The New Game

Adam Wykes

 

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Wayne read the poster in the grocery store window as he was leaving with his pack of Sprecher. Quite an offer, though it seemed too ambiguous. Who was advertising? What exactly was being hunted? Why wasn’t Wayne finding out? He stopped squinting at the poster and walked outside. It was late June and the temperature was pushing 85 degrees. Wayne could feel the cans of cold beer begin to sweat almost immediately.

 

Wayne was a little ambiguous himself. He drove a Toyota hybrid pickup. Carried a master’s in English in his head and an over-under shotgun in his truck’s gun rack. Worked in the Muskegon Municipal Area Waste Management Center as a garbage man, for the time being, but had the next week off. He and his girlfriend Mari lived in an apartment in the midtown. She was very smart and Hispanic, and when Wayne found a better job as a teacher or professor, he was going to ask her to marry him.

He drove the pickup home and went inside. Mari was on her cell, ordering some Chinese for dinner. Wayne set the beers in the fridge and sat down on the couch where his old laptop was sitting, plugged in with an old Ethernet cord and juiced off a monstrous power strip only half-hidden between the couch and the book case. He hated all the wires, but the connection was less wonky than the wireless alternatives.

Mari got off the phone and sat next to Wayne, letting her head fall on his shoulder as she got a look at what he was googling for on the net.

 

“What could possibly pull you away from that Connell story you were reading yesterday?”

 

“I got a week off. Figured we might to hunting up north as a vacation.”

 

“Hunting? Ay, actually I’m interested – but I have a meeting with a girlfriend from the bank next Wednesday. I’d ask her to reschedule, but I’ve already asked her, and so I would feel bad having to again.”

 

“Don’t worry.”

 

“Will you stay for mass tomorrow?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“Where are you going to hunt?”

 

“Looks like the Porcupine Mountains.”

 

“Up in the west of the peninsula? Why do you have to go so far to hunt?”

 

“That’s where they say you have to go, to hunt this new invasive species.”

 

“Like those feral pigs?”

 

Wayne nodded and closed the laptop. “Like them.”

 

“Why are you hunting those?”

 

“Because I don’t feel as bad this way. And I’m not hunting pigs.”

 

Mari looked at him, waiting for him to explain. He did not.

 

“Then what are you hunting, Wayne?”

Wayne looked over at her, then got up and got a beer out for each of them. She thought he probably looked embarrassed.

 

“I guess that’s part of the fun, huh – not knowing what they want us to hunt. I’ll send pictures.”

 

The door rang and Mari got up and paid for the food from the delivery boy. Wayne helped her set the table. When she reached up to get the napkins, he pinched her thigh. She turned around, her face contorted into a look of anger, and kissed him, then pushed him back against the table. Dinner came later than expected.

The next morning, after the service, Wayne took Mari back to the apartment and dropped her off, then headed north along the coast of Lake Michigan. At a small store he’d been to before on hunting trips with his father, he bought some shells and some propane for his stove. He passed great fields of energy farms along the coast, their outsized white windmills rotating briskly in the wind coming off the lake, and an autotractor pulled a gene-inhibitor pesticide across a fallow field on its own, picking its way across the world of the living as though it belonged. One of the new heavy-lifting airships became a temporary cloud as it soared above him, blotting the sun from the sky as it ferried passengers and goods across the skies, a floating ocean liner eschewing the old waterways beneath it. But by the time he had reached the Straits of Mackinac, Wayne felt that this future world was beginning to fade.

 

Wayne intellectualized his emotions to entertain himself, since he didn’t like any of the radio stations he was getting: the archetypal binary between the natural and the artificial was swinging decidedly toward the former rather than the latter. The bridge provided the final transition – once across its five mile span there was only the small town of St. Ignace, and then the stands of pine and birch trees coming up out of the rocky ground surrounded the road – now choked down to two lanes – for as far as the eye could see. Wayne smiled; this was where living things belonged. He rolled down the windows and felt the cool air of the forest in his hair, in his nostrils.

 

Sunset came and went. Wayne stopped in a mom and pop restaurant by the roadside; one of those places still providing their basic service to a consumer base too remote and miniscule to warrant concerted effort from any of the big chains. He ate the food, adapted to the tastes of the store’s northern clientele over the long generations of its operation. It tasted like they would like it. Then he drove on. By midnight, he had reached another small town on the outskirts of the Porcupine Mountains, the one his laptop told him was the town the Department of Natural Resources would be offering the free training sessions on weekends from 10 to 12 in the morning, and on weekdays from five to seven in the evening. The roadspikes were up on the campground entrances and exits, but Wayne just drove around on the grass median. He’d register for a site in the morning. He chose a spot apart from all the other campers and set up his pup tent. To guard against bears (and whatever the invasive species was), Wayne put his foodstuffs and cooking gear in a canvas bag, tied it to a rope, and slung it under a high limb of the largest tree he could find nearby. He crawled inside his tent and read by flashlight until sleep took him.

 

Wayne woke at midday - which felt good, compared to the before-dawn hours of his work. Figuring he had some time to bide, he made himself a meal of chocolate-chip pancakes on his propane stove (Which Mari never would have accepted), some applesauce, and some bacon. Then he took a walk up to the front entrance and registered himself on the site he’d camped on – no one had reserved it – and asked the park ranger there at the entrance whether or not she knew anything about the “new invasive species,” as he’d heard it referred to.

 

“Yes, I do know some of that,” she replied, fanning herself with a park brochure inside the small wooden ranger building. “But I can’t say I can tell you a whole lot about it. It’s been causin’ trouble all through hereabouts, tearin’ through people’s garbage and causin’ damage to their vehicles on occasion, most like a bear.”

 

“But it isn’t a bear?”

 

“No sir, not according to the DNR.”

 

“That what do you call it?”

 

“They don’t have a name for it yet.”

 

“But they must have a name for it where it came from.”

 

“Don’t rightly know where it came from. They say probably on one of the ships coming in through the St. Lawrence. You like some firewood, we sell it here eight dollars as much as you can put in your truck.”

 

“Thanks, don’t think I’ll be here that long, though.”

 

“Don’t go takin’ it off the trees.”

 

“I won’t ma’am.”

 

Wayne retreated from the window and returned to his campsite. A man about his age was standing aside his pickup, looking in the bed.

 

“Something I can help you with?” Wayne said, approaching the stranger. The man turned around, surprised. He was wearing a non-descript green baseball cap and some long cargo pants despite the heat, which meant the man was probably planning to go out in the brush later, where he’d need that protection against chiggers and ticks.

 

“Ah, no. Just looking, to tell you the truth. Someone came in last night and took all the gas out of my tank.”

 

“You can step away from my truck; runs on that bio-butanol.”

 

The man hesitated. Wayne could see he was powerfully built, probably ex-military. If they fought Wayne would lose. He stopped several meters short.

 

“I don’t mean any offense. You’re just the one who came in last night. But you might want to check your tanks too. My car runs on the same stuff.”

 

“Yeah?” asked Wayne. “I suppose I’d better.”

 

He hopped in the car and turned the ignition, the other man standing close by to see what the pickup’s tank would read. It didn’t budge from E.

 

“Fuck.” said the man matter-of-factly. “Got us both.”

 

“You check any other people here?” Wayne asked.

 

“All of ‘em.”

 

“They must have come in well after midnight last night, since I didn’t turn in until around one.”

 

“I think I head something just before dawn. I thought it was an animal, but I guess I was wrong. We probably can’t catch them now.”

 

“That’s likely.”

 

The man looked crestfallen.

 

“I’m sorry I was poking around your stuff. Better go ask the forest rangers if they’d mind driving us out to the nearest town. I got to get to this meeting there later today anyhow.”

 

Wayne nodded in agreement. As they started walking back toward the ranger building, Wayne spoke.

“Yeah. As a matter of fact, I have a meeting to attend there as well. I expect we came out here for the same hunt.”

 

“I guess that must be true. That new species?”

 

Wayne nodded again.

 

“Seein’ as how we’ll probably be seeing more of each other later on, we should probably introduce ourselves. I’m James, but you can call me Jim.”

 

Wayne got a better look at the man: he was crew-cut blond, well-tanned. He wore an expensive watch that told Wayne the man was either an accomplished thief, or too well-off to need to steal.

 

“ Wayne. Call me that.”

 

“What gun’d you bring out here for these varmints, whatever they are?”

 

“12-guage.”

 

“I brought my thirty-aught-six. Between us, we ought to be able to bag one, eh?”

 

“I don’t see how. Can’t shoot what you’ve never seen nor heard of.”

 

“You’re some pessimist. That’s just the kind of stuff they’ll tell us at the meeting.”

 

“Provided we get to that.”

 

Jim snorted.

 

The woman at the entrance pointed out that the town was only brisk a ninety minute hike from the campground, and that they could easily foot it. As it was she wasn’t allowed to leave her post, and nobody else was on duty but her. So they walked along the road after Jim called his buddies and told them where he was going. They said they’d hold down the fort and drink the beer. Jim called them bastards and hung up.

 

The country the road went down was deep woods, both coniferous and deciduous. In places the trees grew so close together a man couldn’t pass. The bark on the birches was white as the paint on the faces of the people that had used to strip it and build canoes in these places, bringing in furs across the water for the trappers. Or so Wayne imagined. In truth he knew little of these histories but that which had he had caught of the conversation between his imagination and the textbooks of his school days.

A profusion of flowers and grasses grew along the roadside, and once or twice Wayne and Jim spotted deer standing in the scrub ahead of them. No cars passed during their entire journey. Birds sang and insects filled the intermittent silence with a steady respiration, so that the entire forest seemed to breathe.

 

“Do you think” said Wayne, thinking of his meditations on the road the other day, “That we push nature back too far?”

 

“I should have known to take you for a philosopher. The scraggly face and that analytical look in your eyes. I suppose you already have an answer in mind.”

 

“We’re natural. But we eliminate everything like this” and Wayne swept his hand broadly to indicate the entire woodland, “from our lives. We pave roads and build, and allow machines to intervene between us and the natural – our cars, our clothes, our homes, our computers and cell phones.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“They all keep us insulated. Separate from the world we move through. Instead of plants and animals, we replace them with their opposite – cold machines. That’s the farthest thing from us.”

“We did it to live more comfortably.”

 

“Life is a struggle by its very definition, as biology teaches us. At some point or degree, comfort is death.”

Jim scoffed. “I won’t argue with you Wayne. You’ve obviously thought this one out. I’m just here to kill stuff.”

 

Wayne laughed and they walked on. When the two of them reached the town, it was past four. The gas station had the bio-butanol for a reasonable price, but they decided to buy it after the meeting and avoid carrying it around.

 

They found the meeting hall just as it turned five: one of those white modular hangar-shaped tent structures set up in a field at the edge of the town. The only vehicle parked beside it was a van from the Department of Natural [Resources]. A wag had altered the spelling of the last word on the van’s side to read “Recourses.”

 

Inside, a middle-aged man and woman sat in their green jacket uniforms behind a desk arrayed with pamphlets and several boxes of different types of ammunition. Each of the DNR officials looked up as the two men walked in and sat in the front row of folding chairs laid out on the grass floor. It was miserably hot inside the structure. The male official inquired as to why he hadn’t heard any vehicle pull up, and so the men related their story. The official nodded curtly and turned to his partner.

 

“I’m not surprised.”

 

“They keep getting better at this.”

 

Wayne asked them if they would kindly explain what they meant by that. The woman stood from her chair and suggested they step outside, which all four gladly did. After wiping the sweat from his brow, the male official commenced: “These critters have stolen your fuel, you see.”

 

Jim laughed.

 

“I was already gonna shoot ‘em. Don’t need to lay any bogus slights on their character for me.”

The man frowned and pulled on his belt buckle, which was the size of a flask and may indeed have been one, if such buckles were made for belts. Wayne began to suspect he smelled alcohol on the man’s person.

 

“They stole your fuel, all the same. You see, they run on it.”

 

Now Wayne had the distinct feeling they were being suckered into some old backwoods knee-slapper peculiar to these parts.

 

“Sure. And what do these gas-guzzling varmints from Timbuktu go by?” He said, smiling.

The female official smiled wanly back, clearly inured to such initial incredulity.

 

“Well, we haven’t been able to get a good name for them yet on account of they don’t look like much of anything you’ve ever seen or heard of before. One fellow that came up from Sandia Labs in Albuquerque suggested – and mind you I believe it was a joke – that they be named ‘neew-mans” or something like that.”

 

“Like the scientist?” Wayne asked. The officials shrugged.

 

“Anyhow you want to know how to shoot the varmints, eh?” The woman said. “What type of firearms you bring?”

 

The men told her. She disappeared into the prefab structure for a moment, then returned with a box in each hand. She handed one, which turned out to be .30-06 rounds, to Jim, the other to Wayne. His were some kind of special shotgun shell in a black jacket, obviously hand-loaded.

 

“Your rifle will do fine with regular centerfire,” she said, “and those are complementary. Your shotgun, on the other hand, needs some extra range, so we’re giving you these fifty fin-stabilized flechette rounds. This invasive species has very good hearing and sight, and probably a good sense of smell by now. Some gentlemen from DARPA told us it was using a ‘neural net-based suite of somatosensory and cognitive processes’ that, as we have been experiencing, allow it to rapidly learn new ways to avoid our attempts at extermination.”

 

Wayne watched, unbelieving, as she put the note card she had been using back in her pocket.

“You talk like they’re robots,” he said, and spat.

 

“Robots don’t reproduce.”

 

“Wait – they copulate?” Jim edged in, obviously unsure of what was going on.

 

“No, they don’t have sex. They’ve got a factory up there in those hills, somewhere. Probably underground, like a hive.”

 

“Who built it without anybody noticing?”

 

“Nobody,” the male officer replied dryly. “Look, don’t take our word for it. You’re here to hunt them and see for yourselves. It’s not a big deal; we’ll show you how to take them down, and then drive you up with your gas and get you going.

 

“This is a joke!”

 

“If you think the Michigan DNR is paying to take you all out on a snipe hunt, we can take you on your first foray.”

 

Half an hour later, the four of them piled into the DNR van with the fuel and shells and headed back to the campsite. They stopped to chat for a minute with the ranger at the gate, then retrieved their hunting gear and headed out on foot. Even late in the evening, the forest was bright with a green indirect light filtering through the clouds and treetops. The official who had introduced herself as Julia suggested that they head toward a certain hill she knew of in the area and wait. The neewmans, if that was what they wanted to call them, were mostly nocturnal. The men assented and went with her.

 

As they went, clouds began to pile up against a distant ridgeline. Within minutes, it began to rain, a hard patter that turned the gray scree slope they were climbing dark and slippery. A few minutes more and a bolt of lightning flew down from the sky, striking a lone pine on the ridge ahead of them. The entire tree was for an instant lit in a ghost-blue negative, as though the lightning-strike would reveal a stark metal underskin to the thing. Wayne wiped away the water dripping into his eyes and shivered. The rain was from cold Superior, a scant dozen miles to the north. Wayne could smell the lake in it. When the storm abated, they cautiously rose above the tree line and moved onto a head of rock that jutted out from the rest of the slope some hundred meters. Below them the canopy of the forest stretched to the east and west, but directly before them a field of low scrub and open grass lay in the bend of a small waterway.

Wayne could see that anything passing through the valley floor would have to pass through this open ground, or else risk the exposed slopes of the ridges on either side of the valley.

 

“We know they come through here,” said the male official, John. “We found most of a garbage dump drug out here by ‘em. Were scrapping with a bear for something in the pile.”

 

Wayne looked at the man and shook his head.

 

“The robots were fighting with a bear.”

 

“’s what we saw.”

 

“What do they look like again? Show me that picture.”

 

John dug the photo out of his back pocket and handed it to Wayne. It showed a long, low, angular brown thing, big as a horse, hunched down in a field, presumably four-legged. Two claw-like appendages were poised in front of the shoulders like a mantis.

 

“Looks like a cross between an armadillo and a bug on growth hormones, not a robot,” he said.

 

“That’s about right.”

 

Wayne handed the photo back. He saw that Jim and Julia were already laying prone on a rug he’d brought out, his rifle propped up on a rock. Julia was sweeping the valley with her binoculars, spotting for him. Wayne sighed and set up his own firing position. Julia had assured him the flechette shells would be accurate out to three hundred meters, but the field below them lay, at its nearest, about two hundred meters distant. It would be a difficult shot, especially with the naked eye.

 

He doubted that they’d shoot anything anyway. This was probably just a prank being pulled on the DNR and the feds by some locals. Like Bigfoot. Even if it wasn’t, the cloud cover looked as though it was here to stay. When night fell, its darkness would be complete. Then even a herd of elephants could pass through the glen with impunity.

 

He stayed though, out of a half-crushed wish to salvage his precious vacation time. Mari would laugh at him when he returned tomorrow. The sun began to retreat over the distant western edge of the ridge behind them. Wayne felt wet and hungry. Behind him, he heard John speaking on his cell phone, telling his wife that he would be working late. Somewhere in the shadows below, a loon’s ululation pierced the growing insect snore of the forest.

 

An hour passed in growing darkness. Now the valley below was practically invisible. The temperature had begun to drop. Wayne pulled his limbs closer together for warmth, which was hard to maintain lying against the bare rock of the hilltop. To keep his mind from the discomfort, he spoke to John in a whisper:

 

“Why hadn’t I heard about this before?”

 

“Heard about what?” John whispered back, setting his binoculars down.

 

“About this robot infestation, in the news.”

 

“Was already one out in Nevada, a few years back. People got all worked up about it at the time, but eventually they were able to contain it, and the public eye was distracted by another star’s drug problem, or a big medical discovery, or some other kind of business. It’s not so interesting these days, but it still happens every once in a while, when the right natural resources are present and the interference of humans is minimal enough.”

 

“Like here?”

 

“Yep. They’re probably gettin’ their metals out of the mountains, using some of the abandoned mines up in these parts. Stealing your gas and making it with the grasses when there’s none to steal. Making do, as all animals do.”

 

The wind was picking up from the west, and as it gusted over the bare face of their hill it stung Wayne’s eyes so that he had to turn from John. Up above, the clouds were starting to disperse. Jim and Julia were eagerly talking, adjusting the scope on his gun for the changing light. Once he had blinked the tears out of his eyes, Wayne turned back to John.

 

“But how can we be sure this isn’t all some elaborate hoax on the part of a bunch of freeloaders who make these robots and then use them as an excuse to steal people’s fuel and generally live like hooligans. Surely that’s a better explanation for these ‘neewmans’ than saying that they are eating and growing and reproducing out in the wild.”

 

John didn’t reply, but only put his finger to his mouth. Wayne could see that his eyes were intent on the valley floor. Wayne followed his gaze: the field had been lit up by a moonbeam coming down through an opening in the clouds. Everything was quiet but the wind soughing through the trees. Then he saw it; a pair of shadows moving in the eastern tree line, about three hundred meters distant. Jim was already tracking them in his scope, and as Wayne watched, Jim fired – too early – and the two shadows jumped and retreated into the woods. At first Wayne thought Jim had missed entirely, but Julia cried out that he had hit the legs of one of the animals.

 

Half-surprised at his own zeal, Wayne found himself rising to his feet and starting to run. He vaulted over the rocky crest of the hill, shotgun in hand, and slid down the scree a good ways before regaining his balance. Behind him, Jim was calling to him to get the son-of-a-bitch, and Julia was telling him to shut up or he’d scare it off. By the time they both were quiet, Wayne had already reached the floor of the valley and the edge of the woods. Without hesitation, he dove into the thick stands of trees, running just so fast as the dim light would allow him to avoid tripping over a root or fallen log.

 

All around him the forest looked the same; if the neewman hadn’t been sufficiently wounded, or the cloud cover returned, he wouldn’t ever find the creature. But somewhere directly ahead of him, he heard a large object crashing through the undergrowth, and he saw some of the thin birch trees swaying as something passed through them, obscured by a small hillock. Faintly, Wayne thought he heard the whir of a damaged servo. He rushed forward, shotgun now in both hands, and as he crested the hillock he saw the wounded neewman in silhouette several dozen meters away, dragging a useless appendage behind it. Wayne raised the shotgun to his shoulder; he only had two shots, both of them flechette, and he would wait until he could get a steady bead on the thing. But the creature saw or heard him, and it wailed – a cross between a car horn and a Canadian goose – and redoubled its efforts to escape.

 

Wayne let fly with the first shell, and the gunstock punched into his shoulder with a terrible bite. By the time he had recovered, he could see the shot had gone wide and the thing was nearly vanished into a thicket. He raised his gun again as quickly as he could and exhaled slowly, though he was breathless from his run. The muzzle of his gun flashed and bucked, and he heard a sound like a massive bb pellet piercing a can of soup. The thicket trembled as the creature fell in it, then lay still.

 

As Wayne approached the neewman, he could see that something – some things – were crawling out from under it. Wayne scrambled to reload his gun, but by the time he had another shell in the chamber it was too late. The little things – smallish looking replicas of the larger neewman, but silvery and without frontal claw arms – had disappeared into the brush. They had been clinging to the larger one, traveling with it. Learning and observing with it.

 

The moonlight faded quite suddenly and left the man in darkness. Uneasily, he turned from the scene and began to pick his way back to his companions. He knew intuitively that when morning came, the body would be gone, cannibalized by its brethren. But he had touched the pierced hands and side of nature.

 

* * *

 

Wayne dreams now. He dreams that he is reborn from a molten womb, and inside him is a clockwork moving and ticking inexorably. A profusion of toasters refrigerators cars beetles coffee grinders birds copy machines elk and divers other presences are splayed about him on a dark and infinite forest floor and wherever he chooses to look he sees them coagulating together as though time were spinning backwards. Wayne looks and sees that it is the regression of a proliferation whose singular and ancient origin is, though distant and indistinct, not altogether unlike the new game which is now begun and must be played by all, regardless of ability or prior distinction.

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