The Funny Thing About the Past

Once we unlocked the ability to remember across lifetimes, we had to figure out what to do with it

Illustrations: Don Barkhouse III

WWhen we first announced the results of our research, the world responded with a mix of curiosity, skepticism, and disbelief. This was expected. To say our findings might shock the world was an understatement — we had taken what people knew about life and death and flipped the idea on its head.

It was only natural that many didn’t want to believe it, and it’s perhaps only natural that many still don’t.

But that’s life, really, whether this one or the next.

Belief, I think, is a matter of choice.

I remember the day our findings made the news. I was tired and worn out. It had been a long day and a longer night, and I felt anxious. I turned off my computer, left my phone on my desk, and took a book to a local café.

At a table by the window, I sipped a coffee and tried to empty my mind. I sometimes glanced at Sara as she served customers, wiped the counter, or stared into space. The sight of her was comforting.

I remember deciding I would finally talk to her. I had always thought of Sara as my soul mate and long felt a connection between us, like an invisible string tying our hearts together.

For the longest time, I put that feeling down to an overactive imagination, but now I knew it was true.

People looked to poke holes in our results and find fault in our data. The amount of skepticism in the news was healthy, but the ignorance and outright attacks were more than a little overwhelming.

It’s funny to think of how difficult it is to argue with cold, hard facts but how often we see them crumble beneath faith and strong emotions. It’s like there’s the truth we’re willing to accept and the truth we’re not.

In the end, I didn’t speak to Sara that day. I thought about it and knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t quite find the words or the timing.

And even though I’d been through this experience countless times, I wanted it to be different with Sara. I wanted it to have the appropriate weight and gravitas.

I wanted it to be special.

For those who have met and talked to successful transmigrants, it was more difficult to outright deny the research. The anecdotal evidence shared a theme; transmigrants had a deeper understanding of the human condition and a reciprocal empathy outside of what could be considered normal.

Talking to them, one man said, felt like talking to someone who saw colors beyond the human spectrum.

My favorite description was in the New York Times: “In his eyes were hundreds — perhaps thousands — of years, and this depth of experience colored his very being, from the way he smiled to the way he walked.”

It was delightfully unbelievable, and yet entirely true.

The following morning, Sara spoke to me while she brewed coffee. She had seen the news and was curious, and she had noticed my name tag.

“You’re with Globaltech,” she said.

“I am.”

“You guys are all over the internet. Congratulations. It’s a big discovery.”

“Thanks. But you know, it’s still a little hard to wrap my head around it all.”

“You and the rest of the world,” she said.

The conversation felt easy and natural. Pleasant, and light. I wondered why I hadn’t simply said hello when I first saw her.

“So, are you a part of the big team, then?” she said. “You know, the transmigration department?”

I shook my head.

“I wish I was,” I said, “but I’m just a data sifter. Not quite smart enough to roll with the big guys.”

But to be honest, I was just hesitant to talk about it. There was still so much we didn’t know. So much impact we had to think about. So much potential and so much risk.

“I don’t know,” she said, “you look pretty smart to me.”

Her cheeky smile was nostalgic, her tone of voice playful and mocking. It was like her brain wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt, but her instincts wouldn’t let her.

“Looks, deceiving, etcetera,” I said.

And though the banter was not love yet, it resembled something similar, and I enjoyed it because I knew where it was going.

I knew where it went.

Initially, we only wanted to organize people’s memories.

We knew where memories were stored, and we had a basic idea of how they functioned, so we wanted to catalog them for more efficient recall. We thought if we could find a way into a person’s memory library, we could create a tagging system.

As expected, locating the memories wasn’t the hard part; giving them a logical order was. The brain isn’t particularly keen on reorganizing itself, and when we attempted to herd memories into a single location, we lost more than we saved.

By observing patterns in brain activity, we were able to help people recall the past with more clarity, and we came to understand how the brain creates real estate for new memories. From there, we tried to work backward.

The idea was if we could locate a person’s first memory, we could map a path to their most recent. With enough maps, we could find patterns, and we expected these patterns to be the keys to our success.

However, when we started digging deeper, test subjects began to share memories outside of their own lifetime. They recalled vivid images of times before they were born, countries they had never visited, and friends and family they had never known.

It took a long time to understand exactly what all these random, disconnected memories meant, but eventually, it clicked. It was like digging through a library and finding another beneath it, and one below that, and on and on and down and down, like an eternal tower of collected memories.

We realized we had stumbled into libraries of past lives.

We had discovered proof of transmigration.

“You’re not wearing your name tag today,” Sara said.

“Have you seen the people outside the building?” I said. “And the people out front with the protest signs? It’s a jungle out there.”

For the most part, people were in one of two categories: those who wanted it, and those who wanted it gone. The first group wanted us to open testing to the public; their fear was that access to past memories would be reserved for the rich.

The second group simply thought we were committing grave crimes against nature; if we were meant to have those memories, they said, we would have had them to begin with.

Sara watched a few protesters walk by outside the café and sighed.

“I guess I can understand why people are worried,” she said. “But why won’t Globaltech open testing to the public? Why make a big announcement like that and then go dead quiet?”

I thought about it for a time.

“Well, the process is inconsistent,” I said. “Everyone is different, and there are so many variables to consider with each individual. The process of unlocking memories is still more dangerous than they’re willing to admit.”

I also knew that if she ever asked me for the truth — or anything at all, for that matter — I would give it to her in an instant for another glimpse of that smile.

“Is that so?” she said.

“I mean, well, that’s my best guess,” I said, “being a simple data sifter and all.”

“Of course.”

Sara brewed the rest of my coffee with a smile that charmed and irked me in equal measure, because I knew she had won. I also knew that if she ever asked me for the truth — or anything at all, for that matter — I would give it to her in an instant for another glimpse of that smile.

I always did.

Over time, we discovered patterns through each layer of a person’s memory. And though we couldn’t interfere with the organization of a memory library, we were able to observe the unique way each was organized, regardless of the life being present or past.

We thought of these patterns as memory fingerprints.

I snuck back to work through the basement parking lot and went to my office.

The space was a mess of memos, case studies, and miscellaneous paperwork. I sat down, looked at my reflection in the blank computer screen, and took a long, deep breath.

It was like a thick forest of memories before me, but I was sure that somewhere in those reports, interviews, and recorded recollections was a pattern. And if I could find that pattern, I could carve a path through that forest and, eventually, draw a map.

But when I thought about Sara, and the spontaneity that came with first meeting her, and learning to know her and love her for the first time, I didn’t know if I wanted to carve that path anymore. Some journeys, I thought, were better for the surprises they brought. They were better without a map.

But eventually, and inevitably, I turned on my computer and got to work.

Love, I told myself, was a matter of choice.

Our first investors — and so, our first major test subjects — were mostly rich Silicon Valley types who were terrified of death and wanted to live forever.

In meetings, they expressed a desire for a method to track transmigration. They wanted to leave their riches not to family, but to their future selves, so they might build long, storied careers over multiple lifetimes.

The problem was that although we could identify a unique memory library, it was still impossible to know where the next one would be built. I had spent months reading and rereading interviews, but I had yet to find any causal relationships between lives; it appeared to me the jumps were entirely random — body to body, brain to brain, life to life.

In order to track transmigration, it would be necessary to database the entire world’s memory fingerprints and tag all of them at birth so they could be processed accordingly. This alone would be hugely complicated and would require the cooperation of every country on the planet.

Such a change also brought with it a host of ethical questions many of our investors had yet to consider. We didn’t bring these up, however, because we needed the money to continue.

“I don’t know why they don’t just make it public and let people do it,” Sara said. “The world is so divisive on the issue, you know? Wouldn’t it be in Globaltech’s best interests to create positive rapport around the idea?”

“I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think it’s as simple as just signing people up and collecting good reviews. This goes so much deeper, because it connects us in a way previously unimaginable. It strikes at the heart of many people’s core value structures and the very beliefs they’ve built their lives upon.”

Sara pouted.

“I don’t see what’s so scary about it,” she said. “I really don’t.”

“So, if I had a sign-up sheet with me, and I gave it to you, would you do it? Would you go through the process, knowing you could never go back?”

“I know I would,” she said. “I wouldn’t even think twice about it.”

There was a glimmer in her eyes when she spoke. It was a purity of self-confidence and trust in her own decisions. It was a trait that, as far back as I could remember, I had always lacked, always respected, and always loved.

“I’m sure if you did it then, it would go well,” I said.


I shook my head.

“It’s nothing,” I said. “Forget about it.”

The reason we never made the process public was simple: Not everyone was ready for the weight of their past lives, and we didn’t have a reliable way of identifying who was.

Going through the transmigration process was like unlocking every floor, and every door, in every memory library in your brain. You gained unlimited access in an instant, but none of those doors would ever lock again. That was the cost.

So, when people got lost, or found books that horrified them, or could not bear the weight of so many different libraries, the brain would sometimes react by shutting off access to the past entirely. It was like burning all the books as a knee-jerk survival tactic. But what it left was little more than an empty, breathing husk, capable only of experiencing the present.

To carry the memories of 20, 50, or 100 lives meant to carry the feelings and emotions that sculpted each of them — on one hand, happiness, knowledge, and experience, but on the other, regret, loss, and sadness.

All of these emotions played out over and over, again and again, and rested entirely on the shoulders of a single, vulnerable soul.

It was a weight not everyone could bear.

Sara followed the transmigration news with an inquisitive eye and open-minded humor. It was a topic we could easily share, and our best excuse to keep talking.

“Did you see they’ve started a transmigrational search petition?”

“A search petition?” I asked. “For what?”

“It seems the internet wants Globaltech to do a dedicated search for the current iteration of Jesus Christ.”

“Oh. I don’t know if that’s going to work out.”

The idea of looking for Jesus was very much a needle-in-a-haystack kind of a deal, but the petitions did shine a light on how little people knew of our research. It also made me sad to think we wanted transmigration to find people to solve our problems, instead of using it to solve them ourselves.

“But wait,” Sara said. “Jesus isn’t the only one. There are also petitions for Mother Teresa, Elvis, Jeff Buckley, Gandhi, and… Buddha.”

“Buddha? But Buddha was enlightened.”

“I know! Isn’t it crazy?”

Sara messed up my coffee that day because she was laughing, but her smile brought to mind the memory of us walking along the beach on a cool afternoon. I remember knowing I had to tell her I was going to war and wondering if that laugh would still be waiting for me when I got back.

I never found out.

There were debates over extending criminal punishment into future lives and whether criminals in one life should be considered criminals in the next. The death penalty was abolished, because it suddenly felt like a free pass.

Businesses contacted us to ask whether they should make transmigrational investigation a part of their vetting process, and Globaltech began considering a consultation team for just these kinds of requests.

Elsewhere, a prominent alt-right spokesperson was mobbed when a report leaked, revealing he had once been a slave on a plantation in Georgia. His party fell into a spiral of infighting and disillusion that looked something like a karmic whirlwind.

In other, quieter parts of the world, blankets of mass suicides were reported in small communities that rolled the dice and hoped for better luck the next time around. This news was always the heaviest, because I had never imagined it a possibility, however logical it might have been.

Life, too, I came to realize, was a choice.

I sometimes woke at my desk at odd hours of the evening, alone except for a desk full of papers and the dull light of my computer screen.

In my dreams, I watched a flood of past lives interweave across an endless series of rooms, like an M.C. Escher painting at a scale beyond comprehension.

And yet, somewhere in those rooms was a pattern like the hint of a color painted across the walls or a feeling that hung in the air like the gentle scent of spring flowers.

It was a connection like an invisible string, tying two hearts together.

Perhaps surprisingly, religion didn’t change very much.

There was an initial uproar over the consequences of a transmigrational reality, but most people chose to stay right where they were. And while some religions combed old texts for an answer to the question of traveling souls, many others chose to deny it outright.

In Sara’s every movement were flashes of her former lives.

I was surprised at first, to think people could deny facts, science, and research, but upon further thought, I realized that was simply how the world worked. People believe what they want and choose to believe otherwise when it fits with their belief structure.

Reality struck me like a house built upon a series of choices, a house too many people didn’t want to build a second time.

In Sara’s every movement were flashes of her former lives.

In her every gesture was everything she had ever been, a countless number of pasts combined to create a unique present moment.

I was in love all over again, but a certain part of it would be forever unrequited. Sara could never love me as I loved her, because even though life was destined to run a course to our inevitable romance, she would never understand it as the multilayered, interwoven phenomenon that I did.

In these moments, I felt a keen sense of regret for my decision—a decision that felt like reading the last page of a book first and only now realizing what I was missing out on by knowing the ending.

A month before Globaltech announced our research findings, they offered all of us in the department a chance to undergo the transmigrational unlocking process for free.

Everyone had read the paperwork and knew the risks, so the vast majority said no.

For my part, I was going through something of an existential crisis; I didn’t have many friends, and my relationship with my family was tenuous at best. I craved a sense of perspective.

I said yes.

When I looked at Sara, I saw the past.

Though we had first met at her café two months after I started work with Globaltech, before that I had met her in the snowy mountains of Japan and let her slip through my grasp when she was the daring pilot of a hot air balloon traveling across Europe. I had watched her die in my arms, and also returned the favor, and on three occasions we had grown old together.

I knew her well enough to know that once we fell into a shared orbit, we were powerless to resist the gravity that pulled us together. When it came to our romance, a part of me was content to let the flow of life bring our hearts into balance.

But another part of me wondered if this was just a step in the transmigrational journey, and if at some point, it would end.

The research team was happy to have a transmigrant in the office, because it meant more detailed analysis and more detailed feedback. I took part in interviews each day, describing old memories as I wiped the dust from their book covers and recalling the sensations that came with them.

The memories came at a slow and gradual pace, sometimes in dreams, but mostly in quiet moments, where stray thoughts brought flashes of people and places that felt at once both new and old at the same time.

I told the team how my outlook on life and the world was changing. I realized that every decision I had ever worried about was ultimately meaningless, because I had made it hundreds of times before and the world had kept spinning. The wars and struggles that defined our generation were ultimately petty, because they had happened before and would happen again, and still the world would continue to spin.

I told the team I realized that love would never make as much sense as I wanted, no matter how many lives I lived, but I would always keep chasing it, because I always had. But even love, I said, was just another feeling along a spectrum of so many others — pushing us to action and driving us to change, but ultimately leaving little lasting impact.

I told them multiple pasts made me want to enjoy the present moment, because the best thing about transmigration was enjoying each life for its individual color and the blend of feelings and circumstance that made each unique.

But I did not tell them that between these lives was a feeling like a string pulling one life to another — sometimes to heartbreak, and sometimes to loss, but occasionally to an interweaving of souls and a settling of hearts.

I didn’t have words for the depth of that feeling, so I kept it to myself.

“If we know that transmigration is true,” Sara said, “why are there not more enlightened people?”

“We don’t have nearly enough data to really comment, unfortunately.”

“But what about you? What do you think?”

“I think for most of us,” I said, “it’s a process that takes thousands of years, maybe longer. In all the data, I can’t find any connections between lives, so if enlightenment is the goal, it feels like trial and error every time, over and over, life after life. My best guess is we’re either blocked from our past memories as a kind of defense mechanism or there’s some key to it and we still haven’t found it.”

“As in, maybe you loved me in a few past lives? Something like that?”

“So there’s no connection from one life to another? No karmic carryover? No staircase to raised consciousness? Nothing?”

“I…,” I started, and then thought for a moment. “Well, there is one thing.”

“What is it?”

“This sounds silly, but would you believe me if I told you it’s possible to love across lives? From one life to the next, over and over, like a collection of short stories with a shared theme?”

“As in, maybe you loved me in a few past lives? Something like that?”

“Uh… yes?”

I watched the thought weave a picture in Sara’s mind.

“That sounds nice,” she said finally. “But you know, you don’t have to make up a fancy lie if you just want to ask me out on a date.”

I laughed.

“I… hm. I guess I don’t, do I?”


“So, do you want to go out sometime?”

“How about a movie? Tomorrow night?”

There was a smile that spread across Sara’s face in that moment, and it came with the flash of a hundred different memories, all at once.

It was the look I fell in love with.

I decided to review our collected data all over again — every success, every failure, and everything in between.

I had been looking for the effects of one life on another—the evidence of a traceable karma, or an action and reaction between lives. But I wondered now: What if transmigration was not causal, but thematic?

I wondered if certain emotions or actions ran like a narrative through individual lives, or if a person’s past lives were ruled by feelings or encounters that repeated until some kind of goal was met.

Globaltech believed this might help with locating a person’s future life, so they gave the green light, and I started reading.

Sara never met me at the cinema the following night, and she wasn’t at the café the day after.

Instead, I found her in the hospital, asleep in a cozy room with a big window, at the end of a corridor on the fourth floor.

She’d fallen into a coma, the doctor said. It was a brain aneurysm.

And though I wanted to cry for the injustice of such timing and for the way fate had conspired to end our romance before it even started, I found that I simply couldn’t.

I had a thousand memories of love found and love lost, and all of them told me this was how life was. This was how it went.

Whether this life, or the next.

The day Globaltech finally announced that we still didn’t know how to locate future lives, the world responded with something that felt like a collective sigh for the hopes and dreams of the future.

When I had sifted our data, I hoped I might find a case like my own, something with a clear thread that linked transmigrations across a single soul.

In the end, we didn’t find anything. Not a single clue.

We were left only with thousands of maps, each one detailing the path a soul had traveled but leaving its future a mystery.

When I spent time with Sara’s family, I found myself wishing I could be sadder and more miserable, instead of wrapped in a blanket of empathy and understanding.

I lived with a nostalgia for the times that were just like this one — times of loss, and heartbreak, and death. It was a story in which the setting and the characters changed every time, but the plot remained ever constant.

With the knowledge of transmigration came the feeling that important experiences had been taken from me and replaced with a dull aching in my heart—an aching for what once was, and for what was destined to repeat again and again.

It was a very peculiar sadness, and one I could not share.

I wondered if this was the reason we were never meant to remember our past lives.

Without any concrete benefits outside of a superior peace of mind, it became difficult to get further funding for our department. We realized that the vast majority of people didn’t want a longer past: They wanted a brighter, clearer future.

We continued research on a smaller scale at prisons and in hospices, where access to past lives gave people perspective and hope, but without any major breakthroughs, we were unable to secure funding for larger, more in-depth studies.

And though transmigrational prejudice is still a problem in some parts of the world, transmigration and the transmigrationally aware are slowly becoming just another part of the cultural fabric that makes up our world.

Not long after Sara was taken off life support, I quit my job at Globaltech and decided to travel. I packed a backpack with some clothes and a few books and headed for Asia.

Sometimes, I stare at the passing scenery from public transport and wonder if I made the right choice; I wonder if knowing I would meet Sara again was worth missing out on the experience of truly loving her and losing her in this life, however fleeting that experience might have been.

But there is no precedent for this feeling in my memories, so I simply carry it with me, like another book in my backpack.

And I like to think that however much the universe might conspire to keep us apart, and wherever Sara might be in her new life, there is still a connection between us, like an invisible string tying our hearts together.

And I like to believe it will always be like that. Whether this life, or the next.

Because belief, after all, is a matter of choice.

Fragments of the everyday in Tokyo, as written by Hengtee Lim.

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