I woke up in what looked like a lab. Which was weird, since I’d fallen asleep on my couch watching reruns of the X-Files. A young woman bent over me and smiled brightly.
“Good morning, Mr. Churchwater.”
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re in a secure location.” That was a bad sign.
“How do you know my name?”
“Everyone knows the name Gregory Churchwater,” the woman said. “You’re the most famous hostage negotiator in the world.”
I smiled to myself. Heck yeah, I was. Time Magazine had named me their Negotiator of the Year three years in a row.
“The thing is, Mr. Churchwater, you’re too valuable a negotiator to waste your time with bank robbery standoffs and small time stuff like that. So we decided to kidnap you and freeze you cryogenically until a really big threat came along that no one else could handle.”
I was still trying to get my bearings and understand fully what she was saying. “You mean the government kidnapped me?”
“All of them,” she said. “Well, at least 183 of them. They formed the PCP: Protect Churchwater Pact, just for that purpose”
“You could have just asked me instead of kidnapping me.”
“Oh, you know you would have talked us out of it,” she chided, with a you-should-know-better smile.
I sat up, my head spinning. The room was all white and Star-Trekky. “The last thing I remember, it was May 6, 2018. You mean I’m in the future now?”
“Yes, you are. We have a huge crisis that is threatening the universe in a fundamental way.” Her smile never changed as she said this and I wondered if she was an android.
“What is the date today?” I asked. To think, all my family and friends could be dead now.
“It’s June 20, 2018,” she said. “Frankly, if we’d known, we wouldn’t have bothered kidnapping and freezing you. But that’s hindsight for you. Now, Dr. Grimsword will tell you about the threat.”
A young man in jeans and a T-shirt walked in. He saw me staring at his clothes and glanced down. “Casual Friday,” he said, apologetically. “If I’d known, I’d have worn a tie. But that’s super-villains for you.”
“That’s why we woke you,” he said. “There’s a scientist named Igor Paintspackle Wong who’s holding the whole world ransom. He has built . . . a reality gun.”
Dr. Grimsword stopped with dramatic effect. “Which means,” I said slowly. “That it’s real?”
“No, it’s a gun that destroys fundamental aspects of reality. To demonstrate it, he blew up 5+3=8. We’re not sure how he did it, but now, 5+3 just comes back as an error. On a computer, on paper, even on your fingers, doesn’t matter. Just try it.”
I held up my hands, five fingers and three. “Damn,” I said mildly. “That’s really weird. I’ve never seen an error on my fingers before.”
“Hawking is working on fixing it. In the meantime, just switch hands. He didn’t mess with the communicative property.”
I switched hands, three fingers and five and sighed with relief. “So, where is this guy now?”
“He’s in a coffee shop in London,” Grimsword said. “Now he’s threatening to destroy the concept of beauty.”
“That’s pretty fundamental,” I said. Being groggy made me say obvious things. “So, we’d think beautiful people looked ugly or something?”
“No, we wouldn’t even know what beauty was,” Grimsword said. “As you can imagine, the film and modeling industries are in a panic. The only group supporting it is UGGO, the Unattractive Girls and Guys Organization, although we suspect they’re only doing it for the free publicity.”
“Alright,” I said. “Get me a cup of coffee and get this guy on the phone.”
A few minutes later, the phone was ringing and I was slurping a little life-giving caffeine into my mouth.
“Hey, is this Mr. Wong? This is Gregory Churchwater.”
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “I was wondering if you were going to call. Don’t even try to talk me out of it.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” I said. “Sense of beauty? Who needs it? Fire away, I say.” I saw Dr. Grimsword give me a look of alarm, but I had a brutally effective reverse psychology. I once told a terrorist that if he didn’t kill every hostage he had in five seconds, I was going to shoot them for him. He gave himself up three seconds later.
“Don’t you want to know my demands?” Igor Paintspackle Wong asked.
I sighed. “Fine. Get it over with.”
“I want to win a Nobel Prize,” he said. “I have been nominated for an award six years in a row and never won. Do you know what that’s like, to always be a nominee and never a winner.”
“Here’s the problem with that,” I said, stopping to take another sip of that glorious coffee. “If we give you a Nobel Prize now, it sets a bad precedent. What’s to stop some other mad scientist next year—”
“What did you call me?”
“What? You sound angry to me and you’re a scientist, so you’re a scientist who’s mad, right? Anyway, as I was saying, other mad scientists will get the idea it’s okay to hold the world hostage to get an award.”
“Well, then kiss beauty good-bye,” Wong said. “And it won’t stop there. Every day until I get my Nobel Prize, something else goes. Tomorrow it’s the concept of humor, then fashion, then justice, then pi, then being on time, then—”
“Yeah, I think I got the picture,” I said. “Listen, I hesitate to do this, but I think there’s something else I could interest you in. There’s another prize, much more exclusive than the Nobel Prizes, called the I.G. Nobel Prizes. The I.G. stands for “Intense Genius”, by the way. They don’t even award them every year, it’s that exclusive. I think you could win one for this reality gun of yours, if nothing else.”
There was a pause. “You really think so?”
“Oh, I know so,” I said. “You’re more than qualified. Look, let’s do this: you go get yourself another cappuccino and I’ll contact the Ig Nobel Prize people and see what we can set up, okay?”
“Okay, sounds good,” Wong said. “You know, I thought you were going to be mean, but you’re really nice.”
“Yep, that’s me,” I said, then hung up the phone. I turned to Dr. Grimsword. “Now, you get a contract agreeing never to kidnap me again or I’ll call him right back and tell him what the Ig Nobel Prizes really are.”
He nodded in defeat and left. “And get me another coffee!” I shouted.