Despite a conscious effort to cease and desist, Will repeatedly found his hands rolling his black-and-brown spotted tie up and down his dress shirt. Nervousness was a common reaction amongst first-timers to a Negotiation, but that little factoid did little to still Will’s fidgeting hands. It felt just like the time he had stood trial for grand-theft auto all those many years ago, awaiting the verdict that would put him away for up to a decade of his life.
This wasn’t a trial. This was a Negotiation. The formality of wearing a light-blue business suit and combing his stark-white hair was for the sake of the Brokers and their reputations. The ones on the other end of the deal had no need for formality.
The holding room was akin to a doctor’s waiting room, outfitted with a few landscape portraits and a selection of downloaded periodicals on the mini-viewers. Will had picked one up to read but wound up staring at the first page the whole time, rereading the opening paragraph at least five times before giving up. Tie rolling seemed an infinitely better way to distract himself, even if it made him look…
The smooth, familiar voice calling his name yanked him off his plush seat and towards the open door ahead of him. A taller, younger man in an expensive ebony business suit stood in the way. Mr. Cushing, the Broker for his case, filled the entire doorframe with his bulky body. Despite his slicked-back orange hair, his polished briefcase, and his immaculate complexion, he seemed more suited for raiding costal villages and carrying off young maidens than as the representative of the most famous law firm on the planet. Mr. Cushing smiled genuinely, a clear attempt to soothe Will’s nerves. But nothing short of an elephant tranquilizer could accomplish that feat.
As Mr. Cushing ushered Will through the door, Will realized that he had entered the green-walled hallway connecting all Negotiations Rooms. The obvious hint was the never-ending series of brown, polished-oak doors on both sides. There were dozens, if not hundreds, within view. A trick of spatial manipulation as the exterior Broker office was the size of a 7-Eleven store. Something the Os had conjured up, according to Mr. Cushing.
The Rooms are gateways, Mr. Scarlet, Mr. Cushing had explained at their previous meeting. They connect our home to theirs. Since it’s their rules, we have to work within them. It can be disorienting at times, but you will adapt quickly. Besides, it saves us a lot of money on property taxes.
“We have a minute before we reach our Room, Mr. Scarlet,” stated Mr. Cushing calmly as they walked the endless path of doors. “Do you understand the rules?”
“Yeah,” Will replied, barely hearing Mr. Cushing’s question as he stared down the corridor.
“Repeat them, please,” ordered Mr. Cushing, his eyes suggesting a measure of doubt in Will’s comprehension of the situation. “It’s vitally important that you understand them.”
Feeling like an elementary student being called up to the white board, Will licked his lips and said, “Right, okay. Rules: you do all the talking. I avoid speaking unless addressed by you or by the O itself. If I must talk, be short and to the point. Keep my hands on my lap and make no gestures, as such things can be construed as acceptance or denial. I get two five-minute recesses during the Negotiation. Do not leave the room until the Negotiation is over. Did I miss anything?”
“Not that I can think of,” beamed Mr. Cushing. His friendly act was a little too friendly for Will sometimes, like an executioner reassuring his latest client right before the guillotine’s blade was released. But the Broker had a stake in this Negotiation and Will could trust in the Broker’s self interest.
Several dozen identical doors later, they’d come to their particular identical door. With a slight creak, the door swung open to reveal a bubble-shaped chamber with two padded chairs in front of a viewer-table. Will had seen such tables only in the promotional videos that prepared clients for the reality of a Negotiation. The entire surface of the table was one giant LCD screen, and as Will and Mr. Cushing took their seats Will watched his lawyer pull a retractable connector cord from a hidden slot in his briefcase and then plug it into a jack built into the closest table leg. The table’s screen began powering up as Mr. Cushing put down his briefcase and relaxed into his chair, unkinking his neck with a quick jerk of his head. Will sat forward with his hands in his lap, waiting for the show to begin.
“Did you get a lot of jokes about your name as a kid?” asked Mr. Cushing absently.
“What?” replied Will.
“Will Scarlet? C’mon, that had to bring a few teases here and there.”
“Why would it?”
“Will Scarlet, the character from Robin Hood?”
“I know Robin Hood. Never heard of Will Scarlet.”
Mr. Cushing shook his head disappointedly. “What a waste of a fun name. I wonder if your parents even knew the irony.”
Over the last six months that Will had worked with Mr. Cushing, Will had gotten the subtle impression that Cushing didn’t have that much respect for him. Professionally, Cushing did all the right things, but an occasional off-hand remark or eye roll would slip out and reveal Cushing’s inner opinion. Still, Will could live with the derision if he got a Good Deal out of it.
Maybe two, maybe three minutes later, the center of the table began to glow a reddish hue. The air above it took on a rainbow cascade of bright colors, sequencing one right after the other, until the color spectrum stabilized somewhere around turquoise. A series of rotating circles, one within another, formed in the air, spinning within each other at different speeds. It was a holographic image created by the table, a symbolic representation of the O that was now looking at Will and Mr. Cushing from some point across the universe.
We don’t know why they picked that image, Mr. Cushing had explained at their previous meeting. They’re not shy, but they are guarded. I doubt anyone has ever seen their real form. As long as they call the shots, I doubt anyone ever will. I heard once that a client tried to Negotiate for the right to see their true form. The O shut down the Negotiation and forbade the client from ever negotiating again. So just in case you get curious yourself…
“Negotiation commences. All parties are accounted for and present,” chimed up a synthesized voice from the table. “The Broker will begin the process.” Will couldn’t tell if the voice was the computer communicating on behalf of the O, or the O speaking directly. He wanted to ask Mr. Cushing, but the time for questions was over. With a wink in Will’s direction, Mr. Cushing was using his hands to pull up a holographic copy of his legal brief. In a lifeless voice, Cushing began reciting the brief word for word, managing to look extremely bored and yet maintaining focus during the whole length of the recitation.
Leaning back in his chair while keeping his hands pinned to his thighs, Will allowed his mind to wander. He’d known this part was coming and it was the longest part of the Negotiation. It was also the most important.
The Os don’t give money. They don’t cure the sick or raise the dead. They can’t make you a prince or help you find true love. What they can do, or what they’re willing to do, is create an object that will help you fulfill your request. It’s the nature of the object that gets people into trouble, because the Os are very literal. They also have about as much in common with humans as humans have with jellyfish. If you wanted something from them, you have to narrow down the request to the point where there is absolutely no margin for misinterpretation. If you give them any leeway whatsoever, the Os will fumble your request and you will get a Bad Deal.
The Brokers argue that the Os have no malicious qualities in them. They don’t make items deliberately to harm any type of biological life. In fact, the Os refuse to make anything expressly designed to kill, not even vaccines or anti-biotics, though they will make items that can deter a type of life form from approaching your proximity. So if you request a bottomless pan of lasagna from them, it won’t suddenly blow up in your face one day on a whim. However, if you don’t expressly tell them to make sure the pan of lasagna shouldn’t explode when placed in a convection oven, it might just do that. They simply go about fulfilling their end of the deal in the most expedient and efficient manner possible. All too often, this involves creating objects that accomplish the stated objective of the request, but that have incredibly harmful side effects that can render the object more dangerous than standing next to the core of a running nuclear reactor.
If you wanted to survive the aftermath of a Negotiation, you had to have a Broker. But since you couldn’t legally conduct a Negotiation without a Broker present anyway, it was a moot point. Being a Broker was the most coveted job on the planet, a hundred thousand applicants for every Broker position. That was understandable considering that all Brokers were multi-millionaires. The older, veteran Brokers were typically billionaires.
Depending on the client’s request and long-term goals, the client’s Broker either got a large payout directly from the client or took a chunk of their profits from whatever sales or business success occurred from a successful Negotiation. Of course, a Broker’s reputation suffered immensely if the end result of a Negotiation was a Bad Deal. So Brokers were picky about the clients they took on and the requests they made. Despite Mr. Cushing’s arrogant attitude toward Will, the Broker had thought highly enough of Will’s request to represent him. A good thing, too, as Will wasn’t one of those types that could afford to pay Mr. Cushing unless the Negotiation was a success.
Will bit his lip to stifle a yawn, though it squeezed out between his teeth with a raspy whistle. Neither the rotating symbols nor Mr. Cushing gave it notice. It had to have been at least an hour since Mr. Cushing had started on the brief, and his voice was still steady and strong. The average Negotiation was said to last two hours, with most of it being the Broker explaining away the dos and don’ts of the request.
The longest one I’ve done was eight hours, Mr. Cushing had explained at their previous meeting. Some rich oil billionaire wanted to create the ultimate sex toy. Since the Os don’t do life forms, we had to settle for a robot that was mostly organic. You wouldn’t believe how long it takes to describe the human anatomy to something with no concept of it. Very annoying, very tiring.
As Mr. Cushing droned on, Will’s mind drifted off to more familiar territory. His wife, Helena, was probably going crazy trying to contain Dirk and Elise within the public waiting room outside. The kids were too small to understand any of this other than the idea that Daddy was going to have his wishes come true. They understood wishes – they just didn’t understand how wishes didn’t always go the way you hoped. And they certainly didn’t understand the cost.
“Request is acceptable,” blurted out the viewing table, the change in tone shaking Will alert. “Client, do you agree with these terms?”
Realizing that he was being addressed personally, he glanced over at Mr. Cushing. The Broker was nodding at him to speak. Will felt a little stupid for zoning out and not paying attention to everything Mr. Cushing had said, since mistakes were always possible. He’d read the brief himself and despite the massive amount of legalese and boilerplate warnings on how the request shouldn’t cause skin irritation or spontaneous combustion, he thought it was a fine piece of legal work… not that Will knew enough about law to tell the difference.
“Um… yes,” he finally said. Short and to the point. Mr. Cushing nodded and spouted off a few more provisions while Will fell back to reflecting. Saying yes felt like the final commitment, the point of no return. Mr. Cushing had given him plenty of opportunities to back out, the last one only twenty-four hours ago. The Broker had called him to set up the appointment and had asked if he had any second thoughts.
“Second thoughts, Mr. Cushing?” he answered. “I’ve got them, rest assured. But let’s be real. My mechanic business is all but dead. I can’t get employed thanks to my criminal record. Odd jobs barely pay the bills. We can’t afford day care and Helena can’t work with the kids as young as they are. I’ve got nothing to my name except my one idea. You liked it, so I know it’s a winner. Do I want to do this? Hell no. Do I have doubts? Hell yeah. Doesn’t change a thing.”
Yes, there were always doubts. The problem with any object created by an O was that it is impossible to replicate through human technology. The Os didn’t even bother to install motors or gears or wiring into their objects. It wasn’t needed. The object worked as requested through some reality-bending power of the cosmos humanity could never hope to understand. It was possible to instruct the Os to include motors or circuitry, but it would only be ornamentation. All you could hope to do was create something useful, or something someone else wanted. Something to save his family from living another day in his station wagon.
Mr. Cushing was now rattling off legal terms to the O, the prelude to the presentation of payment options. This part would only take a few minutes to conclude, and then the real gut-twisting moment would arrive.
The Os are finicky about the things they value, Mr. Cushing had explained at their previous meeting. You can never tell what they’ll accept as trade. That’s why we always have options. What we do know for certain is that the more you ask for, the more they ask from you.
Trust me, they’re going to ask for a lot.
Bad Deals weren’t always due to mistakes on the O’s part. There are hospitals full of victims who weren’t just a result of fumbled requests. Sometimes the requests were perfectly executed, but it was the price that did the victim in. Money satisfied the Brokers, but not the Os. The old fairy tales about genies and the three free wishes are just that: fairy tales. The real genies want payment and there is only one currency they accept.
“We present four options,” Mr. Cushing said to the rotating symbols. With a flick of his wrist, another holographic brief formed in the air and was shoved into the symbols. The O now had a copy of Will’s payment options, the ones he had agreed to abide by. It was now a matter of waiting for the O’s answer. Mr. Cushing sat back casually in his chair with his hands behind his head, but Will had to sit on his hands to stop any fidgeting. His anxious nerves were sucking the saliva from his mouth, and he wished he had brought a bottle of water with him.
Total silence settled over the room, making time drag mercilessly for Will. Success was important, his idea was crucial, but it was the payment that squeezed his soul. He could live with Options 1 and 2. He might hate himself with Option 3, but Helena had agreed to it and agreements were binding. But Option 4… God, why did he listen to Mr. Cushing? Why did he listen? Please, God, any other option but…
“Option 4,” chimed the viewer table. “Option 4 is acceptable.”
Mr. Cushing received the news with a smile and a nod. Another win for him, another paycheck. But the sudden burst of panic in Will’s heart forced open his mouth and the words, “I call a recess,” flew out. The computer immediately went to the recess clock, and Mr. Cushing’s happy face soured as he stared at Will. The Broker had done this enough times to know this was a step backwards.
“Mr. Scarlet?” the Broker asked.
“It can’t be Option 4,” stated Will.
“It has to be. If the other options were acceptable, the O would have said so.”
“Take it off the table,” Will demanded.
“You agreed to it, Mr. Scarlet. The signatures of all parties are present.”
“You don’t understand. I… I pressured Elise. We pressured Elise, Helena and I. She barely knows how to write.”
“The Os don’t have our laws, Mr. Cushing. The world courts don’t prosecute incidents involving Negotiated Deal payments.”
“I don’t give a crap about the law. We were desperate and you were telling me to sweeten the deal.”
“Your family will survive, Mr. Scarlet. You all will. Whether or not you’ll survive without the deal…”
“Take it off the table!” Will demanded, though it came out as a plea instead.
Mr. Cushing’s face had become a stone mask, unreadable. The deal was all but closed, and Will could see that whatever sympathy or pleasant nature the Broker had used to get them this far had flown out the door. His voice was so matter-of-fact Will almost thought the computer had taken over Mr. Cushing’s mind.
“We could take it off the table,” he said, “but then the Negotiation is over. I have other clients, Mr. Scarlet, and a backlog you wouldn’t believe. It might be years before this opportunity arises again, Mr. Scarlet. Can you and your family last that long?”
Will’s hands, hidden under his thighs, formed tight fists as a dagger of anger shoved itself into his mind. He’d always known the Broker wasn’t an angel of mercy, that self-interest was the name of the game. But he had convinced himself that Mr. Cushing was actually on his side, that Option 4 was simply a bluff to show the O how serious he was. The other options should have been enough – he was giving up enough.
He wanted to tell Mr. Cushing where to shove his options and his pricey suit. He wanted to tell the O to go back to the infernal pit it had crawled out of and leave humanity alone. Take back all their fancy wish-granting powers and let people live and die on their own.
“All right,” was what he actually said, the words straining through gritted teeth and closed eyes.
Will barely remembered sitting through the conclusion of the Negotiation. More legal speak from Mr. Cushing, more jargon from the viewer table. Mr. Cushing didn’t even look at him again the rest of the meeting, as if his client had turned into a sulking child. Will did pick up on the words, “This deal is concluded. Payment will now be made,” which jarred him from his misery enough to watch the holographic symbols fade away and the door open up behind him.
“We need to be in the Payment Room within the next twenty minutes,” stated Mr. Cushing emotionlessly, unhooking his briefcase and standing up to leave. “I’ll guide you to the room, but you’ll need to collect your family on the way.”
“I need a minute,” Will replied, his hands emerging into the air. He remained seated, staring into the empty space before him.
Mr. Cushing bit his lip for a second, clearly not thrilled with Will’s turn in behavior. “A minute, Mr. Scarlet. I’ll wait outside. Be quick, though. The Os are not tolerant of tardiness.”
Will hadn’t actually thought he’d have this reaction. What he would lose he’d get back, right? Hell, he wouldn’t even know what he was missing. That’s how it worked, right? That was the opiate for the process – blessed ignorance.
No, that wasn’t true. Another misconception on his part, and he knew it now. He wouldn’t remember what he gave up, but he’d remember giving up something. He’d remember what his family gave up. Others have said that it’s like staring at a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing, knowing that those pieces are forever gone, knowing that you can’t run out and buy a new puzzle.
From him: Helena’s beaming smile on their wedding day. The death of his father from leukemia. The exciting police chase in a stolen car when he was nineteen and completely stupid. Helena’s miscarriage. The flood of relief from escaping a ten-year prison sentence after cutting a deal. The first opening day of his auto body repair business.
From Helena: her first pregnancy. All nine months of it.
From Elise: the first five years of her six-year life. She’ll keep the important life skills, or so Mr. Cushing claimed.
The Os bend reality like kids building sand castles on the beach, but they don’t have the ability to make experiences, Mr. Cushing had explained at their previous meeting. If you don’t fear death, if you have no needs or desires, then there’s no reason to act, no reason to grow. So the Os gather the one thing they can’t create: experiences. It’s their portfolio, the one thing they can compete with each other over. The more vivid the experience, the more emotion attached to it, the bigger its worth. Wonderful or tragic; uplifting or devastating; the Os want them. It was the only reason they have anything to do with humanity.
But for them to take an experience, they have to erase it from the mind that holds it.
You realize how rare experiences are? They’re as unique as snowflakes and as valuable as diamonds. I’m sure the Os have the power to copy an experience without erasing it, but then it wouldn’t be unique. It wouldn’t be valuable. That’s what they want, Mr. Scarlet. It’s the only thing they want.
My father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s late into his sixties. Died about five years later. In the beginning, he often joked that he’d soon forget all the crap in his life and maybe his death would be all the sweeter for it. Time went on and he lost more and more of himself, and he seemed to be happier as a result. But one day, when I was visiting him at a care facility, he had a startlingly lucid moment. It was like he was whole again, if only for that brief minute. Like the last four years hadn’t happened. And he told me that he took it back. He’d keep all the crap from his past – it was all him, even the horrible parts.
I tell you this story because I need you to know what you’re giving up. The cash you will be paying me – that’s nothing. Cash is everywhere. But you can’t get refunds from the Os, Mr. Scarlet. I’ve seen clients come out of the Payment Room as completely different people. Introverts become social butterflies. Jerks become meek. Some even had to be carried out. The Os don’t kill, but sometimes they take something important.
You know, when the Os first contacted us, when I first learned of the deals they made, I was aghast. Selling off experiences? No way, I thought. People have limits. But it didn’t take me long to change my mind. We sell off our organs, we sell off our children, and we sell our souls and our consciences all the time. We sell them for far less than what the Os are offering.
Knowing all this, are you still ready to deal?