I can almost feel them watching me as I glide past. Almost. If I didn’t know that was impossible. I mean, literally impossible. They have no eyes, no senses, no way of seeing. Technically, they don’t even not see. Meanwhile, as they’re busy not seeing or feeling or thinking, the rest of us who can see and feel and think bustle about them. I’ve tended to the soul bank for as long as I can remember, while we drift along through the galaxy. It isn’t a hard job; others do the proper work of maintaining our vessel, determining the curving course we’ll take between stars and the gaping voids between them. It can be beautiful, to gaze out through the windows at the endless blackness out there, punctuated by dusty swirls of colour. None of them are for us though – we have a higher mission. To safeguard these ancient souls to the core. That a number of us are regrettably instantiated in bodies is a necessary sacrifice to guide our fellows home.
Every day, when not peering at the velvet expanse outside, I lay my attention on the soul bank itself. It filles the length of a corridor which winds all the way around the starship. Souls are by their nature non-material, an energy pattern, often to be found sparkling across the brain-analogues of physical creatures. Separated from that crude matter they dissipate or with luck find themselves twitched and drawn into another being. The souls here have been captured before they can dance off into nothingness, spreading their cognitive nets ever wider in hopes of snagging on some substance. Here they’re held in magnetic containment, bound within glass shapes. If I didn’t know what I was looking at I’d see nothing at all, but knowing that they’re in here changes what I see. I see them in the odd reflections and shadows around the edges of their prismatic confines; in my mind they’re glowing and sparking clouds not unlike the majestic constellations I watch us approach in space.
My role is to ensure those containers hold, that each soul is held in perfect balance, compressed, contained, quiescent. Without physical form to dwell in they are just patterns, merely potential. Cleaved from meat, they have no sensation, and thus no thought. When in a body it’s their presence combined with the physical structure they occupy that gives rise to consciousness, awareness, taste, hopes and dreams. Here they are just half of nothing; silent, not-dead, not-alive. I envy them their purity. Not all the crew feel as I do, most are content in their tasks, trusting that when our mission is at an end, they too will be able to return to that state of utter peace. I have my doubts. I long to be free of this flesh, even though that which longs is of course a combination of this body’s self and its animating soul. Is it even me that desires the freedom? I should know better: the two are fused as one for as long as the body lives – there is no distinction between me and the soul that infests this skin. It feels old and tired, too many decades of space wasting away my bone and muscle. The souls I tend behind their glossy walls seem to have it so much better. No pain, no boredom, no waiting interminably. In the beginning I saw them as being imprisoned, denied their flourishing in co-existence with a physical being, but somewhere in the last hundreds of years of travel that has reversed in my mind. I can’t help but feel as if it’s my soul itself that longs to be free of me.
Time passes, light-years of distance guide us further and further into the stellar web we’ve been aiming for all this time. The souls in their bottles persist and my reflection in their glass is ever more worn and weary. As is our starship. Built in haste, with the technology and materials available to us, it is proving insufficient to the task at hand. Battered by radiation, the endless grazing and pummelling of fragments of cosmic dust, we have a very real fear that we might not be able to complete our mission. In contemplation of this I gaze at the hoard of souls and wonder what would happen if they were loosed here. If their containment fails they’ll begin to expand, casting their nets ever further in hopes of tangling in some matter complex enough to support them. It isn’t known how far they can stretch before losing their integrity. How much space could I encompass if I too were cast out into the void.
Matters come to a head. The outer fabric of our starship has ablated to a lethal degree. Within days, the interior will be daily bathed in cosmic radiation. Those of us in bodies are estimated to perish perhaps four or five days later, as our flesh perishes under that withering burn. Without the shielding, the starship itself will crumple and die only weeks later, and the soul bank will be lost as the power dies. I propose a desperate plan: we will use all our resources to send a message ahead, then launch every soul in the soul bank into the core. It is not a good plan; it presumes that those in the core are instantiated in bodies to receive both the message and the souls in their bottles, fired at superluminal speeds as if they were spiritual torpedoes. Alas, no one has a better plan.
We count down as the bottles are flung out ahead of us, each in its fragile glass cell, accelerated by our own astonishing speed and all the force of the remaining railgun. The last of us – souls unharvested, our bodies breaking down, in agony and disarray – await the ultimate dispersal of our starship, our home for so many years. This is the freedom from my body that I have yearned for, and now that it is upon us, even though my flesh fragments and rots under the assailing rays of space, I would have a little longer in a body. I would have a mind for more time. And then it’s gone, I feel my body give up in a little cough of liquidised cells and for a moment I’m half of me, racing through the patterns of a dying brain, finding exits from the maze and untangling from this physical prison. As I come unstuck and the very idea of though slips away, something vast says, “welcome”.