breathed water — K2 — had been human

There were just four of them: Asman, a toposophist who led the expedition; Attila, a toposophist; Sabra, a linguist; and Timon, a chemist.

They backed themselves up, sharded the keys, and left them in the hands of different insurers. Then they beamed themselves, from Ctesiphon and through six other stars, to the network relay closest to Gliese 581. Sixty years passed for the world outside, but they experienced only a few days, waiting in network queues and negotiating passage in-between transits.

Wepwawet was a dull red star, ringed by water droplets the size of mountains, where some two hundred billion people lived who breathed water. There was a planet made of stone shrouded in steam, and a train of comets, aimed by human hands from beyond the frostline, delivered constant injections of water. When the vapour condensed there would be ocean, and the shapers would get to work on the continents. Other Earths like this had been cast, like seeds, across the entire breadth of the cosmos.

The system was underpopulated: resources were abundant and people were few, and they could bask in the sun and, for a time, ignore the prophecies of Malthus, whose successors know in time there won’t be suns.

This was the first any of them had seen of nature. Not the landscaped, continent-sized gardens of Ctesiphon, where every stone had been set purposefully and after an aesthetic standard, but nature before human hands had redeemed it: an endless, sterile wasteland. The sight of scalding, airless rocks disturbed them.

When the stars were settled, they were given new names: Beta Pictoris became Ctesiphon, and Gliese 555 became Wepwawet. But the expedition’s target had never been settled by a society. The person or persons who became the god of Gliese 581 had immediately built a Dyson swarm, the hardware for its future mind, and soon they had effective control over all matter in the system. Like K2, a mountain so remote it had no name until surveyors gave it one, their target was known only by its systematic name: the 581st star of the Gliese Catalogue of Nearby Stars, published a decade before the Epoch.

On the toposophical databases the Dyson swarm was listed simply as ISO/Gl581, for intelligent superobject. In conversation, the members of the expedition referred to it as the Entity.

Wepwawet Relay was a glass spindle, rotating slowly about its long axis. The interior surface was studded with buildings made of ice roped with carbon, the interstitial spaces were de-facto streets, transparent, under which the stars turned. They asked the local archivists if they knew of previous expeditions to Gliese 581: they said that their telescopes had seen ships enter the system from other stars, but none had come through Wepwawet.

They announced their intention to explore the ruins of the Entity, and inquired as to their options for bridging the distance.

Near Wepwawet Relay there was a volume of space, bounded by traffic control, where ships floated idly between their journeys.

One of them was Parandé. When it was laid down — around Sol, they claimed, but every ship claimed that legendary status — it had been called Zabané Parandegán, but in time all names are ground down.

The original crew had been human, and they had all either left or gone into the computer. They wired their cortex to the ship’s body, and when they found that they were seven minds entangled in a single body, they opened their minds to each other. Parandé used the royal we, but they were a single mind, sui generis, made by hand.

Asman negotiated, and Parandé accepted the terms: fame and glory and a private key to an account in Ctesiphon, whose value no-one could know centuries away.