‘A thousand a day,’ she told them. ‘And my train fare down from Victoria. Where else are you going to find a private detective with qualifications in child psychiatry?’
They didn’t really have a choice. She leaned back in the hotel’s idea of an easy chair, and took a few tactical sips of perrier water. They looked at each other. General Jones wanted to tough her price down, but R.J. Woolavington was more than ready to cave in.
‘Miss Rhodes, do you mind if we confer?’ snapped the General, waving a wet‑end cigar. He still sounded like a U.S. Marine Drill Instructor, although his gut would strain a dress uniform more than it was straining his lightweight tropical suit. He had never been more than a non‑com in the service, but now he was in charge of the largest, most diversified private army in the world.
‘Not at all. Take your time. This meeting will be included in my bill. And there’s a wasting‑my‑time fee to cover even if you don’t want to hire me.’
The General glared at her, and dragged Woolavington into the suite’s bathroom for a final browbeating. Sally looked at the glossy brochures on the coffee table. Gung‑Ho Jones had an undersea outfit now, complete with spring‑loaded speargun and an octopus whose arms could constrict automatically. On the cover of his pamphlet, Gung‑Ho ($14.99) was grappling with the octopus ($19.99) in a sunken Spanish galleon ($74.99), grinning his one‑sided grin (free, but copyrighted) and posing dramatically. Actually, thanks to the awkwardness of his hips and shoulder‑joints, Gung‑Ho could barely stand up straight let alone assume a dramatic pose.
Sally was more intrigued by the Woolavington Train Set she had seen downstairs. It was an idealised lay‑out modelled on the Home Counties in the thirties, complete with genuine miniature steam engines, an entire village, a tunnel through a hill and over three miles of tracks. As a child, she would rather have had one of Woolavington’s trains, but her parents had given her a Sandie Doll (one of the General’s products) instead.
The General and Woolavington were back, an agreement reached. Neither of them were happy: the General because he was going to have to accede to Sally’s terms, and Woolavington because the General was going to screw him into putting up more than half her fee.
‘One K is okay,’ growled the General, ‘but we’ll want results quickly. Before the convention is over.’
‘That gives me a week? Easy.’
‘Don’t be so sure, we’ve had our best men on it for a year. Nada.’
‘I’m better than most. Now, why don’t you and Mr Woolavington tell me your troubles.’
‘Well,’ grunted the General, ‘it’s …’
‘Mr Woolavington, you start.’
The spinsterish English tycoon hadn’t been able to get out a complete sentence all afternoon. Sally thought she owed him a chance to say his piece.
‘Um, as you must know, General Jones and I are veterans of the trade. I inherited my business from my father, who had it from his father. We’ve been making model trains ‑ not toy trains ‑ for over one hundred years. Because we believe in craftsmanship, our prices are, um, high. In recent years, our market has mainly been among adult collectors. Still, we’ve been badly hit …’
‘Not as badly as some, Woolavington.’
‘Let him speak, General.’
‘The businesss changes, fluctuates, evolves. Woolavington and Company has stayed in business by staying the same. I’ve long been reconciled to the fact that our trains will never again be a majority force in the market, but I had thought we would be able to retain our grip on the customers we do have, but …’
‘But the Japs and the freaks are creaming us is what!,’ shouted the General, fat face reddening, cigar ash falling unheeded on his lapels. ‘I ain’t like him, Miss Rhodes. I came into toys ‑ toys, that’s what I call ’em, and I’m proud of ’em ‑ when I was invalided out of the Corps. I got some extra bits and pieces in my leg on Iwo Jima. I put out the first Gung‑Ho Jones in ’47. He was a Clean Marine then, like me. But I didn’t stick with that like Woolavington with his choo‑choos. Gung‑Ho Jones has kept up with the times. He’s been through all the services, plus he’s been a super‑secret agent, an astronaut, a SWAT cop, counter‑terrorist, you name it. A couple of years back, Gung Ho was a barbarian swordsman on an alternate world. Now he’s a Blastmaster with the Universe Corps. Don’t ask me what that means. As far as I can tell, it’s a lot like being a Marine. Our strategy has been to stay in fashion, and, of course, to sell more and more units as the range of Gung Ho Jones accessories, sidekicks and adversaries expands. It worked for thirty years, but these last couple of quarters, it’s been shot to shit …’
The General picked up a handful of leaflets and shook them. He obviously took his business personally. Sally wondered what an adult psychiatrist would have made of his obvious identification with his nine‑inch tall product. Had he left his guts on Iwo Jima, and built up his toy empire to make himself into a hero by proxy, the victor of a million bedroom‑floor battles?
‘Last year, I did three million in deals on the first day of this show, Miss Rhodes. Yesterday, I barely managed to get five K and change from a few individual orders. The main chains don’t want to know. I believe in market forces, supply and demand, competition, all that stuff. But this isn’t capitalism, it’s genocide.’
Sally wondered if the General realised that when he lost control his hands contorted like Gung Ho Jones’ ‑ one with an extended finger and a grip to (shakily) hold a gun, the other a tight fist with fingers fused like a deformity. The leaflets crumpled tight in the fist.
‘We’re not the only people affected,’ said Woolavington. ‘There are, um, over three hundred stands and displays in the halls downstairs. At this show, only two of them have been busy. And they’ve been very busy. They’re burying us.’
‘The Japs and the Freaks.’
‘So you said, General. Could you be more specific?’
‘The Gargantuabots and the Nice Mice. Take a look,’ The General took a boxed robot and a cuddly toy from the suite’s dressing table, and handed them to her. ‘They have TV shows, too.’
The cuddly toy was a fat mouse, the size of a teddy bear. It had heart‑shaped eyes, a perky little smile and adorable whiskers. Still in its cellophane, it looked as if it was in cryogenesis until someone found a cure for terminal cuteness. Sally found the robot more appealing, marginally. She’d been like that as a child, too. She wondered how much her Thunderbirds models would be worth if she hadn’t set fire to them with lighter fluid when she was eleven.
‘Oh, these are the robots that turn into different things, right? They look like dinosaurs, but twist into tanks or aeroplanes. I’ve seen kids with them. They must be popular.’
‘Unnaturally popular, Miss Rhodes. And the Nice Mice are equally successful. This year, the toy business is a duopoly.’
‘Are you sure you’re not overreacting to bad sales? I can see the appeal of both lines. I did my thesis on Playthings and Society. The Gargantuabots combine many aspects which would appeal to the stereotypical small boy: prehistoric monsters, giant robots, motor‑vehicles, martial imagery. The transformation aspect is undeniably ingenious, and probably helps kids develop hand‑eye coordination. Most popular toys have some subliminal educational value, I suppose. Even Gung Ho Jones. And the Nice Mice are innocuous, almost calculatedly so. They aren’t to my taste, certainly, but pre‑school children need fantasies of reassurance, not of mass destruction. What with the backlash against war toys, something like the Nice Mice was bound to come along eventually. I expect you only wish you’d thought of it first.’
‘We know all that, Miss Rhodes. Our toys are designed by shrinks too. Gung Ho Jones and Sandie cover the whole range of socio‑economic and psycho‑behavioural classes. We offer something for every kid there is. Every kid whose parents have 14.99, that is. Until AIDS, we were even going to give Sandie a homo best friend who could wear all her dresses. The demographics were right for it. We were doing great, then these crazies came on like gangbusters and kicked our asses. We had the same thing with computer games, but that fad boomed and bust over three seasons, and even at its height it never came close to hurting us as bad as we’re hurting now.’
He balled the useless leaflets, and threw them in the general direction of a waste‑paper basket. He missed. Woolavington fidgeted, cleaning his nails with an eyetooth. Sally wasn’t convinced these men were sane, but she could tell they were genuinely worried.
‘Okay, I’ll look into it,’ she said. ‘What can you tell me about the parent companies? And who they have here?’
‘Gargantuabots come out of Japan. The Sphere Corporation. Their top man is two floors down, in the Royal Suite. His name is Baron Toru Ghidrah. And the Nice Mice are headquartered in California, somehwere in Silicon Valley. They’re Buddhists or hippies or some shit. The parent company is registered as Cloud Incorporated. They don’t have executives or presidents, but the delegate who seems to be sort of in charge is called something stupid. Rainbow? Sunshine? Moonbeam? What is it, Woolavington?’
‘Cornfield. Cornfield Zwingli. I think he used to be Swiss.’
Sally took it all in. ‘Ghidrah and Zwingli. I’ll look them up. Of course, if I unearth any unethical or illegal business practices you’ll want full details before you decide whether to blow the whistle on them or copy them, right?’
‘Very funny, Miss Rhodes. Did you have a Sandie when you were a little girl?’
Sally said yes. The General leaned over the table and stubbed his cigar out on the perky smile of the mouse toy. Its cellophane crackled and hissed. ‘Then, get these bastards for her.’
Sally started on the floor, mingling with the buyers. The Exhibition Hall was the size of a dirigible hangar. It was easy to see who was doing business. At opposite ends crowds were gathered beneath two towering figures. The Gargantuabot was frozen mid‑way between being a cyborg Tyrannosaurus Rex and a snarling bulldozer‑cum‑car crusher. Its eyes lit up like furnaces, its metallic limbs moved jerkily, its claw‑catchers tore at the air and recorded growls filled the hall. Twin video projection screens stood either side of the robot. A trailer for the Gargantuabots: The Motion Picture was running on both screens, one weirdly about three seconds ahead of the other. The Nice Mouse (was that the singular form of Nice Mice?) was quieter, floating serene and chubby above an worshipping multitude, its heart‑shaped eyes closed in blissful sleep, its perky smile beaming out, its adorable whiskers twitching in time to a happy tune. Large, cloud‑shaped balloons lazily drifted upwards past the giant and gathered like a clump of unhealthy fruit under the ceiling.
There were other stands, but they were drab by comparison. Many were unmanned, their owners having drifted off to be where the action was. One or two were being gloomily dismantled by workmen under the direction of sad‑eyed, shiny‑suited executives who knew when to quit. At the Woolavington table, a couple of reps were playing Chinese checkers. A miniature fork‑lift truck was removing a large, still‑sealed block of imitation Trivial Pursuit games.
‘It’s so nice,’ gushed a middle‑aged woman whose lapel was infected with a rash of membership badges, to no one in particular. Sally decided to cultivate her as a source of information and nodded vigorously. From the badges, Sally gathered the woman’s name was Tilly Barnes, and that she was from the Happie Chappie toy shop in Slough. ‘They’re extending the Nice Mice line to include the Nice Mice Uncles! And they’re taking orders round‑the‑clock!’
Sally wondered if Tilly Barnes was on something. She’d have examined the buyer’s eyeballs, but her eyes were screwed almost shut in ecstasy. Her smile was uncannily familiar. Tilly Barnes’ nose twitched as if possessed of adorable whiskers. What a strange day: first Gung‑Ho Jones in the flabby flesh, now an ageing Nice Mouse in a dungarees.
‘I’ve had a simply super idea for a window display for the Uncles! I’m going to just fill the whole expanse of frontage with pink and pale blue fur, and have a big poster up with a list of Nice Things Children Can Do For Each Other. And every time I hear that a child has done one of those Nice Things I’ll have his or her name put up on another poster, with lots of Nice Mice Uncles standing around and cheering and applauding. Won’t that be nice?’
Once, Sally had been stopped in the street and told how wonderful the Church of Scientology was. And, on another occasion, at a party, a young tycoon in a blue jump suit had tried to get off with her while explaining at unmerciful length just how EST had changed his life. She had even heard out a lady client who claimed opting for privatised medicine was the best decision she’d ever made. This was worse.
‘Are you ordering anything from Woolavington this year?’ Sally asked.
The buyer’s face went blank, as if someone had just ejected the software out of a slit in her back. Her eyes stared blind as shoebuttons ‑ clear but empty ‑ and then scrunched up again. She resumed her flow.
‘And I’m organising a Niceness drive with all the other toy shops in my area. It’ll coincide with the new film, The Nice Mice in the Land of the Kuddlekats, and the video release of The Nice Mice Cheer Up the Prime Minister of Nastiness. We’re making children who do Nice Things for OAPs into Honorary Nice Mice Little Ones. And giving out Nice Mice ears to the grannies and grandads. Won’t that be nice?’
Sally had a sudden urge to indulge in fantasies of massive violence. She excused herself, and headed for the Gargantuabots Stand. Four Japanese girls in Noh make‑up and traditional dress were solemnly demonstrating the various transformations of the latest generation of Killatrons, who were apparently the Militant Tendency of the Gargantuabots. Admiring buyers stood in awed silence as the girls’ origami gestures reshaped stegosauri and dimetreodons into cybernetic samurai and robot crusaders. Nobody spoke, nobody moved from their place.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ began a hawk‑faced Japanese, ‘this season, the Gargantuabots will be moving forward again. We are introducing a line of quadruple‑change figures, the Quadroids.’ There was a collective intake of breath. ‘All of you who increase your orders will be rewarded. All of you who do not will … let us say, be inconvenienced.’
The man, whom Sally had pegged as Baron Ghidrah himself, paused and looked around the crowd, making eye‑contact with a dozen individuals. A tall young man standing near Sally looked down, and covered his face with his hands. Sally realised he was silently crying, his shoulders heaving with suppressed sobs. As he slid away, the others avoided his touch like a leper’s.
‘More! I’ll take more!’ shouted a very fat, very sweaty man. ‘As many as you can spare! I’ll discontinue all other brands. Just, let me carry the Quadroids, that’s all I ask. Let me carry the Quadroids!’
Japanese girls in conservative business suits calmed the fat man down, cooing reassurances Sally couldn’t hear into his ears. He stopped sweating. Baron Ghidrah momentarily did something with his face that might have counted as a smile, then resumed his speech.
‘But enough of such things. We are all aware of the situation. And of the importance of increasing sales and orders. I am pleased to report that the Quadroids are battle‑ready as of this moment, and will be deployed in all outlets before the week is out. There can be no compromise. That is all.’
Baron Ghidrah bowed without a trace of humility and left the stand. The Japanese girls led polite applause, which was noisily and enthusiastically joined by the rest of the throng. There was a mighty creaking from above, as the Tyrannosaurus/bulldozer‑crusher slowly stretched itself into a pterodactyl‑winged space shuttle and then contracted into the figure of an armoured giant out of a gothic nightmare. As the monster changed, fire belched from its joints and metal strained noisily against metal. Sally wondered if the transformations were supposed to be painful.
There wasn’t much more she could pick up in the public section of the convention, but she dutifully double‑checked her findings to date by dropping into the bar and striking up conversations with the buyers. She found that opening gambits like ‘well, are you going for the Gung‑Ho Jones Undersea Adventurer line?’ or ‘what do you think of Sandie’s new pop star image?’ were liable to yield very, very short exchanges. However, the simple mention of the Quadroids or the Nice Mice Uncles was enough to have her pinned down for a quarter of an hour by either a simpering fanatic or a grim‑faced yuppie zombie with a calculator for a heart. Didn’t anyone play with Lego any more?
A party of Arabs in sunglasses and burnouses in the hotel for a political negotiation had somehow got mixed in with the toy people. Not a few were clutching Nice Mice or Gargantuabots to be taken back to the Emirates. Sally wandered through the crowds drifting about the lower levels of the hotel, at something of a loss. This wasn’t the sort of case where her usual, highly ethical methods ‑ footwork, meticulous questioning, library research, applied intelligence ‑ were all that useful. Obviously, it was time to bring unusual, slightly unethical, methods to bear. She had her picklocks with her.
The Royal Suite was guarded by two three‑piece suit samurai. They weren’t apparently armed, but something about their frozen faces told Sally they could kill in any one of twenty‑five different ways with each individual finger. She kept on walking past them. They didn’t look at her, which was what tipped her off. Any male human being will take at least a glance at any female human being between the ages of 12 and 45 who happens to walk past. She paused at the turn of the corridor, and pulled out her compact to check her eyebrows. She wouldn’t wear make‑up if it didn’t give her a excuse to carry around a mirror she could use for looking at people behind her. Baron Ghidrah and attendants came out of the lift. The samurai let them into the suite without a word. Double doors were quietly shut behind them. There was no way in from the front. She decided to try the Nice Mice first.
Cloud Incorporated had a drinks party going in their suite, and there was nobody on the door to check her ID. Which was a shame, since it was very convincing. Unbearably happy music burbled out of the loudspeakers ‑ Mantovani Plays Nauseating Vomit or something ‑ and brightly‑dressed children and adults were congregated around several chubby people in realistic, man‑size Nice Mice costumes. The Nice Mice tended to come in colours Sally found offensive ‑ dayglo pink, lemon yellow and eggshell blue, apricot white. Children laughed as their adorable whiskers twitched.
‘Shall we do our special Niceness Dance, children,’ squeaked a thinner‑than‑usual Nice Mouse who was striped like a barber’s pole, ‘and don’t forget to hum the Niceness Hum and smile the Niceness Smile.’
Some children cheered. Sally assumed they must be robots. No real kid would put up with this icky crap. But the children joined in, imitating the Nice Mouse’s epileptic gestures and humming like demented bees through risus sardonicus grins.
‘Oh hello, isn’t this fun?’ It was Tilly Barnes again. There was no escape. Perhaps she should have tried to get past the Godzilla Brothers. It could have been less painful. ‘You must meet my children. They’ve just been made into Honorary Nice Mice Little Ones. They’re so excited.’
Three little replicas of Tilly Barnes in pastel overalls grinned perkily up at Sally. Their names were sewn across already‑prominent tummies ‑ Jake, Jonquil and Dylan. They each had an armful of Nice Mice and were practically levitating with glee. Jonquil looked as if he was about to have an accident.
Sally guessed there must be a marijuana session going on in the back room. With all these hippies around, that would make sense. She sniffed the air. Nothing. Tilly Barnes handed her a paper cup full of thick cherry goo. There were no alcoholic drinks on offer. No wonder Cloud Incorporated didn’t need bouncers.
‘You must meet Cornfield, he’s so real.’
‘Gosh, I wish I were real.’
‘No, really. Here he is …’
Sally looked around, expecting some kind of executive longhair mutation. She only saw parents and children. And Nice Mice. One of the costumed characters ‑ the stripey bastard ‑ came over, its adorable whiskers erect with glee, and hugged Tilly Barnes until she went oomph.
‘Hi Sally,’ said the mouse through its perky grin, looking at her name‑tag. ‘My handle is Cornfield Zwingli. What’s your starsign?’
‘You see. Real.’
The mask was very good, and the costume didn’t bag at all. Somehow, Sally thought that was obscene. She saw sharp little teeth in the mask’s snout, and no amount of adorableness around the whiskers could disguise the rattiness of the tail.
‘I’m new in the toy racket,’ Sally said. ‘I hear you run a very profitable business.’
‘It’s more than a business, Sally’ squeaked Zwingli, ‘it’s a children’s crusade. We at Cloud Incorporated truly believe we’re doing something important, educating a generation for tomorrow. Who knows, Sally, if today’s world leaders had been Honorary Nice Mice Little Ones as children, perhaps the planet wouldn’t be the Bad Vibes Zone it is.’
Sally hated the indiscriminate use of her first name. She put on her hard, businesslike face. ‘That’s fine, but my shop has to stay going. What are your profit margins like?’
A faraway twinkle came into Zwingli’s eyes. ‘Negotiable, Sally. Whatever you can lay out is in harmony by us. We have no trouble scoring bread. I guess it’s because we’ve got Niceness on our side, Sally.’
‘How do you stack up against the Gargantuabots?’
Sally fancied a dark cloud passed over Zwingli’s gleam. The adorable whiskers trembled with a hint of indignation. ‘Well, Sally, far be it from me to badmouth our colleagues but I hardly think a dinosaur that turns into a nuclear weapon is the sort of bag future world leaders should be playing with. Pardon me, I see some really important people I have to rap with …’
Zwingli bent down, and wriggled his snout. ‘Hi, children. Jake, Jonquil, Dylan, what Nice Things have you done today?’
‘Isn’t he …?’ gasped Tilly Barnes, evidently near some sort of sexual climax, groping for an adjective.
Sally made the mistake of sipping her cherry goo, and quickly dumped the drink. She wasn’t sure she could take any more of this. Looking at Zwingli, she realised just how detailed his costume was. Under his tail, she thought she could see a tiny, pristine asterisk of asshole. And she couldn’t work out how his human head fit inside his rodent one allowing his moist and cheery eyes to be so prominent. Those heart‑shaped patches of darker fur around the eyes were particularly creepy. She shivered, despite the heat of the party, and made a getaway. Mercifully, no one stopped to check her ID as she tried to get out of the suite.
The samurai were still on duty. For symmetry’s sake, Sally had to get into the Sphere Corporation suite and look around. So far, the whole set‑up had only been strange. There was no evidence of actual brain‑washing ‑ unless there was something chemical in the goo. It was possible that an epidemic of appalling taste among parents and children could have turned the toy business into a two‑horse race. But not likely.
‘Hi, Sally Rhodes, hotel security,’ she said, waving her bus pass at the samurai. ‘You got a bomb threat. Some ecology nuts complaining about your country’s animal rights record.’
The samurai didn’t look at her. They stood still as wooden indians. She continued, ‘me, I think if whales are so intelligent they should stop swimming near Japan, right? It’s probably a hoax. We get one every week. Have you let anyone in wearing a duffel coat, eating yoghurt and carrying a big ticking black ball with ‘BOMB’ written on it?’
Neither moved a muscle, but the door opened. When she got through alive, Sally assumed her routine had worked.
‘Thanks fellas. Like I say, it’s bound to be a mix‑up. But ever since Norman Tebbit got his wake‑up call, the management has been jumpy.’
There was an army of Gargantuabots arrayed on the floor, ranked according to size, ferociousness, adaptability and kill‑count. Baron Ghidrah sat in a throne‑sized chair, surveying the formation. Executives were prostrate before him, foreheads to the carpet, bums in the air. No one took any notice of her.
Baron Ghidrah took out a sales chart from a folder on his lap and held it up like a magician demonstrating a trick. The graph line rose steadily, but was marred by a minuscule dip near the top. With great deliberation, Baron Ghidrah tore the chart in four and handed it to an executive. The man rose to his knees and took the paper. He balled it and put it into his mouth, gulping manfully. Baron Ghidrah clapped once, a sound as sharp as a pistol shot. The executive reached for his stomach and pulled his shirt open. From the back, Sally couldn’t see anything, but she heard burst buttons skittering on the polished wood floor.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, ‘where’s the bomb?’
The executive on the point of seppuku froze, and Baron Ghidrah finally paid her some attention. He glared, his eyes red, and rose from his throne. His clothes creaked like cast iron. The head of the Sphere Corporation stepped past his executives, and walked slowly, lumbering like a copper giant, down the aisle. Multitudes of Gargantuabots turned. Sally smiled, but her patter seized up in the back of her throat.
The Baron’s eyes burned, making him look like the Shogun of Castle Dracula. The kimono slid from his shoulders. She saw where the skin joined the plastic, and where the plastic joined the metal. Lights went on and off behind a transparent plate in his chest. His shoulders heaved as the spiked epaulettes slid out of the flesh. His head raised six inches as he came apart at the waist, and his entire torso spun round. A tail snaked out. A new head, that of a bejewelled dragon, shot out of his former back. Steam gushed from holes in his body.
Shit, Baron Ghidrah was a Gargantuabot!
‘Never mind,’ Sally said, ‘wrong room number. It happens all the time. I’m a hooker. Some big shot wants me to dress up like a Sandie Doll and do it with some Nice Mice.’
The Dragon Ghidrah stalked towards her, its massive feet denting the floor. The executives were undergoing lesser transformations of their own. Sally saw four sets of claws extended. The upper set clacked wickedly, the others just dripped venom.
‘Uhhh,’ she tried to think of something to say, ‘Klaatu barada nikto?’ The dragon kept coming. ‘Don’t know that one, eh? Pax. Uncle.’
A set of claws lodged in her pullover, scrunching it tight around her spine. She was lifted up, wool biting into her armpits. Her jeans were dripping with hot water. She searched in vain for some trace of humanity in the creature’s face.
‘Hey, chill out, Baron babe,’ came a mellow voice from behind her. ‘Remember, you haven’t done your Nice Thing today.’
The dragon snarled, and dropped her. She landed painfully on one knee. Zwingli was in the room with them. He was still dressed up. Or, rather, he was still a Nice Mouse.
The dragon roared, and spat a gobbet of flame onto the carpet near her.
‘So, let me get this straight,’ the General began, ‘you two are representatives of, what did you call them, galactic empires? Like in Star Wars? Great toys, lousy movie, by the way. And you thought that rather than zap each other to spacedust in some border dispute, you’d all just beam on down to Earth and see who could sell the most toys?’ No one contradicted him. ‘Not only is that crazy, it’s immoral. Didn’t you think of the business ecology you’d be pissing all over? God, I hate extra‑terrestrial know‑it‑all show‑offs. Kick their alien asses back into orbit, that’s what I say.’
Baron Ghidrah, who had been prevailed upon to revert to his human disguise, grunted, and spat a hissing coal into an ashtray. Zwingli twitched his adorable whiskers, but nobody bothered with him.
‘Tell me, why did you have this war in the first place?’
‘Don’t lay that Bring Down City Jazz on me, dude,’ Zwingli squeaked. ‘They started it. We just want to live in peace and oneness with tolerance for all creeds and colours, and a respect for a wide variety of spiritual beliefs and ways of life.’
‘Then what was the war about?’
‘Them,’ croaked Baron Ghidrah. ‘Look at them. How do they make you feel … inside? Be honest.’
‘Nice Mice? They make me sick.’
‘Then how do you think we feel? Can you imagine the sheer pleasure of wiping out millions of these vermin with a single blast?’
‘Now you come to mention it,’ said the General, ‘I reckon I can.’
Everyone looked at Zwingli. He grinned perkily and hummed his Niceness Hum. His stripes revolved in serene contentment.
‘So, in conclusion, you guys want to piss off back to the stars and finish slugging it out, and you’re prepared to leave us alone?’
Baron Ghidrah cleared his throat in assent. Zwingli chirruped, ‘this isn’t settling anything. We’ve saturated the market, and no clear top dog has come out of it. Those are the breaks. Sorry, guys.’
‘Terrific. Miss Rhodes, here’s your thou. Although you didn’t do much to earn it, since these bozos were leaving anyway.’
Sally caught the envelope. ‘So that’s everything?’
‘Um, not quite.’ It was Woolavington. He’d been quiet since the meeting began, as usual. ‘Miss Rhodes, when you get home you’ll find a Woolavington Train Set waiting for you. It’s a vintage model from the thirties. I wish you every happiness with it. If you ever have children, please let them play with it. And, um, I have a little announcement. Miss Rhodes, General Jones, you’ll be pleased to know I’ve been talking with our friends here and it looks as if Woolavington and Company will be trading high again. I’ve secured the sole and exclusive rights to the manufacture, sale and exploitation of the Nice Mice and the Gargantuabots and, um, all related merchandise, including books, films, videos, cartoons, T‑shirts, lunch‑boxes, posters, and so on …’
The General’s cigar hit the floor before his jaw. ‘But …’
‘Yes, General. That means we will be competing in the modern market again. I’ll still make the trains, but I think the company will need such stronger products if it is to regain its pre‑eminence in the field. And while the enterprises of Mr Zwingli and Baron Ghidrah might have failed to resolve their differences, they must be judged highly successful as business ventures. I’ve, um, spoken with your board of directors and we’ve agreed ‑ as of now, I’m a majority shareholder in your firm, by the way ‑ to turn over most of your factories to the production of, um, Gargantuabots and Nice Mice. We feel it’s time for Gung Ho Jones to retire. Now, isn’t that, um, nice?’
General Jones’ cigar lay on the carpet, a burning circle radiating from it. Sally stepped on the fire before it could spread.
‘Settled?’ she asked. They all looked at each other. ‘Good. Let’s go home.’
Imperial High War Deathlord Ghidrah, First Exalted Killbastard of the Doomfleet, glared in fury at the screenspeaker. The rodent regatta stretched as far as the eye could see, the great pastel hulls of the starships twinkling with sticky glitter graffiti. The flagship Have a Nice Day was targeted dead centre, and the Niceness Hums of a myriad mice filled the airwaves.
Ghidrah’s metal chest swelled with steam as he recalled the victories of the Gargantuan Omnisphere. He remembered the Fall of the Perpetuum Dynasty, the degradation of the Pain Princes of Stagwald Carnasson, the humiliation of the 709 Warrior Popes of the Planet Shit, the extinction of the Eternity Pirates of Zeugma III.
On the bridge of the Doomship, the Lesser Deathspitters assumed the respectful position, bifurcate tails in the air, forehorns to the manure‑clogged deck. An Inferior Scumjumper handed Ghidrah a Cancer Sceptre. He flicked its head, and thick smoke poured from its end. His lieutenants began to transform. The Sacred Gargantuan Killing Cry rose in competition with the Hum.
‘May The Great Devastaticon feast on the entrails of our enemy this day,’ roared Ghidrah. ‘Begin the attack!’
‘Aye‑aye,’ snapped Provisional Humanoid Blastmaster General ‘Gung Ho’ Jones, saluting smartly as he brought his mailed fist down on the activation control of the ship’s main battery of termination tasers. Instant death sprang from the Doomfleet.
The cathedral arches of the ship rang with the din of battle.
Published in Kim’s short story collection: The Original Dr Shade, and Other Stories (Simon & Schuster).