“I have a correction to make,” I messaged Skaalt, “Sandra definitely likes me just as much as I like her.”
It took several minutes for him to reply to the message, which surprised me. Normally, he took hours to respond to a personal message like that one. “If she does anything to hurt you, I will bite her head off,” he sent, and then, “make sure you stick close to her if you get into trouble.”
I stared at the messages. Skaalt was often perplexing, but this was even odder than normal. I eventually sent back a, “Will do.” And left it at that.
“Who are you messaging?” Sandra asked me. She had reappeared out of the water below the boat while I wasn’t looking. Her hair was slicked back and shining with water, and her skin was flushed from swimming. She looked stunning in a way only a human can: as if all the veneer of civilization has been stripped away and left something primal behind.
“Skaalt,” I said.
“What does he say?”
“He likes to give me advice I don’t need to hear.”
She grinned at me with all her teeth, and I shivered. “You sure you don’t want to swim? You don’t need to scuba dive.”
“I think I’d just sink to the bottom,” I said. “My scales are pretty dense.”
“Aw,” She said, “well I’ll bring you some shells to look at.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“It’s the least I can do. This is a dream.” She kicked away from the side of the boat, pulled down her goggles, and, with a flick of bare legs, vanished down into the water. Within moments, her shape was lost in the blue of the ocean.
I watched her go, wishing that I could swim for the first time in my life. She made it look effortless and smooth. I wondered what it was like to plunge into the water with smooth skin instead of scales.
Sandra and our guides had all leapt into the water the second we’d come to a stop. Their bodies were strangely adapted to the water, and seeing them dive deep tens of feet under the water and hold their breath while poking between rocks really drove it home just how much humans loved water.
The reef was colorful here, and I could see the silhouettes of fish flashing below the surface. But I had learned that not even fifty years before, the reef was almost dead. I had seen pictures of bleached and dying coral in the little informational building on the docks. In fact, most of the coral under the water was growing on man-made structures specifically for coral reefs.
Whatever had happened in the past, it was beautiful now.
I sat alone in the boat, listening to the waves lapping against it, and thought about all the things humans loved. Water, swimming, musical performances, books, cats, and on and on. And, most of all, humans loved Earth. The reef below me, full of flashing fish, was proof of that. In contrast, the longer I spent on Earth, the more repulsed by the planet I was, and the more enamored with humans I found myself.
I dipped my feet into the Earth ocean and wondered how many things in this water could kill me if I had a slightly weaker immune system or thinner scales. A moment later, Sandra popped out of the water again.
“Archie,” she said, “look! Dolphins!”
I looked up from the water right below me just in time to watch a silver shape below the surface rocket towards under the boat. A moment later, another followed. This one brought a human with it, our guide. As the animal grew close, I saw that the human was holding onto a fin on its back, hitching a ride.
He broke the surface of the water and hauled himself onto the boat.
“They know I have snacks,” he said by way of an explanation, heading towards the bucket of raw fish on the deck.
The dolphins swam in circles around the boat.
“You feed wild dolphins?” I asked. Humans generally try not to feed the wildlife on their planet. Some of the animals can be very violent.
“Yep, and sometimes they bring me pieces of trash for my trouble.”
There were three dolphins altogether. They all stuck their slick gray heads out of the water alongside the boat, and opened their mouths to expose small rows of thin teeth. One of them made a crackling squeak.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” the guide said. He threw a fish at the offending dolphin, and it was swallowed it whole.
“That’s so cool,” Sandra said.
“Want to toss them one?” The guide asked her, offering the bucket.
She picked out a small fish and held it towards the dolphins. The closest one swam almost within touching distance, then opened its mouth wide. Sandra tossed the fish in, and the dolphin swam back and up out of the water, almost as if dancing.
The guide had given the other two plenty of fish, and when he shooed them away, all three disappeared back into the water.
“They’re very smart,” I noted.
A dolphin surfaced right below me, and I jerked back. Sandra, though, reached out a hand and started petting the animal. Just running her hand over it. She crooked her fingers and scratched lightly under its chin. The dolphin squeaked again, apparently enjoying the attention. It ducked under the water and pushed Sandra away from the boat. She looked at me, then just took hold of the dolphin’s back fin and took a deep breath. It pulled her away under the water, down towards the reef far below.
Nick met us at the Cairns airport with a grin. He gave Sandra a hug, and complimented her on the sunburn she’d gotten swimming the reef. Then he surprised me with a hug as well.
“I missed you two,” he said, “a lot. I didn’t know what to do with myself at school anymore.”
“You didn’t drop out, did you?” Sandra asked.
“No. I took a year off. I can go back next fall.”
“Good,” I said. “Both of you keep up on your education.”
“Yes, boss,” Nick said.
Sandra rolled her eyes at me, but she smiled.
“What?” I asked her.
“I’ve conducted five interviews in the last week,” she said. “At this rate, I’m going to be able to write a book.”
“If you did, I’m sure we could get it added to the Galactic Library.”
“That is tempting,” she said. “Would I be the first human published there?”
“No. There are thousands already. Mostly historical, philosophical, and mathematic texts. The history of humans is already well preserved.”
“That’s good,” Sandra said. “That’s immortality for humanity, isn’t it?”
“Of a sort,” I said, thinking to myself that she didn’t know how accurate that statement was.
I could probably fill many more books with what I learned over the next few months. In the Philippines, we explored the jungles, swamps, and cities. We ate desserts of sweet, sticky rice paste and coconut. We spoke to people from universities and hospitals, and also people who we just happened to meet on the street.
From there we went North, visiting a few other countries. We moved quickly through Vietnam, Thailand, and Taiwan, and no other humans followed us out again. I should have stayed longer in each place, but my focus had shifted from talking to humans to searching for a biological dead zone.
There wasn’t somewhere Skaalt could land safely in SouthEast Asia. There were jungles, birds, and all manner of strange human beliefs. I learned what a parrot was. I ate ube for the first time. Sandra and Nick and the locals all refused to let me drink the tap water in the whole area, even though their governments said it was completely safe. The whole ecosystem was too delicate and vibrant for Skaalt to land here.
Finally, I thought I found a space for Skaalt to land. It was in China, in a bustling city, where every other human was wearing a mask to prevent the passing of disease. There were huge hospitals there, and research facilities many miles long. One of them, I thought, might do the trick. It would certainly be easier to control the environment inside of a human building.
I pitched the idea to Nick and Sandra first, of course, over a breakfast of congee and omelets. They looked at each other, then at me.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, boss,” Nick said finally.
“Why not?” I asked. “There doesn’t seem to be a natural place he can land.”
“It’s a good idea,” Sandra said, “but not here. China’s government is, well, it’s pretty authoritarian. We can go to another country and get a clean room.”
“Authoritarian means they exercise strict control, right?” I asked. “That might be a good thing, when it comes to preparing a clean room.”
“They’re not strict about that stuff,” Sandra said. “They’re strict about information. Taking pictures, accessing the internet, that kind of thing. If we bring Skaalt here, there’s a chance they’ll try to suppress any news about it or even interfere with you. Yes,” she said before I could protest, “even though it would be against Earth’s agreement with the galactic library.”
I didn’t know how true that was, but I could tell both Sandra and Nick were very uncomfortable with the very idea. Research later that night as I was laying in bed listening to the humans talk in the next room revealed they might have a point, so I decided to start pursuing the idea in other countries.
Sandra came in to find me reading about the health and hygiene of various countries.
“Are you already in bed?” She asked.
“My legs are bothering me,” I explained. It wasn’t pain, not yet, just a persistent creaking feeling, like my joints were worn out. But I had just had them checked before coming to Earth, and even with all the walking I was doing, I should have years left before the synthetics wore down and I needed them replaced.
She sat down on the edge of the bed and leaned over me. Her hair fell like a wavy sheet between us and the rest of the room. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“Did you become a surgeon when I wasn’t looking?”
That made her smile. I sat up and put a hand on her back. If she was a Chintilik, the touch would have been a blatant invitation for, well, anything. Because she was human, she just put an arm around me as well, and we held each other up while she looked over the research I’d done and I read through some of the interviews she’d conducted.
“What do you think?” I asked eventually.
“I think India might be the best option,” She said, “it’s closest. Also, Acharya, I don’t think I’d be able to come to Saudi Arabia with you.”
“They don’t have the same rights for women there. I’m sure I’d be okay physically, but I wouldn’t be able to go a lot of places or be your driver.”
“What if Nick is with us?”
“Then he could probably do a lot of it, but I don’t know if they’d be happy I was there.”
I thought about it. “If they’re strict on your sexual binary, they probably wouldn’t understand or appreciate me.”
“I think you’d be okay, but if we try to land Skaalt there, things may be strange.”
I considered it, feeling her fingers tracing the edge of one of my scales. It was hard to focus when all I wanted to do was rub my scent into her, but I managed.
“You and Nick know the politics here much better than I do,” I said. “If you think India is the best choice, and he agrees, we can go to India.”
Nick, it turned out, thought Korea or Japan would be better. “Or what about Siberia?” He said, “we could lay down a tarp and call it a dead-zone. It’s the closest we could get, anyway.”
“Are there no true life-free areas on Earth?” I asked.
“Not that I know of,” Nick said.
“Maybe the arctic?” Sandra said. “We should contact the WHO and see what they have to say about it.”
“You should reach out to them.” I said, “I should stay away from governmental bodies on Earth.”
“I’ll do that.” She said. “And don’t you need to have a conversation with you librarian too?” She gave me a meaningful look as she said it, and I realized she was talking about her promotion. If it could be called that.
“I already have,” I said. “I’m waiting for a response. It takes a while to organize deliveries and additional supplies, but we should hear back soon.”
“What’s this about?” Nick asked.
“Sandra is getting her own notebook and communicator, just in case I can’t contact the librarian for some reason.” It wasn’t totally a lie, and that was what we were waiting for. The librarian had said that they wouldn’t promote Sandra so early weeks ago, but had agreed to allow her to report to it on occasion, as long as it didn’t get out of hand.
“Oh…okay.” He looked between the two of us.
“What?” Sandra asked him. There was an edge of hostility in her voice.
“Nothing.” Nick said.
“I’ve been working with the galactic library for almost nine months,” Sandra said. “I’m ready to get access to some of their records and to talk to other scholars outside of Earth.”
“I understand,” Nick said, and he sat back.
We all sat in silence until the kettle boiled, and then I escaped into the kitchen to brew the tea to escape the atmosphere. They were both dripping with aggression and bad feelings.
Later that night, while Sandra and I were catching up on notes, Nick came into the small kitchen of our rented space. I looked up at him, flicked an ear in acknowledgement, and went back to my notes. He didn’t have anything to work on, so after a moment he left again.
Sandra leaned over to me and whispered, “I think he’s jealous of me getting more responsibility.”
I flicked an ear at her, actually hitting the top of her head with it. “You have seniority.”
“I know, but that’s men for you.”
“Men.” She repeated, and then explained, briefly, that human men had a much easier time in the professional sphere than human women. For a whole list of ridiculous reasons.
I listened silently, thinking, “We need to get you off this planet.”
Sandra could apparently tell what I was thinking, because she said, “And there’s a stereotype where women who do well professionally succeed by having sex with their bosses.”
Suddenly it made a lot more sense why she was so nervous being my assistant. I nodded my understanding, and made a mental note to mention this to the librarian. It was vital information about how humans viewed themselves and others professionally.
“That’s concerning. Is that what you’re so worried about? Should I be more distant with you?” I asked.
She thought about it. “Yes, I am worried about it, but no you shouldn’t. Nothing is happening—,”
Even though we both want it to, I almost pointed out, but didn’t, and Sandra might not. She hadn’t given me any clear signals since we had left Australia.
“— so it doesn’t really matter what people think.”
“As long as you’re content with the situation.”
She leaned over a little, closing the space between us, and bumped her head against mine like an affectionate cat.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I’m starting to feel normal again. After Raymond.”
I hummed deep in my chest, wondering at the human tendency to grasp onto relationships. Still, she hadn’t moved her head from where it was tucked under my snout, and she seemed content.
She nuzzled against me, and I felt her mouth brush against my jaw. Not a kiss, but not not a kiss. I felt ready to explode.
“You and I,” she said into my ear, “need to keep things at least a little professional.”
I almost yelled, “I can’t anymore!” But I made eye-contact with Sandra and realized I would have to be patient for a while longer. She clearly wanted something from me too, but she wasn’t ready to take it yet.
“I’m having trouble with that,” I said.
“I am too, but it’s too soon, and too fast.” She said, “And you are still my boss.”
“I understand, and I’m glad you feel the same as I do. Take your time: I can wait.” And I would. “In the meantime, there is nothing stopping us from going places together for fun. Is there anywhere you want to see?”
Sandra swallowed hard. She didn’t look like she was upset. In fact, she looked like she was about to pounce on me. I knew the look from other times we’d been alone together. She took a breath. “We’re going to see the Great Wall of China while we’re here, right?” She said.
“Yes. In a couple weeks.”
“What about the palaces?”
“I wasn’t planning on it. It’s too similar to visiting a government building.”
“We should go,” she said. “The history of China is really cool. It’s probably the oldest civilization currently on Earth.”
I decided not to argue just then. We had just had a fight, after all. “We can find a time. I don’t promise to pay attention, though.”
Nick came back into the kitchen with a dirty mug from his room. “Where are we going?”
“The palace here in China,” Sandra said.
“I think we’re in the wrong city for that,” Nick said.
“Unfortunate,” I said, “but we can always change our travel plans.”