Morning, May 12, 2017
For a moment I was totally disoriented by the scene before me. Then vast, dark shapes began to take form.
Shelves. Shelves full of books, all the way up, from the immacuately polished marble floor to a ceiling that was too high to see clearly. So many shelves that they blocked my view, made it impossible to see how big the room was or get any other sense of where I was.
It was dark, but not absolutely so. The whole room was filled with a rosy light, and I wondered if somewhere there were colossal windows to match the colossal shelves, letting in the first glow of dawn. I passed beyond the shelves only to find more shelves. I passed beyond those only to find more shelves still. No chairs, no tables, and no sign of a card catalog. I tried to make out the title of one of the books. It was too dark to read.
“Don’t use the Vanishing Name,” I had told the other Singers, “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.” There I had been, in UNSONG, the Director-General breathing down my neck. Through what I can only assume will be forever remembered as a stroke of dazzling genius, I’d used the Vanishing Name and escaped to what my contact in San Antonio had suggested would be a “complementary situation”. Presumably that should be pretty bad. And here I was. A library the size of a cathedral.
I looked around for demons or monsters or something and didn’t see any. I considered going to sleep, but I’d actually slept pretty well in my jail cell just a few hours ago. Also, I was really, really wired. Judging by my heartbeat, my body still hadn’t accepted that I was safe, and wouldn’t for some time.
Too many questions beat at my mind to start thinking about any particular one. Where was Ana? I had felt a moment of telepathic contact with her, but she hadn’t sounded like a prisoner. She had sounded like she was coming to rescue me, which was absurd, how would she even find an UNSONG base let alone infiltrate one? For that matter, where were Erica and my other housemates? What the hell was wrong with Malia Ngo? Did she have Sarah? What would happen to the world if she did?
And, of course, where was I? Somewhere bad, no doubt, or the Name wouldn’t have brought me here.
So I did what I always do when I’m too stressed to think. I took out a book and started reading.
UNSONG had taken away my scroll wheel, so instead of drawing a Luminous Name scroll, I just spoke the Luminous Name. The tiniest of risks. UNSONG wouldn’t listen for the Luminous Name any more than the police would post agents on street corners to entrap litterbugs. It was just about the safest proprietary Name in the world.
The library blazed with light. I took out a book. That was odd. The title was in –
John Dee had been a brilliant mathematician and astronomer in Queen Elizabeth I’s court before turning to magic. He decided that all of his science only scratched the surface of the natural world, that there must be true essences of which he knew nothing. He sought a guide.
One came to him. Edward Kelley claimed to be a medium through whom the spirits revealed their secrets. Sure, he was an infamous con man who had just gotten out of jail for a forgery conviction. But Dee very tolerantly decided that if the spirits decided to speak to him through a con man, who was he to question their decisions?
Kelley gazed into his crystal ball and declared that the angels were speaking to him. What were they saying? Alas, neither Kelley nor Dee understood a word of their language, a language apparently unknown to humans since the time of the patriarch Enoch. There followed a long period of translation work, which ended with a sort of English-Enochian dictionary, a key to the heavenly speech.
Sure, there were doubters. Some people mentioned it was mighty suspicious that the syntax and grammar of Enochian were exactly the same as those of Elizabethan English. Others pointed out how convenient it was that the angelic word for “evil” was “Madrid”, which was also the capital of Elizabethan England’s arch-enemy Spain. Or how the angelic word for “kingdom” was “Londoh”, which was also…you get the idea. It seemed like Edward Kelley might have been injecting his personal opinions into these transmissions just a little. Or, as we moderns sometimes say, that the medium was the message.
So it came as quite a shock when the sky cracked and we met angels and they all spoke flawless Enochian. It wasn’t the only language they spoke – they could understand anything except Aramaic – but it was the one that came most naturally to them.
“Edinburr Augsburg Trondheim Londoh Albyon Tudors,” they told us, which in their language meant “Peace of the Lord be with the kingdoms of men.” Then “King Philip Papist tyrand Mary Queen of Scoths Madrid,” which meant “Time is running short, and we must join our powers to oppose the forces of evil.” It was kind of strange, but predictable in retrospect. Nothing is a coincidence, and the same parts of the same underlying structure repeat themselves in every domain. Albeit usually a lot more subtly.
My Enochian was terrible. It was mostly at the Hooked On Phonics Worked For Me level, just barely recalling each letter and trying to sound out the words. Except I didn’t actually sound them out, because half of the things written in Enochian summoned vast ancient forces from beyond the veil when read aloud. I just sounded them out in my head.
I was still puzzling out the first sentence of the library book – something about how conquering Central and South America and building a giant armada was for losers – when I heard a noise. Somebody else was in the library with me. If this was a complementary situation to UNSONG’s secret prison, it probably wouldn’t be anyone I liked.
I spoke the first nineteen syllables of the Tempestuous Name, kept the last one on the tip of my tongue for as soon as I detected a threat. I brandished the Enochian book in front of me as if it were a shield or a weapon. I backed up against the bookshelf to give myself as small a profile as possible, make it hard for anybody to find me. And I stayed very quiet. If somebody was looking for me, they were going to have a very hard time, and my position covered by the shelves gave me an advantage that would be –
Somehow a gun was at my temple. I blinked.
“Don’t move,” she said. She was angry.
She was young, maybe my age, maybe a little older. Asian features. Dressed in black. Very functional clothing, sort of a cross between a biker’s leather and a SEAL’s combat gear. But then how did she move so fast?
My hooligans. Right on schedule. I didn’t move. I wasn’t sure if my Tempestuous Name beat her gun, but it seemed like a bad idea to test it.
“Put down the book!”
I carefully returned the book to the shelf; I probably was supposed to drop it, but I’m superstitious about letting books touch the floor, and if ever there was a time I needed luck…
“Who are you? How did you get here?”
“My name is Aaron,” I said. “I got in trouble and I spoke the Vanishing Name and I ended up here about ten minutes ago.”
Maximally true, minimally revealing. Her attention shifted to the globe of light illuminating the area. “What’s that? How did it get here?”
“Luminous Name,” I said. “It was dark and I couldn’t see.”
“Spoken or scrolled?”
The girl made a guttural noise of frustration. “You spoke the…you used…do you even know where you are?”
“This is the Mount Baldy Strategic Angel Reserve.”
That made perfect sense and I was an idiot.
During the Long March, when everything started breaking down, the clouds organized into gigantic floating bastions. In the Gulf, they became the mighty hurricane of the archangel Uriel. Throughout the rest of the world, they became manifold city-fortresses populated by choirs of lesser angels.
It turned out that the universal consensus of ancient peoples – that Heaven was a place in the sky, somewhere above the clouds, inhabited by angels – was pretty much spot-on. When Uriel had blocked the flow of holy light into the world, he had erased the angels and their heavens, and the clouds had been retconned into big floating bags of water droplets. After the sky cracked, some of them reverted to their proper angelic form.
But the angels had been metaphorical for thousands of years, and they had trouble finding their bearings. They certainly weren’t prepared for helicopters landing on their celestial fortresses, demanding an opening of trade relations. Luckily this proved irrelevant when it was determined that the angels had no property. The clouds formed whatever they needed around them, and they spent most of their time praying and praising God.
An exchange of knowledge?
The angels had loads of knowledge. Most of it was theology. A lot of it wasn’t very good. The hope that they might have special access to God turned out to be kind of a dud. They remembered they had been created, way back before Time was a thing. They knew about God, they wouldn’t shut up about Him, but it was all incomprehensible, made the sort of mysticism humans came up with seem perfectly clear by comparison.
An exchange of technology?
The angels had no technology. They didn’t even seem to know many Divine Names, and the few they did know they wouldn’t say. Threats, blackmail, even torture seemed not to faze angels in the slightest, and don’t ask me to tell you the story of how we learned that information because this was back during the Nixon administration, when the country Did What It Had To Do because By Golly The Russians Would and We Couldn’t Fall Behind.
A military alliance?
Now we’re talking. The angels appeared to be able to smite things with flaming swords that they conjured out of nowhere. But they had no concept of strategy or geopolitics. When we asked if they would help us against the Russians, they just wanted to know if the Russians were evil. When we said yes, they asked why we weren’t at war with them already. When we tried to explain that you don’t just go to war, you build alliances and gradually box in your enemy and try to use their reluctance to fight to gain concessions from them without anything ever breaking out into open conflict which would be disastrous to both sides, the angels didn’t get it.
Evildoer? Smite. Not an evildoer? Live in peace.
Attempts to get the angels to participate in any of the processes of modern civilization were similar failures. The angels didn’t get economics; God would provide. The angels didn’t get the UN; why would you talk to evildoers instead of smiting them? The angels didn’t get the requests that their bastions to be opened up to tourists and archaeologists. God was the only thing worth knowing about, and God was everywhere alike.
One thing the angels got was faith.
Spencer Kimball, president of the Mormon Church, arrived at the celestial bastion that hovered over Zion National Park with a fleet of helicopters. He told the rapt angels the story of how a hundred fifty years ago, Joseph Smith had been given golden tablets by the angel Moroni that revealed God’s plan for humankind. That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, had visited the Americas and preached the Gospel to its native inhabitants, and that these inhabitants had accrued wisdom about the nature of holiness and properly ordered society that was transmitted through Smith to the present day, with Kimball as its latest representative.
And the angels answered:
“Hmmmm, we don’t know anyone named Moroni.”
“Wait, God has a son?!”
So apparently the angels were unfamiliar with human religions. God hadn’t given them any special revelations, and they hadn’t realized that was even a possibility. If there was some other tribe of angels somewhere else higher in the divine favor, a tribe including this guy Moroni, and they were getting direct revelations, that was important. And if God had a Son, that was even more important and they were slightly miffed about not having been informed. Was Mr. Kimball sure this was true?
Mr. Kimball assured them that it was definitely all 100% correct. The entire bastion of angels converted to Mormonism on the spot, asking Mr. Kimball to please send up all of the information he had about what God had revealed to humans and what He wanted of angels.
The news sparked a free-for-all among Earth’s religions. Jews, Hindus, Catholics, Protestants, Buddhists, Muslims – the pattern was always the same. They would land helicopters on a bastion, inform the angels that God had granted them revelations. The angels would get extremely excited and convert en masse and agree to do whatever their new religious leaders wanted.
It started to become clear that angels were really gullible.
Then there was a problem. A group of Muslim missionaries landed on a bastion that had already been converted by the Orthodox Christians.
The imam politely told the angels that they had been misled, that God had no Son, that he knew this because God had sent down the angel Gabriel to the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, to inform him of this and many other facts.
The angels were thrilled to learn of the survival of Gabriel, whom they were under the impression had perished in some battle long ago. But, they asked, how had their previous benefactors, the Christians, managed to screw up so badly?
The Muslims said eh, debatable, but this bit with Mohammed, peace be unto him, was definitely the real deal.
The angels thanked the Muslims for the correction and started following sharia law and studying the Koran.
A few weeks later, some extremely miffed Orthodox monks in a Greek army helicopter landed and explained that the Muslims were wrong, Christ was definitely the Son of God, Mohammed didn’t know what he was talking about.
The angels were very confused and angry and asked the Christians and Muslims to sort this out among themselves and get back to them.
Instead, a gaggle of Orthodox monks and Muslim imams showed up on their doorsteps and started arguing with the angels and each other. Both sides accused the other of lying, and finally the angels asked one of the questions that had been on their mind the whole time.
What, exactly, was lying?
It was determined that the angels’ problems actually went much, much deeper than gullibility.
Angelologists learned some important things in that decade. Angels had no concept of lying, cheating, defecting, strategizing, or even rhetoric. As a result, it was trivially easy for people to make angels do anything they wanted – with the exception of evil, to which they had a violent constitutional aversion.
So the Pope got a bunch of angels to sign a declaration saying Catholicism was the one true religion, simply by assuring them that it was and saying that signing would help in some way. The Dalai Lama, Orthodox Patriarch, and Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem got their own angels to sign similar declarations. The Soviet Union had an entire choir of angels march through Red Square declaring that Communism was the only way forward. Several flaming swords and giant golden halos were given to businessmen who asked for them politely.
A couple of angels, the ones who interacted with humans the most, the ones who had been bamboozled most often, started to catch on.
And when they did, the blazing golden light in their eyes would fade, their spectacular golden wings would start to wilt and grow dull, their flaming swords would sputter into embers. Their halos would tarnish and rust, their robes of purest white would grow gray and dirty. They would start to sink into their bastions, as if the clouds were only made of water droplets after all. Finally, they would sink right through the bottom of the cloud and hit the earth with a colossal thud.
They would be fallen angels.
The fallen angels weren’t evil, exactly. Just confused and disenchanted and a little depressed. They wanted their innocence back, they wanted to forget what lying and cheating were and go back to being certain of everything. They kept praising God, but now their prayers ended in question marks and not exclamation points, like they were talking about Someone very far away.
By 1984, ten years after the first Mormon mission to the angels, about ninety percent of the celestial population had fallen. Bastions hung empty in the sky, or dissolved into ordinary clouds that rained for a while and then dissipated. After countless centuries of Heaven being a metaphorical place definitely not related to actual clouds, and a decade of Heaven being something you could see with a good pair of binoculars, it looked like Heaven was on the verge of going back to being a metaphor once again.
The one thing angels were definitely good at was demon-slaying. During the Reagan administration the President declared the remaining angels a Vital National Resource and charged the military with the goal of protecting them. The fourteen remaining bastions above America became Strategic Angel Reserves, with military garrisons watching them day and night and preventing any snake-oil salesmen or missionaries or other nefarious characters from breaking the remaining celestials’ natural innocence. It didn’t hurt that planes and helicopters had mostly stopped working by this point, and the only remaining way to the bastions were specially installed pulley systems under careful government control.
The penalty for being on a Strategic Angel Reserve without permission was death. The military would enforce it. The angels themselves, who had been made aware of the danger of their situation, would enforce it. But it wasn’t just death. It was the knowledge that you had defiled one of the last outposts of purity left in the world, were responsible for pushing something irreplaceable just a little bit further towards the abyss.
“When,” asked the woman, “did you speak the Luminous Name?”
“About ten minutes ago,” I admitted.
“Well,” she said, in a voice tight with the effort of not killing me on the spot. “That gives us perhaps a half-hour before the Marines arrive. That should be enough time to search all of these and get out safely, don’t you think?” She gestured to the thousands of bookshelves arranged higher than the eye could see, and gave me a death glare.
“Search?” I asked.
“The angels have information vital to the future of humanity. I’ve spent months figuring out how get up here unnoticed. And now…”
“Um,” I said. “Tell me what you’re looking for, and maybe I can help?”
She looked like she was going to snap something, but she held herself back, and after a second she said “Taos House Records, volume 112. Should be thin and blue. Shelf 2270, level 36.”
And then she ran off, again with almost inhuman speed, searching through the bookshelves.
For lack of anything better to do, I did the same.
It should have been simple to find the book given its precise address, except that I didn’t know the Enochian numbering system and wasn’t sure anyone else did either. There were all sorts of letters etched in gold onto the shelving, and some or all of them might represent numbers, in much the way the Romans let V and X mean 5 and 10. First I checked to see if one of those weird coincidences had led to the angels using the same numbering system as Elizabethan England, but I couldn’t find anything that looked like like modern Arabic numerals. So I started running from shelf to shelf, searching for regularities.
The infamous Roman numerals use letters in place of numbers. Thus V is 5, X is 10, and C 100. There was something of the Roman system about the shelf numbers; occasionally long strings of letters would collapse into a single letter, the same way CMXCIX would be followed by M. But other features confused me; I noticed no string contained the same letter twice. And a larger letter – one further towards the end of the Enochian alphabet – was never followed by a smaller one.
The Hebrew numbering system is called gematria, and is very elegant. Aleph, the first letter, is one. Bet, the second letter, is two. So on in this fashion until yud, the tenth letter, which is ten, is followed by kaf, the eleventh letter, which is twenty. The next few letters are thirty, forty, and so on, until one hundred, which is followed by two hundred. The alphabet ends at tav, which is four hundred. You can do all sorts of things with gematria. Suppose you want to point out that Emperor Nero is the worst person, but Emperor Nero happens to control your country at the time and kills all who offend him. Just write that “let he who hath understanding know that the number of the Beast is the number of a man, and that number is 666” and trust all the other Jews to notice that the only name in the newspapers whose letters sum to 666 is Nero Caesar.
Hebrew numerals never had the same character twice. And the letters furthest in the alphabet will always be on the right side. But this wasn’t gematria, or even some Enochian version thereof. For one thing, there were too many letters. Hebrew numerals didn’t take any more digits than our Arabic ones; this Enochian system had entries as long as twenty digits, although it seemed to gain or lose a digit every couple of entries, almost at random.
So I racked my memory and remembered the order of the Enochian alphabet, converting each letter to its English equivalent to help keep it in mind. The big number written in silver at the very bottom must be the shelf number. The shelf I was at was ABHI. The next one was CHI. The one after that was ACHI. The next one was BCHI. The one after that was ABCHI. The next one was DHI.
And the funny part was, I was really happy. Aside from the time I’ve spent with Ana, looking at complicated things and trying tease structure out of them is the only thing I’ve really truly enjoyed. There was something holy about the task, glimpses of the great structure Adam Kadmon from which all lesser structure comes. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at and the only thing I’ve ever felt really comfortable doing.
The shelves were numbered in John Napier’s location arithmetic. The revelation came to me gently, like the sunrise. It was base two, sort of: 2^0 was A, 2^1 was B, 2^2 was C, 2^3 was D, and so on. 100 was 2^6 + 2^5 + 2^2, or CFG; 200 was 2^7 + 2^6 + 2^3, or DGH. That was the neat thing about location arithmetic; to multiply by two you just incremented all the letters by one. To add, you just combined the numbers together. Then you simplified by combining two identical letters into the next letter up. I’d read about it in a kabbalistic text on the Friedman conjecture. It was truly a numbering system worthy of angels.
2270 was BCDEGHL by the English alphabet, and un-or-gal-ged-pa-drux-na by the Enochian. I made it to shelf un-or-gal-ged-pa-drux-na – just in time to almost bump into the woman.
“Interesting,” she said, and there was a spark of what might have been approval in her eye. Then she took a scroll wheel out of her pocket and tore off what must have been the Ascending Name. She rocketed up to the thirty-sixth tier of books before grabbing a thin blue volume and shooting back down.
“How do we get back down to the ground?” I asked.
The spark of approval was gone, if it had ever been there at all. “I get down the same way I got up,” she said. “You…figure something out!”
And then she ran away.
I wasn’t very optimistic about the figuring something out part. I mean, if I came to the edge of the clouds I could speak the Ascending Name and use it to control my fall. But that would help me in a purely vertical direction. If the Marines had anyone from UNSONG with them – and given the woman’s certainty that they would track me by the Luminous Name, I had to assume that they did – they could track that one too and know exactly where I landed. Where even was the Mount Baldy Strategic Angel Reserve? Weren’t most of the Angel Reserves above uninhabited areas? Even if I could get down to the uninhabited area safely, I didn’t like my chances.
So I ran after her. If nothing else, she could lend me a scroll.
I wasn’t nearly as fast as she was, but I tried. I ran through corridors carved of cloud, lit by a strange inner glow. I ran through halls so vast and ornate they looked like cathedrals, complete with stained glass windows barely visible in the first rays of sunrise. I ran through what seemed like huge war-rooms, full of colossal siege engines and ballistae beyond all description. I ended up on a great balcony, facing the rising sun, with the puffy white base of the cloud stretching out below me like a snowy field.
I was too late. What looked like twenty or thirty Marines had gathered on the cloudtop. In the distance, I could see the cable car that had brought them from their base below, the bastion’s only legitimate link to the earth beneath. They were talking with a delegation of angels, not the broken sort of angels I had seen back home, but real beautiful tall angels, golden-eyed, golden-winged, majestic. There was a staircase before me, leading down to the lower levels of the bastion, but it would make me clearly visible as a dark form against the white cloud, and I would have a lot of explaining to do.
I retraced my steps, went back into the bastion, came out a different way. Another balcony. The tall Asian woman was peering down from it, but as soon as I came in she wheeled around, pointed her pistol at me, then visibly relaxed. “You again,” she said. She took another look out. “It looks like the Marines are gone, but don’t be fooled. They’ll have someone staying behind, watching from somewhere hidden. If we stay here, they’ll smoke us out. If we try to go, they’ll find us immediately.” She said it with a certain calm, as if this was by no means the worst problem she had faced that day. “Any ideas, Aaron?”
The sunlight streamed through the open window. The glorious white cloud reflected and refracted it, dazzlingly bright, the kind of heaven you see on the cover of Christian music CD cases.
I began to sing. The Name had popped into my head. It wasn’t even one I knew. It had come out of some deep stock of knowledge, deep as the roots of the mountains.
I turned invisible.
I emitted a squeal of shock, which instantly turned me visible again. She was also shocked, but in a more dignified way.
“How did you do that?”
“Name!” I said.
“Where did you learn it?”
“I don’t know!” I said.
Then things snapped into place. Ana trying to rescue me from the UNSONG compound. Malia Ngo not mentioning anything about Sarah. It all made sense. Ana had escaped the house with my computer and was still finding new Names. And I was receiving them through our kabbalistic marriage. We were still in business!
“One more time,” she said, “so I can remember it.”
A more Machiavellian person might have mentioned that she had just run off and left me to get arrested or killed, or that I had no idea who she was, or that she kept threatening me with that pistol. But I was a Singer, and it was my duty to spread the Names of God to all who needed them. Also I was really excited and not making very good decisions at the moment. I told her the Spectral Name.
The two of us went invisible. She grabbed my hand – she could have gotten away, but maybe she felt like she owed me – and we walked down the staircase together until we reached the lower tier of the bastion and followed an elevated corridor of arches and pillars onto the outer wall of the cloud. I didn’t want to look down, so instead I looked back.
To describe what I saw – I’m a man of words, but here words fail me. Have you ever stood on the plains on a summer day, watching a thunderstorm roll in, seeing the the clouds grow, huge anvils puffing out, becoming more and more complex and foreboding until they have all the majesty and terror of battleships bearing down on you? Can you really believe that all they were destined for was to produce a 60% chance of thundershowers and then to be ignominiously shredded against a warm front? Standing on that rampart, looking up at the angelic bastion behind me, I saw a cloud as it should have been, as it was when the world was young, a floating fortress-city, a testament to the glory of God.
Then we came to a tower on the edge of the wall, and on the top of the tower was a kayak.
“That’s a kayak,” I said, breaking the spell.
“It’s a flying kayak,” she said, appearing beside me.
“A – ”
She gave me a look which I interpreted to mean that if I mentioned the words “flyak” or “skyak” right now, she would kill me on the spot.
“Get in if you’re coming.” Then, almost as an afterthought, “Call me Jane.”
“You already said that.”
I climbed into the kayak beside her, terribly cramped, my body pressed against hers too tightly to be comfortable. I had a bad feeling about this.
Jane threw the single paddle to me, scooted forward suddenly, and the kayak dropped off the edge of the cloud into the gulfs of air below.