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At some point in mid-July it finally happened. The motorway hold-ups had been getting more and more unpredictable, with queues sometimes up to 20 miles long. At the same time the air traffic congestion in Europe’s skies had been every bit as bad as people had forecast; the knock-on effect meant that passengers found themselves sleeping on the departure lounge floor at Gatwick simply because their plane had not yet taken off from Majorca. And then, as I said, it finally happened; in mid-July one motorway snarl-up actually linked with a particularly bad air traffic backlog and became Britain’s first combined road/air jam. The chaos inside Heathrow caused a tailback to the approach road. The jam on the approach road reached back to the M4, and then to the M25. A man on the M25 trying to get to an appointment in Chertsey found himself baking in a snarl-up because a charter plane had not yet been given a take-off time from Faro. Everyone was incredibly depressed about the whole experience except for a man called Redhead, who kept chuckling on Radio 4, and two extra-terrestrial beings called Glank and Tward, who were monitoring operations from a remote planet called Alpha XV111 (basement flat).

It isn’t generally realised that our planetary traffic is controlled from Alpha XV111 (basement flat) in the same way that our traffic in London is controlled by police computers. It doesn’t seem to do our London traffic much good, you may say, and I’m afraid that much the same goes for the surveillance from Alpha XV111, where Glunk and Tward have to look after the traffic of up to forty solar systems.

“Uh huh,” said Glunk. “Flashing light somewhere in the Sun quadrant. Trouble, trouble.”

“Martian canal pile-up?” said Tward distractedly. He was trying to wrestle with a melt-down in air travel in the Plough. He had managed to limit loss of life, but all the baggage of the constellations had gone on to Arcturus.

“No, it’s Earth again. Air congestion and land standstill have achieved fusion. “

 “I don’t believe it,” said Tward, coming over and standing behind several of Glank’s shoulders. “I thought we’d cleared up Earth’s problems years ago.”

“So did I,” said Glank. “As I remember, we had to discourage their mania for global air travel in search of the sun’s rays.”

“That’s right!” said Tward. “We found they were the only universe folk who derived pleasure from exposure to deadly solar emanations. New problem, new solution. What the hell was it?”

He pressed a button enquiringly. The read-out said GREENHOUSE EFFECT.

“It’s coming back now. We reckoned that if they had solar heat at home, they would not need to travel, so we created a greenhouse effect to boost bank holidays. We backed this up with a pollution programme to rot away the antiquities  they loved to visit, and to poison the waters in which they loved to swim. Result: reduction of air travel by over half.”

“Which has not happened,” said Tward.

WHY NOT? Glank asked the machine, though not in those words. There was a short pause, broken only by the alarm bells signifying that pedestrian rioting had broken out on a moon near Arcturus, as the result of an unexpected arrival of four billion tons of unclaimed baggage. Then the computer read-out told Glank: EARTH TRAVEL BUILD UP CONTINUES, IN ACCORDANCE WITH WAR AVOIDANCE PROGRAMME.

“What on Alpha is a war avoidance programme?” Said Tward. They asked the computer. It told them. Apparently the planet earth had been shaken by global war 50 years previously, which it was thought unwise to allow again. The martial instinct on Earth was connected with an urge to invade and occupy the territory of others, so the Alpha XV111 authorities had devised a programme of sublimating this urge in to a mania for travel. Every year millions of Earth people went for two or three weeks exhausting, debilitating, expensive and disagreeable travel, and came back saying they had had a good time. The urge to invade and occupy having been satisfied, there had been no major war for fifty years.

“That’s all fine and dandy” said Glank, “but it overrides our traffic control schemes. The greenhouse effect, the pollution, the end of fossil fuels – we’ve put all this into action to cut down on traffic flow, and this blasted war avoidance programme is making them travel even more. Plus they’ve now got the greenhouse effect, pollution, etc.”

“We’ve really mucked this one up,’ said Tward.

There was another bell somewhere in the system.

“Lunch,” said Tward. “Let’s come back and tackle earth afterwards.”

They left the room and everything went quiet. Only the red light reporting baggage melt-down from Arcturus went on winking…

The Independent 1990


© Caroline Kington