Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 50
Cherry Red Rocketship
by James Maxey
Jupiter or Bust
by Brad R. Torgersen
Middle Child Syndrome
by Scott M. Roberts
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction

Cherry Red Rocketship
    by James Maxey

Cherry Red Rocketship
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

Remy had been sitting alone in the cell for twenty minutes when the guard-drone appeared at the bars, its laser scanner flickering over the barcode above the lock. "Inmate 1313269, Jansen, Marcus Richard. Your mother has posted bail." The door to the cell slid open.

Remy had no clue who Jansen was. Neither, apparently, did the drone. Billy Big Lips had told him that every now and then you could glitch up the drones just by smudging the barcodes. Luckily, Remy had an abundant supply of sticky blood to test the theory. Still, he couldn't believe it had worked.

"'Bout time," Remy said, as the drone held out a baggie containing Jansen's wallet, watch, and keys.

Remy sauntered out of jail holding his head high, unafraid that the facial recognition in the cameras might make out his true identity. He'd had the good fortune of being arrested by one of the few human cops left in Houston. He'd appealed to the cop's shared humanity to give him a pass. The cop had responded that he had nothing in common with a low life bean runner. Remy had kindly pointed out that the cop's mother had a different opinion, which she'd expressed the night before with extreme physical enthusiasm. The cop had then used his nightstick to knock out two of Remy's teeth, break his nose, and turn his left eye into a purple swollen mass the size of a baseball.

Remy walked three blocks before inspecting the wallet. According to his license, Jansen was 48 years old. The photo showed a bald Caucasian man with a drooping left eye, a bent nose, and several missing teeth. Other slots of the wallet held a condom, a fortune cookie fortune (Time mends a broken heart), and a three week old lottery ticket. No credit cards, just one lonely digibuck. Remy pressed the dollar sign. The digibuck blinked a balance of $9.63.

Remy, a 23-year-old Asian with thick, jet-black hair and, until today, far more symmetrical features, put on Jansen's watch. 6:30 p.m. He'd missed by half an hour the deadline to deliver the beans to Space Gorilla Max. One hundred pounds of prime Columbian java were stuffed into the seat linings of his '27 Chevy, now sitting unreachable in the police impound lot. Remy was dead. Space Gorilla Max did not tolerate failure. The big ape barely tolerated success. The best Remy could hope for was that Space Gorilla Max would kill him by breaking his neck in one smooth, crisp snap, the way he had with Billy Big Lips. He certainly didn't want to be strangled with his own intestines like poor Vinnie.

Poor, poor Vinnie.

Remy's own intestines grumbled angrily. When the cop had pulled him over, he'd choked down the few dozen coffee beans he'd been carrying in his jacket pocket. The Thardexians had negotiated an intergalactic ban on the beans after most of their population got hooked on coffee and a bloody civil war had broken out. In the name of interplanetary order, coffee smugglers now faced the death penalty. Every muscle in his body felt tight and tense as caffeine leached into his bloodstream. His fingers wriggled with unspent energy. Crazy thoughts sparked like neon in dark corners of his mind.

Remy had one chance. He had to get off planet. Better still, out of the solar system. He needed a rocket ship. Nine bucks wasn't going to turn the nut on any legal option. It was time to break into the piggy bank.

As luck would have it, the central rail station was practically next door to the jail. He strolled in casually, ignoring the people casting glances at his mangled face. He found his locker. Fortunately, the retinal scan was tuned to his right eye.

He removed the backpack and slung it over his shoulder. With his caffeine-jazzed strength, he thought it felt a little light. He headed for the men's room and ducked into the first open stall. Unzipping the pack, he saw the bills. Thirty grand in Canadian brownbacks, one of the last paper currencies legally recognized by the Empire of Texas. With a little wheeling and dealing, thirty grand was just about the exact price he'd need to get a ticket to Mars. He knew, however, that this would be a one-way trip. Once he left Earth, he wasn't coming back. Which meant he had something else he needed to do with the money.

He boarded the centerline, heading north, toward the Galleria. Few people on the train gave him a second glance. Anyone with money traveled via the fleet of robotic taxis that ceaselessly roamed the streets. No one worth robbing or begging from would ever be caught dead on the centerline. From the number of drab uniforms, he suspected every other passenger was on their way to one of the government mandated jobs at least one member of each household was required to hold down. Since robots now filled all the essential low skilled niches in the labor market, most of the remaining jobs came with some element of symbolic humiliation. Though there were robots who could do the job better, some wealthy people still liked to have people bow in front of them to shine their shoes, gather up dog poop, or wax their pubes.

Reaching the Galleria, he wound his way through the service tunnels the help used to reach their jobs so as not to tarnish the experience of the wealthy shoppers above. He went down the dimly lit hall to the back of the Brazil Salon. He rapped lightly on the door.

Serena, the manager, opened the door and gasped. "Remy!"

"Shhh," he said, placing a finger to his lips. "Tell my mother I need to see her."

"Butyour face--"

Remy waved away her worries. "Fell down some stairs. Looks worse than it is."

Serena went back inside. A few seconds later, the door opened again. His mother's face turned pale when she saw him.

"Oh, Remy," she whispered.

"I'm okay," he said.

"I know a broken nose when I see it. And your cheek! You might have fractured your zygomatic bone."

Twenty years ago, Remy's mother had been a surgeon in the Independent Nation of California. Now, the thought of human hands wielding steel knives on flesh was considered barbaric. Robotic surgeons with laser scalpels had rendered his once-esteemed mother obsolete. She now maintained her government benefits by giving bikini waxes.

Remy handed her his backpack. "Don't open this until you get home," he said. "Butyou don't need to work here anymore."

His mother's face sank. "This is jitter money, isn't it?"

"It's freedom," he said. "Just take it. I don't need it."

She shoved the bag back into his hands. "Did one of your hoodlum friends do this to your face?" she said. "Was it that gorilla?"

"If it was the gorilla, my head wouldn't be attached to my shoulders," he said.

"You don't need to do this, Remy," said his mother. "You know your uncle would let you work on his farm."

His uncle ran an organic pot farm back in California. Getting into the business would mean years of shoveling dung. The only upside would be that at least rich people wouldn't be watching him do it. But it would be best that Space Gorilla Max not catch up to him at a place with a lot of picks and shovels.

"It's too late for that now," he said. "I have to go. Keep this." He dropped the backpack at her feet.

"Remy!" she said as he walked away. She began to sob. He didn't look back.

He headed down the tunnel toward the centerline, thinking through a dozen different plans on how he could get to Mars. He knew a lot of friendly baggage inspectors with the commercial rockets. The problem was, Space Gorilla Max knew the same people, and by now the big ape had almost certainly gotten word that Remy hadn't made his delivery. He couldn't trust anyone.

This meant he'd need to steal a private rocket. As luck would have it, the Galleria had a touchdown lot for upscale clients who dropped in from their mansions on the moon for a little shopping and dinner at Sal's. In fact, unless the big ape had completely changed his itinerary, Space Gorilla Max and his boys were probably dining at Sal's right now. Which meant his rocket would be waiting in the lot.

Remy grinned, though only briefly, since his face hurt too much to maintain the expression. Five minutes later, he was on the roof, staring at Space Gorilla Max's swanked-out, fire-colored, ten-story space phallus, with its mirror glass portals and gleaming chrome fins.

Yeah. Yeah, this was exactly what the universe owed him.

Remy spotted Tyro and Wilson, two of Max's goons. They were vaping weed, shooting the breeze, their backs to the vehicles. Remy hugged the shadows, darting from rocket to rocket. Remy had noticed once before that Space Gorilla Max didn't lock his doors when he left his ride--why bother? Nobody could possibly mistake his rocket for someone else's, and anyone stupid enough to even brush against a tailfin would have his head ripped off. But Remy wasn't stupid. He was desperate and buzzed. He had to get to Mars, then to Saturn, then to Thardex One.

Remy climbed the ladder to the cockpit and slipped into the leather pilot's seat. The controls were in protected mode, but Remy had a way with machines. It took him a sweaty three minutes to hotwire the launch sequence. With white knuckles, he gripped the joystick. He punched the pedal to the floor and hit 9 g's inside a quarter minute. The haze of the city sky quickly cleared to reveal the stark black velvet of space.

Next stop: Mars.

Fortunately, Mars was closer than it used to be. The distance had shrunk when the Thardexians arrived, drawn by signs of industrial life visible in a spectroscopic analysis of our atmosphere. The Thardexians had been amused by mankind's quaint notions about physics. For instance, gravity. They loved how we'd taken our immediate experience of gravity and worked it out into a model that applied to all of the visible universe. They'd erupted in big, alien, belly laughs when they realized we'd explained the discrepancies between our theories and our observed movements of galaxies by postulating that 96% of the universe was made up of dark energy and dark matter.

"Really?" the Chief Thardexian Science Poobah had asked. "96% off didn't seem suspicious?"

Thardexians modeled space-time as a kind of nine dimensional, spiky, knotted pretzel. It was possible to jump from spike to spike without passing through intervening space. When human physicists pointed out that the Thardexian model made no sense whatsoever mathematically, the Thardexians seemed bewildered that we expected reality to make sense. There was still a heroic band of theoreticians intent on finding a way to integrate human and Thardexian physics, but that was all over Remy's head. All he knew was, using the Thardexian spike-space map, Mars lay six hours away via ultra-fast, swoopy-sleek rocket ship.

Remy steered the stolen spacecraft through the airlocks covering Valles Marineris. Thirty million humans lived in the Valles, plus 15 million Thardexian refugees. He only needed one Thardexian if he wanted to live through this, and his best hope rested with his ex-girlfriend, Susanne. The ship touched down gently as a drifting rose petal in the fine red dust of her front yard.

His stomach had settled somewhat. The sparky, jittery rush of the caffeine was gone, leaving a mellow, steady hum.

Susanne opened the door before Remy knocked. Oh, right, the precognition. Tall and curvy, with skin as blue and creamy as Earth's sky, and long curly hair whiter than milk, Susanne wore a clingy green hugger that left nothing to the imagination.

Remy strolled into her living room as if it were routine, as if he hadn't run out on her two years ago after emptying all the money out of their joint accounts.

"Hey babe," he said, flashing a pained grin. "What's up?"

"Remy," she said. "Some guy called here five minutes ago asking about you."

"Crap," said Remy. All Thardexians were dangerously honest by Remy's standards. Trying to explain lying to them was like explaining a rainbow to a dog. He hoped Susanne's precognition hadn't kicked in.

"I wish I could have helped, but my precognition didn't kick in until I hung up. I told him I had no idea where you were. I said I hadn't seen you in two years, that you'd walked out on me after you freaked when I told you I wanted to have your baby."

As it turned out, the Thardexians had also been puzzled by the very limited scope of human reproduction. Thardexians boasted they could mate with anything with a genetic code. They claimed to do so frequently, and with gusto, although the actual interspecies mating process remained a mystery to human biologists. Ordinary intercourse never seemed to get anyone knocked up. If any humans had participated in a successful mating, no one was talking. But all these pregnant Thardexians had to come from somewhere.

"Baby, I've changed my mind," said Remy. "I've grown a lot these past two years. I think you and I should get into my rocket ship and high tail it back to your home planet where we can breed lots of happy sprogs."

"You wouldn't like my home planet," she said. "It has oceans of ammonia and three times Earth's gravity. And of course, there's the war."

"As long as I'm with you it will be like Heaven."

"You're in bad trouble, aren't you?" she said.

"You wouldn't believe," he said.

"Like, gorilla trouble?"

Remy nodded.

Susanne sighed. "I suppose, as a Thardexian, I bear some of the responsibility."

"I really don't hold you at fault for gorillas being jerks," he said. When the Thardexians had first arrived, they'd dispatched envoys to establish relations with the leaders of every government. Since they weren't initially certain of what, exactly, constituted a human being, they'd wound up sending an envoy to a troop of gorillas in the Congo. Exposure to the Thardexians' universal translation software had a profound effect upon gorilla intelligence. The apes had used their newly enhanced intellect to launch a gorilla guerrilla war of vengeance against their human neighbors, reclaiming territory taken from them over the centuries. They'd funded their war by rapidly dominating the customary monetary streams relied on by human rebellions, trading in slaves, weapons, diamonds, oil, drugs, and, more recently, coffee.

Susanne clarified: "I mean that you wouldn't be involved in smuggling if my people hadn't made your governments outlaw coffee."

Remy shrugged. "I'd just be smuggling something else. I'm not cut out to make a so-called honest living by saying yes ma'am and yes sir a hundred times a day."

"True," said Susanne. "Which is one reason I was interested in mating with you."

"My bad boy charm, right?" he said, attempting a smile that turned into more of a grimace.

"Your inability to comply with authority," said Susanne. "With our planet in the midst of war, one hope for the Thardexians would be to introduce traits into our collective biological heritage that would reduce our aggression. Your counter-authoritative instincts could be useful if they're genetic in origin, rather than environmentally acquired. This is why I invested so much time in analyzing you."

"My mother thinks I was born bad."

"Perhaps. But you were also born shortly after your world made first contact with a technologically superior spacefaring race. You've grown up amid economic, political, and religious upheaval. It's not easy untangling all these environmental influences from your genetic proclivities. Plus, your gut flora was seriously mutated by your caffeine addiction."

"My gut flora? What does that have to do with anything?"

Susanne gave him a gentle smile. "I find it charming that humans think of themselves as distinct beings rather than walking ecosystems. When I study you for biological worthiness, I can't just take your DNA into consideration. You're also host to legions of viruses, bacteria, and multicellular parasites both benign and malignant that influence your behavior in subtle ways. Now that you've been gone for two years, most of my previous research is obsolete. Your biome has evolved in the interim."

"All the more reason to take me back to Thardex One," said Remy. "You can study me there at your leisure. You said you still have connections there, right? That you could go back any time you wanted?"

Susanne crossed her arms as she fixed a hard stare at his mangled face. Then, her face softened. "You're so damn lucky."


"Since you've been gone, I've spent half my time hating you. The other half I've spent missing you. Life seems a little dull when I'm not getting swept up in your latest life-threatening scheme on a daily basis."

"I hope you're in the second mood."

"I just said you were lucky." Susanne wrapped her arms around him. He kissed her, ignoring the pain. Her lips were soft and sweet and slightly sticky, like she'd been eating honey. She smelled of lilacs.

For half a minute, Remy couldn't recall why he'd been dumb enough to leave her. Then it hit him, deep in the pit of his stomach, the tiny black vortex of horror that he'd felt every time he'd touched Susanne. While Thardexians didn't lie, they did deceive. They were shapeshifters. If their first encounter was with a human male, they took the form of sultry vixens. If they first met women, they appeared as tall, hard studs, muscles carved with the perfection of Greek statues. No one knew what they really looked like before they stepped out of their ships, aside from the fact that all Thardexians sported blue skin and white hair. Some tiny, distant voice in Remy's head screamed every time he put his mouth on her. The thought of going to Thardex One and discovering he'd been kissing some tentacled, gelatinous, blue-white blob was too awful to contemplate. Only the last remnants of the caffeine and the looming possibility of gorilla decapitation made her touch endurable.

Susanne broke off the kiss and went to the bedroom, returning seconds later carrying two suitcases. "Let's go," she said.

"Thardexian women certainly pack faster than human women," said Remy.

"Precognition, remember? I sensed I was going to be travelling long before I knew you'd be coming back into my life."


A minute later, they were on the ship, punching up through the ephemeral Martian atmosphere, following the Thardexian spike map to Saturn, nine hours away. From there, they'd jump from spike to spike until they reached Thardex One. In twenty-four hours, Remy would be in a place so unpleasant that even Space Gorilla Max wouldn't bother to hunt him down.

This plan had seemed better back on Earth. His head throbbed with each heartbeat and tiny sparks floated before him. The caffeine was going, going, gone.

"I need coffee," he whispered.

"I knew you would," Susanne said, pulling a thermos out of her purse. She twisted the dispensing valve and the cabin filled with the nostril-stabbing aroma of Thardexian brew, thick and black as spent motor oil.

Once, her quirky and unreliable precognition had unnerved him. Now, as he lifted the thermos to his lips and sucked down a steaming gulp of bean juice, he recognized that her gifts had certain advantages. He emptied the thermos in under a minute and she produced a second one.

"I love you," he said.

"I've always known you would."

They spent the rest of the voyage in Space Gorilla Max's heart-shaped, satin-sheeted, banana-scented bed, taking full advantage of Thardexians' extraordinary flexibility. Remy felt like his life was turning out pretty well. Maybe it was Thardexian pheromone manipulation, maybe it was caffeine psychosis, or maybe it was love, after all.

In the afterglow, he confessed the biggest mystery of his relationship with Susanne. "I don't deserve you."

"I know," she said.

"Why do you put up with me?"

"Like I said. You have some potentially useful genetic traits."

"Yeah, but disobedience to authority? I mean, that can't be that rare, can it? There are a thousand punks like me on the streets of Houston."

"True," she said. "But there's also your hair."

"My what?"

"Your hair," she said. "You're still young, but I can smell in your genes that your hair is going to turn this gorgeous, thick silver. Mmmmm-rrrroww!"

"My hair?"

"Look, I don't ask you to justify your sexual selection preferences," she said, sounding a little defensive. "I mean, if I were to design a human female, I certainly wouldn't waste resources on these ridiculously globular breasts," she said, arching her back to better display her generous cleavage.

"Um, I think big breasts help me choose a mate who will be able to feed my offspring," said Remy.

"Other mammals choose mates perfectly well without prominent breasts," said Susanne. "But don't worry about it. It's fine. You like boobs. I have boobs. Just accept that I like your hair. I mean, really, really like it. You're going to be amazing in another two decades." Her voice dropped an octave as she ran her fingers through his locks. Her eyes grew dewy as she brought her face close to his. Rather than kissing him, she licked the dried blood on the left side of his face. Her saliva numbed his pain. Her faint purring as she analyzed the genetic information she'd just gathered unsettled him, but her breasts mashing against his chest overrode any uneasiness.

Remy was just recovering to the point he was ready to give her another sample of his DNA when the computer chirped their arrival at the Saturnian gravity knot. He went to the leather seat, took the joystick and started steering toward the next spike. Susanne came into the cockpit and massaged his shoulders. His fingers flew across the instrument panel and the ship turned, bringing the rings of Saturn into view.

This was why he'd been born. This was the payoff, the single moment of his life where everything was correct, sitting at the controls of a cherry red rocket ship, a blue-skinned babe wrapped around his neck, the rings of Saturn glowing before him. Maybe Thardex One would be a lousy place to live, but what did that matter? He loved Susanne, Susanne loved him. All was right with the universe.

This bliss lasted upwards of thirty seconds.

The rings of Saturn vanished, hidden behind a steel shark the size of a small moon that swooped down from above. The shark opened its iron maw and swallowed their vessel. The door of the rocket ship exploded from its hinges and a dozen goons stormed the cockpit. They grabbed Remy and Susanne, dragging them screaming and kicking from the ship.

In the center of the vast, chilly hanger, Space Gorilla Max waited. The bloodied, beaten heads of Tyro and Wilson hung from his belt.

Space Gorilla Max wasn't happy. He was a big silverback, easily half a ton. His eyes were red as tomato sauce. When he spoke, his long canine teeth flashed ivory.

"Remy!" he shouted, his rank spittle fouling the air. "You sack of excrement! You dare touch my ship? Do you know what I'm going to do to you?"

Remy kept quiet, fearing his worst guesses might be taken as suggestions.

"The average human intestine is twenty-three foot long," said Space Gorilla Max. "Boys, bring me my tape measure."

"Look," Remy said. "Do what you want to me. But leave Susanne out of this. She had no clue this was your ship. She's innocent. Just ask her. You know she can't lie."

"I can't imagine why her innocence is important. I wonder what the average length of Thardexian intestine is?"

"Why not find out?" Susanne asked.

Susanne lurched, her body swelling from sleek supermodel to sumo in a span of seconds. Her legs thickened to tree trunk size, her torso leaned forward as a long tail sprouted to balance growing weight. Her head expanded to the size of a small car, taking on the form of a t-rex, only toothier. She opened her long, knife-filled jaw and gulped down Space Gorilla Max in a single bite. For several long seconds, his agonized, muffled shrieks could be heard from her belly.

All the gorilla's men fled the room, sobbing like children.

Susanne belched. Her outline slinked and undulated as she slipped from dinosaur back to dream woman. Only, now she was a very pregnant dream woman, her belly bulging like a beach ball. She wiped her glistening lips with a slender, dainty hand as Remy stared.

"I'm so sorry," she said, rubbing her belly. "I really think I would have decided to mate with you, given time. But it seemed more urgent to mate with Space Gorilla Max. I don't know if he has any other useful traits, but oh my god his fur! That silver mane---oh, oh, oh. It makes my toes curl. Our babies will be fabulous!"

Remy nodded. "I'm, um, happy for you."

"Do you still want to go to Thardex One?"

"With Max gone, I guess it's safe to go home. Cops will be looking for me in Texas, but I've got family in California. Maybe it's time for a fresh start."

"You aren't as upset as I thought you'd be," she said.

Remy shrugged. He truly wasn't upset. Perhaps ideas passionately embraced in the moment could be discarded just as swiftly. Perhaps watching his girlfriend digest a gorilla had mutated his gut flora even further. Whatever the cause, he felt as if he was a little wiser, as if he saw the world a little plainer now.

Time mends a broken heart.

And he intended to keep the rocket ship.

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