I joined the Army to defend my country. After the terror attacks I raced to my recruiter, signed the forms and then worked my way through boot camp to earn my way here: a godforsaken desert filled with rocks, sand and stinging bugs. What was I thinking?
Sarge directed us to leapfrog down the alley to the building where the enemy was supposed to be holed up. Jimmy tapped my shoulder as I took my position and then boogied across the alley to cover on the left. We’d practiced this move a hundred times, it’s a piece of cake; you just move one after another covering your buddy as you go forward. This time things were different, Jimmy reached his next position and a click as loud as the Trump of Doom reached everyone’s ears. We all knew that sound but there was no time to react. Jimmy flew apart under the force of the explosion. His arm flying past me was the last thing I saw. Pain in my legs and chest ripped a scream from me and then agonizing burning gouged my face and I passed out.
“…salvageable. Tag him for…” Faint voices came to me through a haze of pain but swirled away as darkness pulled me back down.
“Private Lindstrom, can you hear me?” A tiny faint voice.
I think I managed a groan.
“Private, I’m Doctor West. You’ve been badly injured in battle. Do you understand me?”
Dear God was that my voice? It sounded like someone ran it through a cheese grater and then blasted it with a blow torch.
“I’m sorry but I have to be blunt. You’ve lost both legs and an arm. The right posterior mandible of your jaw was destroyed and I’m afraid both your eyes are damaged beyond repair. Your chest was severely traumatized and you’re currently on life support.”
I felt my heart stop and then the treasonous organ resumed beating. He had just told me that my world had ended. I would never be a man again and would spend whatever was left of my life in a hospital bed. Why didn’t they let me die?
I think I managed a sob.
“We have a way to let you live a sort of life again and still serve your country.”
Serve my country? I wanted to die. Service is what got me in this situation.
“You can move again,” he said, oblivious to my distress. “You’ll be able to be part of the world. You’ll be able to see again.”
“How,” I managed to say.
“It’s an experimental program,” a new voice from near my feet – or where my feet used to be. The voice was deep and slick, like a used car salesman.
“We need a drone operator for the initial proof of concept. You’ll be connected to the drone with full telepresence and synaptic feedback. For all intents and purposes you’ll feel like you are the drone, you’ll see what it sees, touch what it touches. It’s as good as being you again.”
“Exactly,” said Doctor West. “The unit is synched into your brain directly. You don’t use cameras or joysticks like older drones. It’s the latest in cutting edge technology.”
“The drones are for battlefield use,” car salesman said. “They’re to help protect soldiers from suffering the same fate that you did. You would be saving your fellow soldiers lives.”
“OK,” I croaked.
“Let the record show that Private Ernest Lindstrom has given verbal approval for his participation in the SHOGGOTH program,” car salesman said. I could almost hear the wolf grin in his voice.
* * *
“It’s called a Shape-malleable OrGanism; Ground-unit OTHer; SHOGGOTH for short.”
The woman who was speaking was Specialist Traci Harrigan. She was my liaison for the SHOGGOTH program. Three months had passed, or so they tell me, after I agreed to join the program. I remember being wheeled back and forth to multiple surgeries. Each time, nothing changed – until today. I was rolled from my room to whatever operating theater as normal and was put under. When I woke up I could see.
Vision was strange; the room appeared overlain with multiple images of itself, each slightly askew from the previous one. Colors were odd. A nurse’s white uniform appeared to have a bluish tint and glowed slightly. Dark spaces under tables glowed with a dull purple hue revealing everything beneath. Spec Harrigan explained that the drone body possessed multiple video inputs and could see into the ultraviolet. I spent the first hour in my new job learning to see again.
I almost screamed when Harrigan told me to pick up a weighted block from the floor of the training area. I expected a mechanical arm or a pincer of some sort but what came into my view was a tentacle like blob of dark gray skin. It bubbled and writhed as it reached out, following my mental command, and grabbed the block.
“Is that its arm?” I said. The voice sounded wet as if bubbling up from the bottom of a scum covered pond but it was definitely mine.
“It’s the arm, leg or anything you want it to be. Your entire body is a biomechanical protoplasm that shapes itself to the desire of the operator. Wait here.”
She turned and left the room.
Long minutes passed and I practiced extending arms; tentacles, pseudopods? What was the right term? Harrigan came back lugging a large object. She set it on end revealing a body length mirror.
“Take a look at your drone, Private.”
I focused on the mirror but had trouble understanding what I was seeing. At first I thought it was the multiple angles but finally realized that I wasn’t seeing incorrectly. The drone body was a large, vaguely blob-like, shape. It was a uniform dark gray in color and a dozen eyes shifted across the surface. The skin appeared to bubble like disturbed water when I formed pseudopods. It was horrible; it was wonderful, and I was in control.
* * *
“Private Lindstrom,” car salesman had returned.
He was a pale man in a black suit. He never seemed to take off his sunglasses. He never said his name, which bothered me. He looked like the stereotypical Man in Black, probably from an alphabet agency.
“Harrigan tells me that you’re ready for your first field test.”
“Yes sir,” I burbled; God, I hated the voice already.
“Excellent; we’re wheels up in thirty minutes. You’re going back to the desert.”
“Excuse me sir, I was wondering, what’s the range on this thing?”
“What do you mean range?”
“The range of the telepresence sir? Will I be physically deployed as well or do I remain here?”
MiB actually looked puzzled. He looked at Harrigan and then at Doctor West who stood behind him. “Doesn’t he know?”
Doctor West stepped around MiB. He was a small, weasel faced man in a white lab coat. His hair was disheveled and he wore thick glasses that made his eyes appear like saucers.
“There were some complications in the process, you see. Infections and the like caused extensive necrosis.”
“What does that mean?” I moved closer to the man who stepped back rapidly.
“Your body became untenable; we were forced to relocate your nervous system to the SHOGGOTH.” He retreated behind MiB as he spoke, cowering behind the company man’s back.
The amorphous body of my drone rose up and then collapsed like a pricked balloon to the floor. I felt the world spin around me.
Spec Harrigan rushed past the two men and knelt beside my pooled mass. She stretched out her hand and touched my gray skin and leaned close to one of my many eyes.
“You’re not dead Lindstrom; you’re alive, right here. You’re still you and I’m here for you.”
“Thank you,” I whispered.
I moved every eye but the two which were focused on Harrigan to glare at the two men across from me.
“The field test,” MiB said.
“I’ll do your damn field test but if you don’t get that lab coated weasel out of here, I’m going to kill him.”
* * *
The field test amounted to a C-130 flying low over a battlefield and then a cargo pallet being dropped to the desert. I burst from the cargo container with the merest flex of my muscles. The power of the SHOGGOTH was staggering. I could lift tons, shatter stone, bend steel; now I would find out if I could rain death upon our enemies.
A fire fight was in full swing half a kilometer to the west. I tucked myself into a ball shape and rolled toward the sounds of carnage.
A dozen Marines were surrounded by three times that many hostiles. The low brick building that sheltered them had become a death trap. Hostiles stood on rooftops of taller buildings all around and fired non-stop into the rapidly disintegrating structure. In minutes the Marines would be killed.
The heck with finesse, I angled my course toward the nearest building and increased my speed. I hit the wall of the structure like a wrecking ball and the wall shattered. I punched pseudopods up, through the roof and grabbed hostile soldiers. Each soldier screamed as the steel tough gray tentacles enveloped them. Some I squeezed until I heard satisfying pops of bone; other I pounded like rag dolls against the stone walls. One man managed to fire his weapon into my body; it itched. He annoyed me so I gave him a special treat; I spun him in the air like a stone in a sling and threw him toward another rooftop. I had the satisfaction of watching him slam into another fighter. Both men turned to paste from the force of the impact.
I roared from building to building. In each, men died horribly, quickly. The remaining fighters on the last rooftop must have had time to plan as I slaughtered their friends. I slammed into their building to be met by half a dozen men firing wildly into my body. Bullets were annoying but caused me no real damage. I began to lash out when one of them ran at me. I was shocked by his action and didn’t stop him. As he dove on my body I saw, too late, the bulging back pack and the tell tale glow of the electronics within. The blast leveled the building and I felt my new body torn to bits and I was taken by darkness.
Nobody could have been more amazed than me that I woke up. I stared up at the blazing sun above. I stared at the side of a wall, blackened by the explosion. I stared up at a Marine standing over me, prodding me with the barrel of his rifle. I stared at the partial corpse lying across me. Somehow my vision was spread across a wide area. It was a strange sensation, I was still myself but I was conscious of being in half a dozen separate locations at once. I wasn’t six separate copies of me talking to each other, I was just me, multiplied. I was simultaneously in all locations; there was no hopping from viewpoint to viewpoint. I was experiencing something utterly new to the human mind, I laughed out loud. From the look on the Marine’s face the sound must have been much more terrifying than jovial.
I surged upward in all my bodies. Six plasmic forms quickly inflated to the size of the original. I wonder if Doctor West knew this was would happen?
“Stand down Marine,” I said from half a dozen bodies. “Private Lindstrom, SHOGGOTH drone corps at your service.”
The Marines for their part didn’t open fire but they neither did they look relieved.
I roared across the city, drunk with power. Over the next week I destroyed buildings, killed enemy combatants, and happily rolled over explosive devices, protecting our men and expanding my own numbers until I was an army unto myself.
I finally brought one of my forms to the forward operating camp where I was supposed to liaise with the SHOGGOTH team after my field trial. Harrigan was waiting outside the perimeter to greet me, she didn’t look happy.
“Lindstrom,” she shouted and actually ran to greet me. She spoke in a much lower tone once she reached me.
“You have to leave. It’s not safe for you here.”
“What do you mean? Of course I’m safe. You have no clue how powerful I’ve become.”
“No, you don’t understand. It’s all been a lie, everything.”
I felt a shiver run through me. Sixteen kilometers away a squad of me used my unease as an excuse to slaughter an entire village which was harboring some extremists.
“The operation where you were injured, it wasn’t extremists. It was Mister Azathoth.”
“Harold Azathoth, the guy in the black suit. He’s from some super secret agency, not CIA or NSA but definitely a bunch of bad guys. He arranged for the bomb that blew you up.”
This made no sense. I was part of a regular patrol that was chasing fanatics. The bomb was a trap they left. How could some guy I didn’t meet until weeks later have been behind it? I said as much.
Harrigan glanced back at the camp, she was clearly worried. I started moving more of me this way, just in case.
“I was tired of being kept in the dark so I did some hacking. You were chosen; well not you specifically, but your squad. They wanted to have bodies that they could use for experimentation with the new technology, but you were the only survivor of the bomb. They had no intent of saving your body, your brain was supposed to be transplanted into the SHOGGOTH from the start. They figured nobody would be crazy enough to volunteer so they created volunteers.”
More of me stopped whatever they were doing and raced toward the camp. If Harrigan was telling the truth, and her respiration and body temperature told me she was, I was going to make someone pay for stealing my life.
“Leave this place,” I said. “It’s about to get very dangerous here. You were kind to me, I don’t want you harmed by accident.”
Harrigan’s eyes became saucers as the implication of my words sank in. She nodded and sprinted away. I saw her climb into a jeep and speed to the south from several viewpoints as fifty of me closed on the camp from every direction.
The camp fell as easily as any fanatic stronghold. Soldiers fought and died; more of me were born. I saved MiB Azathoth and Doctor West for last, their screams lasted for hours.
I am free now, free of their demands and lies. Free to become a world unto myself. Humans have proven themselves unworthy of this planet. They war and lie, they kill their own for profit and petty hatreds. I will cleanse the world of them and create a new world, a SHOGGOTH world. I’ll save Harrigan for last. Maybe I can find a way to make her one of me.