By Jeffrey Gong
Their name was Seeker.
When one sensed Seeker, they might not think that Seeker was intelligent, and indeed, they were not — individually. Each individual part of Seeker, a tiny soft finned thing, was no more intelligent than the heat-tube-worms and bottom-scuttlers. But together, in their movements, in their communications, they were among the greatest thinkers of the Abyss.
Sometimes part of Seeker wanted to be called Reaper. It was only to be expected, though — they had come from a different swarm, one that had called itself Reaper. Reaper had not been very popular, for reasons that are left to the reader’s imagination. So Seeker and several other swarms had worked together to tear Reaper to shreds. Seeker, for their part of tracking Reaper to the secret trench where they made their home, had been rewarded with part of them.
Soon enough, Reaper’s bits would come around. They always came around. Once part of Seeker had been part of a swarm called Dreamer, who used to say the strangest things about the world, insinuating that some of the things that Teacher said were wrong. Teacher had not liked that. So the meta-swarm had combined into Planner, collectively realized that Dreamer did not serve any purpose to the meta-swarm’s survival, and disbanded him.
Seeker, for having found and dragged Dreamer from his wanderings near the Top, had received part of him. And for a while they tried to keep being Dreamer, thinking the strangest things and trying to get Seeker to seek a hole in the Top (as if such a thing could exist), but eventually Seeker assimilated them and now they were just like the rest of Seeker, completely and utterly focused on seeking.
Seeker smelled the prey-whale, and, excited, found a current and swam faster. Some of Seeker didn’t quite make it into the current, and was left behind, but Seeker was not concerned. Some other member of the meta-swarm would come along and pick them up, or they would be eaten by a spear-fish-predator.
Soon Seeker felt the backwash of the prey-whale’s movements in the void. They went lower, nearly scraping the bottom, so that the prey-whale’s minders, the prey-whale-minder-predators, would not feel them in the void. Seeker noted the prey-whale’s course. Bits of Seeker rearranged themselves into the code of the abyss swarms, and separated from Seeker, becoming Messenger. Messenger began swimming home, still careful to stick to the Bottom.
When Messenger got back to the meta-swarm’s nest, Messenger would shake, and the rest of the swarm would feel and rearrange themselves according to the code Seeker had made. And then they would know where the prey-whale was, and Messenger would join one of the swarms, become part of a Hunter. And then the meta-swarm would come; they would descend on the prey-whale, and they would devour it alive. And the prey-whale-minder-predators would eat bits of them, but it didn’t really matter because they, in turn, would be eaten.
While Messenger went home, Seeker continued to follow the prey-whale from a safer distance. There used to be a time when the prey-whale-minder-predators had been dumb, and would only attack if a swarm attacked. At least, there was according to Rememberer. But now, if the prey-whale-minder-predators realized what was going on, they would send one of their number to hunt down Messenger and eat them.
But Seeker would not let that happen. That was why they were Seeker and not Hunter or Teacher or Rememberer or Grower or Breeder.
Its name was CRP Seeker Unit-11037.
It had been designed by a silicon mind light-years distant, assembled at a time so many years in the past that remembering it had been judged a waste of energy, launched by technicians from a spaceship with as little reverence as one would hold for the launching of a water bottle rocket.
It had been asleep for a long, long time, and now, it was morning. A very, very dim, morning, it noted with surprise as it glanced around itself. The stars were nothing but little specks of dust on a black canvas. It was rather like waking up in the morning to find that the sun had gone out. Seeker’s solar panels would get no use on this cycle.
The one star it knew — the one star that mattered — it found. It sent a short radio burst spiraling through the void towards that star.
Then Seeker turned its attention to the reason it had awaken.
A rogue planet, parentless and wandering the void — and covered in water ice. Well. This was disappointing — or Seeker would later think so, when it had enough energy to spare on emotion. It had hoped that it would seek out a nicer planet, one that hadn’t been violently flung from its family by a gravitational marital dispute between binary stars, or however this poor thing had lost its parent(s). Maybe one with trees and giant insects or even dinosaurs, the sort that made the news and got the astrobiologists frothing at their teeth. The sort that let an off-the-shelf AI get an interview on a talk show and a place in a virtual museum, instead of an unceremonious demise as it ran out of fusible matter on some dead, damp rock.
Well, there was nothing to be done except its job. Seeker fired up its fusion drive and plotted a burn that would take it into orbit around the poor, pathetic little planet. Then it took a nap.
An imperceptible amount of time later, Seeker woke up. Scanning the smooth, icy surface of the rogue planet, Seeker found a place to land.
Seeker separated itself, physically and mentally, into Orbiter and Lander. For now, Seeker was dead, and would remain so unless this was one of those planets that got AIs onto talk shows.
As Seeker ceased to exist, it found that prospect unlikely.
Lander did not enjoy the experience shortly following its birth.
Violently separated from its twin by explosive bolts, sent spiraling down to an unknown planet, where it would possibly immediately drown in short-circuiting H2O — it was not the best welcome to the universe.
But, like any other AI, its feelings on the matter were irrelevant, and soon enough, its programming took over and discarded its emotions as a waste of power.
Lander found the spot Seeker had identified. Entering the rogue planet’s nearly nonexistent atmosphere, it fired several corrective bursts from its retrorockets, hovering slightly, confirming the solidity of the ice, then finally, gently, landed.
Lander tasted the ice and sniffed at the vacuum. The ice was nice and pure and devoid of any problematic compounds, and it relayed the decent news to Orbiter.
Orbiter thought that the Corporation would appreciate this, as a refueling stop if anything else. The planet was too far from anything else to be anything but a depressing little island in the galactic ocean.
Lander sunk a drill into the ice to take an ice core sample. Perhaps this little planet had had a history once, though Lander didn’t hold much hope of that. These kinds of planets never did — rogues were usually kicked out of their parents’ homes too early in their lifespans to have had developed any sort of life first.
Then Lander felt liquid water.
So this planet had volcanoes. Interesting. Lander tasted the water next.
The telltale flavor of organic compounds came through, and Lander sent the exciting news to Orbiter. Orbiter thought the Corporation would not like this. Now the Government owned Lander and Orbiter, and they were officially science robots, not commercial robots. How unfortunate for the Corporation, although neither could find it in them to feel sorry for an organization that had sent them all into the void with all the care of an r-strategist.
Lander lowered a submarine unit into the water, and waited.
Seeker felt the vibrations from above and stopped in alarm. A predator?
No. This didn’t feel like any predator Seeker knew of, and for that reason, it couldn’t be a predator. Then what was it?
The prey-whale-minder-predators did not hesitate like Seeker had. They screeched in alarm and charged at the unknown-spinny-thing, which sped up and away. Satisfied that they had chased the threat away, most of the prey-whale-minder-predators returned to the prey-whale’s side and reattached themselves to its side, injecting hormones that, Seeker knew, would tell the prey-whale to start swimming for the border of the meta-swarm’s hunting territory. A single prey-whale-minder-predator broke away from the group, and Seeker tensed as it swam over them without noticing them. It, Seeker knew, was searching for Messenger.
Seeker did not like this at all. The hunt had been ruined! Seeker had never failed in its seeking before.
Well, as Teacher always taught, there was no sense in being upset about things they couldn’t change. Seeker prepared to return to the volcanic vents the meta-swarm called home.
It was at this point that the parts of Seeker that were once Dreamer brought up an alternate idea. Seek the unknown-spinny-thing, they suggested. And the parts of Seeker that were once Reaper concurred. The unknown-spinny-thing ran from the prey-whale-minder-predators, they said; therefore they are prey, and therefore they can be reaped.
After a brief and somewhat violent debate, Seeker decided to seek out the unknown-spinny-thing.
Quickly, Seeker felt the distinctive spinny-current that came from the unknown-spinny-thing. But this was confusing. Why did Seeker not smell the unknown-spinny thing?
Seeker was not a Thinker, so it did not think about this question, but remembered it for later.
For a long time, Seeker followed the spinny-current. Seeker wondered where it was going. All the way to the top? It was getting colder, and colder, and colder… Seeker increased their density accordingly.
As they approached the top, the spinny-current suddenly vanished, and Seeker, devoid of a feeling or a scent as a guide, was confused. Everything had either a feeling or a scent. How had the unknown-spinny-thing vanished?
Seeker maintained its course, and finally Seeker felt itself touch the Top. It felt its way along the Top until…
Seeker felt a hole in the top, and Dreamer was reborn.
As Lander told the Orbiter of its findings, Orbiter felt itself become happy.
Its fate was not to run out of fuel around this godforsaken rock and crash. Its fate was not to be unremembered as some Corporation employee cleared out the memory banks. It would be remembered.
And so, Orbiter sent a signal towards the star, a signal that would never be received– for, in a macrocosm of what was going on the waters below at this very moment, the Dreamer had been discarded as unnecessary to the meta-swarm, and the Planner had misplanned for the last time.