Science Fiction

When I want to impress a date, I usually take her to the Tanglebar market on Terraformula II.

"What's so particularly great about this marketplace?" Sandy asked. True to her name, she had sand-colored hair. Other than that, there was nothing sandy about her at all.

"It's the most visually interesting market I've ever seen," I replied. "I've never seen a place with a wider variety of life forms."

Sandy looked somewhat impressed. "How many planets have you been on?"

"About six or seven," I lied.

"Well, that's one more than me."

We took the hotel transport into downtown Tanglebar. This was still the only town on the planet, but it was huge. Like its mixed citizenry, the buildings were also a heady mix of multiple cultures. Where these ran into each other, which was frequently, there was quite the tangle.

The hotel owner also owned a bar, which is where we found ourselves after our atoms were reassembled. Unlike Earth bars, there was no long counter here. Instead, somewhat sentient lifeforms found a variety of seating arrangements. Something was bound to fit everyone.

"Should we order a drink?" she asked, eyes wide open.

"How long are you here for?" I asked. Since I started frequenting this bar, my memory had definitely not improved.

"Three or four days," she frowned, uncertain how her answer tied in with her question.

"Then, we'll have to skip it," I answered, pretending to be unhappy. "The concoctions they served here generally knock Earthlings out for a week."

"That's quite a drink," admitted Sandy.

"It's not that kind of bar." I steered her toward the exit. We passed by a yellow-plated Mellofirm as it imbibed a large red-capped mushroom through its central ear. Its dining partner, a species I was unfamiliar with, placed a fairly large cactus under its armpit and squeezed until the plant was absorbed in through its skin.

We broke out of the relative calm of the bar into a cacophony of languages, most of them within the homo sapiens range of hearing. Some communicated by odor, which was a mixed bag at best. The air of the marketplace literally vibrated with the cocktail of sounds, odors and telepathy.

I looked at Sandy out of the corner of my eye. Now she looked impressed. She held up a device about the size and shape of a cell phone from last century.

"Is it alright if I use this?" she asked. "I don't want to offend anyone."

I looked closer and saw that it was one of those devices for identifying species. What had I got myself into here? I wondered. Was she some kind of closet anthropologist?

"Knock yourself out," I laughed gleefully. "I've yet to meet anyone in this marketplace who is capable of being offended."

As we jostled through the crowd, I explained the ground rules to her. "See that bar code in the upper right-hand of each booth's awning? Scan your device over that and it will translate the language of that particular merchant."

She tried it. "Whatcha looking for, lady?" It came out with a Brooklyn accent, which was unusual but not unheard of.

The booth's dealer stuck his large, sunflower face uncomfortably close to Sandy's own mug. She was apparently familiar enough with the species to not take offense. "I'd like to see your merchandise," she beamed cheerfully. Hopefully, the dealer wasn't offended by her sunny manner.

"Sure, come on in." The sunflower sprouted grasshopper-like legs from it earthenware pot. As it hopped down from the counter, a door popped open, leading us inside. The awning was very effective at blocking out the planet's two suns, which had the effrontery to both appear high overhead at the same time. Under the canopy, it was delightfully cool.

As we moved further back into the booth, it also started to get rather dark. I knew where this was headed. Nonchalantly, I tossed a GPS device for the planet on the ground. Some of these sleezeballs, I'd learned from experience, could get quite ticked-off if they didn't make a sale. Instead of back at the market, I'd been let out at some pretty embarrassing places.

Apparently Sandy had been innocently thinking that all of his merchandise was actually all in that one booth. She was visibly surprised when she found herself stepping through a dimension screen. The air around her warbled in the shape of her very nice figure.

We stepped into something that was kind of like a cross between a two-tiered prison block and a pet store. The flora, fauna and large fungi filled the place with a tangle of sounds, limbs, mycelium filaments, roots and whatnot. Especially whatnot.

"Just here to browse, or you got somethin' specific in mind?" asked the sunflower. I was trying to figure out how it could sound so nasal.

She turned to me, clearly in need of help. "Nick," she breathed, "what is this place?"

I shrugged. There was nothing quite like this on our home planet. "It's kind of like a pet store. And then, it's also kind of like a nursery. Basically, all the booths at the Tanglebar market sell lifeforms."

Sandy took off now, wandering through the aisles in what seemed to be a random pattern. "But some of these creatures seem so...sentient! Intelligent, even!"

I smiled my best lopsided, uncomfortable grin. "I've heard people say that about Earth bars, too."

I'm not sure if she heard my witty reply. She had skipped on farther ahead. The flower with the grasshopper legs kept up with her, though. Now there's a lifeform eager to make a sale.

By the time I caught up with her, she was trading tickles with some kind a creature that had certain features of a crocodile, combined with others more apelike. Sandy was wiggling a petite finger under its left proboscis and it was returning the favor under her armpit. They seemed to be sharing a chuckle.

"How can he...it, sell these creatures?" she demanded of me. "Doesn't that strike you as a form of slavery?"

"Perhaps," came the dry remark from the floor behind her, "the lady needs to try another shop. I'm sure there are plenty that only sell stupid lifeforms."

Suddenly my date broke into an alien language. It seemed vaguely familiar, being primarily involved with spitting, screeching and a loud grinding of one's molars. The sunflower answered her with a fair facsimile, although its spitting was pretty sorry.

I frantically whipped out my own translator and tried to find the language. I flipped through the choices and had almost found it when she put out a delicate hand to stay my efforts. "Don't worry," she confided in me, "we're done."

As we walked back toward the entrance, she kept sighing deeply and turning her big brown eyes my way.

"What's the matter?" I kidded. "Has this whole experience got you down? Because we can go back to the hotel if you don't want to see any more."

"No," she stared intently at something just over my head. "It's not that..."

At the dimension screen, she turned her head to look back at me over her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Nick. It's just that he gave me such a great price." Then she stepped through and was gone from my life.

"Ha, ha!" the sunflower cackled gleefully. "I've never had one of youse kind before!"

I looked back over my shoulder and found that the flower had grown rather frightfully large.

November 07, 2020 04:19

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