Ten hours smiling at potential donors to the Temporal Branching Lab, and two more tour groups to go, but my snack stash held only a box of crumbs, without even a fleck of chocolate. The other graduate students had left some milk and a few wrinkled apples in the break room fridge, but stealing those wouldn't be worth the trouble tomorrow. For cookies, though, I'd shiv the lot of them.
My stomach growled. "Past self, why did you let the cookies run out? Current self wants cookies. Come on, past self, get with the program."
I crept back to the lab's main room. I had told a hundred rapacious philatelists: it takes you to a different timeline, so you won't change history; and the mass calibration term has 1.3 kilograms of leeway to bring things back. Things like stamps. So why not cookies?
I flicked a switch, and the Temporal Branching Machine began to hum.
I rifled through the cupboard, setting aside the chocolate chip and peanut butter as I dug toward the Milanos deep within.
A woman stood in the break room doorway with phone in hand, its titanium case flipped open, her thumb over the Call button. A tallish, round-faced woman. A very familiar woman.
I said, "Oh! Hey, Sanna. I ran out of cookies. Mind if I grab a box?"
"What the hell? Get your own cookies!"
"These are my cookies!" I pushed my hand into my pocket and pressed the recall button. "Thanks, past self!"
"That's not how it works, you stupid--" She hurled her phone at me, but I was already gone, carrying her snacks into my present.
I dunked the Milano's edge into the glass and watched the milk drip from biscuit to chocolate.
Another Sanna said, "Oh, Milanos! Is this the first time you got them from the past?"
"Wait, what?" I dropped the cookie, and it vanished into the milk with a liquid plop.
My future self, Sanna-3, waved a hand dismissively. "Anyways, brilliant idea. I do it all the time now. I just need the milk, d'you mind?" She plucked the half-empty gallon of milk from the fridge, and vanished in a pop of air.
"What a complete asshat! What is her--my--problem?" I slammed my fist on the table and sighed. I lifted the glass of milk and watched a murky blob of half-dissolved cookie swirl through the white.
I had more cookies, but some asshat had stolen the milk.
Two could play at that game.
I arrived with my arms around my head, but in this timeline, my past self was staring in bemusement, her phone nowhere in sight.
"Hi!" I waved. "Got any milk?"
Sanna-4 recoiled. "How would I have milk? You stole it already!"
"What? I didn't steal anything. I mean, not from you." I hesitated. Who else would have the tools and the motive? "Does this happen to you a lot?"
Behind her, Sanna-5 looked up from the cabinet and rolled her eyes. "Apparently. Because all she has left are these peanut butter cookies. Why did I even buy these?"
Sanna-4 whirled around. "Because someone kept stealing the Milanos!"
"Hold on!" I raised my hands. "We can all get cookies, you know that?"
We shouted in unison, "What do you mean you're sold out?!"
"The -- uh -- I'm sorry, miss -- the six of you were just in here, and--"
Sanna-18's baseball bat hit Sanna-31's head with a sickening crunch, and the latecomer crumpled to the floor. The leather-jacketed version locked eyes with me and raised her gore-stained bat.
"Wait!" I raised my empty hands. "What's going on?"
"You don't know yet?" Sanna-18 lowered the bat, her face furrowed with exhaustion. "We're such asshats sometimes. Infinite timelines to steal cookies from, we thought. You know what happens when you divide infinite thieves by infinite targets? Every target can still get infinite goddamn thieves."
"Oh god. I didn't realize."
She smiled bitterly. "I can't exactly throw stones, can I? Look, future self, if you're new to this, you don't want to go back unarmed. Take the bat." She winked. "Plus, now your hands are full."
I reappeared with bat in hand, stomach still empty, as a knife spun across the break room floor. Sannas 32 and 33 wrestled on the linoleum, struggling for a pistol. Outside the window, a siren wailed over the faint pops of more arrivals.
I lifted the bat. "Quit it, you two!"
Something flashed. I lay on my back, my ears ringing, a starburst of agony across my chest. I fumbled with my shirt, searching for the wound, cursing all my past and future selves.
Twisted metal stung my hands. Not blood, but the crumpled titanium of my phone case.
My other two selves still wrestled, fists and teeth and desperation. Cookie thieves I could understand; can't exactly throw stones, as 18 had said. But these asshats came back armed.
I rose, grit my teeth against the pain in my ribs, and lifted the bat once more.
I wrenched my bat from the corpse of Sanna-whatever. I had lost count sometime before dawn. I pressed my back against the burned-out shell of an ice-cream truck, but no new Sannas appeared, for a few moments at least. Guns crackled in the distance. Maybe some locals still held out, confused and afraid, trying to save their last scraps of food from the endless, hungry horde of time travelers.
Another half-mile and I'd be home. The pantry would be ransacked, but I might find a few raw ingredients. Not enough, not of the old kinds, but this world had one resource in abundance. I would get my cookies at last, if I had to bake with the blood of the future.
This story originally appeared in Flash Fiction Online.
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Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer, neuroscientist, and the Assistant Editor at the science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod. Find him online at benjaminckinney.com or follow him on Twitter @benckinney.