TERMS AND CONDITIONS

 

Douglas Schwarz

 

 

            The man who appeared at my elbow after the accident was obviously a demon. He was devilishly handsome, the jaunty red horns almost lost in his curly black hair. He wore an impeccably tailored charcoal grey Armani suit, its classic lines only slightly marred by the long pointed tail poking out through the seat of his pants.

            I appreciate good grooming in a man, but this wasn’t really a man, and besides I had other things on my mind. Like the paramedics desperately trying to keep my body alive, while the cops made heroic efforts to free it from the twisted wreck of my Beemer. The car was wrapped around a light pole on the icy corner of Madison and 38th Street, just a few blocks from my office.

            Somehow, I was standing across the street, watching all this with a curious sense of detachment which even the sudden appearance of a demon did not completely dispel.

            “You’re Gavin Powell,” he said.

            Even his voice was elegant, with the hint of a sharp tail to the back of it.

            “And who are you?” I asked.

            “My name is not for you to know,” he replied. “You are thirty-six years old, a highly successful advertising executive, and you’re dying.”

            I glanced over at the frenetic activity surrounding the wreck. It didn’t look promising. “They might save me,” I said without much hope.

            “Not a chance. They’re just going through the motions. If you were going to live you wouldn’t be standing here watching yourself die. And I wouldn’t be here –– to collect you according to the terms of your contract.”

            That got my attention. “I never signed any contract with you.”

            “Oh, excuse me, have I made a mistake?” Full-on demon snark. “Don’t you play The Game?”

            Of course I played. The Game was one of the most successful multi-player role-playing games of all time. Women didn’t like it much, but most guys I knew played.

            “What’s that got to do with anything?”

            “To get The Game, you had to sign a contact.”

            “There was no contract!”

            “Oh really! When you downloaded The Game, what did you do?”

            “I don’t remember, that was years ago!”

            “Think about it.”

            I huffed.   As much as one can huff without actual lungs. “I went to the app store, clicked the Get button, waited for the download, clicked Open, accepted the… the…”

            “The terms and conditions?” The demon’s smile revealed a row of thin, sharp fangs.

            I felt a shiver of fear. “But… every app comes with terms and conditions. Everybody accepts them.”

            “Isn’t it great?” said the demon. “Such an efficient system.”

            “But I never even read them!”

            “Not our fault!” said the demon, instantly on the defensive. “We gave you the option. There was a button you could have clicked if you wanted to read them. You just hit Accept. Your choice.”

            “But nobody reads the terms and conditions, for any app!” I protested. “Everybody knows they’re a zillion pages of legalese gobbledygook. Even when an app forces people to look at the T&C, they just scroll to the bottom and hit Accept.”

            “You can’t imagine how much easier that’s made our job,” said the demon.

            I felt faint. Or rather I felt like I would have felt faint, if I’d still had a body that could faint. “Show me the contract.”

            “Very well,” said the demon, “you have that right. But let’s take this off the street, shall we? You may not feel the cold anymore, but I do—and by my standards, this weather is really cold!”

            The demon snapped his fingers, and we were in a coffee shop. I recognized the place, not far from my office. No one seemed to notice that we just ‘popped in’, or that my companion was a demon.

            We took a booth and a waitress brought coffee. The demon immediately slurped his, relaxing over the steaming heat.

            I sipped mine, but there was no heat, no flavor. “I can’t taste this!”

            “You’re dead, remember? You can’t feel or taste anything.”

           “There goes one of my favorite things.”

           “Don’t worry, though,” he grinned, “in Hell, we have ways of making you feel plenty of heat. Now then…”

            The demon gestured, and a tablet appeared in his hand. He handed the device to me. “Download The Game.”

            I went to the app store and started the download. When the T&C page came up, he stopped me.

            “See?” He pointed at the screen. “‘By using this software you agree to our Terms and Conditions.’ In life you just clicked Accept, but go ahead, read them now.”

            I had to admit, they weren’t hiding anything. There it was, right at the top of the first page:

 

THE GAME

by Demonic Software LLC

“Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Learn how to win The Game.

All it will cost is your soul.

 

            “This doesn’t mean anything,” I said. “Even if I’d seen this, I’d have thought it was just promotional hype or some kind of joke.”

            “Read on,” said the demon.

            So I did. I plowed through page after page of dense legal language. I was an ad exec; I knew how to read a contract.

            About halfway through I found the crucial paragraph. By playing The Game, I had agreed that when my life ended, the Bad Guys got my soul.

            “Oh, come on!” I protested. “I didn’t knowingly agree to this. You can’t hold me to some bargain I never knew I made. That isn’t fair!”

            “It may not be fair,” said the demon, “but it’s legal. Your own courts have upheld hundreds of contracts like this. We provide you with the opportunity to read the contract, and we encourage you to do so. We can’t be expected to verify whether you actually read it. That’s your responsibility. Caveat emptor and all that.”

            He had a point. And, I was dying or dead. What court could I appeal to?

            “Let me look at the rest of this,” I said, stalling for time. I don’t love reading contracts, but it beats getting dragged off to Hell.

            I was nearly at the end of the document when I found something interesting.

            “What does this mean? ––‘At the discretion of Management, newly-collected souls may be invited to join the Company.’”

            “Just what it says.” The demon had long since finished his coffee, and was tapping his fingers, sharp nails clacking against the tabletop as if they would strike little chips out of it. “Occasionally—very occasionally—we come across a soul we think can be of use to us. So we make them an offer…”

            I didn’t even let him finish. “I’ll work for you!”

            The demon smiled his sharp-toothed smile again. “How generous. Unfortunately, we don’t need you.”

            “Yes, you do.” I launched into what was unquestionably the most important sales pitch of my life. “I can solve one of your biggest problems.”

            The demon glowered at me. “And what do you think that is?”

            “The Game. Your best recruiting tool. Almost ninety percent of your players are men. Most women hate The Game. You can’t be happy about losing all those female souls.”

            “We’re working on that,” the demon growled. “We have a new game in the works, designing it specifically to appeal to women.”

            “And how many years will that take? How many more years for it to catch on, if it even does? I can get you results almost immediately. You don’t need a new game. You need new marketing.”

            “Marketing?” The demon snorted.

            “Yes! You need a campaign to convince women The Game embodies values that appeal to them.”

            “Like what? Cooking? Cleaning? Makeup?”

            I gave the demon a pitying look. “The fact that you have such antiquated ideas about women just proves how much you need my help.”

            “All right smart guy, what do you think appeals to women?”

            “I don’t think… I know. Based on mountains of research, plus my years of experience and insight. That’s what you’re bargaining for.”

            The demon seemed interested in spite of himself. “Let’s just suppose we follow your advice. Do we have to lie about the nature of The Game?”

            “You’re demons! You have something against lying?”

            “Of course not. But we’re not allowed to lie. The Opposition makes the rules, and we have to obey them.”

            “Just like advertising,” I said. “We can’t lie either, but we can misdirect and tell half-truths. Just enough to get women to try The Game.”

            “But as soon as they start playing, they’ll learn its true nature.”

            “What do you care? They don’t have to keep playing. They already agreed to the contract. You got ‘em!”

            The demon nodded slowly. “You intrigue me, Mr. Powell.”

            I was in. I can always tell. It was all over but the haggling. The only problem was…

            Look, I’m an ad man. I got into it young, when I figured out advertising was one of the few fields where an artistically-inclined gay guy could make a great living—a killing, even—without getting a lot of flak about his orientation. In the ad biz, as long as you can sell the product no one gives a damn about your private life.

            But there’s a price. Duplicity comes with the territory. I con people into spending money they can’t afford on stuff they don’t need, even stuff that’s not good for them. Cigarettes are pretty diabolical when you think about it. And some of the politicians I’ve helped put in office are the closest thing to actual demons I’d ever met, until now.

            Still… tricking people into eternal damnation? That’s a whole new level of low. I’m no angel, but I’m no devil either. So…

            “Of course,” I said as casually as possible, “I’ll have to have a contract.”

            “Done.” The demon waved his hand and summoned a sheaf of papers.

            “Oh no,” I said, “this time I write the contract.”

            “You’ve got to be kidding.”

            “Don’t worry.” I was already typing furiously on the tablet. “I’ll keep it short and simple. I work for you, you keep me out of Hell.”

            “As long as you are successful at luring women into The Game.”

            “Of course. By the way, can we get two hard copies of this?”

            The demon gestured again, and a neat little portable printer appeared on the table. “I really should clear this with someone,” he mused.

            “Up to you,” I told him as I networked with the printer. “But this is going to be a big deal for your side. And if your workplace is anything like mine, you want to make sure all the credit doesn’t get stolen by the higher-ups. Or in your case, I guess, the lower-downs.”

            “Good point,” said the demon, a jealous gleam in his eye.

            The printer spat out paper and I gave the demon my most winning smile. “Okay, here we go. I kept it to one page. One copy for me and one for you. Sign here.”

            “You seriously think I’m not going to read every word?” said the demon, glaring at me with burning eyes. And so he did, slowly and carefully, just as I knew he would. Finally he raised his head and muttered, “All right. It looks clean.”

            He signed with his clawed finger, inscribing the paper with his own black blood. Smoke rose from his signature as it dried. “Your turn,” he said, passing me the paper.

            “Thanks…” I glanced at the signature. “Gongrezaath.”

            The demon’s head snapped up, his suddenly bulging eyes fixed on mine.

            “Oh yeah,” I added. “Now that I’m working for you, I guess your name is for me to know. And if I’m not mistaken that gives me power over you. I can summon you. And command you.”

            “At your peril, mortal!” The demon’s tail lashed wildly, its sharp tip slicing through the leg of a nearby chair. His claw-tipped fingers clenched and stretched, starting for my throat… and then pulled back. He hung his head. Confirming my hope that knowing his name made me not only his boss but safe from any wish he might have to tear me apart.

            “So, Gongrezaath… let’s review. While you no longer have the option of flaying me over a boiling pit of tar, I could order you to teleport yourself to Antarctica. And stay there.”

            The demon shivered and shrank in on himself, as if already cold. “You wouldn’t!”

            I grinned. “Not as long as you play ball. See, I’ll work for you, since that’s the only thing keeping me out of Hell. But… ”

             I tore up the contract, which of course I had never signed.

           “The nature of our work is unlikely to be strictly in line with Company policy. We’re going to do a revised contract, you and I. And there will be a few new… terms and conditions.”

 

 

 

– END –

 

 

 

“Terms and Conditions” © Douglas Schwarz.  First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, October 25, 2023
Douglas Schwarz is a lifelong scifi/fantasy fan who decided to pursue his dream of writing the stuff when the pandemic left him with time on his hands. He has published flash fiction in Altered Reality and Factor Four magazines. His novella “Le Sorcier de Lascaux” appeared in the Sept/Oct 2022 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was anthologized in The Year’s Best Fantasy vol 2, Paula Guran ed.

 

Illustration by Fran Eisemann. Stock Used:
Devil: Evil Me by Marc Hermann, Germany
Derby hat: Derby Hat by Émilie & Simon, Canada
Grey suit: Wedding 8  by Venus-stock

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