Tar'van shook the stiffness out of his joints and looked around. He wasn't certain what had just happened. Clearly he had downloaded but the exact order of events leading up to it was...muddled.
There had been a human. They had been on the planet. There had been a human domicile. Beyond that, the details became difficult to recall.
The human was waiting at the bottom of the ramp. "Are you all right?"
"I am...okay. This body is new."
"I apologize, I didn't know there was someone in the house."
Tar'van took it in warily. "Are there other humans still inside?"
Tar'van started toward the house, but checked himself. "Have you already searched?"
"Yes, I did. I looked around upstairs and down, and the place is empty. There's fresh bread on the counter but the people are gone."
Bread. "This body is hungry. Bread is good."
"Yes, it is. Do you want some?"
She led him into the house. Feeling an unfamiliar trepidation, he was especially cautious as he approached the large seating structure in the main room, ready to leap back. He didn't know where that unease came from, but he was nevertheless wary.
In the kitchen the human picked up a large knife and he nearly jumped back through the doorway. "Drop the weapon."
"What, this? It's for cutting food."
"A knife is a knife, whatever its stated purpose."
"Fine." She slapped the knife down onto the work surface and stepped away from it. "Happy?"
"No. I..." Tar'van struggled for a precise description. Being what he was, emotional responses weren't something he usually had to contend with but he was having one all the same. To cut through the Ordan conditioning, it had to be a strong one. "...hate this planet." He took in all the furnishings of the kitchen, sparse as they were. A peculiar sitting structure, completely different from the ones in the main room, offered itself. He dropped his weight onto it and tried not to sag with relief. It was the first piece of human furniture he had encountered that worked for him. "This planet makes me heavy. It is soaking in water. It is fatally cold over a significant part of its surface. It crawls with tiny creatures that are fatal to my kind. It is teeming with humans who die at the lowest disruptor setting but are somehow difficult to eradicate anyway. I hate this planet. I do not like it here."
"Well, if we're being candid we don't want you here either."
Tar'van waved a manipulator dismissively. "That is logical."
"You should have left us alone."
"Our orders cannot be countermanded. This planet was examined at length and found to be a suitable target for a new Ordan colony. It will be ours. It requires very little modification to its climate to sustain a large number of Ordans. We need only eliminate the humans and many of the animals and we can begin populating the planet. The first wave of colonial freighters will arrive in three hundred twenty-eight years, there is no time to waste. We have insufficient resources to relocate humans to a planet that is unsuitable for Ordans, so it was obvious that your population would have to be extinguished to make room for ours."
"Examined at length? You were able to determine this planet suited you from...how far away?"
"I do not have human distance equivalents. Very far. Our cruisers were in transition for slightly more than four hundred of your years. But the investigation determined surface temperatures, gravity and atmospheric constituents, yes. Upon arrival we found the surface temperature significantly warmer than we expected, but the temperature change suits us."
"Could've used you a few years ago during elections, but never mind that now."
Tar'van disregarded that. It didn't appear to be a statement needing a response from him. Humans did that from time to time and sometimes he understood it.
"Why do humans persist? Large populations of humans do not cooperate well. Your technology is extraordinarily advanced in some fields and ancient history by Ordan standards in others. You are not strong. There are proto-hominids on one of the other continents that are much stronger than humans but they are not dominant. You are one of the slower varieties of life form on this planet, especially considered in terms of body lengths per interval of time. You have poor defenses. You have poor weapons..."
"You got your head blown off not too long ago, Tar'van." The human very carefully tore a piece from the bread on the work surface, keeping her hands away from the knife.
He waved a manipulator again, clicking the claws agitatedly. "You take my meaning. Your hands are no match for my claws. My digits are stronger than yours. How is it humans have achieved dominance of this planet when humans are so inferior in so many ways?"
"We're smart, creative and stubborn."
"I know 'stubborn.' It means an unwillingness to yield one's perspective to circumstances or evidence."
"Yes. Looked at another way, we don't give up easily, and we're smart enough to think our way out of problems that our weak fingers and slow legs couldn't make up otherwise."
"When an animal runs away faster than you can chase it, there is no thinking past that. It is faster. It escapes."
"It escapes for the moment. Humans are completely unlike the vast majority of other animals, Tar'van. If we decided we want to hunt an animal, a specific animal, well, we run after it."
"It runs away."
"We keep running. We catch up. It runs away again."
"We keep running. We catch up again. We can do that over and over. Humans are relentless. Nothing survives humans. You could have flown your cruisers on past us but no, you had to land. You could fly away but we don't have that capability and now you're here and you have no idea what kind of a hornet's nest you kicked over when you landed on Earth."
"Like yellow jackets."
"Yes. Yellow jackets! They are dangerous and the other human said they are not food. Why tolerate them? But you tolerate them and your species thrives in spite of the obvious hazard. How does that relate to humans chasing animals?"
"We are very good at figuring out ways to kill things that are stronger, faster, more dangerous than ourselves. Very, very good. Wear them out. Run them down. Pick them off at a distance. Hack them to death, a piece at a time. And the things that could be dangerous but aren't, we just leave them alone. If we don't have to bother them, we don't. Simple."
Tar'van noted the distance from the human to the knife. "You have become volatile and dangerous. I shall disrupt you and choose another guide." He reached for his weapon but the human leaned forward and leapt in a way he had never seen before, and there was a sudden tug on his weapon arm.
"Ha! I guessed right." She whirled into the air, an improbable spring he had never witnessed before and certainly couldn't have done himself, and she kicked off his other arm. "You're a lot like crabs!"
Curse. She had inferred the presence of the fracture planes in his joints.
"Were you ever young, Tar'van? I only ever see you as an adult staggering out of your cooler, how long has it been since you went through a molt? That carapace doesn't grow, does it?" Kick. Her arms outflung, the human twirled across the room. "You shed it as you grow, don't you?" She twirled back, gaining speed. Kick. "It's a survival adaptation, isn't it? Being able to drop a limb. It gives your body a way to escape if it becomes trapped in the shed shell, or something."
Flat on his back, staring up at the human who had interposed herself between him and the top of the room, he marveled, abstractedly, at her focus. Was this not fighting? She had taken him apart in a few seconds, and never even looked at the knife. "I recognize this. Martial arts, forms of human fighting."
"Nope!" She breathed heavily. "I'm out of shape. I don't know any martial arts at all, Tar'van. That was ballet. I danced for years and years."
"If it is not for fighting, then why did you use it against me?"
"Because I'm smart, creative and stubborn. And you..." she straddled his thorax and grabbed either side of his head, "...could have just left us alone." She pulled hard, then twisted violently.
Tar'van shook the stiffness out of his joints and looked around. He wasn't certain what had just happened. Clearly he had downloaded but the exact order of events leading up to it wasn't completely clear.
There had been a human. They had been on the planet. There had been a human domicile. Beyond that, the details became difficult to recall. He made his way through the striker to the exit ramp, taking in the surroundings carefully.
The human guide was outside the human domicile a short distance away. Faintly he detected her voice. "Damn it."
"What is wrong?"
"I, uh. Stubbed my toe." She looked around. "I didn't know there was anyone in the house, Tar'van. He ran away. I've searched it, there's fresh bread in the kitchen but there's nobody else inside."
Tar'van looked at the house, feeling uneasy. Bread. Human food sometimes ingested with fruit sugars partially digested by insects. Revolting. He had a nagging suspicion that humans could - perhaps even would - eat literally anything. Kitchen. Food preparation area. "We will not spend any more time inside it, then."
"Are you all right?"
"I am all right. This body is new."
"I didn't know there was anyone hiding in the house."
Tar'van looked at the human domicile. He felt vaguely uneasy. "I will not examine this structure."
"Suit yourself. I have checked it out. It looks like someone was here before but they aren't here now. There's fresh bread on the counter in the kitchen."
"Are you familiar with this part of this planet?"
"It looked to me like we were coming down in Florida. I'm not from Florida but I've been here a few times. Familiar, not really. But I can probably show you around."
"We will not enter another structure."
Tar'van pointed across the expansive yard from the house, where a road crossed the field and beyond it, sluggish water and reeds waved in the breeze. "What do you call this sort of terrain?"
"Where we are right now is a field. Over there it's a marsh. A marsh is where the ground has a lot more water in it, and there are likely to be places where the ground is very soft, possibly saturated with water. Places with open water may be common. When you're in a marshy area and you start to encounter more water than dry land, that's when you call it a swamp."
"I do not know the word 'swamp.'"
"I don't know where it comes from, but when you have a boat and it's full of water, you might call the boat swamped, and I think it's like that. The ground is swamped. It's just completely full of water."
"That is a suitable explanation. Whether it is correct is not important. Your species will be eliminated, your language will cease to be, and the endless semantic difficulties it presents will be moot. Ordans will drain the swamp to provide more land."
"Good luck with that."
"My race subdued our planet. We will do the same with this one."
"How long did that take you?"
"Approximately eighteen thousand of your years."
"And why are you here?"
"The environment of our world is collapsing to the point it will no longer support complex life. Clearly it is an imperfect world. We will make this world more perfect and it will support us."
"Don't you think there's a chance Ordan meddling with the environmental balance may have upset things and caused the collapse?"
"That possibility has been raised in discussion. What of it?"
"Knowing that possibility exists, don't you think it's a little reckless to just give it a whirl on another planet?"
"It is not reckless. A human phrase is applicable in this instance: practice makes perfect."
"Yes, but usually when we practice we don't destroy our neighbors' homes when we get things wrong."
"You are not our neighbors. We are on a clear path of progress, you are an obstacle."
"Sometimes when you run into obstacles, you die from injuries sustained in the crash."
"Your vehicles are insufficiently sturdy."
"Sometimes the obstacles are just that tough."
They stood by the water's edge. Tar'van wandered closer.
"Don't go any closer, Tar'van."
"Do not comm...why not?"
"There are large, dangerous reptiles to be found in bodies of water all over the tropical regions of the world. Florida has a lot of them. They're called alligators."
"Do you see me getting any closer to the water?" She was several meters farther away from the water than Tar'van. He retreated back toward her. "They're ambush predators. They lie still in the water for hours until prey forget the alligators are there, then they lunge and strike."
"How big do these animals get?"
"Depends on where you are. Some of them get big enough to eat..." she looked at Tar'van appraisingly, "...you."
"Again, a human is telling me of a dangerous species whose continued existence you tolerate in spite of the risk. Why?"
"We don't use the water that much, so we're happy enough to let the alligators have it. Besides, they're good to eat."
"Another alarming creature that humans eat."
"We eat everything."
"I am learning that." He scanned the water. "I see no sign of animal life in this body of water."
"Any open water you see in the southeastern United States, you assume there's either alligators or snapping turtles in it. You just do. It's safer that way."
"How do you eradicate these creatures? They will not be useful to Ordans."
"I don't know, really. Alligators were wandering around on this planet about the same time dinosaurs evolved. They've been here for millions and millions of years. They're hard to kill if you're thinking about killing them all."
In the water, a long snout slowly surfaced into view.
"That's convenient, there's one now. Huh, that's not an alligator."
"You mentioned another creature called a snapping turtle."
"No, no. I'll show you turtles later. No, that's a crocodile. They look very similar to alligators and occupy the same ecological niche."
"That phrase is complex."
"The crocodiles live the same way and eat the same things as the alligators."
"That is inefficient. One species in an ecological niche is sufficient."
"Take your complaint up with management. I just work here."
"Are the crocodiles dangerous?"
"Oh, yes. They get even bigger than alligators and have a longer history in the fossil record."
"And are they also good to eat?"
"I don't know. I've never tried it. Probably. They're not as common as gators, though, so I don't know if it's legal to eat them in the States."
"Your society has collapsed. Surely your laws are no longer relevant."
"Society is part of humankind, so as long as there are more than one of us, a society of humans exists. I'll continue to respect the laws as I know them. If you command me to kill a crocodile under threat of death I'd still be unwilling to do it."
"We will eliminate crocodiles in addition to your own kind. If I command you to kill a crocodile, it cannot make a difference. The species shall be eliminated as surely as your own. Die now or die later, they will all die."
"But it will not be me that killed them."
"What difference can that make?"
"It makes a difference to me."
"That is not relevant."
"And I don't care. It makes a difference to me. The crocodile doesn't get a say in what I do to it, but I do. And I say, I don't need to kill it. I don't need to eat it, I don't need to wear its skin, I don't need its environment for myself. I can afford to leave it alone. To kill it needlessly when I could simply leave it alone would be a weight on my conscience. If I had no conscience whatsoever then kill it or don't, doesn't make a difference to me. But I do have a conscience. It would be inhumane to kill for no reason, not when I can just walk right past it and leave it alone. It isn't threatening me and it won't go far from its swamp. I could just leave it alone. You ordering me to kill it is an arbitrary command that I can choose to obey or not if I consider the command to be unethical."
The human's conviction was worth testing. Tar'van drew his disuptor and leveled it at the human, who backed up a couple of steps. "Kill the crocodile."
"I can't..." She didn't get to say more before Tar'van's manipulator exploded in a grayish-green spray of blood and chitinous shards. The disruptor flew away and landed in the water.
Tar'van took two steps backwards. "How...?" He cradled the wounded limb, looking at the ripples where the weapon had landed. The human advanced toward him, and he backed up some more.
"Snipers. We're too close to the woods."
"Noted for future reference." He hissed with pain. Unlike losing a limb at a joint, losing one in this manner was causing tremendous blood loss. But the wretched human was still talking.
"Now or tomorrow doesn't matter, you said. Kill it anyway, you said."
"...unreliable human..." His vision was already darkening at the edges. He was losing too much blood. As soon as he downloaded, he would rearm and eliminate her quickly. Humans were entirely too sneaky and dangerous, they killed from tremendous distances and seemingly came out of nowhere to do it. The earlier human had mentioned snipers but Tar'van had not appreciated just how great a human's killing range could be. The woods were at least three hundred meters away.
"No. I am completely reliable. You can absolutely count on me. I will kill as many of you as I can. That's a promise."
"I don't get a say. You're a threat that won't leave us alone. I have to fight." She waved a hand over her head and turned away.
Tar'van's shoulder exploded. His wounded arm was blown off, and the shock of the distant sniper's shot made him reel. He staggered. Again there came the distant, delayed crack of a human weapon. The human female whirled, charged at him and kicked. He stumbled some more, falling into the dark, tepid water of the swamp.
A low, dark green shape with eyes advanced rapidly. Tar'van had a moment to see a huge mouth full of teeth suddenly explode open in front of his eyes, and then a wet thrashing.
Tar'van awoke in a chamber aboard the cruiser Tar, and looked around.
Something strange had just happened. He had been investigating a human domicile with a human female guide, had seen a hidden human pop up from behind a human sitting structure, and boom. The striker had been fully stocked with bodies, he should have downloaded into a new one immediately. Instead, the download had defaulted back here. Very odd. Everything about humanity was odd.
The decanting attendant observed him dispassionately. Tar'van approached him.
"Are any messages waiting for my attention?" Always check messages first. Even the humans held communications as a priority.
The attendant checked. "One, from Tar'noth."
"Scan the planet for my striker." He provided the craft's registration number and transponder code.
"Your striker is not on the surface."
The attendant looked startled. "No returns from any striker on the planet surface with that number or code." An Ordan didn't look startled easily. "It is also not in the ship's complement. Are you certain of the code?"
"Scan the surface for all strikers and cross-check against all units signed out."
The attendant was not familiar with that task but it wasn't too different from cataloging the ranks of waiting Ordan bodies, so he got it done. "All accounted for. Two wrecks, signed out five days ago and lost to enemy action over water. Unrecoverable."
"I signed out a striker less than four hours ago, and it is not on the surface?"
"No record here of that vessel being signed out. There is some kind of error. No ships are missing, and you are here. You have not signed out a striker with that code."
"I signed out another striker over twelve hours ago and it was lost to...environmental hazards. There is no signal from it?"
"No record here of you signing out any strikers in the last five days, Tar."
"I am using human words to express frustration, disregard." The transponder aboard a striker could survive almost anything short of a meteoric landing or a direct hit from the largest human weapons. This morning's crashed striker should have still had a working transponder, vectoring in a recovery crew. The idea that one had suddenly stopped transmitting in a fully functional striker was almost too foreign to even conceive.
And what could Tar'noth want?
"You know, when I was a kid I never could solve the Rubik's Cube. I had some friends who did it and they were really fast, and they tried to explain it to me but I couldn't follow the explanation. My brother had one and he'd fool with it from time to time but the only way he ever solved it was to take it apart and then put it back together correctly."
The human speaking had a small, multicolored cube in its hand. Each face was a different color, but each face's color was continuous. Tar'noth had a similar cube sitting next to his access terminal, and all its faces were scrambled. It had distracted him many times, and frustrated him especially when a human had told him it was a toy for preadolescent humans.
"So how'd you figure it out?"
"I'm not sure, really. Used to be all I'd ever do was do one face, then try to sort each other face in turn. That doesn't work. But I've got nothing but time here, so I've had some time to think about it. Doing one face is too isolated and doesn't pay attention to the parity of other squares. So I stopped trying to do one face and started focusing on a different aspect, and I tried solving the corners. After that it worked."
"Huh." The other speaker paused for a few moments. "It sounds to me like you could follow the explanation now."
"Ha! Maybe. I wasn't really following the explanation, when it started taking more than three steps I just stopped listening. About twenty years after high school my dad told me he thought I might be ADD, but that was twenty years too late. There's about ten people I'd really like to tell that I've solved this damn thing, and a couple more I'd like to shake it in their face, my brother in particular, except I don't think that's an option now. Did you see the tavern puzzles?"
"Yeah. I love those. Except 'Patience.' I hate that one."
"Yeah. It's just tedious to get through. You just about need pencil and paper to keep track of what you've done. Look at this one, though." The human held up a shape with an intersecting bar and a couple of rings on it. Tar'noth had one like it on his work station as well, next to the cube. "It helps if you think of it as a mechanical transistor. Make this little change here..." and the human made a maneuver Tar'noth couldn't see.
"Hey, do that and then you can..." The other human took the device, made three swift movements and one of the rings came off, then the other. Tar'noth stopped the video feed, backed up and watched carefully, then held up the puzzle on his desk. No, that wouldn't work. The bar was still in the way. "A mechanical transistor! Nice analogy."
The first human looked around, then seemed to fixate directly on Tar'noth, and suddenly threw the colorful cube at the camera. Tar'noth jerked away as it appeared to clack loudly against the inside of his view screen. "Hey! If you're not too busy melting some of my fellow Terrans maybe you could send some of your undercrabs down to the surface, find an Office Depot? Get me some pencils and quad rule or something?"
"Dude. Aren't you afraid they'll kill you?"
"Not as much as I used to be. Now I'm just kind of resigned. They'll get around to it eventually. Until that happens, there's not much to do around here."
"You want to play a round of rummy?"
"You gonna smoke me like last time?"
"What the hell, okay."
The human paddock was an interesting place. The humans, contrary to their nature as observed at the beginning of the Ordan sterilization of the planet surface, got along well. There had been a few squabbles at the beginning, and there had been some turnover when humans escaped or were terminated. But now mostly the challenge with the humans was keeping them engaged and entertained. Distracted, humans were relatively biddable and complacent. Given time and insufficient entertainment, however, and humans were difficult to contain, difficult to recapture, and creatively destructive while unobserved. The paddock's entrance had been reinforced and a constant guard placed around it. Since that had been done, there hadn't been any escapes.
Tar'noth would have congratulated himself on the improved security, but the notion of congratulations never crossed his mind. He was doing his job well, that was all that mattered. Those were his orders, and he fulfilled them.
The portal opened and Tar'van stepped in.
"Tar'van," he announced himself.
"Tar'noth. Have you spent much time observing the humans?"
"Some. They are a very complex species."
"Not more complex than ourselves, Tar."
"No, Tar, not biologically. But socially they are almost incomprehensible."
"Yes. I had noticed." Tar'noth had backed up the recording. "Watch this."
Tar'van settled himself onto a saddle to observe the human interaction. "It is fairly typical of what I have seen of them. What of it?"
"The human has been thinking about a solution for this device," and Tar'noth negligently clacked a manipulator at the cube, "for years. Eights of years, by the sound of it."
"So it has been thinking about a solution. It hasn't had a cube in its paws the whole time, it has only been thinking about a solution."
"Yes, humans spend a lot of their time on unproductive projects, sometimes only in the abstract. What of it?"
"It came up with a solution!"
Tar'van looked at the cube on the work surface. It was hopelessly scrambled. The image on the viewer was plainly of a cube whose faces were each a single color. "How?"
"The creature didn't say! It only described how it changed how it thought about the puzzle, and that was all."
"That is remarkable. Have you had the cryptographers try the puzzle?"
"Yes. Their computer simulation is very time consuming. I am told it should be done sometime tomorrow."
Tar'van sat back on the saddle, hissing through his ventral spiracles - a very rude sound. But Tar'noth didn't comment on the informality, only continued glaring from the solved puzzle on the screen, to the scrambled one on his desk, and back again. Finally, he slapped the cube off the surface. It sailed across the chamber, impacted the far wall and settled again, one facet jarred almost completely out of the whole. "What is Office Depot?"
"I am not sure. If it is like Home Depot then it is a human supply distribution node of some kind. I will ask my next guide."
"What is pencils and quad rule?"
"Pencils I am not certain about but it sounds like it may be a variation of pen. That would be a device for manual recordkeeping. In context, quad rule, if I am right about pencils, would be related to paper, which is also for manual recordkeeping."
"What could the creatures want to keep records for?"
"The one mentioned needing to keep records to successfully complete a puzzle. Probably something trivial of that nature. They expend a great deal of energy on trivial matters."
"That one is getting restive. They are all getting twitchy but that one concerns me. Take it to the surface with you. Find Office Depot, find pencils and quad rule. If it helps keep them under control, it's worth the extra trouble."
"Before I go, I must tell you that I believe I may have been experiencing some kind of cognitive failures. I recall checking out two separate strikers, losing both of them, but there is no record of them being checked out."
"You are spending too much time with the humans. You are beginning to dream like them too, now."
"No, these memories are very cle-"
"Yes, yes, that's what the humans say about dreams. They insist dreams are realistic, believable. If they spent a fraction as much energy focusing their minds on real things, they would have crushed our fleet before we passed the cometary cloud. As it is they seem to be constantly thinking about things that are not real."
"Just go, Tar'van. And take that one."
Tar'van left the chamber. After a few minutes of looking at it, Tar'noth went over to the fallen puzzle, picked it up, and carefully pulled the loosened piece out the rest of the way. He looked over it, and figured out how it went together.
He began to work the rest of the pieces loose.