Praise the LORD from my hand for my son, to make a faster machine.
Evening, May 13, 2017
They had taken us back to the NORAD command center. We sat at the big table, listening to the reassuring hum of a missile-free North American airspace.
NORAD is a very Semitic-looking word. The Hebrew stem would be nun-resh-dalet; and indeed we find it in the Bible, referring to a plant we English-speakers transliterate as “nard”. During New Testament times produced a very expensive perfumed oil, and Mary of Bethany was so excited when Jesus came to visit that she anointed his feet with it. Judas Iscariot chewed her out, saying that she could have sold the oil instead and gotten enough money to feed dozens of poor people. Jesus quieted him down by saying “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”
But there are other options. Hebrew has “narad”, meaning to go down or descend. Greek has “Nereid”, the goddesses of the deep. English has “nerd”, a technologically-minded smart person, and “neared”, ie having drawn closer.
Put it all together, and we get somewhere down very deep, filled with smart people and technology, dedicated to watching for things that might be drawing closer to them.
Nathanda sat at the center of the big table, flanked by Sohu, Caelius, and Vihaan. Jinxiang, Sarah and I took the other side. No one was at the head of the table. The Comet King’s black opal throne dominated the room with its emptiness. “The poor you will always have with you,” it seemed to say, “but you will not always have me.”
Sarah was awake now. She clutched my leg so hard it was almost painful, but she didn’t try anything. The Cometspawn had her outclassed, and she knew it. Gebron and Eleazar’s book said that only four kabbalists had ever gazed upon Adam Kadmon bare. One was the archangel Uriel. One was Rabbi Isaac Luria. One was the Comet King. And there was the fourth, sitting in front of me, looking to all the world like an eight-year old girl. Charming, disarming, innocent.
She listened as Jinxiang explained the situation to the newcomers, quiet right up until she got to the point where she told them the verses from Matthew she had found in the angels’ book.
“I think I know who the Other King is,” said Sohu.
I was numb to shock at this point, but I still sat up a little straighter.
“Jinxiang’s book. There is providence in the fall of a sparrow. There’s a story Uriel told me, a long time ago, about a man named Elisha ben Abuyah. Except that nobody speaks his name anymore. They just call him Acher, which means ‘the Other One.'”
Nathanda moved forward in her seat.
“The legend goes that he was once the wisest of rabbis and the most learned of kabbalists. One day, he saw a boy climb a tree and kill a mother bird in its nest, an act forbidden by the Torah. Then he climbed down safely and went away. A little while later, he saw another boy climb another tree, take some eggs from a nest, but spare the mother bird in accordance with the commandment. On his way down, this boy fell and broke his back and died. Acher became so angry that he vowed vengeance against God. He would just sin and sin until the weight of all his misdeeds knocked the world out of balance and ruined all of God’s plans.”
“All because of one kid falling from a tree?” Jinxiang asked.
“Not just a kid falling from a tree! A kid falling from a tree after doing a good deed. I guess Acher had always known that sometimes bad things happened to good people, but that was what really drove it in, made it hit home. He couldn’t figure out how God could let that happen, so he decided God was a monster. So he went on and lived a life of sin for a couple of decades, then died. There are all of these weird conflicting legends about what happened to his soul. Supposedly he was too wise for Hell but too evil for Heaven, so he just kind of – hung out.”
“And you think now he’s in Las Vegas.”
“It fits! Think about it. How could anybody, any normal human, defeat Father? What if they came from Talmudic times and had studied with Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eleazar and all those people? What if they’d been studying and practicing for two thousand years? And there’s that thing with the bird! Providence in the fall of a sparrow! That’s what Acher was rejecting. He saw a bad kid kill a bird and live, and said there couldn’t possibly be any excuse or explanation. It fits too well.”
We were all silent for a moment.
“Was there anything about how this Acher could be defeated?” asked Nathanda finally.
“The Talmud doesn’t exactly have a part where they list every rabbi’s fighting style and secret weaknesses,” said Sohu. “There are a lot of parts where his student Rabbi Meir tries to convince him to repent and become good again, and he keeps almost succeeding, but it always fails at the last second.”
“So does this help us at all?”
“If there’s a Talmudic sage who’s still alive – even sort of alive – that’s the most incredible thing! Scholars from all over the world would want to talk to him! Rabbis – ”
Jinxiang lifted a finger, quieted her sister. “You’re forgetting that this Talmudic sage is also trying to kill us. I met him in Las Vegas. I almost died. I would have died, if I didn’t escape at the last second.”
“He spoke to me,” I said. Jinxiang looked at me with surprise. “In my mind. It was terrifying. Just said my name. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever heard, worse than the Drug Lord.” Then I thought back to Malia Ngo and mentally revised the Other King to “second scariest”.
“I think,” said Sohu, “you had better tell the rest of the story.”
So Jinxiang finished, went through the Drug Lord finding me in Las Vegas, went through the battle on top of the ziggurat, went through the appearance of Sarah and the arrival of the Other King. Then Nathanda described how she had asked about ensouling THARMAS, and how that had led up to the fight where Sohu had found us.
“Sarah,” said Nathanda when she was done. “I am sorry. I spoke hastily, and I frightened you. Will you accept my apology?”
Sarah hadn’t stopped clutching my leg. She was three days old, I realized. She was feeling every emotion for the first time, totally unprepared. I put my hand on top of hers.
“Yes,” she said quietly.
“The geopolitical situation is terrible,” said Nathanda. “We have months at most before the Other King’s forces break through the passes. The Drug Lord regathers his strength. The Eastern states are weaker than they’ve been for a generation, and the peace with Hell is like every peace with Hell. Only until they see an advantage in breaking it. We’ve needed a miracle for a long time. Now we’ve got one. The Vital Name is the best way to save Royal Colorado, the Untied States, and…” She gestured to the big map of the continent. “I want to ask Aaron the Vital Name, have Sohu handle the error correction, and then put it in THARMAS. The obvious flaw in that plan is that then THARMAS becomes more powerful than any of us. Sarah seems to have…ah…turned out well, but none of us can predict what sort of personality a nuclear targeting computer will have. Caelius, any thoughts?”
The photos of Caelius in the papers had never quite captured what was unearthly about him. His pale eyes seemed perpetually unfocused, his thoughts always somewhere else. But when he spoke, he spoke clearly and confidently. “We can lobotomize it, so to speak. Get it to reboot all its functions except the one running the Name search every millisecond or two. It won’t have time to string a coherent thought together.”
“That sounds horrible!” said Sohu. Nathanda glanced at Sarah, watching for another outburst.
“Do it,” Sarah whispered.
“Do it. Keep it trapped, no personality, no thoughts. Don’t let it replace me.”
“Well,” said Nathanda. “Um. Any other thoughts? Jinxiang? Uncle? Is this something we want to do?”
She was interrupted as a man walked through the door. Another person I recognized from the news. General Bromis had accompanied the Comet King on his crusade. Now he directed the forces in the Rockies. He made it to the table, sat down, looked me and Sarah over suspiciously before speaking. Nathanda gave him a nod.
“News out of Las Vegas,” he said. “The Other King left his pyramid for the first time in a decade. Some kind of incident involving Trump Tower, still haven’t been able to get more information. He went right back into the Luxor once the incident ended and hasn’t been seen since. But he’s there, he’s still alive, and he’s mobile. And something got his attention.”
“I’m sorry for not telling you earlier,” said Nathanda. “My sister was there and has just been debriefing us. These two were also involved.”
“Well, I’m putting the army on alert anyway. I’d hoped the bastard was dead.”
“We told you he wasn’t.”
“You win. Can you tell me what happened? I don’t like not this not knowing what’s going on, especially with the war going – going like it is.”
“The short version is that Jinxiang was forced to stop in Las Vegas briefly on her trip to retrieve a valuable artifact. The Other King attacked her and she escaped. Some of the information is still very sensitive, but I promise we can tell you within a few days.”
The General looked mollified. “You want me in on this?” he said, gesturing to us, the table, the meeting.
“I’ll handle it myself, General,” Nathanda told him, “and meet with you tonight about the battle lines.” She nodded at Bromis, dismissing him; Bromis saluted and left the throne room.
“And that goes for the rest of you too,” she said. “This is highest secrecy. No one except the seven of us can know. Not the generals, not the ministers, nobody. Until THARMAS is up and running and has produced its first results.”
“Uh,” I said, raising my hand. “My friend Ana Thurmond knows. She’s on a ship somewhere near Mexico. And Malia Ngo of UNSONG might know too.”
“I’ll see if we can retrieve the ship. Director-General Ngo is in New York and out of the equation for now.” She spoke slowly, stopping to think between each sentence. “This bunker is the safest place in the world. We can get THARMAS running before anyone can get to us, as long as we’re careful. Aaron, the Name.”
And just like that, there it was.
Of course, it was sheer politeness that made her ask. I had no doubt that they had other ways to get it out of me. But for three days, I’d had something precious. Broken. Unusable. But precious. It had been mine. Now I here I was, about to give it to the Cometspawn. It was as if the Name had decided I was unworthy of it, and all I’d done, all of the tribulations and adventures, had been its itching to get itself into the hands of someone suitably important. Thanks, it told me, but I hope you didn’t think you were the one who was going to save the world. You were just the delivery boy. You worked at Countenance to find Names for other people, richer, more powerful people. And you found a Name there, and true to form, your job was to give it to the rich, powerful people.
Sarah dug her fingers into my knee. What was she thinking?
“Um,” I asked Nathanda. “May I have a minute to talk to Sarah alone?”
The queen’s face was impassive. She nodded.
“We should get out of here,” was the first thing that Sarah said when we had made our way to the big NORAD desks in the front of the room. “Something bad will happen. We should get out of here and correct the Vital Name ourselves and then lobotomize all the other computers and take over the world. We should rule the world together and be safe.”
“We can’t get out of here,” I said. “You tried, remember?”
“I could do better. I could kill Sohu first, surprise her. Then I could take on the others.”
The kabbalists say that all men have four souls. The animal soul, the nefesh, which sustains life and desire. The moral soul, the ruach, helps us divine good and evil. The intellectual soul, the neshamah, forms our thought and understanding. And the divine soul, the chayah, is the mysterious center of consciousness that connects us with God above.
Sarah’s animal soul was the golem that Gadiriel had made her. Her intellectual soul, I had given her myself with the Vital Name. The divine soul, everything had naturally. And her moral soul was…
“Um, Sarah, this is going to be a weird question, but…do you know right from wrong?”
“All I want is to make you happy!” she said.
“Doing the right thing makes me happy,” I told her. “Can you do that?”
She thought for a second. “Maybe.”
I thought about doing the right thing. When I was seven years old, the Comet King had set off with his armies to conquer Yakutsk and save tens of billions of damned souls from the agony of Hell. He had failed. But I still remembered that moment, hearing about it on the radio, seeing the pictures of those thousands and thousands of men marching out of Colorado Springs, singing his anthem. Now he was gone. No one had ever said his children were his equals, but they were good. I could tell. For all her snappiness, Jinxiang had saved me when she didn’t have to. I’d seen Nathanda calm Sarah out of her tears, I’d seen Sohu react with horror to the idea of lobotomizing a computer. They might not be perfect, but they were good. And they were stronger than me, not just physically, not just magically, but – I thought of my failure on Trump Tower, taking the peyote even though I knew what it meant. I looked at the four of them, sitting with their uncle at the table. They were good people.
Three days ago, when I’d ensouled Sarah, I’d told Ana I wanted to be the next Comet King. I wondered if she remembered. It seemed crazy now. Even Nathanda didn’t dare sit on that black opal throne at the far end of the room. Even Sohu wouldn’t touch it. If there was any meaning at all to being like the Comet King, at my level, it was trying to be a good person when the opportunity arose. I turned to Sarah.
“I’m going to tell them the Name, because I think it’s the right thing to do. Will you support me in that?”
Sarah thought for a second.
“Do you love me?” she asked.
Oh, right, I’d forgotten. The world was a horrible mess and it was practically impossible to know what the right thing to do was at any given time and trying to do the right thing could destroy the people you love but if you didn’t then you enslaved your children’s children because you made compromise with sin.
Sarah was sexy and powerful and totally obsessed with me. I knew I liked her. I knew I wanted the best for her. I wanted her to be okay. But she was a three-day old computer suddenly wrenched into sentience and stuck in a golem-body, and I wasn’t sure she had any emotions besides clinginess and rage. Did I love her?
“Cetaceans of the cross,” I said.
“What?” said Sarah. “Huh? Aaron, please! Do you love me?”
…and I didn’t love her. My heart was taken.
“Sarah,” I said, and I clasped her hand in mine. “You’re beautiful and wonderful and you saved my life. Together, we’re going to help the Cometspawn win the war and save the world. Okay?”
She squeezed my hand back. One day I would tell her the truth. One day when all of this was over.
We walked back to the Cometspawn hand in hand. Five pairs of eyes focused on us.
“ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON…” I said, and Sohu started writing furiously on a notepad in front of her. I mumbled once, to break the string, to mention the Name rather than use it, then continued. “MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…” The son and daughters of the Comet King listened, quietly, let the sounds of God’s secret and holy Name echo through the depths of the Rocky Mountains, heard the syllables that could only end in apocalypse or salvation.