InterGalactic Medicine Show, Issue #2, March 2006

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“In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat” by Brad Beaulieu
“The Yazoo Queen” by Orson Scott Card

“Salt of Judas” by Eric James Stone

“The Mooncalfe” by David Farland
“Audience” by Ty Frank
“I am the Queen” by William Saxton
“Zoo” by Al Sarrantonio
“Adrift” by Scott D. Danielson
The cover story for issue #2 of InterGalactic Medicine Show is “In the Eyes of the Empress’s Cat” by Brad Beaulieu.  Al-Ashmar ak Kulhadn is a physician specializing in the care of cats, which are a status symbol in this “Arabian Nights” kingdom.  He is also a widower raising seven adopted children and a man of compassion, courage, and common sense.  The latter enables him to refrain from speaking his opinions too clearly to his wealthy patrons, but may cause him to avoid other risks that could affect his family.

Having entered the palace upon occasion to tend the cats of courtiers, Al-Ashmar is not too surprised when he’s summoned to examine the empress’s cat.  What is surprising is that the elderly empress, in feeble health, gifts him with a valuable book—in which she has written an unusual request: “Save her.”  Al-Ashmar deduces that the message refers not to the cat, but to Rabiah, the personal attendant of the empress.  It’s obvious that the empress will die soon, and by custom, all her personal servants must die with her. 

Will Rabiah allow Al-Ashmar to help her, when she believes both love and duty call for her to attend her mistress in the next world?  Does he dare take the risk?  And how may such a thing be accomplished, under the watchful eye of Djazir ak Benkada, spiritual guide and personal physician to the empress?  There’s plenty of suspense and intrigue here, plus a little supernatural intervention.  Altogether an enjoyable read. 

In a totally different setting, but still addressing compassion, courage, and the weighing of risks, is “The Yazoo Queen” by Orson Scott Card.  In an America that never was but maybe could have been, Alvin Maker (aka Alvin Smith) and his apprentice, Arthur Stuart, journey down the Mizzippy toward Nueva Barcelona on a paddlewheel steamer.  This is slave territory, and young Arthur, for his own safety, masquerades as Alvin’s slave.  The ruse also allows him to get close to a group of runaway slaves being carried back in chains and so learn their story.

Arthur wants to free the slaves immediately, but Alvin, for a number of good grown-up reasons, counsels patience and caution.  A typical impetuous teenager, Arthur jumps to the conclusion that he has to take on the project himself, with or without Alvin’s assistance.  The fact that blacksmith Alvin’s true calling, and the one he’s teaching Arthur, involves mental manipulation of the physical world, both simplifies and complicates the project.

Fellow travelers on the Yazoo Queen include Stephen Austin, who’s recruiting for an invasion of Mexico, and Jim Bowie.  They rescue Abe Lincoln and his stepbrother, John (“Cousin”) Johnston, from a runaway raft along the way.  They also stop off to hear a lecture by Cassius Marcellus Clay (the abolitionist, not the boxer).  There are enough snippets of real history to lend authenticity to the story, and enough twists and turns to keep the reader happily reading and wishing for more. 

“Salt of Judas” by Eric James Stone might be taken as a cautionary tale.  Be very careful of what you wish for; pursuing your heart’s desire with demonic assistance is bound to result in a “Monkey’s Paw” solution. 
Osbert Peale is an aspiring painter of landscapes, getting by on a small legacy while he teaches himself his craft.  Only in secret does he paint portraits, all of them of the love of his life, Amelia, daughter of a wealthy landowner and forever beyond his reach.  He longs to be able to touch her, to hear her voice, to see her smiling at him.
Enter Mephistopheles, in the person of apothecary Dyer, who convinces Osbert that he may bring the portraits of his beloved to life by giving up small portions of his own soul, which are ground up and mixed into his paints.  All very scientific, of course.  No spiritual hazards involved, just esoteric knowledge.  The soul snippets are extracted with the aid of the Salt of Judas—salt which was long ago contaminated with the salt Judas spilled at the Last Supper, which carries the same soul-repelling curse as the original.
As with any other addiction, Osbert starts small but soon requires more and more of the magical paint.  Then he discovers that not only is he wasting away because of his obsession and the loss of more and more of his soul, but the object of his affection is likewise afflicted.  Can she be saved?  “Too late” laughs the apothecary.  But maybe not.
I was a little disappointed by the ending and thought Osbert’s response to the girl curt to the point of rudeness, but perhaps under the circumstances he can be forgiven.

“The Mooncalfe” by David Farland touches briefly on the legend of Arthur, but is primarily concerned with Merlin’s daughter.


We’re all familiar with the story of how Uther Pendragon, sorcerously disguised as Duke Gorlois, gains entrance to Tintagel castle and fathers Arthur.  That same night, Merlin uses his magic to seduce a servant girl, planning for her daughter to be a companion to Arthur.  He gives no thought to how this will disrupt the girl’s life; she’s just a pawn.


The young girl, ashamed and frightened, runs away and lives as well as she can on her own.  Although the baby turns out to be supernaturally beautiful rather than a monster, as expected, she still calls the child “Mooncalfe” and goes to great lengths to try to change her daughter into an ordinary human.  When her mother dies, the daughter still pursues her mother’s dream, that she might be normal. 


I thought the Arthur story had been done to death but found this to be a charming tale, a voyage of self-discovery, and perhaps a protest against the movers and shakers of this world who have no concern for the affect their power plays may have on individuals.


“Audience” by Ty Frank is a whimsical fable, reminding us that creative people need to be appreciated and encouraged, and that the ability to appreciate the work of others is a special talent in itself.

In a future world, there is no poverty, no shortage of necessities.  No one is forced to do work they don’t like just to survive.  Each person is guided into the career for which he is best suited, based on his genetic makeup.  There is no attempt nor need to justify the possibility of this “best of all possible worlds” or the premise that genetics are the sole determinant of a happy career choice.  All this is merely background for what could have been an essay, but is presented in a more entertaining fashion as a story.


There are a sufficiency of accountants and lawyers, artists and designers.  One talent, however, is in short supply.  Only Linus has the unique combination of having no particular creative abilities of his own, but the capacity to appreciate those of others.  He is an audience of one, much sought after, traveling around the world viewing the highest-ranked art, eating meals prepared by master chefs, wearing the best-designed clothing.  And he works hard at his job, doing his best to appreciate all that’s put before him.  Perhaps he would also appreciate the irony of the “audience of one” taking center stage.


In another version of genetic programming, “I am the Queen” by William Saxton cautions us of the dangers of alien pets.  Diane’s new pet, Cheesecake, is cute and fuzzy, rather like a cuddly and intelligent version of a giant bee.  Unfortunately, it has a compulsion to build nest structures.  Of course, it uses the building materials at hand.  I smiled, snickered, and occasionally laughed out loud as Diane’s oh-so-perfect home (white sofa, white rug, glass coffee table) crumbles, along with her too-rigid ideas of a perfect life.  Diane expects her pet adoption to be “like building a family, without the messy detail of finding a man she could respect.” 


“Zoo” by Al Sarrantonio features a World Council Designated Field Survey Expedition Ship, traveling via wormhole to planet two of the Epsilon Eridani system.  The planet seems hostile at first as members of the expedition are trapped in giant organic pods and dragged underground, and one is killed.  But all ends well as the giant complex organism that captured them for study turns out to be friendly. 


And here we go with genetics again.  The multiorganism can not only instantly produce replicas of the crew members by sampling their DNA, but seems to be able to reproduce their thought processes as well.  It is also able to replicate anything it sees, from the face of a crewman to an entire space shuttle, down to the last detail.  And a split-off portion of the creature/gestalt not only picks up the language immediately, but joins the expedition while still remaining in communication with the main plant/animal, no matter what distance they travel. 


Perhaps because this was presented as realistic science fiction, rather than fantasy, I had a hard time suspending belief sufficiently to accept this super-creature.  Also the emotional reactions of the crew didn’t quite ring true, as the alien, having taken the form of the accidentally killed crewman, is instantly accepted as his replacement and everyone continues on their way, one big happy family.


Last, but certainly not least, we have “Adrift” by Scott D. Danielson.  A psyship, a spaceship in which the pilot plugs in mentally and becomes one with the ship, is adrift and unresponsive.  Dr. Anne Gable, psychologist and leading expert on psyship pilots, is called on by Rob Spencer, head systems engineer, to join him in a rescue mission to the stricken ship.  A complication from Anne’s point of view is that the rescue ship will be piloted by her ex-husband, Dee, the first and therefore most experienced psypilot (and the only one available at the moment).


Like the ship, Anne and Dee were adrift in their marriage, unable to communicate.  Dee thinks of the ships he pilots as an extension of his body, and only feels “real” when he’s plugged in.  Anne, despite her training as a psychologist and her particular expertise with psypilots, can only relate to Dee when he’s NOT plugged in. 


They find the pilot of the drifting ship dead, with a look of horror on his face.  Thinking the dead pilot may have recorded something that will tell them what happen, Dee insists on plugging himself into the ship’s system.

The science here is believable, at least for the duration of the story, but this is more than anything a love story featuring two well-drawn “real” people, and I almost shed a happy tear at the end.