by Jake Kerr
illustration by Darryl Knickrehm © 2013
Chip looked in the mirror at the loser with the greasy hair, the thick glasses, and the lame clothes. He hated him. A new life was his only hope, and hope was right there in the corner of his bedroom.

Beside his Xbox and under his Star Trek poster stood his patched together temporal displacement device. It had taken Chip six months of painstaking and secretive work to finish it, and the theoretical models all looked dubious at best. But it was a chance, and a chance was all he wanted.

He glanced back, looked at himself in the mirror, and winked. Goodbye dork. He was going back seven years to make the person in the mirror disappear. A new life. A new him.

Chip cleared the space around the device. The vortex would cover about three feet, and his entire body had to be within it. He crouched down and pushed the button on the top of the machine. He didn’t really know if it would work, but he didn’t care. He’d either go back in time seven years and an opportunity to start over from the age of ten. Or he’d be a pile of goo. Either was better than his current life.

As the vortex swirled about him, Chip squeezed his eyes shut. The first iteration of his life was over.

It was time for Iteration Two.

From zero to hero.

As his body exploded into a million particles, Chip cringed at his words. He promised to stop saying such lame things in Iteration Two.

Chip opened his eyes to find himself in his ten year old body. He pumped his fist. It worked! The same room. The same bed. Heck, some of the posters were the same. But everything was from seven years earlier.

The first thing he did was rip all the posters down and stuff them in his garbage can. He had to make room for his Lebron James and Kobe Bryant posters.

He had planned Iteration Two with meticulous detail. Ten thousand hours is what the performance experts said it took to excel at something, so he put in fifteen thousand. The first two years were nothing but physical conditioning--running, lifting weights, and agility drills that he invented himself after hundreds of hours of meticulous research on the web. He cut out his beloved potato chips and Mountain Dew from his diet. By the time he was twelve he was in tremendous physical shape and still had room to grow.

He switched to contact lenses. He asked his mom for specific brands and types of clothes. She looked at him funny at first, but then shrugged and bought them anyway. He styled his hair based on pictures of teen heartthrobs. When he had the foundation in place, he started the next phase of his plan.

He bought a basketball and practiced dribbling in his driveway around orange cones. He took thousands and thousands of shots from every conceivable angle at the school gym. He spent every daylight moment on the weekends playing pick-up games at the local park. Every time he got beat by someone faster, he’d scream at his teammates for not backing him up and then take it out on the opposing team by swishing an impossibly long three-pointer.

Chip was smart enough to not forget a Plan B, however. So he spent his remaining hours reconstructing his temporal displacement device. Thankfully, he had a head start on the knowledge he needed from Iteration One so it didn’t take much time to replicate.

The only things that suffered in this new improved Chip were his former geek hobbies and the relationships with his old friends. He missed the video games and sci-fi movies, and--more than anything--he missed spending time with his friends discussing everything from Steven Spielberg’s talent as a director (overrated) to Philip K. Dick’s influence on contemporary literature (underappreciated) to who was the hottest girl you could marry in Skyrim (Lydia, of course).

But in the end he couldn’t find a way to fit them into his plan. He simply had no time. Charlie, Dave, and Vineet quickly fell by the wayside. Chip figured it was for the best anyway. The three of them were nerds, and he knew from Iteration One--that sad excuse of a life he left behind--that hanging out with them was a one way ticket to unpopularity.

When he didn’t start on the varsity basketball team his senior year, Chip realized that Iteration Two was a failure. He hadn’t anticipated his own genetic shortcomings. He was a marksman on the court, and he could handle the basketball, but he was slow. Depressingly, embarrassingly slow.

He quit the team midway through the season. He finally blew up at the coach and asked him why he never started a game. The coach slapped him on the back. “Look, Chip. You may be one of my best players, but you’re outside shooting makes you better off the bench. You’re my Manu Ginobli and Jason Terry!”

“Give me a chance, coach. Let me start, and I’ll do even more damage.” Chip used his most studied George Clooney smile.

“No way, Chip.” The coach leaned forward and whispered into Chip’s ear. “You’re my secret weapon.”

Chip quit the next day. Secret weapons rarely become popular.

But what really made Iteration Two a failure was that Chip hadn’t realized that social interactions required as much preparation as basketball, and he was woefully unprepared. He was invited to the right parties. He was considered handsome and part of the jock crowd, but he was awkward.

He could still remember the time he cracked a joke at the beginning of his senior year. He wanted to impress Julie Davis, the most popular and pretty girl in school. It was a funny joke, and it bothered him that he couldn’t understand the silence around him. He wanted to scream, “I’m not being awkward. You’re all acting like idiots!” but instead just laughed it off. He felt uncomfortable the rest of the night.

Over time he realized that he was tolerated, rather than included. Moving from excluded to tolerated wasn’t good enough for Chip. He had worked too hard to settle for anything less than the best, both on the court and in the school halls. If Julie wasn’t interested in him in Iteration Two, she would be in Iteration Three.

Chip crouched next to his temporal displacement device. His limber muscular body fit easier within the three foot radius of the time machine than his former self. Still, he wasn’t happy. Eight wasted years. He pounded the switch on the device for the second time, this time not out of self-loathing but frustration.

While Iteration Three was another attempt at becoming popular, it was also a source of research and became more one of discovery.

It required a complicated plan of social engineering complemented by intense physical conditioning, all while researching the perfect sport for his body type. There was one addition to the core plan: He realized that he missed his old friends, so he allowed himself some time for Vineet, Charlie, and Dave.

The trouble was that since he didn’t watch TV or movies and had no time to read or play video games he became more and more distant from his friends’ cultural references. Eventually, the distance was too great, and they grew apart. Chip didn’t realize if it was their fault or his.

He was driven, however, and didn’t let that stop his plan. The situation broke Chip’s heart, but he couldn’t see a solution. He would go it alone. Then, at his lowest, he broke his leg while training. Knowing the social and physical repercussions it would have he aborted Iteration Three.

The research he had done in Iteration Three, however, bore fruit in Iteration Four.

He found the perfect sport--. Wrestling. It was at a low ebb of popularity. All the best athletes played other sports.

With a lower level of competition, Chip could reasonably assure himself being a leading athlete at school. At the same time, he used his Iteration Two and Three experience and research to shape his social skills.

As a freshman, Chip was already a member of the varsity team. His sophomore year he was city champion, the first individual wrestling champion in the school’s history. He broke the city record for consecutive match victories as a junior and was state champion. He went undefeated his senior year and repeated as state champion. At eighteen he was the most decorated varsity athlete the school ever had.

And he was popular.

Unfortunately, while Chip wanted to be happy and enjoy his accomplishments, he really wasn’t. He couldn’t quite understand why. He had everything--a series of pretty girlfriends, his classmates looked up to him, people even recognized him in the street. But it wasn’t enough.

It first hit him when he won the city championship as a sophomore. He was standing over his opponent, the referee holding his hand high with the crowd chanting his name, and the first thing that went through his mind was that it wasn’t nearly as exciting as when he single-handedly took down the Barnacle Boys nexus in League of Legends. Now that was hard.

He quickly shoved those thoughts aside and focused on the real issue--he had to admit that his plan was coming up short. He didn’t sacrifice and work that hard to be just part of the popular crowd. His girlfriend was never the most popular girl in the school. He was popular, and his interactions at parties and in the halls were pleasant, but Chip didn’t have people fawning over him.

So he worked harder.

But it wasn’t enough, and it all came crashing down one day when he came home from school. He was mad that the football quarterback was taking Julie to the prom. He had asked her the day before, and she led him to believe she would say yes. Julie--the hottest girl in the school, the unreachable girl who he pined for since Iteration One--would go with him to the prom.

But then she picked the same loser she did in every other iteration. He pounded up the stairway to his room when his mom yelled up, “Chip, remember that no matter how bad things are, your Dad and I love you!”

It was the exact same thing his mom said to him over and over again in Iteration One, after he got bullied, after girls laughed at him, after every insult. He swore to himself that his mom would never use that phrase again. He had a different plan, a better one.

He slammed the button on the temporal displacement device in anger.

Iteration Five abandoned the physical approach for a wealth strategy.

Chip used his knowledge of the future to become ridiculously wealthy by his sophomore year. The web heralded him as a financial prodigy, the next Warren Buffett. He even had time to spend with Dave, Charlie, and Vineet. But it wasn’t the same. Chip didn’t like the way his money changed them. Hanging out in the basement and making fun of pirated movies from the Internet didn’t have as much appeal to his friends when they knew he could just pay for them all to go to Hollywood and watch the movie being made, probably even get them a part in the damned thing. They constantly wanted to buy things, rather than do things.

Even at school, his successes felt empty. Julie--unobtainable, gorgeous, and popular Julie--went to the prom with him and dated him all senior year. But her attention wasn’t on him; it was on his money.

When he pushed the button on his temporal displacement device for the fifth time, he did so with a sigh.

Iteration Six was an attempt to combine the strategies of Iteration Four and Iteration Five.

Even after cutting out his friends, navigating wealth planning, social engineering, and intense athletic training was overwhelming. Chip bailed out when he suffered a myocardial infarction after getting only than three hours of sleep a night.

Iteration Seven wouldn’t count.

It was intended to be a short break from the plan. He would replicate Iteration One: Hang out with his loser friends, get fat, ugly, and wallow in unpopularity. He would then go into Iteration Eight disgusted at this pathetic life, motivating himself with a renewed sense of purpose, the pain of this repeat of Iteration One fresh in his mind.

An exhausted Chip pressed the button to start Iteration Seven.

He didn’t waste any time embracing his old habits. He scarfed down potato chips and chugged Mountain Dew. He wore his “Han shot first” t-shirt to school. The popular kids ignored him when they weren’t teasing him. He didn’t care--he was too busy having fun.

He argued with Charlie over whether Peter Jackson’s Hobbit adaptation butchered the source material (it did). He argued with Vineet over whether Firefly was better than Star Trek (it was). Oh, and he married Lydia in Skyrim.

There was no Iteration Eight.

© 2013 Jake Kerr

Jake Kerr is a science fiction author of short fiction whose works have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Escape Pod, and other publications. His first published story, "The Old Equations," was nominated for the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial, and the StorySouth Million Writers awards. He lives in Texas, with his wife and three daughters.