Sandra called me in the evening on the weekend of the first week of November. “Hi, Acharya,” She said.
I was in Golden Gate park watching the sunset over the gardens by myself, enjoying the quiet after spending all day in a babble of farmer’s markets and city streets. “Hello, Sandra. Did you finish researching the domestication of livestock in Africa and Europe?” It was low on my list of priorities, but I could already see that domestic animals were going to be one of Earth’s main exports in the future, and the librarian was going to have questions about the history.
“No, but I’m getting there. I found a paper about the DNA of cattle, but it’s behind a paywall and the researcher is on sabbatical for the next year.”
“I’ll pay for access on Monday,” I said.
“Yeah I know, I wasn’t calling about that. I was just talking to Raymond, and I wanted to invite you to Thanksgiving at his place.”
I’d never been so relieved to already have plans. “Actually, I’m already going to Oscar’s. His partners and children will be there.”
“Oh,” Her voice rose in mock happiness. It sounded brittle over the phone. “That’s good! I’m sure you’ll have fun.”
“Aren’t you going to your parents?” I asked.
“No. They’re going on a trip to Costa Rica this week. I was invited, but I didn’t have that kind of money at the time.”
“There’s still time,” I said. I needed to visit Costa Rica, but if Sandra went, I could ask her to take notes for me instead. “I could turn it into a business trip. Then you wouldn’t need to worry about the price.”
“No,” her voice sounded even more brittle now. “I’ll spend plenty of time with mom and dad over Christmas. Thank you though.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Thank you for inviting me to Thanksgiving. But, please, don’t invite me to Raymond’s house anymore.”
“Okay.” She didn’t even ask me why. She had driven me back from Raymond’s house the morning after the Halloween party, after all. I had been stranded in worse places than a human dwelling, but it was still unpleasant. And I didn’t trust Raymond or Ashe. “Maybe I’ll do something in my apartment for the holidays. Then you can walk home if I get drunk.”
“I’ll happily spend time in your house,” I said. I was just getting used to being invited into human dwellings. It was something Chintilik would never even consider doing even with their closest friends.
I was about to ask Sandra if that was all she had wanted to talk about when I saw a figure approaching my bench rapidly. “Sandra, I have to go. I’ll see you Monday.”
“Okay, bye,” She said.
And I hung up the phone just seconds before the figure drew a handgun and pointed it at me. “Phone, wallet, and bag,” They said.
I considered trying to talk them out of robbing me, but I knew humans by then. I knew this one wouldn’t back down, and while they might not shoot me, they probably had a knife as well.
“Very well,” I said, “give me a moment.” I rummaged in my pockets. Even though I had been robbed many times before, my heart was still pounding, my body flooding with chemicals. My stomach was clenching in preparation to spew acid if necessary. The human was twitching the gun at me as if to hit me with the barrel.
“Come on,” they said, “get it now.”
“I can’t find it—” My hand closed around the small black box, about the size and shape of a human wallet. I put it properly on my palm and I held it out to the human, “Here.”
They took two quick steps forward and grabbed the sedator with their whole palm. The pressure set off the device now that I had armed it, and the needles sprang out and embedded themselves deep into the soft human flesh. It had to hurt: the device had enough force to puncture through scales and thick hides.
The human yelled and shook their hand so hard that the device flew off. I felt something warm splatter across my face. Blood.
“The fuck was that!” The human yelled. They swung the gun at me viciously, right to left. It hit my shoulder with a crack. I fell sideways off the bench, twisting instinctively. Pain twanged through my hips and legs as they wrenched. Not good.
I tucked and rolled, rounding my back into a curve, came up crouching a yard away from the human. The human should have been sedated by then, but the gun swung towards me on a steady arm. I ducked. It was unheard of for any species, especially one with such small body mass, to fight off that much sleep serum. Maybe there was something important about their biology I had missed? Not that it mattered. I would probably be shot before I had time to figure it out.
Gunshots sound so tame in human media. They’re polite little pops of sounds that barely catch your attention. The real thing is much, much more attention-grabbing. I had heard it before many times from a distance. The first time, I had even asked what the sound was, and Sandra had replied, “Gunshots. Let’s stay inside today.”
Up close, the gunshot was so loud that it seemed to explode inside my skull, and for a moment, I was convinced that I had been shot in the head. But no: it was just my eardrums popping so intensely they began to shriek like a sandstorm over rock. Something I confirmed when I grabbed my ears and felt no blood or punctures. Lucky.
The human slurred and stumbled toward me, growing more uncoordinated by the step. They swung the gun down on me again, and again it bowled me over onto my back even though there was a lot less force behind it. The human came down on top of me, the sedator defeating them at last. Before they stilled, they made a little coughing noise and vomited all over both of us.
I used all my strength to roll them off of me and got to my feet. There was a hitch in my right hip and pain all down my spine from where I hit the ground. I crawled away on my hands and feet, before I gave into the delayed instinct and also spewed the contents of my stomach. It sizzled into the grass. At least now I knew I had one advantage over humans: my stomach acid was much stronger than theirs.
I wanted to curl up and feel sorry for myself for a few minutes, but I made myself stand. There was no telling how long the human would be unconscious or who had heard the gunshot. I didn’t want to be arrested by human cops or taken to a human hospital. I gave myself a once-over. The only major damage was a throbbing pain in my right leg. Something had been misaligned. I punched myself experimentally in the hip and heard the click of the synthetic bone realigning itself. Immediately, the pain dulled. I was still going to be sore for a few days, but the synthetics would fix themselves properly in the next few hours.
I gathered my belongings, paused to roll the unconscious human into the recovery position, and hurried away towards the main road. Once I made it to the road, I sat again, this time on a bench at a bus stop, because I had definitely pulled a muscle in my leg. The human vomit on me stunk, and it was too cold to take my jacket off. I consigned myself to being miserable.
I considered how best to get home, thought about human public transportation in the dark, and the possibility of getting mugged twice in one night, and opted for the slightly less humiliating route. I pulled out my phone and called Sandra back.
“Acharya?” She said, already worried.
“I owe you an apology,” I said, “getting mugged by a human is a lot more violent than I realized it would be.”
“You got mugged! Are you okay? Where are you?”
“Yes, I hurt my leg, and I’m at a bus stop near Golden Gate park.”
“Okay stay there. I’ll be there as fast as I can. Did you call the cops?”
“No,” I said, “there’s no need. They didn’t take anything, and they’ll wake up in a little while.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the phone.
“I don’t walk around on strange planets unarmed,” I said, “I knocked them out with a sedator.”
“Damn. Good job. I’ll be right over, okay? Just sit tight.”
“Thank you,” I said, “if I could ask one thing…”
“Stop by my apartment and grab me a spare set of clothes, please. They, uh, vomited on me.”
“Alright. I’m leaving right now.”
I spent almost an hour on the bench, endeavoring to be invisible. Luckily my jacket had a hood and wasn’t brightly colored. I changed the color of my scales to a dark brown, and became unnoticeable. Even then, I saw every human who passed glance at me, taking in the shape, the colors, my posture. They didn’t take a second look, which I thought was odd. These humans walked around after dark, their ears open and pupils dilated, and didn’t glance twice at a dark figure on a bench. One look was all any of them needed to tell I was not a threat.
Eventually, Sandra’s familiar car rolled to a stop down the street, and I stood up with a wince.
Sandra and Ashe both got out of the car and all but sprinted to me. Sandra pulled up short, looking me up and down, but Ashe didn’t slow down. She started to grab me, and I had to put a hand up fast against her sternum and shove her back.
“Don’t touch me,” I said. They both stared at me, Ashe more than a little shocked and hurt. “I’m covered in vomit,” I followed-up lamely, and the shock turned to disgust.
Sandra pulled out a bundle of clothes and a plastic bag for me to put the stained things in. She gestured me into the car and turned away while I stripped off my coat and shirt and replaced them. Sandra had taken my robe off the hook in my apartment and a loose shirt I had left out to dry, which made sense because she didn’t have access to my sleeping quarters. I felt a little lurch in my stomach at the thought of giving her a key: nausea of a slightly different flavor than I had felt an hour ago.
I shook my ears out to calm myself. It was nothing new for me to fall a little in love with inhabitants of other planets. And I trusted Sandra, which was more than enough to foster feelings of affection. Plus, I had just had a traumatic encounter, after which some irrationality and whiplash was expected. I would have been a lot more concerned if I hadn’t felt a little in love with my assistant right then.
I opened the car door once I was clean and dressed again. “Thank you,” I said to Sandra. “I owe you a favor.”
“Don’t worry about it,” She walked around the front of the car and slid into the driver’s seat. Ashe took the front passenger, leaving me in the back.
Ashe turned to look at me while Sandra pulled out into traffic. “What happened?” She asked, “are you sure you’re okay? You’re all…brown.”
“Yes, I’m alright. I’ll change back if you give me a minute of quiet.”
By the time we’d reached the highway, I was purple again and feeling much calmer.
“Did I interrupt a date night?” I asked Sandra, “I didn’t realize you were busy.”
She grimaced , “No, we were talking about holiday plans.”
Ashe snorted, “that was the idea,” she said to me, “but I think I was hearing more about the domestication of sheep and cattle in mesopotamia than about cooking turkey.”
“Sorry,” Sandra said, “it’s stuck in my brain. I used to raise pigs and goats for 4-H, you know, so it kinda hit home for me that 10,000 years ago, people were doing the same thing.”
I filed that away to ask about later because Ashe was already talking again.
“Yes, so we were winding down anyway. And Ray was kinda tapped out by the time we left,” Ashe said to me, “I think he was almost finished with a bottle of whiskey…”
Sandra made a little noise in the back of her throat and Ashe turned to her.
“Really,” She said, “between your boyfriend drinking himself to death and your boss almost getting stabbed, you have more than your fair share of holding things together to do.”
“I was almost shot, actually,” I said, “it took longer than I thought it would for the sedative to knock them out. I wouldn’t have called you at all if I hadn’t been covered in vomit.”
“Noted,” Ashe said, and seemed to be about to go back to lecturing Sandra, but instead she got cut off.
“You almost got shot?!” Sandra looked over her shoulder at me, and the car swerved onto the side of the highway.
Ashe yelled at her to stay on the road. I just put my ears back flat against my head as my sore hip jarred against the seatbelt.
“Did you call the police?” Sandra asked me when the car was back under control, “did you file a complaint?”
“No,” I said, “I knocked my attacker out with an off-world weapon. I am not calling the attention of human authorities to that.”
“Good idea,” Ashe said, “very smart. What did you use? Did you fight them off with a laser knife?”
I flicked an ear in amusement. “No. I used a sedator. It administers a sedative through a series of microneedles when triggered.”
“Oh,” Ashe sounded disappointed.
Sandra nodded, staring forward. Both her hands were on the wheel. “Good,” she said, “I’m glad he got what was coming to him. Hopefully someone else will come along and rob him.”
“Can I see the sedator?” Ashe asked.
“If you want to.” I passed the spent cartridge to her and spent the next half hour explaining how the mechanism worked and how to use it while we traveled across the water to the university. Sandra parked in the lot she rented a spot in.
“Thank you,” I said, “I’ll be fine from here. Sorry for interrupting your evening.”
“Any time,” Sandra looked at Ashe. “I’ll drop you back off at home and then turn in for the night that was plenty of excitement for me.”
“Sure, as long as Acharya is comfortable being alone.”
I was already easing my way out of the car, but I looked back at them. Both of the human women were watching me: Ashe with an expectant look on her face, Sandra with that appraising eye I found so valuable during our work.
“Do you have blood on your face?” Sandra asked me.
“Only a little,” I said, “the sedator leaves holes in human skin, apparently. I do need to wash it off though.”
“Only a little?” Sandra repeated like she couldn’t believe what I was saying.
“Both of you are behaving like I’ve never been in a fight before,” I said. “I’ve been in much worse fights.” It hadn’t been, really, but I had been covered in a lot more blood the time I’d stabbed a pirate trying to take over a transport ship I was on. Some of it had even been my own. Planetary Surveyors are trained in self defense: we have to be. All of which I would tell Sandra and Ashe if they kept pushing.
What I wouldn’t tell them was that I wasn’t really fit for fighting. I was strong enough and fast enough, and I could dodge and run and hide, but actual hand-to-hand physical fighting was out of the question. My almost dislocated leg and pulled thigh muscle were proof enough. I was far too physically fragile to actually take a punch from any species, let alone a human.
I got the rest of the way out of the car. “Good evening to you both. Pleasant travels to both of you.” I walked to the pavement, forcing myself not to limp until I was out of sight of the car. Then I sagged against a tree and let myself wince.
Back in my living quarters, I dumped my vomit-stained clothes into the sink and washed them by hand. Then I dug through my bags until I found one of my crutches so I could rest my leg. The metal brace made taking a shower much easier, to be sure. I liked human bathing rituals, even if I missed drying myself off by rolling in hot sand.
I felt myself again after cleaning off, and quickly settled in at my desk to type up a quick report on the events of the evening. I needed to report any injuries sustained while surveying a planet and factor them in when classifying the planet.
I was mostly done with the report when my notebook chimed. I glanced over, expecting a message from one of my human contacts. Instead, it was a news alert from the galactic library. “Canteron War Fleet Decimated by Pirate Attacks.”
“Good for the pirates,” I said to myself, turning off the screen and going back to my report.
I didn’t read the rest of the news until much later, when I had calmed down and relaxed.
Humans had been the ones to destroy the Canteron. There had been about fifty of them, and they had taken on a force of more than five thousand Canteron spread across more than three hundred ships. The humans, in comparison, had four. And yet together they had destroyed more than a hundred vessels, including the mothership. It was a remarkable show of skill and tactical ability.
It was also an atrocity. A slaughter. They completely outmatched the Canteron, and they had used some kind of chemical weaponry to make up for their lack of numbers. If they had done such a thing on Earth, the whole lot of them would have been thrown in prison or executed. On the galactic stage, they were probably going to be recruited by a high-profile mercenary company and live in luxury for the rest of their lives between committing similar crimes.
Honestly, I was a little taken aback. Here I was after winning a fight with one human, unable to walk properly. And fifty of them had just taken down a whole war fleet. Admittedly it had been a Canteron war fleet: they hadn’t met serious military resistance in several decades and had always been useless if they weren’t in warships. It was still impressive.
As the details emerged, I sat up, applying gentle heat to my leg, and wondering if I should say something. I would have to eventually.
I was just about to go to bed when there was a knock at my door. I didn’t need to guess who it was. Sure enough, when I opened it, Sandra was on the other side.
She went to speak, but before she could, I said, “What in all the worlds are you doing here?”
She blinked at me.
“Go to bed, Sandra,” I said. “I’m going there now.”
We looked at each other across the doorway. I leaned on the crutch after a second, and Sandra’s eyes flicked to it.
“You did get hurt!” She exclaimed.
“I pulled a muscle. It’s already much better.”
“Oh, okay. I…” She trailed off. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” I said forcefully. “You know that. If you want to talk about something, either cough it up or go away. I have had a busy night and I want it to be over.” I didn’t like being short with Sandra, but I hated being condescended to, made to feel lesser because of my injury. I could take care of myself.
She took a step back, shrank into herself a little, then surged forward again. She seemed to take up the whole doorway. “I was scared for you, asshole! You almost got shot. And you shoved Ashe earlier. And now you’re giving me grief for checking on you. You are obviously upset, but if you want to be a dick about it, then have it your way. Limp along in private. I’ll see you on Monday. If I still have a job by then.” And with that, she turned and walked away.
I stood in the doorway, dumbstruck. I had expected her to physically attack me for a moment. Or at least try to grab me. I barely realized she had turned and stormed off. By the time I’d registered everything she’d said, Sandra was halfway down the street.
“Sandra,” I called after her, and she stopped. “I’m sorry for snapping at you, and I can’t chase you down on a crutch. Come back.”
She did, slowly, like she was seriously having second thoughts.
“Come inside,” I said to her, “there’s some interesting news, and we obviously need to have a conversation. I’ll make us something warm to drink.”
She looked at me critically, “You aren’t planning on sleeping tonight, are you?”
“No. There’s news from the Canteron war fleet that I need to stay abreast of.”
“Well, it’s been a while since I pulled an all-nighter, so—”
“You can leave whenever you like,” I assured her, “but there’s something bothering you other than my physical health, so come in and let’s talk about it. There isn’t much to do tonight besides wait for more news.”
She nodded, and when I stepped back from the door, she stepped over the threshold and quickly took her place behind her desk. I settled myself too after a few minutes, and put the news feed up on the wall. Together, we watched the Canteron, the pirates, and the rest of the galaxy lose their minds.