VII. As Above...

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They were nothing like I had expected. They didn't use gills to separate oxygen from the water; they must have returned to the surface regularly to fill their membranous oxygen sacs with air. The endoskeleton scaled to the creatures' considerable size in a way my harvesters' exoskeletons would not. Their bones held surprises from the composition of the marrow to the structures supporting the creatures' visual and auditory sensory organs. Their fat deposits and tough skin made for practical, flexible armor.

And the glands. So many glands. I set several aside to sort through later.

I was severely disappointed with the echolocation capabilities I gleaned from the reptilian specimens. I had hoped to augment mapping and sensory capabilities for my probes.

I summoned a ghost, a mental recreation of one of the swimming reptiles, perceiving itself to be prowling in its hunting grounds. It seemed to rely on its enormous eyes to distinguish its surroundings.

When it spotted movement, it emitted its harsh clicks, and used a combination of visual and auditory sensation to pinpoint and consume its hapless prey.

Their echolocation methods were weak and purpose-specific to hunting. More of the ghost's brain was devoted to recognizing and analyzing the calls of its fellow members of the species than getting a sense for its surroundings based on vibrational signal processing.

Interestingly, as I contrasted the brains of the three specimens, I noticed differences in their interpretations of the sensory data I fed them. Their physical forms weren't highly adapted for echolocation, but it seemed this was... a learned practice?

Fascinating. My harvesters twitched in anticipation as they assembled and processed biological and non-biological resources, clearing a workspace within reach of my external arms.

I reached out with two of the newly-armored arms anchored outside the rough sphere of my shelter and activated constructor cells at the tips of the large arms.

Tendrils began knitting new flesh. I carefully wove together control tissues, carbon-composite bone and teeth, sensory structures, and two grasping arms that could fold flat into the armored body.

I kept the diving reptiles' adaptations for deep diving, like the modifications to their eyes. The muscle and bone of the large sclerotic ring supported the shape of the eyes, compensating for the incredible pressure differential between the creatures' hunting grounds on the ocean floor and their social habitat in higher waters.

The new probes had more than the two eyes of the reptiles' original body plan; while I didn't yet understand all the "design decisions" evolution had made, some were clear, especially those centered around resource constraints. I could make decisions about resource expenditure that evolution never would, and it made it easy to decide when to add eyes or manipulatory appendages.

I wanted them to find and bring me back the rest of the swimming reptiles, or at least their brains. By comparing the differences in their neural structures across a wide enough age cohort, I might be able to improve my best approximation of sonar until it could be used effectively for mapping.

I was confident that the hunter-cartographer would be highly effective at obtaining these specimens in particular. Each would carry a composite ghost: a modified, resource-light pastiche of the reptilian predators' neural patterns. My hunters would listen for the noisy calls, track them down, and retrieve fresh brains for me to analyze.

Four enormous eyes, long grasping claws that could fold back for speed, needle-sharp teeth harder and more permanent than any other teeth in the sea, and a tongue packed with utility and defense mechanisms.

It was beautiful, in a less-than-elegant way. I hadn't wanted to significantly reengineer the respiration system-- it would still need to return to the surface regularly for oxygen-- but I increased the oxygen capacity of its blood cells and manually oxygenated its blood during its construction. The appropriated metabolic pathways would do for now. I still had significant reconstruction to accomplish before I could build energy cells worthy of the mass excavator I intended to build.

Satisfied with my hunter-cartographer prototype, I detached the umbilical constructor limbs and it began swimming to higher waters with purpose.

The ichthyosaurs didn't hunt at night. They didn't sleep, either-- even these armored creatures were not without their own predators, and sleeping in the open waters was a good way to get eaten.

The group of creatures swam together restfully, conserving energy but retaining a level of consciousness. They didn't dive this late, and apart from their missing numbers, they had been gathered since before sundown.

It was unusual, then, for the group of swimming reptiles to hear the sounds of their trilling call rising from the deeps under a starry sky. Several of the younger creatures hooted back enthusiastically, anticipating the return of their strangely absent companions.

The call came back to them, the response clear and easily recognizable, but a few of the ichthyosaurs noticed something subtly strange about the sound, and they made low sounds of uncertainty.

A single shape approached in the dark water, moving with certainty and accelerating rather than slowing, to the ichthyosaurs' surprise and building alarm.

The elder who had fled the thermal vent earlier that day sent out the warning call first. The elder turned, not waiting for the confused juveniles. She swam as fast as she could, calling out for the others to follow. They did not.

After swimming a distance, the elder turned back, calling out with quiet hoots. Screams came out in response-- screams of shock, then rage. The elder slowed as the screams stopped, one after another. She tasted blood in the water, then heard strange popping cracks that pierced the water.

She turned away again, and swam hard. Later, the trilling calls echoed again behind her, but she did not slow.

It was less than I'd hoped for, but I still basked in the data my hunter-cartographers were already bringing in. The newly designed probes were already bringing in a wealth of data; they had already doubled my catalog of this world's life.

I was impatient to unlock biochemical simulation as I sifted through the information. I could see clear signs of the arms races that these species had waged against one another: the development of neurotoxins, then the adaptation of immunity to those toxins.

Possibly even more importantly, the new probes brought me brains, or at least brain scans. The hunter-cartographers were fully capable of cracking skulls open with their jaws, and their prehensile tongues would bury themselves in neural matter while absorbing the patterns and structures in those brains. The flow of updated data helped me continue tweaking the hunter-cartographers' echolocation. As I let time slide by, my picture of my surroundings grew sharp wherever my hunter-cartographers had recently been.

Still at an unacceptable resolution and time-step, but I had a plan for that. The influx of raw resources let me build another computational silo, and I soon finished the research in progress.





Yes! Biochemical communications were now a stone's throw away. Before I began that project, though, I would use the new capabilities I'd unlocked to further upgrade my four computational silos.

I was now able to translate and transcribe several key Library technologies to the chemical language of this world's life. My computational organs in their protective membranes still shared many characteristics with the brains this world's creatures used, but interlinked nodes formed among their tissues. The architectural changes improved the holofractal hash rate significantly. I found my memories sharpening, too--

Do you think you are really here? That any of this is real? We are all of us imprisoned ghosts.

I felt a spike of pain as I slammed mental blocks back into place. As I sharpened my mind, I remembered more, good and bad. I needed to be careful what I allowed myself to remember, but I had managed to keep myself safe for now, and the hash rate had risen.

It would need to be higher still before I could begin recovery for the payload, and for that, I would need more power than I could generate by consuming wildlife.

To properly generate and harness power, I needed to either establish surface infrastructure or mine. Solar infrastructure would be cheap and fast if I had full Library access and a defensible position at the surface, but where things stood, it would be faster to dig, and I would have needed to mine eventually anyway.




I selected LDG:I1Z:EQW:S80. Now that I had broader reach, I would have more information to feed the geological and seismic analysis algorithms. I could begin mining soon, and that would open up new realms of possibility in materials engineering.

To explore the lower reaches of the ocean, or, for that matter, this world's crust and tectonic plates, I would need to manufacture specialized materials. I would begin researching DZK:CFA:RAH:S8I once geological analysis began in earnest to unlock materials that would let me build at larger scales. In the meantime, I began work unraveling the specific mechanisms of the phages that permeated the sea.

My beak opened in anticipation. A single milliliter of seawater held hundreds of millions of the viruses. The little payloads of genetic information had footholds everywhere; the multicellular microscopic lifeforms carried flourishing bacteria, and the phages happily used that bacteria as a canvas for their dissonant viral genetic symphony.

Time slipped by as I focused more closely on the work. The plumes of the hydrothermal vents carried the modified genetic material up and out into the far reaches of the unseen deeps.

The hot water carried the viruses to ocean currents, and there the viruses found homes everywhere. They encoded a few simple test measurements into their DNA, and reproduced, sending their perceptions back via the same route.

More time drifted by and I felt the first tingles of sensation as the modified phage sent its chemical semaphore home. I added more channels, and more tastes drifted back to me in the relative darkness.

More of this world's life knew my touch, and everything I touched, I could taste. I refined my palate, chemically encoding ocean acidity, temperature, carbon dioxide levels, and a host of other information into the expanding circle of consciousness the phage-sense gave me.

I could sense ocean currents. I detected shorelines. I felt trenches that extended lower than I had anticipated. Tectonic subduction? I believed so, but it wouldn't be long until I could perform geological analysis in earnest.

My expanding sense of taste was only the first step toward the global sensor net I intended to build, but even at the low time resolution I had achieved, the scale was gratifying. I pored over the slowly expanding threads of information, gleaning what I could about the world from the taste of it.

The excitement of discovery burned in me. There was a variety of arthropod life whose surface I had not yet begun to scratch. This world had undergone an explosion of divergent adaptation, perhaps less than a spin ago. I would have been suspicious of interference if every molecule of this world's life wasn't so decidedly alien. No intelligence had shaped these strange things.

Until now. I called my remaining harvester crabs to my primary form and broke them down into raw resources.

Constructor tubes began etching a pattern in the seabed near my shelter, laying foundations for support structures whose materials I did not yet know how to construct.

Less and less of my direct attention was required, and I let time pass by as the brains continued to remember. I could taste the entirety of the ocean, and soon I would know where to begin sinking mineshafts. The energy-rich materials of the crust of the planet called to me.

I curled the arms of my primary form protectively around the computational organs that continued their quiet work. Within, everything my ancestors had ever fought for waited to be drawn back from the brink of oblivion, thread by shining thread. Their ghosts would remain silent until my work was done.

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