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The good news was that Paige not only retained her memories of the missing Gilbert, but actually experienced a gain. The more she thought about him, especially on an emotional level, the clearer the flashbacks became for her. It was a long process, nowhere near completion, and included periodic dips and gaps, but it was better than nothing. Time didn’t want her to remember, but she did, and she refused to let go. Unfortunately, this also meant that their technique might not actually work on Leona. She was only within the timestream one day per year, and that might not ever be enough to retain anything meaningful about the people that were taking from them, but that wasn’t something they had time to worry about. The next expiation was waiting for them.
In the middle of breakfast, Kivi walked to the center of the crowd, nearly stepping into the fire, but not caring, or even noticing. She was staring forward blankly, like Samsonite had done before. This was another message from Arcadia, spoken through Kivi as nothing but an emotionless vessel. “Ground control to Major Tom, your third expiation...ha-ha, just kidding—second expiation will be to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Each of your minds will be sent to the bodies of someone you knew in the past. You will relive a moment in time where an action or choice you made affected that other person negatively, and you will witness this from their perspective. At first, you will be powerless, consigned as more than an observer, watching your original self at your worst. At some point, however, reality will...kick in, and you will be given the opportunity to influence that moment—and thus history—permanently. Anyone who wishes to recuse themselves from this expiation may do so, but must make this decision within ten of your minutes. If you do choose to not participate, you will be removing yourself from all further expiations. Any attempt to provide support of any kind for these later expiations will result in terrible consequences.” Kivi’s body paused for a moment, while it looked like she was about to say something else. “Ride. Or. Die.”
They all looked over at Mateo to see his reaction. He said only, “I will not lobby either way. Everyone here is an adult. Choose for yourselves. You know how I feel...that I do not know how I feel.”
They said nothing.
He went on, “I’ll be at the new water well. She didn’t say how we decide, so I’m assuming she wants to see a symbolic gesture. Stay here if you wanna stay; come find me if you wanna more forward.” She took Leona by the hand, remembering that they were not to have any further arguments about her no longer putting herself in danger. No one followed them. Either they had already decided to quit, or they thought it was better to come out of the shadows at the well, rather than anticlimactically forming a caravan.
“This is a strange one,” Leona said.
“Stranger things we’ve seen, indeed,” Mateo replied, proud at himself for the wit, disappointed that she didn’t seem to agree.
“I just mean that there’s no clear goal here. With Baudin, we built a shelter. He was a constructor...that made sense. And thematically, from what you describe, this whole thing relates nicely to Gilbert. But still, there’s no logical endgame to this. When we go back to our worst moments in history, we can decide to change something, but when does it end? When will whatever point of divergence we create, if any, be enough? And what evidence will there be that it happened? Don’t get me wrong, this island has been hard, but you say that it wasn’t even real; that our memories of those events were implanted in our minds. Even if they were real, I don’t remember any moments that fit these criteria. Granted, I’m only here for one day out of the year, but I don’t remember anyone telling me of some traumatic event.
“Which means that Arcadia will have to send each of us to some moment before the island, or rather before the time we think we arrived on the island. I’ve been here for decades, but not really. I don’t remember all this stuff you say happened in the last few weeks, so either those are out of bounds, because they won’t mean much to me, or they’re not, and they won’t mean anything to me once the expiation is over, and I return to this corrupted reality.” Mateo was about to start talking and hope he figured out what to say on the fly, but Leona wasn’t finished. “Furthermore, if Arcadia sends us to moments in time before the island, then what effect can that have on the island? This all happened supposedly because we killed Arcadia’s brother, but what if our new actions in the past create a butterfly effect that prevents that from happening, or alters conditional minutia? What does that mean for us? Will we come back to a different corruption? Could we stop this from happening at all? Could something we do kill Arcadia?”
“Okay,” Mateo kind of interrupted. “These are, more or less, philosophical questions that are impossible to answer. We have no choice but to wait at the well, and hope for the best. She’s going to send us to where she’s going to send us, so worrying about when and where that is, and what ramifications it will have on the future is pointless at this juncture. We won’t know until we get there. Even if we did somehow guess our assignments right here and now, that would only allow Arcadia to change her mind on it before the ten minute grace period is up. We’re salmon, Leona. Whether you’re chooser, chosen, or spawn, right now, we’re all salmon. Nobody has any control...except for her.”
Leona seemed to accept this just as they reached the well, but still wasn’t quite finished. “I guess the bigger question is what’s going to happen to you. You erased yourself from time, so would she send you to the other timeline? Maybe she can’t. If she doesn’t, then she doesn’t have a whole lot of options, right? You’re just not very old right now. It would be like sending an infant to its own past...just limited options. This web of time is confusing, at best...probably even for her.”
Yeah.” He sighed. “I’ll be a tough one for her, that’s for sure.”
“Good.” Horace came into view from the woods. “A prey midchew can only hope that it does not so easily go down the predator’s throat.”
“Ancient Chinese proverb?”
“Read it on a bathroom stall once,” Horace said.
One by one, all of the others stepped into the clearing. No one had chosen to quit.
Mario’s watch, which was now on Leona’s wrist began to beep. “I didn’t set this,” she said.
“It’s magic,” Mario explained. “It warns of all important temporal events, and always knows what time it is, wherever I take it.” That was all anyone had time to say, because then Mateo went back in time, as did presumably everyone else.
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