I. Black Swan

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I woke to shrilling alarms and instantly flicked my attention to my ship's instruments. The automated processes weren't supposed to wake me until after landing, but the spectroscopic sensors had determined that an error had been made.

My automated processes had successfully navigated my craft to the target system. My ship had entered a decaying orbit around the planet; the landing sequence had already begun. My ship would enter the atmosphere shortly, and I didn't have enough fuel to abort the landing.

A flicker of fury went through me as I looked at the atmospheric spectroscopy readings. There was corrosive gas present in the atmosphere in amounts high enough to irreparably damage my ship's systems! If I landed without doing anything, my craft would never take off again.

How did we miss this? This system was mapped just seventeen spins ago!

I summoned my vessel's copy of the Library.

It is almost vulgar to try to put the experience of the Library into words. It is the sum total of my civilization's knowledge, wisdom, and grace. It is mathematically organized into the single most efficient and useful schema possible, and its living crystalline perfection contains blueprints for absolutely everything.

Everything. Every technology my people had ever created was contained in the Library-- at least, everything from the last forty-two galactic spins. The technology I carried alongside it would allow me to pull any of those designs out of the Library and into reality, if I only had enough time and resources. They would let me rebuild. They would let me build the staging ground I needed to complete my mission.

Voices eons old echoed around me as I considered the question of how to protect my ship from this planet's strangely and suddenly corrosive atmosphere.

I considered the problem. My ship was surrounded by a layer of ablative shielding which would burn up on reentry. I wouldn't be able to alter that shielding substantially before beginning reentry in earnest with the time and resources I had. I would, instead, need to alter everything inside the heat shield.

With a flicker of thanks for the guidance of my precious cargo, I set to work, directing my ship to dissolve and reconstruct entire sections at a time.

My ship wasn't large. It was scarcely an order of magnitude larger than myself, not counting the heat shield. I split my attention, modifying and verifying secondary systems before cycling off primary systems and melting them down into resource storage. I didn't bother constructing new backup systems-- there wasn't time, and I would need that mass for something else soon enough.

In the back of my mind, the countdown continued as my destination grew ever-larger in the periphery of my senses.

Then it was time to modify my outward-facing wide-spectrum electromagnetic sensors. I only had a few more orbits around the planet until the atmosphere would begin to decelerate me and my ship's ablative shielding would begin to burn away. Trusting the Library, I disengaged sensors and, flying blind, began to build new eyes for my ship.

I fumed in the darkness. How had the composition of this planet's atmosphere changed so drastically since this system was originally mapped? Was it a novel geological process? Had my copy of the Library somehow become corrupted?

That should have been impossible. The Library was specifically designed to withstand any form of corruption. Verification algorithms and checksums pale in comparison to the holographic failsafes and fractal redundancy built into the Library. You could rebuild the Library from less than a gram of its substance, given sufficient time and computing power. Every part of it contained instructions on how to repair itself.

The fact that it was virtually physically impossible to corrupt the Library comforted me. But that still left the troubling question of the corrosive, life-threatening gas suddenly so prevalent in this planet's atmosphere. Where had it come from?

My view of the world below returned just as temperature readings from the exterior of my craft began to rise sharply. I reviewed the changes with satisfaction-- the presence of the corrosive element would no longer threaten me or my craft once I made my landing. The Library had once again protected me and my ship from harm.

Now that the immediate threat was addressed, I turned my attention below. The planet didn't appear particularly seismically active, which was within projections. And, of course, it was absolutely loaded to the gills with water. More precisely, the massive chunk of space rock I was presently descending toward hosted over a trillion gigaliters of water.

With that much water, I'd be able to fulfill my mission. I'd be able to save my people. Water wasn't the only thing I needed, of course, but it would speed things up significantly to have so much at hand.

An information-only alarm pinged and I saw that the reentry shielding had reached the first temperature threshold. I calmly acknowledged the alarm and watched the ovoid of my craft turn cherry-red as the ablative shielding began to slough away a few molecules at a time. My craft began to shake violently as the air of a new world pulled away the last of my journey's momentum. As the temperature rose, I re-checked and recorded everything. I calmly watched as my heat shield dropped to 80% integrity, then down to 60%, then more quickly still toward 0%.

The last millimeters of ablative shielding detached explosively from my craft and panels on the ovoid swelled several orders of magnitude. The strong, lightweight honeycomb composite strained violently.

Moving automatically, I re-checked the newly-reconstructed parachute deployment system. The parachute had a multi-purpose design (provided, of course, by the Library); the nanomaterial was was a polymer composite whose long molecular chains gave my parachute incredible tensile strength. Even if my craft was an order of magnitude heavier or if I was making reentry at higher speeds, the parachute would hold. Tensile strength alone wasn't enough to provide the drag needed, however, so the material included a pattern of tangled voids that gave the full parachute its giant, lumpy appearance, like a mushroom cloud given solid shape. It would balloon out behind my craft, slowing me to speeds appropriate for splashdown before making a slight reconfiguration to repurpose itself as a flotation device.

The parachute systems showed optimal; this planet's strange atmosphere notwithstanding, everything was going according to plan.

My craft pierced the thick nimbostratus clouds that had been blocking some of the wavelengths reported by my craft's electromagnetic sensors. The beauty of the sight of all that water begged for my attention; initial indications showed it to be a few kilometers deep in places. My craft was not prepared to handle the pressures on the floor of that ocean. Luckily, it wouldn't have to. The massive, poofy material of my parachute would hold my craft at the surface of the ocean, where I would deploy solar panels, begin processing materials, and start the work of building the infrastructure I needed to complete my mission.

The nanomaterial shivered and swelled, reducing density to keep my craft from sinking into the black depths below, and with an enormous kick and blast of sound, my ship slammed into the water. Moments later, all was silent.

I looked around at the briny water I bobbed in. I had done it! I had successfully landed on the planet despite the seemingly-inexplicable alteration to the makeup of the planet's atmosphere. I let myself feel a bit giddy as I worked my way down a Library-provided post-landing checklist, verifying the integrity of my systems, myself, and the Library.

I would build. This world's resources would save my people. It would give them a new future. After all this time-- after so many spins spent asleep, after so many close calls-- I would finally do it.

CHECKLIST COMPLETE.

SYSTEMS INTEGRITY: 100%

PILOT INTEGRITY: 100%

LIBRARY INTEGRITY: 100%

I began to send the commands to establish solar panels and begin charging my systems to start establishing infrastructure. This planet's primary star had yet to rise, but as soon as it did, my energy stores would begin to replenish themselves.

I had been asleep for so long, traveling between the stars. I looked up at those stars now, appreciating how they sparkled through the planet's corrosive atmosphere. I didn't immediately begin reviewing the course of action I would take, and I didn't begin reviewing the Library for optimal designs to deploy in this planet's conditions. The Library would still contain that information when the sun rose, so there wasn't much to do until then but conserve energy. Content, I floated in my ship in the warm, briny water, celebrating this milestone with the decadence of wakeful idleness.

Then, alarms blared once more.

WARNING: FLOTATION SYSTEMS INTEGRITY: 85%

ALTITUDE CONTROL FAILURE IMMINENT!

In other words, "sinking to the bottom of the ocean."

I furiously reviewed sensor logs and queried the Library. The landing had gone without a hitch. I had completely reconstructed my vessel to deal with the corrosive gas in the atmosphere, and after landing, all my checklists had come back optimal. My ship had been undamaged. And now, suddenly, it was no longer undamaged.

The flotation system, like most of the Library's designs, was self-healing. Over time-- given sufficient resources-- it would repair any damage to itself. However, I had depleted my ship's resources by reconfiguring its material to survive the corrosive atmosphere. It would repair itself-- but not fast enough.

Something was... repeatedly cutting my flotation system! Over and over in small, sharp chunks. The tensile strength of the material was unmatched on this planet-- but something sharp was cutting through it easily, applying pressure to the strands at a ninety degree angle and shearing them apart. I scanned. It wasn't fouled on a sharp rock, I didn't sense any geological features at all within a kilometer of my craft-- what was happening?

I examined the ship's sensor logs, watching the damage accrue. Desperate, I configured my electromagnetic sensors to sweep at shorter and shorter intervals. There was something outside my ship. Something large. And fast. It drew close again, and my consciousness filled with more dire warning messages.

WARNING: FLOTATION SYSTEMS INTEGRITY: 35%

FLOTATION SYSTEMS INTEGRITY CRITICAL!

Shock ran through every part of me as I saw the thing move toward the formless mass of my parachute-turned-flotation-device, and deliberately cut into another section of it, flooding its internal voids and robbing my craft of buoyancy. What was that thing? Had the enemy got here first?

No. It wasn't like anything in the Library. This was something different. Something unlike anything my people had ever discovered on any of the planets we had surveyed in the history of our civilization.

I turned to the Library for defensive designs. My preliminary scans showed the thing to have-- some kind of armor? Five retractable swimming appendages and one retractable cutting appendage?

It would take too many resources to reconfigure the floats. Not so soon after landing. Not after the expenditures I'd already made.

But I had enough resources to quickly build one weapon. Working quickly, I copied the design from the Library, building a narrow tube to hold and accelerate a gram of matter shaped into a hard, sharp needle to several kilometers per second. The missile would lose velocity quickly fired underwater, but at this range, that didn't really matter.

I fired once at the center of the dark shape and it jerked in shock, dark liquids leaking into the water around it. It seemed to slow, no longer flickering around on my sensors but now remaining relatively static. Excellent-- my defensive device had easily pierced its hard shell.

My flotation system was quickly failing. I needed to shore it up, and for that, I needed solar power-- especially now that I had almost exhausted the last of the spare resources I had obtained from dissolving the secondary systems. I just had to wait for this world's spin to reveal its sun, and I could properly get to the work of establishing my outpost.

In the meantime, I checked back with my mysterious attacker. It wasn't there.

It was, rather, but it wasn't alone. Several other shapes were moving around it, now. I felt a flare of disgust that so much was happening so close to me without my being able to sense it-- I needed to establish a sense net, but once again I had to deal with my immediate problems first.

Alarms blared again and my vessel rocked. The dark shapes crashed into it, dozens of triangular serrated blades shredding the flotation material, tearing chunks free and flooding its honeycomb of internal voids.

I aimed and fired again. One of the new shapes was bleeding now as well, but it didn't give up as easily as the first one had. If anything, it seemed to be enraged, gnashing wildly, viciously ripping and tearing.

FLOTATION SYSTEMS INTEGRITY: 34% (CRITICAL)

DEFENSIVE SYSTEMS: EIGHT SHOTS REMAINING

As I fired again and again I quickly came to a conclusion. Further attacks were almost certain, and I wouldn't be able to recharge my weapons or repair my flotation systems until the sun came up. I was going to sink to the bottom of the ocean. My vessel would be subjected to over one thousand bar of pressure. I would die. The Library would be destroyed. I would fail my mission.

No.

This couldn't be how it ended. I had to-- I had to--

FLOTATION SYSTEMS INTEGRITY: 14% (FAILURE)

FLOTATION SYSTEMS INTEGRITY FAILED!

ALTITUDE CONTROL LOST!

I had no choice. I was sinking. My vessel wouldn't stop sinking until it reached the ocean floor.

I had to make the sacrifice.

WARNING! PILOT INTEGRITY: 90%.

If I couldn't reshape my vessel, I had to reshape myself. I had to save the Library. I had virtually no resources left, no energy reserves. So I started feeding myself into the process, altering parts of myself with the hope that the result could survive the incredible pressures. The Library would save me if I could save it.

WARNING: HULL INTEGRITY 83%.

PRESSURE EXCEEDS STRUCTURAL LIMITATIONS!

I silenced the alarm, working frantically as failure messages flooded in and my sensors' data dried up to nothing as I fell into inky darkness.

None of this was ideal. I accessed the Library, grimly pulling out designs for physical forms that could withstand the intense pressure.

WARNING! PILOT INTEGRITY: 85%.

I could feel myself losing-- too much. But I didn't have the time to preserve myself. I only had time to save my body and the Library. Another dark shape rocked my vessel. The flotation system was entirely detached now. I was sinking toward the bottom without anything to slow me down. Coherent thought was becoming difficult.

I had spent so much time reconfiguring my body-- finding a way to survive the pressure-- I hadn't even started converting the Library. There wasn't time. The Library was almost indestructible-- as long as you saved even a tiny piece of it, the rest could be reconstructed, given time-- but there was no time.

PILOT RECONFIGURATION: COMPLETE!

WARNING: LIBRARY INTEGRITY: 84%

I snarled. I wouldn't lose the Library. Not now. Not after all this. I pulled as much of the Library into myself as I could, physically shoving it into my body as the pressure closed in.

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