The shift whistle’s shriek broke morning air like a porcelain plate. A crow that had been roosting atop the Dispensary took flight with an indignant cry of its own. The crow was fat. All crows were fat now.
The workers from the Collection Crew were sitting around the loading area smoking cigarettes in silence, yellow streaks on their coveralls vivid in the morning's ashen drear. On some days their work was light, but not today. It had been a bad one. Morale was low.
Over the loudspeakers, a strident voice brought news of inevitable victory, accompanied by a blare of drums and trumpets. The announcer called for hope, optimism, and a sense of civic duty. Together, humanity would overcome.
This message had not changed in more than a year.
The Eaters filed into the Dispensary, their gait like rusty gears, dragging and slow. It had been almost three years since Cake Day. Weariness was a way of life.
The smell, as always, was thick and sweet and noxious.
When the workers entered the Eatery, there was a collective sigh of despair. Somewhere in the crowd, a woman did her best to stifle her sobs. Another barked a hollow laugh.
A battalion of three-tiered wedding cakes stood at attention, one for every seat in the hall. Bright yellow, covered in flowers, gaudy and absurd, each cake was almost identical. The only differences lay in the bits of grit, dirt, and debris they had collected when they had suddenly appeared the night before. Flies danced among the towers of buttercream. A beetle blindly explored the geometry of a fondant daisy. Smashed windshield glass twinkled among the edible pearls.
The Cleaners did their best, but they couldn’t get everything.
The moment passed. Everyone shuffled to their seats. They were all ages and races and genders, but they were as identical in their weight as the cakes were in their hideous, yellow glory. The hall filled with the sounds of eating. Someone made a quiet retching sound, but no one left their seat. An Eater who didn't eat wasn't eligible for weekly vegetable rations.
Outside, the smokers were finishing their cigarettes. An old man with gray hair and gray eyes took a final drag and brought his cigarette down to snuff it in a rogue clump of frosting on the concrete loading dock. The ember hovered above the sugary smear for a few seconds before the cigarette was instead flicked across the parking lot.
Mechanically, the man scooped the frosting up with his finger and put it in his mouth.