Thought and Memory
Erik promised he’d never set foot in a coffee franchise when the Tates opened their indie café. He also made it a rule to never enter social situations without ample preparation, ever since the women in his life (mum, sis, Susan) convinced him he had the social skills of a potato. He had an unspoken vow to never make life-altering decisions without consulting his family, particularly Rena, to minimize heartache and regret.
Scheduling an impromptu meeting with Alex Xie violated all the above. Erik didn’t know what upset him more—his old life falling apart at seams or losing the discipline he prided himself on having. At least he didn’t tell Xie to meet him at a Starbucks.
Erik parked himself in Shilla bakery fifteen minutes before his proposed meeting time, clad in all black to look menacing. Out of some misbegotten sense of obligation, Erik decided to provide refreshments and ended up buying more tea, coffee, and pastries than two adults could possibly consume. Then he scribbled down in his notebook all the questions he had in the order of priority:
1) Simo, Hades, et el why recruit? What do they want?
2) How much progress have they made?
3) How did Hades know my name? (Why lie?)
4) Do they have government support, if so how and what?
5) Optional: why first giant ≠ Frost? Why giants, for crying out loud
Xie arrived promptly at ten. Erik didn’t think his eyes were deceiving him when she appeared out of thin air, just outside the bakery’s tinted display windows.
“Thank you for specifying the street, Mr. Ransom. I would’ve gone to the Annandale location, otherwise,” Xie said, as soon as she stepped inside.
Erik reclined in his seat. “You don’t treat distance like an ordinary person, do you?”
“I don’t, and it’s a real problem.” Then Xie saw the coffee cups, tea bags, croquettes and the open plastic container full of choux pastries on Erik’s table, and looked hopeful.
“For you,” Erik said, pushing a coffee cup towards her.
“Thank you!” Xie collapsed into a seat, whispered something in a language he didn’t know and ate three cream puffs in one go.
“Hungry?” Erik guessed.
“Starving.” Xie topped her coffee cup’s lid open and dumped three packets of raw sugar and two small cartons of half-and-half into the black liquid, turning it milky brown. “This probably offends your healthy runner sensibilities.”
Erik was about to ask Xie how she knew he was a runner, but then he remembered what he looked like at her workshop.
“I only police myself, and I’m not a hypocrite,” he said. Then he chomped on a mini chocolate eclair as proof.
Xie let out a breathy laugh. Then she turned serious.
“I’m so sorry about what happened at the café, Mr. Ransom. It was unwarranted and you have every right to feel wronged.”
Erik waved the apology off. “Why are you recruiting? What are you trying to achieve?”
“You’re not one to beat around the bush, are you?” Xie said with a little upturn quirk on the corner of her mouth. “I’ll do my best to explain. Tell me if I blather on and on without making any sense.”
Erik jerked his chin to indicate her to go ahead.
“Twelve teams of seven got sent to look for a person or several persons. I was one of them,” Xie began.
“Who sent you?” Erik asked.
“The clan heads of the old wizard community,” said Xie. “They received a … warning that warranted investigation.”
“What do you mean by warning?”
“Yet another difficult question that gets into the heart of the matter.” Xie clasped her hands and tucked them under her chin. “There is one aspect of space-time-matter qi I did not cover in the workshop or the book. Can you tell me what it is?”
Erik didn’t have to think long. “Time.”
“Yes. Time,” Xie sighed. “Time-based qi is among the most misunderstood and controversial. I myself am not an expert, and I don’t know anyone who is.”
“But you have a working knowledge.”
“Indeed I have. I can’t help but. It’s the reason why I left my family and everything that was comfortable and familiar to me.”
“You’re meandering,” Erik warned.
“I’m sorry,” Xie unthreaded her hands and took a sip of coffee. “The quick and dirty explanation is: we have a prophecy foretelling the future.”
Erik frowned at that. “You said qi can’t or shouldn’t delve into things like the future.”
“That has to do with unrevealed future. The future that has been revealed to you, for whatever reason, is fair game,” Xie clarified.
Erik thought about this for a moment.
“If there is a future that can be revealed,” he reasoned, “then there is a story that is yet to unfold. And if there is a story, there is a storyteller. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Yes,” said Xie, without a hint of shame or hesitation. Then she remarked, “You’re quite calm about this.”
Now it was Erik’s turn to take a drink from his coffee.
“I’ve suspected the existence of a creator for some time,” he confessed like he was admitting murder or treason.
Xie looked intrigued. “What made you suspect?”
“Information,” Erik blurted before he could stop himself. “You can’t have life without information. DNA and RNA. But where did it come from? How did it begin? In any context other than biology, we assume information is a sign of a mind. This doesn’t necessarily mean information requires an intelligent agent. But self-organization hypothesis and other alternatives don’t cut it. You just get crystals and whirlpools and those aren’t nearly as complex as human language, let alone genes. And like you said, information is more than just data. You need a decoder that renders data meaningful. This means data and interpretation arose simultaneously, and that makes Life by mere chance highly unlikely. But here’s the most damning thing: when you factor the limited window of time when all the atoms in the universe had the opportunity to interact with each other, the math says it is unfeasible biological information rose from chance.”
Erik fell silent and subdued after his outburst. Xie, on the other hand, broke into a wide smile and gazed at Erik like he was something miraculous. It made his heart palpitate.
“You thought of this before you realized qi exists,” Xie noted.
Erik took another sip of coffee to give himself time to regain his composure. “If I hadn’t accepted the idea a creator may exist, I would’ve rationalized qi as something else,” he admitted.
Xie nodded, beaming like the sun. “Astute and honest. You’re a marvel, Mr. Ransom.”
“Call me Erik,” Erik grunted as he looked away.
“I will. Thank you. Speaking of which, I should extend the same privilege and ask you to call me Alex,” Xie said.
Erik swore to never call Xie by her given name until the day he died or the fate of the world depended on him calling her by her given name.
“Let’s go back on topic. There was a prophecy that made you and eighty-three others go undercover and look for people that fit a set of criteria. I assume the clan heads did their due diligence and made sure the prophecy was a real one.”
“They did,” Xie confirmed.
Erik nodded once. “I’ll take your word for it. Tell me how you verify later. So what kind of person are you looking for? The Antichrist?”
“No one so infamous, at least I hope,” Xie drew in a breath. “Here is the prophecy that sent me and my teammates on our quest:
“When the calendar renews and a time and a half pass, Thought and Memory will destroy and build new.”
Xie took in Erik’s blank look and sniggered. “I made the exact same face when I heard it!” she crowed.
“What or who is ‘Thought and Memory’?” Erik demanded.
“Yet another difficult question. Tell me, Erik, what do you know about mediums?” Xie inquired.
“They see dead people,” Erik answered. He didn’t mention his father, who not only claimed to see the dead but nattered to invisible apparitions and inanimate objects wherever he went.
“Or so it seems,” said Xie. “My understanding of the world suggests the dead do not linger among the living. But mediums— the real ones—appear to be able to glean information about the dead you can’t learn through normal means.”
“What does this have anything to do with Thought and Memory?” Erik asked.
“I’m getting to that,” Xie said patiently. “Let’s suppose it is possible to gain the memory of dead people. The past is real, even if those who lived it are long gone. And if there is a cosmic storyteller who sees all, remembers all and knows all, and has a habit of telling us creatures what will happen in the future, why not reveal to us what happened in the past?”
Erik initial response to Xie’s rambling was: so what?
Then he scrapped his nails against the lacquered surface of their shared table as he imagined a person who could see things done in the privacy of one’s room, who could spy on classified meetings held behind locked doors without leaving their house, and who could overhear secrets shared in confidence years ago.
“A person who can inhale history,” he eventually stated.
Xie nodded. “Thought, which provides context and interpretation; Memory, which is the raw data of an event. Together, you can know the true past.”
Erik let out a rattling breath. “This is scarier than telepathy.”
“It is, I agree,” Xie muttered low. “At least with mind-reading, things you’re not actively thinking about are safe. With Thought and Memory, nothing in the past is hidden. More disturbing still, all the distortions the human mind is prone to are non-issues.”
Erik swore under his breath.
“So it works like CCTV? But if a medium’s visions are like video recordings, doesn’t that mean a medium is only as good as her ability to understand what she sees?”
“You make an excellent point. Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question.” Xie cradled her coffee cup between her palms. “I’m not a seer or a medium. So I don’t know how they perceive the future or the past. Mind, I did try to ask. I have an aunt who’s a seer, and until my mother told me, I thought her visions were psychosis. Anyway, my aunt’s response was two parts floundering, three parts raving and one part spittle. In retrospect, I should’ve expected this. I mean, when a medium inhales the memory of a mammoth that once roamed the earth, do they interpret the memory like a mammoth? If they do, could they translate it to the analogical equivalent human experience? Most likely not. But what would their attempts to explain look like to an ordinary person? Gibbering madness.”
Erik nodded as he thought about his father. Papa Ransom, before he retired, talked to cadavers as if they talked back, regularly salted the places he and his family lived to ward off demonic spirits, and, on one memorable occasion, drove wooden pegs full of symbols written in blood on the parking lot of Erik’s old elementary school to create a protective seal around the campus. He also had the uncanny ability to sift out liars from those who dealt in good faith, and his surgical skills were the stuff of legends. He did things that smacked of occult but vehemently opposed occultism based on his understanding of medicine, which was world-class. He was a man, as his mother once elegantly put it, who personified paradox. Now, in light of the existence of real mediums, Erik had to wonder if his father’s wall of crazy was due to him being Thought and Memory.
“How rare are mediums or seers?” Erik asked, after a beat.
“I have no idea,” Xie answered with a helpless shrug. “It’s difficult to distinguish a genuine article from a deluded lunatic or an accomplished liar, as you can imagine. The only way to know for sure is testing. A seer is real if their predictions are consistently accurate, and a medium is real if the past they describe agree with known facts.”
“That doesn’t filter out those who are lucky, or cases when the known facts are wrong,” Erik pointed out.
“Indeed no.” Xie hesitated for a beat. “I must admit, in my darker moments, I’m tormented by the idea I was sent on a wild goose chase when the official seer was just lucky for the last twenty-five years. Granted, she’s been extremely accurate so far, but…what if this particular vision is false? But then again, real prophecies have a time limit that makes them testable. It’s almost as if the cosmic storyteller wants us to check. The Thought and Memory prophecy has that.”
“When the calendar renews…” Erik started.
“…and a time and a half pass,” Xie finished. “Start of the twenty-first century plus fifteen years is my wager. We’re right smack when it’s supposed to happen, and never has it looked more plausible.”
Erik hummed in agreement.
“Even if the prophecy isn’t true, a technology-literate medium would be invaluable for cyber warfare,” he said. “Passwords, usernames, network layout, OS setup…the medium just needs to know enough IT to recognize these details in her visions and explain to the tech team what she sees.” He gazed at Xie. “Add a teleporter to the mix, and you really have something to be afraid of.”
“If you say so,” said Xie. “I didn’t understand a word you just said. I should, but I don’t. Shame on me.”
Erik boggled at that. “But you have email! You should know about passwords!”
“Natalya manages it for me. Among my team, she understands technology the best. She even convinced certain powerful individuals the need to take the Thought and Memory threat seriously. I’m not privy to what she did, but there was a demonstration.”
That answered the government support question and why Xie worked with Hades. Erik squashed the impulse to quip Xie must’ve survived to adulthood by sheer dumb luck. “It’s got to be tough, trying to find a real medium who fits the bill,” he said instead.
Xie nodded glumly. “It doesn’t help that most mediums and seers appear not to have much control over what they see. Add the need for technological competence, which seems to have a strong negative correlation with qi competence, I can’t help but think we’d have better luck searching for hot pink unicorns.”
Erik snorted. In his mind, he removed his father as a candidate for the prophesized Thought and Memory. Erik still had nightmares of the day he walked into his parent’s house and saw a large grass snake crawling on the floor. He later learned, after a lot of screaming, that his parent’s laptop showed the error message: “Please install Python to view this video.” His father thought the computer was telling him they needed to get a pet snake.
“What are you going to do if or when you find Thought and Memory?” Erik asked. “You really could remake the world with them. The entirety of the developed world is wired. You’d have the power to rule them all.”
Xie wrinkled her nose. “Not interested. What good would I do with that kind of power? Anyone who has any appreciation of our world’s complexity knows better than to try controlling it at a global scale.”
Erik felt an eyebrow rising. “Don’t you want compensation for all the work you’re doing?”
“What I really want, is the freedom to use qi,” Xie wilted. “You have no idea how many restrictions I face. I can go anywhere, but I still need to go through official channels or else I’ll get deported. People want to consult me on qi matters, but no one is willing to give me the right documentation. Only recently I gained a work permit under dubious auspices.”
Erik felt his other eyebrow join the first. “Did they offer you sponsorship in exchange for answers?”
Xie’s eyes sparkled. “Yes.”
“Did you take it?”
“Pity, you should’ve held out until they offered two million as a sign on bonus. Think it through next time.”
Xie laughed. “You noticed.”
“Sebastos Helix. Weaver. You cannot be more obvious,” said Erik.
Xie giggled hard into a hand, and the sound made the tension in Erik’s shoulders bleed out.
“So what are you going to do when you find Thought and Memory?” Erik asked again.
“I don’t know,” Xie replied, her mirth dying like a sniper took it out, much to Erik’s private dismay. “It all depends on what kind of person he or she is. Could be a thoughtless order-following lackey or an ambitious warlord or a good person who refuses to abuse her powers. Or someone I can’t imagine. Either way, I think it’s wrong to decide his or her fate beforehand, which leaves me in a state of limbo. To be frank, I’m uncertain of the wisdom of looking for Thought and Memory at all. What if we’re making things worse by meddling?”
“That’s very reasonable.”
“But it can’t be easy.”
Bone-deep weariness seemed to leak out of Xie from every pore. “No, Erik, it is not,” she sighed.
Erik wanted to offer words of comfort, but he could come up with nothing of the sort. So he just barged on. “What about your companions? What do they want?”
“Bruce and Simo want to finish the mission and go home, but they despair of ever returning. Nat enjoys the hunt for the hunt’s sake. Mori and Remy say they’re looking, but I have my doubts. Daoud chose exile. I haven’t seen him in the last seven years, but he sends me postcards with no return address,” she paused. “The other teams got sent to different world powers. You won’t like what they’re doing.”
“What are they up to?”
“Two teams are massacring all the mediums they can find to prevent World War Three. The other teams are trying to raise IT-literate mediums. Their education model bears more resemblance to that of a meat factory than a school.”
Erik felt bile surge in his throat. “Okay, that’s just sick.”
“It is,” Xie cast her gaze down. “Real mediums are hard to find, so the former hasn’t done much damage. The latter hasn’t raised a convincing Thought and Memory, which goes to show there is some good in the inverse relationship between qi skills and IT competency. The conflicting goals of the two also ensure neither can advance as quickly as they wish.”
“But you can’t bank on their continual failure,” Erik noted.
Xie shook her head. “No. Their funding would’ve dried up long ago if they didn’t produce enough near successes to justify their work. Having said that, I’m appalled the clan heads are letting them go on their merry way.”
Erik chewed on his lower lip as he sorted through everything he learned thus far. The threat of IT-literate mediums was chilling and likely genuine. Any leader who had a significant stake in world politics had a reason to look for one or raise one. No one seemed to have made good progress on their front, and whether this was a good thing or not remained to be seen. That left one important question:
“So why recruit me? Why recruit anyone? You’re not interested in world domination. You can’t turn me into a medium. If training to be a wizard is anything like training to be a top-class athlete, then I’m at least twenty years too late. And I’m not a hacker. There’s no such thing as IT professionals who can do everything.”
“I don’t want to recruit you,” said Xie, her teal eyes aflame. “Not to this cause. You should have the freedom to explore and learn. I meant it when I said you’re singularly talented, Erik. If you started young, you would’ve made grandmaster in your early twenties, I think. It’s not too late even now. In five to seven years, you’ll achieve heights of mastery I can only dream of. Nothing will destroy that potential faster than indenturing you to a cause that wants lofty, specific yet paradoxical results on an irrational schedule. I won’t do that to you.”
Erik exhaled. Xie…meant what she said. He rarely believed people would carry out their spoken convictions, especially when he’d only known them for a few days. But Xie was trustworthy. Which was why he said:
“I believe you.”
Xie sagged in relief. “Thank you.”
“I think you’re doing the right thing,” Erik went on. “That said, I won’t help you find Thought and Memory. I can’t.”
“Understandable,” Xie replied. “I’ll let my colleagues know—”
“But if you need help setting up your qi video tutorial channel or navigate your laptop, you can ask me,” Erik finished.
Xie’s eyes went wide.
“Really? I mean, can you?” she squeaked.
“Hey, I’m an excellent IT professional. I do keynote speeches at conferences and stuff,” Erik said in faux affront.
Xie turned guarded. “And in exchange…?”
“Nothing,” Erik declared empathically. “I don’t want anything. In fact, promise me you won’t teach me qi. Show me stuff if you want, but teach me nothing.”
Xie stared at him. “Are you serious?”
“Want me to sign a contract with blood?” Erik raised a finger and his pocketknife. “I can do it right now.”
Xie pried the pocketknife away from him, alarmed.
“Why would you do this? You have no reason to trust me, let alone my colleagues. For all you know, we might be planning your enslavement.”
Erik leveled a look at Xie.
“You went looking for IT-literate mediums for God knows how long with almost no help while asking nothing in return. You tell me.”
Erik puzzled over why Xie’s teal eyes were turning more vivid until he realized they were welling up. Then Xie wiped them with the back her hand and regarded Erik with such frank wonder it made his brain stutter to a stop.
“…Thank you,” she whispered. “Thank you.”
When Erik recouped, he asked Xie his remaining questions, starting with how Hades learned his name. It wasn’t the most elegant way to steer the conversation away from the emotionally fraught path he led it to, but it worked.
“Qi looks like blips on a radar to me,” Xie explained. “Actively used qi looks brighter and the afterimages linger for a few days. I scan the continent and beyond during the weekends and evenings. That’s how I found you.”
So Xie was the master level wizard who could detect qi activity in real-time and in retrospect. “Can you show me?”
“That’s, ah, like asking me to describe ‘yellow’ to a blind man,” Xie said, flushing. “Qi senses are like physical senses. Without a common ground, they’re impossible to explain.”
“Fine,” Erik grumbled. “Continue.”
“I teleported to the place I first saw you,” said Xie. “I didn’t expect any trouble. You used qi continuously for over six minutes, which left a lit path for me to trace. But when I got there, you were hiding in a sea of ten thousand runners.”
Erik smirked. “It wouldn’t have been hard to figure out the race event name. And you can get a list of names, run times, and photographs online. That’s still a lot of information to sort through. How did you narrow it down?”
“Your first six minutes followed the marathon route’s last mile. Then you activated your qi again at the finisher’s area. The time of day told me you ran either a marathon or a half-marathon. There weren’t that many people who finished as quickly as you for either.”
“Right. So you, or whoever you asked for help, got a short list of names and general locations from the race website. Then you waited for me to experiment again,” Erik said.
Xie nodded. “It’s what everyone does when they first discover qi. Anyway, you were the only runner from your area who finished a marathon in two hours and forty-five minutes and used qi at the end of the day.”
“That was excellent detective work.”
“But also damn creepy.”
“Why did you wait three weeks before you approached?” Erik asked. “Hades isn’t the type to dither, I don’t think.”
“She’s not,” Xie affirmed, after a deep sigh. “She wanted to ambush you at your workplace when I detected you practicing in an office building the next day. I said no, Bruce said no, and Simo put her foot down. We convinced her to wait until you reached your limit for self-learning. We thought you’d be more receptive to listen at that point. You know how that went.” The line of Xie’s mouth went flat. “You’re not the first person Nat scarred for life. One day, I’m going to get her sacked.”
Erik approved the idea, even though he said: “How cold-blooded of you.”
He then asked Xie why she created a fictional race of giants, one who was mentioned but never explained, when she wrote Frost. This led to an angry tirade on the old wizard community’s fashion and beauty practices.
“There’s a cultural mandate that says wizards must look like ghosts,” Xie ranted. “And the cosmetic surgery fads! One year it’s blue eyes, next year it’s eyebrows forked like a flying seagull, and the year after that everyone must have a tapered chin. Ridiculous. And you’re regarded as uppity if you refuse to look like everyone else. Like you’re rude for wanting to keep the face you’re born with!”
“I sense pervasive health problems,” Erik commented.
“So many health problems,” moaned Xie. “I have scar tissue from when my mother forced me to grow four inches when it didn’t look like I was going to reach five feet. Of course, that’s when my body decided to grow five more inches…”
Erik suppressed a wince. “While I got you created face sculptors to rail against stupid cosmetic surgery, adding a race of white giants on top of that was a bit too much.”
“Noted. I also meant to expound on the first giant and his history with Frost, but I ran out of time and forgot.”
“Methinks a developmental editor would’ve been beneficial.”
Xie glared. “Dammit, Erik, I was trying to teach people qi, not write a perfectly plotted story!”
“Dammit, Xie, how was I to know?” Erik shot back. More seriously, he said: “Let’s talk about your video tutorials and wrap this up. Do you have a particular aesthetic in mind? Do you have content?”
“I need to work on that.”
“Do. Email me drafts and examples when you have them. Who is your target audience?”
“I want the tutorials to be as widely accessible as possible. Also, to quote Albert Einstein: If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
“Six-year-olds, then.” Erik thumbed his lips. “I have a soon turning six-year-old niece. Name’s Rachel. If she gets it, you’ve nailed it.”
“So we have the Rachel Test. Splendid. Now, where can I find examples of good video tutorials?” Xie asked.
Erik showed Xie a few online videos and saved the URLs of those she liked. He then impressed upon her the importance of getting a cellphone (“Do I really have to?” “Yes; text is the best way to reach me”) and recommended carriers and models once she capitulated with barely concealed ill grace.
“How are you going to spend the rest of the day?” asked Xie after they’d cleared their table.
“I might take my parents out to lunch,” Erik said. He wanted to talk to his father, see if he was a real medium. “After that…I want to try something new with qi. Not sure what.”
“May I make a suggestion?”
“As long as you don’t teach me anything qi.”
Xie chuckled. “Build a house. You learn a lot, building your own home. It’s also a rite of passage in the old wizard community.”
Erik recalled the passive house Weaver built under Frost’s supervision, and the off-grid cottage Rena mentioned in passing. It was possible the latter was an improved replica of the former. Well, he’d enjoyed Walden, and Erik was sure he could find instructions on how to build a tiny dwelling in his copy of Frost or on the Internet.
“I’ll think about it.”
“Are you blowing me off again?” Xie asked, almost teasing.
Erik smiled as he stood up.
“Perhaps. Goodbye, Dr. Xie.”