aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude א: The Cracks In The Sky

March 14, 1969
Washington, DC

Richard Nixon was confused and upset.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t expected problems. He’d only been on the job six weeks, but he knew a president had to be ready for anything. But “anything” was supposed to mean economic downturns, or crime waves, or The Russians.

Instead Apollo 8 had crashed into some kind of weird space glass, the sky was cracking open, the clouds were forming ominous patterns, and Tuesdays had stopped happening.

The Tuesdays were the most worrying part. For the past three weeks, people all over the world had gone to sleep on Monday and woken up Wednesday. Everything had been in order. The factories had kept running. Lawns had been mowed. Some basic office work had even gotten done. But of the preceding twenty-four hours, no one had any memories.

Today was a Friday, and it had happened three times. The President had gone to sleep Friday night, and woken up Friday morning to a call from the Chief of Staff telling him that everyone was very upset because it was Friday morning again and how was this happening? Everything that had happened in the past twenty-four hours had unhappened, been rolled back somehow. Or maybe everyone’s Saturday-morning consciousness had been shot back into their Friday-morning bodies. He had no idea, and the American people were starting to demand answers.

He’d called the head of the CIA and asked him to get whatever department full of eggheads had covered up Roswell as a weather balloon, tell them to concoct some plausible story for whatever chronological tomfoolery was going on now.

The head of the CIA had just stood there, unflappable. “Mr. President, Roswell was a weather balloon. There was no cover-up. Our organization has no department dedicated to covering up inexplicable events.”

“I’m the [expletive deleted] President, Helms!” Nixon had shouted. “You don’t have to lie to me! Get me your cover-up eggheads immediately!”

“I’m sorry Mr. President,” he said coolly, “there’s no such agency.”

“[expletive deleted] [expletive deleted]”, Nixon had answered. “Get the [expletive deleted] out of here!”

Then he’d gone to NASA, the Department of Defense, and even the [expletive deleted] National Bureau of Standards, which was apparently in charge of timekeeping and which he hadn’t even known [expletive deleted] existed until today. The today before today. Yestertoday. [expletive deleted] [expletive deleted]. None of them had been any more help than the [expletive deleted] CIA.

It was those cracks in the sky. He was sure of it. Apollo 8 had hit something important. The eggheads at NASA had posited some kind of “nebulous envelope” surrounding the orbit of the moon, made of “compressed dust and gas”. Apollo 8’s collision had caused it to “oscillate”, creating the pattern of glowing, growing spiderweb cracks visible to anybody who looked up into the night sky.

Richard Nixon didn’t believe it, and neither, he figured, did anyone else. If only he could find those people who had covered up Roswell. They would know what to do.

For the past three todays, at 7:38 PM sharp, a red phone on his desk had started ringing. This was worrying for two reasons.

First, the red phone was the symbol of the nuclear hotline between the US and Russia, the last-ditch line of communication to prevent a nuclear war.

Second, the red phone was the symbol of the nuclear hotline. It was a prop he kept on his desk to show reporters. The actual nuclear hotline connected to a large and foreboding machine at the Pentagon that didn’t look nearly as good in pictures. The red phone on his desk wasn’t connected to a phone line and, as far as he knew, didn’t even have a ringer in it.

The first today it started ringing, he’d stared at it for like three minutes before he finally, dumbly, picked it up. The voice on the other end was saying something he couldn’t understand. It occurred to him that the people who monitored the actual nuclear hotline probably spoke Russian.

The second today, he’d been suspicious that it would ring again at the same time, so he’d called an interpreter to the Oval Office. At 7:38 PM, the interpreter had picked it up. “Allo,” the interpreter had said, then started looking more and more puzzled. “This isn’t Russian,” he had said. Then, “This isn’t related to any language I know.” Then, “I don’t think this is a real language.” A few hours later he’d sent over an analysis from the State Department, which concluded that the “language” consisted of the names of the capitals of various 16th-century European countries, arranged in seemingly random combinations.

Today today, Nixon hadn’t bothered. He just sat in the Oval Office doing work. He had been meeting with a man from the Weather Bureau, who wanted to tell him that the clouds were forming ominous patterns. Nixon hadn’t bought it. “I’m the [expletive deleted] President of the United States,” he had told the man, “Do you want me to [expletive deleted] tell you if it’s a cold front or a warm front?”

The man had clarified that he meant really ominous patterns. Like, some big thunderstorms in the Rockies were starting to develop high anvil-like peaks – which was within normal variability for this time of year – but also starting to develop domes and minarets and flying buttresses – which weren’t. And although the Doppler radar didn’t have good enough resolution to be sure, some of the buttresses were starting to look like they might have gargoyles on them.

And before Nixon could say anything, the man had added that a Category 5 hurricane was forming in the Gulf of Mexico, and it was only March, and this literally never happened before July, and something was really wrong here…

It was then, at 7:38 PM, that the red phone started ringing. He considered not picking it up, but at least it would be differently confusing.

To his surprise, the voice on the other end now spoke perfect English.

“HELLO PRESIDENT NIXON. THIS IS THE ARCHANGEL URIEL. I APOLOGIZE FOR RECENT DISRUPTIONS. THE MACHINERY OF THE UNIVERSE HAS BEEN SEVERELY DAMAGED. I AM WORKING TO CONTAIN THE EFFECTS, BUT AT THIS POINT MY POWER IS LIMITED BECAUSE I AM STILL MOSTLY METAPHORICAL. PLEASE INFORM EVERYONE THAT I REGRET THE INCONVENIENCE. AS COMPENSATION FOR YOUR TROUBLE, I HAVE GIVEN EVERY HUMAN THE ABILITY TO PLAY THE PIANO.”

“Wait just a moment here,” said Nixon. “Wait just an [expletive deleted] moment!”

No response.

The head of the Weather Bureau stared at the president shouting into a toy red telephone used as a prop for reporters and visibly unconnected to any phone line.

“Excuse me just a minute,” said the president.

“Of course,” said the bureaucrat.

President Nixon stepped out of the Oval Office and walked downstairs. He went down the corridor connecting the West Wing to the White House proper and entered the East Room, where Franklin Roosevelt’s great Steinway piano stood on the hardwood floor.

He sat down on the piano bench and performed a flawless rendition of Bach’s Concerto I in D Minor.

“[expletive deleted],” said the president.

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94 Responses to Interlude א: The Cracks In The Sky

  1. Disappointing historical fact: Most of those [expletive deleted]s were really just “damn” and such.

  2. 75th says:

    “Yestertoday”. GOLD.

    Also, several typos here involving the letter ‘n’. Some ‘a’s that should be ‘an’s, some ‘an’s that should be ‘a’s. Probability that there’s something to my ‘un’ observation from Chapter 1 very, very slightly raised. Still don’t quite buy it. Yet.

    • Maximilianshade says:

      I had to comment just to agree that ‘Yestertoday’ is a truly excellent word.

      • duckduckMOO says:

        My comment was going to be

        “The today before today. Yestertoday.”

        -godlike

        I suppose it still is, in a manner of speaking, at the very least

        fuckin’ godlike

  3. JRM says:

    Fun!

    But I had a flashback to Twin Peaks. I realize you young ‘uns (GET OFF MY LAWN) don’t remember the show, but it started incredibly promisingly with all these interesting things and then sort of left them there becoming more and more frustrating. (The guy whose lawn I’m on says he saw The Prisoner in the 1960’s, which had the same problem, but worse because they were prouder of their mescaline use.)

    I am uncertain of the most effective threats to deter going full Twin Peaks, so I will leave it to the imagination of Scott to tell us what they are, and then we can make them. (Scott should do this as a utilitarian good, because when you do Twin Peaks-level harm to people, you are a bad person and should feel bad, and disincentivizing same is a good.)

    Anyway, I’m optimistic that Scott has an actual plot where these things will fit together. If not, I will send angry and marginally coherent legal threats under his name to well-known bloggers. Best I’ve got right now.

    • patient one says:

      This is like the start of Lost. Just stop reading/watching, wait a few years for it to end, and then ask a fan if the ending was satisfying or a shaggy dog.

      • Dave says:

        NO NO NO. Lost actually makes sense if you watch it all the way through and pay close attention. At least it does the second time.

    • Jason GL says:

      This story is funny enough and fresh enough that I don’t care of the plot goes nowhere faster than a nanogram-mass black hole. Keep writing! 🙂

    • Jack V says:

      I am really annoyed by stories which allude to a bunch of stuff and never resolve it, but it’s difficult. Often the set-up is sufficiently good it plentifully justifies a story all by itself. There are lots of stories about paddling around on the edges of deeper mysteries, where “not being resolved” is part of it.

      But there’s a mistake in lying, by the creators directly and implicitly through the art, SAYING there is a resolution and people pointing out flaws are just small-minded idiots who can’t wait for the big picture… and dragging it on, and on, and on, and on, and then eventually tying everything up with a contrived excuse that doesn’t actually answer anything.

      Babylon 5 did this well some of the time, the first season _wrapped up_ the mysteries in the first season, but those revealed in turn _bigger_ mysteries in the next season. Then there were two seasons of big galaxy-spanning stuff. Then it ratcheted back down to dealing with smaller more personal problems that had been spun off the larger conflict.

      Neither “constantly escalating with no resolution” nor “coincidentally bringing in unrelated problems one per season” are equally satisfying.

      But there’s no point saying, “please tie this up well”. Usually people don’t have a lot of choice! Either they start with an idea of how it ties together, and drop hints from the beginning, or they are good at writing beginnings and have no idea how to tie it together any more than the readers do.

      But I’m 90% sure Scott has a good plan, even if it doesn’t turn out perfectly 🙂

      • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

        11 months on, most of the stuff in this chapter makes perfect sense – from the random language on the telephone to the hurricane to the developing cloud fortresses.

        Scott followed through.

  4. transfuturist says:

    This…

    This is [expletive deleted] magnificent!

  5. Daniel Blank says:

    Theories as to the nature, goals, and extent of power of the higher powers?

    • ADifferentAnonymous says:

      The “mostly metaphorical” bit could indicate a Pratchettian dynamic where belief causes existence.

  6. Thecommexokid says:

    Well I’ll be damned if I know how we get from a world with no Tuesdays but extra Fridays and an apologetic archangel on a prop phone to the now relatively sane-seeming exploit-the-Kaballah-for-fun-and-profit (prophet?) world of Chapter 1, but I can say that this is certainly the funniest thing I’ve experienced all week.

  7. Russel says:

    Now, this was funny and seriously spooky, but the names of the capitals of various 16th-century European countries sound like “London, Paris, Vien, Madrid, Krakow, Stockholm, Venesia, London…”. If we’re including the capitals of the holy roman empire, it sounds suspiciously like German. Change to 16th Century India? “Vijayanagara, Ahmednagar, Fatehpur Sikri” would sound spooky to the White House.

  8. Willy says:

    Loved the first chapter, absolutely love the general idea of gematriya/kabbalah/science/crazy_world, but not a fan of the format in this chapter.

    The tension of the story just popped with the satiric format of this interlude. Personally not a fan of the style of this interlude…it feels like a lazy way to introduce humor and explain the setting.

    • 27chaos says:

      Same.

      • Chrysophylax says:

        Not at all the same. I was as happy with this interlude as with the preceding chapter. They’re different. That doesn’t mean that one’s bad.

    • If you don’t want to read things that are not directly and immediately related to the main plot, skip all Interludes and check back here on Sundays only.

      • Quixote says:

        Just want to say that I love this. There are many serious works in the world but far fewer smart and funny ones.

        I could probably name 20 top flight serious sci-fi authors without needing to stop and think, but only 1 in the Douglas Adams vein. I can come up with more with a bit of thought and add another 2 if I allow fantasy (Prattchet and RA Wilson).

        So basically the world needs more smart funny. Stick to the humor. Don’t let people inclined to take everything too seriously drag you off course.

        • Thank you. That really helps.

          I think it’s good to lay my cards on the table early. There will be a lot of things in the vein of Chapter 1. But there will also be a lot of things in the vein of this chapter, and many that are both. To some degree you can avoid this by avoiding the Interludes, but if people don’t like my style I’d rather they figure that out early.

          I will say that this isn’t throwaway humor, that this plotline gets developed pretty seriously and with a lot of relevance to the main story, and that I hope you develop some attachment to it before I switch to the other one full time and you don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

          • I liked this chapter, and the humor in it, I just found the change in tone and subject matter to be jarring (in this case). So maybe what I’ll do is skip the interludes and then read through them as their own story? Or read them as different stories in different genres that happen to share a theme?

          • I think it’s more likely that I accidentally pitched the first chapter too serious. As that storyline continues you might find the tone kind of converging with this one. If that’s true, maybe when I’m done with all this I’ll rewrite the first chapter to make sure it doesn’t tonally promise anything I’m not going to be able to sustain.

        • Jack V says:

          I think Scott excels with things that are funny but maybe profound as well. And obviously that’s going to suit some people but not others.

          I think it’s often difficult publishing the first few chapters of something when you’re already have a lot of followers, people are always going to have mixed reactions, and be put off by things that resolve later.

          The tone shift between the two chapters did jar me a bit, but I’m used to that from Scott, even when the balance between “serious” and “funny” feels a bit off, the stories are usually really really good so I generally endorse “keep doing what you’re doing”…

      • Muga Sofer says:

        I must say, I’m feeling pretty pleased with my prediction that everyone else was underestimating how funny this was going to be.

      • From my own experience of your fiction, I’d say you do funny better than you do serious, so I don’t think your readers have too much to worry about.

      • I usually enjoy interludes, comedic or otherwise. Some of my favorite authors do them. And then people like DFW, who either having no interludes or nothing but interludes or who cause you to ask what the difference between the two is.

  9. R Flaum says:

    At least in our world, Richard Nixon already knew how to play the piano. He famously went on the Jack Paar show in 1961 to play an original composition of his.

  10. Joseph says:

    Hmm…
    John 7:38 states, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” In Rabbinic canon, water is often interpreted as a symbol of Torah. In addition, 7:38 refers to two aspects of Albert Mehrabian’s theory of interpersonal communication, which states that communication is made up of 7% spoken words, 38% tone, and 55% body language. The only aspect of this triad missing in Uriel’s communication is body language, comprising 55%. “HaYam”, Hebrew for “The ocean”, has a gematria of 55. The Ocean is the living water. In addition, the phrase “Nimtzeu Malchut HaYam”, (we will find (or discover) the kingship of water) has a gematria of 738. Water is mentioned in Genesis in the context of separating the “waters of the Earth and the waters of the Sky.” The Heavens are also referenced as “HaMayim MeAl HaShamaim,” The waters above the sky, which are also related with the aforementioned Torah, especially in such close proximity to the Divine. In that sense, Heaven could aptly be referred to as the Kingdom of Water , which Humanity has just discovered. And lo, all this was prophesied in Scott’s choice of time. Truly.

  11. pku says:

    As a hebrew speaker, starting with interlude א makes perfect sense to me.

    As a mathematician, it makes me want to run away screaming about all the ways in which starting a count with uncountable cardinals (THAT’S NOT EVEN AN ORDINAL! AND HOW CAN YOU EVEN REACH AN UNCOUNTABLE SET, LET ALONE SO FAST?!!).

    • endoself says:

      א isn’t a cardinal, it’s a function from ordinals to cardinals α ↦ אα.

      • endoself says:

        (That’s supposed to be a subscript α.)

      • pku says:

        Huh, turns out you’re right. I always thought you could use א for the cardinality of the continuum.

      • anon says:

        Technically speaking it’s not a function since functions are defined using a domain set and a codomain set and since there is no set of all ordinals.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          That is some extreme nitpicking, man.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Hm — is there no “edit” function? Oh well.

            To clarify: The reason I call it that is because if everyone actually insisted on saying “class function” or “class map” or “class operation” or what have you everytime you discussed a function whose domain or target was a proper class, it would just add a lot of words while adding approximately zero extra clarity.

          • Jack V says:

            Now, now, you’ll anon’s head all swelled 🙂

  12. Fun bit, though was mostly looking forward to building momentum on chapter 1’s storyline. The [expletive deleted]s get old and hamper smooth readability.

    • Jason K. says:

      I’m a little late to the party, but I expect that the “[expletive deleted]”s were a reference to the White House transcripts that came out through Watergate, which were similarly censored.

  13. Muga Sofer says:

    First, the red phone was the symbol of the nuclear hotline between the US and Russia, the last-ditch line of communication to prevent a nuclear war.

    Second, the red phone was the symbol of the nuclear hotline. It was a prop he kept on his desk to show reporters. The actual nuclear hotline connected to a large and foreboding machine at the Pentagon that didn’t look nearly as good in pictures.

    This is the greatest work of fiction ever conceived by man.

    This chapter seems indicative of a specific jumping-off point rather than a whole parallel history – nukes still exist, no mention of the Names of God, suspicious supernatural event that could alter the laws of physics. Still, not enough information to tell yet; there’s the alternate “Hallelujah” lyrics to consider, and the fact that golem seem to be fairly old/compliant with legend.

  14. Deiseach says:

    No Tuesdays, but extra Fridays – so no Saturdays? No weekends (or rather, only a one-day weekend)? No wonder people are angry!

    Or is it that the week is stuck on Friday? The day is repeating over and over again, à la “Groundhog Day”, so tomorrow will be Friday, and the day after that will be Friday, etc.?

    You introduced the Planetary Intelligences! I love that!

    I am also immensely enjoying the scrabbling around for “natural” explanations of the phenomena. They can’t be supernatural because that doesn’t exist! It has to be… compressed gas and dust… oscillating. Yeah!

  15. NOAA wasn’t formed until 1970. The cloud guy would have been from the Weather Bureau.

  16. Jeff Kaufman says:

    “the White House proper and entered the East Room, where Franklin Roosevelt’s great Steinway piano stood on the old hardwood floor.”

    Nit: in our universe the Whitehouse floors in 1969 were only about twenty years old. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House_Reconstruction

  17. Scott Elliot says:

    I’m secretly hoping that humanity’s piano-playing ability will be some sort of Chekhov’s Gun. I just have a gut feeling that any highly rhythmic and predictably repeatable skill shared by all humans could be weaponized.

    • Deiseach says:

      Music of the Spheres? And all the Pythagoreans start cackling wildly “They said we were crazy, but who’s laughing now?”

      • Thecommexokid says:

        Particularly when humanity goes to bed one Monday night, wakes up Wednesday morning, and discovers that in the intervening Tuesday that no one can remember, it seems as though in all the pantries in all the world, the beans have climbed out of their cans and gathered together in the local government buildings. Concerning not only because it confirms their age-old fear of beans, but also because it looks as though the beans’ legislative agenda is worrysomely liberal.

  18. The interlude numbers are either Hebrew numerals, or just the Hebrew letters in order. I think it’s more likely to be the former, but if it’s the latter then we can probably infer that there will be exactly 22 interludes. We’ll find out when the eleventh interlude occurs.

  19. Parsimony says:

    Just to note, when I first read “Today was a Friday, and it had happened three times.”, I thought ‘it’ was referring to the disappearing Tuesday from the previous paragraph. On a meta-level, the fact that I got confused might well fit with the theme of the text, but perhaps “Today was now a Friday for the third time in a row” would have worked too…

    • Soumynona says:

      Same here.

      Maybe because the previous two paragraphs look like a complete list of all weird things that are currently happening and there’s no mention of the Friday time loop.

  20. Ryan says:

    And so begins UNSONG, the epic tale of a world of piano savants competing for supremacy.

    There can be only one
    one two one
    one two three two one
    one two three four three two one
    one two three four five four three two one
    one two three four five six five four three two one
    one two three four five six seven six five four three two one
    one two three four five six seven eight seven six five four three two one
    one two three four five six seven six five four three two one
    one two three four five six five four three two one
    one two three four five four three two one
    one two three four three
    one two three two one
    one two one
    one

  21. Jan Rzymkowski says:

    Now it’s getting more and more Romantically Apocalyptic. You’re seriously mixing some of my favourite things in the world.

  22. AlexL says:

    Since no one has said it:
    “not a [expletive deleted] coincidence, etc.”

  23. arachnid says:

    the president is in my head
    the president is in my head

  24. JGWeissman says:

    Scott, are you a fan of Allan Sherman? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8RW5hDKrZE

  25. Toggle says:

    Nixon/Uriel is now my OTP.

  26. corwex says:

    “[F]or like three minutes” jarred with me a bit, since it sounds entirely too modern and not ’68-ish, but since I’m not American and English isn’t even my first language, that might well just be me.

    Anyway, can’t wait for more, and a belated thank you to Scott for recommending Nostalgebraist’s The Northern Caves on his blog – that one really forced me to dial down my scepticism towards longer self-web-published pieces.

  27. fight me says:

    scott i love you, you are a gift to this world, never stop posting

  28. Yan says:

    The decision to give everyone piano skills reminds me of this article about what happens when MMOs are shut down: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/01/when-a-video-game-world-ends/423360/

    ‘The last moments of Star Wars Galaxies and The Matrix Online stand out among MMO apocalypses as a conscious attempt to script a proper “end” to their universes, whether celebratory or catastrophic. Most titles, though, take a simpler route: passing out free high-level gear or experience boosts to offer players a sense of closure, however insufficient. In its final months, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean Online offered players double gold, double XP, and unlocked all the game’s content for all its players’

  29. Murphy says:

    For some reason it bothers me that this has no kingjamesprogramming quite.

  30. Sniffnoy says:

    Thought: Did they have Doppler radar for weather back in 1969? I don’t think they did.

    • Carl Feynman says:

      They did have weather radar in 1968. I had the same thought, but I googled the answer before asking the question here.

  31. asdf says:

    Wow, the ability to play piano, I’m sure that helps the billions of people that don’t have access to a piano.

  32. Fj says:

    No such agency, ha, he’s lying, so Roswell was aliens too!

  33. Sniffnoy says:

    I’m wondering now if there’s any significance to the calls always occurring at 7:38 (or should that be 19:38?)…

    • LPSP says:

      Genesis 19:38:

      “And the younger, she also bare, a son, and called his name Ben-ammi: the same is the father of the children of Ammon unto this day.”

      • LPSP says:

        You have to go through a fair few books of Moses before you find another 18:38. Joshua:

        “And Iron, and Migdal-el, Horem, and Beth-anath, and Beth-shemesh; nineteen cities with their villages.”

      • LPSP says:

        The 18 is obviously a typo. You then have to go to the second book of Samuel to find another 19:38 –

        “And the king answered, Chimham shall go over with me, and I will do to him that which shall seem good unto thee: and whatsoever thou shalt require of me, that will I do for thee.”

      • LPSP says:

        …okay, so bear with me folks. I was flipping through the Old Testament looking for examples of 19:38s – which I can tell you thus far have been alarmingly rare, with an annoying pretuberence of chapter 19s that end conspicuously on line 37 to boot – when, I swear to god, I found a winking smiley face.

        Esther 1:14, at least in my copy of the bible (a commemorative from Princess Diana’s wedding) goes:

        “And the next unto him was Carshena, Shethar, Admatha, Tarshish, Meres, Marsena, and Memucan, the seven princes of Persia and Media, whoch saw the king’s face, and which sat the first in the kingdom;)”

        This comes right after the king (Ahaseurus) loses his temper over his wife’s unwillingness to get nekkid in front of everyone for his amusement, and right before he startes moving to get a new wife. There’s no open bracket waiting to be closed in the text prior, and there’s only a loose justification for the semi-colon as well.

        It’s almost like the writer of the passage knew we’d read this years later and interpret it as a flirtatious and knowing gesture, foretelling the calumny to come.

  34. Gizmo Ziv says:

    Tuesday is the only day of the week which is declared ‘tov’ / ‘good’ on TWO occasions. Suddenly the good, good day of the week is missing?

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