aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 48: Bring Me My Chariot Of Fire

Rage in favor of the proposition that the machine is somehow important in a way that could be uncovered through dispassionate analysis.
Steven Kaas

Morning, May 14, 2017
Caribbean Sea

I.

Unfurling four of its seven sails , the world’s fastest ship shot out of the Panama Canal. It rocketed through the Caribbean and wove in and out of the Cayman Islands. It somehow skipped Cuba – the space that Not A Metaphor sailed through with its many-colored sails open wasn’t quite the same as the normal ocean – and nearly crashed into the Bahamas before executing a sudden turn that knocked everyone against the port railing. Four hours after the ship left the Gatun Locks, Amoxiel spotted the Florida coast.

The launch was at noon. There would be no more launches for weeks – longer than John would hang on. They would make it to Cape Canaveral by noon, or their friend’s soul was toast.

James paced back and forth on the deck, his responsibilities lightened by the rediscovery of the ship’s autopilot – if that was what you wanted to call the intelligence that animated the entire vessel like a golem. He was on the foredeck, tan in the Caribbean sun, letting the ship itself handle the steering.

Ana and Simeon were in lounge chairs side by side to starboard.

“I should have known you’d be in favor of this,” Ana said.

“Of saving a friend from eternal suffering?” asked Simeon. “You bet.”

It was a vicious cycle. Simeon was old, he’d been hurt in the scuffle with the Drug Lord, and he’d been seizing pretty bad during the worst parts of the the Panama crossing. For a while they hadn’t been sure he would make it. Ana, wracked with guilt about verbally abusing him, had been by his side all through the Gulf Coast, bringing him food from the galley and keeping him company. But being Ana, it was impossible for her not to start talking politics, and soon she was abusing him more than ever – a situation that seemed to keep the old man relatively entertained.

“It’s the final insult,” Ana said, “in which divine justice is perverted the same way the human justice of the state already has been. Poor person steals some bread? Eternity in Hell. Rich person steals the wealth of an entire state? Not only do the courts do nothing, but he can buy a ticket on Celestial Virgin and his soul ends up squeaky clean in the World To Come.”

“Does anyone deserve eternal suffering?”

“No!”

“Then surely it’s more just for a few people to be able to avoid it, than for everyone alike to suffer punishment undeserved.”

“But just the rich?”

“Someone has to buy the rocket fuel.”

“Why doesn’t the government pay? Why isn’t it subsidized?”

“Ten million per citizen? Why, to save the entire population of America that’s only, ah, two quadrillion dollars, about a thousand times the gross national product.”

“Then at least save some!”

“Exactly my point. We can only save some. Instead of choosing those some from a lottery or something, we choose them by wealth. It beats the lottery method because it makes the program self-financing.”

“So just let things be, and make no attempt at eve…”

Satan tempted Eve. Noah built an ark.”

“Aaargh!”

He smiled.

“I just think…you can’t be happy with this situation, can you?”

Simeon furrowed his brow. “Happy? No. But what can you do? And it’s not just a rhetorical question. I can do quite a lot. I can create a successful company that helps discover new Names. I can donate some money to causes that deserve it. I can be nice to the people I meet. Once I’m doing all that, there’s no point in dedicating a lobe of my brain to being outraged at the injustices of the world. I do what I can, and then stop caring. Even the Comet King only besieged Hell until the point when he realized it was a lost cause. Then he gave up. You care too much and it drives you crazy.”

“Then maybe being crazy is the right thing to do. So far all I see from your side is a lot of sanity and poor people left to burn.”

“Two hundred years ago, this was about people starving to death in the streets, or dying of smallpox. We solved those problems not by destroying the system, but by milking the system so single-mindedly that eventually we got rich enough to buy the problems off. If we defeat Hell, it’ll be because we developed better weapons. And if we develop better weapons, it’ll be because of places like Countenance. And in order to get places like Countenance, you need money, and incentives to get it, and then there you are at Celestial Virgin.”

“So just let sin and greed continue uninhibited, and eventually someone will have stolen enough to make things better? Just protect the system, no matter how many people it throws into the flames, because of the promise of a smallpox cure somewhere at the end?”

“And what’s your position? Burn down everything that isn’t perfect? I have bad news for your about mortal institutions, dear. What if you go too far? You think eliminating people like me will build the perfect government? What if you overcompensate and build anarchy?”

Noah built an arky. Satan tempted Eve. And me? I’m with the Unitarians: ‘The soul is still oracular; amid the market’s din / List the ominous stern whisper from the Delphic cave within / ‘They enslave their children’s children who make compromise with sin.””

“There’s more than one way to compromise with sin,” said Simeon. “The first way is where you accept a little bit of evil for what you think is a greater good. But the second way is where you do anything less than what’s most effective. If I shut down Virgin because I was mad at it, well, then maybe I’d feel better about myself. And a few hundred people who would otherwise go to Heaven would end up in Hell and burn forever, thanks to me. How is that not compromising with sin? The compromises I’ve made, I’ve made on my own terms, and I’m happy with them.”

“If you were happy, you wouldn’t have paid a couple million dollars to go yell at God.”

Simeon tried to bring himself up to a sitting position, but ended up putting weight upon his injured leg. Groaning, he lay back down.

“I’m sorry,” Ana said. “I crossed a line. This is stupid. I keep saying mean things to you and then feeling bad and trying to make it up by talking to you more and then saying mean things. I should go.”

“It’s fine,” said Simeon. “I’m a hard man to offend.”

“No, really. I should go and jump off the side of the ship now.”

“Wait,” said Simeon. “You want to know a secret?”

“I’ve never said no to that question and I’m not starting now.”

Simeon smiled. “I don’t think this boat will catch God, and I don’t really care. I’m after bigger quarry.”

“Bigger than God?”

“Look, Ana. Fifteen years ago the Comet King has a mental breakdown after the death of his wife. Then a year later, he dies at Never Summer in a battle in a cloud, defeated by a relative nobody. You don’t find anything about this weird?”

“People love conspiracy theories,” Ana said. “But they found his body, and besides, the Comet King isn’t the sort to retire and go farm yams somewhere.”

“People do love conspiracy theories,” said Simeon, “and rich people get a chance to indulge in them. My hobby for the past few years has been tracking the Comet King. And no, I didn’t find any smoking guns, but – you know our man John? We only know two things about him. He’s a priest. And he’s an old friend of the Captain’s. Well, I collect old photographs from Royal Colorado, and the man’s a dead ringer for the Comet King’s right-hand man, Father John Ellis. So I started reading about this ship. This mysterious Captain Nemo shows up one day, shrouds himself in mystery, but has intimate knowledge of the Comet King’s yacht. And he’s a friend of John Ellis’s. And he’s got a certain…well, everyone obeys him without question. So what am I to think?”

A chill went down Ana’s spine. She had only been very young when the Comet King died, but even she could remember the gravity of the moment. He had been someone impossible, something out of legend, a different sort of person entirely. Then he was gone. If he were still alive… “The Captain looks nothing like the Comet King,” she said. “I’ve seen pictures. The Captain is big. The Comet King is rail-thin. And there was the body.”

“You think people like that can’t change bodies as easily as we change clothes?” said Simeon. “Heck, if I wanted to pull the same thing Jalaketu did, I’d bribe the Lady into making a golem that looked just like me, kill off the golem, bury the body, then hit the donuts until I wasn’t so thin anymore. Whatever I couldn’t disguise, I’d hide. They say the Comet King had weird eyes, like the night sky. Why doesn’t Captain Nemo take off his sunglasses?”

“Holy euphemism,” said Ana.

“I didn’t buy a berth on this boat to hunt down God, I got on here to hunt down the Captain. The man’s a complete black box, and only the people lucky enough to end up on the Not A Metaphor get a chance of seeing him. I’ve been watching him, trying to figure out what his angle is. But I’ve got nothing. That’s why I’m telling you this. You’re one of the crew. You can talk to people. Figure out what they know. They’ve been hanging out with him for years. They must have picked up on something.”

“What do I do? Just ask James, say ‘Hey, did the Captain ever mention anything about being the Comet King?'”

“Maybe not. Maybe James is in on it. And if the Comet King is hiding, probably bad things happen to anyone who makes too much noise about trying to find him. Something subtle. Like ‘Oh, I’ve been working here so long, and I barely get a glimpse of the Captain. What’s with that guy?’ See what he knows.”

“Okay but…like you said, if he doesn’t want to be found, it might not be such a good idea to find him.”

“Well,” said Simeon, “yes. That is the issue. Maybe I’m a little bit crazy too, in the way I mentioned to you earlier. I don’t have a great plan. This is pretty much how I ran Gogmagog – start the first step, hit the ground running, and try to figure out the second step on the way. But I’ve already spend a year and a half looking through all the sources I could – once I get interested in something, I stay interested – and the thought of knowing where the Comet King was and just sort of sitting on the knowledge – well, that would have driven me off the wall. I don’t know what Erin and the rest hope to get from meeting God. They already know He’s not big on answering prayers except on His own terms. Well, I don’t know what I expect from meeting the Comet King. The best I can say is I’m no stupider than they are. Just differently stupid.”

II.

They sat on the ship, a mile or so offshore. There had been a burst of light, a roar. And a little spark buoyed upon a sea of smoke shot up at Heaven.

John was on that spark. They’d arrived just in time. His breathing was getting shallow, and he didn’t seem like he had much time left. And it had been only fifteen minutes to launch, and they’d had to pay extra to delay the countdown a few minutes to get the old priest on board. But the deed had been done, and the dying body of the old man was dutifully loaded on board the tiny capsule and flung into the noonday sun.

They’d stayed on land just long enough to place a call to one of James’ contacts in New York, telling them to advertise as quickly as possible for a replacement priest and a replacement placebomancer. The plan was to speed to New York City just long enough to get two new crew aboard the ship, then head to Fire Island where the divine boat of Metatron, emanation of God, was due to appear at sunset. The contact had demanded an outrageous price, then said he would work something out. With no time to lose, they’d gotten back on the yacht and headed out.

The red sail fluttered in the wind, Ana kept the orange going, Tomas still sang to the green, and Amoxiel stayed in back with the purple. He was running low on holy water, but there would be potables enough once they reached New York. The priestly and placebomantic sails hung limp in mourning for their lost keepers, and the black sail as always stood alone and cryptic on the aft.

“I’m not sure what the proper etiquette is,” Tomas told Ana. They were standing together on the port deck, watching the Virgin rocket disappear into the evening sky. “I feel like I should say something, but it’s not a funeral. Nobody’s dead yet.”

“Tell me about John,” said Ana. “How did you meet?”

“It was about three months after we took Not A Metaphor,” Tomas told her. “In those days she was still All Your Heart. We only had four sails working then – just like now – and the Captain told us we needed a priest. When we were in Vancouver on a chase he went ashore and called up a friend who he said would meet us next time we got to San Francisco. A week later we sailed down California and John was waiting for us. A good man. Always did his share. I’m Catholic myself, and he always took time to listen to my confession. Though I get the impression he was kind of an unorthodox sort of priest.”

“And then, when did you meet the Captain?”

“Him? That was in Puerto Penasco that first night. The Other King had invaded the whole Southwest and just reached the Sea of Cortez. I was tending my family’s bar, and there he was, drunk as a skunk, saying he’d been on the Not A Metaphor during its maiden voyage and he was going to help us steal the ship. James was an officer, and he and his men were interested, and the rest is history. Things were bad in those days; we were willing to take any way out.”

“What did he do before? On the ship? Did he know the Comet King?”

“I think he was the captain, then, just like now. He never mentions the Comet King, but it would have been pretty hard to spend a month on a ship this small without seeing him.”

“Did he captain other ships before he got this one?”

The little spark finally faded from view.

“Ana, the Captain’s a very private man. What he wants us to know, he tells us. He’s been good to us, and we give him back as good as we get by not prying into his secrets. I assume the Comet King wouldn’t have hired him if he didn’t have some experience. But what that is, he hasn’t said and I haven’t asked. I would recommend you do the same.”

“Just curious,” Ana protested feebly.

“You know the saying about curiosity.”

“Tomas?” A sudden thought, more urgent. “If he was on the boat, before, he must have been there when the Comet King met Metatron.”

“Ana.” Tomas’ voice wasn’t angry, but it was stern.

“The voice of God! He must know what he said! Maybe even knows the Explicit Name!”

“Ana.”

The Not A Metaphor sailed north.

III.

The ship had a Medical Officer, tasked with keeping the passengers alive until they reached their destination. Sometimes his expertise was needed for more prosaic reasons.

“One of the old guys is delirious,” the Commander told him. “Won’t stay in his seat, keeps raving about stuff. I don’t want him to get up and get confused by the zero-g and hit his head on something. You think he’s safe to tranquilize?”

The Medical Officer picked up a syringe and walked into the cabin. Wasn’t too hard to tell who the Commander was talking about. A dozen old codgers strapped quietly into their seats. And one guy practically flailing. Delirium, all right.

“Listen,” the old man was saying. “The prophecy said that they would drive him to the priest. Drove, that was the word it used. Not the Dividend Monks’ prophecy. The other one. The long one. They drove the comet to the priest, but the priest would come up dry. And on that day, the righteous grown children would perish.”

“Hold on,” said the Medical Officer. “It’s going to be okay.” He checked breathing, respiration. A little tranquilizer wouldn’t hurt. He took hold of the old man’s arm and injected the contents of the syringe.

“I’m the priest,” said the old man. “It was talking about me. And today I’ve come up dry. I’ve failed. You have to warn the Cometspawn. You hear me? Warn the Cometspawn.” Then he went quiet. The Medical Officer watched for a few minutes until he was sure he was sound asleep.

“All clear,” he told the Commander, stepping back into the cockpit. Ahead of them, the crack in the sky came ever closer.

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