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Title: “Zero Potential Bargaining”

Prompt: “this is the way the world ends”

Written: May 11, 2012

Copyright Deborah J. Natelson


When I arrived on the scene, I was already too late to stop my boss from making the deal.


Stupid, stupid, stupid!


Well, no; not stupid.  Actually, my boss was probably the most brilliant man I had ever met.  That was the problem – he was brilliant, he knew he was brilliant, and he thought that made him immune to the machinations of others.


Also, possibly, he thought he was too brilliant to remember his fairytales.


Then again, he hadn’t thought fairies were real.  Fair enough; until ten minutes ago, neither had I.


The fairy turned to me, the alien edges of a smile touching her lips.  “That deal isn’t valid,” I said, before she could speak a word.


The smile deepened, growing falser and smugger.  “Human woman,” she said, “do not toy with me.  I have kept my side of the bargain; this nation will be safe against its enemy.  Or are you offering me a second deal?”


“No,” I said, because I wasn’t stupid.  I could see my boss limp in her hands.  So that was why he had made the deal: one man in exchange for the safety of the nation.  Very heroic.  Very brilliant.  No doubt, he had saved millions.  “Your deal isn’t valid,” I repeated.  “You can’t have him.”


“Are you offering yourself in exchange?” the fairy asked.  She looked closer at me and laughed – because yes, it was written all over me.  Possibly the only one who hadn’t noticed was my boss.  No; I take that back.  He had only been kind enough to pretend he hadn’t noticed.  “Do you really think that will make him love you?”


“No,” I said; “of course not.  But that’s the point, isn’t it?  He doesn’t love me.”


“In that case –”


“He doesn’t love me,” I repeated.  “But love demands a response, doesn’t it?  That’s part of the nature of love.  I love him and so he owes me a response – owes me something.  But he hasn’t, and so he’s in my debt.  He’s in my debt which means he’s mine; you can’t have him.  Your deal isn’t valid.”


My boss stirred in the fairy’s arms, as if he had heard me.  The moment he moved, she jumped back, hissing, and I saw that her hands were red and burnt.


“Before you get angry,” I said quickly, because the fairy looked like she was about to rip out my throat, “I have another deal for you – a better one.”


Fairies, or so the legends go, can never resist a deal.  Possibly because they always end up getting the better end of the bargain.  I may have tried this one’s patience to the limits – but she was still willing to listen.


“A two-part deal, actually,” I said.  “One: in exchange for you never seeking any form of retribution against anyone, directly or indirectly, for my interference, I won’t make public the information that my argument makes every human being, past, present, and future, off-limits to you and your kind.”


“Done,” the fairy said, so quickly I just about got whiplash.


“Two,” I said, “in exchange for your not removing your protection of this nation, in the way my boss wanted, in the spirit not the words of the deal he made with you, I am willing to give you an idea.”


The fairy scoffed. 


“Ideas,” I pointed out, “are worth far more than people.  Ideas have potential.  This idea I had, I was planning to publish – to turn into a book, a film, a thousand sources from which people might gain new ideas and new insights.  I don’t know what effect this idea might have had, but its ripples could resound down the years or could barely go beyond me.  And because this idea’s potential will never be fulfilled, we cannot know what its potential would have been, and so its potential is infinite.  In exchange for not removing the safety of this nation, I’m giving you an idea with unlimited potential.  Is that not worth more than a person?  Do you agree?”


Of course she did.  The deal was sealed, the idea – I can’t tell you what it was; that’s part of it – vanished from our world.


“An idea,” my boss said, looking out the window as I drove him home.  He tactfully had not mentioned my first deal.




“Of course,” he said thoughtfully, “the thing about infinite potential is that if it’s never used, it’s worth exactly nothing.  Infinite potential is just another way of saying zero potential.  The only true measure of potential is not what a thing could do but what it does do, because a thing not done never could have been done for the simple reason that it wasn’t.”


“Like a car sitting at the top of a hill,” I said, “able but never actually going to roll down.”


My boss snorted a little and I remembered that at least one of his doctorates was in physics.  Oh, well.


“Of course,” I said, “both parts of that two-part deal had zero and infinite potential.  Both parties simply agreed to do nothing.”


My boss hummed a noncommittal ditty and continued to look out his window.  I suppose we have our own deal, my boss and I.  I remain silent and don’t press and he pretends not to notice.  Our own little infinite potential bargain with no hope of payoff.


I almost wonder if that’s why the fairy let me win.

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