They sat side by side on folding wooden chairs facing ranks of empty similar chairs. High up, the top of the cubic room was bordered with narrow windows and skylights, set back in such a way that no direct sunlight could reach the walls. But as it was evening the windows let in only a soft sodium glow and the distant hum of traffic. The ceiling had an orange cast.
Lawson returned and handed Ant a glass. “They didn’t have any white,” he said. “I got you red.”
Ant thought: It’s as if it was always meant to be a gallery. His eyes moved over the photographs—his photographs—evenly spaced on the white walls. The room had been hurriedly painted for this show and was part of a partitioned warehouse in Peckham. Behind him, in the warren of storerooms and unused space heading back to the street, Ant could hear the last of the visitors leaving and a few volunteers clearing up. In the afterglow, he imagined studios and well-lit galleries.
“Tony, I gave you a proper going-over,” said Lawson, “Sorry about that.”
“No, no. You were right to bring it up. I take photographs. I work for big companies too. Perhaps the corporate stuff can be called art. I like to think so,” said Ant.
“It might make you more money if you didn’t,” said Lawson.
“Look, it worked for me,” said Lawson, and they moved into a comfortable silence.
The evening had been billed as ‘A Conversation with the Artist.’ It had been a good turnout, albeit most of the audience came to Ant’s monthly discussion groups in any case, so the interview with his old friend Lawson had felt more like the continuation of a long conversation.
“When you talked about the death drive,” said Lawson, “that went down well. The call of the void.”
L’appel du vide. This exhibition brought together a few series from Ant’s recent work; landscapes, portraits, and abstracts. His pictures warped perspective and form, imperceptibly, creating the unconscious sensation of being drawn in—an urge, really, experienced through simply standing and looking at the print, but towards subjects that were fatal. Seduction and danger. A fear of heights isn’t the risk of losing one’s footing, it’s a fear of oneself: that standing on the edge, looking down, presented with the immediate opportunity, the fear that one’s mental courage won’t be enough to overcome the what if curiosity of a leap off the precipice. So easy to do.
“They hang off your every word, you know,” said Lawson, and Ant knew what he meant from his memory of their eyes.
“We spend a lot of time in the Saturday group on the creative force and where it comes from,” said Ant, explaining away the devotion, “and the death drive is a favourite theory right now. It’s a neat formulation. Freud’s idea of the death drive is that we all have an instinct to repeat, to close the loop. You can see how that would be useful. We learn by repetition. We’re creatures of habit. But the ultimate closing of the loop is a return to nothingness.
“And what we’ve been talking about in the group is that there’s a conflict with our obvious instinct to stay alive, and so now we’re dealing with a classic repression. The repressed death drive has to pop out somewhere. It comes out in little ways. Bingo, that’s the creative force! Risk-taking. Anticipating death with little oblivions.”
“Le petite mort.”
“I was thinking of getting drunk,” said Ant, “but whatever tickles your fancy. Yes, oblivion as sipping death without the actual dying part. Alcohol or orgasm.”
“Cheers to that,” said Lawson, “Speaking of which, I’ll get us another glass.”
Whether the adrenaline of speaking in-front of an audience, the relief at a well-attended opening, or the talk of mortality, Ant felt bigger than he was.
Lawson returned. “Red again,” he said.
Ant: “Of course, orgasm is more eros than eschaton. Life instinct versus death instinct. The urge to multiply rather than the urge to unify.”
“Eschaton as in death-of-the-universe? As in the shockwave of the eschaton? As in Terence McKenna?”
“That’s the man. He saw the universe as racing towards an inevitable conclusion, an end-point of accelerating complexity where it unifies and, well—who knows what next. The next stage of cosmic evolution. Unknowable, so an ending all the same. Shamans can see it. Psychedelics let you pop your head outside time and see it briefly. All of us feel it intuitively all the time and it shapes our behaviour.
“But where Freud said we carry the death drive with us in our cells, a prehistoric habit, McKenna said that our premonition of the eschaton comes from the future. The ultimate unification is such a momentous event, such a psychic earthquake, that it creates ripples that genuinely travel backwards through time.”
“Did he say how?” said Lawson.
“An exercise left for the reader,” said Ant, “but I do wonder whether there’s something in McKenna’s escape from time. Maybe we’re all too obsessed with the present. We carry our memories in our heads and our hearts, and we’re quite content to say they belong to the past. In which case, why not say our knowledge of death belongs to the future—and our individual reactions to that knowledge too? We’re each of us going to die. It’s a termination of our consciousness, a finality. It almost seems absurd to say it can’t be, I don’t know, pre-remembered. I know it sounds like semantics, but the more I throw away my Saturdays debating the mystery of the creative force, the more I think we should just say that new ideas come from the future and be done with it. Turns out that I’m a mystic at heart.”
“You’ve been thinking like this since we were 20, haven’t you,” said Lawson, and it wasn’t a question.
When the two of them were 20 years old, there was an afternoon they were sitting in the front room of the flat they shared. The television was on with the sound off, and the room was small which made it cosy despite the mismatched and worn furniture. Lawson and Ant had ended up renting together after meeting through mutual friends, and this was perhaps six months in. It was mid Sunday afternoon—a cold day with an innocuous blue Spring sky. They were chatting about girls or golf probably, and then a wave lifted them both to a place where speech did not have a home. For ten minutes they sat together, without the ability to speak and without the desire to try. It was a timeless moment as at the top of a swing, and they sat seeing without looking until a vertigo came upon them. It was the blinding light and roaring sound of being in the here and now, in a flat, in London, in April. The crashing shock of awareness caused them both to lose balance from their sitting positions, and the two of them tipped simultaneously from their chairs and then, thud, thud, onto the thin carpet.
“Did it ever happen to you again?” said Ant to Lawson, his fellow traveller, his brother-in-arms.
“No,” said Lawson, “has it come again to you?”
Brown wooden chairs. Rough white walls. Photographs are photons on flypaper. Ant saw his friend in his crisp white shirt, cuffs folded once with a large, perfectly round, perfectly flat, expensively thin wristwatch exposed on a tan, strong forearm. Distant sounds through the doorway behind them but nobody visible. Dark in the room beyond. The remains of the wine from the event on the trestle table along the wall next to the door; two open bottles of red, two open bottles of white.
It happened regularly, thought Ant, this premonition of the end of living, the Grim Reaper’s breath every six months or so, and every time it left Ant untethered and terrified, driven to his studio to use his eyes and use his hands. Twice a year or more he was picked off his feet by who-knows-what and swept up the beach, left gasping when the wave retreated, shivering and exposed.
As his own death had become a familiar acquaintance, at some point in the last decade, layered underneath as the swell is beneath the waves, Ant had met something slower and longer, tidal and from beyond the horizon, something entirely deadlier and more final, the echo from the deep future of the end of humanity itself.
“Just that once,” lied Ant.
“Fundamentally Anthony we’re in the business of revolutionising and augmenting the sensory array of the planetary consciousness that we call humanity,” said Rhea. She was leaning forward with two hands around a paper cup of black filter coffee on the low table between them. She held eye contact with Ant, as if to ensure what she had said had been understood.
Ant, seated on a low black leather sofa, the twin of Rhea’s, sat facing her, leant back, feet and knees tightly together.
“Right,” he said. He couldn’t hold Rhea’s gaze. The large room was decorated in wood and grey felt, and filled with almost identical sofas. A self-serve coffee bar faced the entrance and reception desk. One wall was floor to ceiling glass, the street obscured by decals advertising the co-working space. Workers—mostly men, mostly young—walked in twos with drinks, or sat individually on the sofas with laptops or phones. Behind Rhea, Ant could see through indoor windows to an open plan office beyond.
“What art can do is provide new perspectives,” said Ant, “and ways of seeing that are inaccessible via incremental approaches like PR or re-framing like advertising. Which can unleash creative forces and start conversations.”
“Exactly, and we would like you to do that for us,” said Rhea. “At our core we are in the business of altering the paradigm of the Asteroid Belt.”
“I know it’s a rather functional way of thinking about art,” said Ant, “and I admit it can make artists—and I include myself in this—cautious. But done sensitively… We will commission and draw from existing work to co-curate an exhibition with you. To help in the conversations you want to have.”
“What is unthinkable in one paradigm is natural in another,” said Rhea. She was CEO of We Can Map It For You Wholesale, Inc., a startup developing asteroid mapping technology. This, Rhea and the investors believed, would be valuable for the space mining corporations of the hopefully not-too-distant future.
“What your paradigm lets you see,” continued Rhea, “dictates how you act. Once humanity is able to sense the asteroids, once they form part of the collective umwelt, it gives purpose to them. It changes them into something we can visit. Can use. Fundamentally, yes, we are upgrading the stars from being the heavens—a place we visit only when we are dead—to a standing reserve, a resource to be used. Standing reserve. Heidegger.”
The fascist, thought Ant.
“Van Gogh,” said Ant out loud, “also saw the stars as a destination. He saw them as dots on a map, each like a town to be visited by train. Only not by train, but visited in spirit, after death. He wrote a letter to his brother. It puts his Starry Night in a different light.”
“With the exhibition, we will paradigm shift to see We Can Map It as a natural, inevitable feature of this new landscape. We should include Van Gogh.”
“I think Van Gogh may be a little beyond us,” said Ant, “but you’re right to think of art as an originator of, or maybe as a process of originating, new ways of seeing. I’ve put together exhibitions, internal and external, for a number of organisations. Google. The Estonian government. Usually private, although they call it innovation.”
Do these shows create new ways of seeing? Or reveal and disseminate existing ones? Are new ways of seeing imminent in ever-changing culture? Is it just a random walk, a new perspective comes along every so often, like a forest fire opens up new vistas? Or are there occasional individuals who originate new perspectives that are wholly unique, and they enlighten the rest of us? Perhaps the divine?
“It’s not just stars Van Gogh could travel to,” said Rhea. “Stars, asteroids, star clusters, galaxies, dust clouds. All places we should visit. All places on a map that humanity has not yet drawn. The map brings them into the realm of the possible. I like this paradigm. Let’s do that.”
“When I was young,” said Ant, trying to find a connection to this direct woman, “about 10, I discovered the Sun had a name. Sol. It surprised me hugely. It was like when I found out my dad had a name.”
Rhea, whose gaze hadn’t moved from Ant, suddenly seemed to look at him rather than through him.
“The names are poetry,” she said. “Vesta. Makemake. The Laniakea Supercluster. The Sculptor Void. 375 Ursula. Miranda. Tau Ceti,” and she said it again, feeling the words: “Tau. Ceti.”
“Sirius,” added Ant, and Rhea’s gaze gained a penetrating quality. She assessed him.
“Sirius, yes,” she said, moving on. “The Oort Cloud. The Ursa Major Moving Group.
“We’re in the early stages of socialising our upcoming raise with investors and so this will positively resonate with the financial roadmap. Send me your proposal with fee tranches. Dollars.”
Caught up in the liturgy of names, Ant blinked at the profanity.
“The Ursa Major Moving Group?” he asked, holding onto the moment.
“A group of stars in the constellation Ursa Major, somewhere between a dozen and fifty, that are relatively near one-another and happen to be all moving in the same direction together. Not a movement visible in a lifetime, but they’re fast all the same. The dinosaurs wouldn’t have seen the Big Dipper in the night sky. I like the name. It makes me laugh,” said Rhea, not looking at all like she was laughing, “it sounds like a New York removal firm.”
“Or a pressure group,” said Ant.
The next time it happened was a Saturday morning. Ant had his hand on door handle to enter the warehouse-cum-studios that doubled as the meeting space for his discussion group of artist friends. Then a silent punch from an unknown direction that left him winded. Followed by, as before, a lifting and rolling and a loss of sense of scale. A grey drizzle was hanging in the air and the pin-prick droplets looked like distant stars. Ant’s head was heavy and as it dropped he could see his feet, giant’s feet, then they were coming closer and he was falling.
Ant was aware without caring of the damp dust of the pavement pressing on his cheek. His mind was somewhere else: the wave and the swell as so many times before, but between them—this was new!—was the taste of the purest water, and a smell of burning, and a hyperawareness of the light coming in through his eyes all the way to the back of his head. He could discern the beats of time and was trapped briefly, then raced between them as if racing through a tunnel. And now it was like he was seeing the world from its side, a stack of worlds, watching them pass by like the windows of a train speeding by at night. Faster. Faster.
Then two hands under his arms pulling him up from the ground, helped indoors, sat down, given a cup of tea.
In the grey morning light it was possible to see the dents in the plasterboard walls of the cubic gallery, and the holes where Ant’s photographs had hung. Higher than a person can reach were dusty cobwebs. The chairs were arranged in two concentric rings facing in, as they were every month, and Ant was guided gently to his usual spot in the inner circle.
Remembering that morning Ant saw himself from the outside, and although it must have been a discussion—and although his friends must have spoken with concern—all he can recall is that he talked and talked.
“Death is what motivates us,” he said, “and I don’t mean feeling the pressure of limited time like there’s only an hour before I have to pick up the kids from school. I mean that at the cellular level we exist simultaneously at every point from our births to our deaths. We have thoughts and feelings in the present, but they also echo back from the blank cliff face of the end.
“And we feel these echoes as waves of volition. To head off in this new direction in my work. To make a life with this person. To move to this city.
“I know this because I can feel it. Involuntary memories of my own future. I felt it first when I was 20, and it happened at the door just now, and it’s always happened—stronger or weaker, but there.”
Ant looked up and saw Lawson looking back at him, sitting in the second row, his first time attending the group. Lawson’s brow was furrowed. Ant barrelled on.
“There’s another death, a bigger death. The end of the world, or at least the end of humanity. The end isn’t the heat death of the universe, or the Big Crunch or whatever you call it. It’s a a reunification of consciousness, it’s a place where all minds become one. For us individuals, it’s a return to nothingness. Because the end is there it defines everything that comes before.
“This too we can feel in a kind of species memory. McKenna called them shockwaves and each shows its face as a panic of the group mind, a collective get-off-our-backsides and get down from the trees and onto the savannah, or a drive to cross the Bering Strait, or a decade of madness and a race to the Moon. Sometimes we see a shadow of this unconscious below-the-dream knowledge of the future—a reflection of the ultimate termination—as some more identifiable conclusion like a climate catastrophe or a nuclear apocalypse. But those are illusions. We can’t know the form of the end except that it will inevitably happen: that we will die separately, and we will die together.
“And I,” said Ant, “can feel that too. It’s like the long swell of the Pacific, or the deepest resonance of a cathedral organ.
“Today I saw something else.
“We’ve been asking ourselves where the creative force originates. I tell you now that there is an event in our future, a single event, that punches back through time. We see its waves cresting as changes in perspective and new ways of thinking. In Copernicus and in Cubism. In the bicameral mind, in the writing of the Old Testament, in Freud.
“This event—which we’re heading towards—will ripple backwards through time. Has been rippling backwards through time, because it’s inevitable. In a way it is as if it already exists, and it has driven human creativity since we first picked up tools.
“What is it? It’s not an ending.
“It is the opposite to the cellular urgency of the end of life or the eschaton, which give us mechanical, blunt instincts. Instead it is emotional, intelligent, alive. It is an event of pure aesthetic quality.
“We get to create it.”
Ant remembered that at some point someone asked what it would be. Like a great painting? Something enduring like the Clock of the Long Now? No, no, something that will engage all of us, of such colossal scale and effort but so little actual purpose outside itself that it will bend destiny as a black hole bends light.
Then it came to him, fully formed in his mind’s eye. And he said it. And then Lawson put up his hand to speak.
A year later, Ant walked the floor of the transformed gallery hours before the first private view and launch. From a maze of dilapidated warehouses and industrial offices in south London, here was a shining frame for a confident show.
After his fall—and his vision—there followed a meeting in Lawson’s family office in Kensington. Lawson reiterated his offer.
“Treat it like a corporate exhibition,” Lawson had said.
“It will look like a joke,” Ant had replied.
Lawson had poured coffee from the French press, carelessly without a mat on the leather of his desk, the room made dark and conspiratorial by shelves of books and box files of records and accounts. Ant hadn’t replied.
“I can create for others,” Lawson had said, slowly squaring up a pile of documents, “Let’s not be humble: I can weave magic for others. Words and pictures. And I’ve done well of it. But you’ve seen when I try for myself. It’s asinine. I know that. I don’t have what you have—this deep well, this ability to see behind the curtain. It’s what draws the others to you. You know that.
“I don’t have it. I wish I did. I don’t. But I can recognise it. And I have money. You’re practiced at using art and curating shows to change public opinion. You’ve done it for others for long enough, as much as you dislike it. Now there’s an opportunity to re-orient society towards an aesthetic event at some point in thousands of years. You said you saw it, you said you know what it is.
“You didn’t look like you were joking. You looked like you had seen the future. Take the money.”
“I did,” Ant had said, “I will.”
So here he was.
There were explorations of a future interstellar society—sculpture, film, images, and text. There were engineering diagrams describing speculative methods for moving stars. Methods to write a new constellation on the sky.
A constellation is destiny. So Ant’s exhibition pointed at the creation of a new destiny, a self-made destiny, for the people of Earth.
And a plan to make it real over the coming millennia. Working backwards: moving stars was impossible. But would it always be so? Well start with the challenge of getting there: feasibility studies of starships. Would faster-than-light travel be required? Then new physics would be needed first. What experiments would reveal the cracks where new science could be drawn out of the darkness? Working backwards again: how would politicians remain sufficiently motivated over generations to support such extravagant experiments? Which implied another gallery: policy ideas, financial models to commercialise science, campaign material and slogans.
An exhibition attempting to establish an organisation with its sole purpose to nurture and bring about a new constellation in the night sky; a organisation that would last—if that’s how long it took—one hundred centuries:
The Ursa Major Moving Group.
It wouldn’t necessarily be the stars of Ursa Major that would be moved. One exhibit illustrated the candidate stars. The new constellation would be visible only from the direction of humanity’s home world, Earth, and would have no function other than itself. An aesthetic moment that would drag a wake through history.
Is already dragging a wake, thought Ant.
“The Moving Group will have to last longer than known history,” Ant had said there in Lawson’s office, “as long as from the last Ice Age to the present day. How do you maintain course over a period ten times longer than the Roman Empire? We need a manifesto.”
“Not a manifesto and not even a constitution,” Lawson had said. “We need myths. We need the Ten Commandments.”
And so the commandments for the Moving Group were there too, in block capitals up high in the cubic gallery so you had to lean your head back and turn all the way around to read them.
The press opening was that evening. Ant had prepared his speech. The calm before the storm.
Lawson walked in, the tap of his brogues present a good time before he was.
“Well done Tony,” he said, “They’re beginning to arrive. It’s the right message at the right time. This is going to take off.”
“Of course it is,” said Ant, “it already has. My hands are shaking. Can you tell? I feel like we’re going to give the world purpose. I mean it starts small. Today it’s small. But it will cascade. I can feel it too. I’ll be giving speeches a lot, I suppose. Putting the case. Building support. Creating a new normal. A movement needs a face. Here I am!”
“I’m happy for you,” said Lawson, “I’m happy to be able to help you make this happen.”
They hugged, and it was their last hug for ten thousand years.
As Ant knew, there were only a hundred or so in the audience, but he was right that it didn’t matter. They thought they were friends and journalists, but they were the disseminators. Apostles.
When he was about to step away from the wall, Ant felt that familiar tremor. A gust of wind, and a weakness in the knees. His palms felt cold. Lawson placed an anxious hand on Ant’s arm.
“Take a minute. I’ll introduce you,” he said.
The tremor didn’t deepen, and it passed while Lawson was in his first sentence. Ant was ready to speak.
But Lawson didn’t look round, and Lawson didn’t stop.
Lawson spoke for an hour. He spoke about the death drive, and about the eschaton. He spoke about placing a pure aesthetic event in the future of humanity, of such magnitude that it would ripple backwards through time.
Lawson said that this is where art movements came from—had always come from—and new perspectives in philosophy and science too. He said that in a way it was already done because we can see its effects through our own history, and the Moving Group was merely a hand to move that which had already been moved.
As Ant listened, he heard Lawson say that he—he, Lawson—knew that the stars themselves would be redrawn because he had already seen it.
The trembling in the knees returned and Ant’s palms again chilled. Maybe this was a premonition that the new constellation would truly come about; maybe it was this knowledge coming backwards through time to meet the moment of its inception.
But no, thought Ant, this feeling wasn’t coming from anywhere but the present. How did John the Baptist feel as his protégé revealed his connection to God? Was the necessary baptism willingly given? Was he coerced? History is not written from his perspective. Was John aware, when the two of them stood on the shore, when the Dove of the Lord appeared as a mote in the the bright blue Jordanian sky and descended towards them, that grace was not intended to alight on him?
Over the coming weeks, cold palms became shivers became a body under siege, and Ant couldn’t leave his bed. Restless nights. Fever dreams. Hypnagogic fits and starts.
In the dark, the bottom sheet soaked in sweat, Ant dreamed his 100th birthday party. There is a birthday cake, and a handful of pills: raw materials for life extension technology, robotic bacteriophages that roamed and repaired the body. The Ursa Major Moving Group is still going, almost seven decades later, somehow, and it has evolved into something which is half politics and half philosophy. An idea that direction must be imposed on progress. Even in his dream, Ant knows that he refuses to go to the meetings.
Turning over in the pre-dawn light, Ant fast-forwarded to his 200th birthday. His hands are too weak and too slow to operate a camera and so his art has to be imagined. (Or did this weakness belong to his sickness-wracked body, penetrating through to the dream?) He doesn’t attend his building’s chapter meetings of the Moving Group, but his income is tithed as it everyone’s—the economy is now planned and run by an inscrutable artificial intelligence, and the rules to direct progress are baked in. A win for the Moving Group faction. Ant’s half-sleeping body ground its teeth as in his dream, in this imagined future, he sees an an image of Lawson on a screen. It isn’t a photograph, it’s an avatar of Lawson’s uploaded consciousness. Like many he has become software. There is an upload rush as the limits of life extension show their limits.
Ant’s skin is burning up, there in his bed. As he lay there, he saw, two centuries hence, his own conversion from flesh to silicon, his own upload. Or was this illusory future disembodiment just a way for his unconscious to interpret his limbs tangled and stuck in the sheets? Ant’s body was a battleground—the population of viruses surging, and lymphocytes fighting back. As the battle raged he came to awareness and then sank back into sick oblivion, once, twice, three, four times.
Somewhere deep inside, he saw this as being reborn from software into temporary flesh.
Decant #1. A thousand years deeper into the future than he thought he would ever see, Ant’s software mind is decanted into a body that is printed to last only a decade, after which he will return to the Virtual. London is stuck in the past, it seems, and quieter than it was—indicative of the exodus from the Real. It’s brighter than the software world, he thinks, effervescent with photons. The mirror world of the Virtual is constructed to appear identical to this true London, but to accommodate a never-dying population it exists in layered leaves. Each fully inhabited and each architecturally the same, you travel between leaves that have different populations. There could be a thousand people standing on this one spot, but while they’re on different leaves you would never know.
But not in this London, this original London. What you see is what you get. Ant has decanted to see with embodied eyes the Accelerator, a ring of swarming satellites around the Earth which are colliding particles and weaving the sub-particle spray to create the newly-discovered matrix particles. To see if there are layered leaves to the Real too. Ant stands beneath a celestial arch of countless glittering satellites, soaking in the real sensation of the real air on his real skin.
Decant #2. Orbiting Jupiter. An indulgence—it’s a game to decant into a human body in the vacuum of space. There’s no city here large enough for human habitation; software will do. But the urge to experience the Real comes every millennium or so to everyone. Ant sees Jupiter—dim, looming, majestic—with human eyes. It glows deeply more than would be anticipated from the reflected light of the distant Sun.
This body won’t last. It’s asphyxiating already and in a minute his consciousness will transition back to the Virtual. He tries to make out the inhumanly vast structures in the Jovian atmosphere below where, having attempted to construct a new leaf of spacetime and then finding out it was there all along, one of an untold number of spacetimes layered like pages in a book, the Moving Group scientists are attempting to make a mark on it, to somehow inscribe a pattern on a second ghostly leaf of the universe.
Timeshare. It happens that both Ant and Lawson are woken simultaneously, together with one hundred and fifty others. It is five thousand years after Ant was born. In the five thousand years before he was born, Ancient Rome was founded, fell, was remade and fell again. Writing was developed and the imaginations of women and men made their escape from time. Everything from the development of monotheism, to the first single global computer network.
Now they are on a starwisp, a small town’s-worth of souls frozen in a dense cube of finely structured silicon at the heart of a hollowed-out asteroid only a couple of feet across. It sits at the centre of a canopy the size of Trafalgar Square, an atom thick and highly reflective. A laser left in orbit around Jupiter strikes the canopy and propels the starwisp which is still accelerating. Off to see the stars. Stars that will perhaps one day be rearranged, though that ambition is fading as it looks ever more out of reach.
For sanity—and for play—a handful of the frozen uploads are woken to interact in their own self-contained Virtual. The environment runs for just a second in the Real, but to them it feels like an hour. Human environments have remained more or less the same over the years. People have tried living differently, but evolutionary roots go deep: what feels real is the Real, so they simulate it in the Virtual as best they can.
Ant uses his hour to talk with any friends in the same timeshare, to joke and gossip. They are apparently in a park, and across the small group sitting and standing on the grass, Ant notices Lawson. A coincidence. Ant knew Lawson was on this first wave leaving the Solar System, but to be travelling on the same starwisp and to be woken at the same time…
The Moving Group isn’t the force it was. Humanity is going to the stars—as software—but slowly, and the idea of re-engineering the cosmos is as far away as it ever was. When they departed a hundred years earlier, the engineering and experiments in the gravity wells were ongoing, in the Sun this time, deep in the heliosphere where the glowing gas was as thick as honey. Although it had been known for a long time that it was possible to etch onto the spacetime leaves, making emphemaral structures and circuits, making anything more complex was beyond them. Lawson, the figurehead of the Moving Group, a defender of the tithe, a proponent for applications of this new physics (and apologist for the failed experiments to find them), the keeper of the commandments. With stunted ambition, sure, but seen still as a visionary. Ant feels sick. Why was this feeling of bile included in his virtual body? But it looks like Lawson has given up. He’s here, after all, on the starwisp, not shepherding the Moving Group.
Ant stands to cross the park and speak to Lawson. At that moment, a commotion from across the group, and Ant hears the news come to him as a simulated shout on a simulated breeze: faster-than-light travel was developed some decades after they left.
There are starwisps passing through them right now, thousands of them, travelling a million times faster than their own vehicle. Spectres, they are etched on another leaf of spacetime. One wisp has just dropped back to conventional space to pick them up. There’s an offer to be transmitted across right now. Abandon this old ship. Reach the stars in days.
Lawson looks up, their eyes meet, and Ant sees triumph there.
Decant #3. Ant has once again taken the ancient corporeal form, this time compelled to witness, along with many others, the approach of Lawson to the Moon. The Moon is now a solid mass of thinking matter called computronium. Experimenters lost control of an artificial intelligence etched on a leaf of spacetime. In a cascade of power and intelligence, the A.I. pulled in more and more material, filigreeing it down to the Planck length, riddling it with living circuits, a runaway expansion that had only halted when it had consumed the entire lunar body. Over a period of days its surface seethed and it shone in radio, ultra-violet, and microwave. Then it settled, absorbed for a time the transmissions of the planet it orbited, and then it spoke.
Now Lawson is humanity’s first ambassador to the Moon, visiting to make a plea for its secrets: how is it that scribing a pattern on a ghostly leaf of spacetime can reorganise the matter of the base cosmos. The mission of the Moving Group continues.
Decant #4. Ant is embodied again and he’s in Hyde Park and it’s night. London is a monument, frozen sometime around 2200. The Londons of the Virtual have become many different places, but the Virtual is not as dominant as it once was. Now humans have returned to the Real, on planets around Sol and increasingly around other stars, of which there are now some dozen. There are stories of discoveries being made in the Sirius system.
And humans live in the Fog too. Ant looks up. Around Polaris, the Pole star, he can see what appears to be a cloud. It is brighter than the Milky Way but above the solar system. The assumption is that it’s full of people, billions of them, living in an environment somewhat like the Virtual. The Fog is close to the Sun and powered by its energy, hugging Sol in cups above and below, out of the way of the gross matter of the disc of the orbiting planets. Once humans experiment with their virtual environments, and then experiment with themselves to fit, there inevitably comes an ever-accelerating chain of change. Within days, these used-to-be-humans are always unrecognisable, and then they vanish from conventional communication. As this has happened over time the Fog has grown. How do they live there? Who knows. No intelligible communication is evident in the radio glow of the Fog, and its structure is incomprehensible.
So now the fashion is to live as flesh and blood in the Real—highly modified, but still. Human. It is a little over ten thousand years since Ant was born.
Almost one hundred light years away, the surfaces of several stars are being woven by flecks of computronium, gifted by the hive mind of the thinking Moon to Lawson for this purpose. Once the weaving is complete, the spacetime around each will be programmed to translate the enclosed stellar matter across leaves and back again. In the process, the stars will move. A new constellation is being drawn.
In a century, the light will reach Earth; will reach London and Hyde Park; will reach Ant.
In the full light of the morning, fever abating, Ant had one last hallucinatory dream. He saw himself in Hyde Park again, but a hundred years after the last dream, and this time at an outdoor party.
It’s night again, and the night of the final culmination of the goal of the Moving Group. The lights of London have been dimmed for the occasion. Shortly the woven spacetime will be removed from the transported stars—or rather, was removed, between eight and ten decades ago, for that’s how long it has taken for the light to slouch its way across normal space. Only now will the stars in their new locations become visible from Earth, synchronised to appear all at once.
Ant finds himself face to face with Lawson. Ant congratulates him. Lawson asks Ant if he is still sensitive, and Ant replies that the quality of it has changed. Still visceral but more like an extra sense. Like knowing you’re standing over a rushing underground river, with absolute certainty. And further away, the eschaton, he can still feel that too. A deep hum, a subsonic vibration in the bones. It shapes everything that happens. Ant tells Lawson a story from thousands of years earlier, about being near a fire where there was a downed electricity cable, still live. You couldn’t hear it or feel it but there was something in the air, a throbbing in the teeth.
“And this constellation,” says Lawson, “Can you feel this?”
“I have a question first,” says Ant. “Can you feel the echoes of the end? There was that one time, both of us together. But did you ever feel it again?”
Lawson looks straight through Ant.
Ant says: “Everyone believes it was your idea, the Ursa Major Moving Group. You know it wasn’t.”
“I made it happen,” says Lawson.
Ant: “The constellation has done its job. It’s as I saw it, in the vision. It has pulled all of us forward, even before we knew we were going to create it. Shockwaves moving backwards through time. Ripples of a new destiny, lifting up us apes each time it hit, giving us new ways to see each time. Yes, this is what I saw, and this is what I can still feel.”
“What happens on the other side of new constellation, says Lawson, “without it in the future pulling us forward? Will we still have imagination? Without it as a goal, will we have anything new again? Is it possible to know? Do you have a glimpse?”
“After the constellation,” says Ant, overwhelmed by wonder, “I will forgive you.”
Then they hug, and Ant opened his eyes, perspiration drying on his face.
After the sickness, Ant visited Hyde Park and the location of the dream party. Still weak, he felt adrift in time and memory. It was evening and he stood by the Serpentine looking into the water. It was unnaturally dark with no Moon, and this far from the buildings and streets, even in London the stars were visible and bright. In the dream the new constellation would have appeared behind him. He did not turn around. He continued to look into the water, which in the dark night of the park reflected the sky and faintly glowed. Like fog, Ant thought.
It’s not about forgiving, thought Ant, still not entirely steady after his sickness. Forgiveness does not help. Whether or not Lawson stole something is not the point. Whether or not Lawson is doing something necessary is not the point.
What matters, Ant thought, is that I wish it were me. The Moving Group. The one who will make it happen.
Ant thought: What I feel is betrayal and envy. It was stolen, that’s a fact as fixed as the stars. Well. The question is how to let it go. Or how to live with it.
What will happen afterwards? After the constellation—deep in the future—and after tonight, in the here and now. When we’re off the roller coaster. Ant looked at the dark water and caught sight of a faint steam hanging on the surface. What was the Fog, in his dream? A second stage of humanity, an incomprehensible adulthood? Or the exhaust, the residue of a lifetime’s imagination.
Ant felt a shimmer, like he was naked in the soft breeze. The beginning of another attack. The over-sensitivity of a body still recovering from fever, exposed too soon to the cold. Or the fist around him loosening its grip.
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