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Once upon a time there was a little house in a big
Not all little houses in big woods are quaint or charming, or even safe. Some of them are piled to the rafters with stolen car radios, others house illegal stills used for making moonshine (so called, they say, because one carelessly dropped match could lead to a fireball that'd be visible from the Moon.) Some of them are the lairs of big bad wolves dressed as Victorian grandmothers, not that that's anybody's business but their own.
But this particular house is quaint. Roses scramble up the door-frame like young executives up a corporate hierarchy. Flowers bloom radiantly in its small but neat garden, and for once they aren't opium poppies or coca plants or commercially-exploitable varieties of the mescal cactus. Just in case there's any doubt left in the onlooker's mind, it has a shiny red front door with a big round brass knocker, which in these parts is a sort of coded message. It means that if you go inside this house, the chances are that you won't be strangled, stabbed, smothered with a pillow or eaten, although you may easily die of terminal cuteness poisoning. If you're particularly observant, you can probably deduce more about the people who live there from the seven brightly coloured coats and hats hanging just inside the porch, and the fact that the lintel of the door-frame is only four feet off the ground.
The conclusive evidence is round the back, where the occupants of the little house put out the trash. No need to get mucky rummaging about in the dustbin bags; shy, timid, razor- clawed forest-dwellers have ripped the bags open, and the rubbish is scattered about like confetti on a windy day. There are approximately three hundred and twenty empty beer cans, forty-nine squashed styrofoam pizza trays, roughly half a pound of cigarette butts and ash, some slabs of cheese with green fur growing on them, several undergarments that were obviously worn too long to be cleanable and then slung out, some crumpled balls of newspaper still smelling strongly of vinegar, and a thick wadge of the kind of newspapers that have small pages, big pictures and not much news inside them.
In this little house in the big wood, therefore, seven small men live on their own, with nobody to look after them. Nobody to clean and tidy; nobody to make them lovely home- cooked, low-fat, low-cholesterol meals with plenty of fresh green vegetables and no chips or brown sauce; nobody to remind them to take their muddy boots off before coming inside; nobody to throw away their favourite comfy old pullovers when they aren't looking. How sad. How terribly, terribly sad.
Don't worry, though. All that's just about to change; because any minute now, a poor bedraggled girl will come stumbling out of the bramble thicket twenty-five yards due east of the front door. She'll see the friendly-looking cottage with its cheerfully red front door and she'll make straight for it, like a piranha scenting fresh blood. And in a week or so, you won't recognise the place. It's inevitable; it has to happen. No power on earth can stop it.
Stunning. Breathtaking. Fabulous. Gorgeous. Out of this world.
Satisfied that there had been no change since the last time she looked, the wicked queen turned away from her reflection in the mirror, slid back a hidden panel in the wall and switched on the power. The surface of the glass began to glow blue.
She frowned and tapped her fingers on the arms of her chair. For some time now she'd been trying to summon up the courage to upgrade her entire system, which was virtually obsolete; lousy response time, entirely inadequate memory, all of that and more. All that could be said for it was that she was used to it and it worked. Just about.
Somewhere behind the glass, mist started to swirl. She watched as it slowly coagulated into a spinning, fluffy ball, which in turn resolved itself into a shape that gradually became less like a portion of albino candyfloss and more human. The queen yawned. In theory she should be used to the delay by now, but in practice it irritated her more and more each day. She fidgeted.
The ball of mist had become a head; an elderly man, white-haired and deeply lined, with cold blue eyes and a cruel mouth, but with an air of such dreadful loneliness and despair that even the queen, who had put him there in the first place, never liked looking at him for too long. At first he appeared in profile; then his face moved round until his eyes met hers.
"Running DOS," he said. "Please wait."
He vanished, and his place was taken by a brightly-coloured cartoon image of a spider spinning a web. Originally she'd meant it to signify cheerful patience, but now it was getting on her nerves. At least she'd had the good sense to disable the jolly little tune it used to hum when she first set it up. If she insisted on driving herself mad, there were far more dignified and interesting ways of going about it.
Just when she was beginning to think there must be something wrong with the mirror, the spider abruptly vanished and the old man was back. He gave her a barely perceptible nod. Good. At last.
The queen cleared her throat. With a system as painfully inflexible as this one, it was essential to speak clearly; otherwise there was no knowing what she'd get.
"Mirror, mirror on the wall," she enunciated, in a voice that would have secured her a job as a newsreader on any station in the universe, "who's the fairest of them all?"
The old man sneered. "Bad command or file name," he said. "Please retry."
What? Oh yes. Damn. She'd said who's instead of who is. She scowled and tried again, and this time the old man looked her steadily and replied:
"Snow White, O Queen, is the fairest of them all."
The wicked queen lifted her head sharply. "Repeat," she snapped. Instantly the head shifted a few fractions of an inch, back to the position it had been in just before it made its previous statement.
"Snow White, O Queen, is the fairest of them all."
The queen sighed. "Diary," she commanded, and the head turned seamlessly into a cute graphic of an old-fashioned appointments book, with a two-dimensional pencil hovering over its pages. She snapped her fingers twice and the pages began to turn.
"Stop," she commanded. Next Tuesday, she saw, was almost completely free, apart from lunch with Jim Hook and an entirely expendable hairdresser's appointment. "Insert new diary entry for Tuesday 15th," she said. "10.15 am to 12 noon; murder Snow White, end entry."
The moving pencil wrote and, having writ, dissolved into a scatter of random pixels. She snapped her fingers, and the old man reappeared.
"All right," she said, "that'll do. Dismissed."
The old man nodded. "This will end your Mirrors session," he said. "Okay or Cancel?"
There was a soft crinkling noise and the mirror seemed to blink; then all the wicked queen could see there was her own flawless, immaculate face. She studied it for a moment as she reached for her powder compact; then, having dabbed away a patch of incipient pinkness, she stood up, snuffed out the candle and stalked melodramatically out of the room.
Although it was dark now, the mirror continued to glow softly; a common occurrence with such an outdated model. In the far corner of the room, something scuttled.
"We're in," whispered a tiny voice.
Three white mice dashed across the floor, in that characteristic mouse way that makes them look as if they haven't got any legs, and are being dragged along on a piece of string. They scampered up the curtain, abseiled down the tieback cord, swung Tarzan-fashion and landed on the mantelpiece, directly under the mirror.
"We're in luck," whispered a mouse. "Silly bitch has left the power on."
All three mice twitched their noses. "Are you ready for this?" one of them hissed. "We could get ourselves in a lot of trouble."
The other two treated the coward to a look of distilled, matured-in-oak-vats scorn. "Pull yourself together, will you?" squeaked the mouse who'd spoken first. "After everything we've been through to get here, this is hardly the time to get cold feet."
"Paws," interrupted the third mouse. "Come on, guys, stay in character."
"All right then, paws. Look, either we're going to do this or we aren't. Let's have a decision on that right now, before we go any further."
"Fair enough," muttered the apprehensive mouse. "I'm not saying we shouldn't, I'm just saying we should think about it."
"I've thought about it. Come on, Sis, where's your sense of fun?"
"In this costume, there isn't room. And before you ask whether I'm a man or a mouse, I'm neither, remember?"
The other two pointedly ignored that last remark. "Come on," said the first mouse, "let's get it over with. Show of hands?"
"Show of hands. All in favour? Right, Sis, that's two to one. We do it."
For a brief moment the mice were perfectly still, as if composing themselves. Then the first mouse reared up on his hind legs, waggled his forepaws like a small furry boxer and squeaked, "Mirror."
They waited breathlessly until the cotton-wool effect slowly began to extend inwards from the corners of the glass. The head appeared.
"Too easy," muttered the mouse called Sis. "I think we should..."
The head opened its eyes and stared straight ahead; then it frowned, looked from side to side; then, its frown deepening, downwards.
"Um, hello." The first mouse twitched his nose twice, unhappy with the way the face was looking at him. He could feel tiny spores of panic beginning to germinate in the back of his mind, but for some reason he found it impossible to say anything else. The head's eyes seemed to be dismantling him, taking the back off his head and probing around in the circuitry.
"What's the matter with you?" Sis whispered urgently. "That thing's examining us and you're just sitting there doing paperweight impressions. Say something to it quick, before it eats our brains."
"I can't," the first mouse hissed back. "I think it knows who we really are. Sis, I'm frightened."
"I can see that," Sis snarled. "Get out of the way and let me handle this." She pushed past him and sat up. "Mirror," she said.
The head looked at her, and she imagined that she could feel icicles forming on her whiskers. "Mirror," she repeated. The head studied her for a moment, during which she realised just how long a moment can be, namely three times as long as a life sentence on Dartmoor and not quite so nice.
The head vanished and was replaced by the spider; only it wasn't the friendly, cuddly little spider the queen had summoned. Instead it was big and black and hairy, one of those particularly unpleasant South American jobs that eat small mammals and move faster than a photon that's late for an appointment.
"It's different," muttered the first mouse. "It wasn't like that when she did it."
"It's not sure it likes us yet," Sis replied, trying to sound matter-of-fact about it all. "Once it's decided we're friends it'll be all right, you'll see."
The other two mice didn't seem so sure; at least, they shuffled round behind her, forming a short, fluffy queue. She ignored them and carried on looking straight at the mirror. Inside, of course, she was absolutely petrified, which shows that she still had the sense she was born with.
"Look," breathed the third mouse behind her shoulder. "He's back."
Sure enough, the head was there again. He didn't look appreciably less hostile, but he nodded. Sis took a deep breath and curled her tail tight around her back legs.
"Mirror, mirror on the wall," she managed to say; then she dried. Because it was all a bit of fun, because they'd never expected to get this far anyway, they'd never actually got around to working out what it was they were actually going to do, once they'd hacked their way into the wicked queen's magic mirror and all her incalculable powers were theirs to command. This is embarrassing, Sis muttered to herself. She knew she had to say something,or otherwise the mirror would get suspicious again. She didn't know what it was capable of doing to them if it finally came to the conclusion that they had no right to be there, but she was prepared to bet that it went rather further than the threat of legal action. On the other hand, breaking into the palace and hijacking Mirrornet just to play a couple of games of Lemmings seemed somehow rather fatuous. Think of some magic, quick, she commanded what was left of her brain.
She thought of something. It was nothing special, but it was all she could think of. "Mirror," she said, in as commanding a voice as she could muster, "show me the man I am to marry."
The head looked at her as if she had chocolate all round her mouth. "Bad command or file name," it sneered. "Please retry."
"You're a mouse, idiot," the first mouse whispered in her ear. "You can't marry a man if you're a mouse. Think about it."
"Oh, right. Mirror mirror on the wall, show me the mouse I am to marry."
The head's brow creased. "Bad command," he said doubtfully, as if he wasn't quite sure of himself. "Error. Incorrect format. Ignore or Cancel?"
"Cancel," Sis replied firmly. Somehow she felt better now that she'd seen the head looking worried. She decided that the only way to deal with this was not to let the wretched thing see that she was afraid of it; no, there was more to it than that. The answer was not to be afraid of it at all. It was, after all, only a Thing, and she was a - Mouse. Well, a mouse strictly pro tem. For the first and last time a mouse. Even if she was a mouse right now, that was still several dozen rungs further up the evolutionary ladder than a sheet of silver-backed glass in a plaster frame. "Mirror," she said calmly, "listen to me. I want you to - "
"Bad command or file - "
"Shut up," she said; and when the head promptly stopped talking, somehow she wasn't surprised. "I want you to turn us back into human beings. Now," she added sternly.
"Sis," the first mouse hissed furiously, "what do you think you're..?" Before he could complete the sentence, he wasn't a mouse any more. He was a teenage boy, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt and sitting, rather to his surprise, on a mantelpiece several inches too narrow for his backside. He slid off and landed on the floor.
"Ouch," said his younger brother. "Damien, you're sitting on my leg."
The three ex-mice untangled themselves, and as soon as he was sure which arms and legs were his, Damien scrambled up and scowled horribly at his sister.
"What the hell did you do that for?" he cried. "All the trouble I went to to turn us into mice..."
"I'd had enough," his sister replied. "Mirror, turn Damien back into a mouse. He's not fit to be a human."
"Sis..." The mouse that had very briefly been Damien landed on its back, squirmed round, scrabbled for a foothold and was lifted up and dumped unceremoniously into Sis's cardigan pocket. Her other brother gave her a look of mingled terror and respect and wisely said nothing.
"Right," she said. "Now at least I can think straight. I hate mice," she added, with a slight shudder. In her pocket something wriggled and squeaked. "That's why I'm glad," she went on, "that we've got a cat."
The wriggly object in her pocket suddenly became terribly still. She patted it affectionately and turned back to face the screen.
"Now then," she said. "Mirror, are you still there?"
The head nodded. It was, she noticed, looking at her oddly; almost as if it had never seen a human turn her brother into a mouse in a fit of pique before. There was something else in its eyes besides surprise, though; she gave it a long, curious look and worked out what the something else was.
Ah, she said to herself, now we're getting somewhere. She took a deep breath and made a conscious effort to relax, letting the fear and tension melt out of her like ice-cream through the disintegrated tip of a cone. In charge. In control. Now you can do anything you like.
"Mirror," she said, "first I want a million pounds. Next, I want a big house in Malibu and another in Chelsea, and a ski lodge in Switzerland and a Porsche with a personalised number-plate and..."
She froze; someone was coming. Her brother - the one that wasn't a mouse - yelped and scrambled under the table, thereby occupying the only teenager-sized bolthole in the room. She looked round frantically. Not out of the window; this is a castle, remember, so out of the window would mean a long fall into a stagnant moat, and that's if she was lucky. Only one door. Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. Oh...
"Mirror," she said. "Hide me, quickly."
The head looked at her, and in its eyes there was enough raw contempt to keep the book reviews page of the Guardian fully supplied for a year. "Bad command or file name," it said disdainfully. "Please retry."
"Mirror!" she repeated imploringly, but the face vanished abruptly and was replaced by a pattern of slowly-revolving geometric shapes, the one that makes your head spin if you watch it for too long. Whimpering, she tugged the curtain away from the wall and slipped behind it, just as the door opened and the wicked queen burst in, with an electric torch in one hand and a heavy Le Creuset frying pan in the other. She surveyed the room slowly and carefully, and sniffed.
"Mirror," she commanded, "where is she?"
The geometric shapes vanished and the head came back. "She's hiding behind - " it began, but got no further; because behind the curtain, Sis had found the power switch and turned it off.
You can't blame her, of course. You could even say it was really rather resourceful, in the circumstances. And, also in her defence, it's hardly likely that she knew about the quite terrifying possible consequences of pulling the plug on an antiquated system like this one. After all, not many people do know that the principal drawback of Mirrors 3.1 was the very real risk of crashing the whole thing if you tried to shut it down without going through the proper procedure.
Suddenly, everything vanished.
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