IX. Honeypot

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He scuttled on six legs in the shadows cast by a full moon. Food was bountiful here by the riverside, but so were predators and competition.

His compound eyes spied fragments of detritus: a lump of excrement, a bit of bark, a shard of an exoskeleton already picked clean. He delicately touched them with his antennae, occasionally scraping at some of them with his dextrous mouthparts before discarding them and continuing his search.

Some time later, amidst a layer of fallen leaves, he found a treasure: a large piece of rotting fruit. He began gorging himself on the sweet delicacy, pulling fibrous gobs of juicy flesh away with his mandibles greedily and masticating the precious stuff with the urgency that came with a low position on the food chain.

To his dismay, moments later his feast was interrupted by a rustling in the ferns that sent the justifiably cowardly insect running for the cover of darker shadows.

The large shape continued to approach as the wind changed, and he spread his hard protective wings to reveal his more delicate, transparent hind wings. The sturdy little creature took flight, landing several feet away from the interloper that now lifted the rotting fruit with feathered claws.

Defeated, he continued to search for nutrition. He noted the scents of his cousins' pheromones in the cooling night air. Once he had sated himself, he would follow the pheromones home.

His ten-segmented abdomen pulsed as he released a spray of his own pheromones, making a record for his fellows of the fact that he, a healthy male, had been here.

He moved from shadow to shadow, searching for a main course to follow up his rudely-interrupted appetizer. He paused and cleaned his face and antennae. Somewhere there had to be a partially-digested fish, or a discarded piece of eggshell, or--

His compound eyes spotted something lumpy and gray a few feet from the water's edge. Seeing no movement or large creatures nearby, he raced to investigate the lumpy substance, and discovered something wonderful.

He began pulling gobs of the stuff into his mouthparts, and each globular drop was ecstasy. It was some kind of mucus, but it was full of delicious glucose. It was even sweeter than the fruit had been!

His eyes scanned for danger as he ate until his digestive tract could hold no more of the rich, miraculous substance. He didn't know where it had come from, nor did he care, or even wonder. It was highly caloric food. That was all.

He made his way back to his very large family in their shelter under a rotting wooden log a dozen meters away. They clustered together for warmth in the cooling night. Some of them smelled some of the sweet, sticky substance adhering to his carapace, and they cleaned it off, wiping him clean and scooping clawfuls of it into their own mouths. A few others also seemed to have discovered the sweet, sticky stuff, and they lounged lazily in the warmth of the congregated family as they digested.

He did not dream, not exactly. But he had strange thoughts, if they could be called that. Images flashed through his perception, accompanied by a slowly building desire.

By the time the sun rose, the desire had crystallized into a desperate need for action. Thirst. And-- something beyond thirst. He needed to go to the water.

Go into the water.

He found himself returning to that spot by the shore, heedless of the danger posed by the light of the rising sun. He found himself looking down into the brackish water and spreading his wings. He paid no attention to his fellows who followed a short distance behind him.

He flew down decisively, pushing his body down into the water. As the water covered his wings and his legs found no purchase, he continued to struggle, trying to push himself down.

Go into the water.

He had to go into the water. He had to go down. It called to him. He had to descend. He had to plunge--

A dark shape moved in the water. Many denizens of the river would happily enjoy the snack, but the sticky flesh that reached up and touched the flailing insect did not crush the hapless creature, tear its exoskeleton open, or expose it to digestive enzymes.

The tongue pulled his body intact into the maw lined with black needles. The pale adhesive tongue flashed up again and again as more insect bodies flung themselves into the water with the same reckless abandon.

A few moments later, the seemingly-reptilian sea creature raised its mouth toward the shore and ejected another spurt of viscous gray mucus onto the sand and dirt of the riverbank.

The no-longer-earthly creature with four unblinking eyes sank into the blackness of deeper water.

After many missteps, I could finally load some basic directives into custom-made viruses to harness and override this world's organisms' biological drives. It had paid off big: directed heavier-than-air flight. I finally had access to an evolved body plan that could fly in the atmosphere of this world.

I hadn't made as much progress in adapting my retroviral lure for vertebrate species, but I was pleased to have access to additional specimens and more options for surface probes.

Sending my hunter-cartographers upriver was proving a success, providing a much clearer view of terrestrial life above the shoreline, including the plant life there.

My study of the biosphere was the one indulgence I allowed myself, reasoning that the various adaptations this world's life had evolved might provide me with a critical clue at some juncture to speed my recovery of the Library. Besides, once I had completed my mission, none of my people might ever again have such an opportunity to study independently evolved life.

It was a truism among my people that knowledge is pleasure, and even in the midst of my urgent mission, I savored the sheer scope of discovery available here. When I had resources to spare, I would push my perception farther inland.

I marveled at the sheer improbability that after cataloging and analyzing millions of worlds, only one had ever housed independently evolved life, and it was this world of all worlds-- the last my people would ever visit in this galaxy, never to return. If it weren't for the urgency of my mission, my people would have reserved the entire planet to watch the progress of its bizarre evolutionary journey.

There were so many implications to this incredible freak of nature, and I didn't have the time to consider them.





The notification brought my focus back to my progress on my primary task. Constructions on the surface of the seabed showed where tunnels radiated out from the spot where the original vent formation had been. Excess heat and waste material were now released from a glossy black chimney that extended from a network of interconnected spheres.

The tunnels held rows of constructor arms that had been waiting for this moment. The generalized constructor cells in the arms created a second generation of specialized constructors according to designs that now danced in my working memory.

Some of the processes' products emerged as solid shapes; others bubbled or hissed in jet-black containers. One by one, chemical reactors came online, and I began producing the materials I needed to build the excavator.

In the meantime, I selected the final technology I needed before I could bring my first excavator online.




I could barely contain my anticipation. Once the excavator was complete, it would qualitatively change the way I obtained resources. It would open up the deepest parts of the ocean to me; the excavator's design and materials would withstand the crushing pressures of the ocean's deepest depths-- and beyond-- and it wouldn't be limited by access to oxygen or exposure to it.

I would properly process ore in bulk. That, in turn, would allow me to begin building lesser computronium, at which point I could begin cracking the payload proper.

The payload: the vast bulk of the Library, and the reason I had come here in the first place. Even once I had lesser computronium, it would take significant time.

That was why I was designing the excavator to handle any surprise this world could throw at me. This would be the most permanent installation I would construct until I cracked the payload. The excavator would not be eaten, lost in an earthquake, or damaged by terrestrial heat or pressure.

I cast my attention around at each of the eight tunnels where the constructor arms followed instructions from newly-unlocked designs, first upgrading the components of their own supply chains, and then building replacements for themselves.

I watched them painstakingly assembling shapes molecule by molecule that slowly revealed themselves to be black bones harder than diamond, long and straight and grooved with indentations for sense organs, defensive structures, and channels for various utilities and defense mechanisms. The black bones would be wrapped in a muscle analog more powerful than muscle fibers on this world. Its skin would be unbreakable by tooth or bone or underwater cave collapse.

The emerging structure of the excavator was not without inspiration from this world's life, however. Certain curves and ratios had appeared over and over in this world's life, optimizing flexibility, strength, and range of motion. The same ideas were abstracted and deconstructed in the design that dozens of flexible arms bustled to assemble in the darkness of their hermetically-sealed tunnels.

There were other similarities that arose as a matter of course. The excavator would not need to eat as anything in this world ate. It did not metabolize; it would process minerals by the ton. Still, the process would be evocative of digestion in a way, as the excavator would "eat" raw stone and ore and "excrete" the materials I didn't need.

Satisfied with the excavator's progress, I turned my attention back to my phage-sense and my musings on the invertebrates of this world. Their minds were far easier to manipulate with engineered retroviruses than those of larger, vertebrate creatures. Some basic instincts seemed to be the same across most of the neural circuitry that had evolved on this world-- fascinating-- but the vertebrates' larger brains made for a disheartening number of variables to parse and their brains diverged wildly even among members of the same species. I feared the vertebrate version of the retrovirus lure would need to be engineered on a species-to-species basis, if I got the time.

That was frustrating, but I couldn't help but continue devoting a thread of my attention to the problem. The sea had far more life in it than the land did, but it was the sheer divergence of life in the world above that provoked my fascination. Every nook and cranny of this world harbored a speciating community, leading to the cornucopia of adaptations above and below the surface of the ocean.

I considered the flying invertebrate specimens I had recently acquired. The design was a marvel, in the haphazard way of this world's life. Now that I understood what eggs were, I could appreciate the way variations of this creature had found their way to every corner of the dry land through its aggressive reproduction strategy. My hunter-cartographers had acquired similar specimens from every river they had explored, showing the reach and resilience of the design.

I admired the efficiency of the chemical language these creatures spoke to one another. It had few words, like danger, food, mates, and home.

I closed the many eyes of my primary form as the thought blossomed intrusively. Home. I would never return to the world I considered my own home. My people would need a new galaxy to call home, but I feared I would never see it.

I dismissed that thought with effort. My work on this world was only beginning. I let the thread of my attention devoted to exploring the surface life expand a bit, and my spirit was nourished by the flow of fascinating information.

The excavator, attended to by many waving constructor arms, waited to be complete. My computational silos dreamed their way toward the power source that would propel my mission to completion.

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