William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

The Blog Of A Science Fiction Writer Living Just Half-An-Hour Into The Future . . . Or Maybe, Y'Know, An Hour And Some Change. Sci-fi, politics, visual arts, music, writing, fantasy, and general weirdness. NSFW. Probably not safe for YOU, either, really. But don't let that stop you.

The go-to site for fans of science fiction writer William A. Hainline. Also the go-to site for non-fans, or anybody else who wants to follow what this curmudgeonly weirdo is doing with his free time.

"Chapter 3: Let The Revels Begin"

from The Technowizard Guardians Of The Infinite Worlds Of Fandom

Author's Note: This version of the chapter has not been edited.


1

 

Thunder rolled in the clouds above, competing with the symphonic mess of rock-opera blended with dubstep and filk songs. The music blasted from the balconies of room parties currently partying-on at the Executive East Inn of Cambridge, Massachusetts, home to parts of the five-day, twenty-four-hour gathering—or was it more of a hootenanny, or perhaps a shindig?—known as “PhantasmagoriCON XVIII,” a grand bacchanal of debauchery and imagination that raged like a gamma-irradiated scientist in a Marvel Studios film. (Other parts of the convention were being held at the Renaissance Regency Hotel and Convention Center, across town.) On the fifth floor balcony, a starry-eyed Wonder Woman made-out with a drunken Spiderman and across from them, a Han Solo snogged a short-skirted Sailor Moon who dangled her legs off the balcony while below her, a Starfleet cadet stood on the railing and tried to feel her up. The curtains of the hotel room behind him teemed with the photon-ghosts of several Browncoats and the glow of the toy lightsabers belonging to several Sith Lords, as the Bartender at the room party in question served-up a Pan-Galactic Gargleblaster to a Time Lord wearing Kryptonian battle-armor.

The whole hotel hummed with a psychic current. The energy of the place was like the Force; it interconnected the lives, dreams, and desires of all those present into a grandiose tapestry of mass consciousness. Nothing was true; everything was permitted . . . at least for the next few days. Then it would be back to the grindstone that ground dreams into dust, a return to the mill-wheel of boring old reality. The heroes gathered here had fought and bled facing fantastical evils during their many noble quests for gold and glory, their courage great, their valor unparalleled. But the real gods and monsters—the ones it took true courage to face and an even truer heart to conquer were those of tax returns, dirty diapers, and the shelves at work that wouldn’t stock themselves; the endless chain of cars in the drive-thru at McDonald’s, that pile of paperwork back at the office. The creeping specter of the Mundane.

On the fourth floor, in the hallway, a Vulcan embraced an old friend from Asgard and then high-fived a Dwarf from Middle-Earth who had just won second place in a costume contest, and who put his arm around a shy Princess from Alderaan whose social anxiety—in the Mundane world—kept her from going to office parties. Later on, their clandestine kisses in the third-floor broom-closet led to lascivious groping, which led to some sexual depravity in the elevator, which led to the freaking of Mundanes . . . and the lowering of purity scores; their once-lonely hearts burned like supernovae, desperate lights in the dark of being different.

Klingons armed with batleths, Jedi sporting lightsabers, and Druids carrying bows all played at commanding armies of monsters in the game rooms. Who had played the best Nu Who? When humanity finally journeyed to the stars, would they find Anne McCaffrey’s wise, telepathic dragons, or the parasitic eels of the Go’a’uld? What was the average airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? The African, or European variety? How about in a warp bubble? How about in a warp bubble designed by Wesley Crusher? Elsewhere still, on the periphery of all this, live-action role-players acted out Vampiric fantasies in a realm of blood, leather, and shadow, and they would punch you in the balls if you dared ask them if they “sparkled like diamonds.“

For his part at this year’s PhantasmagoriCON, Terry “Gadget” Anders had achieved what he thus far considered a well-nigh impossible thing: He had actually met a girl, and it seemed that, from all indicators, she actually enjoyed his company.

They’d met an hour earlier, during a game of Magic: The Gathering, wherein her black and blue deck of game-mechanical chaos-causers had thoroughly wiped the walls with his collection of green foliage-monsters and lava-spewing fire-creatures. Gygax McKraken, professional liar, had apparently fibbed to him about the deck’s power level. Bastard. But, that had led to her winning the game, which had turned out to be a good thing, because that had led to an actual conversation with her, which was further than he usually got with most women. Impressed with her cunning and skill—not to mention her incredible, kickass cosplay—he had awkwardly initiated a full-blown social interface with her, and to his great surprise, she’d responded with some enthusiasm. Now, an hour later, he found himself standing outside a room-party, still talking to her.

This, he thought, is a new world-record. Quick, someone call Guinness, before she bolts.

Unique as she seemed, there was something awfully familiar about her, though. As though he’d read about her in some arcane roleplaying sourcebook, somewhere. However, he knew he had never met her, because he didn’t remember ever being this blown away by any woman’s sheer beauty before. She had eyes the emerald of Kryptonite, and rosebud lips the color of Klingon blood-wine, their corners ticked up in a perpetually impish grin. She stood about five-foot-eight, fair-skinned and regal, like Galadriel of Caras Galadhon, fairest and wisest of all Elves who’d remained in Middle-Earth. Too lovely by far to ever love a Dwarven tinkerer such as he. She wore her neon-blueberry hair in a Russian-spy bob-cut beneath her motorcycle helmet, which complimented her wild, exotic-looking electromechanical Exosuit. Which looked awfully functional. Power cables snaked down from the helmet to the rest of the cosplay: A form-fitting, intricate, electromechanical exosuit made of wheels, gears, pistons, wires, circuits, and segmented pieces of armor plating. Overall, it cradled and enhanced her body rather than extending it, though it did look like it did that too. However she bent, moved, or gestured, the Exosuit responded with perfect fluidity of movement; it became hard to tell where her movements ended and where its enhancements began. Gadget found himself wondering how she’d made it, what kind of power source it had, what—

Dude, he thought, mentally smacking himself. Hot chick. Actually talking to you. Focus on her, not on the tech.

“Hello—Earth to Gadget—” she said, waving her hand in front of his face. “Can you hear me, Major Tom?”

“Oh! What?” he said, snapping out of the Twilight Zone he’d momentarily phased into. “Sorry. I . . . sometimes I space out when I get nervous.”

“And why for wouldst thou get nervous?” asked the woman in the Exosuit. She grinned at him, a display of dazzlingly white teeth. “Do I make you nervous?”

“Well, um . . . to be honest . . . er, kinda.” He could have smacked himself. “I mean, no! No, of course not! Ha-ha! No. You’re . . . you’re fine. I like talking to you.”

“Good,” she replied. “I like talking to you, too. Besides, I like nervous guys.”

“You do?”

“Yep, sure do. Proves you’ve got current running through your brain-cells. Y’know? And besides that, you lost gracefully earlier. I admire a man who can lose a game of Magic to a woman and still be all sportsmanlike and whatnot. You did good back there. Most guys . . . well . . . they don’t react that well when I flay them open and rearrange their organs like I did yours back there.”

“Huh,” he said, and smiled sheepishly. “Well, I do my best, y’know? I mean, it is just a game, after all. Plus, the way I see it, we’re all geeks here, right? There’s no one sex of us that’s inherently ‘better’ at geeking than the other is.”

“I could kiss you right now,” she said flatly.

He swallowed what felt like a lump of charcoal. “So, uh, listen— I know this is gonna sound like a cheap pickup line, but—”

“Pfaw! You’re right!” she said, apparently taken aback. “Worst . . . pickup line . . . ever! Guards, to the dungeon with him! My personal dungeon, if ya know what I mean.”

“Uh, anyway . . .” he said. “I was gonna ask you this earlier, but . . . have we met? Before, I mean? You look really familiar. It’s not like we’ve met before, or anything . . . it’s more like I’ve read about you, or something.”

“But of course we’ve met before. Downstairs in the gaming room, about an hour or so ago. Hence the past tense. Barring any acausal temporal mechanics being in play, it’d be impossible for us to have this conversation if we hadnt already met. And yeah, you might’ve read about me. I’ve been on the cover of Wired, Scientific American, Science, Nature—and—Popular Science. Only once or twice, though. I try not to overexpose myself.”

“Wow, that must be it, then,” he said. “You’re, like, famous and stuff. I’m, uh, amazed at how stupid I am for not asking your name right up until this exact moment right now.”

She giggled. “That’s why we have these, y’know.” She tapped her name-tag. Dizzy Aletheiometrique Discordia, it read.

Now he felt really stupid; however, the name rang a bell . . . and triggered a vaguely-recent memory in his head. He’d heard that name. Not that long ago, either. When? Dammit brain, he thought, the alcohol and hormones can’t impair judgment that badly. Dammit, brain, work damn you!

Meanwhile, Dizzy leapt a step backward, and exclaimed, “Discuss! A dazzlingly demented dominatrix, a Discordian avenger, a whirling-dervish of derangement, her demeanor drastically different from the ditzy debutantes of the dominant, domesticated paradigm, a dare-devil who deftly deconstructs de-cohering daydreams with a dire determination, in an attempt to deliver the denizens of this dimension from the dismal darkness of their day-to-day depravity and debauchedly dramatic feelings of despair!” She sucked in a deep breath and stuck out a mechanical gauntlet meant for shaking. “Desirée Amelia Roentgen—also known as Dizzy Aletheiometrique Discordia—at your service, good sir. Scientist, inventor . . . Lurker, Trekker, Caprican, Whovian, Cortexifan, Whedonite, Subgenius, Warsian, all-around fandom fanatic, and of course, Dragonrider and Farscaper . . . and, I guess, maybe, a semi-serious Chaos Magician, though I frequently find myself returning to the ‘technomage’ paradigm. The comforts of home, and all that.” She chuckled, and looked wistful for a moment. “Ah, the Sons of Ether, the Virtual Adepts. My homies.” She tapped her heart with her fist and sighed.

“Whoa, no way . . .” said Gadget. His eyes popped open all the way, the memory from this morning finally clicking into place. Trillian. The wild, half-unbelievable story she had told them about what had happened to her , so full of madness and weirdness that it positively had to be true. “Dude . . .” He smiled and shook his head at the magnificence of the coincidence of their having met here, now, like this. “There is just—no—way the universe works like this.”

“Like what?” asked Dizzy.

Dizzy. That was the name of Trillian’s rescuer from those gangbangers this morning, the one who had worn “this crazy battle-ready exosuit with ray-guns andget thisan actual zero-point reactor in the things chest-piece, sort of like Iron Man, only weirder,” as Trillian had described it. The rest of the description matched, too: Tall, athletic build; dark blue, bob-cut hair; beautiful smile, green eyes. Her name, especially, had stuck out as strange and he’d remembered it. Still, nothing had prepared him for this; who would have guessed that he would meet the girl of his dreams this year at con, and that she’d be a an inventor, like him . . . and a real-life superheroine handing out justice to bad guys late at night? Of course, this also meant that she was—most likely—completely out of his league. Strong women had always been a turn on for him. Problem was, they were usually strong enough to not really need a boyfriend in their lives . . . especially not one who was an overly-emotional basket-case, like him.

“You’re a real-life superhero!” he said, knowing his eyes had widened considerably. “You save people! You saved my friend Trillian this morning from those gang-bangers! I’ve . . . I’ve seen you on the news! Or at least reports about you, I think. You and that other guy. The other one in the Exosuit. You two are a big local mystery. Nobody’s been able to get a good look at either of you.”

Bust-ed,” she said, lowering her eyes, as she grinned behind her drink. “Yeah. That’s me. In the flesh. So. You know Trillian Deschain?”

“She’s my roommate,” he said. “Me and her, and her boyfriend—my best friend—goes by Gygax McKraken—we all live together in an apartment downtown. We come to con every year. It’s so weird that we’d bump into each other like this.”

“One might even call it a synchronicity,” said Dizzy, raising an eyebrow. “A serendipitous confluence of events, even. Are they here with you now? Trillian, and your buddy Gygax?”

“Uh, yeah,” he said. “They’re back in our suite. Probably doing the horizontal mambo, if I know them.” He rolled his eyes. “Which is why I’m glad I’m here, with you, and not there. Because—ew, gross. Like being in the room with your freaking parents doing it, or something.”

“I wouldn’t know,” said Dizzy, suddenly seeming a little sad. “My mom died when I was twelve.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I lost my dad when I was twelve. I know how it is.”

“She was killed in a car crash. The same crash that . . . Eh, never mind. So. Did Trillian tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“About my proposal.”

“What proposal?”

“She didn’t tell you.”

“Uh, no.”

“Ah, that’s good then.”

“What’s good?”

“That she didn’t tell you. It means that she can keep secrets.”

“Wait—what—Trillian’s keeping secrets from me? What secrets?”

Dizzy smiled. “I’ll tell you later. Maybe. Then you can keep the secret, too. But I need to feel you out first. I need to see if this conversation plays out the way I imagined it would.”

“Wait—the way you—what?”

Dizzy’s smile widened.

“Hang on,” he said, “did you strike up that Magic game with me . . . on purpose?” He felt confused, and then it dawned on him. “Did you know who I was before we even started talking?

Bust-ed . . . again,” she said sheepishly. She hesitated, then rushed ahead: “What if I said ‘yes?’ What if I told you that I did know who you were? That I’ve had my eye on you—and your studies at Miskatromyk U for some time now, Terry ‘Gadget’ Anders, and that I know a little about you—though not a whole lot, really, and I’d like to know more, I really would—and that I know you’re a brilliant inventor. And that I know you’ve invented something marvelous. Something that will change the world. And, something I think will go really well with what I have in mind for a special team of experts, people I’m hand-picking to do a very special job.”

“So,” he said, suddenly nervous, and feeling a growing sense of disappointment welling up within him, “this is a job interview. Not a burgeoning friendship.”

“Well,” she said, affecting a charming smile, putting a hand on her hip, “why can’t it be both?”

“Well, I, uh,” he said, fumbling for words before her display of sex appeal, “I guess it can . . . I just . . . I don’t have that many friends. Well, mainly just the two. Gygax and Trillian . . . whom we’re sort of calling Akasha this week. So, Gygax and Akasha. Yeah. I was hoping we could be friends.”

“We can,” she said. “But also, yeah, job offer. Maybe. Perhaps. Y’see, Mjolnir Propulsion Systems—”

“Whoa,” he said, taken aback by her mention of the company, “why do you mention them?”

“Because that’s who I work for. My dad, Walter Roentgen—”

“Whoa, wait-up. Walter Roentgen, the founder and CEO of Mjolnir Propulsion Systems, is your dad?”

“Uh, yeah? So?”

“Wow,” he said. “So you’re rich and famous. And a superhero. And this . . . this is just way too many coincidences to even be possible. Wayne—Gygax—he already works for Mjolnir Propulsion on contract, as a software engineer. And my dad . . . my dad always wanted to work there, back when he was alive.”

“Ah, the plot thickens,” said Dizzy. “So, tell me. You’re a double-major at Miskatromyk U. Engineering, and Neuroscience. Thats a mighty weird cocktail. What made you choose that particular combo meal, I wonder?” She cast a glance slightly upward, at the Mind-Weirding Helm upon his head. He knew what she was thinking; he could see the gears in her head turning as she tried to figure out how it worked, why he wore it, etcetera. “Y’know, you seem very interested in my Exosuit, Gadget. I must say, the contraption you’ve crowned yourself with fascinates me, as well. I already know what it does. But tell me . . . how does it do it?”

“Well,” he began, warming to his subject, “it picks up on quantum brain activity, and amplifies it . . . and then uses longitudinal waves propagating through the scalar field to agitate the quantum vacuum, and to tune into the electromagnetic and scalar fields surrounding other peoples’ brains, which are encoded with the ‘conscious electromagnetic information’ fields—or ‘Cemi fields’—of their consciousness.”

“Genius! Pure genius!” she exclaimed in a breathless voice, her eyes wide. “Absolute and total genius! I knew I chose wisely when looking over your undergraduate research articles. I just knew it! You are so hired.”

“Well, hang on just a second. I don’t even know what I’m hired for, yet.”

“An opportunity to do what you were born to do,” she said. “Invent, do research, push the boundaries of known science. I know your articles in the Journal for Undergraduate Research haven’t gotten much attention, and that some people openly mocked you for pushing for research into psionic phenomena. I won’t do that. In fact, I’ll encourage you.”

“Yeah,” he said. “They did.” He didn't like thinking about that. Some people had gotten onto his case for it at school, and he tried to push the memory of that away as it came to him now. He had tried to keep a stiff upper lip throughout the whole thing, but he had to admit, it had gotten to him. How dare they. When had they ever tried to push the boundaries? When had they ever taken a real risk with their research? Probably never. Stupid fucking Mundanes.

“So come work with me,” she said. “I promise, it’ll be the adventure of a lifetime. I’m putting together a special team of experts in their fields. I already approached your friend Trillian—er, Akasha—good to see she’s picked out a ‘nym, by the way!—having a True Name never hurts!—so you’d be working with her, too. So that’d be a bonus, right?”

“What does your team actually do, though?” he asked. “What’s it for?”

Dizzy grinned again. “Well, now. Why don’t you just switch on your . . . ‘Mind-Weirding Helm’ . . . that’s what you call it, right? Why not just flip the switch, and find out for yourself?”

“Uh, well . . .” he began, but didn’t finish. He wiped his sweaty palms on the legs of his trousers, and hoped she didn’t notice. She narrowed her eyes at the Helm. He had it switched off, of course; he didn’t think he could take the strain or stress of ten thousand minds all screaming, chattering, laughing, and dancing in his mind all at once; the sheer onslaught of that would have overwhelmed him . . . and right now, he told himself, he would much rather concentrate on the beautiful—and extremely smart and clever—woman in front of him than he would the ceaseless wave upon wave of murmuring, shouting voices that would pour through the Helm if he flipped that switch.

Still, to know what she thought . . . the temptation . . . No. He refused. Every fiber of his being as a gentleman—which was what he now told himself his mother had raised—cried out against such blatant cheating. He had never cheated, at anything, despite the immense anxiety he always got in testing environments. No, he had always stayed clean, and had done the hard work himself. This was no different. Then again . . . she had invited him to do so. And it would be easier than all this talking, all these questions, all this back-and-forth. Maybe if he just limited himself to information about his questions . . . and stayed far away from any clues as to whether or not she liked him . . . Could he do that? Could he limit the scope of the telepathy like that? Was that even possible? He didn’t know, but a part of him wanted to find out.

Curiosity gleamed in Dizzy’s eyes, and Gadget allowed himself a small smile of pride in his craftsmanship, despite the Helm’s hacked-together appearance . . . which, in truth, probably lent the thing more mystique than it actually deserved. He had fashioned it from the plastic helmet of an old-fashioned hair-salon hairdryer, festooned with two dozen vacuum tubes, scads of wires, several large copper coils, and several crammed-full-of-circuitry breadboards bolted to small plastic risers; what looked like several small cans of compressed air—really cans of liquid nitrogen—with hoses leading to the tubes and coils, stood out along its lower perimeter. A set of ribbon-cables darted every-which-way, plugging into the breadboards and linking their microchips; three old-school bronze electrical gauges stood to one side; several curling, old-fashioned telephone-handset cables ran here and there between various jacks; a few lights winked on and off; a USB plug and a collection of D-cell batteries along the backside sat next to a small toggle switch. He knew the thing at least looked impressive. Dizzy’s eyes positively sparkled with techno-lust as she practically salivated over the Helm’s Tesla-punk aesthetics, and Gadget couldn’t help but grin a little.

He reached up and flipped the switch, concentrating just on Dizzy, and on the question, What does your special team do. Nothing else. The Helm hummed, let out an electrical buzzing noise, and jets of coolant cloud leaked from the liquid-nitrogen canisters. He felt a momentary zinging sensation as the Helm came online, and a rush of voices in his head . . . a thousand of them, all at once, as the con all around him flooded his senses with the mental pictures and sensations of others. He stumbled only once, before getting his bearings and refocusing on Dizzy. She stared into his eyes, and he into hers. He felt her mind open up to him. And there . . . the answer to his question. Her mentor, Misto. Her conversation with Trillian earlier. The words came through . . . the answer. His eyes grew wide as he comprehended. Aliens. Area 51. Alien technology. Reverse engineering. Outside government purview. Supervillains. Aleister Aeon Frankenstein . . . who was actually Dr. Victor Arkenvalen, who taught at Miskatromyk U. Her father Walter . . . his work at Area 51. Her childhood there . . . the accident when she had been twelve, that took her legs from her . . . the loss of her mother, Amelia . . . the genesis of her Exosuit . . .

He staggered backward as he flipped the switch back into the Standby position and the flow of thought cut off suddenly. Sweat soaked his brow. He let out a long, slow breath. “Whoa,” he said.

“You keep saying, ‘whoa,’” she said. “It’s like you’re Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, or something.”

“I mean, damn,” he said, breathing heavily. “That was . . . I mean you’re . . . you’re up to your eyeballs in some deep shit, Dizzy. I don’t know if I can get involved in this . . . I mean, that shit sounds downright illegal . . .

“Well, look at it this way,” she said with a shrug. “You’re already involved. Well, kinda. Sorta. Your best friend and roommate, Trill—Akasha—is involved. So we’re already connected that way. Your other best friend and roommate, this Gygax dude—and that just has to be his ‘nym, am-I-right?—I love True Names—he already works for my dad, too. On contract, but still. So he’s involved, too, whether he knows it or not. You’re the only missing link in the chain, Gadget. So come on, already. Come work for me. Work with me. It’ll be fun. Then you can quit that stupid job in the computer labs at school. That gig is getting you nowhere fast, believe me.”

“Yeah, I guess it is,” he said, casting his gaze downward. She was right on the money with that comment, and he knew it. What she was offering him was nothing short of the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance at a real career, the kind of thing that—if he could potentially someday talk about it—would shine on his resume like a floodlight, announcing not just competence, but superheroic ability to the world, the sort of thing that would launch his future into the stratosphere. If he even had a future, with his illness being as bad as it was. There were times when he thought it might constitute a genuine disability, and that going on the government dole was probably the only future he had to look forward to. But what if it wasn’t? What if he could have more than that? What if this was the golden opportunity he had been waiting for? What if Dizzy’s “special team” was his ticket to not having to do that? What if—and this was a huge “if”—he could, despite his various mental problems, actually take the chance she was offering him and use it to make something of himself? What if, despite being “schizoaffective, bipolar type,” he could have a real future, with this woman’s help and understanding? And maybe, just maybe, a future with this woman? She seemed tolerant enough of his eccentricities. Not to mention the colossal trust she was showing in him, the amazing level of faith she had placed in him, a veritable stranger, by opening her mind to him the way she just had. Maybe it was worth a shot, worth the risk. Maybe sometimes, you had to go over the top in order to see what was on the other side.

“Okay,” he said at last, nodding. “Okay, I’ll do it. Count me in. I’m on your team.”

“Excellent!” she said, clapping her metal gauntlets together, and grinning.

“Now, uh,” he said, fumbling, “if you don’t mind my saying so, your ‘nym . . . what was the full thing again?”

Dizzy Aletheiometrique Discordia,” he said, beaming with pride.

“That’s kinda weird,” he said.

“Yeah, kind of a mouthful. Yeah, I know.”

“Well, yeah . . . but it’s kind of a cool-sounding mouthful.”

“It’s from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy,” she said. “Three novels: The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. In the first one, a little girl named Lyra, who lives in a parallel universe, is given the gift of an Alethiometer, a mystical compass-like device that tells a seeker the truth, by lining up its needles with cryptic symbols lined along its edges. From ‘Aletheia,’ meaning ‘truth,’ and ’ometer,’ for ‘measuring device.’ Once the seeker forms a question in their mind, the needles swing into action and move from one symbol to the next. The needle might point to a symbol more than once, specifying more than one meaning, as any given symbol can mean many things. The seeker must learn, over time, how to decipher the alethiometer’s answers. Hence, I myself am like an Alethiometer . . . or at least the mathematics I deal with are. In my day-to-day, actual life-life, I’m not just a kickass inventor and crime-fighter . . . I’m also a student of string theory. M-theory, as well.”

“Wow,” he said. “Where do you find the time?

“Isn’t easy,” she said.

“But yeah, your ‘nym,” he said, and grinned. “Kinda weird.”

Way to go there, champ, his sarcastic, less-than-helpful insecurities chimed in. You’re just burning up the conversational circuit.

“Oh, as if ‘Gadget Anorak Prime’ isn’t a bit on the oddball side?” she asked, cocking an eyebrow at him and giving him a suspicious half-smile and a wink. “Gadget, the Prime Anorak, first among the geeks and nerds. Quite an impressive ego you’ve got there. Almost as big as mine, but not quite there yet.” She tapped his name-tag. “Still. As far as True Names go, it’s okay. Moderately neat-o, I’d say, even. Though of course, I reserve the right to help you come up with a better one later on.”

He grinned again, and cursed his blush response, which he knew was, at this moment, fully-engaged. “Um, okay. To be honest, I kinda made it up on the spot, on the spur of the moment, really, but—wait a second. What do you keep going on about ‘True Names?’ Sounds like a concept the techno-mages on Babylon 5 would come up with.” Without thinking, Gadget smiled, and quoted the show: “‘We are dreamers, shapers, singers, and makers—’”

“‘—We study the mysteries of laser and circuit, crystal and scanner,’” she chimed in, intoning ominously, the two of them grinning like mad as they recited the line together. “‘Holographic demons and invocations of equations. These are the tools we employ, and we know many things . . .’”

“‘The true secrets, the important things!’” said Dizzy.

“‘Fourteen words to make someone fall in love with you forever,’” said he.

“‘Seven words to make them go without pain,’” she replied.

“‘How to say good-bye to a friend who is dying,’” he fired back.

“‘How to be poor,’” she said, still grinning. “‘How to be rich.’”

“‘How to rediscover dreams when the world has stolen them,’” he intoned.

“‘That is why we are going away—to preserve that knowledge,’” they said, together, finishing the quote and bowing to each other like martial artists who had just fought in a friendly sparring match.

“Hells yeah!” said Dizzy, and put up a hand, and went to high-five him. He tried to switch his drink to his other hand to give her one, but got overeager and wound up spilling his drink all over himself. They both cracked up laughing. She put up her hand again. This time, their palms connected, and they both broke into fits of laughter.

“Man,” she crowed, tossing her head back and cackling, “are we eleven different dimensions of simply-not-right, or what?” She settled down from her laughing fit and said, “But no, seriously. True Names. I merely mean that the words you chose to print on that name-tag are a truer representation of who you really are than the ones your parents put on your birth certificate right after your mom got done squeezin’ your butt out. Because you chose them, on purpose, for yourself. They have a meaning known only to you; and in that way, they’re sort of . . . well, they’re sacred words. That name on that name-tag is the name I’d call you by if I wanted to conjure your essence during a magic ritual. It’s kinda like the secret names of cats in that old Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Cats . . . but with humans instead of felines, and with a lot less singing.”

“Ah, okay, I get it. I think,” he said, smiling, trying to relax into the groove of the conversation, which felt like a suitably weird one to have at a con, though having it with a woman was rare for him.

Alright, he told himself, staring into his styrofoam cup. This is it. The time has come . . . this is the point in the conversation where you ask her back to your room, ands she either says yes, and it’s on, or she shoots you down . . . hopefully not literally. Those ray-guns are real, after all.

“So you do go to Miskatromyk U, right?” he asked. “On top of everything else, you’re a student there, right? Physics, I take it.”

“Indeed I am,” she said. “I’m currently working on my double-doctorate at Miskatromyk University, over on the old Science & Engineering campus—y’know, the one across the street from the Humanities and admin buildings? Theoretical Physics and Multidisciplinary Engineering . . . with minors in Advanced Mathematics and Industrial Design. None of that interminable waiting by the big-ass Swedish particle accelerator for me, no sir! I’d rather be the reason they build the big-ass Swedish particle accelerator. Besides. Blackboards, chalk-dust, and calculators are what get me all hot and bothered, y’know? Well, that stuff, that old Donnie Darko movie, and Dr. Manhattan . . . giant blue dong, ohhh myyyy!

Gadget almost spilled his drink again. “Uh, damn. You must be some kind of genius to be able to pull an academic track like that off. I think I’d pee myself if I tried to do what youre doing. Not to mention the work you’re doing for your dad and this . . . special team thing you’re trying to pull off. I repeat—where do you find the time?

“And I repeat: It isn’t easy. I suppose one could say I conjure the time. I did say I was a Magician, after all.”

“Yeah, but . . . you don’t really . . . I mean, you don’t actually believe in that stuff.” He added, uncertainly, “Right?”

“Indeed I do,” she said. “Look, it’s like this. Imagine an atheist and some religious guy, neither of whom have ever seen a factory robot before, suddenly happen upon one doing its thang, and they both realize that some force other than electricity has to direct its movements. The religious dude screams, ‘That thar machine, it’s possessed! The pah’ur of Christ compels it!’ The atheist—who in my mind kinda sounds like Spock—says, ‘Captain . . . I have analyzed these readings, and I can detect no other forces present; the only logical conclusion is that there is no such force.’ But then, a third dude steps out from behind the emerald curtain, and reveals that he possesses the power of the algorithm, the program code. And that’s the heart of it, right there: The ‘energies’ that mages command aren’t really energies as physics understands the concept . . . they’re more like programs, algorithms, code that we key into the circuitry of the living computer that we commonly call ‘the universe.’”

“Mmm-kaaay . . .” said Gadget. He was unsure of what to say. It sounded to him like she had played one too many games of Mage: The Ascension, but saying so might’ve ruined his chances with her—hell, it might’ve ruined everything—and so for a moment, he vapor-locked and said nothing.

“Oh, relax. I take no offense at your skepticism,” she said, and he relaxed a little. “It’s good that you’re skeptical, y’know? Keeps you from getting all caught up in the dominant frakkin’ paradigm. Most Mundanes will gladly accept whatever their ‘common sense’ or the idiots on Fox News tell them is real, even if it isnt. And when they run into something that requires them to use their imaginations and actually think about what’s real . . . well, they’ll either pretend it isn’t there, or they’ll simply ignore it, and go right the frak around it. Or if they can’t do any of the above, they’ll condemn it as evil, and try to destroy it.”

“”Well, you don’t have to worry about me condemning you,” he said. “Personally, I kinda like the fact that you sound a little . . . well . . .”

“Ba-nana balls?”

“Yeah,” he said, laughed nervously, and grinned. “Ba-nana balls. But that’s a good thing in my book.”

 She whacked him lightly on the arm and grinned at him. “Well, then, verily I say unto you, plblblblblbt!” She raspberried at him. “Hear me now, Gadget! I’m not some fluffy-bunny New-Ager praying to the Marigolds and chanting over crystals to find me a boyfriend before next Valentine’s Day. No . . . I’m a paradigm-hacking badass. I’ve used a toy sonic screwdriver as a wand to call the corners, a plasma globe as my ritual flame, an Erlenmeyer flask as my cauldron, and the circuit-pathways of an Arduino board as my sigils. I call upon Thor to bring the thunder. I capture elementals in Poké-Balls. And I channel Ishtar and Betty Boop when I fuck.” On that note, Gadget choked on his drink for the third time, and Dizzy grinned at his antics. “So,” she continued, “you said that Akasha and Gygax are here with you? Now?”

“Yep,” he said. “They’re upstairs in the suite we rented.”

“I’m torn,” she said. “On the one hand, I’d like to go say hi and meet Gygax in person. On the other hand . . . you have to meet Misto.”

“Yeah I caught a glimpse of him when I . . . when I went into your mind, earlier. Who is he?”

“Only the coolest adopted uncle a girl could ever hope to ask for. Come on, follow me. We’ll meet up with your friends later. Come on, follow me.”

Well, this wasn’t precisely how I wanted this to go, he thought, but oh well, I’ll take it. I’m following her, and not the other way around, but oh well, I’ll take what I can get. She’s hot and amazing, and she hasn’t run away from me yet, so yay, progress. And hey, she just might’ve offered me the chance of a lifetime. A shot at the big-leagues. I only hope she doesn’t get me killed. Dunno, though. A mind that incredible attached to a body that fantastic—plus a job offer that’s literally out of this world—might just be worth the risk of getting myself killed . . .

 

2

 

The Visitor oozed and crept down the diagonal passageway that led down from the roof of the building—since he had tentacles instead of legs, he had never quite gotten used to these rigid, perpendicular things the Humans called “stairs”—until he came to a locked metal door. He opened his utility belt’s pouch and took out the Interdimensional Matter-Shifter, aimed it at the lock, and fired. The beam hit the lock. It rattled in its casing and then shrank down, busting it loose from the door, and the door swung open on its hinges. The Visitor replaced the Matter-Shifter into his pouch, bent down, and peered through the hole where the lock had been. The coast was clear. Another diagonal stair-corridor, leading downward. And this one was inhabited.

There, one level below, he saw a Human female and a Human male. The male, who had darker skin than the female, wore an orange space-suit, and carried his glass-bubble helmet under his arm. Strange; he looked older than her, and would no doubt, in his slightly aged condition, be unsuitable for space travel. The female wore a short blue skirt and a a matching blue tunic. She had jet-black hair and . . . pointed ears? Ah, these and the male’s space-suit were no doubt parts of costumes of some kind, donned for this large gathering of likeminded Human fools, intended to celebrate this thing the Humans called “science fiction.” The notion of “fiction” intrigued the Visitor; on his planet, they did not have this concept that the Humans called “make-believe.” He found it fascinating, a curious phenomenon. Contrasted with the male, the Human female looked young and healthy. Nubile, and pliable. The older, darker-skinned male looked to be in not that good of health; he wore a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles on the bridge of his nose, indicating degraded vision. His skin had pock-marks in it, and a few freckles, meaning that his skin also showed its years. He also seemed what the Humans called “portly.”

The male reached into the zippered-pocket of his spacesuit and produced a small, hand-rolled cigarette, pursed it between his lips, and then lit the tip of it. It smoldered a bright orange, and he inhaled deeply, blowing out thick tendrils of smoke onto the air. He turned and grinned at the female. “Here, babe. Try some of nature’s finest. Never underestimate the hydroponics in the Biology Department at Miskatromyk U.”

“Don’t mind if I do,” said the female, grinning at him as he passed her the joint. That was what this was called, the Visitor believed. He recognized the smell—marijuana.

The female inhaled deeply, and puffed out a ring of smoke into the air, and smiled. “Man, that is good shit,” she said. “They do know their stuff at that place where you teach. If I thought I had more of a future, I might even enroll.”

Everyone has a future, Jetta. Everyone,” said the dark-skinned male. “It’s never too late for anybody. Hey, speaking of the future. I got a wild idea. How about we hijack one of the elevators and pretend we’re in a TARDIS, and like the floors of the hotel are all different planets. We can go exploring. And then we treat everybody we run into like they’re aliens and we’re studying them, and that we’re from . . . from planet Backwards. We’ll walk backwards everywhere we go . . . Freaks people out, trust me. It’ll be a gas.” He chuckled.

She laughed. “Okay, you’re on. Why not? Sometimes when I’m with you I feel like I’m on another planet, anyway. But in a good way.” She laughed. “Y’know, I’m glad we did this. Meeting here.”

“Me too,” he said. “Me too. Now if you’ll excuse me . . . I gotta go take a leak. I’ll be right back.”

“Sure,” she said. “Don’t be gone too long, or I’ll bogart this whole thing.” She gestured with the joint.

“Right on,” he said. He kissed her on the cheek, and then he exited the stairwell through the door to his left. The door clicked closed behind him. The female stood alone in the stairwell. She took another slow toke on the joint, and then slowly exhaled another cloud of thick smoke.

I have to be quick, the Visitor thought. An electro-charge to knock her unconscious, then move in, and shrink down, make the incision, get inside her, and close the incision. But I must be quick. Before he comes back. If all went well, he would implant himself within her—and would be in control of her—within two brief Earth minutes. Just long enough for her potential mate to come back from relieving himself.

The Visitor opened the door all the way.

The female looked up, and saw him. Her eyes widened with fear, then horror, and she froze in her tracks. She dropped the joint—it hit the ground with a small shower of sparks—and she opened her mouth to scream, but did not. Perhaps she was too frightened; perhaps the terror she felt had stolen away her voice. There was no time to follow proper procedure before she found it again. The Visitor made his way down the stairs, scuttling quickly on his tentacles, zooming quicker than he could’ve on legs, the shadows of his girth crawling across the walls as she backed up against the wall of the stairwell, her mouth an O-shape and her eyes peeled wide. The humanoid, mantis-like top-half of him loomed over her. Hurriedly, he wrapped a tentacle-arm around her face, smothering her would-be cries. Now she screamed. But those screams became whimpers as she crumpled to the ground, crying, blubbering. He could almost see her pathetic ape-life flashing flashing before her mind’s eyes rapidly, the anxiety of her impending doom unbearable, attaining critical mass as comets of panic collided in her head. She fainted. A small lock of her hair turned white.

The prospect of her dying with him inside of her weighed heavily on his mind . . . a great enough shock to her system would travel through her spine and into him, which might kill him . . . or worse, cause spontaneous re-enlargement, thus exposing the humans to the truth of Zarcturean existence. No matter, though; he didn’t have time to put any safeguard devices in place. From here, would shrink himself down and enter her, and bond with her nervous system. He would allow the female to re-engage the male in standard ape courtship rituals; then, once he had gained the male’s trust and the two of them were alone, he would take full control of her, and would have her knock the male unconscious, so he could take them both back to his ship for further study.

Sensing that he had little time until the male returned, he worked quickly. The Visitor injected her, and she fell limp in his tentacles. He gently turned her over and laid her on the cold concrete of the stairwell. He activated his laser scalpel, and cut a three-inch incision into her backside at the base of her spine. He then activated the Interdimensional Matter-Shifter, and the walls of the stairwell rushed away from him as he shrank, the female growing enormous in his field of vision . . .

 

3

 

The Visitor, his tentacles wrapped around the spinal column of the Human called Jetta Blackthorne, his feelers interfacing directly with the nerves therein, quickly came to realize that the word “normal” did not describe the Human woman whose body he had commandeered. In fact, using his neuronanonic sensor arrays, he scanned her internal organs and life-processes, and she barely registered as “Human” at all. She did not show up as an extraterrestrial visitor from some interested, third-party planet, either, nor did she register as some evolutionary offshoot that evolved from some other strain of chimpanzee. He had heard Humans speak of the legends surrounding such a creature as this, but most Humans, he had learned, dismissed such stories no basis in fact; such legends, he had learned, had become the products of ages-old superstitions, spread through outmoded religious doctrines and time-worn primal fears that hearkened back to Humanity’s early days. These legends had a name, of course: Vampire. And yet despite all this, the Visitor had a hard time coming to any other conclusion.

This creature’s digestive tract differed wildly from what he normally found in Humans. For one thing, it ran on blood—Human or otherwise—its components wired to extract nourishment from the bodily fluid. Her skin, hair, and eyes had chemical similarities to those of other Humans, but their cellular makeup was wildly different: They had all sorts of photosensitive chemical triggers built into them that would cause them to immediately break down and become caustic if exposed to sunlight or . . . the element known as Silver? Odd. The Jetta person’s teeth felt and looked different, as well; such that her incisors and canine teeth seemed enlarged, pointed, and sharp. Her genetic code had changed, as well; something had rewritten her DNA so that it passed along her new species-traits retrovirally, and her reproductive system, while seemingly in good enough order for her to have and enjoy sexual intercourse, found her lacking in the ability to either incept or gestate new life. Also rewritten, the DNA that controlled her aging process now worked differently as well; for every normal “Human” year that passed, she would only age the equivalent of a day or so; that, and something had removed the nucleonic circuitry that processed the cascading “cell death” response.

Other processes had rewired her immune and endocrine systems, as well; she could heal from even catastrophic injuries almost instantly, or in very short order. Her brain seemed more complex than most Human brains; hers had more folds, wrinkles, synapses dedicated to spatial and temporal reasoning, and had developed rudimentary telepathic powers, such as the ability to hold her prey in thrall. Her mind seemed powerful—the Visitor had to work hard just to keep himself hidden from her thoughts, his psionic presence cloaked. Her muscles, skin, and bones felt twelve times denser and stronger than those of the older, brown-skinned male whom she’d chosen as her mating-partner for tonight; her reflexes felt twelve times faster; her senses twelve times as sharp. This Jetta person had perhaps at one time been fully Human, but at some point, she had been reborn as a huntress of the night, an evolutionarily-superior Dionysian predator who could take down her prey with maximum speed and efficiency. She was “alive,” yet not alive in the same sense as other Humans. Her metabolism could work at varying “speeds,” granting her enhanced homeostasis. Thus, given Human culture as a context, along with her practical immortality, her need to feed on blood, and her well-night indestructibility, it was hard to come to any other name for what she was other than the oldest of Human names for the legend—“Vampire.”

Nonetheless, the Visitor persevered. This would be an interesting study. Since he had never before been inside a Vampire, he took this as an opportunity to learn more about their kind. This Vampire—he learned by probing her thoughts—was here to enjoy the company of this dark-skinned male, named Misto. For what purpose—other than to feed on him, of course—the Visitor could not exactly comprehend. But he wanted to know more, and so he decided to stick around, for the purposes of Science. When his fellow Zarcturean came to claim this world, they would have to deal with the Vampires as well as the Humans, and they would need to know as much as possible before embarking on such a task. And since Vampires—and there just had to be more of these things walking around; this “Jetta Vampire” could not be the only one—obviously had a predator-prey relationship with Humans, it would do nicely if the Zarcturean could perhaps exploit that relationship somewhat, in the initial phases of curtailing the Human population. Of course, the Vampire population would itself need to be curtailed, in time. And they, too, would be made to serve their Zarcturean masters as well, in due course. But that was a logistical matter to be sorted out later. For now, what mattered was gathering as much data as possible on these Vampires and their physiology and psychology, within the bounds of his mission parameters, and avoid exposure, if possible. Yes, this would be a most interesting study. And if she wound up feeding on the Human male, well, then he would get a first-hand view of Vampire feeding habits, wouldn’t he?