Monday, 29 May 2017

The Immortal Kings

Immortality is a concept much covered in science fiction, and it's a subject that has fascinated me for some time. It's therefore surprising that it took me this long to write a story on the subject.

Published on the Palace of Amino website this month, the story,  titled 'The Immortal Kings', spans the many thousands of years following the launch of Earth's first generation star-ship. Told from the point of view of one of the ship's few immortal crew members, we feel what it's like to live such a long life as numerous mortal human generations live and die, and civilisations on Earth and it's new colonies develop, and even end.

The story begins with a statement that illustrates one of the downsides of immortality:
I find it hard to remember the first century of my life. The memories of those times seem mostly vague and disconnected, and devoid of order. But I was someone of some importance, I believe.
It seems that memories of early life, especially before the treatment, are not retained, at least not in a coherent manner. They seem to be fleeting and disconnected, and devoid of specifics. Perhaps this is a welcome side effect. Once a person becomes biologically immortal their outlook on life will change. Memories of mortality and of the mortal relatives and friends they are to outlive may well be painful and best forgotten. This is certainly the case for the immortals in my story:
We were to forget our ties with Earth and focus solely on our mission of colonisation which, by its very nature, was always going to become an almost forgotten expedition as far as our home world was concerned. The vast distance and time-frame would ensure that those on Earth would eventually have no link to us, and vice-versa. Having a group of Immortals on board with clear records of their family, friends and experiences on Earth to remind them of what they had lost would risk emotional conflict and even deadly confrontations as the decades and centuries passed. It was better that memories and emotional ties faded with time and vanished never to be rediscovered.
The Immortal telling the story is particularly interested in his faded memories of the British Monarchy, and the current king, King William VII:
I do have two clear memories from that time. The first is my attendance at the coronation of His Majesty King William VII, the last British monarch to be crowned. I remember the pride I felt that day as I watched the crown lowered onto the head of the young king, although I’m not exactly sure why I was proud. I have fleeting recollections of talking with the prince, and of his residences which I seemed to have known well, so perhaps I was proud because of some deep involvement with him or his family, or with the coronation proceedings.
His interest in the king, and his frustration of not being able to remember his relationship ship to him, seems to intensify as the centuries roll by.

Of all the benefits of immortality, the main one is, of course, time. Most of the immortals in the story certainly make use of that time by immersing themselves in their studies, and it seems that, following some tragic deaths, the immortality treatment requires such mental stimulation to maintain psychological well-being:
By the fifth century of our voyage the number of Immortals had reduced by half, which had been unexpected. Most of the ones that died had done so because of unforeseen side-effects of the Treatment, and due to suicide following descents into madness and misery.  Extreme longevity was not for the mentally weak or unstable. The enhancements delivered by the Treatment did not extend to the mind, it seemed. 
The Immortals that fared the best were those that devoted most of their time to intellectual and scientific pursuits. All of those involved in the vast literature and art archives, physical and digital, seemed highly content with their roles, as did those responsible for music and imagery. I was thoroughly absorbed in my astronomical studies. Those that focused on the social and engineering aspects of our ship seemed to suffer the most.
There is more anguish for the immortals as they learn of the breakdown of civilisation in the Solar-System. The abuse of immortality treatment on Earth by those in power seems to be the reason behind it:
Direct communication with Earth had always been rare, and by the start of the sixth century of our voyage we were receiving and transmitting messages no more than once per decade. It was towards the end of that century, and after almost thirteen light-years of travel, that we received what was to be our final official communication from Earth. Wars on our home world and its larger colonies throughout the Solar-System, about which we had received only brief reports over the previous century, had grown in ferocity and the end of civilisation appeared inevitable. Too many had undergone the Treatment, and too many of them had been unsuitable. There was insanity at the very heights of power.
And the immortal receives a personal message, one that proves his importance to the king:
Within that communication was a private message for me. It was from King William. His reign of six-hundred and ninety-eight years was at an end. Britain had been destroyed, as had its territories on the Moon, Mars and Callisto. There was no kingdom left.  From a safe location away from the Earth he had watched the destruction of thousands of years of human achievement. He had despaired as vicious engineered diseases spread across nations and continents and as blinding fires consumed millions of his people and billions of others around the world and beyond.

He would head in our direction, he said. He and his staff would die as supplies dwindled, but his ship should one day arrive at the star system for which we were bound. He asked that I look out for it and take care of the artifacts of British history within it; artifacts that he had chosen himself from his homes in London, Windsor and at Elysium Mons. I must indeed have been an important acquaintance of the King to receive such a personal message, but even then I could not recall quite why
Over many centuries, as the first human colony around another star flourishes into a civilisation all of its own, the immortal makes regular observations of Earth and its system, desperate to find evidence that some humans had survived the apocalyptic events that had swept across the Solar-System. But nothing is heard:
Every few years I turned my instruments towards Earth and the Solar-System. I found it impossible to accept that there was no one left there. There must have been survivors who could re-establish some form of civilisation. But more than a thousand years had passed since war consumed our home system. If there had been survivors on Earth the devastation of the eco-system would have kept population levels to a minimum for centuries and prevented anything but basic survival tasks from being carried out. Reluctantly I had to agree with the other Immortals that the best that could probably be hoped for by now would be a medieval-level society, and that it would be another thousand years at least before a detectable technological civilisation developed. 
But still I watched and listened. And still I hoped.
The immortal's incredible patience and persistence is finally rewarded:
I detected a faint intermittent signal a century later.
The signal was so weak that it was almost impossible to glean any information from it, but it was a signal, all the same. At the very least it seemed that someone on Earth had built a radio transmitter, one of reasonable power, and directed a signal into space.  And they had directed it in our direction. 
I presented my findings to the other four Immortals and then to scientists at our colony. Within days dozens of radio telescopes across the system were directed towards Earth. The signal was amplified and cleaned.  It contained a voice that spoke a distorted and heavily accented version of English. The repeating message was simple...
That message is profound, both on a personal level for the immortal, and on its far-reaching effect on the future of humanity. To find out what the message is, and how it shapes the lives of billions, please read 'The Immortal Kings' now.

To read more about generation star-ships read this article, titled 'Immortal Travellers'.