Sunday, October 1, 2017

The Tar'Van Diaries: Chapters Seven and Eight

Seven

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?'"

"Yup."

"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.

"Wait."

"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."

"Do not...why?"

"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?"

"Proceed."

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."

"Clearly."

"But the implication is...what?"

"Discomfort to the point of injury?"

"Maybe not injury, but discomfort, definitely."

"I understand."

"Good.  We'll make a human of you yet."

"That is biologically impossible."

"Maybe you didn't understand it completely."

"What?"

"Land over there."



Eight

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."

"Who?"

"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."


Monday, July 17, 2017

The Tar'van Diaries, Chapters Five and Six

Five

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?"

"No."

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?"

"Yes."

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."

"It escapes."

"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."

"Hornet's nest?"

"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."

"Okay."

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."

"How dangerous?"

"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.

*Crack*

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."

"...conscience...?"

"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."

"What?"

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?"

"Yes!"

"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."

"Damn it!"

"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?




Six
"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?"

"Probably."

"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?"

"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."

"Tar'noth..."

"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.