Exercising Authority (Mar Chapter 6)

posted in: Solo Writing | 0

Mar Sterkvleuel | < Meets

Weeks after having joined the research team at Rentik’s behest, Mar continues his training at the College while aiding them in their work. Yet, there are new developments in regards to the project.

6529 words | 26 min reading time


Mar stood alone in a pine forest. Tall, straight trees towered above him with nothing but exposed bark down below. Their discarded needles carpeted the floor, smothering and choking sprouts and weeds alike. The air was a biting cold, causing his wings to numb and become painful to move after his body had decided it was not worth the energy expenditure to heat them. Imitating the vibrations that humans did when cold did not seem to help, and energy he spent to create heat was quickly lost to the environment.

These conditions allowed only the hardiest plants to survive the ground below. Due to the density of the trees and the needle-dampened ground, sound also did not survive for long – yet the dense air allowed it to travel further, all coalescing into a dull din permeating the forest.

He had come to this place to practice what he’d learnt in theory.

To his left lay a small stream wide and deep enough that he could sit down in the centre and have the water almost reach his head. The banks were free from pine trees and instead ruled by shrubbery. In order to grant him easier access to the water, he had torn a section of bushes up from the ground and piled them behind himself along with a mass of mangled pine wood that had once been a tree.

It took a surprising amount of effort to fell a tree. He had wished for a tool and even considered whacking it with his tail. Applying force to an object as a whole to lift and move it at speed was child’s play. But Mar knew that using a sharp object would be the antithesis of his reason for coming here. In bringing down the tree, and further splitting it into smaller parts, he had needed to apply a focused force directly to small portions of the wood. Unfortunately for the tree, focusing energy into a finer point was exactly what he was practising. The end result was a pile of wood that looked like someone had chopped it apart with the wrong side of an axe. His earlier idea of imitating Irikshan’s clean and intricate carving of a stone city was quickly dismissed.

On his right, a blazing fire crackled on bare dirt that he had cleared of pine needles. The burning wood bubbled and popped, spewing forth smoke as resin boiled. Freshly chopped wood was not ideal for a fire, but it served its purpose. Some of the coals boiled even more enthusiastically than the rest, having just recently been soaked in the stream. Another of his exercises had been to divert the water around flaming coals, ultimately creating a pocket of air for them to continue to burn underwater. As evidenced by the amount of soaked wood that he had to reignite, neither had he mastered this.

Yet now his practice was interrupted as he sensed the presence of another touching his mind. He could not locate the individual, as there was not a soul nearby. It was an odd sensation. For lack of better description, he grabbed this individual’s mental probe and pulled them.

The air in a wide area before him rippled and distorted as if a volcanic level of heat were now mixing with the cold forest air. Slowly the distortions became more draconic in shape while the figure gained green and orange colouration. Finally, the figure became flesh: a dragon so tall, Mar’s head barely reached his leaf-green-plated chest. While the undersides of his wings were the same green, and his scales primarily a burnt-out orange, they were a mess of yellowish stripes and wisps of green. Irikshan had joined.

“We’re going to have to work on your awareness of the real world when you’re in your illusions. I’m certain you could eventually operate in both at the same time – similar to how I do not need to devote my entire attention to either of our illusions. Good morning, Mar.” Irikshan blinked a few times at a measured pace, expressing that he was pleased to begin the lesson.

“Yeah, with three centuries of practice. Morning, sir.”

Irikshan snorted. “This is no competition. We’ve already established our abilities work differently. I alter an individual’s perceptions of reality, while you put them in a state akin to lucid dreaming – with the accompanying sped up perceptions of time.” The elder surveyed the area, and the mess Mar had created. His response was tilting his head questioningly. “Are you certain you should be practising in here and not reality? I know physics has behaved how we expected, but that precisely may be the issue. What if it is supposed to behave in an unexpected manner?”

“Saves time,” he flicked his tail dismissively. “I wanted to get some practice in before you came. On stuff I already understand. Focusing here is even harder than normal, so I figured if I could get better here, it would have an easier time in reality.”

“Fair enough. Have you been busy with work from that research team?”

“Yes.”

“How’s it going?”

“Don’t you get their progress reports?”

Irikshan bobbed his head, “I do, but I was asking after your personal experience. There are some big decisions that need to be made today.”

“Well, I’m thankful for the opportunity. To Rentik that she encouraged the team to take me as an apprentice, and to the team for choosing to do so. Didn’t expect them to take me seriously, I’m still a child. I’m learning a lot, and my previous experience with computers has rendered me not completely useless. It’s just a lot to keep up with.”

“I can have your schedule changed if you would like?” Irikshan tilted his head again. “We have multiple programs to handle both full time and part-time students.”

“No, no, it’s fine. The team members have only taken me on the condition that I continue to put my studies first.”

“Good. And what do you think of the machine’s capabilities?”

“Machines have always been great at doing simple things faster and more reliably than us or the humans. It’s the complex things that are challenging. But as the technology improves and is released to the public, people – not even necessarily us – will figure out how to make it do more and more.” He paused, the excitement clear in his eyes. Irikshan nodded him on. “Currently I’m helping make software that can help bug test their stuff, while most of the team is working on functionality where it can record and imitate actions. They’re also working on making it more customisable. Someday we could have it record advanced abilities and imitate those. Imagine being able to take dream-vacations on demand! Hah!”

“Be careful that you don’t get ahead of yourself. You can still barely control your illusions beyond where you end up. You’ve passed your theory exams last week, and now’s the time for you to practice.” Irikshan stepped back.

“What’s the plan today?” Mar felt a large sneeze coming, closing his eyes and wrinkling his nose in preparation. It did not come. When he opened his eyes, he found thick crisscrossing metal bars filling his vision. They surrounded him on all sides and even above. Not that the confined space was large enough for him to open his wings and fly. The bars were also sunk into the ground below, firmly anchored there.

“Get out the cage.”

“Really?” Mar tapped the metal with a claw. The bars rang hollow. The metal appeared to be a type of steel. There was no point testing whether they were real or not.

“Yes.”

Sure, Irikshan was the head of the mage college, but it still irked Mar to some degree that the elder had better control of Mar’s illusions than Mar himself had. Ever since Irikshan had discovered that altering Mar’s perception of his own world, in other words causing Mar to see illusions in illusions, caused those alterations to become part of the world, the Elder had been looking for any excuse to use his illusions. If it weren’t for the Elder’s always-serious demeanour, Mar would have thought that he took an almost hatchling-like joy in seeing his own illusions become ‘real’.

Drawing from his heart-crystal, Mar condensed a copious amount of energy into his fist – to the point where it stung. He swung at the bar, releasing a kinetic blast forwards moments before hitting the bars. He very suddenly wished he had stopped his swing short, as he found himself punching the unflinching metal. Irikshan had diverted the blast around the metal, towards himself, and absorbed it. Mar waved his hand in the air as if that would dull the pain.

“Come now Mar, you knew that wouldn’t work. You could spend all the energy you have like that and you wouldn’t get very far. Decrease surface area you apply it to, and you decrease the required force to break it. You really should have thought that through.”

Nursing his throbbing hand, Mar asked, “Can I have my energy back please?”

“No. That is not how you’re supposed to get out this cage. You do not need imaginary energy to get out of this imaginary cage. Just like the energy you spent, it only exists in this world as long as you allow it to.”

With a sigh, Mar closed his eyes. It was challenging to focus, but he endeavoured to do so. He tugged on the dream, attempting to manipulate it to free himself. The world around him lurched, then the frigid forest soundscape vanished – replaced with the sounds of training.

Opening his eyes, Mar found himself back amongst the familiar mountains of Tumenzar. In the region behind Raifal College, several small training grounds had been established in the mountains, far from major structures such as the dam and water treatment plant.

Mar had lain down at the edge of the large, roughly circular arena where he’d started practising. On the opposite side of the arena, another trainee and their mentor were tossing bolts of electricity between each other. It was a dragoness training a foreign-looking man. He was likely one of Tumenzar’s significant temporary population, here to study and train before returning to their homes. Although, he could just have easily been amongst, or the descendant of, those that chose to stay.

Outside the arena, at a distance close enough they could intervene but far enough their presence did not feel oppressive, stood two more dragons. They were covered in plain black three-piece cloaks that went over their backs and under their wings, connecting at the neck and the base of the tail. These cloaks hung downwards in a curtain-like fashion. His senses as to what might be hidden beneath were suspiciously blocked off. He was too nervous to ask Irikshan about them, let alone approach them and ask them themselves.

“Mar, stay focused.” Finally, in front of Mar, the scowling Elder himself sat. His snout was crinkled and brows furrowed, but he was not showing his teeth. “The secret service escort is a part of my job you really should be used to by now. If there’s anyone here you should be scared of, it’s me.”

“Well,” the youngster tried to lighten the mood, “I got out of the cage.”

“No, Mar. You need to take this seriously. Let’s do it again.”

“Yes, sir.” he closed his eyes, picturing the frigid pine forest that they had just been in before easing himself and Irikshan into the dream.


Mar sat outside, a small distance from one of the two main entrances of the college complex, holding his tablet with one hand and supporting himself with the other. Mentally triggering the capacitive screen was an easy enough action. One that he’d gotten quite used to. Although, at this moment he stood at the railing at the edge of the courtyard, looking down the mountain slopes.

Each of Raifal College’s main entrances lay on opposite sides of the river. The areas in front of them were large red brick courtyards, clear of anything that could obstruct incoming or departing dragons. They were partially supported by pillars embedded in the sloped ground below. On the far end of each courtyard lay expansive parking lots.

The college complex consisted of several partially-freestanding buildings, adjoined by sky bridges – the most prominent of which joined the two buildings directly on each riverbank, near the thundering falls. The river itself, while not huge from a global perspective, was a great boon to two of Tumenzar’s three capital cities and many smaller settlements along its south-westward course.

In front of the college complex, downhill from the falls, lay a meticulously designed and maintained botanical garden consisting largely of species indigenous to the country. Wide grassy areas dotted with trees separated groups plants that had different soil preferences. Even surveying from so far, Mar could spot many distinctly recognisable plants: Sweet Thorn Acacias, Baobabs, Marula Trees, King Proteas, Strelitzias, Arum Lillies, Red Hot Pokers, and so many more.

Mar looked back at his tablet. He’d been messaging a few friends that he’d met online over the years. They had formed a server on a messaging application and talked there. Those friends had added their friends, and it had become a fairly large and diverse group with members from around the world. Many of them worked in IT-related positions, but more didn’t. The server was named The Bytes Bit.

All on the server spoke Imaadudish – the language that was the standard for international business and trade. Mar himself, although speaking Tumenzarian at home and with family, had done his studies and work in Imaadudish. He almost didn’t notice when he switched languages anymore.

There had been some meetups between members of the group that lived in the same countries. Mar himself had met a dragon and human who lived in Tumenzar. There had been no big international meetup, but most of them had shared pictures of what they looked like. While Mar couldn’t be certain that any of them except those he had met looked like the pictures they sent, he could not see a reason that they would need to use pictures of someone else instead of simply not sharing.

At this moment in time, several members were abuzz about some new game announcements at an international exhibition called the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Mar himself was skimming the messages, but not participating in the conversation. He had other things to keep him busy of late.

Behind him, the large automatic doors had been regularly opening and closing as students, staff, and visitors came and went. Once again they opened, to the footsteps of a large dragon exiting the complex. This time, however, the footsteps changed direction towards him.

“Young Sterkvleuel.” The voice was smooth and soft, for a dragon. Friendly, despite the family-name greeting. Mar turned to find himself looking at a Scriven of gold and off-white, decorated with dark navy blue stripes. She did not seem to have seen battle, let alone let her age show via anything but her size. The amount of jewellery she wore would have looked tacky on most others, but she wore it with style. Additionally, Mar could tell that those gems were not mere decoration.

“Miss Rentik. How are you today?” Mar returned the pleasant smile he received.

“I am well. When are you planning to go to the lab?”

“I was just about to.”

“Good, I was also heading there myself. Fly with me?”

“Yes ma’am,” Mar nodded and slipped his tablet into his bag, securing it closed.

Rentik unfurled her sail-sized wings and began beating at the air, blasting enough air into the ground that Mar had to brace himself or be knocked off his feet. His nictitating membranes instinctively shut, the world around him becoming blurred.

Mar detected more energy released by Rentik than that of her wings against the air. She was giving herself some extra lift. He wondered how it felt, or if she even noticed she did it anymore. It was a well-enough known problem experienced by all species of Draco: older dragons had to counteract a portion of gravity on their own bodies, lest their own weight cause health complications, or keep them grounded. Natural selection was a cruel thing, only striving to ensure that living beings made it to reproductive age, and not caring for what happened beyond that. Especially as said creature’s lifespans extended far beyond what their ancient, less energetically adept, ancestors’ once might have been.

Once the air had stilled enough, Mar likewise spread his wings and took to the air. He too provided himself with some extra lift to get into the air faster, but it was a conscious decision. Perhaps someday he might simply stop noticing that he did it.

Rentik had been gliding in a circle, waiting for him, and began to fly in the direction of the labs when he joined her. He followed a small distance behind her left wing.

Rentik turned her head to look at him, then called loud enough to be heard, “How have things been going for you?”

“Well enough. I’m already tired today and it’s barely noon. I am making progress with my training, but it seems like Irikshan is having to force himself to be patient with me. The research team seem like that too. I am learning a lot, but I feel like I’m only being marginally helpful to them as their in-house bug tester.”

“That is no fault of your own. Normally individuals far more experienced and skilled than you would find themselves in those positions.”

“Thanks,” Mar said sarcastically. He was tempted to add to that but knew Rentik only meant well.

“No need to be upset. The fact that you still keep going, striving to learn and become better, speaks to a persistence and desire to grow that is far too rare, especially amongst our kind. Your progress and persistence are what lead me to invite you to the research team. I’m sure those aspects will serve you well in life.”

“Thanks.” It was genuine this time.

“I dislike it when drake settle down in mere comfort. They stop striving for more, to become better. What’s more is that they can even come to fear change and actively fight it. Part of what I love about Tumenzar is that scientific and technological advancement is the norm.” She paused, thinking. Their destination was nearing. “Still, some things could certainly stand to improve.”

“Do you think the project is ok?”

“Yes, I like the team and their progress. They’re certainly persistent too. You’re only seeing the tail end of this, but they’ve been through a lot.”

The two glided apart. They had arrived at the science complex building. Mar politely let Rentik land first and waited for her to move out of the way before he came down to the ground. They entered the building and were greeted and then thoroughly inspected by security staff. Mar’s bags were taken, as usual, to be returned when he left. Rentik’s were merely glanced through, but that was not surprising.

Once the check was done, they headed to the stairwell. Its steps were divided into two sections that had different sizes and spacing, one large enough for Rentik and one small enough for humans… or Mar. The lab his team worked in was on the third floor and each floor was seven metres tall. He typically took the elevator, which he was still small enough to fit inside, but now walked with Rentik.

“Irikshan said some big decisions are being made today?” Mar hoped he’d get told what these were.

“I haven’t been informed of anything of the sort yet.”

“Oh.”

Mar found himself skipping steps to keep up with Rentik’s large strides.

“Are you going to continue working on that diagnostic program today?”

“Yes.” Mar, under the oversight of the rest of the team, had been designing a program that would run diagnostics and bug testing on their software and machines. It was a simple enough concept, to try to break the programs while observing what went wrong, but to do so automatically instead of manually proved challenging. They’d been pleased with his idea, but he was certain they would have done something like that on their own eventually.

“Good. I’ll be in Vivette’s office for a while before I have to leave.” Mar had learnt when he officially joined that Vivette was the leader of the main team working on this project. Despite this, her attitude was more as if she was supporting a team of equals than exerting authority over them. An approach that seemed to be a great boon to team morale.

When they reached the third floor, Rentik turned into the office when they passed it, leaving Mar to continue to the lab alone.


Mar, Morne and Mischa stood in front of a whiteboard, taking turns with the marker pen and having their say on what their next addition to the diagnostic program would be, and what approach to the addition they would take. They were currently leaning towards some basic emulation of output and input from one of their machines so that the software could be tested as if it were live, while it was actually not. Testing the software with user-defined or random inputs and only recording its outputs could only get one so far.

All heads in the lab turned towards the door as it burst open and two dragons marched in. They wore black three-piece cloaks with badges pinned to the front and the large, bold letters ‘CDI’ on the side. The one in the lead flashed his badge, then announced, “Agent Ruan. Council’s Department of Investigation. We’re here to inform you that this project is under new authority.”

There were a couple of sounds of surprise from the team, but the rest remained silent. Looking around the room, several of the team members had their wings partially spread, while a couple of their tails flicked back and forth. This could have been agitation or simple startlement.

“Can I see that, please?” Mischa stepped forward and pointed towards where the badge hung from the dragon’s cloak. He nodded and the badge floated to Mischa, who took some time to inspect it before sending it back.

“Elder Irikshan is here too,” the agent commented. “He is speaking to Vivette and Rentik. I am here with some forms for you all to sign.” Said forms were distributed.

Mar was in a position where he could see out the door and down the passage. He saw more agents, along with a tail – ending in a pointed shape somewhere between a spade and an arrowhead – sticking out of Vivette’s office doorway. The tail soon vanished fully into the office. He was fairly certain that it belonged to Irikshan.

Setting his sight on the document he’d received, Mar was met with rather intimidating legal-speak. Hoping to gain some understanding of what he was signing for, he asked, “What’s happening?”

“This project is now under the direct control of the council,” Agent Ruan answered. “The document outlines what you need to know.”

“Why?”

“National security,” came the curt response.

“That’s not very informative.”

“No,” Morne agreed, “it isn’t. But I can imagine why they made the decision.”

“So, what are we signing?” Mar thought it would be more efficient to have it explained than to decipher it himself. And he felt a little lazy.

“To summarise what it says here,” Luski was the one who spoke up. His tone indicated he wanted clarification on whether he himself had interpreted the document correctly. “We, both our team and the other teams, will continue all our research as-is. This includes the means of mass production, but without the plans to produce, sell, or release anything. The council will handle decisions on what to release to the press and public. All our previous contracts and non-disclosure agreements still hold sway, but we are in obligation to the council instead of Rentik and Raifal College.”

“That is correct. If you’ll sign at the bottom, I will sign as your first witness, and one of your colleagues can sign as the second.”

While the signing was being done, Lucy asked, “What about the significant funds that Rentik and the college invested into this project?”

Mar had Morne sign as his second witness. No one had asked him to be theirs, but that didn’t bother him.

“Both are being reimbursed,” Ruan answered matter-of-factly.

Looking back down the passageway, Mar saw Vivette, Rentik and Irikshan leaving the office. Vivette looked mildly unsettled. Rentik’s expression was one of pure distaste, to the point that she could probably curdle perfectly good milk just by looking at it. Irikshan did a remarkable job at keeping a neutral countenance in the face of that.

“Did you tell Irikshan something?”

The three had stopped walking and continued talking, but the conversation did seem to be concluding. Oddly enough, no sound at all could be heard from their conversation.

“Mar.”

“Yes?” Mar responded to his name. He turned to see that Mischa had been speaking to him. “Pardon me?”

“Did you say something to Irikshan that affected this decision?”

“Mischa,” Morne stepped in, “Don’t go blaming this on Mar. This decision would have been the entire council’s and would have been deliberated at length. Additionally, they would already have had access to our reports.”

“I do not and will not blame this on Mar,” Mischa stated. “I am simply curious.”

Despite her not showing any aggressive body language, Mar found himself shrinking from her gaze. “Well,” he opted to answer the question, “I did speak to Irikshan this morning during my training session. He asked after my opinion of the project and said there was some big decision to be made. I guess this was it.”

“Most likely,” Mischa nodded, “How did you respond?”

“I said I’m learning a lot, mentioned what we’re currently working on, and expressed my excitement about the machine’s potential.”

“The machine’s potential is likely what the council is worried about,” Mischa concluded. “But they would have been aware of that and would have been observing us for long.”

Agent Ruan, who had just collected the last form from Zhen, now spoke again at last. “We will be leaving now. Carry on with your good work.”

Looking down the passage again, Mar saw Irikshan had left. Vivette’s door was closed. She and Rentik had probably gone back into the office. Mar rushed after the agents. Hearing him approach, Ruan turned around with a quickness and readiness that caused Mar to come to a fearful screeching halt.

Peering towards the small dragon, while remaining tense Ruan asked, “Can I help?” A sliver of his teeth were showing.

Mar could sense the other dragon’s mental presence, checking him for any sign that he would pose a threat. Mar’s heart was suddenly pounding as the realisation dawned that these agents could be incredibly dangerous if they needed to. “I uh… I wanted to… I was going to go talk to the Elder.”

“I don’t think he’d have the time for you, little one.”

“Let him past, Ruan,” The other agent spoke for the first time, “That’s Elder Irikshan’s mentee. You ‘skimmed’ the personnel files again, didn’t you?”

The first agent shot the second a look as if to say, ‘not now’. “Very well, go on ahead.” The two stepped aside and allowed Mar to run past. When he reached the stairwell, he glanced down and saw Irikshan had just reached the second floor.

Irikshan’s small envoy quickly noticed Mar scrabbling down the stairs, and so did Irikshan. He stopped and waited, blinking slowly to indicate trust. A couple of CDI agents reacted in a similar manner to Ruan, but then relaxed somewhat when they noticed Irikshan. When Mar had caught up, Irikshan resumed his descent. “What’s the matter, my student?”

“I wanted to ask… if you may tell me… What is the reason behind this, and what are your plans? I’m sure the team would like to know as well.”

“I explained to Vivette and Rentik. I asked Vivette to explain it to all of you. But, put simply, the council wants to be sure that this technology does not get into the wrong hands. Until we are certain that we have enough… safeguards in place, this technology will remain secret. Well, the specifics of it. The public already knows of its existence thanks to Rentik’s press releases. We want to be prepared for problems that can and will arise once this becomes public.”

Mar nodded. That made sense. “And what of Rentik?”

“The council has not decided yet. She appears as if she will act territorial and non-cooperative this time. I will recommend she be removed from the project.”

“I think she’ll be fine. She’s got grand ideas and likes taking the lead. Give her some time, and she’ll adjust and figure out a way to help out.”

“Sir,” one of the agents drew Irikshan’s attention to look to the entrance to the building. The building’s security staff and a couple CDI agents were holding back a couple dozen reporters, extending their wings to block off more area. The reporters continued snapping pictures past the wings and through the glass of the doors.

“Ugh,” Irikshan groaned. “They’re better at sniffing out a story than an Ostrocation Bloodseeker. I’m not dressed for this, nor in the mood for them to get in my face.”

Mar looked to the doors, feeling shy from all the cameras even this far away. He heard footsteps heading down the last stairs. He moved to follow when a hand stopped him. He looked back to find Irikshan stopping him from descending, while another Irikshan descended the stairs. Irikshan’s escorts descended the stairs with that Irikshan.

“Briefly returning to the subject of Rentik: I partially agree with your assessment. She has a history of thinking she always knows best even if the council decides otherwise. Sometimes she agrees with our decisions, other times she does not. This is normal. She has a tendency to give us some pain about decisions she does not agree with. And this is a particularly sensitive project.”

“I see.”

Still aware of the two Irikshans, Mar concentrated on the one in front of him, then poked at it. He felt the Elder’s rough and worn scales. With some effort, Mar managed to look past that. He observed that it was simply an artificial force preventing his hand from moving forward, while his mind perceived it to be Irikshan’s scales.

The fake-Irikshan smiled, pleased. “I would have done it the other way around if that would not end up displeasing the press so much when they realise they took pictures of empty air once I leave.”

“What if they looked at the pictures they took now?”

“I could make them see me in the pictures as well.”

“Woah!”

“This is the result of considerable practice. I will see you for training tomorrow.”

Mar nodded, returning the smile before he blinked and the Irikshan before him vanished. “I will see you tomorrow.”

As soon as the real Irikshan exited the building, the crowd of journalists began calling for a statement. Mar could see Irikshan slightly retreating from the plethora of microphones floating towards his face. Irikshan responded that the project will continue as before, but the machines would not be made publicly available until safety measures could be put in place.


When Mar, at last, arrived home, he immediately flopped down onto his bedding and sunk into the pillows.

Suddenly, a distinct two-toned sound came from his tablet. It alerted him to the fact that he’d received a message via the application he had been on earlier. He realized that he must have forgotten to turn his tablet to silent mode before giving it to security.

Mustering the willpower to move, Mar dug in his bag and took out his tablet. He had a number of notifications from different apps, but two from the messaging application.

The first, a quarter of an hour old, said, “The Bytes Bit #general DataStorm: @DeepBlue @KoringHoring @IntegratedIntegrale Any of you know about this?” He must not have heard it on his flight to his apartment.

The second, most recent one, said, “The Bytes Bit #general CrystalCircuits: Is that @DeepBlue?

DeepBlue was the username that Mar used for all of his online interactions. Both of these messages were from his friends’ server. Using the ‘@’ symbol before his username was what triggered the app to notify him. The other two that were mentioned by the first message were the other two Tumenzarians on the server.

He tapped the notification with his claw and released a miniscule discharge to the screen, then repeated the action to unlock his tablet. He found himself greeted by a large number of new messages, as well as a couple of people currently typing on the #general text channel of the server.

He scrolled up to the message that had triggered the first notification. The message immediately prior to that had contained a link to a news article with the title “Tumenzarian Government Seizes Control of Energy-Manipulating Machine Research Project”. Mar decided it would be best read through the messages in chronological order before he attempted a response.

KoringHoring: I did not know of this happening. I was, however, aware of the project’s existence.

DataStorm: These machines sound scary. I wanted to ask you three about it.

BlinkOnce: Didn’t they make international news earlier this year? When they announced that they had a working prototype?

BlinkOnce: I seem to recall you sharing that.

KoringHoring: They did. And I did tell you guys about it.

IntegratedIntegrale: Wasn’t the project funded by Raifal College, a government institution, anyway?

KoringHoring: Yes

NotTechSupport: What’s the fuss about then?

BlinkOnce: Media loves making a fuss over nothing.

BlinkOnce: Fuss gets them clicks. Clicks get them ad revenue.

BucketOfPaint: Is local media covering it?

KoringHoring: I’ll check.

CrystalCircuits: A machine that can manipulate energy sounds pretty cool.

CrystalCircuits: Probably dangerous too.

CrystalCircuits: Might be why their government wants to keep it under control?

KoringHoring: ^

KoringHoring: Local news sources seem to be calmer about it.

She had sent a link to an article with the title, “Beheeraad Neem Direkte Beheer van Narvorsingsprojek om Veiligheidsmatreëls te Implimenteer”.

KoringHoring: Their title says “Council Assumes Direct Control of Research Project to Implement Safety Measures”. It’s rather brief, lacking the speculation of the article @DataStorm sent. It recites what is known of the project, has pictures from today, and quotes what Elder Irikshan said.

BucketOfPaint: Elder?

IntegratedIntegrale: President. We have three of them. One resides in each of our capitals. Decisions are made by them and the council, who are basically parliament.

DataStorm: Why not just call them Presidents and Parliament?

IntegratedIntegrale: Tradition. The dragons love their tradition.

CrystalCircuits sent a picture of Irikshan and Mar descending the stairs, talking to one another while surrounded by several agents. Seeing it from this perspective, Mar became even more embarrassed about his minute size.

CrystalCircuits: Is that @DeepBlue?

DataStorm: Where’s that from?

KoringHoring: It was in my article.

KoringHoring: We’ve got a decent population of Ebonscales here. Seeing the offspring of them and us isn’t too uncommon.

KoringHoring: Though now that I zoom in, it does look like him.

BlinkOnce: Which city is this in? He’s been in Tumenoord studying to control his illusions for…

BlinkOnce: Several months now. Wow, time flies.

KoringHoring: Yeah, that’s Tumenoord. That city is where Elder Irikshan is seated.

IntegratedIntegrale: Didn’t Blue mention a project at some stage?

NotTechSupport: A web search says that Irikshan has illusion abilities. Seems pretty likely that the two would at least have met each other.

BucketOfPaint: Guys, he’s online now. Let him catch up, then you can ask him instead of guessing.

Having finally read all the messages he’d missed, along with taking glances at the articles – the second of which didn’t even refer to him in the caption of the picture in CrystalCircuits had sent, he stopped and thought for some time.

He had shared some details of his life with these people but had refrained from most specifics except for in private messages with the few he was closest to. But there was no point denying that it was him in the article’s picture. They’d figured that out already. And this goofy bunch meant him no harm. If they’d been determined to, they could have figured out his real identity ages ago. And he theirs.

DeepBlue: Yeah, that’s me.

BucketOfPaint: You’re adorable!

DeepBlue: Heeeeey! I’m 34!

NotTechSupport: Has Irikshan been showing you how to do things with your illusions?

DeepBlue: Mine are a bit different than his, but yes. At the college, we get standard group classes where we have to learn and get tested on theory and do some practicals, but we also get assigned mentors to have one-on-one training sessions with. He’s my mentor.

DataStorm: Woah, that’s cool! You get a president as a mentor!

BlinkOnce: Did he take you with to the research team thing?

DeepBlue: No, I was already there. I’m assisting the research team a little.

BlinkOnce: Oh, neat

CrystalCircuits: What’s happening there?

DeepBlue: I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you

DeepBlue: Nah, I’m under an NDA.

DeepBlue: I can’t imagine Irikshan would be happy if I talked about it.

DataStorm: Sounds scary

KoringHoring: The council will tell us what we need to know

DeepBlue: Yeah. It’s not scary.

DataStorm: Say the dragons

NotTechSupport: Just get some self-defence classes if you’re scared. I got some. You can defend your mind even if you aren’t a sensitive

DataStorm: I can’t stop myself from getting electrocuted or set on fire by defending my mind.

NotTechSupport: Not sure about your country, but here I’m probably more likely to get electrocuted or set on fire by mundane causes. The government strictly regulates mages.

BucketOfPaint: Same here

KoringHoring: And there’s sure to be strict regulations and control of these machines too

BlinkOnce: If we even get them

KoringHoring: ?

BlinkOnce: You Tumenzarians export your tech at exorbitant prices, if at all.

BlinkOnce: I’ve read of a few scandals where your council went to great lengths to shut down imitations, knock-offs and leaks of their stuff.

IntegratedIntegrale: Fair enough. The council does like to put their own country first. Like any government.

BlinkOnce: It’s more than that. Whenever I see them in the news, they’re acting as if they think they’re some big wise parental figure. Like all us humans are kids who can’t look after themselves.

DeepBlue: Welp

DeepBlue: I’m going to go take a nap.

DeepBlue: It’s been a long day. Thanks to training this morning, I’m feeling especially tired. If you need me specifically, I’ll answer later.

BlinkOnce: Sleep well, Blue!

DataStorm: Sleep deep

A few others were typing too, but Mar closed the app and turned the sound and vibration of his tablet off. He took off his bags and settled back into his bed. He quickly drifted off to a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

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