The Designer

There we were, contingent 47 of the Engineering Corps, ready to die for our planet, and he had to give in. They wouldn’t have even touched him. By his uniform they knew he wasn’t one of us. They didn’t know civilian support uniforms. If he hadn’t told them they would have never guessed he was a Designer.

The Designer first appeared in Ray Gun Revival, Issue 57, 2010, by Double-edged Publishing. It is a stand-alone story in the Space Opera subgenre.

—   Story Begins   —

There we were, contingent 47 of the Engineering Corps, ready to die for our planet, and he had to give in. They wouldn’t have even touched him. By his uniform they knew he wasn’t one of us. They didn’t know civilian support uniforms. If he hadn’t told them they would have never guessed he was a Designer. But he told them, to save us. We were ready to die, trained for it. We accepted it as part of the risk. We didn’t need any favors. Collaboration was unthinkable to me, to us. But he offered. And to think – I sort of liked him.

I remember when he came on board. Station De Graff sent him over on promotion roster, top of the list. And it soon became evident why. It was like having a walking Universal Translator ambulating between Manufacturing Works and Engineering. Through him our requirements became integrated designs at the Shop. In turn, he wove their constraints seamlessly into our specs. Never had the two teams worked better together. We all noticed the efficiency but no one could point to any one specific change he had made. That was his real genius. They all thought, we all thought, we had come up with the ideas. We had made the tough trade-off choices, not compromised. They had improved the fault tolerance of their products, not given in to tighter specs. As Lead Engineer of Defense Engineering Corps 47 I had met many Designers before, Service and Civvies. He was something else.

First Gen fighters were upgraded to Third Gen in record time. A whole squadron of Green Wasp PTs was reconfigured to fit the Mallesian pilots’ Flight in 4.5 weeks. I took a look at one of them. It was a marvel to behold. If you didn’t know better, you wouldn’t have known that cockpit had been originally designed for Terran physiology. The height of the controls, the angles of the panels, the length of the flip buttons, even their textures, everything had been redesigned to fit our amphibian allies to the proverbial “t”.

He caught me admiring that cabin. I don’t remember what I said when I noticed him there. But whatever it was, it made his face beam. And it was a nice smile. I realized that morning I hadn’t seen him smile much before. Once the Mallesian flight leader had given the prototype a spin, the whole squadron lined up outside the manufacturing floor demanding theirs. He gave them the next best thing, 40 hours each in the flight simulator, refitted to match his modifications, and reprogrammed with a dozen emergency scenarios. He was practically chuckling as each of the gaunt aliens stumbled out like giant drunken frogs.

“The sentient brain,” he smiled again as he checked the last one of them off his list, “is a wonder of uniformity. Not one species we have met is an exception, we all run 90% of the time on autopilot… the price of self-awareness, you know… perennially reacting. We like to pretend we think, we choose, but in reality all we do is respond to stimuli based on previous experience and expectations.”

He read the incredulity in my face. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, Ma’am, Professor Pavlov was only partially right. We are conditioned but not by the environment or randomness. We are conditioned by our selves. That is the marvel! It’s the 10% that counts, that makes us who we are. It’s a beautiful economy, when you think about it. Without it our brains would probably choke in cognitive overload. We are self-conditioned, self-referencing machines.

“Fearfully and wonderfully made, someone said. And likely never to be duplicated, you know: No synthetic logic circuit ever devised can handle self-referencing, Russell Paradox and all that. But that very uniqueness is at the root of almost all catastrophic accidents. We only see what we expect to see.” He nodded towards the last alien wobbling away. “If I didn’t retrain them, if I didn’t fix in their minds with adrenaline all the changes that have been made in those ships, they wouldn’t be improvements; in an emergency they would be liabilities.”

That was the longest conversation I had ever had with him. He seldom engaged any of us in dialogue, much less the meaningless pleasantries that we exchange throughout the day. He just carried on, efficiently, most of the time in the background, except at team meetings. Then he took the forefront to guarantee all business was taken care of. From that day on I decided to study him. And it was a lesson in clinical observation, human and alien psychology, expert negotiation, and just plain good old common sense.

He hardly ever smiled but his eyes were always alive. And they did smile, noticing everything, his mind always searching for the “natural way”, as he called it, the normal reaction, the expected result that would guarantee from his pilots the fastest and right response in the middle of combat. He was brilliant. I liked him, then.

I hate him now; at least I try to. Civilians are not required to risk their lives. But he had no right to save ours. And to add insult to injury they assigned me to be his assistant. I don’t know whose idea it was. My outburst, when he offered his help for our safety, clearly marked me as the leader of our group. They could have killed me right there as an example, or worse. The Bitunni have been known to take a liking to Earth women. But what they do with them, no one ever says. I am sure I don’t want to find out. Did he save my life twice? I hate him.

But working for him has let me gather bits and pieces of equipment. I can tell when he is not looking. He hasn’t noticed. And now I’ve seen another side of him, when he is actually designing. Then he is absolutely focused. He is amazing. No one has ever been this close to Bitunni and lived, and he is already arguing with them about the ergonomics of their cabins.

The first thing they asked him to do was detail our PTs capabilities. Without even blinking he rattled off a litany of specs even I couldn’t understand. Then he said, “The unit of measure, the ratings of performance, they are all meaningless without an equivalency key. You ask the impossible. I need a dictionary.” His reply was in English Standard, the same Terran language they were using to interrogate us, except he pronounced it, or rather mispronounced it, exactly as they did. If I had not known any better I would have thought he was mocking them.

He showed them what he meant, “not just a word dictionary but a technical base of comparison.” They complied. They walked him through one of their fighters and he asked questions and they answered. Within a few days he was speaking broken Bitunni and drawing up their Fighter’s systems into a standard Deming III chart. He must be a natural linguist; I could only pick up 50% of the words myself. “Here, here, and here are your weak points.” They asked why and he translated the PT capabilities into their standards of measure; and even I could see the surprise in those crab-like faces. I could almost swear he exaggerated on the speed and the shield reserves, but he spoke those numbers in Bitunni, on purpose.

And then they asked him how many PTs we had. I fingered my first piece of contraband. In my trips to their engineering archives, to get him pile after pile of technical drawings, I had noticed a broken shipping crate. Its frame was made of a long, folded spine of metal, thin and flexible, like spring steel. With a couple of minutes of delay in each trip I was able to work a corner off by the end of the day. Three nights’ labor against the concrete wall of our confinement quarters netted me a six-inch knife.

I carried it inside my jumpsuit for just such an emergency. My heart rate doubled. I know my forehead was sweating. I tried to fix my eyes on his throat. his is what military training was all about, making the hard decisions on the spot, letting the endless drills distance you from emotion and thought, and acting only on the goal: I couldn’t let him tell them. I couldn’t let him compromise our forces. I succeeded in bringing to mind the impersonal diagram of the circulatory system. My eyes found the jugular vein and superimposed that image on him. And then he glanced at me and I felt my knees weaken.

“I don’t have that kind of information,” he lied, as his eyes refocused on the multi-faceted stalked orbs of the Bitunni commander. “None of us,” and he waved towards me, “have access to that information, or the exact frequency hop pattern of our military communication bands, or the echo cross section of the ships.” He pointed to the insignia on his sleeve. “No rank, no need-to-know, simply engineers.”

The Bitunni rocked on his two short hind legs as it regarded his face. I could tell that it wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not. And just as the alien was about to challenge him he offered, “But I can make your Fighters better.” The alien stopped rocking. “Overall your raw capabilities are nearly matched to ours, but your implementation is deficient.” He measured the commander the way he measured a roomful of bickering engineers and production line supervisors. “What was your loss ratio the last time your ships met a squadron of PTs?” And before the commander decided whether to answer that or not he finished, “And I bet most of your losses were due to Gatling fire on your maneuvering pods.”

I know he never had access to that information, he had no clearance for it; and yet, he was right. As lead engineer, Pilot Command had briefed me on that weakness after the engagement at Verne Base. “Look at the location of your proximity sensors,” he motioned at the unfurled diagram on the table, “in order to keep a pursuing ship out of their blind spot your pilots are forced to dangle their rear end like – ” I missed the end of his quip, but he punctuated it with the Bitunni slang for Terran anatomy. “Where else are they going to get hit? And then what good are your superior torpedoes if you cannot align your ships to lock on target? I can make your ships better.”

They believed him. I started hefting parts and tools for him. He set on redesigning their ships’ sensor array first. The traitor. If his changes took, next time our PTs met their ships there’d be no blind spot at 50 by –72 to capitalize on. How many lives would that cost us? It took him three weeks to redesign and implement the changes on a prototype. I used that time to gather enough supplies to turn one of the discarded sensors into a homing beacon. I split the parts among three of us to reduce the chance of discovery. Tommy arrayed the antenna, Anna patched together the most compact power supply she could make, and I worked on the signal-processing unit.

The Bitunni’s original sensors used simple chirping circuits. He installed frequency hoppers in the new ones. Why? I did not know— Not even our Gen 3 Fighters used hopping sensors, what’s the use? What did he have in mind? Was he trying out a new technology on them? I did not even want to consider what that meant… giving them not just an edge but superior technology.

At the point of exhaustion, in the middle of the night, when random thoughts turn into bizarre nightmares I remembered the knife again. I could use it; I would use it, if I had to. But we were so close to having a working beacon. Leading our forces to this hidden Bitunni base had to be the overruling priority.

The morning of the first test of the new sensor array, had practically the whole Bitunni base command staff converging on the Range Simulator facility. The prototype fighter was mounted on top of a five-axis 3D positioning pedestal in the center of a large anechoic chamber. The horn antennas peppered throughout the chamber simulated every possible engagement configuration, doing their best to confuse the array. In every encounter the automatically controlled fighter pivoted flawlessly into fire-lock attitude within 7 seconds of signal detection.

A Bitunni engineer took over the controls of the array and searched in vain for a blind spot. When he finally gave up in frustration the room exploded into applause, or its Bitunni equivalent. That was my chance to steal one of the spare frequency hopping modules from his toolbox.

I realized that with it, encoding it with our own frequency hopping cipher, we could make our beacon stand so high above the noise floor that any Earth sensor this side of De Graff station would hear us. Not to mention, it would make it virtually undetectable by Bitunni stations. It was worth the risk. I took it, just in time. The mob of Bitunni converged on his workbench. I tried to step back. But that wave of shells and leather almost crushed me.

The roar of their voices and the deafening castanets of their hind feet on the floor nearly drowned out the metal chime that the frequency hopper module made on first impact with that floor. I had dropped it, and my heart with it. Like tympani announcing suppertime its echoes finally brought the room to sudden, total silence. My throat went sand dry. I resisted every impulse to run away. And he was there in an instant. He picked it up, grabbed my right hand with his left, and slapped the module into it. “I told you to get rid of that piece of junk.” His eyes met mine ever so briefly. He turned immediately to the Bitunni commander and said, “after this war is over I need to talk to you about your quality control.” I retreated out of that room with my heart oscillating between the pit of my stomach and my throat.

From that day on, our eyes hardly ever met. He worked at a feverish pace. All fighters were fitted with the new sensors, and he set on to work on rearranging their cabins. “Space, wasted space!” The Bitunni head engineer followed him as he paced around the outside of a cabin mock-up. “Look at your forearms, the third hinge is made for sweeping motions, the way you use it in claw-to-claw combat. To react with peak efficiency the environment inside your fight space must conform to your natural motions, your instinctive reactions. Why would anyone put the torpedo trigger in the middle of the navigation panel? It makes you reach forward, shift your weight out of reach of the foot pedals, and takes your eyes away from the side sensor displays.”

“There is no other room.” The Bitunni argued.

“Sure there is, right here.” He slapped the left side brace next to the side sensor displays. “This emergency oxygen valve doesn’t need to be here. There’s plenty of room below the seat for it. You are wearing pressure suits anyway.”

He drove the Bitunni technicians like a slave master. He had two and a half shifts working around the clock. Their only chance to rest was when he stopped for three hours in the early morning, to eat, review the work manifests, and sleep two hours.

“Fourteen digits between your two grasping hands, and your maneuvering controls are all levers and wheels. It’s all pushing and turning. Is that how you eat?” It wasn’t. The Bitunni inner hands had incredible dexterity. Their eating utensils were ornamented rods with a variety of shaped ends; maneuvered three to a hand like chop sticks. “That’s where your fine control should be, terminal maneuvering, Gatling gun fire.” He reshaped their levers to respond smoothly to their claws, and fashioned virtual reality gauntlets for their inner hands.

The prototype was ready in five days. Our beacon had been transmitting for the last two. From the limited glances I had gotten of their star charts I knew roughly where we were. It would take at least a week for the signal to get to our nearest base.

He summoned the Bitunni commander. His stalked eyes visibly shivered when he saw the new cabin, but the shock turned into surprise once he sat inside it. Everything was within his reach. Even the floor had been slanted to favor the position of his fore feet and clear the interference with the upper knee joints. He demanded the first test flight. His second in command took out a conventional fighter for a battle run demonstration. Every monitor in the base broadcast the encounter. And the new fighter performed as promised.

The dogfight lasted less than ten minutes. Had they been firing real missiles instead of radiotracers, the second in command would have been incinerated. The commander scored three direct hits on the fuel store chambers of the old fighter. Back at the base the Bitunni roared in triumph as he literally jumped out of his fighter’s cockpit and strode up to his human ally. “I promise you,” he said in his best English, admiring with one eye the virtual reality gauntlet on his hand and with the other the fragile human before him, “I promise you, this will be a short war.” The commander gave the go ahead for refitting his entire flight.

Six shifts of technicians working around the clock created two new fighters every 32 hours. He no longer shaved. He barely ate. Three weeks after our beacon first went on line their entire Bitunni elite fighter guard was outfitted and ready. Every pilot had flown practice dogfights against their own comrades, every one with the same result. The Bitunni elites were invincible. The Bitunni head engineer was sent off to Central Command with all specs, plans, and video recordings of the prototypes’ triumphal dogfights. The entire fleet would become invincible. And then the alarm sounded.

Long-range sensors picked up a squadron of Terran Alliance ships, two dozen PTs. The Bitunni had less than ten hours to scramble and meet them at the edge of the System. He led the ready teams. Every ship was refueled and rechecked, bow to stern, in absolute accord to the checklist and procedure he had devised. That too was pure efficiency. Every step had been timed and sequenced masterfully. From the moment the technician first turned off the cockpit central oxygen supply in order to start pumping fuel, to the final wiggling of all flight surfaces it was less than two hours. In six hours they were all loaded onto the base launchers. Three hours later the flight of 31 elites converged on the Terran formation.

The base monitors carried the conflict from the very beginning. The tactical analysts sounded more like sportscasters than soldiers. There was an air of expectation throughout the whole base. No one cared how the Terrans had found the base; this was the beginning of their end. A Terran PT with French placards was the first to fire. PT and Bitunni fighter spiraled in on each other. The Terran slid sideways and suddenly positioned itself above and to the right rear of the Bitunni, 50 by –72. And the Bitunni spun in place and scored a direct hit on the Terran’s front shields.

I shut my eyes. The Bitunni cheered. The cheer became a collective war cry as the scene repeated itself over and over. I had to open my eyes again. There were four PTs diving for the protection of an asteroid belt, their front hulls glowing red. And suddenly I realized it. I had brought them here to their deaths.

The coldness that started on my face spread throughout my body in a sickening wave that ended somewhere in my belly. I built the beacon. I called them here… And he knew I would. Every thought, every hope, seemed to unreel onto the floor. My knees could barely keep that floor from sucking me down. And the rolling victory song of the Bitunni made me sick enough to vomit. My hand to my mouth touched a clammy face, drenched with tears. I reached for a table edge to steady myself. My eyes fell on him. My hand found the edge of the knife. Like a drunkard on the deck of a storm-beaten ship I approached him. He was standing at his desk, his eyes were fixed on the screens, his throat bared.

“Where are the Mallesians?” he whispered to himself. I reached him. He turned, and he embraced me.

“No.” I struggled against his hold, against the pull of the floor, against the nausea. I managed to push him back and steady my grip on the knife. My left hand gripped the back of his neck, my eyes met his eyes, and I saw the horror mirrored in them, my horror. Why? He saw the knife, but it wasn’t the knife… He made no attempt at stopping my hand. Why?

The victory song vanished into a sudden hush and then moans started to echo all around us, moans and cries. Our eyes returned to the screens. A Mallesian PT was mercilessly pounding a flailing Bitunni. The Bitunni fired a couple of torpedoes into empty space, and a second later it evaporated into a fireball. A Terran PT with Turkish placards followed suit. Sweeping under his quarry, a burst of Gatling fire sliced across the enemy’s under belly, and again the Bitunni went into a flailing panic. Fireball after fireball blanched the monitor screens, each one Bitunni.

He was the first one to collapse to the floor. He was sobbing as I slumped to my knees beside him. He forced himself to take several deep breaths as he wiped the tears from his eyes. “Second floor down, rear of the base, room 310, panels 37 and 38… tell your crew to hurry there and disable the comm relays. We don’t want the rest of the Bitunni warned.” I did as he said. No one stood in our way. The base was rapidly succumbing to chaos. By the time someone finally gave the order to man the perimeter guns, two Mallesians were reducing them to slag.

The base was as good as taken. Bitunni were surrendering to my crew on the spot. I returned to him. The last four weeks had taken their toll. His cheeks were sunken; his hands trembled as he piled together his papers. But his eyes were alive again. “What happened? How did you…?” He exhaled a smile at my question and motioned for me to seat down. He didn’t have enough strength to stand.

“Remember, the Mallesians were originally bog dwellers. Their natural instinct is to attack from underneath.” He smiled again at the blank look on my face. “There is a blind spot in the new Bitunni sensor configuration… directly underneath the body center. Of course, if you pedestal your prototypes there to test them, how are you going to tell?

“But even if you found it you wouldn’t care. It doesn’t expose any maneuvering pods, or fuel tanks, or weapons’ relays. The only thing you can cut off with a hit down there is the cockpit and pressure suit oxygen supply. And all Bitunni ships carry an in-cockpit emergency oxygen supply for just such an eventuality. You should turn it off to fuel up, cuts down on the risk of accidental fires.” He shuffled down through his papers and pulled out the checklist. “See? It says so here. Shut Valve A2m.” He let me scan down the whole list. I didn’t know what I was looking for. I was about to give up, when I saw what he started to say.

“It doesn’t say to turn it back on.”

“No.” His face flashed on a clueless expression. “And you never will if you follow these directions.”

“But there is another valve, in the cockpit, you said so yourself.”

“Yes, located on all Bitunni ships on the left side brace.” My eyes opened wide as he went on. “Picture yourself flying a fighter. Your enemy is right behind you, and he suddenly vanishes from your sensors. You are hit. Ten seconds later the oxygen warning lights come on and you realize you are not just holding your breath; the air is thinning inside your suit. Panic, adrenaline rush, and you react with all your training, slamming the left side brace, to no avail. You just fired a torpedo or two.”

“But someone is bound to remember the valve was moved to underneath the seat.”

“No one thinks in emergencies, I tell you. But even if they did, the virtual reality gauntlet is too large to fit down there.”

I sat back on that seat and took it all in again. “Designed to fail…” My eyes met his again, and he was grinning broadly.

“It was the least I could do.”

I love him.

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