X. Sunk Cost

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I had almost cracked the problem of tailoring a variant of my virus lure to a flying vertebrate. I performed biochemical simulations based on readings from a single desiccated winged corpse a hunter-cartographer had discovered and retrieved at some risk to itself.

Vertebrates' immune systems were so strange. Their brains were so annoyingly divergent and unique.

I wanted living specimens in sufficient number to properly analyze them. It would only be the work of a few more cycles, then I would send a few sacrificial invertebrates to seek out and infect the feathered, shrieking creatures.

Decoding the chemical pathways of the complex creature was blissfully engrossing. It was the closest thing to conversation I could get right now; I summoned the ghosts of things I had killed, whispered lies in their ears, and watched how they reacted.

I relished every moment of exploration, every thrill of discovery, and reveled in the expansion and synergy of my senses. I was this close to cracking it.

That was when it happened.

A world-shaking explosion rocked my seismic sense. Instantly afterward, shock went through my phage-sense as the ocean rapidly developed a tang of bitter acidity and my hunter-cartographers saw the sky darken.

I redirected all available processing power to analyze the event. The traitor can't have caught up to me yet. The odds of that would be-- My mind raced. The artificial minds raced with it.

Taste began to fade from my mind in widening circles of darkness as the bacteria my phage network relied on died or were crowded out by competing species. Where I could still taste, I tasted iridium in high concentrations.

I put the pieces together. Asteroid impact. A big one. An event large enough to wipe out the majority of the living species on the planet.

Disappointment, frustration, and fascination warred within me. I felt confident then that this wasn't the work of the traitor. No member of my species would intentionally do this, no matter how far gone. Even if the traitor had decided to wipe out this world's life, this isn't how they would go about it.

This was a natural happenstance, it seemed. It was even one I could have predicted with the right information.

I set most of my systems' attention back to recovering the designs for energy generation and storage. The thread of attention that had been exploring the far reaches of the world above sulked as what had been the beginnings of a sensor net based on this world's life quickly became obsolete.

My communications with my hunter-cartographers became unreliable as the biological makeup of the ocean changed; I called back the ones I still could across the crumbling phage network.

All over the world, species were wiped out by the loss of their ancestral environments. With my fading sense of the sea, I detected currents change, temperatures drop, acidity rise, and felt populations dwindle only to be replaced by eagerly mutating contenders speciating into this new version of their world.

I couldn't help but feel bitter. All that work! I had been so close to directed aerial surveys-- at virtually no cost!

Moreover, I had really been enjoying it. It was truthfully only a diversion, but it had been important to me. My people's noblest duties were remembering the past and discovering the unknown.

Now, it seemed that I would have to set aside discovery of the unknown to safeguard the memory of the past.

I half-heartedly ran a few more biochemical simulations, trying to rebuild my phage-sense if by some miracle there was a simple, cheap, obvious way to do so. That hope fizzled quickly; I had a few promising starts, but the chemical language of the ocean shifted too rapidly for me to keep up.

New species kept moving into the newly opened vacancies, and every time they did, they instigated biochemical chain reactions as ecosystems collapsed only to be replaced by new ones popping up in their place. My sly additions to their genetic code were quickly lost as the evolved species churned in the aftermath of the asteroid strike.

I reluctantly gave up on my attempts to suborn this world's life for the time being. I couldn't keep up with this unsettled period in evolutionary history with my existing computational resources. Grudgingly, I changed the focus of my spare thread of attention.

I still needed some sense of what was going on in the world above, if only to detect the telltale signature of Library-based technology. I needed to build a communications channel for my drones independent of this world's biology, too.

That meant I needed improved electromagnetic signaling and signal analysis. I knew those would become available after I had unlocked energy production and storage. In the meantime, I earmarked resources for production of signaling devices and scanners.

Constructor arms broke down and processed the hunter-cartographers that returned, sorting their components into various processing units for recovery and recycling.

I turned my attention to the smooth surfaces of the excavator where it waited beneath the stone of the ocean floor. There were a number of voids within it. Among other things, the power and communications systems would soon be fitted into that waiting emptiness.

While I didn't yet have the precise designs for the technologies that would fill those voids, in the tradition of the Library they were organized in well-established, self-referential patterns that allowed for the construction of compatible interlocking designs even before the designs of all the other interlocking elements were fully recovered. Well-defined interfaces made these technologies modular and easy to compose.

More of my infrastructure was now integrated into the waiting form of the excavator, and I took an active part in moving that process along, repurposing chemical reactors that had been feeding my phage-sense.

I had already moved the computational organs into the armored central bulb. The modular organic design of the excavator dwarfed the original base I had built. As it consumed resources, I would be able to expand its capabilities and upgrade the thinking meat that contained everything I held dear. I would be able to modify it on the fly as needed. It would survive on any part of this world. No living thing could damage it.

One last time, I cast my attention to the bewildering cacophony of the biosphere's mad rush, but it only confirmed my earlier hypothesis. The biosphere would oscillate toward an equilibrium eventually.

If not, I would eventually have the spare computational capacity to resume the joyful task of analyzing it. In either case, at this juncture my attention was most productively spent completing the recovery of the designs for my excavator's power source.

I let time slip past, wondering idly what surprises the aftermath of the extinction event would bring. After everything I had seen so far, I doubted anything could manage to shock me.







X96:RW3:TAN:5MO 7.1e12 HF HASHES

2IW:2YT:A3Z:00S 6.2e13 HF HASHES



I set about assembling prepared modular components. Constructor arms filled chambers within the excavator with various products of the unlocked design. Etched metals, coiled tubes, and bubbling liquids all came together, lifted by delicate fingers and locked into carefully-measured configurations with epoxies or magnetic fields.

Several forms of energy generation were now easily available, but far more important was the advanced energy storage. Chambers throughout the excavator were slowly filled with stored energy in various forms.

The largest was a chamber full of liquid stored at a very high pressure. The molecules assembled and stored in that chamber formed chains that would twist together or rip themselves apart depending on the conditions set within the chamber.

Those reactions could store or release energy, or convert it into purpose-specific fuels.

One at a time, eight enormous arms twitched in the tunnels that had housed them in preparation for this moment. Constructor arms sealed compartments shut and detached now-useless hoses and scaffolding. As the external refineries shut down, new internal replacements hummed to life, their contents sloshing in the ponderously moving form of the massive excavator.

I put myself in direct control and felt the sensations of the excavator's arms tingling with fresh responsiveness.

I reached up with one enormous arm and pushed aside the stone ceiling. With another, I scooped up leftover equipment and abandoned constructor arms, and swept them into the maw of the excavator. Chewing and swallowing the first base of operations, the excavator dug its way out of the stone of the seabed and pushed itself with increasingly confident motions toward the waiting ocean trench. All around it, superheated water and boiling soot arose as the plumbing that had contained the hydrothermal vent was destroyed.

The first of the unlocked recoverable nodes, X96:RW3:TAN:5MO, provided a modest improvement to computational power at the cost of increased power consumption. The excavator already required a lot of energy to function, but it would feast soon enough, so I cracked the low-hanging-fruit almost as soon as I considered it. I applied the improvements to my processing power shortly afterward, and felt my mind grow a little sharper and clearer.

It was both relief and annoyance to increase my mental capacity. I itched to go back to my investigations of the biosphere, but I had more important things to focus on first.

Unlocking the computational upgrade made another node with a similar upgrade immediately available at a significantly steeper cost. I would pursue every computational upgrade available before beginning recovery of the payload, but I considered the other available upgrades.

2IW:2YT:A3Z:00S would provide for signals analysis and broadcasting. It wouldn't do me too much good where I was heading next, but I would need it before I let too much time slip past. I resolved to pursue it as I obtained relevant materials.

It seemed that IA3:AOG:EKJ:2K1 mostly related to predicting stellar atmospheric patterns. An interesting and worthy piece of knowledge, but not one that would immediately further the mission.

Finally, requiring the most hashes to begin recovering, was a node that sent chills of painful joy through me to see.




The payload. I felt a sting at how far away it was. It contained the crystallized minds of those who had gone before: the complete experience of my people. Soon.

The excavator continued to descend. My seismic network had pointed me to the first location I wanted to harvest. Lithium. Sodium. Beryllium. Aluminum. Uranium. The excavator slammed into the side of the ocean trench, and the maw of the excavator pressed into the stone and began chewing, spewing caustic sludge onto the crumbling rocks and minerals before scooping it up and repeating the process. The excavator chewed its way into the earth, visiting deposit after deposit and consuming vast quantities of ore and stone.

Slowly, the available energy for computation began to rise. Occasionally, I needed to emerge from the seabed and deploy massive heat-dispersing stalks into the waters of the hadal zone.

Several times I paused excavation entirely to take samples of the things I found in this completely anaerobic and lightless environment.





The powerful eight-legged form ripped its way out of the surface of the seabed, surprising a large school of fish that immediately scattered. It launched discs of a black substance out of its body that embedded themselves in the stone of the seabed.

Good. The early-warning system ought to let me know if any Library-based technology entered orbit. I would check back in with it regularly.

I turned the excavator and it pulled itself below the surface again. I had many more upgrades to pursue before I would make any real progress on the payload, but I was glad to have begun.




There was still so long to go. Luckily, the perception of time is subjective.

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