“Chums, it is fast.”
We’d converted from orbit to air, taking our time in descent. The footage of the mammal as it ran downhill to the wetlands replayed a dozen times.
“I don’t give a damn,” Majana said. “I’m eating it. If it’s the last chance I’m going to have—”
“What if it’s the only one?” Cumber interrupted him.
“Especially if it is.”
Majana had been striding for twenty years. In that time, he’d seen half the great parks of the Earth. The rumour of a return to the Zero Footprint policy was hitting him very hard.
The prospect of no more meat, even more so.
“It’s not the only one,” I told Cumber. “I don’t buy it. That thing’s designed to sit at the top of a food-chain. You don’t get there on your own. It might be new, but it’s not the only one.”
“You sure? No more footfalls, Gary. Without explanation? They’re hiding something. Or protecting something. Something like that. Bloody vegetarians.”
We watched again: the long, slender shape of it, as it slid under a nose of rock and then dug into the stone. It was propelling itself across the cliff shelf as if gravity was as alien to it living on Earth as it was to us living in space.
“So fucking fast!”
“We could easily use up half the fuel for the strides chasing it.”
“Not if we don’t all go after it,” I suggested.
Cumber threw his gloves at me. As gravity asserted itself, the sensation of them hitting my skin was kind of electric. I tossed them back, letting my limbs learn the balance of weight again after so long at home.
“Anyone who wants to eat has to hunt,” Majana said.
“If this is final footfall, they’ll be expecting hundreds of specimens, and almost constant footage. Plus a ton of meat. If we spend a day chasing that—there’ll be no avoiding the questions.”
Majana switched off the monitor and reached for my knee, spinning me around towards the helm.
“We don’t know it’s the last footfall,” he said. “If they don’t tell us directly, then we don’t change our routine. We’ll bag the same amount of meat as always, take the same pictures we usually do. And tonight, chums, we’ll eat the Bandersnatch.”
The mammal—which we’d nicknamed Bandersnatch on account of its speed—had been filmed on a number of occasions in Britain, just off the coast of the Western European Reserve. Solitary, largely nocturnal, and lacking any distinctive markings to break up its dark brown silhouette, the consistent proportions of the individual animal caught on film had nonetheless led some to speculate that it was the same animal in each case. Possibly the last—or first—of its kind. It resembled nothing so much as the wolves of legend; hairy, in a way that none of the other post-human species were.
And fast. Moving in microgravity, leaning on recoils and propulsion points, speeds akin to the Bandersnatch’s were not impossible for us. But here on Earth—locked into a striding frame just so you could move, your back bent and field of vision obscured by the metal around you—none of us could imagine navigating that fast without crashing.
But hunting isn’t just about speed.
We set off after it as the sunlight turned to rust. Strides make a hell of a noise, so pack hunting is the only way. Ten of us hunted the Bandersnatch. We poach for corporates, though, so there’s enough bankroll for such a big crew. And what else is there to spend it on?
When those ancient humans decided to start Earth anew, exiling themselves upwards, could they ever have imagined how the need for meat would come to define their children for a thousand generations? How all the gold in the sky couldn’t buy enough flesh?
Majana was right. First, last, whatever: meat was our nature and tonight we’d eat the Bandersnatch.
We found it in the same wetlands we’d seen on film.
Not only fast, it was a ghost by night; it’s body cold, despite its fur, and dim to heat vision. It scaled the trees with ease and was as quick in the water as it was on land. But it wasn’t really trying to hide. It howled at us constantly as we closed around it and we could track it by sound alone.
It could have outrun us, but didn’t. Maybe it didn’t think it needed to. It was bigger than any of us. The stride folds you a good deal, but it almost uniformly gives you superior bulk over the largest prey. Not the Bandersnatch.
As we began to dart in in pairs—cutting left and right, before returning to hold the line for the next pair—the Bandersnatch would have its jaws thrown wide, clamp down on the frame of the stride and simply toss it away.
“You frumious bastard!”
Majana had come at it from the same side repeatedly, seeing how it favored its left and taking the lion’s share of the beatings from it. It only had one head, though, and every attack that it repelled simultaneously left its back open.
When we came to skin it for the fire, the muscles on its flanks were mincemeat.
We ate on our sides, reclining around the smoking body, the easiest way to accommodate gravity. It was tough to chew, but tasted of boar’s blood and snakeskin and everything that was delicious about meat.
“So this really might be the last for—well, who knows?”
“Fools,” Majana said, tossing a bone into the fire. “They’ll end up eating each other before a single generation has passed.”
He reached inside the Bandersnatch’s carcass to pull out another rib, but it was proving stubborn. Even up on his elbow, the angle was awkward and he had to lean his whole weight onto the bone to try and break it, pulling his knees underneath him for purchase.
“Ha!” Cumber snorted. “Eat each other. Hunting humans in zero G, chum? How exactly would you hunt—?”
Cumber’s words died at the sound of bone snapping.
Majana stared for a moment at the meat in his hand. Then down at his feet, where they stood amid the ashes of the fire.
He was standing. With ease.
It took two full seconds of shock for me to realize that, in my surprise, I’d stood up as well.
“How would you hunt them?” Majana whispered, looking at Cumber at last. “Well—first, chum, you’d need to be fast.”