Aphelion Issue 238, Volume 23
April 2019
 
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Hunters

by Sergio "ente per ente" Palumbo

Edited by Michele Dutcher

A Mare Inebrium story
(Mare Inebrium Universe created by Dan Hollifield)





 Without a doubt her surroundings were, to say the least, inspiring and very lively - as was the case every night in that place. Blanche's attention briefly wandered across the open space of the much-hyped and very exclusive Mare Inebrium bar, as she walked slowly, when suddenly the plump waitress's blue-green eyes squinted ahead. Not far from a biped that had a strange beak and small hind legs - not exactly a human girl's cup of tea, of course. -- sat four men in a small group at a circular glass table. The men seemed to have settled in and weren't considering leaving any time soon. They were talking noisily and each of their rants was followed by more and more words, recounts and detailed - maybe even a bit exaggerated - tales of their achievements during the last vacation they had spent on a verdant moon positioned in a nearby solar system.

They each boasted about their superior abilities and the precious, unique specimens they had taken while on the surface of an almost forgotten moon - lost in the far sector they had just come back from the morning before, using a state-of-the-art space scow they had hired for the occasion. They all openly laughed and visibly poked fun at each other, while the hours quickly passed. What seemed to be an endless amount of wealth from the four men had fuelled their thirst and their drunkenness, because every time they chose the desired icon and put the right amount of currency into the hole with a simple gesture, new beverages were soon teleported over to their table. A wide variety of famous beers were displayed on the glassy tabletop the customers sat around - there were no less than 16 variations on the malted alcoholic beverage in fact. There were also some HYHFHFH and Amluw bottles, strange colorful juices in improbable shades and a wide selection of smoky alien drinks -- at least the ones that were compatible to ingestion by the human body.

The drinking of many expensive liquors, famous wines and tasty snacks had gone on for a very long time so far. But that was what commonly happened at the Mare Inebrium bar, day and night; as that establishment was probably the most famous venue on the whole planet of Bethdish, therefore this was nothing to be surprised about. 'Better get going,' the waitress simply told herself, smoothing out her long, flashy skirt with her right hand while fluffing her dark curly hair with her left hand, then she simply moved along. On the way back to the counter, she tried to recall interesting details of the conversation she had overheard when she was walking past the small group's table.

"They were hunters."That last thought caused Blanche to shudder for a few moments, as she was a bit worried about it. Actually, having such customers at their bar was a rare occurrence, as most were mainly businessmen, travelers, politicians, officers, pilots and aliens from all known species. Their customers usually entered the main door, coming into the Mare Inebrium in order to enjoy a pleasing, well-known venue and have a stiff drink, of course. Hunters simply weren't their regular, recurring customers, after all.

A sound grew closer, becoming something similar to the noise a thousand small, hungry mouths that were continuously working. The large though attractive waitress walked past a transparent bulbous ball dangling from the upper level of the bar where there were very little Jlrt aliens - standing only 1 1/2 feet in height - performing at present, spreading their strange music across the wide open space of that area of the Mare Inebrium. A simple glimpse at them made her immediately remember that this was the band Max had hired this week in order to try to impress the customers with something new and unprecedented. Well, maybe their tiny stature was notable and hard to forget, as they looked like creatures from a long-ago fairy-tale from some world far away in space, a planet like Earth for example. But Blanche had to admit that she wasn't very impressed.

There were many chores to get done tonight, the woman thought, and she was alone at the bar as Max, the bartender, and Trixie were out of town tending to their own business. No worry about that however, as she had tended the bar by herself many times before and certainly would again. All she really had to do was to be in charge of the Mare Inebrium for the night and hope everything went well, of course. While she was walking back to a corner of the main room in order to get more cleaning done, Blanche happened to again overhear the conversation of the four human customers who were at the table.

It was George, a tall, bald man who was speaking now. He had two wild eyes and a wide mouth. "So, I just had gotten out of the forest, and was on top of an outcrop of boulders, ready to shoot my prey in the distance, when I fired and unfortunately discovered that."

"You had only killed a plant!" shouted an apparently younger friend sitting nearby, making fun of him. He was a slender though short individual wearing a wide shirt and a pair of greenish trousers, like those that were worn during a brief though cruel war fought on Mars more than two centuries before. This outfit was probably the current common fashion among hunters like them, as two other men from that party wore the same kind of clothing.

"Yes, that's exactly what happened! I had simply forgotten that there were small semi-intelligent shrubs with ten leg-like protuberances slowly walking within the boundary of the same area in the park. That was incredible, and very disappointing!"

The third member of the group, named Andrew, slowly leaned forward and asked the first man at the top of his voice: "And did you eat it?"

At that point all the men had a thunderous laugh that resounded throughout the bar.

"When in doubt, simply shoot first and ask questions later," stated another member of the group, a muscular 50-year-old man with a short, pointed beard. No one could have been sure of his precise age however, given all the modern means that medical science was capable of using in order to make you look like a twenty-year-old boy even though you were already in your 90s.

"Maybe we're drinking too much." the fourth long-haired human said, before putting his hand on another mug and eagerly swallowing the liquid inside.

"Don't listen to Harry!" the second one replied in a comical tone. "We're here to have a little rest and relaxation after our long alien safari."

"You're damn' right!" the other two exclaimed at once.

There was a brief pause, which was just enough time to empty another bottle of wine, before George started speaking again. "I probably never told you what happened when I was hunting at the Nature Preserve on planet Kjlm within the Kjlm-ty Sector." and saying this he pointed at Harry, who appeared to be the youngest of the men who sat at the table.

"Yes, I wasn't with you at that time, but I heard something about it. Isn't that a very restricted zone?"

"Yes, it is, certainly, but we had a special permit that a friend of mine who worked at Earth Embassy had given us."

"Oh, that's wonderful! Well done!"

"Well, Harry, let me tell you how I got it. To obtain hunting licenses for that nature preserve, you need the following documents: an annual paper issued during any previous year; a two-day nonresident hunting permit issued in the past three months; two hunting licenses issued in the last two years from any planet within 10 light-years; a certificate indicating that you have completed an approved hunting class; or a written declaration confirming that you had an approved hunting document that was destroyed through mishap. Oh, and you need also a lot of local currency in order to bribe the guards at the park, that's the most important thing to have, apart from all that paperwork."

"That sounds just awful."

The other three grinned widely at those words. Then the first man added, "And you will also need to show your license upon request, and only hunt when the guards of the park are around. "Oh my Grohfhf," which in most cases can ruin everything when you are ready to shoot some mind-blowing prey and they want to check your documents again."

"Actually, that occurs only if you didn't bribe the guards enough," the third one said, with an evil sneer. He had a gray-azure bearded face, which was actually made up of many hair weaves taken from the coat of the fierce though very rare bear-like creatures living on Huvtj.

".anyway, we procured all the damn documents requested and then started hunting early in the morning, with some good results. In the evening, huge beads of sweat were already bathing my face, causing an irritating itch on my cheeks -- given that terrible alien climate. But I was happy because I got lucky, as I had already caught two big game animals -- a couple of long lion-like local wild beasts with a wondrous spotted coat that is partly beige and partly greenish, when something unexpected happened."

"What was it?"

"Two guards appeared and ordered us to give them all the carcasses we had shot, as they were considered to be part of the property of a local lord of that land, and the specimens were meant for dinner for his court, as unbelievable as that was. And we had to comply, in the end."

"Hunting privileges, clearly! Just as it happened during the Middle Ages back on Earth," another human added.

"And they also fined you," Harry said in the end.

The other looked back at him in awe. Well, you already knew it!

"I had heard something about that incident. Specific regulations govern the practice throughout the whole planet, taking into account the particular safety and environmental needs of the state, and especially the needs of the powerful lords reigning over the place. You should have known about those regulations before hunting on that world, but you never pay much attention to the laws of an alien world before setting foot on it, do you?" His cohorts were now openly making fun of him.

"Yes, you make it sound easy now." George replied in a dejected tone.

"Well, don't let it get you down! Just remember our last safari on planet Ljkgjc."

At that point, the first one simply stopped and then said, "Don't we all remember what happened to us when we were there?"

"It's a place where nature really seems to win over everything. The real thing is - when the rain comes, the entire environment changes very quickly!" Andrew made it clear.

"Yes, I can easily remember that kind of terrain; it is one of the most difficult ever! You had to cut branches, big leaves and some small trees along the way before stopping and patiently waiting while clearly aiming at a target."

"Anyway, while we were there, before shooting, it crossed my mind that if my youngest son was with me in that place, at that time, he would probably say that there was large diversity of new species around. Anyway, we hadn't come that far only to catalogue new creatures and plants, of course, but to kill some prey..."

"Precisely!" Harry burst out.

"Anyway, we were among the first humans who arrived on that world to go hunting, and that was probably the reason for what happened. We took the carcasses of our big game animals and put them within our camp's boundaries, then we simply fell asleep - knowing we were safely guarded by robotic devices that functioned as sentries. However, an alarm loudly resounded in the dead of the night.and we all had to wake up and run out of our steel-tents through the darkness, in order to reach open ground."

"Yeah, that damn' alarm.actually, I can still hear it in my head at times!"

"Do you remember the cause of all that noise? The carcasses of the alien prey had released a deadly gas some hours after the wild animals themselves had died, and we didn't know it!"

"This simply confirms the fact that the forerunner hunters always have to face unprecedented circumstances they never thought of before."

"And we saved ourselves by the skin of our teeth, in the end." Andrew added.

"You said it! And now let's have another drink of that wondrous wine." The gray-azure bearded man moved his hand to grab a mug of a sparkling liquid that was on the table.

"You, stupid! That is not wine; it's a Jliw beer." Harry pointed out.

"I don't care," George replied. "I'll drink it, anyway, and then let's ask for some wine, too!"

"Well said!" the other three nodded in a funny tone.

"'What nonsense!'" Blanche told herself before moving along. Actually, listening to such talk, even though just the pieces of conversation she overheard, made her think at times that male human hunters were not much better than Fkeee poachers. And she didn't like Fkeee, of course, even though she appreciated the main courses of that alien people, which required small bird-like creatures, illegally hunted, to be cut open while they were still alive and prepared in a spicy way before serving at lunchtime. At least that's how things commonly went in a kitchen of a Fkeee restaurant.

Later on, as the woman reached the main robotic counter again and opened it in order to check the contents, something caught her attention and she immediately raised her vivid eyes, trying not to be noticed.

On the left, just past a guy with seemingly human-like attributes," apart from his six--eyed head" - that was continuously and incomprehensibly watching a dark gray glass of whatever was in the middle of a long counter full of some very smelly appetizers - there was another table with two strange female aliens. They were from an uncommon species that she had only seen once before," and she remembered that night very well." Those bipedal individuals were native to the cold world of Lrrte, their features displayed a pale skin with a peculiar facial structure, two compound greenish eyes, and a few long curved tendrils running down their sides and their backs, too.

At first the woman became wary, but then she thought of something that could have attracted them into the bar, a thing that they probably considered much more interesting than the many tasty types of liquor, and colorful, expensive alcoholic drinks that were available to all customers at the Mare Inebrium. So, she already knew that their presence might result in a very long and peculiar night, for sure. At least "she had the option of stopping things from progressing too far, if she really wanted to do everything she could to prevent something worse from occurring, of course." And, just thinking about the deep tiredness she already felt at that moment, and given the many tasks she still had to complete before going off duty, well, it wasn't really clear yet how things would go.


* * *

It was already three in the morning when the four men finally exited the ultra-cool and modern Mare Inebrium. The bar menu had proven to be outstanding, other than the many beverages they had ingested, serving as an ideal partner to the passionate music that had been played inside. The group reached a small alley that led to the parking lot where they had left their vehicle. While they were moving along, having some difficulty walking a straight line because of too much alcohol, Harry's attention was drawn to some strange movements next to the long window of a building nearby.

What was that?

As soon as the ray of light coming from a streetlamp hit the subject of his interest, a monstrous scene appeared in front of him. Two very slender and awkward alien individuals stood, their paleness similar to a corpse's - making the human shudder at first glance. Their very long, pointed fingers ended in big nails and their head displayed sores and pocks half-hidden under rare tendrils that were positioned sideways on their face. The picture was horrific just this way, but that wasn't all! Both of the incredible, unnatural beings - be they monsters or something else more than aliens - had their mouth wide open with pointed teeth, much longer than the man had ever seen before. Those seemed to be ready to quickly sink into the jugular vein of the unfortunate passers-by who had the bad luck to walk within their reach, certainly.

  It was a sight too horrible even for the other humans of the small group. Harry immediately stood still, unable to do anything, giving himself up to his obvious destiny. Wasn't it ironic, after all? They were hunters, people who were capable of fighting and had undergone very difficult experiences over the course of their safaris on many different and insidious planets. Under most circumstances they would have resisted and tried to defeat and easily kill any unarmed assaulter. They would normally forcefully jump those two aliens, piercing their unearthly whitish bodies using a knife, or some martial arts moves or the like. But all of them already seemed to know, somehow, that everything they would attempt was going to prove useless. A sort of hypnotic call was already keeping them standing in the same place, dismantling their own will and making fun of the four men as if they were only a few lost and very weak youngsters.

Things went on that way for a very long, almost unending time before a sudden light, a flashing ray appeared and put an end to it all, unexpectedly. Then a sort of faint consciousness awoke the group of humans slowly, very slowly, anyway.

"Drop your weapon now, Xijtk," Blanche ordered. A giant three-colored bouncer working at the bar stood next to her. His notable stature of at least 10 ft made the voluptuous woman look like a sort of dwarf, by comparison. "It's over."

The four men came to their senses and, although still very confused, had a look around to find out what had just happened. Their heads were in pain and some vague memories of the things that had gone on in that place a few moments before appeared to be lost, unexplainably. Then the one named Harry noticed a strange liquid on the ground of the back alley and was amazed by it, as he simply didn't know what it was exactly was. However, he was sure that two strange, unknown aggressive pale aliens with curved tendrils had stood on the same spot not long ago--or was it the previous week, maybe? He wasn't sure, by any means.

"What the hell?" Andrew exclaimed.

"Patience, humans. You are not entirely alright, not yet. Recovery requires time so take a break for a few minutes before trying to walk." Blanche suggested to the four men.

"But what happened? Those aliens, those creatures tried to attack us, or so it seems to me, maybe."

"Actually, those aliens are deadly Genhl from Lrrte and they take your will out of your mind and then stop you in your tracks, before doing whatever they want to."

"And what do they do, after that?" the man named George asked the woman.

"They deprive you of your precious life energy, while they pierce your skin using their long teeth that are capable of completely paralyzing the whole body, just like snakes or spiders do back on your Earth. That's the way they ingest their sweets - because in their eyes you are like tasty slices of cake. That's because on their home planet eating sweetness is as forbidden as using illegal drugs is on ours."

"But why us? Why not some of the other customers at the bar?" Andrew asked, still surprised and not entirely in control of himself, as a matter of fact.

"You are hunters, aren't you? All of you." Blanche stated in a serious tone. "And what could be a better place to find some beasts in the wild lands than a watering hole - where animals go in order to satisfy their insatiable thirst? And what kind of peculiar thirst do humans, and people commonly, come to satisfy when they enter a venue like the Mare Inwebrium? Of course, it's the need for a stiff drink, and perhaps the desire to hunt -- that you all undoubtedly possess - along with the liquors and beers humans drink in excess here. And all of that was exactly the perfect fuel to spark their interest, unleashing the bloody hunger residing inside their minds, for sure. Those creatures are" hunters of other hunters," actually. They simply sense the desire for prey which is inside you and that's enough to revive their longing to finally get some sweets, which is your" life energy." "

"How did you know about it?"

"It happened before at our bar. Just once, and I was around by chance that time, so I saw what happened. No one was capable of saving the situation that day, and two casualties were found dead in the end - even though no space or virtual news media ever reported about such a sad occurrence - but it was enough to make me think that it was going to happen again, sooner or later, so I was prepared, anyway. It was a lucky occurrence for you that I was working tonight, because I had seen it happen before, or it would have been a very painful death for all of you. Actually, I don't like hunters like you very much, as the sport you practice is just a bloody, senseless thing nowadays, at least in my opinion.."

"Then, why did you help us?"

"I mean, killing animals or even some fierce wild beasts is simply not what I'd call a worthwhile hobby," she explained in a knowing tone. "But that's not enough of a reason to go ahead and let you die."

The others looked at each other and appeared to be reassured.

"Other than that, you're still customers of our bar, and valued customers I would say given your bills and considerable tips, so why shouldn't I save you tonight? If I behaved only according to the way I feel when at work, I'd drive too many people away. And that wouldn't be a wise move for our bar, don't you agree?"

"I, well, we all think you're right, madam," immediately replied Harry.

"And now, if you just want to come back inside, the Mare Inebrium bar will be pleased to offer you a drink, one of the best, on the house!"

"Really? Maybe we already drank too much today." Andrew objected.

"Don't worry; there are some beverages at our bar that are safer than any other alcohol, as they have a secret substance inside that won't leave you intoxicated at all, nor will you have a hangover in the morning."

"I never heard of such a thing."

"In any case, these drinks are really too expensive for you to get normally, so please accept my offer. The night is young and there's still much to discover at our lively bar, don't you agree, human hunters?"

The four nodded and said they were very thankful for her helpful intervention. The giant bouncer next to the woman didn't move his incredibly thin lips to express anything, but the men could tell from his overall expression that he appreciated their thanks.

While going back to the venue's main entry door, Blanche looked thoughtful. 'Our first rule is to satisfy the customers,' the woman thought to herself, remembering Max's words." 'And just in case you don't want to put up with them, always remember that a paying customer is a good thing for business, so keep him alive as long as you can'--or as long as he pays his next bill. And thinking about this, she finally smiled.


THE END


2014 Sergio Palumbo

Bio: Sergio (a.k.a. "ente per ente" in our Forum) has accumulated an impressive list of North American publication credits (growing at an enviable pace), and has won our Flash Fiction Challenge on several occasions. His most recent Mare Inebrium story was The Recurring Customer Is Always Right in the September 2012 edition.

E-mail: Sergio Palumbo (Humans: remove spaces from address!)

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