A Xuya short story about low-level artificial intelligences. Loosely based on the story of the sand-crab (or of Dã Tràng and the pearl).
In Da Trang’s nightmares, Pearl is always leaving—darting away from him, toward the inexorable maw of the sun’s gravity, going into a tighter and tighter orbit until no trace of it remains—he’s always reaching out, sending a ship, a swarm of bots—calling upon the remoras to move, sleek and deadly and yet too agonizingly slow; to do anything, to save what they can.
Too late. Too late.
It wasn’t always like this, of course.
In the beginning . . . in the beginning . . . his thoughts fray and scatter away, like cloth held too close to a flame. How long since he’s last slept? The Empress’s courtier was right—but no, no, that’s not it. The Empress doesn’t understand. None of them understand.