Do-Over

“I’m dead!”


“That happens often. So you would like us to undo it?”


“Of course.”  


 ––   


“Here’s how it works. You can make one change, anywhere in your past. But it has to be a moment, a specific choice. You can’t decide, for example to become an architect, or learn another language, or get your MBA, unless you were accepted into an intern program for an architect and decided to take a different internship, or started to learn a language and stopped taking the course, or completed an MBA application and never submitted it. A specific fork-in-the-road choice.”   


“And then what? Do I…?”   


“No, you do not go back to that moment. You remember both lives as if you lived them both. The new one and your present one. If you have a good memory, you remember them both very clearly. If not, then they are about as fuzzy and self-focused as most people generally recall. But they are both there. Two distinct memory paths. Mainly, though, you have two different end points, two presents, two ‘nows.’  One new, though it will feel like you lived both and you might have trouble knowing which is the present one and which is the new one. Most people have no trouble distinguishing, though.”   


“Then, you have to decide. Do you keep the new one or do you undo.”   


“And ho…?”   


“You have four hours to decide. You can decide more quickly of course. But at the four-hour point, you must pick a path.     


“For many reasons, you have to stay here, in the interview room, until you make a choice.”   


“When you make the choice, we either ‘undo’ and you go back to your present life. Or we select ‘set’ and you continue down the new path.”   


“Do I have to tell you the choice I change?”   


“Nope. You simply need to make the choice in your head. But you only get one choice. However, we do enjoy knowing.”   


“And also, if you do tell us, then we have another real-world experience we can share with others. This makes it easier for them to decide.”   


“Yes, often people want our opinions and ideas. Generally, we only tell them what others have done.”   


“So. Four hours. And I have to sit here?”   


“Yes.”   


“Tell us when you are ready and we’ll press ‘go.’   


“Hah! It's actually a ‘go’ button.”   


“Only for clarity.”   


“The buttons are mainly for show. A lot of mechanisms whir behind the scenes.”   


“I’m ready.”   


--   


“Seems like nothing changed.”   


“That happens often. Nothing at all?”  


“I am still married to the same man and have the same children. The same job. And…” 


“No new memories?”   


“A few. One in particular.”   


“You’re blushing.”   


“Yes, but it didn't seem to change anything else. Well, not much else.”   


“That happens.”   


“You have four hours to…”   


“I’ll keep the new one. Why not?”   


“There are ripples. Small things, barely noticed, can…”   


“Yes, but that could go the other way too. I could now have cancer, in my old life, which is now gone in my new life. I have no way of knowing.”   


“Or vice versa.”   


“Yes, but, again, I have no way of knowing. It's a coin flip, with the coin still spinning in the air. Like that cat.”   


“Don't get Howard started.”   


“I’ll keep this one.”   


“Can we ask what you changed?”   


“I had another drink with a man I met at a bar. Instead of leaving. And I knew where that would lead.”


“We get that a lot.”   


“Were you already married then?”   


“No! I’m not that type of person!”   


--   


“I’m dead.”   


“That happens often. So you would like us to undo it?”   


“Not just yet. Let me keep this for a couple hours.”   


--   


“Wow!”   


“What happened?”   


“That made a big difference. Everything changed.”   


“Would you be willing to explain?”   


“In a good way?”   


“Yes! Things worked out perfectly. And I always wondered. Incredible.”   


“Let us know when you decide to ‘set’ or ‘undo.’ You have three hours and fifty one minutes left, but it's best not to cut it so close.”   


“Are you sure I can’t…?”   


“Yes, we’re sure. You must stay here until you decide.”   


“Why is that?”   


“Because if …”   


“It's still hard to let go, though, isn't it? No matter how much better your new life would be, is, it’s hard to shed the old one.”   


“Is it that much better?”   


“What did you change?”   


“A friend invited me to join her in Santiago, Chile, and I told her, ‘No.’ She was visiting a new vineyard down there.”   


“And now?”   


“I own a winery. With some of the highest rated wines in Chile. It’s a fabulous place. And it's named after her. She’s now my wife. Emilia.”   


“Are you married in your present life?”   


“I was, but she and I divorced. Childless. Seems so much better, right?”   


“Not for us to say.”   


“But, yes.”   


“So why am I even considering holding on? Do I lose all the memories?”   


“You do, yes.”   


“That’s what I feared. This was the worst decision I ever made.”   


“Choosing to go to Chile? Not go…?”   


“Coming here.”   


--   


“Has anyone died before?”   


“Yes, that happens often. So you would like us to undo it?”   


“Has anyone said ‘No’ and decided to remain dead?”   


“Not as often. But, yes.”    


--   


“The world ended.”   


“That’s a new one.”   


“You don’t look concerned.”   


“Nor do you, actually.”   


“We have four hours to undo it.”   


“Do I still have a choice?”  


“In this case, no.”   


“What if I didn't tell you? And I just let the world end?”   


“Then the world would have ended.”   


“To be clear though, only for you. For the rest of us, things would have gone on the same.”   


“But on your fork, there would be, assuming it ends in a bad way…”   


“Virus.”   


“I was hoping for something more interesting.”   


“It has a digital, computer component to it.”   


“A cyber virus?”   


“Something you did caused the world to end from a pandemic?”   


“No idea.  Not sure. Hard to tell.  I just lasted longer than most. Indonesia at the time. The virus started in Russia and spread from there. Unsure why it took so long to travel south.  Maybe the lack of technology infrastructure. I was on a vacation.”   


“Hard to…”   


“So we’ll undo it.”   


“Can you give it a bit? This is interesting.”   


“We need to leave two hours to spare for this one.”   


“Understood. So, in your world, nothing changes regardless of how big our choice changes, decisions, change the world.”   


“It's just your fork.”    


“Confusing.”   


“Yes.”   


“I feel like you aren't telling me everything. Wouldn't both of your be affected?"


"There's years of research we aren't telling you."


"So, if I decide to go with the end of the world thing…”   


“Best if you don't think about it, actually.”   


“But I died before coming here.”   


“Yes, but you did not die before making whatever decision it was that caused the ripple…”   


“Out of curiosity, what was that decision?”   


“You’re going to laugh.”   


“We’ve heard it all.”   


“He has a gun!”   


“Yes, I do. You dismissed all of quantum physics with a ‘Don’t worry your pretty little head about it,’ comment and you’re taking away the one thing I paid for. To be able to make a choice.”   


“A gun! Don’t shoot!”   


“As I said, we have less than two hours and the forking path discussion alone would take ten 90-minute classes…”   


“Don't patronize me.”   


“I have two small children!”   


“I’m not patronizing you. I'm simply trying to explain that we have no time to explain. Also, that you signed a contract.”   


“Don’t taunt him, please don't…”   


*Bang!*   


“You seem pretty calm for someone who just watched his lab partner get shot in the head.”   


“This is working out perfectly.”   


“Huh?”   


*Bang!* *Bang!* *Bang!*   








 *Bang!*       


--   


My last comment was not supposed to be verbalized. Call it the super hero or super villain problem. Talking out loud.   


Also, I know it's hard to tell from the transcribed audio, which one of us is speaking. Me or Lexi. Easier from the actual audio, which, if you want, you can access here.     


But I don’t think it matters. We were both killed, Lexi first. Always Lexi first. She’s a true leader. One of the smartest, most amazing people on earth. And, as it turns out, the hidden key to our best-case future. But, I’ll get to that shortly.  Then he killed himself. Funny that he shot me three times, right? That I did not see coming.   


Before I get to the story, for those of you who want the quantum physics math, as it is, take a look here. I can assure you that it's nearly impenetrable and will be unsatisfying if you do manage to penetrate it. It doesn’t quite hold up. But, then, again, I stopped needing the math, since I’ve been able to test my theories in the real world.  Many hundreds of times. And all the best paths included Lexi. Again, as you will see.  


For those of you who would like the top-level explanation, and only care that it works instead of how it works (picture me waving my hands,) here we go:   


• We found a protocol to return to the decision fork and let people make the alternate choice.   


• At the moment the choice is made, two possible paths are set: the new one and the former one. The former one can be reset, but if nothing further is done, the new path will be set in place. 


• The chooser can see them both, more like remember them both, at the same time.    


• For four hours (actually closer to five … no good idea why) those paths both exist and then the old one closes, unless we use the protocol to, basically, undo the new choice.   


• Everyone in the world goes down both paths, living multiple lives. But this is already what's happening; you just don't realize it since your consciousness, the one reading this now, is only living one path.    


• Last point, Lexi and I (or whoever is working the protocol) are the only ones who can choose which path our consciousness follows. We have ours set to the old path. But again, and this is important, for the nearly five hours, we are also living both paths at once. This is not something we shared to the patients.


• One more point. Dead is dead.    


So where does this leave us? Technically, in a puddle of blood for two and half more hours until the protocol sends Lexi and my dead body down the present path and Clarke, the guy who accidentally, and perhaps unknowingly until now, killed the entire world with a human-cyber virus, down the “path” where he and all of humanity died.  Years ago.    


But, for Lexi, Clarke and me, both paths have ended now, so there is really no difference. No good choice. Because dead is dead. Right? 


Right?   


So, how am I writing this? That’s the story.   


--   


“Once more into the fray,” says the thin brown woman in a lab coat. The voice is soothing, island sounding, more than somewhat soporific. Her hair is frizzy, but short. Her earrings are small, bright green dots. Her eyeliner matches. Underneath, her clothing is more daring, more modern. She could have walked out of a fashion magazine, so long as that magazine focused on sparse, clean-lined clothing with vivid colors.   


The male, also in a lab coat, is more generic. You would glance past him in a police line-up, not even thinking, ‘He didn't do it.’ Simply looking at the two options on either side. Under the lab coat, his clothes are more academic, even down to the elbow patches on his jacket, the only thing that betrays his role on the team.    


She does most of the talking. Halfway through a sentence, you would start to trust her. Her care with words. Her patience.  Also, she looks right at you when she talks. He looks mostly at the ceiling.   


“I have a bad feeling about this one. He knows something he isn’t sharing,” the man says.   


“Ha! You say that many times.”   


“But this time I am more concerned. He actually read the T&Cs and asked a question about our refund policy.”   


“So?”   


“The ‘We reserve the right to select the path. All decisions are final.’ That’s where that language resides.”   


“Others have done that. Read the terms and conditions.” She checks her eye make-up in a compact and smiles.   


“It’s perfect,” he says, knowing that 'perfect' means a color match to her earrings.   


“Thanks. We all have our things.”   


“I’ll be back.”   


“Do you want me to grab you a sandwich?” She smiles. The inside joke is that it's always the same one. Tuna and cucumber.   


“Please. They might be closed when we’re finished with …” he makes a show to read the file in his hands, “Joseph, Clarke M.” A slight chuckle. “Clarke M. Joseph.”    


“Why the laugh?” She eyes him curiously. He is clearly distracted.   


“Sounds fake. Two last names. Not even an ‘s’ on Joseph.”   


 “He was vetted. We have his passport.”   


“I know. But it feels too much like Ford Prefect for my tastes. Another reason I have a bad feeling.”   


“Confirmation bias.”   


“Likely, but we should take care.”   


“As always,” she smiles as she turns, file in hand, towards the hallway that leads to both the innocuously-named interview room and the cafeteria, which is as over-named as the interview room is under-named.   Howard says softly to himself, “Or a good feeling.” He turns and walks the opposite direction.   


--   


I’d introduce myself, but you already know my name. You’ve also already decided what you think about me and the company at which I work.  And I expect you like Lexi and trust her. As you should. She’s amazing. But I have already made that point.   


Where did I go while Lexi was getting me my always-the-same-choice sandwich?    To the protocol room, where I also remained during the entire interview. Did you notice the ‘also’?  Also is such a powerful word.    


--   


Clarke Joseph is sitting in the Interview Room, wearing a DiglGenl baseball cap, his failed 3-D printing technology startup, as well as a brand new black t-shirt, and equally new latte-colored corduroys and sneakers. The pants are baggy enough to hide the concealed carry.    


There was a security check, but they are lax for people this far into the process and the scanner wasn’t set up to catch plastic weaponry.    


Howard and Lexi enter the room together, Lexi first. She always led.   


“Let's just get right to it,” says Howard to Lexi’s surprise. “You already know your moment of choice?”   


“Yes,” says Clarke.   


“We do need to cover off on a few details,” slow-talks Lexi, hypnotizing Clarke into following her lead, but Clarke literally snaps out of it. He can feel her sonorous pull to comply.    


“Aren’t we all signed, sealed and delivered?” asks Clarke.   


Howard shoots Lexi a look he hopes connotes his bad feeling about this interviewee.   


Lexi smiles, “I’ll make it brief, but if we do not follow policy, then we will need to end this session.”    


Clarke nods and says in a restrained tone, “Understood. I’ll behave.”   


Lexi smiles, warmly, and both she and Howard can tell that Clarke is won over. 


“We are a science lab, after all, so we rely upon process,” she adds to increase his comfort level.   


Neither Clarke nor Howard listen as Lexi reviews the rules and the process. Howard checks his watch surreptitiously, pretending to scratch his wrist under the lab coat. It's running a countdown.   


“All agreed?” asks Lexi.   


“Yes,” says Clarke and Howard at the same time. Lexi and Clarke look at Howard and laugh. Her voice has that effect on people. Howard shrugs and then smiles.    


--   


That was planned.    


Best they think you are somewhat bumbling. Worked for Columbo. Oddly every episode. You would have thought people would have caught on by the third season.  


 --   


*bang!*   


*bang!* *bang!* *bang!*   


*bang!*   


Howard hears the shots from the protocol room. He checks his watch and sees that the digital countdown gives him nearly three hours, three real hours, to put the plan into motion.   He clicks the switch on the protocol processor and, looking at his iPad, plans a choice. He checks it off on the iPad. Then another choice and another check mark. Then, all within five efficient minutes, sixteen more.   


This has all been carefully planned and tested over the past three years.   


He closes his eyes and he concentrates on the end points, the present states, and picks the single path. Not exactly as he has hoped, but close. Close enough. And far, far better than the current path. Especially since he is dead in that one.   


He flicks the ‘undo’ protocol seventeen times, leaving only two paths open: the near-optimal path and the one where he is shot dead.   


He says aloud, “Now I understand why it’s not so easy to undo the death fork.”    


He starts the ‘undo’ protocol one last time.   


--   


“So what would you do?” Lexi asked me about two months ago. After one of the “Dead Sessions” as we call them.   


This was a conversation I wanted to have with her, needed to have, but was unsure how to bring it up without being suspicious.    


“If what?” I play dumb.   She rolls her eyes, seeing right through me, as always. As almost always. 


“If you were dead in an alternate path?”   


“Well, we’ve seen a couple of those.” This was true. We’re the only other ones the patient’s choice affects in the original path. We invoke the ‘money back’ rule, letting them know they cannot choose that path. They can either take their money back or return for a new choice.   


“Depends on how close my dead path was to James Dean’s,” I said. A rare joke which she catches and laughs.   


She looked at me seriously and said, “I don’t want to be dead. Memories are fine and a ‘life well lived’ is great, but, for me, I want a future. Regardless of my past.” Serious stuff. And my opening   


“So if you die, and you have a random ‘pick a new path’ button, you would press it?”   


“In a heartbeat.” Not even a pause.   


“Even if it means losing the life you had. And all the memories?”   


“That’s a tough one, but yes.” She has thought about this a lot. We both have. We’ve seen many, many other people who are faced with this exact choice, as you know.  “Dead is dead, after all,” she added with a gallows smile. “My kids would continue on without me in either case and I would be meat under the ground. Or ashes in an urn. No memories there.”    


What she doesn’t know is that I have been planning for this very moment for more than three years, running tests and scenarios. And that my plan hinges on her willingness to go with the new path. She’s the key. Or, in alternate reality terms, the butterfly wings in many critical scenarios.   She just needs to be dead. 


And I can't be the one who kills here.  For obvious reasons.


--   


The morning breaks perfectly in Boston.    The evening rain, needed for the crops and water levels, has dissipated as per the computer algorithm that controls it.  Just the same for every time zone.   


Howard looks out over the city from his office atop Lexi tower. She deserved that, though is forever embarrassed when the name appears in the news reports, especially when she is also mentioned.   


“… so explained Lexi Angleria from her office in the eponymously-named Lexi Towers.” 


He allows himself a moment to smile, but then glances at his iPad and sees the red exception lights all over the globe. One catches his attention. There is still some significant issues with food distribution in India. This will take time, but he can fix that without creating another forking path, which he uses sparingly now. In fact, he has only created one new fork since the Clark M. Joseph interview. 


Howard starts updating the model.    


By the time Howard looks up, hours later, Lexi is sitting in the couch in his office.   


“It never fails to impress me,” she says.    


She is the only one who knows the forking paths and the potential paths he recreated in the protocol room nearly three years ago.  She also knows how he undid the path – never fully set, therefore never actually happening – where they were both killed.    


--   


Howard and Lexi enter the room together, Lexi first. She always led.   


“Let's just get right to it, “ says Howard to Lexi’s surprise. “You already know your moment of choice?”   


“Yes,” says Clarke.   


“We do need to cover off on a few details,” slow-talks Lexi, hypnotizing Clarke into following her lead, but Clarke snaps out of it.   


“Aren’t we all signed, sealed and delivered?” asks Clarke.   


Lexi begins to speak, but in a rare moment, which Lexi cannot recall ever happening before, Howard cuts her off.   


“About that,” says Howard. “There was a significant issue with your contract. We’re no longer able to offer you the Protocol.”    


At that moment two security guards, large men, one almost a giant, enter the room surprising both Lexi and Clarke. The not-so-giant one quickly walks over to Clarke and pushes his chair backwards. By the time Clarke hits the ground, both have their guns pointed at him.   


“You’re coming with us,” says the giant one. 


Clarke looks at Howard and Lexi for explanation. “What’s going on here?” he demands to know.  


Lexi also looks curiously at Howard.   


“We’re saving your life,” Howard answers. “All of our lives.”   


--   


“It never fails to impress me,” she says.    


“All the butterfly wings?” Howard asks.    


He has shown Lexi pictures of the interview room where their bodies lay in pools of blood, as well as walked her through the intricate choice paths that led to his controlling the world’s food and weather systems.  And her being the well-loved and respected President of the corporation where they both worked.  


Multiple precision changes to anyone’s life, Howard believed, could in fact change the entire world.


“Old news,” she laughs. “I was talking about your concentration level. I’ve been here, taking calls even, for more than an hour.”  


THE END