Olly, we know you can hear us,” said Jack. “So are you coming to The Green Man, or what?”
Olly opened his eyes, put his hand to his earpiece and disconnected himself from the cloud. He sat up, the thin plastic mattress rucking up beneath him.
“It’ll be fun,” said Selma, “an adventure. They serve mead. Real mead.”
“You’re shitting me,” said Olly.
“No, we are absolutely not shitting you,” insisted Mohinder, his face as serious as ever.
Olly’s eyes flicked over to Nate’s mattress. It was empty, and for a split-second he was afraid.
Selma laughed. “Yeah, lover boy’s coming. He’s just gone to the loo.”
Olly reddened, told them all to fuck off, and lay down again, his back to the three of them. As he reconnected to the cloud, music and updates streaming into his consciousness, he heard Jack again: “We go on Friday. When there’ll be a full moon. A Green Grass Moon.” Selma said something about bicycles.
Olly began to doze. And as he slipped into sleep his neural feed suddenly filled with strange images: a lime-coloured moon; blades of grass; a grinning man, his green face covered in leaves.
The next day Olly was assigned to the big house, specifically the attics. They needed to be sorted through, cleaned. Selma was to go too. As they trudged across the lifeless fields, away from the giant greenhouses in which they normally worked, Selma asked Olly if he was disappointed.
“About what?” he said.
“Bet you would’ve preferred to have Nate along.”
Olly shrugged. “I’m happy to have whoever. It makes a change from pollinating.”
“Don’t lie,” she said. “I can see the disappointment on your face.”
Olly stayed silent and bent his head to his shoes, his eyes on the sterile mud oozing over his soles.
“Why don’t you just tell him?” she persisted. “That you like him. What’ve you got to lose?”
“What’s the point? He could be sent to other work, like, miles away from here, any day. And then I’d never see him again.”
Selma smiled insinuatingly, nudged Olly. “But what about living in the here and now. And having fun?”
Olly waved his arm at the bleak mud fields. “Fun. Yeah, there’s loads of that about, isn’t there?”
“Which is why we should go to The Green Man.”
Olly laughed sarcastically. “Yeah, right. Like going to a twentieth century pub is going to solve all our problems.”
“I didn’t say it would solve all our problems. Just . . . that going might be fun.”
They trudged on in silence.
“So you gonna come?” Selma said.
Olly sighed. “Yeah, I’ll come.”
The staff at the big house weren’t pleased to see them or their muddy shoes.
“Take them off. Right now!” said the housekeeper.
Olly and Selma exchanged glances, then removed their shoes, powerless to do anything about the mud dripping onto the smooth, clean flagstones.
“We don’t really need you,” said the housekeeper, leading them through the servants’ quarters and up several flights of stairs. “We could’ve managed just fine, but Madam’s got us busy with guests so we’ve no time for this sudden whim of hers.” She gave a snort. “Spring cleaning!”
When they got to the dimly lit attics she reached into a cupboard, handed them a few bin bags and a couple of long sticks with brightly coloured ruffles at the end.
Olly and Selma, round-eyed, stared at the sticks. Olly tentatively touched the ruffles.
“Feather dusters,” said the housekeeper. “For dusting,” she added, her face grim.
“Real feathers?” asked Olly.
“Of course!” snapped the housekeeper. “Now get on with it,” she said, throwing open various doors. “You’re to dust and sort through the chests of fabrics and clothes. Anything moth-eaten or irreparably damaged goes into the bin bags. To be donated to . . . .” Olly assumed she’d just stopped herself from saying “the likes of you”. She cleared her throat. “Charitable causes.”
She swept out of the room and descended the stairs. “I’ll be back in a few hours,” she called. “To check on you.”
For a moment Olly and Selma just stood there, taking in the silence, the dust motes that floated in the beams of sunlight, the cool of the real wooden floorboards beneath their polyester-socked feet.
“What does she mean by moth-eaten?” said Selma.
Olly shrugged, then put his hand to the side of his head, to his earpiece, but of course he wasn’t linked up to the cloud. In working hours the AI cut their connection. “Don’t know,” he said. “But we’ll figure it out. You take that room,” he said, pointing to an open door, “and I’ll do this one.”
“Okay,” said Selma, disappearing into the other room, bin bag and duster in hand.
Olly breathed deep of the musty air, dozens of natural fragrances suddenly alive to his nose, and he smiled, for a moment happy. Of course it would’ve been better if Nate was here with him, instead of Selma, but he pushed away that thought and began to throw open chests, rifling through the beautiful fabrics, the feel of pure cotton on his skin a new joy.
At lunchtime the housekeeper inspected their work.
“Not bad,” she conceded, sweeping a finger across one of the window sills and finding it devoid of dust. She gave them a couple of bottles of liquid food.
“After you’ve taken your calories get straight back to work. There’s still a lot to do.”
“Please, Miss, I mean Ms,” said Selma, suddenly flustered. She didn’t know how to address the housekeeper. “But what’s moth-eaten?”
The housekeeper looked into one of the bin bags, pulled out a woollen blanket that was more holes than wool. “This is moth-eaten,” she said. “There were once creatures, insects, that liked to eat natural fabrics. They would nest in wardrobes, in the fabrics, and eat the cloth, destroying the garment.”
She put her hands on her hips and surveyed the room with suspicion, as though she expected dozens of moths to come flying out at her. “Well, keep at it!”
She turned on her heel and left them to their carbohydrate slurries, to their old-fashioned work.
Later that afternoon, when Olly was sorting through the last of the chests, a small, colourful object between two of the blankets caught his eye, something he’d only seen through the cloud. A bee. He gingerly picked it up, some long-dormant voice cautioning him to be careful, and lifted it closer to his eyes. It was remarkable. So intricate. He stroked it with his forefinger. And ever so soft. He wondered how long it had been there. Two decades, three? Just as he was about to call for Selma, he heard her scream. He immediately turned and ran to her, the bee falling from his hand.
“What is it?” he asked as he arrived by her side, her eyes wide, hands at her face.
“A, a . . . a thing . . . .”
Olly looked upwards to where she was pointing. There, in a high-up corner of the room, was a skeletal creature suspended in strings of dust. A spider.
Olly took a step closer. “It’s an insect. Or rather, it used to be. Not sure what kind.”
“It’s creeping me out,” she said. “Can you get rid of it for me?”
He took her duster, swirled it round the cobwebs; the spider dissolved into thousands of shards, sticking to the feathers of the duster. After a few seconds there was nothing left of what had been the spider’s creation.
Olly handed the duster back to Selma. “Try not to freak out if you find anything else, okay? It’s all gonna be dead, you know.”
“I do know that,” she said, whacking Olly with the duster. “There was just something about it. The way it looked at me.”
Olly wanted to laugh but couldn’t. He thought of the bee and hoped he’d be able to find it again. There’d been something about the way it had looked at him.
That night, when Olly and the other workers were in the dorm—most of them, like him, tuning out of reality and into the cloud—he pulled out the white square of cloth that he’d wrapped the dead bee in.
He turned to check that he was unobserved; Jack, Mo, Selma and Nate were all huddled together, most likely going over their plans for the trip to The Green Man, so he turned back to his package. He carefully unwrapped the bee, then stroked it. The bee made him feel something . . . what, he wasn’t sure. In his head, he began to list some feelings: happy, joyful, sad, sorry. The cloud supplied him with more: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. He liked the sound of that last one. Then one more word floated into his consciousness. Hopeful.
No, thought Olly, folding the handkerchief over the bee and putting it back in his pocket. “Never that,” he muttered, before tuning into his favourite social network.
Getting hold of the bikes had been the hard part.
“That bitch of an AI almost didn’t let me take them,” said Selma, hauling out four bikes. Olly, Mohinder, Jack and Nate helped her wheel them out of the barn.
“Only four?” said Jack.
“How about, ‘Thanks, Selma,’” she retorted.
“It’s just, you know, there are five of us,” said Jack.
“So two of us have to share,” she said. “As I said, the AI didn’t like that I was taking them out after work hours.”
“So what did you tell her?” asked Mohinder.
“Oh, some shit about how they were moth-eaten and needed to be aired. That got her stuck in a loop for a bit.”
“So who’s sharing?” said Jack.
The five of them were silent, their eyes on the bikes.
Nate started stroking the saddle of the bike he was holding. “The last time I rode a bike must’ve been, like, ten years ago. For some reason, Mum thought I should learn.”
“Me, it was the other day,” said Selma. “Back-and-forthing across the mud flats for no good reason.”
“They still got you looking for grass?” Nate asked.
“Yep,” she said. “Like I’m ever gonna find any. But Madam swears that she saw some a while ago, so Madam’s will be done. I reckon she just likes the idea of me out there in all weathers looking at mud.”
“But it’s better than having no job. Only taking the minimum of bitcredits,” Olly pointed out.
Selma nodded. “I know. But, hey, I like complaining. So who’s sharing?”
Nate said that he wouldn’t mind, and Olly quickly added that he wouldn’t mind either.
“Good, that’s decided,” said Selma, flashing a smile at Olly and mounting a bike. “Follow me.”
They cycled, haltingly, across the mudflats, some of them more confident than others (though Olly had an excuse for his wobbly progress—Nate was sitting across his handlebars). Jack kept checking into the cloud, to make sure they were going in the right direction. Selma kept up a steady commentary, asking, or rather telling, everyone how much fun they were having.
The Green Grass Moon, though not actually green, was huge, golden-coloured and close to the horizon as the sun began to set. As their muscles responded to the exercise, their skin to the feel of the warm breeze, they had to admit that yes, this was fun.
At The Green Man, a burly, bearded man covered in virtual tattoos told them to disconnect themselves. “We’re free-range here,” he explained, holding out his hand for their earpieces.
Selma pointedly stared at his shimmering, roving tattoos, and then at the sliver of metal above his ear.
The man crossed his arms, stared back.
“Turn yourselves off or you ain’t coming in.”
Mohinder nudged Selma. “Look,” he muttered, “we didn’t come all this way to get told to shove off.”
Mo made a show of disconnecting from the cloud, and handed his earpiece to the bouncer. They all did the same.
“You’re buying the first round,” Selma said to Mo as the bouncer stepped aside and allowed them entry.
“No problem,” said Mo, grinning. “Me,” he went on, rubbing his thumb against his forefingers, “I’m rolling in bitcredits.”
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Nate, when they’d got their first round of mead and taken their seats at a wooden booth.
“What’s what you think it is?” said Jack.
Nate inclined his head to the fireplace. “A real log fire.”
They all turned their heads to look.
“Looks real,” said Selma.
“But think about the cost,” said Nate, taking a sip of his mead. “God this tastes good.”
They all began to drink; in the silence that followed they experienced a taste of spring—apple blossom, heather, primulas, daffodils, bluebells.
Selma glugged back her pint, then began to giggle. “This is just too weird. And good.”
“Steady on, Sel,” said Jack, “otherwise you’ll be pissed in no time.”
“Maybe I want to get pissed!” she retorted. “Who wants another pint?” She quickly stood, then put her hand to her head and sat back down again.
“Take it easy,” said Mo. “Jack’ll get the next round in. When we’re all done, right?”
“Yes, boss!” said Jack, giving him a mock salute.
“Fuck you,” said Mo, taking another swig, his eyes on Jack who was also knocking back his mead.
For a moment there was an uneasy silence.
“Me,” said Nate, trying to diffuse the tension, “I’m just gonna savour this pint. It’s absolutely delushious.”
Selma laughed. “Delushious,” she said. “I like that.” She slurred “delushious” over and over, and they all laughed.
It was then that Olly noticed the strange man at the bar. He put his hand to where his earpiece would usually be, thinking that the image had come from his feed, then realized that the grinning green man with leaves all over his face was, in fact, real. Olly lowered his head and spoke under his breath. “That weird guy’s watching us.”
Selma immediately raised her head to look.
“Don’t!” hissed Olly, pulling at her arm.
“You’re right,” Selma said slowly. “He is.”
Jack, Mo and Nate surreptitiously flicked their eyes over.
“Cool skin,” said Nate.
“I don’t know,” said Selma. “Green’s a bit last season. Madam’s wearing this gorgeous powder pink skin at the moment. And she’s always bang on trend. When I earn enough bitcredits I’m getting myself a turquoise skin. What do you think, Jack?” she said, giving him a nudge. “Will you still lurve me?” she slurred, somewhat sarcastically.
Jack ignored her, drank some more.
“But what’s with the stuff on his face?” asked Nate.
Mo shrugged. “Enhancements. Virtual markings. Disease.” Mo suddenly laughed. “Maybe he’s an alien. Who knows?”
Olly was just about to tell them that he’d seen this man before—either in his dreams, or in his feed—when Jack finished his pint and got up. “Right,” he said, “I’m going to the bar.”
“Me too,” said Selma. “Actually, I need the loo.”
“So do I,” said Mo. “Here,” he said, helping her up. “I’ll take you.”
Selma grinned at Olly as she left the booth. “We’ll leave you two lover boys to it, shall we?”
Olly reddened, bowed his head, but Nate simply laughed good-naturedly.
When they’d gone, Nate and Olly were silent for a bit. Olly tried desperately to think of something to say. He then remembered the bee. Taking the handkerchief out of his pocket, he told Nate that he wanted to show him something.
“What is it?” asked Nate as Olly unfolded the thin square of cloth.
“A bee,” said Olly, triumphant.
“Whoa!” said Nate. “That’s like ridiculous!”
“I know,” said Olly. “I found it in Madam’s attic. Must’ve been there for ages.”
Olly began to stroke the bee, then risked looking up into Nate’s blue eyes, which were disquietingly close. “Isn’t it beautiful?” He wanted to tell Nate that he was beautiful too.
Nate agreed, yes, it was beautiful. And amazing. “But just think,” he went on, “if bees ever came back to Earth, we’d be out of work, wouldn’t we?”
Olly, feeling rebuffed, covered the bee up again. “It’s not the bees who are the bad guys here, Nate. It’s those fucking miniature drones that are going to put us out of work. Or voluntary labour. The acquisition of bitcredits. Whatever the fuck you want to call what we’re doing.”
Olly put the bee back in his pocket.
“I’m sorry,” said Nate, putting a hand on Olly’s arm. “It was just an observation. The bee really is amazing.”
Jack returned from the bar, interrupting them with the announcement that they served chips. “Great big fat steaming chips,” he said. “Made from real potatoes. D’you want some?”
“Yeah,” said Nate. “That would be–”
“Delushious,” said Olly, with a laugh.
They continued to drink and make merry, and when Olly felt Nate’s hand on his thigh, he could honestly say to Selma that yes, this was the best pub in the world. And that he was having the most fun he’d had in, like, forever.
When it was Olly’s turn to get a round in, he found himself standing next to the strange, green man at the bar.
The man smiled at him. “Having a good time?” he said, his accent strange.
Olly nodded. “Yeah. We heard about the mead, how amazing it was and–”
“Where you from?” asked the man.
Olly, too drunk by now to worry about what he disclosed to a stranger, told him that they were from the nearby farm.
The stranger looked confused. “What kind of farm? What do you do there?”
“We pollinate the flowers of apple trees. And the other fruit trees and bushes. We spend most of our days under glass, dabbing at blossoms with a paint brush.”
“That’s good work you’ve got there,” said the man. “To be amongst apple trees, the clean air that surrounds them . . . .” The man took a swig from his pint, then smiled. “Handling pollen, the very essence of life. Good work.”
Olly couldn’t help but stare at the strange enhancements on the man’s face. They really were incredibly life-like—like real leaves. And there were also some—what were they?—acorns amongst the leaves. Before he could help himself he asked the man where he was from.
“Not from here,” he replied. “But from time to time I like to drop by. I noticed the sterility, the barren soil, and thought I’d stop. Tell me,” he went on, “how long has the Earth been like this?”
If Olly had been more sober he would’ve laughed, asked the man what planet he’d been living on. Instead he said that it had been like this for most of his life. “About twenty-five years.”
“And what do you young folk think about it?” The green man inclined his head to the table at which his friends were sitting.
Olly shook his head. “We don’t want it to be like this. But I guess we feel . . . ” He sighed. “Powerless.”
The green man nodded. “I see. So the situation’s hopeless?”
“The scientists are working on it. Or so we’re always being told. But I reckon that the people at the top of the food chain, people like Madam, I mean, don’t give a shit. So nothing’ll happen.”
The man fixed his green eyes on Olly. “Do you think the situation’s hopeless?”
Olly thought of the bee, and the words his neural feed had thrown up the other day: nostalgic, wistful, bittersweet. Hopeful.
Tears came to his eyes, and embarrassed, he hung his head. He didn’t know how to answer.
“All right, son,” said the man, putting his hand on Olly’s shoulder. “It’s going to be all right.”
The five of them left the pub in the early hours of the morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. They cycled across the mudflats, making slow, wobbly progress, the only sound the drone of driverless cars in the distance. They laughed and sang and talked about the mead, the chips, the tobacco smoke, the folk band that had rocked up to play some ancient tunes. The oldies who had danced, and persuaded them to dance.
“Delushious,” said Selma, “it was all so delushious.” The strange, green man was forgotten.
Suddenly, Olly stopped cycling, propelling Nate off the handlebars. “Oh God, sorry, Nate. I’m so sorry,” he said, helping him up. Nate, more surprised than hurt, told him not to worry. The others slowed and then stopped.
“It’s just . . . .” Olly pointed over to the east. There was the green man on the horizon, striding towards the rising sun. He seemed to be getting taller with each step.
“That’s the green guy,” said Jack. “From the pub. What the hell’s he up to?”
Olly shook his head. “No idea.”
The green man stopped, turned to face them, plucked an acorn from his face and then knelt, plunging the acorn into the soil.
The five of them felt a tremor, as though the Earth itself was sighing with relief. And then came the small noises—the squeaks and murmurings and gurgles of life returning to the soil. The green man rose, gave them a smile and then turned his back. He continued to walk towards the sun, then vanished into the first rays of light.
Nobody spoke. Nobody moved. In time, they each mounted their bikes and rode back to the farm, too exhausted, too awe-struck to speak. And as they returned to their dorm, to slip into sleep, Olly knew that they had witnessed the beginning of something new.
Outside, grass began to grow.