Fiction. The Mating Ritual of the 3D Printer, by Philip A. Suggars. Image: The silhouette of a woman running away from monstrous crab creatures with various objects for limbs.

The mating ritual of the 3d printer

Reading time:

Bailey woke, her heart strobing in her chest. There were muffled sounds from the door opposite her.


A muted wail came in through the open window. It sounded like a baby crying, but Bailey knew it couldn’t be. She hadn’t heard that sound for months.


You sat and cried for hours when you found out. You stared at the little blue ‘yes’ on the pregnancy test. You did one and then another. The third one clinched it. Then you sat in the dark and leant out of the window, smoking and wondering why you didn’t feel any different yet.


Bailey turned to peek out of the window. A burst of maker-talk crackled across the quadrangle below. She ducked down immediately, the fresh air cutting through the smell of stale milk from the long dead office fridge.


During the day the Makers tended to lurk in the stairwells of the building where she and the Hothouse kids had camped. The creatures cooed and lowed in that pixelated way they had, but didn’t move far. Nighttime was when they loved to roam… right around now.


The door rattled. Beyond it was a corridor leading to the office where the kids slept; at its other end was a fire door and a set of stairs. They had barricaded the door shut with furniture, but perhaps one of the Makers had made it all the way up, gnawing through the obstacles in its path.


The door handle turned. Bailey held her breath. She groped for the crowbar at her side, her fingers slipping round it. If it was a Maker, her best bet was to knock the thing onto its back, smack the crap out of it and give everyone else the chance to run. Drawing in a shallow breath, she pushed a loop of hair over her ear.


Three. Two. One.


She sprang forward, hitting the intruder low. Together they tumbled across the office floor and into the corridor beyond, her nose filling with the acrid smell of the carpet. Stephen looked up at her, rubbing his forehead.


‘What were you thinking, you twerp!’ said Bailey, sitting up. ‘I almost caved your pointy little head in.’


A chorus of staccato chirps came from outside. The Makers in the quadrangle had heard the commotion.


Stephen felt around on the floor. He retrieved his glasses from where they had fallen and perched them on his nose. He whimpered, on the verge of tears. Bailey felt a pang of guilt. He was only ten years old.


She dropped the crowbar and crawled over to her rucksack. She pulled out a packet of cigarettes and lit one with shaking hands.


‘What do you want anyway?’ she asked when she’d recovered.


‘I’ve been thinking,’ Stephen said, ‘I want to come with you.’


‘Come with me? Where?’


‘You’re going to make a run to the Co-op, aren’t you?’


‘What makes you say that?’


‘I was checking our supplies, like you said.’




Stephen winced.


‘We need water. We’re running out of ammunition… and Olly took the gun with him.’


‘I do hope you haven’t told the other freakazoids that,’ said Bailey.


Stephen’s nose twitched. ‘No, I didn’t but–’


‘–Felix overheard you thinking it?’ She raised an eyebrow, exhaling a stream of smoke. Stephen looked crestfallen.


‘I told you to keep it to yourself, dicklet.’ She took a drag. ‘And anyway you’re not my responsibility. None of you are.’


You carried him to full term in the end. He rode inside you all that time: your little passenger. You enjoyed the attention, the way people gave up their seats for you on the Tube or the bus. Until that afternoon when you started to feel sick and see double. You scraped together the change for a taxi to the hospital and all the way there the cabbie just kept asking you whether your water was going to break on his seats.


‘No one said we were your responsibility,’ said Stephen, pushing his glasses back up his nose, ‘but it’s a logical deduction from the available tactical data, isn’t it? We’re more likely to survive all together, especially once Olly gets back. Why don’t you trust us to help?’ he asked.


Bailey grabbed a pen-tidy from a nearby desk and flicked her ash in it.


‘How long has he been gone?’ she said. It was difficult to distinguish one day from the next, now the rolling comfort blanket of daytime telly was gone.


‘Three days,’ he replied. ‘We all set up camp here one week, five days, two hours and fourteen minutes ago… fifteen now.’ He licked his lips. ‘Felix says Olly’s not coming back’.


‘Time to go then,’ she said.


Always be ready to move on. It was, of course, Olly who had taught her that. She had no idea where a hipster with a diploma in ceramics and mindfulness would have picked up this piece of survivalist wisdom, but it was something he’d instilled into the kids as well. Each of them would be asleep now in some hidden part of the office using their packs as pillows.


At least he’d not inflicted his taste for skinny black jeans and odd socks on them too. She put the cigarette out carefully and slipped the stub into her top pocket.


‘Okay. Get lost, Goggles,’ she said. ‘This has been lovely, but you know, on duty and all that.’


‘Of course,’ said Stephen, his right hand tracing the ghost of a stifled salute. He turned towards the door that led back into the office.


‘Enjoy your nap,’ he whispered.


‘Smart arse,’ she hissed after him. The only response was the click-clacking of the Makers in the quadrangle below. She listened to them as they dragged away the remaining plastic furniture, chewing it up only to spit it out as something random and new. Key rings. Hair clips. Pen lids. She imagined the creatures lurching across the darkened concrete like huge, blind crabs at the bottom of the sea surrounded by the refuse they created.


Stephen had been right. She didn’t trust the kids. She didn’t want to admit it, but they frightened her. They were part of this new world every bit as much as the Makers. Olly had trusted them, but then he had seemed to secretly enjoy how everything had come to an end. Setting up the watch rota. Going on supply runs. He just knew what needed doing.


She shivered and leaned back beneath the window, placing her rucksack on her knees to open it. At the bottom, beneath packs of spare knickers, tampons and a half-empty canteen of water, nestled a squat bottle of gin.


She pulled the bottle out and pressed the glass against her forehead. An infant’s hospital wristband was tangled around its neck. She tossed it back into the bag.

‘That’s seventeen,’ said Stephen the next morning as they stood at the back of the office. Bailey was counting a collection of nuts and bolts into one of the polythene freezer bags she used to keep ammunition for the slingshot. She was also trying to ignore her hangover.


Stephen looked away from her.


‘Problem, dicklet?’ she said.


They always come in pairs,’ said Stephen. ‘Something to do with binary, I think. Seventeen is an odd number. And prime. In fact, seventeen is the fourth super prime and the sum of the first four prime numbers.’


‘Shut it,’ she said, scooping an additional bolt into the bag when he wasn’t looking.


Stephen sniffed.


‘Do you ever think about why all this happened?’ he said.


Bailey shook her head. There wasn’t any sense to it at all. That was what upset her most. The end of the world should have some point to it. As far as she could tell, the Makers were just homicidal IT equipment.


They hunted people and took them apart bit by bit only to turn them into coffee cups, plastic figurines and Lego bricks. More often than not, they just knitted what was left into themselves.


Stephen pushed his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose. Bailey wondered why he still needed them. With all the other weird shit done to him at the Hothouse, they could have at least fixed the poor little fucker’s eyes.


From what the kids had told them, Olly figured the Hothouse had been part of a secret military project. Or some sort of covert tech startup. Perhaps even the same one that had produced the Makers. Bailey wasn’t sure if she believed this, but it at least explained how they’d found the children: shuffling down the middle of the deserted M6 in single file, wearing identical waxed ponchos. She had no idea how they had survived in the open that long.


‘Thirty-two,’ said Stephen approvingly, holding up a second bag of makeshift ammunition.


‘I can count, you know,’ she said. He beamed back at her.


Stephen was the sort of kid Bailey would’ve been mean to if they’d been at school together. All the Hothouse kids were, but then her old comprehensive was the exact opposite of where these kids had come from. The name said it all, really. Hothouse: an enclosure for cultivating exotic flowers.


‘Orchids, actually. From the Greek orkhis. It means testicle.’


Bailey jumped in surprise. Felix stood behind her with a quizzical look on his face.


‘Fuck off out of my head,’ she said. ‘Also: sneak up on me again and I’ll knock that overripe melon off your shoulders.’


She did a mental rollcall. Iphigenia and Birdie were relieving the vending machine of its remaining treasure. Birdie had poked its power lead into his mouth and was pushing enough juice into it to light it up like a pinball machine. Iphy croaked at it in the harsh, square-toothed language she spoke.


If you didn’t count his annoying smarts, the only one of the kids who didn’t seem to have some sort of wild talent was Stephen.


‘Where’s Tick-Tock?’ asked Bailey. Felix leant back, squinting with the effort of mentally searching for the boy.


‘Walls are thick here,’ he said, ‘but I think he’s just opened the lock on the fourth level stairwell. He’s worried you don’t know what you’re doing. And he’s hungry.’


‘I’m sure I have better things to do than play Mother Duck to a bunch of freaks who don’t know how to open a tin of beans, but can jump start a vending machine,’ she said.


I’m not sure you know what you’re doing,’ said Felix.


‘Leave her alone,’ said Stephen.


‘Who even asked you, Excess?’ replied Felix without looking at the younger boy.


‘Who even said I’m in charge?’ said Bailey. ‘I’m just going to get us some water from along there’–she waved in the direction of the Co-op–’and then I’m going north.’


‘Olly left you in charge, before he went downstairs,’ said Felix. He paused.


‘He’s coming back,’ said Bailey.


Felix held her gaze. ‘Why are you so keen to go north, then? He thought it was safer in the west.’


You begged for the epidural, but they told you it was too late. You always learned everything too late. And so you screamed and screamed at the top of your lungs. You cursed your spliffed-up mum, the useless but oh-so-pretty Kane who had ghosted you as soon as you’d got the results, and the snotty midwife. Everything but your own fucking stupidity. And at the end of it all this tiny, grey person all covered in blood opened his eyes, looked at you and cried.


‘Respect my privacy settings,’ Bailey said, rapping his forehead with her knuckles. ‘Seriously. Pull any more David Blaine shit and, nibblet or not, I’ll wait until you’re asleep and throw your sleeping bag to the nearest Maker.’


She hoped her anger masked her thoughts from him. She’d tried making her mind go blank, but that never seemed to work.


‘David Blaine was a stage magician, not a proximity telepath,’ said Felix.


Bailey pulled a face. ‘He wasn’t a gobby little kid who got eaten by a 3D printer either, so, you know, keep it up.’


Felix turned and walked away.


Stephen returned to sorting through what remained of the ammunition.


‘Why do they call you that?’ asked Bailey.






‘It’s short for excess burden,’ said Stephen, ‘from economic theory. It means resources that have been poorly utilised.’


‘Because you don’t have a talent?’ asked Bailey.


Stephen shrugged and pretended to count the ammo in the blue plastic bag again.


‘Not one of much use anyway,’ he said, tapping the side of his head. ‘I hear them when I’m sleeping, I think. The Makers. They get into my dreams. They know we’re here. They’re just waiting until they’re hungry enough to come and get us.’

Bailey held her breath as she tiptoed down the stairs. She loaded the slingshot and held the rubber semi-taut. You didn’t want to go around with the thing at full tension. Any nasty surprise and you’d put a permanent dent in someone’s forehead.


She’d left Iphy on watch and the other kids upstairs asleep, although she hadn’t been able to find Stephen. Felix always made fun of her handwriting so she’d written a note in block capitals, sticking it on the vending machine where she knew they’d find it:




     PACK UP



Although she hadn’t wanted to think about it near Felix, she was hoping she’d find Olly too. But. One thing at a time.


Bailey reached the bottom of the stairs. She turned to where the stairwell broadened into a wide hallway that ended in fire doors leading out onto the street.


She sucked in a breath. Piled around the doors were more Makers than Bailey had ever seen in one place. Some were the size of small dogs; others were as large as ponies. They lay in the dark, in a wide jumble of crab legs, retracted eye stalks and flaccid feeding tubes. They were unmoving, but far from silent.


Ports pulsed like gills and sequences of LEDs fluttered on and off; washes of digital colour rippled across fascia. Some contained clear plastic panels, revealing tubes that ran into reclaimed organs throbbing with inky blood. The worst thing was the smell: a cross between a butcher’s shop on a hot summer’s day and a fire in a PC World.


The cigarette in her top pocket called to her. Instead, she stowed her slingshot and slipped off her Converse. She placed them in her rucksack, distracted for a second by how badly her nail polish was chipped.


The last time she’d painted them was just before it had all gone to shit. How long ago had that been? A month? Two? She’d seen the first reports of Makers on her socials: blurry reels uploaded from somewhere in Japan, fizzing with hot takes. At first, they had seemed like a joke. Or a hoax. A pair of staggering thinglets, scuttling around an alleyway drenched in neon. To the internet’s outrage, the kids in the clip had doused the creatures in petrol and laughed as they burnt. It wasn’t until a week or so later that a pack of Makers had caught their first victim. And even then Bailey hadn’t really been paying attention. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. To somebody else.


Suddenly, it was all no-fly zones, lockdowns and army trucks barking in the streets. All the TV channels showed the same message about the government moving to Wales and then the internet had stopped working. Olly had had a theory that the Makers had mutated from some sort of generative 3D printer program. But then, one of the things Bailey couldn’t stand about him was that he always had a theory about everything.


The nest of sleeping Makers started about six feet from the doors. The creatures were mounded one on top of another, up to the height of the iron handle which operated the exit. Ahead of her, the sea of creatures roiled as a wave of group restlessness crackled through them. Claws extended and legs uncurled, but they didn’t wake.


She slipped her rucksack back on, heaved in two breaths of foetid air and ran full pelt towards the fire escape. With a shout of exertion, she sprang into the air and sailed over the answering field of quivering claws and eye stalks.


She landed clumsily on one foot near the top of the heap of creatures, her stomach tightening in panic as she realised she was going too fast. Tipping over, her momentum cannonballed her into the door mechanism headfirst. The pain was bright and sharp. It stunned her as the door slid open with a metallic clunk to spill her into the street beyond.

The mid-wife showing you how to feed him that first night. How he latched on straight away. He was a natural, she said. Your arms rocking him. Smelling his tiny perfect body. Tracing the contours of his ears. Singing to him in a low whisper: ‘whatever happens later, for this moment you are mine.’ And then they took him away from you forever.


Bailey was running. The balls of her feet ached as they drummed the pavement. Her lungs burned with dry air. Stephen always told her she smoked too much.


Nine yards to the reinforced glass of the Co-op door. Her lips were gummed together with blood. Something scissored the air behind her, pinching at her ankles.


Three yards. Bailey heaved in another lungful and dodged right then left and hammered into the shop-front door. It swung open and she spun around to slam it behind her. There was a digital squeal as the door jammed. A claw-tongue was trapped in it, wriggling like an inky tentacle. She slammed the door again with all her weight behind it and the tongue snapped off, rocking and curling on the tiled floor.


More Makers arrived outside, clattering against the door and testing its reinforced glass, croaking and burping and trying to push it in. Bailey found a deadbolt and threw it into place.


Inside, the shop’s darkened shelves had been ransacked. Everything that could be eaten or drunk had long been taken. There was no toilet paper. There was nothing Bailey could use for ammunition and no sign of Olly. Behind her, the door shuddered. She pulled the slingshot out of her bag and loaded a bolt into the pocket on its rubber.


Her heart jumped as something moved ahead of her. Before she’d even thought about what she was doing, she’d sent a shot singing across the room. It bounced off its target and ricocheted into a wall with a metallic ping. Stephen’s oversized glasses emerged over the steel chair he’d been using as a shield.


‘What are you doing here, Goggles?’ she shouted.


Stephen smiled apologetically. He pushed his glasses back up his nose.


‘I did the maths. You’re more useful to group morale than me. Plus, I thought I could get here first.’


‘You are a numbskull,’ replied Bailey, playing her knuckles across his forehead.


The outside door shook as the Makers redoubled their efforts. Pushing Stephen behind her, Bailey poked her head into the storeroom, sniffing its odour of damp cardboard and oil. There was another scent too, something sickly, faecal even. She couldn’t place it, but it made her uneasy.


Stepping forward, Bailey suppressed a squeal of joy. Just in front of a subsiding mountain of wet toilet roll and kitty litter was a box of Cup-a-Soup. For a second, she forgot everything and dropped to her knees. She cackled, placing her slingshot on the floor and tossing the sachet to Stephen. Two yards beyond this, lying on its side was a medium-sized drum of hot chocolate. Without thinking, she crawled forward and picked it up.


She turned back, ready to gloat over the find, but the look of abject horror from Stephen made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. She realised her mistake at once. How many times had Olly told her to secure her location? She’d been so excited at the chocolate she’d not checked on the other side of the mountain of toilet paper. Her slingshot was two yards away, but it might as well have been on the other side of the moon.


She faced the Maker that had been nesting in the paper. It shuddered as it rose from the pile of phone cases it had been manufacturing. Still spitting plastic into the mound, it sniffed the air like a pack dog, gurgled and lurched towards her. She dropped the hot chocolate and it rolled to the feet of the oncoming Maker, its body blocking the light from the only exit.


Stephen croaked in fear.


You knew you shouldn’t have tried to find out where he lived, but you did it anyway. You imagined the buildings in Leeds, in close red brick rows that smelt of curry and chip fat. But you knew they had a Harvey Nichols up there, so it wasn’t all mushy peas and repeats of Coronation Street. You told yourself he was loved and that was enough.


Stephen clutched the box of soup, staring at the Maker catatonically.


Something was wrong.


They always come in pairs.


Stephen screamed, but Bailey was already in motion. The second Maker lunged from its hiding place in the tumble of empty pallets behind them. She shoved Stephen out of its reach as the first lashed out with its cable sensor, cracking the air where they had stood an instant earlier.


She fell forward, momentum carrying her until she came to rest face down next to the edge of the bank of toilet paper. Stephen stared at her from where he’d rolled, his hands pressed up against a shelving unit. He looked as if he was about to throw up.


But the first Maker made no attempt to attack her. She watched transfixed as it made a lowing noise and twisted around, laying on the ground to expose its rump to the second creature. The second Maker made a tweeting sound and mounted it, dorsal panels lighting up with rainbow flashes of peacock blue and green. The pair gave off a jagged digital cackle.


Moving as slowly as she could, Bailey raised herself onto all fours. That was when she saw Olly’s gun. It was just out of reach to her left, its black grip jutting from the wet tissue paper.


As her eyes followed the weapon, she caught sight of the shoes protruding from the other side of the paper mountain. They faced each other, the heels turned outwards at an odd angle. Two socks, one red polka dot and the other dogtooth check, peeked from beneath skinny black jeans. She didn’t need to see anymore. The sickly smell caught at the back of her throat. She recognised it now.


Bailey swallowed. She waved to catch Stephen’s attention.


‘Get – ready – to – run,’ she mouthed.


Sweat glistened on his forehead and there was a terrified smile on his face.


Bailey bit her lip and turned back to the rutting Makers, stretching her fingers towards the weapon. Her fingertips curled around its grip, sliding it from its resting place. It was heavier than she’d expected, but she was surprised how comfortable it felt in her palm.


She brought the gun up to point at the Makers and stood slowly. Feeling her way with her feet, she started to edge past the creatures. She tried not to look at Olly’s corpse. The smell was overwhelming now: blood and shit and something harsh and chemical, like burning plastic. She didn’t want to think about how long it must have taken him to die; how long he must have been down here screaming for help. And Felix. Felix must have known all along.


Silent rage gripped Bailey’s chest, making her fingertips tingle. She pointed the gun at the biggest Maker. She squinted one eye shut. Squeezed the trigger. The gun thundered in her hand, flicking her arm out wide and throwing her backwards like a ragdoll.


There was a squeal as the Maker’s fascia exploded with the bullet’s impact, stinging Bailey’s face with splinters of plastic. Black blood spattered across the floor and the creature flopped to the ground, flailing.


The remaining Maker let out a high-pitched, almost human, scream and scuttled backward. Bailey tried to run past it, but skidded on the blood. She landed with a whiplash thud, dropping the gun as she smacked her temple on the concrete. Her ears rang and her vision blurred. A piece of jagged Maker bone on the floor had torn a neat hole in her knee. Her blood pooled on the cement.


The Maker pulled itself from its dying mate and reared over her. With a crack a cable sensor fastened around her ankle, dragging her across the floor and scraping her cheek raw. She scrabbled for the gun, but it was out of reach.


She seized her rucksack, unzipped it and cursed as the crowbar clattered from her blood-slicked fingers.


‘Fuck you!’ she yelled, twisting to throw the canteen at the Maker. It bounced off with a hollow thump. The empty gin bottle followed, the identity bracelet flying with it. The glass shattered harmlessly on the creature’s glistening chassis.


The Maker clutched her with pincers of bone and parts from an angle-poise lamp. A circle of human teeth peeked from the creature’s abdominal mouth. They spun around, preparing to peel the flesh from her leg.


She wanted to scream to Stephen, to urge him to run away while the Maker was busy with her, but her mouth wouldn’t work. She closed her eyes, bracing for the creature’s bite. Its guttural, machine gun song reached a crescendo.


Something kicked Bailey and she opened one eye. The Maker was immobile. Grey liquid dripped from its maw into a thick pool beneath it. In front of her, directly under the rearing creature stood Stephen. His arms were raised and his body shook. The creature itself made no sound.


He was talking to it. Maker-talk.


Without looking, Stephen kicked her again with his heel.


The Maker’s cables slackened and she shrugged them off. She crawled backwards, too woozy and injured to walk. She tried to stand and collapsed in dizziness and pain.


Felix’s face suddenly loomed above her.


He was holding the gun.


She shrieked and swung her fist at him in surprise.


‘She’s okay,’ yelled Felix. The rest of the Hothouse kids emerged through the loading bay doors at the back of the storeroom. He turned back to her.


‘You dropped this,’ he said.


Blinking, Bailey watched as Birdie and Iphy secured the area with their makeshift weapons. Tick-Tock jammed the storeroom door shut, barricading it to keep the rest of the Makers outside for as long as possible. Then he and Felix grabbed an old piece of carpet and lifted Bailey onto it, improvising a gurney. Felix pressed the gun into her palm.


‘You’re right,’ he said, looking at her intently, ‘you should trust us more. Plus, your handwriting sucks, even when you don’t join up the letters.’


She nodded and closed her eyes.


Stephen stopped talking to the Maker. The creature dropped back onto its legs and crawled into its nest amongst the broken pallets. It looked stunned and sickly. Suddenly, it bucked and contorted in pain. There was a gush of black liquid and something slithered from inside it and dropped to the storeroom floor.


Bailey twisted the gun’s snub nose up to point at the Maker and her finger curled around the trigger once more.


Legs unfurled from the infant. It shook itself to stand erect and trembling. It staggered forward a few steps and then collapsed. Its mother grabbed it with a pincer and laid it gently back between her legs, pressing it to her underside, stroking it with her feeding tube.


Bailey let the gun fall to her side. She leaned back in the gurney. Everything swam a little.

Leaning against the loading bay door, Stephen appeared.


‘I think I gave it a migraine,’ he said.


‘Not bad for a no-talent bum,’ she said. The pain made her words into a whisper.


Stephen smiled. He looked exhausted.


Felix stooped to pick up the plastic hospital wristband at his feet. He handed it to Bailey.


‘His name was Dylan. I don’t know what they call him now,’ she said, turning it over in her bloodied fingers.


You had told yourself he was loved and that was enough.


‘He’s in the north, isn’t he?’ said Felix.


Bailey nodded without meeting his gaze.


Always be ready to move on. That’s what Olly had said.


‘Then that’s where we go, boss.’

Philip a. suggars

Philip A. Suggars has a single yellow eye in the middle of his forehead and a collection of vintage binoculars.


His work has featured in Strange Horizons, The Guardian and Interzone. He has won the Ilkley short story prize, been long-listed for the BSFA short story award, and been included in The Best of British Science Fiction Anthology series.


He is represented by the Greyhound Literary agency.

Love this?

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter

Read next: