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art by Melissa Mead

Regret Incorporated

Andy Astruc is a video game journalist. His fiction is forthcoming in Necrotic Tissue and Semaphore. RJ Astruc's fiction has appeared in many magazines including Strange Horizons and Abyss & Apex. Her new novel is Harmonica & Gig.

Name: Marcus Nills
That field wasn't so tough to fill out. Marcus exhaled and ran his finger down the page to the next section.
Security ID:
Again, nothing to worry about. He tried to stay cool but he could feel his palms sweating around the pen. It was no big deal though. Just a form. Marcus told himself to stop thinking about it, that thinking was only going to make him freak out more. Not that it did any good. The next question was where it got difficult.
Reason for traveling back in time:
He had heard this was the big one. That if you didn't get this one right it was all over. He'd been told about people who hadn't given a good enough reason and they just got a big, fat rubber stamp: Declined. You had to convince them that you deserved it, that you had a legitimate reason and a basic idea of what was going to happen.
It was a big deal to send someone back and alter their history. People always thought it was easy, changing some tiny event or decision for one little person--they only ever approved small things, so nobody could go back and assassinate the president--but they never thought about the ripples. Marcus read all the books after he made the decision to apply, he knew all about how one person not turning up for lunch could cause a hurricane in China. Or something like that.
He just wanted a ripple of his own. Marcus chewed on his lower lip and started writing.
I applied for a job at Ciniflex a long time ago, and got it. I thought it was what I wanted at the time, but I ended up stuck there. I became obsessed with my work and it began to destroy my life. They were always calling me in and asking for me to do little extra jobs--for no pay, of course--and I always agreed. I got into a car accident while I was helping my boss deliver some files across town. I was so stressed out and the weather was bad. I hit a small girl. They said it wasn't my fault, that there was a lot of rain and the road was unsafe.
My wife started to hate me, all because of that job. I was never at home and eventually I came back and she was gone. No note, just a text message saying she wasn't coming back. I started drinking, got arrested several times for stupid things. I'm a wreck now.
He was sweating all over by the time he finished, his heart beating in his ears. But he felt that he had made a good case. That bloody job had started ruining him as soon as he made that split-second decision to take it.
He quickly finished off the rest of the form and took it over to the counter. The analyst took the papers and checked them over, then began putting the information into her computer. Marcus was feeling pretty good, he could see the analyst reading over his information with a look of concern. And why wouldn't people be sympathetic? He'd been through more than most.
The analyst tapped on her keyboard and frowned.
"Mr Nills, have you done this before?"
"Uh, no? Sorry, have I done something wrong? I can fix it." Marcus said, sweating some more.
The analyst slapped her forehead. "Ah! Silly me, you wouldn't even remember if you had. Listen, I'm really not supposed to do this...."
She spun her head around the crowded branch office, then looked back at Marcus with that same sympathetic face.
"Just take a look at my screen. You'll see."
Marcus looked at the computer screen. All his details were there, including some he was sure weren't on the form. There was a picture of him as well. As his eyes scanned downwards he saw seven "incidents" listed, with various dates.
"The first time," says the analyst, clearing her throat, "you wanted to go back and take a job you had turned down. It says it wasn't what you were looking for at the time, but you never were able to find anything else. And, one sec, then you went broke and your wife left you for another man. On your second visit--"
Marcus stopped listening. He read through each of the incident reports, all with scanned forms in his handwriting. Once he had taken the job then quit in a blaze of short-lived glory, finding a job as the fry cook at a fast food restaurant. Another stated he had gotten fired for getting drunk at a party and sexually assaulting one of the interns. He noticed that the last one on the list was almost identical to the first.
There was another folder in the file, marked "Denied Applications." It contained 23 files. He decided not to look.
"Oh my God." He groaned.
"I can send you back, sir. Your application meets our criteria and you've been designated as a low risk to the time stream. But I'm not sure it's the right course of action. As you can see, it looks like you've already lived out the various possible paths for this job thing and nothing has really suited you." She smiled and put a hand lightly on his arm. "Perhaps you should just try to make the best of the life you have now?"
Marcus couldn't speak, couldn't think. He got out of his chair, mumbled a thank you and walked out. Once he got outside the building he felt his head rush inwards, as if all the different lives he had lived in the past five years were competing for space. How could this be happening? If it wasn't the job, that terrible job he spent so long hating and wishing away, then why was his life such a terrible mess? Surely he wasn't to blame. He had tried his best to live a good life, he couldn't be at fault here. Other people, events out of his control, something was always bringing him down. But the job wasn't it, so what was he supposed to do?
Marcus stopped.
He thought back to the year before he took the job, the year he had married his wife. Maybe she was the one wrecking his life all along. She was always nagging him, telling him what to do, how to do it and who with. She always judged him, nothing was ever good enough--his computer file was proof of that. Yes, that woman was to blame.
Turning around, Marcus headed back inside. He was going to need a new form.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 27th, 2011
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