Four hundred and ninety two light years away, the fairytales are the same. Red mouth for menace, gold mane for majesty. The aesthetics of the story are important. 2186-H-19 always knew she was destined for significance, and the fairytales and aesthetics supported her claim. She was pleased but unsurprised to learn that things worked the same way on Earth. Any adolescent would feel similarly upon discovering that their guiding philosophy is the guiding philosophy of the universe.
She hadn’t thought of herself as having a guiding philosophy back then, of course. She was still too new for that kind of thing. But she’d known the importance of the structure of the story, so at the appropriate moment she’d been careful to tell herself, “This is the beginning of everything.” It was the Beginning of Beginnings; the Beginning from which all subsequent plots would stem, and to which all future successes or failures would be owed.
The Beginning of Beginnings was less of an event than it sounded like it should be. It was not an event at all, in fact: it was a lingering progression. A lagging progression, thought H-19 in her less charitable moments. But not many of H-19’s moments were uncharitable, due to her great sincerity and her great belief in the rightness of the story, so the progression was got through peacefully enough.
The first step, after making the decision, was filling in the forms. The starter form was called APPLICATION FOR AUDIENCE WITH THE BUREAU OF INTERGALACTIC TOURISM, CLASS D, and it was for getting an appointment to get the paperwork you needed to submit in order to get your real appointment. That was the year the Bureau got renamed, for some kind of political reason H-19 didn’t understand and didn’t care about, and in the changeover they’d become overbearingly prissy about everything. H-19’s Ancestral Unit had been to Earth in the glory days, when the BIT had still been called Changeling Affairs, and her stories all seemed to involve striding forth with nary a scrap of documentation or accountability, doing something daring and catastrophic at a pivotal moment of human history, and then striding out again. This was not the kind of changeling H-19 was aiming to be at all, but she collected the details of her Ancestral Unit’s stories and reviewed them over and over again in her head at night, in case there was anything in them she needed to know. At this stage she felt like everything was important. Everything was part of who she was going to be.
H-19’s Care Unit escorted her to that first non-appointment at the BIT, even though she knew where it was because you couldn’t hardly get anywhere in the city without passing through its shadow. She’d never been inside, but she’d heard it was a hellish labyrinth of bureaucratic nightmare. She hadn’t heard anything at all about what the Changers were like, which made her more nervous of them than of anything else. But it turned out to be a normal building full of normal looking people, and she attended all future appointments on her own.
Once she got accepted as a client of the BIT she needed to get accepted into a program, and once she got accepted into a program she needed to take a lot of classes about humans and how to assimilate, and after that she needed to take a test to be accepted as a candidate for integration with a human host. The Changers weren’t messing around with who they let into Earth. Not anymore, not after the things H-19’s Ancestral Unit and her generation got up to. H-19’s Ancestral Unit described this attitude as, “no fun,” and, “useless rot,” but H-19 took the whole thing more seriously than her Ancestral Unit did, and was glad it was being taken just as seriously by the people in charge.
Classes at the BIT were where she learned about human fairytales for the first time, and human literature, history, poetry, song. Later when she was introduced to these things by actual humans she became aware that the BIT was perhaps not the ultimate authority she’d taken it to be, but it had still been pretty good. It had been much better than anything she’d been doing in the city learning center at the time.
Fairy tales were interesting, but the most important classes, the BIT stressed, were the manners classes. You didn’t just have to know what made good manners; you had to know all the different ways manners could be bad, and what each way signified, or you’d never be able to fit in. They practiced appropriate and inappropriate human expressions and postures to suit every conceivable situation. They practiced meaningless conversation, polite dismissal, tipping imaginary taxi drivers, and caring for imaginary human pets. H-19 was the top student. Whenever she wasn’t practicing in class she was practicing in her head, and at night she dreamed about taxis and kittens, and shining cities by rivers that ran down to oceans. Mermaids and major coffee franchises were equally fantastical to her, and just as equally real.
Once you finished the manners classes they started training you to move in a human shape, and once you could do it without getting your feet in your elbows and your ears in your back you had to do the manners classes all over again, this time without breaking character. Designing her practice shape was easy, though she did it as seriously as she did everything else. It was always going to be: red mouth and gold mane. And white dress, then, for Beginning.
She didn’t sing until the first time she was sent into orbit. She wanted to try it in private. To be honest, it started really as more of a scream.
Graduating top of the class meant the BIT paid for her shuttle, but also that it was a BIT shuttle, so it was old, foul-smelling, and full of babies. The babies were the Class A Changelings, and all of the BIT officials seemed determined to pretend they weren’t actually there. H-19 wasn’t really sure what Class A Changelings were for. They wouldn’t have to take all the courses in order to assimilate, but that was because they wouldn’t understand what there was to assimilate to, so what was the point?
H-19 was a Class C Changeling by this point, which meant she got top priority among tourists, but theoretically no priority among people who were going abroad to do something genuinely important. She didn’t mind being called unimportant, in this instance, because everyone knew that if you were important and didn’t work for the BIT then you’d never get through. Important people made too much mess. Silly golden girls and babies, that was what the BIT wanted.
For six months it was just H-19, the babies, and one other Class C who hadn’t been one of the BIT kids. H-19 tried hard to be her friend, but she didn’t seem interested. H-19 worried she’d learned too many human friendship-making techniques and not enough real world ones.
Earth was about to be the real world for them, though. The other Class C didn’t seem impressed enough by that. She asked H-19 if she’d picked a name yet, and H-19 wasn’t sure what she meant. She said she was going to wait and see who she’d been assigned, of course, and the other Class C said, “Okay, if you want to be boring.”
The BIT fairytale class taught certain things. Red roses and red capes. Red shoes against white snow. Silver hands, and silver trees. Four hundred and ninety two light years away, color was important, but names were not. Names barely existed. Order numbers and descriptive titles were for ease of communication, but these were rarely regarded as having any import, except for the odd and quickly forgotten snafu over the name Changeling Affairs. Every story heroine was just called the heroine.
When Taylor first learned her name she held onto it carefully, because she held onto everything carefully, but it was years before she learned what it meant. Back home she’d aspired to be a Heroine, but Earth’s corollary ambition turned out not to be the same thing at all. Your Name In Lights, the Earth ambition said. Your name on books, films, records, shrines. Your Name, Your Name, Your Name.
Taylor was in love with humans, and in love with the concept of being In Love with humans. She didn’t care if that should be gross for H-19. Her old classmates at the city learning center would definitely find it gross, but as time went on they seemed more and more like a fuzzy dream to her. All her memories of planet four were distorted and full of static.
Whatever it would’ve been to H-19, it wasn’t gross at all for Taylor Swift, Human Ingenue. For Taylor Swift it was practically required. She’d been running full tilt at the notion of In Love ever since she’d been cleared by the BIT as Acceptably Assimilated. Even before she was reclassified and left to her own devices she’d decided that being an internationally famous musician was the first thing she wanted, and being In Love was the second thing. The first thing was easier, in some ways.
The difficulty with running full-tilt towards romances was that at some point it inevitably involved running full-tilt into the wall of things she still didn’t understand. She’d learned all the good and bad manners, but she hadn’t learned about how little choice humans had over which type of manners they displayed. She hadn’t learned how they were all desperately grasping at reason and sense, and how none of them had any idea what they were doing most of the time. Sometimes it made her love them more, but sometimes it also made her hate them.
It was easier at least, if they had no idea what they were doing, to slip under the radar. Once she understood that she felt like she could finally relax.
Taylor got into a pattern. Boys, confusion, and internationally famous music. Some days she didn’t think once about where she was from or how she was something completely different from the people around her, and the older she got the more those days became the norm, and started slipping into weeks and months.
She was out with a boy when the problems started. For a while she hadn’t been sure about this particular boy, but now she thought he was a good one. Of course she thought they were all good ones when she started with them, but experience had given her the tools to identify a wide range of badness, and Harry’s particular types of badness had, she felt, already been safely recognized and dealt with. He was sweet and ambitious, like her, and his hair was nearly as shiny. When she thought of him she pictured the hair first, and then the posture, which seemed designed to broadcast his aura of goofy sincerity.
She’d always appreciated sincerity. Goofiness was a new thing she was into. She executed her goofiness carefully and earnestly, the way she did everything, and Harry was an excellent partner for that because they could take each other's silliness seriously.
On the day when things started to turn bad, she and Harry were looking at kittens. If there had been cookies it would’ve been the perfect concurrence of her brand. Taylor Swift: boys, kittens, and cookies. Mrs. Marshall had offered them some kind of something that tasted like unbearably dry fruitcake pressed into cracker form, and Taylor was eating one out of politeness, but she wasn’t going to call it a cookie.
Mrs. Marshall was a cat breeder, and the mother of someone Taylor may or may not have befriended out of hope of seeing cats. If she came here again, she thought, she should bring Mrs. Marshall homemade cookies as payment for the cat time. She worried about being there today without anything to exchange, but she hadn’t had time because she’d had to pick Harry up at the airport, and then he’d wanted to drive, and they’d gotten lost because “take the third exit in the traffic circle” didn’t get you on the right street if you went clockwise around the traffic circle instead of anticlockwise.
Mrs. Marshall was telling them the story of her cat’s bastard litter, as if it were the tragic tale of a woman ruined. The father cat was a mongrel ruffian from the wrong side of the tracks who led darling Amethyst astray, knocked her up, and abandoned her to a life of shame and disgrace. Taylor thought it sounded kind of romantic, for a cat one night stand. She looked at the kittens, who were all mud-colored, six-toed, and as ostentatiously non-purebred as it was possible to be.
One kitten had been staring at her the whole time. Taylor had never been recognized as changeling by a human, but sometimes animals would notice. She winked at the kitten, and the kitten, after a moment’s contemplation, winked back.
Harry was smiling at her. He’d seen her winking at the cat, but that was fine because he thought she was intriguingly eccentric. He wasn’t even bothered by being taken to meet someone else’s mother straight off a four hour flight, just so Taylor could hang out with cats.
She turned back to Mrs. Marshall to hear about Amethyst’s post-scandal prospects, and on the way tried to avoid the judging gaze of Emma Marshall. Emma was Mrs. Marshall’s sullen, thirteen-year-old niece, and she’d been staring at Taylor for as long as the kitten had. She was probably mad about something she’d read in a gossip magazine, Taylor thought. It was starting to get uncomfortable. Taylor was beginning to wish she was elsewhere, cats or no cats.
They stayed another forty minutes, and Harry was relaxed and charming, and even managed to charm Emma Marshall a little, although she seemed to dislike Taylor even more after that.
When it was finally time to go, though, Emma offered to walk them out. The reason for this became clear when they got to the door.
“It’s sick what you’re doing,” she told Taylor, suddenly blocking the way. Taylor felt Harry freeze next to her.
“H-19, right?” Emma said. “My sister told me all about you, and what you are. Where’s the real Taylor Swift? What do you do with them?”
“I am the real Taylor Swift,” Taylor started to say, but Harry recovered his werewithall first. “That’s enough,” he said to Emma. “We’re going.” He took Taylor’s hand gently, too gently, and led her away, and they let the door slam behind them.
Harry drove again, because Taylor was in shock. She kept thinking: how could a human know her order number? She needed to find out who Emma’s sister was. And then – what? She had no idea.
“I’m so sorry,” Harry was saying, and, “are you alright?” He was looking at her with wide, concerned eyes. She didn’t like being the focus of that much concern, because it felt too much like being the focus of scrutiny.
“Watch the road,” she said, and started crying. It was the first time she’d cried in front of Harry. She’d stopped by the time they were back in her neighborhood, and she used the last minute of the drive to fix her makeup.
That evening Harry said, “The real Taylor Swift, though; that’s a new one. Is it? Is there a whole conspiracy going on that you haven’t told me about? Are you secretly an alien?”
“I am secretly an alien,” she said, expression mock-earnest. “I’m from outer space. I’m a thing in a Taylor suit.” She spread her arms and smiled, inviting him to doubt.
“It’s a great suit,” he said. He was smiling back, but he seemed puzzled. She’d got something wrong. He was probably worried she was going to start crying again.
“I can prove it to you,” she said, suddenly feeling dangerous, and showed him her real mouth.
It was only half a second. She flickered in and out of form, red riding hood to wolf and back again in the blink of an eye. Harry hadn’t blinked, but he still looked puzzled, like half a second might be a small enough amount of time to instantly forget about. “What -?” he said.
A moment ago Taylor’d felt crazy, like she was flinging herself off the precipice of irreversible. But nothing was irreversible. She didn’t know whether she wanted to reverse or not.
“Shh,” she told him, and made him come sit next to her, next to her fangs that weren’t there. She told him everything, then, still in the half-joking voice, and he played along, half-believing. A month later she’d refuse to forgive him for having not believed her after all, and that would be the end of that.
According to Taylor's friend, Emma Marshall didn’t have a sister. Taylor meant to do something more, some kind of follow-up sleuthing, but she didn’t know how to sleuth and she was always busy and in the end she let it drop. Harry wasn’t acting like someone whose girlfriend was extraterrestrial, so everything would be fine. And then she wasn’t Harry’s girlfriend anymore. It worried her, that somebody who knew that about her was now free and adrift in the world, but he didn’t really know it, or at least he didn’t know he knew it.
Then she started getting the emails. The first one came immediately on the heels of her getting a nice tweet from Karlie Kloss, so she went from happy (because Karlie Kloss was cool) to horrified in record time.
This is Emma’s sister she told you about, the email began, assuring it had Taylor’s attention. I’m her sister by ritual so we are blood-sisters instead of birth sisters, which is better because blood is stronger than water as you know but that’s not important right now. I wanted to say I’m sorry she was rude to you because as much as I believe They are evil I believe you are an innocent and do not know what They are really like. If that’s not true and you condone Their actions then I don’t want to hear from you but I promise we will leave you alone, what could we do against you or them anyway. But if you are an innocent and you want to know more then email me back my name’s Tessa.
It was this little vortex of high-grade crazy sitting peacefully in her inbox, and there was no one she could tell. She thought about forwarding it to Harry, but he wouldn’t really understand. She thought about telling her head of security, since keeping crazies away from her was his actual job, but he couldn’t know what the letter meant either.
Against her better judgment, she responded.
I’m not hurting anyone and I just want to live in peace, she wrote. Please leave me alone. If you contact me again I’m going to tell my security about this, and I don’t think it’ll be difficult for them to find out who you are. I’m not telling them now because I think you’re a kid and I think you don’t mean to hurt me, but please, please respect my privacy.
Tessa didn’t respond, and Taylor told herself it was over. Ten months went by of her telling herself it was over, and then it was winter again and she was preforming at the Victoria Secret Fashion show and meeting Karlie Kloss (who was seriously so cool), and she felt tired and content and human when she got back home to find another email waiting for her.
This one was from Amy, yet another “sister.” Taylor suspected that Tessa had really just been Emma, and the addition of an Amy made it seem more likely. Amy claimed to be older than the other girls, and she did sound convincingly more mature, if not any less crazy. But Emma had had 10 months to grow and refine her creepy letter writing style.
Taylor, the letter said, I know you told Tessa not to write back to you, and I understand your reasons. I understand wanting privacy, both in your position as a famous young woman and in your other position. I probably understand both these things better than you think.
I’m writing in spite of that because I think it’s really important that you know something. I thought you knew about it already, but have since become convinced that you don’t. I hope I’m right about that. What I wanted to say was that the way Changeling Affairs operates is horrifically immoral, and calling what they do ‘tourism’ is a joke. They stole your whole life and they stole the life of the human girl who could’ve been Taylor Swift. When they leave babies as changelings, you know they don’t integrate them, they just take the human babies away? I’ve seen them doing it. Changeling Affairs has custody of maybe thousands of human kids and no one knows what they’re doing with them.
I know you’ve been involved in human activism and I know you feel passionately about what’s right so I hope you’re on my side here, although I don’t know what that’s going to accomplish. Maybe I just want to talk to someone for real, for once. Please write back.
Taylor wrote back. She wrote, Are you a changeling?
Amy responded instantly, but she didn’t actually say yes. She said, I came here to try and figure out what’s really going on, but I couldn’t do that. I also came here to escape from their poisonous society, but I can’t ever completely do that either because I can’t forget it.
Taylor didn’t think the society she came from was poisonous, at least not compared to the human one. She didn’t like how naïve this person clearly thought she was. It was true she’d been focused on coming to Earth from an early age, but she hadn’t been blind. She knew how things worked and she knew what had been going on in the world around her.
But Earth was the world around her, now. It was Amy’s problem that she couldn’t forget the other one, because Taylor could, if only Amy/Tessa/Emma would let her.
She wrote a strongly worded letter to that effect. Amy wrote back:
I remember the way the stars looked like you could just fall into them. It terrified me. I hated going outside, and I hated looking at the sky. I keep trying to think how the people back home must think of us, but I come up blank because I never paid enough attention to them back then to really get it.
Taylor thought this sounded self-indulgently pathetic.
She wrote, They just think of us as students going abroad to study, but maybe a little crazier. My grandma was always going on about the good old days when you could pop over here for a week of fun and party with the Kennedys.
Amy wrote, I wish humans knew how good they have it. Beautiful music and beautiful city. Starbucks is magical kingdom of milk and honey. Does this make me “basic”?
And that was how Taylor became pen pals with a conspiracy theorist. It took seven emails to go from histrionic fatalism to Starbucks, and the horrible dystopia they were all assuredly living in didn’t get brought up again. Taylor thought Amy just wanted someone to talk to, and being a frightening creep was the only way she could think of to get Taylor’s attention. It had worked, but it also meant Taylor took a long time to warm up to her. Even when she had, there was a feeling of wariness there that never went away, and Amy didn’t do much to soothe her suspicion.
Taylor kept writing back, though, even during times when she hated Amy and wished she’d crawl back into the miserable pit she came from. It felt compulsive. Amy was the only other person who could understand who she was, so regardless of how she felt about her, she couldn’t let her go. Amy wouldn’t tell her how she knew Taylor was a changeling too, or anything concrete about who she was and what she wanted. She did say she got Taylor’s email from Emma who’d got it from her cousin, but that had been the least confusing part of the whole mystery. Even when they were talking calmly about human movies or fashion, Taylor always had the impression that she was talking to a thin façade of complacency stretched over a writhing mess of anger and shame.
She had enough human friends, anyway, to be able to tell herself that friendship wasn’t what she needed from Amy. That winter became the winter of Karlie Koss, who at some points seemed to be practically living in her kitchen. Taylor was okay with that. It sounded like a put-down, and Taylor really didn’t mean it that way, but Karlie was so normal. She didn’t play any kind of mind games or talk about Taylor behind her back. There was nothing mean or conniving or odd about her; she just wanted to bake some cookies and dote on Taylor’s cats and hang out.
And she was so nice,too. She was happy and enthusiastic about everything Taylor did, and she could bitch about people without ever really getting drawn into drama or seeming vitriolic, and she lived in a glamorous world of perfect hair and patent shoes and coordinated undergarments. The longer Taylor was around her the more she felt like a denizen of that world herself.
They went on a road trip. They went to the gym and went to brunch and did faux-candid photo shoots together. And then there was the point when Taylor realized Karlie was in love with her, which, well –
She realized she didn’t want to tell Karlie no, because she liked the feeling of Karlie’s-in-love-with-me, and it was refreshing to be in a relationship where no one was making each other crazy, even if it wasn’t actually a relationship yet. But she didn’t want to tell her yes, either. She wasn’t going to tell her yes, which meant either she did have to tell her no, or she had to just ignore it like a jerk and wait until Karlie fell in love with someone else. She didn’t want to be a jerk, but she still kept putting it off.
Whenever she thought about whether she might actually want to date Karlie, she always wound up at this: Karlie was perfect. The only problem with Karlie, the only thing that made her undateable, was that she was normal and nice and neither one of them was making the other one crazy.
What do you do, Taylor asked Amy, when someone’s perfect, but you’re messed up so you want them to be crazy instead?
Amy said, No one’s perfect. Don’t worry, I bet he has a secret collection of your hair. The more perfect they seem the worse they are.
Taylor said, No she really is perfect, I’ve studied her a lot to make sure. Today she helped 3 different old ladies cross the street. And here I am living in my weird shrine to cute things, with pictures of all my successfully made friendships on the wall to remind me I’m successfully human.
I love your shrine to cute things, Amy said, and Taylor didn’t respond to that because it meant Amy had either been in or otherwise seen inside her house. Amy was definitely crazy enough for ten boyfriends.
Two hours later, Amy sent At least 1.5 of the old lady street crossings were instigated by you. I thought it was a competition.
Taylor stared at Karlie, and Karlie didn’t stare at Taylor. She stared at the sullenness cookies. Taylor had messed them up and they’d turned into chewy cookie soup, but Karlie was still eating them, bite by gloomy bite.
“You’re my internet stalker,” Taylor said.
Karlie shrugged, and shoved a chunk of her perfect hair behind her ear. It immediately fell out again.
“You think we’re living in a dystopia and you hate stars and are constantly angry about everything,” Taylor said. “You. Yesterday you were singing Disney songs with the all the words changed to be about lemurs.”
“I can’t be really into lemurs and still think the world is fucked up?” said Karlie, to the cookies.
“What’s the deal with Emma and Tessa?” Taylor said. “’Blood ritual sisters’, really?”
Karlie turned pink. “I was Tessa,” she admitted. “I was just trying to not sound like me. Like some psycho, but a psycho who’s a harmless kid. I thought I had to do that to protect myself.”
Taylor stared at her, not understanding anything.
“Then I decided you weren’t like them,” Karlie said. “I didn’t need protection from you.”
“Except for the protection of never actually telling me who you were,” Taylor said.
Karlie shrugged again, and flattened her mouth. She looked more closed-off and defensive than Taylor had ever seen her. She’d always thought of Karlie as someone who was so open.
“Emma’s a changeling, but she doesn’t know,” Karlie said. “She was one of the babies. I tracked her down and I started to tell her, but I couldn’t finish it, not after I realized what it was going to be like for her if I did. I might have made some shit up, instead.”
“You scared me,” Taylor told her. “You scared the shit out of me and you knew the entire time that you were doing it, and that there was no point to it. What did you expect me to say? ‘I realize the error of my ways, let’s go overthrow the government?’”
Karlie looked sheepish. That was exactly what she’d wanted to happen, Taylor thought. Taylor was furious, but she didn’t know what to do with all her fury so she just stood there, looking at Karlie and trying to make her make sense.
“The more perfect they seem, the worse they are?” Karlie said, and, “I don’t have a collection of your hair, though.”
Taylor decided she couldn’t deal with this right now, and kicked Karlie out.
It wasn’t fair, she thought. It kept going around in a loop in her head, not fair not fair not fair, but she couldn’t even tell what it was, exactly, that was not fair.
Not fair of Karlie to be a liar and a fake; that much was obvious. Not fair of Karlie to be not-perfect just when Taylor had wished it, in the worst possible way. Not fair that now she was even more attached to Karlie’s being in love with her, because now the Amy compulsion was all tied up in it too - the compulsion to keep writing back so that she could keep being known. Now she wanted Karlie to keep loving her so that she could keep being known.
That must be why Karlie had come clean, she realized. She’d practically told Amy that instability was a requisite for dating her, and how fucked up was that? Karlie must want Taylor to love her back very badly.
But Taylor Swift was in love with humans. She was in love with their desperate grasping for meaning, and their cluelessness, and the way they kept making her run into walls. She was in love with their cities and their music and their blind-hope, cut-throat ambition.
Karlie was all those things too, really, now that Taylor knew what she was looking at, although Taylor still didn’t understand how she could be. But Karlie wasn’t the most important thing: she wasn’t human. She couldn’t be the thing Taylor wasn’t, because she and Taylor were the same. Taylor wanted her and wanted to drive her far away at the same time.
She had to tell her no. For real, this time. No to having a human romance, no to stalking, no to living in her kitchen. She couldn’t keep putting it off anymore.
She opened the door to where Karlie was still sitting in a sad ball on her stoop, looking like a drowned rat, which was an impressive look to pull off when it wasn’t raining outside. Karlie followed her like a ghost back to the kitchen, and Taylor made herself not look back at her until they got there.
When Taylor turned around she let her human shape flicker out of view for the first time in two years, and then she let it stay that way for the first time since planet four. There was no reason to be wearing it now.
After a moment Karlie followed suit, and she wasn’t what Taylor expected. She wasn’t golden-and-red like Taylor, the way human-Karlie was. Her mane was dishwater brown and she was small and wiry and crooked, like something that’s spent years scrabbling around in the wasteland.
She was also, Taylor took a moment to realize, familiar. She’d been the other Class C on the ship over, the one who was rude to Taylor the whole time. It didn’t really come as a shock.
Taylor was going to tell her no. She opened her mouth. To tell her no.
But what she was thinking was nothing’s irreversible.