Sandra had a key to the social sciences building. It was a large, crumbling, labyrinthian building, which, according to her, made it perfect for hide-and-seek. She met me outside of the building in the late afternoon, after classes had ended for the day and all the faculty had gone home. Her hair was tied up, and she had swapped her usual loose, formal dress for tight, dark clothing that made her look sleek and predatory. I had tried for something similar, but my scales are not meant be covered by tight clothes. Instead, I had pulled out some of my heavier-duty traveling clothing, which wasn’t as showy or loose as my normal robes.
It was odd meeting Sandra like this, at a time of day when most humans were home or socializing. I was aware, at that point, that she had a romantic partner and I felt, somehow, that I was stealing time away from that relationship. Not to mention the cat that she’d started showing me pictures of when she was bored.
“Hi,” She said simply.
“Fine evening,” I let one of my ears flick toward her.
“Did you eat dinner already?” She asked.
“I did. thank you for telling me not to use the nearby stores, by the way. You’re right: it’s cheaper to go a bit further afield.”
“You’re welcome. You have to avoid the places gouging college kids mostly.”
“Is it common for stores targeting young people to charge more?”
She gestured me into the courtyard of the building. “Yes.”
“Capitalism,” she said darkly. The word translated seamlessly into galactic common, so I knew what she meant. Money led to greed, and greed led to cruelty.
There was a group of university students in the social sciences courtyard. More than I was expecting. A quick count revealed that there were 30 total.
“Everyone showed up,” Sandra said, “I should have expected that.” She stepped forward and waved to the students. “Hello, class.”
“Did you invite all your sections?”
“No,” she said, “Just one. Then everybody signed up, and I thought that would be enough.”
“The others might not take that well,” I said.
She shrugged, “I’ll tell them I picked randomly. No extra credit involved. They’ll get over it.”
“Hi, Miss Sandra,” One of the students called, but they were all staring at me.
“Hello, Iris,” Sandra said, “everyone. I’m sure all of you are excited to meet Dron Acharya.”
“Greetings,” I said.
One of them raised their hands and cupped them on either side of their head and flicked one of them in a crude mockery of my ear movements. For the first time, I wished I could smile. I settled instead for flicking both my ears towards them to express my delight.
“Hello,” a few more said, they were looking at me curiously, but not with surprise. I had been all over their news articles and social media pages for two weeks. I had been interviewed by two campus newspapers already, and I was refusing to meet with more professional news organizations. I was more than just the first alien openly on Earth: I was their alien.
It was a strategy I’d been taught in training to be a planetary surveyor: use the protective and territorial instincts of a species to your advantage. Make things personal for predators: get close. Make friends. Become important to them. I’ve used it several times over the years, and humans were some of the easiest and most pleasant to be close to. At least they did not have sharp horns or venomous fangs. Nor did they clean each other as a bonding activity. I never liked picking debris out of fur or from between scales to build social bonds.
“Are you drinking?” Sandra asked the students.
“Yes,” One of the students said, “of course.”
“Drinking what?” I asked.
One of the young women let out a wordless exclamation. “That sounds weird,” She said, “are you using a fake voice?”
“No,” I said, “this is what I sound like.”
“Oh,” she looked abashed.
“Drinking alcohol,” Sandra said to me, answering my question. “and smoking some marijuana too, if my nose doesn’t decieve me.” Two poisons that humans habitually consume and that confuse me. Apparently they like the way it makes them feel. I personally find being poisoned painful, but humans are wired different.
“Relax, Sandra,” The student took a sip from a glass flask. “It’s not a class event, is it? We’re all adults.”
Sandra frowned at him, then sighed and said, “Okay. But no smoking inside.”
They all nodded and said yes, of course, they weren’t going to be stupid. Bottles were screwed closed and blunts were stubbed out. Electronic vapor-inhalation devices—vapes—were put away.
“Okay,” Sandra said, “let’s play a game. Tag, hide-and-seek, or does someone have another suggestion?”
One of the students raised their hand. They were smaller than the others, delicate. “Have you ever played ‘down by the banks’?” She said, “it’s not really a game, but it’s a good warm-up.”
No, the others hadn’t, though they said they had played other clapping games before. This was a familiar sort of game for me: I played dancing and clapping games as a child. The humans all sat in a circle, and I settled between two random students. They laid their hands on each knee, the left underneath the person’s next to them, the right on top, and then, in time with the rhythm of a simple song, each player clapped their free hand against the next person in line. The person on who the rhythm ended on was then “out,” and stepped out of the circle. This continued until there were only two players left, at least in theory. We only played three rounds before the humans decided that they’d had enough. The students were giggling, over the top, acting out a little.
“We should play sardines,” One of them said.
“Let’s do one game of regular hide and seek first.” Sandra unlocked the door to the social sciences building. The lobby was little more than a square room with two wobbly tables.
“Rules,” Sandra said, “stay inside the building. Stay out of private offices. Any unlocked rooms are fair game.”
“Including bathrooms?” One of the young women asked.
“Especially bathrooms,” Sandra said.
She wrinkled her nose up and looked disgusted.
“Oh, I’m sorry, are you scared of catching cooties?” The man who had been passing the marijuana around said. The rest of them laughed. “We’re all adults,” he said, “and we can hide in bathroom stalls if we wanna.”
“Very true,” Sandra said. “Now, how should we pick who’s hunting first?”
“I’ll do it!” The same man again. I would learn later that his name was Michael.
“Anyone else want to?” Sandra asked, looking hard at another student. But they didn’t say anything, and after a moment, she said, “Okay, Michael, you’re it.”
Michael gave her finger guns, “Ready or not,” he said, “here I come.” Then he turned into a wall and began to count, loudly, down from sixty.
The rest of them scattered, Sandra included, most of them running.
It took me a moment to realize that they were all going to hide. And that we were on a time limit to hide. No one had mentioned that.
I froze momentarily, but eventually turned and followed the students. Most of them took the stairs up faster than I could hope to. I saw the tail-end of Sandra’s hair disappear into a hallway on the third floor. I remembered what she had said to Julie outside the daycare: a little bit of adrenaline is good for stress relief. Maybe it was, for humans, but being actively hunted is not good for my heart.
In my recollection, the hiding is a frightening spiral of hallways and loud footsteps—footsteps I was sure the hunter would hear. In the end, I found a classroom that had been left unlocked and ducked into it in the darkness. I tucked myself against the wall beside the door. And there I sat, in darkness, alone, trying to understand what was so appealing about this for humans. Certainly, I was excited – the oldest parts of my brain were throwing off all kinds of signals better left in the dusty archives of evolution. But here the humans were, dragging out all these base instincts specifically because of the stress they caused.
Chintilik have a few different physical responses to stress. The most basic is the instinct to burrow and camouflage ourselves with our surroundings. Our children enjoy burying themselves in sand, blankets, or foam blocks. That instinct was lessened with time and education, the kind of anti-biology training that all civilized species force their offspring through, to teach them to function in society. The most powerful response to trauma, however, is to regurgitate the contents of the stomach, which releases a horrendous rotting smell, and then play dead and let our skin turn its natural splotchy, sandy color.
I’ve only had that happen twice, and both times it took me years to recover my mental state and my dignity. I didn’t feel it was going to happen here, but I could feel the possibility literally rising in my stomach. If I were truly being hunted by humans, I would play dead and count myself lucky if they believed me. What a strange thought to make note of during a children’s game.
It was only a few minutes before the first yells. They were whoops, loud ones, the sounds of humans hunting down prey. Terrifying.
I took a deep breath, fighting against my biology. It wasn’t the first time I’d been hunted, but it was the first time I’d consented to be hunted ahead of time. Skaalt, a colleague of mine, had offered, once, to ‘send me back to my roots as a prey animal’ but it had been a joke. A poor one.
It was only fifteen minutes before the door to my hiding place opened. A human head poked in. Not Michael: the small delicate girl who had suggested playing the clapping game.
Her eyes locked on me even though I was hidden in the shadows. “I found you,” she said.
“Can you see me?” I asked.
She nodded, “Yes I can, Dron”
“Acharya, please.” I corrected her. “How did you find me?”
“I’ve just been checking every room,” She said. “You’re the first one I’ve found though.”
“I’ll try not to take that as an insult.” Her behavior, the calmness with which she looked at me, was a jarring contrast to the tension I was still feeling. Like hunting down peers in a dark building was just another day for her.
“Oh,” She stepped into the room, walked up to me, and touched my arm, firmly. “You’re it.”
“Now you have to hunt too,” She said with a spine-chilling grin.
I followed her out of the room. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Olive,” She said.
“Well met,” I said, “so how do you hunt humans?”
Hunting humans is only a little less disconcerting than being hunted by them. Instead of hiding alone and unarmed, trying to quiet my breaths so the sound wouldn’t give me away, I was prowling the halls with a hand-held light, thinking about all the places flexible, athletic young humans could fit into if they put their minds to it.
Some of them were like me: tucked into dark corners, crouching under desks, scooting discreetly behind hanging curtains. It was the best I could do with the minute I was given, but It was clear that the humans who hid like this weren’t actually trying to hide. They were making it easy on the hunters because they wanted to join us.
The humans who were serious about hiding were nearly impossible for me to find. By the time all the slackers had been located, it had been several more minutes. They all regrouped in the lobby, bringing the new hunters with them.
“We’re gonna do a sweep. Bottom to top of the building. Check all the doors. At least one person needs to be watching the halls at all times.” Michael said. That duty was assigned to me, as it was obvious I couldn’t find humans who were truly hiding.
On the first floor, they found three students: one prone beneath the very bottom step of a staircase, one contorted into a tiny space beneath a desk, and the third inside a cabinet. I was impressed but not surprised. On the second floor, however, there was a howl of laughter that drew all the hunters in, and I saw that Iris had managed to climb atop a cabinet and had caught their shirt on a fire suppression device. She waved it at us like a very sad flag.
“Can you give me a boost?” Olive asked Michael, and when he lifted her, she balanced easily on his shoulders like a bird to unhook the shirt. Iris shuffled sideways off of the shelf and hung from the edge a moment before dropping. Impressive physical feats for a species so bereft of obvious advantages.
“Thanks,” Iris said as she accepted the shirt back. Then, looking at me, she said, “Don’t tell Sandra about this. She’d throw a fit.”
“I won’t,” I lied. I was going to ask Sandra why humans were so insistent about their clothing. I’d read plenty of discussions and complaints on the subject, but none that got right to the root of the issue. But that was for another time.
We searched the rest of the building, climbing up and up until we reached the very top floor. Everyone had been found except for Sandra. Some of the students thought she had broken a rule and gone into her own office, but that door was locked and, besides, I knew she had moved most of her possessions to my office instead.
“Uncle!” Michael cried at last after they’d checked every room again, “Sandra! You win! Come out!”
A minute later, she emerged. There was gray dust in her hair and a scrape along one forearm. I realized that she had wanted to play this game most of all, more than even Michael. Sandra had made it her business to win.
“Where were you?” Iris asked her.
“Why should I tell you?” She asked, “you all need to think outside the box more.”
They looked disappointed. Michael even looked angry. “Does that mean you’re hunter next round?” He asked.
“Or,” She said, sweetly, “I could be the only hider.”
“Sardines!” Olive clapped her hands, and the excitement rippled through the group.
“What is—?” but I didn’t even get to finish before Olive turned to me.
“Sandra is going to hide again. And when we find her, instead of tagging her, we hide with her,” She said, “until everyone has found the group.”
A reversal of the game we’d just played then: another twist on the story of the hunter and the hunted. I nodded my understanding.
The hunters convened in the lobby, and Sandra disappeared down the hall again. I wondered if she would return to the same place she had been, or go to another. I figured she would do the latter, since our search the first time had ruled out so many places. But where would she go?
I thought about the building, the nooks and crannies I’d seen: the spaces between the cabinets and the walls, the hollows under the stairs, the curves in the hallways. I thought of the top of the shelves and the tight cubbies and the feats of human contortion I’d seen from the students.
And then I thought of Sandra, who was strong and kept active, but who frequently complained of pain when she stood up too quickly. I thought of thinking outside the box.
When the five-minute hiding time was up, and the rest of the hunters scattered to dig through all the small spaces of the building, I took the elevator to the top floor. Once there, I made my way to the stairwell, climbed the last flight to its dead end, and found the ladder that supposedly led to the roof.
The door to the roof was locked: the students had checked it. But there was a tiny room up there, above the ladder. Not large enough for everyone, not by a long shot, but large enough and dark enough for someone to hide in.
I poked my head up into the space, and saw Sandra already with a finger to her lips, signaling me to be silent. She gestured me up into the tiny room and closed the trap door behind me.
“I’m impressed,” she mumbled, once we were settled back in the shadows, as far away from the trap door as we could get. “I thought you’d have trouble finding me.”
I wiggled an ear at her, and she smiled back—no teeth. One of the drawbacks of the translation implants is that I can’t control the volume of my voice. I didn’t dare speak and attract the attention of the other hunters. Instead, I pulled out my notebook, turned its brightness down as far as it would go, and wrote, “I wasn’t sure you’d be up here. Where were you before?” I tapped the screen, translating the text from galactic common to English so she could read it. I could read English thanks to my implants, but I couldn’t write it. Not yet. I would learn.
Sandra took the notebook and stylus from me and wrote, “In the wall on the second floor. There’s a loose panel in room 201 that goes to a crawlspace.”
I looked up at her. She was smirking at me. She was showing off what humans were capable of. I thought of the walls I was used to living in: they were solid stone or metal. Nearly every space-faring species would have overlooked the possibility of hiding in the walls of a building. Of course, the humans had too, but only because the students didn’t know about the loose panel in the wall. If they had known it was there, more of them would have taken advantage of it.
Sandra settled back against the wall again. “Are you having fun?” She asked.
“No,” I wrote back, honestly. Her face fell, literally folded downwards, especially around her eyes. “I’m learning a lot though,” I amended. “That’s the point.”
“Sorry anyway,” She said, “is it too scary?”
“Not after the first round,” I wrote back. “Hiding makes my DNA afraid. But you all do seem to enjoy it.”
“We like it because it’s scary,” Sandra wrote back.
I drew a question mark instead of writing out the word “why.”
She shrugged, smirk returning.
There were footsteps on the stairs below us. I turned my notebook off. Beside me, Sandra had gone very still, her eyes fixed on the door. Those white circles practically glowed in the darkness, but I could see where she was looking clearly.
The fear came back and crept around my spine and into my skull. It was worse now because Sandra was there, and I had no idea how to react if we were both in trouble. If this was a true attack, not just a game, I would have had no idea how to react. I knew there would be no need for me to protect her, and if I tried, she would probably slap me for my trouble. I knew she was just fine on her own. My best chance would probably be to flee while she was standing her ground.
A door below us opened and closed, and the footsteps faded. Sandra relaxed against the wall. “See?” she said, “fear is fun.”
I didn’t respond because I could hear another set of footsteps, or possibly the same set. They practically pounded up the stairs and paused at the bottom of the ladder. I held my breath for a moment, then gulped air when the person started climbing. Sandra, whose eyes had been riveted to the door again, reached out and squeezed my forearm hard. It was less comforting and more shocking, and it only lasted a moment before she let me go.
The trap door rose, and a human head popped up into the room. It was Michael. He looked around, spotted both of us. Sandra gestured him up into the room. He scrambled through the door and tucked himself silently in beside me, closer than Sandra was because he was a lot bigger than she was.
We didn’t speak again. The foot traffic below us increased until it was near constant, but no one else checked the room above the trapdoor for several minutes. But it was a lot less of a wait before the next student found us. There was no more room above the trap door, so they sat at the top of the stairs, pressing themselves out of sight as best they could. After that, it was much easier to see the cluster of “sardines” around Sandra, so the rest of the students grouped at the bottom of the ladder.
Oddly, the more hiders there were the less nervous I felt, though the anxiety never dissipated. There was something comforting about being surrounded by tame, soft predators that made one feel untouchable.
We could not see down the ladder, but I knew when the game was over because there was a low cheer from below, then human laughter as the final hunter realized they had lagged behind. The pack of humans started to disperse. I descended the ladder first, followed closely by Sandra and Michael. The students were already dispersing by the time we made it down to the lobby.
“Do you want to come with us to a frat house?” Iris asked Sandra.
She grimaced, “No thanks.”
“Acharya?” Iris asked.
“I don’t think that would be appropriate,” I said, “and I can’t drink alcoholic beverages.”
“That sucks,” she said, “what do you do for fun?” I caught several humans rolling their eyes at that, an all-purpose expression of annoyance and disbelief.
“I don’t need to alter my consciousness,” I said and left it at that. “I need to write some of my notes up tonight.”
“I almost forgot you’re here to study us,” Iris said. She slowed and fell behind and started talking to some of the other students.
It seemed that Iris wasn’t the only one who wanted to leave to party in the nearby frat houses and bars. The students said goodbyes and dispersed.
“I’m going to head home as well,” Sandra said, “I have to feed the cats.”
“Isn’t your partner able to do that?” I asked.
“Raymond and I don’t live together,” Sandra said. She didn’t look at me as she spoke, which was odd. I sensed I’d stepped into a topic she didn’t want to cover just then, so I didn’t press.
“Alright,” I said, “Go feed your smaller predators.”
“Do you feel safe walking back in the dark?” She asked.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
She just looked at me, not saying anything. Something else she wasn’t telling me. I wondered how much she was concealing. I was going to have to start digging to find out.
“I can see very well in the dark,” I said, “I’ll be just fine.”
And I was. I got back to my accommodations with no problem. I settled myself with a meal to write up my notes. I found my thoughts wandering, though. Not to any of the humans or the game or anything else in particular from that night, but to the simple fact that they still played it. It had been thousands of years since any animal on earth hunted humans: I knew this for certain. Some animals would attack them, but humans dissuaded them with deadly weapons.
I’ve seen plenty of apex predators that evolved into civilizations. I’d never seen one that acted like it was being hunted even for fun. I’d never seen a species that liked to be afraid. I shivered at the thought, glad that all the doors here were locked.
I knew then, though I still needed confirmation, that humans actively hunted each other. They didn’t get into fights, symbolic or otherwise, and didn’t hunt for fun or play, but actually predated each other. The only question in my mind at that moment was whether or not they ate each other.
I picked up my notebook, navigated to Sandra’s contact, and messaged her. “Do humans eat each other?” I expected to have to wait several hours for a reply, but I got one almost immediately.
“NO,” She wrote back, then followed up with. “That’s disgusting. No allowed anywhere.” I started to thank her, but another message popped up. “Also if we eat each other, we can catch diseases and die.”
The fact she knew disease or death was possible told me that, even though it was forbidden and considered a crime, some human, somewhere had done it anyway. “Thank you,” I wrote back to her.
“Did you think I fed you human?” She asked.
“No,” I said, “The thought hadn’t occurred to me.”
“Good, ‘cause that would be seriously fucked up.” A moment later, my notebook dinged again. She’d sent a picture: a small, four-legged furry creature with large ears, a cat. This one was black and wrapped around Sandra’s ankle, looking up at the camera with green eyes. “Gizmo says hi,” she’d written.
“Hi, Gizmo,” I wrote back. “Have a good weekend, Sandra. I’ll see you Monday.” I muted her reply. I needed to think.
It was time I struck out on my own a little. I wouldn’t go anywhere without Sandra, but I thought she might have been trying to give me a good impression of humans, and I didn’t need a good impression: I needed the reality. It was time to start doing my research.