Editor’s Note: the following narrative, split over two chapters, was written by Dr. Sandra Wright at the request of Dron Acharya. These are complex narratives that those unfamiliar with humanity may have trouble decoding. For additional resources, see the comprehensive notations on human narratives included in index one.
Dr. Sandra Wright is a traveling scholar, lecturer, and author. Her most popular works are “‘Hello, is anyone there?’: Interviews with humans after first contact,” and “Get Me Off This Planet: The Unique Drive of Deathworlders to Leave (or Not Leave) Their Homeworld.”
Very recently, I was able to visit Chint, where the Chintilik evolved and where the vast majority of them still live. If Earth is a blue marble, Chint is a cat’s eye. The sands are a muted rainbow and the rock outcroppings are bright polka dots. Quartz crystals the size of buildings jutt from the planet and focus the light of the sun to burning points, giving the whole thing a shimmery, glittery look from the atmosphere. Animals sleep in the shade all day and emerge at night to move in the half-light of a tiny moon.
The Chintilik shocked me more than anything. I knew Acharya prior to visiting, and they had tried to explain that they weren’t typical Chintilik, but I still wasn’t prepared. The Chintilik were taller than I expected, rounder too, with natural armor on their backs and powerful legs. They spoke little, and what words they did say were short and rough. They had no time for a tourist, even less for a scholar.
Archarya, with their thin armor, narrower frame, frailer legs, and chattier attitude, might as well have been a different species.
I put my feet on the desert sands of Chint. I spent two weeks there: sleeping during the day and walking the cities at night. I went to great temples and small shops, ate ronnals by the handful, and saw the nurseries. I even met a young Dron being carried by a caretaker in a market, their eyes wide, one hand stretching out to grab the lights. Their other arm was nothing more than a flap of skin, rolled up and tucked into a pouch, and their legs were in metal braces. They had deep, intense knowledge in their eyes: the kind of look that a child only gets when they have seen too much of the world too quickly.
But I am getting ahead of myself here. There are plenty of books out there about Chint and the Chiltilik, and one day I hope to contribute to that section of the Galactic Library, but this is a book about humans, so I’ll tell another story.
Dron Acharya asked me to contribute a piece to this collection of narratives about humans. Well, I know what they’re like, so I’m guessing this “historical account” is going to end up looking like a novel by the end. I figure it’s only right that I contribute in kind.
So this is the story of how I left home for the first time. I wasn’t going far: I wasn’t even leaving the planet. At the time, I was sure it wouldn’t matter in the long run. But in hindsight, I see it for what it was: taking the leap away from everything and everyone I had ever known and not knowing where I would end up. It was the moment that set me on the path for space travel.
Acharya always says, “Only weirdos go to space.” And they’re right most of the time. It takes a lot of effort to get off a planet. You have to leave everything behind. You have to be okay with never coming back. You have to commit to the unknown and the unknowable and embrace it. It is the scariest, hardest part of leaving a world behind.
It was the human month March of the eleventh year of contact, more than a month after Acharya had left the United States of America, the country where I lived, for Australia. I’d received pictures of the cities in Australia, the summer softening to fall. Beautiful pictures, but without Acharya in them.
Meanwhile, I kept working. I wrote summaries of world history and put together fact-sheets about just about everything. It was rewarding work, and I did most of it in Acharya’s office even after they had gone. I felt safe there, and all the resources I needed were at my fingertips.
I was also slowly losing my mind.
Humans often go mad. This is not to be confused with someone actually experiencing a mental health crisis, which is different. I’m talking about old-style victorian-era madness, where young beautiful women sigh in bed all day and declare they will die from mysterious fever. Madness like that, melancholy, lovesickness, and heartbreak, are just normal human things. We stopped being so dramatic about it a few hundred years ago.
I knew I had it bad when I noticed I didn’t feel like eating breakfast anymore, and I knew I was in serious trouble when I was lying awake at 3 AM and not feeling tired at all. I was about ready to get a prescription for sleeping pills and drop out of my PhD program by the end of February. It was unpleasant, to say the least.
I spent time at my friend Julia’s apartment when I couldn’t sleep because I could at least make myself useful there. She was a new mother, and human infants need constant attention that one person can’t always provide. She appreciated the support and the food I brought over. Her living room was a revolving door of guests: me, Martha, her ex’s sisters, and one of her distant cousins. Julia was plenty capable on her own, and she let us know it, but there was a village raising her baby anyway. My visits were less about the baby and more about keeping her sane. We talked about work, television, books, and, most of all, relationships.
We said we had, “failed the Bechdel test,” whenever the clock hit midnight and we found we’d spent the whole evening talking about men. But it was hard not to. Julia’s partner had burned their relationship in spectacular fashion (the details I still don’t feel comfortable publicizing, but it involved infidelity and a fair amount of illegal narcotics), and there was always new drama unfolding. And as for me: I was dating Raymond, who I cared about, and who could barely stand to get up in the morning without downing a beer first.
“Can you believe this?” Julia asked me as soon as I arrived that night carrying Chinese takeout. She shoved her phone at me, pointing to the text messages on her screen. Just another day in the life of a woman holding the world together through sheer force of will.
“Have you ever talked to Raymond about his drinking?” She asked me a couple hours later, after we had unpacked and repacked her drama.
“I’ve tried,” I tried not to whine. “Three or four times, but I don’t know. He says the drinking helps him do his work better. It keeps him ‘focused.’”
Julia just rolled her eyes. In his little bouncy chair on the ground between us, the baby was asleep. Julia has one foot resting on the metal bars of the chair protectively.
“These days, it’s just nice to hang out with someone without alcohol being involved.” I said.
“I know what that means. I don’t think there was even one party where my ex came home sober enough to walk straight. If I never have to clean up beer-puke at 3 AM again. It’ll be too soon.”
I made a face and took another sip of my soda. “Did I tell you about Halloween this year?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “tell me all about it.”
So I did. From beginning to end. From carving pumpkins and dancing to passing out drunk. “And the next morning I wake up with a wicked headache, nauseated as hell, next to Acharya.”
Julia gasped, half-acting, half actually shocked.
“Not like that,” I corrected her quickly. “Both of us fully clothed, on opposite ends of Raymond’s spare bed. They stayed up the whole night reading next to me. Apparently I refused to go into Raymond’s room and sleep it off there.”
Julia stayed quiet for a long time. She bounced the baby with her foot. “Was this before or after the two of you stayed up watching the galaxy lose its collective shit?” She asked.
“A couple weeks before.”
“And almost two months after I met Acharya at the daycare. And you played hide and seek.”
Julia set her can of coke down. “Well,” she said, “now I know why Raymond doesn’t like Acharya.”
“What?” I knew what she was talking about. Raymond and I had already had several fights about me spending time with Acharya. “They’re my boss, you know. Of course I have to spend time around them.”
“Mhmm,” Julia smirked. “Totally professional.”
“Okay, not really professional. I don’t think Acharya knows how to be professional.”
“You mean how they’re always asking questions about every little thing?”
I nodded. “Literally everything. They have zero boundaries when it comes to their research. They’re way pushier than a human anthropologist.”
“So a true scholar then.”
“I guess, but sometimes it’s like dealing with a toddler who won’t stop asking ‘why?'”
“And yet you hang out with them anyway.”
Guilt rolled around my stomach. “We get along, and they’re easy to talk to.”
“And nothing has ever happened between you two?”
“Nothing. Unless you count them calling me to pick them up after a mugger puked on them.”
“Good, cause that was probably the least-fun night we’ve had.”
I realized what I’d said and put my head on my hands. Julia actually cackled in delight. The baby woke up and whined. Julia scooped him up at once.
“Girl, if you want to be the first human to bang an alien—’
“I don’t think I’d be anywhere close to the first,” I protested. “We’ve been in space for ten years now. At least one person has already slept their way across the galaxy.”
“True, but the point remains. I don’t know much about your relationship except that your boyfriend’s an alcoholic, and I don’t know much about Acharya, but you like them a lot.”
“I don’t though! I admire their research and I like talking to them, but I don’t want to date them. I think Ashe is just getting to me. She has a huge crush on them.”
“Is that why she was so pushy during Christmas?”
“Yup. I was surprised Acharya gave her the cold shoulder. They seemed to be getting along before.”
“It’s because your mom and I were keeping them busy talking about all kinds of things. Didn’t you notice?”
“No,” To be honest, I don’t remember most of that day once everyone had arrived. The only recollections I had were of sitting next to Raymond, his hand on my leg under the table while everyone talked around us, and how, not for the first time, the contact had made my skin crawl. I blew out a breath.
“Okay, forget the alien for a second. You know that if you want to break up with Raymond, for any reason or no reason, that’s not wrong, right?”
“Of course I know that,” I said, but even as I said it I felt a great relief in my chest. Followed immediately after by a sickening lurch, and the thought, “Holy shit someone gave me permission.” The next thing I knew, I was blinking back tears and making little sniffling noises. Julia didn’t say anything, just gave me a look like, “see my point?” and went into the kitchen to grab the baby a bottle of formula while I composed myself. Even the baby was looking at me with something like pity.
The microwave beeped and Julia came back in with the bottle. She gave me a pat on the shoulder as she scooped up the baby.
“Look,” She said, “it sucks, and I know it sucks. I mean—” she gestured around the tiny apartment, “I know exactly what it’s like. What’s stopping you?”
“Fuck, I don’t know. I guess I just feel like it’s been fine, hasn’t it? It’s been nice. We’ve gone on a couple vacations. We spend time together every weekend. There’s nothing actually wrong, and even if there was, I can’t just leave him. I don’t know what would happen with his drinking and his job.”
“Is that connected to the relationship?”
I nodded. “Half the time, it’s me calling him in the morning to wake him up. And sometimes I drive him there and then back at night.”
Julia was shaking her head, not saying anything.
“Yeah, I know that’s pathetic.”
“Your words, not mine.” She said, “Do you want to talk about it more?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know. What would I even do if I broke up with Raymond?”
Julia shrugged, “Run off to Australia?”
I laughed, “and leave Gizmo and my whole education behind?”
“I’d happily adopt your kitty if you really wanted to go. I could use the company. Plus, the ex is highly allergic to cats, so it could keep him away.”
“Get your own kitten!” I laughed even though it hurt.
“I’m planning on going to the shelter and adopting as soon as I get a little extra cash.”
I just sighed. It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about it. Late at night, lying awake, I’d imagined breaking up with Raymond, giving Gizmo to my parents, flat-out abandoning my doctorate, and just running away. This was the first time I’d been really tempted though.
“Do you know what I think?” Julia asked me.
“What?” I said.
“I think if you aren’t careful, you’re going to end up engaged to an alcoholic without a good way out and a buttload of student debt.”
“Oh-kay,” I said, “too real.”
She laughed as only the truly experienced can. “Just don’t have a baby with him.”
“At least there’s no chance of that,” I said. “Frick, maybe I should have been an astronaut. At least I don’t menstruate.”
“There’s still time,” Julia said. “I wouldn’t trade this little one for the world, but I am a little jealous you don’t have to deal with blood every month.”
I smiled at the baby, who was happily suckling on the bottle in Julia’s arms. “He’s worth the pain.”
“Every ounce of it.” She sat back, smiling down at the baby. “You think they let moms go into space?”
“I don’t know. I could ask Acharya.”
I pulled out my phone and saw that I already had a message from Acharya. And one from Raymond. I sighed and read Raymond’s first. “Want to come over? I just opened a nice bottle of whiskey and there’s a new James Bond out.”
“I’m at Julia’s helping with the baby,” I texted back. “Maybe in a little while.”
I got a thumbs-up even as I swapped to Acharya’s message.
“If you were here, what would you want to see?” They had written.
I frowned at the message for a minute, then flipped the phone around to Julia. “Am I going insane, or do you see this too?”
She read the message. “I dare you to reply, ‘you in a hot tub.'”
“No! That’s awful.”
“Yeah, but it would cut to the chase, if you want to get there.”
I shook my head and locked my phone. “For the last time: I don’t want to sleep with Acharya.”
“I’m sorry,” Julia said, “and maybe I’m projecting, but I don’t believe you.”
“You want to sleep with them?” I asked her.
She shrugged, unapologetic. She’d recently had a doctor, a nurse, three med students, me, and Martha all staring at her vagina, so she was pretty desensitized to anything regarding her genitals. “I would if the opportunity arose. I think it’s the big eyes.”
“They do have nice eyes,” I allowed. “They say they’re that big because the Chintilik are nocturnal on their home world.”
“Wow. Learn something new every day.”
“I can’t believe everyone I know wants to sleep with them except me. I swear even my dad was considering it.”
“Yeah that’s not because of them. It’s because they’ve got the power to get people off this planet.”
“You think so?”
“Yeah. Of course. People are attracted to power.”
“No, I mean do you really think they have the power to take someone off-world.”
She thought about it while burping the baby. “Probably not. Even if they did, they probably wouldn’t use it.”
“Yeah.” I agreed. I already knew how people would react if Acharya took someone off of Earth with them. It would be chaos even if nothing unprofessional happened at all.
Julia was looking at the baby, frowning.
“What?” I asked her.
“I fed him before I changed him,” she said. “I did it in the wrong order.”
“Does it really matter?” I asked.
“Not sure. I’ve only been doing this a month.” She stood up. “I’m going to go get a new diaper for him. Don’t go anywhere.”
I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. “Do you want me to stay the night so I can feed him for you?”
“No. I think you have a couple other people to talk to before the night is over.”
She was right.
I texted Raymond that I would be over soon, and said goodbye to Julia when she came back from setting the baby down in his crib.
“Are you serious about adopting Gizmo if I leave?” I asked her.
“Deadly,” she said. “I love that cat. And it would be cheaper than getting one from the shelter.”
“Okay. I need to actually talk to Acharya about it. Make sure they actually want me along for the ride.”
“Sandra, of course they do. They just texted you out of the blue. They miss you and you miss them. Don’t make it complicated. Just ask them if they want you to come with them, and if they say yes, then go.”
I blinked back tears again. “You’re way smarter than you let on, you know that?”
“Yeah, but don’t tell anyone. Dumb people have an easier time of it. Better to be a dumbass than fighting against human nature any day.”
“I have heard that before.” I stood up and gave her a quick hug. “Thank you. This was a really helpful conversation.”
“You’re welcome. Send me a present from Australia when you get there.”
“Want a jar of Vegemite?”
“Actually yeah. I love it.”
“If this turns out well, I’ll send you a whole crate.” I gave her another side hug. “I’m going to drive over to Raymond’s.”
“Alright. Text me how it went when you get home.”
“You’re going to go break up with him, aren’t you?”
“I mean…” I hadn’t let myself even get that far ahead, but I had been preparing a speech in my head along those lines. “Probably. Unless I turn up and he’s sober enough to talk it out.”
“Thank you,” and I headed out the door.