Nineteen year old Sam Welles slid the retractable knife under the strip of parcel tape and watched as the lid of the box peeled apart like unfolding wings. Digging his fingers between the remaining flaps he prised them apart. Packing foam erupted from the widening chasm, spilling in neat little piles upon the floor of the warehouse (Sam was always reminded of popcorn in the cinema). He rummaged through the top layer of foam, lifted the first package free and stared: A squat, green, vaguely humanoid form, with a single red eye, glared back at him from behind clear plastic.
He read the blurb:
The Galaxy is under threat . . . Rath Kh’Aal aliens, led by the insidious ‘General Belicose’ have invaded, and only ‘Gravity Force 5’ can stop them! . . .
‘Rath Kh’Aal – Warrior-Clone-Drone’
- 12 unique phrases (Including, “Die, wretched Earthling’s!” “Gravity Force Five, the day of the Great Cull is upon you!” . . . and, “Bring forth the Graviton Hammer!!!!”)
- Batteries included.
Grinning, Sam stuck his finger through a slot in the plastic and pushed a button on the figure’s chest. A gravelly whisper emerged, like an anthropomorphised impression of a snake: “Rath Kh’Aal will be triumphant!”
Sam smiled, shaking his head. Tossing the box into his trolley he started unloading the remaining fifty packages listed on the delivery docket.
He’d been working at Hal’s Toys for three months now, and had loved every second. It was mind-numbingly easy, for one thing. The customers (almost exclusively kids and their parents) were always cheerful, the store was bright and welcoming and the manager – Hal himself – let him play pretty much any tune he wanted on the stereo (“No profanity though!”). Granted, it wasn’t exactly his dream career, but it was just for this summer – He’d be starting a Journalism course in September. As far as jobs around this sleepy Yorkshire village went, it beat pulling pints down the Dog & Thistle!
Depositing the final box in his trolley he went to stock the shelves.
Hal was behind the counter, talking to a customer (More like talking at a customer, Sam thought with a grin). He saw Sam emerge and winked, a portly man in his late sixties, with an eternally-grinning countenance and a shock of white hair. He had a real knack with people, and this was in full evidence now: The customer – a young man in a smart suit – was leaning on the counter and laughing, content for the duration. Not so the little girl clinging to the man’s free hand, she looked bored as hell . . . Around six or seven, wearing a flower-print dress, with ribbons in her long blonde hair. She swung back and forth on one heel, singing a lilting, made-up tune. The store was otherwise deserted, likely due to the light drizzle that had begun to fall outside.
Sam lost sight of the three of them as he rolled the trolley past aisle after aisle of bright, colourful toys. Parking at the end of one row he carried an armful of boxes over to the shelves he’d cleared out earlier. One-by-one he laid them out, half-listening to Hal’s gregarious tones drifting from the other side of the store, half-listening to the tapping fingers of rain on the roof – but finding his attention increasingly diverted by the contents of the boxes:
Christ, these alien things were ugly!: . . . Each standing perhaps a foot high, with emaciated legs and arms and mottled green flesh, like a lizard’s. Their heads were exaggerated, tapering domes, with grotesque features occupying the lower half and the upper half all forehead. That single livid red eye stared from its sunken socket; no nose, and a thin, cruel line for a mouth. They wore little grey tunics, upon which was emblazoned a strange, oriental-looking symbol. Their three-fingered hands grasped an identical, impressively-detailed gun, half their size.
Sam was about to fetch the next batch when something caught his eye. He twisted, studying the rows of grim little mannequins. He could have sworn he’d just seen one of them move! As if it had looked his way for the briefest –
A sudden exclamation made him turn.
The little girl in the blue dress was standing at the end of the aisle, hands clasped, eyes round with beatitude. “Those are Rath Kh’Aal drones!”
Sam grinned, nodded.
The girl came running over, flung herself to her knees and wrenched the nearest package from the shelf. She studied it with fierce concentration, flipped , scanned the reverse.
“Gravity Force 5 fan, then?” Sam laughed. “Whatever it is.”
She barely glanced at him. “You don’t know Gravity Force 5?”
He shook his head. “Just read the back when I was un-packaging them. How come you like these ugly things?”
Young though she was, she caught the teasing inflection. Her nose wrinkled. “Not all girls play with girl dolls, you know!”
He laughed. “Go on then, who’re Gravity Force 5?”
The girl’s frown deepened. She replaced the box and gazed around. Then she jumped to her feet, and retrieved another toy from the shelf adjacent, proclaiming, “This is Kevan Lightforce!”
A chiselled, space-suited alpha-male, with a crest of blonde hair and an impossibly wide grin. “What does he do?”
“He’s the leader. He fights against them.” She pointed at the fresh arrivals. “The Rath Kh’Aal . . . Haven’t you seen the adverts?”
Shaking his head, Sam jogged to the trolley. He piled a stack of boxes and returned to the next shelf up. “What adverts?”
“They’re everywhere! On the radio, on the TV, on posters.” She was shaking her head, as if in disbelief that anyone might live such an insular existence. “They come on in the middle of Bucky Bear and Penrose High. The screen goes all googly, and you think the TV’s broken, but it’s just Gravity Force 5. Kevan and the rest of Gravity Force came out ages ago, but they didn’t have anyone to fight. And now they have the Rath Kh’Aal! The adverts have been talking about these clone-drones for months at least.”
Sam nodded. Clever marketing; he’d seen dozens of fads like this come and go since he’d been here. The entire remit of the toy industry was to explore new and more subtle ways to exploit parents out of their hard-earned money. Staggered releases were usually pretty effective. But they were an unimaginative lot too, he thought. Couldn’t they come up with something more original than that old staple of ‘Spacemen vs Aliens?’
“Sarah?” The young, suited man was standing at the end of the aisle, beckoning.
“Dad, look!” the girl shrieked. “They got them! . . . please, Dad, please!”
The man glanced at Sam, miming an amused weariness (Sam returned an understanding smile). Then he sighed, and started fishing in his pocket. “O-kay, how much?”