Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is power: and who may stand in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is applied. These two rules describe the essence of a computer programmer trainee
May 11, 2017
Something was horribly wrong.
Gradually it came back to me. I’d tried to fight UNSONG and failed miserably. They’d seized me and presumably my computer too, driven goodness knows how many hours with me in the back of a black van, then deposited me in a cell somewhere. I had fallen asleep. Now I had woken up. I was still in an UNSONG cell. There were guards outside the window.
This was not what was horribly wrong.
The wrongness was subtler than that. It pierced to the bone. It was like hearing your own heartbeat, pounding in your ears, except that it was off, in some way that you couldn’t explain, and you kept thinking maybe you had some rare heart disease that was going to kill you any moment now.
I tried to get up, and was mildly surprised when I succeeded. Whatever was wrong wasn’t physically wrong. I tried to speak and found that I was gagged. Obvious precaution. You capture a kabbalist, you don’t want them speaking. No chance UNSONG was going to forget that.
The cell was spacious – although to be fair my standards had been set by the sort of rooms I could rent for minimum wage in the Bay Area. It was well-kept, as if advertising that UNSONG didn’t need to deny its prisoners any of their physical needs in order to break them. Or maybe I was reading too much into it, because everything around me still felt horribly wrong.
I cleared my mind as best I could.
[Ana, are you there? Where are you?]
There was nothing. Either Ana was far away, or distracted, or asleep, or – I couldn’t make myself think “dead”. I would have felt it if she died. That, I told myself, is definitely how kabbalistic marriages work.
So I banged on the door of my cell, hoping that the guards would hear me and take me away to whatever awful fate was awaiting me, rather than leave me here where something was horribly wrong.
Both guards looked at me. One of them muttered something I couldn’t hear, probably along the lines of “He’s awake”. I was surprised to see they looked like ordinary people. The one on the left wore a sort of serious expression that reminded me of Eliot Foss for some reason. The one on the right looked a combination of pissed off and scared. I wondered if he, too, could feel that something was horribly wrong.
“Mr. Smith-Teller,” he said. I winced internally. I mean, I suppose if they didn’t know my name now it wouldn’t have taken them too much longer to find it out, but it still hurt. Kabbalists are notoriously fussy about who knows their true name. I’m not sure why. When an angel or demon is hidden in some sort of incarnate form, knowing their true name gives you power over them. Knowing the Shem haMephorash does the same to God, or something. I don’t think there’s anything like this for humans, but there’s still just something that feels very careless about letting your enemies have such an important word.
“You’re awake just in time. We’ll be taking you for debriefing now. Please come peacefully or we will have to take measures to enforce compliance.” He didn’t say it in a nasty way, though. I kind of liked the guy. But something was nevertheless horribly wrong.
I nodded, and let them open the door of my cell and march me down the corridor. This was something else. I knew UNSONG arrested people, I knew that they put you in prison for a long time if you used Names without a license, but I’d always heard they used the normal federal prisons. The idea of a secret UNSONG black site somewhere sounded like it was out of Erica’s paranoid anti-government screeds.
It didn’t fail to register that if no one had ever revealed the existence of this place before, that meant either that they were very good with the Amnestic Name, or else no one had ever gotten out of here before. I tried to remember exactly how effective the Amnestic Name was and ironically came up blank. And what about the Confounding Name? I couldn’t remember.
The facility wasn’t small, either. We walked through poorly-lit corridor after poorly-lit corridor. I tried to look for other prisoners, references to the location, even doors with signs on them, but all I spotted were a couple of locked rooms with the UNSONG seal on the front. An aleph superimposed on the United Nations globe, and around it, the name “United Nations Subcommittee On Names of God” and the motto “I TEGO ARCANA DEI”. Begone, I hide the secrets of God. There were deep kabbalistic depths in that phrase, but I didn’t have the energy to think about them, because something was horribly wrong.
We came to a room. A conference room, it looked like. They motioned me to sit down. The sense that something was horribly wrong got stronger. The guards could feel it too. I could tell.
The door swung open.
“Ma’am,” said one the of the guards, politely yet as quickly as possible, and then both of them walked away just slowly enough not to technically be considered running.
Two other guards entered, both looking like people who were in severe pain but had been dealing with it for long enough that they could sort of crack a nervous smile and say it didn’t bother them anymore – and between them, a five foot tall woman of ambiguous ethnicity wearing a purple dress and a pearl necklace.
And I thought: Huh, I’ve seen this person in the newspaper.
“Mr. Smith-Teller,” she said, and smiled at me. “I’m Malia Ngo.”
Okay. So any hope that they were just annoyed at Erica’s secret meetings was gone. This was Director-General Malia Ngo. The head of UNSONG. If she was involved, they thought this was the most important thing happening in the world at this moment. Which of course it was. They knew all about the Vital Name and everything it could do, and they were going straight to the top. Okay. So I was really, really doomed.
When the President and the Comet King had worked together to convince the United Nations to fund UNSONG, leadership of the fledgling bureaucracy had gone to a elderly Brazilian politician who had taken a hands-off approach. He’d gone after the biggest gangs and most blatant serial abusers of Names, talking about “decapitation strikes” against networks of large-scale pirates. The policy was very popular – everyone agreed that having the Mafia in on the Name business was a bad idea – and pretty ineffective, because most unauthorized Name use was by ordinary non-Mafia people who talked to each other online.
He’d died about ten years ago and been replaced by Ms. Ngo, who had joined the organization two years earlier and presided over a famous sting on the medicinal-Name gangs in the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire. She replaced her predecessor’s cautious balance with a scorched-earth approach that won her dozens of powerful enemies – all of whom were carefully outmanuevered. It didn’t hurt that theonomic profits increased about 300% during the first five years of her tenure. Sure, a lot of people thought that was because of blockbuster discoveries like the Precious Name and Zahlenquadrat-boxing, but pirated Names becoming a hundred times harder to find couldn’t have hurt either. Soon any move against her would have half the theonomics bigwigs in the country at the President’s doorstep within an hour, and UNSONG was her private fiefdom. She scared a lot of people, and I’d always thought it was a deliberate attempt to play the bully in order to compensate for her unthreatening appearance.
Now she seemed just the opposite. She wasn’t trying to look scary. She was doing everything she could not to. And it wasn’t enough.
“Mr. Smith-Teller,” she repeated. “I’m sorry you’re in this situation.” She really did sound sorry. “I understand you are associated with several Unitarian groups who have a dim view of UNSONG, and you’re probably laboring under the misapprehension that I am here to hurt you. As difficult as this may be to believe, we’re potentially on the same side. I’m going to take your gag out. If you start speaking a Name, I’m afraid we’ll have you unconscious before you finish the second syllable, and the gag will go back in. I’m sure you can imagine the reasons we have these precautions. Nod if you understand.”
Even her face was something terrible. I couldn’t place her ethnicity at all. Her face looked like it came from one of those weird nightjar birds whose eyes are in the wrong place and don’t look even look like real eyes.
I nodded. She made a motion to the guards. One of them took my gag out.
“Mr. Smith-Teller,” she said. “I’m sorry you’re in this situation, but as you can tell from my presence here we do have to take this very seriously, and I have to ask you a few questions. The Keller-Stern Act of 1988 states that anyone who discovers a Divine Name of potential military value is legally obligated to turn it over to the Untied States government in exchange for fair monetary compensation. Most people aren’t aware of the Act, and we have no interest in punishing them for refusing to follow a law they never heard of. But now you know. So, Mr. Teller-Smith, and please tell me the truth, do you know any Names that might be covered under the law?”
I felt like she would know if I lied. Her nightjar eyes stared into my soul. If I lied to Malia Ngo, something terrible would happen to me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t know any such Name.”
And it was God’s own truth. Because I had forgotten the Name. Because I was a moron. I could have told her more, but she terrified me, and the truth – that I’d known the Vital Name and forgotten it – would be neither believable nor welcome. And part of me was desperately hoping that if I said nothing, she would go away, the wrongness would end, and I would just be in a perfectly normal government black site and everything would be fine.
“Did you speak a Name that allowed you to find the location of the Moon?”
“I did,” I said.
“How did you learn that Name?”
Every fiber of my body tensed at her oppressive closeness. It was a fair question. I had no way out this time. Either tell her what had happened, or lie like a rug and see exactly what those nightjar eyes could do.
I ran through a host of scenarios. I tell the Director-General that I knew the Name and forgot it. She doesn’t believe me and tries to torture it out of me. She doesn’t believe me and tries to torture the Name out of Ana. She does believe me and tries to dissect my brain to get it. She goes to an error correction specialist, fixes the Name, and takes over the world, and I’m still alive to see it.
I am definitely not a hero. I’ve been in one fight, but only because I was drunk, and I ended up with two black eyes. The only thing I’ve ever been good at is studying things and comparing them and trying to understand them.
But the sages of old weren’t your typical heroes either, and they were constantly breaking out of prison by one miracle or another. Rabbi Meir convinced a Roman prison guard to free his friend by reassuring him that if anyone tried to punish his disobedience, he could say “God of Meir, help me!” and God would keep him from harm; when his commander tried to hang him for his role in the escape, the guard cried “God of Meir, help me!”, the rope broke, and he managed to run away to safety. When a whole Roman legion arrived to arrest the great translator Onkelos, he preached to them in Latin about the symbolism of the mezuzah, and the whole legion converted to Judaism on the spot. And when the Romans arrested Rabbi Eleazar ben Perata on five charges, God helped him craft a plausible alibi for each; when the plausible alibis didn’t work, the prophet Elijah appeared at the end of the trial, lifted up the prosecutor, and threw him out of the courtroom so hard that he landed five hundred miles away. I think I mentioned that the Talmud is kind of crazy.
So miraculously breaking out of prison is the sort of thing kabbalists are expected to be able to do, and I daydream a lot, and a long time ago I had come up with a fantasy about the sort of thing I would do if I were ever trapped in a prison, and this was by far the stupidest thing I had ever done, but something was terribly wrong and I needed to get out of here.
“I had a prophetic dream,” I said.
I knew the moment I said it that Malia Ngo didn’t believe me. I could see it in those nightjar eyes. And so I panicked. I gave up an advantage, threw out a morsel I was sure Ngo wanted.
“The dream told me how to use a computer program to discover new Names.”
There. If I was right, and she’d reseached the Moon-Finding Name specifically to catch people using Llull, I’d just told her something she already knew was true, redeemed myself. Maybe she still thought I was lying. But at least she knew it was an interesting lie. One that paralleled the truth. Maybe she’d want to hear me out.
“Tell me more,” Ngo ordered.
I made as if to object. “It was a really, really strange dream.” I said. “Full of bizarre imagery. It was only this weird sixth sense that helped me understand any of it at all. If I told you, it would just sound like random noise.”
And I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this, but caught between the horror of lying to Ngo and the horror of telling her the truth somehow I was going along with it, even though I knew very shortly this would be something to add to my ‘I am an idiot’ file right next to speaking the Moon-Finding Name aloud.
“Tell me the dream,” Ngo repeated.
I looked awkward and abashed, and it had nothing to do with acting. “It was…all these weird images in succession. This is going to sound so stupid. I don’t even know why I remember them so clearly.”
Ngo didn’t even say anything. Just stared at me with those eyes, as if to tell me I wasn’t getting off the hook.
“It all started with…with…it started with a dog having sex with a tree.”
Ngo blinked, but said nothing.
“And Zeus saw this, and he made a river, to drown the dog as punishment. And Shamu – you know, the killer whale – swam down the river, nibbling on somebody’s skull.”
Ngo was still listening. She looked confused, but not suspicious.
“It was the skull of a vampire, who had died reciting a poem about a lantern,” I told the Director General.
I know as much about klipot as any man alive. I was the one who broke NEHEMOTH, I was the one who taught the Singers’ cryptographers half the things they knew, I could see possibilities that everyone else would have thought insane. I was going to do this. I was making it happen.
“Sauron had knighted him once by speaking a secret Name,” I said, “but it didn’t save him. It was the dog who killed him, by lancing him through the heart with a thumbtack.”
For something to be a klipah, four things are necessary.
That the speaker know the Name he is trying to conceal.
That there be a one-to-one correspondence between the klipah being uttered and the letters of the Name being concealed, one which the speaker understands at the deepest level.
That the correspondence not be ad hoc – you can’t turn “Hello how are you” into the Tetragrammaton by declaring on the spot that “Hello” equals yud, “How” equals hay, and so on. There has to be at least an intention or possibility of consistency, rather than a deliberate mapping on to a preexisting pattern.
And that the signal be separated from the noise; that the parts which represent letters are fixed in advance and not separated by other parts representing other letters.
I had invented my mnemonic system to help remember Names through weird stories. It was hard to remember that the first three letters in the Vanishing Name were dalet-samech-tav. But it was easy to remember a dog having sex with a tree.
Given an appreciation of my mnemonic system, a story about a dog having sex with a tree and Zeus making a river was equivalent on a phonetic level to dalet samech tav zayin mem resh. The first six letters of the Vanishing Name.
“Neptune went to inspect the river in his capacity as god of water, and got mad, and started terrorizing it with a rake. Kim Jong-un flew overhead in a lantern.”
Ngo was starting to look very dubious now. I didn’t have much time.
“Moses recited a poem about tacos.”
[Aaron] came a voice from deep in my head. [I’ve come to save you. Are you there?]
[Ana?] A horror. Ana Thurmond was in this place. [Ana, I can take care of myself…maybe…Ana, get out!]
But to Malia Ngo, I said only: “Neptune.”
Don’t use the Vanishing Name, I had said during choir practice, unless you are in a situation where it is absolutely vital to your well-being and continued survival that you be accosted by a different band of hooligans than the ones who are currently accosting you. Right now, being accosted by a different band of hooligans was my heart’s fondest and most desperate desire.
As Director-General Malia Ngo and two UNSONG guards strained to understand my made-up dream imagery, I completed the Name and vanished from right in front of their faces.