“Annnnnnd,” Tr8z, the smooth-talking announcer with the high-shine platinum pompadour let the words linger until the electricity in the room grew thick enough to make our hair stand on end. “....It looks like Dy&n has struck out again! Unlucky in love and on Second Chances.” The camera panned over and zoomed in on Dy&n, whose wrinkled leather lips shook with heartbreak.
“I need to try again. Please!” She gripped the announcer’s sleeve, and her body went rigid. Her eyes bulged and she sputtered like an h-craft engine before keeling over on the floor. The audience laughed, and the screen shifted to potato chips doing the feriama jig that had become popular after Zo7een’s last music video dropped.
“They always forget about the suit, don’t they? Poor saps can’t help themselves,” my dad said from the sofa, drinking a H0pXXXSc0tch that was already making him slur. I wondered if he’d pass out before the end of the episode.
“I thought she had it, too. You saw the way he looked at her. Tell me that wasn’t what love looks like,” I dared him.
“Nah,” he said. “She was too emotional - bawling every time he said something nice. Men can’t commit to clingy.”
He took a sip and tipped his can at me. “You owe me a coin.”
I groaned, grabbed my phone, and transferred a coin to his account, “You’re wiping me out, Fr@nk. I need to hold off until my next paycheck’s uploaded.”
“Want some advice before the next round?” he asked. On the screen, a dog was being chased by a gang of exploding drones in what turned out to be a toothpaste commercial.
“If it helps you lose for once? You sure about that, old man?”
“Old man?” He shook his head the way old people do at Gen #Qb2, and sipped his beer. “Fine.” He shrugged. “Here’s what my old age has taught me. Contestants on this show - they fall into two groups. The first group believes in free will. They think they chose to talk to the stranger at a bar and now they’re married with three kids and a thousand regrets. Like, uh, - what was his name - J^Mal?”
J^Mal was a contestant from last week’s episode. He was a 40-something construction worker who thought he’d missed his billion-coin break because he fell in love and started a family in V0. So, during his Second Chance, Tr8z dosed him with XXX-Lax, and he spent the night on a porcelain throne instead.
“The other group thinks everything’s an accident. They couldn’t catch a ride to the bar, and their date made off with another guy.” That was Dr!pz, who thought J^Mal’s wife was his soulmate, but missed the chance at love in V0 because his h-craft ran out of juice.
“The truth is that both groups are wrong.” He slurped down the rest of his H0pXXXSc0tch and tossed the can into a corner that was littered with empties.
An alarm started blaring from the screen while red and blue strobe lights played on a loop of at least 400bpm. Overload.
“PAY ATTENTION . . . BEEEEEEEEP . . . PAY ATTENTION . . . BEEEEEEEEEEEP” I rolled my eyes and plugged my ears until the commercial ended.
“Damn - those Budweiser ads get louder every year,” Fr@nk said, opening another H0pXXXSc0tch while identical septuplets smiled and pranced around in holo lingerie.
“So, if both groups are wrong, how does that help, exactly?” I asked, pulling his attention away from the gyrating models on the screen.
“Think about it. We’re creatures of habit from the minute we realize we get a breast in our mouth when we cry. And it gets worse from there. A cute girl compliments your hair color, and you keep #B3F5C0 for two more years hoping for another endorphin hit like that. On the other hand, you get mugged on a street corner walking to work? You’re going to start taking another route. We search for pleasure and run like hell from pain until our decisions are conditioned by our experiences. So, to summarize,” he said with a soft slur, “free will’s garbage. You remember what happened to J^Mal?”
I nodded. J^Mal didn’t meet up with his V0 girl in V1, but he still ended up with three kids and a miserable marriage.
“J^Mal would’ve made the same decision with 100 chances. Why? Because there’s no such thing as free will when you’re behind the wheel of your own decisions.”
He burped, “Now, group 2 - the ‘accidents,’” he did the air quote thing old people seem to do when they’re being sarcastic. “Their so-called accidents are just experiences they haven’t added to their brain bank yet. Dr!pz made it to his date after Tr8z charged his h-craft in V1, but what happened next?”
“He, uh, stood her up when it broke down again a few weeks later?”
“Gold star, 10 points, you got it. But after he loses the girl of his dreams, you can put coin on the fact that he’ll start charging his h-craft before dates. That’s enough of that - it’s starting.”
The theme song started playing and Tr8z’s perfect poreless face filled the screen. “Ladies and gentleman,” he crooned, “you know how I looooooove a good love story.” He winked and members of the audience swooned in the background. “The cute star of this meet cute has traveled all the way from Nochitow to be here, so please give a warm welcome to . . .” he cleared his throat and, in a booming voice said “M~Lani 03251!”
Fr@nk spit his beer across the room, “M~Lani?” he asked as a middle-aged blonde woman walked on stage, beaming and waving to the audience.
“You know her?” I asked. “Bet’s off if you know her, Fr@nk. That'd be cheating - I think.”
“Shhhh, I wanna hear this.” He turned up the volume as M~Lani started talking.
“. . . 30 years ago. I’d had a crush on him all through grade school, but I don’t think he noticed me. I always thought we could be something special. It was an intuition, I think, but I was shy. In college, I finally worked up the courage to talk to him. I walked over and was about to make a move when I spilled a beer on his lap---”
“Holy shit,” Fr@nk said, with a huge smile, “Inner Circle . . .”
“What do you m---”
“Shhhhhh,” he cut me off, and leaned in towards the screen.
M~Lani brushed her hair to the side and gave the camera a nervous smile. “He was a gentleman, of course. We laughed about it, but I lost my nerve. That was the last time I saw him. I moved to Nochitow a few weeks later.”
Tr8z put a sympathetic hand on her shoulder, “So what can Second Chances do to help, M~Lani?”
M~Lani took a deep breath and said, “I want a second chance at a first impression with Fr@nk 83740.”
“What the hell, Fr@nk?” I asked over his roaring laughter.
“--I want a second chance to talk to him at that party.”
“You’re in the Inner Circle!” The Inner Circle was the small group of people whose lives were modded when Tre8z went back in time and altered events from V0, our current history, to create V1, the new reality. J^Mal’s V0 kids, for example, didn’t exist in V1. After Second Chances, they’d never existed at all.
“You can’t fall for her, Fr@nk,” I said, growing nervous. I grabbed his arm, and he dropped his H0pXXXSc0tch, spilling beer on the carpet. “If you fall for her, I won’t be here, asshole. You understand? You can’t write me out of history.”
He pulled free of my grip and said, “It’s fine. I’ll bet you a coin you’re still here in V1.”
On the screen, Tr8z had traveled back to 2171. In V0, M~Lani had tripped on the A/V cables the DJ had run along the floor, so Tr8z tucked them under a rug. Then he hauled in kegs of Budweiser while the word “SPONSORED” flashed above the scene.
By the time the party started, I was starting to sweat. A young M~Lani walked across the screen, oblivious to the fact that her older self had set her on a new path on Second Chances. M~Lani carried a beer across the room and started talking to my dad, who was surprisingly handsome in a retro leather letterman with #8B0000 hair and dark eyes that predated 30 years of hardship.
I shook my head. “This isn’t happening,” I said through clenched teeth. I looked over at V0 Fr@nk in his recliner, and for a second, I thought he’d passed out. But then I remembered that it was a side-effect of the Inner Circle. His brain was too busy rewriting history to be cognizant.
I turned the TV up and watched a new history unfold. Locking eyes, a gentle touch, and--
“Oh my God. Fr@nk, no!” A kiss. My skin felt like it was vibrating, being tugged by a vacuum that was threatening to pull me out of existence. They held hands. He asked for her number and . . .
“Welcooooooooommmme to V1, M~Lani!” Tr8z yelled, back at the studio, in front of his adoring audience. A dark haired middle-aged woman frowned at the camera while Tr8z shimmied to the theme song, and the audience laughed.
Fr@nk grunted from the recliner next to me, “You owe me a coin and a new beer, J@Zz. Pay up.”
I took a deep breath as relief washed over me like a UV clean. His Budweiser had spilled on the carpet next to him, so I picked it up and went to the Insta-Cool to grab another one.