II. Into an Abyss

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I awoke in darkness. I lay on the floor of an alien ocean, surrounded by unknown creatures, deaf and blind, almost all my tools destroyed, imagining the chemically-stored data of the Library, my ship's systems, and my old body leaking out into the depths to dissipate and be lost.

I silently cheered. It had worked! I was alive and I had saved the Library-- as long as I had some of it, I could reconstruct the rest eventually from the holographic encoding and fractal storage of even a fragment. I could still complete my mission. I shivered.

Strange, to have a body now that could shiver. Strange, to be at the mercy of autonomic responses. Strange, to be without my vessel's comforting sense and defense technologies, to be bereft from the reassuring guidance of the Library. It was an alien sensation.

I found a crevice, pulled myself into it, and immediately began to calcify the exposed part of my body. I had had enough surprises on this world. Before proceeding, I needed to get a good look around, and I wasn't going to risk my proverbial neck doing it.

I tasted the hole I sat in, and felt a flicker of agitation at the chemical composition that taste implied. There was very little here to work with. Worse, I couldn't check the Library to see if I could make anything out of the materials at hand.

I had taste and physical sensation as sensory capabilities. I needed much more, but I'd need to start with what I had.

Slowly, using as little energy as possible, I grew a few nerve-packed tendrils and extended them. I could feel the currents of the ocean; over time, I could get a sense of the tidal forces exerted by this planet's satellite. If I'd had access to the Library, I could have launched into a dizzying series of inferences from that data alone.

But I didn't have the Library yet. The small, dormant chunk I held would be almost useless to me until I could construct sufficiently sophisticated computational resources. To construct those computational resources, I needed to rebuild my own knowledge. I needed to learn.

To learn more, I needed a sense net. To make the sense net, I needed materials. To find the materials, I needed a sense net. Frustrating.

I waited to see if I would feel the telltale currents of anything passing near my hiding spot. Time passed-- enough that if I'd still been buoyant, I could have been charging systems with solar power. But the bulk of the electromagnetic energy of the planet's primary star didn't penetrate this far down.

The creatures that had attacked me at the surface likely weren't adapted to follow down into the crushing pressures of the ocean floor, and if there were more creatures nearby, they hadn't sensed me or didn't have any interest in me.

I conserved energy for a while, pondering what I could remember of the metabolic mechanisms I'd most recently pulled from the Library. If I sacrificed a quarter of my mass, I could create an autonomous probe modeled after my current form.

Grimly, I set about budding the probe. I didn't like it, but I didn't have a choice. It was this or wait to starve to death.

I sent the mental commands to my medical systems and the new probe swelled on the surface of my body, slowly taking shape. Rudimentary sensory appendages loaded up with lots of nerve endings appeared: feelers, antennae, and whiskers. Musculature. A bundle of control tissues that I would imbue with simple instructions.

Scout. Observe. Return. Report. I whispered these things into the tiny mind of my newborn child and released it from my body.

It disappeared from my perception, and I waited.

The first scout made three expeditions before it failed to return within the time allotted. My mental image of my surroundings had expanded in that time; I knew the locations of nearby ridges, a dropoff into a trench of unknown depth, and several caves.

Since my probe hadn't returned, I also knew which direction was likely most dangerous. The cave system to the northwest was at the bottom of my priority list until I could defend myself properly against the local fauna.

Local fauna. The idea still boggled my mind. After surveying the entire galaxy for desirable planets, my people had never discovered another planet on which life had independently evolved. The Library's wealth of chemically-encoded information would allow any one of my people to take on forms capable of surviving deep space, the heart of a gas giant, and everything in between, but never before had one of my people needed to do that in an adversarial environment. Not against an alien enemy. Only one of our own had ever seriously threatened us. Only the traitor.

My second scout took half my remaining biomass to create. I was smaller and more vulnerable than I had been in half a spin. I was out of time. I needed resources.

My second scout returned the seventh time to announce it had discovered a population of creatures. I pulled its biomass back into myself and considered its observations as I digested it.

The creatures moved fast, like the ones that had attacked my vessel on the surface. They appeared to be armored as well, but unlike the more ovoid appearance of the first swimming creature from above, these creatures had chitinous exoskeletons, moved with six non-retractable appendages, and defended themselves and manipulated their environments with two more non-retractable appendages with sharp pincers. They also weren't like the other creatures that had attacked, which had a smooth, efficient swimming shape and dozens of serrated teeth. These creatures on the floor of the abyssal plain were smaller and moved more slowly, but their long, long legs gave them a lot of reach.

I considered my options. If I had access to the Library and sufficient calories, I'd simply reconfigure myself and eat them. However, the full Library would not be available to me until I could reconstruct it, so any physical changes would have to be of my own design. Untested. Risky. And I simply didn't have the calories to gamble.

I could observe the creatures' habits, determine their food sources, and attempt to secure those food sources for myself. That would put me in direct competition with them, however, and in my current form they could rip me to shreds with those pincers.

If these creatures truly evolved here independently of the Library, they'd be well adapted to this environment. They'd have features I could observe and replicate. Traits that could keep me alive long enough to establish infrastructure and complete my mission.

Slowly, I started to slide out of the hole I'd hidden myself in. I moved carefully along the ridge, all of my attention on the currents around me. If I lost my footing, I could be swept over the edge and fall down into the deep crevasse below. My form had been designed to withstand the pressure of this abyssal plain, but I did not want to test it against the unknown depths of an ocean trench.

I was still a good distance from the area where my probe had observed the segmented hard-shelled creatures. I planned to get close enough to observe and possibly attempt capture, if I could find one small enough to easily subdue. In preparation, I started forming a calcified spike and musculature to deploy and retract it. It likely wouldn't pierce the exoskeleton of the creatures, but I might be able to slide it between cracks in their segmented armor.

I tasted the floor with each step as I proceeded. I had seriously underestimated the diversity of microscopic life; my first nine probe reports had turned up little in the way of any kind of life, macroscopic or micro. As I proceeded in the direction of the colony of creatures, though, I tasted new and strange bacteria on the ocean currents. Some of the microscopic creatures were even more strangely complex-- multicellular-- and as I considered whether this might be an early life stage of one of the forms of macroscopic life I had observed, a lightning-fast movement flickered at the edge of the crevasse and I felt a muscular appendage wrap itself around my long, soft body.

Panic. I immediately began thrashing, struggling to free my form from the trap before my attacker could begin tearing at my soft flesh. My efforts availed me nothing, and I felt myself pulled bodily off the ocean ledge. The flexible appendage held me in place with powerful suction cups as it pulled me toward the larger bulk of its body.

At the same time, I reached out with my dozens of small feeler appendages, trying to get a sense of the shape that held me. There were more of the appendages, connected to each other by a flexible skirt of flesh, all connected to a kind of central bulb.

The thing pulled me closer, against and under and into itself. I felt a sharp pain, and realized there were dual cutting edges buried in the central bulb, now slicing into my body as it began to consume me. I pulled the mass of my body away from the biting mouth as best I could, but the powerful appendages surrounded me, holding me tight.

I stabbed out with the spike, aiming for the center of the fleshy bulb. Immediately, my attacker began thrashing, releasing fluids into the surrounding waters.

When I had attacked a creature on the surface, it had released fluids into the water too. Shortly thereafter, more creatures had appeared. Was the fluid used to communicate with other creatures somehow? I couldn't take that chance. I needed to act quickly.

As the creature holding me struggled to subdue me, I stabbed again then sent a pseudopod into the opening I had created. And there I was, inside an alien creature that had evolved independently of the Library.

I was dazzled by what I tasted. There were dozens of compounds I could not recall from my memories of the Library. Sensory apparatus adapted for the conditions of the abyssal plain. Sophisticated and redundant centralized neural circuitry.

The feedback and control mechanisms for the limbs were more elegant than I could have imagined. This had evolved? Without any intervention? Incredible.

The creature bit me again, but I could only muster mild annoyance now. I fed more of my body into its body, emitting enzymes to break down its neural tissue even as I continued to catalog the wonders of its biology. In many ways, this was better than I could have hoped for despite the lack of armor. Armor was expensive and time-consuming to grow, after all; this creature's capabilities would dovetail nicely with my own neural organization schema and its mobility and manipulation capabilities were much more advanced than the creatures my probe had found.

Many of these innovations would make a fine addition to the Library once I reconstructed it. I made a snap decision, and as the creature's twitches slowed and stopped, I pulled the rest of my body into it and began rewiring the nerve pathways.

I still didn't know what some of the glandular secretions were for, but I hypothesized some of them were used for communication, perhaps warning or mating signals. I luxuriously rolled the eight appendages, experimenting with the suckers, and began trying to swim.

Locomotion with this new modality and no Library was going to take a while to work out. But these fleshy, powerful arms with suction cups? Them, I liked.

Analyzing the creature's tissues in earnest, I found myself simultaneously dismayed and delighted. The eight-legged, soft-bodied creature whose body I had commandeered didn't have much in the way of calorie or calcium stores. I pulled the fat deposits into myself anyway, and upon consideration, began slowly pulling three of the eight arms into my new body as well, converting them into additional energy stores.

I examined the creature's memories. After eating its neural tissues, it hadn't taken me long to decode its memory system, even without the Library. I could see its hunting patterns, and got a rough idea of where the more dangerous creatures were. There were a lot of heavily encoded instinct behaviors that I decided to shelve for now until I could more thoroughly analyze them. I still didn't understand the purposes of some of its glands, like the one that clouded the water when it felt threatened.

For all that, this was a very good design. The wickedly sharp beak was capable of powerful shearing force, and the sucker-bedecked, multiply-redundant arms would give me advantages to mobility and manipulation.

I felt a strange sense of bemusement as I set about the work of hunting for food. This was far more movement than I had imagined my primary physical form would take so soon after landing, but without the sun as a ready energy source, I didn't have a choice. Not until I'd obtained sufficient mass and built a proper sensor net.

I saw a flicker of motion and dove for a small segmented creature with large eyes and many small legs. With my new form, I easily swooped down onto it, plucked it from the ocean floor, and fed it into the sharp cutting beak.

More information flooded into my mind as I pulled this new creature apart. More ingenious chemical encodings. More strange instinctive behaviors.

But most importantly? Calories. I saw more of the creatures scuttling into crevices and whipped my new arms around to capture them before they could get away.

I gorged myself. I had to start reconfiguring my new body to make room, building energy stores and occasionally implementing a clever metabolic pathway when I ate a creature with a good one. Soon, I had swept this area clean of the crawling creatures. There was more variety than I could have ever hoped for. The Library would swell enormously with the addition of this information-- perhaps even an entire tenth of a percent increase in volume, once it had all been assimilated.

I didn't know how this world had come about, how it had obtained its staggering cornucopia of biodiversity. That didn't stop me from madly plagiarizing every fantastic idea I came across. Larger electromagnetic sensory apertures to gather the few stray photons that penetrated the inky depths. Astonishingly, oxygen-based metabolism-- the same corrosive gas that had threatened me upon my arrival to this world! And, providing some additional explanation for the photosensory structures some creatures had despite the scarcity of solar illumination, bioluminescence.

That last would have ended the story if I'd run into it before upgrading my body. Luckily, I hadn't had eyes before upgrading my body, and neither had my probes. A small, flickering bead bounced through the darkness; it drew my attention instantly, and I swept forward through the water to snag, eat, and analyze the strange thing.

As I drew closer, I could see through my new eyes how the small bead of luminescence was actually attached to the large, still shape behind it. Using some image processing methods I'd appropriated from the brains of my prey, I was able to discern the eyes and sharp teeth of the creature laying in wait. Luckily, I was large enough and fast enough to easily wrap my new arms around it and kill it in three or four bites.

My form had changed significantly since I appropriated it. My defenses were stronger, I was faster, and I had built a small cache of data and inferences to take the place of the Library until I could restore it.

After consuming the last of the remains of the unlucky lurking predator, I set off to find the colony of exoskeleton creatures. After I had consumed them, I would see about establishing a base of operations and constructing my sensor net.

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