Clone 4621bx powered through the door onto the roof, the lock snapping in two like a dry stick in a summer drought. Close behind, the menacing clatter of footsteps echoed up the stairwell. Immediately ahead was the night: dark, brooding and uncertain.
But for now, all being well, Captain Tansley would be there – better be there – waiting for her and her priceless cargo. She sped across the rooftop, the stolen case clutched tightly to her chest, her feet barely a pitter-patter across the flat concrete floor. She scanned the moonlit sky for signs of the hover-copter – hopeful, expectant – but all she saw was an indifferent dome of stars.
Urgently, she broadcast into her headset microphone. Agitation fizzed up inside her, tingling her skin like static. Where the hell is he?.. Suddenly, a cacophony of shouts, a melee of footsteps – her pursuers had now burst through the stairwell door.
“Over there!” one yelled, pointing right at her across the rooftop. She spun around, her body poised precariously by the edge, the vertiginous drop looming just beyond.
The security detail, about a dozen of them, were so massively armed that they looked more like a single tangled mass of industrial weaponry than a collection of individual breathing bodies. One sharply barked out orders, another panned a searchlight across the roof – Clone 4621bx winced and shielded her eyes.
Seedtek’s guards had her cornered.
Seedtek, cursed Clone 4621bx. The first and largest of two mega-corporations who, over decades, had between them secured near-absolute dominance of the world’s bio-agriculture industry, grinding whole countries into dependent, corrupted, banana republics. Huge swathes of the planet now lay under their control, especially commandeered to produce their gene-engineered super-crops or g-variant-livestock.
To achieve such global pre-eminence, the duopoly had manoeuvred with guile and subterfuge – systematic bribery of regulators and extortion of governments. Decades of unscrupulous eco-sabotage had meanwhile reduced their rivals’ crops and seed-banks to genetic rubble – their produce too brittle, too unreliable – especially in this era of spiralling climatic volatility. As their competitors fell away, the duopoly had tightened their grip.
Incredible then, reflected Clone 4621bx, that in her hands – right now – lay the key to unhinging this whole unjust system. She glanced down at the unassuming metallic case. Oblivious to its enigmatic contents, she nevertheless knew the responsibility bestowed on her, embracing it as the moment she’d been training all her life for. Indeed, this was what she was manufactured for. The Green Alliance was depending on her to succeed. For the sake of the whole world.
It wasn’t so much that she dodged the bullet. Not even the latest classified Generation 5.0 clones could do that. But her parietal cortex had been engineered to perceive even the slightest variations in electromagnetic bio-architecture. She sensed the Seedtek guards tensing on their triggers and, attuned to the vital moment when intention converts to action, she made her move.
She accelerated precipitously along the roof-edge, a shimmering blur in the starlight. In her wake streamed the lethal rainbow beams from their quantum-rifles. But she was too fast, too nimble. And then it was her turn.
Still in full flight, she aimed her compact but quite devastating quantum-pistol, and fired an array of beams into the mass of armoured bodies. Several of them screamed as they fell to the floor, writhing in agony. Still she kept on running and dodging, a whir of movement. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, she sensed something hovering above her.
“Up here!” hollered a voice from the hover-copter, the curved black triangle silently blotting out the stars above, its wing-tips raining down deadly beams against her assailants. Captain Tansley, clad in Green Alliance uniform, appeared at the open door – a welcoming sight, despite his dubious timekeeping. He stretched out a hand; Clone 4621bx launched herself towards it, their arms locking just as gravity had begun tilting her arcing leap back towards the Earth. Captain Tansley reeled her into the craft’s dark interior.
She felt herself breathing heavily, her stomach churning up with bile. But she’d done it. Actually, done it! Captain Tansley sat opposite, and clenched his fist. ‘It’s ours!’ he exclaimed triumphantly.
He snatched the metal case, and proceeded to undo its security mechanisms using some covert Kolmogorovian-gadget he’d produced from his pocket. Click, click, went the locks. They peered expectantly inside.
The lid swiveled open to reveal a curious array of hundreds of minute glass tubes, arranged on a parallel series of protruding levered metal panels. Each tube contained what seemed to be a seed, and each was labelled with a name scrawled in some exotic language – ‘raphinus sativus’, ‘vicia fabia’, ‘brassica oleracea var botrytis’, and such like.
Clone 4621bx turned quizzically at the captain, who began mumbling to himself as though in a trance. “Seedtek’s primal seed collection.. Pure, natural, unadulterated seeds.. Pristine genomes that were meant to be lost forever.. But in our hands.. the power! Whole new lines of..”
Captain Tansley coughed, suddenly becoming aware of his own excitable mutterings. Clone 4621bx looked on, a sudden thread of unease tugging at her inside, a dissonance that welled up like a wave, until she finally knew something was deeply amiss. She frantically surveyed the scene in front of her, her eyes furiously scanning back and forth, her neural circuitry fully mobilised as she tried to pinpoint the incongruity.
And then she saw it – Captain Tansley’s platinum ring, the smallest detail on his left little finger, an etching barely distinguishable from the surrounding white metal, a difference too subtle for the normal human eye, but well within the physiological parameters of a Generation 4 clone – sheaves of wheat unmistakably etched into the shape of an ‘A’.
Agri-CORP! gasped Clone 4621bx, Seedtek’s arch-rival. How can that possibly be? Captain Tansley, a mole? No… Suddenly an array of images erupted from deep inside her core memory banks. The endless training exercises. Her Green Alliance comrades. But actually how many comrades had there been? Like, really been? She’d been led to believe the rebellion was vast. But all she could now recollect were the same exercises, the same training, the same people, the same faraway forest base.
And then it dawned on her. Captain Tansley’s not a mole. Because there was no Green Alliance. It’s all been a charade, an illusion. It wasn’t just her body that had been manufactured, but her whole life narrative. It was they who had insidiously cultivated her ecological values. It was they who had seeded this strain of anti-establishment sentiment. All so that she would one day risk her own life. For Agri-CORP!
‘Noooo!’ she shouted. Captain Tansley – or whoever he was – leapt up, but her reflexes were just too damn quick. In a flash, she’d slammed the metal case shut, and grabbing it under her arm, instinctively scissor-kicked her deceptor in the stomach.
She whirled round and frantically fumbled at the door controls, but the in-flight safety mechanism barred her way. To hell with this! – aiming at the door’s edge, she unleashed a desperate but powerful kick, mustering as much force she could from her hyper-augmented musculature. And again she kicked. And again. And again. And again. Until its crushed frame finally prised open.
Into the night sky she leapt, her arms splayed like a bird’s wings, the stars cast all around her. And for a moment time froze. Then the cold air suddenly swirled all around, air sucked out from her collapsing lungs, and then the impending rush of the ground below..
‘Green Alliance’ pondered Clone 4621bx, as she gingerly rose to her feet. Her body felt quite sore: she might have broken a rib, she wasn’t sure. But most importantly she had the case, battered but intact. She dusted herself down. ‘Now, that would be a good name for a rebellion..’
I do not know what the future of food will look like. I do not know, centuries on, whether we’ll be sucking up our daily calories in the form genetically-designed nutri-shakes. Or relying on the mass cultivation of insect farms. Or whether human existence will be reduced to a desperate foraging for seeds or scrabbling for rats and rabbits.
You see there are just too many variables, and their interactions are too complex – ecological, climatic, economic, cultural, social, political, technological.
But for now, in our time, we each have to make our own choices. For what we eat, where we obtain it, how it was produced – all have an impact.
Recent years have seen the rise of various movements – vegan, vegetarian, slow-food, free-range, fair-trade, zero-waste, organic, eat local, eat seasonal, eat sustainable. Each one has its own priorities, and each its own challenges. But, at heart, each endeavours to focus our minds on food provenance and/or the ethical or ecological consequences of our actions.
Embracing this spirit are an increasing number of food outlets popping up all over London, like little beansprouts breaking through the urban foodscape. Take Eat Native for instance, flying the flag for foraged food. And then there’s organic vegetarian Tiny Leaf, championing zero-waste. But this post is about Plot Kitchen – a little unassuming food counter in Tooting’s Broadway Market, serving up locally-sourced seasonal produce – they even use local Wandsworth honey.
The food is cooked up simply and in balanced flavourful combinations. A dish of succulent slices of seared hangar steak, full of meaty ferrous flavour, is served with a riot of pink radish (‘raphinus sativus’), bright-green broad beans (‘vicia fabia’), and little salty nuggets of blue Cropwell Bishop stilton. Another dish of purple sprouting broccoli (‘brassica oleracea var botrytis’) is dished up simply and deliciously with chilli peppers.
It’s a little place. So little, in fact, there’s literally no-where to sit. At least not inside the restaurant, since it’s basically just a kitchen. Instead, stools are lined up in the market alley, where the hubbub of market life – old-school greengrocers, Indian sari stalls, and Jamaican jerk shops – jostle all around you.
On the other side of the dining counter buzzes the kitchen: it’s a ringside view of food being prepared, chopped, whisked, poured, fried, drizzled, sizzled, sliced and boiled. You’re so close up to the action, there might as well be a splash-zone warning. But when it’s luscious milk ice-cream being whisked up under your nose – en route to being paired up with velvety chocolate pudding – frankly who cares!
And, what’s more, the friendly chefs opposite will happily chat away with you, discussing the ingredients, explaining the processes, extolling their love of cooking, and relating their own stories of how they got into it.
This post has been a tale of two plots: a dystopian one, where the food is manipulated and corrupted, and its narrative disconnected and eviscerated of meaning. And Plot, a local food venue: honest, connected, personable, natural, and flavoursome. One’s in the future, the other’s in the present. And I know which I’d prefer.
‘Sci-fi restaurant-reviews’ are admittedly a rather niche literary genre – I think this might even be a first! But if you are interested in ‘flash fiction’, especially of sci-fi, you may like the writings of my friend and writer Dan Malakin. Not to mention Paulo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, an inspiration for this post. Meanwhile, two blogger buddies have also recently written about food and ethics – Cake + Whisky and The Swindian. Finally, Tooting Market is at threat from CrossRail 2 – here’s a petition to protect this historic local market. And if you enjoyed this post, here’s another one where I fuse fiction with a restaurant review: ‘Smoke and Salt; The Life and Times of a Shipping Container‘.