It took less than five minutes for Lance Corporal Kim Bock to realize they were on their own. Just before the nukes fell, they’d watched a helicopter fly off with the five scientists and two civilian passengers, Amy Lightfoot and Fred Klosnicks, along with Amy’s great, goofy chocolate Lab, Claymore, to the safety of an aircraft carrier. Amy’s husband, Gordo, and Fred’s husband, Shotgun, were left behind with Kim and the Marines. The helicopter pilot had promised that she’d come back for them, but despite Kim’s desire to believe in salvation, she knew it was an empty promise. The helicopter had been overloaded as it was, and while Dr. Guyer and the other scientists might have been a critical priority, Kim and her fellow Marines certainly weren’t. No. Kim was pretty realistic about it: they were on their own. Spiders were eating people, the United States government was using nukes on its own soil, and the cavalry was not coming to rescue them.
At first they kept busy. For a little while they worked to transform Professor Guyer’s lab and the biocontainment unit at the National Institutes of Health into a place where they could hide from the spiders. They gave up on that endeavor once Shotgun pointed out to Staff Sergeant Rodriguez that the suburbs of
Washington, DC, might not be a safe place even if they could keep away from the spiders.
“The whole reason I built a bunker in the first place was because of nuclear weapons,” Shotgun said. “Obviously, I didn’t expect to need shelter from nuclear weapons because they were being used to protect us from spiders. Well, theoretically protect us. I have to be honest, I’m not sure that this has been the best strategy. But the point still stands: there’s a reasonable expectation that DC could be next. The risk of getting vaporized if we stay here is bigger than the risk of spiders. We’re working with incomplete information, but, still, I wouldn’t wait around for orders if I were you.”
They were working with incomplete information. Everything was crumbling around them—power outages, cell phone circuits overloaded or down, the radio nothing but static, the Internet more of an idea than a reality—but they heard about the nukes: Denver, Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, Cleveland, Memphis, Dallas, Las Vegas. Maybe thirty, the best they could tell, wiping out all the major metropolises that were known to be infested. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of pounds, maybe millions of pounds, of conventional explosives that had already been dropped on highways and byways in an attempt to make America impassable. The theory being that the harder it was for people to travel, the harder it was for spiders to travel with them.
“Well,” Private Sue Chirp said, “at least Disneyland was spared. I’ve always wanted to go.”
Kim started to correct her and then stopped. What was the point of telling Sue that Disneyland was, in fact, destroyed, along with all of Los Angeles and a good chunk of the West Coast? Kim knew that Sue was talking just to talk, to try to make both of them feel better. Besides, Sue really meant Disney World. And as far as Kim
could tell, Sue was probably right: Florida, at least so far, seemed to have remained untouched by the spiders.
For some reason, thinking about Florida and Disney World made Kim start thinking about the difference between the two cartoon dogs, Goofy and Pluto, wondering why one could talk and walk on two legs, while the other was a straight-up dog, which made her think of Amy’s dog, Claymore, which made her start crying. Again. She’d been doing that a lot.
While Rodriguez did his best to give the platoon busywork, there was still a lot of downtime. Which meant Kim had the free time to keep thinking about that stupid dog. She’d always wanted a dog as a kid, but her dad was allergic. And wasn’t that the craziest thing? As close as they were to the Woodley Park neighborhood where her parents lived only walking distance from her dad’s job at the National Cathedral School, Kim had barely thought about them. But she couldn’t stop crying at the thought of Claymore wagging his tail while she loaded him onto that helicopter.
Meanwhile, Teddie, who worked at CNN, walked around filming everything and seemed excited about the idea of making some sort of a documentary. While she did that, the other two civilians, Shotgun and Gordo, got busy tinkering with their machine, the ST11, which was supposed to be a spider killer but mostly just seemed to make the arachnids sleepy. However, that didn’t stop Shotgun from periodically calling Rodriguez over and repeating his point, which was that if the United States government in all its glory and wisdom had decided to drop a few dozen nukes as a way of eradicating infested cities, Washington, DC, might not be that far behind. And while the National Institutes of Health were not, technically, in Washington, DC, a couple of miles didn’t seem like sufficient distance where mushroom clouds were concerned.
Every time Shotgun said it, Kim could see Rodriguez struggle with it. Rodriguez wasn’t exactly an independent thinker, and with everything messed up and the platoon essentially without orders, it was clear that the staff sergeant didn’t know what to do.
To his credit, Rodriguez had maintained discipline, and he’d also had them keep their distance from the other armed forces set up in the NIH parking lots and surrounding areas. Still, Kim couldn’t help noticing that as the time slipped away, it seemed like some of the men and women in uniform from the units around them were going missing.
“I’m not imagining it, am I?” she asked Honky Joe.
“Nope,” Honky Joe said. “Not as many as you’d think, all things considered, but there have definitely been some desertions. Credit Rodriguez for keeping things tight in our platoon. But it’s a matter of time before we start bleeding.” He studied her and then shook his head. “Nah. You ain’t thinking of it yourself. I’d know if you were. You’re too smart for that. No point, really. Where you running to? I don’t think anybody has a handle on this. If it was something else? Russians. North Koreans. Terrorists, even. We plan for that, don’t we? But spiders?” He laughed and then handed her the bottle of Gatorade he was drinking from. It was warm, and the sickly green color of the sugary liquid made her teeth ache just looking at it, but that didn’t stop her from drinking it. It reminded her of childhood, a sweet comfort. “Better off sticking together, aren’t we? Isn’t that the whole point of being a Marine?”
She thought so. It was one of the reasons she’d joined. Being a Marine meant being part of something bigger than herself.
She kept the bottle of Gatorade and did her best to drift close to where Shotgun, Gordo, and Teddie were huddled with Rodriguez without being too obvious about it. She got close enough to hear Shotgun telling Rodriguez, in no uncertain terms, that whatever
the Marines chose to do, the civilians were getting the heck away from DC as soon as possible.
An hour later, when Rodriguez called them in, Kim noticed that for the first time their unit was a man short. Garvey or Harvey or something like that. He was a quiet kid, skin so pale he looked like all he’d ever had to drink was warm milk, and Kim had been thankful he wasn’t in her fire team. But even though Kim saw Rodriguez register that roll call had fallen short, the absence was left unmentioned. If anything, Rodriguez seemed relieved, and as he started to talk, Kim realized it was because he no longer had to struggle with making a decision: his hand had been forced. He couldn’t just keep marking time.
“The primary assets at the NIH”—by this, he meant the scientists who’d flown off in the helicopter—“are no longer here. Which means that our original orders—to bring our civilian guests to Professor Guyer—are our most current orders. We’re not going to be able to get Shotgun or Gordo to the USS Elsie Downs.”
Kim heard Honky Joe mutter “Not without a helicopter” under his breath.
“So our primary goal in the meantime will be to keep these civilians safe. They were assigned as high-value assets, and we will continue to act in that manner, putting their safety as the highest priority. And, given the concerns about Washington, DC, as a potential strike target, it’s my decision that we’re moving out.”
As he claimed that it was his decision, Kim saw his eyes flicker in the direction of Shotgun and Gordo.
Kim didn’t know who asked the question, but she didn’t care. What mattered was that they were moving.
“Chincoteague Island, Virginia,” Rodriguez said. Not a place of any importance on any national scale, but it was a good place
for them to wait. It was far away from Washington, DC, but right on the ocean. That way, if they did manage to reestablish contact and hitch a ride on a helicopter, they’d be a little closer to the safety of the aircraft carriers. As Rodriguez told them the plan, Kim could see her fellow Marines looking around at the other troops in the area, but none of the others seemed to be thinking about leaving. Kim didn’t care. As long as they were out of there, she was good.
Rodriguez handled it about as well as he could. He gave them orders and was clear that even if Teddie wasn’t part of the original group, she was now under the umbrella of “high-value assets” with Gordo and Shotgun and their silly little box. As the Marines started getting ready to hit the road, Kim tried to get a read on the platoon. As far as she could tell, Honky Joe was the only other Marine who’d realized that Shotgun and Gordo had made the decision for Rodriguez.
They didn’t have Hummers or joint light tactical vehicles— JLTVs—so they commandeered civilian vehicles from the parking lots at NIH and surrounding areas. It turned out that between Private First Class Elroy Trotter’s history as a juvenile delinquent and Gordo’s and Shotgun’s skill with electronics, hot-wiring a bunch of SUVs and pickup trucks wasn’t that hard. A couple of the guys—all guys, no women—grumbled that it seemed a shame not to “borrow” the gleaming fire-orange Porsche 911 GT3 that was daintily angled across two parking spots.
“Come on. Look at her. That’s sex on wheels,” Private Hamitt Frank said to Kim. “You know how much one of those things goes for?” Mitts shook his head, his eyes drooping in sadness like a hound dog’s. “Fully loaded like that? It’s got ceramic composite brakes, all kinds of carbon fiber crap . . .” He trailed off as he ran his finger along the roofline. For a moment Kim thought he had
actual tears in his eyes. “Two hundred thousand dollars. At least. And all it’s doing is sitting here.”
But Rodriguez had been explicit: only vehicles with four-wheel drive and high ground clearance. The air force had done a number on the roads and bridges of the western and central United States of America. So far, the East Coast had been largely unscathed, but that didn’t mean it would be easy travels. Rodriguez wanted them to be able to cut across fields and drive over curbs, to go cross-country when needed. Even if it hadn’t been an order from Rodriguez to stick to trucks and SUVs, it was, Kim thought, a good decision. Besides, what was it with boys and fancy cars? Personally, she’d take a kick-ass pickup truck over a sports car any day.
She ended up behind the wheel of a Nissan Titan. The truck was a beast, and either it was brand-new, or whoever owned it treated it with a tenderness that Kim had never gotten from any boyfriend. She wasn’t sure exactly how it had shaken out the way it did, but she ended up with all three of the civilians in her truck: Teddie in the front seat with her camera, Gordo directly behind Kim, and Shotgun behind Teddie. Teddie had offered to let Shotgun sit in front, since he was so much taller than she was, but he’d waved her off and said it was fine as long as she scooted the seat up.
“That was neatly done. You backed Rodriguez into a corner without embarrassing him,” Kim said to Shotgun as they pulled out of the lot. She glanced in the rearview mirror and met his eyes.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said, but it was clear he knew exactly what Kim was talking about.
For the first hour or two, she mostly tuned out the men in the backseat. They were talking about gigahertz and megahertz and ionization and frequency and longwave and shortwave and even sky wave propagation, although at that point she had long lost the thread. Teddie plugged her digital video camera into one
of the twelve-volt ports to charge—Kim didn’t know much about cameras, but it looked expensive—and then promptly fell asleep. Which meant that Kim was free to sync her phone to the truck’s Bluetooth system and listen to the old-school rap playlist her best friend from high school had made.
The driving itself almost drove her crazy. Rodriguez had ordered his eight vehicles to stay in tight formation, which probably wouldn’t have been a big deal if it weren’t for the traffic. The roads were clogged. It seemed like everybody was trying to either get to DC or leave DC at the same time. They’d creep along for a few minutes and then drive a hundred yards at speed and then come to a complete stop for five full minutes. When a gap did open up, trying to get all eight trucks and SUVs through together was maddening. By the time Kim was singing along to the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” two hours after they’d left the NIH, they’d barely traveled four miles.
Which made her particularly cranky about Shotgun’s request.
“Or a Walmart,” he said. “Honestly, a Radio Shack would be ideal, but unless your cell phone is magically working and we can figure out where the nearest Radio Shack is, we’re better off just finding a big-box computer store.”
“But a Walmart really would be fine if we can’t find a tech store or a Radio Shack,” Gordo piped up.
“But I’d prefer a Radio Shack.”
“Do you happen to know where the closest Radio Shack is? Or a Walmart?” she asked.
“No.” Shotgun sounded doleful. “We’ve both got satellite phones, but no dice on Internet. Texts, sure. And I think probably voice calls would go through. But Google has deserted us.”
Almost as a joke, Kim tried her own cell phone. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been able to get a connection,
whether because circuits were overloaded or because of the whole terrifying nuking-the-spiders thing, she didn’t know. But when she opened her maps app and typed in Radio Shack, a location just a few streets over immediately popped up. Teddie, who had just woken up, grabbed at the phone, but before she could make a call, the signal disappeared.
“It doesn’t matter,” Shotgun said. “I got a good enough look at the map. I can get us there.”
Kim stole a glance at Teddie, worried that she was going to start crying, but the girl looked steady. She seemed pretty tough for a rich white kid from Oberlin College, Kim thought, although she realized she wasn’t one to judge. She might look tough to some people because she was black and in shape, but her mom was a pediatric oncologist and her dad taught history at a posh private school. She hadn’t exactly had a rough childhood.
“I’m under orders to stay with the platoon,” Kim said. “We can’t just go running off to Radio Shack.”
“We have to,” Shotgun said.
She felt Gordo’s hand on the shoulder of her seat, and then he was leaning forward so he was close to her. His voice was quiet and friendly, and she had to give him a little credit for not being dumb enough to think that raising his voice was a good rhetorical strategy.
“Kim,” he said, “think about it this way. The whole reason we’re here, in this truck, is because somebody very, very important thinks that we—okay, really, Shotgun—is very, very important. Important enough to have your whole platoon come find us all the way out in Desperation, California, and then babysit us from there all the way to the East Coast. Important enough to divert soldiers—”
“Sorry. Marines. Important enough, in a time of a national emergency, to divert Marines, to divert planes and helicopters and make all kinds of effort, to put Shotgun in touch with Professor Guyer, who, near as I can tell, is the woman that President Pilgrim has personally put in charge of figuring out what the heck is going on with these spiders. And when we decided we needed to leave the DC area, your whole platoon came along to make sure we stayed safe.” He touched her gently on the arm. “So think about all of that, and then think that this same guy is saying that he needs to make a slight detour. We’re just talking a few minutes. This isn’t some sort of candy run. We don’t want to make a stop, we need to make a stop.”
“We need to go to a Radio Shack?”
Shotgun’s voice was less gentle. Not angry but impatient. Urgent. “I’ve got to get some parts so I can make some important modifications to the ST11.”
“Your weapon thing?”
“Yes. Well, no. Those are the modifications. It won’t be a weapon, exactly. It will be a tool. But the tool can be a weapon.”
The traffic had stopped again. They had skipped 495 thinking that city streets would be faster, but it was still an unholy mess. Her Nissan Titan was at the front of the convoy, but that didn’t make things seem like they were moving any faster. Kim turned to look out the back window at the SUV behind her, some sort of Ford that Sue Chirp was driving. She raised her hand in greeting, and Sue waved back. Behind Sue, Kim saw the silver body of Honky Joe’s pickup truck. She couldn’t get a good look at the other vehicles, but she knew Rodriguez was in the last SUV, taking up the rear.
“Okay,” she said, angling herself so that she could look first at Shotgun and then Gordo. “Fine. We’ll go to Radio Shack.”
“Really?” Gordo sounded so surprised that Kim actually laughed. “That’s it? We’ll go?”
“If you’re telling me that this is necessary, that we need to do this . . .” She turned around to face forward again. The car in front of her hadn’t moved an inch. She hunched over and rested her head on the steering wheel. “God. Anything to get out of this traffic for a minute. Besides,” she said, “I might be a Marine, but I’ve still got the bladder of a civilian, and it’s been two hours.”
“Great,” Shotgun said, clapping his hands together. “Take a hard right here. We can cut through this parking lot and then it should be just a couple of blocks over. I think I can see the mall from here.”
Kim shook her head, but she cranked the wheel to the right and goosed the engine so that the tires of the truck jumped the curb. They rocked back and forth inside the cab as the Nissan rolled across the grass and over the sidewalk, then lurched into the parking lot. She checked the mirror and, sure enough, the line of SUVs and pickups followed her lead, all the Marines behaving like good little ducklings.
Gordo spoke up again. “Aren’t you even going to ask why we need to go to Radio Shack specifically? What the modifications are for the ST11?”
Kim thought for a second, trying to remember the snatches of conversation she’d overheard between the two men. “Does it have anything to do with sky wave propagation?”
Gordo was so excited that the words came blurting out of his mouth. “Yes! I mean, not exactly, but all we need to do is to solder in—”
“Gordo,” she said, cutting him off. “To answer your question:
no, I’m not going to ask what the modifications are. Look, I’m a smart girl. I did well in school and my parents were extraordinarily pissed I joined the Marines instead of going to Vassar—”
“You got into Vassar?”
“I got into Vassar. I got into Colgate and Hamilton College, too. Do you know how hard it was to persuade my parents that the right choice for me was to join the Marines? Oh, for goodness’ sake. That’s not the point. The point is I’m smart. While I’m pretty sure that if you take the time to explain to me what ‘sky wave propagation’ means and why it’s important, I’ll understand it, right now my goal is simply going to be to get you to Radio Shack. Okay?”
She stopped at the exit of the parking lot, checking to make sure they were good to turn. The street here was breathtakingly clear, as if every person in the area were busy clogging up the highways and the street they’d just left behind. She knew it was an illusion—that once they were back on their way out of the city, things would slow down again—but for that moment it felt good to drive at something approximating a normal speed.
“Why don’t we get in and out of Radio Shack and back on the road? Even without our little detour, it’s about another hundred and seventy miles to Chincoteague Island,” she said. “You can explain what you’re planning to do with your little toy along the way.”