' toilets for her toilette. Paws washed and brushed, she was about to rejoin her family and friends when her long ears picked up the sound of a toilet flushing – instantly followed by cries of shock and dismay. A few seconds later the same came from another cubicle, each of which bore the prominent logo of the Watasawa Gratuitously Heavy Engineering Mega-Corporation.

"Hmm," Babs tapped her chisel teeth lightly as she skipped out on the cutest toes in Neo-Tokyo, now once again impeccably brushed. "Sounds like some airline went over the top on serving the five-alarm Carolina Reaper chilli this flight." Not only the aircraft around here had afterburn, she thought.

She and Buster followed Merumo out of the airport to the city's Ludicrously Rapid Mass Transit System, and in a few frames of elapsed film they were in the far suburbs at the family home. The door was opened by an astonishingly youthful woman wearing a kimono, looking like a barely five years older version of Merumo.

It's not just Western Toons who keep their looks, Babs noted. She had seen the meme; Anime women stayed in the same shape from their teens till they suddenly flipped to the 'old lady' trope almost overnight. It was a hard role to play but someone had to do it. She had seen Acme Loo's token oldster Granny in films from World War Two when she was in the Secret Service, and she had been beautiful then.

"Mrs. Matsutake? I've only seen your pictures," Buster bowed respectfully. "Merumo told us about you. And showed us some of your action films from, the 1970's and '80's."

"Hai. Local tradition. We start and finish early," Mrs Matsutake said, bowing to her guests. "At seven years old I was a Magical Pretty Girl. At twelve, was Sailor-suit Heroine. At seventeen, joined Science Ninja Team Moriboshi as junior monster-kicker. Age twenty - hung up the Sentai team mask and costume, looked for career and husband." She smiled. "Same company Merumo now works for, Chindogu-Corps."

"Chindogu. I know that name," Buster said thoughtfully. "Isn't it practical-looking but useless inventions, like self-brushing shoes?" Where some unpopular films were only released direct to video, many Chindogu items were bought then went straight to the hall closet forevermore. It was a great boost to the economy, apparently.

"Hai!" Merumo nodded proudly. "Mother worked on the folding commuter stand. A prop under your chin, lets you sleep standing up on packed commuter trains. In theory."

"Every home must have one," said Buster dryly, spotting pairs of self-walking shoes neatly arranged on a rack by the door. "What are you working on?"

Merumo looked around nervously. "Still in process. Special driving safety alarm clock."

Babs blinked. "I've heard of those already," she complained. "Like if you start to fall asleep at the wheel, it detects it and wakes you up?"

"Oh, no. That not my project. You set this for when you scheduled to arrive at work," Merumo whispered conspiratorially. "So – if you fall asleep driving, this wakes you up when you get there!"

"A great boon," Mrs Matsutake beamed, waving them indoors.

Babs looked down at her adorable toes. She had occasionally worn shoes as part of costumes, though tended to compensate if she really needed sensible shoes by pairing them with utterly ludicrous socks. "Buster," she whispered to her husband's ear "first shopping trip here – I need a pair of shoes."

Buster had sensibly given up a while ago, trying to understand Babs' logic. "Any particular reason?" he asked in neutral tones.

"We're entering a Japanese home, blue-boy," Babs whispered, looking down in mild irritation at her and her buck's habitually bare paws. "We're meant to take our shoes off first – and dressed like this, we can't!"

Not far across the city, Shirley followed Colonel Fenix and the members of the Beautiful Mutant Battalion into an anonymous warehouse where a range of items were laid out on industrial racking in Exhibit A style.

Major Terata gestured to the items. "All these were made with Undead labour by Watasawa Corporation. And all the items – are technically legal but very Dark-Side of the Farce."

Calgari picked up what looked like a high-tech baseball bat, and found an activation switch. High-voltage sparks crackled in a three-inch arc at the far end. "Nice! You could taser a giant robot with this handy-dandy fashion accessory." He swished it like a sabre.

"That's not a cattle-prod. It's more like an armoured dinosaur prod," Sergeant Gander said, his beak wrinkling in disgust. "Who would ever need one of those?"

"Hey, what go around, comes around," Tlalocopa said brightly. "Be prepared in case they come back. Anyway, this is Japan. Giant reptiles are part of local ecosystem. Do vital Urban Renewal in Mega-Tokyo."

"Well, we could use this, Sir," Calgari appealed to Colonel Fenix. "Suppose we grab some high exec of this Corporation and – put it to good use till he confesses to everything."

"We are meant to be the good guys, Lieutenant," Hal said wearily. "Remember? We try and avoid doing that kind of thing."

"Ah. But we're also a secret Unit. We need a cover identity. If we don't act like who we really are, the good guys – that'd help our disguise, wouldn't it Sir? Anyway - I promise to only use it on them till the battery runs out." Calgari smiled winningly.

"It's mains powered." Sergeant Gander pointed to the thick electrical cable.

"Then… I promise to only use it till the mains runs out." Calgari said hopefully. "Isn't that reasonable?"

Next to him, Angelina Angelique was looking through the other items. "Coolest! A 'fun with fluorine' kiddie's Chemistry set! I used to have one like this!" She enthused. "And this one's a doozy. Oh hey, you can make ozone di-fluoride! FOOOF itself!"

"A happy coincidence, that stuff," Calgari said. "Its name is its chemical formula – and it goes off boom, or FOOOF! With – almost anything. Breaks the ice at parties. Most other things, too."

Sergeant Gander looked at the box lid. "Impress your friends, suppress your enemies," he read out. "Watch in awe as you set fire to – sand! Water! Asbestos! Guaranteed hypergolic with 99% of all unwanted household items and inhabitants!" He winced, putting the box down very carefully and backing away slowly upwind.

"Dip for non-Toons. Is only fair," Tlalocopa mused. "And what practical joke potential."

Shirley's aura shuddered and pointed to another item, packed in an anonymous suitcase.

A portable Home microbiology lab, 'little devil's kitchen' model, it says, the blue-glowing aura turned green in disgust. I like totally cannot believe this!

"Contains live Toonpox virus and the active memes for hot strains of both Qattara and Turfan Depression," Shirley read the box, her feathers turning paler than normal. "Includes 'Gen-U-ine handy sized radiation source to mutate your own wacky custom strains'. Like, ewww. We have to shut these dudes down like mondo pronto, or some junk."

If I ever saw junk, this is it, her aura confirmed.

Calgari tutted reprovingly. "I'm disappointed, Shirley and Shirley. There's a tiny sticker on the back of each box says 'strictly for peaceful Educational use only.' Surely you can't shut down Education? Think of the poor kiddies! The kiddies!"

"Who won't be running around with glass tubes of weaponised mutant cooties or Satan's Kimchi," Shirley snapped. "Like, that's major sad, fer sure."

Major sad - I Don't think, her Aura added sourly.

"There's more," Colonel Fenix said grimly, hefting a hefty technical manual prominently bearing the company's dread logo. "I've heard of these. I've never seen a manual for one, though. The Corporation won a prestigious dark-side prize last year for the world's most gratuitously over-engineered toilet. They have an airport contract, even." He handed the thick tome to Major Terata. "You'll need to help me on this. I thought I knew Japanese – but these functions have titles like cryptic crossword clues."

The two-headed Major put a pair of thinking caps on, whose cooling vanes were glowing red after a minute of hard study. "All functions interpreted by allusions to obscure Japanese folklore and early 1970's local TV shows," he said flatly. "Some of them I don't understand myself. No foreign-born Toon ever could."

Shirley's aura had been hovering over his shoulder, channelling her incarnation as a 17th Century Shinto priestess to help translate. Way gross. Button #47. Who would ever want it to do THAT?

"They have an airport contract, so – foreigners, I expect," Angelina said lightly. "Foreigners. Who can guess the depths of their depravity? But the generous Corporation included at no extra charge a button just to suit them. Probably."

And button 14, and 33, and what 7 does ... I wouldn't do THAT to a lima bean! Shirley's aura made ectoplasmic retching noises.

"All legal, though," Major Terata said glumly. "Register as an officially sanctioned Evil Mega-Corporation, and much is possible."

"Sounds about right," Angelina nodded thoughtfully. "That ten million volt dinosaur-prod had a clear warning sticker about where not to stick it. It's not Watasawa's fault if people misuse their fine products."

"That's right! Like –if a builder's merchant innocently sold Shirley here a house brick – which she used to channel the spirit of Krazy Kat and brain a harmless passer-by with." Calgari said.

"Direct hit, fifty yard tricky cross-wind shot, thirty point bonus!" Tlalocopa grinned.

"Well, you wouldn't ban the sale of bricks just because of what Shirley does with one, would you?" Angelina's black avian eye glittered mischievously. "Villainesses have to do what they do. It's a Union rule."

Shirley's aura returned from the corner of the warehouse, looking ill. I should be used to you uncool dudes by now, worse luck, she complained. Not get sicker all the time. What's wrong with me?

Major Terata smiled. "If you will permit? I have experience in spirit healing."

Shirley's aura looked at that of the two-headed officer, seeing a clear and shining energy that even at a distance she could feel the glow of like warm sunshine. I'd be way grateful, dude-sama.

Major Terata's aura manifested a white coat, face mask and stethoscope, and stepped clear of his material body. He laid his glowing hand on the aura's brow, and concentrated. Then his eyes went wide for a second, before he stepped away smiling. I have good news. You are not seriously ill. It is only to be expected, in your condition. Congratulations!

Say what? Shirley's aura blinked. Suddenly her bill dropped open in shock and the colour seemed to drain from her, leaving her almost transparent. At her midriff a small dot of rather different colour was just visible.

"Ooh. We can all see, when she does that," Angelina smiled. "Must be a local tradition. I've seen Anime girls who can go – transparent in places as a special effect."

"Like, totally thanks for not telling me," the material Shirley grumbled to her aura. "It's the first I've heard of it, and you're a few months along already. So, who's the lucky entity?"

But – I haven't! There's nobody! Her aura gasped.

"No-body? Well, you don't have a body anyway," Angelina said. "You seem to be managing pretty well without." She winked.

Colonel Fenix raised an eyebrow. "And yet she cannot lie either. A strange situation. But then, I believe she was born direct on the spirit plane? From what her mother tells me."

"Fer sure," Shirley said. "Or we'd be material twins. And chromoplasm tests might tell us like who her hot date really was."

Calgari sighed. "So, that's one aura packed off on Maternity leave, Sir? Leaving us one short, and our team's already understaffed. Good thing we brought along the personnel folders from base!" His feather-hand dipped into his Hammerspace pocket and smoothly produced three dossiers. "I have one here who's multi-skilled, he'd do great!"

"The last Toons you were so keen on were all vampires," Colonel Fenix said dryly. "And this one is…?"

The raven cocked his head aside, considering his reply. "Not a vampire… exactly," he said. "He's whatever you call a perfectly normal werewolf. Who then just happened to get bitten by a vampire."

"Think of the potential, Sir!" Angelina urged. "He can do more than one speciality. Multi-skilled! Werewolves are famous for holding two jobs; they're always moonlighting."

Hal sighed and shook his head. "We'll consider all that later. First, we have a mission. I believe Frank Sikosis and his band are in town already, under cover of a concert tour?" At Major Terata's twin nod, he went on. "So. We'll meet them, and start putting a plan together."

"This is going to be SO cool!" Angelina Angelique enthused. "Let other Units mess around looking for evidence in rubbish bins and trying to hack the bad guys' computers. We take them on with an unplanned pregnant ghost, a heavy metal band and a tank with big spikes all over! That's style."

Shirley rolled her eyes in disgust. "Listen, Miss Subtlety. This is a classic Evil Mega-Corporation we're up against. Like, comprende? They'll have all sorts of mondo sneaky security. They'll see us coming miles away, if we just totally charge in like that!"

"You worry too much, Shirley. Sure sign of a guilty conscience," Calgari waved her objections aside with a midnight-black wing. "Just relax and enjoy the ride. The bad guys don't even know we're here!"

In the centre of Neo-Tokyo, a tall black skyscraper reared sixty storeys to the stormy skies. In its basement a giant computer was doing something Shirley would have recognised at once, had it been done with sticks rather than randomised logic states – it was predicting the future by throwing the I Ching.

Pattern 37. The enemy at the gate. (Who)

Pattern 5. The distant travellers. (Who)

Pattern 41. The musician. (What)

Pattern 12. The iron drum. (What)

Pattern 26. The two tribes unite. (Why)

Pattern 72. The rescue. (Why)

Pattern 1,653 The weird bird with an umbrella growing out of his head (Why: comprising a very little-known I Ching sign, this.)

PAL 9000, the Artificial Malevolence program who had gained control of Watasawa Gratuitously Heavy Engineering (Evil) Corporation, calculated rapidly. The pattern emerged.

Look out for foreigners arriving, and linking up with a heavy metal band, was the message sent to its Security employees. They're trouble. Report any at once.

Half a minute later, an alert employee sent in footage from the main airport. A green American mallard was striding confidently through Customs, followed by a Kitsune, a Tanuki and a gargoyle carrying instruments suited to just such a band. They wore neck-braces of a pattern Anime headbangers favoured, to prevent their classic dance mode ('Headbangoru!') pulling their heads clean off. With the large heads and thin necks of many Anime humans, it was a definite hazard.

PAL 9000 permitted itself two whole clock cycles of auto-congratulations, and signalled its Security teams once more. That's the threat! Identified! You know what to do.

End Chapter One