"That was unexpected." The new human guide expressed only moderate interest.
Tar'van had no reaction. He wondered how he would explain this to the quartermaster when he got back to the ship. He thrust the paper toward the human. "Read this if you can."
I didn't get a chance to warn you but fire ants are attracted to electronics and have been known to infiltrate electronics enclosures. Some fire ants got loose in your ship and may compromise its controls. You should check it carefully to make sure it's okay before using the ship again. He didn't sign it." The human handed the paper back to Tar'van, looking toward the distant, rising plume of dark smoke. "Did you encounter fire ants?"
"We did. They are unpleasant."
"They sure are. But we've learned to live with them."
"I will not further explore this planet's insect life. We will exterminate all of it."
"Good luck with that."
"Your well wishes are noted. Pandering will not extend your life, however."
"I wasn't pandering." She looked affronted, if he interpreted her expression correctly.
"Good. I wish to know more about the human diet. If we can eliminate human foodstuffs, humans will die off more quickly, requiring less effort on the part of my people."
"Tell me what humans can eat."
"We eat everything."
Tar'van considered that statement. "That is not likely."
The human made a face that Tar'van did not understand. "Come with me."
"Do not command me, human."
"Fine, stay here then. But I should warn you, fire ants have been a problem in this area for years."
Tar'van hurried to catch up with the human as she walked away, peering at the ground as he did. The human led him to a structure. She went inside.
"Is this your residence?"
"No, Tar'van. My house is hundreds of miles from here. Your people snatched me up and whisked me off in your spaceship and kept me in what felt like a kind of advanced kindergarten, and then one of them cut me out of the herd and dropped me off here with you. Why would you ask something stupid like if this was my house?"
"You opened it and went in as if it were your own."
"Your people have killed off most of my people, I assumed the likelihood of there being other humans here to be low."
"What if you were wrong?"
"Then I would assume that whoever was here had managed to evade your killing squads, and were somewhat better prepared than the general populace. They would probably be pretty glad to see a human walk through the door, and then kill you when you followed."
Tar'van took in the dwelling. He didn't have to turn his head to do it. Human furniture was not comfortable for Ordan anatomy and he didn't investigate the long sitting structure with its cushions, or the strange lopsided-looking device in the corner.
Suddenly another human popped up from behind the sitting structure, quickly aimed one of the crude human weapons, and Tar'van's head exploded.
"Eek!" the human said. The other human, the one with the weapon, dashed out the door through which they had entered.
The new striker had been fully stocked with fresh bodies, and Tar'van stalked down the ramp, proceeding slowly to observe his surroundings. The humans were crafty. It hadn't occurred to him that one might wait until after he had completely entered the building. He had been right there in the space with it, and it had waited until...boom.
The human guide was still there in the domicile. She appeared to be cleaning up the mess. She had dragged Tar'van's previous body outside and was now sponging and mopping the floor. "Your people leak a lot when shot, Tar'van."
"Just an observation compared against humans and other mammals."
"I notice that your blood is a kind of greeny-blue. Or is this digestive fluid? It didn't appear to be coming from a digestive tract region, but I'm not familiar with the anatomy of your species."
"That is blood. Significance?"
"Just another observation. I'm guessing it means your blood is based on copper?"
"That is correct. Biology is not my specialty."
"It's not mine either, but I have a lot of interest in biology. If your blood is based on copper, that would mean your body's oxygen-transporting proteins are called hemocyanins in my language. Vertebrates on Earth use an iron-based protein, called hemoglobin."
"Hemoglobin is much more effective at transporting oxygen than hemocyanin." She waved her sponge at the floor. "It would explain why there's so much blood in you. You need it just to be able to function."
"It is obvious that blood chemistry like mine is not unknown to you. What other Earth creatures have blood like mine?"
"Not many. The most complex creature on Earth that uses hemocyanin is a kind of arthropod called a horseshoe crab."
"I have been told that my kind bear features in common with what you call crabs."
"And it's true, you do. But horseshoe crabs aren't really crabs at all. They live in the ocean like crabs and they have lots of legs like crabs, but really they're more closely related to spiders. Most people don't bother to learn the distinction. Lots of legs plus ocean equals crab."
"But that is incorrect."
"It's correct enough for most people. Horseshoe crabs aren't important in day-to-day life."
"Oh, no. Horseshoe crabs are ancient. Their history goes back hundreds of millions of years on this planet, but as far as most people go, they don't matter much." She went back to sponging blood off the floor. "Ick. Your blood smells weird, too."
Tar'van left the human behind and explored the domicile a bit more. He remembered the lesson of a mere hour ago, though, and proceeded with more caution than before, being ready to jump back through a doorway if another human popped out from behind something.
None did. And when he ventured up the stairs - the stairs themselves were the odd spacing and slope that humans used but he could manage them - there was nothing up there either.
"This structure is devoid of other life forms."
"Yup. Just you and me."
"You knew this?"
"I searched while you were rebooting in that new body."
"Why did you let me waste time searching?"
"Tar'van, you didn't ask me whether I had searched, and you didn't tell me you were going to search. If you want to know things, you have to ask. If you want me to help you make the most of your time, you need to tell me what you intend to do. These are oversights on your part, not mine."
"Understood." The wretched creature was right. Curse! "Why do you do this work?"
"It's a mess. It's not right to leave a mess. And this mess is your fault anyway, and I'm accompanying you, so it sort of fell to me to clean up your mess when you got shot."
"How is it my fault? The other human shot me, the fault lies with him."
"If your kind hadn't invaded my planet, he probably would never have shot anyone in his entire life. The proximate cause was the other human, but the underlying cause is you and your people. He just wants to survive, and a known threat was close to him. You."
"The question remains, why do this work? There are no residents to occupy this domicile."
"Be that as it may, it's just wrong to mess up a place. Besides, it may prove useful to someone eventually, so leaving it in good condition will be better for them, too."
"Someone? Other humans?" Tar'van couldn't be certain but guessed that the human could see the signs of alarm in his color and posture, and detested the creature for it. "We should move outside so we will have better views of approaching threats."
"No, I mean in the future. Someone, anyone. Ordans, humans, whatever."
"That is...honorable. You would do this for my people?"
"If I knew for sure that it was for your people? I don't know." She shook her head. "I don't know."
The human wrung its sponge into a container and finished cleaning the last of the blood from the floor. Tar'van examined the sitting structure and tried to fold himself in such a way as to make use of it, but could not. His knees bent the wrong direction. There was nothing like a proper saddle in this space where he could rest his weight and give his legs a rest.
That was a frustrating thing, too. Humans could use Ordan saddles with no difficulty. Their manipulators - hands - were nimble and dextrous, and could be used to operate Ordan devices with little trouble. Ordan manipulators, however, with their three broad digits, didn't fit into human controls at all. The spherical door latch operating devices were an especial frustration for Ordans, and they had developed a special adaptor that would grab onto the knobs so Ordans could turn them. Meanwhile, humans used lever-shaped door controls in addition to their knobs, and operated Ordan doors as blithely as they used their own.
The infernal humans were disconcertingly adaptable. It was very hard to keep ahead of them, and usually the only way to really keep ahead of them was to keep them all coerced with the neural disruptors.
The human went into an adjacent space and Tar'van heard water splashing. He followed.
This space he had given only a cursory glance earlier, as there was nothing behind which a human could hide here. There was also a sitting structure, taller than the earlier low one, a bit like a padded pedestal on four legs. It appeared to be designed for humans to sit upon, and he tried it. It wasn't quite right for his shape, but it worked and he was able to relax a bit. The gravity on this world was higher than he was used to, and it was fatiguing. Future generations that grew up in it would have no problem with it, he knew, and envied them their ignorance of the circumstance. The human moved around in the room, rinsing the container and wringing the sponge some more until the water ran clear from it. "That's better. Are you hungry?"
"I could eat."
She looked at him strangely at that. "Was that you using a human English idiom, or are you simply stating your condition?"
"I do not know this word, 'idiom.'"
"Condition it is, then." She moved around in the room, and opened a tall, rectangular white cabinet. Light and cold air flooded out of it.
Tar'van jerked away from the cold, mandibles clicking in agitation. "That is unpleasant."
"It's a refrigerator. It's a miracle it's even working, but your neural disruptor doesn't damage machines, does it? Evidently some parts of the power grid are still working, if only on automatic. Or maybe this house has solar panels. I didn't notice."
"Some of my people are working at learning how your infrastructural systems work and are operated. It is difficult but they are confident they will achieve their goals."
"Well, in the meantime we have a working refrigerator. Nothing ready to eat in it, though." She made a face at the contents of the enclosure and pushed the door shut, opened the other side of the cabinet. "Hello, hmm." She brought some packages out of the cabinet, from which flowed even colder air, and set them aside. "This shows promise."
"The cold is very unpleasant. How do you tolerate it?"
"This? This is nothing. It's just a freezer."
"My kind do not tolerate low temperatures well."
"My husband is from a much colder part of this planet. If he were here now, I would ask him to get things out of the freezer instead of doing it myself. He likes it cold."
"What are you doing?"
"Gathering ingredients. Give me a moment."
"Do not command me, human."
"Don't be rude, either."
Tar'van was considering drawing his disruptor when she pushed the freezer door shut, clapping her hands together and looking around with the expression called a smile. This human had not made that expression before. "I'm going to cook some human food for you."
"I have not had human food."
"No, I imagine you haven't. You spend most of your time either stalking around with human guides, in which case you carry around day rations, or back on your cruisers, in which case you just eat whatever Ordans eat. But this time you had to hustle to get the replacement striker, didn't you? You didn't pack any rations. So let's see what works for you and what doesn't."
She patted the mound of gathered materials, then started opening storage areas under the work surface, and pulled out even more.
"Oh, boy. I can get a lot done with this. I haven't gotten to do any cooking in a long time."
Tar'van watched silently while she combined materials in assorted proportions, sometimes in different orders from how she had done it earlier. He was frankly mystified. "You do not refer to instructions."
"What, to recipes? No, not generally."
"You have recipes memorized?"
"Not all of them, not at all. There are more different ways to combine human food than you can imagine. But certain types of cooking tend to have certain ingredients, or certain preparation styles, and these can alter the sensory effects. For instance, scrambled eggs is a typical North American breakfast item, and you can do it with just eggs - nothing else. I like to add a bit of milk and sometimes a little poultry seasoning to mine, but it's a personal preference. But an omelet starts with just eggs and milk, too - the texture is completely different and the form when finished is different too. And most of the point of an omelet is to fill it full of other things."
"The details are not familiar to me but the premise is logical."
"Good. I do have several recipes memorized, but generally once you understand how most of your main ingredients behave and interact with each other, recipes become unnecessary. You can make up a recipe as you go."
"It sounds intellectually fatiguing."
"It can be. Sometimes at the end of a long day, the last thing you want to do is try to decide what to make for dinner." She opened a cabinet and a wave of heat rolled out of it. "This is called an oven."
"That feels good," Tar'van remarked, extending manipulators toward it and drawing closer. She held up a hand to stop him.
"Not too close. The heat in there is hot enough to damage living tissues, including yours, probably."
"What is the purpose of this device?"
"It's for cooking food. Do your people not cook food?"
"We do not. We only know of cooking food from observing your kind."
"Okay, well, stand back." She slid several pieces of metal into the hot oven and closed it again. "Now we wait."
"For how long?"
"A while." She twisted a knob on the control panel. "That'll make a beeping sound when the first items are ready. Are you familiar with a human house?"
"I am not. I have only begun my field research recently. Before that I was exterminating cities. There are many large cities, it is difficult work."
"Well, let me take you through this one. Maybe you can learn something useful."
She guided him through the various rooms of the house while the foods were cooking. The bed struck him as completely mystifying.
"It makes sense you wouldn't be familiar with a sleeping structure like this. Your hard shell doesn't give very much under pressure, does it? But we humans can suffer fatigue or pain from having too much pressure in one place. The soft mattress of the bed spreads support out over more of our bodies so we don't have a lot of pressure anywhere while we're sleeping."
"We do not sleep."
"Really? That's different."
"We enter what you would describe as a soporific state. My mind wanders at such times."
"Sounds like dreaming."
"Dreaming. I know this word. Yes, I think the states are similar." He experimentally pressed on the bed. "We have observed humans in a state of extreme inactivity. Is this sleep?"
"Depends on the human. There are some who are just that lazy. But it sounds like you are describing sleep. It's not unconsciousness, the brain is still active but not responding to outside input. Humans require sleep to stay healthy."
"Our kind require periodic resting breaks of similar inactivity. Individuals in the soporific state are difficult to rouse. But it is not sleep as I have seen your kind do. We remain conscious but awareness is sharply reduced."
"That does sound like it would be about the same."
They proceeded through another room. "Bathroom."
"Human digestion is not completely efficient. A significant portion of the mass of the food we eat and liquid we drink passes through the body and must be excreted. Waste products from biological processes, cell activity, disease eradication and similar, are added to these waste streams and ejected at the same time. If the food we eat is tainted or not safe, often our bodies will reject it and the food will be excreted fairly soon after eating it, if not expelled immediately back through the mouth. This device," she indicated a low, white structure that vaguely resembled other human sitting structures, "is for receiving the waste and carrying it out of the house. We call it a toilet."
"How long does digestion take?"
"It depends on the person and the food. I think the process takes several hours. I've never actually timed myself."
"And if the food is unsafe?"
"Much less time. Minutes, sometimes."
"You said humans eat everything."
"We pretty much do, but that doesn't mean everything that we eat is completely safe. Cooking is important to kill pathogens that might be harmful, but sometimes things aren't quite cooked enough. Being able to expel unsafe food so quickly is part of what makes that possible. What we shouldn't eat, we know about because someone already tried it and spread the warning around. But some things are so dangerous to eat, the body can't expel it fast enough. Certain fungi, certain kinds of fish, and of course allergic reactions."
"I may have learned about allergic reactions. Do insects cause them?"
"Not all insects, and not to all people, but they can. They don't affect me though."
"What is this?" He indicated the low, oblong vessel along one wall.
"Bath tub. And up here is a shower. The bath tub is for bathing by immersion, the shower is for standing up and bathing by a spray of water. Down here are controls for how much water, hot and cold. And the drain stopper for holding the water in the tub."
"Why would you need two different ways to bathe?"
"The very young and very old may have difficulty standing for the shower, and sometimes it's nice to just sit and relax in a good hot tub for a soak."
"That is strange."
"Don't knock it until you've tried it, Tar'van. You seem like an uptight kind of person. A soak might do you some good."
"The idea does not appeal. My kind are from a planet that does not have as much surface water as this one. We do not swim."
"Look at this bath tub. You don't have to swim, it's not that deep."
"You want to give it a try?"
"Is there merit to the experiment?"
"You want to know more about humans, don't you? Your mission profile is to gather information about humans and our world. In addition to knowing how we think, it might prove useful to know how we relax."
"Useful in what way?"
"I can't know that, Tar'van. I'm not trying to exterminate a species, let alone an entire world."
A faint chime sounded and Tar'van whirled around. "Relax, it's the timer on the oven," the human said, leading him back down the stairs.
Back in the kitchen, the human opened the oven and brought out the metal containers she had put in earlier. "Now, all this is too hot to eat right now. We need to let it sit for a few minutes."
"The odor is pleasing."
"You're very kind to say so."
"I do not seek your approval. I am stating a fact."
"I know. But I was raised to have good manners, so when you said something that could be perceived as nice or complimentary about my cooking, I'm socially obligated to thank you for that."
"I am not a member of your society. Social obligation is not relevant."
"Maybe not to you, but I am a member of my society. It is relevant to me."
"Are all humans as self-aware as you?" This human's ability to analyze its own behavior was remarkable. Tar'van had not observed it in many specimens.
"Not all. Some aren't really interested in observing themselves, and some don't understand what they see, so they just follow the training they get as children and go on about their lives."
"I have detected a pattern in your responses, a pattern common in much of human behavior. You often will not speak in absolutes about other humans. You say, 'not all' and 'some' very often. Are humans as inconsistent as this, as a species?"
"Yes. It's one of the few things that we can all agree on, that we cannot all agree on things."
"That is highly inefficient. Humans are a chaotic species. You shall be exterminated."
"Good luck with that." There was that phrase again. "Well, Tar'van, if you're going to continue to threaten my life and my entire species, I'm going to be much less inclined to feed you. Do you want food, or not?"
"Tell me about human food."
She turned to the pans. "This is a pretty basic one. This is called bread." She slid a knife out of a block of wood at one end of the work surface and deftly sliced an end off the bread. Steam rose from the cut. "This is my favorite part, right here. The heel of a freshly-baked loaf, still warm from the oven, is just too good." She bit into the piece with obvious enjoyment, then sliced another piece. "Try it."
"The odor is pleasant."
"That suggests that it won't hurt you. Generally life forms can be expected to have a natural aversion to things that can do them harm."
"That is logical."
She carefully plucked rolls out of the pan, pausing to blow on her fingers, placing one on a plate to set next to Tar'van, standing placidly by the counter. "Still hot. I don't know how much heat you can tolerate, be careful."
The human sliced a thin piece off the end of a block of material on the counter, and applied that to her bread before biting into it.
"Mm! Whoever lived here was a survivalist, or else they were just pretty committed to their pantry. They had flour and butter in the freezer. That's why it's still in good shape, oh man this is good." She peeked into a couple of the storage compartments. "I thought I saw some...ha!"
"What have you discovered?"
"Honey. Honey on fresh bread is good, Tar'van, it's an excellent treat."
Tar'van still had not tried his own bread, though he was handling it, looking at it carefully. "What are the primary components of this food?"
"Wheat flour. 'Flour' just means it's been ground up into a very fine powder. Wheat is the seed of a kind of grass, which we also call wheat. We grow the grass, gather the wheat, grind it into flour. Add a little moisture and some leavening - that's a chemical or yeast, or sometimes other methods - to make the bread rise, and cook it to set the materials in shape with heat, and kill any potential pathogens."
"That is a lot of processing. There are many steps between growing the food and eating the food. That is more work than Ordans perform for their food. Much of what we eat is raw vegetation, we pluck and eat as necessary. This is more labor than Ordans would do for food."
"Yes, it is. Most people don't do it all, though. Many humans don't do any of it, in fact. They just buy bread already made, ready to eat."
"That would be more convenient."
"It has its advantages. But I like to cook."
"What is honey?"
"Partially processed plant sugars. We get it from bees."
"I have heard of this. The description provided was repulsive."
"What I really miss is a good, spicy chili."
"I do not know this word, 'spicy.'"
"'Spicy' means the food has a flavor that goes beyond being just flavor, but also approaches having a physical effect. Hot peppers are popular in certain foods. They aren't actually hot, but there's a chemical in them that influences human nervous systems in ways similar to actual heat. There are others. The spiciest peppers are so hot that they don't just taste hot in the mouth, they feel hot on the skin. The chemical is very effective that way. The hottest peppers cause actual chemical burns."
"Humans deliberately put such dangerous materials in their food?"
"They're delicious, Tar'van. Some people breed peppers just for heat and too often they aren't very tasty, but there are some great peppers out there that, in addition to peeling your face off with the heat, taste just too good to leave out."
"Your species is baffling. No Ordan would tolerate physical pain in exchange for an expanded sensory experience from his food."
"Do you want any honey on your bread or not?"
"Suit yourself." She opened the container of honey and pulled a knife from a block of wood on the work surface to spread some onto her next roll, which she ate with obvious enjoyment. "That just means there's more for me."
Tar'van fnally bit into the bread. He masticated it carefully, trying to emulate what the human had done, but his mouthparts were not articulated in the same way and his face moved in strange directions. "This is pleasant. Give me another."
"What is 'please?'"
"It's a word people say to soften the tone of their demands. It implies that the demand is not intended as an insult or to be an imposition, or a command."
"It is a command. I command you. Give me another."
"Get it yourself." She stepped away from the pan of rolls. "You have a lot to learn about humans."
As Tar'van stepped toward the pan with an arm outstretched, the petite female human who had never moved quickly before was a sudden whirling blur. Tar'van reeled back, trying to reach for his disruptor, trying to reach with an arm that wouldn't respond. The human jabbed with her blade again, and Tar'van's vest slid off, sliced completely down one side. Now the disruptor was on the floor, even further out of reach. Why couldn't he reach it?
Tar'van lunged for the vest and the blade flashed again. His other arm lay on the floor. She had been so calm, so complacent! The human hadn't appeared threatening at all. She wasn't even big. But the blade almost moved faster than he could see it. She appeared supremely relaxed even now. It was disconcerting.
"Manners are important, Tar'van. You will make an effort to be polite in future, won't you?"
When she killed him, he would download back to the striker, rearm himself with another disruptor from the weapons locker, and disrupt the human domicile from outside immediately. She was not reliable at all. The quartermaster had insisted she would be useful, that she had scored highly on his tests.
He might have to disrupt the quartermaster, too.
"Well, that's interesting. You don't bleed nearly as much this way."
Curse! If he died he would download into a fresh body, but that couldn't happen while he was still alive, stuck in this human domicile. Maybe if he kept her talking he could escape, or else force her to kill him. Maybe he could enrage her? That was difficult to know how to do, human emotions were still strange to him. "Significance," he groaned.
"It makes me wonder. Are your people prone to losing limbs? Do they come off in accidents often?"
"It happens. It is not common but it is known. Blood loss from severed limbs is minimal if the limb comes off in the correct way, this is known. It is uncommon for an accidental removal to be fatal, but a deliberate attack such as this can result in unsurvivable blood loss."
"That's interesting. You're more like a crab than I thought."
"This will not go unpunished. When I return I will destroy you and start over with another human. You are unreliable. You cannot be trusted." He rolled and tumbled, struggling to regain his footing.
The knife slashed again, three more times. He felt stabbing pains that faded quickly.
She had cut off his legs.
"Hmm. You really don't bleed much from the joints when you do it right. That's amazing. Seeing how much blood came pouring out of you when you got shot, I thought for sure this would have been a fatal attack."
The human had seemed a bit testy before, but now she was almost...detached? Was that the word? But now, with no arms and no legs, he had no mobility whatsoever, and unless he could somehow manipulate the human into killing him, he was stuck in this body. He could not download.
The human stepped to a portal in one wall of the food preparation room - the kitchen, she had called it - and flipped a small toggle next to the door several times. Then she came back to look at Tar'van more closely.
"Are you hurting? Is there anything I can do?"
Baffling. "Kill this body so I can download into a fresh, uninjured body that doesn't hurt."
"I'm really terribly sorry. That's not an option. Is the pain bad?"
"The pain is not bad. It is not the first time I have lost a limb."
"I'll bet it's the first time you lost them all."
"Yes. That is new."
She made the sound he had come to understand as representing amusement, a low sort of panting. "Maybe this will be an adventure you can tell your children."
"You will not kill me?"
"I don't want to kill anyone, Tar'van. I don't take any pleasure at having hurt you, but your bad manners just struck a nerve. I'm kind of glad I haven't killed you, but even if I did kill that body, I wouldn't kill you. You would download into a new body and just keep going."
"We understand that this capability is foreign to human experience."
"It is and it isn't. Some of us have spiritual beliefs that a part of a human's existence is persistent after death and that, therefore, death is nothing to be afraid of. Some have no such belief at all. By and large however, since we don't get to start over in new bodies on this plane of existence, no human ever wants to die."
"If a human believes in the persistence of existence, why would he fear to die?"
"Because the next iteration of existence, if there is one, is unknown to us in this existence. We have our suspicions, but no one comes back to report on it. And not knowing what it's going to be like is a little scary, regardless of what a person's beliefs might say." She knelt beside him, the knife in her hand. "Weren't your people at all scared, or at least doubtful, about what they would encounter when they met humans?"
"We did not know what to expect when approaching this world. We monitored communications, observed for three of your years, but the many different cultures confuse us. Many different nations confuse us. We cannot resolve a single species with so many variations of behavior. You are chaotic, inefficient. Analysis showed that there could be no negotiation with humans since humans could not be expected to cooperate with each other. We have crossed a great expanse over several lifetimes, to settle on this world. This world shall be ours. Your animals are not useful to us, your plants are somewhat useful to us. We will eliminate all the complex animals and humans and establish a new population of Ordans here. This is our goal. It is what we are commanded to do. Your kind will be exterminated, but it is not...personal."
"Says the guy on the floor with no weapons or, indeed, limbs to fire one."
A shadow moved in the window of the portal, and there was a knocking sound.
The human rose from beside Tar'van's limbless body and opened the portal.
Another human came in.