The Path Not Traveled

Author : Patrica Stewart

Kathryn Duncan sat in the waiting room of Alternative Realities, surrounded by her husband, her two sons, her four grand children, and her seven year old great granddaughter, Wendy. Wendy sat in her lap, while the others gathered around her recalling stories about their childhood (usually exaggerated, fabricated, or both). They were all laughing and poking fun at each other. Talking about everything except why they were there. Kathryn had just turned 75, and was now eligible for her one legal opportunity to temporarily “do-over” her life. For the modest sum of $1,999.99, she could enter the “chamber” for two hours and experience a lifetime of events and memories “as real as reality itself,” to quote the holocommercials. She simply chose a date in her life where she made some key decision, and the temporal computer would manipulate space-time to send her back (virtually) to that moment in time. But in this alternate reality, she could choose a different path. Then, she would live out the new timeline (virtually and accelerated) to the present date, unaware of the true timeline until she was removed from the chamber. Once revived, she would retain both sets of memories, and would know the answer to the nagging question the haunts most people…”What if…”

Wendy, who was somewhat overwhelmed by the gathering, innocently looked at her great grandmother and asked the question that no adult would. “Great grandma, what are you goin’ to change?”

The room suddenly turned silent. Nobody ever asks that question, primarily because the change could involve you (or more likely, their life without you). As it turned out, Kathryn hadn’t made her final decision, although she had narrowed it down to the standard options:

1. (Marriage) Marry Scott instead of Joe.

2. (Children) Finish my PhD before having children.

3. (Career) Accept the vice presidency in the Lunar office.

After all, these were the logical alternative timelines. Would she have been happier, more fulfilled, or more respected if she had chosen a different path? She looked into Wendy’s beautiful crystal blue eyes, then at her loving family, all staring at her expectantly. They had all been so supportive, especially Joe. He had “gone back” last year, when he turned 75. Kathryn had never asked him what he had changed. Only naive, innocent children ever do that. But he was not the same afterwards. Nobody else seemed to notice, but after being married to him for over 50 years she knew he was affected, at least sub-consciously. Maybe it was regret, maybe it was only her imagination. Kathryn couldn’t be sure. But it made her wonder why everybody was obsessed with going back. Maybe 90% of the people confirmed they had made the right decision, and 10% didn’t. Maybe it was 50-50. You either climb out of the chamber no better off than when you went in, or you had a lifetime of regret to deal with. It seemed like there was nothing to gain, but an awful lot to lose.

Kathryn wrapped her arms around Wendy, and stood up. “Yes, honey. I’ve decided to change…nothing.” Hugging Wendy like a life preserver, Kathryn left the waiting room, and headed home, content in the knowledge that she had made all the right decisions, including this one.

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Author : Robert Niescier

We didn’t know what to think when we first saw it. The case, shiny as a mirror, surviving down in the bottom of the ocean God only knows how long, resting in the shadow of some strange underwater mountain. We had never seen anything like it.

I caressed the rectangular box gently, searching for a button, a clip, any sort of seam that might signify a way to reveal the contents inside. Finding nothing, I placed it back down onto my desk and sighed. Three days, and still no luck. Our submergible had only a few days worth of fuel left, and it would be months before we’d be able to return.

I looked out at the inky blackness of the ocean floor, at the ominous jagged mountain reaching up towards the deep blue ocean sky, and placed my palm flat on the case, expecting to feel the chill of metal on flesh but instead a very warm tingle began to crawl through my fingers. My eyes shot down at the case and found that it had begun to glow red, like heated metal. I struggled to move my hand away but only succeeded in sinking it deeper into the mercurial shimmer of the red-hot case, the heat rising farther and farther up my arm, sinking behind my eyes and into my brain. I blacked out.

Cheers exclaimed in a foreign tongue rang out all around me, and I opened my eyes to find myself in the midst of a vast celebration. People dancing, laughing, screaming, pointing. A grand tower stretched towards the sky in front of them, so high it seemed to touch the heavens above.

Their cries abated as a vibration shook the ground beneath their feet. All stood still, their eyes transfixed on the bottom layer of the tower as it began to radiate a sky-blue glow; climbing story after story until the whole structure was ablaze, shining like the sun against a pale sky.

A loud BOOM echoed through the air as the light rose to the top of the tower, a pinpoint barely visible from the ground. Fervent cheers rose, then fell as winged men exploded like fireworks out from the top and poured down onto the crowd. No one ran, not until the first round of innocents was slaughtered by the angelic warriors.

I turned and dashed away, and found myself face-to-face with an old man, holding a shiny metal case like a refugee mother holding her child.

The history of our world.

Thirty years have passed since the history, the knowledge of our true ancestors was implanted into my mind. Into all of our minds. Conflicts have ceased. Cities have prospered, and risen up like leaves of grass on an open field. We are a people of one flag, one language, one ideal.

We are going to build the tower again, but this time things will be different. The weapons from the wars still work. We will be ready for Him this time.

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Something In My Eye

Author : Chris Court-Dobson

“Stop, there’s something in my eye.”

The spore had crash landed in his eye, and people were emerging. Light was blotted out as he rubbed, but the people were unharmed.

“I think its gone.”

The people had nuclei, flagella, membranes, thoughts, emotions, roles and beliefs. They screamed as bacteria engulfed the stragglers, but through their superior intelligence fought them off and then captured them. They began to farm the bacteria for their rich cytoplasm, then they began to build.

“My right eye is itchy, I hope its not infected.”

A city made of calcium grew out of ocean of tears. Bacteria swam in pens before their slaughter. The people were prosperous, but could not remember their home, the long journey in the spores had robbed them of that.

“Doctor will I be ok?”

“It’s just an eye infection, drop this in your eye.”

Deadly chemicals fell from the sky, but the people prevailed and reinforced their stronghold. Soon their civilization grew to encompass the entire ocean, except the middle where the ocean floor was dark, this was considered a holy place.

“It’s getting worse, it looks terrible.”

The city became overcrowded, there was civil war over whether or not to build over the black centre. The priests said it would anger the ocean and make the deadly rain fall again. The others scorned, the deadly rain was no match for them. Eventually the priests left the city and struck out across the desert mountain in search of another home. They were attacked by monsters and many fell to their deaths on the slopes, stragglers were left behind. Meanwhile in the city, the centre was quickly built over, to much rejoicing, at last they had they had thrown off the shackles of religion.

“I woke up this morning and I was blind in the infected eye, is there nothing you can do?”

“I have never seen this before, it seems to be a new disease. We’ll work on a cure.”

The True Believers came eventually to a new ocean of tears, the same as the last one. They rejoiced and began to build.

“The infection has spread.”

They built great buildings, statues and art.

“We’re working on it.”

The first city heard of the second and were jealous, with their violent ways they marched an army across the mountain and took the second city by force. Then they built over the sacred space.

“I cannot see, my sight has gone. Doctor, I’m afraid.”

“We’ve found a cure, genetically engineered micro-organisms, they’ll clear the infection right away and attack the cause as well.”

Monsters fell from the sky, they ate through the walls of the city and the bacteria flooded the streets. The statues fell and the museums were crushed. Soon the people were gone. With nothing left to eat, the monsters died. The peaceful bacteria reclaimed the ocean and continued with their peaceful existence.

“Thank you Doctor, I’m cured.”

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Author : Jeff Deignan

Let me tell you a ghost story.

I see my sister every day, while she eats and sleeps through the minutes and hours. She walks, she talks- but never to me. The cold, white rooms always seem to threaten to swallow her as she traipses about, and me as I sit and listen through the one-way mirror. To hear her voice, one would think that nothing was wrong, and that at one o’clock all was well.

I live in an apartment, in the Ashland complex just west of town. She lived on campus, before an overcast Tuesday. Elena, my sister, drove to the store around that time for some little groceries, even though the fridge was nearly full. The accident didn’t hurt her much, either, and I can only imagine what went on in her head as she and I rolled through the air in her little foreign car.

They got me back after a few tries, some surgery, and a coma. But my sister always insists that I’m in the ground, dead and gone. Elena hasn’t responded to a single thing I’ve said since that day. And she insists to this day that I’m dead, that the bionics and machinery that keep me living, working, never brought me back after my heart stopped. Elena only talks to the ghosts in her room now, a faux family minus me.

So riddle me this: who’s the more haunted, this machine or her mind?

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Author : Benjamin Fischer

“Haywood! My good friend.”

So says Szilveszter, ever propped on a barstool at the Wildwood Flower.

Takes me a moment to wrap my brain around the fact that it’s him, for real, not ten meters in front of my scarred, cindered, wrecked-out self.

“How ‘bout a beer?”

The fucking nerve.

I want to grab him by the collar and scream, little ashy flecks of spittle peppering his face.

But I just sidle up to him, my splotchy face as blank as I can make it. The Flower is its usual dark and murky self, and Szilveszter either didn’t catch the brimstone that must’ve lit my mug. Or maybe he caught it and didn’t care. He’s getting sloppy, damn sloppy or damn arrogant, to still be up here a week later.

“Yeah! Beer, Hussein!” says Szilveszter. “Beer for both of us!”

He slaps me on the back and I crack the thinnest of smiles–like a hairline fracture in my helmet’s faceplate.

“Man, how the hell have you been?” he asks, the bartender sliding us a pair of one-time bulbs.

I snort.

“I hear you, I hear you,” says Szilveszter.

Hussein clears his throat, hovering over us.

“Haywood-” Szilveszter starts.

I’ve heard that tone of voice before. I almost pull my piece right then. But the part of me that’s ice cold shoves all my fury into the beat up boot I’ve got crushed against the rail. With a minimum of expression I unzip a pocket on my jumpsuit and fish out some credit.

I toss the little card to Hussein. He catches it and gives me that subtle nod of gratitude he reserves for paying customers.

“Hey, thanks man,” Szilveszter says. “You’re a real philanthropist.”

I grunt in reply.

“Course, you can probably afford to be,” he continues.

As always, he takes my silence as a sign of agreement.

“Yeah, I had some prior commitments,” he says. “You know, some other hot leads.”

He sips his beer, examining me for some sort of reaction.

“That said, I’m still due a finder’s fee.”

The sheer bravado. His smile is yellow and crooked and would have been totally disarming as recently as a week ago.

He takes my hesitation as a cue to keep talking.

“Buddy, you know how much I love riding shotgun with you on those flights-”

He stops and raises an eyebrow as I reach into my little arm pocket again.

Szilveszter catches the cigarette and then the lighter.

“You know this isn’t allowed in here,” he says.

Damn straight. There’s other things that aren’t allowed in here, too.

Then Szilveszter winks at me and then props the tobacco between his lips. He fiddles with the lighter, an antique disposable type. It comes to life suddenly, its clean butane flame the flare of a midnight reentry, a manmade meteor. He pulls greedily, the coffin nail crackling. The lighter goes off with a snap.

Smoke rolls out of his nose, his mouth.

“Oh, this is good shit, Haywood,” he says, turning to face me. “You pick this up down there on Earth?”

I’ve got the piece out and leveled right at his decaying teeth, his mouth.

“Nice gun,” he says. “You get that there too?”

Never at a loss for words. Not ever.

I do him then.

The cigarette falls to the deck in the slow motion of one quarter gravity, streaming smoke all the way down.

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