The effective clutch spread out just below the rise of the dunes. Not silhouetted against the moonlit sky. Downwind so as not to give away its presence. Partially buried the clutch waited.
A single animal came over the rim of the dune, bones and rags pushing against the relentless wind. It staggered forward on the downslope. It was not well. The clutch let it pass. It took some time to leave their sight again, the stars seemed to move faster in the sky. But it was determined, relentless. It crested the next shifting dune, only the wind keeping it from falling over. The dune passed over the buried clutch and it emerged again to discuss what to do.
Consensus formed, the effective clutch moved as one. It quickly overtook the staggering animal, this time surrounding it and then one revealed itself. Even so, the creature was so far gone it took some time before it registered one’s presence as surprise and cast FEAR at one.
‘Stockmate,-where-find-thee-food?’ one danced as greeting to the long lost harvester. In this context, in the limited language options of harvesters, it was a more general question about history than food.
HUNGRY! the long lost kin cast back. SHARE! It wanted to pierce one’s crop and feed first. The effective clutch did not have much to give having been sent as a foraging party for the collective swarm. The swarm had been initially very successful. First overrunning and draining the staggeringly rich meat animal hive in the walled trading post. So many animals. So few stings. The swarm had drained it of all resources in a few days and was on the move again. Not long after there had been more meat animals in troops and herds and even one boat the harvesters had been able to capture. It had been a fortuitous beginning to the swarm’s mission. But since the boat the desert had dried up. The occasional mindless animal, lizards, birds, rodents but no meat animals, no large prey. No herds. The effective clutch was wandering far afield from the chosen path of the swarm, which the effective clutch had first scouted, in search of ichor.
Instead the clutch had come across this lone harvester, counted as lost when the Factor had given it to the One-who-traded-corpses-for-words. The Factor had offered it the choice of its own clutchmate or the harvesterkin and the One-who-traded-corpses had taken the clutches’ stockmate and vanished into the desert.
SHARE, one cast back in agreement and the lost kin was on one. Falling before one, tooth extended, the piercing, the pain. One rubbed the head of the kin to reassure it. A rare gesture to be sure but not unheard of. If the starving kin noticed it made no sign. It drank until there was nothing left and then reluctantly released. One knelt down before it.
SHARE, it cast gently, share story. Not food.
The story would take all the kin’s forms of communication, sign and dance and cast in turn to convey. It was too complex for any one. The harvester had been the prisoner of the One-who-traded-corpses. The One-who-traded-corpses had kept it weak and barely fed on camels, an animal the harvesters were very familiar with. It had cast in the manner of the meat animals much, it had signed and danced too but mostly cast. Always casting. Always inquiring. It had grown more and more desperate, more and more frustrated. It had made the Lost Harvester very nervous, then anxious, then terrified. It clearly wanted something but the lost harvester had no idea as to what. The kin had attempted to escape often, only to be thwarted or recaptured. It had even tried to drink the One-who-traded-corpses to kill it and be free or die in the attempt. And still its captor had neither released the kin nor finished it off but let it drink some and then subdued it. The One-who-traded-corpses had dragged it here, far from hive on a metal camel, to the outskirts of a meat-animal city. One last exchange of meat animal casting and sign and dance, one last desperate plea the lost harvester did not understand and then it released the lost harvester. Starving, no possibility of making it to the hive but free, the lost harvester had walked for days. Now though, it was safe. It danced a dance of joy to be found. To be part of the collective again and part of the stock again. It could show the swarm where the meat animal city was. There would be ichor enough for months! One’s mates in the effective clutch came near. The lost harvester doubled its dancing to see the other two.
And while its back was turned One struck it and killed it and retrieved its ichor.