The changeling boy goes to space in a ship of his own making. Late at night, as the house sleeps, he labors over steel and circuits in his father’s garage. Next to the classic Tesla S and the mid 20th century Cadillac with predatory tailfins, Corbin carves curves into plastic, coaxes lines of electricity until they bloom like branching veins in the structure of his heart’s desire.
As dawn begins he steps back to look at the night’s work. He isn’t good at engineering, physics, or design—to his father’s great disappointment and the frustration of his tutors the boy has failed aeronautics more than once, unable to remember the inviolable rules by which humans interact with the universe.
None of that matters now. All night he works by instinct, following the instructions in a song whose notes linger just out of his reach. It’s difficult. He doesn’t always understand. He is placing a switch up high, higher than he can reach from a sitting position. Whom is he building this for? Static cracks between the connections in his brain.
Days pass as they always have. He walks the earth: learns chemistry, reads poetry, memorizes the names and dates of those who have come before. His lab partner is a girl named Mira with wild, curly hair and dark eyes. She’s going to be a doctor on Mars one day and loves space as much as he does. She did not have trouble passing physics, engineering, or design. His best friend Nikolai thinks she is beautiful. Corbin knows she is; her mind is crystalline, focused and perfect, refracting knowledge into something surprising and new. She lives next door but is never home, always in the lab after school. Mostly he just sits and talks while she works. She is thinking about space today, vast coldness and planets made from brilliant gases, quiet as she works on their experiment. Something he says—it’s never something he meant to be funny—makes her laughter burst louder even than the static: bright and unexpected as a solar flare, and just as warm on his skin.
After school Corbin plays soccer. He’s good at plucking the ball from the sky when it comes towards his goal. He is unmoved by the opposing team’s thundering, imminent violence. Usually he and his friends win. Today he’s clumsy and slow to act; there is the relentless buzzing in his ears and besides, his joints are aching. There are scouts here from a prestigious university and his best friend Nikolai plays like he’s possessed, scoring perfect goal after perfect goal. Each time the team screams in triumph.
But in the sky above them starlings swirl and dance their migratory patterns. They are like one body, a thousand minds becoming one dagger that strikes the horizon and scatters. Instinct calls them to the wind. He feels a hollow aching in his bones. What would a solar wave be like to ride? He makes careless mistakes. He’s slow; his body is strangely heavy, as if he is made from mud and wattle and cracking, now, to pieces. He tries to throw his body into the path of the ball below but misses once, twice, a third time. They lose the soccer game. Afterwards, Nikolai runs to Corbin, his face hard, and pushes him with both hands.
The ground is wet and unpleasant and his eye throbs where Nikolai hit it, but it’s the force building around Nikolai that Corbin shrinks from. Cold and colorless, this pressure is nothing like Mira’s joy. This is an emotion to be endured until it burns all the oxygen in the room. He watches the starlings above Nikolai’s screaming face and thinks instead of the gas giants, their frozen atmospheres twisting with their surfaces so that there is no sense of where one ends and the other begins. When the coach pulls Nikolai off him, the migration floods over the curve of the horizon and out of sight. Instead of relief there is a hollowness. Once, Nikolai’s anger would have made Corbin upset. Now, none of this matters.
He has dinner that night with his mother and father at the small table in the kitchen instead of the formal dining room. His father is home early for once, the aeronautics firm he runs making do without him. His mother cuts lavender and sunflowers from their walled garden, puts them in a vase, makes the dinner herself—steamed broccoli, a salad, a thin, lean slice of meat. She does this when she feels the need to be particularly maternal. Obviously she spoke to Nikolai’s mother after the soccer game.
So, she says. I heard you had a hard day?
Do we need to get you a tutor? his father says.
I told you, she says. About his friend.
They exchange a long look, having forgotten that the boy has outgrown their capacity for public privacy.
His father clears his throat.
I don’t care about Nikolai. Everything’s fine, Corbin says, thinking instead of gaseous nebulas swirling fuchsia and violet, the color and shape of his parents worry, stars unfurling solar energy into the universe—the truth, now, but of course she thinks he is lying, so he picks up his full plate, the food untouched, and places it gently next to the sink.
Sometimes you outgrow people, Corbin, his father says. Maybe it’s better to move on.
Late that night after his mother falls asleep and the light goes out in his father’s home office the boy stands in the garage with his craft. He felt the ship calling to him all day, an aching in his core like he’d been kicked. He checks the electrical connections, the components, every line he’d welded. He can feel the milky way cracking open above him, electricity in his bones.
He looks at the ship. He doubts. This is madness. What is he doing? He loves this family. For all their faults, they are more his than anything ever will be again—his mother with her walled garden, his father with his money and his brilliant designs, and he, their son, primed to stretch the future they’ve worked for out past their own ends. For all their material focus and distractions, for all their staid comfort and practicality, Corbin knows should he call them here—he considers this, the way he knows his voice would quaver, thin and young in the way it sometimes gets still when he is scared—and he should show them the ship and he should say, I don’t know what I did and I need you. He should fight against this alien itching in his throat, this too-easy stretching towards the stars, the relentless joy at leaving everything behind. The way those he loves have become strangers. The easy way he consigns them all to earth.
But there is also a feeling like stretching after a long sleep. Like the first game on a green field after winter. He wonders if the birds long to stay at the end of summer, when the shadows start to stretch.
How quickly those who stay behind starve.
While he has been thinking, his hands have been moving, checking every inch of his craft, and now they hesitate on a junction that must be filled. He can sense the wrongness of it. What if he has forgotten something important? How will he live, up there in the dark?
When he was small, after he’d made his first minor rocket out of scraps from his dad’s home office, they went out to drive in an ancient Cadillac. How his father got the fuel for it, no longer common even when he himself was young, the boy has no idea. It was a rare thing, just the two of them—his mother fussed over the lack of autodrive, the probability of their certain death. Frightened by the growl of the primitive engine, she retreated to the garden to tend her experiments. His father laughed. What better ride than this for a wonder such as him? he’d said, and Corbin had hugged against him, tight, not wanting to let go of the pride in his father’s voice. You’ve got to know the past to change the future, his father said. The boy remembers the chrome gleaming everywhere, seeming somehow old and new at once, his legs sticking to the front seat, the carefree way his father whistled and laughed as he explained the outdated internal combustion engine. The boy tilted the mirror on his door to watch the tailfins slicing the street behind them, his arm crooking itself on the open window. He had never felt safer.
It takes maybe an hour to mount the tailfins, and then there is nothing left to build.
He puts his hands on the smooth metal shell of his ship and pushes it past all his father’s favorite machines to the front of the garage. He lingers in the dark, warm comfort of the small shop, tilts his head to listen to the familiar small sounds of the house at night. His hands shake a little as he unlocks the garage door.
But when he rolls his ship, wheels creaking, into the waiting moonlight, there’s no more doubt. Alien and familiar, these pieces make a whole that belongs somewhere else. It’s is beautiful, piecemeal and perfect, crafted from a hundred scavenged pieces—Earth’s great diversity on display.
Above him, worlds spin and toss against the black. Somewhere up there are his people. His blood rings in his ears. He looks at the cold vastness of space waiting for him to explore it. The dissonance in his ears eases as he boards the craft. Somehow his arms and legs reach the switches perfectly. He realizes all at once that he has never been more himself than he is now.
The stars are sounding on high. It’s almost loud enough to drown out someone calling his name. He looks to the side. His mother and father are there in their pajamas, ludicrously out of place and looking lost. Mira is there too, strangely, and he remembers—the thing that made her laugh was that he told her he had a spaceship of his very own, that he had made it with his own hands. She is crying. It’s too late now. It’s all too late now. He is sorry, momentarily, for the look on his mother’s face. She has loved him. He has been for many years their changeling child, a foundling pulled to earth and into their orbit. This is a good place. He has liked being in a good place.
There is a loud ringing in his ears, a song in his blood, but still there is his mother’s face, and it is asking him to stay.
There she is, gentle hands full of violets the way they always are full of some plant or cutting; Dad, awestruck in wonder, not at his son but at the ship his son has built. He is running his hands over each seam, and then he looks up at Corbin, and all the pride crack to pieces, sudden veins of grief filling the spaces between.
You’re leaving, he says. He turns to Corbin’s mother, holds her tightly, a wordless transmission passing between them. Corbin hears it anyway. It was hardly any time at all, and now he’s gone.
He could speak. He thinks he remembers how, still. An echoing boom: Somewhere nearby—maybe down in the valley—a bright flash of light burns upwards. Soon another, and then another, the sky filling, the world over, with smoke and flame. He is not the only one. There are others, like him, who have grown here, in the good place, who are hearing the greater universe calling them home. Line after line of light leading the way forward to the unknown. He knows the yearning of the starlings. It’s almost unbearable.
While his eyes were tracing the way forward the others have drawn in fire in the sky, his mother has climbed the stepladder he used to get into the craft, the one she used for holiday lights and high places, and he looks down to see her kind, quick hands tucking sprigs of rowan and rue, lavender and thorn, around him. She is smiling and crying, sad and joyful both at once.
“Go,” she says, and there is the feeling of a dam breaking—something righted and destroyed at once. His father helps her climb down, and he watches the way they lean on one another as they stand on the dew-soaked earth. He hopes never to forget it.
When they move far enough away for safety, he fires up the rockets. Their faces hang, pale smears on the dark ground below, until nothing but the stars are in his eyes.
It takes only moments to break the atmosphere, but the scent of herbs lingers, scenting the night, long after he leaves the earth.