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First North American rights 10,000 words
Death of a Dragon
Volume 1: The Book of Hannah: The Grizzly and the Eagle
Book 2: Beauty and the Beast
Part 1: A Man and a Woman
The Coming of Mercury § 1: Acres Wild
Late one Wednesday afternoon in late May, about three weeks after our wedding, when most of his backlog of work had been completed or delegated to others better able to take care of it, Steve and I took a walk in downtown Fort Sac, which, because of the surging economy and the furious pace of Reconstruction, already had quite a few gorgeous high-rises, several elegant hotels, and all sorts of shops and boutiques. One of the latter, the Sexxe Shoppe (A.K.A. Fantasies Unlimited) sold an embarrassingly lavish and explicit selection of adult toys, videos and DVDs, at least as many they ever did before the War (the state of the art has improved astonishingly since the War, as well). Curiosity, of course, more than whelmed; I spent quite a while avidly looking over their selection, first through the big front window, like a homeless child with face plastered to the window of Fantasies Unlimited’s next-door neighbor on the west, Ye Upper Cruste Bakery, then inside the store itself – amused by my obvious interest in the shop’s trade-goods, Steve took me inside so I could look at everything up close and not quite as publicly as on the sidewalk outside. As I was looking over their extremely interesting multicultural selection of “Dildos Around the World, for Every Taste and Inclination,” he asked me, “See anything you like?” By then, half the customers in the store, whose business, as you can imagine, was booming, along with all but a couple of the staff were clustered around us, staring at us in awe. “Cheese, it’s the Governor!” I heard one whisper to another. “And his lady, looks like. Wonder if he needs any Yohimbe bark tea?” said his colleague. “I don’t imagine he needs any Viagra, natural or otherwise,” said a third, a young lady whose voice dropped an octave as she looked my husband over with hyper-bedroom eyes, clearly trying to work up a strategy for getting into his trousers (sorry, girl, I got there first, no room left for anyone else in here!). “Shut up, the lot of you,” hissed a fourth, who had MANAGER written all over him in script thick enough to cut with a knife, if that’s an acceptable metaphor for it.* Then, gently insinuating himself
into the three-foot wide lane of personal space surrounding Steve and me at the center of the much wider No Man’s Land that had formed around us due to the fact that none of the store’s clients or staff had wanted to risk incurring the distinction of being turned into cold cuts by an irate governor-cum-husband by trespassing on it, the fourth individual ghosted his way to Steve’s side. A heavily bearded man of maybe 50 (unless he, too, was a patron of the Berkeley Clinics, and much older), his greying (dye?) hair carefully ratted into a perfect Jewish afro, with the demeanor of a Jeeves in spite of the fact that he was attired in tres chic retro-Hippie costume, splendid polychrome tie-dye shirt, hole-y jeans, and heavy leather sandals, he said, “May I be of assistance, Sir, Madam?”
*No, but it’s funny as hell, so let’s go with it anyway. – Steve
About to go through the floor with embarrassment, I whispered to Steve in as sotto a voce as I could manage, “Oh, damn, we’d better get out of here – the publicity! It’ll be all over town by tomorrow morning – and all over the damned state by tomorrow night!” Steve, who was still finding it all tres amusant,* said to me, making no effort to keep his voice down, “Damn the publicity – I don’t give a flying fuck what they think! If somebody doesn’t like what we do in our off-hours, they can stick it where the Sun don’t shine. – Yeah,” he said, turning to the man by his side, who wore a little rectangular pin on his T-shirt informing the world, in dark blue Franklin Gothic Medium lettering on an ivory background, that he was “Phineas Frique – General Manager” (given his posture and general bearing, the last two words were thoroughly redundant), “where do you keep the lingerie?”
*When he’s irritated, my husband’s humor tends to border on the sadistic – get him mad enough, and it jumps right over the border and heads on into the badlands beyond at warp speed.** **No, dear – I left the badlands parsecs behind me decades ago. I’m well into Dante country now. – Steve
The manager, who, at least while on duty, would probably have remained unfazed by a nuke attack, saying, “Right this way, Sir, Madame,” did a parade-perfect about-face and headed across the store, toward a curtained-off area on the side opposite the one where the dildos were. As he passed the people clustered around us, he snarled at them in a low, firm voice that would have done credit to a mafia hit man, “Butt the fuck out, assholes!” They scattered, most of the customers and some of the staff exiting post haste from the store. Snorting laughter, Steve, holding my hand and drawing me along with him, followed the manager, who stopped at the curtain separating the room we’d been in from whatever was beyond and, gathering it up in one hand and holding it aside, beckoned to us to follow him through the arching doorway thus revealed. We stepped through into the room, Phineas following us, nudging his octagon-lensed granny glasses into a more comfortable position with a forefinger as he did so. Inside this second room in the store I came to an abrupt halt, staring in stunned wonder at the opulent array of sequined, spangled, baubled, bangled, beaded, befrilled, embroidered, and otherwise embellished erotic costumes – the only word that fits – of every description imaginable that filled the room, arranged on dozens of racks and laid out on whole terraces of shelving. They ranged from thongs and G-strings through a vast range of outfits of varying cuts and quantities of material, including chemises, bikiniwear, baby-doll pajamas, peignoirs, you name it, all the way up to gorgeous negligees and robes that would have been right at home in the Fort Sacramento Majestic Theater’s splendid productions of The Mikado – assuming that the legendary Xaviera Hollander had been one of the wardrobe advisers. For quite a while all I could do was stare like the legendary bird mesmerized by the mythical snake* at this wealth of erotic haberdashery,** wondering bemusedly if I would end up blinded by the glare. Finally Steve said, “See anything you like, sweetheart?”
**Probably another of Aristotle’s Fairy-Tales for Bored Adults – all you have to do is watch a road-runner at work dismembering his daily rattlesnake in preparation for convenient dining, and it’s pretty clear that no self-respecting bird would just sit there on his feathery butt, staring like a loon at an approaching snake, patiently waiting to become an hors d’oeuvre. Bird-eating snakes are fast – not to mention lucky. That’s all. They might catch a bird asleep – birds in one form another have, after all, been around for over 200 million years. They didn’t get this far by being lethally susceptible to wouldbe reptilian Svengalis. *Yeah, yeah, I know – haberdashery comprises garments for men. Honey, who do you think those superwhore outfits are aimed at, anyway? It sure ain’t women – we’ve got too much sense. And taste. Given our druthers, we’d stick to our birthday suits – less fuss and time wasted getting down to business.
“Uh . . .” “Perhaps Madame would like to try something on?” Mr. Frique asked. “Uh . . .” “If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion . . .” he said. Going over to a racks holding a stellar selection of negligees, he reached in among the gowns and, with the deft precision of a prestidigitator, whipped out a fantastic confection of sky-blue satin, white lace, and ivory ribbons. Holding it up for my inspection, he said, “This is, I think, close to your size, Mrs. Yeats – an 8 Petite. Would you like to try it on?” he asked again. While Steve, his eyebrows raised at the manager’s unexpected sterling taste – the gown, which could have retailed at the pre-War Bloomingdale’s New York for several hundred dollars, and was as lovely and enchantingly tasteful as most of the store’s stock was hyper-tacky – I approached the gown, steps hesitant, involuntarily reaching out for it like a starving child toward a well-done steak. “Y-yes, I’d like to try it on,” I said lamely. “Wh-where –?” “Over here, ma’am,” he told me kindly, handing me the gown with one hand and pointing toward a little hallway off the room which, according to the sign over its entrance, led to the changing rooms. Dumbly taking the gown from him, I tottered off with it to the changing area as, behind me, I heard Steve tell Mr. Frique approvingly, “Very nice! I really didn’t expect that,” and Mr. Frique said, “It points up her eyes, you know – they seem to take on something of the color of her surroundings. She deserves the best – and that’s one of our very best. – This city’s very best!” The rest was lost as I passed from the short hallway into one of the changing rooms, whose walls effectively shut out whatever the two men said next. Carefully hanging up my blouse, skirt, and guns on the hangars thoughtfully provided by the management for that purpose, and substituting a pair of the soft white slippers I found under a bench, compliments of the house, for my boots, I slipped on the gown, then turned to look at myself in the fulllength mirror. I was overwhelmed by what I saw: the gown, the slender satin tube constituting its foundation covered with a froth of snow-white lace and creamy ribbons, had transformed me from my ordinary, quotidian pumpkin-self into a coach fit for an emperor.* I looked like – I looked – I could have been a virgin Princess Bride on her wedding night, waiting timidly for her royal lover to come to their bed. Such was the miracle of that outfit that I looked innocent – I looked innocent! Tender and innocent as Spring’s first buds.
*Another lousy** metaphor, but what the hell, while we’re at it, let’s enjoy ourselves. **Not to mention egregiously mixed, but as you say, dear, what the hell. – Steve
Behind me, I heard approving murmurs. Turning, I found Steve and Mr. Frique in the doorway of the changing room, Steve looking enraptured by the sight of me in the gown, Mr. Frique resembling nothing so much as a sentimental, aging uncle doting on his favorite niece. Appalled – what if they’d barged in here when I was changing? What if they had done so, and I hadn’t realized it? – I prepared to blast them both
with verbal lightnings. Reading my mind, Steve said, “Don’t worry, darling, we didn’t come in until you were decent – or decently indecent, anyway.” “You look ravishing, my dear – simply ravishing!” said Mr. Frique. Somehow, in spite of the circumstances, his broad smile seemed affectionately avuncular, not licentious. (Billy Crystal’s infamous “It’s not who you are – it’s how. You. Look!” memory added, with odious cheer.) “I –” I began. Realizing my conversation here so far had consisted mostly of the aborted bare beginnings of sentences and little else, gathering the shreds and tatters of what was left of my composure together as tightly as I could, I made myself add, “It’s lovely! I’ve, uh, never seen anything quite like it.” “That line is made by a local firm, Hattley & Bose – they’re located a block or so from the Governor’s Mansion. Clothing literally fit for a king. We always keep some of their work in stock here,” said Mr. Frique. “Not all our clients are so, um, eager to get down to business as to forget about matters of taste. Or beauty.” “It is beautiful,” said Steve, pulling out his wallet, from which he extracted his Bank of Fort Sacramento Gold card. “We’ll take it.” “Would you like to see more?” asked Mr. Frique. “Now that we know your size . . .” “I –” “Steve,” I said timidly, “could I?” Startled, Steve looked down at me as if he’d only just realized I was there. “Why, of course, Hannah,” he said, putting the card back into his wallet and slipping the latter back into the money-belt under his shirt. “Sweetheart,” he said as he turned to exit the robing room, “you go ahead and get dressed and we’ll meet you back out in the room where they’ve got the clothing. – Will she need to try on any more?” he said to the manager. “No,” said Mr. Frique, “we make sure the garment sizes are standardized, and put our own sizing labels on them, regardless of those supplied by the manufacturers. Clearly this gown fits, so we know her size, 8-Petite.” “Sure. Okay, see you out there, after you get dressed,” Steve told me, then left, Mr. Frique following right behind him. A few minutes later, joining Steve and the manager in the outer room, I spent twenty very happy minutes looking through the store’s stock of Hattley & Bose gowns, picking out a long-sleeved, floorlength, mint-green satin negligee trimmed in hand-embroidered bursts of tiny pastel-pink, solar-yellow, and turquoise-blue forget-me-knots, whose lace-trimmed skirt swirled around me when I moved like foamfrothed morning surf; a sleeveless gown of shimmering gold moiré silk with a half-cape of amber silk to cover my shoulders; a gown the pink of a conch-shell’s vulva – well, suffice it to say that when we finally got out of there, Steve had spent a small fortune on ten of those splendid gowns, which we had sent by well-armed couriers up to the Mansion so we didn’t have to carry them home through Fort Sac’s still lessthan-entirely-safe streets (if it wasn’t an attempted mugging, it was thick mud, usually nicely thickened with a few juicy horse-turds, splattered over the pedestrian by the wheels of passing carts, motorcycles, or cars – never let it be said that pedestrians found Fort Sac’s night-life boring!). Then, checking our clips to make sure they were full before heading back out into the capital’s mean streets (Mr. Frique himself had, rather needlessly, gone to great pains to insist we do so before leaving the store; it would be mean of me to think it was because he didn’t want to lose two really good customers, so I’ll chalk it up to sheer graciousness and civilized concern for fellow-citizens), we headed out into the night. It was raining, of course, the usual endless, warm, monsoon Spring rains the region was prone to anymore, and, pulling our ponchos close about us, we wanted to get under cover against as quickly as possible. We’d already visited Ye Upper Cruste Bakery, just west of Fantasies Unlimited, where we’d sampled their magnificent tortes and bought ourselves a bag of huge, oven-warm chocolate-chip cookies to take with us, so, turning to the right, we headed next door, to Rothstein’s Jeweler’s Emporium & Animal Faire, billing itself as the “Largest of its Kind in the West!” It probably was, too. Not to mention the only one of its kind in the West – or anywhere else, for that matter. Originally it had been simply Rothstein’s Jewelry, but Mr. Rothstein had diversified into the petretail business as well, due to an innovation in his security measures he had made about six months after opening – or rather, re-opening, since the store had been a long-established business before and up to the War – and the ramifications thereof. Just before the War, Elias Rothstein, the store’s founder and owner, had purchased and imported a quantity of virtually priceless gemstones from South Africa, including several enormous, top-quality emeralds, first-water diamonds of numerous colors ranging from pure white and yellow to green and even
red, the rarest of unflawed diamonds, star sapphires and star rubies the size of swallow’s eggs, and a number of others. He was planning to display the gems in the front window as soon as he got it set up for such a display, including bullet-proof glass reinforced with a strong, coarse, case-hardened steel grill and a heavily reinforced casing which nothing short of a small nuke could even have dented, and had the gems in storage in a time-lock secured vault in one of the Sacramento branches of the Bank of America that even the most determined cracksmen couldn’t have opened using anything short of a daisy-cutter. Before the preparations for display could be completed, however, the War took place, effectively putting paid both to the plans Rothstein had for displaying the gems and operation of his store. When the War broke out, Elias and his family loaded the rest of their stock in trade into the two big vans that were owned by the business and literally headed for the hills, which is to say, the town of Mt. Shasta next to the mountain of the same name, in the foothills of the southern portions of the Cascades. There Elias had a “vacation home” consisting of a rustic, picturesque six-room cabin above on several acres of prime real estate bequeathed to him by his granddad, who had in turn inherited the property from his grandfather, who’d purchased it back in the early days of the 20 th century, when land there was relatively cheap and up for grabs. In the 1950s Elias’ great-great grandfather, with an eye to the long, torturous history of our people, had had a bomb-shelter constructed on the property, deep underground, connected to the cabin by a tunnel several hundred feet long, which twisted and turned several times on the way from the cabin before reaching the shelter, which was therefore a good distance from the cabin in an unexpected direction – one more safeguard against its location being divined by some clever would-be intruder who might have heard about its existence and wanted in. In the 1950s and 1960s, the worry was, of course, about neighbors trying to invade the shelter after a nuclear attack, or, in the event, Gottenyu, that the Soviets somehow conquered us and, afterward, set about literally digging survivors out of the ruins and the bomb shelters. Later on, during the last few frantic decades of the 20th century and the first two of the 21st, it had to do with increasingly deteriorating conditions in urban and suburban areas of California, and the consequent rise in crimes against property and persons that followed the deterioration like wolves after a moose infested with Echinococcus granulosus:* Elias’ grandfather, like his grandfather before him, made sure that if history once again visited its horrors on the Jews, this time in America – and who could say that it would not? Too often, all over the world, it had, and woe to those who had clung to the delusion it never would where they lived! – he and his family would have a secure bolt-hole in which to hide while they decided on what ultimately they should do to escape whatever evil befell the Jews in America, a bolt-hole which, furthermore, had plenty of room for storing the family’s various treasures.
*How ‘bout “simply “wolves after a sick moose,” dear? Practicing your biology is fun, I know, but your readers don’t need the distraction of looking up the identity of the damned thing, don’t you think? – Steve
When the War broke out, the family treasures included everything from original paintings by Salvador Dalí, Mondrian, and Picasso to wooden furniture exquisitely carved by medieval artisans with scenes from the lives of the Patriarchs, to most of the family silver-, gold-, and chinaware, and a great deal of other things, together worth a king’s ransom and many of them, such as the paintings, absolutely irreplaceable. Now to those Elias and his family (which included his wife, three sons, their wives, their children (including, in one case, Elias’ newly-minted great-granddaughter, just three weeks old, daughter of Elias’ oldest son’s oldest daughter)), any relevant in-laws, and the store’s employees, most of whom had closely followed the two vans to Mt. Shasta in station-wagons, SUVs, pickup trucks, and other vehicles capable of carrying a good-sized load, added the inventory of the store, the total value of which was enough to have paid the national debt of a not-so-small nation. The South American treasures they decided to leave right where they were, or, rather, locked up in the vault in the store’s basement, which, without the keys, couldn’t have been accessed by anything short of a nuke, and maybe not even that. If the War didn’t destroy everything, and they were ever able to re-open the store, they could worry about retrieving those gems then. For now, the important thing was survival – which also meant preserving everything that made life worth living, as well as making a living for them all, and the shelter now held more than enough of that for a group twenty times their size.
As far as protecting the entourage went, and making sure they’d have plenty to eat, Elias, who had long been a member of the underground group Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, had over the years managed to acquire a good-sized arsenal, including a wide variety of firearms ranging from revolvers and semiautos of every description to automatic rifles of various kinds, a dozen powerful shotguns, mint-condition M1s, and even such goodies as grenade launchers. He had also laid in a year’s supply of ammunition for all the guns, plenty of C4 and dynamite (stored well away from both the shelter and the house in a separate underground unit, for safety’s sake), several tranquilizer guns, high-power bows and crossbows the arrows and bolts to go with them, a magnificent collection of knives, swords, and throwing stars (like two of his sons, he had for years undergone ninja training at various clandestine dojos scattered around the state), and dozens of other interesting ways to arrange for opponents to enjoy a faceto-face conversation with their respective Makers. All of it, being undeclared, was thoroughly illegal. All of it had been kept in prime condition by the old man, who had made regular visits to the cabin – and, using the tunnel, which exited inside the cabin, so that he could use it to visit the shelter without anyone outside the cabin being any the wiser – to check everything over, cleaning and repairing whatever needed it, withdrawing those things that were no longer useful or were in a dangerous condition and replacing them with more suitable devices and supplies, and otherwise making sure that if he and his family ever had need of the things it contained, its arsenal would more than deliver on its promise. So after the War, while others, completely ignorant of how to live off the land or not equipped to do so, went without, Elias, his family, his employees, their families, and their neighbors all did very well for themselves when it came to acquiring food. What they couldn’t obtain by the judicious use of firearms or the excellent fishing-tackle Elias had also stored in the shelter they grew for themselves, scavenged from abandoned homes, farms, and ranches in the area, and drew from the copious stocks of MREs, canned and dried foods, nuts, and candy that had been stored in the shelter over the years. They even had gasoline for their vehicles, thanks to a huge underground storage tank for same located in a remote corner of the property. As far as having to defend their valuables from would-be local smash-and-grab types or roaming bandits – with all those able-bodied adults, armed to the teeth and all thoroughly aware of all the evils that human beings had visited on one another down the millennia, you have to ask? Because Rothstein and his people had taken virtually everything of any value at all, even the cashregisters and bar-code readers, with them from the store before they evacuated from Sacramento, and locked up what little remained in the impregnable and well-hidden basement vault, the store, located off a ground-floor atrium in one of the bigger skyscrapers in the city, held nothing particularly attractive to the gangsters who invested the city in that first, ghastly year after the War. As a result, when, in early 2024, Rothstein and his clan returned to Sacramento after the news of the Battle for Sacramento made its way to the mountain communities in the northern part of the state and the Winter snows had melted enough to permit travel, though most of their old homes in the area had been trashed or even burned flat by erstwhile gangster residents, the store itself was in good shape. Admittedly it did need a good cleaning before having the furnishings put back and the inventory arrayed for prospective customers, especially the floor, which was liberally bedecked with drifted ash and dirty, used condoms, rat- and pigeon-droppings, spent ammo casings, and a variety of less pleasant things left behind by gangsters who had used the place for ambush blinds, romantic trysts (a.k.a. rape of slaves or somebody else’s old lady from a rival gang), and other activities requiring a certain amount of privacy and a place in out of the Sun. But among the newly liberated citizenry of Sacramento (whose name hadn’t yet acquired the prefix “Fort”) there was no shortage of people eager to earn whatever they could by helping to clean up the store and put it in good order, who were, furthermore, delighted to be paid in ammunition and/or standardized bits of silver and gold bullion. It wasn’t long before the store was ship-shape and operating as before. Elias did not, of course, expect business to begin booming for awhile – the economy, such as it was, would take years to recover to even a tenth or better of what it had been before the War, and there would be few who could afford his prices for a commodity whose value, in terms of raw survival needs, was limited. But he, his store employees, and their families had, during their exile in Mt. Shasta, become adept hunters, fishermen, and (truth be told) scavengers, and foresaw no problems making sure they would have plenty to eat, and they were able to fix up several of the larger erstwhile gangster residences on the Eastside for those among them whose former homes had been destroyed by the gangsters. Most of them also had strong backs, willing hands, and good minds, and were no strangers to hard work, and so, while the state struggled to get back on its feet, they were more than happy to work for barter on the farms and truck-gardens that had sprung up in the Sacramento Area since the Liberation. They also didn’t mind working as carpenters, plumbers, joiners, tinkers – whatever they were able to do, or learn to do, that was needed in the area.
Thus, in the early years of the Reconstruction, they prospered. And when, a few years after the Liberation, thanks to Steve and his handpicked accomplices in the state legislature,* we got on the gold standard and began coining real money again, and the economy took a leap into the stratosphere and then kept on going, they grew extremely wealthy – wealthy enough to renovate a number of the derelict skyscrapers and public buildings that had been abandoned since the War and, for a relatively small fee, “homestead” them all, that is, take legal title to them. They then began leasing space in them to whoever wanted to lease them and had the gold to do so, thereby contributing massively to Sacramento’s remarkably swift recovery from the damage of the War and the gangster occupation afterward.
*Now, darling, we weren’t criminals – just opportunists.** – Steve **I’m afraid to say “yes,” sweetheart. So I won’t. – Hannah
In the meantime, the few bankers in the Sacramento area who had survived the general hell of the occupation of Sacramento by the gangsters came forward to talk with Steve and the nascent legislature about the possibility of salvaging the properties that had been locked away in the vaults of their respective banks when the War broke out. Steve and the legislators agreed, and got together hand-picked, trusted work-parties with experience in such work to do the job. One great triumph of that operation was the recovery of the Rothstein gems, deep in the vaults of the old Bank of America building on the corner of 18 th and K Streets. These gems now comprised the fabulous display in Rothstein’s Jeweler’s Emporium & Animal Faire – along with several dozen big, hairy tarantulas. The tarantulas, which included species as diverse as the Sonoran Desert tarantula (Aphonopelma chalcodes), Eurypelma californicum (common in Southern California, Texas, and Arizona), Mexican Redlegged Tarantulas (Brachypelma smithi), enormous Goliath tarantulas (Theraphosa leblondi, lovely, sweettempered teddy-spiders that make wonderful pets but whose appearance generally scares hell out of the uninitiated), and any number of others, all hairy, all nobody you wanted to find sitting on your face in the middle of the night, were in fact part of the store’s security system. Elias Rothstein and his employees, though affable and courteous, were also all armed to the teeth, and were known far and wide as superb marksmen. Even so, Elias, who believed there was no such thing as perfect security, had equipped the shop with laser-light electronic alarms, and had big fang-y guard dogs patrolling the no-man’s land between electrified fencing topped with razor-wire lining the walls separating the store from the rest of the building, except for Rothstein’s Animal Faire – and the tarantulas happily patrolling the interior of the big display window in front. According to Elias, after one look at those hairy, big-fanged babies crawling around in there, would-be thieves gave up the whole idea as a very bad job indeed and left the premises as quickly as possible. Chuckling, he told us he was thinking of giving up the dogs, the fencing, and the alarm-system altogether – since he’d begun ranching the tarantulas in the display window, they hadn’t had so much as a peep out of the alarms, nor any other sign of potential criminal activity. (He would never hear of giving up his guns, however – like everyone else these days in Fort Sac, they were so much a part of his life, not to mention just about everywhere else in the West, that it would be like giving up his right hand, his dick, and both testicles, he said.) He was only half-joking, I’m sure. After he had begun importing the spiders from downstate and other parts of the West, Elias had decided he might as well have plenty of them on hand at all times. Thus he expanded his business to include the huge pet store which occupied about half the rest of the bottom floor of the building, also protected by an extension of the canine-patrolled corridor with its electrically charged fencing that served to ward the jewelry business from would-be intruders inside the building. First, of course, he began dealing in tarantulas of all kinds, which found a ready market in Fort Sac’s merchants, who were extremely impressed by the success of Rothstein’s patrolling tarantulas in discouraging miscreants from even thinking about attempting a heist anywhere near his jewelry store. Then he added reptiles, particularly venomous ones and exotics, from native rattlesnakes as well as the cobras, mambas, boomslangs, kraits, and other deadly snakes descended from ancestors that had escaped from American zoos and private collections and had begun thriving in certain areas of North and Central
America, to such entities as the Fairy Gila Monsters of Arizona, specimens of the two or three surviving species of venomous reptiloid dodosaurs,* and other reptiloid constructs. Then he diversified his stock to include birds, mammals, teleost fish, small selachians, numerous kinds of terrestrial and marine invertebrates, as well. At the present time he was thinking of adding exotic fungi and carnivorous plants to his inventory, but still wasn’t sure yet whether he wanted to spring for the expense of adding resident biologists specializing in mycology and botany to his staff – necessary if he hoped to be able to maintain healthy inventories of those species.
*Though originally several dozen species of these were created by Beardland Laboratories, possibly out of the idea that perhaps these could serve the park as a whole the same way that Elias’ tarantulas served his jewelry business, researchers now believe that there are at most two or three surviving species of these creatures. These reptiloids, which are at least as stupid as their dodosaur kin, are notorious among biologists, zoo-keepers, and breeders for frequently giving themselves gold-plated Darwin Awards in the form of accidental self-injections of their venom (one of the few things about them that isn’t particularly amusing, and is in fact one of the most potent in the world, to which they have no immunity whatsoever), giving over-enthusiastic love-bites to prospective mates, and nailing their offspring in the process of trying to carry the little buggers to new locations, even though their original nesting sites have nothing wrong with them (they’re also prone to excessive paranoia, especially about possible enemies lurking about the nest). The amazing thing is that when it comes to biting human beings, in almost all cases, when confronted by a human being they simply go to pieces emotionally, and either pass out or flee for their lives, whichever seems most expedient, somehow never thinking to use their fangs for what Beardland, if not Mother Nature, designed them for.
To make a long story short, it was into Rothstein’s Jeweler’s Emporium & Animal Faire that Steve and I fared next. As we passed by the big display window with its display of gems, scintillant as a galaxy, on our way inside, a couple of big Goliath tarantulas came up to the window to look us over – not in a hostile manner, but as if moved by simple curiosity and, perhaps, a wistful hope that perhaps we would provide them with attention and affection. Seeing them, I said to Steve, “You know, I’ve always wanted one of those as a pet.” Startled, Steve turned to look at me. “You mean that?” “They’re so cute – look at them come right up to see us! They look like they want to make friends.” “Aw, they probably want to bite hell out of us. Come on, darlin’, let’s go inside and see what Old Man Elias has to show us tonight.” As we entered, Elias himself came bustling up to us, his smile so big that it was too big for his expression, and had sprawled over at the edges into his posture and his every gesture. “Steve, my big friend! What can we do for you this evening?” “Well, we want to look at your inventory, here – I’d like to get something for my wife, so I’ll let her pick and choose what she wants. Also wanted to hear more about those goodies you have in your front window – they must have some fabulous histories!” “Of course, of course, my friend! That’s what we’re here for! Now –” “Could I – could I ask you about your spiders?” I interjected timidly. “Why, of course, Hannah, you know we’re always at your service!” he said, steering us over to the rows of display cases along the store’s front wall, just behind the display window, where he kept his choicest items. “What would you like to know?” “You can get spiders, can’t you? I mean, your pet-store? I – I’ve always wanted to have a leblondi or two. Could we get a couple of them here, you know, like the ones you have in your window, maybe have them sent up to the Mansion, along with a habitat for them?” “Of course!” he said, smiling so broadly now that I thought I could count every one of his teeth without asking him to open his mouth for me. “It just happens we have quite a few of them in stock right now in Animal Faire. It would be no trouble at all to have them delivered to you in the Mansion, tank and all. How many do you want?” “I’m not sure. Maybe two? And some way to divide the habitat so that if they don’t get along they can be separated easily before things get ugly? And food for them? – What do they eat, by the way?”
“We’ve found that they do very nicely on crickets – and we’ve begun breeding our own crickets, fruit flies, and other critters for consumption by our spiders, so we can keep your spiders in grub all the time.” “I’d like that . . . Steve, can we?” “You want Goliath tarantulas?” he said, looking as if he weren’t sure I was serious, but willing to go along with me, whether in jest or for real. “I’d love some. – Elias, I think the ones you have in the window are lonely. I mean, for people. They came right up to the window and looked at us like puppies in a pet store, like they wanted us to pick them up or something.” “Oh, those are Gog and Magog. They’re our boys, not for sale, and they get plenty of quality time with my grandchildren, not to mention my wife and daughters-in-law – we rotate them with several other Goliaths, David and Jonathon, Pete and Repeat, lots of them. I’ll have to introduce you to them, our Goliaths, I mean, sometime. They like meeting new people (and may the Lord keep anyone from breaking in when Gog and Magog are on duty – they’d probably show him where the teaspoons and the combination to the safe are! A couple of pussycats, but I’m afraid their bark, or rather, the way they look, is much worse than their bite will ever be!). “At any rate, Hannah, yes, we certainly can provide you with tarantulas. And just about any other sort of, er, invertebrate pet you’re likely to want. Did you have anything else in mind, while we’re at it? Would you like to take a stroll through Animal Faire so you can get a better idea of what’s available?” Glancing at Steve again, to see his reaction – he looked bemused but game – turning back to Elias again I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted a Habronattus americanus . . .” His eyebrows arched so high they almost made it into his hairline. “A Habronattus! Well, you certainly have good taste . . . Tell me, where did you learn about them?” “Monty – my first husband. He saw them all the time when he was a student at the University of Arizona and after, when he worked for the state of Arizona for a short while after the War. He was fascinated by them – by jumping spiders in general, in fact. Part of it was that when he was in the Marines, in Central America, he had a bad experience with this colony of Army Spiders –” “Oh, yes, I’ve heard of those. A bad business,” said Elias, frowning. “We refuse to carry them at all – UC Berkeley wanted us to import some for them to study, but as we told them, they’re far too dangerous. Among other things, they’re fast breeders, and have no problem living off the land even in places this far north if they find the right habitat. Once they do, it would take a nuke to get rid of them. No, thank you! I don’t wonder your first husband’s experience of them was ugly, in that context. – But why did that stir his interest in jumping spiders?” “Because some of their characteristics, like the large size of their four forward eyes, for example, suggest that they might have jumping spiders in their ancestry. – Of course, they could be descendants of escapees from one of those criminally stupid genetic engineering projects that everybody seemed to be up to before the War, in which case anything could have contributed to their genes, and probably did. But regardless of where those traits came from, they do remind you a little of jumping spiders. “So when Monty lived in Arizona for awhile, just after the War, and discovered how many species of jumping spiders live there and other parts of the American Southwest, he started studying them, on his own. In the process, he discovered Habronattus americanus. He loved those spiders – unlike the Army Spiders, they aren’t very social, of course, and rather than being aggressive and dangerously venomous, they’re rather shy, with fangs so small they can’t really get through human skin at all. But what he really liked about them was the way they use their four large eyes to look right back at you when you look at them (their four smaller eyes, of course, are for close-in work), and their coloration – red, white, and blue (along with some black for contrast). Darling little things! Ever since he told me about them, I’ve wanted to have one of my own – assuming it would have a steady supply of mates, and whatever else it needs, of course.” Then, hearing the wistful note in my voice, I wanted to bite my tongue – I sounded like an orphan child angling for a second helping of gruel. But Elias, like Steve, only chuckled. “I don’t think we’ll have a problem filling an order for a Habronattus americanus for you, Hannah. It might take a little while – the leblondis we can take care of right now, or, I should say, tomorrow, the earliest we can deliver them to the Mansion, but we don’t normally keep any Habronattus in stock, so we’ll have to order them.” Steve snapped his fingers, startling both Elias and me. “Wait a minute – I think I know someone who can get us your spider right away – guy knows the governor of Arizona, and has a lot of pull all over the state. Won’t take him any time at all to round one up and send it up here to us.” “Who’s that, Steve?” I said.
“Your old friend, Lorenzo Derkein.” “Lorenzo! – You think he could?” “I think he’d fall all over himself to help, darlin’ – for you,” Steve told me, grinning. “Ever since the drive of ‘47, that man has been so deeply in love with you he’d need a naked singularity to seduce him out of it! – never mind, private joke” he told Elias, on whom the joke had fallen utterly flat. “Anyway, Hannah, he’ll be more than happy to do that for us – for you,” he corrected himself, with another grin. “— In fact,” he said, turning to Elias, “he could get more than one for us. Would you be willing to keep the rest here in the store, breed them, say, so ours would have mates as necessary, and we could have a replacement if it came to that? They’d sell like hotcakes around here, I’m sure, so you’d make a gigantic profit out of keeping them in stock.” “Actually, I like the idea, very much. At times I’ve thought of stocking Habronattus – there are, as you may or may not know, numerous species of that genus, which frequently hybridize with one another in the wild. They’re lovely animals, and as Hannah said, rather pleasant-natured and not likely to harm a human being – their venom can’t hurt us, and even if it could, their little fangs are so small that they can’t even penetrate human epidermis, and so couldn’t deliver a jolt to us if they tried forever So, yes, if your friend Mr. Derkein – I met him last year during that big interstate commercial fair we had here, by the way, a little like leblondi, scary until you get to know him, and then he’s a teddy bear,” Elias said, laughing, “if Lorenzo is willing to procure a good stock of americanus and other species of Habronattus for us, we’d pay well for it.” “I’ll give him a Links call in the morning, then,” Steve said. “Want me to have him call you afterward and let you know what he’ll be shipping, and how and when?” “That would be the best way – less chance of miscommunications that way. We can discuss the price then, too, and how he wants to be paid. “Well, now that we’ve decided that, would you like to visit Animal Faire this evening, Hannah?” Elias said, turning to me with a smile. “We’ve got some ferrets in there you might like to look at –” “I’d better not, not this time,” I said sheepishly. “We’d probably end up going home with half the stock – I cannot resist a ferret! And Big Bill promised us the four albino kits from Lady Iceberg’s current litter as soon as they’re weaned, so we’ll have ferrets coming out of the woodwork if you tempt me with more.” “All right,” said Elias, chuckling. “You do want to look at our jewelry this evening, though, don’t you?” “Yes,” said Steve. “Especially the ones you’ve got in the big display in front – as I think I said earlier, I’m curious about their histories. Plus, I want to get something for my lady while we’re in here,” he said, smiling and putting his arm around me as he did so. “Very well, then, let’s go look at the ones in the display window, then . . .” We spent nearly an hour ooh-ing and ah-ing over the display, which included white diamonds that made the Hope Diamond look like a tiny rhinestone; a couple of flawless emeralds that may well have been the biggest ever found; a natural star sapphire as large as a robin’s egg, its cloudy, white-flecked depths and the brilliant, four-rayed star within them looking like a view on another universe; a couple of ultra-rare red diamonds, each worth a not-so-small fortune in its own right; some gorgeous cabochon-cut opals from Australia of several hundred karats each; an amorphous chunk of Paleozoic sandstone hosting countless quartz crystals that studded it everywhere, each crystal perfectly clear, giving off a faint chiming ring when struck lightly with a quartz mallet, from Arkansas’ Ouachita Mountains (how it ultimately wound up in South Africa, where it was purchased on a buying expedition by Elias and his sons, is a story worth telling, but far too long to do so here, so I’ll save it for some other time); and a perfect galaxy of other precious and “semiprecious” stones, the latter as valuable as the diamonds and their near kin with which they shared the display due to their extreme rarity of form, color, or composition. Finally, taking in my breathless fascination with that big natural star sapphire, a couple of the white diamonds, and some exquisitely carved and mounted pieces of malachite and serpentine, Steve said to Elias, pointing them out, “We’ll take those. Put it on my card, okay?” “A lovely selection,” Elias said, his pale blue eyes twinkling like Eta Carinae on a good-flare day. “Of course you’ll want them in appropriate settings . . . What would your lady like?” Steve glanced at me. Taken aback, not sure what I really wanted – the gems were so lovely just to look at that I had thought maybe we could keep them in a display case at home, which, I realized, was just plain ridiculous – I said, ‘I – I don’t really know.”
That led to a pleasant twenty minutes or so looking over Elias’ catalogs, picking out settings I liked, Elias taking copious notes as he advised us on which metals had which technical virtues, which would go best, esthetically speaking, with which gems, and so on. When I had finally decided on the settings I liked, we turned to more mundane matters. “I believe we have your card data on hand . . .” said Elias. Taking out the electronic organizer he kept in his pocket at all times, he entered something, checked the results, and clucked approval. “You’re talking about your original FS Gold card?” “Yeah.” “We have the data, no problem. – Now, do you want to take these home this evening, and have us come to the Mansion to set them for you, or shall we deliver them next week, after setting them here?” “Deliver them next week – I’m still pretty good with my fast-draw, but why take chances?” “Why, indeed. Yes. And will there be anything else?” “Honey,” Steve said, turning to me, “you see anything else you like?” “Um . . .” Steve had just spent a king’s ransom on stones for me. Monty had been a wealthy man, but compared to Steve, he and I together had been poor as church mice – but even so, this was far more than I’d wanted Steve to spend on me, especially after the other lovely things he’d already given me. Reading my mind, he said, grinning, “Go on, darlin’ – it’s been a long, long time since I’ve been able to get nice things for my girl. Help yourself – if necessary, we’ll just stick it to the taxpayers,” he said, winking at Elias. “Dear heavens, do not let El Neil hear you say that!” I told him, scandalized. “Why not? I’ll make sure Carl’s with me at the time – he just adores a good knock-down-drag-out brawl with his favorite quarrelmeister!” “Steve!” “Come on, sweetheart, just take a look around, see if there’s anything else you’d like,” he said. Rather than prolong the argument and, perhaps, be overheard by store employees or, worse, clients – people were always wandering into the store as long as it was open, which was until 11 pm every day but Fridays (closing at least an hour before sunset, time depending on the season) and Saturday (closed all day), meekly I nodded and strolled over to the long row of display cases running along the middle of the big store. Each was separated from the next in line on either side by four feet of empty space, and from anything in front or back of it by an even greater distance, so that customers could view the contents from all sides. Walking along the row, looking down at the contents of the cases through the bullet-proof panes of glass that roofed them, my eye was caught by a display of exquisite little Hummel figurines, including several with patriotic themes, others more sentimental in nature. Seeing them, my barrenness suddenly hit me with full force. “Oh, Steve . . . can we get some of these?” I had to have them – I’d never felt anything quite like that before. They’d never be a substitute for real children – but something about them seemed to relieve that terrible ache in my womb I felt just then. Coming up to me as I turned to look at him, Steve looked to see what had caught my eye. “Oh, my, aren’t they cute . . . If you want these, Hannah, I’d be glad to get them for you.” I knew, then, that he was aware of what I was feeling at that moment. “—Eli, we’d like this set.” “You don’t have to take them all – we have duplicates of many of them . . .” “No, the whole set’s fine.” “Sure, if that’s what you want. We’ll deliver these with the rest, tomorrow . . .” “Perfect. Uh . . . anything else, sweetheart?” I was about to say that I was happy with what we’d purchased already – “stunned” was perhaps a better word for it, but “happy” would do for “Enough, already!” when my eye was caught by a spray of light in the next case in line. Curious as to its cause, I lifted my hand in a “Give me a second, here” gesture and went to see what it was. I found myself gazing down on one great, perfect emerald set in the center of a delicate, fully mature but small White Rock rose made of silver, leaves along with the blossom. It looked somehow alive, as if it were the eye of some alien being, looking on us from another universe, one ruled by Aphrodite. Spaced about the emerald on the petals were seven tiny white diamonds. A pendant, one fit for a queen. Stepping quietly in order not to disturb my enraptured concentration on the pendant, Steve and Elias gathered about me. Finally I came up for air. “How – how much is it?” “Darlin’, if you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” Steve told me. “Believe me, we don’t have to ask! – We’ll take it, Eli.”
“Ah, a perfect choice. This was the last gift from Dodi Fayed to the Diana Spencer, who became Princess Diana of England in 1981 upon her marriage then to Prince Charles, the Duke of Wales, heir to England’s throne. As you may remember, she was divorced from Charles in 1996, and, along with her lover, Mr. Fayed, died tragically in an automobile accident in 1997. According to the pedigree that accompanied this pendant when we purchased it from the new British Royal Colony in the Sunda Straits – I forget its name right now but we can look that up, if you like – Mr. Fayed had purchased it about a week before he and Diana were killed, intending to give it to her as an engagement present. He had planned a celebration of their engagement to take place at a famous hotel in Brussels, where he intended to present this to her upon announcement of their wedding plans. Alas, the celebration never took place; both principals died before the date scheduled for it. Mr. Fayed’s father, to whom the son had entrusted the pendant in the interim, kept it for several years, but finally, because he couldn’t bear to look upon this reminder of his son’s death, sold it to a gentleman in Australia, from whom I purchased it, along with some superb opals, several of which we also still have in our inventory, in 2018 on a buying trip to that continent. The pedigree, which has been authenticated by a world-renowned gemologist who also worked by special appointment for the British Royal family, would, of course, accompany the pendant, if you wished to purchase it . . .” Steve’s eyes narrowed in a frown. “Sounds like an unlucky item. Would we really want to get something that was associated with Princess Di’s death?” “Well, I don’t know much about that – she never wore it herself, you see, never had the opportunity. And her lover must have made a lot of other purchases right before his and his lady’s death, none of which would have been particularly ominous – fine wines, stock options, all sorts of things. Plus, I have always felt that luck is what you make of it – there are many examples from history proving that one man’s bad fortune can be another’s divine providence, and I would say that’s probably as true of gems as of anything else.” “Well . . .” Then, seeing the way I was practically ready to crawl right inside the case with the pendant, Steve smiled and said, “I have a feeling it’ll be very unlucky – for me – if I don’t get it for her. – Okay, darlin’, what do you say?” he said, turning to me. “Oh, Steve – it’s beautiful! Yes, I’d love it!” “Good. – This one, I think, will be take-out – would you like to put it on now, sweetheart?” I answered him by throwing both arms around him in a bear-hug. “Yes!” As Elias carefully removed the pendant from the case and held it up so that he could slip it over my head, he said, “Now, Hannah, be sure to wear this under your blouse and sweater on the way home, in order not to tempt the less honest among us too much. No sense proving I’m dead wrong about whatever luck attaches to it, is there? And both of you want to make sure you’ve got full clips and everything is in working order before you leave, yes?” “We already did that coming out of the establishment, er, down the street, where we were just before we came here,” Steve told him. “Ah. Well, you should be fine, then,” Elias said, almost certainly aware of where we’d actually been but graciously avoiding embarrassing us by voicing his suspicions. “All right, then,” he said, turning and heading for the registers to ring up the sale, “I’ll total this up for you and debit your card for it, and then, when your gems are set and ready for delivery, I’ll have one of our delivery people run the other purchases up to the Mansion for you. Do you want to take delivery personally, or –” “Yeah, that’s probably best. Tell you what, have them deliver after noon – one of us should be there to take delivery. – Hannah, what are your plans for the next week or so?” “I wanted to work on my correspondence and that sort of thing, so I should be there all day for at least a week. I’ll make sure to be there if Elias or his people call and say they want to make delivery – best to let me know at least a day in advance.” “Great. – Okay, then, Eli, let the delivery-boy, or –girl, as the case may be, know to deliver directly to Hannah. You’ve got our address in the Mansion, don’t you?” “Of course, Steve. And I’ll make sure to call you myself to let you both know what day and time the delivery will be, with plenty of advance notice. – All right, then, I’ll just ring this up . . . Will you be wanting tarantulas while we’re at it?” “Yes,” Steve said, glancing at me for confirmation. I nodded. “Yeah, two will be fine, and a habitat – a dividable one, like she said, just in case. Could you pick out two, er, friendly ones for us?” “I’d be delighted. They’ll come with pedigrees, too, and full instructions on their care and keeping. We can deliver them tomorrow. Will that be all right?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll definitely be there all day tomorrow.” “Then that’s what we’ll do – does noon or just after sound all right? I’ll have someone go along to show you how to set up the habitats and all that, too. And I’ll send a list of websites you can access from the Mansion that will give you even more information, including material on their biology and so on.” “Oh, that’d be wonderful, Elias – you’re so good to us,” I told him. “My pleasure, Hannah,” he said, his smile genuine. A few minutes later, me wearing my new pendant under my blouse and bra and poncho, shivering with delight at the feel of it under my clothes, we were on our way home. As we went on our way, every so often Steve glanced back through the warm, muggy air and the sluicing rain that cut visibility to at best half a block to see if our bodyguards were in evidence – and never caught them at it. They were there, all right, State Secret Service agents hand-picked by Joe Cabrini to make sure we had the very best guarding us at all times; but at most we caught only their shadows, or the whisper of a familiar footfall, nothing else. “I’ll have to call Joe up and compliment him on this batch of goons,” Steve said, grinning, deliberately pitching his voice to carry just far enough for the “goons” to hear, “they’re good. Real good! They really deserve a bonus – except for the clown whose foot keeps dragging. You’ll get caught that way for sure, fella!” Slightly behind and to our left, against the wall of Horst’s Drums, I heard a muttered, “Hmpf!” Steve, who had caught it, too, laughed. Then, taking my arm a little more firmly as he quickened his pace, he said, “Come on, sweetheart, let’s get on home. Those guys work hard enough as it is – we don’t want to look like targets, which we will if we loiter. These fellas really are good – but anyone can miss, and I’m not all that sure about my shooting skills, what with the lack of practice I’ve had the last few weeks.” And so we hurried on up the hill to the Mansion, our somewhat mollified Secret Service agents coming out in the open as we made the last block, surrounding us, two of them preceding us through the Mansion’s front doors to make sure everything was kosher on the way to our suite. That night, Steve insisted on my wearing my pendant – and nothing else – to bed. I have to report, dear reader, that, certainly as far as our romantic life is concerned, my new pendant brings only the very best of luck!
§ 2: Boris, the Spider
Steve and I were both in the next day when our new furry children arrived. Steve usually spent the morning arguing over budgets and the like with various cabinet officials, but, he said, he just had to see what the tarantulas were like. Up until now, his acquaintance with them had been mostly through horror cinema, which hadn’t been very reassuring, to say the least. Now, seeing them up close, watching them climb carefully onto my hand and that of Loren West, Elias’ resident biologist, who had come along to advise us about the spiders’ care, Steve admitted that up close, in real life, the animals weren’t at all like the ferocious, deadly beasts he’d imagined them to be. “Oh, they can be a real trip,” Loren said, laughing, as he coaxed one of the tarantulas – a nice lady who, according to the pedigree that came with her, was named Bacall – to make her way into Steve’s nervously extended hand, her attitude all the while screaming, “I dunno about this guy . . .” “See, she won’t bite you. She does need to get used to you, so keep your hand very, very still for awhile.” “Oh, great,” Steve said, “what if I need to pee?” “I recommend holding it – or I can hold her while you go do your thing, if it’s that urgent.” “It isn’t,” said Steve, determined to tough it out and show this grinning biologist with the neat, greying Van Dyke beard that he, Governor Steve Yeats, Savior of New California, was just as much of a he-man as Loren was, at least when it came to holding a large, hairy creature that looked like something from out of the depths of a really great horror thriller and not dropping, squashing, or otherwise doing damage to it. Meanwhile, Bogey, short for Humphrey Bogart – whoever had named these creatures must have been a real movie buff, or, more likely, a critic – was making himself right at home in the palm of my hand. “What a sweetie!” I said. “Look at him, settling right down in my hand like that – he must know he’s home.” “Could be,” said Loren. “You never know with spiders – they live in a whole different world than we do. The only thing we can count on is that, like us, they’re hunters and trappers and fishers by nature, obligate carnivores, and able to strategize quite well. They aren’t nearly as ‘clockwork’ in their behavior as
people used to think, though a lot of their behavior is definitely hardwired in the genes, and they’re capable of amazing adaptations to changing circumstances.” “Well, will you look at that!” Steve said, grinning down on Bacall. She was now rhythmically tapping his palm with the tip of one long foreleg, and seemed to be looking up at him, scoping him out. “Why is she tapping her foot like that?” “Say something to her,” Loren told him. “Okay . . . Bacall, I’m Steve. Glad to meet you. We’re – Hannah and I – are going to be your, er, people.” For a moment the tapping stopped. Then, very deliberately, Bacall tapped his palm twice with the same foot, and settled back, watching him. “She’s acknowledging communication – I think,” said Loren. “In other words, if I’ve got that right, she realizes that you’re not prey, and not something that will prey on her, and are probably intelligent, in spider terms, anyway.” “Um,” said Steve, trying hard not to laugh. “Okay . . . I like you, too, Bacall.” Tap-tap. “Does she know what I’m saying to her?” “No telling, my friend, but I think she realizes you’re friendly, and she’s saying she wants to be friends, too.” “That’s good,” said Steve, looking understandably relieved. Bacall was an example of Theraphosa leblondi, the Goliath bird-eating spider, whose ancestors and cousins came from Brazil, Venezuela and French Guiana. A terrestrial, i.e., non-marine sort of spider, Theraphosa leblondi is known as “the king of the tarantulas” – understandably, for many specimens attains a body length of as much as 5 inches and a weight of up to 6 ounces. Some specimens have a leg-span of 25 centimeters (10 inches) and more. This species is considered to be the largest in the world. Between their huge size and the way they appear when on the hunt, these tarantulas can look scary as hell:
Sketch © 2055 by Leah Royer But right at the moment, sitting contentedly in Steve’s palm, Bacall looked only large, furry, and strange – and not scary at all. At least not to me – I’ve always liked the big creatures, yet another thing that added to my reputation for being a weirdo back when I was a child. Steve was still a little nervous about them, but was rapidly losing his trepidation, and now even seemed to be pleased at having developed a sort of relationship, vague as it was, between himself and Bacall. Then Bogey tapped my palm, twice. “Bogey just did the same thing to me,” I told Loren. “Say something to him.” “Hello, Bogey,” I said, not sure of what to say, but game. “I’m Hannah. You and Bacall will be living with us from now on. You’re lovely spiders!” Tap-tap. “You’ve definitely made a conquest, Hannah,” Loren told me, laughing. “Okay, let’s put them back in the habitat for now, with the screen down so they have some privacy from each other for awhile,” he said, turning to the habitat he’d helped us set up in our bedroom. The front of the habitat was glassed in, and the other three walls were of wood, as was the roof, which raised up on a hinge; the bottom of the cage was
completely covered by a pane of glass trimmed to fit the cage, and glass panels about an inch or so high covered the bottoms of the wooden walls, so that the moisture the spiders needed wouldn’t rot the wood the cage was made of. A screen inset in a thin wooden frame was attached to the roof by another hinge, so it could swing down to partition one side of the habitat off from the other, giving each spider a front window as well as enclosed back and side walls. As Loren told us, the lid of a habitat should always be carefully secured when you don’t want the spiders out and about and maybe crawling into bed with you in the middle of the night – tarantulas can easily push up a lid that isn’t secure, as well as making themselves half their normal width so they can squeeze through small gaps like their distant marine cousins, the octopi. Tarantulas are expert climbers, and no matter what kind of cage is used to house them, a secure lid for it is a must, both to keep the spider in its habitat and keep out poking fingers and other potentially harmful harassment. Also, in the lid of our habitat, there were a few small air holes to provide plenty of oxygen for our babies and, at the same time, help maintain the humidity required, an important consideration because both the air-conditioning we used in summer and winter heating would remove moisture from the air, desiccating the air in our suite and lowering its moisture content to a level at which our spiders might become ill. As Loren and Steve set up the habitat (both of us had, by then, carefully deposited our spiders back in the separate little apartments of the carrying-box in which they’d traveled from Animal Faire to our suite so we’d have our hands free to help Loren set everything up), to help make it a good home for our spiders, Loren put an inch or two of damp vermiculite mixed with sand, soil, and sphagnum moss in the bottom of the cage (“Never use cedar shavings to line the cage bottom,” he said, adamant on that point; “cedar is toxic to many spiders, and Goliaths really don’t do well around it. Indoor/outdoor carpeting doesn’t hold moisture, and for that reason isn’t recommended either”). Then Loren added some rocks, a couple of real and artificial plants and some well-dried tree-branches which had been carefully polished to make sure there were no splinters on them that could hurt spiders, items he’d insisted the delivery people bring along, too. These weren’t really necessary for our spiders, but wouldn’t hurt them, either, and would help make their cage habitat like a real home to them. Last, but not least, he put in half a flower pot, laid down on one side, in each side of the habitat, to give our spiders a place to hide. “What about cactus?” Steve asked him. “I’ve seen pictures of it in articles on tarantulas from time to time.” “Good God, Steve, no! You don’t want to do that – if you’ve got cactus in there, a spider falling off the side of the habitat can accidentally impale itself on the thorns! Anything with thorns is O-U-T, for the same reason. (God, you wonder where the damned fools that put those articles together get their information – they probably think, well, they’re mostly desert animals, so they must like cactus. That’s like assuming that because we breathe air, we’d love an atmosphere of pure oxygen!)” “Uh, what temperature should we keep them at?” “Room temperatures, around 70 – 75°F or so, should be fine. See this little gizmo, though?” he said, holding up a contraption consisting of a socket for a small light bulb attached to something that looked like a thermostat by a short cord and a small black plastic box. In fact, as he quickly made clear, it was a thermostat; the black box contained control and feedback mechanisms circuitry, and the purpose of the gadget was simply to turn on the bulb if temperatures fell below 70° and turn it off if they rose above 75°. The gizmo in question fit nicely into a niche in the bottom of the lid, which was quite thick, perhaps 4 inches deep, to accommodate that and other things we might need to have in there and wouldn’t want to clutter up the habitat’s living area. The cord and the plug on one end slid nicely through a hole that ran up through the lid; after making sure it was long enough to reach the nearest electrical outlet, Loren plugged it in, then turned to the business of putting in a digital thermometer powered by a Barstow & Williams LongLife® lithium battery to monitor the temperature in the habitat – if, in spite of the thermostat and bulb, it got too hot or cold in there, the thermometer would start beeping LOUDLY, alerting whoever was in the area that something had to be done to make the temperature more comfortable for the spiders. And as the life of that battery was likely to be much longer than that of either of the spiders, it wasn’t likely to fail when they needed it most. “You can turn the thing off, if you want to,” Loren said of the thermometer as he made some adjustments in the architecture of the lid – which, rather than being a simple slab of wood, was turning out to be a rather complex piece of machinery in its own right, part wood, part metal, and part plastic, and lacquered to keep the moisture in the habitat from attacking the wood or encouraging the growth of molds and other fungi on it – to better accommodate the instrument. “Though I wouldn’t recommend that unless
absolutely necessary,” he said. “You might forget to turn it back on, and that could make for bad problems if your heating- and air-conditioning systems got out of whack and did their jobs too well or not at all. It shouldn’t be a problem, though, as long as you change the batteries regularly – and you’d only need to do that about once every few decades. Tell you what, though – let’s sign you up for a regular checkup, every three months, where I or one of my assistants come in and see how it’s going for your new children, there,” he said, smiling. “You never know when something will come up – if nothing else, we can tell if they’re feeling poorly, and will know what to do for them.” Steve looked skeptical. Loren added, “Won’t cost you a thing – part of the service, Elias said. As long as you okay it, you get that free.” Steve frowned and started to go into his Oh, Really, This Is Too Much rant, the one reserved for people trying to curry favor with us. Before he could launch into attack mode, I touched the back of his hand, frantically shaking my head when he glanced at me, mouthing “This is Elias! It’s okay.” Rapidly deflating, Steve sighed and, turning back to Loren, said, “Oh, all right. Might as well. Can’t argue with Free, can I?” – and added a smile of his own to make things all right. “How about water and food, Loren?” I said. “Okay, see these?” he said, holding up a couple of plastic thingees each about the size and shape of a mayonnaise lid, one per side of the habitat. “These are water-receptacles. They’re as much to keep the air in there a little moist for the spiders as for providing drinking-water – your spiders will get a lot of the water they need from their prey. A plastic jar lid or similar container makes a good water dish – these are made commercially, but really they’re just glorified jar-lids – and putting a large piece of sponge in each of them like I just did makes it easier for your spiders to get water. Keeping the water dish filled also helps maintain the cage humidity. Many tarantula keepers gently spray the substrate with water once a week or so. You want to check their water every day or two, and as for spraying the substrate, here’s a plastic sprayer, just like the ones you use to water potted plants,” he said, reaching into the large box that had been delivered with the spiders, which held all the gadgets and whatjamajiggies that Loren had been adding to the set-up. “Feeding, now, that’s a bit, er, hairy,” said Loren, glancing over at the carrier and its occupants with a smile as Steve and I both groaned loudly. As Loren and, later, Steve Muñoz said, feeding a tarantula is about as easy as you could wish for. The only drawback is that tarantulas eat live food, and there is no commercial food you can feed them on, so if you find it hard to feed them live food, then a tarantula may not be a good choice of pet. Their usual diet is insects, other spiders, and similar arthropods (as well as the occasional bird, in the case of Goliaths like our two). The size of a tarantula’s prey obviously depends on the size of the spider – for example, a tarantula spiderling would hardly be able to cope with a large insect, so the best thing to use as food in that case would be very small crickets. A large spider, however, would almost certainly ignore very small insects, requiring something at least the size of a grasshopper to draw its attention. Really large spiders such as our “bird-eaters” will often take a “pinky,” a baby mouse only a day or two old, but this is not essential for feeding them. The most popular food for big spiders includes cockroaches, crickets, grasshoppers, mealworms, earthworms, maggots, flies, beetles, moths, aphids and butterflies. (The picture below shows a Goliath eating a cricket, which will soon be an empty shell.)
Sketch © 2055 by Leah Royer Tarantulas and other arachnids partially digest their food out side the body, bathing it in digestive fluids from the mouth. The food given to them should consist mostly of crickets, only infrequently varied with something different – spiders need a little variety for the same reason we do, because they can become bored with their food if it’s too monotonous. Most of the food for pet spiders or those used in laboratory studies is bred commercially and sold in most pet shops. It’s best to get their food from shops such as Elias’ Animal Faire because commercial food from such sources is less likely to harbor dangerous bacteria or parasites. In the wild, most spiders have to set traps, and may not see food for days or even weeks, and that’s probably the best way to feed them in captivity. They do better if they work for their food, making web to trap their food, or hunting it down. The amount of food tarantulas need and a proper feeding schedule for them varies according to the appetites of individual tarantulas. Some tarantulas are greedy while others are happy with very small amounts of food. But as a rough guide for feeding, medium-sized to large spiders will eat 3-5 adult crickets per week, sometimes killing and eating all of them quickly and then fasting for awhile, and, at other times, killing several but only eating one or two of the ones they’ve killed. (In the case of web-spinners who do this, the remainder will be wrapped in a silk cocoon to serve as a snack later.) Apparently tarantulas can go for many months without food, and for over two months without water. However, it’s best to feed spiders each week (assuming, of course, it wants food that frequently; some don’t, and you should note its preferences and follow those). What it came down to, said Loren, was that tarantulas and other spiders are predators, and will eat just about any living animal they can capture and kill. Crickets, most beetles, grasshoppers, earthworms, moths, and other animals are acceptable food; the larger tarantulas, like our Goliaths, sometimes even eat small snakes, lizards and mice. Avoid wasps and bees, he told us, since they could harm the spiders, and don’t try to feed them with insects from an area that may have been sprayed for pests. But as long as we avoided insects that could present a danger to our spiders, just about any of them would do, as long as it was alive and wiggling when we put it in the cage – tarantulas aren’t happy unless they’re actively hunting their food. Spiders won’t overeat, said Loren, so we could provide as much food as the spiders would eat without fear of feeding them too much. We wouldn’t need to offer food every day, just once a week was fine. If our spiders decided to stop eating for a few weeks, it was normal – and might signal an upcoming molt. “Now,” said Loren, “when spiders are about to molt – I’ll go into that later, for now let’s concentrate on feeding – they’ll go off their food, something they can do for lots of other reasons, as well. Make sure, if they do go off their food, they’ve been feeding well and are in excellent condition so they can easily go thorough a biologically-mandated fast without any problems. Otherwise, if anything seems wrong be sure to contact us or Berkeley Clinics’ veterinarians and take the spider in for a good checkup, so any health problems it might have can be addressed by the best.” Once again he reminded us not to use pesticides anywhere near our spiders. Fly spray, ant powder, flea spray or powder, shampoo for the cats and dogs, or even inert insecticide powders such as jeweler’s rouge* are apt to sicken or kill tarantulas and other spiders. And letting them catch their food out in the truck and herb gardens people kept behind the Mansion wouldn’t be the world’s best idea, either, because of the use of insecticides and antibiotics on the plants to ward off the pests that liked our crops, too, and the dangerous pathogens that occasionally found their way into the lower levels of the food-web.
*Jeweler’s rouge, a form of powdered pumice used to polish gems and semiprecious stones, is ground so fine that the huge, adsorbent surface-area of the powder captures all the moisture in any passing small invertebrate’s body, killing it within seconds as a result of catastrophic dehydration.
When the habitat was finally ready for the spiders and we were able to transfer them from the carrier to their new home and secure the lid of the habitat for them – we got to keep the carrier, Loren said, if, for some reason, we needed to take them to a vet or back to Animal Faire – Loren went over a number of other important considerations with us.
For example, there was the matter of the tarantulas’ urticating hairs. Some tarantulas have fine, barbed, defensive hairs on the abdomen that contain a mild venom, which they will shed if disturbed. (It’s nothing unusual for a tarantula to have a bald spot on its abdomen; the missing hair will be replaced at its next molt.) These hairs can cause irritation to eyes, nose, and skin of anyone who gets too close and encounters the hairs. Loren said when feeding our spiders or cleaning their habitat to keep our hands and arms covered and our faces a safe distance away from the spiders to avoid coming in contact with such shed hairs, and always to wash our hands thoroughly afterward, just in case we’d picked up some urticating hairs in spite of our precautions, so they wouldn’t remain on our skin and give us a bad skin reaction. He provided us with a list of antihistamines and other drugs that would help if we did run into problems of that sort. As for handling, he said, the less this is done, the better for all concerned, since a fall of only a few inches might result in injury for our spiders. Some handling was fine, but to pick them up, he said, we should reach into the cage and gently urge them onto the palms of our hands. If a spider were to run from our hands, or rear up aggressively towards us, it should be left alone. When picking up one of the spiders, we should keep our hands close above some solid surface, such as a table top, so that if the spider decided to jump off the hand or accidentally fell off, it wouldn’t have far to fall and would be unlikely to be injured as a result. He told us to remember that a sudden puff of air or unexpected sounds or movements could startle our spiders or make them nervous and likely to jump out of our hands or off our shoulders, should we carry them there, so we should always be careful to make sure they wouldn’t have far to fall, and, if possible, that if they fell, it would be onto a soft surface, such as a pillow or into a fold of a shawl. Loren and Elias had made sure, of course, that our spiders weren’t likely to resist handling, and would learn to accept our handling them as non-threatening, but in case we ever wanted to purchase other spiders, especially from a dealer we weren’t familiar with, we should ask the salesclerk to demonstrate the proper way to pick up and hold the spider we wanted to buy. That way, if that particular spider wasn’t likely to adapt well to handling, we’d see it right there in the store and could get a different, more easygoing individual. We asked Loren how long our Goliaths would live. He told us that Bogey and other male tarantulas usually died within a year and a half after attaining maturity. Berkeley Clinics’ veterinary department, which was on permanent retainer by Animal Faire, had already been alerted to the fact that their primary beneficiary, the Governor, had just purchased two tarantulas, and would happily work with us to make sure Bogey lived as long as possible, in the best possible health. They were currently doing some exciting research on arthropod longevity, said Loren, the results of which would of course feed back into the Berkeley Clinics’ other programs, including those having to do with human health and longevity, and would be delighted to apply their findings as appropriate to our spiders. At present, no one had any idea what the ceiling was on artificially enhanced invertebrate longevity, but there were tantalizing hints that their life-spans could be extended by several orders of magnitude – without sacrificing their health. So Bogey might live at least long enough to see the end of this century, and who knew how much longer? As for Bacall, her prospects for a healthy, very advanced old age were even better than Bogey’s. As it was, depending upon their species, some female tarantulas had been known to live 20 years or more without any veterinary assistance at all, though most, of course, never came close to such an age (life in the wild tends to be strenuous and stressful, with lots of dangers, something as true of spiders as any other sort of creature, and life in captivity – well, there’s nothing like being sat on suddenly by an unwary houseguest, or subjected to an instant, hands-on, legs-off anatomy lesson by an inquisitive, hyperactive three-year old to really make your day, especially when you’re only a few inches and ounces in size to start with! How could we tell the, ahem, basic difference between Bogey and Bacall, we asked. Loren told us that sexing tarantulas was always somewhat iffy unless when you carefully examined them under a powerful hand magnifying glass. Immature males looked much the same as females of the same age, while the same held for mature specimens, as well. Generally, he said, wild-caught tarantulas seen in most pet shops are male, because these are a lot easier to catch in the wild when they’re hunting for mates. Animal Faire, however, bred their own tarantulas so they’d have plenty on hand to hire as security guards for the Jeweler’s Emporium, not to mention to produce more tarantulas for other shop-owners who wanted similar security and for those who wanted them for pets. What, asked Steve, if we wanted to breed Bacall? Loren told us that should wait for awhile – he’d go over that with us, too, but for now we should concentrate on getting practical experience handling our tarantulas. But once we’d gotten a fairly good idea of how to live with them, if we wanted to breed Bacall to Bogey, here were the basics of Topic A for tarantulas:
The actual act of copulation is quite rapid for spiders, on average no more than about 30 seconds – desirable in a species in which the female just might decide to chow down on her boyfriend if given half a chance to do so! Much longer mating sessions have been observed, though, but generally males that take their time about it are much more prone to receive big fat Darwin Awards than the wham-bam-thank-youma’am types, so it’s usually quick. If you decide to mate your tarantula always introduce the male into the female’s terrarium, never the other way around as is normal with most pet mammal species. You should always have a stiff piece of card or plastic available in case you need to separate the two tarantulas rather quickly. The courtship ritual within tarantulas varies from species to species, but in almost all instances the male goes about the task very cautiously. He may pound the floor with his legs, as well as vibrate his body up and down. If the female is receptive to his overtures she will respond in a like manner, at which time he will advance toward her. At this point she will rear up and expose her fangs. His reaction is to rush in and use his tibial spurs to lock her fangs in the open position. Having neutralized her danger for the moment, he now proceeds to inseminate her with his sperm. This accomplished, he will release one of her fangs and pacify her by stroking her abdomen with his free front leg. Finally, the other fang is released and he will make a hasty retreat. Not all mating go this smoothly. If the male is sluggish locking his spurs onto her fangs, she may bite him, and then proceed to dine on him. Once mating has been effected you can attempt a repeat mating a few days later. It is generally held that if the female rejects such a second mating it is a sure sign she was fertilized on the first occasion, but this may not always be the case. When mating is successful, depending on the species the female gestates her eggs in her body over a period of five to ten weeks, then spins a special web on which she lays 50-700 eggs, the number also varying as to species. This web is then rolled up into an egg sac, enclosing all the eggs to keep them as safe as possible. The eggs are incubated in this enclosed pouch for anywhere from one to four months, during which time their mother will rarely stray very far from the pouch. Large numbers of eggs imply a high mortality rate in the wild due to a mixture of infertility, predation, disease, and cannibalism among the young. Before the spiderlings leave the egg sac, they hatch and then go through their first molt. Once they leave the egg sac, they molt again about a week later, repeating the process several times as they grow. Once the eggs hatch, the little spiderlings will quickly scuttle off to seek shelter. Otherwise, if they hang around too long, their mother is likely to make a meal of them. That they scatter is an extra, added benefit, genetically speaking, because that maximizes the chances that on average, the young won’t have to share resources with their genetic rivals, their own siblings. As far as the male tarantula goes, prior to mating he spins a special web on which he deposits his sperm. Then, standing on the web, using his pedipalps,* he draws the sperm into the special mating structures on the tarsal** portions of his pedipalps. The tip of this special structure is called the embolus, and it is this that the male inserts into one of the genital openings of the female.
*In scorpions, near relatives of spiders in which the pedipalps functions in prey capture, defense, and sensory perception, these are either of the paired chelate (pincer-like) appendages comprising the fourth somite (any of the body segments in those animals that are composed of a linear series of similar body segments); in spiders and their close cousins, they are the second pair of appendages (after the fangs, or chelicerae, and before the legs). – If you’re wondering, I took lots of notes while Loren told us about spiders that day. **The leg segment immediately beyond the tibia (the fifth segment of the leg in spiders and other arachnids, located between the patella (the fourth leg segment from the base of the cephalothorax between the femur and the tibia and metatarsus; the metatarsus is the sixth leg segment from the cephalothorax [in arachnids, such as spiders, the anteriormost body region, consisting of head and thoracic segments, covered dorsally by the carapace and bearing the chelicerae, pedipalps, and legs] in spiders and some other arachnids, absent in the spider pedipalps), sometimes consisting of one or more “segments” or subdivisions.
Once the eggs have hatched and the spiderlings emerge through a small aperture in the egg sac the female should be removed to a new home so the youngsters can grow in safety. A pile of moss provides a great substrate in which the baby spiders can live for a few weeks with no problems. Of course, the larger and stronger ones will eat the smaller and weaker spiderlings, but there really isn’t anything one can do about it at that stage, and in fact it is necessary, providing a strong if harsh selective pressure because of which the survivors will be the strongest, most viable possible, and should not be interfered with (just don’t get attached to particular spiderlings at this stage, Loren cautioned us, or otherwise your heart might be broken if your favorites suddenly take up a new residence inside a brother or sister). Some fruit flies should be placed in the terrarium on a regular basis to provide food for the growing spiders. After a few weeks the youngsters should be separated to keep the death rate among them from rising sharply. At this point you may still have between 100 and 400 baby, each now needing a new home where it can be an only (and safe) young spider, so be sure to call Animal Faire or some other good pet store around then to pick up the ones you can’t provide for. For any you decide to keep, a stock of small jars with gauze covered lids will be fine for their new homes, but any sealed container you can obtain in quantity will be fine for that purpose. Whatever container you use for the spider’s home should be half filled with potting soil and little moss or cotton wool that will hold the needed moisture. The babies will need to be fed at least twice a week, and with a couple of hundred or more youngsters this becomes a major chore – “Trust me,” said Loren, “you don’t want to have more than a very few babies around unless you go into the business, because otherwise you’re going to have pinheads (microcrickets, the food the spiderlings eat when they get a little larger) swarming all over the place, getting into everything, and the only way they can really be controlled at that point is to fumigate, and, well, it’s a bitch, it really is!” Of course, in captivity, with adequate husbandry techniques, a much greater proportion of a spider’s offspring can be raised to maturity than in the wild. (This can be a mixed blessing, depending on just how many spiders you’re equipped to deal with properly!) Here’s an anatomy diagram of a typical spider:
From Arachnology: A General Text for Grades 5-12 by John Phillips, Ph.D. and Aaron Maslow, M.A. (Fort Sacramento, NCA: Lewis Publishing Co., 2039), p. 85 A spider’s sense of touch is excellent, but in general spiders’ eyesight is not very good – most spiders can’t see much more than light-vs.-dark and basic shapes. Most spiders learn more about the world around them by feeling vibrations than they ever learn from using their eyes. They detect events in their
environment mostly by the differences between different vibrations in their webs or other surface on which they are standing – e.g., wind and trapped insects can both make a spider’s web move, but the spider can easily tell the difference between the jerky, uneven vibrations caused by the insect and gentle, smooth vibrations caused by the wind. “As you can imagine,” said Loren, “hurricanes have their own percussive signatures, which are not like those of any insect born, so spiders don’t have any problem distinguishing them, either – assuming the spider isn’t picked up and carried away by the wind, that is.” When courting females, many male spiders make the female’s web vibrate in a special way that tells her that he is another spider of her own species, not an insect to be eaten, a competitrix of her own species, or a spider of either sex of a different species that could be dangerous to her. Not all the hairs on a spider ‘s body do the same thing, and many of them display a wide range of sensitivities. Some hairs help the spider hold on to different kinds of surfaces; each of these ‘holding hairs” divide into thousands of smaller hairs which function like many tiny hands, giving the spider a better grip on a surface. Other types of hairs are used like combs for keeping the spider’s silk from getting tangled and helping straighten it out when it does tangle up. Still others sense movement around the spider. And there are the urticating hairs on some spiders mentioned above. Spiders have as many as eight simple eyes, arranged in two groups, but, though some spiders can see images, none have eyes as well developed as those of the insects. Instead, the world of spiders is one of vibrations sensed through the surfaces on which the spider lives. This is a universe almost unknown to us – imagine high-wire artists walking on a network of fine threads, communicating with one another by plucking and strumming the surrounding threads. That is the world of web-weaving spiders, all of whose activities, including feeding, mating, and egg laying, take place while they are suspended from silk threads. The seven segments of a spider’s legs make them much more flexible than human legs, which only have two segments. Like humans, spiders have muscles that bend the legs closer to the body. However, spiders don’t have muscles that move the legs away from the body the way we do. So each time a spider needs to stretch a leg back out, it must pump fluid into that leg. Then, to bend the leg back, pressure is relaxed and the fluid flows out of the leg as the muscles do their work, rather like the way a garden hose gets stiff and moves around when filled with water, and then gets limp again when the water drains out.*
*What is that smirk all about, Steve?** **If you don’t know by now, darlin’, you’re never going to – and I’m pretty sure you’ve known for years. – Steve
Spider silk is made inside the spider’s body. It leaves the spider’s body in the form of a liquid, through tubes called spinnerets. These spinnerets have valves on them that the spider can turn on or off as desired; when a valve is opened, pressure inside the spider’s body helps to push the liquid silk out through the spinnerets. The silk becomes solid as it leaves the body. The spider uses its legs to help pull the silk out of the spinnerets. Spiders have an open circulatory system. The heart pumps blood through a series of vessels and arteries, but spiders lack the complex system of capillaries possessed by vertebrates for transporting oxygen, nutrients, and wastes between blood and body tissues. In spiders, blood seeps between their tissues, collects in little pockets within the underside of the body, and then flows back to the heart; not all their blood passes through the its respiratory organs. An efficient, high-pressure circulatory system is crucial for a spider’s locomotion. Spiders have seven leg segments, and their movements are controlled by muscles and by pressure changes in the body’s circulatory fluid. Spiders use muscles to retract their legs, but they lack extensor muscles. Instead, spiders extend their legs by means of changes in body-fluid pressure. When spiders do not receive enough water to replenish their body fluids, their legs fold up and they are unable to extend them. As far as respiratory systems go, spiders exhibit three different types: some have book-lungs, some have tubular tracheae, and others have both tracheae and book lungs. Book-lungs are located by means of two hairless patches on the underside of the spider’s abdomen; each book-lung has an open slit for air intake and contains a stack of leaf-like, blood-filled structures called lamellae. As air passes into the
spider’s body, the spider’s blood picks it up and, as it passes through the lamellae, it oxygenates them Tracheae, on the other hand, connects the spiracles, or breathing pores on the exterior of the spider’s body, with the tracheoles, the fine terminal branches of the respiratory tubes from which the blood picks up oxygen and carries it to other areas in the body. The tracheae are lined with taenidia (singular taenidium), circular or spiral thickenings in their inner wall, that help facilitate the transfer of oxygen to the spider’s circulatory system. Like insects, spiders have a hard cuticle or body shell, the exoskeleton. The cuticle covers the cephalothorax and legs and prevents the spider from losing moisture and drying out, as well as providing it with structural support. Spiders also have an internal skeleton, an extension of the external cuticle, which serves as a surface for muscle attachment. Unlike insects, spiders have no antennae. They do, however, have two appendages near their mouths that are often confused with insect antennae, the aforementioned pedipalps, which they use to manipulate their prey while feeding. The palps of immature males are expanded and look like boxing gloves; as the male matures the palps are transformed into highly complex organs that are used to inseminate females. The females palps are slender. Loren was quick to reassure us both that as far as spiders preying on human beings goes, like the freaky spiders in old Z-grade uranium turkeys such as Arachnophobia and similar all-out cinematic disasters, it doesn’t happen. We’re far too big to be a spider’s preferred prey, and stories about spiders chewing their way into a body and dissolving it from the inside out with their venom are blatant nonsense – rather obvious nonsense, considering that it would take several thousand spiders, all working overtime and doing nothing else, night and day, to make that much venom. Plus, our bodies aren’t made like those of insects. Sometimes spider venom can kill human beings, but as far as dissolving it down to liquid, the amount even a large spider can make is just about enough to make stew out of a very, very small piece of human soft tissue, maybe a CC or two.*†
*I was the one who asked about that particular possibility. After Loren got through explaining that one – and the fact that tarantula venom isn’t even very poisonous to human beings – I saw Steve smirking. Catching my look, he said, “Remember Rain-Forest Blues? That one was published when I was around 30, back in 1999. That one got rave reviews by biologists, who said I’d really done my homework.” I said, “So I was teaching American history at UCLA then – no time for researching spiders. – And even if he didn’t need your tutorial, Loren, I enjoyed it. So there.” “You just wait, darlin’ – I’ll get you back tonight,” said Steve. He did, too.** **Yes, and you wore me out, too, darlin’. What I get for marrying an enthusiastic woman. – Steve †As far as I know, there exists only one exception to this rule: army spiders. A large group of them on the march are quite capable of taking down even very large prey – there have been rumors concerning the fate of zoo elephants in areas in South America that have been infested by army spiders that are enough to send chills up your spine – and when the entire group of spiders gathers to feast on their kill, their combined venom, which is also a digestant that renders prey down to a liquescent mass before they try eating it (spiders don’t have the sort of mouth-parts and digestive systems that allow for chewing meat and digesting chunks of it), is more than enough to do the job on the entire prey carcass.
Loren spent quite a lot of time giving us this introductory tutorial to the Wonderful World of Arachnids, what he called Spiders 101, though a lot of this information came from a bunch of pamphlets Loren left with us, along with orders to call Animal Faire at once if we had any urgent questions (less urgent ones, of course, could wait until morning – as he said, the really important ones, whether about spiders or cats or anything else, somehow always come up around 2 a.m.). After he left, around 4 – we’d already extracted a promise to come have dinner with us in a couple of weeks; he was one of those people Steve took to at once, very easy to talk to and just chock-full of useful information Steve might be able to use in a book someday – Steve and I went up to the Communications Department, two floors up, to put in that Links call to Lorenzo Derkein. “Hi! Long time, no see, old friend – what can I do for you?” The moment Steve announced his identity, Lorenzo, who had sounded monumentally depressed when he first took our Links call to his home
in southeastern New Arizona, was transformed into the happiest of men, sounding like a desperately poor man who’d just been told he’d won the $5,000,000 New Nevada Gold Powerball Lottery jackpot. “Well, Hannah and I –” “Hannah! Is – is she all right?” “She’s right here, Lar’,” Steve told him, chuckling his “I knew you would” laugh. “Hannah?” Steve said, urging me toward the microphone. “Larry, how are you?” I said. Steve and I must have been the only ones in the whole world that could not only get away with calling him “Larry” or even “Lar’,” but make him happy by doing so. We were among the very few people Larry could relax with. An extremely powerful man, politically and mentally as well as physically speaking – he practiced in the local dojo all the time, and had even managed to impress Soké with his skills the last time he’d come to visit Fort Sacramento; in addition, he was always working out in the gym he’d had build in his home, and as a result had a musculature that was the envy of every body-builder who ever met him – he never felt comfortable around people who weren’t carrying the responsibilities he was. The only exceptions to that were his constituents back at the reservation where he lived, the Indians who were the only real family he had any more. Otherwise, he shunned people who weren’t on his own level or higher, and the only people whose company he really seemed to enjoy, besides Soké, were Steve and I, Admiral Resh, Al Norwich, Steve Muñoz, Buddy O’Banion, and Paul and Leah. “I’m fine, sweetie – how are you doing?” “I’m fine, I really am.” I always reassured him of that right off – he tended to mother-hen me, otherwise, and the endless cases of real home-made chicken soup he kept sending me if I didn’t at once make it clear I was fine, just fine tended to get a little embarrassing. “Just called to say hello?” he asked, his loneliness more evident than ever in the hope that edged his words. “That, and also, we need to ask a favor of you,” Steve quickly interjected. “What’s that, Steve? Glad to do anything I can, so shoot.” “We need a spider.” “A – what?” Larry said, the bald, out-of-left-field words leaving him a little stunned. “A Habronattus americanus, to be precise – a jumping-spider that lives in your part of the world. Little guy, 2-3 inches long, colored red-white-and-blue. It’s for Hannah.” “Ah! Well, if it comes from Arizona, I’m your guy, that’s for sure! How come you want a spider, sweetie?” “Monty told me about them, back when,” I told him. “He lived for a while in Arizona right after the War, went to school at the university, then got a job as a field biologist. He said they were the sweetest little things, great big eyes that look back at you, very intelligent. They’re no danger to human beings – their fangs are so small they couldn’t really get through our skin. I’ve always kind of wanted one, and last night Steve and I visited Elias’ Jeweler’s Emporium & Animal Faire and I sort of fell in love with the tarantulas and we got some, they delivered them today, and while I was there I got to remembering what Monty’d said about the jumping spider, which he really liked. I asked Elias about them – remember Elias?” “Oh, yes! Hell of a nice guy! Last time I visited, he and I went over to one of the ranges and shot targets for a couple of hours together, then he took me home for the great kosher dinner in the world. I mean, I can do my own cookin’, as you know, and my housekeeper, Sadie, she does pretty well at it, but this was true cordon bleu cooking!” he said, making a kissing sound for emphasis. “How’d he doing?” “Seems to be okay – between Berkeley Clinics and his natural cussedness, I’m sure he’ll outlive all of us, make Methuselah look like a piker,” Steve said. “Yeah, that’s Eli, all right,” said Larry, chuckling. “So, Hannah, you just want one of the little guys?” “Actually, we need at least twenty, ten males and ten females – Eli wants a breeding population, so if something happens to Hannah’s spider, we can replace it,” said Steve, going on to give Larry the details we’d discussed with Eli the evening before. “That doesn’t sound like it’ll be a problem,” Larry said. “Once we’ve rounded up the spiders for you, we can send them up there directly, on one of the regular Air Delivery flights from Tucson. As far as getting the spiders themselves, that shouldn’t take long – we’ve got about thirty kids here who can use some extra college-money doing a little field research for me,” he said, chuckling. “My people’s kids, you know – every one of ‘em’s got a Tucson-Fort Sacramento Gold trust-fund set up for college, and most of ‘em, the ones over, say, ten or so, anyway, they deposit every cent they can spare from the money they earn doing chores and such into those accounts.” Of course, he didn’t say it – he would have been embarrassed
to admit it – but I knew that Larry himself had been the one to start all those trusts, and that he’d pounce on any excuse to be able to add all the money he could to those accounts for “his” kids, who were, like their parents, very, very proud as well as arch-libertarians, and not happy accepting money they felt hadn’t earned from anyone, even Larry, no matter how much they needed it. “I’ll offer a hundred dollars in gold for each spider in good condition they bring in – probably get deluged with spiders, but hey, the last five years have been great for business, so I’ve got the bucks for all they can round up. Sounds like Eli can use all we can send him, too, so we won’t have to turn anybody away – these kids, they’re such eager-beavers, ready to take on the whole world as soon as they can, I don’t want to disappoint any of ‘em, you know?” “Yeah, I know,” Steve said, laughing. “Larry, you’re a saint, you know that?” “Shhh! – You’ll ruin my rep!” Larry said, his own laughter a deep, throaty chuckle coming over the Links as little more than a whisper. “Steve, maybe there’s more to this than just stocking Eli’s place. You think maybe your Berkeley Clinics could use Eli’s overstock if we get too many for him?” “Sure! So could any UNC campus’s biology department! And maybe UNN – you might give a call to Rockland, find out from Buddy who to talk to in his state’s university system about that. Hell, I suppose any university with a good biology department would be happy to have some to study. What about your state’s universities?” “We-ell, I’m not sure,” Larry said, a hint of something sour creeping into his voice. He and his people had been in the business of capturing Swamplands wildlife of all kinds, plants, animals, fungi, the strange inter-kingdom hybrids, and selling it to the University of New Arizona’s biology departments for many years. From the start, from what we’d heard, the relationship had been a less than happy one, the university trying to pay as little as possible to Larry and his people for the stock, while they used every tool from cyber-war to old reliable arm-twisting to get the university to cough up what it owed – with interest. Larry and his people always won in the end, but it took far too much time and trouble for them to get what was owed to them. If not for the fact that UNAz was local and delivery of the merchandise (not to mention the aforementioned arm-twisting, which from time to time had become quite literal) easy to accomplish, they’d have given up on them entirely as customers and traded exclusively with more reliable buyers. “We’ve had some go-rounds with UNAz from time to time, generally over Swamplands stock we’ve sold to them. They’ve claimed it wasn’t what they wanted, so they didn’t want to pay for it, that sort of thing. Donations I wouldn’t mind, but I’m damned if I’ll give anything away my kids here work their butts off to find to UNAz for free, nasty as they’ve been to us at times. – But that’s old news, and who wants to listen to it? Anyway, there are probably lots of places that would be more than happy to have some of our local eightlegged wildlife, for teaching, pet stores, all sorts of ‘em, and the hell with UNAz,” he said, the cheer returning to his voice. “We’ll work it out, no problem. The main problem will be to keep the kids from getting so good at collecting the ecosystem takes a beating,” he said, chuckling again. “Can’t have that! “– Okay, we’ll get right on that, and we should have some spiders on their way to Elias in a couple of weeks, maybe less. Now, could you go over how they look one more time? I want to take notes . . .” Which he did, while Steve and I gave him detailed descriptions of the males and females. As he said, of course, plenty of information about the species was available in local libraries. Most of Arizona’s free public library systems weren’t directly hurt by the War, though for years afterward, of course, they hadn’t been able to mesh with library systems elsewhere for interlibrary loan programs the way they had before the War, and, like every other public institution, they’d gone begging for resources. Thanks to Larry and other far-seeing philanthropists like him, by the mid ‘30s, those and numerous other institutions in the state had been given a new lease on life and were now some of the best in the West, better even than many such in our own state. Wherever local telephone services had been restored, as in our state, New Alaska, Eastern Washington, and New Nevada, they even had local versions of the old Web up and running again, truncated and sadly impoverished compared to what the pre-War World Wide Web had been, of course, but growing and multiplying all over the state, forming the kernels of what would eventually become a network spanning the entire state. One of the places where telephone service had been restored was, of course, the area in which Larry and his people lived; though it was part of the Swamplands, optical-fiber technology and communication cables insulated in sheaths woven of carbon nanotubes and mass-produced spider-silk so far had proved tougher and stronger than anything the Swamplands could throw at them, and, as a result, the Swamplands telephone network and its associated micro-Web that depended on that technology were now at least as reliable as any in our state, maybe more so. What Larry’s people built – and they had installed the entire local telephone system and associated information servers in the Swamplands themselves – they built very well indeed. Already that network was connecting with Tucson and, through Tucson, all the way west to Yuma and on to Diablo Keep. Someday Steve and I would be able to pick up a
telephone here in Fort Sac and punch in Larry’s number and be connected with him immediately, without having to go through the tedious communications protocols of the Links – and, thanks to Larry and his people, that day wouldn’t be all that long in coming. Then Steve tried to talk about how much Larry would charge Elias for the spiders – and Larry almost hung up on him. The only reason he didn’t is, I think, that I was there and he remembered that fact before getting so mad he slammed the phone down. “Steve,” he finally said after a long minute of dead silence, his voice steaming with fury, “I don’t want a damned dime from you. This is for Hannah, all right?” “I – uh –” “Larry,” I said, before Larry could reach critical mass, “that’s fine, that’s fine, no problem, okay?” As if he’d never gotten angry at all, his voice suddenly as sweet as pie, he said, “Sweetheart, I want to do this for you, okay? I still haven’t given you a wedding present. The spiders will be the first installment of it – I have something in mind, that’ll come along later, but for now, this’ll be the first part of your present.” Glancing over at Steve, who looked as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or faint, I said, “Larry, you don’t have to –” “Yes, I do, sweetheart. This is something I’ve wanted to do ever since I heard about your marrying Steve – and you tell that husband of yours for me, this is none of his never-mind – and I just kind of got delayed in doing it. We’ll have the first batch of spiders up to Elias right away, so you can have your spider before much more time goes by. Those are gratis to him. If he wants more, then he can pay for ‘em, but sounds like you need a, whatchacallit, resident population of ‘em up there so if your spider wants a mate or you need a replacement, there won’t be a problem with that. – Sound okay with you, Steve?” he said, something dangerous edging his voice. “S-sure, Larry, that’s fine,” Steve said. “Believe me, I really didn’t realize you wanted to do this as a gift for Hannah. I’m sorry if I –” “Oh, forget it, Steve, I’m sorry I jumped on you like that,” Larry told him, all the anger leaving his voice like air let out of a balloon. Sighing, he said, “Look, we’ve had our troubles down here, like always, and I’m kinda stressed out. Didn’t mean to blow up at you. Anyway, this first batch’s for Hannah. I’ll call Eli and let him know, so he’ll know what’s going on, and that he won’t have to pay for that first lot. After that, well, he and I’ll work it out between us. We’ve done a lot of business together, he and I, won’t be any problems at all.” The remainder of the call consisted mostly of Larry alternating between apologizing to Steve for blowing up at him, apologizing to me even more for blowing up at my husband, Steve and I both reassuring him that it was okay, we understood, Larry’s assurance that as soon as he was ready to make that first delivery he’d call us over the Links to let us know, and the usual exchanges of pleasantries before terminating the call. After the call was over and we were getting ready to go back to our suite, Steve turned to me and said, “He’s sick, I swear – he’s gotta be sick! Normally he’s tighter than a constipated Scotsman in a pay-toilet, so when he refuses to take payment on something, you know he has to be sick!” As I took his proffered arm and we left Communications, heading back to our suite, I said, “Would it be possible to have something like a wedding reception here, one that everyone who wasn’t there for our wedding could come to? I think that Lorenzo would like that.” “Hmm . . . not to mention a lot of other people. Maybe we should, darlin’, maybe we should,” Steve said, his expression becoming thoughtful. When we got back to our suite, he said, “Tell you what, let’s shoot for this coming July for that reception. It should be fairly dry, then, and we can hold it on the lawns out back, with pavilions for dining and everything. The kitchens here can do the catering, and as far as the booze goes, Fort Sac has some of the best provisioners in the world now here.” “July? I don’t see why not . . . Well, maybe one thing: what about insects? The mosquitoes can get bad during the summer here!” “Bug-lights, 40-gigawatt bug-zappers, and those giant citronella mosquito candles they sell at Fort Sacramento Chandler’s and other places. Remember, it’ll be a state occasion – maybe we aren’t taxing people the way they used to, but the state industries are very profitable these days, and we can bill it all to the treasury if we want.” “Oh, sweetheart . . . Steve, you’re spoiling me, you know that?” “Yes, I know. You ought to be spoiled! High time – no pun intended. – Here, let me help you with that zipper . . .”
The rest of the afternoon was occupied with activities that would shock you, dear reader, so, to spare your feelings, I’ll just content you here with this line of asterisks and get on with the rest of the story afterward: ***** Of course the moment Punkin and Booker got their first look at their new house-mates, Bogey and Bacall, that first night after the spiders arrived, the cats streaked out of the bedroom in a fit of jealousy compounded with genuine shock over the new arrivals. Whether it was the way they looked, the way they smelled, the way they moved, sounds they made, or some combination of these, Bogey and Bacall affected the cats the way the best grade Z horror movies affect young children: they were top-quality feline fright material, no doubt about it. But, even more clearly, the two newcomers were Interlopers, Intruders, Invaders – and they were getting an awful lot of the lavish attention which, up until now, Steve and I had been giving to Booker and Punkin (much of which, it had to be admitted, had been devoted to breaking up the incessant I’ve-Got-a-Bigger-Whoozis-Than-You-So-There altercations between the two cats that had gone on since Booker and I had first joined Steve’s ménage here the previous month). Steve and I, following to make sure that the cats didn’t do themselves or anything else any real damage, found them in the front room, grooming themselves so strenuously that they seemed likely they’d both end up hairless as lizards if they kept it up for very long. “Okay, so what’s the problem?” Steve asked them, arms akimbo, glaring down at them with his most ferocious “This had better be damned good!” expression, trying with all his might not to show even a hint of the laughter that threatened to overwhelm him. Finding the two cats’ furious confusion over the arrival of the spiders as funny as Steve did, taking a place beside him, trying to look properly disgusted, I said nothing, waiting to see what the cats would do next. What they did was continue to wash themselves, looking up every few seconds to see what we were doing, and, finding us still standing there, frowning down on them like the wrath of God, turning back to the serious business of grooming themselves. It was a textbook case of deferred aggression if I’d ever seen one – they were both furious at us, didn’t dare show it, and spent the energy that would otherwise have gone into a tantrum in that wash-wash-wash-wash routine that threatened to have them licking themselves bald if they persisted at it for more than a few minutes. “Well?” Steve demanded. Booker, who had been facing away from both of us, whirled around, glared up at Steve, whirled around in the other direction, and started scratching an imaginary flea somewhere around the base of one ear. Punkin, on the other hand, lifted his head to glare at me (he had been facing us both, except that he’d been too intent on his washing to meet our eyes), then whirled around until he, too, was facing away from us, concentrated all his attention on getting all the hairs on one hind leg to go in just the right direction. At this point, the two cats were sitting side by side, both very deliberately facing away from us, obviously On the Same Team – of which we were clearly not members. Suddenly Steve, unable to hold in his laughter any longer, quickly scooped Booker up in his arms and, still laughing so hard that his shoulders shook, carried the cat over to a nearby couch and took a seat there, holding the cat just like a small child, gently stroking Booker’s head and back as he told him, “You know, this is really unnecessary, cat. What is the problem here?” Following Steve’s lead, I picked Punkin up and, with Punkin in my arms, took a seat on the couch next to Steve and Booker. Punkin still looked furious, but at least he was tolerating me, letting me hold and pet him, not trying to scratch me and stalk off in disgust the way he had when Booker and I first moved in. When, after about twenty minutes of this, both cats had become much calmer, Steve got out some of the kitty treats we’d laid in a few days before, and we began plying the cats with the treats. “You notice they aren’t acting like they hate each other any more?” Steve said, grinning at me over Booker’s head as he fished yet another treat out of the bag for Booker and held it for the cat to nibble. “Odd, isn’t it?” I said. “Where’s the bag? Punkin wants a refill.” “Here. – Hmm, I think we’ve discovered something momentous, here: a way to end sibling rivalry, fast. Think we could bottle and sell it?” “What do we do to make them stop hating Bogey and Bacall, though?” “Uh, maybe you’ve got a point . . . What do you think, Book’? Do we have to get somebody else in here to get you to be cool about the spiders?” “We should have another spider soon – maybe that’ll do it.”
“I’m wondering what it’ll be like when the ferrets Bill promised us arrive,” Steve said. Booker’s ears pricked up at the word “ferret.” “He sure knows what that word means,” I said. “From your Keep?” “Monty and I had ferrets. Leah and Paul have them now – their kids would be heartbroken if we took them up here, so we left them down there with the rest of them, remember? Plus, Booker was always visiting his friends, including the Jamiesons, and was very familiar with their ferrets. Ferrets aren’t a big deal to him. It’s Punkin I’m concerned about. Think he’ll be jealous?” “Is the Bear Polish?” When I snorted, he grinned and said, “Dates both of us, doesn’t it? Anyway, yeah, he’ll be jealous. Count on it. – On the other hand, though, I wonder . . . for a change, these two aren’t swearing and spitting at each other. They seem to have declared a truce, at least for the duration, maybe even an alliance. If this is a prelude to their making friends, if Punkin sees Booker being friendly toward the ferrets . . . What do you think, darlin’?” “What do I think? I think it’s like what General Eisenhower was supposed to have said about battleplans: the moment the battle starts, no matter how good they are, all your plans go straight out the window. We won’t know until it happens, you know? – Yes, you’re just a booful, booful cat, Punkin, the prettiest cat that ever was!” I cooed at Punkin. Booker, held in Steve’s arms, gave me a baleful glare – which vanished as Steve plied him with yet another treat. “You’re gonna be big as a barrel, cat,” Steve told him, grinning, as he held the treat for Booker, who, eyes closed in bliss, took one dainty nibble at it after another until it was all gone, then burped in appreciation. “He already is,” I said, giving Punkin another treat. “I’m thinking of renaming him ‘Bustopher Jones’. He sure fits the part! – Yes, and you’re just the biggest, baddest cat that ever was,” I cooed at Punkin, who happily ate it up, along with his tenth treat of the evening. When both cats had finally eaten their fill of treats – God, don’t tell the vet how much we gave them that night, he’d kill us for doing it! He’d already given us the classic Stern Lecture about not turning our furry children into fatties – and were showing clear signs of drowsiness, getting up from the couch we laid them both down on it as gently as we could and, as they yawned and made ready for naps, we tiptoed back into the bedroom and got ready for bed ourselves. From that day on, Punkin and Booker were fast friends, a friendship that was only reinforced when the four ferrets Big Bill had promised us from Lady Iceberg’s recent, overlarge litter finally arrived. As I had told Steve, Booker was clearly interested in them, but not at all upset. However, Punkin went through his “I’m going to kill them all, I swear I’m going to kill them!” routine for a good hour before Steve finally put a stop to it by taking Booker and Punkin into the new “Weaselland” into which we’d had one of the empty rooms next to our suite converted just for the ferrets right before they arrived, sitting down on the floor while he held Punkin in an apparently gentle but unbreakable grip, and had Punkin watch Booker interacting with the ferrets. At first, Punkin spat and hissed, all his fur erect so that he looked like a black-and-orange, four-footed puffer fish, glaring at Booker the Traitor making time with the Invaders with eyes gone a hot, sulfurous yellow. But after about fifteen minutes, during which Booker made running commentary for him about the ferrets, glancing back at him from time to time to see if Punkin was paying attention, Punkin began to relax. Soon he was sitting contentedly there on the floor, not straining against Steve’s hands, looking at the intricate dance going on between Booker and the ferrets with growing interest. He seemed especially taken with the game of weasel-ball Booker began playing with one of the ferrets, the ferret running at Booker as if determined to rip his throat out, Booker deftly batting the ferret back to where he’d come from with one quick motion of his paw, the ferret, nothing daunted, coming right back at Booker again, like some weird tennis game involving a tennis ball with a mind of its own versus a single player armed with a big wooly sock instead of a racquet. Steve withdrew his hands. It took Punkin a few seconds to realize that nothing was holding him back any more, upon which he got to his feet and walked a few steps towards Booker and his new friends. One of the ferrets – not Booker’s opponent, another one – noticing Punkin’s approach, made a chittering sound and hurled herself at Punkin, who carefully responded just like Booker was doing, rolling her back across the room with one quick dab of his paw, claws most conscientiously retracted. Steve and I watched the cats play with the ferrets for an hour or so before we were both convinced that it was okay to leave the cats alone with them. Then we left. The “Weaselland,” or paradise for ferrets, had a window just high enough up one bare, slick wall that the cats could jump up to it to leave, but too high for any of the ferrets to reach. The window, rather than opening either into the main hallway or the outside,
opened on a narrow tunnel that ran behind the ferrets’ room, the back of our suite, and the room we’d had fitted out for the cats when I first got here, on the other side of our suite from the ferret habitat. The cats could easily get in and out of their own room via a low swinging door hinged at the top that gave on the tunnel, enter and leave Steve’s study in our suite by a similar door, and go in and out via a third cat-door giving on the main hall. When the windows in our bedroom or Steve’s or my study that gave on the area behind the Mansion were open, they could use those to leave the building entirely, as well. At all times, unless for some reason we locked the cat-doors down with the bolts we’d had put on them, If they were anywhere inside our suite or their own room, Booker and Punkin could get into the ferrets’ room with no trouble. At first, nervous about how Punkin might react to the ferrets, I’d wondered why Steve had had the Mansion’s construction department fit them out that way. But soon it became clear that Steve had been right when he’d told me that once it was clear Punkin wouldn’t hurt the ferrets – something which, he assured me, he’d make sure of first, before letting Punkin around them without supervision – they couldn’t have a better guardian. Punkin was the world’s most conscientious guardian when it came to anything or anyone that Steve obviously cared about. Once he and Booker finally buried the hatchet and decided to be friends, he regarded whatever Booker valued as To Be Watched and Warded, as well. The same was true of me and anything I cared about. Booker, of course, reciprocated. And so the ferrets ended up with two of the ablest guardians anyone could have wished, two muscle-bound, battle-wise tomcats that would have fought wolves to defend those ferrets – and won, quite handily. As for how the ferrets took to the spiders, that was another story entirely. Eventually we introduced the four of them to Bogey and Bacall, as well as to the jumping spider Larry sent us a few days after we got the tarantulas. At the time, all three spiders were in their habitats, safe behind thick panes of glass and strong panels of wood – a damned good thing, too, because the moment we set the ferrets down on the big desk on which we’d set the habitats (and, near-sighted as they were, the ferrets could certainly make out the inhabitants of the habitats at close range), they immediately began climbing all over them, relentlessly seeking a loose lid, a rickety panel, any small opening through which they might ooze into the habitats and make a much closer acquaintance of those strange things crawling around in there. Ferrets are even better than tarantulas at passing through cracks even an octopus would balk at trying, and we watched them like hawks to make sure that they didn’t succeed at their safecracking efforts. Finally, however, the ferrets, satisfied there was no way in, abandoned their efforts and came trundling back to us, chattering a rapid-fire commentary at us as they jumped off the edge of the big desk onto our bed, where Steve and I were sitting, watching them. “I know what they want for Christmas,” Steve said, laughing, as he picked up Thor, the biggest of the two males “What?” I said, making a spider of my own with one hand and mock-attacking Freya with it. “A crowbar and maybe some C-4. – Ouch! Dammit, Thor, that’s not nice!” “What’d he do?” “Bit my nose,” Steve said, rubbing the tip of his nose, where several large drops of blood marked the bite. Thor, meanwhile, having been dumped rather unceremoniously on the bed, was washing himself with a vengeance, much as Booker and Punkin had themselves on the Night of the Long Spiders. “We’d better take them back to their room. They do that kind of thing when they’re over-stimulated. Those spiders must have been a very exciting experience for them.” “Yeah, well, I’d like to give Thor an exciting experience about now,” Steve grumbled. “Okay, I think you’re right. Come on, you two,” he said, picking up Thor and Frigga, leaving me to follow up with Freya and Odin. “Let’s get you back to bed. Gad, you’ve got a better life than I do!” Certainly the ferrets had one hell of a great place of their own, not to mention the best food in the world, as much as they wanted, whenever they wanted, water-dispensers everywhere, and a gigantic sandbox under the coarse-meshed, horizontal square screen around which their four palatial nesting-boxes were arranged that was changed twice a week, usually by me. The nesting boxes and the screen that served as an openwork plaza between them had been set on a sturdy framework about three feet high, so that the screen did not touch the sandbox at all – ferrets are very fastidious creatures, and don’t like being in close proximity to their feces, and this sort of arrangement is very desirable from both their point of view and that of their veterinarian. They had no problem getting from the asphalt-tile floor to the nesting boxes, because at each corner of the setup there was a wooden ladder whose feet were set far enough out from the bottom of the setup’s leg there to give the ladder a slope of about 30° from the vertical. (While ferrets can’t climb perfectly slick, perfectly vertical surfaces, give them just a couple of degrees off the vertical and the
slightest coefficient of friction on that wall and . . . well, just don’t bet they can’t manage to climb it. You’d lose.) In addition to the nesting-box/sandbox setup, which was in the middle of their room, dozens of shelves lined the walls except for a good distance around the window, to make sure they couldn’t reach it (see previous comment about their climbing abilities) as well as the full-sized door set into the wall shared with our bedroom. There was a plethora of ferret-toys scattered all over. Among others, these included numerous accordion-pleated dryer ducts used to conduct hot air and lint from the Mansion’s dryers to the outside air; having seen better days, these had been retired from their former service to serve as ferret recreation tools. Ferrets are tunneling creatures, and love to play hide-and-seek through such make-believe “tunnels,” honing their rat-hunting and predator-evading skills thereby. They also had plenty of storeboughten, plastic tunnels in pretty colors, as well, though they seemed to prefer the dryer-ducts most of the time, perhaps because the sides of the plastic ones were slick and hard and transparent, unlike the yielding, opaque material of the dryer-ducts, which was at least a little more like the walls of the natural habitats of their wild ancestors. They had dozens of things resembling little rats or mice with either long, skinny tails of rubber or medium-sized tails covered in soft fur, and balls and rings and all sorts of other toys, some of cloth, some of plastic, all of them at least as intriguing to Booker and Punkin as they were to the ferrets, so we had to lock the window into the ferrets’ room from time to time so the cats wouldn’t keep the ferrets from playing with their own toys. There were plastic food-dishes set around the walls of the room, which I checked every day, filling those that needed filling, cleaning any that had gotten some moldy food in them. Water-bottles were held in wire holders that were fastened to the wall at just the right height for ferrets, not too low or too high for them to drink from the spout comfortably. On top of everything else, everywhere there were materials the ferrets could use for bedding. I changed it frequently, leaving little heaps of it in the corners of the room and on top of the nesting boxes, leaving it to the ferrets to arrange it as and where they would. In this as well as everything else, we had to be careful not to give them materials that they could chew into bits and swallow – foam rubber, for example, can be deadly, because ferrets love to chew it to pieces, then swallow the pieces, which, gathering together in big balls in their gastric tract and readily absorbing the fluids there, swell up to vast proportions, blocking the gut and, if not taken out by major surgery, rupturing the it, leaving the ferret to die in agony from peritonitis. Of course, the cats had just as posh a set of digs as the ferrets. They had a huge sandbox set behind a partition, inside a structure like a very small carport about three feet high, the peaked roof of which hung down nearly to the floor on two sides. They could enter and leave it via a door on one side; a wall blocked it off on the other side. A duct led from the inside of the structure to the outside of the building, as well; a fan had been set up there to pull fumes from the potty-box through the duct and dump it outdoors, where it wouldn’t bother anyone. Their food-dishes were all the way across the room on the other side, as were their water-containers, so they weren’t forced to eat close to where they did their business. Their room had ladders for them to climb, shelves at various heights to lie on, great big cushions and plush cat-beds from Eli’s store for them to sleep on (or, rather, in, as the two beds were both provided with cloth roofs and valances that hung down to the floor, giving them each his own private, soft grotto to sleep in), and maybe a ton of toys of their own (they weren’t above adding to their toy-troves by stealing from other cats or the ferrets, however). They even had planters with live catnip and other herbs of the sorts cats love in there; a gardener came in every few days to tend their planters, which were up on broad shelves, bolted to the wall, to make it convenient for the gardener to work with them – not to mention a little more difficult for the cats to reach and impossible for them to tear down, because otherwise they’d tear everything up in them every time something sprouted, and nothing would be able to take root for long, and finally the frustrated cats would have pulled them completely off the shelves to go smash on the floor. But the ferrets, of course, came later. For now it was just us and the cats* against the tarantulas – with another spider still to come. Still, we managed.
*The dogs, of course, who stayed in their palatial kennels elsewhere in the Mansion and were daily tended, walked, and fussed over by their grooms, neither knew nor cared about any of this. The same could be said of the turtles and coy inhabiting the huge fishpond in front of the Mansion, the goats, sheep, and vicuña pastured in a big fenced-off region out back, and the other non-human creatures living in and
around the Mansion. This, of course, is all just conjecture on my part – I could poll them, I suppose, but any that cared enough to participate in the poll would probably provide answers we can’t have in a family publication, so maybe we’d better let that pass.** **Darlin’, you’re mad. – But I love you for it.† – Steve †Well, I never! – And anyway, it’s more fun that way.‡ ‡I wasn’t disagreeing with you. While we’re at it, why don’t you wear that pretty little gold thing tonight, the one with the panels that come right off when I untie the bows? – Steve†† ††Steven! – Well, all right, as long as you wait to use the Kama Sutra oil until after the little gold thing is off and won’t get all oily from it – that stuff doesn’t come out for anything! The laundry ladies Had Words with me over it the last time, you know. ‡‡ ‡‡It’s a date. – Steve
***** The jewelry we’d purchased arrived about a week later. That night, after one of those disagreeable dinners with a couple of tiresome lobbyists that he couldn’t afford to offend, one whose numerous disappointments were compounded by something strange the chef did to the fish, Steve insisted that I model the jewelry for him, to take the bad taste of the last few hours with Messrs. Jimson and Datura, or whatever the hell their names were, out of his mouth. “We’ll replace it with the taste of you. – No, dear,” he said when I came out of the bedroom, where I had donned the jewelry, “that’s a lovely shift, but it just gets in the way.” “Oh,” I said, heading back into the bedroom. “Be right back . . .” A few minutes later I returned to his study, wearing nothing besides the jewelry but what I’d arrived in the world with – well, and a few strategic dabs of Giorgio II here and there. “Come here, darlin’,” he said, holding his arms out to me, grinning like a small boy who has just discovered that the huge pile of presents, the honest-to-God-no-trainer-wheels bicycle, the skateboard, and the six Gameboys under the Christmas tree are all just for him. When I approached, he took my hand and drew me onto his lap. “God, you look good!” he said, his voice muffled as he pressed his face against the place where my neck met my shoulder. Taking a deep breath, he added, “Smell good, too. But you always do. Let me look at you . . .” Sitting up straight again, he held me at arms length so he could see the jewelry clearly. I felt overdressed – there was so much of it! From the lovely silver earrings into which were set the tiny, perfect seed pearls; to the heavy gold torc inset with cabochon-cut rubies like eyes of fire, square-cut lapis like bits of Antarctic summer skies, a king’s ransom of brilliant-cut diamonds that adorned the torc’s lower edge, a hem of snow-drops, and a scattering of table-cut emeralds simmering with the sullen power of Aphrodite adorning my neck; to the anklets of loosely woven filaments of silver studded with tiny brilliant-cut diamonds like twists of fine cobwebs bedecked with dew, shimmering in morning zephyrs; to the tiara made of platinum and gold wires fine as angel-hair, into whose peak was set a huge natural star sapphire, bigger than the fabled Star of India, surrounded by a galaxy of tiny, perfect diamonds and rubies; to the 13 (oh, lucky number!) amulets and pendant necklaces of various sizes and metals, each inset with exactly one perfect gem, ruby, emerald, diamond, opal, or sapphire that seemed to have been stolen from a clear night-sky above my beloved home desert, draped about my neck, falling on my breast, nearly obscuring that gorgeous torc; to all the unbelievable wealth of the rest, I felt as if I were drowning in all that magnificence. The metal seemed to weigh me down, the stones to radiate the heat of the very core of the earth, and I considered asking Steve if we could just cut to the chase and – – and then, with slow, deliberate care, easing his own clothing off as he did so, taking care not to make me leave his lap, Steve began kissing me, here, there, everywhere not covered with metal and precious stones, on my throat, my earlobes, my arms, the spot between my breasts, my navel, my thighs, my –
Later, as we lay together in bed, replete and content, I said, “I think that was a good investment.” “That was a great investment, darling! I’m gonna have to have a talk with Steve Muñoz soon, though.” “What about?” “Making love in that chair doesn’t seem to be the world’s best thing for my back.” “Good thing we switched to the bedroom, then,” I said, finding myself giggling, something I hadn’t done in far too long. Putting his arm around me and drawing me close against his said, he said, “I hope we didn’t shock Bogy and Bacall, there.” My giggling escalated almost unbearably. Finally getting it under control, I said, “You think they understood what we were doing?” “Oh, hell, as near-sighted as they are, not to mention that the only light in here right now is starlight, they probably couldn’t see us at all! But I’m sure they can hear us – and maybe smell us, too. Guess I’ll have to ask Eli about it – if anybody knows, he’ll be the one.” “Oh, Steve, don’t ask Elias – he’d be scandalized!” I said, keeping myself from lapsing into another fit of the giggles with the greatest difficulty. “Honey, as long as he’s lived, given everything he’s lived through, not to mention the fact that he’s been a happily married man for decades, with great-grandchildren to prove it, yet, it would take one hell of a lot to shock him. Particularly given that his place is right next door to Fantasies Unlimited – God, can you imagine the parade of erotic lunacy that goes by his doors all the time?” “There’s that. – Well, we’ll just have to be more careful when our jumping spider arrives – if what Monty told me about jumping spiders is true, they’ve got eyesight that’s damned near as good as ours. Of course, they’re only out and about during the daytime . . .” “Good,” he said, suddenly rolling over until he was poised above me, grinning down at me. “What do you say we shock the spiders again? And then, when Mercury gets here, we can do this in the daytime and shock him!” he said, entering me quickly, before I quite realized what he was doing. The only reason I didn’t start giggling again then was that my mind was quite taken up by Other Things at that point . . .
§ 3: Peewee’s Big Adventure
Just as Larry had promised, Mercury arrived about a week later, around two weeks after we got Bogy and Bacall. That morning, we got a call around 10 am from Loren. “We took shipment of around a dozen Habronattus americanus yesterday afternoon. They came in on the regular mail flight from Tucson. We wanted to give them some time to recover from whatever stress that might have put them under, but they seem fine now. Want to take delivery on your spider now?” he asked Steve. We were both in Steve’s study when we took the call over the speakerphone Steve had had installed there. “I’ll let my wife decide,” said Steve. “—Honey, you want them to bring the jumping spider over now?” “Sure,” I said. “Er . . .” “How do I know which one you want?” Loren said, laughing. “I’ll just pick the prettiest and liveliest one just for you. As we discussed before, we’ll keep the rest here in case you decide you want a different one, or a companion for the one you have – next time you go by the store, drop in and you can look over the others and see what you think.” “Okay, that sounds fine. Will you bring a habitat for him, like you did for Bogey and Bacall?” “Of course! All part of the service for our best customers, Hannah.” “When will you be by?” Steve asked. “This afternoon I have an appointment to talk with some of the legislators about a bill that’s up for a vote next week.” “How about, say, six o’clock?” “That’ll be great,” Steve said. “If I don’t have them out of my hair by then, figure I’m in my dotage and send me to the old-age home.” Turning to me, Steve mouthed, “Dinner?” I nodded. Turning back to the phone, Steve said, “Got anything else going for tonight, Loren? If not, why don’t you stay for dinner, as well?” “Sure! What’s on?”
“What do you like? The kitchens here in the Mansion can fix up just about anything you like, as long as –” “— ‘as long as it isn’t elephant cutlet, they’re out of elephants.’ Whatever you two are having’ll be fine.” “Great! See you at six, then.” After the call ended, Steve said to me, “Darlin’, I really should get ready for that meeting– I told them to meet me for lunch in the main dining room, first, where we could start going over some of the particulars of that damned bill. That starts about 12:30, and it’s 11:00 now. I’ll be back by 5:00 at the latest.” “Sure, that’s fine. While you’re gone I’ll see where in the bedroom we should set up the new habitat, and call the kitchens and tell them what we’d like to have for dinner and that we’re going to have a third party this evening. How do lamb chops, mashed potatoes, a big green salad, and apple cobbler sound?” “Just right,” he said. Grinning, he patted his belly and said, “Woman, you’re spoiling me! Between you and the damned chefs I’m going to have one hell of a time avoiding being turned into a blimp. – Okay, I’ll go take my shower now and get dressed . . .” That evening, when Loren arrived, he was accompanied by a surprise: our old friend Steve Muñoz, who was in town to discuss some problems that had come up over recent legislation applying to the Berkeley Underground, the city-under-a-city comprising the ghouls who lived beneath the ruins of the preWar city of Berkeley, whose elected king Muñoz was. “Hey, look who I found wandering around our fair city! Dropped in for a chat at Animal Faire just before the deliverymen and I left to come here. Said he’d like to come along,” Loren said. “Well, hey!” said my husband. “Good to see both of you – come on in.” “Just a sec’, we’ve got precious cargo with us,” said Muñoz. “Let me bring it inside . . .” Before Steve or I or Loren could say anything more, Steve Muñoz stepped to one side of the door and then reappeared, a large, pre-assembled habitat resembling the one Bogey and Bacall lived in held in his arms. It looked extremely heavy – if it was made of the same material as the tarantula habitat, it must have weighed a ton – but Muñoz, who was blessed with that same extraordinary strength Paul had, carried it as if it were light as a feather. “You got the baby?” Muñoz asked Loren. “Yep.” Loren held up a little box with a screen across the top that he’d been carrying in one hand. “The other stuff is inside the habitat – all we have to do is unpack it and arrange everything. If anything’s missing, or needs fixing, I’ve got “Bob”, here –” – he held up the large suitcase he carried in his other hand – “and everything we might need is in that.” “Good. Okay, let’s go . . .” A few minutes later Loren and Muñoz had deposited their burdens in the bedroom – we’d set everything up after dinner – Loren carefully setting the little carrier down on top of the habitat. “Your new friend can rest in his carrier for awhile. He fed once today, and is probably rather sleepy, so if we turn out the bedroom lights for now he’ll probably just take a nap and will be fine.” “Great,” Steve said. “Okay, how about I take your coats and let’s do something about dinner? Steve, you want to have dinner with us, too?” “Sure, if it isn’t too much trouble,” said Muñoz. Taking the two men’s coats and ushering them into the room we’d had fitted out as a small diningroom, Steve asked me, “Honey, can you call the kitchens and have them send up an extra portion for Steve, here?” “I was just going to do that. Here, I’ll be right back . . .” When I joined the three men in the dining room, Steve Muñoz was saying to my husband, who was pouring wine into goblets for our guests and ourselves, “Steve, really, you don’t have to do that, I can eat later.” “Honestly, it’s no problem at all,” said Steve. “They haven’t even delivered the meal yet, so it’s no big deal to ask them to add one extra portion to the meal cart.” Setting down the bottle of wine – he had filled all four of the goblets which, like the wine he’d gotten from the sideboard – he helped me with my chair, then took his own seat next to me. “I’d keep the resources you’ve got available to you now,” Muñoz said, chuckling and shaking his head. “You and Chaim, you’ve got the riches of kings all around you, and I keep worrying about pennies. Maybe someday I’ll get used to it when I visit.” “You’re having problems getting used to it?” Steve said, grinning. “What about me? Yeah, I was a wealthy man back before the War – but this business of pointing to one man and saying, ‘You stay,” and he does, and another, ‘You go,’ and he does, it takes some getting used to. Anyway, we keep a lot of people
employed here in the Mansion, so you might say having the kitchens do all the work when it comes to our meals helps the economy. “—So, tell me, Steve, what do you think of our latest acquisitions?” “Your spiders? I’m fascinated. I got to see the Habronattus ranch Loren and Eli have set up in Animal Faire – Lorenzo and his people set some sort of record rounding up all those spiders! Not only H. americanus, either – they sent several other Habronattus species, too. Apparently some of those species will actually interbreed, and unlike mules, many of those hybrids are fertile. Kind of like hummingbirds. You usually don’t think of separate species even of the same genus as able to interbreed, at least not producing offspring that aren’t sterile, but this seems to be one of those exceptions that proves out the rule,” he said, glancing aside at Loren. We were sitting around the dining-room table, which, without its extra leaves, formed a 5’ x 5’ square, just right for the four of us; I was sitting at Steve’s right, Loren sat at Steve’s left, and Muñoz sat across from Steve, at my right, between me and Loren. “I’ve heard that about them,” I confirmed. “Monty loved them, the jumping-spiders, I mean. He lived in Arizona for a few years after the War, before he came to Diablo Keep, and saw lots of them all over the place while he was there. When he left for California, he said, he found them there, too, one of the things that made him decide to stay there,” I said, remembering my darling, hoping Steve wouldn’t notice the tears that were already threatening to overwhelm me. Taking a deep breath, I said, “I don’t know if you know it, Steve,” I said to Muñoz, “but Monty was in Central America when he was in the Marines. They had this big problem, army spiders – have you heard of them?” “Oh, yes, terrible thing,” he said gravely. “Loren mentioned them as we were coming over here from the store. I think Monty said something about that, too, when he was up here for one of the Fire Sales recording sessions. And I’ve run across some articles in the American Journal of Archeological Research that mentions them in conjunction with problems some of my colleagues ran into on digs in that area.” “Ah. Well, Monty and some others thought that army spiders may be close relatives of jumping spiders. That was one of the reasons he was interested in them, but he said that the more experience he had with the Salticidae, especially Habronattus species, the more he liked them and the less he was inclined to believe that army spiders had developed from them. Maybe the army spiders were escapees from a lab someplace, or they could have been natural mutations of Anelosimus – is that how you pronounce the name of that genus, Loren?” “My God,” Loren said, startled, “I had no idea you knew that much about spiders! The more I learn about you, Hannah, the more you astonish me. Yes, that’s one genus of them, and they are in that part of the world, or, at least, in Ecuador, a bit far from Guatemala, which is where I believe Monty was stationed while he was in the Marines?” “One of the places. Anyway, he was inclined to doubt that Army spiders are related to Anelosimus, because their sex ratios are about 4:6, that is, four males for every six females, whereas there are, relatively speaking, far fewer males in any of the known social spider species – well, other than army spiders. They are social, hunting in packs like wolves (except that there are millions of spiders in their packs, and only five to ten wolves in a wolf-pack), but their morphology has some interesting differences from any of those, for example, the fact that four of their eyes are quite large, like those of most jumping spiders. And then there are other traits they have that resemble still other types of spiders – and some things that don’t resemble any other sort of spider at all. Monty said that that was one of the main reasons he thought they may have been the results of genetic engineering on somebody’s part, because they were sort of ‘Mr. Potato’ spiders.” “ ‘Mr. Potato’ spiders?” asked Loren, intrigued. “You’re thinking of that toy they had around when we were kids, the kit that had plastic ears and eyes and so on you could stick into a potato to make it look like somebody’s head, aren’t you?” Steve asked me. “That one,” I said, smiling, no longer about to break down crying over Monty. Maybe I’d talked it out of my system for awhile. “Or, you could say, ‘tinker-toy’ spiders, things assembled to order from a wide selection of parts from all over.” “That’s what the authors of the articles I’ve seen on them think,” Muñoz said. “There’s been quite a bit of research on them done over the past couple of decades – they’re a terrible hazard for anyone going into any area where they can be found. According to my buddy Chaim – uh, Admiral Resh – his Fleet has done the bulk of it. They’ve found bits and pieces of DNA from two or three different families of spiders in their genes, even a couple of things that look as if they may have come from other arachnid orders, the scorpions and the harvestmen – Opiliones, the ones known as ‘Daddy Long-Legs’ – mostly things having to do with their venom, which has a rather strange chemistry, and their ability to ingest small solid particles
of food as well as food in liquescent form. I’m not sure of all the details, but what Chaim thinks – and I tend to agree, after learning the general results of the Fleet’s researches – is that army spiders were originally deliberately engineered by someone for use as biological weapons, and then either escaped due to some accident or were deliberately released, most probably in or close to the Yucatán. He – ah, I’ll bet that’s our dinner arriving now.” “Yeah, probably,” said Steve, getting to his feet and heading for the front room to see who was knocking. “I’ll be right back.” He was back shortly, helping two young men from the kitchens to push a large rolling meal cart into the dining room. While our two guests and I sat back from the table so that the kitchen staff could set the table for us and lay out the dishes of food, Loren, taking up the thread of the conversation, said, “I’ve seen pretty much the same things in the professional magazines. The army spiders do seem to be artifacts, or descendants of artifacts, genetically engineered to do a certain job, then unexpectedly flourishing in the wild afterward. Whoever did that job was a bloody genius – but a genius who deserved to have been boiled in oil, given the horror those spiders have become in that part of the world! “The thing is, as many different sorts of spiders seem to have contributed to the genes of the army spiders, it’s a wonder they’re viable at all. I mean, you wouldn’t think that somebody could get that right in just a few years – it’s taken Mother Nature hundreds of millions of years to tailor our modern spiders for the environments they live in, and get all the different genes inside any one spider to work together the right away instead of brawling away the way Doorways 45 did with itself – remember Doorways 45?” he said, chuckling. “Every five minutes one module would pick a fight with some other module over which one got to go first and you’d get kicked out of everything due to one of those God-damned ‘Protection Faults,’ ‘Illegal Operation Such-and-Such has just occurred – this operation is being terminated.’ Remember that?” “Oh, yes!” I told him, wincing, remembering all the times Doorways 45 had trashed whatever files I was working on in just that way. My husband, like Steve Muñoz, both of whom had had plenty of such experiences with the beast, themselves, laughed – a little sourly. None of us had very fond memories of that early version of Doorways, which, thank God (or, at any rate, Pat Wall), had since evolved into something far better behaved than its cybernetic forefather had been. “Well, that’s just the sort of thing you’d think would have happened to any organism with such a, a potluck genotype. That whoever tailored the things managed to get everything working well with everything else is a miracle – an infernal one, to quote C. S. Lewis, but a miracle nevertheless.” “Yes,” said Muñoz. “The Fleet is still trying to figure out how it was done. Chaim says that if they can do that, at least in part, they’ll have some useful clues as to how to do the opposite to the organism’s metabolism and physiology, get it all in conflict with itself until it simply self-destructs, like a Limulus polyphemus. You know, our North American horseshoe crab. When a horseshoe crab is injected with an extremely small amounts of a certain chemical, that chemical is absolutely harmless to it. But slightly larger doses of it cause the animal to simply fall apart, cell by cell, deconstructing itself all the way down to its most elementary components, the result of a reaction to that chemical by the Limulus’s own biochemistry. The weirdest part of it is that that chemical is actually something the animal’s body produces for itself in small amounts all the time! Why just a little bit more of it can make the creature’s physiology go berserk like is one of those mysteries scientists hate – meaning they pounce on it and pick it apart until they get answers from it. Which, so far, however, they haven’t been able to do in the case of Mr. Limulus. “At any rate, I forget the name of the chemical – that really isn’t my field, but maybe Loren can fill you in on it, if you like, as closely as Limulus is related to spiders. Be that as it may, the important thing about it is that it is something normally found in the animal’s own body, part and parcel of its biology. Yet add just a bit more than is normally in it, from outside, and the animal falls apart. Just exactly why still isn’t well-understood, but it can easily be demonstrated on any handy Limulus. The Fleet biologists are trying to find something that will do the same thing to army spiders, going about it heuristically as much as analytically, substituting one gene after another in the animal’s genome to see what happens when they do. I understand they’ve made quite a bit of headway on that project – maybe someday nobody will have to worry about army spiders any more.” “How would they do that to wild populations of the spiders?” Loren asked. “Tailor a retrovirus to do the job, then turn it loose. – Ah, this looks delicious, Steve, Hannah, my compliments to the chef!” Muñoz said as he began dishing up salad for himself from the big bowl of the stuff which the two young men from the kitchens had brought for us.
The two kitchen staff, having set our dinner out for us, had departed. They’d be back later to pick up the cart; in the meantime, in case anybody wanted seconds, they were available from containers set in wells in the cart’s sides. “Well, at any rate, Monty didn’t think the true jumping spiders were close relatives of army spiders – they’re rather timid around human beings, for one thing, as well as being loners. That just isn’t anything like army spiders,” I said. “Monty liked the jumping spiders he ran into in Arizona and Southern California back then. What’s sad is that the populations of jumping spiders have pretty much died out in most places in Southern California. There are areas around San Diego and in the Chocolate Mountains where you can find them, and pockets here and there along the eastern slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains and even to the north, around the southern end of the Sierra Nevadas. But they have nothing like the range any more than they once did – in fact, Monty said, by around 2037, ten years after the War, they were down to just a few tiny pockets here and there in California, though in Arizona they seemed to have better luck.” “He was right, Hannah,” Loren said. “They still haven’t recovered much in this state, even now. What was Monty’s field, anyway?” “That’s hard to say. His interests were so wide-ranging and diverse, you know. But he took his bachelor’s in general ecology and then his Ph.D. in astrobiology, with an emphasis on xenology, the study of advanced extraterrestrial cultures, and fire ecology. He did his doctoral thesis on the results of encroachment by different human populations on similar types of natural ecosystems – I think. Let’s see . . . it was titled ‘Spreading desert regions of North America as a result of anthropogenic disturbance of native ecologies since 1200 c.e.’ His thesis was that those spreading desert regions couldn’t have existed, or at least couldn’t have taken the forms they have since that time, without human impact on them.” “That’s okay, Hannah,” Loren said, wise enough not to add that it had been such a short time since Monty died that it was understandable that I might not remember details too well. Grateful for his tact – you’d be surprised how many otherwise sensible people become complete social idiots in the presence of someone who has recently lost a loved one, trying to be comforting and succeeding only in evoking the memories that hurt the worst – I said, “I think Monty said it was what they called a ‘synthetic major,’ one pulling together several fields via their commonalities. Something like that.” “He was a most accomplished scientist, Hannah,” Muñoz said. “I’ve read some of his published work. He was one of those towering breakthrough geniuses whose work solves problems in several fields at once, problems others can’t even scratch the surface of no matter how long they work at it.” Though he, too, was wise enough not to say it aloud, implicit in his words was the message: We are all the poorer for his loss. You aren’t alone, Hannah. And somehow the realization was comforting, rather than a matter of pouring gasoline on an already hot fire. I felt Steve’s big hand cover my own, its gentle pressure and warmth taking away the last of the temptation to break down and bawl my eyes out. Somehow I had truly lucked out, marrying Steve, even this soon after Monty’s death – no one else could have healed and comforted me as he did. In the back of my mind I felt Monty’s presence, smiling in approval. “These chops are excellent,” Muñoz said, forking up the piece he had just cut from his lamb chop and putting it in his mouth, smiling rapturously as he chewed and swallowed it. Then, catching my look, he said, “I know it must seem strange – a man who is supposed to be ‘undead’ enjoying the same sort of food everyone else does. Apparently, when I . . . translated into my Body of Light, all those years ago, I took all my old habits with me. And according to the Berkeley Clinics’ and the Fleet’s researches, the Body of Light, or at least mine, doesn’t decay the way one’s normal physical body does over time. It’s simply a pattern in space-time I had built up over many decades as a result of my meditation practices, and entropy doesn’t seem to touch it. You have a bit of that yourself, my dear,” he said, smiling. Startled, involuntarily I glanced down at my body. As I raised my head again, he added, “And I must say it becomes you very well. – Loren, is there anything we should go over here concerning the new arrival before we start setting up his habitat?” “Oh, there are lots of things,” Loren said, taking a bite of his mashed potatoes. “What would you like to know, Hannah, Steve?” Everything, of course – but that would have taken years, and we only had a few hours. We settled for a quick crash course in Habronattus biology and ecology; Loren happily obliged. Although jumping spiders of all species are rather small (3–10 mm), they are among the most beautiful and delightful of all arthropods. (The renowned naturalist Jean Henri Fabré, the father of our scientific passion for small things, somehow overlooked the jumping spider. He wrote of the black-bellied tarantula, the Narbonne lycosa, and the crab spider, but neglected this most congenial spider family, because of
which the world has been much the poorer. For otherwise two centuries ago he would surely have provided us with a wealth of information on these lovely spiders which we are only now beginning to acquire.) The most obvious character of the family Salticidae is a pair of disproportionately large eyes. Because of this, many observers, even some biologists, feel compelled to assign to these spiders human character and motivation. And, as both their scientific binomial names and their common names imply, they are agile jumpers who can attain distances of up to 16 cm. in their jumps. Salticids, or jumping spiders, are easily distinguished from other spiders by their unique eye arrangement, habits, general behaviour and mode of prey capture. Their eight eyes are arranged in three rows. The middle two eyes in the front row are the largest, giving jumping spiders acute binocular vision unmatched in any other invertebrate. Morphologically speaking, their carapace, the hard plate covering the top part of their cephalothorax, upon which the eyes are located, is elevated and is often stout and covered in fine hairs or scales. Salticids tend to be sexually dimorphic, the males beautifully colored in hues ranging from metallic blues and greens to brilliant crimson while the females tend to be dull brown or grey. The male of one of the most beautiful jumping spider species found in Canada, Habronattus decorus, has bright blue iridescent scales on its cephalothorax and rose-coloured scales on its abdomen. As far as H. americanus goes, we still don’t know too much about its sense of smell. As far as its hearing and ability to make sounds goes, however, Habronattus males have a stridulatory organ that they use during courtship, during which they also make other, non-stridulatory sounds, as well. Clearly they can recognize at least some distinct sounds for what they are, and understand the idea of using sound for communication. These spiders aren’t aggressive toward human beings. After all, they’re only 5-8 millimeters long, and have a very clear understanding of the old proverb, “Discretion is the better part of survival.” Why attack anything that is that much bigger than you are? They are skittish, and deftly manoeuvre to maintain a close watch on pencils, probes, and fingertips. Usually they run from us, though as Monty’s experience confirmed, with care they can become habituated to individual human beings in their environment as long as the latter remain fairly consistent in behavior and don’t seem to threaten the spiders in any way, a plus as far as the possibilities of interspecies interaction are concerned. Even now, not much is known about their venom, though Ralston and Baker, Fleet biologists, have begun studies on it and the genes responsible for its manufacture in the spiders’ bodies, as part of the Fleet research having to do with army spiders and ways to combat them in the wild. In any event, H. americanus is so small that it would probably have a very difficult time even breaking human skin, let alone injecting a load of venom into us sufficient to do us real damage. Another plus, as far as the spider’s impact on our well-being goes, but a definite drawback for a creature that small in a world containing cats, dogs, ferrets, and inquisitive children. Its best defense in that world is its ability to scoot under the nearest anything and hide the moment something as big even as a mouse comes near it! As far as ecological considerations go, in the wild H. americanus can be found on sunny ground only sparsely covered with vegetation, e.g., on sticks lying on the ground in alpine meadows, or on the ground itself among Artemisia bushes, or on beaches. It is Sun-loving and diurnal in nature, since it hunts by eyesight and needs as much light as possible for that, and tends to withdraw into secluded shelters at night or during other periods of darkness. On bright days, these spiders can often be found perched on tree bark, blades of grass, shrubs, and other well-lit places. In cloudy or rainy weather, they withdraw inside silken retreats. While it has died out in much of its former range in Southern California, thanks in part to continued global warming and increasing desertification, with consequent progressive habitat destruction, numerous thriving populations of H. americanus and its close relations can be found in many areas of Northern California, Oregon, Eastern Washington (God alone knew what was going on in what was left of Western Washington at this point, biologically or otherwise), Idaho, and even Montana, southern Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Genetically speaking, H. americanus has been observed to hybridize with H. sansoni (H. kubai) in various places in the Sierra Nevada, and otherwise shows some geographic variation, especially in the intensity of red on the male palpi and legs, and the color of the male face, which is white in some populations, and brilliant metallic green-blue in Idaho and neighboring areas. This spider is primarily known from populations found all along the western cordillera of North America, but it has turned up as far east as central Ontario in the north. Spiders don’t go through the sort of developmental stages that insects such as bees, butterflies, and flies do, progressing from larva to pupa to more-or-less spectacular imago. Instead, they pretty much have
the same form from hatching until they die, only growing larger as time goes on, but not transforming from a larval form to an imago the way that lepidoptera, hymenoptera, and many other flying and/or social insects do. But since, like insects, spiders have a rigid exoskeleton that doesn’t grow with them, they do have to molt as they grow. A very small salticid such as H. sansoni might go through at most three or four instars (molts); a large one might go through 8-10. H. americanus, about midway between the two, goes through somewhere between 5-8 instars. Jumping spiders, hunters all, have the best vision of all spiders and can be observed in the open, stalking their prey with infinite care and cat-like patience, and suddenly pouncing on it with equally feline precision and deadliness. Their brightly colored appearance and complex behavior have captured the hearts of many would-be arachnophobes. Habronattus americanus is arguably the most beautiful of California's spiders, though only the males of this species exhibit the wonderful contrast of red, white, and iridescent blue colors which have made this species famous. Though it doesn’t use a web for capturing prey, it does spin silk for use in drag lines, egg cases, and the creation of retreats. As far as food goes, at all stages of development, from juvenile through adolescent and into maturity, H. americanus likes houseflies. They’ve also been observed eating small insects such as gnats and midges, but not too many studies have been done on this aspect of their lives. We do know that most salticids don’t like ants and avoid them whenever they can, though some salticid species – but not any populations of H. americanus, so far as is known – specialize on ants. H. americanus seems to do well on a diet of 3-4 houseflies (Musca domestica) or Drosophila twice a week. As far as is known, no significant variations in the spider’s dietary requirements and habits have come about as a result of hybridization, which makes sense, as the species with which it tends to cross-breed all have the same preferences in this regard that it does. The main consideration is that, like all jumping spiders, Habronattus americanus likes its food alive and wiggling, preferring sushi on the hoof, so to speak. Finally, as far as how long Habronattus americanus normally lives, at least in the wild, without access to Animal Faire’s vets or the wizards of Berkeley Clinics, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of data on that, but males would probably last a year or two, at most, and females, with luck, perhaps as much as five years. However, thanks to recent applications of the findings of Fleet research into Steve Muñoz’s “quantum physiology” by the Berkeley Clinics to the problem of age-reversal and rejuvenation, some tremendous advances had been made in those areas, including veterinary science and invertebrate biology. Loren had just discovered several articles on it in The Western Journal of Biological Sciences and the U. S. Fleet Journal of Scientific Research and Applications, and was quite excited over what he’d learned from them. “Hannah, I think there’s a good chance your little boy – and Bogey and Bacall – will have very long, happy lives in excellent health! – Well, long for spiders, anyway. At this point, of course, there’s no telling just how long that is, but Bogey may live until he’s at least five or six years old, Bacall may make it to the great old age of 40, and your new addition, well, we can almost certainly double his normal lifespan, whatever that may be. And since in captivity ‘normal lifespan’ is generally much longer than in the wild, thanks to the reduction of danger to the animal and access to good veterinary care, he’ll probably be neck-and-neck with Bogey in the actuarial sweepstakes.” “And there’s another thing the Fleet is working on now that could give them all even more,” said Muñoz. “Your cats and dogs and any ferrets you acquire could benefit from it, too: stasis.” Steve and I sat there with raised eyebrows, waiting for him to explain. “Oh, dear, I thought by now Leroy might have told you – Chaim mentioned it to him. But he hasn’t come to town, yet, has he?” “No, he’s still back at Diablo Keep,” I said, suddenly feeling very bad. After Monty had died, I had failed Leroy utterly, collapsing into myself the way I had and unaware of the emotional needs of anyone else save poor Booker. “I don’t know when, if ever, he’ll get up here.” “Oh, don’t worry, Hannah,” Steve said, putting his hand over mine again and giving it a squeeze. “He’ll come by, probably soon.” “In fact, Hannah,” said Muñoz, “you should be seeing him inside of a month. “I talked with him the other day during a conference call with Pat Wall, Andy Thorsson, Bill Jamieson, and Chaim. As you know, Leroy’s planning to do his undergraduate studies at UC San Diego, but upon graduation he’s already been accepted to do his graduate work in Fleet facilities, which are all over the place, one of them being located on the campus of UCFS, right down the road from you here,” he said smiling. “He told me to tell you if I saw you before he could call you or drop in himself that he loves you very much, and the reason he hasn’t called is that he’s been promoted to Assistant Chief of Operations in the Keep’s Security
Department, answering only to Andy Thorsson. He’s been very busy, twenty-five hour days and eight-day weeks sort of thing. Don’t you worry, he’ll call soon – if he doesn’t just drop in first.” I jerked my head up, hope flooding my soul. “A month? He’s coming up here?” “That’s right. He’s going to be seeing the man who will be his graduate advisor after he takes his Bachelor of Science from the University of New California at San Diego, which should only take about a year or so – he’s done most of the work for that degree already, on his own, and all he needs to do is take the tests for it. As soon as that’s taken care of, he’ll begin his graduate studies. Andy has already scheduled him for a ‘vacation’ so he can come up here next month – actually,” he told me, laughing, “Leroy said Andy told him he’d break both of his arms if he didn’t take that vacation, because Leroy’s workaholic tendencies are making Andy feel like an old man about now! – and Leroy very much wants to see you again. He’s worried that you’ll be mad at him because he hasn’t called you in all that time.” Leroy was worried that I was mad at him? Oh, my Lord – well, while that didn’t do anything for the guilt I still felt over my emotional incompetence and neglect of my nearest and dearest after Monty died, it relieved me of any fear that I’d lost Leroy’s love. “Oh, Lord, we’ll have to do something special when he comes up here,” I said. “He shouldn’t think I’m mad at him –” “I know, Hannah, I know,” Muñoz said, still laughing. “I told him that. Don’t worry, he very much wants to see you again, as soon as possible. But you have to remember he’s a grown man, now, with a grown man’s responsibilities – we were all a little stunned when we heard about Leroy’s promotion to that position, because there’s a hell of a lot of responsibility that goes with it, and the last man that had the post was in his forties.” “What happened to him?” Steve asked, curious. “I remember him – Dale Paulson his name was, something like that?” “He was killed by a wildcat, would you believe! The animal fell on him, or launched itself onto him, from the top of the cliffs that line that canyon that leads from Diablo Keep to the Great Erg. It was at night. There was a moon, Andy mentioned the phase but I forget what it was, now, and visibility was poor. Paulson and a picked group of men had gone out there to check out a report from a spotter that there might be bandits up the canyon. They were all armed to the teeth, too, and apparently well-deployed in case of ambush, too, so it wasn’t as if Paulson was incompetent – not that Andy’d have an incompetent man working in his department! At any rate, there was no warning. One moment everything was fine; the next, this wildcat had fallen straight down on Paulson’s back and was ripping chunks out of his neck and throat with its teeth and claws. Before anyone could do anything about it, Paulson was down and had bled out so much that there was no hope of getting medical help for him in time, no matter what they did. Poor luckless man – from what Andy said, he was a very good man, and outstanding at his job, and his death was a real loss to the Keep. But Leroy is at least as able at the job as Paulson was – your son is one hell of a polymath, Hannah, I’ve never known anyone with real genius at so many things!” “I – I know. Monty’s death was a terrible blow to him – Monty was his father, of course, but on top of that, he was about the only one who shared all of Leroy’s interests and abilities,” again feeling hot shame over how I’d deserted Leroy, retreating into myself, all but inaccessible to anyone, when he most needed a mother. Somehow, the feather-light touch of Muñoz’s fingertips on my free hand, the one not already covered by Steve’s hand, conveyed the message that he understood – and didn’t condemn me. However he worked his Magick, suddenly I felt the grey burden of shame and guilt I’d been carrying since Monty’s death let go of me and fall off my shoulders. I would have begun crying again, in sheer, overwhelming relief had not Muñoz added, “I’m curious to get a look at your new acquisition, Hannah. Has everyone finished their meal? If so, why don’t we go on in to the bedroom, set up the habitat, and see if your new friend likes it?” Grateful for a respite from what had been on the way to becoming a very emotionally charged situation, the rest of us, following Muñoz’s cue, declared we had finished our meal and were ready to go see our new friend. A few minutes later, as Loren and Steve Muñoz went to work setting up the habitat, with me by his side, avidly watching, Muñoz picked up the little carrier in which Loren had brought our new eight-legged child and carefully opened the carrier’s top. “Ooooh!” I breathed. “Isn’t he beautiful!” There, looking up at us with those great big eyes, was one of the prettiest creatures I’d ever seen. The front of his body, just under his eyes, was a lovely light cobalt blue with a white “beard” edging it below, while his pedipalps and much of his underside were brilliant crimson. Here and there, at leg-joints and in a few spots on his pedipalps, were tufts of white. The top of his head and the rest of his body were black, and he had a thatch of long, soft, black hairs on his head and elsewhere.
“Lovely animal!” said Muñoz. “This little fellow is definitely not the product of hybridization with other Habronattus species – the hybrids tend to have touches of yellow and other colors on their legs and parts of their bodies. This one is pure red-white-and-blue – a very patriotic sort of organism,” he said, chuckling. Steve and Loren, who’d just got the habitat set up on its stand, prior to fixing it up properly for our new friend, came over to see. “He is pretty, isn’t it?” said Steve, smiling as he looked down at the little spider, who looked right back at him, for all the world like a small, shy but courageous little boy confronting a strange adult. “Hmmm . . . he needs a name. We should name him something patriotic. What do you think, Hannah?” “A name? Oh, my – all I can think of is ‘Flag,’ or maybe ‘West.’ Not very good names. Steve,” I said to Muñoz, “what do think would be a good name.” “Name Mm, let’s see . . .” Muñoz pondered for a few moments, then said, “The astrological ruler of this country – well, of the United States of America before the War, and the West now – is Mercury. How does ‘Mercury’ sound for a name?” The object of this conversation, sitting there in his carrier gravely listening to us as if he realized we were discussing something important having to do with him, suddenly reared up in the carrier, placing both forefeet on the side of the box to support him, as if he were trying to get a better look at us. Or, perhaps, add his two cents to the discussion. Giggling, I said, “I think he likes it. So we’ll call him Mercury. – Do you like that, fella, hmm?” I said, very carefully putting my finger down into the carrier until it barely touched the top of his head. Not flinching or trying to evade me at all, he remained there, forefeet propped against the side of the carrier, watching me as, keeping my touch on his head as light as possible, I ran my fingertip over the top of his head, then withdrew it. When I did so, otherwise keeping his posture as it was, he drew his head and torso back as far as he could until his big eyes were looking straight up at me. “Well, look at that!” said Steve, chuckling. “He’s not afraid of you at all, Hannah – I think he likes you.” “Brave little fellow,” said Muñoz. “From what I’ve learned about them, they’re usually not happy about being handled by human beings, and by now the average Habronattus would have been doing his best to scuttle under a rock to get away from you, Hannah. Not this one, though – he seems to be intensely curious about all of us.” “He does, doesn’t he?” said Loren. “I’ve never seen anything quite like this – of course, my entire personal experience with Habronattus spiders is about two days old, now. Before Larry sent this batch up here, I’d seen a couple in labs, and never worked with any of them myself. – Hannah, do you suppose he’d let you take him up on your hand?” Before I could object, fearful that I might hurt that delicate little being with my great, big, clumsy paw, Muñoz said, “Let’s try it. Hannah, give me your hand.” Taking my hand, resting one edge of the carrier against it, very carefully Muñoz tipped it over until it lay on its side on my hand, top open. A moment later, the tip of one little foreleg poked out, followed by the other. A moment after that, Mercury had, of his own accord, walked out onto the palm of my hand, and was standing there staring up at me with those big, wondering eyes. “I will be damned,” Loren breathed. For several minutes the three men and I watched, enraptured, as Mercury began carefully exploring my hand, touching every part of it with his pedipalps and the tips of his forelegs, first, as Muñoz withdrew the carrier from my hand, the palm, then my fingers, and, finally, my wrist. There he stopped and looked up at me again, for all the world as if he were asking, “Is it okay if I check out the rest of you?” Trying not to laugh – I was afraid the sound of it might frighten him – I said, “Maybe later. We have to get your new home ready first. Is that okay?” I could swear he made a sound, then, a small ritch-ritch sound, like the whisper of a cricket. “I think you’re right, Hannah,” said Muñoz. “Let’s see if he’ll return to his carrier by himself . . .” He touched the carrier to the edge of my palm, side down, so that its open top faced Mercury. The four of us stared, flabbergasted, when the spider, first making what looked like a curtsey toward me, turned and walked back into the carrier, all by himself. “I will be damned,” Loren said again as Muñoz carefully closed the carrier’s lid, then placed it on a nightstand, out of the way. “Probably not,” Muñoz said to Larry, chuckling, “you haven’t sinned enough. – Well, let’s set about getting Mercury’s house ready for him, so he can get settled in properly. Even if he won’t admit it, he’s
probably a bit stressed out from everything that’s happened to him in the last few days, and will need some rest and relaxation.” “Sounds like a good idea,” said Steve. “Okay,” he said, “Let’s get Mercury’s habitat ready for him. Anybody know where that tube of fruit flies went?” A few minutes later, the three men were absorbed in their work, while I went to check on the tarantulas, whose habitat had been moved farther down the wall to make room for Mercury’s, to see if they were doing all right. Inside of an hour or so, Mercury’s habitat was all in order, its intended occupant installed within, and we four human giants retired to the front room to have a postprandial drink or two and discuss the day’s events. Among other things, Loren showed us a photograph of another Habronattus, this one definitely a hybrid of H. americanus and one of its close cousins, that had come in the shipment with Mercury, whom they’d already affectionately named “Bunny” because there was something so “Easterchick”- like about the creature:
Bunny With regret, I declined. “Honestly,” I told him, “I think we can only give quality time to just one of them. But if nobody wants her –” “Him. Bunny’s male.” “Okay, ‘him.’ If nobody wants Bunny, we’ll take him, but as cute as he is, I don’t think you’ll have a problem finding a good home for him.” (As it turned out, they didn’t – two days later, Loren called us to tell us, laughing, that Steve and Meryphillia Muñoz had now become the proud possessions of a yellowand-black speck of a Habronattus hybrid named (why are we not surprised?) “Bunny.”) ***** Later that night, after Muñoz and Loren had left and Steve and I were in bed, I asked Steve, “Do you think it’s possible that Mercury understood what I said to him?” “Well, he certainly acted as if he did,” Steve said. “We’ll just have to wait and see, get to know him better, see how he acts.” “Maybe I should keep a notebook on him. And on Bogey and Bacall, as well. Maybe on disk – I could give Loren and Steve copies of it every so often, for their research.” “They’d love that. – Mm, there’s something I’d love right now,” he said, nuzzling my shoulder. “What do you think?” I thought that was just fine, myself. And so the next twenty minutes or so were spent in various pursuits, after which we were both ready to fall into contented sleep. As I drifted off into slumber, I thought I heard a tiny whisper nearby: Ritch-ritch, ritch-riiiitch . . . From the day we first got him, Mercury charmed us all. Though full grown – according to Lorenzo he’d completed all his juvenile instars, or molts, or whatever they call them, and was probably a year old – he was only about 7 mm long. Even so, he was a beautiful little boy:
Mercury. The apparent yellow patches are due to some of the substrate in his cage, a yellowish powdered rock, getting into his normally white fur.
A picture of another Habronattus who arrived at Animal Faire in the same shipment that included Mercury. The blues in his coloration are closer to those on Mercury than those in the first picture, which is of Mercury himself the lighting for whom wasn’t the best. At first, whenever anyone tried to touch Mercury or pick him up, he’d make a lightning-quick dive for the nearest possible hiding-place in his habitat, a reasonable sort of behavior on the part of a creature so small, whose experience of human beings so far had been mostly restricted to the introduction of food into his habitat in the pet shop. The only exceptions to that was me – apparently, for reasons known best to him, he’d taken to me right from the first – and Steve Muñoz, who dropped by occasionally to say hello. Even so, whenever any of us were in the bedroom, Mercury would come right up to the glass front of his habitat and watch us for as long as we were in there. This included the cats; he seemed fascinated with them, though at first if they came too close to the habitat he’d run back into the retreat he had woven for himself toward the back. Even with me, at first Mercury sometimes seemed nervous, but it only took about a week before he got used to being picked up and carried about by me, and would even sit quietly on my shoulder when I put him there, making no attempt to jump off. “It’s pretty clear he knows you mean him no harm, Hannah,” Steve told me one evening, a little enviously – he’d just tried for the nth time to get Mercury to walk onto the palm of his hand so he could pick the spider up, and had had no success whatsoever at it. “If he had fur, I’d say he thinks you’re his mamma, but spider mothers aren’t always known for charity toward their young, and I don’t think that’s it. He likes you. Why, I’m not sure, but he seems to.” “Well, let me try something – Steve, hold your hand out . . .” While Steve obediently held his hand out, palm up, I reached up to my shoulder and held my fingers out to Mercury. “Come on, Mercury, go for a ride,” I said, repeating a phrase I’d gotten into the habit of using whenever I wanted to carry Mercury somewhere in my hand. A second later, Mercury was sitting in my palm, his posture seeming to say, “Let’s go!” “I want you to ride on Steve,” I told him, bringing my hand around until it was right next to Steve’s. “Steve likes you. Steve won’t hurt you. Steve is good.”
Now Mercury’s posture somehow shouted dubiousness, an “Well, if you say so . . .” sort of attitude. For about half a minute I held my hand next to Steve’s, without success: Mercury stayed right where he was. Then, just before Steve and I were both ready to give up, like a small boy at the old swimmin’ hole with his older brothers deciding to go ahead and make his first dive into that cold, cold water below, Mercury suddenly darted from my palm to Steve’s, then stood there on the palm of Steve’s hand, looking back and forth at Steve and I as if gauging our reactions to his feat. “Oh, what a good boy!” I cooed. “That’s wonderful, Mercury!” “Well, look at you!” said Steve, chuckling. “What a brave boy!” he said, following my lead. As if taking a cue from our approving tones, Mercury began to stalk about Steve’s palm, making little dashes at invisible whatevers, then retreating back to center square again. “Is he showing off?” Steve asked. “I’d swear that’s what he’s doing!” “It sure looks like it, doesn’t it? Well, I guess we’re over that hump! Wonder what Loren and Steve Muñoz will think when we tell them about it?” “Why don’t we call them, this afternoon? – Here, let’s get Mercury back to bed before we have a nasty accident or something with him. He’s so very small,” said Steve, who, at 6’ 4” tall and around 200 pounds of solid muscle and bone, was as much bigger as Mercury as one of Fort Sacramento’s enormous new skyscrapers was one of us. Taking Mercury back from Steve, I took him over to his habitat. He didn’t seem reluctant to enter it – his bravo performance on Steve’s hand seemed to have left him rather tired. But he put on a good show of nonchalance, bouncing from my hand into his habitat as if what he’d just been through were no big deal. A few minutes later, after securing the lid of his habitat and turning out the room’s lights, Steve and I left the room to make a conference call to Animal Faire and the Muñozes. Steve Muñoz wasn’t that surprised by the intelligence Mercury was so clearly displaying. “As the Fleet’s physicists are finding, most of any animal’s brain seems to reside in the other 7 dimensions of space-time, the ones that are rolled up as superstrings, and is never small,” he said. “So why did our brains become so large in the standard 4 dimensions of space-time?” my husband asked him. “So we’d have something obvious besides our dicks to brag about, probably,” Loren said, laughing. “ ‘Man, the Insecure Animal’,” added Meryphillia. “Mark Twain was right,” I said. “About what?” asked Steve. “He defined man as ‘the only animal that blushes – or needs to’.” “Heh,” Muñoz said, a short-form laugh. “That isn’t really true, you know.” “Oh?” I asked. “Since when?” added Meryphillia. “Since the other great apes and baboons started doing it, too, way back when in the late Miocene, probably,” said her husband. “Only where they blush, we sit on – and they don’t do it because they’re embarrassed.” More laughter. “Anyway, it sounds like you have a very unusual little spider there, you two,” Loren said. “By the way, how are the Goliaths?” I looked at Steve, feeling a little guilty. The Goliaths were cute, and we made sure to give each of them plenty of quality time, but Mercury was, as he will always be, our favorite, and I had a sneaking feeling that the Goliaths knew it and weren’t all that happy about their new housemate. Finally I said as much to Loren, who said, “Oh, don’t worry. Goliaths don’t like a lot of handling – in fact, I’m surprised Mercury takes to it so readily now – so as long as you look in on them every so often and keep them wellfed, in a clean habitat and so on, they should be fine. I wouldn’t let them and Mercury out at the same time, though – you’d probably go missing a Habronattus in short order if you did. They don’t classify the Goliaths as ‘bird-eaters’ for nothing, you know, and Mercury’s a lot smaller than any bird.” “We know,” said Steve, chuckling again. “Just to see what he’d do, after making sure the lid of the tarantula habitat was secure, I put Mercury down on the edge of the desk we’ve got their habitat on and let him walk around.” “What did he do?”
“Went up to the front of their habitat and peered in. When he saw them, he sort of reared back a little, as if what he saw in there had given him a bit of a turn. Then, putting his forefeet up on the glass, he peered in at them, very deliberately, as if he were challenging them.” “What did they do?” asked Loren. “Well, Bacall – I think it was Bacall, but I can’t be sure – was napping by the window at the time. She woke up, and I don’t know if she could actually make Mercury out on the other side of that pane or not, but she seemed to know something was out there, something she didn’t like at all. She reared up like she was about to attack the glass or whatever she saw through it. Bogey, who’d been wandering around the back of the habitat, got into it then. He came marching up to the glass and took a position there beside Bacall, forelegs up on the glass, clacking his jaws together. They looked like they were mad. Later, I caught them trying to force the lid and get out, presumably to go looking for whoever it was had been knocking on their front door – the lid was locked down tight and there’s no way they could have gotten out, but they were definitely giving it the old college try. If they had gotten out, and Mercury had been out as well, I have a hunch they’d have ripped him to pieces. No, I don’t think we’re going to introduce them to one another just yet – or at all.” “That’s wise, Steve,” said Steve Muñoz. “It would be like letting a bunch of full-grown chimps have access to a baby monkey – chimps eat monkeys, you know. I have no doubt that something similar would hold in this case. “At any rate, sounds like Mercury is settling in very well. Do you plan to get another?” “No, though maybe someday he’d like to have a chance to pass on his genes – Loren, didn’t you say we could bring him by Animal Faire for that, leave him there a couple of days so he can get acquainted with all the ladies and do his thing?” said my husband. “Yes, any time, Steve. In fact, I’m looking forward to it – you’ve got a very unusual little Habronattus there, and Eli and I are both curious as to what his offspring might be like.” “It’s a date, then, though I think it’ll be a little while before we do that. Maybe in a month or so.” “Sure, any time. No guarantees that he’ll be ready to mate, yet – or that he isn’t. We just don’t know much about his history, so that’s something we’ll have to wait and see about. Looks as if Larry and his gang of spider-bandits got lucky right in one, at least with Mercury.” “So he did,” said Steve. “Okay, I’ve got to look over a bill that’s been placed in committee, another of those damned attempts to gerrymander the counties into something more useful to some of the bastards we’ve got in office this year – as opposed to useful to me, of course – and figure out how best to shout this one down from the bully pulpit. So I’ll be trotting along now – honey, you want to stay and talk with our friends for awhile?” “Actually, Leah Royer’s coming for a visit and I’m supposed to meet her plane, which gets in here in about an hour and a half. So I’ve got to go, too. Wish I didn’t – we don’t do this often enough, we really don’t – but unfortunately, this time, I must.” “Well, maybe some other time,” Steve Muñoz said. “Steve, I need to ask Loren about something. Is there a way to keep from severing my connection with him when you ring off?” “Yeah, there is,” my husband said. “Okay, people, we’ll talk to you again soon. If this doesn’t work, one of you will have to call the other one, I guess, but I think I can do it . . .” He pressed a couple of buttons, and we were out of the circuit. “Okay, I’d better run, sweetheart,” I said, giving my husband a quick kiss. “I’ll stop at Security, first – can you call over there and have them assign someone to me while I go meet Leah’s plane?” Except when I was at home, Steve wouldn’t let me out of his sight without first making sure I had at least one bodyguard from Security with me – and even when I was at home, if he left, he’d lock the deadbolts on the way out, after making sure I knew where my guns were, and securing my promise to him that I’d shoot to kill if someone ever tried to break in. This wasn’t due to paranoia on his part. Steve had survived something like 17 assassination attempts, 9 of them in his own quarters, because of his skill with firearms and his willingness to use them, and knew damned good and well there’d be more in the future. And since the Governor’s Lady was a prize in her own right, one that might be worth millions in ransom to a kidnapper, whose death could render the Governor so distraught in his grief that he would no longer be as indomitable an opponent as he had been before, politically or otherwise, Steve was taking no chances with me. “You got your guns on now?” “Yes, darling, I do,” I said, lifting my hands so he could see the bulge of the shoulder-holster under my right arm that held my Glock and the pair of refurbished Walther P-.38s in the gunbelt around my waist.
“Good. If anything happens out there, now, you use them, hear me?” he said, putting a finger under my chin and tilting my head up so he could look straight into my eyes. What he saw there must have satisfied them – and perhaps shaken him up a little. “Come to think of it, I’m not so sure I should let you loose out there – I don’t think Fort Sac is quite ready for a dangerous character like you,” he said, laughing. “Anyway, you scoot over there to Security and I’ll call them right now to get someone assigned to go with you to the airport. If you aren’t there in the next ten minutes, they’ll call me and I’ll go looking for you, and so will they,” he said, his voice darkening. “Oh, Steve, don’t worry, I’ll be fine.” “I should have some of the dogs kenneled up here, get one of the rooms next to our suite fixed up for that, so you can have the dogs go with you,” he said, sighing. “—Yeah, yeah, I know, the cats would hate it. So would the dogs – they’re happier with their handlers. Well, maybe I should get Security to send somebody up here to escort you? – No, come to think of it, that might give some bastard an opening and – oh, hell, you should be okay, they’re on this floor. “Well, give me another kiss – that last one wasn’t worth shit, you know that? – good, that one’s a lot better,” he said, laughing, as we disengaged. “Get your butt down there, and I’ll call them.” “Okay, sweetheart, I’m on my way,” I said, heading for the door. Later, that night, as Leah and I and Steve were enjoying dinner at The Bull-Dancer, a local restaurant whose claim to fame was the Kobe beef that they served, cooked to perfection by some of the best chefs in the West, Leah asked us, “How are you getting along with your new babies? – The spiders,” she said, grinning at our confusion. “Actually,” said Steve, “we’re doing pretty well. The little Habronattus americanus – a jumping spider from Arizona – whom we’ve named ‘Mercury,’ seems to take to us rather well. The big Goliath tarantulas seem to be doing well, too. We don’t let them out together, of course, and we’ve learned to keep Mercury away from the glass front of the Goliaths’ habitat, because it upsets them. But other than that, we don’t seem to have any problems.” “Hmm . . . maybe Paul and I should get some, see what they’re like.” We promised to take her by Animal Faire so she could have a look at their arachnid stock. I had a feeling that Elias was going to be doing a land-office business in spiders from now on, which indeed proved to be the case as time went by and more and more satisfied customers spread the word all over the state and beyond. ***** At first, as might be imagined of so small a creature, Mercury tended to avoid the cats, even though he became accustomed to being handled by Steve and me. And for quite a while, as far as letting other human beings handle him went, we were a little leery of doing so. Whenever anyone other than ourselves handled him, except for Loren and Steve Muñoz and Meryphillia, we insisted they wear gloves, because when something startled Mercury, he sometimes bit, and while his chelicerae (jaws) were so small that it was very unlikely they could even get through human epidermis, when it came to spider-bites, you just never knew. One could turn out to be horribly allergic to the venom, even if the venom wasn’t toxic to us in its own right, or the spider’s chelicerae might carry virulent staph bacteria, a.k.a. Flesh-Eating Bacteria, which could, with just a little encouragement, begin making a nice living for themselves right on the skin surface. Loren himself generally wore gloves when he worked with the spiders, or handled Mercury at our place, for just that reason. The Muñozes didn’t have to worry about such things – like her husband, Meryphillia had long since swapped out her original body for a quantum version – but did agree that for others, gloves would be a good idea for anyone Mercury hadn’t gotten used to yet. (Mercury never did try to bite either Steve or me – he seemed to know, right from the first, that we wouldn’t hurt him.) But within a few weeks, during which Steve and I both daily took turns carefully taking him out of his habitat and carrying him about for a few minutes to get him used to it, grew to look forward to his “rides” on our hands with what was apparently real pleasure. Four of his eyes, relatively speaking, were extremely large, and he could see us quite well, and after awhile it was clear he readily distinguished Steve from me by sight. – Or maybe scent had something to do with it, but the literature we had on Habronattus and its cousins indicated that they all hunted by sight, and relied on their eyesight more than their other senses when it came to the things most important to their survival and well-being. It didn’t take him long to figure out that Steve and I were, from the first day we got him, the most critically important aspects of his
existence, and he watched us both incessantly whenever we were in the same room with him, weighing, measuring, trying to learn everything he could about us. Soon Mercury was trying to hop off our hands onto our shoulders, and Steve, guessing that Mercury wanted to have a better vantage from which to view whatever was there, let him. The experiment was successful; once he’d scrambled up Steve’s arm to his shoulder, taking up station beneath Steve’s left ear, Mercury cuddled up contentedly against Steve’s neck, remaining there without incident until Steve took him off again. Steve said he could feel Mercury’s body vibrating softly against his skin, as if Mercury were purring, something Mercury always did after that whenever Steve and I let him ride on our shoulders, which we began to do all the time. It was at this time that Mercury invented a “Put-me-down-let-me-see” signal, rhythmically tapping the neck of whoever’s shoulder he was riding on at the time. Even the normally unflappable Steve Muñoz was a little taken aback by this sort of initiative and inventiveness on the part of so small a creature, one so different from great big mammals like ourselves. It took about two days for me to figure out why he was tapping on my neck, and when I finally did, and put him down to check out whatever it was he was curious about at the moment, he seemed to heave a big sigh, as if thinking, “Finally the big stupids get the idea!” (I sometimes think he’s come to think of us as his pets, big, somewhat retarded beings for which he has a great fondness, over whom he worries a lot, wondering how he’ll ever be able to give us the education we need to get along in the world.) It took longer for Mercury to get used to the Godzillas, the cats, the dogs, and the ferrets. He was intensely curious about them all, as evidenced by the way he’d run out to the edge of Steve’s or my shoulder and stare intensely at them whenever they were in the same room with us, but for some time he didn’t want to get any closer to them than that. It took about three months before he was willing to let Steve or me hold him and let one of the cats or Godzillas (we weren’t sure about how self-restrained the dogs would be if they got close to him, and as for the ferrets . . . do you have to ask?) approach. Eventually he allowed them to come so close to him they could touch him with a finger (Godzillas) or nose (cats). At that point Steve tried setting him down on the floor to see how he’d interact with them at that level – we and the cats were in a room off our suite I’d converted into a sort of sitting-room, the dogs weren’t around, nor the ferrets, and the Godzillas were all taking a nap, so it wasn’t too crowded there. Later, when the Godzillas, of course, gave it a try, they had to stoop down to see or touch Mercury. They thought he was simply adorable, and gradually coaxed him into letting them pick him up and hold him for a bit. Eventually they got him to ride on their shoulders in the same way he did with Steve and me, and he usually seemed to enjoy it. Punkin and Booker were fascinated by him. The first time Steve put him down on the floor before the cats, they came right up to him and began sniffing him all over while he stood there, enduring it, his whole body trembling – clearly, this was not a procedure he found very reassuring. Steve watched him like a hawk the whole time, afraid he might decide to bite one or both inquisitive noses – Berkeley Clinics had a branch right here in the Governor’s Mansion, but still, if he did take it into his furry little head to bite one of the cats, there was no telling how serious a matter it might be, and whether the local clinic had the means to counter a hefty dose of Mercury’s venom that had been injected directly into one of the most vulnerable areas of a cat’s body. But Mercury was a real trouper, and suffered the inspection without incident. Then the cats withdrew a bit, watching him intently to see what he’d do next. What he did surprised all four of us: Mercury strode very deliberately right up to the cats until he was standing right under those same noses that had just checked him out, and took a stand there, all four of his large eyes staring right up into their two pair, all four of which had gone huge and yellow-green with surprise. Whatever was this oddly-colored little thing up to? Cats and spider, they regarded each other for long moments, the gears burning madly away in the cats’ pointy little skulls and, doubtless, the same thing happening inside Mercury’s brain-case. And then, just when Steve was about to intervene, fearing Mercury was going to initiate a pre-emptive strike on the cats, Mercury astonished us all again: as if the tension had been let out of him with a pin, he fell into his relaxation mode, lowering his thorax and abdomen until they touched the floor, then sprawling his legs out so that he was resting comfortably there, no longer looking up into the cats’ eyes, but just looking ahead, his posture suggesting nothing but contentment. Still staring down at Mercury, Booker cocked his head to one side as if listening for a sound on the very edge of hearing. He began lowering his head, one ear down, closer and closer to Mercury, until his ear was almost touching the spider. Then, his eyes huge, he jerked his head up again, making an odd little mewing sound. He turned to look at Punkin, who, apparently taking his cue from Booker, repeated the
same routine the other cat had just performed. Raising his head again, he looked up at Steve, his eyes even bigger than Booker’s, and made a plaintive sound: “What’s going on here, Dad?” Struggling not to laugh, Steve asked the cat, “What’s the matter, Punkin?” “I think Mercury’s ‘purring’ again,” I said. It was just a hunch – my eyes were now at that awkward stage of greater and greater presbyopia of increasing age, so that without my reading glasses on – I’d left them back in the bedroom – I’d have had to lift Mercury up off the floor to get a good look at him as well as double-check what I thought I saw by what I felt through the palm of my hand. But it seemed right – if there was a sound associated with his trembling, one the cats could make out even if Steve and I couldn’t hear it, it was understandable that Booker and Punkin would be rather disconcerted by the fact that this strange, very unfeline little creature was like them in such a signal way. “Hmmm . . .” Stooping down – Steve’s knees were in better shape than mine that day; he’d just had his anti-arthritis treatment from Berkeley Clinics, while my next one was a week away yet – he put his fingers as close as he could to the spider’s “back,” i.e., dorsal thorax region, without actually putting any weight on him, just barely brushing the plus fur there with his fingertips. “Oof! – Yep, that’s what he’s doing, all right,” he said, standing up again with some effort. “(Gad, I’m getting old. Better call the Berkeley Clinics for another appointment with the Rejuvenator.) Fella, you’ve got one fascinating behavioral repertoire,” he told the spider, chuckling. “I agree, Punk’ – he’s just full of surprises, ain’t he?” “<!>” said Punkin, backstepping a bit, staring at the spider again, head cocked interrogatively, obviously curious as to what that strange little creature would do next. “<?>” said Booker, looking up at me. He seemed to be pleading for something – not to have the spider removed, or anything like that, and he didn’t seem upset, just very, very curious. “You want us to let Mercury play with you two for awhile?” I asked him, unable to hold back a chuckle of my own. “<!>” I looked up at Steve. “What do you think, Steve?” “You want to let him out here with the cats for awhile? Sure, why not? They seem to be getting along,” he said. “We should stay here ourselves, too, though, just in case.” “I don’t have any pressing engagements,” I told him. “Why don’t we sit on that loveseat over there and neck for awhile, then?” Steve did laugh, then, a ferocious belly-laugh that startled the cats, making them look up at him as nervously as they’d regarded the spider earlier. “You planned and schemed this, woman – get me in here alone with the cats and that silly spider so I’d have to stay here for the duration, so you could take advantage of me. I know!” Soon the two of us, both spluttering with laughter, were happily engaged in a mock-spat that took us over to the loveseat (being careful not to step on anybody in the process), where we spent several hours very profitably in ways that scandalized the other three, who sat where they were, looking disgusted, while Steve and I – well, never mind. At any rate, after a couple of hours, when Steve and I were ready to take a shower and change into something suitable for going down to the main dining room to have dinner, the two cats and Mercury were still getting along just fine, Mercury still sitting contentedly on his patch of floor near the cats, who had decided to take catnaps and were sprawled, sawing logs, oblivious of the world and all its woes. After that, Mercury was more than willing to share the same general area that was occupied by the cats and/or Godzillas, who were all highly amused by him and, of course, always careful never to hurt him, and we took to letting him out of his habitat to prowl around on his own whenever the bedroom door was closed, or when only the cats and/or Godzillas were loose in the suite, and the front door was secured, so that people would have to announce themselves before being let in, which would give us time to make sure Mercury wasn’t where he’d likely be stepped on. As for any danger of Mercury being stepped on by us, Steve had a preternatural sense of where Mercury was, the way some arachnophobes do, but without the phobia. On my part, if I wasn’t sure whether Mercury was in his habitat or not, I always checked, and if he was out and about, I was very careful about where I put my feet – unless I already had my most powerful readers on, I could no longer read print any smaller than 36-point type (I’m exaggerating, but not much; Berkeley Clinics is still working on the problems visited on one’s vision by advancing age, and as far as the devolution of one’s vision over time goes, I’m no exception to the general rule – the older I get, the lousier my close vision gets), but with his bright, vivid coloration and distinctive shape and movements, Mercury is about as hard to spot as a good-sized neon sign running on industrial current. I’ve never, ever had even a close call with Mercury.
Even so, it was quite awhile before Mercury became truly comfortable with the cats. He finally fully accepted them because of a scary little incident that happened one rainy Saturday afternoon, when Mercury was out of his habitat and Steve or I had somehow not completely closed the front door to the suite. Mercury took it into his head to start exploring the Great Wide World Beyond the Door, something he’d been trying to do for weeks, but which, up until then, we’d managed to keep him from doing by the simple expedient of always carefully shutting that door tight after first determining where in the suite Mercury was. This time, however, somehow we blew it – and Mercury sailed happily out the door, looking for Adventure. He got it, too. About a hundred feet down the corridor to the west of our front door, he suddenly found himself confronted by a Chimera. The Chimera was, in this case, a teacup poodle with bright pink fur belonging to some visitor to the Mansion; it had gotten loose from whomever it belonged to and had gone off in search of an Adventure of its own. Which was all very well and good, but in the process it met up with Mercury there in the hallway. Deciding that Mercury was a new sort of wind-up toy, it began circling around him, barking excitedly in those high-pitched yap-yap-yaps peculiar to teacup dogs, filling the hallway with the noise, spiraling ever-closer to poor Mercury with every circuit, but delaying The Kill as long as possible in order to maximally prolong the delicious sense of Adventure. By the time Steve and I, hearing the racket as we worked on Steve’s backlogged correspondence (we were in Steve’s study at the time this happened, which made both of us even more contrite over letting Mercury get out) and coming out into the hall to see what the hell was going on, the poodle, whose ancestors had been inbred over several hundred bazillion gajillion generations, the way that hillbilly lineages are supposed to be (and never are) – though it probably had a fairly high IQ, the damned dog had to have been permanently stone mad as a hatter from conception on due to the fact that it had a size 9 brain in a size 2 skull – was within three inches of Mercury and getting ready to administer the coup de grace. He hadn’t hurt Mercury, not yet, but he was just about to pounce, and, small as he was for a dog, he was far more than massive enough to crush Mercury flat should he land on him, which he looked ready to do. Steve opened his mouth to shout something at the poodle – – and an orange-and-black streak wearing a Fury’s mask shot by him at warp speed, 25 pounds of pure battle-madness heading directly for the embattled dog and spider. An instant later, Punkin had come to a halt nose-to-nose with the stunned poodle, his body straddled protectively over Mercury, who was hunkered down on himself, a study in pure misery, waiting for the killing stroke (or, in this case, squash, the result of the poodle’s bouncy body descending squarely on him). As Mercury, looking up in what was for all the world amazement at his savior crouched protectively above him, slowly rose to his feet again, Punkin, hissing, snarling, and screeching war-cries, lashed out again and again, bouncing from right front foot to left front foot to right front foot as each alternated between supporting the cat’s weight and its use as a weapon, left front paw, right front paw, left front paw, right front paw, slashing at the poodle’s face, connecting several times, leaving long red runnels along either side of its muzzle from which blood ran in rivulets. All the while, somehow Punkin kept his belly a steady 2-3” above the spider so that he wouldn’t crush him, and nothing else could get to Mercury without going through Punkin to do so. The poodle, however, for all the classic poodle cut and brilliant fuchsia of its curly fur (whoever did the dye-jobs on the damned thing had the world’s worst sense of taste; the only colors that would have been sillier than that on a dog originally bred to be a hunter and guard-dog were pale lavender and pastel chartreuse), was a game little mother – crazy as a Tasmanian Devil on LSD laced with methamphetamine, but no coward. It barked and barked and barked and barked, trying again and again to bite Punkin who, however, blocked the attempted bite each time with a well-placed front leg, following up with a slashing counterattack that left yet another long, bloody tear on the poodle’s velvet-furred muzzle. Of course by now, Steve and I were now closing in on the combatants. But somebody got there before us – another streak, this one black as the Styx, joined the fray just before we arrived: Booker, all 30 midnight pounds of him landing right beside Punkin, laying into that poor poodle with everything he had. With Booker in the fight, it was no longer a fight at all: an instant later, the poodle, Booker in hot pursuit, was barreling away down the hall, heading west, back where he had probably come from, as fast as he could go, ki-yiing as if the Devil himself were after him. Then Steve was kneeling down beside Punkin and Mercury, saying, “Are you all right?”, and Punkin, looking rather staggered after the hot confrontation, was trying to tell Steve that he was fine, just make sure Mercury is okay, and then I joined them, and carefully picked Mercury up, telling him what a wonderful spider he was and how much we loved him and all the other things you say when your kid has almost
gotten himself killed, before you remember the dumb stunt he pulled to get into that situation in the first place and start yelling at him, and then here came Booker and the poodle back down the hall again toward us, with a woman in hot pursuit, screaming at Booker at the top of her lungs and then starting to scream at us, “Your *@#!$*!!@*?! cat was trying to kill my poor little Bon-bon!” and Steve, wearing his Wrath of God expression, just beginning to come to a boil, was rising to his feet, ready to start hurling lightnings, or at any rate some Very Bad Words, at Ms. Idiot and her crazy poodle, and then the woman got a good look at the one at whom she had been screaming, her face went very pale, her eyes fluttered shut, and she folded up in a dead faint, murmuring something to the effect of “Oh, my dear God, it’s the Governor!” as she slid to the floor. Rather than trying to return to the arena of combat, seeing his mistress pass out and fall to the floor, the poodle took the surprisingly sensible course of running over to her, whining, sniffing at her face, and giving her great big sloppy wet doggy kisses, probably in an attempt to get her to wake up. In the meantime, Booker, usually not one to pass up a good excuse for a fight but apparently very concerned now for the well-being of Mercury and Punkin, trotted up to us, sniffing Punkin all over, <meeping> queries about Mercury at me, and making a few remarks about the poodle and his !@#$%!! mistress to Steve. “Shit!” snarled Steve, more to himself than anyone else, but still loudly enough to be heard for dozens of yards in all directions, one fist clenching hard, as if on someone’s throat. Then, deciding to take care of the most immediate problems first, picking Punkin up and cradling him in his arms, saying to Booker and me, “Come on, let’s get back inside where we can sort this out in peace,” he rose to his feet and stalked back to our suite, Booker and I, me still holding Mercury, following right on his heels, doing my best to ignore the dozens of spectators that now filled the halls, who had come out to see what the hell was going on by the unholy racket that had the dust-up had generated. I did not want anything to do with the poodle or his mistress if I could help it – I was afraid I might kill them both, then and there, using moves I’d just learned two days ago at dojo practice that Liz had, with one of her ferociously feral grins, told me were wonderful for simultaneously immobilizing your opponent and killing him slowly and with maximum agony. We did finally get it all satisfactorily sorted out – I put Mercury back into his habitat as soon as I got inside, reassuring him that it was to keep him safe, something he seemed to agree with, while the cats curled up on our bed, waiting to see what Steve and I would do next, and Steve got on the phone and called a sergeant-at-arms, the medics, and Animal Control to come take care of the lady and her poodle as expeditiously as possible. “I do not,” I heard him snarl as I was checking Mercury’s habitat’s temperaturecontrol readout and making sure his water-bowl was full, “want to see that woman again as long as I live! Or her fucking dog! She’ll probably try to sue us – in which case, let her. How she got into that area of the building with that dog, and why the damned thing was running loose, is something the sergeant-at-arms needs to check out – and if he finds out anything the least bit off about her, I want her prosecuted! – Yeah, call Joe, ask him how to handle that. – One fucking righteous fine, at the very least! The dog was trying to murder our, er . . .” His voice trailed off as he realized just how weird what he had been about to say might sound to whomever he was talking to. Then, his voice returning to its former decibel rating as he got mad all over again, just thinking about it, he roared, “Let’s just say the bitch sure as hell shouldn’t have been where she was, and her God-damned fucking dog damned sure shouldn’t have been there!” Behind me, on the bed, both cats’ ears were laid back tight against their skulls; they were more than a little disturbed by the Olympian rage they could hear in Steve’s voice, which was nearly ringing off the walls. In his habitat, Mercury faded into a corner, as if afraid he’d be the next target of that anger. (As a matter of fact, I’d been thinking of bawling him out for the nearly suicidal stunt he’d just pulled, but seeing that, I hadn’t the heart, and I know Steve wouldn’t either. I spent the next twenty minutes or so soothing him as best I could, finally getting him to perk up when I went and got him one of his favorite treats, a big juicy mutant silverfish, which I turned loose in his habitat for him to stalk and kill, something he dearly loved to do.) The sergeant-at-arms came down and cleared the kibitzers out of the hall while the medics took the lady away on a stretcher and Animal Control corralled the dog and took him off to the local canine slammer. Ever since that day, whenever Mercury has been in the same room with either or both the cats, his favorite place to rest or sleep has been curled up on top of or huddled close to Punkin or, if Punkin is absent, Booker. Both cats, who seem rather amused by Mercury’s adamant attachment to them, are more than happy to let him cuddle up against them; and at the first inkling of possible danger, or just something the strangeness threshold of which is higher than Mercury can tolerate, if Mercury is out of his habitat and the cats are around, he runs to them and huddles as close to them as possible. From the Day of the Poodle onward, they have definitely been his Angels, in whom he trusts with his entire being. He loves Steve and
me, but his adoration of and affection for the cats was is the order of that of an electron for a couple of protons, especially so in Punkin’s case. To a lesser extent, he likes to cuddle up with the Godzillas, too, but our cats have a place in his heart all their own, never to be displaced by anyone or anything else.
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