This is a reasonable approach for handling small problems, but it would be awkward if there were any that did understand, and seek God.
Evening, May 13, 2017
New York City
When she thought about it, Erica guessed it made sense for terrorists to hold dress rehearsals. Terrorist plots were complicated things where many different people had to do their parts right the first time. So it was reasonable to want to practice in some kind of low-stakes environment.
Less reasonable was Dylan Alvarez’s insistence on sitting in a director’s chair, holding a clapperboard, and starting out with a “Lights, camera, action!”. But placebomancy, she figured, was so closely allied to acting as to be another branch of showmanship.
“The Assassination Of Malia Ngo,” Dylan said. “Take seventeen. Our plucky young heroine Erica Lowry has, with the help of her mysterious friends, learned a Name that allows its speaker to become invisible at will. Our dashing and incredibly handsome hero, Dylan Alvarez, has rescued her and convinced her to use her powers for the side of g…of chaotic neutral. Our heroes are in a nondescript white van parked outside UN headquarters. Due to their sixteen previous dress rehearsals, they know exactly what to do. Lights, camera, action!”
They were in a Broadway theater, next to a pretty good mockup of the interior hallways of UN Headquarters. Alvarez had supposedly convinced a series of investors that his new play, “Unsong: The Musical” was going to be a fantastic hit, apparently even spontaneously breaking into some of the planned musical numbers during his sales pitch. As a result, he’d gotten the money he needed to rent a theater and create a made-to-order replica of their target. Erica had no idea when he’d done this. Yesterday? This afternoon? Months in advance, just in case? Maybe he was lying about everything and there was a mockup of UNSONG ready here for some other reason?
It was Clark, Erica, Mark, Brenda and Maduegbuna on stage. Erica spoke the Spectral Name for her four fellow assassins, and then they walked into the building unseen.
They were harnessed together; on Take One, unaccustomed to invisibility, they had all bumped into each other and ended up in a tangled mess on the floor, after which Dylan had pronounced them “super dead” and handed out the harnesses, which he had been keeping to himself the whole time. On Take Two, there had been flour carefully strewn over the floor, and Dylan had caught them by their footprints and summarily declared them “super dead” again.
(“Why the bloody bollocks would there be flour on the ground of fucking UN headquarters?”, Clark Deas had asked, only to be pronounced a “sore loser” by Dylan.)
Take three was angry dogs, who navigated by their sense of smell. Take four was tiny ball bearings placed on the stairs. Deas had glared at Alvarez, but hadn’t said anything, and it turns out that the glares of an invisible person are extremely easy to ignore.
And so on all the way up to Take Seventeen.
The invisible invaders, having snuck through the open doors of the United Nations, carefully checked the floor for ball bearings and flour dust. Dylan attacked them in a dog costume, and Erica pretended to speak the Beast-Tamer’s Name, causing the fake dog to retreat quietly. They successfully avoided Dylan-dressed-as-a-janitor running around in implausibly fast motions streaking water all over the floor. And for the first time in seventeen tries, they came to the office door marked “MALIA NGO, DIRECTOR”
At the head of their train of invisible people, Deas opened the door.
“Oh, what’s this?” said Dylan, sitting behind a desk wearing an outrageously large black wig. “My door seems to be opening of its own accord. I suppose I will just have to call for security and wait to be rescued like the poor little defenseless maiden that I…”
As he started speaking he grabbed an AK-47 from under his desk, and halfway through the sentence he jerked it up and made shooting noises. “Pow! Pow! Pow! You’re all super dead!”
“Ha!” said Clark. “No we’re not! I had everyone say the Bulletproof Name while we were still in the van!”
“My dear Mr. Deas,” said Dylan, “the AK-47 shoots twelve rounds per second. I am absolutely willing to grant that you were protected from one of them. But unless people have become much sturdier since the last time I used a firearm, eleven rounds is still more than enough to kill a man.”
“There are nine of us,” said Deas. “If it takes two bullets to kill one of us, she could only kill four of us a second. That’s more than enough time for one of us to react and shoot her.”
“That’s all nice and well,” said Dylan, “but, on the other hand, YEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEE”
Some sort of horrible noise split the air. The would-be assassins covered their ears with their hands, tried to run away. The whole train of harnesses bumped up against each other and they fell on the ground, visible and embarrassed.
“Dare I ask,” said Brenda, “what that is supposed to signify?”
“You may! I, Malia Ngo, have been described by those who have met me as having an aura of fear and terror about me. Perhaps creepy mysterious mind powers! And I ventured to assume that maybe she can direct that aura, like a weapon. Just a conjecture, but better safe than sorry.”
This time everyone glared at him.
“Or who knows, maybe she has a machine that makes scary shrieking sounds.” He flipped the switch again. “YEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEE!” Brenda Burns grabbed him, wrenched the machine from him, and turned it off.
“And if this happens, what do we do?” asked Erica.
“An excellent question! I happen to have consulted Lord High Magician Mark McCarthy on this very topic and the two of us have come up with some interesting ideas.” Dylan took off his wig, exited stage right, and came back with a bag marked RELICS. He dug through it, throwing various strange and unpleasant-looking body parts aside. “Mmmm….pancreas of St. Pancras…Saul of Tarsus’s tarsals…facial bones of St. Boniface…no, it’s with the secular stuff.” He took out a different bag. “Aristotle’s pupil…J. S. Bach’s well-tempered clavicle…aha!”
A vial of blood.
“This is the blood of Malia Ngo. You may be asking, how did you get the blood of Malia Ngo? The answer is much too gross for you to want to think about, but let’s just say it involved a bribed janitor, several bags of trash, and acute awareness of her monthly cycle.”
“Come tonight, I will be placing a drop of her blood on a placebomantic opal amulet, which I will give to each of you. Whatever strange powers she may have coursing through her veins, through whatever means, these amulets will protect you.”
“You expect me to wear that after your description of where it’s from?” asked Clark.
“Get a life,” said Brenda Burns. “As if your body is any less disgusting.”
“Ms. Burns, as always, speaks a profound truth,” said Alvarez. “As always, while you are serving BOOJUM I expect you to make great and terrible sacrifices for the cause, lest our organization and all it stands for should YEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEE!”
“WHO LET HIM HAVE THAT FECKIN MACHINE BACK?” thundered Clark, and his hands were clenched in fists of rage.
Dylan shut off the sound machine.
“One more time,” he said, and climbed out of the model UN back into his director’s chair.
“The Assassination Of Malia Ngo,” said Dylan Alvarez. “Take eighteen. Having previously been defeated by ball bearings, a light coating of flour, small dogs, the janitor, a middle-aged female bureaucrat, and their own feet, the intrepid heroes of BOOJUM dust themselves off, wipe their own blood up from the floor, and prepare once again to save the world from the plutocratic tyranny of UNSONG. Lights…camera…action!”
They navigated carefully through the ball bearings. They trod around the flour. Erica spoke the Fluvial Name to deflect a swarm of angry bees, and they carefully avoided touching the jeweled idol that Dylan had placed just outside the elevator. For the second time, they came to the door marked MALIA NGO, DIRECTOR. Five invisible terrorists prepared their weapons. Clark, gun in hand, reached very carefully for the door.
A bolt of lightning struck the stage. Multicolored light blossomed in alien geometries. Five weapons in five pairs of hands melted into metallic sludge.
“I AM SOHU WEST,” said the glowing figure in the middle of the light, and the glow faded until they could see her, ringed by symbols and powers beyond their ken. “I MEAN YOU NO HARM. I HAVE COME TO TALK TO ERICA LOWRY. REVEAL YOURSELF.” A wave of hard light swept over the crew, settling on them, highlighting their invisible forms.
“Okay!” shouted Clark Deas. “I have feckin had it with this bollocks. I was quiet through the flour. I was quiet through the dogs. I was even quiet through the feckin ball bearings. But feckin Sohu West? This is completely ridiculous.”
“Mr. Deas,” said Dylan, rising from his director’s chair, “when you joined BOOJUM, you told me you were ready for anything. Shall I take it you wish to amend that statement?”
“I’m with Clark, actually,” said Brenda. “I appreciate what you’re doing, and the special effects are neat, but we’ve only got a few hours to train, and I feel like we need to concentrate on plausible threats. So far we’ve gotten ball bearings, dogs, and now Cometspawn, and we haven’t even dealt with, like, a normal platoon of security guards or anything.”
“My dear Ms. Burns, I already know you can deal with a platoon of guards. The point of this exercise was to test your mettle. In a real fight, are you going to stop what you’re doing and protest to me that what’s happening is ‘unfair’ or ‘implausible’? Or are you going to deal with whatever Nature can throw out at you?”
“I AM SOHU WEST,” said the scintillating figure amidst the storm of light again, insistently. “I MEAN YOU NO HARM, BUT I DEMAND THAT ERICA LOWRY REVEAL HERSELF. I COME BEARING A MESSAGE FROM HER FRIEND, AARON SMITH-TELLER.”
“The hell?” Erica asked Dylan. “I didn’t even tell you that name. Where did you hear about Aaron? And what does he have to do with any of this. I feel like it kind of breaks the realism, you know? Suspension of disbelief? Sohu West caring about Aaron is about as likely as her caring what leftovers I put in my fridge last week.”
“I AM ACTUALLY SOHU WEST,” said Sohu. “THIS IS NOT A TEST. ERICA, I NEED TO SPEAK TO YOU.”
“Look,” said Mark McCarthy. “Dylan’s obviously not going to listen to reason. The faster we get through this whole Sohu thing, the faster we’re getting out of here.”
“Okay, fine,” said Clark. “I shoot Sohu with my gun.” He pointed the melted metal stick at Sohu. “Bang. Bang.”
Sohu stared at him like he was an idiot.
“You can’t shoot the gun!” protested Dylan. “Sohu already melted the guns!”
“I use my backup gun,” said Clark.
“You have a backup gun?” asked Erica.
Now Clark looked at her like she was an idiot. He removed his backup gun from his boot and shot Sohu. The bullet collided with her shield of light, fizzled into nothing.
“Really?” Clark asked Dylan angrily.
Erica stepped forward. “I am Erica Lowry, friend of Aaron Smith-Teller. I represent America! I am not afraid of you! Speak, but know that we are BOOJUM, and even Cometspawn cannot make us afraid!”
“No, look,” said Mark McCarthy. “You can’t just make ritual magic happen by saying exciting-sounding things. You have to prepare it, you have to know what you’re doing.”
“You can totally make placebomancy happen by saying exciting-sounding things,” said Dylan. “I say the girl is doing a good job. Keep going.”
The glowing cloud around Sohu diminished in intensity. “I’m not trying to hurt you,” she said. “But your friend Aaron discovered a Name, and it spread through the kabbalistic link to his friend Ana, and then he realized it must have traveled through another kabbalistic link to you. It’s in your unconscious, waiting until you need it, just like the Spectral Name was at first. I need to get it. Will you let me into your mind?”
“Don’t do it,” said Brenda. “It’s probably some kind of trap.”
“Nah, knowing Dylan it’s probably some sort of stupid placebomantic metaphor,” said Clark. “Probably a Christ myth. Erica’s supposed to offer complete surrender, and then she’s going to come back more powerful than anyone could have possibly imagined.”
“How is this helping us train for a realistic threat?” Brenda continued to protest.
“Okay,” said Erica. “I let Sohu access my mind.”
For a second, she stared into the Cometspawn’s eyes. Something invisible passed between them.
“You’re married,” said Sohu. “To Dylan Alvarez.”
“Do you guys think I should admit it?” she asked Clark and Brenda.
“I say deny everything,” said Brenda.
“Deny it!” said Clark. “Maybe she’ll keep some respect for you!”
“I deny being married to Dylan,” Erica told Sohu. But the Cometspawn had already floated over to Dylan’s director chair. “MIHAN-TAIG-SAROS-ATHTEN-GAHANOR…” she started. The Confounding Name. Dylan’s eyes glassed over briefly.
“There,” she said. “Pretty sure the Universe owes me big for that one. And you too.” She spoke the same word to Erica. “Be glad I don’t have time to deal with whatever else is going on here. But I got what I needed.”
“What?” asked Erica.
“The true Vital Name!” said Sohu, who turned to light and vanished.
For a second, all was quiet. Then: “That was the most feckin’ pointless thing I have ever had to sit through,” protested Clark.
“Just keeping you on your toes!” said Dylan. “I would say your preparation for a sudden manifestation of Cometspawn is a C minus at best.”
“Just glad to be done with this mess,” said Brenda.
“Done? My dear Ms. Burns, we have not yet begun to fight!” Dylan Alvarez sat down on the director’s chair again. “The Assassination Of Malia Ngo. Take nineteen. Having previously tested themselves against ball bearings, dogs, jeweled idols, and an immortal quarter-archangel eight-year-old girl seeking secret Names of God, the intrepid heroes of BOOJUM stop complaining, drop their grievances against their wise and exceptionally handsome leader, and prepare once again to save the world from the plutocratic tyranny of UNSONG. Lights…camera…” He pulled the noise machine out from underneath his chair. “YEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEEYEE!”