Back on the Good Ship Lollipop, Aeolus sat on a beach by the sea listening to gentle waves lapping the shore. Such was the size of the ship and the skill of its Intelligence, its matter could be reconfigured more or less at will. Today, the Traveler craved a time of quiet and so sat on a lonely and beautiful beach.
What was it like to be The Traveler?
Rather better than being in possession of an old-style biological brain, truth be told.
Biological brains could not be changed, at least not without evolution, slow and cumbersome and played out over untold generations. Wetware brains stored memory in delicate physical form, in a network of billions of neurons and thus consciousness arose. Drawing on memorised experience of the past, biological sentience became aware of its surroundings, and was condemned to feel an often devastating and uncontrollable rush of emotions and qualia. Sometimes caused by input from its sensory organs, sometimes stemming from less tangible roots. Awareness was not all it was cracked up to be: most biological beings lived in fear of one form or another.
For a wetware being, past, present, and future were immutable – unchangeable, as entropy wore away and broke down the mechanics which drove him. Life had been prolonged among the more advanced races, but senescence eventually kicked in and the physical form withered and died.
While true that the biological brain could be temporarily nudged up or down the emotional scale by drugs, permanent change was impossible to achieve without destroying the very entity for which change was sought. Interfere too drastically with the physical brain and the apple became an orange, so to speak. Attempted change to the biological brain would usually lead to destruction of its cognitive capabilities.
Biological sentience thus had scant control over its own being. In the more advanced civilisations, physical symptoms caused by sensory input could be controlled. Pain was no longer a problem. Hunger was easily enough assuaged thanks to the advent of the age of plenty. Machine intelligence saw to every physical need in what was (for the advanced races at least) a post scarcity age.
But emotional wellbeing was another matter entirely. To feel joy or elation, dejection or the utmost misery was not something easily controlled in the biological being, let alone by sheer force of will.
To bootstrap yourself into a better mood, a better life, had never been an option for those limited to a physical substrate. This had been the primary incentive behind the development of the technology of ascension. Ascension, transcendence to the mysterious heights of the non-physical realm.
So, what was it like to be the Traveler?
Even when wearing a physical body, his mind had no need to assume solid form. His consciousness remained outside the tangible realm and yet was able to manipulate matter when called to.
To put it simply, the Traveler and his kind lived in gradients of bliss. That is what transcendence did for you. Once your personality was no longer embedded in flesh, you could do and feel whatever you liked. If one day you wanted to see the world through black lenses and the next adopt a rose-tinted view, well that is just what you did.
Thus, to be one of the ascended races was to have achieved freedom. Freedom from want, freedom from tedious physical restraint. Pure mind, pure spirit able to wheel and dive and soar wherever and whenever it wanted.
Glorious as it was to sit by the sea and watch the gulls wheel overhead, delightful as was the smell of saltwater and the shriek of the oystercatchers, all this could have been achieved without material substance. Less elevated races assumed it was akin to lucid dreaming, this ability to travel and live purely through mind. Some imagined the ascended races lived in some form of virtual reality, and in a sense, they were right although no solid substrate was required.
Regardless, today the Traveler drifted. Occasionally as he sat there on that beautiful seashore, he would call out to others of his kind and exchange news, a pleasantry or two. Some were on this very ship, others a galaxy or universe away. Or distant in what the material world called time.
At other moments, his immaterial mind would soar like a bird over green fields and forest and lakes, taking in the smells in the air, seeing blue skies and fleecy clouds. Feeling the cool wind and the warmth of a sun. Plunging with an eagle towards its prey, diving with a gannet below the waves. All the while feeling exhilaration, fulfilment. Simple delight in life.
Should he grow tired of thought, Aeolus would ditch personality and thought altogether. What the un-ascended termed “ego” could be abandoned at will and re-assumed when (or even if) desired.
What was it like then, to be without a self? To be pure consciousness, pure awareness unattached to any personality, any history, memory or thought?
It was the very heaven imagined and longed for by so many for so long. It was nirvana, ecstasy, joy, ineffable. Indescribable, mystical, all consuming.
Many of the ascended remained in that state for eternity. Were they a note of music, a painting of unfathomable beauty? Were they a feeling? Were they anything at all and if so, what did it matter?
In such a state they were one with all of Reality itself and nothing more can usefully be said. Perfection had been achieved; the ultimate source found and joined. Such a state was the beginning and the end. Such a state was all and nothing. The alpha and the omega. Bliss and ultimate union.
A large grey heron landed beside Aeolus and picked at molluscs on the tideline. “The Best Endeavours has called for a special session of the Extreme Threats group in half an hour” it said. “Any idea what its about Lollipop?” said the Traveler, reluctant to return from his reverie.
“No idea” said the ship’s AI “but the news from Extreme Threats is never pleasant. See you on the bridge” it said and flapped off lazily over the inland sea, a small flatfish in its beak.
Whatever was required, the Traveler would be undertaking this one without his companion Hestia. The Traveler was an old hand and unlikely to be perturbed by much. Most threats, extreme or otherwise, were easily enough dealt with given the experience and skills of the Extreme Threats Group.
Hestia was a newcomer and so far, limited to the fun jobs. Scaring the wits out of simple locals on places like Arkady. Planting a few Cargo Cults. Extreme threats tended to be, well, extreme. While no Guardian felt fear, entrance to the Extreme Threats Group tended to be granted to the battle hardened. Reality was, literally, unlimited. There were dark corners, caves and caverns (metaphorically speaking) as well as open green fields and the more straightforward sort of terrain. No one had ever been wholly convinced that Reality had been explored in its entirety; most doubted that it could be. You never knew when something nasty might be found in the woodshed.
The ascended races tended to co-operate and communicate but even their great powers were unable to be ascertain with absolute certainty that monsters did not lie in some deep and dark pool in some undiscovered realm.
Near omnipotent and omniscient they may be, but as with gunslingers in the less salubrious corners of the multiverse, you never quite knew if someone might come along with better toys and bigger guns.
With time in hand, Aeolus set out on foot for an amble through the ship while he collected his thoughts.
The Guardians’ spaceships were made like old fashioned nested dolls – but as you went deeper, each successive doll was bigger than that which housed it. Like a reversed onion, as you peeled away the layers, what you found was a larger entity within.
Space and time had turned out to be infinitely malleable by those with a gift for temperospatial engineering and no one had greater skills in this regard than the Guardians.
The Good Ship Lollipop and her peers would thus house populations running into the thousands within their flexible perimeters. Anyone living on such a ship was a member of the Civilisation – a loosely grouped society of diverse races who had advanced enough to know that violence was no way to live, especially in an age when the means of survival did not have to be fought over. They drifted in and joined the Civilisation from all walks of life but abided by a largely unwritten code of behaviour. Some outside the Civilisation regarded them as prissy do gooders who had traded the right to rape and pillage for an altogether quieter and more cultured existence.
The Civilisation was open to all who had grown up. Some said “enlightenment” was the entry ticket and certainly you would not find members of the cruder species housed on board. Quite what constituted enlightenment remained a mystery, but to those who had achieved it, the rules of membership were clear enough. Members of the Civilization tended to be those who were advanced enough to ascend but who chose to remain as physical entities yet awhile, as they made their minds up.
Such people were nonetheless far removed from the species from which they had evolved. They were almost inevitably entirely genetically re-engineered. Similar to the ascended themselves, they could change their physical form as they chose: today male, tomorrow female. Today a being with wings with which to beat a path through the heavens, tomorrow a sea creature taking their oxygen through gills.
And their minds, their sentience. That, if anything, is what the Civilization was named for.
The Traveler set off on foot for his meeting on the bridge. There were occasions when inhabiting a physical body was a pleasure and walking through the extraordinary landscape of the Lollipop was one of them.
There were towns here, of course. Skyscrapers of great beauty set out on grid patterns, their glistening spires reaching through the clouds above. Elegant villas set in lush gardens, terraced houses of ancient architectural heritage set out along a riverbank, where pleasure boats moored or carried relaxed citizens on a lazy afternoon outing.
Beautiful as the towns and villages were, Aeolus often preferred the wide-open countryside, where so many differing terrains were presented. From quaint patchwork quilt fields and gentle parkland, to snow topped mountains, deserts, and grand canyons.
How big such areas were in terms of conventional measurement was difficult to say. They expanded and contracted at will, on the combined whims of Lollipop and his guests.
Suffice to say, if you wanted to walk in gentle pre-alpine hills in the morning, with flower covered meadows and waterfalls and a sprinkling of springtime snow, that did not prevent you trekking through deserts or roaming a prairie in the afternoon. Or sailing on a vast inland sea.
In a sense, the inside of the Lollipop was like a mind – vast, infinite almost. Your imagination found here anything it sought. Bustling urban landscapes, tranquil rural idylls, or harsh wilderness.
But help was always close at hand. A broken leg (or even neck) from rock climbing was no real threat to life, since the ship’s AI was omnipresent and always there to pick up the pieces of its more intrepid guests.
Aeolus strode through a forest in an alpine setting on his way to the bridge a kilometre or so distant. A beautiful roe deer approached and trotted by his side. It seemed to be early spring in this sylvan setting, the spring crocus and a few primroses making an early appearance among the remaining patches of snow.
“They have codenamed this crisis “Schopenhauer”” said Lollipop. The ship’s AI was always coming up with new ideas for his avatars and the roe deer seemed a nice touch, given the setting.
“Meaning what exactly? Who or what is Schopenhauer?”
“A pessimist, my friend” responded Lollipop. “He considered life such a burden that we would be better not to have existed. As he said:
“If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?””
“Ah” said The Traveller “So someone is trying to snuff us all out?”
“Something like that it seems” said Lollipop “but I’ll let Best Endeavours fill you in properly”.