Tell Gilgamesh I’m Sorry
by Lou Antonelli
Skinner looked around the garden, as Omar poked at some tomato vines. “It really doesn’t take much farming to be self-sufficient for one person,” Omar said.
“It’s not like you could starve to death, could you?”
He squinted at the teenager. “To death, no, but I assure you, starving isn’t painless. How old are you?’
“How many dead people have you seen since you were old enough to know what death really is?”
Skinner stopped. “I’ve seen probably a few dozen, but...”
“Yeah, but, you’re too young to remember the famine and disease after the Crash, right?”
“People were starving to death everywhere,” said Omar. “It’s a good reminder to be self-sufficient.”
“You’ve seen such devastation twice, right?”
Omar grimaced. “Oh, yes, Alex must have mentioned Atlantis. It was just as bad, in a different way.” He got a serious look and gestured back towards the house. “This place your grandfather built for me only has a thousand square feet per level, but it goes straight down five more levels. If I needed to, I could lock it down and hide underground for years.” He pulled a ripe tomato off a vine. “But I don’t need to.”
He took a knife from a pocket with his other hand, and hacked a slice off.
Skinner looked up.
“I nicked my thumb!” said Omar. He wiped the thumb on his denim overalls and looked it over.
“Come see this,” said Omar. Skinner walked through a row of plants.
Omar held up his thumb. Skinner watched as the red line thinned and slowly disappeared.
“That’s amazing,” said Skinner.
“It’s a curse, really,” said Omar. “To be human is to be mortal.”
“Grandpa said every so often you’d get bored and go live like a normal person,” said Skinner.
“The last time I tried that, it got to be the god-damnedest mess you ever saw. I called myself Cagliostro then. I finally faked my death and moved as far away as I could.” He laughed. “There wasn’t so much as a Spanish mission in this part of Tejas then. The nearest settlement back in 1800 was in Nacogdoches, and it was a hundred and twenty miles away.”
Off behind a tree line, there was a loud squealing. Omar turned. “Damn razorbacks are getting too thick, I need to cull a few.” He looked at the teenager. “They are great for perimeter protection. This is really an island, you know.”
Skinner shook his head.
“This spread sits on a five-acre oxbow island,” said Omar. “You swam the Sabine River main channel, but years ago it flowed a mile east of here. The old course is an impassable swamp now. This is the only solid ground between them. It’s very hard for anyone to make his or her way here, that’s the reason I picked the location. I’ve let those nasty tuskers breed because they’re great for protection.”
Omar took hold of a tomato stake and pushed into the ground. “When the Spanish organized land grants, I bought all the land on the island. Over the years, I ‘played’ at being different members of the Peshtigo family. Nobody was any the wiser. There were only a handful of farms between here and Pleasantville, and anyway it was always very isolated.”
“Were you bothered at all by the Crash?” asked Skinner.
“No, I destroyed the bridge. Most raiders thought it was too much work to come out here and bother an old hermit, anyway,”
He smiled. “I set up motion sensors and extra cameras on the perimeter, and the few times someone crossed the river and tried to sneak up on me...”
“I understand,” said Skinner. ““Hey, do you know what actually happened in the Crash?”
“One day, there was the news of a war in the Middle East, then nuclear missiles flew, and well...I knew what would happen next. The ancients made the same mistake. They relied on electronic communications, and it all got wiped out by EMP’s.”
“So you’ve lived through this before?” asked Skinner.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“Can you tell when things are going to come back, then?” asked Skinner. “When things will get better, and people not die all the time?”
Omar turned and walked towards the sturdy farmhouse. Skinner followed. They stopped on a cement patio. “Sit down, son. You made me think of an acquaintance I haven’t thought of in many years.”
Skinner did as he was told. Omar leaned back in his chair. “I met a man once, named Gilgamesh. He was Sumerian, and a real king. Not one of these little inbred types who inherit a throne. He was a real king, a real leader of men. He built up his city, Uruk, into a great power and put up a system of walls and defenses that gave the people a sense of security. He was a natural leader.
“I was holed up then in the Taurus Mountains,” continued Omar, “far upriver from Sumeria — that’s where I had been since our crash happened — but even I had heard his name, which was pretty impressive in those days. Then one day, I saw a man coming up the mountain path, and just as I did with you, I went out to meet him, weapon in hand. The moment I saw him I knew who he was.
“I was amazed how far he had traveled to find me,” Omar continued. “He was just past the prime of his life, and had been shaken up by the death of a friend. He knew of my existence, knew I was immortal and had survived the ‘flood’ as they called it. He clasped me by the forearm, and after a few niceties, looked me in the eye and asked, ‘Why must man die?’
“That’s when I knew mankind was coming back, because before then, people died like dogs, and no one thought twice about it, death was so common. The only thing people thought about was survival. I knew from what Gilgamesh asked that civilization was returning.”
“What did you tell Gilgamesh?” asked Skinner. “Why are you immortal?”
“What could I tell him? He couldn’t conceive of the experiment the Military-Religious complex had subjected me to. It was a wonder weapon to break the stalemate that existed between the two empires for centuries.”
“Yes, compared to that standoff,” said Omar, “the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union was a picnic. Our ‘Cold War’ lasted for centuries. I was a condemned criminal. I had been sentenced to death. The military scientists injected me with microscopic machines designed to artificially heal me. Then they carried out the sentence.”
“And you came back to life!”
“Yes, but the project was incomplete. The microscopic robots were intended to heal wounded soldiers, but the prototype could only ‘read’ the state of the subject and ‘fix’ it if it was damaged.”
“I don’t get it,” said Skinner.
“When you injected them into someone, as they did to me, the nanobots would scan you, and then if you were physically damaged, repair you. You couldn’t dose someone who had already been injured, the microscopic robots would not know what you were supposed to be like in the first place.”
“OK, that’s why you heal up all the time?”
“Yes, and why I am condemned to remain an old man. The process ‘fixed’ me permanently. It doesn’t quite matter any more, but I was a Raman, not an Atlantean.
“When word leaked that of their enemy’s discovery and that the Raman Military-Religious complex was moving it into mass production for the soldiers’ inoculations, a panic started in Atlantis. People demanded Atlantis make a pre-emptive strike.
“Then protests also started in our streets when word spread in the public that an ‘immortality cure’ had been discovered; the people demanded it be released to them and not held by the nobility and priests. The end came before any more work could be done on the project.”
He smiled at Skinner. “The world of Atlantis and Rama was not destroyed by a tidal wave or storm. That’s just the way the story was handed down after the end of civilization. It’s a misunderstanding of the metaphors, of the ‘waves’ of protests followed by the ‘waves’ of missile attacks. After thousands of years of retelling and distortion, the ‘waves”, in the legends, turned literal.”
“What happened to the Ramans? I never heard of them.”
“Let’s just say that what the Americans and Russians called the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction does work,’ said Omar.
He looked away. “The first time I was attacked by bandits, stabbed full of holes and left for dead — and I recovered — I realized the effect of the experiment was permanent.”
“What did you do so terrible that you were put to death?” asked Skinner. “Did you kill somebody?”
“No, nothing like that, “ said Omar. “I just stole money. I was a financial criminal. The Ramans were a grasping race, theft for them was a capital offense. There was a man who did essentially the same thing I did, in the last days of America, named Madoff.”
He looked thoughtful. “It makes you think about repeating cycles of history. But Madoff died in prison. I’m still here.”
“You never said what you told Gilgamesh, when he asked about immortality.”
“I had no real answer, so I made up a fable. I told him only gods are immortal and that I hadn’t been born a god, but human just like him, and I had been granted immortality by the gods when the Great Flood happened because they feared no men would survive. I could never have gained immortality myself, and so I had no real answer and had no great insights.
“Gilgamesh was very disappointed. He thought I was holding out and begged me to reveal the secret of immortality. I finally placated him by giving him a root I said I thought might confer immortality. In fact I knew the root was a powerful aphrodisiac. In a way, that’s the real answer. No man really has physical immortality, you live on through your children.”
“What happened to Gilgamesh?”
“The epic story that was later written down said he lost the root on his way back to Uruk when a snake ate it. Apparently the root had such an effect on the snake it molted immediately. Gilgamesh realized that was a symbol of rebirth, and that was the only true path to immortality — to be reborn in a new life.
“He returned to Uruk, and later died as all men must. Years later his epic was written down on clay tablets as men rediscovered writing, and they transcribed my name as Utnapishtim. I use Omar Peshtigo as the closest approximation for English speakers.
“In a way, Gilgamesh achieved the immortality he sought,” Omar continued, “because his names and deeds are known to this day. He looked into the distance. “I suppose some day something will happen that will spread me so far across the landscape that I can’t be reconstituted. I’m amazed I’ve avoided that for so long.”
“Do you ever think about death?”
“Of course. When you come right down to it, I’m a coward, I suppose. I always thought somewhere down the line I’d have an accident so severe, or get attacked so badly, that I couldn’t regenerate. But I have a coward’s sense of survival, and I’ve managed to avoid that, for over fifty thousand years.”
“Do you see any signs that things are coming back yet, like you did in Gilgamesh’s time?”
Omar looked at the teenager. “Son, we’re just entering a new stone age. Gilgamesh lived 45,000 years after that Crash, or flood as it has come down to us.”
“Oh hell,” said Skinner.
“At least you are hoping,” said Omar. “That’s a good sign. It’s getting dark, let’s go inside.”
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Lou Antonelli