9 – Van

The desk came in a rather large and heavy box, but the same trick worked a second time, to get it to the now bare end of the dining room. Oblique fetched a knife from the hardware drawer to open it, and she and Miranda pulled out all the pieces.

Van retrieved the assembly instructions. It was a fairly elaborate desk, with shelves up around and over the monitor.

“Let me see for a minute?” Oblique borrowed the instructions, took a long look at the diagram, Miranda looking over her shoulder since the taller sensitive was kneeling. Miranda scooped up a small plastic bag with screws and such in it, tore it open, spilling them onto her palm so she and Oblique could see them, and pointed to part of the diagram. Oblique nodded, and returned the paper to Van.

While Van and Brennan were puzzling over some of the creatively-translated directions and indistinct sketches, Oblique and Miranda started laying out the various boards in roughly the right order and position and sorting out the screws.

“What on earth is that supposed to be?” Brennan wondered.

Oblique paused to look. “Which?”

“That.” Brennan indicated a rather fuzzy sketch of something, near one corner.

“It's the tracks for the drawer.”

“Are you sure?”

“I'm sure.” She went back to whatever she and Miranda were doing.

“There's a drawer?” Van asked, perplexed, looking at the drawing again. “Oh, I suppose that's what that is. Which means the tracks are around here somewhere.”

“To your right,” Miranda said, holding a board steady while Oblique used an Allen key to screw it to another one lying flat on the floor. They repeated it at the other end and flipped the whole thing over.

Van looked at the diagram, looked at the two sensitives who were efficiently assembling the desk without the instructions, and looked at Brennan. “I'm getting the feeling we'd be most useful staying out of the way and not interfering.”

“You aren't interfering,” Oblique said cheerfully, as they started on the drawer that went at one side, above a little cabinet with a door if Van read the sketch accurately.

Van perched on the computer chair, while Brennan straddled one of the others. “I think I could write a whole chapter on sensitive manual-spatial abilities.”

“On what?” Miranda asked.

“He means sensitives are good at concrete sorts of things,” Oblique translated. “Things we can do with our hands instead of things that are abstract and mostly thought. We put things together and can catch a ball nine times out of ten and tell if something will fit by looking at it. Mages... um... there's something they do, but I can't quite place it at the moment. It'll come to me.”

“We think, wench,” Van said sternly.

“Oh, right, that's it.” She laughed, and Miranda giggled.

“A chapter in what?” the younger sensitive asked.

“Van's writing a book about mages and sensitives. The truth about how we all tend to think, skills we tend to have, and our combined abilities.”

“Oh, cool! Who are you going to let read it?”

“Most Donovans and a few friends have expressed some interest,” Van said. “And maybe it can get a few middle-of-the-road mages thinking. If we can think of a way to get some copies out to free sensitives and have them take it seriously, that would be better still, but given the history so far of attempts to get them to listen, I have some doubts.”

“As soon as they realize I live with a mage, or that the other Donovan sensitives do, they start to treat us like mages,” Oblique sighed. “As though we're out there to lead them into a trap. I can understand it, but it makes us all extremely sad.”

Miranda grinned. “Oh, I bet I can take care of that problem. We just make 'em available through my mom's house.” The smile wavered. “I miss her and my sisters and brothers and aunt and all.”

“Can you call her?” Van suggested.

“Could, but that'd be cruel, in case... something happens after. I'll call her once I know everything's okay.” She shrugged, and the sadness vanished, at least on the surface, behind practicality. “Anyway, they'll listen to me, no matter what, and they'll get your book out.”

“That would be wonderful,” Oblique laughed. “I think we're going to be extremely grateful to have you here for more than one reason.”

“Yeah, well, anything that'll help them, so they don't have to go through everything without knowing what's going on. Some'd read it. They'll be too curious not to.”

Van hated to say it, but he'd hate it more if he had to watch Miranda hurt later. “If the fear of anything connected to mages runs deep enough, they might not listen to you,” he said tentatively.

“Not my mom or my sister Claire or my almost-sister Denise,” Miranda said, with perfect certainty. “My mom and Denise's mom Jenny get a lot of respect, and Claire and Denise are thinking of starting their own house as soon as the babies get a little older. People listen to them. And they'll listen to me, they'll be glad I'm okay and they won't care if I'm living with mages or not. You'll see. They'll get your book out to lots of people. Just make sure it's not all full of long words like manual-whatsit.”

“Whereas most mages would prefer all the technical details,” Brennan said, amused. “You'd better ask Oblique and Miranda—excuse me, Randi—to make sure it's in sensitive-language.”

“Not everybody is like you said, though,” Miranda pointed out. “One of my brothers can't catch a ball even one time in ten, he's just no good at this stuff. And Brennan does stuff with his hands all the time.”

“So does Van,” Oblique said, and licked her lips pointedly.

“It's more a matter of tendencies than absolutes,” Van said, pretending he hadn't heard that last comment. “Odds are much higher that a sensitive will have excellent coordination and mechanical skills, and that a mage will be more inclined to intellectual subjects.”

“Makes sense,” Miranda decided. “Hm, this goes... aha, there we go.”

“Of course, the possibility does exist that the hunters will try to charge me with sedition and immorality,” Van said.

“What's sedition?”

“Disturbing the peace of the state. Or, in this case, mage society. Immorality includes any statement that sensitives are equals.”

“Hm. Can they make it stick?”

“Doubtful,” Brennan supplied. “But I'm sure Elena will do her best to try. She always was vindictive and obsessive.”

Miranda glanced over her shoulder at him. “Who's Elena? The hunter?”

“Yes. We went to school together when her mother lived here for a year, we were the only mages in our class. There were a handful of people who tended to get the highest marks, and Elena and I were among them. For some reason, she got pissed off at me every time I beat her by even one percent, which I did roughly half the time. The other half of the time, she beat me. She was convinced it was some kind of contest. More than twenty years later, she still hates me, which strikes me as taking it to ludicrous lengths even if it had been a competition.”

“So she's more likely to pick on you and the people close to you.”

“Exactly,” Oblique said. “Although by everything I've ever heard about her, she just generally wants all of mage society to conform to her image of order and tradition, and holds unshakable grudges against anyone who interferes with that. Pass me... thanks.”

“The hunters in general are none too happy that there are more limits to their authority than there were fifty years ago,” Van added. “The kinds of people the hunters choose to join them strongly resent loss of power.”

“What kind of people?” Miranda asked sourly. “Ones who like beating up on anyone who can't fight back?”

“Anyone that I've ever met who works with the hunters has been emotionally dysfunctional to some degree.”

“Are what?”

“Screwed up,” Oblique translated.

“The senior pair are more into enforcing law and tradition consistently and impartially,” Brennan said. “They are much less extreme than Elena and her partner Brock, although to the best of my knowledge, they will not deviate from the letter of the law.”

“It was Victoria and Faisal who caught me,” Oblique said softly. “They were much less brutal than I've repeatedly heard about Elena and Brock.”

“As for the junior pair,” Van said, sliding the topic away from that before it could get into anything too deep, “they're obsessive control freaks with defective empathy. They can't get inside someone else's head even for a second, to understand that they're causing pain or that the other opinion might be valid. Extensive psychotherapy and the right medication might help, but I doubt it.”

Miranda shivered. “I can believe it. So the same hunters who were here will try their best to get you in trouble for anything they possibly can.”

“And if they can't find anything, they'll try to create it,” Brennan added. “So far they've failed, but I don't think that makes Elena like us any better than she did to start with. Odds are good they'll charge Van, and the Elders will tell them to get a life. The laws about freedom of thought and expression are extremely clear, and as long as Van isn't advocating violence or prejudice against mages or mundanes or being explicitly immoral, and can back up anything he claims is a fact, he can write what he wants.” He sighed. “That'll be the next thing, after we get the anti-abuse law passed. Change the limitations of freedom of expression laws to include advocating violence against sensitives and get rid of that damned immorality clause.”

“We'll get there,” Oblique said firmly. “But the most immediate goal is to make certain that Randi is safe permanently. We can get back to working on the others once that's established.”

“The hunters will not have you,” Van said flatly, aware of anger stirring again, just at the thought.

“I know,” Miranda said calmly. “So if the hunters are losing power, how did they get it to begin with?”

“Long story, and there are a lot of holes in it where we just don't know,” Van said.

“In Western Europe and Australia, it works differently,” Oblique said. “No hunters. No laws that sensitives are property. A mage forcing a sensitive can be charged with, basically, rape. Europe has had a hugely long time to get it right, and Australia, well, the non-aborigine people who settled there originally were all convicted criminals. Mages learned to respect sensitives the hard way. Other parts of the world have different laws, but in those areas, everyone's equal.”

“Wow. That's a big concept to swallow.” Miranda and Oblique abandoned the lower part of the desk in favour of assembling the interlocked upper shelves. “So, what happened here?”

“We think,” Van said, “that it was a combination of factors. As near as we can tell from European history, female sensitives were considered valuable to male mages because, by the mundane laws at the time, a husband for all intents and purposes owned his wife—she couldn't charge him with rape or assault, couldn't do legal stuff in her own name. There's a more subtle subtext suggesting that female mages chose to marry male sensitives because they were effectively safe from abuse, since they had so much of the real power in the relationship. They got over that. We developed other problems to go with it, instead. Mainly in the US, but here in Canada some, there was a concept called Manifest Destiny, which essentially said that God wanted white settlers to take over North America and make it a Christian nation.”

“They still haven't gotten over that particular belief, south of us, that they're meant to remake the world in their image,” Brennan muttered.

“Let's not go there just now.”

“I've met some very nice religious people and also some really scary religious people,” Miranda observed.

“Yep.” Van nodded. “The same basic mythology gets used towards some drastically opposite ends. Mages tend not to be very religious these days around here, but that isn't universal, and there's this Biblical thing about having dominion over the world that mages have had a bad habit of taking personally. I think mages got tangled up in religion and Manifest Destiny. Native mages were killed on sight by mages among the white settlers, and Native sensitives were snatched and basically used, and no one thought twice about it since the general assumption was that the Natives were inferior to whites anyway. Black mages born into slavery were killed on sight, and for that matter, there are still white mages in the southern US that will kill any non-white mage they can gang up on. But black sensitives born into slavery were valuable property, and sometimes bred deliberately. That plus the Native captured sensitives fed into an idea of sensitives as useful tools rather than people.”

“Ugh. That's horrible.”

“Very much so,” Oblique sighed. “When you think of how many mages died for being mages, who might very well have seen us as people, and how many sensitives suffered absolutely ghastly fates, it's sickening. But then, it's sort of lost in the rest of the mundane mess, I suppose.”

“Yeah, well, mundanes weren't in danger of being transformed into nasty shapes. But it's not just black or Native or whatever sensitives, it's all sensitives now.”

Van nodded. “There were a lot of small communities far from each other, and it would be very easy for a mage to quickly become the biggest fish in a small pond, and from there it's depressingly common for people to start thinking they're entitled to take whatever they want. As near as we can tell, it was just all of this rolled up together that create a slippery slope we all started to slide down, and now we have the mess we have. Contact between mages from Western Europe and Australia and mages in North America tends to be limited and rather strained. The two philosophies are just too incompatible and make everyone on both sides deeply uncomfortable. So we're pretty much on our own, really.”

“Fixing something that took this long to go wrong isn't going to be easy.”

“And that's the problem in a nutshell,” Brennan said. “We've been struggling to find an angle to tackle an enormous mountain of misinformation and ignorance. We thought we had one in Van's book, but we were missing a vital piece. Which it sounds like you're going to supply.”

“Good.” The two sensitives heaved the shelves up onto the rest of the desk, manoeuvred that piece onto the pegs anchoring it to the other piece, and shoved the whole thing against the wall.

“There,” Oblique said. “It fits perfectly, just like I said. It'll be nice, being able to chat online in odd moments while I'm cooking.”

“Who do you talk to?” Miranda asked inquisitively.

Oblique smiled. “Oh, people from all over. There are mundane people who want to feel like they belong to others, sometimes or always, and some who want someone to be a willing pet, and there are places they tend to gather. And a few individual people, from Australia and the UK and Germany mostly, that I enjoy spending time with.”


“Very.” Her gaze went to the two mages. “Can you put the computer back together while I go see what can be done about lunch? It's been a long morning and we've accomplished a lot, we all deserve something good.”

“I'll come help,” Miranda offered.

“Start thinking about being creative, too. Surely we can come up with something more interesting than my out-in-public look.”

So, Van and Brennan set about reassembling the computer, the sounds of the two sensitives in the kitchen a cozy background.

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