Specified Perils

by David Wright


At 2:17 a.m., March 10, 2047, an underwater earthquake measuring 8.8 on the Richter scale struck near the Canary Islands, two hundred nautical miles west of Morocco. Twenty minutes later, the western coasts of Africa, Spain and Portugal were devastated by a wall of water twenty meters high. Traveling west at over five hundred miles an hour, the Canary Island tsunami was poised to strike the American eastern seaboard in less than six hours. It was a worst-case scenario.

President Yolanda Mirabelle received the news with the standard stoic grit of many of her illustrious American predecessors, making brave speeches, promising aid, praising the integrity and compassion of the American people. It was four hours later and only in the privacy of her office washroom aboard Air Force One that she allowed her true feelings to show. She sobbed freely for several minutes. She had family and friends in New York and Boston. She would feel the pain of their loss as would any other American.

It was several minutes before she noticed the man sitting opposite her on the bathroom counter. She screamed and pressed the alarm. In seconds, the Secret Service would bust down the door and wrestle the stranger to the floor. She’d seen it done before, and it was never a pretty sight.

Seconds passed.

The man smiled warmly. He wore a subdued plaid sport coat and blue turtleneck sweater. His slacks matched his sport coat, but his shoes were of an entirely different quality, and their rich black leather sparkled a bit too brightly.

Yolanda screamed again, this time in discernible English, “Help! Someone! Intruder!” and slammed the red panic button a second and then a third time.

The man crossed his legs and leaned back against the mirror. His smile was gone, but he appeared neither startled nor threatening, more like a man pondering his next words very carefully. Before they could come out, however, Yolanda’s wave of panic ebbed and she turned to face the stranger with a menacing glare.

“Listen to me very carefully.” Yolanda’s words vibrated with tension, but her voice did not break. “In about two seconds, armed officers will enter those doors and detain you forcefully.”

The man raised his eyebrows and looked at the door. Nothing happened. Then the man spoke. “I have placed this room in stasis for the time being. The officers, although very diligent in their duties, cannot hear you or your alarm.”

“How did you get in here?”

The man looked around the bathroom casually. “I’m not actually here. I’m just a construct planted in your brain to aid communication.”

It was then that Yolanda noticed the man had no reflection. She screamed again and pounded on the bathroom door.

“Please, Madam President. We don’t have much time.”

Eventually, Yolanda stopped screaming. It was obvious that no one could hear her. She panted for breath and fell back onto the toilet seat. “What do you want?”

The man clapped his hands together and smiled with relief. “Right. Let’s get started. In approximately an hour, a twenty-meter tsunami will begin its devastating assault upon New York, Boston and a dozen other cities along the eastern seaboard. Although you have issued an evacuation order, it won’t be enough. Thousands will die, and the damage to property and the American economy will be incalculable.”

“Yes, I know this.” Yolanda nodded gravely. She was still panting and unnerved, but she no longer feared an immediate attack from this intruder. Perhaps he was just some political nut who was willing to face jail time in order to obtain a private audience with the president. Stranger things had happened.

“My name is Lyra. I represent the Universal Assurors Group. Our organization has recently deemed that you are now eligible to receive full coverage as a species.”

“You’re an insurance agent? You’ve got to be joking.”

“We are not like any organization you have dealt with before.”

Yolanda laughed. “I can see that. I’ve never had an agent accost me on the toilet before.”

The man in the plaid suit grimaced painfully. “Madam President, I apologize. Perhaps you would be more comfortable if you adjusted your skirt and freshened up a little.”

“Hey, you started this,” Yolanda answered gruffly but adjusted her skirt nonetheless.

“Our organization,” Lyra continued without a moment’s hesitation, “is qualified to protect your species against a wide variety of Specified Perils.”

Yolanda shook her head in disbelief. “This is lunacy. I don’t have time for this. I’ve got a million tons of water about to wipe out our country’s entire east coast and you’re trying to sell me insurance. Get out of my way.”

Yolanda rose from the toilet and attempted to push the sitting salesman away from the sink. She no longer had the slightest fear of this nut, but she was startled when her hands passed right through his body, plaid sport coat and all.

“But this is why I have come now and not later,” pleaded Lyra diplomatically.

Yolanda reached through the man’s body and turned on the faucet. It was stress. This couldn’t be happening. “You want to insure the eastern seaboard before it gets pulverized by a tsunami?”

“No, I want to protect the eastern seaboard from the tsunami.”

“How?”

“By stopping it, of course.”

Yolanda froze with her hands under the cold water. “That’s impossible. A tsunami this large is an unstoppable force of nature.”

“Not so. It can be done, but we must hurry. At this moment, the waves are obliterating every house, school, church and fishing boat in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Halifax, Maine and New York are next. But this is really only the first of many perils that your species will face, and by no means the worst.”

“What are you talking about?”

“In 2787, an earthquake ten times as large as the one that caused this tsunami will strike America’s west coast with enough force to knock the Earth’s rotation two full degrees out of alignment. This will cause worldwide climate change and weather perils not experienced since the dinosaurs: great floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and an eventual ice age that will last thousands of years.”

Yolanda pulled her numb fingers out of the water. “Why are you telling me this?”

“It’s important for you to be informed of these perils if you are to survive as a species.”

“As a species?”

“Yes. You see, although humans will most likely survive the ice age, there are even greater perils ahead. For instance, in 4115, solar flares will radiate the planet’s surface, killing all life above ground, and in the seventh millennium, the Barkley comet will blast through the Kuiper belt causing city-sized cascades of ice-rock to bombard the planet with the force of a thousand nuclear bombs. This will lead to greenhouse warming and an atmosphere comparable to that on Venus. No organic life will survive.”

Yolanda wondered what was taking the Secret Service so long to come to her rescue. “Are you saying that’s it? We make it to six or seven thousand AD and then we’re snuffed out like a candle?”

“Oh, no. There are other forms of life, and besides, by that time you’ll have expanded into the far reaches of the Solar System.”

Yolanda felt as if she were trapped in a drug-induced hallucination from which there was no escape. Nothing seemed real, but in a way, this gave her an unexpected boldness that was almost euphoric. “So we will survive.”

“For a time, but then there will be the solar supernova, the Bootsian Invasion — more like an extermination, really — and the Great Blink.”

“What’s the Great Blink?”

“A quantum polar reversal in which all matter and energy in the universe blinks into zero probability. It is survivable, however.”

“It is? It doesn’t sound like it.”

“It is.” Lyra nodded confidently.

“Are you saying that you can assure the survival of the human species for thousands, even millions of years into the future?”

“Billions. We assure not only your survival, but your complete safety against all large-scale specified perils listed in our contract, from virus epidemics to galactic collisions and beyond.” Lyra reached inside his plaid sport coat and produced an ordinary sheet of letter paper. “This is our Universal Assurance guarantee.”

In a daze but intrigued, Yolanda scanned down the paper. It looked much like any other standard insurance policy contract, except that the list of specified perils appeared to scroll into infinity on the page.

Yolanda felt light-headed and wondered if the cabin pressure in the washroom had dropped. “How much?”

“We have several very reasonable payment plans, from ten to twenty-five billion years. We have assured many short-lived species such as yourselves in the past. Some prefer to pay-as-you-go, and others prefer to pay the whole shot at once.”

“Yes, but what does it cost?”

“Pardon me?”

“Do you want our natural resources? Our water? Our gold? Our firstborn sons? Do I have to sell you my soul? What do you want?”

For the first time, the salesman looked perplexed. “Why, time, of course. As I’ve already pointed out to you, I’m not really here. That is because I don’t actually exist in space and time. I am an eternal entity outside of the realm of your temporal world.”

“But how can I give you time?”

“Oh, I see your misunderstanding. Perhaps it would be easier to think of it in terms of granting me permission, like a copyright. Your species has a certain concept of time that our organization would like to copy for a certain duration. In exchange for that time, we will assure the safety of your species from specified perils. It’s all very legal. But time is of the essence, at least from your point of view. The Canary Island tsunami has already reached Halifax and is poised to destroy New York shortly.”

Yolanda thought of the devastation caused by the massive wall of water and her heart sank back to reality. “But how do I know you’re not just some lunatic? Or if I’m the lunatic? I need some proof.”

“What proof can I give you?”

“Stop the tsunami and then I’ll believe you.”

Lyra raised his hands palms up as if he had nothing to offer. “I can’t impose my will upon your temporal universe without your permission.”

“But what if it’s all nonsense?”

“Then no harm done. But please hurry.” Lyra produced a blue ball-point pen from his sport coat pocket and held it out to Yolanda. The pen looked real enough. Yolanda reached up slowly and took it from Lyra’s hand. She watched the pen in her hand descend towards the contract and sign on the dotted line as if by its own volition.

“There, now doesn’t that feel better?”

Yolanda looked up suspiciously. “If you’re not here, then where did this pen and paper come from?”

“They are only constructs. We are allowed a certain physical latitude for communication purposes but, technically speaking, the contract did not become real until you signed it. And the pen did not become real until you reached for it.”

Yolanda sighed. “Well, what now?”

“What nothing. You’re done. You have just saved the lives of millions of your people and assured the future of your species.” Lyra folded the contract and put it back in his sport coat pocket.

“Will I see you again?”

“Oh, sure, in about twenty-five billion years, just after the Great Blink. We will need to renew our lease at that time. Until then, au revoir.”

There was a knock on the bathroom door. “Madam President?” a jubilant voice called from outside. “Something wonderful has happened!”

For a split second, Yolanda diverted her eyes to the bathroom door and then back to the mirror, but in that split second, the salesman in the plaid suit vanished.

“Madam President,” the aide pressed on, ignoring the lack of decorum. “The wave, it just vanished. One minute it was there. And the next, poof!”

Poof! Yolanda thought, looking at the salesman’s blue ballpoint pen still in her hand. You got that right.


Copyright © 2015 by David Wright

Proceed to Challenge 643...

Home Page