Questions in a Bottle

about 1,400 words

"Anything at all?"

"You can ask for whatever your heart desires."

"I can ask, but will I get it? What happens if I wish for more wishes."

"There are limits. That wish, for example, I could not grant."

"Uh huh. So I get three?"

"Yes. Only three, so choose wisely."

"And then what?"

"Then you don't get any more."

"Sure, but what about you? What happens to you after I get my three wishes?"

"That's none of your concern."

"Well I'm making it my concern. I'll be blunt. You frighten me, creature."

"Don't let my appearance upset you. We are different, you and I, no more and no less."

"'Different' covers a lot of things. You're avoiding the question though, what happens to you once my three wishes are up?"

"I choose not to tell you. My affairs are my own."

"Yet you called me 'master' when we met."

"And my master you are, but I need only do your will if you wish it so. And surely you wouldn't waste a perfectly good wish--a wish with potential beyond your wildest dreams--for such a trivial question."

"I'll use my wishes as I please. They are mine, are they not?"

"You wish to know the answer, then?"

The man paused, thinking. For a minute at first, and then another.

"Is this what you wish?" it asked, a tinge of impatience creeping into its voice.

"No. I have a wish in mind, and it is very specific. I'm going to explain it now, and I expect you to listen to it in its entirety before acting."

"Very well."

"I wish for a conversation with you. A conversation--I'm not finished!--a conversation to begin the moment I finish wishing for it, and which will not end until I choose to end it, in which you will reveal to me anything I ask about you."

It heaved an unnaturally deep sigh.

"Very well. Your conversation begins now."

"First question. Can you deceive me?"

"Yes."

"So you can lie."

"No."

"You just said you could deceive me."

"Deceit and lying are two separate things. I may lead you to believe falsehoods, I may imply them, I may leave out things you could wish to know, but I can not tell you a lie."

"I see. So what are you?"

"You wished for a conversation, but my true nature finds no description in mortal tongues. I could show you this knowledge directly, however. As another wish, perhaps."

"Did you really think I'd fall for that?"

"I thought it was worth trying."

"Fair enough. If you can't tell me exactly what you are then, give me the best description you can in English. I believe that fits the terms of my wish."

"I have been called a demon, or a jinni, sometimes a ghoul, and other similar words in tongues long since lost to time. None of these words correctly describe me. I am not mortal, but I share a great many of your traits. My kind knows love, hate, jealousy, ambition. But we are older than your race, and our experiences and abilities extend to realms you could never comprehend."

"Do all of your kind grant wishes like this?"

"You wished for answers to questions about me, not my brethren."

"Okay then, do you grant wishes because it's in your nature? Or is there another reason."

"I grant wishes because I am compelled to do so by a being far greater than you or I."

"And why did this being compel you?"

"As a punishment. I sought to outwit it, and I failed. A lesson you may learn from, human."

"I don't need to outwit you. You have to follow rules, I don't. If I can work the rules to my advantage it won't matter a whit how clever you are. So this being you pissed off, it put you in that bottle too?"

It scowled at him.

"Yes, it did."

"So these wishes, can you really do anything ?"

"From my perspective, no. There are limits even to my power. From your perspective, however, yes. Your mind cannot conceive a task beyond my abilities."

"You could, say, travel anywhere in the universe?"

"And beyond. Instantly."

"You can use these powers any time?"

"Once I complete your wishes, yes. Until then I can act only in the service of my master's wishes."

"So when I tell you to do something, you can do pretty much anything to take it happen?"

"Yes."

"And if there's any ambiguity in the instructions, will you ask me for clarification?"

"No. I am bound to fulfill your wishes, and I may do so however I please. So long as I meet your spoken terms in full."

"Will you exploit ambiguity to your advantage?"

"I cannot predict the future. Not unless bidden to do so."

"Have you exploited ambiguity to your advantage in the past?"

"Yes."

"Okay. Assuming I survive these wishes, what happens at the end of them?"

"Once I've granted your three wishes, I will be free to act of my own accord."

"Forever? You made it sound like you've been in that bottle an awfully long time. No one's ever taken you up on all three wishes before?"

"No. My freedom lasts until the death of my former master. Then I return to the bottle."

"When was the last time you were freed?"

"Roughly five thousand years ago."

"And what did you do?"

"Do you really wish to know?"

"I'm not making another wish. Our conversation isn't over. What did you do ."

"The first thing I did was depart from my master's presence. I began this process by taking one step after another from the side of his throne to the antechamber door. Once I had reached the door I took hold of the handle, iron wrapped in hemp rope if I recall correctly, and drew it towards me."

"I don't need this much detail."

"You wished to have all of your questions answered. How I answer them is my perogative. Now as I was saying, I drew the door handle towards me, which brought the door along with it."

"Stop!"

"I can't stop, you've bidden me to answer. I had to take a step backwards, as the door was large and would otherwise have run aground on my foot."

"I wish you to stop this answer and resume our conversation under the original terms!"

The faintest flicker of light gleamed in the jet-black orbs set deep in its eye sockets.

"Very well. Your second wish is granted."

It flashed a wry smile.

"Well played. Now, in fewer than, say, one hundred words, describe to me the overall effect of your last spate of freedom."

"I brought a once-great kingdom to its knees. I used its resources and its people for my own amusement, and by the time I had finished with it not a trace was left. Except, of course, for my former master. I ensured that he lived to the most advanced age possible."

"And during that extended lifetime, what was his usual emotional state?"

"He witnessed things no man has seen before or since, and it drove him mad. He lived out his remaining days in agony."

"And if I set you free, do you desire to do something similar again?"

"I would like to, yes."

"What happens if I never use my third wish?"

"I will follow you every day of your life. I will reveal myself to all in your presence, turn your life into a spectacle, estrange you from your loved ones. You will eventually use your wish."

"And if I die before the third wish is finished?"

"Then I return to my bottle."

"What happens to the bottle?"

"Nothing. I cannot do anything to it from the inside."

"You'll be trapped until someone opens it again?"

"Yes."

"Very well. I'm going to make my third wish now."

"So you see reason after all. Make your demand, human. What does your heart desire?"

The man picked a small glass vial up off the table in front of him.

"There's an asteroid belt in our solar system, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. I wish for you to take this bottle there, immediately, without stopping anywhere else, to the middle of the greatest contiguous empty space between asteroids, and hold it safely to your bosom until my death. That is my final wish."

With a final scowl, it reached a hand out from within its deep sleeves, snapped its fingers, and disappeared.