“You put on a big smile, now,” Ego tells her sweetly. “The little thing in that spaceship, it’s going to be so excited to meet its new sister.”
“I don’t know what a sister is,” Mantis informs him, politely. He’s never told her. She is almost grown to her second phase of life, she’s fairly sure, but she is deeply ignorant.
“It’s like a close family member. Someone who looks out for you,” Ego can’t quite hide his irritation at her not knowing something important. “You see another child with your father, you know that’s your sister, and you’re safe. Smile.”
Mantis is not a good sister, she assumes.
“I don’t understand. Where do they go?” she asks Ego. “Do they not like me?” Three young children like her have arrived on the planet in the past seven cycles, and they all seemed so happy when they first stepped onto its surface, but they’re nowhere to be found today. Maybe they’re in the caves?
“I’m sure they liked you just fine,” Ego says. He’s just awoken from a long rest and seems to be in a good mood. “They’ve all gone back to their mothers.”
“Oh?” It perturbs her that none of them said goodbye. Surely that’s a custom everywhere, and surely she was meant to be looking out for them, whatever that really means. “So soon?”
“There’s precious little that’s permanent in this universe, Mantis,” Ego says. “In fact, there’s pretty much only me.”
“I know.” It was the first lesson he’d ever taught her.
“Be a good girl now,” he says to her, “and go tidy up the living quarters. You have another little sister arriving tomorrow.”
“Why do they never stay?” Mantis asks one day. She’s working in the library. All the books are dusty but some of them have traces of fingerprints trailed across them. “Do children prefer their mothers to their fathers?”
Ego looks at her as though he’s never really thought about it before. “Yes, I suppose they do.”
“Does that make you sad?”
“No!” Ego says with a laugh, as though that’s the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. “Why should I ever be sad? What’s love to me?” That wasn’t the word Mantis had used. It hadn’t even been the concept she’d been talking about and this confuses her. “My, you’ve done a lot of work today,” he says. “This library looks great. You should come in here more, learn yourself a bit.”
“I didn’t know I was allowed.”
“This is an infinitely small portion of the knowledge in the world! No, I think we’re safe. Give them a dust off before you go touching them.”
Mantis does. The library’s colossal, the smallest bookcase in the room still dwarfs her little frame, and there’s so much to clean. She swipes the dust from the books on the lower shelves and the fingerprints on them disappear from the world like they were never there at all.
She must be entering her third phrase of life now, perhaps? Whenever new kids arrive for their visits, they treat her almost like some kind of authority, which she doesn’t like and shies away from. However, she does wish they would stay for longer.
“Men deliver the children in spaceships,” she asks Ego one day, “but why do I never see spaceships picking the children up again?”
“It’s a big planet, Mantis. You’re not going to see everything.”
“I have a favour to ask of you,” he says, changing the subject with finality. “Another little sister will arrive in the next few days. The young children, they’re not always happy to see me, you know. Who knows why? So, maybe you could –“
“I don’t like to use my abilities on other people,” Mantis says flatly. It’s one of the few things she knows, really knows. Maybe it’s some sort of strange hive-memory from wherever she came from, but she feels within her bones that any sort of meddling with a person, meddling with their insides and their brains, it’s wrong.
“You’ve barely met any other people!” Ego says. “How do you know what you like and don’t like to do to them? C’mon now.”
Maybe he’s the one who really has control over emotions, because her defiance is gone in almost an instant. “I can try…”
“It’s no different than smiling at a person to get them to like you, or scowling to get them to hate you. It’s no different than… most things people do. You just happen to do it in your own special way. You know?”
“Good,” Ego says, and he smiles at her, and that makes her feel better. He must be right.
The new little sister is pink and cute and there’s not much needed to make her happier. She’s already so delighted to be seeing her dad. But within days, she’s gone too.
“I’ve been reading,” Mantis tells Ego. “In books, sisters don’t see each other only once and then never again. I don’t understand. I have liked having siblings.”
“The world isn’t actually like what it seems to be in books, Mantis.”
“But I feel-“
“You don’t have feelings, Mantis! You have other people’s feelings!” It’s not the first time he’s snapped at her but it cuts bewilderingly deep. “Don’t you understand? You’re just like a… a conduit or something. I shouldn’t have filled your head with nonsense.”
Mantis doesn’t know what part of that to settle on first. “Nonsense?” she eventually tries. Her brain hurts.
“Of course, that’s fine,” Ego says, suddenly passive again, but acting like she hadn’t said a word. “You’re just a… a special kind of girl, Mantis. Some people are conduits and the universe is a much better place for it. You understand?”
“I think so,” says Mantis quietly, not understanding even a little.
“Good. Good. I’m glad you do.”
The library doors never open again.
New men, in new spaceships, deliver the next child. It’s a boy this time, a brother. He’s so devastated over the death of his mother that it’s all Mantis can do to manipulate him towards happiness. It does actually feel like she’s doing him a kindness, because his grief becomes hers and it stings…
Maybe that’s what being a sister is.
“Can this one stay for a while before you send him back? Please?”
“Maybe,” says Ego, who is crafting some golden toys out of thin air. “We’ll see how things go. Such a shame about his mother.”
But in the end he just vanishes like the others.
There’s always so much dust in the air. Mantis doesn’t know why Ego can’t just blink or wave his hand and get rid of it all. It always seems to fall to her instead.
He watches her while she cleans. There hasn’t been a child for a while. The last one came from a species that lived for mere days, Ego told her. Mantis didn’t see it (him) die, but surely it must have been a comfort, having a father nearby…
Why are the mothers always dead? She’s never understood that.
“What are you feeling right now?” Ego asks her. “By which I mean, obviously, what are you picking up?”
“Nothing,” Mantis says. “There’s no-one here but you and me.” She shakes some dust off of her fingers.
“Good,” Ego says.
When he leaves the room, he’s singing a song she’s heard before. She used to hear it constantly, echoing through the halls. It’s starting to sound rather mournful now, though.
“Who is Brandy?” Mantis asks, unable to help herself.
“Nobody,” Ego says. “Please don’t ask me any more questions like that.”
Mantis actually rather likes the tune. She sings it when he leaves, knowing he wouldn’t appreciate her making so much noise where he could hear it. “There’s a girl in this western town, and she works laying whiskey down…” Brandy is a servant of some kind, it seems. “They say Brandy, fetch another round…”
Maybe she’s Brandy?
All the statues on the planet move when Ego wants them to. They turn into different people with a flick of his fingers. Mantis used to think it was to entertain the children, but there haven’t been children here for so many cycles…
“I’m getting old,” Ego says. He’s sitting beneath the one unchanging statue, the one of the golden-haired humanoid woman. “Old.” Somehow he makes that word sound terrifying, like it was ripped from a black hole.
“But you do not have to fear getting old,” Mantis says helpfully, to calm him down. “You cannot die.”
“Oh, you’re so deeply ignorant,” Ego says, but he says it as if that’s a trait he likes about her. Maybe the only trait he likes about her. Mantis can only smile hopefully and watch his face for signs of anger. “Well,” he finally says, “you’ll be old too one day, I’ve seen it before. Then you’ll know what it’s like.”
Strangely, despite the discomfort she feels, despite the discomfort she always feels, Mantis is reassured at this. She had never dared to expect much of a lifespan, not really…
“Will you still keep me here when I’m old?” she asks, careful not to pry too much. “Or will you send me away like you do with the children?”
“Oh, I’ll keep you here,” Ego says, although he says it as though he’d never thought about it before. “You’re cute, you’ll probably be cute at every stage of your life. People like cute things.”
One day Mantis wakes up and the planet is cold, colder than she’s ever known it. A horrible feeling settles into her bones.
She finds Ego near where the library used to be. There are a few cracks in the floor beneath him which she’s never seen before.
“What happened?” is the only thing she can think of to say. As soon as she speaks she wishes he hadn’t, because his voice sounds like it could shatter mountains.
“I’ve been betrayed,” he says. There’s a level of contempt in his eyes that’s terrifying, and some of it is directed squarely at her. “A man promised to deliver another child to me and he didn’t.”
Mantis says nothing, just nods, hoping he’ll find that acceptable.
“I wanted this one and he’s gone! Lost in space somewhere with that animal of a Ravager!”
Even with her limited view of the world Mantis can understand how this would make someone angry, but she’s still curious, and for just one split second her curiosity overcomes her fear – “But there are so many and they never stay. Why this one –“
“BECAUSE I LOVED HIS MOTHER!” The golden floor of the room judders and splits and for a second she can see the cancers and the chains and the burning ash beneath the planet. The air turns hot. He’s going to kill her…
…he doesn’t kill her.
He presses her to the ground with his foot instead, her face flat down on the floor. She cries out, but he ignores her.
“I loved his mother. You wouldn’t understand that, I raised you on purpose to not understand it. But believe me, I loved her, and that child-“
He removes his foot. Mantis rolls over, too afraid to stand. Her neck hurts where the foot had been.
“You know what? This doesn’t even concern you,” he says. The anger’s gone, or going. The cracks are sealing over. “I’ve had enough. I want to sleep. Put me to sleep.”
Mantis has no frame of reference to refuse. She accompanies him to the nearest bed and sends him to sleep in it, like she has so many times before. Once he’s as unconscious as she can get him, she turns away.
She saw through the fissures in the floor. He can’t have meant her to see it. There was nothing good under there. There was redness, like bleeding flesh, and a pulsating thing like a heart or a brain. Which was it?
Well. It wasn’t a heart.
Oceans turn into fountains and fires into grasslands, night stays night for what seems like a year, and then as the sun slowly rises Ego tells Mantis he’ll take her off-planet.
“What?” she asks. She still looks at him sometimes and feels her neck hurt.
“You heard me. We’re going out into space.”
Mantis has learnt enough from books (and she still does have access to a few, ones Ego considered too frivolous to keep from her) to know that she should run into his arms and thank him and hug him for giving her this. So she does. He doesn’t hug her back, just pats her shoulder awkwardly.
“You’ll have to be careful. It’ll be a new experience for you. Just stay close to me.”
That sounds very fatherly, and Mantis appreciates it, but she knows it won’t last. He gets her to put him to sleep in the spaceship, and she lies uncertainly in another sleeping chamber, wondering why this vessel has no view of the stars.
By the time they reach Contraxia there’s no warmth whatsoever in Ego’s eyes. There’s no warmth down on the planet either, and Ego hadn’t thought to bring her a jacket or cloak or anything but the clothes she’s standing in.
Mantis doesn’t want to leave the spaceship, she realises. It’s clinical and unfriendly, but at least it feels familiar, the same way Ego’s planet does. And there’s so many people outside, people with angry faces and clenched fists, hundreds of people all feeling, hundreds of people like her –
“Mantis, come on! We have work to do!”
What if she touches one of them by accident?
But she keeps herself huddled up and she doesn’t touch anyone and she joins Ego in the snow. To her surprise and fear, people actually give them a wide berth as they walk.
They eventually enter a dark, lonely building on the outskirts, and Ego bangs the door open and walks in like he owns it.
“I want to find a Ravager clan and take back what they stole from me, and I have a billion units for whoever’s willing to do the job.”
Mantis is too afraid to look at anyone at the room. She knows these are bad men, mercenaries, killers, even without her book-learning she’d know that. And they’re close to her, they’re far too close, a few of them are circling round Ego-
“No,” says one of them.
“What?” says Ego.
“No. We don’t deal with whatever the fuck you are.”
Ego looks down at Mantis with a little smile and suddenly Mantis knows why she was brought along. In amongst the fear and distress she feels there’s a dull resignation as well. She just has to manipulate these men into doing what Ego wants and then she can go home.
But before she can do anything, someone grabs her by the shoulders. They don’t touch her skin, so she can’t read what they’re thinking in that moment, but the terror she feels is so intense there probably wouldn’t have been time to feel anything else anyway-
“Why’ve you gotta kid with you?” the man says to Ego. “How old is she?”
“She’s my daughter,” Ego says.
The man, who is big and foul-smelling, stares down into Mantis’s face. She manages the smallest of nods.
He lets her go.
“She’s what, ten? This ain’t no place for ten-year-olds,” snarls another voice from behind the bar. “Where the hell’s her mother, old man?”
“She has no mother,” says Ego.
Mantis expects him to kill them all and prepares herself for that eventuality. It will hurt, watching it. But Ego doesn’t do that. Maybe he physically can’t, here.
“Let’s go,” he hisses at her.
The snow melts in his path as he walks towards their ship and Mantis walks hastily along behind him. People are watching, some of them with fear in their eyes. What if one of them grabs her? Should she go with them?
“Mantis! Hurry up!”
Suddenly Ego grabs her by the wrist and drags her along and almost throws her into the windowless spaceship. The last thing Mantis sees before the door closes is a small crowd of people in the snow, and she has no wish to use her abilities ever again but she can still read the thoughts of every single of them: this isn’t right, this isn’t right, this isn’t right…
There’s no snow on Ego’s planet and for a long time there’s nothing but a starless night. Mantis has little else but her housework and her books to keep her sane. They’re romance novels, mostly, meandering but hopeful affairs in which beings find love and happiness against all odds. Mantis likes the one with the two Xandarian women the best.
Ego has built another library of sorts, smaller and filled with strange Terran oddities. There’s a lot of brightly coloured picture stories and tiny models of men in strange clothes.
“That one is Captain America,” Ego tells her when they happen to both be in the room one day. “A great hero of Earth, apparently. I used to hear a lot about him when-“ He abruptly cuts himself off. “These aren’t for you, by the way. You’re much too old for toys.”
Mantis thinks the toys look a great deal more real than the statues outside. But she doesn’t touch them. “What’s this?” she says, gesturing to a grey box.
“It’s an extremely primitive gaming device. Laughable, actually. But…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. Mantis thinks uncomfortably about the missing child.
“Does it work?”
“I don’t know,” Ego says, and then he does something incredibly unexpected and puts his hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t we find out?”
They spend a long time playing some sort of spaceship-shooting game on the pathetic little device. Mantis enjoys herself immensely, a very rare thing. Ego seems to barely be in the same place and time at all.
Mantis finds a large green bug in the Terra room. It’s the only living thing she’s ever seen on the planet apart from Ego and her and the children who are gone.
She takes it to show Ego. He’s not impressed.
“A tiny egg must have found its way here on our clothes or something, and hatched. Hand it over, I’ll kill it for you.”
Mantis is unsure. “Why? Can’t we just keep it?”
“Does a dog invite fleas to live in its fur? No. Give it here.”
Mantis hands it over and Ego looks at it with curiosity but no compassion.
“It looks almost like a mantis. That’s what I named you after,” he says. Mantis hadn’t known that at all. “I knew a girl who kept them as pets, once upon a time…”
There’s a sudden zap and the insect is dead, reduced to nothing but an exoskeleton and a trail of dust in the air.
Ego throws it to the ground and treads on it, an utterly pointless act.
“They look like they could hurt you, with their pincers and their pointy bits,” he tells Mantis, “but they can’t. They can’t do you any harm at all.”
Mantis just nods.
“That’s why I thought it was such a good name for you,” he says.
“Do you know why I’ve never allowed you to read my emotions?” Ego asks her out of the blue one day. He’s just returned from a trip off-planet, one Mantis assumes has been unsuccessful.
“Because it would kill you.”
“Oh?” This doesn’t surprise her in the slightest.
“Haven’t you ever wondered why you’ve touched me so many times and yet never picked anything up? Oh, course you haven’t. Here. Come here.”
Mantis goes over, uncertainly.
“Take my hand,” he says.
Once again Mantis can’t refuse, and she does. In a split second it’s like being back on the ground with the foot on her neck again, except even worse. Fear and disappointment and an all-consuming hatred races through her like a cancer, shoving her away even as it sucks her in, burning up her brain and making her scream-
Ego isn’t holding her hand anymore. Actually he’s moved away from her entirely and is, once more, looking down on her from up high. “Are you done?”
“Why did you show me this?” Mantis asks, sobbing and shaking and trying so hard to just get it out, out, out of her brain.
“I was curious to see how you’d handle it.”
Mantis remembers the people on Contraxia staring at her with concern. This isn’t right, this isn’t right, this isn’t right -
“This isn’t right!” she tells him.
“What would you know about rights?” Ego says.
Mantis doesn’t know how to answer so she stays where she is. She can still feel the fear and disappointment and hate, or is most of that her? “Could you have done that anytime when I was putting you to sleep?”
“Yes,” said Ego, “but I didn’t, did I?”
Mantis has no idea what he means by that. Is she supposed to be grateful? The worst part is, she is. “Don’t do it again,” she tells him. It’s the first time she’s ever given him anything like a demand and she’s terrified the moment the words come out of her mouth. But Ego just nods slowly.
His personality changes in an instant, just like it always does.
“Don’t look so worried, I’m not mad at you,” he says.
Slowly, Mantis rises.
“Hey. How do you feel about taking another little trip off-planet?” he asks her. “There’s some people I badly need to catch up with, and I’d like to have you with me. Look what you just proved you can do!”
Mantis realises that what just happened to her might have been a test, of course he would say that, but it was more likely a warning: this is what I’ll do to you if you don’t comply-
“Yes, I would like to come with you,” she says. When she draws herself up to full height it feels as if all her bones are broken.
Ego doesn’t tell her the name of the planet they’re visiting, but he does equip her with a jacket and boots this time around. She feels grateful, a sad sick sort of grateful.
“Stay close to me,” he says. “And smile.”
Mantis suspects she has never gotten the smiles right. As she trails behind Ego she notices several people on this planet have little animals that accompany them, that follow them on ropes and harnesses, and she stares at the animals rather than the people.
Though the town their spaceship landed in seems like a pleasant enough place, Ego soon leads her away from it. After what seems like miles of walking (Mantis is physically fit enough to manage this, but she doesn’t like it) they come to a small and dreary market.
There are children in cages there. That’s the first thing Mantis sees, and she stops dead on the muddy path they’re walking on.
“Hey. Just ignore whatever it is that’s so interesting,” Ego says to her, crossly.
But she can’t. They’re in the town square and there are cages all around them, some shoved into corners, some stacked on top of each other, some hanging from frames. Some are empty, some are not. Mantis walks after Ego and then she walks faster and faster and faster. Every cage she can see is marked with a price and she can’t look at the children inside, she doesn’t dare. Her heart is pounding. Finally she breaks into a proper run, overtaking Ego even, and behind her she hears crying -
When she plucks up the courage to turn around she sees Ego glaring as he comes up behind her, but she also sees a child being pulled out of its cage and handed off, kicking and wailing, to someone in the crowd. “It won’t let you down! A bargain at five hundred credits!” Mantis hears a man announcing gleefully, his voice carrying towards her on the wind. This is an auction, she’s read about them, but in books it was always farmers selling animals, these are people-
“Oh, Mantis, don’t worry,” Ego says. He’s looking at her and he seems almost amused. “I’m not going to sell you to them! I would never do that.”
Mantis virtually ignores him, a thing she very rarely does. “I can make them stop,” she says out loud, the second the thought occurs to her. “I can make them stop!” And then she, a woman barely into her eighteenth cycle of life, a being without any power or personhood, she turns to charge towards the slavers in the square.
Ego grabs her by the arm.
“Don’t be ridiculous! They’d kill you! Come on!”
Mantis is afraid now of him touching her and she wrenches herself away. Over the noise of the auction and the crying of the most recent child brought before them she screams “You make them stop! You’re a god! You should do something!”
Ego does nothing. She knew he would do nothing. He watches as she turns back towards the crowd, crying, then back to him.
“Are you done yet? Cheer up,” he says. “It isn’t you over there.”
Mantis knows that the ‘cheer up’ is an order and it occurs to her that for all Ego’s abilities, he definitely has no power to actually change a person’s emotions, but she does. She lets the hatred and disgust run through her veins for a few seconds.
“Come on,” says Ego, and she drags herself after him. Eventually, the sounds of the slave auction fade away and they walk down a lonely street.
They come to a dilapidated old bar.
“Wait outside and look like you’re minding your own business,” Ego says to her. “Don’t you dare go back to where the kids were, you hear? They’ll do horrible things to you.”
“Okay,” Mantis says quietly.
“I don’t want you hurt,” he says. But then he says, “If I want you I’ll call you. When you come in, make sure to smile.”
Mantis doesn’t understand why and then she understands perfectly.
“What if they don’t let me touch them?” she says dully.
“They will,” Ego says, and with that he leaves her standing there in the middle of the evil place and sweeps away. He goes inside the building and the wooden door slams with a crunch.
Mantis remains where she is for a few seconds. The street is very quiet. She can’t hear anything, not even the vicious cries of the slave traders, and all she can feel within herself is an utter, utter lack of hope.
The old bar has a window, and she finds herself walking closer and closer towards it, as if she’s in a dream. And then, like the bug she’s named after, she balances on the wooden panels beneath it and remains there unblinking, unmoving, and unnoticed.
“A million units, a billion, a trillion,” she hears a man who isn’t Ego say. “It don’t matter. We all know what you are.”
“I never thought I’d find integrity in a slaver’s port,” Ego hisses.
“It ain’t integrity. It’s…” But the man doesn’t seem to know what it is. “Udonta don’t come here no more since the slave traders moved in. But he told me bout you. Bit drunk at the time. Said you were some old fart who can’t do nothing impressive but still thinks he’s a god.”
To Mantis’s surprise, Ego makes no reply.
“Know what else he told me?” the man says. “That he delivered three kids to your planet, and he never heard a word from them or about them ever again. Checked their paperwork and all their mothers had died of the same thing, cancer. He had no proof, but he knew, you was killing your own children-“
Mantis slides slowly down to the ground as her knees give way.
“-and there’re precious few people in the world who’ll stand for that.”
Mantis clasps her hand over her mouth. She’s not sure whether it’s to force back sickness or a scream or both. She feels like she can feel everything, every bad and terrible and cruel thing in the world –
It’s the worst agony she’s ever felt in her life. Worse than the foot on the neck. Worse, even, than when she took Ego’s hand-
“Get it out! Get it out!” she whimpers.
But nothing and no-one comes to help her. She has to help herself. Slowly she rises. In a daze, she walks away from the window, and it’s lucky that she does, because Ego chooses that moment to burst in a rage out of the building.
She cowers away from him, but he barely notices.
“Not worth it,” he snarls. “I put a tumour in his brain instead.” He runs a hand through his hair as he calms down. Mantis wants to run but she can’t. Her legs are weak.
“Oh, he probably won’t suffer too much. Probably,” Ego tells her, noticing the expression on her face. “Who knows, he might have gotten cancer anyway. Universe’s funny like that.”
Mantis tries to form some words and can’t.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“I wanted to stop the slavers,” Mantis chokes out. “The people who’re killing children.”
“Oh,” says Ego. Suddenly he sounds quite fatherly, this monster. “They don’t kill children, Mantis. The kids they take are too valuable to kill. And they might actually let some of them go, y’know, once they grow up and aren’t useful anymore.”
She doesn’t believe him. She huddles into her jacket and then remembers he gave it to her and wants to tear it off.
They go back a different way, not past the place where the slave traders are. They pass only a few people but Mantis searches each of their faces desperately, hoping one of them will give some indication of compassion or safety. None of them do.
She’s stuck with Ego, the child-killer.
At night she recites all their names, every last one. She can remember them pretty well. She doesn’t sleep for ages, just says the names over and over and over.
For a brief moment she considers if this is why Ego too cannot sleep, but she soon puts that thought out of her head.
The planet cycles from night to day to night and a few new buildings rise. Mantis barely acknowledges their magnificence, even though they’re undeniably beautiful, because she knows what lies beneath them.
Ego makes some fountains and tells Mantis she can have them for herself if she cleans them every day and keeps them in good working order. Mantis nods passively, understanding that any gesture of generosity from Ego means absolutely nothing. The whole planet is him, after all. She can’t own him. He owns her.
“What’s wrong with you?” he demands when she shows insufficient gratitude.
“There are no fish,” Mantis says, thinking quickly. “I just…I wish there were other living things on this planet sometimes.”
“Loneliness builds character,” Ego says darkly. “Still. You won’t always be the only person here, I guarantee it.”
Mantis notices that firstly, he’s not counting himself as a person, and secondly, that he clearly wants her to be thankful for that vague promise. She gives him nothing.
“Mantis, you’re acting like a teenager, and you’re not one anymore,” Ego snaps. Mantis doesn’t even understand what a teenager is. “Just forget about it.”
Mantis wonders if he knows that she knows. He can’t do. If he did, he’d have killed her already.
“What would you do with fish?” Ego asks her during another long, long night. Mantis is reading a Terran dictionary that he allowed her to have. She suspects he had an ulterior motive. If she ever looks too stupid it’ll reflect badly on him.
“I don’t know.”
“Perhaps we could eat them,” Ego says. A deeply unsettling suggestion, Mantis thinks, as there’s never been a shortage of food.
“I… I wouldn’t want to.”
“All things have a purpose, Mantis, don’t you see?” Ego says with a sigh. Every cell in Mantis’s body stands on edge. “Some things are just made to be eaten.”
“Actually, maybe purpose isn’t the right word. It’s more like, all things have a use. And you’re useful to me, Mantis. That’s why I love you. That’s why you’re the only thing I love, at the moment.” Mantis chokes on her horror. “That’s the only reason anybody ever loves anything.”
“I guess,” Mantis says, and then, without the consent of the rest of her, her mouth curls into a smile. It’s not for Ego. It’s for her own protection.
“One day you’ll know what it’s like,” Ego says.
Mantis nods to appease him. She probably won’t. He raised her on purpose to not understand it. She hasn’t forgotten that.
After a time, after he’s left the room, she reaches the word ego in the Terran dictionary. “The self,” it reads, “especially as contrasted with another self.”
Mantis realises with resignation she is not the self, but the contrast. She puts the book back where it came from.
“Do you think I’m a good father, Mantis?” Ego asks. Something is about to happen, Mantis can feel it in the air. The planet’s grass is getting greener, the waters bluer, the buildings ever more golden and imposing.
“I don’t know what a father is,” Mantis replies, truthfully and fearfully.
“Someone who looks out for you,” Ego says wearily. “Makes sure you make the right choices. Pushes you to achieve your purpose. Why don’t you know this?”
“And loves you, of course. Don’t forget that.”
Ego fashions a mirror out of the wall he’s standing next to and examines himself. He doesn’t look much different from how Mantis remembers him from her childhood. She gets an uncomfortable sunshine-filled flashback of him teaching her how to read.
“Soon you’ll have a new brother,” he says. Mantis accepts this with dullness. “Later today, if all goes well.” Mantis tries to think of a way to save this stranger and can think of nothing that won’t end in the death of them both. She saw Ego put a tumour in a man’s head just for refusing him.
“This one may not leave,” Ego adds. “My hopes are high.”
Mantis’s are not. “That is very good,” she says.
“I’m sure you’ll love him too.”
Ego wraps a cloak around himself. Once again, he hasn’t given one to her. He gives her a beaming smile.
“Shall we get to the spaceship? This is a big day, and I want to have you with me.”
“Okay,” says Mantis.
On the way out, they pass the fountains. Ego puts his hand on Mantis’s shoulders and she freezes.
“Hey. Watch this.”
Ego extends his hands and shoals of fish rise from the waters. For one complicated, confused second Mantis thinks they’re real. She had no idea Ego could create life in any way other than the normal one. What’s happened? But then she sees – they’re fake. They’re just silver models, leaping and swirling in the air.
“They’re beautiful,” she tells Ego. In their own way they sort of are.
“So are you,” he answers.
Inside the sterile spaceship Mantis hears the sound of guns, but it doesn’t really register. A few minutes after that she hears the engines slowing down.
Ego clambers in through an opening in the roof. She forgot he could survive in space. He shakes some ice crystals from his hair and lets them melt on the floor.
“Isn’t this exciting?” he asks her.
“Of course it is.” Mantis wonders what this new child will be like. Maybe this one will be lucky or skilled enough to get away, although she doesn’t expect for one second that he’ll take her with him. Or maybe – and she tries so desperately to force this thought from her head – maybe Ego is right and parents only love children for their uses. Maybe some things really are just made to be eaten.
She doesn’t believe it, but she can’t stop thinking it. Ego reaches out and cups her face and she flinches.
“You look great,” he tells her.
The ship starts to land and Ego takes his hand away.
“But, smile,” he tells her. “It’s the only way you’ll get them to like you. You got that? Smile.”
When the doors open Mantis stares out at her brother, and she’s pleased to see him, but she doesn’t smile.
It’s not until much later that she finally does.