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It was with next to no surprise that twenty-four-year-old Olivia Faust looked out of her apartment window that morning and saw a small, sky-colored saucer descending into the bare yard in the back. She watched with mild interest as it landed softly on the long-dead grass, ruffling the skirts and socks on the clothesline. Olivia sipped her coffee, fingertips sticking to the plastic lace curtains, and she watched. For a very long time, nothing happened at all, but at once a small square of the color of sky turned the color of something else, and a thing emerged onto the dead and dying land.
It took Olivia a second or two to realize that the thing was in fact a girl – a young one at that, no older than thirteen. She wore a long, white dress that was fit for an angel, or perhaps a mental hospital patient, and she shielded her eyes from the sun, which was hidden behind the overcast sky. The girl took a few careful steps across the yard, staring at her feet as though she had never walked on them before, her arms out wide and her palms flat as though feeling invisible walls. And then she stopped, and she looked up.
Her eyes were round, huge, and pale, her skin as new as though she had never seen day. She had rather short, dark hair arranged perfectly in ringlets around her face; her eyebrows were straight and severe. Olivia thought she looked like someone from a painting; not beautiful, but weirdly fascinating; almost ugly, but with blemishes and irregularities smoothed over by an artist’s hand.
The girl stared at the first floor of the apartment building, directly at Olivia, and raised one hand in greeting. Shakily, Olivia raised her own hand, and the girl did not smile but merely stood there, waiting.
Olivia Faust set down her coffee, spilling it all over the vinyl tablecloth.
She walked outside to the dead lawn, to the unearthly girl and her saucer, the saucer the color of sky.
“Who are you.”
It wasn’t even a question, it was a statement, but the girl merely stared at Olivia and said, in a voice that was not quite human,
The name startled Olivia, took her by the shoulders and jarred her, but she merely shook her head and said, her voice trembling, “Who are you?”
Lenore looked at her for a long moment.
It had begun with the pictures she had drawn before she could talk, the ones of blue. The first ones were blue, anyway. That was all they were, just the color of the sky, scribbled over sheets and sheets of paper. Her parents worried about her then, but even more so when Olivia turned four, when the nightmares started. Nobody really knew what they were about, only that she would wake up at odd hours of the night, covered in freezing sweat, crying usually, and that when her mother went to comfort her Olivia would sob, always,
“It’s the end of the world, Mother, the end of the world, and they said – they s-said I was the changeling – they said, twenty more years – s-said –”
But in minutes she would be back asleep, thoughts of everything folded up in her mind.
Two years passed, and the nightmares went away as quickly as they had come. In their place came more pictures, doodled on math tests and on the palms of her hands, pictures of burning cities and masked horsemen and, above all, a dark-haired girl, smiling serenely as the sky boiled above her. Teachers sent notes home; friends gossiped under playground saplings about that girl over there, that Olivia, they say she’s crazy. The doodles evolved into paintings, huge canvases covered in pale blue paint, enormous depictions of a strange, calm girl under a cold sky. When asked why she did it, Olivia would just shrug and say, happily, “it’s my way of expressing myself.” For three years of middle school and four of high school, she was an outsider, an alien. Eventually, she understood why, but whenever she tried to change, to banish the pictures and the fires and the face of the girl, they came back stronger. Every night, as she tried to sleep, Olivia would imagine puncturing a hole in her brain and watching as the thoughts and the pictures and everything leaked out onto her pillow until there were only two words left, caught in the valley of her skull.
The first word was “changeling,” soft and alien, a susurration that glinted with mischief and ignorance.
The second was a name.
Olivia Faust, aged twenty-four, blinked hard and long, fists clenched, teeth shut like a child counting in hide-and-seek. She opened her eyes. Lenore was still there.
“It’s not true,” Olivia said, and then: “it can’t be true.”
Lenore said nothing.
“I only ever imagined it.” Her voice was growing hard. “Only. Imagined. That’s what everyone told me. I imagined the end of the world, I imagined you!” She glared at the girl.
“But it was true, wasn’t it?” she asked after a moment. “Everything. It was all true. I didn’t imagine it.”
Lenore nodded one slow nod, smiling as though pleased that Olivia had realized it at last. “Humans never imagine anything,” she said. “They merely see into other universes. It is the closest they can come to traveling there.”
Olivia let out one long, slow breath. “So it’s real, then. The end of the world.”
Lenore nodded again.
“Walk with me.”
“Your planet is lovely,” Lenore commented as a flock of pigeons escaped at her approaching feet.
“No, it’s not,” Olivia said. “Not this bit, anyway.”
“Oh.” Lenore sounded oddly sad at this, and added: “Well, it’s different from anything I’ve ever seen. I suppose that anything like that would be thought beautiful.”
Lenore walked the line between sidewalk and curb in the same weird tightrope manner she had when exiting the saucer.
“So.” Olivia took a deep breath. “Tell me why you’re here again.”
“To take your place. To enlighten my people. To watch, and to never be seen.”
Olivia blinked. “Explain.”
“Well, first of all, the world’s going to end.”
“How do you know?”
It came out sounding defensive, angry, and Olivia immediately regretted it. Lenore fixed her with something that was almost a glare.
“How do you know it won’t end, human?”
Olivia said nothing, and Lenore continued. “Look around you. Does this look to you like a world in its prime? A world that is blossoming, or ready to blossom? Of course not.”
“You said it was beautiful,” Olivia mumbled, stung.
“It is beautiful in the way that the heartbeats of a dying bird are beautiful. It shouldn’t be, because it’s wrong, because it’s about to fade forever, but you certainly can’t stop it and you don’t want to let it fall to the earth. So you just have to hold it there, in your hand, and all you can think is how beautiful it is. And then it’s over, and gone, and you hate yourself for thinking it.” Lenore glared at her again. “Look around you, human. Is the bird not dying?”
“Yes,” Olivia said quietly. “I guess so. But it’s okay, right? Because you’re here to save us. That has to be why you’re here.” She smiled. “Right?”
“No.” Lenore looked away. “I – I mean…I’m going to…no.”
“What do you mean, ‘no?’” It felt as though a hole had been punched through Olivia’s gut. “You came all the way over here and you’re not even going to help us? You’re…you’re just going to…going to…” she trailed off.
“Sit back and watch?” Lenore supplied, her heavy eyebrows drawn together. “You fool! Do you think you can save a dying bird?”
“Then why the hell did you–”
“Do you think I had any choice?” Lenore practically shouted. “They said it had to be me! All my life, they said it!” Her face was flushed, her white gown clenched in her hands. She looked mad, frightened, inhuman.
“Calm down,” Olivia said, trying to make her voice softer. “Who said it had to be you?”
“My Originators. My tutors. The Emperor. Everyone. From the day I was born, they all
told me that I was the product of hundreds of years of research. They said that, after so long, they had finally found the perfect DNA combination – that of my Originators – that would endow me, their only child, with as much immunity as possible. Everyone told me that I had to do it. They said that they had come here before and found a human, a girl-child, and that they had planted in that child’s mind visions and thoughts and words and names that would lead you to me and me to you. They said it was my purpose, Olivia. And one day I said to them, why should we care?” Lenore turned sharply to Olivia, and her pale eyes looked oddly fierce. “I said, they don’t matter, these humans. They’re just some stupid people on some stupid planet. They don’t affect us. We should just – just let them kill themselves!
“But that’s when they told me what was really going on. They told me th-that…” Lenore sighed and shut her eyes. “That your planet couldn’t be saved. They told me just how much they had lied. They said that it wasn’t my job to be a hero. My Originators, my tutors, the Emperor – everyone told me that it was my job to gather as much information as possible – to watch everything come crashing down, and to do nothing. And I don’t know which is worse.” Lenore looked up at Olivia, her eyes hard and sad. “Risking my life to meddle in the end of the world, or being there just to watch everything die. It’s the last heartbeats of the bird that are beautiful, not its rotting body.
“But they said, everyone said, that I had to wait until everything was over, and that when it was they would come to take me home, and then they would take the information from me, and my job would be done, and I would –” Lenore’s voice wavered. “And they would be finished with me.”
Olivia could not speak. The girl from another planet stood facing her in her white gown, feet dirty with human dust, eyes full of tears.
“Do you still want to know?” Lenore asked in a choked voice, looking up at Olivia. “How the world’s going to end, I mean? Because I’ll tell you. They told me that, too. I’ll tell you, Olivia.” There was a dull sort of eagerness in her eyes, and tears clung to her jaw and dripped onto the filthy pavement.
“No,” Olivia whispered. She reached out a hand and placed it on Lenore’s shoulder, as though scared she would push away. The alien girl’s face crumpled, and she grabbed fistfuls of Olivia’s shirt and buried her face in the fabric like a child.
“It’s okay,” Olivia lied, as Lenore sobbed into her stomach. “It’ll be okay.”
She had never seen anything so human.
Later, when the sun was almost going down, Olivia and Lenore stood in the long-dead grass of the apartment backyard. The sky-colored saucer was still waiting there, as it had always been, as Olivia had always imagined it would be.
“What about my friends?” Olivia asked. The two had been silent the whole walk home. “What about my family?”
Lenore placed her hand on the human’s temple, and something seemed to force Olivia’s eyes shut. When she opened them, Lenore was standing eye-to-eye with her, a mirror image of Olivia Faust – a changeling.
“I’m sure they won’t notice,” Lenore said gently.
Olivia paused, looking at the toes of her shoes. “I…we…you really have to do this, don’t you?”
The alien girl nodded once. “I do.”
“Well, then…good luck, I guess.”
Lenore smirked with Olivia’s mouth. “You too, human.”
“I’ll see you, I guess.”
“I’ll see you.”
“They’re waiting for me there? On your planet?”
“They have been waiting forever.” And she smiled.
Olivia walked up to the sky-colored saucer, and a small, square opening unlatched itself. She climbed in; it was bigger than it seemed. From the inside, she could still see out, and she watched as Lenore raised one human hand and held it there. The saucer lifted itself off the ground and began to drift away smoothly, perfectly. And even though Olivia knew the alien girl couldn’t see, even though she knew that by now the saucer was much too far away, she waved goodbye.
The bird’s heart quickened.