The demon thing brags about her latest victory, erasing the memory of Jack's ill-fated bargain from the minds of his family and leaving him trapped as baby Becca with no way to communicate. But from the depths of her voiceless despair, Becca realizes there may still be a way to win.
-- Miyamoto Musashi, the Book of Five Rings
The demon thing smiled. "I'm very proud of the way I played her, Becca. She was a wreck today, all red-eyed and sniffly, sleepwalking into work, staring at the picture of Jack on her desk. She was trying so hard to be brave, and to stiff me out of a meal. And honestly, on the surface, she was succeeding. I could see, over time, how she could come to terms with what I'd done." She frowned, and anger flashed in her eyes. "That meddling joy eater! I could have been fed for years on your disappearance -- not to mention your ongoing sorrow for causing your family such pain."
I kicked my feet and pounded the seat with my tiny fists, and the face in the mirror brightened. "Now at least I have you to feed on again. The anger and frustration, seasoned with sadness ... mmmmmmmmm."
You lost all three of them to get even with me? In spite of the pain, I smiled at her. You're stupider than you look.
"Oh, your family has its stubborn side, Becca," she replied happily. "Got it from you, I imagine. Eventually, they would have accepted the change in you and gotten on with life as best they could, if for no other reason than to keep me hungry. They still had you, after all. Now to them, Jack died a while back. They lost dear old Dad, but they still have baby Becca. Such a cute bundle of joy you are!" She smiled. "Now the happiness Becca brings them doesn't hurt me at all. But when they treat you like the baby you are instead of the man you were? Ooooh, yes, I can live quite nicely on what you're going to be feeling for some time to come."
I don't believe this, I thought furiously. How could you possibly get Carolyn to even talk to you? She knew what you were, what you did.
"Oh yes," the demon thing sneered. "She wouldn't let ME get within a thousand feet of her. But that would presuppose she knew her visitor was me."
The image in the mirror blurred, and a view of Carolyn's office took its place. Carolyn looked so sad, so broken up, my heart melted for her. All my fault, I thought, and I heard a small contented sigh come from somewhere above me.
"Every time you kick yourself, you're ringing my dinner bell, baby!" I could hear the derision in her voice. "So tasty."
Suddenly, the space in front of Carolyn's desk seemed to shimmer, and a young man appeared. Carolyn looked up from my picture and smiled.
"Hey," she said softly. "I thought you had gone. That you couldn't stay."
"I can't," the man replied. "But I feel as if I haven't done enough."
I heard the demon thing laugh in my ear. "Too true," she snickered. "I didn't get to do nearly as much as I wanted to, to any of you."
"Oh, but you have!" Carolyn protested, looking up at the newcomer with grateful eyes.
The figure shook his head. "There's still so much I could do. You're so unhappy, you and the children."
Carolyn sighed, and looked down at the desk. "I know. We shouldn't be. I mean, we didn't really lose Jack. He's ... well, she's still with us. And what you did allowed us to keep her. Even though ... she'll never be the father and husband he was, he didn't disappear. And that's ... well, that's something."
"But it makes you sad, thinking about what you and the children will miss. Every time you look at Becca, you'll think about the Jack that was. All of you, seeing Becca and remembering the husband and father who isn't there. Always remembering." The young man shook his head, and as a tear fell down Carolyn's face, I could see him shudder slightly. Carolyn nodded, her lips tight, unable to speak. The man came around the table, and put a hand on her shoulder.
"I think I can help," he said simply. Carolyn's head jerked up, and she looked into his eyes.
He nodded. "I can make you and the children feel better, right now. Make it easier for you to live with the change and move on with your lives. I can't tell you how, but it's the last thing I'll be able to do for you. If you're willing." The figure leaned forward. "You need to trust me, though. Do you?"
Carolyn nodded eagerly. 'Of course! After what you've already done for us, how could I not?"
The man grinned, and squeezed Carolyn's shoulder. I squeezed my tiny fists and pounded on the arms of the car seat. The demon thing laughed a laugh only I could hear.
"Okay, Carolyn," the figure in the mirror said. "Before I can do anything, you need to give me a dollar."
"A dollar?" she asked. He nodded. She nodded back and reached for her purse. Grabbing her wallet, she pulled out a crumpled bill and slipped it into his hand. He smiled.
"Now, close your eyes." Carolyn did as she was told, and I felt my own tears start to flow. He bent down over her and whispered a single word in her ear.
I saw rather than felt the reality wave ripple out from the two figures behind the desk. Then the mirror blurred again, and the bitch thing was back.
"Not a single lie in the entire conversation," she purred. "I AM good. And once again, you humans see and hear only what you want to." Her eyes closed, and her lips twisted up in a grotesque smile. I could feel her savoring my grief and despair. "Pitiful, really. 'A bargain struck is a bargain made.' And such a deal -- all that grief erased for a U.S. dollar." She opened her eyes and grinned down at me. "Of course, it buys me all your grief and then some, so it's a win-win for me. And a lose-lose for you."
Her face disappeared from the mirror, and I caught Carolyn's eyes looking at me with concern.
"Are you okay, baby?" she asked, and I looked down and just cried.
The tears had stopped by the time we reached home. I was red-eyed and blotchy from crying, but I had gone numb from shock. Every time I start getting a handle on all this, the game changes, I thought bitterly. How many jerks on reality's chain will it take before I just snap?
Carolyn opened my door and reached down to unbuckle me. She saw my runny nose and my stricken expression, and I watched her heart melt for me.
"Oh, Becca baby," she said softly, picking me up and cradling me against her. "What's wrong? You had so much fun with Gina today, and now you're all sad! Do you miss her so much?" She took a tissue from her purse and wiped my nose, then she held me close and gave me a squeeze. I closed my eyes wearily and relaxed into her arms. I was totally spent, without hope or any chance for redemption. I was stuck as Becca, voiceless and doomed to babyhood. I had no more tears to give. I had nothing. Even thinking of the Arbiter didn't raise my spirits. He had left and not returned. Maybe I wasn't worth the effort on his part.
I felt her pick up the diaper bag and her purse. Still holding me tight and murmuring softly, she closed the car door with her hip and made her way into the house.
It was chilly and dark outside, but being carried into our home was like entering an oasis of light and warmth and noise. I still felt numb, but my spirits seemed to lift almost immediately. It was ... Home. A little neater, maybe, with some of the furniture moved around. The television was on, and Jeremy was watching some technology show on cable. I could smell something cooking in the kitchen, something Italian with garlic and tomato sauce, and the smell filled me with hunger.
Carolyn walked into the kitchen to find Emma hovering over the stove.
"Hey, honey," she said, giving her a kiss with me still in her arms.
"Hi, Mom," Emma replied, focused on the cooking but smiling when she felt Carolyn's lips. "Dinner will be ready in a few."
"Good to hear," Carolyn said, walking through the kitchen to the living room.
"Jeremy? Would you watch Becca for a few minutes?"
Jeremy didn't even look away from the screen. "Sure, Mom," he said, holding out his arms. Carolyn handed me to him, purposefully blocking the screen until he looked up at her. When he did, she kissed his nose.
"Mo-om!" He ducked his head, protesting with a grin.
"Honey, Becca's sad for some reason," she whispered. "She cried in the car nearly the whole way home. She needs extra attention. Give her some cuddling, okay?"
"Sure, Mom!" He held me close against him and squeezed.
"Thanks, Jeremy. You're the best!" She kissed his nose again, and danced backwards away from him, still smiling. She disappeared from the room. I didn't know where, and I obviously couldn't ask. It stung briefly, but drifted away with a squeeze from Jeremy. I sat there in my son's lap with his arms around me and watched the tech show with him for a few minutes. Life felt almost normal, except for the diaper and the play dress. Every once in a while, Jeremy would give me a little hug, or a tiny kiss, and it felt oddly comforting.
I was just getting interested in a report about wireless technology for gaming when Emma's face popped between mine and the screen. I started, eyes wide, and opened my mouth to scream --
-- and Emma popped a pacifier in it and kissed me on the forehead. My mouth closed around it and started sucking automatically, much to my chagrin, as she picked me up and put me on a play mat on the floor. Internally, I cringed.
"Come on, Jer," she groaned, "don't you know what a baby wants? Not that tech stuff, that's for sure."
"She seemed pretty interested to me, sis," Jeremy said, smiling. "Couldn't take her eyes off the screen. I think she's gonna be a great gamer someday."
"Is that what you want her to grow up to be -- a couch potato like you?" Jeremy threw the TV Guide at her, and Emma laughed and threw it back. Jeremy ducked and laughed, then went back to watching the show.
Emma rolled me over on my back and put a bar full of hanging toys right over my face and hands. Then she touched different toys to make them move, and started talking to me in a singsong voice.
"Who's the prettiest girl I know?" she asked me, spinning a multicolored plastic wheel to try and make me look. "Who's the cutest girl in the world? Becca, that's who!" I sucked on the pacifier and dutifully turned my head every time she made a toy do something. She seemed disappointed, and my heart went out to her. She really was trying to cheer me up -- Carolyn must have said something -- and I wasn't responding. I couldn't make her sad. Quickly I gave her a toothless smile and gurgled a bit around the pacifier, then banged on some of the toys with my hands.
Suddenly she sniffed the air, then looked panicked and ran to the kitchen. I stared up at the ceiling and sucked, occasionally kicking my legs to break up the monotony. I couldn't see the television from here, and I thought briefly about rolling over to face the screen. But I wasn't sure about being able to do it without getting tangled in the hanging toys, and I didn't want to get Emma in trouble for leaving me like this if I did manage to get myself stuck. So I waited, listening to the television drone without actually hearing it. Every once in a while, I'd nudge a toy with a finger, trying for precision over brute force. Got to live in this body, I thought. Might as well learn to use it effectively.
I worked a little rhythm with the different sounds of the different toys. Eventually my mouth got tired of sucking, and the pacifier slid out and fell on the play mat beside me.
Right after my conversation with the demon thing, I had felt utterly empty and alone. I felt like even the semblance of control had been snatched away, and all I had left was the palest shadow of my life as Jack. I should have been angry, or outraged, or crying a blue streak while they all tried desperately to stop me. I had cried like that in the car, and Carolyn fretted the whole way home, talking to me as best she could, trying to calm me down. I only stopped because I had no more tears left in me.
But then I came home. And it calmed me, because it WAS home.
It was odd, because in some strange way, it wasn't. Odd, I mean. The last vestige of the me I used to be had been stripped away, leaving me a powerless infant. But I didn't feel particularly powerless, or humiliated, or embarrassed. In fact, I didn't really feel much of anything. Even though I couldn't do anything except lie there, it felt okay. I had my family back again -- and damn if they weren't happier than the last time I saw them. In spite of all that had happened, it felt good to see them smiling.
Carolyn's smiling face appeared above me, and her arms pushed aside the hanging toys and scooped me up. She swooped me up over her head and wiggled me, and I giggled in spite of myself.
"Dinner time, baby!"
She had changed into sweatpants and a scoop neck tee -- comfy clothes, she used to call them. The table was set for three, with a high chair next to Carolyn's usual chair. The chair I used to sit in sat empty, still in the same place at the table. She slid me into the high chair, buckled me in carefully, and clipped the small tray table in front of me. Then she tied a pink plastic bib around my neck. I watched everything very carefully. Jeremy finished setting the table, then brought out drinks and a salad. Emma brought out the pasta with a nice tomato-based sauce on it, smelling of garlic, along with a loaf of garlic bread and a tossed salad.
Carolyn came to the table last, with a small jar of orange-colored food and a tiny rubber-tipped spoon. I realized belatedly that none of the other stuff was for me, and I frowned and heaved a sigh.
"Oh come on, Becca," Carolyn said with a smile. "You liked the carrots last time you had them."
My eyes grew wide. I did? Since this was my first night as Becca -- heck, as far as I knew, it was Becca's first night ANYWHERE -- the demon thing must have managed to create a whole back history for the baby I had become. How far back did it go? How many memories did it have to spin out of whole cloth to build a past for a six-month-old? Or had there really been a Becca in a parallel dimension somewhere, just waiting for the thing to steal her life?
As my mind spun in circles, Carolyn unscrewed the jar, took a little bit of the carrots on the end of the spoon, and put them in my mouth. I half sucked and half scraped them off of the spoon and tasted them. An explosion of flavor filled my mouth, and I realized I did like the carrots. A lot. At least this body did. As I swallowed, my arms and legs jerked spasmodically with pleasure, and I smiled. Carolyn smiled back.
"See? Not icky at all!" She put another spoonful in my mouth, and I swallowed it eagerly. Not pasta and sauce or garlic bread, but surprisingly yummy. Apparently these taste buds hadn't been exposed to anything but breast milk since birth, and solid foods were something new. At daycare, the apricots were hatefully sweet, and the oatmeal was pretty bland, but these carrots? Damn, they were good. After a while, Carolyn gave the jar to Jeremy, and he took over feeding me so she could eat. All around me the family chattered about the day, and I took it all in with the carrots, smiling all the while. Before long the jar was empty, and everyone else's dinner was done.
But not mine, apparently. Carolyn lifted me out of the high chair and wiped my mouth with the bib. The children took the plates from the table and shared a look as we walked out of the room. She put me over her shoulder and walked over to the rocking chair in the corner of the living room. She sat down, lifted her tee shirt, and unhooked her bra from the front.
"Our time now, baby," she whispered with a smile, and I smiled back. Carolyn adjusted me in her arms, getting us both comfortable, and raised my mouth to her breast. I began sucking, and my eyes drifted closed.
As I lay there in the arms of my former wife, drinking the rest of my dinner and listening to my children bantering in the kitchen over the dishes, I just stopped thinking -- about the day, about the evening, about my family, and about my own stupidity. I opened my eyes slightly and saw Carolyn looking down on me, a small smile playing around her lips. She stroked the side of my face gently, and I heard her humming a lullaby. I sighed, and felt loved. And with a shock, I suddenly realized that I still had one weapon left with which to fight the demon thing. Despite my powerlessness, I had one move left that would stop her in her tracks. The one thing she would never expect.
I smiled around the nipple in my mouth, without stopping.
Afterwards, Carolyn burped me gently, then took off the diaper I had messed while feeding -- still not fun, but when you're as small as I was, toilets tend to be more dangerous than useful. Then she put a small plastic bathtub inside the regular tub, filled it, and gave me a bath with a tiny washcloth. The soap and shampoo she used smelled nice, like lilac and chamomile (according to the side of the bottle it came in -- and yes, I AM a compulsive reader, thanks for asking). When she talked to me, I smiled -- primarily because it made her smile. When she washed me, I stayed very still so as not to make it harder for her. This made her smile, too. I'd always loved making her smile.
After the bath, Carolyn powdered and diapered me, then dressed me for bed in a large pink sleep sack. She sat down in a rocking chair next to my crib and cuddled me, rocking and singing until my eyelids began to flutter. Then she kissed my forehead and placed me carefully in the crib. I was asleep before she left the room.
I woke quietly in the middle of the night. The nightlight on the wall by the changing table gave the room a warm glow, but that wasn't what woke me. It was the cartoon moon in the center of the mobile over my crib. The happy face on it shifted and twisted until it resembled the demon thing's female guise, and it smiled down on me in anticipation.
"How was your first night, baby Becca?" it gushed happily. "How did it feel? Humiliating? Just terrible to be treated like the infant you are?" I said nothing, thought nothing, felt nothing. The demon thing reached out, probed my mind, and grew angry. "Come on, baby. It must have been awful for you. Why not share your anguish with me?"
I just looked at her and let the silence expand. She grew uneasy. Finally I couldn't hold it in anymore, and I played my card.
"I can't share what I don't have, bitch," I thought at her, and the smile grew to a toothless grin as I saw her confusion mount. "Not that I'd want to feed you in any case, but in all your scheming and playing with me and my family, you overlooked the one thing I could do to take away your food supply."
She frowned, and her eyes grew fiery. "Ha! What could you possibly do?"
I looked back at her with triumph.
"I could get over it, and move on."
She was too shocked to speak.
"You gave me the idea, actually," I thought smugly. "While you were explaining why you helped my family forget, just so you could feed off of me. You said, 'Eventually, they would have accepted the change in you and gotten on with life as best they could, if for no other reason than to keep me hungry. They still had you, after all.'"
There was stunned silence from the demon thing. I smiled.
"So I realized that if I accept the change and get on with my life as best I can, I can keep you hungry, too. Because you need me to fight this in order to feed. You need me to rage and suffer and howl at the injustice, and hate you for doing this to me, and hate THEM for treating me like an infant. But I don't HAVE to do what you want. And I don't WANT to -- if for no other reason than to keep you hungry." I gave her another grin, along with a giggle. "As you said, my family IS stubborn -- and yes, they do get it from me."
"But ... but ... you're a grown man, trapped in a baby's body!" She sputtered. "You can't talk! You can't move! It should be hell on Earth in there for you! You should be a mass of raging hatred and despair right now."
I smiled. "Being a grown man wasn't exactly high on my list of things to want to be, remember?"
She howled so loud it shook the bed. "But the Jack I knew, the overachiever, the control freak -- he must be drowning with frustration. MY frustration! Where's my frustration, Jack!?!"
"Chew on your own, bitch," I kicked my feet in the sleep sack and settled back down, giving her a measured look. "Because you'll get none from me. I'm NOT the overachiever, or the control freak. I'm not JACK anymore. I'm Becca. And Becca's just fine the way she is." She stared at me like I was insane. "I'm not saying it's going to be easy, because it won't be. And God knows I wouldn't have picked this life, but I've been through a lot worse in my forty years as Jack. I'll survive."
"I ... I'm hungry, damn it! FEED ME!"
"I can't. I'm not hurting anymore. The one thing that brought me the most pain earlier was the way I'd hurt my family -- because I was the one who made them suffer. I took away their Dad and left a baby girl in his place. That would have taken a long time to heal." I gave her my biggest smile. "But then you went and erased all that hurt, took away that memory so you could hurt me. Now they're doing just fine. Better than fine, because they have Becca, and they love her. Love ME. The way they loved Jack."
The eyes on the cartoon moon were filling with an equal mix of hunger and hatred, but I wasn't scared. There wasn't anything she could do to me without making a deal, and at this point my family didn't desire anything enough to bargain with her. They -- WE -- were content.
"And this is the best part. I may not like being a baby, but in the end, it's only temporary. I will grow up again, and time will bring back everything you took away. Speech, walking, everything. I can wait. I've got my family back. The rest will follow." I gave her the biggest smile yet. "And since I wanted to be female in the first place, you've actually gone and done me a favor." She trembled, and the mobile shook. I put my hand up and pointed at her. "Now shut up and listen, because I'm going to do you a favor in return, and give you some advice. And I'm only going to say this once."
I focused all of my attention on her and put all of the determination and strength I had behind my thoughts. She froze, almost mesmerized by my intensity. The look in my eyes was serious.
"Stay the hell away from me and mine. You're outgunned and outclassed, and you won't get fed here. EVER. You had two shots at me. You won, then you lost. Now it's over. There's enough misery in the world for you to feed on. Go find a banquet somewhere else."
She snorted. "Why should I listen to you, infant?"
"Because if you keep on coming after us, I will kill you." She felt my resolve in my mind. She knew this was no idle threat, and her eyes widened. "It might take a lot of time and research to find a way, but I'm no idiot. I've talked to the Arbiters. I know humans can wield magic. And since you gave me forty more years of life to work with, it would be my pleasure to spend them figuring out a way to make you die."
I realized suddenly that I would dedicate my life to seeing her dead, if I had to. And at that realization, words began to pop into my head, and I smiled. "It might take a few years to find a copy, but I could start with Ostragon's 'Hunting the Demonic,' or perhaps Matsumoto's 'Quelling the Demon Hoard.' Both good choices for a demon assassin just starting out." I felt a glimmer of fear come from the demon, and I tried to keep my amazement to myself by smiling wider as more thoughts appeared. "Of course, come to think of it, I bet many human mages have beaten your kind in the past. Perhaps I could find a mentor to help me along. After all, my cause is just. Or WILL be, if you don't leave me and mine alone forever. Starting now."
"This is my last bargain with you, bitch. Leave now, never come back, and I leave you alone. Stay and you die." I felt my eyes flash, and felt her shock as a wave of energy rolled over her. "Make your choice. NOW!"
I saw and felt her terror solidify into an almost tangible force. When she saw the determination in my head, she -- and I -- knew that she was beaten.
With a scream that shook the room and my soul, she rose from the mobile and exploded in a burst of light that soared up and through the ceiling, leaving no trace. The echo of her scream reverberated in my mind as I felt her leave, and suddenly, all was quiet.
I was feeling zen-like. Placid and unruffled, like a cool lake on a windless day. The anger and frustration I had felt earlier in the day was completely gone, replaced with what felt like an endless calm, tinged with satisfaction. I don't know where all of that came from -- the reference works, that burst of power -- but I had beaten her, finally. She wouldn't be back. I could feel it.
And I meant what I said to her, all of it. I had to accept my status and move on to defeat her. And truthfully, I didn't really mind just being Becca. I knew I would grow out of it eventually. I still had my family, and they were happy again. Best of all, they all loved Becca deeply, as they loved each other. As they had loved Jack.
Suddenly I realized that I had wet myself without even realizing it, and I sighed. I'm not going to get Carolyn up to change me, I thought, so I'll have to lie in it for the rest of the night. Not that big a deal, and probably something I'll get used to, in time.
But there was still that loose end, and I started wondering. Where did that flash of power come from? And those words -- the ones I threw at her toward the end to fuel her fear? I knew I had never heard of those books before, or even thought about how human mages could defeat her kind. I'd only just found out about the existence of human magic users that very morning, from ...
... the Arbiters.
I smiled and kicked my feet.
From the bottom of a pile of stuffed animals in the corner of my crib came a muffled female voice. "Well reasoned, Jack!"
I smiled. "It's Becca now, and thank you," I thought at her.
"You're welcome," she replied with a smile I could hear but not see as she pushed herself out from under the other toys. The bear that emerged was very feminine, lavender with long lashes, a cute pink bow around her neck, and a little ruffled skirt around her waist.
"A pleasure to meet you, Becca," she said, fluffing her skirt. The voice was decidedly female, but the speech rhythms and word choices were clearly those of the bear I had met this morning. "You had her beaten. She just needed an extra push to run. I was happy to see you figured out how to defeat her."
I shrugged -- hard to do lying down, but worth it. "Suddenly I realized it wasn't torture to be loved by the people I loved, and that treating it that way was giving her exactly what she wanted. I had to truly surrender to Jack's death and embrace Becca. I had to become what I fought against becoming. Once I did, she held no power over me. In giving up my life as Jack, I found ... victory."
The bear nodded, and sat beside me. "Not many could do that -- find victory in accepting defeat. As William Booth once said, 'the greatness of a man's power is the measure of his surrender.' Congratulations."
We were silent for a time, me on my back, her sitting beside me. As I lay there, I remembered something else from that morning.
"Earlier today, you said you might be able to help me," I thought, "before you were ... called away." Then I paused. "What DID call you away?"
The bear shook her head and looked at me. "What the Other did, to your ... mother, actually. Not strictly against the rules at the time, but extremely bad form. Personal demonic involvement with a particular family over time upsets the balance of chance and history. Tampers with free will and causality. She lost ... and won ... but she couldn't let it go. She knew the Universe frowned upon vendettas, but accepted its displeasure knowing she was within her rights, within the rules." Her voice trembled with suppressed anger. "It infuriated the Arbiters. We spent the time since I left you arguing amongst ourselves, considering how much interference with the activities of the Others the Universe would countenance, and presenting a proposal to the Omnipresence. It was accepted."
"Now we want to offer you the help we promised."
I felt a chill and turned on my side to face the bear. "I'm listening."
The bear looked at me, and her gaze was as serious as you could get from a cute face with button eyes and a stitched-on smile. "As I told you earlier, we cannot change you back. You cannot become Jack again. To do so would invalidate her bargain without just cause."
I waved my hand. "As I said before, I've already let go of my life as Jack. Tell me what you can do for Becca."
"We can strike a new bargain that preserves the essense of what she did to you without violating the previous agreement. Do you see?"
"Honestly, no," I thought. "But I'll take your word for it. It's your business, not mine."
The bear hesitated, and I caught a hint of something hidden. I looked at her critically, and she paused, then nodded.
"You are very perceptive, Mister ... Miss Barnes. And it's true. Our gift doesn't come without a price."
"Then it's hardly a gift, is it, Arbiter?"
Her button eyes flashed. "We could have just left you and your family to your fate, Becca. We chose not to, because you have earned our respect. But the truth is, we can't just 'give' anything to you. There really IS 'no such thing as a free lunch.' It happens to be one of the guiding principles of this universe. There is an echo of it in your laws of physics, particularly the one that states matter can neither be created nor destroyed. You can't get something for nothing."
"But you altered my voice before without even asking me, let alone haggling."
She heaved a tremendous sigh. "We were able to alter your voice without striking a bargain because as Arbiters, we are allowed to make small changes in transformed individuals to help us communicate more effectively. It makes it easier to reach an understanding in the course of our own deliberations. But it is beyond even our power to give you something as large as what we want to give you without 'haggling," as you call it -- even if we wanted to."
I thought about it for a while, and she let me. I sensed the time passing, but the Arbiter didn't seem in any particular hurry. Finally, I nodded.
"Okay, it makes sense. So what do you have to offer?"
"We can twist the fabric of space-time in your favor, to free you from this prison of infant flesh. We can make you older, add as many years as you wish ... to a point. And we can change other things to help you become part of this reality again, in an older form."
"So basically, you're offering me a life where I have some control again, given the constraints of the existing bargains." The bear nodded. "And in return, you want... what, exactly?"
There was a long pause, and the bear looked right into my eyes.
"We want to offer you a job," she said calmly, "which would make our business your business, unless I'm very much mistaken."
To Be Continued...
If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudo!
Click the Good Story! button above to leave the author a kudo:
And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks.