The Zoo By Matthew Staggs

By Matthew Staggs

The old man leaned heavily on his cane as he slid his feet forward across the polished wooden floor, one at a time. His old and ragged sweater fit loosely on his withered frame, but did its job in keeping the man warm against the artificial cold. The thin remains of the hair on his head and the straightened beard were white with many tired years, and uninhibitedly long without the desire or need to cut it. He paused a few feet from the chair by the kitchen table that had been turned toward him, inviting him to sit down. Catching his breath, he turned and gazed out the kitchen window. The trees and bushes that surrounded the house were bathed in red-tinted sunlight, and it reminded him of images from Mars, from the days when there had been a space program that had anything to do with people.

The man continued forward and, bracing himself with one hand on his cane and the other on the table, lowered into the wooden chair and leaned back, grateful that the ordeal was over. He let out a weary breath and laid his cane across his lap.

“All right,” he said in a gravelly voice, “what would you like to know?”

Seated across from him was a Walain. More importantly, the last Walain ambassador to the humans that remained. It, for Walains did not have genders, slouched forward as it had been trained to do by its predecessors, in order to make the Walain’s noticeable height difference less pronounced. Had they been standing next to each other, the Walain would have had to perpetually crane its neck downward to look at its human counterpart. Its dark, smooth skin was covered in clothes that resembled what a human might be wearing: a white, long-sleeved shirt and dark blue trousers, and specially fitted shoes to cover its wide, flat feet. Again, all to make the old man feel more at ease. Over its face, it wore a clear mask connected to silver canister, normally worn on its back, now slung onto the corner of the chair, which allowed it to breath its own air.

“Thank you, Kellan Adams, first of all, for agreeing to meet with me. I haven’t yet had a chance to meet you in person, despite the fact I have been able to monitor you extensively through our surveillance system for some time.”

The old man raised an eyebrow. One thing the Walain had never been able to master was the ability to censor themselves from telling the absolute truth. It wasn’t that they didn’t know how to lie, or how to use tact in conversation, but with only a hundred years of contact between the species, they have never fully grasped what was or wasn’t appropriate to say to the indigenous population.

“So you’ve been watching me sleep and use the bathroom, is that it?”

The Walain cocked his head ever so slightly for a fraction of a second. While the Walain may not have been able to detect when a human was uncomfortable, Kellan had always been able to pick up on their nervous ticks.

“I apologize, Kellan Adams. I did not mean-”

“Forget it. I know what you meant. And you can just call me Kellan.”

“Of course, Kellan.”

“And what do I call you?”

“You may call me Rin.”

“Tin-tin?” The Walain cocked its head again. “Nevermind. It was before both of our times.”

“I understand.” Kellan knew it didn’t. “May I first ask you a personal question?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“I could not help but notice the difficulty with which you are moving, a condition I have observed increasing over time. We have offered to enhance your body with reinforcing implants, and nanogene therapy to repair most of the natural damage that is associated with aging, but you have refused such treatments. Would you mind telling me why this is?”

Kellan folded his arms across his chest. “I’m in a unique position, Rin. I am completely sure you are aware I am the last living human. What you see before you is literally all that’s left of my species that exists outside of recordings and written records, as sad as a sight as it is. You’re right, I could have accepted the implants and treatments to keep me going. In all likelihood, I don’t doubt that your people could keep alive forever. But at a certain point, I had to stop and ask myself whether I would even still be human? Humans are meant to die, as are all living things. We have a lifespan, and it isn’t eternal, though we’ve been chasing it for nearly our whole existence. No, Rin, if I’m going to be the last man alive, I will be the last to die, and I will die as a man.”

“I understand, Kellan.”

Kellan huffed. “Do you? Do your people even die?”

“We certainly die. Although our experience of time is much different from yours, as we make frequent use of stasis to offset the great amount of time of travel between planets, and even to ensure that long lasting projects are seen through to completion.”

“Why don’t you want to live forever? You’ve mastered traveling the stars; I’m sure eternal life must be a breeze for you.”

“Our need for death is exactly that, a need. We simply do not have the resources to have all of our species living indefinitely. There simply would not be room.”

“Exactly.”

“Kellan?”

“Room. There’s never enough room, is there?”

“Is your living area not large enough? I am sure I could speak with the facility overseer about having your home expanded.”

“Since you bring it up, it is not large enough. And quite frankly, it will never be large enough.”

“There are limitations to the accommodations we are able to provide. We could not expand the facility to cover the entire planet.”

Kellan leaned forward with a hand resting on the table. He squinted as he talked. “Where did you come from, Rin?”

“I represent the inter-species ambassadorial-”

“No, I mean, where did your people come from?”

Rin paused for a moment, pondering not his answer to the question, but the possible meaning behind the question. “We came from our home planet, Walai, several light years away from this planet.”

“Why’d you leave?”

The alien hesitated again, and placed its hands flat on the surface of the table. It stared down at the empty space between them, and began to describe the history of its planet. Kellan listened intently, like an old composer listening to a playback of one of his oldest compositions. He found similarity in the alien’s story to those of so many great civilizations that rose and fell on Earth. Whole lifetimes passing from the beginning of a society to its often fiery demise. Rin spoke of wars, peace, overpopulation, invasion, a civilization that fought to come to terms with its own successes, and struggled for survival as it was dashed to pieces. Kellan opened his eyes as he sensed Rin coming to the end of his story. As composed as the Walain typically presented themselves, there was no mistaking the hint of grief and heartache that seeped through Rin’s words.

“And that is how we came to find this planet, Earth. Although the atmosphere was not a perfect match for our physical needs, it contained many of the elements that we generally need, and easily adaptable to suit our physiology.”

“And so you settled in.”

“Your governments were very accepting of our arrival. We considered ourselves lucky to find a planet where the inhabitants were so accepting of our proposal of cohabitation.”

“I’m sure they were. Do you know why? Tell me, do you have creativity in your culture? Do people tell stories?”

“Oh yes, entertainment has been a part of our culture for much of our existence.”

“Ours, too. One of our most popular genres was called science fiction. A lot of that genre was dedicated to imagining what would happen if we ever came in contact with aliens. Pardon the term, but that’s what we considered the Walain.”

“It is not offensive to me, Kellan.”

“For some reason, those stories always went badly for us. It was never a peaceful meeting, and it always involved a battle or conflict of some kind. Typically, a lot of people died whenever the two species met. I guess my ancestors always liked the idea of the apocalypse because it seemed so far away, too far to be a reality but shocking enough to be entertaining.

I imagine our leaders welcomed you with open arms when you didn’t start blowing up everything in sight the moment we met. We were always afraid our stories would come true, that the first aliens we met would come to conquer and eradicate us. When that didn’t happen, our fascination with meeting aliens for the first time took over, and we were finally able to answer our age-old question of whether or not we were alone in the universe.”

“You are indeed, far from alone.”

Kellan chuckled. “Right.” The short laughter reminded Kellan that his throat was rather dry, and he began to cough and wheeze. “Rin,” he said, trying to catch his breath, “would you mind getting me a glass of water?”

“Of course!” Rin popped out of its chair and began heading toward the kitchen, almost forgetting its breathing canister, still hanging from the edge of its chair. It slipped its arms through the straps and walked briskly over to the cabinets. It bowed its head forward, not out of a sense of propriety, but because it was now unconsciously aware of the human-appropriate ceiling being so close to its head. It returned quickly with the glass of water, and placed it on the table next to Kellan. Kellan sipped the water, now used to tasting the heavy presence of chemicals needed to make the water drinkable, and placed the glass shakily back on the table.

“I’d like to tell you about my people, my planet.”

“I am very well versed in the history of Earth. I have done extensive research into your historical records, and I am pleased to say that I may very well be something of an expert on Earth and humans. In fact, after my role as the ambassador to humans comes to an end, I will become an official Earth historian!”

“Uh-huh. And how long will it be until that transition?” Kellan peered suspiciously at Rin with one eyebrow raised. The Walain’s head twitched noticeably.

“Well, since you have refused any treatments or enhancements to prolong your life, I am fairly certain that you will not be here to witness it.”

Kellan gave Rin a hard look, wondering how the alien was feeling about mentioning such a sensitive subject for a human. The look quickly melted and Kellan laughed out loud, with such enthusiasm that it brought about another coughing spell. After catching his breath and taking another sip of water, patted his knee. “Well, I will be damned. I’ve seen a hell of a lot of things in my life, but that is the absolute first time that I have ever heard one of you Walains crack anything resembling a joke!”

“I apologize if my comment was in bad taste.”

“Don’t be sorry. Death is no fun, but it doesn’t have to be miserable. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you can’t laugh at anything.”

“Kellan?”

“Yes, Rin?”

“I wonder if I might now ask my real question.”

“Fire away.”

The Walain composed itself, Kellan noticed it shifting, and its head twitched more than once. He could feel the atmosphere of the room changing, thickening. The weight that had been lifted by Rin’s joke was now settling back in. Maybe the Walain weren’t so bad at setting the mood after all. But now it was gone.

“There is no denying what has happened on this planet. While there are many among us that do not feel that what has happened is necessarily tragic, but merely a matter of circumstance, there are others who feel…badly…for the way things have turned out. I believe the human English word that is most appropriate is guilt.”

Now it was Kellan that shifted uncomfortably in his chair. It was not out of guilt for making someone else feel badly, but in anticipation of what was to come next.

“I do not think that anyone has thought to ask this question, or if they have, there is no record of it or its response, though I believe I can anticipate the answer.”

“Go on, Rin.”

The alien looked Kellan straight in the eye. Its yellow eyes looked more human now to him than any time before. “Do you hate us, Kellan?”

The old man stared back at the Walain, and pursed his lips as he thought of his next words. He looked down at the cane in his lap, and after a moment strained to his feet with the cane’s assistance. Without looking at Rin again, he walked to the stone fireplace in the living room. On the mantle above was a picture frame with a short video that played in an endless loop. It showed two people, a man and a woman, dancing and smiling at each other. They were older, but not quite as old as Kellan was now.

“These are my parents, if you were wondering. Or they were my parents. Long since dead, now. They were the last human father and mother on planet Earth.” Kellan shifted his weight, and continued to watch the couple move about the dance floor. “You ask me if I hate the Walain. You want to know if I resent your people for taking our world, a good world, the only one we’ve ever known, and turned it into your home. You want to know if I’m angry for having watched everyone I have ever known die, leaving me undeniably alone in an unnatural enclosure.”

Kellan turned awkwardly to face Rin, who had turned in his chair to watch the human as he spoke. “Yes, I do hate the Walain. For all those things. But I don’t have enough time left to let my life be consumed by it. There is anger in me, but I’m not angry.

“Believe me, if I had any capability to go back in time and warn our leaders about what was going to come, I would. We thought that the expanse of the Saharan Desert and the empty tundra of Russia was going to be enough. A small sacrifice to be able to live side by side with real aliens,” Kellan said as he smiled like he was opening a present. “We didn’t know that your terraforming of those areas would bleed over into our territory. Maybe you didn’t know, either. But in the end, there was nothing we could do. We lost more and more of our land, and were crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, until eventually it was all gone.

Kellan cracked a half smile. “I suppose I should thank you, in a way, for keeping us alive for as long as you have in these zoos. But I don’t think that you will ever have to experience the humiliation of being kept alive like a wild animal.”

Rin’s twitching was unavoidably pronounced. Its whole body spasmed with the intense discomfort with what it was hearing. It had expected to get a negative response, but the extent of detail Kellan was able to give was a shock to its system.

“I…am sorry, Kellan.”

The old man smiled. “I know you are. I know. And I don’t want you to feel responsible. You had about as much to do with making it happen as I did letting you do it.”

“Thank you, Kellan. Thank you for speaking with me today.”

Kellan took a step forward, then stopped, looking at the alien with curiosity. “Rin, does your supervisor or supervisors, or whoever you have to report to, feel the same way that you do?”

“I have never asked. But those are typically sympathetic to the human condition are rarely shy about their views, and I have never heard any of my supervisors mention anything about it.”

“Well then I want you to tell them something for me.”

“Of course, Kellan.”

Kellan hobbled forward nearer to where Rin was now standing next to the kitchen table. He stopped close to the alien and stretched his neck upward to look Rin in the face. Breathing heavily, but controlled, “Tell them, ‘You killed us. And now we are gone.’”

Rin stood motionless, unable to think of what to say, or if it was supposed to say anything at all. Kellan continued on past the frozen alien into his bedroom, and closed the door behind him.

Matthew Staggs

Matt graduated from the University of Arizona, and currently resides in Dallas, TX, working in the fidelity insurance industry. He is married and has two young daughters, and writes when he is not too tired from chasing them around. He has been previously published in the anthology “Pulp!,” as well as the occasional flash fiction website.