From the author: Kaylen has spent decades studying Earth's hermit crabs at the Grove of Academe. But can she ever really Know them?
When Kaylen slept, she dreamed of hermit crabs.
It was hardly surprising, considering how long she’d been studying them. Kaylen’s decades at the Grove of Academe blended together almost seamlessly, but one memory stood out sharply: the moment when Aleanor, Kaylen’s Advisor program, had finally approved her Study proposal. Like most beginning Scholars, Kaylen had initially requested a topic that was far too broad: Paguridea, a family of nearly 600 species of right-handed hermit crabs from Ancient Earth. When Aleanor gently made the gesture of negation/constraint, Kaylen had hesitantly named the smaller Coenobitidea family—only 21 species!—but still Aleanor did not approve. It was not until Kaylen reluctantly narrowed her choice to a single species that Aleanor’s avatar paused thoughtfully.
Although the AI’s expression did not change, Kaylen knew that Aleanor was rapidly calculating the probability, based on the amount of available data as well as Kaylen’s psycho-intellectual profile, that Kaylen might eventually Know this topic in particular. If there was too much information, it would be hopeless. Too little, and the critical mass necessary for Knowing would not be there.
Only a few seconds passed before Aleanor held out her arms with the palms up, as though to embrace the universe, and then gathered them back to her own chest. “Study. Learn. Know,” she said, with both voice and gesture.
Kaylen felt elated, but the feeling passed quickly. Only a single species, to occupy her entire life?
Aleanor seemed to know what she was thinking. “Do not be discouraged, Kaylen,” she said. “You will still be exposed to resources related to the other species. You will need the context.”
Kaylen felt somewhat better. C. compressus, or the Ecuadorian hermit crab. The species belonged to her now, and her new status as a working Scholar would be announced at the next Assembly. It was time to begin.
In spite of the Programs’ patience and kindness, Kaylen sometimes wondered if they would bother interacting with Organics at all were it not for the Study. The Programs and their millions of subroutines ran the farms and the factories, and made it possible for the people of Eridani to thrive. All the Programs wanted in return was the opportunity to guide those few humans who wished to devote their lives to Study.
Before Kaylen had arrived, she had accepted the commonly held belief that only one applicant out of ten was admitted to the Grove of Academe, but she quickly learned that the Advisors actually accepted every applicant that met their somewhat mysterious qualifications. And they did this because even if the entire human population of Eridani decided to dedicate itself to Study, it would never be enough. The colony’s original ships had brought with them the accumulated knowledge of the human race up to the point of departure. Each ship had carried redundant Information Cores, which were not only stored at several geographically diverse sites across the planet, but also in nano-optical capsules placed at the Eridani-Solar L4 and L5 Lagrange points.
Yes, the information was there, but Knowledge was rare, and it was something the Programs had come to covet in spite of their awareness that they could not achieve it themselves. The best they could hope for was that a few exceptional humans would try to Know for them.
It was during a meal break towards the end of her first year that Kaylen had met Troyce. He’d stopped at the table where she’d been sitting alone and asked how her work was going.
Startled, Kaylen looked up at him, a spoonful of summer melon halfway to her mouth. She’d been imagining the transition between the second and third zoeal stages of juvenile hermits.
“My work?” she said, blinking to re-focus her eyes. “Oh. Yes, it’s going fine.” She didn’t remember having seen him before, but that wasn’t unusual, since mealtimes were staggered. He was tall and thin with sandy-colored hair, and perhaps a dozen years older than she was.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “My name is Troyce. I’m studying Pecari tajacu, or the collared peccary.”
Kaylen thought for a moment. “Is that a species of wild pigs?” she asked.
“They’re somewhat related to pigs, but haven’t been classed in that family for a long time. Anyway, I didn’t mean to interrupt your thoughts, but you looked a little….”
“Please don’t apologize,” she said. “I’m Kaylen, and I’m studying Coenobita compressus—hermit crabs. I started less than a year ago.”
“Ahhhh,” he said. “So let me guess: right about now, you’re wondering whether you’re stuck in one of the lower circles of hell.”
Kaylen laughed. “That’s right,” she said. “I had to switch from text to images for the rest of the day, because I kept finding myself reading the first paragraph of an article over and over. I felt certain that I’d read it before even though the Catalog insisted I hadn’t.”
“Do you mind if I…?”
“Of course, please,” she said, embarrassed at her lack of manners. “Sit down.”
Troyce pulled out the heavy oak chair across the table from Kaylen and sat, wincing slightly as he did so. “Not the most comfortable chairs, are they?”
“No,” Kaylen said. “But my Advisor says that they’ve learned over the centuries that ‘a traditional environment—’”
“‘—is most conducive to the acquisition of Knowledge,’” Troyce finished, smiling. He picked up a forkful of his vegetable pie from his plate, blew on it, then put it tentatively into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, then went on. “Have you tried asking the Catalog to randomly rotate the types of media it gives you? For instance, so far today, it’s given me a poem, a regular vid clip, an article, a symphonic recording, several still images, and a novel from the point of view of the javelin—that was a common nickname for P. tajacu.”
“A novel?” said Kaylen, surprised.
“Yes. I’ve only just started it. You haven’t gotten to artistic interpretations yet, then?”
“No,” said Kaylen.
“You’ll be glad when you do,” Troyce said. “In any case, I find that the element of surprise and a bit more variety help keep me focused.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” Kaylen said. “Why don’t the Advisors tell us these things?”
“They want us to figure out for ourselves what methods work best for us. ‘There is no one path to Knowledge,’ after all.”
“Are you allowed to make suggestions to me, then?”
“Oh yes,” said Troyce. “Finding out what works for other Scholars is a perfectly valid way to explore methodology.”
Kaylen was silent a moment. “Every Scholar I’ve met so far is studying a single animal species,” she said. “Is that the only thing we’re allowed to pursue?”
“No,” said Troyce. “I know a few scholars who are studying plant life, and one who’s actually studying the element Uranium. He told me a little about it and it was far more interesting than I would have guessed. But most people prefer animals, of course.”
“It never occurred to me to choose anything else,” Kaylen said. “I mean, with so many lost species…. Do the Advisors ever approve someone studying more than one species at a time?”
“Rarely, and only if the species are very closely related and the combined number of resources is appropriate,” Troyce said. “The Advisors could just tell us up front that we should only propose one species, but that’s another thing they like us to learn through trial and error. In any case, I’ve never heard of a multi-species topic resulting in Knowing. Or a non-living topic, like Uranium.”
Kaylen shuddered. To not Know, after so many years of study! “My little hermit crabs are looking better all the time.”
After Kaylen’s first encounter with Troyce, her work went more smoothly. Rather than directing the Catalog to be completely random, however, Kaylen discovered that she enjoyed periods of randomness interspersed with following a particular information trail that had caught her attention, sometimes for weeks at a time. When she first read about vocalization, for instance, she asked the Catalog to locate sound recordings. Some were accompanied by moving images, and Kaylen learned to recognize whether a certain stridulation was a precursor to an aggressive male display or even a shell fight. Often, however, the researchers who’d recorded the sounds so long ago were unable to determine what the hermit was trying to express, especially if it was alone at the time.
One day, the Catalog surprised her with a children’s picture book about a hermit crab who wanted to decorate his new shell. The book’s inaccuracies alarmed Kaylen. Hermit crabs couldn’t talk, nor did they have anthropomorphic motivations, and she didn’t want to clutter up her mind with false information. The next time she saw Troyce—they met for caffeae every few days—she asked him why the Catalog had shown her the book.
“Did you like it?” Troyce said without answering her question.
“I thought it was charming in its own way,” Kaylen admitted. “But I don’t know anything more about Ecuadorian hermit crabs than I did before I read it. In fact, this book was about a marine rather than a terrestrial hermit crab. Even if the information was accurate, it’s not my species!”
“Why do you think the author wrote the book?” Troyce asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe he found the idea of hermit crabs choosing and decorating a new home compelling for some reason. Or maybe he meant it as a metaphor for humanity’s desire to personalize its own surroundings.”
“Maybe,” said Troyce. “And how was it illustrated?”
“The pictures were painted in a sort of simplified collage style that was not at all realistic.”
“But did you like them?”
“Yes,” Kaylen admitted.
Kaylen thought back to the short book, which she had studied for hours in spite of her misgivings. “The pictures were colorful and balanced, and therefore pleasing to the eye,” she said. “I felt happy when I looked at them. And it’s silly, but I felt happy that the hermit crab made new friends while decorating his shell.”
“Why do you think the Catalog showed you the book, then?”
This time Kaylen paused even longer before answering, and Troyce, as always, waited patiently. Finally, she said, “Maybe if I’m to Know, I need to absorb not only factual information, but also the ways humans viewed the species. How we viewed and reacted to it, and how we interpreted its role on old Earth. And some of those reactions will have been artistic and imaginative rather than factual.”
“Yes,” said Troyce, pleased. “The Catalog will probably give you more sources like that as you come to appreciate their value. I won’t be surprised if artistic interpretations become your favorite aspect of Study.” He stood up from the table, but before picking up his tray, he made the abbreviated version of the sign that the Scholars often used upon taking their leave from one another. Study. Learn. Know.
Kaylen smiled and returned the gesture.
And so it had gone for several years. Kaylen noticed—Troyce had warned her that it would happen—that she went through cycles. There were days when she was so tired of hermit crabs that they seemed like the ugliest, most pointless creatures in the galaxy. But there were also days when Kaylen felt so infatuated with C. compressus that she would leap out of bed the instant the Housekeeping program woke her, eager to get back to work. Those were the days that she took the required study breaks by herself, rather than engage in distracting conversations with other Scholars, even Troyce.
The vast majority of her days, however, fell in between those extremes. Those were the days when she plodded along automatically, neither loving nor hating her work, but simply existing in a semi-exhausted state of numbness as she tried to internalize whatever information the Catalog gave her.
For the past few months, during the depths of the long winter season, Kaylen had gradually realized that the Catalog was giving her something new, which suggested to her that the order of materials had never been truly random even when Kaylen had asked for them that way. The Catalog had given her video and holo-vid material all along, but about six weeks ago, she had been more than halfway through one vid before she even noticed that there was no hermit crab in the field of view. Instead, the camera was from the creature’s perspective as it measured a new shell before deciding to move in. When the vid ended, Kaylen requested the source’s metadata and learned that a researcher from the late 21st century had installed dozens of micro-cameras on Ecuadorian hermit crabs near a town called La Libertad. After that, new camera-eye vids began showing up in her feed on a regular basis.
Even more exciting was the first time Kaylen encountered a compound-eye view. These came from the 22nd century, when nanite cameras were actually installed in the crabs’ eyes. Instead of a straightforward view of the hermit’s surroundings, Kaylen initially saw a mosaic of images that made her slightly dizzy, until her brain adjusted by compositing the information.
Around the same time, some of the holo-vids started incorporating smells that were enhanced by the sensory implants Kaylen had received once her topic had been approved. Kaylen even learned to identify, by scent alone, the exact type of carrion her crab had detected. At first, she found it nauseating, but eventually she began to appreciate the generous bounty that decaying flesh represented, especially as many of the hermits’ natural food sources had declined in the century before the colony ships had departed Earth.
Then came vacancy chains, and Kaylen was entranced. How was it possible for something like that to evolve naturally, with no planning or nudging by Programs or their equivalent? It seemed remarkable that hermit crabs, always in competition for a limited number of shells, had figured out such an efficient system of allocation.
Most recorded vacancy chains involved only three to five hermits, but Kaylen had seen one glorious holo-vid in which no fewer than eleven hermit crabs executed a swift and orderly exchange of homes. The researcher who’d made the recording had placed an empty shell in an appropriate location and left several unobtrusive cameras nearby. Eventually, a lone crab approached and carefully inspected the shell before apparently deciding that it was too big. Instead of abandoning it in search of something better, however, it simply waited.
A few hours later, another hermit arrived, and then another. At first the pattern wasn’t clear; it seemed as though the crabs were simply shuffling around in the general vicinity of the vacant shell. But Kaylen’s sharp eyes, honed by years of Study, could see that the hermits were arranging themselves in order from the largest to the smallest. Each one gripped the shell of the hermit in front of it, until a new crab came along and inserted itself in the proper place in line.
Finally, a hermit crab that was just the right size for the original vacant shell appeared. She—or he, as Kaylen realized when his entire body became momentarily visible—took possession of the new shell almost at once, setting off a chain reaction as each crab in the queue quickly claimed the shell in front of it as it was vacated.
It was perfect.
Kaylen burned with questions: what would happen if two identically sized hermits showed up—would they fight, or would some factor other than size come into play? How did they know that their chances for getting a new shell were improved by waiting rather than simply continuing their search elsewhere? She instructed the Catalog to find more information on vacancy chains, and was startled to discover that the term had originated in the field of sociology rather than biology. Humans too, it turned out, benefited when a single niche opened up, inducing a chain reaction that allowed several other individuals to improve their homes, their careers, or even their social positions. What an odd concept that was.
As the long winter finally gave way to a mild spring, Kaylen was still obsessed with vacancy chains, but she realized that something had changed yet again. She felt a low buzzing of anticipation within herself, that both calmed and exhilarated her. It was with her when she studied, when she walked through the Grove’s wooded paths on fine days, and, she suspected, even when she slept.
Kaylen found herself calling up the holo-vid of the eleven hermit crabs over and over in between the new sources that the Catalog gave her. Then it occurred to her to ask for a compound-eye view of a vacancy chain. For the first time in Kaylen’s decades at the Grove, the Catalog did not have a source to fulfill her request.
She sat and pondered. “Catalog, can you write an algorithm to convert the eleven-crab vacancy chain holo-vid to a compound-eye view, and then play it on a repeat loop?”
“Yes,” said the Catalog. “However, I will have to approximate the timing for each specific view and the effect may be jarring.”
“Just do your best,” said Kaylen. “Use the first hermit to arrive as the viewpoint. I know this will mean some guesswork on the editing, but—”
Kaylen moved to the middle of one of the holo-viewing areas, and sat on a thin floor cushion while she waited, with her legs underneath her. She’d learned that the physical sensation of sitting in a hard chair during a holo-vid was distracting. She tried to empty her mind of conscious thoughts.
Several minutes later, the Catalog was ready. As the holo began, Kaylen saw that the input had been zoomed to scale, so that the empty shell in front of her loomed large. Suddenly, the scene broke into the now-familiar compound mosaic structure. Although Kaylen could tell that the timing and perspective were not quite perfect, her brain compensated quickly, and the hermit crab’s world settled over her like a bed sheet fluttering down to mold itself to her body’s contours.
Kaylen inspected the vacant shell. It was aesthetically pleasing, without holes or thin spots, and it was almost, almost the right size. She decided to wait, at peace with herself, but also anxious for the right crab to come along. She felt constricted.
Another crab approached, and they regarded each other cautiously. Kaylen moved slightly, as though to invite the new hermit to inspect the empty shell. His vocalization, meant more for himself than for her, showed that he too found the shell highly desirable, but not quite right.
Kaylen felt the buzzing increase slightly as yet more crabs joined the group. She let go of the shell in front of her as another hermit claimed the correct place in line, then grasped the newcomer. Soon, she thought.
Another crab, only slightly bigger than the largest one already there, approached the group and quickly examined the vacant shell. Kaylen tensed, sensing that the decision had been made.
The newcomer left his shell and scrambled quickly into the empty one. Down the line, one by one, the hermit crabs clambered out of their old homes and claimed their new. Somehow, Kaylen recognized the precise moment when it was time to leave the safety of her own shell and scramble into the next. It was exactly right, and it couldn’t have happened any other way.
The buzzing gave way to a haze of Knowing. One small part of Kaylen’s mind became dimly aware that other Scholars had gathered around her and were applauding. Because Knowings were so rare, none of them had ever seen one occur, yet they recognized it without hesitation, just as Kaylen had recognized when it was time for her to move.
Kaylen felt a fleeting, distant fondness for her peers. But they were her peers no longer. She felt her neural implants sending new commands to Aleanor and the other Advisors, commands that let their thoughts piggyback on her own as her awareness expanded. Filled with pride, Kaylen showed the Advisors what it meant to be Coenobita compressus. She knew the Advisors would add this tiny bit of Knowledge, this one lens of an unspeakably large compound view, to the few others that had been achieved in the centuries since the colony had been established. Hopefully, there would be many more to come.
Once the other hermit crabs had dispersed, Kaylen knew it was time for her to go as well. As her mind scuttled away across the beach, leaving her human body to sink to the library floor, she dimly realized that she was leaving a vacancy behind that another Scholar might someday fill. She hoped it would be Troyce.
This story originally appeared in Abyss & Apex.