III. Doors of Perception

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I had more than enough biomass now to bud off multiple probes. I wanted to nail down their design before I invested too heavily in them, but I budded two probes to fill out my picture of my surroundings more thoroughly while I set about hunting the exoskeleton creatures. It was extremely crude, but it was the first step toward building a complete sensor net. Rather than have them return to rendezvous with me directly, I directed them to create excretions I could later locate. The excretions would contain high-density information encodings that I could parse into my growing mental map.

Creatures on this world excreted quite a lot. Certain glandular secretions had purposes I had yet to divine, but it seemed that the most common metabolic processes simply created enormous amounts of waste which was then flushed into the environment.

It was extremely strange to imagine such creatures, but every one of them I had consumed thus far seemed built to process calories from diverse inefficient sources and dump waste. It certainly wasn't the sort of design you'd find in the Library.

The fact that this digestive model was so commonplace, however, meant that it was very straightforward to suborn and expand on the existing mechanism. By tasting the water I could find my scouts' spoor trails and obtain their mapping data deposits. Even if the scouts themselves were lost, I'd be able to recover their experiences in time.

My small, but now much more capable probes disappeared in opposite directions. I didn't send either of them toward the Northwest Cave. I would investigate the death of my first probe later. For now, it was time to eat the exoskeleton creatures.

I found the exoskeleton creatures a few dozen meters from where my probe had seen them. With the nine varieties of eyes I had added to my new form, I could distinguish a much larger population of them than I had expected. They seemed to be digging in the silt for something; I made a note to investigate and secure their food source after I had consumed the creatures themselves.

Slowly, cautiously, I sidled around the group of them, trying to find an isolated individual to ambush and snare. To my dismay, however, before I could even get close, the mass of creatures suddenly burst into motion, fleeing directly away from me!

What had given me away? Did the exoskeleton creatures have better vision than was implied by their smaller eyes? Had they detected a chemical signature from my new body?

Despondent, I ran the tips of my arms through the silt where the creatures had been foraging. I'd have to change my strategy.

As I ran the fine, sensitive tips of my sucker-lined arms through the silt, I noticed a number of small nodules. Were these the food source the creatures had been consuming? I ingested one and swiftly began analyzing it.

I paused as I considered the analysis of the nodule. It seemed to contain more of the high-information-density molecules I had discovered in the creatures of this world, as well as some high-energy-density padding. Curious. A means of information transfer? There was so much I needed to learn about this world. I found more of the nodules as I searched, and ate them as I found them.

My thoughts strayed to the creature with the bioluminescent lure, and an idea began to form in my mind.

Later, I detected the taste of my scouts' excretions faintly in the currents. I couldn't get a full picture just from that taste, but it assured me that their designs were functioning as intended and that I'd be able to recover their activity logs at my leisure.

I swiveled the one eye I kept above the silt, watching for the return of the exoskeleton creatures.

There. A flicker of movement over a nearby hill, and I could see the long-legged chitinous thing stalking in my direction. It moved with purpose, scuttling swiftly toward the prey it sensed bobbing along the ocean floor.

Small bioluminescent worms danced wildly in the silt. I kept still, watching carefully, as the pale, long-legged thing stalked closer still. I waited for the perfect moment, and then as the creature's pincers closed on the little wiggling shape extending from the loose silt, I struck.

My arms surged from underneath the layer of silt that covered them; the glow worm was revealed to be a new feature I had added to one of my arms. In a flash, I had enfolded the chitinous thing, even as it chittered and violently tried to escape.

Its efforts were to no avail. I had encircled it and my powerful sucker-lined arms attached themselves inexorably to the creature's hard shell. It was a simple matter to position my body and arms so that it could not reach me with its pincers, and then I bit down.

The shell was tough, no doubt about it. By comparison with the nanomaterials I could build with a functioning Library, it was pitiful, but here, with what resources I had, the crustaceoform was revelatory.

Armor. Sight. Mobility. Biomass. Location data. I had acquired the rudiments of what I needed to establish a base of operations. As exciting as it had been to risk my physical form and the last remaining copy of the Library in the universe, I looked forward to properly protecting myself and establishing a safely remote-managed operation.

I set out to gather my scouts' scattered reports. I could build traps to gather the rest of the crustaceoforms later. I would process and repurpose their chitinous exoskeletons into layers of armor for my new dwelling.

A new base of operations. The ocean floor is not where I would have chosen to build it. The impracticality and danger would make it a reprehensibly irresponsible first choice, but circumstance had placed me here, at the center of a bustling, living mystery with the least of my people's tools to untangle it and keep myself alive. For that, I needed someplace to keep myself and the Library safe.

But before I could choose the best nearby location, I needed at least some context about my surroundings. To that end, I found the first deposit waiting for me and scooped it up to my beak.

The information flooded into my mind. This scout hadn't discovered much of interest: a few massive but barely-discernible shapes moving in the distance, a few more caves and hills. I noted, however, that the average chemical composition my scout had tasted during its circuit seemed lower in sulfur and sulfides than I had been detecting while hunting. Curious-- I would have to compare it with the readings from the other scout.

I turned around the direction I had come, and swam for the area my other scout was responsible for. I wondered about those massive shapes my scout had seen. How large could the creatures here get? The square-cube law would prevent them from getting too big at some point, but down here, buoyant bodies would be built to withstand pressure, not gravity. I vaguely recalled-- it stung that vague recollection was the best I had for now-- that the Library's designs for buoyant conditions could get quite a bit larger than land-based designs. In fact, that was one of the reasons why a water-rich planet was so desirable for this stage of the mission. It had never occurred to me that other living things would already have taken advantage of that fact.

I scanned with my array of eyes as I passed by the plain where the crustaceoforms foraged. I could see one or two returning, although they were giving a wide berth to the area where I had consumed one of their brethren. I had to assume they could still taste its blood in the water. That raised an interesting question-- could larger creatures actually be stealthier by virtue of being able to consume their prey in a single bite? I would have to do extensive analysis and planning around the chemistry of deepwater counterintelligence.

I still hadn't spotted another creature like the one whose form I had appropriated, but I relentlessly analyzed my visual inputs trying to find another one. The things were large, fleshy, and useful. Considering my current biology more closely, a thought occurred to me.

The other creatures wearing this form would use the same metabolic pathways. Their membranes would be identical to the one I'd invaded. If I could design a chemical payload that would interact with that same biology, I could send a biological ping and set my scouts to scan for replies. A similar chemical communications pathway would be standard procedure for my scouts' communications network, but I could actually use it as an entry point to discover and exploit other creatures!

The idea was intensely exciting-- but with my current computational capabilities, it wasn't yet practical. If I could have accessed the Library, it would have been a simple matter. I resolved to explore the possibilities of chemically suborning the biosphere once I had increased my processing power by a few orders of magnitude.

I crested a hill and tasted the bright tang of my second scout's spoor. I homed in on it in moments and was soon reviewing its findings.

The first thing I noticed was the sulfur and sulfide concentrations. They were much higher in the area this scout had surveyed. With the cumulative data from the two scouts and my own analysis of the currents, I was able to triangulate the source of the sulfur and sulfides to within a few meters. It was less than a kilometer away and merited investigation-- I had plenty of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen readily available, but more elements meant more nanomaterials I could construct, and whatever process was releasing it-- likely a geological process rather than a biological one-- had strong potential as an energy source.

I would have set off in that direction immediately, but another of my scout's remembered observations gave me pause. Large, colorful, transparent shapes with long streamers dangling behind. Beautiful. It reminded me of home.

The simplicity of the creature made it beguiling. What did they eat? They clearly conserved energy splendidly-- their movements were hauntingly efficient. Their radial symmetry spoke to a redundant design that would have been appropriate for the Library.

I turned away from the sulfur source and toward the area where my scout had seen the beautiful transparent creatures. I just had to get a sample of its biology before settling in to construct my base.

It didn't take me long to come to the series of ridges my scout had seen. I glanced around and quickly spotted the ethereal creatures hanging over the southmost of them.

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