“Once upon a time,” says Martin, “that is to say, right now, there was a man named Jacob who should have been a hero.”
“Why wasn’t he?” Jane asks.
“Because sometimes things that just should happen, don’t.”
“What I fear,” says Jacob, precisely, “is the emptiness that follows life.”
His runt is down on the floor. It is pushing its face against Jacob’s leg. Jacob kicks it, and it scurries off into the shadows.
“It is unacceptable,” Jacob says, “that my personal story should end.”
The angel is a cloud of wings and faces. He can see her only as pieces. It is like looking through a broken lens.
She is wearing a jacket.
“It doesn’t ever end,” the angel says. “That is a fallacy.”
Jacob is gray. That is because he died. He must take great care at all times lest he rot. He brushes at his cheek, his fingers checking for flaws or damage. He brushes off the leg of his brown suit pants.
“You cannot have the experience of no-longer-having-experiences,” the angel says.
Jacob hesitates. “That is not reasonable,” he says.
“You impose beginnings and ends on things,” says the angel. “But in this world only the perfect things are finite. In this world there is always an imperfection that leads into the beginning of each story. There are always dangling threads leading out the end. There is no thought that you can have that is a final thought. There is no action you can take that is your final action. There is only the point where you choose to say ‘the end’ and that is not the end.”
There is a clank. Jacob looks over. His runt has upset the coffee mug. It squeaks in horror and scurries away.
“Why are you here?” Jacob asks the angel.
It has been two and a half weeks since death came to Central; since the avenging wind that was Sebastien came; since everyone working in that foul place was given a choice: to speak their words of repentance, or to die.
Jacob stood before the men and women of Central, and he said of his sins, “It was wrong. It was vile. I had no right.”
Then he walked through the door of life, which lay to his right, and Sebastien stayed his hand.
The runt skulked through after him.
Others went left and died. Others repented and they lived.
But Jacob had not repented.
He simply spoke the words.
It is Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004.
“I know what will happen,” says Jacob.
“Do you?” the angel says.
“I have been dreaming every night of the maw. It is down there.”
Jacob taps the floor with his foot.
“The basement goes ten layers deep. Somewhere in it there is a maw, a devouring god, and it is loose. After Sebastien freed the children we keep here, he freed the gods. And one of them is the maw, and it will hunt us down one by one and devour us, each of us that spoke the words of repentance but did not repent.”
Jacob looks around his office. There is a desk of fake wood. There is a coffee mug, now spilt. There is a narrow window and his rolling chair. Against the doorframe the angel leans.
“I cannot afford to end,” he says. “So I wished with my all heart and then you came.”
The faces of the angel shift and tilt.
“I think,” says the angel, “that if you fear divine punishment for your hubris, that the first step should be curtailing your pride. You suffered in this place. You died because of this place. Is it unworthy of repentance, what you have done in its name?”
Jacob holds out his hands. They are gray.
“It has been almost forty years since the director tore out my heart and shoved a spear through my brain,” Jacob says. “Here is what I learned from the experience: that those who imagine that they are people are wrong. Those who think they are more than mere machines are wrong. We are all horrors. We are all machines. We are a joke. I did not want to die. I lay there with my heart beating in his hand and his face shining with vindication and the pointed end of the spear sticking out from my mouth and I did not want to die. But when I got up again afterwards I knew that I was dead and everything I imagined about my life was false.”
“And yet,” says the angel.
“I cannot repent,” says Jacob. “I do not believe that anything I have done was wrong, for there is no wrong. The world has no deeper purpose and our actions mean nothing and the universe does not care what you or I imagine is unjust. There is only the question of survival: what is the most effective path for staving off the end?”
His runt is amongst Jacob’s papers and reports now. It is evaluating one of the client studies. It is writing down its observations. They are false and wrong and with a growl Jacob seizes it by the neck and hurls it against the wall.
The angel does not seem to see.
“It is regrettable,” says the angel, “that you will be judged by a moral standard that you do not hold.”
“Yes,” agrees Jacob. “But the gods love poetry.”
“It will be elegant,” says the angel. “Elegant and inevitable; something brought on you by the manner of your rejection; an example made of you in fate and blood that realizes the worst of all your nightmares. There are no kind fates for those who refuse their chance at grace. There are few enough for those who choose acceptance.”
“So,” says Jacob. He looks at her and his eyes are open and calm. “Save me.”
I entrust myself to you, he wants to say.
But he does not say it.
The strategy of the game is better played this way, he knows. The weight of his struggle must fall on the angel, and he must not make himself vulnerable before its grace.
“Entrust,” mumbles the runt. “Entrust.”
“Then we must go down,” the angel says.
On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are very cold and very dark.