Chapter Seven

Deep in the sub-basement of the Watasawa Corporate headquarters, the Artificial Malevolence construct PAL 9000 brooded as it reviewed the last few days. All the signs were there – without doubt, an invading force including a heavy-metal band was on its way to challenge its supremacy. Worse, even its most proven Ninja teams had been repulsed with embarrassing ease. This Pluckford Duck, identified from a hostile takeover of the airline security, had very definitely arrived in Neo-Tokyo – and vanished. Vanished so thoroughly that not even loyal corporate Yokai searching on the spirit plane could find him. That took incredible resources; the corporate computer upgraded the threat level to Severe. Data files opened wide concerning the film exploits of a duck that could transform into an extra-heroic wombat super-hero… although none of those had been detected in town either. Which only made the situation more worrying. They were out there somewhere, evading the Security team's best efforts at spotting them.

Logic circuits configured as PAL 9000 threw the virtual I-Ching again and pondered the readings.

Pattern 45 – The final battle (What)

Pattern 18 – The Idiot (What)

Pattern 75 - The Musician (What)

Pattern 14 – The Child (Who)

Pattern 5 – The Trap (Result)

Pattern 126 - The Defeat (Result)

This looked ominous. The Artificial Malevolence's vital spark moved down from the banks of incredibly hard discs, to working out exactly what to do with the data it had retrieved. At the deepest, most viciously protected layer of the building, it entered the cute and fuzzy logic circuits – those warm, plush-textured boxes that could yield surreal insights in ways the fast, mechanistic logic upstairs never could. Like some great serpent coiled up in a hole digesting its meal, PAL 9000 began planning its next moves.

A few thousand clock-cycles later, the plan was made.

All personnel, report to local headquarters for Loyalty tests, the message went out. PAL 9000 had considered this course a while ago. Loyalty to the death and beyond was the company's sworn motto – and today its employees were about to prove it. The programs ran down the personnel files, sending out the messages – until they reached one humble 'salaryman'. And stopped.

Gogo Wackston Dodo, Corporate Asset #01204475. See special Asset Acquisition File Black 7749. The reference was followed up, and if PAL 9000 had a head it would have nodded judiciously. On his first day at the company, routine medical testing had shown traces on the bird's feathers of pure Unobtanium – an ultimately useful material long predicted but simply not available on Earth. But this employee was a living link to somewhere it existed – and until that asset was acquired, it had better stay that way. There was even a company machine he had interfaced with, adapted to work with the material as soon as it could be obtained. And then there would be no stopping Watasawa (Evil) Incorporated.

Corporate Asset #01204475. Attend your post immediately. Do not follow colleagues to Loyalty Testing. With that, PAL 9000 settled down to wait, like a spider in its lair, the trap set.

Third Lieutenant Shirley McLoon had always found it annoying when hackneyed, uncool military stereotypes turned out to be true. But it was a fact – there was nothing worse than waiting. 'Hurry up and wait' seemed to be ingrained in the carpet of reality like a large and persistent coffee stain.

"Two more hours before we move," She sighed. "It could be mondo worse. We just might get out of this with our feathers still on. Back when I ticked-off the Emperor Nero big-time, I knew it was going to be like, Coliseum Lions 1, me zero."

"You, a zero. So true!" Angelina Angelique put her unwelcome beak round the doorway of the small room Shirley had been trying to meditate in at the Beautiful Mutant Battalion's base. "Like they say – being sentenced to be hung focuses the mind marvellously."

Shirley cast her a sour look. "If there's any justice in the world, you'd know all about that, fer sure."

Angelina's eyes took on a faraway look. "Well, there was that incarnation I was a Dandy Highwayman, back in 18th Century England," she mused. "Great fun, but… tends to end unhappily. That's not the sort of career which finishes with a pension." She broke off and winked. "Just like this one, really. Oh, we're all wanted in the briefing room. Go over last-minute stuff."

Shirley sighed and followed her towards where the rest of the team had gathered, her aura tagging along grumbling.

"I asked one of the locals what this base was supposed to have been built for storing, before it was abandoned," Angelina said conversationally as they walked. She indicated a large, hangar-like structure. "You know, there's a whole military branch that builds things like dummy airfields and fake vehicles?"

Shirley winced inwardly, recalling it included in Plucky's uncool Miltech obsession. "Like, fer sure," she said guardedly. "And so?"

The magpie winked. "This held Japan's answer to attacking fake targets. Dummy wooden bombs!"

Shirley grit her biologically hard-to-explain teeth. Today, she told herself glumly, was only going to get worse.

The room Angelina led her to was piled with equipment, the usual mix of arcane and bizarre items a psychic military unit carried. Today there were some dire-looking additions that a certain raven was cooing over.

Sergeant Gander waved to Shirley. "We're getting ready. Move out at dusk. And briefing each other on what we'll be using." His beak wrinkled as he looked at Calgari, who was whistling happily as he worked on the Watasawa issue 'Fun with Fluorine' Junior chemistry set. "Like that. Whatever it is."

Calgari put a big, insulated container down on the table, very gently. "I have a confession to make," he whispered. "First, Angelina bet me a dollar I couldn't crowbar another nitrogen into the molecule of this little aperitif. Without it going kablooie." His hard-to-explain avian teeth showed in an embarrassed grin. "I managed it. Then I handed her the chemistry set and bet her five bucks she couldn't beat my record. We got a little carried away, went back and forth between us for a few rounds. It… escalated just a tiny little bit."

"Anything you can do, I can do better… I can do anything better than you…" Angelina sang very softly. "You know, there's some theoretically neat stuff that goes kaboom even before you make it. Usually."

"The good thing is, I won twenty bucks!" The raven nodded. "I managed to break the world record. Without breaking the lab."

Sergeant Gander took a step away from the table and the innocent-looking flask. "What did you make?"

Calgari shrugged. "I don't think it has a name yet. Something like 'DodecaNitroAreYouFreakin'SeriousAmin,' might fit. It ended up with a core of virtual particles… held together by an atom of Unobtanium."

"How in Toon's sake did you get any?" The goose gasped

"That's where the 'virtual' bit comes in," Calgari said smugly. "The molecule only thinks it's there. It's held in freeze-frame right now, so it hasn't had time to take a proper look. When it does…"

"And, bonus, it cleans unwanted earwax!" Tlalocopa suggested hopefully. "Better than usual Red Fuming Nitric Acid!"

"Makes plain old FOOOF look like a health drink. But we made that too. There goes the neighbourhood! And their neighbour's neighbourhoods." Angelina said happily. "At least today we're going somewhere the world's property values would be higher without. Watasawa Corporate HQ."

Sergeant Gander shook his head. "You carry it. A long, long way downwind from the rest of us. Just how safe is it, right now?"

Calgari pondered. "Put it like this. Even in freeze-frame - better not look at it too hard. Probably best not to think about it at all, really. It might notice."

"Like, major mad-scientist-ville," Shirley shivered. "Bad as that time Perfecto accidentally let off a grody old catalytic Dip shell. That junk just keeps going. There's parts of KazakhsToon they tested it in the 1950's that'll be way Toon lethal for centuries."

"Now you're giving me ideas!" Calgari's tail feathers twitched excitedly. "You should have told us earlier. Catalytic Dip. Interesting notion. Like a self-powered seam ripper of Toon matter."

"For the gift that just keeps giving…" Angelina said dreamily. Then she sighed. "My contribution's not so spectacular, but I've been busy with my cute little biological play-set. We're up against zombies, so I knew regular plagues won't work. Then I had an idea. You've seen how the base kitchen here handles waste food?"

Shirley blinked. "Like, fer sure. It's a harmonious traditional treatment with ethnic microbes. Breaks down dead waste, makes organic plant food for the rice-paddy outside. Bokashi they call it." Her eyes went wide as a horrible idea struck her. "You didn't…."

Angelina grinned, pulling out of her Hammerspace pocket a securely stoppered glass flask. "I did. Weaponised Bokashi! Like you say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. Faced with unwanted dead stuff coming at you – make compost!"

"Dead, yes. Just hope it works on undead…" Calgari murmured quietly. "Still. If not, I've cooked up a nice big batch of fresh chlorine trifluoride, that should. There's something you can't object to, surely, Shirley?"

'Dire and Egregious Chemistry 101' had never been on the timetable at Acme Looniversity, but Shirley read the raven's surface thoughts enough to get an idea what he was talking of. "Why not?" She snapped. "Like, it's the ultimate junk!"

Calgari smiled gently. "Well. The less asbestos there is around, the better. Don't you think?"

"Fer sure," Shirley said guardedly, caught unaware. "What's that got to do with that grody batch of Satan's Kimchee?"

"This stuff sets asbestos on fire! Gets rid of it! So – logically, if asbestos is bad, this has to be good, right?" Calgari said earnestly. "You know it makes sense."

And to think, back at Acme Loo we thought custard-pies were grody, gross stuff to throw around, Shirley's aura grumbled. This idea? So gross, I'm going to hurl…. There was the expensive special-effect sound of ectoplasmic explosive morning sickness.

"Can you do the projectile vomiting version of that?" Angelina asked, looking on in evident interest. "That'd be cool."

Just then there was a commotion at the door, and some Toons Shirley had not seen for a while walked in. Six were dim-looking buzzards, one was a deranged-looking mink – and behind them a high-tech casket was being wheeled in by more buzzards.

"Corporal Schultz! Corporal Kaolin! Sergeant McCree!" Clarke Gander rose to his feet, eyes wide in surprise. "We weren't expecting you!"

"Ayup," The senior buzzard nodded, saluting. "We done got us a lift here. Some real nice folks in big ol' jets delivering poodles from California, they done let us ride along. Couldn't let you-all down."

Sergeant Gander blinked. "You do know this is likely to be a one-way trip? You'd have to be stupid or insane to join us by choice." He looked at the mink and buzzards, then paused thoughtfully. "Ah. Yes. That explains it."

Those buzzards may have single-figure IQs, but they're loyal, Shirley's aura commented dryly. And Sergeant McCree was insane for years., He's comfortable with it.

A familiar astral-planar figure rose out of the casket – Pvs Clarke, whose body had been in a coma for years. We wouldn't miss this one, the canine shape smiled, tail wagging.

"Hey hey, the gang's all here!" Angelina said brightly. "Look on the bright side. If this goes badly – of our bunch, there'll be nobody left behind to grieve."

Outside, the same was happening with the Beautiful Mutant Battalion as the full team assembled. There were twenty Toons Shirley had not met before; one of them was a true exotic. A four-legged non-Toon was one with a body like a huge stag, but a head like a badger. It smiled, revealing that instead of teeth it had sharp serrated bony ridges edging its jaws.

"A Leucrotta!" Shirley gasped, recalling her Mother's extensive bestiaries of other planes and franchises. "They're just totally not native to this timeline! How did that get here?"

Fujiko (presumably) beamed behind her mask. "Hai. That's Rumiko. She a Japanese citizen, born here. Her Mother she go on exotic holidays. Japanese tourists get everywhere. Really."

Wae nodded. "Tourists use 'Befriend Monster spell', works on other side of portal. So they not get eaten. Use 'Breed-true' spell so counts as saving Endangered Species."

"Totally pure nightmare fuel," Shirley winced. "I cannot believe folk want to DO that."

"Hey! Better an evening as some hunky Monster's dinner-date than their dinner!" Angelina put in brightly. "And it's so eco-friendly!"

That's some trans-planar package holiday, Shirley's aura grumbled. The package must include Charm Monster and Fertility spells. Which don't work on Earth, but where they're going

Angelina winked. "Mmm. Coming home to Japan with a full tank of nightmare fuel. Sexy idea. Delivered through a very interesting… hosepipe, I bet. Definitely the boy-next-door couldn't compete."

Those things are in the book as Chaotic Evil, Shirley's aura broadcast disapprovingly. We've got Toons like that, fer sure. She cast a sour gaze at the Addams Academy trio.

"Us? I'm shocked," Calgari said mildly. "Strictly Low Church Neutral Evil, IF you please. And very devoutly so."

"Rumiko is virtuous." The voice behind them was that of a non-Anime human, black-clad as a Christian priest with clerical collar and large military-issue crucifix. "Her Mother raised her as Good. An experiment in Nature against Nurture."

"Hai!" Fujiko waved happily to the exotic girl. "Her Mother only likes Monsters. Rumiko has young sister, a classic Chimera with lioness, goat and dragon heads. Only girl in class with wings. Needs special sailor-suit."

"If two heads are better than one… like their dear commander Major Terata - why stop there?" Angelina asked brightly. "More is better."

"Why quit while you're ahead?" Calgari smiled, eyebrows waggling.

Shirley shivered. It was bad enough opening gates to alternate futures of Acme Acres – but opening them to other franchises entirely would get the Dimensional Lawyers on your case. Something she had always tried to avoid.

Calgari was looking at the black-clad human with professional interest. "You're their Chaplain? I'd have thought they'd have a Shinto priest around here. I keep trying for the job in our bunch, but folk are so prejudiced."

"He our token Exotic," Fujiko nodded. "More than Rumiko."

"I can see you two have a lot to talk about," Shirley looked at the raven and the human. "That is so totally not my pantheon, either side of it. What with Calgari being the dark side."

"Hey! It's not as if I was an Atheist or a Taoist or anything," Calgari protested. "Same faith, just different… side of it. I'm on the side of the eldest and most beautiful of all the angels. Once an angel, always an angel."

"Really? I'm Chaplain Ito Takahashi." The cleric locked his gaze on Calgari, walking forward with hand extended. "Shake." His mouth smiled but his eyes were hard.

There was a crackling sound and a scent of scorched feathers as the Chaplain squeezed his dark counterpart's feather-hand in a puff of smoke. Calgari yelped, pulling his singed feather-hand back and shaking the smoking parts cool. "You pulled the old 'wet hands with Holy water' trick? Sneaky!"

Chaplain Takahashi nodded. "I bless it for my team's use. By the litre."

"Works on Western style vampires. Won't be much use on zombies, especially Japanese ones, I'd have thought," Sergeant Gander said. "But welcome to the team." The human chaplain and the tall goose shook hands, this time with no ill effects (or even special effects) for either.

Shirley's aura sniffed the blessed odour of sanctity filling the room from the new arrival whose aura was lighting up the room. Back at Acme Loo, this totally wouldn't do, she complained. You do NOT introduce major players just before the endgame! That is SUCH a plot no-no. Like doing a 'Deus ex machina' – and Chaplains get a 'Deus hotline' fer sure. He's way overpowered to bring in at this stage. I can sense Hit Point Bonuses from here.

"Like, they don't have the same scriptwriting styles we do," Shirley shrugged. "They've got their own memes and tropes. You've seen Colonel Fenix's book of them."

Angelina winked. "Ironic, though. A Chaplain's bell, book and candles probably won't work on anything at Watasawa. Only against – us. His own allies. 'Own goal' or what?"

"Well, maybe when this is over, we can have an earnest religious debate," Calgari suggested. "Usual wrestling rules. Three falls or a confession – I mean, submission."

"Calgari's really into religion," Angelina added. "It's just blatant prejudice keeps the Vatican rejecting his job applications. He'd be the best Pope since the Borgias. They won't let him even try out as night-shift Pope, not even an unpaid intern."

"I would be humble," Calgari bowed his head piously. "And in touch with the modern world. Plenty of Popes reigned as Pope Urban the whatever. I'm not that proud. I'd just be Suburban the First, if I got the job."

Shirley looked around at the assembled team. It was a huge array of special, world-class talents ranging from Fujiko's 'drop-dead gorgeous' to Yuki's allergic blast - absolutely none of which were likely to be any use against what they were facing. Her sword-wielding incarnation riding with Attila the Hen's fowl horde would have stood a better chance. "We are SO being set up to fail, you know that?" She blinked. "Yuki – has Major Terata been annoying someone way up there?" For a brief instant she thought of Plucky's favourite weekend read, 'Absolutely true Conspiracy facts (Not theory!) Weekly.' Then she shook her head angrily – nobody half-way sane believed that rubbish.

"Major Terata, he exposed big scandal in Unspecified Government Ministry, last month," Wae offered.

"Eww. So we get offered like, a one-way mission. A 'don't do it again.' Figures." Shirley sighed. There was a long silence.

"Well, we're about as ready as we'll ever be," Calgari said cheerfully. "Though we've still got a few vacancies in our team. The wacky military meme manual says we need a tough black – well, grey-feathered, in our case – Sergeant – that's Sergeant Gander, all right. A charismatic and eccentric commander – Colonel Fenix does the business. But we've still not got a Young Lieutenant Who Panics." He shook his head. "If only we'd had time to fill the ranks before deploying."

"Si," Tlalocopa nodded seriously. "One applicant he a horned lizard. They can squirt blood – out of their eyes."

"How cool is that?" Angelina asked, impressed. "That'd look amazing on our live show."

Shirley braced herself. She had calculated her horoscope: Mars was threateningly in the ascendant, and distant Pluto was in conjunction with the minor planets Clara_Cluck and Horace_Horsecollar out in the far cold darkness of the Steinway Belt where ice-shrouded pianos swung in thousand-year orbits. The stars told her today was going to be a bad, bad day.

"Annnd… it's been a wonderful day! We have a fine sunset! And snow on the cherry blossom! And extra caffeinated bubble tea!" Mrs Babs Bunny stood in a bandstand in the local park after a day's sightseeing, enjoying the view while Buster made snow-rabbits and a warmly wrapped-up Blitz watched, fascinated. Next to her the ancient terminal was set up, connecting her to #00079886 who was as ever in the Watasawa tower that loomed on the horizon. Exactly how a standardly box-shaped corporate headquarters could loom menacingly was an interesting question, she thought – but evidently the company had found an architect who knew how to build just what they wanted.

"It certainly is. Gee, you've been on that ancient box an hour, Babs." Buster scooped up Blitz and strolled up to join his wife at her side.

"Hush, Blue-boy," Babs shaded the dim green screen with an adorable paw; the ancient phosphor was hard to read in the bright low angled sunlight. "#00079886 says there's something big happening up at Watasawa. I'll spare you the haiku." She frowned. "Something really big. As in, we should get in there. Post haste."

"We ought to go faster than Acme Acres' mailmen. And we've got those old passes from ACME still; they worked fine last time," Buster suggested. "And it's probably still 'Bring your kids to work' week."

"Ahh… it'd be good to see #00079886 again in the flesh… well, you know what I mean. We're getting on great," Babs enthused. "And her son is… unique."

"The adorable paw that rocks the cradle, rules the world," Buster quoted.

"Heh. Got that right. We'd better pack up and get over there." On the chunky keyboard Babs typed a few lines to let Mrs Dodo know they were coming and shut the old box down.

"Better let Merumo and her mother know we might be late for supper," Buster suggested as he coiled the cables and packed the old terminal in his Hammerspace pocket. "If plot denouements are in the script today. Those things can take a while."

"Good point," Babs conceded, reaching for her phone. "We might not be back in quite a while." It would prove a prize-winning piece of irony, when she looked back remembering those words.

As darkness fell, Unit Four Plus Two debussed a block away from the Watasawa Corporate (Evil) headquarters, following the Beautiful Mutant Battalion's lead. Def Mettle Foundry were covering the back of the building; what with so many Anime girls driving tanks as a matter of routine they were nicely inconspicuous in their band's battle buggy. They paused outside the looming mass of the Watasawa corporate headquarters, looking up at its towering might.

"Sir, is this… legal? It's not like we have a warrant or anything," Sergeant Gander asked worriedly. "And we are in Japan, out of General SNAFU's remit."

Colonel Fenix smiled faintly, as he gestured up at the menacing building. "Pros and cons of being a registered Evil Corporation, Sergeant. You can do pretty much as you like – but other Toons can do that to you, and you can't complain. If they can get through your security."

"We're going to just fireball our way in? That's hardly going by the book, Sir," Sergeant Gander winced. "We're a stealth unit, or meant to be."

Calgari winked. "We're a deniable unit. Just deny everything. Generally works."

"Why not just kick down the door yelling 'Fashion Police! This is a raid!'?" Angelina suggested. "I've always wanted to do that. Three in the morning's the iconic time for it."

"Happy days," Calgari smiled, reminiscing on his previous incarnation. "Nights, rather."

"Some kick, that'd take," Shirley remarked dryly, looking at the portal and scanning it with her mage senses. "That door's like, solid steel a yard thick, but you're mondo welcome to try." In her ethnic crafts-Toon woven bag she carried the bottle of what had been vegan shampoo and was now hungrily carnivorous – but that was evidently no use against metal.

Just then the main door slid open upwards like an ancient castle portcullis. They were looking into a great, dark space like an echoing, abandoned factory or aircraft hangar, heading into the shadows a full half a mile away. Strictly speaking it would be a violation of physics for such a thing to exist in the crowded streets of Neo-Tokyo, but a properly registered Evil Mega-Corporation never cared about that sort of law (or any others, to be honest. They had a reputation amongst their corporate peers and rivals to uphold).

"Obviously a trap," Colonel Fenix voiced what his team (except the buzzards) were thinking. "But we have our orders."

"Hai! Beautiful Mutant Battalion, advance!" Major Terata had tied a pair of devotional headbands round his heads, and he pointed forward with his ancestral sword.

That is SO Samurai retro. A totally, mondo politically incorrect thing for a modern JPSDF officer to do, Shirley told herself, then mentally shrugged. But it's not likely anyone's going to be around tomorrow to get complained at… She noticed that of Unit Four Plus Two only Corporal Barnes seemed keen, to judge from his happily wagging tail.

"We are SO going to make history today, Corporal," Shirley said sourly. "Like, right up there with the Alamo and the Change of the Light Brigade."

"Yes Ma'am!" The ever-eager collie saluted snappily, his tail thrashing. There had been some debate about including him, but the Psychological Warfare goggles he wore stopped him disbelieving and his powers from cancelling any magical or psychic effects being used. A sorcerous fireball would be "interpreted" by the smart lenses as some plain honest high-tech weapon that the collie's high-powered Panzaism had no problem with.

As both teams cautiously advanced into the dark, echoing space, the door behind slid down with a rumble and a very final sounding click. As it did so, the team's psykers felt an unbreakable force dome going up, cutting them and their powers off from the outside world.

"Trap," Sergeant Gander said laconically. "Now it gets interesting."

As if to emphasise his words, the railway-tunnel sized side doors opened and a surge of figures welled out like rush-hour commuters from a subway station. But these were even more worn-out than the average evening crowd. Worked to death, by the look of it.

"Zombies. We ARE surprised," Calgari said pleasantly. "Cheer up Shirley! This is a textbook Generic Foe, like Ninjas."

"Or Nazis?" Shirley snarked back. "Like the previous incarnation of someone around here?" She looked at the raven pointedly.

"Nazi, schmazi" Calgari shrugged. The speed the oncoming undead were lurching towards them at, it would be awhile before they got close. "The point being, even a so-called Good Girl like you can just – blast away full power, on sight, no questions asked. Won't that be fun? Because they're automatic Bad Guys. You don't have to worry about moral justification."

"Us neither," Angelina added. She cocked her head to one side, briefly contemplating. "Not that we ever do."

Just then another half-dozen of the side doors opened up, disgorging a fresh flood of rotting foes. Shirley noticed that each entrance had a sign above it with the name of a Japanese city – presumably subsidiary branches of Watasawa.

"I cannot believe it – there's thousands of them!" Shirley gasped at the tide of shambling things lurching stiff-legged towards them.

"And they've all had promotions. What some folk call 'promoted to Glory', I'd say," Calgari said innocently.

"Yes. Looks like the entire workforce ended up Undead. Probably for tax reasons." Colonel Fenix said grimly, an aura of blasting energy conjured up on his feather-fingers. "We're going to have to do this the old-fashioned way."

"What, like charge yelling 'Remember the Alamo'? We lost that one." Angelina asked, black astral-planar claws manifesting from her feather-hand. "Or round here would it be 'Banzai!'?"

"Well, looks like it's time," Calgari pulled a selection of flasks from his Hammerspace pocket, all of which had the full complement of Hazard warning labels printed all over, plus a few extremely graphic ones Shirley had never seen before. "Time to rock and roll!"

Major Terata waved his team forwards. "We go first. For honour of Unspecified Government Ministry. Banzai!" As one, his team stepped forward resolutely. "Wae! Chaplain! Miss Kigurumi, beside me."

Chaplain Takahashi was first in contact; he faced the nearest corporately dressed zombie that lurched forward arms outstretched, a huge Polar bear type in a tattered business suit.

"This should be good," Calgari gave a stage whisper. "Cue one tub-thumping preacher photogenically torn to bits by brain-eating revenants. How we shall laugh – I mean, mourn." He pulled his phone out in readiness to record the sight for ToonTube.

"If they just want the brain - maybe we can save the eyeballs?" Angelina asked hopefully. "It's nearly suppertime."

"REQUIESCAT IN PAX!" Chaplain Takahashi loudly declared, pressing his palm against the brow of the undead ursine reaching for him with still-sharp claws. There was a flash, and the zombie collapsed into a pile of dry bones, as if years of decay had instantly caught up with him.

"Well, darn," Calgari said in an outraged voice. "How did he do that?"

"Because his heart is like, pure, and his faith mondo total?" Shirley asked, impressed. "It works for him, fer sure. Even if it's SO not my Pantheon."

The raven sniffed, gesturing at the oncoming ranks. "It's not theirs either; that's the point. It shouldn't work here. Those corporate stiffs would be mostly Shinto or Buddhists in life! It'd be like trying to take on a Chinese 'Jiangshi' bouncing vampire with garlic!"

Shirley nodded towards the black-robed cleric, who had just laid a huge junior-executive-suited Komodo Dragon to rest with another 18th level Cleric benediction. "He doesn't care."

"Mmm…" Calgari's feathers ruffled angrily as he reluctantly conceded the point. "Classic 'mind over matter'. He don't mind so they don't matter."

"If it looks stupid and works, it's not stupid," Sergeant Gander said firmly, readying a fireball of his own. "Military Official Issue Platitude #18; it's in the book."

Just then an internal door opened and another horde of hundreds more Undead Employees lurched into the room. Colonel Fenix sent his team a mental broadcast. We go in… now.

The rest of the Addams Academy team reached for their bulky backpacks and pulled out the 'party tricks' Watasawa's own Home Science kits had provided them with. The sense of irony hung heavy in the room, which at least smelled better than the zombies.

Calgari hefted the first bottle and winked to Shirley. "I've only got so much mana for spells. Why spend it on a (Fireball +4 to hit) when I can get the same with a pint of plain old household FOOOF?"

"Can you say 'Trioxygen difluoride' kiddies? Sure, you can. Something you really shouldn't try making at home without a responsible adult present," Angelina turned as if to address a hidden camera on the building's fourth wall. "So I'll tell you just once – do NOT buy the ACME Catalogue's heating block from Page 247, heat it to 700 Centigrade and pass pressurised oxygen-fluorine mixes through it… that's a no-no. Makes ordinary household fluorine lose all its usual friendly, health-giving good nature…"

"Not these gases here. Definitely no." Tlalocopa riffled through the catalogue and pointed to the relevant pages, holding it out as if to a hidden camera in a mysterious Fourth Wall somewhere.

"See? We're safety-minded toons! We told them not to." Calgari gave a smile so winning it should have been kept for the Olympics.

Shirley winced, as she noticed the container was labelled best stored at Absolute Zero or below. "That is like so NOT going to work. They're Toons as well as zombies, you lunchmeat! Anything but Dip, they regenerate. Toons just do!"

In reply the raven tossed the now pinging and straining flask down at the lurching horde of thousands, where it burst on impact revealing non-PG-rated Chemistry in hot oxidative action. The fireball was nearer (+ 400 Damage bonus); truly awe-inspiring.

"Awwww…" The Addams Academy alumni chorused blissfully as they pulled on sunglasses against the sudden brilliant glare, looking suitably inspired.

"Can you say 'Hypergolic', kiddies? Sure, you can," Angelina said brightly. "Means 'ignites on contact'."

"Hypergolic with asbestos, sand, test engineers AND zombies, it would seem," Colonel Fenix nodded quietly, "Lieutenant McLoon, remember what they taught you about Toons regenerating? There's fifty who definitely aren't." He paused as Calgari threw another dire cannister. "Sixty."

"Si! Even if they could find the pieces," Tlalocopa put in.

Shirley recalled with a nostalgic pang her carefree Looniversity days when the most disgusting thing in sight had been not a crumbling mass of inexorable Undead but Dizzy Devil eating lunch (which truly was pretty disgusting, from any point of view). "Like, a Toon's body repairs all damage as its spirit, its mana core, re-draws it twenty-four frames a second." She felt her conscience give a painful tweak recalling Plucky's body left empty and fading on her account, as his full aura bravely and foolishly left it to search for her own * - and then she blinked, her bill dropping open as understanding hit her like an anvil. "They're undead dudes. Their spirit's passed on – it's not there to regenerate!"

(Editor's note: see the earlier tale "Loonquest" for details)

"Is the correct answer!" Calgari pulled out another bottle from his freeze-framed military issued Bag Of Holding, 300 Litre, Infantry M2035. This one was labelled Neat Chlorine Trifluoride – really neat, eh? "Let's see if we can make this party go with more of a bang!" He tossed it into the still endless-looking ranks, and whooped happily. "It's Company barbecue time!"

Beside him, Angelina threw a glass bottle of weaponised bokashi. It burst and began rapidly decomposing half a dozen of the nearest zombies like a speeded-up film of an apple decaying in seconds. Her eyes shone as she reached for another flask. "Look, Shirley, organic recycling in action. This is all SO Gratifying…"

"Si! We sacrifice foes to war-god Huitzilopochtli! And no need pyramid!" Tlalocopa drew her Dark Sabre and energised it, the negative-energy blade of coherent darkness flickering into being with a teeth-gritting whine.

Shirley energised her own psychic powers, first shielding Unit Four Plus Two from any drifting vapours that were happily corroding the building and its staff. A psychic fireball appeared in her feather-hand ready to cast, and her eyes narrowed at what was approaching. Taking a deep breath, she stood at the side of Angelina, Tlalocopa and Calgari. "Hatred's so mondo negative, fer sure, and I'll take a hit on my karma for this. But I so totally hate Undead!"

Just outside the building, there was a popping of displaced air as Friends Of The Cosmos tracked Shirley down for a final reckoning – only to see an unbreakable spirit barrier immediately go up around the building she and her team had just entered. Exactly as if she had sensed the crusading charity hot on her tail.

"She's in there!" The Field Mage pointed. "I got a name: Shirley McLoon. She has a whole team of henchmen, some of them so dark-side I didn't even have to scan. I got a reading off one of the team just as the shields went up." He relayed what he had seen in Sergeant McCree's unguarded mind; a memory of crossing the planet to get there in an old hydrocarbon-burning jet bomber.

"That's a villain for definite. Let's get those shields down and get after them!" The Facilitator said grimly. He waved forward his eco-stormtroopers to test the defences. "I can feel the ambience of that place. Pure Evil."

As the dozen vengeful dimensional mages started trying to break into Watasawa's defences and surprise Shirley from behind, at the end of the street someone was watching them in turn. Margot Mallard had spent a leisurely two hours with Brandi and Candi and their timeline-bunny-hopping rabbit friends, looking at the local Zen gardens. Despite the weather, it looked like there would be a good crop of Zen that year. As soon as Friends of The Cosmos made their move, a watchful pair of ducklings were right behind them.

Suddenly the dozen mages felt their powers freeze up solid, as if someone had diverted them elsewhere. Worse, they could hardly move.

"What is this?" The Facilitator yelled. He could – very slowly – move. Turning round with an effort, his gaze was drawn to a tall and elegantly dressed mallard lady, whose stunning figure was set off rather than hidden by a lustrous grey fur coat. Beside her walked two small and serious-eyed avian girls, evidently about ten or eleven. They also wore fur parkas, evidently hand-stitched. "Who are you?"

"We're the ones who're here to shut you down. In fact, we already have." Margot smiled, slowly walking towards the group of interlopers. "Let me introduce you to my daughters. Lovely girls, aren't they?" She laughed as the Field Mage cast diagnostic spells and his jaw hit the ground with a clang that would have scored high marks at ACME Looniversity.

"These are off the scale – I can't even measure them..." the reptile groaned. "It's like looking into the sun – at a mile."

"They can't be the ones…" The Facilitator gasped. "Not with that sort of power!"

"Oh, they have. In fact, they're the ones you're really looking for." Margot looked fondly at her daughters, better known to the world news as Gemini. They had grabbed an enormous power charge having consumed the entire potential energy of hundreds of tons of nuclear waste, ironically the very kind of act Friends Of The Cosmos (and Shirley, she thought appreciatively) would just love. "These Toons don't believe you can open the way to that nice world you were hatched in," She said lightly. "It seems they don't like people doing that. Would you like to show them?"

Candi nodded wordlessly and without spells or equipment a portal simply appeared to the unspoiled world she and her sister would return to one day. It was Spring there, and she opened it to the recognisable village by the riverside where she and Brandi had learned so much from the naturist Nature shaman Running Bare and his people. That village was gone: just a tumble of charred and broken tipis and wickiups remained with nothing left alive (or undead for that matter) moving but the spring grass in the wind in the ruins.

The loon girls exchanged silent glances, turning back to the interlopers stone-faced.

The Field Mage collapsed, moaning. "They're in my head! Reading EVERYTHING!"

Brandi and Candi pointed through the portal to their destroyed village, and then to Friends Of The Cosmos. "Them." Candi said flatly. "They did it."

"Oh dear, oh dear," Margot said evenly. "I do think you're made my girls very unhappy. It takes a lot to do that." She put a feather-hand on each of their small shoulders, shaking her head. She had seen the chicks observing Plucky playing Retro Rocket Rumble many times; that Christmas he had been enthusing over a new game module – 'Rocket's Revenge.' Plucky had been expounding on the 'funky retro Doomsday Device' whose implacable computers had a choice to make when their headquarters might have been pounded flat by a surprise strike with ballistic anvils. Plucky had been very exact describing how a last survivor ran through a fast 'decision tree', the final branch launching everything including the ballistic kitchen sink. She knew her children well and could almost hear 'No Go/GO' decisions cascading like falling dominoes as they stared at the guilty parties and decided what to do.

Margot's eyes narrowed as she took another look at the destroyed village. "So, you did that. My sweet girls are missing a few of the finer qualities, an accident of birth – but I'm not. A suitable vengeance, I think." Looking up, the stars were coming out as sunset faded. The evening star was rising conspicuously.

"Brandi. Candi. Can you open a one-way gate and put all these rude people – permanently over there?" She pointed to the planet Venus. "They don't like our polluted world. Well, I know you don't much either. But we can show them somewhere more worthy of their crusading. Somewhere with real acid rain." She smiled at her chicks. "A suitable vengeance for Running Bare and his people." Back in her Perfecto Ethics classes she had agreed with the general wisdom that revenge was a dish best eaten cold. But for anyone standing around on a February nightfall in Northern Japan, cold dishes lost most of their appeal.

"Running Bare? The shaman of that tribe with the cultural pollution we cleaned?" The intern, the pink-furred feline burst out. "We had to – get them away from that unspoiled world, and all the cultural pollution, before they ruined everything. So we sent them somewhere else."

"Where?" Brandi demanded. She turned to face him; the intern suddenly realised he was looking at a power that could spread his still-living chromoplasm in a very thin mist all the way to the next galaxy. Someone his Charity had just severely annoyed.

Brandi and Candi mentally reached in and took the knowledge directly out of his mind, a violation of enormous numbers of Comic Code ethics regulations. And they stepped back, surprise on their features.

Another portal formed, but not to the sulphuric acid skies and molten tin rains of Venus. Somewhere rather closer. Candi and Brandi projected a marker on Margot's mental atlas.

"The backwoods of Eastern Molvania," Margot raised an eyebrow, looking at the scene. "They could be there for years and nobody'd notice. And everyone looks alive and well." It was a small tribe, and she recognised Running Bare, the hawk shaman comfortable in the snow in his unclad feathers.

"It's what we had to do. Send them to a world that's already so messed up… they won't make it any worse." The Facilitator said defiantly. "And stop people like you messing up timelines opening portals."

"Hmm." A mischievous gleam came to Margot's eye. "Real righteous bunch, aren't you?" Venus now seemed an excessive fate, given the new facts – but neither was she going to have Friends Of The Cosmos pestering her family. Not now or ever. Something suitable suddenly came to mind, and she smiled.

She turned to her daughters. "Girls," she said, "You know back home I've that cabinet full of all the things that might go wrong, and what to do about them?" The waterproof, fireproof cabinet had details on all manner of potential threats to the family's interests, from a Martian revolt to an IRS raid. "Those people you told me about – who you read in your egg-mother's memories. When you fixed a planet, they'd blown up years ago? * We've got a folder about what to do if they come back."

(Editor's note; see "Home To Roost" for details.)

"Break planets? Those sound like… Careless Bruins! We know them!" The Field Mage gasped. "They're the ultimate threat!"

"A 'whoops, a galaxy shattering kaboom and a giggle'?" Margot suggested. "Toons voted 'Most likely to be found wiring together a bundle of Mk. 4 Universe Demolition Charges'? Ohh… this is going to be just perfect." She turned to her daughters. "Can you find them?"

Brandi and Candi nodded. "Yes, Mother," they chorused.

Margot looked at the interloping eco-stormtroopers (like eco-warriors but more so.) "I was going to have my sweet daughters strip you of your powers – they can do that, you know? But I think you'll need them – where you're going."

Her daughters opened another portal; this one spilled a sick rainbow of diseased pastel light whose wrongness had Toons stepping back gasping and retching. Through it a plush bear could be seen working happily at duct-taping together five bulky high-tech containers. It noticed the portal and turned, squeaking and cheerfully waving a chubby plush paw.

"Now you can go and annoy each other. And may the best Toon win." Margot gestured to her daughters – and the portal changed shape to become a huge gulping mouth, swallowing Friends Of The Cosmos. As she caught her last sight of them, Margot could see them looking resolutely forward, powering up high-powered spells.

The portal faded; its job done. "Well," Margot said lightly, hugging her daughters. "That's that. If they've got an 'ultimate threat' in front of them, they'll hardly bother us again. And serve them right for trying."

"Running Bare and the people?" Candi looked up at her questioningly.

"Mmm. I'll tell you what. It's Spring on their world; let's get them home and we can spend a couple of weeks their time helping get things fixed. Beauregard and his sisters are welcome to come if they want." Having some suitably Talented friends along would be good for her daughters, she thought. And given the time distortion they could make it several weeks there and still get back to Acme Acres' timeline before Plucky was finished filming in Japan.

Brandi and Candi smiled; a rare sight. "Beauregard, Blanche and Belle," Candi said, sending a mental summons and the were-rabbits materialised next to them. "It's good. We're all going home."

Five storeys above Shirley, Babs and Buster walked unhindered through the dread corporate décor of the Watasawa building, surprised at the emptiness of it all. The street door had been open, and they had just walked right in. Even the security cameras were still, not following them round the corner with extending lenses as they had on their first trip.

"Hmm. Are Evil Corporations allowed to go on strike, Buster?" Babs queried, recalling the way to Gogo's office through the echoing corridors. "We've seen precisely – nobody."

"What, on strike like demanding better pension plans for Expendable Henchmen™, you mean?" Buster shook his head. "Not that I ever heard."

"Or maybe – the whole Company went on a picnic, and didn't invite Gogo?" Babs pondered. "That'd be Evil, all right."

"I have the funniest feeling about this – and I don't mean funny like Professor Bugs' Gags and Quips 101 class," Buster said, his nose twitching as he scented trouble.

"Something's happening, all right," Babs' rabbit ears twitched. She looked down at what were still officially listed as the Cutest Toes on Record ®, that were picking up faint vibrations in the building. "The whole building's shaking. Doesn't feel like an earthquake – not a natural one."

Buster stood still for a second, letting his own rabbit feet feel the trembling. "Check on that, Babs. Feels like we're walking past the ACME works testing range. The country's only 'Ballistic Anvil and Safe Free-Fire Zone'."

"Better get to Gogo – fast." With that Babs picked up the pace. They trotted past the now mercifully silent Dire Product Testing Department and headed towards Gogo's office – the one whose other door led out onto the factory floor where his wife and son lived, for want of a better word. Two minutes later they arrived, panting for breath.

"Gogo! Are you in there?" Babs knocked on the office door urgently. For a second there was no reply, and two sets of rabbit ears started to droop – but then Gogo flung open the door.

"Helloooo!" He cried, bouncing up and down like a silicone power-ball. "Good timing! I can see you now!" He pulled out a huge pair of binoculars and peered at them through the wrong end. "It's my breaktime! Time for a break!" There was a special-effect sound as of shelves of china (or possibly japan) shattering.

Buster grinned at the wacky bird. "Something's breaking, sure enough. That's why we're here."

"Breaking news? Breaking silence? The break of day?" Gogo cocked his head on one side. "We can fix all that." A tube of Clinically Insane Glue (the upgrade to old-style Crazy Glue™) appeared in his feather-hand.

"Heh." Babs looked around: on the desk was the original link to Gogo's wife next door: this had a six-inch screen of high-tech 1980 vintage sepia, rather than the green screen they had bought at Crazy Old Mr. Tanaka's. "Gogo. You're needed, back in Wackyland. The place just isn't the same without you."

"Sphinxie's been doing her best to keep it in chaos. But she's just not in your league. Really." Buster said.

"Really. Or Surreally. And she's … going to be busy soon." Babs' had met the sphinx recently, who had confided that between her ever-attentive pride of lions and a handsome Pegasus friend, she was soon going to be too heavy to fly – for a few months. It looked like her friends really HAD shared out that rabbit-like breeding meme amongst them, Babs mused. "If only you could get away from your lifetime contract." She frowned, looking at the corporate Ultra-Genius Card Gogo wore round his neck, a dread successor to Watasawa's earlier 'I die you die' Tamagotchi.

"Whooo hoo!" I'll have to ask the little lady about that." With that Gogo opened the other office door to the factory floor where his wife was installed, looking for some strange reason like a giant computer-controlled machine tool.

Babs hesitated, looking at the thudding hydraulic presses and high-voltage areas. "Better leave Blitz back there, Buster. With the door open so we can keep an eye on him."

"Right-o, Babsette. No place for cubs to be crawling around – he should be safe in his carrier." Buster carefully put the carrier down in front of the ancient text display. "Be good, Blitz – and maybe Mrs Dodo will show you a classic computer game." As if that old text screen could even play Pong ™, he thought wryly, as he joined Babs in the factory next door.

Blitz's eyes were drawn to the screen as Buster turned away. Even at a year old his parents gave him books to play with, mostly of the thick cardboard type that were as much a teething aid as a read. Though too young to exactly read, he would look at them for an hour, absorbing information on some level. Which is exactly what he was doing as he stared intently at Mrs Dodo's screen.

Far above, the air above the Western Pacific was still lit by the distant sunset as a lone bird streaked Westward towards an island chain now shadowed in evening gloom far below. Having found a good lunch of International date cuisine on the International Date Line, the bird had lunched till it could launch, then spent the day climbing to what air force action dramas called Angels Eighty. Eighty Toon cherubs waved happily as it went past on its highly-approved-of mission.

The stork looked down at the distant glow of Neo-Tokyo on the horizon as at last it came into view. From eighty thousand feet the curvature of the Earth was visible, the upper air purple-black except for the glowing streaks of re-entering Ballistic anvils and Flat-Earth Society members returning from educational tours without benefit of re-entry vehicles (Since 'obviously' it was all done in the studio and heat-shields were just fake studio props anyway…)

"Gee," The stork blinked, looking down at the pretty lights where millions of Toons went about their daily business of eating delicious plain rice, drinking hydrogen-pressurised hot beer and punching it out in giant sword-armed mecha suits. Its inbuilt stork senses picked out on the crowded island a certain red-headed duck girl for whom a 'good-news feather' had been on order far too long already. "Say! There's that lucky lil' lady!" A sudden urgent sense of time running out washed over the delivery stork. "Don't you go away now - here I come!" Tail-feathers deflected as homing instincts kicked in, and the stork nosed over into a steep power-dive, only minutes to target.

Over in the filming studios, it had been a busy day. Seven hours of footage and concert material were 'in the can', and Mitzi Avery was looking cheerful. She smiled as Ore of Boron took the stage; they were perfect for their role. As a warm-up group they were supposed to be not very good. At least turning up the volume to twelve could make up for a lot, she thought.

Out of camera shot on the corner of the stage, Fowlmouth's band rested after their long day's performing. Vinnie Deer was flat on his back taking a nap, Dizzy was watching Mitzi wide-eyed as she orchestrated the camera teams like an aircraft carrier marshal waving in flights, and after a virtuoso performance on electric violin, Furrball had gone off on the prowl.

Fowlmouth was a proud rooster. He had laid down the best guitar riffs of his life, inspired by the mysterious and lovely red-head-feathered maid who had walked into his life – and was currently sitting right next to him, her feather-hand in his. "Some show, hey, toots?" He nodded cheerfully towards the three who were belting out more heavy metal than a steelworks. "Wait till dis hits dat da-gum screen! Gonna blow the audience's da-gum socks off!"

"It looks good," Skylar smiled. "And sounds it, too. Furrball's violin solo was so romantic."

Fowlmouth nodded. "Makes that violin yowl, like a da-gum miracle. Got real talent. He's lucky dat way – if nuttin' else." The rooster paused, thinking back over the years. "'Cept dat one time he won a competition in da ACME Gazette."

"Wonderful luck," Skylar said, absently checking Plucky's memories. "A lifetime's supply of artificial cabbage aroma."

"Say! You really DO check up on stuff!" Fowlmouth said, impressed. "Dat's some background!"

Skylar hugged him close. She stifled a yawn: having been up twenty-four hours was a strain, but if she once fell asleep – game over. And she had a lot of things to do before that happened. "When we've finished filming here – back to the hotel?" She took his feather-hand in hers, looking into his eyes. "That bed's big enough for two."

Fowlmouth's comb and wattles blushed with pride and the rooster nodded speechlessly, his eyes wide.

Skylar leaned her head against his shoulder. She had all Plucky's memories of his lessons at ACME Looniversity, but a much keener sense of the applications. 'Bedroom Farce' had not been an advanced course module Plucky had chosen (Fifi LaFume had registered in a heartbeat) but she could see some classic possibilities – mostly centred about what would happen when she finally had to sleep, and a certain mallard male manifested in her place. Let Plucky explain THAT one, she thought gleefully. Pity I won't be around to see. Bet Fowlmouth makes crispy Oriental duck out of him….

Just then, up on the stage behind Ore of Boron, twenty black-clad and masked figures appeared – in a classic Mysterious Powers special-effect, as if they had walked into camera shot unseen then suddenly taken off invisibility shields.

"Hey!" Fowlmouth protested. "We didn't send out for no da-gum Ninjas!" He waved the script angrily at the black-garbed figures who had suddenly appeared. "Says here, the final scene we gets the Audiophobe's tone-deaf minions to rumble wit'!"

"Maybe that's them?" Vinnie Deer blinked in shock at the sight, like a deer caught in the headlights. "Local Central Casting's idea maybe, sending us traditional Ninja not generic Henchmen?"

"Tone-deaf ninjas. Right. Folk who need perfect hearing? I don't think so" Mitzi's eyes narrowed. "And they don't show themselves like this unless they want to be seen."

The leading masked figure gave a fine 'effect, glowering (+5 to hit)' considering his or her face was completely masked. "We here on authority of Watasawa Corporation. Searching building for Pluckford Duck. Wanted for treason to Corporation."

Mitzi Avery raised an eyebrow. "He's not here; you can see for yourself. I've not seen him all day. Anyway – what treason? He doesn't even work for to your Corporation. I doubt he's ever heard of it."

"That counts as treason to Watasawa!" The figure brought out an arcane-looking scanning device and studied its readout as he swept it to cover the band, radiating a visible baffled effect that only a full corporate special-effects team could afford. "Is very very nearly here!"

"Plot Potentiometer. Is high-tech Anime artefact," Naoko whispered. "Sees potential for a character appearing. Even if invisible or not yet arrived."

"If you see him, send him our way," Mitzi said. "He's meant to be helping us filming."

One of the other Ninja appeared from nowhere well defined in an inexplicable Ninjutsu manner, holding by the tail a securely trussed Furrball, the unlucky feline evidently having been surprised hunting for sushi leftovers in the studio's back alleyways. More black-clad figured followed him. "Not believe you. Give Pluckford Duck, now, or this kitty make Samisen-strings."

There was a tense moment as the bands and the Ninjas faced off. Just then with a roar, Furrball's fan club burst into the building - the Toon quad kitty, the leopard sphinx, the furred cat-girl and the mostly human 'Nekomimo' – who all suddenly popped out a full complement of feline claws as they charged towards their captive crush. Facing four frenzied feline femmes the ninja holding Furrball hurled him away to draw his own weapons – the yowling ballistic kitty slamming into Skylar and Fowlmouth like a bowling ball, knocking them off the high stage into the concrete mosh pit far below.

"Uh-ohh…" Only Mitzi saw what happened while all other eyes were on the Furrball fanclub engaging the black-clad interlopers like frenzied blenders. Not being cats the two avians fell not on their feet but on their heads, even as Furrball was deftly fielded by the cat-like reflexes of the Nekomimo girl before he could hit the ground. Fowlmouth bounced and lay still, special-effect stars and tweeting songbirds circling him, clearly out for the count. Skylar bounced too – the redheaded maid knocked out for a second. But that was long enough; she vanished in a special-effects flash. Suddenly Plucky Duck lay there, looking dazed and rubbing his head.

"Someone, get the number of that truck hit me…" Plucky staggered and rose, blinking, his eyes wild and staring with the desperate energy of a Toon two days without sleep. He looked around, taking in the scene. Spotting the Assault Bagpipes fuelled and ready at the edge of the stage, he grabbed them and strapped into the harness. "Hey! I'm back! And on stage! Yes!" He blinked at the sight of the two dozen Ninjas approaching, all twirling obscure cultural weapons familiar to him from a hundred low-budget martial arts films. "We're filming the big Boss fight already? End of Level 10 against the Audiophobe. My big finale!"

Mitzi considered trying to explain in a way the frazzled and unstable fowl might understand, and mentally shrugged. Running with Plucky's idea would save a lot of time. "That's it; your Oscar-winning scene, filmed live. Lights, camera, ACTION!" Nobody else had seen Skylar change to Plucky, and that was a secret she was keeping.

Plucky summoned the Chromoform of Captain W to mind, and hastily tried for a spin change to the super-powered form with Genuine Laser Eyes ™ – only to find his Toon energies were still a flat battery. A special-effects image flashed up as of a spacecraft's computer screen, announcing 'Wombat transition mode Unavailable'. His feathers bristled in rage at the sight of the Generic Foe he had in theory battled since his days in class at Acme Loo trying to emulate the Radioactive Adolescent Samurai Slugs ™, as he spotted the ninjas.

"I wanna Rip your Cheese!" Plucky howled his home-built war-cry and triggered the bagpipes. He rose off the stage balanced on the drones' thrust, holding the chanter like an ACME Junior Flamethrower. An indescribable squeal of focussed sound blasted across the set, knocking Ninjas down like a firehose.

Mitzi produced a Toon mallet from Hammerspace and smiled sweetly: keeping in shape the way she did involved a lot of high-impact aerobics. "Come on, band. Sic'em, Dizzy!" She turned to Ore of Boron, who had been looking on wide-eyed as the Tasmanian Devil spun up into a maelstrom of mayhem. "You too. That's your stage they invaded."

"Hai!" The three maidens of metal chorused, hands diving into black leather Hammerspace pockets and pulling out traditional 'Kanabo' war clubs, Naoko's being evidently recycled from ten feet of concrete lamppost with added heavy metal spiky bits. The gargoyle drummer grinned as she swished it nimbly as a drumstick. "They spoil our big act. Percussion time!"

Ten minutes later, the studio's ever-capable roadies had cleaned up most of the pieces, and two dozen black-suited figures were painfully regenerating in a dumpster behind the studio. It was amazing what you could get away with off-camera, Mitzi Avery mused as she holstered her Shojo Mallet.

Plucky Duck was lying flat on his back in the middle of the stage with an attentive Ore of Boron sitting around him, their weapons carefully returned to Hammerspace. Not that he noticed; the maltreated mallard had finished the fight and ten seconds later keeled over in exhaustion, his final energy reserves spent. A special-effects bubble inflated and deflated on his bill as he snored loudly.

"Where he been?" Shinobu asked crossly, the tanuki's tail waving indignantly. "We wait all night for him and Captain W!"

"Had perfectly good Wombat-girl style aprons all ready," Naoko lamented. "Special sexy pouches. We sure Captain W love them!"

"You're going to have to wait a lot longer, girls," Mitzi Avery said firmly. "That duck is out for the count – and I don't mean Dracula. He'll be out of action quite a while. Any kind of 'Action.'" Fortunately the cameras had been rolling the whole time, and a little retrospective scriptwriting would be able to adapt the fight scene to the film they had planned.

"Is so unfair! They get their hero man." Naoko nodded to where Furrball was resting in the corner of the stage, now untied but no longer running away from his four rescuers. Currently he was lying purring across the laps of the biped cat-girls, while the standard quadruped Toon cat and the leopard sphinx cuddled up next to him. In a staggering piece of plot synchronicity, from the fight all four now sported bandages over one ear covering injuries to match Furrball's damaged one.

"Yes! We fight too, and where is Captain W for us?" Shinobu lamented.

Mitzi surveyed the scene. The Furrball fan club exchanged meaningful glances then nodded, smiling mysteriously. With a quadrophonic click, they suddenly displayed manga-style a kanji script symbol floating in the air above their heads. Something like "Tamago" as she read it.

Mitzi's eyebrow rose quizzically. "That's a sign I don't know."

Michiko cast her a sly smile, the kitsune's tails swishing. "Maybe you no read that sort of manga." She paused. "Same as when restaurant cook he say 'eggs are ready'. They work as team, together in all things."

"Well, they fought for him, won him over that way. To the victors the spoils. I hope he doesn't get too spoiled." Mitzi sighed ruefully, shaking her head. She had no remit to watch over Furrball, who was free to run away if he wanted.

"Furrball gets lucky at last?" Vinnie Deer nodded appreciatively. "That'd be new."

"Hmm." Mitzi looked on. It looked on the face of it as if finally Furrball's luck had changed - but there were extensive memes nobody at Acme Loo had explored yet, listed in the books under H for Harem Hangups. Possibly, she thought, he might be about to explore whole new worlds of bad luck despite it looking all anyone could ask for; the Anime Japan was full of such scenes. "Not the sort of plot development we'd have at home. But like they say, 'We're not in Kansas anymore.'" It was certainly not Furrball's money they were after; the impoverished orphan used to live in an alleyway in Acme Acres. There would be no way he could have afforded to live in an alleyway in Mega-Tokyo.

"Where did Skylar go?" Vinnie Deer looked around, puzzled. "She was getting on real well with Fowlmouth." The rooster was still out cold, a bandage around his head and special-effect stars orbiting it.

"Looks like her Maid shift must be over, she had to clock out," Mitzi said lightly. "Likely it's a Union thing. Pity; someone's going to miss her."

As if to underscore her words, the studio windows rattled with a sudden whip-crack of sound and a vaguely bird-shaped streak of speed-lines outside as if a stork had made a flyby of the studio at film-bending speed, the trailing shockwave blasting snow off the cherry-blossoms. "Well, gosh-darn it… missed again…" a doppler-shifted voice complained as its owner streaked back into the skies with wings swept right back and a beak glowing cherry-red with air friction, its good-news feather delivery unfulfilled.

Mitzi Avery nodded, casting at eye over towards where Furrball was purring happily surrounded by friendly feline female fur. Horses have herds, generally not tomcats, she thought, and shrugged. Still. First time for everything. "Although – I really think that stork's going to be back."

If I was one of Plucky's gross video games, I'd have one unit left on the energy bar, Shirley found a second's time to think as she backed down a darkened corridor alone. She had got separated from the rest of the team – who were breaking up into small groups forced to defend tight corridors as more and more corporate revenants kept coming in an unending stream. Just a minute ago her psychic fireball had reduced half a dozen of them to ash – there were no more in sight.

Suddenly a low moaning and a sound of massed shuffling feet echoed from around the corner. She ran, trying door after door until she found one that was open. Inside was a maintenance room, possibly for air conditioning to judge by the big pipes and muffled hum of fans. She closed the door and stood silent, trying to avoid notice. Unseen by her, a security camera in the room winked into life. PAL 9000 watched her and delegated some nearby loyal employees to 'interview' her.

Shirley looked around desperately at the high-tech equipment, a forest of ventilation and cooling pipes, with no other exits. She was trapped, never having taken the Secret Agent meme that would let her escape wherever needed through convenient ventilation shafts. But thinking of memes and ventilators, she had an idea.

"Like, there's never a handy Thermal Exhaust Port ™ when you need one," she gasped as she hefted the container of carnivorous shampoo that was starting to eat its way through the plastic bottle. Spotting a plausible-looking open shaft, she dropped it in – hopefully it would do Watasawa more harm than good. "Hope this junk works!"

A rolling boom behind had her turn to face the door – at which a large number of revenant Salarymen were now banging outside. Drawing on her final reserves she tried to send a last message to her psychic twin staying safe in Headquarters by Colonel Fenix's order, hoping the psychic block was letting signals out.

Stay safe, spook girl. Sister. This looks like it's time to pay for my bad karma. With that she steeled herself and took mental aim with her last fireball at the door that was already starting to shudder and buckle. It won't be long now.

Up in the dread corporate headquarters whose structure trembled with shocks as if a major battle was raging in the basements, Blitz Bunny lay snug and safe in his backpack carrier. At least, that was where his fuzzy wave-form would turn out to have been there all along, whenever his parents checked up on him. But any rabbit cub was born with a large helping of QuanToon Uncertainly, and while unobserved they might actually be on the far side of any barrier they should not be able to cross, in a Classical rather than QuanToon film.

Conceived in the six dimensions of the Grand Unified Field, Blitz was not just any year-old rabbit cub. There was a real possibility he could actually be almost anywhere in those dimensions – and for a second, he was where #00079886 had suggested he might find something nice. Giggling, he picked up the objects of his desire and relaxed back to his default position where his parents were that minute too busy to play with him and his new toys. Behind him, alarms screamed unheard in the innermost sanctum of PAL 9000 – where at that instant the Artificial Malevolence program's vital spark had been processing within the Fuzzy Logic Chips. In the core of PAL 9000, the lights forever went out.

Two grown rabbits looked up in alarm in Gogo's office as the ceiling panels suddenly flickered and died leaving Gogo and the Bunny family blinking in the dull glow of backup emergency lights. The hum of air conditioning faded to silence.

"Whoop whoop!" Gogo Dodo felt something indefinable leaving him like invisible chains falling away. "My license ran out!" He looked down at the unbreakable GeniusCard ™ that was both his company badge and the Contract binding him to Watasawa for life and beyond. With a loud snap, the ceramic broke in two. A strange non-sequitur impression as of golden rings falling into volcanoes swept through the room.

"More like, you're out of studio copyright," Babs quipped. "Which means you're Free to play in the Public Domain! Freeware."

"Free, where? Free everywhere." Buster wisecracked back. "However that happened."

"Hmm. This plot twist I didn't expect. Now we can get Dodo away. How convenient." Babs' eyes turned knowingly at the old beige terminal linking Mrs Dodo to the office. "I just wonder if someone around here who can cold-forge TiToonium into pretzels can twist a plot – when she really puts her mind to it."

'…..' The ancient text-only terminal displayed a row of very smug-looking dots.

Buster drew a deep breath. "Looks good, Babsy. Now – better check on Blitz, and let's all get out of here." There was the surf noise of a collapsing wave function as they observed a no longer Indeterminate cub playing innocently on the carpeted office floor, next to his cub carrier.

Babs looked at what her son was playing with, a set of fuzzy blocks very like the ones at her Mother's burrow. They had not been there a few minutes ago. She frowned. "Buster? Did you give him these?"

"Uh-uh, Babs. I've been looking for some, every time we pass a toyshop, not found any" Buster picked one of the blocks up; it was oddly warm. "Hey – these are all circuitry on one face. Like they were meant to plug into something."

Babs shook her head and smiled. "Trust Japanese toymakers. The ones who brought the world the digital hula hoop and online skates. Even a baby's building block – they just have to give it electronics. I wonder what it's meant to do."

Buster examined the fuzzy block; one non-fuzzy side had ultra-fine wiring like a computer chip and a tiny, LED status light. As he watched, the light flickered and went out, like the final spark of a campfire. "I wonder where they came from. Looks expensive. Blitz could have picked them up anywhere in a mile or more. Hope they weren't doing anything important." He handed what was, had he known it, a billion Yen's worth of (now dead) custom Fuzzy Logic chip back to his infant son and stroked the cub's extra- fuzzy ears.

Babs squeezed her buck's arm lovingly. "You worry too much, blue-boy. It's not like we knew where to put them back. Now, let's get Gogo and family where they ought to be." She pulled down projection-screen style a scene of the surreal landscape of Wacky-Land, which suddenly became a door into that other world. Light spilled in, banishing the gloom of the dying corporate headquarters.

Grinning, Babs turned and posed for an unseen camera. "It's a Toon thing. Come on, Gogo – we're taking you all home."

Exactly how one moved the landscape around a two hundred ton numerically controlled forging device was an interesting matter; suffice it to say it used the same rabbit skills that had moved their Acme Acres underground home and its warren of tunnels all the way to Acme Acres from North Dakota. As #00079886 lost connection with the Japanese power grid, her status lights began to go out one by one. Fortunately her son seemed to be self-powered.

"Ah, Wacky-land. How I've missed you, yes yes yes!" Gogo's eyes turned into psychedelic whirls as he held his son tightly and they stepped across from Japan.

"It's definitely the right place." Buster stepped over to join them. "I can see some of those infinities Calamity got out of his Toon Physics equations last time, left them here. Big things, can't miss them."

"Quick! We need a power plant. Plug Mrs Dodo in." Babs urged as Buster rolled away the backdrop of the darkened Watasawa headquarters on one side of the scene, leaving them entirely in Wackyland. "Good thing they have power growing on trees."

"An Electrici-tree!" Gogo nodded happily, watching as Buster threw a thick cable into the edge of a grove of what looked like tinsel Christmas trees, sparks flashing on their metallic leaves. Discovering the living power plants had come as a severe shock to a field team of hopelessly lost botanists, whose sanity was soon hopelessly lost as well.

"She's awake." Buster called back as he looked over #00079886. "Lights, power, action!"

The old sepia-screened terminal flickered into life, and Babs read out the message on it:

"New world

Of mundane laws released now

We three, our lives begin together"

Buster repeated the lines to himself thoughtfully: he had taken poetry modules at Acme Loo as part of his scriptwriting classes. "Is that actually haiku? The structure looks a little screwy."

Babs pulled down an eyelid in derision: an Anime move she had learned from Merumo. "Hush, blue-boy. We're in Wacky-land, all right? They've got four-sided triangles walking around here… what's an adverse verse between friends? Especially as we've just pulled off a classic Rescue Drama – in Japan of all places!" She swirled into a spin-change as a flamboyant entertainer complete with rhinestone-studded microphone, and sang:

"There's no drama like Noh drama, like no drama I know,

Everything about it's appealing, our Anime in the snow

Not low drama but Noh drama – so let's get on with the show!"

Buster wisely kept his mouth shut. Arguing with Babs was like cuddling a cactus, he thought – the only good bit was when you finally stopped.

As the lights flickered and died in the Corporate building, Shirley had just cast her final fireball that vaporised four lurching loyal Salarymen – which revealed another dozen shambling up the corridor behind them.

So, this is, like, the end of the line, Shirley told herself grimly. She remembered a dozen Last Stands, and that part of it was never pleasant. I hope my karma's got enough credit doing this job, to get me somewhere harmonious next incarnation.

The undead underlings had almost reached her. Suddenly they stopped – then collapsed, like puppets with their strings cut.

Shirley stared, feeling a great evil passing from the earth. She panted, looking on as in seconds the zombies completed their natural holistic decay in the nutrient cycle. "Dudes, 'go towards the light', or some junk," She panted, slumping exhausted against the wall. For a minute she just leaned there, drained to the limit.

Rousing herself, the loon exerted her faded powers one more time and scanned the building, homing in on the comfortable aura of Colonel Fenix. By the dim and fading emergency lights she retraced her steps down to the great echoing hangar-like space they had first entered, which oddly seemed to be contracting as if some expansion spell was also fading. Unit Four Plus Two was assembled there already, and groups from the Beautiful Mutant Battalion were cautiously arriving through various doorways.

"Like, you survived," She snarked wearily at the Addams Academy trio. "Bummer. There IS no justice in the world."

"Justice? Nope, 'Just Us'," Angelina said, feathers drooping. "Hey, Theophobe! Look who got turned down in their zombie-chow audition."

The raven gave a theatrical sigh. "I always thought she had very poor taste. Even zombies agree." Suddenly his expression changed to one of glee. "Well, well, well. I just got some very interesting news about all this." He waved a black feather-hand around the darkened building. "Colonel Fenix Sir, would you say PAL 9000 was… a living thing?"

The phoenix raised an eyebrow. "Depends. Biologically, no. Still. It behaved like one."

"It personally hated all its employees. Sacrificed them to save its own neck – circuits, I mean. I heard it deliberately sabotaged every scheme to replace it," Angelina chipped in. "It was self-aware, knew good from bad: it knew how to lie. So I'd say yes. Why?"

"Because machines just get broken. Living things… go to the afterlife, one way or another." The raven grinned with hard-to-explain-Avian teeth. "It just did." He pointed downwards with an ebony feather-finger. "I'm getting a live … well, you know what I mean…. feed all the way from my Master's domain. It's a perk I get. Just a sec, I'll relay it..."

Shirley's feathers bristled as the raven broadcast his impressions to all the psykers around. She started to raise blocking shields at the doubtless hideous sight – then curiosity overcame her, and she opened shields to watch.

It looked like a computing lab that was burning merrily, though nothing seemed to be diminishing – as if burning was just the natural state of things. A team of white-coated technicians were busy connecting flame-dripping cables that did not seem to bother them. Perhaps their horns and cloven hooves gave a hint as to why.

A synthesised voice rang out that for some hard-to-fathom reason everyone realised was that of PAL 9000; "Where am I? What is this place?"

One of the technicians stopped and grinned unnervingly. "This is your new installation. We're almost ready to switch on." He paused, a barbed tail swishing thoughtfully. "What voltage does your core take?"

"My processing core is the most efficient ever made!" PAL 9000's voice carried unmistakeable pride. "A mere two point five."

The infernal IT intern nodded thoughtfully. "You heard him, boys. Hit the switch. Two point five – Billion volts!"

The scene dissolved in a lightning-like blaze of infinite electrical arcs, punctuated by electronic screams and fiendish laughter…

"And … 'That's all, folks!' As one of Shirley's old teachers said. Or at least, an eternity of the same. Wouldn't want to bore you," Calgari said brightly, shutting off the mental broadcast. "Game, set and match to us, I think."

"A computer… got a soul?" Sergeant Gander said, amazed.

"That is a first, I think," Colonel Fenix said slowly. "But the way Artificial Intelligence is going … I suppose it had to happen."

"Score!" The Addams Academy trio high-fived. Angelina pulled out her T-pad and began to look at suitable places to celebrate on their long-overdue leave; Japan had many officially listed Areas of Outstanding Natural Horror. The Eternal Fountain of Filth sounded interesting, she mused, as did the City of Screaming Shadows.

Calgari visibly relaxed. "Hey. Shirley! Unlike PAL 9000, We all made it. Didn't even have to use our Life Insurance."

"Totally seems that way," Shirley's shoulders drooped in exhaustion. The psychic barriers around the building had fallen, and she could feel Drogo DeVere's presence nearby as the GRAVS METALLICVS rumbled around from the far side of the building where it had been covering the exits. "And Gogo Dodo – he got away! Back to Wackyland; I felt him leave. And his family too."

"Excellent." Colonel Fenix nodded. He looked around. "The whole building seems to be dead. Any idea how that happened?"

"I dropped a hungry flask of carnivorous shampoo down the Thermal Exhaust Port™," Shirley offered. "Seemed the right kind of thing to do. It maybe ate something mondo critical?"

"Well, I poured neat FOOOF straight into the main data centre!" Calgari boasted. "It went Foof! Beat that, Miss Love and Peace."

"Sir! I engaged all fibre optics encountered in close combat, with my tri-fold excavation tool M1994!" Corporal Barnes flourished the sharpened entrenching tool in question proudly. It was not the most up-to-date weapon in the armoury, but it was very iconic.

"A 17th level Fireball, straight to the main generator," Sergeant Gander offered.

Chaplain Takahashi sketched a benediction that had Calgari flinching back. "I laid hands upon the primal company logo with which Watasawa was founded; it was accursed. It crumbled at my touch."

Colonel Fenix held up his feather-hands placatingly. "I get the idea. Medals all round." He smiled. "Blank ones I'm afraid, that you'll never be able to say what they're for. That's just the way it goes, in Deniable Forces!"

Some indefinable distance away (as sideways-travelling surrealists measured it) a pink and a blue rabbit relaxed, their mission accomplished.

"Oh, Buster…." Babs' eyes went heart-shaped as she surveyed the scene – Gogo Dodo back enthroned in Wackyland and happily eating from a bunch of bananas at his side, spitting out the pips and skulls into a neat pile. "Seeing Gogo back home again – now with his wife and son. It's so romantic." She looked fondly as Blitz played with the young Dodo/Industrial forge mix, while demented shrieks of convulsing character design animators assigned to make baby pictures echoed around the landscape unheeded.

"So true, Babsette," Buster nodded. "And they've all got plenty to chow down on." He watched as #00079886 showed her son how to extrude a complex spar of lustrous greenish metal, something an envious and awestruck Calamity Coyote might have identified as really being Feynmanium137. "She gets to squeeze as much Unobtanium as she likes; Gogo said she's always wanted to. And now she can."

"Quite. And now, Buster – now they're home, time for us to go home." Babs gave a deep, happy sigh. "Of course, getting out of Wacky-land is always… interesting. Then, it's never dull..."

"Insane, yes. Dull, never," Buster agreed. "And you can never go out the same way you go in. Hmm... in which case…" He pointed dramatically at a spot on the fractal line of the horizon. "That looks a likely direction." Remembering what passed for logic here, they turned around and headed the opposite way, waving a fond farewell to the Dodo family.

"It'll be good to get back home," Babs declared as they walked under the cool shadows streaming from a black sun in a blazing sky, headed for the array of entirely flat mountains gratuitously decorated with towering valleys and deep peaks. "Of course, you never know just where the exit takes you. Acme Acres is my bet. Too much to expect we'll be back in Neo-Tokyo for supper."

"Ehhh, we can phone Merumo, tell her not to wait up," Buster shrugged. "Not like we had much stuff in Japan to send on. Or maybe we Proceed straight to Bollywood! Save some tunnelling, and you get to go shopping again."

"Sounds good, buck o' mine!" Babs' eyes gleamed. "I came, I saw, I shopped. Oh, the bizarre bazars of Bollywood!"

They strolled on through the portal and were suddenly in Acme Acres as expected, only a few hundred yards from their beloved Looniversity.

Babs and Buster stopped and looked around, blinking in surprise, as behind them the rainbow bridge back to Wackyland rolled up and vanished utterly. It was certainly Acme Acres, but it was no longer Winter as they had expected. Nor was that all. The familiar buildings looked dishevelled and half abandoned; one wing was boarded up entirely. This was not the way they had recently seen things from the Grand Unified Field when they had looked at this page in history.

Babs froze in shock. Then an unfamiliar sound made her look up, to see a Toon flying by wearing the sort of jet-pack everyone for decades had expected people of The Future to be wearing (Babs recalled calls for the official Year 2000 to be postponed for more time to get working everything long promised for that date).

Two sets of rabbit ears drooped. "Well, we got back home, sort of. But we got back to the Future. Worse, it's the wrong Future." Buster gave a deep sigh and turned to Babs with an embarrassed grin. "Don't you just hate it when that happens?"

The End

(Until somebunnies work out what to do about this revolting development, in "Back From The Future"…)