The Dreaming Void iceship prepares to leave Utochishte system
The Three-Fold Path
Around 5800 a.t. a small fleet of 5 colony ships entered an unremarkable system in what was then the periphery of Terragen expansion. The system, which they named 'Utochishte', contained only one planet — a bloated gas giant close to the star. Using the asteroids trapped in the gas giant's gravity well they started building habitats.
The colonists were a diverse mix of nearbaseline clades united under a common religion/philosophy they called 'The Three-Fold Path'. The Walkers, as they called themselves, believed that each individual has three souls - Individual, Clan, and Cultural — and that Terragen civilization at large was corrosive to all of them. Specifically, each soul was associated with a virtue that a person had to follow to keep it healthy: Simplicity (Individual), Harmony (Clan), and Tradition (Cultural). As is often the case, these names hid enormous complexity within themselves, and the Walkers have written extensive theological works on the topic.
In line with the virtue of Simplicity, the Walkers eschewed cybernetics, all-pervasive ufog, augmented reality, "smart" clothes, heavy automation, and other "complicating" technologies. Everything was to be as passive and "dumb" as they could make it, though the extent of this simplification varied from Culture to Culture — one Culture might use reconfigurable ufog furniture and a helper robot or two as something that makes life simpler, while another might consider this bordering on heresy. Too much complexity was thought to corrode away the individual soul of a being. The Walkers believed that direct mind-machine interfaces were particularly damaging — each time an individual interfaces directly with a machine, their soul "diffuses" into it, leaving the individual in question "spiritually empty" by the ordeal.
In line with the virtue of Harmony, the Walkers formed small groups of 5-12 people, called clans. The clan was the main social unit, and it was considered essential for every individual to closely share beliefs with eir clan-mates. Non-conformity to the clan's rules was not tolerated, but individuals were free to leave and find a clan more to their liking. Individuals without a clan were social outcasts in every sense of the word, so they tended to form new clans with other outcasts. Family units were temporary and very narrow — parents and children lived together until the children became adults, after which the whole structure tended to dissolve.
Finally, in line with the virtue of Tradition, the Walkers were divided into Cultures. Frequently a habitat contained a single Culture, but some habitats held more than one. Each culture was a loose alliance of like-minded clans with similar aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities. Acting in accordance with the ideological framework of your Culture was considered essentially to the health of an individual's Cultural soul. Despite this, a particular Culture represented a shared tradition, not dogma, giving individual clans a fair bit of leeway in their interpretation of prevalent tradition, depending on how closely they were entangled with other clans (and which particular clans).
Each clan built connections with other clans by exchanging members, trading expertise and entertainment, and having similar views of their Culture's tradition. As a consequence Cultures were more of a network of clans than a hierarchical organization: there was a core consisting of tightly interconnected clans that would be more uniform in their following of tradition, and a 'cloud' of clans that gravitated towards them. Clans that could not conform to the strict tenets of their Culture would gravitate towards the edges of the cloud. The core clans were the ones running things, and the less influential clans didn't have much say in the matters of importance but were usually not forced to change their behavior.
Determined to start anew, the colonists deleted nearly all records of Terragen culture once they entered the system and confirmed it was viable for development. They practiced no organized record-keeping, and most of their history was noted in the form of artwork and entertainment, done by poets and artists who put their own personal slant, as well as the slant of their own Culture and Clan, in it. In addition, the Walkers would unfailingly 'translate' outside sources, when they came, into something more ideologically palatable to their own Culture and Clan, and similarly 'update' any historical records they still possessed, which meant that the further one goes into Walker past, the less reliable the records become.
As a consequence, little is known about events before NoCoZo prospecting probes established contact with the Walkers and researchers from the bulk of the Terragen civilization started to take interest. Archeological research has yielded some results, and a certain amount of reliability can be achieved by cross-referencing different accounts for similarities, but many details are speculation. Almost without exception all detailed reconstructions are disputed by one or more authorities as having been slanted in favor of some special interest, but there are some general details about the pre-contact history of Utochishte that are generally agreed upon.
After a relatively brief consolidation period, the Walkers began rapidly developing Utochishte system, building new habitats and experiencing fast population growth. Unfortunately, Three-Fold Path was a philosophy ill-suited to manage the complexities of the large populations that came with this growth, which created friction between the needs to adopt more effective practices and the desire to remain true to the orthodox Path. Combined with the Walker social structure, which motivated the most radical clans to migrate to new habitats, this led to noticeable memetic drift between each successive generation. Over the next 500 years, their memetic started to slowly but surely splinter and drift apart. The younger generations did not abandon the Three-Fold Path; indeed, they considered their memetic to be merely an updated, better interpretation of the original philosophy.
The core clans did their best to ignore the clans that acted against orthodox teachings, treating them as permanent social outcasts. As liberalization pressures increased, the core clans responded by interfering more directly, causing the outcast clans in the cloud to gravitate into their own cores for protection. This, in turn, created massive amounts of competition between proto-cores in the cloud, each one trying to subsume the others to become a full-fledged core. The result was a fracturing of traditional core-cloud social dynamics into a new social structure consisting of a dozen or so cores in each Culture, each trying to gain dominance. This social upheaval disturbed older, more orthodox habitats, and they essentially cut ties with their heretical offspring.
As the competition for converts and influence between the cores increased, they started searching for an advantage that would not alienate their more moderate members. Two particular things aided them in this regard.
One was an interpretation of the Three-Fold Path that gained prominence in this era: Subjective Simplicity Postulation. The postulation posited that an individual's soul is not harmed by complexity as long as it doesn't experience it. Biological beings, for instance, are very complex but most of the processes happen in the background without the sophonts in question noticing them. This gradually developed into a quasi-bioist idea that complexity is not bad as long as it is biological.
The second catalyst was connected to the Walker conception of art. The Walkers often undertook relatively complicated efforts in order to produce art: visual entertainment, song, sculpting, architecture, fashion, dancing and martial arts, written worksâ€¦ For various reasons, this was not considered damaging to an individual's soul, but actually enriching. As a consequence, many radical clans found it effective to 'rebrand' previously frowned-upon practices as art.
Combining those two together, more radical clans began practicing genetic engineering. The nearbaseline form was kept intact, at first, but as time went on more radical transformations begun to happen. These augmentations were always decided upon collectively by the whole clan, rather than individuals deciding freely which gene-mods to utilize.
Society of Inspiration
In 7324 a.t., when the first explorers established contact with the inhabitants of Utochishte, the original 'orthodox' religion of the Three-Fold Path was extinct, and only 30% of the system population were nearbaselines; the rest was composed of various tweak and neogen clades. No claim of unified identity could be plausibly made at this point — the inhabitants did not even refer to themselves as 'Walkers' anymore, and there were hundreds of competing schools of thought descendant from the Three-Fold Path.
Utochishte began to receive a steady stream of tourists, researchers, and traders, mostly from the NoCoZo and the Sophic League. Although some concerned factions from the Sophic League and elsewhere complained about exploitation and dissolution of Utochishte culture, most of the Utochishte natives themselves had no desire to be sheltered or protected. Their habit of routinely converting all outside sources into something more aligned with their memetic, as well as their emphasis on clans over individuals, produced a culture relatively resistant to memetic manipulation.
Despite this, contact with the bulk of Terragen civilization produced considerable changes and further shockwaves in the social landscape, causing more traditional elements to further isolate themselves — something that became more and more difficult as time went by.
Around 7600 a.t., a polity called 'Society of Inspiration' was founded in the system. Marketed as "NeoOrthodoxy updated with modern insights", the Society claimed that "the real world is an ill-fitting medium to practice the Three-Fold Path, because it inherently rewards those who pursue greater complexity. If a sophont is significantly more simple than eir neighbours, they can understand em more readily and thus manipulate em. Using complex technologies to improve themselves, sophonts willing to sacrifice their souls for power could become far more capable and persuasive than a devoted follower of the Three-Fold Path. Thus the true environment to walk the Three-Fold Path in is a virtual one." While traditional Walkers considered uploading to be equivalent to DNI, the Society of Inspiration invoked the Subjective Simplicity Postulation, claiming that since uploading doesn't extend an individual's identity into something else (like DNI), there is no harm in it. Instead, uploading merely changes one's local reality, shielding one from complexity.
The Society constructed large computronium nodes and uploaded its members into virches specifically tailored for a particular Culture that inhabited it. Sophonts inhabiting these virches perceived themselves as nearbaselines in a setting not unlike the one found in ril, but with the laws of nature constructed so as to inhibit any technology deemed "disruptive" by the Society.
The Dreaming Void
In 7920 a.t., after a series of controversies surrounding the Society, around 50 million uploaded NeoOrthodoxists representing some 2000 different Cultures decided to leave the system.
With much fanfare, they built themselves a ship, which they named Dreaming Void. Keeping in line with the requirements of Simplicity, it was not a sophisticated creation: it was an oval block of ice with the computronium running the virtual environment buried within it. The ice served both as a dust shield during the interstellar voyage, and fuel for the ship's conversion reactor. A network of cooling channels extended through the volume of the ice block and out to the surface, where the engines protruded out of one end.
The Society publicly identified a system at the frontier as its destination, stating their intention to colonize the system. In reality their target was a relatively empty region of space roughly intersecting their path. After boosting up to a relatively modest speed of 0.4c, the Dreaming Void spent the next century coasting until it was determined that it was time to slow down. At this point the Dreaming Void deployed a magsail to decelerate the ship and also bend their course away from their original heading. Once the magsail stopped being effective at slowing down the ship, the Dreaming Void pointed its engines away from the home system and slowed down to negligible speeds with its conversion drive. With the ship aimed away from the center of Terragen expansion and slowly drifting through empty space, it was supposed to be essentially undetectable, lost in the void.
Had everything gone as planned, this would have been the last anyone heard of them.
Back at Utochishte, NeoOrthodoxy ran its course and faded from relevance, but various entertainment works, art, and philosophical dissertations that streamed out of the system occasionally sparked the revival of the Three-Fold Path in other systems. Sometimes these new converts would come to Utochishte, often trying to find the old, "authentic" followers. Combing through old records, once such group found references to the Dreaming Void and deduced what their real intention was by finding clues unintentionally left by the crew before they departed. The group used the Dreaming Void in their memetic campaigns, after which other groups picked up the concept and used it for their own ends. As time progressed, the ship and its crew were heavily romanticized by various sects, turning them into nigh-mythical figures that established a paradise somewhere in the emptiness between the stars.
Eventually a group of out-system pilgrims, backed by media traders hoping to get their hands on novel cultural material, organized a search for the Dreaming Void. After extrapolating their path and finding the region of space they were likely in, the pilgrims found the Dreaming Void silently drifting in the dark, still operational and performing its intended purpose.
Since that time, a steady stream of pilgrims visited the Dreaming Temple — a computronium scaffolding built around the ship. Temple monks, all uploads, maintain that no embodied being is to approach the Holy Ark, lest they defile it with their profane touch. There is infrastructure allowing visitors to beam themselves into the computronium of the temple, and the monks generally welcome any upload that petitions a visit, unless they want to commit (or the monks believe they wish to commit) some kind of transgression: harm or "liberate" the Dreamers, upload themselves into the Dreaming Void, edit the core operations of the virch, etc.
Due to the way the virch was made, it is virtually impossible to tell exactly what happened during the flight of the Dreaming Void and its subsequent time spent in solitary operations — the virches of the Dreaming Void leave little trace of past events and the monks of the Dreaming Temple forbid any tampering with the underlying automatic processes.
The virtual environment of the Dreaming Void is divided into millions of mini-universes that share some common rules and characteristics. All virches posses low granularity: if something is imperceptible to unaided nearbaselines senses in ril, it doesn't exist in the Dreaming Void. Many technologies simply don't work within the virches of the Dreaming Void, and the landscape, if heavily altered, will often revert to the default state the moment it detects no observers.
Most virches posses a certain theme, and are uniform in style. Examples of these themes are:
1. A world of steep but relatively short mountains, canyons, valleys and plateaus — all of it covered in thick, mostly evergreen forests. The virch has a change of seasons corresponding to that found in temperate climates of Old Earth. Inhabitants live in large buildings (castles, manors, households) made in a variety of architectural styles, scattered throughout the forests.
2. A world of dry, dusty ruins, giving the impression of an advanced civilization that was destroyed in some apocalyptic event. Dreamers live either as nomadic tribes trying to find useful trash among the ruins, or as farming communities gathering soil to grow food.
3. A tropical sea of scattered islands, with Dreamers living almost exclusively on ships.
4. A world of huge trees with trunks 40 or so meters wide rising into the sky. Inhabitants live mostly among the branches, rarely coming down on the soft, moss-covered surface.
5. An underground network of caverns illuminated by luminous veins that cover the cavern walls. Fungal forests grow along the floor of the caverns, providing food for the Dreamers.
Inhabitants of the Dreaming Void, called Dreamers by the monks, seem to be descendants of the original NeoOrthodoxists, who apparently chose to expire for some reason, and don't really understand their situation. They know they're in a 'dream', but not what exactly that means. Monks consider any attempt to explain the Dreamer's position to them to be a spiritual transgression.
Virch meta-rules were designed to prevent outside sophonts from becoming Dreamers themselves, but it is possible to project an avatar/spirit from the scaffolding. Some individuals have found loopholes that allow them to become Dreamers, but monks of the Dreaming Temple will stop and expel anyone they catch trying to do that.
Virch meta-rules also actively reinforce the philosophy of the Three-Fold Path by giving each Dreamer three corresponding souls of the Walker philosophy. The souls are intangible and serve to inhibit the sort of cultural drift that happened to the Walkers in the past. As long as they keep their souls in healthy condition, uploads will be happier and full of energy. Damaging them results in lethargy and depression.
For these reasons, many groups and individuals consider the virch environment of the Dreaming Void cruel and unethical, and have requested that the Dreamers have the situation explained to them so they can make an informed choice. Temple monks have responded to these criticisms by simply stating that the Dreaming Void is a sanctuary from the corruption of the outside world, and that the true cruelty would be to take their serenity from them. Likewise, they claim that in their sheltered state the Dreamers would not be able to resist the memetic expertise of the outside world, so they plan to "gradually inform the Dreamers of their situation while simultaneously affirming their beliefs and culture."
So far no transapient or meta-empire has involved itself in the issue.