aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 11: Drive The Just Man Into Barren Climes

May 11, 2017
San Jose

I.

Time and chance, according to the Book of Ecclesiastes, happeneth to us all. Ana had planned to sleep in, but it so happeneth that she woke up hungry and found herself out of milk. She threw on an old t-shirt – one she had gotten at a theodicy conference a few years ago, with the motto WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMAKER? on the front – grabbed a shopping bag, and headed out to the 7-11 on the corner.

Seven represents the world – thus the seven days of creation, the seven worldly sephirot below the Abyss, and the seven continents. Eleven represents excess, a transcendence of the supernatural completeness of ten into an unlawful proliferation of forms. Added together they make eighteen, corresponding to the gematria value of the Hebrew word “chai”, meaning life. Therefore, 7-11 represents an excess of worldly life-sustaining goods – in other words, too much food. In keeping with the secret laws of God, Ana caved in and bought a box of donuts.

When she saw the vans, she briefly hoped that her housemate Aaron, the alternately annoying and lovable amateur kabbalist who had a crush on her but whom she tolerated anyway – was still at Stanford picking up library books. That hope vanished when she saw the street plunged into darkness, heard the sound of gunshots.

There was a part of her that wanted to run back and help (how? wielding the bag of groceries as a weapon?) and another part that wanted to at least run inside to destroy the computers before UNSONG could get its hands on them. She knew some Names – maybe not as fluently as I did, but she knew them. But she also knew that only total idiots engaged in magical duels against an armed opponent, so instead she ran, her bag of milk and donuts bobbing beside her. I don’t know why she didn’t drop it, except that maybe when you’re panicked you don’t think straight.

Five minutes’ running brought her to the Berryessa BART Station, all sweaty and out of breath. She took out her card, ran it through the turnstyle. A train arrived almost immediately. She got on, not even looking at where it was going. She had to get away, as far as possible, somewhere that would make UNSONG’s search area unmanageably large. And so hour and a half later, she reached the end of the line and stepped off the BART at Pleasanton and started putting distance between herself and the station. After ten minutes’ running through parking lots and subdivisions she sat down in a field by the side of the road and let herself breathe again, let herself think.

She started crying.

Erica – her cousin. Aaron – her weird platonic friend whom she had married but only as a test. All her other housemates. What had happened to them? What disaster?

Had Aaron screwed up? What had happened on his trip to Stanford? Had he told Dodd? Was it just a coincidence? Were they in trouble for hosting Unitarian meetings, for misusing protected Names, or for trying to take over the world? Had anybody died? Those people in the black vans looked really serious.

[Aaron?] she asked mentally, but there was no answer.

She couldn’t go back to Ithaca. UNSONG would be watching. She couldn’t go to her parents in Redwood City, if UNSONG had figured out the extent of what they discovered they’d be watching her parents as well. There were various Unitarians up in the North Bay – but if they knew about Ithaca then maybe they’d infiltrated the Unitarians. Her friends weren’t safe. They might not really be her friends.

She could turn herself in. But for what crime? What if they were just annoyed at some crazy thing Erica did, but she spilled the beans about the Vital Name and put Erica and Aaron in danger? And what if she could find some books on name error correction? She still had the garbled version of the Vital Name; she could still figure it out and achieve Aaron’s plan without him. Once she controlled the world, she could politely ask UNSONG to hand over her friends. There was something horrifying about the idea of giving up when the stakes were that high.

So she could be a fugitive. She could run away until she found Name error correction books, or a trustworthy kabbalist to help her. Then get another computer. Then try again.

She took stock of her situation. In her wallet she had $105.42 and several credit cards – all traceable. Also a fake ID Erica had made for her once in an especially fuck-the-police mood when she had decided that having fake IDs was virtuous and countercultural even if you never used them. Also, she realized for the first time that she was still carrying a bag of milk and donuts. She ate a couple of donuts. They were really good.

She wandered in search of a library, and found one gratifyingly quickly. The librarian told her that Name error correction books were really technical, and that she should go to a specialized library at Berkeley or Stanford. She’d figured that would be the case. She thanked the librarian and spent $74.99 to get a room at a nearby hotel, where she promptly collapsed on the bed.

She was half-asleep when she noticed that the laptop on the desk was Sarah.

II.

Ana looked it over very carefully. Had it been there when she came in? Had she dismissed it as just a complimentary laptop for guests to use? Maybe a little unusual in a cheap hotel like this, but not extraordinary? She couldn’t remember. But it was here now, and it was Sarah. The same old NE-1 series machine. The same pattern of scratches on the cover. It even had AARON scrawled in black pen on the side.

Ana looked out the window and saw nothing out of the ordinary. Feeling a little silly, she looked under the beds. No one there. Very carefully, a Name on the tip of her tongue, she cracked open the door of her room and saw nobody. Either it had been here when she came in, or – or what?

But that didn’t make sense. She hadn’t even known she was going to this hotel before she stumbled across it. Euphemism, the front desk had asked if she wanted a room on the first or second floor – she’d been the one who decided the second. How out of it had she been? Had she fallen asleep on the bed without realizing it? Had someone snuck in, deposited the laptop, and snuck out?

Her hands shaking, expecting to be arrested at any moment, she opened the laptop.

The familiar picture of Sarah Michelle-Gellar stared back at her. Llull was gone. The browser was gone. All the desktop icons were gone except one. A text file called README. Ana read.

AARON SMITH-TELLER IS BEING HELD AT A SECRET UNSONG DETENTION FACILITY A MILE SOUTH WEST OF IONE CALIFORNIA. YOU SHOULD TRY TO RESCUE HIM. USE THE NAMES BELOW. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WILL GO WRONG.

LEAVE NOW. IT IS NOT SAFE HERE.

And there followed three totally novel Names and three explanations. The first was the Spectral Name, which granted invisibility. The second the Airwalker Name, which granted the power to tread on air as if it were solid ground. And the third the Mistral Name, which according to the document’s somewhat ominous description “called the winds”.

Ana Thurmond, the Augustine Distinguished Scholar in Theodicy and generally a pretty with-it person, was dumbfounded.

So she started in the obvious place. She spoke the first Name. And she became invisible.

“Euphemism!” she said, in shock, and as soon as the word left her mouth she was visible again.

Well, that upped the ante. There was no such thing as a Name that turned you invisible. If there was, she was pretty sure the military would be using it instead of marching entire visible battalions against the enemy like a sucker.

Some said there were angels who knew secret Names. Some said the Comet King had known every Name that was or would ever be. Some even said that UNSONG was sitting on a giant stockpile of Names that it kept for its own exclusive use. And then there were always random kabbalists who got lucky, like the time she discovered SCABMOM. But for somebody to be sitting on the secret of invisibility…

Was it a trap? The obvious point in favor was that they were asking her to pretty much walk in to an UNSONG headquarters unarmed with an incredibly valuable magical artifact. The obvious point against was that whoever was laying the trap already knew where she was and already had Sarah, making the charade a total waste of their time.

Wait. Sarah. Whoever did this must not know what Sarah was. Who, knowing the computer’s power, would just give it away? But how would somebody know enough to place Aaron at UNSONG, but not realize why he had been arrested? If he was even arrested for the Vital Name. But if it was just a standard sting on Unitarians, who would care enough to give her three new Names and send her off to rescue him? And if they were so powerful, why didn’t they just save him themselves? Aaaaah! The more she thought about it, the less sense it all made!

She minimized the README file, looked at the computer again. Nothing. Somebody had wiped the computer clean of everything except the Sarah Michelle-Gellar wallpaper. Maybe transferred it to a different computer? Maybe this was a shell of Sarah, and the real Sarah was somewhere else?

She briefly thought of how horrified Aaron would be to know that some hypercompetent secret conspiracy had his porn collection, and she laughed [EVEN THOUGH THIS IS NOT FUNNY AT ALL]

Then she turned herself invisible again. It was weird, because she still had a perfect proprioceptive sense of exactly where her body was, she could almost see it as if it were there. But she was definitely invisible. Her clothes were also invisible.

“Huh,” she said, and immediately became visible again.

She put Sarah in her bag, put the bag around her shoulder, and tentatively spoke the Name. Bag and contents became invisible.

“Wow” she said, and reappeared.

Plato told the story of a man named Gyges, renowned everywhere for his virtue. One day, he found a magic ring that allowed him to turn invisible. After this, he just went around stealing everything in sight, because it turns out virtue doesn’t mean that much when you have magic powers and know it’s impossible to ever get caught.

Ana had never been a big fan of the story. She thought that virtue was something innate, something you did because it was right and not out of fear of punishment. She thought Plato had sold Gyges short. On her way out of the hotel, she took $300 from the cash drawer, right under the clerk’s nose, plus a backpack for the donuts. In her and Gyges’ defense, she said to herself, the hotel was a giant evil corporation, and had probably stolen the money from the pockets of the Working Man.

She agonized for a second over whether or not to bring the computer. If she did and anything went wrong, UNSONG would take Sarah and that would be the end. If she didn’t, she’d have to leave it here, where it apparently wasn’t safe, and come back here afterwards. She decided if she was captured, or if she couldn’t rescue Aaron, none of it mattered much anyway, and she put the laptop in the backpack with the donuts.

Then she went visible again, called a cab, and asked how much it would cost to get to Ione.

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