Free Original Storyworld Ideas, Part 8: Magical Technology (A Little Problem with the Dilithium Stone)
Fantasy stories that feature magic usually have a medieval feel to them. Or perhaps ancient world flavor. Of course urban fantasy features magic set in the world you and I know. But how often is it that authors imagine a parallel world to our own in which technology roughly like our own exists, but instead of being driven by scientific discoveries, the tech is powered by magic?
This is an idea I think that could potentially make a lot of stories more interesting. The blend of technology and magic–not in the same way I recommended in a previous post on Spheres which would take the manipulation of real scientific forces the source of all magic. The way I’m recommending here is to craft magic that works for unknown reasons in a way that it winds up paralleling modern technology, which is quite different from what I recommended in the Spheres post.
When I came up with the idea of magical technology in 2013 and posted it to my personal blog, I thought I was inventing something new. No, not really–multiple authors have thought along these lines before, including the creation of a division of fantasy called “Technomancy,” in which magic is used to hack computer systems (and create other effects). And some blending of magic and technology also occurs in a number of other stories, including Harry Potter to a degree. But still, the overall concept is uncommon, even though not wholly original.
As I said in my previous personal blog post:
Magical devices are extremely common in fantasy stories of all stripes. Cloaks of invisibility, magic wands, and crystal ball variations abound (and much more).
Steampunk stories at times blend the magical with a Victorian feel…or make technology that might be imagined to work in the 19th century (but which can’t really), actually work, producing an effect that is almost magical. I mean things like airships shaped like sailing ships with levitating balloons that are in fact far too small for the weight lifted, or mechanical men who act in ways more complex than current robotic technology can deliver–but powered by mechanical clockworks.
But I think it would be interesting to feature stories in which devices are built–that is, technology exists–that are based on mechanical devices with magic essentially taking the role that electricity and electrical-powered devices perform in our world. So you’d build an elevator, for example, much like we do in our technological age–it would roll smoothly on lubricated ingrained vertical wheels to reduce friction, while the weight of the lift itself would be carefully counter-balanced against a counterweight connected via a cable, so moving the elevator would be simply a matter of changing the balance of the system, instead of directly lifting the weight of the device. But instead of a powerful electric motor to change the balance, a simple magical spell would do so. Perhaps uttered by an elevator attendant–say a magical apprentice gnome. The gnome, perhaps wearing the red cap of elevator attendants of a bygone era, says, “Balanceatus super” or something and the counterweight ascends, the cable lowering the elevator car down.
Or there could be a camera with a lens that captures light…but the image it captures and focuses on is captured by magic and transported by magic. Which would in effect be much like a WiFi device, but would never have to be plugged in for power; its batteries would never have to be replaced (though spells would have to be recharged, whatever that takes). Or a carriage that moves smoothly on wheels with lubricated axles, the driver turning a steering wheel, but the drive motor is a magically tumbling block of metal or something similar.
In fact, a fantasy story could feature a world that parallels ours in every way, with a magical equivalent of computers–monitors are glass screens dotted with phosphorous which are illuminated by pixies in flight–keyboards don’t exist, but the analog is a magical parchment that converts handwriting to images on a screen that can be copied and transported elsewhere. The Internet could exist via series of imps and fairies and/or dimwitted demons routing magical messages from glowing screen to glowing screen (I would make this fantasy Internet operate on “true digital”–that is, the numbers 0-9, not binary code). Air travel could be provided by large lightweight aerodynamic aircraft with lift (as we have them), but with dragons harnessed under the wings to provide thrust.
Fantasy skyscrapers of glass and steel could be connected by roads made smooth by giant rollers pushed by trolls. Rifles hurling projectiles could be fed bullet casings containing water where we would put gunpowder. A spell could transform the water instantly into steam, pushing the bullet down the gun barrel. Submarines and spacecraft could purify their air by words that freeze out atmospheric carbon dioxide. Companies that summon or breed or otherwise provide simple magical helpers would drive industry. Instead of “General Electric Corporation” being important, there would be a demand for “General Gnomic Services.” Instead of “Microsoft,” there could be “Minifairy.”
Note that there is an underlying assumption here–that even in a world of magic, principles of science would still apply–leverage would still work the same, lift would still be lift, materials science still materials science. There would just be additional forces to be harnessed in such a world that we do not have access to…which is why we are required to rely on less elegant and interesting solutions to our technical problems…
Three Short Stories
I’ve actually written three short stories that feature this idea of magic technology. One is a type of parody related to a well-known science fiction franchise, which I’ve included below. “A Little Problem with the Dilithium Stone” I’ve included in this post as an illustration of using magical technology in a tale.
Also, I hope you enjoy the story. Plus, regular commentators Notleia and Autumn might get a kick out of the fact that this is the closest I’ve ever done to writing Fanfic 🙂
A Little Problem with the Dilithium Stone
They say dark elves make the best Technical Officers. But Saaveriel was giving me doubts.
“A little problem? That’s all you’ve got to say about this? We lose warp drive ten thousand clicks inside the Draconiam Neutral Zone and all my trained master of magic and science has to say about why is ‘We’ve got a little a little problem?’”
The elf replied by sweeping back a lock of glossy raven hair past her highly pointed right ear. Her shoulders shrugged beneath her Spacefleet blue uniform top, accentuating features that I as her captain wasn’t supposed to notice, and her dark brown eyes met my gaze with a directness that under other circumstances I might have found alluring.
I twisted in my captain’s chair to the gnome standing on my left. “What’s engineering got to say about this?”
“I dinna know ferr sure, Cap’n. Nae bin a mote ouinkerrn dust befallen in ‘err system…”
I tried to follow the rest of what the red-shirted chief engineer told me. I really did. But his gnome brogue got so thick you’d have needed a photon pistol to cut through it. Under other circumstances, I would have asked him to repeat himself—slowly—but there just wasn’t time.
“Actually, it doesn’t matter why this happened. What matters is what needs to be done to fix it and how long that will take.”
“Aye, Cap’n,” Glotty glanced over at the Technical Officer. She silently raised a single eyebrow as she met his gaze. She turned to me and said, “Captain Church, it is impossible to make an exact estimate when the true nature of the problem is unknown. Mr. Glot and I will perform full diagnostic scans immediately.” And then she smiled at me. Disarmingly.
“Very well, then, get to it, Mr. Saaveriel.”
Glotty had already trotted away toward the turbovator door before she turned to join him, her red, red lips still parted, showing immaculately white teeth that matched her milky skin and which were set off in contrast by her dark eyes and hair. Focused directly on me, as she turned away to walk to the ‘vator.
I forced myself to turn my chair forward, not really absorbing the view of the star field in front of me. For the sake of discipline and good order, and even the meaning behind my family name, I most definitely did not watch the elf’s trim and shapely form saunter off the bridge. I breathed deeply and cleared my throat. “Mr. Chekurk, anything showing on the sensor sweeps?”
The goblin in the yellow shirt at the navigation station answered, “Only sstandard Draconiam ssurveillance drones, Captain. The ones pozted along the inner boundary of their border. I would think they’d have detected uz already, but if sso, we haven’t been able to pick up any trace of ssignals.”
“Are you monitoring the entire subvoid bandwidth? Not just Draconiam frequencies?”
“Every frequenzy, Captain. But not a peep from the ssenzor board.”
I pivoted the command chair to look behind me. “Can you verify that, commo?”
“Yes, Captain,” replied the wood elf lieutenant at that station. Her hair, eyes, and skin were all very nearly the same lovely shade of medium brown…
I fidgeted in the command chair for maybe thirty seconds, staring at the unmoving stars in the viewscreen that covered half the wall opposite me. “Mr. Chekurk, you have the helm. I’ll be in engineering.” I launched myself out of the chair and didn’t bother to listen for his confirmation of the order before stepping into the ‘vator, its door automatically sliding shut as I entered.
I grasped the control handle hanging down from the middle back wall of the car and turned it full to the right—main engineering. Some part of my brain absently reviewed turbovator tech operations—a miniature pixie in the handle read the user-initiated degree of turn and telepathically signaled another pixie at the air pressure controls, who used a control that altered pneumatic balance between air storage tanks to drive the ‘vator down its shaft…
The tubovator door snapped open, driven at the command of yet another pixie leveraging a clever counter-weight, and I stepped into the engineering main bay. Bright lit control panels and busy engineers and magical technicians lined my right and left sides as I walked to the main reactor. A transparent glass dome the size of most of the shipboard rooms contained the dilithium stone, which floated between the deck below and ceiling above, as it normally did. A thick obsidian conduit from below fed antimagic into the system while an amber conduit from above fed it magic. The forms of energy combined in the natural dilithium matrix and radiated an unimaginable degree of ordinary heat along the flat perimeter edge of the roundish stone. Plasma conduit met the glass sphere in ducts around the middle—the heat instantly vaporized ordinary matter into plasma and this plasma discharge, running through superconducting-shielded conduit, powered the main ship systems, including most importantly—especially at the moment—the engines.
The floating stone had a vaguely metallic look to it and was really more of a boulder than a stone. It massed just over three hundred kilograms. Or it used to—a hole nearly a quarter the size of the stone itself penetrated it through the middle from above, off center, larger going in than out, a roughly cone-shaped wound…
“Glotty! Did you know there’s a hole in the stone!” Commander Glot and Lieutenant Commander Saaveriel stood on my right, at a stainless-steel sided panel lit bright with crystals that tracked magic leakage.
“Aye. I ha’e alrreedy tol’ ye that.”
“Uh…well, uh, did you notice how large it is?”
“Cap’n, I ha’e alrreedy giv’n ye the mass and dimensions of yon stone gap…” Glotty, who stood as tall as my kneecap, had mounted a miniature stepladder on wheels to view the crystals of the monitoring panel that Saaveriel easily looked down upon. In confusion, he scratched the chin under his gray-whiskered beard, which ran down to his beginnings-of-a-pot-belly.
Saaveriel wasn’t confused at all. She winked—actually winked—at me, as if it were a conspiracy we were in on together. “I believe the captain simply had difficulty visualizing the description you gave him. Isn’t that right, sir?”
It was certainly true. I hadn’t visualized a single thing he’d told me. “Why thank you, Mr. Saavriel, for putting that into words for me…ahem.” And she smiled. Dark elves don’t usually smile. And she’d done so twice in relatively rapid succession. I enjoyed the attention—I didn’t want to admit to myself how much I enjoyed it— but in the back of my mind an instinct said, She’s up to something, Tim.
I crossed my arms across my chest and scratched a spot through my yellow uniform top just below the seven pointed emblem designating our spaceship, the Venture. If that just happened to be on my flexed pectoral muscle, so be it. “So what happened to it, Mr. Saaveriel?”
“Happened…Captain?” She cocked her head sideways.
“Yes, happened. The law of conservation of matter, energy, and magic clearly states that none of the three are created or destroyed. They only change forms. So what form did the missing matter in the stone change into?”
She raised an eyebrow. But before she could comment, Commander Glot said, “That be whey we check’n magic leakage, Cap’n.”
“Because…all system magic is accounted for? So if extra magic was produced, it must have leaked out?”
“Correct, sir.” Saaveriel nodded her approval.
“And what do the readings show?”
Glotty sighed. “No leakage, Cap’n.”
I found myself glaring at Saaveriel. She raised an eyebrow and the corners of her mouth turned just barely upward. She might as well have been wearing a sign: I know something about this that I’m not telling you.
I rubbed my chin with my right hand. “Mr. Glot, I noticed as I walked by that the EPS board indicates we’re still producing power from the reactor.”
“Aye, Cap’n. But output be limited. ‘lven perrcent.”
“Mr. Saaveriel, what would happen if we were to run higher than eleven percent?”
“Why, Captain, that would create a magic imbalance that would destroy the reactor.”
“Mr. Glot, isn’t it so that at eleven percent power, we can run all the main ship systems, except main engines?”
“We’d ‘ave to rrely on secondarry rreactorrs, but—”
The overhead intercom interrupted Glotty. “Captain, we need you on the bridge. We have two Draconiam prey birdz on approach.”
“Aye, Mr. Chekurk! On my way.” I glanced back. “Mr. Saaveriel, you’re with me.”
We strode to the turbovator together. Once inside, I paused before activating the lift. “Isn’t it interesting that at eleven percent power, we can run main force fields and weapons well enough to give the Draconiams a good fight—but we don’t have enough power to quickly get back to our side of the border?” I turned the handle all the way to the left for the bridge.
“Fascinating,” she answered, her eyes examining my face, as if reappraising me. And no longer smiling.
“And isn’t it interesting that the distress signal that brought us into the Neutral Zone—a signal that proved to be from an old flight data gem, with no real person to rescue—was first detected from your Technology Station?”
“Intriguing,” she said, her lovely eyes now looking down at her feet.
The turbovator door snapped open and I led the way onto the bridge, Lieutenant Chekurk moving forward to his navigation station as he saw me. “Hailing frequencies, Lieutenant Uhurwen, standard greeting.”
Chekurk answered, “Captain, ssensorz detect no ssign of fairy duzt, which normally iz part of Draconiam ssubvoid tranzponder technology.”
“Force fields up, Captain?” Asked Lieutenant Satu from the weapons chair.
“Not yet.” I pivoted the chair back towards the commo station. “Any response to our hails, Lieutenant?”
“Try an ethereal messenger. Signal our reason for entering the neutral zone, our momentary engine difficulties, and our willingness to cooperate.” Without direct reply she removed a glowing blue gemstone from the panel her in front of her and began intoning the spell in a low voice.
“Lieutenant Satu, run test pattern delta on the main photon beam banks, phase torpedoes, and force field matrix. For five seconds only. I want their clairvoyant sensor groks to know our teeth are operational.”
“Aye, captain,” replied the Finno-Japanese officer with a grin. “Running pattern delta.”
The ghostly blue ethereal messenger at that moment passed forward through the main viewscreen on the way to the Draconiam crews. The pixie-illuminated screen captured the war birds stretching their deep black wings wide, their magical sailfeathers extended to the maximum, more visible from the starlight they blocked than anything else, riding the reflected telekinetic force of their main reactors, one behind each set of the spacebirds’ folded legs, each one glowing a deep red.
“Mr. Chekurk, is it my imagination, or are these war birds moving at an exceptionally slow pace?”
“Captain, these shipz appear to have very limited gravitic inertial compenzation. Accelerating at ten sstandard geez. Not to mention no forze fieldz—fuzion warheadz and lazerz only for weaponz. The crew cabinz are sstrapped to the neck of each bird. Very little modern tech.”
“Captain, old or not, they are coming in for a standard attack run,” noted Satu. “Their weapons are armed. Raise fields?”
“Not yet, Mr. Satu. Ignore any laser fire unless I tell you otherwise, but if you detect any fusion missiles headed our way, raise force fields at will.”
“Captain,” stated Lieutenant Uhurwen, “The ethereal messenger is returning.”
“Very well, make sure fields are down as it passes through, Mr. Satu.”
I observed the Draconiam ships move on the viewscreen as the weapons officer said “aye.” They took positions off the forward port and forward starboard force field vectors as their relatively low-tech vessels slowed to a halt.
“Captain! Vezelz have launched two fusion warheadz each,” exclaimed Chekurk.
“Keep the fields down, Mr. Satu.”
“Aye, Captain,” replied the yellow-shirted weapons officer, the single bead of sweat on his brow his only sign of emotion.
A long second drew out. A flicker of blue movement caught my eye. “Raise fields!”
“Aye, sir!” And with a touch of a button in the weapons station control panel, plasma heated by the wounded dilithium stone rushed into conduits that directed their energy into broadcasting a version of the strong nuclear force rendered gigantic by enchanted crystals in the force field matrix. The force fields resisted the input of any energy from outside their system and bound the ship tightly together. The impact of the four fusion warheads rattled the ship as gravitic beams lagged ever so slightly in compensating for the inertia shift from the discharges of energy released in quick succession from the warheads. The main viewscreen darkened briefly to shield the eyes of the crew from the powerful white lights illuminating the exterior of the ship.
As the viewscreen came back up, the ethereal messenger appeared before me in its natural blue color instead of the black of the decorated battle armor and the red skin and the yellow eyes of a Draconiam captain. Other than the color, which the messenger could not change, it took the exact form of the captain, including a scaly reptilian head lined with bumpy ridges, sharpened teeth, in the full battle plate and two-handed sword of a senior officer. The Draconiam snarled at me, “Since your shields are down, prepare to die, Confederation scum!” Due to the time it took for the messenger to travel back to me, clearly the captain’s next act had been to order the launch of fusion missiles. Message delivered, the messenger faded away. I didn’t see any point in sending a reply.
I pushed a button on my command chair. “Damage report, Mr. Glot?”
“Mr. Satu, any damage to our shields?”
“None, sir. They’ll run out of warheads before they take our shields down.”
I touched my right index finger to my lips. “It seems they didn’t notice our shield test. Mr. Chekurk, have you detected any sign on the sensor board that they have sensor groks on board their ship?”
“Lieutenant Saaveriel, can you verify that information?” Mr. Chekurk cast a glance over his shoulder back towards the Technical Officer Station. Normally I would have asked her this sort of question first and have asked him to verify.
“I concur, Captain. No clairvoyant magic detected.”
“Both of you, long range sensors. Any Draconiam war vessels on approach?”
“None I can detect, Captain,” answered Chekurk.
“It appears the Draconiam border is much more poorly defended than Confederation intelligence believes,” said Saaveriel.
I rubbed my chin and looked back at Saaveriel. And then over to Mr. Chekurk. “Mr. Chekurk, take the helm again. Keep fields up, full reverse thrust on the maneuvering jets. Since we can take attacks from these warheads all day with our shields up, let’s just take them as we back out of here. Inform me immediately of any trace of new Draconiam vessels approaching. Or if these two come up with anything more deadly than what they’ve already used. I’m returning to engineering. Mr. Saaveriel—”
“I’m with you,” she finished for me.
“Yes you are, Lieutenant.”
In the turbovator I paused before moving us to the engineering deck, the sliding door giving us privacy from the bridge crew. “I think it’s time you tell me how to fix the dilithium stone.”
She opened her mouth but no words came out. She looked down at her feet and said, “I may have a theory about that.”
“Indeed you may.” I turned the handle. “Go on.”
The turbovator intercom sounded. “Captain, new missile launch. Impact in ten seconds.”
“Thank you, Mr. Chekurk.” I switched off the intercom. “Go on.”
“Well, I may have once heard of a transformative spell that could convert lithium paste into the dilithium of the stone.”
“And what about the stone’s spiritual mirror in the ethereal plane? I assume that’s damaged too.” At that moment, the turbovater car rattled with the explosion of fusion warheads.
She glanced upward towards the origin of the now-absent rattle before saying, “It is.”
At that moment, the door opened to main engineering. Saaveriel stepped forward to exit the ‘vator car, but I held up my hand. We waited a few seconds inside. The door closed again.
“Healer McCoy should be able to repair that, though,” she added.
“Really? I bet he’ll be surprised to hear that.” She only raised an eyebrow in reply.
I touched the button labeled MEDICAL on the intercom panel. “Leo, I need you in main engineering, right away. Bring with you one hundred kilograms”—I glanced at Saaveriel to see if I’d estimated the amount correctly, she nodded affirmative—“of lithium paste. You’ll find it in the aft storage.”
An aged voice replied, “What? Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t lithium paste is used in conduit repair?”
“That’s right, Leo. But we’re going to use it as a plug for the dilithium stone.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me. Now I’m a conduit repairman!”
I smiled. “That’s an order, Leo.” I turned the handle to the engineering setting again, which opened the door. Saaveriel and I strode out onto the engineering deck. Without conversation we walked up to the chamber that contained the stone, she on my left-hand side, both of us looking at it silently. My peripheral vision noted Mr. Glot joining us on my right.
I turned to him, “Any progress, Mr. Glot?”
The gnome hung his head. “Nae, Cap’n.”
I turned back towards Saaveriel, but before I could comment, the tubovator door from which we’d entered engineering earlier snapped open. McCoy passed through it, a levitating sled magically propelling itself in front of him, tubes of lithium paste piled on top of it. Traditionally wizards wore robes, but Spacefleet rules naturally required more uniformity in appearance—and our uniforms required pants, not robes. A compromise allowed a wizard to wear special pants with belled bottoms. McCoy wore these instead of the uniform standard, belted with a gigantic buckle around his waist, a loose white shirt open to the chest above that, a trimmed graying beard above that adorning his seasoned face.
As he approached us, I said, “That was quick, doc.”
He muttered first before saying loud enough for me to hear, “My lovely assistant was already in main stores.” He waived his hand at the sled. “So how is this supposed to work?”
“I know it’s not your specialty, but you do know a teleportation spell or two, don’t you?”
He snorted but nodded affirmative in reply.
“I need you to take this lithium paste and apply it to the hole in the stone. Fill the entire gap and smooth out the paste—”
He interrupted, “Well, I don’t know why you’d want me to help with that. God made me a healing wizard, not a bricklayer!”
I chuckled, “Your specialty comes into play for what you’ll do after that.”
McCoy grumbled and complained and pulled his wizard’s beard, but two hours later, the stone was repaired, healing spells cast, the ship back at warp speed on the way to Confederation space, the Draconiams having never managed an effective response. Saaveriel and I retraced our steps back to the tubovator car. “After you, Lieutenant,” I said, regretting it afterward. I was determined not to be the sort of captain who routinely studied the form of his young female officers. Especially not of this one.
In the car, the two of us alone, a moment passed where she looked at me and I at her. I didn’t bother to activate the ‘vator. She leaned back against the side of the car, sliding one foot back against the wall, raising her knee. The corners of her mouth raised ever so slightly and her eyes widened as she gazed directly into my eyes. I ignored my own increasing pulse rate.
“So, why did you arrange this, Lieutenant? Why did you strand us in the Neutral Zone?”
Her smile faded. But her gaze remained as fixed on me as before. “Isn’t it noteworthy, Captain, how vulnerable the Draconiams proved to be? They acted aggressively, yes, but they were unable to back it up. It seems their best vessels have been destroyed in internecine conflict.”
I pondered the point for a moment. “So it would appear.”
“They are weak, Captain. But brutal. Dozens of species lay under their dominion. Now would be the perfect time to liberate them.”
“I see…but that would be a political decision, one we officers in Spacefleet would have no right to attempt to influence.”
Her eyes widened a bit further. “Of course not, Captain.”
“Of course not,” I repeated.
I grasped the control handle and turned to the bridge level. “I believe I shall have to keep an eye on you, Mr. Saaveriel.”
She replied by raising an eyebrow and flipping back a lock of her raven black hair back past her highly pointed right ear. “Why Captain, I would expect nothing less.”
While mixing magic and technology or overtly substituting what is labeled in the story as magic for what would normally be technology isn’t a unique concept, it’s uncommon as far as I know, and could add flavor to any science fiction story you come up with, overtly flipping it to science fantasy.
So what stories do you know that mix magic and technology? Do any recreate modern times, with cell phones, computers, and all, but only with everything magical? Or do you know of any magical technology space fleets? Any other thoughts or comments? If so, please share in the comments below!