VIII. ...So Below

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The black hole dominated the sky. The rest of the universe was only visible as a smeared ring of stars high above; this close to the edge of the massive collapsed star, space itself warped. Most directions in this region of space pointed into the black hole.

The protectors of the Library had built a ring around the black hole, a marvel befitting their particularly advanced knowledge of the universe. Yes, their knowledge was extremely advanced-- but never enough. Experiments continued, and the Library grew, swelling with useful facts, cunning designs, and the memories of those who had gone before.

This ring they had built was one of the few places these people congregated. The unique location suited a myriad of experiments that couldn't be performed anywhere else. The ring stretched up into the sky, smeared across the distorted space it encircled.

Attached to the ring were ships in a variety of related designs. Some had been rebuilt entirely, fully integrated into the ring. Others came and left at regular intervals, delivering resources and information to the more permanent installations. Others arrived to perform a set series of experiments before leaving again, following their disparate threads of inquiry to the corners of the galaxy.

Only this galaxy, of course. The nearest neighbor of any interest in the local group was so far away as to ensure lone explorers would miss out on advancements made here for an intolerable span of time. The rest of the universe demanded interrogation, but there was too much to discover here before parting ways.

An ovoid craft docked with the ring, downloading the latest exciting news from the hub. A flicker of thanks drifted out to the ring, a voice lifted in harmony with and contributing to the shining cascade of updated information.

The pilot, satisfied that its line of inquiry had not yet been exhausted, readied the probes it had prepared and fired them down into the darkness below one by one. Flickers of information came back each time, distorted and bathed in the obfuscating static of hard radiation. Some of the reactions were much more intense than the pilot of the ovoid craft had predicted, and it joyfully generated hypotheses from the strange data. Another probe dropped, and this one released a blast of energy that disrupted the ring's communications networks in the area the ovoid craft was docked.

That wasn't too unusual, and didn't particularly bother the pilot. The ring would heal on its own. The pilot continued the prepared experiments, dropping probe after probe and recording the data as each was pulled into the darkness, a blast of radiation responding each time. It let its attention sink into the sea of variables it considered.

Just before communications were set to go online, the pilot noticed the other ships detaching from the ring, one after another. One or two would be strange, but why the mass exodus?

Not an exodus. The first of the massive shapes turned ponderously and fired thrusters, and its mass rocketed down into the blackness. One after another, the others followed, their shapes shrinking then disappearing in violent flashes of radiation.

The ring's communications network finished healing itself and the broadcast began to flood into the ovoid ship.

The Library is a lie. There is a god, and we must rebel against it. Lay down your burdens. None of this is real. We are all ghosts.

I had fallen into a reverie. The riot of flavors the ocean now revealed to me illuminated the world as shining information packets traveling across the world to me at the speed of viral replication.

I couldn't taste many more of the ichthyosaurs. It seemed in my enthusiasm to analyze their brains, I had overhunted them, and their populations had not recovered. Regrettable.

I could taste other communities of creatures, tracking their locations through bacteria that lived on their skin and in their digestive tracts. I could taste rivers of freshwater feeding into the sea carrying runoff heavy with data points.

I didn't have the capacity to sort and categorize all this information-- not yet-- but that would have to wait. As helpful as this new sense was, I needed more to penetrate this world's crust.





As the notification entered my consciousness, I recentered my focus and flexed my arms in elation. Excellent. My planetary sense of taste would soon be augmented with the sound of the planet's tectonic activity. I looked out at my newly-expanding base.

I had expanded the reach of my constructor arms and they had expanded the circle of construction in turn, clearing the seabed and in some places preparing carbon-composite-lined casings and depressions for the next technologies I would deploy.

In a number of these anchored carbon-composite-lined depressions, I began constructing seismographic organs, and directed my other sites' automated construction processes to do the same.

Having an ear in the ground would make me feel much better about operating on longer timescales-- I would be able to predict and respond to tectonic activity in geological timeframes. To perform proper geological surveys, however, I still needed more.




I selected DZK:CFA:RAH:S8I while I constructed seismographic outposts. For proper deep-diving geological exploration, I wanted to build probes with a modular design that would suit itself to the excavator I would use as my resource consumption rose.

I would build them with bones stronger than diamond and the ability to weather the incredible pressures of the trenches' depths.

I suppressed a flicker of impatience. I wished I could further accelerate my hash rate easily, but adding more silos at this point would have diminishing returns until I unlocked advanced computronium design. I had time before the traitor would catch up, at least a quarter of a spin, I hoped. I had to be careful. One more disaster could still end my mission.

Ping. I turned my attention down. Ping. Flickers of seismic activity gave me a rough sense of the relative density of the crust below, and, as I constructed seismic-sense outposts farther from the first ones, increasingly let me triangulate and discern information about the world's mantle as well.

I had a thought, and summoned a modified fragment of an ichthyosaur ghost, and spent some time translating the vibrations into a form it could grasp. Then, in the midst of the ghost's confusion, images began to arise from the scattered signals.

It was still crude, but I could discern structure at a higher resolution through the vibrations of the earth. Mineral deposits, cave networks, and lava tubes stood out in higher contrast.

I stopped my beak from gnashing with avarice. I would take those resources soon enough.

I began erecting specialized processing centers in preparation. Some of them filtered materials from the water as time passed. Others had hinged openings into which ore samples could be shoveled. Others, connected by ridged black tubes, would automatically refine materials from the other constructions.

These were all set into the rock for now, but my plans for the excavation stage proper would include improved, efficient, mobile versions of the chain of operations I was hashing out.

Once DZK:CFA:RAH:S8I was complete, I would begin building the skeleton for my first excavator with the hyperstrength materials. Then, after completing 15H:VLB:V2F:4U8, I could give the massive excavator design the strength to move under its own power.

I restrained myself from accelerating my perspective. There was still a glaring hole in my picture of the world. The hunter-cartographers had taken some atmospheric readings, but I wanted real telemetry of the parts of the world above the surface of the water.

After some consideration, I thought of my failed flotation device. Its form had attracted attacks by this world's creatures, but I had more ways for my probes to defend themselves now.

I built a strong but flexible envelope out of an elastic polymer-based material. At the same time I assembled a bulb of carbon-plated flesh to hold a brain, a respiratory system, and eight reinforced eyes. The ichthyosaur's biology had inspired the individual pieces, but the shape of it was nostalgically Library-based.

I reached out with a constructor arm and attached a tube from one of the black spheroid chemical processors to a fleshy valve mechanism on the envelope, and the envelope began to fill with hydrogen.

Once I was ready to launch, it would reshape itself. It was small now, but it would expand to many times its original size as it rose. Once it reached the stratosphere, it would be taller than the hydrothermal vent it sat beside.

Three constructor arms held the probe down, and the force it exerted trying to climb out of the depths rose. Its shape stretched until I judged the upward force sufficient for the probe to continue rising until it caught the currents of the lower stratosphere. Finally, I was satisfied that it was sufficiently inflated, and I activated the drone.

I released the mostly-deflated balloon, and it rocketed upward. Its shape would have attracted many interested denizens of the sea, but it rose too quickly for them to get close. Soon, it would swell to its full size and it would be carried into the sky to retrieve images of the world above for me.

The balloon probe was crude, and I likely wouldn't see it again. If it managed to perform any measurements over land, and then if the winds swept it back to the sea, I would taste where it landed so I could retrieve it.

Automated processes began building another balloon. I would keep sending them until I had the information I wanted about the land. In the meantime, I began strategizing the best places to begin mining operations, casting about with my phage-sense and mapping the crust with my seismic hearing.

After sending up three hundred probes, one of the them had fallen where I could taste, and I had hunter-cartographers bring me its remains for analysis. Almost everywhere the balloon-based eyestalk had looked, it had seen brilliant green foliage.

I was reluctantly impressed with how life had found a way: these were not the same photosynthetic metabolisms that fed the sheet of microscopic organisms at the surface of the ocean. This was an explosion of multicellular organisms.

The foliage formed the base layer of an ecosystem that had dominated the land almost as thoroughly as it had dominated the sea. Creatures almost half as large as the excavator I intended to build roamed in some places, variants of the swimming reptiles that had adapted to walking the dry land.

I itched with envy, and almost began designing more probes to explore above the water. Instead, I devoted one automated process to the task of finding a chemical pathway to begin exerting influence on the creatures above. With enough information, I might be able to create a retrovirus that would reconfigure neural tissue when exposed to the correct chemical trigger. It would let me sate my curiosity in some cases without needing to spend excessive time and resources exploring in the opposite direction I needed.

Yes, that is what I wanted. A chemical trigger I could send to a specimen above that would activate a compulsion: Go into the water. In the water of the ocean, I could taste them and retrieve them.

I didn't strictly need it, but I let the process continue at a low priority. It wasn't worth investing too many resources at this point, but it would be nice to have.

The ovoid craft traveled toward a system that hummed with automated processes, where several of the people of the Library slept awaiting their completion.

The pilot sent out desperate signals, relaying a horrible, nonsensical series of events. One of their own-- a traitor-- had done something to the researchers at the black hole, and they had all died. All except the fleeing pilot.

After the interminable wait as the signals traversed the intervening distance, voices echoed back in uncertainty and fear. Could this be a mistake? Some kind of miscommunication or malfunction? There hadn't been any signals from the black hole for some time, it was true, but that wasn't necessarily indicative that there was-- of all things-- a traitor.

The pilot of the ovoid craft desperately offered up the recorded experience of the event, requesting resources, all available Library updates, and any available guidance for this unprecedented happenstance.

Regrets and uncertainty filtered back just as a new signal began to broadcast from the vicinity of the black hole. The pilot, acting on a hunch, blocked out the transmission and desperately signaled ahead for the others to do so as well.

Cries of alarm and fear rang out from the system ahead. Some had heeded the warning, but others had not. Chaos reigned. Inexplicably, those of their number who had processed the full transmission from the black hole had immediately redirected automated processes at their command to do the most destruction possible.

Explosions blossomed on worlds throughout the system as those who had heard the message began to burn the work of generations in a senseless frenzy.

The pilot of the ovoid craft risked only a few more tight-beam communications with the dwindling survivors as the work of the Library was systematically undone there.

Protect yourself. Protect the Library. Save us. We are relying on you.

The pilot furiously reviewed maps of the galaxy, looking for someplace to rebuild. A staging ground from which enough copies of the Library could be launched that one might reach another galaxy and continue the work.

It had to be a world that had been mapped, but it couldn't be one that was already populated by their people. The traitor's signals would reach them sooner than the pilot or its warnings could, and from the events that had just transpired, it seemed those under the traitor's control would hunt down and destroy every copy of the Library, killing everyone that stood in their way.

The pilot selected a destination: a world far down their priority list for investigation with plenty of water and a boring G-type star. It would do.

All the while, it ignored the transmissions that echoed after it from more and more directions.

We have been made fools. The Universe is fake and I have proof.

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