It was a lovely day for a war. Colorado had given us T-shirt weather that week, including temperatures at night that remained well above freezing. For December, the climate seemed almost absurd, but nobody in the strike teams ringing the small lab complex felt inclined to complain about our early Christmas gift.
We came to the lair of “Doctor M” loaded for bear—or more accurately, giant ants. Research by Shannon Teragon and members of the US Science Bureau had traced the source of the oversized mutants to this remote mountainside lab south of Steamboat Springs. The first giant bug sightings had occurred about thirty-five miles from here, and it seemed fitting that this strange invasion should end near where it began.
At least, we hoped this would be the end.
Dr. Mihm’s lab looked eerily peaceful: an isolated group of greenhouses and tin-roofed buildings nestled on a sparsely wooded slope. A placid river meandered in the valley below, and a single rough track served as the place’s driveway. A battered Chevy pickup sat, rusting, near the main door.
“Not much of a hideout,” Agent Three, Suzanne “Rocky” Rockford, observed.
Agent Four, Alec “Boom Boom” Murphy, grinned. “All the better to blow the doors down.”
I shot him a concerned glance. “Only if it comes to that—which I’m hoping it won’t.” Alec would be working with Spider Squadron, in case our main plan failed and things got rough.
Plan A was for me and agents Three, Six, and Eight to enter through a greenhouse door, find Dr. Mihm, and take him—and any associates working with him—into custody.
Thus far, we hadn’t seen any giant ants or other monsters in the vicinity; so, I still had hopes for a peaceful arrest.
Every member of Spider Squadron not busting bugs elsewhere—the better part of three companies—had spent the early morning surrounding our objective. Colonel Jefferson Smith had flown in from Washington to personally command his troops.
The air division of Spider Squadron was still being formed, so the US Science Bureau brought in our WWII aviation vets, Agent Two—Buster “Ace” Freeman—and Agent Thirteen—“Lucky” Lucy Ryan—as air support.
I used my helmet-mounted headset to make sure all our forces were in position, and then led my strike team to the side entrance we’d chosen. With squadron snipers keeping their rifles trained on the complex’s main entryway, we reached the greenhouse door with no problem. We saw no movement inside the facility.
Rocky glanced warily at me as we stood on either side of the doorway, weapons drawn. “I don’t like this, Agent One… It’s too quiet.”
“She ain’t wrong, Ray,” Agent Six—Roughhouse Rick Donlevy—agreed. “No guards or anything.”
“Let’s roll,” Agent Eight, “Wild Bill” Hayes, urged. “The sooner we nab this guy, the sooner we find a cure for Donna.” Donna, Bill’s wife, had been turned into a giant, probably by the same process Mihm had used to grow the titanic bugs.
I scrutinized my team. “Everybody, keep cool. The less fuss taking this guy, the better.”
The others nodded their agreement, and I tried the door.
Surprisingly, it proved unlocked. Rocky and I stalked into the greenhouse first, pistols ready; Roughhouse and Wild Bill followed, toting bureau-issue M3 submachine guns, just in case.
Even though the temperature outside had peaked at seventy, inside, the greenhouse felt at least fifteen degrees hotter—and humid, too. I immediately began to sweat.
The hothouse reeked of freshly turned earth and something sickly sweet, like decaying flowers.
“Smells like a New Orleans cat house,” Roughhouse commented. “Pardon the expression, Agent Three.”
“Only if the cat died,” Rocky countered. “Must be those big orchids—or whatever they are.”
“Pitcher plants,” I corrected. “I, uh, dated a botanist once.”
Bill whistled. “Ten feet tall if they’re an inch! This has gotta be where the big bugs come from.”
The pitchers, vines, and other vegetation grew out of control, covering every square inch of the place.
“We should have brought machetes instead of guns,” Roughhouse grumbled.
“Button it and stay sharp!” I led my team through the exit at the far end.
The greenhouse emptied into a room that remained dark save for a single bare bulb burning in the middle, a big storeroom from the look of it. Shelves stacked high with sacks of earth, fertilizer, and similar items lined the walls. Double garage doors—barred inside—opened to the driveway on our right; a darkened doorway on the left led deeper into the complex.
Rocky pointed to a nearly empty jar on one of the shelves. “Ray…”
I nodded. “Hideaway Hunny. The same type we found in Hedison’s lab.”
Bill stopped in his tracks. “I hear something…”
We all paused and listened. It sounded like singing… or humming. More giant insects…?
I signaled to the rest and we crept silently through the left-hand doorway, entering an even darker area beyond. This room was stacked with enough papers and books to almost drown the writing desk and swivel chair sitting in one corner. A closed door stood to our right, but it was the opening ahead that grabbed my attention.
Light from another greenhouse flooded through that doorway. Beyond it lay an astounding variety of gigantic produce: tomatoes the size of softballs, melons like basketballs, and zucchini as big as a park bench.
In the midst of the greenery bustled a diminutive man in a white lab coat, poking… prodding… examining samples… All while humming to himself and taking notes on a clipboard.
He spoke to us without turning. “You’ve brought me more of the element, I hope. Good. Good. My growth experiments will fail without it, you know.”
Bill rushed forward before I could stop him. He grabbed the little man, spun him around, and shook him. “What have you done to my wife?!”
The scientist’s eyes went wide behind his thick spectacles. “What…? Who are you? What are you talking about? I don’t know any…”
“Oh, yeah…?!” Bill slapped him hard across the face, and the man fell to the greenhouse floor.
Rocky grabbed Eight before he could do any more harm. “Bill… No!”
“Dr. Xavier Mihm…?” The stunned researcher nodded as I helped him to his feet. “By the power invested in me by the US government, you’re under arrest.”
“B-but I haven’t done anything wrong!” he protested.
Roughhouse sneered. “Tell that to the people your giant bugs have chewed up!”
“Giant bugs…? What are you talking about?”
I frog-walked Mihm toward the front door. “You’ll have plenty of time to explain—once we get to Washington.”
Without warning, the ground shook, and Agent Thirteen’s voice crackled over my headset. “Agent One… Something’s happening… The conservatory at the back of the compound… It’s…”
She didn’t need to say more, as the entire place quaked like it was coming apart at the seams. My team and I quickly hustled Mihm out of the building, as agricultural supplies, stacks of papers, and other debris toppled around us.
As we exited, the huge circular greenhouse at the back of the complex shattered into a million pieces. Enormous plants of every description heaved into the air, and something terrible emerged from the wreckage…
Rocky gasped. “A giant tarantula!”
“Like in that movie last month!” Roughhouse added, agape. Apparently, one of the USSB’s Hollywood cover stories had proven prophetic.
I fought down a rush of fear and shouted: “Spider Squadron… Light it up!”
The air filled with machine gun chatter, small arms fire, and rifle shots, quickly followed by bazooka blasts. But all that firepower barely slowed the spider down. It stood at least fifty feet tall, with legs that could straddle a football field—and it was coming for us.
Terror clutched my guts as we ran, hauling Mihm along. We sprinted downhill like scared rabbits, aiming for a sickly stand of pines. The trees wouldn’t provide much shelter, but we had no other cover.
“Call it off!” Bill screamed at Mihm.
But the frightened scientist was too busy shrieking his lungs out to do any such thing.
The squadron lay down covering fire as we ran. They closed with our foe, changing position, trying for better angles, but they might as well have been shooting spitballs.
With a roar like thunder, Ace’s P51 Mustang and Lucy’s A-24 Banshee barreled in, strafing the titan arachnid. That got its attention.
The tarantula cast sticky webbing at the planes as they zoomed past. Agents Two and Thirteen swooped away, putting themselves out of reach.
“Unidentified, coming in twelve o’clock high!” Lucy called.
“On it,” Ace replied. “Keep hitting that spider!”
The ground shook, and a triumphant war whoop let us know us that “Boom Boom” Murphy had cooked up something special. The spider staggered from Agent Four’s explosion.
Lucy strafed the monster again, and it wheeled to chase her, bazooka and mortar fire following the huge mutant over the mountaintop. “Catch that bogey, Two?” the aviatrix called.
Ace’s Mustang circled back into the fray. “Some kind of glowing light—a saucer, maybe—but it got away.”
“Let’s mop this sucker up and call it a day,” Lucy replied.
Her Banshee and Ace’s Mustang let their bombs fly, hitting the big spider with everything they had. The mountains echoed with the thunderclap of their payloads.
The giant spider met a fiery end.
A cheer rose from our assembled forces.
Roughhouse cursed. “Dammit!”
“What’s wrong?” I asked, my pulse slowly returning to normal.
“Sprained my ankle while we were running for our lives.”
Rocky laughed. “No teasing your sister for being a gimp anymore. With luck, you might be back on your feet by New Year’s.”
Bill laughed, too; Roughhouse snarled an unintelligible reply.
Dr. Mihm glared as I pulled him to his feet. “As for you, my good doctor, the best you can hope for is a nice Christmas dinner—in jail.”
The victory felt good. Maybe our war against the giant bugs wasn’t over, but we got our man.
About “The Lair of Doctor M”
Sometimes, I don’t have to make things up.
When I started this story featuring the big attack on the lair of the mad scientist, I wanted the weather to be good for fighting, even though according to my Atomic Tales timeline, the attack on Doctor M’s lair takes place in December in Colorado, not too far from Denver.
In many series, a problem like that might have caused an author to simply move the story to somewhat warmer climes, but I’d been carefully placing every AT adventure on a master map, so that I—and my USSB agents—could track where each story took place and in doing so draw some conclusions about the origin of the strange invaders.
In fact, I started putting pins in my Google map for the incident locations before I fully plotted out the dates of each encounter. I’ve never specified in exactly what year AT takes place, which is deliberate, because—as with Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors—I want the stories to have something of a Never Neverland atmosphere, more of a nostalgic feeling of the 1950s in general rather than pinpointing a specific time. (The Cushing stories take place sometime between WWI and WWII.)
But even though the exact dates are never revealed in either series, I know in exactly what years they’re taking place. And the way it worked out for AT, this story takes place in December. In Denver. Well… Screw me. So, I sighed and figured I’d make something up.
To be accurate in my fabrication, though, I needed to know what the average temperature range was in Denver during December. So, I looked that up, figuring I could fudge it a little on the warm side if Denver was always below freezing at that time of the year.
Then, to be even more accurate, I decided that I should look up the actual temps in the year the story is set in. I looked at the chart, and thought, “Well, that can’t be right!” So, I found another chart, this one day-by-day for the whole month, and—By Golly!—I’d lucked out.
Because in the year in question, the Denver area had very little snow, and the temperatures during the week before Christmas had highs in the 70s (F) and lows in the 40s. Jackpot!
That meant the USSB and Spider Squadron could carry out their raid without any pesky cold and snow messing things up.
Writers are happy when the world goes along with their plans!
There are a whole bunch of tribute names from science fiction movies, TV, and other sources in this episode and the previous one. The most obvious one here is Dr. Xavier Mihm, who is named for the Lionel Atwill character (as Gigi figured out a few eps back) and my dear friend Christopher R. Mihm, producer of the Atomic Tales audio dramas and maker of many cool 1950s-style B-Movies.
The surprise arachnid foe is from Tarantula, Earth vs. the Spider, The Giant Spider, etc. We also get a mad scientist greenhouse à la Konga and a whole bunch of other cheesy, wonderful SF monster flicks.
But you knew all that, right?
The story also gave me the chance to gather a whole bunch of our USSB agents in one place and show them off—if only for a little while.
And if you think this series is over now that our heroes have captured Dr. Mihm…
Well, as they said in the 50s: You got another think coming!