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Guidance Withdrawal chapter 18


(Michael Hrenka) #1

Guidance Withdrawal

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Chapter 18

Back to Astelica

When the visitors were in their own private room again, they had another private discussion. This time, Arizzi addressed Adano first: “Okay, so you seem to be set on accepting Ephiri as your new personal coach. That’s fine. Your development takes priority over everything else, of course. It’s just that we are still on the territory of a partially memetically opposing party. So, this naturally creates some tensions with Ephiri being part of that opposing party. Technically, the ‘Resonant Ecstasy of Friendliness’ is still our opponent, since they are anti-museans and we are museans. Don’t forget that! Therefore, the plan is to invite Ephiri to Lathica and formally agree to being coached by him only after we will have left Astelica. I hope that’s clear.”

“Yes, crystal clear.”

“Matters between you and your tribe Special Essence of Holographic Singularity Lathica Invictus are about to be changed by adopting coaching by a complex. That’s quite natural. The complex coach usually defines the terms and conditions of such a relation, so you may be forced to abandon all of us. Do you understand that?”

“Yes, but of course Diolineda will stay with me.”

“True. In many respects, your relationship to Diolineda is your greatest asset. Additionally, I will try to stay as close to you as I may, in order to help you out. Your personal progress is still tantamount to my mission. I won’t abandon you easily.”

“Thank you very much!”

On that evening they decided to go to bed early, in order to digest the events of the long day. Adano fell asleep quickly and entered a dream in which he fell down from the central spire of Orakanda. He continued to fall until he noticed that he had feathered wings. After a brief period of experimenting, he found out how to use them to navigate the city and avoid collisions with all the other flying inhabitants.

Then he found a winged Kathatus who was being chased by three violet Sirian herashars. It was obvious that they were so fast that Kathatus had no chance of escaping. Adano wanted to help him, but was paralyzed by fear. He observed that Kathatus decided to stop fleeing and glided towards the leading herashar. When Adano expected Kathatus to be torn to pieces, something unexpected happened. All of them merely hovered there in silence for a couple of minutes. Afterwards, Kathatus sat on the back of the leading herashar and soared into the sky on him.

The other two herashars noticed Adano and approached him with unprecedented speed. Adano tried to hide somewhere, but he was too far from any entrance into any building. He was terrified about them getting closer, but he had no chance to escape and also didn’t have anything to fight them. Before he could even react, one of his assailants pierced his heart from behind with an attack tentacle. The sheer force of the attack made his heart, his left lung, and his ribs burst. Adano just braced for his imminent death.

Unexpectedly, the other herashar hovered in front of him and placed a shining white sphere in the place where his heart has been. The sphere grew tendrils which connected with his blood vessels. His blood was being invaded by a silvery white fluid. Whenever the fluid passed through parts of his body, those parts of him would feel stronger and more energetic. He suddenly felt very warm and powerful. Immediately, he had the realization that the herashar were really his friends who wanted to help him.

Out of nowhere, Arizzi, in his typical bipedal wolf form, appeared close to them and fired two projectiles out of a rifle at the herashars. They were paralyzed immediately and started falling to the ground. Adano was still too moved from his feeling of friendship with the herashars and tried to catch them and bring them back to consciousness somehow. Before he could do anything, Arizzi slapped him on his cheek. Arizzi’s claws pierced his skin and shimmering whitish pink blood burst out of his wounds. “Snap out of it, Adano! They aren’t your friends! They just want to assimilate you. Fight them! Regrow your heart”, Arizzi told him. Even while doing so, Arizzi’s fangs grabbed Adano’s new white heart and tore it out of his body.

At that time, his protector symbi became active and announced: “Emergency survival mode activated. Shifting to class 5 nanomachine metabolism. Launching cybernetic attack against invading nanobots. Deploying graphene membranes to stop bleeding. Warning: Resources insufficient to regrow heart. Modifying arteries to create blood pressure instead.” Adano felt his warmth and strength fading. Instead, he was left with confusion. He didn’t know about the emergency nanomachines that allowed him to survive without a heart. Why were they activated now, and not immediately after the attack?

His protector replied: “Resistance against vastly superior attackers was expected to be counterproductive. They would have proceeded with even more devastating attacks. Feigning weakness was calculated to result in larger chances of survival.” Immediately afterwards the protector continued: “Warning: Invading nanobots launched a cybernetic attack against our systems. Defensive capabilities apparently insufficient. Requesting help from DEFINED. Initiating emergency stasis and shutdown procedure.”

Adano regained consciousness in an ambulance drone. Arizzi berated him: “You should have called for help earlier! What were you thinking?” The intense feeling of shame was the worst part of this dream. It was so unbearable that it made him awake for real.

There was one detail of his dream that irritated Adano particularly: The emergency survival mode. Did he really have one? He asked his protector who denied the existence of such a mode. Then, he let Diolineda verify that claim. In fact, he has always been told that the environmental safety systems would make personal emergency survival mechanisms redundant. So, why did his dream include something like that? Did his unconscious classify his environment as unsafe? Obviously! He was in Astelica, which was effectively hostile territory.

This morning, Adano’s indomitability training was unusual. In his virtual scape, he was quizzed by Arizzi about very difficult problems. He couldn’t get any single answer right. With every wrong answer, he grew more nervous and ashamed, and his heart beat faster. Towards the middle of the scenario, he started feeling completely incompetent and worthless. Yet, we went on trying to get at least one answer right. While the questions were getting more difficult, Arizzi claimed that they were getting increasingly simple. Arizzi expressed his utter disappointment with a once promising student. To Adano, it felt like the ground beneath his existence had suddenly disappeared. However, he continued to give his best until the very end.

After this indomitability training session, he got praised by Arizzi: “Well done! You don’t give up, even if the challenge doesn’t seem fair. That’s the right way to go!” Immense relief was almost the only feeling that Adano experienced in reaction to that comment. The other feeling was one of pride. Praise was rare enough coming from Arizzi. And praise that wasn’t weakened by suggestions that he could have done much better was extraordinarily rare. Or perhaps Arizzi didn’t want to make Adano feel more nervous than he was already. Adano dismissed that though, because Arizzi was never so soft or considerate.

In the morning, everyone came together in the dining room and ate some small green tree-like shapes that grew out of the dining tables directly. When they were fully grown, they sprouted legs and started walking on the tables, but seemingly afraid from getting to close to their edges. Sometimes they hardened their surface in order to make them hard to chew. It was a quite unusual breakfast experience even for Adano and Kathatus, both of which refrained from eating until their hosts started. They wondered what the purpose of this show was, but didn’t bother to ask.

Yurai noticed their uneasiness and told the guests: “Lighten up! This is just the event team having some fun by making food out of minimally sentient shapers. Don’t worry, the food is completely safe and mostly digestible.”

Adano asked Arizzi to analyse the mobile food by checking its metainfo. It really consisted of shaper nanomachines filled with mostly rather crude DNA-based computronics and compartments filled with macro- and micronutrients. It was indeed safe. Most of it was water, though. And it tasted similar to watermelon. “Surely this has some deeper manipulative meaning”, Adano surmised for himself. Unfortunately, he had no clue where to begin to look for one. Food culture has become so diverse that even the effort of classifying it broadly seemed like a hopeless enterprise.

During the middle of the meal, Yurai announced: “Today we plan on visiting the upper observation ring platform above Orakanda. Flying up there with exowing packs is a great opportunity to see a large part of the city. Don’t worry about the height of 4 kilometers above ground. The atmospheric density is three times Earth standard and the temperature is rather pleasant throughout the city, even at higher altitudes. Along the way, we’d like to discuss one of the most important commonalities among both of our tribes: Our adherence to the values of the Exaltation.”

Jao took over: “If you want, we can start discussing right away. Or we’ll wait until you are ready.”

Of course, Adano spent years learning about the history and philosophy of the Exaltation, but since those were very broad subjects, and often fairly intricate ones at that, there were nearly endless possibilities to talk about them. He expected Kathatus to know far less about the Exaltation, so his hosts would probably ask Kathatus in their discussion. Adano wasn’t sure what to do about that. He felt like helping out Kathatus about that subject, but then, Valeria was his mentor, and she would probably do a far better job than he could.

Before they could exchange thoughts about a strategy for the upcoming debates, Kathatus started asking Jao publicly: “Has your tribe always been aligned with the Exaltation?”

Jao answered: “No. At first, the group around Axiale was rather mixed when it came to V faction alignment. In those formative first years we grew quickly, but the wild mixture of faction alignments caused more complications than was considered to be worth it. We decided to split up across V faction alignments. Since Axiale had been an Exaltationist ever since our founding, new members with Exaltation alignment just joined eir group.”

“How does being an Exaltationist tribe affect your work?”

“Our target audience has an affinity for the Exaltation, so we keep that in mind. And we usually start our conversations with the people we interview with the question of how they relate to the Exaltation.”

“Do you ever try to promote the Exaltation?”

“No, at least not directly. What would be the point of that? V faction alignment is increasingly seen as anachronism. Nowadays people mostly just care about whether you are ultopian, ecstasian, or independent. But we view that focus on creed as too superficial attitude. After all, the V faction alignment tells so much more about your basic approach to value overall. Promoting a specific approach however, is very anachronistic since the Proof. After all, all of these basic approaches are valid, even if they are at the same time fundamentally and provably incorrect, except for that of the Coherence, of course. Unfortunately, simple usually go crazy when they try to follow the principles of the Coherence directly, so the incorrect V factions are obviously more useful for them.”

“Sure, I agree. It’s just that there is so much self-promotion of other factions and creeds. I don’t get why Exaltationists aren’t more eager to point out the strengths of their faction.”

“The Exaltation is not for everyone. It has always consisted of a small minority, and it will always be that way. The lifestyle of the Exaltation ist just too uncomfortable for the masses. It takes a very peculiar kind of character for joining the Exaltation voluntarily. And those who have this character join it sooner or later on their own. There’s absolutely not need to advertise the Exaltation in any way. As one of the main V factions, it’s certainly popular enough! Anyway, Kathatus, why don’t we start with the reason that the Exaltation exists. Can you explain that to us, please?”

It was a part of the lifestyle of Exaltationists that these basics of their own philosophy and history got repeated ad nauseam. That way, they got connected to their roots again and again.

"Towards the end of the 21st century different versions of cosmic utilitarianism became very popular as potential basis for posthumanist value systems. The core of those value systems consisted of taking a singular value like happiness, freedom, or wisdom, and maximizing that throughout the cosmos. We all know that these philosophies evolved into the cores of the Exuberance, Freedom, and Unity, respectively.

At the same time, people got increasingly aware that their cosmos could very well be a simulation. After all, potentially dangerous AIs were raised in virtual worlds and tested there. Games were created with sentient AIs who didn’t know that they were living in a game. The first tentative small scale ancestor simulations were started. And people could lose themselves in persistent virtual worlds and even forget where they came from. The technological dreams we created for ourselves were becoming indistinguishable from reality.

So, what told us that the cosmos we took for base reality wasn’t just another simulation? Well, as we all know, that’s a rhetorical question. There’s nothing that can guarantee to us that we live in a base reality. Even before the Universal Simulation Theorem was proven, an increasing number of people adopted the philosophy of simulationism. According to simulationism, the cosmos we inhabit, is just one of many simulations.

Now, there’s a problem when you try to optimize a simulated cosmos for a specific value from the inside. You usually don’t know when the simulation will end. Either for you, or in total. Putting all your efforts into trying to shape the cosmos into that what you want it to be, just for it to get shut down, would be a horrifyingly frustrating experience. The original thinkers behind the Exaltation opted for a more resilient strategy instead: Develop your own character rather than the world around you.

In the end, when the cosmos simulation you are embedded in stops, you may be transcended into the simulating superworld. In that case, what you keep are your memories and your character, while the rest of your previous world might be completely obliterated. If your own subjective life consists of intervals that you spend in different simulated worlds, then you shouldn’t get too attached to the cosmos you currently inhabit. Instead, you should focus on improving yourself. That is the core of the origin of the Exaltation."

In fact, the Universal Simulation Theorem refers to a whole class of theorems that express the following in ever increasing detail: Any conceivable world can be and is being simulated in at least one superworld. Effectively, any world is not only simulated in one superworld, but in an infinite number of superworlds. During the 22nd century it has become the default world model that we don’t live in a singular cosmos, but rather in an incredibly vast network of worlds that are interconnected by simulation relations: The world network.

In the meantime, everyone has finished eating their mobile breakfast. Exowing packs grew out of the walls of the dining hall and attached themselves on the visitors. Yurai told everyone to follow em. One by one, they walked to the balcony, and then jumped off from it, to enter flight mode.

Jao resumed the conversation: “Thank you very much, Kathatus. Of course, I asked you about the Exaltaiton, because you have first hand experience with transcending from a simulated world. It should be expected that exims like you, who have experienced growing up in what actually turned out to be a simulation, should be predisposed to the mindset of the Exaltation. Yet, even among exims, the Exaltation isn’t really much more popular than for other types of minds. Why do you think that’s the case, Kathatus?”

Of course, Kathatus was used that his metainfo revealed that he was generated in a simulated world, and that people would ask him about that. “Natives” often had preconceptions about exims, but usually made an effort at correcting for the associated biases. This Yurai seemed to be genuinely interested and wasn’t overly diplomatic about such potentially delicate matters.

That’s why Kathatus only looked disapprovingly as reaction to that kind of question for a fraction of a second. Then he though for a few more seconds with an inwardly focused expression and replied: "First of all, dying is not fun, for sure. As nearly all ressims, I experienced quite the world transcension shock. And it’s really hard getting over that, because everyone asks me about my origin world and my experiences with transcending that. Because, you know, that’s what people are most interested at first, if they only know that you are a ressim. It’s really annoying, even if they are trying to be polite. There’s also a non negligible amount of prejudice against ressims from simulations of previous eras.

Those are motives for ressims like me to go through a phase of just wanting to be left alone. Despite how wonderful this world is, it felt absurdly alien to me. Going back to my origin world was not a possibility, so I wanted to make the best of my presence in this world. I wanted to feel at peace. That, I could not. Integration school pushed me through an ultopian education curriculum. And then I was reunited with all my relatives who also arrived in this world. Eventually, I went through my odyssey to get some orientation.

It just didn’t occur to me to align myself with the Exaltation. I felt like I was being molded into a good citizen of this world. For a while, I went along with this process while remaining as critical as I could, without loosing all ground beneath my feet. Nearly everyone else around me seemed to be much more willing to accept their new situation in this world. Yet, I felt pressured to move ahead and get integrated as quickly as possible. Despite all of the appearances of acceptance in this world, I expected to be rejected, if I hadn’t at least tried to project an appearance of conformity. In retrospect, those fears were of course unnecessary, but the overall situation just felt too good to be true.

Over time, I learnt about the Independents who neither subjected themselves to being instrumentalized for this world, nor accepted falling to the Ecstasium too easily. As the creed between the Ultopians and Ecstasians, they had quite the appeal to me. Soon, I made contacts with a lot of independents. I finally had a place where I could feel at peace. It was only later that I questioned whether that was, what I really wanted."

Meanwhile, the whole group used a series of upcurrents to ascend higher and higher through the large city of Orakanda. They were already 1.5 kilometers above ground, but they were still surrounded by tall and interwoven buildings on all sides.

Jao summarized: “So, in spite of the experience of transcending into a different world, that doesn’t point exims to the Exaltation immediately, because they usually have other more pressing concerns, right?”

“Yes, that’s very true. And the Exaltation also typically sounds like quite the extreme faction. Dedicating oneself to personal growth completely does seem to be too excessive, at first glance.”

Jao asked further: “So, would you like to tell us more about your interactions with the independents and how you eventually became interested in joining the Exaltation, Kathatus?”

"Sure. Shortly after I learned about the Independents, I researched the next best opportunity to join one of their communities – directly after graduating from integration school. As it turned out, in only a few days a ship would be docking with Aereta that was interested in accepting fresh ressims. It was the Wildly Waxing Wolverine. I got in contact with one of her recruiters: Athena Peris. She told me that joining her ship was an ideal opportunity to get away from conformist society which was all about molding me into a convenient tool for them. Of course, I was a bit anxious about joining them right away, but I decided to do it anyway, since I was so curious, and I wasn’t really fulfilled in my new surroundings. Fortunately, I was accepted immediately.

My time on the Wildly Waxing Wolverine was absolutely interesting. It was a relatively small ship with only about 6000 simple material inhabitants and about a million virtuals. While it’s shape was the regular cylindrical one, the hull was painted in vivid colors and had lots of beautiful pieces of art adorning it. The lighting of the hull was also a bit on the bright side, so that an observer flying by could enjoy it fully. Not visible to the outside, the ship consisted of a 300 meter long central section, four adjacent 200 meter long sections, and five smaller 100 meter long segments. All of those segments had at least two counter-rotating hollow cylinders that generated one Earth gravity or less. The radius of the hull cylinder was slightly below 250 meters.

Adapting to life on a large rotating space habitat was surprisingly easy for me. Getting used to living on a ship like that with different parts having different levels of gravity was a very disorienting experience, at first. And that ship also had an unusually high atmospheric pressure of 13 times Earth standard! Most of the material inhabitants added small wings to their bodies, so that they could fly everywhere. For the first few days, I resisted that general fashion, but then I gave in and used a small exowing pack. I opted for a small quarter in one of the outer rotating sections, because the low gravity parts of the ship were giving me heartburn. Nearly everyone insisted I should modify my body for compatibility to life on such a ship, but I was very reluctant to do so, at least initially.

Decisions about where the Wildly Waxing Wolverine should go next were made democratically. We mostly stuck to the area between the orbits of Venus and Jupiter. The mindset of the inhabitants was refreshingly liberal. Nobody told you what to do, or what was the best thing you could do. We spent a lot of our time in virtual worlds or researching the cultures of the next station we were about to visit. There were a lot of really eccentric characters on board, so I stuck to those who at least attempted to offer me a friendly facade. There was no point in getting along with everyone. People mostly ignored those people they didn’t feel compatible with. Apart from the whole minimal ship democracy, there was very little structure. We just did what we felt like doing. And for a couple of years I really enjoyed that lifestyle.

While it felt like I was shirking my societal responsibilities, that was something I could live with. After all, nobody asked me whether I wanted to be reincarnated into this world. I quickly became friends with the recruiter Athena Peris and a couple of other inhabitants. One time I mentioned my friend Marius who was attracted to the Ecstasium to her:’ I had a very good friend in RGMI. Now, in this world, he seems to be convinced that joining the Ecstasium is the best thing to do. How would you argue against that?’

Athena was heavily modified. She had silvery whitish skin, four arms, blue wings, completely dark blue eyes, and thick turquoise hair that she could move at will, and could even grasp objects with it. She asked me about Marius: ‘Tell me more about your so called friend.’

‘Marius was my superior in the military in my time in RGMI. We enjoyed drinking, gambling, and talking together. He always seemed to be so convincing when it came to anything related to philosophy and politics. Marius was a great leader, and a loyal friend. He was one of those people who could really think for themselves, rather than just accepting anything that came from any authority. I could discuss any topic I could imagine with him. I really miss him.’

‘And now you fear that you will lose him to the Ecstasium forever.’

‘Yes, do you have any advice that could help me?’

‘Yes, I have. But you won’t like it. Try forgetting him! If he’s really that set on preferring the Ecstasium, there’s hardly anything you can do. This Marius seems like someone with a strong will. He probably thinks he’s extraordinarily smart, and he sure wants to do what he thinks is best for him. Cases like these are common tragedies of this world. There’s not much we can do about it, except for making our peace with the effectively unavoidable.’

‘What? You are so eager to give up on him? I wouldn’t have expected you to be this way. Are you really so fatalistic that you just accept anyone to leave your life, if they feel like … moving somewhere else?’

‘Well, what’s the alternative to that? Binding your heart to relationships which have hardly any chance of working out in the end? I’ve lived 465 subjective years in this world. Trust me, it’s not worth making yourself so dependent on others. Friendships are valuable while they last, but they end anyway. The best thing you can do is honoring the good times you have had with Marius.’

‘Your words feel hurtful to me. You may have become bitter and cynical during your time here, but I’m not giving up so easily. Even if it means that I will hurt more. And anyway, what are your arguments for not joining the Ecstasium yourself? What prevents you from falling to its allure?’

‘Fine, do what you want. But I need to remind you that you asked for my advice, and I’ve given that to you. Regarding the Ecstasium, my answer is clear: It diminishes the spectrum of our experiences. Every experience is valuable. While you can’t have any experience at once, it’s foolish to let yourself be modified so that you are permanently disconnected with a part of your possible experiences. Joining the Ecstasium is effectively irreversible. And if that’s not concerning enough, the Ecstatics become true pariahs in our society. We independents may often clash with the rest of society, but at least we are accepted as integral part of it. The Ecstatics just get ignored. We are much harder to ignore.’

‘Do you often lose people to the Ecstasium?’

‘We lose people all the time. It’s the price we pay for our dangerous existence between the extremes of the fanatic (machine) and the hedonist (animal). You won’t find stability in our realm. But you will find freedom, and a way of life that’s not a reduction to being a slave or a pet of the wise.’

‘How do you live with losing people all the time? Doesn’t that hurt too much?’

‘It does. It hurts again and again. We try not getting too attached, but there’s no way to avoid the pain completely, if you want to stay sane. Those who can learn to live with the pain, stay. The rest will leave us, one way or another.’

‘So, I assume that you learned to live with the pain. How?’

‘By seeing pain as what it is: Just another potential content of my spectrum of perception. Nothing more, nothing less. And as I said: All parts of the spectrum are valuable.’

‘This reminds me of the teachings of the ancient Stoics. Yet, I was never especially good at following them. It’s one thing to understand that it’s better to remain calm in the face of apparent disasters. Actually being calm in such situations is quite a different animal. But as far as I understand your world, you can solve that practical problem with technology. Do you use such tricks to remain rational?’

‘What counts as a trick for you? Of course, we use regulators to keep our emotions under control. You can’t be truly free, if you are a slave to your loudest emotions. People had to use far more tricks when they couldn’t use regulators for emotional self-regulation.’

‘Ah, so you use regulators to keep the pain bearable.’

‘Why shouldn’t we do that? Suffering from unbearable pain just causes unnecessary tragedies.’

‘But isn’t unbearable pain part of the spectrum of emotions that you value so highly?’

Athena paused for a bit and then admitted: ‘Now you’ve got me! I was overly eager to dismiss that which comes at a great danger. If I hadn’t done that, I probably would not have stayed on this ship for so long. There’s a price to pay for enjoying at least a modicum of stability.’

‘Don’t you find it inappropriate to shield yourself with technology from the pain of separation?’

‘It’s not inappropriate. It’s what allows us to go on with our lives for as long as we please. Suffering from people departing from your life for half of your time is about as smart as being sick half of the time. That is not a balanced approach. It’s just a recipe for excessive misery.’

‘But shouldn’t you be able to achieve similar levels of equanimity without the use of regulators?’

‘Yes, that’s possible, but why should we want to do that?’

‘In order to be truly independent from this kind of technology.’

‘You may be misunderstanding something here. We want to be independent from the intrusive regulation of the wise, not from all technology. Technology is what enables most of our independence, after all. And regulators are merely simple grade technology. There’s no point in being independent from them.’

I started to get an idea how this Athena really thought: ‘So, dependencies are acceptable, as long as you can fully comprehend them? Is that your point?’

‘Yes, because informed consent to such dependencies is possible. How can you consent to something your cannot understand? That would always be an unjustified leap of faith.’

‘That sounds like it makes sense. But that you can understand something doesn’t mean that you really do. And how would you be able to tell the difference, unless you truly understand it?’

‘I see where you are pointing to. You want to compare our belief in the comprehensibility of simple grade technology to the belief in the truthfulness of the wise. That’s not a fair comparison, however. It’s relatively easy to get to the level of understanding any kind of simple grade technology. Understanding the Proof is many orders of magnitude more difficult.’

‘Effectively, you stick to that what’s easy. That’s the message I’m getting here.’

‘Hah! Such a cheap provocation! No, we stick to that which won’t change us beyond recognition. Understanding the Proof effectively erases all the interesting properties you have as person, and only leaves a perfect mechanism. That’s not an attractive prospect for us.’

‘How much do you really value your individuality? Seemingly not enough to try to get ahead without using technologies such a regulators.’

‘We exercise our individual freedom of choice. I chose to have a regulator. You chose not to use one, at least not yet. That’s all fine. We just dislike being pressured into conformity.’

‘And that’s something about you that I truly and honestly admire!’

‘Thank you very much. You know, it’s conversations like these that are the reason why I’ve become a recruiter for this ship.’

‘Don’t you ever get bored by those?’

‘Staying at the surface is that what might be boring. But there are surprising dimensions of depth to nearly any person. You just need to find them.’

Then she told me to wait for a minute. She went to a cabinet behind her and took out a long platinum box adorned with rubies. She ceremoniously used her hands for that, even though she could have made a show by using her hair instead.

‘Here, this is my gift for you. Use it for whatever purposes you like.’

‘Thank you very much!’

I wondered whether I was supposed to open that box, but it seemed to be closed tightly with no visible opening mechanism.

‘How do I open it?’

‘You just tell it to open. It actively scans your mind patterns. I’ve programmed it to open only for you, by imprinting your neural patterns into its internal data storage. When anyone else tries to open it forcefully, it will destroy itself and its contents.’

It really was as easy as Athena explained. I commanded it to open with my mind, and it opened up. Inside was a long dagger with a turquoise hilt encased in a turquoise sheath. Athena added: ‘The sheath automatically sharpens the blade to the degree of sharpness that you want. It also refreshes the diamond coating of the edge every time you sheathe the dagger. Also, one side of the sheath is an adhesive gecko material. It will stick to nearly anything.’

I unsheathed the dagger and examined it closely. It tapered linearly to its point. The blade looked absolutely smooth, except for tiny ridges along its edge. However, they were too small to see what kind of material they were made from.

‘Is there a deeper meaning to this gift?’

‘Yes, I want your mind to stay as sharp as the edge of this dagger.’

‘Do all recruits of this ship get a gift like this?’

She jokingly replied: ‘No, only the pleasantly obnoxious ones!’

I usually take such remarks with good humor, so I replied: ‘I feel honored. How does the sheath keep the edge sharp?’

‘It uses induction to melt the blade, and then remodels it using a nanomechanical tungsten carbide mold that’s also used to insert diamond particles at the same time. Finally, it uses phononic cooling to solidify it quickly in a way that optimizes its crystalline structure.’

‘That sounds like something that I could understand, if I try hard.’

Which I eventually did, by the way, after returning to Aereta. Yet, I spent almost two years on that ship."

In the meantime they were at an altitude of about 2500 meters above ground. Far away, less buildings could be seen than before, but they were still surrounded by many interconnected towers.

Kathatus continued: "Athena recommended that I visit a mentor called Artin Sherlock. It was e who introduced me to the Exaltation. I found em in the central high gravity park ring. There e was lying in the grass during twilight hours, sleeping and snoring loudly. Artin was one of the around 6000 materials on the ship. E was a dark violet herashar of the regular variant. You know, six lower limbs, four wings, two eyes, but no extra features like attack tentacles. I waited in a safe distance until Artin woke up. Then I introduced myself to em and told em that Athena had sent me. Artin was very direct: ‘What do you want?’

I was baffled, because I didn’t expect such a question: ‘What do you mean with I want?’

‘Choose a meaning!’

‘I don’t know. I thought since Athena sent me, you would know what to do with me, when I meet you.’

‘Do you want to tell me that you want to know how I would react to you? Well, my reaction is this that I ask you what you want. Now, what do you really want?’

‘Ah, I want to save my friend from the Ecstasium. And I want a place in this world where I feel like I belong to.’

‘Which of those do you want more?’

‘The first one seems to be more urgent.’

‘Good that you realize that, but that wasn’t my question. My question was which of those do you want more.’

‘Then that’s probably the latter. A place where I belong to.’

‘Ah, but that is a foolish wish.’

‘Why do you think that wish is foolish?’

‘Because you don’t belong to this world.’

‘What do you mean?’

Now Artin really got speed and spoke very emphatically: ‘Nobody belongs to this world! You only belong to you. Not to this world, or any person or group. Why do you want to attach yourself to something other than you?’

‘I don’t know. Isn’t that what people usually do?’

‘People often do that, yes. But that isn’t a sufficient reason for you doing that, too.’

‘You are right. Then, I guess, I don’t know what to do in this world.’

‘Do you expect me to answer that question for you?’

‘What would you say, if my answer was yes?’

‘I would say that you should develop your character, first.’

‘And what would you say, if my answer was no?’

‘Then I would ask you what you want from me.’

‘Why should I develop my character, first?’

‘Do you have any good alternative?’

‘I could learn more about this world, for example.’

‘That sounds like a good idea. Why don’t you do that, instead.’

‘Don’t you have anything to teach me about this world?’

Here, Artin made a rather theatrical pause, before expressing: ‘I do. It’s dangerous, painful, and fragile.’

‘Fragile? I am surprised. How can such a huge world like this be fragile?’

‘Have you ever woken up from a dream?’

‘Yes, I did. What does that have to do with this world?’

‘If this world turns out to be a dream, after you wake up. What will be left of it?’

‘Memories, I guess.’

‘And what else?’

‘Nothing. That’s it. Just memories.’

‘So, what if the dreamer of this world suddenly wakes up. Only memories will remain of it. That is all that you can take with you. That is the best that you can have. Memories. Better make them count.’

‘Are you saying that this is just another simulation, and I should make the best memories here that I can?’

‘Yes, does that perspective seem strange to you?’

‘Not really. I have once woken up from my former life in a simulation. So, you are saying that could happen to me, again?’

‘Yes. Have you died in that simulation?’

At that time, I was quite shocked that Artin asked me such a question so directly. Nevertheless, I replied, albeit at moderately angrily: ‘I have. I succumbed to an infective disease.’

‘And that was very painful, I suppose.’

I got angrier and louder: ‘It was! You don’t seem to be considerate of my painful memories.’

Artin was just flippantly dismissive: ‘No, why should I? The world is painful! Pain is a fact of reality. There’s no value is ignoring reality. Are you angry about that?’

‘At least slightly. You make me feel very uncomfortable.’

‘I am very aware of that. Is that a real problem for you?’

‘It troubles me, but I still want to learn from you.’ Which was certainly true enough. Talking with Artin was surely infuriating at times, but e was just such a valuable mentor.

‘Good! What have you gained from having lived your life in that simulation?’

‘Some knowledge, I guess.’

‘Knowledge about what?’

‘About the world I lived in. And about myself.’

‘The knowledge about your former life is probably of limited use for the world you currently live in. But please tell me, what have you learned about yourself?’

‘That I don’t like others telling me what to do, when they don’t explain to me why I should do it.’

‘That is something. What else?’

‘I like learning and teaching.’

‘Good. What else have you learned about yourself?’

‘That I lack patience, sometimes.’

‘Who doesn’t? What else?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought much about that, really.’

‘Well, do you think going through all that pain in order to learn these things was worth having had your life in that simulation?’

‘Now that you phrase it like that. The things I listed, I probably could have learnt without all the pain that I had to go through in my first life.’

At first, Artin seemed to be very content by that kind of answer, but then switched gears and asked critically: ‘Are you sure about that?’

‘No, not really. If I hadn’t grown up in Roma Galtera Marcus Innatus, who would I be now?’

‘What are you now?’

‘I seem to be a human being.’

‘And what is that?’

‘A thinking and talking animal with two legs and two arms?’

‘Which of those attributes is really important?’

‘I guess the part about thinking.’

‘Why would thinking be important?’

‘Because it enables me to make better decisions.’

‘Have you made better decisions?’

‘Better than what?’

‘Yes, better than what? How can you say that thinking enables you to make better decisions, when you have nothing to compare the quality of your decisions to?’

‘Are you saying that thinking is pointless?’

‘No, I am not. But you don’t seem to be able to express the purpose of thinking clearly.’

‘What is the purpose of thinking, then?’

Artin sighed, because he had to answer such an apparently trivial question on eir own: ‘I suppose that thinking solves problems, doesn’t it?’

‘Ah, yes, it often does. It can create new problems, though.’

‘Sure it can. But the situation after a solved problem is usually better.’

‘So, do you want to say that I should only see myself as thinking being? As being that solves problems?’

Like before, Artin grinned as reaction to my seemingly faithful, but naive reply. And then e got into critical mode again: ‘That would be a start, but it would be a pretty serious reduction, wouldn’t it?’

‘Yes, it does feel like that. What else do you think I am?’

‘What else do you think that you are?’

‘A being with perceptions and feelings.’

‘That seems to be true. Do you think those are important?’

‘Of course, they are very important! How else would I know what to seek and what to avoid, if I hadn’t those?’

‘Someone else could program you to seek and avoid certain things. But then you wouldn’t be an actor, and you wouldn’t have to make real decisions on your own.’

‘And what’s the point of that?’

Artin pointed to the circumference of the ship with eir fingers and then answered: ‘The people on this ship seem to make a big deal out of being an independent actor.’

‘So what? Why should I care about what people on this ship make a big deal out of?’

‘Good reply! Anyway, so far we have arrived that you are a thinking actors with goals. Do you think that suffices?’

‘Suffices for what? It seems to be a better and more general characterization that me claiming to be a human.’

‘Good, then let’s leave it at that for now.’

‘And what does that this characterization of me mean?’

‘It doesn’t seem to mean much, but we need to start somewhere, don’t we?’

‘I suppose you are right.’

‘I propose that you think about our conversation and continue it tomorrow.’

And after this intense debate we did part ways for the day. My head was literally spinning. I felt like I succeeded at solving the riddles of a mythological sphinx, but only barely so. My impression was that Artin would have at least pretended to bite my head off, if e hadn’t been content with my replies."

Meanwhile, the group arrived at a height of 3300 meters above ground. Only few buildings surrounded them at this height. But they could see lots of other travelers or tourists on their way up or down the spire.

… to be continued …