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.”

“Oh.”

“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.

“AMOXIEL!” shouted James. “YOU’RE DRUNK! YOU’RE OVERPOWERING THE SYMPHONY! STOP IT!”

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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