The mammoth spider trucked northbound on the grapevine. From his perch atop the thing’s smooth, metallic back, Harley could hear the robot’s metal feet crush cars and trucks that sat idle on the freeway five stories below. Harley held tight to a lone protrusion, a cleat-shaped piece of metal about the size of a shoe. His fingers stung with numbness against the dull, gray metal, and he wanted desperately to tuck them under his arms for warmth. But he didn’t dare let go; the spider’s undulations with each step threatened to send him sliding down the curving sides of the cylindrical body. Just another road kill on the cluttered interstate below, he thought.
He didn’t know how much longer he could hang on. The chill carried by the westerly wind pierced like needles through his tattered leather jacket, Eyes squinting, he scanned the river of blackened, inert metal that rose up to the horizon where the interstate met with the dusk, winter sky. Black clouds hung low, looking ready to burst.
Rain. That’s all he needed. He felt the reassuring contours of his gun pressing against his ribs from its place in his inside pocket. The weapon calmed him, but it wouldn’t prevent him from catching hypothermia–or falling to his death. And even if it stopped at Bakersfield–another 20 miles on the I-5 to the north–would it stop long enough in its scavenging to give him time to clamber down?
“Stupid! Stupid!” He shouted through clenched teeth. He shouldn’t have scaled the behemoth monster’s leg when he discovered it earlier that day in the sprawling Burbank airport parking lot. But how could he pass up the opportunity?
Boarding the big machine wasn’t difficult. When Harley finally worked up the nerve to approach the huge, idling creature, he noticed that its long, back legs rested at a gentle angle. A big groove ran along the top of the leg like a gangplank leading up to the body. He rushed aboard, mounted the giant’s body, grabbed the cleat and hung on for dear life when it started up again, walking along I-5 heading north.
He’d long wondered what it would be like to hitch a lift on one of the things.
Since the great burning eight months ago, the huge metal machines were seen trundling up and down the highways and interstates, ambling across empty fields, crushing everything from shopping carts to shrubs under their flat, circular feet. The monstrosities only stopped to scoop up metal–everything from trash bins, old cars to city buses–from a big, black pair of pincers that protruded via a telescoping arm that poked out from the creature’s belly. Once it procured its pray, the apparatus would retract into a door of the spider’s belly, and it would seal up as if it was never there. He expected to hear the crunch of metal, but the spider would only emit a high-pitched keen, like the whistle of a train going over a cliff.
Harley had observed the spiders as he made the long hike into Los Angeles. The few survivors he met along the way warned him with wild eyes not to enter the city. It’s their base of operation, they warned him. Spider Central, they said. Some proclaimed that they’d even seen the ships–yes, the ships!–landing and taking off from the now-cleared runways of LAX.
Harley tried to persuade them to join him, but no one had the stomach. The mechanical monstrosities were too big. Too many. And how could a bunch of ragtag survivors rise up and destroy them?
But he was determined to carry out his intent. He didn’t make the long walk from Ojai-much of the town had been spared from the burning–for nothing. He was damn determined to raise an army. To fight the aliens, to sabotage their equipment.
For months he wandered, scouting, studying the routes of the spiders. He followed the path of the 101 Freeway, walking its shoulder as it wound across the flat Oxnard plain, up the Conejo grade, back down into the valley and changing to the 134 into the industrial heart of Burbank. Everywhere, the spiders marched. Harley even drew pictures of their featureless cylindrical bodies, their segmented legs. He tried to copy the squiggly insignia on the spiders’ sides. He’d study these renderings by flashlight as he lay in his sleeping bag at night and tried to figure out their power source, the material they were made of. Sadly, Harley’s pre-invasion life as a computer programmer gave him little insight into the machines.
He longed to have a working car, but found only wrecks. Indeed, the roads were clogged with vehicles that stood like shells of dead insects, their insides gutted on the night of burning by rays presumably shot from unseen ships hovering in space (seconds before the burning, local news outlets reported strange shapes detected in the outer atmosphere). The cars’ occupants were nothing but shapeless black forms, burnt into husks. Houses and buildings, likewise, were incinerated on the inside, but intact on the outside. It was as if the aliens wanted to preserve a facade of the people they’d destroyed. The few people who still lived in the city would speak in a daze how the city was transformed in a second from a rush-hour megalopolis into a bed of coals, sparing only those who happened to be far from a building, car or road. It was a strange fire, burning quickly, cooling fast, and making the sudden transformation all the more surreal.
And now here he was, riding one of the giant spiders, unsure of what to do. Harley’s hands were becoming numb. The first drops of rain fell, making the metal slick. Maybe it’s for the better, he thought. Just let go, slide off like another rain drop–
“You’re gonna freeze out there!”
Harley turned toward the direction of the voice. Behind him, just a few feet from where his legs sprawled on the machine, a man peered out from a man-hole size opening that opened on the otherwise featureless surface.
“Help!” screamed Harley.
The man grabbed Harley’s ankles and dragged him toward the opening. Harley slid on the slick metal as he was pulled inside. He landed with a thud on a hard metal floor. About five feet above him, the hatch closed in on itself like liquid, obscuring the sky. The arched ceiling emitted a dull glow, illuminating a featureless space no larger than the attic of a small house. He looked at faces huddled on the floor: a teenage boy with a shaved head, a man in his thirties with a tie-died shirt and dreadlocks, a bespectacled middle-aged lady and, sitting next to her, the rescuer, a gray-haired man with a tanned wrinkled face.
“Hal Jenkins,” said the old man. He extended a gloved hand, a smile stretched across a weather-beaten face. A dingy dodger cap sat on his head.
“Harley Alton. Damn, I’m glad to see you. I thought I was a goner.”
“Where you headed?” said the man.
“Don’t know,” said Harley. “I hopped on at Burbank. Are…we ok here?”
“What do you mean?” said Hal.
“This machine. Is it capturing us?”
“We’re just hopping a ride,” Hal said.
“We’re like ticks on a dog, man,” said the hippie.
The man reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. It was a hand-drawn map of Los Angeles area cities, connected by red, blue, yellow and orange lines. The lines were interrupted by thick dots. It looked to Harley like a subway map.
“Spiders follow regular routes,” said Hal. “The ones on this particular line stop at Lake Kern to dump off a lot of the stuff they collected in LA. God knows why. Then they head up to Buttonwillow and stick big, telescoping tubes into the ground. Maybe sucking up an aquifer or injecting the ground with something. Who knows? Then they go on to Los Banos.”
“That’s where we’re heading,” said the woman. “The survivors there have a great farmers market. We sell cumquats there. Oh, how rude of me!” She reached into a big canvas bag and pulled out a handful of the small fruit. Harley waved her off; in his wanderings, he’d had found an overabundance of fruit from untended orchards.
“Me and my little bro are going to Fresno,” said the hippie, motioning to the boy. “Got friends and family there, still abidin’.”
“I was the one who figured out how to get inside” said the boy.
“Pretty amazing,” said the hippie, gesturing to the surrounding space. “I’m thinking this is a service port or something.”
Harley’s eyes scanned the map. “You’ve figured out their movements,” he said.
“On the other side, I’ve drawn up a time table,” said Hal. “Who knew that these critters could help us get around.”
Harley flipped it over and saw a grid filled in with tiny writing, complete with times and places matching the squiggly symbols that adorned the beasts’ sides.
“He used to work for the LA Rapid Transit District,” the woman said with a proud smile.
“Travel’s been a lot easier since the apocalypse,” said the Hippie, his voice flat with irony. “Sure beats rush hour traffic.”
Harley shook his head. “So when do we start destroying these things.”
Dead silence fell over the dimly lit space. The passengers stared back at Harley as if he’d blasphemed an all-powerful deity.
“Oh no dear,” said the woman. “We need the spiders to get around.”
“Need them? They’re monsters. Killers. They’ve slaughtered millions.”
“Not the spiders,” said hippie. “They’re just robots. The real destruction came from the sky.”
“But the robots are from the same race, right?” said Harley. “What if they start killing us?”
Hal shrugged. “Frankly, I think the aliens are done with us. They’ve killed enough of us so as not to cause any trouble. The rest of us, well, we don’t bother them, so they don’t bother us.”
“We’re like their flies, hon’,” said the woman. “Nothing more.”
“So the robots are Mass transit for you,” he said. “A way to get around.”
“I guess you could say that,” says Hal. “No reason to be sore. We’ve been able to get by, after all. Just stay out of their way.”
Harley buried his head in his hands.
“They won the war, man,” said hippie. “All we can do is go along for the ride, so to speak.”
The spider lurched to a stop, blessedly breaking the silence. Harley buttoned up his coat.
“Come with us to Los Banos,” said the lady. “We’ve got a spare bed. You really should get some rest.”
“I’m outta here,” he said. “To hell with you! If you don’t want to fight back, then you’re just slaves.”
The old man shrugged. “Fight all you want,” he said. “You’ll find out soon enough. You can’t beat city hall.”
“Just let me out,” pleaded Harley.
“To get out, just press that black circle on the ceiling,” said Hal. “If you want to get back in, twist that cleat thing you were holding on to. It will open back up.”
“Good luck,” said the lady with a sad smile.
“Go to hell!” said Haley, pressing the button.
He exited, almost slipping in the heavy rain as he made the way to the gang plank, walking as fast as he could. He descended to a blacktop near the loading dock of a big box store. Burnt out semis surrounded them like discarded toys. The spider started feeding on the tractor trailers arrayed below its spindly legs, hauling the wrecked hulks into its belly.
“Stop it,” Harley yelled. “That’s not yours! Stop it!”
Harley raised the gun at the thing’s belly and emptied the cartridge, shots ringing out through the lot with a hollow crack. Little splashes of water erupted where his bullets hit the water-sheened metal. The metal showed no scratch. After a minute, the spider finally moved on, lurching back toward the freeway on its strange errands.
Harley put the gun back in his pocket, feeling little comfort from the warm barrel.
He walked back along a wide avenue toward the freeway. His legs grew tired.
In the darkness, he heard another spider approaching. He sighed and sat down on the sidewalk like a commuter waiting for a city bus.