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All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past

It’s all over for humanity, and I’m heading east.

On the seat beside me are an M1 carbine and a Thompson submachine gun. There’s a special reason for the Thompson. I traded an M16 and 200 rounds of ammo for it to a guy in Barstow. He got the worst of the deal. When things get rough, carbine and .45 ammo are easier to find than the 5.56mm rounds the M16 uses. I’ve got more ammo for the carbine than I need, though I’ve had plenty of chances to use it.

There are fifty gallons of gasoline in the car, in cans. I have food for six days (I don’t know if that many are left.)

When things really fell apart, I deserted. Like anyone else with sense. When there were more of them than we could stop. I don’t know what they’ll do when they run out of people. Start killing each other, maybe.

Meanwhile, I’m driving 160 km/h on Route 66. I have an appointment in the desert of New Mexico.

God. Japan must have gone first. They deluged the world with them; now, it’s Japan’s turn. You sow what you reap.

We were all a little in love with death and the atom bomb back in the 1950s. It won’t do us much good now.

The road is flat ahead. I’ve promised myself I’ll see Meteor Crater before I die. So many of them opened at Meteor Crater, largest of the astroblemes. How fitting I should go there now.

In the backseat with the ammo is a twenty-kilo bag of sugar.

• • • •

It started just like the movies did. Small strangenesses in small towns, disappearances in the backwoods and lonely places, tremors in the Arctic, stirrings in the jungles.

We never thought when we saw them as kids what they would someday mean. The movies. The ones with the giant lizards, grasshoppers, molluscs. We yelled when the monsters started to get theirs. We cheered when the Army arrived to fight them. We yelled for all those movies. Now they’ve come to eat us up.

And nobody’s cheered the Army since 1965. In 1978, the Army couldn’t stop the monsters.

I was in that Army. I still am, if one’s left. I was one of the last draftees, with the last bunch inducted. At the Entrance Station, I copped and took three years for a guaranteed job.

I would be getting out in three months if it weren’t for this.

I left my uniform under a bush as soon as I decided to get away. I’d worn it for two and a half years. Most of the Army got torn away in the first days of the fight with the monsters. I decided to go.

So I went. East.

• • • •

I saw one of the giant Gila monsters this morning. There had been a car ahead of me, keeping about three kilometers between us, not letting me catch up. Maybe a family, figuring I was going to rob them or rape the women. Maybe not. It was the first car I’d seen in eighteen hours of dodging along the back roads. The car went around a turn. It looked like it slowed. I eased down, too, thinking maybe it wasn’t a family but a bunch of dudes finally deciding to ambush me. Good thing I slowed.

I came around the turn and all I could see was the side of an orange and black mountain. I slammed on the brakes and skidded sideways. The Gila monster had knocked the other car off the road and was coming for me. I was shaken, but I hadn’t come this far to be eaten by a lizard. Oh no. I threw the snout of the M1 carbine out the window and blasted away at the thing’s eyes. Scales flew like rain. It twitched away then started back for me. I shot it in the tongue. It went into convulsions and crawled over a small sandhill, hissing and honking like a freight train. It would come back later to eat whatever was in the other car. I trundled back on the road and drove past the wreck. Nothing moved. A pool of oil was forming on the concrete. I drove down the road with the smell of cordite in my nose and the wind whipping past. There was Gila monster blood on the hood of the car.

• • • •

I had been a clerk in an airborne unit deployed to get the giant locusts eating up the Midwest. It is the strangest time in the history of the United States. The nights are full of meteors and lights.

At first, we thought it was a practice alert. We suited up, climbed into the C-130s with full combat gear, T-10 parachutes, lurp bags and all. At least the others had chutes. I wasn’t on jump status so I went in with the heavy equipment to the nearest airbase. A lot of my buddies jumped into Illinois. I never saw them again. By the time the planes landed, the whole brigade was gone.

We landed at Chanute. By then, the plague of monsters was so bad I ended up on the airbase perimeter with the Air Policemen. We fired at the things until the barrels of the machine guns moaned with heat. The locusts kept coming, squirting brown juice when they were hit or while killing someone.

Their mandibles work all the time.

We broke and ran after a while. I caught a C-130 revving up. The field was a moving carpet of locusts as I looked behind me. They could be killed easily, as could any insect with a soft abdomen. But there were so many of them. You killed and killed and they kept coming. And dying. So you had to run. We roared off the runway while they scuttled across the airfield below. Some took to the air on their rotor-sized wings. One smashed against the Hercules, tearing off part of an elevator. We flew on through a night full of meteors. A light paced us for a while but broke off and flew after a fighter plane.

We couldn’t land back at Pope AFB. It was a shambles. A survivor said the saucers hit about midnight. A meteor had landed near Charlotte, and now the Martian fighting machines were drifting toward Washington, killing everything in their paths.

We roared back across country, looking for some place to land where we wouldn’t be gobbled up. Fuel got lower. We came in on a wing, a prayer, and fumes to Fitzee Field at Fort Ord. I had taken basic training at Ord.

A few hours later, I duffed.

• • • •

I heard about New York on the radio before the stations went off. A giant lizard had come up from the Hudson submarine canyon and destroyed Manhattan. A giant octopus was ravaging San Francisco, a hundred miles north of Ord. It had already destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge. Saucers were landing everywhere. One had crashed into a sandpit behind a house nearby. A basic training unit had been sent in. They wouldn’t be back. I knew. A glass-globed intelligence would see to that.

Navy ships were pulled under by the monsters that pillaged New York; by the giant octopus; by giant crabs in the South Pacific; by caterpillar-like molluscs in the Salton Sea.

The kinds of invaders seemed endless: Martian fighting machines, four or five types of aliens. The sandpit Martians, much different from the fighting machine kind. Bigheaded invaders with eyes on the backs of their hands.

A few scattered reports worldwide. No broadcasts from Japan after the first few minutes. Total annihilation, no doubt. Italy: A craft, which only existed on celluloid, brings back from Venus an egg of death. Mexico: A Tyrannosaurus rex comes from the swamps for cattle and children. A giant scorpion invades from the volcanoes. South America: giant wasps, fungus disease, terrors from the earth. Britain: A monster slithers wild in Westminster Abbey, another fungus from space, radioactive mud, giant lizards again. Tibet: The yeti are on the move.

It is all over for humanity.

• • • •

Meteor Crater at sunset. A hole punched in the earth while ice sheets still covered Wyoming and Pennsylvania.

I can see for miles, and I have the carbine ready. I stare into the crater, thinking. This crater saw the last mammoth and the first of the Indians.

The shadow deepens and the floor goes dark. Memories of man, crater. Your friend the Grand Canyon regards you as an upstart in time. It’s jealous because you came from space.

Speaking of mammoths, perhaps it’s our time to join old woolly in the great land of fossil dreams. Whatever plows farms in a million years can turn up our teeth and wonder at them.

Nobody knows why the mammoth disappeared, or the dinosaur, or our salamander friend the Diplovertebron, for that matter. Racial old age. No plausible reason. So now it’s our turn. Done in by our dreams from the silver screen. Maybe we’ve created our own Id monsters, come to snuffle us out in nightmares.

• • • •

The reason I deserted: The Air Force was going to drop an A-bomb on the Martian fighting machines. They were heading for Ord after they finished LA. I was at the command post when one of the last B-52s went over, heading for the faraway carnage on the horizon.

“If the A-bomb doesn’t stop it, Colonel,” said a major to the commander, “nothing will.”

How soon they forget, I thought, and headed for the perimeter.

The Great Southwest saw more scenes of monster destruction than anywhere in the world except Japan. Film producers loved it for the sterility of the desert, the hot sun, the contrasts with no gradations for their black-and-white cameras. In them, saucers landed, meteors hurtled down, townspeople disappeared, tracks and bones were found.

Here is where it started, was the reasoning. In the desert thirty-three years ago when the first atomic bomb was detonated, when sand was turned to glass.

So the monsters shambled, plodded, pillaged, and shook the Southwest. This desert where once there was only a shallow sea. You can find clamshells atop the Sierras, if you look.

I have an appointment here, near Alamogordo. Where it started. The racial old age is on us now. Unexplained, and we’ll die not knowing why, or why we lived the least time of all the dominant species on this planet.

• • • •

One question keeps coming to me. Why only films of the 1950s?

Am I the only one who remembers? Have I been left alone because I’m the only one who remembers and knows what I’m doing? Am I the only one with a purpose, not just running around like a chicken with its head cut off?

• • • •

The radio stations are going off one by one as I drive from the crater to Alamogordo. Emergency broadcast stations, something out of Arkansas, an Ohio station. Tonight, I’m not going to be stopped. I’ve got the thirty-round magazine in the carbine and the forty-five-round drum in the Thompson. I wish I had some grenades, or even tear gas, but I have no mask (I lost it in the battle against the grasshoppers.) Besides, I’m not sure tear gas will be effective for what I have in mind.

On the dying radio stations and in my mind’s eye, this is what I see and hear.

The locusts reach Chicago and feast till dawn, while metal robots roam the streets looking for men to kill.

The giant lizard goes past Coney Island with no resistance.

The huge mantis, after pillaging the Arctic, reduces Washington to shambles. It has to dodge flying saucers while it pulls apart monuments, looking for goodies. The statue of Abraham Lincoln looks toward Betelgeuse and realizes that the War Between the States was fought in vain.

The sky is filled with meteors, saucers, a giant flying bird. Two new points of light hang in the sky: a dead star and planet, which will crash into earth in a few days. The night is beginning to be bathed in a dim bloody light.

An amorphous thing sludges its way through a movie theater, alternately flattening, thickening, devouring anything left.

The Martian fighting machines have gone up and down both coasts, moving in a crescent pivotal motion.

The octopus has been driven underwater by heat from the burning San Francisco.

So much for the rest of the country.

Here in the Southwest: A million-eyed monster has taken over the cattle and dogs for hundreds of miles.

A giant spider eats cattle and people and grows. The last Air Force fighters have given up and are looking for a place to land. Maybe one or two pilots, like me, will get away. Maybe saucers will get them. It won’t be long now.

The Gila monsters roam, tongues moving, seeking the heat of people, cars, dogs.

Beings with a broken spaceship are repairing it, taking over the bodies of those not eaten by other monsters. Soon they will be back up in the sky. Benevolent monsters.

Giant columns of stone grow, break, fall, crushing all in their paths. Miles wide now, and moving toward the Colorado River, the Gulf, and infinite growing bliss. No doubt they have crushed giant Gila monsters and spiders along with people, towns, and mountains.

A stranded spaceman makes it to Palomar and spends his last seconds turning the telescope toward his home star. He has already killed nineteen people in his effort to communicate.

A monster grows, feeding on the atoms of the air.

A robot cuts its way through a government installation fence, off on its own path of rampage. The two MPs fire until their .45s click dry. Bullets ricochet off the metal being. Soon a saucer will fly over and hover. They will fire at the saucer with no effect; the saucer will fire and the MPs will drift away on the wind.

(There may be none of our bones to dig up in a million years.)

All this as I drive toward the dawn, racing at me and the Southwest like the avenging eye of god. No headlights. I saw a large meteor hit back in the direction of Flagstaff; there’ll be hell to pay there soon. Meanwhile, I haven’t slept in two days. The car sometimes swerves toward the road edge. No time for a crack-up, so close now.

The last radio station went off at 0417.

Nothing on the dial but mother earth’s own radio music, and perhaps stellar noises which left somewhere 500 million years ago, about the time our friend the Diplovertebron slithered through the mud. The east is greying. I’m almost there.

• • • •

The car motor pops and groans as it cools. The wind blows steadily toward the deeper desert. Not far from here, the first A-bomb went off. Perhaps that was the challenge to the universe, and it waited thirty years to get back at us. This is when it started.

This is where it ends.

I’m drinking a hot Coke. It tastes better than any I’ve ever had. No uppers, downers, hash, horse, or grass for me. I’m on a natural high.

I’ve set my things in order. All the empty bottles are filled with gasoline and the blanket’s been torn up for fuses. My lighter and matches are laid out, with some cigarettes for punks. With the carbine slung over my shoulder, I wait with the Thompson in my right hand, round chambered, selector on rock and roll.

They won’t die easy, but I envision a stack of them ringing my body, my bones, the car; some scorched and blackened, some shot all away, some with mandibles still working long after I’m dead.

I open the twenty-kilo bag of sugar and shake it onto the wind. It sifts into a pile a few feet away. The scent should carry right to them.

I took basic at Fort Ord. There was a tunnel we had to double-time through to get to the range. In cadence. Weird shadows on the wall as we ran. No matter how tired I was, I thought of the soldiers going into the storm drains after the giant ants in a movie I’d seen when I was six. They started here near the first A-blast. They had to be here. The sugar would bring them.

A sound floats back up the wind like the keening of an off-angle buzz saw. Ah. They’re coming. They’ll be here soon, first one, then many. Maybe the whole nest will turn out. They’ll rise from behind that dune, or maybe that one.

• • • •

Closer now, still not in sight.

It’s all over for man, but there are still some things left. Like choices, there’s still that. A choice of personal monsters.

Closer now, and more sounds. Maybe ten or twenty of them, maybe more.

End of movie soon. No chance to be James Arness and get the girl. But plenty of time to be the best James Whitmore ever. No kids to throw to safety. But a Thompson and a carbine. And Molotov cocktails.

Aha. An antenna waves in the middle distance. And—bigger than I thought. Take your head right off.

Eat leaden death, Hymenopterae! The Thompson blasts to life.

Screams of confusion. A flash of 100 octane and glass. High keening, like an off-angle buzz saw.

I laugh. Formic acid. Cordite.

Hell of a life.

Howard Waldrop

Howard WaldropHoward Waldrop, American iconoclast, was born in Mississippi and now lives in Austin, Texas. His first sale to a professional magazine was the story “Lunchbox” which appeared in the May 1972 Analog. His unique fiction has received many nominations for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Awards, and in 1980 “The Ugly Chickens” won both the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. Small Beer Press recently released two collections of his fiction, Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989-2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: A Howard Waldrop Reader: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005. Although Howard does not own a computer, SFF.net hosts a website for him at www.sff.net/people/Waldrop/