12 August 2011
QUESTION OF THE DAY
By Curtis C. Chen
"How do you want to die?"
He was just a minor demon, from the look of him: one who could only affect very specific objects or events. They'd infested inner cities all over the world in the last few years. Not usually dangerous, just a nuisance.
What made me stop walking was the way he'd asked the question: not as a threat, but very matter-of-fact-ly, almost like a presenter on some chat show. I looked over his rough horns, brick-coloured skin, and tattered clothes. Black hooves poked out the bottoms of his trouser legs.
"That's quite an unusual question," I said.
The demon blinked at me. "It's the only power I have. To affect how a human life ends. You'd think more people might be interested—I mean, you're mortal, aren't you? You've got to die someday. Why not have some say in how it happens?"
I knelt down and dropped a few coins into his battered tin cup. He nodded thanks at me.
"The thing is," I said, "most people don't like to think about dying. They'd like to believe they'll live forever."
"You're telling me," said the demon. "Smoking, having unprotected sex, driving automobiles—some of you are honestly just asking for it, all the time. Thought I'd have more takers. Turns out I got stuck with a bloody worthless power."
"So how does it work?" I asked. "Let's say, for example, that I wanted to die while shagging a supermodel."
"I'm not a bleeding genie." The demon looked rather offended. "It's not the Make-a-Wish Foundation here. I can only affect natural causes, within your own body, right? Say you don't fancy dying of cancer; I can guarantee you die of some other disease."
Something clicked inside my brain. "Hang on. So if I say I want to die of old age—"
"No, it's got to be a specific ailment."
"All right, let's say smallpox then. You're saying if I ask for that, you can fix it so I won't die of anything else? I'd be able to, for example, smoke all I want and not worry about lung cancer, guaranteed?"
The demon wrinkled his snout. "Well, there is a bit of a catch."
"I knew it." A lot of magic had escaped into the world—along with the demons—when Hell froze over, but it was all pretty dodgy.
"You wouldn't die of lung cancer, but you might still get it," the demon said. "You'd still suffer the symptoms. It's not a free pass to live recklessly, without regard for your health."
"Well, what good is it then?"
"I never claimed it was any good." The demon shrugged. "It's what I can do."
I stood up and pulled out my wallet. "Well, thanks for the chat, anyway. Never actually spoken to a demon before." I dropped a fiver in his cup. "Best of luck."
He smiled and scooped the cash out of the cup. "Cheers, mate. You change your mind, you know where to find me."
I shook my head and walked away.
Image: Scalzi devil (as seen on Whatever and Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded), April, 2007