Sweet and Salty
Ally Vahn was perfect.
Actually, everyone was perfect. Ally Vahn simply failed to be an exception. She was five feet tall and had a perfect BMI of eighteen point five. Her cheeks were soft, her face flawlessly symmetrical, her fingers precisely the right length: the results of human mastery of the genome. Inside, she knew, was perfect too, just the right amount of platelets and cholesterol receptors and little inflammatory proteins, each joint submerged in exactly the correct amount of synovial fluid and each precisely the correct distance apart.
Ally was twenty-three years old and worked as a cook. She liked to refer to herself as a "chef," a word she'd heard her friend Mandy use once, but that term hadn't been popular since the Old Days. She worked on a line with nineteen other perfectly built cooks. Each of them produced fifty identical meals of exact, measured proportions, as mandated by code. They did this thrice daily, once for each meal of the day. Then the one thousand citizens of New Mount sat in the gigantic mess hell and finished eating in thirty minutes before returning to their jobs, or, in the evening, home.
On this particular evening, which was, of course, exactly like every other, Ally was clearing away her supplies for the cleaning bots to handle. It was lovely, having things like cleaning bots and retail bots. It meant that each and every New Mount citizen worked from seven hundred hours to seventeen hundred hours each day. There was no need for humans to work late at night anymore, not now that these services could be performed by unthinking machines. So every night, Ally cleared her station, placing her dirty dishes into the designated area, and left.
Which was why, when something rather unusual occurred, Ally was exceedingly surprised. After all, unusual hadn't really happened since the Old Days, either, or so she'd heard.
What happened was as follows: Ally heard a knock on the door.
Perhaps a knock on just any door wouldn't be irregular, just her fellow cooks alerting her to their presence as they bustled in and out of the kitchen making their evening preparations. This particular door, however, was situated in the very back of the kitchen, just meters from Ally's station, and it had never been knocked on before. In fact, as far as Ally knew, it had never even been opened.
Naturally, Ally turned to inform her coworkers of the Oddity, as per protocol, only to find that she had gotten distracted by the sound and had gotten left on her own. Ally closed her still-open mouth, feeling foolish indeed, and made her way to the neat stack of papers labeled "Oddity Report" on the counter. She'd been trained to do so many times (sixty-eight, to be precise), but as she penciled her name in uniform letters at the top, she hesitated.
The trouble was that Ally had always been the curious sort. It was she, and not her sister Sarah, who had asked why there were only ten names girls could be named yearly in New Mount, and received "That's the way it is" as an answer. It was she who questioned why the Old Days were spoken of only in hushed tones and neglected in history classes, she who was told time and time again to mind her place, lest she find herself in a nasty bit of trouble. It wasn't that she wanted to be curious. She simply was.
So, be that as it was, Ally found herself standing rather close to the door in question indeed. There was no sound coming from it now, and Ally's fears of some mysterious figure on the other side began to abate, and she began to think of what sort of marvelous Oddity could be inside. A stray animal, perhaps, as they persisted despite the Government's very best efforts to contain them. A broken machine, crumbling loudly to dust as it aged.
Ally's hand really was getting dreadfully close to that door, and she reminded herself sternly that it was not at all appropriate for her to be here investigating an Oddity after-hours. She really ought to go home. Her sister and mother and father would be missing her. She really ought to go home. She really ought to--
She opened the door.
It took a moment or two for her stinging eyes to adjust to the dark and the dust that settled over her like a second skin. When they did, she was a bit disappointed. Contained in the room were several pink and white bags on rusted old shelves. On the floor was a book, splayed upon the ground where it had fallen. The knocking noise, Ally realized, as she was no intellectual but was certainly smart enough to discern the sources of noises, had been the book falling.
Ally had honestly expected the door to be locked, and she had definitely not expected an old-fashioned, honest-to-goddness book. The proper thing, of course, would be to turn it in so that the Government could preserve it properly. Her fingers trailed along the spine, the texture rough and lovely, and she shivered.
It wouldn't hurt to turn the book in tomorrow, would it?
With that, Ally seized the book in a moment of euphoric boldness, then hastened out, shutting the door firmly behind her. When she arrived home, her parents expressed mild worry and disapproval at her absence, which she waved away with explanations of a cooks' meeting, although that was ridiculous, since the cooks only met every other Thursday. She avoided their questions and small talk and the second she was alone in her room, she flung herself to her bed and opened the book.
It was...hmm. It called itself a cookbook, which Ally found curious, and the dishes it described weren't like anything she'd ever seen, definitely not formulary-compliant. Breads and pastries, pastas, things she was almost certain would have improper caloric distributions. And yet, illogically, inexplicably, she found her eyes drawn to the photos in the book. These foods were so colorful, some golden-brown around the edges, some even possessing tiers of different hues. They were so unlike the nutrient-dense efficiency foods the formulary required she cook daily.
Her eyes were drawn to one of the descriptions. "A sweet treat for the whole family to enjoy," it said.
This was understandably a confusing sentence for Ally to read, and perplexed her on a number of levels. Only the family was to enjoy this treat? Additionally, in what food group were "treats" in the first place? She lingered on another unfamiliar word. "Sweet."
Vaguely, she thought she recalled one of the older, crotchety-er cooks mentioning something along the lines of "sweet." Something about an ancestor, the Old Days. Ally had discounted it because half the things the man said were entirely incomprehensible, and, well, at the time she was trying to put a damper on her investigative nature, futile as she would later find out it was. She returned her eyes to the book, which said, "If you'd rather a less sweet, more bitter cake, simply reduce the amount of sugar by one-fourth cup."
She didn't remember where she had seen the word "sugar" until the next day, when she was unable to resist sneaking back into That Room after the others had left. There, on each pink and white bag, was that same word. Sugar.
Her control altogether gone now, Ally ripped open a bag, revealing a crystalline white powder. Something shifted in her brain, and without knowing why she did it, she scooped a bit of the stuff into her palm and licked it off. Interestingly, it dissolved on her tongue, much like the elemental salt supplements she sprinkled on each person's morning meal.
She stuffed some of the tiny crystals in her pocket, resolving to ask Mandy about it after work.
Her pocket burned all day as she worked, and true to her word, she headed to Mandy's the second it was time to go home, sending her family a quick message to let them know she'd be home late.
Mandy's house was a strange place, just as Mandy was a strange person. They'd been friends since Ally was little, although Mandy was much older, probably in her fifties now. She was the type who never held down a job for very long. Asked too many questions, yelled at too many people. Generally being a nuisance. Ally thought it was exceedingly charming, ever since she'd had Mandy as a babysitter.
"Mandy," she beamed as she entered. The windows were covered by thick black curtains, the room dusty despite being lived-in. Random, seemingly unrelated documents were scattered all about the floor, covering every surface. She recognized at least one paper as a court summons from when Mandy was arrested for public indecency, which Mandy claimed was code for "refusing to be an obedient little puppet."
"Ally," Mandy replied. She had that look she always had. Her proportions were as perfect as anyone else's, skin flawless, eyes large and doe-like and precisely her mother's favorite shade of green. Ally wasn't sure, then, how she managed to look like an overgrown raccoon, but she did nonetheless. It went well with her reputation as local conspiracy kook. "What is it?"
"I wanted to ask you about something," Ally said, and plopped down on the well-abused couch without further preamble.
"You'll get yourself in trouble, kiddo," whispered Mandy in her usual scratchy voice. "Like a smoker's," she'd joked to Ally once, although Ally hadn't the foggiest what that was supposed to mean.
"Okay," said Ally, and then everything spilled from her mouth in a jumble, in typical Ally fashion. "What's cake? And sweet? And bitter? And sugar? And--"
"Where did you learn those words?" rasped Mandy rather sharply.
"I found an old cookbook at work," said Ally, and didn't bother following it up with "Don't tell anyone," because that was pointless when Mandy didn't talk to anyone anyway. She did follow it up with, "There were bags of something called 'sugar' too, some kind of powder, like the elementals."
Mandy was silent for a long moment, shadowed eyes darting from Ally's left to Ally's right. "It might upset you," she said. "To know."
"You know me," Ally said, which was answer enough.
"My mother was a geneticist." Ally didn't answer. She knew this already, had been told many times. "She used to bring some papers home. Wouldn't say anything, never really did, but I looked. I liked to read."
"Sure, Mandy," Ally soothed, familiar with Mandy's cycles of agitation and sensing a spike.
Mandy took a deep breath. "There's stuff the Government doesn't want you to know."
Ally tried very hard not to feel disappointed. She hadn't come for more random conspiracy babbling.
"People used to get fat," said Mandy. Ally nodded; she'd known that much, been told in school that obesity used to be a huge problem before genetic mastery had been achieved. "The geneticists of the Old Times figured out that there were hundreds, thousands, of gene variations that caused it. Receptors for certain kinds of lipoproteins, recycling proteins, enzymes, inflammatory mediators."
"They fixed it when they got rid of genetic diseases," recited Ally.
"It wasn't only that, though," Mandy said darkly. "They figured, even if your genes are perfect, you could make yourself obese. There was this whole...this stigma about it, that being overweight was as bad as cancer, somehow. Made you ugly. And they figured, you could still get fat even with perfect genes, if you ate too much, or the wrong things."
"Why would anyone eat too much?" Ally responded automatically. "The formulary is very clear and nutritious."
"There wasn't always the formulary," says Mandy, as though Ally were a very small, very dense child. "People used to eat whatever, whenever, just by themselves, or with their families. Things that tasted good, or whenever they felt hungry." Sensing Ally's lack of understanding of these words, she sighed. "Humans were...we originally had a hunger drive, a sort of urge or need or almost pain you would feel when you needed to eat. But some people didn't have the right amount of hunger, or felt hunger when they were stressed, so the geneticists shut down your brain's ability to process hunger, just clean snipped some nerves off the hypothalamus.
"And then some foods tasted good. They would...they would hit your tongue and you would feel good. Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes sour, sometimes salty. It's...hard to explain. But every food tasted different, and the chefs I told you about, they would compete to see who could make the best food, and they would sell it in restaurants. Only sometimes when food tasted good people would eat too much of it, so now, we can't taste."
"Why wouldn't they tell us about that?" asked Ally skeptically. Her brain was whirring, struggling to process. "They told us about the other genetic manipulations. They were good for us."
"Because, kiddo," said Mandy, "if you had any idea what's been stolen from you, you'd burn them to the ground."
Ally read over the cookbook again that night, trying to decide if she believed Mandy. It sounded insane, and Mandy was insane, in all fairness. But at the same time...Mandy hadn't made the cookbook, and it definitely sounded like "sweet" and "bitter" were qualities of these foods that Ally didn't, couldn't, understand. Sure, she liked the texture of some foods more than others, but she ate all of her food anyway, because that was how it worked, how one got one's nutrients. "They would hit your tongue and you would feel good," Mandy had said. Absentmindedly, Ally touched the tip of her tongue, probed along its length. Felt the bumps there, wondered what they were for, or if they were just one of the useless mistakes of evolution that humans sometimes had.
She tried to imagine it. Taking a bite of the food she made every day, and it made her feel. She couldn't envision, not really, how she would feel because of food. Would her mouth feel warm, or pleasantly tingley? She licked her finger, just enough to moisten it, stuck it into her pocket. It coated with sugar.
Ally stared at her finger for a long, long time, so long her bent elbow grew tired and achey. Hesitantly, she popped the finger in her mouth, and felt the sugar dissolve on her tongue, and tried to pretend it tasted good.
It plagued her. The idea of hunger, of taste. Of feeling something upon eating, of wanting to eat, rather than eating because it was scheduled to be so. It was bizarre, and she still half didn't believe it, and yet it consumed her completely, totally. She sprinkled the measured cubic centimeters of elemental salt supplements on the colorless blend of food for the afternoon meal and wondered what it would taste like. Salt, so salty? The cookbook had said more salt made a dish flavorful, tangy. Would her dishes have flavor? If she were a chef in the Old Days, what sort of flavor would her food have?
Each and every day, she tried the sugar, just a little. She furrowed her brow and scrunched up her face like a child throwing a tantrum, gave herself headaches trying to feel something, to taste something, anything. She rubbed her stomach and imagined she was hungry, imagined feeling a hole there and filling it and feeling satisfied.
She imagined she was a world-famous chef who owned a restaurant. She imagined people liking her food, not just tolerating it, not just eating it because they were supposed to.
Still, she tasted nothing. At least, she didn't think she did. How would she even know if she started to feel something? Was it even possible? She didn't think so, and yet, against her better judgment, against all logic, she kept trying and trying and trying.
The Oddity report lay forgotten, trampled underfoot long ago. Ally couldn't remember if she'd ever finished writing her name on it.
Brains were plastic, Mandy had told her once. They could adapt. Change. Could build new neuronal connections over top of old, outdated ones, compensate for damage. But this...this wasn't damage, not really. It was just a hole. There was nothing there. Nothing at all.
Ally should've expected the other shoe.
"This door shouldn't be open," snapped Rob. Ally, in her haste and frustration, had accidentally left the door open the previous night and had not arrived early enough for the morning meal to fix it. She cursed herself silently, schooling her perfectly pretty face into a neutral expression. She wondered, distantly, if this was the taste of bitterness: bitterness at her mistake, at what she would lose. Bitterness at the fact that she never really gained anything to begin with.
"If I find anyone opening this again, they will be fired," Rob said, shutting the door and locking it with a final-sounding click. Ally turned back to her station and weighed out an exact portion of fibrous nutrition supplement.
Mandy was right. Ally wanted to burn them, and she didn't even know what it was, precisely, that she had lost. Her curiosity had turned into a mind-consuming pursuit of answers that were impossible for her to find.
Ally Vahn was perfect. Ally did not require working tastebuds, did not need hunger. Didn't want them. She was, after all, perfect without them. She stood in front of her mirror all night that night, studying her perfect face with her perfect eyes, eyes the exact color her parents wanted them to be, a misty blue-gray that changed hue in the light. She brushed back straight black hair and reminded herself that a genetically masterful modern human did not require such silly things, was better off without them.
Frantic suddenly, angry, she turned her pocket inside out and watched the remaining sugar spill onto the floor, wasted. Good, she thought viciously, chewed agitatedly at her nail, only to stop short and stare in wonder at her own reflection.
She laughed too loudly. Tears, she found, tasted salty.