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Monday, November 6, 2017

010 The New Aleph - Chapter Nine

Soma tries to settle in on Pan, Nathan tries to get what he needs from Threshold, and Paul and Aramis try to understand each other.



Aramis and Paul were walking down the narrow streets of Hempstock, side by side, hands in their jacket pockets as they moved through the cold air. Aramis was still processing Paul’s story.

She was suspicious that he didn’t want to talk about it around the other people from the meeting because they might think he was crazy. She couldn’t really hold that against him, but it did hurt her a little that he wasn’t willing to join her in being seen as “frustrating evidence,” the way they did her. He had outed himself as a person who believed the Alephs and the mangers existed, and that was something. But, it was still a little unfair that the two of them carried similar burdens of truth and experience, but he still got to look human and blend in if he wanted.

And he was a good-looking human. It could be a problem. Similar interests. Strong faith in Seven. Stubborn, calculating personality. Wretchedly gorgeous.

She pushed those thoughts from her mind by reminding herself of a particular, important detail in his story. “So, are you going to try and get back to your girlfriend? Since you still remember her?”

He frowned. “I don’t know if I’ll still propose to her, but I have to get back. She’ll probably end up thinking I was murdered. Even…though I was. We had some pretty big theological disagreements, but it’s not like you’re going to find someone who agrees with you about everything. I think it’s just that the two of us are too alike in personality. Stubborn, calculating.”

Aramis’ heart clenched up for a moment. She nodded, keeping her face expressionless. “What were some things you had problems with?”

He clapped his hands together. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, but it was something called double-predestination.”

Aramis pulled her hands out of her pockets and folded her arms. At least she could distract herself from her annoying emotions by discussing controversial topics. “Oh yeah. I know what that is.”

“She’s really convinced that it’s true. I don’t like it. At all.”

They passed an alleyway and Aramis caught sight of a few posters taped to an old, brick wall. One was all black and white showing a man with hard shadows and sunglasses and “RAA” written below it. Another showed a field of raised fists holding up various tools with “Demand the unions and guilds renegotiate!” There was no escaping some arguments. Aramis’ arms tightened around her. “You run into a lot of problems if you try to use scripture to justify the Name creating certain people just for hell. There just isn’t a strong enough body of examples to show that he works that way. Human will just plays too important a factor.”

Paul looked even more upset by this. “But I have problems with the whole idea of hell anyway. And it’s not even that I think we should all go to Heaven or whatever. I don’t know if I believe the Name would bother bringing any of us back to life anyway. I know that’s bad. I can’t explain it.”

“I get what you mean. I don’t have any cool, smart answers for all the Hell stuff. Not yet anyway. Though, I definitely do tend to lean on the side of wishing everybody would get into Heaven.”

They walked in silence for a moment. A thought started gnawing on Aramis’ mind: “I’m actually an annihilationist. Technically, that makes me a heretic, but there is some scriptural justification for it.”

Paul’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that?”

“Means I don’t believe people stay in hell forever. Instead, they’re just destroyed at the final judgement. It’s not exactly a great alternative to the classic view on hell, but at least souls aren’t burning forever and ever.” A cascade of principles and apologetics passed through Aramis’ mind after she said that: The need for justice. Her own rage over the fact that children are abused. The fact that the word “atonement” was a portmanteau of “at-one-ment.” Assorted arguments rattled around in her head, but all of them felt empty and ineffective as justifications for hell.

“I didn’t even know that was an option.” Paul shook his head. “How did you keep your faith after you found out that some mystery men living in another world decided to resurrect you, not the Name?”

Aramis drew in a breath, at first not feeling upset by the question, but as she breathed out, an uncomfortable heart palpitation made her wonder if she was more bothered than she realized. “I’m not sure.”

“I don’t think Susie would believe any of this. I don’t mean the annihilationist stuff. I mean the stuff about preyvedes and Alephs. Even if I come back from the dead and tell her.”

Aramis coughed out a laugh. She’d just remembered one of the parables in the Good News of Lucas. About how people wouldn’t put much weight in the story of a poor man who’d come back from the dead. “People believe what they want to believe.”

“Guess it doesn’t matter. I’m not going to see her again anyway.”

Aramis had a very strange combination of misery and determination come over her as she heard this. She both didn’t want Paul to feel bad and wished she didn’t have a solution for him. “You don’t have to be an Aleph to move between worlds.”

Paul stopped walking. “Really?”

Aramis stopped and turned to face him. “Two ways: teleportation stones and getting into Threshold through the narthex. A teleportation stone from here to Prometheus is outrageously expensive and illegal for anyone but an Aleph to even be within ten meters of, so that won’t work. And if you’re a preyvede caught with one, you can get executed.”

“Executed? Ah man,” Paul’s forehead filled with wrinkles. “I’m starting to wish I could go more than two days without finding out everything I think I know about the universe is wrong.”

She smiled. “The only option we really have is to get to the narthex and then cross over through Threshold. But, first we need to know where it is. I know someone who probably knows where it is, but I doubt he’ll tell me. Then we need to have someone with Aleph-level physical strength.”

Paul stuck out his lower lip. “I know where it is. It’s north of Chrysoprase. I was just there.”

“You came here directly from Threshold? You didn’t tell me that.”

“I told you Irse told me to tell everybody the Alephs are evil, and she told me how to get out, and that I eventually found my way here.”

“I thought she teleported you. Why else would you come all the way here?”

“There were no machinist jobs available in Chrysoprase.”

Aramis squinted an eye. “Well, huh, I guess we have one thing figured out.”

“I’m also really, really strong. Like, insanely strong.”

Aramis smirked. “Well, I am too, but I still can’t open a narthex door. Alephs are twice as strong as the strongest stone preyvedes. You said you were supposed to be a stone, but there was no room for a new one, right?”

Paul nodded.

Aramis chewed on her lower lip as she thought the details through. And the options. Warmth rose up and flooded her head and shoulders as she did, because she already knew what they needed to do. Well, what she wanted to do but didn’t want to do. She thought she could see the yellow glow of the streetlights for a second as the thoughts battled in her head. Probably just her imagination. Or her brain filling in the gaps in the darkness. “There are two ways to boost your strength enough to open the door. If your base strength is enough, anyway. One, Atlas Cocktail, is almost as expensive as the teleportation stone. Well, not really. But it’s still really expensive.”

“Well, I have no money, so yeah. What’s the other way?”

Aramis stared at him with her mouth cracked open. This was definitely a night of having things to say and not actually saying them. There was another way to make an Atlas Cocktail, besides paying for it, but she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be able to do that.

The other way to boost his strength was for Paul to form the slow bond, or the never-no bond, with a preyvede. And, seeing as she was the only preyvede he knew—her mind froze as they walked under a cluster of tungsten bulbs hanging from an archway spanning the road. She thought she could see the tone of his skin for a moment. Milk chocolate, with nearly black eyes with a shimmer of amber at the bottom of the iris reflecting the light of the lamps. But then they moved past the arch and Aramis was sure it was just her imagination again. “I’m too tired to explain it right now.”

Mercifully, he nodded. “I’m pretty tired too.”

A few minutes in silence and they came to an intersection and Paul turned to the right. He smiled. “Well, I gotta head home.”

“Me too.” Aramis walked sideways to the left, smiling back.

Paul’s eyes went wide. “Are you going to keep coming to the study? I know their shortsighted and kind of…prejudiced, but I think we could soften them up a bit. You definitely know your stuff, they can’t deny that.”

Aramis drew in a long breath. “Oh, maybe. It’s been a while since I’ve been around anyone who believed in Seven, so I might as well.”

He smiled big. “Cool. Well, see you around, Aramis.”

They walked off in opposite directions.

But not in Aramis’ mind. She fought back a fantasy where Paul would insist that she come over to see his place, then he would talk about how his girlfriend was, after all, a mean and terrible person. Then the lights would go down, and they’d be sitting close to each other on the bed. In her fantasy, all the colors were there.

“No,” Aramis hissed out as she crossed a street, no one nearby to hear her. “Get out of my head.”

She beat down the fantasy in the way she always did those like it, which was to think she was doing one thing but was doing something else.

She thought she was meditating on the fact that she did not need a dashing, strong boyfriend to hold her close at night and whisper soft words of desperate love into her ear. She only needed Seven’s presence to comfort her. To meditate on the promises of rest and peace given in the Remnants. She didn’t need a human to comfort her. She didn’t need. Need was not a part of her life. Not right now.

She recited these things in her head as she walked the streets, going quickly to the Social Services Guild complex and to her tiny apartment that smelled like bleach. Where she’d be alone. Where she’d be up for hours trying to fall asleep and trying to convince herself to stop wanting more.


The stale, still air in the underground library was ice cold.

Nathan hugged himself as he entered the blocky, dull atrium, lit with the purple-green light of overhead florescent lamps. The walls were gray concrete and the bookshelves, stacked on flour floors that encircled the open atrium ground floor, were black. The only color in the chamber came from the spines of books. The best word he could think of to describe the look of the place was “communist,” though he remembered Keane telling him that officially it was called “brutalist.” Keane hadn’t liked it down here either.

It was supposed to be similar to the entrance atrium of Argentina’s National Library, and it was ugly. In Nathan’s opinion, anyway. He has never been to Argentina, but Keane had also told him that the real library was square and at least had a skylight. This didn’t have one.

It was a hexagon. The wall behind him was the entrance with the elevator. The other five walls had hallways leading to five different sections. One had all the details on how Mebar had been created and how everything was holding together. Another tracked every single law and all minutes from every government meeting, including the Assembly and other Aleph bodies. Nathan couldn’t remember what the other three were supposed to hold, but it hardly mattered because he couldn’t remember which was which right now anyway. Each had a white and navy-blue directory plaque next to the openings, though, so Nathan would figure it out soon enough. Well, except for the wall that was charred black. The one the Assembly had burned.

“Remember, I wasn’t able to kill the sensors at the doors to these sections.”

Nathan looked around, searching for Carini. Her voice was nearby, but again she was nowhere to be seen.

Until she suddenly appeared standing next to him. She was holding a small cylinder with a red button on the top. She stepped up and handed it to Nathan. “Tanaka made this for me a while back. I think you’ll need it more than me now.”

Nathan gingerly accepted the device. It was heavier than it looked, in the same way his watch was, and had finger grooves along the grip that appeared to be carved out of a solid piece of obsidian. The red button was actually a disk of perfectly cut pink quartz.

Carini’s eyebrows went up. “Don’t lose it!”

Nathan shook his head. “No. No, I won’t. Probably the only way I’ll get out of here alive.”

Rossa nodded. “I suggest you get a pen reader and fill it with as many records you think may have anything remotely useful to you. The next time you want to come, they may be more ready for you, and it will be more difficult to get what you want.”

Nathan nodded, then froze. “Uh. I don’t know what a pen reader is. Is the key Irse gave me one?”

Rossa shook her head and walked over to the counter in the center of the atrium. She stepped around an opening to stand within the circle, reached under and lifted up an odd, fat pen. She tossed it to Nathan, who caught it and almost dropped it, since he was still holding her invisibility device.

She spoke while he stuffed the invisibility gadget in a pocket and turned the two-piece pen over in his hands: “Just tap it against the spine of any book or volume, and the pen will store an electronic copy of it. You can read it either with its little holographic screen, or by placing the pen against something flat that it will project the words onto.”

“That’s handy.” Nathan put it in a pocket.

Rossa’s face slowly rested into a thoughtful frown before she turned and walked toward the very center of the room. “Come with me.”

Nathan stepped past the circular counter and up next to Rossa. She was looking down at a book placed under glass, sitting on a stone pedestal that was positioned dead center in the room. She opened the glass, pulled out the book, and handed it to Nathan.

Unlike the invisibility device, this was much lighter than it looked. It appeared that all the pages had been ripped out of the narrow binding. There was nothing printed on the ancient-looking cloth cover except for the words on the spine: “SAGRADAS ESCRITURAS”, and the by-line: “– MIGUEL CANÉ.”

Nathan opened the book. There were only about twenty or thirty pages, all of them covered in text that was too small for him to read. But the last page made his eyes open wide. Printed at the top of the page, like a silver-leaf letterhead, was the blocky ten-point starburst-and-circle logo that had been the signature of the Mebar project. Next to it was written “DC PAPER.”

“Oh!” He looked over at Rossa, who nodded.

She pointed at the page. “This book will give one page to a person each year. I’ve already taken my page for this year, so it doesn’t have any for me.”

Nathan smiled. “Is this like ‘The Last Crusade,’ where if I take the page out of this room, the whole place will collapse?”

She shook her head. “You can take the page with you, but if you try and take the book, it will vanish from your custody and end up right back here.”

Nathan gripped the page in one hand and the spine in the other and, after a moment of hesitation, carefully ripped the page out. Rossa took the book from him and put it back in its display case. “Don’t tell anyone about this. Those damned Assembly members have their own allowances of DC paper, and endless supplies of AC paper, somewhere down in the center of Threshold where they do their plotting. They don’t need to know about this one.”

Nathan folded up the piece of paper, again feeling odd for treating what appeared to be an ancient relic in such a dishonorable way. He knew what the page really was, though, and knew that a couple creases would not diminish its potency in the slightest. He cleared his throat as he stuffed it in a pocket. “This could…get me out of some really bad situations.”

She was looking at the pocket where he’d put it. “I know I said not to lose the cloak, but really…really make sure you don’t lose that.”


“No. Can’t make espresso right now. Not for…at least an hour. I always wait until the sun is fully up. It’s too noisy. Downside of having a coffee trailer in a community where everybody lives in tents. The brewed coffee is really good, though. I can whip some milk and make you a poor-man’s latte, if you want.”

Soma wasn’t expecting such a long explanation, and was too tired to really care about any of it. The inscrutable, stern face of the woman at the trailer, the sign saying “Phyllis’ Coffee” in block letters, looked far too awake for this pre-dawn hour. “I’ll just have black coffee.”

Phyllis, if she was the namesake of the shop, shrugged and filled a paper cup with the steaming black beverage. Soma took it, then felt worried as she remembered she only had a few shekels, given to her in Banks along with a couple changes of clothes. “How much?”

Phyllis made a non-committal grunt. “Had a feeling you were new. I’m an SSG vendor. So, drip coffee is free. As long as you’re a preyvede, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t be able to run this place if people didn’t actually buy other stuff.”

Soma looked at the tip jar on the counter, fished out a shekel, and dropped it in. It was odd looking at it as it clanked into the almost empty jar. The coin almost look the same as a Prometheus version of one.

She sipped the scolding coffee, which didn’t burn her mouth at all, thinking about this. She wondered about all the things that were different here in Pan. She actually felt excited about the prospect of starting a new life on a new world. Except that there was still the priority of somehow finding justice for her family.

After she’d drank about half of the coffee, she felt more awake. No one else had come by to get any yet. “Excuse me, do you know anything about Ignacio?”

Phyllis snorted. “Yeah. Everybody knows about him.”

Soma had been up almost all night talking with him, asking him about Aleph laws, Assembly judicial procedure, and inter-world politics. He had been shy at first, but Soma had figured out pretty quickly that a large part of it was that he was very attracted to her. So, as they talked, and Soma had made it clear she wanted to spend a lot of time around him, his shyness had turned into a boyish eagerness to impress her. And he seemed incapable of lying.

He had offered to let her stay in his tent, on a cot separated from his by a cloth partition.

“He isn’t a creep, is he?”

“No,” Phyllis drew out the word into a long sigh. “He’s just old, weird, and socially awkward. Some people think he’s one because, for a while, a friend of mine was staying at his place, but she said he was just like a doting uncle to her. Possibly because neither of them were attracted to each other, so, take that data how you will.”

Soma considered her options. Ignacio knew so much about the Alephs and the Assembly. He would answer any question she threw at him with authority and honesty , and still Soma was sure he was holding things back. She figured it would take some time, but if she was patient, she could learn everything she needed from him.


“This is going to take years.” Mumbled one of the suit-clad goons as he and an equally goonish woman walked right past Nathan. He was leaning against the door to one of the tiny apartments attached to one of the hexagonal room-cells of Babel. Nathan dared not breath until they were a couple meters past him.

The invisibility gadget had been working perfectly, and had bought Nathan maybe an extra half hour of collecting documents. Carini had warned that the moment he entered Babel’s maze, he might have two or three hours before guards would be in after him to try and find him. The endlessness of the maze had been helpful in evading them, but the time between escape and running into more kept getting shorter.

It was probably time to leave.

“Wasn’t this placed designed by someone who was afraid of infinity?” asked the woman as they went into the hex-room and looked at the shelves holding volume after volume of Assembly meeting notes. Nathan had just been copying those notes to his pen reader seconds ago when he heard the rattle of the rickety elevator these two had arrived on.

“I don’t know. They definitely aren’t giving us enough people to find this guy. But if he’s just a crazy aleph they want taken in alive, I don’t understand why…”

They walked out of the hex-room and across its adjoining bridge to another seemingly identical hex-room. Nathan ran down the opposite bridge, over the bottomless abyss of countless identical bridges stacked below it and countless stacked above it. Well, he speed-walked, because running would be too loud. He moved through half a dozen rooms until he felt far enough away, then pushed a button to call up an elevator.

Somehow, the cloak kept him safe and he made it all the way back to the atrium and even into Threshold’s main elevator. Catching his breath inside the elevator car, he adjusted the saddle bags hanging from his shoulder. He watched the floor indicator count down, TL-2, TL-3, TL-4, and so on.

The elevator floor indicator changed to MF and the door opened, revealing a wall of six large figures, four bulky men and two bulky (but still very finely-shaped) women, who stared right through him. Some of them had tattoos with tiny text spiraling around their necks or wrists. Not knowing he was right there, holding his breath, they all looked disappointed and frustrated at the seemingly empty elevator.

“Is there a stairwell somewhere that he might be coming down? Maybe he pushed the button and stepped out to distract us.” asked a slightly shorter one standing in the back. Right after, two of them cursed and ran off down the hallway.

Nathan cursed in his head, wondering why he hadn’t tried doing something like that. Instead, he had to squeeze against the wall as one of the larger men stepped into the elevator with him and looked up at the ceiling. Nathan tried to move around him and out the door without touching anyone.

The man pushed up on the ceiling of the elevator, checking to see if any of the tiles opened, making Nathan again feel dumb that he hadn’t thought of that either. He was about to get around the group of suit-clad searchers when a man covered from head to toe in the tattoos bumped into one of Nathan’s saddlebags.

Nathan froze and the hairs on the back of his neck all stood up. He held his breath, but the tattooed man seemed to think it was one of his friends he’d brushed against.

Soon Nathan was past all of them and standing in the long, straight hallway and he jogged a few paces away so he could breathe easier. He knew that one way would lead to the Pan narthex and the other to the Prometheus one. But he couldn’t remember which was which. There was a small sign on the wall back over by the cluster of suited goons.

Nathan held his breath and walked back toward them. He was relieved to find that he was already on the Pan side. He was curious to see how that world had turned out, and didn’t want to use that odd stone Irse had given him just yet. He let out a long breath, as silently as he could, and turned to walk down the hallway.


Nathan jumped and began shaking and his heart beat violently in his head and the three pretty-faced goons standing in the hallway turned to stare at him. He looked down, toward where the beeping was coming. It was his watch, but he couldn’t see it. He hit it and mashed all of the buttons and it finally stopped, but the huge men and women were already running toward him.

“He must be using an invisibility cocktail.”

“Those don’t work in here!”

“Get him!”

Nathan ran, the four figures chasing after. He looked back, seeing them catching up. There was no way he was going to get to the door and get it open before they caught him.

“Time to get clever, I guess,” he mumbled to himself before stepping to the side and pressing himself up against the wall.

The four kept going and passed him. He stepped backward with slow, soft footsteps at first until he felt he was far away enough from the pursuers that they wouldn’t hear him running. He ran fast, his saddlebags jostling loudly on his shoulder.

He lifted the heavy door leading to Prometheus open, realizing he wasn’t done there just yet. He heard the guards yelling just before he dove under the opening and it slammed shut behind him.

As he ran to his motorcycle, which was waiting for him not too far away, ready to take him to safety, he turned off the cloak. Nathan looked down at his watch, trying to figure out why it had randomly gone off like that. Glowing on the face behind the hands were the words: LATE FOR HNM CLEANING DETAIL


Paul threw his shoulder against the front door of Jack and Ben’s, sending it swinging violently open as he heaved and panted his way past the cramped dining room, ignoring the awkward looks from customers, and into the hallway toward the back room where the meeting was last week. He was at least fifteen minutes late. He got to the door and entered, but then frowned. The tables and chairs were all scattered in a mess. And the room was empty of people, except in the back corner, where Aramis was sitting.

She was reading from a little booklet, maybe just a stack of rough-looking paper folded in half and then stapled along the fold. She looked up at Paul and gave a flat smile. Paul waved at her and she waved back and returned to her reading.

Paul walked over, confused and still breathing heavy, and fell into a chair in front of her. He twisted around in the chair to face her. “I thought I was late. Doesn’t it start at seven?”

“No. Eight.”

“Oh. Well. I guess that means I’m not late.”

Paul paused to look at Aramis’ thick-papered booklet. The title on the top of the cover was “WEEKLY SQUIRREL ZINE,” and below that it said: “This Week: Experts weight in on the MOA’s update to ‘Silencing’ media lists—Fears rise that many favorite gray books will be ‘upgraded’ to black.” The print’s ink was heavy and bled a little, especially where thick fabrics and cords were mixed in with the paper. It looked like a slurry of different kinds and colors of paper had been mixed together and hastily pressed into sheets.

He looked at the back cover. There were little ads for all sorts of things he didn’t know anything about. The “Premium Aljinn Potions” were each listed with a color and a location: “Black-Cathedral…Blond-Tropical Beach…Brunet-Mountain Tea House…Red-Abandoned Pub.” Next to that was an ad for a “Mazai Potion-Making Starter Book…learn at home, on your own!” Below that were ads for “Mazai Raw Materials,” with a bunch of prices for blood and scales and bone and hair taken from bizarre animals he’d never heard of before: mountain wasps, granite sharks, glass wolves, dust ants, and so on. Some of the materials were outrageously expensive. Probably the Atlas potion Aramis had mentioned was made from some of those. Below that was something he did recognize, though: Bricks marijuana.

Aramis flipped to a different part of the booklet. Paul finally became uncomfortable in the silence: “How was your week?”

Aramis answered without looking up. “Boring.”

“Have you found any work yet?”

Aramis shook her head. “Not really. One job on Monday that only took a half hour. Refilled my bus money, I guess.”

“Oh. That’s lame.”

Her eyes darted up to look at his and then back to the pages.

Paul wanted to talk to her more, but wasn’t sure what else to talk about. He looked around the room and found an odd pamphlet sitting on a chair nearby. This was printed on normal paper, and in big letters it said, “Welcoming a New Boy into the Family.” He leaned over to grab it. “What is this?”

Aramis looked up to see what he was holding. He held it flat between them so they could both look at it. Under the title it said, “Understanding the ceremony and celebration of the brit milah.”

“What’s a brit milah?”

Aramis’ eyes widened. “Oh! It’s a pamphlet talking about a bris.”

“That thing where they cut off the…the thing?”

Aramis nodded, as if not noticing the hesitation in the question. “I always knew there was a ceremony, but I don’t know anything about it. Other than it happens eight days after birth.”

Paul turned it over, looking at the dense writing on the back, then turned it back to the front, then shrugged and handed it to Aramis. She took it and opened it up and went completely silent as she scanned it carefully.

“They had a bris in here? Isn’t that kind of gross?”

But Aramis didn’t seem to hear him. She was enveloped in the pamphlet. “Probably not. They probably just had the feast here after. This is fascinating.”

Paul waited, watching her and feeling lazy. Somehow he knew she’d read it, process it, and then explain everything she found once she was done, saving Paul from all of that effort. He wasn’t sure at first why he knew this. But then he realized that Aramis reminded him a lot of his mom.

But it might have been more than that. Right now, everything Paul had experienced told him the Name wasn’t real or didn’t care about him. All evidence was against his faith—except for Aramis. She was the one shadow of doubt holding him back from being bleached blank from the facts.

“Dang. Listen to this prayer.” Aramis spoke without looking up from the paper. “‘Master of all universes, may it be your will that he be worthy, favored, and acceptable before you as if I had offered him before the throne of your glory, and may you, in your abundant mercy, send through your holy angels a holy and pure soul to Yehuda my son, who has now been circumcised for the sake of Your Great Name, and may his heart be as open to your holy Torah as the entrance of the Temple, to learn and to teach, to observe and to perform. Give him long days, long years, a life of fear of sin, a life of wealth and honor, and a life in which you fulfill all the wishes of his heart for good. May such be your will.’ That’s a bad-ass prayer.”

Paul nodded. He jerked his head back as Aramis lifted up her head and stared at him with wide eyes. “Apparently, many Jewish families don’t tell anyone the boy’s name until they say it in a prayer like this. That’s incredible. See, this is like…I don’t know.”

“Like what?”

Aramis was staring at the paper again. “Tradition. It has so much power. I don’t agree with everything in this prayer, doctrinally. Like, I don’t think you should ever ‘fear’ sin, but that’s probably just semantics. But man, it’s amazing how tradition can clear out a path for people. As opposed to sola scriptura, where people fumble through holy texts trying to rebuild on their own what forerunners have already laid out.”

Paul didn’t know what “sola scriptura” meant, but could figure it out from what else Aramis said. “Maybe fumbling is good. I mean, I grew up believing everything my parents told me. Now, all the stuff I knew for sure is wrong. Maybe if I’d had to do all the studying and fumbling myself, I’d be better off.”

Aramis returned to reading. “I don’t know either. I think there needs to be a balance. If you don’t have any tradition, or any continuous chain of teaching, people will come up with really weird interpretations of things. They don’t have other people’s analysis to compare against. They may miss a detail that someone else already carefully studied. But yeah, just leaning on tradition will make you lazy and your convictions may not have any foundation.”

They sat in silence a moment. Aramis stared at the wall and Paul waited, expecting her to start talking again. Finally, she sighed and did so. “I wish someone had said a prayer like this for me. Think about the kind of confidence you’d have, knowing your parents believe this about you.”

“You say that like you can’t have that confidence.”

Aramis continued staring at the wall. “I can’t use scripture to justify believing for all that. These parents are making declarations of faith because they love their son. They have special authority, because they’re his mom and dad. You see that in the story of Ya’akov stealing the father’s blessing from Esav. And when Ya’akov blessed Yosef’s sons and made him angry by giving the younger one a better blessing. I can’t just believe I’ll have a good life because I want to. If there isn’t some kind of authority behind a promise, I don’t have faith for it.”

“Maybe your parents did bless you like that and you don’t remember. You guys forget a lot of things when you become preyvedes, right?”

“But that’s just hope. Not faith.”

“Why do you think tradition would make it easier? Isn’t that just people pretending they have things promised to them? It seems like that would just be deluding yourself.”

Aramis’ eyes narrowed and she slouched back in her chair. “I don’t think so. I think that’s unfair to people who’ve been teaching the same doctrines for thousands of years and have perfectly sound justifications in scripture for them. Maybe we’re getting off topic. I mean, I still have hope for things, just not faith. I have faith Seven will take me into heaven after I die, but not that he’ll fulfill my dreams and desires. But I can hope he will. He doesn’t promise it, though. Sometimes it’s good to believe in something even if there’s no clear promise, but…I don’t think I can do that anymore.”

Paul didn’t like the dark turn Aramis seemed to be making in her rambling. He needed to change the subject. “The remnant study that my family and Susie’s family went to had all the typical traditions. Celebrated the four covenant days, believed the Creed, that stuff. This remnant study doesn’t seem to have any traditions.”

It worked. Aramis’ eyes opened a little more and her face relaxed. “They do. They’re just awkward. Meeting at the same time once a week is a tradition. Having one person lead the discussion is a tradition. And they have some…strange ideas.”

“Did you know they used to meet on Friday nights? Ivan said they stopped because everybody was going to the Lower Empire shows instead.”

“Which one’s Ivan?”

“He’s the one married to Maria. She’s pregnant.”

Aramis processed this, then threw the pamphlet on a nearby chair. “That show. I know it’s not fair to call it pornographic, because everything that happens ‘drives the story,’ but…I don’t know why they have to show people being raped.”

Paul frowned, then stood up. The one thing, oddly enough, that had bothered him the most about being in the mythical mirror world of Pan was finding out that the most popular radio show in Prometheus was actually a re-worked recording of a live-action performance that was just as popular in Pan. People here would fill black-box theaters on Friday nights and drink potions so that they’d see the theater transform into the set of the show. And they could watch magical projections of the actors and everything that happened. “I’m not used to the way things are here.”

Aramis looked at him, then at the floor. “A lot of people at the commune would ask me to come watch it with them. They’re always saying the show is really well written. I have a feeling that if I get to know the people at this study, they’ll probably end up asking me too.”

Paul put his hands in his pockets. “You don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to. I’m not going to. There are enough things we all get pressured into.”

Aramis looked up at him, her eyes locking on to his in a way that made him uncomfortable. They were maybe a little red around the edges, but it was hard to say for sure. Paul wasn’t sure what he thought of this woman, but he knew he needed to stick with her. The people in the remnant study, even the leader, didn’t have any of the answers he needed. They still held on to the nonsense he had before coming here. But this one, this blue lady in red glasses, was a cool spring in a wasteland.

Finally, she nodded and looked away. “At least I have people to talk to now. It’s been a long time.”

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