My first impression of Australia was that it was a lovely, pleasantly warm place. After San Francisco, the dry air was a welcome change. This was quickly corrected, as on my way to the long-term rental I had booked for myself, I was dive-bombed by a black and white bird as large as my head. This became a regular occurrence as I went back and forth from my rented accommodations to the nearby transit stops, and I began having nightmares like I haven’t had since childhood.
Chintilik have an instinctive fear of being snatched by flying predators and eaten. Chint is home to all sorts of predatory flying things. And when we were small, before we learned to dig into stone, they ate Chintilik children. As hatchlings, we all fear the open sky, and we dream of being lifted, lifted, lifted, and dropped somewhere dark and terrible.
My first instinct was to text Sandra about the birds, which I did. She responded immediately with a link to an article about “swooping season” and said I must have found a late-season magpie nest. I spotted it when next I was in the area, but didn’t see any baby birds.
I sent a picture of the nest, and a couple of the area around my rental, but got no real response from her, just a little red “like” beside each image. It hurt me more than I was expecting. She had other things to attend to, I knew, and still it sent a pang through me.
Over the next week, as I familiarized myself with my new, sunny surroundings, I thought about her often. I visited a small koala sanctuary on the other side of the city, made acquaintances at the University of Queensland, where my main resources for this part of my exploration were located, and made the first of several tentative excursions into the Australian wilds, though I didn’t go far. And at the end of each small adventure, I found myself wishing I had Sandra to talk to. She had an excellent mind for planetary exploration, and had a knack for bridging the gap between our understandings of the world. I missed her insights and patience when it took me more than a moment to understand something new. Other humans sometimes skated over my questions, especially when they edged into sensitive territory.
I made the acquaintance of a man named Nick at the University. He was a part-time lecturer and Australian native, and he made himself available to help me navigate the country if I needed to. He was a warm presence, gently playful, and very knowledgeable. And I found myself continuously annoyed by him, so much so that I took public transit out of the city rather than take his car when he offered. I knew the reason why, though it was not a kind one. It was because he wasn’t Sandra.
I had to admit that was odd. Normally when I have to leave one assistant behind, no matter the reason, I quickly pick up with the next. With the Frid, I had had a dozen different assistants, each one a delight, and all but one of whom I still talked to. On Kyluck, I had seven different escorts who guided me through the dense jungles and swamps, and while I had liked all of them, none had left such a lasting impression. Even before I was an independent surveyor, I found it easy to make and leave behind friends on all sorts of planets.
Sandra, for whatever subconscious reason, was different. I missed her immensely, and as time went on, I only missed her more. After nearly a month in Brisbane, as I was preparing to relocate to Sydney for the next leg of my journey, I lost my nerve and sent her a purely personal message.
“If you were here, what would you want to go see?” I sent it and then put down my phone and tried to focus on the report I was writing instead. This one was about wildlife I had encountered, and I was preparing the outline ahead of a visit to an animal sanctuary in Sydney that was the first thing on my itinerary when I arrived there.
After only a moment, my phone chimed. I stopped mid-sentence and grabbed it, but it wasn’t Sandra. It was Nick asking if I wanted to grab a pint with him and a few other young academics. I started to respond in the negative, then paused. I felt like a fool, suddenly, for hanging my emotions on a response from Sandra, and I needed to get away from work for a moment. So I typed, “Sure, I’d like to come.” And an hour later, I was in a loud, crowded sports bar filled with rowdy drunk humans.
I had hoped that the obsession with alcohol was limited to America, but I was very wrong. And worse, these humans were drinking it with the express purpose of getting drunk. I had only seen Raymond do that before, and I didn’t like the results on him. I thought that a whole building full of inebriated humans was the equivalent of a bomb waiting to go off. So I selected a corner, made myself comfortable, and prepared to watch the whole place explode.
It took less than 15 minutes before the group I had arrived with wandered off. I settled back with my snacks to read and listen to the conversations around me, happy with getting out of my dwelling.
“Hi there,” Someone said to me, “can I buy you a drink?”
I looked up to see a human man with shockingly orange hair that stood out in a soft puff around his head. He was giving me what was probably supposed to be a winning smile, but it just made me nervous.
“No, thank you,” I explained patiently, “I can’t drink alcohol.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
“I would get very sick and very likely die.”
“Just a coke then,” he was already waving to the bartender. I didn’t bother to refuse. At that point, he would have seen it as rude. I took the drink and set it down next to the bowl of snacks that had been on the table when I arrived.
“You’re Dron, right?” The man asked, “the alien. Or is that just a really impressive mask?”
“Dron is a title, not my name. I’m Acharya.”
“Acharya,” he said, “I’m Vic. Nice to meet you.”
“Well met.” My phone in one of my many pockets buzzed. I reached for it, saw Sandra’s name on the screen. It was well past one in the morning in California, so she had probably been sleeping, I thought.
“How long have you been in Australia?” Vic asked me.
“About a month now,” I said, “have you been in Brisbane long?”
“I grew up here.” He sat across from me and leaned in, still smiling, tucking a loose strand of red hair behind an ear. “Can I just say… you’re beautiful.”
I flicked an ear dismissively at him, in a way that any Chintilik would have been highly offended by. “You can not,” I said, “please spare me the theatrics. What do you want?”
It took him several seconds to process what I had said. “I want… to flirt with the pretty purple alien?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “this alien doesn’t find humans very attractive, so it doesn’t want to flirt with you. Please take the drink with you when you leave. I don’t like soda.”
He did so and walked away. It was the first time I’d ever been so rude to a human. I’d caught him off guard.
My phone vibrated again.
I watched Vic until he sat down at a table across the room, and then I pulled out my phone.
“The great barrier reef,” Sandra had replied to my question about where she wanted to go in Australia. Then a second message, a few minutes after the first, “If I visit, will you go there with me?”
“Yes,” I sent back immediately, then typed out another response. “I’m going to Sydney tomorrow, so in the wrong direction for the reef. When are you planning on making the trip?”
“Hey, Acharya?” I looked up from the phone, saw Nick at the table. “Did you talk to Victor?” He asked me.
“I did. I may have been a little rude.”
“Yeah, he’s pissed off, mate. What did you say?”
“That I didn’t have any interest in flirting with him, and I wasn’t going to entertain him.”
“Shit, it must have been nastier than that.”
“I told him I don’t find humans attractive. Which is true. None of you have any of the features that I find physically appealing,” A lie, as being away from Chint for my entire adult life confused my aesthetic sense, and I had learned to appreciate most species’ beauty in their own way. “And even if you did, the planetary surveyor code of conduct expressly forbids engaging in romantic or sexual relationships with native residents of a planet I am working on.” That was true, if not always enforced: the true offense was trading physical favors for taking someone off-world or specific forbidden goods. “If he comes back over here and wants to have a civil conversation that isn’t loaded with sexual innuendo, then he’s welcome to.”
“That probably isn’t going to happen,” Nick said, “you should head home, I think. You’re headed out tomorrow morning, right?”
“Do you need a ride to the station?”
“No,” I stood up and tucked my phone away, or started to. It buzzed again as I pocketed it, and I kept it out. “Thank you for everything, Nick. I might reach out to you if I have any more questions about the city.”
“Sure, I’d be happy to hear from you. Send me some pictures from the next planet you visit after Earth.”
“I’ll be happy to,” I said, “maybe we’ll see each other on another planet. There are some beautiful libraries in this sector, and some truly spectacular cities.”
“More spectacular than here?”
“Earth Architecture is impressive, but very little can compare to a city built out of living things, or one suspended from the underside of a cliff over an ocean.”
He smiled at me, “You haven’t been to Europe yet, I forgot. You’re going to get a kick out of Rome.”
“Is it more impressive than here or the US?” I asked.
He shrugged, “It’s a lot older, that’s for sure.”
“Hmm,” I said, “I’ll let you know when I visit them. It won’t be for a few months at least.”
“Sounds good,” He glanced back at the table where Vic was sitting. “You should go now. I’ll make sure no one follows you.”
“Thank you. I enjoyed my stay here.” I headed towards the door, slipped out into the dark.
Something dark and formless swooped down out of the sky and pulled up right above my head. I ducked and shrank back, cursing the existence of bats under my breath. I took refuge under a streetlight and pulled my phone back out.
“Soon,” Sandra said, and then in another message. “Can I meet you in Sydney? How long will you be there?”
“My rental is booked for a month,” I typed.
“Perfect. I’ll see you soon.”
I took a breath, feeling much better suddenly. Lighter on my feet even. I hadn’t realized how unhappy I’d been until right then. I looked up at the night sky, blotted by artificial light though it was. “I’m looking forward to it,” I typed to her. And then, before I thought better of it. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too.” She sent back a moment later. And then, “Okay. I’m going to bed. It’s late here.”
“Almost 2 AM, I know. Goodnight,”
I put my phone back into its accustomed pocket. I looked around and pricked my ears up to listen for any approaching humans, but no one was following me, and I could detect no abnormal sounds. So I walked, humming a little to myself, back towards my rental, feeling happy for the first time since leaving the US. That was until another bat swooped low overhead and I ducked out of the way again, cursing in galactic common.