This is what happened in the immediate aftermath of the pirate attack on the Canteron war fleet. First, the Canteron fled. They fled from Hortus, from the pirate fleet pillaging their ships, and most of all from the humans who chased them relentlessly through the stars. They leaped to light-speed travel, and still, the three human-piloted vessels followed. It was only when they pushed their ships to faster-than-light travel, returning to their home system, that they found freedom.
The final ship in the human fleet, the Quick Sliver, did not give chase. The human crew had been intercepted in a Canteron escape pod and taken into custody by one of the peace-keeper patrols. The peace-keepers have no authority, being more of a volunteer charity organization than anything else, but they did carry weapons and have translation-implants. It took over a day for the Lorak captain of the Quick Sliver to negotiate getting the rest of his crew back.
By then, the four human vessels were the talk of the star cluster. They were scooped up by transit vessels and bundled onto motherships, where they made a good show of shouting and throwing their weight around, escaping local law enforcement and outclassing everyone around them.
The rest of the galaxy decided humans were something special overnight. I literally watched the memos and edicts roll in over the course of the next eight human hours. Some praised them, some condemned them. There were invites to war councils and planetary bans. There were even a few calls to exterminate the whole species.
(Sandra looked very serious about that, but I tried my best to reassure her. It did not work.)
The librarian made a statement not long after, re-announcing that there was a planetary surveyor on the human homeworld, and that the galactic library would be following up with them on the incident. That meant I was going to have to write additional reports about my time on earth in the near future.
Finally, the Canteron regrouped enough to make their own statement. It was what I had come to expect from them over the years: terse yet flowery, the perfect diplomatic communication. In many, many more words, they declared war on humanity.
Sandra remained eerily calm about that piece of news. By that point it was four in the morning, and both of us were tired. My leg still hurt. She had made herself a fifth cup of caffeinated tea. I was still on my second. “They don’t know what they’re asking for,” She said, finally. “They’ve got high tech weapons, but unless they mean to completely destroy the planet from a lightyear away, they’ll lose anyway.”
“They won’t blow the planet up,” I assured her, “they probably mean to strangle your contact with other civilizations — cut off trade and communication and wait for you to surrender or self-destruct.”
“So siege tactics,” she chuckled, “good luck with that.”
I was too tired to ask.
The frenzy of information subsided, and Sandra left so she could sleep at home. After some time, I gave up on relieving my pain and followed suit.
The next few weeks were oddly quiet. Humans received the news of war on their planet without much reaction for their politicians. The people talked about it, alternatively scared, angry, or annoyed by the whole thing. None of them seemed particularly worried, however, even those who I knew had fought wars in the past.
The mercenaries who had started the whole fiasco were the only ones who seemed upset at the turn of events. They had disavowed earth’s involvement since the beginning, and they had to be irritated that their stance was ignored by everyone.
I watched the news from the stars more than the humans around me, but all was quiet. It would take months if not years for any Canteron ships to actually arrive in Earth’s solar system. They needed to regroup, develop new strategies. I had time to complete my work, and Earth had time to prepare.
I spent the Thanksgiving holiday with Oscar, his two romantic partners, and their four children. It was a frantic, chaotic experience, but thoroughly enjoyable. I even managed to get one of their teenagers to talk to me, which is very hard to do.
Human adolescents experience three to five years of rapid growth and sexual maturation, during which time they are highly aggressive, antisocial, and generally a pain to interact with. During this time, human parents try to instill discipline, logic, and important life skills. The results vary. So I was surprised when Oscar’s son Emilio actually made small talk. It gave me a window into educational systems and social hierarchies among human adolescents which I found very valuable.
I sent another report to the Librarian. A non-update, reporting no changes, no further insights. I needed to travel, but I was still stationary. They were as annoyed about it as I was, but understanding as far as my injury was concerned.
I counted down the days to the end of the calendar year. The tenth of January was the day I would leave the country. Before that, I had to get through a veritable slew of holidays and the complicated traditions around them.
The most-celebrated human holiday is Christmas. At least it is in the northern hemisphere of the planet, where there is a large population of humans who follow that faith. (Editor’s note: for an overview of human religions, please consult one of the Earth Religion Books available in section 17 of the galactic library. Dron Acharya writes about religion on Earth in context, but provides no information about the basis of the belief systems.) On that day, humans exchange gifts with their loved ones, I learned. No one explained it to me, but it was easy enough to figure out when everyone around me was talking about gifts.
I planned to spectate instead of participate, which is usually how I handle alien traditions. Except I agreed to attend a small holiday gathering at Sandra’s apartment. She was insistent that I attend and meet some of her family and other friends who would be there as well. And the librarian sent me a small care package. It contained some important medical technology and a gift, so I could offer something.
So on Christmas morning, in a non-festive downpour of rain, I made my soggy way to Sandra’s dwelling. It was only a couple blocks from mine, but it was the first time I visited, so I didn’t know what to expect.
The door opened immediately when I knocked, and Sandra smiled at me.
“Acharya!” She exclaimed, “come in out of the rain. Take off your shoes if you like.”
I did so, grateful to get rid of the wet footwear, and followed her into the kitchen. There were six chairs set up around the table, which was bigger than mine, but I was the first one there. Sandra poured me a cup of tea and set it in front of me while I settled myself. I wrapped my hands around it for the warmth.
“You’re a bit early,” She said, “mom and dad will get here in a few minutes. Ashe and Raymond are coming too. Julia will be here too.”
“Julia from the daycare?” I asked, remembering the woman who had read stories to the children and eaten lunch with us.
“Yep,” Sandra glanced around like she was afraid someone might be listening to us. “I don’t know all the details, but something happened between her and her partner, so I invited her to spend Christmas here. She’s bringing an apple pie for after lunch.”
“Understood,” I sniffed curiously at the cup of tea. It was warm, spicy, and sweet, flavored with peppermint. “When did your parents get back to the country?”
“Two weeks ago,” Sandra sat down across from me with another mug. “I went up and saw them last weekend while you were holding the press conference.”
“It wasn’t a press conference,” I said. It had been a long-distance meeting between myself, the librarian, and two members of the Peace Keepers in this sector. We had a long conversation about humans and their place in the galaxy. “How was it?”
“Good,” She leaned down under the table, reaching for something. “It was good to see them again, and they passed on some gifts from sis. Also, it meant Gizmo to have some alone time, isn’t that right, Gizmo?”
I leaned back and looked down. There was a slim black cat under the table, looking at me with big yellow eyes. Sandra scratched the animal’s back.
“Oh,” I said, uncertain what to do.
The cat blinked at me, flicked its long tail against Sandra’s hand, and padded its way over. It sniffed at the edge of my robe and blinked up at me.
“He’s friendly,” Sandra said, “at least until a ton of people show up. Cats are picky like that.”
“He must not like a lot of noise,” I said. Just then, Gizmo decided he needed a better look at me and leapt onto my lap. I jumped, but he just looked at me with his yellow eyes. I shivered as I often did when humans stared at me: it felt like the animal was thinking about how best to eat me.
“Aw,” Sandra smiled at me, “he likes you!”
“Does he?” I winced as the cat’s sharp claws pressed into my leg. He leaned sideways and pressed his head into my snout.
“Yep,” She reached across and scratched the top of Gizmo’s head. “See? That’s a happy kitty.”
I mimicked her and scratched the top of his head. Gizmo sat down in my lap and nuzzled into my hand.
“Cats,” Sandra said with wonder in her voice, “they really are something special.”
“They’re certainly odd,” I said, “you’re the first species I’ve encountered that domesticated predators.”
“Oh, cats aren’t domesticated,” Sandra said, “they just like being around us.”
I stared at her until Gizmo made a small, strange sound, “Mrrp!” He flicked his tail into my nose.
“That is terrifying,” I said. “You have a wild animal in your house, and it’s not even domesticated?” And then with even more concern, “Are dogs domesticated?”
“Yes,” Sandra said, “dogs are definitely domesticated. They’re hardwired to love humans, you know. A dog born out in the wild still loves humans. Cats born outdoors are truly feral. They don’t want anything to do with humans.”
“Fascinating,” I murmured. Gizmo had begun to purr and knead his paws at my leg. It was oddly comforting.
“Yeah. Cats just do the math, I think. In here, they have a steady supply of food, warm places to sleep, and someone to look after them. Out there, they have to hunt, and there are coyotes, racoons, owls, and cars.” She leaned across and rubbed Gizmo’s cheek, “They have it a lot easier in here.”
“That’s impressive thinking for a pet.”
She smirked, “That’s nothing. Some people can have full conversations with their parrots. Do Chintilik keep pets?”
“Not really,” I said. “I used to keep a colony of bugs, but that’s not nearly the same thing.”
“Like an ant farm?” She asked.
“Maybe. I don’t know what an ant farm looks like.”
Sandra pulled out her phone and switched seats so she was beside me. She showed me a few examples. They were somewhat similar to what I had kept as a child. We had our heads close together, talking about invertebrates on various planets, when there was a knock at the apartment door. I looked up and saw two older humans with graying hair waving through the window.
Sandra waved back and bounced to her feet. “Hello!” She called, and headed for the door.
I thought about getting up, but Gizmo was still curled up in my lap, purring insistently, so I stayed put. Soon enough all three humans returned, Sandra weighted down by a pile of presents. She skirted past me to the tree and set them all down.
Her parents were round, flushed, smiling people: aggressively friendly in the way humans from small towns are. They both bustled up to me.
“You must be Acharya,” The woman said, “I’m Joy, Sandra’s mother.”
I took her hand and shook it. “Well met,” I said, “I would normally stand to introduce myself, but Gizmo has decided to hold me hostage.”
“Mrow?” Gizmo said, as I dared to stop petting him for a second.
“Well, we have to do what Gizmo wants, don’t we?” She smiled, “This is Keith.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” I held out my hand to him.
Keith took my hand and examined it. The fine scales on the back and sides, the three fingers and thumb, the hooked claws at the end of each. He seemed lost for words.
“Dad!” Sandra exclaimed, “say hi!”
“Hello,” Keith said, “I’m sorry… It’s just.”
“I understand,” I assured him immediately.
“I’m a biologist,” he continued, “and I’ve spent twenty years theorizing about alien life and it’s just—”
“Dad!” Sandra said at the same time as her mother sighed, “Keith, please.”
I flicked my ears at them.
“Now they’re laughing at us,” Sandra said, “great.”
“It’s flattering when people are curious about where I come from.” I said, “I don’t mind. Though once a random doctor on the street tried to examine me. That was uncomfortable.”
“Not on earth, I hope.”
“No, this was on one of the library planets during my training.”
“Good,” Sandra sat down next to me again. “Mom, dad, do you want some tea?”
“Yes please,” Joy said.
“Do you have coffee?” Keith said.
“Sure.” She stood back up, picked up my still-full mug without asking and carried it and her own glass to the counter.
Keith and Joy sat down across from me. I was suddenly nervous. It felt like I was about to be interrogated, so I took initiative and asked the first question. “What kind of biological work do you do?” I asked Keith.
“Mostly, I survey construction sites for endangered plants or animals and then write reports about it,” he said. “It’s my job to come up with solutions that allow people to build and let the environment thrive.”
“It’s conservation work?” I asked, genuinely curious.
Gizmo stood up from my lap and arched his back. He leapt down onto the floor and stalked over to Sandra.
“Do planetary surveyors practice biological principles?” Keith asked me.
“Some do, but not me. Generally I talk to the people already on the planet and learn from them rather than learning about the planet from the environment.”
Sandra sat down next to me again. “We were just talking about pets on other planets before you came in. It’s fascinating.”
All three of their eyes were gleaming, and I realized that Sandra had gotten her hunger for knowledge from her parents. These three would jump on the first interplanetary vessel they could and be happy about it.
“We don’t have anything similar to cats and dogs on my home planet,” I explained. “And most companion animals are herbivores from what I’ve seen, so keeping small predators is interesting to me.”
“Oh, we keep herbivores too,” Joy said, “Did Sandra tell you she used to raise goats?”
“Goats aren’t really pets,” Sandra said.
“When you were ten you thought they were!”
“Mom,” She said, and trailed off.
“Remember when she tried to get one to sleep in her bed.” Keith asked.
Sandra said, “It ate my sheets,” in a monotone. She stood up again as the kettle boiled.
“Way to spoil the punchline.” Joy smiled at me.
I heard Sandra grumble under her breath, but couldn’t make out the words.
“Children smuggling pets they shouldn’t have into their rooms is a galactic constant,” I said.
“Oh yeah, I bet your parents were just mortified over your bug box.”
“It was more of a bug fishbowl, and yes, my caretakers were very upset with me. Frid children adopt mushroom-eating furry animals, and I have it on good authority that Udomach children catch flying creatures of all kinds.”
“What is an Udomach?” Keith asked.
“They’re a star-faring race that you find on a lot of cargo ships. They’re one of the oldest space-faring species. If you ever visit a space port, you’ll see them.”
“Sandra,” He said, “did you see one of them?”
“No,” Sandra said, “they never let me into the spaceport. I just picked Acharya up when they came out.” She set my mug back in front of me, then gave her parents theirs.
“How was your trip to Costa Rica?” I asked to get the conversation away from myself.
Even though the trip had supposedly been to visit Sandra’s sister who was living there during the holidays, it seemed like they had all spent more time catching frogs than visiting with family. By the time Ashe and Raymond arrived a half hour later, I had learned more than I ever needed to about the ecosystem of the Costa Rican Jungles and all the amazing places they had visited. I’d also heard about some of the problems facing the country: High cost of living, inequality, and deforestation to name a few. I mentally crossed the country off my list of places to visit, though I might go anyway. It sounded pleasant, if a little humid for my tastes.
Ashe swept in, said hello to Keith and Joy, and gave Sandra a side-hug. Gizmo was back in my lap, so I didn’t stand to greet them, but she gave me a hug anyway, or tried to. I shrugged her away and Gizmo made a high-pitched hissing noise when she tried to give her a pat.
“Stop forcing attention on him,” Sandra said, “when he wants to say hi, he’ll come to you.” I didn’t know if she was talking about me or the cat.
Raymond put a bottle on the counter and three small boxes under the tree, then came over and gave Sandra a proper hug and kiss. He greeted Joy and Keith, who had both frozen when they’d arrived. He completely ignored me aside from a quick hello, which was fine by me.
“Now that everyone is here,” He said, “let’s eat that ham I can smell.”
“Actually, we’re waiting on one more,” Sandra wriggled out of his grip and checked her phone. “Julia will be here soon.”
There was a knock at the door, and Sandra leapt to open it.
I finally negotiated the cat out of my lap and stood, gathering the mugs off the table. He followed me as I stacked them in the sink, threatening to trip me.
“Your leg looks better,” Ashe said to me as she helped gather plates for the table.
“It was just a strained muscle,” I said, “it got better weeks ago.”
“Did you get injured?” Joy asked me.
“I twisted my leg and hurt a muscle,” I said, “it was more than a month ago now.”
“He got mugged,” Ashe said.
“Oh no!” Joy said, “that’s never fun. Did they take much?”
“Nothing,” I said, “I was able to incapacitate them.”
“I did that once!” Keith waved a hand towards joy, “I saved her engagement ring from a mugger in Detroit.”
“He punched the poor man before he even had a chance to make a threat,” Joy clarified.
“What can I say? My reflexes are top-notch.”
Joy looked right at me, “He almost punched me last week when I walked around a corner.”
“Top notch,” Keith repeated.
I flicked both my ears at them several times, very glad for the change in momentum.
Sandra came back into the room with Julia following close behind. “Mom, Dad, Raymond, Ashe, this is Julia. She’s a friend of mine and Acharya’s.”
“Hello again, Julia,” I said, “You look well.” It was a blatant lie: she looked terrible. Her eyes were red and she visibly sagged with fatigue. Also her stomach, which had been large when I last saw her, was truly massive. She was visibly leaning back against the weight.
“Hello, Acharya,” She said, “and it’s nice to meet you, everyone else.”
Joy sprang to her feet and pulled out a chair for her, and Julia gratefully sank into it. Gizmo unfastened himself from my side and went over to investigate this new human, Julia gave him a gentle pet. She seemed overwhelmed by the whole hubbub in the room.
Sandra, Ashe, and I set the table, and I ended up sitting next to Julia and Keith, with Sandra across from me and Raymond next to her. Sandra produced food from every corner of the kitchen and laid the spread out. There was plenty of food, too much food I thought, but the humans dug in like they intended to clean the whole table. I ate my fill too, being sure to sample every dish in the name of exploration, even the ones that made no sense to me.
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Joy said to Julia, “when are you due?”
“Any day now,” Julia said, “hopefully not until January.”
Joy sighed, “You must be excited. I remember my first pregnancy.”
“I am,” Julia said, “I’m kinda scared too. I don’t have anyone to come to the hospital with me when the time comes.” She turned to me, “actually, I was hoping you’d come, Acharya. Sandra mentioned you wanted to witness a human birth.”
I did some math, “I’d love to, Julia, and I will if I can, but I’ll be leaving the country in the first week of January, so I can’t make any promises.”
She was quiet for a long moment, and I saw the rest of the table looking at us.
“I’ll go with you and Martha if Acharya can’t,” Sandra said.
“Can you only bring two people?” I asked, surprised.
“Yeah, that’s generally how it’s done,” Julia said. “It’s going to be plenty awkward having a doctor and nurses staring at my vagina as it is.”
“Nonsense,” Keith said, “I watched Joy here pop Sandra out, and she was cracking jokes with the midwife the whole time. I don’t think Sandra enjoyed it that much though. She screamed her head off the second she was clear.”
“Dad!” Sandra said for the thousandth time that day. Keith just grinned at her.
“That is actually true,” Joy said. She reached over and patted Julia’s arm. “You’re going to do just fine. It’ll be a good story for later.”
I wanted to ask why a family member wasn’t going to be with her in the hospital, but it wasn’t right to pry. There were plenty of reasons why someone might not have family around, and none of them were happy reasons even for solitary people like Chintilik. Humans, who are highly social and form intense bonds, would be even more sensitive to the topic.
“It’s horrible,” Julia said, “but when everything first fell apart with Noah and I, I thought about putting the baby up for adoption instead of keeping it.”
I inhaled to speak, but she was already barrelling on.
“I’m not going to. I feel horrible just for thinking about it. Really, though, I have all the time and money I need, and I’ll be getting child support, so I’m good to go,” She smiled at me, perhaps sensing my bad reaction. “I even got around to building the crib yesterday.”
Joy clicked her tongue, “You shouldn’t be building anything when you’re this far along, honey. Here, I’ll give you my phone number, and if you need anything heavy lifted or to climb on a ladder, I’ll send Keith over to do it for you.”
Keith, who had been talking with Raymond and Ashe about office gossip, glanced toward us. “What am I, a handyman?”
Joy patted his hand. “You are very handy when you have to be.”
“Oh, I’ll be okay,” Julia said, “thank you though.”
“I insist,” Joy said, pushing her phone towards her. “you don’t even have to give me your number if you don’t want to. Just keep us in your back pocket if you need to. We’d be happy to bring you groceries or takeout while you’re recovering, and we promise not to get in your space.”
Julia hesitated again.
Sandra leaned into the conversation from where she’d been sitting back. “Goes without saying, but I’ll be around too, so if you need someone, you can give us a shout. Or Martha. Or anyone else from the daycare.”
“God, okay! Fine! You all are relentless.”
While she exchanged numbers with Joy, Sandra leaned across the table to me. “I forgot you were leaving soon. What day is your flight?”
“The first Saturday in January,” I said, “the seventh.”
“That’s so soon. I wanted to do something fun before you go.”
“This doesn’t count?” I asked, but she just looked at me. “I’m not leaving forever,” I said, “I’ll be back in a few months at least once, probably more than that. It takes a long time to properly survey a planet like Earth.”
Sandra did not look pacified by that, but she sat back in her chair.
“Where are you going first?” Keith asked me.
“Australia,” I said.
He laughed, “Jumping into the deep end, I see.”
“What does that mean?”
“Australia is a rough country,” He said. “Most of the middle of the country is unsettled back-country too rough to settle in.”
“Oh.” That was alarming, considering how inhospitable the land around California and the United States in general was. If this was a friendly country by human standards, I couldn’t imagine what an inhospitable one looked like.
There was silence for a beat, in a kind of satisfied, full kind of way. Everyone had eaten far too much. I was surprised by how much the humans had eaten.
“Sandra,” Julia said, “where’s the bathroom at?”
“Oh. Just around the corner. First door on the left.”
“Thanks,” She got up and that broke the spell. Sandra stood and began clearing the table, dragging Raymond along to help her.
“So, Acharya,” Joy said to me, “can I ask you an odd question?”
I nodded to her.
“Does being raised by caretakers mean that you grew up without parents?”
I blinked at her. She hadn’t been the only one to catch that detail, I was sure. “Yes,” I said, “I was raised by Chintilik caretakers who lived in the nursery. Like some humans are raised in orphanages.”
“That must have been difficult.”
I sat back and stretched my shoulders. “It’s normal for people of my station. Almost all Dron are orphans. It’s the reason I am where I am now. If I had had a family unit or been able to socialize normally on Chint, I probably wouldn’t be a planetary surveyor.”
Joy and Keith both nodded to me in understanding. I guessed Sandra was listening in as well.
“Unless a people have been in space for a very long time, most everyone who goes to the stars has a reason to leave the planet they’re on,” I said. “Not having anyone to try and talk you out of it just speeds the process up.”
“Yes, I could see that,” Joy said.
“I think most humans are just sick of earth and want out,” Keith offered.
I nodded, “I am getting that impression.”
“Do we want to open presents now?” Sandra said, “because I need to wait before I can eat dessert.”
The rest of the humans agreed, and the gifts were pulled out and distributed. I was surprised when two small packages were placed in front of myself and Julia. As the last of them were passed out, I reached into my pocket and produces a small box, placed it in the center of the table.
The presents I’d gotten turned out to be traveling supplies: small carry-on organizers from Joy and Keith and a pillow for airplanes from Sandra. They would be useful, so I appreciated the gesture.
Julia had very similar things: a wrap for the baby, a set of wooden blocks, and a gift card for a restaurant. The others had more dramatic gifts, but they were the core family here, after all. Then there was just my little box.
“This is more of a dessert than a present,” I started, reaching for the lid, “these are a delicacy on Chint. They are called ronnals.”
Nestled in the box, cupped in orange-red sand, were eight round, green, semi-translucent objects.
“Oh my…” Joy trailed off.
Sandra said, “Where did you get these?”
“The librarian sent them to me,” I said, “in a recent package.”
“What do they taste like?” Raymond asked.
“It’s difficult to describe. Chocolate reminds me of them, but they have a very different texture and aren’t fermented.”
“Holy shit,” Keith said, “holy shit. Alien plants.”
“I’ll eat one now,” Sandra said, “I’m so curious.”
“Me too,” Joy reached for one.
“I…” Julia trailed off.
“They’re definitely safe for the baby,” I said. “In fact, Chinilik who lay eggs often eat them because they contain vital minerals and nutrients.”
“Okay,” She took one when Sandra offered it to her. The other humans quickly followed.
“Is there a specific way we eat them?” Sandra asked.
“I recommend taking a small bite of the outer layer first to make sure you like it, and then you can suck the inside out of it,” I said. I demonstrated with my ronnal, taking a small bite of the outside layer. The jelly interior liquified slightly, and I squeezed the outer shell so it popped into my mouth.
Sandra watched me do it, then followed suit carefully. She made a surprised noise when she tasted it. “It is kinda like chocolate,” She said, while jelly inside the small fruit seeped out in her hand. “It’s not very sweet, but not bitter. It’s like… what chocolate would taste like if it was perfect.”
The other humans dug in. Keith bypassed the whole method of drinking the inside and popped the whole fruit into his mouth and popped it. His eyes grew huge and he made a deep rumbling noise.
“I think I have a new craving,” Julia said. She was nibbling on hers, taking small bites; making it last.
“And those just grow on Chint?” Sandra asked me.
“Yes. They’re usually buried under open sand. They’re water repositories for fungal colonies.”
“Mushrooms,” She said, “that makes sense. They are delicious.”
“There’s one left,” Raymond pointed out. He started reaching for the box, but I grabbed it and put the lid back on. I passed it to Julia. “Here. I’ve heard they can be very useful to new mothers. If you leave it in a warm place, it will stay good for months.”
“Thank you,” She said, and took it without arguing. She popped the ronnal she was still nibbling into her mouth and chewed appreciatively. “I’m going to save that for when I get back from the hospital.”
The rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly enough. I talked with everyone, with the exception of Raymond who poured himself a drink right after lunch and maintained a strict distance from me, which I was happy not to push.
I wish I could say that I was there when Julia did eventually give birth, but I wasn’t. I was over 10,000 miles away in Brisbane, Australia when her labor was induced by a doctor on January 12th, but I knew when it happened and I sent her a congratulatory message when I heard the news. I regret missing that birth, but I couldn’t delay my work anymore.
The day I left, I went alone to the airport in the early morning. Sandra had wanted to see me off, but when I told her I was leaving my apartment before four in the morning, she settled for saying goodbye the day before.
Saying goodbye to Sandra was more awkward than anything else. Saying goodbye to assistants almost always is. There’s tension there, wants and promises that can’t be fulfilled. An assistant to a planetary surveyor wants to get off their planet or to travel it, but so often they find that they can’t cut themselves loose from their lives.
Sandra was like that. I watched her trying to free herself from her bonds over that last week. She had a dissertation to defend, parents and siblings, her romantic partner and his family, Julia, Martha, and Gizmo all holding her in place. No matter how badly she wanted to hitch a ride on a spaceship, she could not justify it.
So she said goodbye, and promised to call me, and I promised to keep using twitter, though I was quickly developing a distaste for human social media, and we parted ways. It was only after I was settled in the plane, and I reached for the small pillow, that I realized I was going to miss her. Of course we would still be in contact, and she was still my assistant, with access to my office and all the reference materials we had collected. She was still doing research for me and would be for as long as she wanted to do it. I was still going to miss her.
Missing an assistant was also normal. I liked the people I spent time with on alien planets. I was always sad to see them go. But it was always a little scary and always hurt. I would get over it. I was going to make a lot of new friends wherever I was going. At least, I hoped so.