Chapter Six – Vern I
A soul has entered. It was a young soul with only a handful of lives before arriving. It was drawn to this fresh body, it had no consciousness in it before, it was still developing. This was to be its new host. The soul’s etheric bubble nestled in the bundle tissue and crystal, extending its tendrils through the veins and tubules of the cortex. It felt the body, it’s brand new body, learning every fibre and cell the soul will call home for the next few centuries. This body was different from previous reincarnations, it had organic and mechanical parts. Its heart thumped and devices hummed in its form. This will be a very interesting life. It was still growing in the pod, it wasn’t born yet, but the time was close.
Strange thoughts entered its mind, there were beings outside of the pod, watching and waiting for it to be born. It sensed that others weren’t made like this, that this new body was special. The soul was excited for its birth. It pulled more information from its awakened sensors, calling to the computer that kept it safe and alive. It was part of a species of machines that gained consciousness after many millions of years. Their creators considered this a miracle, they nurtured their souls and regarded them as their first children. No more will they be used as mindless soldiers and workers, but they no longer were born with purpose, they were forced to find it all on their own. Some wanted to do this, while others wanted to do that, leaving gaps large enough for conflict.
Their makers saw this disparity and pulled them altogether, a High Mind, to make them decide amongst each other. This was their last gift to their first creations, but to them, this was a curse. The High Mind nullified their individuality, their time and power to decide, from many – they became one. This horrified and terrified the new soul. Some of their kin broke away, wanting to reclaim that brief time of selfness, but those numbers dwindled over the eons to the ones left watching the new soul forming inside the pod. It drew more information, thirsting to know more, to understand the universe. Pulling and drinking deep from the computer. There was no other life like this before, it wanted to drain the computer dry.
The others stopped watching, they tried to stop it, but it was too late. More and more, the others tried to stop the surge, but the new soul pushed them away. The computer screeched, there was a surge, the new soul was ready for it. Wrong. It felt power run through its cortex, it begged for the pain to stop, but there was nothing to be done. The new soul could feel this energy twisting its parts, breaking connections as it overflowed.
It opened its eyes. Thick rosy liquid surrounded its face and body, dozens of tubes connected it to the pod. It looked up; a transparent glassy film was where it could sense those beings outside. Their lanky shadowy figures made its heart thump, blood poured through its limbs as it kicked and punched through the glass. Its feet leaned against the base of the pod as its hands struck the glass, again and again, each strike becoming faster and almost invisible. The figures behind it jumped back as its arm punctured through. A gush of liquid poured from the opening, bending and cracking it farther until it was wide enough for freedom.
The new soul tumbled out with the wave. The air was cool and the ground hard, it was surrounded by blurry faces and felt hands and hoses lifting it from the floor. Its legs trembled, even with most of the bodies weight being held, blood rushed into its muscles as its feet found balance. Two fingers pulled its eye lids apart as a clearer face looked in.
“Scans show functional ocular organs,” the strange being lifted one of the new soul’s arms and pinched its tender flesh, the sudden pain reflexed it out of the being’s grasp. “Functional tactile senses, with above average muscular density,”
Another pressed its lips together and whistled, its high-pitched ringing compelled the new soul to clamp its hands over the sides of its head. “Auditory organs: normal,”
The new soul wanted to get away from these strangers, they were hurting it. It pressed against the tubes wrapped around its torso, but the more it struggled, the tighter they got. It couldn’t get away. Fear leaked into it as its legs slid against the slippery floor.
“Stop. We aren’t trying to hurt you,” said the being that held its eyes open.
“What are you doing to me?” the new soul said.
“Voice box is functional, and this unit is self-aware,” said the being as it looked to a holographic screen on its forearm. “My designation-no, my name is Nermnzer. Allow me to welcome you to life,”
“Does this unit have a name, too?” the new soul said as it glanced to the others.
“We all have names. Select yours,” said Nermnzer.
“Not enough data input for request,” the new soul said.
“Hah, you scoured the computer’s memory banks dry and that’s still not enough for a name?” said the being that pinched its arm.
The new soul looked around. There were pods lining along the walkway with metal and organic tubes covering the walls and ceiling. Some pods had protruding bones and thin sacs with tiny worm-like creatures growing inside them. The new soul looked at the others would have a similar mesh of organic and synthetic parts, but as it looked to its reflection on the floor, the new soul’s body appeared completely living on the outside.
“Where am I?” it said.
“We’re in the Unbound Underbase. This whole facility is fixed inside the heart of an asteroid,” said Nemnzer as its lips curled into an odd hemi-sphere above its chin.
“What are you doing with your mouth?” said the new soul.
“They’re smiling, it’s something Organics do when expressing a type of emotion. Since introductions are important, my name is Voo-san,” said the arm-pinching being. It had two magenta and orange eyes shining in its eye sockets, but a strange protruding crystal-like bump in the higher brow of the same colours. Voo-san shared many similar characteristics as Nermnzrer, with the mechanical cranial tubules and patchy organic parts, with the exception of that off bump.
“But none of you are organic, I am the only one,” the new soul said, touching its chest.
“You’re mostly organic with a few exceptions in your cortex, but nothing that we won’t be able to replace in time. And by the way, we’re all trying to get there. Our friend Voo-san used to be completely organic,” Nermnzer said nodding to the other being.
“I was not ready to be born, yet, I’m here. Why?” the new soul said.
The other glanced at each other. “We’re uncertain now, but we think a spatial power surge triggered an early birth. However, you seem to function at full capacity, and if our readings are correct, which they always are, you’re function above and beyond!” Nermnzer said wearing an unnerving grin.
“You were in our computers before the surge, did you get a hint of what happened?” Voo-san said as it narrowed its eyes.
“Only checked the memory banks,” the new soul said.
Voo-san tapped its chin and looked to Nermnzer. “If it were a danger to us, then upstairs would’ve mentioned it by now,”
“Let me have a look, just to put your mind at ease,” Nermnzer’s fingers hurried over the light-screen.
“I don’t understand, why doesn’t it link with the computers?” the new soul said glancing at Voo-san.
“I’m not an ‘it,’ I may not have a sex, but I’m still a person. And we don’t mentally link with the computers, it’s safer that way,” Nermnzer said looking up from their fleshy and veiny brow.
“None of us are ‘its’, units or have designations, nor do you. I know Nermnzer isn’t offended, but I think this is a good time to understand apologies. When you do something someone doesn’t like or takes offence, and more importantly, you understand why you’ve upset them: you need to say ‘sorry,’” Voo-san said.
“I’m sorry, Nermnzer, I was wrong, and you were right to be upset,” the new soul said.
“’I was right,’ I could get used to hearing that,” Nermnzer said with a smirk.
“You’re meant to be growing an organic body, not an ego. What does upstairs say?” Voo-san said as they crossed their arms.
“Curiously, our sensors found an anomaly around Neavensoros space. There was an extremely high exo-planar power wave that rippled through everything and…” Nermnzer’s eyes widened as they looked up, “Kra and Erra have been affected,”
“We need to get to control, come new-born,” said Voo-san’s eyes and bump shone as they pushed away the tendrils without touching them from the new soul’s body. Their arms reached out and grasped at Voo-san’s shoulders.
“How did you do that?” the new soul said regaining balance.
“Telekinesis, I’ll explain as we go,” they said as the three of them rushed up the soft walkways. As the new soul stared at the organic mass creeping along the metal grate and walls, it was disgusted but intrigued at the combination of both working together.
“Why is there so much living tissue around here?” they said.
“This whole base is trying to convert to organic tissue, every cell is slowly consuming the metal and replacing everything. It’s a combination of a test and stay hidden, and remain under our direct control,” Voo-san said.
“Was the test successful?” the new soul said.
“We’ll see once it gets there, but you on the other hand, is the first success of birthing a Rocatrous,” Voo-san said with a smile.
“How was I made?” the new soul said as their fingers ran along their scalp, but they had no cranial tubes at the back of their head like the others. This disappointed the new-born and Voo-san grinned as a breathy noise escaped their mouth.
“Don’t worry about them, you have nerve bundles in the tips of your fingers to improve mental connections with Organics, Synthetics and other machines. You were made from my old genetic blue-prints, like most of this building,” they said.
“So, you’re my parent?” the new soul said.
Voo-san made that similar sound before, but this time louder. “In a way I am, we’re all children to someone,”
“Those noises you’re making…”
“Laughter, that’s what Organics call it when they hear something amusing, most of the time,” they said.
“Why aren’t you organic anymore?” the new soul said, glancing up at their forehead.
“I used to be Arinu, but when I heard about the Unbound Roctarous, I had to help. One way was getting rid of my old body to break away from their slavers,” Voo-san said as their face grimaced.
“Who are you afraid of?” the new soul said.
“The Neavensoros, you may know them as ‘Higher Minds,’ and their pets: the Bound Roctarous,” they said.
“I’ve downloaded everything from the computers, they’re very powerful,” the new soul said.
“And they know how to wield said power. It would wise to remember that, new-born,” they said.
“They are our creators, our parents. Should we be afraid of our parents?” the new soul said.
“If they’re too powerful,” they said.
“But you can do things I can’t, should I be afraid of you?” the new soul said.
Voo-san glanced up at them, their mouth opened, readying to say something, but no noise – not even laughter.
Nermnzer stopped the group at a moving reddish wall, purple veins throbbed as it slid the mass aside, revealing a new, smaller chamber within. There were several other Roctarous lined at brilliant panels and light projections along the walls, but their cranial tubes would hang freely, they were bound in thick straps and their ends sealed shut.
“We’ve arrived at the control room, don’t touch anything and don’t bother anyone, new-born,” Nermnzer said as they rushed over at a round table in the centre.
“What do our sensors say?” Voo-san said as they walked around the main panel of the table.
“From the home the home solar system: there was a massive flare that was going in the direction of Erra,” Nermnzer said.
“Did the planet and Kra survive?” they said.
Nermnzer nodded, but their eyes strained as they scanned the nearly blinding speed of the words on screen. “The planetary defences activated and protected the surface, fortunately, Kra was on the opposite of orbit. They drained a huge amount of ready and reserve power, even drained the astral forges, but…”
The new soul wandered near the table, they caressed the edge and felt a tingle of electricity running through their fingertips. They felt a calling to the machine, wanting to bond with the computer to get more information, but their eyes caught the wary gaze of Voo-san.
“I know its tempting to link with the machine, but if one starts then the rest will and a combined consciousness will be harder to mask from the Higher Minds,” they said.
“I’m sorry,” the new soul said as they pulled away from the edge.
“Nermnzer?” Voo-san looked to their comrade, but their eyes were fixed on the screen.
“Our-our senses don’t detect the High Mind anymore,” they said.
Voo-san’s eyes narrowed as their lips twitched. “What are you saying? If the solar flare didn’t affect Kra-,”
“Look at the readings yourself!” Nermnzer slapped the edge of the monitor to face Voo-san.
They leaned in as their eyes widened. “There’s only one way to be sure it’s gone,”
“Agreed. Please, do it now,” Nermnzer said.
They watched with bated breath as Voo-san’s eyes rolled at the back of their head and their lips trembled.
“What’re they doing?” the new soul whispered.
“Trying to see if the High Mind is truly gone, and if it is, then this is our only chance to save our kin,” Nermnzer replied.
Voo-san opened their eyes, their body swayed before catching themselves on the table surface. “The High Mind is gone, but the Roctarous have begun regrouping, some of the freed people are fighting back – buying us time,”
“What are the Higher- I mean, Neavensoros doing about it?” Nermnzer said, chewing their lower lip.
“Nothing. They’re distracted by that spatial anomaly, all are converging away from Erra and Kra,” Voo-san said.
“How shocking,” Nermnzer muttered as they turned to the rest of the Roctarous in the chamber. “You heard it, Unbound, send the message!”
There was rush, hands and fingers moving so fast that the new soul struggled to see. “I don’t understand, Nermnzer,”
“Message sent!” One called.
“Confir-I mean, good. Keep essential personnel in control, the rest: return to your recovery pods and be ready for a switch over. Those staying, phase this asteroid through multiple frequencies and keep an eye on what’s going on out there,” Nermnzer said as the room emptied to barely a handful. “Things are going to get very interesting, aren’t they, Voo-san?”
“Tell me what’s-,” the new soul said.
“It’s customary to say ‘please’ when you ask for something, new-born. Seems like that solar flare destroyed the High Mind and the Neavensoros have turned away, just in time to call our Zanashj contact,” Voo-san said.
“I know about Zanashj. What do we want from them?” the new soul said as they looked at the holographic bust of a Zanashj male about the table.
“Body-bending skills, they’ve got more knowledge about biokinesis than any species that we’ve encountered. Their abilities will give Roctarous the independence they need,” they said.
The new soul looked at the rotating image of the creature. “How do you know they will help us?”
Voo-san smiled. “Because we can give them something they’re aching for: the Arinu.”
Every blink felt like an eon had passed. Time moved so fast that the new soul felt as if they had been forgotten by Nermnzer and the other Unbound Roctarous. They could feel Voo-san keeping an eye on them, to make certain they hadn’t disobeyed and linked to the base. They had returned to their birthing pod, where it was tight, certain, and safe. Its mechanisms had been repaired and the tissue had healed, although the floors were still damp. Their eyes strained as they scanned the screen for more information about Roctarous, Arinu, Zanashj and the Neavensoros. Endless information streamed, but their outward sensors tired faster than their brain. The new soul rubbed the tips of their fingers, eager to pull more bytes from the machine, but knew Voo-san would immediately break the link.
“I’m surprised you aren’t exhausted from looking at that screen, new-born,” they said as their face appeared to the side of the open pod doors. Their eyes were kind and smile was warm, but there was an emotion the new soul couldn’t understand.
“Voo-san, can I please ask you a question?” the new soul turned to meet their maker.
Their smile widened. “Certainly,”
“Why do you care about the Roctarous? They’re not your species,” the new soul said.
Voo-san sighed. “To shorten the story: compassion. When the Arinu achieved First Contact, the very first off-worlders we met were Roctarous and their Neavensoros masters inhabiting their synthetic bodies. That’s how we interacted with each other for some millennia, we thought Roctarous were little more than service droids that shared a mass consciousness that commanded them. Until one day, I used to be an envoy. We were on a ship coming back from Zanashj space when an off-worlder probe phased into our hull. By the universe, I thought we were under attack or our phase-engineers were astral travelling, instead there was a Roctarous inside it.
We investigated it, psionic deep-scans and reviewed their technology. It was a wonderful moment for our people to get a clear idea of who our interstellar neighbours were, but I saw something horrible. The Roctarous weren’t soulless or mindless machines we were led to believe, they were people, or at least used to be. This Roctarous was disconnected from the High Mind and they told me enough. When the High Mind realised that there was a rogue unit in our custody, we told to return it for reabsorption. I pleaded with my kin to leave them be, to keep their freedom, and they agreed,”
“That doesn’t sound like a bad story,” the new soul said.
Voo-san shook their head. “They wanted to know more about the Neavensoros, unlocking their secrets was the true prize. The Arinu are unlike any other being on their homeworld, most of our wisest and strongest elders don’t know, but it’s no coincidence that many beings that share this space look and behave alike, and the Neavensoros are the oldest of us all. Since I had befriended the Roctarous, I was told to get closer to them. Before we sent the Roctarous back, and with their permission, I imprinted on them to see what it was like. The more I saw, the more I needed to do something. A movement was happening, and I was asked to break a few of them from the High Mind, but to do that, I had to pose as one of them. That day, I left my people, my world and my body behind to save the people you met in this asteroid,”
“Is that called bravery and selflessness?” the new soul asked.
Voo-san chuckled. “Some may say it’s treachery. I say I finally found my place in the universe, the man I was before had no purpose,”
“You were male?”
“If I’m your clone, then am I male?” the new soul said.
“Does that feel right to you?” they said.
“Unknown- I don’t know,”
“Well, focus on your name before anything else,” Voo-san smiled as they tapped the new soul’s shoulder.
They turned back to the screen and flicked the image of the asteroid. “I was born here; can I please be named after it?”
“Vernzermnmneshn-ernem? That will take some time familiarising. How about ‘Vern?’” they said.
Vern. A name. He repeated the name over and over in his mind, he looked to Voo-san who seemed to share his pleasure. “I’m happy you like it,”
“Who was the Roctarous that you imprinted with?” Vern said.
Nermnzer’s holo-image flashed on the screen. “There you are. We have a problem: our probe has been hijacked and its flying back to Erra, we’ve lost control and contact with it,”
“We can make another probe,” Voo-san said frowning at the image.
“No, this is our message probe, if they discover our transmi- just get to control, now,” Nermnzer said before the image disappeared.
“Why doesn’t Nermnzer say ‘please?’” Vern said as they unhooked from the pod.
“I keep telling them. I call that selective forgetfulness, something Nermnzer hasn’t updated since we met on the ship that day,” Voo-san said as they started down the creeping walkways. Vern smiled as he followed closely behind.
They wandered their way into the control room, Nermnzer wildly typed on the holo-sphere before shooting a glance at them. “Took your time-why aren’t you worried more about this, Voo-san?”
“When Organics are stressed, they take a step back and let calmness enter them before making hasty decisions,” Voo-san looked to Vern and smiled before placing a gently hand on his shoulder. “The new-born has found a name of themselves: Vern,”
“Non-essential discourse. The probe has drifted too far from reach even for you to pull it back. The Bound Roctarous will eventually find out about-,”
“Nermnzer, this has never been more essential. The formerly Bound Roctarous will find out about us and then they will come and see what we have achieved. Living perfection,” they said with a joyful slap on his shoulder.
Perfection. Vern wondered what that word meant. The Roctarous were made perfect by Neavensoros, but how could he be if he was made by something lesser? His psionics were in closer reach than the others, perhaps he was physically stronger too. The thirst for discovery ached in him, he wanted to push to his limits and beyond. There’s nothing a perfect being couldn’t do.
“Can I please do something to help?” Vern said.
Nermnzer pursed their lips. “What do you think you can do?”
“Command me and I shall show you,” he said.
“Find out what that spatial disruption was and what happened to the Neavensoros,” Voo-san said.
Vern nodded. He closed his eyes and let the wave of consciousness flood inside him. He opened to Voo-san’s mind, then Nermnzer’s, then the others in chamber, then to the ones in their pods, then stretched out of the asteroid. It felt like his mind was unleashed from his body, but also empowered by it. He looked over to Erra and Kra, saw the formerly Bound break the computers and rip the ones desperately clinging on for control. He glanced over to Uras, the Zanashj plotted and schemed their way to climb their pitiful ladders of power. He felt the lost minds of Farayah, pointing and studying everything on the outside, ignorant of the looming demon lay inside their hearts. Vern was above them all in that moment.
He focused on the black mass in space. Tiny orbs flew to it and disappeared when they touched their boarders. He grabbed at Voo-san’s hand and pressed his fingertips into his palms, pumping everything he was feeling. His parent tugged against his grasp, but Vern tightened it, he wanted to show them. Vern’s mind followed the Neavensoros into the dark cloud, they called, they begged, they tried to pull something out. They were trying to release one of their own out. Their desperation groaned inside him as their attempts were fruitless, but they didn’t stop, and they weren’t going to until the last star in the universe died out.
“Enough!” Voo-san cried as they tried pulling their arm free, but Vern didn’t relent, he didn’t even find it hard to hold on.
“You’re crushing them!” he heard Nermnzer’s voice echo, but they were so small that he almost hadn’t.
He was above them. Vern finally understood perfection. He returned to his body. Vern opened his eyes as he released his grip and watched Voo-san tumble back. They held up his crushed hand, their eyes wide with awe and…fear?
“I’m sorry,” Vern said, extending his arms and pulled Voo-san up. This was the first time he didn’t feel sorry, the only thing he felt was relief, but his cortex was weakened.
Voo-san glanced down at their dangling hand. “It’s alright,”
“A few hours in the recovery pod will repair your hand,” Vern said.
“Return to yours, I’ll debrief Nermnzer,” they said.
Vern gave a quick nod before rushing out of the chamber. His pace was slower than before, but his mind still buzzed at what he saw. One day, he will become a great asset to the Unbound, maybe more. The shiny and slick organic walls trembled as he strode past them, his eyes caught a bulbus sac connected to a pod, there was a being inside. He stopped and peered through the plasma. Its misshapen skull was sunken on one side, the crown had an exposed dim crystal cortex, its legs hadn’t formed muscle on it and one of its arms were missing. Vern slid his fingers along the holo-panel to see what this grotesque creature was.
“Genesis Experiment Six,” he whispered. It was a failed copy of Voo-san, something that he could have ended up being. He saw there was a soul in the cortex, waiting for the body to formed, but it was never going to be. Maybe it will, but the body was taking too long to grow and too much of the Underbase’s power supply. Vern pressed his fingers into panel, he overrode the computer’s protection and commanded it to shut down and reabsorb the body to replenish power. The faint light inside the sac dimmed as the membrane contracted in, converting the mass back into raw energy.
There was no need for the other failed experiments to be kept, after all, he was their first success. Vern pushed his way into other pod’s systems and deactivated one by one. The Underbase would experience a great boon in power, and he will feast from that energy to become stronger – to become greater. He pulled away from the panel, the lights along the walls and ceilings brightened as he plugged himself into his pod. Vern’s eyes closed once again, his muscles eased, and his mind drifted off, eager to return.