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Book: The Immortal Kings
Chapter 17: Utterly Familiar

As the next few decades rolled by I found myself consumed again with thoughts of my own mortality.  It was hard to ignore the aches and pains and weaknesses that spread through my body as it aged, especially as I had lived through several millennia without such concerns.  The discomfort was a constant reminder that the end of my life was approaching.  I was concerned, above everything else, that I would not live to see the results of the probe’s findings.  It was incredibly distracting, but my intense desire to see the results was keeping me motivated, and active.  I was far from idle, and I kept myself busy with my observations, and not only of the civilisation in the Perseus arm.  I regularly observed Earth and the Solar-System, and decoded any transmissions that I intercepted.  There was still no sign that Immortal Royalists were present there.  And unfortunately there was still no sign of any rebellion against the oppressive regime.  The Royalist Council’s dominance had now endured for well over two-thousand years.  Despite the despicable nature of the regime its achievements in control and expansion had to be admired, at least to some degree.  It was one of the most powerful and long-lived civilisations in human history, second only to Carna. And it looked likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

It was, therefore, with great surprise, that just a century later the Royalist stranglehold on Earth and the Solar-System appeared to have ended.

I had noticed increased radio chatter for a year or more before it happened.  The messages, from the Royalist military mainly, seemed to be concerned about something, although I could not determine what due to the rather bizarre code words that they used, which often sounded like nonsense.  Despite listening to hours of discussions I could only establish that something was approaching.  My visual observations did not help much.  I could see Earth and its moon, but no detail, and if something was approaching it I could not see it.  Perhaps the thing that was approaching was an event, rather than an object?  I soon dismissed the issue as nothing more than the paranoid ramblings of dusty old generals, bored with the endless subjugation of their people, and bored with the constant preparation for a war against an enemy that stubbornly refused to show up.

And then Earth seemed to light up.

For just a day my visual observations showed hundreds of bright patches appearing and fading over several areas on the planet, mainly over what was formally known as Europe, North America, and China.  Electromagnetic and particle radiation readings showed that for the second time the civilisation of Earth had been consumed by a nuclear holocaust. Although I did not observe it directly I can only assume that a similar fate had descended on Earth’s many outposts throughout the Solar-System.

Earth and its nearby colonies were silent once again.

I felt an incredible sense of loss.  Although I had wanted the Royalist regime to collapse, I had hoped that it would be through a rebellion, and that those that overthrew it would replace the regime with a government that promoted freedom and tolerance, one that could join the interstellar community that had spread out from Carna.  But now there would be nothing much left on Earth for the few survivors to govern.  The clock had been turned back almost four thousand years.

For decades I kept some of my instruments trained on Earth in the hope of detecting signs of survivors, but absolutely nothing was heard above the background hum of the universe.  The Earth was as silent as it would have been before the rise of the first human technological civilisation. And it was far less inhabitable, with a dust-laden and irradiated atmosphere that had brought on what was likely to be one of the most comprehensive ice ages since the Cryogenian glaciations. The challenges for any survivors would be immense; far greater than any that had been faced before. The extinction of human life on Earth was now a significant possibility. I hoped that Carna’s probes in the Solar-System would one day provide an explanation for what had happened.

As usual, after such a traumatic event, I immersed myself in my astronomical studies, looking outwards to new possibilities away from the desolation of my home planet.  This time I focused on the surrounding star systems of the civilisation in the Perseus arm. I was looking for evidence of colonisation, and the faint transmissions and light patterns that should be present if such activity was occurring. Disappointingly, two decades of study produced nothing conclusive.

It was soon after that a ship was detected entering the SCR 1845-6357 system. A message from ship confirmed that it was from Carna, and once again Samsu Joic was on board.  I was elated. It could mean only one thing, or at least I had hoped it did, that the probe to the civilisation in the Perseus arm had returned its first set of findings.

The ship was small and fast and drew alongside my ship within a day of being detected, which was just as well considering my substantial impatience to find out the reason for the visit. Fortunately the preparations for Captain Joic’s arrival by the mortal crew were swift and efficient. By the time he and his crew stepped onboard their quarters were ready.

After appropriate sanitation Samsu Joic joined me in the arboretum.  We greeted each other like dear old friends. I had not seen him for over two centuries, yet I immediately felt comfortable in his presence.  I led him to table that had been set up in the shade of an oak tree, one of the few magnificently gnarled specimens that had survived in the arboretum since we first left Earth orbit. As usual, the captain has brought a supply of wine with him from the vineyards near Londinium. As we enjoyed the wine along with a meal of rich vegetable soups and pies, all served by another efficient team of mortals, our conversation turned rapidly to the two matters that I was eager to learn more about.

We talked of Earth first.

As I had hoped, Carna’s probes had indeed witnessed the tragic events that had unfolded. Samsu showed me images of a shrouded grey world, its surface barely visible at all. It had indeed suffered a nuclear holocaust, and one far more ferocious than the one that had ended the civilisation from which I originated. Other images, including time-lapse video, showed the entire surface of my home world under attack.  Even the poles did not escape. The aim of the attack could have been nothing less than the total annihilation of human life on Earth.

And data from Carna’s probes at Tau Ceti, known as Dominion to the Royalists, showed that the source of the attack was from that system.  It seems one of their interstellar colonies, their first, was responsible. Without Alcubierre propulsion technology the attack would have taken centuries to complete, with a multi-generation spacecraft making the slow journey to Earth. It was an attack that must have been planned several hundred years before it happened. And as the Royalists had had immortality technology there for many centuries now, it is quite possible that those that devised the attack were alive to witness the result of all their planning. But the reason why they would want to render Earth so desolate and uninhabitable, possibly for centuries, was still unknown. Perhaps it was simply the cleanest way for the immortal leaders at Dominion to prepare Earth for their return, and for the creation of a new colony on their ancestral home world that would conform to their own requirements. They would have the lifespan and patience to wait for Earth’s environment to recover.  It was a chilling thought, and intensely sinister. If that turned out to be true, I had little confidence that those that had formulated such a genocidal plan would restore the kind of open and fair civilisation that I hoped for. I could see nothing good coming from the demise of Earth’s Royalists in such a manner.

I was keen to change the subject to something more positive.  That subject, of course, was the civilisation in the Perseus arm. Having finished our meal, I suggested that we retire to my observatory. We took what was left of the wine and sat on the observatory’s terrace overlooking the arboretum – a most pleasant location.

As Samsu Joic began to explain the probe’s initial findings, returned onboard a smaller Alcubierre probe, his mood lifted noticeably, and so did mine.

After arriving at the planet’s system the probe entered a wide orbit, five billion kilometres away from the target world.  As it slowly spiralled in towards the planet its highly sensitive optical instruments recorded some incredibly detailed scans. Over the course of a decade it had mapped the entire planet to a resolution of close to a single metre. The detail of the landscapes, cities, sweeping transport infrastructures and even the orbital platforms was exhilarating. We could see park land, avenues lined with huge-leaved trees or bushes, what looked like ancient and towering temples, and city squares. And most exhilarating of all was what I could see occupying those avenues and squares: obviously bipedal creatures.

I had seen them at last, if only as indistinct dark shapes from above.

I feel no embarrassment in admitting that I was overcome with emotion at that point. In fact I had sobbed openly for quite a few minutes.  I remember apologising profusely to Captain Joic. He of course understood.

Along with observations of the six other major planets in the system, that was all the information that that first return probe contained. It had been hoped that it would contain recordings of broadcasts but absolutely none had been detected. It seemed that the civilisation was just as silent, or secretive, even within its own star system.

I had thought that I would need to wait for Samsu’s next visit, decades away, to see more results.

I soon realised that I would not.

The second return probe had been despatched within months of the first. It was not scheduled to be despatched for several more years, so some significant event must have occurred to trigger its launch. And the captain had the data with him.

I remember topping up our glasses in anticipation of what I was about to see.

Samsu told me that after the first return probe had been safely dispatched the probe’s intelligence would then try to initiate communications with the target planet, while at the same time maintaining its observations.  The second return probe would be launched ten years after the first, when sufficient observations had been made. But it was to launch the second return probe early if one of two events occurred: it was in danger of being destroyed, or a significant response was received following the communications attempt with the target planet.

A response was indeed received, many in fact, and they were significant.

The first few responses had all been digital audio files. They had been unencrypted and uncompressed, which made it almost effortless for the probe’s processing ability to decipher.

I listened to them all several times. I could hear what must have been a voice, a guttural sound of varying rumbles and clicks. This was accompanied by the groans and squeaks of what sounded like animals. It was almost certainly an example of the wildlife on the target planet, accompanied by what could well be some narration of what we were hearing.

All the audio files contained that guttural narration, but each contained a different set of sounds. One seemed to be a recording of engines, another the recording of industrial activity. Another was filled with what could only have been chanting of some kind, perhaps within one of the temple-like structures I had been shown earlier.

But the one that interested me the most, and the one that had the most emotional impact of anything so far, contained nothing but music. It was astonishing. Lasting over an hour, I was taken on a journey through examples of what was probably the planet’s entire musical culture and history, from soaring symphonic arrangements, ghostly melodies, battering rhythms and complex arpeggios. The instruments used sounded so different, yet eerily familiar at the same time.  The only thing missing was singing. None of the files contained it. Perhaps such a thing was a physical impossibility for them.

And then there was video. And there was a lot of it, exactly square in format. Many showed street scenes of crowds of bipedal creatures draped in pleated gowns of all colours. Most wore hoods or hats of some sort, perhaps as protection against the harsh light of their planet’s star.  I could see grand architect – soaring towers and temples - in much more detail than I could from the probe’s images.  There seemed to be little in the way of road transport. Everyone seemed to walk everywhere.

Other videos showed the interior of dwellings, which seemed to be very spacious and totally open plan, with no interior walls at all. What looked like beds and bathing areas surrounded a central cooking and eating area, with large round cushions in place of chairs. Children seemed to be kept away from adults, segregated in one of the outer sections.

And there were many videos of animals of all sizes, including what could easily have been mistaken for a rather squat diplodocus, and a heavily armoured one at that. It had rock-like scales across its back, sides and legs, and horns that sprouted from its tail and the back of its neck. It must have evolved such defences for good reason, but there was nothing in the video that suggested the kind of creature that could pose a threat to such an animal.

It was all truly fascinating. I was quite astonished at the quantity and breadth of the information that had been transmitted to the probe, especially after having spent millennia frustrated at the lack of any signals from the planet. Its occupants had been unexpectedly generous in offering up so much to what was in essence an intruder into their star-system.

But the final video was the one that affected me the most.

What were obviously the head and shoulders of a being appeared.  It was clothed in what looked like a thick white knitted gown and a black scalf wrapped tightly around its neck, which did not look at all comfortable.  The skin of its head was ridged, and generally hairless, and covered with what looked like small pale scales, which increased in size over the top of its head. A small clump of whist less white hair, almost like an afterthought, covered the crown of the head. The hair was brushed back neatly and possibly tied at the back but I could not be certain.  I could hear the deep rumbles and clicks that I had heard over most of the audio and video, and the sounds changed in time to the often rapid movements of an oval orifice in the lower section of the head. That confirmed to me that I had been listening to some kind of narration.  It was quite possible that I was looking at the source of that voice I had been listening to for several hours now, the very being tasked with contacting us, the alien species that had invaded from a thousand light years away.

I found myself gasping and then weeping at the realisation of what I was looking at.  For all the differences, for all the oddities of movement and the sheer strangeness of mannerisms and expressions, all of which had evolved at an almost inconceivable distance from me, what I was seeing was something utterly familiar.

It was a face.

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