“Where were they,” Martin asks, “when we left off, yesterday?”
“It was cold!” Jane says. “And dark! And ominous!”
“That’s a good word,” Martin agrees. “Ominous.”
On Wednesday, the 12th of May, 2004, the basements under Central are cold and dark.
“This is the last place in the world I want to be,” says Jacob.
Jacob walks beside the angel in the basements under Central. He carries the spear that killed him in his hand. In the dark, his foot bumps against his runt. He growls and curses and reaches for it with his free hand but it is not there for his hand to find.
“The last place,” Jacob emphasizes.
“It is generally true that success is best achieved by pursuing the least pleasant course,” the angel says.
“That seems implausible,” Jason notes.
“There is the most progress to be made,” the angel says, “in those directions where we have made the least; that is to say, along the paths we are most loath to travel.”
Jacob nearly stumbles again. “Filthy runt,” he mutters.
He can see the angel’s eyes on him, even in the dark.
“Pardon?” the angel asks.
“I keep tripping on my runt,” Jacob says.
The angel watches.
Jacob gestures indistinctly with one hand. It is the gesture of someone who cannot easily explain.
“It is something the director gave me,” Jacob says. “A . . . thing. A horrid thing. A vessel for my imperfections.”
“Ah,” the angel says.
“I was very young,” says Jacob. “I was very young and I loved it very much. Because it made mistakes for me so I wouldn’t have to. It learned how to do math wrong when I learned how to do it right. It stumbled and crouched and scurried and spilled and I ran like a gazelle. When he kept me awake it was the runt who grew tired and weak. And I forgave it its errors and I kept it close and one day it went mad and began to rot so that I would not have to.”
The angel walks for a time in silence.
“It is a difficult thing,” says the angel, “to be a man; but sometimes it is harder to stand outside humanity and know that you can only grant those wishes that are possible to grant.”
I do not want to be this, Jacob thinks.
“I do not want to be this,” says the runt.
“Did you know,” asks the angel, “that when you were young, I thought you’d be a hero?”
Jacob shakes his head.
“You still have that choice,” the angel says.
“Everyone does,” the angel says. “Everyone has a path to grace. You are never so far fallen that you cannot find the dharma within you, the thing that you can be, the brightness, and give yourself to it in sacrifice and joy and be a thing of beauty in this world. That is why I answered your call, Jacob. That is what I want for you. That is what the door to the right was meant to bring.”
“Then show me,” says Jacob.
The angel holds up the thousand shards of palm and fingers that are her hand and in it is an image of a fire and a light.
“What is that?”
“Coretta’s fire,” says the angel. “Dharma. Dragon’s light. The beacon towards the road that you should walk.”
Down the corridor Jacob sees the maw.
It is a characteristic of angels that their words are most difficult to understand for those who need the most to hear them. Thus one may reasonably say that the message the angel gave him was gibberish; that her words were incomprehensible; that it was not his fault that he could not understand. Still, he sees something in the light she holds, and gropes towards it in his mind.
But Jacob does not have much time.
The maw is like a serpent’s mouth, corded and fanged, but it has no inside or outside. It is not a physical thing. It is a principle of devouring.
Inside the maw,
It is empty.
And the maw drives towards Jacob like the hammer of a god.
“Heroes can kill monsters, can’t they?” Jacob asks.
It is a distant, distinct question. He knows that his runt is scrambling and squeaking away. It has probably wet itself; it is certainly ungracious in retreat. But Jacob is perfect by the virtue of its imperfection, and he is simply thinking and gliding back, smooth as silk, his spear rising.
“Yes,” says the angel.
It has been two and a half weeks since Sebastien came to Central. It has been thirty-eight years since Jacob died. But what he is thinking of now is something that came between.
It was only six months back.
Iris was one of the children that Central held. The case review for her was on his desk. Her keepers recommended her release:
“. . . even in severe duress, the child is disinclined to issue supernatural manifestations. It is recommended that she be released and monitored rather than continuing to spend Central resources on her care and training. . . .”
Jacob knew better.
It was obvious for anyone who knew these children, for anyone who’d been one of these children, that Iris was falsifying her duress; that she was presenting as a child broken to fend away the chance that she would break; that she was suitable and strong but clinging to the power to feign weakness. Such gambits cannot last forever.
Release approved, he wanted to write. That’s what his runt was muttering.
But to write that would be a lie. It would be unprofessional. It would be false. It would not be correct for a man in his position. If he wrote that he would be forced to take up arms against the things that Central stood for, against the men who paid him and who’d tortured him and who’d killed him nearly forty years before.
He could not do that. That would be more false. That would put meaning to a world that had none and assert the humanity of an empty, worthless girl.
Jacob watched himself write the letter that condemned her to further pain, and then he went back to the games of Tetris that helped relieve his stress.
The runt was sniffling and crying and mouthing at Jacob’s hand, so he slapped it away and it stuck onto the wall.
Six months passed.
Jacob’s spear, sharp as a thorn, comes down. It pierces the maw and pins it to the floor. Jacob reaches for the fire within him, the waking of his dharma, the path that leads him from that place.
It is with a still small terror that he sees that the runt is caught in maw and spear.
They are thrashing together like the synchronized shuddering of the dead.
“It is hungry for you,” says the angel, “because of your contradictions.”
“To exalt the sense in which things have no meanings,” says the angel, “is to create a contradiction. It overwrites the rules of meaning with imported context from a world that has none. That contradiction is like a knot: pull and twist at it, and it grows tighter until it resolves down to a single flaring NO at the center of your world. Pragmatically, this leaves you with two choices: accept oblivion, or grant things meanings. My ability to save you is entirely contingent on your doing the latter, and choosing a life in which salvation is coherently defined.”
Jacob struggles to keep the maw pinned down. The floor is writhing and shaking.
I will shoulder this burden, he thinks. But he does not say it.
“Shoulder,” mumbles the runt.
Then it coughs up blood and dies.
Jacob’s vision of the fire blinks out.
The maw bucks him off, and Jacob falls against the wall, and it is with a clockwork grin that he smiles at the angel.
“I’m sorry,” Jacob says. “I wasted your time.”
The angel’s voice is strained but the word she chooses is almost insanely polite. “Pardon?”
“To be perfect is to be unredeemable,” says Jacob. “Eternal. Unchanging.”
Imps eat the soul that you cannot bear to keep.
“When I took my runt,” Jacob says, “I lost the power to be other than what I am.”
The maw rises.
“But thank you for telling me I will not end,” says Jacob.
The maw falls on him.
Jacob feels himself dissolving and
“And?” Jane asks.
“The end,” says Martin. “The justification for eternity has ceased for Jacob to apply.”