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art by Jonathan Westbrook

Substitutes

Colin P. Davies lives near Liverpool, England and his stories have appeared in Asimovís, Spectrum SF, Paradox, Andromeda Spaceways, Abyss & Apex, The Immersion Book of SF and The Yearís Best Science Fiction #22. Tall Tales on the Iron Horse, his first collection of short stories, is available from Bewildering Press, and his second collection of short fiction will be published by Immersion Press later in 2013. Currently he is working on a Young Adult trilogy and developing his Pestworld radio/podcast series. More information at colinpdavies.com.
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."
"Sure."
"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."
"I mean..."
He raised a hand. "I know what you mean." The pale, hooded face smiled, then he started up the narrow path between the cabbages and runner beans towards the cottage.
She would have called Dad, but it didn't seem important. Besides, Dad was cooking and Melinda liked his cooking. By the time it did seem important, the man was in the kitchen.
Through the open doorway, she watched the visitor flick a finger to draw a picture in the air--a sheet of paper.
Dad peered out into the garden. "Mel... get back in the house!" But she remained standing in the garden, paralyzed with curiosity.
"Get out of here!" Dad told the man. "I'll never let you take her."
"Read the certificate. I have the authority."
"You'll need more than that. Are the police outside?"
The man shook his head. "We don't want a scene, just compliance. Why not comply? The offworlders are not unreasonable. If fact, they view themselves as a highly moral race."
"Their notion of morality is inhuman."
"Hardly surprising, but they are trying to do the right thing." He waved a hand and the certificate vanished.
"Right for them." Dad stabbed a finger towards the official's face. "Mel stays with me."
"Maybe you should let her speak for herself."
"She's... confused." Dad glanced at Melinda. "She can't know what she wants. They did that to her."
"They will also make you wealthy. One of the loyal rich."
"I don't need to be rich."
"And, of course, you'll receive a replacement."
Dad waved a steaming kettle like a weapon. "You just don't get it."
"You need to understand that you don't have a choice. None of us have a choice."
Dad poured the scalding water over the intruder's legs.
The man shrieked and careened out of the kitchen and away across the garden.
Dad stood, empty kettle clutched in his hand, with a look on his aged face that Melinda had not seen since the day her mother walked out.
"You got the floor wet," Melinda told him, and she went to fetch a mop.
"I've lost her." Dad threw himself back in his seat and spun away from the screens. "Too many people. I just can't see the girl." He turned back to search again.
"Can I go to my bedroom?" Melinda asked as she drove her chair towards the hallway.
"What do you want? I can get it for you."
"I don't know." Music started in the apartment upstairs. Melinda tapped her fingers to the thud of bass. "To sing."
"I'd like to hear that. Could you sing for me now."
Melinda circled back towards Dad. Did she know how to sing? "No, I don't think so."
After a moment, Dad said, "We've got to be ready."
"Ready, steady... what game are we playing?" Melinda parked her wheelchair in the open doorway to the kitchen. She thought she could smell hot biscuits in the thick warm air. Odd how a thought could bake a scent. She giggled.
Dad turned to smile at her. "What game do you want to play."
"The stars." Melinda noticed beads of water on her Dad's hairless head.
"We can't go out there just now," he said.
"Is it daylight?"
"No." A movement on a monitor caught Dad's eye. A girl dressed in a rust-colored suit, and with long black hair just like Melinda's, dashed below a street lamp. "Okay, it seems that we can play." Dad opened a drawer and took out a heavy handgun. He checked it and stuffed it into his belt. "There may be some noise."
The morning after the kettle incident, Melinda was surprised to see packed suitcases in the hallway. Dad's cheeks were red in a way that worried her. He had a set to his jaw like toothache. Yet still he smiled. "Good morning, Mel."
"Are we going somewhere?" She stumbled across to him; sometimes she found it hard to put one foot before the other. He steadied her.
"I was wrong about this place," he said.
"I don't think you're wrong."
"I imagined we had more time." He moved the suitcases closer to the door.
"Let me help."
"You can help by watching."
"Watching what... the woods?"
He put a heavy hand on her shoulder. "No. Don't go near the woods. Watch for the taxi."
"I promise I won't go into the woods. I won't get lost."
"No." He brushed strands of dark hair from her forehead. "If I lose you, I lose everything."
When the taxi arrived--a dusty black three-wheeled Hansom with dark windows and white-wall tires--Dad hauled out the cases and waited by the passenger door. The driver came around the car to help. Melinda was surprised to see it was a young girl, about her own size, in a smart maroon suit and with her hair tucked under a red cap. Dad dropped a case and it burst, sending clothes across the dry dirt.
"Let me help, Mr. Johnson." The driver stooped to gather the clothes.
Dad yanked the cap from her head and long black tresses fell. The girl smiled.
"Dad," said Melinda. "She looks just like me."
"Dad," said the driver. "She looks just like me."
Dad lifted Melinda into the back of the taxi, bundled the cases and loose clothes in after her, and turned to face her copy. "Stay away from us!"
"I didn't mean to alarm you, Mr. Johnson, only to show that I can be your daughter in every way. Thoughts, memories, emotions...."
"Mel stays with me."
Inside the taxi, Melinda pressed her nose to the glass.
"But she has a destiny," said the driver. "Few can navigate the stars in special space. She's needed."
"You'd never understand. You're too different."
"I'm not that different. Ask me anything. A childhood memory, a favorite game. Your wife gave us everything. I was made to be your daughter. I am your daughter."
"I don't know what you are, but you're not Melinda!"
"I'm flesh and blood. I think. I speak. I feel pain."
"You're a commodity... cheap technology. A salve for an alien conscience. A substitute!"
"Substitutes are people too."
"Are they?" Dad glared at the girl and Melinda wondered why he was shouting at her. Then she saw two black-clad men emerge from the trees at the side of the road and hurry towards the taxi.
"Just keep away from us!" Dad yelled. He jumped into the driver's seat and threw the vehicle forward.
Melinda looked out of the rear window and saw the girl still standing there in a cloud of sunlit dust. Then Dad braked hard.
"Dad?" said Melinda. "Is she my sister?"
He put the taxi into reverse and accelerated backwards faster and faster until there was a heavy thump at the rear. "No," he told her. "She's not your sister." The taxi jerked forward again and they sped off down the lane between the hawthorn hedgerows. After several sharp and sudden bends that tumbled the cases and clothes all over Melinda, Dad glanced around and saw she was laughing. "No, Mel... she's not even human."
"I've killed three of them so far, and I'll kill more."
Was Dad talking to her? Melinda was concerned at his agitation. He seemed upset. She drove her wheelchair closer.
"I know how to hide," he said. "How to disappear. Yet they still find us and keep on coming. The offworlders aren't going to give up." He was staring at a street monitor where the girl was flitting from shadow to shadow.
Melinda touched his arm. "Why is this happening? You won't explain."
"I have explained, Mel, but you get mixed up. You don't remember."
"I remember that you said it was about me. I was important."
"Of course you're important." He took her hand. "You're my daughter."
"I meant, important to them... the offworlders."
"They infect all children, Mel, with something like a disease. They're trying to trigger a change. It works on a few and the rest are unaffected. It's hit and miss. A game of numbers... and yours came up." He squeezed her hand a little tighter. "They think I should be satisfied with a substitute, a fake you, while they take you off to guide them across the galaxy."
Melinda recalled nights of looking up at the stars. The beauty and, later, the patterns. "I think I might like that."
Dad winced as though wounded.
There was a knock on the door to the apartment.
Dad leapt up and rushed into the hallway. "Go through to the kitchen and keep the door shut," he told Melinda. "And be ready to leave in a hurry. We may have to go out the back way."
Melinda did as she was told and parked her chair on the aged and broken tiles. The blinds were drawn and a water heater hissed quietly. Above her head, the bass thudded like the excited heartbeat of the building. She listened for sounds from the hall, but could hear nothing. She spied the biscuit tin. Dad would never let her have a biscuit now, so near to dinner. She bumped the chair into the cabinet and grabbed the tin, prising the lid off, delighting in the sweet scent. So tempting, but his rules were strict. He said they had to be.
There was a gentle knock at the back door that led into the yard. She replaced the tin and wheeled over to the door. Again the knock, and a voice. "Melinda... open up. We have to go quickly."
"Dad?" She turned the key, then reversed as the door eased open.
Dad stepped inside. "Come on. If we're quick, she won't even know we've gone."
Confusion whirled. Had Dad changed his clothes? Did it even matter? "Can I take some biscuits?"
"Why not?"
She drove out into the yard and followed him through the rear gateway. They rustled through wind-blown litter up the dark alleyway towards the street and the crowds. As the high walls moved past, Melinda nibbled at a biscuit and gazed upwards, out of a black canyon toward an expanse of sky. "I can see the Milky Way."
"Can you see the patterns?"
"Yes!" They were beautiful, incoherent and yet somehow she knew she would learn to read them.
Some distance away, a shot rang out, but she hardly noticed.
Melinda saw only stars.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 1st, 2013

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