I'm back in 2020.
If everything went well, I'm back in safe, familiar 2020, and across from me in this slowly forming room, in the center of all these people awaiting my arrival, is twenty-one-years-young me. A me who's still getting used to calling herself Mona Washington Prime instead of simply Mona Washington; a me who puts on that stiff uniform and wears that stiff pose every time the machine shows signs of activation. That back too straight, that jaw too clenched. Staring at that platform beyond the machine's containment unit. Praying this time will bring good news so that her own turn will never have to come.
I remember being that me.
When I try to step forward, I collapse. My eyes sting, still blind from the flash the machine wrapped me in for the trip.
It will pass. As Prime, I witnessed this half a dozen times from afar, older versions of me sinking to the platform floor on arrival; it will pass.
I remember being that me in June 2020, specifically. Being twenty-one-year-old Mona Washington Prime called in—for the last time, though I didn't know it yet—to wait for Mona Washington Seven, who arrived like all the others: naked, marked with gooseflesh, tattoos, and a film of sweat. I waited the same way we waited for Washington Six before her, and Five and Four and Three.
Not One. She, and her warning, caught everyone by surprise.
So did Two.
Then we learned what to expect.
And now it's my turn to be expected. To be dreaded.
That is all I can think of: Now it's my turn.
The world feels far too cold and my breath comes scant, but the other Washingtons warned me about these side effects, coaching me throughout the past three decades on what to expect, what to learn, what to do when I return to become one of them.
(One of them? Is that what I am now?)
The world blurs into gray, but now I can start to make out figures beyond the plastic veil of the containment unit—the colors and shapes of people's uniforms, nothing more yet. Along the side of the room, they run from one screen to another to monitor the readings, keeping their eyes studiously away from me. That's out of politeness, I convinced myself once. Now, the part of me that's cynical with age wonders if it's disgust instead. I'm naked, yes, but I'm not the right age for some, the right color for others, or the right shape for most; I know what these days were like.
These days. What's the date, anyway? No more than a few months ever separate the Washingtons' arrivals, so with Seven having arrived in June, today must be late summer, perhaps fall. We aimed for September, since we couldn't risk my showing up before Seven. But they'll tell me soon enough.
I push myself upright. I ignore the ache in my head and the struggle of my eyes to adjust. People are watching, after all. They depend on me. Besides: I'm a soldier. I follow orders. I do my job, even when it hurts.
Even when it hurts like hell.
In the center of the room stand two shapes, tall and unmoving. They're too far from the plastic for me to make out their faces, but they've (we've) stood there for every arrival from Washington Three on, and that won't change now. My gaze skips over General Dreesmann and focuses on me, on what must be that too-young, too-naïve version of me, because the shape is slim and tall and dark brown—and only twenty-one, my memory tells me, and terrified, though I'll never let Dreesmann know.
Past that welcoming committee of Dreesmann and me must be Washingtons One through Seven. Remnants of failed attempts and timelines beyond reach standing in a neat row.
And so many of these eyes are on me—I know that without needing to see them—hoping for a triumphant nod, for me to shout, We did it, people. We figured out how to prevent it.
Instead, I shake my head. Sighs and hisses of disappointment flow through the room.
"Welcome to 2020, Ms. Washington," General Dreesmann says. If he shares the others' disappointment, his voice doesn't betray him. "You know the drill. Safety first."
My back straightens. With my head up, I walk from the platform into the containment unit and wait for them to wash me down.
I wonder what month it is.
After photographing the tattooed calculations on my back, they offer me an old-fashioned pantsuit and a name tag to pin on it: EIGHT, it says.
As Prime, I could never tell the future Washingtons apart, either.
But as of fifty minutes ago, I'm no longer Prime, and my return means this woman sitting quietly by my side in the meeting room no longer has any chance of becoming me. She's now destined to return after me, to become Washington Nine or Ten or Thirteen, and me—I'm now just another played-out possibility, road number eight to avoid.
I'm like these other Washingtons I know so well.
Even seeing them looking the same as when we met thirty years ago—now—long before they went on their separate paths, I struggle to remember their shared roots as this girl I used to be. They each carried the name Prime as long as I did, but to me, they are what their name tags say: They're simply Two or Four or Five—leftovers and memories of worlds the rest of us know only by their descriptions. They're mentors and friends and what-might-have-beens, and any confusion about telling us apart is laughable. There's Seven's glasses and Five's scar, of course, but there's more that no one from this time can see. They share the same face, yes, but not the same haircuts, weights, lives. Each of them knows a little more and hopes a little less than those who came before.
Us, I think.
Each of us.
I keep needing to remind myself of that, because as of fifty minutes ago, I am no longer Prime.
She sips her coffee while waiting for Dreesmann to start the meeting. The other Washingtons are watching me, Six and Seven especially—but I cannot return those looks, not yet. Instead I keep my eyes on this younger me. On Prime. She's smooth and young, and her features are familiar from more than my thirty-year-old memories of looking in the mirror.
I imagine that mouth in a different face. I remember.
I try not to.
Prime does a good job at staring ahead. She's a professional: her hands folded, her back just as straight as I always kept it.
And I fear—
I fear that in a few months, after the machine has fired up once more to spit out another Washington, Prime will take that same seat. That Washington Nine will be brimming with fresh information the way I am now, ready to erase the decades she bridged for better ones.
And I fear that in half a year, Washington Ten will take her place. Prime would be just as quiet. We'd sip from the same lukewarm coffee in the same chipped ceramic cups. I'd just be one of the others; I'd just be Eight.
Or maybe, in this version or timeline or course of events, however the scientists of then and now want to call it—maybe I'm the last, no others will arrive, Prime will age, and after I'm dead or old, she'll be the one to take Nine as her name.
Eventually, though, in this world or another, one of them will arrive on that platform and say, We did it, people. We can prevent it. And then it will be worth it. All of this has to be worth it.
In the meantime, there's this. Meetings and photographs, and sharing whispered memories once we leave this room.
"Sorry we can't let you rest first, Ms. Washington," General Dreesmann says. "We'd like to get this started as fast as we can."
"Of course. Lest I forget any details." That wouldn't happen. That's why they chose me.
Dreesmann spreads his hands, palms flat on the table. "Tell us about the war."
The war, I cannot tell you about. Rather: I don't want to.
I can tell you about Prime. About twenty-one-year-old Prime, young enough to be my—no.
Twenty-one-year-old Prime, who's taller and thinner than I remember being and wears her hair short and straightened—something only One, Two, and Four have kept up in their later years.
Today's date is August 26th, 2020.
On December 2nd, 2018, Washington One arrived.
On December 3rd, 2018, General Dreesmann and his assistant entered Prime's West Point classroom while her professor handed out homework; something about the impact of Cold War propaganda outside of the United States.
"Mona Washington? Please come with us."
A bright future, fast-tracked.
She does college by correspondence now, which she manages with ease: she's focused, with few friends and distant parents. She fell out with her sister years ago. So there's just this. Her duties and her school. She's still determined to graduate, even after she met One, even after she was dressed in a pantsuit and given the role of specialized consultant decades before she was supposed to. It means getting a seat in every meeting of importance. It means hearing of Two's arrival and realizing the implications within the space of a breath. (It wasn't enough. Start over.) It means knowing about every strategy, every covert operation, every peace mission. Everything that might affect what's to come.
It means . . .
For me, it meant watching Seven arrive, praying for it to be the last time, and having that prayer come true in the way I least wanted it to.
For Prime, for this Prime who's no longer me, it didn't come true. On August 26th, 2020, they alerted Prime of the machine's reactivation, and I stepped off the platform, and that was that.
But for another Prime, for a long-ago version of me, August 26th passed as every other day. August passed as every other month. By 2021, I called myself Eight in the mirror.
And I did my job.
I attended the meetings and I absorbed the information like a sponge. I saw the connections. I talked to Five and Seven and One about what they knew, about what their President and their General Dreesmann did differently. If the uprising in 2030s Pakistan had been managed sooner—
If the 2028 election had swung the other way—
I absorbed and I watched and I jotted it down in a memory that never fades, the keeper of records I tried to prevent. I watched older versions of myself buried under false names, the last lonely proof of timelines undone.
I tried not to waste time grieving.
At least they led their lives—lives they could keep—once they left the base armed with new passports and far too much knowledge, something I didn't and couldn't do until the war started. Then I hid away and created a world of my own, for however briefly, a world tucked away in a Montana town with a picket fence I painted myself. I received a medal from Vice President Lougan before the bomb shelters were eradicated in 2049. I spoke with General Anderson over the phone until we thought we knew enough.
They tattooed my back full of equations I didn't understand, for the scientists from 2020, from now, to study.
Maybe we'll be stronger if we boost our knowledge. Maybe we'll be able to send back more than just her. Maybe we can time her return more accurately.
I said goodbye to my world and everyone in it, then, and stripped down and stepped onto the platform to become the answer to that old, old prayer of mine, and not an answer I would welcome. I meet the Prime I used to be. I wonder what's left of the picket fence in Montana.
The war stays. Different versions, different people, different times.
But the war stays.
"What about Myanmar?"
"After five years of aid—mostly in the form of engineers and funding—the infrastructure notably improved. Despite occasional struggles, by 2035, its economy—"
"Did they come through for us?" Dreesmann asks.
Seven glances at me over the rims of her glasses. Lie, her eyes tell me, the way her lips have countless times in hushed conversations away from Dreesmann's eyes.
She looks so young. Barely over fifty. We share the same age for the first time now, but I was by her side at the end with three decades separating us and that's how I fear I'll remember her until the scene at the hospital repeats itself, with Prime playing my old part. Who'll be the first to go this time?
"Our relations with the General are good." I nod. Curtly. It's not a lie—yet. "The country's support was more than beneficial. It's hard to say if it was . . . a deciding factor in our gains." Not convincing enough. I need more. I swallow. "But I believe so. I'd like to discuss it further with some of the analysts."
"We'll need to consider if it's worth the effort."
"It is." Seven jumps in too quickly. "Believe me, sir. My timeline showed we need all the help in Southeast Asia we can get."
Dreesmann lifts his chin, stares Seven down. "We will consider your input."
Seven is hard to read. But living alongside half a dozen women sharing the same face—it helps you notice the little things, eventually, like the way her lips broaden and flatten a scant millimeter, or how she refuses to be the first to look away.
One through Three would have budged. Maybe even Four.
"What about the Syrian invasion?" General Dreesmann asks.
"Civilian casualties—" I start.
"I don't want to hear numbers. Did it work?"
As though anything is that simple. "No."
He hisses through his teeth. What's he thinking? It was worth a try? So damned easy when you get a do-over, isn't it?
I clear my throat. "There'll be an accident with a nuclear facility next year—"
"The war comes first," Dreesmann says, his voice brusque. "Let's put together a rough timeline."
Hard data comes easy. The years and months and days roll off my tongue without a second thought.
Has anyone besides us even noticed the changes in us since Four?
I need to talk to Seven about Myanmar, and to Six about something else entirely. She's been looking at me—quick glances before putting the mask of professionalism back on—wondering if I know, if a future her told me about Micha.
Wondering if I ever had a chance to know him, myself.
("Those eyes," she whispered at me that morning in the hospital, 2031, gazing on the tiny, perfect face of my new world cradled in my arms. "Micha's eyes were just like hers." She talked of her son for the first time; of his eyes.)
But now she doesn't know of any of that, does she? To her mind, we never shared whispers and what-ifs of a soldier's regret and a mother's love over my daughter's sleeping form.
And I know we've shared those what-ifs over half a dozen times. We share lives with versions of ourselves who age and die one by one until we step on a platform, take on a number, and reset our relationships to zero. We join the others and tell them about decades they have yet to experience. We tell the Prime we once were about the life she could lead.
And now, I'm finally a part of that "we." I've done what I'm supposed to. From this point on, I'm a number, I'm backup: I'm a specialized consultant.
I can't look up Six yet. Looking up Six means putting a pencil to paper and showing her, drawing the lines of a crooked smile and clear eyes just like Micha's.
It means telling Six my daughter's name.
Besides: Prime will want to talk to me first.
Away from Dreesmann's eyes, Prime dares to relax. In her Spartan quarters, on that colorless bed she'll tire of in a year or two, she looks like the me I remember being. So damn proud, so damn eager, so damn terrified she won't succeed despite facing proof that she already has.
"Every single time," she whispers. She brushes back a lock of hair and leans against the wall, studying me. (I'd almost forgotten: I always used to do that. Noted the differences, the similarities. Wondered how different this Washington's life was from the ones who went before her and how different mine would be from hers.)
"Every single time," I say. Left-over pain from the trip jolts through my back as I prop my elbows on my knees. I bite it down.
"Do you think we'll win? Some day?"
"I think we'll manage to minimize the effects."
"Not prevent it?"
I take a moment too long to reply. "The seeds of any war are sown long before the first weapon fires."
She shifts on the bed, gives a reluctant nod. She knows this. What she wants is reassurance, which I can't give her.
"Until we find a way to go back further than 2018—to send a future you back without a platform there to wait for you—a war will happen. One way or another." I smile wryly. "Our job is to make it the best war we can."
She knows this.
Here's what she doesn't know: I want to scream at her and tell her that if her future is even a fraction better than the ones we've told her about, she should take it. Convince them not to send you back. Stay. Or go back and lie, say we've won, wave the American flag and play the hero you so badly want to be.
Maybe that's what I should've done.
(But there was Myanmar, see. And more. We'll think of others to help. Even if we can't make a better war, we can make a better world, whether Dreesmann wants to or not. That's what Seven told me. What Six believed before she became Six and left Micha behind. What I came back for.)
"Right," Prime says in a small voice. She clears her throat, tries again, going for flippancy and sass. She'll learn it's not necessary soon enough. "Is the drawing thing still working out for you, at least?"
"When you find your calling, why bother doing anything else?" Our "calling": a talent Four discovered and passed along to the rest of us. Part of a long line of things learned.
"You apply the same thing to love?" She grins—still fake—and nods at my hand. A light line circles my ring finger. "Was it Nate Snyder? The way Six talks about him . . ."
Everything keeps reminding me of Six. I need to talk to her. Soon.
First I should continue the tradition Three started, tell Prime what I've learned. Don't worry so much about what you eat. Forgive your mother. Reconcile with your sister. She regrets what happened more than you know.
And when you meet Nate Snyder, marry him. They'll give you a hard time. They'll say you're unprofessional. Don't pass him by like Seven did; know that no one else's thoughts matter when you're watching your daughter grow up.
"It didn't work out with Nate," I say, though I know my word will mean little against everyone else's. It should. I'm lying. "I wouldn't . . ."
She'll be able to pick up a life when she reaches the point where I am now. The others did and will again. Too late to have children, but not too late to love, to draw and live. I skipped the exhibitions, missed the weddings—just heard their spouses' names: Guillermo and Cassie and Robin and Daniel.
It'll be easier if she listens to me. Prime will still have a life, some day. A world she won't have to give up.
"Avoid Nate Snyder."
I've gotten too distracted.
One would agree with me, and Two. Seven. The ones who had no one. The ones who were soldiers.
"In a few years, you'll want to reconcile with Lucia." I miss Lucia. Leaving her was almost as hard as leaving Luna and Nate. I swallow, and say, "Don't."
Dreesmann calls me to fill in some gaps in my story. I forget, sometimes, what they know and don't know at this point.
One of the few things I ever forget.
So I do as told. I do my job.
He sends me away to take photos for my new passport. My name, from now on, is Maria Kane.
Six finds me before I can muster the courage to find her. She lingers in the doorway to my new quarters—still as empty as Prime's—and fixes her gaze on the sketchpad in my hand.
I know the name that sits on her tongue, that withers when she sees the lines on the paper. Long lashes of soft graphite, scribbly curls that reach her shoulders. The pencil makes dark strokes under her chin. It's just a sketch, but I want the shading right. It needs to be dark and dramatic. That way she'll stand out all the more.
"Her name," I say, "is Luna."
Six's heels thud dully against the carpet. The door creaks shut behind her.
"Her eyes need more work. She had her father's." I peer up. "I used myself as reference for some parts. The lips."
Data is what we remember. Things you can put in words and numbers, calculations and theories. Not faces: not the way she smiled.
"Luna," Six whispers, tasting my daughter's name. "Luna. Did you know about . . ."
"Micha. You told me after Luna was born. You drew him for me once."
"Her father. It was Nate?"
"Just like you said: One day, an officer called Nate Snyder will walk in the door. He'll ask Five about the winning lottery numbers. When you recognize it as a joke, you're relieved. When Five tells him others before him meant it, and he's appalled, you begin to fall for him." I pause. "He asked Seven. The rest was the same."
She sucks in a shuddering breath, but her voice stays steady. "What do you think happened to them?"
"Ask the scientists," I say, though they don't know either. Not now, not when they sent me back. "Maybe she's—they're—still out there. Missing us."
Six sits on the bed next to me. The mattress is so hard I barely notice—might not have if not for the way she blocks my light. Her shadow falls over Luna's face, which stares lifelessly from the page.
I can't get her damn eyes right. Not without her sitting across from me, keeping her face perfectly still as she asks, Are you done soon, Mom? Curfew's in an hour and I still need to pick up my rations.
Was Micha like that? Should I ask Six?
"I don't know which is worse," she says. "What if there are other timelines—the ones we abandoned—and we create new ones every time one of us sets foot on that platform? Over and over again, because we can't seem to fix our own mistakes?"
"That'd mean Micha and Luna are still out there." The shading under the chin is too dark, now. I need to touch up the rest of the face to match. If I erase, I'll lose the texture. Mess up the paper.
"Abandoned in a world we can no longer fix," Six says.
"They're safe," I say. "My Nate's looking after Luna. Yours is looking after Micha. And they're adults now." Luna was, at least. Weeks away from turning twenty on the day I left. That is what I tell myself; she's safe. That's what I will keep telling myself.
"You don't know that. You don't know what happens in the war once you step on that platform."
I grip my pencil tighter.
"And then what?" Six says. "If those timelines do still exist, it means we've created new people. Billions. Suffering through new wars."
The pencil refuses to steady, now. The strokes are too light or too dark. Maybe it needs sharpening.
"Maybe we reset them," I say. "We travel back, shift this world's future and stop our own from ever existing at all. And we're just—leftovers." I lick my lips. We know the same things, think the same way, and still can't stop ourselves from wondering and sharing identical fears.
"Do you think that's any better?" Six asks. "All the people we erase."
"They never existed. There are no survivors. No one suffers."
"We're survivors. We remember. Nate—Mom, Lucia—every single person you've talked to or laughed with in the last thirty years—"
"It doesn't count," I whisper. I agree with her. Why am I defending this? Why didn't I tell Prime to stay in whatever world she ends up in, stop this cycle no matter what Dreesmann wants? I don't care about being a soldier. I'm supposed to but I don't. "We give them new lives, better lives. We start over again. It can't all be for nothing."
"And what about Nate? What about Micha? Seven didn't have him. You didn't, either. You had your Luna. Maybe in this Prime's world, in Washington Nine's and Ten's and—and any of them from now on—neither Micha nor Luna will exist. Maybe the one chance at life is all they had. Maybe our memories and sketchpads are the only places they'll ever live."
I close my eyes.
Maybe it's just easier. Being a soldier.
"But hey, you can have a new life, right? A new kid? What's it matter?" Six bites at me. "Maybe we got erased, too. Or we will. What if someone travels back to before? What'll happen to us if some version of Prime travels back to the beginning, to when the last panel was bolted down and Prime was the only one there was?"
"Then we reset to Washington One. Drag Prime from that classroom a second time."
"Maybe it's happened already. Maybe this entire world is leftovers. We're fighting a fight someone else has already finished."
"We've had this conversation before. You asked the same things after Luna was born."
The page lights up when Six moves away, and I hunch over, refuse to look up.
"If they keep doing this—and they might, you know. Even if we fix things, they might never be satisfied, not ever. They'll always pick at scabs and want to do better and be better and sooner or later they'll screw up," she says. "Maybe there won't be a machine left to fix things. Maybe the world will be worse than ever. Seven had no one. But you? You should've stayed."
Time passes. I try to get used to the name Maria.
It's better than the names some of the others got, at least.
Seven and I discuss Myanmar and Haiti. Prime and I discuss our sister and Nate Snyder, and charcoal versus pencil. Six and I discuss nothing at all.
The further back they send us, the less accurate the machine is. Bridging decades means months of wiggle room. Usually it takes two months for the next Washington to arrive, four at most, and I remember all too well the times in-between. Discussing theories and possibilities and comparing too many futures, linking actions we haven't yet taken to outcomes that no longer exist.
So that's what we do.
In the evenings, I try to get Luna's eyes right.
Five months and the machine reports no signs of activation. We're not put on alert to welcome Washington Nine.
They try not to worry.
Seven months later, my head turns when I hear Maria or Ms. Kane, and Luna's eyes are as close as I can make them.
Not quite right. But I recognize her.
Dreesmann calls another meeting. (Even he worries, now.)
"All right," he says gruffly. "We've discussed this before, but I figured it couldn't hurt to get more input." His eyes glide over all of us, from Washington Prime to me. The other Washingtons' tattoos edge out past their collars. Do my own tattoos do the same? "Name your thoughts."
"Something went wrong in the future," Six says. "Maybe the machine and backups were destroyed. They couldn't send anyone back this time."
"Could be it went right." Four's hands clasp together on the table. "They didn't want to send anyone back. It might mean inadvertently changing things."
Five shakes her head. "All of us went through this before. Why assume it's different now? We're in the timeline where the war needs to happen before we send Prime back. She's just a future Washington Nine."
I avoid Six's eyes.
"That was our thinking. How did you handle it then?" Dreesmann demands of Five, or any of the others.
I lean back and focus on Prime. The way she's following the conversation, head tilting millimeters to the left and right to make sure she catches every word. The fear she's trying to hide, because this means it's her turn next.
I remember thinking those thoughts.
We have time left. We can still change things. Maybe I'll tell her to lie, or to stay. Maybe Six will.
I wonder if Prime would listen.
I'm a soldier. I didn't.