Fill the god-shaped hole in your soul with molten metal, then shatter your soul, leaving only a metal god
— Gap Of Gods
October 31, 1991
Gulf Of Mexico
Curled up on a cloud, Sohu sat studying Talmud. She was just starting to consider packing it in for the night when her vision was seared by a nearby lightning strike. The subsequent thunder was instantaneous. She was still trying to get her sight back when her father strode through the door.
“Hello, Sohu,” said the Comet King with a faint smile.
She jumped up from her desk in delight. Of course she ran right into a wall – vision doesn’t recover from a point blank lightning strike that quickly – but luckily it was made of cloud and did her no harm. She stumbled a little, then quite literally fell into her father’s arms.
“It’s been too long,” he said. “You look good.”
She smiled. “I don’t know how you look. One of the disadvantages of you going everywhere by lightning bolt. Sit down.”
She gestured at the only chair in the room, which was Sohu-sized. Her bed was covered with books, all open to different pages. The Comet King sized it up, but his distaste for putting books on the floor got the best of him, and he put himself on the floor instead, settling naturally into a lotus position. Sohu shrugged and took the chair.
“I’ve come to take you home,” the Comet King said.
“No!” said Sohu. “Wait, is something wrong?”
“Uriel destroyed the city of Madrid. The King of Spain, the Prime Minister of Israel, Secretary Baker, and dozens of diplomats are dead. Thamiel is disincorporated. I don’t know the whole story. Uriel’s still in the crater. I want you gone by the time he comes back here. You are not safe.”
“Uriel would never hurt me!” Then “Oh. God! Poor Uriel!”
“Poor Uriel? Poor Madrid, I would say.”
“Oh. Father, I was the one who told him to go. I thought it would be good for him. They must have…it was Thamiel. It must have all been a trick of Thamiel’s. I’m so dumb. Father, this is all my fault.”
“It isn’t. This was always a possibility.”
Sohu got up, started pacing. Tears welled into her eyes. “No. Uriel’s…different, but this isn’t him. You have to trust him, Father.”
“Sohu, I told you I sent you here to learn the celestial kabbalah. I told you it would be dangerous if you did not know it. That was true in more ways than you knew. I sent you here because I knew Uriel was capable of this. Uriel is not good, Sohu. He is not evil in the same way Thamiel is, but neither is he safe. And he controls the universe. I cannot allow the universe to be controlled by a loose cannon, but for the present I lack any other options. Not even I can do what he does.” He frowned. “That is why I sent you here, Sohu. So that if Uriel becomes too dangerous to be allowed to continue, I will have someone with whom to replace him. That is why I sent you here, even though it placed you in danger. I thought the danger was worthwhile, if it gave me a backup demiurge when the time came. Now I no longer think the danger is worthwhile. We will find another way to teach you. Come home with me.”
“No,” said Sohu. “No no no. You can’t kill Uriel. I’m not going to help you kill Uriel.”
“I will not destroy Uriel now,” said the Comet King. “You are not ready. Perhaps I will never have to destroy Uriel. Perhaps he will fundamentally change. But if it needs to be done, you will do your duty, as I have mine.”
“You won’t have to kill Uriel!” said Sohu. “I’ve been talking to him. Getting him to understand more things. He listens to me! I want to stay with him. I want to keep studying.”
“Not safe,” said the Comet King.
“No one is ever safe,” said Sohu. “You taught me that. We’re Cometspawn. It’s our job to make them safe. And you said it yourself. It’s important that I learn the celestial kabbalah, in case there’s ever a time when we need…someone other than Uriel for it. You said you’d train me at home. You can’t train me at home. No one can. Only Uriel really understands it. This is where I’m doing the most good for the world, right?”
“Sohu,” said the Comet King, “before you and your sisters and brother were born, I thought of you as strategic assets. I told Father Ellis I would make an army of you. He said that was wrong. Then – your eldest sister, Nathanda. She was the first. When I saw her, I…Father Ellis talks of goodness as something burning and beautiful. I told him he was wrong, that goodness was something cold and crystalline. But when I saw Nathanda, for the first time I understood what it meant to see goodness the way that Father Ellis did. Terribly hot, and too bright to look upon directly. Then I knew as long as she was alive I did not need to worry any further about staying human. I had caught humanity and wrapped it around me tightly like a mantle. All thoughts of sending you off as an army vanished. You’re not a pawn – or at least you’re not only a pawn – you’re my daughter. And I will not let any harm come to you.”
“But Father. You’re always telling us that we need to think of what’s best for the world.”
“Yes,” said the Comet King. “So consider this: If anyone harms you, even the littlest cut or scrape, I will come against them as fire and night. I will destroy them and their people, uproot everything they have built, wipe them utterly from the Earth. And I will do this even if they are the only archangel capable of running the universe, and they have nobody to replace them. What is best for the world is that I not do that. That is why I am taking you home, Sohu.”
Sohu shuddered. Then she said, “The prophecy says that I’ll die screaming and cursing your name. If Uriel killed me, I’d probably just die thinking you were right.”
“Playing with prophecy is a dangerous thing, Sohu.”
“Taking me away from the only person who can train me to use my powers is dangerous! Life is dangerous! We’re Cometspawn! If we don’t do the dangerous things, who will?”
“I will,” said the Comet King, “so that you do not have to.”
Whatever Sohu might have answered was lost in the brilliance of a sudden lightning bolt and the crash of the following thunder.
“SOHU,” said Uriel “I JUST DID SOMETHING REALLY BAD.”
Sohu ran through the door of the cottage, ran across the little cloud, jumped into the empty spaces beneath, leapt at Uriel. The archangel caught her in his giant hand, and she hugged his finger. “Uriel Uriel Uriel I’m so sorry I’m so sorry are you okay I’m so sorry.”
“I AM SORT OF NOT OKAY BUT IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.”
“It is it is I told you to go to the conference I thought you would like it but it was all a trick I was playing right into Thamiel’s hands he wanted to hurt you I’m so sorry.”
“IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU ARE GOOD. YOU TRIED TO HELP.”
Then he noticed the visitor. The Comet King stood on the edge of the cloud. The starlight gleamed off of his silver hair. He listened to his daughter and the archangel quietly, but his mind was deep in thought.
“Father,” said Sohu. “This is Uriel. Uriel, my father, the Comet King.”
“Uriel,” said the Comet King, “can I trust you with my daughter?”
Sohu’s brain immediately generated all of the terrible things that were about to happen. Uriel was going to answer something like “WELL, WHAT IS TRUST, ANYWAY?” and go off on a tangent while her father panicked. Uriel was going to talk about how Thamiel sometimes came to visit them and tried to kill or torture her. Uriel was going to, God help them, try to give a kabbalistic analysis of the question.
“YES,” said Uriel.
The Comet King looked for a moment like he wasn’t sure exactly how to respond, but it was only for a moment. “What happened in Madrid?” he asked. “The diplomatic community is in chaos. I had to talk President Bush out of declaring war on you. And the reports out of Jerusalem are so confusing I can’t even begin to decipher them.”
“I GOT VERY UPSET,” said Uriel. “THAMIEL TRICKED ME INTO GETTING ANGRY, AND I FELL FOR IT. I USED THE ENERGY I WAS SUPPOSED TO USE TO SUSTAIN THE UNIVERSE TO MAKE EVERYONE GO AWAY. THEN I FELT VERY BAD AND I USED MORE OF IT TO SOLVE THE PROBLEM WITH ISRAEL SO PEOPLE WOULDN’T HATE ME.”
“Solve the problem with Israel?”
“I PEELED APART SPACE SO THAT TWO ISRAELS EXIST IN THE SAME SPOT. ONE OF THEM CONTAINS ONLY JEWS, THE OTHER CONTAINS ONLY PALESTINIANS. ANY JEWISH PERSON WHO ENTERS THE COUNTRY WILL FIND THEMSELVES IN THE JEWISH ONE. ANY MUSLIM PERSON WHO ENTERS THE COUNTRY WILL FIND THEMSELVES IN THE PALESTINIAN ONE. ANY CHRISTIAN OR ATHEIST OR SO ON WILL FIND THEMSELVES IN A SUPERPOSITION OF BOTH STATES. IT WILL PROBABLY BE VERY CONFUSING.”
“You can do that?”
“NOT WITHOUT COST. I HAVE TAKEN TWENTY YEARS FROM THE LIFESPAN OF THE MACHINERY. IT IS MY FAULT AND I AM BAD. I WANTED PEOPLE TO LIKE ME. NOW I HAVE BETRAYED THE ONLY JOB I EVER REALLY HAD.”
The three of them stood there in the eye of the hurricane, silent in the starlight. The king. The little girl. The giant archangel. There was little to say. The world had been falling apart for years. Now it was falling apart faster.
Finally the Comet King spoke.
“Do you know the Hymn of Breaking Strain?” he asked.
Uriel shook his head.
The Comet King stood tall at the edge of the cloud. In a clear voice, from memory, he recited:
“The careful text-books measure
(Let all who build beware)
The load, the shock, the pressure
Material can bear.
So, when the buckled girder
Lets down the grinding span,
The blame of loss, or murder,
Is laid upon the man.
Not on the stuff – the man.
But in our daily dealing
With stone and steel, we find
The gods have no such feeling
Of justice toward mankind.
To no set gauge they make us-
For no laid course prepare-
And presently o’ertake us
With loads we cannot bear:
Too merciless to bear.
The prudent text-books give it
In tables at the end
The stress that shears a rivet
Or makes a tie-bar bend-
What traffic wrecks macadam-
What concrete should endure-
But we, poor Sons of Adam
Have no such literature,
To warn us or make sure.
We only of Creation
(Oh, luckier bridge and rail)
Abide the twin damnation-
To fail and know we fail.
Yet we – by which sole token
We know we once were gods-
Take shame in being broken
However great the odds-
The burden of the odds.
Oh, veiled and secret Power
Whose paths we seek in vain,
Be with us in our hour
Of overthrow and pain;
That we – by which sure token
We know Thy ways are true –
In spite of being broken,
Because of being broken
May rise and build anew
Stand up and build anew.”
“YOU SAY WE ARE ALL BROKEN BUT MUST CONTINUE OUR WORK ANYWAY,” said Uriel. “BUT YOU NEVER BREAK.”
The Comet King stood there on the edge of the cloud, inhumanly perfect, his black cloak and silver hair blowing in the gale.
“I will,” he said.
“PROPHECY?” asked Uriel.
“Probability,” said the Comet King. “No one keeps winning forever. And when I break, I’ll do what comets do. Shatter into fragments, but stay locked on the same path, so that only the most careful astronomers can even tell they’re broken. And that’s what you need to do, Uriel. We need your help.”
“HUMANS DON’T LIKE ME.”
“Humans dislike many things humanity needs.”
“I AM NOT GOOD AT ANYTHING.”
“You are good at one thing. You run the universe. That is enough. We need a universe. No one has to be good at everything.”
“YOU ARE GOOD AT EVERYTHING.”
“Not everything. I cannot run the universe. That is where you come in. And my daughter.”
“SHE IS VERY GOOD. SHE IS LEARNING QUICKLY.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“I WILL NOT HURT HER.”
“No, I don’t think you will.” He sighed. “But you need to be more careful. Both of you. Uriel, stay away from humans. They are ungrateful. They are foolish. They are cannibalistic. You and I, we are similar. Too similar. We take the straight paths. Try to do things right, damn the consequences. Humans are not like that. They manipulate the social world, the world of popularity and offense and status, with the same ease that you manipulate the world of nature. But not to the same end. There is no goal for them, nothing to be maintained, just the endless twittering of I’m-better-than-you and how-dare-you-say-that. You are no good at that, and you will never be any good at that, and if you were good at that you would not be good at what you need to be good at. We are similar, Uriel, deep down, but leave humans to me. That is my burden. The world is yours. The world, and training my daughter.”
“JALAKETU,” said Uriel. “DO YOU THINK IT WILL ALL TURN OUT OKAY?”
“I do not think anything,” said the Comet King. “I plan for it to turn out okay.” He sighed. “But now I should leave. The European Communion is talking about declaring war. That would be inconvenient. I would have to defeat them. Do we have anything else we need to discuss?”
Uriel was silent.
“Stay here a little longer, Father?” Sohu asked.
“Can’t. There’s always a crisis. And you have work to do. I’ll visit. I know I haven’t visited, but I will.”
“GOOD LUCK, JALAKETU.”
The Comet King stared directly at Sohu, spoke into her mind in that creepy way that he did.
[Keep him safe, Sohu. I am counting on you.]
[You lied to him, Father]
[I told him the truth. His part is to remain strong and do his duty. If he fails, I will remain strong and do mine. You will do no less.]
[That’s not what I mean. You told him you could break quietly. But you told me that if someone hurt me, you would go nuclear on them.]
[I told both of you the truth. I will destroy anyone who hurts you. But not because I would be broken. Because I would remain intact.]
He sent her something telepathically, a tangle of thoughts mixed with emotions. When she sorted it out, it came into her mind like a question and answer. The question went If you are Moschiach, and you have to care for everyone as if they are your own children, how do you care for those who are literally your children? The answer was a non-answer, a steamrolling over the paradox. You care for them even more. You care for them extremely and ferociously, beyond any reason.
He stared at her. [Sohu. Promise me you won’t die.]
She almost laughed, almost told him that of course that wasn’t something she could promise. Then she saw the look on his face, dead serious. She remembered what Uriel had answered him only a few minutes before. So she just said:
[There’s a prophecy, Father.]
[You will be a celestial kabbalist. You can stand above prophecy.]
That was something she hadn’t heard before.
[But even without prophecies, everyone dies.]
[Then promise me you will not die before I do.]
Something in his look prevented her from arguing any further. [All right, Father. I promise.]
The Comet King turned into lightning and flew away, merging into the general fury of the storm.
“HE IS GOOD,” said Uriel, finally. “HE IS RIGHT ABOUT ME AND HUMANS, AND HE IS GOOD.”
“The prophecy says I will die cursing his name.” said Sohu, “But I don’t think that I will.”
She went back into her cottage, started tidying up the books. The storm had felt strangely empty without Uriel at the center; now that he was back she felt safe again. There was a horror to Madrid; in her heart she could not forget that he was a mass murderer, that he had in his own words “CREATED THE BLACK PLAGUE TO SEE IF IT WOULD WORK”, but – Father was right. He didn’t understand humans. He never would. And she didn’t understand Uriel, not really. The Bible demanded faith that God was good, despite a whole world full of evidence to the contrary. For some reason, she had faith that Uriel was good. Not very wise, maybe. But good.
And she had faith that her father was good. She looked at her left hand, where Thamiel said her father had placed a mark that would call him in times of danger. She wondered what other protections were on her, that even Thamiel hadn’t found.
God she was still iffy about. But Uriel and her father, those two she had faith in. Those two were good. It would have to be enough.
She fell asleep while the archangel worked silently outside.