art by Junior McLean
by Nathaniel Matthews Lee
"Can't wait to get out of this place," Turk growled. "Friggin' weirdos all over." He prodded a Jellyfish with the muzzle of his rifle. The bulbous thing drifted away on the breeze, emitting a musical tinkle like laughter. Somehow, the relatively normal grass, trees, and skyline made the presence of things like the Jellyfish worse.
"Can it, Turk," Liebowitz said, spitting to emphasize her point. "We've got ten more miles to scout, and then it's just as far back to base camp. I don't need you whining the whole way."
"At least it's quiet here, away from the generators," Iris volunteered. I'd pegged Iris as a dishrag from the beginning, and he was turning out to not only be kind of a coward, but a pathological bright-sider, always looking for the silver lining.
Turk reacted predictably. "Man, screw you if you want to get all hippy-dippy in touch with nature. I like the sound of machines."
"Not anything particularly natural here," I said, with a quirk of my lips.
"It's natural for this place," said Iris. He sounded almost defensive. "We're visitors here, remember?"
Starke's warning whistle cut the conversation short. He appeared over a rise in the path and gestured: habitation ahead, populated and active. We'd been expecting to run into natives, of course; the presence of a trodden path meant someone lived around here.
"Okay, people." Liebowitz was all business. "Prep for possible hostiles." She and I were the only veterans of previous missions. Not the world's safest assignment, scouting. We readied our guns, but kept the muzzles up.
We moved forward cautiously, keeping an eye in every direction. I brought up the rear, and so I was the last to see the house. Well, I call it a house. It looked exactly like a KFC. I've stopped trying to figure this kind of thing out. It had a white picket fence and an enormous orange tree out front, heavy with fruit. The rest of the forest we'd just come from was mostly pine, although the pines did range from green and brown to a couple of startling heliotrope ones. There were figures moving around in the front yard. Liebowitz gestured for me and Starke to move forward and engage socially while the rest hung back. I'm not sure what she was thinking; I wasn't going to win any prizes for diplomacy, and Starke was quiet enough to give Coolidge a run for his money. Maybe she just wanted someone with experience in the first contact team. I counted five figures as we approached. Looked like a basic family unit; Mom, Dad, and the kids.
"Ahoy, the house!" I called, stowing my gun and holding my hands up in what was hopefully a universal gesture of peace. No telling if these were close enough variants to speak English, but they looked vaguely Caucasian and my Spanish is more or less atrophied.
The man looked up. I barely had time to get nervous before his face broke into a grin and he waved a pudgy hand enthusiastically. "Strangers!" he called. "We never get strangers here. Come and join us; we were just about to eat. You must have traveled a long way." He was almost spherical, the same shape as the oranges on his tree.
I glanced at Starke. He shrugged. I guess that left me in charge. I decided to hope the offer was sincere and not some sort of formal ritual that was meant to be declined. "We'd love to. We're trying to get our bearings in... your homeland, here." I tapped my radio button three times, the signal that things looked safe enough.
The man opened up the gate to let us in. "Oh, we're not from here. No one is, I think, but most people stay once they get accustomed. Have an orange." He handed us each a bright-colored sphere. The table, surrounded by his pale wife and three moon-faced children, contained nothing but a giant bowl of oranges, despite the wide variety of silverware in evidence.
I looked to Starke again, but he was already peeling his orange open. I shrugged and scratched at the slippery surface until my nails bit and I could peel the skin back. I heard Starke gasp, just as a powerful, mouth-watering aroma hit my nose. It didn't smell like an orange at all. I looked down, and saw that inside the peel, tucked in it like a fast food wrapper, was a juicy cheeseburger with all the trimmings. Starke's orange proved to contain sticks of Pocky, his favorite junk food, a chocolate-covered cookie stick.
"Lucky," sighed the rotund man. "You must both be healthy." He held up his own orange. "I've got high cholesterol, so all I get is boiled chicken. The trees give us whatever we need, you see, but not necessarily what we want."