“It’s funny how UFO reports seem to go hand in hand with missing people incidents,” I reflected as Agent Two and I hopped out of our bureau A-24 at the tiny airfield in Mortmar, California, northwest of the Salton Sea.
“And how often checking out those two things ends with us fighting some kind of monster,” Buster “Ace” Freeman agreed. He patted the side of the war surplus Banshee affectionately. “Good thing we came equipped for trouble. Eh, Rocky?”
I chuckled, and we hiked to the Jeep that’d been left nearby as our transportation.
Strictly speaking, our two-person fighter-bomber wouldn’t be necessary for this mission—at least, I hoped it wouldn’t be—but Ace got his moniker flying in World War Two, and I couldn’t blame him for wanting to take one of the USSB’s new acquisitions out for a spin.
The Salton Sea is a landlocked saltwater lake in the desert. It’s about thirty-five miles long and fifteen miles wide and sits atop the earthquake-prone San Andreas fault.
The Teragons theorize that lights in the sky may be related to seismic activity, but Ace and I wouldn’t have come to check out those reports if six people hadn’t gone missing.
“I wonder how the fishing is…” Two mused as he drove us toward the northern edge of the lake.
“The fish are all introduced stock; so, fishing should be good,” I replied. “The lake used to be a dry salt bed, but irrigation runoff and a couple of engineering goofs in the early part of the century flooded it.”
“Pretty, though. Might be a nice spot to build a resort.”
“If you don’t mind vanishing without a trace.”
Two frowned. “Yeah, there is that.”
Calling Mortmar a town is an exaggeration. The Navy maintains facilities near the southwest corner of the lake; they even test dropped dummy atomic bombs there once. But up here in the north, things got pretty deserted when the army left the airfield after the war.
Though the October air remained summer warm, and the fresh breeze from the water smelled similar to the salty tang of the California coast, we didn’t see many people. It wasn’t even six o’clock yet, but the few shops and eateries were closed. The lone motel’s sign flashed “NO Vacancy,” though just a single car sat in the parking lot. Few boats occupied the slips at the marina. South of there, only a battered lakeside bait shop stood open.
“Let’s check this out,” Two suggested, parking the Jeep near the little shack. “Brings back memories. Dad and me used to do a lot of fishing when I was a kid.” We walked up to the service window and Ace introduced us. “I’m Agent Buster and this is Agent Suzanne, we’re with the US Science Bureau.”
“Business looks a little slow,” I noted.
“Yeah, dagnabbit,” the tanned graybeard manning the counter replied in a weather-worn voice. “You here to fish?”
“Maybe later,” Two replied.
The wiry oldster grinned. “I can give you a nice discount on sea worms.”
“We’re looking into the recent disappearances,” I told him.
He threw up his hands in frustration. “Bah! Run off to Vegas to get married, most likely.”
“All of them?” Two asked. Given that the missing folks ranged from age twelve to sixty-three, that explanation seemed unlikely.
“Happens all the time,” the man insisted. “My worms won’t keep much longer, even in the fridge—and freezin’ will kill ’em. If I don’t sell ’em, I’ll have to dump ’em—again.”
“Because nobody’s fishing,” I deduced.
He pointed one sun-browned arm south, toward a long, narrow metal-sided building. “See that drive-through warehouse there? Supposed to freeze tourists’ catch, so they can take it back home. Owner padlocked it two weeks ago and headed to Vegas to try his luck. No tourists! You sure I can’t sell you them sea worms? Don’t want me feeding the fish for free, do ya? With no tourists, them corvinas gotta be pretty hungry by now.” He flashed us his best salesman’s smile.
“I think we’ll try to find a good fishing spot first,” Two replied. We headed for the shore.
“I ain’t gonna be here all night!” the man called.
Despite the warm late afternoon, the beach didn’t have any swimmers, sunbathers, or even young couples canoodling.
Two shielded his eyes from the setting sun and gazed west over the vast, calm expanse of water. “Most of the people who vanished were last seen along this stretch of shoreline.”
“And they went missing after dark,” I confirmed. “Police dragged the shallows but didn’t find anything. We could take a dive, maybe turn up something they missed.”
“Too late for diving,” Two observed. “Besides, we didn’t bring our tanks, and I doubt we can rent any tonight.”
“Maybe we should try our luck fishing.”
I was joking, but Agent Two nodded. “Not a bad idea. I’ll rent some poles and get the bait. You grab our gear from the Jeep.”
Forty-five minutes later, outfitted for fishing and anything else we might encounter, Ace and I hiked south past the big freezer to a deserted stretch of beach. The few piers here sat empty, and as the sun dipped below the mountains across the far shore, serene desolation settled over the Salton Sea.
“The way I figure it,” Two said, setting up his rig, “if we’re gonna be out here looking for UFOs or whatever, we might as well get in a little fishing.”
“You’re the team leader.”
“You ever baited a sea worm, Rocky?”
I shook my head. “Regular worms a few times. Is it different?”
“Not much, except these suckers have pincers you gotta watch out for.” He reached into the bait pail and pulled out a weird creature that looked like a cross between a worm and a centipede. Multiple legs ran down the length of its reddish segmented body, and as Ace pinched it to put on the hook, the thing opened its tiny mouth and extruded a set of nasty looking black mandibles.
“Yikes!” I blurted, startled. “I think I’ll let you bait the hooks—at least in this light.”
Agent Two laughed. “No problem.”
Soon, we were casting our lines into the gentle salt swells and slowly reeling them in, hoping for a bite.
“Technically,” Ace explained, “this isn’t the best way to catch any of the fish the old man told me were stocked here. We’d be better off in a boat.”
“Well, that guy doesn’t know everything,” I replied, “’Cause I’ve got something already!” The catch on the end of my line felt super heavy; my rod bowed almost into a semi-circle under the weight.
“You need help?”
I’d done some casual fishing in the past, but nothing like this. “Heck, yes!”
Two dropped his rod and reel and leant an extra pair of hands. Together, we battled to keep my fish on the line.
Ace grunted. “Sucker weighs a ton!” The water at the end of the line splashed and foamed as though we’d hooked a shark, though there aren’t any in the Salton Sea.
The next moment, the brine erupted as a hideous creature surged toward shore. It rose out of the water like a striking cobra, huge pincers snapping, antennae twitching, eyeless head searching for the owners of the fishing line that had snagged it. It looked like the bait we’d been using, but grown to titanic, man-eating size.
“Jumpin’ catfish!” Ace cried, dropping the pole.
I dived for the duffel bag we’d brought, tossed Two one of his automatics, and wished I hadn’t left our M4s secured in the Jeep.
My team leader pumped three quick shots into the monster as I tossed him his second Colt and retrieved my own weapons. We retreated, leaving our fishing gear behind, as the monster shambled ashore.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!
Our volley of gunfire shattered the stillness of the night air. “Ace, I don’t think we’re hurting it!”
“Not enough to stop it,” he agreed. “Follow me!”
We ran, laying down covering fire as a second giant sea worm wriggled out of the gentle surf.
“Rocky, do you trust me?” Two looked me dead in the eye as we sprinted back toward town.
“Of course! What do you want me to do?”
“Try to lead those worms into that drive-through freezer. The cold should slow them down—maybe even kill them.”
My heart skipped a beat at the suggestion, but I ignored it. “And what are you going to do?”
“I’ll grab the Jeep and meet you at the far end.”
“Okay, Ace. You’re the boss.”
I stopped at the big warehouse door as Two kept running. The worms took our “bait” and turned in my direction.
I shot off the padlock, rolled up the big freezer door, and ducked inside. The monster sea worms slithered after me.
It was cold in the warehouse, but not as cold as I’d hoped, probably because it’d been shut down a while. The worms slowed, but I felt certain they’d catch me before I reached the exit on the far side.
As they snaked closer, I put a bullet into a fire extinguisher strapped to a post between me and them.
I didn’t know worms could scream, but the pair let out a hideous shriek as the pressurized canister exploded, showering them in a fog of frigid CO2.
Winded, I kept running. Only as the exit came in sight did I realize that it, too, would be padlocked—from the outside.
I turned, cornered, with the worms moving slower, but still coming, deadly pincers snapping.
The warehouse door behind me shattered as Ace drove our Jeep straight through it.
He tossed me an M3, and our machine guns made short work of the evil invertebrates.
“The Navy will have to depth charge the lake or something,” Two said, “and clear out any more of these suckers.”
I wiped the sweat from my brow and willed my heart to stop pounding. “Yeah,” I agreed. “’Cause if the worms are this big, I don’t wanna see the fish!”
About “Salton Sea Monsters”
This story is an obvious tribute to The Monster That Challenged the World (1957), a United Artists shocker that fits in very well with the Universal Sci-Fi/horror films of the 1950s. The movie features giant practical-effects mollusks threatening (western star) Tim Holt and company.
I went with huge sea worms (rag worms) for my homage because they look like creepy aquatic centipedes, though they’re commonly used as bait. They also have a nasty set of retractable pincers—much like the creatures in TMTCtW—and can give you quite a nip, if you’re not careful. Nasty-looking little buggers, but totally real and worthy of being made into titanic mutants.
The Salton Sea is also real, and I’ve been fascinated by it since I first saw the aforementioned film. This huge saltwater lake was created by accidental irrigation drainage, as described in the story, and in the mid-to-late 1950s grew into a vacation hotspot. The boom continued through the 1960s, but after that, things started going wrong—as you might expect from a body of water largely created by agricultural runoff.
By the 21st century, the sea was turning toxic, poisonous salt dust blew from its shores, and the local wildlife and imported gamefish started dying off. Naturally, the tourist business dried up, and—sadly—the Salton Sea hasn’t recovered since. Now it, too, is drying up, which is just making things worse. It’s even been called the most contaminated site in California.
What a shame.
I’d love to visit the lake someday, even now, but I’m not sure that my fragile lungs would support that dream. Maybe if I take a gas mask.
But at the time of this story, the Salton Sea’s best days are still ahead of it—and remembering that thriving vacation spot makes me happy.
I’m also happy to have Suzanne “Rocky” Rockford and Buster “Ace” Freeman together in this tale. Buster has been sidelined because re-casting the part for the audio versions of these stories has proven trickier than hoped.
By the time you read (and hear) this story, that problem should be well behind us, and Ace has already rejoined “Lucky” Lucy Ryan, protecting the skies of Atomic Tales.
You can listen to this story produced by Christopher R. Mihm from SaintEuphoria.com!