Agent Five leaned up against the rough dirt wall and clutched his side. Blood leaked out between his fingers as dry yellow dust fell from the ant tunnel ceiling.
“Got me right under the flak jacket. Six years as a war sniper without a scratch, and now… This.”
Roughhouse Rick Donlevy, Agent Six, gave a whistle showing both concern and admiration. “Part of the job, Deadeye. We’ll all compare scars after we get out of this fix. Right, Ray?”
“First drink’s on me,” I replied.
I fired another burst from my grease gun, and the giant black ant barreling down on us crumpled. The tunnel shook as it fell, and more ochre dust drifted down from the ceiling. The acrid stench as the bug disintegrated momentarily overpowered the earthy reek of the nest.
Roughhouse adjusted his helmet and pressed his back against the wall next to Deadeye. “Just like that ant nest in Utah that we raided with the Doc… Eh, Agent One? No sweat.” He sounded confident but mopped heavy beads of perspiration from his brow.
“Just like Utah,” I lied; I doubt anyone still alive believed it. I wished we’d never volunteered to bolster unit Wolf Red-Three, even though my cousin Corporal Patrick “Pat” Arness was in the platoon we were backing up.
Who’d have guessed that things would go so badly wrong…?
Spider Squadron, a new arm of the US Science Bureau, had been created because the US needed a full-time force dedicated to battling the weird menaces threatening our nation. We dubbed them Spider Squadron because spiders catch and kill bugs. Logical. Right?
The USSB recruited crack troops from all branches of the military to fill the Squadron’s ranks, under the oversight of bureau liaison General Edward “Brick” Brock, commanding officer Colonel Jefferson Smith, and, of course, the Teragons.
Since the force was still young, when soldiers got sick or wounded, they needed fill-ins…
“Thanks for signing up for this assignment,” Lieutenant Anthony Ames “AA” Cable said to me, Five, and Six as we hiked deeper into the giant ant nest beneath the foothills north of Antelope Peak, Nevada. Our sub commander, Sergeant Hulka, and the other three men in our unit marched along behind us, lugging equipment boxes plus weapons and ammo to re-supply other units.
“We were in the area,” I replied.
Five sneered. “On another damned snipe hunt.”
I chuckled. About half the time, the USSB is tracking down and battling preternatural menaces; the other half we spend chasing rumors and unreliable witnesses. “When my cousin said you boys were shorthanded, Deadeye, Roughhouse, and I figured we could fill in.”
Cable nodded. “I’ve heard you guys like blasting bugs, but this should be light duty. Wolf Red, Unit Three, is mostly support and mopping up. Units One and Two will be seeing the heavy action. I’ll join them in the front line tunnels after I get you situated.”
“Why don’t you just gas this whole works?” Roughhouse wondered.
“We tried. But the nest goes in horizontal; gas wasn’t effective. And if we blew it up, the ants would just tunnel out someplace new. Our surface units are having a hell of a time blocking off the exits we know about. Best way to deal with these so-and-sos is to dive in and take ’em out mano-a-mano.”
“Meaning all of us drew the short end of the stick,” Roughhouse observed.
Cable laughed. “We volunteered, actually—just like you grunts and Huntsman Green. Too quiet around the barracks lately.”
“Careful what you wish for.” Deadeye squinted and checked his squadron gear; Six and I did the same.
Spider troops carried M3 submachine guns, pistols, and other standard military equipment. Every squad sported at least one bazooka, and Unit One boasted flamethrowers as well. We all wore flak jackets and helmets equipped with headlamps and a special Teragon-invented two-way radio that maintained communications in all but the deepest tunnels.
It was a lot more gear than bureau agents carry, but Five, Six, and I had been in the services, so nobody complained. Good gear can save your life.
The ant tunnel, which was almost big enough to drive an Army Deuce-and-a-half truck through, branched, and Cable called a halt to check a crudely drawn map.
“Right?” I guessed.
The lieutenant shook his head. “That’s a dead end. Left will take us to the action. Okay, let’s hump it! Red One and Two aren’t gonna wait all day for resupply.”
We pushed deeper into the dark shadows under the mountain, lamps and eyes trained ahead… Wary…
That’s how the ants caught us from behind.
Private Baker went down with only a muffled scream, and Jones died, too, despite a short burst from his M3.
Sergeant Hulka blasted the brute that killed his buddies in the face, but the one behind it knocked Hulka against the side of the tunnel and rushed the rest of us.
Cable stormed back past me, firing his M3. “Damn things must have opened that dead end!”
Roughhouse and I brought our weapons to bear as Cable and Deadeye took down the charging ant. But behind it came another, and even more closed in on the injured Hulka and the rear of our group.
O’Brien and Sanchez fired furiously into the mass of giant insects as Hulka managed to break open a crate of grenades. The wounded sergeant hurled one into the oncoming swarm.
The blast slowed the bugs down, and gave the rest of us enough time to kill the one battling Cable and Agent Five—but not before the monster fastened its huge pincers around Deadeye. It would have cut our sniper in half, if not for his flak jacket.
O’Brien abandoned his M3, grabbed another grenade, and pulled the pin.
Before he could toss it, a giant ant skewered him. The private’s hand jerked open, and the grenade fell into the box containing the rest.
“Hit the deck!” I yelled.
As we did, the whole box went up.
The tunnel became fire and smoke, chunks of fragmented sandstone, and bone-rattling concussion.
Everything went black.
For a long moment, the only sounds were men coughing and clots of dusty debris clattering down from the ceiling. When my brain stopped pounding, my headlamp showed a world made of gritty yellow fog.
“Sound off!” I called. “Who’s alive?”
Agent Six coughed. “Me.”
“Barely,” Agent Five added.
From the others, we got only moans, though it turned out—by some miracle—Sanchez had sustained only minor injuries.
Cable was in bad shape, though: unconscious and cut nearly to pieces. The rest lay dead.
The blast had sealed the tunnel behind us, so we needed to go deeper into the nest to hook up with Wolf Red units One or Two.
We trudged in that direction, but the ants soon found us again…
Fortunately, the monster I’d just killed must have been a scout. If more had arrived on its heels, Roughhouse, Deadeye, Sanchez, and I would have been toast with Lieutenant Cable the strawberry jam spread on top.
“This is Agent Ray with Wolf Red-Three,” I called into my headset. “We got ambushed and cut off from the surface. Wolf One… Wolf Two… Please respond.”
Maybe our gear got damaged in the tunnel collapse, because if anyone responded, we didn’t hear them.
“Cable might make it—if we can get him to a medic,” Roughhouse observed.
I dug the Lieutenant’s tattered map out of his vest pocket. Like Deadeye, the flak jacket had probably saved Cable’s life.
“I’ll take point,” I commanded. “Rick, help Sanchez with Cable.”
Roughhouse nodded. “Check.”
“Deadeye… Do the best you can.”
His chuckle turned into a cough. “Always.”
We moved as fast as possible, but soon, the sound we dreaded echoed all around us: the hunting trill of more giant ants.
Swearing like sailors, we formed a line in front of Cable’s stretcher. Deadeye leaned against the tunnel wall for support.
Sanchez heaved a flare down the passage, and when the bugs came in sight, we opened up with everything we had.
Deafening gunfire filled the tunnel. The air stank of gunpowder, dirt, and mutant insect guts. But the ants kept coming…
“I’m out!” Roughhouse announced, dropping an empty clip to the ground. And within moments, the rest of us ran dry, too.
Only a few ants remained at that point, but it hardly mattered. Even one of the marauders would make short work of us.
“Been nice knowing you,” Deadeye intoned grimly.
Roughhouse nodded. “Ray, in the next life… I hope you have fewer cousins.”
Just then, a gout of flame flared behind the oncoming bugs.
The giant insects screeched and wheeled to face the new threat, but in seconds, our rescuers’ flamethrowers turned all the remaining mutants into a Fourth of July bonfire. As the enemy died, their charred remains disintegrated into a foul-smelling haze.
Wolf Red, Unit One, with Corporal Patrick Arness in the lead, emerged through the greasy lingering smoke.
“How you doing, Cousin?” Pat asked.
“I might need a new pair of pants,” I admitted, “but I’ve never been happier to see you.”
“I take back what I said about cousins,” Roughhouse added.
Pat laughed. “Funny thing… You coming to help me, and me rescuing you, instead.”
“Some of us still need rescuing.” Deadeye grunted and clutched his side.
My cousin nodded. “Crane… Young… Get these men to Dr. Weldon, ASAP.”
The two privates grabbed Cable’s stretcher and helped Deadeye limp deeper into the nest.
“Nikki Weldon’s a great doctor,” Pat assured us. “She’ll fix ’em up in no time.”
I took a deep breath. “That’s good news.”
“And I got better news for ya,” Pat continued. “Word from HQ is they’ve located the lab that makes the bugs. Hitting it is our next job.”
I smiled and wiped the grit from my face. “Just in time for Christmas.”
About “Assignment: Spider Squadron”
This story began with the notion that after a certain period of time, the military would develop a specialized group to battle the giant bugs and other strange invaders. We already knew that some jobs, like beehives and ant nests, were bigger than Agent One and our friends at the US Science Bureau could handle. So why send some random G.I. Joe to fight the next group of giant ants, when G.I. José had already done it?
Experience against an enemy makes a more effective fighting force, and so Spider Squadron—a professional group of soldiers from across the US military—moved from an idea onto the story page.
Truth be told, the notion of this kind of company has probably been lurking in my fevered brain since the start of the series. Clearly, there is a precedent in the army scenes in my favorite giant bug movie, THEM!, and there’s also an obvious predecessor from my earliest days as a monster kid.
Back in 1964, when I was a child, Remco came out with a toy set called Hamilton’s Invaders. Science Fiction was booming back then, with the 50s atomic monster craze just behind us, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea starting on TV that year, Lost in Space starting the year after, and Star Trek the year after that. All those shows had a profound impact on me as a kid and probably turned my career toward being a storyteller. And toy makers were looking to cash in on the trend.
Hamilton’s Invaders was billed as a science fiction toy and featured playsets of army men battling against giant mutant bugs, including the Brutal Beetle, the Spooky Spider, and Horrible Hamilton himself, who somewhat resembled The Monster from Green Hell. Look up the series; it’ll give you a kick.
My brother Mark and I loved those toys, and we had quite a few, including the major bugs, the minor creatures (including a two-headed dragon-lizard), and a fistful of the blue plastic army men and their vehicles. I wish I could say I still had them, but we played with them until they wore out—and the collector prices on those critters nowadays is staggering.
With all that in my history, it’s almost shocking that it took me so long to introduce Spider Squadron (and yes, I know a Squadron is usually an Air Force thing, but… alliteration, and they have too many troops be a squad).
“Nothing is real until you read it” in fiction, so after mentioning the Squadron a time or two, I had to have a story getting our fans inside the action. To fit the tale into the series, I naturally had to throw some USSB agents into the proverbial frying pan.
Like other stories in Atomic Tales, the action in this one got compressed from my original, much-more-elaborate plans—but that’s just what happens, since I have limited space (i.e. word count) to work in. Often, detail trimming increases the pace and actually makes things more exciting.
And speaking of excitement, just wait until next episode…!
You can listen to this story produced by Christopher R. Mihm from SaintEuphoria.com!