How many times have you asked yourself, what if? If you’re like most of us, the answer is “Too many times to count.” A timely story at a major intersection of human and computer connectivity and communication, this novel explores new avenues of self-examination and experimentation. Ryan Jones, a divorced thirty-plus-year-old is looking for answers. His search leads him to a humanlike artificial intelligence program that is incorporated into an advanced virtual reality system. The software program, Stan, helps Ryan explore his past, allowing Ryan to see what could have happened had he made different choices in life.
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I was seated in the front row of the church, with Mom weeping beside me. My sister, Sarah, was delivering her eulogy to Dad.
Half-listening to her, I found myself looking at the pictures of Dad lined up on his coffin. I had always known we resembled each other, but seeing pictures of him when he was younger really drove it home. We shared the same sandy-blond hair and athletic build, but his eyes were blue, whereas mine were gray. I used to joke that when I grew up, I would be taller than he was. That turned out to be true, with my six-foot height just sneaking past his five-eleven frame.
I sifted through my swirling emotions, and for the first time I realized I was suffering from regret — regret that I hadn't let Dad know how much I loved him every day and regret that I'd never be able to tell him again.
As surely happens to others after the loss of a loved one, I started reviewing my life. It didn't take much examination to realize I hadn't come close to fulfilling my potential. I wasn't where I should be, either personally or professionally. Imagining what Dad must have thought before he died saddened me.
Was I a disappointment to him? Did he consider me a failure? As I searched for answers, my mind went back to when I discovered What If.
Two memorable things happened that day. The first involved a summons to the boss's office to discuss my annual performance review.
"Please have a seat, Ryan," said Paul, my boss. The combination of his prematurely gray hair and the eyeglasses that had slipped down his nose gave him a professorial air. "I need you to complete your annual self-evaluation form."
He slid the document across the desk to me. As I picked it up, he continued. "But first, we need to talk about what's been going on with you."
"Thanks, Paul ... Going on? Is everything okay?"
"You tell me, Ryan," he said with a pointed look over the top of his glasses.
"Everything's fine. Why?"
"Ryan, you're a good friend, so this isn't easy, but there are some issues we need to address." He looked down for a moment. "We've known each other for years now. Everything I know about you points to a driven, successful person. You graduated with honors from the University of Texas, you were a three-year starter for the UT baseball team, and within six months of beginning your job here, you'd developed an excellent plan for moving up within the company."
Paul paused as he shifted some papers around. "You had the best production in the office and never missed a deadline. Your annual reviews were all outstanding. In fact, if there had been a supervisor position open, you'd have been a cinch to get it. And to top it all off, everyone here loved working with you."
A feeling of dread came over me. I knew the other shoe was about to drop.
"But over the past few months, you've really changed. You aren't engaged with work or your colleagues. You're not as outgoing and friendly as you used to be. Though your work is still passable, you're not meeting our requirements consistently."
His tone softened a bit as he continued, "Don't get me wrong; you're a great guy and still a valuable employee, but things seem to be going down the wrong path." Paul paused to let this sink in before he asked, "Why the change, and what can I do to help you?"
I had no good answers. "I appreciate your concern, Paul. I don't know what's going on either, but you're right — things have been off for a while."
"Are you having personal problems? I'm not trying to pry ... I just want to understand."
"It's nothing like that. I guess I'm just in a funk."
Later in the day, the second important event took place. At the gym after work, the TV in front of my elliptical was tuned to the national news. The lead story focused on the weak economy. I knew I'd better work hard on the self-evaluation because getting another job wouldn't be easy.
A commercial came on with a lovely woman standing beside what looked to be a tanning bed, her hand resting on the lid. Little did I know this was the first of many times I would see the commercial. The spokeswoman addressed the camera with a serious expression. "What do you regret in your life? What in your past would you want to do differently? What would you want to change?"
The camera zoomed in on her face as she continued. "I would like to know what would have happened if I had gone to medical school. I always wanted to be a doctor, but circumstances prevented me from going, and I've always regretted that. My friend Susan regrets breaking up with her boyfriend many years ago. She wonders how their relationship would have turned out if they had stayed together. Another friend of mine wants to know what would have happened had he accepted a promotion and moved to California."
The woman gazed down and ran her hand along the top of the device by her side. As she looked back to the camera, her face brightened, and her voice exuded enthusiasm. "Well, now you can find the answers to all the 'what-ifs' in your life. You can change anything in your past and see what would have happened. Our state-of-the-art technology allows you to see the most likely outcome to any scenario. But don't take our word for it — listen to what our customers are saying."
A middle-age man appeared, standing by a device like the one next to the spokeswoman, and said, "All I have to do is tell the software to make one change to what really happened, and it lets me experience the new outcome. It's amazing!"
The next scene showed a young woman, also standing by the machine. She was vibrating with excitement. "You've got to try this — it's so real. I hear, feel, and relive the experiences just like I was there!"
The spokeswoman came back. "And you don't have to worry about security. Each session is for you, and only you, to enjoy." The commercial ended with the woman suggesting a visit to one of their seventy locations around the country. With a wink, she added, "And by the way, I would have been a great doctor."
I was both skeptical and fascinated.
On the way home from work later that week, I went to a burger joint for dinner. Driving out of the restaurant's parking lot, I saw a large, new billboard. It read, "What If? ... Imagine the Possibilities."
When I got home, I researched What If. The home page loaded quickly and looked very professional. They certainly hadn't skimped on the web design budget. It took me a few minutes to read about the company, but their service seemed to be about one word: "Fantasy."
Their version of fantasy came in the form of a self-contained pod shaped like a tanning bed. What If called its pod the "Dream Maker 3000." In the pod, the user was hooked up to sensory equipment that What If claimed could read thoughts and measure physical reactions. The computer then used this information to create a virtual experience customized for each user. The customer bought an interval of time and then explored life's "what ifs" in total privacy.
Being a claims adjuster had taught me to be a skeptic; however, the concept seemed really cool. The testimonials were believable, and even better, the nearest location was only a few miles away. I definitely wanted to check it out further.
Trying to sleep that night, I couldn't get What If's concept out of my head. If it really worked, I could create any scenario and see it play out. Thinking of the seemingly endless possibilities kept me awake long into the night.
I remember waking the next morning and going through my usual routine, all the while thinking about my past: my marriage and divorce, my career choices, my education, my ex-girlfriends, and more. With so much to explore, my excitement continued to build.
I pondered my divorce while on the way to work. I had married at the tender age of twenty-four, a naïve young man in love with my college sweetheart. Marie was a year younger than I and a vision to behold.
I would never forget her eyes. They were so expressive, so full of life. There were times I would stare into those eyes and literally lose my train of thought. They were emerald-green and a wonderful complement to her perfect smile. I never did figure out what she and her eyes saw in me. She could have had any guy she wanted.
It was my senior year at the University of Texas. I first saw her while I was walking to class — a tanned, brunette beauty with an easy smile, laughing with her friends. Since UT had over 50,000 undergrads, it wasn't surprising that I hadn't seen her before. I made damn sure to remember the time and place, so that maybe I would see her again. Glancing back to get a last look, I hurried to my statistics class.
In retrospect, it's apparent how Marie affected me differently than other women had. At the time, my first thought upon seeing Marie was not the typical twenty-one-year-old male's reaction of wondering how she'd look naked. Instead, I remember praying, "Dear Lord, please help me to keep breathing."
I doodled on my paper in class, replaying the image of her in my mind. I resolved to walk the same route every day until I saw her again. I began to plan my strategy with care. After all, I didn't want to blow it. Sifting through numerous approaches, I settled on walking up to her cheerfully and saying, "Hi, I saw you from across the way and had to tell you that your smile is the most dazzling I have ever seen!" I would follow up with an introduction and then walk away. I didn't want to come across too strongly on our first meeting.
Walking across the South Mall, I saw Marie sitting with her friends. My preparation had emboldened me, so I made my advance. As I came close, Marie looked up from her conversation, and her eyes locked onto mine. Her remarkable smile stopped me in my tracks, freezing my brain. To this day, I remember the raw panic I felt. Even so, I knew walking away was not an option, so I forged ahead, extending my hand in greeting as my voice broke. "Hi. I saw you earlier and thought you were dazzling!"
Marie laughed as she asked, "So what am I now?"
I was so entirely caught off guard by her question that I could only stand and stare.
She laughed again, saying, "I'm kidding. My name is Marie, and you are?"
Still stunned, I stuttered, "R-R-Ryan."
"Well, R-R-Ryan, would you like to join us?" Apparently, Marie had a soft spot for "special" students.
After a moment of paralysis, I dropped to the ground next to her. I remember feeling sweat running down my back, my entire body suddenly damp. The singular exception was my mouth, which was as parched as the Sahara.
I ran my tongue around the inside of my mouth, finding just enough moisture to keep my lips from sticking to my teeth when I spoke. "So what's your major?" It was so lame, but at least I didn't stutter again. I added quickly, "Mine is business administration." Down deep, I wanted to rock back and forth like an orphaned monkey to comfort myself.
"I'm majoring in psychology," Marie replied easily.
"Cool," I murmured. My first thought was that I was going to be the subject of her next paper on dysfunctional social behavior. The good news was she hadn't blown me off, but I was struggling badly. I needed something original, and I needed it fast. That was the moment I chose to insert my big foot into my small mouth.
"Want to hear a joke?" She nodded affirmatively, so I continued. "Do you know why Baptists object so strongly to premarital sex?"
She shook her head, and I smiled as I said, "They're afraid it might lead to drinking and dancing." I burst out laughing but then quickly realized she hadn't cracked a smile.
"Very funny," she said drily. "I'm Baptist." It was quite the "oh shit" moment. Marie took pity on me and laughed. "I'm teasing you!"
I learned my lesson, though, and never again made a potentially offensive joke until I knew someone better.
Not knowing what to do next, I asked, "Will you be around here tomorrow?"
She smiled warmly and said, "Sure, feel free to stop by."
Relief washed over me. God, it felt good to be alive at that moment. I swear I still cannot remember walking to class afterward. It was as if I passed out and awoke to find the professor lecturing about false dilemmas. What a beautiful day!
Knowing it was a long shot, I went back to the same patch of grass again early the next day. I sat on one of the benches, with warm thoughts of Marie washing over me.
Startled out of my reverie by her soft voice beside me, I stood up with my hand out again, anticipating the warmth of her touch.
"Hi, Marie. I'm so happy to see you."
Her smile again lit up the day, and I knew I was head over heels in love. During the next few weeks, we spent as much time together as our class schedules allowed. I learned she had been born and raised in Oklahoma, where she had been a high school cheerleader and an honor student. She was studying psychology with the hopes of working with children someday. Marie came from a small, close-knit family and had many good friends.
The more I learned about her and the more time I spent with her, the harder I fell in love with her. On the one-month anniversary of our first date, I told her I was in love with her. She looked at me so seriously, and after a moment of consideration, she whispered, "I know."
I know? I didn't know how to process that. I had been nervous about saying it, but I really thought the time was right. I remember feeling as if I were in limbo for what seemed like an eternity before she took both my hands in hers, smiling, and said the magical words: "I love you too."
I was never nervous again around Marie, not even the first time we made love. It was natural and right, and the closeness we shared reinforced our feelings for each other.
Marie and I were married about three years later. It was a wonderful ceremony followed by a fantastic honeymoon. We stayed busy buying a house and working hard at our careers. Out of the blue one day, Marie jokingly warned that if she ever came home to find me in bed with another woman, she would kick me out of the house immediately. A few years into our marriage, Marie proved she wasn't making an idle threat.
The traffic on the way to work had given me time to think about Marie. What would have happened if I hadn't been weak and stupid? Would we still be together? Happy? Kids? The list of questions went on and on. I decided I would use What If to find my answers.
Once I made the decision, the day couldn't move quickly enough. I called What If and confirmed that walk-ins were welcome. I also got their prices, which seemed a little high. I wasn't too surprised, though, since this was cutting-edge technology.
I decided to test the system with a fifteen-minute introductory session. With the session being so short, I knew I wouldn't have time to explore my relationship with Marie. I needed to find another scenario to use.
I ran through some simple events and settled on one that would serve as my test case. I would explore the time I had decided to stuff a sock in my underwear before going on a date with Leah, a cute little coed from my freshman year in college. I wanted to look a certain way, even though I knew it was stupid, and since I didn't think we were going to fool around on the first date, I stuffed without worry.
The results were painfully easy to predict. We ended up making out on my bed, with me forgetting the sock. Shortly into the make-out session, she ended up with a handful of cotton instead of a handful of me! That was a special night indeed.
I knew right then that this would be the perfect test case. If I had not stuffed, she and I would have continued our steamy make-out session and then maybe enjoyed more dates. If the What If program didn't get this right, then I knew it wasn't any good.
As the day dragged on, I got more and more anxious to go. Paranoia struck me at some point during the afternoon: could the employees of What If watch my session? I wasn't convinced that the commercial told the truth about their level of client privacy. Well, if they could watch, they were going to get one helluva show.
Five o'clock came, and I left skid marks peeling out of the parking lot. Traffic was horrible again, but at least there were no wrecks. I relaxed as much as possible and tried not to break any laws while driving to the What If office.
The lobby was attractively decorated and professionally designed. This reinforced my confidence in the company. I was greeted by a friendly-looking young man who introduced himself as Jeff. With his red hair, freckles, and pale complexion, Jeff made me think of the old Howdy Doody character from television. I acknowledged his greeting and then stated matter-of-factly that I was a newbie and wanted to go with the fifteen-minute trial.
"Sure thing," Jeff replied. "How did you hear about us?"
I told him about the TV commercial and billboard. He was glad that people were responding to the advertising. I asked him to walk me through the process, really wanting to understand how everything worked.
Excerpted from "What If?"
Copyright © 2017 Matthew Imes.
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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