A showdown 35,000 years in the making.
|I sidestepped the security cameras and slithered in through a third-story window. A mummified cat stared up at me.
The Egyptian exhibit.
I remember Egypt – the gentle murmur of the river, hippos coming up for air, chariots throwing up great clouds of dust, Tanoutamon biting into a piece of bread so hard it broke his tooth, Djoser’s ziggurat in the moonlight. “It’s the greatest temple in the world,” Imhotep bragged. Khufu threw up his pyramid a hundred years later, twice as tall and twice as wide as Djoser’s. Imhotep would have shat himself.
“Jushur,” the voice whispered in my ear. My name. My birth name. I whirled around. No one there. Of course not. There never is.
“Jushur.” This time from the hallway. I followed. A peculiar musk filled my nose, fur and smoke and broken rocks.
He was leaning on a railing in the museum’s atrium. His back was to me. Ahead of him, the massive skeleton of an ichthyosaur hung from the ceiling. “We’ve met before, you know,” he said, “in Eridu one summer.”
He spoke Ubaid, spoke it fluently. How long had it been since I heard that tongue? Six thousand years? Seven? Certainly before the Flood. My head was swimming. For the first time in a century I thought of my mother and my sisters. I wish I could remember their names.
He continued. “You passed me by in a litter. I knew at once what you were.”
I joined him at the railing. “There weren’t so many of us in those days.”
“You must have smelled something, you were very frightened. But you didn’t see me. The rich never look down.” His tiny dark eyes peered at me from beneath his thick brow. He was shaved, showered, and wore a three thousand dollar suit, but no amount of pampering could hide what he was; what he had been, a very long time ago.
Number One. They said he was a myth. They said I'd never find him. The most Ancient of Ancients. The Highest of the High. The oldest living immortal. Popular science teaches that homo neanderthalensis was a brute beast. To the contrary – intelligence danced between his chimpish ears, and thirty-five thousand years of wisdom gleamed in those coal-black eyes.
I was here to kill him.
“You were very young,” he said. “And now you’re Number Three.”
“Number Two. Sin is dead.”
“You killed her.” Not a question.
“For shame,” he said. To my astonishment, his eyes filled with tears. “She was ten thousand years old.”
“You weren’t happy with the bronze, you had to go for silver and gold, too. Very well. If you want it, you can have it. I won’t resist.” I narrowed my eyes. He smiled. “Too good to be true? It is. There’s a catch.”
He pulled something from his pocket. I tensed – then he opened his fist, revealing a small stone spearhead. “Touch it,” he said.
“It’s a trick,” I replied.
“I’m not as clever as you. I have no mind for tricks.”
“You don’t get to your age without a few up your sleeve.”
“You’ve come this far, haven’t you? You want to be Number One. This is your only chance. You will never see me again, either way. Touch it.”
“It’s coated in poison.”
“You’ll jab it into my neck.”
He laughed. “No, no. It’s magical.”
“Please.” My turn to laugh. “That’s ridiculous.”
“More ridiculous than living forever?”
He had a point. I raised my trembling hand toward the spearhead. He watched me intently. My fingers hovered above the ancient stone. And then –
I entered into him – became him. I saw everything.
Wriggling through the darkness, the lips part, daylight blinds me, I start to cry, blood all over, my father cuts the cord with a spearhead, my mother wraps me in her furs, shushes me to sleep, I sleep, I sleep…
Scavenging the great corpse of a mammoth, we give thanks, the furs are warm and the meat is good, but it smells here, reeks not of rot but of them. They come in great numbers. Painted faces, lithe hairless bodies, pitch black flesh, speaking rapidly, splitting up, flanking us. Death raining down upon our tribe. Gaur is hit by three spears. He falls…
Climbing the mountain, I catch sight of the city of Ur. I’ve never seen so many humans. Their farms stretch as far as I can see. Hundreds gather in the muddy river with nets, below high stone walls the color of gold. And the temple! It towers over the valley. The gods must love these mighty people. "It’s beautiful," I whisper. Sin turns to me and says "Suddenly I am afraid…"
Sipping wine while a slave washes Livinia’s feet. She catches me staring at her. "What are you looking at?" she asks. "A beautiful woman," I say. The slave is from Gaul. I bought him because he is from the valley where I was born. Voices from outside. I walk to the window. Caesar’s men are back from Africa, marching in formation, left, right, left, right. A grizzled centurion knocks on Livinia’s door. Takes off his helmet. "Mistress, I’ve travelled a long way to bring you this news…"
Driving down Canal in a rented Dodge Caravan, caught in traffic, my phone goes off with a bloop. "Thought u should see," Stephen writes, with a link to an article on livescience.com: "Harvard Professor Seeks 'Extremely Adventurous' Human Mother To Birth Live Neanderthal Baby." A crowd of tourists crosses from Bourbon. One of them flips me off. Another lights a cigarette. They pass a homeless old man who is squatting on the neutral ground, shitting on the streetcar tracks. "Ew, gross!" somebody says. I make eye contact with the hobo. I smile. He winks at me. Primate to primate. He gets it. The world is a dinner plate and a toilet. A temple and a brothel. A nursery and a graveyard…
I yanked my hand away from the spearhead as though it were scalding and grabbed the railing to steady myself. Number One looked up at me, waiting for my answer. I straightened, looked him in the eye and said in English:
“I still want it.”
He sighed. “So be it.”
Our coats exploded. Shoulder blades burst open gruesomely and folded out into wings. Digits extended into claws. Teeth into daggers. I flew at him. He flew at me.
The battle began.