A rust-covered forest green 1976 Dodge Dart pulled into the parking lot of S & C Plastics with a rattle and a shake. With many an unpleasant grinding clackety-clack, the engine cut and the headlights went out. 7:30 am, local time. Dr. Marshall Grant, a not-too-pudgy entomologist of 42 with hazel eyes and soil-brown thinning hair, looked up at the neon sign with its broken ampersand and flickering ‘L’ and gave a defeated sigh.
What the hell am I doing here?
Three weeks ago he had put in for a transfer. A change of scenery, Dr. Melcher had said. Just the ticket for getting out of that rut he was stuck in. Was it really a rut when one successfully had 7 years as HMCL supervisor of an SCP project, and four of those without any accidental exposures, breaches, or casualties? It should have been a great source of pride for him, a wonderful relief, exactly the kind of record any researcher should beam and brag about. He had served on SCP-400 from discovery through assessment and containment, even held the withered corpse in his own arms and fed it with a bottle. SCP-400-B was his baby. But to be honest, it was just a source of stress and worry and misery and depression. At least Marshall had learned to be honest about that. This was neither a punishment nor a demotion. Grant had come willingly.
Pure research. That’s what. Goddamn crustaceans about to give me a heart-attack…
It was early enough that the night shift had just shuffled out, and the day shift hadn’t quite shuffled in. Just a skeleton crew of guards and one or two post-docs burning the mid-morning oil. The parking lot was empty as you like it, with a faint rustling of the first autumn leaves the only—
“HEY! WATCH IT, MACK! I’M WALKIN’ HERE!”
Marshall stopped dead, half in a cringe as he squeezed a bit of startle out of his eyes. “Oh! I’m sorry sir, I…” But as his head swiveled around to apologize to what sounded like a very burly man, there was no one. “…Didn’t see you there?”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you are. Fuckin’ lunatic,” the voice came again. Grant wanted to relax but it… and he… What? No one was there! Nothing at all in the lot with him but a few cars twenty meters off and an oddly colored mantis slowly trundling along the pavement near his feet. Yet he had heard the voice clear as a bell and swore he smelled burning tobacco coming from some place.
It’s just nerves, Marshall. Relax. First day jitters… yeah, that’s it.
His badge swiped by the RFID reader, which beeped a friendly ‘hello’ and turned its LED green just for him. The offices of the entomology department were empty, so he rooted around until he found the door with his name-plate on it and let down his briefcase on the desk. Site-87, he had been told, had a few ‘real card’s on staff. It looked like it from the posters, photographs, and funny newspaper clippings that adorned all the offices he had poked his head into. Except his, of course. Grant traveled light, lived light, didn’t care for too much unnecessary decoration. Dr. Melcher had said that might be a problem, too. Not enough color in his life. Who had time for color in a world where a mother couldn’t even be certain if her baby was alive or dead?
Enough of that shit, Grant, he scolded himself harshly.
“Yo, those leaves are fuckin’ beautiful!”
“I know, right! Lookit all them colors!”
The voices were faint, but he heard them distinctly. It sounded like a tourist or something. What did they call them in New England? Leafers! People coming out of the city in great droves at ass-thirty in the morning to watch the first rays of the autumn sun catch the foreign and marvelous colors ‘red’ and ‘yellow’.
“Shit that’s wicked pretty.”
Grant stood and darted to the door. No one in the hall. No one walking. No steady pat pat of footsteps or clicking of light switches or even squeaking of hinges. Just him.
“So how’s the misses?”
“That bitch? Fuggeddaboudit. Almost bit my goddamn head off when I come home last night!”
Behind him, for certain now. He spun on his heels to the window in his office. Opened just a crack, he was hearing it through the screen. And there on the sill outside sat two…mantises?
“HAH! I hear that! Fuckin’ broads.”
Mantis Religiosa, the European Mantis. He’d seen hundreds of them, dissected them, watched them eat one another during coitus, cut the heads off a few males himself just to watch them breed in captivity. And here they sat across from each other, hind legs crossed and covered in what looked like denim pants. One wore a baseball cap with a Yankees logo. The other a small bowler, with a cigar hanging from its mandibles. They cursed and laughed and joked and gestured to the scenery, sharing off-color remarks in exactly the manner that someone who had never been to New York might imagine city people to act. For Christ’s sake, one even had a tiny gold chain around its neck.
Dr. Grant slammed the window shut, turned his back on them, and headed to the break room. Coffee. That’s what’s good for you, man. Clear your head a bit…
Through the pane of glass he could just barely hear one say to the other “Jesus, what’s his problem?”
The intercom first squawkled to life at 0800. “Would Researchers Melville, Sarkhar, and Joyce please report to maintenance as soon as possible. The sponges have become animate and are holding janitorial staff hostage. Repeat: researchers Melville, Sarkhar, and Joyce to maintenance.”
Grant stopped in the middle of the hallway and quickly moved to the side just in case, watching and listening. Strangest thing…there wasn't any commotion. No lock down protocol, no station report instructions, no security personnel running down the hall.
… and no breach alarm?
Instead, there were just three faces he'd never seen before looking at Marshall oddly while he pressed himself against the wall. Gracefully as he could, Grant smiled, nodded, waved, and moved back toward entomology, making himself as small as he could.
“And here’s the entomology Lab,” Dr. Churchwell said smiling as Dr. Grant took hold of the door and held it open for her. A bit old fashioned of him, but still a long way from creeper territory. “Not quite so well stocked as the one at Site-77 I’m sure, but we get by.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” Marshall replied, looking around with hands planted firmly in his pockets. “Thank you for showing me around. I realize you’re probably very busy.”
“Hey! Knock that shit off! That’s my lunch!” They were back outside the window.
“Make me, ya ugly mug!” Harder looking, these two. Bandannas sticking out of back pockets.
“Motherfucker, I’ll cut you!”
Dr. Grant’s eyes widened as he watched the two leather-jacket wearing mantises struggling over the carcass of a luna moth on the branch outside the window. He opened his mouth to say something, but the words caught in his throat.
“Oh, it’s my pleasure!” Mary smiled broadly. “Not much happening today, anyway.” She reached behind her and closed the window, shivering a bit, apparently oblivious to the insectoid knife-fight quickly escalating in the tree behind her.
Deep breaths. This isn’t happening. She’d be saying something if it was. Get your shit together, Grant!
“Just curious; what brings you out to Sloth Spit?” (Marshall might have noticed that she used the British pronunciation “sloath” rather than the flatter American variant, but he was too busy trying to tear his eyes away from the assembling gang brawl beyond the window.) “We don’t get many former HMCL’s out this way and… I don’t mean to pry but—My god, are you alright? You look pale.”
“I’m fine,” he said, padding some sweat from his brow with the back of his sleeve and taking a tentative sip of his third cup of coffee that morning. “It’s just…”
It’s just that I’m seeing a veritable army of sapient mantises about to go all Jets vs. Sharks on one another over your shoulder. But other than that things are just peachy!
“…I didn’t get very much sleep last night. Nerves, you know?” He chuckled in a half-hearted way and drank some more, wishing he had the irresponsible nature necessary to put a little whiskey in it. Mellow his ass out for a few hours.
“I see…” she said, not quite believing him. There was a pregnant pause. The rumble outside began to die down and the crowd disperse, hollering profanities behind them. A few corpses lay about the leaves, bleeding and making pained gestures as tiny red and blue lights began to flash from a nearby branch. “…Well?”
Grant snapped back to attention. “Hm?”
“What brings you out to 87?”
She knows. She knows you’ve lost it. Look at that pitying stare. God, is this what it feels like? Is this insanity? I don’t feel very crazy…
“I… Doctor’s orders,” He finally managed. “Psychiatrist back at Site-77 said it would be good to clear my head, let someone else deal with 400 for a year or two. Containment is stable and…” Green insects in NYPD blue with tiny badges on their chests slapped handcuffs on the ruffians that could still move. A female with curly brown hair flowing down behind her compound eyes screamed at the police to leave her baby alone. Grant needed out. Needed out right now. “I’m sorry, can we keep going? I’ve got a meeting with Director Weiss at 12:30.”
You idiot, it’s only 9:45. If she didn’t know before, she does now.
“…Yeah,” Churchwell said. A confused look was painted on her brow. “Sure thing. I’ll take you up to records.” But that wasn’t the whole sentence, Marshall could tell by the way her voice rose at the end. Mary Churchwell had just come as close as professionally possible to calling him a ‘weirdo’. “I’ll tell you, as high strung as you are I think you’ll like it here. Things are pretty hum-drum.”
“YOU SON OF A BITCH I AIN’T DONE NOTHING! FUCK THE PO-LICE!”
“I imagine they must be…”
“Reminder;” the intercom squealed at lunch; “Pumpkin Spice flavored beverages are strictly prohibited in light of the recent containment of E-8820. For details, please see Site-87 general mail 'Re: Subcutaneous Ginger', sent last Wednesday. Department heads, please forward to your teams.”
Grant looked down at his coffee and was very nearly sick. No one else dumped their drinks.
“Yo Vinnie, toss me one o'them beers?” It hadn’t stopped.
“You got it!” It would never stop.
Tiny piles of foam poured over the tops of their equally tiny cans. The hallucinations were getting more vivid, he was almost certain of it. For Pete’s sake, he could smell hops and barley wafting in through the screen.
“So,” Director Weiss said, looking over her reading glasses at her new recruit. His face was gray. He was sweating. Looked like he had spent all day on some kind of Scooby Doo chase. So she asked a question she knew very well that this man would answer with a lie. “…How has your first day been, Dr. Grant?”
“PAAAAAULIE! YOUR SISTER'S HOT!”
“Frank! I can hear you ya know! I ain’t deaf!” She slapped him across the mandible with her long pincer claw. A gaggle of others in orange construction hats snickered and elbowed one another.
Goddammit, shut up! You’re not real! GO AWAY!
“Good!” he said meekly. “Really good. Can't wait to… uh… can't wait to dive right in!” Grant could smell his own sweat steadily rising under his corduroy sport coat. He felt as though he’d been bleeding for hours; he was so exhausted. Palms wet. Mouth dry. Stomach doing flip-flops. Marshall was sure he’d have an ulcer by the end of his shift. Dear god, it wasn’t even one o’clock yet.
I should just say it. She must have noticed by now. You can’t even control your furtive glances out the window.
As if on cue, five of them fluttered by, carrying with them a boom box and a tiny square of corrugated cardboard. Some god-awful lyric from the days of Ice-T slithered into his consciousness on the back of the radio’s maddening beat… and then they started to break dance. Funny, for exoskeletal beings, they weren’t doing a very bad job.
Seven goddamn years working with a Type 3 cognitohazard and I get nicked my first day in Backwoods USA where nothing happens ever… It fucking figures.
“HA. Marshall, don’t be so obvious. You look like hell!” the Director balked. “I have half a mind to order you back to your apartment for the afternoon, let you get some rest.”
TellhertellhertellhertellherNO FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON’T DO THAT YOU WILL END UP IN A CELL GETTING PROBED AND DISSECTED FOR THE NEXT TEN YEARS; ARE YOU STONED?
“I’m sure I’ll be fine. Maybe I’ll go get some… fresh air over lunch or something,” he managed. Twelve mantis men drinking from brown paper bags were whooping and hollering out the window behind her. She looked hard at her new recruit, focusing on a spot directly in the center of his forehead. The volume began to crescendo outside and Grant fought his damnedest to keep focused.
“GO SHORTY! IT’S YA BIRFDAY! GONNA PARTY LIKE IT’S YA BIRFDAY!”
Was she staring him down? Trying to probe him? Digging the truth out of that tiny scrap of skull? He was suddenly conscious of the long silence passing between them when finally the Director rolled her eyes and slapped the desk so hard it made Marshall’s palms hurt.
“ALL RIGHT! Enough is enough!” With one hard push and a spin, her chair soared to the open window, and her bony, gnarled fist banged hard on the screen. “Will you please! BE. QUIET!” Every last mantis, all at once, dropped what they were doing, stopped their chortling and taunting and dancing and arguing and fixed her with a stare. “People are trying to work in here today you…hoodlums!” The window slammed shut and the Director rolled back to her desk, smoothing the wrinkles in her blouse and sputtering her anger out through loose lips. “Fat lot of good fresh air is going to do you today… Sorry about that. There’s only so much a woman can be expected to take.”
Dr. Marshall Grant’s jaw fell so fast, he nearly chipped the linoleum tile.
“Which reminds me!” Director Weiss continued, pulling open a drawer and removing a manila folder labeled for general Site-87 access. “Here’s the record we have of this ‘Leafer Mantis’ phenomenon.”
“The… The what?”
“Oh, don’t be cute. These rotten bugs come from miles around and infest this facility like the plague every year and I’m sick of it. We don’t know what’s causing it, but every late summer, something like ten thousand mantises start thinking they’re people and giving my research staff a headache.”
“I…Uh… I imagine they must.” Grant was trying to decide if he had finally pitched his wobbly. But better to play along for the moment. “Why… Why haven’t they been contained?”
The Director frumped in his general direction. “What part of ‘ten thousand mantises’ did you miss? Besides, it’s little more than a nuisance, but numbers seem to be rising every year, and they are increasingly hard to ignore. See if you can get with Churchwell, capture a few fresh specimens, and figure out what we’re working with. Don’t have a lot of time on this; the phenomenon generally peters out around the thirtieth.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Grant said, straining against a tide of relieved laughter. Of course. A Nexus. He felt dumber (and saner) already. “I’ll see what we can work out after lunch. I think I will go take it in town, if you don’t mind. It really is just.. haha! It’s just beautiful outside!”
“Suit yourself.” The Director said, waiving him off with her hand and returning to her paperwork. Never could figure the new ones for a minute. They always seemed so utterly fascinated on their first day. Ah well. Two weeks from now he’d be bored out of his skull like the rest of them. Let him have his fun. “Oh, Dr. Grant? One more thing.”
“Yes ma’am?” he asked, practically glowing.
Director Weiss tied her face in a bow, and gave Marshall a good looking over, up and down and back again. “…Lose that suit, would you? I appreciate the professionalism, but you keep coming in to work dressed like that, everyone’s going to think you’re nuts.”