Traveler's Notes: In the Cathedral of Night

By Todd Drashner

Published in Voices Future Tense Issue 17 (2011)

Drifting in the silent black, alone yet surrounded by multitudes, I look up into the endless darkness of the void and find myself transfixed by infinite sound and light.

Infrared rains down upon me, painting the sky with a singing fire that ranges from the hearth-glow hum of stellar nurseries to the brilliant pin-point crackle of red stars and deep space brown dwarves. X-rays flash across the scene in fortissimo bursts of light and noise, their crashing energies marking dying stars and birthing pulsars. Radio and microwaves form the background for it all, their shining songs weaving around and through the other light-filled tunes, arising mostly from the same sources but also subsuming them, most notably in the slowly fading 2.75-Kelvin microwave note (and its 2K neutrino counterpoint) that marks the greatest source of all.

Set against the vast, multi-spectral symphony that is the Backgrounder universe, the so-called "visible" light that has silently illuminated so much of my life now seems barely worth attention.

Two centuries of effort, two hundred years of making contacts, nurturing relationships, and building up a store of favors owed is what it took to get here. And already there is no doubt in my mind that it was completely worth it. To travel and live among the Backgrounders, those cold, mysterious, and rarely seen "barbarians" of deep space, has been an ambition for easily twice as long as it took me to finally attain it. But now, here I am! And what a place "here" is!

In contrast to the brilliance of the heavens above, the Drift is an island of quiet dimness, most closely matching (as intended) the microwave background from which its builders draw their name. What little radiation there is mostly comes from the cryonic thermal generators, arrays of mirrors focusing starlight onto liquid helium-3 boilers to generate a faint but steady stream of current into the Drift's reservoirs. Along with the superconducting lines drawing power from the galactic magnetic field, they provide the bulk of the Drift's energy supply. The generators are marvels of design and efficiency, but despite this still leak a tiny fraction of their output away into space as heat. By cranking my perceptions to their limits, I can just detect the glowing whisper surrounding each boiler unit.

Taken as a whole, the Drift is fifteen hundred kilometers long and three hundred across at its widest point. Fifty times wider still if the wires and elements of the magnetic sail framework are included. The main body is a slowly spinning cylinder a hundred kilometers in diameter, its outer surface a jumbled mass of generator arrays, radiators, tight beam comm systems, and telescopic monitoring units. The interior volume is a honeycombed jumble of habitat chambers, storage bays, and resource nodes, all surrounding and insulating a slow moving industrial core whose feeble waste heat helps illuminate and warm the rest of structure. An insulating layer of ice, combined with the outer radiator arrays, works to both block incoming radiation and keep what little waste heat is produced from shining too brightly in the night. Here and there great outriggers and flying buttresses, or sometimes just solitary cables, extend hundreds of kilometers farther out into space, supporting secondary superstructures and installations that make use of the slightly higher spin gravity or the deeper cold made possible by distance from the comparative warmth of the main core.

Far outshining the faint light of the boilers, the waste heat produced by those few members or machines of the Drift's population actually moving around stand out like stars in the night. Despite their dedication to radiating as little energy as possible, even the Backgrounders must occasionally act on the physical plane and at a pace or level of energy that produces significant waste heat. Wherever and whenever possible such events are surrounded by shielding and radiators to hide or disperse the heat produced as quickly as possible. But on a structure as large as the Drift, a construct supporting an entire civilization on the move, simple statistics says that some high temp events will be unplanned. Or at least placed in a locale where one can see them if one knows where to look.

Focusing my attention on one particular section of the Drift's hull, I watch a team of three Backgrounders rapidly patch and repair a small sensor array that fault logs show as having failed the day before. Like me, they wear the standard body favored by this Backgrounder tribe: A flattened sphere coated in sensors, surrounded by a ring of universal jointed limbs tipped in variegated manipulators. Fully 90% of the body is cybernetic, with the brain and a few other biont organs (most notably the reproductive organs) stored deep within the interior of each body and engineered to operate comfortably in the vacuum and cold of deep space. The repair crew moves with deliberate urgency, eager to return to the interior depths of the hab, yet at a speed that most sophonts, with the exception of the cold-loving alien Muuh, would consider near paralytic. While perfectly able to move as fast as any other entity when required, Backgrounders avoid such unless absolutely necessary. Stillness comes naturally to them, and they are perfectly content sitting motionless for years or decades at a time within the protected chambers of their vast ships (as I do now, viewing the outside world through arrays of sensors scattered across the hull). Their minds however, are far from so inactive. In the Backgrounder world (much like, rather ironically, the sephirotic world), the center of civilization is not the physical, but the virtual.

If the physical manifestation of the Drift is like a vast, cold reef of diamondoid and ice, its virtual structure, built on optic links, superconducting processors, and heat cancelling reversible logic, is one of blazing light and endless mutability. Driven by the imaginations of a billion minds layered within its interior spaces, the Backgrounder cybercosm is as rich and full as any I've encountered in the hot, bright spaces of sun warmed civilization. Here is brilliant discussion, breathtaking artwork, and the busy hum of endless discussion and debate, from the depths of metaphysics to the rarefied heights of pure mathematics. Virtual realms abound here, visible to the inner eye of my net-link, calling out to all with visions of adventure and romance, wisdom and understanding. Backgrounder civilization is as old as any in the Known Galaxy, and this wealth of informational riches stands easily on a par with anything the modosophont artisans of my own proud sephirotic cultures can produce. One would never know, at least while living within it, that the entire vast edifice of thought and communication is operating at little more than 1% of the speed of comparable cyber-structures elsewhere and supporting no more than a third of the Drifts population at any given moment.

To conserve resources and reduce heat signature, fully two-thirds of the Drift population, some two billion people, are in stasis at any given time. Populations wake and sleep on rotating cycles that minimize waste while maximizing options for interaction and the maintenance of overall civilizational unity. Whole communities, entire tribes and nation-states, operate in a sort of punctuated equilibrium interspersed with others whose cultures, beliefs, and even physical manifestations may be wildly different from them. Periodically the governing consensus or apparatus of the Drift (even now I am still not clear on its exact structure) will arrange for different groups to be active at the same time, sometimes breeding conflict (mostly verbal), sometimes cooperation. Always with the goal of keeping Backgrounder culture vibrant (even if slow moving) and to avoid their civilization becoming too complacent or falling into solipsism. Although, to be honest, I find the threat of any Backgrounder becoming complacent a highly unlikely one since their entire civilization seems to operate on a state of continuous low-level paranoia.

Even my hosts, considered (so I am told) to be models of tolerance and trust to the point of foolishness by their fellows, live in a state of constant belief that the sephirotic civilizations (and particularly their ruling transapients) are plotting their enslavement or destruction. They view the rule of the AIs as an abomination and feel that they are the last truly free beings in an oppressed galaxy. They both pity and look down upon the "tame" modosophonts of the various empires while simultaneously distrusting them and the (to Backgrounders) tremendous speed at which they live and the vast resources that they command. It took significant persuasion by my Deeper Covenant sponsors to get them to agree to have me come aboard at all and then months of polite dedication before even the most liberal among them would interact with me in any but the most formal manner. Even now, a full century (or a full year as they measure things) into my time here, there are large areas of the Drift (both ril and virtual) I am forbidden to access, I presume because they contain information or devices the Backgrounders wish to keep hidden from their resident potential spy. Still, for all their sometimes distrustful nature, they are a fascinating and noble people, rich in culture and history. And even if slow to warm to an outsider, they have warmed. My upcoming recreation shift with a group of Backgrounder friends (and they are friends, I shall miss them greatly when I finally disembark from the Drift, a mere 500 years hence at the Deeper system of Fq'ua) is proof of that. We shall dive into the virtual universes that wrap this world like a ghostly shadow-play and laugh and have adventures and in the end part as friends. Friends whose wildly different backgrounds (hah!) have acted not as a barrier, but as a bridge.

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