I overheard a lot of conversations on Earth. Humans talk all the time, and while some of them tend to rattle on about very little all the time, others say a lot in few words. I rarely took note of them, but I noted a lot of chatter between Sandra and Nick that afternoon in Sydney. They were talking about their research and their experiences working with me. Sandra was catching Nick up on what I had worked on so far, apparently mistaking his presence for long-term employment instead of following me on a whim.
They acted professional, if a little distant. I thought they were sizing each other up.
The most interesting snippet I heard was when I was away from the table briefly during dinner out. I had been pulled away by the waiter, who said the chef and back-of-house staff wanted to meet me. I was getting used to my minor celebrity, and I did like talking to humans, so I agreed.
On my way back to the table, I heard Sandra say, “No, it was for my own reasons. I was really in a rut and I finally shook myself out of it. Also, I was worried about them. They got mugged in San Francisco, and ever since it’s been way too easy to imagine something worse happening.”
I poked my head around the corner. “I’ve had worse days than that one. You shouldn’t worry about me.” They must have been talking about why they had come here.
“Sure,” she patted the chair beside her I had vacated a few minutes ago. “And maybe I’m just paranoid, but you could use someone to watch your back while you’re wandering around Earth.”
I sat with a displeased huff, but I wasn’t arguing. I tapped her side once, a Chintilik gesture that she didn’t know.
Sandra jumped in her seat like I had given her an electric shock, and let out a reflexive laugh. “What was that?” She asked me.
I explained that it was an acknowledgement of good humor. The equivalent of laughing at an inside joke. “Did I hurt you?”
“No, you surprised me. And it tickled.”
Nick was baffled by our behavior, even more so when Sandra explained what tickling was. He thought everyone already knew that, and that everyone included people who were not human at all.
He was even more surprised when I explained that no, I couldn’t be tickled. And that being ticklish would have been a huge evolutionary disadvantage for Chintilik, considering how much time we spent in sand.
We talked, all three of us, through dinner and three drinks for Nick, only one for Sandra. By the end of the night, I was more relaxed than I had been in a month and giddy with company.
Nick left first, taking the car he had driven back to whatever hotel he had booked. Sandra looked at me, awkward for the first time that day. “Should I go to a hotel too?” She asked.
“Only if you want to. The short-term rental I booked has two bedrooms. You’re welcome to the second one.”
She nodded, “I’d appreciate that. More money saved. I already rented a car.”
I followed her towards where she had parked. “I’ll reimburse you. If you’re going to be working with me, your expenses will be covered.”
“Please,” she said, “that would be amazing. How long do you want me to hang around? I still want to see the great barrier reef.”
I caught up to her, tried to look at her face, but Sandra had her head turned away from me.
“That’s up to you,” I said. “I don’t know what arrangements you made with your university or your parents, but I’ll be on Earth for at least another year, and I was planning to work with you for the whole time. Traveling with you instead of calling or emailing you in Berkeley every week just makes things easier. And more enjoyable,” I added.
She started to look towards me, then just covered her face with her hands and took a deep breath.
“Are you upset?” I asked.
She nodded, then shook her head. “Not at you,” she said between her fingers. “At myself and fucking Raymond. I should have gone with you when you first left the states. I wanted to.”
“A lot of people find it’s hard to leave their home,” I said. “Even dedicated travelers usually stay behind in the long run. I’m surprised you decided to follow me at all.”
Now she looked at me. Her eyes were wet and red. The tears made her look miserable and sick. She held out her arms to me, silently, and I stepped in for a hug. Tears wet my clothing and her hands squeezed hard.
I gave her a gentle squeeze. “I’m glad you followed me.”
“Me too,” Sandra let me go. “I’m going to drive to the rental before I cry,” she decided.
I followed for a few steps before I said, “Do you know why humans cry?”
I heard the smile in her voice. “I don’t. I know it releases tension, but as for why we’re able to in the first place, I have no idea. I’m crying because I broke up with Raymond and I’m still sad about it. Even though it needed to be done.” I was still formulating a reply when she said, “I know you don’t like each other. It’s okay to say so.”
“It was less that I didn’t like him than that I didn’t like how he treated you or made you act.” I said. “You two were glued together every time I saw you in the same room. And usually intoxicated.”
“Yes…It wasn’t healthy. Alcoholism is a hell of a thing,” Sandra said, and left it at that.
We drove back to the rental not in silence, but with directions and observations and the quiet hum of an electric engine. She started talking about the koalas and snakes. She had really loved the animals. Almost as much as Irving did.
When we arrived, I showed her to the spare room that I had left vacant and let her get settled in while I finished up my notes from the day.
After about ten minutes, I heard her crying. The human expression of grief is, like a lot of what they do, loud and messy. It involves salty water streaming from the eyes and increased mucus production in the nose and involuntary keening noises. It’s disturbing if you don’t know what it is, and pitiful if you do. Sandra was sobbing so hard I could hear her breath jerking in her lungs even from across the house.
I got up and started the kettle boiling. I hadn’t purchased tea, but there was some provided in the house. Sandra often used tea the way that Chintilik use a sunny room: for comfort and hospitality. I had picked up the habit of making it from her. I liked the warmth.
She emerged after a half hour, eyes very red and blinking hazily.
“Are you okay?” I asked her. I wasn’t sure what else to say.
Sandra nodded. She dropped down next to me, among the books and documents spread over the table top, and let her head drop onto her hand.
“I’ll get you a cup of tea,” I said.
“Make it a big one,” she said, “I’m dehydrated.”
I found the biggest mug in the house and filled it. Sandra smiled when she took it from me, murmured a “thank you.”
We sat in silence for a long time. I went back to writing up my notes, trying to figure out how to communicate to the librarian what had happened that day. It’s very hard to say, “I have no idea what to do here,” to any boss. Especially the librarian. But I needed to say it.
“So you broke up with Raymond,” I said after I had finished, “what about Gizmo?”
“Julia took him,” Sandra said. “She offered to. And last I saw, he and the baby were making friends.”
“And your degree?”
“I’ll defend my dissertation remotely if I’m not back in the states by April.”
I had zero intention of sending her back home. “Very well,” I said, “you have everything under control. I’m glad you figured everything out.”
“Not everything,” she said, “my apartment is still full of my stuff.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
She let out a long breath. “I’m here. I’m actually doing this.”
“Yes, and before you do, there are a few rules you need to know.”
She looked at me, “if you’re going to tell me you can’t take me off-planet, I already know that. Nick told me about the bar, and I have read some of the documents about planetary surveying.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, “but these are more personal rules.” I stood up, “follow me.”
She did, trailing me into the small bathroom, where my medicine pack was sitting on the counter. I opened it and showed her the contents for a moment.
“Do not touch this,” I said. “If I catch you going through it, even just because you’re curious, I will kick you out.”
“As long as you promise not to go through my medications either,” she said, “we’re all good.”
“Okay.” I opened the door to my room, next to the bathroom. The bedding was tucked into a nest, and my crutches were balanced against the bedside table. “You may enter this room, but please don’t touch the crutches or any of my mobility equipment.” She would see me using them in the mornings or late at night, so there was no point pretending they weren’t there.
Sandra nodded. She was turning red, looking into the room. Taking in the paraphernalia of space travel, I guessed.
“Sandra,” I said, and she looked at me, “if I need your help, I will ask for it. Treat me differently because of the medication or the crutches, and we’ll have a problem.”
“I won’t,” she said. “I’ve known you have trouble with your legs since November. It didn’t change how I acted then.”
“The mugging made me worry about it more than I normally would,” I admitted.
One corner of her mouth quirked up. “It would worry anyone. You can handle yourself.”
I closed the door again and headed back towards the kitchen.
“Can I ask one question?” Sandra asked.
“Are the medications for your legs, or because you’re not safe here on Earth? Is the air toxic to you or something?”
I flicked an ear, “I’m not allergic to Earth. The medicine is mostly hormone replacements and bone-supplements.” I could have left it there, but I elaborated. “The hope is that if my own bones develop enough, I won’t need another surgery to replace the synthetic ones I have now. They’re made to be grown-over.”
“Your bones are synthetic?!” She asked. Now, finally, she sounded surprised.
“Only my legs,” I said.
She blinked, looked down at my legs, back up at me. “Wow,” she said at last. “That is really cool and really freaky.”
I flicked an ear at her again. “It is. So, please, don’t touch my medications.”
“I won’t.” The promise was firmer this time.
“Good.” I sat again. “Do you want to know where we’re going next?”
“Yes please,” She sat down next to me.
I went over my travel plans, sketching out the route we would take. It would be simple enough to get Sandra tickets too.
She was falling asleep at the table long before I’d told her the whole plan. She did end up asleep at one point, her head balanced between her hand and my shoulder. I shook her gently awake.
“You should go to bed,” I told her.
She nodded, leaned in, and gave me another hug. The third of the day. “Thank you,” she said. I didn’t know what she was thanking me for, so I didn’t respond. I just buried my face in her shoulder.
“Archie?” She said.
Sandra said, “Nothing. Nevermind.” She drank the last dregs of her tea. “You’re right that I need to sleep. So do you.”
“I’ll go in a few minutes. I need to send a report.”
“Okay. Good night, Archie.”
“Good night, Sandra.”
The door to her room closed behind her.
“Let’s hope the librarian likes you as much as I do,” I said to Sandra’s closed door.
It took me a half hour to polish the report and send it to the librarian.