“Um, H-H-Hail, Lord Ingafrix!” Anna nervously saluted.
Inspections of undercover infiltration agents in the Plurian military were meant to be randomly selected and infrequent. But Anna couldn’t help but feel that she was being targeted anyway. Members of the highest caste would never go on inspection rounds themselves; they’d send an subordinate or two and take all the credit.
Yet here was Lord Ingafrix himself—in the closest Earth facsimile to full lordly regalia available—standing on her rented doorstep.
Holding a magnifying glass.
And wearing a “Keep Honking, I’m Reloading” baseball cap.
“Greetings, Lieutenant Galthorp,” he whispered. He leaned in close. “I am lowering the volume of my voice so as not to alert the local fauna as to your true identity.”
The next week was going to suck.
“Um, my lord, the local fauna are not sentient.” Anna glanced around. Her neighbors, by comparison, were sentient. And gossips. “Who gave you that ridiculous hat?”
“Do you mean this?” He pointed at his head. “I noticed a number of other humans who shared my borrowed appearance wearing similar objects, so I bartered some paper for it.”
Right. Upper castes dealt with metal money only. How easy it was to forget Plurian habits after so long. Well, that’s enough embarrassment for one day; inspection over, see you in a year or so!
But no. Duty was duty.
“Would you like to come in?” Anna invited.
“I would not,” Ingafrix replied, “but my inspection would be incomplete without doing so.”
He stood and waited.
Anna cleared her throat politely.
Still, he stood and waited.
Finally he spoke. “Lieutenant, do you not need to perform the dance of—”
“Earth-has-no-such-custom-please-come-inside-so-I-can-close-the-door,” she said, practically in a single syllable.
The torrent of words so startled Ingafrix that he didn’t even balk at the command-form verb before rushing inside.
Anna shut the door. “Thank you. And please call me Anna, my lord. It is my Earth cover name. We wouldn’t want to arouse suspicion, I’m sure.”
“Indeed not,” Ingafrix said, standing up straighter. “And so I shall, Lieutenant Anna. Let’s begin the operation. I shall start by requesting a full record of your… Why is there fire in that room over there?”
Since he used the upper-caste habit of pointing with his chin, it took Anna a panicked moment to realize what he meant.
“That’s the kitchen,” she explained. “It has many functions in Earth households.”
“This may be a little difficult to believe, but humans love fire. Fire is everywhere in their culture: metaphors, allusions, even—as you see here—literal fire in their homes.”
Anna sighed. “They’ve developed ingenious containment systems. The one I’m using now is called a stove. Come with me, we’ll sit in there, and you’ll see that there’s nothing to worry about.”
He hesitantly followed her into the combined kitchen and dining room. Anna herself had been skeptical when she first arrived. Her assimilation training had made no mention of domesticated flames. Then again, she had been trained alongside people who weren’t sure which of the red planet and the blue planet was the inhabited one. Things like that had taken some time to sort out, leaving details like all the fire by the wayside.
But adaptation was both a talent and a well-honed skill of hers, so it was not long before she was “frying,” “baking,” and “burning to an unrecognizable lump of carbon” with the best of humans.
Lord Ingafrix settled himself uncomfortably on a chair at the dining table. He winced in shock as Anna opened the oven, but his curiosity overcame him as she took something out and put it on a plate.
“Humans are truly a foolhardy species,” he said, still trying to get a better view of the plate.
“Sometimes they even look at fire for entertainment,” Anna stated, “but this isn’t that. These are a human food.” She placed the plate before him. “They’re called pizza rolls.”
Ingafrix eyed them skeptically. First unaided, then through the magnifying glass.
“Are they additionally used as a weapon of some sort?” he asked.
Anna laughed. “Maybe a very slow one.” Seeing that he didn’t understand, she added, “They go straight to my thighs.”
His look of confusion only deepened.
Anna gestured to the top of her leg. “This. This part here is called the thigh. That’s where, er… humans of the type that I’m borrowing the appearance of store a particular nutrient colloquially called fat when it’s not needed. Fat is treated differently from all other nutrients by the human digestive system.
“Other nutrients, along with with water and salt, mix with blood upon passing into the capillaries. But this blood does not flow directly to the heart. Instead, it travels through a dedicated vein to the liver before transiting through the hepatic veins, the inferior vena cava (another vein), and then to the heart. Or, specifically, a construct called the right atrial appendage.”
“Fat, on the other hand, goes to a part of the small intestine called the chyle receptacle. There, it mixes with lymph. The mixture transits through the thoracic duct to the heart. However, each step of this process is very, very slow by comparison.”
Anna realized that she was tossing around a lot of technical terms that would go right over the head of her listener. “The main takeaway from this, I guess, is that fat is special in human metabolism.”
Lord Ingafrix frowned. “There are certain disadvantages to sending someone as highly ranked as myself to conduct inspections. One of which is that I received no training in humanity before leaving. It was expected that this would be a vacation for me. Learning to perform all those steps sounds… intimidating.”
“Oh, it’s… it’s automatic, my lord.”
“Yeah, there’s a part of the human brain that does all that without conscious thought.” Anna scratched behind an ear. “Humans are on auto-pilot most of the time, actually.”
Ingafrix thought for a moment. “This now seems to be a far less daunting task. Lieutenant Anna, I would like to experience these human foodstuffs.”
He took a deep breath, gathering his courage, then slowly pushed his face into the still-steaming plate of pizza rolls.
“No, no!” Anna shouted. “Not like that!”
His response was muffled. “This is not as enjoyable as I’d hoped it would be!”
Anna pulled him back to sitting up straight. Seizing the opportunity, she also surreptitiously tossed his now-greasy cap back into the living room. Maybe he’d forget about it in the excitement.
“Let me… Ugh.” She paused to survey the plate of smashed snacks. “Let me get a towel, and I’ll make another batch. I’ll teach you the right way to eat them.”
The next week was definitely going to suck.