This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
Marcus died in 2076 at the age of 87, having lived neither a particularly eventful nor uneventful life.
He was married to Margot, had two kids—Adeline and Cole—and two grandkids—Lanna and James. He died of natural causes with what felt like the normal amount of regrets.
Once his life ended, he was relieved to discover that death wasn’t nothing, which is what he initially feared most. There also wasn’t a heaven or a hell. He was never particularly religious and already figured there wouldn’t be a heaven or a hell, given the simulation. But he couldn’t help but wonder what came next. If there had been a heaven and a hell, where would he have been sent? He had been neither notably bad nor notably good. What did he deserve?
Marcus’ dying and posthumous thoughts were abruptly interrupted when he found himself, of all places, inside his mother’s uterus. When he later reflected on that moment—the realization of where he was—the very idea of being inside his mother was kind of gross. Then he scolded himself for thinking that. Who else’s uterus should he have expected?
That the uterus belonged to his mother and not some other random uterus owner became clear when Marcus was pulled out. He was born via cesarean section, which, because he was aware, and didn’t have a baby’s unknowing brain, was the preferable way to come out. When he felt the cold, static air of the delivery room, he assumed that this was reincarnation—a new life, new choices … but who would he be? When he found himself nuzzled in a woman’s soft arms and breasts and heard her voice—”Marcus, Marcus, Marcus … “—he knew this was his mother, and he was, once again, himself.
Marcus’ life had started over again. It began exactly as it had before, with only one exception: This time, Marcus was aware. His brain hadn’t been wiped when his life reset. He had his full consciousness and memories, and with his mind intact, he was reexperiencing his life from the beginning.
Everything he had done in his life, he would do again. Hard as he might try at first, he couldn’t change anything, much like you can’t change a movie or a TV show you’ve watched before, even the parts you didn’t like the first time around. Marcus couldn’t move his limbs or say something different—he tried. It didn’t seem like he could right wrongs or correct mistakes or take any road not taken. He could only passively experience his life a second time, without free will.
Sometimes it was lovely. Sometimes it was tedious. Reexperiencing childhood, in particular, could be very boring. But he did find a lot of joy in witnessing his past, and being with his family anew, and doing so with the perspective of the life he already had lived.
Marcus had a lot of time to think. Years and years and years to think.
Enough time, indeed, to develop a working theory for how he ended up in this predicament. He knew already, of course, that in 2053, when Marcus was in his 60s, a team from MIT and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology had proved (or would prove, depending on how you wanted to look at it) that we are all living in a computer simulation, and that we, human beings, are made up of complex lines of code. This revelation obviously caused a lot of chaos, setting off a rash of suicides and waves of anarchy. But after a while—after the best thinkers in the world wrote some very smart essays and news pundits made interesting arguments about how living in a computer simulation isn’t that much different, ultimately, than how we always assumed or even hoped the world worked—things calmed down. Many people became more religious: There was, presumably, someone or something pulling the switches … shouldn’t we pray to them?
Knowing about the simulation didn’t change Marcus’ life that much. Along with everyone else, he still went to work each day, and he still paid his credit card bill. Soon, sitcoms started making jokes about the simulation (“Even in a simulation, I can’t get a date!”), and Marcus realized that living in a simulation is just another one of those things that people get used to.
But no one had said anything about the simulation repeating itself, that people could relive their lives like passengers on a train, deprived of any say over where the train was heading. Marcus understood that because we—all people—turned out to be complex computer codes, there must have been a mistake in a line of the specific computer code that made up his brain. What was supposed to have been erased upon his death simply wasn’t. As far as he knew, he was alone in experiencing this do-over, and alone in knowing that such a thing was even possible.
By the time Marcus had relived about 16 years of his life, he realized he could change things ever so slightly. And only if he really, really concentrated. And I mean really concentrated. He could add an “um” to a sentence or press the wrong button on the phone. This ability was seemingly useless because as soon as he changed any little thing, his body would take back over, correcting whatever mistake he had made. He would reenter the phone number correctly.
Other than an added “um” or two, Marcus continued to simply experience his life. There are really only four or five major memorable things that happen to a person every year, so though all days were vaguely familiar, most still held some surprises for Marcus that were worth appreciating with fresh eyes.
There were also a few terrible things that happened in Marcus’ life that he dreaded reexperiencing. Mostly deaths: his grandparents, his father, his dog—but even those lost a bit of their sting the second time around, since he had been able to really appreciate those he missed when he’d spent time with them again.
What Marcus most dreaded reliving was the worst thing he’d ever seen—something that loomed over the first 20 years of his life. When he was in college, Marcus was waiting at a crosswalk behind Sara, a girl he barely knew but found utterly captivating. She had large, curious eyes, and her clothes and hands were always stained with speckles of paint.
He didn’t know if she’d done it on purpose or by accident, but that day Sara crossed the street against the light and was hit by a car. She died instantly, right before his eyes.
Even before experiencing it a second time, Marcus was shaken by that image, that girl, that moment, and knew he would be every day for the rest of his life. As his life’s repeat took him back to college, where he started seeing Sara occasionally again at the dining hall or parties, his dread of rewitnessing her death only mounted.
When the day finally came, as Sara stood in front of him at the crosswalk, the orange of the sunset making everything around him look unreal, Marcus concentrated every part of himself on doing something, anything.
All he was able to muster was an almost-whisper: “Don’t … “
And, it worked. That one word stopped Sara just long enough. She didn’t walk into the street. She wasn’t killed by a car. Marcus and Sara shared a confused and breathless look at the intersection, and then the next moment, she was gone. She walked away. Marcus didn’t follow her. He couldn’t follow her—he still couldn’t control where he was heading next. But for the first time since he was reborn, he lived in a different world. In his last lifetime, he lived in a world where Sara died at age 20. Now, he lived in a world where Sara was alive.
He didn’t see Sara again for four years. And then, one day, he found himself sharing an elevator with her in Chicago, where he moved after college. He was both shocked to see her and out of practice at having a new conversation with someone—it had been a lifetime since he had last needed to. He fumbled through some awkward pleasantries and a bad joke. “Oh, I’ve heard about what happens on the 14th floor.” Sara politely replied, “I’ll keep an eye out for any suspicious behavior.” The doors opened, and she was gone again.
Marcus realized that only when he crossed paths with Sara was he capable of a new experience. She was the sole person unleashed and free in a story otherwise already told.
It was two more years before he ran into Sara again.
This time, they were in line at a Starbucks by his office, and Sara was on her lunch break. She had become a marketing executive. She had wanted to be a painter, “But I don’t know,” she said. “It didn’t happen.”
Sara had 15 minutes left on her break, and Marcus didn’t know if he’d ever have another opportunity to talk to her about what he was experiencing. But how to do so without coming across as a lunatic?
“Can I please, please, buy you a coffee and tell you something important? I’ll be just 15 minutes. You’ll be back at work in time.”
She ended up sitting with him for much longer, leaning across the table and listening intently as he told her about the simulation and her death and everything else. He thought it would be impossible to convince her, but, improbably, she believed him. For her, too, there had been something about that day at the intersection. Something that felt important. Something that felt different. She remembered him whispering, “Don’t … “
“So you know everything that’s going to happen? And always have?”
“With my life, yes.”
“Everything I can remember.”
“And you saved my life?” Sara asked.
“So, why didn’t you stop 9/11?”
“Well, I can’t just stop anything.”
“You stopped me from getting killed. I’m sure you could’ve stopped 9/11.”
“It’s different. I didn’t know I could save you, and anyway, it would have been too hard to stop something like that.”
She laughed. There was something about it being too hard to stop 9/11 that she thought was funny. Then she immediately apologized for laughing.
It was so strange for him to hear new laughter. It was a beautiful feeling, one he needed to experience again. He needed to see her again. He loved experiencing life in a new way, sure, but he also wanted to see her. Her hair was up in a messy bun and her heavy jacket covered her body from the neck down. But her eyes were big and curious, and to Marcus, she was impossibly beautiful.
“You know what this reminds me of? Your life, you know what it’s like?” she asked over her second cappuccino. “There’s this story about Alfred Hitchcock and a restaurant. Do you like Hitchcock movies?”
“I haven’t seen any Hitchcock.”
“Not even Psycho?”
“I know the shower scene.”
“Oh, wow. Maybe that’s why you were sent back. You have to see some Hitchcock movies.” Sara laughed more laughter that had never before existed.
“I … probably … can’t.”
“Right. Right. No new experiences.” Sara suddenly felt bad. “Well, this story doesn’t even involve any movies. It’s about how Hitchcock went to a restaurant and ordered a huge meal. Like, a huge meal. Steak and turkey and soup and lamb chops. And at the end, the waiter came over and asked if he could get him anything else. Hitchcock, still hungry, waved his hand at all his empty plates and said, ‘Can I get this, but again?’ ”
Sara laughed again, and so did Marcus. Then she said, “But, you can see movies you haven’t seen before if you see them with me, right?”
“I suppose I could.”
“Good. We can do that.”
They made plans to meet at that Starbucks again. It was by Marcus’ office, and he knew he would regularly go there—he just didn’t know when the next time would be. He had no control over that. Sometimes he wouldn’t see her for weeks, and sometimes he would find her there lingering hopefully over a cappuccino, or even waiting for him outside his office.
When they saw each other, they could override his life’s autopilot. They went to movies and dinners and walked along the lake in the cold. All brand-new experiences.
Marcus and Sara fell in love.
But at work, Marcus was also, simultaneously, meeting Margot, the woman he would eventually marry. Margot had a short haircut and made her own jewelry in her spare time and fell in love with Marcus instantly, as if it were all foreordained. These two paths of life were happening in parallel. Marcus was carrying on a deep relationship with Sara that had metaphysical limitations, while also starting a life with the mother of his children.
Sara sometimes wondered if Marcus loved her because he had to. Because there were no other people in the world he could love in a new way. It was her because it could only be her. Marcus tried to claim otherwise. “I genuinely love you with my entire soul. And if you weren’t the only person in the world I could love in a new way, I still would love you. I promise.
“Maybe, maybe, the entire reason the computer code in my brain got broken was so I could be with you, Sara.”
The double lives of Marcus and Margot and Marcus and Sara worked for a while, but it was complicated. If Marcus and Sara, say, went to the movies, say, when The Man Who Knew Too Much was screening at the University of Chicago, and Sara left to go to the bathroom, Marcus’ body would attempt to correct his lapse into free will and return him to his former reality. Completely out of his control, he would get up and try to hop on a bus to go rejoin his previously scheduled life. This made Sara restless. She wanted more out of a relationship than only being a glitch in Marcus’ program, existing on the margins of his actual, full life. She believed that there must be a reason she was alive here and now beyond just being someone’s second-shift girlfriend.
Sara became more and more consumed by how there was this whole other plane of existence—Marcus’ former life—where she was not meant to be, where she didn’t have job or an apartment or Marcus. Where she was dead at age 20. The more she saw the pull Marcus’ previous life had on him, the more aware she became of how her current existence pulled no one. She was an accident. Her life had no gravity. Could she even make an impact on the world? How? She became obsessed with the parallel-universe tragedy that killed her—when she was hit by a car and her story ended. What would she have done with her first 20 years of her life if she’d known it was ending? What could she do now, in this reality, with the rest of her life, now that it had been handed to her like stolen goods?
It all seemed so unfair, that Marcus got to know how his life would end up and she could not.
“Is your life, your thing, your situation, a blessing or a curse?” she asked him one day.
Marcus had considered it both at different times, but at that moment, because he loved being with Sara, he said, “Blessing, for sure. I get to be with you.”
Sara smiled, but that answer wasn’t enough for her. “Even if I wasn’t around, is it better this way?”
“Yes. I think. Knowing how my life plays out means I don’t have anxiety. I don’t fear. So many of the things that weigh on people and tear them up are a fear of what’s going to happen. I don’t have that. I never have that.”
Sara decided that if she could bring what Marcus was experiencing—this fearlessness—to others, it would be a reason for her to be alive, a gift she could give to the world, a justification for her reprieve. She took Marcus to her brother, who managed programmers at a video game design company. Though not well versed in computer programming or the intricacies of the simulation, Marcus, thanks to wisdom from his past life, was still able to explain how to access the computer codes that serve as everyone’s operating systems.
When the simulation was proved in 2053, scientists discovered a microscopic hidden port on the left side of every human’s right pinky toe—so small no one would find it if they didn’t know where to look—that gave access to everyone’s code. The programmers at the video game company followed Marcus’ instructions and, incredibly, found the port and were able to unlock the code.
The programmers couldn’t do much with the data they found in Marcus’ toe port, but by comparing Marcus’ code with the codes of the other programmers, they were able to find the glitch that gave Marcus the ability to remember the life he’d already lived.
The world they all lived in now was no longer a world where the simulation was revealed by a team from MIT and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, 60 years into the future. It was a world where Sara preempted them by breaking the news in 2016, and simultaneously announced the discovery of the glitch in Marcus’ code implant. Sara offered everyone the opportunity to have Marcusian Foresight added to their own computer codes. She charged for the service on a sliding scale.
Purchasing the service was a bit complicated because people had already lived their lives and lacked free will, apart from their interactions with Sara. People could only agree to the procedure if Sara asked them directly. She would then lead the person to the computer programmers, who would implant the code through people’s toe ports. If either customer or programmer was left without Sara for a moment, they would wander back to their lives as they had lived them before. This made scaling—and her dream of reaching millions instead of thousands—quite difficult.
The only way Sara could know if the procedure was successful was by asking directly. Outside of a subject’s experience with Sara, their lives would seemingly continue as if nothing had happened. The only difference would be, as in Marcus’ case, inside their heads.
Customers, seeking reassurance, would usually ask Sara if she had done the procedure to herself. And she would tell the truth, “Yes.” But not the whole truth, “Yes, but it didn’t work for me.” Because Sara was supposed to have died in that intersection in 2009, there was no previously lived adult life of which to gain awareness. She was, as far as she could tell, the only person in the world who was making up life as she went along.
Marcus asked Sara several times whether she remembered if, before he stopped her, she was stepping into traffic on purpose or by accident.
“Accident, of course,” she would always say. “I don’t know what happened. My mind was somewhere else.”
But that wasn’t entirely true. Sara hadn’t been depressed, at least no more depressed than anyone else in college. And she wasn’t suicidal. But she distinctly remembered, before Marcus whispered, “Don’t,” that she wanted to get hit by a car. She didn’t know why, but she absolutely wanted to.
The memory always made her shudder.
Sara and Marcus still saw each other, but Sara would be absent more and more, gone spreading the gift of foresight around the world. Oprah was one of her most famous clients, embracing the empowering idea of life without a fear of the future. Eventually, Sara realized that she could deploy employees globally to perform the implanting as long as she was present on a live video feed. With this, the procedures were given to hundreds of thousands of subjects in most countries, making Sara a billionaire. The view from her apartment was breathtaking. She bought it from Oprah.
One of the last times Marcus and Sara saw each other, Margot, Marcus’ wife, was at the same restaurant as they were, dining with a work friend. She certainly had to have seen them—they were clearly on a romantic date, and the restaurant wasn’t very big—but Sara knew that Margot couldn’t change her actions, couldn’t change her path. She behaved as she always behaved in that moment at that restaurant in the first reality, the one where Sara was dead. Margot did not have the free will to slam her fist on their table and scream, “What are you doing with my husband?!” unless Sara specifically confronted her first.
As Sara left the restaurant, she could see that Margot was pregnant, which made her feel terrible.
After that, when Marcus saw Sara, it was usually only on TV, discussing her innovative work studying the simulation. She would go to the news studio on her own and talk her way on screen—otherwise, no one would have the free will to report stories about her, let alone send a car to pick her up.
The last time Marcus saw Sara in person was the day before his daughter was born. He promised Sara that she mattered more to him than anything from his old life, but Sara couldn’t and didn’t want to believe him. He was going to be a father now, and he had the gift to reexperience his daughter and son growing up with the knowledge of the adults they would become. He was lucky. She would never have that. She would never have children. It wouldn’t make sense for her to be a mother. Nobody’s already-led life involved having children with her.
Marcus and Sara cried when they parted ways. Marcus did love Sara, not because she was the only person he could experience life with but because she was the boldest, most beautiful part of his life. Sara really did love Marcus, but she knew she wasn’t supposed to be a person in his life. She wasn’t supposed to be a person in anyone’s life.
Whenever Sara was tempted to feel sorry for herself, she found consolation in telling herself she had used her unique free will to improve humanity’s lot.
Not everyone felt the same way.
The first time it happened, she was out to dinner alone at a fancy sushi place. A woman in her 60s was washing her hands in the bathroom. “It’s you … ” she stammered out, and Sara recognized one of her first clients. The woman took a moment to get used to having a new conversation, and then she started to cry. “I’m going to die of breast cancer in two years. And I never said I’m sorry to my daughter, and I can’t, no matter how much I want to. I was a bad mother, and I’m going to die a bad mother. And I can’t do anything about it.” Tears fell, and her mascara blurred under her eyes.
Sara cried too. “I’m here, though, now. You can change things when I’m here,” Sara said. She took out her phone. “Call your daughter now.”
The call went to voicemail, but the woman was able to apologize for something unspoken that had kept them apart for almost 10 years. Sara ran from the restaurant and took a sleeping pill, and it didn’t work, and she shook in bed all night.
It kept happening. Wherever Sara would go. “I wanted to know what would happen because I thought everything was going to turn out … well. But when I die, I die sad,” a man told her. Other people told her similar things. Everyone wanted her to know what they knew. Everyone wanted to tell her the things that they could only tell her.
“There are no surprises anymore,” Oprah said. “Surprises were so wonderful. I miss surprises.”
Sara stopped taking new clients, and soon, she stopped leaving home. It wasn’t enough. She still had to venture out from time to time, if only to see the doctor to get more sleeping pills. Sara eventually moved away to a small, pretty town in Denmark where she’d be unlikely to bump into any “knowings” (as she called her clients). She bought a modest wooden house there, where she would eventually die in her 90s.
Sara saw Marcus one more time, on her last visit back to Chicago, but she didn’t think he saw her. They were both older, and time had changed the shape of their faces. But he was unmistakably Marcus, and had he seen her, she would have been unmistakably Sara. It was Christmas, and Marcus’ granddaughter Lanna was a baby. Marcus had told Sara that Lanna was his favorite, and when he died in 2076, Lanna was in the middle of finals at college, and he told her that under no circumstances was she going to miss finals just to watch an old man die. But, as Marcus closed his eyes for what he thought was the last time, he regretted telling her that. He wished he could see Lanna again.
As Sara stood across from Marcus’ house at Christmas and watched his family through the window and watched him hold Lanna again, she was happy for him. Happy he had gotten to see Lanna many more times. Happy he got his wish.
Sara was reborn four months after Marcus in 1989, and this time around, she shared his affliction. She remembered the life she had lived before, and she was a passenger in her own mind as she lived that life once again. As Marcus had warned her, early childhood was a bore, but it also came with a lot of unexpected moments. Adults tell the truth to babies in ways they don’t when children can understand. “I’m so scared I’m going to fail,” Sara’s father told her one night as he rocked her to sleep. But he didn’t. Not much.
She experienced it all again. The terrible first kiss. The unending embarrassment of puberty. Bacon, her Australian shepherd who loved nothing in the world more than her.
There was a lot of discovery mixed in with the things she did remember. She decided that she would pay attention in high school French this time around and actually learn something. C’est merveilleux.
She went to college without dread, fear, or anxiety. She had made her decision a long time ago and never wavered.
It was October. It had just rained. The sun had begun to set, giving everything an improbably orange tint. The crosswalk signal changed to a red as she got to the intersection. This time, when she stepped forward and heard the desperate, whispered, “Don’t,” it did not stop her.
Read a response essay by a professor of philosophy.
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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.