The race of cyborgs known as gnome-engines were once ordinary gnomes, but in the late post-industrial era, the gnome-run Under-Empire went to war with the forces of the dark god-demon Jvarasura, who had made his lair deep beneath the surface of the earth. After a pitched battle, the gnomes were victorious and Jvarasura's followers were routed. The forces of Under-Empire stormed Jvarasura's stronghold, and the gnomish hero Karl Calaban struck a mortal blow against the demon-god with a blessed chain-sword known as Reciprocating Justice. With his dying words, the dark god curse the gnomish race, and his last breath curdled clouds of pestilence. Every gnome who was exposed to the vile miasma fell ill soon afterwards, burning with fever and vomiting blood. Every gnome that is, except Karl Calaban, who was cursed to watch his comrades suffer and die around him.
This disease became known as the Rubrum Galerum, and it began to spread through the underground cities of the gnomes. The plague spread quickly and was nearly 100% fatal. Its shifting nature left conventional medical science baffled, and as the death curse of a god, it could only be slowed temporarily by magical healing. As last living gnomes began to dwindle, they concocted a desperate solution – they would transplant their brains into mechanical bodies, which would be immune to the deadly Rubrum. The project was very controversial – the War of the Basilisk had ended only recently. Artificial intelligences had been banned across the planet, and although gnomish brains operating mechanical bodies would not technically be an AI, anything that resembled machine intelligence was subject to intense persecution.
Nevertheless, the gnomes went forward with the project. They modified a series of decommissioned domestic service robots, making small improvements and designing a machine-brain interface almost overnight, working within the cramped confines of an arctic research station, one of the last places untouched by the Rubrum Galerum. Finally, just after midnight the first gnome underwent the procedure, his living brain transplanted into a waiting robot body. When the brain capsule was sealed and the body's systems activated, the assembled gnomes rejoiced when the mechanical body rose and began to speak in the voice of their old friend. The first gnome-engine had been born.
Within a few years, almost every living gnome had underwent the procedure to become a gnome-engine, or had died of the plague. Today, about two thousand gnome-engines exist, most of them on Earth but some have found passage on star ships and made their homes here and there across the Milky Way. Some view them as fascinating curiosities, others hate and fear them as intelligent machines, and some revere them as the next step in the evolution of life. But to those who know them best, gnome-engines are ordinary people plunged into extraordinary circumstances, given eternal life in mechanical bodies, their minds entombed in steel capsules.
The first gnome-engines were largely physically identical. A discontinued series of child-sized domestic servant robots known as the H3LPR Mark 7 were used as the basis for their bodies. These bodies stand at 3.5 feet tall and have the proportions of a human child, with fully articulated joints and simulated life functions such as blinking eyes and breathing motions. They are covered with a thin layer of silvery metallic plating, with a metal skeletal structure beneath and fine wires running inside the metal 'bones' carrying data throughout the robotic frame. The head houses detection apparatus that simulates sight, smell, and hearing for the gnome-engine, while the brain capsule (containing the living gnomish brain) is housed in the chest cavity, surrounded by They are fitted for optional synthetic hair implants, and their eyes can be configured to any of 16.8 million colors. They are powered by a power cell array that provides up to 48 hours of continuous operation, and can be charged by solar power or by connection to any regular power grid. These bodies became known as Alpha-series gnome-engines, and the majority of gnome-engines in existence still have basically Alpha-series bodies, although many of them have made slight modifications over the years. The Alpha-series has proven to be a versatile robotic body, capable of satisfactory performance on most tasks that gnome-engines commonly engage in.
Over time, the limitations of the Alpha-series spurred many gnome-engines to search for more durable, powerful mechanical bodies. This ultimately led to the creation of the Beta-series, the first alternative gnome-engine body to be introduced. While the Alpha-series was about as tall as an ordinary gnome, the Beta-series was taller, about the height of a tall human male. And while the Alpha-series was only modestly durable and never designed with combat or heavy labor in mind, the Beta-series featured a titanium endoskeleton and a thick, fibrous synthetic skin with roughly twice the strength of Kevlar.
Since the introduction of the Beta-series, a number of variant bodies have been introduced, ranging from animal-inspired designs to bizarre spider-legged bodies and beyond. One of the most popular is the Omicron-series, a body variant about the size of a troll and with metallic plates instead of skin and several weapon mounts. There are even rumors of larger gnome-engine bodies the size of buildings, known as Gnulks, but these have yet to be confirmed.
Even those gnome-engines who have remained in their original Alpha-series bodies have often extensively modified them, replacing a component here or a part there with new versions with higher efficiency and more features. As such, no two gnome-engines are likely to be exactly the same even if they share the same model of mechanical body.