Britta tried to get out, but the walls were too high. She was also panicking a little, which made it hard to keep calm and work her way up. The nest wasn’t even that big, there was no way the adult guardvark could fit in here with the babies, it was more of a nursery. Britta tried again to get the distressed guardvarks to calm down as the sounds of their mother’s approach continued to get louder.
Britta was well aware of the situation she was in, she had seen this scenario played out in books and movies plenty of times. The hero encounters a wild and savage beast ready to kill out of sheer malice, but then it turns out to be a mother protecting its cubs. Everyone instantly acknowledges the complete reasonableness of this behaviour. That’s what the momma bear is supposed to do.
It didn’t feel so reasonable when you were on the other end of that protective rage, especially when you meant no harm.
Still, even Britta could appreciate the way it looked. She was a threat in the guardvark’s home, whether she intended it or not. What to do?
There had been a similar situation with the gryphon, and Britta had made the wrong decision then. Threatening the gryphon’s eggs had given her the upper hand, but it had also made relations a lot worse. And she felt terrible about what she’d done afterwards.
She picked up the guardvark crying the loudest, the one whose nose she had booped, and cradled it in her arms. She rocked it like a baby and scratched its tummy. She dropped her ball of light for the other two to play with. They calmed down a little.
If the baby guardvarks stopped their pitiful wails, would the mother go away? Probably not. She’d still want to investigate what the commotion was about. She was, of course, assuming it was the mother, it might be the father. No reason it couldn’t be, other than the devs being mostly male and having demonstrated relentlessly that they preferred to use stereotypes whenever possible. Although N-28 also had some influence, and Britta had no idea what his gender politics were like. Her social studies teacher would have a lot to say on the matter. He was a male feminist, which Britta knew because of the large poster behind his desk telling everyone.
“Hey, come on now. No need to be upset.” She did her best to sound soothing as she rocked the guardvark in her arms to sleep. The other two sniffed around the ball of light.
There was a sound of movement in the cavern. Heavy footsteps. Britta dismissed the light and sat down in the dark. Little snouts prodded at her and the other guardvark babies tried to crawl into her arms to join their sibling. She let them get onto her lap as best she could. The adult guardvark was less likely to attack her if she was covered in babies, Britta decided.
The footsteps grew closer. There was a lot of sniffing going on outside. Britta hugged the guardvarks, more for her own comfort than theirs. They began purring.
The darkness was both a cause for concern and a source of solace. It felt safer to be unseen, but she couldn’t see what was coming, either. Part of her preferred it that way, but that was the part she was constantly trying to overcome. She should have the guts to face her fears and she wanted to, if only they didn’t scare her so much.
The darkness was false security at best. The guardvarks lived down here, were used to operating in pitch black conditions. The mother (or father) guardvark would know she was in the nest. Hiding here was like being a kid who covered their own eyes when trying not to be found.
There was something moving around above her, sniffling and snuffling like it had allergies. Two large globes of orange light appeared, glowing softly. After a couple of seconds to get used to the dim lighting, Britta realised they were eyes.
“What,” said the guardvark in a low but distinctly female voice, “are you doing?”
“You can talk?” It was a dumb thing to say, but Britta was too surprised to say anything intelligent. “I mean, nothing. They were crying and I tried to get them to stop.” She held up the one in her arms to show. It had fallen asleep — Britta hoped it didn’t look like it was dead. The orange eyes continued to glow accusingly at her. “I fell down a hole.”
The ‘I fell down a hole’ excuse was starting to become Britta’s standard explanation for why she was where she wasn’t meant to be. Her size made it seem plausible.
“Come out here,” said the guardvark.
“I can’t,” said Britta. “The walls are too high.”
A snaking proboscis entered the nest and wrapped itself around Britta. She didn’t fight it. Enjoy the ride, she told herself, and let’s hope it doesn’t end in her mouth.
The guardvark lowered Britta to the ground. The light from her eyes was enough to see clearly, even better than her own light ball. She could see right across the cavern. She still had one guardvark in her arms, and two clinging to her by snouts wrapped around her clothing like a baby’s fist grabbing a mother’s shirt.
“Put them down,” said the mother.
“Are you going to eat me if I do?” As long as she had baby guardvark’s attached to her, it was pretty unlikely the mother would harm her.
“I don’t eat gnomes,” said the mother. She made it sound like an insult, like gnomes weren’t good enough for her dinner table. Now was not the time to take offence, Britta decided.
“Okay. So, I’ll put the babies down and leave. No hard feelings?”
“You came here to rob me,” said the guardvark.
“Who me? No, I fell down a hole, I told you. I’m not a treasure hunter like those other people.” She bit her tongue. She hadn’t meant to throw the others under the bus like that. “I mean, I don’t know them. I was just passing through on my way to the next village when I—”
“Fell down a hole,” the guardvark finished for her. She didn’t sound convinced.
“Yes, really I did.” Why was sounding truthful so hard when she was actually telling the truth?
Britta tried to put the baby in her arms on the ground. It struggled in its sleep to stay where it was. Britta looked up into the twin spotlights with an apologetic smile. “She’s a bit clingy.”
“Sorry, he.” She tried again and the baby woke up and started crying. It sounded surprisingly human. Britta tried to hold the baby out for the mother to take.
“Don’t give him to me,” said the guardvark. “He isn’t mine.”
“These aren’t your children?” said Britta.
“No. They’re orphans. I’ve been trying to look after them, but they haven’t really taken to me. They seem to like you, though. Seems like you’ll have to raise them.”