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Someone jumped out from behind a tree. “Boo!”
He broke away laughing, wiped tears from his eyes. “Oh man, I got you good.”
She backed away, shaking, too terrified to speak. A deer caught in headlights. He’d seen her. He saw her. He was looking at her right now. Too late, she couldn’t undo it. Any second now, her entire past would rewrite itself. She’d be torn to pieces.
“Wow, she finally came out of her cave . . . Iris?” His laughter died off. “Iris, you okay?”
She just stared at him, shook her head. Couldn’t move.
His eyebrows pulled down. “You forget how to talk?”
She closed her eyes and clamped her palms over her ears. Please go away, please go away, I don’t want to die . . .
“Yeah, you’re cute. You have fun,” came his muffled voice.
She peeked. He was hurrying up the trail to catch up with the others.
“Wait, Cory!” she shouted, then clamped her hand over her mouth. He halted, looked back, eyebrow cocked.
But nothing happened.
A breeze rustled the trees. Kids laughed in the distance. Life continued on as if nothing had happened.
“You coming, or what?” he said.
She had to play it off.
Maybe it wouldn’t change that much.
Tentatively, she spoke again. “Cory, you . . . you can’t get on the zip-line. If you go on it, you’re going to die.”
“Says my grandmother,” he scoffed. “Come on, Iris, live a little.”
She peered around, uncertain.
A hawk soared in the blue sky, insects chirped. Still nothing.
She was still alive. Still here.
And then she remembered. Because somehow, this was exactly what she did last time—Cory’s whole story about her being up there.
You were there, Iris.
All at once, her mind went crazy trying to process it. She must have tried to sneak after them last cycle, and Cory had spotted her then too, just like now. Without knowing it, she had done everything the same.
But what about feedback?
Her deafening pulse roared in her ears, blotting out everything but her frantic thoughts. Anything she did differently this time around would directly affect Cory, who would later interact with her past self, and the ripple effects would propagate to her present self—right back to her. In fact, right now she should be causing major feedback.
So why wasn’t she?
She stared dumbly at Cory, unable to speak. Last time, she couldn’t possibly have acted this stupid. She must have said something else, but she had no clue what, no idea how to repeat it. This had to be changing something.
“Iris?” Cory waved his hands in front of her eyes. “Anybody home?”
No, wait. She blinked, and her brain did another somersault. Last time, she would have had exactly these thoughts.
Exactly the same.
But what about now? Now that she realized, she could change it, right?
Nope. Again, she had it all wrong.
As long as she didn’t actually know what she’d done last time, she would inadvertently end up repeating the same actions, doing just what it took to make the past and present self-consistent. Either that, or the loop itself was changing without her realizing it.
She understood now.
This morning, that horrible feedback—it only happened in the presence of herself, when her past could directly perceive her future. Then, and only then, did she have the free will to change it.
It was kind of simple, actually. If you could see your own future, you could change it, resulting in a vicious feedback loop. If you couldn’t see your future, then no matter what you did, you would only end playing right into it.
So as long as she avoided interacting directly with her past self, she would avoid major feedback—the kind that killed her, at least. Right now, her every shaky breath could be rewriting everything that led up to this moment, but as long as it didn’t rip her apart, fine.
“Look, I don’t know what berries you ate—” Cory marched back, grabbed her wrist, and yanked her up the trail, “but you clearly need me to babysit you right now, and since I’m going zip-lining, you’re going zip-lining.”
Oh, this was bad.
This was very, very bad.
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