"Okay, settle, everyone. Punch it up."
Fingers flew over a keyboard and a projector flashed on. "There it is."
"That's not a live feed. It only works whenever that Ordan downloads. But it's a pretty complete record of everything he's done in the interval since the preceding upload."
"Pretty complete? Not complete complete?"
"Some dropouts here and there. He hasn't downloaded again since he ran out of bodies in the striker, so our guess is that he hasn't run into any trouble on the cruiser and/or hasn't done anything dangerous on the ground since then either. There aren't many dropouts and there are too many variables in play to be able to say for sure what causes them."
"But aside from that we hear what he hears and says, see what he sees."
"And he isn't aware of it?"
"Nope." The keyboard rattled some more. "Watch this, though." The image on the screen jerked to a new scene, looking straight up at what appeared to be a white expanse. Suddenly a face loomed in it.
"Is that the lady?"
The woman said, "...and you could have just left us alone," and reached hands past either side of the point of view. The view in the monitor jerked and twisted, and the image went dark.
"Yeah," the computer operator said. "That's what I said."
"She broke his neck?"
"I'm not sure if you could call it a neck but whatever you call it, she broke it. When I went in there later he had a good view of his own ass. If you can call it an ass."
"Do not piss her off."
"You saw the mess she made of the earlier iteration," the operator added, nodding to the screen. "She doesn't look like much. In fact she looks a lot like my mom. But jeez when she cuts loose, shit gets real."
"How'd you decode the video?"
"It's not too different from ours, actually. Little tweaking and it took off."
"Yeah. In fact it's not as good as what we have. This is like a couple of generations ago, like good analog TV, you know, from right before it all went digital. The tweaking was dumbing down our systems to make it make sense of what it was trying to manipulate."
"No 4K video?"
"No way. Archive quality Super VHS at best."
"About on par with early YouTube."
"It makes me wonder how good their eyes are, or the optic centers of their brains. It could be that their video transmission technology is so unadvanced because there's no advantage to making it better."
"Or maybe they just don't care."
"The prisoner is a pretty dispassionate sort of creature, don't you think?"
"I thought that was just passivity."
A voice from the back of the audience. "Do we know who she is?"
"No. I met her very briefly but we didn't exchange names. She could be Wonder Woman for all I know."
"She wrenched his head right around like that, maybe she is. Do you know if she's okay?"
"When the gator got the crab, she took off at a jog down the road. I didn't try to follow her, she was setting a good pace and we wanted to secure the striker toot sweet."
"Good job on that, by the way. In case someone didn't say it already."
"They did, but thanks. I haven't tried to fly it, not having any way of knowing how its controls work I don't want to risk an asset that valuable on wiggling the levers wrong and turning it inside out. But we were able to shut down its IFF transponder very quickly, so it dropped off their grid immediately. We were able to sort out its other comm gear and shut that down, and we're pretty sure we know how to turn it back on..."
"Label that switch 'Do Not Touch!'"
"Heh, yeah. But we've been completely around the striker with some sniffers and it's completely dark, electronically speaking. It isn't making any kind of a signal that we can detect, and we're using pretty good gear I picked up from Georgia Tech. If there's a signal it's sending, we don't know what kind of energy it would be using. It would be new to human science."
"Their neural disruptor is new to human science."
"Yeah. Fair point. Then again, when they use that it makes a squeal on a VHF walkie-talkie. So that was new, but not beyond our science to detect."
"The striker is stashed in an ice rink, next town over."
"An ice rink?"
"Yeah, in case they thought to try to look for its heat signature. Might have been unnecessary, they don't appear to generate a lot of heat of their own except for life support. Whatever the hull picks up from air friction, maybe a few more watts here and there. Not much."
"No, that all makes sense. I'm just blown away you found an ice rink in Florida. One with power, even."
"It has solar power. Clearly abandoned and running on automatic, I guess. The ice is thin and soft and the whole place smells like a freezer burned steak but it's damned cold in there. We dragged the striker in through the Zamboni door."
"How'd you get it there?"
"Tractor. We pulled it at ten miles an hour behind an eighty-year-old Farmall tractor, covered with straw."
"You are shitting me."
"No sir. Slow and unsophisticated. Not powerful, not advanced. Nothing to draw their attention. Hauling a huge load of vegetable matter, so obviously not weapons. Straw is a pretty good insulator so any heat the ship was throwing would be masked. Couldn't do anything about its radar signature but an old Farmall has about the same radar cross section as a B-52, so maybe it would throw off their equipment. Trying to suss out exactly what it is that attracts their attention to attack in the first place, and it just seemed like the way to avoid rising to the level of an immediate threat. When they see big groups of humans, they zoom in to zap as many as they can. One or two here and there, they mostly don't bother."
"Big gamble on that 'mostly.'"
"You know what, I don't think they use infra-red."
"No. If they did, your camo wouldn't be enough to hide you."
"We've been using lots of cover, too."
"Wouldn't make a big difference. I've seen lots of FLIR video, trees usually aren't opaque enough to IR to prevent a tracker getting a glimpse. No, I don't think they use infra-red at all."
"Still. Big risk moving the thing."
"Yeah. Couldn't be helped. We wanted the ship. And we didn't see any strikers while we were moving so it may have been all for nothing. No matter, we want to take it apart and see how it works, so we can put it back together and make it work for us."
"Speaking of taking things apart, how is the prisoner?"
The first speaker took over. "Like I said, dispassionate. He's not very engaged, emotionally speaking."
"Is he speaking? Emotionally or otherwise? Are we getting any useful information out of him?"
"Not a lot, but not nothing, either. When I can get him to speak English, he's been giving us a little bit here and there, and we've been putting together some facts.
"First of all, his name is Tar'van."
He had woken in darkness.
Waking by itself had been a new experience. Whereas the usual Ordan regenerative state was never more than somnolescence, this had been a full cessation of all alertness. It didn't feel like unconsciousness, he'd been "knocked out" as the humans called it more than once, a jarring discontinuity that could leave him disoriented and confused. This had actually felt...
No, not darkness. His eyes were covered. Why was that?
The human female, the guide. The little one. She had spun and whirled and the knife had flashed...
The other human had come in...
Where were his arms and legs? This felt a bit like coming up from a download, he should have two arms, four legs, one head and no, the count was very wrong. No arms. No legs.
The cover over his eyes was removed. A human stood over him.
"Do you understand me?"
"Good. Tell me your name."
"I am called Tar'van."
"What was your mission here today, Tar'van?"
"I am gathering cultural and social insights to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the human extermination project."
"Well. That was a lot more forthcoming than I expected."
"I do not understand."
"We would have expected you to try to make it sound less...blunt."
"There is no point in that. I am here to exterminate humans. You are aware of this. Why would I say differently?"
The human nodded. "Okay, I get that." He took a seat, looking over his shoulder at the man operating the equipment bench which Tar'van could just see. "You're certain he's not radiating?"
"Absolutely certain. His link is gone."
"Good." The first human turned back to Tar'van. "We are gathering cultural and social insights to improve the efficiency of the human resistance."
"That is to be expected. Other groups of humans have undertaken such activities. They were discovered and most have been eliminated."
"Tactful bastard, aren't you?"
"Perhaps if you could communicate with the other groups and aggregate what you have learned, you would achieve more satisfactory results."
"Damn, whose side are you on? Yours or ours?"
"I am simply stating what you must already know."
The human nodded again, and sat back in his chair, observing Tar'van at some length. "She really did a number on you. Took you right apart."
"It is fortunate for me that the human concentrated her attacks very close to the joints of the body. In the event of traumatic injury resulting in limb loss, sphincters constrict tightly to close off the blood vessels and prevent death by blood loss."
"Just like a crab."
"I have heard that before."
"You're hearing it again." He grabbed Tar'van's head and rolled it to one side. "What is this thing?"
"That is the link. Evidently you have disabled it."
"How's it work?"
"I do not know. Its function is not my area of expertise."
"It is mine, though," said the man at the bench. "I've been pulling together a report. We've collected a few of them and I think I've got it pretty well sorted out."
"Is it a live feed?"
Tar'van answered, "I do not understand that phrase in this context."
"Can one of your people monitor what you're seeing and hearing as you see and hear it?"
"No. The data stream is sent to a buffer that is constantly updated for downloading into a new body in the event of a body's termination."
"So the link can only send, you can't receive anything through it."
At the equipment bench where Tar'van could not see it, the human operating the computer made a few quick notes.
"And this thing is what makes you download into a new body when this one dies?"
"The link is what provides the data. A separate system connected to the body incubators performs the download via a connection to the link that does not persist after decanting."
"Incubators. So the bodies are mass produced. So they're all the same."
"That is correct."
"That sounds unwise to me."
"Wisdom is not a factor in the design of the body. The most efficient process is for all the bodies to be the same, that way the materials and energies invested in their construction is a known quantity each time. Anyone downloading into a new body will find it to be the same as the one he occupied before. It is inconceivable to download into a body that is different."
"That's an interesting philosophical point you raise. You were pretty far out of it for a while there..."
"That phrase is not familiar to me."
"You were unaware of your surroundings, unconscious or deeply asleep."
"It's our understanding that your kind don't sleep."
"Not the way humans do, no."
"So waking up in a body that is missing several important parts must feel pretty weird to you."
"I remember how I lost the limbs. If I were downloading into a limbless body, that would be very strange."
"Hm. Okay, so your brains aren't incapable of retaining memories if you sleep, it's just that you generally don't sleep. There had been some question of whether your consciousnesses worked very differently from ours. You seem to have this much in common with us. That's good to know."
"When your group is eliminated, that knowledge will be lost and other resistance groups will not have access to it. I recommend you leave your successors a note."
Every human froze.
"That was a joke."
"We know it was." The human in the chair got up and stalked over to the computer operator. "Have you ever heard a crab crack a joke before?"
"No way. That's completely new."
Bereft as he was of arms and legs, the Ordan on the chair was unable to to present much in the way of body language, but he still managed to convey a reflective expression. "That was new. I cannot recall any of my companions ever making a joke."
"You're a joyless bunch, Tar'van."
"Earlier you said your kind had eliminated most of the resistance groups. Most, not all."
"That is correct."
"Are there any elements in common with the groups that escape your extermination efforts?"
"They are all humans."
The human sighed. "I can't tell if that was another joke, because if it was it wasn't too bad, or if you're just that obtuse. Knowing what I know of you crabs I'm inclined to assume you're obtuse, but you've been kind of surprising us here tonight Tar'van so which is it."
"It is the single greatest characteristic the resistance groups have in common. In order of decreasing similarity they are small groups of less than ten members, mobile, violent, organized, technologically advanced, technologically unadvanced, and large groups of fifty or more members."
"A group that big would be sure to bring in a striker."
"Five different groups, each consisting of more than fifty members, have undertaken successful campaigns resulting in the loss of two or more strikers each. Three of these groups have become persistent and creatively dangerous. They are very flexible in their tactics and have proven too dangerous to engage directly. Their regions of operation are known, though the exact locations of the groups themselves are not. The regions they control are marked as forbidden to approach. Those groups will be exterminated by less direct means."
A voice at the back of the audience, the same one that had spoken earlier, said, "What are less direct means?"
"Meteoric bombardment is the preferred method. Longwave microwave irradiation is also an option but is not as effective as bombardment and requires both a greater investment of energy and that a cruiser approach the planet below the designated safe limit."
"Meteoric bombardment has its own limitations. Aiming a meteor is not precise, so a bomb of sufficient size must be obtained to guarantee complete eradication of all life in the vicinity. But meteoric bombardment can have a significant effect on the climate. Too large a bomb or too many bombs could affect the climate to a degree sufficient to make it inhospitable to Ordans. Such an effect would be temporary but it is an undesirable consequence. And there are no rocks in the immediate vicinity. Two cruisers have been dispatched to a region between the fourth and fifth planets of this system to procure a supply, but they will not return for at least another hundred days."
None of the humans present mentioned the proximity of the moon.
"And even once the cruisers arrive with projectiles, there can be a significant delay between launching one and its impact."
The human at the equipment bench had been writing furiously, and handed his notebook forward to the questioner. He read it and scowled, looking back over his shoulder. "Really? You want to ask this?"
"You better believe it."
"Okay. Tar'van: what do you remember of your childhood?"
"That was a long time ago."
"I'm sure it was, if you - or at least your personality - got shipped from your planet of origin all the way to here."
"I..." Tar'van looked very uncomfortable on the pallet where he lay, but he didn't writhe like a human might have. "I do not recall."