10 April, 2019 • • 40.6Creative WritingOriginal Short Story

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The Marlborough Arms

Benjamin Pope

 

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows (1890)

 
The tent city petered out a few miles out of Oxford and then they were alone on the road. The rain was glistening on the tarmac in the autumn afternoon and here and there kestrels circled overhead together with real red kites. The hills beside the road were flecked with dirty white clumps of sheep huddling together from the rain. Inspector Greene drummed her khaki plastic fingers on the handrest and stared out the window. Her reflection stared back: her black hair was cut short in a bob and her glasses flickered with messages. The hills ran past. After a few minutes she stirred and turned to the driver. Like her he wore a dark blue weatherproof over a thin bulletproof vest. He was clean-shaven and his hair was buzzed short, and he was big enough to hunch in the low-roofed car.

“Thorn. Didn’t you tell me your lot used to go the Marlborough?”

“Yes ma’am. They used to have a folk night back in the day, every Thursday. There was a bus you could catch from Oxford that would get you there and back. The Marly was the only pub nearby that did English folk, really niche stuff, you know, not just Irish trad, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Used to go there with Alistair and my friend Helen sometimes. We even played there once.” He trailed off.

Greene paused for a second. “Oh. I’m sorry to bring your brother up. That’s funny—I didn’t know he was into that sort of thing too. It’s never been my cup of tea but my husband, he insisted on a ceilidh at our wedding. Maybe they’d get along.”

Thorn smiled thinly and turned his eyes back to the road. “It’s a good pub. I hope it still will be. We’ll be there in ten minutes or so, ma’am.”
Greene nodded. She used her talking-to-a-machine voice: “Daniel. Call the publican again.”

A cheerful Yorkshireman’s synthetic voice came from the car speakers. “Connecting you to Roger Hallan.”

The ringtone lasted a few seconds and then came the sound of fast ragged breaths.

“Mr Hallan, this is Inspector Sarah Greene and Sergeant Robin Thorn. Are you somewhere safe?”

“Oh thank god! Oh fuck me where are you. Fuck. What’s happening, have you heard from Christina, I can’t get on to her —”

“Mr Hallan, we understand you’re distressed. We’re on our way to help and we need you to tell us where you are and what is happening.”

“Fuck. Ok. Thank you. Ok. I was behind the bar and all of a sudden there was a bang and there was blood everywhere and the windows were broken. I saw buzzers outside and I grabbed the people at the bar and dragged them back into the cellar. There were only a few people at the bar and I think they’re all here but I can’t find Christina and she’s not picking up her phone. I don’t have an angel and neither does she. Jesus, you’ve got to help us, oh Jesus.”

“We’ll be there in a few minutes, Mr Hallan. We’re with the buzzer squad and experienced in dealing with this sort of thing. Stay in the cellar, keep well back from the door and you’ll be safe. We need to know what we’re up against. Do you remember how many buzzers you saw? How many explosions?

Hallan was breathing more slowly now. “Well, I’m pretty sure I only heard one go off, near the door to the beer garden. I think that was the only one. I saw three or four buzzers come inside before I could get the cellar door shut, I couldn’t see anything else inside or out, we pulled the door shut and we’vebeen sitting tight since then.”

“Thank you Mr Hallan. We’re nearly there. Please stay on the line to our operator while we set up.” Greene tapped the dashboard icon and the line went silent.

Thorn took the turnoff to Stanton. It was the sort of village that used to feature as a stop for Russian tourist buses up from Oxford: the little cottages were made of Cotswold stone which would glow gold in the sunshine, and were fronted with the trellises of wisteria whose bloom in the warmer months would line the yellow stone with purple. But today they were dark brown in the rain and the creepers bare of leaf or flower, and the shutters were drawn, and the villagers were most likely at home, afraid of the buzzers. They were already approaching the heart of the village—there was really only one street—on the left, a low-sided triangular church with a tall square flat-topped spire, and on the right a little row of shops for knitting yarn, secondhand tweed and kitchenware.

The street ended in a T-junction in front of the Marlborough Arms, with a large sign on a pole facing the street with a likeness of an imperious gentleman in armour. A line of fairy lights, brightly lit, stretched around the garden and back to the door. It was a ramshackle complex with low stone buildings of different heights, half covered in evergreen ivy. Out the front was a spacious garden with an apple tree and five scattered sets of white ironwork chairs and tables. But these were in disarray: even from a distance Thorn could see that the chairs nearest the pub were turned over, the front windows were broken, and a patch of something much darker than rain stained the wall all around the splintered front door. There were two human forms slumped beneath the stains. He narrowed his eyes. Several little black dots could be seen flitting back and forth over the garden, and two more weighed down the fairy light cable. Thorn pulled up well away from the pub and shook his head, whispering to himself. “Jesus Christ. It was the lights.” How could the publican have been such an idiot? What did he think was going to happen leaving power cables exposed like that?

Greene turned to her sergeant. “We should be able to clean these up with the kestrels. Get ready.” She looked back to the pub and raised her voice. “Car. Arm six kestrels. And bring up the shotgun cases.”

The front twelve inches of the black Morris bonnet slid open and six flat, triangular, fist-sized drones rose in unison and hovered in position over the car. The console between Greene and Thorn slid back at the same time and two chunky grips levered up to hand-height. “Car. Send kestrels forward twenty-five metres and engage any buzzers.” The six drones moved together towards the pub, then spread out and accelerated.

If the black dots in the beer garden seemed to react to the oncoming kestrels it could only have been for a moment. Three of the kestrels swept straight into the airborne dots and struck them midair: there were three loud bangs in succession as they exploded and kicked over the garden furniture that was still upright. The fairy lights abruptly swung back and snapped as two more kestrels flew into the buzzers perched on the line, and a second later came another two explosions.

Thorn had his left hand resting on the butt of the shotgun beside him. He and Greene waited a second until there were no more noises. One kestrel stayed hovering above the ruined garden. They nodded at each other and pulled the shotguns onto their lap. Greene opened the door, saying, “I think there are still one or two inside. We’ll have to go in person.” She murmured aside, “Daniel. With me, watch for buzzers.” Her angel hopped up from her headrest and hovered on its four little rotors over her shoulder as she stepped out. Thorn took a deep breath and hesitated. He repeated the orders after Greene, and his own angel joined him outside.

They stood beside the car and checked their shotguns. The wide barrel was a foot long, with a screen stowed face-down at the rear sight above the breech. A little nub stood out on the side just ahead of the left hand fore-grip. They unfolded the hollow stocks and brought the shotguns up to their shoulders. Greene started walking. “Thorn, cover me and do a sonic. Daniel, give me medical status for the two people by the pub.” She ran over to crouch behind one of the stone planters beside the path, and Thorn took cover behind the planter on the other side with his sights trained on the pub door.

He flipped up the screen on his shotgun. On the display the building was picked out in soft green, paying special attention to the edges and flat tiles, with the rough stone blocks a darker shade. This was generated from the gun’s own active sonar. Beside Greene he could see a little blue dot marking her angel. And from the gaps in the shattered windows and caved-in door, a diffuse dark red: he called out, “Buzzers inside boss, but not in the front room. Downstairs maybe.”

The sound of the drones inspired dread across the country and gave them their nickname. But there was a hidden blessing: with a sonar cam you could pick drone models out pretty well by the faint frequencies of the frame’s vibrations, which were high enough to pick out clearly and even track their movement. This gave the control without which Thorn knew he wouldn’t be able to cope in this job, without which he knew he mightn’t have survived the harrowing weeks in London at the height of the attacks. More modern military tech being deployed in Korea right now was much quieter, and broadcast decoy frequencies to make it doubly hard to track. He shuddered to think what would happen if there were more attacks with smarter drones.

Greene was staring intently through her glasses display. Through the angel’s eyes she saw the blood and bone, and the angel’s sonics reported no heartbeat. She blinked hard and cleared her vision. “No signs of life. Biometrics give a Christina Hallan and a Jeremy Silver. That answers our publican’s question. Daniel, contact uniform. I want them covered up first thing. After me, Thorn.”

She quickly paced forward to lean against the wall to the right of the splintered wooden front door. She tried the handle, but it was jammed. She  turned and waved her prosthetic arm at Thorn. “It can’t play piano but this thing has its uses.” She took hold of the doorknob and turned her hand in a half-circle at the wrist, and the door squealed as she pulled it open.

Thorn joined her and they walked into the pub. It was silent except for the whirr of their angels and a threatening buzz. It was coming from a door behind the bar, leading downstairs. He checked his sonic and his chest tightened: the passageway was painted red. The last buzzer must be caught downstairs outside the cellar sheltering Hallan and the patrons. He let out his breath and lowered the shotgun down from his shoulder, looking around at his old haunt. Bloody glass from the windows was scattered over the floor but otherwise there was no obvious damage. The lights were still on, and two pints of ale stood full at the bar. There were three pints at one of the tables near the bar, drained to various levels, and a half-eaten plate of fish and chips. But his heart thumped to see a whisky and an ale at his favourite corner table. They could have been his and Helen’s.

*         *         *

It was a warm night and the sun was still a sliver up at half-past ten. Every seat was full and there were even people standing around the bar, with some bimodal distribution of student hipsters and Boomer hippies, and a few rugby lad types in gilets. A couple at one of the small tables was hissing an argument, and two of the lads were joking with each other, but most were attentive to the band. Their eyes were all trained on the little stage in the front corner where a fiddler, a singer with a guitar, and a drummer were playing, and the crowd waiting their turn to join in the song:

The Lord in courtly castle and the Squire in stately hall,    [scattered singing]
The great of name in birth and fame on John for succour call.    [louder]
He bids the troubled heart rejoice, gives warmth to Nature’s cold    [oops—gilet #2 jumps in early]
Makes weak men strong and old ones young and all men brave and bold.    [big breath]

and then they are all belting out the chorus holding up their drinks:

HEY JOHN BARLEYCORN,    [all together]
HO JOHN BARLEYCORN,
OLD AND YOUNG HIS PRAISE IS SUNG
JOHN BARLEYCORN!    [fortissimo!]

Robin raised his glass and roared the last refrain with the others and the band bowed and the pub clapped them off the stage. Alistair tapped his empty glass with a fingernail. “My round. Ale for the little brother I’m guessing and was it a Laphroaig or a Lagavulin for you, Helen?”

“Lagavulin this time, Al.” He nodded and wandered off to the bar.

Helen looked around beaming. “That was great. This is a hell of a lot better than staying at home this summer, Rob.”

“Well we couldn’t just send you packing when we’re only just over in Headington, what with everything going on at your place.”

“No, really, I mean it.”

“Oh, just consider it paying you back for the rope at Merton. Besides. It’s nice. Normally we take off the gown but we’re still stuck in the town all summer and the colour drains out of life just when it should be at its peak.” Robin was looking into his glass. “You’re giving us an excuse to keep doing things over the summer instead of sitting around playing games or smoking bongs in South Parks or whatever else we’d be doing. It’s nice.” There was a pause. Robin fiddled with his glass, making patterns of light on the coaster.

Helen smiled and gestured at the empty stage. “We should rehearse. Come back in a week or two and play a set here. We could do the one we did at Wadham.”

Robin looked thoughtful. “That’d be great. But I wonder who to ask to get on the list. Maybe we should try and catch one of the band—”

He saw Alistair coming back over balancing two pints and a tumbler with the unsteady hand of a man who has already balanced several pints and tumblers in an evening. This was funny to watch, but precious amber fluid was spilling over the sides and something had to be done. He broke off from the conversation to get to his feet and rush over to his struggling brother, carefully taking his pint to let Alistair ferry the remaining drinks to the table. They both sat back down.

They clinked glasses and said cheers. Alistair sat back in his chair and turned to Helen. “So what do you want to do after Finals? Think you’ll stay on?”

“Oh of course I’ve thought about it. But really. You don’t sell it terribly well. What were you saying about being stuck for six months with rats eating your telescope and getting half your calories from seminar quiches? No thanks. Or at least not yet. No, I want to move to Berlin and see Kyberstadt in all its madness while I’m young. That’s where the future’s being built and we’ll all be living like that whether we like it or not in five years’ time. Drones for phones and designer bodies. I want to see it all and write a book about it, that’s what. I can always come back after a year.”

Robin interjected. “But anything could happen there. It’s like the Wild West. Korea talks go badly? Bang, headlines, ‘British Student Accused of Spying in DDR Seeking Consular Assistance’. Personally I don’t ever want to be in a situation involving the words ‘seeking consular assistance’. Maybe you’re braver than me. Compared to that, I’ll take my chances with number theory and nice pubs.”

Helen laughed. “Oh Rob, really, it’s not that bad. It’s all just propaganda. I love you and all you degenerates here dearly but I want to see where things really happen! And you could come visit. We’ll get blasted in some commie drug club in Kreuzberg. Everything’s legal there.” And all you degenerates. Robin forced a laugh. What a way to spoil an otherwise good sentence.

Alistair caught the look on his brother’s face. “Well to be honest I wish I’d done that myself. I went straight from undergrad into DPhil and I don’t think I’ve had a week without physics since before my A-levels. You just get bloody tired. If you want to do something you’ll still want to do it in a year’s time, and if you discover something better then that’s even better.”

There was a murmur in the pub as the band got back up onto the stage and Helen turned to watch. Alistair shot his brother a sharp look and Robin rolled his eyes. The band played the opening chords and the crowd gave a cheer.

No use knocking on the window    [solo]
There is nothing we can do, sir    [Robin drinks]
All the beds are booked already    [Helen drinks]
There is nothing left for you, sir    [collective breath]
Standing in the rain    [the pub joins in]
Knocking on the window
Knocking on the window 
On a Christmas Day.
There he is again,    [quietly now]
Knocking on the window    [getting louder]
Knocking on the window    [Robin isn’t singing]
In the same old way.    [he drains the glass]

*         *         *

Greene spoke to her angel again. “Daniel. Get Hallan on the phone again.” Almost instantly he was on the line. “Oh thank god it’s you again. What was that we heard outside? Are you all ok? Did you see my Christina?”

“We are in fine form, Mr Hallan and are still looking for Christina.” A lily white one given the circumstances. “The bangs you heard were our kestrels taking care of the buzzers outside. From what we can tell there is just one left, but this is going to be a bit tricky. It appears to be at the foot of the stairs down to the cellar. We will not be able to get our kestrels in there for a good go and will have to do this ourselves.”

“Ff-ff-far out. Sorry. Tell us what to do and we’ll do it.”

“We need you to stand as far back from the door as possible. Take shelter behind something, kegs, whatever. I will stay on the line. Tell me when you are ready.”

There was silence on the line for a few seconds. The static on the line was soft enough Thorn could hear the faint buzz from downstairs.

“We’re ready.”

Greene nodded to her sergeant. Thorn took a deep breath, and with his left thumb he double-tapped the nub on the side of his gun. It telescoped out into foot-and-a-half-long rod, and at full extension started to turn and unspool in both directions into a clear sheet of carbon fibre ribbed with a stiff black frame, covering from his toe to above his head. He inched closer to the top of the staircase and started to aim the shotgun down.

He kept the shield in front of him awkwardly as he went down the stairs, step by step. He kept his eye on the sonic screen. The metal steps were picked out in green in the darkness and at the end of the passage the red glow was getting brighter. He barely needed the sonic to hear the killer buzz getting louder. And then his foot hit stone and he was there in the room with it. On the sonic screen it was an angry red dot barely twenty feet away, and the buzz pitch warbled as it moved. He had done this before, but that never made it easier. He lined up the sights.

This is not what Alistair would have seen in New Street Station. He had been on his way back from giving a seminar at the university down in Edgbaston and was in the concourse waiting to change trains home to Oxford. Thorn had seen the security footage. He had been eating a Cornish pasty when it happened. He was looking tired. Without the benefit of sonics he would have just heard this buzz, the same buzz as Thorn heard now, but a thousand times louder, and little black dots swarming in and out of the goods door. He had been standing so close that at least he didn’t have much time to react—almost as many people had been killed in the stampede once they saw what was happening, and in many ways, Thorn thought, that was far worse.

Thorn exhaled and started putting pressure on the trigger. Just at that moment the buzzer’s red dot on the sonic flashed white—it had seen him and was accelerating towards him. He squeezed hard and the shotgun kicked back into his shoulder several times in quick succession. The shelves behind the buzzer were torn apart and sprayed sawdust, glass, and splashes of beer, cleaning fluid, paint and heaven knows what else. The pellets were bonded into little bolas with tough fibre filaments to kill drone propellers, but they would shred anything else just as well. But the buzzer kept coming faster. He was panicking now. He squeezed hard and kept it down and the gun thrashed against his grip. Suddenly there was a shriek and a click-click-click and the buzzer shot back against the far wall and with a loud crack that left his ears ringing it showered his carbon shield with a fountain of basement junk.

He breathed again.

Greene was coming down the stairs still talking to the publican on the phone. Thorn couldn’t tell what she was saying. She turned to him and moved her mouth and sounds came out and he nodded. He still stood there. She opened her mouth and closed it again, and shook her head. Thorn blinked.

“Sorry?”

“I said, well done, lad. Well done. Now come help these people out.”

She knocked gently on the door and called out. “It’s safe to come out now.” She stepped back and they could hear fumbling with the lock. The door swung open and one by one they came out. One man had clearly wet himself. A woman’s mascara had run down her cheeks, a good deal luckier than another bleeding from a glass fragment embedded just below the cheekbone. The publican came out last and Greene shook his hand.

“Mr Hallan, I’m Inspector Greene. You’re safe now. You’ve been very brave. I’m sorry to say you will have to keep being brave, because I have some very sad news.”

Thorn looked away.

*         *         *

Thorn wandered down from the police station to the river. The bubble wall was a faint iridescence on the other side of Folly Bridge, marking the edge of the safe world of Oxford. He looked down at the beer garden by the water and suppressed a shiver. He murmured to his angel.

“Ariel. Call dad.”

He looked down to the river and up to the bubble while he waited. Both shimmered with the reflected street lights. “Rob! I was just getting my boots on. How are you? Still good for a pint at the pub tonight?”

“Well actually I was just calling about that—how about I just pick up a bottle of wine and we can have takeaway at home instead?”

“That’s okay too, son. When’re you home?”

“I’ll head over now. Think about what you’d like. I’ll see you in Headington in twenty minutes.”

This was better.

 

‘The Marlborough Arms’ is part of a Special Issue on Uto/Dystopias.

~

Benjamin Pope is a NASA Sagan Fellow at New York University. He completed his DPhil at Balliol in 2017 and worries about politics.