Gilgamesh

By Carl Sagan

First Published in 1985

Photo by Jason Mitrione on Unsplash

That it will never come again

Is what makes life so sweet. — Emily Dickinson Poem Number 1741

In this time — heralded expansively as the Dawn of a New age — burial in space was an expensive commonplace. Commercially available and a competitive business, it appealed especially to those who, in former times, would have requested that their remains be scattered over the country of their birth, or at least the mill town from which they had extracted their first fortune. But now you could arrange for your remains to circumnavigate the Earth forever — or as close to forever as it matters in the workaday world. You need only insert a short codicil in your will. Then — assuming, of course, that you have the Wherewithal — when you die and are cremated, your ashes are compressed into a tiny almost toylike bier, on which is embossed your name and your dates, a short memorial verse, and the religious symbol of your choice (choose one of three). Along with hundreds of similar miniature coffins, it is then boosted up and dumped out at an intermediate altitude, expeditiously avoiding both the crowded corridors of geosynchronous orbit and the disconcerting atmospheric drag of low-Earth orbit. Instead, your ashes triumphantly circle the planet of your birth in the midst of the Van Allen radiation belts, a proton blizzard where no satellite in its right mind would risk going to in the first place. But ashes do not mind.

At these heights, the Earth had become enveloped in the remains of its leading citizens, and an uninstructed visitor from a distant world might rightly believe he had chanced upon some somber space-age necropolis. The hazardous location of this mortuary would explain the absence of memorial visits from grieving relatives.

S. R. Hadden, contemplating this image, had been appalled at what minor portions of immortality these deceased worthies had been willing to settle for. All their organic parts — brains, hearts, everything that distinguished them as a person — were atomized in their cremations. There isn’t any of you left after cremation, he thought, just powdered bon, hardly enough even for a very advanced civilization to reconstruct you from the remains. And then, for good measure, your coffin is placed smack in the Van Allen belts, where even your ashes get slowly fried.

How much better if a few of your cells could be preserved. Real living cells, with DNA intact. He visualized a corporation that would, for a healthy fee, freeze a little of your epithelial tissue and orbit it high — well above the Van Allen belts, maybe even higher than geosynchronous orbit. No reason to die first. Do it now, while it’s on your mind. Then, at least, alien molecular biologists — or their terrestrial counterparts of the far future — could reconstruct you, clone you, more or less from scratch. You would rub your eyes, stretch, and wake up in the year ten million. or even if nothing was done with your remains, there would still be in existence multiple copies of your genetic instructions. You would be alive in principle. In either case it could be said that you would live forever.

But as Hadden ruminated on the matter further, this scheme also seemed too modest. Because that wasn’t really you, a few cells scraped off the soles of your feet. At best they could reconstruct your physical form. But that’s not the same as you. If you were really serious, you should include family photographs, a punctiliously detailed autobiography, all the books and tapes you’ve enjoyed, and as much else about yourself as possible. Favorite brands of after-shave lotion, for example, or diet cola. It was supremely egotistical, he knew, and he loved it. After all, the age had produced a sustained eschatological delirium. It was natural to think of your own end as everyone else was contemplating the demise of the species, or the planet, or the massed celestial ascent of the Elect.

You couldn’t expect the extraterrestrials to know English. If they’re to reconstruct you, they’d have to know your language. So you must include a kind of translation, a problem Hadden enjoyed. It was almost the obverse of the Message decryption problem.

All of this required a substantial space capsule, so substantial that you need no longer be limited to mere tissue samples. You might as well send your body whole. If you could quick-freeze yourself after death, so to say, there was a subsidiary advantage. Maybe enough of you would be in working order that whoever found you could do better than just reconstructing you. Maybe they could bring you back to life — of course, after fixing whatever it was that you had died of. If you languished a little before freezing, though — because, say, the relatives had not realized you were dead yet — prospects for revival diminished. What would really make sense, he thought was to freeze someone just before death. That would make eventual resuscitation much more likely, although there was probably limited demand for this service.

But then why just before dying? Suppose you knew you had only a year or two to live. Wouldn’t it be better to be frozen immediately, Hadden mused — before the meat goes bad? Even then — he sighed — no matter what the nature of the deteriorating illness, it might still be irremediable after you were revived; you would be frozen for a geological age, and then awakened only to die promptly from a melanoma or a cardiac infarction about which the extraterrestrials might know nothing.

No, he concluded, there was only one perfect realization of this idea: Some in robust health would have to be launched on a one-way journey to the stars. As an incidental benefit, you would be spared the humiliation of disease and old age. Far from the inner solar system, your equilibrium temperature would fall to only a few degrees above absolute zero. No further refrigeration would necessary. Perpetual care provided. Free.

By this logic he came to the final step of the argument: If it requires a few years to get to the interstellar cold, you might as well stay awake for the show, and get quick-frozen only when you leave the solar system. It would also minimize overdependence on the cryogenics.

Hadden had taken every reasonable precaution against an unexpected medical problem in Earth orbit, the official account went, even to preemptive sonic disintegration of his gall and kidney stones before he ever set foot in his chateau in the sky. And then he went and died of anaphylactic shock. A bee had buzzed angrily out of a bouquet of freesias sent up on Narnia by an admirer. Carelessly, Methuselah’s capacious pharmacy had not stocked the appropriate antiserum. The insect had probably been immobilized by the low temperatures in Narnia’s cargo bay and was not really to blame. Its small and broken body had been sent down for examination by forensic entomologists. The irony of the billionaire felled by a bee did not escape the notice of newspaper editorials and Sunday sermons.

But in fact, this was all a deception. There has been no bee, no sting, and no death. Hadden remained in excellent health. Instead, on the stroke of the New Year, nine hours after the Machine had been activated, the rocket engines flamed on a sizable auxiliary vehicle docked to Methuselah. It rapidly achieved escape velocity from the Earth-Moon system. He called it Gilgamesh.

Hadden had spent his life amassing power and contemplating time. The more power you have, he found, the more you crave Power and time were connected, because all men are equal in death. That is why ancient kings built monuments to themselves. But the monuments become eroded, the royal accomplishments obliterated, the very names of the kings forgotten. And, most important, they themselves were dead as doornails. No, this was more elegant, more beautiful, more satisfying. He had found a low door in the wall of time.

Had he merely announced his plans to the world, certain complications would ensue. If Hadden was frozen to four degrees Kelvin at ten billion kilometers from the Earth, what exactly was his legal status? Who would control his corporations? This way was much tidier. In a minor codicil of an elaborate last will and testament, he had left his heirs and assigns a new corporation, skilled in rocket engines and cryogenics, that would eventually be called Immortality, Inc. He need never think of the matter again.

Gilgamesh was not equipped with a radio. He no longer wished to know what had happened to the Five. He wanted no more news of Earth — nothing cheering, nothing to make him disconsolate, none of the pointless tumult he had known. Only solitude, elevated thoughts . . . silence. If anything adverse should occur in the next few years, Gilgamesh’s cryogenics could be activated by the flip of a switch. Until then, there was a full library of his favorite music, and literature and videotapes. He would not be lonely. He had never really been much for company. Yamagishi had considered coming, but ultimately reneged; he would be lost, he said, without “staff.” And on this journey there were insufficient inducements, as well as, inadequate space for staff. The monotony of the food and the modest scale of amenities might be daunting to some, but Hadden knew himself to be a made with a great dream. The amenities mattered not at all.

In two years, this flying sarcophagus would fall into the gravitational potential well of Jupiter, just outside its radiation belt, be slingshot around the planet and then flung off into interstellar space. For a day he would have a view still more spectacular than that out the window of his study on Methuselah — the roiling multicolored clouds of Jupiter, the largest planet. If it were only a matter of the view, Hadden would have opted for Saturn and the rings. He preferred the rings. But Saturn was at least four years from Earth and that was, all things considered, taking a chance. If you’re stalking immortality, you have to be very careful.

At these speeds it would take ten thousand years to travel even the distance to the nearest star. When you’re frozen to four degrees above absolute zero, though, you have plenty of time. But some fine day — he was sure of it, though it be a million years from now — Gilgamesh would by chance enter someone else’s solar system. Or his funeral bark would be intercepted in the darkness between the stars, and other beings — very advanced, very far-seeing — would take the sarcophagus aboard and know what had to be done. It had never really been attempted before. No one who ever lived on Earth had come this close.

Confident that in his would be his beginning, he closed his eyes and folded his arms experimentally across his chest, as the engines flared again, this time more briefly, and the burnished craft was sleekly set on its long journey to the stars.

Thousands of years from now, God knows what would be happening on Earth, he thought. It was not his problem. It never really had been. But he, he would be asleep, deep-frozen, perfectly preserved, his sarcophagus hurtling through the interstellar void, surpassing the Pharaohs, besting Alexander, outshining Qin. He had contrived his own Resurrection.

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