“You,” Jiemba said, “you are my brother from another star.”
“You are my hatch-mate from a different nest.” I told him. “Greetings. The sands are gentle tonight.” It is always odd to come across a dron from another species. It is a Chintilik social class, after all, and it isn’t expected to translate off-world. But what makes a Dron is a combination of good luck, schooling, and learned-self-confidence. There are equivalents in other species.
“Werte,” he said. It wasn’t an English word, but it was easy enough to understand. I replied with the same sentiment in my native language.
“Ay! Jiemba!” The first voice called. “All good?”
Jiemba walked to the road. I followed him, watching the distinctive motions of confidence. He moved like a good Dron does; all-aware, on his toes, hovering. He radiated self-assuredness. “All is well,” he said. “This is the one who was speaking to me. They are safe.”
“These two are traveling with me,” I told Jiemba, gesturing towards Sandra and Nick, who both were frozen with their hands up at chest height. “Please don’t threaten them.”
The slim rifle that the man had aimed at Sandra and Nick lowered.
There were three more humans around the pickup truck that had stopped beside us. They were all large men. They were all relaxed now that Jiemba had given them the all-clear.
I went to Sandra and Nick. “Don’t be scared,” I said to them. “Dron Jiemba and these men came to help us.”
“Oh,” Sandra said, “okay.”
Jiemba was having a similar conversation with the other group. He walked over to us.
“What is your name?” He asked me.
“Acharya,” I told him.
“No,” he said, “in your tongue.”
I repeated my name again, the formal Chintilik pronunciation with the high click in the middle and the rumble at the end. He mimicked it almost perfectly.
“Acharya, you are the alien who came to Earth to study it,” he said.
“Then I have to apologize. We had bad opinions of you. We didn’t know that they had sent us a spiritual man, not a scientist.”
“I am a bit of both.” I said. “Now, I want to continue this, but we have been stuck here for a few hours. May we borrow a phone to call for help?”
“Of course,” he said. “And while you wait, please come stay with us. It would be rude to leave you out in the dark. Bring your bags, if you have any, and we will drive you back to town.”
“Thank you.” I said. And I turned to Sandra and Nick. “Come. We need to get our things.”
I went to the car and took my bags out. The other humans shuffled around and made room for us in the bed of the truck. Jiemba was seated in the front of the cab beside the driver.
Sandra, Nick, and I sat in the back, clustered together against the wind and the chill.
After a few minutes of driving, Sandra leaned in close to me and said into my ear, “You never mentioned being spiritual.”
Her breath was a welcome warmth. When I leaned in to reply, I felt her shiver.
“I’m not,” I said. “But Dron have religious and spiritual responsibilities on Chint. That is what he means.”
“You were a priest?” She asked, shocked.
“No. More of a spiritual advisor.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’ll tell you more when we’re back on solid ground.” I promised her.
Sandra nodded. She settled in close to me and closed her eyes. After a moment, I dipped my hand down and touched the curve of her back. That gesture meant support and comfort for humans, at least when it was coming from a friend. For Chintilik, it’s a lot more intimate, but I figured what Sandra didn’t know wouldn’t offend her. On my other side, Nick was similarly curled up. His hand was resting on my arm like he didn’t want to lose track of me.
It took almost an hour for the truck to bounce and bump its way down dirt tracks to town. It was more of a village, really, and there were vast distances between the buildings, but there was a small inn, a store, and a bar where the lights were still on inside.
We all climbed down from the truck bed, and Jiemba brought us into the hotel. He argued with the woman behind the counter, then brought over a single room key.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “There is only one room available. It has two beds.”
I looked at my human companions, then took the key. “That’s fine. I think we’re all too tired to care about it.”
He nodded. “Sleep well, Acharya. You and I have to talk in the morning.”
“Thank you. Sleep well, and may the stars light your way home.” He bowed his head, a human gesture of acknowledgment, and headed back out the door. We traipsed to our room.
As soon as the door was closed, they both turned to me and said, “What was that?”
I put my bag down and pulled out my sleeping clothes, thinking it was probably better to be covered if I was sharing a bed.
“Jiemba is a dron,” I said, “I don’t think there’s a human word for it. He has learned to hear or sense things very far away.”
“That’s usually called, ‘fake,’” Nick said. “Or ‘a hoax.’”
“Don’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion,” I chided, trying not to sound like a professor. “For one, you will offend a lot of species. For another, you would be discounting many methods of communication humans aren’t equipped for. A human knowing things they have no way of knowing would be far from the strangest thing in the universe.”
“Psychic is the word for it,” Sandra said, “or Sensitive.”
“How can a human be a Dron?” She asked.
“Can I explain in the morning with all three of you there?” I asked. “I don’t want to repeat myself if I don’t have to.”
I just nodded. “I’m going to bed. Both of you should too. I think tomorrow will be interesting for us all.”
They both agreed. There was a general awkward shuffling, about the beds, because I needed to be on a soft surface or my spine might not work tomorrow, and the humans weren’t comfortable sharing.
“Acharya and I will just have to build a wall of pillows,” Sandra said finally. “We can share. Professional boundaries are definitely out the window, though.”
“You humans have a stricter definition of professionalism than most species.” I was too tired to really argue, and as soon as it was available, climbed into bed and curled up tight. I fell asleep even before they turned the lights off.
Sandra did roll into me in the middle of the night, waking me up. I expected her to pull away from me immediately, but instead she threw an arm over my waist and nestled her head into the back of my neck. Her hair caught on my scales, but she didn’t notice in sleep. She mumbled something my implants couldn’t make sense of, then settled into stillness. I, meanwhile, was wide awake. Professionalism be damned indeed, I thought.
Chintilik do not co-sleep with anyone. Ever. Even their mates or children. It’s just not done. That doesn’t mean we aren’t intimate with each other in other ways, but sometimes there are just too many scales in the equation. I had shared rooms and beds with other alien species, though. Some who slept together as a family or social unit, some who just wanted to sleep with me specifically. I knew how comforting it could be. Sandra wrapped around me, though, was a lot more than comforting. It was intoxicating.
I managed to fall asleep again after a while, Sandra still pressed against my back, and slept the deep dreamless sleep of the protected.
I woke up before the others, slid carefully out of Sandra’s hands and the covers, and went to find Jiemba. He was already up as well, sitting on the steps of a building across from the inn, watching three young children tumble about in the dust on the side of the road with a small dog.
I sat beside him, and he wordlessly passed me a cup of something dark and hot that smelled of herbs.
“Thank you for coming to find us,” I told him, “and for letting us stay here.”
“Anything for my brothers and sisters,” Jiemba said.
“We have to stick together,” I agreed.
He chuckled, drawing the attention of the children, who stopped their tumbling and came over to investigate me.
“Papa,” one of them said, “who’s that?” Jiemba picked her up and sat her on his knee.
“This is Acharya,” He said, again using the Chintilik pronunciation of my name. “He is like me.”
She looked at me with huge eyes. Her hair was covered in red dust. “You look funny. Is that a mask?”
“No,” I told her. “I’m an alien.”
“Oooh,” all three of them said. One of the little boys poked my foot with a stick.
“I’m from a planet called Chint,” I told them, and went through the explanation I had for children about space travel and my job.
“Acharya was who I heard calling for me last night when I left the house.” He said.
“You can long-talk like dad?” One of them asked me.
“I can’t. He heard me without me ever having to call.”
They all agreed that sounded like their father, and drifted away again to play with the puppy.
“Are all three of them your children?” I asked.
He nodded, “their mother, Kirra, asked me to bring them with me this morning. She wants them to see that the world is bigger than just the desert, and when I told her about you and your friends, she insisted they meet you.”
“That’s flattering.” I was secretly dreading meeting her, though. Some people are pushy when it comes to getting them and their family off of the planet.
“She won’t see you,” He said, as if reading my mind. “She’s in Alice Springs presenting an art exhibition.”
I made no comment, just a hum that could have meant anything.
Sandra came out of the inn, crossed the road, and dropped down next to me on the stairs. She rubbed her eyes and yawned.
“Good morning,” I said to her.
“Morning,” She didn’t look at me, but I did hand her the cup Jiemba had given me. She downed half of it immediately.
“I didn’t learn your name last night,” Jiemba said to her.
“I’m Sandra,” She said, “and Nick is still upstairs.”
“American?” Jiemba said curiously.
“I am,” Sandra said. She told him, briefly, about herself and her work. Jiemba didn’t comment, but his lip did curl just a little when he learned she was getting a PhD. Then he outright laughed when she told him about how the jeep had broken down.
“The rental place can have someone drive all the way out there and tow it,” She said, “what are they going to do, fine the Galactic Library?”
I flicked an ear at her in amusement.
Eventually, Nick joined us. As soon as he did, I turned to Jiemba and asked him if he or someone else from the town could get us the rest of the way to Alice Springs.
“Why are you going there?” He asked. I told him, and he just laughed again. “We can show you more of the outback here.”
I looked to Sandra and Nick, who weren’t making eye contact, and seemed uncomfortable on the wooden steps. I remembered what the Librarian has said about pushing boundaries just a little.
“I’d like to stay,” I said, “for a couple days, and then we have to leave.”
“Alright,” Jiemba stood up. All three of his kids ran over and stood around his feet. “I’ll get my rucksack. You three get ready to go into the outback.”
We hiked three miles from town, following the banks of a dry steam that cut through the plant life. Jiemba talked about the plants and the animals, and about how the town had been here long before European settlers had taken over the country.
“What some buggers don’t seem to understand,” he said, “is that you can’t trample down a place. When one country colonizes another, and when a species colonized a planet, I bet, they want to shape it to be like the place they came from. You can’t do that. You’ve got to understand the land you’re on and work with it to live there. That’s an art Earth forgot a long time ago.”
I thought about Skaalt and how he couldn’t even set foot on a planet without accidentally changing it.
“But what is it that you came to see?” Jiemba asked me.
“How do you survive off the land here? What do you eat? Where do you sleep?”
“If you need to, you can build a shelter from tree branches and leaves or kill animals and use their hide. If you have to eat from this area, you can stick to animals and these,” he pulled down a tree branch with a small bundle of fruits growing on the end. “Quandongs are easy to find,” Jiemba said, “so are bush tomatoes.”
Finally, I thought, food that humans could gather easily from the environment that they hadn’t genetically modified. There was some hope for this planet after all.
Jiemba picked a fruit and used a small knife to cut through it. There was a large pit in the center, which he removed, leaving less than half a centimeter of pulp to be eaten. He passed it to me.
I looked at it with a sinking feeling. I knew that it would take a whole orchard of these trees to feed a human family, and then they wouldn’t have time to get other foods. I wanted to ask them how in all the worlds they had managed to survive on this planet in the first place. Instead, I put the fruit in my mouth. It was sweet, which just made me sad. I thanked him, and we moved on a little ways before he stopped us again.
“Protein is easier to get than edible plants,” He said, “we eat kangaroo, lizards, fish, small game, and, this.” He pointed to a bush with notched, asymmetrical leaves.
“I brought a shovel,” Nick said, stepping forward. He pulled out a small spade and crouched next to Jiemba. Together, they turned over the earth beneath the bush, pulling out short, fat sticks. They found four, and they handed Sandra and I one each.
I felt my stick shiver in my fingers, like it was alive, and I looked closer at it. It was perfectly cylindrical with flat ends. I used a talon to remove one end of the structure. A fat, white grub wiggled out of the end of the stick and lay in my palm, twitching.
“They’re witchetty grubs,” Nick said. Jiemba said a different word, the aboriginal word for the grubs, I assume .
“And this is a bug you can actually eat?” I asked.
I licked the grub up and chewed on it. It was chewy and meaty. Jiemba and Nick likewise cracked their worms open and chewed them. They didn’t seem bothered by them, but I guessed they’d rather be eating something else.
Sandra watched all of us, her nose wrinkled up in disgust. “I am going to pass,” she said. “I don’t think I’m ready to slurp down a worm yet.”
“It’s a caterpillar,” Nick said. “Not a worm.”
“That makes it worse.”
“I’ll take yours,” I said. Sandra handed over the grub. I sucked it right out of its house using my tongue.
“Sorry,” She said, “but that is just nasty.”
“You eat what you have to do survive,” Nick said.
“I’d have to get pretty hungry to eat bugs.”
“You won’t have to today,” Jiemba said, “I brought backup sandwiches.”
We hiked out a bit further, then sat on a rock under a reasonably tall tree to eat the other food. It was definitely more filling than the bugs and fruit. It was silent except for the breeze through the brush while we ate.
“Will you answer the question from last night now,” Sandra looked at me.
“Yes,” I said, “what was it?”
“How is it possible for a human to be a dron?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, “it wouldn’t be in the Chintilik way. When did you know you were different, Jiemba?”
“Sorry, but what do you mean by Dron?” He asked.
“It’s the Chintilik word for a spiritual person. Someone who can hear over vast differences like you, for example.”
“I wouldn’t call that spiritual,” Jiemba said. “I first noticed it when I was twelve or thirteen,” he said. “But I’ve always known things I had no way of knowing. I got this intense feeling one day that I should go home. I climbed out a bathroom window and made it just in time to stop my little sister burning the house down.”
Maybe he wasn’t a Dron after all, I thought. That was something else.
“Do you get strong intuitions?” Jiemba asked me. “I assumed you did, since you recognized me immediately.”
“No,” I said. “I recognized you because of you look and posture.”
“So you can’t hear someone calling you from far away?”
He hummed and looked away from all of us. He was definitely not following me anywhere, thank goodness.
“Is that not how Chintilik Drons are?” Sandra asked me.
“No. Drons are hatched and raised differently than other children from the beginning.”
“How do they know?” Sandra pushed again. “Are their eggs different?”
“You hatched from an egg?” Jiemba asked me.
“Yes,” I told him, and then said to Sandra. “No, but Dron often don’t hatch properly, or have some developmental issues. Those differences are easy to see.” Like my legs.
She bit her tongue and leaned into me just a little. Her presence steadied me, and she’d been so forthcoming about Earth and teaching me, I felt she’d earned some information in return.
“The title Dron means ‘cold one’ or ‘edgeling,'” I explained. “It’s from a longer phrase that means ‘ egg rolled to the edge of the nest.’ Eggs that aren’t incubated properly and aren’t kept warm enough at night don’t normally hatch. When one does, that child is a Dron. Dron are seen as miracles and touched by great spirits. Some said we were blessed by the sun or by the sands to be born alive from eggs that should not have hatched.”
“Like a rainbow baby?” Nick asked, and then defined the term, “a child that is born after a long string of miscarriages or infertility.”
“Sort of,” I said. “But Chintilik generally don’t have those issues. It’s also fairly easy to fertilize an egg artificially, as I know humans are aware. If someone wants a hatchling, they don’t keep laying eggs and hope for a Dron. They just take a clutch to a doctor and have them checked for fertility and fertilized with a needle.”
The humans were silent for a moment. “I had a friend who did that with a chicken egg,” Nick said finally. “It was pretty cool. They also watched it develop through a hole in the egg.”
“That would be a crime is someone did it to a Chintilik,” Sandra pointed out. “At least, I hope so.”
“It would be,” I confirmed. “It’s also illegal to try and hatch a Dron on purpose. Modern medicine basically ended Dron being born to families because of accidents or misplacements.”
“But you’re here,” Sandra said. “Are you comfortable telling us what happened?”
I shrugged. “Whoever laid me, they dropped my clutch of eggs into a hole in the sand and left us there to die. I survived by pure chance.”
The humans sat rigid. Not even chewing their food. I took another bite of mine, since I was still hungry.
Finally Sandra said, “I’m sorry,” in a small voice.
“What for?” I asked her.
“Just that you went through that.”
“What’s past is past.” I said.
“Nothing like that happened to me,” Jiemba got to his feet. “I am not a Dron.”
“Then you learned similar skills.” I stood up too. The sun had passed the highest point in the sky and it was time to head back to town. “Apologies if it’s distasteful, but that is the best word I know.to make sense out of someone like you.”
“Your word is distasteful, and I am happy I’m not like you.” He said.
Weeks later, he would contact me over the Internet and tell me that he was indeed a true Dron. He had died during birth because his umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and was revived. He, too, had been lucky. And he had been singled out because of that.
We made it back to town, even more tired than the day before if that was possible, and Sandra and Nick promptly vanished into the hotel room to rest. I found a table downstairs where breakfast could be eaten if we wanted it, and put together a quick report about the limited supply of edible plants and animals on Earth and how humans had overcome it.
I wasn’t surprised when Sandra appeared with her laptop and sat next to me. She didn’t say anything, just started working.
“I’m going to interview some people for my research tomorrow,” She told me. “I want to know how aboriginal communities might have reacted to the news of aliens coming to Earth.”
“Good idea,” I said. “I’m going with Jiemba to talk about life in the outback in more detail.”
“Okay.” She reached a hand across to me and touched my arm. “I’m sorry I pushed earlier. About the Dron thing.”
“You were owed an explanation, and I know you were curious.”
“I’m still sorry I made you tell us.” She took a deep breath. “Also, Archie, last night, sleeping in the same bed…I’m sorry about that too.”
“That’s just foolish,” I told her. “You’ve slept in the same bed as me before, in much worse shape.”
“It’s just that… Well it’s very intimate for humans to do that.” Her face was bright red by that point. “It just feels odd to do that with my boss.”
“It feels intimate to me when someone to touch my arms, hands, or back,” I said. “Chintilik don’t hug or touch that often normally.”
She withdrew her hand quickly.
“It’s a part of meeting alien species,” I said. “Some species all sleep in one big pile. Some only sleep separately. Some touch all the time. Others rarely speak to each other. You’ll get used to it.”
“But if you don’t like that, I shouldn’t do it,” she said.
“When did I say I didn’t like it? I just said it was more intimate from my point of view.”
She gave me a tired smile and put her hand back on my arm. I covered it with my other hand and gave her fingers a gentle squeeze.
“If you’re not comfortable being my assistant, I can talk to the librarian about you working directly for it as a researcher. Then you don’t have to worry about whatever it is you’re worried about.”
“That would be good,” Sandra said. “I’d rather you be my friend than my employer, is all.”
I flicked an ear at her. “Humans are very weird about working relationships. If you’re worried about getting into trouble with the galactic library or other off-world organizations, don’t be.”
“It’s not that. I just want to be able to hug you without worrying about crossing a boundary.”
“Then let me assure you that you’ve never crossed any boundaries with me,” I squeezed her hand.
“Hmm,” she leaned in. I could smell her sweat and the sweet smell of her shampoo. Her eyes were half-closed and soft. “Can I cross one now?”
My heart was suddenly pounding. I could feel the tips of my ears changing colors. I suddenly had a lot of questions about whether or not humans were sexually compatible with Chintilik or not.
I started to lean in, to tuck my snout against her neck and rub my scent into her. “Y—”
The door to the cafeteria slammed open, and we jumped apart. Nick’s voice said, “There you two are. Jiemba is trying to find you. He wants us to walk into the desert again with a group of kids to watch the sunset.”
I sat back reluctantly. “I’m writing a report,” I said. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” After my legs had started working again.
Sandra’s cheeks were flaming. she sprang up from the table. “I’m going. I just need to drop my laptop off.”
“Is there a reason why your ears are red?” Nick asked me.
“No,” I said. “I was just tired of the purple.”
“Okay, well, come outside quick, or there are gonna be some pissed off kids on this nature hike.”
I waited until my ears went back to normal and I couldn’t feel my heart thumping anymore, then I tucked my notebook away and ventured outside. Sandra was already there, talking with an older human woman with braided silver hair. I gave them a wide berth and went to stand next to Jiemba.
“There you are, holy man,” he said. “I thought you might like to hear some stories about our religion, so we’re going on a little night walk to see the stars.”
“I would like to hear your stories,” I said. “I can tell some as well. I promise not all of my mythos are depressing.”
“Share as many as you want,” He said. “We have good heads for stories.”
“Good, because there are plenty.” I looked down at his three children, who were all looking up at us, and decided that I should probably stick to mythology and not share stories from my actual life. I didn’t want to upset anyone if the children started talking about going to space.
I did end up telling them about space, though, because some of the other people wanted to know where my human friends and I had come from, and by the end of the night, I could tell that Jiemba wanted us gone.
We stayed one more night and part of the next day, because I still wanted to know more about the land, and Sandra wanted to interview some of the locals. Nick mostly followed me around, listening to the questions I asked and watching me take notes.
We allowed ourselves to be shipped off to Alice Springs in the late afternoon, and were promptly dropped at the airport.
“Where to now?” Sandra asked me.
“North,” I said. “I promised you we’d visit the Great Barrier Reef, and I’m ready to move to a different region of Earth.”
She smiled at me and bumped me with her hip.
Nick cleared his throat, and I looked at him. “I’m going back to Brisbane,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. “Had enough travel?”
“No, but I have stuff I need to do, and a dissertation to write. Can I rejoin the expedition at a later date?”
“Of course,” I said. I didn’t expect him to reappear, though. “We’ll stay in contact. I’ll have follow-up questions for you. And of course, I’ll pay you for your time.”
“Sounds good,” he said. “You two have a good flight and time at the ocean. I am going to head home and get some sleep.”
He gave Sandra a hug, shook my hand, and headed to the ticket booth. Sandra and I decided to go find something to eat in Alice Springs and find a place to stay close to the Northern Coast of Australia.