May 11, 2017
Sitting in bed with her computer on her lap, Erica Lowry watched the sun rise and writing the news.
The overt meaning of “news” is “new things”.
The kabbalistic meaning of “news” is “the record of how the world undoes human ambitions”.
This we derive by notarikon, interpreting “news” as an acronym for the four cardinal points: north, east, west, and south. There is a second notarikon of the same form. In Greek, the four cardinal points are arktos (north), dysis (west), anatole (east), and mesembria (south). When God took dust from the four corners of the world to make the first man, He named him after those four corners in notarikon; thus, “Adam”.
Despite this similarity, the two words have a difference: news goes n-e-w-s and Adam, converted to the English equivalents, goes n-w-e-s. The middle two letters are reversed. Why?
(when I was explaining this to Ana, I added that there was a third word in this class, that being “snew”. When she asked “What’s snew?” I said “Not much! What’s snew with you?” and she refused to speak to me for the rest of the day.)
I offer the following explanation for the variation. During the day, the sun goes from east to west. This sunrise – sunset cycle represents the natural course of the world, the movement from birth to death. Adam is the only one in history who reversed that pattern; he went from dead clay to living man. And his descendants continue upon that road, trying to reverse nature, to wrest a bubble of order out of the general decay. They raise children, build cities, unify empires. But nature always has the last word. Children grow old and die. Cities fall. Empires crumble. The works of man succumb to the natural cycle. The west-east movement reverses itself, and the east-west course of the sun and the world takes over. And when it does, we call it news.
And so: Erica Lowry watched the sun rise and writing the news.
Erica’s Stevensite Standard was one of the most popular magazines of the Bay Area countercultural scene. She had a gift. If I had to name it, I’d say it was a gift at taking things seriously. If someone organized a protest, and only five people attended, and then it started raining and so they all went inside and had lunch, Erica could make it sound slightly more heroic and monumental than the First Crusade. She didn’t misreport the facts, she didn’t gloss over things, she just wrote from the heart, and her heart was convinced that whatever she and anyone in her vicinity were doing was the most important thing.
This morning, Erica was making the final decision about what stories to include in the June issue. The cover story would be about the recent trend towards a few big hedge funds buying out stakes in all the theonomics. Aaron had contributed a long kabbalistic analysis of the nursery rhyme “There’s A Hole In My Bucket”, which was…very Aaron…but would at least fill pages. Last but not least, a call to attend a vigil for the dead Coloradans to take place in Oakland Harbor, just short of the bridge that no one took. Everyone was going to stand by the water and hold candles, and this would be a fitting tribute to the martyrs in the battle against tyranny, and…
She was so caught up in her work she almost didn’t notice the gunshots.
It had suddenly become dark outside. Somebody had used the Tenebrous Name. It didn’t matter. She didn’t need to see the street below to know what was going on. UNSONG had finally found them. She had known this day would come. Ana was out getting milk. She’d said Aaron had gone out to borrow a book from the library. She was all alone.
Whistling, she reached under her bed and retrieved her emergency UNSONG-fleeing-backpack, taking a couple of seconds to stuff her laptop into the front pocket.
Erica was a good magazine editor because she lived in a slightly different world than everyone else, a world where enemies lurked behind every corner and anybody could be a hero. Very occasionally, her world intersected the real world, and then she was like a fish in water.
She climbed out the window and jumped onto the emergency UNSONG-fleeing tree just outside. From there she jumped down into the neighbors’ yard, ran around the back, jumped the back fence into a different neighbor’s yard, then jumped out the front fence, and was on the street after her own. Making sure to look calm, she followed it until she came to the park, then cut across, and ended up on a different street entirely. She slipped into a cafe, ordered a coffee, and sat down.
That had gone exactly the way it did in her fantasies.
She took her emergency UNSONG-fleeing phone out of the backpack and texted first Ana, then Aaron. “Hey,” she wrote. “Santa Barbara is lovely this time of year. Wish you were here.” If UNSONG had their phones, it would knock them off the trail. If either of them had their phones – well, judging by what had happened when she had laboriously explained this system to them earlier, they would roll their eyes and tell her that real life didn’t work like that and code words were stupid. But hopefully they would at least text her back and tell her if they were safe.
When she didn’t get an answer, she checked amtrak.com on the laptop, grumbled, finished her coffee and walked back out onto the street. She almost bumped into a police officer carrying a bag of bagels on her way out. She gave him a little smile, and he smiled back awkwardly.
She kept walking, street after tree-lined street, until she came close enough to the airport that the roar of planes overhead became deafeningly unpleasant. At one end of an asphalt lot was a shabby apartment building. After taking a notebook out of her backpack to make sure she had the right place, she knocked on door 3A.
A haloed head peeked out, the cracked the door a little wider to reveal an ungainly, winged body. “If this is about letting God into my life,” he said forlornly, “please don’t bother me. I’m already an angel.”
“Pirindiel,” she said. “It’s me. Erica.” Angels weren’t very good at distinguishing human faces, but they never forgot a name.
“Oh!” the other answered. “Sorry! Oh, I’m so bad at this! Sorry! I promise I didn’t mean…”
“It’s okay,” Erica said. “May I come in?”
Pirindiel’s single room apartment was bare. Very bare. I guess if you didn’t subsist off food, there wasn’t much reason to have a table, a stove, or a refrigerator. But where did he sit?
“I need you to help me get on the California Zephyr,” she said.
Pirindiel looked confused. “Aren’t you supposed to buy tickets?” he asked.
“The tickets are sold out months in advance, silly,” Erica told him.
Pirindiel was a fallen angel. Not a demon, mind you. The difference between a demon and a fallen angel is the difference between a submarine captain and a sailor who’s pushed off the deck of a ship without a life jacket. The demon knows precisely what he’s doing and enjoys every minute of it. The fallen angel, well…
G. K. Chesterton said that angels fly because they take themselves lightly. But what happens when an angel sees too much, gets too weighed down by the sins and suffering of the world? The clouds stop supporting his weight, the wings that bore him aloft in the days of Abraham and Moses grow weaker, and he plummets earthward. There, he gets stuck in a vicious cycle. No matter how cynical and jaded an angel becomes, it’s never enough. Angelic brains, or souls, or whatever they have, just aren’t built to hold the proper amount of cynicism for dealing with earthly existence. They end up hopelessly confused and constantly disappointed by everything around them, with almost no ability to adjust. There they will never take themselves lightly again.
“I still think if you want to get on a train, you’re supposed to buy a ticket,” said Pirindiel, though he sounded uncertain.
“Nonsense!” said Erica. “Imagine if that were true! Only rich people would be able to go on trains. Poor people couldn’t afford it at all!”
“Oh,” said Pirindiel, a little embarrassed. “I guess I didn’t think of that.”
“It’s all right,” said Erica. “You’re new to this kind of thing. Now, here’s what I need you to do…”
It had taken a kabbalistic rearrangement of the Midwest’s spatial coordinate system that rendered roads there useless, plus a collapse of technology so profound that airplanes were only able to fly if Uriel was having a really good day, plus the transformation of the Panama Canal into some sort of conduit for mystical energies that drove anyone in its vicinity mad – but America had finally gotten its act together and created a decent rail system. As usual, it was the Comet King who had made it happen, meeting with President Bush and Governor Deukmejian back in the late 80s and agreeing to upgrade one of the old Amtrak routes into a true high-speed railroad like the ones they’d had for decades in Asia. It started in San Francisco, crossed Nevada and Utah, continued on to Denver a hop and a skip from the Comet King’s capital in Colorado Springs, cut straight through the Midwest, and ended up on the Atlantic Coast.
That worked for about five years. Then there had been another sudden drop in the efficiency of technology, and parts of the route needed costly refitting to use the Motive Name. Then the Comet King had died and the security situation went to hell, in some cases literally. The smoking ruins of the Midwest had been taken over by warlords and barbarian chiefdoms – Paulus the Lawless, the Witch-King of Wichita, the Oklahoma Ochlocracy – who wanted tolls to pass their territory. The Other King seized Nevada and demanded another toll plus the promise that the train wouldn’t be used to lift the siege of the West children in Colorado. The smouldering conflict that had troubled the East Coast after the election of 2000 had devolved into guerilla warfare that made the whole Appalachian area dangerous. Now the Zephyr was down to one trip a week. Out of California on a Thursday afternoon, into DC Friday morning, then back in California by Saturday night. The tickets were expensive and sold out months in advance.
“The Zephyr,” said Erica, “is going to leave the station in about two hours. The train is guarded at the station to make sure nobody climbs into the storage cars. But after it starts moving, there’s no problem. I just need you to fly me onto the train as it leaves the station. I can take it from there.”
Pirindiel looked miserable. “I want to help,” he said, “but I’m not very good at flying any more.”
“All you’d have to do is carry me a couple of meters, from the side of the track onto the train,” she said. “And I know that might be hard for you. But that’s why I have this.”
She took a vial of a clear liquid out of her backpack.
Angels fly because they take themselves lightly. Fallen angels are weighed down by the sins and sorrows of the world. But ever since ancient Mesopotamia, people have known an easy way to temporarily forget the sins and sorrows of the world. A couple of pints of beer will make help the most jaded of men take themselves lightly again.
Beer doesn’t work on angels, but holy water has much the same effect.
Pirindiel stared at it greedily.
“I don’t think I’m supposed to do that,” he said. He was right. Churches had very strict policies on giving holy water to angels or to people who looked like they were going to sell it to angels. Erica had only gotten a vial by seducing a seminary student and promising not to do exactly what she was doing right now.
“It’s for a good cause,” Erica explained patiently. “It’s to help you fly me onto the train. I need to go on this train, you know. It’s very important. It’s for true love. My boyfriend is in DC.”
“Really?” asked Pirindiel.
Sort of really. Erica’s sometime boyfriend, Brian Young, had left Ithaca three months ago out of annoyance at what he considered to be the excessive pacifism and hippie-ness of the California counterculture. He’d vowed to find BOOJUM, the terrorist cell that had already killed one President and was supposedly gunning for more, and the East Coast had been his first stop. A few weeks ago, he’d sent Erica a phone number. She hadn’t called it, because God only knew what sort of trouble Brian had gotten himself mixed up in and she didn’t know who might or might not be listening to phone calls.
But if UNSONG was really looking for her, she had better get as far away as she could. And if Brian had really fallen in with BOOJUM, they probably knew a thing or two about avoiding manhunts.
As for the fugitive thing, there was no way she was mentioning that to Pirindiel. Sure, once she had given him her Spiel, he’d come around to being an occasional member of their Unitarian cell. But angels just weren’t good at defying authority. If he knew she was a fugitive, there was every chance he might have a sudden crisis of conscience and turn her in.
“Well,” said Pirindiel. “If it’s about true love…”
And then he drank the entire flagon of holy water in one gulp. There were ways of dealing with conscience.
Three hours later, Erica climbed down a hatch into a luggage car and gave a long sigh.
She was, she reflected, pretty darned safe. UNSONG could search the entire West Coast for her, maybe they would, and they’d find nothing. And if Pirindiel told on her – and sure, he might – well, a lot of good that would do them. She’d told the angel she was going to Washington, but Brian’s area code said New York. She’d get off the train in Manhattan and let them search DC to their hearts’ content.
The train passed through the Central Valley, then climbed into the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas. It was all the same to Erica. The luggage car didn’t have any windows.
She checked her cell phone one last time before the battery went dead. Nothing from Aaron. Nothing from Ana. She hoped they would be okay. She figured they would be. They both had good heads on their shoulders. Well, sort of. Okay, not really. But they were book-smart. That had to be worth something, right?
She rested her head against a bag of luggage and fell asleep.