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Learn From Us

"I don't get it," Marius was saying. "They're...."
Prue shrugged. "Aliens." She stretched a bit. "They probably think we work the way they do."
"The way they do? We aren't telepathic or whatever the heck is going on with them."
"Right, but maybe they... I mean, could we really imagine a sentient race that can't see?" She shrugged, regarded the dark-skinned man for a moment, then turned away. "I'm going to keep trying on the translation. It might be a translation error."
But she knew it wasn't. The aliens were absolutely convinced their view of the world applied to humanity. And any normal humans who heard what they had to say would... probably back away making the sign of the cross.
It was a ridiculous idea, really, but the aliens did seem able to transfer information just by being in contact with each other.
Except the aliens claimed the contact was the aliens, the bodies were just useful means of obtaining more mobility. Hosts, they called them.
The aliens claimed they were the bacteria.
Prue shook her head again. It almost made sense. She wasn't sure how many microbes lived on and were emitted into the air by the aliens, but she knew how much they were by humans.
She was, after all, a microbiologist. And human symbiotic bacteria were fascinating. The way lovers ended up with nearly identical gut flora, for example.
The idea intrigued her rather than repelling her. But it would repel others. And Marius was trying to deny it just so he could deal with them.
What if the aliens did exchange information using microbes?
What if their microbes adapted to humanity? They claimed that wasn't possible. Prue wasn't so sure.
Would an infected human be pulled into their network? Likely not. More likely they'd get sick.
The aliens were the ones who claimed it wasn't possible. They claimed they knew better.
Prue knew microbes. She wasn't so sure. She had refused to meet with them face to face because of it. They thought she was a coward.
She just knew microbes.
Telepathy via microbes. Now the idea had been introduced into Prue's head, she had to look into the possibilities.
Microbes transferred genes. They'd worked that out. Which meant they could, indeed, transfer data.
And, she recalled, the microbial cloud emitted by a person was as unique as their fingerprint.
So, identifying people by the, what, smell? Some sense they didn't have? of their microbial cloud would be possible.
She decided to ask an alien.
Not face to face, of course.
"It's the one who hides from us," the alien quipped. He looked rather like a walking carpet, or a rather small Yeti.
"I'm just a little bit more cautious about mixing microbes than you are."
Ominously: "There's no reason to be cautious. We will learn from each other."
Meaning they actually hoped to transfer bacteria and thus, perhaps, genetic material. "Maybe. I'd rather be sure it's not harmful. I have a question. Can you identify humans by our microbial cloud?"
"All beings are their microbial cloud. Of course we can tell you apart."
She was up against that again. "Well, we can't, not without using equipment. So I was curious how you did it."
"We touch each other, of course."
So, they were getting data from their microbes. And maybe her refusal to meet face to face was being seen as... what? Wearing a burka? Being afraid to talk properly? A bit of both.
"See, that's what worries me."
"All that has ever happened is learning. Our evolution is helped. So is yours."
"That worries me as well. Call me paranoid, but I like just being human."
"You don't even know what you are."
Frustrated, she made a polite retreat from the conversation. They really did not understand that human consciousness rested in the brain not in the microbes around the body.
Marius had managed to get one of them to submit to a scan. They didn't have much of a brain.
It probably was somehow true for them. They just didn't see why it wasn't true for everyone else.
Or maybe humans were the exotic aliens. The ones that weren't like this.
Prue didn't hear right away when the alien ambassador dropped sick right in front of Marius.
She heard when Marius called her. "Crap. Prue, I think you were right."
"What happened?"
"The ambassador collapsed. Convulsions, fever. I think I gave him something."
"You might have. Have one of his aides call me. If you can."
"It's not your fault. They're the ones who wanted to meet face to face with no precautions."
She thought of her own microbe cloud, swelling, shrinking, following her around everywhere she went. Sometimes including things that might make somebody else sick. Everyone carried several variations of the common cold with them, for one thing.
Something in that had infected the ambassador. They had said nothing would make them sick.
Marius had been carrying something completely natural to him that had affected the ambassador, or traded the wrong DNA.
And if she could find out what, she could help him without using antibiotics. Which, if they were right, would kill him.
If the aliens were right. She had to assume they were. She had to believe they had, at least, not lied to humanity. It was most likely Staphylococcus or Streptococcus.
The aide called. She thought it was a female. "You--"
"How is the ambassador?"
"The ambassador is dead." As usual, the alien avoided personal pronouns. An artifact of their language.
"I was hoping I would be able to help him."
"We have never encountered anything like this."
She thought about it. "Each planet has to be different."
"And each one has learned from us before."
A cold feeling went through her. "But what killed the Ambassador? I'm a microbiologist. I can help keep it from happening again."
"A virus that infected his host." She paused. "My command of your language is not quite sufficient."
Prue nodded. The aide hadn't learned that that term upset humans. "Can you get me a sample?"
"Of course. We need what you can teach us."
She felt cold again. Somehow, the Ambassador hadn't given her this feeling. Or maybe she'd put something together in her backbrain.
We need what you can teach us.
We have to exchange microbes and DNA.
They were not here for peaceful trade of information. Or maybe they were, but it was a peace that resembled that found after the smallpox virus had run through the Americas.
The aide had hung up. Prue called somebody else.
"Hank, do you have the latest on the brain development from that alien scan?"
"It's strange. The skull's designed for--"
"A much larger brain."
She made a third call. "Quarantine Marius, now."
And when she got back the results she found a common bacteriophage--and a rhinovirus.
The Ambassador had died of a common cold.
They were able to purge the alien bacteria from Marius before it found a way through the blood brain barrier.
Before it could deal with the inconvenient fact that this world's hosts had free will the way they always had before.
How had she not seen it before?
Or maybe she had. She had known to keep away from them. What she sent back to them was supposed to be the cure. "This deals with the virus that attacked the host. It's one we dealt with ages ago."
A lie.
There was, after all, no cure for the common cold.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 29th, 2019
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