The tranquil void twinkled with the light of distant stars; virgin space uncharted by life. Then, for the first time, something drifted steadily into the sector of nothingness, growing from a point of light into a small object and then finally to a metallic space craft. The shuttle was large relative to its solitary passenger, but it sat in the great void like a plankton in the ocean. Its shape was calculated and orderly, designed exclusively for – and built within – the vacuum of space, never fearing the pressure of atmospheres that had tethered earlier crafts. Across its hull read the name “TVC-15,” an identification for no one out here.
Its journey was not propelled by an aimless force seeking escape from a forgotten world, but rather a carefully charted vector that spiraled out from a now-distant – and much beloved – solar system. The mission of its passenger was not one of conquest or colonization, but rather of observation and study, to document the deepest expanses of space in a manner that left as small a footprint as possible.
Then, from the hull of the TVC-15 came the silent birth of a small satellite, which let out a pulse of energy to alter its course from the vector of its mother ship to a relatively stationary position, rotating in place like a top as the parent continued on its journey. The satellite was one of the few physical traces left in the craft’s wake, a necessary piece of infrastructure to keep its pilot connected to other travelers across the galaxy. For while this craft was alone in its sector, dozens of other intrepid individuals piloted similar vessels in a web of deep space travel, one-way journeys for the good of their species.
As each vessel navigated its way ever outward, the satellites they left behind formed a decentralized network of quantum relays. These breadcrumbs transmitted information at speeds that eliminated the immense distance between travelers and permeated each solitary inhabitant with a library of knowledge and a community of peers, overcoming the physical confines of their situation. This great sharing of data did not occur through conscious logs but rather while the traveler slept, synchronizing their augmented brain with The Great Neural Network; as they dreamed and processed the day’s study, their mind updated to reflect the findings of their colleagues in space.
Rather than replace each traveler’s humanity, this augmentation refined it, for to truly document all that was out there each traveler needed to be an archetype: a microcosm of the insight and potential inherent in mankind. As the scientist, one accumulated and analyzed data in a regimented fashion. As the artist, one interpreted the ineluctable modality of the visible into forms that advanced cultural heritage. As the spiritualist, one reflected on the process and purpose of the journey, finding internal strength in the looming face of existential dread. As the lover, one found meaning and strength in external exchanges, cherishing others for being themselves in reciprocated warmth. As the hero, one put the needs of others above their own, making the sacrifices necessary to better humanity. Thanks to their augmented minds, each traveler embodied all these personas and more, in a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
To document, create, and reflect, each traveler turned their minds to virtual realms of expression, as the physical limits of the vessel – no matter how large it was – would never prove satisfactory. Unlike the virtual reality programs of the past, each vessel was equipped with a vicarious reality program indistinguishable from the physical world. Through the same link-up as their sleep chamber, the traveler could access this VR environment, replacing the reality of their ship for hours at a time. The program provided for any foreseeable need of expression with which to document the day’s work, as well as a slew of social and recreational accommodations to let travelers interact in every natural fashion, or even reach out to distant relatives still anchored to flatlands.
As the satellite fell out of sight from the TVC-15, shrinking to a point of light, another object came into view, encroaching on the ship from behind. It was a probe sent out in the prior month on a planetary survey, now returning to relay the findings of its mission. The probe entered the hull of the ship in a silent, fluid operation. Upon entering, it was decontaminated by the artificial intelligence that managed the space craft’s autonomous functions. The probe was complex in its design, featuring articulate limbs on its front and a large container on its back. After decontamination, the container emptied out a selection of gathered resources with which the AI could restock supplies, refuel power batteries, build additional satellites, and continue the long term journey. Several samples were also sent to the ship’s lab as the probe was readied for its next mission. The probe was the only element of the craft suitable to enter foreign atmospheres, robust in design and closely monitored to prevent any forward or backward contamination. As it went about its missions, the traveler could choose to embody the probe through VR, to seek and explore untouched worlds firsthand in a dream made manifest. For the travelers, sending probes to other celestial bodies allowed them to immerse into a world without ever disturbing it.
The craft’s artificial gravity resumed power as the traveler rose from their slumber and unplugged from the sleep chamber, alert and refreshed. Dynamic lighting schedules brightened the ship in an artificial sunrise, invigorating the traveler with golden morning light. The AI greeted the explorer and proceeded to check their vitals, charting the trip’s impact on long term health and ensuring the augmented mind bore no deviation from the mission’s core goals. The explorer freshened up in the washroom, ate a nutritious meal, exercised, and watered a crop of plants before moving onto the day’s work. These banal activities might seem trivial to grounded audiences, but such routines had to be precise in their recreation to design as comfortable a life for the inhabitant as possible.
The morning routine bled into a day filled with activity: studying the samples in the lab; interpreting the findings in VR sculptures, sonnets, and gardens; giving a class in Chicago a tour of the ship and lecture on the mission through VR telepresence; reading another chapter in their Ocean Steamships book; reviewing the month’s schedule with the AI; gazing outside for a long time; eating an evening meal; reciting a Carducci poem to the traveler from TVC-04 in a lovely Tuscan villa; meditating in a darkened room; listening to a classical music album from the 1970s; living a normal life, at least as normal as the situation allowed.
Many explorers did not maintain familial ties to the flatlands, as they called their former planet, but felt a strong connection rather to the spirit of humanity, its cosmic soul in a sense. They performed their work out of a sense of commitment to this soul, a duty to navigate the wandering rocks of the universe no matter the personal toll. This commitment was not one that was easy to sympathize with, except in the broadest strokes of thanking travelers for their service, so many explorers were more than happy to unhook themselves from terrestrial tethers, to focus on their work in peace.
The inhabitant of TVC-15 had a distant cousin on Earth and occasionally they met in VR to engage in chitchat, to talk of how things were down there and up here, arbitrary directions in the vacuum of space. The relationship was maintained out of a sense of obligation to an outdated emphasis on genetic similarity. Perhaps someday this tie would completely sever, as other travelers had let happen, but for now the ship’s lights were dimming in the reddish glow of sunset, and the inhabitant was tired.
The AI disabled the artificial gravity as the dreamer floated calmly in the sleep chamber, synchronizing the day’s insights and epiphanies with the findings of their peers. The room fell dark and silence reigned as the vessel continued on its way, shrinking from a large metallic ship to a small object to a point of light before finally disappearing altogether, leaving the void as it had found it, twinkling with the light of distant stars.