“The Man in the Moon heard the far bellow; “Oho,” quoth he, “the old earth is frolicsome to-night!””
Nathaniel Hawthorne, “My Kinsman, Major Molineaux.”
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. As old friends do, the pair had stuck together over the years, continuing to obtain sheer relief from each other’s company. A small, shared piece of their childhoods had been kept clear and nothing which cast a shadow had been allowed to grow up over it. Paine’s cynicism, though respectable in its supply, had not proved robust enough for the deceitfulness of NASA’s instructions. Before his eyes, NASA had shrivelled from a mission to increase human knowledge into something like the stunts department of Hollywood. When he decided to rope in Szczesny, Paine ran the risk of polluting a friendship which seemed truer than most of the things in his life. But he needed that relief, the nostalgic comfort, almost as a way of reconnecting with the nobility in the American character.
And so the Chief Administrator and his staff had descended upon the waffle house for an afternoon, informing the diners that they were filming a toothpaste commercial. Szczesny’s job had been to provide 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 starting on the waitresses. Filming had gotten 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.
After Szczesny’s death, his family sold their story to Newsweek and there were weeks of uproar in the media. The President of the USA announced that he 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 he found himself alone with it – he had at some level of consciousness felt a rare, generous satisfaction with modernity. It seemed to be put beyond doubt by the conquest of the moon. Now, however, the moon intruded audaciously over the known world: a truly alien presence, more sharp and brilliant and magical than everything laid out below.
The USA was not the only nation to unilaterally announce its intentions upon the moon. Indeed several multinational corporations and religious organisations, including Al-Qaeda, also presented themselves as suitors. The UN hurriedly appointed itself the official chaperone of humanity in its courtship of the moon, whilst demanding that the USA 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 UN’s 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 require the most cutting edge technology and such a thing is not beyond the resources of many nations. 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 President of the USA 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 swiftly 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 whether 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 danced about to activate the lights.
Robin sat at a computer and began to type, but his progress was checked by a 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 crimsoning.
“Can you give me a new password? Now?”
The technician froze at this. “I’ll have to contact head office!” he squealed, shooting back to life with a jolt.
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 to 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.
“May I ask what you’re doing, sir?”
His 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 appeared to know about twenty words of English between them, and were not equipped to fend off Robin’s infinite fund of justifications for local sourcing. “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 “moral seriousness.” She gave the impression that moral seriousness was some rare, profound quality which nobody else in the organisation possessed.
“So how is the moon rocket going?” Robin probed, 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 their press conference…”
Robin felt momentarily very sharp, as if a fleet of bubbles had risen in his mind, but he then looked away and inwardly sighed determinedly.
“The astronauts are all graduates,” Sarah continued. “To begin with they were 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 whispered, her voice suddenly off-key and conspiratorial. “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 smiled 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 on – and they want to resettle the elite, the rich, the executive class, Wall Street, on 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!”
As always, it was easiest for Sarah to agree.
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 tiny 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 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 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. He 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 take drugs seriously, rather than “experiment” with them. Here, your work needs to be your life, Robin. Corby was a mistake. You’re still young…”
Robin shook the questions away, scowling. They slunk back to their usual places, to watch and wait from afar.
“The moon team may require your services, although, frankly, they’re appalled by you. And I know what will happen…” Ted despaired suddenly. “You’ll want all the radiators in the research facility to be turned off to save energy. Half the workforce will be off with head colds again!”
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, Denmark or Finland – might want a eco-friendly tank or something…”