“Reporter Tammy Rubens is actually a Soviet spy?!” Gigi Brock’s eyes went as wide as one of the proverbial flying saucers we chase in our jobs at the US Science Bureau as we sat in the agency quadrangle over lunch.
I gritted my teeth, anger at the betrayal warring with embarrassment over not spotting the enemy mole. “Yeah. Didn’t see that one coming.”
“I read some of her newspaper articles; they were good,” Gigi said, still looking stunned. “And your case reports where you ran into her… I never would have guessed. Enemy agents in disguise here… It’s like something out of Foreign Correspondent… or even Black Dragons!”
“Tammy’s credentials were impeccable. If Agent Three hadn’t worked alongside her against the Nazis during the war, Tammy might have continued undercover in the US forever.” I huffed in annoyance.
“So, did she have something to do with that crashed—quote, unquote—saucer? Was it a Soviet spy plane or weapon? Or was it something of ours she wanted to find out about?”
I shrugged, taking a moment to enjoy my ham and cheese on rye and the warm October day in Washington, DC. “Our boys deny it’s theirs, so God only knows. The Russians may be as puzzled about the whole thing as we are. If we can catch Tammy, or Tanya, or whatever her real name is, maybe we’ll find out.”
“Do you think we will…?” Gigi paused, chewing a mouthful of egg salad. “Catch her, I mean?”
“I hope so. It’s a big country, though—big enough to hide Soviet spies and mutant insects as well.”
Gigi nodded. “Speaking of giant bugs, you were going to tell me about your next encounter with the ants.”
“You’ve read the report?”
“Sure, but I want all the juicy details.”
I laughed. “Just don’t go blabbing to the papers—or the Soviets…”
A couple of years back, I took some time off to go kayaking on the Green River in Utah, after following up on a nearby UFO report. Since a lot of the area economy is based on uranium mining, Professor Teragon thought the rumors worth checking out. That turned out to be a dead end, like most sightings, but I didn’t mind, because the excursion put me in a terrific location to take a break from chasing flying saucers and mythical monsters.
They call Green River a city, though most of the time you can probably fit more people into a high school gym than live there. Though the local mine jobs are the big breadwinners, the tourist trade picks up for rafting season in the summer.
The surrounding canyons provided stunning backdrops for my kayaking day trips, and the whitewater proved exciting but not too challenging—perfect for a relaxing vacation. I spent most of my days on the river, while in the evenings I’d return to my rented room after dinner and a drink at one of the local taverns.
I happened to arrive in September, just in time for their annual Melon Festival, a Green River tradition that stretches back to 1906. The celebration features locally grown fruit in about as many ways as you can think of, and it also draws in folks from the neighboring small communities as well as tourists.
Saturday featured a big town picnic, and I found myself relaxing at riverside with Mia Martinez, a waitress in the Buffalo Head Grill downtown.
“So, what is it you do, Raymond?” Mia asked as we sat on the checkered tablecloth we’d set down for our lunch. The fried chicken and apple pie she’d packed in our picnic basket smelled heavenly.
“I work for the US Science Bureau. We investigate problems with crops and livestock, unusual weather… a variety of things.”
“Would that include looking into… biology?” She raised her dark eyebrows into her curving black bangs and gazed at me with her big brown eyes.
“Today… It would,” I said, leaning in to kiss her.
Wouldn’t you know it, just then, someone screamed—not a “we’re having fun” scream, but an honest-to-God cry of terror.
I sprang to my feet, my wartime and bureau training instantly kicking in, my eyes scanning for the source of the trouble.
“Ray, what is it?” Mia asked, concerned; she stood and looked around, too.
Then she screamed as a black ant the size of an Airstream trailer bulled its way past a food tent at the edge of the park and flattened a cotton candy stand. The terrified sweets vendor barely escaped the wreckage as the ant indulged its craving for pure cane sugar.
I reached for my automatics and then remembered I’d left them in the trunk of my agency Studebaker.
I grabbed Mia by the hand. “We need to get to the car!”
Fear filled her pretty brown eyes. “Will we be safe there?”
“Maybe. I’ve got a radio-phone—we can call the army—and I’ve got some guns in the trunk.”
She didn’t ask any more questions; we ran hand-in-hand toward the parking lot as fast as possible.
Behind us, things got worse as more mutant ants—possibly attracted by the smell of food and the noise—arrived to crash the party.
Mia and I barely beat the stampede of frightened festivalgoers to the lot. I shoved her into the front seat of the Studebaker, gave her the radio handset, and twisted the dial to the proper frequency. “Tell whoever answers that the Melon Festival is under attack and that Agent Ray of the USSB says they need to send the army here, A-S-A-P. Keep telling them until they do it.”
She nodded as the panic and chaos around us grew. “What are you going to do?”
I grabbed my twin automatics and a shotgun from the trunk of the car. “I’m going to try to help.”
As I ran back into danger, I had to wonder: Were the giant ants out to get me, personally? Were they tracking me by scent, or was this new incursion into my life just coincidence? With no way of knowing, all I could do was curse my luck and take the fight to the enemy.
Ahead, five of the huge insects rampaged through the festival park, shredding tents, pushing over stands, and feasting on the sweets abandoned by terrified attendees and vendors.
A giant ant needs a lot of food, though, and before I could get in range, the lead insect turned its attention to a fleeing middle-aged man pulling a grade-school-age girl after him.
The mutant monster shambled toward these new, meatier victims.
“Hey, bug!” I shouted. I doubt it heard me over the general clamor, but the two shots I put into its immense inky carcass got its attention. The first slug ricocheted off its armored body, but the second took out its left eye.
It turned toward me, its antennae twitching, and its four companions turned as well. The lead ant charged.
I stopped running long enough to take careful aim and blast both its antennae into fragments. My fifth shot took out its other eye.
With both eyes and antennae gone, the ant still wasn’t mortally wounded, but it thrashed blindly, which—Bonus!—also slowed down its buddies and allowed me to reach full speed again.
Six titanic legs made those suckers fast, though, and the remaining four had nearly caught me by the time I leapt onto the still-revolving merry-go-round.
The spinning ride and its calliope music confused the next monster, and when I rotated around from the far side, I gave it a full shotgun blast in the face. That blinded it, but the brute lumbered into the carnival attraction, derailing the merry-go-round and sending me sprawling.
I had a real Hitchcock suspense moment as the ride wheeled toward me, but I rolled aside just in time and sprang to my feet, starting the pursuit all over again.
I don’t know how long I led the remaining three ants on a fevered chase through the fairgrounds. I managed to blow one up with a propane tank from a food stand, but the other two cornered me down by the waterside.
I backed into the Green River, my ammo exhausted, hoping the ants might drown.
The five-yard-long monsters didn’t seem too worried about that as they waded in after me. Then…
The head of one exploded, and…
BOOM! There went the other.
The cavalry—in the form of the US Army—had arrived, and they’d brought bazookas.
Gigi sighed. “Just like in the movies! But what happened to Mia?”
“After she called the army, I never saw her again. With the way our picnic turned out, I can’t say I really blame her. The bureau explained the whole incident as bad water causing hallucinations.
“I’d gotten lucky, though. If Stig Hansen and his squad hadn’t been conducting training exercises nearby…!”
“Stig Hansen? So, that’s how Spider Squadron started.”
“Not then, but that’s where the idea originated. Stig suggested it’d be good to have a regular crew to clean up these kinds of messes, rather than just some random unit. He thought the bureau could send some ‘spiders’ to take care of the ants..”
“I thought they called it Spider Squadron because they battled giant spiders or something.”
“That’s one thing we haven’t encountered yet, Gigi, thank God. We have enough trouble with the ants!”
“But there’s a movie about a giant spider coming out next month. I read about it in the Hollywood Reporter.”
I laughed. “Not every monster in Hollywood is created to cover up one of our cases. Now, c’mon… There’s not much lunchtime left, and you need to practice on the target range if you’re going to help Agent Seven on her next case.”
Gigi snapped me a smart salute. “Trainee Agent Gigi Brock, reporting for duty!”
I couldn’t help but smile. “You’re not there yet, Gigi. But keep up the good work, and you’ll make it.”
About “A Picnic Spoiled”
Since Atomic Tales: Strange Invaders started as a one-shot story in the middle of a prolonged battle against mutant monsters (giant ants specifically), I’ve needed to occasionally go back and fill in gaps in the continuity. Not all the gaps, mind you, that would slow the main story down too much, but enough to remind people that the “problem” of the enormous insects stretches back more than two years from our current stories.
Since Agent One, Ray Tyler, has been with the agency longest, he’s the perfect person to relay those “untold” tales—and teaming him (or one of the other seasoned agents) with Gigi gives us a nice interplay of new and old. It also gives me the chance to advance her story as well.
One of the things I did before I started writing the current set of tales (episodes 21-26) was to create a world map showing where all the events so far have taken place. I did this to spread out the strange invasion to various parts of the US, and not just confine the weirdness to west of the Rockies, where the stories started.
Last episode, “Crash Site,” is an example of me widening the scope, while “A Picnic Spoiled,” coming earlier in the continuity, returns to the original stomping grounds of the Sci-Fi menace.
The Melon Days Festival is a real thing that happens every September in the actual town of Green River, Utah. I stumbled across both while working on my world map, looking for a suitable location for giant ants to raid a picnic.
The pictures I’ve seen of the area are really lovely, and the rafting looks fabulous, too. I’d love to give it a try, but after being cooped up inside for more than two-and-a-half years because of the pandemic, part of me feels that I may be getting a bit old for such adventures.
An author can dream, though!
At least until the ants spoil the picnic.
You can listen to this story produced by Christopher R. Mihm from SaintEuphoria.com!