This story was first published in Galaxy, May 1994, edited by E. J. Gold. Please see Rights and Permissions before redistributing it in any form.
"Howard? Can you come over early?" Mrs. Gleason's voice sounds shaky to Howard's ear, higher and more querulous than usual. Sniffing back tears, she continues. "I'm sorry to call you in the car, but the roof's leaking, and there's something wrong with Clementine." Clementine is Mrs. Gleason's pet spider.
"No, no. It's all right; I was getting ready to bring lunch over anyway. What about you--are you okay? You sound kind of funny." Crying-over-a-spider funny; maybe time-for-a-Valium funny.
"No, I'm fine. I'm in the bathroom; that's probably what you're hearing."
"Okay. You just sit tight--I'm on the way."
"See you soon." Howard snaps the cellular phone back into its base and swings his beat-up Corolla through a quick illegal U-turn, sliding just a bit on the greasy, wet pavement. Spring is in the air, the great seven-year California drought has been officially declared over, and Howard finds himself cocooned inside a comfortable relationship with a woman old enough to be his grandmother.
Mrs. Gleason inhabits the house next door to the one where Howard and his sister were born and raised. Nearsighted to the point of legal blindness, she still possesses an excellent pair of ears, sharp enough to detect and act upon Howard's father's yell for help after his final stroke. Howard's dad died anyway, but in far less pain than might have been, thanks to Mrs. Gleason.
Howard's father and Mrs. Gleason were about as close as two people can be and still live in separate houses; Mr. Gleason died when Howard was seventeen, and Howard's mom surfed away on the crest of the first big wave of no-fault California divorces in the early seventies. Mrs. Gleason and Howard's dad spent twenty years in a funny kind of mother-son relationship, shopping together, eating together, and doing crossword puzzles together under a huge, illuminated magnifying glass. Howard's dad kept Mrs. Gleason's house from falling down; she, in turn, kept him from going completely insane from loneliness.
So Howard finds himself with a surrogate grandmother, filling in as best he can, sometimes even enjoying himself. Being the kind of self-taught computer geek that horrified his engineer father until he started making embarrassingly large amounts of money, he has very little social life of his own. In addition to bringing lunch each day, he takes Mrs. Gleason to the mall on Tuesdays, to the Safeway on Thursdays, and helps her burn dinner and screw up the crossword on Sundays. Also on Sundays he does whatever needs to be done around the house that can be done better by a six-foot-tall twenty-three-year-old than by a tiny half-blind lady.
Mostly he changes light bulbs--her house is heated to muffin-baking temperature by blazing two-hundred-watters at all times--and kills bugs. The insects are going nuts this year; separate invading waves of earwigs, roaches, and ants have all taken over the house at one time or another.
Mrs. Gleason has an extreme phobia of all things small and multilegged, except--to Howard's vast amusement--for Clementine, whom she tolerates due to the huge number of other bugs she kills and eats. Also it helps that Celementine never moves from her station in the guest bath, preferring to sit and wait for her victims to come to her.
All other bugs are killed on sight. And not just squashed and swept. They have to be dispatched with the proper ritual: two sheets of Kleenex folded carefully into a palm-sized wad, slapped down over the beast, folded over, and then flushed down the guest toilet at the other end of the house.
Particularly vigorous specimens must be flushed twice, because, as Mrs. Gleason says, you never know.
Howard rings twice, knocks once, lets himself in with his dad's thumbworn key, and jogs quickly down the hall to the guest bathroom. Kneeling on the rubber bath mat, Mrs. Gleason cries the silent, dry tears of the very old. As if the house sees her grief and agrees, sluggish yellow drops form and fall into the bathtub from the heads of a row of popped-out wallboard screws in the ceiling. Ants mill aimlessly about the wetness in the bottom of the tub.
Reaching over to help her up--her knees make sounds like walnuts grinding together--Howard glances across at Clementine's web and freezes.
Clementine crouches on the ledge of the tub in the classic knees-up dead spider pose. A broad black stripe of ants marches by, unheeded, an inch away. The skin--if that's what it is--on Clementine's pea-sized abdomen has come loose and peeled away like blistering paint.
Underneath the black ashy flake shines the unmistakable glint of polished chrome.
Howard blinks and rubs his eyes. He leans closer. Clementine doesn't move when Howard blows on her, softly at first, then harder. Howard takes a mechanical pencil from his pocket and tries a gentle poke. It only serves to dislodge more loose dusty skin-stuff, leaving her legs and head bare, shining silver.
"Huh." Howard can't think of anything coherent to say. His mind suddenly roars with possibilities. Alien invasion? The world's smallest spy robot? Right. In an old lady's bathroom.
Well, you've got to start somewhere--
"She's gone, isn't he?" asks Mrs. Gleason from over his shoulder. Her voice carries the hollow, resigned tone of one who has seen the deaths of too many pets, children, friends and lovers.
"I don't know." Preoccupied, trying to cut through a fog of ideas, Howard turns and fumbles a Kleenex out of the box by the toilet. As gently as possible, he nudges Clementine towards the tissue with the pencil--
--and fumbles at the last second. Clementine has the heft of a marble, much heavier than Howard expects. She goes skritch down the side of the tub and tink! when she hits bottom. She lies still, this time on her side. She doesn't move.
"Yeah." Howard swallows, hearing a click in his throat. "I think she's probably dead." Mrs. Gleason sniffles once and then straightens up. Howard rolls Clementine's tiny, impossibly heavy corpse onto the Kleenex and stands, his knees cracking louder than Mrs. Gleason's did. Cold, evil-smelling drops of water strike him on the back of the neck as he straightens; he's really going to have to do something about that leak before it ruins the ceiling completely.
But the spider! Christ! He's got to call some people he knows, some industry heavyweights who can keep their mouths shut. Robot people, nanotech people. Genetic engineers. Maybe some SETI guys, too--whatever Clemetine was, she sure wasn't a local girl.
"She's been awfully sluggish lately," says Mrs. Gleason, wringing her hands and shadowing him as he walks back to the kitchen. "She's been catching ants and letting them go. I thought--I don't know, I thought maybe she was full. She's gotten so fat...."
Howard settles at the head of Mrs. Gleason's kitchen table, switching on the halogen lamps that surround the plate-sized magnifier. Howard's dad took the huge old lens out of an overhead projector; it is powerful enough to render microscopic crossword-puzzle-hint-sized print large enough for Mrs. Gleason to comfortably read. Under the glass, the finer details of Clementine's anatomy leap into focus.
Clementine has ten legs, not the usual eight. Each ends in a tiny, many-fingered hand, complete with opposable thumb. Her legs are stiff as wire, bending just a little under the pressure of Howard's probing pencil-tip. She has a single red, glassy eye that covers most of the top of her head; Howard remembers reading that spiders are supposed to have eight or ten eyes. And, most telling, when Howard gives it an experimental poke, a small, round port in Clementine's side pops open and a drop or two of oily black liquid comes rolling out, leaving the abdomen a hollow shell. After carefully transferring as much of the oil as possible to a clean spot on the Kleenex, Howard opens and closes the tiny door several more times. He's already rearranged his list of phone calls. Nanotech people first; he knows a friend of Eric Drexler who might be able to get him on the phone--
Mrs. Gleason jolts Howard back to reality by laying a small,dry hand on his shoulder.
"Howard? I'm sorry. But I think I hear that leak getting worse." He hears it, too--loud drops of water hitting porcelain.
"Right." He rises, hating it, not wanting to leave Clementine's corpse alone. "Can you keep an eye on this?" She nods, sitting down over the magnifier. Her eyes widen and she picks up Howard's pencil. "And be careful, okay? She might be kind of...fragile." Mrs. Gleason shoots him a withering glance over the top of her glasses. He smiles his apology and retreats to the bathroom once more, head still humming, trying to think of who to call first.
The water damage has gotten visibly worse; a spreading brown stain now connects the popped-out screwheads. A steady stream of yellow water rains into the chipped porcelain tub.
The attic access is just outside the bedroom door, covered by a painted square of wallboard in a loose frame. Howard drags a shaky old stepstool out of the guest room and grunts himself up through the square hole, skinning his ribs on the sharp edges of the surrounding boards. And finds himself sprawled across several sixteen-inch-wide sections of insulated ceiling, feeling his sinuses starting to clamp down already.
It is hot, damp, and dark in the crawlspace. Rusty nail points stick down through the plywood roof in straggly rows.
Howard wiggles out along a pair of two-by-fours, feeling the hard-edged studs cutting into his shins and forearms, being very careful not to put a knee or elbow through the insulation and crack the fragile plasterboard below. The roof gets lower and lower towards the outside wall; by the dim glow coming through the access hole, Howard can see where the water is coming from.
Mrs. Gleason has a serious leak in the only valley on her L-shaped roof. Starting somewhere up by the peak, a trickle of water winds its way down the supporting beam, staining it a fresh brown, dripping off in several places. It looks like Howard's dad knew about the leak and dealt with it in his own inimitable fashion: a dusty line of cookie sheets, baking pans, and aluminum mixing bowls follows the beam out into the darkness. The attic insulation has been pulled out from under the beam; where it is missing, Howard can see a spreading pool of water on the gray unpainted backside of the wallboard covering the ceiling.
The leak, of course, is missing the very last bowl.
Howard thinks about asking Mrs. Gleason for a flashlight but realizes that she'd take a half a day or more to find one. And it's far too hot and stuffy and dusty in the attic crawlspace; he's got to do something fast before his allergies kick all the way in.
In the process of crawling into the corner on cautious knees and elbows, Howard covers himself with fiberglass insulation. It feels like he's worming his way into a closed casket full of warm steel wool. His bare forearms and wrists, rubbed raw on the sharp edges of the exposed woodwork, begin itching like they're on fire. Every inchworming grunt is an effort; his stomach muscles knot and tremble, trying to hold his abdomen up off the loose, fluffy fiberglass. Finally, lying flat on his face and inhaling the bitter burnt-plastic smell of the wet insulation, he just manages to nudge the dented aluminum mixing bowl into place. Slow drops of water begin plipping and plopping into the bowl.
The itch spreads across his chest, over his neck, and down his back. He starts to feel it through the knees of his pants and under the waistband of his underwear. Trying not to scratch--he spent his seventeenth summer helping a friend make a disaster back into a Corvette, and learned the stupidity of scratching glass fibers deeper into his skin--he slowly backs away, towards the light.
Halfway back, he realizes he's covered with ants.
A black crawling mass covers his arms. Ants are in his hair, his ears, his eyes, tickling and pinching and biting. One races across his sweaty lip and up into his nose with a horrible electric tickle. He tosses his head and sneezes explosively, blowing out a headful of warm snot. Reaching up to wipe his upper lip, he stops just short of grinding a handful across his face.
Moving in jerky twitches, moaning through clenched teeth, he scrambles his way backwards to the opening and spasmodically brushes enough ants off his hands to get a grip. He slides feet-first through the hole--
--and the stepstool skitters out from under his frantically questing feet. For a long second he hangs in midair, seesawing back and forth, his legs pedaling cartoonishly. And then an ant runs into his left eye and he lets go at just the wrong instant.
The world does a majestic three-quarter turn around him. He lands flat on his back on the hardwood floor. His head hits with the sound of a bowling ball being dropped. A bright flash fills his vision and he passes out.
The sharp tang of ammonia brings him back. Mrs. Gleason pulls the broken capsule of smelling salts out from under his nose and helps him sit up. His chest is speckled with ants he killed in his fall.
Among them are at least a dozen bright silver ones, crushed against him in smears of black lubricating fluid.
Ignoring the pounding headache that threatens to send him reeling back to the floor, Howard rises and staggers to the kitchen, leaning heavily on Mrs. Gleason. Clementine still inhabits the spotlight, belly-up on her Kleenex; Howard shoves his arm under the magnifier and takes a look.
Like the spider, the ants look like little tiny robots, ten-legged and many-fingered. Made of the same bright metal, each with a single glassy red eye, they have no antennae. Unlike Clementine's, however, each tiny silver abdomen is equipped with a minuscule silver barb. A stinger, really.
Each stinger is buried to the hilt in the meaty part of Howard's forearm.
"Christ. Oh, Christ." Howard begins picking metal ants out of his arms with shaky fingers. Mrs. Gleason shoos his hand away, going to work with a pair of antique steel tweezers--the same pair, Howard remembers, that she used on his sister and him when they picked up splinters jumping the fence into Mrs. Gleason's yard, years ago when they were kids.
And then Howard feels a prickling sensation at his temple. He grunts and shakes his head like a horse bothered by a fly, dragging his arm loose from Mrs. Gleason's grip. It feels like someone is driving a red-hot needle into his scalp with a tiny hammer. He bats at the side of his head, starting to panic again.
The feeling goes away, but Mrs. Gleason is already at his side, breathing minty Polident into his ear. Her bird-boned hands settle on his neck and head, gently probing with the tweezers. The prickle comes again, and then a sudden, painful snap.
"What is it? More ants?"
"No, just a gray hair." She holds the hair to the light. It isn't gray. It's bright, shiny silver.
He takes the tweezers from her and lays the hair under the glass. It is stiff and straight, unlike the limp curls that cover the rest of his head. When Howard bends the hair with the tweezers it holds the kink, like a length of wire. At its root end trembles a tiny droplet of black oil.
The prickly feeling dances across his scalp again.
"There's another one," says Mrs. Gleason. "And another."