We stood on the beach, eying each other warily, he in his Baghdad finery and I in my jeans and sandals.
“Okay, so why are you giving me the stink-eye all of a sudden?” I asked.
On the sand between our feet was a well-polished brass lamp. He casually kicked a little sand at the lamp but kept glaring at me. He had to answer honestly, of course—that was part of my first wish.
“You’re doing meta-wishes,” he said, “and meta-wishes are trouble. Ever since people started reading Hofstadter, all of a sudden I’ve got to worry about punks like you erasing causality entirely.”
Good old Hofstadter. He explained all these dizzy things to us with his funny little fairy tales, and he brought the beautiful headaches out from the halls of academia and into the world.
“People must have been wishing for infinite wishes before Hofstadter was around.”
“Sure, but we can twist the words on that one so it backfires and they’re saddled with eternal longing. Even if they phrase it just right, we’ve had a few people wish for nobody to be able to wish for infinite wishes, so we’ve got a buffer.”
“Why would someone want to do that?”
“Sometimes they make an open-ended wish and we interpret it as we please. We like to keep things stable. Sometimes they give a wish back to earn some goodwill.”
Seagulls drifted overhead. We heard children playing with sandcastles in the distance but neither of us paid attention. I wasn’t going to take my eyes off him and let him surprise me, and I’m sure he felt the same way.
“Does it work?” I asked.
“Why do you even care?”
I guess it’s us against them, I thought. Wishers and granters.
Well, he was on my side, at least temporarily; he had to answer my questions honestly.
“Okay, so let’s say I make a wish to cancel out any meta-wishes that someone voices after today. Would that be a help?”
He nodded cautiously. “It would depend on what you wanted in exchange.”
My lips tightened. “Yeah, I guess it would. Well, naturally, I want more wishes, but I think I can do it in a way that won’t hurt you. Hear me out. There must be other wishes lying around the planet—more lamps on the beach, or magic carp waiting to get caught, or shooting stars, or enchanted turkey bones or whatever. If I wished for knowledge of all the ones out there I’d be able to use, that wouldn’t really be a meta-wish. I’d get more wishes, but it wouldn’t cost your people anything extra, would it?”
“I suppose not.”
“How many more wishes would I most likely get out of that? I mean, assuming you were interpreting the wish to my advantage?”
He scowled at me and tallied some things up in his head. “Fourteen. Could be up to seventeen, depending on how you spent them, how well you can swim, and maybe your luck at cards.”
“And you’d take that deal? Fair and square?”
He winced as the truth poured out of his mouth: “No, I’d twist it against you. That’s just how I roll.”
Well, at least he was honest.
Or was he?
“Hey, did you find any loopholes in my first wish?” I asked.
His eyes narrowed and he flashed me a lion’s smile. “I found six.”
I could have just asked for a Bugatti and some robots, maybe halted my aging. . . .
But no, I got greedy and I got meta, and now here I was shooting the moon. Which risk is worse, reaching for too much or losing your big chance?
I looked away. Never mind the harem pants and the fancy jewelry, this guy was a pure predator when pushed, and I’d already pushed him with my first wish.
He’d been in the wish business longer than me, and probably spent a lot more time reading Hofstadter, too. I’d lost the stare-down, and with one slip I could wish myself dead or worse. Why hadn’t I just taken that nice red Bugatti?
So now I’m sitting here in the sand beside the stupid lamp, text pager in hand, sending out a call for help. Nobody told me this might happen, but I’m telling you it did. I figure I can stall this guy for another six hours or so before I start getting tired and sloppy. I need a wish lawyer, a lexicographer, a symbolic mathematician, and a fierce rhetorician, stat.
Bail me out here, somebody. I’ll cut you in.