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Chameleon

Colin Harvey lives with his wife Kate and spaniel Alice in the West of England, midway between I.K. Brunel's Victorian Bristol and Jane Austen's Regency city of Bath. He is Featured Writer for suite101.com, and his stories have appeared in Apex, Interzone and Albedo One, among other magazines. His last novel Winter Song is being published in the U.S. for the first time in September 2010 by Angry Robot Books, who are also publishing his next novel, Damage Time, in November 2010. Extracts can be found at his website, or via the publisher's website.
Colin has edited the anthologies Killers and Future Bristol, while Dark Spires: Speculative Fiction from Hardy Country will be published in November 2010 by Wizard's Tower Press.
Garcia met her at the entrance to the network of tunnels running beneath the radioactive remains of the Pentagon.
"Major Sparrow." Garcia offered his hand. "Thanks for coming all the way from Huntsville."
"Call me Emily." She hesitated, then shook. "Sorry I'm late, Colonel. Air travel's out of the question at the moment, and driving here was a nightmare. The aliens raided Roanoke, so we had to detour."
He smiled. "But you're here now... Emily."
Two guards escorted them through the labyrinth.
"I hope you're going to show me the way back," she said as they rounded another corner. "I'll never get out otherwise."
He smiled but said nothing, until five minutes later: "We're here." Returning their escort's salute, he led her to a window.
She shrank back.
"It's one-way glass," Garcia said. "He can't see you."
Emily stared through the glass for the longest forty-five seconds of Garcia's life. "I don't know," she said. "He looks exactly like my husband. But..."
"You can't be sure." She inclined her head. "The Dragons are still improving their ability to mimic us."
"He looks exactly like Herb." She shuddered. "If they can copy us so well..."
"They aren't infallible," Garcia said. "They only learn whatever the subject tells them. So if he lied under torture, their chameleon will repeat that lie."
"Which is why you need me."
The man who sat with his hands flat on the metre-wide table looked thirty years older than Emily, but Garcia's file said the age difference was only fifteen. Herb Ramsay was forty-five to which captivity had added ten years. But while his complexion and five o'clock shadow matched his grey hair, his posture was ramrod-straight, as if he'd sensed their presence through the one-way glass.
"Where did you find him?" Emily said.
"Montana," Garcia said. "We'd pushed the Chinese back for once, and he used the confusion to sneak through their lines--if he's your husband. Or they let him through when they retreated."
"If he's not--my husband?"
"We need you to de-brief him," Garcia said. "It needs to be the intimate things that a wife would know, that wouldn't be in the files or that he wouldn't tell them."
"Isn't there any other way?" Emily said.
Garcia stared at her, long and hard. Finally he sighed. "You're an Intelligence Officer so you must hear gossip. There is a way, but it damages humans more than Dragons. The ultrasonic pulses are so powerful they break down the genome sequence, returning the chameleon's DNA to its original state. But it wrecks human DNA. So we must be absolutely positive before we use it. It's not something we can use unless we're already ninety-nine-point-nine percent sure...."
Emily let out a sigh. "Then let's do it--your way."
"Don't sound so enthusiastic." Garcia smiled. "I thought you'd be eager to talk to him."
"How eager would you be? Make one mistake and I condemn the man I love to death?"
"It's a big responsibility," Garcia conceded. "We could try the new method...."
"No! I'll do it!"
They waited while the guard ran biometric tests to check their identities: retinal, fingerprint, DNA. "Waste of time," Emily grumbled. "Even the biometrics were fooled by the last incursion. Only a careless slip gave that intruder away. Lucky there are so few of them."
"They always give themselves away in the end," Garcia said. "And it's not just Chameleons we're guarding against. They could have human agents."
The first contact had been a dinghy full of reptilian hominids landing in Oregon a year after the Isfahan explosion. By then the Iranian warbirds had flown in response to 'the American attack,' and after the Americans had retaliated the Chinese had stepped in to 'mediate'--and the war had raged ever since, more and more Dragons beside their Chinese allies, including their ever more human-seeming shape-shifters, the Chameleons.
Checks completed, Emily and Garcia entered.
"Em!" Ramsay stood, his manacles clinking.
"Herb--oh, Herb!" She hugged him, manacles and all.
They all sat.
"I said if they ever captured me, I'd get home!"
"Yeah, Dad, you told us," Emily joked. She bit her lip. "How-–how are you?"
"As well as can be expected." He gazed at her as if fixing her in his mind. "You?"
"I'm fine." Her lower lip trembled.
"The boys?"
"They're staying at Mom's. Do you miss them?"
"More than anything." Ramsey reached across, squeezed her hand. "Except maybe you."
"Only maybe?"
"Odd days it's you I miss. Evens, it's the boys."
"I took Sam out last week--"
"Sam's been dead a year," Herb interrupted. "Spaniels don't live so long."
"I knew you wouldn't fall for that one! Where did we marry the first time round?"
"When we eloped? Columbus, Ohio." He laughed. "Your folks went crazy!"
"I was only nineteen!" She paused. "What was the guy marrying us wearing?"
Ramsey laughed. "He was dressed as Elvis, including the shades."
"Do you think the Dragons are alien? Or did the Iranians or Chinese create them?"
"How often have we had this conversation, Em? ETs: No one's ever learned what the Isfahan explosion was."
Emily sighed.
"What?"
"Truth is--"
"Don't speak the truth in times like these." She looked puzzled. "You don't remember Uncle Harry's little sayings?" Ramsey said. "And the other one?"
She frowned, then said, "Oh... yes! What was it...?"
"The universe will kill us all, eventually."
"That's it!"
Ramsey slumped, then shook his head. "She's fake."
Garcia pushed his chair back. "Show's over, Major Sparrow."
Emily stared at him. "What?"
"Don't play innocent." He pointed his gun at her.
"What do you mean? Herb? What is this?"
Ramsey looked up, his eyes tearing over. "I so wanted you to be the real Em... but Uncle Harry doesn't exist."
Two guards led Ramsey away. Two others trained their guns on Emily, while Garcia left. "He's lying!" She shouted, to no one.
Heart racing, she tried the door; it didn't move a micron.
She swallowed.
The floor began to throb beneath her feet.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, September 13th, 2010


I've been studying for a BA in Creative Writing & Media Communications for the last year. Our Thursday night Creative Writing lectures are usually given by a visiting author. On this occasion it was Tania Hershman, author of The Salt Road & Other Stories. Tania issued a challenge; five random members of the audience were to each read out a sentence from one of five books Tania had handed out. She then gave us fifteen minutes to write a story that included the five sentences. I was so impressed by this that I suggested to my (SF) crit group that we replicate this challenge for SF stories. At about the same time I read about metamorphic genes on the web, and I'd had an idea percolating for some time about a shape-shifting alien. The first nine hundred words took three hours to write. The last hundred took three days. But getting it right took three weeks of to-ing and fro-ing within the crit group. I'd like to thank all of them for their input. Thanks should also go to Tania Hershman and Professor Carrie Etter for the lecture that indirectly generated the story.

- Colin Harvey

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