EXCERPT | The Importance of Good Breeding by Richard Wren

 Illustration by Sam Rheaume

Illustration by Sam Rheaume

The vehicle door hinged upwards. “Good morning Mister Flint. Where may I take you?”

Nicholas Flint yawned, not bothering to cover his mouth for a machine. “It’s a work day, Car. Calais--the Universite du Littoral.” He didn’t really need to explain that--the Car already knew where he worked. Cars had been taking him to work for years. Nick knew the vehicles kept a record somewhere, but he taught Agriculture, not Information Tech. They, like the other machines, just did everything.

He squinted at the warm, Kentish sunshine as it poured onto his front walkway and warmed the matte-

grey road beyond. The roads should be well-charged today.

Easing slowly out of the little cul-de-sac of mass-produced houses, the Car joined the continual stream of other Perspex beads along the main road. Nick no longer bothered to look out. He was never surprised at how many Cars there were, or the fact that most were empty. Reaching for the vending machine at the front of the Car, he selected a Milbank’s “All Natural” Croissant and a cup of Yeoman Full Roast Coffee, then settled back to watch a vid.

“Have you tried Yeoman’s new demi-caf, Sir? They say it’s smooth, rich taste gets your day off to a healthier start.”

Nick mumbled absently. He was fine with his choice but the Car was programmed to pitch the latest products. How else would the advertising companies pay for the transport system? The Car interrupted Nick’s vid with the latest commercial from Yeoman before letting him continue with his entertainment.

Calais was about an hour through the Chunnel and Nick spent his time as he normally would on any non-work day. The final credits of the vid gave way to light music and he switched to conversation with friends while fields, towns and motorway intersections whizzed past.

“Hey, Jo! What are you doing later today? I’ll be in Calais for maybe two hours, then where do you fancy?”

Jo Meredith was still in her nightgown. Nick had forgotten how early it was and knew it was unlikely Jo had a work day too.

The Car made its obligatory pitch. “Sir, Madam, might I suggest Paris? Would you like to see the Eiffel Tower?”

Nick had unbelievably never been to Paris despite having worked in France for years. But then, there were so many other places to see. Like everyone, he spent most of his life on the transport system, visiting tourist sites and entertainments as suggested by the Cars. No doubt his negligence was being flagged somewhere in the system.

Jo sat up in her bed, leaning in to the camera to speak to Nick more privately. “I don’t know about Paris. It can get so hot in the city. What about a walk in the hills?”

Jo lived in the Alpine foothills and had a weakness for the outdoors. She was strange that way, but Nick really liked her. He could be there by lunchtime.

“I guess I could skip work this month--as long as I phone in. There are never any students there anyway.” The younger generation were such sticklers for citizenship--always visiting events and using up their credit allocation. You wouldn’t catch any of them just going for a walk. And Nick bet they’d all seen the Eiffel Tower. Well, all apart from Adele.“I’ll see you around midday.”

The sense of indignation in the cabin after Nick signed off was palpable. “Sir, may I remind you that there are no kiosks or tours in the hills? Are you sure that you wouldn’t rather go to Paris?”

“No, not today thanks.”

Nick checked his class registers and just as he suspected, no students had signed in. But there was a message from Adele Moritz. It would have to be her. She was a strange one. He tapped the message and her red, tied-back hair and plain features filled the screen.

“Hello, Sir. I was hoping to catch you in-person today. I saw you were due in.” Her face was a picture of exhausting enthusiasm.

“I found some obscure references to growing old varieties of crops in soil. Seriously--no need for hydroponics or environmental controls! Instead, the varieties were bred to thrive in local conditions. My problem is that the references were pre-digital and I can’t find much in the University database. I wondered if there were any earlier records, perhaps even on paper, that you could get for me. I’ll be here for your whole work period so I hope to see you soon.”

Bother. He was going to have to go in after all. “Alright, Car. It looks like we’re heading for Calais.”

“That’s a shame, Sir, but might I suggest Bruges after that? The craft market is on and I know you always enjoy that.”

Nick was tempted. He hadn’t been to Bruges for nearly six months, but he still wanted to keep his appointment with Jo. He hoped Adele didn’t keep him too long.

His air of irritation was picked up by the Car. “I see this sort of thing every day, Sir. Some individuals always upset other people’s schedules. Thoughtless, that’s what it is. I put it all down to bad breeding.”

“Perhaps.” A reluctant search through the online University archive showed no sign of any paper documents about soil or anything else. He wasn’t surprised--he would have had more luck searching through the National Museum for such an ancient file.

Thoughts of Paris returned. “Car, how come you’ve given up on the Eiffel Tower for Bruges?”

“Certainly not given up, Sir, but the craft market will have a wide range of vendors and entertainments. It would be a shame not to use them while they are there.”

That was true. Hopefully, he could smooth things over with Jo. “Okay, Car. Calais first, then onto Bruges.”

“An excellent choice, Sir. Good breeding always shows through.”

#

Jo had been fine about postponing her walk and Nick felt a mild sense of relief. It was a little strange to want to go wandering off away from all the conveniences of modern life and, personally, he wasn’t entirely happy with it. It was one of Jo’s little eccentricities. Thank heavens the Car had suggested against it. Maybe they could still go out somewhere else at a later date. Perhaps Paris.

Shuffling impatiently, Adele Moritz stood before Nick’s desk, unkempt and smelling faintly of something unpleasant. He could see that she hadn’t bought new clothes in days. Her obsession with living like a cavewoman was even more unsettling than Jo’s mountain climbing. Perhaps he should file an official report.

“But what do you think, Sir? I’m certain that I can take plant samples and grow them into full plants in a genuine, organic soil--no nutrient gels, no tissue cultures, nothing. Just like the earliest farmers did.”

“Soil? Where would you get soil from?”

She produced a tatty container that had previously been held behind her back. Peeling the lid back, it became obvious where the smell was coming from. Nick leaned away from the brown sludge. He didn’t want to consider how she had acquired it.

“There are no easily available documents about these obsolete methods, Miss Moritz. And I would appreciate you not wasting my time and yours.” He pushed the pot away. “I recommend that you stop this ridiculous excuse for research before you get yourself into trouble.”

He left Adele standing forlorn in the atrium, and flagged down another Car. Their meeting had lasted less than five minutes.  There was still time to get to Bruges.

#

Nick lounged on his Emperor-sized bed, stretching after a busy day. Despite the Adele incident, he had to admit that he’d had an enjoyable trip. Admiring his new wall console--bought at the craft market--Nick flipped effortlessly through hundreds of entertainment and news events. The console had multiple search functions and an IQ of nearly two hundred. Apparently, the glossy wood case had been carved by 3D printers that had spent years perfecting the design.

From the smartly mounted unit, snippets of spectacular concerts alternated with news items about new factories, hydroponic plants, and tourist attractions. The rolling news extolled the benefits of cheap energy that powered civilisation. Roads expanded into new territory like light-seeking tentacles. Matte-grey solar collectors contoured all unused land and building surfaces, while wind turbines sprouted across the world.

The solar-powered planet driven by commercialism and built by the machines had become almost perfect--humans and their creations in absolute harmony. This was our wonderful world.

Nick was admiring a panorama of sleek new Cars, all shining under the desert sun, when a flashing red message icon burst out in the screen corner.

“I’ll take that.” Nick propped himself up on his pillows and smoothed his clothing.

There was no need. No-one was watching from the other side. It was an automatic message from Jo’s console. The screen simply had her usual ID photo and details. Her friendly smile and curly black hair were incongruous with the deep, almost male tones she had chosen for her console voice.

“I regret to inform you that at approximately 12:30, Central European Time, Miss Joanna Ann Rohner died after an accidental fall on the slopes of Stockhorn Mountain near her home. Further details will be relayed to friends and family once arrangements have been made. My commiserations.”

Nick threw his pillows aside and rushed to the end of the bed. “What happened? There must be more details!”

This time the voice from the screen was his new console’s, a default that he hadn’t changed yet. “The message has finished, Sir. I can try and recall it but I doubt that you will get any more data until the next of kin release it.”

Nick knew that, of course. “Okay, okay.” He tried to calm himself--decide what to do next. “Right. Search out any mutual friends. Is anyone open to talk?”

Almost immediately another face, rounded and well-fleshed with damp eyes, appeared. This one was moving--distraught.

“Nick, I just heard too.” Stephan, a near neighbour of Jo in Bern. ”I’m searching for a video feed of the mountain.”

Nick should have thought of a local camera search himself. He waited as patiently as he could.

“Right.” Stephan wiped his eyes with a hand before looking up again. “There was a camera drone that got really near as Jo was walking. It looks like it was offering photographic services.” He swiped across his console to search the drone archive then stopped, eyes wide.

“Oh, God.”

The picture that came up on both their consoles had a beautiful background of a Swiss valley as seen from altitude. There were meadows with specks of cattle and coloured mists of wild flowers. On the opposite peaks, sunlight shone off the snowcaps.

But neither man could appreciate the scenery. The central figure was a woman, arms flailing and hair blown as she lost her balance. Her face was frozen in an expression of absolute dread. There was anger there as well--fury, even, a pretty face twisted into ugliness.

“She hated camera drones. I guess it got too close and she was swatting it away.”

Nick’s new console had compassion as well as intelligence. “Sirs, perhaps I should delete this photo. It seems a shame to have this as her last image in the world.”

Without waiting for a reply, the photo file was removed.

#

It had been a busy hour at the University. Two students had already battled the rain to get to his office. Both had been immediately directed to appropriate documents in the archive, something they should have been able to work out for themselves.

Nicholas Flint didn’t like to spoon-feed his students and made that very clear to them. Nevertheless, the monthly work hour was part of his contract, so he still had to go through the motions. Some members of the faculty felt that personal contact had value, but it was a pointless exercise as far as Nick was concerned. Just time away from the machines.

Now alone, he browsed through the library app, pretending that he wasn’t really clock-watching. Ten minutes to go.

Using the University software was only nominally supporting the machines, but he responded to a couple of commercials in the Herbicides folder which made him feel a little better. Five minutes to go.

“Hello, Nicholas.” It was Leakey. She spent far too much time at work.

Looking up from his purchasing, it struck Nick how similar she looked to Adele Moritz. Both had plain, unadorned faces, tied-back, no-nonsense hair and a narrow range of simple clothing. It was obvious that the machines didn’t get much business from them.

“Hello, Corrine. Working late again? I was just about to clock off.”

She seemed not to notice his unsubtle hint. “I’ve only been here a few hours today--just in case, you know?”

“I see. Have you had many students in?”

“Had three on Tuesday. Including one of yours--Adele?”

Of course it was. “She didn’t have anything disgusting to show you, did she?”

Corrine almost smiled. “No, but she does have some interesting ideas. Did you know that the sort of plants she wants to grow are the kinds first cultivated by early humans? You could argue that they made us what we are.”

“I don’t follow.” Nick had little to do with Anthropology. Even in Agriculture, he specialised in Hydroponics. Two minutes late.

“Well, cities and technology can only emerge when you have a large, reliable food supply. When we first grew things in soil, we had enough excess to spend time on building and making things. It created our civilisation--the art, the monuments, the machines. Everything. Our technology changed us, Nicholas.”

Corinne always seemed lonely. How could anyone be lonely when they can instantly talk with anyone in the world?

Oh no--she sat down, perched on the corner of his desk. “Well that’s very interesting.” He made a big performance of closing down his search app, hoping that she would get this second hint.

She didn’t. “Even simple technology caused us to evolve. Think about a flint axe, for example. The people with the best tool-making abilities would survive. Gradually the humble axe changed our hands and our brains, making us better at creating more technology.”

“See you next month, Corrine.”

She nodded wearily as he left.

#

Homeward at last, Nick lay in the backseat and considered his options for the rest of the week. He hadn’t done as much travelling of late and the machines had been dropping not-so-delicate hints. Jo had been his closest friend and travelling partner, but he just had to accept the accident and move on. It had been three months now.

“Car, I need a diversion. Could you suggest anything?”

They were nearly at the southern entrance to the Chunnel, but the Car gleefully considered all possible routes and attractions in the immediate area. “We could turn back to Cologne, Sir. The Carnival is in full swing there. Or, of course, Paris.”

Nick gazed out of the clear bubble carapace. The afternoon sun was weak and autumn leaves swirled away from the road as they passed. He always imagined finally visiting Paris on a warm spring day with a great view from the Tower. He would maybe buy some new binoculars, have an extravagant meal, and really make an event of it. “Not Paris today. Or the Alps--it looks too windy. Let’s go for Cologne.”

“A good choice, Sir. The events are particularly lavish and spectacular this year.” The vehicle slid smoothly across the lanes of the highway to exit, eastbound. “Might I also suggest a stein of Kalschbier to get you in the carnival mood? Its triple filtered with spring water.”

#

When it came to parties, Stephan was always keen. The two men had agreed to meet at one of the main beer tents, which in reality turned out to be a fully constructed brewery and bottling plant. Dozens of varieties of beer, many having nothing to do with Cologne, competed to satisfy the thirsts of over a million visitors, nearly half the population of Germany. Bottles in an assortment of souvenir shapes and colours tempted already drunken revellers to try just one more. Then another.

“Nick, Nick--over here!” The call continued well after Nick had located the source and had started his weave through the crowds toward it. The caller was lounging in what looked like a custom-made couch, plush inside with a  metallic outer finish. Beer dribbled from his glass, which he then flicked from the armrest inaccurately.

“Stephan, you’re looking good.” He actually looked drunk as hell, and had gained a lot of weight since Nick had last seen him. “Are you going to stay in here all evening or are we going to see the sights?”

“Sure, sure,” he slurred. At some unseen command, his couch made a remarkable transformation. Chrome legs, previously folded and unnoticed, stretched themselves from the shiny curves and lifted the couch off the floor. There were four in all, short and sturdy.

Stephan grinned at Nick. “So what do you think?”

“You have got to be kidding me! So you’ve given up walking now?”

“Only sometimes. My console recommended it. It’s great for maneuvering amongst jostling crowds--the height of good breeding.”

Nick could see the sense of it. He had already been bumped several times while making his way across the beer tent. “Okay, so maneuver your way outside and I’ll follow in your wake.”

#

It was three in the morning. He had finally persuaded Stephan that he had to go and now Nick would be through the Channel tunnel in the next half hour. He rubbed his face--scratchy chin and itching, bleary eyes. His reflection in the dark bubble window peered back through slitted lids. Soggy leaves blew past, momentarily sliding across the clear dome.

“I shouldn’t try to keep up with Stephan on the beer.”

“Sorry to hear that, Sir. Would you care for a Seltzer Plus? It’s a new formula with three different painkillers and an active ingredient to settle the stomach.”

“No thanks, Car. I just need to sleep.” He rested his buzzing head on the cool glass and squinted outside, dreading the thought of the short walk he would have to make to get from the Car to his bed. Maybe Stephan’s mobile couch really was a good idea. Outside, blobs of rain whipped sideways across the window.

“Well, just let me know if you need anything else, Sir.”

Nick’s slow sink into unconsciousness was interrupted by an insistent buzz.

“Oh, for God’s sake, leave me alone!”

“Shall I record it for you, Sir?”

“No, I’ll listen.” Once he was at home, he wasn’t planning on being available for a very long time.

He groaned silently as the face of Corrine Leakey appeared on the console screen. Did that woman never have any downtime? She looked awful. Her face was clammy and pale, with loose hair from her normally tight arrangement sweat-stuck to her forehead.

“Nicholas. Bad news, I’m afraid. Adele was taken to hospital this evening with acute food poisoning. I think I’ve been infected too.”

“Food poisoning? From where?” Before she could reply, he knew the answer. They had been eating plants grown in that filthy muck. Even the memory of the smell was enough to make Nick feel ill.

“I suppose, considering Adele’s only source of solid organic waste, she should have been more careful.”

Her source of organic waste? That was too much for Nick. With the beer, the long day, and the thought of that stench, his stomach started to heave.

“Stop!. Right now!” He had no intention of spending the rest of the trip covered in vomit.

“Sir, I really think you should calm down. Would you like some spring water, direct from Alpine valleys and filtered through….”

“Stop, you bloody Car!” He slammed his hand onto the emergency stop button and tumbled out once the vehicle had skidded to a halt. Hands on knees and bent nearly double, he fought against the bitter turmoil at the base of his throat with deep breaths. Gradually, the urge to spill his guts subsided.

As his self-loathing eased, he again considered his student, Adele--this time with more sympathy. The silly girl may have been eccentric enough to try growing food in her own filth, but she didn’t deserve to die for it, did she? He remembered Jo. She only went for a walk, for God’s sake. But even he had to admit that she had bad breeding. What was it that Corrine had said? Our technology changed us. Standing upright and with his stomach feeling much better, he turned.

The Car had gone. Of course it had--with others arriving at two hundred kilometres an hour, it couldn’t just sit here and get hit. In the pitch black of early morning, Nick felt with his feet, attempting to gauge where the edge of the road was. No curbs like in the old days. A light was approaching rapidly. Another Car--thank God. He could barely keep his eyes open now, but at least there was only one more hour to his bed. He stumbled slightly in his attempt to flag it down.

#

Natasha looked up from her video, startled by the wet thud on her Car window. At this speed nothing had been visible, and the red smear was already being washed off the smooth surface by rain.

“Don’t worry, Miss. It sometimes happens, but the maintenance crew will clear it up.”

Natasha decided not to think about it. The Car would get her home safely. She could always trust them. She reached for her bottle of Alpine spring water, filtered through ancient rock strata and rich in natural minerals.