“You are safe here.” Our minder says, making the rounds. We lay, the four of us, trembling.
“No one can harm you. No army can take Gao Shansi. You will be safe.”
She walks between our beds, stopping occasionally to hold one of our hands. Always, the words of reassurance continue, barely pausing for her to take a breath.
It barely helps.
I can’t remember exactly why I’m here, the memories already fuzzy after days in this strange place. All I remember is that I am afraid, and lost, and lonely. Even with one of my best friends only a few feet away, and Mistress Anya whispering in my ear, I feel alone.
I gasp awake, thrown out of the dream with tears in my eyes. I quickly dry them and stare at the ceiling for a while, a faint sliver of moonlight bathing my room in a soft glow.
That was not a memory I’d thought of in a long time. Nor one I’d ever wished to experience again.
It was my earliest memory. I was five years old, going on six at the time. I knew that much. Everything before that was a blank. Some things I knew. I remembered my own name, that Ran was my best friend, all of my likes and dislikes…but these were disconnected. No specific memories that might hint at where I’d been from, what my family was like, or -most importantly- what had taken them from me and led me to end up here. This exercise was meant to remedy that.
It had been two weeks since our initial lessons with Sifu An. Our progress had been…slow, at least to my mind. After the initial flurry of activity and learning the basics, we were confident. As confident as any student learning the proper form for standing or throwing a simple straight punch the first time.
By this point we could control some of the more basic uses of our new abilities with ease. Entering and exiting mindscapes with or without the other user’s consent was the first step, and progress had proceeded well in manipulating our mindscapes for basic entertainment or utility purposes.
Even a basic control of the time flow inside was simple enough, though with concentration we could only roughly double our effective time with any consistency.
Two key abilities eluded us, however: the methods of defense and attack, and the manipulation of our own memories. Sifu An assured us that the former would come with training, and much like our martial arts would be something we honed over time. While progress felt slow, we were apparently where we were supposed to be at this stage, with a wildly more effective offense than defense. As it turns out, casting your mind and creating a foothold was easy. Which only strengthened Sifu An’s point that never letting your opponent in was the key to victory in any mental struggle. It was easier said than done.
The latter, however, was meant to be something relatively easy, and the fact that the four of us had stalled so completely on this one skill frustrated our teacher.
Finally, he settled on a potential explanation: our mental blocks. Each child brought from Gao Shansi was scrubbed clean of their memories from before, for multiple reasons. It allowed easier integration into our society for children from wildly differing cultures, and masked trauma that might otherwise scar us. I’d never realized our minds had been directly tampered with, assuming it was just a matter of forgetting things from my youth after so long and was first incensed…but it makes a certain kind of sense. Even with this process children still have trouble adjusting. While the memories are gone, emotions remain. The outward calm exuded by everyone around new arrivals helped them get over that, eventually, but I wonder how much worse it would be to be forced to process whatever had caused the loss of their family in addition to dealing with the alien surroundings? It likely wouldn’t be pretty.
Being older and more composed should make it easier to deal with those memories now, and so we’d been tasked with breaking through them. Lucid dreaming was another basic skill, and it was often easier to access memories while asleep, so our exercise starting three days ago had been to arrive at our earliest memory and push back from here. Within a day, I’d arrived. By their expressions in class, the others had done so as well.
Pushing beyond was the difficult part. I’d experienced that memory several times now, a few tries a night. I had assumed the emotions would become easier to handle, but they still hadn’t. And probably never would; I was experiencing any memories I came across as though they were fresh, and as raw and unfiltered as if I was that child again.
I shudder at the thought of trying again tonight, curl into a ball, and try to sleep.
I wake up barely three hours later and stifle a groan; the walls are thin and I don’t feel like inflicting my suffering on anyone else. My eyes are gummy and moving my body is an effort, but I know there’s no way I’ll get back to sleep. A sense of time was hammered into us as almost the first thing we learned at Gao Shansi. I could tell it was nearly an hour before I usually wake up, and I’d feel even worse if I tried to go back to sleep now. I may as well get an early start.
It is two hours before dawn when I exit my room, the moonlight still illuminating the courtyard. The air is still, and just looking up at the moon for a few minutes is rejuvenating. The complete silence and tranquility wash away the last of the lingering anxiety and fear for now.
I contemplate just standing here, or maybe laying in the soft grass, but the slight chill in the air and moisture on the ground make me think better of it. Instead, I set to moving.
Slowly, I go through a sequence of stretches, working out the kinks from last night’s fitful slumber. Halfway through my usual routine, I risk a smile small as I’m joined by Chou, who returns it and seamlessly starts her own stretches.
After a little over a half hour, I complete my usual routine and stand up from a full split before sinking down onto a relatively dry patch of ground to do my morning meditation. Or grab a short nap if sleep sneaks over me after the light exercise.
Fortunately, or unfortunately -my mind says one but my body disagrees- sleep does not come. Instead, I am broken from my reverie about another half hour later by the arrival of Ran, shortly followed by Thom. Neither particularly values tranquility and make no effort to hide their approaching footfalls. I crack one eye open and give Ran a mildly annoyed look I’ve given her a thousand times before. One of these days she won’t just shrug it off, but today is not that day.
“Good morning! Couldn’t sleep?” she somewhat quietly guesses, trying to strike up a conversation even as she begins her own morning routine.
“Nightmares.” I reply drily.
While we’re still meant to keep our masks in public, it’s especially difficult to do first thing in the morning. She doesn’t quite manage to hide the darkening of her expression.
“Any progress on our…project? I feel like I’m on the edge of something but it’s difficult, you know?”
I shake my head lightly, but don’t elaborate. Thom treats it as an open question.
“I think I got something.” He grunts, shifting from his first round of stretches to a short burst of push-ups. Thom was already massive compared to the rest of us, and proud of it. I was almost jealous sometimes, before I remembered how much harder he had to work to get that kind of bulk.
“Not all the way back, but I remember the first morning I woke up here.” He continues. “It was weird. Not as bad as some of the later ones. Like I was in a fog.”
That wasn’t surprising when I thought about it, and I was almost reassured. It wouldn’t just be pushing through pain only to encounter more pain.
Until I broke all the way through anyway. The thought made me blanch. If I felt that bad days later and with no clear memory, what must it have been like to experience it? I couldn’t imagine it. Intellectually, I knew my family must have died if I was here, but it just didn’t make me feel anything. I’d never known them. Did I really want to change that?
I was saved by thinking about it further by a group of the younger students walking by, rubbing blearily at their eyes and yawning openly. Some of the youngest had clearly been crying in their sleep, but were over it, for now. They soon began demanding breakfast from their minder, a much older but still spry Mistress Anya.
“If you want breakfast, just get in line and follow me. That’s the way, nice and orderly.” She said as they shuffled and jockeyed for position. She looked at some of the more aggressively impatient ones and pointed to the back of the line. “Off you get, we don’t shove other children. Everyone will be fed, it doesn’t really matter if some of you get your bowls a few minutes before the others, now does it.” She stares at them sternly, but not unkindly, and waits.
They stare at her tiredly for a moment before one of the children sent to the back starts, as if remembering something. “Yes, Mistress Anya!” he says, the other children chorusing it as well in unison as a group of tired, hungry children under six can.
I almost allowed myself a small smile at their antics, but froze my face as Sifu Ma walked by, looking at Mistress Anya with his customary look of blank disapproval. He scanned the rest of us, clearly lingering on my class, before turning and stiffly walking away to get his own meal.
I’d never questioned Sifu Ma’s attitude before starting the graduate training with Sifu An. It made sense to me, even if it was in practice obnoxious and stressful to walk on tenterhooks every time he was even suspected to be around.
These days it was simultaneously more understandable…and pettier, somehow. As Sifu An explained it, the Sifu were split on their philosophies of how to interpret the ancient teachings. Particularly on the matter of the prime virtue of Control, but also on several lesser doctrines, particularly the matters of Humility and Reason.
The primary schism, as Sifu An explained, came down to this: the Traditionalists sought absolutism. A perfect embodiment of the virtues within and without. Control did not simply mean to never show emotion, though that was part of it, but to strive to never feel emotion. The lesser virtue of Humility was simply a subset of that; one should not only take care not to crow about your accomplishments, but to never feel pride in them in the first place. There is always better, and anything less than perfection is a failure, nothing to be proud of.
The Pragmatists, as Sifu An’s faction called themselves, thought differently. The virtues are good, but their primary purpose is to teach, they believed. Adherence to the virtues taught good habits and created humble, hardworking, and self-motivated students. Control was the sticking point. Suppression, they argued, was not control. It was simply hiding from your feelings and failing to process them. Sifu Ma, he told us, was the perfect example of what could go wrong with the Traditionalist’s thinking.
Sifu Ma was a Traditionalist to the core. Never satisfied and always striving for more, and hitting a plateau gnawed at him. He could never be content, but nor could he feel frustration in his mind. He was a failure, as was every living person in the world, and he hated himself for it. And he hated everyone else too.
It was a paradox, and not one that could be solved by simply shoving your feelings down…but examining them was impossible for a hardline Traditionalist, because simply having them was taboo.
Truth be told I didn’t quite buy into either philosophy, in large part because Sifu An’s faction held that the pursuit of enlightenment was ultimately meaningless; perfection was impossible and striving after it so single-mindedly was an enemy to what you could realistically accomplish. It had its own logic, but always having some new peak to strive for no matter how skilled you were appealed to me as well. And it’s not like all of the Traditionalists were like Sifu Ma; they were by far the largest faction in the temple and no other Sifu I’d met was as disdainful as he was.
It was a well-worn thought pattern by now which I easily mulled over for the hundredth time even as Chou finished her meditation, Ran and Thom finished their morning exercises, and we all went off for breakfast.
None of us spoke much, all of us lost in our own thoughts for once, my own melancholy attitude and Chou’s quieter than usual demeanor bringing down even Thom, especially with Sifu Ma in the dining hall to make expression dangerous even in our own semi-private corner.
Safer was the abandoned training room, which we’d done a lot to reinvigorate in our time there. There was even some scraggly grass growing and budding leaves on the tree from water we’d been hauling in on our spare time, from a convenient stream currently running nearby.
Sifu An was short with us when we arrived.
“Progress?” was all he asked as we stood at attention before him.
“Some.” Thom said, breaking the silence that had followed us from breakfast. “I managed to push back a few days from my first memory but hit a wall.”
Sifu An nodded his head. “Good. The rest of you?”
Ran and I looked at each other and shook our heads simultaneously.
“I feel like I’m close, but every time I try to push things this overwhelming dread takes over and pushes me out.” I look at her in surprise after that. I’ve never had that feeling. Did that mean I wasn’t pushing enough?
I don’t voice this as I turn to Sifu An. Thankfully, the days when he could casually read my mind were through, as he’d quickly taught me how to stop ‘broadcasting’ my thoughts everywhere. “No, Sifu. I’ve made no progress.”
He looks disappointed as he turns to Chou.
Chou hasn’t spoken a word today, and barely changed her expression after that first smile she gave me.
She opens her mouth to speak…and the mask collapses. “Y-“ she manages, before choking back a sob. Whatever inner reserve of strength she’d been using to fake her calm before had finally run out.
“Yes, Sifu.” She manages as tears run down her face. “I…saw what happened before I came here.”
Sifu An looks at her calmly, but with clear empathy.
“Good work. I know it must have been hard, but it’s for the best. You will feel better not hiding from your feelings.”
The rest of us look at her with concern, and shock. Chou was always the most composed of us, and seeing her break down like this was nearly unbelievable.
“Everyone, take the day off. There’s nothing more I can teach you before this stage is complete in any case. Do your regular exercises, rest, and collect yourselves.”
We were almost as surprised at this as Chou’s tears. A day off was usually a rare treat, once every few months at most. There was always something to do in addition to normal maintenance of our training schedule.
We barely had time to process this before Sifu An walked away, leaving us alone in the training hall.
Chou cried for several more minutes as we awkwardly stood around her, unsure what to do or how to help. Eventually, she shrugged away from the light circle we’d formed around her, turning away as she rubbed her face. When she turned around, her mask was back in place, only the puffy eyes and faint tracks of moisture on her cheeks hinting at the mild breakdown.
“Do you…want to talk about it?” Ran carefully asks.
“I’m fine, everyone. It happened a long time ago, right? I’ll get over it soon.” She says, attempting a reassuring smile. She fails.
“Are you sure? Sifu An says sometimes just talking about a feeling can help you work through it. Somehow. It’s like an exercise!” Thom chimes in.
I simply watch as Chou shakes her head, denying it more vigorously this time.
“No. I…I’m fine. I just need some time alone. What I saw doesn’t make sense anyway. Maybe it was just a dream. I hope I didn’t lie to Sifu An.” She says, suddenly appearing worried.
“There’s no way you’d cry like that over just a dream!” Ran exclaims, half-stepping as if to hug Chou but thinking better of it.
“Maybe. I don’t know. You’re probably right. Just, let me work through it my own way, okay?”
We all watch helplessly as she turns on her heel and walks away from us, deeper into the abandoned portions of the temple.
“Should we follow her or something?” Thom asks, uncharacteristically uncertain.
“No.” I finally say. “If she wants to be alone, we should let her. We have our own problems to focus on.”
As I watched Chou disappear into the half-light in the deeper portions of the temple, I felt my anxiety return. I was worried for her, but not just that. I was dreading going to sleep tonight. As I went about my day, mechanically, mostly separate from the others, all I could think about was Chou. If her memories were enough to break her, what chance did I stand?
As I lie in bed, exhausted from worrying all day, I listen to the faint, almost imperceptible sounds of muffled sobbing from the room next to mine.
Despite my will, I can soon no longer force my eyes open. Despite my fear, I begin to drift off to sleep, and it takes a supreme force of will to keep my thinking mind active as I do so.
The last thing I hear before unconsciousness takes me are Chou’s sobs.
And the first thing I hear as the memory begins is the sound of someone else’s.