“Vik, would you come here a minute?” Vikram Pinto dreaded hearing that — it usually meant his wife was puzzled by one more thing he knew nothing about — but shuffled into the den where she sat at their computer.
“What?” he said, thinking It’s little early for this, especially on Saturday. He sipped his coffee and looked at the monitor, filled with BudgeTrack sprawl.
“I was catching up on the checking account,” Jaya said, “and a deposit for $250,000 came in this morning. That’s not right, is it?”
“What?” Vik nearly dropped his coffee, but managed to recover with only a few drops sloshing onto his hand. “Did we win the lottery or something?”
“I don’t think so,” Jaya shook her head. “The deposit is from a ‘Saturn Ring’ — does that mean anything to you?”
Vik took a sip of his coffee. “It sounds familiar… oh! It’s insurance! Let me see if I can find a number.” He opened the file drawer in the computer desk and removed a folder — Vik was almost obsessive about organization. “Ah. Here it is.”
The agent at the local office murmured, “Um… I can’t help you. Let me put you through to Claims,” and switched before Vik had a chance to object. He turned on the speaker so Jaya could hear. After a few seconds, a recorded voice informed him that there may be a delay of up to a second during this call, please be patient.
“What does that mean?” Jaya asked.
“It might be going to an orbital station,” Vik mused. “Isn’t Saturn Ring that insurance company the Pilf bought from the government?”
The Pilf — the closest most humans could get to saying their actual name — entered the solar system a few years back, offering interplanetary travel technology in return for permission to settle into orbit around Jupiter. After they bought AIG from the US government, they renamed it Saturn Ring. Then they realized they needed company representatives at least in Earth orbit.
The rep came on the line. “My condolences, Mr. Pinto.” While one part of Vik’s mind tried to process that, another considered the Pilf’s accent — almost like his own. “As you may know, it is our practice to pay a term life claim the moment we see the lifeline associated with that policy terminated.”
“What?” Vik’s stomach fell, and kept falling. “I am to die? How? How do you know? How soon?”
“Perhaps you have heard that it is the ability of our species to see lifelines. Your species is unique, in that we are unable to see your lifelines more than an hour ahead.” Vik did remember hearing that some time ago, and remembered wondering about beings that were born knowing when and how they would die. “As for how: are you on an airliner? We have several clients’ lifelines terminating all at once — in about thirty-five minutes — and one of them is a flight attendant.”
Vik stared at his wife. “I need to leave now,” he said, handing the phone to her. “Perhaps it is too late to save myself, but I can go away. There is no reason to endanger you and the neighbors!” Jaya had no chance to protest; Vik was already heading for the door. “I love you!” He jumped in his Jetta and roared away.
There was an old farmstead a few miles from their subdivision. A developer had bought it, but had no more than laid out a few streets before the housing market collapsed. With one eye on the road, and another on the dashboard clock, Vik drove as quickly as he dared (no sense in getting pulled over and taking an innocent policeman with him) out of the subdivision and down the side road. Checking the time, he drove right past the entrance and lost another two minutes turning around and coming back. An orange construction barrel blocked the entrance; he turned the car off and flung himself out the door, not bothering to close it behind him. The streets were first unmarked, then unpaved, but Vik ran until a cramp in his side forced him to stop.
Taking long, whooping breaths, he opened his cellphone and looked at the time. Only a few minutes left. Scanning the sky, he saw his personal Shiva: a jet, low and off the normal lane, trailing black smoke instead of a white contrail. Nobody else around. Perhaps it would be far enough. He punched a familiar number.
Jaya took the call as she stepped into the back yard. “Vik, I need to tell you —”
“It is alright,” he said, “whatever it is. I am alone here. Perhaps nobody else will die on the ground.”
“Listen: remember when we filled out the benefit package? We both got policies!”
“I talked with the Pilf after you ran out the door and asked him to identify the lifeline associated with the policy,” Jaya said, standing in the back yard, watching the airliner plummet toward the ground. Toward her. “It was mine. Not yours.”
“Why? It is too late now, there is nowhere to go. You were very brave to take yourself away from other people… I —” she wiped away a tear as she watched a piece of the airliner break off and tumble away. “I am proud to have been your wife. I love you, Vik.” She let her arm drop to her side, the phone dangling from her fingers and still connected.
Vik could barely hear his own scream above the scream of the airliner. It roared overhead, and the phone cut off a few seconds before he heard the explosion.