. . . having long since discovered that the desire to blame and vilify victims was in his cosmos empirically correct, but remaining somewhat mistaken as to the reason,
Bainbridge walks the streets of Neo-Heaven.
“When the world was new,” says Bainbridge, broadly gesturing, “we built all of this, Jack.”
Jack looks dubious. “You can’t have made the marble and the heights.”
“Perhaps you mean the ivy and the dust.”
“The cracks and all the crumbling and flickering lights and broken walls—these things, you mean?”
“Such insolence,” he says. “But I spoke truth, my Jack. Beneath these streets our ‘subway’ carried people to and fro at great speeds. And through those wires above we made electric power flow at need. And all the marble buildings sculpted by our hands, and all the long-lost glories were made unto our plan.”
“Admirable,” says Jack. “The angels in their cages, too?”
Bainbridge cuffs Jack.
“It’s rude to speak of them,” he says.
Jack holds the side of his face.
“When I was just a boy,” says Jack, “so very long ago, an angel told me some of this they made, you know.”
“Pshaw. They have no need for making like us men, young Jack.”
“It seems their kind of work, and so—”
“We were not quite so humbled then, young Jack.”
Bainbridge stalks through the streets.
“We were ever so much grander then when we did not have Jacks to pull us down,” he says. “And if there is a failing in this place then it must lie upon your heads, I trow.”
Bainbridge strides on.
“Still!” he says. “Today we’ll play a part that does those ancients justice, Jack. We’ll hold at bay that final darkness that we can’t drive back.”
Jack has stopped. He’s staring into one of the angel cages. The cage is old rusted metal. The angel is a sorvin-angel, a strange creature, a withered homunculus. One might easily imagine it a shrunken, degenerate remnant of a great and noble seraph. It has great limpid eyes and ratty wings and it is huddled tight and gnawing on its own feathers.
“Poor thing,” says Jack. “That wing can’t taste too good.”
He gets a wicked look upon his face.
“I could let you go, you know. I really could.”
The angel looks up at him with weary eyes. Jack squats down.
“We’d make a little bargain, you and me. You’d set yourself on Bainbridge if I set you free. You’d drive him with your wings into a screaming fit and fly away like thunder when he’s lost his wits.”
The angel makes a keening, suggestive noise.
“It isn’t right to kill him, not today. But surely you could satisfy yourself with merry play.”
The angel hesitates. Then it nods.
Jack reaches into the cage. The angel is very still. Jack ties a string around the angel’s foot, because he is already plotting treachery against it. He feeds the string out to the entrance to the cage, and then opens the door and seizes the string in one motion.
“Ha ha! Ha ha! Bainbridge! Look what I have here! You’ll never guess, you’ll never guess, it’s the most unexpected jest.”
Jack is running towards Bainbridge, dragging the angel by the string. The angel is skittering and bouncing on the ground in Jack’s wake, smeared in dust and bloodied by gravel. But it is getting its bearings with each bounce, and now it is in a crouch that becomes a lope and then it is launching itself at Bainbridge’s face.
“Bad angel!” says Jack.
The angel is clawing at Bainbridge’s face. Bainbridge is howling and beating it back. Jack pulls hard on the string.
The angel tries to flutter away. Jack pulls harder, reeling it in with a nasty look on his face.
“Bad angel,” Jack says again. “I only wanted you to give Bainbridge a fright, and there you go off straightaway for th’ master’s eyes.”
There is blood all over Bainbridge’s face.
Jack has the sorvin-angel in his hands now. It squirms. Jack’s hands are wrapped around its throat. Jack begins to choke it.
Bainbridge finally clears the blood from his eyes. He peers at Jack.
“Jack,” he says, warningly.
“Just a little pressure on the carotids, sir.”
“You always say searing pain is good for me.”
“It’s all the angel’s fault for what it plotted, sir.”
“A pleasant little jest is all it is, eh, Jack?”
Jack hears the danger in Bainbridge’s tone. He lightens the pressure slightly.
“I’m sure you’ll still be laughing when I pay it back.”
Jack’s lower lip flutters into a pout.
“Bad things will happen if you continue on this path. We do not hurt the angels more, Jack.”
So Jack drags the angel back into a cage and seals the door and sighs. “It was merry, wasn’t it?”
“Merry,” says Bainbridge. “Yes. That must be it.”
“It did not hurt?” says Jack.
“Not hurt. Just sad. That you would be so vicious and so bad.”
Bainbridge says, with jovial relish in his voice, “But I have something planned to make things right again.”
That silences Jack’s laugh.
They walk along.
Jack passes an angel struggling with the bars of its cage. He leans in and whispers to the angel, “I heard that once upon a time there were no Jacks at all. That everyone was Bainbridges before the fall. It’s hard to be a Bainbridge but it’s not as bad. The Jacks are worthless trash but still their lot is sad.”
“Don’t lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”
“It’s not a lie. I heard it. It was some time back.”
“Don’t ever lie to angels in their cages, Jack.”
“Fine, whatever, it was a lie,” sulks Jack.
They reach the cathedral of Metatron. Bainbridge sets his shoulders. He sighs. “And here we are.”
“What lies within?”
“The angel-system Metatron, that speaks for God. A terrible devourer—”
“It is rather odd that we would seek it out—”
“It threatens at all times to tear our city down and put an end to all the works of humankind. I wish that we could leave—”
“I wouldn’t mind!”
“But here we are.”
Bainbridge pushes open the doors. He walks in.
Inside the cathedral it is dark, save for a single spot of sunlight on the floor. It corresponds to a high window on the far wall. The floor is very dusty.
There is a hissing and a trembling in the air.
“You have brought me food,” says the voice of Metatron. “You have brought me offerings. Bring the Jack closer. Let me speak to it.”
Jack is trembling. He is shivering. But he lets Bainbridge push him forward into the room, and Bainbridge follows, and closes the doors behind them.
“Little Jack,” says Metatron’s voice. “Do you know why you are here? Do you know why you are here to be fed to me?”
“Three Bainbridges they pushed me down,” says Jack. “They laughed and used me ill and then they frowned. ‘Too bad,’ they said. ‘You’re now a Jack.’ It’s true! . . . That’s when I realized that I’ve always been—I mean—”
Metatron’s voice is heavy and weary. “Such is the standard origin of sin,” it says.
“—I’ve always been a worthless Jack, and now I knew; and that is in the end why I am meeting you. . . . Is that really where my sin came from? I was never sure,” Jack says.
“When someone is a victim, Jack, it gives rise to a hidden and much deeper and forbidden truth: that they were never worthy to begin with, Jack. In victimizing you they proved your heart was black. It made you not a Bainbridge but a Jack.”
“What?” Bainbridge asks.
“No wonder Bainbridges so strive to hide their pain,” says Jack. “I’d never had the words for it till God explained.”
There is a shimmering light around Jack now.
“I would exploit this knowledge fully in my worthless way,” says Jack, “except it seems that Metatron will feast on Jack today.”
Jack screams and burns from the inside out and his ashes fall.
“I cannot help but smile now to see him dead,” says Bainbridge.
Bainbridge grins viciously. “Though he’d deserved a far more painful death, instead.”
Metatron is quiet, considering.
“I wish we were not troubled so with Jacks,” says Bainbridge. “There weren’t so many once, you know. We lacked the power to hold back the darkness even then but there was just a chance that we could rise again. We kept the power running, angel, as a rule—”
The voice of Metatron whispers: “Alas that Bainbridges are far too cruel.”
Bainbridge shakes his head, not following.
“It’s this growing trend. I do not understand its source. So many Jacks! It’s always growing worse and in good time House Bainbridge too will fall. Please—”
“You wonder if the Jacks will do the job when they are all—”
There is a pause.
“O Bainbridge,” says Metatron. Its voice is rich with amusement. “Your predecessors held these very fears for you.”
“I will not speak of those who came before,” snaps Bainbridge.
“Then we will not speak of them,” Metatron says. “But I will give you this much peace: the Jacks will come here for a time, at least.”
There is silence.
“It’s time, isn’t it?” Bainbridge says.
“I could go,” says Bainbridge. “And bring you a second Jack. If that would work.”
“I come,” says Bainbridge, coming forward.
Bainbridge burns; and he does not scream.
For a Bainbridge is not like a Jack, he thinks. He has the worth he needs to sacrifice, and not complain, when greater powers demand his pain.