Technology had advanced; a compact virtual reality headset had transformed the internet. Users could now visit a kind of wavering transparent ghost world and use their minds to visit sites, communicate with people, access information. Social media was like entering a domed room full of shadows where the user's contacts were in full color, others muted shades of grey, all like projections of light on smoke.
I was part of a group of child-free who had developed the technology to enable someone to move their consciousness step back in time, to before they had children. Their current self would go forward in this timeline so their family would not be abandoned, but they would have the opportunity to live a different life, from a point of their choosing. I was one of several people who had the job of announcing this opportunity through social media.
When I made the announcement to the dome full of ghosts that was one of the official social media presences of the child-free group, I got a good response from a number of people. Many were just grey ghosts to me, colorless representations of people I did not know, but several were in full and vibrant color - people I did know. Suzanne was bold, not shielding her identity at all, just smiling at her unwitting family in the distance, represented by static icons showing they were not logged on. She said that as long as they would live a life with a perfectly real version of her in it and would never know, she'd like to take advantage of the opportunity to live another lifetime where she didn't make these choices. I smiled – I had suspected that she would want this.
The personal timeline change was represented on the internet as a doorway. Others in the child-free group were shepherding various people through their own doors. I walked to it with Suzanne and helped prepare the door as she chose to go back twenty five years, to enter into a turbulent time in her life that spawned her decision to choose to marry a man who would insist that they have a family which she never wanted. Without any hesitation or a backwards glance, she walked through.
Suzanne was immediately in that time, not online, but in reality. She was aware of the future she had walked away from, but now in the body of the woman she was back then, the emotions, the thoughts, and the desires she felt at the time were real again as well. At this point in her life fear and anxiety controlled many of her actions and choices. She looked at me with a questioning look and asked "what day were you born?" My answer caused her face to change, to conceal her emotions as she responded "I can't know you anymore, you're a Leo. Leos are vain, selfish, hate learning and knowledge, and very shallow." She then walked away from me, down the sidewalk, back to her apartment. I knew I would never see her again, never know this friendship.
Pushing back against my loss and the lack of comfort that was the expectation of interacting with the self she left behind, I returned to the modern internet to meet the next person I was to send through the doorway. I assisted and moved a few grey ghosts of people I didn't know through the door, and then, there before me was someone I did know. Jocelyn stood before me crying, and then collapsed and sat down there, in front of the door. I could see how painful her present life was, but I could also see how painful her past was, and that reliving everything she'd been through, making different choices, would be agony and torture either way. Legs crumpled beneath her, she shook with deep sobs, unable to look at me, at the door to her past, or to make a choice. I looked around me at the various ghosts of people moving into the doors that the child-free group had set up and let the realization of the emotional weight that each of these people was carrying wash over me. The forces that shaped their choices, the regrets they had now and the regrets they would have in their new lives, the pain that each one of them was carrying. In this new virtual reality internet, this was like looking onto an ever expanding horizon filled with chasms and mountain peaks, great depths, heights, and immense weight.
Jocelyn remained a small ball racked with sobs and wet with tears at my feet. And there was nothing I could do to help her make her choice. I could only stand witness to the tides and storms that tossed her across the span of her years.
And then I woke up.