art by Jonathan Westbrook
by Colin P. Davies
Sometime after sunset on a blustery evening in late summer, with the offworlders' orbital station a small bright misshapen moon over the choppy water of the river and the glittering barges of the loyal rich fighting at their moorings, a slim girl came skipping over Westminster Bridge like a leaf carried on the wind. She danced down Belvedere Road, her pale face bobbing though the crowds, and ducked into the alley beside the bookies.
In a ground floor apartment, Melinda watched her Dad, Brian Johnson, former cop, rush from monitor to monitor, press a button here, enter a code there, as he followed the girl from street to street. "She thinks she's won," he said. "If she thinks at all."
Melinda willed her wheelchair across the thin carpet to get a better look at the street scenes. Hard shapes of light and dark; sweeping strings and spots of significance. There was a language in the lines and Melinda could almost hear it. She smelled purpose and saw promise.
Dad saw only threats.
"Mel..." Dad said with an unsteady voice. The back of his blue T-shirt was dark with sweat. "Could you get me a drink? Water."
"With ice... if there's any left."
Melinda wheeled into the kitchen and crashed the footplate of her chair into the fridge--the top door swung open. She reached in for the ice and cupped cubes in her hand. A glass. She needed a glass... should have gotten it first. Attempts to anticipate only caused confusion. Trial and error. She'd get there eventually, if Dad had the patience.
She knew he had the patience.
She found a glass and added the ice and then the water. Her hand was shaking; ripples patterned the surface of the liquid. She tried to read them. Out there. Out there! The girl was coming. What girl? She was certain that Dad had told her. Not to worry. No substitute for... She dried her hand on her jeans. For what?
As she trundled back into the parlor she heard Dad say, "They always find us." He was slumped at a table, tired but not defeated.
Dad would never be defeated.
Melinda had not always been confused. There had been a time when she could gaze at the stars and see only beauty, not patterns--a time before she forgot how to walk. Now patterns were beauty, and they spoke to her. The TV said it was a gift from the offworlders, given to only a few; the ability to hear the language of the universe, if not to understand it. But Dad said it was an alien disease, seeded by stealth.
Three years ago they had been living in the far north, away from cities, away from the alien overseers, in a white cottage that smelled of roses in the summer and paraffin oil in the winter. Out front, a long garden stretched up to the passing lane and, to the rear, the vegetable garden ended in a stream and then the woods. As Melinda started to change, the bubbling water provided hours of stimulation for her pattern-seeking brain. She never found a pattern, but she did notice the movement in the trees beyond the stream, when the man first found them.
"Hello, Melinda," he said, with a voice so deep that she almost laughed. "Don't be scared."
The black-clad figure stepped with spindly legs over the narrow strip of water to stand upon dry grass.
"You know my name," Melinda said.
"I know lots about you. You're thirteen years old, left-handed, your eyes are grey, you have a doll named Lucy... and you like ice cream."
Melinda gasped. "How do you know?"
"All girls like ice cream."