The city was tugging at her elbow.
It felt like that, as if the fumes, litter and rain were conspiring to irritate her. She liked cities, but this one mistrusted her. Flyovers clapped hands above, falling away in exhausted parabolas, shadowing her car but doing nothing to keep the elements at bay. The convertible was a bad idea, she realised, as she changed lanes to avoid an ancient tanker, windows tinted like a blind man’s glasses, which kicked up whole puddles of oily water to baptise her anew.
On the edge of her vision, she was aware of addicts skulking in the shadows of tenements, needles catching her headlamps and signalling like heliographs. Was there substance in these messages, ironic insights from beings who shut down veins like television channels? She passed a huddle of towers and a figure lurched onto the road before her, syringe impaled in a wrist, clutching something in a clawed hand. He seemed to tread on the pools, feet gripping the surface-tension. Swerving to avoid him, catching his disappointed wail, Melissa Sting wondered if this was not a junky but a patient from some eviscerated asylum, saturated with so much lithium he was lighter than water.
In her mirror, she watched the man dance between the vehicles. His movements were jerky as he lunged at speeding windscreens. With a start, she recognised his weapon as a sponge: he was a squeegee merchant. She awaited the collision with an abstract pity, but it did not come; he was too agile. Soon her view was blocked by other drivers: a sedan attempted to overtake her on the inside, losing its exhaust as it glanced off the safety barriers. Brown smoke merged with the drizzle and was beaten into dead rainbows in the choked gutter. A second car struck the exhaust and flipped it into the air. It curved over Melissa and landed on the grassy embankment between pavement and road.
A depression, the first of the day, enveloped her as she approached the city centre. It was nearly noon, but still dark. Though this was her first visit to Birmingham, myths of its soullessness had filtered into her sceptical consciousness. Now she had to acknowledge the truth of the stories. The environment was self-parodic, and thus essentially baroque, with tangled junctions crumbling like plaster scrolls, effluents in the canals swirling into complicated filigrees. From above, the megalopolis surely resembled a shattered portico to an extravagant tomb. Once inside it was difficult to avoid the reek of putrefaction, the taste of bruised faith. The grandeur was a stamping boot.
Only when architects allowed children to scribble on their designs, she reflected, would they understand what they were producing. Modernism tries to oppose nature, a futile battle. Lines which are clean on a page turn dirty on a street, walls succumb to graffiti, glass collects grime. Without constant attention, reality and theory divorce and it is always reality which wins custody of the populace. Architecture must work with decay rather than against it, improving with neglect. Living in a fake Gaudi house, Melissa had verified the adaptive qualities of the organic aesthetic by refusing to make repairs.
When she was feeling in a didactic mood with herself, it generally boded ill for the remainder of the day. She turned onto potholed Digbeth High Street and accelerated past the Coach Station. If Birmingham really was a tomb, then this was the actual site of the corpse: a heaving jelly of decomposing humanity, a gateway between this unsatisfactory world and the comparable hells of Wolverhampton and Coventry. As if lying in wait, a bus pulled out and tried to block her path, but she roared ahead. Like Charon ferrying souls, the driver was a bony fellow, long teeth grinding in frustration as he missed his target. His debased passengers stared at her diminishing form, tarnished coins for eyes. And for an instant, she had a metallic taste on her tongue.
She skirted the giant Bull Ring, where cattle had once been tortured to improve the flavour of the meat. Now shoppers were baited in their place by the commercial hooks of shoddy goods and pseudo-bargains. Beyond this monstrous precinct, the Rotunda kicked the grey sky like a broken femur. She cruised down New Street, proceeding as far as Victoria Square, where she stopped on a shattered pavement below the library, which she mistook for a multi-storey car-park. A guard came to escort her into the Council House, which had somehow lost part of its dome. The interior was filthy, strewn with old papers and cigarette filters. The guard ushered her into a room full of charred furniture. Holes in the roof allowed the rains to tumble in, slicking the mosaic floor.
A council official sat behind a desk in a corner of the office. The guard bowed stiffly and departed, leaving Melissa to pick a route among blocks of fallen masonry. The official shifted uncertainly, as if he had forgotten the appropriate greeting. He began to stand, thought better of it and offered a limp handshake. Behind him, nailed to the wall, dripped the new city flag, a tricolour composed of various shades of grey. Under his shirt something bulged and rustled.
“Ms Sting? I’m so pleased you could make it,” he muttered, stroking his pockmarked face. “Please sit down.”
He indicated a chair piled high with storm-damaged cardboard files. Melissa stood silently until, with a deep blush, he leant over and swept them aside. Easing herself onto the damp leather, she waited for him to say something else, but he was too shy or indifferent, it was impossible to decide which. At last she announced:
“The Lunar Commission expect my report within the week. I trust you will issue me with full security clearance?”
He was offended. “That is not a problem. All our documents will be turned over for your inspection and, naturally, you will be allowed into our research zones. We’re ahead of schedule.”
Melissa grinned. “That’s what they all say.” Turning up her collar, she huddled into the seat. With an apologetic cough, the official passed her a twisted umbrella, which she struggled to open. During this hiatus, he cleared his throat again.
“Allow me to introduce myself, Ms Sting. I am Alleneal Asherley. Not my real name, of course, but a pseudonym chosen by committee. We believe it safer not to become too informal with outside agencies. However, this initial meeting between us requires a gesture of trust, so at this point I wish to make a statement. Birmingham City Council is only a month away from founding a working moon colony.”
Melissa was unable to suppress a laugh, but compassionate enough to stifle it when she saw the pain it caused him. “This is news indeed. The front-runners are still developing their ecology systems. They’re having trouble with the hydroponics.”
“We don’t want to recreate Earth, Ms Sting. Our colonists have been adapted to cope with existing conditions.”
A violent desire to be sarcastic overwhelmed her. “What will they say in Newcastle and Oxford? There’ll be rioting in the greenhouses!” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Bookies are giving you odds of a trillion-to-one against. If what you say is true, you will be able to clean up and retire to Luton.”
Alleneal raised his eyebrows. “What other municipal authorities see fit to spend money on is none of my concern. And as you should be aware, Ms Sting, no council worker, or Lunar Commission agent for that matter, is permitted to gamble on this project.”
Melissa brushed her damp hair out of her eyes. Better not to waste time trying to decide whether he was an imbecile or joker. Probably he was both: council employees trained themselves to be inscrutable, hiding their motives even from themselves. After an awkward pause he fumbled in a soggy cardboard box under the desk and retrieved a bottle of blended whisky. She drank only malt and refused his offer of a glass, watching carefully as he filled one for himself and rotated in his swivel-chair to face the faded flag. Squeezing water from one frayed end, he swirled the mixture in his mouth and gargled.
Keeping his back to her, he confessed: “We were hoping you wouldn’t come until we’d finished. I wanted to spring a surprise on your masters. A way of getting our revenge. You said we’d never be able to do it, you hurled insults. The Commission wounded us, Ms Sting, I can tell you.” He glanced over his shoulder. “We are not all simpletons, you know. I have standards, like any other councillor.”
“Well, your municipality has a reputation for incompetence. So many other projects have been mismanaged…”
He swivelled in his chair, so forcefully he completed a full turn, his words phasing in and out of audibility as he passed her. “So that is your justification? Past mistakes have nothing to do with me!” He made a second attempt, ending up at right-angles to her. “I was appointed only at the commencement of this scheme.”
“I appreciate that. As you seem so confident, perhaps you will show me the finished plans for your colony?”
He tapped the bulge beneath his shirt. “A map of the settlement has been prepared. It’s supposed to be a secret, which is why I keep it next to my body at all times. You may view it, but I would prefer to restrict access until the end of your appraisal.”
“This is rather eccentric. Will I also be dissuaded from asking how many colonists you intend to sustain?”
He was dismissive. “Oh, all of them…”
Melissa sighed. “Yes, of course. What I meant was how many citizens do you intend to establish in your first settlement? Do they constitute a representative sample of your electorate? A breakdown of figures would be useful, based on social status, educational qualifications and ethnic origin. Do you possess such figures?”
“I object to your patronising tone, Ms Sting. It is you who fail to understand. As an egalitarian authority, we protect the interests of all our people. We intend to settle everybody.”
Before Melissa could protest at this absurdity, shouts from outside interrupted her. A sputtering grew louder overhead. She glanced up and saw, through the broken ceiling, an aeolipile descending through a bank of dark cloud. There was something wrong with its engines: the globe was tipping over, dragging the capsule at an unnatural angle. She jabbed at this sight with her umbrella, just as the contraption vanished from her field of vision. “One of yours?”
Alleneal was at her side in an instant, fists clenching, flecks of spittle creaming his words. “An intruder, Ms Sting! I’ve given orders to shoot down all aerial spies. Where are the municipal troops? They ought to be on standby. Come with me: hurry!”
She followed him out of the building. On the steps, a ragged group of men were gathering, shouldering various firearms. Melissa was amused to note the age of the weapons: bolt-action rifles and shotguns from the last century. Some guards even held blunderbusses and muskets. “Get into line!” cried the councillor. “Take aim!”
The aeolipile vanished behind the Anglican Cathedral but bobbed up a minute later, reeling towards its Catholic counterpart like a convert. The capsule crashed against the edifice, showering stained-glass over a malnourished procession of worshippers. Then the whole thing lifted and changed course again, coming back towards Colmore Circus. Waving a used handkerchief, Alleneal screamed: “Fire!”
Melissa clamped hands to ears, an unnecessary precaution. The guns jammed or misfired, bullets rolling lamely out of barrels. A mob filled Victoria Square. While excited faces peered upwards, pickpockets worked on the gullible, lifting empty wallets and cancelled food vouchers. The aeolipile, a common sight in most towns, seemed a novel diversion here, as if the hydrogen-filled spheres had never eclipsed Birmingham’s moon. The weight of past centuries suddenly pressed on her: this scene was an example of primitive street theatre.
Reinforcements arrived from the Town Hall. A ballista complete with rocket-powered harpoon was hoisted onto the roof. Rusty pulleys strained to lift the device, which was positioned on a balustrade. The aeolipile, oblivious of the danger, tumbled towards the Science Museum. By the time it reached Cornwall Street, the ballista was primed. Without waiting for the councillor’s orders, the engineers released the mechanism, sending a bolt of blue flame in a steep arc toward the invader. Melissa thought it was climbing too rapidly, but the engineers had calculated well: dipping suddenly, as if pulled by an invisible hand, the harpoon caught the apex of the orb and lodged in the fabric.
The explosion was followed by an exuberant cry, which Melissa found more startling. It was emanating from the mouth of Alleneal Asherley. For the first time since she had arrived, the city was illuminated properly. The aeolipile did not fall at once: the burning envelope peeled away and exposed the skeleton, a delicate lattice. Too beautiful for these skies, she thought glumly. The councillor was bellowing into her ear: “Keep our secrets safe, we will! Bloody foreigners!”
She ignored him and frowned as the capsule broke free and plummeted to the ground. A wild cheer went up from the crowd. Wisps of ultramarine fire dispersed on the greasy air. Melissa angled her umbrella to protect herself from the soot and molten shards.
“There might be survivors,” she pointed out. “I suggest we find out immediately. My car is parked over there.”
“Good idea, Ms Sting. We need live prisoners.”
Melissa pushed her way through the crowd to the spot where she left her convertible. She had expected the hub-caps to be missing, but it was the rest of the vehicle which was gone. She discarded her brolly with a scowl. When the councillor reached her side, panting loudly, he betrayed a perverse pride. “Best thief in the country, the Brummie opportunist!” Melissa glared at him as her four hub-caps span like buttons and came to rest, one by one, with a mocking rattle.
They travelled in the councillor’s limousine, with two bodyguards and a chauffeur, to the site of the crash. Glowing bolts from the balloon had embedded themselves in the pitted road. Tyres squealing, they clattered up Newhall Street, the limousine protesting at each gear-change. It had been requisitioned from the mayor, Alleneal explained. As she wiped her window with a sleeve to peer out, he added: “Everybody makes sacrifices for the cause. We’re a proud race.”
The frame of the aeolipile had been scattered over a wide area, but the capsule had come down in the middle of Church Street. Men in woolly hats were stooping over the pod, working at the shell with crowbars and chisels. In their striped and colourful headgear, they resembled mutant bees collecting pollen. They fled when the limousine pulled up, gaining the safety of doorways. Melissa jumped out and approached the craft. It had been completely stripped. At the heart of a bare frame, two figures sat strapped into smouldering chairs.
They were relatively uninjured, blinking in surprise. Ordering them cut free, Alleneal turned to Melissa. “Now we’ll learn what our enemies are up to. A happy accident, Ms Sting!”
“They require treatment. Aren’t you going to call an ambulance? The Commission disapproves of punitive neglect.”
“You have no authority on matters of provincial security. They are spies and will be treated accordingly.” Reaching into the web of struts, he slapped one of the occupants on a blistered cheek. “Why did you enter our airspace? What was your mission?”
“Engine failure,” the figure mumbled. “Blown off course.”
Melissa recognised the accent as educated Cardiffian. It was common knowledge the Welsh capital was having difficulties with its propulsion units. Alleneal was dangerously paranoid, she concluded. And yet she was powerless to restrain him as he instructed his bodyguards to arrest the aeronauts. While she debated what action to take, a Black Maria arrived and the hapless prisoners were bundled into the rear. Triumphantly, the councillor returned to the limousine.
The woolly-hatted men started to emerge onto the pavement. She did not relish being left alone in their company, so she climbed in beside Alleneal. The chauffeur trundled onto Edmund Street, heading back to the Council House. The return journey seemed to take longer. She tapped her fingers on a knee and asked the councillor: “How did you know it wasn’t your own aeolipile? It was unmarked.”
“A straight answer, Ms Sting. We don’t use them.”
Staring at him in disbelief, she realised he was serious. “Then you have developed a new kind of launch vehicle? This is remarkable. What is it called? Can you describe it to me?”
He rubbed his unhealthy eyes. “It is simple, Ms Sting, the guiding principle of all we seek to accomplish.”
Reluctant to divulge more, he lapsed into an affected gloom. Before they reached the square, his natural enthusiasm broke through again. “We showed those liars and saboteurs! You can’t mess with our council. Might as well slit your own perfumed throat.”
“Waste of hydrogen, though,” said Melissa.
“An academic point, Ms Sting. We have no interest in such fuels. We use gunpowder to achieve our objectives.”
This was too much for her. He was plainly testing her patience. “In the past hour,” she protested, “you’ve made a number of fatuous claims. Unless I’ve misheard, you intend to transport the entire population of Birmingham through space with the aid of firework propellant. I warn you not to insult my intelligence.”
Alleneal tapped his nose. “Be patient, Ms Sting. I will personally conduct you on a tour of our facilities and explain every aspect of our lunar bid. When you study our moon-buggies you’ll be convinced. A whole fleet of them! It will verify everything.”
“When does this tour begin?” she demanded.
“I have urgent business with my fellow councillors this afternoon. It is vital to interrogate the intruders.”
“You’re not going to provoke a war with Cardiff?”
He waved aside her fears. “Our citizens are not capable of fighting anyone other than themselves. I simply wish to determine whether we have managed to keep our preparations secret. With access to our ideas, rival councils can accelerate their own programs.”
Melissa accepted this. She examined her hair. Although the internal heaters were blowing warm air into her face, her auburn locks refused to dry. The water had a peculiar adhesive quality. She wondered if exposure to the local rain was the source of the councillor’s skin complaint. His cheeks were suggestive of selenic landscapes, repellent yet fascinating, brutal as the geology of Emmental. His rinded lips curled, rupturing the illusion. She tumbled out of his orbit.
“I’ve arranged for you to stay in one of our safest hotels,” he was saying. “My chauffeur will collect you tomorrow morning. Remain in your room, Ms Sting. Some odd people about.”
She considered this advice. At the Council House, he left her alone in the back of the limousine. It proceeded down Hill Street and into the Chinese Quarter. Eventually, the chauffeur pointed out the facade of the Arcade Hotel. This was supposed to be one of the smarter areas, but the desolation was merely more pretentious. Eroded theatres and nightclubs exhibited scars and graffiti like drunken sailors, fractured restaurants bled steam like dying turbines. It was an extra worry to be guided into the hotel lobby by the chauffeur: she might have to come to his aid. He fled before she could refuse him a tip.
Her room was at the top of the building. Long and narrow, it seemed a microcosm of the city’s mentality. Insects scuttled when she turned on the light; the furniture bristled, a wooden conspiracy of puritans; a sagging bed took her weight with a nasal moan. Her report would stress the apparent running down of infrastructure to pay for the moon project. She had encountered diversion of council funds before, most notably in Leicester and Norwich, but never on such a massive scale. Did Alleneal really enjoy the support of his people?
If he was trying to distract her with ludicrous statements, he had succeeded only in making her more determined to carry out her task. She was eager to verify his claim that Birmingham had an alternative to the aeolipile. These were standard equipment for space travel. Other methods of reaching extreme altitudes existed, but they were more expensive and less efficient. At the beginning of the century, when state-funded space programs were overtaken by private enterprise, a large number of designs had taken to the skies: the astroplane, the roton, the scramjet. But the aeolipile rendered them obsolete, a single-stage craft which carried its fuel in an inflatable envelope, using it in this form to elevate itself into the stratosphere before conventional rockets cut in to complete the escape of the planet’s gravity.
Like so many achievements in aviation history, the aeolipile was an invention of two brothers, Hans and Eric Pfaall. A giant hydrogen bubble mounted on pivots, it made use of the Magnus Effect: the tendency of an object moving sideways to rise when rotated along its horizontal plane, depending on the direction of the lateral movement. Engines protruding at right-angles from the envelope took power directly from the enclosed gas, mixing it with oxygen in a combustion chamber. To protect the crew from a possible explosion, the capsule was fitted with parachutes and slung under the sphere on cables, at a safe distance from the fuel. As the aeolipile rose and the globe deflated, the capsule was gradually winched closer. When the orb attained its service ceiling, the remaining hydrogen was pumped into the capsule, which disengaged and blasted off into orbit. The Pfaall brothers had been killed in a prototype, but the apparatus was highly reliable.
The device was such an integral part of astronautics it was assumed every council involved in the lunar colony competition would use them to carry equipment and materials into space for the construction of orbital stations. Portsmouth and Leeds had recently started work on their bases. Newcastle and Oxford had completed this stage and were already preparing for the next step of establishing a foothold on the surface of the moon. Melissa could envisage no other way of doing it, but Birmingham Council expected her to believe that gunpowder, clumsiest of propellants, was an alternative. She wondered if this was becoming a typical Brummie fiasco, comparable to the abortive Olympiad bids.
Her train of thought was interrupted by a stampede in the corridor. She stepped to her door and secured it, a moment before it was violently shaken and a voice demanded admittance.
“I will hold a fiver for you!” it boomed.
Melissa was prepared for the native attempts at intimidation. In a voice no less aggressive, she called:
“And I’ll break an arm for you…”
The panhandler moved away and Melissa reclined on the bed. For the rest of the evening, the hotel reverberated with distant oaths and sobs. She listened to indefinable sounds located in hidden cavities behind the walls, a decay both human and inanimate. Sleep evaded her and she sat by the mottled window. Soon after midnight, a series of muffled explosions tickled the city. An oscillating rumble flirted with the edges of sound, like the snoring of an unemployed giant.
The following morning, and each day thereafter, the limousine picked her up at the hotel and drove to carefully selected city sites. Alleneal was always nervous, a student sitting an exam, confident of his ability, but uncertain whether his methods would be palatable to the invigilator. As they roamed the urban decrepitude, Melissa wondered when he was going to play his trump. They passed through the gutted suburbs of Bournville and Edgbaston, which the councillor appeared to regard as personal triumphs, examples of an unspecified progress. At every crater, he fingered one of his facial pocks, as if they were analogous to the larger ruination. She found his cryptic messages infuriating.
In Aston, he gestured at the expanse of powdered brick and sawdust, the legacy of a particularly violent cataclysm. “This suburb can be seen with the naked eye, Ms Sting. No need for telescopes to appreciate the beauty of these radial fissures.”
To Melissa, it looked like the result of badly-laid carpet bombing. Was Alleneal hinting that Birmingham had engaged in unlicensed warfare? But she still believed his assertion that inter-municipal aggression on an organised scale was impossible in the Midlands. And no other council had reported a military engagement.
“An accident of some kind?” she asked.
Disappointment showed in his expression. “A carefully orchestrated operation, requiring dozens of workers and tonnes of explosives. Haven’t I made myself clear yet, Ms Sting?”
“Apparently not. But I’m all ears.”
His response was a shrug denoting both irritation with her naivety and satisfaction with himself for preserving a mystery. “You’ll realise the truth before long. Let me show you the ongoing work.” He tapped the chauffeur on the shoulder. “To Sarehole Mill!” Turning back to Melissa, he chuckled. “It’s like a jigsaw. Concentrate on the edges first. Comes together in the middle of its own accord.”
“I think I understand. To encourage people to relocate to the moon, you destroy their homes and places of work.”
“Places of work? Oh, Ms Sting, you’re a romantic!”
They drove south in silence. At various points throughout the city, sheets of blackened fabric from the aeolipile glimmered in the drizzle, caught on lampposts like the sails of ships in mourning, or draped over tenements like the awnings of repossessed shops. Finally, reaching Cole Bank Road, they stopped to watch a group of surly labourers demolishing what was apparently a famous building. Charges were set in the edifice, a ponderous corn mill. The detonation itself was a less dramatic affair than the aeolipile incident: the mill leaned over and briefly regained its feet before sprawling in a polluted pond, cleared of algae for the purpose of receiving its body. Alleneal explained the details in muted tones, as if suffocating the facts.
“Your earlier remark about fireworks was most apt, Ms Sting. There are many local factories producing gunpowder which we have pressed into our service. The workers daren’t protest on pain of public flogging. We have had few problems with forced labour.”
“Just what sort of official are you? This is barbaric behaviour for a councillor. Not even in Hull…”
“Obviously, when our colony is fully functioning, I shall no longer be content to remain a standard councillor. I intend to award myself the title of Conducator and rule by decree.”
“I often think total devolution was a mistake,” Melissa sighed. She decided to press him on seeing the actual project hardware. “I thank you for the tour of the city. The craters and social collapse have been most instructive. However, my report must not be delayed. I wish to view your transportation and surface hardware.”
“How can you entertain doubts?” Alleneal spluttered. His tormented eyes took in the urban landscape, accepting its pain and tragedy with an obscene stoicism, a father who witnesses the circumcision of a terrified boy. “The noose of desolation is tightening. Soon even the Council House will be torn down. A total wasteland.”
“With all respect, these perverse civil operations hold very little interest for the Commission. I was specifically charged with grading the viability of your colony tender.”
He was amicable again. “I know this, Ms Sting. Allow me to show you our fleet of moon-buggies. They are fine beasts, heavy and powerful. The best way of sculpting lunar seas.”
Chewing her lip, she allowed herself to be ferried back to the city centre. The councillor fumbled in the glove-compartment for a torch. The rains were in benevolent mood, each greasy droplet falling slowly enough for Melissa to avoid. She sidestepped from limousine to National Indoor Arena, a structure which was plainly sick, bulging like a raped wife. As if tuning in to her thoughts, Alleneal twisted his nose. “Pregnant? Yes, expectant mothers are our chief export.”
They passed the bored guards, who barely offered them a glance. She saw how the structure had been disembowelled and turned into a cyclopean garage. The interior was unlit and Alleneal played games with his torch, angling it under his chin and illuminating his horrible face from below. As his hand trembled in the low temperature, and the halogen bulb cast a shifting glow over his cheeks, tiny shadows moved inside his dimples and pockmarks. Melissa was reminded more than ever of the moon: a lunar day, sunrise to sunset, fleeing across his visage as the beam rose higher and abruptly turned away to prick a ludicrously small hole in the void. Down on the floor of the hall, metal gleamed.
“Bulldozers?” she hissed. “You’ll never be able to lift these into space. Your jokes become more crass.”
He touched her elbow. “Buggies, if you please. These are my babies, Ms Sting, the key to my future tranquillity.” He breathed on her neck, a moistening of the clue. But she was too stubborn to work at the hint. It was a relief to return outside, to flee the stench of antique diesel and damp earth on caterpillar tracks, oppressive as the odours of a roadside allotment. Alleneal watched her warily.
She snapped: “It is clear you are trying to obstruct my mission. My report will not be sabotaged by such foolish tactics. You should revise expectations about claiming any bonus.”
He seemed hurt. “You are closing your eyes to your surroundings, Ms Sting. It’s all here, you know. We’re on the threshold of a new age, one we’ve been chasing for decades, without even knowing it. Birmingham has finally woken. Our traditional strengths no longer shame us. We know how to exploit our most valuable resource.”
“And that is?” she asked bitterly.
He rolled his eyes upwards, leaving rotten eggs in his sockets, and pressed palms in a attitude of prayer. “Entropy.” He held the stance for a full minute, before scratching the emptiness above his head, as if he wore an invisible halo infested with fleas. Exhausted by the messianic fervour of his pronouncement, he staggered away. “I must rest. Tomorrow, I will show you Moseley and Olton, the venues for serenity and crises.” Hunched, but with supplicating hands, he left her, a series of hops too athletic for one in his condition.
Trapped by the threatening stares of natives, she returned to the limousine. The chauffeur followed the familiar route, but now everything looked different, more open and yet cluttered with the jagged peaks of dilapidated buildings. The horizon was nearer: the Chinese Quarter was hidden by the curvature of the city, looming into view with a terrifying clarity. She stormed into the Arcade Hotel and shut herself in her room. Behind one wall, a prostitute entertained a sterile client, mouthing an obscene checklist of erotic controls.
The city was not insane, as she had suspected, but simply following its instincts to a logical extreme. This might have happened in London, but the separate boroughs maintained equilibrium by pulling in different directions. Here, the tension was all directed inward. Birmingham seemed ready to snap in on itself. Time to leave: she needed to gather only one piece of evidence to complete her report. She would have to confront the councillor directly and demand a copy of the map hidden under his shirt. If he refused, she would exercise her authority and muscles, tearing the sackcloth monstrosity from his back.
There was something in her shoe. When she bent down to remove it, a cloud of soot puffed in her face. She had a use for this abducted filth. In the cracked mirror, jumping at each eruption out in the city, Melissa rubbed the dirt into her hair and face. She ripped her own shirt, worked holes in her trousers with her little sharp teeth and scuffed the polish of her shoes against a radiator pipe. Now she looked like a local: only the multiple earrings were missing.
On the streets, she passed unnoticed. Demolitions were taking place everywhere. Girders and blocks fell more slowly than they should, almost gently enough to be caught in her hand. The iron and concrete struck the pavement silently. Melissa ignored the quiet and concentrated on a group of young delinquents, approaching with unsheathed stubble. She was ready for them and launched a preemptive strike.
“Can you spare an ingot for a cup of tea?”
They shied away and she was free to continue her journey, removing her smirk and pocketing it for later. At the Council House, she brushed past the apathetic guard and entered the mossy travesty. The only light came from a phosphorescent slime which coated the walls. Pausing on the threshold of Alleneal’s office, she placed her ear to the rotting door. A peculiar chattering came from inside. Eye to keyhole, she watched him plucking at his face with tweezers.
Was this how all councillors groomed themselves? Turning away, in a fit of embarrassment, she reached a spiral staircase and went down. Her unease intensified with each step, as if she was descending the helix of the council’s DNA, the code which controlled the growth of the municipal nervous system. At the base, she found herself in a corridor. She passed a dungeon with a lock rusted almost all the way through. Inside, leaning over a trestle, the Cardiffians were comparing injuries. “My shoulders are more dislocated than yours!” Rising to their broken feet, probably smashed by council hammers, they started a brawl, adding a second layer of bruises to insulate the lower.
A second dungeon held her convertible. She tried the door: the iron bars crumbled in her grip. The vehicle was covered in parking-tickets, a petty, as opposed to pretty, wedding-dress. Alleneal was a thief as well as a liar, but he had left the key in the ignition. The voices of guards echoed along the passage. She had time only to free the prisoners or the convertible, not both. The decision was less painful than it should have been. As she jumped into the driving seat, she reflected that justice is simply a covert weighing of beauty.
Clogged with local air, the engine protested as she started up and drove straight through the remaining bars. The rust coated her like the pepper of a robotic chef, spicing the corners of her eyes as she swerved tightly onto the corridor. She roared in the opposite direction to the voices: soon the passage began to spiral upwards. She was gratified to discover it emerged in the library: she cruised down the aisles, packed with cankerous bookcases and exenterated computer terminals. Tramps and students sheltered under collapsed shelves, offering her no more than a toothless smile. Other vehicles waltzed among the sundry literatures. It really was a multi-storey car-park: she could trust her perception once more. She clattered down the stairs.
Leaving the building by the main entrance, she parked outside the Council House. She left the engine running, giving the convertible the appearance of having already been stolen and abandoned as inadequate. She did not pause at the councillor’s door this time, but strode in. He was sterilising his tweezers in blended whisky. Resignedly, like a moon regarding an oncoming eclipse, he turned his hatching eyes towards her. His questioning shrug was very eloquent.
“You stole my property,” she cried.
“Councils do not steal, Ms Sting. They confiscate. We had to ensure you remained with us for the whole week. Perhaps I should have been more open, but I am unused to dealing with females.” Dropping the tweezers in the whisky bottle, he sighed. “Especially not sassy redheads. I never engage in relationships, Ms Sting. I find you somewhat alarming. Emotion is noise in my brain: I am a councillor.”
“I’m just the same as everyone else.”
He shook a finger. “Oh no, Ms Sting! You won’t pull that particular shade of wool over my eyes.” In a more conciliatory tone, he added: “The car is a minor issue. We all make sacrifices, we all have fears. My dear mother was startled by a monkey. She was pregnant and the shock affected her womb. This world is an absurd place.”
“Enough nostalgia. I demand to see the colony map.”
Instead of protesting, as she thought he would, his fingers jumped to unbutton his shirt. Below, he wore a string vest: his chest was very hairy, trapped under the grubby net like a fur coat. A scroll was fixed by a ribbon to one of the vest’s interstices. Untying it, he gave it to her and cradled his skull in his hands.
Breaking the seal, spreading the parchment on the desk, she moaned. “This is a street map of Birmingham.”
He giggled. “Take a closer look, Ms Sting.” He allowed her a second perusal. “Did you read the names? The old suburbs have gone. The craters and plains have more suitable appellations.”
She traced the parchment with a finger. As if a moon chart had been superimposed on the urban map, exotic words stretched across the prosaic boroughs. She pronounced the names self-consciously, mindful of her poor aptitude for dead languages: “Aristarchus, Mare Nubium, Ptolemaeus, Mare Imbrium, Eratosthenes, Albategnius…”
The councillor interrupted her by clearing his throat and slotting three fingers into his largest pocks, as if preparing to bowl his head. Melissa felt she was not his target, but the skittish city beyond. “The Midlands. The final frontier, boldly gone.”
She removed her hands from the map and it snapped back into a tight cylinder. “But what is the point?”
“When I was a boy, Ms Sting, I regarded the future as a benefactor. I looked forward to the shining cities we were promised: gleaming towers connected by aerial walkways, frictionless monorails, a populace free of the degradation of hunger and poverty. We would all be wearing togas and discussing philosophy in spacious parks. I thought that by the beginning of the new millennium we would be living on the moon. A crystal dome for a sky, a purple sea, an alien forest.”
“You should have tried to make friends.”
“You don’t understand. The disappointment stayed with me. When the First Space Age ended, the real moon was derided. Instead, we seemed to want our inner cities to turn into substitute lunar landscapes. Was that a cheaper way of getting there? I believe it was. This subconscious need influenced councils more than you might imagine. I inherited the policy, but knew it for what it was. By that stage, it was irreversible, so when space was rediscovered, and the moon colony competition was announced, I chose to accelerate the whole process.”
“Hence the bulldozers and explosives. An amusing effort at twisting the rules, but to no avail. The Commission is very strict on this score. Birmingham is not an eligible moon.”
“Consider the similarities, Ms Sting! Both are unavoidable, lack an atmosphere and shine by reflected glory. To deny us the victory would be churlish. Our citizens are the perfect colonists, resigned to bleak and unforgiving environments. Did you know our junkies have started to cut their heroin with an oxygen compound?”
“You are insane. My report will recommend instant disqualification. You’ll be grounded for a century.”
“There’s no leaving us now. The project is too far gone. The limits of the city are finished. How will you get beyond Solihull? Your car is not pressurised. You’ll bleed to death through your nipples!” He thumbed his own chest, as if needing to convince himself of the possibility. “It will be a municipal stigmata.” He pondered this thought, which seemed to provide solace, like the dream of a ladder to a stylite. To puncture it, she delved into her pocket for her smirk.
“What will you call the colony? A new name is essential. Birmingham is inappropriate. How about Moonchester?”
He recoiled, confused and miserable. “Ms Sting! Such questions will be decided by committee. It is presumptuous…” He grinned unpleasantly, wagging a finger. “You must call it home from now on. There’s no running away. The cosmic radiation will kill you.”
She turned to leave. “You’ve confused semblance with reality, image with modus. A city sculpted to impersonate a moon does not automatically become that moon. You are a lunatic!”
He appreciated the joke. “But the way things feel is more important than how they actually are.” Again, he rotated his proboscis, tuning in to her recent thoughts. “If you felt our city was tugging at your elbow, then that is surely what it was doing.”
Before she reached the door, she stopped and asked: “So what’s your real name? Is it less comfortable than your pseudonym?” Glancing at her elbow, she was shocked to notice a few unravelled strands. Alleneal was trembling, chomping on nothingness.
“My mother was startled, Ms Sting. She was carrying me at the time. The monkey came from behind a curtain in the Repertory Theatre. Some say there is no link between the incident and my condition. Our family has a noble heritage. We have dominated Birmingham for generations. The Rattle clan is respected and feared. I pluck my face every day: soon I will try electrolysis. The surface of the moon is devoid of laughter. The gravity of my problems has been lessened.”
Standing up, clutching the flag behind him for support, he mustered every ounce of dignity and announced: “I am Simian Rattle, Conducator of Lunarhampton.” He sagged and wept into the woodworm, unaware or uncaring that Melissa had already departed.
Outside, the rain had stopped falling. Globules of moisture drifted sideways over the pavements. At last the sky was clearing: ribbons of cloud strangled denticulated peaks. Bouncing toward her convertible, delirious as a bubonic puppet, Melissa desperately tried to laugh, while a million heliographs flashed from crater rims.
To reach escape velocity, she knew she must never take her foot off the accelerator pedal. The mountains merged into a wall, a grey tongue. Her ears played a staccato rhythm: pressure was leaking from her improvised canopy. She had picked up one of the flapping sheets from the aeolipile and wrapped it round her chassis. She hoped the fabric was tough enough not to burst. Speed and style were the vital factors. Overhead, despite the sun, stars burned in a black sky.
On the horizon, at the end of the road, a movement caught her eye. A tiny object was bounding towards her, growing larger at an astounding rate. Each leap was the width of despair. At last she made out a human form. It had a bucket on its head, connected by a length of hosepipe to an oxygen cylinder. A syringe glittered in a wrist. It was the squeegee merchant, charging with drawn sponge.
They connected silently, his body rotating over her bonnet and off at a steep tangent. He left a soapy smear across her windscreen and she watched in her mirror as he gyrated into outer space, stretching a palm to accept payment. One way of clearing them off the street, she thought. But she made a symbolic movement toward her pocket. It was too late: he was already an orbital beggar. An inverted meteor, harbinger of failure, he vanished in a subsidised explosion.
The speedometer was exhausted, lying horizontal on its right side, but her velocity increased. There was less friction, less of everything here. But now she knew she would make it. If a city wants to tug at your elbow, be firm with it. Do not permit yourself to be bullied. The music of the spheres washing in her head, Melissa allowed herself to dream of an asteroid shaped like a fake Gaudi house. It lay out there somewhere, in the void, beyond the adventures that awaited on the alien worlds of Redditch, Bromsgrove and Kidderminster.
Copyright © 1997 by Rhys Hughes.