aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 15: O Where Shall I Hide My Face?

You saved your shillings and your last six pence
Cause in God’s Name they built a barbed wire fence
Be glad you sail for a better day
But don’t forget there’ll be Hell to pay

Rebels are we
Though heavy our hearts shall always be
Ah, no ball or chain no prison shall keep
We’re the rebels of the sacred heart
Rebels Of The Sacred Heart

May 11-12, 2017
Ione, California

We Bay Arians (Ana and I had debated multiple demonyms, including Bay Arean and Bay Aryan, before deciding we were more heretical than warlike, and definitely not the master race) tend to to think of the Central Valley as a nightmarish stretch of endless farms inhabited by people who, while not exactly dead, could hardly be called living. So far nothing Ana had seen in the two hour taxi ride to Ione had changed her mind.

Now here was the town itself, in all its glory. There wasn’t anything that looked like a secret detention facility, although she supposed that was what made it a secret detention facility. But it was already dark, and she didn’t fancy looking. She also didn’t fancy waiting until morning; she wasn’t really an expert in infilitrating secret facilities, but night seemed like potentially the best time, even if you could turn invisible.

What was the saying? If Mohammed cannot go to the mountain, the mountain must come to Mohammed?

No, not that one. The other one.

“In America, you can always find a party. In Soviet Russia, Party can always find you!”

Ana spoke the Bulletproof Name.

It was a calculated choice. New enough that the theonomics were still guarding it closely, but old enough that it had leaked to a few singer groups and the UNSONG sentinels were listening for it. Chosen to lure the dragon from its den.

Then she spoke the Spectral Name and became invisible.

Sure enough, a white van showed up at the gas station where the cab had dropped her off, and some men in black uniforms got out and started looking around. The process of infiltrating them was harder than Ana expected; she couldn’t just open the door of the van and walk in; there was still someone inside and he might notice the doors opening of their own accord. And if the van was full, she was worried someone would try to sit in her lap on the way back to headquarters. And starting any other Names would break her invisibility, so…

She watched in disgust as the men, having finished their search of the premises, got back in their van and drove off. This was harder than it was in stories.

So she rematerialized, spent some of her remaining money on some chocolate frosted donuts from the gas station, and decided to think of a better plan.

In America, Mohammed goes to mountain. In Soviet Russia, mountain comes to you. Or whatever.

She walked vaguely southward. When she felt like it was vaguely southward enough, she spoke the Ascending Name, then the Spectral Name again. Sure enough, back came her friends in the white van. More fruitless ground-combing. Back in the van again. But this time, she was higher than the hills and could see for miles.

A little south of town, the van turned west onto a little country road, went down a couple of miles, and then drove right into a hillside. Bingo.

Ana Thurmond started walking on air.

By the time she reached the hillside it was into the wee hours of the morning, and she was tired, and she wished she’d eaten more donuts when she had the chance. Such the regrets of a heroine. She wondered if the Comet King ever rode into battle wishing he’d eaten more donuts beforehand.

An armored car drove up. The entryway opened to accept it. Ana Thurmond slipped in unseen, and something was terribly wrong.

It was heavy and oppressive, like a heartbeat slightly out of rhythm, but also not like that at all. She couldn’t tell if it was auditory, or tactile, or olfactory. It was just this sense like there was a black hole just out of view, sucking in everything good about the universe. For lack of any better form of navigation, she followed the wrongness.

[Aaron?] she thought as she wandered through the corridors. [I’ve come to save you. Are you there?]

[Ana!] I thought back at her. [Ana, I can take care of myself…maybe…Ana, get out!]

And then she felt my mental trace suddenly vanish from her mind.

A door marked with the UNSONG seal swung open, and a very short woman in a purple dress and pearl necklace stepped out with a very grim look on her face.

Holy euphemism, thought Ana, that’s Director-General Malia Ngo.

Malia looked her Ana straight in the eye and asked: “Who are you and why are you invisible?”

Something was horribly wrong, and Malia Ngo was that something. Ana ran.

“Lock down everything!” the Director-General shouted.

This would have been a good time for Ana to use the Vanishing Name, except that starting it would break whatever was left of her invisibility, and whatever advantage she had came from nobody but Ngo being able to see her. So she just ran.

Several officers – soldiers – let’s stick with goons – congregated around the Director, only to uncongregate and fan out, confused. Ngo grabbed a gun from one of them, and shot at Ana. The woman missed by a mile, and the unexpected recoil knocked her to her feet. No soldier, she.

A guard sat by the entryway, clearly doing his best to watch out for invisible people sneaking towards him. Ana punched him in the face, then hit the lever his presence was lampshading. The exit door swung open and she ran forth into the night.

Malia followed, directing a platoon of guards, pointing out the general direction they should run. They shot at her and missed wildly. Ngo, a quick learner after her firearm mishap, used the Fulminant Name. It missed too, but only barely, singing some of her hair.

Ana jumped off the road, ran into a pile of brush. Her slight advantage was that the Director-General couldn’t really run through scrub in that dress, and was about twenty years older than she. The Fulminant Name was short range, and she was increasing the distance between herself and Ms. Ngo with every step. She ran through bushes, through a creek – anything she thought would deter the lady whose terrible pounding was still on the fringes of her consciousness.

“Who are you?” Ngo shouted at her, from afar.

Obviously Ana didn’t say anything back.

“I won’t hurt you! I know you won’t believe me, but we’re on the same side. This is important, I swear! Please, I just want to talk!”

Right. She believed that one.

Just before she got out of range, Ngo went silent, started saying the Fulminant Name again. Ana braced herself – it was anybody’s guess whether the Director-General could hit from this distance, and though the Name was rarely fatal, it would certainly knock her out long enough to be captured. She ran as fast as she could, trying to get a couple extra meters before –

Then a gust of wind flew all around her, knocked Malia off her feet. The Tempestuous Name. But how?

She kept running, ran until the Director-General and her horrible base had receded into the brightening horizon.

II.

The back of a pickup truck took her as far as Sacramento, and a train took her to Oakland. In Oakland she broke her invisibility, got a hotel room and lay in bed without talking or moving or really thinking for a few hours.

Then she woke up, took a shower, and bought herself a nice breakfast with the last of the hotel till money. She was a little surprised to see that Sarah was no longer in her bag when she woke, but only a little. Let the conspirators play their games. She was done.

If she hadn’t already been a fugitive, she was one now. Director-General Malia Ngo herself had seen her; if she didn’t already know who she was she would soon figure it out. And someone else, someone who could seize Sarah from underneath UNSONG’s nose, was manipulating her in a way she didn’t much like. Ithaca wasn’t safe, her parents’ house wasn’t safe, nowhere in the Untied States or the global community was safe for her. But there were other options.

She started walking west. She walked past the hills, walked past old houses, walked past the lake and the Emeryville Mall, walked past the harbor. She reached the Bay Bridge, went invisible, walked right past the warning signs, past the barricades and the guard towers.

In front of her, a few towers peeked out of the billowing fog. The eye in the Transamerica Pyramid fixed its gaze on her for an instant, its emotions – if it had them – as inscrutable as ever.

She was finished with the lands of men.

She was going to San Francisco.


[Author’s note 2 has been posted. I will be having a series of meetups in the Bay Area for readers of my other blog Slate Star Codex; Unsong readers are welcome to attend and we may have a dramatic reading of upcoming Interlude Zayin if there is enough interest. Current planned dates and times are:

— 2 PM on Sunday April 17 at the CFAR office, 2030 Addison, 7th floor, Berkeley
— 7 PM on Monday April 18 at the Friedmans’ house, 3806 Williams Rd, San Jose
— Afternoon of Tuesday April 19 at the Googleplex, time and exact location tbd
— Evening of Tuesday April 19 at Stanford, time and exact location tbd

Further information will be posted on my other blog and with next week’s chapter]

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