“And this,” Irving said, lifting a shimmering black snake with a red underbelly out of an enormous glass tank, “is a red-bellied black snake. The name is self-explanatory. It’s venomous and very common, but unlikely to bite. This beautiful girl just got milked this morning, and she’s sweet as anything, so I can take her out and show her off a little.”
The snake raised its black, hooded head and appeared to look at me. Maybe it was – I was definitely the strangest-smelling thing in the room. It flicked its tongue, a behavior that I had just learned was for smelling its environment, not tasting.
I already had a snake around my neck: a friendly ball python that Irving had settled there the moment I’d walked through the door, declaring it was a right of passage. It shifted and curled like an affectionate scarf as I moved about the back room of the animal sanctuary, taking brief notes on the native animals that were kept here, and where the exotic ones had come from.
“See her underside here,” Irving touched a hand to the vibrant crimson stripes on the snake, which moved inexorably forward, in his grip and stretched towards me curiously. “When she feels threatened, she’ll rear back and flash that red color at whatever is attacking her as a warning. Do you see color, Dron?”
“I do,” I said, “Do most earth creatures?”
“Depends. Birds, which would mostly be what’s hunting these snakes, will see it. But mammals? Not so much.”
“Fascinating,” I said, “so what makes humans different than other mammals?”
He shrugged, “Luck, I suppose. Do you want to see her fangs?”
“If it’s safe, please.”
Irving pulled the snake back as if it was a rope he was hauling in from the sea, and put a hand firmly on the back of its head. He pressed down, and the snake squirmed powerfully, lashing against his body and the cages along the wall, but its mouth opened, exposing two sharp fangs that unfolded from the roof of its mouth and gleamed wetly in the artificial light.
“Easy, lovely,” Irving rumbled to the snake even as it thrashed. To me, he said, “Her fangs are hollow like an injection needle. When she bites her prey, she injects it with her venom, paralyzing it so she can swallow it whole. I would offer to show you, but she already ate this week, and she probably isn’t hungry.”
“That’s quite alright,” I said, “I don’t need to see it, thank you.”
“Bit squeamish?” He maneuvered the snake over his outstretched arms back into her habitat, where she disappeared under the surface of her water.
“Not squeamish,” I said, “just… experiencing some evolutionary memories about being swallowed alive.”
“I know what that’s like. Less about Snakes and more about the dingos. Getting eaten by a pack of wild dogs never appealed to me.”
“That doesn’t sound nice,” I agreed.
There was a knock at the door as Irving walked me over to the next cage, and the young assistant who had greeted me at the gate to the animal sanctuary stuck her head in. “There’s someone else here for you,” She said, looking at me. “She said her name is Sandra?”
My ears perked up at once. I hadn’t realized that “soon” meant “the day after tomorrow.” “She’s working with me,” I said, “Is it okay if she joins us here?”
“Yes,” Irving said, and the young woman’s head disappeared again.
I coerced the snake around my neck into releasing its grip and handed it to Irving, who slid it back into its enclosure. “That’s the last of the snakes from Mainland Australia,” He said, “I do have some lizards in the next room, and then we’ll have to trek across the park to the invertebrate building if you want to see the spiders.”
“Considering how many of them are living in my rented room, I think I need to see the spiders.”
The door opened again, and Sandra followed the young lady into the room. She looked tired and worried, and there were suspiciously dark bags under her eyes, but the second she laid eyes on me, she smiled. She didn’t show teeth but still managed to beam.
“Welcome back, Sandra,” I told her. “Do you want to come look at the venomous spiders?”
“Do I?” She asked, “I’ve seen three huntsmen between here and the airport. Are there more?”
“Huntsman spiders aren’t dangerous,” The young woman said, “unless you try to pick one up.”
“I’m not going to do that,” Sandra assured her. She took four steps across the room to me and wrapped her arms around me. Sandra is not strong by human standards, but her muscles are earth-made and put mine to shame. She almost pulled me off my feet with the unintentional strength of her hug. I returned the embrace tightly, resting my snout against her shoulder. Her face was buried in my robes, and I could feel her taking deep breaths. I had missed her, and clearly, she had missed me too.
We let go after a moment, and Sandra peered into the glass container behind me. “You have a rattlesnake?” She asked. “I thought they were only native to the Americas.”
“You’re right,” Irving said, stepping over beside her. “This is one of our very few imported specimens. He was raised in captivity, so he’s never been outside of a cage.”
She was quiet for a while, looking at the triangular head of the snake. It remained motionless in its tank.
“Do you make antivenom for your imported snakes as well?” I asked Irving.
“Yes,” He said.
“What is it used for?”
While Irving explained, Sandra looked in each cage: the tree vipers, the constrictors, the tiger snakes. I could see her interest, and she asked a few questions herself, backtracking to points Irving and I had already covered. She had nothing to take notes with, but I guessed she would remember the information clearly anyway. She had a knack for that.
We made our way into the lizard area, where Sandra endeared herself to Irving by scooping up a bearded dragon in one hand and a monitor lizard in the other as they both made dashes for freedom when he opened their cages. I was left holding my notebook, taking notes, and asking questions while she maneuvered the animals so Irving could explain them to me.
“Sandra,” I said, while Irving was wrangling the large monitor back into its cage. “What are you doing here? When did you get into the country?”
“I only got here a few hours ago,” She said. “Got through customs in Brisbane early this morning. I took a nap on the train over here, so I’m actually pretty rested.”
I waited for her to answer my other questions.
She leaned in a fraction. “Can we talk about it later? I just want to enjoy being here for a little while.”
“Of course,” I said. “You can tell me over dinner.”
She blinked hard, and this time leaned all the way in and let her head rest against mine for a moment. It was the kind of affectionate bump a cat might give. I wondered what had become of Gizmo. It was one of the many questions I needed to ask her. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m happy I decided to come here.”
“Me too,” I said. “But I do want to know why you did.”
“Later,” she said, “we have spiders to learn about.”
Here is a fact about humans that baffles me: they are afraid of the tiny invertebrates that clean up their waste, keep their air breathable, and fertilize their crops. Humans are instinctively terrified of them. As someone who grew up eating bowls of carapaces for breakfast, it doesn’t make sense.
I understood a little better when we got to the spider enclosures after a brief, sunny walk through the sanctuary’s park. Irving did not open any cages or scoop any of the creatures up in his hands as he had done with the snakes and lizards. Sandra joined me in peering into the dark cages, but she stayed well back from even the smallest bug.
“That’s a mouse spider,” Irving said, as I watched an eight-legged creature with two long pincers pick its way across a sticky web. “It is the second most venomous spider in our collection after the funnel spider. They’re common all over Australia.”
“What happens if it bites a human?” I asked.
“Pain, mostly,” he said. “The bite swells up, pain radiates from it. It grows hot to the touch. Then, within fifteen minutes or so, without treatment, it will be difficult to breathe and your heart rate will speed up. If you don’t get the antivenom, your lungs will seize up next, and you can slip into a coma— do you know what a coma is, Dron?”
“Yes,” I said. I had been in a medically induced coma before for over a year, so I was intimately familiar with them.
“Well, if the coma and spasms don’t kill you and you manage to keep breathing, you might kill yourself just to get rid of the pain. There isn’t much worse than being bitten by a mouse or funnel spider.”
“What about Asian murder hornets?” Sandra asked.
“I’ve never been stung by one, but I’d take it over one of these little guys. Having the bite site literally rot away due to infection is awful. Want to see the scar?”
“Sure,” Sandra turned away from the glass, and Irving rolled up a sleeve, exposing a pitted, discolored scar just above his elbow. It was perhaps two inches across, which was larger than the spider that had made it.
“This little creature did that?” I asked. “Are all the spiders here capable of that?”
“No. Huntsmans and tarantulas don’t pack such a punch. If you get bit by one of them, ice and painkillers will fix you up faster and cheaper than a doctor.”
I stayed quiet for a long time, taking down notes about where the spiders lived, how many people were bitten every year, and the seasons when they were most active. Horribly, Irving mentioned that funnel spiders had evolved specifically to hurt and kill humans and large vertebrates. “We’re their natural predators, after all,” he said. “Or we might as well be.” I checked another box on my mental checklist.
“These guys are actually relatively safe to handle,” Irving said, reaching into yet another cage. To my surprise and Sandra’s horror, he pulled out a large, whip-tailed creature with a huge stinger on the end of its body.
Sandra had taken several steps back.
“This is a Flinders Range Scorpion,” Irving said, “we have several. They’ll give you a nasty sting if you bother them, but they usually aren’t dangerous. This fellow here is very used to being picked up, so he isn’t going to sting unless you really piss him off.”
I leaned in to examine the creature. It sat in the center of Irving’s palm, squatted down on eight segmented legs, tail curled to the side. It was sand-colored and looked very fragile. Actually, except for the stinger, it looked tasty.
“It’s okay,” Irving said to Sandra, “they’re sold as pets all over the world.”
She crept closer and jerked back again as the scorpion moved.
I took a step back too, but not because I was scared. I really wanted to eat that bug. Irving wouldn’t take it well if I tried to.
Irving shrugged and lowered the scorpion back into its cage. “They’re not for everyone.” Then, to the bug, “there you go, little fella. Back under your rock.”
“Is there anything else we should see in here?” I asked him.
“Not unless I can tempt you with the stick bugs.”
“I’d like to see the stick bugs!” Sandra said, “Are they on display in the sanctuary, or are they kept back here?”
“They’re on display,” Irving opened a door. He led us into the front of the bug house. It was lit by dim purplish light. There was a free-standing glass container filled with foliage that, on close inspection, was mostly bugs.
Irving unlocked the top of the display case. He pulled one of the bugs out. I noticed how gentle he was with these strange spindly creatures: not so much holding as letting them crawl on him. The bug swayed in a non-existent breeze.
Sandra held out her hand, and Irving guided the stick bug onto her. It picked its way along her wrist. He did the same to me, though the bug didn’t seem to like my scales nearly as much as human skin. It waved its legs over my hand in consternation. It was bright green, with a curved end that, indeed, looked like part of a plant. Camouflage, I guessed.
We were attracting a crowd too. Three kids and one adult who had been in the insect house had come over to us.
“Goliath stick insects,” Irving said, as he passed out more insects to the children. “Are entirely harmless to humans, as long as you don’t mind the creepy crawlies. This colony is male and female, but goliath females are special in that they don’t need a male to reproduce. They’ll lay unfertilized eggs that hatch into exact clones of the mother when no male is present. That’s called parthenogenesis,”
“Is that common?” I asked, genuinely curious. Sandra was gently probing her insect’s back in with a finger, trying to get it to open its wings.
“Depends,” Irving said, “among invertebrates, yes. In more complex animals, it’s much rarer. But humans being humans, we have managed to induce parthenogenesis in mice and rats.”
My ears went flat back against my head before I stopped them. “Why would you do that?”
He shrugged, “Why not is the better question. Progress comes from all directions.”
That was alarming, but before I could formulate a question, one of the children waved their arm wildly. The insect balancing on it flared out its wings, exposing a bright red flash beneath the green skin. All spread out, the bug was as large as the child’s head.
“Easy!” Irving cried, even as the child’s parent began to scold them in a language I didn’t know. He brushed his own stock insects onto Sandra’s arm and knelt in front of the child, taking the bug from them.
Sandra made a face at me as she juggled both insects. She stuck her tongue out.
“I really want to take a bite out of one of these,” I confessed to her quietly.
“Please don’t,” she said, “I only just got here. I don’t want to be kicked out. I bet there are bugs you can eat without getting in trouble in the gift shop.”
I considered, “Okay. These probably wouldn’t taste good anyway.”
“Probably not,” she agreed. “Like how a lot of ants taste like lemons.”
I shook my head at the thought of lemons: a peculiarly inedible and acidic fruit native to Earth that humans use to flavor their foods.
“Hey, there are good reasons why we don’t eat them,” Sandra said.
Irving stood up, holding three stick insects in one hand. “Whatcha say?” He asked.
“We were talking about why humans don’t eat bugs,” Sandra said.
“Lots of people do, and more think we should,” Irving said, “for the extra protein, and because they’re more sustainable than meat. Personally, I don’t think I could ever give up on hamburgers.”
“Me neither,” Sandra said.
“I prefer the bugs,” I answered honestly.
Irving raised his eyebrows in confusion, but Sandra just smiled at me. I felt her attention like a ray of sun in a rainstorm.
“Excuse me,” the mother of the children said to me in accented English. “Are you Dron Acharya?”
“Yes,” I said to her, “I am. Irving, I think I’m done with the bug now. Thank you for letting us see them.”
He took the insect from my hand.
“Will you take a picture with us?” She asked, “please?”
“No,” I said at once, “I am not a celebrity.”
She looked surprised, and, for a moment, I thought she might protest or demand I comply. Her children were looking at me in fascination, trying to see my alien features. I crouched down to their level so they could see me better. They were young: no more than 10 years old.
“Hello,” I said to them, “what are your names.”
The apparent eldest translated for the younger two. They told me their names. I wondered what language it was they were speaking.
“And are you enjoying the animals?” I asked them.
They expressed their terror of the insects more effectively with their eyes and hands than with their voices.
“On my world,” I told them, “we eat bugs. Bug cereal, and bug kebabs, and even bugs blended into smoothies.”
They laughed, and so did their mother, though she wrinkled her nose in a very human expression of disgust.
“Have fun,” I told them, “enjoy your vacation.” I stood, feeling a new and worrying twinge in my leg where it had been injured by a human months before. Sandra steadied me with one hand, subconsciously I thought. It felt good to have her there. It felt even better when her hand dropped away again, not imposing on my body any more than necessary. The woman nodded to me and herded her kids out of the room.
Irving also brought us out of the insect house, into the bright, warm, Australian day. “Is there anything else you want to see?” He asked me.
“Yes, just one,” I said, “kangaroos. The other sanctuary I visited didn’t have any.”
He smiled, though not as widely as for the venomous snakes. “Right, of course. This way. We’re right around the corner.
He lead us past a group of tables where humans sat eating food made in the park’s cafe, where I saw the children from the bug house and their mother eating. They waved at me.
The kangaroos were kept in a large enclosure, beyond a moat and a tall fence. There were five, lounging in the grass and the shade, their large ears—not unlike mine—flicking and flopping with their movements. Irving talked about their biology, habitat, and behaviors while Sandra and I watched them.
I said, “So you’ll pick up venomous snakes and spiders, but you keep large mammals, which are much more like you and most humans are not afraid of, behind moats and fences so that you cannot even get near them.” It didn’t make much sense to me.
“I’m fond of snakes,” Irving said, “most people would never try to touch them. But they would try to touch a kangaroo, if they could, or feed them, or even hurt them out of curiosity. And ‘roos will break bones if they kick you.”
I made a mental note to stay far away from any kangaroos.
“So it’s best for everyone that we stay away from them unless we have a good reason to do otherwise.”
“What happens if someone comes across them in the wild?” I asked.
Irving shrugged, “Hopefully they stay away. If they approach the kangaroos and get hurt, well then it’s their decision to mess with a big animal.”
“How many humans a year die like that?”
“Only a handful. Maybe twenty in a bad year.”
Only a tiny fraction of the population, but still enough that I was surprised the Kangaroos hadn’t been wiped out completely or kept only in captivity. I knew other animals that killed humans had been, though the humans were actively trying to restore them to their natural state. A good thing for them to do, obviously, but it was a lot more common for intelligent species to simply take over the missing animal’s niche or introduce new ones that were friendly to them. But humans were determined to undo their own changes to the environment.
“Have you already looked at Koalas, Acharya?” Sandra asked me, shaking me out of my thoughtfulness.
“Yes,” I said, “Not here, but I went to a sanctuary for them in Brisbane.”
She looked disappointed.
“Let’s go to their cage. Irving can give you the tour, and I can catch up on my notes.” I was getting soft, I thought.
Sandra followed Irving into the back of the Koala enclosure, and they reappeared a moment later inside the large enclosure. She lit up when he passed her one of the koalas, tucked it against her hip in an utterly familiar and natural way. She pet it as Irving talked. Her smile turned to me, on the other side of a moat, and she waved her free hand.
I waved back. The gesture was still strange to me. Humans use it as an all-purpose greeting and acknowledgment. It seemed to make Sandra happy. She had seemed happy since she showed up. I was really worried about what she had done to get here.
I turned to my notes and started a new page, this one about Sandra. The woman had followed me halfway around the world, and I needed to figure out why. I wrote a few lines of text, summing up what I knew of her motives, and left myself plenty of blank space to fill out when she told me the rest later.
I turned around to watch the humans and animals. A colorful bird across the path from the koalas was singing. Other small animals were sleeping in shady spots. A human was whistling, imitating the birdsong.
I saw, off to the side, a small building. A sign beside it read. “The Most Dangerous Animal in the World,” in English and a half dozen other languages. I went to look at it.
The construction was a wooden box, perhaps ten feet square, with curtains on one side. I did not think there was actually an animal in there: the space was too small—unless the most dangerous animal in the world was some type of extremely venomous bug. So I pushed the curtain aside expecting to see either a small glass cage, a preserved specimen, or perhaps just a picture of the animal in question.
Instead, I came face-to-face with my own reflection. There I was: purplish and blinking at myself, looking just as awkward and out-of-place as I ever had. I looked better than I had in a long time, I thought, though that wasn’t saying much. Whatever humans thought of me, by Chintilik standards I was weird. Not ugly, exactly, but strange in my proportions and movements. I looked away from the mirror, annoyed at being caught off-guard.
All around me, the little room was covered in images and statistics of human violence. Because the mirror wasn’t meant for me: it was meant to reflect a human. They were the most dangerous animal on Earth. There were pictures of dead animals, destroyed forests, and desecrated land. There were statistics about how many animals were killed each year by human activities, and how many species had been driven extinct. It was all the more jarring because of the friendly, rounded font the writing was in.
Below this, there was a short list of the most deadly animals. The most deadly animal on earth was, apparently, the mosquito. Mosquitos are tiny, blood-drinking insects that can cause a number of diseases, including a debilitating condition called Malaria that, at that time, I didn’t have any personal experience with. Over a million deaths per year could be attributed to them. One hundred thousand more to venomous snakes like the ones I had just seen. Then dogs, the loyal animals that humans keep as companions, with around thirty thousand deaths per year. After that, it was more bugs and parasites.
Humans killed more than all of them combined. Through a combination of motor vehicle collisions, murder, and war, they managed to top them all. And, horribly, over eight hundred thousand humans every year took their own lives. I’d known it was a problem, but I thought it was a far less common one.
I stood in the tiny dark room, looking at my own reflection and the text and images all around me, for a long time. I asked myself, not for the first time, what sort of insane planet I had stumbled onto. Where the dominant species ripped the planet and themselves apart with such fervor that they threatened to destroy the places that kept them alive. Where these intelligent, peculiar things killed themselves for reasons I couldn’t begin to comprehend. Where the most dangerous creatures were the smallest ones, and humans willingly cuddled animals that could kill them in an instant. The whole planet was insane, I thought. And I hadn’t even seen the worst of it yet. I needed to get out of the human cities and see the wild land they avoided so adamantly. I had seen plenty of wild spaces in the United States, but they were all forests, tended by humans. I needed to see somewhere truly wild.
“Horrific, isn’t it?” A human voice said behind me.
I jumped and spun around, hand going for the sedator I now kept at my belt. Nick was standing there, lifting the curtain a fraction to see inside.
“Nick?” I asked, “what are you doing here?”
“Well,” He said, taking a step back and gesturing me out of the booth. “I felt pretty bad about the way I treated you at the bar. And I found this nifty forum dedicated to tracking your movements, so I figured I would use it to find you and kill two birds with one stone.”
I blinked at him, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the sunlight. “And those birds are?”
“I’m sorry I kicked you out of the bar. And I think you should know that there are people keeping track of your movements.”
The thought sent a chill through me. An image of humans stalking me through their cities rose in my mind. I did my best to shrug it off. “I am sure a lot of different groups are keeping track of me,” I said. “Governments, concerned citizens, and hopeful explorers. I’m very well watched.”
“Okay,” he said, hesitantly.
“And I don’t know why you feel the need to apologize. You obviously thought I wasn’t safe there.”
“You weren’t, but I should have made sure you got back to where you were staying safe too.”
That was concerning, but I guessed he was worried about the same thing Sandra was: me getting mugged. I didn’t want to go through the whole song and dance with him too. “I called myself a taxi,” I lied, “don’t worry about it.”
“Archie?” Sandra said as she came around the corner from the back of the Koala cage. She had a few new scratches on her soft human skin, but she didn’t seem bothered.
“Here,” I said, even though she had already seen me.
“Hi,” Nick said.
“Hello,” Sandra said, “I’m Sandra. Acharya’s assistant.”
“Oh, are you from a university here in Sydney?”
“No,” I said at the same time as Sandra. “I’m from the United States. The University of California,” she said, reaching out a hand to him. They shook, though Nick still looked baffled.
“This is Nick,” I said, “he worked with me in Brisbane.”
I don’t know what I expected Sandra to do. Maybe get jealous? Get angry at me?
Instead, she smiled at Nick like a predator, showing all her teeth. “Nice to meet you, Nick. Want to come have dinner with us? I only just got here, so I need to catch up on what Acharya is studying.”
Nick visibly relaxed. He nodded his understanding and said, “Sure. I know a place near here we can chat in. Were you planning on staying here long?”
“No,” I said, “I think I’ve seen everything. I’m going to talk to Irving and thank him for his time. I’ll be back in a moment.”
“Cool. Let’s go look at the gift shop, Nick.”
Irving, who had been hovering in the background until right then, approached me as Sandra led the way towards the entrance.
“Thank you for the tour,” I said.
“Anytime. Reach out again if you need more information about our animals. I’m not a specialist on mammals, but I’d be happy to talk about them.”
“I will. In fact, do you mind if I ask about that?” I pointed towards the booth.
Irving nodded, “It’s a nod to an exhibit from over a century ago. The original was just the mirror in a cage. Ours is a little more in-depth.”
“So it’s all true then?”
“Yes. It’s a miracle that humans are being allowed off this planet at all. I figured we’d all be killed when we first made contact. We aren’t exactly a nice species. None of the sapient species on Earth are.”
I didn’t have a good response to that, so I just thanked him again for his help. My mind still spinning, I followed Sandra and Nick to the gift shop.