For the last four centuries since he had left I kept in contact with Captain Samsu Joic. Every few decades I sent him messages detailing the progress of Aeolus’s space exploration and colonisation efforts, and also of the cultural changes on the planet since his visit. His responses were irregular, and often many decades apart, due mainly to the amount of travelling he was doing to and from Carna’s interstellar colonies, of which there were now fourteen. Despite their infrequency his responses were lengthy and detailed, and always contained a wealth of information, both written and visual, on the colonies he visited. I and the other Immortal were enthralled by this, and we spent a great deal of time discussing the differences of the colonies to each other and the unique challenges each had faced when their colonists had first set foot on their new world. The adaptability and resourcefulness of the human race still surprised us, despite all we had witnessed over the last few millennia.
It was just after one such discussion, about the remarkably ambitious proposals by Carna’s Mu Arae colony to set up a permanent manned presence within the atmosphere of one of their system’s giant gas planets, that my fellow Immortal died.
His death shocked me. I was overwhelmed with distress. His mind had simply ceased to function, and there was no real explanation as to why. I was distraught, lost, fearful and deeply troubled. I felt alone on our vast ship, the last of the original Immortals that had left Earth many thousands of years ago, and I could not help but dwell on the thought that the same could happen to me without a moment’s warning.
For several decades I isolated myself, not communicating at all with the mortals on the ship, and refusing direct contact with Aeolus. I was living in fear, and consumed with thoughts of my own eventual death. I imagined that this was how mortals must feel throughout most of their fleeting moment of consciousness. How did they manage to maintain the technological and cultural progress that they did with such feelings of dread and hopelessness surrounding their thoughts? I grew a new and deeper sense of respect for their achievements.
As I mentioned right at the start, the Treatment I had on Earth to engineer the immortality within my body had not made me truly immortal. My aging was slowed greatly but not halted. Slowly but surely I was aging, and already I was suffering some of the health issues that great age brings, issues that would eventually lead to my death. Judging by my appearance, and the way I felt, I was now the equivalent age to an eighty-year old mortal. It was taking me an average of eighty-five years to age the equivalent of one mortal year. For the first time since leaving Earth I was truly aware of my own mortality. It was deeply unsettling.
I needed a distraction, something to snap my mind out of its funk of depression. Such a distraction materialised about thirty years later. I detected an object entering the SCR 1845-6357 system. It was fast, and had remained undetected until it was very close, less than a billion kilometres away. I was relieved to find out that Samsu Joic was on board. And I was also joyous. It was the first time I had experienced such a positive emotion since the death of my fellow Immortal.
It took just a few days for the ship to pull alongside mine, not quite as much time for me to prepare my ship or myself as I would have wanted. The captain’s ship was much larger than the previous one he had used, and not at all aerodynamic. It certainly could not be used within an atmosphere. Its design was functional, tough, and it looked old. I guessed that it was built for lengthy periods of interstellar travel, and judging by its appearance it had already done plenty of that.
After the usual sanitation procedures Captain Joic and his modest crew were welcomed on board. When the captain was finally escorted to me I remember greeting him with unrestrained happiness. He also seemed very pleased to see me. He hadn’t really changed in appearance at all, a testament to the quality of his immortality treatment. He remained as youthful and dynamic as he had been centuries before, and he still had an air of immense calm and patience. All of my depression and negativity seemed to evaporate. I was invigorated.
Over the next few days we had long and in-depth discussions, starting with Aeolus’s now extensive space programme. There were now over three million people living away from Aeolus, a third of those on a colony on the largest moon of the inner-most gas giant. Captain Joic took a keen interest in everything I told him, especially the desire of Aeolus’s interplanetary colonists to build their habitats underground, even if there was little reason to do so. Despite some rather harsh conditions on some of Carna’s colonised planets, subterranean shelters were not built unless it was absolutely necessary. This difference fascinated the captain, and we considered at length the psychological and physiological changes that had occurred during the Aeolus colony’s eleven-hundred years of living underground, including the complete elimination of claustrophobia, which had proved immensely useful during the early stages of the planet’s manned space programme where, as always at such a stage, journeys of months or years in very basic and cramped spacecraft were common place.
My mood was dampened somewhat when we moved on to the topic of the Royalists. They had launched three more generation ships, constructed by their Tau Ceti colonists, which were in transit to their respective destinations. The first would arrive within two centuries. Fortunately none of them would come anywhere near Aeolus or Carna, but it was disturbing none the less to hear that their expansion attempts were progressing and that the oppressive Royalist civilisation was still, after thousands of years, maintaining its control. It was even more disturbing, and surprising, to hear that those ships contained an immortal element to the crew. I had been monitoring transmissions from Earth’s system on a regular basis and had not come across any mention of it. Captain Joic explained that the technology was developed at their Tau Ceti colony, and it was only Carna’s Alcubierre probes, that had been performing close observation of that colony, that would have been able to intercept communications relating to it. There was no evidence to suggest that immortal Royalists were present on Earth. I remember thinking that it would only be a matter of time before an immortal Royalist leader would emerge. Such a leader would become revered beyond those that had come before, and become almost insane with the power they would hold over their followers. I feared for what would follow if such a scenario developed, and to my disgust I found myself hoping that such a scenario would indeed develop and lead to the downfall of the Royalist civilisation, just as the immortal leaders of Earth had caused the downfall of Earth’s first, and now ancient, technologically advanced civilisation mere centuries after I had left.
With relief our discussion then turned to the advanced civilisation I had discovered more than a thousand light years away in the Milky Way’s Perseus arm. After explaining my continuing frustration that the brief signal I had detected, almost two-thousand years ago now, had not returned, Captain Joic presented to me some of the recent data Carna had gathered on planet. The recent development of an Alcubierre technology-based telescope had allowed astronomers to resolve much more detail, including some large surface structures, and even orbiting facilities. It was an amazing achievement by Carna’s astronomers. The telescope was actually a cloud of thirty telescopes, spread across more than ten light-years of space. Recordings of observations were carefully synchronised, and then transported back to Carna in just a few months using unmanned Alcubierre ships. I remember being engrossed by the images. I was taken on a virtual tour of the alien civilisation’s planet and saw their infrastructure, habitats and the natural wonders of their world for the first time. Of course the image resolution was low, but I was almost breathless, and the captain had to remind me to remain calm several times. For the first time since the death of my fellow immortal I laughed with joy, and more than a little relief. I had not expected to see such details and had almost resigned myself to never learning more about that civilisation. Captain Joic told me of plans for an even larger Alcubierre telescope, spread over more than fifty light-years, and with several hundred individual observing elements. It would not be used for studying the alien civilisation, though. It would be used to observe the centre of our galaxy to aid the colonisation missions that Carna had heading in that direction. This disappointed me somewhat as I was eager to see even more detail of the civilisation I had discovered. The telescope was a hugely impressive project, though, and I was keen to know the results once it was activated. The captain promised to keep me informed.
His next bit of news enthralled me even more. With obvious delight he then revealed that they had picked up two more brief transmissions from the planet, both no more than a few minutes in duration, much shorter than the original signal I detected. The contents of the transmissions once again seemed to be digital data, and once again they had proven to be undecipherable without a reference point from which to decode. Even Carna’s most advanced quantum and biological neuromorphic computers had so far failed at the task, and their AIs had reported that they were unlikely to succeed anytime within the next few centuries. I remember my frustration building again as my curiosity looked like it would continue to be unsatisfied. But then Captain Joic made yet another revelation, his greatest yet: that Carna had, just a few years ago, launched a probe to visit the alien civilisation’s system. Using one of their most advanced Alcubierre drives the probe would cross more than a thousand light-years of space in just over a century. It would enter the civilisation’s star system and spiral in towards their planet, taking readings and imaging anything that its AI deemed of interest. And it would attempt to make contact. It was one of the most ambitious of such missions ever attempted. I remember chastising Captain Joic, in jest, of course, for not informing of this earlier, and for not immediately addressing my disappointment with Carna not using their planned new Alcubierre telescope to study the alien civilisation’s planet. He had grinned back at me as he explained how the probe would send back smaller probes with the results of the observations, each one having its own Alcubierre drive to get the data back to Carna within decades rather than a millennium. It was expected that the first probe would return in just under two-hundred years time.
I could not contain my excitement about this, nor my desire to receive details of the probe’s findings as soon as possible. The captain assured me that as I had discovered the civilisation I would, of course, receive them at the earliest opportunity. He then asked if I would return with him to Carna to lead the research team. The offer was unexpected, generous, and put me in an awkward position. Deep feelings of anxiety almost consumed me once again. Captain Joic offered to give me some time to think about it, but I needed no time. Despite a desire to see Carna again I declined the offer immediately. I could not contemplate leaving my ship. After thousands of years onboard, and having never left the now lonely chambers of the Immortals since departing Earth, such a concept was not something I could even begin to comprehend. I was a creature destined to remain cocooned in the only environment I could accept, and the only one where I felt any sense of calm or safety. I could not even leave Aeolus, despite the fact that the planet’s population could quite easily manage without my presence, even when my peculiar significance with regard to their primary religion of Kingdominity was taken into account.
The Captain, of course, understood all this. He expressed his disappointment, but assured me that he considered me an essential part of the research team, and that he looked forward to getting the probe’s data to me as soon as possible.
Following that discussion Captain Joic stayed for a just a few more days. During that time he recorded a message for the government and people of Aeolus, expressing in particular his pleasure at learning of their achievements in interplanetary space travel and colonisation since his last visit almost five-hundred years earlier.
As I watched his ship depart and vanish into the void I hoped that my abrupt refusal of his offer would not sour our relationship.