The Tar'van Diaries
Ponderously, Cruiser Tar took up position above the planet's pole. The indigenous sentient creatures below had a dizzying array of satellites circling the globe, but most of them stayed in the ecliptic plane. Not very many crossed over the poles, and of those even fewer looked away from the planet. At nearly an orbital radius above the planet, Tar would be a small speck of darkness against an immense field of darkness. Tar would not be noticed.
Or she might. But by the time that happened, it would be much too late.
Tar'van emerged from the crèche, stretching his limbs and hearing the faint crackle as cartilage that had firmed up over who knew how many cycles' inactivity warmed and loosened. As always when he was decanted, he felt vaguely hungry.
Distractedly shaking a hind leg that still tingled, he engaged his workstation and examined the ship's condition. Aside from the usual notifications of maintenance activities there was nothing noteworthy. A view of the distant planet was available, a mottled disc showing swirls of white, the nearly black blue of deep oceans, and assorted landmasses. It looked very wet, and he felt vaguely annoyed.
His message board was clear. He had a duty shift beginning soon, but there was still time for food.
Good. These bodies were always hungry right after waking.
Three years later
The human adjusted its head cover and looked around.
Tar'van still wasn't completely used to humans looking around. His own eyes, spaced on nearly opposite sides of his head, took in a very complete view. Humans, with their eyes in the fronts of their heads, had to clumsily swivel their heads about on their fragile-looking necks. It seemed a poor adaptation to Tar'van.
The human was speaking. Human languages were difficult for Ordan physiology. Few humans used clicks or whistles in their languages and none of the dominant cultures used them at all.
That was another thing. "Dominant culture" was a completely new concept to Ordans, for whom there was only the one Ordan culture. That there were many different subpopulations of humans had been a surprise. Cultures formed along lines whose very nature were a mystery to Ordans in general and Tar'van in particular. This bothered Tar'van for a few reasons, not least of which that it was his duty to try to make more sense of human cultures.
That duty was causing him some internal conflict. The ultimate goal was to extinguish all the humans and the vast majority of the animal lifeforms of this planet so it could become an Ordan colony. For his own part Tar'van didn't think it made much sense to learn human cultures. When the last human was exterminated, the very concept of human culture would become moot. Why study them at all?
One reason above all was plain: he had been ordered to do so. Orders were to be obeyed, so Tar'van would study human culture. It being an order relieved him of some of the stress, but not all of it. In his off duty time, he sometimes wondered about the rightness of the orders. But then his next shift would come around and those thoughts would be suppressed under the weight of duty and responsibility.
This human had accompanied Tar'van to the planet's surface a couple of times before. It had shown no propensity to escape and thus far, its guidance had been reliable, although somewhat limited.
"Do you recognize this place?"
"Is its culture familiar to you?"
"Yes. We're in the United States. I'm from the US."
"In order to more efficiently exterminate the pest species that infest this planet, we shall also eliminate food sources that support them."
"Which species? Besides mine, that is."
"Most land dwelling life forms of mass greater than ten of your kilograms will have to be eliminated."
"Weight? You're choosing by weight?"
"At this early stage of the extermination process it is precise enough a criterion. It is our intent to leave no significant predators that would pose a threat to Ordans, nor herbivores to deplete Ordan food crops."
"Hmm. Very few birds ever weigh more than ten kilos. And of the ones that do, I'm pretty sure they're all flightless varieties. Are you planning on leaving birds alone, then?"
"Yes, for now. At this point it is not believed that birds will represent a significant competitor for resources."
The human was standing still, its attention focused on something behind Tar'van. Tar'van could see a few small buildings, the road near where he had landed his strike vessel, empty land and, in the distance, a small clump of forest.
"We shouldn't be so close to those trees, Tar'van."
"There could be armed men in there."
"That distance is beyond portable weapons range. Any humans concealed there are not a threat."
"Your hand weapons don't have a very long range. Human weapons do."
Ordan neural disruptors acted on the autonomous nervous systems of their targets. The more complex the target's nervous system, the more effective an antenna that system was for the disruptor's signal. Interestingly whereas a disruptor had to be turned to maximum power to kill an Ordan, the lowest setting which barely gave an Ordan a headache, was instantly fatal to humans. This was unfortunate. Having the option of stunning a human without causing lasting harm could occasionally be useful, but the disruptor's effectiveness eliminated that possibility. It also meant that for many animals on this planet, the disruptor had no effect at all.
The fact of humans' greater susceptibility to the disruptor left Tar'van with a vague unease, one that he had been unable to fully identify.
"Using human weapons, could you hit a target at that distance?" Tar'van pivoted to wave a manipulator at the distance patch of forest.
The human didn't hesitate. "No."
"Then it is not a threat."
Then his head exploded.
The human backed quickly away from the body as it collapsed with a clatter of chitinous limbs. It looked toward the strike vessel, and then back toward the clump of trees.
A few minutes later, Tar'van came down the boarding ramp of the strike vessel, shaking the stiffness out of his limbs. The human handed over the thoracic garment and sandals Tar'van's previous body had been wearing. Tar'van took them without comment and pulled them on.
"Tar'van, I told you we were too close to the trees."
"Your skill profile indicates a great knowledge of human weapons."
"Yes, intellectual knowledge. But you asked whether I could hit a target at that distance. I have very little practical experience actually firing guns, and probably wouldn't be able to hit anything at that kind of range. But there are lots of humans who are very proficient with weapons over a distance much longer than that."
Tar'van focused on the distant clump of trees. "As far as this?"
"Possibly. I think the world record for a confirmed sniper kill is over two kilometers. But that's about how far away we are right now, and that long shot was by a skilled professional."
"A highly trained soldier. Shooting accurately over extremely long distances was his job. Being military, your first round of broad spectrum disruptions probably killed virtually all of the good snipers."
"We will stay away from the trees."
"That's your best bet."
That was a phrase Tar'van had encountered and recognized. Humans lived in a world of few absolutes. They clumsily navigated an endless stream of chances, possibilities, probabilities and guesswork. It was, like their language, maddening. They stumbled from one arbitrarily chosen path to another. Best bet meant the option with the greatest likelihood of desirable outcomes.
"It may be better to disrupt the area of refuge from above."
"I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"If they have weapons and concealment, they may have heavier weapons to bring to bear against your craft."
"Why do they not assault us now, while we are not shielded in the striker?"
"Hmm. It's possible their heavy weapons aren't good at targeting small, non-mechanical targets. Maybe they don't want to risk hitting me. Maybe just taking out the striker isn't a good enough target if they can't kill you at the same time."
"Humans would destroy the striker with you aboard?"
"I would if it were me. A striker with an Ordan aboard is a threat. Take it out of commission to eliminate the threat, and too bad for any humans aboard."
"You agree with this logic?"
"I just came up with that logic. I don't know how the shooters are thinking, I'm just telling you how I would think if I were the one over there with the guns."
"How do you know they have larger weapons?"
"I don't, Tar'van, I'm just telling you that attempting to assault them from a striker carries risks that aren't worth the potential reward. It's pretty ballsy to shoot an Ordan who has a striker to fall back on, you have to wonder why they're so confident to do that. Maybe they're hoping to goad you into trying something more aggressive, to draw you into closer range where they could really ruin your day."
"This is confusing, complex planning. This plot is alarming."
"Just telling you what I would do, if it were me. Even if you don't go after them so they can try for a big kill, they pick off one or two of you, reduce your depth of resources, force you to do things that further reduce your advantage."
"Humans are devious."
"We are very, very good at figuring out ways to kill things that are bigger, stronger, and ostensibly more dangerous than we are."
"Board the striker. Now. Do not delay."
They hustled back aboard the strike craft and as soon as they were aloft, the hull rang with the hollow pink pink pink of small arms fire striking the hull. Nothing penetrated the shielding, however, and they were able to leave the area behind.
"We will find another area to examine. An area with insufficient cover close by to harbor snipers."
They flew for a few minutes until they encountered an area with broad enough fields that Tar'van felt confident that no humans could engage them from a distance, and there wasn't sufficient cover for any to close the distance on them either. He set the striker down in the center of the field. The vegetation was of a nearly uniform height, and relatively undifferentiated, though a few examples of other plants cropped up in places.
"Why is this area prepared in this fashion?"
"Well, not exactly 'prepared.' There hasn't been much farming since your cruisers arrived and killed everybody."
"We have not killed 'everybody' by any means. You humans are proving extremely difficult to eradicate. The original goal was to have the human species eliminated over a year ago, and yet we have only been able to reduce your population by approximately eighty percent. We are far behind schedule. Human activity prevented this area of ground from growing like other areas which are not used by humans. Why?"
"This was part of a farm. A farmer is a person who grows food, either plant or animal food, for other humans. Actually there are - were - lots of farmers who grow feed for other farmers to feed to food animals, but ultimately it all comes down to this: farmers grow food for other people to use. To do that, farmers plant seeds for the plants they do want, and prevent the plants they don't want."
"That sounds logical. Eliminating competition for resources gives the desirable plants the greatest opportunity for productive growth. We have this practice as well."
"Yes, it's a lot like what you are trying to do with humans and any animal over ten kilograms."
"That is correct." Tar'van wandered around, apparently aimlessly. He indicated a clump of flowering plants that was bustling with insects. "What are these?"
"Those are bees. They're important to human agriculture - sorry, that's what we call the science and industry of farming."
"How do humans eat bees?"
"Oh, we don't eat the bees themselves. They're important to food crops to help the plants reproduce. And they produce honey, which humans like very much."
"What is honey?"
"Honey is partially processed plant sugars. The bees collect nectar from plants, process it in a special stomach, vomit it up into a special storage facility in the bees' nest and after it has fermented, humans collect the honey and we eat it. It is considered almost a luxury food in many cultures."
"Humans are disgusting creatures. Your species will be eliminated."
"So you keep saying, and yet here I am."
"Eliminating bees will interrupt the human food supply?"
"I don't know to what degree, but it will have a significant effect. Bees help the plants reproduce; without bees a lot of our food crops will be very difficult to maintain."
"We will eliminate the bees."
"Good luck with that. We almost did it ourselves and yet they bounced back."
"Almost... Why would humans eliminate bees if you need them? That is illogical."
"Yes, it is. But it was an unintended consequence of interfering with incompletely understood environmental relationships." The human approached the flowers, and carefully teased one of the insects onto his hand. It walked back and forth across his fingers quickly, then flew back to the flowers. "We've learned better since then."
They continued wandering through the field, not heading anywhere in particular and following a more or less straight line away from the ship. After a few more minutes' walking, Tar'van noticed another agglomeration of flying insects, zipping up from and down into the grass, and he went nearer to examine their behavior more closely. "Human, I have found what appears to be a nest of bees. Bees are coming and going."
"Those aren't bees, Tar'van." Tar'van noticed that the human was a good ten meters away. "You would do well to back away."
"You cannot be certain these are not bees. They closely resemble the shape and behavior of the example you presented. The pattern of coloration is similar, the difference of coloration suggests it is a different species but probably related. These are..." Tar'van stopped talking. He had felt a faint tick on one of his legs. He looked down to observe an insect there, walking around. "Look, it walks on me as the earlier did on you. It is harmless."
"Tar'van, you really shouldn't stand that close, you're going to get hurt!"
"You are attempting to deceive me. I will have to exterminate you. That is unfortunate, I had believed you to be reliable. I will have to select and train another guide." He drew his disruptor.
As he extended his arm to fire, another insect landed on his hand with the disruptor, and he paused briefly to observe it. Suddenly what felt like liquid fire erupted inside one of his digits, the digit that the bee was walking on. That was extremely unpleasant. Was the human resistant or immune to such stimulus?
More of the creatures landed on Tar'van and the fiery, burning sensation was blooming in other parts of his body. At his joints!
The creatures may have been trying to attack him before but his hard carapace was sufficient to prevent them hurting him. But now they were attacking his joints, where his thick, sturdy shell thinned and soft skin was exposed.
The world turned sideways and slid alongside to bump him gently on the side of his head. More of the flying creatures were swarming around now, and even as the sensation of additional stings registered in his mind, it appeared to him that night was coming on, and rapidly. The confounded human was talking again, and still it maintained a long distance. It would not approach to intervene in the creatures' attacks. Its voice was beginning to sound faint and faraway...
"Tar'van, those creatures are not bees! They're called yellow jackets in this country, they're related to bees but their behavior is completely different. Uh-oh, it looks like yellow jacket stings are fatal to your species, probably something in the chemistry...well, I don't guess you have time for the explanation. Listen, I can retrieve the vest and shoes for you but that will have to wait until after dark when the yellow jackets are all in the nest and inactive. I'll be waiting for you at the ramp when your next iteration comes out."
There was a faint cracking and popping as Tar'van's swelling tissues caused his carapace growth sutures to break apart, but of course Tar'van heard none of that.
Once again, the human was waiting at the bottom of the ramp.
"You will retrieve my - what word did you use?"
"Vest. Like a jacket, but instead of sleeves it leaves your arms bare."
"You will retrieve my vest now."
"I will not. Not before night. I told your cameras that."
"Obey or be destroyed."
The human backed up a step, but it wasn't sufficiently cowed. "Tar'van, it'll be dark in a couple of hours. The yellow jackets will all go back into their nest and stay there and then we can fetch the vest, no problem. If I go after it right now, they'll just sting me like they stung you."
"I can kill you if you do not obey."
"Yes, instantly and painlessly, whereas the yellow jackets will make it take a long and painful time. Frankly you killing me sounds like the better choice."
The human's logic was irrefutable, if stunningly cold-blooded. Tar'van had been pleased to discover that the phrase "cold-blooded" meant similar things in both English and Ordic. But the human's dispassionate appraisal of its own imminent mortality was unnerving. And of course he had a spare vest in the striker's equipment locker, and the wretched human knew that.
"We will wait until after nightfall." He waved in a different direction from the yellow jacket nest and they began walking. "Are yellow jackets dangerous to humans?"
"They certainly can be, when encountered in large numbers. And some humans are especially susceptible to them. Yellow jackets are very aggressive, but bees are generally not as dangerous."
They walked a bit more, neither toward the trees nor toward the area that had the yellow jacket nest. Tar'van slowed and approached very carefully another small swarm of flying insects. Tar'van watched them. "Why do humans not eradicate the yellow jackets, if they are so dangerous? More opportunities would exist for the bees that humans do use."
"That would be a bad idea, and difficult to implement."
"You are not Ordan. We shall kill them all and they will no longer be a problem."
"You are not human. We have neither the technology to kill all the yellow jackets nor the inclination."
"That does not make sense." Tar'van, confident that the insects in this group were not yellow jackets, approached carefully. Bees, yes. The color was right. "What is the point of permitting yellow jackets' continuing existence?" He carefully plucked a bee off a flower. It struggled in his digits.
"They're beneficial to humans by their behavior. You should be careful of the bees, Tar'van."
"They are not dangerous like the yellow jackets. You said so."
"I said that bees are not as dangerous as yellow jackets. That doesn't mean they're completely safe, bees can sting too!"
Fire erupted in Tar'van's digit as the bee wriggled. He spasmed convulsively.
"These creatures are as dangerous as the others. Why do you tolerate their continued existence?"
"Bees are good for food. We leave yellow jackets alone because they help prevent the undesirable expansion of pest species."
This time, the tissues swelled more slowly and Tar'van was still conscious in the body to hear it pop and rupture. And in that time, the human watched dispassionately.
"It appears that hymenopteran venom is just really bad for you, Tar'van. Is this a species-wide susceptibility or is it just you?"
"It is most likely that it is species-wide," he said as his knees buckled and he crumpled, kneeling in the soil. More bees were beginning to approach. "My bodies are engineered for minimal deviation from median values for all biological reactions." The pain that had been so intense moments ago now felt distant, remote. He could think clearly, and was fascinated by the gently swirling colors of the sky. He felt his hearts racing, almost buzzing.
"That's too bad. It will be difficult for you to eradicate insects, they're everywhere and all the different varieties have their own distinct behaviors. I'm very familiar with North American insects but there are six other continents with their own bugs on them. We do have a few insects from other parts of the world here, though."
"This body is about to die. Bring an example of insects from other parts of the world to the striker, I will examine it there." Tar'van felt the immense pressure in his thorax as, once again, tissues swelled in response to the insect venom. There was a faint creaking that he could hear, as if through a long tunnel.
The body went still after a few more pops and cracks. Ordans were tough but when they died, they couldn't be mistaken for anything but dead.
The human looked around and spotted a likely example to offer for Tar'van's consideration. He whipped off his hat and, moving very quickly, scooped up a large number of insects and jogged, shifting hands quickly from time to time, back to the ramp.
Tar'van stopped at the bottom of the ramp. His body budget for these outings was supposed to be not more than one per week, but here he was already shaking the stiffness out of the joints of his fourth in a single afternoon. It was beginning to look like this guide, helpful though it was, was not smart enough to realize that there weren't any bodies left to spare aboard the striker.
"What kind of creature is this? It does not fly. I see no wings."
"These are called ants. Ants are found all over the world, but this variety is not native to this country."
"What are they good for?" Tar'van reached into the mound of soil in the hat and his manipulator came up crawling with small, quick red bodies. He stiffened suddenly.
"They're unwelcome in this country, but it turns out that they have their uses. Early on, we tried to kill every single one of them but we weren't able to. We've learned to cope with them."
Once again, Tar'van fell over.
"We call them fire ants."
When Tar'van woke up the next time he was aboard the cruiser Tar above the dark side of Earth's large moon, and he uttered old, bitter curses. With no backup bodies remaining in the striker, his download had defaulted to Tar. He requisitioned another striker - this was met with reluctance from the quartermaster, who noted in his logs that another striker was already signed out to Tar'van - and made the long trip back to the surface with a ferry pilot to take the original striker back. That would square the quartermaster's books and Tar'van wouldn't have him haranguing him for it.
Yes, that human would have to go. He had picked out a replacement guide, too, because the human he had been using on the planet was entirely unsatisfactory. But when he returned to the striker after a long, boring flight in the replacement striker with the silent and disarmingly intense new human guide, the first human had left and no trace suggested where it might have gone. No matter, it would ultimately be exterminated and that would be that.
Tar'van looked carefully around inside the striker. The human hadn't left anything behind but a piece of the compressed wood pulp they called "paper" on the control console. He didn't see any ants. He looked over the paper but still could not read human English, though he did recognize the marks which meant his name. He took the paper out with him as the ferry pilot clambered onto the saddle and ran the striker up through its liftoff procedure.
With its usual hum and whoosh, the striker lifted from the ground and hove away, gaining nearly a thousand meters of altitude before gracefully nosing over and plowing into the ground, raising a red fireball as the fuel tanks ignited.