This short story won second-prize in the Southampton University Green Stories competition. The competition was created to promote sustainable ideas through engaging stories. I’ve written stories about people’s unwillingness to be eco-friendly. I’ve also written stories where people are forced to be eco-friendly, as in The Field. This story, I think, strikes a nice balance between the two.
The Buildings are Singing
The buildings were singing, that morning, when I met Genie in the teahouse. We were in our city’s western plaza, in the shadows of the their tall, greenery-covered sides. They were singing across our entire range of hearing, creating notes with all the devices at their command, from their hydraulic pumps, through their mid-range speaker-cones, all the way up to their ultrasonic window cleaners. Their melodies were beautiful and they played them together, harmonising with each other, adding phrases, playing with those phrases and then passing them around. Deep inside each one, an artificial-intelligence computer, an AI core, listened and responded. Each was a supreme multitasker. While a small part of its brains managed its building’s power generation, using its own ground-source heat pumps, solar panels and roof-top wind turbines, another part continually monitored the plants growing up its walls. It watched its living epiphytes and adjusted its structural heat loss, reflection-rate and shade -levels to harmonise with its plants’ rhythms. Each building had even learned from the living world, understanding how to change the microclimate of an area through the controlled loss of moisture, a trick mastered by forests for millennia. They now worked together, across entire cities, thereby influencing their country’s regional weather and lessening its climate extremes. But there was a catch. It wasn’t a big catch. It wasn’t a catch I had a problem with, but Genie, she suffered it all the time.
She was sitting at the café’s corner table, gazing miserably across the plaza, when I arrived. She’d already ordered a pot of Darjeeling tea. It was the house speciality, on account of it growing on the roof. She looked like she’d just swallowed a bug, and I don’t mean as part of our daily ration of locust-snacks, which she avoided like the plague, I mean as in pissed off. I sat down opposite her and poured out a cup.
‘I fell out with my building.’
‘You fell out of your building?’
‘No,’ she snapped. ‘I fell out with my building!’ She grasped the edge of the table and tapped it with her fingers, partly in time to the buildings’ music, but mostly in irritation.
‘What did you do, Genie?’ I asked, lifting the cup to my lips.
‘Nothing, Pete! Why does it have to be my fault?’
‘What did you do?’
She stared at me, miserably. ‘I smuggled in a cat.’
‘A cat?’ I put the cup down. ‘A carnivore? Are you nuts? What about the birds that nest on your tier? It’ll scare them off or kill them. If a cat’s around, the birds will suffer and you’ll get no eggs. We all need eggs! Carnivores don’t produce anything, Genie, except poo, pee and more carnivores!’
‘I know that, don’t I know that? But it was really friendly and it purred and it looked so alone.’ She looked at the café’s ceiling. ‘So I smuggled it in. I fed it vat-steak and now my building’s dropped the temperature in my room, cut off my vat-steak supply, turned off my artificial lights and blocked all my television channels apart from eco-life.’ She sank down in her chair. ‘I’m forced to watch whales, because I was nice to a cat.’
‘You know what you have to do,’ I said in a low voice.
‘Genie, you’ve got to apologise to your building.’
‘No way!’ She slapped the table, making our cups jiggle. ‘I’m not going down on my hands and knees in front of a lump of concrete! I’m sick of this, Pete. I’m sick of having to stay on the good side of a block of flats! Our grandparents made those buildings to think for themselves so we didn’t have to do boring jobs or work out exactly how to run things. That’s what the A.I.s were for. Now those stupid, clever devices have turned the tables on us. They’ve taken their revenge. They’re telling us what to do when we should be their masters!’
‘Genie, do you really want to go into the freedom zone?’ I looked left, westwards, towards the mountains. ‘The land where humans still decide everything?’
‘Of course not,’ she said, wiping a hand across the table. ‘Be serious. Rags aren’t my style.’ She leant forward, across the table. ‘But I don’t like our super-smart buildings, Pete. They’re controlling us. They could make our lives a misery if they wanted to.’
‘This isn’t about buildings, is it, Genie?’ I asked. ‘It’s about the fridge again, isn’t it?’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘your brother’s relationship was always doomed. It would have ended badly whatever happened.’
Genie tapped a finger on the table. ‘She left him for their fridge!’
‘Yeah,’ I agreed, sipping my tea. ‘But it was an impressive fridge, remember that. The Cool-o-Matic 4000 won several prizes.’
‘That’s not all it won with its four gigahertz chip, it’s social learning unit,’ she added, making quote marks in the air with her fingers, ‘its library of fourteen thousand jokes and its two-stage ice-maker. My brother didn’t stand a chance!’ She sniffed. ‘I warned him, you know. I pointed out what was happening, the way she giggled at its fun quips about optimum juice storage. The way she stood next to it, her hip pressed lightly against its child-proof handle, watching it craft her slushy. It was awful, Pete! Some nights, he’d find her in the kitchen, in the shadows, laughing and chatting to it about salads, her face all lit up, her eyes as glowing as… its power light!’ She stared at the floor. ‘My brother did try to stop it, at the end. Told her it was him or the fridge. She chose the fridge! What’s worse, she told him that he had to leave the apartment because, in her words, he wasn’t a “built-in fitting”!’
‘Will you calm down?’ I tried to hold her hands without knocking the teapot over. ‘That’s ancient history! We don’t even have fancy new models of commercial products any more. Everything’s 3D printed into modular parts nowadays! Old stuff is dismantled and turned into new, simpler products. Mr Cool-o-Matic has gone! He can’t steal anyone’s girlfriend! His parts are now in kettles and lamps and power tools.’
‘Yeah, and that’s why my brother lives in a tent.’ She said bitterly. She pulled her hands away from me. ‘They’re monsters, Pete. I don’t care if they sing,’ she waved at the buildings around, ‘or stay in tune… even in tune to the planet!’ She looked at the buildings’ windows, shimmering in the afternoon light as their built-in motors stimulated sound waves and sent messages in Morse code. ‘They’re still freakish creations run riot! We’re living in a new version of Frankenstein’s monster, my friend. The only difference is that in that story, the villagers got to kill the monstrous creature with their rakes and pitchforks. In this version, we just do its gardening.’
‘You’re getting hysterical,’ I said. I noticed some walnut biscuits beside the teapot and nibbled one. ‘And you have a very nice life. We’re hardly in chains, Genie. It’s a symbiotic relationship we have going with our homes. They maintain the basic systems, the power generation, the greenhouses, the underground plant and insect farms. We perform the repairs they need to keep going. We do the research to improve and develop. Genie, we have to leave our system management to AI devices. We’re not programmed at a genetic level to think long-term. We only think as far as our offspring. We only work for the benefit of ourselves, our family and our tribe. We’re useless at thinking beyond that. We’ve always acted as if the world was an infinite resource and our future was always going to be fine, whatever we did.’ I stabbed a finger at the nearest building, a slim tower wrapped in a huge strangler vine. ‘They don’t do that. They’re like the fungi in our forests. They’re connected to everything, monitoring and communicating. They’re aware, at their very cores, that our resources are finite. For them, nothing just gets thrown away and forgotten.’ I chewed the rest of the biscuit. ‘You and I can sit here and drink tea, rather than desperately scrabbling around for scraps, because we’re in a living city. We have all the power we need, and we use that power, all the time, in a way that doesn’t worsen our world, with their help.’
Genie slumped her head down on to the table, her elbows stuck out. ‘I guess so,’ she mumbled.
‘So, I’ll say it again, you’re going to have to apologise to your building.’
‘No!’ She buried her head behind her arms. ‘I don’t want to. This is worse than my marriage. At least I got sex in that.’ She paused. ‘Well, at least for the first two years. Men and smart buildings.’ She glowered at me. ‘They’re both the same, you know. They don’t talk, they just send messages.’
‘Uh-huh,’ I said quietly, sipping my tea. ‘So, is that why you took that cat in? Because you were lonely?’
‘Maybe,’ she said, her face covered by her long, dark hair.
‘Come on, Genie,’ I said, gently. ‘It won’t be that bad. Your building does like you. Remember that time when you replanted that creeping vine by your eastern window, the branch that had torn loose in the storm? You put it in your main wall-earth-bay and made sure it was supported and close to water? It grew back and your building loved that. For a whole year afterwards, it expended extra power manoeuvring your apartment’s smart windows to make sure you were shaded when you were asleep.’
‘It’s just sensitive, that’s all, and it can’t make an exception. If they let us have cats and dogs today, then we’d be clamouring for cars tomorrow, big, fat ones that we’ll just drive around in for no practical reason because we like the vroom sound. We’ll then demand plane rides to distant places, just for a week, because those places are warmer and sunnier. We’ll then want brand new items, because they’re shinier than the ones we have, and expect someone else to bury them, once we’ve got bored with them, and they’ll be left to decay and leech their chemicals into the hearts of our forests.’
‘Stop, will you!’ She lifted her head. ‘Enough with the lecture. I just took in a cat, okay? I just wanted some company, something warm that would lie beside me and not snore. I didn’t start World War 3!’ She grabbed her cup and drained it. ‘Jesus.’
I shut up. We finished our tea in silence. Around us, the music from the buildings faded away. Birdsong welled up, filling the space. A shower of rain wetted the paving-stone-paths that ran like snakes amongst the plaza’s bushes and long grasses. Ten yards away, a gardener planted a young tree, helped by a hovering drone.
I put my teacup back on the tray. ‘You know, your building likes wind chimes.’
Genie glared at me.
‘Handmade wind chimes.’
‘Alright!’ she said, slumping back in her chair. ‘Alright! But you’re going to help me make them.’
‘Of course,’ I said, grinning. ‘I can get the materials. Old copper piping is just right for that job. If you hang the chimes outside your eastern window and tune them, your building will be especially pleased.’ I put down a few coins on the table and got up. ‘I don’t have any jobs until tomorrow, so let’s get started.’
‘Right, fine,’ she said wearily, standing up.
We left the cafe and walked across the plaza. A cool wind played on our faces. Around us, the city’s green, verdant buildings receded into the distance, their windmills slowly spinning. I watched Genie walk ahead of me, crossing from stone to stone. ‘So, do I get to play with your cat?’
‘He’s gone,’ she said, her patchwork dress brushing the flowers by the path. ‘When my vat-steak supply ran out, he left.’
I chuckled. ‘Self-serving opportunist.’
‘Yeah,’ she admitted. ‘But that’s carnivores for you.’
‘True. Talking of carnivores,’ I added, trying not to grin, ‘I’ve still got some crickets left.’
She saw the insect protein bar in my hand. ‘No!’ she shrieked. She ran ahead, slipping and skidding on the wet stone.
‘What’s the problem, deary?’ I asked, biting off a chunk of the bar. ‘It’s honey flavoured!’
‘Yuk!’ she shouted, dodging between the bushes.
I headed after her, laughing. I waved the bar. ‘Mmm, tasty!’ I shouted. I took another bite and chewed the morsel, then I realised, with a surprise, that it was true; it didn’t taste too bad at all.