ATOMIC TALES – Strange Invaders #16 – “Arrival of the Ants”

Featured on THE INFINITE BARD, Thrilling Adventures.

“A fifty-foot woman?!” secretary Gigi Brock blurted as we shared lunch in the quadrangle.  “How will the agency ever cover that up?!”  She laughed.  “No pun intended.  I mean, how will Communications explain what happened in a way that won’t cause a nationwide panic, Agent One?”

Despite being the daughter of the U.S. Science Bureau’s military liaison, General Edward “Brick” Brock, Gigi didn’t have the confidence in the agency that we old hands do.

I set my BLT down on the picnic table and explained.  “I heard on the radio today that a freakish tornado did the damage to Reno.  It also caused the malfunction of a prototype 3D film system in one of the ruined show palaces, which then projected images of a scantily clad showgirl into the dust kicked up by the storm.”

Gigi took a bite of her egg salad sandwich.  “Wow.  With 3D movies all the rage now, that’s almost… believable.”

I smiled.  “Janice is good at her job, but these recent incidents are becoming harder to explain away.  The freakish fireflies, wasps, and even the dragonflies weren’t that difficult to keep under wraps, but once the giant ants showed up…”

“I wasn’t able to read that far in the files,” Gigi said, flopping her sandwich onto her table napkin.  “My dad… I mean the general doesn’t think I’m agent material.”

That raised my hackles.  “I think the Teragons and Agent Zero get to decide who qualifies as an agent.  So, listen, here’s how I first encountered the ants…”

*

The army and Agent Five had wiped out the dragonflies, the wasps, and even the harmless giant fireflies.  The mutant insect flap was over—or so we thought.

But a strange missing persons case, plus reports of lights in the sky in Daviesville—near the site of the original incursion—had the Teragons wondering if some fireflies had escaped extermination.  So, back to Colorado I went with orders to bring a specimen back alive….

“Yeah, I seen them ghost lights,” Old Tom Davies told me as we trekked the wooded hillsides near the abandoned Daviesville mines.  “Seen ’em darting above the mountaintops.”

“Near the mines?” I asked.  Local gold deposits had petered out decades ago; Daviesville was little more than a ghost town now.  Some locals hung on, though, like Davies, whose family had founded the town after striking gold in the 1890s.

Every once in a while, some local—or a traveling prospector—decided to try his or her luck in a decommissioned mining tunnel.  Lately, a few folks hadn’t returned, including two Daviesville miscreants and an alleged “mining expert” from Pennsylvania.

The locals had searched, but their hearts weren’t really in it.  One of the men had been a drunkard, the other beat his wife, and nobody liked the “interloper” from Pennsylvania.

Besides, bears still lived in these hills, which was why I had a shotgun slung across my back in addition to my usual sidearm.  Bears, plus people moving out of the dying town overnight, probably explained the missing.

“Them ghost lights hang around abandoned mine entrances,” Tom continued.  He looked like a stereotypical miner: weathered skin, frizzled gray hair, overalls, plaid shirt, and a ratty wide-brimmed hat.  “People figure they’re the spirits of dead miners.”

“Seen ’em near this mine since that easterner disappeared?”

“Yep.  But like I told you, folks don’t usually come this high up.  Not with that strange wailing.  People don’t wanna go messin’ with no ghosts—not for some eastern busybody, anyway.”

I stopped our uphill hike and listened.  A gentle breeze wafting the scent of pine down the aspen-covered slope was my only reply.  We resumed walking.

“Well, there she is,” Tom announced minutes later.  He pointed toward a timber-supported hole about three yards square in the hillside.  “One of the oldest and most dangerous mines in the area.  Goin’ in without a guide would be foolhardy.”  He grinned, displaying a gold tooth among his pearly whites, and held out his hand.

I’d paid him for his services earlier, but I dug another ten-spot from my pocket.  Better to overpay the locals than end up stranded in a mine.

Tom buried the bill in his dirty overalls.  “You’re smarter than that last easterner,” he commented.  “He didn’t want to spread the wealth around.”

He jauntily hiked into the mine entrance, pausing only briefly to turn on his flashlight.

I followed cautiously.  I’m not claustrophobic, but the ancient excavation didn’t feel right to me.  Dust fell from the pitted timbers, and sounds like falling rocks echoed from deeper in the tunnel.

Plus, it stank, not just of dust and rotting wood, but something acrid, unidentifiable.  “What’s that smell?” I asked.

Tom sniffed the stagnant air.  “Old explosives, probably,” he said.  “You’d be surprised the kind of stuff they used to use.”

Just then, our flashlights played across a heap of rags on the passage floor.  “Is that a backpack?” I ventured.  Though covered with dust, it looked fairly new.

My guide knelt and examined it.  “Maybe the one that easterner brought with him.”  He walked further down the shaft, calling: “You in here somewhere, you bushwhacker?”

I inspected the backpack.  It had a folding shovel strapped to one side, a small pick to the other, and inside were various supplies—plus a whole lot of dynamite.  Either this guy came over-prepared, or he was a nut.

Tom stopped shouting and cocked his grizzled head.  “You hear that?”

An eerie whistling sound echoed up the tunnel, starting quietly and then building until the trilling dislodged dust from the ceiling.

“Are those the ghost wails?” I asked.

“Ghosts!” Tom scoffed, standing a dozen yards deeper in the mine than me.  “Likely just the wind blowing through the cracks in some blocked-up mine entrance.  Ghosts are for suckers and…  Aaaa!”

He screamed as the cave wall next to him collapsed, and a black ant the size of my agency Studebaker grabbed him in its gigantic pincers.

My forty-five sprang into my hand, and I put a pair of shots into the giant insect’s head.

One pierced a monstrous eye, but that didn’t save Tom.  The creature dropped his crushed body and turned on me.

My next shots took out its other eye, but it still scrabbled down the shaft toward me, undeterred.  That’s when I remembered an old science movie that said ants used their antennae as much as their eyes to find prey.

Two well-placed shots took out both antennae, and the monster fell, disabled but not dead, a half-dozen yards from me.  The abomination’s twisted bulk effectively filled the passage.  The tunnel quaked from the giant insect’s thrashing, and choking dust fell from the ceiling.

The acrid scent from the crippled mutant almost made me gag, but the awful trilling grew even louder.  I suddenly realized that where there was one ant, there were bound to be more.

I couldn’t help Tom.  So, I scooped up the nearby backpack and retreated down the passageway, trying not to trip.

Cold fear shot down my spine as a second ant pushed past the first, callously killing its struggling fellow as it came.  And behind that, I spotted the heaving black bodies and glistening predatory eyes of even more.  I’d discovered a nest!

I managed to shoot off one of the new ant’s antennae as I ran for the tunnel entrance, but when my Colt ran empty the monster kept coming.

I quickly unlimbered the shotgun from my back and blasted the bug full in the face.  That took it down, but I barely had time to blast the next one behind it.

Fortunately, the two big bodies blocked the passage as I sprinted out the mine exit.  But I knew that the ants would soon clear their dead and come after me again.

Desperately, I slung the eastern prospector’s backpack into the entrance, took aim, and hit the dynamite inside with a full shotgun round.

KA-WHOOM!

The whole hillside shook, and the concussion sent me tumbling, my senses reeling.

*

“When I recovered, I high-tailed it to my Studebaker and radioed for army backup.”  I took a long drink of my coffee.  “They mopped up the nest, but of course, that wasn’t the end of it—only the beginning.”

Gigi stared at me, wide-eyed.  “And we’ve been fighting giant mutations ever since.”

I nodded and bit into my BLT.

“So,” she said, taking a deep breath, “the bureau probably brushed off that incident as a mining accident.  But what about Mrs. Hayes, the giant woman?  Where is she?  Maybe we explained Reno, but how are we going to explain her?  I heard Agent Eight didn’t even want anyone running tests on her.”

“Bill’s been… reluctant,” I admitted. “Hedison’s ‘cure’ killed the Mansect, and obviously Bill doesn’t want that.  The Teragons will work on it, though, and I think he and Donna will come around—eventually.  Their place is pretty isolated, and they’ve erected a big tent behind his house she can camp out in.  Supposedly it’s for bureau storage that was destroyed in the ‘tornado.’  That should keep the prying eyes away—for a while.”

“But they can’t live that way forever.  What’s next?”

“Next, Gigi, people like me and you keep digging, turn up as much info about these mutations as we can, and find a cure for Donna—hopefully before anyone else is infected.”

THE END

About “Arrival of the Ants”

The fireflies, the wasps, and the dragonflies were dead, but I realized I still needed to fill in some background for Atomic Tales: Strange Invaders.  After all, our faithful Agent One was surprised to be accosted by a giant ant in the original tale, but not too surprised.  Clearly, I had at least a few more stories to tell before reaching the present.  But first…

When I read “Attack of the 50-Foot Femme Fatale” to my friends the Keno Writers, one of their responses was that surely Donna had to go to jail for her rampage, because she’d broken all sorts of laws, even if she didn’t mean to.

But a Giantess in Jail storyline (as fun as that title sounds) would have messed up all sorts of elements for my ongoing story—as well as falling outside the kind of tales that 1950s Sci-Fi-Horror films dealt with.  (Sure, we got giant women and women in prison films in the ’50s, but never the twain would meet!)

So, I briefly explained how, like the other weird encounters in this series, even the destruction of the 50-Foot housewife could be explained away by creating a cover story plausible enough for the public to remain ignorant of the “invasion,” and thus avoid a nationwide panic.

I’d made previous references to the agency/government hushing up the various weird encounters our agents had during the series.  For my own amusement, I’d even cooked up how the agency propaganda might approach this particular problem.  Because clearly the rampaging naked giant was—Ahem!—a bigger issue than Janice in Communications needed to deal with previously.

Talking with my friends made me realize that I needed to put the coverup idea into the stories in a more prominent way, and with the 50-Foot Femme story fresh in everyone’s minds, now seemed to be the time to tackle that.

No, Donna wouldn’t be going to jail, because there was an established governmental and agency policy of using counter-narratives to explain away all the weird goings on.

“Coverup” is a bad word today, but back in the Cold War, most Americans accepted that sometimes the government had to withhold information for “our own good.”

I’d argue that coverups are never good, but I think that given the time period, it’s okay for our heroes in this series to see such propaganda as necessary.  It makes the U.S.S.B. a little “grayer” than some might prefer, but I like that even people with the best intentions—our heroes—can make flawed choices.

With that bit of ongoing business out of the way, I was free to once again dive into the series backstory, giving us Agent One’s first encounter with our ubiquitous giant ants.  Plus, it gave us more Gigi Brock, which is always fun.

You can listen to this story produced by Christopher R. Mihm from SaintEuphoria.com!

Click here to listen.  Story starts about 1:06:35 from the start.

Click here to read and listen to more ATOMIC TALES!

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