Mar Sterkvleuel | < Experiments | Exercising Authority >
In which Mar has an overdue meeting with family, followed by a meeting with new people.
2935 words | 12 min reading time
“Draak” (drɑːk) – the Tumenzarian equivalent of “person”, referring to a dragon
“Drake” (drɑː-kə) – the equivalent of “people”, referring to multiple dragons
Josh promptly answered the door and welcomed Mar inside. As usual, the house was marvellously neat – especially in comparison to the apartment Mar currently resided in. There was some method in Mar’s madness but, since they were children, Josh had always been confident and organised in what he did.
Style, however, was not one of his strong suites. The tasteful paintings hung on the walls of the entrance hall, along with the matching furniture that only emphasised the house’s cleanliness and order, was Carina’s doing.
Taking care not to bump anything with his wings or tail, Mar followed Josh to the kitchen, where the couple had still been cooking – Mar had arrived early.
“Mar! So good to see you! It’s been ages!” Carina embraced Mar, her arms wrapping around his neck while his head rested awkwardly on her shoulder. “You two head to the lounge, I’ll join you shortly.”
“I can help,” Mar protested.
“Don’t you worry, I just need to take this out the oven and do some final preparations.” She shooed the pair away.
In the living room, the tiled floor gave way to a great big carpet. Against two adjacent walls of this room stood couches. Before the third stood a television and some bookshelves. The fourth was more glass than wall, with sliding doors that opened up onto a concrete veranda with an outdoor dining area and an open fireplace. The veranda, enclosed by railing, looked downhill, with the city centre to the left and more residential areas to the right. The hill was steep enough that the more immediate neighbours’ rooves did not entirely obscure the view. The weather today, however, was too overcast to warrant dining outside. Mar could see that the dining room table had been set, rather than the outdoors one.
At the foot of one of the couches was a pillow large enough for Mar. At the centre of the pillow lay a cat.
“Olivier, come here.” Josh scooped up the cat, receiving a protesting meow in response. The creature was quickly satisfied, however, by its new spot on Josh’s lap and the petting it received.
“Will… he be ok with me here?”
“Of course. We let him go outdoors and, while most of our neighbours are humans, he’s bound to encounter dragons. Plus, the shelter we got him from had plenty of dragons as staff.”
“Oh, ok. You got him several months ago, right?” Mar resisted the urge to take out his tablet and search through his message history to check the exact date.
“Yes. Got him August last year.”
“So… how have things been for you two?”
“Good, good. Work has been busy, but it’s manageable. I’m a bit jealous of Carina and the other non-mage doctors, though. They get the easier cases.”
“I heard that!” came a shout from the kitchen.
A guilty look crossed Josh’s face before he continued. “Dr Van Dalen has been moving me towards working with the other mages more regularly. Fleshmending still makes me a bit squeamish despite all the practice, but she has been making sure that doesn’t stop me. Just yesterday I had to stitch together a youngster’s wing membrane after he managed to tear it.”
“Is Dr Van Dalen that draak I’ve seen you with on campus?”
“Yes, Dr Marieke Van Dalen. She has been mentoring me and a few of my contemporaries.” There was some silence, which neither felt the need to break. A decade living apart did little to reduce their comfort with one another’s presence.
Just then, Carina entered view, walking from the kitchen to the dining room. Josh lifted the cat from his lap, stood up, and deposited it where he had been sitting, then he went to go help his wife.
“Bring the pillow to the table,” he told Mar, who nodded.
Mar grabbed the corner of the pillow but then decided against dragging it along the floor and instead levitated it in front of him. One side of the table was conspicuously lacking in chairs and had a low table upon which lay a neatly folded towel and a bar of soap. This was where Mar set down his pillow. Josh brought a small basin of warm water and placed it on the side table. Mar washed his hands while the others brought a couple more trays of food from the kitchen.
After the preparations were complete, they began to eat in silence at first – enjoying the food. Yet, Mar knew what was on their minds – and that they were just being polite, giving him time. He eventually put down his cutlery and finished his mouthful.
“So, I guess I owe you two an explanation about the past few weeks.” No voiced response, but they did both look to him expectantly. “How much have my parents told you?”
“Your dad told us that you had an emerging advanced ability.” Carina was the one who answered. “Something to do with dreaming of other worlds. He said it was giving you trouble and you’d be coming here to get training. But thought it best that you tell us the rest when you’re ready.”
“I see. It started out as if I was merely having lucid dreams. They got longer and more detailed, and I woke up tired, but no one I told about it took it all that seriously. Neither did I, really. After they continued for some time, I sought advice at the hospital. They gave me a bed and told me they’d monitor my sleep that night. Whatever the reason – perhaps the unfamiliar environment – that night’s one lasted long enough that I forgot it wasn’t real.
“In the real world, it was more like a few days that I was trapped in a sort of coma despite my mind using an exceptionally large amount of energy. The doctors managed to figure out that it was some sort of illusion. They kept charged shiridan crystals near me and did what they could to contact Elder Irikshan and have him fly down. Supposedly, in the meantime, one of the doctors had tried to break me out of it but ended up getting trapped in it too. The man wouldn’t talk to me after it, however.”
“Isn’t that rather unprofessional?”
“I don’t blame him. I had to seek counselling myself after it. To be honest, part of the reason I’ve been delaying talking to you two was that I am still somewhat averse to speaking about it. Anyway, on the morn of the day that the Elder was set to depart, I managed to end the illusion myself.”
“Ah, so when I saw you a few weeks ago at the college-,” Josh began.
“Yes, it was just before my first training session with Elder Irikshan.”
“How’s that been going?”
“Very good, actually. He’s taught me how to control it; to choose when I enter and leave the illusion. He’s done lots of little experiments to help us figure things out. For example, instead of having to feed the illusions to whoever’s seeing them like he does, anyone that’s in one of my illusions has their own mind doing a lot of the work for me. What they expect to see has a large effect on what they do see – but this affects everyone in the illusion, including me. He thinks that I might be able to take greater control with some practice, but for now, I can merely prepare by picturing the place I want to be.”
“That’s great to hear! I would be interested to see it at some stage. When you’re more comfortable, of course.”
“Heh, yeah,” Mar broke eye contact with Josh and began fiddling with his food, then resumed eating.
“So, what else have you been doing?” Enquired Carina. “Josh told me you have been very busy.”
“Mostly been catching up on my studies so that I’ll be able to join classes sooner than later…”
“But?” She caught the tone in his voice.
“You heard of that research team that managed to get a prototype machine to affect the enchantments in a crystal?”
“Yeah, we read about them in the news.”
“Well, I met a few of the heads of departments at the college back when Elder Irikshan was figuring out what to do with me. Normally drake of this rank would have little to do with me, but since the Elder was involved, they were involved too. Earlier this week I bumped into Rentik again. She’s one of the heads.”
“The Enchantments and Nullifications departments, if I remember correctly?” Josh asked.
“Yes. Well, turns out she’s one of the lead investors in the aforementioned research team. Also helps a lot in their research. And she invited me to go see their workplace after the weekend.”
“Woah, that’ll be interesting. Please tell me about it! If there’s no non-disclosure agreement or anything like that.” Mar knew Josh would be dying to come along too.
“I imagine there will be some paperwork for me to do when I get there, but I will tell you what I can.”
The three of them finished eating and continued talking. After the initial topic had been dealt with, they talked with enthusiasm and mirth until late into the day.
The lab was bigger than Mar had expected. The team had been renting some floor space in one of the buildings in an office park owned by Raifal Mage College. While there was a “core” research team, there were also many others performing roles supplementary to the overarching goal.
Now that they had a working prototype, they needed to figure out what they could do with it, what looks they could give the machine, how they could mass produce the machine and even how they should market it. Clearly, Rentik planned on earning back her significant investment into the project.
As was to be expected, most of the individuals that worked were purebred Tumenzarians, evidenced by their colourations with various shades of orange and green. However, humans and non-Tumenzarians were in no short supply. Rentik herself held the typical colours of a Scriven, her white body striped by ultraviolet bands and her horns and plates a rich gold.
“This brings me to the end of your general tour,” Rentik stated as she lead Mar through the doors she’d earlier indicated were those that held the main research lab. The occupants of the room, 5 dragons and a human, left their stations and approached the pair that had just entered. Mar would place all the drake at an age of at least two hundred and fifty years.
“Mar, meet Mischa, Vivette, Morne, Luski, Lucy and Zhen.” Mar nodded to each in turn. “Mischa, Vivette, Morne, Luski, Lucy and Zhen, meet Mar.” Rentik gestured to the youngster. “They are our lead researchers, currently working to determine how much functionality we can bring to the devices. I will leave you in their charge, I have matters to attend to at the college.”
Morne stepped forward, beckoning to Mar. He hesitated, sensing Rentik already leaving the room behind him. “Are you sure you guys are ok with this? Aren’t I interrupting anything?”
“We welcome the distraction. Progress has been slow for the last week. It’ll be a nice break to explain what we’ve figured out to someone who’s interested in learning, and not looking for an article headline or a progress report.”
“I see. Is there any particular reason you’re showing this to me and not someone else?”
“It was Rentik’s idea,” Mischa replied this time. “She mentioned you had a background in computer science, were studying at Raifal and had an advanced ability. She said you were being mentored by the Elder?”
“Typically that would speak volumes towards your skill or potential. I think in this case it merely indicates Irikshan’s desire to learn more from others with abilities like his. Rentik thinks that perhaps we can pique your interest in the field, train the next generation. With all due respect, you only have a decade’s work experience. There’s no shortage of one- or even two- hundred-year-old dragons who could do well to learn some more. Even Lucy here has a few decades on you,” she motioned to an aging human who failed to meet Mar’s gaze. “But I won’t deny the possibility that the proverbial ‘creativity of youth’ may provide some unique insights, nor that learning about how your advanced ability functions may provide us with inspiration for our project. So, seeing as you are here – you are welcome to learn. I’ll be working over there if you require my assistance.” With that, she turned and walked off. Not a stormy or angry march, but simply going about her day.
“Well,” Morne broke the silence. “Her brutal honesty can be a curse or a blessing.” He chuckled. “Anyways, I’ll be happy to show you around while the others can continue their work or join us.” He looked to the others. Luski and Zhen nodded wandered to another workstation in the room.
Morne lead Mar to a large airtight box made of a glasslike clear acrylic on a table a couple metres tall. Vivette levitated another platform into a position beside the table, but this one was a metre high and had a built-in step to the side facing Mar. She also lifted the human-sized chair from it so there would be space for Mar to stand.
Inside it lay many different pieces of circuitry and various plastic casings – none of which seemed to be able to fit all the circuitry lying about. “We’ve been trying to optimize the function of the device for the next prototype, while also ‘optimizing the form’ as the marketing team likes to put it.”
“Is that the shiridan?” Mar pointed to an object encased in so many tiny wires that its form was entirely obscured. The wires grouped into bundles, which each connected to one of many ports on a circuit board.
“Right to the heart, eh? Yes.” Morne sat down, lifting both hands and motioning towards the object. It levitated upwards while the wires systematically removed themselves so gingerly that one might think a particle of dust would be the end of the project. Mar instinctively held his breath and limited his mental reach to his body – fearing to observe the process with anything more than his eyes.
“No need for that,” Vivette tapped his side with a claw. “It’s habit to treat them carefully, but our later builds have been getting stronger. There is no way we would be able to sell a product as flimsy as those earlier prototypes.”
“Take a look at this,” Morne moved the now-naked crystal closer to the edge of the box in front of Mar.
It was a perfect cube with sides about ten centimetres long, made of what would have been pale, almost clear, yellow shiridan. Would have been if not for the mesh of wires running through it, dense enough to let only fleeting glimpses of light from the other side could be caught.
“By running current through specific wires or groups of wires, we can change the charges inside – reprogramming the crystal. What we’re researching now is how to program different functionality into our machine. Preset it with easy-to-use capabilities. This is proving more difficult than expected. It’s one thing to enchant something yourself, another thing entirely to teach a computer how to do it.”
“How did you get all these wires inside?”
“Luski shapes the crystals we’ve grown in the lab, and threads the wires through it. Very time-consuming process. None of us is as precise or accurate as him. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of copper in the crystal messes with its functionality, which we’re still working on.”
“I thought you planned to mass produce them? Oh! What if you make one of these and program it to shape more crystals for you?”
“Yes, that’s what we plan to do in fact. You see Luski and Zhen working? Luski is making another, while Zhen takes measurements and makes notes.”
“So, look at this now.” The crystal cube gently lowered itself back onto the work surface, and a circuit board raised itself. This was a motherboard to which all the copper wires led, plugged into the PCI-e slots. “Despite the top-end central processing unit, the number processing needed for this is astonishing. We’ve had to use a minimal operating system with heavy modifications for our purposes.”
“I’d be interested in how that works… if you can show me.”
“Hmm, might be too complex for you to grasp yet – but I shall try to simplify the major steps of it so you can understand. You can ask if you want more detail if you want. Sound good?”
Mar nodded and followed Morne to one of the computers in the room. Vivette and Lucy remained behind for a bit longer, cleaning up after Morne before joining the two.
Morne had been right – most of what they did went over his head, but he did make an effort to understand, with Vivette and Lucy sometimes pitching in to explain something to him.
By the end of their meeting, Mar’s head was both buzzing and fatigued, but he had certainly learnt a lot and was glad he went.
Over the coming weeks, Mar would find himself visiting them several times. While not contributing much to their research – he did end up having a good number of discussions or debates with members of the team and even Rentik herself.
It didn’t seem like the team planned on it at first, but eventually, they adopted him as a sort of apprentice.