Jacob and his mother were walking to church when the changeling fell, spilling thunder over the town.
"Did they crash?" Jacob said, staring at the hills that hid the terminus of the ship's dark track across the sky, autumn gold and still but for the wheeling flocks of startled birds.
"No," his mother said, her voice almost lost in the aftershocks of the ship's roar. "They landed it. Barely."
She started moving again, and Jacob trailed after. Everyone else was still, watching the rising smoke, though a few eyes shifted toward them as they walked by. Jacob bowed his head, wishing they would look away. Near the church Pastor Childes was growling at a group of men huddled around him, pointing at the hills. When they passed, the pastor's angry eyes marked them.
"Stop it," Jacob whispered, "stop staring," and after they passed Mama whispered too.
"Damn them. Why can't they just leave us alone?"
The curse made Jacob's eyes wide as he stole a look at her. It was the same question that rang through his mind, but she wasn't looking back at their neighbors or at Childes.
She was staring instead at the hills that hid the fallen monster.
"God formed man in his image, and gave him paradise."
Jacob stared down at the worn wooden boards of the church floor, drowning in Childe's sermon.
"But paradise wasn't good enough for man, God's image wasn't good enough. In man's pride, he rejected the gifts of the Lord." With every word Childe's deep voice faded and Jacob felt himself straining for the last syllable despite himself.
"He rejected them!"
Jacob flinched at the bellow.
"The gifts of God were not enough for man in his pride! Not enough!" The big man's voice dropped back to normal. "So man made himself into monster, and was cast out of the garden and into the void. Lost. Except for those few who stayed, who kept themselves meek as God intended. We have inherited the Earth."
"Amen," chorused the congregation, and Jacob spoke the word with them.
Beside him, Mama stayed silent.
"What do you think it looks like?" Noah asked, staring at the hills.
"In our big old bible, there's a picture of the Devil," Abe said, eyes shining with excitement.
Leaning back against the elm where his friends had gathered after church, Jacob watched his mother walk home. When she disappeared behind the store, he turned his attention back to Abe, whose waving hands were sketching through the empty air.
"He's got scales and horns and batwings, and," Abe's voice dropped to a whisper, "where his rear should be, he's got another face. His tail's its nose."
"So?" Paul asked, looking up from the twig he was whittling to nothing.
"I bet that's what it looks like. Stands to reason, an outsider would look like the devil. How you figure they sit, with a face on their rear?"
Paul shook his head. "Abe, shut your damn mouth for once. You don't know what the hell you're talking about."
Abe looked hurt, but stayed quiet. Paul liked using his fists as much as he liked swearing.
"Maybe it's one of them Sidhe. Maybe a girl one."
Jacob and the others considered Paul's idea. They were the oldest boys in school now, right on the edge of their running time. They talked a lot about girls, lately.
"One of them life shapers? I thought they didn't leave Mars, not after they've made it all perfect." Abe shot a wary glance back at the adults still chatting in front of the church and lowered his voice again. "Sidhe are supposed to be even prettier than the Anglish. And they don't wear clothes."
"What?" asked Noah. "Why not?"
"They got no shame. They show themselves off, and lead men to sin."
Noah laughed, while Paul muttered, "Wish someone would lead me," low enough that only Jacob heard.
"It's true! Ain't that right, Jacob?" Abe asked.
Jacob frowned at Abe. "How am I supposed to know?"
"Well, your Mama ran outside. She seen them, right? Naked?"
"Mama didn't run outside." Jacob envied Paul, who could shut Abe up with a look. "She just visited one of them Babel towers. Didn't meet any Sidhe there, just some Anglish."
"I saw some Anglish coming through on a tour when I went to Philly," Noah said. ÒThey wore clothes. But the girls were wearing short pants. Pa made me look away."
"Well, that's Anglish. They're barely outsiders, still kind of human. Sidhe, they're bigger sinners, right?" Abe said. "So they don't."
"Maybe we should go." Paul stood, chewing on the splinter of his twig and looking toward where the ship had fallen. "See if she is naked."
"No," said Jacob. "I can't -- we can't do that!"
"Why not?" asked Paul.
"Because ..." and Jacob trailed off, silenced by Paul's disdain.
"Because Childes said we shouldn't, and they're gonna set up a guard to keep people away. Meaning us." Abe's words rushed out, filling the lapse.
For once Jacob was grateful for his friend's chatter. It gave him time to try to think of some answer to Paul that didn't touch on the fear that his Mama had drilled into him. Don't give them a reason to hurt you. Don't make them hate us anymore than they already do.
"All those hills and woods?" Paul scoffed. "They can't guard all that. We could get there. We could see her."
There was a look on Paul's face, like the one he got before he laid into somebody, but Jacob finally had an answer. "You don't even know if it's a her, or a Sidhe! What if it's a tin man from the belt, or one of them changeling monsters from Venus? Heck, it might look like Abe's devil!"
"Well, then it definitely won't have clothes on because of the face on its ass," Paul snapped. "Nothing interesting ever happened in this town until today. Hell if I'm gonna miss out, especially if some bare-bottom Sidhe girl might be sitting alone in those woods."
"When we going?" asked Noah, and the boy's words made Jacob's stomach sink.
"We can sneak out real late, be there and back before they miss us," Paul said.
Paul lunged forward, the broken end of the twig in his mouth almost jabbing Jacob in the face. "We're going. You scared, stay home. But if you tell, I'll break your girly face, got it?"
Jacob flinched back. He was bigger than Paul, but nowhere near as mean. "I won't tell. But this ain't a good idea."
Paul snorted. "Well, then you best run home. Your Mama'll be missing you." When Jacob didn't move, Paul spat his twig at him. "Go on, bastard, run home and hide until the outsider goes away. Go!"
Jacob had no words to throw back. He turned from his friends, and Paul laughed and the others plotted, their whispers fading to nothing as Jacob walked away, alone, the bastard pretty boy sent back to his shunned Mama.
Don't make them hate us, she had told him. But no matter what, it seemed they already did. Jacob walked, fear turning to anger with each step, and made his own plots.
A hunter's moon hung in the crisp autumn night, but beneath the trees the shadows pooled thick. Jacob moved slow, wary of snagging brambles and tripping stones, grateful for his good night vision. If he fell and made a noise... He had already passed the tiny fire where the men huddled, Pastor Childes snoring among them, but sound carried in the night. Silent, cautious, Jacob ghosted over the crest of the hill and finally found the outsider's ship.
It gleamed below him like night water, and Jacob felt a tremor go through his heart. Down there something waited, something kin to man but man no more, something that had turned its back on God. It might be injured, or dead, or hungry, or angry, or beautiful or...or gone.
Only one way to know. He forced himself forward.
There was a scent around the landing site, mixed with the mud and sap smell. Harsh and caustic, like the satellite phone in the general store but worse. Hell might smell like that, Jacob thought, then pushed the idea away. This was no time to be thinking of Hell and devils. Picking his way through the broken trees, he finally reached the rocky clearing the ship had settled in.
It bulked above him, blue-green so dark it was almost black. Jacob's eyes followed its curving lines, then flicked around the clearing. In the gathered shadows nothing returned his gaze and he went back to examining the ship. There were ragged scars on its glossy skin. He traced their dark paths until he found the symbol branded into the ship's skin, the joined silver circle and cross. Not the arrow of the Sidhe, or the Anglish's gold leaves. This was the ancient mark for Venus.
"Changeling," Jacob whispered, and his heart hammered in his chest.
"That's not what we call ourselves."
The voice was soft, but Jacob whipped around when he heard it, body howling to bolt as he searched for the monster that had crept up on him. He found her not far behind him, and his fear floundered into confusion.
The child looked like she might be four. Her eyes, bluer than any he had ever seen before, were big and bright with amusement as she stared up at him. Her skin glowed white as frost in the moonlight, and Jacob realized with a sudden, shamed horror that he was staring at all of her and he wrenched his eyes away.
"Girl, what're you doing?"
"Girl?" She laughed, quick and light. "I'm no girl, boy, and I think you might be the one owing explanations. You shouldn't be here."
The words were strange off her tongue, twisty and slurred, and Jacob finally understood. "You're the changeling."
"A lesson for you, boy. Changeling is considered pejorative. Call me shifter, or Lieutenant Tatya. You want to call me changeling, save it for when you’re running away."
She didn't have a little girl's voice, and the cool edge Jacob heard beneath her humor made his adrenalin dance.
"I'm sorry, ma'am."
Jacob flicked up his eyes and looked at her, the short dark hair, the wide eyes in her strange-angel face, the so-pale skin, the place where her legs came together...he shuddered and looked away, face flaming. Were girls like that, or was that just something these changelings, these shifters, had done to themselves?
"What are you doing here? Last thing they told me before I detached was that the locals were going to cordon off the site and I was to remain in position. Your people wanted full cultural quarantine."
"I snuck in. I wanted..." To defy his mother. To ruin Paul's chances of seeing something forbidden. It was nothing he could say.
"Wanted to sneak a peek?" The knife in her voice was sheathed again. "That's okay. If I were you...well, I can't imagine that, really. But I won't bite. Get your look and run home to tell your friends."
"My friends." Jacob swallowed, remembering why he had slipped away from town before the others. "My friends are coming. They wanted to see you. Wanted you to be a Sidhe."
"Ha," she said. "Never met a Sidhe, have they? Tell your friends pretty is as pretty does."
Jacob looked up again, focusing on the outsider's face. She was no child, but she was the size of one, naked and alone. He thought of Paul, and the look on his face. "You shouldn't be wearing no clothes like that. You shouldn't be here when they come. Something might happen."
The girl stared at him, arms folded across her chest. "I see. You need better friends, boy."
Jacob winced, and felt an angry, embarrassed heat flush his face. But there was nothing he could say to that.
"Tell them to stay away, boy. I'm not a child, whatever I look like to you, and even without a mask I'm not helpless. Tell them to stay away for their sakes."
"I did. They wouldn't listen. Please don't hurt them." It didn't matter how helpless she looked. This was no human girl, this was a changeling and she was terrifying and his voice shook as he pleaded. "Please don't. Could you hide, in your ship? They won't stay long, because of the guards."
"Hide? Inside my ship?" There was a note of confusion in her voice, then she laughed again, low and wry. "That would be hiding to you, wouldn't it? My poor mask would just be some broken machine to them." She raised a hand to caress the smooth lines of the metal beside her, then looked back to him. "I can hide, I suppose."
"Thank you," whispered Jacob. In the forest somewhere a branch fell, its crackling descent loud in the night. "Can I go now? Please?"
"You don't need my permission."
Jacob nodded and began to back away, then stopped when she called after him.
"What's your name?"
"Jacob. Good luck getting home."
"Thank you ma'am," he said. Then he turned and walked, fast as could through the dark woods, leaving the strange not-child alone with her broken ship.
The door rattled, a fist hitting it like thunder.
On the other side of the curtain that hung between their narrow beds, Mama whispered "Stay," as she got up.
Curled beneath his blankets, Jacob clenched his teeth and kept himself still. He'd gotten back just a little while ago, shucked his clothes and searched his body for leaves and dirt, and then slipped silent into his bed.
Safe, he hoped.
"Where's the boy, Ruth?" Pastor Childes' voice was dangerous, and his footsteps were heavy on the wood floor as he stepped inside.
"In his bed. Pastor."
Jacob pushed himself up, just before his curtain was jerked aside.
"Get up, boy." Childes smelled of smoke and leaves, and his beard and hair were matted like a prophet out of the wilderness. Jacob wanted to flinch back, but he could see his mother behind Childes, her face white and hands fisted in frustration, and anger buried Jacob’s fear.
"Can't sir. Not with you there." Childes frowned threateningly, but he stepped back. Jacob swung out of bed, straightening his nightshirt as he rose.
"What's this about?" Mama's voice was quiet, but tight.
"We found some boys in the woods tonight. Dangerously foolish boys." Hot eyes searched Jacob for weakness. "Abraham and Noah. But there was another one out there who ran away."
"It wasn't me."
Childes's hand closed around Jacob's arm and yanked him close. "No? Will you stand before a man of God and lie, bastard boy?"
"I ain't lying," Jacob hissed through his teeth. His arm throbbed in the pastor's grip, but his fear was gone. Why fear Childes after that changeling? Stripped and tiny, she had been more terrifying than this man who had only bluster and tradition to support him.
"He was here, all night," Mama said. "I'd have heard him leave."
"This boy...of all of them, he would've been the one to go. Evil calls--"
"My son was here," Mama said, cutting Childes off. "With me."
"Ruth," the pastor said, warning.
"Pastor," she said back, no bend in her voice. Jacob stood silent, eyes darting between them, and wondered what passed in the currents beneath. Then Childes released him and stepped back, frowning.
"Time to see to the chastisement of those boys. It seems they'll have to take the punishment for their friend as well." The pastor's eyes burned into Jacob, and the boy felt shame and anger, but the dark look in his mama's eyes stilled his tongue. With a last low growl, the pastor turned and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.
"Fool," Mama breathed. Then her eyes shifted to her son. "And you." She took a step, and her hand caught Jacob with a stinging slap. "Don't you ever be that stupid again. You don't know..." Her eyes gleamed with tears as she choked back what she was about to say. "Don't be stupid, Jacob. Leave that thing alone. It has nothing to offer you but pain."
She turned her back and Jacob raised his hand to touch his burning cheek, the newfound anger he had felt at the glowering pastor shifting. Nothing, he thought. Nothing to her, maybe, who had stood among the stars for a little while at least before she had chosen to return in shame to this town. His mother had turned her back on the outside and what dwelt there. But his running time was coming, and suddenly he could imagine making a different choice.
It wasn't hard to slip the guards again, though Childes had increased them. The woods were too big, too rough, and the men too reluctant to get close to the outsider. Under leaden skies dripping rain, Jacob found the ship, gleaming like a scarred jewel in its broken-tree setting.
"Ma'am?" he called as he stepped in the clearing. "You here?"
"Where else would I be?" came her sharp answer. The changeling squatted beneath the flaring curve of her ships hull, staring at a clear square of glass that she held between her hands. Jacob noticed with relief that she had wrapped a swatch of some rough material around her body, making a crude dress that hid her too-white skin. She looked up from the glass and studied him with her beautiful, impossible eyes. "Why are you here again?"
He looked down at the rippled puddles at his feet, unsettled and unsure, and shrugged. Because he wasn't supposed to be didn't seem the right answer.
"Your friends never came," she finally said.
"They got caught."
"What happened to them?"
"They took a birching from Pastor Childes." Jacob had watched, one of the crowd, face as blank as he could hold it, and he couldn't meet their eyes.
"He beat them. With a stick?" The changeling said, her expression faintly horrified. "How remarkably awful."
"They'll be okay." That scene had played through Jacob's head enough, and he pushed the conversation away from it. He nodded toward the glass that dangled from her hand. "What's that?"
"Com screen. Detached like I am, it's how I talk to my people."
"Why haven't they come for you?"
"Politics," she said, the word snapped from her lips.
Jacob watched a hard frown crease her child-like face and thought he had found a subject that she didn't want to dwell on either. He blurted out another question to make her lips move away from that angry line.
"What's it like, flying?"
She looked at him, and for a moment he thought he'd made a mistake as her frown deepened, but then it eased. "Flying's good. It's free out there in the black." Slim fingers reached out to stroke the skin of her ship, then pulled back. "What's it like for you, boy? Growing up Amish?"
"Amish?" Jacob shook his head. "I ain't Amish, just Christian Meek. Amish, they barely have truck with us. We're too fancy with our solar, and the sat phone, and mixing with the Anglish in places like Philly. Amish would never come talk to you. We meek, we took some of their ways, but we ain't Amish. We just follow the simple path God set."
"We don't change ourselves, our bodies, like, uh, like you folk." Jacob waved his hand at her, the little not-child that watched him with adult eyes. "We stay as God made us."
"Do you?" she asked softly, her eyes tracing something in the lines of his face.
"What do your people call it? Staying simple, like we do?"
"Superstition," she said.
Jacob looked away from her, to where the rain was falling harder, cold autumn rain that pulled the last bright leaves down into the mud. "Why do people call you what they do?"
"Changelings?" She stood, holding her rough dress around her. "We don't live simple, boy. If there's a god, we believe it meant for us to make ourselves. And we want to be...anything." She looked at him sideways, short dark hair slipping like silk across the flawless skin of her shoulder. "You thought I was naked, that first night. I was, still am, despite this covering. This body, this little girl's form, this is just what I am inside, behind my masks. This is what we made ourselves into, so we could be anything."
"I don't understand." It made him angry, the way he could understand her every word and still lose the meaning of what she said. It brought the weight of that whole secret world that lived out there, beyond the sky, down on him.
"Look." Turning, she raised a hand to brush her hair aside.
In the hollow at the top of her neck, right at the start of her skull's smooth curve, Jacob saw something, a short vertical slash in her skin, an opening. He stared at it, and memory came, clear and sharp, of the first time he had met her and what he had seen of her body. Jacob whipped his eyes away, feeling his face flaming with confused shame.
"That's where we attach to our masks. Where they join our nervous system," he heard her say. "We call it our umbilicus. Are you okay?"
Jacob heard her concern, but he didn't look back at her, not wanting her to see his embarrassment, not wanting her to guess at what had upset him. "What does that mean?"
"This thing that you call my ship is one of my masks. When I'm inside it, I attach to it through my umbilicus, and I become it. It's not a ship, to me. It is me, my body, my flesh, the same as your body is to you."
Jacob hazarded a glance at her, sidelong, trying to wrap his thoughts around her words. "I've heard how the Anglish fly their ships..."
"No. I'm not a pilot. When I'm attached, I am the ship." She sighed and looked up at the bulk that loomed over them, sheltering them from the rain. "I can feel the solar wind across my skin, and hear the stars sing across their spectrum. I fly..."
"They say the tin men are like that, the people that make themselves into machines. Some of them become ships."
"Some do. But I'm not a...a tin man." Tatya smiled, rolling the name around her lips. "A machine intelligence is a human brain modeled on a quantum computer. We don't choose to live that way, completely non-organic. This little body is my natal. It's what I am, what all shifters are behind our masks. But don't think that this is some secret, true self. When I'm attached, I'm my ship."
"You have other masks? Other bodies?"
"Two more. One for the surface, on Venus. The terraforming has a long way to go. And my social. Not so many. I spend most of my time in the black."
"Okay. I guess I understand." Not so many, three bodies. How could he understand that? What they did, outside of God's good earth, how was he ever supposed to understand it when all he was told was that they were sinners? He looked over and saw her staring up at one of the tears in the skin of her broken mask. "Did that hurt?"
Tatya shook her head, looking again like a beautiful child. "I made a mistake. I annoyed the Sidhe, and they came after me. I tried to lose them in Earth's protected space, but they forced me down your gravity well. I barely kept myself from being burned to a fine ash on the way in. Now I wait while they quibble over my remains."
"They?" he asked.
"My people, the Sidhe, and the Earth Protectorate. Though the Sidhe are just going through the motions. They have no jurisdiction."
"What's going to happen?" Here it was again, the marks of vast, unknown powers that dwelled behind heaven. And for the moment, they were focused here, on this muddy hollow.
"They'll posture and dicker, then the Protectorate will give me up. But I'll lose my mask." Her voice was rough.
"They want to confiscate it. To examine it for possible contaminations it may have introduced to a protected environment, they say. What they really want is to tear it apart, to see what we've developed. Damn them."
Her eyes were shining, but no tears rolled down her face, and Jacob wondered if tears were something her body could produce. "Maybe you'll get to keep it. I'll pray you do."
Her lips twitched into a smile, thin and bitter, but then it softened. "Thank you, Jacob."
"I should go. If the rain ends...I should go."
"That you should, boy. Jacob. I'd rather you not be beaten with a stick."
He nodded and stood, moving to the edge of the ship, to where the rains chill touch met him.
"I appreciate your prayers."
And she did, he thought to himself as he slipped out into the tangled brush that surrounded the crash. She was an unbeliever, a sinner. A monster, according to all he’d been taught. But as he moved silently through the rain-wet drifts of fallen leaves, the thought of her appreciation made him feel strangely light.
Only one light made the shadows thick, but Mama's needle flashed sure and swift between her fingers. When Jacob stepped through the back door, his clothes dripping on the clean floor, she didn't look up from her work.
"Do you think I'm stupid?" She asked.
"Shut up." The needle stopped its dance and she finally raised her pale green eyes, hard with anger, up to him. "You went out there again. After what happened to your friends. After knowing Childes was watching. After I told you not to."
"So? I don't care if I'm birched! I want..." He trailed off, inarticulate in his passion.
"You want to spy on some outsider whore, to sate your stupid young lust gawking at a fallen god."
"No!" Jacob said, almost shouting. "No. No one tells us anything about the outsiders, except stupid stories about them being sinners and demons. You never told me anything about them, though you climbed one of them Babel towers and saw the outside with your own eyes. Tatya tells me things."
"Tatya?" The sewing Mama had clenched in her fist fell to the ground beside her. "You talked to her?"
"Yes," Jacob answered, startled at the way his mother's eyes had widened, at the sudden pallor of her face.
"Stupid boy." Mama raised her empty hands, hiding the aging beauty of her face behind them. "Damn you. And me, and her, God damn all of us."
"Mama, what?" Again, Jacob felt his ignorance closing like a cage around him. "What's wrong?"
She shook her head behind her hands. "They're coming for her. Tomorrow. They announced it when you were gone. Pray to God she'll forget she ever met you when they do."
"Why?" Jacob wanted to stamp his foot, to howl like a child until his mother spilled out whatever she hid from him, but he held it in. "Why won't--"
"Because you don't need to know." Her hands fell and she stared across the table at him. "You're young and stupid with it, and it would only make you act more the idiot then you are. Go to bed."
Jacob glared at her, and the possibility of defying her stirred in him. He could go, now, back to the woods. Back to the girl-thing that waited there for her people to take her back to where the stars danced. He could.
His mother must have read that thought twist across his face. "One step toward that door, and I'll fetch Childes."
Childes. Their shared enemy, the man who had always seemed to hate Jacob, just for existing, as far as he could tell. Mama had been his only protection against the man who held all the power in this town, and Jacob had always been amazed at her ability to hold him safe against the pastor's wrath. Now she threatened him with the man. His anger went still and cold in him. Without a word, Jacob went to his bed, parting the curtain that surrounded it. He stripped off his clothes, hanging them close. Then he stretched out on the bed, waiting. The outsiders were coming tomorrow, but he had all night.
When Jacob stumbled into the clearing, tearing free of the last tangled branches, he heard the sound of glass breaking. He stopped in the space that lay between the brush and the darkness beneath the ship, blinking in the dawn light, gasping from his desperate run through the woods. The sound came from in front of him, sharp and brittle, almost lost beneath birdsong and leaf rustle. It made him chill to hear it.
"Tatya?" he called, his voice shaking from more than exertion. "Lieutenant Tatya? You there?"
The snapping noise fell silent, and in its absence he could hear her whisper something, short and harsh and unrecognizable. Then she answered, her voice rough. "Go away, Jacob. You shouldn't be here."
"They're coming. I wanted to tell you..." Jacob could see her now, her face and limbs pale marks in the ships shadow. Her arms moved, swinging up and then down, tiny hands gripping something heavy and dark that landed with a crunch. "What are you doing?"
"Destroying myself, bit by bit." Her hands put down the stone they held and reached for a square of what looked like dull green glass. "I know they're coming." She hefted up her stone and brought it down, reducing the square to shards that joined the drifts of broken glass around her. Her skin was marked with their sharp touch, face and hands and feet traced with thin lines of red so dark it was almost black.
She raised her face, and those blue eyes stared at him, hurt and angry and ashamed. "They can take my mask, but not its secrets. Not all of them." Her hand found another square and dragged it toward her. "Go away. They'll be here soon."
"I know," he said. The men who had guarded the crash site were gone, pulled back already. They would not risk contact with what was coming. Their absence had let Jacob rush here, after waiting through most of the night for his mother to finally slip into a fretful slumber. "I want to go too."
The stone smashed down and one sharp-edged shard ricocheted off Jacob's trousers. Unnaturally brilliant eyes flicked up at him, then Tatya turned away, hunting another target. Jacob rubbed his thumbs over sweat-soaked palms, standing in the bright sun and bird song as she ignored him.
"I'm fifteen. Almost at my running time. Close enough." He wanted to lunge forward, to grab the pale, slight shoulder that stood above the dark sheath of her dress and make her face him, but the thought of that made him quail. "I don't want to stay here."
"Running time," she said, tonelessly.
"After we're schooled, we can travel, if we want. See other towns, go to Philly, go...My Mama went to a tower. One of them that go up past the sky to outside's edge. I want to go too."
"No you don't."
The sound of his mother's voice whipped Jacob around, made him face her as she stepped from the brush. In her arms she cradled a crossbow, one of the heavy-limbed bear killers that they kept locked in the council house. Jacob watched the broad head of the quarrel trace a shining arc up when his mother shouldered the weapon, her eyes narrowing in the glare of the morning sun as she took aim at the little not-girl who crouched in the darkness.
"Mama!" His voice was strangled, uncomprehending. "What're you doing?"
"Get away from her, Jacob." Sweat streaked Mama's hair and her night gown was marked with mud and leaves. "You don't have any idea what you're doing."
"I don't have time for this damn local color." Tatya smashed another piece of her mask, the sound making Mama jerk, and Jacob flinched as his mother's finger twitched against the trigger. "Why don't you both go and leave me alone?"
"Leave you alone? You're the one that dropped yourself down here, you're the one that threatens our lives, changeling. You should have left us alone!"
"As if I came here on purpose."
"It doesn't matter," Mama muttered. "But I can't let you go back and tell them."
"What are you talking about?" Jacob almost howled, crazed with helpless ignorance.
"Tell them what? About the boy?" Tatya laughed. "You think I care? I'm tearing apart my best body because those vultures are taking it from me. Screw the Protectorate. I'm not going to weed their garden for them."
Overhead, above the stretched skeletons of the trees, there was a low rumble like distant thunder. Jacob and his mother raised their eyes and in the clear blue above they could see it, a silver arrowhead drifting down like snow towards the woods. Then Jacob heard his mother grunt, and when he looked to her he saw Tatya, her tiny hands tangled in the broken remains of the crossbow.
"They're coming, and you'll just make this harder," Tatya said. "Take the boy and go. I won't say anything about him. This never had anything to do with you."
Mama rubbed her hands together, staring down at the changeling. "It never does, does it? Nothing we do matters to you, out there."
"No. Not really." Tatya flung the broken bow away into a tangle of brush. "Go." Her eyes, brighter than the sky, met Jacob's. "And tell him the truth. He deserves to know."
Jacob looked to Mama, but she was grim faced and pale. "Let's go." Her hand reached for his, trying to pull him with her to the clearing's edge, but he stayed still, rooted beside the broken ship.
"No, Jacob. No. Make her tell you your story first, before you leap into anything. The black's no place for ignorance."
"Come," and Mama was moving him now, dragging him into the shelter of the trees.
Jacob didn't resist, but he stared back to see the little outsider turn away, her hand rising to stroke the sea-green shape of her ship while she waited to be claimed.
"I was sixteen, and thought I was the hottest thing in Pennsylvania. Soon as I could, I ran to Philly."
On the top of the ridge, Jacob crouched behind a low rampart of stone and stared down at the crash site. The ship shimmered below him, and through the bare trees he could see the changeling beside it.
"I saw my first Anglish there. They were so beautiful." Mama sat with her back to the stone, facing away from the clearing, looking towards town. She hadn't fought Jacob when he had stopped to spy. "My dream broke then. My secret hope, to sneak off to the outside, to pretend to be one of them, to live in a tower taller than the sky and hold dominion over the Earth. But I wasn't smart, wasn't beautiful. Not compared to them."
A sound came from the other side of the clearing, beyond the opposite ridge. From where the other ship had landed, and a cold thrill ran through Jacob. It sounded like words, but in a voice too deep to be human. Below, the tiny figure stopped her pacing, head turned toward the sound.
"I stayed in Philly, not wanting to go home. Worked with one of the tour agencies, greeting outsiders. A native guide. I hated it. Then I met Childes."
Jacob slid his eyes away from the hollow to look at his mother.
"He was young then, just out of school. Came to Philly to try to shepherd all of us runners away from sin. He was handsome, then, for one of us. Charismatic. And he hated the outsiders just as much as I did, and for the same reasons though he tried to hide it behind his preaching." Mama wasn't looking back at him. "Sharing hate's sometimes as strong as sharing love, I guess. Before long, I'd quit my work and joined him in his church, in his bed. Didn't seem a sin, being together, against them."
Jacob blinked, his mouth hanging open. Childes and Mama, and what did that make him...something flashed in the corner of his eye, and he was pulled back to the view below. Across the hollow, something moved through the trees, flashes of color. Two figures, and something behind them, something huge and dark but flickering with light like a storm.
"It went on for almost a year. Preaching against the outsiders, and envying them. We lasted until I found him with an Anglish girl. She was playing him, like I used to play the boys from my town. Little smiles, little touches...she wasn't any good at it, but lust made him blind. For all his anger, Childes forgot me the second some Anglish girl decided to practice her clumsy seduction on him.
"It broke me, seeing that. I ran away from him, in the direction that I knew would hurt him the most. The way that hurt me the most. I went outside. I climbed one of the star towers and stayed until I finally found an Anglish man who would lie with me, despite what I was, despite what I looked like."
Her voice was cold and distant. Jacob didn't look back to her, didn't take his eyes away from the hollow, but her words punched through his back and hammered at his heart.
"I think he did it because of what I was. A bit of slumming, something forbidden. After, he patted me like a dog and it was all I could do not to try to kill him. I still dream about him though. He was what I thought an angel would be, that handsome. I can see his face in yours."
Under his fingers, Jacob felt frost dried moss crumble as he gripped the stone. He closed his eyes, trying to hold tight to a world that spun too fast. "An Anglish. An outsider."
"It's not supposed to happen. They do things to their seed that should keep it from happening. But it did. A mistake. A miracle. I don't know. When I came back to Philly, I knew. I made Childes think you were his. But I wasn't going to marry him."
Jacob heard the voices then, echoing up from below. He opened his eyes, and he saw them. A man and woman, too small and distant to tell much more, to judge their beauty, but likely Anglish. Beside them hulked something else entirely. A changeling.
The changeling stood over them, almost twice their height and black as night. His body was shaped like a man's, rippling with muscle, but his head was that of a bull's, onyx horns rising over golden eyes. Across his obsidian skin, symbols flickered, drawn in lines of brilliant blue lightning, flashing and dancing and disappearing. His voice was low thunder, and though Jacob understood not a word of its twisting tongue, he heard it clearly over the distance.
"Changelings," whispered Mama. "They always frightened me."
Below, Tatya stood before the dark minotaur-shaped thing and bowed, her high voice a whisper in the air. The vast head shook at whatever she said, then the changeling pointed behind him. Jacob saw for the first time a dull grey box crouched on spindly metal legs, some mechanical beast which shadowed the outsider patiently.
Tatya bowed again, then walked towards the box, back straight and head high. It tipped toward her approach and began to open like a flower, grey metal folding and spiraling out of her way, letting her duck inside. In the clearing, the two Anglish were moving in the shadow of the ship, sorting through the wreckage that Tatya had left behind. They tossed out pieces and called what sounded like complaints to the changeling who stood ignoring them, watching the box that the not-child had vanished into.
"I made Childes take me with him, made him help set me up in this town, made him protect me. I've seen what can happen to scarlet women. I held what had happened between us like a threat. It worked, mostly." Below, the box shifted, and something stepped out. Not as tall as the other changeling, slimmer, pale green and indigo, she looked like something that belonged to the sea or the sky, not meant to be trapped on dull earth.
"Childes guesses. He's not in you, he can see that. But he also knows that it's not supposed to be possible. And he hates talking to them, dealing with the Protectorate in any way. Even if it would hurt me."
Mama's hand touched his back, and Jacob twitched, almost cried out.
"Can you see them?"
"Yes. They brought Tatya's mask."
"They would. Vain in their own way as the Sidhe. Are you ready to go?"
Jacob blinked down at the creatures below them. The changelings, dark and bright, alien in their shapes and make-up, childlike things that wore monsters. Beside them, the people they called the Anglish, who had perfected themselves with their science but clung at least to their old forms. Were they human? At this distance, they seemed so, and Jacob took solace in that.
"Almost." He looked back at her. "What did she mean, about weeding a garden?"
Mama looked up at him, her pretty face tired and sad, marked with dirt and thin lines. "The Earth is sacred, and they protect it. A farm, a museum, a zoo. And us...we're a reminder of what they were. It's why they let us live here, like this, us and all the other indigenous populations. We're supposed to stay pure."
She reached out and her fingers brushed against him, and he remembered how she used to hold him when he was little, when he let her. She had always called him her angel. "You're a contaminant. If they knew about you, they'd remove you."
"How?" he said, almost silently.
"They would take you up, to be with them. Maybe me with you. We wouldn't come to harm, though your father..." she shrugged, not seeming to care. "Doesn't sound so bad to you, does it? You haven't been there, Jacob. You don't know what they're like.
"The Protectorate -- the Anglish. They put machines in their blood, in their brains. They do it before they're born. It won't matter that you have one of them as a father, up there. You'll still be less than them. They'll pity you."
"They hate me here," he said.
"Because you're better than them. Isn't envy better than pity?"
"I don't know."
They were leaving the clearing, the changelings and one of the Anglish. Tatya went last, in her jewel-bright body, staring back at her ship as she headed through the trees. Then her head tilted, pale green hair drifting slow as if in some unfelt current, and she looked up the hill towards the stone that Jacob hid behind.
No nod, no wave of a hand, but still he felt as if Tatya could see him. She had come from the outside, and she was nothing like anything he had ever seen or expected, but she would remember him. Out in the black. Below, she turned her back and drifted into the trees, moving away, leaving her best body behind for the lone Anglish who sorted slowly through its broken guts.
"I'm ready," Jacob said, and he slipped down from the rock. He held out his hand and mama took it and stood. They stared at each other, and in her tired eyes he could see that she knew.
In her voice, he heard her breaking surrender and the sound of it tore at his new resolve but couldn't destroy it. "I have to."
"You want to. God, I know that." She shook her head. "I won't stop you. I can't, even if I think I should. But stay until you're of age. Stay long enough for me to teach you what I know. Let me help you get ready. Then maybe you won't end up broken, like me."
"Mama--" he protested, but she shook him gently.
"You want to run outside and make a place with those that live there, you're going to have to fight, boy. And you'll probably lose, but I may as well help." She stepped in, and her arms gripped him tight, crushing him close to her, and he hugged her back, throat tight and wordless. "'Cause maybe I'm wrong. Maybe..."
Behind them, thunder rolled, and Jacob lifted his eyes and watched the silver ship rising.
"I will," he whispered, his promise almost lost in the roar. For a while, a little while, for her, he would stay here on the blue side of the sky.
But not for long.
© Gary Kloster 2014