Science Fiction Speculative

“What do you regret?"

“That’s a heck of an icebreaker.”

“I promise it will make sense in a moment.”

“Can we skip to that part?”

The man in pinstripes looked down at his papers. Was that a file on me? Were they for show, the way newscasters shuffle notes as if to say, “Trust us, we’re in the know?”

He cleared his throat. Definitely newscaster credibility papers.

“What do you know about our project?” he asked, looking up with thoughtfully squinted eyes.

“I thought you guys put bags over people’s heads and brought them here in vans.”

“Ha, yes. We’re working on that reputation.” He cleared his throat again. Maybe he had a sinus infection. “Have you heard what we do here, though?”

I shrugged. “I saw a very vague ad: ‘Change your life.’” I framed the quote with my hands. “’We’ll make it happen yesterday.’”

“Our marketing team has a flair for the dramatic, yes. Ahem. We would be happy to tell you more. You see, we invited you here based on some conversations you’ve had lately. Your phone picked it up and recommended you as a target for our ads.”

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, don’t worry. It’s standard practice these days, we just pay more personal attention. Really, don’t trouble yourself with that. The point is, we think you’re a perfect candidate for our ongoing trials.”

“I know I walked in here on my own, but I’m starting to feel the bag on my head.”

Pinstripes leaned forward with a dismissive wave of his hand. “We’re getting off track. We were speaking of regrets.”

“Fashion choices, maybe? 1920s mafioso is a brave one.”

“Yes, well. Your regrets, I should clarify.”   

I glanced down. “Yeah, I’ve got some. Why?”

The man’s eyes went eager.

“We’re offering you a chance to change them. Think about a moment, a period of time, any part of your life that you think back on and feel those helpless pangs of regret. Did you say something that makes you cringe? Did you let an opportunity pass you by? Did you ruin a relationship or waste entire years at a time?”

“Thanks for the reminders, buddy. I dwell on my mistakes enough as is.”

“But what if you don’t have to?”

I mulled over that question for a moment.

“So…you guys do time travel?”

“After a fashion,” said Pinstripes with a smile. He stood and walked back to a sturdy, red oak table in the otherwise sterile room. He opened a drawer and withdrew a wooden box and a single sheet of paper.

I looked skeptically at the items he placed on the pristine white table. He sat primly and scooted in his metal chair. The uncomfortable screech struck me as a pretty obvious oversight for such a sophisticated pitch.

“All you need to do is sign this form. No charge, as we are merely gathering data before a true market release. Just a signature assuring your return after the trial period.”

“Seriously, man, you’ve got to give me a better explanation. I’m in the dark here.”

“Forgive me. Marketing doesn’t have a monopoly on drama. Here,” he said, depressing a discrete latch on the box and swinging open the lid. Inside the warm wood panels, a silvery cube reflected the white light overhead. It was mounted with a single red button.

“Will that say ‘Easy’ if I smack it?”

“Sir, this is your reset button.” He set his fingers proudly atop the open lid. “If you accept, merely choose a regret, the biggest one you want, and you can change it. You will return to the time before that decision, action, word, or event. And you get to live it again the way you fantasize that you had.”

I waffled between laughing and rolling my eyes. I settled on a face like the one you give your uncle when he makes an off-color joke.

“Time travel,” I repeated with a voice twice-washed in incredulity.

“As I said, after a fashion. In past tests, the ripples are minimal. For unknown reasons, there is little evidence of a butterfly effect. For everyone else, life remains the same. But that part of your life, people’s relationships to you, will be different when you return.”

“So I live that regret again, do it differently, and poof back here?”

“Not quite. You live your whole life again from the point of your regret. From what our other subjects have told us, you are aware of the choice you need to change, and then you lose that awareness afterward and simply live your life again. Hence the form assuring your return for evaluation.”

I didn’t really believe him, of course. I enjoyed a bit of absurdity as much as the next guy, but I was always a cynic at heart.

“No charge to push the button, huh?”

“No cost whatsoever.”

No harm in indulging the man, then. I perused the form. Everything it required was completely contingent on the device’s success. This time I laughed.

“All right, Pinstripes, why not? Last year, I wanted to learn to play the banjo and become fluent in Spanish. My hours…didn’t go toward that.”

“We can try that, if you wish. However, I would caution you that there is something of a New Year’s Resolution effect to those sorts of attempts. Patterns are difficult to change.”

I huffed, but it made sense.

“Fine. In college, I was failing a math class. Never was my strong suit, but I thought I could be an engineer. Yeah, I know. But it wasn’t all my fault—we switched teachers halfway through the semester.”

“You want to relive your life from college on to make a better math grade?”

“Unfortunately, that’s not the regret. I drafted a pretentious letter to the dean campaigning for grace for all the students in the class. I sent it out for signatures…”

“Oh dear.”

“Yeah. No one signed. It was a pretty pathetic move. Can’t show my face around any of ‘em now.”

“Ahem. I have to agree, that was a low moment for you. Have you decided?”

I hated that memory, but was it my biggest regret? Not by a long shot.

“No. No, I don’t think so.” I took a breath. Slick pseudoscientists weren’t the sort of people with whom I was naturally vulnerable. Still…

I rested my elbows on the table. I realized the walls were thin to the point of translucency, allowing light from a source behind to pass into the room. Fancy.

“My…junior year, I guess it was. I went to Guatemala for a summer on a trade internship. I was going to learn to weld and do some humanitarian relief work. Crazy situation—a volcano erupted near Antigua, wiped out some villages. Anyway, if all went well, I would come back with new skills, a new language, new professional connections, new friends. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of another culture.”

Pinstripes nodded gravely. “And what happened?”

“Not those things. I stayed in my room. I blamed my fiancée back home for my trouble jumping into things—not really sure why. Something about her keeping me from engaging fully.”

“I believe the kids call that ‘BS.’” advised Pinstripes helpfully.

“Jeez, dude, thanks. I figured that out.” I sighed. “So did she. She called things off when I got back.”

“That sounds promising.”

“I’m starting to think you enjoy this part.”

“Only for your sake, of course. I believe we have a winner.”

I nodded. “June, six years ago.”

Pinstripes made a note, prodded the back of the box a few times, and slid the form over to me. Shaking my head in amazement at myself, I signed.

“When you are ready, sir, it is time to change your life.”

I pressed.

*            *            *

“Welcome, sir. I apologize for the way we had to bring you here, but I promise we were in full compliance with the law.”

I jumped up indignantly.

“Since when is kidnapping people legal!? Seriously, a freaking bag on the head?”

The man in the ridiculous suit had the nerve to chuckle.

“If only you knew the conversation we had just an hour ago,” he said. I stared. A sense of déjà vu buzzed in the back of my head. White light glowed through the walls. The room was spaceship-clean but for a fine desk against the far side.

“I can see it coming back to you. This room is designed to trigger the memory of your experience here. Please, take a few minutes to piece things together.” He cleared his throat and sifted idly through a stack of papers on the table.

“I’m surprised you aren’t turning to mouth words at people off-screen.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Never mind. I…remember. Good Lord, that’s weird.”

“Yes, I have been told it is an unsettling experience. So, how did it go?”

I rested my head in my hands, processing everything, comparing my parallel lives as I remembered them.

“I can weld now.”

“That’s good, sir. What about your lost love?”

I hesitated before answering.

“I don’t know what was wrong with me. We stayed together for a while. I knew I needed to do things differently, be more mature about everything. But I actually screwed it up worse this time.”

“I am sorry to hear that.” He cleared his throat awkwardly. The man had to have some sort of clinical problem.

“How specifically did you address your regret?” he asked after the pause. “In other words, did you alter a pivotal moment, or did you rely on a pattern, a resolution?”

“I set small goals, to begin with. I got up earlier. When I could have watched movies in my room, I chose to hang out with other interns.”

“Yet it was not successful?”

“Well…I felt like some mistakes only emerged later. As if my failures were hanging over my head, waiting to fall. As if I couldn’t act on lessons I hadn’t learned.”

“That is an intriguing thought, sir.”

An idea crept forward.

“I… I want to try again.”


“Maybe I didn’t go back far enough. I want to take what I know now and be different. Say, high school?”

“Ahem. I’m not sure that’s a good idea. So far back? And with what objective, precisely?” His eyebrows shifted like a teeter-totter, elevating one side comically high. I imagined that he was an android with a pulley system malfunctioning in his forehead.

“Please. Let me reset.”

He sighed theatrically. “I suppose it would provide useful data.”

The box flipped open. The silver sparkled. I pushed the button.

*            *            *

“Welcome back, sir.”

“Hey, Al Capone!” I scrambled back from the table when the bag was removed. “Who do you think you are?”

“Please, take a moment to acclimate. I assure you, this can all be very civil.”

“Civil? What if I told you Liam Neeson is my father?”

“He isn’t.”

Lights. Walls. Desk. I began to settle down as the familiarity reasserted itself.

“There has to be a better way to do this,” I grumbled. I rubbed a hand over my face, still tense.

“Yes. Well. Here we are again! You have had a remarkable third chance to right the wrongs of your life and remedy your regrets. Tell me, have you changed your life?”

The tension was replaced by a sort of lethargy. I had ghost memories of the two other lives I lived, fresher memories of the third. How could I explain that the regrets had merely been…shuffled? Traded one for another?

“Changed, yeah. I did some things differently.” I was reticent to expound further.

“Come now, sir, give us more than that. This process isn’t without its expenses, you know.”

“I haven’t gotten it right, okay? Things just didn’t line up for me. The same people got in my way, and I made a lot of the same choices. Other choices should have changed things, but I landed in the same places. It’s like there’s a way the universe is forcing me to end up.”

“I don’t think that’s it, sir. Have you considered that you can’t really change who you were?”

I eyed the man across the table with suspicion. He sat in his outdated suit, hair combed neatly and professionally, hands folded. His expression was the picture of guileless candor.

“I thought that’s what you do.”

“We give you a chance to remove a regret. I think you’ve taken your chance a bit too far. You can’t be someone else, sir.”

“Why not? I just need… I just need to try again! Once more, a full reset, and things will be different.”

“I really don’t see—”

“I can change!” I shouted. In the silence that followed, even Pinstripes didn’t clear his throat.

“We’ve reached the end of this road, sir. I am truly sorry we couldn’t help you.”

My eyes were still wild, I could feel it. My heart thudded with adrenaline. Somewhere in my past, there was an obstacle that I could shift. There was a decision, a handful of decisions, I could make to become the man I wanted to be. My gaze shifted hungrily toward the far desk. Pinstripes opened his mouth to ask a question, but then his eyes widened with realization.

I uncoiled like a spring and dove to the desk. Click. Shine.


*            *            *

“Sir. Sir, are you all right?”

I slumped in the chair, despondent. The memory of my life settled in faster than before, all four of them. Truth be told, my awareness of the repetition had never fully lapsed this time.

And all I could think through the years of my fourth lifetime was that in the first, the real life, I truly had choices. The only path was forward, and the movement mattered. Regrets lived in the past, where they belonged.

“Sir! What happened?”

“I have one more regret, Pinstripes.” I lifted my head wearily. “It’s in that drawer over there.”

“Four chances, though. Four! Surely you were able to set things right?”

“No. I was who I was.”

I stood up and walked toward the door, cold white. Blank. There was no blank slate behind me—history was written, and I was tired of reading it. As I walked out of the building, no one tried to stop me. It occurred to me that no one had ever stopped me but myself.

February 08, 2023 04:28

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Tamarin Butcher
18:08 Feb 16, 2023

Interesting take on time travel! I also enjoyed some of your turns of phrase, such as, "I settled on a face like the one you give your uncle when he makes an off-color joke." You made it very clear what kind of person your MC is, and I liked the Sci-Fi angle to exploring ideas that are more psychological in nature.


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Shane Murray
15:46 Feb 13, 2023

Jarod, I liked the unique take on timeline alteration; time travel in a limited sense - very interesting!


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