aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 54: My Course Among the Stars

[Sorry for short chapter today, I am on vacation. Will make it up next week.]

Spring 1999
Colorado

So passed fifteen years. New factories rose up. New mines sunk beneath the earth. New roads crisscrossed the mountains. Laboratories, barracks, fortresses, granaries, airstrips. All preparation for the final crusade. Over the course of a generation, the Comet King’s war on Hell shifted gradually from metaphorical spiritual struggle to “we’re going to need a lot of guns”.

People from all over the Untied States and the world flocked to Colorado, ready to take up arms for the struggle. The Comet King disappeared a few months on a strange ship with seven sails, saying he was seeking the Explicit Name of God. Came back, said he had found it. Everything started falling into place. It was really going to happen.

On the final night, they lay together in the citadel, her tracing patterns on his chest.

“I wish you could come with me,” said Jalaketu, just as Robin was thinking I wish I could go with him.

“You know I can’t,” she answered, just as he was thinking But I know you can’t. “Somebody needs to stay here and put on a brave face for the kingdom.”

“And if I were to die,” he added, just as she thought And if God forbid he were to die. He trailed off.

“You won’t die,” she said, just as he thought And I very well might.

A raised eyelid. “The journey to Siberia will be hard even without military resistance. The Names will keep us warm, but miscalculations in our food supply could be a disaster. Morale is high, but a few bad weeks and we could turn against ourselves. Thamiel is dangerous and has many tricks. We haven’t yet seen the extent of his magic. And the Shem HaMephorash is – hard to use. I think I can say it and live, but it will be close.”

“But you’re not afraid.”

“Would fear help?”

“I don’t know,” said Robin. “I’m scared enough for both of us. I’m scared you won’t come back. Or I’m scared you’ll give up and come back too soon, with Hell still intact.”

“About that you need not fear,” said the Comet King.

“The astronomers used to say comets are unpredictable,” said Robin. “That everything in the heavens keeps its own orbit except the comet. Which follows no rules, knows no path.”

“They are earthbound,” said the Comet King. “Seen from Earth, a comet is a prodigy, coming out of the void for no reason, returning to the void for no reason. They call it unpredictable because they cannot predict it. From the comet’s own point of view, nothing could be simpler. It starts in the outer darkness, aims directly at the sun, and never stops till it gets there. Everything else spins in its same orbit forever. The comet heads for the source. They call it crooked because it is too straight. They call it unpredictable because it is too fixed. They call it chaotic because it is too linear.”

He hesitated for a moment.

“That is why I love you, you know. In a world of circles, you are something linear.”

She said nothing, just kept tracing patterns on his chest.

“A few months to reach Yakutsk,” he said. “A few months to get back. The work itself shouldn’t take more than a few moments. I will see you again by the winter.”

Sleep came to them there, together, for the last time.

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71 Responses to Chapter 54: My Course Among the Stars

  1. TK17Studios says:

    In a world with placebomancy and narrativemancy and so forth, I’m surprised they’re not noticing JUST HOW HARD they’re screwing themselves over, here.

    • stavro375 says:

      I will see you again by the winter.

      In other words, “It’ll be over by Christmas.” You fool.

      • Deiseach says:

        “A few months to reach Yakutsk,” he said. “A few months to get back. The work itself shouldn’t take more than a few moments. I will see you again by the winter.”

        Napoleon. Hitler. General Winter. Marching into these lands never ends well for the invader. Are there no historians in Colorado?

        • Deiseach says:

          Remember our “War and Peace” comments, how the Russian army let Napoleon have Moscow after he marched on it, and how that triggered the collapse of the French campaign since they weren’t able to hold it, didn’t know what to do with it once they had it, and ended up shooting themselves in the foot by looting it and trying to drag the booty back home?

          Let’s hope Thamiel has never read Tolstoy.

        • Placid Platypus says:

          Worked fine for Subotai. All those European generals just need to git gud.

        • Matthew says:

          The Mongols conquered Russia in the winter

          • Daniel says:

            This was implicitly explained in Chapter 12: the Mongol invasion was successful because when you follow the sun from East to West, “Cities fall. Empires crumble.”

          • Sigivald says:

            And from Colorado to Yakutsk is Eastward!

            Plus TCK isn’t after territory or conquest or loot; he just wants to destroy Hell.

            (Not that it’s easy, but it’s fundamentally different.)

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            Colorado to Yakutsk is mostly northwards. Look at a map of the world centered around the north pole.

          • The coment king says:

            Assuming you go through the Bering straight rather than in a straight line, it’s mostly north through Canada than east through Russia. And you can invade Canada from the south. It went great in the war of 1812.

          • Yossarian says:

            Whether Yakutsk is East or West from Colorado is less of a matter of geography (about the same distance around the Earth either way around, and you probably wouldn’t want to go straight through the North Pole way), but a matter of politics – who do you ask to let you pass through their country, Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire or whatever is left of Europe.

          • The coment king says:

            Would you need to go through HJDE? If you go through Alaska, you can just go straight to Russia’s pacific coast.

          • Yossarian says:

            Well, it would make about a 1500 mile-trudging-through-the-wilderness difference )

          • Daniel says:

            Incidentally, due to an early experiment in reality-parallelization, both Canadians and Americans live in a world in which their side won the War of 1812. The anomaly was not really designed to handle dual citizens, so it sorts them into a confusing superposition.

  2. The coment king says:

    It’s interesting that Scott and Eliezer’s rationalist heroes seem to reflect their attitudes towards rationalism: HJPEV used his rationality to become powerful and important, and when he fails it’s because he hasn’t fully mastered rationality.
    TCK’s powers, on the other hand, come from his divine origin and inborn talent, with his rationalist leanings being more of a personality trait, giving him his goals more than the tools to achieve them.

    • Deiseach says:

      HJPEV used his rationality to become powerful and important

      I think that’s a poor use of rationality; you can become powerful and important without it, and if all you are interested in becoming rational for is to become powerful and important, I think you’re not understanding what you’re doing.

      I suppose that’s more my attitude to being powerful and important, though (as someone said “Why would anyone want to rule the world? They’d only have to do the paperwork!”) 🙂

      I honestly don’t see the appeal; I can see that it’s very flattering to the vanity and the oul’ ego to have people snuggling up to you cooing breathlessly “Oh my, you’re so…important” but you can get vanity fixes other ways and surely the novelty wears off after a while?

      • Placid Platypus says:

        I think the differences between them aren’t as big as you two make them sound. Both see that the world is not how they think it should be, and decide that if nobody else is going to fix it then they will. Because Jala is so innately powerful he doesn’t have to focus as much as HJPEV does on becoming powerful enough to accomplish his goals, but he’s still definitely willing to pull some shenanigans when he sees the need and opportunity (e.g. the Cometspawn).

      • Normal Anomaly says:

        Some people have policies they think are a good idea and really want to implement, i.e. they want power because they think they’do be good at it. As someone who isn’t into public policy, my emotions towards lower are the same as yours, but some people think they can solve major problems and getting (political) power is how they want to do it.

      • Gradus says:

        He didn’t do it with the end goal of being powerful. He acquired power in pursuit of saving the world. Power was a necessary step to ending death, spreading reason, and discovering the mysteries of the universe

        • Decius says:

          HJPEV, or Jala?

        • Maryxus says:

          When power is the means to an end then power will become the end and the means. You gather power to complete your goal, but you have to constantly seek more power to defend the results.

          This is why even the purest person tends to become corrupted when they go into politics, and if they don’t they’re typically not a major player because they refuse to go after the power they need to be one (ex. Bernie Sanders, who has become a much more standard politician since he became a major contender for the Democratic nomination but was previously a passionate, well-intentioned nobody; and I say this as someone who supported him).

          • linkhyrule5 says:

            The thing is, if you don’t have power you can’t do anything. It’s a problem, but like death it’s a problem that needs a solution, not a problem that can just be avoided and left unaddressed.

          • Maryxus says:

            re: linkhyrule5: something something compromises with sin

    • Jai says:

      HPMOR spoilers

      N ybg bs UCWRI’f cbjre naq fgbel pbzrf sebz cebcurpl/yvgrenyyl-orvat-Ibyqrzbeg.

    • MugaSofer says:

      I mean, the Comet King used his rationality to become even more powerful and important than HJPEV. And UWCRI’f engvbanyvgl vf nyfb na vaobea genvg gvrq gb uvf bevtva nf gur Pubfra Bar.

  3. tinac bnieac says:

    “But you’re not afraid.”

    “I know who I married.”

    “The fact that you’re alive is a miracle…”

  4. Mercrono says:

    Seen from Earth, a comet is a prodigy, coming out of the void for no reason, returning to the void for no reason. They call it unpredictable because they cannot predict it. From the comet’s own point of view, nothing could be simpler. It starts in the outer darkness, aims directly at the sun, and never stops till it gets there. Everything else spins in its same orbit forever. The comet heads for the source. They call it crooked because it is too straight. They call it unpredictable because it is too fixed. They call it chaotic because it is too linear.

    This is one of the most powerful passages I’ve ever read. Like, hypothetically I think I would want this read at my wedding. It wouldn’t surprise me if the very first seed of this story was Scott thinking about comet orbits, and thinking “hey, isn’t that a neat astronomical metaphor for the surprising nature of an undiluted commitment to the greatest good? Hey, that gives me an idea…” So, so happy with this.

    • National Argyle Day says:

      I get a kind of Chestertonian vibe from it.

    • rictic says:

      Huh, that metaphor had the opposite effect on me, because comets aren’t linear, and don’t go straight for the sun. All such objects become part of the star during the formation of a solar system.

      Comets follow elliptical orbits that are very similar to the simpler, near-circular orbits of the planets.

      • Stib says:

        Maybe the physics here is different since the sun is just something on the crystal sphere..

      • Dan L says:

        Disregarding the orbit, a comet’s tail will always be blown directly along with the solar wind. In that sense, the comet will always be “aiming” at the sun even as it moves at an angle.

      • Mercrono says:

        Horace says: “He is either mad, or writing poetry.” Yes, astronomically speaking, comets have elliptical orbits and do not literally follow a linear course to the sun (although in the Unsongverse, Comet West is seemingly an archangel, so maybe comets really are linear there). But even in our own physics, the uniquely long and non-centered orbit of comets sure makes them stand out from the “regular” orbiting bodies, and in comparison, makes them seem linear and unpredictable. It’s close enough that the poetry still sings for me.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Very Vimesian.

      “In a world where we all move in curves, he proceeds in a straight line. And going straight in a world of curves makes things happen.”

  5. R Flaum says:

    Okay, so… if the Shem HaMephorash is so hard to use that even Jala isn’t sure if he’ll survive it, that implies that a mere mortal almost certainly wouldn’t. More and more, I think that while Aaron may be encoding the Name into this story, he isn’t aware he’s doing so.

  6. Sniffnoy says:

    “They are earthbound,” said the Comet King. “Seen from Earth, a comet is a prodigy, coming out of the void for no reason, returning to the void for no reason. They call it unpredictable because they cannot predict it. From the comet’s own point of view, nothing could be simpler. It starts in the outer darkness, aims directly at the sun, and never stops till it gets there.

    …and then it misses the sun and is flung back out into the outer darkness?

    (Also this is a good chapter despite being short.)

    • linkhyrule5 says:

      ….ahhhh shite.

      Four people entered the Garden. Four people gazed upon Adam Kadmon bare. It has previously been noticed in the comments that thiis is not a coincidence (B.N.I.A.C.), but I didn’t really see the correspondence because of the four of the latter, whose names we know, none immediately died or went mad.

      Except… well, one of them may not have *gone* mad, but (while I’m generally uncomfortable labeling autism as insanity) Uriel’s mind definitely does work in a different way from all the other angels in creation. In that sense he is definitely “mad”.

      And of the four, if any of them are to “enter in peace and leave in peace,” by her status as the youngest, the last, and by sheer narrative causality, it’d be Sohu.

      But the thing is, Uriel is an archangel. If he’s not killed (and only Thaumiel could do that), he will *never* die. And Sohu was “made safe” by Uriel, and whatever else you can say about the poor guy he knows his Kabbalah. So Sohu might be even harder to kill than Uriel; certainly, she won’t die naturally either.

      Which upons up a remarkably literal, punnish, kabbalistic (but I repeat myself) reading of the first line. Rabbi Luria entered. Then he died. These are true statements, though the two likely have no causal connection and were probably seperated by several decades. He entered, and he died.

      Which leaves the one who didn’t go mad and who could keep himself alive kabbalistically if anyone could.

      When the Comet King faked his death, he abandoned his children. As a rationalist, as a Singerian utilitarian, if they die as a predictable result of this he will consider himself just as culpable as if he shot them himself.

      … I really hope that’s all that is. I really, really do.

      At any rate, I’m fairly convinced that TCK is TOK now, and am wondering about the Nemo red herring.

      • stavro375 says:

        But The Other King already has a secret identity. He is The Other One, AKA Acher AKA Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah. This was established in Silent as Despairing Love.

        • linkhyrule5 says:

          No, that’s an in-character theory. But as we’ve noticed, “there is providence in the fall of a Robin.”

        • linkhyrule5 says:

          … Though hm, that was when the TCK was still active. He could’ve killed him and taken his place but that’s a pretty big complexity penalty. Not so sure anymore.

          • R Flaum says:

            My theory is that TCK transferred his mind into TOK’s body, taking it over. Note that according to Chapter 30, when the two battled, “The Comet King’s body dropped lifeless to the ground.” It doesn’t say that TCK was killed, but it also doesn’t say that a facsimile of his body fell. My conclusion is that he abandoned it because he wasn’t using it any more.

          • Pablo says:

            R Flaum, interesting idea, especially in light of the Drug Lord, who the Comet King might have gotten the idea from.

    • Walter says:

      From the comet’s POV it isn’t missing anything. It takes a long path that leads to the sun. The fact that it passes near the sun and goes away again is an artifact of human POV. From the comet’s own perspective though, it is born in calamity and dies in fire, just like it was always going to.

  7. Sniffnoy says:

    Hm, so we still don’t have a good idea what the Explicit Name *does*. “Restarts the universe” would appear to be out, though.

    • monkyyy says:

      It makes you job? The people who use it all seem very smart, capable and holy, yet all of them seem sad about the outcome. Tck probably lost robin, sohu lost uriel, its kinda implied arron will lose ana

    • teucer says:

      It is God.

      I mean, I know Christianity is only intermittently relevant here, but, “The Word was God and the Word was with God”, and all that.

  8. DanielLC says:

    > It starts in the outer darkness, aims directly at the sun, and never stops till it gets there.

    I can’t help but wonder about the Kabbalistic significance of the fact that they almost always miss.

  9. EveZ says:

    This post on Boing-Boing (http://boingboing.net/2017/01/07/bible-references-make-very-wea.html) may be of interest, though mostly the comments. Writes one Bobtato:

    “…If you made your password a Buddhist prayer wheel, then the more it is “turned”, the better. Though 0mManiPadmeHum is still easily guessed.”

    It seems like it would fit well into the Unsongiverse.

  10. The Pachyderminator says:

    Whoa. This chapter title is the first one not to be from one of Blake’s poems. It’s instead from one of Blake’s letters, where he wrote:

    I have conquered, and shall go on conquering. Nothing can withstand the fury of my course among the stars of God and in the Abysses of the Accuser.

    Apparently he was pretty much the Comet King himself.

  11. Shannon Phillips says:

    This was really gorgeous, and sad.

  12. Quixote says:

    Remember to vote for this on top wen fiction here

    http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=unsong

  13. etvolare says:

    Heya Scott, could I possibly entice you to drop me an email for a mutual shout out? 😀

  14. Ninmesara says:

    Sohu could say the explicit name. She is immortal and it’s a veeeeery good immortality ritual.

  15. do-not-disturb-my-circles says:

    The highly poetic speechification at the end here felt really weird when I’ve just been reading about projective spaces in which lines and circles are baaaasically different cases of the same kind of object…

    • do-not-disturb-my-circles says:

      Then again: A line is a circle centered on the point at infinity. So if the point at infinity is God and/or Ultimate Good the metaphor might hold up.

  16. Marvy says:

    Happy vacation to our author!

  17. Lumen says:

    Is anyone else the least bit curious what patterns she is tracing on his chest?

    It was mentioned twice, guys. This is a world where placebomancy is a real thing.

  18. dsotm says:

    “A few months to reach Yakutsk,” he said. “A few months to get back. The work itself shouldn’t take more than a few moments. I will see you again by the winter.”

    Really this sounds more like a special-ops kind of thing rather than a full-on campaign – if the plan is to get in, use the explicit name and get out – why lead an army there ?

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