I reach down to touch my toes, lines of fire erupting across my back, worsening as I reach back towards the sky and hold that position as I let myself slide into a split. The pain only worsens as I continue, but I maintain my good mood regardless.
We’d finally managed it. After three days of fruitless attempts, Chou finally managed to split her attention between all three of us. She immediately lost her concentration when the elation caught up to her, but to her surprise found it easy to replicate the feat after a short rest. Once the right balance was found it was almost like muscle memory being forged, and it was even easier to do the next time. It took the rest of us a couple more attempts, but bolstered by Chou’s success, we managed to push on past the mounting frustration. The sense of relief on first success was indescribable.
After, Sifu An had released us for a few hours rest. After a bit of meandering, I found myself drawn to the orchard, and torturing myself in the bright sunlight surrounded by the scent of oranges was better than doing it anywhere else.
I allow myself a small smile before locking my expression down again. Our freedom had been severely curtailed since our encounter with Ma. Shifting to the orchard as our primary meeting place was one precaution, but it’s not like Ma was incapable of coming here. We employed even greater outward discipline than before our graduate training with Sifu An began to avoid Ma having the slightest excuse to “discipline” us again. This also unfortunately meant meeting all together for meals was ill advised, and we’d taken to eating in shifts and only grouping up on occasion here, or for our regular meetings with Sifu An.
Besides that tension, however, I find myself feeling contented much of the time recently. Lucid dreaming is surprisingly freeing, and I’d taken to trying to picture far off places just from their descriptions in books to pass the time, constructing fantastical landscapes only from memory. My attempt at a desert was the current project.
The primary issue I find myself facing is the frustratingly ubiquitous use of the phrase “sand colored” to describe them. Sand was apparently not the same thing as dirt, from what I could gather, so likely did not mean the same shade of brown or gray I was used to. Nevertheless it was all I had to go on, so rolling waves of dark gray sand populated my recreation of the setting. It didn’t feel right.
I finished this round of stretches and just lay back on the grass and watched the birds fly above me as I pondered the small issue.
“Now that you’ve figured out the knack of reaching out,” Sifu An explains as we reconvene after our break. “You’ve laid the foundation for one of the most useful skills I can teach you: instantaneous communication.”
Ran stops fidgeting with her bandages for a moment and looks up at him.
“So multiple of us in the same mindscape? I figured that’s what it was for.”
“Not exactly.” he says, giving her a nod. “That’s one use for it, and something else you’ll come to appreciate if you ever have to do more in depth planning. But until any mindscape techniques are mastered, you run into the problems involving losing track of time, and being essentially dead to the outside world, which can be dangerous. This technique is simpler. Instead of visualizing the whole mindscape, you only visualize the words you would speak inside of it. This also neatly sidesteps the issue of feedback inside the mindscape, since the feeling of being ‘surrounded’ by sound no longer exists.”
“So what more do we need to do to communicate like that?” Chou asks.
“Nothing. You’ve achieved the hardest part: maintaining multiple partial connections. You’ll struggle any time you try to add even more people, but less than you did trying for three. Three is the big hurdle; after that you can think of adding a fourth, fifth, or even more people roughly as difficult as achieving two the first time. Hard, but surmountable. Try it now.” He gestures for Chou to give it a shot.
It takes her nearly a minute to juggle the connections, but soon I hear a single word ring in my heads. <Hello?>
It ‘sounds’ odd. The words appear in my head like a thought I’m having, but with Chou’s voice. Giving it a try myself, I go to respond. <Yes, I can hear you.>
There’s no answer.
Chou looks at Sifu An questioningly, and the rest of us look at each other, puzzled.
“Presumably you all tried to respond. It’s not quite that easy. The connection is only one way; you can send but not receive or receive but not send depending on who is initiating the connection. For all of you to hear each other at once, you need to create something similar to a spider web. Each of you connected to all of the others at once.”
We blanch as one; the process sounds daunting on the surface. But after a moment’s thought, it’s not as bad as it sounds. We’d all done the training, even if we were a bit slower than Chou at it. And it got easier every time.
Sifu An idly mused about the mechanics of this technique as we began the slow process of connecting ourselves to each other.
“Truth be told, none of us are entirely certain how the multi-way communication works, only that it does. By all logic, you should still only hear messages sent to you by the people you’re connected to, rather than the messages they’re sending the others and are sent to them, but it was an unexpected boon many of the earliest Sifu discovered, and it was too useful not to pass down.”
That was interesting. And scarier the more I thought about it. If even the Eldest have no idea why or how many of these abilities work, that likely meant nobody on the planet did. I’m not sure what would be more frightening; if they’d tried to look into it and failed to figure it out, or if they’d never deigned to look too closely into it at all, just taking for granted that it did work. The latter was the more likely scenario given the general attitude of the Elder Sifu and the Traditionalist faction. They would almost assuredly be more interested in moving on to the next level of mastery or enlightenment rather than lingering on something that already functioned well enough for their purposes.
<Xu? You there?> Ran’s voice rings out, startling me. <Yes, I am. Can you hear me?> I respond. I’m almost surprised when I get answers back. I’d so lost track of what I was doing I thought I might have dropped the connection.
<We’re all here. You’ve just been staring off into space for the last minute.> Thom’s ‘voice’ comes through, a tinge of amusement bleeding through. It is with startlement I realize that it wasn’t a vocal shift that conveyed that, I could actually feel his emotion.
Sifu An looks between us with an expression of satisfaction. “It seems you’ve done it. Perfect. That means we can move on to the next stage.”
I barely had time to wonder what that was before he dashed forward and smacked me on the top of the head. I felt the connection instantly break, and my head started to hurt.
I rubbed the back of my head where the tension was gathered and glared at Sifu An. I got the point, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.
“So it can be broken that easily?” I ask.
“More so, even, but hitting you is a fun, quick, and effective way to show it off.” Amusement rolls off his voice, so thick it’s almost palpable.
My annoyance deepens, but I wait for him to go on.
“At first, the connection is very fragile. Anything that requires the slightest attention can break it. Trying to move at a pace above a sedate walk will be enough to shatter it at first. By the time we’re done training this technique, you need to be able to hold it even in the middle of a fierce fight. It could be the difference between life and death. Making the connection is easy, once you have the knack, and there’s no limitation on range. But if you don’t know precisely where the person you’re trying to connect to is forging a connection is impossible; you’ll have no idea where to reach out to.”
As he explains this, the others start grinning. I can’t help but shake the feeling they’re talking about me behind my back. Already I begin to regret Sifu An teaching us a way to talk without being overheard.
“Xu, reforge your connection. Then, everyone get up and walk around this courtyard. Once you’re feeling comfortable, keep picking up the speed until it breaks, reforge, and repeat at the same speed until you get it right.”
Ove the next few hours, our ability to maintain the connection grows slightly. A light jog is all we can manage, though I suspect in part that is because Ran’s arm hurts when she tries to move any faster, making it harder on her end. It’s difficult to tell; she refuses to show any weakness, and bringing up her injury is a surefire way to draw her ire, as we’d all discovered over the last few days.
What we did improve on in leaps and bounds was the speed with which we forged our connections. Chou had already had the technique down to close to a minute when we started, but it took the rest of us three times as long at first. By the end of the session we could each do it in under half a minute, and Chou with twice that speed. It really did get easier the more we did it, becoming almost second nature. I feel sure that by the end of tomorrow or the next day we can make the words ‘instantaneous communication’ more than just an ironic name.
After dinner, which we stagger out between us over the course of an hour, we retire to our rooms. We all have our own personal projects to work on with the lucid dreaming technique, though none of us had talked about them with the others.
As every night since the first, I open my eyes into my brother’s staring, vacant gaze, feeling the sticky blood covering my chest.
These past nights I’ve quickly fled the scene, transmuting it into my imaginings of foreign lands, or just enjoying flying among the stars, crafting new constellations or patterns in the clouds idly. Tonight, I have a different mission.
I pull my focus away from my younger self, trying to view my own memories from the outside. My thoughts kept pulling me back for a reason, I was sure. There was something I wanted myself to see, though I didn’t know what that could be.
I carefully, slowly, moved the dream backwards, keeping as sharp a hold on the details of the memory as I could. It was difficult; more difficult than creating something whole cloth, even something I’d never seen like the sand dunes or jungle trees.
Viewing the memory from within my own perspective was difficult enough without being drawn into viewing the memory entirely from inside, trapped in the sequence of events. The abject fear I felt in the moment threatened to consume me and throw me back into the memory, but I fight against it with every ounce of willpower I have. Eventually, freezing the memory so I can gain control of myself works, and I work on the more difficult part.
I use my memories to reconstruct the scene into something viewable from the outside. At least I try; the method eludes me. Moving outside my own perspective brings back the fuzzy quality the forest has most nights, lacking the frighteningly vivid clarity the actual memory has. I work on the idea most of the night but fail to make any significant process.
I awake feeling unfulfilled, and not as relaxed as sleep should have left me.
“While continuing to work on your ability to maintain mental contact in a crisis is important, it isn’t something that needs our immediate and exclusive focus. Instead, you’ll continue training it a bit on your own time and at the end of our sessions, working it into your physical maintenance.” Sifu An begins once we’ve assemble the next morning.
No objections or questions are raised. I didn’t relish the idea of spending several days walking at varying speeds to improve on a skill we already had a basic understanding of, and presumably neither did anyone else.
“Instead, we’re going to go back to working on your control of mindscapes, and how they can be shared with more than two people.”
This, on the other hand, piqued my interest. We hadn’t done any direct practice on mindscapes since the first lessons, and all of us being able to share one was something we’d been interested to learn this whole time.
“And being able to forge our connections for communication was key to that, right?” Ran pipes up.
“Exactly. The technique isn’t hard. All you have to do is forge your connection, and push a little deeper, exactly as you would when entering a mindscape with one other person. The other has to accept, as before, and each can enter on their own terms so long as the open connection is maintained. Once inside I have a very simple exercise for you: each of you visualize an hourglass that only you can see, in a room that none of you can see each other from. View it until it runs out, then drop out of the connection. That will give me a baseline of how each of you perceives time in a mindscape.”
While that sounded mind numbingly boring, we had no choice but to accept. Forging the connections was easy, especially so with yesterday’s training. In about half a minute we had all entered the mindscape, and we got to work.