“Yes, I’m looking at an astronomy chart from last night right now…” I kept my voice calm, despite being annoyed at my latest assignment. “…And what you saw was definitely the planet Venus… I know it might have looked like it changed colors, but that was just an atmospheric effect… Yes, I’m sure it wasn’t responsible for your cow disappearing. Please check with local animal control. Yes… Thank you. Have a good day.”
I unplugged the patch cord from the switchboard socket, hanging up on the caller. I resisted tearing the entire unit out of the wall and tossing it across the room.
“Good job, Agent Three,” Gigi Brock piped. Our secretarial assistant and would-be agent-in-training beamed at me. She still had a lot to learn, but her enthusiasm always ran high.
“Not the job I’d rather be doing…” I muttered.
The office we worked in was narrow, cramped, and smelled of cigarettes and spilled coffee. Even though it was December, noisy fans in the corners worked constantly to keep the heat inside the room from becoming unbearable.
Of course, the US Science Bureau had no way of predicting a flu epidemic among our telephone operators while their boss, Janice “The Voice” Goodrich, was out on maternity leave. It was just rotten luck that I’d gotten hauled in as a temporary replacement, alongside Gigi and Shannon “Doc” Teragon—though neither of them seemed to mind the chore.
Personally, I’d rather have been hunting giant ants with Spider Squadron, or shooting down flying earwigs with Ace and Lucky Lucy.
“Chin up, Rocky,” Shannon told me. “Keeping the public calm during this strange invasion is an important job.”
“I know. Though I’d think your lab work is more important.” Shannon and her dad were the Big Brains at the agency. Figuring out the nature of our enemy and how to stop them was their main job. In the grand scheme of things—World War II espionage experience or not—I was just another grunt.
Doc chewed thoughtfully on the stem of her glasses. “Sometimes, you can’t solve problems in the lab. Just doing something different, even working a switchboard, can break a creative logjam. We’ve got a lot of data to sort through, and not a lot of that data connects.”
“So, you and your dad are stuck?” Gigi seemed both awed and a little worried.
Shannon started to answer, but then picked up a ringing line instead. Gigi and I did the same. The phone calls always seemed to come in bunches.
“No, I’m sure it couldn’t have been a giant ant.” Again, I remained calm and confident, despite the panicked voice on the other end of the line. “They’re just shooting a movie in the area… Yes, in cooperation with the army. The special effects can be dangerous, so be sure you and your neighbors stay inside and well away from that location. No, I don’t know the release date or title of the film. Sorry. Yes. Thank you. Have a nice day.” I sighed as I disconnected. “A nice normal day.”
I patched my line into the office of General Brock—Gigi’s Dad and the bureau’s military liaison—to make sure that we did have an army platoon or Spider Squadron working near Eureka, Nevada. Seemed like something big might be brewing out there.
Thankfully, our units were already on top of it.
Finishing her call, Gigi turned to Shannon. “Let me get this right: the bugs disintegrate, but not all of these weird creatures do?”
“That’s our experience so far,” Doc Teragon replied. “Agents One and Five got us some good specimens of those giant shrews, but like the mutant geckos and that ape—or yeti, if you prefer—we found no evidence as to what caused the animals to mutate to freakish size and behave so abnormally.”
“Donna’s crazy huge, but she seems pretty normal to me,” Gigi offered.
The doc teethed on her eyeglasses stem again. “Yes. Her condition is puzzling… as is that sample of her hair going missing…” She picked up another call. “US Science Bureau, may I help you?”
“I’m just sick of battling monsters,” I confided. “There’s no end to it. We put one down and another springs up in its place.”
Gigi nodded. “It’s like somebody’s got a creepy crawly factory or something.”
Two more lines rang—time to put out some more metaphorical fires.
“The incident in Blackwell, Pennsylvania was proven to be delusions caused by contaminated food coupled with local landslides,” I lied. “No, it had nothing to do with previous reports of a flying saucer having crashed in the area. That was a meteor. It’s just coincidence. Yes, we can send you the reports.”
As I hung up, though, I wondered if it was a coincidence. The world had gotten so strange in the last few years!
“I’ve been thinking…” Gigi said as she rang off from her latest call. “Is it possible these monsters are being manufactured by someone? A lot of the early cases were clustered near Denver.”
“The same area as the Mansect case,” I noted. “And his mutation has to be related to Sister Starlight becoming that human-bee-hybrid that Ray… Agent One reported last month.”
Shannon settled another call and turned toward us, seemingly pondering the idea. “My father and I think both of those cases are related to honey from that mutant beehive One and Seven found.”
Gigi brightened, obviously delighted to be putting together more pieces of our ongoing mysteries. “That was in Colorado, too.”
“But that honey got shipped all over the US,” Shannon continued. “And we haven’t had mutants everywhere, just in random locations. We’ve scoured Dr. Hedison’s notes for clues, but if either of you can find something new…”
She held up one of Hedison’s notebooks. We’d all brought various case notes with us, to pore over between calls.
“I wish the Mansect’s body hadn’t disappeared in that train wreck,” I said. “How could a big metal casket like that vanish without a trace?”
“Yes. Baffling…” Shannon pursed her lips. “Examining Hedison’s corpse might have explained his transformation. He wanted to create a radiation-resistant food supply and somehow ended up a victim of his own experiments. But… how? Even his pre-Mansect notes are disjointed. He talks about strange dreams and lights in the sky…”
“Like Donna!” Gigi blurted.
“Hmm… Perhaps…” Shannon admitted. “But he said the lights talked to him. That’s clearly unhinged. He also wrote that he hoped a Dr. Atwill could help solve his problems…”
“I spent more than a week trying to track him—or her—down,” I said, “but I couldn’t find any trace of a scientist named Atwill. I figured ‘At Will’ might be some kind of nickname or code.”
“Dr. Atwill…?” A lightbulb seemed to go on over Gigi’s head. “That could be a movie reference! Lionel Atwill was an actor who played a lot of mad scientist roles in horror movies back in the 30s and 40s.”
I arched my eyebrows at her. “So…?” Shannon looked bewildered, too.
Gigi reached for a stack of books from Hedison’s lab. “It’s just… I think I read something… Just… Give me a minute…”
She got her wish, because at that moment, the phones started ringing again, which kept Shannon and me busy while Gigi searched Hedison’s records.
“Ah ha!” Gigi blurted so loudly that Doc and I nearly dropped our connections.
“What is it?” Shannon asked as we finished our calls. “What did you find?”
“It’s here in Hedison’s old college yearbook.” Gigi held out an open page from the volume for us to see. “Hedison mentored under a Dr. Xavier Mihm. Get it? Atwill played a Dr. Xavier in a film called Doctor X. If Atwill is a nickname or code, it could mean his old boss, Xavier.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch, Gigi,” I opined.
But now Doc Teragon’s face lit up, too.
“Except that I’ve seen that name, Mihm, before,” she announced, “in the list of contaminated honey shipments.” She dug out the receipt book of the late Hideaway Hunny magnate, Mr. Gordon, and paged through it. “See here…? Regular monthly shipments right up until Gordon’s death.”
“And it says here that Dr. Mihm published a research paper on, quote, ‘adapting life to adverse conditions including radiation and the vacuum of space,’ unquote,” Gigi added.
I nodded. The strange picture seemed to be coming into focus now. “That doesn’t sound too far off from the experiments that turned Dr. Hedison into the Mansect. Mihm… What is that… Chinese?”
“I think it’s Norwegian,” Gigi replied.
Now I was on a roll, too. “Could this Mihm be part of a communist plot—in it together with Tanya Ruhoff and the Russians? We know Soviets are mixed up with all of this somehow, even though that spy told Ray they weren’t. Could Mihm be unleashing these monsters on the United States deliberately?”
Shannon shook her head. “Too soon to tell. But this isn’t any swamp gas, or a weather balloon, or some form of mass hysteria. This Mihm connection is the first solid lead we’ve had in ages.” She got up from her switchboard station. “I’ll talk to my father—and General Brock, too. If this notion pans out, we need to marshal our forces and get on top of it. You two hold down the fort while I’m gone.”
Without waiting for us to respond, Doc stormed out of the office, heading for her father’s lab.
Gigi and I shrugged at each other as another barrage of phone calls began.
I picked up the nearest line. “US Science Bureau, may I help you? Yes, we’ve had other calls about a giant woman rampaging through Reno… That was a few months ago, and it turned out to be the malfunction of an experimental 3D projector, plus a tornado that hit the downtown area…”
About “UFO Switchboard”
I had a lot of subplots and backstory to cram into this episode, something we call an “info dump” in the writing biz. The trick, of course, is to make it seem like no surplus of info is being dumped onto the reader. The flow of information in the story should seem both natural and interesting.
James Cameron accomplished this in The Terminator by cramming all the essentials you needed to know about the background of his SF/horror/action classic into an exciting car chase.
I didn’t have that option here, because there was just too much thinking that I had to convey—and a battle (or chase) is never the best time to cogitate deeply about the roots of a problem.
But putting one of Atomic Tales’ Big Brains into a room together with another of the USSB’s most seasoned agents, and having them interact with a bubbly neophyte character, thirsty for knowledge… That seemed a good way to start. Then putting them all on the phone, trying to explain away the ongoing problems the US has been having with these strange invaders… I figured a story angle encompassing all that would work.
And hopefully, the audience wouldn’t even mind the lack of a car chase.
So, in this episode we get Suzanne “Rocky” Rockford, Shannon, and Gigi trying to hold down the agency’s propaganda fort while mentally sorting through all the clues our heroes have stumbled across during the series up to this point. Writing this gathering of women was almost like a girls’ slumber party, but with a very serious purpose.
As you’ve seen, this episode ties together some of the story threads that have accumulated in AT to date. I’ve tried to bring all that together and remind everyone where the info came from, while still telling an entertaining tale.
The Big Picture I’ve revealed so far has been a blast for me, and hopefully the mega-story is working for you, too.
Don’t worry; all has not yet been revealed. We’ve got some major turning points still to come—as well as the usual action, excitement, and adventure.
Hang onto your 1950s-appropriate hats!