“That’ll wreck your day for sure,” Agent Four said, gazing at the shattered railroad trestle and the half-dozen ruined cars lying in the sloping ravine. “Eh, Agent Three?”
I nodded as the late afternoon sun cast long, dark shadows across the wreckage. The two-day-old crash site smelled of dry grass, machine oil, fractured timber, and a whole lot of dust. “Lucky it was just a freight train, or a lot more folks could have been killed.”
“One gully in the entire region, and this train dives into it,” observed Agent Eight, “Wild Bill” Hayes, as he loped to the defile’s edge. Nebraska is pretty flat, but here in the southwest, near Colorado, you still find ravines and small canyons.
Bill rubbed his backside; it’d been a bumpy ride from the little airport in Grand Island. “Two people dead and two missing, but we’re here looking for someone who was dead before the accident.”
“Can’t blame the railroad for being more concerned with their personnel than with Dr. Hedison’s corpse,” I remarked. “They don’t know that body might hold the key to the country’s secret battle against the giant bugs.”
“Speaking of railroad agents…” Agent Four hooked his thumb toward a pair of men who’d parked next to our agency Studebaker.
“You those government types?” a tall dark-haired man in jeans and a khaki shirt called as he and a shorter, similarly dressed blond man ambled toward us.
“U.S. Science Bureau,” I said, shaking hands. “I’m Agent Suzanne. I’m in charge of this investigation. And these are Agents Alec and Bill.”
“I’m Bellows and this is Coffee,” said the taller man, “from the insurance company.”
Coffee laughed. “A woman in charge. If that don’t beat all!”
“Anything new?” I asked, ignoring him.
While I spoke with the insurance men, Agent Four, Alec “Boom Boom” McMurphy, and Agent Eight searched for the best way to the gorge’s bottom. We’d dressed in resilient blue-gray agency jumpsuits for the occasion and brought along climbing equipment. Four toted his usual backpack of infernal devices, as well.
“How’s the hospitalized engineer?” I asked.
Bellows shrugged. “He’s babbling about bright lights coming at him, and then hearing ‘war drums’ and screams when he woke up atop the ravine.”
“Delirious, then,” I said, though actually the engineer’s rantings intrigued me. “Any reports of seeing lights in the sky or other strange occurrences?”
“Not that I’ve heard,” Bellows replied.
“These timbers are rotted,” Coffee announced, dusting his hands off after a cursory exam of the scene. “Clear case of the railroad neglecting to maintain this rattle-trap trestle. Our company shouldn’t have to pay for this.”
Agent Four frowned. “This girder looks partly melted. Take out a few of those, and the whole structure would come down.”
“Probably melted in the fire after the crash,” Coffee responded.
“No of signs of fire, here,” Agent Eight put in.
“Sabotage?” Bellows asked.
“We just need to review all the evidence,” I replied. “And we can’t do that from up here.”
Coffee blanched. “You’re not suggesting we go down… there!”
“Bill, Alec… You figured out the best way down yet?” I asked.
“There’s a wash over here that looks passable, Rocky.” Agent Four, Alec, indicated a spot ten yards away. “I rigged some safety lines.”
“Then let’s get to it. Daylight’s wasting.”
Agent Eight shook his head as we descended. “When I transferred to the Reno office, I think Donna was hoping I’d bring home less dirty laundry.”
“I don’t see why we need to trudge down here at all,” Coffee complained, dusting off his work clothes when we reached the bottom.
An unsettling silence filled the ravine. Broken timbers and twisted steel lay all around us, and the remains of the six-carriage train snaked up the side of the gorge like a kid’s busted Lionel set. The gully’s air smelled more strongly of iron, fuel oil, and shattered lumber, along with a musky dampness.
“You science folks always packing heat on your investigations?” Bellows asked as my fellow agents and I checked our sidearms.
“We like to be prepared,” I replied.
“Like the Boy Scouts,” Four added with a smile.
“Might be coyotes or something down here,” Eight concluded.
Coffee looked nervously up and down the defile.
I didn’t spot any coyotes—or any sign of the steel coffin we’d shipped Dr. Hedison’s body in, either.
“We going to have to check inside all these train cars, Rocky?” Eight asked.
“Searchers examined the cars for survivors,” Bellows noted.
“Just what are you people looking for?” Coffee asked suspiciously.
“Science stuff,” Four replied.
“Hey, Alec, give me a hand with this,” Eight said. He pulled on the side door of a freight car resting at the bottom of the gorge, but it didn’t budge.
“Sure thing,” Four replied, grabbing hold. “You know, there’s a better way to get this open.” As usual, Alec was aching to blow something up.
“There should be a door on the other side, too,” I commented. “One that might not be stuck.”
“Is that thunder?” Coffee wondered, gazing at the sky above the ravine.
I heard the noise, too—like distant drumming. “No, it seems to be coming from…”
With a tortured groan and a shower of rust, the cargo door that Eight and Four were tugging on cracked open. Eight laughed. “Hey, the door on the other side is open!”
“Look out!” I cried.
Suddenly, the stuck door rolled back completely, and out of the boxcar sprang a nightmare.
The snake was at least thirty feet long, thick as a beer barrel, and covered with fist-sized ochre and brown scales. Its reptilian eyes glowed yellow-green in the canyon’s semi-darkness. The air thundered with the drum-like sound from its rattling tail. The creature smelled like rotten meat.
Agent Four hit the deck, but the monster rattler’s fangs tore open the leg of Eight’s jumpsuit as it sprang.
Bill screamed and fell hard into the side of the railcar, but he wasn’t the enormous serpent’s target.
Coffee didn’t even have time to cry out as the serpent’s jaws clamped around his body. The chubby insurance man stiffened and died as the snake injected him with enough venom to kill twenty men.
I put a pair of shots into the back of the rattler’s head as it dropped Coffee’s corpse, but the bullets didn’t pierce the thing’s scales.
The enormous serpent whipped around in my direction, but between me and it, Bellows was scrambling up the side of the ravine, trying to escape.
Running prey makes an easy target. The giant rattler coiled and sprang, sinking its fangs deep, once more.
Bellows’s high pitched wail echoed through the defile as the monster killed him. But his death bought the rest of us a few extra seconds.
“Alec!” I called. “When I lead it past, drop the engine on it!”
“Right!” Four replied, racing uphill to the wrecked locomotive, well away from where Bill lay injured. Alec fished in his backpack for the right gear.
“Hey, snake!” I shouted, firing at its head again.
As it turned, I ran up the gully and into the shadows as fast as I could, praying I’d judged my distances right.
The rattler’s coiled strike missed my back by two or three yards. I gagged and almost tripped as the musky odor of its gaping maw washed over me.
Undeterred, the giant reptile resumed the chase, its huge bulk shoving aside rocks and crushing the dry grass at the gully’s bottom as it came after me. The monster sounded like a rushing whirlwind on my tail.
I wanted to take another shot at it, but I didn’t dare slow down.
“Rocky, look out!” Alec shouted, and brute’s awful odor surged over me again. Death was coming, and this time, it wouldn’t miss.
The snake hissed and fell back, as two well placed shots took out its right eye. I glanced back just long enough to see that Wild Bill, bleeding leg and all, had rejoined the fight.
The hulk of the derailed locomotive’s engine loomed before me, two dozen yards uphill to my right.
“Now, Alec! Now!” I cried as the mutant snake closed in once more.
My bones shook, and the canyon thundered with “Boom Boom” McMurphy’s carefully placed blast.
The train engine dislodged from its perch and hurtled to the bottom of the ravine in a cloud of dust and rocks. The gigantic serpent turned toward the new threat, but the locomotive rolled right over it, flattening the monster like roadkill. The snake’s thunderous rattle shook frantically for a few long moments… and then stopped.
Four, Eight, and I put a dozen more shots into the thing’s eyes, just to make sure it was dead.
“You okay, Bill?” I asked.
“Gave me a nice cut, but I don’t think I got poisoned,” Eight replied. “I’d feel it if I was; right?”
“Yeah,” Four agreed. “You probably wouldn’t be gabbing so much.”
“Who wants to gab? I’d much rather be in Reno, relaxing by the pool with Donna,” Eight replied.
“That leg wound might get you your wish,” I noted, “at least for a couple of weeks.”
The three of us gazed at the giant snake’s body as it rapidly disintegrated into foul smelling ooze.
“Just like the damn bugs,” I observed. The scope of our little war had expanded—again.
“At least we’re not gonna have to cut that sucker open to see if it swallowed Hedison’s coffin,” Eight observed.
Agent Four chuckled. “Yeah. But Rocky’s not going to get sixteen pair of snakeskin boots out of this ruckus, either.”
“I’m just happy to escape with my own skin intact,” I replied. “Too bad those insurance boys can’t say the same.”
Agent Four smiled grimly. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m sure that the guys who come to investigate what happened to them will chalk it up to railroad negligence.”
About “Rattle Trap”
One of the things I’ve been trying to do in this series is build up in a logical progression from the stories earlier in the continuity to ones that I’ve had in my head for a long time (like the previous beehive tale). Knowing where the story eventually ends up, the problem is how to get there, and how many in-between episodes are needed to set up later revelations and planned high points.
“Rattle Trap” is one of those bridging stories—and it just happens to be about a bridge, too.
The fact that Atomic Tales is being released monthly—both in prose and audio productions—means that I have not written all the stories at once. Heck, I haven’t even planned them all at once.
Rather, I’ve been plotting and writing the series in chunks of 4 to 6 months at a time. (Though as I’m finishing this new set—currently finishing 12-17—the urge to plan all the way to the end of Strange Invaders is growing ever stronger. By the time you’re reading this, I may even have followed through on that notion.) Writing a long story in pieces can be tricky.
I’ve done this kind of thing before with Daikaiju Attack and also to some extent with Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors. It’s like knowing you’re driving from coast to coast across the U.S. and knowing what states you’re going to hit on the way, but not knowing exactly where in those states you might stop or find interesting things to divert to.
One of the tricks to making it all work is not only dropping the Master Story foreshadowing in at the right points, but also keeping all the U.S. Science Bureau’s main agents in play while doing so. I don’t want to get to the point of needing readers/listeners to remember who “Wild Bill” Hayes is, for instance, only to discover I last referred to him ten episodes ago.
Plus, there are new ideas that turn up and demand incorporation along the way, like “Mansect!” which was only a gleam in the back of my brain until he got his cool name (and URL) shortly before making his way into the continuity.
All in all, writing Atomic Tales is like juggling three different objects at once, and sometimes expanding to juggle five.
Fortunately, I’m better at writing and organizing than I am at juggling. (Though I used to be pretty good at that, too, when I was in practice; though I never did totally get the hang of the five-ball juggle. Maybe someday.)
Let me know how you’re enjoying my little circus act!
You can listen to this story produced by Christopher R. Mihm from SaintEuphoria.com!
Click here to listen. Story starts about XX minutes from the end.