by Tony Noland
As he had been for forty-five minutes, the Senator was lying in a cool room on a comfortable couch, electrodes on his face, chest and hands, a glass of scotch on the table nearby. The timeline technician finished the calibrations and nodded to the company rep, a smooth man in a synthsilk suit.
"We're all set, sir." said the rep. "Now then, as we have all of the necessary confidentiality and logistical details taken care of, what can we show you?"
The Senator squinted, but didn't respond. A mild look of surprise came over him as he found himself at the brink of all possible things, but obviously didn't know what to ask for. "I, ah... had a few things in mind, but, ah, now that we come to it, I'm not... that is, I seem to find myself rather... conflicted." He flushed, a reddening that turned his meticulous tan into something the color of old brick. Finding the right words had not been a problem for him in a long, long time.
The rep nodded. "As it happens, sir," he said, "it's not uncommon for our more successful clients to be, shall we say, especially meticulous in choosing what timelines they wish to see. For the common man, we have a list of viewpoints which are universally popular. Knowing the value of your time, sir, I took the liberty of asking that some stills be loaded from them. Perhaps you would care to see them, while you decide on a something more specific?"
The Senator pursed his lips, as though he were thinking it over, then nodded. The technician entered a command.
On the screens surrounding the Senator's couch, images came into focus, held, then faded into the next. He saw himself as President, signing a treaty; as a jet pilot, with close-cropped hair; as a professional football player, his face barely recognizable under another hundred pounds of muscle; as an astronaut, who looked exactly like the jet pilot; as a movie star; as a priest, preparing Communion over an altar; as a police officer; as a fireman carrying a small child, smoke-stained and barefoot; as a navy SEAL; as a -
On screen, the parade of men faded to a generic nature scene.
"How could I possibly have become a professional football player? I hate sports, always have."
The rep looked at the technician, who typed intermittently for a while. "At the start of ninth grade, a school bully threw rocks at you. When you threw them back, you broke a window and had to serve detention, monitored by your English teacher." The technician didn't look up to see if he was right. He didn't need to. "In that particular timeline, the bully threw a football at you. You still broke the window when you threw it back, but the detention was monitored by the gym coach. He encouraged you to try out for the freshman football team. You were never able to throw well enough to be a quarterback, but you were a terrific nose tackle. With drive, hard work and anabolic steroids, you got a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, then turned pro. Shall I call up a timeline where you led your team to victory in the Superbowl?"
"No.", the Senator said, his eyes closed. He breathed deeply, a dozen times, then another dozen. "I want you to show me a timeline where I'm... where I'm happy."
Looking up from his screen, the technician exchanged glances with the company rep. "Naturally, we aren't able to read minds, Senator," said the rep, "but I believe we will be able to locate a few plausible options, based on your aggregate facial expressions and behaviors - frequency of laughter, body language, socialization incidence, and so on." He nodded to the technician, who set to work. After a long bout of typing, the search went live. Spiraling outward from the Senator's reality, alternate timelines by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then by the millions and tens of millions flashed through the computers. As the minutes ticked by, the rep began to fidget, crossing and re-crossing his legs.
The technician simply watched the statistics pile up. When he had four hits, he suspended the search and nodded to the rep.
"Sir?" The Senator's eyes opened. "Here are the first four." The screens faded, then showed the Senator as: a pot-bellied man in a cubicle, wearing a telephone headset; a guy in a greasy work shirt, drinking a beer at a sports bar; a salesman in the men's clothing department of a department store; a judge, wearing black robes and presiding over a packed courtroom. All four images reappeared in the quarters of the screen. The judge wasn't smiling, but nevertheless, in all of them, he looked relaxed, confident, at ease. He looked happy.
"What is the commonality here?" The Senator's eyes never left the four disparate images of himself. "It's not power or money. It's not position. Is it who I married? Where I live? What is it?"
The technician's fingers danced and tapped as he scanned the four lives laid open to him. Then he motioned to the rep, so he could read what was on the screen.
"Well? What is it?"
As the rep straightened, he said, "It would appear that these timelines are unlike all others in one crucial respect." The rep paused. "Sir, I feel that I should reiterate our policy of unimpeachable discretion."
He waited for the Senator to respond. The room remained silent while the Senator studied himselves with avid intensity. The rep took a deep breath.
"In each of these timelines, sir, you are openly homosexual. You were forced to reveal yourself following the discovery of an affair with one of your undergraduate classmates at Yale."
The Senator's eyes narrowed and his face reddened again, but he made no other reaction.
"A classmate whom you then subsequently and, ah, surreptitiously murdered."
The Senator's eyes closed and the color slowly drained from his face.
Behind his screen, the technician waited for the rep to add the words, "... and ate."
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