Chapter 43: Lest They Be Annihilated In Thy Annihilation

And Abraham said unto the LORD, “Will you not destroy the world if there are even a million righteous people in it?” And the LORD replied unto Abraham, “The world shall not be destroyed if there are even a thousand competent people in it. I don’t have anything to do with the process, mind, just making a prediction.”
— Eliezer Yudkowsky

Summer 1983
Washington, DC

The overt meaning of salt is “sodium chloride”.

The kabbalistic meaning of salt is “to try to escape destruction by heavenly fire”.

This meaning we derive from Genesis 18-19. God tells Abraham that He has decided to destroy Sodom for its wickedness. Abraham asks God to spare the city if there are even fifty righteous men, and God agrees. Step by step, Abraham bargains God down to a mere ten righteous men, but he doesn’t try to bargain any further. And there turns out to be only one righteous man – Abraham’s nephew Lot. So God destroys Sodom, but warns Lot and his family to run away and not look back. Lot and his family rush out of the city, but his wife can’t help looking back to see what’s going on, and for her disobedience God turns her into a pillar of salt.

Today President Reagan is meeting with the Devil in the White House to try to escape destruction by heavenly fire, and the name of the summit is Strategic Arms Limitations Talk (SALT).

When the sky cracked, the world briefly escaped nuclear apocalpyse; atomic weapons were among the many technologies that stopped working. The respite lasted until the early 1980s, when a European rabbi studying Vayeira managed to extract fifty letters to make the Wrathful Name, an incantation that leveled cities. Originally a Neu Hansa state secret, within months it leaked to the Untied States. President Reagan ordered scrolls containing the Name placed atop the remaining Minuteman rockets, and thus was born the ICKM – the inter-continental kabbalistic missile.

Hell was not above using its citizens as human shields. When Thamiel learned of the Name’s existence, he gathered hundreds of thousands of children from all across his empire into the strategically valuable cities. America hesitated. Before they could come to a decision, it was too late. Hell had stolen the Name. Demons couldn’t use Names directly, but they had various human prisoners and collaborators. Soon Thamiel had ICKMs of his own.

Hell made the first offer. US recognition of all Thamiel’s outstanding territorial conquests, including Russia, Alaska, Canada, and the US north of Colorado and west of the Missisippi – even Salish, which Hell had never actually managed to conquer. In exchange he would disarm all but a token remnant of his ICKMs. If not, he would nuke the Untied States, and let Reagan decide whether to launch a useless retaliation that would kill hundreds of thousands of innocents but allow the demons to recoalesce after a few months.

Reagan made a counteroffer: not doing any of that. And if Hell used any nuclear weapons, he would nuke the whole world, destroying all human life. Thamiel’s goal, he said, was to corrupt humanity and make them suffer. Piss off the Untied States, and they would knock humanity beyond all corruptability and pain forever. Some would go to Hell, others to Heaven, and that would be the end of that for all time. Mutually assured destruction was the only way that anyone had ever prevented nuclear war, and sometimes that meant threatening something terrible in the hopes that your enemy didn’t want it either. Reagan gambled everything on the idea that the Devil didn’t want a final end to all sin.

Thamiel said that Reagan didn’t have it in him. That when they came to the brink, and Reagan had to decide whether to wipe out all of humanity just in order to look like he wasn’t bluffing, he wouldn’t have it in him.

Reagan said that this was probably true, but it didn’t matter, because the Comet King had signed on to the plan, and Colorado had ICKMs, and the Comet King didn’t bluff.

That was when Thamiel got angry. “Bring the Comet King here,” he ordered the President. Then “No, he’s watching. He has to be. Get over here. Now.”

A bolt of lightning struck the room, and Jalaketu was seated at the big oak table.

“You would do this?” the Devil asked him. His first head was seething with rage, and even the mouth of his second head had curled up into what looked like a snarl. “You would end the whole world just to save a few miles of your borders?”

“If I thought it would come to that,” said the Comet King, “I would not have proposed the plan. The world is useful to me; I need it intact if I am to prepare for the next battle. But if you are asking, would I swear an oath that entails risking the world, and follow that oath if the time to do so ever came – then if it meant arresting the spread of Hell across the world, I would.”

And Thamiel knew it was true. Worse, he knew the whole thing had been the Comet King’s idea, the Comet King was advising Reagan; half a dozen little mishaps and annoyances from the past few months snapped into place. “Out,” said Thamiel to Reagan. The President looked like he was going to protest, but the edge in the Devil’s voice was unmistakable. He excused himself.

Thamiel and Jalaketu stared at each other across the long oak table.

“I don’t like you,” said Thamiel.

The Comet King was silent.

“No,” said Thamiel. “You don’t understand. I don’t like you. I bring ruin on everybody because it’s my job. But with you, it’s personal. Your case is going to be a special interest of mine. Maybe you don’t understand how unbelievably, unutterably, colossally bad that is for you.”

The Comet King stayed silent.

“I can even tell what you’re thinking. You’re smiling inside, thinking that means I’m going to get all emotional and make a mistake. Trust me, that doesn’t happen. I’m going to be perfectly methodical. It’s just that when my plan comes to fruition, I’m going to enjoy it more.”

The Comet King still didn’t say anything.

“All right,” said Thamiel. “Are you hoping I’ll talk? Fine. I’ll give you this one for free. What do you know about the Messiah ben Joseph?”

The Comet King nodded. “Enough.”

“Maybe not. Saadia Gaon says that if Israel is good, they’ll get one Messiah, the Messiah, the Messiah son of David. If Israel is bad, they’ll need two Messiahs. Messiah ben David will be the second. The first will be Messiah ben Joseph. He’ll do all of the classic Messiah things – rule gloriously, judge wisely, defeat evil. Then he’ll meet an evil he can’t defeat and die. Horribly. Really, really horribly. Everything he worked for will be destroyed. The world will be racked with horrors until it becomes as a rotting corpse. Then Messiah ben David will come and make everything better and save everyone. Except Messiah ben Joseph. He’s still very, very dead.

“The other name for the Messiah ben Joseph is the Messiah ben Ephraim. It makes sense. Two of the Twelve Tribes are descended from Joseph; Ephraim is one of them. So the Messiah will be a descendent of Joseph through the tribe of Ephraim. There’s only one problem: Ephraim is one of the Lost Tribes and as far as anyone knows the descendents of Ephraim have been wiped out.

“Except…that a group of Jews calling themselves the Bene Ephraim turned up in, of all places, southern India, claiming to be the last living descendants of that tribe. And now a man of Indian descent comes bearing Messianic aspirations. Interesting. I’ve looked into your mother’s family, Jalaketu West. Looked into them probably more than you have. It’s pretty easy when so many of their souls are your property for all eternity.”

He paused to see if the Comet King had winced. It was hard to tell.

“Random proles. Not a great king or warrior in the lot. But trace it far enough, and I do believe you have some Bene Ephraim blood in you. You’re practically a unique specimen. A living descendant of Joseph. Oh, yes. All your boasts about being the Messiah. And sure, how couldn’t you be? But you must have thought you were the Messiah ben David. I regret to inform you, Your Majesty, that you’re just the Messiah ben Joseph. The one who dies horribly. The one whose people will suffer tribulations and be broken by them. The one who fails. Don’t trust me? Look it up. I’m sure you have all the right books in that library of yours. Talk to your family. Send for the records. It isn’t hard to figure out.”

Jalaketu just nodded.

“Nothing?” asked Thamiel. “No response at all?”

“I told you. I knew…some of that. It’s a risk. But it’s only a risk. Scripture says that if humankind is good, then it doesn’t have to happen that way, the Messiah ben Joseph and the Messiah ben David can be the same person.”

If humanity is good?!” asked the Devil.

“If humanity is good,” repeated the Comet King.

“Surely you understand how unbelievably, unutterably, colossally unlikely that is, and has always…”

“There’s always a chance.”

“If humanity was good, if even the tiniest, most miniscule fraction of humanity was good, God would have saved Sodom. Abraham asked Him that, and He agreed, because He knew it was the easiest bargain He’d ever make. A bet without risk.”

“Lot was good,” said the Comet King.

“One man!”

“One man whose name means ‘a multitude’. That is the kabbalistic lesson: a single good man is equivalent to a multitude of good men. Because he can convince others, set up incentives, build institutions, drag the rest of the world kicking and screaming. If I had been with Abraham, I would not have stopped at ten people. I would have told God to save the city for the sake of one righteous man, and God would have done it, because one man can be a great multitude when kabbalistically necessary.”

“And then what? Fine. You convince God to save Sodom. And what do you get? A city full of Sodomites. The scum of the earth. Worms and maggots infesting the world. And now they’ll never stop, because you showed them they’ll never face punishment for their crimes. They’re all yours. What does it gain you?”

“I keep them from you,” said Jalaketu.

“I’m telling the truth when I say I don’t like you,” said Thamiel. “Please don’t believe this is one of those times where the Devil always lies and you can’t trust him. I really don’t like you and I am really looking forward to the part a few years from now where God gives me the advantage over you and you end up wholly in my power. Remember that.”

“I remember,” said the Comet King.

He turned to lightning and flew out of the room.