Robert Silverberg is one of the true giants of science fiction. He is a multiple Hugo winner, a multiple Nebula winner, has been a Worldcon Guest of Honor, and is a Nebula Grand Master and the author of numerous acknowledged classics in the field.
In the shimmering lemon-yellow October light Cunningham touches the keys of his terminal and summons angels. An instant to load the program, an instant to bring the file up, and there they are, ready to spout from the screen at his command: Apollyon, Anauel, Uriel, and all the rest. Uriel is the angel of thunder and terror; Apollyon is the Destroyer, the angel of the bottomless pit; Anauel is the Angel of bankers and commission brokers. Cunningham is fascinated by the multifarious duties and tasks, both exalted and humble, that are assigned to the angels. “Every visible thing in the world is put under the charge of an angel,” said St. Augustine in The Eight Questions.
Cunningham has 1,114 angels in his computer now. He adds a few more each night, though he knows that he has a long way to go before he has them all. In the fourteenth century the number of angels was reckoned by the Kabbalists, with some precision, at 301,655,722. Albertus Magnus had earlier calculated that each choir of angels held 6,666 legions, and each legion 6,666 angels; even without knowing the number of choirs, one can see that that produces rather a higher total. And in the Talmud, Rabbi Jochanan proposed that new angels are born “with every utterance that goes forth from the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He.”
If Rabbi Jochanan is correct, the number of angels is infinite. Cunningham’s personal computer, though it has extraordinary add-on memory capacity and is capable, if he chooses, of tapping into the huge mainframe machines of the Defense Department, has no very practical way of handling an infinity. But he is doing his best. To have 1,114 angels on line already, only eight months of part-time programming, is no small achievement.
One of his favorites of the moment is Harahel, the angel of archives, libraries, and rare cabinets. Cunningham has designated Harahel also the angel of computers: it seems appropriate. He invokes Harahel often, to discuss the evolving niceties of data processing with him. But he has many other favorites, and his tastes run somewhat to the sinister: Azrael, the angel of death, for example, and Arioch, the angel of vengeance, and Zebuleon, one of the nine angels who will govern at the end of the world. It is Cunningham’s job, from eight to four every working day, to devise programs for the interception of incoming Soviet nuclear warheads, and that, perhaps, has inclined him toward the more apocalyptic members of the angelic host.
He invokes Harahel now. He has bad news for him. The invocation that he uses is a standard one that he found in Arthur Edward Waite’s The Lemegeton, or The Lesser Key of Solomon, and he has dedicated one of his function keys to its text, so that a single keystroke suffices to load it. “I do invocate, conjure, and command thee, O thou Spirit N, to appear and to show thyself visibly unto me before this Circle in fair and comely shape,” is the way it begins, and it proceeds to utilize various secret and potent names of God in the summoning of Spirit N—such names as Zabaoth and Elion and, of course, Adonai—and it concludes, “I do potently exorcise thee that thou appearest here to fulfill my will in all things which seem good to me. Wherefore, come thou, visibly, peaceably, and affably, now, without delay, to manifest that which I desire, speaking with a clear and perfect voice, intelligibly, and to mine understanding.” All that takes but a micro-second, and another moment to enter in the name of Harahel as Spirit N, and there the angel is on the screen.
“I am here at your summons,” he announces.
Cunningham works with his angels from five to seven every evening. Then he has dinner. He lives alone, in a neat little flat a few blocks west of the Bayshore Freeway, and does not spend much of his time socializing. He thinks of himself as a pleasant man, a sociable man, and he may very well be right about that; but the pattern of his life has been a solitary one. He is thirty-seven years old, five feet eleven, with red hair, pale-blue eyes, and a light dusting of freckles on his cheeks. He did his undergraduate work at Cal Tech, his postgraduate studies at Stanford, and for the last nine years he has been involved in ultrasensitive military-computer projects in Northern California. He has never married. Sometimes he works with his angels again after dinner, from eight to ten, but hardly ever any later than that. At ten he always goes to bed. He is a very methodical person.
He has given Harahel the physical form of his own first computer, a little Radio Shack TRS-80, with wings flanking the screen. He had thought originally to make the appearance of his angels more abstract—showing Harahel as a sheaf of kilobytes, for example—but like many of Cunningham’s best and most austere ideas it had turned out impractical in the execution, since abstract concepts did not translate well into graphics for him.
“I want to notify you,” Cunningham says, “of a shift in jurisdiction.” He speaks English with his angels. He has it on good, though apocryphal, authority that the primary language of the angels is Hebrew, but his computer’s audio algorithms have no Hebrew capacity, nor does Cunningham. But they speak English readily enough with him: They have no choice. “From now on,” Cunningham tells Harahel, “your domain is limited to hardware only.”
Ugly green lines rapidly cross and recross Harahel’s screen. “By whose authority do you—”
“It isn’t a question of authority,” Cunningham replies smoothly. “It’s a question of precision. I’ve just read Vretil into the database, and I have to code his functions. He’s the recording angel, after all. So to some degree he overlaps your territory.”
“Ah,” says Harahel, sounding melancholy. “I was hoping you wouldn’t bother about him.”
“How can I overlook such an important angel? ‘Scribe of the knowledge of the Most High,’ according to the Book of Enoch. ‘Keeper of the Heavenly books and records.’ ‘Quicker in wisdom than the other archangels.’”
“If he’s so quick,” says Harahel sullenly, “give him the hardware. That’s what governs the response time, you know.”
“I understand. But he maintains the lists. That’s data base.”
“And where does the data base live? The hardware!”
“Listen, this isn’t easy for me,” Cunningham says. “But I have to be fair. I know you’ll agree that some division of responsibilities is in order. And I’m giving him all data bases and related software. You keep the rest.”
“Screens. Terminals. CPUs. Big deal.”
“But without you, he’s nothing, Harahel. Anyway, you’ve always been in charge of cabinets, haven’t you?”
“And archives and libraries,” the angel says. “Don’t forget that.”
“I’m not. But what’s a library? Is it the books and shelves and stacks, or the words on the pages? We have to distinguish the container from the thing contained.”
“A grammarian.” Harahel sighs. “A hair-splitter. A casuist.”
“Look, Vretil wants the hardware too. But he’s willing to compromise. Are you?”
“You start to sound less and less like our programmer and more and more like the Almighty every day,” says Harahel.
“Don’t blaspheme,” Cunningham tells him. “Please. Is it agreed? Hardware only?”
“You win,” says the angel. “But you always do, naturally.”
Naturally. Cunningham is the one with his hands on the keyboard, controlling things. The angels, though they are eloquent enough and have distinct and passionate personalities, are mere magnetic impulses deep within. In any contest with Cunningham they don’t stand a chance. Cunningham, though he tries always to play the game by the rules, knows that, and so do they.
It makes him uncomfortable to think about it, but the role he plays is definitely godlike in all essential ways. He puts the angels into the computer; he gives them their tasks, their personalities, and their physical appearances; he summons them or leaves them uncalled, as he wishes.
A godlike role, yes. But Cunningham resists confronting that notion. He does not believe he is trying to be God; he does not even want to think about God. His family had been on comfortable terms with God—Uncle Tim was a priest, there was an archbishop somewhere back a few generations, his parents and sisters moved cozily within the divine presence as within a warm bath—but he himself, unable to quantify the Godhead, preferred to sidestep any thought of it. There were other, more immediate matters to engage his concern. His mother had wanted him to go into the priesthood, of all things, but Cunningham had averted that by demonstrating so visible and virtuosic a skill at mathematics that even she could see he was destined for science. Then she had prayed for a Nobel Prize in physics for him; but he had preferred computer technology. “Well,” she said, “a Nobel in computers. I ask the Virgin daily.”
“There’s no Nobel in computers, Mom,” he told her. But he suspects she still offers novenas for it.
The angel project had begun as a lark, but had escalated swiftly into an obsession. He was reading Gustav Davidson’s old Dictionary of Angels, and when he came upon the description of the angel Adramelech, who had rebelled with Satan and had been cast from Heaven, Cunningham thought it might be amusing to build his computer simulation and talk with it. Davidson said that Adramelech was sometimes shown as a winged and bearded lion, and sometimes as a mule with feathers, and sometimes as a peacock, and that one poet had described him as “the enemy of God, greater in malice, guile, ambition, and mischief than Satan, a fiend more curst, a deeper hypocrite.” That was appealing. Well, why not build him? The graphics were easy—Cunningham chose the winged-lion form—but getting the personality constructed involved a month of intense labor and some consultations with the artificial-intelligence people over at Kestrel Institute. But finally Adramelech was on line, suave and diabolical, talking amiably of his days as an Assyrian god and his conversations with Beelzebub, who had named him Chancellor of the Order of the Fly (Grand Cross).
Next, Cunningham did Asmodeus, another fallen angel, said to be the inventor of dancing, gambling, music, drama, French fashions, and other frivolities. Cunningham made him look like a very dashing Beverly Hills Iranian, with a pair of tiny wings at his collar. It was Asmodeus who suggested that Cunningham continue the project; so he brought Gabriel and Raphael on line to provide some balance between good and evil, and then Forcas, the angel who renders people invisible, restores lost property, and teaches logic and rhetoric in Hell; and by that time Cunningham was hooked.
He surrounded himself with arcane lore: M.R. James’s editions of the Apocrypha, Waite’s Book of Ceremonial Magic and Holy Kabbalah, the Mystical Theology and Celestial Hierarchies of Dionysius the Areopagite, and dozens of related works that he called up from the Stanford data base in a kind of manic fervor. As he codified his systems, he became able to put in five, eight, a dozen angels a night; one June evening, staying up well past his usual time, he managed thirty-seven. As the population grew, it took on weight and substance, for one angel cross-filed another, and they behaved now as though they held long conversations with one another even when Cunningham was occupied elsewhere.
The question of actual belief in angels, like that of belief in God Himself, never arose in him. His project was purely a technical challenge, not a theological exploration. Once, at lunch, he told a co-worker what he was doing, and got a chilly blank stare. “Angels? Angels? Flying around with big flapping wings, passing miracles? You aren’t seriously telling me that you believe in angels, are you, Dan?”
To which Cunningham replied, “You don’t have to believe in angels to make use of them. I’m not always sure I believe in electrons and protons. I know I’ve never seen any. But I make use of them.”
“And what use do you make of angels?”
But Cunningham had lost interest in the discussion.
He divides his evenings between calling up his angels for conversations and programming additional ones into his pantheon. That requires continuous intensive research, for the literature of angels is extraordinarily large, and he is thorough in everything he does. The research is time-consuming, for he wants his angels to meet every scholarly test of authenticity. He pores constantly over such works as Ginzberg’s seven-volume Legends of the Jews, Clement of Alexandria’s Prophetic Eclogues, Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine.
It is the early part of the evening. He brings up Hagith, ruler of the planet Venus and commander of four thousand legions of spirits, and asks him details of the transmutation of metals, which is Hagith’s specialty. He summons Hadraniel, who in Kabbalistic lore is a porter at the second gate of Heaven, and whose voice, when he proclaims the will of the Lord, penetrates through two-hundred-thousand universes; he questions the angel about his meeting with Moses, who uttered the Supreme Name at him and made him tremble. And then Cunningham sends for Israfel the four-winged, whose feet are under the seventh earth, and whose head reaches to the pillars of the divine throne. It will be Israfel’s task to blow the trumpet that announces the arrival of the Day of Judgment. Cunningham asks him to take a few trial riffs now—“just for practice,” he says, but Israfel declines, saying he cannot touch his instrument until he receives the signal, and the command sequence for that, says the angel, is nowhere to be found in the software Cunningham has thus far constructed.
When he wearies of talking with the angels, Cunningham begins the evening’s programming. By now the algorithms are second nature and he can enter angels into the computer in a matter of minutes, once he has done the research. This evening he inserts nine more. Then he opens a beer, sits back, lets the day wind to its close.
He thinks he understands why he has become so intensely involved with this enterprise. It is because he must contend each day in his daily work with matters of terrifying apocalyptic import: nothing less, indeed, than the impending destruction of the world. Cunningham works routinely with megadeath simulation. For six hours a day he sets up hypothetical situations in which Country A goes into alert mode, expecting an attack from Country B, which thereupon begins to suspect a preemptive strike and commences a defensive response, which leads Country A to escalate its own readiness, and so on until the bombs are in the air. He is aware, as are many thoughtful people both in Country A and Country B, that the possibility of computer-generated misinformation leading to a nuclear holocaust increases each year, as the time window for correcting a malfunction diminishes. Cunningham also knows something that very few others do, or perhaps no one else at all: that it is now possible to send a signal to the giant computers—to Theirs or Ours, it makes no difference—that will be indistinguishable from the impulses that an actual flight of airborne warhead-bearing missiles would generate. If such a signal is permitted to enter the system, a minimum of eleven minutes, at the present time, will be needed to carry out fail-safe determination of its authenticity. That, at the present time, is too long to wait to decide whether the incoming missiles are real: a much swifter response is required.
Cunningham, when he designed his missile-simulating signal, thought at once of erasing his work. But he could not bring himself to do that: the program was too elegant, too perfect. On the other hand, he was afraid to tell anyone about it, for fear that it would be taken beyond his level of classification at once, and sealed away from him. He does not want that, for he dreams of finding an antidote for it, some sort of resonating inquiry mode that will distinguish all true alarms from false. When he has it, if he ever does, he will present both modes, in a single package, to Defense. Meanwhile, he bears the burden of suppressing a concept of overwhelming strategic importance. He has never done anything like that before. And he does not delude himself into thinking his mind is unique: if he could devise something like this, someone else probably could do it also, perhaps someone on the other side. True, it is a useless, suicidal program. But it would not be the first suicidal program to be devised in the interests of military security.
He knows he must take his simulator to his superiors before much more time goes by. And under the strain of that knowledge, he is beginning to show distinct signs of erosion. He mingles less and less with other people; he has unpleasant dreams and occasional periods of insomnia; he has lost his appetite and looks gaunt and haggard. The angel project is his only useful diversion, his chief distraction, his one avenue of escape.
For all his scrupulous scholarship, Cunningham has not hesitated to invent a few angels of his own. Uraniel is one of his: the angel of radioactive decay, with a face of whirling electron shells. And he has coined Dimitrion too: the angel of Russian literature, whose wings are sleighs and whose head is a snow-covered samovar. Cunningham feels no guilt over such whimsies. It is his computer, after all, and his program. And he knows he is not the first to concoct angels. Blake engendered platoons of them in his poems: Urizen and Orc and Enitharmon and more. Milton, he suspects, populated Paradise Lost with dozens of sprites of his own invention. Gurdjieff and Alastair Crowley and even Pope Gregory the Great had their turns at amplifying the angelic roster: why, then, not also Dan Cunningham of Palo Alto, California? So from time to time he works one up on his own. His most recent is the dread high lord Basileus, to whom Cunningham has given the title of Emperor of the Angels. Basileus is still incomplete: Cunningham has not arrived at his physical appearance, nor his specific functions, other than to make him the chief administrator of the angelic horde. But there is something unsatisfactory about imagining a new archangel, when Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael already constitute the high command. Basileus needs more work. Cunningham puts him aside, and begins to key in Duma, the angel of silence and of the stillness of death, thousand-eyed, armed with a fiery rod. His style in angels is getting darker and darker.
On a misty, rainy night in late October, a woman from San Francisco whom he knows in a distant, occasional way phones to invite him to a party. Her name is Joanna; she is in her mid-thirties, a biologist working for one of the little gene-splicing outfits in Berkeley; Cunningham had had a brief and vague affair with her five or six years back, when she was at Stanford, and since then they have kept fitfully in touch, with long intervals elapsing between meetings. He has not seen her or heard from her in over a year. “It’s going to be an interesting bunch,” she tells him. “A futurologist from New York, Thomson the sociobiology man, a couple of video poets, and someone from the chimpanzee language outfit, and I forget the rest, but they all sounded first-rate.”
Cunningham hates parties. They bore and jangle him. No matter how first-rate the people are, he thinks, real interchange of ideas is impossible in a large random group, and the best one can hope for is some pleasant low-level chatter. He would rather be alone with his angels than waste an evening that way.
On the other hand, it has been so long since he has done anything of a social nature that he has trouble remembering what the last gathering was. As he had been telling himself all his life, he needs to get out more often. He likes Joanna and it’s about time they got together, he thinks, and he fears that if he turns her down she may not call again for years. And the gentle patter of the rain, coming on this mild evening after the long dry months of summer, has left him feeling uncharacteristically relaxed, open, accessible.
“All right,” he says. “I’ll be glad to go.”
The party is in San Mateo, on Saturday night. He takes down the address. They arrange to meet there. Perhaps she’ll come home with him afterward, he thinks: San Mateo is only fifteen minutes from his house, and she’ll have a much longer drive back up to San Francisco. The thought surprises him. He had supposed he had lost all interest in her that way; he had supposed he had lost all interest in anyone that way, as a matter of fact.
Three days before the party, he decides to call Joanna and cancel. The idea of milling about in a roomful of strangers appalls him. He can’t imagine, now, why he ever agreed to go. Better to stay home alone and pass a long rainy night designing angels and conversing with Uriel, Ithuriel, Raphael, Gabriel.
But as he goes toward the telephone, that renewed hunger for solitude vanishes as swiftly as it came. He does want to go to the party. He does want to see Joanna: very much, indeed. It startles him to realize that he positively yearns for some change in his rigid routine, some escape from his little apartment, its elaborate computer hookup, even its angels.
Cunningham imagines himself at the party, in some brightly lit room in a handsome redwood-and-glass house perched in the hills above San Mateo. He stands with his back to the vast sparkling wraparound window, a drink in his hand, and he is holding forth, dominating the conversation, sharing his rich stock of angel lore with a fascinated audience.
“Yes, three hundred million of them,” he is saying, “and each with his fixed function. Angels don’t have free will, you know. It’s Church doctrine that they’re created with it, but at the moment of their birth they’re given the choice of opting for God or against Him, and the choice is irrevocable. Once they’ve made it they’re unalterably fixed, for good or for evil. Oh, and angels are born circumcised, too. At least the Angels of Sanctification and the Angels of Glory are, and probably the seventy Angels of the Presence.”
“Does that mean that all angels are male?” asks a slender dark-haired woman.
“Strictly speaking, they’re bodiless and therefore without sex,” Cunningham tells her. “But in fact the religions that believe in angels are mainly patriarchal ones, and when the angels are visualized they tend to be portrayed as men. Although some of them, apparently, can change sex at will. Milton tells us that in Paradise Lost: ‘Spirits when they please can either sex assume, or both; so soft and uncompounded is their essence pure.’ And some angels seem to be envisioned as female in the first place. There’s the Shekinah, for instance, ‘the bride of God,’ the manifestation of His glory indwelling in human beings. There’s Sophia, the angel of wisdom. And Lilith, Adam’s first wife, the demon of lust—”
“Are demons considered angels, then?” a tall professorial-looking man wants to know.
“Of course. They’re the angels who opted away from God. But they’re angels nevertheless, even if we mortals perceive their aspects as demonic or diabolical.”
He goes on and on. They all listen as though he is God’s own messenger. He speaks of the hierarchies of angels—the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominations, principalities, powers, virtues, archangels, and angels—and he tells them of the various lists of the seven great angels, which differ so greatly once one gets beyond Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, and he speaks of the ninety-thousand angels of destruction and the three-hundred angels of light, he conjures up the seven angels with seven trumpets from the Book of Revelation, he tells them which angels rule the seven days of the week and which the hours of the days and nights, he pours forth the wondrous angelic names, Zadkiel, Hashmal, Orphaniel, Jehudiel, Phaleg, Zagzagel. There is no end to it. He is in his glory. He is a fount of arcana. Then the manic mood passes. He is alone in his room; there is no eager audience. Once again he thinks he will skip the party. No. No. He will go. He wants to see Joanna.
He goes to his terminal and calls up two final angels before bedtime: Leviathan and Behemoth. Behemoth is the great hippopotamus-angel, the vast beast of darkness, the angel of chaos. Leviathan is his mate, the mighty she-whale, the splendid sea serpent. They dance for him on the screen: Behemoth’s huge mouth yawns wide. Leviathan gapes even more awesomely. “We are getting hungry,” they tell him. “When is feeding time?” In rabbinical lore, these two will swallow all the damned souls at the end of days. Cunningham tosses them some electronic sardines and sends them away. As he closes his eyes he invokes Poteh, the angel of oblivion, and falls into a black dreamless sleep.
At his desk the next morning he is at work on a standard item, a glitch-clearing program for the third-quadrant surveillance satellites, when he finds himself unaccountably trembling. That has never happened to him before. His fingernails look almost white, his wrists are rigid, his hands are quivering. He feels chilled. It is as though he has not slept for days. In the washroom he clings to the sink and stares at his pallid, sweaty face. Someone comes up behind him and says, “You all right, Dan?”
“Yeah. Just a little attack of the queasies.”
“All that wild living in the middle of the week wears a man down,” the other says, and moves along. The social necessities have been observed: a question, a noncommittal answer, a quip, goodbye. He could have been having a stroke here and they would have played it the same way. Cunningham has no close friends at the office. He knows that they regard him as eccentric—eccentric in the wrong way, not lively and quirky but just a peculiar kind of hermit—and getting worse all the time. I could destroy the world, he thinks. I could go into the Big Room and type for fifteen seconds, and we’d be on all-out alert a minute later and the bombs would be coming down from orbit six minutes later. I could give that signal. I could really do it. I could do it right now.
Waves of nausea sweep him and he grips the edge of the sink until the last racking spasm is over. Then he cleans his face and, calmer now, returns to his desk to stare at the little green symbols on the screen.
That evening, still trying to find a function for Basileus, Cunningham discovers himself thinking of demons, and of one demon not in the classical demonology—Maxwell’s Demon, the one that the physicist James Clerk Maxwell postulated to send fast-moving molecules in one direction and slow ones in another, thereby providing an ultraefficient method for heating and refrigeration. Perhaps some sort of filtering role could be devised for Basileus. Last week a few of the loftier angels had been complaining about the proximity to them of certain fallen angels within the computer. “There’s a smell of brimstone on this disk that I don’t like,” Gabriel had said. Cunningham wonders if he could make Basileus a kind of traffic manager within the program: let him sit in there and ship the celestial angels into one sector of a disk, the fallen ones to another.
The idea appeals to him for about thirty seconds. Then he sees how fundamentally trivial it is. He doesn’t need an angel for a job like that; a little simple software could do it. Cunningham’s corollary to Kant’s categorical imperative: Never use an angel as mere software. He smiles, possibly for the first time all week. Why, he doesn’t even need software. He can handle it himself, simply by assigning princes of Heaven to one file and demons to a different one. It hadn’t seemed necessary to segregate his angels that way, or he would have done it from the start. But if they were complaining—
He begins to flange up a sorting program to separate the files. It should have taken him a few minutes, but he finds himself working in a rambling, muddled way, doing an untypically sloppy job. With a quick swipe he erases what he has done. Gabriel would have to put up with the reek of brimstone a little longer, he thinks.
There is a dull throbbing pain just behind his eyes. His throat is dry, his lips feel parched. Basileus would have to wait a little longer, too. Cunningham keys up another angel, allowing his fingers to choose for him, and finds himself looking at a blank-faced angel with a gleaming metal skin. One of the early ones, Cunningham realizes. “I don’t remember your name,” he says. “Who are you?”
“I am Anaphaxeton.”
“And your function?”
“When my name is pronounced aloud, I will cause the angels to summon the entire universe before the bar of justice on Judgment Day.”
“Oh, Jesus,” Cunningham says. “I don’t want you tonight.”
He sends Anaphaxeton away and finds himself with the dark angel Apollyon, fish scales, dragon wings, bear feet, breathing fire and smoke, holding the key to the Abyss. “No,” Cunningham says, and brings up Michael, standing with drawn sword over Jerusalem, and sends him away only to find on the screen an angel with seventy-thousand feet and four-thousand wings, who is Azrael, the angel of death. “No,” says Cunningham again. “Not you. Oh, Christ!” A vengeful army crowds his computer. On his screen there passes a flurrying regiment of wings and eyes and beaks. He shivers and shuts the system down for the night. Jesus, he thinks. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. All night long suns explode in his brain.
On Friday his supervisor, Ned Harris, saunters to his desk in an unusually folksy way and asks him if he’s going to be doing anything interesting this weekend. Cunningham shrugs. “A party Saturday night, that’s about all. Why?”
“Thought you might be going off on a fishing trip or something. Look like the last nice weekend before the rainy season sets in, wouldn’t you say?”
“I’m not a fisherman, Ned.”
“Take some kind of trip. Drive down to Monterey, maybe. Or up into the wine country.”
“What are you getting at?” Cunningham asks.
“You look like you could use a little change of pace,” Harris says amiably. “A couple of days off. You’ve been crunching numbers so hard they’re starting to crunch you, is my guess.”
“It’s that obvious?”
Harris nods. “You’re tired, Dan. It shows. We’re a little like air traffic controllers around here, you know, working so hard we start to dream about blips on the screen. That’s no good. Get the hell out of town, fellow. The Defense Department can operate without you for a while. Okay? Take Monday off. Tuesday, even. I can’t afford to have a fine mind like yours going goofy from fatigue, Dan.”
“All right, Ned. Sure. Thanks.”
His hands are shaking again. His fingernails are colorless.
“And get a good early start on the weekend, too. No need for you to hang around here today until four.”
“If that’s okay—”
“Go on. Shoo!”
Cunningham closes down his desk and makes his way uncertainly out of the building. The security guards wave at him. Everyone seems to know he’s being sent home early. Is this what it’s like to crack up on the job? He wanders about the parking lot for a little while, not sure where he has left his car. At last he finds it, and drives home at thirty miles an hour, with horns honking at him all the way as he wanders up the freeway.
He settles wearily in front of his computer and brings the system on line, calling for Harahel. Surely the angel of computers will not plague him with apocalyptic matters.
Harahel says, “Well, we’ve worked out your Basileus problem for you.”
“Uriel had the basic idea, building on your Maxwell’s Demon notion. Israfel and Azrael developed it some. What’s needed is an angel embodying God’s justice and God’s mercy. A kind of evaluator, a filtering angel. He weighs deeds in the balance, and arrives at a verdict.”
“What’s new about that?” Cunningham asks. “Something like that’s built into every mythology from Sumer and Egypt on. There’s always a mechanism for evaluating the souls of the dead—this one goes to Paradise, this one goes to Hell—”
“Wait,” Harahel says. “I wasn’t finished. I’m not talking about the evaluation of individual souls.”
“Worlds,” the angel replies. “Basileus will be the judge of worlds. He holds an entire planet up to scrutiny and decides whether it’s time to call for the last trump.”
“Part of the machinery of Judgment, you mean?”
“Exactly. He’s the one who presents the evidence to God and helps Him make his decision. And then he’s the one who tells Israfel to blow the trumpet, and he’s the one who calls out the name of Anaphaxeton to bring everyone before the bar. He’s the prime apocalyptic angel, the destroyer of worlds. And we thought you might make him look like—”
“Ah,” Cunningham says. “Not now. Let’s talk about that some other time.”
He shuts the system down, pours himself a drink, sits staring out the window at the big eucalyptus tree in the front yard. After a while it begins to rain. Not such a good weekend for a drive into the country after all, he thinks. He does not turn the computer on again that evening.
Despite everything, Cunningham goes to the party. Joanna is not there. She has phoned to cancel, late Saturday afternoon, pleading a bad cold. He detects no sound of a cold in her voice, but perhaps she is telling the truth. Or possibly she has found something better to do on Saturday night. But he is already geared for party-going, and he is so tired, so eroded, that it is more effort to change his internal program than it is to follow through on the original schedule. So about eight that evening he drives up to San Mateo, through a light drizzle.
The party turns out not to be in the glamorous hills west of town, but in a small cramped condominium close to the heart of the city, furnished with what looks like somebody’s college-era chairs and couches and bookshelves. A cheap stereo is playing the pop music of a dozen years ago, and a sputtering screen provides a crude computer-generated light show. The host is some sort of marketing exec for a large video-games company in San Jose, and most of the guests look vaguely corporate too. The futurologist from New York has sent his regrets; the famous sociobiologist has also somehow failed to arrive; the video poets are two San Francisco gays who will talk only to each other, and stray not very far from the bar; the expert on teaching chimpanzees to speak is in the red-faced-and-sweaty stage of being drunk, and is working hard at seducing a plump woman festooned with astrological jewelry. Cunningham, numb, drifts through the party as though he is made of ectoplasm. He speaks to no one, no one speaks to him. Some jugs of red wine are open on a table by the window, and he pours himself a glassful. There he stands, immobile, imprisoned by inertia. He imagines himself suddenly making a speech about angels, telling everyone how Ithuriel touched Satan with his spear in the Garden of Eden as the Fiend crouched next to Eve, and how the hierarch Ataphiel keeps Heaven aloft by balancing it on three fingers. But he says nothing. After a time he finds himself approached by a lean, leathery-looking woman with glittering eyes, who says, “And what do you do?”
“I’m a programmer,” Cunningham says. “Mainly I talk to angels. But I also do national security stuff.”
“Angels?” she says, and laughs in a brittle, tinkling way. “You talk to angels? I’ve never heard anyone say that before.” She pours herself a drink and moves quickly elsewhere.
“Angels?” says the astrological woman. “Did someone say angels?”
Cunningham smiles and shrugs and looks out the window. It is raining harder. I should go home, he thinks. There is absolutely no point in being here. He fills his glass again. The chimpanzee man is still working on the astrologer, but she seems to be trying to get free of him and come over to Cunningham. To discuss angels with him? She is heavy-breasted, a little wall-eyed, sloppy-looking. He does not want to discuss angels with her. He does not want to discuss angels with anyone. He holds his place at the window until it definitely does appear that the astrologer is heading his way; then he drifts toward the door. She says, “I heard you say you were interested in angels. Angels are a special field of mine, you know. I’ve studied with—”
“Angles,” Cunningham says. “I play the angles. That’s what I said. I’m a professional gambler.”
“Wait,” she says, but he moves past her and out into the night. It takes him a long while to find his key and get his car unlocked, and the rain soaks him to the skin, but that does not bother him. He is home a little before midnight.
He brings Raphael on line. The great archangel radiates a beautiful golden glow.
“You will be Basileus,” Raphael tells him. “We’ve decided it by a vote, hierarchy by hierarchy. Everyone agrees.”
“I can’t be an angel. I’m human,” Cunningham replies.
“There’s ample precedent. Enoch was carried off to Heaven and became an angel. So was Elijah. St. John the Baptist was actually an angel. You will become Basileus. We’ve already done the program for you. It’s on the disk: just call him up and you’ll see. Your own face, looking out at you.”
“No,” Cunningham says.
“How can you refuse?”
“Are you really Raphael? You sound like someone from the other side. A tempter. Asmodeus. Astaroth. Belphegor.”
“I am Raphael. And you are Basileus.”
Cunningham considers it. He is so very tired that he can barely think.
An angel. Why not? A rainy Saturday night, a lousy party, a splitting headache: come home and find out you’ve been made an angel, and given a high place in the hierarchy. Why not? Why the hell not?
“All right,” he says. “I’m Basileus.”
He puts his hands on the keys and taps out a simple formulation that goes straight down the pipe into the Defense Department’s big Northern California system. With an alteration of two keystrokes he sends the same message to the Soviets. Why not? Redundancy is the soul of security. The world now has about six minutes left. Cunningham has always been good with computers. He knows their secret language as few people before him have.
Then he brings Raphael on the screen again.
“You should see yourself as Basileus while there’s still time,” the archangel says.
“Yes. Of course. What’s the access key?”
Raphael tells him. Cunningham begins to set it up.
Come now, Basileus! We are one!
Cunningham stares at the screen with growing wonder and delight, while the clock continues to tick.
Copyright © 1983, Agberg, Ltd