Chapter 62: That The Wide World Might Fly From Its Hinges
Thou hast been faithful in a very interesting way.
Afternoon, May 14, 2017
It was afternoon, and we met together in the command center. Me. Sarah. The four Cometspawn. Vihaan, the Comet King’s uncle, chief of staff, and self-proclaimed butler. The Black Opal Throne towered over us, dominating with its emptiness.
We were gathered around THARMAS, the nuclear targeting computer. It was big. The ten towers linked together were almost the size of a trailer, big and grey, dominating their corner of the nerve center. THERMONUCLEAR ARMAMENT MANAGEMENT SYSTEM was etched into one of them, in the sort of lettering that had looked futuristic in the 1960s. Over the years other people had scratched other phrases into the bare exterior, until the big metal casing was as graffiti-laden as a high-school bathroom wall. “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS,” someone had written in big letters near the bottom. Added below, in a different handwriting: “BUT NOT SELECTIVELY”.
The last tower included a forest of switches and wires and display terminals. Caelius sat at one of them, running tests. Finally, he announced to us that it was ready.
“THARMAS can run Llull,” he said. “Or, rather, I wrote a half-baked port of Llull that can run on THARMAS. It’s not the most efficient thing in the world, but given what we’ve got I think brute force was always the plan.” He gave the massive metal rectangle in front of him a fond pat. “The thing is totally lobotomized. I stayed up all night to prove the code correct. It’ll get about a quarter millisecond of thought in before everything except the list of generated Names resets itself. This isn’t going to be a second – ” He looked at Sarah awkwardly. “It’s not going to have a will of its own.”
Nathanda nodded. “Sohu?” she asked.
My first day of kabbalistic marriage to Sohu West had been quiet. I’d gotten the impression that after getting the Name she’d deliberately blocked herself off from my mind, maybe out of a desire not to intrude. If she’d invented SCABMOM – something I still found hard to believe – might she be able to reverse it? I wondered what sort of spectacular Names I would find if I dove into her mind too deeply. For now, that wasn’t something I wanted to think about.
“Thanks to some…unorthodox tactics, we’ve pieced the Vital Name back together,” she said. “Is everybody ready?”
Jinxiang was holding a very big weapon, maybe a rocket launcher, eying THARMAS suspiciously. Not taking any chances, I guessed. She tightened her grip. “I’m ready,” she said.
Vihaan looked like he hadn’t slept for a while. In contrast to Nathanda’s simple white dress, Jinxiang’s more combat-ready style, and the haphazard appearance of the rest of us, he was dressed immaculately, as if ceremonially recognizing the importance of the occasion. “I’m ready,” he said.
I didn’t know if anyone cared whether Sarah and I were ready, but I squeezed her hand and said “We’re ready too.”
Sohu stood in front of the supercomputer and started to sing. She began: “ROS-AILE-KAPHILUTON-MIRAKOI-KALANIEMI-TSHANA-KAI-KAI-EPHSANDER-GALISDO-TAHUN…”
Caelius stared at the terminal. As soon as the process started, THARMAS would be generating Names every few seconds.
Nothing looked different except Sohu’s eyes, which glassed over for a split second. For a moment we all just stood there, silently. Then a gong sounded.
“Our first Name!” said Caelius. “Let’s see if…”
Then another gong. Then another. Then a fourth. Then Uncle Vihaan ran towards the computer as fast as he could. “CAELIUS GET AWAY!” he shouted. “What the – ” asked Caelius, but Vihaan grabbed him and threw him aside as the old man pulled on something hidden in his suit jacket and exploded and then everything was light and heat and pain.
The overt meaning of “butler” is “a highly-skilled servant”.
The kabbalistic meaning of “butler” is “one who destroys intelligent machines”.
This reading we derive from Samuel Butler, a Victorian author who in 1863 published Darwin Among The Machines. He wrote that, just as Darwin had recently found humans to be evolving by natural selection, so machines might be “evolving” by artificial selection, becoming more and more powerful until eventually they would replace humans as the dominant life-form. He ended by suggesting that “war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race.”
And we derive it also from Frank Butler, a friend of Frank Herbert’s, who protested a freeway meant to help industrialize Seattle. Herbert was so impressed by Butler’s anti-technology activism that he included in his Dune series an anti-robot crusade called the Butlerian Jihad, in which mankind rises up against robots and destroys them all. A jihad is a struggle waged in accordance with the will of God, and the Butlerian Jihad certainly qualifies. For God says (Joshua 8:1) “Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Take the whole army with you, and go up and attack AI.” Thus the Butlerian Jihad.
This, then, is the kabbalistic meaning of Butler: “one who destroys intelligent machines”. The obvious derivation is English – stories about “robot butlers” and the like. But if I’d been a little less shocked by the explosion, I might have moved past that and posited a Hebrew origin coming from bat Teller.
“Aaron! Aaron! Are you all right?”
I opened my eyes. Sohu was standing over me, shaking me awake. I said something like “mmmhghghghfdhfghmm”
“Aaron, how many fingers am I holding up?”
“What’s two plus two?”
I drew myself together, got all the lobes of my brain online.
“What do an apple and orange have in common?”
“They both foretell leaves falling.”
Sohu stared at me quizzically for a second. Jinxiang was the first to get it. She groaned, then said “He’s fine, Sohu. No personality change, at least.”
I picked myself up and looked around. There was almost nothing left of the Comet King’s Uncle Vihaan. Only a few shreds of what must have been his clothing, and blood everywhere. As for THARMAS, seven of the ten towers were smoking ruins; the other three were heavily scarred. North American airspace had gone black. Caelius had been hit the worst of any of us, but he was standing, sort of, with assistance. His white hair had been blackened by the blast, and his face was wrecked. I was pretty sure what he got would have killed a human, which of course he wasn’t. He rubbed an eye with a hand that had been burnt to the bone, tried to get his blood-soaked hair out of it so he could see.
The room was full of guards and soldiers. Jinxiang was talking to them. She had set down the rocket launcher and was now holding the magic sword Sigh. Nathanda was standing next to Caelius, trying to get him to sit down. I tried to stand up and almost fell before Sohu caught me and helped me to my feet.
“Caelius!” Nathanda was saying, “You moron! You’ve got to get a doctor!”
“Got to…fix THARMAS,” he was saying.
General Bromis had come in with even more soldiers. “What’s going on?” he demanded.
“Vihaan,” said Jinxiang, who I think was the first to fully piece the situation together. “We were trying a…very important new piece of technology. Vihaan knew about it. He must have filled his jacket with explosives and blown himself up to stop it.”
Bromis turned pale. “Why would Vihaan do that?”
“I don’t know!” Jinxiang protested. I don’t think the tears in her eyes were from the explosion. Vihaan had been her great-uncle, had helped raise her and her brothers and sisters when the Comet King and their stepmother had been too busy with matters of state. “He must have been…working for someone else. He knew this would happen today. He would have had time to contact them, and – “. She looked too horrified to continue.
“He only blew himself up,” Caelius added, “when the computer started producing Names. Like he was hoping he wouldn’t have to, but once he learned we were going to succeed…” It was hard to follow Caelius’ words; I still couldn’t believe he was alive and talking. Don’t look at his face, I told myself, but I looked anyway and almost gagged.
“Bromis,” said Nathanda, “I need you and your people to do a full check on Vihaan. Every communication he’s made since Father’s death. All his activities. Don’t worry about warrants for now. Ellis’s too, if you still have them, the two of them were always close. If the Other King has a network of spies here, we’ve got to catch them before they can do any more damage.”
While she was talking, Caelius had already limped over to the remnants of THARMAS and opened the cases, started fiddling with the circuits and connections. “Massively parallel,” he said. “I can get it running again. Not at capacity, but still a lot of brute force.”
“Caelius!” ordered Nathanda, “you go to the medical center, right now!”
“You…don’t understand,” her brother said feverishly, connecting wire to wire. “This is THARMAS. It was Father’s computer. But it’s more than that. This is the watcher in the darkness. This is what guards North America, keeps it safe. Without this, anybody could – ”
“Oh God,” said Nathanda. “Cael, you’re hurt. You’re delusional. Sohu, get a hold of him and bring him to the medical center, please.”
Sohu took a step toward Caelius just as he plugged one cable into another and Citadel West turned into a maelstrom of frantic light and noise.
For a second I thought there had been another explosion. But the sensory overload resolved itself into the most powerful alarm I had ever heard. An alarm suitable for…
North American airspace flickered back on the screen. But the familiar image was blemished. A flashing red dot appeared near Las Vegas. What was left of THARMAS groaned and refreshed the display. The dot moved very slightly east.
Somebody shut off the screech of the alarms, and everyone spoke at once.
” – Other King launched a nuclear missile – ”
“I TOLD you repairing THARMAS was top priority!”
“- but nobody launches nukes! What about mutually assured destruction?”
” – can’t shoot it down. THARMAS’ strategic defense functions aren’t online, might be too late anyway.”
“- kabbalistic missle armed with the Wrathful Name, could destroy half a state.”
” – Vihaan’s fault! He must have told the Other King that – ”
” – do remember that we’re in the most secure anti-nuclear bunker ever built, right?”
“Vihaan would never do such a – ”
I didn’t know how far General Bromis had made it out of the command center, but now he was back. “Your highnesses!” he said. “I’ve ordered all the citizens of Colorado Springs to take shelter. Other cities to follow just in case. ETA five minutes. We have about thirty ICKMs in the capital and a dozen more up near Boulder, what are your orders regarding retaliation?”
I will give Nathanda this: I didn’t even see her flinch.
“No. Not yet. We don’t know enough.”
“Fuck yes!” objected Jinxiang. “If the Other King wants mutually assured destruction, we’ll give him mutually assured destruction.”
As far as I could tell, all the Cometspawn had already reasoned that Vihaan was a traitor, that he’d radioed the Other King and told him what was going on, and that the Other King had realized we were about to break through to near-omnipotence. He’d panicked and ordered Vihaan to blow up the computer to buy him time and disable the Comet King’s missile shield, and he must have had a hell of a lot of leverage because Vihaan had done it. Now he was going to nuke us to remove the threat entirely, except that, as everyone had already mentioned, we were in a nuclear proof bunker. None of this made any sense.
“Have I mentioned we are in a nuclear-proof bunker?!” shouted Sohu. “Something is wrong. We don’t understand this. We’ve got to think.”
Sarah’s face was emotionless, as it had been ever since we came in. I wondered if the radiation blast from a detonation right on top of us would wipe her memory even if the citadel stayed safe. I squeezed her hand. She didn’t respond.
“Caelius!” Nathanda suddenly decided. “How quickly can you get THARMAS producing Names again? If we can get some good ones before the nuke hits, maybe…”
“Working on it!” said Caelius. “There was a lot of damage to the parts that had Llull, I’ve got to reinstall parts of this from scratch. It’ll take minutes. Not hours.”
“I don’t think we have minutes,” said Bromis, looking at the big map.
A man in uniform came in, handed him a message. “And,” he announced “the Other King has left his pyramid again. He’s heading for the passes. Fast. All the Great Basin armies are mobilizing. They’re going to try to break through.”
“Um,” interrupted Sohu, pointing at the map.
It was subtle, but we all saw it. It hadn’t been obvious a moment ago, when the missile had just left Las Vegas. But now that it had gone further, it was beyond doubt.
The Other King’s missile was not headed toward Colorado Springs.