The water churns with the thrashing bodies of countless swimming parasites. It’s hard to get a good look at them like this. All I can pick out is a handful of individual details—tendrils, rows of tiny teeth, beady eyes.
I have to put my arm in there and let one choose me.
I hesitate. Who wouldn’t?
“All I have to do is let one of these latch on, and I’ll be able to fight like you do?”
“It is more than that,” the woman to my right tells me. “It is a sacrifice. To be a host to one of our young is a lifelong commitment.”
She’s slight of stature, but just the other day I watched her punch through a brick wall, masonry crumbling like loose gravel. With her human arm, too. Not even the one claimed up to the shoulder by her own, fully-grown parasite.
That arm is…grotesque. Inhuman. A mass of flesh with too many rows of pointed knuckles and elbows, throbbing muscles flexing in the wrong places, with skin that glistens as if perpetually moist. It’s all I can do not to vomit when I look at it for too long.
If I accept the terms, that will, eventually, be my fate. Not even fully human anymore, but partially alien. But I’m tired of being scared, weak, alone. Tired of waiting for the boot to crush me. Tired of my body failing, bit by bit.
I make up my mind.
All the way under, at least down to my elbow, that’s what they said. The pose is stiff and awkward, and I hold it long enough that I start to worry whether none of the larval parasites will choose me.
Then I feel the sharp pain piercing my wrist, and I jerk my hand out reflexively.
There it is. My very own parasite. No wider than a hand, for now, and wrapped around my wrist like a bracelet.
I groan in pain. “Is it supposed to hurt this much?”
“Oh yes,” the woman says. “It takes a little time for it to integrate with your nervous system. Until then, well,” She offers a reassuring smile. “It’s going to get much more painful, I’m afraid.”
A lance of pain shoots up my forearm. “M-more…?”
“Well, like any child with a lot of growing to do, it needs to eat.”
“It’s eating my arm?!” I cry out in alarm. My imagination fills with images of those tiny teeth ripping my flesh to shreds, and I panic, clawing at my arm to get it off, suddenly aware I made a huge mistake.
The other people here swarm me immediately, locking down my flailing limbs with unmatchable strength.
“I told you, friend. This is a lifelong commitment. No backing out now.”
I feel a trickle of blood flow down my arm from my wrist. I scream.
“It’s not just your arm either, silly,” she says, kneeling close to me, stroking my face as though she could offer me comfort. “We send our tendrils all through the host, eating them and replacing them as we grow. How did you think we get like this?”
Oh. The strength of even their human limbs…they weren’t really human limbs at all, beyond appearance.
“It replaces…” I take a breath, steady myself. Speaking through the spikes of pain is so hard. My thrashing is not wholly voluntary now. “Everything except the brain?”
She laughs as though I said something absurd. “Brain too! That part’s quick to start but the slowest to finish. It has to be. Too fast and we can’t properly reproduce our hosts’ memories within ourselves.”
Then… all these people. They’re not people at all, are they? They’re a colony of parasites wearing the faces of the long-dead people they fed on and replaced.
“I said it’s a lifelong commitment, didn’t I?” she responds as though I’d said the words aloud. “I just didn’t say how short your expected lifetime would be after becoming a host.”
She’s very kind to tell me all this, so I know what’s ahead of me.
“Are you done being fussy?”
Ah, I didn’t realize the pain was gone. I flex my fingers experimentally, and in spite of the ongoing flow of blood, things feel… more or less normal. Even the fear has already died.
“Yes, I think we’re integrated now,” I respond.
She and the others help me upright. “Oh,” she says, “I do want to tell you while you’re still mostly human: really, don’t worry. Your parasite will remember you when you’re gone, okay?”
I smile. “I’m glad.”
I don’t know what I was thinking before. Her arm is beautiful.