ATOMIC TALES – Strange Invaders #21 – “Peril on the Pier”

“C’mon, Ruth… Hustle!”  Agent Six, Roughhouse Rick Donlevy, chided.  “I don’t have time to play nanny, and I can’t keep waiting for you all day.”

If he didn’t outrank me, I might have punched my brother out.  But as Agent Seven—one step lower on the totem pole—I had to follow his lead on this assignment even as he delighted in being a major pain.

You try traversing these worn-out boards on crutches!” I shot back.

“Next time, don’t get your ankle busted up on a mission, Sis.  These docks aren’t that bad.  Fisherman’s Wharf is a San Francisco showplace, you know.  Maybe the bureau shoulda sent along a wheelchair—and a nursemaid to push—so you can keep up.”

“Honestly, Dick, sometimes you are such a…”

He scowled at me. “Stow that Dick stuff, Ruthless.  Maybe we should just stick to Six and Seven on this assignment.”

“Fine by me, Six.”

“Why the bureau saddled me babysitting my gimped-up little sister…!” he grumbled, not thinking I’d hear him over the local hubbub.

Crowds of waterfront tourists surrounded us, laughing and talking loudly as they took in the sights, snapped photos, and savored the local eateries.  The enticing smell of fresh seafood wafted through the salty early evening breeze.  My pain-in-the-butt brother and I weren’t here for dinner, though.  We’d come to investigate a series of mysterious dockside disappearances.  In the past few weeks, a dozen people, mostly fishermen, had vanished without a trace.

As the sun dipped west past the Golden Gate Bridge, we made our way from the public area of the wharves to the piers where local fishing vessels lay at berth.  Here, the festive atmosphere died away, and a quiet tension filled the air.  The men working the boats eyed us suspiciously as my brother and I ambled toward the far end of the docks.

“There’s our contact,” Six noted out of the side of his mouth as we approached a grizzled sailor waiting by an ancient wooden pylon.  “Remember to let me do the talking, here.  I’m in charge.”

In charge, maybe, but not the brains of this outfit.  I nodded, keeping my lips buttoned against a snappy retort.

“Mr. Cooney?  I’m agent Rick, and this is agent Ruth, from the US Science Bureau.”

We all shook.  The fisherman’s hands were rough from years working the sea.

“I thought you guv’ment types’d get here earlier.” Cooney, dressed in a battered gray slicker and old boots, shifted from foot to foot, and his blue eyes darted nervously as he spoke.  “It’s almost dark, you know.  I don’t wanna be here when them lights come out.”

My brother gave him a stern look.  “You said you’d show us where you’d seen these lights.”

“Sure.  Sure.  But we gotta hurry,” Cooney replied.

“Don’t worry about Ruth.”  My brother hooked a thumb at me.  “She can catch up.”

Again, I resisted an urge to slug my superior, but the old fisherman merely nodded.

“Follow me.”

I did my best to limp along, but the ankle I’d sprained during that Thunderbird case last month slowed me down, and my butt-head brother and Cooney definitely weren’t waiting.  They kept jawing, ignoring my lack of progress, as they left me behind.

They finally stopped next to a closed food, fuel, and supply station near the end of the pier.  As I came within hearing distance once more, it seemed like Agent Six had just about wrapped up his questioning.

“And you’re sure the missing men aren’t on a week-long binge or taking in the… er… sights of a new port or something?” he asked skeptically.

Cooney scoffed.  “I’ve known some of these men twenty years or more.  They’re not wet-behind-the-ears Navy sailors cruisin’ for girls.  They work here.  Any drinkin’ they save for bad weather.”

A couple of longshoremen, packing their gear for the day, whistled derisively when my crutch got snagged in a stray loop of rope I hadn’t noticed.  I staggered toward a stack of oil drums, but before the dockhands could “help,” I righted myself and caught up with my brother and Cooney.

“These lights you’ve seen…” I said as the sunset sky turned a deeper shade of purple and stars peeked out overhead, “…were they in the air or the water?”

My brother glared, like me asking a question was a breach of protocol.

Cooney pursed his lips and thought a moment.  “I guess I seen them in the air once, but most of the time, they’re underwater and… Look!  There they are!”

Six and I swung our gaze to where he pointed.  A hundred yards off, below the gently rippling harbor waves, glowed a strange, disclike shape, moving rapidly toward the pier.  As we watched, the disc turned into an oval, and a second oval appeared.  A shifting black oblong lurked in the center of both eerie glows.

Cooney didn’t need to see any more; he turned and ran down the long dock toward shore, screaming.

“Do those remind you of…” my brother began.

“Eyes!” I concluded.  “Rick, look out!”

The entire wharf shook as the huge glowing eyes passed out of sight beneath the piers.

I fell on my backside, and Six landed on top of me.

My ankle howled in pain, but I pushed my brother off and ignored it; we had bigger problems.

Halfway to the mainland, the tremor had pitched one of the longshoremen over the side of the dock.  His companion crouched on the wharf, frantically trying to pull his buddy back onto the weathered planking.  Between the stevedores and us, Cooney had crashed into the oil drums, toppling several, which I now noticed were labeled “gasoline.”

As Six and I climbed to our feet, the longshoreman dangling off the pier began screaming.  His friend’s eyes went wide, but he kept pulling as ten pale, garden-hose-sized tendrils snaked up from the water and wrapped themselves around the screaming man and his would-be rescuer.

Before my brother and I could do anything, the pallid coils yanked both longshoremen over the side.  The huge splash that followed smothered the victims’ screams as they vanished into the bay.

“What the devil…?!” Six blurted.  He drew his twin automatics and ran toward where the men had disappeared, not caring that that he’d left me—his backup—behind again.

“Dick…!  Dammit!”

He might have reached the drowning men, but at that moment, Cooney decided to reverse course and dash back toward the far end of the pier.

Cooney and my brother were so focused on their objectives that they plowed straight into each other.  They tumbled into the big drums, scattering even more—some of which must have been partially empty—across the wharf.

Eight new tendrils snaked over onto the dock, and a bulbous shape the size of a garbage truck heaved itself onto the pier.

“Giant octopus!” Cooney screamed, as the creature, half its body still in the water, writhed toward him and my fallen brother.

But this was far worse than any octopus: an octopus only has eight tentacles; this titanic chamber nautilus had dozens, maybe as many as a hundred.

One of those serpentine arms grabbed Cooney as he tried to flee and hoisted him, screaming, into the air.  Another grasped one of the rolling gasoline barrels and crushed it like an eggshell.

The fall had dazed Six, and he’d lost his weapons, but he managed to retrieve one and aim it at the monster.  I steadied myself on one crutch and drew as well.  We fired simultaneously.


The slugs ricocheted harmlessly off of the thing’s curving shell.  It didn’t even seem to notice our shots as it dragged Cooney toward its tentacled mouth.

“No good!” I cried, hobbling toward the confrontation.  “Aim for the tender parts!”

Six put four more bullets into the rubbery, squirming mass in front of the shell, but it was like shooting Jello.  The two I pumped into its left eye didn’t slow it down, either.

“What now?” my brother called as my brain quested furiously for solutions.

Unfortunately, before anything came to me, the nautilus grabbed his left leg.

“Yikes!  Ru-u-th…!”

“Kick a barrel at it!” I yelled, as the hideous mutant dragged the screaming Cooney into its slimy maw.  “Kick a lot of barrels!”

Six kicked wildly among the overturned drums, sending several rolling toward our foe.  The creature seized seven of them, but the barrels slowed it down only long enough for
Rick to reclaim his second pistol.

As the monster pulled Six closer, Cooney—partly engulfed and still screaming—grabbed onto my brother’s leg.  The fisherman was probably trying to pull himself out of the monster’s rubbery mouth, but the result was dragging Rick to his doom as well.

“Sis…!” he pleaded.

“Shoot the barrels!  Try to hit ones with gas in them.”

He took aim at the big drums, which the nautilus had dangling in the air like flies caught in a spiderweb, waiting to be devoured.


The barrels sprayed their volatile contents onto the monster’s shell and elastic hide.

I aimed my shot carefully.  I needed a spark to…


My bullet ricocheted off of a rusty drum at the proper angle, and a shower of sparks rained down on the spilled gasoline.


The monster wailed piteously as the gas caught fire.

It vomited out the stunned Cooney, and my brother dragged both himself and the unconscious fisherman to safety.  The nautilus retreated, but it still held a half-dozen drums in its tendrils.  As it went, gibbering and flailing, it accidentally crushed several barrels, filling the air with a sickly sweet mist.


The igniting vapor caused all the rest of the gas to go off like a bomb.

The explosion knocked me flat, and only sheltering behind the drums remaining on the dock saved Cooney and Agent Six from a fiery end.

I limped to them and helped my shaken brother to his feet as the remains of the monster burned and disintegrated into a familiar greenish ooze.  It made one hell of a bonfire.

“Nice job, Sis, even though you nearly got us all killed.”

I laughed.  “You didn’t nickname me ‘Ruthless’ Ruth for nothing!”


About “Peril on the Pier”

I love chamber nautiluses.  I probably have since first seeing Ray Harryhausen’s Mysterious Island.  They’re super-cool aquatic creatures that trace their origins back before the time of the dinosaurs.

Recently, while putting together the outline for the remainder of Atomic Tales: Strange Invaders, the image of a nautilus grabbing people off of a California pier popped into my head.  Surely part of that came from the Harryhausen flick, and maybe another part from “The Night of the Kraken” on The Wild Wild West (1968), a favorite childhood TV show.

I jotted the notion down in my commonplace book, per standard operating procedure.  Not every idea that goes in the book makes it into a written story, but as I was balancing the type of menaces our heroes would face in the rest of AT:SI, I decided this one fit in nicely after “Jersey Devil” and before my next tale, “Crash Site.”

If you’ve followed my writing, you know that aquatic menaces are something I dig, whether the megalodon in “Monster Shark” and “Zombie Shark,” or the slightly less fantastic sharks in Monster Shark on a Nude Beach, or Reeko the gill-man and other water monsters in the Tournament of Death series, or even “just” the giant isopods from “Bugs on Board,” earlier in this series.

I don’t have any real explanation for this, other than sneaking downstairs to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea on TV as a small child, being fascinated by a Creature from the Black Lagoon model my dad had, both sets of my grandparents owning beach houses we got to visit, and growing up next to a large pond.  But maybe that’s more than enough.

In any case, sea monsters feel like old friends to me, and this isn’t the last time you’ll be seeing such things in Atomic Tales.

It was also fun in this story to pair Ruthless Ruth up with her brother Roughhouse Rick and explore that family dynamic a bit.  Being a woman in the 1950s was tough enough, but having your ratfink older brother out rank you, even if you’re the brains of the family…!  Well, I’m sure all of you appreciate Ruth’s feelings, even if Agent Six doesn’t.

During the last few stories, I also developed a World Map for Atomic Tales, and it’s been fun (and sometimes tricky) researching the locations and pinning them down so that they all work together.  Poring over my geographical options, San Francisco became the perfect setting for this yarn—and of course, it has a Harryhausen film connection.  At some point, I’ll probably share a version of my AT map with my readers, so you can see how all the tales match up.

Until then… The locations will just have to remain in your imaginations—along with the rest of my fictions.  Map or no, I hope these mini-epics seem as real—and fun—to you as they do to me!

— Steve Sullivan

August 2022

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