Hanging Gardens of Ditallu
SHAARE EMETH: Gateway to Truth
“…if…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
Hanging Gardens of Ditallu
The darkening light of evening was split in two by a flash of red. In the distance, jagged forks of white-hot lightning shot towards the sky.
The shock wave would hit in minutes.
“Perimeters are no longer reporting,” a voice sounded on the communicator.
She walked to the railing, looking over the city as if searching for an answer.
“Get the people to tunnels,” she responded turning to face an aide. An image from childhood flashed into memory, a visit to archeological sites in tunnels below the city. Now used for maintenance, the ruins of their most ancient cities were buried there.
From hanging gardens, decks suspended half a kilometer in the air, she looked over the city. Tall and muscular with armored skin, she waited for a sign. The oval plate covering her skull curved over her forehead, reflecting violet light from a hovering lamp. Her gray skin shone green in evening light. Moonstone cabochons hung from her earlobes. She wore a yellow toga with a drape over one shoulder. The twilight of evening cast black shadows on tiles below her feet.
Sirens echoed through the streets below.
The shock wave slapped against skyscrapers, cracking stone, bending metal.
Through it all, warnings continued, the same phrase, “All persons report to shelters. All persons report to shelters.”
As she looked out for the last time, the shock wave penetrated shielding and threw her to the floor, stripping leaves from plants, fraying tender stalks.
Elected to Parliament upon return from Sol, Bosmat had enjoyed these gardens. Between sessions, during long speeches, she’d come here to relax, to breathe fresh air, to smell blooming akalum.
Media reported nine planets destroyed, but more were suspected.
That morning, Dusmanyu ships slid into the atmosphere without notice, disabling planetary sensors.
It was only when the weapons, five of them placed around the planet, were activated that signatures were detected.
Her team of specialists located two of the weapons. They’d managed to dislodge a smaller one and transport it to tunnels under the city. The last she heard, the weapon activated and began melting surrounding rock.
A scream sounded from below. The enemy’s primary target, creatures with Aquatic DNA, were to be shot on site. Here at Ditallu, that would be most of the population. Most had silver blood flowing through their veins.
Another explosion lit the night from the south. The sky was reddening.
“Minister, we must get you to the tunnels,” her aide said, reaching down to help her stand. “Come, there is no time.”
Two weeks earlier, Bosmat had used the same phrase, “There is no time.” Standing on the dais before fellow ministers, she’d implored, “But their presence is undetectable.” She argued. “They have a pattern of locating and disabling sensors.”
“If we cannot detect them, how can we prepare?” a Blue-Face asked.
A Pink-Face responded, “We can get the tunnels ready, send Aquatics off-planet.”
“If the Alliance cannot protect us, what hope is there?” the Blue-Face asked.
Since the Catastrophe, genetically armored Chava, like Bosmat, were rare.
“Do you suggest we simply give up?” Bosmat responded. “Minister Haaki is right,” she said, referring to the Pink-Face. “We can make preparations. We must send Aquatics away immediately.”
“Where shall we send them?” the Blue-Face asked. “Our allies will be under attack as well.”
“Where do you think?” Minister Haaki responded angrily. “To Kataru.”
“But isn’t Kataru on the same path? Won’t they be attacked as well?” the Blue-Face asked.
“It will buy us time. We can analyze the weapon,” Bosmat responded. “We need to find a sample, a weapon.”
“Let us consider the options before us. Decisions like this require consideration, debate…”
“There is no time,” Bosmat said, foreshadowing her aide’s words. “There is no time.”
6,400 Light Years
The first thing he saw was a bot hovering above.
The electronic eye, organic in appearance, its 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 at optimum capacity,” the bot whispered in 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 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 hairy and muscular.
The hovering bot warned, “Le’u, remain in the wetet until permitted.”
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 and 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. He only managed a whisper.
“Please remain in the wetet,” the bot responded. “Lie back. 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 and began to awaken, realizing he’d fallen asleep again. B15 was 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. You’d better move slowly. It will feel like you have a new body.” 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.
B15 laughed. “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 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 him by the 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, wearing identical white shorts, ran to the door ahead of them.
“You will also need a new environmental suit,” B15 told him, “You are a different person.”
Jerry stood with new arrivals.
They’d been herded into what looked like a presentation room. Rows of seats, like bleachers, ascended a quarter of the way up the walls on each side. Above them were thin panels of stained-glass, casting pink light into the room. The steps, floors, and platform were in 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 had looked up, expecting to see a night sky filled with the twinkling of ships and space stations, but instead there were more buildings. White and silver, gleaming structures floated in the air above. A brightly colored vehicle slid through the sky overhead.
From the plaza at the center of the city, he would have been able to see the reflected light of a thousand refugee ships and stations orbiting above the atmosphere. As his ship, the Harwer, descended to Sippar, the helmsman negotiated a narrow corridor. Jerry sat on the lower floor of the bridge. Through front facing windows, he watched as the Tayamni vessel narrowly passed through a rag-tag collection of alien vessels and stations in various states of repair. Jerry counted eight stations in orbit, positioned just far enough from each other to allow the Harwer to pass.
The trip from Earth to the Perseus Transit had taken three months.
Jerry was among the first group humans to arrive at Kataru planet, the capital of the alliance.
So much had changed, the Tlaloc wars, the fall of Clysma, battles at Anuria, at Atmehyt -- Erish abducted, the changed timeline. Jerry sometimes forgot he was human.
But it was at times like these when he was furthest away from Earth, 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 flooded back. Believing he had moved on, he was unprepared. The memory grabbed him and held him. 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.
Taking a series of elevators and transports from the landing pad to this gathering space, he had not seen much of Sippar City.
Their host approached from behind an obsidian statue of Anubis. A cyborg with a female shape walked towards them, palms upwards in traditional greeting. Her face was beautiful, her skin clear, pink lips, hazel eyes, the beauty of youth.
“Welcome, humans,” she began.
It was November 1976 at Earth. During the voyage to Kataru, Jerry’s team had downloaded information directly to their cortices. Some, including Jerry himself, had slept in a birthing box.
Their DNA modified, nano-bots injected, these humans would age to around 30. They would live for thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of years.
“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.
She continued, “We welcome you to Kataru, Gateway to the Perseus Arm.”
Although they had been coached on what to expect, actually being in the presence of another 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, all 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 humans.
She continued, “They stepped out onto a ruined world, uninhabited by biological creatures -- cities long buried – a tidally locked planet.
“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, referencing the Tayamni historical figure. “‘Setting foot on land, the Gateway opened, and the story of our species began.’ It began at a river, 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 data from their landing. Please attach the mechanism. Some visualizations 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.
An image of a river materialized in his cortex. 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. The scanners are correct.
Somehow, Jerry understood that Yasar’s shuttle was a kilometer away. Yasar, the leader of the Ennead, had set down there, so as not to draw attention to the ship. Pads supporting the shuttle sank 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.
Yasar 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 Leader, 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.
But, 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 small moon, was tidally locked to its sun. The only habitable region was 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 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 aside. The boulder split into pieces from the 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 under the surface, 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 women kneeling beside him, Bastet, 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 dark skin, golden in full sunlight.
“My husband,” Auset whispered, her voice low and hoarse. Bending over, she kissed his cheek. “You are alive?”
He sputtered, coughing, raising himself out of the contraption, sitting up. “Who took the shuttle?”
The two women looked at each other.
“He’s been following us,” Bastet whispered.
“Who?” Yasar asked again.
“Calm yourself. You have been dead. You must rest,” Auset said. “Your body must heal, reanimate.”
“Who attacked me?” he asked again, growing angry.
“Our brother,” Bastet responded.
“Who?” Yasar asked again.
“He blames you,” she whispered.
Yasar looked at her with confusion.
“Seth blames you. You are our Leader, so he blames you,” Bastet whispered, reaching up to his forehead to brush away perspiration. “He wants revenge.”
Auset shook her head, “There are no candidates here. Seth 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 deserts to the east,” Auset said pointing to the distance. “We must leave 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. We have no weapons. We must flee,” she continued.
“How can we fight our own brother?” Bastet asked.
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, he heard the buzzing sound. “Run,” he yelled.
The shockwave splintered the portable wetet and threw Yasar, Auset, and Bastet, sprawling, unconscious, across the sand.
The shuttle hovered, lowering to the ground.
A hydraulic door opened; a figure cloaked in red, his skin crimson with white markings stepped down from the shuttle.
He walked to Yasar, grasping his brother by the wrist.
“No one will revive you this time,” he said, panting.
He dragged him to the shuttle.
Denny and Naomi sat in the third row.
The synagogue was filled. Denny turned to look at older, better-dressed men and women sitting behind them. Men in the congregation spoke loudly. Some pointed to the speaker.
It was Friday night Shabbat.
Like an ancient Greek theater, seats were arranged in semi-circles, radiating out from a platform.
A man in older middle age, stood on the platform. “A Southern Baptist,” he said shaking his head. He looked out at the astonished congregation and continued, “We have no choice.”
Voices behind Denny and Naomi grew louder.
Denny had been to Christian churches, but in his experience, churches were quiet, contemplative environments. At churches, the preacher talked, and the people listened.
Here, the congregation were loud, shouting, cursing.
Denny turned to look behind him.
He looked at Naomi sitting to his left.
The smile on her face widened.
The man standing at the podium, pointed a bony finger to the congregation. “The choice between a Republican appointed by a criminal and a Southern Baptist,” he said, shaking his head. “…is NO CHOICE.”
“Is he the Rabbi?” Denny whispered to Naomi.
People were yelling. She didn’t hear him.
“What the hell are you saying?” a man behind them shouted.
“Republicans are not our friends,” the man at the podium continued.
Shouts grew louder.
“Southern Baptists will strip away our liberties,” the speaker continued. “We cannot vote for either party.”
“Go to hell!” a man shouted from across the auditorium.
“Goddam you,” another man shouted.
“Should we jeopardize all we have?” a woman’s shrill voice yelled.
Denny looked around with wide eyes.
“We should not vote,” the speaker said again. “There is no choice.”
People stood; some shook their fists at the speaker; some turned to leave. People were shouting, yelling insults. Two younger men walked to the speaker to usher him away from the podium.
Naomi leaned over to Denny. “This is the one,” she said. “We’ll join this congregation.”
Naomi, certain she had convinced the beautiful young man to be in love with her, was planning their future.
“What does it mean?” Denny asked her. “Shaare Emeth,” he asked, referring to the name of the temple. He paused to look at another man shouting.
Naomi looked straight ahead at the activity on the platform. She turned back to him. “Gateway. It means Gateway, like the Arch,” she said. “Shaare Emeth means Gateway.” She referred to the Gateway to the West, the Jefferson Expansion Memorial, commonly known as the St. Louis Arch.
For a year, since high school, Denny had been searching.
Twice, he thought he had found a way.
The path away from his family, the path away from Tupelo, was labyrinthine. A way out would appear, to be snatched away.
He’d moved with his chorus teacher to Mobile, to be abandoned.
He’d gone to Florida with a young man, to have him declare he was no longer gay.
His gateway to the outside world was amorphous, shifting, like the arms of an octopus.
Only after he decided he would never leave Tupelo, only then did an unlikely scenario present itself.
He tried to change, to reform himself. He tried harder than ever. He’d met the sister of a new friend; he’d met Naomi.
But for Naomi, Denny was only another young man in a long line of failed attempts. She’d brought Denny to St. Louis, to her home, to convince him, to inform him, to command him to be in love with her.
But she would not be successful.
Bringing Denny to St. Louis, she inadvertently presented him with the escape he’d longed for, his pathway out. He’d stumbled upon a gateway to the outside world.
He’d found his Shaare Emeth.
The door of the shuttle closed with a hiss of pressurized gases, leaving Batresh standing on soft ground.
Her eyes adjusted to a dim landscape. Crumpled limestone and shards of glass lay scattered around her as if a blast had destroyed a great structure.
Winds buffeted the rusted structure above. Steel connectors creaked and groaned.
Tossed by wind, a bulb attached to a pole cast ghastly shadows.
Male voices laughed in the distance.
Wind whistled through the structure. To her right, on iron tracks, sat a locomotive, resting like a beast, a relic from more prosperous times. Bleached by sunlight, rusted onto metal rails, it cast shadows northwards.
Weeds blocked her way.
To the left was another rail, still in use. Free of brush, its shiny surface reflected pale light.
A gust struck her, pulling her coat open. The cold wind felt like sand blasting her skin, like the Khamsin back home.
She looked towards the street. A green station wagon should be waiting. She turned, pulling her coat closed, and walked towards the railway.
Truck exhaust from a highway a hundred meters away, fired like a cannon. Instinctively, she froze.
Standing motionless, she waited for her heartbeat to slow.
She looked back towards the shadows. The vessel was safely hidden.
She moved through brush, stepping between metal rods, carefully negotiating crumpled limestone and broken slats. She reached a clearing. Looking ahead, she saw narrow slabs, steps leading up to the street. She pushed a jewel on a wrist band. A light activated. Holding her wrist in front of her, she stepped over an old tire and twisted rebar.
She reached the steps.
Ancient piping, a makeshift handrail, seemed secure, so she grabbed hold to steady her ascent. She reached the top and looked down 18th Street.
There was no vehicle.
Turning, she walked towards Market Street, pulling her coat closed. When she reached the corner, no longer protected by the structure, the full force of wind hit her.
She had been warned but had never experienced cold. Icy shards seemed to cut into exposed skin.
She looked across the street and saw statues, a man and a woman facing each other, the Meeting of the Waters, the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers. The man and woman were in position, arms outstretched, awaiting the approach of the other. But, frozen in bronze, they would never meet. Always and forever anticipating the arrival of the other, they would never actually embrace.
The fountain was turned off for winter, a remnant of faded glory.
She heard the honk of a car and turned right. A dented station wagon pulled up.
She slid into the car and looked at the driver. Sister Ahatu was elderly, thin. She wore a cotton shift and plain, gray wool coat. On her short gray hair, was a modified veil, held in place by bobby pins. Her thin hands grabbed the steering wheel and turned sharply. “I’m breaking multiple laws here,” she smiled as she made a U-turn, and headed west. “I don’t think you are dressed for St. Louis winter,” she added. Reaching to the dials on the dashboard, she turned the heat up.
Batresh turned towards her. “I need a better coat.”
“Welcome to winter weather,” the sister responded, knowing Batresh had experienced only Egyptian heat and one Mississippi summer.
Batresh admired the nun’s easy manner. She had been in the order for centuries and seemed completely human.
“Your audition is tomorrow at 4:00,” the nun nodded, smiling. The skin around her eyes was creased and wrinkled. Judging from the dark spots on her hands, she spent too much time in the sun. “Will you need to practice?”
Batresh shifted on the seat, sitting forward. “Not really, I’ll just warm up my voice,” she responded. Looking to her right, she saw a yellow building that could have been a factory or warehouse.
The sister turned onto the highway.
“I’ll drive you to Powell Hall tomorrow,” the sister added.
Batresh looked at her, “I am supposed to be Jewish.”
“Oh,” Sister Ahatu responded. “I’ll get one of the girls to drive you.” A park appeared on the right. Empty benches were fixed to the ground around a baseball diamond. To the left was an enormous parking lot, circling a structure with what appeared to be sawed off minarets at each of the front corners. On the front of the building were large letters that read, Checkerdome.
Ahatu turned on the signal light and exited the highway. “You can stay at the dorm tonight and get a room at the Chase tomorrow.” She looked over at Batresh and smiled, “It’s an honor to meet the Matriarch of the House of Uanna.” She continued looking, her eyes moving up and down Batresh’s body. “We have your clothes ready. I think we got the right size.” She stopped the car at a signal light.
To the right was a diner with floor-to-ceiling windows, brightly lit from inside. “Of course, you can stay at the dorm the whole time, if you want.”
They turned right, onto Big Bend Boulevard.
After a short distance, they turned again onto a small college campus, Fontainebleau College for Women.
Turning right into a U-shaped drive, Batresh saw three buildings, one on each side, English, Science, and Art; all, vine covered, rough-hewn brown stone, the covered walkways between them, protected by a ceramic tile roof.
To her left was the library. Batresh saw a statue of a woman wearing ancient clothing -- a long toga. A drape covered her head, falling to her shoulders and down her back. Her palms faced upwards in traditional Tayamni greeting.
A flood light in front of the statue, shone upwards onto an oval face.
Batresh saw her as the Queen of Heaven, the Blessed Mother, the Matriarch of the First Ones, the Goddess Auset.