It took years of concerted effort to oust the invaders from the northern shores of our home continent. Even after they were off the land, they remained a roaming threat on the seas. But at least we had taken back the fields and mountains and beaches and lakes. Some were assigned to the dizzying catalogue of infrastructure repair or the untold numbers of our injured, dying and dead. Others of us were despatched to harry the enemy in their retreat. Part of the challenge in defeating our opponents was a simple matter of size – the merenmies are twice our size – and it doesn’t matter what improvements you make in robot tech or mechanised walker suits, they just don’t catch up to a species used to moving around and existing on that scale. Never mind the physical intimidation of towering over you, having an instantly better view of any battlefield and striding twice as fast across the landscape. They were monsters and bullies, and they made you feel like a child when you met. As if they were just angry and disappointed parents, toting velocity weapons and encased in armour.
They’d left their dead scattered across ten thousand miles of our land and we don’t like wasting already tight resources. Miltech had been tinkering with the merenmy corpses and prisoners since the beginning, and we’d used what they learned to beat them back into the water. They weren’t done with their research though, and those of us who were better at war than peace were going to be their new test subjects. A few of my colleagues did outright refuse, and I don’t blame them. Donning the skin and flesh and bones of your hated enemy isn’t for the faint-hearted, or even the stout-hearted. Perhaps I was just used to following orders. Whatever made me allow miltech to install me in the still-breathing body of a merenmy, I didn’t really feel the horror until they sealed me in.
I stood up slowly, unused to the long legs, the sheer height, and the weight – everything. It was like I’d never had a body before and had just imagined what it was to walk. The miltech doctors explained that my brain was learning what the new nerves they’d stitched into my spine were for. I still felt the ghosts of my true limbs inside me as my proprioceptive network rebuilt itself to fit a far taller and heavier frame. Even colours looked different, and when I stood fully and loomed over the miltech staff, their innate fear sketched colours I didn’t recognise across their faces. Experiments are great in theory, but in action – come back to life – we already terrified our own. I could hardly wait to get out of there. In a matter of weeks I’d gone from battered war hero to feared monster, and I knew that I wouldn’t be welcome here again until our job was done.
The trip to the ocean was grim, made dull and by our being trucked all the way there, hidden from our people’s view, and from what spies the enemy might have left on our shores. Once we hit the water, everything changed. Suddenly, the extra weight I was carrying in my legs and arms spread out under the waves, folding into fins and flippers that would speed us on our way. I’d killed enough of them to know those shapes but I’d never thought how free they must feel when they dived. It was intoxicating, gills opening up down my sides and filling me with a purer breath than I’d ever taken on land. We were scheduled for some weeks of adjustment to our new bodies, but none of us wanted to wait that long.
We absconded on the third night, dove off into the dark ocean with our weapons and plans. Miltech were furious, but we didn’t just disappear on them, we stayed in contact but refused to return to land for further probing and preparation. Reluctant, but pleased with our adaptation, miltech began to send us targets they’d plucked from the satellite and sensor data. Those first encounters were bloody and terrifying. While we knew intellectually that we were now the same size as the enemy, we weren’t yet as well-suited to the environment. We learned though, we learned fast. Soon we were as fast and slick and mobile as they were, and we had an extra motive of absolute hatred, and all the extra knowledge that comes from being two bodies in one. I hadn’t appreciated how satisfying it would feel to glide into the enemy outposts, deceiving them with our forms and then slaughtering them.
Perhaps they were just natural killers, and in donning their skin, we were becoming that too. Half drunk on murder we spiralled through the dark sea, fins drawing shapes in the current. We’d taken out all the advance forward positions of the merenmies that miltech had been able to locate, and a dozen more they hadn’t. That’s when we heard the call, or felt it. An itch deep down inside, like something loose in our skin. It started small but grew unbearable. We reported it to miltech and they insisted we return to shore where they could investigate. For once, we did as instructed and swam the hundreds of miles home, when we weren’t arched and cramped with discomfort, scratching at our bellies and thighs.
By the time we clawed our way onto the beach we were disoriented with distress and confusion. We’d climbed onto the wrong beach and we were attacked by our own people. Whatever ailed us had weakened us and not all of us made it back into the water. We swam in pain, our smooth strokes palsied by sudden twisting and jerking. Even the sound of miltech trying to contact us became painful and we discarded our comms. We took refuge in a gnarled twist of coral that concealed a cave. There our bodies spasmed as they unleashed the eggs we’d half-feared was the cause of our suffering. We were horrified, and yet relieved as the pain faded away. I was appalled that miltech had given us bodies that might produce yet more of the enemy, but perhaps they hadn’t known – perhaps some contact with the soldiers we’d been murdering had done this, or some natural cycle of which we were unaware.
We didn’t know what to do with the eggs. We didn’t want more of our enemy, but nor did we want to slaughter them. We should have done, because if the merenmy stays with its eggs and they hatch, their naturally murderous babies start with the parent. It was only their frenzied consumption of my merenmy body that saved me. As nerves, bones and muscle were flensed away by their razor teeth, I felt my true body reawakening. They only seemed to have a taste for their own flesh. Holding the last breath I’d been able to draw through my former lungs, I fought my way through the bloody waste and gore that turned the water red and iron-tasting, shot up for the surface. I lay panting on the waves, unable to believe I could no longer swim with ease, even harder to believe I was still alive, lying under that red sun once more.