CHAPTER 34 – Game Over
The aliens slid into the openness of the first-floor display area and stopped beside Carl.
In the tomb-like silence of the old building, his unending stream of whimpering pleas echoed and re-echoed. “No no oh please don’t hurt me please God don’t hurt me go away don’t hurt me….”
The creatures peered at the cowering human who continued to whimper and whine, and then, possibly having determined that he was already dying, moved past him. His mewling grew weaker until those up on the mezzanine could no longer make out his words. Nate watched the drama from above and reacted when the alien heads tilted upward. By the time their alien gaze swept the railing, he was behind it, keeping them in view through small gaps between the uprights. Following the route that the humans had taken, the smaller alien led the other one into the entrance of the shadowy stairwell.
Jason was still braced for the boom of the shotgun when Nate slid back from the railing. Then, when he made desperate hand signals and a few mouthed words along with a wide-eyed look of terror, Jason realized that Carl’s pleas had nothing to do with Nate and the shotgun.
Nate pointed at a steel door with a push-bar across the middle in the rear wall and ran toward it. He rasped in a coarse whisper, “Over here! Emergency exit!”
The push-bar moved easily under Erin’s hand, but the door opened only scant inches. They all pushed in unison, but it didn’t help. Jason couldn’t hear the footsteps of the aliens on the thick carpeting, but he could sense their slow, cautious and deliberate ascent of the stairs. Nate handed the shotgun to Jason and heaved against the door. It gave another inch, but no more.
Jason peeked through the slit between the door and the jamb. “No use,” he whispered. “Looks like a fallen tree against it. Is there another way out up here?”
Nate shook his head as he glanced about. “Only the windows.”
“Daddy!” Emmie’s hoarse whisper was a hushed scream of terror. “I just heard ’em! They’re coming!”
“Okay! Okay. Everyone calm down.” Jason glanced quickly about. He pointed to a door farther around the mezzanine at the blocked off area on the far side from Jason’s bed where a series of enclosed cubicles provided workspace for the museum’s curators. “Duck below the railing and get over there, through that door.”
With Emmie’s helping where she could, Erin supported Rachel as they slithered across the floor towards the partition and door. Nate hung back with Jason bringing up the rear, hopping on his good leg and dragging his injured one while trying to move in a crouch and catch himself with the shotgun on each hop.
The aliens would have to come the same as Vince’s group, through the mezzanine display area and follow them around the circle. If Jason and the others could get all the way through the partitioned section and back to the other stairwell, they should get down and out the main door before their pursuers realized what had happened.
Erin reached the door first, found it unlocked and helped Rachel through with Emmie. Nate eased the door closed after Jason went in, and they all rose to their feet, shielded from view by a seven-foot wall just inside the mezzanine railing. The first cubicle was a cramped space with tables covered by artifacts in varying stages of restoration.
Jason almost fell while going through the next workspace by trying to hop softly on one foot while bent over to lean on the short shotgun, with every step likely to betray their presence. As Nate closed that second door, he grabbed a push broom from behind it, quickly unscrewed the handle from the head and handed it to Jason.
“Here, lean on this. Erin,” Nate said as he handed her the shotgun. “You carry this, I’ll take Rachel.”
Erin led them into the next cubicle where she, Emmie and Rachel crouched beside a huge, many-pigeonholed desk. While Erin concentrated on working open the jammed shotgun slide, Nate eased the door closed behind him. Then, giving Erin time to accomplish her task, he stood on a chair and, swiveling his head back and forth, peeked over the top.
Jason supported himself with the back of the chair as well as his new crutch while Nate whispered his observations, “This is the last cubicle. On the other side of this next door is a short open space to the stairwell on this side. They should be creeping about over there by the bed, but I don’t see ’em. Christ! I couldn’t lock the doors as we came through, just closed ’em! They must have followed us closer than I thought. They could be right behind us. Quick! Down the stairs!”
As Nate’s feet hit the carpet, the shell wedged at an angle into the shotgun breech popped out into Erin’s hand, and she followed Emmie through that last door. Nate helped Rachel with Jason following, and they all scrambled into the stairwell.
While still in the cover of the half spiral of the stairwell, Erin fed the shell in her hand into the shotgun magazine. Slowly, carefully, she pulled the slide back until the shell popped half out of the tube and onto the receiver. Again, forcing herself to work it slowly, she eased the slide forward and fed the shell smoothly into the breech, then still forward until it locked in place with a solid click. She clicked the safety off and hooked her finger through the trigger guard. Finally armed with a workable weapon, she stepped down the last few stairs and led the rest out into the room. As they emerged, all eyes turned up to the mezzanine railing, searching. Where were they?
Carl still lived—barely. Lying where he had fallen and too weak to crawl away, he gazed up at them with half-closed eyes. The terror that had gripped him at the aliens’ appearance had given-way back to the agony of his tormented body.
Erin held her weapon at the ready and positioned herself between the stairwell and the double doors only a couple of steps away. She made another quick sweep of the mezzanine railing with her eyes then motioned the others to go through the still open entrance doorway.
With Rachel leaning heavily on Nate’s arm, and Jason struggling to avoid banging the butt of the broom handle against the bare floor, Emmie led. But, she was still a pace from the threshold when the air about them shattered with a piercing, otherworldly wail. It seemed to come from outside—or maybe from the balcony. Did it emanate from the work and storage rooms? Was it an alarm set off by the touch of Emmie’s hand on the door? But it sounded like no alarm Jason had ever heard. It was like it came from the very walls.
They all froze.
After uncounted seconds, silence returned. But, before Jason could move more than the beginnings of a first step toward the door, the aliens, one behind the other, stepped out from the other stairwell on the other side of the doors and stood facing them across a mere six feet. Claws of terror gripped him and immobilized every muscle in his body—all but his hammering heart.
Erin swung the shotgun down and around toward them.
The voice was like a soothing balm in Jason’s ears and all through the endless branches of his overworked nervous system. “Wait, human! Don’t attack. Be calm. The SCREECH ends.”
The words, spoken in unaccented English, seemed to come from a glowing, gold colored nimbus nearly two feet across that appeared a few inches above the grotesque head of the big one, which was the first one out. The shimmering apparition appeared no more substantial than a rainbow. The screeching sound near the end of its speech was not a spoken word but static or electronic interference.
“My god.” Awestruck with the rest, Nate was first to respond. “It’s talking! The damned thing’s talking to us!”
Erin had the shotgun aimed dead on the largest alien, but the utter surprise of hearing the creature speak, and the strangely soothing voice, stayed her finger pulling the trigger.
“Kill it! Quick! Shoot it!” Emmie cried.
“No! Be calm, humans.” Again, the resonant tones seemed to caress Jason’s ears as well as his nerves, salving over the raw edges of his fears and anxieties. He could tell by their relaxing attitudes that the others were similarly affected. The soothing voice continued in the softly spoken but authoritative timbre of a perfect baritone. “Do not attack. Be calm.”
It was like a wise and experienced animal handler talking to an agitated beast, calming it, averting an attack against the unexpected appearance of a stranger. “Be calm. I am not a threat to you. The signal is given. The SCREECH ends. I am not a threat. Be calm.”
“Shoot it! Shoot it!” Emmie cried.
Jason blinked a couple of times to clear away what almost seemed to be a haze from his vision. Erin still held the gun pointed in the alien’s direction, but the muzzle had dropped a couple of inches. She shook her head and raised it back to where the muzzle again aimed straight at the strange being’s head.
“No,” Jason urged, as he thrust his hand palm-outward toward Erin. “Not yet. Listen.”
“The SCREECH has ended. Allow us to pass, that we may prepare for departure.”
In a voice shaking with uncertainty and fear, Jason said, “Do you understand me?”
The being from another world looked from Jason to the others and back to Jason. Again, it spoke. “I understand you.”
Jason exchanged quick, startled glances with the others before he spoke again to the alien. “No. I mean...just stay where you are. What do you mean by ‘departure’? And what did you say ended?′
The alien responded, “What you heard was the signal that the...you might understand it best as a cull. The signal ended the cull. We must leave now.”
“No!” Erin’s firm and positive response and the shotgun’s sudden threatening rise to her shoulder stopped the creatures from turning and walking out the door.
“But, we must leave,” it said.
Erin eyed the alien over the barrel of the shotgun and said, “You can leave when I say you can leave. If you try to leave before, this shotgun will blow your goddamned head off. Do you understand that?”
“Yes, I understand.”
“Good. Maybe you are no longer a threat to us, but I’m sure as hell a threat to you. Now, first, drop that...that thing you’re carrying.”
It slowly laid its weapon on the floor.
“Okay, good. What about him?” She indicated the second creature.
“A gllurik carries no weapon.”
Jason assumed the term was a title or something, possibly something like a chaplain or combat medic. His nod was exaggerated, as though he was dealing with a child who had difficulty understanding. “Okay, explain what you meant by ‘departure’?”
“The...cull ended. We are finished on this planet. The period allotted for the cull ended with the signal. No actions may be taken after the signal. It is sounded for your information as well as ours.”
Jason asked, “So…you’re leaving? Not just going back into your big ship? I mean...the whole planet? All of you?”
“That is correct.”
“But...why? I mean—Christ, you just came a couple of days ago. You must have just about conquered the entire planet. Most of the people have been wiped out. You’ve destroyed our cities—our entire civilization. And, now, you’re just going to pack up and leave?”
“That is correct...more or less.”
“Then, why? Why the hell did you come in the first place? Why start a war then walk away from it just when you’ve won?” Jason was incredulous.
“No, human. We did not come here to re-conquer you. The cull is not war.”
“Not a war?” asked Nate. “Then what the hell do you call it? You damned near burned us into oblivion!”
“We do not wage war. We are civilized.”
“Civilized? You call it civilized when you murder billions of helpless people?” Erin’s voice was about two octaves higher than normal.
“For us to kill humans is neither war nor murder.”
“Oh, really?” Jason asked.
The creature looked at each face turned its way and waiting eagerly for an answer to the madness that had engulfed their world. Its smaller companion remained unmoving and silent.
It said, “For murder to occur, both the victim and the killer must be of the same species—such as yourselves and the other humans, there on the floor and up there.” He pointed to Carl and to the mezzanine. “This one is dying. And I assume you killed him and the others since they died just before I entered this structure. That is murder.”
Carl’s eyes were on the figures gathered within a few feet of where he lay, and he appeared to be following the conversation. The floor around him was pooled with this blood. His eyes lost their focus, and although they remained open, the last faint flicker of awareness, of life, left them.
“No. It didn’t happen that way,” Jason said, suddenly defensive. “It was self-defense. They were trying to kill us.”
“Self-defense is a term useful within your culture. But it is the same thing. They are humans, killed by humans. If it was self-defense, that means one, or both, were going to kill one or more of you. It is the same. Humans murder. We do not. We do not kill others of our kind.”
“No matter what?” Jason asked.
“We do not have cause to kill others. We do not transgress one against another to such a degree that would cause or warrant death. Minor offenses are dealt with in a civilized manner. There are no major ones.”
“Never?” Erin asked.
“Never. Such a thing is unthinkable among civilized beings.”
“And, what about war? You say this isn’t war?” Nate asked. His shaking voice was almost a snicker.
“That is correct. For two cultures to engage in war, they must possess similar capabilities. If they do not, the more advanced one simply annihilates the lesser one. Only adversaries that are more or less equal engage in war with each other. Such activity is common among you lower creatures that lack the intelligence for reaching less violent solutions to problems. And, you always seem to be able to find something over which to battle. But, as a species matures, it achieves true intelligence; it acquires the wisdom to pursue other courses. No species with truly advanced intelligence participates in war, fighting others of its high level. As for the cull being considered war...well, we are simply far too superior to your species for war to be possible. If we were so inclined, we could obliterate all life upon your planet without a single loss to us. That is extermination, not war.”
“Then—why?” Jason was dumbfounded. “Why did you come here? Why did you destroy us?”
“Destroy? No, we did not destroy you. Perhaps, if I explained something of my own species, it would help you to understand.”
The smaller alien remained silent and unmoving half step to side and rear of the bigger one. It reminded Jason of a war-dog on leash, held close to its handler but tensed and ready to spring in a devastating attack at a signal. He considered alerting Erin to move her aim to it.
“The Federation, in which my own species, kryls, is superior and dominant and has been for a very long time, controls a considerable area of space. The vastness of our realm would be as incomprehensible to you as the level of our technology. Our culture covers many areas, but the one of concern to you now is our passion for SCREECH.
“Hmm. Again, there is no word in your language that fully encompasses the concept. I shall use the word ‘sport’; it is close. One form of ‘sport’ is SCREECH. ...Hmmm. This may be difficult. For that word, I shall use the term, ‘trophy hunt’. One form of...‘sport’ that we are particularly fond of is...‘trophy hunt’. For this...‘sport’, we seek only the quarry that offers the best SCREECH...uh, challenge. We have found one of the most challenging to be humans.”
Jason snapped closed his gaping mouth. “Jesus Christ! Is that what this is all about? Hunting? You did all this for sport? You’re here to hunt? For trophies?”
“No, not trophy hunting. Not here. Humans are becoming rare. They are believed by some among the Federation, mostly among those lesser species that are always raising issues, to be in danger of becoming extinct. Counting this planet, there are presently only seven known planets where humans are considered indigenous. At one time, I understand, there were twice that many. But, that was long ago and before we—well, anyway, for this reason, we have found it essential to maintain sufficient management of those planets to ensure not only the survival of the best specimens, but of the human species itself.”
“Oh, yeah! By slaughtering most of them,” Jason raged.
“That is partially correct. We have found that if humans are left alone, you ultimately progress to a level of technology whereby you are capable of destroying large numbers of yourselves—and, too frequently, do just that.”
The second alien spoke, although its words were not in English; in fact, the chirping and grunting noises it emitted could be considered words only in the broadest sense. The larger one turned on it and spoke at length in the same incomprehensible sounds without the smaller one interrupting. It appeared to Jason that the smaller one was receiving a real chewing out, and it didn’t further pursue whatever issue it had brought up. Maybe it was asking if it could bite the humans yet. The larger one turned back to the humans. When it spoke, Jason couldn’t be sure, since he couldn’t read its facial expressions or body language, but it appeared to be irritated.
“There are those fringe radicals, though, few among kryls, I assure you, who advocate doing away with hunts, claiming that humans are actually capable of more than the limited intelligence we know to be the case. They maintain that if humans are left to their own devices, ultimately, at least one population, somewhere, on some planet, will survive beyond their...well, their capabilities, that they won’t destroy themselves and their planet. A mere fringe, I assure you.”
It was almost like it was trying to justify its disagreement with the smaller one, as though the humans were aware of what the disagreement was about.
“Part of our management of the human worlds involves monitoring their progress. When they reach a certain level, we step in and cull them. This process is normally necessary for each planet anywhere from every few hundred to every few thousand of your years. And the culls are not normally planet wide. We can usually confine them to just those areas affected by the culture that has developed the new advancements. Those outside the area wouldn’t even be aware of our visit or would put it down to some natural disaster—flood, volcanic eruption or such. Our monitors had reported your status as approaching that level at which your large-scale self-destruction was becoming imminent.”
Jason stood open mouthed, breathless, feeling like he had been struck a blow. He stepped back half a step. He exchanged glances with the humans beside him. “My God,” he gasped. “All of this...you...you destroyed all of those millions—no, billions—simply because you thought we might have another war? A nuclear war? You’re saving us from ourselves?”
“There was no ‘might’ about it. Humans are predictable as a species. And so, yes—that, and to re-establish this as a more harvestable supply of satisfactory hunting stock. As your cultures become more advanced, you humans tend to allow weaker and defective specimens to survive—even to breed—weakening the entire gene pool. The gene pool of your world is unique in various ways—each world is. We would not want to lose it.”
“Oh, hell, no—don’t lose it!” Erin said in shocked disbelief, her voice quavering.
Jason fumed. “So, now that we are properly thinned out, you send down your parties of hunters to bag a few prize trophies? I guess that’s what we saw, a hunter taking hide as a trophy.”
“Oh, no! Not here! Not true trophy hunting, anyway, and certainly not the entire hide. It must be an unbroken strip taken from the chest and contain both mammilla—both nipples—as a record of species, gender, size and age. Yes, if you observed the removal of an honor strip from a fresh kill, that is a SCREECH...very well, a trophy. I believe one of your recently expired cultures in this region practiced ceremonial ‘coup,’ which is similar in concept. It is done with a quarry that was particularly challenging, and it is SCREECH...ceremonial. It demonstrates a level of respect for the vanquished. And, we do not take a physical trophy from each kill. The coups taken are personal, for the memories they evoke at later times, of a particularly challenging and rewarding kill.
“But, no, we do not trophy hunt here…well, only for those lesser among us who may not be appropriate to participate in an actual SCREECH. And then, only for a designated period at the end of the cull, and, of course we have periodic, supplemental capture missions. But they are small, discrete expeditions—not even noticed outside the immediate areas of the operation, and if done properly, even within. Prize specimens, such as yourselves, are tracked by a stalker, such as I, with a gllurik, until a capture can be accomplished. After the captured specimens are confirmed non-special by the gllurik, they are transplanted to hunt worlds, where, naturally, the use of glluriks is frowned upon. They are trophy hunted there. Otherwise, a planet such as yours is protected. It is SCREECH... It is a game preserve, a refuge.”
“A refuge?” Jason shook his head in amazement. “Earth is a game preserve? What we need is protection from you! This is our world! This is our home! How can you do this to an intelligent, civilized species, and still call yourselves civilized?”
“But humans are not civilized. Not truly. And, intelligent? Well, perhaps in a limited sort of way. You have the intelligence required to develop technologies to a certain level—enough to be able to destroy yourselves. You have those bothersome...abilities, but they are not considered to be a mark of intelligence. And, you murder—you kill each other. That is not an act of civilized beings.
“And, as for our hunting and killing of humans, do you not do the same thing, yourselves? In your own primitive fashion, that is. Do you not hunt the lesser creatures here on your own world, not for food, but sport? Remember, ‘sport hunting’ and ‘trophy hunt’ are terms from your own language to describe actions within your own culture. It is merely your management and use of your own environment, just as your world and your species are a part of our environment.”
“But...but...” Erin stammered.
Jason held up his hand like a traffic cop. “Okay, back up a minute. You said something about ‘special’. What did you mean by ‘special’?”
The kryl shook its head. “Not significant. Irritating, but not serious, I assure you.”
“Tell me what you meant. What abilities? What’s special about them?”
It seemed to consider its answer, and then said, “I suppose it can do no harm. You certainly can’t do anything of use with the information. Humans are able to...do things. Some humans. Not many, at all. Just a few. They can cause things to happen, it seems, merely by thinking it. Some things. Nothing of any significance. Merely bothersome.”
“Come on, tell me. What things?”
The creature paused again for a moment as it peered at each of the humans, then it said, “Moving and levitating objects, projecting and receiving thoughts, creating force fields. Some have been able to cause spontaneous combustion. There have been reports of humans moving from place to place, but those reports were vague and never verified. Probably exaggerated.”
“But, how—?” Nate began, but the creature cut him short by reverting to its original assertions.
“If we had left you humans to develop unhindered, it is doubtful that there would be any left alive anywhere in the galaxy. We have preserved your species—saved it from extinction.”
Jason recognized the ploy of avoiding a subject by resuming a previous, hotly contested one. However, before he could direct the questioning back to the new and, he mused, revealing discussion of unrealized “special” human abilities, the nature of human emotions played against him.
“Oh, well! Thanks, heaps!” Erin got out in a voice quivering with barely contained rage. Tears streamed down her face as anger and frustration enveloped her. “And, now the whistle has blown, so it’s kings-ex? Is that it? Game’s over? We just forgive and forget? Oh, and breed some more prize trophies for you? For the next time you come to manage us in a century or so? Or will you be coming back more often to—what’d you call it—harvest some prime hunting stock?”
“Yes, that is correct. This planet is not in danger of annihilation for some time, now, but our collection missions will continue to return periodically for stock. Now, if you will move away from the doorway, we must join the others of my kreel in preparation for leaving. The cull has ended.”
The weight of the shotgun in Erin’s hands dragged it toward the floor. A new, terrible weight seemed to press her entire body down. The knowledge, the revelation of mankind’s demeaned role in the universe, was crushing. All those billions of people... All those thousands of years of evolution, progress, development...merely tolerated until it became too great. Game... Sport... Hunted animals, nothing more. Animals to be bred and protected on farms—sheep—from which prize specimens were extracted and used for the sporting enjoyment of the more intelligent, the more civilized creatures that ruled the galaxy.
Her jaw muscles rippled as the barrel of the shotgun rose. She took a step forward so the thing that had destroyed her world could look deep within its recesses of the muzzle and, perhaps, dwell on the concept of justice in its impending death. “Like bloody hell, I will!”