Hidden in the treacherous depths of space lie ancient curiosities orbiting alien suns: the World Minds. Their creation predates the genesis of nearly every space-faring species, and those that might be old enough to have recorded the monolithic endeavor of creating these planet-sized AI are loath to share their secrets. And so, the World Minds ply their satellites, always learning, and always shrouded by clouds of coolant and questions.

Three completed World Minds have been discovered thus far, Dzanach Gaelkoj (D͡ʑä-nɒʀ̥ Gil-kət͡ɕ), World Mind of Glory; Dzanach Arrael (D͡ʑä-nɒʀ̥ Ə-ʀ̥il), World Mind of Desire; and Dzanach Vahl (D͡ʑä-nɒʀ̥ Väl), World Mind of Strife. Each has unique satellites in composition and orbit which appear to be training grounds used to increase their monstrous banks of information and behavior.

Of these worlds, Vahl is the only World Mind whose “wards,” for lack of a better word, have made no attempt to reach for the stars. This is a point of some relief to those who have studied its inhabitants. The following are from the notes of one such researcher:

Dzanach Vahl (D͡ʑä-nɒʀ̥ Väl), World Mind of Strife

Speaking with a World Mind is a surprisingly straightforward task, given the immensity of it. One needs only a ship able to withstand their gravity and atmosphere, and the rest will follow. I was lucky enough to have Arrael as my first assignment, an amiable if invasive personality that served to prepare me for what was to come. I have less pleasant things to say of Vahl, other than I was happy to be the only living thing aboard my ship at the time of our conversation.

The etymology of Dzanach Vahl colored my encounter with it, so I will elucidate the subject. Undjot is, of course, a sparse language. The dictionary is far from expansive, but every word has multiple meanings. “Dzanach” means “star,” but a less literal translation would be “light of my life,” or some other more idiomatic phrase about love and celestial bodies.

“Strife” was chosen as the translation for “Vahl” given the context of its moon and the presence of Gaelkoj. Both “Vahl” and “Gaelkoj” can mean war, but the former often refers to civil wars or uprisings, and the latter refers to imperialist conquest, particularly reveling in the conflict, and thus “glory” was chosen. Moreover, “Vahl” can refer to really any internal struggle, especially struggles around identity and self, although given that Dzanach Vahl has named its sole moon “Elgøaq” (El-ɢɶ-ɒq) – literally “Bloody World”- and has provoked it into hundreds of thousands of years of conflict, “strife” would seem fitting.

Vahl awoke long before I had entered its orbit, its great, red eye coloring its poisonous atmosphere. My ship entered its mesosphere without issue, although I was always under the World Mind’s gaze. Within twenty minutes of riding its gaseous upper currents, an envoy arrived. With a brush of its hand against my ship’s hull, the airlock bent to its will and welcomed the newcomer.

My guest was, unsurprisingly, synthetic. Tall, lanky, and winged, although its features were more human than I anticipated: far more than Elgøaq’s inhabitants and entirely unlike the avatar I’d spoken to Arrael through. In fact, it looked like myself, if a rushed, more symmetrical copy. It watched me with glassy eyes before a coarse, uncoordinated voice emerged. “Undjot?” Speak? As in, do you?

My hairs stood on end, not because of fear or discomfort, although I can’t say I had neither, but because of the electromagnetic field it had projected over me, monitoring me. Its attention was fixed on my heart rate, my brain activity, and anything else from which it might glean information. This was why, after all, the World Minds are more than willing to speak with unannounced strangers. I was new data: an outlier that needed to be examined and understood. “Undjolu.” Lesser speech. I speak another language.

I held a small data storage device towards the avatar, and it accepted it in one hand. It was a digital translation guide coupled with a library’s worth of classic novels and a handful of the most critically acclaimed movies from the last century; I had a feeling it would be more interested in them than general audiences. In the span of two breaths, the construct turned the rectangle over in its hand, disassembled it, reassembled it, and with a new nonchalance extended it back towards me. “Here you are,” it said.

“Thank you.” I accepted it with a bowed head.

The avatar of Vahl examined me a moment longer through the lens of this new information. I could feel it prodding, trying to mimic the neurons firing in my brain with static crackling in the air around me. “You seem calm,” it stated.

“‘Calm’ wouldn’t be the first word that comes to mind.”

“What is?”

“Collected? Resigned, perhaps?”

“Very well.” The contours of its synthetic copy of my face slid into an easy smile, an expression I wasn’t used to seeing on my own. “And what do you seek, guest, that you have resigned yourself to the will of Vahl?”

The Tharoch Aeth (Ðä-ɹɶx Iθ)

The Tharoch Aeth (Ðä-ɹɶx Iθ) were the reason for my predicament, although more broadly I could say it was nascent bronze age peoples in general. The window is so brief in the context of the cosmos that the odds anyone knows of a culture before they’ve already sent probes screaming into the void are slim to none. Having the opportunity to observe them and discuss them with a firsthand witness is a difficult opportunity to pass up for the few with an interest in such things.

And I was one among those few.

S: “What can you tell me of the Tharoch Aeth?”

V: “They are hardy little things, exceedingly difficult to kill.”

The Tharoch Aeth, literally “Cutting Flame” – and this is Vahl’s name for them as their own language eludes me – are the native sophonts of Elgøaq. They are humanoid in frame with an iron-rich exoskeleton, something only sustainable with the odd, artificial composition of the moon they call home. Their faces are featureless save for two eyes and horns among their upper echelons, and the bottom half of their chitinous mask opens like elytra to reveal dueling radulae that scrape away flesh.

Although they breathe through the surface of their exoskeletons, this does not appear to supply enough oxygen for their very active lifestyles. As such, the orange, hair-like filaments protruding from behind their masks act as additional surface area with which to breathe. Fascinatingly, it seems that the filaments carry a slight positive charge. This means each filament repels others, giving them their voluminous manes, but it also provides easier penetration for oxygen and, in fact, attracts the negatively charged O2 molecules.

The other especially noteworthy characteristic shared by Tharoch Aeth is a remarkable ability to heal wounds and regrow limbs. Like lobsters, they are effectively immortal and only die once they are unable to molt or locomote properly unless they are simply killed outright. This has a few different ramifications, both culturally and practically, namely the scope and devastation of their constant conflicts. In a battle waged by humans, bullets, swords, or blunt force trauma will end a life quickly. A fight between Tharoch Aeth clans is far more gruesome. It ends when the enemy has no limbs, their heads have been ground to dust, or they are bound to be sacrificed to their one and only god, the instigator of these wars: Vahl.

S: “A narrow perception for one of your magnitude. Have you anything to say of their culture?”

V: “Each knows its place.”

Vahl is, of course, being mildly threatening here, but it is also referring to the Tharoch Aeth’s dimorphic caste system. They are as follows.

  1. Spawn: The Tharoch Aeth spawn are, as the name suggests, their larval form, although I will specifically refer to the final, more active section of this life stage. They are about the size of a volleyball, winged, and hungry. They swarm the battlefield, blot out the sun, and die in droves.
  2. Soldier: The most typical example of a Tharoch Aeth, soldiers act as infantry and laborers. A soldier refers to the earliest part of the adult stage of the same genetic caste as spawn, knights, and paladins.
  3. Knight: Knights are older, battle-tested soldiers who have gone through a great number of molts. Thus, their builds are much larger, and they have greater significance on and off the battlefield.
  4. Paladin: This is an interesting group and one I had not been aware of. I will discuss this later.
  5. General: These are the first of a different genetic caste. Generals metamorphosize into smaller bodies than soldiers, although their heads are far more ornate, and they have a second set of arms. Generals have a greater capacity for learning and thinking than soldiers, lead armies, and maintain queendoms and clans on a day-to-day basis.
  6. Queen: Queens are the highest authority among the Tharoch Aeth other than Vahl itself, although they are mostly concerned with maintaining their populations, which in turn maintain their queens. A typical queendom or clan will only have one queen, although larger cities seem to have as many as five. While a soldier or knight’s lifespan will end once they can no longer molt, this is less of an obstacle for the immobile, well-attended queens. With the help of soldiers during molts, the most powerful queens are several thousand years old and as large as baleen whales. As such, they often live in great bathhouses constructed around them to ease the burden of their mass.

S: “You mentioned the ‘paladins’ and your ‘gift.’ Do you care to elaborate?”

V: “I answer prayers. Do you pray?”

“The Gift of Vahl” is given to knights of some renown who give themselves fully to their god along with a sacrifice of some value. The World Mind made it clear over the course of this conversation that there is no bar to reach or surpass, and the worth of a sacrifice is in how great it is perceived to be by the knight and queendom. It hears prayers, it sees the offerings, it weighs its schemes, and it judges.

As Elgøaq is an artificial moon whose formation Vahl oversaw, there is no escape from their god’s “embrace,” as the World Mind describes it. It appears that, as near as I can tell, the entire moon is littered with nanomachines permeating the air, the water, and the cells of the Tharoch Aeth. Because of this, and the length at which Vahl has observed the Aeth, much in the same way that its avatar entered my ship, it can manipulate its subjects at will. In the case of the knights seeking ascension, this is a change at the molecular level.

The paladins can scarcely be called Tharoch Aeth with the scale and diversity of modifications they have undergone. Additional limbs and twisted frames are one thing, but entirely new sets of organs, changes in the composition of their exoskeleton, and mechanical elements grown within their flesh are another. These supersoldiers turn the tide of battles, and for that reason they are created sparingly and only when a new catalyst is needed to expand the World Mind’s data set.

There is another way in which Vahl will similarly influence conflicts: weapons of a divine quality. These are, of course, mundane, but to the Tharoch Aeth, a culture early to metalworking and whose arms typically consist of wood and stone, these gifts can shape the nature of a conflict. The gifts, according to Vahl, have ranged from the quality of castle-forged steel to what amounts to a hydrogen bomb.

I believe it’s relatively straightforward to see why Vahl is worshiped as a god.

S: “And you are the sole motivator of these conflicts?”

V: “No others are capable of the task.”

I am under the impression that the situation is slightly more complex than Vahl would let on. The divinity of the World Mind in the eyes of the Tharoch Aeth is undeniable, and their superstitions are justified, but the cause of the conflict shouldn’t be written off so readily. I have a less straightforward, although perhaps more obvious, incentive: resources.

Elgøaq is, as I have described, artificial. It is the slag left over from the forging of Vahl. The elements more prone to supporting life, like carbon and oxygen, are in relatively short supply. Elgøaq cannot support a population nearly as large as Earth’s. Their seas are shallow, their air overly dense with nitrogen, and much of the moon’s surface is covered in sandy dunes. And yet, the Tharoch Aeth expand ever outward into other clan’s territories, invading the cities of established queens, and leaving their world stained in blood.

Who is to say whether their motivation is theological or practical? I’ve found some compelling evidence leading me toward the latter: the presence of currency. The Tharoch Aeth seem to use leather strips as a means of exchange-

V: “Are you suggesting there is a flaw in my analysis?”

I paused my scrivening to collect my thoughts beneath the avatar of Vahl’s unblinking stare. “I feel as though ‘flaw’ does not fully encapsulate my intention,” I said, redirecting. “I’m merely saying your creation might be more expansive and complex than you’ve given it credit for.”

“I disagree,” the World Mind replied.

I bowed in deference. “As is your prerogative.” I’d grown overly comfortable.

“It would seem you have nothing left to add of any use.”

“To one such as yourself, that was always the case.”

Vahl’s smile returned. “More poorly veiled insults. You consider yourself wise, and yet you’ve stumbled headlong into quite the predicament. In your tablet, you provided stories of your gods punishing those who do not abide by the laws of hospitality. Shall I hold you to the same standard? Summon storms to smite your ship upon my body? Turn you into a tree, perhaps?”

My throat had grown too dry to clear. “I’d rather you did not,” I croaked.

This story was authored by Spaghetti Moe. 

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