The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet
Mages tended to be eccentric, and Ashtin Blackford was no exception. For the past three days, he had sat alone in the workshop, making microscopic etchings on a two-meter steel rod. He focused completely on his work, pausing only when necessary to recast the spells that sustained his body, allowing him to work without eating or sleeping. He knew he couldn’t keep this up forever. The spell he used to control the etching tool drained his magical reserves faster than he could replenish them, but at his current pace, he would finish just before they ran out.
One might expect the workshop in a mages’ guild to be a wondrous laboratory, full of intricate and mysterious devices, but the reality was much different. The workshop was a few rows of tidy workbenches and stools. Storage bins along the wall held a variety of magical tools, and while most normal people would go their entire lives without laying eyes on them, they were merely hunks of metal and glass shaped to channel and aid the flow of magical energy. The workshop saw moderate use, but it was kept spotless. What the custodians could not clean, the mages would scour with magic.
Perhaps the most unusual feature of the workshop was its electric lighting. Electricity was in high demand on planet Fobo 2, but it didn’t take much magical energy to conjure luminescent bulbs that would shine for decades. Magical lighting was even built into the sidewalks. At night, they would glow whenever humans were near. In the workshop however, the magical energy from such lighting might interfere with delicate work.
Every now and then, one of Ashtin’s fellow mages would come by to observe him. Some scoffed at the seemingly pointless endeavor, while others simply shook their heads and walked away. When Ashtin was nearly finished, his fellow historian mage, Basttias Daloro, asked him what the other mages had all been thinking.
“Why are you doing that?”
For several minutes, Ashtin didn’t answer. He was so focused on his work that Basttias might have assumed that Ashtin hadn’t heard the question, had one of the cat ears atop Ashtin’s head not twitched in annoyance.
“This staff will allow me to more easily channel my magic,” Ashtin explained when he reached a stopping point. “I’ll be able to complete my work without feeling worn out at the end of the day.” Basttias, Ashtin knew, had come to put a stop to his labor, so he placed his tools on the bench and turned to face him.
The two of them were opposites in many ways. Basttias was tall, and for a mage, muscular. His hair was thinning, and his olive skin, what little could be seen under his black robes, had a healthy sheen. Though he was only a dozen years older than Ashtin, he was often mistaken for a much older man, due to the perpetually weary expression on his face. He perfectly embodied, in Ashtin’s view, the emblem printed on the sash around his waist, which depicted a bent dandelion. Like the flower, he appeared haggard, but he was in reality strong and healthy.
Ashtin, in contrast, was short and slight of build. His black hair was thick and messy, partially obscuring both his human ears and his cat ears. Underneath that hair, his skin was pale and pasty, and his face had a youthful look to it. Even the emblem on his sash, an outline of a cat's head, stood in opposition to Basttias’s, simple and whimsical, while Basttias’s was detailed and meaningful.
“We have plenty of wands and staffs in storage,” Basttias pointed out. “You don’t need to go through all this trouble.”
“Those are just ordinary sticks; this is a tool that will allow me to cast spells I otherwise could not.”
“Offensive spells?” Basttias asked.
“Of course not,” Ashtin said. “You know my magic is best suited to healing.”
“And I also know you resent that fact,” Basttias said. “If I didn’t know better, I would say this staff is designed to change the affinity of your magical energy.”
Basttias had intended that remark as a joke. The shape of a mage’s magical energy was immutable. Even the most cutting-edge spells and technologies couldn’t change it. Ashtin, however, was tired and not thinking properly, so he responded, “I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to build a staff like that.”
“Then how did you learn how to construct this one?”
“We’ve been dancing around the question long enough,” Ashtin sighed. “I’m listening to my magic, following its instructions.”
“Obsessing over your own magic is dangerous,” Basttias warned.
“You could end up being controlled by it.”
“I know that too. I’m being careful.”
“Even so, I’m going to have to report this.”
“I’m surprised,” Ashtin said, his cat ears lowering to lay flat against his head. “You’ve always humored me.”
“And now I’m beginning to think that may have been a mistake,” Basttias said.
“Do what you must,” Ashtin said. “I’m sure others have already reported me, and I cleared this beforehand with—” His cat ears perked up and he stopped talking. “We have guests,'' he reported a moment later, “a counselor and an officer of the City Guard.”
“How can you tell?” Basttias asked.
“By the sound of their footsteps,” Ashtin answered.
“For the counselor, sure,” Basttias allowed, “but how can you be so sure the other is a guard?”
“Their steps are rhythmic, disciplined, but overconfident. Besides, who else would the counselors allow in here? If you don’t believe me, just wait and see.”
Sure enough, a minute later, a gynoid and a man wearing light body armor entered the workshop and walked towards the two mages.
The two were quite the odd pair. The man was tall, even for a guard, middle-aged, and wore an intimidating scowl. He gave an impression that was not easily forgotten. The gynoid, on the other hand, was identical to all other gynoids—Her metal-ceramic body was covered with pale artificial skin. She had gray eyes and brown, medium-length artificial hair atop her head. At 160 centimeters tall, she was an average height for women, and her face was expressionless.
Although not all counselors were gynoids, all gynoids were counselors. Since they shared information freely with each other over a planet-wide mesh network, communicating with one was tantamount to communicating with the others.
“Counselor,” Basttias said, bowing to the gynoid, “welcome.”
Realizing that this distraction was going to prevent him from finishing his work, Ashtin stood and turned towards the uninvited guests.
“And you as well,” he said, searching the guard’s uniform for a name tag or insignia. Finding none, he frowned. “Come to finish me off while I’m weak?”
The City Guard functioned as the city’s police and military force, but its main purpose was to provide a balance of power against the mages. Although mages very rarely went rogue—and when they did, it was often other mages who subdued them—every mage was potentially a threat.
“Relax,” the counselor said. “We’re here to give you an assignment.”
“Finally,” Ashtin smiled.
“You can’t,” Basttias said. “He hasn’t finished his training, and he’s—”
“Basttias,” the counselor interrupted, “I know that. We wouldn’t be asking this of Ashtin unless we had a good reason. Besides, he’s only three months from graduating. What could he possibly learn in the next three months that would make a difference?”
“All I’m saying is that the guild won’t allow it,” Basttias said.
“Which is why we won’t tell them,” the counselor responded. “This will not be an official assignment.”
With those words, Basttias put two and two together. No introductions, no names, no ranks. These people were from the intelligence bureau.
“Perhaps I should allow you to speak in private,” Basttias suggested.
“No,” Ashtin said, reaching out and grabbing the sleeve of Basttias’s robe. “Please, I haven’t slept in days. I need someone I can trust to think clearly on my behalf.”
Basttias looked to the gynoid for approval. Technically, he had no relation to Ashtin within the hierarchy of the mages' guild. Historian mages were selected based on a number of criteria, most important among them trustworthiness, making them the rarest of all mages. To be selected was proof that they possessed extraordinary qualities, and so they all treated each other as equals, even those mages still in training. Basttias was not Ashtin’s mentor in magic, and history research was taught by counselors, not mages.
“Sensible,” the counselor nodded. “You may stay, Basttias, but you must submit to counseling immediately afterward.”
“Agreed,” Basttias said. “I’m overdue anyway.”
“Proceed,” the counselor instructed the guard.
“Gentlemen,” the guard said, clearing his throat, “are you aware of the recent spike in violent crime in Settlement 266?”
“No,” both mages replied, and it was obvious this was not the answer the guard expected.
“It’s the political topic du jour,” the guard mumbled.
“These are historian mages,” the counselor explained, “they are chosen from those who have an extreme disinterest in politics.”
“But don’t they have a hand in crafting public policy?” the guard asked.
“Yes, policy, not politics,” the counselor answered. “We don’t want their decisions influenced by the chattering of every self-proclaimed political expert. Besides, their studies leave them very little time to follow current events. When we need their assistance in divining new policies, we explain the issues to them as neutrally as possible.”
What she left unsaid was that the historian mages were often in positions to influence policy to their personal benefit, but those without an agenda rarely exploited that to secure political power.
“I don’t see how you can possibly make informed decisions without taking the political ramifications into account,” the guard followed up.
“Steering politics towards our goals is left to those with more charisma,” Basttias interjected.
“Politics are, after all, just issues that those seeking power convince the masses to argue over to get them on side,” Ashtin added. “Granted, sometimes these issues are important, but most of the time, we end up fighting wars over the proper way to receive communion or some equally silly thing.”
“Communion?” the guard asked. Basttias and the counselor shot Ashtin a warning look.
“What’s the big deal?” Ashtin defended himself. “He’s getting a mind wipe on the way out anyway, isn’t he? It’ll be easier to communicate with him on an even level if we have a similar understanding of the way things work.”
“Communion was an ancient religious ritual,” Basttias explained before Ashtin could. “At one point in Earth’s history, the largest religion at the time split over, among other things, a disagreement over what kind of bread should be consumed at this ritual. There were eventually wars in which members of both sides killed each other in the names of their respective branches.”
“With a perspective like that, I suppose I can see why you would disdain politics,” The guard allowed.
“Communion itself was very interesting,” Ashtin added. “It has many similarities to our counseling sessions.” Again, Basttias and the counselor shot a warning look at Ashtin, but his attention was focused on the guard.
“Are you sure you want this one?” the guard asked the counselor. “I don’t fully understand the implications, but I got the impression that was a seditious statement.”
“It was,” the counselor agreed, “but he was trying to see how you would react. Rest assured, all of you, I can vouch for everyone present, but you, Ashtin, are confusing communion with confession. Though they are related, they are different. You must take more notice of details like that. I would hate for you to make a misinformed decision based on incomplete information.”
“I will be more careful,” Ashtin assured her.
“About the crime surge,” Basttias interrupted, “isn’t that a job for the City Guard?”
In every settlement, one in every twenty people were active officers in the guard, and the mages knew this was a historically high ratio for law enforcement. If the guards were having trouble containing violent crime, it meant Settlement 266 was likely in the process of societal collapse.
“They’ve been unable to handle it,” the guard said. “Although some of the crimes appear random, others are organized. They called up the reservists for help, but some of the reservists were in on it, and they started sabotaging efforts from the inside. While purging the reservists, it came to light that some of the regulars were taking bribes to look the other way. The organization’s priority since then has been to right its own house, leaving the rest of the city to fend for itself.”
“What about the local mages?” Basttias asked.
“There are currently no historian mages assigned to Settlement 266,” the guard said.
“In other words,” Ashtin interpreted, “you suspect that the local mages may be the cause.”
“At this point, we don’t trust anyone from the settlement,” the guard confirmed, “aside from our own agents. The counselors tell me that you’re particularly adept at sensing the presence of magic. I want you to meet with the criminals to determine if they’ve been tampered with, and if so, by whom.”
“This sounds urgent,” Ashtin observed, “and as excited as I am to get an assignment, I need a couple of days’ rest before I’ll be up to it. There are plenty of other mages who are capable.”
“You are not the only one being sent,” the counselor told him, “but like I said, we need your unique talents.”
“I see,” Ashtin said. “What do you think, Basttias?”
“I think it’s a mistake to send you. You’re a smart kid, but you still have some maturing to do.”
“The counselors know that,” Ashtin mused. “I have a reputation for being irresponsible and self-absorbed. If something goes wrong, I’m the perfect scapegoat.”
“We have no desire to lose a historian mage,” the counselor said.
“I want a promise that you won’t punish me, no matter what happens,” Ashtin said. “If this assignment is unofficial, I may need to break some laws to get the job done.”
“I see you understand the situation perfectly,” the counselor said. “The council promises not to punish you, no matter the outcome—and no matter what you have to do. If the City Guard catches you breaking the law, however, we will not protect you.”
“That means you won’t be rewarding me either,” Ashtin said.
“Not officially,” the counselor said, “but if you want me to stroke your hair and call you a good kitty, that could be arranged.”
“I was hoping you’d reconsider my proposal,” Ashtin pouted.
“I’m afraid that decision is final,” the counselor said. “We don’t mind if you use magic to grow ears and a tail for yourself, but under no circumstances will we genetically engineer an entire race of catboys and girls.”
“I’m sorry,” the guard interrupted, “I think I’m lost again. What’s a catboy?”
“Me!” Ashtin exclaimed, pointing to the cat ears atop his head.
“Cats were small domesticated predators from Earth,” the counselor said. Although she felt no emotions, her voice sounded exasperated. “A long time ago, people drew pictures of humans with cat ears and tails. Eventually some misguided people genetically engineered cat-human hybrids. They lived short, uncomfortable lives and went extinct after a few centuries.”
“But they were so cute,” Ashtin protested, “and we could fix all the mistakes.”
“Not without a lot of experimentation,” the counselor said, “and the rejects would suffer tremendously.”
“All life is suffering,” Ashtin quoted. “A little more isn’t going to make a difference in the grand scheme of things.”
“You are in for quite the counseling session,” the counselor warned. “Mistaking communion for confession is one thing, but twisting a religion’s words just to make an argument—”
“Oh, come on,” Ashtin interrupted. “I was kidding.”
“This is no time for jokes,” the guard spat. “Violent crimes are beginning to increase in the cities closest to Settlement 266. There’s a small but growing minority likening it to a cancer, and calling for the cities to be destroyed before it can spread further.”
“We understand how grim the situation is,” Basttias assured him. “Humor is just how we keep our spirits up in the face of… everything.”
“If you find committing taboos to be humorous,” the counselor said, “we may have to re-evaluate your position.”
“He won’t do it again,” Basttias promised. “He hasn’t slept in three days, and this is a lot for him to take in.”
“Yes, please forgive me,” Ashtin said. “Basttias is right: I am still immature, and part of maturing is pushing things to see how far you can go until someone gets hurt. I pushed too far this time, but I learned from it.”
“You’re absolutely sure this is the mage you want?” the guard asked again.
“I can think of no one better suited,” the counselor confirmed. “Will you do it, Ashtin?”
“Yes,” he answered. “In truth, I share Basttias’s concerns, but if you believe so strongly in me, I don’t see how I can refuse.”
The guard reached into a pocket, pulled out a crinkled envelope, and handed it to Ashtin. “The details of your mission,” he said. “Don’t bother asking me questions, since I haven’t read it. Please destroy it once you’ve memorized it.”
“I understand,” Ashtin said, excitedly ripping open the letter.
“What’s done is done,” Basttias sighed. “Come,” he told the counselor and the guard, “I’ll escort you out.”
Ashtin was halfway through reading the letter when sleep overtook him. He managed to stay awake long enough to shove the letter in his pocket. As he drifted off to sleep, his cat ears picked up a conversation between the guard, the counselor and Basttias.
“So that catboy thing,” the guard said, “it’s some kind of sexual fetish?”
“You would be better equipped than I to answer that,” the counselor replied.
“I thought the same thing at first,” Basttias said, “but now I’m not so sure. Whenever anyone asks him why he likes catboys so much, he always replies, ‘Because cute is justice.’”
“Oh dear,” the counselor said. “Sounds like we’re going to have to monitor his research more closely.”