A/N: Today. Today is when there will be more. Seriously, you guys sure know how to make a girl feel guilty. I would promise to be faster, but I know I wouldn't be able to keep it. I have too much to do. On the bright side, I can now count in binary. 1001100 1001111 1001100
So! I wouldn't be surprised if sonic screwdrivers were standard issue for Aperture's janitors for simple maintenance work. Anyway.
Chapter Twenty: Homo Mantis
Cave looked tired when I reached him, leaning against a doorframe.
"Caroline, I am so sorry I had to call you in," he started, straightening.
"It's fine," I said quickly. "What's wrong? Steve didn't mention everything."
"We'll start with the biggest problem." He pointed at the door. "That leads to the sphere where all the mantis DNA test subjects were."
I moved toward the door, meaning to look, but he stopped me. "Don't," he warned. "It's not pretty. Anyway, good news, bad news. Good news is the test works just as I thought it would. Bad news is we've now got a science sphere full of homicidal half-human hybrids."
"I kind of got that impression."
"So I've ordered a thousand or so rifles to help exterminate them. Bean counters said it would be cheaper to buy something else, but a rifle is a man's weapon."
He rubbed his eyes. "What do you think?"
I considered his slouch and tired eyes, so unlike the perfect posture and piercing gaze he usually had. "I think you need more coffee."
He laughed. "You're right, of course. But there's still a few other things to show you. Most of them because of stuff the mantis men wrecked. They're pretty hungry. Broke into one of the pantries and ate all the good food. We'll be having nothing but spinach casserole for the next few days."
I grimaced as he let out a humongous yawn.
"Anyway, there's also some structural damage, lots of repulsion gel all over the place, thank God it just takes some water to get it out, so that's taken care of, but the floor in that whole area still feels like it's made of rubber. In any case, they've wrecked enough stuff that it needs to get fixed, which'll take the construction people away from working on the new science spheres, which means those won't open this summer, they'll open late fall." He scowled. "And it's not going to be cheap."
"How long has this been going on?" I finally asked.
He thought about it, doing some quick math. "They called me at two in the morning, so I've been here since... three-thirty?"
My eyes widened. "Why didn't you say anything before I left earlier?"
He smiled. "I wanted to let you have a day off, Caroline, even if it did end up short-lived."
I hesitated. "Sir, maybe you should just take a break. I can handle things myself."
"Don't be silly, Caroline. I pay the bills around here." The last word melded into a yawn. "I just need more coffee."
"Then I'll go get some for you," I offered, starting to walk away.
"Don't," he said, grabbing my wrist. "I can't ask you to do this when it's the weekend." He grinned as he let go. "I'll be right back. Just don't go anywhere."
I watched him stumble off, worried by his lack of coordination. Cave usually strolled with a quick, steady pace that I sometimes could hardly keep up, and now he could barely pick up his feet as he walked.
I leaned against the wall and tried to put it out of my head. My gaze wandered to the door. Behind the wooden frame, there were a good two hundred or so half-human hybrids, probably the first ever in human history. My fingers itched for the handle.
But no, I told myself. They're dangerous. They're the reason Cave's been overworked today. It's not worth it. I forcefully turned away from the door-
-only to look back at it a minute later.
I sighed. Cave would understand, I told myself, opening the door.
It was somewhat dark inside, the lights spread far apart. I couldn't see any of them immediately, and that only piqued my curiosity further. I moved a little farther in, checking my distance to the door so I knew I could make a hasty exit if necessary. Where were they hiding? I just wanted a glimpse. I took a few more steps, wishing they would just come out. I didn't want to leave sight of the door, but it became apparent that I would have to, and I hesitated before I kept going.
Cave was going to be furious.
I whirled around. Speak of the devil. "Sir?"
I couldn't see him, but I could see a figure moving quickly in my peripheral vision. I turned toward it and screamed as it lunged for me. I avoided it the first time, but another one of them was at my back, grabbing me as soon as I tried to head for the door. Its claws were on me, and I stared into its bulging bug eyes, and I realized with horror that I recognized him, it was the man who caught the repulsion gel ball, the man who went first, the man Cave had said would make a fine mantis man...
He was doing a damn good job of it now.
The others were forming a crowd around me as he knocked me over, rubbing its claws together as it bent over me and pinned my arms down. I couldn't breathe, let alone shout for help, not that anyone would help me. His mouth opened wide, hovering directly over my head, as the others chittered excitedly, ready to join in-
and suddenly he was staggering away from me, screeching as his claws covered a bloody hole in his chest. The others shrieked in fear, running away as more shots rang out. I sat up, grasping my face as the blood rushed to my head, and suddenly a hand grabbed my arm and lifted me up.
"Stick behind me, Caroline."
Cave. I felt a surge of relief as he aimed the gun at the few mantis men who were still eying me as they retreated. Cave stared them down, finger on the trigger, and another warning shot scared them off. He lowered the gun and took my hand.
"Stay alert," he advised. "They could be back at any time. Persistent buggers."
I just wanted to run, but Cave tightened his grip and forced me to walk slower. "They follow anything that moves," he warned. "Especially since they're hungry. Better they eat each other than us."
I shivered, that fact not helping ease the current turmoil in my mind. In response, he squeezed my hand lightly and picked up the pace slightly.
Unfortunately, they seemed to notice.
One of them appeared to the side, still hiding in the shadows but watching us hungrily. Cave's expression hardened and we slowed to a stop, him matching the mantis man's stare.
"Caroline," he said, very softly, "when I let go of your hand, we are both going to run as fast as we can toward the door. Got it? ...Just say yes."
"Yes," I breathed.
His grip left my hand, and we were moving. They gave chase immediately.
The door still looked miles away, seeming to be receding than getting closer, and yet somehow he shoved me through the door, slamming it behind us as one of them threw itself after us, hitting the door with a giant thud. It clawed at the window angrily, beating the frame mercilessly, and I just stared at it in horror until Cave gently turned my face toward his. I was gasping, my head spinning, the entire world whirling away from me. Cave's voice sounded distant.
"Caroline? Caroline, look at me. Stick with me."
He was shaking my shoulders, but it didn't matter, all I could think about was what I saw in there.
I found his eyes and locked onto them, forcing myself to calm down. It's just Cave. It's just Cave. He's not a mantis man. He is not a mantis man, and he is not going to hurt you.
"There you go. Take deep breaths. Just calm down. They're not going anywhere."
Deep breaths. In and out, I told myself, in and out... Eventually, I found my voice.
"Sir, what did we do?"
His face fell. "What do you mean?"
"Those people..." I shook myself, trying to get rid of the lingering image. "What did we do?"
"Science, Caroline!" He was trying to sound reassuring. "Always science."
"But they're not..." My stomach twisted as I remembered the eyes of the one I recognized. "They were people. And now they're... not."
He sighed. "Those people sighed a legally binding contract that said they accepted the risks of anything that went on," he said carefully. "You know that. Science isn't always safe."
I knew that."Yes, but that was..." I took a deep breath. "I don't know. We won't be continuing that experiment, will we?"
"Maybe," he said noncommittally. "Depends on how good the test subjects can shoot."
This immediately struck me as horribly wrong, and I searched for a scientific validation for this to calm myself down. Ways to test it, ways to keep things constant...
"Talk it out, Caroline. You worry me when you stay quiet. I think you're going back into shock."
"Right." I tried to concentrate, forcing the encounter out of my head. "Well, we could give them different types of guns, or tweak their battlefield..."
"Or give them impaired vision and see if their aim is still perfect." He sounded hopeful. "Like googly-eyes."
"And for the mantis DNA itself, we could tweak the amount, which chromosomes cause which effects, and-"
"Find a way to make their claws bigger," Cave mused. Seeing my expression, he quickly added, "And if we succeed, give the shooters more bullets to keep it fair."
I sighed. "There's a lot to work with," I said. "I'll write it down."
"You don't have to worry about that now," he said. "In fact, you can take Monday off, if you need to."
My head shot up. "That won't be necessary," I said immediately. "I'll be fine. We need to get the facility back to normal."
"That's the spirit," he said admirably. "Can't say I'm thrilled that you went in there in the first place."
My shoulders sunk. "I'm sorry, sir."
"Don't worry about it. I didn't really think you'd be able to resist going in there anyway. Anyway, let's go take a walk down the bouncy hall."
"Why else? For science!"
I couldn't help but laugh, feeling more at ease as I walked off with him, letting any remaining thoughts of the mantis men drift away.