Toxicity

2073

Ray Nothnagel

"Hey, ya wanna check this stuff out?"

Tidus stroked his finger over the strange plant, gingerly letting the smooth, angular leaves run across his hand, and felt a fuzzy texture sting his flesh slightly. The plant's deep purple tone matched most of the plant life native to this world. Redland was a planet circling close around its red dwarf star, close enough that it had become tidally locked around the star, the same face of the planet always facing the crimson sun. The sun hung in the same place in the sky, and the winds of Redland blew constantly in the same direction. Plants on Redland had evolved to resist the wind, and even thrive on it, while the Earth-borne crops the settlers had brought with them had trouble surviving long enough to bear fruit; crop yields were barely enough to support the colony.

The plant's leaves parted under his touch, revealing a cluster of millimeter-sized balls. Some kind of fruit, perhaps? Tidus pinched off one tiny bauble between his fingernails and brought it into the sunlight to examine it.

"You have something good this time, Tidus?" the woman's voice came as she emerged from the other side of the rock face, where she'd been exploring on her own.

"Well, you're the smart one, Zanda, you tell me," Tidus extended his palm with a slight angle, holding the tiny fruit there against the wind. "Looks like it might be edible, I'm thinkin'."

"Hope you've got more of these," she remarked, picking up the fruit with her hand.

"Yep, all under these leaves over here," Tidus brushed the leaves aside again. "If they grow in all this rock, I bet they'll grow just 'bout anywhere you stick 'em."

"Could be," she said, leaning in to sniff the plant. "Doesn't have much of a smell."

"You seen a plant on Redland that does?"

Human senses had evolved to work best on Earth, surrounded by the plantlife that had evolved there. The particular tiny bits of material that wafted through the air and triggered an olfactory response in the Human nose often had nothing in common with the tiny bits given off by alien life. Given a few million years, the Humans who lived here would evolve to smell the plantlife here, but for now, Redland was dead to their noses.

Zanda smashed the tiny fruit on her wrist and smeared it across her skin there. "There's some shark trees over there," she gestured back to where she had been working before being called over. "Let's get a fire going and see if this stuff takes kindly to cooking."

"Now you're talking my language, lady," Tidus said as he pulled a hatchet from his belt and got to work.


"Vincent's gonna flip when he tries this," Zanda raved. She pulled the spoon out from her mouth, empty. The berries burst in her mouth as she mashed them. Sweet and delicious, this was probably the best new taste she'd experienced since coming to this rock. She felt like she was back in Manhattan, trying another new restaurant for the first time. It'd been nearly a decade since she'd had such a simple pleasure.

"You commed him, then?" Tidus asked to her affirmative nod. He dipped his own spoon into the simmering water, pulling out more of the berries. He held it up outside the windscreen shelter that allowed the fire to burn unimpeded, letting the cool breeze take away the scalding water and bringing the berries down to a more reasonable temperature. After a few seconds, he ate the berries, and his eyes went wide. He swallowed. "Now that is damned tasty. Weird and slimy, but tasty."

"I take it you weren't big on sushi back on Earth?"

"That don't taste like any fish I ever had," Tidus shook his head, going in for a second spoonful.

"Not the fish, the roe," she said. "Only the roe was sort of sprinkled on top of some of the sushi rolls. This reminds me of roe."

"I didn't know they sprinkled little berries on top'a sushi."

Zanda laughed. "No, roe is fish eggs."

Tidus froze with the spoon in his mouth, and glanced down at the boiling pot. His mouth still full of berries, he asked, "This is what fish eggs taste like?"

"You should try new things more often."

"Ain't my fault we didn't have a big selection of raw fish eggs in Montana," Tidus shot back, finally swallowing. "And I didn't have much time to get all cultured when I was running smuggling routes for the Underground, neither."

"If this is turning into another story about how we wouldn't be here if not for you..."

"Now when have I ever said that?"

"Often, and loudly," Zanda retorted. "Usually when you're trying to impress Stephie Connors."

He averted her eyes. "Now come on, that ain't fair. Stephie's young, she should be with someone who could give her a family."

"Oh, come on. You're not that old."

"Ain't my age I'm talkin' about. I already had my family."

They both grew quiet, the wind whipping around the edge of the windscreen filling the silence. Zanda knew about Tidus's history, about the children he'd had until they were killed in a random raid by agents of the Bactaran occupiers. Contrary to her ribbing earlier, his vendetta against the Bactarans had been invaluable to the Underground, and she knew it. He'd been among the best fighters they had, the most fearless, the most selfless. Like many who came here on the Last Ditch, he'd well and truly earned his place.

Tidus continued to eat the berries, until he finally broke the silence. "You know, if you don't get your fill, I'm just gonna finish these."

"Go ahead. I'm going to wait a few hours just to be play it on the safe side."

"Using me as your lab rat?"

"I'm not telling you what to do. Just the first spoonful should be enough to tell if there are going to be any adverse reactions."

"Suit yourself," he said, taking another spoonful. "But if you want the next batch, you're cookin' it."
Zanda awoke from her sleep with an uneasy start. Something seemed wrong. She wasn't sure what it was until she looked around the tent, and saw Tidus's empty sleeping bag. They'd gone to bed at the same time, and she had the feeling she hadn't been asleep for very long. They'd been on plenty of expeditions out here in the wilds, and she'd never known him to wake up for something that wasn't important. She pulled on her boots and stood up, unclasping the tent's door.

The Redland sun hung still in the sky, in precisely the same place as it had been before. She gave her eyes a moment to adjust, then shielded her eyes from the sun and looked around. She couldn't see him anywhere, but noted the campfire pot was missing, its berry contents strewn on the ground nearby.

After a moment, a noise she couldn't identify drew her attention to the direction of the rocky area where Tidus had found the berries in the first place. She couldn't see the plants from here, blocked by rocky outcroppings in between. She ran towards the sound. Soon, she started to hear a voice, though she couldn't make out what the voice was saying until she rounded a corner.

"I'm not trying to kill you, why would you think I'm trying to kill you?" she recognized the voice at the same time she saw the skinny frame of speaker—Vincent. She'd commed him before they had eaten the plant, and had been expecting him in a few hours. She wondered if it'd been longer than she thought since they'd gone to sleep, but realized that she had left her comm unit in the tent and couldn't check.

Another few steps and she could make out the whole scene. Tidus stood about ten meters from Vincent, and more importantly less than a meter from a sheer drop down into a rocky ravine below. He clutched his rifle in his hands, aimed squarely at Vincent. The red sun was at his back, making it difficult to see his face at first, but after a few seconds she was able to make out a look of utter terror on his face, a kind of terror she'd never imagined possible on him.

"And so is she," he pointed the rifle towards her without particularly aiming it. She instinctively covered her face as if her arms would stop a bullet, and considered jumping back behind the rock she'd just emerged from. "I knew you two were working together. Knew it!"

"Tidus, what the hell has gotten into you? I didn't even know he was here!"

"Hey Zanda," Vincent greeted her nervously, trying to retain some sense of normalcy. "Stay back, he's got a gun."

"Yeah, noticed that," she said, having never taken her eyes off of the weapon.

Tidus raised his gun and fired a round into the air. "Stay BACK!" he yelled at both of them, or neither of them. "Stay back or I'll end the both of you!"

"We're staying back," Zanda reassured him. "Right, Vince?"

"Sure are," Vince replied. "Staying way back." Of the three of them, only Tidus had actually been in a firefight before—or even seen one. When the Last Ditch left Earth, she'd been in college and Vincent was just a child, and there hadn't been any violence since the colony ship landed. And now, it was only Tidus that had a gun. The playing field was tilted towards exactly the wrong person at the wrong time.

Zanda's eyes found themselves looking around the scene, hoping to find something that she and Vince could use for a weapon, or at least as cover. She noticed the berry plant surrounded them, and suddenly it was obvious what was happening.

"The berries!" She blurted out. "Tidus, you ate more of the berries than I did. They must be messing with your brain chemistry."

"You poisoned me?!" He aimed the gun at her again, and again she covered her head.

"No! You ate as much as you wanted. But all you have to do is..." She trailed off as she watched his expression droop. "What?"

"You're right," he said, taking a step backwards. "I did this to myself."

"It's okay, Tidus. It's alright," she gingerly took a step towards him. "Just put the gun down, and—"

"I... will.... NOT!" Tidus screamed, suddenly as angry now as he'd been terrified before, and shot wildly in her general direction. The recoil caused him to lose his balance, and he tripped on a small rock that had sat next to his foot.

“Tidus!” Zanda yelled, and ran towards him, but she already knew it was too late. Tidus fell backwards over the cliff, and she reached the cliff edge just in time to see him land with a sickening crunch onto a piece of granite, shattering both skull and stone.

© 2019 by Afterverse Inc

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