*Fair warning, this is 2600 words, 12 minute read
Death by Fruit
by M. D. Flyn
Sara sat on a box and watched the sun rise as it painted the dirty piles of the camp in rose and gold. Snow dusted the debris and shelters. The lake reflected the golden clouds.
A crewman wandered through the camp, dazed with hunger. Most were resting, some trying to find food or shelter. Ben had gone out in search of something to eat. Sara waited.
Scott approached, the torn sleeve of his once-spotless uniform flapping in the breeze. He leaned against a pile of boxes next to her, “you know they’ll start dropping soon.” He rubbed his hands together, over and over, the skin already raw. “Most of them are sick, all of them are weak. It’s only a matter of time now…but we could buy more time.”
She set her jaw. “How would we do that?”
“We have a source of protein right here. That could buy us time, to find something we can eat.”
“You mean the creature? Everything we have tried to eat on this planet so far has killed the person who tested it. I don’t think that animal will be any different. Even if you could convince Lyn.”
He shrugged and tilted his head, “Ah, no. I wasn’t talking about that. I was talking about those.” He waved his hand out at the camp. A few people were visible among the piles and tarps.
“What? Nothing edible survived the crash.”
His brows drew together as he frowned, “No. The people. Protein. Before they all die and rot.”
She grimaced, “That is sick, Scott.”
“That’s survival, Sara. We don’t have a lot of options left.”
“Well, that’s not one of them.”
“You may regret that decision soon, Sara. We’ll run out of people and then we won’t have the opportunity.”
“Well it won’t come to that. Ben went out again. Maybe he found something.”
“Sure, Sara. Sure.” He shuffled off with his hands in his pockets. Sara glared at his back. They weren’t going to die here. She wouldn’t allow it. Could she sacrifice a few to save the rest? Even if she did, there was no guarantee that wasn’t just prolonging their end. She refused to make such a heartless choice.
Lyn stopped in front of her. Her braid was unraveling and her uniform showing wear, but her face and hands were clean.
Sara waved at her, “How are you doing?”
“I’m doing what I can, which isn’t much. I don’t have the equipment I need to treat them. They’re all going to get sick. We lost a couple already, and it will snowball from there. The healthiest might make it a couple months, but most will be dead soon.”
“No progress on something edible?”
“No, we can’t process the food. If we boil the water it stays down. But nothing else. At some point our fuel will run out and we won’t even be able to do that. But we’ll all starve to death long before that.” She smirked as she crossed her arms.
“Well, take more people if you need to. We can try to find a local plant we can burn.”
“I’m trying, but I’m as hungry as everyone else. We’re at a critical point right now. I don’t see how we’ll make it out of this.” Tears shimmered in her eyes, Lyn pivoted and walked away.
Sara sighed. She was so tired. Her stomach didn’t even hurt any more. It hung like a rock in her gut.
If she sat here, maybe the choice would be made for her and she wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. That would be peaceful. Her eyes drifted shut, and she didn’t bother to open them again.
Someone shook her shoulder.
“Sara, I’m back,” Ben knelt next to her, his bag on the ground next to them. Bits of leaves and tiny sticks clung in his hair. She reached up and plucked one out, spinning the branch between her fingers and staring at it.
“How did it go?” she asked.
“I found something that looks like mushrooms. Might be edible.” He held out a small rounded plant.
“Mushrooms? Don’t you dare.”
“I could take a tiny bite.”
“You can’t risk it. At the least they will make you violently ill, and you can’t afford to lose any calories right now.” She took the plant out of his hand.
“We have to try.”
“No,” she said. They sat together in uncomfortable silence. “Scott had another idea.”
He frowned and sat back on his haunches. “I’m sure I won’t like this.”
She looked him in the eye.“He thinks we should choose people to be food. Before it’s too late and we’re all dead.”
“That’s disgusting. What’s the point of surviving if we lose our humanity in the process? No way.”
“It’s been done before.”
He stood up quickly. “Sure, when they were waiting for rescue. Rescue isn’t coming.”
She stood and closed the space between them. “But it could give us a chance.”
“A chance to what, take longer to die? No thanks. Not at that price.”
“It was just an idea.”
“Well let’s leave it that way.” He closed his bag and turned away from her.
“All right, but we have to keep an eye on Scott. He may take matters into his own hands.”
“You’re right, I wouldn’t have put much past him when we were all healthy. He’ll do what he wants the first chance he gets.”
She started up the path. “Watch your back. It’s my turn to watch the Creature. I’ll see you later.”
“Sure. Just be careful. At the peak I saw a storm front coming this way, could be snow.”
Sara sighed. “Just what we need.”
She shuffled across the camp, up the mountain. It wasn’t long before she was panting, wiped out from the walk. She had been in her prime before all this, a soldier through and through. Now she couldn’t even walk across the camp. Her father would be so disappointed if he could see her now. All that effort, all that training, struggling to climb the ranks. All for nothing.
She approached the carcass of the ship, split open and torn to bits. The crash had killed many, and the smell was terrible. With snow on the way, at least the cold should keep the smell down. So there was a silver lining.
She moved along the path they had made through the debris, into the ship. What was once the ceiling was now the wall.
Sara still didn’t understand why they had bothered moving the creature. It got in the way of a crashing space ship. Why waste resources trying to help it? She would happily eat it if she thought it wouldn’t kill her to try. Sara was ready to ignore it, but Lyn wanted to treat it. Sara didn’t understand how Lyn expected to treat an alien life form.
When the nights got colder, and the creature shivered, Lyn wanted to move it into the ship. Lyn asked for volunteers and got them, back when the hunger was a small thing. They wrapped the wounds as best they could and moved the animal into the hangar. The creature’s wounds healed quickly, but the animal steadily shrank and did not move, only observing them warily with its three eyes.
She nodded as she came up to the guard. He nodded back, dark circles under his eyes and his pace slow as he turned and left the ship.
The Creature was still. When they first found the animal it was mammoth, but now it fit in this hangar of the ship. The skin on its underside was a smooth, dark blue like cold water seen through clear ice. Waves of light moved on its skin, pulsing like a heartbeat. At the ends of its six limbs the smooth blue faded to white fur that ended in the same long, silky tufts that were on its pointed ears. It had three eyes that glowed with that pulsing inner light. When it curled up in a ball, it looked like a giant white cat.
Now the animal was still, in a furry pile of light. Those three eyes followed Sara as she eased down to the floor. The light reflected off the metal walls in waves.
She only guarded the creature because she knew most others would not. Protecting her people, that she would volunteer for.
As she sat and watched those eyes she considered the survivor’s options, which were slim. People had started dying in numbers. There was no food, there was no shelter, they didn’t have enough resources. There had been a few suicides, and soon more. On the other hand, Ben was right. What was the point if they abandoned what made them human? Better to die with dignity. Their numbers were down to just thousands. They were all on the verge of starvation. Soon panic and desperation would set in, and bad things would happen. People would make terrible choices. Sara would choose to die with grace.
She realized the creature was making a noise – a rhythmic rumbling. It was getting louder. The pulses of light were coming faster.
Sara stood, alarmed. It wasn’t attacking, or trying to move. Should she get help? Do something? Wait?
Suddenly the light ramped up to the intensity of a strobe, the light growing brighter until Sara had to throw her arm over her eyes. She saw a burst of light, felt a whoosh of air, then nothing.
She woke on the floor of the ship. The creature curled in its ball, its pulsating light very dim. Sara tried to stand, but vertigo tipped her back down. Her entire body ached as if she had just recovered from a fever. She gripped her stomach and braced herself against queasiness, her hands shaking with a terrible weakness. She sat and breathed deeply until she felt a little better. Carefully, slowly, she stood. She creaked her way out of the ship.
Outside many inches of snow had fallen. Nothing disturbed the snow – she might be the only one moving.
Suddenly, something stirred further down the hill, the flap of a shelter moving. A man came out and looked around blearily, clutching his stomach. She could hear more people moving around. Sara headed down the hill to Lyn’s shelter and pulled the door aside. Lyn was just rising from the floor.
“What happened?” Sara demanded.
“I don’t know, I just woke up,” Lyn replied, glaring.
“Well it looks like we all fell asleep where we stood… and stayed out long enough for several inches of snow to pile up. Are you sore? I feel terrible.”
“Oh yeah,” Lyn stretched, “it feels like I had the flu. Or worse. I’m so weak,” Lyn smoothed her forehead with a trembling hand and leaned her hip against her examining table to steady herself.
“I’ll check on people,” Sara said. Lyn waved her on.
Sara moved further along the shelters. A few people were out of their tents and looking around, as if an authority figure would materialize and tell them what happened. Sara reached Ben’s tent, pulled back the flap, and stepped inside. He had fallen half on his cot, half off. His bag was on the floor, the mushroom-like plants spilling out.
“Stupid man!” She kicked the mushrooms out of the way and felt his neck for a pulse. “I swear, if you tried to eat those things I’ll kill you.” She couldn’t find a pulse, so she yanked his sleeve higher and tried again. There. Faint, but a heartbeat. He stirred and she felt his pulse strengthen.
She shook him. “Did you try to eat them?”
“What?” he mumbled.
“Did you eat those mushrooms? You said you wouldn’t.”
He looked around, then spotted the plants on the floor. “Oh. I was thinking about it. I hadn’t tried them yet.”
“Oh, you make me mad!”
He blinked and pulled himself to a sitting position, “What happened?”
“I don’t know what happened. Don’t touch those things,” she waved a finger at the plants. “I’ll yell at you later.”
She stomped out of the tent. She would have slammed the door, but the flap just flopped back unsatisfyingly.
More people were awake and moving. Stiffly and with lots of groaning, but they were moving. She felt much better now that Ben had helped her elevate her heart rate. She should go back and yell at him more.
As she stood in the path, undecided, a large bird swooped near. It wasn’t really a bird – none of these animals were truly familiar – but it had feathers and wings and flew. It was large, black and white with a flash of red. She jumped back as the bird dropped something, then flew off. Sara edged closer to the thing on the ground. It looked like a large berry or a small fruit, brown and vaguely round.
She looked up. Further up the hill she saw another bird drop something near another survivor. She eyed the fruit. She nudged it with her boot. It could be an egg about to hatch a dragon or something. There was no telling.
She heard a chittering sound and a small animal emerged from between two piles of debris. It had fur but walked on two legs, with long ears like a rabbit, and large eyes that seemed intelligent. The animal carried a handful of plants identical to the one at her feet. It chittered at her, dropped the fruit, and sat down to eat, watching her the whole time. She stared as it chewed.
“I think it’s trying to tell you something,” she jumped as Ben spoke from behind her.
She grabbed her chest and inhaled, “You scared me. Quit it. You’ll frighten it away.”
The animal’s eyes flicked to each speaker. It reached out and pushed a fruit toward them, then settled back and waited.
“What does it want?” Sara leaned back from the animal, eyeing it warily.
“I think it wants us to eat those.” He pointed at the fruit.
She shook her head. “No way, Henry tried those. You remember Henry? He died trying to find edible plants, like that thing.”
“I’m telling you, it wants us to eat them.”
“That’s stupid. Whatever knocked us all out made me feel worse. There’s no way we’re eating those. They’re poison. Shoo,” she waved her hands at the animal. It leapt up and ran off into the woods.
“See what you did? You scared it.” Ben reached down and popped a fruit in his mouth.
“Drop it!” she yelled and jumped at him, trying to get her hands into his mouth. Tears jumped to her eyes as they struggled. He held her hands away from him and grunted when she kicked him. He swallowed and she stopped fighting him.
“They’re not bad. Maybe an acquired taste.”
“I hate you,” she dropped to the snow as the tears spilled over, struggling to keep herself quiet, refusing to sob as tears rolled down her face. He put a hand on her head, and they waited for it to start. More people were rustling, waking, moving around. More birds dropping more of that same fruit.
“Hmm. Shouldn’t I be writhing right now?”
She looked up at him, still sniffling.
“Um. Yeah, I’m pretty sure you are.” She looked down at the plants. “There’s no way. They’re poison, we can’t process them. We’re allergic to this entire planet.”
He reached down and grabbed a couple more fruit. He paused for a moment and looked at her. She nodded. He popped them in his mouth. “I think these are palatable. Weird, but. Eatable. Unless I die.”
“I hate you so much.”