Now it's found us
Like I have found you
I don't wanna run
Just overwhelm me
-Snow Patrol, "The Lightning Strike"
H'kdi, Long-range Scout, was far from the Hive when it happened, the telepathic presence of its species' local Great-Mind nothing more than a warm buzz at the back of its mind. It had just found the promising scent of one of the larger, mammalian predators on the planet, and felt filled with the knowledge that it was serving the Hive and Mother-Queen. It touched its abdomen to the ground, its scent glands marking it with--
Something roared overhead.
H'kdi crouched low to the ground as the meteor split the sky in two, its species' instinctive reaction to threats. Even lower as it impacted on the ground nearby, shaking the earth.
After a few minutes, the scout's caution waned. Whatever the sky-thing was, it might have something of benefit to the Hive.
The object in question lay at the bottom of a large crater, and was roughly eighty darl'ks in size. It seemed to be a liquid, which puzzled H'kdi as it peered over the walls of earth thrown up by the impact. Liquids did not fly through the air, nor were sky-rocks they as cool as its antennae said the liquid was.
It descended the crater carefully, presenting its right side to the creature. Antennae detected no recognizable scent, and he raised its rear pair of legs and lowered the forward pair. A slight adjustment to the center pair, and H'kdi's face was as close to the silvery liquid as possible without actual contact, the optimum range for visual inspection. Its mandibles clicked in what might be called curiousity in a more sentient creature. The surface rippled in strange, geometric patterns, and one antennae dropped lower, touching the surface even so gently.
The sky-liquid moved.
H'kdi's chitters changed to ones of concern as the liquid flowed up its sensory organ. The antennae couldn't detect anything where it was covered, and its legs straightened before it backed away from the liquid.
Except for the part where it couldn't.
A tendril of the sky-stuff stretched from the scout's antennae to the body of the mass, tensing to hold it in place. Had it stumbled on the nest of a new form of night-spider? Its first and second antennae scanned the rim of the crater while the liquid touched its head, spreading rapidly across its carapace, its compound eyes, its mouth, the other two antennae, leaving it effectively blind. Then it sank into its head, through its nictitating membranes, the mouth, aiming directly for its brain. And changed it.
The thing about nanomachines was that they worked with what they had. They surrounded H'kdi's trispheric brain, downloaded it, supplanted its involuntary functions, then began to convert it to something more traditional. Once that was complete, the scout's mind was uploaded into something nature never intended it to have. The liquid continued to act as the interface between the now-hemispheric brain and the rest of the body.
Finding no skull, it began to pull calcium mass from the chitin of H'kdi's exoskeleton, while simultaneously sculpting its flesh to a more suitable configuration.
To the scout, there had simply been a gap in its memory, and it couldn't feel the Great-Mind anymore. Which was supposed to be impossible. Both were so impossible, in fact, that it had no knowledge of the any protocols for the situation. Even while it came close to panic, something brushed against the edges of its mind, coalescing from a random series of sense-impressions to something approximating the psychic communication of the Great-Mind.
"Hrbtfrgtnoillywnforty-two." said the voice. "Don't panic."
Was that the Great-Mind? H'kdi' felt a surge of hope, even trying to request of the Mother-Queen what to do in the situation.
"I'm sorry, I think you have me confused with someone else."
The scout was confused, even as the infection continued to spread, changing its eyes from their glorious multifaceted complexity two simple orbs. Not only was it restricted to two facets, but it also had a vastly narrowed spectral range.
"Sorry about that," said the voice. "On the plus side, you should have much better distance vision now."
"What are you?" H'kdi thought.
"Lieutenant Frank Tanaka, of the Fifth digitized platoon."
The outside of the bug's head was still covered in chitin, but the nanomachines sought to rectify that. The carapace softened, lightening to a pale color and then darkening again as the grey goo pumped melanin into it.
"What are you doing to me?"
"Converting your exoskeleton into skin."
"But all my insides will fall out!"
"No, it doesn't--hang on."
There was a feeling like a spike being shoved into its skull, and H'kdi suddenly understood what was happening. LieutenantFrankTanaka had been digitized, converted into a cluster of "Vanguard" mil-spec nanomachines. He and the rest of the digitized forces were fired at planets targeted by EarthForce by frac-C impellers, to subvert the entrenched infrastructure. This would be accomplished by converting any carbon-based species that came into contact with it into the human genetic template encoded into the nanomachines, uploading the mind contained in the silver ooze, and retaining a copy of the body's original mind for any useful information it might posses.
Obviously, something had gone wrong.
"Huu-mahn," H'kdi mouthed. It didn't understand half of what the voice in its head was saying, but it did understand what a species designation was. It also understood what skin was; a sort of soft carapace. Huh.
Two holes appeared in the centre of its face, burrowing inward toward its throat. The point where they reached the surface of its head rose up slowly, a sort of skin-hill. It stroked the thing with one of its legs, to find a hard section near the top, presumably made up of that internal-exoskeleton LieutenantFrankTanaka had 'informed' him his species used.
H'kdi suddenly realized it could smell. Glorious scent! Vastly inferior to its original antennae, but still, better than nothing.
"Why are you doing this?"
The nanomachines, having mostly finished with its head, had moved on to its body.
"I'm not, actually. The nanomachines have root-level commands I can't override. Uploading information to and from your brain is about all I can do. Say hi to your new skeleton."
The nanomachines faced a conundrum; they were tasked with building a skeleton in order to support muscle and flesh, but had little room to do so. Radical restructuring was the best prospect.
They started with altering the body toward the image of its creators. The creature's general physiology strongly resembled those of insect species from its home planet, and the nanos spared a cycle or two--milliseconds, with their collective processing speed--to calculate and save precisely how improbable it was. Then it proceeded to make H'kdi's central legs implode, from their manipulators inward. It looked like a hole had suddenly appeared at the tip, pulling their mass toward the center of the scout's body.
"Calm down. My species is bipedal."
"So you only have two limbs?"
"Four. We use the upper two for grasping and manipulators."
"So you have each of them perform one function? That seems...inefficient."
"It works well enough."
Much like they had with its head, the robots collected deposits of calcium and other chemicals in the area of its neck, having chitin rise up and fix its head in place, staring at the grey pool.
"What...what is this?"
"The 'bots need to keep your head in place so they can grow the vertebrae."
The lesser information-transfers were only "twinges" of pain, compared to LieutenantFrankTanaka's earlier, massive infodump, but H'kdi still winced. It caught sight of its reflection in the silver pool below and stared. The face that looked back at it was strange and alien. The "skin" that covered its eyes were opaque, instead of the translucent membranes of its original species. Every few l'tk they automatically did something called a "blink".
The nanomachines deposited masses along the center of its back, mass they quickly shaped into what LieutenantFrankTanaka had called "vertebrae". It hated them, as it hated the way they dulled what huu-mahns called "pain". The Children of the Hive did not know pain, only an awareness of damage.
The scout hated the tiny machines for stealing sensation from it, even as they stole its flesh. It suddenly felt something sweep over it, a desire to end the threat to itself and to its hive, to rip and tear at it with its teeth, to smash at it with its manipulators, to grind it into dust--
That wasn't right.
"Why do I want to break things? Like you, if you were not in my mind and something I could actually break?"
"That's anger. It's what we call an emotion."
"'Emo-shun'?" It checked its--LieutenantFrankTanaka's--memories. Ah. The only emotion the Children of the Hive knew was duty.
Something else swept over it, a paralyzing feeling that made it want to hide in the larval nursery. Someplace warm and dark, where the sky-liquid could not find it and make it "feel".
"That would be fear," LieutenantFrankTanaka commented.
The pool shrank suddenly, as more of the sky-liquid rushed into H'kdi's body. The nanomachines needed a much larger presence in the scout for the next phase of the conversion.
"You might wanna grit your teeth for this next part."
"Why? What's going on?" Its blood beat faster, its breathing shallowed. Panic.
With the vertebrae assembled, the nanomachines shoved them into place. They created nerve pathways, even as they formed a pelvis at the base of the spine. The insect's spindly appendages would not be sufficient to base the human arms and legs on.
H'kdi's four remaining limbs exploded.
It watched in horror as its chitin simply vanished, being drawn in through the bone, leaving its insides exposed for a second or two before being covered by the huu-mahn "skin". In that brief period of time, however, they had grown in side significantly, being shot through with bone. The scout's manipulators expanded, gaining two extra "fingers", with the lower finger moving to the side. Huu-mahn's apparently called the hideous thing a "thumb". Something writhed under its skin as the sky-metal changed its arm, muscles shifting and reconfiguring.
Its rear limbs were undergoing something similar. Huu-mahn legs had significantly more muscle than those of H'kdi's species, so they fattened significantly. The attachments weren't right, so the silver swarm consumed its thorax in order to make the pad of muscle and fat huu-mahns called a "posterior". This also allowed its brand new bones to socket neatly into its pelvis. The scout now looked like an insect with human arms, legs, and rear. The only thing remaining was its torso.
"What is this appendage?" H'kdi asked, as the nanomachines swarmed over the crook of his legs, replacing the blank chitin there with a piece of floppy flesh. "Some manner of ovipositor?"
LieutenantFrankTanaka chuckled. "Not exactly." The now-familiar spike of pain.
The scout parsed the new information with mounting incomprehension. "Your species has separate reproductive roles? And external genitalia?"
"For the most part, yeah. Doesn't everyone?"
"No! That's horribly inefficient! Most of our lot can either produce eggs of fertilize others, and our Mother-Queen is the most fertile and fecund of them all. When she dies, another of our Hive takes her role automatically. We know not by which means the Sky-Mother chooses the new Mother-Queen. Whose idea was it to have your "females" fertile only a small portion of your lunar cycle?"
"It wasn't exactly anyone's 'idea'--"
"Why would any sentient species want to live like this? Why didn't you huu-mahns bash your own skulls in with a large rock?"
"Renovating some bug ain't my idea of a cuppa tea, either."
Ribs, now, curving arcs of bone. Shoulders for the head to rest on and the arms to connect to. Sternum. A flurry of organ altering, and the last of the chitin went to adding hair and fingernails, according to the scans that had been conducted on Tanaka, just before he was digitized. One last check, and the nanomachines were finished. They went on standby.
"Is it over?" H'kdi asked cautiously. He slowly raised his--LieutenantFrankTanaka's--head. There was no more pool in front of him, and none of the horrible sensations in his displaced body.
"Yeah, looks done. All I have to do is upload the rest of me into your brain."
"What did you mean by 'upload'?"
"I'm supposed to overwrite your mind with mine, after assessing which parts of it are of use to me."
"What kind of species is yours? You make weapons that go onto other planets and rewrite people's bodies?"
"A species at war, that's what. Now I need to figure out where and when I am. Do you have any memories of the night sky?"
"This is the night sky."
"I'm not even going to ask. Okay, is that your most recent memory of the stars? I can work with that. Compensating for memory degradation--"
"The Children of the Hive have no memory loss," H'kdi said stiffly.
"Oh really? For these calculations to be correct, I'd have to be 3.14 light years away from my intended destination--oh. Oh crap."
"Something wrong, 'huu-mahn'? Perhaps altering my body was not to your liking? Would you like to convert something else?"
"I can't. I only exist as a cluster of nanomachines bridging the gap between your left and right hemispheres. Incidentally, you aren't even supposed to exist as a separate entity, much less be in control."
"I regret that I was unable to give satisfaction."
"You sure picked up sarcasm quickly. Point being, I'm way off from where I want to be. I'm lucky I didn't sail to the end of the universe."
"Ah! So you huu-mahns know of the great Sky-Mother, S'd'lnkhit?"
The huu-mahn limbs were unfamiliar, but the scout managed well enough as he climbed up the side of the crater. He complained as he went, as much to get used to the human method of communication--causing air to vibrate. What an odd concept!--as to vent his emotions.
"Only four limbs, and two of them are dedicated solely to locomotion. Very little psychic ability, so it's a wonder you don't constantly misunderstand each other. No antennae, so you have to get scent through your head-holes and sense vibrations through your skin--"
"You finished?" LieutenantFrankTanaka said as they crested the rim.
"No! I can only hope that the Mother-Queen can do something about my wretched state. With these gelatinous orbs in my skull that are a poor excuse for proper eyes--"
"Look, being in a human body means losing some stuff." LieutenantFrankTanaka said as H'kdi stopped to catch his breath. "Back on our homeworld, we made up for it with other advantages."
"Take up that rock."
H'kdi did, using the clumsy human grasp-prongs. "Roughly three darl'ks of rokhthar, worn by wind erosion to an edge on one side. And?"
"See that length of wood?"
"Hold it under your left arm, supporting it with your left hand. Hold the rock in your right hand, edge outward. Use it to remove the branches, then remove strips from the tip until it has reached a point."
"I fail to see what having a sharpened stick will accomplish."
"You'd be surprised."
"Vanguard" (link to deviantART version)
by Eulalie "Nequ" Quentin
2009 Creative Commons By-SA-NC
Part of SciFiQuest 2011: The Undiscovered Nodegel