Simon Barber Loonquest: The Adventure Game(bird) – a Tiny Toons Tale 16

Chapter Ten

In the city of Acme Acres, something stirred where nothing was expected to move. There was a spot that had been a working scrapyard for twenty years and an abandoned one for five; currently it was empty, every last rusty nut and bolt having gone to recycling leaving only bare ground with a few oily puddles. Around the ragged fence were new hoardings proclaiming 'Drake Holdings – No Trespassing'. For nearly two weeks there had been nothing happening at all apart from special-effect tumbleweeds blowing around regardless of the distance to the nearest desert.

As midnight struck in the sleeping city, something happened. A cold light began to shine from the ground, growing into a tower of chill flame a hundred yards high, with disturbing shapes half-glimpsed deep within it. A minute later, police and late-walking pedestrians began to dial in alarm calls.

Being mayor of a city whose inhabitants often settled minor disputes with grossly over-powered ACME props quite capable of rearranging the landscape, was never an easy job.

"All right, what is it this time?" Mayor Warner (no relation) snapped as he stepped out of the hastily summoned limousine, the toon bulldog wearing his mayoral gold chain over a shocking plaid dressing gown. "Who's responsible for this, and what are we doing to them about it?"

The police toon scratched his head as he looked up at the menacing column of swirling light. "Looks like what they had over by Perfecto Prep last week."

"That's out of City limits and my jurisdiction," the Mayor barked. "What did they do about it?"

"Called in a special Government unit and fixed it, Sir," the Police toon mused "In fact I've heard unofficially they're still in the area."

"Right! Find them and get them here on the double." Mayor Warner looked up at the sinister light show. Half-seen faces and other parts were visible as if deep underwater – and from what he could see, they were nothing he wanted to surface in his City. He tore his gaze away and looked at the less sanity-sapping hoardings around the site. "I remember this place. We had it on our books for years, and nothing like this ever happened. Then this Danforth Drake from Perfecto buys it, cash, with all rights and liabilities. Now look at it."

"You think he's behind this? Looks mighty circumstantial to me." The Police toon frowned.

"That doesn't matter. We can get him for it anyway." Mayor Warner smiled, rubbing his paws together. "I've not forgotten what they taught me back at Perfecto. 'All liabilities' means just that – never mind if he did it, we can sue the feathers off him regardless!"

On a rooftop overlooking the Event, an avian figure gave a brief smile as the Mayor ordered an immediate call-out of the City's fanatical lawyers. If there was one thing in the cosmos that could carry more impersonal spite than a lawyer, it was one who had been woken and set to work at two in the morning.

The strange events in the city centre did not reach the ears of the scrapyard's former inhabitant. Fifi Lafume awoke that Friday morning in her new home adjoining the Bunny household, and felt her heart pounding as soon as she remembered what day it was.

"Ruby," she stroked Rhubella's cheek ruffs lovingly as the rodent beside her awoke. "'Zis ees ze day! We 'ave a date with ze judge to be married – zat or I 'ave ze date with ze airport. Back to France with no Toon degree for poor Fifi."

Rhubella pulled her close, kissing her skunkette's broad nose. "If you were heading back – it'd be a shame to waste these." She opened the bedside cabinet drawer and pulled out two small velvet-lined boxes. Opening them on the bed revealed a pair of matching plain gold wedding rings.

Fifi gasped. Wordlessly she hugged her rodent girlfriend tight, her eyes shining. Suddenly she giggled. "Zhere ees only one bad thing with zis – ees it not bad luck for ze bridegroom to see ze bride on ze morning of ze wedding?"

Rhubella beeped her nose playfully. "Fifi – we never did decide which of us counts as the bridegroom. Who needs one? We can say – it's you and me, and that's all we need."

Fifi squeezed her affectionately, and took a deep breath. "Zen today is our wedding day, mon amour." For a second her ears dipped. "Eet ees now or nevair. But … I would 'ave liked more time, for ze proper traditions. For Babs we will be doubly 'appy; she 'as Bustair ze buck of 'er dreams, ze white dress and all ze trimmings."

"She's a rabbit, she could prune a hedge and eat the trimmings," Rhubella mused. Her own ears drooped a little. "I wish there was time for our families to get here. But this is our last chance – unless Babs' plan serves up Danforth oven-ready by this afternoon." She paused. "Our last chance – do you want to take it, Fifi?"

The skunkette hugged her by way of reply. "Oh oui, Ruby. Zis night we weel celebrate being Madame et Madame Lafume." She snorted. "But we weel 'ave ze second wedding feast – ze day we get Perfecto roast duck on our table!"

Had Rhubella and Fifi been able to see Danforth at that moment they would have been comforted greatly – certainly that would have been the only comfort around for miles.

"Make-quick, worthless Western trash-toons!" OverCaptainCommissar Karrotovitch slapped her boot with the long riding-crop that seemed as much part of her uniform as the mirror-fronted helmet. "Wind is stronger getting – must seal tight buildings before is getting here!"

"They won't tell us what's coming. But I bet it's not Christmas," Danforth grunted, reaching up with a reel of adhesive tape to seal a crack above the barrack windows on the KazakhsToon desert.

"Danny-boy, are you half Sports-scholar or something, like from the neck up?" Roderick Rat hissed, his naked tail swishing as he hurriedly pressed sealant into a gaping crack in the floor. "We know what they've got out here. They tested Dip, catalytic Dip back in the 1950's. That stuff doesn't go away."

"Maybe it gets buried for years under the sand, till a storm like this one starts it moving again," Margot added. "It goes mobile – and if it gets in here we just – go. So get busy! At least these Toons don't want to waste us."

"Until they want to spend us," Roderick snapped. "Get me more tape – now!"

Outside, the desert wind began to howl. Danforth's beak twisted in a crafty smile he was careful not to let the others see. There was a far side to this desert somewhere, and the wind was crossing it at a mile a minute. It would be safer to be on the wind travelling ahead of the Catalytic Dip than to stay here and trust in the warped, cracked timber of the barracks. A plan began to form.

Ten minutes later a cracked-sounding siren sounded outside. The small bunny troops and officers vanished towards their own, much better built accommodation leaving the Perfecto seniors frantically running around trying to find any remaining cracks by the dim light of their one electric bulb per block.

"That's the last of the tape. It's not as tight as a Hollywood lawyer's wallet – but it's the best we can do." Roderick threw down the empty reel and stepped back to examine the sealed main door.

Suddenly there was a hammering on the far side of it. "I've finished out here – now let me in!" Danforth's voice had a note of panic in it.

The Perfectos looked at each other. Some snickered.

"No can do, Danny-boy," Hans von Haflinger called out. "We're all out of tape. We open that door, we can't seal it again. The dip gets in, and we all lose."

Margot Mallard looked pensive for a second, thinking back on all she and the drake had been to each other. She brightened up recalling that if she ever got out of here and back to Perfecto, she knew where Danforth had hidden a lot of his assets – naturally assuming he would not be around to collect them himself.

"Sorry, Danforth … it's just … Business." Margot cast her gaze shrewdly over the toons who were on the right side of the door. "Roderick," she whispered seductively "I don't suppose you could … comfort me in my hour of loss?" She winked.

Roderick grinned, putting an arm around her feathered shoulder. "Any way you want… dear."

Outside, Danforth was surprisingly far from panic. "Now's my chance." He scrambled up to the top of a storage hut, spread his wings and ran into the wind – and took off.

It always pays to have tricks they don't know about, he smiled to himself as he circled to head downwind. Now was the perfect time – no guards around, and if the area was about to be doused in Dip – they wouldn't even look for anyone who had been caught outside. Never throw away your natural advantages. He panted hard as he gained height, wings flapping hard and checking his course by the hazy sun. He had always practiced this at home in the holidays, and in five years at Perfecto never let any of his classmates suspect it – especially not Margot. True, he had crashed like a rock when that skunk had thrown him out of the sixth story window – but launched backwards and upside-down as he had been, any aircraft would have needed a lot more altitude to get back into controlled flight.

"I've clocked thirty miles an hour on the marked course at home - wind's easily sixty, with faster gusts. Two miles every three minutes. Not bad." Danforth did not turn his head, but his thoughts flashed back for an instant to the classmates he was leaving to their fate. It had been fun and mutually profitable – but if the Eastern Molvanian foreign legion needed a motto, 'No Future' would fit.

"I've kept aloft three hours, in practice," he reminded himself as the miles of sand slipped past below him. "Somehow I'll get back to Perfecto. A little well-deserved pest control on that rat and – then we'll see who takes Last Toon Standing!"

Back at the dilapidated barracks an hour or so later, a certain OverCaptainCommissar relaxed as the wind began to slacken. She checked the lights were still glowing on a distinctly home-made electronic jamming device that Calamity Coyote had built for them. It would never do for the Perfectos to manage to call home, or use their T-pads to look up any real facts about Eastern Molvania.

"Have we scared them enough yet – or do you want another go? What can we try next time?" Her fellow officer took off his mirror-fronted black helmet to reveal blue and white features the Perfectos would have instantly recognised.

"Revenge is a dish best served cold – with a side-order of carrot salad," the feared OverCaptainCommissar mused, removing her own helmet and massaging pink ears back into shape. She looked at the guide to effective management methods she had confiscated from Hans von Haflinger. "Not a Girl Guide book, this. Lists all sorts of intimidation techniques; Ego Up, Ego Down, Fear Up Mild, Fear Up Harsh …" she posed dramatically. "Do you like my fear up... or down?"

"It makes a change from nothing but wacky comedy," Buster noted. "A good drama role is something we've always wanted. And we're getting class marks for it too."

"Hey! Watching the Perfectos turn on each other like rabid weasels makes good comedy in my book," Babs objected. "They wouldn't see the funny side – but they never do." She snickered. "That OverCaptainCommissar is such a bitch!" She slapped her boot with her riding crop. "It does make a change from playing helpless Southern belles, though."

"Works for me." Buster shrugged. He looked at his watch. "Time to start bringing down the curtain on this show, Babs-o-vitch. Fifi has a deadline, remember?"

"And I was having so much fun," Babs sighed. Suddenly her ears went up. "Buster – I just thought of something!"

"Miracles never cease." Buster ducked the playfully swung helmet. "So, Fearsome Leader, what is it this time?"

"Well… to get Fifi off the hook we only need Danforth. The others we could just – leave here?" Babs looked up innocently wide-eyed. "I'm sure they'd get home somehow. Someday."

"Couldn't happen to a nicer bunch of toons." Buster considered the matter, and frowned. "But no, because that's just what they'd do – to us."

"Oh, phooey. And they would." Babs was silent for a few seconds. "But the real Perfecto thing would be to contact the junior years and find out how much they'd pay for us to keep Roddy and the rest out of circulation." She blinked, her eyes widening in alarm. "It must be contagious! I'm picking up Perfecto-itis – so we'll have to quarantine them anyway for the good of the planet!"

"Nice try, but no chocolate cigar," Buster stood, stretching. "We'll try that 'Fear down mild' – Henri can ease up on the Special Effects." On the other side of the nearest upwind sand dune, the healthy young skunk had been adding a little extra to the desert wind – causing the Perfectos to panic and look for the gas leaks when the pungent aroma seeped into their huts. Several had already been malleted flat for possession of their hut's last roll of duct tape.

"Henri. Yes. You can tell him, Buster." A sour expression was on Babs' face, though she admitted Henri had done nothing wrong. On the last "night shift" home she had discovered to her horror that her cherished double bed had been swapped with Bonnie's single one – who, as their mother pointed out, had more need of it. There was nothing Babs could say against the swap, or the subtle ways Bonnie was being treated as the senior daughter now – it was by tradition "a bunny thing" and not to be argued with.

Buster stretched. "I will. Then before we close the show, you can go and shout at the Perfectos some more. Make the most of it, before we bring down the curtain." The plan was for Buster undisguised to tunnel up in front of the Perfectos having apparently 'taken a wrong turn at Semipalatinsk' and announce a bidding war for one ticket back to Acme Acres. Whatever the rest bid, Danforth would win by writing off Fifi's debts. "Somehow" a notarised document was already in his Toon pocket ready to sign.

"All right! Shouting!" Babs' ears perked up. She grinned and beckoned to her four oldest siblings, clad in the outfits she had taught them all to spin-change into. Toon rabbits were a very poor market for clothing shops. "Mortimer, Benny, Jenny, Katy – let's get out there and make the Eastern Molvanian Foreign legion jump!"

An hour later they returned, tired and dusty from having fruitlessly (and duck-lessly) searched the whole camp and surroundings. Babs' ears were drooping. "Well, isn't that just ducky," she said bitterly, throwing her mirror-fronted helmet down with a clang. "The first time anybody – ever – has wanted to find that duck – he's ducked out on us!"

Although Danforth had no exact idea where he was either, there was a moving spot on the map of KazakhsToon somewhere that pinpointed his position second by second. For two other waterfowl, things were not so simple.

"So, Shirl, just what do you see down there?" Plucky asked curiously. He had heard Shirley describe the abstract harmonies of the upper spirit plane many times, and was amazed she had got it all wrong. To him, they were two craft docked together in low orbit – very low orbit. The curve of the atmosphere was almost level with their beaks, and a slight buffeting showed they were already heading into it.

Shirley sighed. "I see the Tenth Veil. It's the threshold of the material world, and it's a mess. All mortal needs, desires and totally unbalanced emotions distort it. Like looking at low cloud over an industrial city – you can't see through it but there's thermals and smoke rising out of it, you know?" She raised her eyes the other direction to where the Eleventh Veil rose in a pristine arch, now out of reach.

"So – how do we get from here back to our fine feathered bodies?" Plucky poked the immaterial shield Shirley had placed around both their auras. "I don't see any wings or steering jets on this hayride."

Shirley looked into his eyes. "Plucky. When you like pollute your karma playing that way gross "Retro Rocket Rumble" – what happens when you throw some hideous nuclear guano in a re-entry vehicle at some Toon's's home city – probably because you don't like their socks, or some junk?" She had watched Plucky on his Numbmindo box often enough to worry if there was such a thing as 'passive gaming'.

"Whoo-hoo! Atlas warhead! Retro-tech or what?" Plucky's eyes lit with delight. "That's a blunt, chunky piece of copper slamming straight into the atmosphere, pulling a hundred G's right the way down! White-hot metal vapour boiling off all the way, streaking right across the skies – radar sees it halfway across the continent, that's the only downside." Suddenly he stopped enthusing, and blinked. "Uh-oh. You mean – that's going to be us?"

Shirley nodded. A slight smile appeared on her beak. "That's us. And Plucky? Later – if we get a later – you and I are going to have a long talk about why Miltech stimulates your basal chakra, 'kay?"

Strangely enough, it was Plucky's vision of the spirit world that came closest to the facts. The two plummeting auras might not be leaving a brilliant trail of vaporised copper visible halfway across the skies – but in some ways the results were similar.

"Whoa! Incoming!" Hal Fenix had been astral travelling for an hour, having left his body in the care of Melicent McLoon. Although a phoenix feather would have been immensely valuable to the sorceress, he had read her aura and trusted her to look after the complete collection. There were other parts of a healthy male phoenix that she had not tried to hide her interest in using – and not for spell components.

All this took a fraction of a second to pass through his head. He studied the incoming auras; they were definitely heading back to the material plane. Hal calculated the equivalents of speed and trajectory, and his ethereal feathers bristled. "They are coming in hot. Stuff me for a Thanksgiving turkey, but they are coming in white-hot!" He had not measured exactly how much energy Shirley's physical form could absorb, and indeed it hardly mattered. About a thousand times as much was about to hit it.

"If Plucky's ego had mass, she's a space shuttle trying to land with a twenty metre nickel-iron asteroid on board. She can't do it. Nobody could." Hal was anchored to his material form by his astral cord, stretching all the way back to Acme Acres. Shirley's aura had strangely enough been independent of her body that way and as for Plucky … "He took everything with him, including the kitchen sink. And the water pipes. That's an amazing psychic feat, or perhaps just dumb luck and worse judgement. Hardly matters now." Astral cords slowed travellers down, but were helpful as speed-brakes – something both Plucky and Shirley lacked.

Hal Fenix had not survived in his job, much less risen so high in it, without a prodigious talent for fast thinking on the wing. The image flashed before him of an aircraft coming in impossibly fast and overloaded – what would it take to slow it down? Something like a miles-long runway flooded with foam, and some form of net to soak up the impact at the end of it. What could he find at short notice to do the job?

Suddenly something clicked. Hal looked up – Shirley was forty minutes away; if all went well he just had time to get everything in position before they crashed and burned on the material plane.

"And if all goes very well indeed," Hal noted as he recoiled at full speed along his astral cord towards his body "We will – and we hopefully won't – kill two birds with one stone."

Back at Acme Acres, a green duck suddenly jerked as if he had touched an electric fence.

"What's wrong?" Maria Mandarin leaned over him in alarm. They had just finished a fine picnic after a morning's swimming in Lake Acme.

Clarke Gander held his head upright as if listening intently. He nodded, turning to Maria. "Duty calls. Everyone to assemble at the Loon household, immediate." He took Maria's pale green finger-feathers in his own, and looked into her eyes. "Maria – I think it's time. I think someone's coming home and wants this body back. There's only room for one in here."

Maria looked at him, resisting the urge to run her finger down his green feathers. He, or rather Plucky's body, was already an inch or so taller. "You can't … take turns? Like working night shift?"

Clarke shook his head sadly. "This body's already started to change, with the time I've been in it. In a few more weeks – it'd be too late. We always knew I'd have to go."

Maria grimaced, then determinedly started to pick up their clothes and the empty picnic basket from the beach. "Well. As long as you're … here, I'm staying with you."

Hand in feather-hand, the two waterfowl left the lakeside and headed uphill towards Shirley's family house.

"Sir, no Sir! That is an illegal order and I cannot obey it!" Ten minutes later Clarke stood rigidly, aghast at what he had just been asked to do. "Parasitic tapping is not something we do – it is something we spot the bad guys doing a mile away and proceed against with extreme prejudice, Sir!"

Hal Fenix sighed patiently. "Perfectly true, Corporal, in most circumstances. These are not usual circumstances." He flashed a smile at Shirley, who was pointedly ignoring Maria Mandarin hugging her mallard's body tight. "Tell him, Miss McLoon."

"It's a way uncool Energy Vampire thing, fer sure." Shirley wore makeup now; lipstick on her beak and a sweater that was discreetly padded. Next to Maria Mandarin's natural advantages she had to admit it was a pointless exercise. "But that's what we'll need. It's a Potential Energy thing, right?" She hesitated, and pointed at the line of high-voltage pylons in the distance. "My aura gets back carrying that charge and … it'd be like plugging a pocket torch bulb direct into those pylons. I'm the light bulb. Pop."

Maria winced. "And the same for poor Plucky."

Shirley cast her a sharp glance, and nodded curtly. "Exact-o-mundo. Someone has to drain off the surge or we're talking total orgone overload city here."

"And you can do it, Corporal!" Hal clapped Clarke on the back. "Though you'll need help. We also need a mind with… something like twenty miles of empty lakebed to land a pair of incoming auras on." He gestured to Sergeant Macree's Thinking Mind dog, who put down the half-done book of 3-D Sudoku puzzles and trotted over obediently. "Now, this is what I want you to do …"

"What a wild ride!" Somewhere approaching the Tenth Astral Veil (as one of the waterfowl auras saw it) or streaking into the top of the atmosphere at twenty miles a second (according to the other one) things were heating up. "Whoo-hoo! Just look at the shockwave!" Plucky's aura rematerialized in baggy surfing shorts, balancing on Shirley's protective aura like a surfboard. "Nobody ever rode a wave like this one!"

"Get crucial, Plucky … that's me you're standing on. I lose focus for an instant here and we're wholemeal toast, 'kay?" Shirley's pale aura looked up at the irrepressible duck, unable to hide a smile. In this place there was no possibility of deception; thoughts were action and substance.

"But what a way to go … talk about Fourth of July! We'd light up the skies – if there was anyone here to see it." Plucky paused, looking down. "Say – there is someone around. Looks like he's out for a spacewalk too."

Shirley's aura followed his gaze. Suddenly she recognised just what she was looking at – a familiar Phoenix aura now tuning into their wavelength. No doubt to Plucky his astral cord looked like an astronaut's tether snaking off into the distance.

"Oh yeah. That big stiff again. Bets, that he's come to gloat as we crash and burn?" Evidently Plucky recognised Colonel Fenix too.

"Plucky!" Shirley's aura squawked in outrage. The phoenix was a wonder to behold, his aura like a perfect gemstone flashing a thousand nameless colours as it reflected all the energies of the astral plane. The swamp-dwelling duck spirit she was carrying suddenly felt more like a rather slimy green boulder.

Glad to meet you! Colonel Fenix matched courses, his voice resonating like an opera singer's in a well-designed auditorium. We haven't much time - you're approaching the Tenth Veil fast, you'll be throwing up too much disturbance to talk then.

"Radio blackout on re-entry. Check," Plucky nodded.

Something like that. You could say I've got the runway cleared and the crash trucks standing by Hal turned to address Shirley's aura. You're a little out of tune for re-entering your bodies, they've changed a bit since you left them. I need to give you a nudge – like so. That's you set on course. Expect things to happen fast now. I'll see you on the far side of the Veil.

"You're not going to guide us in?" The pale blue eyes of Shirley's aura widened. "I could always bring Plucky home before."

That was like catching a baseball. This is like catching an anvil dropped from eighty stories up Hal winced slightly. Get ready! Next stop, Acme Acres. With that he was gone, snapping back along his astral cord like a stretched and released elastic band.

"Well, isn't that just ducky," Plucky's voice dripped sarcasm. "The cavalry aren't meant to run away just when you need them."

Shirley's astral shield suddenly began to glow white-hot as they entered the Veil, and she had no concentration spare to snap back a suitably sarcastic reply. Which was probably just as well.

"They're coming in!" Hal Fenix snapped out of his trance, looking around Shirley's back yard. For a second as he tuned back in he relaxed, relishing in the sensations of a physical body. There was a camomile lawn nearby, and its fragrance scented the air.

"Ah, I done brung him like what you said, Colonel," Corporal Kaolin snapped a salute off. He had unloaded the black helicopter and wheeled over the life-support unit containing an inert goose body.

Shirley blinked. "I totally don't get it. What's with the mortal form? Doesn't Clarke only have to be within a thousand paces or some junk?" Clarke Gander had been visiting his comatose body for an hour a night while Plucky's body rested asleep in Maria's feather-arms, to keep it from fading out as Plucky's chromoplasm had so nearly done.

Her mother smiled. "Just a little extra dear Hal and I thought up when we put our heads together. No harm done if it doesn't work. If it does – we'll see."

"Macree! Gander! To positions!" Colonel Fenix was suddenly all business. He gestured to the vulture who opened the casket, and with the aid of his Thinking Mind dog the insane mink put his paw on the still, white-feathered brow.

Clarke walked stiffly over towards his goose body and looked down on it. He turned to face Maria Mandarin. "Maria? I have to – leave this body to fill in some of the gaps in Patrick here. He nodded towards the drooling mink. "If this doesn't work – I want you to do something for me."

Maria nodded wordlessly.

Clarke took a deep breath. "Pull the plugs, on this body. The Colonel's agreed to write it up as an accident. I'm not going back to being a wandering spirit. And Patrick can dine on goose this week. He was a friend."

Maria's eyes went wide in shock. "There's got to be some other way!"

"I wish. I hope we meet again, Maria, in some other time and some other place. Till then – three, two, one, mark!" The light went out in Plucky's eyes and the green duck body slumped unconscious. Maria and Shirley both jumped to catch him, all rivalry forgotten.

"Places, please." A new voice spoke. It was the first coherent sound they had heard out of the big mink. He winked at Maria. "You'd better stand clear. That body should be fine – it wouldn't start to fade again for days. This should be over fast, one way or another."

For a few seconds all was still. Suddenly Shirley looked down and saw her mood ring starting to glow. Without her aura, it had been a piece of Psycurium as inert as Clarke Gander's goose body. "She's here…" she announced.

Maria looked up as if expecting to see two figures dropping from the sky. Suddenly the clearing erupted in a swirling tornado of white light! Shirley's body was a searing shape like a statue of burning magnesium, too bright for look at – and with every second the light increased.

"Power Tap – going in NOW!" Macree's voice shouted above the storm's fury. The mink slapped a paw on Shirley's glowing forehead and pressed the other on the inert goose body. His mink form began to glow as if it had caught light from the psychic flame. There was a scent of scorching fur and feathers. Suddenly a wave of force swept across the clearing, throwing everyone flat on their backs. The light faded.

A few seconds of silence reigned. A green duck shape was the first to struggle to his feet. "Say!" Plucky's voice was unmistakeable. "Who's been burning tail-feathers around here?"

Shirley hugged him. Her eyes had their familiar blue glow showing her aura was back in residence – but only for a second. That aura jumped back out of her feathered form with an expression of shock and disgust, as if it had stepped into an inviting-looking hot shower and the water had suddenly turned icy cold.

You did WHAT? Everyone in the clearing felt their skulls rattle with the force of the psychic shout. I head out for one week! I come back to a flesh-eating, egg-laden militarist wearing make-up and fake mammal boobs!

Shirley's solid form stuck her beak in the air defiantly. She ran her fingers down the front of her pink sweater. "It's only light padding – we wore as much in our first prom gown, and you didn't get negative about it then. I joined up with Colonel Fenix to save Plucky's life – and our eggs are telling me they need the meat to build theirs, 'kay?"

Plucky's eyes bulged to melon size in a fine wild take. "You're carrying somebody's eggs? Say it isn't so, Shirley." He bowed his head. "Whose?"

For a second Shirley and her aura smiled at him in sync. Oh, Plucky… everyone heard her aura's mental caressing voice you'll just have to find whoever was on shift that night at the battery henhouse.

Plucky fainted dead away.

The mink stood up, holding his head and moaning. He gave an unintelligible snarl.

"Ahem. He is very keen to know who has been using his brain as an armoured division's testing range," the Thinking-Mind dog put in quietly. There was another snarl, ending in a howl. "Oh yes. He earnestly desires to eat you all with fava beans, and a light Chianti."

Maria Mandarin had been watching it all, and looked down at a still goose shape in the medical cabinet. "It's over. And Clarke's … gone." She pressed herself feather to feather against the comatose goose and kissed his beak, long and hard.

"The "Sleeping Beauty gambit" – well, it can't hurt to try," Melicent McLoon murmured. "After all, he is a Toon. Such things work by their own logic."

A minute later Maria let his body go. She sighed. "Goodbye, Clarke. I'll – do what you wanted. Set you free of this." She looked across to Hal Fenix, who nodded solemnly – and uncaged the big red master power switch inside the casket. It was clearly marked Do Not switch off when support unit occupied – and she turned it off. She turned away from the others, hiding her tears.

A few seconds later something rose from the casket behind her.

"Look out!" Hal shouted in alarm "It's all gone wrong – he's risen as a vampire! We'll have to stake him!" As everyone turned in horror, he winked roguishly. "Just kidding, folks. Welcome back, Corporal Gander."

"Hal Fenix," Melicent playfully readied a "hotfoot" spell. "You and your sense of humour. Are you sure you never went to Acme Loo? You'd have been in class about seven years after me and dear Wile-E Coyote graduated."

"It'd have been fun, I'm sure," Hal mused "But sadly, no. I have been told my sense of humour has cost me a promotion or two – but hey! If I had a General's stars I'd be stuck behind a desk all day and miss out on all the fun like this!"

"Fun, he calls it," Plucky grumbled. He was being tended by both Shirley and her aura. "So, Colonel Wise-guy, just what happened here?"

"A little something I cooked up with the able help of the charming Miss McLoon Senior, here," Hal cast Melicent a smile, which was returned with interest. "I had to tap off all that surplus orgone energy – and it'd be a shame to waste it. Poor Sergeant Macree used to use that as a healer – sadly he lost the ability with his injuries. All the tools were still in there somewhere, but the workman was out to lunch."

"Put someone else in the driving seat and give them that much energy, you hardly need technique to get … a Heal Plus with lots of dice rolls, you might say." Melicent mused. She cast a minor spell. "Someone else is very keen on the idea."

A glowing figure became visible – the canine retriever whose inert body was still in the other casket. He tapped at Hal's shoulder.

Hal looked at him, and his feathers drooped slightly. "Not today, Lewis. At least we know how to do it now. Next time it'll be your turn – as soon as we can find and harness another power surge like that."

"Didn't you say that sort of thing was totally illegal?" Maria whispered to Clarke, looking up at the tall goose. Somehow she immediately recognised him despite the different body – other differences she looked forwards to getting familiar with.

"Unless in a very good cause," Clarke whispered back. "I expect Colonel Fenix is going to start looking for a good cause or two."

"Two? Oh. Of course." Maria blushed, looking at the slavering mink. "Sergeant Macree. I suppose it's "Physician heal thyself" for him."

Meanwhile, Plucky was in something of a tug-of-war between Shirley and her aura. Everyone had seen the loon's aura act independently of her feathered material form before, but never in opposition.

"Something of a 'ménage a trois' there – really it is, rather than a 'ménage a deux et demi' as you might think" Melicent whispered, looking on from where she sat next to Hal.

"I was meaning to ask about that," Hal kept his voice quiet. "I took a good look at Shirley's aura, out beyond the Tenth Veil." He paused. "It's not really hers, is it? Not in the way most people have one."

Melicent looked faintly embarrassed. "I've never told Shirley this. I was hoping she'd work it out by now – or She would," she nodded towards the blue glowing form. "When I carried her egg it was double-yolked. Normally that would just have meant twins when it hatched."

"But in our business a lot of abnormal things happen – quite normally, really," Hal nodded. "What happened?"

Melicent sighed. "There's things everyone knows you shouldn't do while carrying an egg – entering kickboxing tournaments, binging on alcohol, that sort of thing. I'll have to add, 'high-energy experimental sorcery' to the list. A spell I was researching backfired. The yield was ten times anything I expected… I don't exactly know what it did but – when the egg hatched, there was only one hatchling in it. At least, on the material plane."

"Fascinating." Hal's eyebrow rose. "I don't know if there's a word for that but – her 'Aura' is really more like her Siamese twin?"

"Yes. Born directly beyond the Tenth Veil. She has no separate body, and definitely has a mind of her own but it's almost always – overlapped with Shirley, very like a spiritual Siamese Twin. Until now."

"So I see." Hal turned to watch as the two loons squared off against each other. It would have been rude to eavesdrop on their argument, but with the mental shouting they were doing, it would take a deliberate shield not to hear them.

I cannot believe you let this happen to us! Shirley's aura was radiating shock and disgust. We're not even out of Looniversity and we've got two eggs on the way!

"You know what infernal plane you can take your negatory vibes to, spook-girl," Shirley raised her bill haughtily. "And what's with the "Us" and "We" about this? You were gone, running off to throw yourself off the edge of the Universe – or this wouldn't have happened."

It wouldn't have happened, fer sure – if Someone hadn't wanted to play Factory Farm around here her aura snapped.

"We have one mondo huge festering guano heap of bad karma still to work off, remember?" Shirley nodded her material bill off towards Clarke and Maria. "I've paid off a few shovelfuls. And…" A small smile crept to her beak. "Our mallard liked it. It's no sort of career move for me but – maybe someday I'll want to try it again."

Way gross! Her aura psychically short-circuited, turned a sickly green in shock and melted into a pile of ectoplasm on the floor. Shirley scooped her up and poured her down the front of her false cleavage, a triumphant smile on her bill.

Melicent looked on fondly. "Plucky's a nice boy, of course," she whispered to Hal. "It's just as well folk don't know there's really two Shirleys – it might make wedding plans rather complicated." She gave a happy sigh. "I'm just not sure if I should congratulate him on joining the family – or not."

Out in the deserts of KazakhsToon, any self-congratulations Danforth Drake might have had had long since evaporated – along with most of the moisture in his body. The helpful wind had died away after a few hours, leaving Danforth to discover the difference between a few hours flight around a timed course and a full migration.

"Water … water …" he gasped, struggling to keep his wings moving. Ironically there was a sheet of it right underneath him – but that day he had discovered to his cost that any shallow pools sitting in the middle of glittering salt flats were not going to be drinkable.

Suddenly he blinked. At the edge of the desert there was a figure standing. It was not a rock or a mirage – someone was certainly standing there. "Maybe they have water – or transport out of here." He began to glide down, knowing that without a drink and a rest he would be hard pressed to take off again, especially on the flat desert floor.

"Ooof!" Two minutes later even his landing proved less than elegant as his knees buckled under him, sending him sprawling in the sand at the feet of the waiting figure.

Danforth blinked dust out of his eyes. He was looking at a highly polished pair of business shoes and a pinstriped charcoal suit. Not the sort of clothing one would expect a desert traveller to wear. The duck felt a crawling sensation in his stomach as he recalled who wore that in all situations.

"Your writ, Sir, duly served." Chemley the lawyer handed him a document. "Acting on behalf of the City of Acme Acres, a damages and liability suit. The Mayor will settle out of court for ten million in used, unmarked small bills, delivery details to be arranged."

"What!" Danforth spluttered, grabbing the document. It was genuine – and he recalled meeting the Mayor at an evening for Perfecto graduates. "I'll never pay that!"

"In which case, Sir, there is an option to return the site in question to the City – which will only cost twice what you paid for it." Chemley's sharp feline teeth showed in a false smile. "It is a most generous offer."

"No way!" Danforth spluttered, taking in his options. He was at the edge of the desert now; in the distance there was a row of telephone poles. They would lead him somewhere, even walking. "You can't enforce the law out here. That's why Perfecto linked here in the first place. This is KazakhsToon not Kokomo." He snapped his feather-fingers derisively, and started to walk away.

Chemley's smile did not falter. He had foreseen this, and by happy coincidence a professional organisation had offered the City free of charge a couple of trainees for the summer "for the public good". He pulled out his cellphone and began to make the call.

"The sheer nerve of it." Danforth grumbled as he trudged through the dust. "Chemley should know better. We linked Perfecto with the Portable Holes to this part of the world just because there's no laws you can make stick."

Suddenly there was a rumbling sound. A line of disturbed earth appeared on the horizon heading towards him, the familiar sight of a rabbit tunnel emerging from Hammerspace. Danforth tensed – suddenly he remembered just why Perfecto Prep retained Chemley. The lawyer had a perfect record; nobody had ever escaped from him.

"If that's the Acme Loo-sers, I won't sweat it," he whispered to himself, tensing up. He was sure he could buy them off with pocket change. But it was an unfamiliar rabbit that emerged – green furred and heavily muscled with a build one would expect on a bull rather than a bunny.

"Target, umm, sighted and stuff," the big buck rumbled.

Danforth did not wait to hear more. "Catch me if you can, you dumb digger!" Summoning the strength of desperation he turned into the wind and began to run, wings stretched out wide and ready to fly.

The bunny reached down into the burrow and pulled up something – or rather someone, a toon whose smaller figure barely came up to his chest-fur. Picking them up, he braced and hurled them like an Olympic shot-putter – unfolding in mid-air and landing on the run, that black-clad figure accelerated like a homing missile towards Danforth.

"Mister Ducky missed out on his date with the dry-cleaning machine!" It was a voice that chilled the fleeing duck with dread. "Gotcha!" Rymela, International Toon of Mystery, tackled the duck just as he clawed for the skies, and ground him into the desert like a surfer riding a board onto the beach. She stood posed on her capture while her partner photographed them. "Mister K he'll be happy, George."

"Ah, yeah," the big buck nodded. He had been teamed with Rymela for the summer job and looked forward to the months working as a bounty-hunting intern with her.

Rymela giggled. "Come and help stand on the ducky with me, George." With Danforth squashed flat beneath them, she opened her arms. Her eyes shone invitingly. George picked her up and cuddled with a force that would have crushed tree-trunks to splinters – but Rymela had discovered what she liked.

For a minute they stayed that way. Then Rymela looked at her watch, and sighed. "Oh poo. We've got to get back quick with Mister dusty ducky. But later – we'll be off duty." She sat down on the flat duck, a contemplative expression on her face. The idea of George, an empty beach and a blanket on the ground suddenly started to appeal to her.

Back at Acme Acres, a few strategic phone calls brought a select gathering to Elmyra's house.

Fifi and Rhubella turned up dressed in their best. Fifi wore a fragrant garland of roses in her head-fur, and Rhubella's dress had lit a designer's eyes with dollar signs.

"Eh, we 'ave ze hour to get to ze judge eef zis does not work out," Fifi whispered.

Rhubella kissed her. "I don't know if I should hope it does or not. We'll be wed anyway, this time next month. But – next month would be better, with everyone there."

Inside the house was a select crowd – the lawyer Chemley representing the City of Acme Acres, Mister K watching Rymela and George at work, and a securely duct-taped Danforth Drake.

"My client, the City, only needs you to sign one properly witnessed document – we have already contacted your bank to confirm you have the funds," Chemley purred.

Mister K nodded to Rymela, who un-taped Danforth's bill.

"You can't do this to me!" Danforth howled. "I have rights! I have lawyers!"

"Unfortunately for you, City Hall always has far more of both," Mister K mused, stroking his already immaculately groomed tail tip. "Of course you can refuse! In which case I shall simply leave you here with the charming young lady." He nodded towards Elmyra's big industrial dry-cleaning machine in the corner of the cellar. "I doubt this will be quite as damaging as Dip. But a random mix of organic solvents – who knows? Perhaps your colours really are non-fading. Perhaps you will live out your days as a modern day two-tone. How may we find out?" He winked.

"Silly ducky is all messy and yucky," Rymela giggled, reverting to her old self briefly. "Let's get him all clean and bleached bright as new."

"I'll sign! I'll sign!" Danforth shrieked in panic. "Keep her away from me!" His feather-hands were un-taped long enough for him to sign the scrapyard deeds back to the City along with all rights to them and his power over Fifi.

"Well, that appears to be that." Mister K cast an eye over Danforth. "Except that the poor drake is covered in tape glue. We can't leave him in such a state." He nodded pleasantly.

Nobody happened to be pointing a high-speed camera at the duck or the skunk at the time. It looked quite as if Danforth stumbled – Mister K tried valiantly to catch him – but Danforth fell into the open door of the industrial cleaner anyway. The door slammed shut with his impact, and before anyone could react the automatic cycle started.

At least, that was the story Chemley told to a grinning Mayor Warner. There was no hard legal evidence that anything else had happened. As the Mayor himself summed it up – "That's good enough for Government work."

Three weeks passed. The other Perfectos were rescued from the desert by an undisguised Babs and Buster, who had not asked a cent in payment, only everyone's autographs. True, the signatures had been on what turned out to be Eastern Molvanian blank confession forms – but after holding out alone for another week even Roderick Rat signed and came back to Acme Acres. Finding Mary Melody there with K-Acme TV waiting to interview him live had been a well-designed adding of insult to injury that Mary gained valuable project points for. Sometimes her role of "Generic Good Girl" palled a little.

At last a Friday evening came when Acme Looniversity let out its senior class of shell-shocked and anvil-bruised toons, who had just taken their final practical exam.

Babs and Buster stood on the steps of the Looniversity, watching through the windows as in the classroom they had just left Bugs, Daffy and the rest gathered up their notes and headed out to debate who had done the best "wild takes" and come out with the snappiest lines.

"Well, Bab-o-links," Buster grinned. "Here we are. We've done our sweating for the day. Now it's just sweating to hear the news." Behind them, the janitor Pete Puma was closing and locking the big main doors. The sound of the key turning to shut them out was loud in two pairs of keen rabbit ears.

Babs pressed close to him, a tear in her eye. "Oh, Buster. After all this time – it's over."

"It's only just starting," Buster assured her. "We've both got auditions for Hollywood and Bollywood too! Next month we start filming in Mumbai." The Indian film makers had been impressed at anyone who could do a four hour dance and song routine in one "take".

"Well, yes. But this part's over." Babs nuzzled Buster's fur. The buck had worked hard all that hot July day. One part of her bunny brain noted he needed a shower – but as another part sniffed approvingly and added 'but not just yet.' Babs' round cotton-tail twitched. "Remember when we started! We were just three heads high! My feet were the same size as my torso!"

"And just as adorable." Buster stroked her long ears. "Heh. Poor Hamton was just one head high. His model sheet looked like a pair of bowling balls. Today you're a hot new actress, and a fine figured doe."

"Who has a fine buck who's a better singer. Go on – let me hear you." A wicked gleam was in Babs' eyes.

"What do you want to hear?" Buster asked.

"Oh – just scales would do nicely. I really want to hear your singing voice." Babs gave her most winning smile.

The buck cleared his throat. "Doe Ray Me…" he began – when there was a brilliant flash and the scent of lightly frizzled fur.

The doe put the low-powered Acme prop ray gun back into its Hammerspace holster. "Whoops – I forgot to turn this one in at the end of Prop class," she grinned. "Sorry – sometimes I just can't help myself." She kissed Buster on the nose. "So – school's out for Summer. School's out forever. What do you want to do, Blue-boy?"

"What we always do." Buster recovered from the "Freleng Frizzle" Take with the aid of years of practice. "Let's go to Weenie-Burger!"

"Aww, that test was a cinch." Was the first voice they heard as they approached the venerable fibreglass doors of Acme Acres' finest purveyors of new and reconditioned junk food. "Whoo-hoo! Did I ace it or what? I'm an ace! A mega ace! In Mega Wing Commander I'd have the ace's kill stars painted all the way down from the cockpit and half way down the wing!"

"Sounds like Plucky's back to his old self," Buster whispered. "He told me he didn't need to revise for the tests – he'd bought a 'memory foam' pillow from a travelling salesman – and just put the textbooks under it at night."

"Let's just hope he's got as many exam points as ego points," Babs whispered back as they entered, paw in paw. "Hey, hey, the gang's all here!" She noticed the restaurant had set up its portable stage at one end. On it under flashing lights a familiar wacky dodo was wearing long spangled boots, dancing to a thumping early 1970's beat. "Go-go dancing. Heh. Who knew?"

"Like Hi, Babs! Hi, Buster!" They turned round to see Shirley sitting with Plucky. It was a familiar sight – except for the third party at the table, a disgusted-looking Loon aura.

"Shirley! And… Shirley!" Babs waved cheerfully. She looked closely at her best friend – they had scarcely had time to do more than wave to each other in the hallway on the way to exams all week.

The loon's feather-form was wearing her old outfit, a pinkish sweater (entirely un-padded today) with just a hint of makeup. Her slim feathered figure was just visibly swelling to Babs' keen eye. Her aura did not seem to be changing to match.

Babs giggled. "End of Summer, we can head out together and hang out at Acme Mall with the city's other bad girls, showing off our 'baby bumps'", she whispered.

Shirley snorted, but a smile was on her bill. "You and Buster are going to have to work mondo fast to do that, Babs. Like, that's the point of eggs, you know? I don't have to walk around with these weighing me down for long. I should be laying them in another month."

"Oh, right. It's an avian thing." Babs blinked as a thought struck her. "How will that work out, with you joining Colonel Fenix's bunch?"

Don't mention that name around here A powerful mental voice echoed inside Babs' pink-furred head. She turned to see the glowing blue astral shape looking furious.

"Ignore her, Babs," Shirley snickered. "So much for reading the future! She was SO sure Hal had gone out there to bring her home for his own nest – since the day they met she's had such a crush on him you totally wouldn't believe it. And now he's been – seeing a lot of Mother. He was way impressed with the way she opened up that Dimensional Door on the scrapyard site, fer sure. It's amazing that aura's still blue – not green with envy."

"Ooh. Things are certainly changing around here." Babs squeezed Shirley's finger-feathers comfortingly. "But I see you're still on the Tofu burgers."

That… cheap trashy feather-duster kills and eats defenceless, innocent shellfish – the murderess! The astral voice rang out again. I am not getting back into that polluted, flesh-eating body

Shirley's feather-form shrugged. "I'm not mondo keen on the idea myself. But my eggs need calcium and first-class protein." She looked at the Weenie-Burger menu, which was mostly variations on refried grease. "And you couldn't call anything around here exactly first-class."

"I've been teaching her to fish and forage," Plucky cut in. "Hey! I make a contribution too!"

If it wasn't for your little 'contributions' she wouldn't need to turn killer on me The aura commented sourly Or join up with that way uncool crowd of uniforms

"I'm joining them like because I promised and my word is my bond, 'kay?" Shirley's gaze was contemplative. "But – Colonel Fenix, he's been telling me more of what they do. Protecting the world from really uncool hostile spirits and junk – that should help my karma."

Babs' ears dipped. "Shirley," she whispered "how are you – getting on with that? You said, with you and Plucky … you'd seen a lot of timelines where you'd wrecked what was meant to happen. Stopped the show, even."

Shirley cast her a calculating look. "As if I needed any extra reasons to take care of these" – she stroked her feathered belly lovingly "I found out the show finds a way of going on. Plucky and Maria would have got it together – that's what I saw happening on all those timelines – because there's an egg of his the future really needs to be hatched. It will be, but in my nest now. That'll pay off a totally major piece of my karmic debt, fer sure. Getting Clarke back among the living helped too."

"Better not let Plucky know too many details," Babs nodded. "How's he taking to the idea?"

"He thinks he'll be off starring in Hollywood while I'm left sitting on the eggs." Shirley snickered. "We promised each other whoever gets the lowest exam marks, gets the nest. Could Plucky ever believe he'd lose? That Cartoon math test – "how much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood" – I know fer sure he was off by a hundred board-feet.""

"Oh my." Babs cast a sideways glance at the green mallard, who was boasting to Buster about the size of leading roles he intended to fill in the coming months, thanks to his out-of-this-world class experiences. "I hope he likes being a nest-potato as much as a couch-potato." She cocked her head to one side. "As long as you're sure Plucky's aura is what you really want nurturing them as well as his body heat." The idea of a hatchling with Shirley's powers and Plucky's ego … it hardly bore thinking about. Definitely junior Dark Lord territory, she warned herself.

"One of us has to – I'm not letting any cheap ACME incubator anywhere near our nest. And I've got my powers back. It's like I'd been going round blindfolded and now I can see again, you know?" Shirley cast a glance at her aloof aura. "She doesn't have to approve of what I do with them. If she's around, they're around. You can tell by looking at any energy crystal I'm in tune with."

Babs glanced down to Shirley's feather-hand; her mood-ring was glowing a deep green reminiscent of thriving woods in spring sunshine. Images of harmonious content and blossoming fertility seemed to flow from it. "Just like the One Ring. One mood-ring to rule them all, one mood-ring to find them … one mood-ring to bring them all and in their karma bind them…" she misquoted, grinning.

"Fer sure. I've learned my lesson – not to use my powers to try and bend the future my way." Shirley concentrated, levitating off the seat with a serene smile. "Toons get what they deserve. I learned that in my real short incarnation when I was a warrior riding with the fowl horde of Attila the Hen."

"Hmm. If you could have looked in the future and seen the consequences of that you could have decided not to look into the future in the first place and…" Babs' ears tangled into a recursive knot. "I'll leave that one to Calamity to sort out!" QuanToon Physics were a class she had never liked, and had dropped in the second year leaving it to Bookworm, Calamity and (oddly enough) Fowlmouth. The subject linked into comedy certainly, but mostly by the comic consequences of experiments going hideously wrong – and being hit by faster-than-light Strange Matter anvils from the next dimension had never been her idea of a good comic role.

"I'm starting with Colonel Fenix on August the tenth. The stars say it's an auspicious day." Shirley mused. "He's got this totally undercover team of Astrologers working at NASA – they'd be thrown out of there as major heretics to science if they were caught. They get to use all the telescopes and computers. Who'd know more about the stars?"

"Mmm." Babs sipped her carrot-cola. "It's only just starting to get to me, Shirley – this is really going to be over. That was our last exam – we're not going back in that classroom again." She briefly spin-changed into Elmer Presley complete with microphone and white rhinestone-studded outfit. "And now I got the cure, for those Elmer Fudd blues!" she sang.

"We've done enough homework, fer sure." Shirley raised an eyebrow. "And – we've got a lot to look forward to. I don't need to channel Nostradamus to get that prophesy."

"Shirley the Loon... once just a humble Medium – soon to be a world-class Extreme!" Babs wrapped her ears in the shape of a mystic's turban. She looked around the packed Weenie-burger restaurant, storing up the memories. This really was the last time they would be meeting after class; class was already a thing of the past. Gogo Dodo was leaving at the end of the month, to do the strangest thing anyone who knew the wacky bird could possibly imagine – lowly office work in Neo-Mega-Tokyo as a "Salaryman" for a registered Japanese Evil Mega-corporation. She wondered if he would take the weather with him – in Wacky-land when the forecast predicted "the odd shower" it was likely to be definitely odd – quite possibly anchovies or custard. "So, what do you predict next? Now you've got your mojo back on side. Sort of." She winked at the annoyed-looking aura, who glared back.

Shirley concentrated, feeling the thrill as the spirit world responded to her and showed her the auras of all living things within spell-casting range. Being restricted to her physical form had been like being forcibly confined to bed in a dark room, when she wanted to freely run and fly in the sunlight. Her perceptions expanded as she saw the branching threads of probability unspooling in front of her and her friends. "This is so totally weird … I'm seeing a great mental void approaching."

"Here comes Elmyra, I bet," Babs made a prediction of her own. "Montana Max once said she had the IQ of spore mould – and you know, nobody's wrong all the time. Not even him." She paused. "Though Elmyra's improved a lot. She's twice as smart now."

The door opened and all eyes turned – it was Elmyra, or rather Rymela, dressed in her new practical grey-black outfit. She was not alone. A huge, hulking green-furred lepine was with her – he picked her up, cuddled her with a noise like crushing steel girders, and placed her oddly gently on one of the high stools. Rymela giggled.

"Buster was telling me they're already teamed up to practice evenings and weekends," Babs whispered. "Trainee bounty-hunters. Other toons in the team track the fugitives with detective work, get within range then launch Elmyra at them. They're going to be a hammer and anvil team – he's the solid backstop, she chases toons into him." She reflected. "Or maybe George's called the anvil because that's how much smarts he's got. Though that goes for Elmyra too. She's still dumber than your average sledgehammer."

"A cute and furless human all mine to hug and squeeze and love… forever." Babs heard a voice, but strangely enough it came from Shirley behind her.

Shirley blushed, embarrassed as she clamped her feather-hand tight on her bill. "Like, sorry. That was from George. I was tuned into him and that thought was so mondo over-powered it – swamped right through me. I couldn't help picking up a lot more." She paused. "Babs. Do you want the bad news or the good news?"

"Eeehh… I've got a pair of lucky rabbit's feet, bad news I can dodge. But I'll take the good news." Babs looked on. The buck was regarding Rymela as if she was a pile of diamonds rather than the toxic swamp most of the Acme Looniversity students had always thought her. George rubbed his cheek ruffs against Rymela, who giggled again and pressed back though with her puny human sense of smell she probably could not even tell she was being scent-marked.

The loon shrugged. "Fifi and Rhubella's makeover has taken root. You won't have to worry about being hunted any more by her – not unless your name's on an official Wanted poster."

"And the bad news?" Babs blinked.

Shirley gave a wry smile. "I don't know it's really bad – except maybe for you. Remember that day Mary and Jaggi came in through that door together?" She nodded significantly at the human and hare couple.

Babs tried not to stare as Rymela nestled up close to the hulking hare, her fingers gently twining in his fur. It was not the most unbelievable couple; that had to be Sweetie and her Velociraptor mate. The image of Sweetie as one of those rubber pencil-top toys had stuck in her mind at her first sight of them and refused to go away. "Oh no. Please say it isn't so. I didn't mind it so much when it was you, or Fifi … or even my own nerdy sister… but me, the one and only Babs Bunny getting beaten to it by Elmyra? That's like being outwitted by Professor Fudd – you'd die of embarrassment! And what sort of rabbit would ever want anything to do with her?"

"As in, that one. Hate to say it but if I ever saw a 'dumb bunny' he's it."" Shirley commented. Suddenly a wicked grin came to her beak. "I'm not looking into their future, Babs but under Toon genetics – what do you think?"

"Hmm. Insanity and stupidity on both sides of the family, what's not to like? They'd have the first kids ever with negative IQ!" Babs thought hard. Suddenly her fur turned pale, a neat trick and one proving that Toon biology was a stranger field than most would expect. "No. Under the Law of Conservation of Comedy – their every litter would be full of Nobel Prize winners. Four-figure IQs. They'd have to invent new Prizes just for them. Their brains would make Calamity Coyote's look like the solid concrete one Concord Condor uses." She sighed, her pink form drooping. "And then there was one, me. It's virgin' on the ridiculous! I'm a disgrace to Bunnydom! If I was a Perfectoid, I'd sue that Wedding Peach boutique."

Shirley blinked. "Bad vibes, Babs. Haven't they done a way harmonious job for you? You loved the dress design. Totally retro-chic damsel territory, but it's what you wanted isn't it?"

Babs suddenly grinned, her ears back upright. "It's not the quality I'm complaining about – but they don't tell you the real price of a white wedding! Can you believe, Mother told me to go to my sister Bonnie for advice?"

She relaxed, looking around. There was a heady mix of emotions in the air; relief at finishing the exam mingled with realisation that this could be the last occasion of its kind. Some of the class such as Concord Condor she might not see again until graduation, and afterwards possibly never again. She mentally checked herself; Concord had been offered a Government staffing position in WashingToon, and might end up proving the boast that absolutely anyone really could become President. At the least, he would be a fine choice for vice-president; any president would have the hideous threat of Concord left to run the country as perfect insurance against being impeached or assassinated.

"Ahh…" she confided to Buster. "Remember the end of term party, this time last year – you made Hamton laugh so hard that he blew milk out of his nose?"

Buster smiled, hugging her. "You've done that to me. And better. You made me laugh so hard I blew a quart of milk out my muzzle. The impressive part is, I was only drinking weenie-cola at the time."

"Well, we all have our talents." Babs watched as Gogo Dodo left the stage and Plucky boldly stepped up. "And now Plucky will clog-dance till the living envy the dead."

"And not just Plucky." To everyone's amazement, Shirley donned wooden clogs and joined him in a rousing double-act that made the seismographs panic halfway across California. Buster winked. "You said Shirley joined the cheerleader squad to balance her karma? Doing something publicly embarrassing in a good cause? That should count double. Triple, even."

Babs shook her head, mutely. Shirley loved to dance, but not that way. Expect the unexpected, she mentally quoted from the Acme Loo guide book. "Heh. Wonders never cease."

Back at Perfecto Prep, Rhubella swept through the senior rooms with a knowing smile on her face. She had arranged the rest of her class to be retrieved from KazakhsToon, on the condition they restore her status – "And for another reason you'll find out about later on" as she had mockingly addressed the shocked and dusty toons who emerged from the rabbit tunnel two weeks before. They would mostly be distracted from taking their revenge, just waiting for that axe to fall – only someone who was supremely confident of winning without it would give up her 'last toon standing' automatic triumph.

"Next week you graduate, Miss Rhubella. Top in the class!" The voice was from Irma Falco of the first-year Clique One, who she had picked to watch her back. "They're already sending you presents." Irma looked around the senior area, marvelling at the luxury and privacy. The corridors in the lower years' areas had discreet plaques on every corner: "This area is subject to video recording for entertainment and potential blackmail purposes" – internally at least, Perfecto was sometimes honest if it cost nothing.

Rhubella laughed. "I know. I've examined some of them. Don't eat any of the chocolates! How they managed to package a live wasp in every other one… that's classic Perfecto cuisine. And the rest are laced with military grade purgatives. Eat one and you'll find out what your gall bladder looks like." She cast an eye over her favourite chair by the picture window. "Irma. Check that for surprises. Carefully."

The fish-hawk nodded, selecting a shed feather and running it under the chair. She paused. "There's a fine nylon thread running into the cushion there, Miss – but my T-pad sensor doesn't spot anything metallic."

"Don't eat the chocolates, and don't sit down there. At Acme Looniversity they'd just use a joke-shop whoopee cushion. Here it's an all-plastic landmine." Rhubella shook her head ruefully, while Irma T-mailed the Perfecto servants to come and discreetly dispose of it. "And they just have to be somewhere around to gloat. Come out, wherever you are," she called out to the apparently empty room.

There was a second's silence – then one of the designer secret panels in the wall slid back to reveal a very annoyed-looking Roderick Rat who had been waiting behind it with camera poised. "And you're the one talks about gloating," he grumbled.

Rhubella looked him up and down, taking in the designer-cut of his impeccably tailored flak jacket. Naturally, the seniors had made it a priority to get cleaned up and outfitted again as soon as they had returned to Perfecto; outwardly they were the same poised and polished crowd as before. But their self-confidence had taken a severe pounding – with her friends from Acme Loo she had not only exiled them but brought them back when she felt like it, for her own reasons. She felt a slight twinge recalling the way she had been before, and how she really would have crowed over their humiliation.

"Oh no, Roddy. I think I'm beyond that. I've had a little more education than they list on the Perfecto timetable, recently." She walked out onto the balcony, a glowering Roderick following her.

"I know where you got that from. The Acme Loo-sers. How could you?" Roderick shook his head wonderingly.

"Because it worked – didn't it?" Rhubella's eyes flashed fire. She knew she would be wasting her breath trying to convince him she had turned her back on Perfecto principles when she opened her heart to Fifi. "That's Acme Looniversity, to you. The losers now are someone else - a bit closer to home. Try the nearest mirror."

Roderick ground his teeth in frustration, unable to deny it. To make things worse, Rhubella was looking stunning in a way that no beauty boutique could have managed even for its most influential client. There was a serene quality to her that she never had before; even the most powerful Perfecto seniors felt compelled to always check for threats behind them. "How could you do it? You and me, we had – leverage. Influence. A real base for a serious power-play. You'd give that up – for what? You're not the kind of Toon who works on shticks and slapstick – you've got nothing in common with them. And as for that hobo skunk… you're a rat, not a polecat. You're both girls, even! You're incompatible in every way."

Rhubella hesitated. It was true that her family had never lived by toon conventions – they had always preferred sense and science over slapstick. Suddenly, she thought of Fifi and realised that she no longer cared about anything else.

Just at that dramatic moment, perfectly timed in the fullest Toon tradition, a pure white feather spiralled down from the empty blue skies. Rhubella felt her heart racing as she reached out and caught it, pressing it to her chest-fur. It was a stork feather. "Oh. So it'll happen that way for me." She took a deep breath, a small smile on her face as she willingly accepted the traditional 'annunciation'. In the Springtime she and Fifi would be watching the skies eagerly, a toon baby basket all prepared. "Looks like me and Fifi, we're compatible after all." Toon conventions entirely ignored unfunny things like biology when the plot had to go on.

Roderick might have boasted that Perfecto despised such conventions, but his Wild Take was an Academy-Award winning sight to see. Toons often enough went up in smoke – but as the shock hit him, he went up in fountains of infra-red decoy flares and a spewing blizzard of anti-Radar chaff like a jet fighter caught unaware and ambushed.

Rhubella looked at the sight for a long moment, then turned her back on him. She pulled out her T-pad, and dialled Fifi's number. "Fifi? You've told me about your Professor Fudd. We should invite him to our wedding next week. In fact we need to." She paused, and gave a happy sigh. "Tell him he won't need any ammunition. But it'll be a shotgun wedding after all – and he's the only one I know who's got one."

The End (of the Beginning.)

Next time – Seven Brides for Seven Bunnies.