Mantis [Unfinished]

HMonck Jun 2nd, 2015 (edited) 2,606 Never
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  1. Benjamin Traverso woke up and realized with utmost certainty that he was going to have a Bad Day.
  3. It was a sixth sense Benjamin had, something that had developed almost on its own, built up on pattern recognition and life's more inconvenient knocks. It was something Benjamin trusted, and deeply. On certain mornings he felt it, that grim sureness in the back of his head, and there was always something that came later to prove it right—a splitting headache, an emergency meeting, or sometimes just a horrendous traffic jam that would spit him out at work just late enough to be noticed. He'd learned, over the years, to react quickly to that feeling—to forget the proper breakfast and go with Tupperwared leftovers with a side of extra analgesics on the way out the door, the better to best the morning rush.
  5. It was a sense that had never failed him yet, not when it counted, and he thanked whatever atavistically extrasensitive part of his head responsible.
  7. This morning's warning, however, felt different. More keen, somehow, more specific than any of the others he'd had in the past. Benjamin fumbled for the lamp switch by the side of his bed and peered out into the gaping maw of the new day.
  9. There was a woman standing in the middle of his bedroom, tall and dark-haired, and she had blades attached to the back of her hands.
  11. Benjamin's heart leapt into his throat so fast he went dizzy.
  13. "Good morning," the woman said, and then sank to a seated position on the floor, her legs folding beneath her with practiced grace.
  15. Something in the surreality of the greeting, coming from someone who had broken into his house and who was now just sitting there, unglued his tongue. "Good morning," Benjamin heard himself say back.
  17. "My name is Ortha," the woman said. "I am here to protect you."
  19. Yes, Benjamin thought, most probably a Bad Day.
  21. ---
  23. The woman hadn't moved from her spot on the floor after that, only continued to look into Benjamin with the same cool, depthless expression—as if she was the one looking down at him, and not the other way around. Something in him wanted to protest—you come into my place, and then you stare at me like I'm the bug on the floor?
  25. Another, quieter but no less insistent part of his mind reminded him that somebody in his room had limbs that ended in points, and it wasn't him.
  27. The terror began to drain away, leaving behind it that surreality—and maybe a bit of grim resignation. She waves those things hello and I'm in pieces, he thought, with the same kind of certainty that was borne from his sixth sense. Carefully, as if moving through a dream, he found himself untangling himself from his bedsheets and moving to the floor to join the woman—sitting across from her, matching her in that same uncomfortable position. "Who are you?" he asked.
  29. The cool expression on the woman's face did not grow sharper, or frosty, or anything at all. "My name is Ortha," she said again.
  31. "No," Benjamin said. "I mean, why are you here?"
  33. "I am here to protect you."
  35. Like talking to a computer, he thought. Or an autistic.
  37. He could see that there was more wrong with the woman than just the hands, now that he was closer. Her clothes were strange too—something that might have been a bodysuit, once, before portions of it had been torn to shreds, and a carapice-like armor that wrapped around her back and continued downward until it protruded behind her like the abdomen of an insect. There were two bulbous growths just above her temples, too, things that looked almost like a set of large, inhuman eyes, reflecting light like amber.
  39. "What, exactly, are you protecting me from?" Benjamin asked.
  41. "Your enemies."
  43. It began to dawn on Benjamin that he might have to do the heavy lifting in this conversation. He thought of bathroom cabinet, with its extra bottles of aspirin. "I don't have enemies."
  45. "You are wrong. Your mother's enemies are your enemies."
  47. His mother lived in a quiet neighborhood and watched soaps on daytime TV. "My mother doesn't have enemies either," he said. "Why would my mother have enemies?"
  49. "She is of the lineage of the House of Tenodera."
  51. "I don't know what that is."
  53. For the first time, the woman—Ortha—looked uncomfortable. Just barely so, with the faint trace of it quashed quickly under the weight of her nonexpression, but Benjamin saw it flit over her face, just the same.
  55. "It is our royal line," Ortha said. "Your mother is included in it." And you too, came across, clear enough.
  57. Except that was nonsense, because soaps, and suburbia, and daytime TV. "Are you sure you're not at the wrong house?" he asked. "Because—I mean—I feel like I would have heard of this Tenodera before, if this were a thing."
  59. "You would have not," the woman said. "We are not part of the human world."
  61. And whatever Benjamin had lined up to say next—and it might have been clever, or at least sarcastic—was swallowed up by those last two words.
  63. Human world. As opposed to something not-human. Like out of a paperback science fiction novel, where the aliens always made sure to say "human cities" and "human years" and "human civilization" just in case anyone thought to forget the difference.
  65. His eyes wandered down to those scythes again—great, ragged things, each one sweeping backwards behind the woman in an arm's length. And his sixth sense spoke again. Those aren't weapons, it muttered. She doesn't slip those on in the mornings like you slip on a pair of shoes. Look at those. They're more than attached. They're home-grown.
  67. They went to her hands, and then up them, he realized, scale or chitin or something growing out of the back of her wrists—
  69. His mouth was dry. "Hey," he said. "You're not human, are you."
  71. "No," Ortha said. "I am a Mantis."
  73. He could hear the capital letter. "And what's a Mantis?"
  75. She raised her scythe-limbs, as if that was explanation enough. Maybe it was.
  77. ---
  79. He blew off work—called up the secretary and fed her a line he could barely recall while he was saying it. Something about a "complicated family matter," which wasn't even a lie. When he hung up and turned around, Ortha was standing right behind him, staring into him with that fathomless, nothing expression.
  81. He choked down a yelp.
  83. She didn't say anything, of course.
  85. "Let's go," he said, once his heart had stopped trying to beat its way out of his chest.
  87. "Where?"
  89. Look at that, he thought, real live curiosity. "Where do you think?" he said. "You tell me my mother's got enemies—of course I'm going to check up on her."
  91. The widening of Ortha's eyes was almost imperceptible—but he saw it happen, and felt some minute satisfaction in it—having managed to coax another display of emotion or motive or humanity or whatever he could call it out of this woman, however slight. "I would not recommend this," she said, the words a little too quick.
  93. For the first time since he'd woken up, he felt somehow that he had the upper hand.
  95. "Well, I'm going to check up on my mother anyway," he said, his voice light with affected good cheer. "You can come if you want to, but I'm going whether you are or not." He began to move toward the door, touched the doorknob—
  97. There was a trickle of notion, in the back of his head. His sixth sense. He turned around.
  99. The woman was right behind him again. He hadn't heard her move.
  101. A Bad Day, he thought, and headed for the garage. He hadn't parked outside, at least.
  103. ---
  105. Benjamin's sedan was a scuffmarked hand-me-down that should have finished its rounds years ago, the sort of machine that had nothing obviously wrong with it except for the fact that it was dying one part at a time. Sometimes it failed to start, and Benjamin would have to give the key another turn in the ignition to make the engine cooperate. It hadn't been common years ago—just something to happen every now and then, maybe once or twice a month—but these days Benjamin considered himself lucky if the car held up a week without persuasion.
  107. And now, as Benjamin maneuvered suburbia, its rows of identical windows looking out over unwatered lawn after unwatered lawn, his car rattled beneath him like a bad cough, and the realization that it might actually die at his feet rolled in his stomach with slow, overdue shock.
  109. "Going to have to upgrade soon," he said, before remembering there was someone actually in the backseat this time. His face heated in embarrassment.
  111. Ortha didn't say anything. Maybe she could detect his awkwardness. Or, more probably, she was still keeping taciturn. He'd have to say something direct if he wanted to unhinge her jaw. A question, most likely.
  113. He pulled to the curb. "We're here," he said. "Wait in the car. I'm going to talk to my mother."
  115. "I cannot."
  117. Of course not, Benjamin thought. He turned the rearview mirror, the better to read his passenger, but her expression was as inscrutable as ever. "And why not?" he asked, his voice turning snide despite himself.
  119. "I cannot protect you if I am not by your side."
  121. Of course not. Of course not. "Fine," Benjamin muttered. He rolled down the window and twisted his head, looking both ways down the street. "Then at least hurry up—to the door. I don't want my mother's neighbors seeing you. They already think she's a cracked egg."
  123. Ortha seemed to draw on her full height, even crammed into his backseat. "A Mantis can hide in grass."
  125. "Yeah? And what about sidewalk?"
  127. "There is difficulty in sidewalk," she admitted.
  129. "That's what I thought. Well, what are you waiting for? Go, already."
  131. She nodded, and pushed open the passenger door. And then she didn't run but leapt, the distance from the car to the front steps crossed in a single, silent bound.
  133. Benjamin froze, one foot on the pavement, the other still in the car. It wasn't until Ortha tilted her head to look at him—as if to ask why he was the one going so slow—that he moved again, making his own lumbering way up the walk.
  135. He felt like an idiot.
  137. She's not human, he reminded himself. She's got scythes on her arms, and calls herself a Mantis. But I forgot, anyway.
  139. And then, grim: I hope she's telling the truth about why she's here, because I don't think there's a lot I can do to her if she's not.
  141. "I want you to be on your best behavior, alright?" he said, and while Ortha was still nodding Benjamin knocked on the front door, five sharp raps against something that would never hold up against something determined enough to get through.
  143. He waited. Seconds passed by—a whole minute, counted by the heartbeat in his ears.
  145. What if—
  147. But then there was the sound of movement on the inside and the disengaging of the lock, and when the door opened, it was a dark eye in Maurine Traverso's aged face that regarded him through the crevice.
  149. A weight lifted from Benjamin's shoulders, one he hadn't even known was there. "Mom," he said.
  151. "You're here early." The voice floated through the opening. There was a sigh, and the door swung the rest of the way open. "Benjamin Traverso, you had better have a good reason for waking your sainted mother—"
  153. "Mom." It had been years since Benjamin had interrupted his mother, and years longer since he'd had any reason to, but he did so now, pushing his way past her as he spoke, Ortha following close. "Mom, you've got to leave your house. You're in trouble."
  155. Benjamin's mother snorted and shut the door behind them. "I'm an elderly woman with bad knees who lives alone," she said. "Of course I'm in trouble."
  157. "Your knees are fine, Mom." The next room over, the same too-large window that every house here had overlooked the street. Benjamin pulled away the cords holding the curtains and watched them settle over with some small relief. No prying eyes. "The doctor even said so," he added.
  159. "Only because I jump rope. It keeps them healthy." She looked Benjamin over, as if appraising the difference in him since she'd seen him last. Then her eyes shifted away from him, and her eyebrows rose. "And who's this?"
  161. Ortha either nodded, or bowed her head. If she was paying her respects toward the House of Tenodera, Benjamin couldn't tell. "My name is Ortha," she said. "I am here to protect your son."
  163. Benjamin could see his mother digest this, the corners of her eyes tightening as she filed the information away. She was old, but she wasn't losing it up there, not yet—not in the same way other people seemed to recede from the world as the years crept up on them. A funny picture formed in his mind's eye, of his mother standing at a corkboard, pushing pins through the borders of photographs and connecting them with threads of red string.
  165. Her eyes turned back to him, dark, unreadable.
  167. And then was she was waggling her finger at him. "Benjamin Traverso!" she said. "I'm very disappointed in you. Did you drag this woman here looking like this?"
  169. Benjamin blinked into the open air. "What," he said.
  171. "Look at her—her clothes are nearly scrap. Would it have been too much trouble to lend her a T-shirt first, if you were going to drag her out? And a pair of pants, as well. I'm sure I raised you better than this."
  173. But, Benjamin thought, she's a Mantis, and there's trouble, and scythes to the sides of her arms— "Wait," he pointed out.
  175. "Don't 'wait' me, young man." Benjamin's mother turned back to Ortha again, her posture softening. When she spoke again, it was with a kinder tone. "I apologize for my son. He can be a bit muddle-headed at times. Now, why don't you head to my bedroom? It's just down the hall, to the left—there are some old clothes of mine in the side of the closet, and they don't fit me anymore, but they ought to fit you just fine. Or well enough, in any case."
  177. Ortha hesitated. And then, giving another nod, quicker than the last one, she strode down the hall—away from Benjamin, his mother, and his nascent headache.
  179. Benjamin's mother watched her go. "A nice face," she said. "Not as well a personality as the last woman you brought to visit, but that was years ago. She won't last if you treat her like that. Where'd you find her?"
  181. "That's what I'm trying to tell you!"
  183. The look Benjamin's mother turned on him was unimpressed in every way. He flinched.
  185. "That's what I was telling you," he said, in a much quieter voice. "I woke up this morning and she was there."
  187. "I've heard that one before."
  189. "No, I mean—" Benjamin caught his breath—tried to collect himself, tried to ignore the feeling like he was treading quicksand in his mother's family room. "I woke up and she was standing in my bedroom," he said. "And then she said that she was there to protect me, and that you were some kind of royalty from something called 'Tenodera.' I mean, you'd tell me if we were next in line for queen of the Mantis-people, right?"
  191. Benjamin's mother snorted again. "If I was a queen, do you think I'd be living in a place like this?"
  193. It wasn't a bad place—single-story house, large windows, sturdy walls, enough high-end furniture accumulated over the years to give the trace impression of elegance—but she had a point. "Okay," he said, "but she said you were. And that we were in danger, because of—of enemies." He stumbled there, realizing, suddenly, that he'd failed to push Ortha on that point, back at his own home. And it was a point worth pushing. Enemies? What enemies? As soon as Ortha got back with the clothes... "And you saw those things on her hands—those blades?"
  195. "They caught my attention somehow," Benjamin's mother said. "Not a fashion statement?"
  197. "I don't think she's human," Benjamin said. "I mean, actually not-human. She says she's a Mantis but I don't know what that means—"
  199. Nobody interrupted Benjamin, not really, but he cut himself off anyway. There was a feeling like ice water down the nerves of his neck, and without knowing why, he felt his head jerk toward the window he had just closed off. Glass, he thought, and then, instead—Grass. A Mantis can hide in grass.
  201. And then he thought: No eyes prying out, either.
  203. The room was quiet. Even his mother had gone silent.
  205. He moved in front of her, just in time to shield her as the window shattered in.
  207. ---
  209. Reality fractured with the glass, into impressions of light and sound. He had the dim awareness of something jumping—no, leaping through the window, through the billowing curtain, legs unbent behind it to propel it forward in aerodynamic form like a character from a comic book—but most of his attention was focused on the hands. He knew what he would see before he looked, maybe even before the thing had come through.
  211. Scythes, turned backward. Only the scythes attached to these arm were raised in the beginning of an arc that ended somewhere on the other side of his body.
  213. I'll be dead before it lands, Benjamin thought, and he didn't even have time for fear or shock, just a sort of bewilderment:
  215. It shouldn't happen this fast—
  217. And then there was another burst of movement from the side, and the thing went skidding across the floor and into the wall, body smashing through the legs of the corner table—some carefully-varnished stick of furniture that had lasted for years and years until finally snapping at the knees at Mantis number two. As if one wasn't enough.
  219. And that one—the one Benjamin wanted to blame for his whole Day starting Bad and going to Worse—was standing in front of them now, clothes still tattered, facing the attacker, her own arms and blades held out in some threatening stance as the other struggled up to its feet.
  221. "Run," said Ortha.
  223. Benjamin didn't need to be told twice. He yanked his mother by the arm—the first and last time he'd do that, he didn't guess—and pulled her after him, throwing doors shut as he passed. It was only once he reached his mother's spare room—a small space, blessedly windowless—that he let himself stop and catch his breath.
  225. It was still too close, though. He could still hear it from there—the fighting. The thump of something landing too hard, and then a crack, and something shattering. Maybe the fancy glass cabinets this time.
  227. "I don't believe it," he heard his mother mutter.
  229. He looked up. His mother was staring into the distance at something that wasn't there. Finally, he thought. Reality dawning.
  231. "Yeah," he said.
  233. "That end table was an antique, you know. A genuine Blotsky. Your uncle gave it to me."
  235. "Oh my god, Mom."
  237. There was another thump. And then the sounds from the other room stopped, all at once, and once more the house was very quiet and very still.
  239. Benjamin glanced to his mother, but there was no maternal wisdom for him there, not anymore and not for years since. Just a touch of annoyance, as if the most she had gathered from having a monstrous Mantis-thing break through the front window was the fact that she would have to sweep up the glass, later.
  241. It came down to him, then—this small and insignificant choice. And it was insignificant—because did it really matter if the door was open or not, if Ortha had lost?
  243. He ran the justification around and around through his head, like a mantra, even as he turned the handle down and pulled open the door.
  245. The scythe that shot through the gap nearly skewered him.
  247. Wrong guess, Benjamin thought, but there was no heat to it, no energy to even groan. And then the blade retracted, and half a familiar face peered through, instead.
  249. "Ortha?" Benjamin said.
  251. The weight of Ortha's gaze wasn't any lighter with the door in between. Her eye flickered, taking all of him in.
  253. "Good," she said.
  255. "'Good'?" Benjamin snapped after her. The weight of imminent death had left his shoulders in the time Ortha had taken to size him up, and now the familiar indignant irritation was back to reclaim its grounds. "That was nearly my head you cut through!"
  257. Ortha opened her mouth—and then paused. That eye flickered again, this time away from Benjamin. "I meant to open the door," she said.
  259. "It wasn't even locked!"
  261. "I meant to open the door quickly."
  263. He understood—that was the sad part. There was a certain stupid efficiency to her logic. "Forget it," he said. "What happened? Are we safe?"
  265. The pause, this time, was longer. "The enemy was disposed of," Ortha said, finally.
  267. He understood that, too. That blade, the one that had almost put an end to him by accident—there was something splattered along it, too pale and too much the wrong color to be anything. Or maybe anything else. The wrong color was the right color, he thought, and felt like laughing, something inside of him caught in a giddy panic. He choked it down. He was choking down a lot, today.
  269. "So what now?" he asked, instead. "You 'disposed' of him, right? Her. That. So it's over now, right?"
  271. "No," Ortha said. "More will follow."
  273. "What do you mean—hold on." This was a revelation that didn't deserve to come through a gap. Benjamin yanked the door open the rest of the way.
  275. And then, for a moment, he forgot what he had been about to say, because it wasn't just Ortha's blade coated in pale.
  277. She looked like a mess. That was the best appraisal Benjamin could make, however raw it sounded. Like she'd come out the other end of someone's sprinkler system, only instead of water—but he didn't want to think what "instead of water" was, just yet. Her clothes had been tattered from the beginning, from the first time he'd seen her, but now there were new tears and rips crossing the fabric, one jagged slice running from the stomach down to the thigh and continuing—
  279. The pale, Benjamin realized. It's not just the other one's. Hers, too.
  281. "What do you mean, 'more will follow'?" he asked, and this time his voice was quiet.
  283. "This will not be the only assassin," said Ortha.
  285. "And they only need to pull it off once," Benjamin muttered. His days of peaceful wage slavery seemed to be on their way to a distant memory. He looked toward his mother, who only looked back, eyebrows raised, still taking the situation better than him—or at least pretending to.
  287. "So are we moving?" he asked. "Some kind of Mantis witness protection program?"
  289. Ortha blinked slowly at him. "No," she responded. "I will protect you."
  291. And the funny thing was, the way she said it, so straightforward, so matter-of-fact, he could almost believe it. A ridiculous image formed in his mind's eye—he was strolling into work, his normal, everyday life back in his grasp, his routine ultimately unchanged except for the Mantis woman walking alongside him, watching over his shoulder.
  293. But then the ice was in his nerves and he stepped back from the door, pulling his mother away again—and in the same instant Ortha spun, blades raised, looking toward something farther down the hall, just out of his view.
  295. And a voice said, "You are wrong."
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