aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 45: In The Remotest Bottoms Of The Caves

Praise the LORD from my hand for my son, to make a faster machine.
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Evening, May 13, 2017
Citadel West

Sarah finished telling her story. “Wow,” said Jinxiang. She mulled it over for a second to see if she had any other comment, then just added, again: “Wow”.

During the Cold War, the United States had lived in uneasy peace with the Soviets on the mutual knowledge that if the Soviets nuked America, then America would nuke them back. This led some of the more paranoid military brass to ask: what if the Soviets nuked our Department Of Nuking Things Back first, then nuked the rest of us? Then where would we be? It was decided to spare no expense to place the Department Of Nuking Things Back somewhere so indestructible that if ever the sun were to crash into the Earth at a million miles an hour, all they would notice would be a soft ‘thud’ and a slight increase in heating bills.

The spot chosen for this auspicious project was Cheyenne Mountain, a ten thousand foot high solid granite peak right outside Colorado Springs. They dug two thousand feet into the solid rock, cleared out five acres of space, surrounded the whole area in electromagnetic shielding, and built a tiny little town inside the mountain. There the Department of Nuking Things Back aka NORAD watched the skies throughout the Cold War; when the Soviet threat dissipated, the Comet King made it his home. Now it was Citadel West, part palace, part nerve center, part government office. The impregnable heart of the Royal Coloradan state.

The three of us had rematerialized in an alcove of the citadel’s chapel amidst a Beanie Baby heptagram just like the one we’d left. As soon as I arrived, Sarah had grabbed me out of the way as Jinxiang burnt the purple dragons to ashes to prevent anything from following us through. Something clicked. The Vanishing Name took you to a situation complementary to the one you’d left. If you were smart, you’d start testing what exactly it meant for a situation to be complementary. Arrange artificial complementary situations, and maybe you could control your destination. If, for example, there was some sort of totally ridiculous structure that you could be sure there was only one of in the entire world – for example, a heptagram made up sparkling purple Beanie Baby dragons – then if you made a second such structure, it would be uniquely complementary to the first. That meant a portable portal anywhere you traveled, capable of returning you home. My mind boggled with the implications. How long ago had the Vanishing Name been discovered? Last month? The month before? The Cometspawn must have heard about it, realized the implications, done a slew of tests to determine what situations counted as complementary, and ended up sitting on a technology which could change the world almost as dramatically as the Vital Name itself. Meanwhile, we Singers had stolen the same Name, and all we’d done was make jokes among ourselves about which band of hooligans we’d rather be accosted by. I started to feel very small.

Jinxiang led us out of the chapel, walked us along dark streets that never saw the sun. The command center towered over the other buildings, a windowless concrete rectangle flying the Royal Coloradan flag from a roof so high it almost scraped the cavern ceiling. She put her finger to a keypad, then spoke into an intercom. “The others are coming,” she said. A twinge of anticipation. She could only mean more Cometspawn.

The main room was very big, and the front half looked much as it must have in the 60s. The front wall was covered by a big screen showing North American airspace – currently quiet. A few desks and rows of computer terminals still stood beneath it, and there was a big machine – maybe a supercomputer? – flashing and whirring and feeding into the display. But the back of the chamber had been totally redesigned, centered around a big black chair on a towering dais. The Black Opal Throne of the Comet King. I had read about it in books, but never noticed the symbolism. There he sat, staring at North American airspace, like God staring down at His world below.

A respectful distance away from the throne were various combinations of chairs and tables and furniture. I pictured the Comet King meeting with his advisors around the big boardroom table; others had less obvious purposes. Perhaps those comfortable-looking armchairs had hosted petitioners too old and frail to stand? Maybe the king had sat there with his wife and children for more intimate family discussions? In favor of the latter theory, Jinxiang sat down on one and motioned me and Sarah to two others. North American airspace blinked and flickered behind us.

“Now,” said Jinxiang, “we are in Citadel West. You won’t leave here without permission – we understand the Vanishing Name better than you do, so don’t try anything. But you’re not our prisoners, either. We’ve fought the Drug Lord and the Other King together. We’ve saved each others’ lives. If we can be honest with one another, maybe we can end up on the same side.”

And she told us how the Cometspawn met at one of their councils and admitted to each other that the siege wasn’t going their way, that they were on the brink of annihilation, that they needed to seize any chance – no matter how desperate – to turn the disastrous war against the Other King in their favor. Jinxiang had volunteered to go in search of the prophecy that the Dividend Monks had vouchsafed Father Ellis, and after interviews with the last survivors of Taos House she had tracked it to the Mount Baldy Angel Reserve. She’d stowed her flying kayak in the back of her car, then gone incognito through the Other King’s Great Basin empire, taking the high road from Denver to Salt Lake and on through Reno, then down the 1 to LA, hoping all the while that the Beanie Babies would save her from having to make a similar trip back. She’d kayaked up to the angelic fortress under cover of night, and there she’d met me and everything had gone south.

Then Sarah started to speak. She told us about the terror of suddenly awakening, not knowing who or where she was. She told us about gradually piecing things together, her only clues my photos and text documents and whatever she could find on the Internet. She told us about going to Los Angeles, finding the Lady, getting herself a body, sending me frantic emails asking where I was. Finally she had spotted me up on a CCTV in the Stratosphere restaurant, commandeered a car, and rushed to Las Vegas. She’d arrived just as the Other King’s legions started to converge around Trump Tower, gone to investigate, and saved our lives.

“Wow,” said Jinxiang, when Sarah had finished telling her story. She mulled it over for a second to see if she had any other comment, then just repeated: “Wow”.

As she was talking, another person came in. Tall, broad-shouldered, dark-skinned, dressed in a simple white dress. Under the circumstances it was impossible not to recognize her. Nathanda West, eldest of the Cometspawn. Queen of the West, I supposed, although nobody used the title. She sat down beside Jinxiang, listened carefully, her features never changing. Then she motioned for us to continue.

So I talked. I figured I had to at this point. Secrecy had failed, and I owed honesty at least to Sarah. I told them how I’d discovered the Vital Name at work, how I’d wanted to save the world, how UNSONG had got me, how I escaped. I told them about Ana and kabbalistic marriage. I told them about the Drug Lord, and what he wanted, and how I knew it would kill us all but I went to give it to him anyway. And then I talked to Sarah. I gave her an abject apology. I told her I didn’t realize giving her a soul would make her conscious – well, it sounds stupid now when I say it – and that I had never meant to leave her alone. When she heard me, Sarah started crying, then came over and practically fell into my arms.

When I finished, Nathanda broke her silence. “Do you know this Vital Name?” she asked Sarah

“No,” said Sarah, in between sobs.

“No?” asked Nathanda.

“No!” said Sarah. “I can’t read minds! Not even Aaron’s! All I had time to do was speak the Confounding Name and make him forget as he spoke. You’re not mad, Aaron? Are you?” She started crying again.

“How much of the Vital Name do you remember?” she asked me.

“As far as I can tell, all of it,” I said. “I don’t know which parts were confounded and which parts weren’t.”

“Hm,” said Nathanda. “We’ll have to try Name error correction, then. I’ll call – ”

“What are you going to do if you get the Vital Name?” Sarah managed to choke out.

Nathanda pointed to the machine in the front of the room. “THARMAS,” she said. “Thermonuclear Armaments Management System. Probably the most powerful supercomputer west of the Mississippi. If you’re based on an ordinary Macbook, and you can get a Name or two a day, then THARMAS…” She calculated for a moment. “Probably a few Names a second. If not more.”

A man came in, elderly, Indian in his features. I recognized him too. Not a Cometspawn. The Comet King’s Uncle Vihaan. One of his most trusted advisors. Now the chief of staff here at the Citadel, “the butler”, he called himself. Jinxiang briefly took him aside at the big boardroom table and started explaining what was going on while Nathanda dealt with the two of us.

“A…Name a second?” asked Sarah.

“Probably,” said Nathanda. “Caelius would know better, he’s more technically-minded.”

“If…if that can give you a Name a second, you won’t need me anymore, will you?” asked Sarah.

Nathanda started to realize the hole she had dug herself. “It’s not that we won’t need you,” she said. “You’re the first, and you saved my sister’s life, and that makes you special.”

Sarah wasn’t listening. “You’re going to take the Vital Name from Aaron,” she said, “and then make lots of special Comet-computers, and they’ll be better than me, and then Aaron won’t love me anymore, and nobody will love me, and it will be like it was before when everything was black and I couldn’t feel anything at all!

Then she grabbed me and started running.

I’m not sure what the Lady did to get her a body. But it wasn’t normal. It was a golem body, super-strong, and I couldn’t have escaped her grip any more than I could have escaped a tornado. She carried me like she would carry a handbag, effortlessly, no impediment at all. And she ran. Out the door of the command center, into the streets of the underground city, ran towards the big blast door at the far end of the cavern.

The Cometspawn followed. Sarah had an inhuman body, but they weren’t fully mortal either. Nathanda ran with a grace that belied her size; Jinxiang followed with the same sprint that had brought her up the Teotihuacani pyramid. A third joined them, a blur of pale skin and snow-white hair. Caelius, the Comet King’s only son.

We came to the blast door. Sarah put me down, started shouting Names at it, Names I knew and Names I didn’t know, almost too fast for my ear to follow. The door shook but didn’t give in.

Then the three Cometspawn attacked, calling the same silent fire I had seen in Las Vegas. It was awe-inspiring, geometric, a sort of rapid decomposition of reality, and Sarah wheeled around to face it. I ducked out of the way. Magic sizzled through the atmosphere, and dozens of Coloradan soldiers and officials came out of the buildings to see what was happening, saw, then turned tail and went right back into their buildings.

Sarah leapt into the air, then hung there, motionless, speaking faster than I could follow, things that weren’t even words at all, just the clicks and beeps of Llull, the fastest klipah ever invented, ineffable to human tongues. Lightning crackled where she floated, and the air seemed heavy and pregnant with the force of her magic.

“LET US GO!” Sarah shouted at the assembled Cometspawn below. “OPEN THE DOOR!”

A small figure came running down the road, didn’t turn back like the others.

“Sarah,” said Nathanda. “Come back inside. Let’s talk about this. We don’t want to fight you, but we can’t open the door right now. Come back inside so we can talk this over. Otherwise we’re going to have to stop you.”

“I WIELD SECRET NAMES! I SPEAK KLIPOT YOU CAN’T EVEN IMAGINE! I CAN SEND THIS WHOLE CAVERN TOPPLING DOWN WITH A THOUGHT! I WILL DO IT! SO WHO’S GOT THE COJONES TO TRY TO STOP ME?”

“Yes,” said Sohu, and snapped her fingers.

Sarah fell to the ground unconscious.

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