The Class of 2054
"Stop it!" hissed Mimi-Cecilia. She yanked her best friend's sticky hand from the depths of her purple pinny. "I need that stuff."
Allegra popped a munch-ball into her smirking mouth. She'd grabbed at least a third of her birth-buddy's stash.
"Now, girls, behave. It's presentation day." Mimi-Cecilia's biomother, Kate, helped them from the hov-o-car. All about them, parents with matching children despatched their vehicles and entered the huge domed building.
"Yes, and I need my things!" cried Mimi-Cecilia, snatching Allegra's fist. She managed to retrieve one ball of precious spider-string.
Kate pressed them into a long line of children filling the vast foyer. "Sort it out," she said, smoothing the girls' clothes, "We'll see you from the parents' windows."
This was Saturday School - where kids perfected special skills inscribed in their oocytes mid-way through incubation. Parents had earnestly considered five options, encoding one into their embryos' early scans. Children delighted in their Saturday Skills classes, and parents beamed with pride as the kids excelled.
Kate headed upstairs on a nearby whiskalator, waving to the girls below. In the cavernous foyer, their restless line of under-tens inched closer to two huge red doors.
Allegra, in her crisp navy tunic and shiny lace-up boots, seemed extra daring today. She flaunted what she'd nabbed from Mimi-Cecilia: popcorn, a large hair twist, six more munch-balls rising and shrinking in her small, moist palm. Mimi-Cecilia snatched. "Gimme."
Allegra slewed sideways as a sniggering boy touched her with his wart. "Catch me," she teased. Mimi-Cecilia tugged Allegra's tunic, then grabbed at the hair bobble securing her blonde ponytail.
"No!" Allegra cried. "That's from my dad."
Mimi-Cecilia snapped the bobble onto her wrist, eyeing the bonsai bee sleeping inside - a gift from Allegra's father. He called it the You Can Bee. "So give me my things." The two girls dared each other, grinning.
High above, at glimmering third-floor portholes, parents looked down with wonder and love. Though each made some show of admiring the other children, they always coded their offspring for the talents they had hemselves. Unconsciously, they clustered in the five socio-talent groups, pointing out their own kids, privately thinking the others plain and dull-witted.
Kate stood amongst them, watching the girls. Though coded for different pursuits, the two had been both neighbours and birth-buddies - carried from the inculab in matching striped bundles the same afternoon - and were extremely close. She watched the girls jostle as they crept closer in the line. Near them, a pair of little perfectwins cartwheeled like tumbleweeds across the hallway and half way up the walls.
The girls stepped forward towards the huge red doors. "Allegra!" squealed Mimi-Cecilia.
Her friend grinned fiendishly, clutching her helium-ball backpack to her chest. Its wicker basket beneath circus-striped balloon now held Mimi-Cecilia's objects. They nestled in Allegra's folded shimmy-shorts, placed neatly in the basket by her mother that morning. The heat-sensitive munch-balls softly rose and fell. Allegra devoured another as Mimi-Cecilia lurched.
Too late: suddenly they'd reached the towering doors. Side by side, before Allegra realised, they stood at the head of the line. Two giant cymbals reflected their images upside-down.
Fat, elaborately-fringed Master Mottle glared from his perch. "Age and birth-taste?"
The two girls straightened. Mimi-Cecilia's hand snatched the silky pink shorts but failed to grab her stuff.
"Nine. Dance-obatics," said Allegra.
"Nine. Gastron-opera," chirped Mimi-Cecilia.
The mighty doors began to swing. The master breathed hotly across his huge, tattered list. The girls stepped through onto the waxed blue podium – they knew the routine.
Five round passageways could be seen: shiny, winding tunnels to five different educational realms. Steam and food-smoke rose richly from the first; cacophonous concerti blasted from another. Weird green vapours sidled from the third, as harsh, solid thumping racked the nearby floor of the fourth. Whistles and crowd-roar pressed on salty air from the last. The temptation of one was always too good to resist.
Allegra sailed towards to her favourite fifth portal, but Mimi-Cecilia gave a last-ditch effort to get back her things. On the brink of the podium, they grappled, they wrested, they giggled, they flinched. Mimi-Cecilia got her munch-balls back, but that was all.
Spinning in combat, they scuttled on the waxen gloss. Boots squeaking, pinny whirling, striped balloon tugging madly overhead, they twisted, they staggered, they cursed.
Til suddenly Allegra was gone: falling, skidding, laughing her wicked giggle. She tumbled down the candy-corn tunnel fragrant with odours of gravy and minted peas.
Mimi-Cecilia watched in horror - that was her portal! To Gastron-opera 2A. She knew nothing of anything else. And today was presentation day - her special project lay ready to display. With a strange sugary crackle, the candy-corn tunnel closed after Allegra. Scrambling to follow, Mimi-Cecilia's ankle balance suddenly failed, flinging her fast into the scary fifth tunnel: a scuffed vinyl passage smelling of old shoes - at a horribly steep angle. The floor was a trampoline, walls had no hand-holds. She bounced and staggered, twisting and cursing, propelled against her will to the edge of a high, white platform.
Far below, in the cavernous basement sports arena, hundreds of children danced like angels from pommel-horse to dive-pool to Roman rings. She watched in awe. Like fairies, they leaped with the grace and power of their tiny pink shimmy-shorts – combined with the elegant rhythms of superior spacio-ballet genes (enhanced in their hatching-hall long prior to birth).
Clearly she was expected to dive – fifteen metres to the ground at least, tiny crash-pillow carelessly positioned below. How could she possibly? The platform began to tilt and recede. She grabbed Allegra's shimmy-shorts – silvery ball of sheer satin nothing in her palm - didn't even know how to wear them. Fairy-floss strands stretched translucently between her fingers.
Suddenly she was hurled from her ledge. She wailed with terror, tumbling mid-air. Her rumpled tights stretched, her woolly pinafore flapped above a sea of tango-perfect, Busby-Berkeley dancers. In the blink of an eye, the sylph-like gymnasts swirled into a catching web. The remains of her pocket's contents fell embarrassingly to earth, as the team caught her easily with a stretch like fluid velvet. Why didn't her own limbs work like that?
They helped her into her shimmy-shorts and swept her off to the pommel-horse with glee. Her buttocks revved and swivelled in the air, arcing and zooming as she attempted forward speed – but her feet were still like dangling anchors, her arms akimbo, face scrunched into the wind in fear. Chief instructor Hugo Kleat observed from a distance: what was going on?
Gazelle-like gymnasts gazed in amazement as she crashed on the simplest moves. She couldn't even contemplate the concept of rhythm. Spatial skills were meaningless to her genes. As instructor Kleat approached, she rushed to duck away, offering to bring drinks to the panting children rehearsing the parents' show.
She darted past the dive pool, where the perfectwins, heady with Voom drink and athletic ease, spun through a perfect triple-twist, barely leaving a splash. How did they do it? She was utterly amazed - could barely enter and leave a hov-o-car each day without bumping her head or scraping a shin. Of course, she had other skills and expertise - but her beloved kitchens were nowhere to be seen. This was a very bad day.
Elsewhere in the vast realm of Saturday School, Allegra struggled too.
In the hissing, heaving kitchens of Mimi-Cecilia's world stood row on row of red-faced, apron-clad, vinaigrette-sampling children, deep in culinary work. Allegra yearned for her gym shoes – happy at the best of times with a peanut-butter sandwich and a slikpak of Jooce. The sounds and textures were hot and intense. People were melodramatic. The smells were overwhelming. She didn't understand these folk at all.
Big-haired Mrs Follicle-Trout strode with her cleavage through the rows of students. Through the roasting and beating, the whipping and steaming, the licking and sniffing and creaming, she beamed.
Sleeves rolled, tiny feet on tip-toe, glistening tongues cocked tight in concentration, children on all sides put final perfect touches on magnificent creations.
"Ten minutes, everyone!" the matron warbled.
After five years of such keen culinary work, these pupils were surpassing themselves. There was wild duck winter brioche; potted persimmon peacock; thrice-stuffed filigree figs; waterbird mignon with rice. A grubby little girl with stumpy legs and plaits crafted perfect sugared rose buds over almond-milk blamange.
A team of older boys finalised their presentations: chilli-crusted Caracan crab concasse; wild pansy Mille Fouelle melange; mink meringue mangroves in raspbanana jam - all executed with theatrical panache, plus all-important cleaning-up-as-you-go.
Allegra eyed each delicate piece. How did they do it? Bombe Alaska of virgin Antarctic snow. Tepees of teetering swordfish swords. Crimped cockles with cod. Béchamel brouhaha with beans.
She sat at Mimi-Cecilia's workbench, forlorn. Surrounded by excellence, she stared at a sagging custard cassoulet. She'd found a tattered recipe in Mimi-Cecilia's bottom drawer, but it seemed to be incorrect: no mention of the glutinous lumps, the frightening torque beaters or the ghastly dough that stuck to every pore. The weird mingling smells were far stronger than those from her pal's Girl's First Grille at home. She felt dizzy and sick, sorely wishing Mimi-Cecilia was there. How could she fix the mess? Would anyone help?
Nearby, wart boy assembled precision-perfect shards of frosted Frangelico glass. He was breathless, his expression so intense she didn't dare interrupt.
Busty Mrs Follicle-Trout sucked a morsel of discarded toffee, beaming her yeasty grin. Her wine-spattered, cake-battered lusty form rounded the corner, fast approaching Mimi-Cecilia's bench. "Nine minutes, now, darlings. Don't forget your apron change!"
What could Allegra do?
Back in the bright-lit gym, Mimi-Cecilia cringed beside the steep steps of the huge glass pool. One by one, under the stern eyes of Hugo Kleat, Allegra's class flipped like pancakes into the deep. They darted like minnows below, impatient to show their Aqua-Batics skills. Mimi-Cecilia landed with an inelegant splash, terrified, clinging to a slippery edge.
Nearby, a class of sleek eight-year-olds burst like torpedoes from the sparkling pink, leaping and spinning, sinking without a mark. Perfectly timed, they triple-twisted in unison, grinning. As Hugo's whistle trilled, they wheeled like dolphins, flipping from the pool like sunfish arching in morning light.
Mimi-Cecilia panicked: it was her group's turn. The shoal of nine-year-olds surged forth, washing her from a ledge. Out of her depth, she gasped, taking water, suddenly close to tears. She couldn't do this - just didn't have the genes. The shimmy-shorts bobbed and wriggled, keeping her afloat - but her balance skills were zero. She slopped side-ways, tumbling, struggling, desperately longing for her normal Saturday class.
Beneath her, children dived for coins at thirty metres. Their tiny shimmy-shorts span like fishing flies, glinting and flashing through the quartz-pink deep. Reminding her of swordfish with sage. Of smoked trout fennel roulade, whitebait with buttered beetroot terrine...
Suddenly, she was choking, crashed on from above, churning in fury: the perfectwins' first attempt to double-diabolo from an overhead trapeze. They whirled to the surface, unconcerned, as she gasped for air, dizzy, frantic, tangled in their limbs.
Struggling to the edge, she sniffed in pain: the pool salts scorched her fine-tuned olfactory nerves. That was it! She lurched from the pool and fell into the change-room. From a mess of scattered knickers and half-chewed Monkey Bars, she grabbed a T-towel, drying herself. As she dabbed her searing nose, the coin-sized cloth expanded hugely with the fluid, then gently shrank, expelling its briny mist. But what was that other smell?
As her sensitive sinuses cleared, she detected an undertone to the smell of sweaty Bounce Boots and unwashed Safe Sox. She tugged on her clothes, sniffing the air. What was it? Finally, she had it: a faint but distinct scent of slow-roasted garlic. She spun her head, face like a radar. And caramelised pears! She scrambled through the cluttered room, chasing tiny whiffs to a giant air vent. Her class must not be far!
Oblivious to Hugo Kleat, watching from the door, she rapidly scaled an Everest of pommel horses. The vent was there above her, strangely compelling. She grabbed a huge javelin and poked at the air vent, stretching wildly on one leg, til its metal grill came free. She stared, panting, into a dark, breezy space, then swung herself madly onto a set of Roman rings. As a blast of hot pesto fragrance spurred her to recklessness, she whirled aloft, squealing, stretching mightily - scaring herself badly before finally hauling herself into the gaping hole. She trembled as she looked back where she'd been. Allegra's bonsai bee opened one eye. Inspector Kleat watched her achievement: fascinating, indeed.
In the dark, twisting air-conditioning tunnel, turbine fans whipped and thrummed. She smelt a medley of stale gym mats, pool salt vapours and musky cleaning fluids. Sporadically, the pitch-black air steamed with an oily scent of simmering butter and wine. She moved towards it determinedly.
Twisting and turning, she came to a huge ladder. Exhausted, she staggered to the top - amazed at her own daring - entering the air processing shaft. It was a low, wide passage studded with filter-feeding insects and molluscs. Scuttling shellfish tasted the air with antennae. Pale clams gasped and contracted, monitoring the school's mix of swirling odours and gases. Viscous germ-worms chewed through dirt and lint. She slumped in the dim light, pulled out her pictophone and desperately dialled her mother.
High above in the parents' lounge, Master Mottle Senior addressed the crowd. The wrinkled, lavishly-dressed headmaster was, as always, thrilled with the children's progress. If they'd step into the various hover-coasters, each group would now depart to view their latest achievements. Kate hid her smirk as she eyed the other parents: classical musicians, polite clones in formal black and white; barely-clad jocks and athletes, jostling for front position; crackpot scientists, dropping their wallets and talking too loud.
Suddenly, Kate's pictophone buzzed. "Mum, I'm in trouble," Mimi-Cecilia wailed. "What's up?" "I went to the wrong class!" "But how?" "Oh, no," cried Mimi-Cecilia, a tiny pink face in a blur of shadow on the pictophone screen. The instrument went dead.
The hover-coaster leapt from its mooring, zooming through the school to the Gastron-opera presentation kitchens. Kate was worried: Mimi-Cecilia wasn't there. And why did she get cut off?
In the gloomy air shaft, Mimi-Cecilia caught a sudden waft of light - and saw Hugo Kleat, bounding towards her, hot on her tail. As she leapt across a dangerous cleft, the You Can Bee woke from its torpor, observing with great interest. She pressed on, determined, past sharp turbines and fast-thrumming fans, towards a wondrous fragrance of fricassee pheasant with fries.
Hugo Kleat matched her pace, observing intensely. Clearly this child had no Dance-obatics coding, yet here she was defying her own profile. Astounded, he followed her til his oversized athlete's buttocks forced him back from the ever-decreasing tunnel. Could this be evidence of some sort of genetic over-ride? A birth-taste mutation? How thrilling!
He scrambled back to the gym, where Allegra's classmates endlessly hurdled - sixty-seven each and counting - awaiting instructions. He handed over to coach Trixie Shrinkle, twirled a dial to buzzprint Mimi-Cecilia's file and jacked into Teacher Speak to track down the child - though he knew full well where she was headed.
Through increasingly humid air vents, now perilously angled and hot, Mimi-Cecilia forged on. Woodsmoke and welding fumes blasted through from the sculpture school. As sparks erupted through screeching noise, she raced down the dangerous chute. Larger, faster turbines whipped the air as inexorably, slipping and sliding, she closed in on a roiling sea of flavoursome smells. Scents of warm honey hit like a wall as she rounded a corner - and suddenly she was upon her old class.
She stared down at familiar banks of ancient and high-tech ovens. Through flambéed pig flap and steaming gooseberry grouse, she had a keen view of her classmates, nervous and proud. Children scrambled out of soup-stained jackets and juice-smeared pantalettes. Swiftly they donned fresh whites and precision hair-nets as the parents' hover-coaster squealed its approach. She had to get down there!
Teacher and class assembled importantly as the vehicle jolted to a halt. Kate and the parents alighted one by one in the wake of the headmaster's magnificent trailing gown. The much-awaited presentation tour began. The ancient headmaster slowly worked his way through the room. This was his favourite class - he didn't want to rush. Kate scanned the sea of children's faces - sure enough, there at the rear, cringing, was Allegra, athletic calf muscles tapping in frustration. She flapped hopelessly at a deflated leathery custard poufe swimming in brackish gruel.
In the ceiling vent, through a greasy grate, Mimi-Cecilia finally saw her friend, slumped in defeat at Mimi-Cecilia's beloved blackened stove. She scowled - it was all Allegra's fault! Someone else's Jellied Ginger Gemfish Jus was stealing the show. Then she chirruped their secret whistle, that only Allegra knew.
Her best friend looked up, stunned.
Mimi-Cecilia squeezed through the grimy bars of the grate. "How'd you do that?" said Allegra. "Just throw me my stuff," hissed Mimi-Cecilia, through clouds of simmering vapour.
Gently, careful not to stain his cuffs, Master Mottle Senior sampled Hearty Hot Haggis Pies and Pearlmeat with Peppers and Peas. As onlookers held their breath for his pronouncement, Allegra artfully tossed up her pal's things. Mimi-Cecilia frantically loosened her ball of spider string. "Get baking soda and cocoa nibs." She swung herself down to ground level, then recoiled the string. "Pot, water, medium heat. Add heaps of fine sugar. Grab a whisk." Allegra dashed to obey.
"Stir furiously!," Mimi-Cecilia hissed as the parents' tour drifted inexorably towards them.
Allegra hooked her cycling legs madly into a giant whisk - whipping and flipping with strength and finesse. The mixture began to fizzle and foam. At the point of expanding hugely, boiling out of the pot, Mimi-Cecilia hurled in her spider-string, then swiftly tied a strand to Allegra's hair. "Now dance!"
Allegra looked baffled, then her ballet skills kicked in. She leapt onto the bench and triple-turned into elegant pirouette. Over flickering flames, she held a perfect arabesque before tossing and twisting neatly through space. Sugar-drenched spider-string stretched a thousandfold in her wake. Guided by Mimi-Cecilia, she whirled like a dervish, sashayed like a princess, tangoed like a fairy queen. Sweet crystals of finest spun gold festooned a bridal train as she leapt into grande jette.
As the parents turned the corner, she flicked, she split-leaped, she span. The girls eyed their emerging creation: a spun-gold miniature circus tent, in finest toffee studded with spice.
Wart-boy's staring father strode forward, grasping Allegra's wrist. "What's this?"
Kate held her breath, staring at the headmaster. Hugo Kleat jogged into the room in too-tight shorts, but all eyes were on the girls. They stared back, silent against a kitchen hum of bubbling, sizzling and steaming. Then heartfelt applause burst from the crowd. Mottle Senior's minions beamed. The fat matron clapped berry-stained fingers in pure delight.
"Who said we could work in pairs?" said wart-boy jealously, his Bombe Alaska totally eclipsed (and timed to explode in seconds).
"But how can it be?" cried Kleat. "This is not her birth-code!"
The best friends smiled, working as one, adding ever more detail to the glistening treat. Mimi-Cecilia leapt forward, tracing molten sugar in gorgeous, sweeping lines. In a frenzy, the girls continued, weaving complex twists of graceful Gaudi strands. Their eyes gleamed, their minds steamed as the You Can Bee spun wildly in its tiny dome.
Finally, the girls stood back to admire their creation: a Faberge egg atop the wondrous, golden circus tent, glittering with ruby red, diamond-cut edges. Then the final flourish: Mimi-Cecilia gently pushed a toffee horse and the entire glistening circus tent turned like a delicate music box.
Kate stared, astounded: where had these skills come from? What did it mean? No-one knew what to think.
Mottle's jaw gaped. "A brand-new birth-taste."
"There's no such thing," said a minion, picking his teeth.
"What shall we call it?" cried Kleat.
"Fifty six years in aesthetic education…" Master Mottle chuckled. "A whole new strand just erupts!"
"Impossible!" cried wart-boy's father, unconsciously crimping a pie.
Gourmechanics?" tried Kate. "Confect-itecture? Sugar Dance?"
Mottle turned to the girls. "This has vast implications!" He leaned in to Kleat and Follicle-Trout. "Set up a brand new research room. Work with these talented girls. Give them their heads. Spare no expense! See what you can create!"
Kate grinned at the assembled stunned parents.
Allegra's bee buzzed with glee as wart-boy's oven exploded.