Monday, September 3, 2012

Cancer-Cities of the Zoetic Moon Part One: Ex Nihilo

"For Ubbo-Sathla is the source and the end. Before the coming of Zhothaqquah or Yok-Zothoth or Kthulhut from the stars, Ubbo-Sathla dwelt in the steaming fens of the newmade Earth: a mass without head or members, spawning the grey, formless efts of the prime and the grisly prototypes of terrene life . . . And all earthly life, it is told, shall go back at last through the great circle of time to Ubbo-Sathla.
     —The Book of Eibon."
- Clark Ashton Smith, "Ubbo-Sathla"

An age before the Annihilation Event would cause the collapse of Krül's ecosystem, a thousand man team of scientists would push further into the "inner space" of the human genome than a hundred generations previous. Beyond gene splicing, cloning, and other arts long mastered, these learned men unraveled the deepest secrets of genetic exploration and discover truths which shattered all previous notions of biology and evolution.

This team, pooled from the finest science cities of a hundred worlds, was given a planetary budget, unlimited test subjects culled from orbital prisons and failed colones, and a simple mandate: Reshape barren worlds into places where man could not only survive, but thrive. Failing that, create men which could withstand the punishment inflicted by such environments. For the Oligarchs, this was a practical solution to the dangers of exploration and overpopulation; why expand the boundaries of their territory when so many planets in their grasp lay fallow? For the scientists, it was an opportunity unlike any they had ever known. The project was dubbed Ex Nihilo.

After decades of struggle to find a cost-effective solution to their problems, the Ex Nihilo team stumbled upon a potential solution almost by accident. They discovered that, encoded in the DNA sequence of every living being, was a series of "switches" which lay dormant. When activated, biological adaptation could be dramatically accelerated in direct reaction to stimuli, with rapid mutation occurring within the body. Lungs became gills when submerged in water, bodies grew fur when exposed to a colder climate, and bone density increased in high-gravity environments. It was, simply put, miraculous.

Unfortunately, there were some dramatic side-effects. First, this state of genetic flux burned tremendous amounts of energy, with test subjects consuming hundreds of thousands of calories daily to survive. Second, and more alarmingly, the subjects' genetic instability consistently resulted in the development of rapidly spreading cancers. Worse, these tumors were nothing like man had ever seen before. They reacted with a malign proto-intelligence and would not only war against the host body but against other tumors within the system. Being just as capable of rapid adaptation as their hosts, the tumors would quickly develop new traits for defense, consumption, and self-propagation. Within a few days of the initial testing, early subjects were reduced into a mass of protoplasmic blobs that would not only survive the death of its unwilling "parent" but also seek out new food to live.

Art by David L. Johnson

Although horrified by these early failures, the Ex Nihilo team continued to push forward at the cost of thousands of lives. Eventually, through generations of trial and error, they learned not only to destabilize the genome, but direct its mutagenic properties into desirable results. Working from a "base" form of protoplasmic life in a nutrient vat, they could program it to evolve into whatever state was necessary and then turn the switches "off", locking the creature into a single shape. Therefore, it was possible for the project to imagine, design, and create sustainable biospheres to order. 

As Krül had recently been reclassified as a Forbidden Planet, the Ex Nihilo team chose the single moon in its orbit, Diunma Nami, as the test bed for seeding a pleasure planet of infinite bounty. Initially, the experiment met the greatest hopes of the Ex Nihilo team. Within a week, the entire planet had been covered with a breathable atmosphere, lush vegetation, glittering pools, and a variety of animals bred for the purpose of serving the elites of the galaxy.

It was at this point that these men of learning grew too confident in their own self-appointed godhood. While they dutifully monitored Diunma Nami for the next twelve rotations of that moon around the Savage World of Krül, the institutional memory of the "bad old days" had faded and the cancer-beasts had taken on a near-mythical status. Thus, they hailed their creation a success and themselves gods, declaring the pleasure planet "a new Garden of Eden, the first among many."

The unveiling of Ex Nihilo was a banner event, and the galaxy's elites flocked to Diunma Nami to celebrate in style. As thousands of star kings, sycophants, and dilettantes poured into the ecosystem, something was brewing just beneath the surface, a will unsuspected by those who sought to tame nature itself.

On the 17th day of celebration, just as the party was really starting to warm up, Diunma Nami shuddered as the directives of the Ex Nihilo team were shrugged off and the biosphere revolted. The genetic programming, which had supposedly stabilized the rapid-mutation effect, proved to be completely ineffective outside of a controlled environment. Within moments, every living thing was set upon by every other. This left the ultra-wealthy and their entourages surrounded by an ever-escalating conflict between monstrosities beyond imagination. Florid peacocks which had only lived to be touched and coo in pleasure suddenly grew six toothy maws and ripped Princess Maidala in a bloody heap while carefully-cultivated ivy developed proboscis with which they drained the entire court of Eihdimmeden, leaving only paper-thin husks which danced on the wind.

Within hours, the entire planet was covered with one congealed mass of tumorous life, a turbulent sea locked in an endless riotous cycle of birth, consumption, and death. The Galacic Oligarchs were horrified, those few Ex Nihilo staffers who were not in attendance of the celebration were quickly put to death, and Diunma Nami declared a Forbidden Planet like its parent. During the official inquiry in the months following, Exalted Investigation Tukakli referred to the events as an "Expulsion from Eden," a term that would stick with the public for years to come.

Continued in Part Two: The Ravenous Planet

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