Could this situation get any worse?
Don’t even think that, Brigadier General Grayson chastised himself as he chewed on the end of a Nat Sherman cigar. You know the first rule of combat: No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
Especially when the enemy is a mutated spider from outer space. A big-ass, furry, scary-as-shit spider.
God, he hated spiders.
The world first learned something was amiss three days ago. NASA had announced that the orbit of the International Space Station had become unstable and that it would crash to earth. To make matters worse, there was no way of predicting where it would make landfall until the event was well underway. Some of the more positive commentators had theorized the station would break apart and burn up in the atmosphere. They were wrong. Others speculated it would plummet harmlessly into the ocean, but they were also wrong. Although numerous crap-bag countries existed that the station could have fallen, nations that deserved a little payback for all the misery they had caused the United States—Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and especially Iran and North Korea—they were all spared.
That damn piece of space junk just had to crash into the good ole U.S. of A. Ground Zero turned out to be a cow pasture in Williston, Florida, twenty miles southwest of the heavily-populated city of Gainesville. State and local officials generated the predictable media crisis, blaming the federal government for this catastrophe while simultaneously asking Washington for disaster relief. The President hosted an immediate press conference to announce that he had the situation under control and that military assistance was on its way.
The second statement was true. Military assistance was on the way. It happened to be Grayson’s misfortune that Williston fell under his jurisdiction. He had two Bradley Fighting Vehicles and approximately one hundred men to handle the situation, and could call in two F-18s for air support if needed.
The President’s first statement, however, was a blatant lie. The situation was about to go FUBAR and the administration knew it.
The crisis had begun a week ago when the station’s orbit carried it through a cloud of radioactive cosmic dust. While the encounter had no immediate results on the human crew, it had a major impact on the station’s only other living occupant—a spider brought on board to study the effects of zero gravity on the web design and production. The arachnid tripled in size every twenty-four hours. By day three, it burst from its chamber and killed the crew. By day five, it had grown so large it took up most of the living pod and its weight destabilized the station’s orbit. When Grayson was briefed on the incident, the scenario brought back memories of a childhood camping trip when his older brother and friends played a joke by rounding up every spider they could find to dump in his sleeping bag. Grayson woke up in the morning with fifty of the damn things crawling all over him. He ran screaming to the lake and spent an hour washing them off, and did not camp again until he joined the Army. The general shivered at the thought of those astronauts confined in space with that thing.
When the station plummeted to earth early last night, Grayson’s unit had been mobilized and ordered to the crash site. He arrived hoping to perform a recovery operation in which his unit would covertly destroy the spider carcass. Instead, they found a cow pasture full of metallic debris and slaughtered cattle leading away from the scene. The trail pointed toward Gainesville, which led to a futile all-night search to track it down. Dawn had broken half an hour ago with no sign of the target.
For God’s sake, how difficult can it be to find a giant spider?
“Sir.” Corporal Parkman slid out of the driver’s seat of the command Humvee. “We just got word from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department. They found it.”
“Along the banks of Orange Lake.” Henderson tore a piece of paper from a pocket notebook and handed it to Grayson. “Here are the coordinates.”
Grayson spread his map across the Humvee’s hood and puffed on his cigar as he studied it. His unit currently sat at the intersection of Routes 27/41 and County Road 335, waiting in the parking lot of the Williston Well and Pump. Orange Lake was ten miles to the northeast, so his unit could be there within twenty minutes. On the negative side, Orange Lake was also ten miles from the southern outskirts of Gainesville.
“Colonel Brandt,” Grayson called as he folded the map.
The executive officer ran up. “Yes, sir?”
“The local sheriff’s department found our spider.” Grayson handed him the piece of notebook paper. “Gather up the unit and proceed to these coordinates. I’m going ahead to scout out the situation.”
As Brandt raced off to mobilize the unit, Grayson climbed into the passenger side of the Humvee and took a long drag on the cigar, mostly to steady his nerves. The general tapped the dashboard in front of Corporal Olsen, his driver, and pointed ahead of them. “Drive.”
Ten minutes later, they arrived at the coordinates. A green and white Alachua County Sheriff Department squad car blocked the dirt path. Inside, a nervous-looking deputy stared at a copse of trees by the lake. He jumped when he heard the crushing of gravel, calming only when he saw the noise came from the approaching Humvee. The deputy slowly and quietly exited his squad car and stood by the door as the general approached.
The deputy extended a trembling hand. “I’m Sergeant Petersen.”
“I’m glad you’re here. That thing is your responsibility now.”
“Where is our spider?”
“Over there.” Petersen directed the squad car’s searchlight toward a group of live oak trees along the west bank of Orange Lake.
Grayson felt his bladder constrict. For a moment, he was frozen into inaction as his body struggled between flight or fight. In over twenty years of military service, he had never once run from a confrontation or folded under pressure. Yet his rational thought process threatened to be overwhelmed by terror, and it took all of his strength not to panic. Although Grayson had been briefed on what to expect, nothing could have prepared him for the monstrosity he now faced.
The spider sat amongst the oak trees, partially obscured in the shadows. Its legs were retracted so that the front segments bent underneath its body. It was dark brown, with streaks of black along its thorax and legs and a misshapen abdomen that looked like dark, bulbous, stringy tissue surrounding patches of tan. The eyes made the creature truly crap-in-your-uniform horrific. There were eight in total, but not arranged in the typical cluster pattern. On this spider they formed three rows, with two huge eyes in the center of its head accompanied by a row of four small ones beneath and two medium-sized ones on top to either side. When the searchlight flashed across them, the eyes reflected back the light directly so they shone. This would have been eerie enough on a normal-sized spider. However, this one was the size of a railroad car. By this time tomorrow, it would be as large as a three-story house and, most likely, inside the city limits.
“We discovered it shortly after sunrise,” explained Petersen. “A farmer checking on his cattle found it nestled there and immediately called us. I was the lucky one dispatched to the scene.”
“At first I thought it was dead because it just sat there. But then I saw the legs move a little. I thought spiders rested in webs.”
A female voice behind them said, “That’s because this breed of spider doesn’t use a nest.”
The two men turned to see a middle-aged woman with long brunette hair tied up in a ponytail and wearing square-rimmed glasses getting out of a Jeep Cherokee. She wore jeans and a white shirt, which hugged her body. The woman reminded Grayson of an actress he had seen in an X-rated film back at the academy; the librarian in the stodgy glasses with her hair done up who, when she let down the latter and whipped off the former, became the hottie who taught those high school boys a lesson they would never forget.
“They hunt like predators,” continued the woman as she approached. “Rather than wait for something to get ensnared in a web, they lay dormant until prey draws close, then they pounce. They even have been known to chase their prey short distances.”
“And you know this how?” Grayson asked.
“I’m Dr. Erin Martens, the President’s chief scientist for space and extraterrestrial affairs.” She extended her hand. “I’ve been fully briefed on the payload and everything that has taken place the past week. In fact, I probably know more about this situation than you do, which is why the President asked me to come down and…” Martens paused as she tried to find the least offensive word. “…advise.”
The doctor was as abrasive as she was attractive. Fortunately, the rest of Grayson’s unit arrived, so he wouldn’t have to tolerate her for much longer. The twin Bradleys passed by and took up position ahead of and on either side of them, while the troop transports parked to the rear. The soldiers jumped out and followed the Bradleys to form a line of battle. The general smiled at Martens, one of those condescending smiles that said thank you for your input but I have everything under control. “It’s good to know I can count on you if necessary. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have business to take care of.”
As Grayson walked away, Dr. Martens said, “I hope you’re not planning on using conventional weapons against it.”
Grayson sighed and turned back to the doctor. “I suppose you want it alive so you can study it?”
“I can easily complete my study from the remains.” Dr. Martens added snidely, “Unless the military does something stupid and nukes it.”
“No nukes, ma’am.” Grayson sneered. His cigar had gone out, so he tossed it aside. “I’m just going to get rid of one big-ass spider.”
“How about many big-ass spiders?”
“What do you mean?”
“The spider used in the experiment was a wolf spider.”
Dr. Martens rolled her eyes. “A wolf spider carries its young on its abdomen. Up to three hundred of them. She gave birth on the space station four days ago, and those baby spiders are growing at the same rate as their mother.”
Grayson stepped back to the Humvee, with Martens close behind him. Taking a pair of binoculars from the front seat, he raised them and focused on the spider’s abdomen. This time he noticed the slight movements caused by the younglings. All he could think to say was, “Shit.”
“What about using poison against it?” Dr. Martens asked.
“You mean insecticide?”
“No way,” protested Deputy Petersen. “We’re too close to Gainesville.”
“He’s right,” Grayson agreed. “Considering the amount of gas we’d have to use to ensure we killed it, one change in the wind pattern could wipe out half the city. I wish we had a way to knock them out for a while.”
Dr. Martens shook her head. “We could tranquilize the mother, but there’s no way we can get it to the babies. We’re going to have to—”
A rustling among the trees caught their attention. The spider stirred. One by one, its legs unfolded from underneath it, each slowly stretching up and out to its full length. It lifted itself off the ground, swaying from one side to the other. The damn thing stood twenty feet in height.
Without orders, Grayson’s unit opened fire. The massed fire power of one hundred M-16 assault rifles slammed into it. The most damage resulted from the Bradleys’ twin 25mm M242 chain guns that tore out chunks of flesh from its thorax. Grayson almost felt sorry for the arachnid because it didn’t stand a chance. The creature cried out, an unearthly howl that sent a shiver down the general’s spine as if a hundred daddy-long-legs were crawling along his back. It tried to escape, but the chain guns blew off three of its right legs and raked their way along its body. The spider collided with a tree and dropped to the ground.
Three hundred baby spiders, each the size of a calf, flowed off their mother’s abdomen.
“Dammit!” Grayson slammed his hand on the roof of the Humvee. “Now they’ll scatter throughout the countryside. We’ll never find them all.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that,” replied the doctor.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because they’re hungry.” Dr. Martens took a step back and pointed.
When Grayson lifted his head, he saw three hundred calf-sized baby wolf spiders dashing across the grass toward his men.
At first, the spiders were no match for their weapons. The unit laid down an impenetrable wall of gunfire that devastated the cluster. Legs were torn off, thoraxes pulverized, abdomens ripped open. A line of shattered arachnid carcasses stretched across the area, oozing yellowish-green blood onto the grass. Some of the men laughed, enjoying this as if it was some type of video game. But Grayson saw the upcoming change in the tide of battle seconds before it occurred. One by one, his men expended ammunition and had to reload. For a few seconds, the line of fire dwindled to almost nothing, allowing enough time for the baby wolf spiders to close the distance and attack. Those in front leapt into the air, jumping twenty feet. M-16 fire brought down a few, but most landed on nearby soldiers, knocking them to the ground. Each spider plunged its fangs into its prey, pumping digestive enzymes into its victim that immediately began to liquefy the internal organs. The soldiers thrashed desperately yet futilely, struggling to get up as their insides melted into a nutrient-rich broth. Their cries of terror and agony cut through the din of battle and shattered morale. Most of the troops closest to their fallen comrades broke formation and ran. A few raced over to help their friends, while others stood their ground. None of them survived the next few moments.
The remaining arachnids moved in, some rushing in under the sporadic gun fire, others leaping onto their prey. The crews of the two Bradleys abandoned their vehicles and ran. One soldier lowered the back ramp to escape, only to have a spider jump on him and knock him back inside. Two spiders pounced on another soldier and proceeded to fight over the meal. The soldier scrambled to his feet and ran, only to be taken down by a third arachnid. Within seconds, two-thirds of Grayson’s unit had been wiped out and the survivors were in full retreat. They ran straight for him, drawing the cluster of hungry wolf spiders scuttling along behind them.
Deputy Petersen could have escaped. Instead, he withdrew his 9mm Glock and fired into the approaching cluster. He pumped five rounds into a spider, but did not notice the one that jumped onto the hood of his squad car and climbed onto the roof. It leapt again, landing on Petersen’s back, and sank its fangs into the back of his neck. The deputy howled as he fell forward onto the grass.
Corporal Olsen raced up, his M-16 drawn and ready, and stepped in front of Grayson. “Fall back, sir,” he ordered as he laid down suppressing fire against the arachnids. Grayson stood there, frozen with fear by the sight of the cluster of spiders closing in on him.
Olsen looked over his shoulder. “Sir, move!”
Being dressed down by his driver snapped the general out of his panic and back into command mode. Olsen rushed forward to confront the spiders, only to be taken by two of them that began feeding.
Grayson turned to see Dr. Martens heading for her Jeep Cherokee. He grabbed her arm and directed the scientist toward the open driver’s door of his Humvee.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“The Hummer is armor plated. We’ll be safer in here.”
Dr. Martens crawled into the driver’s seat and hesitated, uncertain where to go. No time for niceties, thought Grayson. He placed his right hand on her rear and shoved, pushing her over the console. She landed in the passenger’s seat and fell face first onto the floor, placing her hands on the dashboard at the last moment. She turned her head toward the general.
“What the hell do you think you’re—” Dr. Martens paused when she saw the spider sailing through the air toward the open compartment.
Grayson had already climbed into the driver’s seat. The spider landed on the door’s exterior and clambered up to the edge. Grayson slammed it shut, catching the thorax and front legs between the door and frame. The spider cried out, making a noise halfway between a squeal and a chirp. Attracted by the cries, several of its siblings maneuvered toward the Humvee. Reaching for his 9mm Glock, Grayson unholstered the weapon. The spider spewed liquid onto Grayson’s left arm as the general placed the barrel of the Glock against the arachnid’s eyes and fired off three rounds, vaporizing its thorax. The door slammed shut, severing the front legs that dropped onto the floor boards.
“The damn thing hit me with venom.”
“It’s not venom.” Dr. Martens reached over and unbuttoned his camouflage jacket. “It’s digestive fluid.”
At that moment, a burning sensation ran down Grayson’s left arm. At first, it felt no worse than spilt hot coffee. Then it became excruciating, eating into his flesh like acid. Grayson pushed the doctor’s hands away and yanked his arm out of the left sleeve. Once free, he slid it off his right and tossed it onto the floor. Dr. Martens grabbed his left arm and examined the wound. Grayson’s stomach heaved. An ulcer two inches in diameter had formed on his forearm and had eaten its way through to the muscle. The tissue at the center of the wound bubbled. The throbbing and burning was beyond anything he had ever experienced, and Grayson had to focus his entire concentration so the pain didn’t distract him.
“Do you have a bottle of water?” asked Dr. Martens.
“In the glove compartment,” he grunted.
She worked quickly. Finding the bottle of water, she twisted off the cap and poured the contents onto his wound. The burning subsided, although the throbbing remained. Removing his jacket from the floor, the scientist ripped off the unsoiled arm and wrapped the cloth around his lesion. As she did, Grayson glanced out at the battle field.
His unit had been wiped out. All around him, his men lay dead, if they were lucky. Every soldier had at least one baby wolf spider on them, fangs dug into their bodies, emitting digestive fluid and sucking out the liquefied organs. Many of the bodies had collapsed after having been drained of their insides. A few men still moved about, rolling around or flailing a limb in an attempt to break free. Those poor bastards couldn’t die soon enough.
“What happens when they’re done feeding here?” Grayson asked.
“They’ll move on in search of other prey.”
“Which will most likely be Gainesville?”
“Given the general direction the mother had been heading, yes.” Dr. Martens finished wrapping the makeshift bandage and had tied the two ends in a knot. “So what do we do now?”
“Call in air support.” Grayson took the microphone from the radio and keyed it. “Able Leader to Able Foxtrot. Do you read me?”
A moment passed when only static came through the speakers, and then the voice of the lead F-18 pilot came through. “This is Able Foxtrot. I read you loud and clear. Is your situation under control?”
“Far from it.” Grayson pressed the GPS button on his radio. “I need you to drop napalm on these coordinates.”
A momentary pause ensued. “Let me get this straight, Able Leader. You’re requesting I drop napalm on your position?”
“Roger that. We’ll be there in a few minutes. Good luck.”
Dr. Martens stared at him incredulously. “Are you insane? You’re going to get us killed.”
“I don’t plan on being here when the napalm hits. Just long enough to keep the spiders distracted.”
Grayson opened the door and stepped onto the grass. None of the arachnids paid any attention to him, each more concerned with feeding. As far as he could tell, none of them had left the area. That meant his plan had a slim chance of working. The general repeatedly slammed his hand against the metal side of the Humvee.
“Hey, you eight-legged bastards, you missed one.”
The mass of baby wolf spiders spun around to face him. Grayson banged on the Humvee again. “Come and get me.”
Almost as one, the cluster scurried across the field toward their new prey. Grayson gave them a few seconds before sliding back into the Humvee and slamming the door. The arachnids jumped onto the vehicle, each landing with a clang that reverberated inside. Within seconds, so many covered the vehicle Grayson could not see out the windows. Not that it mattered. He started the engine and paused.
“What are you waiting for?” barked Dr. Martens. “Let’s go!”
The scientist started to protest, but Grayson held up a hand to cut her off. The general listened intently. Then he heard it–twin fighters approaching from the south. Grayson waited, calculating the aircraft’s distance to the strike zone by the sound of their engines. He shifted the Humvee into DRIVE and floored it. The vehicle sprang forward, throwing spiders off the roof and hood, and bounced over those on the grass as if hitting squishy speed bumps. He heard the twin F-18s roar pass overhead.
Then all Hell broke loose.
The explosion of the erupting napalm canisters mixed with the squeal of the baby wolf spiders being slaughtered and Dr. Marten’s cursing and yelling. In the side mirror, he saw the jellied petroleum ignite. A massive fireball spread out across the field, incinerating the cluster and rapidly expanding toward the Humvee. He could already feel the oxygen being sucked away to fuel the conflagration.
“Take a deep breath,” he ordered.
A second later, the firestorm engulfed the Humvee as the vehicle hit the surface of Orange Lake. The spiders still attached to its surface were fried or blasted away. Grayson felt the inside temperature spike. Thankfully, the vehicle sunk below the lake’s surface, cooling it off before Grayson and Dr. Martens were baked alive. As the Humvee sank, he watched the firestorm wash across the surface of the lake, boiling the top layer of water.
Lowering the driver’s window, Grayson allowed the lake water to fill the interior. Dr. Martens did the same. Once enough water had filled the interior, the two pushed open the doors and swam. They broke the surface, gasping for breath.
Grayson swam over to Dr. Martens. “Are you all right?”
She spit out a mouthful of water and smiled. “Yes. I never get this much excitement back in Washington.”
The two swam back to shore, pushing their way through a score of burnt spiders floating on the lake surface. Once on land, they stared at the devastation caused by the napalm attack. Everything within a quarter mile radius had been scorched. The twin Bradleys had survived intact except for having the paint seared off of them. Deputy Petersen’s squad car was a gutted hulk. Only burned out trunks remained of the oak trees, with the smoldering carcass of the giant wolf spider still emitting smoke. Hundreds of charred remains, human and arachnid lay scattered across the area
Grayson felt a soft hand on his shoulder. “I’m really sorry about your men.”
“Thanks.” He didn’t want to think about all the condolence letters he would have to write to loved ones, let alone the charges he would probably face for losing his command. “What about you?”
Dr. Martens shrugged. “I’ll fly back to Washington to brief the President. By this time tomorrow, the entire incident will be reported on the cable news as an explosion of a damaged fuel tank that had separated from the station during re-entry, and your men will be hailed as heroes who were trying to isolate the area when the accident occurred.”
“Do things really work that way?”
“More so than you think.” She placed a hand on Grayson’s shoulder and gently led him away. “Come on. We need to get that wound treated.”
Grayson and Dr. Marsten headed north along the banks of Orange Lake. As they walked, the general withdrew a Nat Sherman from his inner pocket, placed it in his mouth, and lit it up. When they were half a mile away, he took one last look back at the carnage and shook his head. “It’s a good thing there are no more like them.”
NEITHER OF THEM saw the baby wolf spider emerge from inside the Bradley and climb onto the scorched vehicle’s roof. It scanned the area for prey, but did not see any. Crawling down the side of the vehicle, it scurried across the burnt field and headed for the woods on the opposite side of the lake.
Author: Josh Matthews
Writer of the Hell Gate saga