ATOMIC TALES #6 Bugs on Board
“Look alive, you two!” the crab boat’s first mate commanded. “I don’t care what government agency you’re from, if you mess up our catch, you’ll find yourselves swimming home!”
Agent Eight and I nimbly stepped out of the way as the mate and the rest of the crew of the Dragnet Danny hauled another set of crab pots onto the ship’s deck and added a handful of fat crustaceans to their catch.
“The US Science Bureau,” Eight reminded our host.
The mate squinted at us appraisingly. “That’s a fisheries thing, right? Too bad you came all this way for such a scrawny catch.” He laughed bitterly. “You wanna weigh each of these babies?”
“Not fisheries,” I replied. “Just looking into the recent fishing boat disappearances.”
“Oh, yeah,” the first mate said. “Cap’n Dan mentioned that. Don’t know what you expect to find.” He chuckled again, then added: “’Cept maybe a husband for you, Miss…?”
“Agent Seven,” I replied coolly.
“If we knew what we were looking for,” Eight interjected, “we wouldn’t be here. We’d have called in an airstrike.” He laughed, but his reply made the sailor nervous.
“You could do that?” the gruff seaman asked warily.
“Only if necessary,” I assured him. “…Or if we end up swimming.”
He swallowed hard and went back to work with the rest of the crew.
Agent Eight shot me a sly, collegial grin.
“You don’t really think that flying saucers are responsible for these fishing boats going missing, do you, Seven?” he asked. The two of us resumed scanning the horizon for lights in the sky or anything unusual.
I shrugged. “Since we don’t know what UFOs are at this point, it’s hard to tell. But there have been sightings in this area, and four ships have gone missing.”
“Five if you count that beat-up ghost ship the Coast Guard salvaged.”
“I’m just the muscle here, Ruth,” Eight continued. “You’re the science buff. You or the Teragons got any theories?”
“Too early for theories, Bill. We need more facts.” I returned his smile. “That’s why we’re here.”
“I’ll tell you one fact,” he said. “Donna’s gonna kill me when I get back with my clothes soaked with salt and smelling like fish.” He gave his slicker a cursory sniff and then held his nose.
I chuckled. Things were pretty stinky here. “Tell Donna to be glad that I talked Agent Zero into letting us wear civilian garb for this job. Just imagine the dry cleaning bill if you’d been in a suit.”
Eight glanced sideways at me, unsure whether I was serious or not.
I let him wonder.
Bill’s a nice enough guy, and great in a tussle—they don’t call him “Wild Bill” Hayes for nothing—but he’s not the sharpest pencil in the box. He and his wife Donna are well suited to each other, both long on looks and short on brains.
Having Bill along is better than being stuck with my brother on an assignment, though. I never have to argue with Eight, because I outrank him.
My brother Richard, on the other hand, is Agent Six—and never lets me forget it.
As the ship cruised along to its next set of pots, Eight and I kept our eyes peeled.
Nightfall over the Pacific cast lovely shades of orange and purple across the sky and sea, but it also brought a chill to the air.
I buttoned my slicker and started to lick the ocean spray off my lips, but then remembered myself and wiped the moisture away with the back of my sleeve, instead. Seawater stings the eyes, and consuming it will make you sick quickly. Better not to even enjoy a bit of its tempting saltiness.
I took a swig of fresh water from my canteen and then offered it to Eight.
He drank. “Not gin?” he asked, feigning disappointment.
I laughed and clipped the canteen back onto my belt. Eight and I needed to stay on our toes. This wasn’t a relaxing cruise. Little mistakes on the open ocean can get you killed—especially at night.
Far to the west, I could just make out spotlights from the San Diego airport playing over the low-hanging summer clouds. That wasn’t a swim I wanted to make.
“I hope we see one of these things,” Eight said. “A flying saucer, I mean. I never have yet. Have you?”
“Hard to say. I’ve seen some lights, but…” I shrugged.
“My wife’s been getting into the saucer craze,” he went on. “You know, that Contactee thing—where people say they’ve talked to aliens? She thinks all that’s real. What do you think, Ruth?”
I shook my head. “Not enough info… But I remain skeptical.”
“Yeah. Seems pretty batty to me. But if it keeps Donna happy and away from the bingo hall…”
The crew of the Dragnet Danny was hauling in another line, now. From the way they were grumbling, they didn’t seem too pleased. Their take had been unseasonably light recently. Other local boats had reported a steep fall off in catch, too—those boats that actually returned to port, anyway.
A gap-toothed crewman grinned as he pulled on the line. “Feels heavy! Maybe we got a good haul this time.”
“Better not be just seaweed,” snarled the first mate. “Many more days like this and we’ll all be lookin’ for landlubber jobs.”
“No, man. I got a feeling about this. This time, I think we get luckeeeeeEEEEE!”
His scream ended with a sudden splash as he pitched overboard.
Everyone on deck ran to where the fisherman had disappeared, but before we reached the spot, all of us skidded to a stop.
Up over the ship’s rail surged a living nightmare. It looked like a pill-bug—segmented and heavily armored with feelers and multiple sharp-tined legs—but it was pale as death and as big as one of the agency’s Studebakers. It scrambled onto the deck, climbing up the line of the crab pots.
“What the devil?!” the ship’s mate blurted. He’d been closest to the rail as the giant bug emerged from the sea, but now he backed away fast.
Eight and I had already drawn our sidearms, but a crew member with an ax ran into our field of fire.
With an angry scream, he hit the thing on its armored carapace. The ax barely left a scratch, and a swipe of one of the bug’s segmented legs sent him sprawling to the deck, bleeding.
Eight and I both fired—twice—but our shots had little more effect than the ax.
As the first mate dragged the injured crewman away, and all of us backed toward the wheelhouse, a second bug clambered aboard. And then a third.
“What are these things?” Agent Eight asked as we retreated. “Trilobites?”
“Sea isopods,” I replied. “But a hundred times larger than any ever reported.”
“Any bright ideas, Science Girl?”
“Shoot for the antennae,” I suggested. “They use them to ‘see,’ Their eyes are stunted from living in the depths. Take the right on the lead bug!”
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
We hit our targets, and the bug at the front of the pack shrieked and flailed aimlessly, its antennae disabled. The isopods behind it—five more of them now—ran into their thrashing fellow, which delayed the swarm long enough for us and all of the crew to reach the wheelhouse.
“I think we know what happened to those missing ships now,” Eight noted as we secured the door behind us.
“What are those things?!” the first mate asked, terrified. Apparently, Captain Dan and several other fishermen had been injured on other parts of the ship by invading bugs before scrambling to safety. A couple of the crewmen looked like they might not make it.
“Freaks of nature,” I replied.
“I don’t think this wheelhouse will keep them out very long, Seven,” Agent Eight warned. I hoped the others didn’t notice that his gun hand was trembling, and mine was, too.
My eyes darted frantically around the cabin, searching for some solution. “I’m working on it…”
The huge isopods chittered with excitement as they surrounded the wheelhouse. Their hundreds of jointed legs scrabbled at the hull, trying to find purchase to force their way inside.
“Did you government types know these things were here?!” the mate demanded angrily.
“If we did, do you think we’d have come with a fishing boat instead of the US Navy?” Eight snapped back.
The hideous face of one of the monsters pressed up against the windshield, its segmented mouth parts snapping. That glass was built for storms, but I didn’t think it would last long. The steel hull might not, either.
“Eureka!” I shouted. “Get everyone up on the seats and wooden benches, away from the metal walls!”
I used a handy fire ax to rip open one of the cabin’s panels, revealing the ship’s main powerline.
I got on a wooden chair, improvised some insulation for my hands out of my slicker, and hacked through the big cable. “Nobody touch the hull!”
CRASH! The front window of the ship caved in, and a truck-sized isopod stuck its ugly head inside.
“They’re coming in!” Eight cried, emptying his clip into the invading bug.
I snagged the sputtering cable with the ax head and shoved the powerline against the nearby bulkhead.
The isopods shrieked as sparks flew, and everywhere they touched the steel hull lit up electric blue.
A sound like a thunderclap shook the entire ship, and for a moment, everything went white.
Then silence fell like a shroud over the Dragnet Danny.
When all our eyes cleared, the ship looked like it’d been through a hurricane—but the bugs were gone.
We patched up the electricals, restarted the engine, and limped back toward San Diego at the best speed we could muster.
As the crew tended to their injured, Eight and I stood guard at the ship’s rail.
“So, what do you think caused those things? Toxic dumping? Radiation? UFOs?” Eight asked.
“Maybe the Teragons will have some theory,” I replied, shaking my head. “One thing’s for sure, though: They’re not gonna like that the bugs have reached the west coast.”
“I don’t much like it either.”
“Nor do I,” I agreed, settling in for what might be a long, stressful night watch.
Agent Eight sighed. “One good thing, at least, Agent Seven…”
He chuckled. “At least we didn’t have to call in an airstrike.”
ABOUT “BUGS ON BOARD”
I love giant isopods. They freak me out, but I still love them.
Who doesn’t love a bug that can be one-to-two feet long (about 2/3rds of a meter) and lives on the bottom of the sea?
They look like giant pill bugs—or wood lice—the kind that are found by every kid in the world that’s ever turned over a big rock or an old log. But the sea-going variety are as big as a dinner plate with a “face” the size of your fist, and when they’re fully grown they have seven pairs of nasty-looking segmented legs.
Ironically, though giant isopods were discovered in the 19th Century, I don’t think I’d ever seen one (on TV) before a couple of years ago. They’re one of seemingly hundreds of cool ocean denizens that I never knew existed. (And there are probably many more such creatures lurking in the depths!)
Apparently, the real giant isopods are harmless—or mostly harmless—scavengers who live in the very deep, dark parts of the ocean.
The giant mutant version in this story are not so harmless.
I’m trying to have a good mix of monsters in Atomic Tales: Strange Invaders while still sticking to the flying-saucers-and-mutants kind of theme, and obviously gigantic bugs are a… Um… BIG part of it.
If you’re thinking that this tale drew inspiration from the ants-aboard-ship sequence from the atomic SF classic THEM!, you’re absolutely right. That little sub-story in my favorite giant insect film has always fascinated me, as it tells us so much in so little screen time.
The brief “long flash story” nature of Atomic Tales doesn’t allow me a lot more space than that exciting interlude, but hopefully you readers had as much fun with this as I did writing it.
The story also gave me a chance to bring brainy Agent Seven, “Ruthless” Ruth Donlevy, back into the storyline. It also gives us our first break from the usual Agent One-driven narrations. (Don’t worry, stalwart Ray Tyler will be back soon.) And you even got to meet Agent Eight—and hear a bit about Agent Six—in the bargain.
The crab boat Dragnet Danny is named for one of the most popular TV shows of the mid-1950s, plus an alliterative second name. I’d like to claim Danny is for Danny Thomas, but it really didn’t occur to me until just now. Searching the Internet suggested that fishing boat names often have similar inspirations.
Of course, if I’d spent any time watching Deadliest Catch during the years it’s been on, I’d have had to do a lot less research for this tale.
Tune in next time for more of our heroic US Science Bureau Agents battling the… Strange Invaders!
You can listen to this story produced by Christopher R. Mihm from SaintEuphoria.com!
TM & © 2021 Stephen D. Sullivan