God, grant me the serenity to accept that I will never have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
— Steven Kaas
Early morning, May 11, 2017
The computer whirred and chattered: the speaker producing Names faster than the ear could follow. I stared at the screen. I already knew I wouldn’t sleep tonight.
Last year I’d posted my paper “Exploitable Irregularities In NEHEMOTH-Maharaj Mappings” to one of the big Singer bulletin boards online. I’d been nervous. Bad things happened to people who put Names online. The law said webmasters were responsible for monitoring their own sites; anyone who didn’t delete a Name was just as guilty as the person who’d posted it in the first place. But there were rumors of worse things, webmasters being visited by men in black UNSONG uniforms and politely “asked” to hand over IP addresses. People corresponding to those IP addresses getting jailed, or just disappearing and never being seen again. There had been a site in the Harmonious Jade Dragon Empire that had just presented a list of like a hundred Names, right there for anyone who wanted to read them, but none of the search engines would show it and anybody who linked to it got taken down in all senses of the word. I’d checked a few months ago and it was gone.
But there was nothing illegal about posting methods to break klipot. It was just math. They couldn’t make math illegal. It would be like banning triangles. So I was nervous, but not too nervous. I remember sitting at my laptop – this was just after I’d gotten Sarah – clicking the reload button every couple of seconds. Watching the view count gradually increment up, from zero to one, from one to two. Then a comment – some sort of stupid objection to the math, I don’t remember what it was. Then another comment, “Wow, I think you’ve actually done it.” Then the view count going to fifty, sixty, a hundred as people started linking to it.
I remember that because of the compulsive refreshing. Each time I clicked the little button might mean another morsel of praise, a few more people noticing me, another stepping stone on my path to stardom.
Only now it was even worse. Each moment Llull might give me the little gong that meant it had found a Name.
“Go to sleep,” Ana mumbled. We were still in her room. She was in bed. The lights were off. I was sitting on the floor, checking Llull once a minute or so, otherwise browsing social media. I’d just learned Pirindiel had a Facebook account. It was such a trainwreck that I was having trouble averting my eyes.
“This is historic!” I answered. “When they ask us how our rise to total supremacy began, do you want to tell them that we went to sleep and then woke up in the morning to see if it worked?”
“If we have total supremacy, we can just kill whoever asks us that question,” said Ana. “Go to sleep.”
“I intend to be a benevolent ruler,” I said. But I felt uncomfortable joking about it. A weird thought crossed my mind. Was Ana going to assassinate me in my sleep? Was that why she –
“No,” said Ana. “Come on, Aaron, it takes a special kind of person to be paranoid when we can read each other’s minds. Go the euphemism to sleep.”
I was trying to figure out some way to continue the conversation and avoid having to go to sleep like a reasonable person when Sarah gave a melodic gong. Ana practically jumped out of bed, and in an instant she was right next to me at the computer. I minimized Llull and tried to open its output file, got an error message saying that the file was in use, groaned, paused Llull, tried again, saved to a different file, restarted Llull.
Fourteen Hebrew letters. I looked them over closely to make sure they weren’t a known Name. There are people with UNSONG who tattoo the Sentinel Name above their ears, and then other Names, the captive Names belonging to the theonomic corporations, on their foreheads. Then they can hear pretty much any Name spoken within a couple of miles of them, and if they don’t recognize the voice, or it’s one that people aren’t supposed to be using, they’ll come and investigate. But they can only tattoo a Name on themselves if they know about it. If the Name we got was truly new, we were safe. And I didn’t recognize it.
I held the syllables in my mind, tasted them. I tested the correspondences.
“Wait,” I said. “I know what this does.” I spoke. “KUHU-SHEN-TAR-TAVAL-ANASASI-VA.”
A bright light appeared a couple of feet in front of my face. From the light sprung a beam, pointing up and a little to the west.
“Whoa,” said Ana. Then, “What’s that?”
Name generation was hard partly because most Names were pretty useless. Names to change the colors of flowers. Names to make sugar taste bitter. You might have to go through five or six before you got one of any use. The rejects were usually copyrighted, just to prevent anyone else from getting them in case they proved unexpectedly useful, then languished unknown in UNSONG archives.
“It shows the location of the moon,” I said.
“You mean, in the sky?”
“Well, it could be helpful if you’re a sailor doing navigation things, and it’s a really cloudy night. Or if you’re trapped in an underwater cave and you don’t know which way is up.”
Then we stopped. I don’t know if it was the telepathy or what, but both of us realized at that moment that it had worked. That any computer that could give us a Name to find the moon would soon enough be giving us Names to boil oceans or split mountains. We just stared at each other, awestruck.
Then the computer gave another melodic gong.
I’d calculated that it should come up with Names on average once every couple of hours, but by the nature of averages sometimes it would be faster. Ana and I almost knocked into each other in our rush to grab the mouse. Another round of pausing and restarting.
The Name was HANAPHOR-KOTA-SALUSI-NAI-AVORA-STE-KORUSA. I spoke it once, then took off my glasses. I had perfect 20-20 vision.
Again we stopped and stared at each other. If we wanted to cut and run, we could declare that we’d stumbled across this Name through simple kabbalistic study, then sell it to the theonomic of our choice. How much would people pay for a Name that made eyeglasses unnecessary? Millions? Billions? We could both just retire, buy a house in Malibu and two tickets on Celestial Virgin, and never work again.
“Ha,” said Ana, finally. “You’d no more do that than Erica would.”
“I’m not Erica. I don’t think I have a revolutionary bone in my body.”
“Oh no. You’re not the type to hand out leaflets, or the type to go on marches. You’re too intellectual for that. That doesn’t mean you’re not revolutionary. It just means your revolutions are intellectual revolutions. That’s what makes you so dangerous. Marx never handed out leaflets either. You like to solve everything in your head, then declare that a solution exists and so you have done your part. It’s completely harmless unless somebody takes you seriously. Or unless you get enough power to enact your dreams at no cost to yourself.”
“You don’t even know what my dreams are.”
“You don’t even know what your dreams are.”
It was kind of true. Ever since I’d been young, I’d wanted to be a kabbalist. Then I’d gone to Stanford, then I’d gotten kicked out, and ever since then I’d pretty much just been brooding. I fell in with the Unitarians not because I had any strong political views, but because they thought the world was unfair, I thought my life was unfair, and so we had a sort of synergy. Honestly, if a theonomic agreed to hire me as their Chief Kabbalist tomorrow and gave me a nice office and a whole library full of books, chances are the next day I’d be on the news defending them and calling the singers a bunch of dirty hippies. Ana knew this, I think. But I couldn’t just admit it.
“My dream is to become the new Comet King,” I said.
I’m not sure exactly where the phrase came from. But when I said it, it fit.
“You can’t become the new Comet King,” Ana said, in the same tone a kindergarten teacher might use to correct a boy who said he wanted to be a tyrannosaurus when he grew up.
“Why not?” I asked. “He was a kabbalist. I’m a kabbalist. He knew all sorts of secret Names. I’m going to know all sorts of secret Names. He started with nothing. I start with nothing.”
“He was born of the heavens, you were born of ordinary mortal parents.”
“Ordinary mortal parents? Ha! My family can destroy worlds.”
This was true. My great-uncle Edward Teller invented the hydrogen bomb. My father Adrian Teller had followed in his footsteps and spent the ’90s conducting unspecified nuclear research at Livermore Laboratories east of Fremont . My mother had been a waitress at the cafeteria there. The two met, they had a brief fling, she got knocked up, she told him so. He suddenly realized he had vitally important national security business to tend to on the opposite side of the country, so sorry about that, good luck with the whole child-rearing thing. My mother was left alone to take care of me, whispering in my ears since the day I was born that I was a famous physicist’s child and I was going to be better than everyone else. I would invent the next big doomsday device and become rich and famous, and so she would be rich and famous, and then all of the suffering she was going through as a single mother trying to get by on a waitress’s salary would be worth it.
In kindergarten, I scored through the roof on some kind of placement test and skipped two grades. My mother was so happy. I was happy too: I was making her proud. It was only later I realized that when other mothers were proud, you couldn’t see the same glimmer of greed in their eye, the same restless energy that came from resisting the urge to rub their hands together and say “Everything according to plan”.
At first she would dip into her meager savings to buy me physics books, big tomes from the library on optics and mechanics. Then, when the theonomics became big, she realized that physics was (literally and figuratively) on its way out and started getting me books on kabbalah, the ones whose covers use faux Hebrew letters and whose authors write under vaguely Jewish sounding pen names. This is probably the point at which a normal kid would have rebelled against the role he was being shoehorned into. But by happy coincidence I loved kabbalah. I loved the fluidity of it, picking everything apart and building it together exactly the way I wanted. I loved the power that I felt when I used one of the toy Names that UNSONG had let into the public domain.
I met my father once when I was thirteen. I’d searched for him online on a whim, found his email, contacted him. He said he’d be in the California Republic for a conference later that year, and did I want to meet him for lunch? I did. We met at a Burger King in Berkeley. It was just the two of us. My mother refused to accompany me. My father asked how my mother was doing. I said she was fine, because telling him that she had been depressed and bitter for my entire life and I was pretty sure it was because of him seemed like the sort of thing that would spoil our lunch. He said he was proud that I was learning physics and kabbalah. He said I would probably turn out to be a genius like my great-uncle. It seemed both of my parents had mapped out my life in exactly the same way. He gave me a gift – a biography of Edward Teller, what else? – and told me to make him proud.
I spent the BART ride home leafing through the book. I read about Teller’s invention of the bomb. I mused over his retreat into an almost fanatical patriotism – self-justification? A patch over the horror of what he had done? I learned about his war against communist sympathizers in the physics community. And I read through one of his interviews, where someone asked him about being “Father of the Hydrogen Bomb”:
REPORTER: “Is ‘father’ an appropriate label?”
TELLER: “Well, I made some essential contributions.”
I couldn’t help imagining the same exchange an hour earlier, back at the Burger King. “Is ‘father’ an appropriate label?” I would ask. “Well,” he would tell me, “I made some essential contributions.” So much for Adrian Teller, and so much for my heritage.
More interesting was the poem. My great-uncle had written a traditional kabbalistic alphabet poem. I don’t think he did it on purpose, I don’t think he knew he was working in a genre beloved by sages for centuries, I think he just sat down one day and thought it would be funny to write a poem on the different alphabet letters. It started:
A stands for atom; it is so small
No one has ever seen it at all.
B stands for bombs; now the bombs are much bigger.
So, brother, do not be too fast on the trigger.
Then the book – the nerve of it – moves on! As if there was something more important than my great-uncle’s correspondences between the letters of the alphabet to the aspects of the destruction he had unleashed. Oppenheimer might have been a Hindu heathen, but Teller must have been, deep down, a kabbalist. Since then I’ve searched high and low, but I have only been able to find two more of his couplets.
H has become a most ominous letter;
It means something bigger, if not something better.
S stands for secret — you’ll keep it forever
Provided there’s nobody else who is clever.
I obsessed over these when I was younger. Part of me thought they were secret messages to me. Part of me still does. The reference to “brother” on the B, for example – his brother was my grandfather. Don’t tell me that’s a coincidence. Nothing is ever a coincidence.
“What are you thinking, Aaron?” The telepathy was weak – Ana had never been able to follow when I started brooding.
“S is for secret,” I said. “You’ll keep it forever. Provided there’s nobody else who is clever.”
“That’s such an Aaron thing to say,” she said. I don’t know if she was thinking of my cryptography work, or just accusing me of always thinking I was the only clever person around.
“You think so?” I asked. “It’s actually from my great-uncle. Maybe everyone who told me to grow up to be just like him got their wish after all.”
“Aaron,” said Ana. “I like you, but you’re not the kind of person I want to see inventing doomsday devices.”
We didn’t even need the mind-link for this one. Obvious response was obvious. What did she think we were doing?
“So,” asked Ana. “If you’re going to be the new Comet King, does that mean you’re going to go declare war against Hell, kill Thamiel, and save humanity?”
“Yeah,” I said, although I hadn’t thought much about it. It did seem like the right thing to do, although I remembered reading something about how Thamiel was a facet of God and couldn’t actually be killed. I figured a new Comet King would part that sea when he came to it.
“Oh,” said Ana.
“What about you?” I asked. “You know, the Comet King’s wife was…”
“I’m not your wife,” said Ana. “The whole marriage ritual was a test. I’m glad we did it. It’s interesting. But I’m not your girlfriend and I’m not your wife.”
“Gah, I didn’t mean – ”
“But to answer your question,” Ana said, “I don’t know.”
“Theodicy…is really hard. I didn’t expect to run into practical applications this soon. There’s lots of evil in the world, and everyone wants to run out and fix it, in fact there’s this immense moral pressure to run out and fix it, but whenever someone tries, something goes horribly wrong. I mean, that’s what Hitler tried to do, and the Communists. Trying to fix the world, any more than just the boring kind of fixing the world where you hold a bake sale to support your local school – that’s hubris. But refusing to do that, when you know people are starving and dying all around you – that’s monstrous. So which are we? Monstrous or arrogant?”
“Me?” I asked. “Arrogant. All the way.”
“And I understand the impulse. It’s tempting to run out there and play Joan of Arc – ”
“Jonah whale,” I corrected. “Noah ark.”
” – but I’ve read enough history to know how that ends. So to answer your question – what do I want to do with this discovery? I think I want to do experimental theodicy. I want to know why God created a universe filled with so much evil. So I guess we can try to…gradually start removing evil from the universe. Then if something goes wrong, that was probably the thing God was worried about.”
I blinked. That was kind of terrifying even by my standards.
“I don’t think it’ll come to that,” said Ana, still looking serious. “I think we’ll reach some point, and then God will intervene. I want to see what that point is. How far we’re allowed to push before our plans start mysteriously failing and any further efforts are to no avail – ”
“Noah ark,” I corrected. “Jonah whale. I thought we just went over this.”
Ana swatted me. I dodged.
“What’s the chance that either of us is getting back to sleep tonight?” she asked.
“I don’t know about you,” I said. “But I’m going to Bill Dodd’s house.”
It was, I had realized, the Comet King thing to do. I’d got proof of concept that our Name generation plan worked. The next step was to get more computers. Llull only worked on Apples. Eventually we’d have enough money to hire someone to make a Windows port, but for now we were limited. Ana and Erica had Windows machines. But Bill had been boasting of his new computer incessantly for the past couple of weeks. It was expensive. It was lightweight. It was blindingly fast. And it was an Apple. I was going to convince him to let me borrow it. I wasn’t sure how. But I was.
“I,” said Ana, “will hold down the fort.” She climbed back into bed. “You’re going to either need the Wakening Name or a lot of coffee tomorrow.”
“You really think I’m going to work tomorrow?” I asked. “Besides, do you think the Comet King would have delayed one of his plans for the salvation of the world just because he expected to be tired the next day?”
“God, Aaron, you’re not the euphemism Comet King. You are being way too gung ho about all of this.”
Okay. But I was descended from the guy who invented the hydrogen bomb. Thinking through the implications of our discoveries was not exactly a family strong point. And the Comet King hadn’t been wishy-washy. He hadn’t been filled with self-doubt. They say that whenever someone asked the Comet King why he took the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, he’d just said “Somebody has to and no one else will.”
Was I arrogant to even make the comparison? Maybe. But I had crossed out of the realm of normal human life the moment I heard the Vital Name and realized it was a shortcut to omnipotence. Where I stood now there was no model, no track to follow, save one. Only one person had ever had access to the sheer volume of Names I was going to have, ever stood alone and seen the future of humanity stretch out before him, malleable for the shaping. Well, what had happened to him was better left unsaid. But now there was another chance.
“I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” I told Ana, and then I strode out alone into the cold night air.