He looked around himself. Tar'van, two other Ordans heavily armored, and a pilot filled all the available Ordan saddles. He had made himself as comfortable as possible in the aft cargo section, tucking into a corner and hanging onto the cargo netting. There were no seat belts for him, and the ride through the uppermost reaches of the atmosphere was bumpier than he expected.
Interesting stuff, cargo netting. Cross a few zillion miles of empty space, meet a completely alien race that looks and thinks nothing like you, they use cargo netting to tie boxes down in the back of the family truck. Convergent evolution doesn't apply only to life forms.
Tar'van had pulled him out of the human enclosure and told him he was going to provide information and guidance on a trip to acquire materials for the humans aboard the cruiser Tar. He knew what that meant: enrichment materials. Diversions, entertainment. Mental health staples.
If they knew how similar we are to zoo animals in this situation, they'd know why the word is so applicable. But they may not care. They don't seem to have the kind of compassion required to think about its necessity
I don't think these things are very advanced thinkers.
Barely visible beyond a jumble of machinery that supported the backup body coolers, Tar'van pointed at the display in front of the pilot and clattered rapidly at him in the Ordan language. He hadn't learned much, but he recognized "take us there." He'd heard it before, chattered endlessly at other humans, many of them too freaked out to even realize the Ordans were attempting to communicate.
With crude sign language and a map, he had figured it out. That had been a bad day, roughly shoved into the striker, shoved into the human zoo, shoved and shoved and shoved. The Ordans weren't being mean as far as he could tell, they just shoved. If you were going the way they wanted, fine. If not, they shoved.
Bad, yes. But I'm in space! Take that, Mrs. Hogan.
Mrs. Hogan had been an unkind fifth grade teacher, predicting a gloomy future for him. She'd probably been dead for decades already, but her words lived on.
"Inattentive. Lazy. Scatterbrained He must be cheating, he tests so well but never turns in the homework." All the words they don't say anymore now that they can actually diagnose ADHD, but we didn't know that then, did we? He had dreamed and fantasized of a life so big, so amazing, but never stuck with even the dream long enough to cement what kind of life he was dreaming of, let alone the schooling to try to pursue it. He had simply taken life as it came.
And that's how you become a handyman. Smart enough to handle just about everything, but can't stick with anything long enough to become really professional at any of it. Some of his fantasy futures had included becoming an astronaut, but that was never an option. Never strong enough, to have a chance of passing the physicals. Never good enough grades to apply for the courses that would start him down the path. So he hadn't bothered to try.
Maybe I could have passed if I tried. Too late now.
But I'm here anyway! As a prisoner. Damn these crabs.
The bumping and jolting got worse as the ship continued to descend through the thickening atmosphere. The cruisers all orbited around the Moon, but the trip to the surface took only a few hours at what felt like a full gravity's acceleration the whole way, with a turnover at the midway point. Whatever these engines ran on, the fuel must be ridiculously energetic and the engines fabulously effective at wringing thrust out of it. He longed to crack one open and see how it worked.
Like you'd know how it worked, he chided himself. And in reciprocal fashion he stepped in for his own defense: I might be able to get the overall gist of it.
Providing directions to the pilot via Tar'van to get them close to a large city, he had found some likely conglomerations of buildings to locate some shopping venues, and sure enough there was an office supply store.
"Is this an 'Office Depot?'"
"No, it's a Staples. Pretty much the same stuff, we'll be able to find some good things here."
"Is this another example of what you humans call 'free market competition?'"
"It is inefficient."
"It sure is."
"If you are aware of this, why is it permitted?"
"I might be aware of it, but that doesn't mean I'm in charge, Tar'van." The striker was getting closer and as the ship rotated the parking lot became the only thing visible through the viewport. The asphalt was dark with moisture. The hour was early, the sun only beginning to clear the horizon. There were two cars in the parking lot, one a burned hulk near the door while the other, at one of the farthest spaces bore scars but appeared otherwise sound.
The striker touched down. Its egress ramp extended and the two armored Ordans hustled out, weapons drawn. They approached the store cautiously.
Wet asphalt. Mostly.
"What?" Tar'van was observing his troopers entering the store. One held the door as the other rushed in.
"I saw something. Call your men back."
"I saw something! Don't argue, do it!"
Tar'van hissed and clicked into his communicator but hadn't finished delivering his order before the muffled crackle of automatic weapons fire could be heard.
Tar'van whirled and snapped commands at the pilot, who lofted the striker and moved it directly over the store's roof. Tar'van clutched at straps, but the human laid a hand on a locker and held his footing, anticipating the swing and sway of the deck under his feet.
More gunfire. Muffled Ordan crackling and clacking through the communicator, the troopers were yelling, that much was clear. He hadn't learned enough of the language for anything but the crudest, most basic messages, but the tonal qualities were unambiguous.
The gunfire trailed off. Ordan communicators were open from both ends when in use, so both parties could speak simultaneously. The trooper's voice sounded tense.
He listened. "Searching." One of the words he knew.
Two more gunshots, very loud. Someone had gotten close. Then there was the indistinct buzz of the neural disruptor, and the trooper's voice again. Another couple of words he knew, but wished he didn't.
"All dead. All clear."
As the pilot landed the striker again, Tar'van asked, "You directed me to call back the troopers. Did you know this attack would occur?"
"I don't even know what city we're in. I asked you to slow down near some signs but you wouldn't do it. Not knowing where we are, I have no idea what's going on down here at all."
"You said you saw something. What did you see?"
"The cars. Give me a moment."
Tar'van turned to look at the only two cars in the parking lot. "One is clearly nonfunctional."
"Yeah. Look under them. The surface is dry under the burned out car, but the ground is wet under the other one. It arrived after the rain had already started."
Tar'van looked where the human indicated and thought about what he had said. "I do not understand."
"If the car arrived after the rain started, someone was using it recently. And if the car is still here, so are the people." He resisted the urge to add, "duh."
"Why would humans come here? Are pencils that important to humans?"
"No, they were probably just looking for someplace to sleep. Or, I don't know, maybe they just really needed desk blotters. How could I know? They were here. I tried to warn you."
The striker settled again and a trooper came out of the store.
"This Tar reports the structure is empty of other humans."
Inside, near the printer displays, the humans lay quietly dead. Unlike one of the Ordan troopers, who had died messily in a spray of bullets, the humans looked as if they could be nudged awake. He made a movement to approach them, but the trooper held him back, chattering rapidly. It raised its weapon but didn't point it at him, not quite.
"He says you must not get near the humans."
Of course there was nothing he could do for them. Struck down by the Ordan neural disruptor, the humans had simply folded up, their brains shut off. One looked exactly like she was asleep, lying on her side. The other two, both men, held weapons in both hands. The air stank of gunpowder and Ordan blood.
The dead trooper had been nearly sawn in half by the human weapons, but the other had taken only nicks and scratches in his carapace, probably from shrapnel as bullets blew through the store's shelves and merchandise. The trooper was still watching him with his weapon drawn.
He turned away. "Okay, the stuff I want is over this way. I won't come back in this direction. All right?"
It took only a few minutes to find what he wanted, pads of paper in different sizes, lots of pens, pencils and markers, rulers and drawing templates. Erasers. He had once done a lot of drawing, but it had fallen by the wayside with age and responsibilities. He still had the age but most of the responsibilities had fallen by the wayside too, since the Ordans arrived.
No music to be found in a Staples. Not an Office Depot either, of course, but still. No music. That had been a constant drag on morale, too. A few of the other prisoners sang occasionally, but they couldn't muster the emotional courage to sing anything happy. He couldn't blame them, but the extended period of captivity was taking a toll.
He wondered how inmates in prison stood it.
Idiot. They just get on with it. Same as you.
The cart was nearly full, and the new trooper, the freshly downloaded and decanted replacement of the killed one, hovered expectantly over him while he piled all the takings into a locker aboard the striker.
"Could we go to a book store?"
"What for?" Tar'van was watching him flip disconsolately through the magazine rack. Most of the titles were business or software related, not much use or interest to the other people in the paddock.
"Reading material. We don't have access to communications and the social dynamic in the paddock is pretty simple due to the small size of the population.
There isn't much intellectual stimulation."
"We have provided toys."
"Yeah, you have and we appreciate it, but many of us need more stimulation than that. The toys get too familiar and there aren't many ways to play with some of them. We're adults and toys only go so far for us. We need more. Some of the other humans are beginning to suffer cognitive performance degradation, new reading material may help."
"Very well. Where is a book store?"
"Well, I don't know the city. If you'll lift the ship and let me look around, I'll spot one."
The pilot did, and the human did after just a few minutes. Like the Office Depot, he spotted the conglomeration of shopping centers first, and closer inspection found a bookstore in one of the clusters.
"Books A Million! Excellent."
"Are there a million books within that structure?"
"No, it's just the name."
"That is misleading."
"Not really, it's just hyperbole."
"I do not know that word."
"It's a statement or word that isn't meant to be taken literally. You could use it to add emphasis but the actual meaning isn't intended. For instance, if I said I was so hot I'm melting, you could see me and know I'm not melting."
"But the implication is...what?"
"Discomfort to the point of injury?"
"Maybe not injury, but discomfort, definitely."
"Good. We'll make a human of you yet."
"That is biologically impossible."
"Maybe you didn't understand it completely."
"Land over there."
The bookstore was everything he hoped it would be. Though it had suffered significant looting, as the city's population had been methodically eradicated by the large format disruptors the remaining people had scattered first into the suburbs, then, reluctantly, into the countryside.
In the rural areas, people fleeing the killing fields of the cities had run into the guns of territorial residents who feared the attractive target of droves of people, and resented the imposition. It hadn't been as bad as the wholesale death of the cities, but people on the roads were encouraged to stay there. On the road. Don't go toward the houses, don't go toward the businesses. Just go. Keep going. Get back in your car, get back on your bike, get back on the road. Keep going.
He had said that himself. "Just go." He had said it to men, women and children. Families. Grandparents.
He hated himself every time he had said it, but he had said it over and over. And a few times, he'd taken aim with his rifle, and a few times he had fired. No end of guns came out of the city, mostly handguns, but every encounter had been over a distance, over nearly a quarter-mile of heavy extension cords strung together to the end of the driveway, feeding a faint, scratchy signal to a speaker from the drive in theater on the outskirts of town, the last drive in theater in the county. Sometimes people took the voice on the speaker at its word, and some had to be encouraged to take it seriously with a carefully aimed shot from a Remington firing .30-06 rounds. People kept walking, usually cursing him and his companions bitterly every step of the way. He couldn't blame them.
Then the Ordans had moved their operations out of the population centers, chasing the population as it fled. The Remington hadn't been enough to take down an Ordan striker. Not quite. Nothing he had had any effect on the engines, though he had been able to pick out a few hull-mounted sensors and clipped them off as the striker meandered down the street, shadowing kill teams as they broke into houses and businesses in town, forcing the striker to land.
A kill team had approached him on the four-legged run, firing their disruptors until he lost all contact with other members of his small band of survivors, each dropping off the radio net in a short chirp of high pitched static. He had thrown his gun away, pushed his hands into the air and walked toward the kill gang, waiting for the darkness.
The darkness never came. And now years later, here he still was, wishing he had kept firing. Wishing for the darkness that seemed so close, but never quite close enough. All those angry faces in the rifle's scope, the anguished voices, were still so clear. They had hated him, and he couldn't blame them. He had earned it. His little town was his own, he watched out for his own. His wife had been in the city at her city job, while he was still in town doing town things. Tooling around the fields on the tractor, listening to the radio and the stunning news that strange craft in the sky were descending to make contact with humanity and it was all going horribly wrong.
The town's ad hoc militia had formed almost instantly. At the co-op the discussion had gone from shock and wonder to contemplation and suspicion almost instantly. And even more than fearing the Ordans - they hadn't known they were called Ordans at the time - they feared the wave of fleeing city dwellers, a swarm of locusts who would roll over their land, roll over their supplies, roll over their stores and keep rolling, eating everything in their path and leaving the locals to try to pick up the pieces.
At least, that was how the old men behind the counters at the co-op had described it. And he had to admit, those old men were convincing. They were persuasive. And his neighbors were convinced and persuaded.
How his house got chosen to be the stronghold that would be a defense point was easy enough to figure out. He had chosen it himself with defensive capabilities in mind. Well back from the road with useful hills and a windbreak of trees, his house couldn't even be seen except from the air, but a short walk from the front door put him atop a rise with a commanding view of the road in either direction, a view that was nevertheless inside the tree line and nearly impossible to spot without already knowing where to look.
It hadn't been enough. Of course they were able to keep the city people moving. He hadn't shot any runners himself - though a miscalculated warning shot had nearly blown the toes off one especially stubborn runner - but one of his companions had. In the back of his mind, he thought that that guy had been hoping for just such an opportunity, an excuse to shoot someone. Too many guns, too many knives, and talked too much about when the Shit Hit The Fan, he would be ready and everybody else would die. That guy had more canned food than some grocery stores, all of it dehydrated and packed in nitrogen and guaranteed to have a shelf life of at least ten years. That guy was determined to survive anything, at any cost.
That guy's radio had been the first to chirp and go silent when the Ordan striker had moved on them. In spite of everything, that had struck him as just a little poetic.
And when the last radio went dead, that was the end. No more reason to keep fighting. Toss the gun, walk out. Welcome the end at last. Not since Sweetie had been shut off like a toy in the city along with hundreds and thousands of others had he had a peaceful thought. Not until that moment of clarity:
This is it. I can stop.
Except it wasn't. Like a heart patient jolted back to life, he had woken up a thousand more times, each time a little disappointed that he had.
And now, in a Books A Million in some city whose name he didn't know, a bookstore that still had most of its books on its shelves, a new clarity arose. From grief, through dissolution and despair, to resignation he had finally come out. It had taken a long time for him to realize, but he literally had nothing to lose.
It was the most freeing feeling in the world. Even more than welcoming death, it was a swooping, soaring sensation of utter joy.
This is it. I can start. "All right, Tar'van. Let me look around."
"Wait. The troopers will clear the building first."
"Pretty sure it's empty, but I'll wait right here."
"What kind of books are you looking for?"
"Anything. Humans will read anything if they don't have anything else to do. I can see myself reading cookbooks at this point."
"What are cookbooks?"
"Books about preparing food. We like to try new things. Many humans are curious about other cultures, and lots of cultures have pretty distinctive ways of preparing their food. And since we all have to eat, that's one thing we all have in common, and can share."
"Show me a cookbook."
They waited until the troopers returned, then paced through the shelves until they found the cooking section. "Here's one. This one's mostly about seafood."
"What is seafood?"
"Food from the oceans. Also from freshwater like rivers and lakes, that falls under the heading of 'seafood,' too."
"What kind of animals and vegetables are found in oceans?"
"Ha! Not vegetables very much, but lots of meat animals. Various kinds of fish, small arthropods like shrimp, larger arthropods like crabs and lobsters..." Tar'van jerked convulsively. "Problem?"
"No." But Tar'van's color had changed, and he held his middle pair of legs slightly extended. Ready to run?
Tar'van chose not to follow too closely after that while he collected more books, loading a cart with a wide array of genres, everything from comic books to bodice ripping romances, self help to home repair. The troopers were sent back and forth to the striker with armloads until Tar'van finally ran out of patience.
"This will have to suffice. It is time to return."
Back aboard the cruiser, the other inmates in the paddock crowded around the stacks of books.
"The Anarchist Cookbook? How in the hell did you find this at a Books A Million?"
"Dunno. It's one of the latest reprints I've ever seen. Not that weird one by the Shan guy."
"Not important. This is the original, it's more about guerilla warfare. It's crazy, what those apes get up to."
"Booby Traps? Field Manual, ah."
"How women's underwear functions for catching wild food when you're camping," he said, winking carefully.
"That's a weird thing to write about."
"I didn't have a lot of time, I was just going through the store grabbing anything I could find."
"Betty and Veronica?" the other man asked, holding up a comic book. "Come on, man."
"Betty was always my favorite."
"You gotta get out more."
Together they looked up at the sealed orifices that locked them in the paddock enclosure. "Don't I know it."