Saturday, February 7, 2065
By the time Maxwell Simon awoke, the sun had been hanging in the sky over the Richmond district for a couple hours. The man rolled out of his small bed and stumbled into the attached bathroom. His own face, a faded echo of achievement under a five-o-clock shadow, stared back at him through a groggy haze. His memories wandered to last night and the train of patients who had come through his makeshift clinic. The people who fell under Maxwell’s care were those that couldn’t afford, for whatever reason, to seek care in an established hospital. For those that existed on the edge of San Francisco’s consciousness, there was Maxwell Simon’s “above-board below-ground” clinic, as he liked to call it.
Maxwell walked back out of the bathroom, through his cramped bedroom, and into the large main room of his garden unit apartment. There was a bed, a fridge, a freezer, and a collection of modest diagnostic and analytical equipment he had managed to scrounge together third-hand via Nubay. He looked around the clinic and, quite suddenly, his impatience with his own life bubbled to the surface. Kicked out of Stanford Med School for the illicit use of skillwires on exams, Maxwell had found his academic pursuits cut abruptly and unceremoniously short. However, the future that could have been still called to him, even in the depths of this dank and cold basement clinic. Maxwell had grand plans, that was for certain, but he had made very little actual progress towards them.
He opened the freezer and looked across the rows upon rows of Eppendorf tubes filled with blood. All of the samples had been taken, with permission of course, from the patients he had seen in his years as a street doctor. So many samples, but none from the subjects he really wanted. None from any confirmed, positive controls that could lead him toward the answer to a question he had been asking for years: the biological source of magic.
Maxwell closed the doors and looked over at the screen on the far wall. Through sheer luck, he had managed to make a valuable connection in the past few weeks. While he couldn’t be certain anything would come of it, it was the best lead he had had in, well… ever. That woman might very well be his ticket out of this mildewed subterranean shithole and back to the ivory tower to which he knew he rightfully belonged. Maxwell rummaged through a pile of scrap paper filled with hastily scribbled notes and finally found the contact information for a woman he knew only as “Wisp”.
Morgan Croft groaned as she realized the incessant beeping noise that had woken her was coming from her phone, which was lying nearby on her bedstand. She grabbed the device and brought it close. Once her eyes finally focused on the screen, she saw the image of a rather tired and worn-out looking man. He looked familiar, but her sleep-addled mind was having difficulty placing him. Beneath the face appeared the name “Dr. Simon Maxwell” and the slogan “For When You Can’t Afford The Best”. Suddenly, the memories of two rather anxious nights in the last few months came flooding back and her eyes widened. Wincing at the thought of having to deal with him this early in the day, she clicked the audio-only answer option. She was well aware of how bad her bed-head could be.
“Miss Wisp, I’ve been trying to get a hold of ya. Is… this Miss Wisp?”
“Oh, did I wake you up? I’m sorry. I thought normal people were up by ten-o’–”
“It’s 10 AM!”
“Yeah, it’s 10 AM! I don’t understand, what’s the problem here?”
A number of problems came to Morgan, but the street doctor didn’t give her a chance to list them.
“So, I wanted to talk to you about a project I’ve been working on. I’ve… been trying to do some experiments, but… but I need a better control. I was hoping you could help me out here. I’ve been trying to figure out… well, I know you know some magic, and—”
Morgan hung up as quickly has her thumb could fly to the ‘end call’ button. She brought up an encryption application on her phone and, after selecting a channel option that was appropriate in both its security and price, she called the street doctor back.
“Alright, this is a secure line,” Morgan said as soon as the call was picked up.
“What? Uh, why would we need a secure line?” stammered Dr. Simon.
“… is this worth my time?”
“I’m just… look. I appreciate your time,” he finally managed to get out. “And that you’ve been sending me patients. But let’s face it: most of the clients you’ve been sending me, they… uh… they are not really great about paying their bills. So, I was hoping that you could help me out on a project instead. I’ve been trying to figure out with the emergence of magic. Would you mind if I ran some tests on you? I’d just like to find out what’s medically going on here.”
“… what sort of tests?” asked Morgan with a great deal of hesitation.
“Oh, just basic stuff. Some blood work. I mean, I have a whole bunch of controls samples that I’ve been saving, that I’ve been trying to understand. And… and you know, you do a… magic… and I just want to see what pops up.”
It was probably for the best that Morgan was calling only on audio as her face was caught between something resembling horror and amusement.
“Pops up in your blood work,” he continued, possibly realizing how that came out. “I’m trying to understand what’s going on. This is weird. I mean… don’t you want to understand where this shit comes from? I mean, there’s gotta be something.”
“What sort of ‘thing’ are you looking for?” was all Morgan could muster as a response. “And why?”
“If I knew what I was looking for then this would be a hell of a lot easier.” There was a note of impatience in Dr. Simon’s voice.
“But the point here being magic is doing incredible things,” he continued. “And I don’t want to sit and live in a dank apartment. In the Richmond. Forever. Sooooo, you know… let’s do something interesting. Let’s figure out what’s going on. And let’s face it, it’s not like the mages are going to be going to the big research groups. Let’s figure out how this stuff works. You can use magic to do some very interesting things. You can use magic for a lot of novel therapies.”
“It already is,” Morgan interrupted.
“Well, yes, but not officially. And we don’t know where this is coming from a biological standpoint. Is this genetic? Is it the result of an exposure? We don’t understand where this is coming from.”
“I’m all for Awakening more people. But some people just have the Gift and some don’t,” replied Morgan simply.
“Well that… that sounds very racist.”
Morgan just stared blankly at the phone in response.
“Are you saying we can’t share the Gift?” asked Maxwell when he heard no response.
“I’m saying some people have potential and some do not.”
“Again, that sounds horrible.”
And again, Morgan had no response. Well she did, but she had a feeling it would do little to deter the street doctor from what he really wanted.
“Well, let’s see…” continued Maxwell when Morgan said nothing, “would you be willing to come down? Or do you know someone who maybe was willing? I-I’m just curious to figure out what’s going on here.”
Morgan looked up at her ceiling and pondered what to do with this ten-in-the-morning problem. She was highly suspicious of what Maxwell was proposing, even if he didn’t have any malicious intent. However, she did owe him. His medical expertise had helped her and those she knew. Many in the augmentation and Mystic communities of San Francisco couldn’t afford proper medical car from licensed professionals. For those, street docs like Maxwell were a godsend. Maxwell had helped her personally and a number of the patients she had sent to him since. Hell, just last month he had helped her keep one potential Mystic from committing manslaughter.
“Alright, we can talk. Meet me at… the Castro Starbucks in two hours.” Sure, it was dumpy, but it was also affordable and she had a feeling she’d be needing some coffee to deal with what today had in store.
“Sure! See you there,” the doctor was able to reply before Morgan hung up.
The sun was high in the sky over the Castro district of San Francisco when Virginia Ann Burgess stepped out of the Muni station. It was a surprisingly warm and cloudless day after several months of cold and wet weather. Those who had been around the Bay Area for at least a few years would have told her that the February Heat Wave was a reliable annual event, but it was still a welcome surprise every year. Still, as one quickly learned after a few trips up to the city, Virginia had chosen to dress in light layers before she had left her Palo Alto apartment and taken the train up.
She walked past a number of small cafes, bookstores, and magic shops that lined the main drag and onto one of the streets off the main drag. and stopped in front of one of the many old Victorian houses of the neighborhood. Like that of the its worn-down sisters, the pink paint was faded and peeling. Virginia looked up at a neon sign in the window, turned off in the daylight, that advertised the fortune-telling services offered within by a Madame Mystiferia.
Virginia ascended the front stoop and knocked on the door. First there was silence, but finally the sound of some shuffling footsteps revealed that, yes, someone was home. With a creak, the door opened to reveal a smaller, older woman with bedraggled hair that was skewed to one side.
“What is it?” she asked, annoyed.
However, before Virgnia could answer, the woman’s eyes widened in recognition.
“Oh! Oh, one second!” she exclaimed before slamming the door in Virginia’s face.
When the woman opened the door some moments later, her hair was a bit more under control and she was now covered in a collection of shawls and fabrics adorned with jangly ornaments which didn’t shine as much in the sunlight as one would expect.
“Come in, darling, come in!” she beckoned in a much higher and booming voice, sweeping her hand dramatically toward the interior. “I’m so glad you returned!”
Virginia simply stepped into the hallway with a polite, Southern return greeting. Madame Mysterferia directed Virginia to a small parlor room off the main hall. When Virginia entered, she found that, unlike the first time she had visited, the curtains had not yet been closed. With a squeak, Mystiferia raced into the room from behind Virgnia and tried to block out the light as quickly as she could. Before the room became shrouded in darkness, Virginia had noticed a great clutter on the room’s periphery, including a bookshelf containing faded, ink-and-paper books on finding one’s sexual self and how to adopt accents.
The fortune teller sat at a table in the center of the room and lit a pair of candles on either side. She beckoned Virginia to take the seat across from her.
“So, shall I gaze into the crystal ball for you today?” she asked in her dramatic voice. She waved a hand over the table’s center, upon which sat a crystal ball on a velvet pillow. “Or maybe… another reading from the Tarot deck?”
“Well, I was hoping to find more information about that which we spoke last time.”
“Ah…” breathed Madame Mystiferia. “… and what did we speak about last time? The visions, sometimes they are so cloudy, the memories are hazy at best!” She held the back of her hand against her forehead with a dramatic pained expression, as if dealing with some constant ethereal headache.
“Information about the organization of people that seem to refer to themselves as The Gathering,” replied Virginia.
“Oh, did you? Oh yes, yes. How was that for you, my dear? Did you find your way?”
“The people you sent me to were lovely folk, to be sure. But they were not what I was hoping them to be.”
That, of course, was putting it lightly. The first time Virginia had visited Madame Mystiferia, the fortune teller had supplied her with an address for what turned out to be the meeting of a local Wiccan coven. While they had, in fact, been lovely people, Virginia had found them more concerned with putting on a bake sale and communing with poorly defined goddess than actually engaging with real magic. There was a lot of talk, but Virginia would have been surprised if any of them had ever seen magic outside of a net video.
While they had been lovely people, Virginia had found them more concerned with putting on a bake sale than actually engaging with magic. There was a lot of talk, but Virginia would have been surprised if any of them had ever seen magic outside of a net video.
“I was hoping that you had better information on which I could go on,” Virginia continued.
Madame Mystiferia leaned forward and studied Virginia with a stronger focus. Virginia could swear that Mystiferia had lost her put-on accent for that one word.
“Perhaps in your cards you will find something about a bit more precise,” suggested Virginia, more out of a wish to stop the woman’s stare than anything else.
“… perhaps. Let’s see…”
Madame Mystiferia pulled from the side of the table a purple satin bag embroidered with a stylized yellow eye. From the bag she removed a deck of Tarot cards, worn from years of use. One could see the black and grey backing was faded even in the flickering candlelight. Mystiferia shuffled the cards several times before offering the deck to Virginia to cut. She performed the reading as she had the last time, the cards telling of a past and present with details sufficiently vague that they were neither exactly true nor demonstrably false. However, when the reading arrived at Virginia’s future, Mystiferia’s hand hovered over the deck. It wasn’t a dramatic flourish like all her other card pulls. Mystiferia instead closed her eyes and slowly removed the top card and placed it face-up on the table.
XIV. Temperance. The card depicted a man dressed in slacks and a purple vast, but whose face was hidden from view, running into a portal of sand on the left. On the right was the a similarly clothed man running out of a similar portal, though his clothes were damaged with splotches of blood. The right man’s face was also hidden from view.
“You will be served well by maintaining some balance. Be patient. Moderation will serve you well.”
Mystiferia pulled the cards from the table and shuffled them back into the deck. She looked at Virgnia with a peculiar focus, looking directly into her eyes.
“You would do well not to over-react in the future. It might be… costly.”
Her words hung in the air before Mystiferia finally spoke again.
“There’s a meeting in the Mission,” she continued, though in a voice that seemed far less affected. Now Virginia was sure; the accent was gone and had been replaced by the lower voice which had greeted Virginia first at the door. Before Virginia could respond, Mystiferia quickly scribbled the address onto a scrap of paper and handed it to her.
“But again… patience.”
When Virginia said nothing, Mystiferia spoke once more in her high, dramatic voice. “Is the anything else I can do for you today?”
“No, that will be fine.”
“That will be ten dollars,” Mystiferia quickly said.
That seemed rather cheap to Virgnia, but she wasn’t going to complain. It would be easy to pay that with the cash she had on hand, which would keep it off the credit card her parents maintained for her.
After accepting the money, Madame Mystiferia showed Virginia to the door and wished her a pleasant day. Virginia found herself standing once again in the unseasonably warm February sun, now with an address in her hand. Her mind was still back in the parlor though. The way Mystiferia had changed demeanor near the end of the reading had been strange and her emphasis on ‘not over-reacting’ gave her a particular chill.
It brought back memories of a month ago when, after heading home from the disappointing Wiccan meeting, she had been accosted by several muggers. Virgnia was not without ability or firepower, both conventional and magical, and had easily dispatched her assailants. However, she had also accidentally injured an innocent bystander quite severely. Had it not been for the fortuitous intervention of a woman named Wisp, who took the bystander to a street doctor she claimed to know, Virgnia would have been in a great deal of trouble from both the law and, worse, her parents. Since that night, she hadn’t seen nor heard from Wisp again, though she couldn’t shake the feeling that Wisp was someone she needed to meet again.
Virginia looked at the paper, then around for anyone that might be watching her, before descending the stairs and walking back toward Casto St. She realized she was quite hungry and remembered there were a fair number of restaurants on Castro Street. Unfortunately, her reverie had distracted her from noticing a large man watching her from a black car across the street.
The Castro was busier than it had been the recently thanks to the pleasant weather. Tourists and locals alike strolled leisurely down the wide sidewalks, stepping over the worn and faded memorial plaques of icons from the queer era of the district’s history. Morgan emerged from a crowd that was crossing the intersection at 18th and walked over to the Starbucks. She glanced into the shop and spotted Maxwell at the counter through the smudged and scratched glass.
Maxwell studied the value menu, speaking to the virtual intelligence cashier without looking at it.
“Can I get a number 7?”
The VI unit gave him a hollow, happy stare as it repeated the order aloud in a tinny voice.
“One half-caff, some saff. Name?”
“Actually, can I get a shot of vanilla instead of a shot of the hazelnut?”
“Of course. … Name?”
Maxwell passed his phone over a small receiver on the counter. When the VI unit gave an affirmative tone, Maxwell nodded and walked over to the other end of the counter where a human barista was making the drinks.
Morgan stepped into the Starbucks and proceeded to the counter just in time to hear the barista call out an order for an “Axel” and see Maxwell, with a grimace, accepted the drink. Morgan placed her own order, paid, and accepted the drink when her name was called. The drink was correct. She took a sip, ignored the burnt taste, and walked over to the table where Maxwell was now muttering about something under his breath and glaring at his cup.
“Is this seat taken?” she asked.
Maxwell looked up then quickly motioned to the seat across from him.
“No no sit down. How’s it going? Looks like you’ve been healing up very well.”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Morgan responded. She wasn’t sure what he was expecting. It had been several months since they had met in the aftermath of a violent police crackdown of an augment protest. Maxwell had tended to Morgan, which was really the only reason she was even meeting him.
“Glad to see there wasn’t much scarring. Well, as I was trying to tell you over the phone,” he briskly continued before Morgan could speak again, “all I’m asking is that you just give me an example of what you can do. I just want to do a little bloodwork, compare before and after…”
As Maxwell continued to talk, Morgan locked her eyes onto his. She began muttering under her breath, casting one of her more useful spells: Mind Probe. However, it was still a bit early for Morgan and she hadn’t had nearly enough coffee to fully wake up. The spell failed to penetrate past Maxwell’s surface thoughts. She didn’t detect any deception or even greed. It was mostly all just ambition and curiousity. But if he wasn’t collecting bloodwork for some nefarious purpose… was he really just that ignorant? Or simply stupid?
“… and so I can compare it to bloodwork for other people in the clinic,” finished Maxwell, who was by put off by Morgan’s intense stare. Morgan was far too young for him. Besides, this was neither the time nor the place for flirting. They had come here to discuss business.
Morgan broke the stare and took another sip of her coffee.
“What are you doing with these blood samples you’re collecting?”
“Most of the time a patient comes in sick and I’m just checking for signs of infections. I keep the samples around for later use, including research. I mean, once you have a sample, you don’t throw it away.”
Morgan almost laughed. So he really was just completely ignorant. Maxwell didn’t have any idea what he was sitting on top of. Morgan decided she needed to see this for herself so she could gauge the threat his sample collection presented.
“I get off work at 5, but I have to be somewhere at 7. I do have some time, though. I can stop by your clinic to discuss this further.”
“Sure,” Maxwell said, his eyes lighting up. “My clinic isn’t too far away. Well, I mean, you know where it is.”
“I do,” Morgan replied, her voice tinted with regret. After her Maxwell had treated her, Morgan had sent him a number of patients that either needed or simply wished to avoid conventional hospitals. She now found herself desperately hoping that those with the Gift had not been so stupid as to give him a blood sample.
“Excellent! Sounds good. I’ll see you later tonight then,” Maxwell said with a smile. He quickly got up and left, walking quickly out of the Starbucks and back out onto the street.
Morgan took another sip of her coffee and closed her eyes. She took a few minutes to center herself and regain some of the Essence she had spent probing Maxwell’s mind. When she felt herself replenished, she stood and left, taking Castro street down to where she worked. She stood at the intersection waiting for the signal when her eyes were pulled to a young woman walking down the sidewalk across the street. The coiffed hair and boutique coiture were what had initially caught her eye. Not many of the people she trafficked with dressed like that. It took a moment more to place the face.
Morgan had been wondering if she would see her again. The first, and only time they had met, had been after a meeting of a local Wiccan coven. While Morgan herself wasn’t a Wiccan, she and other members of the Gathering would sometimes attend to keep an eye out for new recruits. Lost souls with the Gift would sometimes stumble into Wicca and other groups associated with popular and flawed conceptions of magic. Morgan had identified Virginia as one such person. However, they didn’t actually meet until Morgan was walking home and found Virginia standing over the bodies of four dead muggers and realizing she had accidentally shot an innocent bystander. Thanks to Maxwell, who Morgan was now realizing she actually owed several favors to, the bystander had survived and a potential recruit had been kept away from local law enforcement.
It was now time for the follow-up. Morgan quickly crossed the street and followed Virginia, walking up beside her casually.
Motion at her side caused Virginia to glance over. To her surprise, she found herself looking at the very woman she had been hoping to encounter again.
“How are you doing?” Morgan asked as casually as if the last time they had spoken had been at a bar. “… keeping out of trouble?”
The events of the night Virginia had met the woman she knew only as ‘Wisp’ flashed in her memory. The bake sale coven, the muggers dead at her feet, and the man she had never meant to injure. Her pistols, which she carried concealed beneath her coat, suddenly felt quite heavy. She couldn’t help but also remember Madame Mystiferia’s cautionary words and the image of the Temperance card.
“I do… I do try,” she said with surprise. “… and what brings you to the Castro on this fine afternoon, Ms. Wisp?”
“Morgan, please,” responded Morgan. Wisp was a name she used in situations where she didn’t want her real name thrown around; what Runners might refer to as a callsign. “And I work here.”
“Oh, really? Where?”
“Over at the shop around the corner,” Morgan pointed ahead of them. “The Crystal Coven.”
“And what are you doing here?”
“I was just taking care of some business.”
Virginia felt the piece of paper with the address in her pocket. Morgan had said that she worked here, in the Castro. The Magic District of the city. And this ‘Crystal Coven’ sounded like quite the magical vendor.
“I was just visiting someone who was giving me some information and this address,” Virginia said, pulling the slip of paper from her pocket and showing it to Morgan. “Is this something that seems familiar to you? As a place I might be interested in?”
Morgan looked at the paper and instantly recognized the address.
It was fake, of course. There was no building at this address. The only thing anyone might find at there other than pavement would be a member of the Gathering keeping an eye out for anyone who stopped there on meeting nights. Picking up new recruits there meant that the addresses of the moving Gathering meetings would be kept away from the general public. When you were dealing with a suspicious government and a police department known for harassment, it would hardly do to post your meeting details on fliers.
Morgan handed the paper back to Virginia and looked her in the eye. Perhaps it would be best to give her a shortcut, especially since the last time and only time she had known Virginia to be on her own in the city at night, it had ended in bloodshed. As she handed the paper back to Virginia, she silently cast one of her other favorite spells, Alter Memory, to place the actual address of the meeting in the young woman’s mind.
Virginia blinked as she realized something, though she couldn’t describe what, had happened. She suddenly simply felt something had changed. When Virginia looked down at the paper, she realized it was the address on the paper. At least, that is what she now believed. See, memory is a tricky thing and it becomes even more tricky once magic gets involved. Memory is a reference for our perception of the world and Morgan had just altered Virgnia’s. However, Morgan faltered on the execution an, Virginia wasn’t supposed to have noticed. Virginia did and, now when she looked at the address, her memory told her it had changed when, in reality, it was her past idea of the address.
Regardless, Virginia became excited at this clear evidence of magic that she believed to be staring her in the face. Finally she had a real lead to what she hoped would be the Gathering.
“Is this the place that you will be at this evening?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Morgan replied with a satisfied nod, ignorant that Virginia’s idea of ‘the place’ was different than what she intended. “Please join us.”
“I do hope to be there.”
Morgan simply smiled and took her leave as they approached the next intersection to go back to work. Virginia watched her walk away before looking around. She supposed she could relax in a coffee shop while she waited for night to come. San Francisco certainly had no shortage of them.
As the light of the setting sun gave the western side of San Francisco pleasant tones of orange and gold, Morgan walked down concrete steps into the basement corridor of an apartment building. It was already cold and damp, which didn’t help the very clear smell of mold. Morgan ignored it and knocked on a door to her right about halfway down. A small shutter on the door snapped open and two familiar eyes quickly looked her over before it shut again. Several electronic locks whirred and hummed, punctuated dramatically with the sound of a large metal deadbolt slamming open. No sooner than the door swung open than Morgan was greeted with Maxwell’s insistent voice.
“I’ve got a bunch of control samples,” he said, pointing to a freezer in the corner of the small room and continuing their conversation from earlier as if no time had passed.
Morgan’s mind raced to catch up and, finally realizing what he was talking about, walked over to the freezer and opened the door. She saw several white styrofoam boxes with small plastic vials filled with blood. Each vial was labeled with a string of numbers. She felt a chill and quickly shut the door.
“So, would you be willing to give me an example of your skill?” Maxwell asked. “And would you be willing to give me a blood sample first… you know, so I can compare before with after? Also, if you know of any others that would be willing, that’d be great because I need an n of more than one.”
Morgan looked back at the door to the makeshift basement clinic. From this side, she noted two different electronic locks and one very sturdy deadbolt. That gave her some relief, though she would feel better if the doctor also employed some means of magical protection.
“How can you be sure the data from these samples can’t get out?”
Maxwell gave her an impatient look. “Well, it’s useless without the encryption key, which is only stored in here,” he said, pointing to his head. “Skillwires. I mean, I would like to publish what I find, of course, but everyone’s samples are anonymous. Publishing their names would be unethical. And, as I said, it’s entirely voluntarily. Now, it would be really great if we could find something her—”
“Do you know why there are no papers out on this subject?” interrupted Morgan. “Why, after decades, everyone is still in the dark as to why some have the Gift and others do not?”
“I’m… I assume because no one has cooperated with any magicians.”
Morgan’s eye twitched at the term ‘magician’, but she fought back the urge to correct Maxwell. Instead, she simply took a deep breath and remembered what she had determined from her meeting with him earlier this morning. He didn’t seem to have any ill intent. He was just completely clueless.
“I believe your heart is in the right place,” she said with a forced calm. “But what you’re doing is incredibly dangerous.”
“How is a blood sample dangerous?”
Well, nothing like a demonstration to drive the point home.
“Do you have a sample of your own blood here?”
“No… but I can take a sample”
“Take a sample and give it to me. And I’ll show you why you need to be careful.”
Maxwell sat down and, with some help from Morgan, drew a 5 milliliter sample of his own blood. He handed the vial to Morgan.
“Do you have a bathroom I can use?” Morgan asked.
“Why do you need a restroom?”
“It will become apparent in a moment. The purpose of this is for us to be separated.”
“This is a little weird…”
“Yes, it is,” Morgan responded flatly.
“Look, I’ve been completely open about what I want here,” Maxwell responded in protest. “So why don’t you do… whatever it is you’re going to do… in front of me?”
Morgan shrugged. “Very well. The effect will be the same.”
She turned with her back to Maxwell, but held the vial up so he could still see. Morgan touched the vial gently and cast the spell, Fashion. Maxwell watched in curiosity, only seeing Morgan mumble under her breath. He then looked down when he felt something tugging upward on his arms and gaped in amazement as he saw the sleeves of his coat elongating and wrapping themselves around him. It was also changing color from a stained, dirty white to a very bright pink. When it finally stopped, Maxwell found himself wrapped tightly in a pink straight-jacket. He looked back up at Morgan, who was now facing him again and holding up the blood sample between them.
“How the hell did you do that!?” exclaimed Maxwell.
“Did I make my point clear?”
“No! I have no idea what the fuck you’ve done! What does this have to do with blood!?”
Morgan’s expression faltered. So maybe this demonstration relied on some existing knowledge of magic.
“With this, I can do this to you anywhere at any time. Normally, I would have to touch you.”
Maxwell looked at Morgan, then the blood sample, then the coat. He looked back up with wide eyes as realization dawned on him.
“From anywhere… at any time?”
Morgan simply nodded as she cast the spell again on the sample. The straight-jacket returned back to a simple lab coat, though curiously the color remained a bright pink. Morgan grimaced at the mistake, but felt she didn’t have the energy to correct it. Even simple spells like this left her a bit drained after repeated uses.
“So, you normally have to touch me?” Maxwell asked, trying to rub the pink color off the coat.
“Most spells, you have to see the person or touch them.”
“But with the blood, you can do that anywhere.”
“Yes. The magic can be channeled through it. The blood retains a connection to the original owner.”
“… oh. I can see why that would be a problem for you.”
“Do you understand now the danger in what you’re doing?” asked Morgan with relief. “Your motivation is admirable, but there are some very bad people in this world.”
Maxwell thought on that for a moment. When he spoke again, it was more to himself as he worked through his ideas.
“I can just destroy all of the samples immediately after they’ve been analyzed.” After another moment of thought, his gaze was caught by his coat. “Also, can you change me back? Pink is not in this season.”
Morgan raised an eyebrow. Pink actually was in this season; she thought she the color change actually worked for him.
“… you look tired,” Maxwell suddenly said after staring at her. “Are you feeling ok? Do you need some juice? I have some orange juice.”
Juice actually would be nice. Something with some sugar and nutrients she could center over to replenish her strength. However, when Maxwell opened the sample fridge to retrieve a bottle of orange juice, Morgan found herself not as enthused with the idea.
“I have cookies, too,” he said as he handed her the bottle.
“That’s ok,” Morgan said as she opened the bottle.
“I also have those candy suckers. Kids love those.”
Morgan said nothing as she sipped from the drink. She blocked out Maxwell, his lab, and the world around her as she centered herself. After a few moments, she felt her Essence and strength return to her. Those moments were all she got though, as the silence apparently unnerved Maxwell.
“I understand your concern about me hanging onto your blood. If it makes you feel better, I can’t cast magic so I can’t exploit this… connection. Also, no one will know it’s yours… but I can also dispose of it if you want.”
Morgan gave a tired sigh. “What I’m getting at… is that I need you to destroy the rest of your samples.”
“I can’t do that. These are patient samples and they’ve given me permission. I need them in case someone comes back with an issue that needs to be treated. There’s nothing here that’s below board.”
Except that you’re running an unlicensed clinic underground, Morgan thought. However, she didn’t say it. Besides, the fact that Maxwell was operating an illegal clinic gave her no leverage. The last thing she wanted to do was involve law enforcement and Maxwell likely knew it. After all, she and many other depended on such clinics.
“… what happens if you go to a blood bank?” asked Maxwell, suddenly.
“Most people who are aware of their Gift do not do blood banks.”
“But you could— what about the normal people who donate blood? You’re telling me that any mage can just go to a blood bank and do something to all of it at once?”
“Not all at once,” Morgan responded, though her voice betrayed her uncertainty. “I mean, it’s very difficult to cast a spell on more than one sample at a time.”
“But the samples are pooled together. You could literally hit multiple people at once.”
Morgan realized she didn’t have an answer to that. There was so frustratingly little that she and the rest of the Gathering actually knew about the rules of magic. It was easy to think amongst themselves that they had a deeper knowledge than the rest of humanity, but just a few questions from Maxwell had brought her to the limits of her understanding.
“Do you have any other ways of getting what you need other than blood and tissue samples?” asked Morgan to change the topic.
“I could do urine samples… or I could do a DNA test with hair or cheek. Blood is more useful though. It is a much more information-dense type of sample.”
“… let’s try the cheek swab. I don’t know if that’s dangerous.”
Maxwell lit up with an optimistic energy and quickly retrieved a q-tip.
“Open wide,” he said as he moved the tip toward Morgan’s mouth.
“No. I meant your cheek.”
“Why? I already have my DNA sequence.”
Morgan gave him a quizzical look. “No, I want to test to see if a cheek swab is safe first.”
“The cheek swab is fine,” replied Maxwell with a patronizing wave of the hand. “They don’t hurt. I’m just going to take this q-tip and run it alongside the inside of your cheek to get some cel—”
“I meant, I want to see if it’s safe magically or if it works the same as blood. I’ve never tried it before.”
Maxwell glanced down at his bright pink labcoat, sighed, and ran the q-tip along the inside of his own cheek. He handed the swab to Morgan, who immediately attempted to cast Fashion on Maxwell again through the sample.
Of course, the tricky thing with this sort of test is that it all Morgan could really know is that the spell failed. It told her nothing with regard to the ability of a cheek swab’s retention of the same arcane connection to the owner that blood did because there were a number of reasons the spell could fail. After all, Morgan’s attempt to return Maxwell’s coat to its original white color had failed.
However, these thoughts did not occur to Morgan. She assumed she had cast the spell correctly. So, relieved in her possibly correct but also possibly incorrect belief that a cheek swab retained no useful arcane connection, Morgan allowed Maxwell to take a cheek swab from her. As Maxwell proceeded to run it through his desktop sequencer, Morgan glanced at her net device and realized she had stayed later than she had intended.
“I assume you’ve undergone some biohacks?” asked Maxwell, keeping his eyes on the desktop sequencer’s monitor.
“Just a little bit.”
“That’s another confounding variable. I also don’t have enough samples from people who I know can use magic to really work out good controls. I just don’t have enough statistical power to really pull out something small or a number of contributing factors. If you knew others that would be willing to help me out, I mean… it’s probably better if you ask than if I ask because, let’s face it, I sound like a blithering fool most of the time.”
Morgan cocked an eyebrow. Maxwell was more self-aware than he let on.
“I accept this, it’s my lot in life,” he continued. “But… do you know anyone who might be interested in helping out?”
“Perhaps, if we can do something to better secure these samples.”
“I’m open to suggestions.”
Morgan glanced at the time again. She needed time to think of an answer to Maxwell’s request. “Well, I have an event to go to…”
“Oh, sure. This will keep me occupied for at least the weekend anyway. But here, take this!”
Before Morgan could protest, Maxwell shoved a bag with a bunch of q-tips and smaller ziploc bags into her hand.
“If anyone you know might be interested, just take a swab for me! Just make sure there’s no more than one sample per stick and only one stick per bag. Need to keep the samples separate! Again, if anyone would be willing to help, it would be great. It would be interesting to see where magic is coming from. Don’t you wonder where this is coming from?”
Morgan inched toward the door.
“Don’t let anyone in here you don’t recognize.”
“No one else knows this is going on.”
“Good.” Then, a thought. “Why did you let me know?”
“Well, I needed someone to start with. And I knew from our first meeting that maybe you had… you know, the Gift. I think that’s what you call it?”
“Oh, don’t forget!”
Maxwell reached into a jar and pulled out a small red sucker.
“Here’s your lollipop”, he said with a grin as he opened the door for her.
Morgan found herself giving Maxwell a smile as she stepped out of the clinic. As she walked back out of the apartment complex, she heard the door shut behind her and the locks whir and slam into place. When she emerged into the open air, she saw night had already fallen. Morgan quickly walked to where her motorcycle was parked and stuffed the bag Maxwell had given her into the storage beneath the seat. She put the sucker in her mouth, got on the bike, and sped off into the night.
She had a meeting to get to.
Under the yellow light of lampposts, Virginia found herself standing between two houses. She looked at one, then the other, then at the slip of paper in her hand which she, incorrectly, believed Morgan had changed to direct her to a meeting of the Gathering. Instead, she found herself searching for an address that appeared to not exist. The address was for a house that should have been exactly between the two houses she was currently facing. However, considering that there was nary an inch of space between them, Virginia found herself quite confused.
She was reminded of the old Harry Potter stories she had read in secret at night long after her parents had gone to bed. Harry had gotten to the Hogwarts Express by going through a wall to reach a platform between two others. Perhaps that was what she was supposed to do here. She was considering how exactly to attempt that when she heard footsteps approach from behind. Virginia turned to see a black man of average height with a flattop hairdo holding a cigarette.
“Who told you to come here?” he asked flatly.
“The fortune teller up on 18th,” she responded, though that wasn’t entirely correct. Before she could amend the statement to clarify that Morgan had been the one who really directed here, the man spoke again.
“Follow me,” he said before taking a drag from his cigarette and turning to walk away.
Virginia followed the man down several blocks and into a small alley that would have looked extremely suspect even during midday, let alone at night. One of her hands slipped underneath her coat and felt the pearl handles of the family heirloom pistols she had been given by her father. Their touch comforted her. Getting control of her fears, she instead forced her senses outward, using a technique she had learned from her krav maga instructor. She felt movement and changes around her far more acutely, so much so that it would be quite difficult to surprise her. At the very least, she would be ready to defend herself.
The man stopped halfway down the alleyway in front of a plain metal door. He gave the door a rhythmically disjointed series of knocks then simply stood there. After a few moments, the door swung open. The man took another drag from his cigarette and motioned for Virginia to enter.
Virginia peered around the corner of the entry. Before her was a simple concrete staircase, lit by poor flickering fluorescents, which led down to another metal door. Virginia took a breath and stepped through the door. After she had descended several steps, the door behind her closed shut. Her senses still extended, she felt it close long before she heard it.
Now there was no going back.
Virginia marshaled her courage and continued down the steps that smelled of urine and mold. When she reached the door, she was able to easily push it open. She found herself looking into a large room with little in the way of decoration or furniture. It was dimly lit, but there were pulsing colored lights coming from one corner along with the low thumping of poorly mixed club music. People were milling about and chatting throughout the room in small groups. Others were lined along the walls, simply watching everyone else.
Virginia stepped inside and allowed the door to close behind her. She pulled her senses back in and glanced around to see if anyone had taken notice of her. A few people briefly looked toward her, but then immediately forgot about her as they turned back to their conversations. Virginia stuck close to the wall as she surveyed the room. Her heart leapt when she realized that the lights coming from one corner of the room weren’t from a strobe light, but instead from the hands of the people dancing. Their hands flashed and pulsed with a variety of colors as they moved. Virginia realized she was witnessing other Mystics practicing magic right in front of her… in full view of everyone in the room.
This is it, she thought.
“Virginia, you made it.”
Virginia turned to see Morgan, who had just arrived herself, smiling at her.
“Yes, I did,” replied Virginia. “Thank you so much for correcting my information to take me to the correct place.”
Morgan smiled wider, pleased with herself for thinking she had sent Virginia directly to this building. Virginia returned the smile, pleased with herself that she had seen what she thought Morgan had done to the paper and correctly arrived at the ushering location.
“This is your first time, right?” asked Morgan.
“Yes, it is.”
“Well, welcome. Let me introduce you to everyone.”
Morgan walked Virginia around the room, introducing her to the various small groups. Morgan seemed to know just about everyone there and, more importantly, Virginia could tell that practically everyone showed respect to Morgan. It was clear as day how the other members of the Gathering stopped their conversations as soon as Morgan approached and the way they looked at her with undivided attention. These things came naturally to Virginia; her Southern debutante education had seen to that. Morgan, it seemed, was one of the people to know.
Morgan introduced Virginia to a number of people. Some of the introductions lasted only a few minutes while others resulted in longer conversations. If Virginia thought she had already seen the range of people that San Francisco had to offer, her first hour in the Gathering demonstrated otherwise. There were people with dramatic cosmetic genetic augmentations, there were others in exaggerated dress, and still others who had clearly centered their identity in their Gathering membership as Virginia had serious doubts their parents had given them names like Mephistophiles, Merlin, and Dumbledore. She noticed that the latter group were the briefest introductions.
After about an hour, Morgan looked up to the entryway to see a familiar face appear; that of Jose Marquez. Jose, a Hispanic trans man, was the leader of the Gathering and sometimes, depending on the season, month, and alignment of the planets… Morgan’s lover.
Jose was currently not Morgan’s lover.
This didn’t bother Morgan. On the contrary, she enjoyed the dynamic flux of their relationship. What did bother her though was the expression on Jose’s face. Something was up and, given how late he was to tonight’s meeting, it was something quite important. As he passed by, Morgan cocked an eyebrow. Jose simply nodded and pointed toward the back. Without a word, Morgan took her leave of Virginia and the group they had been talking to and followed Jose into a second, smaller room.
This room was even more bare than the larger meeting room. There was dim lighting… and that was about it. After Morgan had entered the room, Jose closed the door and locked it behind them.
“How do you feel about a run?” he asked her, excitement bubbling just beneath the surface of his voice.
Morgan cocked an eyebrow again. “What do you have in mind?”
“Apparently the Museum at the Mint just got a very interesting book.”
“What sort of book?” Morgan asked, leaning closer with piqued interest.
“Well, this info comes from Julia… but she says that she saw a large book in an exhibit there. It had a number of known magical runes on it and looked very, very old. Unfortunately, it was locked within a case and Julia didn’t feel comfortable about investigating further. If it’s even remotely like what she described though, it could be very valuable. It could teach us a lot and it’s going to waste in there.”
Morgan mulled it over in her mind. Julia had a reputation for being loyal, but far from thorough. The lack of information wasn’t surprising. She imagined that Julia had simply glimpsed the thing and her first thought had been to run to Jose with the news. To Morgan, Julia had seemed more motivated by climbing the social ladder of the Gathering than increasing their magical knowledge… and possibly climbing into Jose’s pants. Still, she didn’t have any reason to outright doubt Julia or her information.
“I’ll check it out.”
“I wish I had more info for you.”
“Do we know how long it will be there?”
“Two weeks. It just arrived into town. It’s apparently part of an exhibit containing a lot of old books and artifacts from a recently unearthed Nazi trove beneath Paris.”
“I’ll check it out.”
At this point, Morgan paused. While she had Jose here, she might as well bring up her meetings with Maxwell.
“We may have another problem.”
“I met a doctor who is collecting blood samples.”
“Trying to? What as he collected so far?”
“I don’t know for sure.”
“Well, he’s a doctor, they do collect blood samples. Wait, is this a doctor or… one of the street docs?”
The difference was critical. Morgan handed Maxwell’s card to Jose, which made it quite clear.
“He calls himself ‘The Doc’!? That’s not helpful at all.”
“That’s like if a lawyer went around calling himself The Lawyer. Who calls themselves The Doc!? That’s a stupid name,” Jose exclaimed as he threw the card behind him.
“The point is that he’s interested in us. He’s collected several hundred blood samples, some of which may or may not be people we know or care about.”
“Why is he doing this?”
“He’s interested in trying to figure out the source of magic. If it’s part of our DNA or something like that.”
Jose’s interest was clearly piqued and Morgan sympathized. Maxwell was trying to answer a question that burned in the back of every Mystic’s mind.
“… but yes. Blood is very dangerous way to be doing that,” Jose continued.
“I tried to convince him of that. I performed some magic in front of him using a sample of his own blood.”
“Did he already know you’re a Mystic?”
“He had some idea.”
“What did you do?”
“I just changed his clothing.”
At this moment, across town, Maxwell was busy putting his pink labcoat in for a second wash at the local laundromat.
“Pink straight-jacket,” Morgan clarified with a grin.
“Nice. So what do you think the risk is? I mean, he calls himself ‘The Doc’. He can’t be terribly competent. Do you trust him?”
“I trust that he knows how to heal people. He’s medically trained… mostly. I’ve seen him help a couple of people, including me. And his motives seem to at least be honorable as far as I can tell.”
“They usually are, but good intentions aren’t everything.”
Morgan nodded. “I am extremely uncomfortable with him sitting on top of several hundred blood samples in a marginally secured building. But I don’t want to hurt him or cause him to distrust us. He’s useful.”
“I agree… and while I have a hard time believing that any Mystics we know gave him blood, that doesn’t mean someone wasn’t stupid enough to do it. So, you know him. If we destroyed the samples, do you think he would suspect you?”
Silence passed between them as Jose thought about what Morgan had told him. He was clearly troubled by the idea, but there was no easy solution.
“I think we can wait while we decide how to proceed without endangering a useful relationship. In the mean time, I rather we focus on getting this book because the clock is definitely ticking on that one.”
“Understood,” Morgan said with a nod. She was eager to see this book for herself. If anything, the idea of going on a run and getting her hands on such a potentially valuable magical item excited her far more than another dealing with Maxwell.
“Do you have anyone in mind that can help you out?”
“I’d like to investigate it quietly first to see what sort of precautions we’ll need to take.”
“OK. It may be useful to have this doctor with you. Even museum staff are armed.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Jose nodded. “Well, let me know how it goes.”
Their business concluded, Morgan and Jose walked back into the main meeting room. Jose brought the meeting of the Gathering to order and handed things off to another member who was in charge of initiating the new recruits. This happened at the beginning of every meeting. Members were instructed to not hand over blood samples or other deeply personal items that could be exploited for an arcane connection, warned to be wary of law enforcement, and cautioned to be careful to whom they came out as Gifted. The proceedings had the curious mixture of pride and paranoia that underground cultures tend to possess and isn’t unwarranted.
After the official business, members continued to share with each other new spell ideas they had or tidbits of information they had come across. Much of it could be found on the net and most of it was spurious at best. There was very little in the way of formal magical instruction or even a basic primer. Many members of the Gathering had self-taught themselves as best they could. It made Morgan hope that this book Jose had learned of might be the kind of primer they had been waiting for.
The meeting was adjourned just after midnight. By this point, Virginia had struck up a rapport with three other members who were themselves fairly new to the Gathering. It helped that they were college students at UCSF and Berkeley, which gave them a common ground to start from. One of the them, a young woman named Veeta, turned to Virginia.
“We were planning to head over to the Stardust club in the Castro after the meeting. Want to join us?”
“Yes, that would be lovely! Thank you so much.”
The group was on their way out when Morgan fell into step alongside Virginia.
“How you doing?” she asked casually.
“Quite excellent, thank you so much for your kind welcome. I do appreciate you introducing me to your friends.”
Morgan nodded and quickly changed topics. “There’s a museum exhibit in town. I’m thinking of checking it out tomorrow. Would you be up for joining me?”
Virginia was surprised at the offer. She had only really gotten to actually know Morgan just today. However, she did wish to get to know Morgan further… and she had not really gotten to explore some of the city’s cultural exhibits since she had started at Stanford.
“Oh, yes, I do love museums. I miss some of the larger ones back east. I would be very happy to explore the ones here in the city.”
“Cool. Meet meet me at the MaM at, say, 2 PM?”
“Museum at the Mint.”
“Ah, yes, of course.”
Virginia had come to realize the residents of San Francisco had a bizarre fondness for acronyms, portmanteaus, and other truncated phrases.
Morgan fell into the group easily and Virginia once again noticed how eager the other members of the Gathering were to socialize with Morgan. She smiled to herself at her great fortune of running into Morgan again earlier that day. Perhaps that fortune teller did have some insight into the whims of fate after all.
Meanwhile, across town, Maxwell had finished yelling at a washing machine for taking 6 dollars from him with no service in return. With a great sigh of defeat, he returned to his apartment. At the very least, he had a promising bit of data to look forward to analyzing tomorrow. Things were most definitely looking up.