Permission and Delegation
Erik’s parents lived in the house he grew up in, about ten miles away from Shilla. Icy raindrops were hitting his face by the time he got there. He unlocked the front door with a fifteen-year-old key and headed straight to the kitchen. He found his father there. Papa Ransom was discussing thermal conductivity with his baking pans, and he was wearing ten different shades of insipid brown, mauve socks, and corduroy pants that had a swamp green band over the crotch area.
“Mum’s not here, is she?” Erik observed. His mother never let his father pick his outfit if she could help it.
Dad gazed at Erik like a sleepy toad on a lily pad. “She went to get food, yeah. I offered to go, but she said I can’t go outside looking like burnt toast smeared with mold and grape jelly.”
Erik put a mental note to arrange a grocery delivery service for his parents. His mother was frail in the body; been all her life. He also regretted missing his mother at her verbal best.
“Question,” Erik started.
“Answer,” said Dad.
“Don’t be obnoxious. You can see the past, can’t you?”
Dad, true to form, didn’t turn a hair at the abrupt question.
“I can see the world outside the context of chronological time. Let’s me see glimpses of the past, present, and future,” Dad said. Then he stared at Erik, unblinking. “What brought this about?”
“I discovered qi.”
“You mean chokmah. And yes, obviously,” Dad ran a hand through his mane of white hair. “Please tell me you didn’t discover chokmah because you started having visions.”
“I don’t have visions. At least, I don’t think I do,” Erik rubbed the back of his neck. “I found out last month, at the marathon. I tried to speed up and…” He mimed a projectile with his other hand.
Dad made his face. “Ouch.”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Silence like liquid mercury shrouded the kitchen in the next beat. Erik regarded his father, who stared right back. Perhaps it was the sheer awkward of their mutual wordless staring that made him imagine things, but Erik could’ve sworn he felt the vibrations of a giant bell tolling from a distance. Not the Horns of Elfland, but close.
“I promised to help a group of wizards who want to protect the world from malicious mediums and those who want to exploit them,” Erik started again.
“Those who can see the past.”
“Which includes me. Do you trust these people?”
“One, I do. One, I don’t. The rest I need to figure out.”
Dad nodded. “That’s my boy. Trust but verify. Go at it, son.”
Erik squinted at his father. “You’re not going to tell me: it’s dangerous, don’t do it?”
“Why should I? You came here because you wanted to hear something you don’t want to hear, but is right,” Dad said.
Erik conceded the point. “Any advice?”
“Prepare to lose everything,” said Dad, his tone dead-flat. “And I do mean everything: reputation, status, possessions, loved ones…spare yourself no quarter. That’s the only way to thrive when your enemies go after you. Now don’t worry about me or your mother. We know how to go into hiding.”
“How do you?”
“We’ve lived in hiding for most our lives,” said Mama Ransom, entering the house and conversation full of grace. She looked as she always did: hip-length hair cascading down her back, crisp white blouse, and black slacks. It was the grocery bags floating in the air behind her that posed a notable difference. Erik felt the muscle under his right eye twitch at the sight.
“Why? Since when could you do that? And why are you doing it in front of me now?”
“Remind me to talk about Qi Speak later, darling,” Mum said as she tucked herself next to Dad. “As for reasons… what do you know about qi practitioners?”
“They call themselves wizards, and they’re nomads,” Erik answered.
“I’m glad you brought up the nomadic lifestyle,” said Mum. “We wizards are wanderers, this is true, but we also had a dream. To one day have our own country where we can be free to be who we are and use our powers to its fullest potential.”
Erik felt his breath clog inside his throat. A country of wizards. A wizard world. The mere idea lit a raging inferno of want.
“…Why don’t we have one?” he asked.
“There were attempts,” said Mum quietly. “None of them successful. The problem is the scale of catastrophic failure. You may not know this, darling, but the consequences of qi misuse are like that of stepping into a minefield. Trigger one, and you trigger others. So the more mines you have, the deadlier the explosion. While we can hide the indiscretion of a handful of wizards, we cannot for a thousand, let alone a million. The cascade is too great.”
“There was an opportunity in the days following the Second World War,” Mum continued. “The British Empire was breaking up. There were talks of an independent India and a separate Israeli state. So we wizards thought—why not us?”
“I don’t suppose you were on board,” said Erik.
“Not everyone was,” Mum said. “My father was the chief opponent. His best friend also questioned the wisdom of creating a separate wizard state, when history recorded inevitable failure. But as the headmaster of the biggest chokmah education institution, he couldn’t bring himself to take a stronger stance. Not when many of his students were pro-state.”
“Grandpa didn’t win,” Erik guessed.
“He was exiled,” Mum confirmed. “He met my mother in Manchuria after that.”
“You lived life on the run.”
“’If you are not for us, you are against us’,” said Dad. “I was an outsider from the start, so I didn’t go through that until I married your mother. No regrets, by the way.”
Erik pondered what he’d learned so far in the quiet that followed. He should’ve thought it odd Frost had two wizard nations when David made it sound like real-life wizards were people with no set home, let alone country. Speaking of wizard nations, did Frost echo the wizards’ hope for their own country? After all, Alba, the nation that forsook qi, was on the losing side of the war, whereas the Empire, a nation of wizards, offered peace even though they were winning.
But the Empire had been misguided, and they were the ones who started the war. Was he reading too much into this?
“How is the wizard nation experiment going?” Erik asked.
“We don’t know,” said Mum. “We only know it still exists based on the agents they send to hunt us down. We haven’t seen one in the last seven years.”
Erik couldn’t help but pick up on the number.
“The wizards I met, they were sent out seven years ago,” he said. “Not to find you. They’re looking for wizards who can see the past.”
“Are you talking about Thought and Memory?” Mum asked sharply.
Adrenaline flooded Erik’s veins. “You know?”
“Whispers about them have been around since the sixties,” Dad said.
Erik went rigid as he gripped the edge of the kitchen island’s granite countertop. “The Cold War.”
“Yep. Those were dark times, son. Everyone was paranoid about what they could see. Are they scanning all citizens? How deep and varied are their visions? Can they see the memory of someone having a vision of someone reading state secrets? Then some punk demonstrated you can do the last.”
Erik went from frantic to Code Bloody Red. “Why are we still talking?!”
“Don’t worry, dear, the punk was your father,” said Mum. “Nobody listened to him because he was the one saying it.”
“But someone might have figured it out since then!” Erik cried.
“Perhaps. But even if others haven’t figured it out, a good medium can glean the memory of our last ten minutes,” Mum pointed out.
Erik sagged into his seat, his strength leaving him like air from a punctured balloon. “That’s not reassuring.”
“It wasn’t meant to be,” said Dad. “It’s the reason why we never mentioned chokmah, actually.”
“I’m glad you didn’t. Now, seriously, why are we still talking?” Erik demanded.
“Ah, now, this is where a bit of chokmah shorthand comes in handy,” said Dad, his smile all teeth. “When it comes down to it, what a wizard can do is a matter of Permission and Delegation.”
“A wizard who lack certain abilities, usually, but not always, gain them after a laying-of-hands ceremony,” Mum explained. “The recipient does not gain the granter’s mastery. On rare occasions, the grantor loses a gift after giving it away. This implies certain chokmah skills are gifts one may give, receive or share. Delegation in other words. But that begs the question of authority. You can’t give away power without the power to grant it in the first place.”
“Which brings us to the concept of Permission,” Dad said. “Whatever we do, we can do them because we have the permission and the ability, implicit or otherwise. Put aside your thinky-thoughts on Free Will, Autonomy, and determinism for now. It’ll only make you crazy. Now, where was I? Ah, yes, permissions. I’ll spare you the lecture and keep things simple: Mediums can see the past because they have both the permission and ability to see them. But there are certain parts of history they can’t see. This is because they don’t have the permission to see that particular past. So, if you want to prevent mediums from seeing your past, you need to revoke their permission to see it.”
“How do you do that?” Erik asked.
“First, you need the permission to revoke a wizard’s right to view a certain past,” Dad said. “Trying to revoke without it is a presumption; you will die. Then you do this.”
Dad took a deep breath and intoned:
“I do not permit others to see the memories that formed inside this house, with the exception of my wife Jacqueline and my children, Regina and Erik.”
Silence. Erik looked around, waiting for a sign. There was no foreboding feeling, no shuddering of power. Just the usual studious quiet that characterized his childhood home.
“That’s it?” he asked.
“That is all,” Mum replied. “Here is my first chokmah lesson for you, Erik darling. Words are not meaningless labels. There are consequences to the careless use of words, and chokmah makes them more overt. So let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.”
Erik made a face. “But how will I know?”
“Like anything else. You put it through a test,” Dad grinned. “Here are some questions that can keep you up at night: are memories of me mine, or do they belong to someone else? If the memory features others, do they own it, too? More importantly, is there someone who can give and take away any and all permissions?”
Erik knew these were important questions, but he was too wrung out to ponder them. “Maybe later.”
“Sure. Anything else you want to know before we feed you?” Dad asked.
“I have so many questions. They are detailed and numerous.” Erik paused. “We should call Rena. She knows, too, and will murder us all if we leave her out.”
“Truth,” said Dad fervently. “How we produced a dragoness like her, I’ll never know…”
“She has the Shin family temperament, Robert. There are times I’m tempted to think my sister reincarnated as Rena, just to torture me. Anyway, who should call her?” Mum noted Dad and Erik’s beseeching looks and sighed. “All right, I’ll do it.”
When his mother called Rena to disclose family secrets, Erik expected a lot spirited yelling and half-empty threats to commit parricide. Rena did no such thing.
“Prove it,” she commanded.
Dad opened a portal that bridged the living room to Rena’s home office.
“Nice,” said Rena, as she peered through the opening. Then she stepped in, and Erik had to look away because Rena was wearing red booty shorts, and her threadbare violet T-shirt was so sheer he could witness more of his sister’s anatomy than he ever wanted to see. He only peeked when Rena sat before the kitchen island and asked: “Summary of what you three talked about thus far?”
Erik told Rena how wizards who could view the past could hack IT systems. Dad rattled off a disorganized blurb about the wizard nation experiment, their maternal grandfather’s stand against it and his subsequent exile. Mum then explained the concept of Permission and Delegation.
“If whether you can use qi is a matter of permission,” Rena reasoned, after everyone finished speaking, “then there’s no point in training to ‘get better’. In the same vein, a grandmaster wizard is someone who has most, if not all, permissions one can have. A superuser in other words.”
“Bingo,” said Dad, pointing for emphasis and perhaps drama. “This turn things over its head, doesn’t it? Death and age-related diminishment aside, there’s no limited window of opportunity for when you can start learning. In many cases, you’re better off starting a bit late. That said, you do need to train to ‘get better’. To figure out your real boundaries and to learn to trust them, if nothing else.”
Rena’s lips curled into a diabolical smile.
“I can see people resisting this concept because they’re wedded to the idea that time and effort cause mastery when they’re merely the minimum, not sufficient, requirements,” she said.
Dad nodded. “Most ordinary folks balk at the idea they can’t work to improve. But this doesn’t mean they mind delegation. It’s the reason why wizard clans try to increase their numbers by taking in outsiders. Sometimes by kidnapping them.”
“Greater diversity raises the chance of increasing your pot of permissions,” Rena agreed. “But even if you have all permissions in the world, you won’t realize their full potential if you’re stupid or you don’t train yourself right.”
“That’s very true, Rena dear. Here I must admit clan elders might’ve been more willing to grant their gifts to my father because he was a prodigy,” said Mum.
“Do you inherit permissions?” Rena asked.
“Not by virtue of birth, no,” Dad said. “Permissions do run in families, but that is because parents tend to gift most, if not all, of theirs to their children. Even Grandpa Shin did that, but with a twist: he gifted everything he had to his grandchildren, even the ones not related to him.”
“What level of permissions are we talking about?” Rena asked.
“Grandpa Shin was a grandmaster,” said Dad. “His name was June Hu.”
There was a short, stunned pause.
“Wait, does that mean me and Rena…?” Erik sputtered.
Mum and Dad nodded.
Ohmygod, Erik thought over and over, as he struggled to process the latest revelation. Rena, of course, had no such troubles.
“Who are our cousins?” she asked, her dark eyes glinting.
“There’s Julia,” said Mum cautiously. “She’s my late sister’s only daughter. Her husband remarried and had four more children after she died, and my father counted them all as his. Julia revoked all their permissions with their consent when it was too dangerous to be a half-hearted wizard. She’s in hiding, too, for ours and their sake.”
“So there are at least two grandmasters the world knows nothing about,” Rena said. “It’s also possible to revoke permissions from others. Is consent required or can you just take them away?”
“You can steal chokmah, yes, but there are terrible consequences to that,” said Mum somberly. “You are, in a sense, stealing life, thus committing a form of murder. Even consent is no guarantee. You may still pay the penalty for your presumption.”
Rena waved that off as though it was of no concern.
“If I was a security engineer and users were abusing a nonessential privilege, I’d yank it. No exceptions. The same rule should apply to the Thought and Memory threat. It would certainly level the playing field. No more superpower-fueled cheating. Just plain vanilla hacking. What do you think, Erik?”
Thought and Memory will destroy and build new, Erik recalled as the weight of what he may have to do to spare the world of malicious IT-literate mediums and those who wanted to exploit them settled on his chest. Like most of her solutions, Rena’s plan made logical sense. However, though no actual death was involved, it evoked the feeling of a silent genocide. What right did he have to make a decision on behalf of the whole world, anyway?
“I need to consider,” Erik murmured, after an extended period of quiet.
“Do that,” said Dad.
“It need not be global,” Rena said while Erik brooded over a cup of Earl Grey and a small plate of Palmier, sometime later. “In fact, it shouldn’t be global. Something more limited in scope should suffice.”
Erik knew what Rena was hinting at. “Revoke all permission to see the pertinent past.”
“Except the history of us revoking it,” Rena added.
Erik lifted an eyebrow. “Us?”
“Come now. You don’t think you have to power to soft-delete all the mediums in the world, do you?” Rena said.
Erik sighed. “Point. All three of us have to do it to make sure we revoke it from as many people as possible. But…”
“The moment we do this, the wizard community will regard us as supervillains,” Rena declared. “They will fear us for our access and reach. They will wonder what else we can do and hate us for making them tremble. We can’t keep it secret. If we do, they’ll try to do things they no longer have the permission to do, and that will lead to disaster.” She eyed Erik. “While I’m more than happy to be feared and hated, I don’t think you’re into super-villainy, brother mine. I would’ve told you to abstain if I could. At least I can companion you.”
Erik remained melancholy despite this rare show of sibling camaraderie.
“If this works, we may end up the only two people who have access to Time in the past tense. That’s two points of failure living within ten miles of each other. You might as well call us a single point of failure.” He sighed. “I guess I can always move.”
“Not until you learn how to teleport or open portals, you won’t,” Rena threatened. More somberly, she said: “It’s not ideal. Here’s to hoping our mysterious and hitherto absent Cousin Julia agrees to share the responsibility. That would mitigate the risk and compound the effect.”
“Shouldn’t we at least tell the old wizard community what we’re planning to do?” Erik asked—pleaded.
“How are we to do that?” Rena contended. “Mum and Dad are outsiders by birth, Cousin Julia is in hiding, and my idiot husband exiled himself. We don’t know how to reach the wizard clans, let alone the wizard country. Even if you know someone who can reach either, fat chance, do you think we’ll get everyone’s blessings? How long would we have to wait until there’s a consensus? And by then it may be too late.”
A heavy human silence fell upon the kitchen. The soft pitter-patter of rain was the only sound that lingered. Then a clock deep inside the house struck noon, and a mechanical bird cried: coo-coo, coo-coo, coo-coo…
“…Are you ever haunted by the idea you could be as horribly wrong as everyone else?” Erik whispered.
“Every day, every night,” Rena replied. “Why do you think I long for sleep?”