by Tyler S. Harris
“Welcome to Alt Choice, where your life is your decision.”
The androgenous hologram materialized in Gregor’s waiting room. Gregor felt like he had been waiting for hours. “Thanks,” he responded.
“You can call me K-3,” the floating torso said. “Do you have an appointment?”
“Yes,” Gregor responded, “my name is—”
“Gregor Vanni,” the hologram said. “My facial and vocal recognition identified you immediately after confirmation of your appointment. You are four minutes and thirty-six seconds early. Fortunately, we are ahead of schedule. Please follow me.”
The hologram flashed a smile before about-facing. Not a genuine smile. More like the forced smile one puts on when posing for a photograph. Gregor wondered whether the holograms were not sophisticated enough to recreate a genuine smile, or if they were so sophisticated they could emulate a human’s half-hearted smile when it made sense socially.
Gregor’s curiosity intensified as he followed K-3 through the building, the center of the biggest technological innovation of the last quarter-century. He found it strange, the cement walls and metal railings did not give off the impression of wealth. As Gregor scanned his surroundings, he noticed patrons entering their individual rooms without the enthusiasm he expected to witness.
Another hologram shaped like a screen appeared at the back of K-3’s head. It was a truncated version of a promotional video Gregor had seen. A montage of customer testimonials flipped through individuals so quickly none of them finished a complete sentence.
“I was in a dark place, then Alt Choice brought me out of…”
“…a brand new perspective on life as soon as I left the…”
“…back to Alt Choice once a year, and will continue to do so every year for as long as I can…”
The testimonials continued as they walked in tandem. After passing 21 doors, K-3 stopped in front of one of the rooms. Gregor imagined touching the cold metal of the door and shivered. The chills going up his spine, however, were in anticipation of what was to come.
K-3 stepped to the side. “Please place your phone in this drawer, as no pictures or outside communication is permitted during this experience.”
Gregor complied, and as the drawer closed, the door opened. He entered the cubic room which was devoid of any décor except for a pleasant blue wall paint. In the middle sat a leather recliner with tissues on the left and a glass of water on the right. A giant computer screen spanned the entire wall in front of the chair, sure to fill Gregor’s field of vision once he sat down.
“According to your social media accounts,” K-3 began, “we’ve gathered that Memorybook Blue matches the wall color of your childhood bedroom. We believe this color may be comforting for you. If not, please inform me and we can modify the color.”
“It’s fine,” Gregor answered, continuing to take in his surroundings.
“Good,” K-3 said. “Please have a seat when you are ready.”
Gregor did not hesitate. As soon as his body made contact with the chair, the computer awakened. Animations and words scrolled along the screen in time with the voiceover from K-3.
“Alt Choice is here to answer the ‘what if’s’ in your life. The idea of alternate universes has existed since ancient Greece. Alt Choice is based on the idea that for every pivotal life choice you make, the universe splits. Therefore, there is an alternate universe where your decision is different. This occurs for every alternate choice, for every big decision, for every person. These unlimited universes were once impossible to know, leaving us to wonder what could have been.”
The animated Earth on screen continued to split and multiply. Gregor tracked them until there were 32 on the screen, after which he paid more attention to the voiceover.
“Well, wonder no longer! Alt Choice, forty years in the making, can provide answers. In a few short minutes, you will be able to alter a choice you made in your life and see the universe that comes with it.”
Gregor grabbed the water and sipped. Vodka would have been better to calm his nerves, but it was better than nothing.
“But first, we must remind you of some points from the user agreement you signed when you made the appointment. First, the technology was developed over a forty-year period. The first twenty years were spent gathering big data from the ubiquitous use of social media. The second twenty years were spent developing an algorithm to predict human behavior and life outcomes based on the data gathered in the first phase. Unfortunately, we need twenty years of data to retroactively make accurate predictions. Therefore, your Alt Choice must be a decision made at least 20 years ago. We can then populate the screen with photographs you would post to social media in the alternate universe.
“Second, approximately 70% of clients so far have rated their life choice in this universe as the optimal choice. Fortunately, this means most humans do tend to make the right choice in terms of what will make them happy. However, 30% of clients have been dissatisfied with at least one of their life choices after coming to Alt Choice. Therefore, we cannot guarantee your complete satisfaction with what you learn today.
“Finally, we alter your life choice while holding all other behaviors in the world constant. Remember, there are infinite universes based not only on you making different decisions, but also on any other person making a different decision. We believe our algorithm to be 95% accurate, but do not guarantee your life would be exactly as it appears on the screen based on your altered decision. If you accept these terms and conditions, please click continue.”
Gregor had been clicking the computer mouse since the list of conditions began, but the option was not available until K-3 finished talking. He clicked once more and the screen changed to an image of a much younger version of himself. This stranger of the past had dirty blond hair, sinewy muscles, and a bright smile framed in a chiseled jaw. Gregor hardly remembered taking this picture: he was standing at the beach with his older sister, a sunhat on his head and water shoes on his feet. As a joke, he loved to wear floatation equipment upon arrival to the beach. Twenty years ago, at twenty-seven years old, this may have been the last image of Gregor smiling. In all, it was an ominous memento of his past, representative of the reason he visited Alt Choice.
“We are now ready to begin. The photograph you see was your profile picture exactly twenty years ago today. Please consider this a reminder that you may only alter a choice made before this time. When you are ready, you may make your first selection. Simply state verbally what decision you would like to alter, and I will input the data.”
Gregor’s mind went blank. Staring at himself in this time-traveling mirror, he forgot the list of three decisions he wanted to address. Despite all the planning, he couldn’t believe he was actually sitting in this chair.
“Oh,” it finally hit him. “Okay. First, I want to know what it would be like if I started working at Motionaid for my dad instead of going to college.”
“This decision fits within our parameters, as it coincides with events twenty-nine years ago. Please allow up to three minutes as we enter this data through our high-fidelity software.”
Like an airplane revving up for takeoff, the room filled with a hum so loud it shook Gregor’s chair. The gradual increase in volume and pitch exacerbated his budding anxiety, and it was all Gregor could do not to cover his ears. He gripped the leather armrests to keep his hands in place.
After what felt like far more than three minutes, Gregor covered his ears. The monotonous cacophony scraped against his brain. Just when he thought he might not be able to take any more, the ruckus subsided. He opened his eyes in time to view the first image and removed his hands from his ears to hear K-3’s narration.
“Based on our algorithm and public record of corporate strategic decisions, we’ve developed the following broad sequence of events.”
As he listened, Gregor was surprised to be presented with some familiar photos. His sister’s wedding, his first car, and a family photo from Mother’s Day. All three occurred within two years of his altered decision, so it made sense they would not be much different than the life he remembered. These were followed by more unfamiliar, computer-generated images. Some appeared to be taken from cell phones, while others were a part of a news story.
“After joining your father’s company, you rapidly move up the ranks. You forgo relationships, so there are fewer images with family or romantic partners. Twelve years into your career, you make pivotal strategic moves for the company. However, your aggressive tactics lead to a rapid decline in company funds, leading to bankruptcy four years later.”
“Hmmph,” Gregor said. “I’m sure my father would be happy to know that.”
“Would you like for us to create a copy of this Alt Choice for you to send to him?” K-3 asked.
“No, no thank you,” Gregor said. “I would actually prefer he not know he was right all along.”
“Very well,” K-3 proceeded. “Would you like to continue with your second Alt Choice?”
“Sure. I’d like to know what would have happened if I went on a third date with the girl from my ceramics class in my freshman year of college. I had the chance but instead I went on my first date with Tanya. It was so long ago I don’t even remember the first girl’s name.”
“Calliope Stanford,” K-3 abruptly cut in. “Here is a photograph of you two from what must be one of your first dates. Is this the woman to whom you refer?”
“Yes, I remember now.”
“This decision fits within our parameters, as it coincides with events twenty-seven years ago. Please allow for up to three minutes as we enter this data through our high-fidelity software.”
The buzz revved up again. Gregor thought he might feel more comfortable this time around, but he could still feel his heartbeat in his fingers and toes. At least this time it did not feel like it took as long as it did the first time.
Oddly enough, the new images were worse than the previous alternate life. His face, obscured by smoke, comprised of red eyes and unkempt hair.
“According to our algorithm and criminal records since the time of this decision, it looks like you and Calliope continue your relationship for approximately fifteen years. You do not marry or have any children, as you spend most of your time indulging in illicit drug abuse. You do not go to jail, nor do you suffer from an overdose, but you do not overcome this affliction.”
The final image was of Gregor, but by appearances he looked even older than his current age. His sunken features and the dark bags under his eyes did not make chronological sense with the apparent age of his sister. She was posed next to him, but was not smiling.
“What you see before you is a computer-generated image of your sister visiting you in a rehabilitation facility. She and your mother were likely to spend a vast majority of their money on putting you into this facility. Your father likely refused to contribute financially.”
“Damn,” Gregor whispered to himself, realizing every alternate choice involves some sort of terrible decision.
“Do you have any further questions or anything you’d like to do with this information?”
“No,” Gregor said, rather quickly. “I’m ready for my third wish.”
“I do not understand,” K-3 announced. “Did you mean your third alternate choice?”
“Sure, whatever,” Gregor said. “I want to know what would have happened if I never murdered my wife. Or…ex-wife. If I never killed Tanya.”
“Too late,” K-3 stated in a surprisingly deep voice.
By this, Gregor was confused. The event in question occurred twenty-two years ago. It had all started with his choice to minor in business. Gregor’s father needed a consolation prize for not being able to pass on the legacy. A stark contrast from his true interest in art history, they both considered it a fallback in case he couldn’t find a job after graduation. But it was in one of his business classes where he had met Tanya. She encompassed everything he wanted in a woman at the time, and he was happy to cut things off with Calliope to ask Tanya on their first date. From there, they were happy.
Until suddenly, they weren’t.
And even more suddenly…tragedy.
Beyond the issue of timing, Gregor was confused by the person who voiced the comment. It was not the voice of K-3. It was far deeper and more resonant. When Gregor searched for K-3, all he saw was a strapping, dark-haired man in a corrections officer uniform. “Huh?” Gregor asked.
“It’s too late now,” the officer repeated. As he continued, Gregor read his badge—Department of Corrections: K-003. “You can’t go back and un-kill your wife, or ex-wife, whichever you prefer. No matter how remorseful you feel about it, there’s no going back.”
“Well, not physically,” Gregor tries to correct. “But with technology today and Alt Choice, you can kind of—”
“Alt Choice?” K-003 interrupts. “That’s what you were fantasizing about in solitary? I remember watching those commercials as a kid and wondering whether people would actually buy into it. I never did. But then again, I like my life. I don’t have anyone I want to bring back.”
“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” Gregor said, his grip on the thin blue-and-white striped mattress tightening. “I know I can’t bring her back. I just want to know where I went wrong. What I could have done differently?”
“With all due respect, Gory, you’ve got it all wrong.”
Gregory leered at the cement wall across from him, trying not to lose his composure after being called by the nickname he never asked for.
“Alt Choice leads you to believe that the decisions make the man. What I realized long ago, especially working here, is that the man makes the decisions. But I guess you have plenty of time to daydream in here. Even when you’re not in solitary.”
Stuck in the same spot he’d called home for over two decades, Gregor could do nothing but hear the CLANG of the cell door ricochet off the walls of his jail cell. Alone once again, he contemplated whether the alternate choices would still have brought him to the same despondent position.