Fiction Special: Moonbat.


Prefatory Remarks.

The Man in the Moon heard the far bellow; “Oho,” quoth he, “the old earth is frolicsome to-night!”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”

On his death bed, Harold Szczesny, the proprietor of an apparently unexceptional waffle house on Route 70, revealed to his family that the Apollo moon landings had been filmed in the car park behind his restaurant. Szczesny and Thomas O Paine, the Chief Administrator of NASA, had each owned half of a trampoline as kids, and the pair had always remained firm friends, despite the wildly divergent roads which the years had led them down. The Chief Administrator and his staff had descended upon the waffle house for an afternoon, informing the bemused diners that they were filming a toothpaste commercial. Szczesny’s job had been to supply the beers and food. Disorientated NASA “astronauts” packed with LSD were released from the back of a van. In boots cushioned with springs, they bounced around a small lunar landscape, exclaiming at the colours.

By mid afternoon, the NASA employees had drunk all of the beers and they were milling around the diner, pestering the waitresses. Filming had got off to a slow start – an overexcited dog kept running around the set – and the last landing was abruptly terminated at the first signs of rain. Szczesny’s family had soon sold their story to Newsweek, whose subsequent investigation discovered that, unbeknown to Szczesny, the thirty billion dollars which Congress had allocated to pay for these films was split between a clique of NASA officials, and that a lot of it was eventually invested in pornographic cinema.

There were weeks of uproar in the media. The government of the United States announced that it would rectify the mistake and put a man on the moon within months – a claim which was greeted with worldwide derision. Man’s first authentic voyage to the moon would be something of a chore – a weary duty, comparable to retyping a document which had been accidentally deleted by a crashing computer. But the voyage remained necessary as humanity had been subtly but horribly unnerved by NASA’s deception. When late twentieth-century man had looked up at the moon – in those odd, shivery moments of happenstance when one finds oneself alone with it – at some level of consciousness, he had felt a rare, generous satisfaction with modernity, as if it was truly affirmed by the conquest of the moon. Yet now the moon intruded audaciously over the known world: a truly alien presence, more sharp and brilliant and magical than everything laid out below. The U.S. was not the only nation to unilaterally announce its intentions upon the moon – and indeed several multinational corporations and religious organisations, including al-Qaeda, had presented themselves as suitors. The United Nations hurriedly appointed itself the official chaperone of humanity in its courtship of the moon, whilst demanding that the U.S. pay for its expedition and furnish all of the necessary research and technology.

As a new space race escalated, the British arms company Corby International – which built weapons systems for Third World governments – was effectively nationalised and ordered to provide a rocket capable of delivering a manned mission to the moon. The British government was officially committed to the United Nations’ moon mission, but, like everybody else, it was secretly scheming to put one of its own citizens on the moon first. It should be noted that in the digital age, a moon voyage does not necessarily require the most cutting edge technology and such a thing is not beyond the resources of any prosperous nation. The West was mortified by the prospect that China, India, or Russia could get to the moon first. In a press conference that summer, the U.S. President refused to dismiss the possibility that his armed forces would shoot down any foreign attempt upon the moon. There was widespread horror weeks later when China and Venezuela signed a treaty which made it theoretically possible for the former to post missiles within range of NASA’s Texas and New Mexico space centres. In the same week, the airline Easyjet claimed that it was days away from a moon launch, rocketing its shares almost over the moon, until confidence in Easyjet abruptly collapsed and the airline was bankrupted.

Despite numbering amongst Corby International’s senior engineers, Robin had still not yet received security clearance for the buildings where Corby’s rocket was being designed. And then, bizarrely, his manager, Ted Worthington, had given him a new assignment: compiling a dossier which would be presented to a delegation from Banta Fasa. Uncertain that this was a real nation, Robin had typed the name into Wikipedia, whereupon he had read a short article on Banta Fasa’s history, ethnic makeup, chief exports, and its protracted border dispute with Chad. Later, at around three in the morning, Robin had awoken with the sudden conviction that his manager had himself written the Wikipedia article. Unable to sleep, Robin had put on a dressing gown and he had trotted across to the plant’s computer laboratory. He was unsurprised to find the lab deserted, the heating turned off, and darkened rows of hibernating computers. He jiggled briskly about to active the lights.

Robin sat at a computer and began to type, but his progress was checked by an terse little message.

A sleepy lab technician emerged from his glass tank, wondering why the lights were on. “Hey? My password has expired!” Robin hollered at the technician.

The technician took a step forward. He looked flustered. “It’s the middle of the night…?”

“My password has expired.” Robin repeated.

The technician approached Robin, but then veered back towards his tank. He was shaking his head, agitated. He then spun abruptly around to face Robin.

“I mean! You want to access your account now?” The technician was pacing around the computers, gnashing slightly, his whole head a deep red. “What the devil are you playing at…?”

“Can you give me a new password? Now?”

The technician froze at this. “I’ll have to contact head office!” he exploded.

Corby’s facilities included a research centre, a manufacturing plant, offices, and staff accommodation. They were all piled up shapelessly around one side of a small lake, in corrugated brown glass and beige concrete. The next morning Robin – finding himself inexplicably cut off from all internet access on the compound – had taken his dog for a walk around the little forest on the far side of the lake. It was common for the employees who boarded to abandon their unwanted furniture in the forest, and Robin would try and salvage what he could. The shore of the lake was thick with old Christmas trees, which Robin had yearly pulled out of the compound’s bins and made a great point of replanting. Today, his attention was captured by a large brown sofa, which rested in a clearing in the forest.

“May I ask what you’re doing sir?”

Shirt sleeves rolled up, bright beads of sweat on his forehead, Robin paused. He had pushed the sofa all the way around the lake and he was now half way across the plant’s gigantic car park.

The security guard leaned out the window of his car. “Sir?”

“Do you intend to bring that back on to the site sir?”

“May I remind you that the warden has to approve any new furniture, sir? Fire prevention…”

A little mouse zipped out of the bottom of the sofa and trickled off under one of the cars. Robin hoped that this had escaped the attention of the security guard, but his own dog was yapping excitedly. Then another mouse zipped out of the sofa and the dog was running round and round the sofa in total uproar, burying his nose in the softer parts and yelping at the emergency.

“I think you’d better leave that sofa with us, sir.”

Robin had lunch with Sarah in the staff canteen. The twelve Malaysian staff who manned the canteen had collectively fallen out with Robin after he had campaigned, unsuccessfully, for all of its food to be sourced locally. The Malaysians knew about twenty words of English between them, and were not equipped for the ethical enlightenment which Robin had daily tried to subject them to. “Enough of you. Enough of you today,” they would jabber, as Robin tried to force them to read certain lines from leaflets and fact-sheets. Once, to spite him, they had removed the vegetarian option  – a soggy baked potato – from the menu. Robin had dramatically declared that he was phoning the police – it was illegal for a restaurant not to provide food for vegetarians. Managers had intervened, the day’s baked potato had been fished out of the bin and hastily presented to Robin, and several of the engineers had ventured into the kitchens, to commiserate with the defeated Malaysians and diplomatically reassure them that Robin really was “a prick.”

Sarah had been Robin’s research assistant – in the old days when he had been in love with his work. She had been rapidly promoted, but would often, rather protectively, assert that this was only because of Robin’s “influence” and his “inspiring approach.”

“So how is the moon rocket going?” Robin asked, as if only mildly curious.

Sarah smiled. “We would benefit from your input Robin. Your energy. We’re suddenly unsure that the whole thing is safe – that it’s possible. Yesterday they were worried about solar winds killing the astronauts before they got to the moon. They were terrified that the astronauts would be too sick and disorientated for the lunar press conference. And today they were suddenly unsure that the astronauts’ digestive systems will function without gravity – there’s nothing to stop the contents of their stomachs simply floating up and out and away –  unless the astronauts repeatedly swallow – which could lead to a lot of embarrassment in that press conference…”

Robin felt momentarily very sharp, as if a fleet of bubbles had risen in his mind, but then he looked away and inwardly sighed determinedly.

“The astronauts are all graduates,” Sarah continued, “and to begin with they were all pretty and sincere – very New Labour – but they looked utterly wretched this morning, the whole pack of them.” She laughed happily.

“Listen Sarah…” Robin looked down into his food. “Can you get me security clearance and an internet password?”

Sarah shook her head and frowned. “They’ll need you Robin,” she insisted. “They can’t manage without you this time…”

Robin snarled. “Do you know what it’s fucking about? A settlement. An elite settlement. They’ve ruined this planet beyond repair, they know that. And they know the money that can be squeezed out of the moon – by developing communities, accommodation, on the moon…”

Sarah laughed hopelessly. “Who Robin…?”

The Americans!” The diners at the adjacent table cowered involuntarily. “The U.S. military are fully aware of the damage done to our ecosystem – they know that the planet will soon be unfit for humans to live upon – and they want to resettle the elite, the rich, the executive class, Wall Street, upon the moon. They want to seize this strategic resource for the use of the U.S. military, the U.S. government, and then build offices on the moon. It’s a strategic capitalist investment!”

Sarah smiled sadly.

At the same time that Robin and Sarah were having lunch, Robin’s manager, Ted Worthington, was fielding a phone call from an incandescent security guard. “I know it’s really not for me to say, but he’s gone too far and this is too much, and you’ll have to take responsibility for this. This isn’t my job. It’s your responsibility. If not, well I’m sorry, but I’m just going to have to take this to my union…”

“Did you say something about mice, Rab?” Ted asked brightly.

“He brought a sofa to my office – a sofa that he found out in the woods, apparently – and there are about fifty mice living in it! Well…” the security guard laughed furiously, “…not any more! They’re now running around my office. Everywhere. They’re not even frightened! They’re all running about in front of me…”

With sudden wonder, Ted realised that he could hear dozens of little voices very faintly chirping down the phone.

“Call pest control. This is a job for the warden,” Ted suggested.

“It’s not the mice, it’s the sofa!” the security guard hissed. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Just put it back in the forest.”

“That’s illegal,” the security guard said firmly.

“Burn it then…”

“That’s illegal too…”

“Well, it’s nice to have spoken to you…” Ted said, putting the phone down quickly. He yanked the cord out the wall. Then, with irritation, he plugged the cord back into the wall and he hastily phoned his secretary. She too was banging on about mice – one had apparently tunnelled through the office’s packet of biscuits, and she could now hear it bumping about in the wall beside her. “Find Robin and send him to me, if you would,” Ted told her.

On his way to Ted’s office, Robin met a pest control officer, and during the subsequent confrontation he grabbed the officer’s bag and emptied its contents out of the window. “A mouse is a living creature. We have to learn to share the world with these incredible animals…” Robin lectured. Within an instant, the officer had punched him smartly in the face and he was stalking away, leaving Robin gasping with shock.

“Robin!” Ted exclaimed. “You’re bleeding!”

“I’ll send you a report about it,” Robin said. “A report of complaint,” he added ominously.

“Somebody give you the beating you deserve, eh?”

“The report on Banta Fasa is coming along… slowly,” Robin reported gloomily.

“I’m sorry…?” Ted blinked at him.

“Err… Banta Fasa?”

“I thought you were doing a report on bio-fuels? Missiles powered by potato peelings and leftover sprouts…?”

Robin smiled, suddenly reminded that he had designed a cruise missile which ran on algae. Corby International had declined to patent the weapon.

Ted frowned. “As I recall you resigned from my research project because you insisted that all the missiles should have been fuelled with… well, you know the drill.” Ted rather liked this engineer – on the days when his sense of humour made an appearance – (which had been less and less lately) – Robin made him laugh uncontrollably, until he felt overwhelmed and cowed, and he was inexplicably reminded of that enchanted purple plant which causes cats to roll in it until it is flattened. Ted felt protective towards Robin, but he had recently started to contemplate transferring him to another, lesser, department. Ted had a responsibility to anticipate all of the unpleasantness which would arise from Robin’s inevitable demotion. “Robin, why don’t you just leave here and join, oh I don’t know… Greenpeace? Friends of the Earth? You’re unmarried. You drink like you‘re fifteen. You’re the only one of the engineers to smoke marijuana, rather than “experiment” with it. Here, your work needs to be your life, Robin. Corby was a mistake. You’re still young…”

Robin shook the questions away, scowling.

“The moon team may require your services, although, frankly, they’re appalled by you. And I know what will happen…” Ted despaired suddenly. “They’ll want to send a cat into space or something, and you’ll be banging the old drum… Jesus!”

Robin remembered something. “You or somebody has suspended my security clearance… I can’t get access to half the plant, or the internet.”

“Get used to it,” Ted advised. “It’s a miracle that they didn’t sack you when we first won the contract for the rocket. You should be warned that your future is uncertain and that it’s probably best to make plans. We’ll keep you on for a little while yet – with the way that the world is going, there may be a chance that a “progressive” nation – I don’t know, Finland or Denmark – might want a eco-friendly tank or something…”

Two months later, an escalating rodent infestation shut down half the plant. The moon project was expecting an immanent visit from the defence minister, and there were frantic efforts to bring the plant back under human governance before she arrived. Ted was unable to shake from his mind an odd image of the minister standing on a table, screaming and trying to hold down a short skirt, whilst senior managers chased mice around the carpet with brooms. The warehouse housing the rocket was closed and the moon team had to transfer to new offices. There were angry scenes when Robin arrived at the canteen for his lunch, and Sarah warned him that it was probably best if he did not go there again. And so every day, Robin would eat his lunch in the forest, mostly in the rain. One afternoon, Sarah joined him.

“How is the moon trip coming along?” Robin asked uncertainly.

“You’ve put it back several weeks!” Sarah scolded him. “Your mice chewed through all sorts of wires… We’re still discovering the damage that they’ve done…”

“So when will the launch be? I heard that China is almost there…”

“Nobody knows. To be honest, it could be years. They’ll probably be a car park and a tourist information by the time that we get there.” Sarah munched unhappily on her sandwich and she watched an ant busying itself around her lunchbox. “The rocket is almost assembled – we’re still reading through all the paperwork provided by the contractors, who are fucking useless by the way – and there are lots of problems, most of them involving fuel.” She looked up at Robin, her eyes suddenly keen. “What have you been doing? You’ve been very quiet recently…?”

“I’ve been writing a chapter for a book entitled Sewage and the Green Community. It’s about… well, you’ve heard most of it from me before. I think that it’s published by some university in the Peak District.”

Sarah shook her head. She thoughtlessly blotted out the adventuring ant with her thumb and then wiped its body on her jeans.

There was silence. Something cawed overhead.

“You can’t have spent all those weeks just writing one chapter?”

Robin looked away. Tentatively, on her elbows, Sarah shuffled a little nearer to him.

“Are you going to the staff picnic?” she sung, knowing what the answer would be.

“I imagine that they‘ll probably murder me,” Robin said grumpily.

“Oh no… Not everybody hates you. People still admire you, Robin. Like they did. You’re a character…”

Robin glared into the lake. “Oh Robin…” Sarah pleaded, “… don’t you ever want to try making love? Just to try…?”

Robin stood up. He watched his dog paddling aimlessly about in the lake. The dog appeared to be having the time of his life; his beady little eyes protruded, astonished, above the churning water. When Robin turned around, Sarah had gone, presumably back to her car. It infuriated Robin that she had used a car to travel the half mile into the forest. He then spied her handbag lying beside her lunchbox.

This made things a lot easier.

Late on the following Saturday afternoon, Corby International’s staff gathered in the only bar on the site. Families were encouraged to attend, there were a small, awkward group of differently-aged children, and the husbands groaned at the prospect of being dragged away from the football scores. Ted had ordered some of his junior staff to head down to the lake and set up the barbecue. Yet moments later his secretary returned, panting for breath, to announce that there was “a problem with the lake…”

“Swans?” Ted barked. He was already unsteady with alcohol. Ted was wearing a plastic apron depicting a naked male torso, complete with a little toy cock and balls. Everyone whom he met would admire this novelty and they would attempt to stroke or flick the little cock.

“It’s smaller. The lake is shrinking.”

Ted was interested by this vague suggestion of disaster, but he was immediately distracted by the arrival of a bouncy castle and he had to supervise its inflation. No sooner was the castle splendidly erected than Ted was bombarded with demands to draw the raffle. He was incredulous.

“It’s too early!” he protested. “Surely after the barbecue…?”

But it appeared that the best time to draw the raffle was before the barbecue, when they were all inside. Did he not remember the year when half the raffle tickets had blown away and many of the ticket holders had demanded their money back?

“If we do it before dinner, then the poor winners will have to lug their prizes around all evening, and that will be rather awkward for them…”

No, it was okay. Security would take custody of the prizes and hold them in safe keeping until the barbecue was over.

And so Ted began to address the assembled staff through a portable P.A. system, which was otherwise only ever used to communicate with the evacuated crowds during the annual all-departmental fire drill. Bystanders were invited to draw tickets from a wastepaper basket and a procession of winners, all giggling foolishly, marched up to receive their prizes. It was an uneasy presentation, conducted largely in silence, and it had an awkward, slightly-crazed appearance, as if directed at gunpoint. The proceedings were punctuated by weaker and weaker rounds of applause. Once the raffle was over, the staff, mistaking restlessness for hunger, together reached the conclusion that they had best head over to the lake for the barbecue. Ted and the other managers lead the way, and staff, families, and objecting children all trooped after them.

When they got to the lake, it was gone.

A large plain of grey mud lay in its place. A lone dog ran round and round in circles on the mud, barking at the news!

Dumbfounded, Ted tore his gaze away from the place where the lake had been, to a gigantic pillar of what appeared to be smoke – but what was almost certainly steam – rising from within the plant. He immediately understood who was behind this…

Robin had accessed the launch site on the previous afternoon, using the security pass which he had stolen from Sarah’s handbag. He had spent the night customising the rocket, installing software and hardware which, in some instances, he had spent years designing. Robin had then used pneumatic pumps to drain the lake and he was now boiling the water to leave the vegetable deposit, principally algae, with which he intended to fuel the rocket. It was, of course, not quite his rocket. A mob of outraged engineers was racing towards the launch site before their managers collected the wits to order them back. The site was profoundly unsafe. Security was ordered to evacuate anybody left in the plant, but under no circumstances to approach the launch site. The Ministry of Defence were notified of the unfolding events.

Ted called Robin on his mobile.

When Robin answered the phone, he sounded in quite a good mood. “I say, Ted, have you seen my dog? He’s supposed to be my co-pilot.”

“Yes, well done Robin. I suppose you think that this is funny?” Ted snapped. “Where’s our lake, eh? This is supposed to be an attractive lakeside manufacturing complex. Now all we have is a bloody crater!”

Robin heard the sound of fumbling down the phone, and Ted’s harrumphing was replaced with a mild, severe voice. “Robin, I know you stole my security pass,” Sarah said. “But you’re not going to fly that thing are you? Please, Robin…”

“If I survive the trip to the moon, I won’t have enough fuel to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere,” Robin declared grandly. Sarah found herself repelled and she clicked with exasperation.

Please Robin, be sensible. Okay, so you think that biofuels are a viable option? Now step back. Let us assess your research. Peer review. We’re a good team Robin and it’s all about teamwork isn’t it? For God’s sake, don’t do anything foolish…”

“Goodbye, Sarah,” Robin said firmly.

There was the sound of more fumbling. “But what do you hope to achieve?” Ted’s voice broke in. “What can one environmentalist on the moon possibly achieve? How does it help anybody…?”

Robin paused. “I just need to be there,” he said finally. “I’ll work it out when I get there.” Not knowing how to add to this, he hung up. Robin’s dog arrived at his heels, barking happily, and the pair of them climbed up into the rocket without looking back.

The engineers returned to their barbecue, on the shores of an empty lake. Presently, a thirty foot rocket shot up out of the plant. For a while, it appeared motionless, bright against the blue sky, but gradually the attention of the engineers was captured by other things and, later, when they looked, it was no longer there. Ted suggested that now that the lake was gone, the spare land would come in useful for parking.

The End.


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