The Scuttling Mediator
Summary: Dr. Akruthi Roy was a xenobiologist on an alien world filled with insectile creatures, none larger than her fist. She becomes an unwitting emissary between Earth and an alien intelligence.
The lights flickered once more, and Dr. Akruthi Roy cursed to herself. The electrovore bugs, beetle-like creatures that existed symbiotically with metal-catalyzing bacteria, were helping themselves to her primary power supply. She stepped into the airlock, and an environmental suit snapped into place around her. The bugs ate the last of her drones and stationary defenses last week, and she did not have enough feedstock to replicate more.
Thus, Dr. Roy had to do it the old-fashioned way. She grabbed a rifle-like device from the wall, a microwave agonizer, and walked out to the side of her compound. The microwave device heated the water vapor on the exposed skins of the creatures, causing them to run and scatter. Even the alien arthropod analogs of Devar-3 responded to Pavlovian pain conditioning.
Dr. Roy saw them massing on the side of the hemispherical habitat, a prefab structure deployed from orbit. The electrovore bugs superficially resembled pill-bugs or woodlice, although their innards were drastically different. Fortunately, they bore enough similarities to terrestrial life to suffer the same effect from microwaves. They gathered in a writhing mass on the side of her home, electricity pulsing between them like a dish of cultured neurons.
Dr. Roy swept the microwave device back and forth, like a fire extinguisher. The obnoxious arthropods scattered, but regrouped as soon as the beam shifted. She cursed to herself, noting how persistent they seemed. Normally, they'd scatter at the first sign of the microwave gun on them. She turned it up to the highest setting, ready to zap some bugs. She'd only done it once before, to tremendous effect.
Dr. Roy saw the bugs shift, as she brought the microwave gun up to her cheek. The bugs organized themselves into a strange geometric pattern, in between exposed wires. She noted the superficial similarity to an analog logic gate when it happened. The microwave passed over an exposed circuit. The alien isopods seemed to create a short circuit. An arc of electricity passed through the ionized air between her and the habitat. She realized too late that the little bugs had planned this. They'd duped her into creating a feedback loop. Such coordination and behavior was highly atypical behavior.
Dr. Roy had no time to meditate on her findings, since it all went black. She recalled her younger days, when she dreamed of making first contact with an alien species. She was idealistic when she went into cryo aboard a sleeper ship, destined for a distant system. The colonists constructed orbital habitats and O'Neill cylinders, permitting only scientists to study the alien biosphere. As honored a position as deployment on the surface was, it was still exile. Now, the world was almost her grave.
The power blasted Dr. Roy back into a stone, cracking her helmet and giving her a concussion. The electrovores took note, and they eagerly entered the gap in the armor. The swarm sent out low power electric signals, each bug effectively acting as a biological radio. For years, the swarm sacrificed members to understand the nature of the aliens and their technology. At first, they understood only their electronics streamlined their metabolisms. Now, they attempted an experiment of their own.
They ate their way not only into Dr. Roy's suit, but parts of her body. They detected the faint, electrochemical activity of human neurons, and interfaced them with their swarm-mind. Dr. Roy was injured, but not yet dead. The bugs caused her to stagger back into consciousness, modulated by an unfamiliar sea of sensations. Her suit still leaking, Dr. Roy staggered back into the habitat module, bugs biting on the suit's servomotors and computers, and parts of her arms and legs.
The biosphere of Devar-3 was carbon based, with righthanded DNA that coded for the same amino acids as Earth. However, billions of years of world-specific adaptation rendered each world perilous and alien to the other, despite limited microbial compatibility. Nevertheless, the bugs could easily survive inside the hab module's atmosphere. They might eventually starve, but the thing that was once Dr. Roy had a mission first.
Swarm-Roy broadcast a status of herself, and how she came to control the swarm that now shared her dwelling. She rationed the electricity so they did not need to damage the power. She translated human concepts for them, as they assembled into ever more elaborate circuits. She felt each member of the swarm, and they felt her. Together, they were more than the other. She recalled her youthful desires, and how she now met them. She was the mediator for a scuttling alien intelligence, although it now lived in symbiosis with her.