Chapter Eight

Perfecto Prep University, as its staff and students would look down their muzzles and tell you, was not a place for cheap Toon gags, shticks and trick talents. They would point down the road any student who pulled a slapstick stunt and forcibly point out Acme Looniversity was the place for them, and good riddance.

The first-year block stood alone in the grounds and almost all its residents were across the campus in the main ballroom; the walls were well soundproofed and when a past-expiry-date Toon-killing rocket warhead went off in Room 19, nobody outside the building heard it. Which is not to say it went unnoticed.

Two hundred yards away in the elegant staff quarters, Professor Stanley's trunk went rigid in shock as one of his hidden abilities triggered. The elephant gasped, scattering the cards on the table where he and some of his rival colleagues were paying high-stakes pinochle. "I smell a lawsuit!"

Hatta Mari raised an elegant eyebrow, the pigeon lady's feathers permanently unruffled. "It's out of office hours, Stanley. Business never sleeps, I know, but surely we can call our people for that tomorrow."

"No. This one is close to home. Too close. We're standing on it." Stanley stood up – just as one of the liveried servants knocked and entered discreetly. He was a bulldog dressed in an elegant, old-fashioned three-piece dark woollen suit with a gold watch-chain.

One of the features of Perfecto Prep was its corps of silent, neatly liveried servants who kept the place running from day to day and made a point of being as nearly invisible as possible. Most of the students regarded them in the same way as the light switches – they were there, and they worked, and needed nothing more thought about them. That suited the Perfecto management very nicely; they had filled the deferential uniforms with the pick of arcane talents and paid them well to keep quiet about it. Anyone in the post of Head Butler was a toon to be taken very seriously indeed.

"Sirs," that worthy announced to the staff "there has been a serious infringement of the rules. One of the first-years has detonated an Enhanced Dip device in her room."

Hatta Mari sighed. "Then we have a vacancy at Perfecto. Also, some rebuilding and decontamination works ahead. Still. If we can prove it was her own device in her room we can avoid too much legal unpleasantness. The first year block is technically on Eastern Molvanian soil."

The butler gave a quiet cough. "The device appears to be akin to that detonated over Kashmolev in the KazakhsToon TSR in March 1952, madam. It is a catalytic device." Nobody asked how he knew this; butlers always knew such things. "It will shortly corrode through the walls and inconvenience all areas for a considerable distance downwind. Including the metropolis of Acme Acres."

"Which is not on Eastern Molvanian soil. This could ruin us!" Professor Stanley's trunk wrinkled in rage. He was the ranking staff member on the spot; there was a board of Governors but they mostly lived in sunny tax havens and were not handy in emergencies. "Find out who was caught in the Dip and have her expelled, back-dated to yesterday. No Perfecto student could do such a thing."

"Which still leaves us about to appear on the world news," put in a sleekly dressed Jackal, the head lecturer of the Profit Pursuit course. "Unless we do something fast and drastic."

"And deniable," Professor Stanley put in. He looked at the head Butler. "How do you break down Dip? Without having to order tankers of chemicals we can't lay our hands on in the next twenty minutes."

"Sir." The bulldog consulted his watch "twenty minutes may be an optimistic assessment. There is one feature of Dip that may help. It is immensely – inflammable."

The staff looked at each other, and nodded. "We have fire insurance. We don't have "melt down Acme Acres and its population into a toxic pool of fuming pigment" insurance." Professor Stanley summed up. "The surviving first-years are a safe distance away at the dance, and none of them need to know about this being anything but a fire." Despite what some people believed, in fact Perfecto had some very strict principles, chief of them being the Law of the Least Possible Legal Liability.

"Which leads to the next question, darling." Hatta Mari looked at him from under half-closed eyes. "Who wants to get close enough to light a match? A room full of fumes could take half the block down in the blast. Getting blown half-way across the state is one thing but if there's unburned residues – it'd be toon-lethal."

"Obviously none of us," the jackal said smoothly. "I suggest we make one of our Sports Scholars an offer he can't refuse. They're more replaceable, after all."

"Is my area of expertise, Deniable Projects!" Mister Boris rubbed his hands together gleefully. "We do not use big dumb sports scholar, oh no. Cheap is good – but today reliable is better. We have to be giving exact orders to him in person, of what to be doing. That personally links us to fire, is being very bad. No, we get seniors team in. We give them problem to solve, drop hints maybe – they nice and sharp as knives, they find a way. Their decision, their reason to keep beaks and snouts shut after."

"Agreed. If we go bankrupt, they don't graduate." Professor Stanley picked up his T-phone.

The butler inclined his head. "Then, Sirs and madam, I shall start forthwith an evacuation upwind of the other students and staff." He departed silently. Butlers always knew what to do.

"The last time I was here, they were promising I could stay." Plucky Duck approached the professionally groomed grounds of Perfecto at about a hundred feet altitude, his rather tatty cape flapping in the slipstream. "I only had to sabotage our own American Football team and they'd let me transfer over. Ha! Can you believe they thought I was going to sell out Acme Loo for the sake of a mere life of luxury?" His eyes bulged as he took in the sights. "Oooh. Over there, look! They've got a new bio-dome… it's got an indoor beach, Shirley! Permanent tropical sunshine. Wave machines. They didn't have that last time."

"Like, get crucial, Plucky." Shirley was holding on to him – or more accurately keeping formation; the levitating loon could have let go of Plucky's feather-hand any time and descended to earth as gently as any feather. "We're here on a mission, 'kay?" She closed her eyes and concentrated. A few seconds she winced, and pointed down to a two-storey block. "It's there. I can feel it like a bleeding wound in Mother Earth." Her eyes went wide. "It's got out already! We're too late to stop it – we'll have to deal with it."

"And so says the Toxic Avenger!" Plucky streaked down towards the building indicated. A second later his expression changed to one of panic as the ground loomed up ever faster. "Umm, Shirley – I knew I should have checked these air brakes…"

Shirley let go of his feather-hand and gently descended like a soap bubble to stand on the manicured lawn outside the first-year block. She shook her head, wincing at the sight and sound of Plucky making a high-speed landing as graceful as a boxcar dropped from a hundred feet, digging a wide furrow as his beak ploughed into the grass. "Eww… that's got to hurt." She settled down next to the crashed and mangled mallard, whose fragments slowly reassembling. "Have you tried – aromatherapy for that?"

For a second all was quiet around them. The rooms on the ground floor were common rooms, and the private rooms were up on the first storey. All of them were dark, their inhabitants elsewhere – except for one. There was a pallid, flickering light in the room as Toon matter was broken down, and even the glass of the window seemed to sag slightly as if it was beginning to melt. Evidently time was about to run out.

Just then, the four people in the world Shirley least wanted to meet came around the corner and things became even more complicated.

"You!" Margot Mallard's feathers bristled out as she spotted the two Acme Looniversity waterfowl. "What are you doing here?"

Shirley cast her a high-energy glare. "Pulling your tails out of the wringer, as if you deserved it? What sort of way grody junk are you playing around with up there?"

"I made a few stinks with my chemistry set when I was a fledgling – but nothing like that." Plucky winced, shaking the mud off his beak and looking up. "So, what Perfecto class is "build a city-buster for fun and profit" one of the projects? Weapons of Mass Toon Destruction 101?"

"Never mind that." Roderick snapped. "It's our problem, we're handling it. And you're trespassing, super-dweeb." He snickered, spotting the impact in the lawn and Plucky's earth covered costume. "Bad enough that you're on our turf, without you eating it."

"Handling it?" Shirley looked at the Perfecto seniors. Danforth Drake had a crossbow, the bolt already in the groove wrapped in cotton rag and scenting of rubbing alcohol. Shirley's eyes went wide as he pulled out a gold-plated cigarette lighter. "I can see your idea of handling it."

"Give us a better idea, then," Rhubella looked hard at her. "You've got about five minutes – if that. Once this building springs a leak we're going to have to fire. Dip burns."

There came a muffled crash from inside the building. A few seconds later the sick light began to spread – this time from the ground floor window.

Danforth yelped in alarm. "The floor's caved in! It's spreading through the building!" He raised his crossbow.

"You can't fire – you don't know if there's anyone in there!" Plucky stepped forwards. "Ha! Your puny bow is no match for the manly chest of the mallard of steel, the Toxic Avenger!"

Margot gave him a slow, ironic clapping. She stepped up close to Plucky, a seductive smile on her bill. "Well, hello, green and handsome. It's been a long time."

Plucky's eyes crossed. Even in the dim light Margot was a sight that had its effect on him. She was still dressed for the dance in an electric blue gown that shimmered in the moonlight. Margot was half a head taller than him and the rest of her figure had filled out in all the ways a pure avian woman never did. A strangled squawk emerged from his beak, and his body trembled.

"Margot?" Rhubella looked around, taking in the scene. Both Danforth and Shirley were visibly fuming in jealousy, and Shirley's aura was beginning to glow as it charged up. She would normally have savoured the scene like a fine wine, and let Margot have her fun with the Acme drake. Normally she was not standing next to a slowly dissolving building that could spring a lethal leak any second. "We do not have time for this. If there was anybody in that building – they're just a stain on the floor now. And if we don't stop this leak one way or another – so are we!"

"You have like totally got to check," Shirley insisted.

Margot laughed, her feather-hand stroking under Plucky's beak. "What do you think's inside that building, sister – eau de cologne? Any toon in there is already history. There won't even be a scrap of their model sheet left. We're going to be firing at the first sign of a leak. Do you want to open the door and let it out sooner?"

Shirley hesitated. She had to admit it sounded as if Margot was right. Suddenly an idea struck her, and she smiled. "You Perfectos are so crude. Watch this." At her command her aura separated from her material body, and floated through the wall. "Dip can melt walls fer sure – but energy forms, no."

"You still have only until it starts to leak, then we haul out tails a hundred yards clear and Danny-boy does his William Tell thing." Roderick jerked a thumb towards the distant lights of Acme Acres on the horizon. "You've been cutting film classes at the Loser-versity? Even if there was anyone alive in there – you should remember this one? "The greatest good for the greatest number". The kind of thing you Loo-sers walk around actually believing, I thought."

"We can't take chances. Nobody knows enough about Dip any more, or if they do they're not saying." Rhubella faced Shirley squarely. "Well, do you know?"

Shirley drew on her aura's power, even though her astral shelf was yards away clambering over the corroded remains of internal walls. She narrowed her eyes. "I can find someone who does."

"Oh?" Rhubella handed over her telephone. "Be my guest. You'll be lucky to find anyone this time of night. Besides, almost all the toons who worked on the stuff years ago are dead."

"That," Shirley smiled, assuming her lotus position "Is what I'm totally counting on." The loon levitated a yard off the ground, a shimmering light surrounding her. "I call upon the spirit world … to the shades of ones who first made dip, who put it into the bombs and rockets and other way uncool things … I call on one of you to aid us with your knowledge." There was a pause, and her head cocked to one side as if listening to a distant voice. "Why? 'Cause it will be a few points back towards the light from where your totally bum karma dropped you!"

For a few seconds nothing happened. Then a change came over Shirley's face, as if another image was being somehow projected onto it. A voice that was not hers spoke as if echoing from a great distance off. "Da, tovarich?"

Danforth Drake clicked his beak in disgust. "Oh, great. Is there a Russian-speaker in the house?"

Inside the rapidly dissolving ruin that had been the first-year's dorm, Sapphire was running into a problem. "Air is something you take for granted, until you start running out of it," she mused. She looked at the shower's extractor fan; had it been a simple window-mounted unit rather than a discreetly silent system some metres away along the ducting she would have swapped the electrical leads round and have it pump air into the room. For that matter, had there been an external window in the bathroom she would have been out through it, naked fur no objection.

Through the shower curtain she could see the main room had collapsed completely, the floor slumping and collapsing to the storey below. The place glowed with sickly cold fires like the pale light of a nuclear reactor's water tank, a phosphorescent colour that resembled rotting meat rather than clean flame. One spark with the air full of fumes and things would probably start heating up though – which was another reason not to mess with the live electrics.

Although most of the liquid dip was in the room next door or fallen to the ground floor, a few specks of the silvery dust had entered the bathroom. Sapphire spotted one, about the size and shape of a particle of glitter. Curious, she touched it with a claw tip – it did not burn her, but any local material she touched rapidly melted in liquescent collapse as if she was touching wax with hot iron. "Fascinating. And perhaps a way out of here. Shame about the neighbourhood." In a few minutes she would be out of breathable air and would just have to risk running for it, even though her fur would get soaked through with the toxic solvent mix. Hopefully there would be another shower further off in the building she could use to get clean again before it did her too much damage.

Just then she noticed something like a pale blue energy figure rise from the destroyed section – holding her breath she poked her head round the shower curtain and locked gaze with Shirley's astral form. The glowing form drifted closer, her beak opening and closing silently. For a second they looked on in frustration, then the astral shape mimed pressing a feather-hand to her brow.

"Mind meld? I saw it done in a movie – so I suppose it probably works around here. Let's find out." Sapphire said. She could feel herself getting light-headed with the fumes. She nodded, and Shirley's aura pressed close to her. Sapphire's eyes went wide. "What do you know! It does work!"

Outside on the lawn, Shirley's solid form gave a slight twitch. The strange voice kept the accent, but suddenly was speaking in English.

"Is a catalytic device, you have in there. Not ordinary T-Smert, toon-killer. Tested they were but too unpredictable as weapon. Much danger to store. We lose good scientists and workers testing – also whole factories." It was odd to see Shirley's face overlaid by another toon's shadow; not stereotypically a Russian bear but a large canine like a wolfhound.

"What do we do about it?" Rhubella asked, intent. "Burn it out?"

Shirley shook her head, or rather the spirit she was channelling shook it for her. "Is not enough! Catalyst escapes and keeps going. Solvent molecules bound tight on metallic catalyst like sharp edges of shears, keeps cutting if any Toon matter in reach. Fire only good against normal solvent Dip."

There were few occasions the students of Perfecto and Acme Loo agreed with each other. But a massed "Uh-ohh…" emerged from the party.

Suddenly the spirit inhabiting Shirley cocked his head to one side, as if he was listening to a voice elsewhere that the rest could not hear. "Da. Is possible. Is all good Toon Physics. But – only in enclosed space, yes. When gets out – is all over and no good that way."

"Plucky! Stop drooling over that feathered mammal and listen." There was no question now about whose will was energising Shirley's body. "And you Perfectos. We need to find a vacuum flask mondo fast – an old-fashioned one. Not some like totally indestructible titanium thing."

"A vacuum flask? Shirley – now is not the time for picnics!" Plucky blinked. He gave a yelp as a sting of psychic energy scorched his tail feathers. "Okay, I get the message!"

Shirley concentrated. Her aura swept through the solid and melting walls of the building in front of them, peering into cupboards and lockers. In a few seconds she opened her eyes. "I've found one. It's under a sink in the eleventh room on the left, ground floor. The air's still clean there."

Plucky's colour drained out of him. "You want me to go in there? Oh no. Not Mrs. Duck's favourite fledgling. A bird can get his goose cooked permanently like that."

Margot Mallard sidled up to him. "Plain old Plucky Duck might not risk it," she cooed in a sultry tone. "But the mallard of steel – The Toxic Avenger – dares all challenges." She winked. "You never know what rewards the conquering hero might claim. And I'm twice the girl she'll ever be. In every way." She breathed in deeply, and her mammal ancestry became more obvious than ever.

Shirley's energy field wound up in preparation to blast both mallards to a crisp – but with a terrific effort she held off, though visibly fuming. Anything that got the vacuum flask into her feather-hands was good right now. "Like whatever, will someone get in and get that flask before the Dip comes out and gets us? My aura can see where it is but she can't pull it through a mondo solid wall."

Plucky struck a heroic pose. "I go! But I shall return!" With that he turned into a green streak, heading towards the door. A few seconds he was back, grinning sheepishly. "Err – what's the door code?"

Roderick rolled his eyes in exasperation. "You go with him, Danforth. Open and shut the door quick. Don't breathe in. If you see him dissolve into a puddle, you'll know it's not safe in there."

Danforth handed his crossbow and the cigarette lighter to Roderick. "This had better have a huge payback."

Shirley blinked. "You're saving your school and half Acme Acres and that's all you can think about?"

Roderick sniffed derisively. "You get nothing for nothing, loon, and that's exactly what you give out. Wake up and smell the FoulPlay traded coffee."

Plucky and Danforth hurried towards the door on the end of the building. Plucky yelped as Danforth plucked one of his tail feathers and dropped it to gage the wind direction.

"No sense in both of us making the Ultimate sacrifice, dude," Danforth grinned. He pulled out his T-pad and switched it to camera mode before tapping in the door code and cautiously opening it.

Plucky swelled visibly. "Even you cannot resist – the chance of filming for posterity the Toxic Avenger in action!"

"Right. Posterity is it – like as in posthumous on ToonTube. I've never seen anyone hit by Dip. They don't make it any more - this might be the only chance I'll get. You can make me famous. Now get in!" Danforth planted a webbed foot on Plucky's rear and pushed, sending him skidding along the polished floor on his beak.

"Wise guy." Plucky grumbled, getting up and dusting himself off. He looked around; the corridor looked normal and the air scented only of discreet polish. Calling Shirley's directions to mind, he waddled off at top speed down the long corridor.

One level up and several rooms along, Sapphire had held her breath and made a trip out into the remains of the bathroom long enough to retrieve a bottle of conventional claw varnish she had brought with her from home – the glass and plastic were quite unaffected by Dip vapour, although the furniture and most of the room was beginning to melt and run. She painted her claw with it and hunted down stray particles of the glittery material that was so rapidly eating into the local reality, coating her claw with silvery devastation.

The reverse Midas touch, she mused as she looked around. Perfecto had been a nice place for her with a lot of potential, but it looked as if the party was over. I must remember not to shake paws with anyone on the way out. Or at least choose carefully who it should be

Just then she spotted the glowing loon aura rising up through the floor, a look of urgency on her face. She nodded, re-establishing mental contact. Sapphire's eyes went wide. "Right! You've found a flask. Time to be out of here." With that she pressed her glittering finger-claw against the wall, the toon matter in it dissolving in a palely glowing mudslide, and stepped out into the corridor breathing gratefully the clean air outside. She broke into a jog towards the fire exit, having first looked round at the ravenous catalytic destruction that was following her out. "There goes the neighbourhood!"

Outside the building two minutes later, Plucky came round the corner of the building at a trot, followed by a rather disappointed-looking Danforth Drake. In his feather-hands he carried a cheap plastic-cased vacuum flask of about two pints capacity. "This is it! I had to use my heroic super-strength on the locked door."

"You jemmied it with a bread-knife, Plucky," Shirley looked at him levelly. "My aura was watching."

"Sheesh! They must have put a tax on Respect around here while I wasn't looking." Plucky rolled his eyes in exasperation as he handed her the flask. "And now what?"

"And now – everybody down. Like, negatory fire in the hole!" Shirley took aim, wound up and threw the flask with all her strength – straight through the window, shattering the pane of glass that was all that stood between her and the Dip!

The glass in the flask also shattered with the impact. Under most rules of Physics, there was the same amount of matter in a cubic inch of pure vacuum as in a cubic mile – and under Toon Physics there was the same amount of vacuum too. The flask ruptured and the compressed vacuum burst out into the room – for an instant the space indoors was linked with the ravening blackness of interstellar space. The dorm block had as much chance of holding up under the air pressure outside as an empty Weeny-Cola can under the tyres of a ten-wheeled lorry.

Every window in the building blew in, as internal doors ripped open like paper and collapsed into the void, pulling the Dip and catalyst with it – as well as furniture, glass, carpets and everything else not structurally tied to the foundations. A minute later there was silence.

"Whoo…. What a rush!" Plucky was the first to raise his head – he had been dragged several paces towards the gaping windows with the implosion, and his beak and feet left long plough-marks in the turf. "Looks like That's All, Folks – anything in there – isn't anywhere, any more. Even the roof caved in!"

Rhubella blinked. "And we didn't even have to torch the place."

Margot Mallard sniffed, looking disappointed. "You, the screwy Loon – did you see any evidence of anyone being in there?"

Shirley's aura came out of the building, and rejoined her physical body. "Right now there's nobody in there. I didn't see a living toon in the place."

"And Shirley can't lie – you can take that to the bank," Plucky stood next to her, his beak jutting defiantly.

Shirley gave a brief twitch of a smile at him. "In the room where it was all at – there was just a pink stain on the floor. What was left of the floor."

Danforth Drake gestured to Roderick urgently. "This is going to be trouble. Even if this is East Molvanian territory and the law can't touch it - Perfecto's stock is going to go through the floor when it gets out we've lost a student!"

Roderick cast him a triumphant smile. "While you were watching super-fool there, sweet Rhubella here was checking on a few sweet little details. Tell him, Rhubella."

"It's really very simple," Rhubella almost purred, her naked tail swishing. "The first-year you might be thinking about has no legal existence. There are no records of her being born or resident anywhere, or her family either. She has not legally entered the country. The only details of her existence are probably being erased right now as a computer error in Perfecto's records. Anyone who mistakenly believes they ever met her is probably a victim of mass hallucination."

"If it isn't legally provable, it didn't happen." Roderick folded his arms triumphantly. "Now – you two Acme Loo-sers are trespassing. But if you keep your beaks shut we just might forget we ever saw you here either."

"What? You can't do that!" Plucky spluttered, outraged.

"You don't do the classes we do," Margot Mallard winked slyly. "My mentor Hatta Mari has a whole semester class on the Big Lie, and set us a two week practical project. If you knew how many of her graduates have made it big in marketing and politics your feathers would fall out."

"That's, a Perfecto thing," Shirley seemed strangely calm. "And now let's get out of here, Plucky – these bad vibes are like seriously giving my aura a headache."

"You can't let them get away with it!" Plucky's tattered costume flapped in the night breeze. "Besides – if I let injustice prevail the SuperToons league will never let me join."

"Later, Plucky. I'll tell you about it later." Shirley took the mallard's green feather-hand in hers, and squeezed it affectionately. In his amazement Plucky let her lead him off, walking down the long road together back to Acme Acres in the moonlight.

As they looked back at the glowering main building of Perfecto Prep, Plucky paused for a second. "It couldn't have been pulled into the building – it was way too far off and too heavy. But – didn't there used to be statue out front?"

The next day being a Saturday, Plucky slept late and headed out for lunch to their usual meeting place in Acme Acres, Weenie-burger. Shirley, Buster and Babs were already there, tucking into a humanely harvested soya tofu burger and carrot-colas respectively.

"So, Pluckster, how's it feel being an actual hero?" Buster's ears rose in amazement. "You managed to fit the actions to the costume for once. Shirley's been telling us."

Plucky sniffed. "Yeah, yeah. I risked my one and only hide to bail Perfecto out. What a waste of heroics that was - they told us to vamoose, like we were selling girl-scout cookies at the doorstep. They had one of their own students rubbed out like an ink blot – they didn't even care and we can't make them because we can't prove it! Makes you sick."

Just then, the door bell rang as another customer entered. It was a rodent girl, but an unfamiliar one – her fur was a silvery grey-brown, an odd colour for the inhabitants of Acme Acres who tended to be in bold primary paint colours.

The stranger was carrying a large backpack and pulling a wheeled suitcase that looked extremely heavy. She put them down in a corner and hopped up onto a stool, ordering a full Weenie-burger meal.

Buster and Plucky waved at the stranger and carried on with their non-gourmet lunch. Babs looked at her – did a "take" and her eyes widened. "Shirley! That girl, she's…" she whispered, her ears right up in surprise.

"Like, I know." Shirley whispered back. "I could recognise her aura half way down the street. It feels – mondo different, once you know what to look for." She looked at the front page of the Acme Gazette, and a smile came to her bill. "Well, it looks like all that bad karma caught up with Perfecto last night. Someone robbed their strong-room. The vault door was melted clean away, but the fire detectors didn't even blink."

"They did? All that lovely money. Squadrillions of dollar bills. It's somewhere out on the streets." Plucky's eyes crossed at the thought. "Let's go and look! It might get lonely."

"That's strange." Babs looked over Shirley's shoulder. "They didn't take any paper money at all. Only gold and platinum bars and uncut jewels." At Perfecto they had a reputation of accepting most forms of payment.

"That's silly," Plucky scoffed. "Who would leave all that lovely lightweight currency unwanted? As if there's anyplace you couldn't spend good ol' greenbacks. What little world are you on?" He preened himself. "Me and green backs… just seem to go together somehow."

"Because there's so many worthless forgeries around – you're often so bogus?" Babs Bunny grinned.

"Humph!" Plucky stuck his beak in the air and waddled off to the other end of the diner. "My super-digestion can cope with the menu here – but not with pink philistines."

"I rather like pink, myself," Babs mused as she watched him go. "If I had to choose any colour – that's what I'd be. I'm just born lucky."

The grey-brown rodent smiled, changing tables as Babs patted Plucky's vacated seat. "I wasn't born that way, but I thought it'd blend in better around here. The fur-dye wasn't dip-proof but around here most things aren't. It was cheerful, though... you'd think my homeland rather dull if you saw it, I suppose. I'm moving on tonight; by this time tomorrow, who knows where I'll be?"

"You're heading to the airport? It looks like they'll charge you excess baggage on that load," Buster cast an eye over the two compact but extremely heavy-looking packs in the corner that the rodent was keeping a watchful eye on.

"She isn't going to any airport," Shirley told him, picking up strange associations in the rodent's aura. "How do you travel, Sapphire?"

Sapphire looked around innocently. "If you'll help with the bags, I'm leaving at sunset. And if you don't mind it not being a school day – you might find it educational."

"Education – on a weekend?" Babs turned the idea round in her head. "Hmm. We'll help you with your bags, that's no trouble though."

"Thank you!" Sapphire's tail twitched. "And in return – I can tell you all about a certain film in your Looniversity's film vaults that you really ought to grab first thing Monday and sit tight on. You might want to present it to Professor Bunny for his birthday."

Seven o'clock that evening saw Sapphire along with Babs, Buster and Shirley on one of the high bare ridges that ran down from the slopes of Mount Acme. Sapphire was dressed in a rather drab ochre costume of bush jacket and sturdy-looking travel trousers. She had laid out six silvery poles in a regular shape around herself and her pack, and linked them to each other and to some device half-hidden in her backpack by thin copper wire.

"It was fun, but Toon worlds are best suited for toons," Sapphire shook paws with Buster and briefly hugged Babs and Shirley. "A year or two at Perfecto I'd quite like – there's generally an equivalent to that kind of place. I'll find somewhere like it."

"But you paid them for a whole year here – everyone knows that's what Perfecto charge," Buster's ears were down. "You lost all that money?"

Shirley snickered. "I don't think so. I'd usually say, two wrongs don't make a right – but in this case it's more like restoring the cosmic balance." She looked down at the heavy cases, reminding herself it was a good thing Plucky had not worked out where the gold and platinum from Perfecto's vaults had got to.

Sapphire gave a distant smile. "It's been nice meeting you all. If I can work out a way of getting back exactly here – it's a fun place to visit but too plain – energetic. I'll be gone on a count of a thousand from – now." She reached down and adjusted something in her pack.

Suddenly Shirley's feathers ruffled in alarm. "I detect major bad vibes, incoming – from two directions."

"I hear you, Shirley – and I hear them too. We don't wear these ears as fashion accessories," Babs' long pink ears twitched as she looked at the long grass and scrub bushes around. "Come out, come out wherever you are!"

"Like, total bad karma!" Shirley blinked as Janos, Cherri-Jo and Ichi-chan emerged from cover. "What are you doing here?"

Cherri-Jo snarled. "Do you know what this vermin has done? She wiped out the stasis field around what we thought was just a statue of Witch Hazel. It's not a statue. She's back – and turning Perfecto upside-down."

"Last night's staff would be looking other way as to what happened in dorm," Ichi-chan extended her cute but highly functional claws. "First-year block is in East Molvanian territory. Perfecto owns insurance company as separate division. Insurance will not pay a cent for damages overseas – and we are getting blame – Miss Hazel has grabbed security tapes, seen us carrying what we think is fake Dip device for practical joke!"

"And someone robbed the vaults. The staff are getting grilled – Miss Hazel thinks it's an inside job. We can't even call the cops because it's not on their territory – and unless we can get the money back we're expelled!" Cherri-Jo's ears were right down. Behind her, Janos cracked his knuckles menacingly.

"I can see we're all going to have to talk about this," Sapphire said smoothly. "Thank you, Babs, Buster and Shirley – and now you'd best get far away – very far away. Running is a healthy sport."

"And leave you to these goons?" Buster began to square up for battle, Babs pulling out a large mallet from Hammerspace. But Shirley shook her head.

"Her device, it's set to borrow mondo energy from just into the future – it predicts what's about to happen. QuanToon Physics can do that, and so can I. Now, make like a shamanic drum and beat it! I predict she'll be OK."

"Well then - good luck!" Babs called out. "Shirley, grab a ride!" She and Buster grabbed an arm of Shirley apiece and both rabbits accelerated to top speed back along the road, applying full after-bunner and only halting when they were two miles clear.

Back on the ridge, Sapphire smiled as the three converged on her. "When I said a count of a thousand – do you ever watch those films where the hero always defuses the bomb with two seconds left to go? A sensible villain has it fire when the timer reaches nine hundred and twenty-one." With that, she touched the device hidden in her pack. "I can't say it's been fun knowing you, because it hasn't. Toodle-bye." The wires and rods around her flashed white and vanished – as did Sapphire and her packs of negotiable precious metal.

Janos looked around, blinking. Suddenly there were shadows cast on the ground from a light directly above them, rapidly growing. Then he looked up, at what seemed to be the moon – a brilliant white spot he realised was growing much brighter than it should be. He tugged at Cherri-Jo's shoulder, and pointed up at what was suddenly brighter than the sun. "Uh-oh…"

From two miles away Babs, Buster and Shirley shaded their eyes as MOLOT 19 re-entered the atmosphere – twelve hundred ferrotonnes of fifty-year old Toon anvil heading almost straight down at three miles a second, trailing a white-hot plume of vaporised metal like a streak of paint splashed across the sky from a vengeful animator. The three Acme toons held their ears as the shock-wave slapped past them, and a billowing cloud rose from Acme Acre's latest crater.

"To coin a phrase –" Babs said brightly, relaxing as she took her infra-pink designer shades off and grinned "Isn't that convenient?"

The End

(Just as the credits were rolling, Buster and Babs burst through the trailers. "Hold it, folks!" Babs said brightly – "we almost forgot – a word from our studios."

Buster cleared his throat, and unrolled a long legal scroll. "The studio's lawyers advised us to say this. Hi, Kids! The moral of today's story is – when you're setting off chemical weapons in a built-up area, always have a responsible adult along to supervise. Otherwise they might do more harm than good."

Babs blinked. "It says THAT? Let's look at that scroll, Blue-ears!" She peeked over his shoulder and read. Her pink ears went up in amazement. "Heh. It really does, too. Who knew?"

And that's All folks!)