Apex Digest, #4

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Image"A Jack Grimm Adventure: Walk Among Us" by Bryan Smith
"The Serpent Was More Subtle" (reprint) by Tom Piccirilli
"Symbios" by JA Konrath
"Oranges, Lemons, and Thou Beside Me" by Eugie Foster
"Babysitting" by Christine Murphy
"Burn Rate" by Phill Jones 
"Erasure" by Jennifer Pelland
"Ghost Chimes" by Nancy Fulda
"Seize the Day" (Parting Shot) by Bryn Sparks

This issue contains several good stories, and quite a few decent ones. The overall slant toward a SF/horror mix is evident in the majority of the stories, and it gives Apex Digest a distinct flavor.
"A Jack Grimm Adventure: Walk Among Us" by Bryan Smith is as fun a romp as one would expect from a story featuring both vampires and aliens. It is fast-paced, with many gun-blasting action sequences. Jack Grimm of the title is a supernatural detective, with an office in Nashville, and with the help of his assorted crew (half-alien Raven, magician Andy O’Day, and hellhound Lucien) he battles aliens who have infiltrated the city, and seem to be up to no good.

This story is a sequel, and as such some of the sequences (like a detour to Nevada) might make more sense in a larger context. Also, I felt that too much time was spent on witty banter. Humor is perhaps the most subjective genre of all, and Mr. Smith’s brand didn’t quite work for me. The friendly razzing taking place between the characters would have more bite if they had any perceivable faults; but as everyone is perfect and lovable in their own way, it seemed a bit bland.

Another problem (and it is perhaps unfair to pin it on this particular story) was an abundance of stereotypes—something that often keeps me away from the detective genre. The only girl in the gang, Raven, was the worst offender—a token tough female, and at the same time a romantic interest for the wisecracking yet angsty protagonist. Despite that, the story is a quick and fun read, and those who like a light-hearted action story will enjoy this one.

"The Serpent Was More Subtle" by Tom Piccirilli is my favorite of the issue. I’ve been very fond of Mr. Piccirilli’s arresting prose since The Choir of Ill Children, and this tale didn’t disappoint. On the surface, it is the story of the Tenfew, Children of the Well cult, bearing some resemblance to Hare Krishnas, but soon it becomes apparent that the Tenfew recruit their followers with more than propaganda—the water of the well is augmented with the DNA-modifying viruses that render the followers docile, devoted, and simple.

I don’t want to give away the ending, but it was delightfully surprising, and Mr. Piccirilli managed to reach across times and religions to the archetypes of good and evil that fueled them, and did a fine job of it.

"Symbios" by JA Konrath starts out as a typical SF yarn, and I wasn’t expecting much from it. A sole survivor crash-landed on an alien planet stumbles upon what seems to be semi-intelligent life. But the story surprised and disturbed me, and yet made me laugh a few times. Mr. Konrath does a wonderful job exploring the degree of moral trespass a decent human being would commit in order to stay alive just for one more day, even if there’s a very small chance of rescue.

The story had a few problems—for one, I was unconvinced by the world-building. The Earth had apparently run out of ore and oil, and was sending extra-terrestrial expeditions to get more ore. Also, the fact that the protagonist could not access his food because the steel door was jammed shut during the crash seemed far-fetched; I would think that a spaceship would have a crowbar or a blowtorch. But these problems were secondary to the story, and were perhaps to be expected from a story written by primarily a mystery writer. Good read nonetheless.

"Oranges, Lemons, and Thou Beside Me" by Eugie Foster is a gripping tale of two twins who have an uncomfortably close relationship, further complicated by their tendency to connect their minds to trade experiences. But Sabin, who just came home from the war, has a few secrets he wants to keep from his sister, Chloii.

The strength of this piece comes from the relationship between the siblings, simultaneously twisted and tender, and from the very atmospheric description of the family’s home, saturated with the smell of lemons and oranges. Despite a few unexplained bits (for example, I couldn’t figure out why the Asian military was called "Intelligentsia"), the story worked well.

The ending was surprising and packed a punch with a series of rapid reversals. I didn’t find it quite flawless because some of the reversals stemmed from possibilities hidden from the reader. I felt like the reader’s surprise depended on the rules of the game not being disclosed. Still, a well-done story, and a pleasant read.

"Babysitting" by Christine Murphy takes place on an alien planet populated by insect-like creatures. John, the human antihero, serves a sentence (for a crime committed on Earth) by being a "feeder" to a domineering female insect. You know how males end up in such situations.

The parallels between John’s domestic situation on Earth, told through flashbacks, provided an interesting counterpoint to his experience for caring for an alien brood. But overall, the story didn’t quite delight me—mostly, because the ending was obvious from the first page, and the development of the story didn’t offer any interesting turns along the way. Additionally, John was so thoroughly unlikable that his ultimate fate left me indifferent. The "bad guy gets his just dessert" rarely works for me for that very reason. And finally, the aliens themselves, while presumably insectoid, behaved in a disappointingly human fashion, even featuring human anatomy at times (eyelids and erections, for example.)

"Burn Rate" by Phill Jones has an interesting premise.  Thad, the detective protagonist, is a "ghoul" (he is affected by a birth defect that causes him to have a higher metabolic rate than normal humans.) However, the story itself is a rather routine police procedural, taking place in a futuristic world. It is a pretty good story, but I wished more were done with Thad’s condition. Throughout the tale, he tries to play by the rules and takes pills that keep his metabolic rate normal—and unfortunately he stays that way. Although he agonizes about his nature and envies a fellow ghoul, Amanda, who embraces her high metabolism and heightened abilities that come with it, he never makes the leap. As he investigates a series of murders, the events unfold at a good clip, although rather predictably. However, crucial conversations and scenes are frequently interrupted by authorial asides, often extraneous to the story. The characters left much to be desired—even Thad, in whose head the reader spends a fair amount of time, seems little more than his angst and desire to fit in. Amanda was perhaps the most compelling character, and she didn’t get much onstage time. Fans of futuristic mysteries will probably like this one.

"Erasure" by Jennifer Pelland seemed like a familiar story at first—a woman gets her memory selectively erased. She does not know what horrible memories she just got rid of, but there are reminders both in the few things she kept, and in the voices that whisper in her head. She remembers some disturbing images and hears some vague threats.

Fortunately, this story is not quite what it seems to be. An interesting twist on a standard premise makes it a quick and creepy read.

"Ghost Chimes" by Nancy Fulda is a rather short story that takes place in a world where people can have a procedure, a "neural overlay," done, so that even after death their preserved conscience and holographic images can interact with the living. Alice, the protagonist, is struggling with her relationship with her dead mother, who doesn’t seem to understand that things have changed after her death. A thoughtful and absorbing story about human relationships, and a vivid meditation on letting go even when one doesn’t want or doesn’t have to.

"Seize the Day" (Parting Shot) by Bryn Sparks is a short SF/Tolkien parody. It provides a startling contrast to the rest of the issue, which is rather serious, if not downright dark, and as such will probably be a welcome change of pace to many readers. It was funny enough, but not much different from countless epic fantasy and classic SF parodies out there. A fun read.