Analog Signals

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Mitch remembered when he had first bought his quantum radio, waited in line for nearly four hours to get the first model. The qRadio ads had promised the ability to listen to the user's multiple realities, as if asking thousands of permutations of the question, "How would my life be different if I had...?" They promised a life-changing experience. Both were true.

The first afternoon of listening, Mitch had discovered that if he had played basketball in college, he would have failed out and never met his wife Bella. He learned that if he had never taken the systems admin job in Washington D.C. that she would have still divorced him--except it would have been three years later. So Mitch recognized that wistful angst he saw in his friend Ashanti's expression. He'd felt it himself many times, too.

"We should get back. Your guests--" Mitch began.

Ashanti held up her hand, like a maestro signaling the start of a musical piece. Ran her fingertips across the qRadio's faux knotted wood, styled like an old Philco model from the 1930s. Its speaker rang with dissonance, strings tuning up. The sound fell into harmony and, moments later, silence. She drew a bottle of scotch from a curio cabinet and poured two glasses.

Mitch felt his mouth water at the sight of the single malt. "You were saving that bottle for a special occasion."

"Do you hear the qRadio? That's me!" She spun, dress lifting in a pinwheel, and fell into an easy chair. Ashanti slowly blinked her dark eyes, as if seeing somewhere else, some other time. "I'm playing the violin in the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time. I hear my nervousness in the violin's strings, small squeaks." She sucked at her lip like an anxious parent watching a toddler taking first steps. "But the New Year's concert--what a hell of a time to get my big break."

Mitch could hear the faintest hesitation, as if he were seated in the first row of the audience, listening to the horsehair bow pulling at the strings. "You made it," he said.

She walked to the window and put her drink on the sill. "It took a while to find the station with this reality. But in some time, somewhere, some version of me really did."

Mitch shook his head. He had seen how listening to the qRadio affected people. They dwelled on past decisions since they could hear how they would play out: the people they would never meet and the lives they had only lived in unreachable universes. Mitch picked up Ashanti's old violin from the bookshelf. Sure enough, fresh fingerprints in the dust. "You once told me qRadios were pointless," Mitch said.

She took the violin and placed it back on the shelf. "I keep listening to this station to hear what happens. Do I end up happy? This is the seventh generation qRadio. With the new fine-tuned calibration, I can parse thousands of decisions. Every decision creates another station. But even it can't see the future, only rewind and replay versions of the past."

"And every station is a version of you trapped in some other universe like amber." Mitch took a sip of the scotch. He reminded himself to drink slowly, lest he say too much. The qRadio made it hard to be satisfied with your life, harder still to hear uncomfortable truths.

"They say that our generation is the most self-centered of all. Instead of sharing everything, we regress into our own pasts," Ashanti said.

"You can't truly have closure on the heartbreak of a life you'll never live when you can eavesdrop on it every day."

"Mitch, it's not like you to wax philosophical." She paused. "OK. What's the heartbreak of your life?"

He shrugged.

"Let me guess--Bell."

"Bella? No. Not her." Mitch took a drink and tried to look non-committal. "All right. Maybe."

"I knew it! Bella and you were good together," Ashanti said. "Does it turn out differently in any of the versions you've found?"

Mitch shook his head. He remembered the day he realized he could listen to every relationship he'd had with Bella across the universes. He could mark their beginnings. He could mourn their endings. The times she cheated on him. The times he cheated on her. The break-ups in the rain. The time he broke into her apartment and created a trail of rose petals leading to her bed. The time they lost a baby to miscarriage. Every road twisted differently, but each he had found ended.

"If music be the food of love, play on," Ashanti said, and they clinked glasses.

He remembered that after listening to so many of his and Bella's failed romances, he kept dialing back to the decision when they married and the three years they had together. He was his best self. She was radiant. And yet it was too fragile in the end, undone by jealousy.

"In any reality, did I mess it up for you?" she asked.

"Like--you and me. Together? That'd be weird."

"Right--you're like my brother." She cleared her throat. "So, if I practice, how long do you think before I'm playing with a symphony?"

Mitch tugged his friend's arm. "Practice tomorrow. Tonight, let's make the most of this reality."

She nudged him. "Bella is single. Maybe this is the time."

He tapped his finger on his lip. "I could."

"Could? There are only two possibilities: yes or no," she said.

Mitch had heard a version of Bella listening to their three-year marriage on the qRadio. "I'll call tomorrow. Promise," he whispered.

He fought back a smile. Maybe this was the reality--maybe the one in more than a trillion universes--where somehow they finally worked.

About the Author: 
Shawn Proctor’s fiction has been published or is forthcoming in many literary journals and anthologies, including Galaxy's Edge, Podcastle, Crab Orchard Review and Flash Fiction Online. He loves cats and wearing weird pajamas. This story first appeared in June in Daily Science Fiction.