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[PART 1.]

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 that day when Robin arrived at the canteen for his lunch, and Sarah warned that it was probably best if he didn’t go there again. And so every day, Robin would eat his lunch out in the forest, mostly in the rain. One afternoon, Sarah joined him.

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

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

“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-efficiency.” She looked up at Robin, her eyes suddenly keen. “So what have you been doing? You’ve been very quiet recently…?”

“I’m 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 wiped its body on her jeans.

There was silence. Then 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. The dog appeared to be having the time of his life; his beady eyes protruded, astonished, above the churning water. When Robin turned around, Sarah had gone, presumably back to her car. It infuriated him 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 was a small, awkward group of differently aged children; and the husbands groaned, some of them hammily and some of them seriously, at the prospect of being dragged away from the football scores. Ted had ordered the junior management to head down to the lake to 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 he met would admire the little genitals and they would attempt to stroke or flick them.

“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 erect 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 of 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 hard on 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 PA 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 gradually assumed a 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 should begin to head over to the lake for the barbecue. Ted and the other managers led the way, whilst 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 mud, to a gigantic pillar of what appeared to be smoke – but what was almost certainly steam – rising from within the plant. He understood at once 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 hardware and software which, in some instances, he had taken years to design. He 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 to under no circumstances approach the launch site. The Ministry of Defence was notified of the unfolding events.

Ted called Robin on his mobile.

When Robin answered the phone, he sounded in an unusually 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. Despite herself, Sarah was 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 replied.

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 joyously, 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.

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