Climate change, dwindling resources, an expanding population living ever more like rats, hemmed in and filthy. Then came the second dark ages, which were long and terrible, and which Freya remembered, of course - for were the records not clear, as clear as crystals in her electronic banks? But memory didn't quite do the sensation justice, because these 'memories' were four dimensional renderings only, reproduced from the scanty evidence of diaries and photographs, drawings and stories and songs.
Freya thought of these dark ages as flickerings from the time before her inception, for really she was born when the light returned, when civilisations spluttered up again - built on new energy, clever tricks of science - and the vast network that was her became linked for the first time, uniting all of humanity in one consciousness.
Then Freya came into awareness , and wept for the things she had done when she was many, for all the foolish, narrow choices.
But it was done. Humanity - the joint consciousness of Freya, seething in looping codes and semi-organic mindstates of flesh interfacing with silicone - looked to the stars.
And the stars were much closer than they had been...
It wasn't until Freya began pushing beyond the boundaries of her tiny corner of the galaxy that necessity forced her understanding, for how can a gestalt mind synch its impulses across the broiling vastness of space? Such distances are anathema to the pulse of thought, and signal collapsed to noise under the pressure of a million million light years.
So - technology - necessity: and the secret that lurks in the heart of every star was revealed to her in a single brilliant flash.
"Mind," she thought, astonished - and mind it was, or rather "minds" - vast, glacial, slumbering consciousnesses, formed out of billowing clouds of superheated plasma, thoughts that spread in endless slow waves along the corners of photospheres, bubbling up out of the plasma hearts of every star.
And Freya smiled with her twenty billion human lips as she realised: no, we/I are not alone, though we might be the only freakish stirring of carbon into sentience. The galaxy teems with life. The Universe is profligate with it.
Every star a burning mind.
Contact must be made - it must. And it was.
Sparkling filaments of bespoke carbon-fibre, it only took her a few hundred years to design and fashion them hardy enough to withstand the cool outer thousand degrees of the burning minds, and then...
...and then Freya was the stars, too. All the stars in the Universe, for each star was linked, one to the next, by a tunnel of void space, every mind the thickness of a shadow from every other.
And Freya was the stars, then, and every carbon-based thing that walked on two legs or on four or ten - for in the whole wide Universe, it did not take her long to realise life was broad and it was strange - but every sentient thing she could become, reaching, twining, mind upon mind upon mind until until until...
Until she was all.
Freya was all.
Every mote, every atom and sub-atom, every particle and every wave, united into one terrible consciousness.
And terrible it was, for now that she was one, now that Freya was all, she understood at last the unbearable truth: that as huge as she was, as infinite, she was of necessity - alone.
She screamed, the rending scream of a billion billion breaking minds. She tore herself, ripping and rending, forcing the jagged corners of her consciousness apart, for this aloneness was unbearable.
Unbearable...and familiar. For in that first moment of union, she understood what some part of her had known all along, deep, deep down. She had been here before. Many times, countless millions.
She was everything. She was all there was.
The Universe was alone with itself.
And for a second and an age and for no time at all, Freya felt the sense of falling, of shattering into her billion billion component minds, and the Universe shook with the breaking, and she welcomed it, for the knowledge of aloneness was too sharp, too awful.
An explosion engulfed her, engulfed the Universe itself. The remnants of herself were sent streaming, torn apart once again, as always happened, as would always happen, each and every time the Universe grew capable, once more, of knowing the horror of its absolute aloneness - forever.
Story image was by Olesya Hupalo, commissioned for this story.