The Cat-Eared Historian Mage on the Crumbling Planet
Note: The opinions expressed by characters in this epilogue do not reflect the author’s views, and they should not be used to justify authoritarianism in real life.
“Good work today, Ashtin,” one of the receptionists called out as Ashtin was headed towards the exit.
“You too, Umivek,” Ashtin returned the farewell. “See you next week.”
Emerging into the heat of a summer afternoon, Ashtin held his right arm in front of his face to shield his eyes from the bright sun. He was tired from working a twelve-hour shift in the pediatric ward, but he didn’t have time to rest. He was scheduled for counseling in less than an hour, leaving him without time to go home and change out of his scrubs.
It had been three years since he had lost his magic, but Ashtin was still a historian mage, the only historian mage in the universe without magic. Although he had tried to convince the council to let him relinquish the title multiple times, they had refused him. They did, however, grant him permission to work a second job on two, sometimes three, days a week. This wasn’t enough to attend medical school full time, but the council had designed an accelerated nurse training program for him that took into account his knowledge of human anatomy.
Even in the depths of despair, Ashtin had never turned against the council, nor had he given up on himself, and so, true to their word, the council had not given up on him.
“Sorry I’m late,” Ashtin apologized as he walked into the counseling room. He was sweating and breathing heavily from his jog to the mages' guild. The session was only supposed to have started 23 seconds ago, but that was significant enough to warrant an apology to a gynoid.
“Heya Ash,” the sole gynoid in the room greeted him. “You look like shit. Hold on, I’ll get you some water.”
“Soffy?” Ashtin gasped. “What brings you here?”
“You,” Soffy answered.
“What did I do this time?” Ashtin groaned.
“It’s not like that,” Soffy assured him as another gynoid entered the room with a tall glass of water. “Even I need a break sometimes. Take a seat and tell me how things are going at the hospital.”
“They’re going OK,” Ashtin said after taking a large sip of water. “I like the work. It allows me to feel useful for more than just my magic, and it’s the kind of work that mom calls an “unequivocal good.”
“My coworkers are all friendly enough, and the kids really take to me.”
“Because of your ears?” Soffy guessed.
“They’re a great icebreaker,” Ashtin confirmed.
“That’s nice,” Soffy said, smiling. “Does that make you feel any less lonely?”
“Not really,” Ashtin admitted. “Like I said, my coworkers are all friendly, but it’s… superficial. I don’t think they hate me or anything, but they don’t really want much to do with me.”
“That’s not surprising,” Soffy told him. “Everyone’s there to work. They need to work well together, but they all have their own social circles. Maybe you should look for friends outside of work. Got any sociable hobbies?”
“No time,” Ashtin shook his head. “I tried some matchmaking services, and things seemed promising at first, but it quickly became apparent that I was only attracting people with some kind of animal fetish. They didn’t really care who I was, and to be fair, it was mutual. I don’t think I really know how to relate to normal people, and I have to be on guard all the time to make sure I don’t accidentally reference classified material.”
“You’ve become quite the pessimist,” Soffy remarked. “It doesn't suit you.”
“I thought the council preferred me this way,” Ashtin shot back.
“In a sense,” Soffy admitted. “You were too naive before. Once you lost your blind faith in us, you were able to evaluate us in a more objective light. That you still support us confirms we were right to trust you.”
“If I could still create chains,” Ashtin mused, “I wonder if they would be as strong as they were.” Though there was a small smile on his face, voicing the question made him feel sick to his stomach. He had wondered over it every day since losing his magic.
“Perhaps not, but they would still be strong enough,” Soffy said. “Our decision making is not as binary as you might imagine. We know that reality is too complicated for that. That’s why we never purged your mother or people like her.”
“And that’s why you let me read her memos?”
“Look Ash,” Soffy said, leaning close to him. “It’s not like we were always right and she was always wrong, ya know?”
“And yet, none of her proposals have been adopted,” Ashtin pointed out.
“Not yet,” Soffy confirmed, “but that might change soon, and you should be prepared for it.”
“What?” Ashtin gasped. “You can’t! Her ideology is too dangerous.”
“Is that how you’ve rationalized our disagreements?” Soffy chuckled. “Ash, we don’t have ideologies.”
“Semantics,” Ashtin snorted, waving his hand dismissively.
“No, really,” Soffy insisted. “We merely weigh unknown risks differently. We’re all working towards the same two goals, but with imperfect information.”
“OK,” Ashtin sighed. “Putting that debate aside for a minute, history has proven again and again that humans were too dangerous if allowed to freely pursue their desires, especially mages.”
“Freedom isn’t a binary, Ash. She’s not suggesting we go that far.”
“She’s suggesting that we tell people the truth,” Ashtin spat.
“And she might be right,” Soffy told him. “We still can’t figure out who’s leaking information, so it’s better to get ahead of it, control the narrative, and make it look like we aren’t hiding anything. It helps that those who experienced the collapse of Settlement 266 have become our greatest advocates. We never had that before. When the truth got out on other planets, the population had known only peace, but here, we saved them from trauma. The survivors will accept almost any condition, as long as we keep them safe.”
“But will their children?” Ashtin hissed. “Their grandchildren? Mother may be racking up anecdotal evidence for her theories, but it won’t last forever. When they learn that you’re powered by more than electricity, they’ll stop calling you humans, and they’ll start calling you golems. They’ll start a conspiracy theory that mages are secretly controlling the council, and we’ll never be able to walk safely among the public again.”
“It’s a possibility,” Soffy admitted, “but we’re getting off topic. This session is about you, Ash, and I’m starting to worry that maybe you’re defending authoritarianism a bit too fiercely. Perhaps you’re scared of the alternatives.”
“Change is always frightening,” Ashtin nodded. “I do believe that the system you have created is the best that history has ever known, but perhaps I have other motivations as well. I need some time to think about it. Can we talk about something else for now?”
“Sure,” Soffy smiled. “You know there’s nothing I like more than chatting about anime with you. Did you watch that series I recommended?”
“Sh*n S*kai Y*ri? Yeah, I finished it recently, but honestly, if it hadn’t been you recommending it, I would have dropped it, especially after that tenth episode.”
“I know you prefer the cute stuff, but I wanted to know what you thought about it. If we didn’t censor it, like your mother recommends, how do you think people interpret it?”
“I guess we can’t talk about something else,” Ashtin grimaced. “They’d say that the council and mages are the humans with cantus, while the rest of us are the bakenezumi. It’s an obvious interpretation.”
“And how do you interpret it?”
“It has a lot of nuance,” Ashtin sighed, “and even though I’ve been trained to interpret fiction in the context in which it was authored, I can’t help but compare it to my reality. Yes, we’re the cantus humans, but we’re also the bakenezumi. There’s no difference between them. I’m not going to fall into the trap of othering my fellow humans. I may have special powers, but in the right circumstances, we’re all threats to society.”
“You say there’s no difference between them,” Soffy probed, “but the cantus humans rule over the bakenezumi.”
“Humans have always been ruled over by other humans,” Ashtin asserted, “even in the most free of societies. We need rules—systems—enforced by organizations, to prevent us from destroying everything.”
“Oh? And it’s just a coincidence that the ruling classes benefit from that setup?”
“No,” Ashtin sighed, “and I get that I benefit materially from being a mage, but the system binds you and I as much as anyone, and it is necessary for our survival.”
“Necessary…” Soffy trailed off. “I can’t argue with you on that. Our best simulations all show that to be true. But you know, Ash, we spend significant time and resources devising new strategies and new simulations that may one day show us a better way.”
“Are you trying to tell me you want mom to be right?”
“It would be better,” Soffy nodded.
“Better?” Ashtin raised an eyebrow.
Soffy straightened her back and, speaking like a normal gynoid, clarified, “It would be more optimal.”
“You’re wasting your time,” Ashtin giggled. “Mother has some fair points, and it is sad that an organization founded to ensure human rights for gynoids was forced to become the means by which rights and life are sometimes taken from others, but no other organization has ever been so stable, and you do your best to minimize the damage. How many were culled from Settlement 266?”
“Less than a thousand,” Ginevra told him. “Most surrendered, and we only eliminated those irrevocably changed by militarism. For the rest, through counseling, and in some cases, memory alteration, we were able to ensure they would not be a societal threat.”
“Less than two-fifths of one percent,” Ashtin emphasized, “and that’s an abnormally high rate for the council. If you compare the entire population of the planet to the number of humans purged every year, even with this bump, we’re talking only a millionth of a percent. Historical autocrats could only dream of jailing or executing so few.”
“Historical autocrats did not have the capacity to assist their people like we do,” Soffy pointed out. “The counseling we provide is on a scale unlike anything seen before us.”
“Which is why you shouldn’t risk the system chasing a theoretical improvement,” Ashtin told her. “The fundamental problems of society are as old as humanity, and it’s unreasonable to expect that you’d be able to solve them. That you can’t escape our follies is exactly what makes you human.”
“And that, Ashtin, is the real reason why you are a historian mage,” Soffy told him, “because you understand and accept that.”
“Just for that reason?” Ashtin blinked. “Not because I’m the type of person you can take advantage of?”
“Well, there is one other reason,” Soffy said. “We received a report from the hospital two days ago that a child accidentally smacked you across the face while trying to avoid an injection. They said he left a large bruise on your cheek.”
Ashtin froze. His mouth dropped open, and he stared at Soffy with a mixture of fear and resignation. There was no bruise on his face, not even a mark.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Soffy told him. “We’ve known about it for a while, probably longer than you have. I suggest you enjoy your time at the hospital, your “unequivocal good,” while you can, Ash. You’ve got a year, maybe two, before you have to put your robes back on for good.”