aleph symbol with title UNSONG

Chapter 27: The Starry Floor, The Watery Shore

May 12-13, 2017
Pacific Ocean

I. James

Belowdecks was the crew quarters. Ana didn’t expect her own room and didn’t get it. Her berth had four beds: one for her, three others for James, Lin, and Tomas. Her bed was technically Amoxiel’s, but the angel didn’t sleep. As far as they could tell, he just sort of sat on the deck all night, staring wistfully at the stars.

She was used to living with men; she’d lived in a group house for over a year now. She wasn’t picky; if she had been, the cramped atmosphere of the Not A Metaphor would have desensitized her quickly.

James was in the bunk below her. Even during his short nap, he had fitful dreams. Ana asked him what he dreamt of. For a while he didn’t answer.

“Things I did,” he eventually said. “I was in the Other King’s army once. Before we really knew how bad he was. After Never Summer, but not by much. But he was still bad. I shot folks, probably innocent ones. That’s what I dream about. And the Broadcast. I dream about the Broadcast, and I worry that’s going to be me.”

“They say anyone who sincerely repents and promises to live a virtuous life will be saved,” said Ana.

“Yeah, and here I am. On a boat, trying to find God so we can board his ship and, I dunno, hijack him or something,” said James. “Virtuous life, my left foot.”

“You could always…”

“Dreams, girl,” said James. “They’re just dreams.”

II. Lin

If James was taciturn, Lin wouldn’t shut up. He talked about anything. He talked about whether they would have good winds, he talked about the calculations pinning down Metatron’s next appearance near Fire Island in New York, he talked about his youth as an apprentice ritualist in Arizona. “That was back when placebomancy was just another strain of ritualism,” he told Ana. “The counterculture version, started by Shea and Wilson back in ’76. Dabbled in it myself, found it helpful. Then everything went to hell when Alvarez killed the Council. Ritualism fell apart, placebomancy became associated with Alvarez and violence, now practically nobody does either. Anybody gets too good at ritual magic, Alvarez kills them. Or if he doesn’t, they think you’re working with Alvarez and get more and more suspicious till you’re fired on some dumb pretext. There’s no future in it anymore. With time we would have been able to do as much as the kabbalists, and without the copyright restrictions. Instead we’re looking over our shoulders and being shown the door.”

“Except Alvarez,” Ana said.

“You can bet he’s looking over his shoulder every darned minute,” Lin answered. “I hope they catch him and lock him up and throw away the key. Placebomancy’s not just about the practical applications. It’s about understanding the universe. Placebomancy is our only sign thus far that the universe can be convinced of things, that it’s got innate intelligence. It’s the next best thing to talking to Metatron one on one. If we leave it to the terrorists, we’re losing our biggest chance to learn something about God and about ourselves.”

“Do you ever worry about Alvarez?” Ana asked him.

“Me? I’m not good enough to worry. He only kills the bigshots. I’m just some guy good enough to power the orange sail. And I don’t leave Not A Metaphor much. If BOOJUM wants to get on this ship, they can pay $10 million like everyone else.”

III. Simeon

They made good time almost due south, avoiding the coastline and instead driving straight into blue water, just over sixty knots. Ana didn’t know much about sailing, but she gathered that was mind-bogglingly fast for a watercraft. The Not A Metaphor, built to be the fastest ship in the world, was an impressive specimen even when not using its “special features”.

Once they were underway, James told her it was time to test her skills. He led her to the yellow sail, halfway down the deck. Its shape fit together neatly with the sails before and behind it in what looked almost like art.

“What do I do?” she asked James.

“Just speak that Name and see what happens,” he answered.

So she spoke the Mistral Name and the winds came to her. Squall and simoon and sirocco, monsoon and marin and zephyr. The levante, the tramontane, the haboob. And finally her own wind, the Santa Ana. She flung them all at the yellow sail, and for a moment, the ship stopped. The world thinned to a point. She felt marvelous, truly alive.

She remembered a line from Shakespeare, one she had heard long ago. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep!” she shouted.

A voice from beside her: “Why, so can I, or so can any man. But do they come when you call for them?”

Startled, she looked behind her. The old man was leaning on the mast of the green sail, watching her.

“You know Shakespeare?” she asked. Then “What are you doing here? What do you want? Can’t I have some privacy?”

“I’m sorry,” said the old man. “I didn’t realize I was disturbing you.”

Ana regretted her harshness. “No, please. You surprised me, that’s all.” He was really old, like at least seventy. She was surprised someone so old would be up for a voyage like this.

“Simeon,” said the man, holding out his hand. Ana shook it. She had always thought it was stupid when people judged businesspeople by their handshake, but by the time her hand retracted she knew as if by revelation that Simeon was very important and very competent.

“I’m Ana,” said Ana. “You’re one of the passengers?”

“Yup,” he said.

“Very rich guy, wants to yell at God for something?” asked Ana.

“That’s me,” said Simeon. “I didn’t mean to stare, you know. I was just surprised to see a woman on a ship like this.”

“Well, I didn’t mean to be here,” said Ana. “And I’ll, uh, avoid thinking too much about that ‘surprised to see a woman’ comment.”

“A woman and a Shakespeare fan!”

“Please. I know a couple of lines. I was just – what do you call it – drunk with power. Anyway, I’m more surprised than you are. I thought you corporate billionaire types knew seven hundred ways to squeeze blood from a stone but wouldn’t know culture if it kicked you in the nose.” She waited to see if she got a reaction.

“Twelve hundred ways, but I’ve been privileged to get a little time to read this and that in between board meetings,” Simeon told her.

James poked his head out from the cabin: “We’re having a crew meeting in five minutes. Ana, five minutes.”

“Huh. Nice to meet you, Simeon,” Ana said, though she wanted to know more.

“And you,” Simeon told her. “You ever want to learn how to squeeze blood from a stone in a hurry, you come find me, okay?”

She shook his hand a second time. Again she was struck by a weird feeling that she should entrust all her money to this man and never look back.

Then she ran inside.

IV. Erin

It was late that night. James was turning fitfully in the bed below her, muttering things in his sleep. Ana felt uncomfortable, like she was witnessing something private. On a whim, she got out of bed and climbed onto the deck. Amoxiel was there, his cloak billowing in the wind. He was at the very stern of the ship, staring out into the starry night. She didn’t want to disturb him, and for his part, he took no notice of her. Once again she felt like she was intruding. She went away from him, to starboard side near the yellow sail, and stared out at the sea alone.

Someone else was out there. Ana tried to ignore her, but she was noisy, and eventually she turned and looked. It was the woman passenger. She was hanging on the railing, leaning against some sort of weird arcane Comet King weapon that looked kind of like a harpoon, retching over the edge of the ship.

“Seasick?” asked Ana.

The woman stared at her with bloodshot eyes, “Guess again.”

“Heroin withdrawal,” Ana said.

The woman gave a little squeal. “How did you know?”

“I used to hang out in Oakland.”


“And you’ve got marks all over your arms.”

It was true. She could see them in the weird dark glow emanating from the black sail. James had told her not to look at the black sail directly, especially not at night, and there was no way she was going to break that rule, but she couldn’t help notice the glow.

“Oh. Well.” She looked uncomfortable. Ana noticed with interest that before she got quite so many lines on her face, the woman must have been truly beautiful. Then:

“Wait a second! You’re Erin Hope!”

The lady laughed. “Yeah. For all the good it’s done me.”

Erin Hope. Pop sensation, one of the first people to genuinely be a pop sensation after the country knit itself back together again. Superstardom during the early 2000s. Then the usual downward spiral. Men. Drugs. Endless grist for the paparazzi. The occasional story about rehab, followed by another story about rehab with the reader left to fill in the blanks of what must have happened in between.

“I didn’t bring any heroin with me,” she said, voice laced with anger. “I thought I’d be okay, fresh air, a quest to find God. I’m such an idiot.”

“It only lasts a couple of days,” said Ana helpfully.

“You think I haven’t been through this a dozen times, darling?” The pop goddess wasn’t really angry, just sarcastic. “A couple of days is enough. When I meet God, I hope I’m not going to vomit all over Him.” She tried retching again. Not much came out.

“Or maybe I hope I do,” she said. “At least that way I’ll know He knows. Damn rehabs. Always say to place your trust in a higher power. Well, I did and He betrayed it. I trusted the hell out of him right up until I shot back up. So I’m done trusting. Now I’m going to see for myself.” She retched again. “Sure, it’s a lot of money, but better give it to you than those quacks in rehab again. You’re gonna find Him for us, right?”

“Um, we’ll try,” said Ana, who would have trouble describing the business model of the Not A Metaphor in any terms more glowing than ‘quixotic’, but who didn’t want to badmouth her employers.

“You’re a nice kid,” said Erin.

Toward the stern, Amoxiel started to sob. They both heard him. By mutual consent, neither one mentioned the distressed angel.

“I’m freezing my tits off,” Erin finally said. “I’m going back inside to see if I can get a couple hours unconscious. You stay warm.”

Touched by the older lady’s concern, Ana watched her go. Then she stood alone on the starboard of the ship, listening to the angel weep.

V. Tomas, Edgar, John

Tomas had been a bartender in his hometown of Puerto Penasco, Mexico. The War on Drugs had hit him hard, but he had stayed in business until the Other King came. After that he’d made his escape with the Captain and the rest of the original gang. Now in between singing to the green sail he was the cook and quartermaster of the Not A Metaphor‘s galley. It was his job not only to keep everyone fed and content, but to make fare up to the standards of the obscenely rich bastards who were his usual passengers.

Ana sat down for lunch and was handed a salad. “This is delicious,” she told Tomas. He nodded, as if used to the compliments.

James walked in, and Ana motioned him over. “There’s been a change of plans,” she said. “I was just talking to a friend of mine. He’s in trouble. I need to go save him. When’s the next time we’re going to be near land.”

“Two days from now, Fire Island,” said James.

“Uh, this trouble is pretty urgent. Do you think we could…”

“There are three people who each paid ten million dollars to get on this ship, on the understanding that we would be at Fire Island two days from now. This is the fastest ship in the world, but even so getting from California to New York in two days isn’t going to leave us with a lot of spare time to go dropping people off. And we’re south of the Mexican border by now, and you don’t want to get off there. Sorry, Ana. We can let you off in New York.”

If Ana had been some sort of legendary hero, maybe she would have threatened James, or mutinied, or summoned a wind so strong that it smashed the boat into the California coastline. But she was a theology graduate student, and she weighed barely more than a hundred pounds, and she was surrounded by military men who had nightmares about all the people whom they had killed, so she shut up. James did something halfway between patting her on the shoulder and slapping her on the back, picked up a salad in a box, and then left the galley, leaving Ana lost in thought.

“What are you thinking about?”

She hated that question. It was an implied “Let me interrupt your thoughts and force you to talk to me”, but if she told him to go away, she would be the impolite one.

“I’m Edgar Crane”. He sat down next to her, uncomfortably close. He was tall and dark and young and good-looking. Ana disliked him instantly.

“Ana,” said Ana.

Edgar briefly looked like he was considering flirting, then defaulted to his usual strategy. “You might have read about me in the newspapers,” said Edgar. “Son of the mayor of Reno. And by mayor, I mean back when it was a city-state, so basically the head of state. From one of the richest families in what’s left of the US of A. Not that we’re uncultured Nevadan hicks or anything. We spend most of our time in Los Angeles these days.”

“Yeah, must be hard what with the Other King totally kicking your asses and conquering your city in like twenty minutes of fighting.”

Edgar clearly hadn’t expected Ana to have known about that. He stiffened. “Well, just because you heard about it doesn’t mean you know how things stand.”

“If they’re like your family, they stand for twenty minutes, then beat a hasty retreat.”

“It was a strategic withdrawal. We wanted him to overextend himself. Now we’re building a coalition with California and Colorado.”

“Poor Other King. Overextended himself by conquering half the country, killing all who opposed him, defeating the Comet King, and ruling with an iron fist for fifteen years. With overextension like that, he must be ready to topple like a domino by now.”

Crane put his hand on Ana’s shoulder. “Listen, you’re pretty, but…”

Ana tried to extract the offending hand. It didn’t budge. She stood up. “Get your hand off me,” she said.

“Hey,” said Edgar, “I was just…”

The hand was retracted, but not of its own accord. Ana looked up and saw that John had entered the galley and gently removed Edgar’s hand from her shoulder.

“Edgar” said John, “No.”

Edgar glared at John like a hyena denied a kill. “The lady and I were flirting.”

“We were not,” said Ana. “If we were flirting, I would’ve said something like ‘I hope you last longer in bed than you do defending your – ‘”

“Ana,” said John. “Be an adult. Edgar, I need to speak to Ana in private now.”

Edgar glared more at John. John didn’t budge. Finally the young man scowled and brought his breakfast to a different table.

“Ana,” said John. “I won’t cite the rule about not bothering passengers, because I can see that Mr. Crane started it. But I will ask you to act your age. You made that worse than it had to be.”

“I’m not sorry,” said Ana. “He was a jerk.”

“Yes,” said John. “This boat is a strange place. The people who pay for our services are strange people. Some of them are jerks. It’s our job to smooth that over instead of making it worse.”

“Simeon and Erin are perfectly nice!”

“And maybe one day God will save us from everyone who is less than perfectly nice. Until He does, it’s our job to learn to deal with them safely. Do you understand?”

“I understand,” said Ana. John wasn’t captain, or first mate; as far as she knew he wasn’t really anything. It was his age that gave him authority, she thought; aside from Simeon he was the only grey-haired man on a ship full of youngsters. Then she reconsidered. No, that wasn’t right. He seemed wise, but it wasn’t just the age. “Hey, James was telling me the story of how they stole this ship. You weren’t in Puerto Penasco, were you? How’d you end up here?”

“The Captain needed someone to work the blue sail and he gave me a call.

“The blue sail?”

“…is a good Roman Catholic,” said John, smiling. “It only responds to the prayers of a priest.”

“What? Why?”

“It is,” he said with some chagrin, “a Mass-energy converter.”

Ana groaned. “And you’re a priest?”

“Retired. But you’ll see all of this for yourself. That’s what came here to tell you. James is planning a Symphony today at noon. All the sails we’ve got, at the same time. Show the passengers what we can do, convince them they’re getting their money’s worth, and start covering some actual distance. We will see you there.”

“If Crane touches me, I’m Fulminant-Naming him,” said Ana.

“Don’t deliberately antagonize Crane,” said John, “but if he touches you, we’ll stand behind whatever you have to do.”

VI. Amoxiel

“All right!” said James when passengers and crew alike were gathered on the main deck of the boat. “A Symphony is where we feed all the sails at once and show you what this baby can do. They say the Comet King used all seven sails together to catch Metatron and get his secrets. We still haven’t figured out the black sail, but when this thing is running on six cylinders we hope you’ll be too impressed to care. Is everyone at their stations?”

The red sail was at the front of the ship. No one stood underneath it; it was a normal sail that caught normal winds, and it billowed in the Pacific breeze.

Lin stood by the placebomantic orange sail, tracing lines in the air and chanting to himself. Ana stood by the kabbalistic yellow, waiting to speak a Name. There was Tomas by the green sail, singing; John, beneath the blue praying, Amoxiel beneath the violet, speaking in the language of angels. At the back of the ship the black sail stood alone.

That left James to coordinate and steer. “Is everyone ready?” he asked, after the crew were in their places.

“Ready,” said Lin.

“Ready,” said Ana.

“The winds arise within me, and I blow,” said Amoxiel.

The angel had gone iambic again. His eyes were glowing silver and, in case there was any doubt about what had caused his transformation, he held a big bottle of holy water in his hands, from which he took frequent swigs.

“Blame me not for my drunkenness, fair maid,” he said when Ana stared. “Without the spirit, I have spirit none / and cannot call the winds at such a speed / as bears the ship most fleet.”

John cringed, and Ana realized he must be the one giving the angel his steady supply.

“Lin,” James commanded, “start the orange sail.”

Lin seemed to to grow bigger. He drew forth apparently out of nowhere a great staff of gingko wood, and held it aloft. “In the name of placebomancy, and of the Comet King who built thee and bound thee to thy task, I bid thee fly!”

The orange sail puffed up as if fed by phantom wind.

“Ana, the yellow!”

The young kabbalist spoke the Mistral Name. Forth came the squall and simoon and sirocco, forth the monsoon and marin and zephyr. The levante, the tramontane, the haboob. And finally to her side her own wind, the Santa Ana. Out billowed the yellow sail.

“Tomas, the green!”

Tomas began to sing an old Mexican love song. At each note, the grass-green canvas seemed to shiver and unfurl.

“John, the blue.”

“Gloria in excelsis deo, et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, gratias agimus tibi, propter magnam gloriam tuam…”

“Amoxiel,” James commanded, “the violet!”

The angel spread his wings and glowed with light. Heavenly winds poured down from the sky, filled the purple sail. Amoxiel shook with conducted power, and took another swig of holy water to keep himself steady.

At the back of the ship, the black sail sat in serene majesty, still and unruffled. In times long past, the Comet King himself had stood beneath that sail and drawn his sword, and the sail had opened to his call. Now it was quiet, too proud to heed any ordinary mortal.

Not A Metaphor was a ship, but it was also a machine. It was a machine designed by the Comet King, who had more than mortal ingenuity. The sails had power of their own, but working in Symphony their powers multiplied dramatically. The masts became mirror-like, perfectly silver. Colored lights flashed from each to each, until the air seemed full of rainbows darting back and forth.

The ship moved, but not through this world. It moved above the world and behind it, through seas of something that was not water.

Ana thought she noticed the rainbows becoming a little off-hue, disproportionately purple. At the same moment, James noticed it too. “Amoxiel, you’re coming on too strong. Lower your sail!”

No response. Through the flashing lights, Ana looked back towards Amoxiel. The angel was chugging his holy water. The flask was almost finished.


The angel, his eyes aglow so bright Ana could hardly bear to look at them, began to speak.

“Through many days and nights of empty grey
Colorless, like a night without a day
I waited on the prow, adrift, storm-tossed
Remembering the Heavens that I lost
But now, amidst the many-colored beams
Which rise before me, like a world of dreams
Eternity seems almost in my reach
Like castaways, who spot some distant beach
How can I fail but surge, how not press on
Till Time, and Earth, and Earthly things are gone?”

The angel finished the holy water. The beams above them were almost entirely violet, with only a few little sparks of other colors in between.

Lin ran at Amoxiel. Amoxiel drew from the aether a flaming sword and brandished it before him. Ana spoke the Fulminant Name. A lightning bolt crashed into Amoxiel, who didn’t seem to notice. The sea was looking less like water.

“Okay, new plan!” said James. “Everyone else, feed harder“.

Balance. Balance was the key here. Lin started screaming in dead languages at his sail. The beams got a little bit more orange. Ana just kept repeating the Name, as many times as she could. The beams got yellower. John prayed quicker, but he was old, and started stumbling over the words.

“More Mass!” James yelled at John. “We need more Mass!”

The ship began to groan.

“Amoxiel!” Ana shouted. “One plus one is two! Competition for limited resources! Balances are credits minus debts!”

Amoxiel looked at his flask of holy water, found it empty.

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch! Men are from dust and to dust they will return! No consistent system can prove its own consistency!”

Some chaotic attractor shifted to a different state, or something.

All the lights vanished and they fell back into the real world with a tremendous thud.

VII. The Captain

The Captain came on deck and looked over the ship through big dark glasses.

Not A Metaphor was a mess. By some miracle none of the sails had ripped, but masts had been flung around like toothpicks and there was a big hole of uncertain origin in the port side, too high up to take on water but nonetheless concerning.

“We can go back to San Francisco for repairs,” Lin suggested. The Captain looked at him and he shut up.

Finally, he spoke. “Metatron’s boat will appear off Fire Island in two days,” he said. “If we go back to San Francisco, we miss it, and betray the deal we made with our passengers. We won’t change course. We’ll stop for repairs in Ensenada.”

No one was surprised. Everyone was concerned.

“We’ll stop a stone’s throw away from the city. James, you’ll take the lifeboat to the dock. You’ll remain in sight of the rest of us. When the Mexicans talk to you, we’ll watch you and make sure you’re safe. You can negotiate with them for repairs. Of course we can pay. The men with the supplies will come out to us on small boats. No one except James will make landfall in Ensenada. James won’t leave our sight. Does everyone understand?”

Everyone nodded, a little relieved that the burden would fall on their First Mate. But they were still concerned.

Slowly, brokenly, the Not A Metaphor began to sail south.

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143 Responses to Chapter 27: The Starry Floor, The Watery Shore

  1. LHC says:

    Things are going south for our heroes.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Why is the fifth section numbered with an Arabic numeral, while the others are Roman numerals?

  3. A. says:

    Typo thread: “better give it to you _then_ those quacks in rehab again”.

  4. YumAntimatter says:

    So to use this ship without a crew, the Comet King has to have been not only a powerful Kabbalist, but also:
    -capable at ordinary sailing
    -a placebomancer/ritual magician
    -a singer (in the musical sense)
    -an ordained Catholic priest
    -close enough to an angel to use angel magic

    Alternately, of course, he could have had a crew, but if that’s the case, it’s strange that we’ve heard nothing about them.

    • phisheep says:

      Maybe he took a hint from W.S.Gilbert?

      “Oh, I am a cook and a captain bold,
      And the mate of the Nancy brig,
      And a bo’sun tight, and a midshipmite,
      And the crew of the captain’s gig.”

    • Ryan Beren says:

      Or the black sail can operate the other sails.

  5. Anders Sandberg says:

    Hmm, a breakable sailing ship with a peculiar seldom-seen captain hunting for an elusive quarry and a crew representing different aspects of humanity – I suspect Ana will get good use of her whale puns.

  6. Daniel Blank says:

    Theories as to what powers the black sail?

    Also- seven seals, seven sails, seven dragons.

    • Well it was commanded by the Comet King, so I’m guessing star power. Clearly this will conclude with it being powered up by Erin.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Something about comets and heavenly bodies in the non-angelic sense?

    • monkyyyy says:

      Hell, the other aspect of god, the necessity of evil

    • Daniel says:

      My gentile-magical-kabbalah-based predictions have not panned out so far, but still:

      Red = Malkhut/Earth = Physical = Just plain wind
      Orange = Yesod/Moon = Astral = Magic
      Yellow = Hod/Mercury = Intellectual = Kabbalah
      Green = Netzach/Venus = Emotional/Music/Dance = Music
      Blue = Tiferet/Sun = Son/Dying-Resurrecting God = Jesus/Mass
      Violet = Gevurah/Mars = Righteous Smiting of Evil = Angels
      Black/Ultraviolet = Chesed/Jupiter = something about leadership and mercy; perhaps that only the “maximally saintly” may use it


    • Walter says:

      Evil, or blood lust, or whatever you want to call the willingness to kill when challenged.

      As Bungie put it:

      I drive myself to the edge of madness trying to explain the truth.

      It’s so simple. Elegant like a knife point. It explains – this is not hyperbole, this is the farthest thing from exaggeration – EVERYTHING.

      But you lay it out and they stare at you like you’ve just been exhaling dust. Maybe they’re missing some underlying scaffold of truth. Maybe they are all propped on a bed of lies that must be burned away.

      Why does anything exist?

      No no no no no don’t reach for that word. There’s no ‘reason’. That’s teleology and teleology will stitch your eyelids shut.

      Why do we have atoms? Because atomic matter is more stable than the primordial broth. Atoms defeated the broth. That was the first war. There were two ways to be and one of them won. And everything that came next was made of atoms.

      Atoms made stars. Stars made galaxies. Worlds simmered down to rock and acid and in those smoking primal seas the first living molecule learned to copy itself. All of this happened by the one law, the blind law, which exists without mind or meaning. It’s the simplest law but it has no worshippers here (out there, though, out there – !)

      HOW DO I EXPLAIN IT it’s so simple WHY DON’T YOU SEE

      Imagine three great nations under three great queens. The first queen writes a great book of law and her rule is just. The second queen builds a high tower and her people climb it to see the stars. The third queen raises an army and conquers everything.

      The future belongs to one of these queens. Her rule is harshest and her people are unhappy. But she rules.

      This explains everything, understand? This is why the universe is the way it is, and not some other way. Existence is a game that everything plays, and some strategies are winners: the ability to exist, to shape existence, to remake it so that your descendants – molecules or stars or people or ideas – will flourish, and others will find no ground to grow.

      And as the universe ticks on towards the close, the great players will face each other. In the next round there will be three queens and all of them will have armies, and now it will be a battle of swords – until one discovers the cannon, or the plague, or the killing word.

      Everything is becoming more ruthless and in the end only the most ruthless will remain (LOOK UP AT THE SKY) and they will hunt the territories of the night and extinguish the first glint of competition before it can even understand what it faces or why it has transgressed. This is the shape of victory: to rule the universe so absolutely that nothing will ever exist except by your consent. This is the queen at the end of time, whose sovereignty is eternal because no other sovereign can defeat it. And there is no reason for it, no more than there was reason for the victory of the atom. It is simply the winning play.

      Of course, it might be that there was another country, with other queens, and in this country they sat down together and made one law and one tower and one army to guard their borders. This is the dream of small minds: a gentle place ringed in spears.

      But I do not think those spears will hold against the queen of the country of armies. And that is all that will matter in the end.

      It is all well and good to sail with the colors of the rainbow. They will greatly benefit you. But one day you will sight a ship that flies the black sail. If you won’t stoop to set out your own, then you will be destroyed, and all your knowledge wormfood. Black sail is the willingness to destroy others rather than fall yourself. To respond to “Kill or Die” with “Kill”.

    • beoShaffer says:

      Demon magic/klipot seems like the obvious choice in terms of the overall magic system, but not a good fit for the Comet King operating it. Then again it does mention him using his sword. Perhaps he stole a demonic one, or forged raw klipot he got from *handwave* into a sword.

  7. General theories:
    1) The final villain/antagonist/obstacle will not turn out to be Thamiel: 60%.
    2) It will end up being Metatron in some meaningful sense: 20%.

  8. Aran says:

    “It is,” he said with some chagrin, “a Mass-energy converter.”

    I don’t get-

    oh DAMN YOU

    • Aran says:

      “More Mass!” James yelled at John. “We need more Mass!”

      The ship began to groan.

      Even the SHIP can’t stand the pun. 😛

  9. YumAntimatter says:

    The puns are wonderful/terrible, but seriously, why is there a sail that runs specifically on Catholic prayer? Is the pun really the only reason, or is there something special about Catholicism?

    • Maybe it just runs on prayer, and the catholic priest was chosen for the ability to both pray and provide holy water.

    • Jack V says:

      Catholicism is the second most Jewish religion? 🙂

    • CatCube says:

      On the surface, it responding to Catholic liturgy enables the “Mass-energy” pun.

      We’ll see if there’s something deeper later on, I’m sure.

    • Galle says:

      I’m pretty sure it responds to a priest’s prayers generally, and they just happened to have a Catholic available.

    • Rob Miles says:

      Perhaps it is possible to make a sail that runs on any specific kind of prayer, but way harder to make one that runs on ‘prayer’ generally. Like, you can make an engine that runs on coal or diesel or petroleum or kerosene but not one that runs on ‘hydrocarbons’. In that case, I’d want my vehicle to be powered by something that’s available in as many places as possible, in a regular, standardised form that doesn’t vary much between sources.

      Catholic Mass is the petroleum of prayer.

      • Decius says:

        I can make an engine that runs on “hydrocarbons”. It will probably also work with wood, coal, or pretty much anything flammable. It also won’t work very well.

  10. 271 says:

    If BOOJUM wants to get on this ship, they can pay $10 million like everyone else.

    So…. suspect that one of the people on the ship is from BOOJUM. Maybe Simeon? Maybe Simeon is Alvarez?

    • gwern says:

      Simeon seems too old to be Alvarez; Alvarez might not be as young as when he started BOOJUM but he should still be middle-aged at this point, shouldn’t he? ‘Edgar’ also seems problematic as his voice is different from Alvarez, he’s not as witty, and he claims to be someone well enough known that it would be far too risky to pose as them.

    • Walter says:

      Erin would be the Boojum member, methinks. But I doubt that there is one. Can’t think what Boojum would want with God’s voice.

      • Yossarian says:

        Murdering God’s voice as a sacrifice for a great ritual, or if that is impossible, otherwise using him somehow for that purpose, would make probably the greatest ritual ever…

    • quintopia says:

      Anyone who has played American McGee’s Alice knows that a Boojum would be an ideal crew member. Perhaps the black sail runs on BOOJUM breath?

  11. Theodicy joke I heard the other day:

    Man: “Hey God, want to hear a holocaust joke?”
    God: “sure, go for it.”
    Man tells god the holocaust joke.
    God: “That wasn’t very funny.”
    Man: “Well I guess you had to be there.”

  12. Forge the Sky says:

    There’s some nice setting-building there. I have this weird thing where I really like bits of the story that give you an impression of character’s everyday lives and settings and always feel like I want more of that, but am bored by most slice-of-life stories.

    Anyways, Simeon. My first thought was an association with simony (since he seems interested in the running of the ship and also very good with money), but Simeon is different from Simon. Simeon was (aside from a house of Israel) the priest that saw to Jesus in the temple after his birth, having been promised by God he would see the Messiah before he died. Which seems relevant. Also, I looked it up on Wikipedia and the name means ‘He has heard,’ which is in context basically the same as Ishmael, ‘God has heard.’

  13. Jack V says:

    So, “scared about the broadcast” is still extant as a worry. I’m sad and not surprised, but good to have confirmed. I hope someone DOES destroy hell.

    I discounted the possibility the big man was the other king or his representative trying to entrap the crew. But it could be someone like that trying to find God for… many possible reasons.

    I get the feeling Scott may have a lot of the backstory roughly in mind, but only fixed in place when it’s included in a chapter or interlude. That makes things *mostly* consistent, but explains a lack of details that might have been natural to give, because they’re not fixed yet until they’re written. But now they’ve been included, it’s easier to reference them in the present sections. If it gets edited after it’s finished, I guess maybe the interludes could be moved around if it makes the story flow better, maybe even switch the chapters around if the parallel plots make more sense like that. I don’t mean any of that is necessary, I’m just really impressed at one chapter a week without fail (most people find that REALLY HARD), and that draws my attention to the writing process.

    “If I was flirting, I would have said…” ROFL. Oh god, that was a perfect exchange. Ana does not handle that perfectly. But he really doesn’t deserve that she does.

    • Daniel says:

      Also still a thing:

      “I dream about the Broadcast, and I worry that’s going to be me.”

      (“Finally, I want you to know that you will sin anyway. This is the best part…”)

      “They say anyone who sincerely repents and promises to live a virtuous life will be saved,” said Ana.

      (“…you’ll make up some comforting excuse and get on with your life.”)

      “Dreams, girl,” said James. “They’re just dreams.”

      (“But you won’t live forever.”)

      • Galle says:

        Thamiel was talking about rationalizations for why doing something you know to be wrong is actually totally acceptable or even morally obligatory. Sincere repentance is not the kind of “comforting excuse” that enables one to keep sinning – indeed, it has exactly the opposite effect.

        • Daniel says:

          I agree! No, the “comforting excuse” I saw was the next quote, where James unaccountably blows off Ana’s expert advice as “just dreams”. It’s like he’s saying, I would stop sinning, but luckily that’d never work anyway so I’m not going to bother…

    • It might make sense that the ig man is Elisha Ben Abuya, whether he’s the Other King or not – he’s looking for metatron for some reason that he doesn’t really want to talk about, and has lots of knowledge but no obvious powers.

    • Good Burning Plastic says:
      • MugaSofer says:

        That link doesn’t seem to say that.

        • Good Burning Plastic says:

          He scored “I will not finish [project]” as a wrong prediction, where [project] is Unsong.

          • But that doesn’t necessarily imply that finishing means finish writing. I think he finished a first draft, but he seems to be making some changes as he goes along. For example, there was a comment around chapter 20 that “Now Descendeth Out Of Heaven A City” would be chapter 23 or 24, so even though he knew the chapter name in advance he was still editing the storyline.

          • Good Burning Plastic says:

            Yeah, but it’s not like he has to write one chapter from scratch every week.

  14. Anonymous says:

    In the chapter introducing the boat crew, someone speculated the other king could be jesus with a grudge. I don’t think it’s exactly that, but it reminded me of this very funny but very very very inappropriate cartoon (warning: anti-semitism)

  15. rictic says:

    A set of ideas that are absurdly reminiscent* of a lot of Unsong, including Adam Kadmon and the difficulties that arise in combining the infinite and the finite, the perfect and the imperfect:

    In mathematics an oracle is a black box that instantly gives the correct yes or no answer to any problem in a certain domain. These are useful e.g. when evaluating what the solution to an open problem would let you do. So a friendliness oracle could look at an AI’s source code and instantly say “Yes, friendly” or “No, not friendly.”

    Furthermore, any domain of problems whose members you can list can be expressed as a finite real number. For example, if you must go to work only on weekdays, then we can express the oracle for whether to go to work in the morning every day for the rest of your life as the number 0.11111001111100…. Each digit after the decimal represents a day, starting with tomorrow, and we can read this number as saying: work, work, work, work, work, sleep, sleep, …. To find out whether you should go to work one morning just count up to the appropriate digit and if it’s a one, go to work; if a zero, stay home.

    Of course, you don’t need an oracle for simple problems like this. You need oracles for really hard problems. And the best problem to have an oracle for is the Halting Problem, both because it’s completely impossible to solve, and because you can turn any computable problem into a halting problem. So an oracle for the Halting Problem grants nearly unlimited power and glory, granting its wielder the ability to instantly optimize any well understood system, or prove any formally expressible truth.

    As it turns out, you can also list all of the halting problems! Does that mean that all that stands between humanity and the semi-cosmic near-omniscience of the Halting Oracle is simply the knowledge of a finite number, waiting for us somewhere between zero and one? Unbelievably, the answer is yes! It’s called Chaitin’s Constant***, and it’s often noted as big omega – Ω. We can estimate Ω out to a certain precision, but too much further is literally incomputable. You can’t get there with any finite computer in any finite amount of time.

    And yet.

    And yet.

    There is nothing preventing you from making a lucky guess. Or being told. Or hearing in a prophetic dream.****

    * Ok, credit for this observation actually must go to my partner Oz** who ran into this recently and drew the connection to Unsong.
    ** Unrelated to the noted rationalist-adjacent blogger.
    *** Technically it’s a family of related constants that all have the same properties, because no one can agree on a programming language, no I’m not kidding.
    **** It only gets crazier from there. Chaitin went on to prove that there are facts about Ω that are necessarily simpler than any proof of them. Chaitin interpreted this to mean that these were facts which were true for no reason.

    • Ryan Beren says:

      > Chaitin went on to prove that there are facts about Ω that are necessarily simpler than any proof of them. Chaitin interpreted this to mean that these were facts which were true for no reason.

      FWIW, a more literal-minded interpretation is that sometimes simple facts are true for complicated reasons.

    • This is tricky, though – you say “give a number”, but you need to know an irrational number to infinite precision, which requires infinite information to describe.

    • Anonymous says:

      But “a Turing machine with a halting oracle” has its own halting problem. And so does “a Turing machine with a halting oracle for a Turing machine with a halting oracle”. And so on. Also, equating Names with oracles seems to invoke the computational universe hypothesis.

      But then, we already have that granted, haven’t we? Angels praise God with the phrase “Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts”. A host is a computer attached to a network. So not only is the computational universe hypothesis true, but (given the plural) the multiverse hypothesis too. QED.

      • Decius says:

        It’s only one level. “A tiring machine with a halting oracle” can tell if “a Turing machine with a halting oracle” halts or not.

        You do get into a contradiction where a machine can tell if it halts, and halt IFF it doesn’t halt, but you had that problem when you added the oracle.

        • Sniffnoy says:

          This is just… completely false? See e.g. and

          Like, that last thing you say — yes! That is why a Turing machine with a halting oracle (for Turing machines), cannot solve the halting problem for Turing machines with halting oracles (for Turing machines)! It yields a contradiction!

          Basically, any class of problems closed under Turing reduction (a Turing degree) cannot contain its own halting problem (because of the usual diagonalization argument); if you adjoin that, that’s called the “Turing jump” of that Turing degree.

          Oracle machines are perfectly sensible mathematical notions; they don’t yield contradictions unless mathematics is inconsistent. They just, y’know, don’t exist physically.

          • Decius says:

            I can use a halting oracle and a Turing machine to predict whether a Turing machine with a halting oracle halts.

            The standard case is to take a Turing machine for which there is no proof of haltingness, and let the second level machine be one that halts iff the oracle says the first one does not.

            I simply replace the halting oracle with a Turing machine that, for every program of length N, returns 0 if that program halts or 1 if it does not. Since that is just a lookup table, it is probably a halting machine even though it behaves identically to the oracle I then run the oracle on the Turing machine and view the output.

            With an oracle, a lookup table approximating the output of the oracle can be constructed to an arbitrary level; it doesn’t matter if that table can prove itself or not. It also doesn’t work on the 0-level because the lookup table would have to include itself in the results.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            No, you can’t. As has already been stated, the usual diagonalization proof works, and yields the Turing jump operation. (Indeed, this diagonalization trick was known before Turing, and, before Turing defined the Turing machine, was used as an argument as to why attempting to mathematically define computability is futile.) There is an entire freaking poset of Turing degrees, continuum-many of them, not just two.

            Now, of course, I can point out all I like that everything you are saying is in contradiction to the entirety of computabilty theory, and I can repeat the proofs as well; but that is mere countargument rather than refutation. So, let’s take a look at your claimed proof. Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time making sense of it. I don’t know what you’re talking about with “levels”, or what you’re talking about with a “standard case”. Still, I will do my best:

            The standard case is to take a Turing machine for which there is no proof of haltingness, and let the second level machine be one that halts iff the oracle says the first one does not.

            The most sense I can make of this is a garbled version of the usual proof that the halting problem is not computable. Which, recall, goes as follows: Assume the halting problem were computable, say by a program P. Write a program Q(x) which takes x, the code for a program, runs it on the input x, and then (making use of P) halts iff this computation does not. Then run Q on its own code, observe the contradiction, conclude that P cannot exist.

            (Note, once again, that this entire proof continues to work just as well if one replaces Turing machines by Turing machines with a halting oracle equipped; it only requires that the machines be at least as powerful as Turing machines (and I’d bet you make do with less if you really want to strip it down) — basically, it just requires conditionals, subroutines, and the ability to run another machine based on an encoding of it (OK that last one’s a big one). Only by making the machines less powerful can you make the argument fail to apply, never by making them more powerful.)

            You by contrast are starting with a Turing machine which cannot be proved to halt… did you mean for it to actually halt, too? Because if a Turing machine halts on a specific input, then it can be proved to halt on that input. So what you’ve actually just said is “take a Turing machine which does not halt”. Unless you were trying to make a statement about its halting on variable input, rather than a fixed one? You’re not being very clear here. Did you mean this the other way around, perhaps? A Turing machine that does not halt, but cannot be proved not to halt?

            Of course, if you assume that, your proof is circular! The reason we know such machines exist is because the halting problem is uncomputable. I’m not sure what the rest of the sentence is supposed to demonstrate, then. OK, alternatively you could use the incompleteness theorem, that’s another way to prove that; but A. that’s essentially the same thing, and B. that still leaves the question of what the second part of the sentence is doing, since once again in that case it contributes nothing; it’s not how you would get from the incompleteness theorem to the uncomputability of the halting problem.

            Basically yeah I don’t get what you’re getting at here.

            I simply replace the halting oracle with a Turing machine that, for every program of length N, returns 0 if that program halts or 1 if it does not.

            I’m not sure in what context you’re replacing it, but OK, yes, for a fixed N, that’s certainly computable.

            Since that is just a lookup table, it is probably a halting machine even though it behaves identically to the oracle I then run the oracle on the Turing machine and view the output.

            I’m going to assume that by “probably” you mean “provably”? Sure, it’s a lookup table, it halts. But you can only run it (and get a meaningful result) on a sufficiently small machine, not an arbitrary one; it only works up to a fixed size.

            As best I can tell, you’re trying to argue something like the following: “We know the halting problem is uncomputable, because we can construct a specific machine on which any halting oracle must fail. But with a lookup table, we can make it succeed.” I mean, the second part would follow if the first were true, but the first isn’t true. You construct the machine that fools the halting oracle based on the halting oracle, using the halting oracle in the construction (thereby showing that neither the halting oracle nor the machine that fools it exist); it’s not a particular actually existing machine you construct in advance that fools any attempt at a halting oracle someone might throw at it. Any particular machine, as you note, either halts or doesn’t, so if you built such a machine, you could then construct a lookup table it would not fool. The lookup table would just fail on other inputs (i.e. anything sufficiently large.)

            (Nothing so far seems to involve anything Turing machines with halting oracles equipped being applied to Turing machines with halting oracles equipped. It seems like you’re trying to argue instead that Turing machines can solve their own halting problem.)

            With an oracle, a lookup table approximating the output of the oracle can be constructed to an arbitrary level

            As has already been noted, you don’t need any assumption of an oracle for that. Such a lookup table exists and can be implemented as plain old Turing machine, no assumptions.

            it doesn’t matter if that table can prove itself or not

            I’m not sure what this means. Do you mean whether or not the lookup table appears as one of its own entries or not? In any case, sure, that probably doesn’t matter (but maybe it could if you wanted to do some very particular thing with it, I dunno).

            It also doesn’t work on the 0-level because the lookup table would have to include itself in the results.

            Wait, where’s the rest of your argument? You’ve skipped to explaining why your argument doesn’t apply to ordinary Turing machines (or at least that’s what I assume you mean by “the 0-level”) before you’ve finished explaining why it does apply to Turing machines with a halting oracle equipped! Or I guess you have finished explaining it, it’s just that nothing you’ve said above constitutes a proof that Turing machines with halting oracles attached can solve their own halting problem. Just a standard observation that yes, lookup tables can look up the results for machines of fixed size. Nothing about how to write a single machine (with a halting oracle allowed) that will handle any machine (with halting oracle allowed) you can throw at it, no size fixed in advance. Having approximations to an arbitrary level is not the same thing as having the machine itself; this can be done just as well for Turing machines as for Turing machines with a halting oracle equipped.

            But OK, let’s look at why you claim your argument doesn’t apply to Turing machines:

            It also doesn’t work on the 0-level because the lookup table would have to include itself in the results.

            Nothing about this makes sense.
            1. There’s no reason why it’s relevant whether or not the lookup table can include itself. (If you were thinking of one, you haven’t provided it.)
            2. The lookup table can include itself. Now, of course, this is going to be dependent on just how you choose to encode Turing machines; I’m sure that with some pretty sensible encodings you could make some a size argument that you can’t. (Which would then apply just as well to Turing machines with halting oracles equipped, except it’s not relevant then either.) But I could also write a programming language in which “10111” is the code for a pogram that, given as input a program of length 20 bits or less, returns whether that program halts. (You can run it on itself. It says that it halts.) Yeah, that’s offloading quite a bit of work to the universal Turing machine running the thing, but so what? Nothing in your argument forbade that or discussed anything like it.

            In short: If I’ve understood you correctly, you are really, really wrong here. If I haven’t understood you correctly, well, you still don’t appear to know what you’re talking about. Seriously, go learn some computability theory.

            (And as a precaution against this turning into a horrible swamp, I am stating now that I’m not going to argue this any further here; you should be consulting Wikipedia or a textbook or a survey paper or something, not me.)

          • That is some pretty impressive commitment to correcting online CS errors there. Props.

          • Decius says:

            I described how to take any specific case of “Turing machine with an oracle that works on all Turing machines without an oracle” and generate a Turing machine without an oracle that behaves identically.

      • Anders Sandberg says:

        Oh dear… the Lord is a sysadmin. I hope he cares about uptime.

  16. John Sidles says:

    Verses upon a theme of Amoxiel:

    To One Singing

    Thy voice compels to parapets from heaven
    Dim winged happinesses whence is woven
    To our souls such a glamour, spirit‑fair,
    That, feeling it, all life becomes despair

    And all the sense of life to wish to die.
    Sing on! Between the music’s human cry
    And thy song’s meaning there is interposed
    Some third reality, less life‑enclosed,

    Some subtler tenderness than music makes
    Or words sung, and its moonless moonlight takes
    Our visionary moods by their child‑hand
    And our tired steps begin to understand.

    Sing, nor stop singing till bliss ache too much!

    O that I could, without moving my hand,
    Stretch forth some hand imaginary and touch
    That body of thine thy singing giveth thee!
    That kiss‑like touch would wake eternity

    In me again, and, as by a great morn,
    The night my body makes of me were torn
    Away from being, and my unbodied shape
    Would, like a ship doubling the final cape,

    Come to that sight of port and shiver of coming
    That God allows to those whose bliss of roaming
    Is no more than the wish to find His peace
    And mingle with it as a scent with the breeze.

       — Fernando Pessoa, The Mad Fiddler

    • John Sidles says:

      And because Pessoa’s native language was Portuguese, and the Portuguese word for ‘one’ is um, it is entirely natural to read Pessoa’s ~1916 poem about the “One Singing” as a prophetic anticipation of the ~2016 UmSong-ing …

      Coincidence? Poetic prophecies never are!  🙂

    • Ninmesara says:

      Fernando Pessoa is an extremely appropriate poet to bring up in this specific chapter. Though sadly not a kabbahlist, he was into mysticism. He was an enthusiast of esotericism, occultism, hermetism, numerology, alchemy, astrology, theosophy, rosicrucianism and freemasonry. He was into neopaganism, thus creating a striking parallel to Alvarez’s school of placebomancy.

      In his most famous work, significantly titled “The Message” (“A mensagem”), he tries to predict the events of Unsong’s universe. Alas, his contemporaries were unable to fully grasp his predictions at the time, and thus the space age could not be prevented… For instance, he predicts the significance of the Comet King, by writing thus:

      Give us your full example
      And the fullness of your strength!

      Give us, to ward against that stray hour
      When new infidels hold sway,
      Your blessing as a sword,
      Your sword as a blessing!

      Not only he predicts the coming of the Comet King, who leads by example, the ascent of “new infidels” (Thamiel and his demon army), and the King’s role in the fight, but also the significance of the Comet King’s sword, the ritual artifact that powers the black sail, and serves as the symbol of the blessings the King wishes to bestow upon Men.

      On the other hand, Pessoa rejects Uriel’s (and the Comet King’s) deism, by asserting that:

      Every beginning is involuntary.
      God is the agent,
      The hero watches his own actions, confused
      And unconscious.

      The implications of these verses for the existence of God, free will and P-zombies are striking, and need no further discussion. But what does God wish to be done?

      God wills, man dreams, the task is born.
      God wanted the world to be whole,

      God wished for humanity to be together, as one, united in a common purpose. The secrets of this purpose shall be revealed at sea, for the Chosen one shall sail the seas, only for his earthly empire to be undone:

      Of the sea and us, in you he gave us a sign.
      The Sea was accomplished, and the Empire was undone.

      So the King accomplished his task at sea, yet the empire was undone… The kinf was slain in his desert kingdom, yet he predicts his own return:

      Wait! I fell on the sand at that hour untimely
      That God concedes to his own,
      What matters the sand and death and misadventure
      If I shielded myself with God?
      It is Who I dreamed myself, that is everlasting;
      It is as Such that I shall return.

      Shall he return as a being of flesh and blood, or will his ideas prevail, for him to return only in spirit? In his sailing ship, new heroes trace his steps, searching for answers among the sea where lies the divine voice that never speaks:

      Was it worthwhile? All is worthwhile
      When the soul is not small.

      So, we must ask: Is the soul small? For perhaps no mere human soul can reach the divine… But a soul that is larger than the mere human and not attached to the flesh might be able to, and in Unsong there are souls attached not to sinful flesh, but to pure silicon, made from the sand where the comet King met his end, and it is possible that one such soul has boarded the vessel.

      He who wants to go beyond the Cape
      Has to go beyond pain.

      To reach New York, our heroes must go through the Cape, as the Panama Canal seems to be inoperable. Pessoa predicts they’ll have to withstand great pain, and they have already suffered through their first mishap, near the cost of Mexico.

      God to the sea peril and abyss has given
      But it was in the sea He mirrored heaven.

      Despite this, they shall continue their journey. Fortune favors the brave, and the brave, and only the brave are willing to face the dangers of the sea, in order to reach the supreme prize, a reflection of heaven itself.

      But what are those pains that Pessoa predicts? Might it be a sea monster? The Comet King has thought of that possibility, for what could be the purpose of the “weird arcane Comet King weapon that looked kind of like a harpoon”. The story has already introduced a Mythical, sea monster, the Leviathan. Is the Not a Metaphor on a collision course with God’s favourite pet? Once again, Pessoa predicts the haunting encounter, reminescent of a freemason’s initiation ritual:

      The bogey-beast that lives at the end of the sea
      In the pitch dark night rose up in the air;
      Around the galleon it flew three times,
      Three times it flew a-squeaking,

      How will our heroes survive contact with the beast? Will the beas survive contact with our heroes? Pessoa hints at a positive answer to these questions for in the end, after all is done:

      The bogey-beast that lives at the end of the sea
      Came from the darkness to seek
      The dawning of the new day,
      Of the new day that will last forever.
      Turned and flew away the monster-serf
      That came here to seek his master,
      That came here to call his master

      But who is his master? Who is the one powerful enough to master the Beast? The one who has been awake but is now asleep, and the on who mastered the art of ship-building so completely that he reigns supreme atop the waves:

      To call the One who lies in sleep
      And who was once Lord of the Sea

  17. Blue says:

    Woo to see Robert Anton Wilson referenced. I doubt much from those books will come up, but their definitely is a lot of similarity between that trilogy and this work. Well, parallels.

  18. In this chapter and (more important because it happened to a human character) in Chapter 21, it was possible to erase a drug-induced high by emitting rational sounds. Is that actually possible in the real world?

    If the “talking cure” can have real-world effects, does that mean Freudian psychoanalysis started working after the sky cracked? (In other words, there is an atheist magic just as there is a Jewish or Catholic magic.) Maybe the the black sail works by psychoanalysis.

    • TheAltar says:

      I think it had less to do with bringing someone out of a high than bringing someone out of whatever altered state angels can live in. The LSD in San Francisco was contaminated by the Armstrong angel and Amoxiel returns back too far into his old purer angelic state when he drinks. The process Ana was using on Amoxiel was the same pattern of ideas that would have made an angel “fall” down to earth (metaphorically and somewhat literally).

  19. Daniel says:

    Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, …

    the weird dark glow emanating from the black sail. James had told her not to look at the black sail directly


    The eye is most sensitive to damage by [ultraviolet light] in the lower UVC band at 265–275 nm. Light of this wavelength is almost absent from sunlight, but is found in welder’s arc lights and other artificial sources. Exposure to these can cause … photokeratitis … cataracts …

    • fireant says:

      Oooh, very interesting. As a physicist (… well, in training) I would think that this means the sails get more powerful towards the black sail, as the E=h*f from quantum mechanics would suggest. But then again, physics doesn’t seem to play any meaningful role in this world anymore.

      • Anon says:

        I think you’re right. The ordering seems pretty much correct already. Consider the order:

        – red: mundane sail
        – orange: placebomancy sail
        – yellow: kabbalistic sail
        – green: musical sail
        – blue: holy sail
        – purple: angelic sail
        – black: ??? sail manned by the Comet King himself

        Obviously the boring old wind sail isn’t as good as placebomancy, the way placebo gets more results than no treatment. And kabbalah is more powerful than placebomancy, the way actual medicine is better than placebo. I’m not sure what exactly the green sail is supposed to be (probably the human spirit or something?) but it looks like it should be more powerful than kabbalah. And religious faith is more powerful than the human spirit, and angels are more powerful than that.

        I think that the black sail, whatever it is, runs on something more powerful than angels. Judging from the one chapter where the Comet King is conceived, I’d guess it would be whatever Comet Power is. But Scott has given us no details on what exactly Comet Power is in the universe.

        • Daniel Speyer says:

          Roygbiv-uv sounds like paranoia.

          In Paranoia, ultra violet clearance means the power to upload new code to Friend Computer.

          The equivalent here would be raw divine energy. As a comet from beyond the celestial sphere, tck would have access to that. It’s stronger than anything else listed and dangerous for mortals to look directly at (you can look at it reflected off fingernails, fwtw).

          Who could power the sail now? Uriel, of course. Maybe Sohu. Maybe Neil Armstrong.

          • Sniffnoy says:

            I thought of Paranoia, but in Paranoia ultraviolet is represented by white, and infrared by black…

        • boris says:

          Black/UV could be celestial kabbalah. We know the Comet King could do it, we know Uriel and Sohu can do it, maybe Jane?

          • Could TCK do celestial Kabbalah? I thought Sohu said she was the only member of her family who could do it.

          • Bassicallyboss says:

            The four people who have gazed upon Adam Kadmon bare are Isaac Luria, Uriel, The Comet King, and “an eight-year-old girl,” who presumably is Sohu. So assuming “Celestial Kabbalah” is that wacky universe-altering thing that Uriel does in the hurricane, presumably it isn’t known to Jane.

            @The Coment King:
            He probably could; see above. I don’t remember when in the chronology Sohu said she was the only one in her family, but it’s possible she meant the only remaining one in her family. If so, then we can take that statement as evidence (weak, given all the necessary assumptions) that TCK is dead-for-realsies. Or at least that Sohu believes so.

          • PedroS says:

            @Basicallyboss ” I don’t remember when in the chronology Sohu said she was the only one in her family, but it’s possible she meant the only remaining one in her family. If so, then we can take that statement as evidence (weak, given all the necessary assumptions) that TCK is dead-for-realsies. Or at least that Sohu believes so.”
            When did she say she was the only one left from her family? AFAIR, the only time when we met Sohu away from Uriel was on the Seder where TCK was also present. This would argue against Sohu being TCH’s daughter, wouldn’t it?

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Whether Sohu’s father is the Comet King or not (though it would seem that he is), he:

            1. Can’t do celestial Kabbalah (unless he lied to Sohu, or mistakenly thought he could not)
            2. Is alive during that time period

            #1 is stated in Chapter 3. #2 is implied repeatedly. E.g. in Chapter 13 with the bit about “your father’s sign is on you”, or the bit in Chapter 16 about her father’s plans.

          • Bassicallyboss says:

            Thanks for the chapter reference. When I read it the first time, I assumed the exchange with Uriel (“DO OTHERS IN YOUR FAMILY HAVE THIS GIFT?” “No… But they can’t wiggle their ears, either.”) did not include the Comet King, since it seemed like he was obviously special. It seems clear upon a second read that he isn’t (known to be) special in this way.

            Given that that’s the case, now I’m wondering what the bit about “[gazing] upon Adam Kadmon bare” refers to. Maybe it didn’t happen to TCK until after he spoke to Metatron. Or maybe it’s a more vague sort of metaphor for being exceptionally good at Kabbalah.

  20. According to chapter 12:

    plus the transformation of the Panama Canal into some sort of conduit for mystical energies that drove anyone in its vicinity mad

    How are they planning to go to the east coast? around tierra del fuego, or is the Not A Metaphor somehow immune to this?

    • gwern says:

      I’m pretty sure they’re going the long way around, which is why even the fastest boat ever built, powered by multiple eldritch esotericisms, will take a solid 2 days to get there.

  21. Good Burning Plastic says:

    Ana should check if the black sail goes on whale puns, just in case.

    • PedroS says:

      I read “whale puns” as if “puns” were a Portuguese word: this would translate to “whale farts”, whcih would definitely be windy enough to inflate any sail, no matter how big….

      • Daniel says:

        Oh dear. Bilingual whale puns have at least twice the energy. Bilingual whale puns about the phrase “whale puns” itself are so intense the sail might explode!

      • Ninmesara says:

        The Comet King – “O Rei cometa” = “O Rei c’o meta” = “O Rei que o meta” (by phonological similarity), which translates as “Let the King shove it inside”. After the death of the King, what can mortal mere men aspire to? Surely every red blooded human would like to shove something up Thamiel’s! But who can command such power? The feeling of powerlessness leads to despair and the desire for a Messianic savior: “Let the King shove it inside”.

        Bilingual puns FTW.

  22. Daniel says:


    “Are you saying,” said Ana, laughing madly, “that we’re working at cross-porpoises?”

    The ship groaned.

    “I fear this late experiment unwise / but cannot stop my ears; I pray she dies!”

  23. Haugmag says:

    Why does the ship *stop* when Ana chants the Mistral Name the first time?

    • Nadav says:

      I believe it means to say that Ana felt like the ship stopped, in the sense that ‘it felt like the world stood still for a moment’.

  24. Decius says:

    Adam Kadmon/Adam Kadmon?

    Didn’t anybody realize this was the Ship chapter?

  25. Ron says:

    Predictions (>50% likely false):

    1. Uriel’s program failed to convert the human mind into physical laws, so it kinda made a half-baked mess. (Very obvious in retrospect, what person in his right mind would presume the neural mess actually facilitates the self?) Therefore Sarah is conscious, despite not having any mechanism which allows it.

    2. Kabbalah is not special, its the universe adjusting, placebomancy in extreme. Uriel was retroactively created when the bible was read in outer space, which explains why angels can’t speak Aramaic.

    3. When Sarah takes over, it manages to convert the Universe into physical laws which brings about the timeline of our reality. (Does not contradict 1, explains Fermi’s paradox)

    • Evidence for #3: The story is currently set to end at around the start/end of the Aaron timeline, so it could end with the implication that it leads to our world on that day.

      #2 and #3 both sound plausibleish, but they’d be pretty disappointing, and I hope they don’t happen (they probably won’t – Scott wouldn’t do that, right?)

    • #3 resembles the end of The End of Eternity by Asimov.

    • Aran says:

      Uriel was retroactively created when the bible was read in outer space

      I see a bit of a bootstrap paradox here, though.

      If Uriel (and basically all of Kaballah) didn’t exist until the spaceship crashed into the celestial machinery, then why was there any celestial machinery to crash into in the first place? The universe would have to have been purely physical from the start, and wouldn’t have been vulnerable to this buffer overflow attack.

  26. Bassicallyboss says:

    “I was in the Other King’s army once. Before we really knew how bad he was. After Never Summer, but not by much. But he was still bad.”

    I noticed Never Summer is in all caps. We know that James signed on shortly after the Other King defeated the Comet King from this part in Chapter 22:

    James had been thinking it ever since he’d signed on in Vegas. It had seemed like a good deal. Good wages, good benefits, and not a whole lot of risk; anybody who could kill the Comet King in single combat was probably the winning team.

    He mentions Never Summer without explanation, as though it’s something anyone would know about, so it’s quite likely that it refers to the Other King’s defeat of the Comet King. Based on the political geography, this means the duel probably took place in or near northern Colorado’s Never Summer mountain range–a suitably epic location.

  27. dsotm says:

    What shall we do with a drunken angel ?

  28. Quixote says:

    Loved this chapter.

  29. nthLurker says:

    > …the angel didn’t sleep. As far as they could tell, he just sort of sat on the deck all night…


  30. Pingback: Unsong, a fantasy novel where the universe is programmable with Hebrew by Banana699 -

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