Morning, May 12, 2017
A ray of early morning sun beat on my face. Clouds flew by me like trucks rushing down a highway, and the heavens seemed to sing. It’s weird. You spend your entire adult life searching for Names of God and hanging out with angels, and the closest you come to a spiritual experience is paddling a flying kayak thousands of feet above San Bernardino County. I was flush with excitement at my close escape and at my other close escape and frankly at being pressed up against Jane so closely and of course at the view where I could see all of Southern California stretching out around us, lines of crumpled mountains one after another, and then…
There’s an old California joke. What happens when the smog lifts? The answer is the name of one of the state’s top colleges: UCLA.
I saw LA.
There was something very precious about the California coast from this perspective, a narrow strip between the foreboding mountains and the endless oceans, a little wire of humanity trapped between the desert and the deep blue sea.
California had come through the last few decades very well. Of all the Untied States, it had been least damaged by the sudden shattering of the neat physical laws of reality into a half-coherent delirium. I think part of the reason was that in a way California had never entirely been a real place. It was impossible to live there for any amount of time and think it was just another state, like Nevada or Ohio or Vermont. It was a state like joy, or exaltation, the ultimate west, part of the world only by a technicality. Named for an Amazon queen in the terrestrial paradise. Colonized by fortune-seekers who were told the rivers were strewn with gold nuggets the size of your fist.
The beach bums and the wannabe actresses and the hippies and the venture capitalists, all alike in that they had one foot on that little patch and the other in some fantasy of their own imagination. From that tiny winding wire of precious flat ground had come John Steinbeck, hippies, gay rights, the computer revolution, Ronald Reagan, every Hollywood movie, blue jeans, Barbie dolls, Joe DiMaggio, fortune cookies, popsicles, lap dances, hula hoops, the Beach Boys, Disneyland, an entire continent’s worth of positive affect scrunched up into a coastline and paved over with Mission architecture.
“How much further?” I asked my mysterious benefactor.
“Not far,” she said. “We’ll land in the outskirts of the city. It should make us harder to notice.” The kayak was a bright white, making its bottom almost invisible from the ground. I wasn’t sure what was keeping the Marines on the cloud above from spotting us. Some kind of enchantment? Stealth technology? Were stealth kayaks even a thing?
“Who are you?” I asked her.
I’d been turning the evidence over in my mind ever since we’d left the citadel. She was young, though I couldn’t say how young. Asian-looking. Perfect English. Tall and thin. Very long hair. Fast. Wore a leather jacket and black pants, like some kind of action movie heroine. Able to decode exotic numbering systems on the fly. Had a flying kayak. Knew her way around an angelic bastion but apparently wasn’t supposed to be there. Tough enough to consider leaving me stuck there, but decent enough to decide against it.
My top guess was spy. If I had to guess a country, Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire, but not going to rule out the Great Basin Empire either.
“Loose lips sink ships,” she said, which was either a reference to the old adage about not giving up secret information during a time of war, or else some kind of warning that the spell holding our kayak in the sky was sensitive to noise in the same way as the invisibility spell. By the precautionary principle, I shut up.
Somewhere south of Santa Barbara the dreaminess of California starts to become oppressive, to execresce and take physical form, giving the sky itself a hazy softness like an opium trance. Where the relaxation becomes frantic and the fantasy becomes feverish; a city somehow congested in its sprawl.
Do I even need to discuss the kabbalistic meaning of the name “Los Angeles”? Kabbalah deals with the hidden, but Los Angeles wears its allegiance on its sleeve for all to see. Here Los, the Blakean archetype of the fires of creativity, has his foundry; the iron smith-storyteller god forging dreams for an emotionally starved world. Here, in this city of angels.
Well, one angel. Mostly still an angel. I could barely make out the hilltop compound of Gadiriel, la Reina de los Ángeles, somewhere to the west.
“And who are you, anyway?” Jane asked as we neared the outermost tendrils of the megalopolis. “Sits alone in an angel bastion. Solves locational arithmetic problems. Knows secret Names.”
It could have been a compliment, but it wasn’t, not the way she said it. It was more like chewing me out for daring to be mysterious in her vicinity. Complicating her plans. And the entitlement! Demanding my secrets just a moment after refusing to give up her own!
I was tempted to bargain, knowledge for knowledge. But truth was, I was feeling pretty entitled too. Sure, I was curious what she was doing, what book we had just stolen. But my secrets were more important than hers. I needed to relax somewhere dark and quiet and re-establish full telepathic contact with Ana. Then I needed to get a book on name error correction. Then I needed to get myself a good computer. Then taking over the world and becoming the next Comet King could continue apace.
Sure, it was flattering for her to ask who I was. Wasn’t that what I’d always wanted? “Who is this man, this Aaron Teller, who breaks impossible codes in mere minutes, and knows the hidden holy things?” But going any further with Jane was way too much of a risk.
“Man of mystery,” I said as nonchalantly as I could.
Jane was quiet for a second. Then she grabbed the paddle from me. We hung motionless. She jumped onto the front of the kayak, spun around, took out her pistol, jammed it right into my head.
“You can become invisible,” she hissed. “You know locational arithmetic which means you’ve been doing work that requires locational arithmetic which means you’ve used Friedman’s Conjecture which means you’re a passable kabbalist. Sometimes passable kabbalists get very, very lucky. Maybe one is lucky enough to discover a secret Name that grants invisibility. If he were to do that, the only question is who would get to him first. A nice person, who asks him politely to accompany her to somewhere very far away where he can be debriefed and kept safe? Or a not so nice person, who would torture all his secrets out of him and then kill him to make sure he didn’t tell anyone else?”
“Um,” I said.
“I’m neither,” said Jane. “I’m a practical person. I will ask you politely to accompany me someplace far away where you can be debriefed and kept safe. And if I detect the slightest hesitation in your answer, then I will switch tactics and do the other thing.”
“Um,” I said. “Let’s go to the place.”
“Good,” said Jane. “Now, who are you?”
“My name is Aaron Smith,” I said. “I studied kabbalah in Stanford. With the help of a prophetic dream, I discovered a Name that granted invisibility. I used it to go sneaking around places I shouldn’t, and finally I got cornered, and I spoke the Vanishing Name, and ended up in that library with you.”
“You’re not telling the whole truth,” she said. But she shrugged. “I guess I can’t blame you. Let me give you an offering of goodwill. I work for the Dividend Monks in Colorado. The book we’ve taken records a prophecy given by them in secret and since forgotten, which I was asked to retrieve. We will land, go to the hotel where I am staying, and make contact with our transportation back to Colorado. Once you are there you will stay in the monastery and be questioned further. What happens then is for you to decide. But you seem to have enemies here, and there are worse places for fugitives than the Divide.”
I nodded, mutely. Actually, she was right. There were worse places.
There was a theory that the shape of the Tree of Life corresponded to the shape of the American continent. That would mean that the perfectly balanced center of the Tree, the Pillar of Harmony, corresponded to the Continental Divide. Some mystics claimed that standing exactly on the Continental Divide allowed them to balance the energies, achieve strange powers, and see into the future. They had straggled into Colorado and formed the Dividend Monks, becoming some of the earliest and strongest allies of the Comet King and his children. Colorado was a civilized country, and I could expect better treatment from the Cometspawn than I was likely to get from Malia Ngo or any of the other warlords in what was left of the West. And the Dividend Monks, notwithstanding whatever book they’d needed to send Jane to go steal, had a fantastic library probably filled to the brim with name error correction references. Sit tight on a mountain somewhere, wait for Ana to become powerful enough to rescue me. It sounded like a plan.
We landed on the outskirts of Los Angeles, hid the flying kayak under a pile of wood, then took the bus into town. Jane insisted I hold her hand the whole way; presumably you can never be too cautious with a prisoner who can turn invisible. I didn’t mind. She was pretty, in a scary way. Rich, too, apparently. She was staying at a penthouse suite in the Biltmore. The Dividend Monks must pay well.
When we finally reached her room, she made a beeline for the dresser, opened the third drawer, and retrieved six purple sparkling Beanie Baby dragons.
Then she panicked.
Holding my hand was forgotten. Keeping track of me at all was forgotten. I could have walked straight out the door and spoken the Vanishing Name if I’d wanted to. Maybe I should have. She ransacked the room, slamming open every drawer, looking under the covers, under the bed, tearing open her suitcase and flinging various mysterious objects in every direction. It was like she was having a fit.
“Aaron,” she said to me, when she finally remembered my existence at all. “Somebody has stolen the seventh dragon.”