"Pavel, good, you're here. Come with me," said a voice, a recognizable voice, unpleasant because it was my own as heard from the outside. "We have to save Natalie."
I looked up into my own face. He looked sleep-deprived, older, more recently from the barbershop, but nonetheless had my face. He was wearing a backpack, over a beat-up future version of a plaid flannel I'd bought in February.
"Who's Natalie?" I asked.
"Our daughter," said the other Pavel, and he seized me by the forearm and pulled me from the coffeeshop out onto the sidewalk.
I didn't have a daughter, but presumably that had happened while he'd been getting older. "When -?" I started to ask.
"You'll meet my wife in two years, Natalie comes along in four, in the timeline I left from she's six," Pavel replied. "Lars - you remember Lars?"
Lars and I had been roommates in college; he studied physics while I majored in bio. "From school? Yeah."
The other Pavel was still holding my wrist, tugging me along the pavement, but I wasn't really resisting, and I'd paid for my coffee in advance so the baristas weren't liable to chase me for dining and dashing. He turned a corner. "Well," he said, "Lars and his team have a major breakthrough. It's more complicated than 'time travel', but it's time travel."
"I had sort of guessed," I said.
"Doing it at all erases the future I'm from," he said. "We have a window of time, maybe a day, maybe two, before the energy recruited by collapsing the timelines runs out and it's just this one, going forward, and I'll never have existed. Lars is here now too, he's going to stop a big wildfire that would've happened this summer and a few other things. I came along because - preventing the fire will save Mom and Wanda and a lot of other people but it won't - it'd butterfly-effect Natalie, you see?"
"How does coming back here to grab me out of the café not butterfly-effect her?" I asked.
We crossed a street. "I brought back a sample," he said. "I'll tell you when and how to meet my wife, and then you've got to convince her to have Natalie instead of conceiving a random baby. She thinks it'll be pretty doable." I could guess, now, based on which way he tugged me and the business with the sample, that he was taking me to the lab where I worked as a tech. "From there she might be a little different just from details of her upbringing but it'll still be her."
I didn't have any kids, yet, but I could empathize with that. Genes determined a lot about someone. The other Pavel's six-year-old was gone, gone to save Mom and however many other people it took to convince Lars to rewind twelve years, but she could still be born. And if preventing the wildfire butterflied another disaster into existence, well. I guessed I'd tag along with Lars for the ride with an insulated bag, carrying cells swiped from my daughter, to carry her to still another timeline. I wouldn't really have predicted it but there I was.
"Tell me about her?" I said as we continued our walk to the lab. By this point he'd let go of my arm.
"About Natalie or about Danica? - that's my wife, Danica."
"I'd meant Natalie, but Danica too."
He'd brought pictures - he had a futuristic little phone, turned out, I could barely tell how he was operating it, and he showed me a little girl, brown eyed, brown haired, squeezing a stuffed elephant. Another photo of the kid, sitting on a woman's lap - not really my type, but maybe she was more appealing in motion - wearing matching dresses and smiles. All three of them at Niagara Falls, Natalie on my - on his shoulders. The wedding photo, Danica in beads and satin, Pavel in a rental tux. A little looping video of Natalie running through a house that had my old coat on the rack and my old painting on the wall, towards the camera, yelling eeeeeeeee before approaching out of view and presumably colliding with his legs.
"She's adorable," I said, though not having raised her from babyhood I found I didn't feel especially partial to her over random first-graders. Probably that happened due to hormone events that I had yet to experience.
"Isn't she!" he gushed. "She's doing great in first grade, she has two best friends, Chase and Autumn, she likes to draw..." He had pictures of the drawings, too, though he glanced at my face while he skipped through a series of rectangles full of scribbled stick figures and switched back to pictures of Natalie herself. There was a photo including, presumably, Chase and Autumn, Natalie in a birthday crown and all three of them laser-focused on slices of ice cream cake. Natalie as a toddler, ten seconds of a recording looped around as she wobbled unsteadily across a living room. Natalie as a new baby, my face aged in between now and Future Pavel's, limbs tucked under herself while she slept on his chest and he looked at her with all the wonder and awe I'd ever felt and then some. All right, I was warming up to her.
The walk was long enough that eventually Future Pavel handed me his phone to flip through. Natalie gesturing elaborately to an audience of dolls. Natalie with a mermaid band-aid on her arm and a lollipop sticking out of her mouth. Natalie and the stuffed elephant, fast asleep in a bed with unicorns all over the sheets, wearing pajamas printed with kittens. Natalie and me at the library, browsing through the juvenile nonfiction. - Natalie and me. My little girl. All I had to do was a little routine lab work, six years from now. After presumably marrying Danica, who must have a heck of a personality. But she showed up in the pictures too, in scenes I could slot myself into. Danica and Natalie making cookies together, laughing, sleeves and faces covered in flour. Danica holding a smaller Natalie in her lap to go down a playground slide. Danica and me, her pregnant, me enthralled. All three of us, somebody's thumb photobombing the shot, in front of an aquarium tank, with Natalie pressing her whole little self up as close as she could get to a shark.
I had a card key to the side door of the lab, which was more convenient coming to it from this direction, and while I was running it through the scanner, he said, "So there you are!"
I looked over my shoulder, and - it hadn't been him. Or rather, it hadn't been that one of him.
There were now two future Pavels, the one in the plaid flannel I'd walked with and another in a green sweater I didn't recognize but would (apparently) feel moved to buy if I saw it for sale.
"Oh," said Plaid Pavel. "Shit."
"My feelings exactly," said Sweater Pavel.
"If I'm going to clone your Natalie anyway, I can save his sample too," I said, "have both of them, unless Danica'll only want one kid?"
"Who's Danica?" said Sweater Pavel.
"Shit," said Plaid Pavel.
"You didn't marry a Danica?" I asked Sweater Pavel.
He shook his head. "Caroline Moore - you've met her, Joel's sister. Still named the kid Natalie though." I'd met Joel's sister, though only in passing - maybe with more exposure we'd really hit it off? She was better-looking than Danica, though I wasn't about to say that to Plaid Pavel's face.
"...well," I said, "uh, let's label the samples Caroline's Natalie and Danica's Natalie, and get them squared away safely, and then talk it out?"
They eyed each other, but peaceably enough came into the lab with me.
"I guess as soon as Lars flipped on the time machine, you were just a possible future of many, and so there's... maybe many of you?" I asked, getting the labelmaker from my co-worker's empty desk. The lab was usually unoccupied on Saturdays, though sometimes somebody'd come in, like I was doing now, to pick up a forgotten bag or check on a project.
"Maybe," said Plaid Pavel, giving me for the first time an objective view of what I sound like when I'm despairing enough to listen to bad emo music. I didn't like it.
"What is your problem?" Sweater Pavel asked him, as I printed off DANICA'S NATALIE to stick to whatever test tube or similar Plaid was about to hand me.
"If there's more of us we don't have as much time as I thought," said Plaid. "I thought I'd have long enough to explain, put everything in context - I didn't have long enough to write a letter, Lars was all set to go without me if I didn't get in with the sample pronto -"
"What is there to explain?" I asked. "Just how to get with Danica - if, uh, I decide to, I guess -"
"- yes," said Plaid. "But the way I did it was that I... took a sign language class... that she was teaching... because she's deaf. And so is Natalie."
"...ah," I said. I had sort of wondered why a six year old would run to her dad yelling "eeeeee" instead of "daddy, daddy" but I'd brushed it off, kids were weird.
Sweater was looking at Plaid like he'd just won at chess and was too magnanimous to gloat. He pulled out his own futuristic phone thing and showed me a little girl: blonde, hazel-eyed, plump and dimply, delighted with her block tower, and then another picture of the same girl grinning gaptoothed beside Caroline at the piano, playing a duet -
"Shit," said one of them, and when I looked up, it was a third future Pavel.
Behind him, a fourth leaned into the doorframe.
The labelmaker printed DANICA'S NATALIE v2 (PARKA), and then SARALYNN'S NATALIE and SARALYNN'S ALEXANDER, and then IRENE'S DAVID, and then CAROLINE'S WILLIAM, and then it ran out of label tape before William's little siblings could be added.
"I'll put the rest of them in plastic bags, I'm sure there's a Sharpie around," I said.
None of my future selves objected to this plan. They were mostly glaring at each other, occasionally whipping out their phones to show each other and me particularly cute pictures. Mavis's little Hunter, half-Korean but with my chin, on my dad's lap gazing with huge eyes at his birthday cake. Caroline's set of twins belonging to Windbreaker Pavel, posed in complementary outfits in a pile of autumn leaves. And Natalie after Natalie after Natalie. Natalies with dark hair and light hair and one who'd been allowed to chalk her curls pink and purple. Natalies with dogs and with cats and one with a parakeet. Natalies who could speak Korean as well as English, and Natalies who signed instead of speaking at all. Natalies who could read, Natalies who were too young to read, one Natalie who was dyslexic. Natalies on pony rides and roller coasters and my own future shoulders.
I wrote down the names of women I'd never met and a few I had, and the names of their children who had never existed, whose fathers had hitched a ride out of a dying timeline to give them life in a world without the wildfire. Because none of those kids sat on my mom's lap in any of those pictures. Even in the future with kids to think about I'd be able to do the math, but that evidently wouldn't stop me from trying to cheat a fate more total than death for my progeny.
Fleece Vest Pavel, father of KATE'S NATALIE, had stolen my co-worker's yellow legal pad and was scribbling furiously.
"What are you writing?" asked Hoodie Pavel, one of the ones who'd married a Mavis.
"I don't want him to marry Kate," said Fleece Vest. "I wish I hadn't married Kate, should have divorced her sooner, and as soon as I vanish I," he gestured at me, " won't've ever met her. But my Nat's six months old, it doesn't make a difference to me who raises her instead of Kate. With enough stock tips he could afford surrogates, nannies -"
There was a murmur of understanding among the other Pavels. It probably said something about me that this was the first any of us had thought of making me rich.
I let them pass around pages of the legal pad to write down what to invest in, what to pull out of when. The husbands of Danicas were also putting their heads together about how the Danica in this timeline would feel about a mansionful of nanny-raised clones in her life. Caroline's husbands were planning a date for me to take her on, to put her in a receptive frame of mind. Mavis's husbands were trying to remember between them when her gigantic dream house had first gone on sale. The one who'd married Saralynn and the one who'd married Irene knew things about cryptocurrency and international exchange rates, respectively. "But," said Irene's husband, "you'll have to keep in mind that you'll change all this by entering the market in any big way, and also so will Lars. So don't go nuts, something might change."
"Is Kate's ex," I said, gesturing at Fleece Vest, "the only one who doesn't want me to marry their wife, or is there an obvious way to go when you can compare?"
Pavels looked at each other.
"Because," I said, "the important thing is the kids, right, any of you would rather I find a way to clone your Natalie with a different mom rather than marry your wife without doing that?"
They started talking again, a hubbub becoming an uproar. I caught only bits of it. The pro-Mavis crowd seemed to have the strongest objective case - Mavis came from money, had a lot of compatible hobbies, spoke perfect English but taught the kids Korean, didn't pick fights, cooked and decorated, iffy in-laws but nobody's perfect. But I had to acknowledge that the Danica camp were terrifically passionate even if their only verbalizable supporting arguments were that Danica was really funny and good in bed and learning sign language wasn't that hard. I heard Irene's husband say, "I love her" - but obviously all of them loved theirs, except the one who'd gotten stuck with Kate. I wished I had time to ask how that had happened in the first place.
Sweater Pavel was the first to vanish, and when the pop of air rushing into the space he vacated cut through the babble, everyone stopped. By some means - probably related to time travel details affecting their remaining lifespans that they knew and I didn't - they formed an orderly line at the sample freezer. Each checked that their bags marked things like MAVIS'S NATALIE (LEATHER JACKET) and DANICA'S EDWARD were all well-ordered and that the labelmaker'd CAROLINE'S NATALIE was unharmed by its deliverer never having existed.
Leather Jacket Pavel, bringing up the rear of the line, rounded up all the sheets of paper with advice and notes and instructions and a couple hard-copy photographs of Natalies. He pressed them into my hands, silently. There wasn't time to go through a whole presentation about the virtues of Mavis over Caroline, of Saralynn over Danica, no time to post-mortem whatever had happened with Kate. Just a freezer full of lifelines for their children that I might be able to instantiate - to save - a handful of, if I could explain all this to one of these women without sounding insane.
They were mostly right about who needed to go first in the line at the freezer. Leather Jacket Pavel was the last one left, in the end.
"- is that a gun?" I asked him; now that there weren't a ton of other Pavels drawing the eye I could see it bulging in his back pocket.
"Oh. Yeah. I forgot how weird that would seem now," he said. "Maybe ask Lars if he -"
And then he was gone.
Lars said his future selves had, upon discovering that there were more than enough of them to deal with the fire, distributed themselves appropriately among other problems, including the one that led to my future self packing heat. Also, since Lars'd been on the time machine team to begin with, rather than a last-minute addition to an already planned trip, he'd had time to write himself letters. It sounded like his encounter with himselves had gone in a more orderly fashion. It also sounded like he was maybe judging me a little, though he didn't say so out loud. I didn't call him on it. I supposed "you don't have kids, you don't understand" was obvious enough to go unsaid.
Of course, I didn't have kids either. I wouldn't understand until I made up my mind about what to do. Which little packages to defrost.
I didn't want thirty kids. Did I have to have thirty kids? What about the Pavels who hadn't happened to still be friends with Lars, or who'd gotten stuck in traffic, or whose Natalies had died in car crashes by the time the machine was ready so they couldn't be sampled? There had been more Larses than Pavels, more than twice as many. Maybe some Pavels didn't even have kids, and had felt no urgency about going back in time. There had to be possible future Pavels who had trusted their past selves, trusted me, to manage my life as made sense for me in the moment. Who didn't have kids to save.
I looked at my assembled notes and started compiling them, trying to do sensemaking. The Pavels who married Danica were so adamant that I shouldn't rule her out just because I'd have to learn another language and the corresponding Natalies would never know my voice. Caroline had the advantage that I'd met her before and that limited my hypothetical ability to be deceptive about her quality, but I didn't know her that well and her husbands hadn't been the most enthusiastic of the pack. The Mavis contingent looked great on paper, but were they trying to give their kids an edge by covering up latent marital issues? Would I do that? Screw myself over to promote my children's chances of existing? Or, not screw myself over - they were all still married, not like Kate's ex - but cheat myself of some kind of joy, to give my baby a chance to be born.
I wasn't sure but it didn't seem out of the question.
Could I even have my pick of these women, if I were going into the meet-cutes already changed? Maybe they didn't like the kind of guy who'd been cornered by a pack of his future possibilities and floated the idea of impregnating them with clones. Maybe I would meet somebody else who did like that kind of thing. Somehow.
Well. That would give me a way to narrow it down. I could run around and encounter them all and see which one suited me as I was. Except Kate. Probably.
I started the tedious work of processing all the samples into more suitable long-term lab storage, with more suitably redundant labeling, one by one. In case I ever wanted any of them.
I might. Some of them.
Probably not thirty.
And maybe I wanted the experience my future selves had, of rolling the dice, seeing what me and someone else would make together.
Though I had to admit, flipping through my pile of photographs, some of them were especially cute...