Once upon a time, when the sun was getting tired, there was a captain whose fondest wish was to take his crew and passengers away from the solar system of their ancestors to settle on a planet of some other star. So he set out in his ship, the Good Hope — which was bigger than the palaces of most kings — to find a suitable world.
It takes a very long time to travel between the stars. If not for the Stillness, every person on the ship would have died of old age long before the ship arrived at the nearest star. But inside of the Still Cells, the captain and crew and passengers made the journey as if frozen in time. Nothing moved in them but the inspection bots that crawled slowly through their Still molecules, detecting and repairing any changes that came with the passing centuries.
While everyone slept, a machine called the Ai ran the ship. The Ai controlled the scoop and engines. If the ship hit a bit of dust that pitted the hull, the Ai sent bots to make repairs. Halfway through the journey, it reversed the engines to slow the giant ship. And when the ship was much closer to the star, it was the Ai that inspected the system to see if there might be a world suitable for people.
At that first star, two planets were barren and airless. Four planets were massive and gassy and too far away. The barren planets might have been made suitable by crashing comets into them, but this star had no oort cloud. There were no comets to use. Since no planet of this first star could be made suitable for people, the Ai searched for another young star of solar mass and calculated a vector path for reaching it. The Ai steered the ship to this second candidate star. All the while, the captain, crew, and passengers were Still.
From a distance, the second star’s wobble looked promising to the Ai. There was a planet of the right mass and period to be earthlike, but after journeying for centuries, the Ai drew near enough to see that the planet was not a single planet at all, but a binary pairing of irregular bodies in a belt of much smaller objects. This was not at all what the captain and his people needed, so the Ai searched for a third star.
And so the journey went for a long, long time. One promising star after another proved to have no earth-like planet. But the Ai was patient. Century after century after millennium, it searched. All the while, the captain crew and passengers were Still.
Back on the earth, things were changing. People had made bots and Ais that were more and more clever. Humans could merge their thoughts with the thoughts of Ais. They could take bots up into their bodies and reshape themselves at will. With each passing year, the minds and bodies of what once had been human changed more and more. With each passing year, humans could more and more shape the world around them by wishing something different and commanding it to be so. With energy and bots, they could build or become almost anything.
These trans-humans learned a new way of traveling, too. They could transmit data across synchronous quantum state gates and use that data to assemble copies. A bot-laden Ai-augmented human could transmit his or her profile from earth to a distant state gate and create an instant twin. Trans-humans built faster and faster ships to erect gates deeper and deeper in space.
While the ship bearing the captain and crew plodded from one yellow star to another at half the speed of light, the web of gates grew outward from earth like a super nova shock wave. Human space expanded and overtook the sleeping ship without even noticing that the ship was there.
The next time that the Ai looked at a promising yellow star, it woke the captain and his crew. “We are approaching this star from above the orbital plane. There are intelligent life forms in this system,” it said.
The captain could see that this was true. Visible structures rose from the surface of all the rocky planets, even the inner two worlds that had almost no atmosphere. Objects that might have been machines or might have been armored animals orbited the gas giants. Artifacts shaped like eggs or hoops or towers drifted through the interplanetary space. At the captain’s command, the ship’s Ai radiated patterned bursts from x-ray to microwave to announce their presence and show that the ship carried intelligent creatures.
In this system, there dwelt six trans-humans, each living on a planet of its own. The trans-human on the third planet searched through human history, analyzed the relevant data, and was the first to reply to the Ai’s communication. “Welcome, Good Hope,” it said. “Are you having a pleasant journey?” In the hours that followed, other trans-humans chimed in with greetings of their own.
Now the captain was very much surprised to be greeted in his own language. He was even more surprised to learn that the artifact builders in this system were human, or at least were descended from humans. Thousands of years had passed while the captain had been in Stillness. He felt as if he were waking to a dream. And not a happy dream, not at all. Each planet of this system belonged to a different trans-human, who saw the planet as an extension of itself. They would no more offer a place on their worlds to the people of the Good Hope than a fine lady would invite lice to live in her hair. Even if one or two of the worlds were suitable for a colony, those worlds weren’t available. Any other stellar system the Good Hope might go to would be just as full since trans-humanity was spreading through the galaxy faster than the Good Hope could travel. It seemed that the fondest hope of captain and crew would not be realized. They would never have a world of their own.
The trans-humans, however, took pity on the captain. They agreed that he and his people should have a world of their own, and as quick as thought, they began to devise one. They gated bots and reefs to the system’s outer reaches. The tiny bots fed on heat from the reef reactors and assembled dust from the oort cloud into a hollow sphere. The world they built was like a hollow planet with its atmosphere inside. The bots built stones and mountains, pools and oceans, sandy deserts and loamy plains. In the center of this sphere burned a zero-point reef, a sun to this inside-out world.
The captain might have been sad. His crew and passengers were not to be pioneers for humanity, establishing a hopeful outpost for the dying sun they had left behind. The humanity they had left behind had not only saved itself, but had outgrown them. The captain might have felt that he and his people were, instead of bold pioneers, the ones truly left behind. But he chose instead to celebrate his good fortune. He had launched his ship toward an uncertain fate, yet he had brought his crew and passengers to a new world that they could settle and make their own.
The Good Hope’s crew and passengers entered their new world. They began to use their own primitive bots and germ cells from the earth to shape and cultivate their new home. Soon grasses waved on the hollow world’s plains. Newly invented fishes swam in the seas.
With a grateful heart, the captain invited each of the six trans-humans to come to the new world in person and celebrate what they had made. Until now, the people of Good Hope had not actually seen their benefactors. One by one, the six arrived, each more astonishing than the one before. The trans-human from the first planet was scaled like a fish, and like a fish it did not blink its four diamond lensed eyes. Though it had four arms like a Hindu god, it had no mouth, no nose, no ears that anyone could see, and it rode across the vaccuum on the outside of its little craft. But a cloud of bots around it vibrated the air so that it could speak.
The trans-human of the second planet was as big as a whale, but at the front of its bulk was a face — tiny in comparison to the body — not all that different from the faces of the Good Hope people. Indeed, the captain could talk face-to-face with this trans-human and imagine that a person of his own size had fallen into an ocean of flesh, floating so that only her face showed.
The master of the third planet appeared to be as much a plant as an animal. The trans-human of the fourth world was shaped like a manta ray and never left the ship it wore like a suit of armor. The fifth was nearly as big as the great whale-sized being, but it bristled with silvery hairs or wires. The tiny sixth trans-human, no bigger than a terrier, arrived unnoticed, riding in the silvery bristles of the fifth.
Now there was also a seventh trans-human that arrived, a spidery, crabby, mechanical thing that gleamed golden when it entered the new human habitat. This being had lived for a long time on the other side of the oort cloud. None of the other trans-humans had thought to mention its existence since it hardly ever communicated with them. They had not even known with certainty that it had not met with some accident. They would not have missed it. It was selfish and unfriendly.
The people of Good Hope, expecting six trans-humans and seeing six, did not suspect that anything might be amiss. But the tiny master of the sixth world, seeing its unfriendly neighbor arrive, decided not to announce itself and remained hidden in the silvery bristles.
The crew and passengers had debated long and hard about what gesture of gratitude they might make to the trans-humans. Through their gates, the transhumans could communicate instantly with all of trans-humanity. With their advanced bots and reef reactors, they had god-like powers over matter. What experience could the crew give them that the trans-humans could not access from human history? What physical gift could they bestow that the trans-humans could not make for themselves?
After the captain made a welcoming speech, the humans gave their benefactors the gifts they had settled on. They played music of their own invention. They sang a grateful song. And they presented the trans-humans with artifacts from their ship. While the trans-humans could have manufactured duplicates of the dishes, tools, or instruments that the humans gave them, these particular items were from earth, ancestral home to all.
It was hard to tell precisely what the trans-humans thought of their gifts. They were so different from the humans in their shape and manner that the Good Hope people could not detect their emotions. However, all but the golden one said some sort of thank you.
Then the biggest trans-human, the one with the human face, said that it was programming a cloud of bots and releasing them into the atmosphere. These bots would enter human bodies and keep them in good order. As long as the people of Good Hope did not meet with any accident, they would live as long as their zero-point artificial sun burned in the center of their world, and that would be for a very long time.
The scaly master of the first world then released some bots into the soil. These bots would analyze and maintain human populations, halting reproduction if the humans began to strain their finite resources.
A third trans-human gave a gift of improved memory, so that they people of Good Hope might remember their lifetimes even as they spanned many thousands of years. A fourth introduced speedy, random evolution, so that their ecosystem would always be in a state of interesting, challenging flux. The fifth introduced bots that would build up beautiful inorganic structures from the soil and then dismantle them, making random sculpture gardens here and there and everywhere.
But the golden trans-human did not announce the nature of its gift. It threw down the bowl it had been given and squirted a cloud into the air. “You were not invited here,” it said. “The oort cloud and all that is in it belongs to me.” Then it left.
The trans-humans that had given their gifts backed away and extended various probes to sample the aerosol of bots that the golden one had left behind. The humans backed away, too. The ground beneath the bot cloud was turning gray. One by one, the trans-humans jettisoned their sampling elements and hurried away, all except for the one that had hidden in the silver bristles of its larger companion. That one hopped down to sample those bots, too, and at last it told the captain, “These bots are like cancer on a planetary scale. They are designed to hunt complexity and simplify it. They are designed to reproduce without limit. They are very well made.” Now the jettisoned probes of the other trans-humans were turning gray and crumbling as if made of sand.
“Can you construct immunity bots against them?” asked the captain.
“I do not think so. The others left because they are afraid.”
“And you are not afraid?”
“I am only a partial copy of myself,” said the trans-human. One of its feet was turning gray. “I am expendable.” Then it ejected an aerosol. “These bots will slow the infection, but they will not stop it. I expect that there is a solution, but I may not have enough time to discover it.”
“Then what are we to do?” wondered the captain.
The trans-human hissed another aerosol. “These bots will induce stasis.” It shifted its weight as its gray leg dissolved. “I am gating information to the rest of myself. I will think about this.” Grayness spread along its body. “When I have a solution, I will reverse the stasis.” Then it crumbled into gray ash.
The captain noticed that the toe of his right boot had turned gray. He kicked, and the grayness crumbled. Part of his foot was missing. He felt no pain. The captain wondered what stasis was, but at that very moment the stasis bots began to operate and the captain was blind and deaf and dumb. Stasis was like Stillness, he realized, and it was working from the outside in. Molecule by molecule, cell by cell, he was being frozen in time. He had time enough to think that the stasis bots must be smaller than the gray infection bots, because they has dispersed much faster. Or perhaps they were motile. Then stasis narrowed his thoughts. He was thirsty. He was breathing. He was.
Then it was as if he was not. He was Still.
Stasis froze the gray infection. One by one, it froze the people who had come from the Good Hope. It froze the air, the grass. It froze the water surface in mid wave, then froze the depths. Stasis crept through the shell of the world and froze the Good Hope and minimal crew still docked outside. Only the zero-point reactor in the center of the hollow world went on as before, burning like a sun and powering the stasis bots.
Of the trans-humans who had fled the infection, only one carried any of the infection with it as it fled. Unfortunately, it was the transhuman from the inmost planet. As the infection spread on that first planet, a few bots were blown outward on the solar wind. With time, they landed on each of the other worlds. One by one, the trans-humans used their gates to consult all of trans-humanity for a solution to the plague. One by one, they succumbed to it. They did not protect themselves with stasis, not even the trans-human that, through its copy, had brought stasis to the hollow world. Each trans-human thought that it could devise a solution to the infection. And each one was wrong.
All of the six worlds were dead and gray.
The trans-human of the oort cloud disappeared as well. Perhaps it had finally succumbed to some accident. Perhaps even it could not adapt to the gray infection of its making. Perhaps it continued to change, as trans-humans tended to do, and became something even less human. Perhaps it went away.
The hollow world continued its slow orbit of the star. Time passed. The star evolved, pulsing as it burned heavier and heavier elements. At last it collapsed, exploded, died, and cooled, a dark star with a dark companion.
Far, far away, there lived a trans-human called The Thaen. It had a massive head covered with sensory organs for the full spectrum of radiation, and very little body beyond its modest propulsion system. The Thaen thought it strange that life was so rare in the galaxy. Stranger still, intelligent life was, as far as anyone could tell, unique. It had arisen only on the earth. The Others that humans had long expected to encounter among the stars were nowhere to be found. But another galaxy might have at least one intelligent species of its own, and The Thaen would have liked nothing better than to meet it.
So it was that The Thaen modified itself for a long journey in deep space. With an enlarged body to hold a reactor reef, it set out on a journey through the inter-galactic void. It arrived at Andromeda just behind the automated ships that other trans-humans had launched. Already the gates carried by these ships had produced copies of other trans-humans. And what strange beings they were.
The Thaen of course knew that time dilation would slow its subjective time. It knew that a long time would have passed for trans-humanity by the time The Thaen arrived at Andromeda. Even so, it was surprised by how different the trans-humans emerging from the gate were from The Thaen itself. Trans-humanity had continued to evolve and change. These trans-trans-humans were small, quick, and adaptive. They were as gregarious as The Thaen’s generations had been solitary. They were as uniform as The Thaen’s cohort had been diverse. They spread like fire through the Andromeda galaxy, building social colonies on planets and in the void.
The Thaen travelled across the width and breadth of Andromeda, but the only intelligent life forms it encountered were these spreading descendants of its own kind. However, they might as well have been the aliens it sought. They were so different from The Thaen that it found them difficult to communicate with. They understood its language easily enough — they could all link to the data of the gate, but The Thaen found the manner of their thinking strange and the nuances of their language bizarre. And even though all the technological history of the trans-trans-humans was accessible to The Thaen through the gate, The Thaen found developments in recent centuries hard to fathom. An energy beyond zero-point had been discovered and exploited. It was called metaspatial architecture, but though The Thaen grew its brains to try to understand it, it grasped this new science only tenuously.
But The Thaen didn’t need to tap metaspatial architecture in order to continue its search for alien intelligence. It set out for another galaxy. It arrived to find that galaxy populated by a web of bots and organisms that filled the interstellar space like the filaments of mold. The Thaen first took this bot-and-flesh structure for the desired alien. But then The Thaen found a gate. The Thaen connected and learned that this web was of human descent. When The Thaen queried, the organism or organisms — it might have been one mind or a multitude — did not respond. It was not interested in The Thaen.
Through the gate, The Thaen could see that post-humanity had made great conceptual leaps while The Thaen had come from Andromeda. Post-humanity no longer needed to cross space to spread itself from galaxy to galaxy. Instead, it transcended space. Post-humanity was everywhere now, and everywhere it was engaged in some undertaking, come creation that The Thaen, no matter how it tried, could not understand.
The Thaen had never found any intelligence that was not human. But it had encountered alien intelligence, nevertheless, because everything that had once been human was now alien to The Thaen. Connection through the gates brought The Thaen no closer to these minds that it could not understand, minds that would not respond to it. The Thaen was alone.
“Are there none like me left in the universe?” it asked through a gate. And in the data it glimpsed the static, hollow world of the Good Hope. The hollow world still orbited the corpse of its star.
Long did The Thaen travel to return to the galaxy of its birth. By the time it found the hollow world, the shape of the universe had begun to change. Light did not always follow the shape of space-time. Stars that should have gone on burning for eons winked out. Post-humanity was responsible, but The Thaen could not guess what they/it were/was doing, or why.
The zero-point reef still powered the hollow world’s artificial sun. The captain and his people were still frozen as they had been for millions of years. The Thaen deactivated the gray infection by manipulating its metaspatial architecture. The stasis bots shut themselves down. The hollow world woke up.
The captain and his people needed no explanation. They knew at once that The Thaen had saved them from the gray infection. They sang their grateful song to The Thaen. Though they were primitive creatures, the captain and his people were the closest The Thaen had to its own kind. It loved them. In their way, they loved it.
The universe continued to change. It was being engineered into something else. All of its rules were changing. But the captain’s people and The Thaen lived happily every after in the time that was left.