William A. Hainline: Reality Engineer

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An Excerpt from "The Technowizards of FantazmagoriCon!"

Hey all! I thought I would post a quick excerpt from the novel. Just to whet your appetites! Here goes! This excerpt concerns Darmok, one of the aliens in the book. (Darnokj is a shapeshifter who is neither male nor female, but of a third gender altogether. So that’s what’s with the alternate pronouns.)

“So this is Earth, huh? In all its glory, the real thing, at last,” ze said to zirself. “The planet the Watchers prize above all others . . . except maybe mine. Or hell, maybe even that, I dunno.” Zir English, in zir opinion, was flawless. Ze had practiced it relentlessly in a thousand Simulations, training for this mission, thinking the chance would never come to demonstrate zir worthiness as a Field Agent. Afraid that ze would be stuck behind a desk, grading papers until well past zir prime. Heh. “Grading papers.” Zir words betrayed zir age. That saying still existed even on zir world, the Planet Shyphtor, nine hundred and eight cycles—and counting—since the last tree had been pulped and paper had become a thing of the past. But ze was young compared to the Eldar, who ruled Shyphtor with the wisdom and grace that could only come with Age. And it was they, who after communion with the Watchers, had sent zir on this mission. Why they had chosen zir—ze had terrific training, but little actual experience—was anyone’s guess . . . But dammit, ze intended to succeed, no matter what. The Watchers’ Will Be Done, come—as the Humans might say—“Hell or high water.”

Darmok was the designer, pilot, sole crew-person, and commander of The Renegade Angel, the craft ze now arrived in. Ze sat at the Helm on the ship’s expansive bridge—which had been designed for a much more comprehensive crew, but ze could be flown by just a single Shyphtorilaen, if the need arose—and carefully guided zir in with one hand on each joystick—one that controlling the ship’s power and pitch, and one controlling zir roll and yaw. The Renegade Angel responded instantly to the slightest of touches, zir motion through the clouds as fluid and smooth as warm butter. Darmok smiled. Ze was eminently proud of zirself, and even prouder of zir ship. Ze had slaved over the blueprints for zir—and especially the equations for zir next-generation engine core—for over a decade, and had fought a ton of bureaucratic red-tape and committees in order to get the funding secured for the dream of bringing zir to life, year after year, until finally, the Angel had rolled off the assembly line, as beautiful as any other baby’s birth. And now, Darmok zirself piloted the Angel on zir maiden voyage—and on zir maiden voyage, as well: They had finally granted zir what ze had wanted since the dawn of the Third of zir Nine Lives: An actual assignment in the field: Investigate the threat of a Zarcturean invasion of the Off-Limits planet known as Earth, a “special project” of the Watchers, a planet they also “loved,” insofar as they were still capable of feelings like “love.” Some of the Eldar thought the Watchers long divorced from such emotions; others thought the Watchers had become love in its purest form, surpassing all negative emotions when they had Ascended to a higher plane of existence thirty thousand years before. Darmok wasn’t sure what ze believed.

Descended from shapeshifters, they had long ago sacrificed most of their transformative ability; they had long since grown skeletons, and could now only shift between quadruped and biped forms. For this mission, Darmok had assumed zir ailuro sapien form, in order to pilot the ship and potentially interact with Humans. Many of zir kind—the Shyphtorilaen, their race was called in the Human tongue—stayed that way most of the time. It was simply the most efficient package that nature had come up with, they had observed. The simian body structure was unique in its utility and versatility. With a few tweaks, of course. For instance—if you took the Human form, and you added a muscular prehensile tale—like a monkey’s—only that could grasp and lift objects—you’d instantly have more utility. Also, the face: If you added whisker-like sensory feelers—like a cat’s—you would have better directional sense (if they carried an electrostatic current). In fact, if you changed the facial configuration to be more feline in general—zir culture had developed a fascination with the Earth species Felis silvestris catus—you’d be better equipped all around (the larger nasal passages; the ability to “taste” certain smells; the ability to see in the dark; much better hearing, with the larger ears; more and sharper teeth, for chewing food). Except, of course, in the speech department; if you wanted to use verbal communication, you’d have to slightly adjust the mouth, adding more muscles and finer-grained control over the lips and larynx than a normal, Earth-originated house-cat had. And fur, of course; one needed fur to protect one from the cold, and from sharp objects, and to cushion from close-range impacts. 

The only thing Darmok hadn’t decided upon yet was zir gender. Ze was late in life. Normally, in zir society, one had decided upon one’s gender by now. A Shyphtorilaen usually decided to “fix” their gender—setting it in stone, changing from being “Of The Third” to being either Masculine or Feminine—by their seventeen hundredth cycle. Darmok was twenty-three hundred cycles old, and ze had not yet chosen a gender for zirself. A Shyphtorilaen could only truly “set” their gender once, and could only shift their gender once every two thousand cycles . . . and could only usually do so twice in one lifetime, usually around eight thousand cycles. And doing so involved elaborate rituals, ceremonies; it was a big deal, culturally speaking. Not to mention that doing so involved the biophysical process known as Chrysalis. Darmok hadn’t the patience for elaborate ceremonies. Nor the twelve-cycle-long process of Chrysalis. Dear Watchers, what would ze do in there? Read a really long book? (That whole “paper” thing, again. Ze would really have to get better at this whole “dating” zirself thing with zir references.)

“Well, well, well . . . what do we have here?” ze muttered to zirself, as ze closed in on zir destination. The cybernetic hololenticular implants in zir eyes drew zir attention to a large, stately building outlined with glowing red lines in zir eye-displays, with tiny indicator arrows pointing toward the Zarcturean ship that had already landed there. Ze throttled back zir velocity and prepared The Renegade Angel to land. Ze set zir down about ten yards away from the Zarcturean ship, zir foursome of steel-wheeled pods gently crunching into the rooftop’s gravel. Like the Zarcturean ship, Darmok’s The Renegade Angel was far larger on the inside than zir exterior suggested, by way of transcendental dimensional technology. However, there the similarities ended. For example, zir ship’s engine core—the part ze was really proud of—was definitely superior to the other ship’s basic faster-than-light drive: zir engine—which ze’d dubbed “the Con-Fusion Drive”—was a device whose reaction chamber contained a rift in spacetime that took the form of a ten-dimensional Möbius loop . . . one wherein multiple parallel universes—which were always supposed to remain parallel and never cross paths—all intersected. The bottom line? It made everyone onboard the ship utterly immune to the effects of Temporal Paradox whenever ze flew the ship through a time-warp. In other words, it took a spaceship, and turned it into the ultimate time machine. Now, thanks to Darmok, the Shyphtorilaen had a time-ship that could visit any place or time that the Eidolon had touched—via the agency of the Zarcturean or any other race that had grown malignant and dangerous under their evil tutelage—and then work to uncorrupt, reboot, or “correct” that species’ timeline or evolution, without having to worry about a Paradox Fracture swallowing their world whole . . . and without risking permanent damage to Time itself.

Darmok shut down the Con-Fusion Drive and the ship’s Antimatter Propulsors, and put the Main Reactor into stasis mode. Ze then locked the controls to zir genetics and brainwaves, so that only ze could operate them. Ze rose from zir seat at the Helm, and walked into the Captain’s Ready Room, which sat off to the left of the bridge. Ze touched a glowing panel there on the wall, and it slid open. There, ze beheld what Ops called a “basic Planetside Wanderer’s outfit.” A smallish backpack unit featuring two pulse-thrusters; a long, thick, crimson duster made of what humans might’ve identified as a heavy, leathery material, with readouts and sensors attached to its left fore-sleeve. A dark pair of pants with air-seals at the cuffs and above its utility belt, and a special slit in the back for zir tail to poke through, along with a matching, long-sleeve tunic with air-seals at the neck, sleeve cuffs, and waist, with both it and the pants created from a soft-weave poly-alloy—comfortable and stretchy, yet capable of blocking almost any and all projectile fire and completely airtight—along with a pair of bright-red rocket boots that almost matched the duster. Finally, hanging there also, ze found zir gun-belt, meant to criss-cross around zir waist, its pair of Decimator pistols meant to sit on either hip. In the top compartment of the cabinet lay zir atmospheric-conversion helmet, with a built-in model of another of zir inventions, the Thought-Transilience Transmission Interoseter, and a pair of red, poly-alloy soft-weave gloves with seals at the wrists. An Earthling might’ve pegged zir headgear as looking like an ordinary motorcycle helmet . . . albeit one with a fancy illuminated face-shield and a rubber-and-metal seal around the neck, with hoses and bits of tech bolted to it in places, and with a pair of tall antennae on either side.

Ze got dressed, adjusted zir guns, and then put on the helmet and locked it in place—mostly just as a precaution, as ze wasn’t yet positive ze could breathe the Earth’s atmosphere. Zir superiors had told zir that it featured nitrogen-oxygen-rich air, the same as planet Shyphtor, but had also told zir that the humans wantonly toxified their atmosphere with harmful pollutants, even though in doing so, they actively murdered their only planet, and they knew it. Next, ze put on the red, soft-weave poly-alloy gloves, which featured magnetic grips on the underside, and connected the power-couplings to the tubes that fed from the duster’s wrists. Lastly, ze donned the small pulse-thruster unit, and strapped it in place between zir shoulders. Then, ze closed the compartment, turned, and exited back onto the bridge, then went to the glass elevators that stood in the rear.  The doors slid open, then closed behind zir. The transparent elevator carriage began lowering itself on antigrav beams, moving through the ship’s lower levels—the mess hall, the engine room, the various storage and landing bays—then through a water-like membrane and the transdimensional bulk, the higher dimensional space between the inside and outside of the ship. Soon, the elevator gently touched down outside the craft, landing feather-light upon the gravel of the rooftop, and its glass doors parted.

Darmok ventured out, one Decimator pistol at the ready as ze scanned the rooftop for movement of any kind, zir hololenticular implants aiding zir. Dozens of sets of footprints—Humanoid, bipedal footprints, led back and forth all over the gravel rooftop, to and fro from the Visitor’s ship. Hmm, curious.

Ze approached the Zarcturean ship. Looking upon it, ze sighed, shook zir head, and said aloud, “Dear gods, how pragmatically fugly can you get?” One of zir briefings back home, entitled “Human Languages: English: Formal, Informal, and You” had been filled with some very strange words with even stranger usage contexts. It  was a ruffian’s tongue, vulgar yet clever and sharp; colorful and oddly efficient, though at times bizarrely wasteful. Ze liked it a lot, and had made a mental note then to try and learn more about it, especially its more “colorful” side. Ze put zir hands on zir hips and shook zir head again. “What kind of species doesn’t even try to make their ships more streamlined and beautiful? Jeeze . . . what a piece of space-trash. Now then . . . if I were a Zarcturean Visitor, why would I come to this place, of all places?”

Just then, ze felt a stabbing pain slice through zir head, like someone had suddenly shoved an ice-sickle through zir eye and straight into zir brain. Ze dropped to zir knees, short of breath and with sweat beading on zir forehead as ze fumbled for the controls that governed the Thought-Transilience Transmission Interoseter. Ze turned the Gain control all the way down from +11 to +0. The pain receded, but did not go away completely. It was directional, as well . . . if ze turned to the right or the left, the pain abated. Not all of it, but some. Only when ze faced forward—and only when ze looked directly at the Zarcturean ship—did it come back in full force. So, that was it: the Zarcturean ship had a telepathic security system, one with a limited kind of sentience . . . it wasn’t fully sapient, but it was alive enough to defend itself, and alive enough to be deadly whenever it chose to be. It would have to be Mind-hacked in order for anyone other than its pilot to get aboard.

Luckily, one of zir electives during zir field training had been in a skill-set called “Affinity-Tech Hacking,” which had covered how to hack into systems similar to this ships’ psionic security system. Ze only hoped ze remembered at least part of the mental protocols correctly. Doing so would mark the difference between getting aboard the ship, or getting zir synapses fried from within. With a deep breath taken, ze sat down on the roof, zir legs crossed over one another, and put zir hands on zir knees. Ze slowly turned the gain-knob up once more, until ze could hear the thing whispering in zir head. Ze closed zir eyes, and began to work . . .