Content warning: violence, psychological torture, and mutilation
Erskine, are you in position?
Roger, Erskine replied, from his spot in the thick bushes. He reached up and flicked the small visor on his helmet down, the dark, rainy jungle suddenly picked out in iridescent hues of grey night vision. Erskine glanced around at other spots surrounding the camp. Four green outlines floated in the air, identified as “Friends” by his helmet’s system. In the encampment, around thirty or forty red silhouettes ambled around, napping or eating or talking.
Alright, remember, we go in fast and hard. Corrival, hit the front, distract them, let the rest of us catch them when they run. No survivors. Level the place with a few high-power thermite charges and let the media think this whole thing was a deranged act of protest.
Erskine nodded, and felt a wave of assent pass through the group as others did the same. He said a silent prayer of thanks to the inventor of the ESP fluid in his helmet. This kind of precise communication would be impossible with a radio, especially with the racket of the rain hammering down around them. And then shouting over that would alert the targets, and yadda yadda yadda…
Radios were nothing compared to being able to link telepathically with your comrades-in-arms. Feel what they felt. Hear what they thought. See what they saw, if necessary.
He hefted his rifle, before noticing something on the sights. An ant. Ew. He flicked the little bug away, and examined the fuzzy outlines his telepathic abilities showed him of the people in the camp. Protestors, probably, although he couldn’t pretend to know. He’d stopped paying attention to mission briefings long ago; go where he needed to go, shoot who he needed to shoot, get paid handsomely and move on to the next pack of unfortunates. Protestors were always a pleasant surprise, though. They rarely carried weapons, either because they couldn’t get any, or because they claimed to possess some sort of ‘moral authority’.
Erskine had to laugh at that. He shifted his boot, and squished the struggling ant which he’d swept off his gun. The only morality in this world was that the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. Those were the words that he lived by. He was proud of them. He was pretty sure he’d come up with them himself. Very profound.
Here we go, 3, 2, and…
Erskine leapt to his feet, the powered exoskeleton he wore whirring to life as he dashed towards the camp. The red silhouettes looked around in confusion. Someone called out a friendly greeting.
Erskine raised his rifle and squeezed the trigger.
The brief whine of magnets charging was quickly overtaken by a crackcrackcrack as his railgun blasted through one of the wattle and daub houses the protestors had erected, slamming into the bodies of two of them, dropping them like sacks of rocks.
He charged forward, mechanically enhanced limbs allowing him to crash through the side of a house as if it were made of paper. He brought his fist around as he burst through the wall, slamming it into the head of a screaming woman, snapping her neck instantly. Before she’d even hit the floor, Erskine turned and fired again, shredding a shocked looking boy with a hail of slugs. He wondered idly if it had been her son.
Erskine scanned around, and saw Corrival nearby, rifle hooked onto the back of his exoskeleton, beating a screaming man to a pulp.
He squinted for a second, and suddenly he could see through Corrival’s eyes, feel the splatter of blood against his hands, and rejoice with his squadmate as the man’s screams turned to pitiful whimpers. Erksine shook his head, and brought himself back to reality. He hadn’t needed to do that, but Corrival just took such joy in the violence. It was always worth peeking inside his head while he was in the act. The second-hand emotional high resonated through Erskine’s body as he lazily swept his gun around and dropped another three targets. He smiled. This was too easy.
“Fuck, get off!”
Erskine turned back to Corrival, just in time to see the woman who’d leapt onto the big man’s back sink a knife into his neck. His outraged bellowing turned into frantic gurgling as he tried to breathe with a slit throat.
Leave him alone!, Erskine thought, directing it at the stupid girl who was murdering his friend. Directing his thoughts at someone with the ESP fluid in his helmet could sometimes produce a simple but powerful suggestion.
She looked at him, and snarled as she brought the knife up and slammed it into Corrival’s eye. She dropped from his back as he slumped to the ground, and went into a roll.
Fair enough, I tried to warn you, Erskine thought, and then, pain.
Her roll turned into a slump, and she fell next to Corrival’s twitching body, shrieking. If she was too strong-willed for fine control, that was fine by Erskine; he could just psychically mash the buttons in her head that told her she was in agony.
He stalked over to her, pushing the barrel of his gun into her face as she sobbed.
You shouldn’t have tried to fight back, little girl, he thought. He wouldn’t kill her yet; she’d murdered one of their own. They couldn’t take an insult like that lying down, so she’d be brought back home with them, and tortured until her mind snapped, and then a little after for good measure. Physical torture when they could be bothered, psychic when they were busy.
When the woman she had once been was a distant memory, and her body was an empty shell that only knew to fear the men who held her, she’d be shot and thrown in a ditch someplace. All of this, Erskine let easily flow across the psychic link he shared with this
woman. The shouts and gunfire continued around them, but he barely noticed any of it, too caught up in the moment. He was so caught up that it took him a second to notice as the sobbing became snarls, as the deep pit of pain and despair in the woman’s guts began to boil over with anger. He looked down at her, expecting to see a defiant face to smash with the butt of his rifle. Instead, he saw her reaching over to Corrival’s body, to the bulky, cylindrical thermite charges slung from his belt.
“Hey, don’t-” he reached down, tried to grab at the bomb that was powerful enough to vaporise half this little village, but his exoskeleton was designed for beating people to death, not fine motor control. He pinned her wrist to the ground and heard a sickening crunch as he shattered every bone in it, and his face was illuminated with red as the bomb went live. A readout flashed on the screen, helpfully informing him it would start counting down from five seconds.
He reared back, panicking.
“Fuck you,” the woman spat, her teeth bloodied as she smiled at Erskine, before slumping to the ground.
He turned and began to run.
One of Corrival’s charges is live! We need to go!
Shit, seriously? Alright boys, mop up double time, we’ve only got a minute to deal with this.
Erskine thought What do you mean? We need to run, now!
Default fuse is one minute, ain’t it?
Erskine had just enough time to realise that, yes, the default time was a minute, so clearly that fucking woman had twisted the dial on the side and reduced the countdown as far as it would go. She must have been stupid-
Any other thoughts on the matter were forgotten as a deafening roar, and then a bright
light, came from behind him.
Erskine was lifted off his feet, and felt himself grow suddenly weightless. He spun sideways, and some distant part of his mind was surprised that the shockwave hadn’t instantly knocked him unconscious. Then his head slammed into the tree trunk, and everything went black.
Erskine’s eyes snapped open. He was lying on his side, the canopy of the jungle filtering dim
green light to the earthy floor. His face was less than six inches from an anthill, and his body
itched as the disgusting insects crawled all over him.
“God, fuckin’ gross,” he pushed himself away from the colony, onto his back, and lay for a moment, groaning to himself and swatting a few stray ants as the events of the previous night flooded back to him. Birds called in the trees, and he could hear animals rustling in the undergrowth.
He could smell something charred.
Erskine looked around as he staggered to his feet, shaking himself and watching the ants fly off in various directions, tapping a few buttons on his arm so that his suit would start running a diagnostic.
He’d been thrown a good distance from the camp by the blast; through the trees, he could make out a circle of black glass where the bomb had gone off. Thank Christ it had been raining last night; the forest would have been consumed by wildfires otherwise, and Erskine would almost certainly have died.
Erskine turned, and started to limp away from the camp. A waypoint flashed on his eyepiece, 30 kilometres to the east. Apparently his buddies had survived, and hadn’t bothered checking for survivors. Fuckers.
That made it all the more important that Erskine put distance between himself and the site; he’d find himself taking the fall for the whole thing if he was caught.
He stood on something soft, and glanced down at the ground, frowning. More damn ants. These jungle ones were bigger than the varieties back home; some of them were the size of his thumbnail.
No, scratch that, my entire goddamn thumb, he thought as he saw another line of them scurrying across the ground. Was this normal? He was pretty certain even exotic ants shouldn’t be that big. He stopped walking, and glanced back at the anthill behind him, then shrugged, right as he received a ping from his suit readout.
Erskine flipped the small tactical visor on his helmet down again and had a look at the damage. About what he’d expected; the hardened mobility systems were more or less functioning, and his battery would keep the suit running for the next week if necessary, but his radio was busted. He was gonna have to walk some distance,, and then build a signal fire. Unless…
He flicked over another few pages of damage reports for secondary systems, until he found the ESP fluid supply. Nothing. Damn. Must have smashed his helmet open on that tree. He really did have no way of communicating.
As he stood there, examining the diagnostics, he saw something out of the corner of his eye. The ants that had previously covered the ground around him had formed a column, seemingly following him, and coming close to overtaking him. Weird. Did ants eat people?
Jungle ants might.
Erskine hefted his gun. It was still working, and if anything tried to eat him he was pretty sure he had it handled.
He watched the column as he walked, bemused as it passed him, and then turned, looping back around to face him.
“What the fuck…?” he stopped and crouched, staring at the mass of ants. He looked back along the column to the anthill, and then raised his eyebrows as he saw something truly bizarre.
The ants appeared to be passing something down the column, a disc of brownish red material, perhaps the size of a small plate. Then as it moved closer, Erskine began to make
out some of the finer details. The mottled surface, the black eyes, the antennae…
Is that a goddamn ant mask? he thought to himself as it approached, passed along the column as if it were a conveyer belt. Finally, it reached the front of the column, pointed
towards him. Erskine stared down at it.
And then it blinked.
Erskine jumped to his feet, the hairs on the back of his neck standing on end. It blinked, and then its antennae twitched. And then the churning mass of ants started to coalesce. To form a structure. A pile of writhing, twitching insects formed, and the strange mask was lifted with them, until it was held almost eye to eye with Erskine. It blinked again.
Erskine turned on his heel, and almost walked straight into another mask, held on another pile.
When did they set that up?
Erskine turned again, and a third mask stared blankly at him. He jumped with fright.
This was freaky. It had taken them two or three minutes to do the first one, how had they
done the second and third so quickly-
A thought came to his mind, a half-remembered thought from last night.
Corrival, hit the front, distract them, let the rest of us catch them when they run.
That was impossible. He turned, and looked at the first mask again. Were they trying
to surround him? Ants were smart, but they weren’t that smart.
This was freaky. The boiling piles of ants were close enough together now that he couldn’t leave the triangle they formed without touching them. Something told him that wasn’t a good idea. He shrugged, and grabbed his rifle, pointing it at the pile directly in front of him. He pulled the trigger, and grinned in satisfaction as hundreds of high powered slugs, travelling at a fair portion of the speed of light, vapourised half the pile. Whatever this freaky shit was, he didn’t care. He was leaving. Erskine stalked forward a few meters, and then he turned to the other two piles, and grinned as he raised his gun again, glancing at the two remaining mask-things and
white hot agony drove through the middle of Erskine’s skull like a lance. He dropped to his knees, screaming
the world stopped making sense. His hands flew to his head, and he writhed as he fell to the floor, on his back
somewhere, deep inside his mind, something drifted just beneath the surface of his
consciousness. Something about ants being a hive mind. About theories of low-level
About how he’d smashed his helmet and emptied his entire supply of ESP enhancing
fluid onto an anthill.
He had to get away. They were aggressive, he could see it now that they were invading his mind, he could feel their hunger, their desire to expand, to conquer, to dominate. He had threatened them by killing them, bright lights in the web of consciousness snuffed out. He was a threat. He had to be contained.
It was coming from somewhere. The feeling in his head, the sensation like someone had drilled a hole in his skull, like his mind was being pressed against hot iron and there was nothing he could do… it was coming from two points near him.
Pure instinct drove Erskine. The most basic animal instinct possible
Away from the pain.
He still writhed. He still screamed, and cried, and begged for it to stop. But he pushed himself, ever so slightly with his legs, and the pain lessened, a fraction of an inch. He kept pushing.
It felt like hours. He sped himself up as the pain lessened, but he still couldn’t have travelled more than a few meters. It was hard to coordinate movements when he was experiencing the most intense agony that had ever been inflicted upon him.
But the pain receded a little, and he began to think. He’d crawl away. He’d shoot these things from a distance. He’d run. He’d never stop. He’d murder his teammates, if they were still alive, hunt them to the ends of the Earth for leaving him to die here. His thoughts became a little clearer, a little more coherent, as the psychic attack receded. He’d get more ESP fluid. Torture his teammates with it. Show them what this had been like. Make them feel like they were being attacked from every angle at once. That was the beauty of ESP fluid; you could control everything, even the direction someone felt the psychic onslaught coming from-
He stopped. His screaming, which had gradually, over the past few minutes, turned to quiet
whimpering, cut entirely as he broke out of his violent, sadistic fantasies, his breath ragged as his eyes, bleary through the tears, looked up at the pale green canopy above him.
At the two masks staring down at him. That he’d driven himself towards.
Catch them when they run.
His screams began again, not pain this time, but raw terror, as the piles collapsed and he felt himself covered in a thick blanket of squirming, roiling, chitinous hatred.
In the darkness, he heard something whisper.
Days later, he still screamed. The ants hadn’t bothered to stop him; he wasn’t punished, wasn’t driven mad with telepathic pain for bawling for help at the top of his lungs. In a way,
that was worse.
If they tried to stop him from screaming, he’d at least know there was some point in doing it. That there was some help nearby that he could alert.
Time ceased to have meaning. Erskine watched the sun rise and set over and over again. He stopped counting after the third time. He’d been fervently praying that he’d die of dehydration, but it hadn’t happened. He was trapped in hell, and death could not release him.
He could feel them. They crawled across his skin, under his clothes. Under his skin. The sensation was somewhere between a dull ache, and an itch he couldn’t quite scratch. It was maddening, especially when he couldn’t move his body any more.
He was pretty sure he knew why, too. It was the same reason his thoughts felt slower. More stilted. Fragmented. It was why he kept screaming.
They were in his head.
Not telepathically. Not psychologically.
Erskine could feel them moving around inside his skull.
It had been happening for days. He knew, on some deep, primal level, what they were doing. They were using the soft tissue to lay larvae. They were burrowing into his brain, and
they were eating the parts they didn’t need.
The parts that were left heard things. Whispers. The vague hints on the edge of the telepathic web the ants had established.
It was why Erskine kept screaming. Even if no one was there. Even if no help was coming.
He screamed because he had to try and drown them out.
But no matter how loudly he screamed, how hoarse he became, he could still hear the psychic whispers.
He could hear them as they changed from primal instincts and urges, slowly but surely evolving and turning into something that sounded almost like a language. Like intelligence.
Erskine’s tormentors were becoming coherent, becoming sentient, and they were using him to do it.
That was why he ached. Not just the disgusting violation that they had carried out on his entire body, but the fact that they’d done something to his nerves. Erskine was pretty sure they’d lashed him into their network. Using a central nervous system designed for a single human as the hub for an expanding hive mind was undoubtedly doing serious damage to him. They were using him as little more than server space, and it was killing him.
Good. Erskine prayed it would be sooner rather than later.
He wanted to die. Needed to die. Because in one of his few moments of lucidity, he’d
noticed something far worse than any psychic torture the strange, mask-like creatures could
have inflicted on him.
His visor was still flipped down over his face, and his suit was still powered; the ants had simply paralysed his body, leaving the exoskeleton in working order. The function for identifying friends and foes telepathically hadn’t worked after he’d smashed his helmet, but after a certain volume of the grotesquely mutated ants had entered his skull, the concentration of ESP fluid had brought the system back online. And, to Erskine’s horror, it identified the ants not as threatening red, but as neutral yellow. Whenever he glanced down through the display, they’d always seem a shade closer to friendly green.
Through constant psychic assault, or pruning the parts of his brain that they didn’t need, or a combination of the two, the ants were making him one of them.
Soon enough, he’d forget that he wanted to die. He wouldn’t stop being miserable, but he’d accept it. He wouldn’t care, as long as he was useful to the colony. He would suffer what he must, because the colony was strong, and Erskine was weak.
And as he thought this, somewhere, deep in the back of Erskine’s skull, a whisper rose above the palimpsest of incoherent muttering that swamped his mind, always. And he heard, in raspy, stuttering English…
We are already one…
About this piece
This story started life as a particularly horrible nightmare. I wanted to write something which evoked the same feeling of visceral fear and disgust that the dream had left me with, hence the body horror elements, and to apply these ideas to something more constructive than just being gross for the sake of it. What this ended up becoming was Erskine, who I wanted to be a deeply unsympathetic figure. He encapsulates a blatantly self-serving, pseudo-intellectual mindset that I thought a reader could really latch onto as someone to root against. He’s not subtle in his unlikability, because I hoped that readers would hate him enough to find his fate cathartic as well as horrifying, as he goes from coloniser to colonised (although of course in his case, it’s a direct result of his own terrible actions, rather than an evil being inflicted on him for someone else’s benefit. I’m hoping it comes across as poetic justice, without also accidentally endorsing his worldview). Inspiration was taken from Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant novels, and their presentation of extreme pain, and Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need Is Kill for the near-future setting.