aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Interlude י: The Broadcast

The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was spreading a catchy quote denying all tricks greater than the one about faking nonexistence.
Steven Kaas

[Content warning: Part II of this chapter contains graphic scenes including references to Hell, gore, rape, psychological torture, and death. Some commenters are saying it was excessive even beyond the level suggested by this content warning, so take that into account. If you don’t want to read it, you can skip to Part III without missing too much plot-wise. Thanks to Pyth for helping out as Hell Consultant.]

I.

After three months living with Ana, she learned that I hadn’t seen the Broadcast.

We’d been talking about theodicy, as usual. Ana was explaining how the Cainites had made the terrible mistake of trying to munchkin Biblical morality.

Munchkin-ing is this idea from role-playing games where instead of trying to tell a good story, you search for weird little loopholes that violate the spirit of the rules and make things much too easy. The Bible says – check your Luke 15:6 – that “in heaven there will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine souls that are righteous and have no need of repentance.” Solve for maximum rejoicing in heaven, and the obvious munchkin solution is to deliberately sin in order to repent later. Add some common-sense assumptions about the relationship between magnitude of crime and magnitude of repentance-related heavenly rejoicing, and…well, you can see where this is going.

Ana was against the Cainites. I was provisionally for them.

“You can’t just follow the letter of the law and not its spirit!” Ana was protesting.

“Holy frick you’re a kabbalist and now you’re against the letter of the law? Forget the letter! We’re supposed to believe that even the tiny extra dots and brushstrokes on some of the letters in the Bible have special meaning! When God said you couldn’t start a fire on the Sabbath, and the rabbis interpreted that to mean you couldn’t use electricity either, the Israelis just went ahead and programmed all their elevators to constantly go up and down stopping on every floor, because then you could enter and not push buttons and you wouldn’t technically be the one initiating the electricity. The whole point of the kabbalah is that God wouldn’t include something in the Bible that you could interpret a certain way unless He meant you to have that interpretation. And you’re saying a really really obvious thing not just suggesting that repentance is better than righteousness but actually giving a numerical conversion factor was a mistake?”

“You’re talking about the Jewish Bible,” said Ana. “The Christians don’t do things that way. And God knew the Christians wouldn’t do things that way, so He wouldn’t insert that kind of complicated subtext in the Christian Bible.”

“God couldn’t stop adding complicated subtext to save His life,” I said. “How does that Galileo quote go? I cannot believe that the same God who hath endowed us with the tendency to overinterpret things in clever self-serving ways intended us to forego its use.”

Ana swatted my face playfully.

“What was that for?”

“I cannot believe that the same God who hath endowed me with a hand to slap you with intended me to forego its use.”

“Careful,” I said, picking up a big pillow from the couch. “God hath endowed me with a pillow.”

“You wouldn’t,” said Ana.

I swung it at her really hard, barely missing a table full of books and a potted plant. “See,” I said, as it hit her in the face. “I hereby repent of doing that. And now Heaven rejoices over me more than you.”

“But seriously,” said Ana, and she was serious now. “Why would God put a verse in the Bible calculated to make us want to be as sinful as possible? What if someone goes on a murder spree or something?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But we know that ‘serpent’ has the same gematria value as ‘messiah’, and that kabbalists since time immemorial have been saying that there’s some deep sense in which evil is the key to redemption. Also, God created a universe filled with evil. That was definitely a thing that happened.”

“Tell me about it,” said Ana.

I decided to take her literally. “Look. We know God has to desire evil on some level. Otherwise He wouldn’t have created Thamiel and set him loose in the universe to promote it. So why not actually put something in the Bible that sufficiently defective people will use as an excuse to be evil?”

“You’re heading towards repentance theodicy,” said Ana. “The theory that the reason God put evil in the Universe was that repentance is so great, and without evil you can’t repent. But I…don’t see it. Repentance is great because it makes there stop being evil. We celebrate repentance more than we maybe do with constant saintliness because we want to send a big signal to other evildoers that we will welcome and celebrate them if they stop being evil. Somebody beating me up and then saying sorry and he won’t do it again is preferable to somebody beating me up and intending to continue to do so. But not to never getting beaten up in the first place.”

“Eh,” I said. “Maybe God just happens to like repentance for its own sake. It wouldn’t be the weirdest thing He ever did. I mean, He created the platypus.”

“See, this is what I hate about theodicy!” said Ana. “Everyone just wants to dismiss it and say maybe God is weird. Like, of course God is weird! But it needs to be a kind of weird that makes sense. It has to have deeper patterns and be ultimately scrutable. I really don’t think that the same God who hath endowed us with reason intended us to forego its use.”

“The Universe sucks,” I said. “Deal with it.”

“The whole problem is that we can’t deal with it! If the universe just sucked a little, we could deal with it. But nobody can deal with the full extent of the universe’s suckiness. Not when it happens to them personally. Not even when they witness it first hand. The only reason anyone can deal with it at all is because they never really think about it, they keep it off in their peripheral vision where it never really shows up clearly. It’s like how everybody knew Hell existed, but nobody freaked out until they saw the Broadcast.”

“I can’t speak to that,” I said. “Never saw the Broadcast myself.”

Ana was startled. “Really? Why not?”

So the first reason was that it was a TV broadcast and there was no television anymore. TV broadcasting had stopped working sometime around the mid-1980s, before I was born. A victim of the general if weirdly non-uniform decay in technology and the physical laws that supported it. The Internet still worked, but for reasons no one had been able to figure out it couldn’t handle video or audio, even though the programmers swore back and forth that it ought to be easy. The only visual technology that still ran consistently – besides old-fashioned film reels – was VHS tapes. Some people said Thamiel had specifically intervened to keep VHS running, for the sake of the Broadcast – obviously no one was going to play it in a movie theater. But without any reason to have a TV, that didn’t matter much. If you wanted to watch the Broadcast, you had to hunt down someone with a TV, hunt down a VCR, and hunt down a taped copy of the Broadcast, which was either illegal or just not done.

The second reason was that I was scared. The Broadcast had destroyed the original United States, driven a lot of people insane, even made a couple commit suicide despite that maybe being literally the worst possible response to its contents. I like to think of myself as a dabbler in forbidden mysteries, but the Broadcast just had the wrong ratio of enticing-to-horrifying.

“Uh,” I said. “Never got around to it, I guess.”

“I have a TV and a VCR down in the basement! Let’s watch it now!”

“…why do you have a TV and VCR in the basement?”

“I wanted to see the Broadcast! You don’t think I’ve been studying theodicy for years and never saw it, do you? I went to yard sale after yard sale until I found the right equipment and I ordered the tape from the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire. You can get anything from the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire if you pay enough money. And the Broadcast is special. It’s a part of history. It’s epic.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“No, really. I once had an English teacher who had this whole convoluted definition for ‘epic’. To be an epic, a work has to begin in media res, take place in multiple lands, contain a long catalog of objects, include a talking ship, feature divine intervention, et cetera. But most of all, it had to have a journey into Hell.”

“A talking ship?”

“Something about the Argonauts,” said Ana. “My English teacher said it was a big deal, but I’m pretty sure it’s optional. But then I started thinking. American history starts in media res – there were already cultures on this continent for centuries before 1776. It takes place in multiple countries – America, Canada, Mexico, then later on Cuba, the Philippines, France, Germany, Japan. There’s a catalog – the Census. There’s divine intervention a-plenty. And now there’s the Broadcast. A journey into Hell. That clinched it. We’re all in an epic.”

“Still no talking ship.”

“THE TALKING SHIP IS OPTIONAL. Are you going to watch the Broadcast or not?”

II.

Daniel Santoni had been a beloved National Geographic presenter until his untimely death on an expedition to the Himalayas. He’d also been a serial womanizer with a reputation for harassing his subordinates at work. His death had been mourned by his millions of fans, and met with quiet relief by those closest to him.

Now he stood in front of a pair of gates, twice the height of a man, made of some metal that had long since tarnished into a uniform black. They were set in a great rectangular doorframe, and the doorframe was set in a flat stone surface that stretched past the borders of the scene. It was unclear if it was a floor, ceiling, or wall, and Santoni did not appear to be standing on any particular surface. The doors and their frame were filled with sinuous sculptures of writhing men and women whose faces seemed to be melting into nightmarishly distorted expressions. The intricacy of the work was astounding, like a thousand sculptors had worked on it for a thousand years to get every detail right. Written on them in Gothic blackletter were the words ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. Above them was also a banner reading WELCOME, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

“Welcome,” Santoni told his audience. His voice sounded thin and reedy, and nobody who watched the Broadcast came away thinking Santoni was doing this of his own free will. There were no visible bruises, but he still looked traumatized. “Me and some of my…old crew…have come here to show you a…very special National Geographic special on…Hell.”

There was a soundtrack, but it was the same kind of anti-music I had heard once before on a recording of Thamiel’s audience with the president. I wished there were subtitles so I could have turned it off.

“Most people think the words on these gates were written by demons to sound foreboding, but that’s not quite right. This is the outside of the gates, where the demons’ sway is lesser. This warning was written as helpful advice by some friendly power.”

The gates of Hell opened, and Santoni and his crew stepped inside. The camera view wheeled around. The inside of the gates said “KEEP HOPING, SUCKERS”.

“Despair has a certain numbing quality,” said Santoni. He sounded like he was speaking from personal experience. “For the demons of Hell, keeping hope alive is a psychological torture, almost as important as the physical tortures they inflict. For more, we join Ga’ashekelah, Lord of the Fourth Circle.”

The scene shifted to a sort of crypt-like office. The furniture was made of people, their bodies broken in unimaginable ways and reformed into chairs and tables. Ga’ashekelah looked like a giant with the head of a panther, except made entirely of snarling mouths. A lower third gave his position as “Torture Expert”. He sat down on a chair made of two people intertwined together in an anatomically impossible way; both screamed silently as he lowered himself down onto them.

“Every couple of years a sinner is in Hell, we arrange some kind of apparent escape opportunity,” the demon told Santoni. “After you’ve been tortured for a century, all your skin flayed off piece by piece then carefully replaced for the next flaying a hundred times in succession, raped in every orifice of your body including the ones you don’t have yet, all your fingernails and toenails pulled off one by one then reattached then pulled off again nonstop for a decade by a demon with a weird fetish for that kind of thing – after that we have a demon come to you and say there’s been a mistake in the cosmic recording, you’re actually supposed to be in Heaven after all. We shower you with apologies, clean you up, and send a party of dignitaries to escort you to the gates. Then when you’re thanking God through a flood of tears for your deliverance, we laugh and bring you right back to fingernail-guy, who wants another hundred years with you.”

He shook his head. “And the fun thing about humans is that you never learn. After another century we can do the exact same thing, every word the same except an ‘and this time we mean it’ at the end, and you’ll still believe us, because the alternative is to admit you’re stuck forever, and you never learn to abandon hope. Once you stop falling for this one, we get more creative. We have a fellow captive tell you he’s learned a secret Name that will finally kill you, grant you the oblivion you crave. He’ll demonstrate by having a few other people say it, and they’ll drop dead on the spot. Overjoyed by the opportunity, you’ll speak the Name and…we’ll all show up and laugh at you. The fellow captives were all confederates. The Name is a nonsense word, or a phrase cursing God in a forgotten language. We can get more creative than that, but I shouldn’t reveal all my secrets. You’re probably surprised I’m even telling you this at all, but the thing is, it doesn’t matter. Put someone through enough pain, and they’ll be willing to believe anything that promises a moment’s relief. Dial the pain up far enough, and you have no idea what idiot hopes people are willing to believe. So yes. Our side of the door says KEEP HOPING, SUCKERS. And you will.”

Santoni’s narration was crisp Mid-Atlantic English with an undertone of horror. “That was Ga’ashekelah, one of the many demons created by Thamiel out of the energy released by the death of Satan, talking about the psychological tortures of Hell. But the physical tortures…” He stopped speaking suddenly, then started to shake and mumble to himself. The scene cut out, and the documentary resumed as if nothing had happened on a plain of iron spotted with towers of iron cages. There was something plant-like and organic to the way they grew in little clusters. Every cage was packed so densely with people that there was no room for movement, only the ones on the outside being able to stretch limbs through the bars and wiggle them around feebly.

“Most of Hell looks like this,” said Santoni. Now there were visible bruises on his face. “The people in these cages…you can’t see it from this vantage point, but the temperature is above a thousand degrees. Those iron bars are molten hot. The sort of bodies these people have, they can’t burn, but they can still feel heat just as intensely as the living. More intensely. They don’t need food to live, but hunger pangs are just as intense. They don’t need water, but the thirst is…” He cut himself off. “There’s another difference between their bodies and ours, which is that their minds don’t break and they don’t acclimate…the thousandth day here is just as bad as the first…” He looked toward someone off camera. “Please don’t make me continue…don’t…” Some kind of signal I couldn’t see. “We’re going to interview some of these people, see what…”

He held the microphone up to somebody whose mouth was pressed up against the edge of the cage.

“HEEEEEEEEEEEEEELLLLLLLPPPPPP!” screamed the damned into the microphone, so loud that I jumped and Ana had to put her hand on my knee to stop me from shaking. Then they all started talking and screaming at once. I could only make out one or two snatches:

“I’m Mabel Riggs of 242 Oval Street in Minneapolis, if anyone remembers me, please, do something, I pray, please, I’ll do anything, oh God, you have to…”

“SHUT UP!” yelled the man who was pressed so close to her that I worried her bones might break against the bars of the cage. “SHUT UP YOU BITCH. GIVE ME THE MICROPHONE. I’M…”

A brief scuffle, then the camera was upright again and we were looking at a burning skull, who was identified as “Gamchicoth, Torture Expert”. “We put a lot of effort into matching people with the right cage-mates,” Gamchicoth was saying. “We look through a database of everyone who’s ever lived to find the people you’ll like least, maximize the clash of personalities…”

I turned to Ana. “I don’t want to watch any more of this.”

“You have to watch it,” she said, which was so out of character for her that it was almost as scary as the scene on the TV.

“What? No I don’t!”

“You tried to dismiss the problem of evil!” she said. “You tried to just say ‘God does lots of weird stuff’, as if this – ” she gestured at the screen, “was of the same magnitude as the platypus! You want to see why theodicy is a hard problem? Watch!”

When I finally managed to turn my eyes back to the television set, Santoni talking to a pitch-black featureless demon whose name was given as “Thagirion, Torture Expert”. Apparently Hell had a lot of torture experts. They were on another dreary grey plain, broken by blocky black buildings. Trees grew here, although the trunks were made of iron and the leaves were dull gray and wept blood. Carriages drawn by pitiful lacerated slaves were coming back and forth down a stony road, full of food and wine and other luxuries. The sides of the road were lined with severed heads impaled on tall pikes, and some of the heads were moving slightly in a way that didn’t look like wind.

“Some of the demons have nicknamed this place Brimstone Acres,” Thagirion was saying. “It’s the nice part of Hell – relatively speaking, of course. We reserve it for the worst sinners. Hitler has a villa here. So do Beria and LaLaurie. It’s basic incentive theory. If the worst sinners got the worst parts of Hell, then people who were pretty sure they were hellbound might still hold back a little bit in order to make their punishment a little more tolerable. We try to encourage the opposite. If you know you’re going to Hell, you should try to sin more, much more, as much as possible, in the hopes of winning one of these coveted spots. And that’s just the beginning. There were some bad people who died in Stalinist Russia, and I like making sure every one of them knows that Beria is having a great time right now. Food, drink, and of course all the slaves he could possibly need for whatever purposes he likes. Whatever purposes. All the people selected to be his slaves being the people who hate him the most, naturally, which is the icing on the cake. These places pay for themselves, evil-wise. I just give everyone who died in the Holocaust a little magic stone that lets them know what Hitler’s doing at any given moment, and you wouldn’t believe how they howl.”

At this point I was mostly covering my face with a pillow and whimpering. I honestly think I missed most of the Broadcast, or that it was repressed from my memory, or something. I think at some point Ana brought me a glass of water, or started stroking my head, but I know she wouldn’t let me go and it never occurred to me to leave without her say-so. I just sat there, the sights and sounds passing through me like I was a zombie. I couldn’t have told you how long or short it was.

But I remember the last scene. It was another plain full of cages, placed a little more sparsely than the last bunch. Between them, smaller iron growths – shrubs, if the cages were trees – held individual sinners receiving individual attention from individual demons. The noise was nearly solid, indecipherable, more like hitting a brick wall ears-first than hearing a lot of people screaming at once. The collected visuals had a similar effect. I couldn’t decide where to look. As I started to make out individual forms, I could see some of these cages were full of children. There was a big demon with ram-like horns – the documentary named him as “Golachab, Bioethicist”, and he was going cage by cage, blinding each child by ripping the eyes out of their sockets, which grew back in moments. The ground underfoot was obscured by a thick layer of crushed eyeballs.

“We have your mother here,” said Golachab.

“I’ll torture her for a thousand years,” said the boy. “Two thousand! I’ll do whatever kind of torture you want on her! The thing with the spiders you showed me that one time! I’ll make up new tortures, worse than you’ve ever seen! I promise!”

“One of the great things about suckers who never give up hope,” Golachab told Santoni and the camera, “is that they try to bargain their way out. For the tiniest shred of a possibility of a ticket out, or even a less crowded cage, or maybe a couple weeks’ reprieve from the ministrations of some of the worse demons, you have no idea what people will offer. No stoic suffering here. The best way to take someone’s virtue is to let them do the work figuring out how to degrade themselves in exchange for a carrot dangled at the edge of their vision. I bet that young man there, before he came to Hell, genuinely believed that no amount of suffering could turn him against those he loved. And now we don’t even have to ask, and he’s offering to torture his mother for two thousand years. We’ll say no, and he’ll scream, and we’ll come back in a couple decades to see what else he has in mind, and he’ll offer to do things so perverse and disgusting it will kind of even frighten us, and then we’ll say no again, and we’ll let him keep all the torture he already has, plus the knowledge that he has tried as hard as he can to sell out every principle he ever believed in and it has profited him nothing. Or maybe we’ll take him up on it, let him torture his mother for two millennia, and then not give him anything in return, just to see his face when he realizes it was all for nothing. Or maybe we’ll take him up on it and give him a couple hours reprieve from his tortures – because why not – and then back here for another millennium.”

As he spoke, my eyes were caught by a different part of the scene: a young woman sitting in a rusted iron chair, off to one side but near the camera, close enough that I could clearly see her expression. She stared straight ahead, eyes wide, mouth shut, completely still and silent, radiating the most abject terror imaginable. A tiny green demon flitted around her with a tiny paintbrush, painting her skin a surprisingly lovely shade of light blue. It was by far the least gruesome torture on display, in fact she didn’t even seem to be injured at all, but something had to have put that look on her face. Maybe it was just that she could see what was happening to everyone else around her, and she was terrified that at any moment it could start happening to her too. Maybe something I couldn’t see was causing her unimaginable pain the whole time. Maybe both. For some reason, when Santoni saw this, he dropped the camera. Everything went dark for a second until somebody else picked it up and pointed it back at the ram-horned demon.

Thamiel popped into existence, walked up to the ram-horned demon. “Let me help,” he said, and with a single thrust he impaled both eyes of a child on the two prongs of his bident. Then he wrenched the bident free, taking the eyes with them, and held them right in front the camera. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a worse look of terror than in those suddenly-disembodied eyes. Eventually he pulled them away and focused the camera straight at him, so I could see every hair and wrinkle on both of his horrible faces.

“It seems like we’re running out of time,” said Thamiel. “But don’t worry. Later on, many of you will have all the time in the world to learn more about us. I’m not going to say if it’s ten percent or ninety percent of you; I love to watch you squirm because you don’t know. I’m not going to tell you whether you come here for believing the wrong thing, or doing the wrong thing, or what the wrong thing is, or any of that, because I want you to be totally incapacitated with fear that everything you do might be tossing yourself into my hands. I want your dreams to be haunted by the knowledge that when you die, you might very well be herded into a realm where your hunger and thirst increase as always but you will never eat or drink again. Where your body feels pain like normal but can never die; where your mind is as easily spurred to suffering as on earth but where it can never crack into the release of insanity. I want you to know you’ll be crammed into boiling hot cages, flayed, gutted, raped, lacerated, that we will rip out your eyes and pour boiling oil into the sockets and do it again and again and again.

“I want you to know that all of those people who say that Hell is the absence of God, or Hell is a name people give to their suffering on earth, or Hell is other people, or Hell is oblivion, or Hell is some nice place where atheists get to live free from divine tyranny – all of that is wishful thinking. Hell is a place full of fire and demons under the earth where you will be tortured forever. It’s exactly what it says on the tin.

“Finally, I want you to know that you will sin anyway. This is the best part. For a couple of days, or a couple of weeks, you’ll be horrified, you’ll try to change your ways, you’ll be like the alcoholic promising he’ll never have another drop. Then the memory will fade, your normal habits will take over, and everyone will be back to the way they were before. You can’t save yourself. You’re not strong enough. Your basic nature will out – not to be all Calvinist about it, but it’s true – and you’ll make up some comforting excuse and get on with your life.

But you won’t live forever. And when you die, I’ll be waiting.”

Thamiel thrust his bident at the camera, and as the tip pierced the lens there was some final vision of ultimate horror – something I will never be able to describe and which really was no worse than any of the rest but which seemed more ontologically fundamental – and then the screen went black.

“So,” said Ana. “That’s the Broadcast. What did you think?”

I vomited all over the couch.

III.

They said the Broadcast had showed up in an unmarked brown package to the White House mailbox late in ’72. It was a tense moment on the national stage. Nixon was running for re-election. His alliance with Thamiel had been a diplomatic coup, but he was facing renewed questioning by politicians in the halls of Congress and by protesters in city streets across the nation. Some were concerned about the theological risks of allying with the Devil. Others raised more practical concerns. Soviet Russia had been written off dozens of times before in this conflict, but now it really seemed to be on its last legs. When Thamiel took Moscow, where would his attentions turn next? Might we be lending aid and comfort to an inevitable future enemy? The American people wanted to know, and Nixon’s kabbalistically-named opponent George McGovern was taking the issue to town halls and rallies across the country.

Speaking of kabbalistic names, in the 1972 presidential election Nixon’s cause was championed by the Committee To Re-Elect The President, aka CREEP. And so he was. He was a genius at politics, maybe even at statecraft, but there were certain areas where intellect is no substitute for being human rather than reptilian. That was what did him in. When Nixon learned about the Broadcast, he figured it was blackmail. Thamiel was telling him that if he didn’t stick to the script, Hell could release the Broadcast, make him look like a monster for allying with them, and he would end up with egg on his face on the campaign trail.

So the President ordered all the big TV networks – ABC, NBC, CNN, etc – not to publish the Broadcast if they received it. There were obvious First Amendment issues, but Nixon’s relationship with the Constitution was a lot like the Cainites’ with the Bible – better to seek forgiveness than permission. The networks complied, the President dug deep into his bag of dirty tricks, and the CREEP won the election handily.

But in fact the networks didn’t have the Broadcast. Nobody had sent it to them. So things kept ticking along quietly until Thamiel finally razed Moscow in late 1973. Babylon the Great had fallen.

Western Europe started getting twitchy. In the absence of a mutual foe, the US-Hell alliance began to crack. The Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire was playing both sides against the other. Everyone held their breath, wondering what would come next.

Nixon decided to play some hardball of his own. He reminded Thamiel that he still had the Broadcast. Thamiel didn’t budge. So Nixon gave it to the networks. Using perfectly Nixonian logic, he figured that he had already been re-elected, and you can’t get more than two terms anyway, so what was the harm?

On November 1, 1973, the Broadcast went out to an unsuspecting nation.

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