It'd been weeks since we'd had any fresh fruit, and even then the most recent memory of it was a crate of apples that had looked, felt, and tasted like they'd been put through a coin-op washer and dryer in a third-rate Calcutta laundromat.
The lack of fresh food wasn't unusual, really, and at least it made the apple slurry and cranberry bars that came in every other MRE a little more appetizing. Hell, even the raisins started to look good after three weeks of nothing else, and it was as tempting as it was absolutely verboten to just grab a handful of grapes right off the trellis when you were crawling through some farmer's vineyard.
It wasn't malnutrition, really, or scurvy, exactly - But even guys who were dedicated carnivores in the real world would talk about incredible, unprecedented cravings for a plate of greens. The general consensus was that it was simply human nature to want what was unavailable. The things that were unavailable (real coffee, a decent toilet, and yes, fresh fruit and vegetables) were the number two items of discussion, right behind the things that were plentiful (dust, stray dogs, stray bullets), and it wasn't long before squabbles started to break out over even MRE fruit bars.
After almost a month of nothing but MREs in one form or another, right about the time that taste buds started getting glued down permanently and the only recognizable taste or smell was the distinctive mix of chemicals used in every entrée, we got a crate of fruit. The brown wooden crate with thin slats and unmistakable giant-size versions of egg carton packing literally brought people running, even knowing that chances were, it was more laundromapples.
The pack of bodies was incredible, with some of us aware that we looked precisely like the generic, desperate crowd of people mobbing a UN food aid truck.
Someone threatened to burn the huge crates of MREs, machinegunners rushed to consolidate the belted ammo, and everyone else watched with glee as the fruit crate was levered open with a crowbar. It was Christmas in July. It was better than that. It was almost like a ticket home. It was ----
Some weird-ass shit, is what it was.
The guy with the crowbar reached down into the pile of what was supposed to be fruit, and held one up for everybody to see. He stared at it, as did we all, with such intense puzzlement that he didn't notice when he dropped the crowbar on his flip-flopped foot. There was silence as we gaped and farted.
It was clearly too large for the packaging, which had been meant for something the size of an apple or pear. Bigger than even a big mango. It was green and yellow outside, and had nubs that almost looked like they might have been spikes if they'd kept growing.
"What is it?" someone asked, with a thick Southern drawl, "'Zat one of them papayas that ain't cut up yet?"
Someone else groped around in the crate for another one and pulled a knife off of his belt.
"Well I mean, maybe, I guess I've never seen an uncut papaya," he said, going at the waxy skin like a surgeon.
"That's because -" the Southern drawl said in a deliberately too-loud whisper, finishing with a distinctly anti-Semitic remark.
The fruit surgeon, whose name tapes said ROTHBERG, waved his knife at the Southern drawl and threw half of the fruit at him. The inside of the fruit was a bright purple mass of webbing and seeds, like a cantaloupe crossed with a pumpkin.
A round of noises close to "ugh" passed through the crowd, with most dispersing in disgust. Only a few very brave souls fished out one of the things from the crate labeled "APPLE" on their way to mail call, jogging to catch up with the less hearty of appetite.
The next few days' idle conversation hinged over the fruits. As a source of novelty, they proved to be invaluable. Theories were floated, attempts at identification floated and shot down, and one of the supply officers who had a Bachelors' in Horticulture claimed that although fruits had not been a particular specialty, he had dissected one carefully and declared it to not fall within the taxonomic organization of any thing currently known to science.
Given that nobody else knew why a pepo was supposed to have a hard outer rind, or what a hesperidium was, he was mostly ignored as someone who was attempting to repair a damaged reputation with a load of bullshit - it was widely known he could barely organize a pen drawer, let alone the genus of some weird fruit.
It took a few days and a lot of griping from the Shirt, but within a week, word trickled down that "the weird bastard fruit is it, they aren't sending anymore. They swear on a stack of paperwork that they sent apples, and we must be telling stories. Off the record, they said probably the contractors Uncle Sam bought the apples from pulled a fast one and dumped some kind of weird shit on us, and it looks like they're gonna get away with it. Anyway, don't eat them, they all go in the burn pit as of now. If you already ate some, you're an idiot, and if you feel sick at all go to the doc immediately."
Given that it had been a week and they didn't look, smell, or taste any more appetizing than they had when they first came out of the crates, nobody complained too much. Some had already been chucked out after they started to swell. The going theory on that particular phenomenon was that they were overripe inside and swelling either from moisture or gas inside, and that it would not be a great idea to have one pop or splat or whatever they might do anywhere people had to live or eat.
- - -
I was out by the perimeter near the burn pit after the weekly trash fire. Southern drawl was humming and singing to himself while I watched the sunrise over the perimeter fence.
Dreaming of the Texas sun,
drinking cowboy whiskey,
the only person in town without a gun,
except for Jesus...
As I turned away to grab some more coffee, I noticed that, of all the places for there to be green in this desert dust bowl, there were tiny sprouts in the ashes of the pit, among the nails and metal brackets and spent brass shells. Bright green, and no more than an inch tall, they had the tiniest of dew drops cupped in their single leaves. It'd have been easy to miss them, mostly concealed by the thin fingers of smoke still wisping out of the warm ashes.
It cheered me a little, and I considered trying to mix some ashes in with the local dirt as a supplement, to see if maybe I could get something to grow besides IEDs.
The next morning, the sprouts were a foot high and drawing stares. Nobody could get anywhere near them to get a closer look, given that they were surrounded by some of the most toxic slag ever produced by Christendom, but there was already talk that it was a shame we couldn't transplant them to somewhere else to keep, instead of just burning them up with the next round of trash.
That night, you could hear them grow, like corn after a long drought. It sounded like a thousand cardboard packing tubes sliding against each other. And the next morning, they were taller than a man and almost a foot thick.
My usually private morning coffee was crowded by anybody who wasn't manning the walls. The shirt was muttering, "I told them it wasn't apples!" and one of the combat engineers was expressing his concerns that they might actually be a structural hazard to the perimeter fence.
Most of us were disappointed, but partly to shut the shirt up, and partly to shut the engineers up, the fires were lit two days ahead of schedule. I'd drawn burn pit detail, and had snarked at the shirt that it made perfect sense for my job to be killing the only cheerful thing for five hundred miles. All he'd done was nod.
A trash fire is not a highly technical thing. It involves fuel (trash), an accelerant (JP8), and one idiot wearing welder's gear whose job it is to throw a flare onto the huge, excessively flammable pile and then watch to make sure the only stuff that burned was the stuff that was supposed to. In this case, that would be five days' worth of MRE wrappers, cardboard, pallets, plastic, unclassified paper, and a dozen ten foot tall vines covered in cactus-looking spines and orange leaves.
Everything went fine, except the vines only got a little sooty, and about five feet taller. The sun rose on vines now several shades darker, drooping and tangling together and putting out thinner stringers where there had used to be leaves. The spines had grown black, perhaps with soot, perhaps not - they were shiny like a beetle's shell, not matte like ash. And some people swore you could see them dripping poison if you caught them just right.
Most were inclined to believe it was simply dewdrops.
While the supply officer, pressed into service as the new unit horticulturist, babbled to the commander about there being certain precedents in nature for fire causing increased plant growth and even seed germination, the engineers were ordered to wrap the by now immense and darkening vines in det cord and blow them down, the same way trees are cleared to open a line of sight and reduce enemy cover.
Det cord is used to, among other things, blow down trees, blow open doors, blow apart armory-grade locks, sever structural steel, and in a pinch, destroy armored vehicles.
So when the first attempt failed, everybody was just a little puzzled. There were rings of puckered, burnt, and bruised flesh that clearly marked where the det cord had been wrapped, oozing purple sap that hardened in the steadily warming desert air, but it was clear that the damage was quite superficial.
The engineers were sent in again, told to double wrap them this time, a turn of phrase that brought not a few giggles.
Bystanders later swore that even in the forty five minutes it took to get ready for the second attempt, the vines grew noticeably larger.
When the first engineer disappeared into tangle of vines at the center of the burn pit, everybody's first thought was that one of the vines, weakened by the blast, had toppled and fallen down on him. Several people rushed forward to see about lifting it off him just as the other engineer was snatched up, lifted twenty feet in the air, held, screaming, by the tip of one of the massive tendrils, and then smashed into the ground twice before being dragged in too deep to see, screaming for almost a minute from within the darkness at the center of the rustling vines, now visibly waving the rapidly lengthening spikes on their outer surface in a manner not unlike the flagellum found on certain bacteria.
After the scream was cut off with a sudden explosion of wet noise, there was only a second of hesitation before every weapon available was emptied into the mass of vines, which twitched with under the impact of everything from sidearms to 240's to the big ma deuce that normally overlooked the front gates.
As the screaming and shooting wound down, as ammo cans were raided, as sandbags were stacked and a perimeter formed, the commander holed himself up in the command shack and worked the radios.
- - -
Officially, the COP was overrun by insurgents during a planned withdrawal, and was intentionally destroyed in order to kill the enemy and deny them any material they may have been able to recover. The only casualties were two combat engineers who had been rigging the buildings for demolition and could not be evacuated in time, listed as killed by the enemy.
Nobody questioned the use of a dozen thousand pound JDAMs and twice that many five hundred pound dumb bombs, or the concentrated artillery fire that followed. And, if they had bothered to ask why twenty times the firepower necessary to vaporize a square mile had been used on a few acres of dirt, they were told to shut up and color.
The shirt never got over it. His family, visiting him later, left in tears when he wouldn't say anything but
"I told them it wasn't apples."
A work of fiction for The Nodegel from Yuggoth: The 2011 Halloween Horrorquest.
And now for the scary part: The fruit itself was real, looked just as described, and we never did figure out what it was, though it didn't taste half bad. Most signs point towards it being an odd cultivar of kiwano.