Thoughts About Race and Racism

9809020_sRace issues surface in America periodically, and they are doing so once more at this time, as they did in the 1860s and again in the 1960s. It happens when something changes, so that a situation that could once be ignored no longer can be, and when something that could not be changed suddenly can. The industrial revolution reduced the economic value of slavery and allowed the moral arguments for its abolition — which had always been cogent — to prevail. The prosperity of the 1960s made the glaring fact that non-whites didn’t share in it impossible to gloss over.

Today, we are seeing a similar result from the widespread availability of cameras and instant communication through the Internet. Racially-based police violence, once something that could be ignored, is being caught on video and made evident to anyone not determined to shut his eyes to it. Awareness of racial discrepancies in law enforcement leads logically and naturally to awareness of similar discrepancy in the courts, and to the fact that it still occurs in employment.

But I’m not going to talk much about the Black Lives Matter [Too] movement (addition of the last word is for clarity as to what the slogan actually means), or about the problem of racial discrimination in our society that still exists more than 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The correct position on these matters — “correct” here meaning “in accord with observable fact” — is quite obvious and does not need restating by me. Yes, racially-based police brutality is a problem, over and above the general problem of police misbehavior. Yes, deep-seated racial attitudes affect employment and economic success or failure in life, and the only thing that the Civil Rights Act effectively prevents is overt, blatant, and deliberate racial discrimination; a lot of the discrimination isn’t even conscious on the part of those committing it.

All of that’s a no-brainer except for those who have no brains, or whose brains are short-circuited by self-serving delusions. And others are saying it. No one needs me to parrot them.

What I’m going to do instead is to address another side of the matter: the roots of racism, what it actually is, and what can be done about it. In the process, I’m also going to address a couple of irrational and poorly-conceived ideas running about among progressives on the matter of race. To some, that will make me sound like a right-winger, which is too bad. But these things need to be said, and there’s no better time to say them than now.

The Roots of Racism

The roots of racism lie in the concept of race itself. This is the idea that people can be meaningfully categorized based on superficial physical characteristics. There is, of course, no scientific basis for the idea of race at all; that people of European ancestry have, for example, lighter skin or straighter hair than people of African ancestry is true only as an average. There are so-called “white” people whose skin is darker than some so-called “black” people at the margins of that characteristic for both population groups. There is no basis for defining such categories.

Where the idea of race becomes not just unscientific but actually pernicious is when it leads people to identify with a particular race, and feel a kinship with others similarly categorized, while seeing those outside that group as “others.” From this starting point, all the evils of racism, historical and current, flow. Why did cash-crop planters in America see Africans as a source of forced labor? Because they were “others,” and not “us.” Why do white employers still give preferential treatment to white job applicants? Because they identify themselves as white people, and so have an impulse to prefer other white people as employees.

Ultimately, the solution to racism is to eliminate race itself as a concept and an identifier. Until we manage that, all solutions will be no better than stopgaps.

Now to deal with a couple of poorly-thought-out concepts circulating on the left, before going into possible long-range solutions.

“White Privilege”

To begin the process of offending those who basically agree with me: there is no such thing as “white privilege.” That’s an unfortunate and misleading way to refer to the fact that white people have it easier in this culture than non-whites. That’s a fact, all right, but it doesn’t mean whites are privileged (barring a few of them, all rich ones), it means non-whites are denied their rights. Courteous and professional treatment by police, a fair trial and equal protection under the law, and a merit-based consideration for employment without racial discrimination, these are not privileges. They are rights. Calling this state of affairs “white privilege” logically implies that the problem is that white people are treated too well. No. The problem is that non-whites are treated too poorly. Everyone should be treated the way white people are treated. That’s not privileged. It’s normal, and it’s fair. And it’s perfectly feasible to treat everyone that way.

One could argue that “white privilege” and “non-white denial of rights” mean the same thing insofar as both imply that one artificial category of people is treated better than all other categories, but the connotations are different, and those of “white privilege” aren’t useful. It’s no better for white people to feel guilty about being white, than for them to feel self-satisfied about it. What they need to do is to stop seeing themselves as “white people” at all — and to stop seeing others as either white or not. And for others to stop seeing white people’s whiteness as well,  or their own non-whiteness.

“Only Whites Can Be Racist”

There’s a pernicious idea floating around among progressive circles that racism is a synonym for systematic racially-based oppression, which it’s not; the latter is a result of the former, not a synonym for it. One consequence of tying racism to race-based oppression is a tendency to give a free pass to racist attitudes on the part of non-whites, who are not in a position to impose systematic racial oppression on others (at least not culture-wide).

That such attitudes exist is painfully obvious. (If you need hard polling evidence, try this article from the Pew Research Institute.) Racism among non-whites isn’t just directed against whites, either — one could perhaps dismiss or excuse that on the basis of reaction to white racism (not that that has any more than a superficial validity) — but also against other groups of non-whites. It shares space in the mental pathology sphere with antisemitism and other types of religious bigotry, and with the gender bias that is ubiquitous in all societies, and with homophobia.

Again: the root of racism lies in the categorizing of people into racial groups at all, and in the identification of oneself as a member of one such group and of others as belonging to another. Racism is an us versus them attitude based on race. It is by no means unique to people who see themselves as white, and it is an evil to be fought wherever it appears, and whomever it is directed against.

Racism that feeds into the power structure and results in systematic discrimination obviously does more harm than similar attitudes that do not, but they are the same attitudes nonetheless. Moreover, racial balances are in transition. White people have been a majority in the United States since before the country’s founding, but the size of that majority is declining, and whites will no longer be a majority in a few more decades. A history of being the victims of oppression does not prevent a group from becoming oppressors if the power balance should shift — a glance at the way Israel treats the Palestinians should suffice to dispel that illusion.

Racism In Decline

Racism is actually in decline in this country, despite the headlines and the new attention being given to racial problems. It’s in decline over generations as well as over time. Pew has a good study on Millennial attitudes on race, showing that members of this generation are dramatically more likely to have friends of a different race and to approve of interracial dating and marriage than older people.

Why this should be is an open question, but my theory is that it stems from the cultural and political changes of the 1960s, the last time that racial issues received concentrated focus, as they are again today. This period of turmoil resulted in legal changes and in a steep drop in the cultural acceptance of overt racism. While the difference this made in the attitudes of people alive at the time may have been limited, the impact on generations that grew up after the transition and had no memory of the way things were before has been profound.

Supporting this idea is the fact that Millennial attitudes on race do not represent a sharp shift from those of Generation X. Millennials are marginally less racist than Xers, but the difference between Xers and Boomers is dramatic, while that between Boomers and the Silent generation is, like that between Millennials and Xers, more marginal. Among non-Hispanic whites, the percentage surveyed who supported interracial marriage was 88% for those 18-29 years of age, 75% (13 points of difference) for those 30-49, and 52% (23 points of difference) for those 50-64.

Generation X is the first generation to grow up mostly after 1964, although older Xers do have memories from the time of turmoil itself, which was far from completed in that year.

What this should tell us is that legal and cultural changes, by altering the way we do business and the way we talk about race issues, produce dramatic changes in the mindset of generations that grow up under the new paradigm compared to those who grew up under the old. (We can expect a similar decline in homophobia in new generations that will grow up around married gay couples and see homosexuality as no big deal.)

Racism, in short, is declining. It’s by no means gone, but it’s going, and will continue to decline as older people are replaced by younger generations. The current focus on racial issues is likely to accelerate that process.

Long-Term Solution

There’s no way to get rid of racism instantly. Over the long term, the only way to do that is to get rid of race. While this is not going to happen quickly in society as a whole, each of us can make it happen for ourselves as individuals.

We need to recognize the lack of any scientific basis for the idea of race. We need, based on that awareness, to stop thinking of ourselves in racial terms. That is the first step towards not thinking of others in racial terms. If you think you’re a white person, or a black person, or an Asian, or a Hispanic — you’re mistaken (insofar as those are racial and not cultural identifiers).

You are not a white person. You are not a black person. You are not a racial Asian. There is no such thing as any of these. There is such a thing as a Hispanic culture, but no such thing as a Hispanic race, and the same applies to Asia — culture is real, race is not. (As for so-called white and black people, how many of either category in the United States identify with any of the cultures of Europe or Africa, aside from actual immigrants? I was even recently told by an African-American that a mutual acquaintance from Nigeria was “not black” — a recognition that the man’s culture was foreign, and he was not part of the African-American subculture with its roots in slavery, and so a tacit recognition that race is not real, while culture is.)

Is it easy to do this? I suspect it’s a lot easier for younger people, who may tend to forget about race most of the time anyway. It’s harder, but by no means impossible, for those of us more advanced in years. It’s a mental discipline and the development of mental habits, like any other habit of thought. It takes practice and it takes time and effort, but it can be done, and to suggest that it can’t is to give up on solving the problem of race. Because that change in mind-set, that elimination of race altogether from the way we think, is the only thing that will work in the long run.

In the really long run, what is most likely to happen as a result of global mixing is that future generations will all be a blend of so-called “racial” characteristics. Our descendants will visibly reflect the biological reality that we are all one species, and race is a fiction.

In the meantime, we can and should learn to recognize this reality in our minds, and see past the superficial differences of race that are in fact no more meaningful than the difference between blond and brunette.

 

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Book Review: Three Great Lies by Vanessa MacLellan

TGL CoverGenre: Portal Fantasy

Publisher: Hadley Rille Books

Description:

While vacationing in Egypt. . .

Jeannette Walker, a cynical scientist jaded by swarms of tour groups and knick-knack shacks, is lured by a teenage tour guide to visit a newly discovered tomb. No other tourists there! Inside the chamber, she tumbles down a shaft and 3000 years back in time.

Now, in a world where deities walk the streets and prophecy heats up the air, Jeannette is desperate for normal and the simple pleasures of sanitation and refrigeration. However, a slave master hawking a cat-headed girl derails her homebound mission, and Jeannette–penniless in this ancient world–steals the girl, bringing down the tireless fury of the slaver.

Saddled with a newly awakened mummy and the cat-headed girl, Jeannette contrives a plan to free them from the slaver’s ire, but will she have to dive into the belly of the beast to succeed?

This debut novel by Vanessa MacLellan is one of the most thoroughly researched works of fiction I’ve ever read. The details in the fantasy version of ancient Egypt into which the protagonist falls are meticulously presented, from the sand infesting the bread to the unfiltered quality of the beer to the conservative, deeply religious character of the culture. That was the second thing I noticed as I read this book. (I’ll get to the first thing in a moment.)

The story is one of self-discovery and personal evolution alongside a struggle against unreasonable authority and the birth of unlikely friendships. The “three great lies” of the title are, on the surface, a fortune cookie message that Jeannette received at a restaurant in our world before she was transported to that one. On a deeper level, each of the main characters (Jeannette, Aboyami the mummy, and Sanura the cat-headed teenage daughter of Bast) has a strong belief about herself or himself that proves to be a lie. Jeannette believes that her goal, the thing she desires most, is to get out of the primitive, superstitious madhouse into which she has fallen and return to modern civilization. Aboyami has lost his heart scarab and believes that he needs to get it back and proceed to the afterlife. Sanura believes that she is lost without her litter mates and needs to return to being just like all the other kittens. None of these beliefs is true, but the protagonists must undergo a confrontation with a slaver and some tomb-robbers and a great deal of personal growth before they can discover the truth. All of which makes for a truly inspiring and satisfying story.

Now for that first thing I noticed, which prevents me from giving this book five stars, which I normally would, for a great story, extraordinary characterization, and above-average writing. The story begins poorly. Ms. MacLellan makes a common first-novel mistake by plunging into the main action before giving the reader a chance to get to know and care about the main character. We learn later the reasons why Jeannette is the way she is, but in the beginning all that comes across is a shallow, frivolous person who doesn’t care about anyone but herself and is incapable of understanding a foreign culture. Within the first few pages, she suffers a fall and is transported into a weird land where she has a hard time surviving, but this reader at least didn’t much care, until later in the tale’s unfolding. A little time spent with Jeannette before she finds herself in this predicament, a presentation of the betrayal by her fiance and her best friend that forms such a wound across her life, a bit on her tragic family background — some understand of who she is — would have fixed that, so that when she did find herself stuck in Kemet, we would feel and care about her problems.

As it is, all of that comes out over the course of the story, and Jeannette grows in strength, compassion, courage, and understanding as she deals with the problems she faces. She forms a strong bond with the other two protagonists and unfolds like a blossom. The plot is gripping, the character development profound, and the ending immensely satisfying. If you, like me, find yourself put off by the slam-bam beginning and the unappealing character of Jeannette in the first part of the book, and are tempted to abandon it — do yourself a favor, and resist that temptation. Get past that first section, and Three Great Lies will greatly reward your patience and persistence. This is a wonderful story, and we can expect marvelous things from Vanessa MacLellan in the future.

Available from Amazon for $5.99 (Kindle) or $16.00 (print).

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Book Review: Going Through the Change by Samantha Bryant

cover2500Genre: Superhero story

Publisher: Curiosity Quills Press, VA

Description:

Going through “the change” isn’t easy on any woman. Mood swings, hot flashes, hormonal imbalances, and itchy skin are par for the course. But for these four seemingly unrelated women, menopause brought changes none of them had ever anticipated-super-heroic changes. Helen discovers a spark within that reignites her fire. Jessica finds that her mood is lighter, and so is her body. Patricia always had a tough hide, but now even bullets bounce off her. Linda doesn’t have trouble opening the pickle jar anymore…now that she’s a man. When events throw the women together, they find out that they have more in common than they knew-one person has touched all their lives. The hunt for answers is on.

This story has perhaps the most original and unusual premise in recent years. Menopause plus the strange concoctions of an unscrupulous scientist combine to give four women super powers. One obtains the power of flight. Another becomes fireproof and gains the ability to create and control fire. A third undergoes a sex change and gains super strength. A fourth develops reptilian scales that emerge when she is angry or frightened and make her impervious to bullets and most other physical damage.

In most comic-book-type superhero stories, someone who developed super powers would quickly adjust to the new reality and set out to accomplish something — save the world, get revenge, make herself rich — and slide smoothly into one of the standard comic slots: superhero, super-villain, anti-hero. Going Through the Change takes a somewhat more realistic approach, as each of the empowered women spends a lot of the book trying to figure out what is wrong and looking for a cure. This allows for some good character development which, unfortunately, comes at the expense of pacing and plot during the first half of the book. It doesn’t pick up the pace and become a more conventional action-packed superhero story until the second half.

The characters themselves are well developed, but I found most of them not very sympathetic. The clear exception is Linda/Leonel, whose menopausal transformation changes her from a petite housewife into a strapping man with superhuman strength. Her ongoing compassion, dedication to her family, kindness, and good sense make her (him?) the best of the bunch. Jessica the airborne, who in her thirties is also by far the youngest of the women (her menopause is the result of surgical removal of her ovaries to treat ovarian cancer), comes across as insecure and flighty (no pun intended by me, though Ms. Bryant may have intended one) until circumstances force her to learn how to control her power. Patricia of the reptilian armor scales is a hard-assed business executive, the classic boss from Hell, and I found her quite unlikable (perhaps because I’ve worked for too many people like her, male and female both). Helen the fireball-tosser becomes addicted to her destructive power and is the closest of the bunch to fitting a standard super-villain role. Her madness is terrifying and her indifference to human suffering is chilling.

The unscrupulous genius behind all the changes, Cindy Liu, although possessing no super-powers herself beyond remarkable scientific brilliance (but then, neither did Lex Luthor, right?), is the pure archetype of the bad, bad scientist whose devotion to her work eclipses any shred of humanity.

The pace of the book picks up very strongly in the second half, when Linda/Leonel, Jessica, and Patricia figure out the central role of Dr. Liu in their transformations and try to track her down and make her reverse what she has done, or at least explain it. Helen joins up with Dr. Liu who is the source of the pills that give her fiery powers, which Helen loves and wants to keep. The story features lots of superhero fight scenes and plot twists once it gets rolling.

The biggest complaint that people have about Going Through the Change is its ending, which leaves a lot of things unresolved. That would be quite acceptable in the start of a series, with more to come, which may be the case, although it’s not specified as such anywhere. On the assumption that it is the first part of a series, I’m going to give the book four stars, for superior characterization and concept, and let’s hope that the potential is developed further in sequels to the story.

Available from Amazon for $4.99 (Kindle Edition) or $15.99 in print.

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Spiritual Traditions — and Liberation From Same

11450442_sI had a bit of a debate recently with a very pleasant and erudite Druid named John Beckett over on Patheos. The debate concerned his article on difficulties finding the “right tradition for you,” and I chimed in with comments observing that maybe the problem is in the premise that any one existing tradition is “right” for you. Apparently this and the ensuing discussion provoked the good Druid enough that he followed up with another post explaining why, in his view, sticking with an established tradition is the only healthy way to pursue a spiritual path, and raising alarms about the dangers of choosing methods and ideas “at random.” (As an ironic side-note, Mr. Beckett mentioned the late Isaac Bonwitz as one of his mentors. It’s ironic because, although Bonewitz was indeed one of the founders and framers of modern Druidism, he was also one of the most eclectic, creative mages around, and one of those most inclined to thumb his nose at pretensions of orthodoxy.)

Rather than tiresomely pursing the matter in further comments and making a nag of myself, I decided to write a post of my own on the subject.

What is a Spiritual “Tradition”?

In essence, a spiritual tradition is a religion. Its focus is on the spiritual quest more than on the exoteric concerns of religion such as public morality, but otherwise it differs from other traditions in the same way as one religion differs from another. This encompasses three things: philosophical concepts, mythology, and spiritual practices.

Philosophical concepts include theology, but go beyond that to also include metaphysics and epistemology and ethics. Mythology encompasses the deities, imagery, poetry, and symbolism of the tradition. Spiritual practices include meditations, religious and magical ritual, physical exercises, lifestyle disciplines, and learning, all oriented towards achieving enlightenment, as the tradition views that concept.

There’s a certain congruence or commonality about spiritual practices that arises from their pragmatic nature. Either something works or it doesn’t, and few traditions will continue for long using a practice that doesn’t work. Thus one finds, for example, mantra and mandala meditation among Yogis, and Catholics who pray the Rosary, an exercise that’s functionally identical. All spiritual practices work an effect on the mind and the mind-set, blurring the artificial boundaries of selfhood and awakening the practitioner (potentially, anyway) to the larger Identity that hides behind the normal waking concept of I. The range is wide but not unlimited.

Mythology varies more widely. All deities and other mythic images are metaphors for the indescribable, and while not every metaphor is apt or meaningful, the array of possibilities is huge. Some mythologies, such as that of Hinduism, are highly visual and colorful. Others, like that of Islam, avoid any concrete images of the holy and emphasize the ineffable nature of God. Christian mythology resides somewhere between that of Hinduism and Islam on this scale, while most Neopagan mythology leans more towards the Hindu end of rich, poetic and artistic imagining. Anyone who has walked a spiritual path for long and achieved any significant degree of awakening understands that all of these are valid approaches.

Philosophy brings us to areas of genuine disagreement, but even here the disputes lose their significance in the face of the fact that coherent knowledge that can be expressed in words is hard to come by when dealing with the cosmos in its entirety, or the mysteries of consciousness. Those are the subject matter of the spiritual. While we cannot approach these subjects directly and straightforwardly, we can do so sideways, as it were. The discussion and the debate help move that process. The richer the discussion, the better.

A tradition, like an exoteric religion, adheres to a single set of philosophical ideas, a single body of mythology, and an authorized set of spiritual practices, rejecting all ideas, myths, and practices which lie outside this compass.

Strong and Weak Traditional Exclusivity

The idea of traditional exclusivity — that only one tradition holds truth and all others are wrong — can take what might be called a strong form and a weak form.

Strong exclusivity is the idea that only one tradition is right for everyone. One finds this idea expressed by fundamentalist Christians and, in pure form, by no one else, although Muslims come fairly close to it, acknowledging some measure of validity to Christianity and Judaism but claiming that Islam holds a more complete truth and rejecting all religious ideas outside the Abrahamic lineage.

Spiritual traditionalists who have any awareness and have made any progress seldom express strong exclusivity. More common is weak exclusivity: the assertion that following one tradition or another exclusively is the right approach for everyone. Some tradition is right for you, even if it’s not our tradition. It’s as if they’re claiming that everyone should be a fundamentalist, while declining to specify what sort of fundamentalist one should be.

Is there any basis for this claim?

What a Tradition Offers Versus What it Costs

What a tradition offers — or claims to offer — is structure, reassurance, guidance, and externally-imposed discipline. (That’s if we dismiss any claims to exclusive possession of the Truth.) All of this contrasts with the non-aligned, who must build their own structures, learn by exploration and choose which guides to follow (if any) and when not to follow them, dive boldly into the spiritual waters seeking reassurance only from success, and create discipline from within.

Following a tradition is easier. It requires more in the way of obedience, and less in the way of courage. It provides a comforting voice when the doubts inevitably arise (there are always guardians at every gate). It sits best with those who are most comfortable accepting the authority of others. Those who find staying within the limits imposed by a tradition hardest are the wildly creative, the strong of will, the highly self-assured, and the boldly self-assertive.

The problem here is that those are also the very people who are most likely to achieve the most success on the spiritual paths. Take a look at the history of any great prophet or spiritual leader, including the founders of traditions or powerful voices within traditions. Without exception, these are people who had problems with religious authorities on the way. They ran away from home in youth, like the Buddha. They were crucified like Jesus, or had to flee for their lives like Muhammad.

There’s a reason for this. The cosmos is not tame. It is wild. And its voice is seldom heard in safe, secure settings.

Is there danger in striking out on one’s own, in refusing to be contained within the limits of a tradition? Of course there is, but not nearly as much danger as some would have us believe. Magic is powerful and potentially self-destructive stuff, but beginners in the art are seldom able to raise enough power to be truly self-destructive.

Beginners make mistakes, it’s true. Does that mean they need to be carefully guided away from error, and kept on the safe path? No, because making mistakes is the only way a person learns. The journey is the destination and the question is the answer, and no one grows without making that journey and asking the questions, seeking answers rather than being spoon-fed them.

So long as people tamely follow a tradition, spirituality will remain a safely compartmentalized part of their lives, never endangering their world-views — or expanding them beyond the comfort zone. Safe spirituality is impotent spirituality.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with learning from a spiritual tradition, and knowledge is always good. And for a time, it’s perfectly understandable that a person might need the structure and comfort that comes from belonging. But unless you feel that need (something I never have, but can vaguely comprehend), there’s nothing to be gained by defining oneself — which is to say, limiting oneself, as that is what “definition” means. Sooner or later, the child must leave the home.

Or else remain forever a child.

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A Sip of Fear: Publication Announcement

A Sip of FearA Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated, is now live on Amazon and Smashwords. It should be up at most other e-book retain outlets within about a week. You can read the first three chapters in the three posts prior to this one, or by reading the free samples from the retailers.

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A Sip of Fear (Chapter Three)

A Sip of FearHere’s the third chapter of my new novel, A Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated. A slight hitch happened on the way to publication, so the book will be available tomorrow rather than today. I’ll post links to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords in a new post then, and add it to the sideboard. I’m going through the Smashwords distribution system for other outlets (Barnes & Noble, Apple, etc.) so it should be available there within a week or so.

Meanwhile, hope you enjoy this third installment.

 

I encountered Ela-Tu for the first time when I was fifteen.

Magic fired up in my brain a few years before that, surrounding me like music that never stopped playing. Feelings coming my way from other people, auras and borderline realities seen from the corner of my eye, strands of fate plucked like chords or whispering secrets in my ear.

A lot of people have a little sensitivity to the Power. It’s much more common than most people realize. The sense you get when you’re being watched. The knowledge of who’s calling on the phone before you answer it. The fear that grabs the heart when a loved one is in danger, felt before the word comes. The desperate prayer in troubled times that gives birth to a miracle of shifted odds. Many people know such things. Magic in small amounts is nothing out of the ordinary.

I have more than a little of it. That’s rarer. Those with the ability to become virtuosos of the Art gulp down occult lore like drunkards. We can’t help it, even though the payoff is scant. Most of what’s written on the subject is complete crap made up by sensation-mongers and scam artists. A small subset covers better ground, but amounts to poor, if honest, understanding of one of the biggest puzzles life has to offer. Only a few rare tracts offer real, sound knowledge, because only a few of us have ever discovered that knowledge.

Among the cream of the magical world, the Illuminated are in a class by ourselves.

As far as I know, anyway. Maybe there are others out there that would make us look like amateurs, keeping themselves hidden from us because they can. I can’t speak about hypotheticals like that.

What I do know is that Illuminated always come from the ranks of those who have a special gift of magic and have studied the art, and nearly all Illuminated have at one time or another dabbled in the summoning of spirits. Now, spirits are of several kinds. Most spirits spring from the mind of the magic user in a form of controlled imagination that endows the creature with a measure of the summoner’s free will. That sort of spirit is useful for enhancing spells or managing them in an intelligent way while the mind of the magician is engaged elsewhere. But is the spirit real or imaginary? In the shifting world of the mental moonscapes, pregnant with sorcery, where meaning takes the place of mass and association replaces distance, everything is both and the question can’t be asked or answered.

But some spirits are different. Some touch on older and stronger magic, dangerous and seductive. Among those are the ones we call the Luminous. The Luminous defy all of the arts of ceremonial magic. You can’t command a Luminous by invoking names of God, sigils, or words of power. You can’t negotiate a pact with one of them; the terms of bonding are fixed, take it or leave it. The Luminous may come to your call, or you may call it without realizing what you’re doing, or it may summon you — or it may ignore you altogether and leave your efforts empty of result. But however it happens, meeting a Luminous changes your perspective on yourself, your life, and the cosmos, and after the bonding you are never the same.

For me, it happened when I played with spirit summoning, a teenager who knew almost nothing, certainly not what I was doing, and sent a call out to a spirit who could help me be a healer. No name. No idea what I would call. I just wanted to heal the sick and hurt. It seemed right.

For six weeks when I was fifteen, every night I drew a magic circle in the air with a consecrated wand and focused my will and desire. Every night I sent the call. Every night I went to sleep wondering why I bothered, why I persisted when nothing ever followed.

Until it did. Until she came.

When Ela-Tu answered my call, resistance was impossible. I fell in love. Since then, I have had more lovers than I can count — a side effect of bonding to a spirit of Life — but no matter who shares my bed, I have always been hers. I will be hers until I die.

ξ

Being Illuminated comes at a price and carries an obligation. I thought about that as I walked along Golden Gardens Drive in the misty rain the next day. Sometimes the obligation isn’t a problem. I didn’t mind looking for signs of illness in the trees and wildlife and healing it, or doing the same for people. But Erica walked beside me as a reminder of other obligations that weren’t so simple.

The Ice Woman wore a hooded jacket. Her glossy brown hair framed her face in tight curls under the hood and collected drops of rainwater to sparkle in the cool air. I turned to her and tried to smile. Then I noticed that some of those water drops had frozen, beading her hair like woven-in gems. My breath smoked. Hers didn’t. Not a good sign. She was angry.

She was always angry with me. By her lights, I deserved it. Most people would agree with her. The problem is, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. And it’s not as if she didn’t know that going into our relationship. She picked up on the thought without my having to say anything.

“I know,” she said. She looked at me. I felt the temperature drop. “I knew what you were. I asked you if you could be faithful to me.”

“And I told you probably not,” I said.

“Yes. I should have listened. I couldn’t. I —” She stopped and frowned. “You meant a lot more to me than you should have.”

I stopped to inspect the wide blackened hole in an oak tree, burned some years past by lightning. The tree had sprouted around the dead area and now it looked like a dark door into mystery. I smiled. The tree didn’t need my attention. I turned back to my ex-girlfriend, who did.

“You meant a lot to me, too, Erica. Really, you did. And you still do. I didn’t cheat on you because I didn’t care. I did it because —”

“I know, Gordon. You did it because Ela-Tu wanted you to. She never wants you to say no to anyone. She probably won’t be happy until you have a couple of dozen offspring.”

“She hasn’t pressured me about that, actually. Kind of surprising.” I touched her arm, and despite everything, felt a surge of desire. Ela-Tu still wasn’t talking to me, but her influence remained strong, and my powers hadn’t weakened. I stopped myself from pulling Erica into an embrace. She wouldn’t have appreciated it, and it would only have hurt her more. “I’m sorry, Erica.”

“I know that, too. But it doesn’t really help.” She sighed. “And I’m sorry, too, Gordon. You can’t help being what you are.” She paused. “How’s Rose?”

“The same.”

“You’ve cheated on her, too, haven’t you?”

“It’s not against our rules, Erica, so no, it’s not cheating. But if you mean I’ve had other women, yes. And one man. Rose understands. I’m not saying she never gets jealous, but she handles it.”

“She shouldn’t have to.”

I shrugged.

Erica sighed. “Right. She has you because she can handle it, and I don’t because I can’t. So it goes.” She shook her head. “Tell me about Shadow.”

“You’ve decided I’m not crazy?”

“No. But Marcus doesn’t think you are. He believes you, so I’m prepared to listen. Why do you think the bogey-man is real?”

I explained the evidence that Rose had found. “So the pattern shows that Shadow is real.”

“Wait a minute. What did she consider a Shadow sighting anyway?”

“Reports from people who saw him. Or said they did. What else?”

“Yeah, but nobody knows what he looks like.”

“There are stories. Someone who blends into the shadows, moves really fast, and kills Illuminated. He wears a black cloak and hood. He’s incredibly strong. He’s got an aura of death around him that any magician can see, Illuminated or not. Several of those elements together in a report equals Shadow. Except a few of them were false alarms.”

She shook her head. “I don’t know, Gordon. Have you considered the possibility that you’re both fooling yourselves? This seems like a pretty shaky basis —”

“Shh. Someone’s coming. Keep your voice down.”

A man approached us from ahead on the road. Erica nodded and continued in a whisper.

“Rose could have unconsciously created this pattern she saw out of background noise.”

“I doubt that, Erica. She’s a mentat. She doesn’t make mistakes that way. If it was me doing it, yeah, you might have a point.”

The man drew closer to us. He wore a black wool jacket with a hood. Something about him felt — off, wrong. His aura seemed dark and cold. I smelled a faint odor of decay.

Could this be Shadow? I doubted it. He moved like a normal man, and I couldn’t sense the signs of Illumination. But still, there was something about him.

As all this was running through my brain, the man stopped, hands in his pockets, about ten feet away.

“Gordon Greenbough?” he said.

“That’s me,” I said. “Who are you?”

He pulled his right hand from his coat pocket. A pistol came with it.

“Shadow says hello,” he said, and shot me twice in the gut. I fell. As the pain hit me in a delayed reaction, the road and the trees spun wildly and everything went dark.

ξ

When I woke up, I was still in the park. My head rested on something soft. A bit of exploration confirmed that it was Erica’s lap. With some embarrassment, I removed my hand from her thigh and sat up. That’s when I remembered getting shot.

A moment of panic ensued as I felt about my midsection, but the wounds had already healed. My clothes were a lost cause, bullet holes in my jacket and shirt and stained with lots of my blood. As I brushed myself off, two small objects fell to the ground. These proved to be mangled bullets, expelled from my body by muscle contractions as the healing power worked on me. I slipped them into my pocket for souvenirs.

“What happened?” I said.

“You got shot,” said Erica.

“Yeah, I remember that part.”

“I got the guy who shot you,” she said, nodding at something to my left. I looked that direction and saw a man maybe in his thirties, dressed in a black wool jacket with a hood. His body lay crusted with ice in a thin but solid layer, slowly melting into the undergrowth. His open eyes stared at the sky and his open mouth shrieked in silent shock. “I dragged him away from the road and then did the same to you. I know it’s not a good idea to move someone hurt as badly as you were, but I know how quickly you heal. He should have aimed for something that would kill you instantly, like a head shot.”

“If he was trying to kill me. I’m not sure he was.”

“Maybe he was just a bad shot.” She stood up and brushed leaves and twigs off her jacket. “You look a mess, Gordon.”

“Thanks for saving me. I’ve never been shot before. It feels weird.”

“Weird?”

“Well, it hurt. Now I feel kind of itchy. And a little woozy. Probably the blood loss. Also I need a shower and to change clothes.”

“What should we do with him?” she said, nodding at the corpse.

“I don’t know. He’s kind of — I mean, if they find him before he thaws out, that could be a problem.”

“Yeah.”

“Let me try something.”

I knelt beside the corpse and put my hands on his jacket, reaching inside him with my magical senses and the special health-sense that Ela-Tu gave me. He was dead, of course, no way I could heal that, but plenty of things were still alive inside him, cells of his body that hadn’t died yet and bacteria. I encouraged them to greater activity. I also pulled power up from the ground, which I often did when healing living things. In a little under a minute, the ice covering his body started to crack. The melting accelerated. Pretty soon most of the ice was gone, the ground under the corpse just a little damper than the surrounding turf.

“There,” I said, standing up. “He’ll still be a medical mystery, but it won’t be as blatant. Let’s get out of here.”

“Do you have anything to change into?”

“No.”

“Here.” She reached into her bag and pulled out a spare windbreaker. “It’s a little small for you, but it should cover the bloodstains.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I slipped into the windbreaker, which was a little small for me as she said, but not too bad. Erica is nearly as tall as I am. I could wear her clothes in a pinch. I’d done it before.

“I guess I believe in Shadow now,” Erica said as we walked back to our cars.

“That couldn’t have been him, though.” I frowned.

“No, I don’t think I could have killed Shadow that easily. He was probably a mind-control victim. Spooky.”

“No kidding. This whole thing is spooky.”

“Shadow must know who you are, Gordon. He knows your name. That guy asked if you were you. Right?”

“Yeah. That’s pretty scary.”

She bit her lip. “I don’t want you to die.”

“Thanks.”

“I mean it. There have been times I was so mad at you I thought I wanted you dead, but I don’t. Do you think Shadow is aiming for you? Has he picked you as his victim?”

“I don’t know. Pretty cocky to announce it like that if he is.”

“Yeah.” She folded her arms. Her brow furrowed. “He feeds on fear as well as blood. That’s what the stories say. Maybe he’s trying to scare you.”

“Doing a good job of it, then.”

“What are we going to do, Gordon?”

“Find him. Stop him. Kill him if we can.”

“How?”

We came out of the park to where my green rebuilt Karmann Ghia was parked. Erica’s SUV was right behind it.

“I don’t know how,” I said. “Everyone has weaknesses, though. We’ll find Shadow’s.”

“Okay.” She smiled. “I’ll call you later. Just to make sure you’re all right.”

“Thanks.”

I got in and started my car. My hands trembled so badly I had to take several deep breaths before I could make the key do its job.

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A Sip of Fear (Chapter Two)

A Sip of FearHere’s the second chapter of my new novel, A Sip of Fear, volume one of The Illuminated. I’ll publish the third chapter here next Friday, which is also publication date, so I’ll have links then to the book at Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords as well. Meanwhile, please enjoy this sample.

 

Shadow was real!

I stood on my balcony the next morning. Our apartment is on the second floor of the building and we have a covered balcony facing the sunrise. The air smelled sweet and, as usual, damp. The sun played a low-pitched note in my mind as it rose triumphantly over the horizon. A crow flew down and landed on my shoulder. That fit my mood. Birds often came to visit, landing on me or on the balcony rail. Pigeons and jays were common, songbirds rarer, and on one occasion I drew a red-tailed hawk.

In a mood like this, a big bird as black as my fear responded to the squawk in my brain and landed on my shoulder. I turned to look into its little dark eye.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “He won’t hurt you. I’m the one who’s dead.”

Shadow was real!

I was jumping to conclusions. I knew that. He might not come to Seattle. He might not come for me. That ominous arrow pointing north from Los Angeles might bend. Maybe he’d go east from Portland, heading for Chicago or for some enclave of earth burrowers out in the countryside.

But I couldn’t help being afraid.

Shadow was real!

The crow screeched in my ear and flew away. Yeah, in this mood I was no fun. Can’t blame you, bird.

Rose came out on the balcony with two cups of coffee. She handed me one, with cream, no sugar. I took a gulp of it, my hands trembling. She hugged me and ran her hand up and down my back.

“I’m scared, Rose.”

“I know. Me, too.”

“What should we do?” I said.

“Thinking about it,” Rose said. “The Illuminated need to know he’s real. Together we might be able to do something about him.”

“What? How do you stop someone like Shadow?”

She shrugged. “How do you kill a dead person? That might be impossible. But maybe we don’t have to kill him to stop him.” She shook her head. “We need more information.”

I had to smile at that. “You Djehuti adepts. You can never have enough data.”

“Well, we don’t want to make a mistake, not with something like this. There’s so much we don’t know. How much of the legend can we trust? Also, how much of the vampire stories are true about Shadow? Can you kill him with a stake through the heart? Can you poison him with garlic? It’s a swamp of misinformation. But I did some more digging into those sightings. Each one, he stayed a little while, a few days or a week, once as long as three weeks. Each time, an Illuminated died. No explanation of how or why. Then Shadow left. It’s reasonable to believe he killed those Illuminated.”

“Yeah. That fits the legend.”

“But he only killed one. You’d expect him to stay and clean the whole town out, kill every Illuminated in the place. He never does. He kills one. Then he leaves, goes to the next town and does it again. He’ll do the same in Portland, then move to the next target. If he comes north, he could stop in Vancouver or Olympia or Tacoma, or skip all of those and come here. Seattle’s the biggest city in Washington and has the most Illuminated. But that’s no guarantee. He could go anywhere.”

I drank some more coffee. I probably shouldn’t; I was wired enough already. “There’s a cowardly part of me that wants to hunker down and pray that he picks someone else to kill. Odds would be in my favor.”

“I know — but.”

“Right. But. But if he doesn’t kill me, he’ll kill someone else. There aren’t that many Illuminated in Seattle and most of them are my friends. Who should I prefer as victim? Marcus down at the Green Woman? Erica? You?”

“No matter who the victim is, we all suffer. We grieve, and we live in fear, and Shadow feeds.”

I sighed. “We need to stop him if we can.”

“And I don’t think we can do it alone.”

“Can you put something on a flash drive so I can show people, prove to them Shadow is a real person?”

She grinned and fished in a pocket. “Already done,” she said, handing me the drive. I pocketed it.

“Well, since Shadow seems to take his time, I guess I can make us some breakfast before I go talk to people. But I’d better not put it off too long.” I kissed Rose and held her, enjoying her smell and the feel of her body while I still could, while we were both still breathing. “I’ll make some phone calls after breakfast.”

ξ

Erica Jenner picked up the phone. I hadn’t been sure she would. “Hello?”

Well, that explained it. She didn’t check caller ID.

“Hi, Erica, it’s Gordon.”

“Oh. Hello.”

“Look, I know you’re still mad at me and I don’t blame you, but don’t hang up.”

“I’m still here.”

“Erica, this is really important. We’re all in danger. I need to talk to you.”

“So talk.”

“I mean in person. I want to show you something.”

A moment of silence, then, “This had better be important.”

“It is.”

“I really don’t want to see you, Gordon.”

“I know.”

“I’ve just gotten to where I can think about dating someone.”

I swallowed. Massive guilt. Erica always knew how to play that card, but in this case I deserved it.

“Well, what’s this about?” she said.

Deep breath. “It’s about Shadow.”

She laughed. “What?”

“Shadow is real.”

“Oh, come on, Gordon.”

“I can prove it.”

“Gordon — wait a minute. You and Rose broke up, right? She dumped you, didn’t she?”

“What? No. No, we’re fine.”

“What game are you playing, Gordon?”

“No game, I’m serious. Shadow is real. He was in Portland a couple weeks ago. He might be coming here. One of us is going to die if he does.”

“Gordon — never mind. I knew you were a two-timing backstabbing jerk, but this is a new low even for you. Don’t call me again.”

Click.

I put my phone on the table and rubbed my eyes. Rose came over and massaged my shoulders. “Starting with Erica might not have been the smartest move,” she said.

I laughed. “Get the worst out of the way,” I said. “So when my ex is on the list, she’s the first one I call. Things can’t get worse after that.”

“Hmm.”

“Who should I try next?”

“Marcus.”

“No, I’ll save him for later. I could use the Green Woman as a meeting venue. Show everyone the evidence at once.”

“Call Marcus. He can help you persuade people to listen. He has that kind of charm. He also likes you better than any of the others, and he has a more open mind than most.”

“I’ll try Frank Nguyen.”

Rose shook her head and smiled. She kissed my cheek and walked away, not saying any more.

Frank wasn’t pissed at me the way Erica was, but he still thought I was crazy. Jenny Carrow didn’t listen, either.

“Call Marcus,” said Rose.

I sighed. “All right. I’ll call Marcus.”

I did. He remained skeptical when the call ended, but invited me to the Green Woman that evening to show him the goods.

Rose was right, of course. She usually is. Sometimes I have to show I can think for myself, though.

Yeah, I know. Dumb. I have a mentat for a girlfriend. I should listen to her.

ξ

I let the doors of the Green Woman close behind me. She hung over the bar — the Green Woman, that is — on a wooden panel like something that would hang over the door of a medieval inn, painted as a gorgeous female face with big green eyes and ivy twined in her green hair. I always liked that image. The Green Woman looked a lot like Ela-Tu, who still wasn’t talking to me.

The bar served as an unofficial gathering place for the Illuminated in Seattle, although of course we weren’t its only customers. Only six Illuminated that I knew of had permanent residences in Seattle at that time: Rose and me, Marcus, Erica, Frank Nguyen, and Jenny Carrow. Doug Walker migrated as did most werewolves, and a few Illuminated probably lived loner lives outside my knowledge, but still the pool of potential Shadow victims wasn’t large. Illumination is rare and precious and I didn’t want to lose any of my peers.

The place was medium busy, mostly with regulars. Marcus tended the bar, taking the mid-day shift before Lana arrived. A middling tall man about my age with black hair cut short and a gym-shaped body, he smiled as I approached. Sally, not an Illuminated, in her twenties, red haired and pretty, carried drinks and bussed tables. I sat at the bar.

“Glass of the house red, please, Marcus,” I said.

“Coming up,” said Marcus. “I want to see this proof of yours, Gordon, but let’s wait until Lana gets here.”

“Okay.” He served me my wine, which fell into the category of “not bad for a house wine.” By the time it reached my lips, though, it could have won awards. Being a bio-mage has plenty of perks to it.

As I sipped and waited, an Illuminated I didn’t recognize came in. She stood no taller than five two and had a petite body that drew my eyes away from her face over their great reluctance. Wavy night-black hair sluiced down her back except for a couple of strands artfully arranged in front to embrace her breasts, which were contained but not concealed by a form-fitting white body suit. Her head was a little large for her body, as usual for short people. It was far from unattractive, though. Her eyes, big and blue as the sky, contrasted sweetly with her hair in the striking combination called “Black Irish” along with her fair skin.

I couldn’t help smiling as I saw her walk in the door. She smiled back. A voice in the corridors of my mind whispered, here comes trouble, but I couldn’t help it. I followed her movements with my eyes, still smiling, as she came up to the bar and sat beside me.

“What will you have, beautiful?” Marcus said.

“That red wine looks nice,” she said in a mellow contralto that made my blood vibrate.

“Coming right up,” Marcus said.

“Allow me,” I said as he served her glass, and applied the same magic to her wine as I had to my own. She sipped it and her eyebrows shot up.

“Oh, my,” she said, “a bio-mage. My name’s Sarah. Sarah Cole.”

“Gordon Greenbough,” I said, holding my hand out. She took it, and I reached for a sense of her Luminous as I touched her hand. I couldn’t get a clear impression, except of presence and considerable mental power.

Sarah laughed. “Asta,” she said.

“Beg pardon?”

“My Luminous. Her name is Asta. I’m a glamor-mage. Illusion, graceful mind-working, that sort of thing.”

“I see.” That made sense. I wondered how much of her beauty consisted of illusion, but what difference did it make? All beauty is illusory.

“Asta is hard to read. I’m new in Seattle, and I’d heard this was the place to introduce myself to the local Illuminated. Glad to see I wasn’t misinformed.” She turned to Marcus. “What’s your name?”

“Marcus Jones.”

“Good to meet you, Marcus,” said Sarah, holding her hand out. He took it, smiling. I noticed that she had long fingers. Graceful hands, like the rest of her. She closed her eyes briefly. I knew that she was reading his Luminous, and would find that Marcus was a tinker-mage. Thotis, his Luminous, made Marcus a designer of amazing inventions that shouldn’t work, but did. Tending bar might seem an unusual occupation for a tinker-mage, but Marcus owns the Green Woman. It’s his cover and his day job.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for Illuminated to have livelihoods that seem out of touch with our powers. It lets us do what we do discreetly and not attract unwanted attention. I heal people, but I do it in secret and take no credit for it. Meanwhile, I make money as a writer and editor, and nobody connects that with bio-magic.

Might as well plunge right in, I thought. “This may not be the best time to come to Seattle, Sarah.”

She blinked. “Why is that?”

“You’ve heard of Shadow, I imagine.”

Her laugh was as pretty as she was. “Who hasn’t? You’re not saying he lives in Seattle, are you?”

“God, no! What a thought! No, he travels about and doesn’t seem to have a permanent residence, but he last surfaced in Portland two weeks ago. Before that he was in Eugene, before that in Oakland, and before that in Los Angeles. You see the general direction.”

“Hmm. So he might be coming here.” She shook her head. “How do you know all this? And what makes you think there even is a Shadow?”

I sighed. “You don’t believe me, of course.”

“Well, it’s a lot to take in. But I’m listening.”

I smiled. “You think I’m a harmless nut, Sarah. If you thought I might be right, you’d be terrified.”

“I’d be terrified if Shadow was about to drink my blood. He’s not here now. I hope not. If he’s on his way, I can always leave town. I’m good at going unnoticed when I want to.”

At that moment, Lana walked into the bar, tying her apron in place, her dark hair in a tight bun. After she took over for Marcus, he turned to me. “You said you had proof that Shadow is real.”

“Right. Let’s get a table and I’ll show you.” I hoisted my backpack with my laptop in it. The flash drive from Rose was still in my pocket.

ξ

“Wow,” Marcus said. “I never —” He shook his head.

“That’s eye-opening, all right,” said Sarah quietly.

“Yeah,” I said. “It’s odd, isn’t it, that nobody thought to do a test like this before. We were so sure that Shadow was a myth, we didn’t even bother to check the available evidence.”

“Could your friend be wrong?” said Sarah. “You said she cropped out some of the sightings.”

“Yes, but that was less than one sighting in ten. The rest of them fit this pattern linked up by dates. I’m very sure. Shadow is real.”

Silence prevailed at the table after that. Finally, Marcus stood up. “Well,” he said, “I guess I need to help you persuade the other Illuminated. I could start with Erica.”

“She froze me out already,” I said. “No pun intended.”

“You cheated on her, Gordon,” said Marcus. “You’re not the best one to convince the Ice Woman. Her skepticism is off the charts just because it’s you.”

“I guess so. Feel free to try.”

“I can probably get others on your team, but I don’t know how we can stop Shadow even if all of us work together.”

“Why did you call her the Ice Woman?” said Sarah.

“She’s a frost mage,” I said. “She can drain heat out of things. Or people.”

“Well, she might be the answer, then,” Sarah said. “Freeze Shadow solid. Even if it didn’t kill him, what could he do if he’s a block of ice?”

“Maybe,” I said. “The problem is that we just don’t know. We have only the vaguest idea of Shadow’s powers, and we don’t know anything about his weaknesses, if he even has any.”

“Oh, everyone has weaknesses,” said Sarah. “Of course he keeps his a secret. Hell, he keeps his existence a secret. I don’t think he would if he was really invincible. Do you?”

“Probably not,” said Marcus. “Maybe Rose can help us figure out what can stop him.”

“If she has enough data, she can figure out anything,” I said. “She can’t work in the dark, though.”

“Well,” Marcus said, standing up. “I’m going to go phone some people and see if I can get them to take a look at the evidence. That’s the first step. We can get together and talk about the next one after we’re all on board. You two stay as long as you want. If you need anything else, just flag down Sally. I’ll be in the office.” He clapped me on the shoulder, gave Sarah a last wistful smile, and left.

Sarah said, “Well, here I am in the big city, and sure enough, things are exciting.”

I laughed. “Yeah. I could do with a little less excitement, actually. Although we can’t be sure Shadow will come here. We could be worried about nothing.”

“If he doesn’t come to Seattle, we go after him. Right? We can spread the word, get a task force together. Unite the Illuminated world against a common enemy. One step from world peace.”

“Heh.”

“I’m really glad I met you, Gordon. For a lot of reasons.” She smiled and covered my hand with hers, which made me jump a little.

“I’m, uh — I’m with someone,” I said.

“Of course you are,” said Sarah. “Rose. I heard it in your voice. Anyway, bio-mages are always with someone. Usually more than one someone. Right?”

“Not always.”

“Nearly always. That’s what I hear. Not many men say no to me, Gordon, and bio-mages seldom say no to anyone. And I also hear it’s really worthwhile to get one to say yes.” She stood up and kissed my cheek. “I’ll be in touch.”

She walked out, throwing me a last smile over her shoulder.

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