IV. Chesterton's Fence

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I considered my form. I had idly added a number of small features like the additional eyes and the occasional more-efficient metabolic pathway, as well as making a number of small adjustments to reclaim resources from seemingly-vestigial redundancies, reabsorbing three of the creature's eight arms and a number of glands, like the ones that created the viscous layer of material that had coated the outside of the original organism or the glands that created the dark ink. These mechanisms would almost certainly come in useful for something eventually, but since I was in the process of determining where to establish an initial base of operations, I threw my limited resources into perception and processing.

I eyed the floating shapes pulsing faintly above, turning part of my attention to my mental model of the octopod creature whose form I now wore. I had retained the precise cell-for-cell mapping of its primary computational organ. Its evolved instinctive behaviors and fuzzily imprecise memory model were less straightforward to interrogate with the limited computing power I currently had than I had originally projected. Some information had been easy to deduce, but increasingly the mechanisms and rationale of the alien mental architecture eluded me. Luckily, it was a simple matter to pipe my own perceptions into the simulation to see how it would react.

The octopod ghost in my mind imagined itself to be swimming eagerly toward the pink translucent creatures, gripping them easily with suckered arms and bringing them delicately to its beak to feast on the insubstantial treat. The large, dark shapes I saw flickering in the distance to the northeast didn't so much as faze the ghost; it exuded a wariness of them, but that didn't stop it from imagining itself happily snacking away.

Satisfied that this was an opportunity to acquire a stockpile of calories and perhaps a few new biochemical innovations, I directed my five-legged body to move directly toward the creatures. They moved just the way the ghost in my mind had imagined, pulsing lightly, not reacting to my approach. I closed with the translucent pink creature closest to me and wrapped all five arms around it to bring it into my beak.

Shock. Something was wrong-- something was instantly horribly wrong. Everywhere the skin of my body touched the creature, nerve endings screamed. Musculature spasmed violently and I lost control of my position, my body falling away as I struggled to reassert control over my limbs. Half my eyes were sending useless information. How annoying! I wasn't in any immediate danger-- my computational organs, my constructor cells, and the fragments of the Library I carried were all carried deep within my bulbous mass-- but this wasn't at all what my body's previous owner had imagined would happen!

I analyzed the surface of my skin and annoyance gave way to fascination. Strips of the translucent creature's flesh still clung to my skin, and as I peered at the cells I saw the thousands of microscopic injectors that had fired their toxic payload into me.

The viscous ooze that had coated my skin. I had reclaimed those glands, seeing no need for the strange substance. Without it, these tiny injectors were free to attack. I found that my eyes themselves weren't terribly damaged, but the musculature that controlled their positioning and focus needed to be cleaned and repaired from the inside out.

I painstakingly reconstructed, testing my movement as I purged the neurotoxins and rebuilt damaged nerve tissues. My body jerked and twitched as I prioritized the resource expenditure with a mental sigh. With one good leg, I dragged myself in a circle on the ocean floor so that three good eyes could survey the dark waters.

There was a shriek of alarm from the ghost and I froze, mirroring its instinctive movement. Until I could properly experiment, I had no intention of making any more risky divergences from the evolved behaviors and mechanisms of my host.

The ghost had spotted the dark shapes from earlier. They were drawing closer, now-- moving directly toward me.

My annoyance now changed phase to concern. The dark shapes hadn't seemed to take any interest in me before now-- but now my mobility was hindered, and my jerky motions might have betrayed that to the oncoming predators. I let out a mental moan as the ghost imagined itself readying its ink glands-- one more strange thing I'd reclaimed until later. It wouldn't have mattered if I could just swim away; even if it gave chase I could just construct some kind of countermeasures, like the ink. In my current state I would not outrun it, however, and while I thought I could possibly survive the digestive system of a predator, I couldn't guarantee I'd be in any state to save the Library.

Wrath bubbled up as I berated myself for the changes I'd made. Working with the designs of evolved creatures was NOT like working on materials from the Library! Library designs were exquisitely annotated; everything had a reason and every reason was explicit. But these horrible, incredible, nonsensical creatures were outplaying me without the benefit of the Library!

This was their home turf. They had simply adapted for this environment and I had not. The world spun around me as the dark shapes drew larger and larger in my blurred vision. For the entire length of my memory, I had trusted to the Library above all else. Now, I could access only fragments of it, with only the appropriated and infuriatingly opaque instinct behaviors of a ghost to guide me.

Grimly, I anchored myself to the seabed and rushed to construct a rudimentary defense. The predator was almost on top of me; I didn't have time to analyze and reproduce the neurotoxin, and I didn't have the calcium to make any kind of spike or tooth that would do much good in defending me against something that large. Instead, I pulled as much of the tissue of the stinging creature as I could into a single mass in my body, pushing it up into a blister that formed on my skin nearest the oncoming dark shapes. I didn't have time to rebuild the ink gland, but I still had a small amount of the inky substance stored in my body for future analysis, and pushed it into the blister as well. I furiously grabbed for the peptides and proteins I had readily available, feeding their tastes to the ghost and putting anything it disliked fervently enough into the blister.

A dark, blurred shape drew to within a meter of me and the blister thinned as it bulged grotesquely. Resolute, I prepared to burst the blister at the creature at the last moment, hoping the cocktail it contained might make the creature leave, or at least confuse or distract it enough for me to escape. The creature was half a meter away--

Then a hypersonic scream pierced the waters from behind me, an eerie keening vibration that started at the highest frequencies I had yet detected on this planet before swooping down into a powerful, bassy rumble that caused the grit around me to jump in sympathy. The ghost in my head thrashed around, gripped in pure atavistic terror to a degree the approaching shape had not provoked. Flee. Hide. Cower. Freeze.

The shape in front of me hesitated for a moment before turning around and jetting away the direction it had come. I considered for only an instant then lurched after it, moving toward the nearest of the ridges, searching for a crevice to tuck myself into as chattering shrills and the telltale clicks of echolocation loomed from behind me.

The piercing, swooping sound came again, far louder this time, then echoed immediately from another direction. With the still-not-fully-recovered eyes in the back of my head, I could see something glinting in the darkness. Something much larger than any creature I had seen so far on this planet. With the three good eyes in the front of my head, I spotted an opening just large enough for my body and quickly pulled myself into it.

I pulled myself away from the opening and turned my good eyes to watch. Two large shapes cut through the water, moving decisively. They moved toward the transparent creatures and scarcely even slowed as they consumed the bulk of them in passing. They continued on in pursuit of the predator that had attempted to take advantage of my damaged state, their keening calls slowly fading as they moved out of range of my perception.

I let the blister form into a cyst and pulled it deeper into myself, thickening my skin. That was too close. Again! I needed to stop having these near misses, but this world was dangerous and I needed resources to survive and rebuild. I had no choice but to explore while trusting in the instincts of dead creatures that couldn't explain their reasoning.

I couldn't help but feel some awe for the genuine mystery this environment presented. I just wished it was only my life and not the fate of my people at stake.

I gingerly picked my way toward the source of sulfur and sulfides. I'd reclaimed all but four of the eye structures I'd built as well as another of my legs in order to repair nerves and musculature. I kept the cyst full of toxins ready to deploy, just in case.

Along the way, I regularly consulted the octopod ghost, letting it guide me to find a few small, calorie-rich creatures with unremarkable nerve tissues and respectable tissue regeneration capabilities, some long, narrow, and mostly featureless, and others with five short legs and pleasing radial symmetry. Once I had established my base, I would definitely perform a resource acquisition sweep to obtain all of these.

As I drew closer, I found something else that improved my mood considerably: polymetallic nodules that tasted of cobalt, nickel, copper, and manganese! These would jump-start a variety of useful designs-- once, of course, I'd recovered enough of the Library to access them.

I had dedicated relatively little attention to the geology of this environment, focused as I had been on surviving and rebuilding my biomass and computational power to begin recovering the Library. I took additional samples now as I moved, and found that I had completely mistaken an entire class of seabed features. Some of the strangely-shaped mineral deposits were in fact calcium carbonate biocomposites created by colonies of invertebrate creatures.

I felt satisfaction at the thought of the harvest to come. The biocomposites would be excellent raw material to begin building more permanent structures. The base I would build would allow me to begin working in the kinds of timeframes my people were more comfortable with; I could spend as long as needed to recover designs from my Library fragments or wait for automated processes to harvest resources and deploy infrastructure. Indeed, the flurry of activity I had been engaged in since I had been awoken by my alarms during landing was the most concentrated bout of conscious activity I had undertaken in a dozen spins.

I didn't tire, not the way the ghost remembered tiring after exerting itself. However, I did look forward to resuming the operation at a more appropriately sedate pace. I just had to safeguard the Library first.

I crested a ridge and emitted a flicker of bioluminescence to light the valley before me. The brief flash revealed a plain of gently swaying stalks and countless small pale crustaceoforms clustered around a lumpy stone pillar, the top of which emitted a thick, opaque haze into the water. A ripple of excitement ran through me and my arms curled in anticipation. I didn't have any sensory organs for detecting infrared at the moment, but if I did, I knew that I'd see a massive plume of rising heat.

I shot toward the plume. Finally! Power. Resources. Time.

The Library awaited me.

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