Remember those old Choose Your Own Adventure books? The ones where you controlled a character’s destiny and guided the direction of the narrative?
I’m conducting an experiment that brings that old series of children’s books to mind. Below you will find the beginning of three short stories. Please read them all and then vote for the one you’d want to read in its entirety.
Pick your favorite, and just maybe it will get enough votes to earn an ending (despite my ambivalent attitude toward short fiction).
Option 1: “The Villain”
Quentin E. Donovan—the Quentin E. Donovan—sidestepped into an alley, closed his eyes, and did something he hadn’t done in a decade or more: he went into ghost mode.
A deliberate twitch of his left thumb, and the twin IRIS mods went offline. A whispered password triggered the auto-transcript program that fueled half a dozen different Lifefeeds to quit. Finally, he removed the sleek, pearlescent PAM—an eighth-generation iCoin Pro—from his pocket and thumbed the command to repel incoming V-captures.
No feeds, no casts, no signals whatsoever. He was officially grid-locked.
Without the translucent menus and scrolling text in his periphery, the world seemed impossibly simple. And slightly pink. It took him a moment to realize his eyes were compensating for the absence of the green tinge that always coated the corner of his vision, notifying him that the ocular implants were successfully uploading his sensory data to the Sphere.
He shivered, as though losing the subtle, soothing tingle of info-exchange between his bioware and the local hotspots had reduced his body’s temperature. The air around him even tasted dead.
No wonder they call it “ghost mode,” he thought.
Quentin turned back to the street and saw a woman approaching. He smiled politely—no, eagerly—but she never acknowledged him, her blank stare undoubtedly combing through a number of feeds only she could see. He just stood there for several heart-pounding seconds after she passed, until finally he identified the foreign, long-forgotten feeling called loneliness.
He pressed his palm against smooth surface of the iCoin and flirted with the idea of rebooting all of his AR apps. But he found courage, then, in the thought of what glory lay ahead. A shame, he thought, that his millions of fans wouldn’t be able to enjoy the thrill of this clandestine meeting he had arranged only hours before on the Darknet.
Releasing his hold on the offline PAM and rubbing his eyes (though that did nothing to restore the reassuring green glow of the IRISes), Quentin stepped onto the street, walked into a FaceCafe, and—without the aid of any tech—scanned the place for someone who looked out of place.
Closest to the door, a middle-aged woman fished a wire out of her purse and connected one end to the table’s powerport and the other end to an oversized, blaze-orange PAM. The infant in the highchair beside her wailed until the woman returned to the device to his eager little hands.
Across the room, a guy talked to an invisible partner across the table, laughing suggestively as he adjusted the crotch of his trousers.
A few tables away, a woman furiously swiped the air with her fingers and frowned at what Quentin could only assume was bad news.
Nope, nothing out of the ordinary, he lamented.
Disappointed, he sat down and keyed in his order for a plain-taste, half-stim coffee. He would just have to trust that the Darknet stranger he pinged—the professional Villain he had promised to pay half a million Cs to make his life more interesting—would recognize him.
No worries there, he thought. After all, he was the Quentin E. Donovan.
Option 2: “The End”
’Twas no secret a sinister shadow had fallen o’er the realm. Matthias had been warning neighbors and sojourners alike for as far back as he could remember. So often had he spoken of the myriad harbingers of The End—the rising number of refugees from faraway kingdoms, the tales of war they brought with them, and other rumors of unnatural creatures roaming the countryside—that his discourse on dire omens had a practiced elegance.
He would daresay none could make the encroaching cataclysm sound as poetic as he.
Then, one day, he realized something truly was amiss. No, an army of demon warriors had not arrived to ransack his favorite inn. Much to the contrary, the Satyr’s Horn was empty but for Old Llew, the stout barkeep, and two patrons Matthias saw most every day but whose names he had never chanced to learn.
There were no travelers to bequeath a coin for courtly verse or bawdy ballad. Nary an adventurer in whom to confide ominous words in hushed tones.
Nay, the room was frightfully quiet. Though it was his custom to take up his lute hitherto the midday meal, he could not. Likewise, the three other men in the common room exchanged no pleasantries with one another. Matthias might have stood there, a scarcely breathing statue, forever had Rosalyn, the barmaid, not entered from the kitchen door. She seemed not at all disturbed by the alarming lack of patrons as she made her rounds, distributing foamy flagons of mead to unoccupied tables.
Matthias took a single step away from his spot by the fireplace and trembled. Surely his eyes betrayed him, for his clothes—aye, his very skin!—seemed to crawl in a most uncanny way. He might have attributed the abnormality to having imbibed too much of Old Llew’s bitterbrew, except the day was still young, and any gleeman of good repute knew better than to partake in intoxicating drink afore his day’s work was done.
Judging by the sparse state of the common room, he’d not have cause to sing a single verse of “Sir Ceridwyn the Clever” nor the melancholy chorus of “Lady Winter’s Lament.”
His legs felt as stiff as broadswords as he quickly crossed the common room, the cadence of his boots against the floorboards the only sound in the place. Rosalyn seemed not to notice him as she unburdened her tray at another empty table. Forsooth, she walked past by him without a greeting or a hint of the saucy grin that had sent many a man to bed with impure musings!
He reached for her but thought better of it. When he called out, the syllables tasted strange on his tongue, as though he had never spoken the lass’s name before. Despite the room’s grave silence, Rosalyn surely hadn’t heard him. She disappeared into the kitchen once more.
And was it his imagination making a dupe of him once more? He would have sworn to the Benevolent Lords above that the kitchen door had opened and closed without Rosalyn’s touching it. Aye, he would have wagered two and twenty golds on the truth of it!
He hasted to the bar, his hurried steps sounding like thunder.
“What goes on here?” he demanded. “Has the curse come at last to the Glens?”
Though Old Llew looked up from the cup he was forever drying, he seemed to stare through the bard rather than at him. “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger. If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”
“I am Matthias Manyroads, and well you know it, Llew! What—?”
The barkeep’s vacant eyes blinked. “Dark times call for dark beer, stranger. If ye will hear gossip, speak with Matthias Manyroads.”
Option 3: “The Anthropologist”
The word surfaced amid her whirling thoughts and the nervous energy that tickled her skin like an invisible feather. Godspeed. An expression of good fortune in a new venture. Like a journey.
No one at Indigo Academy had used that word while saying farewell to her and the other two discovery team members. She supposed no one in Settled Space would have seriously employed such a clearly superstitious expression. Idioms that evoked any deity had surely died off millennia ago.
The capsule-shaped stasis chamber shuddered as some subroutine or another powered up. In a matter of minutes, the vessel’s atmosphere would adjust for the long voyage and trigger the nanites in her blood to put her body in a suspended state. It was a painless process, but she always dreaded it.
Spaceflight was a rare delight for most but an even rarer distress for her. She might have stayed on Indigo for the rest of her life—which, if the other scholars’ tenures were any indicator, would be another four hundred and fifty years at least—and forever eschewed the discomfort of maximum velocity if this had been any other mission.
But how can one say no to the chance to pioneer the only other planet in the universe known to harbor intelligent life?
Godspeed. Somehow the antiquated notion seemed absolutely appropriate in light of the undeveloped and arguably barbaric planet that was their destination. The societal and technological advances the three emissaries brought with them mimicked and even rivaled the supposedly supernatural abilities of the aliens’ sundry deities. Yet despite her mere two hundred thirty-seven years, she wasn’t so naïve as to believe the aliens would revere them as gods.
More likely, the New People would defy them precisely because of their superiority, which threatened not only many long-established religions, but also the aliens’ egocentric belief that they lived at the center of the universe, metaphorically speaking.
A sentiment she herself had held until the day a wayward drone revealed the existence of a second sentient species on the far end of the galaxy.
“Are you ready, Anthropologist?”
She flinched at the sudden voice in her ear, and her heart rate spiked. But then the nanites synthesized whichever hormone neutralized unnecessary anxiety—well, more of it, considering how long she had fretted earlier about the astronomically small probability her stasis protocols would fail, causing her to lie awake in the capsule for the months-long voyage.
Ysa never called her by her real name. Maybe the title amused her. Or maybe Ysa, who ranked among the most gifted physio-biologists in Settled Space, thought learning the name of such a young scholar was beneath her.
“I am,” she replied at last, though she wondered if anyone could be fully prepared for the first face-to-face contact with a new race. Yet she knew better than to express any doubts to Ysa, who had never made a secret of her cynicism for the New People or the mission.
“Your attitude might change when they begin studying you in return, Anthropologist.”
“We will see.”
She was thinking about how good it would feel when Ysa saw how wrong she was about the aliens when the vessel began its countdown to the unprecedented journey to Earth.
* * *
—Editor’s note: as of 11:59 p.m. on April 3, “The Anthropologist” had the most votes and will, therefore, get an ending…which is not to say I won’t circle back to one or both of the other contestants at some point. Thanks to all who helped with this experiment, which has indeed taught me a few things, including this: once you give others a choice, you suddenly realize which option you really favor.
—Another editor’s note: while “The Anthropologist” edged out “The Villain” by a single vote, I ended up pursuing the latter. I simply couldn’t figure out how to write “The Anthropologist” as a short story. It got too big too quickly!
—Yet another editor’s note: “The Villain” (now called “Ghost Mode”) has been submitted for publication consideration.