Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Mentor

by H. David Blalock




I was born fifty thousand years ago, give or take a century. After a while, dates become meaningless.

As I sit here, watching the latest lunar eclipse, I find myself wondering why. Why me? Of all the people in the world, why was I born like this? The doctors said it was a genetic mutation, a freak occurrence, a one-in-a-trillion chance. It was something always possible but not probable, they said, yet here I am.

I spent over two centuries being studied by the world's brightest. They poked, they prodded, took endless samples, did massive work-ups, all in vain. They found nothing. No genetic key, no special circumstance. For all intents and purposes, I was just another man.

Well, not quite. I cannot have children of my own. Sterile. Apparently, nature is unhappy with my existence and doesn't want to repeat her mistake. If there is to be another like me, it will have to come about as I did. Not that it makes a difference. Even if lightning struck again, the next one would probably be sterile as well.

One of the doctors told me I was an inevitable outcome of genetic probability. She admitted that although medicine had discovered why we age – something about telemeres – they still did not know why.

I could have told them if they really wanted to know. I have tried. They won't listen.

We age and die because that is natural. Life is supposed to be a cycle: life, death, life, and so on. Each generation is supposed to improve on the last in some way. Eventually, a form becomes so suited to its environment, it ceases to evolve physically. Like reptiles. Instead, they begin to diversify, to adapt to other environments. From the hot and humid African continent to the cold, barren, and lightless caverns beneath the earth, reptiles and amphibians adapted. Fish learned to live in salt and freshwater. Birds learned to live on nectar or meat. Adaptation in nature is driven by environment.

Humans, on the other hand, adapt the environment to their needs. Climate control, farming, domestication of animals species – all methods to force nature to heel. And we have been very successful. So much so that nature surrendered and gave up on the normal cycle of life and death to spawn me.

It began when I hit puberty. By the time I had seen 20 years, it, whatever it was, had run its course. I stopped aging. I didn't realize it, of course, until much later. My family eventually shunned me. They pushed me away, drove me out. I tried to connect with a nearby tribe but inevitably they rejected me as well. I became a wanderer, a figure of superstitious awe and fear. I traveled from place to place, never staying long enough to become the target of persecution again. I saw every continent on earth, fled the advancing ice, dodged earthquake and tornado. I rode on caravans on the Silk Road, served in countless armies, walked the coastlines of every sea. I sailed in canoes, barques, and warships. I watched civilization rise and fall, from the dimly remembered cities of Harrapa to the shining towers of Megamerica.

Now those ruins rise in my back as I sit and watch the eclipse. Of all the events in my life, these are the only constants. Regular as clockwork, they've continued past the evaporation of Halley's comet, the destruction of Yellowstone at the eruption of its supervolcano, the axis shift that wiped out two thirds of life on earth.

I don't know if it has been fate or luck that kept me alive all these years. After the stint as a lab rat, I considered suicide many times. I'm not invulnerable. I can and have been badly wounded. My body simply refuses to surrender, though my mind has sometimes wanted to. But suicide...

I don't consider myself a coward. I have decorations for valor from several different nations. My kind of longevity requires frequent changes in location. Suicide became impossible, not because I can die, but because if I did and my body was autopsied, the surgeon might discover something the earlier tests didn't. Maybe it's something requiring more advanced technology to detect, I don't know. But if there is a physical reason that I'm alive this long, I'm not sure it should be known. When I came to that conclusion, I began my hermit existence, a life I've lived now for nearly 17,000 years.

There are so few places you can isolate yourself on the surface, so I've been hiding mostly underground, occasionally coming up to experience some of what the rest of the world. There came a time about 11,000 years ago a great plague swept the planet. Some escaped off world in the colony ships to Mars, Titan, Ganymede, and points beyond. Most, however, succumbed to the illness. I've forgotten its name, as it struck while I was below-ground and had run its course by the time I emerged.

I had been living in my retreat for the better part of a three centuries. I found the world in turmoil. I had lived through all kinds of wars, from ancient bow and spear to laser-sighted smart bombs and automaton soldiers. Nothing prepared me for the stark savagery of what I encountered.

People fought for scraps of food. Unburied dead of disease and starvation and violence littered the countryside. The smoke of numberless fires rose over city skylines. Bands of wild dogs attacked whatever looked edible. Kites and vultures floated on heavy wings overhead.

I'm not proud to say I retreated to the sanity of my refuge below-ground.

When next I returned, things were considerably quieter. Nature had reclaimed much of her own. There were few people around and they avoided me. It seems I have become a figure of legendary awe, a god of the underworld. I only appeared as a harbinger of doom, no doubt a memory of when last I visited the surface.

I was no longer considered human, which was not far from the truth.

I didn't have to hide away any more. The technology that threatened to plumb the secrets of my longevity had gone. There remain the odd pocket of more advanced civilization but humankind for the most part had retreated to agrarian societies. I felt a strong sense of déjà vu on a regular basis as I watched people working in the fields. On the rare occasion I visited the town, I did so draped in cloak and hood to hide my face, a face I found depicted on walls of temples alongside those of fearsome mythological beasts, and always as their master or conqueror.

At one point, while encamped in a small village, a child of about nine years sneaked in close enough to see me without my hood. I didn't realize that until the entire village to descended on my camp the following afternoon, bearing gifts of food and sundries. I could barely understand their words as I had neglected to familiarize myself with the local dialects, but reasoned they had been suffering drought for some time and begged for rain. They were a pitiful looking lot. I couldn't say no, especially as I knew that the local weather control station might still be operable with minor repair. The building had been commandeered for use as storage, the mechanisms cannibalized for other purposes years earlier, but there were sufficient stores at nearby stations and soon I had it up and working. The sensors immediately put its outlying control units to the task and rain began falling within two days. There was some minor flooding but even that was received with joy. I left before the villagers could find me again and headed on to the next village, hoping to avoid any further discovery. It always been my experience extended contact with people and complications usually ending unhappily.

Little did I know that one incident would spark a whole new problem. In the village lived an artist with an eidetic memory – that nine-year-old child whose portraits of the miracle-working god of the underworld would soon be copied and circulated all over the world. Worse, my customary disguise of hood and cloak became iconic, imitated by a new order of the priesthood.

Again I was forced to retreat underground. When next I returned, the images had taken on a stylized form, one different enough from my personal appearance as to assure my anonymity. It was a good thing, as the god of the underworld and developed a thirst for blood to guarantee good weather. The weather control station had malfunctioned sometime in the interim, allowing nature to return to her fickle, unpredictable ways. As a result, the population became more savage, though their culture remained oddly advanced in art and literature.

Humanity had finally broken down into the three natural classes. Although disguised many times in human history, such class distinctions always existed: the leaders, the managers, the workers. Humanity's version of the hive.

And that is how it stands as I sit and watch the eclipse. Beside me, an astronomer of this age gazes through the telescope I constructed and makes amazed noises. I have shown him the rings of Saturn and the pale disk Venus. I have made a balsa wood airplane and built a steam engine for his amusement. I've grown fond of this new Leonardo. He is bright and should prove to be able student. Perhaps I have hidden for far too long. Perhaps it is time I stopped running and helped humanity find its lost greatness.

It should be interesting to see what happens.



THE END


© 2019 H. David Blalock

Bio: H David Blalock has been writing speculative fiction for more than 40 years. His work has appeared in novels, novellas, anthologies, magazines, websites, and collections from multiple publishing houses. His personal website is http://www.thrankeep.com.

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