ANGELS: Shock & Awe

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Chapter 16

Politics has never been my strong suit. I like to believe that’s because I’m the guy who cries bullshit, not the guy who slings it. But it’s simpler than that: I avoid politics because it wears me out—all that effort for so little result. I’ll even cop to a little bit of snobbery—to succeed in political maneuvering you have to be willing to “play the game,” a game in which, as Napoleon said, “Stupidity is not a handicap.”

One of my best buddies in college was Ted Larsen, a future congressman who took exactly the opposite attitude. Teddie used to quote Plato at me: “Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.” He got elected President of the Student Assembly in a landslide, then used his executive power to appoint me to an empty seat, thus embracing the age-old tradition of cronyism, which I’m sure has served him well over the years. At first I tried to decline, but Gareth gave me such a hard time about it that I went ahead and took the seat just to spite him, fully aware that that may have been his double-reverse psychology intention all along.

I spent half of my first session biting my tongue bloody trying not to scoff out loud at all the petty nonsense being aired. Then someone brought up the double standard of GPA requirements for athletic versus academic or artistic scholarships. Put bluntly, jocks only had to maintain a 2.0 to keep their money coming, everybody else a 3.0. The faculty rep was ready with his justification: athletes were required by their sports to spend so much time in practice, training, and competition that it was unreasonable to expect them to manage the same academic standards as the rest of the student body.

I of course cried bullshit, at least figuratively. I asked an assembly member whom I knew to be a Music major—the beautiful, unattainable (by me at any rate, and believe me, not for lack of trying) Suzanne Henderson—to describe her typical week for us: hours practicing her instrument, mandatory choir membership, private lessons taught and received, etc. Then there were the “work study” portions of her financial aid, requiring so many hours per week. By the time we added it all up, it was a wonder she found time to go to class, let alone sleep. So, long story short, we made our case. And I learned a valuable lesson that day in the Law of Unintended Consequences: Since we had successfully argued that the double scholarship standards were unfair, the rules were indeed changed; the new GPA standard would now be the same for everyone—2.0.

More than once, Teddie tried to talk me into applying to law school with him. He dismissed my utter lack of any Poli-Sci “pre-law” studies as irrelevant to someone of my towering intellect. Since that argument was unassailable, I reminded him that I wasn’t like him; I had no interest in law, as it was inexorably bound up in politics, and I had no interest in politics, remember? Whereupon he fell back on his habit of quoting ancient Greeks, this time Pericles, I think: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”

Which brings us in a roundabout way to my return to Disneyland. Like it or not—and I certainly did not—I would be jumping with both feet into a tense political landscape full of potential pitfalls. Or a dense political minefield, to borrow another war-metaphor cliché. Either way, I was ever mindful of that lesson about unintended consequences.

All of our pacing around the gray wonderland working out a so-called plan had apparently only spanned a couple of hours or so, and we came the point when Eloi asked if I was ready to return to the pyramid. When I hesitated, he spoke with something like urgency: “The stasis field grows unstable. It is time.”

He reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, turned me around, and with only the barest jolt of Transition, we were both suddenly back at Walt’s apartment. This was new; I had always had it to myself before, except for the Ishim, who came and went like the shoemaker’s elves while I slept. And stranger still, waiting for us were four other Angels, who looked almost comically incongruous in this setting.

I found myself feeling disoriented, and more than a little intimidated. Over the past weeks (or hours, depending on who was counting where), ever since my initial arrival at the foot of that surreal Jacob’s Ladder, I had only seen other Angels at a distance. All of my time had been spent with Eloi, and he looked so human that I had almost forgotten how truly alien the Angels were. I noticed immediately that Gabriel was not among these four. All had wings, and all were considerably taller than Eloi. He did indeed seem like a youngster in contrast to them, though none showed the slightest sign of age. All four were extraordinarily beautiful. There was no need for formal introductions; as I looked at each of them, I was instantly aware of the traditional equivalent of their names. Most striking was Uriel, who looked like a harder version of Gabriel (a comparison I wouldn’t have believed possible), and was almost a head taller than the rest, and consequently brushing the ceiling. He had an almost visible aura of power about him. Abdiel had extremely dark, nearly mahogany skin, with blue-black hair and jet eyes. Jeremiel was pale and slender, with sky-blue eyes and a golden mane of hair. Finally, there was Zagzagel, who had stark white hair and startling golden eyes, so bright they seemed to glow with an inner fire. He held a silver helmet tucked under one arm.

As this last name popped into my head I was immediately intrigued—ancient rabbinical lore named Zagzagel as the Angel of the Burning Bush; he was also the Angel that had supposedly appeared to J. Hal Merriman and inspired his Eudynamics. Was it possible that he really had? But I had no time for such idle pursuits. I looked to Eloi for my next cue. He nodded. “Uriel would speak to you.” Interesting verb choice: pointedly old-fashioned, and uncharacteristically ambiguous. Certainly Uriel was not seeking any permission to speak to me. Perhaps there was some subtle semantic wrangling going on between the youngest Angel and one of the eldest. I turned my attention to Uriel and gave him the little eyes-lowered nod these elders seemed to expect. His “voice” rumbled in my head: “We are the Angel-Ishim High Command.” One part of my brain heard this as “I am the Archangel Uriel and these are my generals,” while yet another echoed it as something like “We are the Overlords of Earth.” There was a reason Eloi usually handled direct communication. Another throbbing ache blossomed behind my eyeballs.

Uriel seemed to waiting for a response. “Understood,” I said simply, although that was obviously an exaggeration. Eloi voiced a sound that must have said the same thing to the imposing “Archangel.” (This was the first time I had encountered the term, and I immediately realized that it was more my own invention than any recognition of genuine hierarchy among the Angels. Thrones and Dominions, Seraphim and Cherubim—all of that medieval Dionysian terminology—had no meaning here. But it was nevertheless true that in this race of “equals,” some were indeed apparently more equal than others. Gabriel and Uriel—as well as Michael and Raphael, whom I’d yet to meet—may not have been Archangels in the strictest sense, but their status as among the eldest still carried undeniable authority.)

Uriel went on at some length. It all amounted to “Don’t screw up.” Looking back, I think it was intended as a sort of pep talk, but it was having the opposite effect on me. For all of my ease with Eloi and my customary smart-assed bluster, being in the presence of these towering aliens was humbling. Finally, Uriel reached out and took the helmet from Zagzagel. He held it out to me. “This was the murdered Ishim’s. Some among your people will recognize it. They must understand that they will all answer for any such crime in the future.”

I took it from him, and again said, “Understood,” more sincerely this time.

“You are the Chosen. You are now effectively the Governor of these people.” Governor of Disneyland; Mom would be so proud. I suppressed a chortle. Uriel looked to Eloi to assume further instructions.

Eloi spoke aloud in English. “That you may govern effectively, we grant you great autonomy. When you believe your people are ready, Abdiel and Zagzagel will reveal themselves.” I looked at these two, who blinked acknowledgement. They were like bookends, yin opposite yang: Abdiel, so dark he seemed like a void in the room; Zagzagel altogether luminous. They were first and last in the hypothetical Angel Encyclopedia. I sensed Eloi’s nascent sense of irony at work in their appearance here. Or maybe it was just an incredibly poetic coincidence. I looked back at Eloi, but his face was inscrutable as always. He went on: “It may be that your people will misperceive their role, and assume that they appear at your command. If this helps you, they will allow this misperception, within reason.”

With a flare of wings, the other four Angels abruptly disappeared. The air pressure dropped at their departure, and I reflexively yawned to clear my ears. I noticed that my old clothes were once again on one of the red sofas.

“The stasis was cancelled just before we came here. The pyramid is again at its former accelerated time-pace. This sudden change has been somewhat... harsh. Quantum inertia, pent-up potential energy, has hit hard. The sun is now high in the sky, so there was an instant brightness that was no doubt also disconcerting. This was not intended to be punitive, but many of your people will no doubt feel as if the Wrath of God has come down on them for having killed the Ishim. They—”

“‘The Wrath of God.’ Ha.” Again I tried to read his expression. Maybe there was a tiny twinkle in his eye. “You’re developing quite the sense of irony there, Eloi.”

“No irony was intended, but I understand what you mean. Still, it is a common expression.”

“True enough. It just never had so much meaning before.” Then something else he’d said dawned on me. “Wait a second. You said they might feel they’re being punished for killing the Ishim—”

“It seems a likely connection.”

“Sure. But they don’t know for certain that the Ishim is dead. Is it wise to let them know they’re capable of killing Ishim? Won’t that encourage them to believe that resistance may not be altogether futile after all?” As was so often the case dealing with Eloi, I was thinking out loud, and almost instantly regretted it. Here I was referring to fellow humans as “them.” How did that happen? Had I spent so much time with Eloi that I could forget my own lowly place in the new world order? Did I really think the Angels needed my help keeping humanity under their thumbs?

Before the guilt of my own budding arrogance ran too many laps around my head, Eloi answered. “We discussed various scenarios. There seems no point in pretending that the Ishim are invulnerable. Even if they don’t realize that their victim died, they certainly know she bled and was taken captive. We concluded that it was more important that they understand that their violent actions will have violent consequences. You saw for yourself how many were killed in the Ishim Guard response. Those bodies still lie where they fell—”

“No doubt still smoldering.”

“No doubt.”

That image hung there for a moment. “Okay. Let me make sure I’ve got all this. From their point of view, only a few minutes have passed since the Ishim Guard put the insurrection down—”

“Yes.”

“A few very unpleasant minutes. How bad is it?”

“From my observations, I think it must be similar to the sensations you have felt after your most extreme Transitions.”

“Ah.”

“But few of your fellows will have your natural tolerance.”

“What?”

“It is a part of your nature, just as is your affinity for our communication.”

“What got me ‘Chosen’ in the first place.”

“Exactly. Many are still unconscious. Many more are violently ill. All will have headaches. A few have died.” He paused, no doubt mentally consulting the Collective. “You may designate a hospital area. If you choose, you may bring the badly afflicted there and we will see to their treatment.”

“Okay, good. Thanks.”

He reached out, holding a tiny device out to me. “Here. Put this in your ear. Speak my name, and I will be listening.”

I took it, and looked at it closely. It looked like a silver teardrop. “And if I don’t speak your name, will you still be listening?”

He smiled ever so slightly, I’m almost sure of it. “Possibly.”

“And the Angel-Ishim High Command?”

“Only through me, if I wish it.”

Ah. Fair enough. I slipped it into my left ear, and felt it adjust itself to fit. It was an extremely odd sensation. I was also instantly aware that it far more than a transmitter-receiver; among other things, through it I could access the Disneyland public address system. I yawned again as the device finally settled into place. It occurred to me that I should have asked how one went about removing the thing, but it also occurred to me that I might not like the answer.

Oh well. I picked up my old shirt, and started putting it on over my silver long-johns. “Eloi, may I ask you a question?” This had become a sort of unofficial code between us that I was hoping for a private “off-line” response.

He answered, per our routine, in only his physical voice. “Of course.”

“Why the send-off from Uriel and the others?”

A lot of my private questions started with “why.” It almost always gave him pause. Perhaps a race that lives for thousands of years loses its sense of curiosity. After a moment he admitted, “I don’t know. Uriel had been the prime advocate of abandoning this pyramid. He often challenges Gabriel. Perhaps—”

“Whoa! Gabriel advocated for the pyramid?”

“Of course.”

Of course? I’d have bet real money, if there was still such a thing, that Gabriel would have been happy to pull the plug himself. Go figure. “How about that?” I muttered as I sat and pulled on my jeans. I realized that I was feeling a little thrill at the thought, like getting a gold star on my spelling test. Gabriel was on my side!

I’d lost some weight over the past few days. Weeks? Hours? I give up. At any rate, it was easy enough to get my jeans on over my silver outfit. I felt like some superhero spoof character, with my wacky spandex under my mild-mannered Substitute clothes. I set aside my silver slippers, pulled on my shoes, picked up the Ishim’s helmet and stood. Eloi was looking out a frosty window. He turned to me. “I could go with you.”

I believe he was worried about me.

“No thanks,” I said. “I think I have to go solo.” I decided against taking the Ishim helmet with me just now. There would probably be a good time to hold it high above my head like Moses brandishing his staff, but not just now. I hung it on a brass hat-rack and stepped up to Eloi.

I held out my hand for a shake. After only a tiny hesitation, he took it. “Wish me luck,” I said.

He sounded exactly like Papa Nick when he said, “Nonsense. You don’t believe in luck.”

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