6,400 Light Years
“...if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
-Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
The first thing he saw was a bot hovering above him.
The electronic eye, organic in appearance, lenses sliding over a curved surface, aimed lasers at panels surrounding him. Moving up and down his body, focusing on his head, chest and groin, sensors took readings from organs and glands.
The bot moved to the other side of the box and repeated a series of movements.
“Wetet enhancements complete. Subject functions at optimum capacity,” the bot whispered with a soothing female voice. Then she, if indeed it were a she, moved on to the next diplomat. If Jerry had looked up, he would have seen two rows of wetets, like the one in which he lay, 20 of them altogether, lining the medical bay.
It was strange to feel alert after sleeping so long. He’d been unconscious for weeks, half the length of the journey from Earth to Kataru.
He moved his hands to his face, then up to his head and felt a full head of hair. He sat up sharply, bumping his head on the lid only half a meter above.
He looked down at his legs and saw his skin was darker. His legs were hairier and muscular.
“Le’u, remain in the wetet until permitted to stand,” the bot warned.
Jerry wondered who Le’u was and moved both hands to the side of the cavity, to push himself upwards.
The bot appeared to his right. “Ambassador Le’u?” the bot said.
Jerry looked into the electronic eye. Then, he remembered. He would be given a Tayamni name. “Oh,” he croaked, his voice breaking. “I’m Ambassador Le’u.” His vocal cords did not come together properly, his words were whispered.
“Please remain in the wetet,” the bot responded. “Lie back and relax. You will soon be permitted to stand.”
Small cylinders extended from panels at each side of the cavity and rolled over his skin, applying synthetic hormones.
He lay like this for an hour, drifting in and out of sleep.
Feeling a gentle touch, he opened his eyes. Above him was a vision of an angel. A clear, blue arc of light shone round her head. She had hazel eyes, soft lips and skin.
She bent over him, smiling.
He blinked his eyes and began to awaken, realizing he’d fallen asleep again. B15 was still standing above him.
“Ambassador,” she whispered.
He reached up to rub his eyes. Trying to pronounce her name, he had difficulty. His voice broke, like a pubescent boy.
She laughed. “Don’t try to talk. And, you’d better move slowly. It will feel like you have a new body. You will get used to it.” She reached down to take his hand. “You can try to stand.”
Moving his hands to the edge of the box, he saw sensors slide aside.
He was surprised at how easily he raised himself to a standing position. It reminded him of the first time he walked on the moon. He almost leapt out of the box.
B15 laughed. “You will find your muscles have regenerated. Don’t be surprised when you look in the mirror. You are younger,” she offered. “Follow me,” she said turning towards the entrance of the chamber.
“What the hell?” a voice shouted beside him. Jerry turned to his right and saw another young man standing at a wetet. He was looking at his hands, as if his hands alone could explain what had happened to him. Looking down the row, Jerry saw at least 10 humans standing at identical boxes.
B15 took his hand. “You need to consume fluids. Your body needs fuel.” She looked down at the white underwear he wore. “You will need new clothes. An Ambassador’s uniform I think?” She turned to lead him towards the entrance.
A human male ran to the door ahead of them, wearing identical white shorts.
“You will also need a new environmental suit,” M5 told him, “You are a different man.”
Jerry stood with new arrivals.
They’d been herded into what looked like a presentation room of sorts. Rows of seats, like bleachers, ascended to a quarter of the way up the walls on each side. Above them were thin panels of stained-glass that cast pink light into the room. The steps, floors, and platform in front of them were shades of yellow and orange.
Earlier, when the ship docked, he and others had stepped out onto a wintery plaza. Frost clung to railings and glittered on surfaces. Fog steamed from the landing pad, still warm from the sun. Pads, like the one to which his ship was anchored, were situated on each corner of the square.
He looked up, expecting to see a night sky filled with stars, but instead there were more buildings. White and silver, gleaming structures floated in the air above. A brightly colored vehicle slid through the night overhead.
The trip from Earth to the Perseus Transit had taken three months.
Jerry was among the first humans to arrive at Sippar.
So much had changed, the Tlaloc wars, the fall of Clysma, conflict at Anuria, at Atmehyt -- Erish abducted, the changed timeline. He sometimes forgot he was human. It was at times like this when he was furthest away from humanity, that reminders of his former life were strongest.
He thought he had healed, so many downloads, so many Tayamni memories.
But it was now, when setting foot on an alien planet, in a city floating in the clouds, that his own human memories came flooding back. Believing he had moved on; he was unprepared. The memory grabbed him and held him in its bloody maw. He saw Batresh’s face, as she appeared in 1962, blonde hair, dark skin, silver eyes. It was as if he could feel her presence, detect her scent. He glanced aside to verify she wasn’t there.
But she was at Earth, 6,400 light years away.
It was nighttime. The ship had anchored under parliament.
Taking a series of elevators and transports from the landing pad to this space, he had not seen much of the city.
Their host approached from behind an enormous obsidian statue of Anubis.
A robot with a female shape walked towards them, palms upwards in traditional greeting. Her face was beautiful, her skin clear, pink lips, hazel eyes. She exhibited the healthy glow of youth.
“Welcome, humans,” she began.
It was November 1976 at Earth. During the voyage to Kataru, Jerry’s team had downloaded information concerning the alliance directly to their cortices. Some, including Jerry himself, had slept within a birthing box.
Their DNA modified, nano-bots injected, these humans would age to around 30.
“You are the first of your species to join us,” their host continued. She paused as if waiting for a cheer, a vocal confirmation from this group of 20 men and women.
But they were silent. One man seemed to be searching for an escape route.
She continued, “We welcome you to Kataru, The Gateway to the Perseus Arm.”
Although they had been prepared, actually being in the presence of other species was a different matter.
“I am M5, your chief diplomat,” she continued. “You have been informed, no doubt, of the importance of Kataru to our common traditions.” She turned and took a few steps to her right. Stopping, she looked into space as if she were receiving a message. Then, her face relaxed and she turned back to the diplomats.
“The legends, the heroic anthems, the hymns on which our cultures are based, The Origins, histories now shrouded in mystery, began here.” She paused and walked to her left.
“The Nine touched down here, first,” she said. “From another universe, from another dimension – their first stop at Sharru Kurru, was here, on the surface of this planet.” She turned and moved closer to the group of humans.
She continued, “They stepped out onto a ruined world, uninhabited by biological creatures -- cities long buried – a tidally locked planet.
“Here, this world, Kataru would be their Gateway – their Gateway to Sharru Kurru, to Kaspum, and ultimately, to the planets of our alliance.
“As Adrahasis teaches,” she began. “‘Setting foot on land, the Gateway opened, and the story of our species began.’ It began at a river, now lost to time, lost to blowing sands and pulverizing glaciers.
“It began at the holy river Annil,” she said. “Please ready your downloading mechanisms.”
She walked to the center of the group and continued.
“We have reconstructed what remains of the original data from their landing. Please attach the mechanism. Some visualizations you will receive have been modified, some footage is speculative, and some images are original.”
Jerry lifted the headdress, not more than a silver band, and placed it around his head.
“Behold your history,” M5 said.
Slowly an image of a river appeared. It was shallow and seemed, from this vantage, to be no more than a stream of spilled water sliding over wet sand. Without being told, Jerry and the others in his group understood they were seeing footage captured from a headset worn by Yasar, later known as Osiris, the leader of the mission to Sharru Kurru.
“But I double checked,” Yasar whispered to himself. The scanners are correct.
The shuttle was a kilometer away. He had set there, so as not to draw attention to the ship. Pads supporting the shuttle had sunk into soft sand. Rocks dislodged by a recent flood littered the ground. According to scanners, the river bisected an ancient city, now covered in silt.
He would walk the rest of the way.
He carried a hand-woven basket of fruit, an introductory gift.
He looked down at the sand and shook his head. Something’s not right, he thought. He looked east then west, up and down the narrow river. “They’re not here,” he said aloud.
Appearing to be human, but with skin of a greenish hue, he continued walking, scanning the river’s edge. The ruins of an ancient city should litter the landscape.
As Captain, he didn’t plan to make first contact. But here were six inhabited worlds here. The crew were busy. According to scans, all six worlds were sparsely populated by groups of Adamu, candidate species.
Activating the light field projector in his cornea, he compared scans with what he saw with his eyes. This was the correct location.
Superimposing images, he saw a different topography. The remains of an ancient city, rusted beams from collapsed skyscrapers should be here, at this spot. But there were no ruins, no settlement, just a river, a rocky outcrop at its center.
He sent a telepathic message to the shuttle, “Resend coordinates.”
He stood for a moment, waiting for a response. The sun was hot. This world, its orbit deformed by a collision with a smaller planet, was tidally locked to its sun. The only habitable region, a zone between continual night and constant day. The river he stood beside originated in glaciers to the west and evaporated in deserts to the east.
In legend, the river would be called Annil.
There was no response.
“Sisu, respond,” he said, calling. “Auset, are you there?” he tried again.
The heat made him dizzy. He walked to the shade of a tall boulder and sat down on the sand. “Sisu, respond,” he whispered again.
Suspecting implants to be defective, he sent a command to run diagnostics.
He heard a high-pitched buzzing sound and looked to the right. Narrowing his eyes, he saw a vessel approach, more like a small shuttle. It flew erratically, as if the driver were unfamiliar with the controls.
Yasar stood, believing someone had come to retrieve him.
It was his own shuttle, the one he’d just left.
Seeing a beam shoot from the shuttle to the boulder, he jumped to the side. The boulder split into pieces. It was a shock-wave blast. It deafened him. Another blast and he dove for a sand bar nearby. Falling into the water, he rolled out of the way.
Straightening, but kneeling in shallows, he looked towards the shuttle in time to see, through the window of the cockpit, a man wearing a red robe and hood. Another blast shot towards him. Instinctively holding the basket in front of his face, he was hit full on.
Fruit and basket fragments flew across the water. The breath knocked out of him, he sank underneath, green liquid oozing from nose and ears.
He was back home, at åyAm, at Temple with his wife.
She reached to his face, caressing his cheek. “My husband,” she whispered. “Awaken.”
But I am awake, my wife.
He felt her lips brush his face and opened his eyes. Harsh sunlight blinded him. He coughed, expelling water and vomit.
One of the two women kneeling beside him, his sister, Bast, wiped his mouth.
His head pounded. He lay in the grip of a metallic device binding chest, head, arms and legs, a portable wetet. The women knelt on each side of him, their brown skin, golden in full sunlight.
“My husband,” Auset whispered again, her voice low and hoarse. Bending over, she kissed his cheek again. “You are alive?”
He sputtered, coughing, raising himself out of the contraption, sitting up. “Who took the shuttle?”
Bast and Auset looked at each other.
“He’s been following us,” Bast whispered.
“Who?” Yasar asked again.
“Calm yourself. You have been dead. You must rest,” Auset said. “Your body must heal, reanimate.”
“Who attacked?” he asked again, growing angry.
“Our brother,” Bastet responded.
“Who?” Yasar asked again.
“He blames you,” Bastet responded.
Yasar looked at her with confusion.
“Sutekh blames you. You are the leader, so he blames you,” Bastet whispered, reaching up to his forehead to brush away perspiration. “He seeks revenge.”
Auset shook her head, “There are no candidates here. He hacked the scanners…planted false information. There are ruins in the distance, closer to the desert. But none here,” she paused, pressing a control on the wetet. After a long moment, she continued, “He drew us here, misled us…this was his plan.”
“We must get to safety, brother,” Bastet said. “He has the shuttle.”
“Where?” Yasar asked.
“He waits above the deserts to the east,” Auset said pointing to the distance. “We must depart at once.”
Yasar stood quickly, pulling himself out of the device. He faced east, searching for the vessel.
“We are not equipped, my husband,” Auset said. “We are not equipped to fight him. We have no weapons. We must flee,” she continued.
“How can we fight our own brother?” Bast asked. “What is to be done?”
Yasar looked down at the sand, as if a solution lay there.
“It is me he wants,” he whispered. “Return to the Sisu. I will face him.”
They looked at each other for a long moment.
Finally, Auset continued, “You must come with us.” She pulled on his hand, imploring.
“Go, and acquire weapons,” Yasar said. “You will need them.”
Auset remained on her knees. “I will not leave you.”
Turning to look behind him, Yasar heard the buzzing sound. “Run,” he yelled.
The shock-wave from the weapon splintered the portable wetet and threw Yasar, Auset, and Bastet, sprawling, unconscious, from the blast.
The shuttle hovered and lowered itself to the sand.
A hydraulic door opened and a figure cloaked in red, his skin crimson with white markings stepped down from the shuttle.
Looking around, he walked to Yasar. He grasped his brother by the wrist and dragged him.
“No one will revive you,” he said, panting. “I will paint the world with your blood.”
He dragged him into the shuttle.