Once upon a time, there was a young man named David, who hated himself. Well, really, it's not that he hated himself, so much... Of course, there were things he disliked about himself, some of them quite a bit, even if they were more or less beyond his control. But on the whole, he actually thought rather well of himself. He'd always been rather odd, in alot of ways, but even most of those ways, he was happy about. And again, the ways in which he was odd about which he was not happy, were beyond his control. Nevertheless, he wasn't particularly happy, in general. Sometimes he thought it was the world that he hated. And of course, there were things he genuinely did hate about the world, but there were also a great many things about it that he liked, or even loved.
One day, he awoke to find himself in a strange bed. It was a nice bed, though, very nice. Large. Comfortable. He realized his back didn't hurt in the slightest. The sheets and pillows were also quite nice. Luxurious, comfortable, and he really loved the designs on them. He barely had time to register all this consciously, though, as he immediately started glancing around the room, which was just as unfamiliar as the bed. It was a large room, with various posters, paintings, and so forth covering the walls. He liked the wallpaper, too. There was a book shelf... he got up, looked at it more closely. It was filled with books he'd been meaning to read for quite awhile, as well as manga and magazines.... He then realized he wasn't wearing his glasses, but could see perfectly. He looked around the rest of the room. Great dresser, great window with great curtains, and a shelf in the window upon which sat his pet shamrock plant, Lenny. Lenny was familiar to him, at least. And upon the dresser was a turntable/CD player/radio/tape deck, rather old-fashioned looking. He remembered that, too. And the sun-shaped golden clock on the wall, that he knew. There was also a TV/VCR/DVD combo, which he didn't recognize. And cases for DVDs and CDs and records. And different video game consoles, and a case for video games. And he soon found a nicer cellphone than he remembered, and a video iPod, and an XM radio, and several handheld video game systems, portable DVD player, a PDA... so many things he never could've afforded, but quite wanted.
Looking down at himself, he realized he liked his pajamas. He should dress soon, but first he had to shower. And before that he would have to figure out where he was, and if any of this stuff was actually his. But before that, he went to the bathroom. It was quite nice, and he looked forward to getting to discover more about it at some point, but for the moment there was only one thing he needed of it, and it didn't much matter to him if it was his bathroom or not.
When he was finished, he went back into the bedroom, and put on a bathrobe he found hanging there. He'd seen it earlier, but hadn't bothered about it just yet. Now that he really looked at it, it seemed to him reminiscent of one worn by Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy TV series. That certainly seemed like something he would've bought for himself, if he'd ever found such a thing, and had a bit of money to spare. Wearing it now, he left the bedroom, and started exploring the rest of the house. No one was there. He was partly relieved about that, but also partly annoyed that there was no one to explain anything to him. It was all quite nice, though, every room. Not a huge place, but nice. It seemed like just the sort of place he would've bought for himself, if he could afford it. Full of all the sorts of things he'd have bought with which to furnish it. Yes, definitely seemed all to his tastes, from highbrow to middle to low. Very eclectic. He even recognized some things he knew were his.
Finally, he wandered into the kitchen, brewed himself a cup of coffee, which was about the best he'd ever tasted outside a coffee shop, and toasted himself a bagel, on which he spread some cream cheese. He sat at a fine table with his bagel and coffee, and when he was finished, poured another cup, which he carried to the living room, set it down on a coaster on the coffee table, and plopped himself down on the couch. It was quite a nice couch, very comfortable, one of those wrap-around types. He propped his feet up on the coffee table, and picked up a remote. Turned on the large HDTV, surfed for awhile. It was satellite, a system with which he was familiar, though not one he'd had himself for some while. Besides which, it was the highest package, so it had every channel he could possibly want. He noticed the onscreen guide said "Dave" in one corner, and clearly, all the channels listed were ones he himself would have picked out. He could change the listing to "All subscription," but aside from his channels, all the others were ones in which he had no interest, so he switched back to "Dave." However, there was nothing on at the moment that he cared about, so he turned off the TV.
He took a sip of his second cup of coffee, then set it back down. He was rather at a loss, at this point, had no idea what to do. After a few minutes of just sitting there pondering, he sighed, got up, and went back to his bedroom, where he undressed, and then went to into the adjoining bathroom. He took a shower, which was just divine. The tub obviously had jets in it, but he wasn't interested in a bath at the moment, so didn't experiment with that. When he was finished, he got dressed. After a brief stop at the dresser for a couple of items, he opened the closet for the first time. Had a few rather cheap things hanging there which he recognized, as well as various other things, ranging from obviously cheap to obviously expensive. He liked all of them, but for now, he chose to put on familiar things. Shirt, at least. Couldn't wear familiar pants, because, as he had noticed earlier, he was in better shape than he should've been. Not too muscular, or anything, but not at all overweight, and not wiry, either.
He went to the cellphone he'd seen earlier, opened it up, and checked its phonebook. There were names in it he didn't know, as well as some he did. He called his sister. He should've been at the apartment they shared. The one where he couldn't afford to pay his share of the rent, bills, or anything, because no one would hire him. Not even frickin' McDonalds. He started to think, as he often had before, I mean, seriously, how the hell can you not get hired by McDonalds? That isn't even possible... But suddenly he found himself not minding. Not feeling... that the world was utterly unfair, especially to him...
He was interrupted from this train of thought when his sister answered the phone. "What's up?" she said, as if not at all surprised to have found him not in their apartment that morning.
"Uh... just wanted to see how things are going?"
"That's funny, it's not like you to call for no reason. Anyway, things are fine. I'm at work, though, so I can't really talk. I'll call you back later, or else e-mail, okay?"
"Yeah, okay, e-mail would be good. Bye."
"Bye." She disconnected the call, and he closed his own phone.
Speaking of e-mail... he went into one of the rooms he had explored earlier, which had a very nice computer set up, with every accessory he could possibly want. And of course, a cable modem. He turned it on. Nice desktop. He opened the browser, which loaded a familiar page... the front page of his website, with the simple list of events for the month that he remembered coding in, as he normally did. Yes, he remembered making this very page. It was for this very month, this very year. Looking at the corner of the monitor, he saw the time, moved the cursor to the clock, and it showed him the date. Exactly the day he expected it to be. Then he moved the cursor to the top of the page, where it said "Enter my site." Just below that were links that said "HTML/Frames," "HTML/Non-frames," and "Flash." This was not quite as he remembered it. He clicked on "Flash," and was astounded by what he saw. He loved it. It was clearly his site, but so much cooler.
I wonder what else I know, he thought. I wonder... and upon inspecting the recesses of his mind, he found that he had a passable knowledge of Japanese, Irish, Latin, and... yes, even Klingon. "Ah, so clearly I'm still a geek. That's good." He'd always wanted to learn those languages. He refocused his attention on his website, but quickly tired of that, and checked his Favorites. Same webmail address, though his inbox had messages that weren't spam. "That has to be the strangest thing of all!" However, he didn't know most of the people who'd sent him these messages. At least, he thought he didn't. But as he read them, he slowly began to know what the heck they were talking about. Memories began to come to him. His place in the world was becoming clearer....
"Ye gods!" he shouted, rolling back in his chair and jumping up. He pointed at the monitor and exclaimed, "That e-mail is from my publisher! My pub-lish-er! Okay, I can't breathe, y'all!" Then he laughed to himself, sat back down, stared at the screen with a grin on his face, and laughed out loud. "I... am a published author. What the hell, dude? When did this happen?" And then he remembered when it had happened.
He got up again, went back to the living room, picked up his coffee mug and drank. He realized this was a mug he had already owned, but the more he forced himself to think, the more his old memories began to blend into his new ones. Life, at some point, had diverged, taken an alternate route. Some of his memories of the past were shared by both realities. And yet, some... It's not just, he thought to himself, that at some point things took a different path. I mean, it's clear to me that some things happened in this new reality that I can't see how they could have happened without being preceded at some point by things from the old reality, and yet some of those things never did... happen.... He suddenly realized he couldn't remember anything bad having happened to him. Not seriously bad, anyway.
"I mean," he said aloud, "I can remember them... and yet, I know that they didn't happen. My ankle..." He sat down on the couch, pulled up his pant leg, scrunched his sock down a bit, and examined his ankle. There were no scars. He allowed his ankle to turn about, and it had full range of motion. He stood up, and realized there wasn't the slightest twinge of pain. He could squat. He could... He went to the front door, and went outside. It was a beautiful morning. He realized he lived in a city he'd never been to, but it was perfect for him. Every modern convenience he could think of, yet also intermixed with lovely bits of nature. And it was quite temperate... it occurred to him that there was never a real Winter here, though it was rarely unbearably hot, either. Looking about, he found that he quite liked his own property, as well. Nicely isolated, but not too far from... well, everything. He ran down his driveway, and around his yard. He could run. He'd never been much for running, but he'd missed the ability to run effectively, after breaking his ankle a few years ago.
"But I never broke it. There's no arthritis. God, this is great!" He stood still for a minute, then went to sit on a porch swing. "I'm in decent shape, perfect eyesight, my ankle's fine..." He thought back to his shower, and realized... "Huh, no hair back there, either! Never was!" He laughed for a bit, then stopped. His smile turned into a frown. "This," he said, "is no alternate timeline. This is... what the hell is this?"
He went back in the house, and sat on the couch, holding his now cold cup of coffee, occasionally sipping from it as he thought. "Never had that relationship, so no regrets on that account... In fact, I've never had any relationship, not a single date. Okay." Then he thought about how he felt about himself, and about the world. "I... think I'm still odd. And I like that. But... I can't detect a trace of depression. I don't feel anything that seems like Asperger's... or paranoia... or pessimism... or social anxiety..." He decided he'd have to test this last bit. He went back to his bedroom, grabbed his cellphone, went back to the front door and grabbed his jacket, which was oddly light enough for the warm weather... "Well, I still feel the need for a jacket," he said. "Interesting."
He looked in his garage, and there was a car there he quite liked, but he decided he'd rather go for a walk. He knew what all was in walking distance of his house. He walked down his driveway, and then down the private road it let onto, which itself soon let onto a public street. He walked down that, and felt a rush of pleasure at seeing the familiar sights he'd never seen before. And as he passed people on the sidewalk, he found that he didn't worry about what any of them were thinking. He didn't worry that they might be thinking about him, and he didn't care if they were. Damn, how the hell do people do that? he wondered. Just... not care what anyone's thinking? Not worry that they might be thinking about you? Is that even possible? But he'd always believed it was possible, even if he couldn't quite imagine it. And now he was experiencing it... a total lack of social anxiety or self-consciousness or paranoia of any kind. He didn't even mind when he passed women who he thought were attractive. Didn't bother him in the least! Didn't give it more than a passing thought! And such thoughts were entirely enjoyable, nothing more!
He walked to a book store that he realized he liked. He browsed. He bought a manga, after searching his new memories to see if he had it yet, and found that he did not. Then he walked to the park, sat on a bench, and started reading. A woman approached him and asked what he was reading. He showed her. She said she loved that one, but she hadn't gotten this issue yet. She said her name was Yomiko, just like the character in the manga. David said he'd long been in love with the character, and they both laughed. She asked if she could sit down, and he was pleasantly surprised to find that he found the notion... well, pleasant. So he said yes. She asked what he did for a living, and he said he wrote science fiction and fantasy books, stories, comics, whatever. When he told her his name, she said "Oh, I've heard of you! I'm sorry, I've never gotten around to reading anything of yours..." but he didn't mind. She said she would, though... when she went to the book store to buy the new manga, she'd look for something of his to pick up, too. He said not to feel obligated or anything, but she really didn't mind. She wanted to. He said, "Well, my website address is in the back of any of my books, you should check that out, and from there take a link to my blog, or my discussion board..." and he trailed off. She said she'd be sure to do that. And then she left. He had a very good feeling about her. Maybe nothing would come of this. Maybe he'd never hear from her again, or maybe they'd become friends, or maybe something more. Something more would be quite nice, indeed, and he felt no reservations about the concept of starting a relationship.
He went back to his reading, once his mind had settled down a bit. But after another few minutes, someone else sat down beside him. "Hello," said the man.
"Uh... hi," said David.
"My name is Sebastian. I represent an alien race who are currently trying to decide what to do about our species."
David smiled. He found that he rather liked when crazy people sat down next to him on park benches and started saying crazy things, apropos of nothing. As long as they don't seem dangerous. "Is that so?" he asked. "Well, what are the options?"
"It all depends on you. They've sent me to inform you that they've chosen you, more or less at random, to make a decision upon which they will base their decision. How's your day been going, by the way?"
"Why, it's been quite lovely, so far. Why do you ask?"
"Nothing strange, out of the ordinary, at all? Other than me, I mean?" the man said with a wry grin.
"Well, to tell you the truth, it's actually the best day I think I've ever had. Or perhaps not. It's hard to explain. Yes, I would say it's rather strange. But in a very good way."
Sebastian nodded. "It would be nice for things to continue in this vein, would it not?"
"I should say so."
"Therein lies your decision. You can choose for things to remain as they now are, or to go back to what they were. You could wake up tomorrow in your sister's apartment, with all your old physical, psychological, and financial complaints. Or you could wake up where you did today."
David was no longer smiling. "What... are you talking about?"
"If you decide to go back to your old life, no one will ever know of your decision. Even you won't remember it. You'll remember today having gone as it would've in your old, familiar life. Things might someday improve for you, to an extent. Or they might not. Things might well get worse. I really have no idea. Certainly, it will never be as good as this, but in some ways it might come close. Or not. I suppose that all depends on every decision you make, every day. But it also depends to an extent upon forces beyond your control, as you well know and have often complained of. It could be that with your best efforts, you'll become a great success, or it could be that with your best efforts, you'll remain forever miserable, and die penniless, alone, and unremembered. Or it could be anything in between. But, your decision, regardless of your own fate, will do great things for our world. The beings for whom I work would make contact with our people, share great secrets, technology, medicine, philosophy... our people would be invited to enter into the greater galactic community of worlds. There would be an end to humanity's suffering. Hunger, disease, poverty, wars, hate, all that, gone. There would, given human nature, be some resistance at first, of course. But doubtless we can get past all that on our own, in time. And with the help of the beings who I represent, we would get past it far, far more quickly and easily. And with all our major problems resolved here, we could move out into the universe. So much to see, to learn, to do! So much adventure! New entertainments to enjoy! Oh, enough cannot be said, but you're both a fan and a writer of science fiction. You know."
"And if I choose to keep this life? What, will they invade us or something?"
"Heavens, no! Do you think it is in the nature of the kind of beings I've described to do something like that? Of course not. They'd simply leave. Maybe someday we'd find them. It isn't likely to happen before the next time they return with this test, of course, but it's possible. And maybe by then, we'll have resolved our problems ourselves. And maybe when we contact them, or any of the other races out there, they might invite us to join the community. But honestly, I think it's more likely we won't get another chance until they return."
"And when would that be?"
"It's kind of like a groundhog. You choose whether or not it sees its shadow. Based on your choice, humanity will enter a bright new Springtime, or else... six more centuries of Winter."
David thought about this. "And, if I choose to give up this life, and usher in the Spring, and I forget... will you remember?"
Sebastian shook his head. "They use me from time to time, for various things. I always remember them, the aliens; but I never remember the specifics of what I've done for them. I have a feeling, though, that this has the potential to be the most exciting job I've ever done for them, even if I am nothing more than a messenger. If you go back to your old life, well... I'll get to leave with them, start a new job, and always remember things, from then on. This would be the very last mission that I forget. But if you choose to stay in this life, then I'll go back to my old life, just as I always do. Saying nothing to anyone, going to a regular job every day, but always waiting for the next mission.
"This world will remain, in a sort of pocket timeline. Everything here will be quite real for you, and for everyone else here. But it won't really be real. Anyone you knew in your old life will continue on in their old lives, just as their false counterparts go on living here. Your real friends and family will perhaps lament your mysterious disappearance, with no body left behind, no clues as to where you've gone. The real world, beyond those who knew you, will have no idea who you were, as you've given them no reason to remember you. People in this pocket reality may love your books and such, but none of that will ever truly exist. And when you eventually die, presumably some ideal death, at the end of a long, ideal life, this reality will disappear, leaving behind not a trace.
"And once you've made your choice, there will never be a chance to change your mind. You'll forget this conversation, and that you made a choice. You'll forget that this isn't real. You'll forget your old life, with all its problems, though there will remain a sense in the back of your mind, that life could have been different, somehow. It will allow you to fully appreciate this life, not take any of it for granted, as you might have if it's all you'd ever known. And as an added bonus, there won't even be any nagging sense that it's undeserved, or that somehow you could have made reality better for your whole species. On the contrary, some of your contributions to this reality will doubtless affect people for the better, and you'll feel that you've done well for not only yourself and those you love, but also for the world at large... in some small way. Though of course, it will ultimately be entirely meaningless."
David sat silently pondering all this for a few moments. "But the real world won't actually be any worse off?" he asked.
"As I said," Sebastian replied with a nod.
"And... things still could improve for the human race... we could... they... could do it all by themselves. Even if it takes longer, and there's more suffering in the meantime, it might ultimately be more meaningful."
Sebastian frowned. "Well, I can see how one might look at it in that light. I suppose."
David thought some more. After awhile, he said, "You know, I've seen this story so many times, on various shows and whatnot. Episodes of shows. Whatever. The hero is presented with a false, yet ideal, reality. It's all so bloody brilliant... and so excruciatingly painful for them to have to give up their perfect life, to return to the real world, with all its troubles. In part because they're needed, but also because... it's just the right thing to do. Or rather... because these ideal realities are meaningless. However much a part of the false reality they might feel, however much they might love the people in those lives, and everything... however much they might hate to have to leave them, and basically negate the very existence of those people and their world, by leaving..." He sighed. "They have to do it. Because they want and need to be a part of reality. Real reality. However pleasant a fantasy might be, and however much reality might suck... reality is just inherently superior, because it actually means something."
Sebastian smiled. "Just so."
"I still don't understand, though, why I was chosen. I'm not some character on a TV show. My life doesn't really matter, anyway. Sure, it's possible I might make something of myself in my real life, leave something behind by which to be remembered by others. It'd be infinitely preferable to get a book published in reality than in fantasy. But there's no guarantee that'll ever happen. And even if it did, it's not likely to have any significant effect on the world. Whether I make something of myself or not, it doesn't really matter. So why me?"
"As I said, it was essentially random. And that's rather the point, the randomness is what makes the decision meaningful, and fair. The one making the decision had to be random, to effectively prove whether or not humanity is ready yet to take this next step. That randomness is what makes your decision a reasonable basis for their decision. Those shows you talk about... that's just playing with a loaded deck. In the first place, it's all being written, it isn't real. Obviously when one writes something, they want it to go a certain way. They need it to. They want it to go the right way, so they can get past the episode and go on with the regular story. And besides, what can one expect of heroes but to do the right thing? Sure, it's as hard for them as it would be for anyone else, but come on... they're heroes, for cryin' out loud!"
"And... they're needed. They've made a choice to dedicate their lives to something, to follow a certain code. And they're needed. It may not be quite the same for them as the choice you've given me. Regardless of what they choose, there may not be such a drastic difference as the one with which I've been presented, but in their own way, they'll make more of a difference to the world than I would, personally. A choice like this is not really me contributing something to the world. Forget the fact that nobody, including myself, will ever know about it. Even if everyone knew, it'd still be the aliens making all the changes, making things better. I'd still just be some loser who can't get a job. I might get my 15 minutes, in fact my name might go down in the history books, as a footnote. But it wouldn't really make me a better writer, or any more likely to get published, or to have people read my books if I did. And even if they did, I'd always have to know that my success was mostly, if not entirely, based on this one decision I'd made, and not on my talents. Not on people actually liking me for me. Hell, I'd end up more paranoid than ever! I never thought I'd be secure enough to allow myself to try another relationship, but now I know I couldn't do it! Worrying about whether or not people actually liked my books... would have been enough to drive me crazy, possibly drive me to suicide. But worrying about why a woman really wanted to be with me would be infinitely worse! It's bad enough suspecting someone wants you just because you're rich, or famous, or something, but to worry that they want you because of some stupid little decision that had nothing to do with you in the first place?"
"But... but you forget, no one will know about the decision."
"Right." David calmed down a bit. It occurred to him he was starting to think as he would have yesterday, with all his old concerns. He laughed a bit at that, but not a paricularly merry laugh. He sighed, rubbed his face, and ordered his thoughts. Thoughts. Okay... "I wouldn't know, they wouldn't know. Life would be good. I could read books from other planets. Maybe. I might never be published. I might never get a job, or a girl. I might not know the world was better because of me, but at least I'd know it was better, and I'd take pleasure in that thought."
Sebastian felt a bit calmer himself, now, but he was worried about the roller-coaster path this conversation seemed to be taking. "I'm sure we'd both take great pleasure in that. Everyone would."
"Of course, as my life was, I took pleasure in things, anyway. And still suffered. Even the things I enjoyed could simultaneously cause me pain."
David looked up at the sky. It was blue. The clouds were white. The sun was bright, and warm. He looked around the park. Greenery everwhere. Grass and trees. Beautiful flowers, a little sculpture with a waterfall. He could sometimes find such things if he walked a short distance from the crappy little apartment he shared with his sister. He might have no money, and suffer emotional problems, but it was still free to sit in the park and read on a sunny day. As long as it wasn't Winter. It would mean so much more to succeed on his own, in reality. It might never happen. But isn't a crappy reality still better than a wonderful fantasy?
Meh, he thought to himself, not if I don't know it isn't real. "Well, Sebastian, I'll tell you. I'd choose an even worse life for myself than the one I remember, if it would spare the world from becoming worse than it already is. But to spare it from the status quo? To deprive humanity of the chance to determine its own future? I don't know. And, hell, if we still need things to just be handed to us, maybe that means we're not ready yet, anyway."
"But... you want your life to mean something! It means nothing here!"
"It meant nothing there, and probably never would have. Maybe... but probably not."
"But at least it was real."
"Yeah, and you know, I was never a big fan of reality. That's why I always engaged in so much escapism. Books and TV and such."
"But, remember...? You know how the stories go! The hero always does what's right!"
"Sure glad I'm not a hero..." Just some random dude, he thought, and went back to his reading.
stuff I wrote