All three of the 3Marax leapt onto Shannon’s trailer. Shannon Adger watched as they tasted some of the meat and discarded it, throwing it to the floor or back into the trailer. For a second, 1Ign looked at the Swamper skin over Shannon’s shoulders with envy but changed their mind when they saw her expression. As 3Marax were a species with limited social skills, the speed at which they read her body language was a testament to the strength of her emotion.
She tapped the axe on the ground next to her. This wasn’t an exchange – it was an all you can eat.
“Could you leave some for me to take back to Geppetto?” Shannon asked.
Ign stopped what they were doing.
“Human yours,” 1Ign said.
“I can’t eat her,” Shannon said.
The smile that crept across all three faces caused Tammerson to take half a step closer to Shannon. She thought back to the rumours, the familiar story around the campfires of her youth – the young couple who get eaten by the 3Marax after the Reedor have trapped them in a small cavern. Every Whaleborn knew the story, knew to be careful of the little 3Marax, and never to trust the Reedor robots.
“True,” 2Ign said, the smile etched onto their face. “Will leave you trade, but eat first.”
“Just don’t take the piss.” Shannon pointed at them. Whether or not the 3Marax took the threat seriously wasn’t for her to decide, but she wasn’t going to be pushed around by the little monsters.
“Leave piss,” 1Ign said, nodding in agreement at the deal, missing the point entirely.
Shannon folded her arms.
“I’ve never seen them before,” Tammerson said.
“How long have you been on The Whale?” Shannon asked.
“Long time to go without seeing 3Marax.”
“I had a baby.”
Pregnancy was about the only way a human could ensure they stayed within the confines of Geppetto. It was often the first thing female arrivals did, whether by design or accident. Whaleborn women were happy to let them do it. It grew the colony, increased the gene pool, and all before the arrival had to deal with any of the real risks of The Whale.
“The man you were with,” Shannon said, “he was the father?”
Tammerson laughed. “Chi? Not a chance.”
“So why were you out here with him?”
“We were scouting new mines.”
“This far out.”
“I don’t know how far out we are.”
Shannon shot her a disapproving look. Every week she heard a story like this. Arrivals who classed themselves as entrepreneurs and expected to make a success of their time on The Whale, even if that meant ignoring the basic safety that Whaleborn recommended. Like not going out without a Whaleborn guide. Like not trying to find new mines in areas that weren’t secured against grubs or 3Marax.
“I didn’t know he was suicidal.”
“You must have walked for hours to get here.”
“I suppose I lost track of time.”
“Easily done.” Not the time for a telling off. Shannon tried her best to give Tammerson a reassuring smile.
“I feel stupid.”
“People are supposed to look out for each other out here.” Shannon wanted to give Tammerson some confidence for the next few hours. “Not tunnel to the void and leave comrades in danger.” Letting Tammerson wallow in self-pity would only result in a long walk with someone jumping at every shadow, or crying whenever a conversation started. Shannon had no desire to be part of another one of those kinds of walks.
“I thought he was my friend.”
“Why did he bring you along?”
“He told me he needed someone to verify his claim.”
Shannon scoffed. “On ivory. What’s the point? It all goes to Geppetto anyway.”
Tammerson shuffled her feet and said nothing.
“Still,” Shannon said, “a long way to go to die.”
“I wish I could ask him.”
“Some people just need an audience,”
“I’m not like most people.” Shannon stepped forward and addressed Ign. “That’s enough.”
They all looked up at here, each with blood and fat dripping from their mouths. Between them, they’d managed to eat about half of the bounty from the hunting expedition. Shannon wasn’t prepared to let them eat any more, not without payment. More would mean the journey and the battle with the huge swamper would be for no more reward than a day at the mines.
“No,” 1Ign said, “not finish.”
“You’ve had your reward,” Shannon said, “now you’re trying to steal from me.”
She took another step forward. The axe dragged along the floor, marking a thin groove in The Whale’s flesh.
“Stay, human,” 1Ign said, spraying meat all over the ground between them. “Not finish.”
Shannon walked to the trailer and grabbed one of the handles. Ignoring Ign, she waved the axe at Tammerson to indicate that she should pick up the other handle.
Tammerson shuffled toward her but stopped. Adger knew what that meant.
She felt the weight on the trailer shift and felt a small, cold finger touch the back of her hand.
“Not finish,” all of Ign said. 1Ign placed their hand on hers, warning her.
Shannon twisted her wrist and grabbed the hand. The spines cut into her skin, but she needed to show strength, or they’d never stop eating. Tammerson would have a nice place to sit for the journey home, but the hunt would be a failure. As she turned, Ign drew themselves to their full height and let loose a low growl. It was a guttural, horrible sound that echoed around the chamber.
“Just let them eat,” Tammerson said, “I’ll help you hunt more.”
Shannon ignored her, and instead pulled 1Ign closer to her until their face was level with hers. She looked into the little dark eyes and held the gaze. 1Ign grabbed her wrist with the other hand, holding her tight. Not the reaction Shannon was hoping for. The others started to advance, stepping carefully to avoid damaging the food.
They all growled again.
This time, it was answered from the tunnels.
“What the fuck was that?” Tammerson said.
The noise came again, deeper now, louder. Closer.
“Swamper,” 1Ign said.
“Leave,” 2Ign agreed.
“This way,” 3Ign said, jumping down from the trailer and toward the chamber where Shannon had rescued Tammerson.
“Nah,” Shannon said, “we can take it.”
“No.” 2Ign scrambled down as well.
1Ign released Shannon, but she held tight.
Tammerson mumbled something and followed the rest of Ign down the tunnel. Former adversaries, united in a common fear.
1Ign started pulling away from her. The pain increased, but she held on tight.
“I just took out one of these things on my own,” she said, “with all of us, we share the haul.”
She wanted to scare the 3Marax, but she also wanted to make up for some of the losses she’d just suffered. Whatever was coming, it wasn’t going to be bigger than the swamper she’d already battled that day. Her axe was still sharp enough to deal some major damage, and with a team around her, they’d soon overwhelm it. Still, taking it on without backup would be problematic, and Tammerson didn’t count.
“No,” 1Ign said, and hissed at her.
There was another roar, closer, no longer deadened by walls between them.
Shannon let go and watched the swamper enter the chamber.
It was smaller than the one from earlier and was walking with a limp. Shannon braced herself. It would see her, it would charge, and it would meet her blade. To her right, she heard shuffling as the rest of Ign re-entered the chamber to help their stranded body.
“Your fault,” they said, “we die your fault.”
“No one is going to die,” she said, “now get ready.”
The swamper roared again.
No one moved. From the corner of her eye, Shannon could see Tammerson hiding in the tunnel.
And the swamper looked over them all.
And ran back the way it came.
Shannon lowered her axe. Swampers didn’t run. They didn’t rationalise, they didn’t plan. They acted on pure impulse, a desire to feed and kill. Shannon had once seen one run straight into a spike trying to get to food. They were strong but easy to outsmart.
Ign looked at her.
“Strange,” they said.
“We should investigate,” Shannon said.
All three little faces went blank as the consciousness considered the options.
Then that horrible little smile broke out again.
“Go,” they said.