A Magical Demo
Rena and David took full advantage of their extra child-free hours and went for high tea, dinner, and movie. Erik was fine with it. His predilection for running aside, he liked spending lazy afternoons doing little. It was simple enough to arrange: he let Rachel play video games, and let Danielle use him as a mattress.
Erik finished reading Frost while Danielle napped on his chest. It was easy now that he knew the plot and the story’s purpose. He learned what Frost taught Helix and Weaver to prove she was a grandmaster (variations of the portal skill; when done at a smaller scale, one could perform incisionless surgery). The full extent of Frost’s abilities was shown when she rebuilt Helix’s apartment to a passive house and taught Weaver how to create a scaled-down version of it. He felt equal parts victorious and shattered when Helix and Weaver told Emperor Reza that Frost was alive, that his mother in all but blood was alive, that peace was an option. He then tasted bittersweet absolution when Frost elected to stay in Alba, apart from Reza, to ensure both sides kept their promise. (“Come visit me when you can,” Frost said.)
Erik still had many unanswered questions when he closed the book with a soft sigh. Why was the person who rescued Weaver different from the person who was the Grandmaster character, when they were the same person in the original story? Why did Xie create a fictional race of white giants? Why did Xie work with people like Natalya Hades? Why did Hades lie to him? He knew now qi didn’t let you mind-read. At least, terrible things happened when you tried. How did Hades know his name, then? Was it the unknown master level wizard who could detect qi users or the DOD? How serious was the DOD about finding people who could hack IT systems with qi? Why bother? Hackers were plentiful, and with them, you didn’t have to justify the existence of superpowers to politicians who held the power of the purse. Was it to cover all bases? The consequences of being wrong about the non-existence of wizards who could access any data center, any e-commerce enabled bank, any classified system was…terrifying. Unthinkable.
Erik was tapping his copy of Frost against his chin, mulling over all these unknowns, when his cellphone vibrated. Jacob Bullion’s name flashed on the screen and that took him aback. Bullion never called him before.
“Mr. Ransom?” said Lucy Bullion when he opened the line.
Erik was even more surprised. “Lucy? What’s up?”
Lucy hesitated for so long, Erik started to worry.
“Dr. Xie’s workshop tomorrow, Daddy doesn’t want to go,” she mumbled.
“But you want to?”
“Mmmhmm,” Lucy said in a hushed voice.
Erik wondered why Lucy was asking him. He wasn’t the only adult who was into qi. Why not ask Moe? With Moe, she could hope he’d persuade her father. With Erik, she had no such hope.
But then Erik remembered all the things he learned, and all the questions he had. Questions Xie might be able to answer.
He remembered the Horns of Elfland.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Erik heard himself saying. Almost immediately, a litany of 'what did I just say!?’ ran through his head. Dear God, did he just agree to whisk away Lucy Bullion, age eight, from her formidable father so she could attend a superpowers workshop? Did he actually agree to commit a serious felony because a little girl requested him to?
“Thank you!” Lucy squealed, all shyness gone.
“Hey, wait—!” Erik sputtered, but by then the line was dead.
Erik was flailing and trying not to jolt Danielle at the same time when his phone vibrated again. He saw Jacob Bullion’s name on the screen and panicked. Then, after taking several deep breaths, he connected the call.
“Lucy asked you about the workshop, didn’t she?” Bullion said without preamble.
Bullion let out a sigh full of exasperation. “It’s not that I don’t want her to go. It’s just she’s not going to wake up that early.”
Erik felt his eyebrows ascending. “Is that the only reason?”
“No,” Bullion admitted. “My wife, she…that is, she thinks that you…argh!” he said some choice words liberally sprinkled with F-bombs. “Never mind. Don’t worry about it, I’ll take her. Just show up, okay? I’ll text you the location.”
Then he hung up, leaving Erik nonplussed.
Next morning, Erik ran loops around Wheaton, Aspen Hill, and Needwood. He stopped when he came across all five Bullions around the lake. They exchanged hellos. Then Mrs. Bullion asked if he was going to attend Dr. Xie’s workshop after all.
“I’m still on the fence,” Erik replied, more or less truthful.
“But you’re here,” Mrs. Bullion pointed out.
“This is part of my daily running route,” said Erik. Again, more or less honest.
“You do this every morning?”
“Yes. Twenty miles.”
Erik shrugged. “Keeps me sane.”
Erik resumed his run. Jacob Bullion accompanied him on his mountain bike and soon declared his pace was insane.
“I know you’re steering me towards the workshop!” Erik yelled between puffs.
“Yeah, and it’s working!” Bullion hollered back.
Bullion herded Erik towards a secluded clearing in the woods as eight a.m. approached. A small group of people was milling about. From their gait, bulk, and language, Erik guessed most of them were military. Moe arrived right on the dot, yawning and clutching a thermos cup. Then a long, vertical rip appeared in the middle of thin air and Alex Xie stepped out.
“Mind your language, gentlemen,” Xie chided when Bullion and the military-looking people swore without restraint. Then she noticed Erik and beamed. “Mr. Ransom. You came.”
Erik made no reply but schooled his expression to a blank one as he stared back. He noted Xie’s skin tone was different—pinker.
“Right,” said Xie, turning her gaze away. “Let’s begin, shall we?”
Everyone gathered around. Anticipation was thick in the air, and Erik sensed a mixture of cockiness and fear from the adults. Then there was Lucy, who jumped up and down and asked Dr. Xie if she was going to show them how to create portals.
“We need to take a step back before we try anything specific, Lucy. Macro before micro,” Xie said. At Lucy’s blank face, Xie elaborated: “You need to understand what qi is like before you try difficult things. When you understand the big picture, figuring out the details is easier.”
“Oh,” said Lucy, disappointed.
“It won’t take long,” said Xie gently. Then she regarded the rest of the attendees.
“Philosophers over the ages have pondered why we have qi,” Xie began. “I shan’t go over them, except to hint that it is tied to the age-old question: ‘Who am I? Why do I exist? Why is there something rather than nothing?’ It’s a question of worldview, ladies and gentlemen, and as such, not something I can do justice in a thirty-minute workshop meant to teach you how to train your qi. That said, I must warn you, when it comes to qi, having an inaccurate understanding of the world can lead to fast death.”
The mood of the group subdued several degrees. Erik remembered Selbstopfereinsätze, the act of deliberately using qi wrong to cause death and destruction, and shuddered.
“Now, don’t be afraid,” Xie continued with a smile. “Learning qi is like going on a jungle expedition. There are risks and dangers to be sure, but as long as you exercise appropriate caution, your chances of getting hurt are low. Also, you get to witness and learn things you never would’ve if you stayed at home.” Her smile grew. “In many ways, qi is our best tool to explore our world—to discover what is really real. Now enough philosophical talk from me. Why don’t we try a little experiment? Light is composed of different waves. Doesn’t that mean we can push different light waves apart? Why don’t we check?”
Xie flicked her eyes towards the heavens. An enormous rainbow filled the large break between the autumn leaves. Another flick and the sky was gray and overcast once more.
“Do it again! Do it again!” the Bullion children squealed, while everyone else squawked, pointed and gibbered.
Xie obliged. A blink and there was a reverse rainbow that shimmered and swayed like a curtain in a gentle breeze. Another blink and there was a circular rainbow directly overhead.
“From the fact there were different light waves for me push apart, and that it produced different colors, we can conclude light is a composition of different colored waves,” said Xie, after she banished the circular rainbow. “Now let’s try another experiment. Objects can move, and I do not have to push or pull them myself to make them move. I am not a necessary agent to cause movement.”
Xie held her hands behind her back. The yellow and red maple leaves beneath their feet rose in defiance of gravity. They fluttered, for a moment, like so many butterflies, before they formed a humanoid statue reminiscent of a Greek sculpture. Then, as a whirlwind, they returned to the ground from whence they came.
Xie did a few more demonstrations using the same format. She teleported, disappearing and reappearing without any sign or warning after stating: “I can be present in point A or point B, and, if they are close enough in distance, both at the same time.” She then created an elaborate illusion that made them think they were on a tropical island beach: for a few heartbeats, Erik not only saw blue skies and a turquoise sea, he smelled brine in the air, heard the roar of rushing and receding waters, felt sweltering heat warm his skin, and the trickle of wetness seep between his toes as waves lapped over his feet. Finally, Xie transformed a leaf into fine crystals and vice versa (though Xie claimed she was isolating the carbon in the leaf, Erik wondered if this was an illusion as well).
“Does this mean you can turn us into frogs?” Moe asked, after the last demo.
“Yes, and I can add a stipulation that you can only transform back when someone kisses you,” Xie replied, her teal eyes dancing with mirth. “Note: you will still be your human self in your mind. Also, you cannot transform yourself since you need to be and not be at the same time. That’s a contradiction.”
“But as long as someone else does it for you, you can transform to look like almost anything?” Moe asked again.
“Yes,” Xie turned to the rest of the attendees. “Are you all starting to see how you ought to think?”
“Oh, yeah,” said Jacob Bullion, hazel eyes gleaming. “So it’s really this simple? You just think about something that’s actionable and true and…” he waved a hand.
“Conceptually? Yes,” Xie replied. “Stated restrictions aside, there is a great deal of freedom in what you can do. It all depends on your gifts, imagination and the veracity of your worldview.”
Bullion gaze turned shrewd. “So what’s the catch?”
“Very good, Mr. Peterson. You realize there is no free lunch,” Xie turned somber. “Just because you know qi exists and you understand its workings, doesn’t mean you can use it. And as I said before, qi is neither safe nor tame.”
“You can execute the same move you’ve done successfully for decades, but that one time it can trigger your body to tear itself apart. I’m speaking of literal dismemberment, here.”
Bullion (Peterson!) cringed. “Yuck.”
“Indeed,” said Xie gravely. “My advice: treat qi like you would treat a wild savanna elephant. It can be gentle, kind and friendly, but it can also crush you. No warning. No reason that you may conceive. Yet still.” She paused. “I do a bit of coaching on the side. I spend more time stopping spontaneous dismemberment than teaching. So please, be careful.”
Xie fielded a few more questions on the dangers of qi training and how to avoid getting hurt. Erik had a feeling the guys who were around his age or younger weren’t paying attention or flat-out dismissing the topic as irrelevant.
“So in olden times, you trained ten years as an apprentice,” Moe noted. “I guess that means you had supervision. Speaking of which, is there any truth in the stories about witches, seers, and mediums?”
“There is,” Xie admitted. “But do not make it a habit of attempting things based on accounts about them. It’s like stealing the answer key from a teacher’s desk, without knowing if the desk belongs to the right teacher. You’re better off understanding the fundamentals.” She checked her watch. “We have about fifteen minutes. Let’s start putting theory into practice. No,” she added, when Lucy opened her mouth, “not portals. We shall start with something simple. Say, floating a coin.”
Xie made a dime hover above her left palm. As everyone searched their pockets for change, Xie told them to visualize what, when and where. (“You need to build good habits.”) Then she set them off to try. Erik had to admire Xie’s self-control, for she just put on an encouraging smile when almost everyone started to look like they were suffering from severe constipation.
Erik watched the proceedings without taking part. Most people managed to reach where Erik was at when he’d first discovered qi: able to push objects without any muscular effort, as long as he or she touched it. There was one young man who managed to float a penny on top of his palm for ten seconds. But there was also a handful of people, like Jacob Bullion (Peterson!), who couldn’t activate their qi, no matter how hard they tried. Xie walked around and made suggestions as she went. Finally, she stood before Erik, arms akimbo and feet shoulder-width apart.
“All right, Mr. Ransom, let’s see what you’ve got.”
Erik hesitated. He didn’t want to show off, but he wanted accurate feedback, too.
“He can fold origami with his mind,” Moe said, as casually as you please.
“Really,” said Xie, a twinkle in her eye. “Show me, please.”
Erik considered refusing out of spite. In the end, he pulled out a dollar bill from his waist pack and flicked it into the air. The dollar folded itself into a koi fish.
Xie went pink in the cheeks and her lips parted. “Oh my, how perfectly splendid.”
Erik felt himself smile a little. Moe was the only other adult besides Xie who took great joy in his qi tricks.
“I’ve never seen such fine-tuned control,” Xie said, her cheeks flushed with excitement. “What else can you do?”
“I can make dishes wash themselves.”
“Goodness, that’s remarkable. What else?”
“Hover in the air, stick to ceilings…”
Xie urged him to demonstrate. Erik felt like a cape-wearing cartoon villain as he made himself levitate two feet in the air. He then grabbed a tree branch, did a pullover, and hung upside down on the branch by the soles of his feet in a crouching position.
“What an amazing superhero you would make, Mr. Ransom,” Xie said, grinning up at him.
“Not into full body spandex, Dr. Xie,” Erik replied as he let his arms drop. Then he lowered himself to the ground until he was doing a handstand, and got back on his feet.
Xie moved on and finished her circuit through all attendees. Then she called it a day. That triggered a fervent appeal for a follow-up workshop or more time. When Xie refused, a few people asked if she offered personal training.
“I do, but you cannot afford me,” said Xie.
“How much?” Bullion (Peterson!) asked. His jaw dropped when Xie said she charged ten grand per session. “Holy Sh—!”
“I figured charging ludicrous fees would prevent rampant militarization and abuse,” Xie explained, looking sheepish. “I thought no one would be foolish enough to pay. Until they did.”
“Seems like you’ve got the market cornered,” Moe said.
Xie shook her head. “I just happen to be one of the very few people who can speak good English.”
“That is cornering the market,” Moe grumbled. “Can we get your business card? Contact info? Just in case we do something stupid and need our guts sewn back.”
Xie didn’t have business cards, but she had an email address she could share. She had a phone number too, but it belonged to a landline she ignored because of telemarketers. She didn’t have a smartphone and expressed no interest in getting one.
“How do you live?” a teenaged attendee asked incredulously.
“Very well, thank you,” Xie replied airily. Then she clapped her hands. “Thank you for coming, everyone. And good luck all of you. I hope you’ll make great strides after today. Now some final warnings: members of the old wizard community may contact you in the future. Treat them as you would any job solicitation. That is to say, be careful, it might be a con. Also, do not imitate Mr. Ransom. He is…” she hesitated “…singularly talented. That’s all.”
Xie turned heel. But before she could leave or vanish, the attendees swarmed her and begged for just five more minutes, just one more question. Lucy latched onto her torso and wouldn’t let go. Erik, who only had questions he didn’t want others to overhear, hung back.
“Please, I have to go,” Xie pleaded. “I—”
She stopped. She lifted her head like she caught a scent that put her on high alert. Everyone watched her, puzzled.
All except Erik. He could hear it.
The Horns of Elfland.
Xie pursed her lips. There was a moment of disorientation as gravity seemed to fade away. Then Erik blinked and found him and his fellow workshop attendees at a different part of Needwood Park. Lucy was sprawling on the ground, and Xie was nowhere to be seen.
A stunned silence enveloped the group as each person gathered their wits and bearings. Then Moe declared:
“That was the most incredible thirty minutes of my life.”
Erik took out his phone from his arm strap while everyone else babbled in agreement. He typed up an email and sent it to Xie before he could think better of it.
I have questions and I want your answers.
Xie replied back in five minutes.
Where and when? AX
Shilla bakery. Viers Mill. 10AM. Come alone.