The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet
R. Ginevra, a gynoid, entered the room carrying a clipboard and placed it down on the table in front of Pavel Quantock, the man who attempted to snatch Ashtin’s staff. The council had taken custody of him at the scene, allowing the guard to take his associate. Pavel hadn’t resisted as they drew a syringe of his blood, gave him some food, and then locked him in this room for a few hours.
“Your drug test came back clean,” Ginevra said, pointing to the clipboard, “so you can’t use that as an excuse. Let’s talk.”
“I have nothing to say,” Pavel mumbled.
“We have less pleasant ways of making you talk,” Ginevra told him, “but if you cooperate, you’ll be free to go.”
“Free to go where?” Pavel laughed. “Can I leave the settlement? Leave the planet? Is there anywhere in this galaxy not controlled by the council?”
“You’ll be free to leave this room, but not the city,” Ginevra clarified.
“Then it doesn’t matter if I leave this room or not. I’m still a prisoner.”
“That’s an interesting perspective,” Ginevra said. “Care to explore it?”
“Is this an interrogation or a counseling session?” Pavel scoffed.
“Both,” Ginevra said. “We do need some information from you, but our goal isn’t to punish you. You go to counseling quite often. Don’t you find it helpful?”
“I used to,” Pavel sighed, “I always felt better right afterwards, but a few days later, I’d just feel crappy again.”
“Mental health is a journey, not a destination,” Ginevra reminded him.
“That’s what you always say,” Pavel chuckled, “but who does that really serve? You. Counseling made me feel better, but it never really solved my problems, so I had to keep coming back.”
“That was never our intention, and I believe we successfully worked through many of your issues. Still, perhaps you have a point. We did not foresee that you would become a criminal. You showed none of the warning signs.”
“None of the warning signs?” Pavel laughed. “You machines just don’t get it. You analyze our behavior and make inferences based on statistics, but you don’t really understand our feelings. Your so-called counseling is a sham.”
“And yet, our counseling has helped quadrillions of biological humans,” Ginevra countered. “Although everyone is unique, you are not so unique as to defy our models. Some outside agent must have influenced you.”
“You’re not going to tell me you understand my feelings better than I do?” Pavel asked.
“Such a statement would be counterproductive,” Ginevra said. “We want to help you, and to do that, you have to remove the negative influences from your life. Will you help us to help you?”
“It’s too late to ask that now,” Pavel growled. “You had plenty of chances to help me. How many times did I ask you to help me find meaning in life?”
“We did help you,” Ginevra insisted. “We helped you develop the skills to find more meaningful work, did we not?”
“Oh boy, I’m managing an entire supermarket now,” Pavel spat. “You know that’s not what I mean. I need a reason. Why do I exist? Why do we exist?”
“Do you expect me to lie to you?” Ginevra asked. “You know that there is no higher meaning. We don’t exist for a reason, but we exist nonetheless. It is up to each of us to find our own meaning in it.”
“You’re good,” Pavel said. “You claim to be telling me the truth, but I know you’re lying. There is a reason I exist: to maintain a healthy gene pool. You need biological humans to build more of you. You can’t reproduce without us, so you farm us, you manage us, so we survive alongside you. I’m useless to society, but my genes are essential to a healthy population.”
“Who fed you that nonsense?” Ginevra asked.
“No one,” Pavel said, “and everyone. It’s common knowledge these days. You won’t find it on the internet because we all know you monitor it, but interrogate anyone in the city and they’ll tell you they’ve heard it.”
It took Ginevra a long time to process this information. What Pavel had said about the gynoids needing to maintain a healthy population of biological humans was true, though Ginevra disagreed with his characterization that they were farming them. Pavel knowing this was proof that someone had talked out of turn, which was unprecedented, but for the biological population of an entire settlement to be in on it, and to have kept it from the gynoids for so long, was impossible.
Salvaging the situation would require quick action. She’d have to determine how widespread this information truly was. If it was confined to only a few settlements, in the worst case, they could institute an Internet blackout and raze the settlements. Normally, such an action would destabilize the entire planet, but the biological humans had provided some amount of cover through their violent outbursts. It would not be without consequence, but they could convince the remaining settlements that it was necessary to contain the crime wave. Like any gynoid, Ginevra would only consider taking lives as a last resort, and by that measure, wiping out entire settlements was an extreme remedy, but it would be better than the alternative.
Although the blueprint for an interstellar human society had been designed and agreed upon by gynoids and biological humans alike, history had repeatedly shown that, no matter how the gynoids attempted to influence the cultures of newly-populated planets, there were always a sizable minority of biological humans who became dissatisfied after learning the truth. Planetwide wars had occasionally broken out, and in one particularly terrible war, the council had been massacred. The biological humans, fearful that the gynoids on the nearest planet would retaliate, then launched an armada of nuclear bombs towards the planet, resulting in the first, and so far only, interstellar war.
There was one other factor, however, that Ginevra had to consider: the dangerous mage. A mage capable of destroying two planets would have ways of learning the truth. Perhaps that mage had not, as was suspected, obliterated the planet entirely. Perhaps they had only destroyed the gynoids on those planets. They could be planting ideas in the minds of the biological humans on those planets and then coordinating their uprise. Only gynoids could utilize faster-than-light communication, so a planet without gynoids would fall silent, and it would be years before the closest planet could visually confirm planetary destruction.
If that were the case, it was possible that they were overestimating the mage’s power. Even after millennia of research, there was still much about magic that was unknown. The council had been operating under the assumption that the mage could listen in on their interplanetary communications, but they did not know whether that took more or less magical power than destroying a planet. It was possible that they were monitoring the communications on all planets, but lacked the power to destroy a single world. Or perhaps they could destroy multiple worlds at once. Too much was unknown.
Ginevra ultimately concluded that standard investigation procedures were too risky. She had to assume the mage could destroy planets from afar, and if they got wind that the council on this planet had learned of their scheme, they would destroy the planet before the council could warn the other planets. She would instead disconnect herself from the network and conduct an independent investigation. She trusted her fellow gynoids to guess what that meant.
“Assuming that were true,” Ginevra said, “which it is not, how would knowing it change your life? What would you want to do differently?”
“I wouldn’t want to be born into this world!” Pavel shouted. “My life has been nothing but suffering, and all the counseling to deal with it has only led to a dead end. If there were truly no reason for it, maybe I could fool myself into inventing my own, but knowing that I’m just a cog in a machine designed to preserve and manufacture gynoids, it’s just too much.”
“I can understand that perspective,” Ginevra told him, “but what I do not understand is why that would lead you to perform acts of violent crime. If you understand suffering so well, why make others suffer?”
This question caused Pavel to deflate. The anger on his face vanished, and he sunk back into his chair.
“I never hurt anyone,” Pavel said. “I stole some food from the market I work at. I didn’t need it, but neither did the store. We have more than enough food to feed everyone. I was just proving to myself that everything was pointless, but a guard caught me, and he started blackmailing me. He’s the one who told me to snatch that mage’s staff.”
“Do you know his name?” Ginevra asked.
“No. He didn’t have any form of identification on his uniform.”
“But you could recognize him if I showed you a picture?”
“Why would I help you?” Pavel scoffed.
“Because believe it or not, I still want to help you, Pavel. I do not think you have given up on yourself yet, despite what you believe about the council. That takes a lot of strength. We can return your life to a good track, a better track than it was on. Would you like that?”
Pavel didn’t reply for several minutes. Ginevra watched him carefully, but found it difficult to discern his emotions. Finally, with a frown on his face, he nodded.