Stories of Imaginary Places

Issue 3: Summer 2004


 In this issue:

Trading Terra

by Steve Wilson

Neighbors who swap
Might blow their top,
'Cause there's no room for error
When you're Trading Terra!

The theme song and title graphics fade like a memory. A slide show of planets fills the viewer's mind.

“Hi everybody!” says a perky female voice. “I'm tele-sentience Ku. Tonight, direct to your cerebral cortex, it's 'Trading Terra', thought-casting live from Sector 5913, one of the galaxy's most eclectic neighborhoods.”

The synapse-cam settles on a green world and zooms to its surface, chasing mile after mile of an emerald expanse broken only by the occasional pond or sand trap.

“Retired general Ernest O'Kelly settled in this corner of space a year ago with his wife, Zephalga. Here they built a pleasure planet to beat all pleasure planets: a global golf course. They named it Tee Time. And here they've lived, enjoying the sun, the green, and most of all, each other's company.”

Two figures come into view on a mint marzipan hill. Ernest, a gray-haired man clinging to a prime that has passed, lines up a putt. Zephalga, purple, antennaed, and reconstructed in most places, beams animosity at him from her lawn chair.

Ku continues. “But ever since the fifth time his doctor regrew his knees, Ernest's game has never been the same. So the couple feels it's time to try something new.”

Ernest takes the shot, misses, scowls. Zephalga chortles into her cocktail.

The thought-cast switches to a frying vat of a planet. Its broken landmass bobs like overcooked food chunks in an ocean of grease. On one of these chunks, a wasteland of toppled trees, empty oceans and volcanoes erupting into the toxic haze, the synapse-cam settles on a crude mud hut.

“It's a different story on Bacchus XI, the next planet over,” says Ku. “The party-hardy owner who built this world gave a wild moving-in bash that survivors describe as quite a blow-out — literally. But the nuclear winter here is beginning to look like nuclear spring for the new resident, NumNum.”

Inside the hut sits a humanoid who resembles a half-finished man, carved from putty by a child. His arms, legs and chest are round tubes of doughy skin the color of a low-calorie beer. His face, featureless save a pair of lidless eyes and a mouth slit, hangs awkwardly on his domed head like a painting placed just so to cover a wall blemish.

“Remember the Psionic Wars a few years ago? Well, NumNum is the sole survivor of the Myelin. Or should I say, survivors. In a last-ditch effort to save themselves before our Grand Imperial Fleet liberated their home world, the one million remaining members of this telepathic race projected their minds from their dying bodies and merged their collected consciousness into the protoplasmic shell you see before you. Rigorous testing by scientists showed that NumNum — as he came to be called — has none of the awesome mental abilities or memories of his past lives. He's simply a creature of child-like, innocent wonder.”

NumNum slowly unwraps a sandwich with the clumsy cuteness of a chimp peeling a banana.

“The courts declared this composite being a wholly new lifeform immune to war crimes prosecution. That meant NumNum couldn't be executed, and was entitled to a quarantined home under the New Sentience Legal Rights Accords. So Grand Imperial Social Services transplanted him to live on Bacchus XI. After spending two exhaustive years on foundation work like reliquifying the outer core and sliding the plates back into place, NumNum is ready to tackle the surface. He wants a fresh look to make his home not just livable, but luxurious.”

NumNum bites into the sandwich and smiles dumbly. He doesn't notice the mayonnaise that dribbles down his cheek.

On the barren moon orbiting between their two worlds, the O'Kellys chat amiably with Ku, a mental projection of a cute if vapid young woman. NumNum, still smiling like a moron, stands between them, saying nothing.

“Boy,” says Ku. “You've all got your work cut out for you!

NumNum and the O'Kellys nod.

“Say, Ernest, didn't you fight in the Psionic Wars?” Ku asks.

Ernest stands straighter. “You bet, decorated lots of times over.”

“Well, you better hope NumNum isn't out for revenge, eh?” Ku says. “He could really do a number over on your place.”

Ernest stiffens. Zephalga scowls. NumNum keeps smiling.

“Just kidding, we all know that could never happen,” says Ku. “Now, you know the rules, right? Two days and one trillion bucks each to redo a continent on the other's world? OK then, hop to it, let's trade terra!”

The O'Kellys and NumNum scramble to their cruisers and blast off.

Tee Time. On an elevated green overlooking countless other greens, NumNum joins Gerard Marks, a portly, balding busy body.

“Well, hello, my blobular friend!” says Gerard.

NumNum nods.

“So, about Tee Time. My goodness gracious, aren't we in a pickle? I mean, what are we, on hole 200,000 or something? Talk to me. What do you see for this country club from hell?”

NumNum's mouth tries to form a word, but it doesn't come out.

“Ah, you're speechless, I know. I've been there. This place had been so humdrum so long, it's just screaming for an infusion of fun, you know? It's so perfectly well-groomed, I just wanna punch some craters into it or something. Lemme tell you what I have in mind. We're gonna trash the top layer of crust completely and put in some real terrain. I'm talkin' mountains, valleys, the whole shebang. We'll tinker with the sky too, so it's not so... blah. Think punch! Think zing! We are gonna suck, nip, tuck and staple the old crone outta Mother Nature and turn her into one hot and happening momma! Sound good?”

NumNum grins and raises a thumb on his smooth round paw.

“Alright then, let's get to work!”

Over the “Trading Terra” theme song zips a montage of NumNum ripping up the ground on a rocket-propelled artificial iceberg. Gerard catches the overlooked spots with the clawed hands of his giant remote-controlled robot. Making silly during a break, Gerard commands the robot to scratch its metallic crotch. The joke is lost on NumNum, who stares bewildered at the machine.

Bacchus XI. In a dried-up bog, Ernest and Zephalga examine shriveled mud formations with an intensity that can only be mustered by a married couple trying to ignore each other.

A svelte woman in clothing too fancy for manual labor lands her hover bike in the wide space between them. “Hi, I'm Lee Anne,” she says. “Sorry I'm late. I had to skirt around that flaming sea a few kilometers back. Must have been some party, huh? So, what don't you like? Please dish.”

“What DO we like is the question here,” Ernest says. “And it ain't much.”

“Exactly,” says Lee Anne, giving Ernest a once-over and a smile. Zephalga raises a suspicious antennae.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us, and not a lot of money to do it with,” Lee Anne continues. “Can I tell you what I see? I want to take all this bad energy and focus it into something more positive. Like this mud pit — just atrocious. We'll replace it with something more manageable. A steppe, maybe. That's how I like my design, simple and clean. Classic and powerful. You might even say vibrant.”

The earth shakes beneath them like it has the dry heaves.

“And yes, we'll address that little problem. Now, I've pumped some Atmos-Buddy 10,000 into the air, so we can breath without Lung Liners soon enough. Didn't use a full dose though. We want to leave a little goo up there to maintain those terrific sunsets.”

“Great idea!” says Ernest.

“Thanks. A lot of folks don't realize how pollution can be a cheap and simple alternative to expensive atmospheric design.

“Um, that's fine,” says Zephalga. “But let's not forget NumNum. We don't want to do anything too crazy. I don't want him to get mad and, well —”

“Jesus, Zephalga! He's just a harmless compost heap. Give it a rest!” Ernest says.

“Look,” says Lee Anne. “NumNum's going to love the rich topography and bold fauna choices I've cooked up for him. You'll see.”

“Sure, OK,” Zephalga says, unconvinced.

“Then let's get going!”

The theme music kicks in for another montage. Lee Anne drains the bog's remaining moisture with a colossal vacuum apparatus. Ernest blasts what looks like caulking from a whale-size dispenser into a fault below the surface. Zephalga lays down the last of a series of sprinklers in an empty sea basin and gets drenched when Lee Anne turns them on before she can run clear.

And now, a word from our sponsor.

A homely man sits in a cocktail lounge with two leggy, Botox-stiffened blondes. After laughing at his own joke, the man turns to the camera. “Nighttime has always been the right time for me, and now that I've moved into my Dusted Bronze Twilight Plus Edition, it's the only time. For 24-hour dinner and dance, the synthaladies and I have 30 Fresh-Scent Cities to choose from, filled with clubs, restaurants and more than a few surprises. When we're feeling the call of the outdoors, a little skinny dipping in my Cool-Touch Jacuzzi Sea is just the thing. And, when the evening's theoretically 'done,' I can always find the right spot to set the perfect mood with five adjustable moons. Thanks, Custa-World!”

An announcer blurts a parting message: “Luna-Five Value Pack does not include Nectarine Fizz or Gypsy Queen. Synthazins sold separately. Only from Custa-World.”

Tee Time. Gerard lands his hovering golf cart on the fresh sand of a newborn desert valley. Nearby, NumNum blasts jagged stone spires out of the surrounding plateaus with a shoulder-mounted laser chisel.

“My, my, could it be you haven't even started the petroglyphs yet?” says Gerard. “C'mon, Nummy, pick up the pace! We still have to antique all this. Gonna take two layers of erosion at the very least.”

NumNum nods, the slightest frown on his face.

Bap, the show's hunky terraformer, appears out of thin air beside Gerard. He presses a button on his watch and a portable launching pad loaded with six missiles materializes on the sand.

“Yo, Big Ger, here ya go,” Bap says. “It took some tinkering, but I got them like you wanted. Don't know what you've been smoking though, these are some messed-up colors.”

“Hey, that's enough outta you, wiseguy!” Gerard says with a forced laugh.

Bap teleports away with a snide grin on his face.

“Gather 'round, Nummy,” says Gerard. “I wanna show you the new sky.” He opens the viewing panel on one of the missiles. It looks like a urine sample inside. “I call this 'Whipped Butter.'”

NumNum's mouth forms an astonished “O.”

“And once we've applied it up there, your homework for tonight will be to whip up a batch of ventricular alto cumulus, finest clouds ever made by nature. Should add just the right accent and attitude. I'll show you how right now, then I'm off to the hardware store for some primordial soup. Sound good?”

NumNum gives a thumbs-up and a wide grin.

Bacchus XI. Ernest, Zephalga and Lee Anne stand shivering in their rain gear on a vast plain of muck pummeled by hail, thunder, and an incoming tornado. Lee Anne pushes the lever on a detonator box at their feet and an explosion rocks the earth. Lee Anne jumps into Ernest's arms, then, giggling, steps out of them. Zephalga rolls her antennae in disgust. The ground starts rumbling as gently and steadily as a vibrating bed.

“So let me get this straight,” says Zephalga. “This explosion is going to raise some hills?”

“Knobs,” says Lee Anne, bristling. “Anybody can raise hills. Knobs are an art.”

“Why can't we just terraform them?”

“Zephalga, don't be rude!” says Ernest.

“No, it's OK, Ernest. I'll explain so we can all understand. We're doing it this way because we blew most of our budget on the aurora effect in the thermosphere. And let me tell you, red seas don't come cheap nowadays either. I've designed this detonation to upwardly channel all the tectonic stress, which is practically this planet's only natural resource.”

Ernest laughs. Zephalga doesn't.

“But all this trouble for... knobs?” says Zephalga. “It just doesn't seem worth messing with the fault lines or whatever.”

“'Fault lines or whatever.' You're so cute, Zephalga,” says Lee Anne. “You're from Leonidas B, right? I can tell by your antennae. Just trust me. Knobs are perfect for this region. They'll really bring out the sky. So let's give the ground a chance to do its thing and check on Bap. He's just not grasping my tundra-veldt concept, but he will.”

Ernest and Lee Ann walk away together. Zephalga lags behind them, grumbling to herself.

Ku stands alone on the moon between the worlds.

“Time's up! Let's see what the neighbors think!”

Tee Time. There's a hidden glen on this revamped planet where the neon rainbows never go away. All day and night they puncture lopsided saucer clouds in the piss-colored sky. On the ground below, a loud brook flows past man-size toadstools and mushrooms. The water changes colors periodically — cranberry, chocolate, oatmeal, avocado — as it passes over time-release minerals along the banks. Like foam in a rabies victim's mouth, a clingy white fog fills the area in the afternoon and doesn't leave until morning. It's all so sickeningly precious you half expect giggling teddy bears to prance by at any moment.

Instead, you get morose Synthazins in wood sprite outfits straight out of a junior high production of “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” They tend to gargantuan statues placed all around. These monoliths depict scenes from Ernest and Zephalga's many years together.

The real couple materialize with Ku in mid-argument. They take no notice of their surroundings.

“You don't like any of it?” says Ku. “Not even the menorah mesas? Gerard heard you were half-Jewish and was just certain you'd be thrilled.”

“Thrilled?” says Ernest. “The only thing that'll thrill me is divorcing my wife for making me sign up for this moronic show!”

“Not if I divorce you first for trying to get down that tart's pants!”

“Oh come on, nothing happened.”

“Guys, guys!” says Ku, near virtual tears. “You haven't even looked at our final stop yet. We saved what we hoped was best for last.”

Ernest and Zephalga turn their glares from each other to the landscape. The sight disarms them. Like dazzled children, they stare at their past cast in stone. The time when Ernest called Zephalga — then his secretary — into his office for a memo: “Looks like I knocked you up. Let's get hitched.” The births of their antennaed children. Their 25th anniversary party, when Zephalga surprised a drunk Ernest with a clone of himself that popped out of a cake and did a striptease for everyone.

“Oh, my,” says Zephalga. “It's all so...”

“'Vibrant?'” says Ernest.

They both giggle, and with each statue they take in, their laughter grows to hysterics. Ku looks offended at first, but seeing Ernest slide his arm Zephalga's shoulder, she shrugs and smiles prettily into the synapse-cam. “Now let's see how NumNum likes his new digs.”

Bacchus XI. Gone is the gunk in the air, the palsy of the earth. The desert blooms, the forest thrives, the swamp has gotten over itself. Not a river runs out of place. Even the mountains seem healthier, their freshly-scrubbed peaks capped with real snow instead of the powdered pharmaceuticals that got stuck there after one particularly wild party. The overall effect is beautiful, but stifling. It's a boutique hotel — a nice place to conduct an affair but not to stay with your family.

Ku and NumNum materialize on a flower-strewn shelf under the rim of a defunct volcano. The shelf and foliage corkscrew down the shaft to the ground below.

“And here's our last stop! They turned this cranky old lava pit into a great space for entertaining.”

NumNum beams with delight.

“Oh, I'm so glad you like it,” says Ku. “One thing you can't see — they tinkered with the orbit to make winter last only a week. They heard how much your people used to like tanning.”

NumNum claps his paws.

The ground quivers slightly.

“Guess they still didn't fix that earthquake problem completely,” chuckles Ku. “Must have just run out of time.”

A ship comes into view in the sky above.

“And look, here come Ernest and Zephalga to thank you for the great job you did!” Bachus XI's shivers blossom into a violent earthquake. The volcano starts to topple.

“What is this?” says Ku, her pre-programmed composure fizzing away.

The ground hacks up a lougie of lava that shoots up mere inches from Ku's face. She screams.

Ernest's voice blasts from the ship: “NumNum, I've made a horrible mistake. When Lee Anne wasn't looking, I planted the core with enough Rumbler Bombs to blow this planet into an asteroid belt. It was a war thing, revenge on your people for killing my troops. But I regret it now. After seeing what you did with those statues... we were so touched. I know now that who you were doesn't matter, that you have a heart. I'm gonna land and get you outta here.”

Ernest's ship starts to descend.

A sly and cunning smirk stretches the expressive limits of NumNum's face. He raises his paw and blinks. The ship's engines stop. The craft plummets into the paisley depths of a Fast Fill Reversi Sea that Lee Anne “got for a steal” at a thrift store.

NumNum places his paws on either side of Ku's well-coiffed head. Everything in the viewer's mind goes dark.

Save a voice that grows louder and louder:

“Audience member, prepare to have your mental essence jettisoned. Your body has been declared the new residence of a designated Myelin sentience that shall arrive shortly over this network's reticular feed.”

And, as if in afterthought:

“Thanks for watching another edition of 'Trading Terra.' See you next week.”

For what it's worth, I've been a freelance journalist for several years and have written for the New York Times, Newsweek, Entertainment Weekly and other publications. Sci-fi/fantasy-wise I wrote an essay for "Reading the Vampire Slayer: An Unofficial Companion to Buffy and Angel" (Tauris Parke, 2001) and a vampire parody for, Opium Magazine.