Zov’ha sat up on her couch, ready to listen to the story of the Divine Purge, something she had long awaited to hear about. All the searching she had done on the Aerozan database had seemed a waste of time, because the information had been incomplete and muddled — it had mostly been excerpts and reports from various people in the past. She had not found a single consolidated article summarising the series of incidents that had led to the Divine Purge, and this had frustrated her.
‘Rather,’ Marana continued, sitting upright herself, ‘Lemme show you. Gimme your hand.’ Zov’ha extended her right arm towards the Mechanov. She held Zov’ha’s wrist gently and searched for her median nerve. ‘Don’t startle, ’k? Won’t hurt.’ Marana looked at her. Zov’ha did not look concerned, but she did appear sleepy and a little intoxicated. ‘I’m gonna attempt what we call an Encephalosync. Kinda like watchin’ a movie but in your head. I’ll be there too.’
When Zov’ha nodded, Marana produced a blunt needle from the tip of her bionic finger and slowly pressed down on her median nerve. Zov’ha felt a slight jerk as her brain was flooded with a vision — the room around her disappeared and she found herself sitting in a meadow at night, looking up at the stars. Marana was sitting beside her on the grass, still holding her wrist.
‘Marana… this is amazing!’ Zov’ha whispered. She could even feel a cool breeze that wafted across the plains. ‘Where are we?’
‘Hush now, girl,’ Marana smiled. ‘It’s a narrative I nicked off M.A.R.T.’s library.’ She took a deep breath and mumbled under her breath, ‘Begin playback.’
The sky above them began changing, displaying scenes from the past, as the recorded voice of a narrator spoke in a calm demeanour, ‘If one were to ask the historians today about the year and the events that sparked the Divine Purge, the answers would be so varied as to confound them with the historic timeline, even more so than before they had consulted with any of these experts. For all purposes, one can agree that there was a time on this planet when there was conflict between the many nations that dominated it.’
Zov’ha was mesmerised with what she saw and heard. It was evident that Aeroz’s technology was way ahead of any nation in the Purged Lands. She stood up slowly, eyes fixed on the visualisations in the sky — the planet, long ago, before the Divine Purge. There were cities, thousands of them, advanced and prosperous. People dressed differently — even looked different. None of them had bionic appendages or fur or spines. The scene switched to show ring-shaped structures orbiting the planet — human-made cities, floating luxuriously in space. She took a few steps forward, and Marana let go of her hand but the connection did not sever. The narration continued…
‘Unbridled carnage rained upon land and sea, rousing the ire of the few innocent and peace-loving countries that craved knowledge and wisdom over power, unlike their warmongering counterparts. Compelled to take pacifist action against this torment, a secret association assembled in the deep places of the virtual net woven by technologies of those times. This society consisted of some of the greatest minds from the war-neutral zones, and they vowed to create a new world of peace and a form of self-governance.
‘Through years of vigorous experimentation, an ideology began to formulate amongst them — a combination of various procedures, both cybernetic and biomedical, promised a way to bring about change. Known as the Adneuro Protuberance Protocol, renowned biohackers, engineers, and medical professionals worked tirelessly to perfect the convoluted procedure that would enhance the “reasoning” function in a human’s brain and override their emotional centre, thereby overcoming the need to force control by law. If successful, these augmented humans, or the then-used term ‘cyborgs’, who willingly accepted this new way of life, would operate on a set of rules that forbade crime, aggression, or distress to others, instead harbouring technological and personal progress — thus using individual order to achieve total anarchy.
‘The final phase of the protocol trials involved various stages including novel gene-inclusion, mandatory conditioning and training, surgical chip implants, and several other methods. One of them proved rather challenging — the augmentation of the human brain with an additional neocortical layer. This operation took several trials and decades to perfect. Many of these experiments were intercepted by the law-abiding nations, and any association with the Adneuro Protuberance Protocol was criminalised.
‘Finally, a team of renegade scientists, hidden in an underground bunker in the northern nations, found the long awaited success — a small group of augmented humans who had undergone all the processes, including the neocortical improvement, survived without any complications. They were visibly similar to any other human, except for a small protuberance on the head like a twisted horn, which they called Exaglia.
‘Through a special device attached to the Exaglia, they could interact with a central system called the Cerebral Megaflux… the Supermind. Though privacy was acknowledged, this hub allowed them to connect through thoughts and experiences. Mutual progress was encouraged… or encoded. They used the Supermind primarily as a communication system and as a global repository.
‘Once the Adneuro Protuberance Protocol reached a stage at which it was safe to be conducted on a massive scale, the secret association opened up to the world, inviting all who wanted to escape the war to join them. The only condition being that every citizen of this new world would have to follow the Adneuro Protuberance Protocol and connect to the Supermind; their future generations would be born with the Exaglia. Thus evolved humans, and they called themselves the Astraleids — Children of the Stars.’
‘Astraleids! Yes!’ Zov’ha proclaimed, throwing her hands up in the air. Marana waved a hand to halt the narration. She was still sitting on the grass. ‘They have Autoichorium in their blood! I remember now!’
Marana chuckled, ‘That part’s probably just a myth y’know. People started believin’ a lot of crazy jazz after the Divine Purge. No ones ever seen an Astraleid. I believe they perished… if they existed at all.’
‘But that fluid…’ Zov’ha argued, turning towards Marana. ‘That’s Autoichorium! I remember…’
‘Doubt it,’ Marana stretched, feeling relaxed in the virtual environment that she had created in their heads. ‘That’s the booze talkin’.’
‘I’m telling you!’ Zov’ha went on, folding her arms. ‘I know it’s in me. Everytime the Autoichorium takes over my body I feel it first in my veins! When the raiders attacked us on the way to Aeroz, I saw the inky liquid pour out of my skin and manifest into a frost shield around me. Then again when I fell from the gloomhog, I saw the dark droplets turn into water… which…,’ she stopped herself. Marana was looking at her curiously. Zov’ha realised she had spoken too much. Never had she said these things to anyone. Was it right to do so now? Marana had shared her mind with her with this Encephalosync. It was an intimate gesture. Should she not trust her after all this?
Marana, on the other hand, remembered the inky veins on Zov’ha’s arms and shoulders in the unexplained mist that had formed around Efiros after the battle with the gloomhog. But it could easily have been shadows caused by the mist, or her own imagination. She decided not to bring it up now. She was a scientist, and she was not one to easily believe myths and legends without concrete proof. She broke the uncomfortable silence, ‘Look, it seems far-fetched. Whatever you got in you, we’ll figure it out back in Aeroz. Even then, can’t say if it’s Autoichorium unless we get our hands on the real thing, girl! Without some to compare, we got nothin’.’
Zov’ha looked away. Unhappy with Marana’s diagnosis, she forced herself to remain calm. She sat herself down this time. It really was peaceful here, she realised, and the grass was soft and dry. She lay down, put her hands behind her head and looked up at the sky, which showed an image of the Astraleids, every one of them with a blunt horn on their head, ‘Show me more about the Astraleids.’
Marana obliged and the narration continued… ‘The underground revolution and the evolution of humans to Astraleids became an immediate success. Weary of the economic drain due to warfare, many nations apostatised their commitment to the war and became part of this project — and their numbers grew.
‘Once the Astraleids had established a base in various countries across the globe, they began planning a hundred-year project to set up great orbital cities — the Orbitas. Six cities were planned to be constructed over the years The first two cities were launched together — Orbita Perseus and Orbita Centaurus.
‘However, a year later, after the launch of the third city — Orbita Cygnus — the unevolved humans on earth turned their malice towards the Astraleid orbitas, now seeing them as a threat. The ensuing war between the humans and the Astraleids resulted in massacre such as the world had never seen. Entire landmasses collapsed in the northern hemisphere; blanketing the planet’s surface in nuclear fallout as well as chemical and biological warfare debris. Major cities were wiped out, and entire continents were left abandoned. The global organic population dwindled to a meagre tenth of what it used to be. Because the devastation came from the Astraleids in the sky, the cataclysm was termed The Divine Purge.
‘The war finally ended when all resources were depleted. Orbita Persues and Orbita Centaurus were destroyed, and the remaining organisms on the planet were twisted to abominations in the aftermath of the great war. Many smaller societies formed in what was left of the northern landmass, closer to the pole. Habitable places were colonised, and overtime, the humans began treating their mutations in different ways. Some used scraps to engineer body parts, While others continued to live with their mutations unaltered. Those who had bone deformations and spikes were called Calcars. Those who had uncontrolled hair growth called themselves Pobans. Entire cultures grew around these deformities and these “humans” accepted it, realising there was no going back.
‘The remaining Astraleids, on the other hand, were cut off from the humans on the surface of the planet. Whether they continued to inhabit the dilapidated ruins of Orbita Cygnus, or died out in the isolated city, no one knows.
Zov’ha had fallen asleep listening to the story of the Divine Purge, and Marana could feel the connection beginning to weaken. She turned off the narration abruptly, and the room they were in came back into view. Marana had kept an eye on Zov’ha as she nodded off. In between, Zov’ha had woken up once when Efiros had gotten up to take a stroll out in the night. But realising that he was not a part of the Encaphalosync, she had turned back to sky and quickly drifted into deep sleep.
The Mechanov had again failed to talk to Zov’ha about the biochip. It was not the Aerzoan way, which had been ingrained in her since she was born. Stealing the biochip was out of the question — that was criminal. But Zov’ha isn’t Aerozan! No one would care if I just got a quick look at it. And it’s for her own good… I can help her!
Marana looked around — the lobby had been empty, except for them, for hours. Zov’ha would understand. Yes… if I take it now and produce results, she would be too ecstatic to care about accusing me of stealing… borrowing the chip. Silently she moved to where Zov’ha lay. Marana stood in front of her for several minutes — indecisive. She even walked away, shaking her head. But eventually she made up her mind. Crouching beside the sleeping woman, with shaking hands, she began unzipping the front of Zov’ha’s body suit. Carefully, she lowered the zip till she could see most of her chest and the coin-sized chip implant. Three narrow slots in the middle of the coin held a tiny rectangle chip each. The middle one, which glowed blue, was the biochip.
She produced a pin from the tip of her mechanical index finger and slowly pressed down onto the biochip. It clicked and slid out easily. She then produced a pair of delicate pliers from the underside of the same finger and pulled out the chip, immediately placing it into the slot on her wrist band. A hologram of Zov’ha appeared alongside graphs, tables, and interactable files with data on her health and anatomy.
‘Oh dear girl,’ Marana whispered under her breath. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
Marana’s head swam with notions she could barely believe. Several minutes passed as she analysed all the data; her genetic information, blood biology, and bodily functions monitored every minute of every day… it was all there. But she needed more time to compare it all with the Aerozan database. She wished she had more time with the data on her wrist. She wished she was back at her lab where everything was accessible. More so, she wished she had consulted Zov’ha before she had laid eyes upon her data. But what happened next was something she would regret all her life.
A soft growl snapped her back to reality — Efiros’ large snout appeared to her left. He bared his teeth and moved closer to her until she could feel his hot breath on her face.