It was a thirty-hour drive to Alice Springs from Sydney. Most of it was across the hot, red Australian outback. Nick wanted to fly there, and argued that there wasn’t much to see on the drive. But he was outvoted (and not in charge, I reminded him), and he didn’t have to come on the trip if he didn’t want to. As it turned out, he wanted to.
Sandra returned her sedan to the car rental, and I used the galactic library’s resources to instead rent a larger, more spacious four-wheel drive jeep that was too tall to climb into comfortably. Sandra and Nick were both designated as drivers, and I was told that under no circumstances was I to operate the vehicle, which was fine by me. I ended the booking on the short-term rental early, and we started driving.
Sandra and I picked Nick up from his hotel after getting settled. On the way there, she said, “Is Nick coming with us when we leave Australia?”
We were stopped at a light, so I looked at her. Sandra was watching me, an almost hungry expression on her face. A prickle went down my back, but it wasn’t scary anymore. I knew that look now: she wanted to touch me. It was a relief for me that Sandra didn’t want to attack and hurt me, but this was more complicated.
“That’s mostly up to him,” I said. “I don’t think he wants to come with us. And I don’t want to drag him around if he doesn’t want to.”
“But you do want him to come with us?” Sandra asked.
“To be honest, I would feel safer if he did.” I said, “I’ve learned that having a group of humans around me is the safest way to travel this world.”
“That is true,” Sandra said. She was quiet until we got to his hotel. As Nick approached the car and began loading his luggage. “If it keeps you safe, it’s okay by me.”
“Would you rather it just be you and me?” I asked her.
The rear door thumped open, and Nick called, “G’day Sandra, Archarya. Do we have enough snacks to drive through the whole day?”
“I think so,” I answered him.
Sandra shrugged, she looked at me and said, “Sometimes, Archie. But I get where you’re coming from.”
I patted her arm, thinking it was very odd that such a social species got so possessive about their relationships.
“What’s that?” Nick asked as he climbed into the back seat. He brought with him the sharp smell of citrus and cheap soap, which told me that he was even less prepared for this trip than Sandra and I were.
“Do humans usually travel in large groups?” I asked them both.
“Not really,” Sandra said, “not on long trips like this. It’s more common for big groups to have a leader and a goal. Like a competition or an expedition. Usually road trips are just for fun, and it’s just two people. Or two parents and their kids.”
“Or a group of friends traveling together,” Nick added.
“I understand,” I said. “This isn’t too out of the ordinary then, since this is a work trip.” I knew it didn’t feel like a work trip, since this was all one grand adventure to the humans, but it was worth reminding them I was here to do a job.
Sandra started the car and pulled out into the flow of traffic.
“Sure,” Nick said, “but personally, I am treating this like a vacation.”
“Me too,” Sandra said. “We need to get some relaxing in before we’re drafted into the war with the Canteron.”
“You shouldn’t joke about interstellar wars,” I said. “They’re brutal, and they don’t end well for anyone.”
“Oh, it’ll really suck to live through it, but humans generally come out the other side of wars flourishing,” She said. “Like after world war two, or the first gulf war. Afghanistan not so much, but that wasn’t a real war.”
“Speak for yourself,” Nick said, “and the United States of America, I guess.”
“Good point,” Sandra said, “sorry. I didn’t think about it.”
“Mate, you’re driving. You get to say all the wacky shit you want as long as you’re behind the wheel.”
She laughed at that.
“So what are you hoping to learn from this business trip?” Nick asked me.
“I want to see Earth outside of human settlements,” I said. “I saw a bit of the uninhabited lands in the United States, but not as much as I would like.”
“Well, sorry to disappoint, but there isn’t anywhere without humans,” Nick said. “We’re everywhere.”
“Yes, but you don’t build everywhere. I want to see the places where you don’t change the entire landscape.
“Ah, got it.”
“While we’re stuck in a car together for days, if you have anything you’re curious about, feel free to ask. I’m definitely going to be asking you a lot of questions.”
“I have one,” Nick said, but then trailed off. He looked confused when I twisted around to look at him.
“Now you see how tricky it is to be a planetary surveyor,” I said. “How do you know where to start with the questions?”
“I know where to start,” Sandra said, “Hey, Archie, what did you think of the opera? We didn’t hear about your thoughts at all last night.”
“Skaalt has been distracting me.” I said. I still had no idea where he would land in Earth. “But I didn’t have many. I didn’t understand the content, and I wasn’t very interested in the music after the song the audience sang.”
“Hallelujah?” Nick said.
“Yes, that one.”
“It is beautiful,” Sandra said. “What did you think of that one?”
“I didn’t understand all of it either, but hearing thousands of humans singing at once was powerful.”
“It would be hard to understand if you never read the bible. There’s a lot of religion in that song,” Nick said.
“I thought it was Jewish, isn’t it?” Sandra asked.
“King David is in the Old Testament, so it’s both.”
“Who’s that?” I asked, twisting around in my seat to look at Nick.
He stammered, “Oh, uh… It’s a long story.”
“We have a very long drive ahead of us.” I waited, and when he didn’t speak again, said, “I have heard plenty of strange religious tales from hundreds of different species. I don’t think thhugeis will be any worse.”
“Alright,” he started, “so, there according to the bible, a few thousand years ago, there was a man named David.”
Sandra shifted in her seat. I knew she wasn’t religious herself, but she knew a fair number of stories from human religions. I guessed she already knew this one and was already bored of the retelling. She didn’t interrupt, though.
I listened to the whole tale. It spanned multiple human generations. After Nick finished, I said, “So the first lines of the song are about this king.”
“Yes,” he said.
“And the other verse,” Sandra chimed in, “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof/ you saw her bathing on the roof/ her body in the moonlight overthrew you. That’s also David. Being tempted to sleep with a married woman. And then he had her husband killed so he could marry her.”
“That is…brutal,” I said.
“Yes! It is! And because he committed the ‘sin of adultery,'” Sandra let go of the steering wheel with one hand to put finger quotes around the words, “his son was killed and his kingdom destroyed.”
I had no response to that.
“This is why I don’t take religion seriously,” she said. “The punishments are so out of proportion to the crime. Yes, cheating sucks, but you don’t deserve to have your kid die if you sleep with someone else.”
“We’re barely out of the city and we’re already talking about religion,” Nick said, “this is going to be a long drive.”
“Yeah, but we’re going to learn a lot along the way,” Sandra said.”
“I’m going to,” I said. I did, too, but most of what I learned came from looking out the windows, not listening to the humans argue about politics and religion.
The middle of Australia is mostly scrubland and red desert. It reminded me both of Chint and of my first few hours on Earth. Sandra had driven me many hours through the American desert then. Australia was a lot more colorful, but that was the only visible difference.
Sandra found me during one of our frequent rest stops (humans get uncomfortable if they sit still for too long) and sidled up beside me. She didn’t say anything: just stood next to me in the shade and stretched her hands over her head. I watched the strange softness of her torso flex. Her spine popped as she twisted, and she sighed, “that’s better.”
“Is your spine hurting?” I asked.
She nodded. “Sitting in the car all day is making me stiff. I need to go on a walk when we stop for the day.”
“We’re almost there,” I said.
We never made it to Alice Springs though.
We were less than three hours away from town, in the middle of a red landscape of shrubs and small trees, when the steering wheel jerked in Sandra’s hands. There was a grinding noise, and black smoke began to billow from the engine.
“Shit!” Sandra said. She swerved the car to the side of the road and punched a button on the dashboard.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I have no idea” She shut the car off, and the hiss and the silence of the desert rushed in. Sandra and Nick both got out of the car and walked around to the hood. I followed a moment later. The road was unpaved, but heat radiated off the crushed gravel up my legs. At once I felt my scales begin to change color in response to the heat.
Sandra opened the hood of the car. It had stopped smoking by then, but there was a caustic smell in the air. She poked around for a minute, and then exclaimed, “Those fuckers!”
I turned from the view around us to see her brandishing a long metal rod with a thick, black ooze on the end.
“When was the last time they changed this oil?” She asked.
“Too long ago,” Nick said, “is that what’s wrong with it?”
“I have no idea, but it’s definitely not helping.” Sandra shook the stick and slid it back into place inside the car.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“Call for roadside assistance,” Nick said. “It’s the only thing we can do.”
Sandra wiped her hands on her pants and then pulled out her cell phone. “I don’t have any signal,” she said.
“Me neither,” Nick said.
I checked my human cell phone, and then my library-issued communicator. Neither were receiving a signal. I shook my head at both of them.
Sandra looked around at the desert and the empty road. It had been several hours since we saw another car. Nick had said that was unusual, since this was the main way to get to the center of the continent. He had theorized several times that the road behind us might be closed because of a collision or a downed power line.
“Well,” Nick said. He wobbled from leg to leg, hiked his pants up, and shook out his hands. “I am going to walk to the next bend in the road and see if there’s a building nearby. You two stay here.”
“Not a chance,” Sandra said. “We stay with the car.”
“We should at least check if someone is nearby.”
“What if someone drives by when you’re gone?” Sandra asked him. “Let’s give it a few minutes and see if anyone comes.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “Fine. Fifteen minutes, and then I am walking.”
We sat. Or Nick sat. Sandra started going through her luggage, and I decided to take the opportunity to take a stroll in the desert and look around. I found a glass bottle, plenty of rocks, and animal droppings, but little else.
When I got back, I found both humans staring at the sky. Sandra had separated the food and water we’d brought with us into three small piles. They were all equal except one had less water than the other two, so I assumed it was mine.
“Are you expecting to be stuck here for a long time?” I asked her.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe until tomorrow morning? But we don’t have that much food. I thought it would be a good idea to divide it up.”
“I have a little more in my luggage,” I said, “but I don’t know if it will be edible for you and Nick.”
“I don’t want to go through your things,” Sandra said. “If you want to eat that first and give us some of the snacks, I’ll appreciate it.”
Nick got out of the car, sweating from the heat. “Alright. It’s been almost a half hour. I’m going to take a walk.”
“Let’s all go,” Sandra suggested. She picked up a bottle of water from her pile of supplies. “We don’t want to get separated. That’s how people die when they break down.”
“Wow, cheery. I bet there’s a house with a landline right around the next bend,” Nick set off down the road.
Sandra and I set off after him.
“Do a lot of humans die stranded on roads?” I asked.
“No,” Sandra said, “but it happens sometimes. Usually they die when they’re in the snow or in the desert…like this one. We’ll be okay as long as we stay on the road and out of the sun.”
“I don’t think we’re stranded just yet,” I said. “Someone will come along and stop to help us.”
“Maybe,” She said, “if we’re all out in the open and wave them down, we’ll have a better shot.”
“Maybe there will be a building around the corner,” I said. That would be faster than waiting for someone to drive by.
There wasn’t a building around the next curve in the highway, and the road stretched off straight and flat for as far as we could see, and there were no buildings in sight.
“Well,” Nick said, “that’s a bust. I guess we go back to the car now.”
“Someone will drive by and help,” I said. “We should stay in the shade during the day anyway.”
We walked back to the car. By the time we made it back, Sandra and Nick were both sweating. Their skin glistened with water. Sweating is how humans shed excess heat, and it works well. Except that shedding water means they need to drink more of it. And it makes them smell.
Back at the car, we found a nearby scraggly tree and stood in the shade.
“Well, this is a predicament,” Nick said. “Hopefully whatever is stopping traffic ends soon. I don’t think we have enough food and water to stay here more than a day.”
“We could try to find something to eat here,” Sandra said. “Right?”
“I mean, maybe?” Nick said. He looked around. “There are probably witchetty grubs around here.”
My ears pricked up in excitement, but I said, “We should stay with the car. If we’re still here tomorrow morning, we can start thinking about foraging.”
“That’s a plan,” Nick said.
“Acharya still has a box of crickets we can eat if we really want to eat bugs,” Sandra said.
“Those are mine,” I said. I was saving them for a snack.
“Witchetty grubs are way tastier than crickets,” Nick said at the same time.
I moved a few rocks and sat down with my back against the tree. My robes and shoes were already covered in red dust, and my scales were turning pinkish-white to better reflect the light from the sun.
Sandra pulled a blanket out of the back of the jeep and spread it on the ground to sit on, and the three of us took to staring at the horizon, waiting for someone to come get us.
“Are there no communities out here?” I asked after a few minutes.
“Nothing substantial,” Nick said. “Maybe a house or two way out, but nothing we can hope to find.”
I began to feel nervous about our chances. Not mine, since I was as better adapted to the desert, but Sandra and Nick were both losing water fast and, and after the short walk, Sandra’s skin had retained the red flush around her nose and upper arms.
I tucked my legs under me and pulled out my notebook since I might at well be productive if I was stuck in the middle of nowhere. I spent most of my time staring at the road on the horizon until my eyes hurt, and my vision filled with spots when I looked away. It only got worse as the sun sank and the shadows moved.
When it began to get cold, we all climbed back into the car and shared a tense meal of unfilling snacks and overly-salted nuts. Then Nick broke first and went into the bushes to use the bathroom away from the road.
Sandra let out a long sigh, “Well, this is definitely an outback experience, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it is,” I said. “This isn’t quite what I was picturing, but it’s something.”
“Nothing like this has ever happened to me before,” She said.
“I’ve been stranded on planets before,” I said, “but usually in places a lot more hospitable.”
“The right person could probably live off the land out here,” Sandra said, “Provided they found fresh water. But we have no chance.”
“I could probably walk out of here if I really needed to,” I said, “but I wouldn’t enjoy it, and I might be too hungry to keep going before I found civilization.”
“Let’s try not to resort to that,” Sandra said. “We’ll just have to hope someone comes along before tomorrow morning.”
Nick opened the back doors and started putting the seats down flat. “If we’re sleeping in here, we should at least be comfortable.”
“I’ll sleep up here,” I said, “if it gets that late.”
Sandra went around to the back of the jeep and helped Nick make thin beds out of two of the seats. It had gotten shockingly cold outside. Far colder than I had thought it would be. I was suddenly glad that all three of us were warm-blooded and would keep the van warm overnight.
It was then that we all heard the drone of an approaching engine.
Sandra and Nick immediately jumped back from the car and started yelling and waving their arms.
The approaching car slowed and stopped, and I heard an Australian-accented voice say, “Hello there, mates. What are you doing all the way out here?”
“Our car broke down,” Sandra said.
“We need a lift to somewhere to stay tonight,” Nick added.
I was putting away my notebook when I heard several pairs of feet hit the ground. Sandra and Nick both shut up abruptly. My whole body tensed up and a felt an uneasy prickle go down my spine.
“Is it just the two of you?” The voice asked.
“No,” Nick said, “we have a friend in the car.”
“Jiemba?” The voice asked.
A lone pair of footsteps approached the car. I found the incapacitator in my pocket and gripped it.
The human circled around the back of the car and slowly came up level with my window. They had to stand on their tip-toes to see in the window.
I relaxed at once, confusion and curiosity usurping fear. Jiemba stepped back and opened the car door for me. I slid to the ground with a bump and closed the door, then turned to regard the human more closely.
He, Jiemba, was definitely human. He was not a Chintilik, nor any other off-world species. He was a Dron.