#FridayFlash: Roll Call

Roll Call

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 -

"That's enough."

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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  1. yeah, careful what you wish for... The desire to be happy, yet we know not how to reach it - great idea to have a permutation machine work out the answer for him, from the deepest, most buried part of his psyche.

    Marc Nash

  2. He's happiest as a cannibal...snort.

  3. Well... well.

    Quite an ending. I love how you flipped happiness on its heiney. Great stuff. Peace...

  4. hehe. I love your story twists. You always get me in the endings!

  5. You have such a unique perspective that reveals itself in gems such as this. Brilliant. When I grow up, I want to write like Tony.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  6. The O. Henry of the flash world. Well done, Tony...

  7. Oh... my goodness! I love this from a purely sci-fi speculative perspective, because it's such a fascinating idea, to see all the possibilities in your life. But then you give it the ol' creepy Tony twist. Nice.

  8. Goodness me! Great ideas about the possibility of tracing parallel lives - fantastic twist on happiness. A happy/horror story.


  9. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    I've long been fascinated by the alternate timeline genre. What if I'd married X instead of Y? What if an early hobby had turned into a passion and a career instead of fading away?

    Here, the technicians are going pretty deep into this guy's mind. That's always a dangerous place to go, even if you approach on tiptoe.

    It's so much easier to try for fame, glory, wealth or power than it is to try for happiness. All of the former of merely externalities of one's life.

    @Marc: Unlike most clients, the Senator made the mistake of asking them to reveal the secrets of his mind instead of his bedroom, bank account or boardroom. This is a rather dangerous machine, isn't it?

    @Laura: What's interesting to me is that after committing secret murder and cannibalism, he can go to work at whatever job, happy and contented, for the rest of his life. What secrets are behind the smiles of the people we meet, eh?

    @Linda: For most folks, happiness is a rare thing. For some folks, that's just as well.

    @A.S.: Thanks!

    @Adam B: When I grow up, I want to write like Tony. I blush!

    @Anthony: The O. Henry of the flash world. I blush again!

    @Jen: But then you give it the ol' creepy Tony twist. Heh, it does seem to go off the charts with alarming frequency, doesn't it? As I was writing this, I just kept going with the revelations, to see how far I could take it. Since these are all just virtual people, no one was actually killed and eaten, though. Right?

  10. Absolutely love the original concept here Tony, and wow, what an ending!

    This line cracked me up: "With drive, hard work and anabolic steroids..." So true!

  11. Wow, this is just brilliant! You've got a bit of a 'Total Recall' going on, which is great, but then you swoop in with that horror twist, and it leaps from 'excellent' to 'I wish I'd written it'. Good stuff!

  12. What an ending! That's the most excellent twist I've read in quite a while. Bravo, sir.

  13. Great story, and an excellent twist too.

  14. OMG, that was disturbing. Great job!

  15. Tony, this is terrific, really good, but for me it would end much better after "you are openly homosexual". That ending really grabbed me, especially since each image of the Senator was so different, and I couldn't figure out what the common thread was. To me, that's the twist at the end. The next few sentences feel a little bit like you threw the kitchen sink in, just to make the ending more grabby. I don't think you need those sentences -- it's a great story without them.

  16. Oh, this is so ... delicious!

    And so very well written. Impressive.

  17. Excellent work Tony! Loved the timeline technology and the twist at the end. Will be back for more :)

  18. Another excellent story, Tony! I have to agree with John - the story ending was powerful enough with "You are openly homosexual." The rest just seems like overkill.

    Can't wait for your next!

  19. Excellent. Was not expecting that at all, or that that was the happiest time in his life.

    Wonder if that idea came from the Japanese cannibal who now makes a living off of it?

  20. Kind of Phillip Dick imeets Total Recall. Such a wonderful and dangerous idea, figuring out all possible lifelines. Now it's got me thinking....

  21. Ah, how rich! Shades (or should I say shadows) of C.G. Jung!

    My new favorite of yours, Tony. (again) Loved every word.

    Indeed, careful what you ask for.

  22. I loved the flashes of alternate futures and time lines. I often wonder what would have happened to me if I hadn't made several crucial choices that shaped who I am today.

    I, too, think you should have ended it with revealing his homosexuality. The LGBT community (of which I'm a part) has enough problems without being portrayed as murderers and cannibals in fiction.

  23. Why didn't I just end it with the reveal of the alternative timeline Senator's homosexuality? @John, @Amber, @vandamir said it would have been better without the murder and the cannibalism.

    I appreciate people raising this issue. However, I will say that, respectfully, I disagree.

    I specifically did NOT want the big final reveal, the huge hidden secret to be latent homosexuality. I just don't believe that learning of such an aspect to his personality would have been sufficiently shocking. I certainly didn't want to portray homosexuality as a the ultimate, dreaded, horrible possibility.

    No, I wanted the Senator to have to confront repulsive, wicked, truly bestial impulses within himself. If he were shown that he was contentedly gay in another timeline, I imagine he could go on about his business in the one true reality.

    I wanted the man shattered after having looked into his soul, and finding there nothing less than a monster. Go back and re-read his reactions when faced with the different choices and images on the screens. He can handle a lot, but not the deepest truth about himself.

    As @ganymeder alluded to in an RT tweet, "Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? Only the Shadow knows." Homosexuality might be surprising or unnerving, but not evil. Even if this guy is a hard-core homophobe who would consider it an evil, I wanted to go farther off the charts.

    Now then, having explained all of that...

    Just about every week, I resist the urge to explain my stories. I know what they are about, both the surface elements and all the sub-surface aspects I try to weave into the story. However, this week I thought it was important to respond in depth to this line of comment.

    Everyone has been terrific here: respectful, thoughtful and impassioned with their perspectives. I appreciate all of your comments, including the ones that challenge me and my writing.

    Thank you, all of you for these terrific comments, this week and every week.

  24. I like the fact that you gave him a deep, secret twisted side. Made him more human in my eyes. Well done!

  25. Well, if only. Very nice, Tony. I love the system you created and the idea that all he wanted to know was how he could have been happy. Great ending because I guessed he'd been some kind of a bastard.

  26. What a delicious dish, ahem.

    What I get out of this (being one of those queer sorts without any sort of power agenda), is a reflection of what we've been seeing an awful lot of in the news: the (usually) right-wing so-deep-in-his-little-closet-of-fear-he-can't-face-himself politician who, after decades of self-loathing mixed with toxic ambition, finally gets his comeuppance, usually after a visit to a gay bar.

    I love how twisted he is - the self-involved monster who can't even live his current life, he has to find the perfect permutation through technology - and in just about every one, he's the same - ambitious, willing to do anything for position (anabolic steroids! murder!) - he almost reminds me of the psychotic who murders psychics in an X-Files episode, the Final Repose of Clyde Bruckman. He just wants to know why he does what he does - the only answer? He's a psychopath.

    The senator will always be this ugly, misshapen thing, no matter what he does, and his resemblance to some actual monsters is uncanny. Uncanny indeed.

    Chillingly good stuff.

  27. Excellent story Tony. I had no idea where this was going and didn't care because I was hooked and had to read on. I love idea of the timelines. That is just brilliant.

  28. Very well written, it held my interest to the last word, I think we all sometimes wonder where our lives would have gone if we had taken the left fork instead of the right.

    I guess this guy found out, probably not always a good thing.

  29. Can I join the legions in saying I really enjoyed this? Completely unexpected and a very intriguing idea. The last line was perfect!

  30. Fun premise. It starts out rather amusing and turns very serious at the end. Uncanny that one event in his past can so devestate his life and so true for some people.

  31. Could swear I commented on this one on Friday, but I don't see one from me. I think the current ending works fine, Tony, and you're right that ending it on the reveal of him being gay would seem cheap, rather than the fleshed out place you went.

  32. Thanks for all the additional comments, everyone. This piece is certainly a departure from the standard sci-fi "alternate reality" theme. I'm glad it worked for you!

  33. This was one of those stories that was just a surprise all the way through. Twisty! I loved it.

  34. I think part of my interpretation came from reading another non-fiction article right before reading this story on how many politicians / public figures speak openly anti-gay rhetoric and then are revealed to be gay themselves later.

  35. Wow, this was a fantastic read! I love the way you set the atmosphere and then the great reveal knocks me off my feet.

    I'm really enjoying your work. Looking forward to the next one.

  36. Oh how yummy! -snort-

    This was great, it was funny, and twisted, and poor senator. Be careful what you wish for.

    I second (and third or fourth) whoever it was that said "I want to write like Tony", but actually, now that I've said that- I think I'd just like a conversation with Tony... to pick your brain apart, though not literally. (Just to clarify.)

  37. I'm glad you liked it, guys!

    I second (and third or fourth) whoever it was that said "I want to write like Tony"

    I heard a story once about a young author. He'd waited in line for hours to meet a successful, even famous author whose work he had admired for years. Finally, when he got to the autograph desk, he said, "I'm a writer, too, but I'm just starting out. Gee, I would love to learn to write like you!"

    The older man smiled and said, "No, I think it would be much better if you were to learn to write like you. People already know what I sound like." The younger man smiled a confused smile, and walked away. He spent the next forty years trying to figure out what that phrase meant. Then the aliens attacked and enslaved everybody, so in the end, it didn't really matter.

  38. That comment would have been me.
    It was meant as a lighthearted joke about my own fledgling writing ability.
    In all seriousness, though, it comes from a place of admiration for such a consistently good writer.
    I will be my own voice, and aim to be as consistent as Tony in my own voice.
    It's all a big mutual "We Love Tony" group hug. Love your work.


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