"I think that I shall never see; a holograph dumber than a tree." Joyce Kilmer's first draft

MARKET DAY
by Stephanie Gray ©2019

The waitress had blue skin. Her hair was white-blonde, her uniform crisp and her smile flawless, but her skin was pastel blue. Someone had played with her settings and not bothered to restore them to the factory standard.

"Can I get you anything else?" she asked.

Maria sipped her latte, it tasted sweet and rich, exactly to her preference. "No," she said, "I'll have a look around."

The waitress nodded and left.

Sliding out of her booth Maria walked out of the empty coffee bar and strolled out onto the patio overlooking the lake. The various species of trees that bordered the shore were ecologically unlikely, but aesthetically wonderful. The lake itself was something out of a dream.

Leaving the cafe Marie wandered down through various games rooms, the small theatre (which would remain dormant, of course, without certain upgrades that were no longer available), a bowling ally, a racquetball court, and several more restaurants. All of them were empty apart from servers with fixed smiles.

Maria walked outside, enjoying the short stroll past the golf course to the stables.

The horses, at least, had been rendered with care. There were six of them in total: a gentle, piebald mare, rambunctious stallions for the unwary riders, a pair of chestnut ponies with white patches on opposite eyes, and a white unicorn with a mane of muted rainbow. The trees beside the stable bore fresh cherries, avocados, and pears ready to be picked. Their leaves were varied in shape, colour and texture, but their trunks all looked the same.

With a sigh, Maria raised her hands to her temples and pressed down twice in quick succession. Slowly, the scene around her faded and all she could see was the bright grey curve of a dead screen. Once it had stopped delivering stimulation to her tongue, the mouthpiece tasted mostly of plastic. She removed it and placed it back into the case sitting on the metal counter.

"You want to buy it," the Cxechian said in his strange, clacking language. It wasn't, strictly speaking, a question. The Cxechian language did not allow for questions as asking them, as far as Maria understood, was a sort of low-level sin in Cxechian culture.

Maria removed the rest of the headset and placed it in the case. Around her, the open air market was becoming crowded as it approached mid-morning. By midday, both suns would be fully risen and the heat would be nearly unbearable for carbon-based life forms.

The Cxechian's left appendage snaked behind his back into the cluttered mess of his stall to retrieve three thin plastic sticks with holographic labels that read: A Tour of Paris, Pirate Adventure, and Fencing for Beginners. Maria opened the port in the side of the headset and examined the pre-loaded 'experience'. It was called: Country Club.

"Everything here, plus full sense-suit for full emersion. Three credits." If he'd been a human man, Maria would have detected lewdness in the way he lingered on the phrase 'full-emersion', but she doubted a Cxechian would be aware of such implications. Biologically speaking, one of them may as well have been a plant, they were so unlike. She would always marvel at the way Jessie could relate so easily to beings so unlike herself. She'd even had a school-girl crush on an alien with scaled skin and hauntingly beautiful, multi-faceted eyes, of whose exact species Maria was still unsure.

"It's a good deal," The Cxechian told her, "I should ask five."

"It will only fit a human. There aren't many of us on this planet." Maria spoke in Droondish, which the Cxechian understood but seemed to find aurally unpleasant. Maria was biologically incapable of speaking Cxechian, though she understood it passably well.

The Cxechian growled something mostly untranslatable, which related to the Cxechian perception of any functionally useless object which might still be valued, such as an art piece or artefact, as 'dead'. The implication stung, though she doubted the Cxechian had intended it. They were too different to even properly offend each other.

Maria examined the headset one final time, running her fingers over its smooth plastic contours. It was the wiser gift. Jessie could use it to learn new skills: swimming, fighting. But her eyes kept drifting back to another item, tucked away on a cluttered shelf near the back of the Cxechian's stall.

"That," she said, pointing, "Let me see that."

Without turning, the Cxechian snapped back with one of his appendages and retrieved the item she'd indicated. He opened the little nylon bag and dumped out a set of four painted cubes. The brightly coloured characters lacquered on the sides of each one were Japanese Kanji, which Maria could not read. But that didn't matter.

"Three Credits," Maria offered.

"Four," the Cxechian countered.

She didn't bother to haggle.

***

Maria presented her daughter with the gift that evening, sitting at the kitchen table in their tiny apartment near the marketplace. Jessie's eyes were warm, if baffled, as she unwrapped and examined the blocks.

"What are they for?" Jessie asked.

Maria didn't answer. She waited patiently as Jessie handled the blocks, feeling their weight and texture. She bit her tongue to keep from blurting it all out at once.

"They're not made of plastic," Jessie finally said, "Mom, what are they . . ."

"I'm not completely sure," Maria said, "But, I think, maple."

Jessie looked up, an expression of awe lighting up her beautiful face. Tentatively, she asked, "Is that . . ."

"Yes," Maria blurted, unable to help herself, "It's a type of tree."

Jessie looked up slowly, "That's a sort of plant, isn't it? From Earth?"

"Yes," Maria said, and she felt the corners of her eyes prickle, "Yes, that's it."

Jessie looked up at her, her eyes so kind and wise and somehow . . . new, in a way Maria knew her own would never be. She held the little block of maple against her chest, and she smiled.

x x x

A short-short for the shortest month from a newbie to Anotherealm. I liked this brief quite a bit and hope you like it too. Let me know on our BBS. GM



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