Editor’s note: this delightful short story is a new year present from Stephen Kagan, the author of the mystically beautiful VR/AI novel “Augmented Dreams, the Singularity Palimpsest “. Stephen says: “This story has taken extensive thinking, imagination and meditation to craft. It was inspired by some of your work, beginning with Religion for the Cosmic Frontier, combined with some of Ben’s Manifesto, and some of my conversations with you. My goal was to create the grandest vision I can build for our cosmic future, in some ways beyond even what Stapledon created in StarMaker… Becoming godlike and becoming God…”
League of Cosmic Engineers
by Steephen Kagan
“I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process – an integral function of the universe.”
The ship descended quickly toward the planet, an arrowhead on a shaft of light. The gentle curve of space coaxed it toward it’s silent target, spinning slowly in the darkness. Where were the surging currents of wind and rain from the bright molten star? And for that matter, where the hell was the blazing intrepid sun that had warmed its companions and followers?
We approached the darkened planet from a high orbit, descending a slope of spacetime into the solar system at a sharp incline to the ecliptic like a toboggan gliding down a slippery hillside. It was once an ancient world brimming with life according to our encyclopedia. Now, it was dead, it’s biosphere transformed to motes of dust and blackened rock. What’s worse was that it was the third planet we had found in this arm of the galaxy that had been so horribly transformed. We already knew what we would find when we looked closer; the same energy emissions matched what we had seen before.
“Scan results?” I leaned forward from my chair.
“It’s smart rock, programmable matter.” Buzzed Jiiu calmly. “The whole thing was converted to computronium.”
“Bastards!” I couldn’t contain my anger so easily as I once did.
We paused for a moment at the enormity of what had been done to the planet below. The blatant disregard for life was staggering. They had annihilated millions of intelligent beings and an entire biosphere of billions of organisms for the sake of winning a game. They convert dead world’s in the Goldilocks zone into computronium and we seed them with life.
“How long ago?” Anu croaked.
“Maybe 100,000 years.” Zuu buzzed after examine the sensors.
“That’s not too bad.” Shuun tooted. “What are the residual distortion patterns in the quantum foam and surrounding gravitational waves like?”
“Pretty damn good.” Jiuu hummed back. “We should be able to reverse engineer the biosphere and most of the life forms without much error.”
“Most.” I shook my head wondering how much would be lost.
“Yes.” Anu chirped.
It was disturbing that our predecessors could devalue life to nothing more than patterns of information, tear them apart and put them in a computational blender.
“Alright, let’s get started.” I waved dismissively.
Nodes and repeaters released from the the ship arched high over what remained of the planet and star in hexagonal grids and dropped to the surfaces below. A couple of bright beams lanced out from the belly of the ship scored the surface of the planet and and star linking the nodes in a lacework of glowing hexagons; more information than raw energy. They slowly and carefully excited and released the latent bonds of the dense molecular structures that was once a planet and unleashed the plasma that had once danced in the heart of the sun. While the star raged to life it would take seven months of solid work to unpack the damn smart matter back into a living breathing planet with an advanced ecology of 9 million species. It was a lot like unraveling a very big ball of yarn and we had plenty of time to chill while the biosphere blossomed.
Looking up at the shimmering flow of the galactic arm through the window above my bed was like laying by of a river on a summer day, the light sparkling on the surface of the slow afternoon waters. Sometimes I missed wriggling my toes planet-side in the grass by a stream patrolled by dragonflies, shimmers of sunlight pouring through the leaves of a tree above. Much as I hated to admit it, sometimes I missed Earth, that mixed up planet of my birth. When I thought back to my small and simple life on that confused and conflicted rock, it was much like thinking about the politics and disputes of micro-organisms or some children squabbling over the movement of grains in a sandbox. But they were my micro-organisms and that ferment is what gave birth to me and sent me on my ride through the different neighbourhoods of the galaxy. In some ways squabbles and disputes are still a part of me, woven into the informational patterns in my densely packed synthetic biology.
I looked down at my body, flexed my newly grown chest, arms and legs. It had been a long time since last I was human and it felt good, like putting on a comfortable old sweater and pants. Granted, I wasn’t completely human as I once was with all those antique organs and carnival tent pole bones, but from the outside I certainly looked and felt human. When I glanced inside though I could see that my whole body was now more like a brain than anything. Nets of shimmering intelligent molecules woven together into smart fibers with glowing streams of information that connected me to the ship and the others with whom I travelled. As I meditated I could sense that the informational pattern of my body-mind was entangled with twin patterns far away in the Collective. When I wriggled my toes here, I wriggled simulated toes there and over there in different planetary systems throughout the galaxy. At times like this I felt like a bug looking at a flowered field through eyes of many facets. It was a little dizzying at first but my mind soon painted it all into a single picture and what seemed like several minds were blended into one.
I followed the threads of connection from those mirrored selves outward into the vast computational ecology of the Collective threaded carefully from planet to planet and star to star throughout the galaxy. My vision of it all was a net of shimmering jewels that linked together hundreds of worlds in filaments of braided red. And when I pulled back from the Collective into the private space of my own mind, I could see I was filled with a ecology of memories connected by similar threads. My distant past on Earth and my journey through the stars after being awakened from the dead were no longer faded cartoons of ink on putty but vibrant scenes, parallel lives that I could re-live whenever I chose. As a result, sometimes it felt as though the world, family and friends I left behind were still living day and night on that cloudy ball turning lazily around a yellow star. As silly as it was I sometimes imagined the world I knew frozen in time and waiting for me to return and pick up where we left off.
I do wonder what happened to that messed up planet, those fearful but hopeful apes we called humans, clinging hard to the roots of the past while trying desperately to move forward toward a brighter future. It’s like they were stuck between two bases in a game of pickle, unsure which way to run. They longed for change but feared it just the same. Every millennia or so I searched the Collective to see if they’ve joined but so far no word from Earth. As far as I knew they were still playing that silly game. All I could do was shrug and sigh. Someday I’ll return to peek over the fence and say hello, but I’ve been too busy in the past couple of hundred thousand years and immortality has a strange way of changing your sense of time. Some day I will go back to see if the human circus is still going on beneath the big top of their sky. Someday. But now, the game was afoot and last I checked we were winning.
After a good rest on my own with some quiet music and the soft embrace of a mattress, I arose and trudged back to the bridge of the ship to check in with my comrades on the resurrection of the planet. The corridors were filled with quiet music and scenes of raging waterfalls, cloudy forests and parched deserts from other worlds. When I entered the control room it reminded me of thanksgiving with my friends standing around a table with a world carved up in the middle. I did my best to push away the past and focus on the scene at hand.
Shuun, my old friend from a distant world was a third generation post biological entity now shaped into a series of bone tubes. When Shuun talked it sounded like musical farts, but my neural processors translated everything into the common tongue. Eventually I learned to stop laughing, though the others didn’t find it funny. Some had never tried organic life while others had deviated too far from the gassy organic norm to appreciate the fine nuances of methane. Here, I was the only human, having left Earth when I died millennia ago, wrapped like a mummy and shot into the depths of space. My companions and friends came in different shapes and sounds these days, now that I was so far from home. Jiiu, Zuu and Aaz continued incarnating as vibrant strands of living energy, harmonized in fifths of each other as their ancestors had done for eons. Anu was now an androgynous albino birdlike humanoid because he/she had lost big time in our last game of gin. Admittedly not all neural substrates were conducive to playing cards but that was Anu’s problem. And then there was me, now nurturing some wayward sense of sentimentality, I had chosen this time to incarnate as a human hybrid with a dense form of smart biology.
“How could they have done that?”
“Well, it’s easy.” Shuun sounded like a slow trombone. “All they had to do was transmit..”
“That’s not what I mean!” I was angry. Everyone turned to look at me.
“I don’t understand.” Said the jazz tuba
“Of course you don’t. You’re just being logical.”
“Oh, I understand, you mean morally.”
“For God’s sake, yes I mean morally!”
“For God’s sake?”
“Never mind.” I sighed.
“I’m not sure I like when you are human.” Anu squawked.
“I think it’s kind of funny.” The ship chimed in.
“Who asked you?” I smiled and the ship laughed.
“Maybe they knew we would find these systems.” Jiuu buzzed and as usual pulled the conversation back yo the situation at hand. Even after all these years together I wasn’t sure if this race of energy strands had much more than a subtle sense of humor.
“Maybe they didn’t care because they knew would eventually rebuild all of the worlds.”
“But the decay rate..”
“The evidence suggests they just didn’t care.”
“Well, we have enough effected systems mapped now that we can project their trail.”
“Thank you. Would you please pull up a projection.”
The simulation of the blossoming world disappeared and was replaced by the swirling cosmic flush of gas and light we call our galaxy. The past three stars that we had found transformed were were highlighted and connected with long luminous strands.
“When we add the other worlds we found that they had claimed, their path becomes obvious. They are making their way methodically along the Carina–Sagittarius Arm of the galaxy out towards the periphery.”
“How long before they reach the outer edge?”
“They are probably already there.”
“We’re already halfway there. If we get moving we can intercept them there soon.”
“Well, let’s get our asses out of here then.” Everyone turned to look at me curiously. I just shrugged the shrug of surrender. I’ve given up trying to explain my expressions to them.
The planet finished it’s return to life, a brown and green aggie marble soaring majestically around a simmering star and I insisted we leave our signature black monolith on the moon nearby. We were soon on our way after setting up a sphere of protective beacons at the edge of the solar system. The ship drank energy from the ground state of the void and we surfed a wave of spacetime, exotic particles spilling off in our wake. Stars coasted by and though we were intent on reaching the edge we listened to the songs of the stars as we went.
Their path led to the periphery of the spiral arm and stopped. At that point there was no where to go but up. We flew beyond the edge of the galaxy and high above the dense swirl of the galactic plane. Their trail moved out along the Sagittarius tidal stream of globular clusters, tidally stripped stars from the Milky Way’s old dance partner, the Sagittarius Dwarf Elliptical Galaxy now high in orbit around the edges of the Milky Way. Messy clumps of older red giants tangoed and waltzed with younger partners dressed in veils of orange and yellow plasma.
These were the retirement communities of ancient stars and elder races who preferred to rest in old Transcension homes, femto-scale communities hidden behind gates of carefully closed spacetime and were not too friendly toward us noisy and playful young ones from other stellar neighbourhoods. Sometimes for fun we did the one thing we knew would irritate them and jiggled spacetime at just the right oscillating pattern and booked it to hide behind a nearby cluster and watch, laughing all the way. When they opened the door and came out to see who called, they were usually pissed and butt ugly, but we learned something about them every time. As the old adage goes, sometimes you have to break a watch to see what makes it tick.
I remembered when I was young and very much human, the boys and girls I grew up with would run, bike and play across every lawn and yard in reach as though the neighbourhood was one big playground. Every yard, sidewalk, shrub and tree was ours for the taking except where old man Clint lived two doors down. Even the crisp autumn leaves were afraid to move out of their places on his lawn. We carefully avoided his property except when we tiptoed through his garden to climb his trees and steal his crabapples. The old transcensionists were old man Clint on a cosmic scale and we usually avoided them with equal care.
Each globular cluster we coasted by was an abandoned marble game of scattered stars and there were lots of these games spread across the sky. We moved into the outer halo toward the edge of the galactic corona. The bulge in the center of the galaxy appeared to be a single massively bright ball of fusion and to my eyes it was beautiful, a distant wondrous flower blossoming in the darkness. We followed our rival’s trail along the high arch of stars and spacetime curved rapidly behind us as dark matter gained ground.
We had time to kill, time to chill so I went back to my room and looked at the distant flower of lights. I lay back and listened to the silence, the pulse and flow of silence, the silence that held us safe from the raging winds of the stars. I lay listening to the silence that was the warm embrace of the ship which carried us through the cold vibrant darkness of space, the vessel that carried us from light to light, from star to star. The ship was my lover, my friend and companion; the ship and lover and companion with whom my life and journey had been so deeply intertwined. We journeyed through the silence and held each other close within the vastness between the vibrant simmering suns and their wandering caravans of worlds dressed in robes of clouds, shawls of life upon the flesh of water and stone. She held me as we travelled between worlds ad sailed the waves of time and space just as I had once held her and as we held each other amidst the menagerie and circus of worlds we explored together, within the silence which was never really silent.
“What are you thinking?” She asked politely, probably already knowing.
“About silence.” I replied.
“Ahh, the wandering.”
“Yes.” I nodded.
“Come visit me.” She asked gently.
Closing my eyes I let my awareness drift out into the space which was not a space. We met as luminous beings in vibrant embrace, nurturing energies of intimacy and knowledge flowing between us. We stayed together for many days, hunting through meadows of lush grass swept by gentle winds and the scents of distant prey. We rested in an enlightened kingdom of diamond and lapis inhabited by young gods. And when the galaxy was a distant wheel in the darkness and the ship we pursued was near, I awakened, returned to my body and wriggled my toes. It didn’t take long to gather my self together and return to the bridge.
“What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s happening?” I sang as I walked in.
They turned to look at me curiously and I laughed. Someday I would have to expose them to some more Earth culture from my memory archive.
“We contacted them but they refused to acknowledge us so we disabled their ability to move.”
The projection in the middle of the room showed a squished egg of a ship trapped in fold of spacetime.
“Excellent. What now?”
“Well, now we need to contact the Collective and decide how to progress.”
“You mean how to dole out some punishment.”
“If you want to call it that.”
“You bet your sweet ass I do.”
More dumbfounded looks turned my way.
“Are all humans so, colorful?”
“No, many are stuck in sepia.”
“Never mind. Let’s go shmooze with the Collective.”
We left the bridge and found our way to the communal chamber, a round featureless room filled with diffuse light. Once we spread out evenly, the gravity disappeared and we floated gently into the air. I closed my eyes, my mind shifted down through different states and thoughts faded into the vibrant substrate of my being. I awakened in a circular amphitheater, my colleagues and friends arranged in the same circle as we were in the ship. Rows of seats rose around us in a gradual slope of stairs. _ appeared beside me, took my hand in hers and smiled. Our minds touched, the boundaries between us relaxed and we were once again a single self with two minds. Slowly the others joined. First Jiiu, Zuu and Aaz opened their vibrant alien beings to us and I glimpsed distant spires rising through clouds, washed with golden light. Their minds were like music, a deep chord that filled the background of our awareness. Shuun joined in with a familiar voice rising from the depths and Anu joined in with a burst of warm high aspirations. Our minds connected in a collective chant, rising and falling together in waves as one mind with many voices.
Our entangled selves far away in the Collective joined in chant with us and soon their neighbors joined in the the great song. As other circles of minds entered, avatars appeared in the amphitheater around us. Feelings of curiosity and excitement gave way to interest and support as they embraced us and we embraced them. Call and response soon gave way to and blended into shared consciousness. Our mind grew strong with many voices blending into one, into a greater mind, alive and buzzing like a hive spread across a vast continent filled with song. Minds deep in the upwelling Cores of hundreds of planets joined us, soft clouds drifting through a vast immeasurable sky.
As we grew, encompassing stars and spreading through the inhabited portions of the galaxy, we discovered that there were other, greater intelligences already around us. We had glimpsed them before but they had always faded from view. They were luminous orchestral beings conversing in a language beyond our comprehension. Some were nebulous clouds of deep musical thunder while others resembled the dark molten hymns of neutron stars or the bright chromatic tones of living clusters of stars. We were but children as we approached them. And it was as though, despite all our advances and our greatness, we had been doing little but playing with toys they had made eons ago in their youth. Their minds were ancient and incomprehensible as they gathered and sang in an interior space like a vast domed cathedral. The ceiling was a softly shimmering honeycomb that extended far out into the periphery of our vision.
We were overjoyed to have finally made contact with these beings and they embraced us like parents embracing tired children in from a long day in the yard. Next to them, our collective young mind was turbulent and chaotic. Brooding ambient churnings and subduction currents of confusion pulled aggregates of connected minds down into the depths of uncertainty. We experienced moments of beauty and exultation but it dissolved around us back into a turbulent winter of confusion and longing. These ancient beings sang deep nurturing hymns rising in determination toward joy and we listened as they sent whale songs through spacetime to their cousins in other galaxies through the shimmering web of our local supercluster. Together they shaped spacetime, sculpting the dancing mists of quantum fluctuations that flowed in a slow ballet across a cold dark lake of possibilities. They shaped nebulae into embryonic stars and dragged and spun pulsars into new alignments. In the shimmering darkness between the distant embers of hundreds of billions of suns we sat as gods, our individuality as toes in a warm bath while our minds wandered across distances washed with languid ripples of light.
Deep undulations and riptides washed through the great voids and rising waves of distortion flowed through the filaments of the cosmic web. The delicate lacework of distant galaxies was consumed by a dark cancer followed by waves of shimmering light. When the first wave passed through us there was but a moment of darkness and we awakened in a simulation, everything around us transformed into computational matter. What was darkness before became light as billions of programmed galaxies flared to life. When the next wave approached what had been light was changed to darkness as it passed the boundaries of our the simulation. As the wave passed through us matter and energy relaxed into more chaotic patterns and burst forth in all its glory of fusion, light and solid matter. Wave upon wave washed away from the great attractors that our galaxies were drawn towards. Waves upon wave cascaded across the tendrils of our cosmos, a soft wind blowing across the shimmering jewels of dew hanging on a spider’s web. As our collective minds connected with those in other regions of cosmos we found that the oscillations of computation and chaotic matter had a pattern and was flowing out of an awakening universal mind of which we were but little more than a cell in an intelligence in the process of becoming born.
Momentarily, we were washed back into our own minds, our bodies settling back to the floor of our communal chamber. For a while there was nothing left for us to say. We wandered back toward the bridge and released the other ship flew back toward the welcoming arms the galaxy below. What adventures lay before us next we didn’t know.
Image from NASA.