Welcome to the lecture of the legendary Magister Sajar Randhar! As students of the Imperial University who choose programagic as their profession, you will want to hear from a respected expert in the field of magical security.
Magister Randhar heads the magical security team at the Pentagonal Citadel and is in charge of the development of the impregnable Fire Wall, protecting the vault of the most dangerous magical artifacts. He led the work on the navigation system for unmanned flying carriages. He masterminded many of the inventions that redefined modern magical technology.
One of Magister Randhar’s core beliefs is to share his experiences, life stories, sage advice and insights with future professionals in the magical sciences to benefit everyone. He has been working in programagic for more than a hundred and fifty years, so you will be interested to learn his perspective on what it is like to be a codemage.
'Being a Codemage' is a prequel to the main events of the Programagic series, and can be read independently, either before the main series or after any of the other books.
Being a Codemage (Programagic book 0.7)
I felt small, weak and vulnerable in front of this merciless mob of predators. A pack of hungry werewolves. They stared at me, their eyes gleaming predatorily. Their teeth grinned, and their mouths opened with impatient, ragged breaths. They towered above me, ready to tear me apart. Hundreds of them surrounded me.
Now, stop, pull yourself together, Saj. Are they truly werewolves? They’re just young, hungry wolf cubs. Don’t be afraid of them, you old orkhound.
“My name is Magister Sajar Randhar, and I am an expert in magic security. My friend Dean Whinterhart asked me to give you a motivational speech on programagic. And his main prerequisite was not to swear. Dwarfs in my wardrobe, no problem!”
The wall of ice melted with soft murmur of laughter and warm smiles, and they were ready to listen to me further. But no magic could break the ice of alienation better than a joke seasoned with foul orcish swearing.
My job at the time of standing in front of these cubs was in the Pentagonal Citadel of the Ministry of Defense, and I oversaw the magic security systems. I was one of the best programages in the Murican Empire and the creator of the famously impregnable Fire Wall, guarding the most dangerous artifacts within our borders.
Having said that, one failing I prefer not to admit is I don’t know how to perform in front of an audience. Especially in front of students. To put it bluntly, I was as much of a motivational speaker as an ogre is a ballerina. Not that I was timid. I rather didn’t know what I was going to talk about. I had some canned speech, but it seemed pretentious and shallow to me. So, as I stood waiting to be called to the stage, I tore up my pretentious shallow speech and decided to do what I do when I write code, fly by the seat of my pants – listen to my inner voice and act unconventionally.
“You are all here because you decided to dedicate your life to studying programagic. And no, this is not a slip of the tongue, I mean you are going to explore it throughout your life, outside your life, in every corner of society and parts and places you never dreamed could even exist. We all have to learn continuously once on this path. When I was a young student from Hindaha, I knew I was going to learn everything and become the Empire’s greatest codemage, write some particularly fancy spell and get rich from it.”
The chuckles confirmed that my audience’s expectations were not much different from mine.
“But now a hundred and fifty years later, the only thing that has changed is my beard has turned gray. I continue to learn. I study new programming languages and new solutions in the field of magical security, competitive products, new developments, all sorts of articles and conduct research that allow me not only to remain one of the leading experts in my field but also help me not to go overboard in this flow of magical science.”
I stroked that gray beard I had just mentioned to them, and continued before their attention was washed away by the same swift-flowing stream of magic.
“You will all have to study and sweat hard for years before you can achieve anything at all. It’s a brutal marketplace with fierce competition.” I paused to try and add that motivation I was supposed to be achieving. “And to succeed in it, you’re going to have to do your very, very best. And even that is not good enough. It takes inhuman effort, nights without sleep or rest, and your eyes red from cramming and doing homework. Defeats and disappointments are your payments. A crisis of faith in yourself and your powers. Or if I am wrong, why are you here and why haven’t you waved a magic wand and said, ‘I want to be a cool codemage, right now!’”
Friendly laughter greeted my joke warmly, though I was certain that ninety percent of them had never used a magic wand. Their generation had already grown up in the age of portable terminals, all sorts of magical artifacts, and voice-activated assistants.
When I was their age, I wasn’t just using a wand, I was moonlighting in the atelier that made them, writing magic code spells to imbue the wand with all its properties.
In fact, nothing had changed. It’s just that instead of the trivial household wands, I’m working on complex security systems for the Imperial government. And even though I have a whole team for this, I trust myself more and prefer working with the code alone at my terminal.
One of the beauties of programagic is watching the lines of code you’ve written turn into streams of energy and manage the matter. To feel that what you write makes the world a better place…is real magic.
“Don’t assume I’m trying to demotivate you,” I continued, strolling along the stage and looking around picking out faces in the large auditorium, where I, the famous Magister Randhar, had packed over three hundred listeners. “The reward for all your sweat, blood and tears will be a successful career in the most sought-after and progressive industry of our time.”
The audience fell silent, and I could tell by the twinkle in their eyes that this was undoubtedly what they wanted to hear.
“Programagic has given me plenty of good things. I’ve made a high-profile name for myself in the field of magical security. I earned enough money to retire and drink my favorite well-aged highland ginger whiskey. Furthermore, I earned a reputation as a grumpy, foul-mouthed obnoxious old man. And a whole host of ailments caused by sitting endlessly behind a terminal screen. That was just one of my payments for all my hard work.”
The chuckles in the audience appreciated the irony of my questionable accomplishments.
“Gnomazing! Looks like I’m not motivating you too much again, huh?” I looked around at all those young faces, who anticipated some higher wisdom or at least a couple of tips, shortcuts, and cheats from me. “And do you want to know what motivates me to keep learning and working hard every day? Besides greed and vanity, of course?”
The audience murmured in agreement, and some questions and comments were heard.
“Actually, the desire to prove to yourself and others that you are the best at what you do is not hubris. It’s a great intrinsic motivation. Magic is still uncharted territory. We have been studying magic for only fifteen hundred years, but we still know more about far-away uncharted galaxies than we do about magic. We keep finding powerful artifacts of the ancients that still work. And what’s most important, hell’s elves, we often don’t understand exactly how these god-dwarfed artifacts work. May Dean Whinterhart forgive me.”
With a barely noticeable wave of my wand, I activated the fairly realistic image of the dean, frowning, wagging his finger at me from behind the lectern. This caused quite the expected amusement among his students. I had to snap my fingers, causing the dean to vanish, so as not to divert attention from the subject of my lecture.
The topic was interesting, but I was distracted by my hobby, and I was going to tell young curious minds about something else. I was asked to give a motivational speech, but I had failed to do it well so far. And I warned old Whinterhart, I warned him.
“The desire to explore the unknown is a powerful motivation for a mind like mine, and maybe yours. Creating something new, exciting and beautiful is also a great motivation. But if I had to choose one, helping people is probably the most important motivation. We all benefit from the wonders of magic, yet very few of us are willing to devote ourselves to creating and maintaining the magical technologies and artifacts that make our world a better place.”
Sometimes, though, shady characters worsen it. Weapons, magic drugs, dangerous artifacts, and crimes committed by means of magic were all related in one way or another to my job but were definitely not what I wanted to tell future programages about today. A motivational speech, huh?
“In addition to basic courses in programagic, magical calculus, basic magiphysics, and magichemistry, you’ll have to study many different disciplines depending on your chosen specialization. Some of you will go into magicoding, as I did, and you’ll learn a lot of dead and living languages to write spell code. You will take almost all the most challenging courses at this university. Hands up who went to coders.”
Wow! Almost a quarter of the audience. That’s probably because I was invited to tonight’s event. And although I loathe unnecessary publicity and all that PR, many of them might have known about me from the news. There were enough occasions when my personality appeared on the radar of the ubiquitous media, no matter how much I wanted to merely sit quietly at a terminal and write magical code for new spells or conduct my own research in artificial spirit creation.
“Thanks, folks, I’m impressed. You can put them down. Some of you will go to magimechs, and you will have courses not only in all aspects of magimechanics, but also in energy, materials science, elemental magic, and everything you need to create effective and safe artifacts. Others will go to medi-magic, and you’ll spend years studying anatomy and how all living things can interact with magical energy and the artifacts we create. Some of you will go into culinary magic, finance, social science, or whatever. However, I want you all to remember the most important thing: every day you must strive to be better. Not only better than others, but also better than you were yesterday. Keep learning throughout life to make that life itself better.”
I had to raise my palm to stop a small wave of applause from the audience. Perhaps they assumed I had finished. To be honest, though, I didn’t have much else to say to them. I warned Whinterhart that this was a bad idea.
“Okay, I think you have a lot of questions, and I don’t see the point in waiting until the end of the presentation. I think that’s how we’re going to structure our conversation. One at a time. You, young lady, please.”
“Magister, could you tell me, please, how many wand spells have you written in your career?”
“Oh, I couldn’t even guess. Not hundreds, more likely the thousands. But that’s all very relative, because I not only wrote the code for the spells themselves, but I was also responsible for the user interface and the firmware. But a lot… a lot. It’s just not about quantity, it’s about quality. You have to strive for perfection, for brevity of code. And most importantly, safety and security. So that your magic wand or pocket terminal as its more modern counterpart won’t blow you or your users to the pre-elves. So, now you, young man, please.”
“What is your favorite spell, Magister?”
“Oh, that’s too complicated a question. As a teenager, I wrote my first spell to turn the lights in my room on and off with the snap of my fingers – tied it to a sound frequency. It was cool, and I was very proud of it. Then in my college days, I wrote code that allowed me to bypass age verification and allowed free access to dozens of adult channels. In those years, too, it seemed like a cool accomplishment. Now, many decades later, it only makes me smile indulgently. You’ll understand in time. Okay, you, the lady in the third row.”
“Please, Magister Randhar, have you ever used magic to save someone’s life?”
“That’s an interesting question, thank you. In fact, magical security is always in one way or another related, if not to the protection of data or artifacts, then to the security of the Empire as a whole. So yes, of course. I know that my job helps save someone’s life. And that motivates me, too.”
“Yeah, but that’s not exactly what I meant. I meant directly saving someone’s life.”
“Hmmm,” I frowned thoughtfully and nervously scratched my beard, “I don’t really like that story, but since you asked, I guess I’ll tell it. Just promise not to laugh and not to post it on the net, okay?”
Some people nodded in agreement and confirmed, but many did not. Well, I have to motivate them somehow. That’s all right, Whinterhart, you and I will get even for this.
“It was about thirty years ago when I was working on data protection systems for the Pentagonal Citadel…”
A colleague of mine invited me to a wedding and asked me to be his best man. I can’t say that Frosterick and I were friends. In fact, I have very few friends at all. Perhaps, that’s the price for being obsessed with programagic. Probably in his case, too, because when I tried to say no, Fros got very agitated and said he had no closer friends than me.
I guess that should have flattered me, since I was his boss. A very demanding and uncompromising one at that. Often obnoxious and nagging, and sometimes even rude. All in all, you could say I was an abominable boss, but the guy thought I was his closest friend. That countered my argument against being his groomsman. And the fact that he had no one else, touched one of my well-hidden and protected soft spots.
I loathe weddings. I abhor any kind of noisy gatherings of drunken people, and weddings were the pinnacle of these. I prefer to enjoy my whiskey at home, in silence or with soft music. It irritates me, all this feigned happiness, fake fun, dancing and shouting. But where is the line of what you will do for someone who, however mistakenly, considers you to be his friend?
I hate tuxedos, and Frosterick didn’t mind that I ordered myself a new snow-white sherwani with beige embroidery. Simple, but stylish. An opportunity to pay homage to the traditions of my people by wearing the ethnic clothing of my Hindaha ancestors to a public event. This gesture I had done on several occasions helped me endure such events.
“I’ll skip the part where everyone drank, gluttonized and danced. That is superfluous to your question,” I said looking at the young lady who had asked the question.
Alderine, Fros’s bride, turned out to be a very nice lady, smiley and friendly. I don’t know what she found in such an unsightly and boring man, but that was her business. I was only the groomsman for one evening, wasn’t I?
Aldi was very pleased to meet me and pleasant to talk with. She said that her fiancé had told her a lot about me. This horrified me, because if he was telling her the truth then to hell with the orcs, her smiles couldn’t have been sincere. Which somewhat puzzled me.
But certainly not as much as the bridesmaid. Morriet was a charming young chatterbox, barely past her first hundred years. She seemed determined to hook up with the groomsman and had been making unequivocal, even blatant, passes to me all evening.
The wedding ceremony was held at the Dragon’s Nest Inn, an ancient castle in the middle of a lake. It was a romantic place, remote from civilization, with no one except the wedding guests. The castle was a maze of empty rooms. A perfect opportunity to slip away from all the guests for a while. Nonetheless, I was doing my best to misunderstand Morriet’s extremely transparent innuendos. I’m just an old programage, I don’t need all this complicated trouble…
The exhilarating shamanic wine was flowing, and the loud folk-ork music was blowing my mind with the humming sounds and bright flashes of magic lights, twirling in a wild drunken dance with the crowd of well-drunken guests.
The endless toasts and shouting were more than annoying. And these orking traditions, especially popular in some cultures… For example, the incident when the groom’s friends (or who were they, if I was about the closest person to Frosterick?) stole the bride’s shoes. And to redeem both shoes, the groom had to volley a full glass of shamanic wine from one of the shoes.
Then the same company of drunken underorks stole the bride. Turns out it was already decided the best man was to handle the bride’s ransom. But by now, I was not feeling any inkling to bargain with these thieves, although it wouldn’t cost me a fortune. On the other hand, I was tempted to call on Chief Therome, the head of the Imperial Guardians, who I knew very well from my work. But I suppose that would be like shooting a pixie with a cannon, wouldn’t it?
And they kept the bride in one of the hotel rooms, so the whole sham farce with kidnapping and ransom demands was part of the general fun. It turned out that they didn’t ask for much money. But I, who loath such events, had to complete a series of assignments, and only then would they return the bride unharmed.
I drank a glassful of dark gnomish rum in one gulp, a trifle for an ex-military pilot, danced on the table to “Sweet Dwarves (Are Made of This)”. No sherwani, it was humiliating, but a glass of rum helped me get through it without losing face.
Next was a full minute of kissing the bridesmaid, holding her up in my arms, while the guests rapturously counted. Praise be to the bright elf gods that rum was the first requirement. Honestly, I wanted to ask for more rum. But Morriet got very carried away and started whispering something about a room in the far wing of the hotel. No idea what she was talking about.
Imagine our collective disappointment, and my annoyance, when, after the three conditions were met, the kidnappers did not return the fiancée to the groom. A new message arrived demanding one million imperials or the bride would have one finger cut off every five minutes until the ransom is paid.
The joke was silly and put everyone in a rather bad mood. But the kidnappers stopped answering calls from the bridegroom and other guests, and the nervous atmosphere began to boil over. If we were to search for the bride in the maze of corridors, it would take hours to coordinate and execute. Five minutes later, Frosterick got another call, and Alderine was unmistakably terrified on the screen. The masked kidnappers held a knife to her throat, she flinched, and he pressed the knife harder drawing a trickle of blood that flowed down and stained her wedding dress.
Aldi tried to scream through her tightly taped mouth, she twitched in her bonds, and one of the kidnappers struck her with the back of his hand against her jaw, almost sending her to the floor. We could tell from the clothes and the voice and the accent that they weren’t friends of Fros’s at all.
According to the video data, they were moving fast and no longer in the vicinity of Lake Wyverndale that surrounded the castle. Where they were going and who they were, we had no clue about. And did they have the groom’s friends as well?
Still, more questions arose: where were Fros’s friends? Had anything happened to them? And who were these masked men? According to the video, the kidnapped bride was no longer being held in a hotel room, but in the back of a flying truck. Maybe the groom’s friends were there, too. Probably still alive.
“All right, all right, I’ve got money, I’ll pay you. Just don’t touch Alderine, please.”
“You will transfer the money to the account we are about to send you. Using a secure line of communication. In ten minutes. Or we cut off the first finger!”
“No! Please!” Fros pleaded. “Don't hurt her. But I need more time. At least half an hour. The money's in the crypt, and I can't get everything ready that fast. Please.”
“You have twenty minutes, you elfhole," the kidnapper growled. “And don't even think of calling the Guardians! Or we cut her head off. Get a secure line ready for a private transfer to a portable wallet. One minute before the deadline, we'll give you the number and the account. No Guardians! Or we only give back your woman's head.” And they flashed the video of her kneeling and a heavy shiny scimitar resting against her spine.
Perhaps I should have called Chief Therome after this. But Frosterick insisted on following the kidnappers' demands and transferring the money to them without contacting the Guardians. A bad idea, of which I did not fail to inform him.
“I have no choice!”
“You have no guarantee of getting her, Fros. You pay them, and they can just dump her body along with the bodies of your three friends, and they'll just disappear with the cash.”
That finally broke him.
“What am I supposed to do? Call the Guardians?”
“Not exactly. First, let’s do what you and I do best.”
“And what did you do, Magister?” A student asked softly in the silence.
“We did call the Guardians, and we warned them to be up and ready. We didn't know where the kidnappers were calling from, but while Frosterick was talking to them, I managed to scan the signal. I didn't have time to trace the call, but it was an open communication channel, so I could at least narrow down the search area. As we saw it, they were flying a little south of the capital. That gave the Guardians a chance to discreetly send out several interception teams to stop the kidnappers.”
“And then what?”
“And then we got into programagic. We sat down with Frosterick, deployed two terminals, and began setting up a trap. Fros wrote a user interface that was supposed to convince the kidnappers that they got a call from a secure line. And I downloaded a package of magic malware that we were using at work to test attacks on the data storage system. And when we were given the number to call and the wallet code, instead of a secure line, we contacted them on a very dangerous channel, through which we stealthily hacked into their terminal.”
“Cool,” one of the guys whistled, but he was hissed at for interrupting.
“The truth is, we couldn't have fooled people who specialize in magical security, or skilled hackers. But we decided right away that the kidnappers were probably just bandits. Otherwise, they would not have arranged the kidnapping with all the threats of violence but acted in more subtle ways.”
With a wave of my wand, I visualized the image of a slightly younger me, hectically editing the glowing glyphs of magic code floating around me and my terminal. Well, let's be honest, it was a slightly embellished copy: the younger me looked slimmer, less gray and more muscular. Rather, he reminded me of myself eighty years ago. If not all of a hundred… But the students, and especially the female students, were oblivious to this little trick.
“So we transferred marked fake money with a tracker to their wallet. The wallet is physical, so we were able to locate it. Which matched the location of the hacked terminal. So while we were negotiating the terms of the bride's return, conducting a fake transfer, getting confirmation, and delaying the process in every possible way, the Guardians' special forces unleashed the full fury of imperial justice on the kidnappers.”
“Was the bride okay?”
“Yes, the guardians brought Alderine to us and took all the wedding guests' contact information and a promise to testify first thing in the morning. Just in case, the guardians left one flying carriage with patrol officers outside the castle. Aldi was frightened and rumpled, but happy to see Frosterick. Tears washed away her makeup, but a couple of magic wand strokes were able to fix everything. The soiled dress was in tatters, but the bride didn't care.”
“So you saved both the bride and the wedding, Magister?”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose thoughtfully, pacing the stage and searching for a milder word.
“Not exactly,” I said frowning a little. “When Morriet decided to reward the hero with another lingering kiss, I tried to pull away. But the gnomish rum and the nervous tension had taken their toll on my dexterity, so I stumbled and turned in a fall to keep my balance. And ended up falling face-first into the wedding cake. Destroying it to bits. As well as my own dignity.”
With that barely perceivable wave of my wand, I flashed up a doctored video of me falling face-first into the wedding cake. I watched the three hundred students burst into tears of laughter. I enjoyed that moment of them laughing with me as I and waited until they could catch their breath enough for the main question I had come to ask them today:
“Well, do you still want to become codemages?”
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