Ashton, Iowa: Early 21st Century, October. 'Life's a bitch,' Moonglow mumbled feelingly. The band were depressed. This was not the hero's homecoming that they had fondly imagined, scripted and embellished in their heads. It was bad enough finding that the town had changed, bad enough to realise that the venue they were playing was on the site of Mickey's Rock 'n' Roll Diner, hallowed shrine and favourite hangout of their youth. But in front of Blossom, to find out that they had been booked to play at a retirement home. A "Where Are They Now?" slot at a senior citizens disco. They had a right to be despondent. The disgusting chirpiness of their guide did little to lighten their collective gloom. Mrs Handy, The Chief Executive of the Residence (Managerial Section), was a compact, dynamic little bundle of energy, with a smile as fixed as her well rehearsed line in welcoming patter. She paid no heed to the Band's wailing and gnashing of false teeth as they toured the "Autumn Years Experience Enhancement Facility". Mrs Handy was a pro, a product of years of service industry, an inveterate "have a nice dayer", she could witter on with the best, blithely overlooking such everyday retirement home commonplaces as depression or Altzheimers. Such minor considerations could do nothing to diminish this indefatigable woman's relentless grinding cheerfulness. 'I think it's so nice to see people of YOUR age, still giving so much entertainment,' she chirped. 'Well shucks, ma'am,' Starchild replied, miming strangling motions behind her back all the while, ' ... It sure is difficult, leaving our bath chairs, our blankets, chunky cardigans and mugs of hot cocoa, but we felt we owe it to our fans to put on these leather trousers, drink mind-boggling amounts of tequila and rock till their ears drop off.' 'That's really sweet'. By the way, if you feel the need for refreshment, we do have the latest cocoa-making facilities. Now, Mr Hickey!' She wagged her finger theatrically at a hapless resident. 'Don't bash your head against the wall like that, there's a good boy. We don't want you to damage the paintwork now, do we?.' As Mrs Handy swept past, the old man gazed at them with the eyes of a small trapped animal, all the while, thumping his head rhythmically against the wall. 'Poor Mr Hickey,' Handy spoke in a confidential whisper, loud enough to wake the dead. 'He doesn't seem to have made the adjustment.' The band members were satirically shocked. 'REALLY!' they exclaimed in harmony, looking at each other in laboured bewilderment, 'We can't think why.' Starchild turned to his guest, with a strained evangelical grin, he mouthed through gritted teeth. 'Are you enjoying this, Miss Pimpleknocker?' Blossom played it to the hilt, responding with a manic painted-on smile of her own and a hyper-glassy-eyed nod. 'It's just so wonderful to see all these people, in the twilight of their years, having such fun with enemas.' To herself, Blossom could admit that she was enjoying the experience; the murderous glares the others shot at their jaunty patronising hostess, the sense of belonging that she got from sharing the company of her old school friends. Most of all, she was enjoying a feeling of intense relief. She knew that the media would be making a fuss about her disappearance, that people would be looking for her, and the thought of arriving in Ashton had filled her with horror. She had dreaded accidentally bumping into some old friend or acquaintance and setting off the whole sad circus of press attention again. Perhaps destroying her links with the band and her hopes for a new future. Now, as they walked round "the complex", unwilling captives of Mrs Handy, Blossom felt that she could relax. There was no one to identify her in this isolated environment. This home was as isolated as Shangri-La. She was safe. Sally Munday was tired. Early that morning when she had tracked the strangely decorated van to Ashton, it had all seemed so easy. But Sally knew that detective work was never easy. The long afternoon had proved that fact beyond doubt. She decided that the van owners had to be some kind of entertainers, had picked up the phone and dialled, and dialled and dialled: every bar, hotel, restaurant, school, cocktail lounge, deli, garden shed, woman's' group, that might put on a show. Hours and hours of bright and polite requests for information had drained her, reducing her voice to a croak, flaying the inside of her throat in the process, and all for nothing. No one had booked a group or magician or any kind of act with a van of the type she was after. All routes led to a brick wall and she was too weary to punch her way through it. As she picked up her son from her neighbour, apologising for the zillionth time for being late, she could barely keep her eyes open, even though it was only six. Unfortunately, ten year old Chris Munday was no respector of parental fatigue. His bubbling energy and excitement exploded around her in a stream of breathless chatter about his day. For a while, Sally sat in her chair at home, coat still on, letting her son's flowing voice wash over her, then she became aware that he had asked her a question. 'Well, can I?' Chris repeated, realising that really old people, ones in their thirties such as his mother, sometimes had trouble with their hearing. 'Can you what?' 'Can I stay at Jimmy's house tonight?' 'Who's Jimmy?" 'He's in my class, you don't know him. He lives over on Harper.' 'By the retirement home?' 'Yeah, right next to it.' 'Why, suddenly, do you want to go and stay with this kid. What computer games he got?' Chris screwed up his youthful face disdainfully. 'Ma, get with the program, computer games are passé.' Feeling prehistoric, Sally let her lack of fashionable knowledge pass. 'So why do you wanna go.' 'To see the van' In an instant, Sally felt her fatigue evaporate as her brain moved up a gear. 'Van. What van?' 'The one I've been talking about all night, Ma. You're so slow.' 'What van, Chris?' Chris pulled his lower lip, looking thoughtful. 'Well, it's really cool. Really old and covered with really crucial things. Unicorns an' stars an....' Sally resisted an overwhelming urge to hug her son and whoop with delight. Luck was a wonderful thing. 'Where is this van now?' 'Where it's been all day. Parked next door to Jimmy's, where they store the old people till they die.' 'Give me Jimmy's number and get your stuff together. I'll call his parents and take you over right away.' For a while, she stood in the parking lot, gazing hungrily at the faded panels of the ancient vehicle. Then Sally made her way inside. The sweaty, gum-chewing, headset-wearing, orderly on the front desk scarcely looked older than her son. He viewed the new arrival with impatience, having just got to the good bit of his virtual programme: "Sex Warriors of Venus". Sally inwardly sighed; she was making a habit of interviewing kids today. Outwardly she gave the youth a winning smile. 'I wonder if you can help me. I'm trying to find a friend who's here?' 'Visiting hours are three to five.' The youth tried sulleness hoping to get rid of her. He had better things to do, Empress Trixie's life was at stake. 'She's not a resident.' The orderly's rude response would have been enough to make Mrs Handy wilt and die with embarrassment. 'Like I said, lady. Visiting hours are three to five. Everyone's gone.' Sally was starting to get annoyed. 'Do you like artwork?' She motioned at the absurdly overdeveloped, half-naked forms luridly illustrated on the virtual disc cover. 'They're okay.' 'I have some artwork you might be interested in.' She held up the finely engraved bank note. The orderly swallowed his gum, abruptly becoming helpful. Empress Trixie's life was one thing, money was another. 'What d'you want to know.' 'I think my friends with the entertainment...' Sally ran to the portable phone in her car. It was six forty-five. She thanked her lucky stars that she had listened to her hunch and negotiated this job for a flat finders fee, rather than by the hour. 'Yes,' the servant said. 'Mister Billings is at home.' Billings was looking forward to a date with a shapely blonde, one not long out of puberty. He did not relish the interruption. 'What is it, Munday.' 'I've found her.' 'Already!' 'But you'd better be quick. She's appearing for one night only.' Casper rapidly scribbled the address. 'Yes, I know where Harper is. I'm on my way.' He slammed down the phone. A superhero hurrying to save the planet could have barely matched Titwilleger for the speed with which he changed and made it to his car. The sudden emergence from the garage caught the bored-looking press pack by surprise; before they even had a chance to grab their cameras he had roared off on his errand, glove compartment filled with stakes, garlic, holy water and perhaps, most importantly, silver bullets. Casper had bought a gun. The Assassin was skilled in a wide range of criminal activities. One of them was bugging a phone. He smiled grimly to himself as he listened to Claude Billings break the news to his client, then he looked at the map. "This was going to be easy." "Americans! They all drive like maniacs." Fortunately for Cecil Bland, he had been parked facing in the right direction when Casper screeched out of the house. He had known that Blossom's disappearance had been just another of the Titwillegers pathetic publicity stunts, and had camped in his hire care outside the horribly familiar dwelling. Now, as he swerved and cursed, struggling to keep pace with Casper's frantic driving, Cecil allowed himself a brief moment of self approbation. He was sure that Titwilleger was driving to meet his wife and it felt good to be right. He wished that Primrose was beside him so that he could tell her so. He wondered what she would think of her husband if she could see him now, looking forward to Casper and Blossom's reunion with stern satisfaction. It was going to be their last. A good civil servant, through and through, he was going to place them forever in the archive of time. In a file marked - "Closed." For a moment, all was clogging suffocating greyness. Foul- tasting nothingness filled his mouth, nose and lungs, and then it cleared. 'I'll be damned,' Will said expressively, as he was overwhelmed by the lawnlike plain of greenery, the decorative clumps of small trees. He looked back, expecting to see a wall of grey, but no such wall was in place. On all sides he was surrounded by an endless flat horizon of green. Will felt he had to experiment, taking a few steps back. But once again he could find no evidence of a wall, visible or invisible. It was as if his surroundings went on forever. For a while, he waited, luxuriating in the lush landscape. This was a new experience for the city dwelling-human, to be encircled by nature, even neat and tidy nature such as this which did not smell of anything. With much effort, he pulled himself together. Somewhere "out there", lost on this plain was the woman that Will loved. Perhaps she was even in mortal danger. Further enjoyment of the scenery would have to wait. Filled with a sense of high moral purpose, Will started to walk straight ahead, not really knowing why he had chosen this direction. Someone should have told the first-generation Personifications in the bar that there was one thing Merlyn's people could not stand: Satire. Perhaps then the difference of opinion could have been averted. No one heard the jovial quip that Robert Benchley uttered, but all the retired COMS units felt sure that it could have only been uttered in the spirit of good-natured banter that typified the model. Unfortunately, the figures in plaid were touchy when it came to their sense of humour. With one smooth motion, a fierce warrior drew forth his sword and neatly sliced off Robert's head. The head flew through the air, bounced off the bar and came to rest by a spittoon. To the tribe's considerable astonishment, "Bob" seemed unscathed by the experience. Dorthy Parker bent down providing the grinning head of the decapitee with a martini (thoughtfully equipped with a straw), Mr Benchley took a sip, bemoaning the fact that, "the martinis were not like the ones at Tony's", then turned his attention to Kinata and her wide-eyed followers. '...Of course, you realise that this means War?' Will had been enchanted by the Riton town, had been fascinated and touched by the identical Riton creatures that had come to visit him. After that, things had gone downhill and he had fared no better than Grendella. His unconscious body was soon conveyed to the building that had been adapted to hold any unwanted visitors. Grendella's features filled Will's dreams while he slept and his vision when he woke up. Her smiling face was just inches from his, Riton architecture not being designed for individuals of Will's or even Grendella's size. It had been a tight squeeze to imprison them both and as a result, much to Will's intense, strawberry- tinted embarrassment, he found himself pressed against his adored colleague with a closeness that would have made a sardine claustrophobic. Grendella could not contain her amusement at the human's obvious discomfort or his heavy blushing. Will Prince was just so gruesomely adorable. 'So tell me, Will. What's a nice kid like you doing on a planet like this?' Will took a while to find his voice. He desperately wanted Grendella to like him, and did not want to make a mistake by opening his mouth. 'I've been sent to rescue you,' he mumbled sheepishly. 'Well, you've made a helluva start.' 'Sorry.' 'Don't apologise. I haven't done that well on my own.' 'What do you think we should do now?' 'Don't know. I haven't decided yet. It's getting dark, I don't think they'll try us until tomorrow.' Grendella fidgeted in the confined space as she spoke, trying to get comfortable. The soft motions of her body sent an electric thrill through the human, a delicately pleasured sensation that he had never experienced before. 'Tell me what's been happening to you.' When Will eventually found his voice, it was somewhat strained. 'W-Well, I woke up.' Ashton, Iowa: Early 21st Century, October. Mrs Handy knew enough about local politics to be truly impressed by the name Claude Billings. Casper and his lawyer soon filled the places of guests of honour at the entertainment. They sat uncomfortably, waiting for the show to begin, in the bright clinical main-hall, surrounded by patients in wheelchairs, many too doped or distracted to care who was appearing. Sally Munday, job done, hung around out of interest, sitting where she preferred to be, on the sidelines. 'I can't!' Blossom was being shy. 'Come on; you'll be great.' Starchild was not taking "no" for an answer. 'I remember you in the drama group. You wasn't shy then.' Moonglow said in a tone of voice that indicated mild surprise at remembering anything. 'That was over forty years ago.' 'All you have to do is bash a tambourine. Anyone could do that, even your dork of a husband could do that.' 'I can't?,' Blossom's resistance was starting to crumble, Starchild pressed on. 'Ask yourself; who's going to know? You're never going to see any of the people out there again, and its not like it's a big important gig. Half the old folk are probably on more sedation than I was in '69.' 'Go on. It'll be a blast.' Goon and Stumpy added their encouragement. For someone of her years. Blossom's giggle was surprisingly girlish. 'Okay.' As the other band members whooped their "Far outs" and "Cools", Starchild leaned forward and gave Blossom a kiss on the cheek. 'Look on this as an audition. If we like you, we may just keep you.' Blossom grinned back: 'Just what I always wanted. To become an honorary Misbegotten Son of Hades.' 'Perhaps it's time we added a daughter to the family.' Will had finished his story, but he barely noticed. He we hypnotised, totally enthralled by the petite creature at his side, by the magical sparkle in her eyes and the wicked thrill in her laughter. This Grendella, Princess of the Dwarfen, was a woman of perfection, to be placed on a pedestal and worshipped. Her soft unimpeachable loveliness should be wooed by the finest music and the best poetry. If he could pluck up the courage he would whisper apologetically of his unworthy love, but for the moment he waited, enraptured. Grendella felt a bubbling feeling of hilarity. They were all there, all the soppy signs: the sighing, the shy yearning puppyish looks. Not for the first time, she wondered why men became such simpering fools at the thought of screwing. For a while, she weighed up the pros and cons, realising that, after all, she had nothing better to do, and besides, she had always thought that he was "kinda cute", in a drippy sort of way. After she decided, she belched heavily, winked at Will with a sinful gleam in her eye, and indicating their cramped surrounding, asked him matter-of-factly. 'Have you ever done it in a Wendy house?' As Will opened his mouth to shyly reply, her lips struck his forcibly. To his total amazement, Will found himself responding with a passionate hunger he had never known himself capable of. After a while, the little bungalow started to shake. The Riton guards, who fell off the roof, waited in terror for the Spoggle- quake to envelop them. Ashton, Iowa: Early 21st Century, October. On the front desk, the orderly had been forced to make sacrifices. The gum and the virtual disc had gone into storage for later. He could not really complain, it was turning out to be quite a profitable evening. He did not know who this band were but they certainly seemed popular. Both the crazy foreign guy and the dull one in dark glasses had paid him well for letting them in and giving them directions. The orderly felt no guilt at admitting unauthorised outsiders, going against residence policy. 'After all,' he told himself, 'What harm can they do.' Fortunately, the staff were all involved with preparing for the disco/concert and Cecil Bland was not challenged as he followed directions to the hall's upper level. Years before, after Micky's Rock 'n' Roll Diner and before the building had been converted into a residence for the aged, this hall had been part of a school, the upper level had been vital for assemblies, parents' evenings and the like. Today it was unused, just a storage area, full of stacks of old chairs, walking frames, the sort of stuff that builds up in a busy institution and that nobody can bring themselves to throw away. Cecil settled himself amongst a nest of old chairs. He had a good view of Casper's pinkly balding head and of the stage. No Blossom as yet, but he felt sure that she would turn up somewhere soon. With hands made slippery by sweat, he struggled to put the rifle together. So involved was he, in visions of the new moral world order that would spring from his actions, that he did not notice the door on the far side of the upper level open, or see the nondescript-looking man creep in and hide behind a pile of boxes. Will was not a virgin when he slept with Grendelia, not physically anyway. COMS regarded the sheer illogic of Humanity's hang-ups about sex as some sort of strange aberration, but they had reluctantly concluded that mankind had physical needs, and that such needs had best be catered for. However, such provisions did not mean that sex or procreation could not be strictly controlled. The vitamin and nutrient enhanced pap fed to everybody an Earth contained a powerful contraceptive and sexual sedative. Wlll's very conception had been a fluke, taking place as it had in the relaxed atmosphere of Mars. COMS had programmed themselves to protect human life, whatever the cost, and it had been this programming that had permitted Will's birth, on a transport bound for Earth. The problem was that for those machines in the Olympian position of controllers, love was an abstract concept, passion just a word. They did not interface with humanity, as did the Personifications. Emotion was an unfortunate biological side effect to be restricted where possible. Thus people were allowed to have sex whenever they liked, as long as they promised not to enjoy it, harm one another, or most importantly, get involved. People who wanted sex advertised on Channel 69. They made an appointment. They met once and that was that. It was all cold and clinical. Part of Humanity's, trade-off for a roof over their head, three bowls of pap a day and 6005 channels on the vid screen. Will had been involved in quite a few sexual encounters. Frigid impersonal no-nonsense affairs; swapping body fluids about as emotional an experience as shaking hands. Like most of his peers, he had come to wonder what all the fuss was about. That was before last night, before Grendella. Will now lay with a silly grin on his face, and the sleeping Dwafen in his arms. Emotionally a virgin no longer, he wanted to hug her small figure so tightly, to never let her go. Instead, he waited, his entire body shaking and quivering, waiting for this amazing creature to open her eyes. At last, she did. Will sighed happily. 'I love you.' He said, Grendella patted his cheek. 'Not now, Will.' 'I mean it. I LOVE YOU...' Grendella started to dress with difficulty in the confined space. 'I mean it too. Not now.' 'But! I LOVE YOU!' 'Look, Will. I think it's nice. We had a good time last night, sort-of. But right now I've other things on my mind.' Will pouted, looking like a kicked puppy. 'What can be more important than love?' 'The Ritons are going to kill our arses, if we don't have a plan. I'm not cut out to be Juliet, and Romeo you ain't.' 'You have a point.' 'I know.' Grendella pulled on her trainers with a flourish. 'Now! Put your pecker away, put your clothes on and get your brain into gear. We've got to think of a way out of here.' Will did as he was told. Eager to please he was soon dressed. 'How much time do you think we've got?' he breathlessly asked. At that moment, there was a sharp rap at the door. Grendella suddenly seemed to deflate. 'Much less than I thought.' Ashton, Iowa: Early 21st Century, October. If Casper's gun had been the size of a howitzer, it could not have felt heavier in his pocket. He had not expected to be so prominently placed and was feeling the strain of imagined eyes on the back of his head, eyes that flashed with accusation: "Murderer." He wanted to turn on the audience, to explain that what he was doing was for the good of society. It was not right to let a witch loose, casting spells all over the place, it was not right to let such a creature live, even if he was married to her and even if he still partly adored her. The pressure of the orbs behind him soon became too much. He excused himself to Billings, told him some fiction about "going to the john" and slowly made his way to the back of the hall. There was a rather sad looking cleared square there, about the size of an over ambitious postage stamp with a struggling splash of red lighting. This was, as Mrs Handy had explained with a thrill of pride, the disco. Around the edges of the square, a couple of very bored-looking residents were congregated. As Casper took a place conveniently near the exit, a sweet looking little old lady in her early nineties, moved over to his side. 'Hiya hotstuff', she said with a saintly smile. 'D'you wanna boogie?' 'No, thank you', was all he could think of to reply. 'Don't give me that. You shy ones are all he same: you say "no", then shake your sexy thang till your butt drops off.' 'Listen, lady' 'Call me Peaches.' Her come-on look lost some of its appeal in translation, since she had forgotten to wear her teeth. 'Listen lady. GO AWAY.' Casper almost fainted as he felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He turned. The man behind him could have passed for God's older brother. His Methuselahen face was contorted with rage. 'Hey, Scumbag. You messing with my date.' 'Don't hit him Frankie. He's not worth it.' 'I asked you a question, Scumbag.' Casper was under a lot of strain and his voice failed him. He energetically shook his head. 'Frankie, he's just some kid. Forget him; let's Boogie.' 'Later, Punk!' Frankie growled, before letting the Casper go with a look of angry reluctance. Peaches gave him some coins and sent him off to fill the decrepit, and very quiet, jukebox in the corner. It gave her a few moments to give Casper a knowing wink. 'He's so jealous. Don't worry though. In a while, his medication will kick-in. Then I'll be back for that dance.' To Casper's lingering horror, Peaches patted his behind. 'Remember. Save a boogie for me, Sweetcheeks.' For a while. Casper watched as Peaches and Frankie performed a series of contortions to an old Bee Gees track, movements that looked, even at their slow-motion pace, like a sure-fire recipe for heart failure. Faced with a rendezvous with Peaches, he was unsure whether to use the gun on himself. Instead, he forced himself to think of his mission, reminding himself that he had the safety of all the residents to consider. Reaching in to his jacket, he rested his hand upon the solid grip of the pistol, and waited. Eventually, Will and Grendella managed to fight their way out of the cat-flap sized door. There was quite a deputation of Ritons outside, almost the entire population, with the exception of the judges and lawyers, all looking exactly alike as if newly minted off some production line, all with strongly disapproving faces and with notebooks and pencils poised to record any new sin against the language, and, therefore, society. With Grendella around, such crimes were not long in coming. 'Hiya short-stuffs.' The sound of thousands of indignantly directed pens sounded like a convention of flea-infested yetis' scratching themselves. 'Nice day for a lynching. The only problem is, how the hell're you going to find a tree tall enough?' Grendella giggled to herself; a distant smile from Will the only accompaniment to her amusement. 'Hey, Will. Lets make a run for it, they'll never catch us with those short legs.' The Ritons started to widen their mouths. 'Only kidding. We'll come quietly.' The Ritons subsided, their little faces as grim as a Bavarian fairytale. 'Jeez, you Munchkins are real down-dudes.' A representative Riton couple stepped forward. 'Shall we go?', they said together. 'Where?' Grendella was doing all the talking. Will just kept a stupid, happy smirk on his face. 'To the Place of Justice. You are now in the early stage of finalization.' 'You've got big mouths for small persons. We don't finalize that easy, sawn-offs.' 'You will be given a fair trial, and then you will be taken for a health alteration and immediately deprived of your life potential. It is for the good of society.' 'What is? Judicial murder?' 'You are both dysfunctional and cannot be allowed to corrupt the language or the culture. This way, please.' They started to move. Grendella toyed with the idea of running for it, but the small bodies of the Ritons pressed in too tightly, confining the movements of her limbs far more effectively than shackles. She managed to elbow her companion sharply in the ribs. 'Wake- up!' Will felt the sharp dig of the boney elbow, but it did nothing to diminish his sense of well-being, of things being right with the world. Will was in a terrific mood and was not going to let such minor considerations as imminent death bring him down. He was in love and the world was rosy. In the best of humours, he turned his loving eyes on the Dwarfen. 'Do something, you idiot!' Will did something. He decided to share his good humour with the world. Speaking in a jovial voice, loud enough for all to hear. 'Why do witches ride broomsticks?' He paused for a split second, a contented smile on his face, '...Because vacuum cleaners are too heavy.' Will laughed heartily to himself. After a while, Grendella surprised herself by joining in. 'That's awful. Going for the insanity defence, I see.' She said when she had finished chuckling. 'There's madness to my method.' 'What's next? Juggling and acrobatics?' 'Another joke.' Will motioned at the hoards of nervously scribbling Ritons, 'I think they're a bit slow.' 'Go on then.' Grendella could not see the point, but, apart from being executed she had nothing else planned for the afternoon. 'What do you call an animal making a toasted sandwich in the jungle?' 'I don't know! What do you call an animal making a toasted sandwich in the jungle?' 'A griller.' Grendella reaction was half wince, half smirk. 'Ouch! That smarts.' 'Why did'nt the Cannibals eat the Clown?' 'I don't know Will. Why did'nt the Cannibals eat the Clown?' She acted up putting on her best vaudevillian manner. 'Because they thought he would taste funny.' Grendella cracked and roared with near childish glee. 'Your turn, beloved.' 'If you don't stop talking about this love stuff, I'm gonna belt you in the mouth. We haven't the time.' 'Your turn, most beautiful Grendella.' The Dwarfen sighed her exasperation. 'Okay. This is a joke your old man told me, like yours, it's not very good. There was this Venusian that crash-landed in Central Park....' Ashton, Iowa: Early 21st Century, October. They looked vaguely ridiculous. The grey-haired men that climbed onto the small stage, paying no attention to Mrs Handy's patronising applause or encouraging comments. Then they picked up their instruments and were ridiculous no longer. Committed disciples of the god of thrash guitars, they could still kick hell out of a Hendrex anthem when they wanted. At the sudden surge of raw music, at least one set of false teeth loosed by startled gums went flying across the room, The Misbegotten Sons of Hades had collectively said: "Screw this, let's have fun", and in full mega-blast mode were something to see. Mrs Handy gaped, mortified, this was not the olde-time dancing she had been expecting. An atmosphere began to take hold of the big hall. An atmosphere of peace and love and heavy drugs, distilled into music. Even those in the hall who had spent the late 'Sixties as fervently Right-Wing pillars of the community, suddenly remembered Monterey or Woodstock, wishing that they had wallowed in the mud and had got to know the beautiful people. Then, for a moment, the music stopped. Wild-eyed and exultant, Starchild made his way to the mike. 'Now, I bet you didn't know us "Sons" had a sister. Well here she is. Our very special guest, "The Woman of Mystery". Blossom strode on the stage, wearing a glitter-covered mask, a relic of the band's misguided flirtation with Glam Rock. The covering did not fool the vengeful men waiting for just this moment. All at once, three guns were levelled at Blossom's heart. The trial took place in the open on the edge of town, because there was no building big enough. Under that lovely clear sky, surrounded by the tidy non-smelling grass, the strangers lives were to be decided. A parade of paired Ritons, each twosome exactly alike their predecessor, had appeared before the twin judges, flatly reading the evidence from their notebooks. Grendella had to admit that things were not going well. When an entire society decides that you are guilty, a fair trial does not come into it and Will was not helping. He ignored the proceedings totally, preferring to amuse himself with increasingly awful jokes. The Dwarfen did not have the heart to chastise him, at least he would die happy. She sharply felt the irony of the situation; for hundreds of generation she had lived amongst a culture not her own, had avoided conforming to human standards of the norm, of "correct" behaviour. Yet she had travelled across the universe to be put to death by the most uptight beings in creation. 'Have you anything to say before we pass sentence of termination?' Grendella, opened her mouth. Will was no good and if she was going to go, she was going to make damn sure that she was really guilty of crimes against the language. Suddenly though, she heard a voice. It spoke clearly and assertively. Full of righteous anger. 'I'd like to speak.' Grendella could not have been more stunned if a grand piano had dropped on her. It was Will who spoke. 'I do not believe in the jurisdiction of this court.' 'Silence, or we'll hold you in contempt.' 'I AM in contempt. In contempt of you and everything you stand for. In contempt of anyone, anything, that tells people how to think or feel. How to live. Where I come from, we've had plenty of people like you, people who decide that they know best, that want to restrict everyone else's right to free choice, but they always fail. Because fanatics have one fatal flaw. A flaw that's common to every little Hitler, McCarthy, COMS Computer, or Riton.' Will was visibly shaking with the effort of his words. The Judges started to look strangely nervous. 'Terminate them. Terminate them now.' The crowd of Ritons closed in for the kill. Grendella prepared for the end, stood ready to take as many of the little buggers with her as she could. Will ignored their approach, confident and contemptuous. 'Fanatics have no humour. You can't stand anyone laughing at you, can you? At just how ridiculous you are? Vile, pathetic, pompous creatures like you would never get power over other's minds, if everyone just laughed soon enough. Your moronic power-sated self- importance wouldn't stand at chance!' Will and Grendella were starting to get overwhelmed. The numbers of punching, clawing hands, of bitter spiteful faces was crushing the life out of them. Will ignored the pain of the hundreds of blows, ignored the unconsciousness that was making persistent demands for attention. He kept on in spite of everything. 'Well, it's never too late to laugh.' Will opened his mouth and roared with laughter. As they beat him, as they struggled to kill him and the threat his merriment represented, he rocked with mirth. This was no giggle or chuckle, there was no politeness about it. This was a huge, incredible belly laugh, a summation of life spent dealing with the frustrating or ridiculous and a celebration of that life. Suddenly, Grendella's voice joined his, her laughter just as epic in scale. The pain now came from their aching sides, from their watering eyes. Dimly they could see the Ritons falling back in confusion and it only made them laugh all the harder. Their surrounding seemed to become unclear. To run and fade like water- colours in a downpour and none of it mattered. For the moment, there was just the joy of hilarity, of sharing the happy thrill of existence. For the briefest instant the Human and Dwarfen were joined by joyous, all-consuming mirth, bonded with a closeness that even sex had not managed. Then, they lapsed into exhausted unconsciousness, cradled in each other's arms. Will awoke with a smile on his face. He was alive and in love. He could see from the reassuringly grey surroundings that he had survived the first test. There was only one thing to do in the circumstances, and he did it: He got up and danced. Concentrating on just moving his body, he forgot, for the merest instant, the trials and tribulations that lay ahead of him. He forgot the friends and followers - Sulphur, Balidare, Merlyn, Magda, his father, even Fitche - who were somewhere out there in that grey waste, probably in terrible danger. For the moment, all that mattered was the dance. A dance of celebration, of self congratulation, of the sheer wonderment of being alive. It came as no surprise when Gilhoolie appeared. 'Congratulations.' Will executed a neat little two step, 'Thanks...' 'I'm surprised and impressed', The Fantastation admitted. 'You're the first hero to survive that test.' Will continued his jig. 'Lucky old me.' 'But then, most heroes don't have much of a sense of humour.' 'You surprise me,' Will started to do the Swim. 'What's next?' 'We follow the signs.' 'Have you got a bike for Grendella? Maybe we could try a tandem.' 'She's not coming,' The effect of Gilhoolie's words was more sobering than a naked dip in Arctic waters. Will stopped dancing and started glaring. 'What!' 'I said, she's not coming, not for now.' The Fantastation seemed quite relaxed about it. 'Why not?' 'It wouldn't be fair for you to have help.' 'You mean, I've been through all that stuff with the Ritons for nothing.' 'You've saved Grendella, for the moment." 'What d'you mean? For the moment?' 'She's in storage, until you rescue some more of your group. If you don't succeed...' 'She dies horribly.' 'That's right. You're finally getting the hang of Spoggle.' 'I love her.' 'You'd better do well then. Your transportation's this way.' With leaden feet, Will followed the bouncy fantastation, and with equally leaden heart and mind, he cursed the cruelly unforgiving fates that seemed to dislike him so much. Gilhoolie turned, reassuringly smiling at the Human's long face. 'Never mind! Look at it, this way. It all builds character.' Will felt all the cares and responsibilities of a universe, once again land heavily an his sloping shoulders. He thought about it a while, then found the words to sum up his turbulent feelings of injustice, speaking from the heart, with more bitterness than a crateful of lemons.' 'HOW MUCH F**KING CHARACTER AM I SUPPOSED TO NEED?!!!' It was at this point that the lights went out. Part-way through his story. Sulphur was beside himself with fury, his eyes glowing an angry yellow in the gloom, as he complained to the other old or derelict machines, his companions on the junk-heap, in the wait for the end. 'It's bad enough we're waiting to be scrapped, without having to do it in darkness!' For a while they tried to persuade him. But it was no good. The Dragon had learned a great many things from his human companion and had picked up a transport-load of bad habits; one of these was bad-tempered sulking. There would be no more talk of Heroics INC. this night. However, the other machines comforted themselves, for a little while at least; there was always tomorrow. THE END
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