I break off a piece of raspberry tart, with a crust as light as sunshine, and slide it into the pocket of my caftan. My mouth goes dry in spite of the sweet tang that’s about to burst over my tongue.
Because the hidden bite’s not for me. It’s for my best friend, Astana, and if the royal guards catch me stealing food for a colonist, I could be thrown into the Red Cell Prison. Our laws are clear: actual food, as opposed to nutrition pills, must be reserved for those who can utilize it best.
I shove the rest of the tart into my mouth. It breaks upon contact, littering crumbs across the silver shuttle floor. I’m so nervous the dessert tastes like congealed space dust and raspberries, but I chew and swallow as if nothing’s wrong. As if there isn’t a smooshed-up pie staining the inside of my pocket.
Did anyone see me hide the bite?
All around the Banquet Room, the Aegis dig into their mid-afternoon snack. Pecan-encrusted squash, double-mashed garlic potatoes, barbecued tofu drizzled with a blackberry-port reduction. They sit twenty per table, at sheets of metal which would sag if they weren’t doubly reinforced. Their silverware clinks together in a high, tinny melody, replacing the conversation that might have occurred back on Earth, where eating was partly social instead of wholly functional.
On our new planet, Dion, no Aegis talks during the first twenty minutes of a meal. It would be a waste, since more food can be consumed before the stomach has a chance to feel full. And an Aegis has only one goal: to consume as many nutrients as possible. We have to, in order to take in enough sustenance for the rest of the colony.
I’m about to finish what’s left of the tart when a hand closes over my elbow.
My heart stutters. So it comes to this. After training all my life to eat for my people, I’m caught over a piece of raspberry pie.
Pellets of sweat break out on my neck. I turn to my captor, the excuses ready on my lips. It’s just a single bite. My best friend’s been so down lately. I just want to bring her a little excitement, a little joy. Is that so wrong?
The words melt in my mouth. Because it’s not a royal guard who has a hold of me. It’s my older sister.
“Sweet before savory?” Blanca asks, moving the hand from my elbow and onto her hip. “Is that your secret, Vela? You eat a round of dessert before the main course?”
Of course not. I’m only eating this tart because it gives me an excuse to be near the dessert buffet. But Blanca doesn’t have to know that.
“You got me,” I say. “Sweet and savory foods fill different mental compartments, you know. You can still eat chocolate cake, even though you’re full of ramen noodles and pan-fried dumplings—”
“Save it.” Blanca arches her back, jutting out her food baby. Fifteen minutes from now, after she pays a visit to the Transfer Room, her stomach will deflate once again, but my sister’s always been one to show off her roundness, however temporary. “I don’t need your strategies to be named Top Aegis.”
I’m a shoo-in for the top prize this year. Blanca knows it, I know it. Half of our Eating class has placed bets on it. If I keep eating the way I have for the next two days, no one will even come close.
Vela Kunchai, Top Aegis. I can taste it. Hot and satisfying, like a tray of lasagna with a bubbling soy cheese crust. I’d stretch my stomach lining into gauze to make sure it’s me. My sister, unfortunately, feels the same way.