Big Echo

Critical SF

Water Exchange, Version 8123...

by Saba Waheed

“Records.” 

The port officer was a short balding man who barely acknowledged Leena. She handed him her Square. He downloaded the information and passed it back to her. 

“Hand.” 

She put out her left hand and felt a sting from his chip gun.

While he reviewed the computer screen in front of him, she looked over at the other parts of the depot. She saw families and individuals in suits. They were going through the same entry process but the officers were smiling; the travelers moving with a lightness. Not like her, who could only feel the heaviness of the future she was about to live. Or her mother who had made this journey before her.

The officer handed her the Square and said “Live, work, go back.” His words simplified a mission that would take decades to complete. But Leena knew better than to say anything. The officer looked at her for the first time. She nodded her understanding.

Leena stepped out of the station, blinking in the bright light. The afternoon sky had a hint of pink, the sun reflecting off of a thin layer of clouds that drifted in the sky as if they had always been there. Leena felt like she could breathe them in. Suddenly, someone grabbed her arm, pulling her back. 

“Hey, watch it!” shouted a woman, her tone concerned rather than angry.

Leena looked down at the edge of the curb and backed up, “Oh sorry...the clouds.”

“First time here?” It was more a statement than question but Leena nodded anyway. “What time are you from?”

“2280 version 8123–” 

“Oh stop, you don’t need to say the version.” The woman smiled with friendly humor. She was in her twenties, the same as Leena. She had a round face and short, curly black hair.  She was wearing light blue jeans and a white t-shirt with a cartoon character on it.

“Are you from now?”  Leena asked. 

“I sure am. But I’m a documentarian so I travel to other times and other versions. Do interviews, learn about the experiences of other people.” Leena thought that was an odd job but didn't think she could comment. “So, what plant are you going to?”

“How do you know I’m not visiting?” Leena couldn’t hold back the defiance in her tone.

“Only people in the exchange program stare at the clouds the way you were,” Jackie said matter of factly. “Anyway, look, my dad is involved in the whole water exchange thing. I’m supposed to join that world.  Start my j-o-b.  He thinks my time documenting is just a hobby. Freedom ends now.” The girl rolled her eyes and made a face.

Leena found the amount of information the girl shared unnerving. “The Mojave. That’s all I know.”

“Oh yea, that’s a big one. They make shoes and clothing. The bus stop for you is outside of the depot over there. This side is for visitors and returnees.” She waved and as she walked away, said “Well, good luck 2280 version eight one two three blah blah.”  

Leena didn’t say anything back. She turned and walked in the direction of the bus stop. 

The bus was full of other exchangers. They greeted each other and then settled into silence. As the bus moved through the city, Leena noticed the skyscrapers that stretched across the landscape.  Her mother had described this time to her. About how people built houses and offices up to the sky. They drove for hours and she watched as the land became less populated, more sparse. It started to look like home. The dry land, rock formations, interspersed with desert plants and flowers. It was just like her playground growing up.  She and her sister Laina would climb up the boulders that were piled up on each other and crawl through the pathways built between them.

They arrived just as the sun was setting. The temperature was dropping and Leena felt a slight chill. A woman in uniform met them. She didn’t introduce herself and had a stern look, and like the port officer, barely acknowledged them as she directed them inside a warehouse. She showed them the dining room, bathroom and showers and the common sleeping area—a giant room with rows and rows of bunk beds. She assigned each one of them a bed and gave them a snack bar.

Leena found pajamas and toiletries laid out for her. She changed and got into bed. She remembered when her mother completed the exchange program. She returned so old. Her hands were hardened, her stature shrunk, and her eyes dim and dark from the years of grinding work and solitude. For Leena and Laina, who had just turned fifteen, no time had passed. Their mother had explained it beforehand. She would leave and return at the exact same moment so that she could come back to the same version she had left. But for their mother, decades would have passed, because she had continued to live and age in another time period. Even though she had tried to prepare them, Leena still couldn’t get over her mother’s instant transformation. Leena felt tears rise up through her chest. She pushed the thoughts away. She had years and years to fill her solitude. Leena shifted her thoughts to nights when she and Laina would sleep outside and count stars. Finally, she fell asleep. 

An alarm went off at sunrise, and the room went from quiet to a hectic bustle. She joined the other exchangers as they walked through the shower stalls like an assembly line. Soap and shampoo in one stall, rinse under a time controlled shower head, grab a towel and exit. When it was her turn, Leena was so shocked by the feeling of water over her. It felt so decadent.  

She made her way to her assignment. They put her in a large room with hundreds of other exchangers. Yet the room had a silence about it as exchangers huddled over their work spaces hand-sewing pieces of garments.  A plant attendant ordered her to take her place at the edge of a row of stations and told her to sew buttons on finished shirts. The air was stifling and Leena had trouble breathing. 

The exchangers took lunch in shifts. Hers was the third shift and her stomach was already rumbling. She followed the crowd to a large dining hall. There were pieces of meat in gravy and scoops of mashed potatoes. She sat down at a table and took a bite. The food was bland and tasted like dried leaves. A woman walked by and looked at her. She sat across from her. “You’ll get used to it.” She put out her hand “Annabelle, 2290.”

“Leena, 2280.” She knew now not to add the version. In their time, Annabel would only be ten years older.  But in this one, she was already her mother’s age. Annabel’s hair was salt and pepper white and tied back. Her eyes were narrow and her skin pale probably from being indoors all day. Annabel told her that she had been in the program for almost thirty years.  She would be going back in two.

“I guess we still don’t have enough water in your time,” Leena half asked and half stated.

“I’ve met people from twenty years after mine. Still a shortage. “

“Maybe they find water thirty years after yours.”

“Yea, maybe.” Annabel smiled and put her hand on Leena’s. “It helps to believe that our future generations won’t have to go through this.”

The days shifted into weeks and months and then months into a year.  Leena ate with Annabel and other exchangers. Every forty days, they had a day off and they spent it sitting on the rocks outside of the plant. Sometimes they shared stories of home, and sometimes, when the memories were unbearable, they made up stories  to keep each other entertained.

On some of her days off, Leena would lay in bed all day. The pain of time moving forward without her family swallowed her. A pain so deep that it made it hard to move. When her mother died last year, Leena was twenty years old. Her mother had lived for three decades without her children and when she finally returned, they only had five years together.  Leena and her sister mourned a future life without their mother.  Now, when Leena returned, she would be over fifty and her sister still twenty five. Her twin would have to watch her die and live her own future without Leena. What a cruel joke this program was, Leena thought. Forcing families to live without each other.

One afternoon, Leena was on her lunch break when when she heard a familiar voice.  “The clouds still feel new, version eight five four blah blah?”  The woman from the depot sat down across from her. “Jackie.” The woman held out her hand. “Don’t look so surprised.  I told you, this is my j-o-b.  My dad said—get to know the plants so I said, okay I want to start with the Mojave. So, I’m stationed here for a few months.”

Leena sat silently, still uncomfortable with Jackie’s need to talk so much.

“So, how’s it going?”

“Fine.” Leena didn’t want to engage her. 

“Aw come on, how’s it really going.” Jackie leaned in closer.  “I’m not a spy.”

“Only a person who is would say that,” Leena said with irritation.

Jackie laughed. Leena could see the other exchangers looking at her. “Aw, come on version eight five four—”

“Leena, my name is Leena.” 

Jackie laughed and got up. “Okay, Leena. I’ll see you around.” 

On her next day off, Leena decided not to lay around in misery. She forced herself to get up and go outside. She walked out of the plant gates in her work uniform, the only clothes she had. The air was dusty and hot.  She reached the road and started to walk. The heat was pounding against her back and she started to get thirsty and tired. She realized the futility of venturing out. She understood why there were no restrictions on leaving the plant grounds. They were so far away from everything, they had nowhere to go.

She saw a car coming down. Her heart jumped when it slowed down. A light skinned man put his window down and screamed at her: “Moochers, go back to your own time!” 

Leena stepped back in shock. The car drove off but the man kept cursing at her. She ran back to the plant gates.  She felt her being burst out of her skin with anger.

When she got close to the plant, a car exited and came towards her. It pulled up next to her. Leena’s body filled with fear.

“What are you doing out here?” Jackie asked.

“Nothing,” Leena said and turned away.

“Hey, where are you going?” Jackie jumped out of the car and ran after Leena.

Leena turned around. “How dare you call us moochers?”

“Wait, hold on, who called you a moocher?”

“Some jerk driving by.”

Jackie was quiet and then said, “People here don’t understand the exchange program. They think you’re taking our water”

“Are you kidding me? I didn’t ask to be here. We are not the ones that ruined this planet.”

“Well, technically, neither did we.”

“People in your time control the time portal. Go forward, go backward, change what happens. Stop our world’s devolution. Your time has the power to do something but it doesn’t.”

“Give me your Square.”

“What?”

“Give me your Square.” Jackie put out her hand but Leena didn’t move. “Just trust me this once.”

Leena took it from her pocket and hesitantly passed it to her. Jackie started tapping on the screen. “Don’t tell anyone but I’m actually a tech thief. I can break into any machine.” She handed the Square back. “I added the Histodrom—it’s public record but exchangers don’t have access to it so I removed the restriction. You can read histories from any time and any version.  Maybe then you’ll understand. We are doing everything we can.”

Leena took her Square and walked away without saying anything.

Leena spent every evening reading the Histodrom. On her day off, she climbed up to the rocks, lay down by herself, and read. She couldn’t believe it. No matter how many histories of the future she read, the nuclear holocaust happened in every version and so did the water shortage which followed.

A few weeks passed before Jackie returned. When Leena saw her, she found herself feeling excitement.

“Thank you,” she said when Jackie walked up. “For sharing the Histodrom.”

“I thought it would help. Everyone should have access to it. If you can’t freely travel to other times, you should at least be able to read about them.”

“I’ve read hundreds of futures. How can the same thing happen over and over?”

“The global government figured out that changing details doesn’t change history.  It’s like Glund.”

“Like what?”

“You probably know him by another name. It doesn’t matter. The guy that leads us into the holocaust. Once we figured out how to manipulate the time portal, I can’t even count how many people went to the future to kill that guy or the past to kill his ancestors.  But the thing is, today we’re the Great Society.  We’re thriving but then, no matter what we do, the Global Recession still happens. Then, hatred of this people or that people grows. And you probably saw  in most of the recent versions, the hate is aimed towards the water exchangers. But in reality, society becomes more unequal. And then out of that, you get Glund or Quiroza or Daffari or Acker. In some versions, it happens in the Western Hemisphere, in others the Southern. Pick your version. There’s something in our human history that stays the same no matter how much we try and change it.”

“But don’t you see, somewhere back in those early versions, there needs to be a bigger intervention.” Leena said. “Share the resources earlier. Spread the wealth. Get to the root of the problem so that the first guy is never created.”

“I wish that were true but you’ve read the versions. There are all those versions with the massive interventions. We tried it all but it’s like a rhythm in humanity. Great Societies are followed by Great Recessions. Times of peace by times of war. That never changes no matter what we do.” Leena sat uneasily with this conclusion. A bell rang signaling that lunchtime was over. “I like talking to you, Leena from 2280. Could we do lunch again next week?”

Jackie and Leena started to eat lunch together weekly and they would meet for walks around the plant perimeter on her day off.

One day Jackie asked Leena, “Tell me about your family.”

“I come from a line of environmental engineers. We helped carve homes in the caves that gives us shade and salvage the little water that remains. We’re known for the carvings in the sandstone cliffs. They’re quite beautiful.” Leena felt sadness overcome her.  “We believed we could sustain ourselves with the remaining water but then our government forced families into the water program. They insisted people were randomly chosen but my family had spoken up against the program. ”

“I’d always been told that all of your people wanted this.” Jackie said more quietly.

“A sacrifice of a few to save the whole. That’s what they say to us.” Leena said bitterly. “When the nuclear holocaust opened the time portal, we should’ve come back and just taken the water.”

“Your time discovered the portal but ours learned how to manipulate it.” Jackie said. “The reality is, you couldn’t have. You would have been like all those early time travelers that got lost in other versions. They’d come back to their time but because the past had changed, so had their present. Their wife or child or brother didn’t exist anymore. Or they lived in a different city. But we figured out how to get people back to the exact mili-mili-second they left so they could return to the same storyline.” Leena sighed because she knew Jackie was right. There was no way for them to come back and get the water. And, there was no way to change the present to keep the water from disappearing.

But that night, Leena dreamt she was a giant desert tortoise. She could surface during the spring, drain water from plants and live off of it for the years to come. And like the engineers in her family, she could quench the thirst of all the people in her time. Then, her people would forever close the time portals that forced them to labor in this time.

One day, Jackie offered to take Leena into the city on her day off. They drove for a few hours through the desert and arrived in a residential area. The houses were huge, extravagant and colorful. They parked and walked into a sprawling shopping arena. Leena couldn’t believe the amount of stuff in the stores.

“I guess this is what I’m working for.” Leena couldn’t hide the hostility in her voice.  “While we’re building all this stuff, what do the locals from this time do?”

“We build ideas.”

Leena scoffed. It seemed like Jackie didn’t do much for her job. She showed up at the plant, she wrote up histories, and she talked to people. “You call this the Great Society but to me, this is just waste. Why do you need so many things? Ten pairs of shoes instead of just one?”

“But think about it Leena, maybe we’re buying this stuff so that you can have work and that way you get water.”

“I’m pretty sure there are other ways the exchange could work that doesn’t look like this,“ said Leena.

“Like what?”

“We could share the resources. Spread it out across time.”

“But who would do all this work?”

“You would, who else.” Leena felt an anger rise up inside of her.

“Yeah, maybe,” Jackie said halfheartedly.

“Why do you spend all this time with me? Am I just a part of your documenting?”

“What? No. I like talking to you. You make me think about things.” Jackie’s voice bordered on pleading. “Come on Leena, don’t be in such a bad mood today. I have a surprise for you.”

They walked to the car and drove through some mountains. Leena put her head out the window and felt the hard, hot air hit her face. They drove over a hill and the landscape changed to a bright aqua blue. Leena’s entire body started to shake. She had never seen anything so luscious and breathtaking. Jackie parked at the edge of the sand. Leena walk out and was overwhelmed by the sound of the waves crashing. Her feet tingled when they touched the sand. She looked at Jackie, who simply said, “Go.”

Leena ran through the beach and reached the water. She stood at its edge.  She watched as the waves came crashing in and out.  She moved closer and felt the ice-cold water touch her feet. Leena screamed in joy.  She ducked her head into the water, her clothes getting totally soaked. In that moment, time ceased to be. What once was had seeped into now and what was going to be had already happened. But none of it mattered. Leena felt broken and completely full.

They drove back and Leena was filled with bittersweet emotions. “In some versions, we don’t even exist. None of this would matter.”

“Or, I could be your great great great grandmother,” responded Jackie laughingly.

“That’s not funny. But, yea, it could be true. I noticed how they hide the genealogies in the Histodroms.”

“People were going into their own histories just to intervene in their families. I guess the Global Government felt like it was a misuse of the portal so they suppressed the family connections. ”

“Jackie,” Leena’s voice rose. “Doesn’t that make you wonder what else they could be suppressing?”

Jackie turned to her and slowly nodded. Leena felt a tightness in her stomach grow. When they got back to the plant, Jackie let out a gasp, “Fuck, that’s my father.” Leena followed Jackie’s gaze and saw a well-built older man in a suit standing next to a car. “Get out and just go into the plant.”

Leena walked away but turned back and saw the two of them in a heated conversation. The next day, Jackie didn’t return. Weeks passed and still no Jackie. Leena worried about her.  She tried to keep busy, continuing to read the different histories. Then one day, she was directed to an executive office. She walked in and was greeted by the older man.

“Do you know who I am?”

“Jackie’s father.” she said.

“I’m also the head of the water exchange.” Leena did her best to hide her surprise. “You're young, I get it. But Leena, you have a community that is relying on you. You have so much at stake whereas Jackie, she doesn’t understand responsibility. You’re a project for her. She documents and all she wants to do is dissect you and people like you. Look, we've set up the best structure we can for the people in the exchange. We're sorry that it has to be this way.” Leena didn't expect him to be so soft. “My people, we were once like you. I still have memories of it. When the color of my skin meant I was treated like a second-class citizen on a planet that should be everyone's. And now it’s people from the future. These divides happen. But I made sure the exchange program at least treats your people well.” Leena wasn’t sure what he wanted. She wanted to ask where Jackie was. He continued: “I know how much you love your family and they’ve made great sacrifices. So, we’re sending you back. To the exact version. You’ve only been gone two years so the adjustment won’t be so bad.”

Leena was shocked and confused. She walked out of his office in a daze. She couldn’t believe that she could go back. Go back to her sister, her father, her friends and her home and after only two years. Her whole body filled with joy but then was quickly overtaken by anxiety. What about the water for her community? She wanted to go back into the office but the door was already closed.

That evening, Leena said her goodbyes to the other exchangers. Anabelle gave her a deep, long hug. “I’ll be home in a few months. In ten years, come find me.”

She arrived back at the depot, remembering the day she arrived—the day she met Jackie. She felt a deep sadness that she didn’t get to say goodbye. She got in line and handed over her Square.

“This has the unblocked Histodrom on it. How did you get access?” After she explained, the agent made a few calls. The last one, she could tell, was Jackie’s father. 

“What, sir? Are you sure, sir? But that’s against the…okay, yes. Understood, sir.” He handed the Square back to her, “You can keep the histories in there but it won’t update once you leave.”

Leena walked to the customs line and as she was about to go through the portal, she heard her name. She saw Jackie running towards her. A customs officer stopped her but when she told him who she was, he let her go.

“Leena, you were right, we are stealing from your future.” She was out of breath.

“What?”

“Ever since you made that comments about the suppressed histories, it’s been nagging me. So, I broke into my father’s Square. I told you, I’m the best tech thief in town. I found a history of the future where people from our time do change it.”

Leena tried to take in her words. A customs officer barked from the portal entry, “Keep moving!”

Jackie started to speak even faster, “We can do it. We can prevent the holocaust. Change your future. It means my time gives up all of this.” She widened her arms. 

“I can’t go back now,” Leena blurted out. She looked around and saw guards everywhere. There was no way to run. “Release it.”

“What?”

“Release the histories. If people know, they will do something about it.” Leena saw a guard walking towards them. “I’ll go back but I will figure out a way to jump histories. Find one with water.”

“Yes, yes.” Jackie moved in and held her. “There can be a world of shared resources.”

The guard came up to them. “Separate now.”

“Don’t you know who I am?” Jackie turned to him without letting her go.

“I don’t care if you are the king of the Global Government.” The guard took his rifle and pointed it at Leena. “Move!”

Leena separated and walked towards the portal entry. She turned around and screamed, “Make it big, Jackie. Make it so big that you change this version, change it all.”

“I will,” Jackie yelled back.

Leena took a deep breath. She felt a feeling of relief begin to take over her body. She could already feel the future changing around her. She took a deep breath and got ready to walk through the portal. Suddenly, she felt something familiar and turned to the left. She looked over the other side of the portal and thought it was a mirror — seeing her own face in the crowd. But then she realized it was the arrival side. A dozen or so people were entering the current time. She wasn’t sure she was seeing correctly at first but she was overtaken with dread and panic.

 “Laina,” she screamed at the top of her lungs. Her sister turned towards her and Leena dropped her Square and turn to run to her direction. She saw Jackie turn around and look at her and then followed her gaze to the arrivals. Before she even got a few steps, Leena felt someone grab her and a rifle punch her stomach so that she fell back. The officer lifted her and pushed her through the portal’s departure entrance. Before she could blink, she was back home.