Originally published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine #10, Autumn 1990.
George's latest theory concerned human corruptibility.
"Everyone has a price," he claimed, "and the price is usually quite affordable."
I knew laughing would just encourage him. "Yeah, but not everyone," I argued.
"Everyone has some weak point." He paused, staring me in the eye. "It's just a matter of finding the weakness and exploiting it."
I felt a cold draft from the air conditioner. The librarian was giving us a nasty look. "So what are you saying?" I whispered.
"I'm saying, if someone hasn't already sold out on everything they ever believed in, it's just because they haven't been given the right opportunity. I bet in a week's time a person could get every single kid in eleventh grade to sell their soul."
This time I laughed. "Well, if anyone could, it would be you, George."
"You know, you're right! What a great idea!"
"What, you're going to go around buying peoples' souls?"
"Sure, why not? I'll corner the market the entire junior class. By next Friday." George thought for a moment. "Yeah, I bet I could do it."
"Fine. Let's have a little wager. If I win, it proves my theory is right, that everyone is corruptible. If you win, I'll freely admit I was wrong."
"That would be a first," I said.
I'd never known George to lose a bet, but there was no way he could win this one. He might get two or three souls he did have an exceptional eye for defects in another person's character. But every single kid in eleventh grade? In one week? I, for one, had no intention of selling my soul to anyone, for any price.
I agreed to the wager.
Over the weekend, George printed up a batch of very official-looking soul-transfer forms. I watched him in action on Monday morning.
"Think of it as free money. Sign your name, get a dollar. It's that simple."
Mark Sommerfield took one of the forms and read it.
"'The bearer of this note hereby assumes full ownership of the soul originally belonging to the undersigned.'" He paused. "I don't get it. What do you want with our souls?"
"It's just a hobby," said George. "Like collecting stamps, or coins, or beer cans."
"Yeah, but this is different," said Mark. "I mean, don't you think my soul's worth more than a beer can?"
"Depends," said George.
"You could at least make it ten bucks."
"You know, that's the beauty of our free-enterprise system. If you can get ten dollars or a million somewhere else, be my guest. But I think you'll find the current exchange rate is...well, let me double-check." George pulled out his calculator and did a few quick computations. "Yes, the soul is trading at one dollar even."
Mark tried for a dollar and a half but finally gave in.
"Okay, one dollar. But I still think it's worth more than that." He hesitated. "I don't have to sign in blood or anything, do I?"
"Not necessary," George replied, removing a four-color pen from his shirt pocket. "A mere formality from the past. Ink is perfectly acceptable, though of course...red is preferred."
George clicked the red button on his pen and handed it to Mark. Mark signed the transfer-of-ownership form and received his dollar.
George got half a dozen more souls before second period, but lots of other kids turned him down.
I saw him again at lunch. The word had spread, and now he had people crowded all around him. Some of them wanted to prove how fearless or free-thinking they were. Others took his offer as a joke, and they were happy to play along. They figured the contract couldn't be legally binding. And for many, the motivation was simply to get their free dollars before the money ran out.
Billy Schoenwetter walked over to George's lunch table. George always called him Billy Bedwetter. Billy was shy, awkward, and not real bright. He would do anything to be part of the group.
"Will you buy my soul?" he asked, in his usual quavery, crackly voice.
"You don't have a soul," said George, "and if you did I wouldn't buy it."
Billy got all upset. "I do too have a soul."
Billy looked confused. The other kids were trying not to laugh out loud.
"Well?" demanded George.
"I do too have a soul," repeated Billy.
"I doubt it. And even if you did, I wouldn't take it if you paid me."
"Yes you would."
Billy looked as if he were about to cry. He took a dollar bill out of his wallet, wadded it up and threw it at George.
"There. Where do I sign?"
"Look," said George, straightening out the dollar, "I have to be selective. I can't just buy every soul that comes along."
"How much?" asked Billy.
Billy looked in his wallet. "I only got three."
George sighed. "Fine. Give me what you have and bring the rest tomorrow."
Billy gratefully assured George that he would bring the money first thing in the morning. He proudly signed the transfer form and showed it to George.
"See, I really do have a soul," he said.
George took the form and corrected Billy's grammar. "Did past tense." Billy looked confused again.
George's business was booming now. It had become the new fad. But lots of kids still thought it was disgusting and wouldn't sell for anything.
After school I met George on the front steps. He opened his briefcase and showed me all the souls.
"I gave Ray two dollars for his," said George. "I figured a black guy has more soul."
I shook my head. "Where'd you get all the money, anyway?"
"Oh, I told my dad I was running a small start-up company, so he lent me fifty bucks in venture capital. I've already spent most of it," he said. "I think that's about all of the easy souls."
"So how are you going to get the rest?"
"I don't know. But I'll think of something."
Tuesday morning before school, a large crowd of students gathered, waiting for George. These were the same kids who had dealt with him the day before. Some were angry; others seemed scared.
They were talking about what horrible dreams they'd had all night. They said they didn't know it was going to be like this. George entered the building and was immediately surrounded.
"We've changed our minds," said Beth Reinhart. "We want our souls back."
"A deal is a deal," insisted George. "You should've thought of this before. I'm sure in time you'll get used to it. Lots of people don't have souls."
They didn't think they'd get used to it. Ever. They tried to describe the horror, the desperation, the guilt, the sense of loss. They tried pleading, begging, threatening.
"Give me back my soul," said Paul Chamberlin, "or I'm going to the principal."
There was an uneasy silence.
"Well, do what you want," said George, "but you'll get in trouble too. After all, what kind of person would sell his immortal soul for a dollar? And what if your parents found out? What would they think?"
Paul backed off. "Okay, okay. I won't turn you in. At least not right now. But I still want my soul back."
George suggested they all just keep quiet and let him think about it. They reluctantly agreed.
George sat in the back for first period English. His leg was nervously bouncing up and down, shaking the floor, vibrating the whole room. Suddenly his face flashed a familiar grin. I could tell I was witnessing the birth of a great and revolting new idea.
After class George was again mobbed by kids without souls.
"Okay," he said. "I've reconsidered. You can have your souls back" their eyes lit up "for ten dollars...and three more souls." His offer was met with shock and disbelief, as the implications gradually sank in.
"And," he continued, "the three additional souls must be from our class, at least until eleventh grade is all sold out. You might want to start with your best friends. Toward the end you'll probably need to be somewhat creative."
The kids lined up, took the blank soul-transfer forms, and walked away, slowly, as if in a trance. Their eyes were empty, their faces pale. I could see it beginning already: an army of zombies roaming the halls, looking for new victims. One of them, a guy I didn't even know, bumped into me by accident and asked if he could borrow my soul, just for a few minutes.
"I'll take real good care of it," he said. "Here, you can use my school I.D. for collateral."
I pushed him aside and went to have a talk with George.
"Don't you see what's happening?" I asked.
"Yeah. It's fascinating."
"But look at them! They've turned into walking, talking corpses."
"It's just their imagination," he explained. "One person wants his soul back, and suddenly they all do. It's contagious, just like the way everyone wanted to sell their souls yesterday."
"Yeah, it's like a disease, and you're making them spread it."
"I'm not making them do anything," said George. "I'm just giving them the opportunity. Yesterday they had a chance to prove what whores they are, and now they get to prove what pimps they are."
"So what does that make you?"
"Listen," he said, holding up one of the soul-transfer forms. "This isn't really a person's soul. It's just a piece of paper. Just like a dollar bill it's only worth something because people believe it is. I'm just trading one piece of paper for another, and the green paper's more valuable, that's all." He smiled. "I knew there had to be a way to make money at this. Buy low, sell high!"
"And you can just sit back and watch while they do your dirty work for you."
"I call it M.Z.M....Multi-Zombie-Marketing. Yeah, I've really outdone myself this time."
"Yeah, you sure have." I walked away.
By afternoon the place had become a madhouse. The demand for souls was growing steadily. Rich kids offered bounties and finder's fees for information leading to the purchase of a third soul. Other kids, seeing an opportunity, moved in as middlemen: agents, brokers, bankers, scalpers, wholesalers, retailers. They thought they could profit from the turmoil without getting caught up in it. Everywhere I went I saw poker games, purse-snatchings, lotteries, auctions souls begged and borrowed, bought and sold. The teachers were starting to wonder if something was going on.
The next morning, people were scrambling to buy up the souls that were left. Some of the kids were mad at me for not selling them mine.
George sat next to me for third period. While we were waiting for class to start, he told me everything that had been happening.
"I was getting my books, and Doug, the football jock, he comes over and picks me up and slams me against the lockers. Said something about wanting his soul back. I explained to him that if he ever wants to see it again, he should refrain from hurting me. In fact, he should see to it that no one else tries to hurt me either. So now I've got a bodyguard!"
"That's nice," I replied.
"And Amy's been selling her soul to everyone she can find. She's making all kinds of money, and then these kids come to me and think they're going to get their souls back, and I have to explain that I already have an Amy and theirs is a duplicate."
I didn't say anything.
"And then Roger brought in three souls and I didn't know who one of them was, so I asked him. Turned out it was his grandmother. He said she's always happy to do whatever she can to help him out with his school work. He was so upset when I told him it didn't count."
"This is all going to backfire on you, George," I said quietly. "It's not too late to call it off."
"We can pretend like you won the bet, and you can keep all the money."
"No," said George. "Honor is at stake."
"Well, I don't think you're going to get too many more. A lot of kids have just given up. Plus they don't want to put their friends in the same situation they're in."
"Oh yeah?" George grinned. "I'll fix that."
Mr. Huffman came in and started writing on the blackboard. As usual, his trousers were covered in chalk dust. George wadded up a soul-transfer form and chewed on it for a minute. Then when it was nice and sticky he threw it so it landed on the board right next to where Huffman was writing. Huffman paused, then turned around. All eyes were on George.
"Is this yours, Mr. Foltz?" Huffman pointed at the spitball while staring George in the eye.
"No sir," said George. "I believe it belongs to Billy."
"Mr. Schoenwetter, is that true?"
"I...I hope not," said Billy. The other kids laughed, nervously.
"You don't know whether you threw a spitball or not?" asked Huffman, incredulously.
"Uh, no sir. I mean, yes sir, I do, but I d-d-didn't..."
"Mr. Huffman," said George, "I believe if you unwad that slip of paper you'll find Billy's name on it."
The students laughed again.
"I have no intention of touching that disgusting thing. Mr. Schoenwetter, perhaps you would be so kind as to remove your personal property from the blackboard so we can carry on with our discussion?"
"Yes sir." Billy half-ran toward the front and retrieved the spitball. "Thank you, sir."
Huffman gave George a raised-left-eyebrow stare, then turned and went back to his writing.
Later in the day, George was occasionally seen off in a corner playing with a cigarette lighter, burning little scraps of paper. Now the kids were more desperate than ever to get their souls back, before it was too late.
At the end of fifth period, Lisa Adams saw me on the second floor and came over and started talking to me. She was my girlfriend, sort of. She looked pale, like the other kids.
"You know that thing about people buying each others' souls the last couple of days? Well, I fell for it. I can't believe I was so stupid."
"Wow." I shook my head. "This has really gone too far. I wish there was something I could do to help."
"Well, actually, there is. See, George says he'll return it if I can just get him ten dollars and three more souls."
I took a step back.
"Oh, relax," she said. "I'm not going to ask you for money. You're too good a friend for that."
I drew back another step.
"I've already got the ten dollars, and two of the souls. I was just thinking, it would be really nice if you could..."
I turned and started walking away.
"...if you could let me have your soul."
I walked faster. She was following me. I turned the corner and headed for the bathroom.
"I wouldn't ask you if I didn't love you!" she said.
I rushed into the boy's room. I found an empty stall and sat down. That was close.
But then the bathroom door swung open. "I know you're in there," she said.
Urinals were flushing and zippers were zipping. There was a chorus of protests.
"Where are you?" she sang.
She walked over and started peeking into the stalls one by one. Her voice was getting closer. "George says it's not so bad once you get used to it."
I got out of the stall and headed toward the window. She was right behind me.
"Please! You've got to help me!"
I took one look back at her. Then I jumped out onto the first story roof and ran like hell.
I got to the end of the building and climbed down to the ground. I decided to cut my last class.
Thursday morning, everyone wanted my soul. I was the only one left. I couldn't walk down the hall without being surrounded by zombies.
I sat in the back row for third period math class. George took the empty seat next to me. He said he'd give me half of the money he'd made if I'd sell him my soul. I didn't answer.
He looked around the room at the other students. "Well, if you don't sell me your soul, one of these goons will find a way to get you to sell."
Mr. Huffman came in. He drew a big triangle on the board and started talking about chain letters and pyramid schemes.
"These schemes are based on what is called the 'greater fool' theory," he said. "They require an ever-growing number of greater fools to pay off the previous investors. Amazingly enough, at some point you always run out of fools."
"George," I whispered, "he knows something about the souls."
"In economics we find something called deficit financing. Can anyone explain how that works?" Huffman droned on and on.
"I bet he knows about the whole thing," I whispered.
"Think so?" said George. He didn't look disturbed at all. He was listening intently, probably soaking up ideas for his next scam.
"Where else do we see this basic pyramidal structure? How about the food chain? How about nuclear fission, the population explosion, the spread of disease. Again, the same geometrical progression, the same multiplier effect...."
"George, what if he turns you in to the principal? You'll get suspended."
"Shut up. This might be important."
"No, I don't think so. He wouldn't test us on this stuff."
"How about the spread of ideas?" said Huffman. "Publishing. Broadcasting. Even teaching, on those rare occasions when anyone bothers to pay attention."
"George, he'll make you give back all the souls."
George smiled. "I don't think so," he said. He pulled a slip of paper out of his briefcase and showed it to me.
"The bearer of this note hereby assumes full ownership of the soul originally belonging to the undersigned. Sincerely, John K. Huffman."
I looked up. Huffman was staring at me. His face was chalky, ghostly pale.
I saw George again after school. He increased his offer, throwing in everything he could think of.
George knew me better than anyone. He knew my greeds and hungers, my fears, my dreams, my nightmares. He tried all of them. Finally he ran out of ideas.
"Look," he said, "I don't know what else to offer. See if you can think of something. What do you want right now, more than anything?"
I just wanted him to give everyone's souls back. I started to say something but he interrupted me.
"I know," he said excitedly. "How about if you give me your soul in exchange for all the others? Then, if you want to, you can give them all back to the original owners."
I didn't know what to say.
"Just think," said George, "you'll be the most popular kid in the class. People will look at you and say to themselves, 'He saved my soul. He sacrificed his soul for mine. What a guy!'"
"But what about my soul?"
"I'll treat it as if it were my very own."
"Will I ever get it back?"
George tilted his head. "Hard to say.... So, is it a deal or not?"
I thought for a while. George looked at his watch a couple times. "Okay, okay," I said. "It's a deal."
I signed the form.
"So I guess I win the bet," said George, smiling.
"Looks that way."
I put the souls in a paper bag and left for home. I went to bed early that night. I didn't sleep very well.
In the morning, I thought about charging everyone a dollar apiece to get their souls back. It was only fair that I should get something out of it. But it seemed too creepy, so I didn't.
I started giving them back for free, between classes. But no one seemed particularly grateful. Most of the kids had reached a state of total apathy. If anything, they looked at me with cold distrust, as if the whole thing were my fault. I was sorry I'd ever tried to help them.
George talked to me after History.
"How many do you have left?"
I looked in the paper bag. "A dozen or so."
"I've been thinking. I feel really bad about you not having a soul of your own. Tell you what I'll give it back in exchange for any one of the souls you have left. I'll even let you choose which one."
What was George up to now? If he was trying to tempt me, it was working. I closed my eyes and thought for a minute.
"Look," said George. "You sacrificed part of yourself for these kids, and what did you get? Nothing."
I opened the bag and leafed through the pieces of paper, looking at the names, saying them to myself. Finally I handed over one of the forms.
"Ah, 'Lisa Adams,'" he read. "Excellent choice."
Suddenly I realized what I was doing.
"You won't tell her, will you?"
"No, of course not," he said, handing me my transfer form. "Here's your soul back it's only slightly damaged. I do hope you'll take better care of it in the future."
I folded the piece of paper and put it in my wallet. I felt better immediately, but not a lot better.
Later in the morning I finished giving back the rest of the souls. At lunch, Lisa came over to my table and started yelling at me. She was furious.
"George says you picked me to be the only person in the whole class who doesn't get their soul back."
I didn't know what to say. I felt terrible. I didn't think George would tell.
Lisa was crying. "How could you do this to me? I thought you were my friend. Why did you have to pick me?"
I got up and walked out. I wasn't very hungry anyway.
In the afternoon I cornered George and took him into an empty classroom.
"You betrayed me," I told him.
"You betrayed Lisa," he said. "I just thought someone should let her know."
"You said you wouldn't tell her!"
"I didn't tell her. I wrote her a note."
"You make me sick." I shook my head in disgust. "Aren't you getting bored with your little game yet?"
"Actually, yes I am," he replied. "You want to hear my latest plan?"
"No! I just want you to give Lisa's soul back."
"But George, you've proven your point. You already got every single person in eleventh grade..." I stopped for a moment. "Wait a minute, maybe not."
"What do you mean?" he asked.
I looked at George. "I just realized you haven't won your bet after all!"
"Sure I have."
"No. Remember, the bet said everyone in eleventh grade had to sell."
"They have. I checked all the names. You were the last one."
"No." I pointed at George. "You're the last one! You haven't sold your soul. Tell you what I'll give you a dollar for it."
"That wasn't part of the deal and you know it!"
"I don't recall you making any kind of exception for yourself."
"Well, no," said George. "It was just understood."
"You said everyone could be bought. So how about you? Would you sell your soul to win this bet?"
George glared at me. "Do I look stupid?"
"Well, then, what would you sell it for? What's your price?"
"If you have to ask, you can't afford it," he said, acting unconcerned.
Lisa walked in. Apparently she'd overheard the whole thing.
"I think the reason you won't sell your soul is because you never had one," she said, with barely controlled rage. "Or else you wouldn't be so cruel. Maybe you've succeeded in proving that the rest of us are corruptible, but that's only because we're human, because we had souls to begin with. Unlike you."
"Hey, I have a soul. I have one right here," he laughed, waving a piece of paper.
Lisa grabbed for it. "That's not your soul, that's mine!"
"Not anymore it's not," said George, pulling the paper out of her reach. "It belongs to me, fair and square."
I got between them to keep Lisa from beating him to a bloody pulp. "Look, George, I've got an idea. You're saying that you're the owner of this soul, which used to be Lisa's, right?"
"So, in a sense, this is 'your' soul, right?"
"That's right. My personal property."
"And you're the only one left who hasn't sold. So if you sell this soul, which is, quote, 'yours', that'll mean everyone in eleventh grade has sold their soul. Right?"
"I guess so. Sort of."
"So if you sell it back to Lisa, you'll win your bet, and Lisa will have her soul back."
George laughed. "Do you think your logic is sufficiently twisted?"
I shrugged. "Maybe. So is it a deal?"
"Well, I've grown rather fond of this one," he said, looking at the transfer form. "But if that's what I have to do to win the bet..."
Lisa cautiously handed George a dollar with one hand and took her soul back with the other. She stared at him resentfully.
"So, George," I said, "it looks like all you've done is proven you're just as corruptible as the rest of us. You finally went and sold your soul."
"Well, it wasn't really 'my' soul," said George. "It was Lisa's."
"Oh, so now it was my soul," said Lisa. "So you didn't really sell your soul. Well that's too bad. I guess you lose your stupid little bet after all!"
George started mumbling something about technicalities. Lisa and I looked at each other and broke out laughing.
"Come on George, admit it. You lost and you know it."
George hesitated, then grinned. "Okay, fine. You're right. I lost. I was wrong. Not everyone is corruptible."
He raised an eyebrow. "Just everyone except me!"
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