Johnny entered the dining hall for breakfast with his usual shudder. He sat down and the waitress handed him the native-food menu. He glanced at it, knowing perfectly well what was on it, and his stomach churned. Fried planchworms. Targleweed omelet. Yuck!
A couple came in and sat at a nearby table. Johnny could see they were wearing tourist badges, and of course the waitress handed them Earth-food menus. The waitress hovered near them while they decided — she knew tourists tipped far better than a contract worker like Johnny — and took down their order. The man asked for pancakes and sausage, while the woman went for Eggs Benedict. Johnny felt a real pang of envy; their breakfast would cost over two weeks’ worth of his salary.
Having taken care of the rich tourists, the waitress swung by Johnny’s table. “I’ll have the native-wheatoid toast with algae jam. And a cup of burgleberry tea.” He watched the waitress write it down, then said, “Isn’t there any way you could sneak me some of that Earth food?”
She looked at his contract labor badge and laughed. “Good luck, pal. That would be as much as my job is worth. Hell, we can’t even pinch Earth food for ourselves!”
As the waitress headed for the kitchen, he sat back and wished, for the millionth time, that there was somewhere else to eat. There wasn’t, of course. The colony’s official dining hall had a strict monopoly on the small amount of imported food, and on the processed native food. Everything on the planet — plants, animals — was deadly poison, until it was processed by the colony’s food plant. The processing made it edible, but didn’t do a damn thing for the taste, which was uniformly awful.
When the waitress brought his food, Johnny struggled to choke it down. Getting a contract job here on the colony had sounded like a great idea, high salary and benefits. But the recruiters had never mentioned the food situation. Johnny had always been a picky eater, ever since he was a kid, and he wouldn’t have taken the job if he had known about the food.
Suddenly, as he took one more bite of his toast, he snapped. He went over to the table where the tourists were sitting and grabbed their food. He stuffed a syrupy pancake into his mouth with one bare hand and followed it with a greasy sausage in the other hand. He didn’t even hear the alarm go off, or notice the two proctors until they grabbed hold of him and pulled him away from the table.
The manager of the dining hall rushed over. “Apologies for this,” he said to the tourists. “We will, of course, replace your breakfasts at no charge. And we will deal appropriately with this man.”
Johnny realized as he was dragged out by the proctors how much trouble he was in. His employment would be terminated, and he would be shipped back to Earth at his own expense… the interstellar fare would probably bankrupt him.
Was one pancake and one sausage worth it? He thought briefly of the wheatoid toast and algae jam. “Yes, damn it,” he told himself, “yes!”
James Hartley is a former computer programmer. Originally from northern New Jersey, he now lives in sunny central Florida. He has published a fantasy novel, Teen Angel, and stories in Illusion’s Transmitter, Written Word Online, Clonepod, Every Day Fiction, Lorelei Signal, KidVisions, Raygun Revival, and the Desolate Places, Strange Mysteries, Book of Exodi and A Time To… v3 anthologies. He is currently working on a second novel, The Ghost of Grover’s Ridge. He is a member of IWOFA and the Dark Fiction Guild.