Numbers

“Hello, Jamal,” they said to me, or I said to me. It was pretty confusing, staring at a room full of men who looked exactly like me.

“What? Oh no,” I said. I checked my transponder. It was just a couple of switches and a readout, but it told me I was in the right place: a particular hotel room on a particular day, back in 1973. When I looked up, they were all holding up their transponders, too. Proof. They were all me, all from the future, all here to complete the same mission.

“So I’m—”

“… number five,” they all said, all at once.

“And the mission is—”

“… a complete failure,” they all said, all at once again.

I felt my shoulders drop. “I ask all these questions every time, don’t I?”

“Yeah,” all of them said.

Then one jumped in by himself. “Starting with him, after I got here.” So that must have been One pointing at Two.

“And he will not let us forget it,” said another.

Two saw the look on my face. “He’s figuring it out,” he said.

“I am,” I said. “We’re all from slightly—”

“… different versions of the timeline,” they all said.

“Please—”

“… stop doing that?” they all said again. “It’s kinda hard not to when it’s something we’re all thinking.”

Another one jumped in. “I really tried to get them to stop, but by the time I got here, they’d made up their minds. That makes me Four and you’re Five, by the way.”

Of course. They all numbered each other. Just like I did.

“Okay,” said Two, “maybe he’s starting to get it, but I figured it out first, so I get to tell him!”

“We been through this three times,” One said to Two. “He already gets it!”

“I like explaining it, okay?” He turned to me, “They’re right, though. You’ll get it real fast. See, when he arrived,” He pointed at One, “he changed our timeline, and that meant a new version of him, which is me, was was born, joined the Army, and went on this mission. When I got here, I changed it slightly again, and made him,” he pointed at Three.

“And Three made Four,” I pointed at Four, “and Four made me. I got it. Every one of us—”

“…makes another, which makes another, forever,” we all said together. “And we don’t know what the Hell to do now.” Damn, it was hard to resist.

“Every few minutes,” said One, “the timeline works itself out and spits out another one of us. I’ve only been here, like, fifteen minutes.”

There was a rush of air from next to me as another one arrived.

“What? Oh no,” he said.

We all rolled our eyes. “Let’s just do this all at once,” we said. “There’s Six of us now, including you. The mission failed. Each one of us makes a new one when we change the timeline. A new one shows up every few minutes. Got it?” we all asked.

“Okay. Yes. I’m up to speed,” said Six.

“We don’t have a plan yet, so don’t ask.” We all answered the question we knew he was thinking.

Six looked around at us, one by one. “This is not acceptable,” he finally said. “We’re splitting into teams.”

“Oh. Okay,” we all said. New guy was taking charge. I didn’t mind. I think none of us did.

“You,” he pointed at Four. “Complete the mission. Your weapon’s charged?”

Number Four pulled out his disruptor, an ugly, bulbous pistol. He double-checked it. “Yes—” he almost said sir. It was habit, but also something else. “Plenty of juice for this mission.” He nodded in a way that creeped me out. Was I that subservient too?

“Good,” said Six. “Eliminate the object, just like we trained for, and come back immediately.”

Four nodded again and left. Just like that.

“Good. The mission’s back on.” He pointed at Three “Now you guard the hall. Act casual.”

Three nodded and stepped outside the door.

“You two,” he pointed at One and Two, “work on the communication protocol.”

Their eyebrows popped up. We’d all forgotten about that. They rifled through the room’s desk. They’d write something and mail it to HQ using an old code. Sometime in the future, the right people would see it for what it was, come up with new orders, and send them to us.

That left me and Six. He could see the question on my face.

“Because we’re not all exactly the same. Little differences are creeping in because we’re getting further and further from the original timeline. I’m guessing I’ve got more command experience because all of you are taking orders from me.”

“It seemed like the smart thing to do,” I said.

“It is. We’re all smart. I’m a little smarter, apparently.”

“Maybe a little. Don’t get your head up your ass about it,” I said. I meant it as a joke, but I could tell it came out wrong. A lot of fights I had with exes suddenly made sense.

“My head is nowhere near my ass.” He lead me to a corner of the very small room and started whispering. “I assume your weapon’s charged, too?”

“Yes,” I answered, not sure where this was going.

“Good.” He took a breath. “This is Catastrophic Mission Failure. You know what we have to do,” he said in the quietest whisper I’ve ever heard.

“Oh God,” I said. ‘A little smarter’ counts for more than I’d thought. He was right. We were sent to make one, discreet change to history, but now, us just being here was nudging the timeline further and further from where we started, and they’d told us there was only one way to minimize that damage.

Six and I nodded at each other, pulled our guns, and shot One and Two in the back before we could think about it too much. Disruptors are nearly silent, so the two men who looked just like me disintegrated before they knew what happened. There were chunks of chair, desk, and shag carpet missing where they’d been touching them.

Six called through the door, “Hallway clear?”

I heard my own voice say, “Yes, sir.” from outside.

I pointed my gun at the door, and Six swung it open so I could shoot Four. He left two shoe-shaped holes in the carpet. I felt myself starting to panic. I’d just killed three of me, and there were more on the way.

Six looked at me. Killing other versions of ourselves had been hard, but what came next was harder. “Catastrophic goddamn mission failure,” he said. He held his weapon to his temple, closed his eyes, and pulled the trigger. His body disappeared, along with the gun and two more chunks of shag.

It took another fifteen minutes for Three to get back. I’d had way too long to consider my fate by then. I knew I was supposed to show the same resolve for Three that Six had shown for me. It was the only way to get the point across. Then he’d do it for the next guy, and the next, and the next. But I made a new plan.

I was sitting in the chair when Three walked through the door.

“Mission complete?” I asked.

He looked around. “Where is everyone?” he asked back.

“They stopped coming. We changed the timeline enough that there is no more mission,” I lied. Sort of. More like hoped. “Now, mission complete?” I repeated.

“Yes, but…” He noticed the carpet. There was a dozen shoe-shaped holes.

“Good.” I pulled my gun. He reached for his, but he was too slow. Before his body disintegrated, I saw on his face that he understood. I’d seen that look a lot by then.

I leaned back in the chair and let my gun hand dangle. You never know exactly how many shots are left on a disruptor. A couple dozen maybe? I just had to hope they’d stop coming before I ran out.

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