From the editor:
In a world with guaranteed income and a daily allotment of calories in the form of soybars or synth chocolate, everyone’s free to follow their dreams — everyone except a former baker, that is. What would Marty risk to bake just one more cupcake?
Author Amit Gupta has lived in a commune, ridden cross-country on a motorcycle with his dog, and appeared on the CBS Early Show with cupcakes in hand. He writes optimistic science fiction and believes in the future.
Content warning: discussion of weight and calories.
From the author: A young man’s life takes a dangerous turn at a bake sale. A short story about food, universal basic income, and community.
When I saw her the first time, I was spying on a “bake sale”. Slices of fresh fruit pie at 400-500 cal, brownies from 200 to 600 cal, giant chocolate chip cookies at a cal price I couldn’t even bear to look at. Fare for the flush.
I did a bodyweight workout each morning in the park across the street. Chin-ups, push-ups, tricep extensions, dips, lunges. It took a while to increase my cal ration by building muscle, but long-term, it beat cardio. Metabolic sensors embedded in my arm reported my body’s increased caloric needs. I’d been granted a thirty cal daily increase last month.
Resting on a bench between sets, I tried to be discreet while I watched a little boy use both hands to steady an ice cream cone--a cone’s about 120 cal--with a heap of vanilla chocolate swirl--200 cal, not including sprinkles--teetering atop it. He licked at it from every angle, catching drips, dragging his tongue around the top until it became a smooth ball of cold sweet cream, glistening in the summer sun. “Fucking kids with their fucking growth spurts and fucking metabolism.” Saying it out loud made me feel better. At least a little. My mouth began watering so badly I had to look away.
That’s why I didn’t see where she came from. When I looked back, she had just appeared.
They’d reserved a side of the table for us normals—stocked with low-cal soybars shaped to look like candy, coated with synth-chocolate so thin you could blow it off. Cheap and nutritious, that stuff tasted about as good as it sounded. I never baked shit like that. Never would have sold it to my customers. I had pride.
Anyway, the girl caught my eye because she was skinny, but she wasn’t on the normals side. Not just skinny, stick skinny. So skinny that her gray sweatpants billowed wildly in the breeze around her legs. But there she was, nestled between two round women in featureless head-to-toe yogawear, hovering over a display of cocoa buttercream yellow cupcakes (my personal weakness). Anyone could tell the girl didn’t belong there.
I watched her take up a paper plate of strawberry pie, the red ooze at its edges so garishly saturated it looked like the insides of a gazelle slashed open by a lion. I watched her smile, then say something to the cashier, nodding in the direction of a giant chocolate chip cookie, then back at one of the cupcakes. The cashier looked at her with concern. I was full-on staring at this point, all attempts at discretion forgotten. I swear the next part happened in slow motion.
The girl put down the plate of pie and threw a punch in the air across her body from right to left. The cashier’s eyes followed the girl’s arm up to the wrist, then showed a hint of recognition. He smiled and began packing her selections. I stood on the bench on my toes, straining for a clear angle, and then I saw it. The girl’s air punch had pulled her sleeve back just an inch, and right there in the gap between sweatshirt and wrist was a flash of pale yellow. Something I’d heard of, but never actually seen. She had a band.
The girl was medically snacked.
I tailed her for the rest of the day. I watched from a distance as, weaving between people on the sidewalk, she opened her mouth wide and went straight into that jumbo cupcake. When she drew back, lines of chocolate frosting clung to the outline of her mouth, and a dollop of buttercream perched on the tip of her nose. She traced her lips with her tongue, collecting icing, then wiped her nose absentmindedly with her index finger.
I watched her enter a grocery on 24th street and emerge, four bulging bags slung over her shoulders. I pretended to read a book as she polished off a real-butter croissant with a latte at a corner bistro. I followed until she disappeared into a gray apartment box. I kept back a block or two, made sure she didn’t see me. What would I say if she caught me? Would she have me arrested? Was following someone illegal? I felt like a creep, but couldn't make myself stop.
For over an hour I leaned against the building across the street from hers, pretending to use my phone. She didn’t come out, and it started getting dark. I told myself that was it, but I knew it wasn’t.
“So what, you’re a PI now? Following people, parking outside their place and watching through tinted windows?” Charles asked. Charles and I had shared this apartment for three years before we, and pretty much everyone in this city, has been ‘retired’.
“No, I mean. Well, I hadn’t thought about renting a car….”
“Marty, you’re crazy. You’re gonna freak her out. What do you think is gonna happen?”
“I don’t know. I thought--”
“You didn’t think. It’s stupid,” he said.
“It’s stupid and you’re going to get caught.”
I sighed. Charles turned back to his easel. Cans and tubes of paint, tins of solvent, glass jars of cloudy water crammed with brushes, and mostly-finished canvases covered every inch of his half of our living room. Charles tilted his head to one side and studied his canvas. Lush evergreens crowded in every inch, jostling for space. An explosion of greens and green-blues and the greenish gray mist that seemed to cling to everything in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s looking good,” I said, nodding at his painting.
“Thanks, it’s the Gorge, from last month. You know, I think you could really get into this. I got plenty of canvases, loads of paint.”
“You’re getting good, man. I’m proud of you.”
Charles grinned and went back to staring at his painting. “I wasn’t a painter before. You gotta adapt. Find your craft. Stop living in the past.”
“I already had my craft,” I said, and turned and left.
I knew Charles meant well. And he was right about what I had done. But I also knew he couldn’t understand someone like me. He’d spent the week before our Portland trip researching scenic hikes and looking forward to days spent absorbing landscapes to put on canvas. I’d spent it spreadsheeting the best food trucks, bistros, and donut shops, and doing a 3-day water fast to boost my cal limits for the trip.
For most, cal counts had been a non-issue. We were used to our fed income drop, our free housing. There were few jobs, so barely anyone had to work. So free food seems like it’d be a pretty good idea, right? Nutritious, ubiquitous free food that gave you more time to read, play video games, be a good mom, or paint trees all day if that was what you were into. People got sick a whole lot less, and obesity vanished. The healthcare cost savings alone more than paid for food for everyone
As I walked down the hall, I heard a high-pitched whine coming from Lucy’s door. She’d developed a woodworking technique where she shaved wood razor-thin and embedded screens and touch panels just beneath the surface. The live-edge submerged display table she was working on would sell for tens of thousands.
Next door, Anton bent over a large work table, carefully tapping and twisting at the glass to annotate a map of Canada with dotted curves. He’d taken a shine to the egret, and spent his days tracking the migratory behavior of large flocks in excruciating detail.
People like Charles, Lucy, and Anton used the free food, housing, and income to cultivate passions formerly out of reach. Others cultivated body-shaped indentations on their couches while hooked to VR rigs, read all the great American novels, or wrote one. People said it was the new Renaissance. But some of us weren’t into painting, video games, or even David Foster Wallace. We, I, hungered for something else.
I’m a foodie, and foodies had a problem: we love food.
“You sure she wasn’t a chubster?” asked Evan, digging into a steaming quinoa and veggie bowl from the canteen downstairs. Evan lived down the hall, and his apartment looked just like ours. Soothing blue-toned light colored everything during the day to promote calmness. In the evening, orange light mimicked dusk and aided in melatonin production. He had a food synthesizer--we weren’t allowed kitchens--and biodegradable minimalist furniture made from reclaimed carbon. He slumped into a mismatched pillow pile he’d constructed from thrift store finds.
“No no, she wasn’t dressed like a chubster,” I said. Chubster was Evan’s term for people who could afford to eat what we could only dream of.
“They don’t all dress rich,” he said.
“She was skinny. Scary skinny.”
“That’ll kill her cal count. You burn nothing when you’re skinny,” he said, forking a piece of broccoli and raising it to his mouth.
“She must have eaten a half dozen deserts in the couple hours I saw her.”
I hesitated, wondering if I should reveal any more. “She had a band.”
“Sure, Marty.” He shook his head.
“Pale yellow, I saw it at the bake sale.”
“Evan, I saw it.”
“You talk to her?” he asked, leaning forward.
“No,” I said. And, silently hoping he would talk me out of it, I added, “but I will tomorrow.”
Evan nodded with approval.
At five in the morning I leaned once again against the wall across the street from her apartment building.
The night was dead, pitch black, and frigid. I cupped my hands to my mouth, blowing to warm them. I recognized the block. A friend named Trenno had sold cupcakes from his shop just a few blocks from here. His yellow cake was light, spongy, delightfully moist. I used to visit him every Sunday before closing. He’d toss a single in the oven for me, and we’d talk shop.
His cake reminded me of the cupcakes my mom and I made together when I was little. From the time I was big enough to sit on the countertop without falling over, Sundays had been for baking. She always let me measure out the ingredients. Even when I was too little to get it right, she’d let me do it. It’d been her dream to open a bakery; she’d cried when I opened my shop. Those first few years, we baked together in that kitchen every morning.
You’d think someone who loves food as much as I do would be in heaven in a world where food is free. The irony is that foodies love food but they can’t get any. Not the good stuff, anyway. And forget about cooking. Even if your kitchen was grandfathered in, there’s no way they’d let you have flour, or sugar, or salt.
See, food’s only free up to a point. A very precise point determined by your basal metabolic rate--how many calories you burn each day at rest--added to your daily activity. Anyone can have a bowl of steaming, perfectly balanced nutrients delivered to their door. Or pumped from their synth at home. Visit any canteen and find those same nutrients formed into udon noodles in ultra-lean broth, or a french dip made with sheets of vat-grown beef and bread fortified with algae isolate. Whatever you want, they’ve got a watered-down facsimile that’s good for you.
But you gotta hit your macros: protein, fats, carbs, fiber, vitamins. Don’t hit ‘em, and they cut your cal counts until you do. The implants and surveillance cams pretty much everywhere enforce it mean you eat healthy, or you don’t eat.
The system doesn’t leave a lot of room for extracurricular consumption. So we foodies watch people eat.
Chubsters are foodies, too. But they’ve got money. Soft middles and pudgy calves are status symbols, and they don’t come cheap. Once you’re overweight, your cal count craters to force you back in line, and chubsters will spend hundreds a day maintaining their figure.
This girl I’d seen, she was special. The medically snacked have body fat so low, or metabolism so high, or genetically inefficient nutrient absorption such that the Cal Council actually wants them to eat more. A lot more. They get a special wristband, a golden ticket. Eat whatever you like, as much as you want.
I shivered and wondered what Trenno was doing these days. His shop had closed, just like mine, when cal counts started. I would have given anything for another one of his yellow cupcakes. I checked my phone to see if I could find anything on him. A cold gust blew across me and I pulled my jacket’s hood tight around my face to keep out the cold. Once again, I didn’t see her coming.
“You following me?”
I looked up from my phone to see her standing directly in front of me. She leaned back on her left leg, her right foot toeing mine, fists thrust into her coat pockets. She wore sneakers, torn jeans, and a bright red puffy jacket.
I said the first thing that came into my mind, “Yeah. Sorry.” I should have had a better plan.
“You’re not very good at it.”
“I’ll stop,” I said, my face flushing.
She tilted her head to the left and stared at me as if trying to decide something. I guess I looked harmless enough, because finally she smiled and extending a closed fist towards me.
I looked at her, confused, until she said, “Take them.”
I placed my palm under her fist. She opened her hand and drew back, leaving a few colorful dots on my outstretched hand.
M&Ms. I tossed all three into my mouth and closed my eyes. They were explosively sweet. Like fireworks made of sugar going off in my mouth. Like all my taste buds just woke up from a 10-year slumber. I kept my mouth closed, holding the three pieces still to let the candy shell melt away. The small slivers of chocolate slid around my mouth, thin layers of chocolate coating my tongue, leaving a trail of sweet fire behind them. I was holding my mouth shut so tightly my jaw began to ache.
I opened my eyes and she had disappeared. I looked right just in time to see her rounding a corner.
“Hey! Hold up!” I yelled, trotting behind her.
For three weeks I followed her around, feasting on her scraps like a puppy. A puppy eating lasagna, red velvet cake, dried figs, banana bread pudding, and cow’s milk cheeses. Everywhere we went, she’d flash her band and collect her goodies. We’d find corners where the cameras wouldn’t see us, and she’d slip me a few bites, a slice, or the whole thing.
Each morning, I waited for her outside her building. She’d come down and we’d spend all day together, skipping from restaurant to cafe to grocery store. I noticed she always seemed to take home several times more than she could possibly eat herself. And whenever we were out together, I couldn’t shake the sense that we were being followed. Were they Cal Council spies? Was I being paranoid? She never seemed to notice. Some mornings I’d show up and she’d tell me to scram, said she didn’t feel like it. I did as I was told.
I knew I’d have trouble hiding our trips soon. My face was filling out, becoming rounder. I had quit exercising. A soft layer had coated my arms, my legs, my middle, and I could feel the envious glances when I went out. The cameras had picked up on the extra consumption, despite my attempts to conceal it; my cal count was down two hundred. She, on the other hand, remained rail thin, no matter what she ate.
I told her about my bakery. How I’d poured myself into it, baking for hours on my feet all day, studying techniques all night. How free food and ever-rising vice taxes had forced it closed. How much I missed baking.
She told me her name. Told me that she’d seen me spying on her at the bake sale. She’d known I followed her around town, too. I wanted to know why she was being so nice to me, but was afraid to ask. What if she changed her mind? I finally did ask her the other question that had been on my mind since I first spotted her. “How’d you get that band, anyway?”
She didn’t say anything for a while, and I wondered if I shouldn’t have asked. I studied her face for a sign that I’d offended her. If I had, she hid it well. All I saw were the darkened circles under her eyes. Had they always been there?
“Come by tonight and bake. Then we’ll talk,” she said.
I was giddy with excitement.
Her place was identical to mine, except where Charles’ bedroom was in our unit, she had a full kitchen. A stocked pantry, range, oven, wave cooker, cabinets full of spices. I nearly fainted when I saw it.
I got to work, eager to recreate my mother’s cupcakes. I sifted and weighed flour, measured out vanilla, whisked eggs. She leaned her elbows on the counter and watched.
“You know what you’re doing,” she remarked.
I laughed. “I ought to. I’ve made these thousands of times.”
She walked over as I worked the mixture and stood just behind me, watching. She came closer, resting her chin lightly on my shoulder and slipping an arm around my waist. Then I felt her hand slide into my pants pocket and give my leg a soft squeeze. I turned and her lips were on mine.
I jolted awake, unaware of where I was at first. The bed was too soft, the sheets didn’t smell right. It came back to me in pieces. I turned my head and saw bare skin, tangled sheets, her long hair fanned across a pillow. Her chest rose and fell slowly.
It was at least an hour before sunrise. I slid out of bed, careful not to disturb her, grabbed my jeans from the floor, and padded down the hallway until I found the bathroom. I closed the door and began to relieve myself as quietly as I could. Then I saw it.
On the counter next to the sink rested a small black rectangular case. Its lid was open, revealing a slender foam bed on which lay nine silver capsules and three indentations where capsules had been. I leaned in for a closer look. Each capsule was about one centimeter long, covered in silver, and engraved with “-3000”. So that’s how she got the band.
I pulled on my jeans, flipped the case closed, and thrust it deep into my pocket. Sweat beaded my forehead and, and my heart thumped so loudly I worried she would hear it. My brain screamed at me to slow down, stop, think about what I was doing. But my body was moving on its own. I tip-toed down the hallway and left her apartment without looking back.
Racing home, waves of shame and excitement washed over me. I’d never stolen anything in my life. I imagined her finding the case, and me, missing when she woke up. I cringed. Who had I become?
Charles had sold a few pieces and they’d paid for a week in New Mexico for inspiration, so I had the apartment to myself. I placed one of the capsules on my desk and inspected it. It gleamed in the light from my desk lamp, rolling heavily.
I’d heard about these, every foodie had. They were legend, not something that actually existed. But here they were.
Inside each capsule a stasis environment held a time-released diet virus. Contraband from an earlier era--a failed attempt to curb the obesity epidemic on a voluntary basis. “-3000” referred to the number of calories the virus would consume. Every day.
My health sensors would pick up the viral activity, of course, and my food rations would automatically deploy targeted antivirals to slow it down. Each capsule would last about a month before its payload was spent. I had nine months worth.
I rolled the capsule in my hand. I could still go back. Sneak back in, return the case without her ever knowing.
Besides, ingesting it was a huge risk. I would literally starve to death if they didn’t issue me a band. I could never consume the calories I’d need to survive with my current cal count. In theory, once my metabolic rate spiked the system would detect it and my cal count would compensate. In theory.
Of course I took it.
The next morning I woke to what felt like someone twisting my stomach like a wet towel. I’d never been so empty. Taking deep breaths to steady myself, I dragged myself over to the kitchen. I was barely able to wait the 30 seconds it took the synthesizer to make a food shake. I upended the glass, then gurgled most of it onto my kitchen floor. My throat had shriveled shut and my body was seemingly collapsing into itself.
I grabbed a bottle of vegetable extract from the fridge, tore off the cap, and took a small sip, letting it wet my tongue. I tried again, and focused on pushing the tiny bit of liquid down my throat, inch by inch, pushing, pushing, working it downward. I took another sip, and another. With each one, the pain lessened, and the liquid began to go down more easily. I downed three bottles that way, sitting on the floor while my shorts soaked up a pool of spilled liquid food.
Eventually, I got cleaned up, made my way over to the couch, and dropped into it. The room rotated slowly at an odd angle while my head pounded. I considered that I had slept with someone I barely knew, that I had stolen a highly illegal diet virus from her, or possibly a poison, and that I had swallowed it. I convulsed, the fluids in my stomach lurched upward. I took deep breaths, trying to calm myself. Soaked in a cold sweat and reeling, I fell asleep, or passed out, I’m not sure which.
The next few days blurred into each other. The hunger grew stronger as I grew weaker. I went and stood outside her apartment, afraid to tell her what I had done, but terrified of what would happen to me if I didn’t get more food. She never came out. I was too weak to try again.
My insides twisted and shriveled and gnawing at me. I laid in bed to keep my caloric spend down, alternating between crawling slowly to the fridge or synth to grab something to eat, and obsessively checking my cal count on my phone. It rose, but not quickly enough. By that first evening, it was 2,300. By the next day, it had hit 2,450. By day three, 2,900. I was weak. I wondered if the virus, without food in my stomach, ate my muscle or my fat first.
The week was a fog, but my counts rose and I ate as much as I was allowed. Gradually my crawls became slow walks. I used the wall to support myself. I regained energy and the hunger pangs faded.
On Saturday I stood at my doorstep looking down at a brown box the size of a pencil case. The label said it was from Federal Health Services - Cal Council. Tearing it open, I found a pale yellow electronic wristband and a stern letter urging me to increase my food consumption as soon as possible. I slid the band on my left wrist, closed my apartment door behind me, and hobbled down the hallway to the elevators, euphoria masking my fatigue.
I was medically snacked.
The next week was glorious. I ate everything. My stomach had shrunk the week before, so I drank large quantities of water to expand it...Until I realized I could be drinking freshly-squeezed juice, or milkshakes, or just about anything, and promised myself I’d never drink water again. I waltzed into restaurants when I was already stuffed and ate until I hurt. Even at -3000, I outpaced the virus’s ability to eat.
I had won the foodie lottery.
Given my condition, Cal Council authorized a unit down the hall with a kitchen. Fully stocked. I knew I’d miss Charles, but I figured he could use the extra space for his canvases. I started baking again. I borrowed a 3D printer from Lucy to experiment, layering a monk fruit lecithin extrusion in a polymorphous wave pattern to create a cake that would have been impossible to make by hand. I invited friends and fellow foodies to tastings, dinner parties. I reveled in the attention. This was my art. I felt alive, joyful and carefree in a way I had forgotten I could be.
Strangers caught on and began to follow me around like a cloud of flies. I slipped them biscotti, squares of Russian tea cake, and mini Mexican wedding cookies from my kitchen. Each day, I dove deeper, rediscovering a passion dormant for years.
A month later I lay in bed on a Saturday morning, my eyes closed against the morning light. I smiled as I thought about what I would make for breakfast. Five grain Dutch baby pancakes? An avocado truffle frittata?
Something nudged my foot gently. Then, not so gently.
I forced my eyes open, squinting against the light to make out three tall men crowded around my bed. Another stood near my feet, towering above me. “Wake up,” he commanded, pressing the toe of a worn leather boot deep into the sole of my foot.
I sat up with a jerk, rubbing at my face and eyes. “Who--wh--how did you get in?” I stammered.
The man smirked. “You don’t worry about that, my friend.”
I scanned the room, confused and frightened. Were they from the Cal Council? Had my health sensors tipped them off to my diet virus? The men wore menacing expressions, but their round arms and slight paunches pegged them as foodies.
“You stole something from a friend of ours. And you’ve ingested one, haven’t you?” asked the man standing on the bed. He wore a dark cloak and an unruly beard that made him look a little like a wizard, an evil, angry wizard. He held the slender black pill case I’d taken, jabbing it in the air at me as he spoke.
Instinctively, my fingers went to touch the band on my wrist. I immediately regretted calling attention to it. My stomach sank. I had been so stupid. I cringed and shrank away from them.
I felt the man walk up the bed towards my head. Then he slipped the tip of his boot underneath my chin and turned my head to face him. “Don’t worry, we want you to keep the band. But you’ll need to pay for your crime,” he said. “You have a passion for food.” He smiled wide, showing his teeth. “We’ll help you put this passion to productive use.”
“What did you do to her?” I asked, realizing these must be the men I’d seen following her.
“Your friend? Nothing at all. She’s a gifted runner, and,” he said, nodding at me, “a gifted recruiter, it would seem.”
I looked around at the other men again, confused. A runner? A recruiter? None of this made sense.
“You took nine months of virus from us. For this, we’ll require nine months of service. It’s fair, don’t you think?”
Terrified, my voice barely above a whisper, I managed to ask, “What kind of service?”
“Bake?” I asked, confused.
“Bake,” he replied. “For nine months.”
“And after?” I squeaked.
“That’s up to you,” the man said. Then he turned with a flourish and hopped off the bed, his cloak flapping behind him like a villain's cape.
Laughter rang out around the table as I finished telling the tale. A couple teenagers swiveled to sneak glances across the room at the menacing wizard in my story, at Vincent. Vincent caught their gaze and waved back at us, smiling. He knew exactly what story I was telling.
One of the kids, a girl about eighteen, turned back to me and asked, “Who was the girl? You never told us her name!”
I smiled, leaned left to my wife, and whispered under my breath, “Should I tell them?”
“She’ll figure it out, Marty,” she said, sliding a hand into my pocket and giving my leg a squeeze.
The man seated to my right cleared his throat nervously. “You’ve been here ever since?” he asked. He was pale, skinny, and new. A sous chef in a past life. As of today, he was a recruit.
“Ever since. Fourteen years,” I nodded, twisting a baguette and tearing off a piece to dip in the steaming bowl of soup in front of me. It was sourdough, had a nice crust on it, and was complemented by a warm smear of garlic butter. The soup was savory and nourishing, one of Evan’s best.
“They didn’t let you leave after nine months?” asked the man in a whisper.
I laughed. “Why would I leave?” I looked around at men, women and children seated at dozens of large tables in the cavernous space. I watched them chatting and enjoying each other’s company as they savored their meals. They hadn’t all come here for the food, of course, everyone had their reason. It was a secret world operating underneath the one I’d known, without their rules or restrictions.
“I do what I love everyday,” I told him. And it was true. It was more work, we had to make or scavenge everything we needed to survive. There were no federal income drops, no free apartments or food. But I did what I loved. We all did.
The man shrunk into the bench, absorbing everything he’d seen and heard. I remembered how afraid I’d been the first time I saw this place. I placed my hand on his back and gave him a reassuring pat.
“It’s Sunday, my friend. You’re in for a treat,” I said with a smile. “Trenno and I made cupcakes.”