This is the strongest I've felt about a story in a number of weeks. I spent a bit longer on it, and also wrote it at a calmer point in the week - Saturday afternoon, as opposed to late Sunday night, when it occurs to me I have to write a story... Good point to note.
I consider myself a pragmatist and at the very least agnostic, so while the story on reflection seems to have spiritual connotations, to me it's more about the experience of time and choice. The second half could draw parallels to 'Interstellar', but I also read half of 'Rendezvous with Rama' last year and never finished it. I should do that.
This is a story which has no end.
It starts some time ago, when a boy was born. The boy was plucked from his mother’s womb, and the doctor held him high by the ankle and showed the room. The doctor, perhaps struck by madness from the long labour and the broken air conditioner, proclaimed loudly to those that could hear: “this boy is immortal! He will live forever!” and promptly passed out.
Nobody ever found out how the doctor knew that the boy was immortal. The doctor vanished into obscurity, and when they searched for her some years later to tell her that she was right, no trace of her could be found. The world had swallowed her up, as the world sometimes does.
For the boy grew up normally, uneventfully. And, at age twenty-five, he stopped aging. He remained twenty-five. Forever.
At first, people did not notice. How could you? As his friends started to bald and grow flowing paunches from their belts, he politely maintained his youthful appearance. ‘He must work hard to keep that up,’ people would say with respect. Some years later, they would say it with disgust. ‘How much has he spent on that look?’ ‘What work has he had done?’ ‘To what demon has he sold his young soul?’
But, the man knew nothing about it. As far as he knew, souls did not exist, and neither did demons. He was as confused as everyone else as to why his hair was still full with colour, and why, after fifty years, he could run as hard as ever, strong of mind and joints and spine.
It wasn’t until some twenty years further, at the ripe-old age of twenty-five, that the man went to a doctor, and then a scientist, and then a group of scientists, and soon enough, the president.
“You are immortal,” he was told. “You will live forever.” This was quite impressive news to take in. To be told that one would never die is like releasing a pressure valve. Time stops, in an instant, suddenly an intangible force. The man drank a cup of tea, and sat in a chair for a long while, and thought about how he would move forward with this impressive news. He got nowhere fast. The tea grew cold, and the chair began to sink.
As impressive as it was to receive, it was even more impressive news to put out into the rest of the world, which immediately set about trying to kill him as quickly as possible.
And yet, nobody could. He was set upon by murderers and lunatics and armies and their bullets and knives and fingernails punctured every part of his frame. It would hurt, every time, but he would live; always he would live. And soon, everyone gave up trying to kill him – because everyone, even the most pointedly insane lunatic, is easily distracted from an entirely fruitless task. Instead, folks erected posters with his face, set up churches in his honour. Dedicated their lives to understanding him and how he had come to be. Sought him out for the secrets to the universe.
When they found him, they were always very, very disappointed. Soon, the posters faded in the lingering sun.
The man’s wife died when she was ninety years old, and his supple, strong hands held her delicate frame as life slowly slipped away from her. It was then that he learnt the only thing he would ever need to learn about his condition, and that was that love was a folly. He would not love again. He would walk through this endless existence alone, and take solace in knowing that he would leave as little a mark as possible.
He was of use, of course. As the world grew older and the seas began to rise, he would be sent, by people who knew what was best, into sunken coastal towns to search for survivors. Not because he was some kind of hero – he was, in fact, slightly built and lacked upper body strength. He was chosen and required and sent because it was known that he would definitely, definitely come back.
Not always straight away. Once, he was lost in the ocean for seven years, floating with the tide, tussled by the torrents and nibbled at by fish until he washed up on a distant shore, confused and tired and severely dehydrated. In a short seven years, the world had nearly forgotten him, called him a dream, and when he was returned to them they smiled and nodded and clasped his young hands and sent him back into the sea.
The man, some years later, would go to bars and tell of his endless tales. Serenade crowds of drunks with the high notes of his wondrous, banal adventure. He would speak and speak until everyone slept. And he would just keep going, for sleep had long ago evaded him. What was he resting for? At what moment would he become in need of a routine set by time? Moments, in fact, stretched across decades for him. He knew he was a man out of sync with the universe, could feel it, and enjoyed the feeling with a quiet solitude. Ever awake. Never again to dream.
It was decided, as the world came to an end in the last centuries of civilisation, that the man who would not end should be installed as the leader of The Colony. The Colony was a craft, sent to the reaches of space to survive. Who better to lead such a newborn world, than one who could remember a world that did not need to be saved?
He would be humanity’s constant – without him, they would all end, be replaced through a few short generations by a new race of interstellar beings born in a vacuum, beings that only shared most of their DNA. But, with him at the helm of this great, floating, mechanical world, humankind, Earth itself, would linger and survive and spiral into infinity. It was a noble assignment, and he accepted it gracefully.
There was no alternative, really. If he stayed on Earth, he would eventually be completely alone, living forever under a boiling sea. And he didn’t particularly want that.
Eons passed. The craft drifted forever, and soon this new population forgot about Earth and knew only of their insular world. The man was their only proof that anything had existed before this ship. Eventually, voices grew in the community that discredited him, called him crazy, dangerous. A religious zealot, possessed by wild notions and some kind of profoundly effective anti-aging medicine. On-craft business conglomerates petitioned him many times for his youthful secret, knowing they could sell it to the vain and give it to themselves, many times over.
He told them he would gladly give it if he could.
The man would sit at the forefront of the craft, in a control room, watching space drift by. At twenty-five years old, he had finally seen so much of time that it had slowed down enough for it to become visible. He could see it, now, with his eyes, not just his bones. It was almost imperceptible at the edge of his vision, a slowly bubbling substance that would catch at his clothes and then fall away into nothing behind him.
Finally, it was realised that the craft was nearing the end of its journey. It was reaching the edge of the universe. Light was beginning to bend and curve and slow, and as gravity distorted, soon time would become perceptible to them all. Scientists tried to surmise how to turn the craft around, send it back in a safer direction. They could not figure out the controls of the craft, so long had it been since anyone had dared interfere with them.
The man remembered, though. He had lived for such a long twenty-five years, so very long, but his memory was as sharp as a twenty-five year old’s. He remembered being taught how to operate the craft, remembered being given the keys to its controls at the younger age of twenty-five. So long ago, it seemed now, at twenty-five.
He wore the key around his neck at all times. Everyone thought it was ancient jewellery. Nobody believed the strange young man to be of any use, of any real purpose or truth, so they didn’t bother to ask him if he knew what to do, how to stay the ship’s course to oblivion.
And so, the man made a choice.
And, instead of speaking up, of trying to prolong his time even further, he instead ventured out into the tiny world around him and found love. He found it, hiding in a corner, and he nurtured it and built upon it with another. It hovered between him and her, turning and picking up mass as it moved forward. At thirty-two, she was several years his senior, but it didn’t matter. Nothing does when time is as slow as it is at the very edge of the universe.
And as the scientists and boffins and government ministers realised that their time was about to end, that soon the ship would stretch into infinity as it reached the edge of everything, the man made the woman pregnant. She was very excited, despite the universe’s impending end. The man couldn’t remember what an ending was like, and so it didn’t faze him as much.
But the end would come for him, as it does for us all.
As the ship approached the terminus, the woman went into labour. The man who would not end watched on, smiling, as the doctors worked desperately to deliver the baby. The night turned over and over, and for the first time in an age, the man did not notice the time slip by. Hours, gone in an instant. A feeling, familiar.
He was very grateful this. So very, very grateful. He held the woman’s hand, and he thanked her, over and over.
As his son entered the world, at the instant he was delivered, the immortal man finally closed his eyes and ceased to exist.
Dead at last. Collapsed by the side of a hospital bed. Gone somewhere to dream forever.
The ship was close to the end. Time was now slow enough that all of those in the hospital room could see it, trailing behind the twenty-five year old man as he fell to the floor for the final time.
The woman smiled.
The doctors held the baby up high, by the ankle, and were struck.
“This boy is immortal!” one of them said. “He will live forever!”
And the ship flew on for eternity, as its time slowed and slowed but never reached its limit. Nearing the edge. Approaching zero, but never touching it. History’s asymptote.
The ship flew closer and closer to the sun but never had its wings stripped.
For this is a story which has no end.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image by Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia, sourced from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Astronomical_Clock_(8341899828).jpg