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Humanity spread to the stars, but some further and faster than others. While the bulk of humanity remained much as it ever had, a small group set aside old conceptions of humanity and made themselves immortal. They called themselves Olympians, and in time were almost godlike in power and knowledge. Some of this knowledge they shared with the rest of the human race, in particular a life extension treatment.
The treatment was a retrovirus, a engineered nano-machine that mimicked a part of the host’s body until it had entered every cell, inserted its ubiquitous code into the DNA of every replicating chain and banished old age and weakness forever. It would not grant immortality, it could only stay ageing; it was enough. Disease, accident, or the mind’s fatigue could still claim life, and did. But it gave them time, time to rule well and justly. Not just on their own worlds, but in every star system that harboured life.
For star travel is measured in decades, not hours like most journeys a human could undertake. Relativity meant that a the crew of a starship would think only a few weeks had passed, only to return home and find their family dead, and the very skyline of their home lost in the past. Few people were willing to undergo that loss, and so travellers were few, and the stars governed each themselves. And that held humanity back.
Before the Immortals granted them this gift the rulers of each star system had no reason to cooperate. The years of time lag in communication made remote negations for trade or peace impossible, and who can tract a disembodied voice. Nor could a trusted negotiator be sent; by the time he returned his world would no longer exist. For a man or woman whose years numbered in the hundreds the trip was at least endurable. They had lives long enough that a return to a home unseen for fifty years would not cripple them; they had loved ones who lived just as long as they, people to who they would return. They became the guardians and benefactors of humanity, calling themselves Speakers; that was what they did, speak for their people.
It was a golden age for humanity, cooperation between star systems sparking efforts that would never have been dreamed of in ages past. The Olympians, who before had been the driving force of humanity’s advance, now found themselves unneeded. Most welcomed this, revelling in the race they had helped to bring to such glory. Others, however, grew jealous of the decreased dependance of humanity on them, and sought revenge. And so one of them prepared in secret a trap for humanity.
And in that trap they placed the ultimate bait: immortality. The Olympians gained immortality with a method similar but more extreme than that used to prolong human life. Instead of recoding the body they replaced it. A swarm of nano-machines that would slowly turn the human body into an intricate machine of diamond, carbon, and rare metals. They would never die of age, and few physical accidents could harm them irreparably. Not only this but they gained far superior mental abilities, greater physical prowess than any mortal.
The trap itself was simple. A seamless casket of diamond, holding within it a golden apple, in truth a receptacle for the nano-machines that would grant unending life. Though only to a few. After the transformation the nano-machines must remain inside the new body, repairing it as a human body would have repaired itself. There was in the casket perhaps enough nano-machines for two or three men. Engraved on the casket were these words to the greatest and it was sent without explanation to the Council of Speaking, and gathering of all the greatest among the speakers. And so the trap was sprung.
Almost there was war, the first for a thousand generations. For of all those gathered at that council none would name any but himself to receive the gift, and likewise there was not a single one among them willing to let another take it. Argument erupted in what had been a place of rational council for many years. Each of the forty Speakers making the case for himself, and against the others. Debate turned to argument, argument to threats. In orbit around the world where the council was held their ships began to charge their weapons and shields.
There was one man, however, who still held onto reason. Odysseus, who was known for his cunning and skill at diplomacy as much as his formidable talent in war. Seeing that they would all loose if the crisis was not averted he proposed the only possible solution.
No one would have it.
The casket and its apple of discord would be given into the keeping of someone chosen by all gathered there. This person would hide the casket somewhere among the many uninhabited worlds of the galaxy, and would swear an oath never to reveal its presence to anyone. Once very hundred years it would be brought from hiding and shown to them all so that it could be seen that the oath was kept. None outside of the Olympians had the skill to make such a case, or even repair it once opened, so trickery would be nigh impossible. Last, but not least, they would all swear to hut down anyone who attempted to use the casket to gain immortality.
After more argument the Speakers at last gave in to his plan, placing the golden apple into the care of Helen, one of the youngest Speakers, and trusted by all. Proud as they were, and as hot as was their anger for each other, they were glad of a way to retreat with dignity once reason had returned. They still mistrusted each other, but this would at least give them the security of knowing an army would be available that could crush any upstart. For that had been the greatest fear. A war cannot be fought over a hundred cubic light years of space, not even with a lifetime of centuries. The times involved are to large; the civilisation that launched a constellation of starships would have been replaced by a new before they returned. A hollow victory indeed. But to an immortal that time is but the blink of an eye. If once there was one man who could guide an assault over the centuries then none without that advantage would have a chance against them, in equal numbers. Only with crouching force could they be defeated. And Odysseus had made curtain that army would come.
And so the threat passed, or so it seemed.
But the Olympian watched, cursing the name of Odysseus. His plan had failed, but his life was long and men are fickle.
= + = + =
Most inhabited star systems in the Milky Way were not governed directly by the Speakers. Their role was one of a trusted advisor, a diplomat, or a representative. Only in matters that concerned two star systems did they have an official say, although there were few whose advice was not followed as though it were a legitimate command; despite their petty quarrelling they were leaders, and humanity knew it. It was only in a few systems that this arrangement was replaced by one in which the Speaker held a position within the formal government at the highest level. Most of the systems that did so were in fact group together in the Troy cluster, many light decades away from the nearest inhabited system. There they held absolute power and although they ruled as well as any government among the democratic systems, they were dictators nonetheless. Partly because of this, and partly because of the distance between them and the other systems there was little love lost between the Speakers of Troy and those of the democratic systems. So it had happened that they knew nothing of the casket until they heard it from the Olympian himself.
He came to them posing as on of the wandering librarians, an organisation dedicated to the dissemination of knowledge among the countless inhabited systems. Each librarian travelled on a small starship along with a handful of assistants, often humans who wished to see the stars more than they feared the effects of time dilation. In any system they came across they would download the system’s information net backups, storing it in deep archives aboard the starship. Then they would leave for another star, where that information would be passed to another culture, an different civilisation, and more received. So valued was the art, science, literature, mathematics, and songs of distant culture that anywhere they went the librarians were welcomed, their starship refuelled and repaired free of charge.
When the Olympian’s ship braked into orbit about the sun of their capital planet they had no reason to believe he was anything other than what he claimed. Even his own crew had no inkling of his true intent. And in all respects but one he might well have been what he said. The data he brought with him was all real, gathered in the same way as it would have been by a Librarian, except for the matter of the golden apple and the quarrel of the three. Anything to do with that matter he changed subtly. Every record of the event, every reference, every comment. All the words that had been written, all the visual footage, every byte of data was revised and refined to suit his plans. Without saying a word he would lie to billions, and they would believe him. Why should they not?
It was a intricate plan, more complexed than the mind that wrought it, and the Olympian feared that it would fail as had his earlier attempt. But it was not to be so. This time all went as he had planned. The poisoned data was downloaded, he accepted a upload and departed. The people of the Trojan systems began to search the information, and within a year someone had brought to the attention of Priam, the Dictator, the matter of the golden apple. And he and his people learnt - as was true - that a Olympian had attempted so sew discord among Humanity with the offer of immortality for a few, and that it had almost brought war. But they also learnt - or thought they did - that the oath had been sworn as w way for them all to save face, not as a reals precaution.
Priam was old, and wise. His sons, Hector and Paris, both urged him to seek out the casket and use its contents to make their people strong; he refused. He had no desire for immortality, nor any desire to give to any mortal the chance to wage war without fear of defeat. Hector heed his council but Paris, firebrand that he was, took a starship and left of his own accord, determined to find the casket.
He knew that he could not make any move to take it by force, any incursion into another system would be taken as an act of war, and that he must avoid at all cost if he was to succeed. Likewise violence would not get the location of the casket from its keeper Helen. Like many politicians or military officials with secrets worth more than their lives she would have fitted a monitoring chip into her brain which would detonate on command, or if she attempted to divulge protected information under duress. The only way would be to convince her. Arguments regarding the good that could come from studying the nano-machines, proofs of the good will of his father Priam. He gathered reasons that might sway her to his cause. They were not needed.
He caught up with her in a star system close to the one in which the Speakers would next meet, an event only a few years away. Learning this he let it be known that it was also his destination and as he had hoped she soon made contact with him. Almost a year aboard a starship can grow tedious, and whenever possible the Speakers would travel with strangers in order to combat boredom. It also presented a way for them to get to know the people with whom they would work for humanity’s best interests.
But something unexpected happened on that journey. They fell in love. For Paris it was at first no more than a way to get closer to his prise, and for her it was a means to get some little enjoyment out of the weary journey. But at the end of the time aboard Helen had agreed to go back to the Troy cluster with him, after the assembling Speakers had verified that the casket was still intact. They kept it a secret, Helen fearing that the Speakers would be set against it. And so when he gathering dispersed she slipped aboard his ship and they fled out into deep space, taking a path that lead them outside of any possible interception.
When they reached the Troy cluster Paris was met with rage by his father and brother. Nor did it help his cause that, unknown to him, Helen had hidden the casket before coming aboard his ship. Priam feared that the oath might be taken seriously, even with the clear signs that the Librarian’s information had given them. That it should he so without even the gain of the casket did little to increase Paris’s popularity. Paris, on his part, was confident that there would be no pursuit, especially since Helen had left word that she would continue to safeguard the casket; and that the speakers would only go to war it direct threatened, and even then not as a unified force. He was wrong.
Hardly had it Helen’s flight been discovered than the Speakers met to decide on the best course of action. The oath aside they feared that if the Dictator Priam should become immortal then democracy in the galaxy would eventually die, even without deliberate hostile action on Priam’s part. They were divided as to whether or not Helen would keep the secret. The fact that she had fled in secret instead of turning custody of it over to another did not inspire confidence, even if it could be explained away as rash pride. Eventually it was decided that they could not afford to take the chance, and the oath was invoked. From all over the galaxy starships began to gather, armed will all the weapons of war.
Among many of the Speakers the desire was for a unannounced attack. Even though it would be seen coming from light years away the velocity of a interstellar fleet meant that they could sweep an entire system clear in one pass with only kinetic weapons. However, there would be few survivors. Once again Odysseus raised a voice of reason, and convinced them to let him go ahead to attempt to bargain for Helen and avert the war.
It was not to be.
Priam and Hector acknowledged that Helen could be considered to have broken her oath, that she was a defector, and that they should hand her back. But they also refused to impose their will on Paris, whose heart was too firmly fixed on Helen to ever give her up. Helen herself feared having to leave him, and having been marked an outlaw by her people, announced that she considered herself Trojan, and as such would not hand over the location of the casket, although she would also keep it from her own people. The ambassadors of the speaks were no less proud and unyielding. They demanded that Helen be returned, and Paris he punished. The treaty meeting turned ugly, and it was only thanks to a Trojan who opposed both sides of the conflict that the delegation escaped alive.
So war came. A war that had its beginning in the trickery of a disgruntled immortal. That was enflamed by fear. That was sparked by an untimely love. And kindled by unyielding pride. A war that would last ten centuries, and from which only one in a thousand would return.