With a large sigh, the swamper stopped breathing.
Soon the liquid dripping into the pool in the centre was the only noise and only movement in the chamber.
Shannon took a step closer, unsure of whether she’d welcome signs of life or not. The swamper would be a fine bounty and just about make up for the previous loss to Ign’s ravenous appetite. If she could persuade Tammerson to help divide it up with her, she’d be compensated for the journey. On the other hand, Ign was the closest thing she’d had to a 3Marax friend in the tunnels of the Whale. None of the other 3Marax she’d met on her expeditions had been willing to maintain that kind of interaction with a human.
“Ign?” Shannon said.
There was no movement from under the swamper’s corpse.
“That wouldn’t have killed them?” Tammerson asked, “Would it?”
Shannon didn’t answer. The 3Marax were designed to live in hostile environments. She’d never discussed with them what their home planet was like, but given the natural defences the aliens had evolved it couldn’t have been a pleasant place to live. Surely the swamper landing on them wouldn’t be enough to overwhelm –
There was a movement from below the body.
A small, clawed hand appeared and scratched at the flesh above it. It cut through the skin and succeeded in creating a small tunnel, blue blood spraying everywhere. 1Ign pulled itself out, followed by 2Ign. Both of them clawed a distance from the dead beast and fell to their knees. Shannon crouched next to them.
“Where’s 3Ign?” she asked.
1Ign’s expression was blank and uncomprehending. Then both of Ign grabbed their heads and wailed. The sound filled the chamber, low and mournful. Shannon didn’t need an interpreter. She sat opposite the surviving Ign bodies, giving them the time they needed. Part of her was amazed by the reaction. This was new, especially after the brutality and disregard for life she’d seen from 3Marax in the past. The more mercenary part of her brain started to record the reactions. There were people back in Geppetto who would trade for information about the other sentient species on The Whale. Not just biological specimens, but behavioural aspects too.
She didn’t hear Tammerson shouting at first. Instead, she caught movement out of the corner of her vision.
The other woman was waving frantically and pointing a the corpse of the swamper.
The body was moving, the head heaving up and down as if it was trying to look up. Something was trapped underneath.
Shannon ran to the creature and grabbed it beneath the chin. The swamper’s skin was moist and warm, although she doubted the later would last for long. She leaned back and pulled, heaving the head up as high as she could. When the neck felt like it was going to break, Tammerson reached underneath and pulled something out.
“Got it!” Tammerson shouted over the sound of the wailing.
Shannon let the head drop back to the ground.
Tammerson was sat with 3Ign in front of her. Their arms were moving, but everything else was still.
“Is it alive?” Tammerson said.
The wailing stopped.
She heard steps as the other Ign moved closer.
Then they growled.
“Dead,” 1Ign said.
“They’re still alive,” Shannon said. The second arm reached up and touched the other. A conscious movement that made it obvious that 3Ign was very much alive.
“Dead,” 1Ign repeated.
Tammerson offered a hand to 3Ign. Her fear of the 3Marax had faded following the fight. Shannon was happy to see a harder edge developing on the arrival. 3Ign reached up to her and held her hand and Tammerson turned to smile at the others in the group.
“Stop,” 2Ign said.
Tammerson raised an eyebrow, then yelped. She scrambled backwards, her hand covered in blood from a wound in her palm. Tears formed in her eyes as 3Ign pushed themselves to their feet. They wobbled for a moment then planted their feet and looked at the rest of them.
Shannon recognised a green mist around their eyes. The same one she’d seen from the swamper as it held her. Was this some kind of swamper poison? A new species, or a new adaptation? 3Ign stumbled backwards.
“No join,” 1Ign said, “dead.”
3Ign held out a hand, palm towards Shannon and the 3Marax.
“Just. A moment,” 3Ign said. “Let me just.”
Shannon had never heard a 3Marax speak like that. She looked up to the axe embedded in the roof. Whatever was going on, she would have felt a lot more secure with the weapon in her hands.
“What’s going on?” Tammerson said. She was holding her injured hand against the other one to try and stop the bleeding.
“Stay where you are,” Shannon said. “Something isn’t right.”
1Ign lowered their stance, ready to charge.
2Ign copied the posture.
3Ign looked at their hands, turning the claws over and back again. They reached up to their throat and tilted their head as if checking it was still attached. Then it looked at Shannon.
“I’d have preferred you, of course,” they said, “but at least this creature can talk.” They coughed.
“What are you?” Shannon asked.
3Ign grinned. But it wasn’t in the way that a 3Marax would normally grin. That wide, unrestrained smile that Shannon had seen earlier when they were bartering was replaced by something that looked altogether different. It reminded Shannon of the smiles of others in Geppetto when she passed them, or they saw her drinking alone. It was a mixture of pity, unease and jealousy. The 3Marax weren’t capable of emotions like that, let alone expressing them in a single facial gesture.
Before 3Ign could answer, 1Ign and 2Ign charged it, waving their arms around like water wheels. 3Ign twisted and ran into the darkness of the tunnel behind them. The other bodies of Ign followed, their roars fading as they drove deeper into the tunnels.
“What the hell was that?” Tammerson said.
Shannon pulled the other woman to her feet. Some of Tammerson’s blood got on her hands, so she wiped it on the swamper skin that still sat on her shoulders.
“I’ve never seen anything like that happen before,” Shannon said, “but it can’t be good.”
The reaction of the 3Marax to 3Ign worried Shannon more than anything else she’d witnessed that day. They were convinced that 3Ign was dead, yet the body was up and moving. They’d chased it away. What did that mean?
Shannon pulled the swamper skin around her.
“Do you know the way back to Geppetto?” she asked Tammerson.
“Of course not.” Tammerson inspected her wounded hand, then must have realised that Shannon was asking her for a reason. “Are you leaving me?”
Shannon pointed down one of the tunnels.
“Head that way. Just keep walking until you reach Geppetto, or at least something human.”
“You’re going to leave me here.”
“I have to see what all that was about,” she said.
Tammerson was close to tears. Shannon placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I can and I will,” Shannon said, “ and I need you to get back to Geppetto and find Bacot.”
“Tell him what you’ve just seen. Tell him I’m going to follow Ign and find out what that was all about.”
“Is that what you’re going to do?”
Shannon shrugged. She looked at the ground, where the dents left by Ign’s charge was still pressed into the flesh of The Whale. She’d be able to track them as long as nothing crossed the same path. She looked up at her axe and sighed. There wouldn’t be time for her to retrieve her weapon.
She pulled the skin around her, the blood soaking into her clothes and warming her skin. She’d journeyed deep into 3Marax territory before, looking for something to trade. This time, she was looking for answers. Something about that green mist worried her in a way she couldn’t explain, and she wanted to keep tabs on it.
“Tell Bacot about the swamper here, tell him about the strange way Ign turned on themselves. And tell him I want someone to get me my fucking axe.”
“You can’t leave me here,” Tammerson said.
“I can and I am. Be grateful I didn’t walk past when you were in the chamber with Ign,” Shannon said. The words hit Tammerson like an arrow. “I’m asking you to return a favour.”
“I want to come with you.”
“Fine,” Shannon said, “skin that swamper. It’s the only way you’ll avoid the grubs for a journey that long.”
Tammerson looked at the corpse as if it might reanimate and eat her.
“I thought not,” Shannon said, “so go. Find Geppetto, find Bacot and tell him what I need him to do.”
And with that, Shannon walked away from a whimpering Tammerson.