Chapter 4:

Entering Settlement 266

The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet

There were 2,000 settlements on Planet Fobo 2, and a casual observer would be forgiven for believing that they were ruled by a single, planet-wide government. The settlements all followed the same laws, and as much was possible given the terrain, they were laid out identically. Each settlement consisted of a dense urban core with recreational areas to the north, an industrial zone to the south, and a ring of farmland surrounding them. The cities all followed the same street plan, down to the size of the buildings on each lot. With the exception of mages, who were required to inform the council, the mages’ guild, and the City Guard of their movements, people traveled easily between the settlements in normal times.

In reality, each settlement was its own government with its own administration. Laws were enacted by popular vote, so if it wished to, a settlement could have different laws, but none had opted to do so. The council proposed the laws, and the people trusted them to work in their benefit. Their trust had not been misplaced. The council’s laws had allowed the settlements to prosper, and their uniformity had made trade, travel, and migration between the settlements as frictionless as if they had all been a unified nation.

This system was established as a way to keep the peace on the planet. With sufficient resources, there was little reason for war, save ideology or personal ambition. If any of the 2,000 militaries attempted to wage war or oppress the populace of their settlement, the others would gang up on it. Because settlements voted for their laws separately, dangerous political movements would be slow to spread across the planet and could be similarly put down. Since its establishment when the first biological humans were born on the planet, there had been no major conflicts.

As was customary, the gynoids had been the first to inhabit the planet. Biological humans were ill-suited to long-distance space travel, so the first generation had to be synthesized, with the gynoids acting as their parents. When they first designed the independent settlement system, they didn’t know how long it would take for mages to be born on the planet. The process by which humans gained the power to use magic wasn’t well understood, but mages always emerged sooner or later. Thus, they had special rules prepared for them.

Ashtin had just broken one of those rules, teleporting into Settlement 266 without permission, and he was about to break another, all to draw attention to himself. He didn’t trust himself to be able to sneak into the settlement and remain undetected. He knew the City Guard had been compromised, and if he was caught, the persons behind the recent crime wave would suspect his true motives. If he went through the proper channels, they would also be suspicious of him, but someone drawing attention to themselves on purpose would make a very unlikely spy.

Unfortunately for Ashtin, this was proving to be more difficult than he had imagined. He had teleported directly into what should have been one of the busiest parts of the city, only to find it strangely empty. The few people on the streets turned their faces away from him, not wanting to get involved. In any other settlement, the heads would have turned towards him. While mages might not have been an uncommon sight on city streets, his newly-completed staff was.

It had only taken Ashtin an hour after being released from the infirmary to finish the staff. As soon as he began feeding his magical energy into it, it glowed with a bright aura. Near the top, it sprouted small cat ears on its sides, and a muzzle protruded from the front. Just beyond the tips of the ears, small wings of pure magical energy formed, shimmering silver and gold. With a wingspan of around 60 centimeters, the wings remained spread outward, and when they finished growing, more magical energy collected above the staff’s tip, congealing into a reflective orb. The bottom of the staff flared out and tapered to a point, then the staff rose into the air and rotated so that the bottom pointed downward, floating ten centimeters off the ground.

After taking some measurements, the gynoids reported that it was pointing directly to the center of the planet’s gravity. It was almost as if the staff were being delicately held from the top, but upon grabbing the staff, Ashtin could move it freely. There was no force at the top of the staff resisting him or counteracting gravity. Yet, when he released it, the staff returned to a vertical position, exactly ten centimeters off the ground. It snapped quickly into place, without wobbling in the slightest.

At first, Ashtin was disgusted with it. This was not how he had imagined it at all. He had wanted something more sleek and intimidating. Why had his magic driven him to create this? What was it trying to tell him?

But when he cast his first spell with it, he understood. The wings were a reservoir of the unused magical power that flowed from him. Mages were constantly generating magical power. When their reserves were full, the newly-generated energy would escape and disappear into the surrounding air. Where it went was as much a mystery as where it came from. This staff, in addition to making it easier to cast spells, acted as a second reserve of magical energy.

It also followed him around wherever it went, never getting too far from him. Whenever he wanted it, he could hold out his hand, and it would float quickly into his grasp. Disturbingly, however, it appeared to have a mind of its own. If someone else tried to grab it, it would flee from them. Ashtin could hand the staff directly to another person, and as long as they kept a hold on it, it would not attempt to free itself, but as soon as they released it, it would rush back to Ashtin’s side.

During one experiment, Ashtin had left it with Basttias and went to another room. When Basttias had let go of it, it had teleported to Ashtin, using some of its stored magical energy to do so. Afterwards, the gynoids had examined the etchings Ashtin had made thoroughly and determined that several spells had been encoded into them. The staff had no will of its own, but the etchings formed a kind of digital logic that used magical particles instead of electrons.

Given the situation in Settlement 266, Ashtin expected to be stopped by City Guard officers warning him not to openly carry something so valuable, but as he walked towards the center of the city, he saw no trace of the guard. He did eventually attract the kind of attention they would have warned him about, however. He heard heavy footsteps approaching well before his would-be assailants reached him, but he waited until they drew close before whipping around to catch them in the act. One of the men was reaching for the staff, and the other was about to club Ashtin in the head, but before they could accomplish their goals, magical chains materialized around them, holding them in place.

“Rogue mage!” the man closest to him shouted. “Rogue mage! Call the guard!”

This perplexed Ashtin. The last thing a criminal should want was for the guard to get involved, but a moment later, he had his answer. Upon hearing the man’s cries, the few people nearby scrambled to distance themselves from the scene, but amongst the noise, Ashtin could discern two sets of footsteps approaching him from behind. The guards whose attention he had hoped to attract had been nearby for some time now.

This had been a trap.

“Halt, mage,” an officer commanded as Ashtin turned to face them. “Release those people.”

“Lieutenant,” Ashtin said as calmly as possible. “They tried to mug me. I am not a rogue mage.”

“Release those people, now,” the lieutenant demanded, leveling his service pistol at Ashtin.

“A—are you sure we should be doing this?” the officer next to him asked. He was young and muscular, but obviously green. The lieutenant was his opposite—older and out of shape—but carried himself like an experienced soldier.

“Listen,” the lieutenant said, not taking his eyes off Ashtin, “any mage that doesn’t obey our orders is a rogue mage. No one will make a fuss if we take them out.”

Straining his cat ears, Ashtin could hear reinforcements approaching from all directions. If it came down to a fight, although his magic was ill-suited to combat, he had no doubt he could pin down the two guards in front of him, but he had no chance against a larger group. Pulling his staff close, Ashtin erected magical shields around himself.

The shields were semitransparent, made of pure magical energy, and circular. They were strong enough to block both bullets and high-energy weaponry, though nearly all weapons on Fobo 2 used conventional munitions. As a recently terraformed planet, geologically speaking, there were no fossil fuels. All electricity was provided by solar, wind, hydro, and nuclear plants, and a large percentage of it went to the gynoids. There wasn’t the energy to spare for weapons when bullets worked almost as well.

“I’m here on official business from the Council of Humankind,” Ashtin tried to explain. He extended a shield towards the officers, hoping to keep them at a safe distance. “Do you know Dr. Shreburn, the magic researcher? I was told to assist—”

“Drop the shields,” the lieutenant bellowed. “If you cast any more spells, I’ll—”

Just then, a woman appeared from behind the officers and pushed past them. This caught Ashtin by surprise, as he hadn’t heard her footsteps at all. As she approached Ashtin, he had just enough time to notice the regimented way she ran. Although she wasn’t wearing the uniform, she was obviously with the guard.

“Watch out,” he warned, expecting her to run headfirst into his shield, but she passed through it as if it weren’t there, shattering it in the process. She was a spellbreaker, Ashtin realized, and if he let her get too close, she would prevent him from defending himself or escaping. In a panic, he pulled the chains off his captives and attempted to fling them at the spellbreaker. Even if she broke the spell guiding them, they would crash into her and their momentum would knock her to the ground. It ought to give him enough time to teleport to safety.

To his dismay, the chains flowed around her like a stream around a large rock. She hadn’t broken his spell, she had altered it. Luckily, the chains continued past her, ensnaring the officers, but Ashtin was far from safe. He gripped his staff like a weapon and attempted to use it to cudgel the woman, but he was too slow, and she grabbed it with one hand just below the wings. He tried to twist it so that he could hit her legs with the bottom of the staff, but her other hand grabbed it further down.

“Nice instinct,” she smirked, pulling the staff from his hands. As she took it from him, he could also feel her taking his ability to use magic.

Kya Hon