aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 22: Whose Ears Have Heard The Holy Word

Object gods have meta gods
Up in their skies to smite them
And meta gods have meta gods,
And so ad infinitum.
Steven Kaas

January 30, 2002
Puerto Penasco, Mexico

With a look of mad determination, the big man marched to the center of the crowded bar. “I’ll say it,” he said. “The Other King is a bad man.”

A dozen conversations went silent. The bartender stopped pouring mid-glass. Several people eyed the door. Only the mariachi music from the stereo in the corner carried on regardless.

“No want trouble,” said the bartender in heavily accented English. A few people slunk out the door before things got worse. Others laughed nervously, decided the safest course was to return to their drinks, started mentally rehearsing the phrase “I didn’t hear nothing”. But the big man wouldn’t be cowed. He stood up from his stool, faced the tables in the back. “The Other King is a bad man.”

James sighed and put his hand on the big man’s shoulder. “You’re drunk,” said James. “And you’re saying things you’re going to regret. Lemme walk you back to the barracks.”

“Not drunk,” said the man. “The Other King’s a bad man and you’re not going to shut me up about it. All those people crucified. Isn’t right. Crucifixion. Horrible way to die.”

“Should leave now, por favor,” said the bartender, but the man was bigger than he was. And probably a soldier to boot; everyone here was soldiers, James was a soldier, his companions over at the table were soldiers, Puerto Penasco was rotten with soldiers. The Other King’s soldiers, who had taken over the city. The loyalist soldiers, who were mostly dying painfully on crosses erected upon the road north.

“Not leaving,” said the man. “You all know what I’m saying’s true. You ought to – ”

“Zip it and come have a drink with us,” said James, and dragged the big man over to his table as the bartender watched helplessly.

This was mind-bogglingly stupid. Saying bad things about the Other King or even hanging out with the sort of people who said them was a good way to end up charged with sedition and crucified. But James didn’t want the big man to die. All he’d done was get drunk enough to say what all of them were thinking. James had been thinking it ever since he’d signed on in Vegas. It had seemed like a good deal. Good wages, good benefits, and not a whole lot of risk; anybody who could kill the Comet King in single combat was probably the winning team. Sure enough, James and his battalion had taken over Phoenix, Yuma, and Puerto Penasco in quick succession without any losses. Except their innocence. The big man was right. The Other King was a bad man.

Lin shot James a questioning glance when he and the big man sat down. Amoxiel was too intent on his bottle to notice. When James said nothing, he extended his hand.

“Lin,” Lin said. “Ritual magician with the 5th platoon. Nice to meet you.”

“James,” James continued. “Sergeant in the 5th platoon. Likewise.”

“Amoxiel,” said Amoxiel, distantly. “Angel. 5th platoon.” He took another swig of holy water.

The big man just called over a waitress and asked for a beer.

“What’s your name?” asked James. “Which unit you in?”

“Me?” he said. “I’m nobody. I’m with nobody.”

An obvious lie. He was here; that meant he was a soldier. And he was still alive; that meant he was with the Other King.

“How do you do it?” he asked. “How do you sleep at night? And keep serving him?”

“With copious amounts of alcohol,” said Lin, and took another gulp of his tequila.

“The holy water,” said Amoxiel, “washes cares away.”

“It’s not like we have a choice,” said James. “We didn’t know when we signed up. By the time we figured it out, our names were on the contract. Leaving’s desertion, desertion’s punishable by death, and I get the feeling you can’t run from the Other King. Not forever. We don’t like this any more than you, but we got no choice, you know?”

“There’s always choice,” said the big man.

“Our choice is twixt our conscience and our lives,” said Amoxiel. James sighed. Amoxiel’s bottle of holy water was empty, and his eyes were glowing a lambent silver. He was drunk, and since he was an angel that pretty much meant he spoke in blank verse and sounded like the King James Version.

“Moxy’s right,” said Lin. “We refuse an order, we get crucified. We try to run, well, I dunno what’s worse than crucifixion and I don’t wanna find out. How many miles you think we could make it in this desert anyway?”

“Why the desert?” asked the big man. “Why not steal the All Your Heart?”

The mariachi music played blithely in the background.

“First of all, if the All Your Heart is even still in the harbor – ”

“It is,” said the big man. “I checked. This afternoon.”

“Holy God,” said Lin. “You’re serious.”

” – even if it is still in the harbor,” James continued, “none of us know how to sail a yacht.”

“I do,” said the big man.

“Who are you?”

“I’m nobody.”

Five years ago, the Comet King had set out to find God. Not in the way where you live a life of humility and prayer. In the way where you need a really fast boat.

It was the height of his power, the age when he held sway over the whole American West and parts of Mexico. His ambitions soared to the conquest of Hell itself, to break the power of the Devil and release his victims from their eternal torture. But defeating Hell would take more than mortal weapons. It would take the Shem haMephorash, the true explicit Name of God, the Name which allowed the speaker to destroy and remake worlds. It was the Name that God had spoken during the Creation, the Name that would blare from the Last Trumpet, the Name about which Khayyam had written:

Ah Love! could thou and I with Fate conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of Things entire,
Would not we shatter it to bits — and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

But it was also unplumbable by mortal cleverness. The only way to learn it was from the lips of God Himself.

The Sepher Hekhalot states that when the patriarch Enoch died, God “turned his flesh to flame, his veins to fire, his eye-lashes to bolts of lightning, his eye-balls to flaming torches, and placed him on a throne next to the throne of glory.” Then He imbued him with the Most Holy Name, and thenceforward he was called Metatron, the “Measure of the Lord”, the “Prince of the Divine Presence” and “the Lesser God”. All of these titles are blasphemous as hell to call anybody who isn’t God, and the sages speculated that Metatron had received a certain investiture, becoming a viceroy or a regent or even a sort of emanation of God into material reality. If you needed to hear something from the lips of God Himself, Metatron was the one to talk to.

The angels said Metatron had been with them in the early days of the world; that he used to dwell hidden in a whirlwind in the center of their angelic councils. When the angelic hierarchy shattered during Satan’s rebellion, he floated down into the sea and was seen no more.

Since the cracks appeared in the sky, word had come from sailors of a mysterious boat, all purple with golden sails. They would see it on the horizon, but when they tried to approach it vanished at impossible speeds. Sometimes atop the boat they would spot a light, brilliant shining white, like an angelic figure. And the angels said ah, yes, it is Metatron risen from the deep, but you will not catch him, for he keeps his own counsel. And none see him and live.

The Comet King sought Metatron. High above the world, his spy satellites sought the telltale golden sails of his boat. From sea to shining sea, his submarines and destroyers kept watch. Nothing.

So he decided he was doing things wrong. Finding God wasn’t the sort of thing you did with a spy satellite or a submarine. It was the sort of thing you did on a quest. So he built himself a ship. A superfast yacht with seven sails, six from the colors of the rainbow and one jet-black. Every beam and mast built with strange magics only he knew. He called it All Your Heart, because it is written in Jeremiah: “You will seek God and find Him when you seek with all your heart.” Then he left the kingdom in the hands of his daughter Nathanda and left from Puerto Penasco in search of Metatron.

Six months later, he returned. When they asked if he had found Metatron, he said yes. When they asked if he had learned the Name, he said yes. When they asked for details, he said no. A few years later he died, and the details died with him. And all that time poor All Your Heart sat anchored in Puerto Penasco, doing nothing.

“I’m just drunk enough to want to hear more,” said Lin.

“The Other King hasn’t even posted guards yet,” the big man said patiently. James was starting to think that maybe the man genuinely wasn’t drunk. “We walk into the harbor, walk right on, and sail away in the middle of the night. We can be round Baja before anybody notices we’re gone. Nobody can catch the All Your Heart. It’s the fastest ship in the world. We can make it to the California Republic by noon tomorrow and nobody can stop us.”

“By legend, each among the seven sails / requires magics hidden to unfurl,” said Amoxiel.

“Not that hidden. The first sail, the red one, catches normal wind. The second sail is ritual magic; you – ” he gestured toward Lin ” – say you’re a magician. The violet sail is angel magic, and you’re an angel. The green sail is music. You by any chance able to sing?”

“If I try to sing, boat would probably sink like a stone,” said James. “And how do you know so much about this?”

“I sang in a church choir for twenty years,” said the bartender. He spoke with only a hint of a Mexican accent. “They said I was very good.”

“Hey!” said James, cursing himself inside for letting them be overheard. “I thought you didn’t speak English.”

The bartender leaned on the table, leaned in very closely. “Look,” he said. “A third of the population of this town got massacred, another third has fled. I’m stuck serving soldiers and pretending not to understand English so I don’t get tortured for overhearing the wrong thing. And All Your Heart! The greatest ship in the world! My friend, I would give my arm to ride that ship for one hour. I am a poor man, I have no family, I have nothing left here. But to be on All Your Heart, that would be something! If you are going to hijack the ship, I am with you.”

“Hold it!” said Lin. “Nobody’s trying to get out of here! Mystery man over here just sat down and started giving us his hare-brained plan, and we’re all drunk enough to listen. Nobody here is serious about this.”

“I’m serious and wish to leave tonight,” said Amoxiel.

Lin and James stared at him.

“You humans are inured to wrongs like these / I cannot bear them; I would rather die / beneath the breakers of the thunderous main…”

James elbowed Amoxiel. Amoxiel stopped.

“So what happens if we reach California?” James asked, still barely believing he was taking this seriously. “They’re scared to death of the Other King. They’ll probably extradite anyone he tells them to extradite.”

“We could go further,” said the bartender. “Hawaii. Tahiti. The Malabar-Zanzibar Consortium. Sell the boat and live on a beach eating coconuts the rest of our lives.”

“Who’s going to buy the All Your Heart if the Other King wants it?” asked Lin. “It’d be suicide. Picking up contraband from the scariest guy in the world.”

“You want to get rich,” said the big man, “here’s what you do. Sell cabins on the ship. Most elite cruise ever. Sell cabins for ten million dollars, then go off and do the same thing the Comet King did. Try to find God. You don’t think there are billionaires who want a chance to talk to the big guy face to face?”

“Like a whale-watching trip,” said Lin. “But for archangels instead of whales. Well, I’m sold. And by sold, I mean super drunk.”

“Hold on a minute!” said James. “We don’t even know these people! We don’t even know their names!”

“I’m Tomas,” said the bartender. “Tomas Castro. Now let’s go before somebody tells internal security what your friend here was shouting.”

James took another sip of his beer. He could probably rein the others in, he figured. A couple hours and they’d be a little more sober, a little clearer thinking. Lin was a smart guy; he would see reason. Amoxiel had always been a wild card, but when he was off the holy water he could barely get out of bed, let alone do crazy plots.

The question was whether he wanted to. He hadn’t gone out to see the crucifixions, but the news had hit him hard. He’d thought the Other King was just another warlord. A very lucky warlord, to kill the Comet King and take over half his kingdom. But in the end, no different from anybody else. Now he figured the guy was a psychopath, at least. He’d tried not to think about it too much because there was no other option. But the big man, for all his drunken bluster, was right. No guard posted over the All Your Heart. The most beautiful ship in the world, just sitting in port, waiting to be sailed off.

And then there was the rather high chance that he would be executed very painfully just for hanging around with these people and holding this conversation.

“If we’re going to do this,” said James, “then by God, let’s do it now, before we get sober enough to think it through. And you,” James said, pointing to the big man. “None of us know anything about sailing. If we’re just supposed to trust you to pilot this ship on your own, I think we at least deserve to know your name and how you got here.”

“I’m nobody,” said the big man. “I’m with nobody.”

“Great,” said James. “Captain fucking Nemo.”

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