The Soils Of War
I was about to finish my shift. It had been a busy day and I’d reached my target an hour ago, so I was looking forward to putting my feet up with a nice cup of tea. But then the radio decided to crackle me one last fare.
‘Morrisons Merrion Centre to Beckett Park.’
I pondered it a moment - I was already in the Woodhouse area and I lived near Beckett Park. What the hell, I thought. It’s an easy job.
‘I’ll take that,’ I responded. ‘What’s the name?’
‘Zaldec Firesword Archduke of Alpha Centauri and Princess Astraval of Sirius B.’
Bloody students. Think they’re so funny. That’s the trouble with picking up fares from the Merrion Centre. It’s the nearest supermarket to the university and they seem to get some sort of weird kick out of making the announcer broadcast stupid names over the PA when their cab arrives. Earlier in the week I’d had Captain Halibut, Lucinda Mingewort and Betty Swallocks.
They had a ban on Mike Hunt, but every now and then one gets slipped past a novice receptionist.
I took a U-turn, swung down Woodhouse Lane and radioed my arrival at the pick up point. I sighed at the thought of the childish hilarity my passengers were currently enjoying as their bogus names were being tannoyed across Morrisons. It’ll all change when they have to enter the real world.
And there they were. He a gaunt wiry youth still struggling his way out of his acne phase, and she a pallid tramp in patchwork dungarees. They laboured their way towards me, at least three carrier bags in each hand. I consider myself an amenable and helpful cabbie, and if it were some old dear I’d be out there helping her with her shopping. But these two? Sod ’em.
Presently they lumbered their way into the back amidst much rustling and banging of their flimsy LDPE bags with their weighty contents.
‘Beckett Park?’ I said.
‘Yes, please,’ replied the archduke.
At least they’re well mannered. That counts for something, but there’ll be no tip. I decided to have a little fun and humour them. Normally they go all shy and bashful if I take them up on their stupid names.
‘Oxygen level okay for you?’ I asked.
‘We don’t need oxygen,’ replied the princess. ‘We breathe nitrogen. You have a good percentage here.’
Hmmm, I didn’t expect that. They don’t usually go along with it. Maybe these are role players and have a bit of experience in improvisation.
‘And the gravity?’ I then asked.
The archduke took this one. ‘It’s a little weaker than we’re used to, but it’s fine.’
‘Good, good,’ I said. Let’s see what they make of this one. ‘Not here to invade us?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘We’re on our way to plunder Omicron 3 for a rare and valuable resource. We’ve just stopped here to stock up on provisions.’
Oh dear. I’ve got a right pair here, I mused.
‘And you chose Morrisons?’
‘We picked up a signal that said “More reasons to shop at Morrisons” and it had a catchy tune.’
I laughed. ‘They haven’t used that slogan for ten years!’
‘We were ten light years away when we received it.’
They’re good. Either they’re sharp or they’ve done some serious research. I might have my work cut out for me if I want to trip them up.
‘Yet you’re going to Beckett Park?’
‘It was the nearest place we could land. The parking’s terrible around the Merrion Centre when you’ve got a class IV Star Cruiser.’
‘I see, and this planet you intend to plunder . . .’
‘Omicron 3,’ said the princess.
‘Technically it’s a moon,’ said the archduke.
‘It’s a binary dwarf planet,’ she countered.
‘It’s the minor of the two, so that makes it a moon,’ he said.
‘No, the barycentre is two thirds along the orbital axis. According to the recent Planetary Bodies Classification Index of . . .’
‘Okay, okay,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to be responsible for a ruck. Tell you what - let’s talk about the rare and valuable resource you’re after. What is it?’
‘You won’t have heard of it,’ he said.
‘Don’t patronise him, Zaldec. Give the poor man a break.’
‘All right, I’ll let you guess.’
A guessing game. Well, why not? They’re good for car journeys, aren’t they? And help keep the peace. They were probably invented in cars.
‘Gold?’ I said.
At this they both burst out laughing.
‘What?’ I responded.
‘Gold is extremely common,’ scoffed the archduke.
‘And not useful for very much,’ she added.
‘All right, I get it,’ I said. ‘People think gold is valuable but it’s not and the real answer is water because it’s essential for life.’
Again they laughed.
‘Lots of planets have water,’ said the princess. ‘We’re after something that’s extremely rare and very difficult to get hold of. When we’ve pillaged it all from Omicron 3 we’ll be immensely rich.’
‘You seem very comfortable about using the word pillage.’
‘We’re very uncomfortable about them hoarding so much of the stuff and denying it to anybody else,’ she said.
‘That’s right,’ said her compatriot. ‘They’ve got enough to fill that shopping centre back there.’
‘Then it’s probably something with a contrived name like unobtainium or medicinal compound,’ I said.
‘You were nearer the mark with gold and water as it’s a very short and simple word.’
‘We’re nearly at Beckett Park,’ I said. ‘Let’s assume I won’t guess it before we get there. I give in. What is it?’
‘Yes. I said it was short and simple.’
‘Yes, but surely you don’t mean soil soil? Are you referring to something that’s just called “soil” in your language?’
The archduke started to fiddle with a gadget. ‘The translator’s working okay. Soil is what we mean.’
‘As in the browny black crumbly substance that lies in the ground, and if you put too much water in it, it becomes mud?’
‘You know of it?’
‘Well, yes. Who doesn’t? With the possible exception of Eskimos and Kalahari nomads.’
I could see in my rear view mirror that he was starting to get a little agitated.
‘He’s just messing with us, Zaldec,’ said Princess Astraval. ‘Cabbie humour.’
‘All right,’ Zaldec said. ‘I get it. You enjoy having a laugh at us out-of-towners.’
Out of your bloody minds, I thought.
‘I think this has gone far enough,’ I said. ‘Let’s just get you back to your accommodation and no more space stuff, okay?’
They went quiet for a moment, and then Zaldec said, ‘But you do know something about soil, don’t you?’
I gave an audible exhalation of breath.
‘I know that the answer lies in it, but that’s as far as my expertise goes. You’d have to ask my brother if you want to know more about it. He runs a garden supply centre.’ I said, hoping it would be enough to put an end to the matter.
But it didn’t.
‘Your brother supplies soil?’ He seemed genuinely astonished at this mundane job.
‘Oh yeah. Top soil, compost, gravel, turf. He does the lot. We’re coming up to the campus now,’ I said. ‘Where do you want dropping off?’
‘The entrance to the park, up there on the left will do fine,’ said the princess. ‘We’re parked just behind those tennis courts.’
It was just a wide open area of grass, sparsely dotted with trees. There was nothing else there.
‘Are you sure?’ I asked. ‘You’ve got a lot of shopping. I can drop you off at your door.’
‘Can you drive into the park?’ she said.
‘Then you can’t.’
‘Fair enough,’ I said, pulling in at the gates. ‘That’ll be nine pounds fifty.’ I’d truly had enough of this game.
‘Here’s a tenner. Keep the change.’
There was much fumbling as they clambered out of the car, bags a-rustle, groceries a-clatter. But before they set off, the lad tapped on my window. I wound it down.
‘Can you put me in touch with your brother?’ he asked.
‘You really do want to buy some soil?’
‘Acquire,’ he said.
I usually carry a few of his business cards so I gave him one of them. Waste of time, I know. What does a student want with soil? Unless he’s planning to grow cannabis.
‘If you’re just wanting to grow a few house plants,’ I said. ‘You’d be better off just taking a bit out of the flowerbeds after dark.’
The princess had already noticed the flowerbeds and was over there examining not the flowers, but the space between them. She bent down and picked up a handful of soil.
‘Zaldec!’ she cried. ‘Over here! Look!’
Zeldec dropped his shopping and hurried towards her. He began frantically digging like a terrier in a rat hole. ‘I don’t believe it! And we just happened to park right next to all this!’
‘We’re rich!’ exclaimed the princess.
‘Is there more of this stuff?’ Zaldec asked me.
But I’d had enough of their childish performance. ‘Yeah, yeah,’ I said. ‘It’s everywhere.’ I started the engine and prepared to go, but could still hear their excited conversation.
‘Call the fleet,’ Zaldec said. ‘Cancel Omicron 3. Full scale invasion of this planet, whatever it’s called.’
‘Morrison’s, I think,’ his partner replied. She waved back at me and called out, ‘Thanks, Mr Cabbie!’
I did a three point turn to head off home and glanced at them heading towards a playing field further inside the park. Through my open window I could hear the princess say, ‘The fleet will be here in twenty four hours. They’re charging their weapons as we speak.’
‘Good, good,’ he replied.
And then before them appeared a flickering light. On and off it went, and when on seemed to reveal a shape. A mechanical shape. After a couple of seconds the shape became permanent, revealing its true identity. Standing upon three supporting legs, a disc-shaped object reared above the treetops, adorned with flashing lights and topped with a glass dome. A silver ramp rolled out from its underbelly, its end gently touching the grass beneath, under which lay the treasure these curious entities sought.
I couldn’t positively I.D. it as a class IV Star Cruiser, but it was clearly the sort of thing that was designed to cruise amongst the stars.
Twenty four hours, she’d said. Tomorrow. A fleet of heavily armed space ships descending upon the earth to strip it of all its soil? There’s only one thing I can think of to say about this, my readers —
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