In the morning mist that hung above a broad bend of the river, a heron stood, hunched and brooding, beside the reeds. A pair of egrets darted here and there, and now and then a sleek cormorant surfaced, looked around, and dived again. The still water reflected tall trees on the bank, and from them came the spring songs of many small birds.
Abruptly, the birds ceased singing. The heron jerked out of its reverie and the cormorant, twisting its black neck, scanned the sky. A disc-shaped object was descending from the north fast and silent, bright lights flashing. It skimmed the water, and there was a hiss of steam; the egrets scrambled out of its path, and floated up into the branches. The disc bounced gently a few times, came to a halt, and morphed into a big black cruise boat. The birds resumed their singing.
Aboard the boat, rows of passengers in white plastic armour sat stiffly on the benches. On the bridge, a tall figure in a black helmet and robe raised a megaphone to his masked face. “I am the Dart Invader. Troopers, your attention.”
One of the passengers prodded his neighbour. “Look, a seal!” he hissed from within his mask.
“Attention!” the Invader intoned though his ventilator.
“I didn’t see anything,” muttered the other. “But then I haven’t got an outside seat.”
The Invader glared at the two, and they fell silent. “Now, listen carefully. On your right you will see a majestic 18th century Palladian villa, set in Capability Brown-designed grounds. That is our target. The Force is especially strong here, and the Emperor wants the whole place for the Dark Side. Half of you will come with me to rip out the vineyard using lightsabres, and cover it with pebbles; it will be a car park. We will obliterate the walls of the kitchen garden and tarmac it over , and it will become a shuttle pad. We will also rip up the forest beyond that point” – he pointed – “and install a shopping mall with a MacDonald’s, a Costa, a Wetherspoon’s, ten-pin bowling and a multiplex cinema.
“Everyone forward from the bridge: you will erect metal barricades alongside the river for a mile either side of the house, so that nobody will be able to see the beautiful bits unless they pay.”
One of the Troopers raised a hand. “But if we do that, the beautiful bits won’t be beautiful any more.”
“Well, leave room between the water level and the barricades, for those who pay. They can stand with their backs to the wall.”
Another hand went up. “High or low tide, sir?”
“Work it out,” said the Invader ominously.
A Trooper sitting near the front spoke out. “But the animals won’t be able to get to the river to drink.”
“If they can pay, they can pass.”
“But, sir, the animals on this planet don’t have money – “
He breathed heavily into his ventilator. “Then they cannot drink.”
The Troopers exchanged glances with others in their row.
The Invader waved his blaster. “Get up. As we go downriver I want you to storm the banks, ten at a time. Shoot any humans on sight – and don’t miss!”
The first ten Troopers surged over the side and swum to the shore, some using breast stroke and some front crawl, with one or two doing doggy paddle. When they reached the reeds they were forced to crawl through red mud to reach solid ground, sullying their white suits.
Then over the edge they went in tens, as the cruiser navigated slowly around the great bend, passing between red buoys to avoid tidal mud banks. The last party scrambled out and into the woods, drawing their blasters as they splashed through vermillion puddles on the track.
“Now,” said the Dart Invader to the remaining few, “we will sail as far as that point”– he pointed – “and erect a giant gate across the river, to prevent any vessels coming up from the port and interfering with our plan. We need to have this finished by the time the Emperor arrives”
It was high noon on a hot September day when the Eta-class shuttle decelerated across the moor, and tracked south west across the town, and on towards the bend in the river. Emperor Insidious looked eagerly out of the window for the new Dark Side Earthpost.
“The shuttle pad is just behind the house,” he told his pilot.
“There’s nothing there, sir” the pilot called over his shoulder. “My scanner is showing a – a vegetable patch. Oh, are those artichokes?”
“A vegetable patch?” growled Insidious, craning his neck to peer below. He saw no barricades beside the river, and only a strip of forest where the shopping mall should be. “Land wherever you can,” he ordered the pilot, and sat back in his seat, scowling. Something had gone badly wrong.
They skimmed low over a field of sheep who scattered, leaping wildly, in all directions. The pilot put the shuttle down on the only piece of flat land he could find. It was filled with human cars, but he managed to find a space at the end of a row.
Insidious leapt out and strode down the hill, his robe billowing behind him on the warm breeze. The road turned – to reveal another bend. And another. And another. Insidious was getting hot in his hooded black apparel… and then below him in a cattle yard, he saw a man wearing a green coverall and wellington boots. The man span round, saw him, and reached for a pitchfork.
The Emperor raised his hand menacingly.
“Don’t kill me!” shouted the cowman. “I’m a Trooper!”
The Emperor hesitated.
“Anyway, you can’t go in there with your lightning bolts; we’re having an Open Day!”
Insidious raised his hand again. “For this you shall die!” Blue energy crackled towards the cowtrooper, who leapt sideways and rolled over a straw bale. Insidious strode towards him.
“Don’t!” shouted the cowtrooper. “Let me tell you everything.”
Insidious, if truth be told, was puzzled, and unsure how to proceed. He had given his newly promoted Dart Invader clear instructions: what had gone wrong?
“Alright.” He sat down on the straw. “But you had better give me the truth!”
“Well, when we arrived, a morning mist was hanging over the river, and egrets –”
Insidious snarled, revealing crumbling teeth. “Cut the nature diary! Where is the Dart Invader?”
“Oh, Vader! Well, he sailed along to the point” – he gestured – “and disembarked. There, on a length of auspicious rune-carved stone, sat an old man: very small, pointy-eared, cross-legged. Vader says he reached for his blaster, but something stayed his hand. They talked; no-one knows what was said, but by the end of their conversation Vader had decided he wanted to learn mindfulness. He came and found us – we had only just started preparations for the Destruction – and he insisted that we all attend mindfulness courses too.
“It’s hard to explain, sir, but within a short time none of us felt like putting in barricades, or tearing up the forest. We decided to stay, and now all of the Troopers have tasks here. Some work the vineyards, others help with catering, and me – well, as you can see, I look after the cattle.”
“And the Dart Invader?”
“Vader works up at the burial grounds. But he’s here today, sir, to help with Apple Day.”
Insidious glared. “Show me this Apple Day.”
They walked together towards the buildings, and approached a desk with an ‘Entrance’ sign. The Emperor slid his hand within his robe. “How much is it?”
“Entrance is free if you didn’t come by car,” smiled the man at the desk. Insidious peered at him: the voice was slightly familiar… but the cowtrooper was tugging his arm. “This way!”
They walked past a table on the grass where children were drawing trees. A young woman smiled up at him, holding out a pastel. “Like to have a go?”
Insidious had loved drawing as a child. He sat down, looked at the work of the boy next to him, and began to draw his own tree, leaning across the table to get more pastels so he could do multi-coloured leaves. “Very good!” said the young woman, and he felt a strange glow of heat in his chest as he stood up. It was not unpleasant.
Next, he and the cowtrooper went over to a wooden apple press, where the Emperor lent his strength to pulling on the levers. He noticed a sense of immense satisfaction as golden liquid trickled into the bucket below.
Hearing singing, he followed the sound, and discovered a choir warming up their lovely voices beside a mellow wall of the perfectly proportioned house. The leader, a tall dark woman, waved eagerly for him to join in. “We need another bass!” Seeing him hesitate, she added, “The songs are all easy. You’ll pick them up.” He pulled an ‘I don’t know’ face. She nodded, beaming, and Insidious found he couldn’t resist. After twenty minutes of singing, he walked away, oddly elated.
Over the course of the afternoon he came third in a race in the Apple Olympics, joined in a circle dance, found a hidden wooden apple under a stone trough, and bought a bottle of apple juice, and drank it.
People were starting to leave, laughing and smiling as they passed, clutching their wooden apples, bottles of juice and rolled up sheets of A2. Some of them were singing. Insidious felt a presence at his elbow, and turned to see the pilot. “Sir, I came to look for you. You were gone ages! Can we go now?”
The Emperor looked around. “But there is all this to clear up! I’d like to help.”
The pilot shrugged. “You help if you like, but I have to get the shuttle back to the Galactic Empire. Are you coming, or not?”
“Stay, Sid,” said the cowtrooper, laying a gentle hand on the Emperor’s arm. “You’d be welcome, and there’s plenty of room. There’s a new mindfulness course starting tomorrow…”
“Sir,” said the pilot, “are you coming, or not?”
Sid grinned slowly, revealing a piece of apple skin wedged between his teeth. “Not,” he said. “Not!”
He threw back his hood, and laughed so loudly that it woke the heron from his dreams.