aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 16: If Perchance With Iron Power He Might Avert His Own Despair

There’s a story about an old man walking down a beach. He sees a child picking up starfish and throwing them into the water. The man asks the child what he’s doing, and the child says that these starfish are stuck on land at low tide. They can’t survive out of water, so he’s throwing them back in the ocean to save them. The old man says, “But surely you know that there are millions of starfish just on this one beach. And there are thousands of beaches all around the world. And this same thing happens at high tide day after day, forever. You’ll never be able to make a difference.” And the child just picks up another starfish, throws it into the ocean, and said “Made a difference to that one!”

I remember when I told the Comet King this story. He got very quiet, and finally I asked what he was thinking. Still half-lost in thought, he answered: “Even a small change to the moon’s orbit could prevent the tidal cycle. Moving the moon would take immense energy, but the Wrathful Name has the power of a hydrogen bomb and can be written on a piece of paper weighing only a fraction of a gram. The Saturn V has a payload of about ten thousand kilograms, so perhaps twenty million instances of the Wrathful Name…hmmmmmm…no, it still wouldn’t be enough. We’d need a better rocket. Perhaps if you could combine a methane/LOX full-flow system with a prayer invoking the Kinetic Name…” He picked up a napkin and started sketching, and was diverted from his trance only when I reminded him that starfish had evolved for life in the intertidal zone and were probably fine. He flashed me one of his fierce smiles and I couldn’t tell whether or not he had been joking all along.

An enterprising member of the household staff pocketed the napkin and sold it to Celestial Virgin for an undisclosed sum; the Comet King’s partially-completed sketch became the basis of all modern rocketry.

–Sohu West, The Comet King: A Hagiography

October 11, 1990
Gulf of Mexico

Runes of glowing fire troubled Sohu’s dreams, and she woke up the next morning to find them inscribed upon her skin in big dark welts. She ran out of her cottage, almost fell off the edge of the cloud.

“Uriel! Uriel! What’s happening?”

“THE ICE IS CALVING IN ANTARCTICA. I HAVE BEEN BUSY ALL MORNING TRYING TO PREVENT THE ICEBERGS FROM DISRUPTING SHIPPING LANES. IT IS VERY ANNOYING. I CANNOT EVEN REMEMBER WHY I PUT A CONTINENT AT THE SOUTH POLE. NOBODY EVER USES IT.”

“No, to me! Look!”

The angel scanned her with his flaming golden eyes.

“OH. YES. YESTERDAY. WHEN I LET THAMIEL TORTURE YOU. IT WAS FOR…IT WAS BECAUSE…I AM SORRY. YOU DID NOT BLAME ME OR YELL AT ME. YOU TRUSTED ME. PEOPLE DO NOT USUALLY DO THAT. IT WAS VERY STRANGE. YOU TRUSTED ME EVEN THOUGH YOU WERE HURT VERY BADLY. I…THANK YOU.”

“Uriel! The things all over my skin!”

“I WANTED TO DO SOMETHING NICE FOR YOU. THE OTHER DAY YOU SAID ‘PLEASE DON’T LET ME DIE’. SO I THOUGHT I WOULD DO THAT FOR YOU. NOW YOU ARE IMMORTAL. IT WAS VERY HARD.”

Sohu stared again at the characters on her skin, then freaked out. The angel watched her flail with something between curiosity and discomfort.

“UM. THE WELTS WILL FADE IN A FEW DAYS.”

“That wasn’t what I meant! When I said not to let me die! I meant I didn’t want to die right then! Not I didn’t want to die ever!”

“OH. WELL. UM. IF YOU EVER FEEL LIKE DYING, LET ME KNOW AND I WILL KILL YOU. THAT IS ACTUALLY MUCH EASIER THAN GRANTING IMMORTALITY.”

“Aaaaaah Uriel you don’t understand! Is this going to do something horrible like I’m going to grow older and older until I become shriveled and tiny and turn into a grasshopper?”

“NO. PLEASE DO NOT WORRY. I MADE SURE YOU WILL NOT GROW OLDER.”

Sohu stopped flailing. Now she was very, very still. “Wait. Not grow older at all.”

“YES. IT IS A VERY GOOD IMMORTALITY RITUAL.”

“You mean I am going to be eight years old forever?”

“UM.”

“Uriel, take it back!

“WHAT DO YOU MEAN, TAKE IT BACK? YOU WANT TO GROW OLD AND DIE?”

“Yes!” She stopped, a look of horror coming over her face. “Wait! I mean, no! Not now!” Then, “But yes! Eventually!”

“I DON’T SEE WHY YOU SHOULD WANT TO AGE. YOU WOULD BECOME OLD AND SENILE AND PROBABLY TERRIBLE AT REMEMBERING KABBALAH.”

“Uriel I know you don’t always understand humans very well but trust me this is really important take it back take it back now.”

“UM, ACTUALLY, THOUGH THE FLOW OF UNCONDITIONED LIGHT EMANATING FROM THE UPPER SPHERES IS IN THEORY PERFECTLY MATCHED BY THE FLOW OF CONDITIONED LIGHT REFLECTING FROM THE LOWER, THE CHANNELS ARE NOT SYMMETRICAL, AND BY A SPIRITUAL LAW ISOMORPHIC TO THE SECOND LAW OF THERMODYNAMICS IT IS NOT ALWAYS POSSIBLE TO RETRACE A PARTICULAR COMBINATION OF SPIRITTUAL PATHS WITHOUT SOLVING AN NP-COMPLETE PROBLEM WITH A SIZE APPROXIMATELLY EQUAL TO THE NUMBER OF ATOMS IN THE UNIVERSE TIMES THE NUMBER OF DIVINE NITZUTZOT.”

“Are you saying you can’t take it back?”

“MAYBE. SORT OF. YES.”

“Oh god oh god oh god I’m going to be eight years old forever,” said Sohu, and she started crying.

“I AM SORRY.

“You’re sure there’s no way to change this and make me not eight years old forever, or to add back aging, or…”

“POSSIBLY I COULD MANUALLY INCREMENT YOUR AGE ON EACH BIRTHDAY. IT WOULD BE VERY INELEGANT, BUT…”

Possibly?

“UM. I DON’T THINK I AM A VERY GOOD FRIEND.”

“It’s…okay. You…didn’t know…you…tried to help, I guess.”

“YOU SEEMED SO SCARED.”

“I was!”

“I WANTED TO HELP. I FELT BAD THAT I DID NOT SAVE YOU.”

“Why? Why did you let Thamiel do that to me? You said you could have killed him. Why didn’t you just kill him and save me and then you wouldn’t have had to do some weird ritual to me and now I have to be eight years old forever?

“EIGHT YEARS OLD IS NOT A BAD AGE. I HAVE TO LISTEN TO EVERYONE’S PRAYERS, AND THEY BECOME REALLY WEIRD ONCE PEOPLE HIT PUBERTY.”

“Why, Uriel? Why?

“UM. I AM TRYING TO KEEP THE WORLD FROM ENDING.”

For some reason Sohu chose that moment to calm down. As if discussion of the end of the world were more normal, an island of normality she could hold on to. “And why is the world going to end if you kill Thamiel?”

“A LONG TIME AGO THERE WAS A WAR IN HEAVEN. ALL OF THE ARCHANGELS FOUGHT THAMIEL, AND THAMIEL WON. I DID NOT LIKE THIS RESULT, SO I ADDED A NEW STRUCTURE AT THE ONTOLOGICAL BASE OF THE UNIVERSE, A LAYER THAT REINTERPRETS ADAM KADMON. I CONVERTED THE WORLD FROM A SUBSTRATE OF DIVINE LIGHT TO A SUBSTRATE OF MATHEMATICS. THIS PREVENTED ANGELS AND DEMONS FROM EXISTING IN ANY MORE THAN A METAPHORICAL WAY. WHEN THE DIVINE LIGHT ENTERED THE UNIVERSE I CHANNELED IT INTO A RESERVOIR SO THAT IT DID NOT INTERFERE WITH THE CLOCKWORK.”

“And then we crashed Apollo 8 into the edge of the world.”

“YOU WENT BEYOND THE EDGE OF THE WORLD AND RECITED THE BIBLE. YOU INJECTED THE CODE FOR THE ORIGINAL SYSTEM VIA A BUFFER OVERFLOW ATTACK. MY SYSTEM WAS CATASTROPHICALLY DESTABILIZED. EVEN DRAWING ON THE RESERVES OF DIVINE LIGHT I HAD COLLECTED OVER MILLENNIA, I WAS ONLY ABLE TO PARTIALLY STABILIZE IT. SCIENCE AND MATHEMATICS STILL WORK, AND THE SUPERNATURAL IS LIMITED TO A FRACTION OF ITS TRUE POWER. BUT IT REQUIRES A CONSTANT INFUSION OF DIVINE LIGHT TO MAINTAIN EVEN THIS LIMITED FUNCTIONALITY.”

“Can your reservoir of divine light run out?”

“YES. AT THE CURRENT RATE IT WILL RUN OUT IN ABOUT FIFTY YEARS. EACH GREAT MIRACLE I PERFORM BEYOND THE RANGE OF MY ORDINARY POWER DEPLETES IT FURTHER. THAMIEL HOPED I WOULD CALL UPON THE DIVINE LIGHT TO KILL HIM. THEN HE WOULD RECOALESCE A FEW WEEKS OR MONTHS LATER UNHARMED. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO KILL HIM PERMANENTLY. HE IS A FACET OF GOD. AND EVERY TIME I KILL HIM TEMPORARILY, IT REQUIRES SO MUCH DIVINE LIGHT THAT IT TAKES YEARS OFF THE LIFESPAN OF THE UNIVERSE. THIS IS HIS PLAN. TO TAUNT ME AND TRICK ME INTO EXPENDING MY RESOURCES AND HASTEN THE COLLAPSE OF THE CELESTIAL MACHINERY.”

“What happens when it collapses?”

“HUMAN TECHNOLOGY CEASES TO WORK. THAMIEL BECOMES INVINCIBLE. THE WORLD ENDS.”

“Oh. So how do we prevent that?”

“I AM NOT SURE THAT WE DO.”

“Can’t you repair the machine? Or get it to run without divine light? Or find another way to replenish divine light? Or something?”

“NO. I HAVE SPENT AEONS OF SUBJECTIVE TIME CONSIDERING THESE POSSIBILITIES. THEY ARE IMPOSSIBLE. THE SKY IS CRACKED. THE STRUCTURE OF THE HIGHER WORLDS IS MADE ILLEGIBLE. THE MACHINE CANNOT BE FULLY REPAIRED. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE. EVEN IF I TRIED, NOW THAT THAMIEL UNDERSTANDS ITS PURPOSE HE WOULD CERTAINLY STOP ME.”

“So kill him with the divine light, then do it before he recoalesces.”

“HE IS THE LEFT HAND OF GOD. THERE ARE MANY THINGS HE CAN DO WITHOUT A CORPOREAL BODY.”

“Why? Why does God have a screwy left hand that wants to destroy everything?”

“YOU SHOULD READ ISAAC LURIA.”

“I’ve read Isaac Luria. So what? Why did God allow the vessels to shatter in the first place?”

“THAT IS VERY COMPLICATED.”

“So what? So you’re just going to hang around for fifty years until you run out of charge, your machine goes dead, and Thamiel takes over the universe?”

“MAYBE THE COMET KING WILL COME UP WITH SOMETHING BEFORE THEN.”

“That’s your plan?”

“IT IS A GOOD PLAN.”

Sohu nodded. “Okay. Fair. Waiting for him to come in and solve every problem has always worked in the past. But…still! What about you? Shouldn’t you…can’t you at least try to help?”

“I RUN CONTINENTAL DRIFT, AND GUIDE THE BUTTERFLY MIGRATION, AND KEEP ICEBERGS IN THE RIGHT PLACE, AND PREVENT PEOPLE FROM BOILING GOATS IN THEIR MOTHERS’ MILK. IT IS DIFFICULT AND I AM GOOD AT IT AND IT ALLOWS THE WORLD TO ENDURE THAT MUCH LONGER. I WILL NOT BEAT MYSELF UP OVER FAILING TO DO THE IMPOSSIBLE.”

“Matthew 19:26. With God, all things are possible.”

“UM.”

“What? Out with it.”

“I HAVE BEEN IN THIS UNIVERSE SIX THOUSAND YEARS. I HAVE FOUGHT THE DEVIL. I HAVE REWRITTEN THE LAWS OF REALITY. I HAVE DONE MANY INTERESTING THINGS. UM.”

“What?”

“AND I HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING TO CONVINCE ME THAT GOD PLAYS AN ACTIVE PART IN THE UNIVERSE. HIS ROLE SEEMS TO BE ENTIRELY ONTOLOGICAL.”

“You can’t be a deist! You’re an archangel!”

“I AM NOT A VERY GOOD ARCHANGEL.”

“What about San Francisco?”

“GOD CAN HAVE A RIGHT HAND AS WELL AS A LEFT HAND. I SEE NO EVIDENCE THAT EITHER IS CONTROLLED BY ANY HEAD.”

“What about Metatron?”

“A VOICE OF GOD WHO NEVER TALKS. A PERFECT SYMBOL.”

“You won against Thamiel! That was a miracle! Don’t you think that God was involved in that?”

“UM. THE SEPHIROT WERE INVOLVED. THOSE ARE SORT OF A PART OF GOD. BUT THEY WERE NOT IN A VERY ACTIVE ROLE. THEY MOSTLY JUST SAT THERE AS I REWROTE THEM.”

“You know what I mean!”

“GOD CREATED ADAM KADMON, THE FUNDAMENTAL STRUCTURE THAT BINDS EVERYTHING TOGETHER. HE BREATHED FIRE INTO THE STRUCTURE AND MADE IT EXIST AND MADE ALL THINGS HAPPEN ACCORDING TO ITS PLAN. BUT THAT PLAN DOES NOT FOLLOW OUR RULES OR OUR HOPES. WHEN A HUMAN MACHINE BREAKS – WHEN A PLANE’S ENGINES STOP WORKING, AND IT FALLS FROM THE AIR – GOD DOES NOT REACH DOWN AND SAVE IT. THE STRUCTURE CONTINUES TO ITS PREORDAINED CONCLUSION. I SEE NO REASON TO BELIEVE A FAILURE OF MY OWN MACHINE WILL BE ANY DIFFERENT. IT WILL MERELY BE MORE FINAL.”

“Well, I think you’re wrong. Father believes God will save us.”

“HE BELIEVES THAT HE WILL SAVE US, AND PLANS TO CREDIT GOD. THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.”

I believe God will save us! Think about how fantastically unlikely all of this is – the universe, your machinery, everything Father’s doing. You think it’s all a coincidence?”

“YES.”

“Book of Lamentations, 3:24. ‘The Lord is my portion, therefore I will place my hope in Him.'”

“I DO NOT THINK THAT WORKED VERY WELL, BASED ON WHAT THEY TITLED THEIR BOOK.”

Sohu snorted. “All right then. You’re going to teach me kabbalah. But I’m going to teach you to have faith. How do to knock-knock jokes properly and how to have faith. That’s what I’m going to teach you.”

“I AM SORRY. I AM NOT VERY GOOD AT FAITH FOR AN ARCHANGEL.”

Sohu said nothing. Uriel turned away and went back to running the universe.

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